Bandcamp find: Nim Quartet

As I’ve been playing more bass, I’ve been searching Bandcamp for more music that features it, and that puts me into the incredibly diverse and admittingly intimidating genre of jazz. I know I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what Bandcamp offers, but I’ve already found one small jazz group that with its debut album already has my ears perked: Nim Quartet.

What I really like about this album is that it’s very laid-back and open; “breathing room” may be a term thrown around way too often, but that’s exactly what this album is chock full of. Even with moments of an instrument taking center stage for a solo, I don’t feel like it’s overwhelming with everyone trying to play. That’s something I’ve noticed on a few other jazz albums I’ve listened to so far, and for me personally it’s not my jam. I’m really digging the sound Nim Quartet has going, and I look forward to future releases!

White Star RPG

Note: this review is for the older PWYW edition, not the newer and far larger Galaxy edition

Introduction

Similar to X-plorers (my review here), White Star is built upon Swords & Wizardry Whitebox. What does that mean exactly? In a nutshell, fewer rules, less confusion, fewer dice used (just d6 and d20), and a lot more improvisation and quick thinking required by both the GM and players. Upon a brief read, where would I place White Star compared to other sci-fi RPGs? It’s a bit rules-heavier than X-Plorers, but not by much. It has a far larger page-count (especially the Galaxy edition), but it is single-column 6″x9″ as well as having far more more material, classes, equipment, etc. than rules. It’s still quite a bit lighter than Stars Without Number (which also has fairly modular rules), and far lighter than Traveller, or anything larger and heavier (Eclipse Phase, Mindjammer, Shadowrun, and more).

On initial flip-through, White Star looks to be very easy both to read and reference. The default font is a little thin (fixed in the Galaxy edition), but the headers, sub-headers, tables, and asides all stand out (especially the asides, being white text on a dark gray background). The artwork is a bit sparse and small, but complements the game and doesn’t distract or try to overtake your attention (something far too many newer RPGs do).

Characters & Equipment

These two chapters deal with creating a character and preparing him or her for the game. In total it’s 22 pages, so not too long. Unlike the Galaxy edition, which includes all the optional classes, this edition has: Aristocrat, Mercenary, Pilot, and Star Knight. That last one is kinda a mix between a Jedi and a Magic-User, and in my games I wouldn’t use it at all. While the default race for characters in White Star is humans, there are a couple more options available, at the Referee’s discretion: Alien Brute, Alien Mystic (these I might allow very sparingly), and Robot.

Now it’s time to spend some of that initial money! We’ve got standard equipment such as clothing, med kits, and rations. For weapons there’s melee as well as missile/ranged weapons. Far too many games assume the use of guns all the time, whereas I would base at least many of my games around the players needing to grab an edged or club weapon at some point, whether due to lack of ammo, cost of ammo and maintenance, or such other circumstance which either prevented their use or strongly discourage their use (possibly detection of energy or even just the sound of firing).

Like Swords & Wizardry, White Star offers the option of either Descending or Ascending Armor Class. Urg. It’s time to let Descending go!

Rules & Combat

Like Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, White Star uses a single saving throw value. I have come to prefer this over the original 5-value system (strange-worded and overkill) and even the 3-value system (fairly logical, but still more complicated than needed). Everything else is fairly similar to other OSR games, including movement and hiring assistants. I like how for the latter it’s just one category, rather than separating hirelings, specialists, etc. Again, just another over-complication that’s not needed!

Combat is a very brief 6 pages, including a 1-page example. Initiative is either single- or group-based by GM preference. Again combat is pretty much the same as any other OSR RPG. Stick to ascending armor class to avoid having to look up table values. I do like seeing Morale included, and that it uses the saving throw value rather than another separate number. I must also note that I like the inclusion of several optional house rules, and I would personally include all of them.

Starships & Combat

This chapter was the one I was really looking forward to reviewing, as in my in-progress review of Stars Without Number starship combat is a bit more involved, and it’s taking my old grognard mind a bit to understand all of it. I think it’s a little confusing to have starship combat come before starship stats and listings, but as it’s not that many pages it’s not too big a deal.

White Star does note that for the most part starship combat functions the same as personal combat. In contrast to personal combat, I would probably go with individual initiative for all ships, except for perhaps fleets of similar ships in formation, such as a fighter squadron or command brigade. I find it interesting that a character’s Dexterity bonus is added to a ship’s weapon attack! I don’t know if I’d exactly run that as-is, but would perhaps consider that bonus as an equivalent to a Piloting and/or Weaponry skill. I am glad to see small stat-blocks for ships, as that makes it very easy to create custom ships. I like how for modifications the base cost is multiplied by the ship’s hit points; it’s very logical and one of those things that I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of! I would definitely include the optional house rule for immobilization, but not for pilot’s repair (as I don’t see a skilled pilot mean he or she knows anything about maintenance, repairs, etc.).

Gifts & Meditations

I skipped this chapter, as I don’t personally foresee using any of this in my science fiction games.

Aliens & Creatures

This is a somewhat-small chapter compared to other games, but it is more than what’s included in Stars Without Number, and the small stat-blocks again makes it easy to make up your own adversaries and allies. For the latter you’re more likely to use the first section, Aliens. The latter, Creatures, will certainly be gun and cannon fodder, although having one as a pet or such would always be an interesting twist.

Final Sections

White Star has a few remaining chapters, though I’m personally not likely to utilize them: Advanced Equipment, The White Star Campaign, Interstellar Civil War and Kelron Sector, and The Second Battle of Brinn. I do appreciate the inclusion of that adventure, however, and as always wish that ALL RPGs included one! After all of that is a 2-page character sheet (I would personally find or create a 1-page letter-sized sheet, maybe landscape-oriented). Finally is the OGL license page. While this game is based on Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, and therefore had to be released under the OGL, it was under no obligation to itself be released as Open Content. However, looking at the OGL page in White Star I see that besides the names, logos, artwork, etc. as well as Chapters 11 & 12, everything else is Open Content. This is a huge boon for White Star, and I have to take a shot at Stars Without Number for not even being released under the OGL at all! I comment White Star author James Spahn for releasing the game as Open Content, as this will ensure not only more material created for the game (either for free or purchase) but that the game can and will exist far into the future will possible support from anyone who wants to.

Conclusion

I went into White Star with a somewhat cautious stance. Leading up to and upon its release it was hyped up pretty hard (honestly over-hyped) on several well-known OSR blogs and other websites. However, upon flipping through and reading White Star I have to agree with most if not almost all of James’ design and rules decisions. With the release of the Galaxy Edition, James has made the original release and its Companion pay-want-you-want, not only for PDF but for print as well! Although I’m not likely to use a lot of what’s in the Companion (and therefore what’s included in the Galaxy edition), I will still highly likely purchase the Galaxy Edition to thank and support James’ work. I do also appreciate that the Galaxy edition is available in premium heavyweight in both a paperback and hardback version, as I much prefer the former. I think this game along with Star Wars D6 Re-Up has re-kindled my passion for science fiction gaming and urge to put together some adventures!

Game Engine Black Book

I found Fabien Sanglard’s site awhile ago while searching for information on Doom’s engine. While not extremely exhaustive, each short article on his site gives a nice informative look into several of id’s and other games to see what makes it tick. Well, apparently there was enough demand for him to dive in deeper, because now Fabien has released the Game Engine Black Book for Wolfenstein 3D. Unlike Game Programming Patterns, which I’ve previously posted about, don’t expect to follow along with much or most of this book unless you have some serious graphics and/or assembly language programming under your belt. Wolfenstein 3D was created at a time when there were severe restrictions on what a game could do, especially a 3D game. Through his previous experience and uncanny ability to grasp, learn, and create brilliant new things, John Carmack came up with a fast-performing engine that allowed id to create the most popular shooter of its time, at least until Doom came long.

In the book Fabien first takes a look at the hardware id had to work with at the time, including the Intel i286 and i386 processors, RAM limitations and 2 ways of trying to expand beyond it, video modes, and sound processing. Then a small section covers the asset creation for the game, and the personnel at id who worked on each. Finally Fabien dives into the Wolfenstein 3D source code, and this is definitely the meat of the book. He goes over the general architecture, the 2D and 3D renderers, audio and sound effects, and user input.

This was a fun read, but I’ll say at least 95% of it went over my head. The code in C I could roughly follow, as that’s the language I primarily learned. But there’s a LOT of assembly mixed in, and these days I don’t think even Rasberry Pi programmers deal with it; it’s that low-end (I think BIOS/UEFI and device drivers are the only things that use assembly). I would love to see further books from Fabien. Doom is an obvious choice, but I think something even further along would be great, whether that’s Quake or even Doom 3. I’d just like his analysis on code that I could roughly follow better, whether it’s C or C++.

Game Programming Patterns

I first learned of this book from author Robert Nystrom’s entry on the Uses This website (also featuring the greatest profile photo on that site, maybe ever!). The book can be found on its dedicated website, in a variety of electronic and print versions, as well as being able to read online for free. I must applaud Robert for that latter option, as it’s a great way to know for sure the book covers what you want to learn before buying a paper copy (which for me is still superior for longer reading sessions as well as reference).

Since it’s available to look through online I won’t go through all the chapters or such. I will just say that as a still-novice programmer much of the details went over my head, but I did understand the general concepts Robert was talking about. His hand-drawn diagrams are also perfect and wish all programming books utilized that style!

While you will still need other books to start to learn programming, both in general and for games, I think this book is worth picking up at least at the intermediate level to begin learning about some general concepts as well as learned lessons from others to incorporate into your own work.

BBC’s And Then There Were None

I’ve already written about the fact that And Then There Were None is my favorite mystery, and probably novel, of all time. It’s a perfect mystery without the added ending, and the amount of suspense and terror coming up to the end is almost too much. Recently I was browsing on Amazon and was surprised to discover that the BBC had adapted the novel to a 3-episode miniseries. While my expectations were sky-high, I went ahead and ordered it since the reviews all seemed to be pretty good (I didn’t read them, as I didn’t want to be spoilered by what changes may have been made in the adaptation).

The first impression when I started to watch this is the incredible music by Stuart Earl; the cello and other instruments engulf the viewer and like the mansion on the island seem to be an inescapable trap, in turns caressed and pummeled like the the waves of water as the weather worsens. Unlike the book, in the miniseries the backgrounds of the characters are brought up throughout the show in a more prominent manner. It’s an interesting change and I don’t mind it, but it does cause the beginning of the miniseries to be a bit confusing as to what’s actually happening at the present time.

Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, the caretakers, also share some screen-time, and unlike the book their relationship is shown to be much more precarious, culminating in Mr. Jones even striking his wife. The rest of the characters follow their book counterpoints for the most part. Some of the characters, notably Dr. Armstrong, are a bit over-dramatic and amped up for the screen, but I guess that’s not really surprising these days. I also pictured Justice Wargrave as being shorter and heavier. The house itself is a wonderful feature, and pretty close to what I had always pictured. I did always envision a full wrap-around balcony both on the ground and second floor.

While I mention that I pictured Justice Wargrave differently, I must say the casting of Charles Dance was perfect (if you’ve never watched Game of Thrones, he’s fantastic as Tywin Lannister!), especially in the last scene of the third episode here. His reasoning and underlying sinister behavior just makes everything that much more unsettling. The other actors are also excellent, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Sam Neill as General MacArthur.

Overall while I was happy to see a miniseries from the BBC, I do wish it was a little bit longer. I have no doubt this 3-episode miniseries handled the source material better than a movie could, but there’s no doubt the book spends more time between each murder; that helps the suspense and unease grow, as well as prolonging the mystery of what’s going on inside the house and on the island. I do remember reading the book that more time was also spent with several pairs or groups searching the island, as well as taking time to talk at either the dining table or in the lounge room; almost all of that is skipped in the miniseries. I think going to 5 or 6 episodes could have easily been done, even if more time was also used for the characters’ backstories and such.