Thursday, September 27, 2018

Book: October Country

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville, Verso, 2017

Provenance: I first found this book in an airport bookstore, mis-shelved. It is a history of the Russian Revolution, but it was in the Science Fiction section. Which makes sense in that China Miéville is a noted SF/Fantasy writer of the "New Weird" school, best known for books like Perdido Street Station, Un Lun Dun, and The City and The City.

But I did not pick it up then. Instead I purchased it at Third Place Books in Ravenna, a tidy little neighborhood bookshop. On the day of purchase, Third Place was donating their profits to organizations working against the brutal immigration policies of the current administration (and ICE in particular). So a political book purchase made perfect sense.

Review: I'll fess up, despite a lot of reading, I have only a passing knowledge of the Russian Revolution. The storming of the Winter Palace, Rasputin. Lenin. The Battleship Potemkin, Reds with Warren Beatty. Yet in my brain the events of the Revolution itself unspooled almost simultaneously. One day there was a monarchy, the next day the Soviet Union.

Actually, it was a continual and chaotic clusterfreak, unrolling over a period of months, with Saint Petersburg (which becomes Petrograd and will eventually become Leningrad before returning to Saint Petersburg in 1991) at its center. Then the heart of the Russian government, it was here that the people's uprising mattered. Out in the hinters of Baku or Finland or Moscow, rebellions of the workers could arise, either to the be crushed or to find some limited amount of autonomy away from the wellspring of then-modern Russia.

There are histories built around Great Men. There are histories built around Great Moments. Miéville's approach is built around Great Meetings. And there are a lot of them in the tempestuous times.The Duma, the provisional government, the nascent Soviet, the various factions within the revolution, the gathering of a dozen Bolsheviks when Lenin was on the lam from accusations he was a German agents. Meeting upon meeting, faction upon faction.

How many factions were there? Take a dinner plate, hold it at an arm's length, and drop it on concrete. That many. Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Mezhriontskys, Socialist Revolutionaries, Kadets (Constitutional Democratic Party), the Military Revolutionary Committee, various garrisons, and subfactions of the above that range from moderate to revolutionary. The difference between the two big factions, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, is whether the worker's paradise has to go through an intermediate stage of bourgeoisie, as the masses need to get up to speed with the concept of self-rule (The Mensheviks said yes, the Bolsheviks said no, and Lenin thought that if you topple everything right now, the rest of a war-torn Europe would quickly follow).

Miéville openly skews left/socialist politically, and that shows in where his attention lies. We get a lot of the Bolsheviks and their meetings, while the right shows up in turns as ineffective foil or a threatening counter-revolutionary force. Nicholas abdicates and vanishes from this narrative. The Duma, tethered to the Soviet in a dance of dependency, is rarely effective (and the Soviet itself, like Caesar, rejects opportunities to take command until forced to by Lenin's wing of the Bolsheviks). He demurs on whether things could have gone differently, or if the horrors of Lenin and Stalin were "baked into" the Bolshevik Revolution itself. There were more than enough opportunities for a different faction, or collection of factions, to "win" the prize of a starving Russian state.

Miéville  is also a urbanist, and most of his fiction is city-based or community-based (The Armada from The Scar, the railroad town from The Iron Council). So he is at home in this not-as-ancient city, built like Washington, DC to house a ruling class and a government. He is at his best when he is describing the city itself, and its inhabitants, either scrounging for food, marching in protests, or defending the barricades against the counter-revolution. Miéville captures the flavor and the feeling of those turbulent months of 1917 where Russia hung suspended through a decaying old system and and an unborn, chaotic new one.

We stop in October, with the Czar still alive, the nation still at war, and the Civil War yet to fully kick off. Miéville tells a great story, but it is an incomplete one, with the great tragedies yet to come. The retro-vision of "what would be" colors our judgement of those hides the concept that the future of the Revolution hinged on a single decision, a single political act, or a single meeting.

More later,

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Adventure: Hard Reign Gonna Fall

Reign of Terror by Mark Morrison with Penelope Love, James Coquillat, and Darren Watson; Call of Cthulhu RPG; Chaosium, 2017


Here's my deal on reviews: I have to play the game in order to review it properly. Reviewing a game or game adventure without playing it is akin to reviewing a play simply from its script. Now. uou can review a script as a script, analyzing why it works and how, and guess how it will all play out, but you really aren't reviewing a performance. For that reason, I read a lot of RPGs and adventures but don't review them. I'm more than willing to promote stuff I haven't played, particularly by friends and colleagues, but reviewing? Not so much.

Oh, and there will be spoilerish things here, so if you want to run this, or never will run this, proceed, but if you want the thrill of playing in it (and its a bit of thrill ride), you can bail now.

My regular Saturday night group has of late been more anime and kaiju movies of late, particularly since we wrapped up the massive Horror on the Orient Express (which I COULD review under my rules, because I was a player,but not a GM/Keeper). I came across this at The Dreaming, up in Seattle's U-District (good comic and game store - my choice for the Lovecraftian stuff), and since we HAD wrapped up Horror, thought this a good tie-in.

Now Horror was set in the 1920s and ranged between London and Constantinople and back again, but the latest incarnation also had a number of vignettes for the past that helped fill in bits and pieces of the story. These vignettes had pregens and gave the players a break from playing their normal characters. Cool idea, particularly since Call of Cthulhu can have a rather lethal body count.

Reign of Terror is really two adventures. The first takes place in Paris in 1789, at the dawn of the revolution, and the second five years later at the height of the Terror, when the guillotine made messy work of those who were out of favor.

And the first adventure works really, really well. The pregen characters are soldiers in Paris, assigned to guard the catacombs as bones are moved from the overflowing cemeteries to new homes underground. They have an encounter with Count Fenalik (who for opur group was a recurring foe in Horror), which gets them involved with revolutionary pamphleteers, palace politics and several decadent dinner parties. The adventure ends with some interesting footnotes tying the characters into the Tennis Court Agreement and the Storming of the Bastille.All of this is really solid.l

The second part happens five years later, after the revolution and the Terror that followed. This is the age of the guillotine, where informers are rampant and the ambitious use false accusation to clear out political and personal opponents. A minor character from the first adventure gets hold of unspeakable knowledge and plans to sacrifice all of Paris to an Elder God (I did mention spoilers, right?).

This part didn't work nearly as smoothly, for several reasons. One is that in the first section, the players are all effectively on the same team - they are soldiers, one of them in the sergeant, so there is chain of command. Also they have specific orders and are expected to obey. And they can expect some sort of support from their superiors. In the wake of the revolution, though, that command is broken down. Not all the characters are still in the army (our romantic young soldier is the group became disillusioned, quit the army, and became a busker on the streets), and some of them may have actually fired on each other at the Bastille. They don';t have superiors who are giving them direct orders, and have a lot more leeway in their actions.

In fact, the adventure turns on the characters, who previously have been expected to obey orders, disobeying those orders for the plot to proceed. In our case, they chose to not disobey orders, forcing the Keeper into quickly coming up with how to proceed the story further. Often, keeping the story moving forward has the whiff of railroading, but this was a case where the game leaves you a bit high and dry as how to proceed (we managed, but it required some impromptu rewiring).

A second challenge is that both big bads are very similar. Singular, aggressive, elite, and powerful (both in physical abilities and in social position). Both are unkillable until a certain set of circumstances come together. Their goals are very different, but how the players interact with them is similar. In the case of the second adventure, the second big bad taunted the characters with a very Fenalik sort of grin, and AT THAT MOMENT the group decided that, whatever he was up to, they were going to take him down. They skipped the next two sections of investigation and went directly to judicious application of kegs of gunpowder in a closed space to defeat him.

Third, and this is one of the biggest challenges of the second half, the shadow of the guillotine hangs over them, but the process of how one gets there is unclear. How is the arrest made? How long do you sit in jail before the kangaroo court sets down a decision? The book does talk about such things as how condemnations functions, but not once the process is rolling There's a definite gap between The Second Big Bad decides to send the Committee for Public Safety against the players and the tumbril rolling up to the guillotine, and one that the keeper had to play by ear..

Production values are extremely high in the final product. The art is wonderful, and the page layour both clear and sumptuous. One challenge as games move to full-color production is the handouts - Older CoC games benefited from easily photocopied handouts. Chaosium has the handouts on their site, but while that works for players with electronic media or color printers, the old fashioned among us with B/W printers and photocopiers have to deal with it.

Liberty Leading the People, by Eugene Delacroix, a classic image
of the Revolution painted forty years later.
The presentation also has some padding. Two-page spreads of famous art. No less than 6 maps of Paris. A full-page reproduction of the Rights of Man (in French). Good stuff, but there it is occupying space we can for other things.

What other things? A short bit to be read to players of what happens between part one and part two would be good (and don't lecture me on boxed text - there is a BIG section at the start of the adventure). There is a lot of data in the book on the French Revolution, much of which is aimed from a historical end and less from the viewpoint of those on the ground (short version - it sucked). For all the  information provided for the characters, I had to wing it on whether the soldiers had a barracks or what (I went with yes, but the commander lived with his family nearby).

Also, a pronunciation guide would help. Yes, we know what French sounds like, but I come from a part of the country where Versailles is pronounced Ver-SAILS and Dubois as DUE-boyz, so I am working through my high school French to manage pronunciation in places. None of my players have been to France (Quelle horreur!), so in general we went with "Hollywood French", either ignoring pronunciation challenges or, sadly, rolling out a Ree-DEEK-you-louse Frange AcCENT. So, a guide would be useful tools for the Keeper.

And the volume does suffer from the "Curse of Cthulhu" as far as map/text agreement. The dwarf violinist lives the garret of a three-story building, which has five floors on the map. The description of Fenelick's grounds don't quite line up with the text. And, while the Pregenned PCs have useful info, one of them is lacking a vital part as to his political alliances. (in the book. They did make the correction to the pdfs, so go there for the characters.).

So in general? Not an adventure for a first-time keeper. First half is solid, and definitely good if you're playing/have played/would want to play Horror on the Orient Express. Second half requires more work from the Keeper and can potentially go off the rails. Keep the wikipedia handy so you know more about the Herbertists and Dantonists and why it would be important to a bunch of soldiers.

But is also great for putting the players in two very different dystopic realms where life in cheap and justice cannot be found. From the golden halls of Versailles with its wealthy elites to its revolutionary remade France stalked by the Terror, the players are forced to deal with challenges to their characters beyond the traditional 1920's milieu. It is an excellent doorway into the past for playing the game. Check it out, but be prepared to work for it.

More later,

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Triviathlon

So, over on the Facebooks, I have been asking questions. Not my questions, but rather question from 1996 about AD&D Second Edition.

This was the Trivathlon, a full-sized poster that may have been shipped with DRAGON subscriptions (though I'm not sure) and/or were distributed to hobby stores.On one side was a full list of all the D&D products to date, put together by John Rateliff (also known around here as Sacnoth). The other side had a contest - a hundred trivia questions about AD&D in the 1996 era, along with the rules for "The Arcane Challenge" First prize was a choice of a free trip to the Spanish Gen Con Game Fair in Barcelona or the Euro Gen Con Game Fair in England. Second prize was a trip to the US Gen Con in Milwaukee, and third prize was a limited edition pewter Great Red Dragon.

Anyway, John has been cleaning out his basement and came across a copy of the product list/poster/contest. His memories about it are here and here. The same weekend, at our regular gaming group, Steven Winter (who used to blog at the Howling Tower) brought in HIS copy of the Triviathlon, partially filled out. I snagged Steve's copy and spent the past month or so amusing myself posting a bunch of questions every day. Sometimes I got the right answer. Sometimes I got smart-alecky remarks. It was fun.According to Steve, there was ONE person at the time who got all the answers right.

However, TSR never published the answer key, or so we thought. But someone (and I will  gladly credit them here - I've lost that message in the past month. EDIT: It was Ed Tucciarone! Thanks Ed!) sent me a link to a user group on Google, which had copied the answers from a response by the TSR Online Coordinator at the time. The Coordinator from that time would be Sean Reynolds, but Stan!, another member of our regular group, checked with Sean and he remembers nothing of the contest either.

However, an answer key does exist, and can be found HERE. So if you've been following the whole craziness of the Triviathlon, here's where you can find out if you're right or not. Or if THESE answers were wrong.

Me? I'm going to go have a bit of a lie-down. I've done enough Facebookery for a while.

More later,

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Political Bunker: Fallout

I usually wait a few days before posting after an election, because votes continue to come in (deadline was postmarked on Election Day), and there are usually one or two contests that are close enough to wait things out. and even in this small but important collection of contests, this has happened. So take a look.

King County Proposition No. 1 Regular Property Tax Levy Automated Fingerprint Identification System Services - Approved. Here's an interesting factoid. The tax is a LOWER percentage than the last time around, because property values have gone up. Which means they can get the same amount of money from lower rates. You're still paying more money, if you're a property owner, because the property is supposedly worth more.

United States Senator - Maria Cantwell came in with 55%of the vote. Now, in a primary, 50%+ is considered "comfortable". This is a pretty good indicator, with the fact there were 28 OTHER candidates in the race (because there were no other big state races for Goodspaceguy to run in). The Republican standard-bearer, Trump-apologist Susan Hutchinson, got 24%, which bodes ill for the GOP.

United States Representative District 9 -  Here's the one that was hanging fire, and I will admit it surprised me as well. Incumbent Adam Smith looked like he would square off against perennial opponent Doug Basler, but a late surge put progressive Sarah Smith in the number two position. So we have a situation for a US posting with .... no Republicans. I see this one as a win-win situation.

State Legislature District No. 11, positions 1 and 2 - Zack Hudgins and Steve Berquist -  but they were unopposed, so that should not be a question.

Elsewhere?

Steve Hobbs won the 44th with 55%, which is good for a incumbent, more challenging for his opponent.

US Representative District No.  8  - Dino Rossi versus Kim Schrier (likely - this one is truly hanging fire, and we may have to wait until Monday to get the final). Dino got a tepid 43% percent, which makes him vulnerable (more so as primaries do well for Republican, while the general tends to get more people, and therefore more Dems). Mr Rossi, who has traditionally depended on saying little and letting the Seattle Times do his dirty work, has his job cut out for him. Good thing he has a lot of out of state money to work with.

Actually, across the state, the Republicans have, to be kind, "underperformed". Stalwarts are getting lower numbers, and districts that have been reliably red are considered suddenly in play. The supposed "Blue Wave" seems to be alive and well in Washington, but in all things politics, it all depends on what happens between now and November.

That's it until the ballots for the general election drop. See you then.

More later,

Friday, August 03, 2018

The Gaming News

Ah, GenCon weekend. Not going this year, but when I do go, I hunt down the small companies that I have never heard of before and check out their projects. These days, with the Internets and the Amazons, the throw-weight of smaller companies is a lot greater, but the chance to actually physically check out the product before purchase has a thrill. Also, the person you're buying it from may just be the designer.

Yet with GenCon there has been a sudden wave of activities on the Kickstarters and elsewhere for new products, many of which by people I know and some of which I have actually supported. Let's take a look.

First off, Let me start off with a Humble Bundle. Humble Bundles are collections of electronic media (games, pdfs, e-books) that are offered a low, low price (though you can make it higher and get more). The proceeds go to good causes. In this case the causes are Girls Make Games and Girls Who Code, both of which work to expand gender diversity in pretty male-overwhelmed areas. The books are a huge selection of books on game design, some of which I own, and some of which I have contributed to. AND this particular bundle has new, just published material by Mike Selinker.

If you're also looking for more books about games, take a gander at Your Best Game Ever from our friends at Monte Cook Games. It not rules for playing a game, but advice on how to use those rules for, well, your best game ever. Usable both by new players and old, YBGE is already blowing up in funding. Plus, if you want rules with your tools, they are offering the revised Cypher System Rulebook, which is MCG's "universal" system. Check it out.

Also in Kickstarter (and blowing up even bigger) is The Expanse RPG. I got into The Expanse from the Lovely Bride - she tends to Tivo entire seasons and binge-watch, and my attention is collateral damage (I would walk into the room, sit down, and then cross-examine her at the commercial breaks). It's a great TV show, but it is based on books (no, really, books. With words and letters and chapter and everything). And The Expanse RPG is based on those books. It uses Green Ronin's AGE system, but sounds like it has a couple neat tweaks to it.

Also on the Kickstarter is Demon City, by Zak Smith. Call it experimental gestalt weird fantasy. Call it millennial urban horror. I really liked both the presentation and the content of Red and Pleasant Land (Alice's adventures in a D&D universe - better than the old Through the Magic Mirror), and Maze of the Blue Medusa (which neatly juggles a bunch of different subplots into one major adventure). Both readable and playable. So I expect to like this as well.

Staying with Kickstarter, but moving into the past, Steve Jackson is bringing back The Fantasy Trip, which was one of those foundational games back in the early days of D&D/ Originally micro-games with paper chips and maps, it was a hex-based combat game that simply recapitulated the nature of fantasy combat. At a time when D&D options were just starting to sprout up, it took the dungeon to the boardgame long, long before 4th Edition. I think I still have a copy or two in the basement. This looks like a faithful recreation of the original, more of an update than a complete revision.

And ALSO from Kickstarter AND with a healthy whiff of updated nostalgia, we have Over the Edge, which back in the day was a brilliant combo of mechanics and world-building. Imagine D&D if Hunter Thompson had teamed up with Gygax and Arneson, and if Bill Burroughs replaced Edgar Rice Burroughs in Appendix N. Unlike The Fantasy Trip, this is an all-new edition set on the island nation of Al Amarja, and I want to see what they've done with it.

Fine, you want some games that are already finished and available? Do you have IOs on your tablet or phone? Take a look at the Cthulhu Chronicles, which gives you solitaire adventures in the Mythos/ There are both transposed Call of Cthulhu adventures (Alone against the Flames) and original material here. The first three sanity-shattering adventures for the day are free! The classic nature of the old choose-your-own-adventure books with modern-age technology! Indulge your Lovecraftian desires!

And since I'm still talking about games, how about some fanzines? I would mention both Warlock #6 (from Kobold Press) which deals with the City of Brass and The Excellent Traveling Volume #8, a wonderful Empire of the Petal Throne 'zine. The mere fact I have articles in both of them has nothing to do with my hearty recommendation.

And finally, let me mention Dungeons & Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History, which is NOT out yet, will prove to be the ultimate source for art in the golden age of TSR. The authors are recognized masters in reporting the history of D&D, and, I am have been informed, the book will include several pieces of art from the Private Collection at Grubb Street. I'm really looking forward to this!

And with that, the Gaming News wraps up. More later,





Saturday, July 28, 2018

Game: Boss Tweed

Very Gangs of New York
Tammany Hall designed by Doug Eckhart, Pandasaurus Games 2012

Let's move on from politics to ... a game about politics!

Provenance: This is the Kickstarted version of the game. I purchased it at North Texas RPG Con as my "Big Buy" of the con (I try to limit myself to one, because I have to lug it back). Brought it out for our Monday Night gaming group.

Review: We've played this game three times, and there are issues. But let me give you the lay of the land before I start complaining:

Tammany Hall is a unit-placement game set in New York City in the mid-19th century. This was the time of the rise of the great urban political machines, and I am a fan of the era, and in particular William Marcy (actually Maegar) Tweed, who was the "Boss" of Tammany Hall and the Democratic Party in post-bellum NYC. The board is lower Manhattan, divided into three districts with numerous wards in each district.

A pool of immigrants shows up at Convent Gardens (this is pre-Ellis Island) - four national groupings - Italian, Irish, German, and English (different colored cubes). You have a hefty number of "Ward Bosses" (meeples) and can put a ward boss and an immigrant cube in a ward, OR put two ward bosses in one or more wards. Easy peasy. If you put an immigrant cube, you get a "favor token" for that immigrant group.

After four turns (years) you have a vote for mayor. You only look at the ward bosses in each ward, since they deliver the votes. No other ward bosses? You get the ward. Other ward bosses in the ward, you square off, secretly adding appropriate favor tokens to the number of ward bosses you have. High score gets the ward. Guy with the most wards (and there are all sorts of tie-breakers) gets to be mayor.

The mayor then hands out the city offices, which allow to gain free favor tokens, lock down wards, or move or remove immigrant tokens. Everyone gets an office, so the trick is to hand out the more powerful ones to people you think you can trust. After four elections (16 turns), the game ends and the high score (VPs awarded after every election) wins.

And that's pretty much it. But after playing it three times, I get the feeling we're doing something wrong. And that's not good. First game we were being polite and learning the rules. Second game we got into a little more deal-making. Third game we tried to dogpile on the leader. None of these worked out that well, and in the last two we had to call time (a two hour playing time is a bit rosy in its estimation).

Part of the problem is that mayor is a very powerful office, long-term. Short-term it sucks - everyone else has something they can do. You just get 3 victory points. But since you have to control a lot of wards to get to be mayor, you have more victory points already. The end result is that the mayor (particularly if you can get re-elected) gets a huge head-start on everyone else. The rich get richer. In each game, we had the first mayor get out front, a second place player at about half points, and the rest in a mob at the bottom.

The idea that it is clear that taking down the mayor is a catch-up feature, but it is very hard to do. Challenging other wards requires effort and resources that might be spent better elsewhere, and leaves both combatants weakened. There is a "scandal" mechanic that can take out enemy ward bosses, but it requires a layout of future victory points and favor chips, and requires you have a good setup in the first place. The ideal form of combat is "Let's you and him fight" - getting two opponents to take each other on while you hold down your own territory.

Dealmaking is also a challenge, in that there is precious little you can actually trade at the time. You can't trade the favor tokens, and there is no rule to punish deal-breakers (other than everyone saying, "Oh, Stan! He broke a deal once! Let's you and him fight!"). And since you have to give out all the offices, you have to give good powers to less-than-responsible people.

The quality of the game components are excellent, the rules are fairly clear, and most of the information you need is repeated on the game board. It has an excellent physical design. Tammany Hall gets good reviews, in particular from those that claim that it will turn players against each other faster than Monopoly, Diplomacy, or Kingmaker. I'm not seeing it. Our group gave it the old college try, but it came up empty. Not a bad game, but not as amazing as I expected. Maybe I should check out its ancestor, El Grande, to see if I'm missing something, or if it is just us.

More later.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Jeff Recommend: Primary 2018

OK, its pretty brief up here on Grubbstreet, so let me set things down for you.

Get your ballots in by 7 August. But do it now. Avoid the rush.
You'd have to pay for postage. Drop it in the mail. That simple. Or you can do a drop-box in King County..
But just vote, dammit.
No Republicans.

King County Proposition No. 1 Regular Property Tax Levy Automated Fingerprint Identification System Services - Approved, I guess.

United States Senator - Maria Cantwell, better than all 28 other options.

United States Representative District 9 - Sarah Smith (though that other Smith is OK). And hey, she did an AMA on Reddit.

State Legislature District No. 11, positions 1 and 2 - Zack Hudgins and Steve Berquist - so good at their jobs that no one wants to run against them.

And here are a few that I'm not voting on Usually I don't poach on other areas, but these merit some attention.

State Legislature District No. 44 - Steve Hobbs. Impressive. Did I mention he's part of a gaming tabletop podcast, the Geeks of Cascadia?

US Representative District No.  8  - Not Dino Rossi. This blog cut its teeth on he disastrous run for governor and resulting lawsuit. There are three good Dems running against him, and it would be great if Rossi didn't even make the cut. Check out Jason Riettereiser, Kim Schrier,  and Shannon Hader. I lean towards Hader, but I'm not voting in this one. And it would hilarious if Rossi didn't even get out of the Primary.

We will tune in after the election for the final count.

More later,