Why Bioshock Infinite stayed on my drive for three and a half years

Three and a half years ago, I installed Bioshock Infinite and started playing it. And today, finally, I finished it.

I remember starting it up. A lot of my friends had been raving about the different games in the Bioshock series, and that had lead my to pick up a Humble Bundle including all three Bioshock games, plus a bunch of other stuff. I don’t exactly remember what made me pick up Infinite instead of Bioshock 1, but I think it had to do with the fact that it was the newest one, and also a standalone title, meaning the plot of the previous games wouldn’t be spoiled.

I remember the feeling of sitting down to play and being completely engrossed. Not the first time, I think – the opening, as I remember it, was a bit slow, and I was unsure what I was supposed to be doing. My interest was piqued, however, and once the game got going, it sunk its claws into me. When I played, I was totally carried away. I would start up the game to play for half an hour or so, and look up again two hours later. At the same time, the game would leave me spent. Some games – building games, in particular – can also carry me away, but I will leave them with my head buzzing, eager to go back and continue. Not so with Bioshock.

Which also meant it isn’t a game I would fire up to relax for a little while. Which, again, meant that there would be long pauses between play-sessions. And so, while I’ve played the game for 16 hours, according to Steam, those hours were spread out over a long, long time.

That is not a slight to the game, though. It’s not that I didn’t want to play the game. As a matter of fact, every time I’ve been short on space on my harddrive, I’ve opened up Steam to find games to uninstall, sorted them all by size – and skipped the first one on the list, because Bioshock Infinite wasn’t going anywhere till I had finished it.

And why is that? What kept me coming back to this game?

Get them, Mr. DeWitt!

Bioshock Infinite is, at its core, a first person shooter (FPS), albeit with a bit of exploration and a whole lot of storytelling built in.

In the game, you play Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent who is hired to go find the girl, Elizabeth, who is kept somewhere in Columbia, a theocratic city state floating in the sky. As Mr. DeWitt, you will be using all kinds of olde timey guns to fight a series of enemies, from revolutionaries with guns over zealots with swords to huge, mechanised robots with gatling guns, wings, and the faces of American Founding Fathers.

You can only carry two guns at a time, making it essential to choose the right guns for the job at hand. You can carry ammo for all the guns, though, and it will not only be beneficial, but necessary to switch your arsenal ever so often.

Luckily, you can supplement your guns with “vigors” – magical powers that allow you to convert enemies into allies for a while, summon ravens to hack at the eyes of your foes, or maybe make them hang powerless from the air for a while.

The battles are often very clearly structured. You’ll have an arena with a certain number of enemies that must be cleared before you can continue. As the game wears on, you get more and more tactical options – like latching on to rails in the air, allowing you to move rapidly, and even jump down onto foes to damage them. Eventually, you’ll also be able to summon different elements into being, like cover, friendly automata or supplies of health or weapons. The catch is that only one can exist at a time, making it an important tactical decision.

This part of the game I enjoyed, though I’m not sure if it’s the height of what you can do with FPS. I played at the normal difficulty setting, and it seems designed to provide engaging action that is also accessible to relative beginners.

Rain fire on the Sodom Below!

Where the game really started to get my blood going was in the mood of the game. From the opening, the game keeps hitting you with the vibe that something is not quite right. Mr DeWitt’s employers seem rather weird and peculiar, while DeWitt seems an unlikely hero – it’s clear from the beginning that he’s not exactly lily white. Then, as DeWitt arrives in the pristine city of Columbia, emerging through a baptismal scene to a popular festival, you quickly get the feeling that Columbia hides an ugly side beneath the veneer – and sure enough, the veneer quickly cracks, and the filth comes pouring out.

The mood is enforced in myriad ways. The soundscape is excellently done, contrasting early jazz and blues with more sombre and ominous tracks. Even the two little chords that signal the end of a fight are disharmonious and unresolved, indicating that though danger may be over for now, tings are not at all well.

The visual side follows along nicely. In the later stages of the game, as you are traversing abandoned asylums and automata-workshops with patriot-heads and half-finished killing machines, you keep expecting to be assaulted at any moment, and my heart was frequently in my throat as I traversed the twisted corridors of the game’s levels.

The Lamb and the False Prophet

I already mentioned how Booker DeWitt seems to have a rather troubled moral character. And he is just one – granted, the main – of a whole cast of interesting characters. Like the mysterious and aloof Luteces, a brother and sister who show up all over the place to make snarky and enigmatic comments. Or the profet and leader of Columbia, Zachary Comstock, full of fire and brimstone, and just stinking of hypocrisy and fanticism.

The most important character, apart from DeWitt, is Elizabeth, the young woman DeWitt has been sent to fetch. For most of the game, she accompanies DeWitt on his journey. Beyond just making her very charming and endearing, the game uses a number of tricks to make you like Elizabeth. She will do a host of neat things for you when she’s accompanying you. She can open locks for you with lockpicks you find around the levels of the game. She will find things for you – coins out of combat, health, ammo and “Salt” (power for vigors) in combat. And if you die while she’s with you, you will see her fighting with syringes and other medical supplies to get you on your feet again, instead of just starting you over from the last checkpoint.

It’s all rather cheap tricks, but they work: you sorely miss her on the occasions when she is not with you. And as a player, you quickly start to wonder what exactly everybody wants with her.

Constants and variables

But of course, things aren’t simple. Your mission gets derailed, and soon, you find out that things are far more convoluted and complicated than you thought. Soon, the ethical nature of the white (?) lies you tell Elizabeth to get her to come with you seem trivial next to the dizzying scope of the story that is being unfolded.

I won’t spoil too much, as I’ll (spoiler) end this review by recommending that you play the game. I will say, though, that questions of determination, necessity, identity, the nature of time, and of many worlds will feature heavily. The word “quantum” may feature (I don’t actually remember if it does).

And it all ends in … well, it will all be complicated. I won’t say whether the end is happy or not, mostly because I don’t really know. It ends where it has to end. Which, to my mind, is wonderful.

Look, so many video games end happily. It makes sense: a game is not just a story. As a matter of fact, the story is so often secondary to the game. And a game wants resolution, and progress, and rewards. If you are a hero, you want to be victorious. You want to feel good at the end.

Not that this is the first game to have a less-than happy ending. Take Diablo, way back when – the ending of Diablo, while not unhappy per se, was not at all a glorious victory.

But Bioshock Infinite seems to be built to tell this story. I get the impression that this game began with an idea for a story, and the game moulded to tell that story.

And the story they wanted to tell was bold. Explaining this story in a film, or in a book, would have been daunting. They decided to do it in an action game, where the complicated, often philosophical, ideas are interrupted every few minutes by another blood-pumping action scene. And it works.

Which brings me to my main criticism of the game: In a game about choices, decisions, and possibilities, about the tension between constants and variables – you as a player never makes a choice that influences the story. You just follow the linear path laid down by the designers.

But you know what. I can live with that.

Bring us the girl, and your debt will be erased

Like I hinted earlier, I really liked this game. It’s one that has stayed with me for three and a half years, and I’ve been glad every time I’ve returned to it.

I don’t think it’s a perfect game, not by any stretch. But it’s a beautiful game, full of tension and characters and great writing. If you like games that tell good stories, I’d encourage you to check it out.

Book Review: Nine Princes in Amber

I sought out this book when I heard it might be turned into a tv-series – and from page one, I could see very clearly why someone would consider this material for a tv-series. This first book in The Chronicles of Amber is written very cinematically. It starts in medias res with a main character waking up in a hospital with amnesia, and progresses from there at full speed through the action. And there’s action aplenty! Continue reading Book Review: Nine Princes in Amber

Review of Midsummer

Most of the games that take part in the board game competition at Fastaval are unpublished prototypes. A fair number of them end up being published later on (one of them was recently on Kickstarter). However, one of this year’s crop, Midsummer by Nathan Hook, was already available on the print-on-demand service thegamecrafter.com by the time Fastaval rolled around. And if you like strategic hidden identity games, you might just want to give this one a look. Continue reading Review of Midsummer

18th of December: Terminal X


Please do not leave emotional baggage unattended at any time.

Author/Designer: Hal Mangold

From: Bundle of Hillfolk

I heard about Drama System, by Robin D. Laws, and decided to get this bundle, which included the Hillfolk implementation of the system (the primary implementation), along with several other “pitches” for the game. And since I’ve just flown in to Denver International Airport (DIA), I decided to go with the one that takes place there: Terminal X.

The premise of Terminal X is this: DIA is not just another soulless airport. It is a magically charged place, a botched ritual to harness magical energies. That’s why so many weird and unfortunate things happened during its construction (and they really did). Now the airport serves as a gateway, not only to the South-Eastern United States, but also to the world beyond through the otherworldly Terminal X. This means that loads of people “in the know” travel to DIA to transfer through Terminal X to magical destinations beyond this world.

This whole mess is overseen by the Gatekeepers, a cabal of mystics who have divided up the airport, and are exploiting the energy of the many people travelling through the airport. They on their part are opposed by the Movers, a group of adepts who get their energy from travelling, and who want to exploit the energies from Terminal X.

The document is only seven pages, and details the basic premise, ideas for characters and some possible ideas for issues, conflicts and themes to explore through play. The character ideas fall in three ranges, either regular people who have run into the mystical happenings by chance, mystically enlightened people trying to use the energies of the airport, or members of the Gatekeepers who run the place. The characters in the document are nameless ideas for characters, rather than actual characters, and it’s up to the group to flesh them out. The document is designed for Drama System, but through the very systems-light approach of Drama System, there is no actual system specific in the text, and it could easily be adapted for another system.

My impression: This is in many ways a fun little setup for a game. I do feel like it is a little generic, and I would want to spice it up a bit before actually running a game in it – though that can happen in character generation.

Ironically, from what I know of Drama System, I’m not sure it’s that good a fit for that system. Drama System seems best for people who have a close relationship with each other, while Terminal X features a more scattered group, each doing their own thing.

On the other hand, it seems like a good basis for a number of other games. The one that first springs to mind is Unknown Armies, using the three types of characters as ideas for the three power-levels in Unknown Armies (and you could actually combine it with Break Today to include a game of Mak Attax’ers in the Scotsman’s Steakhouse franchise in the airport).

Another good adaptation would be Mage: the Awakening, using the airport as an access point to beyond – the traditions perhaps represented by Native American Dreamspeakers, Sons of Ether aircraft engineers and Virtual Adepts running computer systems, or the Technocracy using it to ship out resources.

Finally, there might be a GUMSHOE game hidden in here in one of the occult mystery variations, like Trail of Cthulhu, Nights Black Agents, Esoterrorists or Fear Itself. This requires a substantially larger amount of work in order to adapt it, but it could be a fun campaign, centred around trying to figure out what is up with DIA. For Esoterrorists, the Gatekeepers and the Movers would obviously be turned into cabals of Esoterrorists.

How would I use this: I think this might be a fun starting point for a game of Unknown Armies. I think UA benefits from having some structure to it, and this could be a fun basis.

17th of December: The Esoterrorists


Protect reality from human fear

Author/Designer: Robin D. Laws and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

From: The Esoterrorists Bundle

GUMSHOE really became famous with the publication of Trail of Cthulhu, but Esoterrorists was the first game to feature these rules. That was my reason for picking up this bundle: I was curious to find out what Esoterroists was all about.

The premise of Esoterrorists is this: supernatural phenomena exist. Wherever and whenever humanity becomes sufficiently unsettled and frightened, and they start to doubt reality, the Membrane separating this world from the world outside – dramatically called the Outer Dark – starts to thin, and beings from outside can communicate, and can even be summoned into our world. And of course a bunch of people have decided that doing just that would be a great plan of action. These people are called the Esoterrorists, and they are a very disparate group of people who have the common goal of weakening reality, so the Outer Dark Entities (or ODE’s) can get through).

If that was the end of the story, the prospects for humanity would be grim. Luckily, a number of people know about this and are trying to stop the esoterrorists. These people are members of a global, semi-official conspiracy called the Ordo Veritatis (OV). The OV is backed by several world governments, and many of their agents are law enforcement officers, crime scene technicians or similar for most of their lives, but ready to spring into service as OD agents whenever they are called.

The game comes with a very particular structure for a game – even more structured than its little brother, Ashen Stars, has. Agents are called, meet up with each other in one place, then meet up with “Mr. or Mrs. Verity” (a generic cover name for a briefer) for their mission briefing. Then they go out, investigate, and neutralise anything they find. Then, before they leave, they conduct the “Veil-Out” – cleaning up the mess, removing evidence and disseminating a cover story for what happened. The last bit is important, because rumours of the truth would weaken the Membrane.

Characters in this game are experienced and capable investigators, who have training from somewhere. That is reflected in character creation. Each character has two kinds of abilities (like in other GUMSHOE games): investigative abilities and general abilities. Investigative abilities deal with investigating – not just things like Evidence Collection and Forensic Accounting (yes, that is an ability), but also things like Impersonate and Intimidation that might not usually be considered as belonging to that kind of category. These abilities are not rolled – instead, you always get clues you have the right skills to get, and can spend points for better effects.. General abilities, on the other hand, are rolled, and deal with things like fighting, stealing things and being prepared.

The antagonists fall in two categories: Esoterrorists, and ODE. Esoterrorists are people who are dealing with ODE and trying to break down reality. They are usually organised in cults, and there is a system for classifying both cults and members, to help you better detail them. ODE, on the other hand, are supernatural beings, inhabiting some form of biological, but strange, body. These are described with stats for what they do and how to fight them, and often also a drawing.

The last half or so is an in-depth look at an example of an alternative kind of scenario for the game, called Duty Station: instead of being assembled to deal with one specific issue after another all over the place, this cell of OV has been stationed in a particular city, and will be trying to weed out the Esoterrorists hiding in the community. This section includes several fully fledged NPC’s. Also, while the book is peppered with little story seeds, this part has a whole scenario ready to go.

My impression: I’m a bit ambivalent about this game. On one hand, it looks like a good setup for a really classic, straightforward supernatural investigation game. On the other hand, the game seems rather bland, particularly compared to many similar games.

The game doesn’t really put the player characters in focus. Instead they are mostly just competent proxies for the players. There are no drives, player arcs or similar features in this game (as opposed to Ashen Stars, and also Trail of Cthulhu). Just characters and their abilities. This meshes well with many investigative games I played as a kid, where the story was the important thing, and the investigators were pretty flat.

On the other hand, I think I might prefer having player characters with built in conflicts and personal goals that I can play with in the game. Particularly in a campaign game, where we’ll be hanging out with the characters for a long time.

The scenario structure is also a little stiff for my taste. It meshes well with the premise for the game, with the very structured police-like agency of the OV, and it’s also a good help for quickly getting a game off the ground. On the other hand, it seems the different cases would feel disjointed, and I’m not sure whether a campaign would feel at all like a coherent story.

The Duty Station setup seems more likely to accommodate a cohesive story. Not only will we be dealing with many of the same NPC’s over and over, and to some extent the same enemies, the player characters will be living in the community of these NPC’s, so anythings that happens will hit much closer to home.

On the other hand, I do quite like the way the game introduces the antagonists. The human antagonists are presented as real humans, and asks the GM to consider the history and motivations of the NPCs. In many of these kinds of supernatural investigation games, there is a tendency to skim over the reasons for the evil foe being evil. It’s good to have a game encouraging the GM to make their antagonists into whole and believable characters.

The ODE’s are also well designed. They are weird creatures, but have a distinctly unique feel, different from Cthulhoid horrors or other “creatures from beyond” that would help Esoterrorists stand feel different than other, similar games.

Ultimately, though, I’m not sure this game is for me. I don’t have enough interest in police procedure, and I would prefer characters with a bit more flesh to them.

How would I use this: I could see myself using this game for one-shot investigation games, particularly if I ever went back to teaching adolescents. I could also be persuaded to run a short campaign of Duty Station – I could see it as a great basis for a game that is part Twin Peaks, part X-Files and part undercover police drama.

Other than that, I might lift the Esoterrorist creation chapter in a Cthulhoid game, when creating the cults that are summoning the horrors from beyond.

16th of December: Break Today


You want fries with your enlightenment?

Author/Designer: Greg Stoltze with Chad Underkoffler

From: The Unknown Armies Bundle

I remember being very fascinated with Unknown Armies. It was a modern, urban horror/mystery game with a very different feel than the World of Darkness. It has a very weird and slightly tounge-in-cheek feel to the rather straight and sombre WoD. And I remember that one of the aspects of the game I thought was really neat was the organisation Mak Attack – a secret cabal, spreading enlightenment by loading up burger meals at the world’s largest fast food franchise with magical energies. Well, lo and behold – here’s a whole book, just about them.

The book first describes the cabal, including write-ups (fictional biographies and stats) of many of the movers and shakers. It has some tips for running campaigns with Mak player characters, including some scenario-seeds to use in Mak campaigns. The book also includes new rituals as well as new types of magick and new types of archetypes for the players to play. This includes the Plutophage, who gets power by consuming money or expensive items, and the Anagram Gematrist, who works magic by making anagrams.

The book contains a fair bit of fiction, portraying the main players of Mak Attax, and a number of rather disturbing images. In between chapters are often emails or similar, sent between members of Mak Attax.

My impression: I like Break Today – it gives a very nice intro into the organisation of Mak Attax, and provides an example of what the world of Unknown Armies should feel like. The book has a lot of details about specific people in the UA world. This means the GM runs the risk of turning the player characters into extras in the story of these movers and shakers in the Mak Attax world. On the other hand, it gives a good impression of the feel of the world of UA, and some neat resources to help you make the world of Mak Attax come alive.

A great thing about using Mak Attax is that it gives some more purpose and structure to Unknown Armies. One of my problems with the setting is that I find myself wondering what the goal is for the characters. With Mak Attax, that becomes much more obvious. Not only in that they share the common goal of Mak Attax – it also becomes much easier to develop individual goals that can mesh or conflict with those goals. It provides a great basis for a game where players are each others’ greatest allies – most of the time. At least until one of them has an opportunity to further their own goals, to the possible detriment of the others in her crew.

The book has pretty good guides to starting a campaign based on a crew of Attax’ers. There is a lot of background information on Mak crews, and some advice for creating a crew that will play together. I also like the story seeds included. They vary a fair deal, providing stories for many different kinds of games, and all of them seem interesting. They’re not too detailed, but give a good basis for turning it into actual play.

On the other hand, I lack guides on creating a cohesive campaign based on Mak Attax. The book suggests stringing the story seeds together into a campaign, but that is not really what I’m after. I would like some hints on creating a campaign with an overarching plot and some good story development. That is mostly absent from the book.

Break Today is a great resource for a game of Unknown Armies, particularly if the premise of using the world’s largest – and probably most controversial – fast food chain as a vehicle for enlightenment strikes you as a fun concept to develop. It could also be a great resource for creating NPCs for a campaign not featuring a crew of Attax’ers.

How would I use this: If I ever get around to playing some UA, I might very well use this as the basis for such a campaign. My problem with that is that this probably benefits from running at least a short campaign, and running a long game of UA is not first on my list. I like many things about the game, but I think it’s old school enough that I would grow frustrated with it pretty quickly. Still, with the right group…

15th of December: Bulldogs


Tempt your Fate in action packed space adventures!

Author/Designer: Brennan Taylor and Brian Engard

From: Bundle of Fate

Fate has gone through a lot of development, from the main breakthrough with Spirit of the Century to the current wave of games using Fate Core and Fate Accelerated. Bulldogs! lies in the middle of that evolution, coming out after the success of SotC, but before the birth of Core and Accelerated.

Bulldogs is a space opera game, taking place in The Frontier Zone between two competing empires. Big interstellar corporations are among the movers and shakers in this region, and the players are employed by such a corporation, manning a Class D freighter carrying cargo around the frontier and encountering all sorts of mayhem.

When starting a new campaign, the players and the GM create the ship and the captain together, assigning aspects to them and talking about the basis for the crew. The book stresses that the GM should have no more say in this than the other players. It also recommends that the captain be controlled by the GM, and not be a player character. Then each player will create their own characters, choosing a species from the list or making one up, devising aspects and assigning skills and stunts. Stunts work much like they do in Atomic Robo: The book comes with examples of stunts, but the idea is that you should design your own stunts.

The book is neatly laid out, with clear headings and a logical structure. As a nice little touch, each chapter has an associated picture, and a circular cutting from that picture is in the top corner of every even page of that chapter.

My impression: In many ways, Bulldogs! seems to be a mix of Ashen Stars and Atomic Robo. Just like Ashen Stars, you are travelling around your section of space, solving problems and having adventures. It also features a similarly varied set of alien species. But the tone is much lighter than in Ashen Stars, and more like Atomic Robo – the same ridiculous attitude and silly hijincks. The alien species would also be more at home in the zanier world of Atomic Robo than in Ashen Stars: one is a race of mad, trigger happy teddy bears, for crying out loud! Many of the others are anthropomorphic animals of different kinds, like a race of big cats, a race of humanised snakes and a race of a-sexual, cloning slugs. I suppose this goes with the more gung-ho, action oriented kind of space opera featured in this game.

Where Ashen Stars and Atomic Robo both have a very firm description of what you will be doing, Bulldogs! has only some vague indications. You will be delivering goods, often of a dangerous and unstable kind. And then? Well, then action happens, of some unspecified kind. Th game does indicate that it might be a good idea to involve players’ aspects in the creation of scenarios, but that is about it. There is no recommended structure for a scenario, and no outline for how you should put a campaign together. This is somewhat disappointing, not least because the players’ immediate circumstance – as something akin to galactic FedEx’ers – doesn’t naturally lead to great games.

To be frank, I was somewhat surprised when I saw what the basic premise for the campaign was. You are hauling stuff, which is a trade that is most successful when you just land, unload and take off again. Not what you’ll want to be doing every Wednesday night for some excitement. Now if you were freelance haulers, you’d be negotiating contracts and sometimes ending up with a deal going south. But no, you are corporate wage-slaves, getting your assignments from HQ. Granted, you are going to be transporting dangerous and volatile cargoes, but that also seems to have a limited novelty factor.

At the back of the book are some alternative suggestions for campaigns that sound more interesting. You can be a mercenary crew, explorers, an espionage crew or perhaps even pirates! I am left to wonder, though, why none of these were chosen as the basic model for a campaign, or maybe just written into the chapter as equal ideas. All of these seem to more readily afford a varied series of exciting adventures.

As stated before, the captain is supposed to be an npc. This doesn’t seem an obvious choice to me either. The game states that in this way, the captain can be an adversarial force who can help create problems for the players. Fair enough. But it also means taking a fair deal of agency away from the players. Unless the first part of the campaign involved getting rid of or sidelining the captain, I think I would prefer to have a player assume the role of captain. That way, it will be a player having to deal with HQ, making unpopular decisions and taking the spotlight during a tense dogfight. And I’m not worried about one player nominally having authority over the others – a bit of PvP can mean hours of fun play that the GM doesn’t have to initiate.

I like the universe of Bulldogs! and the tone of the game seems fun and very appealing. Having the players and the GM make the space ship together as part of character creation is a great idea, as it makes the ship a unifying part of the party, and implies a conversation about the kind of game the group wants to play. I could easily imagine Firefly as a prototype of a campaign of Bulldogs! where the ship is like an extra character in the party.

Unfortunately, the game seems unfinished, or at the very least, unpolished. To my mind, no modern roleplaying game is complete without some form of instructions in making the kind of scenarios and campaigns it wants you to play. This game provides mostly alludes to the kinds of situations that could arise, without really telling me how to put it together. The whole GM-section of the book is 9 pages out of 170, with several going to general moment-to-moment advice on running a game of Fate – much of which is practically identical to advice from the superb GM-section in Spirit of the Century – and two pages being the alternative campaign ideas. “Adventure Design” is barely half a page of vague advice. A pity they didn’t adapt some of Spirit’s excellent advice on creating adventures.

I do have faith in my abilities to create an interesting campaign of Bulldogs! But with so many cool and interesting games beckoning, I’m likely to skip it for a game that provides me with more structure to create a good basis for fun and engaging games.

How would I use this: If I ever wanted a fun game of rogue operators in space, in the vein of Firefly, I might very well look to Bulldogs! (I might even think this game would better emulate that series than the actual Firefly roleplaying game). I’ve said this a lot throughout this advent calendar., but it might also be a good game for young roleplayers with an experienced GM.

14th of December: The Clay That Woke


Play Minotaurs caught between the city and the jungle.

Author/Designer: Paul Czege

From: The Indie Cornucopia +3

The Clay That Woke caused a bit of a stir in RPG-circles when it came out. It had a successful Kickstarter, and in a time where pdf’s are becoming more and more prevalent, it delivered a fancy book with 90 tokens to be used with its resolution mechanic, the Crater of Lots. All this made me very curious, so of course I wanted to take a look at it.

The Clay That Woke is a game about minotaurs living and working as an servant class in a once-great society. The minotaurs adhere to a strict honour code called the Silence, detailing what a minotaur should and should not do. A minotaur who breaks Silence too much will be seized by uncontrollable urges and run out into the jungle until he has regained his composure.

And so, the game changes between life in the civilisation of humans, and strange encounters in the jungle. In human society, they live among the humans and are party to the turmoil of human society, while in the jungle, they encounter weird creatures and terrible dangers.

Whenever a player minotaur encounters a sufficiently loaded situation, they will draw from the Crater of Lots – krater meaning a large bowl used to mix wine and water in ancient Greek society. First, the GM will load the crater with a number of tokens, representing the challenge faced by the player. Then the player, and other players present in the situation, may add tokens to the crater from their own supply. Finally, the player will draw four tokens from the crater and then consult a menu of options to determine what the draw means.

The book is structured rather unusually, in that sections of rules or instructions for the players and GM alternate with sections of fiction that gives an insight into the society and mindset of the game world, as well as the kind of story the game wants you to play. In order to help you find your way around the document, the table of contents is structured more like an index, or maybe a reference guide, telling you where in the document to go look for details on this or that aspect of the rules or the game world.

My impression: So. Let’s get this out of the way. The text of this game annoys me mightily. The alteration between fiction and game text is not in itself bad, but that, combined with the vague and oblique way the game text is written, means I never really felt certain what the game wanted me to do. I don’t really know when to draw from the crater, I certainly don’t what the significance of a certain token in the crater is, and I have no really idea of what the players will be doing in the game.

There are many aspects of the game that intrigue me. The world seems fascinating, the minotaurs are an interesting concept for player characters – particularly with the duality of servility in the cities and ferocity and strangeness in the jungle – and the Crater of Lots is a novel resolution mechanic that has a lot of potential for providing fuel for the story.

As such, there is a part of me that aches to try the game, to see if the gold I can see gleaming in there comes out in play, or will turn out to be nothing much at all. But the game does not help me reach that point. It teases and obfuscates, and seems to assume that I will glean the meaning behind the words.

The main motor of the game seems to be the economy of the tokens and drawing from the Crater of Lots. But I’ll be honest – I don’t really have a feel for how the tokens should flow. You regain your life token when the jungle comes for you in the civilised world or when the civilised world comes for you in the jungle – what does that mean? How does it look in play? It seems an important part of the game economy, yet it is explained in not even two lines of text!

The same is the case with the instructions for the gamemaster’s prep. Czege tells you to prepare a number of things before play, but only gives oblique instructions on how to do so. You need to create “life and employment circumstances” for the players in your group – but what goes into such circumstances? What is a good starting point for a minotaur? I must also make situations for the Jungle excursions – but what makes a good encounter in the jungle?

Czege remarks in a post on the Kickstarter for the game that he wrote the game this way deliberately, in order to entice people, to make them want to play the game. That is a noble sentiment. And I would agree – making people excited about a game is definitely one of the goals when writing a roleplaying game.

But Czege also says that it is not important that a roleplaying game book is written as a good procedural text. And this is where I most certainly disagree. Once a text has drawn me in, it needs to take me by the hand and help me make the game come alive. The game needs to help me find the kind of play the creator envisioned – or, failing that, at least one my group will enjoy. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World is an example of a game that achieves both: every page oozes the post apocalyptic mood the game wants to portray. But at the same time, it is one of the most accessible texts I’ve ever encountered in roleplaying.

It’s not easiest game to run, mind you. Apocalypse World is a challenge to run, but an enjoyable one. I keep finding myself leafing through the tome, picking out advice and finding new aspects to bring into the game.

And that is where The Clay That Woke seems to fail: its challenge is not in running the game, but in accessing it, and finding out how to get it to the table in the first place. And no matter how enticing it is, there is a limit of how much you can frustrate someone before they give up and go play something easier instead.

How would I use this: I could probably cobble something together and run this game if I poured the time and energy into it, sifting through the book and filtering out the elements needed to make the game work. But for the moment at least, I’ve been turned off by the writing style and deliberate obliqueness of the text. As such, I’m unlikely to run the game any time soon. I’d be perfectly happy to participate in someone else’s game, because I’m still curious to see if this works, though.

13th of December: Ashen Stars


Freelance Justice among the fading stars

Author/Designer: Robin D. Laws

From: The Bundle of GUMSHOE

Today I’m looking at Ashen Stars from the Bundle of GUMSHOE, a bundle that contains this game, the police procedural Mutant City Blues, and Ken Writes About Stuff and See Page XX, two series of articles by GUMSHOE designers, Robin D. Laws and Kenneth Hite. It was a toss-up between this and Mutant City Blues, but in the end, I decided to go with Space Opera over police procedural with super mutants. Ken Writes about Stuff and See Page XX was interesting as well, but I’m more interested in the cohesive systems, not least because I have yet to play any GUMSHOE.

GUMSHOE (for those who don’t know) is a system designed by Robin D. Laws to facilitate good investigative roleplaying. In GUMSHOE, a character will never have to roll to find important clues. If you have the right skills, you will find the relevant clues. This system has been implemented in a number of different ways. First in Laws’ Esoterrorists game, a game of occult investigation, and most famously in Kenneth Hite’s revamp of Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu.

Ashen Stars takes GUMSHOE to the stars, with a space opera setting reminiscent of Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Firefly. The game is deliberately set after the end of the galactic utopia, in a time of restoration after a great calamity. Ten years ago, a great war against a terrible enemy came to a close, and now the Combine of all the planets is licking its wounds and trying to rebuild.

This means that there is not enough resources to maintain control and safety in all the areas once under firm central control – notably the Bleed, the outer edge of the settled universe. Enter the Lasers – freelance lawmen and problem solvers. They travel in small groups from planet to planet, being hired to come solve crimes and deal with problems.

The role a character fulfils within a crew is used as a jumping off point for character creation. You have a Warpside role – like Pilot, Communications or systems – and a Groundside role – like Cultural, Operations and Survey. Each package will give you certain skills. You also get to pick out some skills on your own.

Of course, this being proper space opera, you also have to select your species, choosing from seven different options, including humans and the Cybes – humans who have been so heavily modified by cybernetics and genetics that they have turned into another species. The races are quite different, both in abilities and in their outlook and culture. The outlook is reflected mechanically in the drives available to each race. Drives are expressions of what drives each character, and each race apart from humans has a list of appropriate drives including one or more that only they can take.

Each player will also make a “personal arc” for their character. A personal goal centres around a special goal that the player wishes to accomplish, then adds details about what he wants to achieve. In this way, the players will each have something that can engage that player and throw spotlight on his character, just as each of them will be contributing something to the structure of the campaign.

Speaking of the campaign, the book gives a good overview of the main political realities of the Bleed. Then it provides the tools to create worlds, fraught with problems for the PC’s to deal with. The world creation guide is a very easy-to-follow process, where each step allows you to create interesting problems, and worlds to go with them. The game also has rules for creating and structuring the cases that the players will encounter in a given session. Again, the game provides a very well structured and easy-to-grasp guide.

It does seem that there is a certain overlap between creating worlds with problems and creating cases, and I am not entirely sure where the difference lies. In one, you create a world with a problem the players need to solve, in the other, you create a case for them to solve. The chapter on creating scenes gives a lot more detail, as it’s the chapter to actually tell you how to run the game.

My impression: I am actually quite impressed with this game. It looks like a very interesting and engaged take on an investigative game. It also sounds like it has a good spin on space opera, sufficiently in line with genre conventions to engage the fans, while different enough to feel different.

The alien races are more than just stats and outside description; instead, the descriptions are written from the point of view of each race, and gives a good introduction to how the races think, feel and act. This gives a lot of good input into playing members of each species.

The crew assignments seem like a good way to give players a leg-up into building characters, and also help ensure that the group has everything they need when the game starts. It also helps define the characters’ relationships to each other, without pegging them too much.

Finally, I really like the drive and personal arc. Drive gives you a good indication of what the character cares about, while the personal arc allows you to build a story into the game that is about something you care about, and something that is about you.

The chapters for the Game Moderator are also quite good. The rules for making worlds and cases help the GM make good stories that evoke the feel of the game, and make sure that there is enough interest for the players to engage with. The chapter on running the game also includes loads of good general advice on being a good GM, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to a relatively new GM, as long as they know something about Space Opera and investigation.

I have an idea for a Space Opera game using the Apocalypse Engine rattling around in my brain, which was par of why I wanted to look at this game here. But after reading it, I’m wondering if I might not want to take this game out for a spin sometime. It is also reminding me a lot of Star*Drive, and making me itch to take a look at that again.

How would I use this: If I ever wanted to host a game of investigation in space, I might definitely look here. Like I mentioned above, I have an old love for Alternity’s Star*Drive, but this is probably more accessible and less clunky mechanically. I might also well decide to use it if I ever teach adolescents about roleplaying – this is very accessible in both mechanics and theme, and so it might well be a good way to introduce them to investigation.

11th of December: Designers and Dragons

Designers and Dragons 2000s

The history of ten years of roleplaying history in one handy volume.

Author/Designer: Shannon Appelcline

From: Designers, Dragons and more

Designers & Dragons is a series of books on the history of roleplaying. Each book focuses on a decade, from the ‘70es to the ‘00s, and takes a look at the trends, companies and designers that were prominent in that time. I took a brief look at the ‘00s one, as that is when I’ve mostly been active, and because I’m most interested in some of the things happening in the Indie scene from the early ‘00s onwards.

The book is divided into eight parts, each focusing on a particular trend. A couple focus on D20 games, a couple focus on indie games and a couple focus on other trends in roleplaying. Each part contains chapters dealing with one of the publishing companies prominent within that part of the hobby.

For each company, the book gives a chronological overview of what happened to that company. The book goes into a good amount of detail, and also describes the important characteristics and innovations of prominent games in the company’s line.

Here and there, the book includes fact boxes, detailing minor developments or tangents to the main topic of that section. For instance, the section on D. Vincent Baker’s Lumpley Games includes an aside about Night Sky Games, which is run by Baker’s wife, Meguey Baker.

At the end of each chapter is a box of suggestions on what to read next, divided into related aspects from the same book, related aspects from other books, and related people present in other chapters of this or other books.

My impression: I will start off by saying that I did not read through all 458 pages of this book before making this review. I don’t think I ever would, either: there are some sections that just don’t interest me. For instance, I have never had any interest in Pathfinder, and I have no reason to read the section about the development of that brand.

On the other hand, the development of the Indie scene is a scattered and confused affair, and I am excited about the prospects of a tome giving a more-or-less coherent overview of that narrative. I am really impressed with the level of detail the author goes into, and I will look forward to when I’m able to spend more time delving into it in a bit further.

Having said that, I’m not sure I’m a fan of the “company” approach. Going through each company in turn transforms the history of the hobby into a number of more-or-lesss connected narratives about this or that person doing this or that at a given time. I would have liked a more coherent narrative. I would also have liked a look that focused a bit more on things outside of the publishing world. What about conventions, for instance – how did they change? What about the roleplaying media? Both aspects are mentioned here or there, but a run-through of the environment of the games’ creation could have been useful.

All in all, this is monumental work, and a very interesting one – if nothing else, then because it (to my knowledge) is the only work looking at the whole history of roleplaying. It’s for geeks, who have an understanding of the hobby as it is to day, but for those geeks, there is loads of interesting stuff here.

How would I use this: This is the kind of book that is interesting as background knowledge, while having almost no impact on the games you actually play. I want to read more, particularly about the development of Indie games, but also the development of GUMSHOE and the White Wolf line of games. Besides, it is fascinating to delve into the genealogy and legacy of many of the games that are at the centre of the hobby today.