Yesterday I ran Hollowpoint via Google Hangout. Aside from some freezing issues due to my OS (now improved, fingers crossed), it was pretty successful. We used the brilliant online Dice Roller from catchyourhare.com to keep track of GM and player dice together–not as much fun as hearing the clacking of d6 hitting the table but worked very nicely.

I’m pleased to say the system delivered everthing I had hoped it would:

  • Fast-paced missions with total focus on objectives
  • The feeling of hypercompetent people working together as a tense group
  • Quick to learn and generate characters
  • Engaging dice mechanic
  • Escalation of threat as the players win and their resources (traits) dwindle
  • Mission catches resulting in a dilemma between solving the catch and keeping the other team-mates alive.

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p>I made one mistake when I missed out the Complications–possibly for the best, as they weren’t conspicuous by their absence and could have been a speed bump for new players. Next time I won’t forget.

I’m not a fan of actual play write-ups, but the bullet points of the session included intimidating a Amish community and burning down their church, a massacre in an abandoned amusement park, and defusing an extradimensional bomb (the catch) under their headquarters in Manhatten. Suffice to say the players played very, very bad people indeed, and I don’t think any of them liked their characters by the end. Mission accomplished.

Time will tell as to how well the system can be adapted to other genres. The core skills are individually strong; genre adaptation would require substitution with setting-specific skills (e.g. Magic) which could be less focussed and more open to interpretation. It’s the limited scope of each skill that makes it interesting–for example if you’re using KILL you have to shoot people and hurt them, you can’t declare you’re using your sets for a different kind of action, and you must use all of your sets.

I maintain that this has been the best money I have spent on games this year, though FATE Core comes close. And it strikes me that the freedom afforded in Hollowpoint for declaring and narrating ones’ own actions and spending Traits is a nice primer for FATE’s Aspects.

I upgraded to OS X Mountain Lion on my Macbook Pro last year, and since then I’ve had no end of grief with the machine locking up with the beach ball of death. I was ready this morning to do a fresh install of the OS or even roll back to Snow Leopard–but in a last-chance attempt at resurrecting the installation I did a couple of things. One of these was to clear out the applications folder including the Flash installation.

The other thing I did was to go into the recovery console (hold command-R at boot) and repair the disk permissions on the drive. The list of repairs was extensive–possibly it was a legacy from the Snow Leopard upgrade.

Taking these actions has removed the cruft of unused applications and so far I’ve not seen much of the beach ball. For anyone else thinking about something as drastic as wipe and reinstall, maybe this post will save you a morning. I’ll update in a month or so.

Years ago someone–I’m not sure who–raved to me about FUDGE. It didn’t make much of an impression over “just another rules-light system with funky dice“.

Much later, everyone started to get into FATE, which used FUDGE’s dice mechanic. It also uses Aspects and Fate Points. I bought Spirit of the Century and promptly failed to run it, but from my cursory glance it was “just another rules light system with player narrative control, poker chips and funky dice”.

Pulp doesn’t do much for me, which is probably why SotC has been sitting unloved all this time in my collection. Still there are a lot of very interesting games powered by FATE… and it seems, all different kinds of FATE. The transhumanist game Nova Praxis (and its parent Strands of FATE) deviates furthest (I believe) with a 1d6-1d6 mechanic1 instead of FUDGE dice, as well as attributes. EDIT: Mike McConnell has added a comment below to clarify–he kindly provides this link with handy information on how Nova Praxis is like both SoF and FC. Also, 1d6-1d6 is optional.

FATE Core (by Evil Hat) on the other hand has no attributes, which is something I like very much–everyone is assumed to be “average” unless they have a trait that tells you they’re better than average.

FATE

What made me give FATE a second glance? First, the price is right–“pay what you want” for the pdf. Second, I have a soft spot for generic mechanics. Third, great reviews–saying the game has been streamlined and clarified. Just the thing to attract an obstinate GM like Yours Truly.

I’ve had the pdf for only a few hours, so these are only my first impressions–but there’s a lot I like about FATE Core.

  1. The pdf fits on a tablet and has a hyperlinked table of contents, as well as links in the page margins to relevant sections. The layout is top notch, too.
  2. Very clear explanation on Invoking and Compelling Aspects, as well as a section on the Fate Point Economy. Fate Points are a currency that must flow between players and the GM, much like Despair Tokens in Don’t Rest Your Head–this section makes actual play a little clearer.
  3. Guidance on making Aspect descriptions specific.
  4. Workflows for the GM to help create games–tying the game to the Aspects of the PCs, and targeting what is important in the game world.
  5. Highly flexible skills and stunts, and advice for creating rules exceptions. There’s a workflow here for creating a list of skills, and creating a setting from the skills you choose.
  6. NPC attributes can be defined in two lines on an index card. That’s something I liked a lot in Cinematic Unisystem so I appreciate it here.

What about magic and supers? That’s where Extras come in. The Extras chapter is the last in the book before the character sheets and is pretty slim–it’s a toolkit rather than a laundry list of spells and powers. There’s a nice section on how to apply extras to characters–for example if an extra creates a “new context for action” then it should be a skill (and therefore affects the setting); if it influences the story it should be an aspect, and so on. Extras have Permissions (i.e. justification) and Costs associated, which sounds like the Wild Talents philosophy only much, much simpler to implement. No doubt the forthcoming games based on FATE Core will see pre-made lists of powers, vehicles and NPCs. I’m happy that the core book isn’t cluttered with such ephemera.

Some systems are right for certain kinds of worlds and certain kinds of play; but presenting a system outside the context of a world is a true test of its coherence and robustness. FATE Core has clicked for me in a way the Savage Worlds Explorer Edition hasn’t, and I think that’s partly to do with the way the latter includes list after list of powers and effects. FATE Core appears to focus more on how the game should be played and crucially how it should be planned by the GM. The authors get a gold star for that.

The one thing I’m less certain of is how the players will react. This system seems to demand the PCs be proactive and not passive–a goal all games should achieve, but in this case the Aspect and Fate Point economy requires a set of behaviours that aren’t common at most of the games we play, even if they are easy to pick up.

FATE Core is a thing of beauty, and a bargain at that. It’s a very different, single-minded and coherent game with excellent support for the GM and a very clear message about its intentions. It is a pulpy, action-y game about remarkable characters doing remarkable things–the end result is probably similar to Savage Worlds or Cinematic Unisystem (each having their own Drama Points/Bennies system), although procedurally it’s very different. It’s probably not suitable for survival horror or gritty simulation, but it doesn’t pretend to be. I doubt it will displace Everway or Unisystem in my affections, but I am certain I’ll run it in the near future.

——

1. I originally had this throwaway remark about Strands of Fate

I’m not sure why you’d pick an Aspect-driven game and clutter it up with traditional RPG tropes like attributes, but I suppose it does ease the transition from the traditional RPG arena into the new school. And don’t get me started about the black die/white die mechanic–that was one thing I couldn’t stand about Feng Shui.

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p>SoF is reviewed by GameGeeks and on RPGnet, and that’s the source of my first impression–and it’s unlikely I’m going to buy, let alone attempt to sell a game with 12 attributes to my players, so that’s the extent of my opinion. But read the reviews, the reviewers say nice things–I’m sure it’s a good system, it’s just not likely to cross my path.

I do very much like the look of Nova Praxis’ “augmented pdf” although until now I’d assumed it was a solid SoF game (the preview doesn’t tell me enough to the contrary). Since that system doesn’t appeal, and I don’t need another transhuman game, I’ve been vacilating about a purchase. We shall see, I may just buy it to look at the lovely art.

This was an impulse buy, but has turned out to be a surprise performer. A bit loud for everyday writing but great for annotation/hilighting.

Hope Pink

Really nice rich colour. I suspect the pink will stain like crazy and will be a pain to flush out, much like the pink component of Imperial Blue. Chromatogram shows mostly magenta with some orange hints:

HP swab chrom

I probably have all the pink I need in my bottle, but I’m really taken with this colour. It’s moderaly drip resistant (due to the pink hanging around for ages) and flows very nicely.

Iain Banks died yesterday.

I was never a huge fan, more of an appreciative reader. I got into his non-SF books much more than his SF, and then not so much–even so, his iconic covers were a feature on pretty much every bookshelf of every house we hung out in during my university years and beyond.

(I always wondered why they switched from the original Peter Brown illustrated covers. For a while I confused the new covers with Ian McEwan‘s books.)

Hard SF is less my cup of tea so I have fewer enduring memories of The Culture (I don’t think I’ve read any of the non-Culture SF), but I the bits I remember are fresh, never wallowing in the science of SF, keeping the stories about humans. Perhaps that’s a benefit from Banks being a cross-genre author. If I ever run a Traveller game, Banks is probably the first author I will go to for inspiration.

RIP.

WFoldWFnew

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eleven-year-old me did not appreciate Traveller, my first RPG. At that age science fiction was about travelling in the X-Wing at incredible speeds, blowing up Death Stars, and generally swashbuckling one’s way across the universe. It was not about the things I found in the Traveller Starter Edition, which included:

  • random career paths with a high chance of death before you’d even started to play
  • micro-managing finances
  • exploring worlds with absolutely no human or intelligent life on them, where the primary threat was having your vacc suit eaten by a corrosive atmosphere
  • crippling yourself with debt before the game began, just to get the worst spaceship out of the lot–it didn’t even have a decent laser cannon! 

Traveller 3

A bit battered.

Traveller 1

Rules Booklet, Charts and Tables, two adventures, glossy 3-colour world map, original crayon-inked crappy dice. Love those black and red books!

This posed a big problem. I mean, I got how to play just fine–you land on an uninhabited alien planet, stand and stare at 50,000 year old ziggurats for a while before breaking into them in the hope of getting enough alien stuff to offset your crippling mortgage. But how the heck does that qualify as “adventure”? The 3-page Referee’s guide in the back of the rules booklet (64 pages, woohoo!) wasn’t terribly helpful to my young self–not that it’s badly written, it just uses terminology like Encounters and Patrons and Subsectors and all sorts. There’s a steep learning curve and the sense that Marc Miller has no time for fools–if you don’t get how to play, you’re probably not smart enough for this game.

The lightbulb moment came a few years later when (having gained GM experience) I used Traveller to run the first few episodes of Blake’s Seven as a game. Suddenly the hard science, the dangers of just getting from point a to point b, and the essentially human story of Traveller made sense. Even though D&D was probably a better game for a kid with its powers and telegraphed characters, it did not spark my imagination in the way this game did. I started to think about logic and realism and people living their daily lives in an alien environment.

I don’t know if later booklets improve on the woeful lack of Ref advice since I never bought any other books–I suspect the same “just get on with exploring the next planet and paying off the bank loan” attitude prevails, even though I know there are different human races and aliens and even some metaplot. Still, Traveller is far from a bad game. On the contrary it’s a good toolkit. I don’t value setting or metaplot but I do value transparency of system that lets me run the games I want to run.

Enter the Mongoose

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p>Traveller4

I picked up the Mongoose Traveller pdf in a recent DriveThruRPG sale. If you don’t know, there have been many versions of the game (including d20 and GURPS editions). Mongoose Traveller is a return (and update) to my original, “Classic Traveller”. If it had been an entirely new system I don’t think I’d have bothered, but the classic “roll 2d6 and add mods, score 8+” system has such a practical simplicity to it, I keep coming back. Until now though I hadn’t the patience to wade through the dense text in my old edition long enough to plan a game.

The one thing I’m not so keen on in the Mongoose edition is art–instead of the gritty but inspiring b&w stuff in my original it’s mostly second-rate cartoons that emulate 2000AD. Maybe they did that on purpose given the Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog setting books. Still, I can forgive that because the layout is superb. If you’re going to reprint and revise a classic game, make it easy to read.

The content is pretty much the same, but there’s a big concession towards modern audiences–a long Career chapter at the start with each career given its own two-page spread. In the original, you got a single block of text (although I believe each career had a dedicated booklet, so that may be a concession in my Starter Edition).

Maybe the other thing I don’t like is the character sheet. I guess it’s an improvement on the original, but I liked how the characteristics in Classic were a six-digit hexadecimal code and nothing else–yet another relic from Miller’s economical style.

Traveller 2

Speaking of Miller, he’s now successfully kickstarted Traveller 5. It’s a monstrous book with an allegedly completely rewritten system involving rolling a number of d6 equal to the difficulty level. Hmm, that reminds me of something. I’m sure that to hardcore fans T5 is everthing they were hoping for, but plowing through a New Big Black Book filled with Miller’s terse instructions is not something I relish.

Mongoose Traveller is a surprise–bought as a curiosity, it’s transformed my appreciation of Classic Traveller from something I tried to run once, to something I would be confident in dropping into a one-off game. There’s a lot to the system, but Mongoose’s revision shows that no single component is difficult to implement, and it covers all the areas like world building, space ships and so on. True to the original, refereeing advice is non-existant–if it’s covered anywhere it will be in the genre RPGs like Dredd and 2300AD that require this book as its core. I don’t need those, so this toolkit will serve me just fine.

Brown inks are never as interesting as I expect them to be. Maybe I’m hoping that they’ll turn my messy scrawl into a romantic sepia-tinted document. They don’t.

Diamine Ancient Copper can look so-so or it can do spectacularly well, shading nicely. It looks lovely in the bottle. It deposits crud on certain nibs (Lamy Vista yes, but my Sheaffer hasn’t been a problem).

Ancient Copper

The chromatogram leans strongly towards orange, but there’s some purple at the base of the ink–who knew? Apologies if the photo isn’t up to scratch, that dark spot at the bottom really does look purple.

Dia AC chrom

Would I buy a big bottle of this ink? Unlikely. It’s a novelty; it’s OK for making a day’s notes or addressing cards. I wouldn’t write a letter with it.

Still, I’m drawn back to it. I reckon I’ll be writing with it tomorrow. The notes I made with it are very easy on the eye. Best with a white paper (cream is makes it look to orange).

The swab above makes it look like a boring orange-brown, the truth is it’s both orange and brown. Honestly, it’s probably as exciting as brown is going to get.

Summary:

  • Shades nicely
  • If you like brown…
  • Smears–about average for Diamine, but
  • Some of my notes appear to smear long after the ink should have dried
  • Would use it for cards
  • Wouldn’t use it for letters
  • Flows and lubricates well, nice writing experience with Sheaffer
  • Nib crud on dry writers (Lamy) makes for less enjoyable writing–constant wiping nib, some letters beginning with a dark blob
  • I guess it oxidises and darkens in air.

Well, this wasn’t supposed to happen.

Alstar bits

Look closer…

Feed2

That’s the feed of a Lamy Al-Star. It’s not supposed to be out in the open–it’s normally stuck inside the grip section–but very rarely when trying to remove a nib, the whole thing comes out.

Feed

The culprit is a very, very tight 1.1mm italic nib. Normally all you need is a bit of tape to pull the nib off, but this time the feed gave up first… not a good thing with a full pen.

In hindsight the tight nib was responsible for dry writing–once I replaced it with a nib that didn’t need excessive force to swap in and out, the flow improved a lot too.

Luckily the feed slides back in with a bit of care (there are a couple of rails on the bottom of the section–misalign the feed and jam it in, and you’ll be in the market for spare parts).

Richard Binder says nice things about Diamine ink–according to him it’s as trouble free as Waterman ink (mostly, but not entirely my experience–see below), and unlike Waterman it comes in a hundred colours.

Diamine ink isn’t expensive, either. A big 80ml glass bottle comes in at around 6 quid and you can buy smaller plastic 30ml vials for proportionally less–mostly you have to get these from the Diamine website, which doesn’t play nicely with any Mac browser. Delivery is fast, at least–I ordered 8 new colours and received the package the next morning.

Diamine the ten

Over the next few posts I’m going to look at ten different colours of diamine ink, do some writing samples, swabs and chromatography.

The 80ml bottle (right) looks great. The vials aren’t exciting but 30ml is actually a lot of ink. It’s worth noting a couple of things about the vials, though:

  1. the caps are on very tight, so they don’t leak in the post–so they’re hard work to undo
  2. they’re pretty full, so you need to be a bit careful when filling a pen for the first time
  3. the necks aren’t very wide, so (a) fat pens may have trouble and (b) when you do fill for the first time it’s easy to dispace the ink and make a mess on the desk.

Diamine ten swabs

The ten inks I have on test are

  1. Imperial Blue (80ml bottle, my first Diamine ink)
  2. Ancient Copper (freebie that came with my TWSBI mini)
  3. Grey
  4. Graphite
  5. Evergreen
  6. Meadow
  7. China Blue
  8. Sunset
  9. Hope Pink
  10. Red Dragon

The plan is to test these with swabs, writing samples and some improvised paper chromatography. Lamy pens are pretty good for this given the way nibs can be exchanged–the 1.1mm nibs write fairly dry, whereas the broad nib I have is very wet.

Dia nibs

Chromatography:

Chromatography

Water drips:

Dia watertest

One problem when deciding amongst hundreds of inks is the accuracy of colour samples on the internet–naturally the colours are affected by the monitor and other factors. That was something I learned the hard way when I bought the Imperial Blue below–some scans make it look much bluer, others properly represent the strong purple in the ink, which is a little too much for me. I’ve since found 3 useful places for ink comparisons:

  • Glenn’s Pens has a big section on ink, with comments on how representative the different samples are. I think the site’s a little out of date since it mentions the representativeness of the colour swatch on the Diamine site. I believe the site must have changed since, as you now get swabs which look closer to the true colour of the ink.
  • The Writing Desk has its own Colourama, and you can even compare up to 3 inks side by side. I don’t really trust the swab of Imperial blue on this one.
  • The Goulet Pen Company has its own Swab Shop which is very similar to the above, except you can compare up to 5 inks and it’s easier to view by ink brand, too.

Review: Imperial Blue

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p>Imperial Blue was my first ink from Diamine.

Diamine 1 0004

Pen is a Lamy Al-Star with various nibs–mainly a 1.1mm nib which is fairly dry writing. The colour above looks fairly representitive on my monitor, but YMMV. Slow to dry (20s) like all Diamine inks on this paper (Rhodia dot pad, so fairly glossy). I’m sure it’s better on other papers (e.g. copier, note card, letter paper). Tolerant of a few drips of water, not sure how immersion would affect it.

It really looks purple. Trouble is I find blue-purple boring. I’d prefer red-purple almost to the brown end of the spectrum.

Dia IB chrom

You can see the blue/turquoise that elutes first, and the purple/pink is left behind. That’s been a consistent pain to flush out of several different pens–the pink hangs around long after the blue has been flushed out. I’m trying to limit any ink with pink/red/purple to just a couple of pens.

It looks best on bright white paper (it looks a little strange on cream writing paper). I haven’t written a lot with it lately, and while a whole page looks striking it can be a little intense. For note-taking I prefer something on the grey-brown side.

I wish I’d only bought a small sample; it’s just not for me. Still, it mixes well with a black Skrip ink to make a sort of indigo/denim colour that’s much easier on the eye.

That’s all for now.

Dia fingers