QuicFic: #0

I found her in the spare room as usual, totally absorbed in filling another canvas. The room is pretty spartan, even by my minimalist standards. There’s a small training mat rolled up in one corner, two kendo sticks balanced atop it. Up against another wall a collection of canvases, each detailed with the thin, precise brush strokes that had become Ellenor’s preferred style. I knew from previous visits that each was identified only by a number, they’d started at 50 with each new painting numbered one lower than the last.

She’d positioned herself in the centre of the room, her paints and brushes forming a lone spot of chaos which went unnoticed by its creator. The latest painting followed what had become a familiar theme, two indistinct and faceless figures sparring, one styled in black, the second in white and framed only by its outline against the otherwise blank canvas. I’d never had the guts to ask Ellenor which represented her as all too often the second individual was speckled with red, which I knew could only represent one thing. Unusually, given the sequential order of each work, the red came and went, never present for more than two or three paintings before it disappeared again.

“You’re early,” she commented, breaking breaking the silence that had filled the air since my arrival.

“No I’m on time, I just didn’t feel like waiting for you to be late before I came up to get you,” I snapped back, regretting it instantly. “Sorry, its been a long day.”

“No worries, I know that feeling. Let me just finish this off.” Before I could voice an objection she’d grabbed another brush and the red paint. Two quick stokes was all she needed, “There, finally done.” As Ellenor packed away the paints I glanced at the painting again. A scribble in the corner identified it as #0 but it was the dashes of red that caught my attention. The first, arrow straight along the length of one blade. The second, shorter but just as straight across the neck of the figure in black.

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QuicFic

I’ll probably never attempt NaNoWriMo, I’m not sure I have a novel in me and I certainly don’t have the patience to write one in a single month. Writing short fiction is a different matter,  though even then I tend to stick to individual scenes as opposed to short stories and now that I’m commuting my aim is to get into the habit of writing on a more regular basis, with the results going up here under the QuicFic category.

Review – Spec Ops: The Line


Spec Ops: The Line was developed by Yager Development and published by 2K Games. The game is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. As well as the review presented here the game sparked thoughts on the role of narrative connections, which will be the focus of a future article.

Spec Ops: The Line is, at first glance, a fairly generic third person shooter and in many ways it is. The game however also offers something lacking in most games, something that only truly becomes apparent when you play through the entire game. It is this something extra that raises this game from a solid but generic shooter to an excellent and compelling experience. Before I discuss that aspect in detail lets look first at the setting and game play.

Setting

Six months ago Dubai was, for all intents and purposes, wiped off of the map by the largest and longest lasting sandstorm ever recorded. Most of the population were presumed to have been killed, as was an entire battalion of U.S. soldiers who had been sent in to assist in the evacuation. With the storm finally beginning to subside a radio signal has been detected, the source coming from within the ruins of the city. A three man Delta Force team, led by Captain Martin Walker (the main protagonist and player character), has been sent in on an initial recon op, to find evidence of survivors and locate the source of the signal. Not surprisingly conditions on the ground are not as simple as the team had expected…

Game play

Spec Ops: The Line is first and foremost a third person, cover based shooter with some basic squad command mechanics. In this respect the game is solid, offering all of the required functionality and game play expected but with little innovation or mechanics unique to the game. You are limited to carrying two weapons, a relatively small amount of ammo and a few grenades. Squad commands are relatively simple and focused primarily upon selecting targets for your comrades to focus their fire upon in addition to occasional special actions.

The game possesses the usual range of difficulties and on the default normal mode enemies provide a sufficient challenge. Playing through the game on this difficulty there were a handful of points where I required multiple attempts to progress but they were infrequent enough that they felt challenging rather than frustrating. At this difficulty most unarmoured enemies can be killed with a couple of shots and during the course of the game there is only a single type of enemy (excluding vehicles) which cannot be killed with a single headshot. One of the nicest touches is the inclusion of what is best described as sand damage, shoot out particular windows or parts of ceiling and the sand which is piled up against them will come crashing in, potentially on top of enemies stuck behind cover.

Based on game play alone I would score the game as a 7.0, a solid but generic shooter.

 

That extra something

What makes the game stand out from virtually every other third person shooter (and most other games) is the narrative connection forged during the game play. The actions taken as you play the game have a clear impact upon the characters and are designed to generate an emotional connection between the player and the events as they unfold. In saying this I’m not, primarily, talking about the typical make choice A or B points found in most games, the do I take the good option or the evil option. No, I am instead referencing what is arguably the central game play mechanic of every shooter, namely the killing of enemies.

Let me say this again, this is a military shooter designed to make you feel something when you kill people.

I think the importance of this is perhaps best clarified by a comparison with the Uncharted series, arguably one of the biggest third person shooter franchises at the moment. The hero of that series is Nathan Drake, a gun slinging, wise cracking rogue who is generally portrayed in the cutscenes as a loveable good guy. If you’re unfamiliar with the series imagine Drake is basically a modern day Indiana Jones, both in career choice and personality. In contrast to the cut-scenes most of the game play is spent diving behind cover and killing the hired henchmen sent at you by the big bad evil guy. Over the course of each game you’ll end up killing hundreds of these goons, so much so that the final boss of one of the games remarks during his obligatory monologue something along the lines of:

“Are we really that different? How many of my men have you killed in order to get here?”

The point is valid, to the extent that either Drake has two distinct personalities (loveable rogue and merciless killer) or perhaps, more worryingly, that Drake the hero is in actuality an insane psychopath who takes pleasure in mass murder. Not surprisingly the fact that the protagonist of the game is a brutal killer isn’t something that the developers have focused on much, lest we start thinking of him as anything other than the basic Hero archetype.

In sharp contrast Spec Ops takes three highly trained soldiers, people whose job it is to kill and places them into a situation where they are forced to do so. It does this so it can pull you in to the realities of war, showing the effect that killing can have even on those trained to do it. The consequences of your actions are revealed not only on the level of the unfolding story and visible impact on the psyches of the characters but also in smaller ways. The civilians terrified by your presence or the scribbled graffiti on the collapsed walls. Perhaps one of the most effective ways is that fallen enemies will often lie on the ground writhing in agony from non-fatal wounds. Easy enough to ignore perhaps, except that if you want to loot their weapons or ammo you must first complete the job, making that conscious decision to execute them where they have fallen. In a similar manner melee attacks can often be followed by quick kills, which are once again executed in such a way that they reinforce the brutality of what you are doing.

And you know what? The emotional connection the narrative builds works. It works to the point where I felt bad for enjoying the game. It works to the extent that more than once I had to turn it off and take a break, because I didn’t want to know what came next, what horror of the battlefield I would be forced to actually stop and think about.

But I kept coming back to it, for the simple reason that it was a compelling experience. A game where in many ways the game play was secondary, a mechanism by which something bigger was delivered to the audience. The last game to do this for me was Heavy Rain, an excellent game where once again the story dominated. The difference between the two, however, is the game play. Heavy Rain made use of quick time events, a style many gamers are not fond of. Spec Ops, however, retains the mechanics of the genre, emphasising the contrast between itself and what players have come to expect from military shooters.

I realise that in this review I’ve been extremely vague as to the events which occur during the course of the game, as I believe that too many details would spoil the impact of the story. Suffice to say the way in which Spec Ops: The Line manages to get you to emotionally connect with it is what raises it from that generic 7.0 to, in my opinion, something nearing a 9.0. It’s why I would whole heartedly recommend it to anybody looking for something more than a game, for somebody who wants an experience they won’t forget.

Mark of the Dragon – The Dragon Clans

The Dragon Clans are a faction of my own devising for use within DresNoir, as while the Dresden Files has touched on Dragons relatively little is yet known about them. Presented here is some initial background for the mortal agents of the Dragons

Amongst the supernatural entities known to have great influence upon the mortal world the Dragon’s are perhaps one of the most powerful but also the most inconspicuous. While they crave power and wealth over the mortal world they seek it indirectly and individually. There is no Great Court of the Dragons, no families ties or stable alliances. Instead there are the Clans, the mortal servants who serve, their loyalty passed down the ages from one generation to the next.

It is unclear when the first of the Clans were formed. The feudal society which arose in early medieval Europe represents the earliest confirmed existence of the Clans as families swore their allegiance to individual Dragons in return for the power required to maintain and expand their holdings. Patronage by a Dragon brought these houses not physical strength nor supernatural power but cunning, intellect and longevity beyond that meant for mortal man. With it they directed the path of European development for centuries, building up great power bases capable of subtly nudging a society one way or another.

Until the Industrial Revolution that is.

With the lightning development of technology over the following decades came social upheaval and change at a pace the Clans were unprepared for. Through the first half of the twentieth century over half of the known clans fell as their power bases crumbled under the dual onslaughts of Capitalism and Communism. Those that remained were greatly diminished, clinging on to inherited wealth in a world where their influence brought ever decreasing returns.

The Clans of today are a shadow of what they once were and, if desired, can be loosely placed into one of three groups.

The Broken Clans are those which lost everything, their power, their wealth, their patronage. In the modern world it is unlikely that the descendants of these Clans are even aware of their heritage or the power that may still flow through their blood.

The Fallen Clans, like the Broken lost everything they once possessed. But they still remember and seek to regain their positions of power in society. As the ambitious and jealous outsiders the Fallen Clans are perhaps the most dangerous for they have nothing left to lose. This overt posturing has drawn the attention of the Dragons and many have are now covertly testing members of the Fallen, waiting to see if they are ready to return to positions amongst the worlds elite.

The Risen Clans, after weathering the storm that was the twentieth century have settled themselves into new positions. In place of the inherited lands and house politics has come economics and stock holdings. The Clans have shifted their power to the board room, as CEO’s, venture capitalists and board members. Multinational corporations, industrial giants and enterprising starts ups, all have been pulled into the webs of influence wielded by the Clans.

The Mark of the Dragon has returned to the world, and it reaches further than ever before.

Technoir: Upping the Tempo

One of the central aspects of the Technoir system is that of the Push dice economy, which are passed back and forth between players and GM in order to apply adjectives which last beyond the length of the current scene. For a full adventure, run over multiple sessions this works well. Unfortunately for a single session one shot adventure it leaves the pacing on the slow side, especially as many NPCs are unlikely to feature in more than a couple of scenes.

Upping the tempo is relatively simple, achieved through the addition of a new type of adjective, that of Instantaneous. Here’s the new rule in full:

  • Instantaneous adjectives slot in as the new default result of an action and do not require the spending of any Push die. The chain therefore now consists of Instantaneous – Fleeting – Sticky – Locked.
  • Instantaneous adjectives last until the character has taken their next action.
  • The cost to apply all other adjectives increases by 1. So Fleeting now costs 1 Push die, Sticky 2 and Locked 3.
  • Apart from the change in cost all types of adjective continue to function as before.

By introducing this rule players are thus encouraged to spend Push dice more freely in order to apply adjectives which last the length of the scene. In turn this provides a greater supply of dice to the GM who should spend them regularly in order to apply Fleeting adjectives on the PCs. This relatively simple change therefore not only ups the tempo of the game but increases the frequency with which players are handed a physical object, a technique which I’ve found does wonders in getting their attention and drawing them further into the narrative.

Review: Savage Worlds GM Screen

If you’re a GM then there’s a good chance you hide behind a GM screen on a regular basis. But let me ask you this, when was the last time you actually used it? I’m not talking about hiding notes and dice rolls behind it but the game specific rules and information it supplies. I expect for many GMs the answer is “don’t know” or “I used that little bit recently.” My answer tends towards the latter, I’ll maybe use one or two aspects of a GM screen (such as skill lists or called shot details) while ignoring the majority.

For example:

It was with this thinking that I recently picked up the Savage Worlds Customisable GM Screen by Pinnacle Entertainment (don’t worry, you can use it with more than just Savage Worlds). What makes it customisable? Each of the three panels has clear plastic pockets on both sides in which you can place information of your choosing.

Into each pocket can go pretty much any info you want available, for any system or adventure. My current plans for the GM panels are:
1) Rules / tables I always forget
2) PC info such as names, important stats, advantages / disadvantages
3) Session / campaign notes

Of course with front facing pockets there is also the option of presenting information to the players, which is especially useful when running new games. Knowing my usual players I’ll probably put a single page cheat sheet in the edge panels (so everybody at the table can see it) while the central panel will have character / player names so everybody remembers who’s who.

So in terms of the options made available the screen scores highly. Construction wise the screen also comes across well, the panels are are sturdy, made of that thick cardboard covered by plastic (think like a clipboard back) and the join between them appears strong. I’m a little unsure about how well the plastic pockets will hold up, as while they appear strong now I know from similar products that this is often a weak point. Only time will tell there. Unusually in my experience the panels are connected in a length wise format, which means the scene will take up slightly more space than the typical portrait screen.

My only real complaint is the size of the pockets, as they’re too small to fit an A4 piece of paper. I suspect this is a localisation problem, with the screen designed with the US letter sized paper, which is slightly shorter than A4. While I can work around the problem easily enough it is annoying as it would have required only a slight increase in panel size to make the screen compatible with A4.

Overall I think the customisable approach to the screen is exactly what I was looking for, the pockets give me flexibility on both sides without the cluttered try to fit everything on approach of most GM screens. Based on my limited (to date) use of the screen I’d certainly recommend it to other GMs, especially those running long campaigns where there is a build up of information both players and GM need to keep track of.

Oh and the screen hides my dice pretty well too.