Sunday, December 07, 2014

ToraDora! Christmas Club

Every December, there's a ToraDora! rewatch on r/anime. One episode a day, from the 6th to the 30th inclusive, so that the Christmas Eve episode aligns with the actual day.

I've seen the show through twice, but never dubbed; this year's Christmas Club is an excuse to try out the English track - though it took me longer than I should probably admit to find the audio settings on my Blu-ray copy.

From the snippets I'd heard in trailers and on YouTube I wasn't 100% sure how good it was going to be - I'm generally pro-dub, but I know that some are better than others, and shows with a strong comedy bent are particularly difficult to adapt successfully. So I had a little bit of trepidation firing up a full episode. But imagine my surprise when it turns out to be awesome. It's been a long time since I've watched a dub where the actors "clicked" with their characters this fast; it usually seems to take two or three episodes for them to really get into the swing of things. But right out of the gate, Ryuji and Taiga are spot-on - and Minori is perfect. The script's absolutely solid, too - nothing sounds forced or awkward, even the jokes flow naturally.

And it's funny, into the bargain. Not just the visual/slapstick stuff, which works in any language, but the line delivery had me laughing more than it ever did in Japanese. (Reading jokes doesn't have the same impact, no matter how funny they are.)

So I'm totally sold on the dub. It was incredibly difficult not to just marathon the entire thing to see how they did later scenes and characters (including Objectively Best Girl, Emi, whose appearance I'm really looking forward to for more reasons than the usual).

I was a bit worried I wouldn't have much to say about ToraDora on a third viewing - and second group discussion - without repeating myself, but this has given me a whole new appreciation for the show and the characters.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Yokosuka, 1986

The weather in Yamanose on November 29th, 1986 is how Ryo Hazuki refers to the day his father was murdered.

He doesn't even mention his father to anyone but Ine-san and Fuku-san. When anyone else brings up "the day it rained", he insists he's okay - before immediately demanding clues for his quest for revenge. His sights are fixed so firmly on revenge - on Lan Di, then sailors, then the Chi You Men, then Hong Kong and beyond - that his father fades away behind the anger, only taken out to be used as a key to unlock otherwise closed doors on the road to vengeance.

After Hazuki-sensei is killed, he only appears twice, in semi-secret flashbacks triggered when you inspect a bowl of carrots or the cherry tree outside the dojo. It's not long before the only person still thinking about Iwao Hazuki and what he might have wanted is Ine-san. He'd have wanted you to take over the dojo, she insisits. She's probably right.

But every step Ryo takes after he wakes up, three days after the rain, takes him away from the spot where his father died. Away from the places and people that might force him to accept and move on from his loss. Every discovery, each clue about Iwao's past - the mysterious key in a desk drawer, the basement behind a hidden door and all the artifacts in it - should give Ryo pause, cause him to consider who his father used to be, and who he decided to become. At the very least, it should surprise him.

But any curiosity is burned away by the need to move forward, to move away from the loss and the responsibility he's been left with. Every attempt by Fuku-san, Ine-san or Nozomi to get through to Ryo is either twisted to help his need to run away or regarded as a hurdle to be overcome.

And what's he going to accomplish, in the end? We're probably never going to find out, at this point - the saga ends in a cave in China, with Ryo really no closer to the answers - or the revenge - he was looking for.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fourteen shows

Revolutionary Girl Utena

This anime season might be the death of me. I don't think I've ever tried to keep up with this many new series' at once; even back when I was reviewing new releases, they'd come in four- or five-episode chunks on a DVD every couple of months, which doesn't require anything like the same kind of brain real estate to keep track of.

But I have, at the moment, fourteen shows in my Currently Watching section on MyAnimeList. Disclosure: only twelve are currently airing, and I've not actually started three of them yet. The rest are between two and four episodes into their run, which is usually the point where I start culling shows - but so far they all seem like keepers, to some degree.

And someone's asked me about Akame ga Kill - which I didn't bother with last season, but now I'm wondering if it's worth a try...

Currently airing

Amagi Brilliant Park (3/13) is from Kyoto Animation, famous for moeblob trash like K-On!, and author Shoji Gatoh of Full Metal Panic! fame. It follows a cast named mostly after American rappers (the male and female protagonists are Kanye West and 50 Cent, respectively) trying to save a theme park that's actually a mechanism to harvest positive energies for powering a magical kingdom in an alternate reality. It's not as funny as it seems to think it is, with a lot of its humour falling a bit flat for me, but it looks great - expect nothing less from KyoAni - and the characters manage to carry off the surreal story remarkably well.

Danna ga Nani wo Itteiru ka Wakaranai Ken (3/13), or I Don't Understand What My Husband Is Saying, is based on a 4-koma manga about a normal office worker and her shut-in otaku husband, who makes a living as a blogger. It makes fun of the stuff that geeks accept about our hobbies, but never feels mean-spirited. Also, if this doesn't convince you to give DannaKen a look then nothing else I say will ever convince you.

Denki-gai no Honya-san (3/12) is a slice-of-life show revolving around the employees of an Akihabara doujinshi store. It has a similar attitude to nerd culture as DannaKen, but coming from the retail perspective it peeks behind the curtain a little into how these kinds of stores operate. The cast is universally likable and quite varied in personality, history and appearance, and it's got just enough shipping fodder to satisfy, even if it's unclear at this point where any of it's going.

Gundam: G no Reconguista (4/?) hooked me in seconds, with its gorgeious retro designs and animation. I'd initially thought there was no CGI in the show at all, but rewatches of the first episode dashed that misconception pretty effectively. Still, the 3D is kept to a minimum, and so far none of the actual mecha action has been anything but hand-drawn 2D. The story is a bit more sloppy and convenient at this stage than I'd like - I'm already predicting the shifting alliances, not that either side seems particularly bothered about keeping enemy combatants away from their tech. I'm hoping it tightens up a bit soon, but hinestly it's such a joy to watch that I'll stick with it to the end anyway.

Log Horizon 2nd Season (2/25) is a disappointing continuation of the excellent first season. With animation duties transferred from Satelight to Studio DEEN, existing character designs have changed subtly but entirely for the worse, and a couple of the new female characters are much more predictably "anime" than really suits the established aesthetic. The pacing has seemed off for the first episodes as well, with less emphasis on Shiroe's genius-level manipulation of various parties, but the plot has been more combat-oriented so far so hopefully it'll get back on track. I'd like to see more of the old cast as well - Akatsuki has been almost entirely sidelined, especially disappointing as she was woefully underserved by the first season.

Ore, Twintail ni Narimasu. (2/12) is this season's strongest contender for "Dumbest Plot That Might Just Work". Officially translated as Gonna Be The Twin-Tails!!, the show is about a high-school student with an obsession with/fetish for twin ponytails who is given a bracelet that will let him battle alien invaders determined to steal all the twin ponytails from Earth. The bracelet also turns him into a girl (with twin ponytails, natch), though it's disappointingly lacking an elaborate magical girl-style transformation sequence. The most important thing I can say about this show is that it doesn't give a fuck what you think. It's here to have fun, and nothing is going to stop it. It helps its case by being genuinely hilarious in places, and while its innuendo occasionally oversteps the mark it's usually moved onto something else by the time you'll notice anyway.

Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso (2/22) is almost certainly going to destroy me. School romance shows about musicians rarely end well, and while I don't expect this to go full White Album 2 on us, Your Lie in April is shaping up to be a total heartbreaker. Aided by gorgeous animation, great music and an unexpectedly thrilling first-episode reference to Laputa, I'm hooked.

Shingeki no Bahamut: Genesis (2/?) is a weird one. With a visual style somewhere between Attack on Titan and Space Dandy, a main character who acts like a cross between the latter's eponymous hero and Cowboy Bebop's Spike Spiegel, and a tone that just barely holds together between the action, drama and comedy, it's going to take a lot more episodes before I can decide how I feel about it.

Shirobako (2/?) is about five women who met in their high school's animation club and now work in the anime industry. A number of characters are inspired by real anime directors, composers and producers, and repeated in-universe conversations about one near-disaster seem to be references to actual production problems on Girls und Panzer. It's hard to see what the long-term plot goal is for the show; I'm watching it almost like a documentary about anime production, and the names and job titles that pop up on-screen when a character first appears seems to suggest that's the intention.


Nisemonogatari (1/11), the second part of the lengthy *monogatari franchise, is proving difficult. I persevered with the (deliberately?) obtuse Bakemonogatari mostly for its cinematic flair, but starting Nise, I'm not sure how much longer I can put up with the unnecessarily-wordy plot digressions, creepy fanservice and frankly unappealing main characters. If it had a better long-term story I might be convinced to stick around, but honestly it might have to go. It's been weeks since I last watched an episode.

Shoujo Kakumei Utena (14/39) has been on my "to watch" list for literally years at this point; seemingly almost as influential on the industry as Evangelion, if nowhere near as successful commercially, I've got something different than I was expecting so far. I mostly wasn't prepared for the humour (or the rodent sidekick), and I think I expected more to be made of Utena's princely aspirations. There's been more filler than I anticipated too, although with a 39-episode runtime I guess they can afford momentary diversions. Still, I watched eight episodes in a row last night, so it must be doing something right.

Not started

I'm going to try Girlfriend (Kari) despite its dumb name and dating-game origins because I saw it described on Reddit as a harem show without the male character at the centre, which has intrigued me. I don't know what's going to set it apart from slice-of-life shows in that case, but I guess I'm going to find out.

Inou-Battle wa Nichijou-kei no Naka de, or When Supernatural Battles Became Commonplace is about a highschool literature club who are given supernatural powers, but nothing else about their lives has changed - there's no world-ending threat to defeat. That sounds like an interesting enough setup to give it a couple of episodes.

Based on a long-finished manga and with a plot synopsis that sounded like shonen tedium, I was pretty certain I'd just give Kiseijuu: Sei no Kakuritsu (Parasyte -the maxim-) a miss, but I've seen enough buzz about the series - and the seventeen-year-old beatboxer who provides foley sfx - I've been intrigued.

Friday, October 03, 2014



"If it sees you," our instructor states bluntly, "you're already dead".

We file into the next room. I pick up the flamethrower as instructed - it only has two shots, but while it won't kill her it will scare her off temporarily. I scour the cluttered crates for anything else that might be useful, finding nothing, and open the door.

Steam and flame pour from exposed pipes; the station is full of noise and movement that distracts and startles. My first instinct is to hide, and I obey it.

I pull up the motion tracker: no contacts. This doesn't really reassure me.

The objective marker pulls me to the left, but as I round the corner the lights cut out and I stop dead. The motion tracker shows a single blinking dot moving towards me. I panic and start making my way down a nearby corridor - a dead end.

I stuff myself into a small locker, my heart beating so strong and so fast that I can feel it in my hands. The motion tracker still shows movement to the left, but from my cramped perspective at the end of a corridor I can't see—

She's there.

I hold my breath. She snarls. She starts to move away. When I think I have space, I move out of the cupboard, inching my way closer to the most dangerous thing I have ever laid eyes on as every fibre of my being screams to get back in the cupboard.

She moves behind a stack of pipes but I can still see the spikes on her back, silhouetted against the warning lights. I check the tracker again to make sure she's not moving.

When I focus back on the room, I realise I've lost sight of her.

Cowering behind cover, I keep staring at the tracker for signs of movement. A ping, much too close. I start to move backwards, trying to get a fix without giving my own position away.

She has her back to me.

I glance behind, and see a door. I can make it if I run, I think.

I stand up and sprint. I don't know how close she is, but the thump thump thump of her feet on the steel floors terrifies me. I smack the door release and run through in a blind panic. I turn around just in time to see her secondary jaw shoot out, into my face, and everything goes dark.

I was so scared I'd forgotten about the flamethrower.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Counter Spy

"What kind of spy agency makes its agents buy their own equipment?" I wonder, as I run out of bullets for my diplomatic pistol. I'm pinned down by enemy fire in a Cold Ware missile silo somewhere in Russia, low on health and ammo, and dangerously close to raising the Socialist DEFCON level again.

I spot one of the guards reaching for his radio and pop out of cover, taking the headshot as well as several machine gun rounds in the chest. As my agent collapses, launch codes are entered and the countdown begins: I have 60 seconds to save the Moon from nuclear apocalypse.

Despite its whimsical visuals, bombastic score and joking plotline, Counter Spy is not a game to be taken lightly. A momentary loss of focus on my part has increased tensions between the rival Imperialist and Socialist sides in this atomic stand-off, and although the situation is usually recoverable I find my desperation kicking in and overriding the measured approach I know is necessary to save the world moon.

Missions carried out against each side can lower their DEFCON level, if you find and "convince" an Officer to reduce it, but more often than not I've used that extra breathing space to relax, immediately removing my advantage. Sneaking around and taking out guards one at a time is the usually the safest approach, but get one too many stealthy headshots and I start to feel invincible - a misconception the enemy guards are all to eager to dispel.

But later levels throw so many guards at you together that stealth isn't always viable; breaking out the shotgun can be necessary but messy - better to drug a Specialist and have them do your dirty work.

When everything is going to plan, Counter Spy makes me feel like a top-tier operative: efficient, deadly and unseen. The only problem is, I'm none of those things.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Giant Bomb

Disclaimer: I don't read Giant Bomb. I've got an account, but their aggressively American approach and labyrinthine forums have always combined to produce a community that I find difficult to immerse myself in*.

They recently hired a new writer, and there's been some disappointment expressed on Twitter that it's another white guy. The Giant Bomb community has rallied to the site's defence, and their general argument appears to be, under a lot of bile, that New White Man is a good fit with the site's established editorial style and humour.

I also understand that these places hire people they know, and it's a fact that white guys are higher-profile in the games industry and enthusiast press, as a rule, than any other combination of race and gender. So it makes statistical sense that a bunch of white guys running a videogames website would know and hire another white guy.

But I have difficulty accepting either of these arguments as good enough.

If you care about the quality of opinions and writing, then a different voice than the ones you're already getting can only be a good thing. I already know how white guys feel about Call of Duty. Give me a new perspective.

The statistics are harder to argue with, bit the weakness in that argument is the assumption that Giant Bomb couldn't have possibly found any women or non-white men to hire at all. It would have been harder to find that voice, maybe, but if we really want a more diverse, inclusive industry - and if you don't, I'm afraid we can never be friends - then the established networks like Giant Bomb have to be prepared to put your legwork in.

That they didn't think this effort was worth it - I'm not sure if that's better or worse than the thought never occurring at all - speaks volumes about their (lack of) commitment to improving the industry they're part of as well as the one they cover.

*And I'm a straight white guy, their target audience. I am only imagine how daunting an experience that place must be for women or non-white users.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Dark Arisen: Fantasy Cardio

Not pictured: Dragon, cowardice

I'd like to say I was minding my own business when the dragon landed on top of me, but that wouldn't be fair to the goblins I was slaughtering at the time.

I experienced a brief moment of panic when its nine-part health bar appeared at the top of my screen, which was replaced with a mixture of dismay and terror fewer than ten minutes later. Even after grabbing onto the beast and climbing up to cut open it's chest, exposing its heart, I hadn't made a dent.

So I ran away.

I don't know why fleeing from an overpowering enemy is so refreshing in Dragon's Dogma. I'm sure other games, especially in the open world genre, have given you the option.

Maybe it's the fact that your pawns - user-generated AI companions - won't take the hint immediately, continuing to hack away at the colossus in front of them for a moment, before they notice that their master has legged it.

Maybe it's the sense that you've just barely escaped by the skin of your teeth, your health and inventory empty and your stamina gone, but still in an unfriendly wilderness many inhospitable miles from the nearest inn.

Or maybe it's the infrequency and unpredictability of the encounters. You can be happily exploring for hours, cutting through bandits without incident or a serious challenge. The map is slowly uncovering, and you spot a castle on the horizon.

"That doesn't look too far," you think, "and the enemies here are pretty easy. I'll just take a look."

Then out of nowhere comes a winged shadow, chewing through your companions and health potions with equal ease and speed, and your only option is an exhilarating retreat down any path that doesn't have a griffon at the end of it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

New season anime

When KILL la KILL, Log Horizon and Golden Time ended a couple of weeks back, I was staring at the upcoming season of shows, unable to figure out which, if any, of these series' I'd bother with. It's incredibly difficult to judge anime by its cover (or a short synopsis) because so many of them sound so cliche.

Fast forward to today and I've started seven new shows. I don't think all of them are going to last the season, but they've all done enough so far to keep me at least interested. The highlights so far have been Mekaku City Actors, Akuma no Riddle and One Week Friends, although both are running a fine line.

Only the first episode of MCA has aired so far, but it's got a really intriguing undercurrent that I can't quite put my finger on. It's all questions and no answers so far, and the Tumblr frenzy it's inspired over the months leading up to its release gives me pause. Still, it's visually arresting and the characters introduced so far aren't too offputting, plus the flash-forwards(?) and other assorted weirdness will keep it on the list for a while.

One Week Friends is a lot more predictable: it's going to be this season's feel trip. The plot - a girl forgets her friends at the start of each week, but one classmate determines he's going to befriend her anew each Monday - isn't logically sound, but it's a joy to watch when it's not heartbreaking. It's going to destroy me, but I think I'm going to love every second anyway.

The premise of Akuma no Riddle is horribly cliche, and its execution, if you'll forgive the pun, doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence, but I've really liked the two episodes I've seen so far. By far the biggest thing it's got going for it is the near-total absence of fanservice (apart from the regrettable OP sequence), which is especially surprising in a show about teenage assassins in an all-girls high school.

Still, the World is Beautiful is a fantasy shoujo series, which is either going to be incredibly good or disappointingly awful depending on how the relationship between the protagonists develops. Nike, the fourth princess from the Principality of Rain, has been nominated by her sisters to travel halfway across the world to marry the Sun King, a power-mad dictator who also happens to be just a child. It's difficult to see how romantic they can make this relationship considering the age gap, but it would also be weird to see it as maternal (especially considering she's legally his wife?).

On the chopping block, much to my surprise, is Studio Bones' mecha epic Captain Earth. Its dialogue is offputtingly dense without actually achieving any exposition, and the various layers of coming-of-age drama, corporate conspiracy and intergalactic war haven't gelled for me yet. It looks stunning, which shouldn't be unexpected considering the studio, but it's not clicking.

Likewise, Brynhildr in the Darkness is feeling a bit frustrating. Faced with a prediction of his death (from a transfer student who may or may not be a deceased childhood friend), our protagonist... tries to fulfil it in order to disprove the concept of fate? I don't really understand what his motivation was. This one comes from the writer behind Elfen Lied, so I'm not expecting great things.

The last show on my menu is Ping Pong The Animation, which is surely the weirdest-looking on the schedule. It seems, from the first episode, to be a pretty basic sports anime, but the visuals alone have intrigued me - they've got to be pretty confident in the story to have such offputting character designs and sloppy - but incredibly energetic - animation. I don't expect it to chart new territory, but fingers crossed it'll keep things interesting enough to be worth the bandwidth.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Dark Clay

I started writing this post at 22.47 on the 7th of February, 2013. It's probably the most personal thing I'll ever post on the internet, and is undoubtedly a rambling mess, but if I don't post it now I never will.

Background, part one:

I stumbled onto Levi Weaver on a once-great music site called TheSixtyOne. I can't remember exactly when - it must have been between 2008 and 2010 - but the song was Family Feud, "an old west song about murder". (At the time, I described it as the kind of song Nick Cave would write if he knew how to keep it under seven minutes.) I've been a fan ever since.

Background, part two:

I describe myself as a "lapsed atheist". I went through a period thinking I was atheist, but eventually realised I took it for granted that I didn't believe, without ever really examining what that meant any more than I'd ever thought about what God's existence would mean when I accepted that, growing up.

There's a statement that I remember using years ago in arguments with creationists, who questioned the evidence of a "missing link" in the fossil record: "absence of proof is not proof of absence". Meaning, just because we haven't found the evidence doesn't mean it's not out there, somewhere. It only struck me recently how deeply ironic that sentiment is in an argument about faith in science versus belief in a deity.

In the last few years, I started actually thinking about what I believe. I was still, when pressed, identifying myself as atheist at the time, but part of a Levi Weaver song, Sick, or Determined kept sticking in my head, and it was bothering me.

And part of what it means to be a man is to believe in something grander than his hands can hold / Faith and love are evidence of something more than circumstance / Of work beneath the skin and bone / The logical, the monotone / I can't explain, but still I know / Someday I will figure you out

I trust in empirical evidence and science. Our ability to observe, understand and extrapolate from our surroundings has been fundamental to our progression from roaming hunters to agrarian societies to industrial nations.

But part of the great attraction of the scientific method is that sense of trying to comprehend something that's outside our current understanding. Even if we don't have a law or even a solid theory to explain a phenomenon, that doesn't stop scientists (or amateur enthusiasts) coming up with best guesses and hypotheses.

And part of what it means to be a man is to believe in something grander than his hands can hold

If you don't believe that there's more out there in the universe than our current observations and theories explain, why keep searching? Why invent new technology if what we have is good enough? You have to believe in something better than - or maybe just different from - what we already have.

Then Levi Weaver got into my crisis of doubt again: I read this blog post, the name of which I've shamelessly stolen for this one. I recommend reading it, whether you're a believer or not1.

What resonated with me was that, even though he's starting from a position that's the opposite of mine - he assumes that there is a God, and I assume that there is not - I could identify almost exactly with every fear and question and hope expressed in that post. The belief in the existence of a God that you can't prove was an earth-shattering moment of clarity for me. I had always assumed that people with Faith have an unshakable certainty, that it gives them answers and stability the way Real Atheists get certainty and stability and answers from their Not Faith. I always felt like I was stuck in the middle, unsure and unconvinced by either argument.

I don't know why, but it's given me a lot of comfort to know that there isn't a simple answer, that faith alone doesn't dispel the sense that you're aimless, confused, unfinished. I have tried to seriously consider the possibility that there is a God. That's kind of embarrassing to write, somehow - like an admission of failure, and I'm sure I know people who would see it as such.

But I don't think it's a failure to try something new, to look at things from a different perspective, even if it doesn't work out. I don't think it's a weakness to believe that human beings are ultimately spiritual as well as physical creatures. I have to believe - I can't not believe - that there's more to us, and to the universe, than meets the eye.

The second guiding light in my confusion was Yoda.

Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

Honestly, I don't think I'm any closer to a firm position on this stuff either way than I was before Levi Weaver gave me this stuff to think about. But more stimuli and additional points of view can only give us a broader perspective. I cannot thank him enough for provoking my thoughts with his words and music and the honesty with which he writes about his relationship with his own faith, because it's made me re-examine my own and, I believe, has made me a better, more thoughtful and more tolerant human being for it.

I do feel the need to point out that there is, in my mind, an important distinction to be made between faith and religion. A lot of atheists seem to conflate the two, but while I do find the dogma of religions troubling, it seems unnecessarily cruel to attempt to rob people of a belief that can give them such strength to overcome difficulties and inspiration to achieve great things.

1 I'd also recommend this and this, by the same author.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Revisiting Evangelion

My most recent exposure, before today, to the Evangelion franchise was the third Rebuild film. I'd watched the first two movies the day before, but even still 3.0 struck me as almost certainly intended to frustrate or anger the show's fans.

I thought it was okay, but it felt kind of pointless and meandering, with what little plot it has dedicated to further obfuscating the already-vague mythology.

Last night I got the other to rewatch the TV show - my third viewing ever and the first in six or seven years - and with my wife out of town and no other plans I figured I'd try to blitz all 26 episodes in a day.

Turns out it's not that difficult.

The early episodes, basically everything pre-Asuka, always stuck in my head as being quite dull, but I really enjoyed them this time through - even the one with JetAlone in it. It's easy to forget, with the shows reputation as a trippy, psychotic self-analysis, that the beginning of the show is so normal.

The slide into darker themes is slower than I remembered, and there's also more foreshadowing than I've ever given the series credit for; it actually felt much more coherent than I expected.

I was in two mind on whether to finish with the original ending or switch out to End of Eva, but in the end I stuck with the TV show. I'm glad I did; I was surprised to find that I reinterpreted the finale in a substantially different way than I ever had before. I'd always felt like the "congratulations!" at the end of the series was an obviously different ending than EoE, but now I'm not so sure.

I still prefer the upbeat TV version - EoE is just too dark, especially coming on the back of over an hour of suffering.

It does make me wonder, though - what is the final Rebuild installment going to change?

Monday, March 10, 2014

- - - -

Personal circumstances for two of our regular(ish) RPG group members have changed, and they probably won't be playing with us for a while. The situation sucks for them, and I feel bad that this is my initial reaction: I'm never going to get to run this fucking Fate game.

I've got the rule book, I've got the dice, I bought stuff to use as Fate point counters, I'd got to the point where I felt like I had enough grasp of the mechanics and I had even accepted that I'd have to let go of the story reins enough to actually run a session, and now it looks like I don't have the people to play it with.

There are probably other people I could draft in to fill slots, but I was really looking forward to playing it with this group. I was looking forward to seeing what they'd do, how they'd approach their characters and the world, and how they'd screw up my plans in retaliation for all the times I was difficult or awkward or a pain in the ass when they were running games.

It all feels oddly pointless without them. It's been a few weeks since they were able to make it to our sessions at all, and now that they might not be able to come back (for another while, anyway) I realise that I've missed them quite a lot. I wasn't writing any of this stuff particularly for individuals, but I was writing it for that group.

It would feel oddly like a betrayal to play it with anybody else.

Monday, March 03, 2014

30 years of back story

Reading the first Captain Marvel trade this evening, I think I've finally figured out my problem with Marvel comics.

I've always described it rather flippantly as having to know decades of history about characters, most of which has been tweaked or ignored or retconned several times over that period.

But really the problem is not knowing what bits of the story I'm supposed to already have an understanding of, and which bits will get explained in this book eventually.

If there's an allusion to a character's past in Saga, I know that it'll be explained later if it's important. But in Captain Marvel, I don't know if I'm supposed to know Helen Cobb already. The stuff that happens with her in the book is pretty reliant on you believing the relationship she has with Carol Danvers; I'm not certain this volume self it enough, but maybe there have been other comics previously that build their friendship/rivalry into something bigger.

The back of the volume has a four-page character backstory, but it's given no timeline for context. There's decades of character development with the XMen, SHIELD and the Avengers, and although not much of that is essential to understand what's happening in this story, there's a constant gnawing reminder at the back of my brain that I'm missing something.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


Not updated in a while because all I've had to talk about is Fate, and I'm pretty sure that was getting boring.

So, of course this'll be another Fate post.

I've been thinking about the campaign too long. I'm starting to second-guess every aspect of it. The "no magic" rule is close to being scrapped because I'm liking the idea of paranormal elements (specifically, the broader scope for encounters); I'm considering either expanding the playable races to include more options, or stripping it back to just humans; there's a possibility to update the technology more to allow airships, although I still want to avoid cars so that could be difficult.

And all of this is having the knock-on effect of making me question the entire backstory I've written, and the broader narrative I was thinking of telling within the campaign.

Of course, a large part of Fate is to do with collaboration between the GM and players, so maybe it makes more sense to bring a certain set of ideas to the table and let the others add or expand with their own ideas and characters.

Part of this self-doubt probably comes from the realization I had last week, that I shouldn't be trying to come up with endings for the scenes I was writing. Trying to predict outcomes in a tabletop game isn't just pointless, it's a waste of time and runs the risk of railroading your players. I've instead just come up with the setup and characters - who they are, what they want, and where they are - with the hope that my understanding of, and ability to explain, the rules will allow things to flow more naturally.

That leads me, of course, into a position where the PC-level elements of the plot aren't predictable, which is where my lack of faith in the narrative I was originally thinking of.

Really, what this boils down to, is that I desperately need to sit down with the group and talk about this thing. A couple of our regulars have been unwell the last couple of sessions so there've been boardgames with stand-ins instead. But I don't want to start talking about this game when a. we're all in the middle of learning a new game and b. there are people there that I don't know and won't be playing Fate.

I really just need to get the game started before I lose all enthusiasm.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Testing Fate, Part 2: Combat and Socialising

I need better Aspects.

I need to be more active in compelling Aspects, and explaining why.

I need to remind players about Aspects, and about compelling them, and about using their own Aspects to improve (or replace) rolls.

I need to fill out the NPCs I've got, and I need to either write more encounters, or get better at making things up on the spot.

We played through the opening scene(s) of the game on Tuesday night, and the rest of what I'd written so far tonight. I think it went pretty well, overall - everyone seemed to get into the swing of things by the end, although my poor explanation of some of the less-obvious mechanics (which, for a group mostly used to 4e, is all of them) led to the list of necessary improvements above.

Combat flowed okay, but the bad guys were almost universally too easy (both in physical and mental combat); the players were surprised at how easily they dispatched the first set of enemies - with the exception of their leader, whose escape was laughably easy. I should have explained the concept of Conceding a conflict, and the other enemies should have been capable of absorbing more shifts before dropping. An all-minion mob makes for some epic hits, but rather a low-peril encounter.

Tonight's scenes ended up being a lot more socially-focused than I'd envisaged; after taking out one bad guy, a player managed to talk the other two down - a scenario I hadn't adequately planned for. I should have had a better idea of what they know and would be willing to say.

I ended up having to change a bunch of details on the fly, even to the point of retconning conversations and inserting player knowledge they didn't actually get to have the rest of the evening to flow smoothly, but everybody was aware of the beta nature of this playtest so it worked out okay.

I have even more notes tonight than I did previously, and a whole bunch of things to improve (as well as a massive gap in the story that's yet to be filled in), but I was a lot more comfortable and confident running the game tonight than I had been at the start of the week.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Testing Fate, Part 1: Character Creation

Last night was my first attempt playtesting the opening encounter from my Fate/Freeport game, as well as my first time running a session in the system with a party (I'd previously run through a single fight with Catherine just to see it in action).

It's been four years since I last ran a game of any sort, and I'd had the benefit of playing in a few 4e games before that to familiarise myself with the system. This was 90% an entirely new experience.

Character creation is a huge part of the Fate mechanics, more so than any other game I've played. The emphasis on narrative and your relationships with other (N)PCs is possibly even more important to the character you're building than the Race/Class decisions from 4e.

The liberty that Fate offers in its character building was one of the major attractions for me when I decided to start putting a game together, but it's also a paralysing blank slate for players (and DMs) familiar with more structured systems.

Boiling your character's backstory simple but flexible Aspects is a difficult thing to explain, but fortunately once we'd sat down and talked through the characters everyone seemed to catch on quickly.

(My primary issue with the Fate Core rulebook is its lack of general, informative examples; everything seems to be presented as more of a case study, sometimes too specific for widespread application.)

Skills were easy enough to fill in, although some of the players still haven't completed a full pyramid. I'm wondering if knocking the peak down to +3 instead of +4 would help - having to pick a full set of 10 skills is overwhelming, especially if you're new to the whole system and can't envisage how you're actually going to be interacting with the world and its inhabitants.

Stunts, even more than the other parts of the character sheet, are an overwhelming element for someone used to just picking Powers out of a list. Even the limitations given for defining Stunts - which can be reduced to "using a skill in a new way, which you can do sometimes, but not all the time, and not too powerful, but it should be worth taking" - are frustratingly vague, and it puts a lot of responsibility on the GM (and other players) to rein in power creep and improve on weak Stunts.

I'm still not an entirely confident Fate GM (after only one session that's hardly surprising) but I do feel a bit better about how to guide players in the right direction when building characters.

The main takeaway from last night's character creation and the opening encounter (which I'll be writing about more fully tomorrow) is that I need to do more to encourage players and offer better examples. If I'm running this game I need to be knowledgable enough to lead the party to effective Aspects and Stunts (and do a lot more to demonstrate their use in the game itself).

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Going to jinx it

Finally feel like I'm over the worst of this cold, but the last vestiges are proving difficult to shake off completely.

Had a fairly productive day at work today; a marked improvement over the first couple of days this week, spent starting blankly at a screen while my sleep-deprived brain struggled to comprehend how the internet works.

Got nothing done for Fate tonight, though. No feedback yet from my proof-readers, so nothing to tweak in the player's guide, and I think I'm as done with these first two chapters of gameplay as I'm going to be, without playtest experience.

Still have to figure out the third chapter and how to run the act finale, but letting those simmer for a couple of days is probably better than smacking my head off them much longer.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Getting real

I've been bugging my wife with campaign ideas for weeks now, but today I actually sent my campaign doc to people who haven't been directly involved in its development.

I'm kind of terrified; that I've left out a bunch of really obviously-important details that I've taken for granted; that it's riddled with spelling and grammatical errors; that the whole backstory is going to be horribly obvious (I know that at least one of them has seen the thing I'm ripping off wholesale for said backstory).

But at the same time, it's good to finally feel like it's in a place where it's ready to be seen.

I've also managed to get the first two "episodes" of the first story arc written up; the third one is still a blank so far, and the "season finale" is still just the bones of an outline, but I'm hesitant to get too deep into planning before I even know what characters my players want to be. Fate's heavy on the player story-hooks, so I don't want to leave those too late.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

No Magic, No Gods

One of the limitations I've put on this Fate campaign - really the only D&D staple that I'm disallowing - is that there is no magic in the world, and the Gods (if they exist) do not make their presence felt in daily life.

By and large that's not a major mechanical issue - you still hit things with swords the same way, and a religious character's motivations won't even change that much. It's just that his chosen deity isn't going to directly smite targets as a result.

But where it's led me to something of a dead end is in dungeons.

In your typical fantasy setting, an ancient temple or crypt is a tempting target for a PC of any alignment - magical items and the chance to slay a lich are tough rewards to pass up, whether you want to rid the world of his evil or steal it for yourself.

Without that supernatural element, it's proving difficult to find realistic non-meta reasons for these crypts even existing in the first place, let alone motivating players to bother delving into a mineshaft for the promise of... money? Being nice people?

In the end, money's probably going to have to suffice as a carrot on the campaign stick, at least to begin with. I'm hoping this experiment lasts long enough for the stakes to get raised a bit, giving the characters less self-absorbed reasons to get into the spirit of things.

Monday, February 03, 2014

I should get a move on

In my head, I've telling myself it's been "a couple of years" since I started sketching out the bones of this Freeport-spinoff D&D (and now Fate) campaign. I never really gave it much thought, though - apart from the gnawing shame that I still hadn't started it, it didn't seem to matter.

But I just noticed that I have the Freeport book in my Google Drive, with a created date of June 2010. Which turns out to be nearly a month after I originally asked Andy Law if he had a reasonable-resolution digital copy of the map to hand (the physical thing, which I've bought since, was out of stock on Green Ronin's site); turns out I still have the PM on The Society.

Three and a half years is a long time to have been putting this thing off.

Lost for words

Two things stopped me from posting yesterday.

Firstly, the cold I've been struggling with decided to properly kick my ass and I've had maybe six hours sleep in total since I woke up on Friday morning. Not conducive to writing.

Secondly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his apartment. I'm not one to go in for celebrity mourning, but this one hit me like a kick in the chest. Even hours later, seeing each headline and obituary and tweet felt like another kick.

(The only other celebrity death that I can remember affecting me like this was Neil Armstrong.)

I haven't seen all of PSH's work; haven't even seen some of his top-drawer stuff. I know him mostly from The Big Lebowski and Magnolia and MI:3. I've never seen Boogie Nights or Synechdoche, New York, although I'll be attempting to rectify that soon.

It seems selfish to think of his death mostly in terms of the performances and characters and films we'll never see. But that's the closest most of us ever got to him, through the honesty and vulnerability he was willing to bare on-screen.

Saturday, February 01, 2014


This cold has chosen today to well and truly kick my ass, ably assisted by a totally sleepless eight hours last night.

So, have a break from my Fate ramblings.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Testing the waters

Last night, my wife was gracious enough to let me use her as a test subject in my continuing obsession with Fate, and I had my first experience going through character creation and running a scene.

Conclusion: I am horribly unprepared to run a game yet.

Explaining the concept and purpose of character Aspects proved more difficult than I'd anticipated, but that's partly due to my own vague understanding, and occasional confusion of the invoke/compel terminology. Nailing down a High Concept proved especially tricky, though the rest of it went far quicker as we both got the hang of things - and I think I got a little better at explaining things.

Fortunately she's helped a lot with the overall game scenario, so she had a strong idea of the kind of character that would fit into the world; my real players won't have been as hands-on with the backstory, so that's something I'll have to keep in mind when they're making characters.

The fight (that most basic of RPG interactions) started off badly, from a GM perspective. I should have done more to encourage or enable interesting actions, but I'd neglected to write out any environment Aspects for the characters to Create Advantages with.

I also had Catherine go first, and without my lead to go on her only real course of action was to hit things, which quickly got... well, kind of boring. It turned into attack/defend rolls so fast that I'm stunned I didn't see it coming.

Things improved when we adopted the mantra of "explain what you want to do, then worry about how you do it" - initially we were both approaching the fight in terms of mechanics rather than narrative.

Once we were thinking of cool ways to hit our opponents and use the environment everything started to flow better, we had a wider variety of skills to roll and got more interesting outcomes when we did. (One of my thugs tried to move over a bed rather than around it; his Athletics Overcome roll failed badly and he knocked himself out.)

The biggest takeaway from the evening is that "explain your goal" idea. It's something I'd already been trying to work into the missions and sidequests I've written - give the party a clear objective, then let them figure out how best to achieve it - but it never occurred to me that it would be so important for every exchange in a scene.

Tangentially related to that is making sure I have plenty of Aspects for them to Create Advantages with, which will also hopefully distinguish one fight from another, and making sure plenty of different kinds of actions make sense - so there are obstacles to Overcome rather than just Attacking all the time.

It took basically until the last thug was defeated for me to get a proper sense of how an exchange is supposed to flow. There are still plenty of thing's I'm unsure of - boosts are a big question mark for me, I'm not sure how to apply "costs" to failed and tied rolls, my sense of passive opposition difficulty needs tweaking, and I have a feeling that encounter would have been laughably easy for a four-member party - but now I feel much better about trying it again.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Making distractions

If there's one conclusion I've reached while trying to write a compelling tabletop RPG plot, it's that videogames have it easy.

One idea I've had, to try and make the city feel more alive and make travel more interesting, was having a stack of "random encounters" to pull from every so often - short, incidental missions and exchanges to pull the party off-course temporarily (if they feel like being charitable - I imagine the magnitude of their current primary objective will affect their willingness to assist strangers in the street).

But how do I make short, incidental missions that are interesting, that the party will want to (or have no choice but to) get involved with, and which aren't just combat?

I'm having real difficulty coming up with interesting sidequests and mission types. Sure, they can be interesting from a story or character angle, or help build up the world for the players, but there are gameplay tropes that videogames can take for granted which I just can't see being anything but boring at the table.

Take, for example, that humblest videogame staple: the Escort Mission. Travel with a computer-controlled character, defend them from attackers, reach your destination safely.

There's a lot of variety to be had in a videogame with that - whether they have to stop temporarily to perform a side-task, whether you're in close-quarters or open spaces. To me, trying to convert that into a tabletop encounter, that just sounds like combat interspersed with "and now you're in this alleyway!" - boring.

In videogames, particularly the sort with escort missions, it's widely accepted that your primary method of interacting with the world should be violence. Need to open a door? Shoot it. Need to get through a barrier? Run it down with your car. That NPC look at you funny? Kick his teeth in. I want my players to do more than roll to hit and roll for damage.

Even traversing the environment can be mechanically engaging in a videogame - you've got moment-to-moment decisions to make, essentially hundreds of skill checks a minute to avoid traffic. In D&D? "I walk to the tavern". I can't make them roll for every footstep.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


I have some kind of illness setting up residence at the back of my throat. It started over the weekend, but it's really settled in over the course of today and I have a horrible feeling it's going to have kicked my ass when I wake up tomorrow.

We finished Battlestar Galactica last night, and just like the first time through I quite liked the ending. Apart from the ill-advised, overly-preachy epilogue, obviously; that's a lecture too far. And it commits the Return of the King sin of having several "fake" endings as each character's story is tied off. It seemed a much more coherent work the second time through, too - I remember feeling, while the show aired, that parts of it felt out of place or rushed in, but knowing the shape of the overall story helped.

The new PlayStation Plus games dropped today - the PS3 gets Metro: Last Light, which I'm quite looking forward to trying out, and Bioshock Infinite which just goes down in my estimations as time wears on. I've still not got properly stuck into Dishonored, which I bought in the PSN January Sale, yet though. I'd like to write a more complete review than "meh", but I've barely scratched the surface yet and that's all I can muster.

The Vita remains primarily an OlliOlli machine - I managed to scrape into 7th place on the Daily Grind today, miraculously breaking 100,000 on a surprisingly short course. I'm still inching my way through the challenges; only one star missing from the Junkyard levels, but it gets much patchier after that. I'll probably give Dynasty Warriors a shot at some point, but despite installing ModNation Racers I can't see myself summoning the enthusiasm to give it much attention.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Avoiding Fate

The closer I get to having a solid grip on this Fate campaign, the more I notice myself putting it off. I spent 45 minutes this evening padding out the religion section of my reference doc (which I'm planning to give to players as an overview of the world); I've still yet to spec out any of the NPCs from the early encounters.

Part of the problem, I think, is that I don't want to have too little content - but having never played a game before, I have no idea how long what I've got already is going to last. I have basically a "pilot episode" planned out to introduce the world and hopefully the system, but beyond that I'm kind of drawing a blank apart from the major story beats. I don't even know how to get from plot point to plot point.

The plan is mostly to have some kind of open-world thing going, where the party can get missions/quests from various factions in the city, but that means I've got to have a bunch of different mission types for them to do, that I can skin or tweak to change them up a bit. But again, not knowing how long any of them are actually going to take to play, I've got some that are likely to be 30 minutes and under, and one that I'm pretty sure could stretch over a couple of sessions.

It's kind of paralysing. We're heading back home at the start of next month, so I might see if I can rope my wife, my brother and his wife to help playtest a bit. Even if we don't do them in the right order, having some experience wrangling a party through combat and social encounters would do a lot to give me a foundation. I've not even played in a Fate game before; at least when I tried my hand at D&D4e I knew what DM'ing looked like.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Broken Age, Act One

Well that's not a bad cliffhanger.

I can't help but wonder, though - was this always planned for the story, or were plot points massaged to get things into place for this act-one closer?

I'd been neglecting Broken Age since I got OlliOlli (although PC games always take lower priority over basically any other platform, for me), but after being urged by a friend to see it through - mostly just so he had someone to talk to about it, I think - I sat down this evening to polish off the first part.

The writing keeps up a magnificent quality throughout, and the puzzles - especially the ones that frustrated me enough to look up a solution online - had me facepalming at how obvious they were in hindsight, which is always the mark of smart design.

My mind's still turning that ending over and over, trying to figure out what it all means, but mostly I'm just desperate for the second installment, now.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Detail oriented

The photo at the top of this post is the map for a tavern I've designed for the Fate game I'm trying to write. I've drawn more than four draft versions of it, and then at least two "final" versions. It's from possibly the earliest planned-out scene in the game, and I'm totally fixated on it.

It's not even a plot-important location (at least, not yet). I'm not planning for there to be any combat in the place. The specific layout of the rooms is of no consequence. But I've redesigned and tweaked it several times.

This happened the last time I tried to run a game, too. I became obsessed with the details, including plenty of stuff that I'm pretty sure the players didn't even notice. To the point that I ended up railroading the adventure really badly; I quickly realised how badly it was developing and packed it in.

The root of this fixation is almost certainly a desperate attempt to retain control over the scenario. I've spent the last couple of years thinking of this story, and the last couple of weeks whipping it into an actual narrative.

The closer it gets to being ready to play, the more I'm realising that my directions for the story are going to be almost-instantly derailed by the players - through no fault of theirs. It's just the way these things go; unlike a videogame, tabletop RPGs support wild experimentation and unorthodox approaches, and having the arbiter in the room to argue with just encourages you to try something different.

Rolled into that with Fate is its idea of "collaborative storytelling" - how are you supposed to plan a long-term campaign if it's also got to support story threads and subplots from the players? I could try to direct the character creation into stuff that helps my established "canon", but that seems to be missing the point.

So I'm fixating on this tavern, telling myself I don't have to run the game until it's perfect. That way, my work can never be rendered obsolete by something as messy and unpredictable and fun as player choice.

Friday, January 24, 2014


Today has been relatively uneventful, although I also feel like I've accomplished quite a lot. "Quite a lot" being a relative term, obviously.

I've five-starred all of the Urban levels in OlliOlli, the Normal and Pro versions at least, and have made it to the second last "world" - which so far, has been kicking my ass. I even managed to post a score for the Daily Grind today, although my paltry 938 is well out of the top 350 (the top spot is sitting on 1.3 million). Some of these challenges are proving incredibly difficult, too - although revisiting the earlier levels I'm finding the total score and combo targets easier.

Worldbuilding for my RPG setting has also come along pretty well; I bored my wife half to death this evening talking through some of the backstory problems I've been trying to figure out. I've now got a better idea of what's going on behind the scenes, although figuring out how to get the players into the world in the first place is still proving elusive.

I have a ton of ideas of how I want things to work and where I want the story to end up, but moving backwards from that point is a daunting task. At least building Fate encounters seems more straightforward than the complicated XP budget method 4e tutorials seemed to prefer, although I've yet to try actually writing any yet so that might change.

I'm quite looking forward to playing the system, though - I'm sure the first couple of sessions are going to be a real learning experience for everyone, but I'm reasonably confident my lore will hold up even if I need to scrap and rework encounters on the fly.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


Maybe it's because we didn't have a PlayStation growing up, but the Tony Hawks franchise never made much of an impression on me. On the handful of occasions I have tried my hand at the skateboard genre, I've been so overwhelmed by the names of tricks - let alone how you actually perform them) that I inevitably resort to just grinding on stuff until the timer runs out - assuming I'm able to muster the competence to manage even that.

With that in mind, I'm not sure what caught my imagination so much with OlliOlli, a 2D interpretation of the genre. Whatever it was, I'm really glad it did stick out so much; while it's not going to convince me to try the 3D versions again - I'm having enough trouble mastering a flat version without having to navigate an environment on top - this has got its hooks in me bad.

The one thing guaranteed to pull me back for "one more go" in a game is a list of optional objectives per level. Tearaway had its hidden presents and papercraft models to find, rewarding repeated visits and exhaustive exploration. OlliOlli's aren't quite so straightforward, ranging from beating a score for the level or single combo, up to near-gibberish goals like "Pull a Frontside 360 Shove-It out of a Noseslide".

Even once I've reached the end of the level, I re-check the objectives list and there's always one that's just in reach with my new experience of the level. I might get it this time.

And then there's the Daily Grind - a lengthy set of rails and obstacles to negotiate, with a new level and a new leaderboard daily. You get unlimited practice runs on the course, but only one go at setting your score. I played today's level a dozen times or more in practice, getting my score up to around 123k (still nowhere near the current top score over 521k, but respectable enough for a beginner).

When I tried it for real, I bailed on the second set of stairs. My entry for the day is a majestic zero points.

If there's a way to play this game more strategic than spamming random quarter- and half-rotations of the stick to pull off tricks, I'm never going to master it. I've yet to get to grips with the difference between landing a trick on the ground (pressing X) and grinding a railing (pressing any direction on the stick); so far my performances have been enough to get me through the first two locations but I'm starting to reach the limits of my abilities.

But what makes it so addictive, at least as much as the great controls, level design and soundtrack, is the speed of the restart. Wipe out? Hit restart. Fail to grab a collectible for an objective? Hit restart. Mess up a landing and ruin your highscore? Hit restart. You're instantly back at the beginning of the level. If there was even a fifteen-second loading screen there'd be time for your brain to consider giving it a break for now, but look - I'm right there, ready to try again. Just one more go.

And while I might be feeling stretched by the increasing speed and complexity of the levels, I already know that I'm better than when I started last night. I can land Perfect grinds and tricks more frequently, I'm better at judging speed and distance, and I know - I know - if I just give this level one more go I'll beat it.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

World building

For years now, I've been trying to write an RPG setting for an on-again off-again group I've played with since the Realtime Worlds days. We played mostly D&D4e, but since starting up again we've played the start of a Dragon Age campaign and a couple of D&D Next games1.

I'd been inspired to put this thing of mine together by a map I found online, from a published setting called Freeport. I'd originally envisioned something closer to a Grand Theft Auto mission system than the usual linear(-ish) tabletop quest progression, with the whole thing taking place in one city rather than the far-reaching adventures we'd previously played.

But then Realtime disappeared and we stopped playing for a while, so I put it on the back burner, occasionally having flashes of inspiration about the character and setting I wanted to put together.

The Dragon Age game we played put the idea back in my head, though; and when I found the Fate system, I was hooked on the idea of trying it out. Then last night was the first installment of our new D&D Next game, in a setting written (I believe) by the DM, which has really given me a kick to try and wrangle this thing into a usable state.

It's bloody hard, though - even though I'm building on top of the Freeport lore that already exists, there's a lot about the setting I want to change or just remove entirely. For starters, I want to kick it down the road a few centuries to more of an early-Victorian era rather than the Elizabethan age of pirates. I'm also ripping out magic (almost) entirely.

I'm still not sold on multiple player races; given the diversity of cultures in the real world, Humans alone seem like they should still offer plenty of character options. Though I do like the idea of amphibious Elves, for some reason - I want to split them between freshwater and seawater varities, like river and sea dolphins. And my first ever 4e character was Dragonborn, so I kind of have a soft spot for those.

What sold me on the Fate system is that it's much less roll-reliant than 4e was; I'm a notoriously low roller, and a shift to a mechanic that not only minimises the use of dice but also generally assumes success (with rolls determining the extent to which you succeed or face unforseen consequences) holds a lot of appeal.

There's also a lack of complicated stats to track; you get bonuses to certain skills, you have stunts that allow you to add more bonuses to those skills in certain situations, and you have character Aspects, which are like backstory hooks that can be either beneficial or a hindrance to your character's goals.

It seems a little more roleplay-heavy than the action focus of 4e, but the Dragon Age game got me into my character's head (disturbingly enough) more than any other game we'd played before, so I'm not as terrified by the idea as I used to be.

Still, coming up with an entire world is a daunting task. I'm hoping my enthusiasm for the system will drive me to actually get it together this time. The last game I ran was a 4e campaign that I now realise was a horrible railroading effort, so hopefully the move to a more collaborative system will let me relinquish control a bit.

I'm further in the process than I ever have been before. I have a proper notebook and everything, with colour-coded entries and postits of additional information (and rough NPC work). I have a broad sketch of the story planned out (to a point), and already having a city map to plan around means I don't have to come up with loads of new locations.

The next step is to try and write some actual encounters - figure out how the story starts, how the characters get pulled into it, and who's trying to do what on the NPC side. I'm really keen for it not to be a simple "here is the one big bad guy, go stop him" plot, but I've also got to keep in mind that I've never done anything like this before and maybe I should just start small.

1 We're hopefully going to cycle between them; the Dragon Age game was really fun, and the arc we've played culminated in my character slaughtering most of a village, two other PCs being killed by the city guards and the fourth party member hunting me through a forest in the dead of night before I managed to kill him (I was left with one hit point).

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Nothing new

Welp, there's my first missed day of this year's effort.

I'm trying to figure out why it's so much more of a struggle to get things down this time around. Maybe it's the pressure I'm putting on myself after "failing" last year, but I'm starting to wonder if it's just that I'm not doing enough new stuff.

At the start of 2013 I was still getting back into anime "properly", so there was a lot of catching up to do. But now I feel like I've seen everything I want to, from the years I wasn't following new releases. There's still plenty on my MAL Plan To Watch queue, but finding the time and enthusiasm is getting difficult the longer they stay on there (and the older the show is generally).

The stuff I'm watching at the moment, I've already written about or doesn't seem like it's worth discussing at any length.

Even games seem to have fallen by the wayside; I've tried picking up Dishonored, but I'm finding it more a chore than would be ideal. I've yet to finish the first episode of Broken Age (which I've already posted about anyway), and I'm struggling to think of anything else on that front that I've put any time into.

I'd talk about work if I could think of a way to explain the problems I'm solving (read: finding answers for on Stack Overflow), thought they were broadly interesting, or could separate them from the specific project. I'm lacking the confidence in my programming abilities to make much of my code public in any case.

Man, I can write a lot about nothing. Why isn't it this easy to write about a specific subject?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Space Dandy, revisited

There seems to be a common rule in anime circles that you should give a show three episodes before you make your mind up on continuing it. I don't generally subscribe to the idea, but it's often the case that you get enough of a sense from those early episodes to judge how much you'll like the rest.

Three episodes into Space Dandy, I'm not sure it's worth sticking with.

It's maybe a bad show to try the 3 episode rule with, being more episodic than anime tens to be, but after a stunning first installment I've just not found the subsequent stories to be all that interesting.

I'm not sure what the problem is, though. The characters and jokes are funny, the designs are fantastic and the animation is brilliant; while I'm not keen on the level of fanservice, it's certainly lower down the scale than KILL la KILL.

It's just not clicking for me. Without a stronger long-term story it's more difficult to get invested week to week. Maybe it'd be worth skipping a few weeks and marathoning several episodes at once.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Slow day

A long, uneventful day watching anime and Battlestar Galactica has left me without much to say.

I stand by my opinion that all of us expecting a hard sci-fi or at least non-religious ending to Galactica must not have been paying attention, because rather than toning down the destiny/God's plan stuff in the third and fourth seasons, they've really gone all in.

My memory of the show turns out to have been much patchier than I'd thought, though; I remember the Opera House visions starting much earlier, and I'd forgotten entire arcs.

Still, from what I remember of the show's ultimate ending, it seems like it's a lot less hare-brained than some people have given it credit for. Not every thread is going to get tied off but, with the exception of Kara Thrace and Sam Anders, I think every character gets a reasonable resolution.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Third Law

This image was posted in our company-wide group Skype chat earlier today, and my immediate reaction was anger towards the person who posted it. It's ignorant, it's stupid, and it's offensive.

I don't know how to bring it up with him. I can't think of a way to phrase it that won't get me immediately dismissed, or actively ridiculed1. I wonder how many women would have to work here before it no longer seemed like appropriate workplace banter?

I'm so aware that I'm in the minority on this. It's so easy to dismiss this shit as harmless - and yeah, nobody in the office is being directly hurt by it - but at some point we, as decent human beings, need to have the fucking empathy to realise that there's something deeply suspect about the "logic" in that image.

The guy who posted it has daughters; is he okay with perpetuating this idea, that tells them, "every emotion you feel is excessive, unnecessary and an inconvenience to the rest of us"?

I think the most disappointing thing, though, is that I wrote this instead of calling him out on it.

1 There's a not-insignificant percentage of the workforce here that, while maybe not an entire generation above me, are certainly from a different era (or at least perspective). The idea of confronting some of them on this reminds me of probably the most heated conversation I ever had with my dad, about why he found Richard Branson's dressing up as an air stewardess funny.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Broken Age

I've never been a massive adventure game fan. I've only completed The Secret of Monkey Island, Broken Sword and Grim Fandango; I usually get stuck, then frustrated, then bored and abandon them.

Basically, I'm not any kind of authority on the genre - but Broken Age, I like.

I love the character-swapping mechanic. A couple of times I've gotten stuck in one story and jumped to the other just for a break, but the new perspective lets me progress further to the next apparently impassable hurdle - at which point I switch back and discover what I was missing before.

I can't help wondering how you construct puzzles like this when writing or designing an adventure; maybe it's my recent attempts to write an RPG setting that makes me appreciate the complexities better, but one chain of events in particular tonight had me in awe of the cascading discoveries, conversations and inventory items to progress. How do you put this together without it feeling totally illogical? The solutions are so specific, but getting there, when the flow is going, feels totally organic.

The script, too, is great. There's a very different tone in the two stories; Shay's mostly on his own in familiar locations, or with characters he already knows, while Vella has covered much more ground and met many more people. So far I think I prefer her adventure; some of Shay's has felt more mechanical, with repeated "missions" and a minigame I'm already dreading the return of.

I have to keep reminding myself that this is only the first part of the story, though. I'm trying really hard not to get so invested that the inevitable cliffhanger will make the wait for episode two unbearable.

I've already got enough of that with The Walking Dead.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

All That Remains

All that remains

It's difficult to talk about even how the latest installment of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead made me feel, let alone what actually happens in it, without major spoilers. Not just for the first season or its 400 Days DLC, decisions from which inform the world in the second. Even the earliest events in this new episode deserve to be seen with fresh eyes; reading anything about the story, however minor a plot point it may seem, can't fail to have an impact on your interpretation of it.

What surprised me the most about Clementine - or myself? - in All That Remains was how different she is now that I'm in control. Detached and, in some ways, mercenary. Her own survival was all that mattered, whatever the consequences to the other characters. I wanted to be a better person than I ended up, but faced with the difficult decisions, threats real and imagined, my priority was to protect Clementine.

I'm not sure what the strongest motivator was for that coldness. The finale of the first season still triggers something in me when I think about it, and the experience must have affected me somehow - Lee's fundamental motivation to look out for this little girl informs every action and response. There's also a scene early in this episode that so thoroughly pulled the rug from under me that I treated every situation afterwards with suspicion.

One of the central threads of the first Walking Dead season was the trust between Clem and Lee - at first necessary and unsure, but by the end unconditional and unwavering. I'd assumed that relationship would have a lasting effect on Clementine, that she'd see the good in people first and not resort to just looking out for number one. But without Lee's presence to reassure her - to reassure me - that things would ultimately be okay, the walls are going up.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

True Detective

All I'd heard about True Detective going in was an almost off-hand tweet comparing it, favourably, to The Wire. After only one episode it's too early to say how well that comparison will hold up, long-term, but what a first episode. Slow-burning but purposeful; interesting characters with real personalities and histories - it's easy to forget how bad most TV writing is until a show like this comes along to kick everything else in the ass.

Despite being framed by a narrative device that basically is exposition, the unfolding story never feels like you're being spoon-fed. Cutting back and forward between the 1995 investigation of a murder and the detectives' deposition interviews in 2012, it's stunning how little of the plot is actually told rather than shown. What isn't said is as informative as what is; one cop's admission that it was "nearly three months before we had [my partner] over for dinner" is a statement loaded with implications about their professional and personal relationship.

If there's one thing bugging me about the cast, it's that my mostly-comedic experiences of Woody Harrelson are getting in the way - but that was also a concern with Bryan Cranston early in Breaking Bad and that turned out okay. Matthew McConaughey's outsider - he comes to the Louisiana State PD from Alaska by way of Texas - has some convoluted dialogue to get through, unusual and theatrical compared to the other characters, but it helps build the character's "different" air, alongside his unfamiliarity with local customs and politics.

My only other complaint about True Detective is that it's not due to reach the UK until Sky Atlantic picks it up in February. Who are we going to talk about it with until then?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Anger and imaginary internet points

I often accuse other people on the internet, usually behind their backs or on social media, of needing to lighten up. Of taking things too seriously. However, I am almost incapable of saying "no" to an argument (unless the other person's position is "yes"), and am starting to notice myself taking things far more seriously than I should online.

I've not been an active Reddit user for long, as my karma score will prove, but I'm fairly certain its constant stream of up- and downvotes isn't helping my ability to distance myself from a disagreement. There's something about the implicit approval of (anonymous) strangers that's oddly effective at bolstering my self-confidence, but I'm starting to worry that it's also inflating my sense of how much my own approval/agreement is worth.

There are a couple of arguments I'm just unable to avoid - ship-to-ship combat over Golden Time, and the idea that the fanservice in KILL la KILL is "equal-opportunity". The first one, I'm usually able to say my piece and leave it at that, but I've gotten into more than a handful of multi-comment arguments over the second, largely because I'm genuinely annoyed by it.

This is where I need to learn to stop myself. Downvote the jerk perpetuating that stupid, stupid lie and get on with my day. But I can't. I can't leave it. I have to tell them they're wrong.

I need to lighten up. It's only a cartoon, and it's only a person I don't know, will never meet and who will, in all likelihood, forget about it in ten minutes anyway.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


This has to be the worst TV show I've seen in years.

It reminds me, more than anything else, of the ill-fated Threshold, except that had Carla Gugino and Peter Dinklage keeping things interesting, and a much more interesting and unpredictable infection. Helix just has a cast of people who look almost but not quite like other, more famous people.

I don't have a reason to care about these characters. Even if they fail, the deadly contagion they're fighting to contain is deep in the Antarctic, in a facility that's a 200-mile helicopter journey from the nearest inhabited area. These characters are the only stakes we're going to get.

And I'd love to know who insists on every science fiction show having a shadowy conspiracy angle. Nothing bores me faster than two shifty types conversing in hushed tones about "the people we both work for". Can't you write some interesting group dynamics instead?

I was quite excited to see Hiroyuki Sanada in the cast, but it's disappointing to see him become the closest thing to an antagonist the show has - especially as he's the only non-white character.

Ugh, I just know I'm going to end up watching the whole season.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

This is legitimately disappointing.

Nothing to write about today. Have a draft in die need of editing/rewriting, but it's nowhere near ready for semi-public consumption.

Didn't think I'd find myself phoning one in this early in the year. I considered trying to limit myself to just three a week, bit then I'd still feel obliged to stick to some kind of update schedule and at least daily posts keeps me in the habit (in theory).

Still find myself trying to write about "worthwhile" stuff, rather than just writing. I should probably do more with drafts, just so I don't get to half eleven and raise I'm totally stumped. Having three or four possible stubs could help.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Space Dandy - A Dandy Guy in Space

It's unusual to see a show come out swinging with the force Space Dandy has; to have it come out so soon after KILL la KILL could be a coincidence, or just a sign of trends in the anime industry at the moment. The confidence on display isn't the only common ground, either - both Bones and Trigger are unfazed by fanservice, although Dandy doesn't seem to be making any attempt, yet, at building a case for nudity-as-metaphor the way KlK is.

The opening half of this first episode seemed weaker on my second viewing; I'm not sure if it's that the dub script didn't capture the same spark as the Japanese (which I saw first), or because it was technically the third time I'd seen the first ten minutes. There's a lot of dialogue and setup in the opening act, while the second half's action focus is much more immediately engaging.

It's hard to dissect this first installment having seen it in both languages, though. While most of the dialogue is essentially the same (a small furore over one joke aside), there's a much more knowing tone to the English version. The narrator in Japanese is over-the-top and unnecessarily serious despite his ridiculous exposition (when he can be bothered to finish it), but in English he's seemingly aware of how dumb his lines (intentionally) are.

Notably, Space Dandy was broadcast in America before the Japanese premiere, on Cartoon Network's [adult swim] block. If this isn't the first time such a thing has happened, it's certainly the most high-profile; it normally takes months or years for an anime show to get licenced, translated, dubbed and released in the West, and with Shinichiro "Cowboy Bebop" Watanabe's name attached, I would normally have expected a lot of distributors clamouring for the rights.

I'm not sure if this earlier-than-usual US broadcast meant the dub had to be done more quickly than the usual process, but the script does feel unwieldy in places. It's the first time I've ever really appreciated how difficult comedy is to get across in translation - and in addition to making the joke work at all, there are timing and animation considerations that further limit your options.

I think I found the jokes in the Japanese script marginally funnier, but the delivery is something that the English version managed to edge out. The sideways remarks and reactions seemed more natural, though that's possibly just as a result of my own native language.

Given the ludicrous and excessive finale to the episode, it's anybody's guess how they're going to get even one more episode out of the plot - let alone a 24-episode series. But it feels like a while since I watched a show that's so singularly colourful, both the visuals and the story, and which doesn't take itself at all seriously, so I'm in for the long haul. This season seems like it's going to be a low-profile one generally, and Space Dandy is definitely a cure for that.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Before my body is dry

Cropped cover

I made a flippant comment on Reddit that my favourite track on the KILL la KILL OST was "whichever one is playing at the time", but the more I listen to the album the more accurate that statement becomes.

Not only are there no tracks that I dislike, there are no tracks that I'm indifferent to. They're all great, in a variety of ways. The rock stuff, the dramatic orchestral stuff, the weirdly un-weird pop songs - you can pick any piece at random and I'll be pleased with your selection.

I pre-ordered the OST months ago, before the first pressing bonuses were announced, and never bothered to check back to see what they were. It's a gorgeous package - the outer box has a dramatic shot of Honnouji Academy from above, with the logo embossed along the bottom.

The big surprise was the bonus booklet - a complete score for several of the tracks, including the Reddit-famous "Don't Lose Your Way" (officially titled "Before my body is dry", and with an unfortunate rap section in the full version), which I almost immediately set about transcribing to tab but sadly doesn't sound quite the same on an acoustic.

That's one of maybe three tracks I recognised from the show; I'm surprised at just how many of them are unfamilar. I'm tempted to use this as an excuse for rewatching the show, but I've got a bunch of other stuff to get through (I'm determined to see if Shuffle! has any kind of payoff) and the new season's about to start.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014


I was going to write about the (relatively) new Perfect Blue Blu-ray for today's entry; I've got a big text file with notes made as I watched it this evening. But I sat down to type it up more coherently and remembered I wrote about it less than a year ago.

So now I'm out of ideas.

I realised tonight that it's really hard for me to write critically about Perfect Blue anyway; I've seen it too often to separate my love for it from the film itself. I tried to keep a more detached perspective tonight, but by the time Mima shoots her first Double Bind scene I was pretty much totally absorbed.

Which isn't to say I don't have criticisms. As I mentioned last time, MiMania's character design is too grotesque to really be effective; if he looked more normal (and didn't have such a prominent place in the opening CHAM concert), there'd be room to play him as a figment of Mima's imagination more consistently.

And this time, the nice bow on the ending bugged me more than it has before. Considering how obtuse and incoherent the film very deliberately tries to be in places, it's odd to have such a resoundingly optimistic ending.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

I'm curious!

I'm pretty sure I figured out what was really going on in Hyouka at the exact same moment as the main character. This is rare in anime, and especially in mystery shows - generally speaking the audience is either way ahead or way behind the characters, thanks to the uneven distribution of information available on each side of the screen.

Succinctly described to me on Twitter as "a mystery show about nothing of any consequence", Hyouka follows the Classics Club, dragged through puzzle after puzzle by the infinitely-curious Chitanda Eru. Their secret weapon is Oreki Hotaro, supremely observant and insightful, but also hopelessly lazy (or as he'd call it, "efficient"). The mysteries they solve are ultimately irrelevant even to those directly involved; a 60-year-old school expulsion, unimportant items missing from the cultural festival, a hot springs "ghost".

None of the cases matter much to the plot either, except for the way they bring the characters together and force them to change or re-evaluate themselves. The hot springs episode, remarkably restrained for anime generally and especially a KyoAni production, flipped a switch in my brain; I'd been enjoying the show up to that point, but one scene clicked the point into place in a way I couldn't have seen.

High in the running for my favourite anime scene of all time is the haircut scene from Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid. It's not action-packed or even especially well-animated, but the characters' history makes the atmosphere electric. There's a bottle episode of Hyouka that stretches a similarly-charged emotional current out over the entire 22 minutes.

The final scene in the final episode is one of the strongest emotional gut-punches I've seen. Incredibly sad, beautiful and hopeful all at once, it still gets my heart racing to think about it. There's no indication of a continuation yet, and with the shift towards anime-as-advertising1 we might never see more - especially since there's only one more novel to adapt at the moment (the 22 episode series covers four).

The slow-burn nature of the show could be offputting for some, but even when they were spread over three or four episodes, the characters made everything worthwhile. They're almost mysteries by themselves; there are suggestions and hints at the backstories of and between the Classics Club members, and I had more fun trying to work them out than the cases they were trying to solve.

1 The increased number of shows based on manga and light novels isn't (simply) a drought of ideas, but instead the animated versions are used to promote the higher-profit-margin original source material. Which is an awkward position - if the anime doesn't increase sales of the novel, there's no point investing in more; if it does, then the show did its job and why bother with a second season?

Monday, January 06, 2014

DmC Devil May Cry

I want to like this game.

Despite the trying-slightly-too-hard punk aesthetic and UE3's best efforts, I really like how it looks. The story feels oddly like a movie adaptation of a videogame, somehow, but that's still better than a lot of games manage.

I am really bad at it, though. These sort of action games have never been my strong suit, for much the same reason as beat-em-ups - combos are simply beyond me. I can't remember them in the middle of a fight well enough to execute them, and I don't have sufficient reactions to dodge (even when I remember what the dodge button is). I end up sticking to the same basic four-hit smacking, trying desperately to defeat all the enemies before they take me out - a recip for boredom and frustration more than anything else.

The reason I started playing DmC was as a palate cleanser after I'd finished P4G and was finding it difficult to get into Ni no Kuni, but it's also been on a couple of GOTY lists so I figured it should be worth a look anyway. It's just not for me, though - like every other game in the genre, it's just not clicking right.

I feel some kind of weird obligation to see the story through - maybe I'll drop the difficulty - but have no idea why. It's not that special, and a combination of online comments and obvious foreshadowing means I'm pretty sure how things are going to play out anyway.

Sunday, January 05, 2014


This is probably the worst show I have ever seen.

It looks bad, sounds terrible, the story is happy to ignore its central conceit for episodes at a time, and the characters are painfully cliché. It attempts to create dramatic scenes based on the revelation of information that both the audience and cast already know and take for granted.

The one thing keeping me going is that the show was recommended to me in a r/anime thread about School Days, which the episode-preview screenshots on our media server back up - they suggest something shifts significantly towards the end of the series. I'm not expecting a Nice Boat ending, but any kind of subversion of the tropes Shuffle! is dragging itself through can only be an improvement on what it's doing now.

But it's getting tougher with every episode. I've been told that #18 is when things start to get interesting, but that's still seven episodes away (God help me). If any aspect of the show was even slightly better - there's a lot of side-story bullshit that could easily be trimmed to get this down to 13 episodes, which would help immensely - I think I'd be close to enjoying the experience, but every element is so dreadfully executed.

Back when I ran my anime site, there were times I'd have to force myself through a series for a review. I'm not entirely sure why I'm still watching this one, since I no longer have any such obligation - even self-imposed.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

All This Has Happened Before

If only there had been some sort of clue about the religious leanings of the series.

I will admit to being a little disappointed with the ending of Battlestar Galactica. Not as disappointed (or enraged, as the case may be) as some "fans" were when the final season came to a close, but it did feel like the religious implications made by the finale were somehow out of place with the rest of the series.

Having rewatched the first season-and-a-half over the last couple of days, I'm not stunned that any of us expected anything other than a faith-heavy conclusion.

There is so much stuff that can only be explained by supernatural forces at work, if not full-blown divine intervention. Gaius Baltar's continued existence can only be the result of either the least-believable chain of unbelievable luck, or the hand of God. The visions of Laura Roslin and the predictions in the Scrolls of Pythia are too perfectly-aligned to be mere coincidence.

I suppose the "dumb luck" theory could hold more weight if there was any evidence in the show of anything other than divine intervention that could possibly explain how Gaius knows the things he does ahead of time (told to him, in most cases, by Head Six - who calls herself an Angel of God's Will on at least one occasion), how Leoben predicts the fleet's discovery of Kobol, or any one of the dozens of prophecies that come true.

I recall the third and fourth seasons drifting away from the spiritual focus of the first two, so maybe the shift to "proper" scifi was a bit of a bait-and-switch. But sitting through the early part of the show again, the ultimate ending seems much more appropriate than it did at the time.

Which isn't to say it's perfect; I don't like how upbeat a lot of it is, and the modern-day coda with the Baltar and Six angels in New York is really dumb.