Review: Spectral

Spectral is a 2016 Military Science Fiction & Action movie released by Netflix.  The premise is US special forces have been getting picked off by an insubstantial creature that can only be seen on their new night vision goggles- the designer of said goggles gets called in to help figure out what is going on, and things develop in standard action-movie fashion that if not ground-breaking is not stale or too predictable.

The plot is not noteworthy but serves ably as a vehicle for some impressive visuals and well shot action sequences.  The pacing is flawless, it never feels like this movie is wasting your time.  There is a fair bit of exposition dump but the movie goes to great lengths to keep it brief and have things moving quickly afterwards.  Character development doesn’t really happen but the acting is good and the characters have enough personality to engage you with the movie.

The science is mostly technobabble but with a thicker veneer of plausibility than usual, and the film is at least internally consistent- solutions are foreshadowed in a satisfying way even if they aren’t very well grounded in actual science.  Spectral has no aspirations to complex plots of motivations and instead devotes its energy to good cinematography, actions scenes, and a fresh monster concept.  The setting is very reminiscent of recent shooter games- bombed out industrial spaces in a ruined city, but the movie does a good job making it feel eerie in a way a lot of games can’t.  It’s not a horror film but it has elements of one in the beginning, giving the movie some good flavor.

It’s nice to have a fun movie without any of the baggage attached to most theater releases these days- no complex franchise to be familiar with or an add campaign that spoils the major plot points and cost more than making the thing did.  It can just be a popcorn movie, and not compromise itself as a unit like Suicide Squad.  And that is what Spectral is, a well executed popcorn movie.  It isn’t going to win any Oscars but it is entertaining, well paced and works well as a stand alone unit.

No time is wasted teasing a sequel, all the effort in this production is simply put into making the movie good.  I have avoided spoilers in this review because in a movie market overrun with sequels and remakes Spectral retains an ability to surprise.  There’s no “What a twist!” moment from the blue but the start of the movie leaves you genuinely unsure of the creature’s origin or exactly how things will develop, and since it’s not obviously borrowing from a prequel or another film you don’t know the script going in.

Rossatron(minor spoilers in link) makes some good points in his review, though in my opinion he is a bit harsh on the movie itself.  It’s fresh but doesn’t have enough spectacle, intricate plot, or franchise investment to justify a theatrical release, but fewer and fewer movies are hitting that bar these days.  I was disappointed in Under the Dog after the hype and the cost of the Kickstarter, but it was an entertaining short film.  Spectral is better and doesn’t have any of the baggage.

TL,DR; A standard but well executed action movie with some good military science fiction flavor, give it a watch if you have Netflix and have any interest in action movies.

Review: The Sprawl

The Sprawl  by Hamish Cameron is my favorite RPG and a Powered by the Apocalypse System like Dungeon World and Monster of the Week, focused on cyberpunk missions and heists.  While the basic mechanics and moves are familiar, there is more focus on the meta game – for example players have access to moves that allow retroactive decisions and focus heavily on meta mechanics like threat and mission clocks – and the game is significantly more lethal.  My campaign in The Sprawl is the first time I’ve had player deaths that were not directly the result of friendly fire.

As a PbTA game, the familiar 2d6 dice mechanic to resolve all rolls returns- 10+ is an unqualified success, 7-9 is success with a complication, and on a 6- the Game Master makes a move.  There is an emphasis on partial success and “failing forward” that keeps every mission fast-paced and uncertain.  Players take on the roll of skilled agents in a cyberpunk dystopia, pursuing their profit and ideologies via social manipulation, stealth, and violence on the backdrop of a high-tech world dominated by corporations and a decaying society.

What stuck out to me about The Sprawl, perhaps because the genre is close to the original Apocalypse World, is how everything in the game fits together so well.  All the mechanics work well together and are inter-related, referencing each other- nothing feels unnecessary.

In contrast, the Dungeons and Dragons mechanics in Dungeon World, while part of its charm, don’t quite feel like they belong.  The multi-page spell lists feel exceptionally clunky in a game engine where most characters run off their character sheet and the basic moves, no other references needed.  Monster of the Week’s mysteries, which must at some level be scripted, frequently clash with the improvisational nature of PbtA games.  This may be my perspective – if you’ve read my Monster of the Week review you’ll know my group wasn’t really buying into the whole mystery thing.

And that is the great strength of The Sprawl, is that its unit, the mission – which is for it what dungeons are for DnD and Dungeon World, and mysteries for Monster of the Week – is so robust to players trying to burn it down.  It provides structure while being flexible to the group’s desires.  A mission can be a smoothly executed spy operation straight out of Burn Notice, a mission to avoid the mission, or a bloody dumpster fire like Reservoir Dogs, and the game still feels like it is running smoothly and as intended.  The mission structure works without being on rails, this Let’s Play has a good example of how flexible things are- the party cobbles together a job for itself rather than getting one from a corporation.

The system has to be robust- players have access to a lot of firepower, both narratively and mechanically.  Tanks, helicopters with missile launchers, large gangs, control of corporate security systems, infiltration secure locations off a single roll, retroactively chosen gear and information- all of these things are available without a level up and a smart group will tear apart planned opposition.  Game Masters should be prepared to raise the stakes and players should know the system is high powered and relatively lethal for NPCs and PCs alike.  Like all PbTA games, the players have a great deal of agency in shaping the story, down to picking the corporations that shape the tone and feeling of the campaign world.

Meta – gaming is supposed to be a dirty word, but I found the ways it is incorporated into The Sprawl made for a better game play experience, at least for my group.  The mission and corporation clocks are counters that tell how close the party is to blowing a mission and inviting retribution from the all-powerful corporations, respectively.  I found they give both the players and GM a clear idea of what was happening, make it easy to run a session with little to no prep and are highly responsive to player actions.  It makes expectations for the length of a session and its difficulty clear from the get go.  The Gear and Intel mechanics, which are currencies that can be spent to have an item or piece of information retroactively, makes bookkeeping simple and lets the characters be competent without combing through an equipment list before every mission.

In contrast to Dungeon World and Monster of the Week, the moves give a great deal of structure and good cues to the GM.  Outcomes of 7-9 rolls are listed instead of the Game Master being forced to improvise repeatedly, weapon tags are clearly defined, and clear limits are set out for NPC help and equipment.  Flexibility is the great strength of PbtA games, and The Sprawl strikes a good balance between clear rules and leaving room to maneuver.

Basing experience on mission success rather than failed roles along with the high lethality change the tenor of the game, creating a focus on playing more carefully than in Dungeon World and MoTW where easy access to magic healing, luck points, and experience awarded for failed rolls encourage taking risks.

It’s not all perfect – for instance, rules on how to keep track of damage to vehicles are non-existent, but it’s a small point to improvise on.  The one great flaw of the Sprawl is rules for the Hacker, which is not just a class but also a clunky Matrix subsystem dealing with the structure of computer networks.  Obviously the Hacker has to be in a cyberpunk game, but in trying to capture the hacking sequences from Neuromancer, Cameron has bolted on an unintuitive subgame that excludes everyone but the Hacker, forcing awkward switch-offs and makes DW’s spellcasting seem perfectly integrated.

Compared to the elegance of the rest of the system, it feels like it was inserted by another person at the printers.  The Flake from Monster of the Week is an example of how to handle this better- the  Netfriends move gives hold that can be spent for information from consulting online allies.  The Hacker needs a little more flavor than that but the Matrix rules sheet is longer than the basic moves; it’s in need of downsizing.  I would recommend not using the Hacker playbook or the Matrix unless you rework it, compressing the Matrix moves into a few Hacker moves- something like the optional conduct operation rules which abstract a lot of setup.

TL,DR: If you like cyberpunk, heists, PbtA games, or fast paced urban games pick this elegantly simple game up.  Image from my copy of The Sprawl, source & purchase link at the start of the article and here, and my thoughts on some actual play here.

Review: Hammer’s Slammers

The Hammer’s Slammers series is a collection of military science fiction short stories, novels and novellas by David Drake, following the exploits of an interplanetary mercenary company through a string of planets torn apart by war.

Looking back on my reviews of the Royal Cinnabar Navy and Lord of the Isles series, it is easy to see the common influences on Drake, and that the flaws in his other works can be traced back to trying to recapture what makes the Hammer’s Slammers so special out of context.  The planets, most with rice patties, jungles, and unreliable local forces will be familiar to anyone who has read the RCN or Lord of the Isles series’, and a clearly influenced by Drake’s service in Vietnam.

Like the Royal Cinnabar Navy, the Slammers’ usually win, but the stories lack the air of smugness that is part of the pulpier RCN series.  Victories come at high cost in both casualties and moral compromise, and the Slammers are forced to work with the unreliable locals with disastrous consequences for both, instead of simply sneering down from orbit.  It doesn’t feel like the assured victory of the RCN series, with fresh and short plots working with the rotating cast of characters to keep the reader guessing.  The stories are focused on ground combat and campaigning, which Drake handles much better than orbital combat.

This is due to the clear inspiration from the Vietnam war- the on the ground perspective gives the Hammer’s Slammers an authenticity that Drake’s later work lacks, but also a dark rawness.  It does not go as far as Drake’s best work, Redliners, which deals mainly with the psychological effects of war, but this psychological trauma is one of the main themes of Hammer’s Slammers, and sharply contrasts with the cleanliness of the Honor Harrington series and other more sanitary works, without being grimdark or violence for its own sake.

Characters come and go, often appearing only in a single story or novella, which keeps things fresh and interesting since Drake does not so much develop characters as slowly reveal them.  The characters who are repeated- Colonel Hammer, Major Steubin, Daniel Pritchard- appear briefly or on the periphery.  We never get to know them that well, so they never become predictable in contrast to Drake’s longer works.  The main cast is usually there just long enough to get to know them, and then the story is over.  Paying the Piper, the longest novel in the series, goes on for a bit too long in my opinion, but otherwise the stories are tight- saying everything they need to in a brief but complete arc.

World building in the Slammers is excellent and handled in a similar manner to the characters, brief flashes in each story slowly painting a cohesive picture without bogging down the flow of the individual stories.  Hammer’s Slammers is a fun read and interesting read with something to say about society; it’s good science fiction.

TL,DR- The series that helped spawn the military sci-fi genre remains one of its best works.  If you have not read it yet, do so.  Link to the first volume of the collection I read and image source; a smaller collection called The Tank Lords is also available for free at most major online retailers via the Baen Free Library.

The Sprawl: A Cyberpunk Gametale

I’ve been working on a review for the Powered by the Apocalypse game The Sprawl, and while that is in the works I thought I would post a recording of one of my sessions.  It’s one of the best ways to understand how a system works.

In a nutshell, The Sprawl handles spontaneous, episodic sessions very well- it’s ideal if not everyone can make it to every session or you need to get rolling without a lot of prep.  It runs cyberpunk tabletop gaming well in a system that is a lot easier to pick up that Shadowrun.  Sadly I haven’t found or had a chance to try anything as elegant for space opera.  This is one of my favorite if not my favorite system – if you are interested, I suggest you give it a listen or take a look at one of Eric Vulgaris’ let’s plays.

Review: Monster of the Week

Monster of the Week is a Powered by the Apocalypse (or PbtA) tabletop gaming system by Michael Sands in which players tell a collaborative story about monster hunters, a la Supernatural or the Dresden Files.  This is the same engine used in Dungeon World , so the basic mechanics are similar, though Monster of the Week rejects the classes and combat of Dungeons and Dragons while Dungeon World borrows heavily from it. For example damage rolls, full attribute scores and inventories are not present, favoring the simplicity of most PbtA games.  Everything you need is included in the single book for the system, and character sheets with included instructions for making a character are both in the book and easily available online.

All rolls are decided using 2d6, with 10+ being a pure success, 7-9 being a success with a complication or cost, and 6- being a failure where the Game Master – or Keeper as they are called in the book – makes a move.  Fighting is treated as another skill check with the Kick Some Ass move, which sacrifices some combat detail for streamlining and making playbooks – classes in PbtA – that aren’t combat focused viable.  Investigation and protecting bystanders are both important enough to have one of the 8 basic moves devoted to them, with a bevy of playbook moves also focused on protecting, investigation, and finding or bypassing the monster’s weakness.  The monster mystery genre is baked into this system.   Adapting this system to other genres is unlikely to work unless there is a reason for mysteries, monsters, and some analogue to a magic system- the game rules assume the presence of all three and are built around it.

Combat is portrayed as fast and lethal- but in practice the hunters are fairly beefy; the only deaths in the campaign I ran were when the characters turned on each other.  Players always take damage when fighting and die when they run out of hit points, no save, though they have a limited number of “get out of jail free cards” in luck points.  However this danger may be eliminated by some game breaking move combinations, especially from the Monstrous playbook- it does not fit the overall tone or power level of the game very well, and I had a very hard time balancing encounters involving it.  I would recommend banning the Monstrous playbook if you are running the game.

In contrast to Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeon World, Monster of the Week offers detailed instructions on setting up individual sessions, a notable improvement that should make this game runnable even by someone who has never played it before.  The Sprawl’s planing system is even easier to use but MoTW’s suggested planning gives a more complete map of what could happen in the session.

However, it is necessary since the mystery format of MoTW involves a great deal more preparation than Dungeon World or other games, where the dungeon structure can simplify preparation greatly.  The mystery structure forces a certain amount of rail roading- the players only have agency within the confines of solving the mystery, or the system breaks down; if your players do not like structure this may be a problem.  Additionally the “Use Magic” move is the most open ended move in any of the PbtA systems- it needs some attention from the GM both to keep things balanced and to prevent players from getting lost in the endless possibilities.

If you do the prep, 30 minutes on average for me, or use a premade mystery from the book or online, the mystery flows well.  There’s time for investigation, social scenes and several fights in a 3 hour session.  A 2 hour session is possible but will require the Keeper to manage time carefully and keep things moving.  I liked running the system a great deal and it reproduced the balance of investigation and fighting while trying to keep the public from catching on you would expect from a monster TV show or an urban fantasy novel in an exciting fashion, feeling true to the genre without being bogged down into mechanics.

Where I ran into trouble was a clash of expectations.  Monster of the Week needs more player buy in into the genre than a swords and sorcery game or something else less plot focused.  My group essentially had two factions, the people trying to solve the mystery and a team of black ops murder hobos.  Since some playbooks trade combat effectiveness for investigation the clash was more serious than in Dungeon World or Dungeons and Dragons where all classes are built and have tools for traditional dungeon delving and adventuring.  When violence became the default solution to problems the investigation team felt left out, and the murder hobos felt bored during the investigations.

This management of expectations is always important but is much more so in Monster of the Week where investigation is the meat of the genre.  I should have been more aggressive in getting the group on the same page; the book recommends banning certain classes to give a campaign a certain feel.  Coming from a Dungeons and Dragons background this felt strange and I didn’t do it, which was a mistake.  I’m not saying some playbooks can’t coexist, but the players have cooperate to make it happen – tell this to your group and if you think it isn’t likely, restrict the playbooks to keep everyone on the same page.  Obviously the Keeper can create different challenges for different players but if the Monstrous shape shifts during an attempted social encounter or a hunter assaults a journalist trying to interview them its hard to stop things from devolving into combat without breaking immersion.

Dungeon World’s quick leveling is present here as well – experience gain is slower but requirements do not increase as the players level, so campaigns must be planned to be short to keep challenges from being trivialized; that or forced retirement of characters.  I ran a 10 session campaign and all the characters were into their advanced moves despite lots of absences.

While Monster of the Week is quick and flexible compared to Dungeons & Dragons and other crunchier systems, it feels very slow compared to other PbtA games.  I have played and prefer Dungeon World and The Sprawl to Monster of the Week, though it may simply be that the genre wasn’t what my group and I were looking for.  It is a good system so if monster hunting seems like something you would like, give it a try.

TL,DR; A fast, streamlined, and easy system- pick it up if you like the monster mystery/hunting genre.

Purchase page and image source are linked at the start of the article.

Review: Under the Dog

Under the Dog is a science fiction anime OVA about government conspiracies and experimentation gone wrong.  It channels a mixture of Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell, both in the art design and the world, including a shady pseudo-governmental organization that uses teenagers as its operatives for reasons that remain unclear.  Episode 0 was just released following a 2 year production period after the Kickstarter, with no future episodes planned.

The production values were good but not gorgeous like the first few episodes of Evangelion, or what you would expect from a movie.  Avoiding spoilers, the episode’s plot surprised me.  Under the Dog plays with the “chosen hero” and “government conspiracy” tropes in a way that feels fresh.  The ending leaves an opening for a series but stands well enough on its own, feeling a great deal like a classic science fiction short story- briefly exploring the consequences of a theoretical technology on people’s lives and society as a whole, with disturbing implications.

The acting had its moments, though the subtitles in some scenes give the usual feeling that there is a subtext that has been lost in translation.  Some character speak only in English, with the quality of acting varying wildly.  The fight choreography is good, better than what you would expect from a series, though not as good as Darker than Black or the trailer for Under the Dog.

Character development and world building are both excellent, showing rather than telling what is happening, and paint a rich yet fleeting picture of the world without an exposition dump. Under the Dog Episode 0 is well constructed with good animation and a fresh plot and if there were later episodes I would watch them based on the strength of the first.

Yet as a Kickstarter backer, it feels like a raw deal.  The single episode produced is good,  but for $25 and a two year wait I was hoping for more than 28 minutes.  This is probably a failure to manage expectations on my part, but to people uninvolved with the Kickstarter I would not recommend paying $25; wait for it to hit a streaming service or go to retail.  My disappointment is with the Kickstarter process, which was expensive, long, and created inflated expectations, rather than Under the Dog itself.

Under the Dog stands well on its own, telling a satisfying story in a skillful way that could be continued but doesn’t feel like it has to be either. The main complaint being there isn’t enough of it speaks well about the quality.  It works as a unit and I want to see more of it not because it ended on a cliffhanger, but because it is well done and interesting.

TL,DR; Under the Dog is good and worth keeping an eye on in the future if the series is picked up, especially if you like classic dark science fiction.  Don’t back Kickstarter projects.

Review- Dune: House Atreides

Dune: House Atreides is the first of the Prelude to Dune Series, a trilogy of prequel novels set in the Dune Universe about the origins of the characters from House Atreides, Harkonnen and Corrino in the original novels, by co-written Frank Herbert’s son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.  The sequels will be discussed briefly as well, while avoiding spoilers.

It is a challenge to write prequels and make them fit, and House Atreides and the rest of its trilogy do not meet it.  The characters I knew from Dune seem like strangers, the entire tone of the trilogy is heavy handed and feels off from the subtleties and moral complexities of the original book, and it is implausible that the events of the trilogy would not be referenced in the later books.  I understand the difficulty in weaving the vague hints given in Dune about the past into an entertaining prequel, and none of these things would be a deal breaker if House Atreides were not in the Dune series, inviting unfavorable comparisons with the original novel.

While we are given more time with some interesting characters that we saw too little of in Dune, the characterization feels off, contributing to a sense that the tone of House Atreides and its sequels doesn’t fit with the rest of the series.  In some cases this is understandable- Duncan Idaho and Leto Atreides are children and have not yet become who they are in Dune.  Yet the Old Duke, who is described as a hard and stern man in Dune, is instead a genial man of the people.  The Harkonnens and Emperor Shaddam  are reduced to caricatures, committing atrocities for their own sake or out of sheer stupidity. Even where the differences in how the characters act are plausible, it robs House Atreides of the interesting character interactions that were so important to Dune.

Dune was a novel about showing rather than telling- the world is introduced in fleeting references and the actions of the characters, slowly and tantalizingly painting a picture of the world in which the novel is set.  Herbert and Anderson instead far too often choose to tell us about the world in House Atreides instead of letting it speak for itself- too much information from the narrator and not enough from character dialogue and actions.

The dialogue is much less tight- Dune features tense conversations where life hangs on the possible interpretation of every word, such as the hunt for the traitor in the Atreides compound and the internal intrigues on Geidi prime.  House Atreides never reaches the same level of attention, and some of the early conversations are especially bad, with characters vomiting exposition at each other instead of having a conversation.  In particular the scene between the Emperor and Pardot Kynes in one of the first chapters   made me cringe and I almost stopped reading the book.  The structure of the dialogue is butchered to introduce the world and Pardot Kynes’ mission to the reader; Kynes’ lines are obviously a pretext to get exposition on the page and Emperor Eldrood harps on how he hates the falseness of the court, a sentiment that is never mentioned or shown again.  The rest of the opening scenes are not much better.

Contributing to the off characterization is this is a novel in the Dune series without much Dune.  Frank Herbert embedded reasons in the setting for technology to be unusable with purpose- it puts the focus on the human elements of the story and gives an interesting contrast to the setting, with spaceships and battles with bladed weapons plausibly coexisting.  Moving away from the planet Dune undermines these strengths, and the machine planet of Ix in particular does not seem like something that should exist in the Dune Universe, where religion is based on a crusade against machines.

Things improve marginally in House Harkonnen and the trilogy finally finds it feet at the end of House Corrino, but it’s too late at that point.  The ending of the trilogy was good but if I had known what it would take to get there I would not have purchased House Atreides or its sequels.  It is not clear for whom this book is written- the Dune chapters have little interaction with the rest of the story and thus will not be meaningful for first time readers, but House Atreides and it sequels clash with both the tone and continuity of the previous books.  We discover that characters from Dune had children, long lost friends, and familial ties with each other that are never mentioned in Dune- it stretches plausibility and ultimately many of the gaps filled in by the prequels were more interesting as mysteries.  The original Dune portrayed a harsh world that raised uncomfortable questions- would you break down your dead for their water?  Are you willing to change yourself into something worse to win?  The prequel trilogy attempts to outdo Dune with planetary genocide, and torture; it feels like its trying too hard and doesn’t have the same impact.

If Dune had never been written House Atreides would have been the first entry in a decent pulp science fiction trilogy.  Indeed, this book is more enjoyable if you have never read Dune- the exposition dump won’t be as glaring since its new information, and the continuity errors will be invisible.  Everything taken together- the differences in tone, the small continuity errors, a pulpy writing style- create a book that is not bad but feels out of step with the original novel; I wasn’t able to enjoy it.  Maybe I’m being too hard on House Atreides, maybe it wasn’t meant to channel the same feelings as original, and I’m picking too hard at the continuity, but Dune is the dominant word on the cover, larger than the title, and House Atreides does not deliver on the promise implicit in that word.

TL,DR:  A passable pulp science fiction novel that doesn’t really fit with the series it is set in.  Your time is probably better spent on other books, unless you are a fan of Brian Herbert or Kevin Anderson’s works.