T.I.M.E. Stories: the White Cycle

“La boîte de base est nécessaire pour jouer chacun de ces scénarios, qui peuvent être joués dans l’ordre que vous souhaitez”. This is straight from Space Cowboys’s website. Thank you SC… if only you had made it clear that the game actually contained an evolving mythology we would have enjoyed it more.

We started playing the Italian version of T.I.M.E. Stories in late 2017. The choice of modules was more limited but wide enough for us to play the scenarios in order of publication… if only we had done that!  At the time I guess that the White Cycle wasn’t really a cycle yet or at least its existence wasn’t apparent. 

Asylum was the first, but that’s a given. Then we played The Marcy Case… and I hated it! (zombies as a narrative device are really not my cup of tea and this might have influenced my enjoyment of the scenario). As a consequence, and I have to admit at my insistence, we lined up the subsequent scenarios based on appeal, rather than order of publication.

*** spoiler alert ***

*** HEAVY spoiler alert ***

So we skipped A prophecy of dragons and dove into Under the Mask (because the fantasy hook sounded out of place and I really like Egyptian stuff)… and right away we felt like something was amiss: that (“double”) agent stuck in time, the things he/they say, we clearly didn’t know who the Syaans were! Guess what?! They were introduced in Prophecy,  along with all the other major players in the story: Elois and the Consortium. Not having played that, we brainstormed a little bit coming up with a few theories and marched on… and skipped Expedition Endurance to play Lumen Fidei… Because, hey, I LOVE the crusades!

Let’s just say that playing Lumen having missed all the previous stuff was a little puzzling. Here all the clues left in the previous scenarios really start to come into play and the ending of the story is all about choosing a side and, as a consequence, your take on future stories. The various NPCs (and vessels that you can inhabit) represent the three factions: Michel D’Ailly is The Agency (created and controlled by The Consortium), Yasmina Wa Khalaqa is Saayan and Saul Kalhula is Elois

As a side note, I think that the online expansions (the logs, the debriefings) are a really cool was to complement a physical tabletop game with digital elements (and the leaflet under the lining of the box is genius!). 

At this point we realised we had to go back and fill in the blanks. We played Prophecy which, as I thought, was bad (4th ed. D&D anyone?!), extremely mechanical, inevitably grindy and repetitive. But it integrated Lumen and helped paint a clearer picture of the ethical construct of the story: the Elois seem to be the real bad guys (they are the ones who stole the time-traveling technology from the Syaans) and they are trying to change reality (or returning it to its natural state of chaos) by manipulating the various timelines. The Syaans are some kind of benevolent but highly enigmatic force, trying to do the same thing we are but for different reasons. They have this “grand plan started well before the Consortium’s” and have a machiavellian approach to it (the scenario Under the Mask pits us right against them). The Consortium seems to be in the middle of this, neither inherently bad (they created the Agency to guard the timelines, didn’t they?!) nor entirely wholesome (very early in the saga we understand that, through us agents, they are “extracting” stuff from the space-time continuum, the cubes, the stones and even people  – Marcy!). The question is… why? I think that a particular word, used by Saul at the end of Lumen, might be revealing: according to him we (the Consortium/Agency) are “post-humans”. And what could the needs of post-humans dictate? 

With all this in mind we played Expedition Endurance… which didn’t really add anything to the mythos. Well, there was an encounter (location 666) which contained some references to future scenarios (Lumen Fidei), to conditions that should be met in the future (“collect 9 cubes“) and, more interestingly, to the very nature of us time-agents (“You don’t live… only the Syaans can release you”)… are we really humans?! Are we really alive?!

And then came Estrella Drive. I had BIG expectations: the 1980s, Hollywood, cinema. Unfortunately it was disappointing. Obviously inspired by real-life events (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… Ah, the synchronicities!) but without any “commentary” on it, not much trace of the 1980s, somewhat unnecessarily gruesome. Not much in the way of connections with the mythology apart from a couple of in-passing references to established lore. The structure wasn’t bad but the characters felt flat and neglected. Furthermore the story lacked in role-play hooks… or did it?! To be completely honest, at this point I felt like our approach to the game had changed. When the stories worked (like with Asylum) role-playing came naturally but when they faltered we would fall back on this “optimisation mode” where everything would be reduced to strategising about routes, objects to take, encounters to tap and numbers to roll. Very drab. And it invariably felt like wasted potential.

One final cause of disappointment was visiting the website (www.thetimeagency.net) and finding out that the section relative to Estrella contained nothing (the section was probably planned, there is an icon for it, but no related pages). Shame.

But with Brotherhood of the Coast came a much needed advancement of the overarching plot (I understand, it’s like a tv series… standalone, mythology, standalone…). A very long scenario (it took two sessions and four jumps to finish it), well written and entertaining, it dwelt deep into the lore and finally gave us some answers regarding the relationship between us, the Agency, the Syaans and the Elois; although the revelations only come if you do specific things or rather if you follow a specific… creed! And that’s where I found  the real strength of the scenario. Finally a story where what has happened, or may have happened, in the previous stories totally affects the scenario and, most of all, the way you play it. The choice you made in Lumen influences what you do here. Obviously it totally depends on the player’s sensibility. You might choose to ignore what has gone before and play it “like you should” or consciously follow that diverging thread and stick to your new found ethos. And the scenario rewards you for it. There are two types of successes, “mission complete” and “critical mission complete”, and it’s in the latter that the revelations start coming (mostly in the form of extra dialogue and a secret archive entry at www.thetimeagency.net). Obviously you might just decide to “diverge” here and/or you might not have played Lumen but if you have and you chose to do it then there is a nice feeling of narrative continuity and accomplishment that you get at the end. it’s not just the extra tokens, it’s really a good story.

Needless to say the hopes for Madame where pretty high… and it was pretty of  disappointing. The scenario itself was really long, tedious at times and somewhat frustrating. But the way they had planned it, that was kind of inevitable. How can you tell the story of what is happening in the  “present” unless you force the player to fail again and again? Collecting characters was fun… unless you end up like us and collect the one that will unlock the end of the story for last! I think we went in something like 26 times, and we even had time bonuses. 
But the end of the story and the cycle were the real problem. Obviously a big cliffhanger, coherent but maybe too light on its feet (it felt like the end of Back to the Future part 2!). But I loved the way they made Bob the sacrificial lamb of the Revolution. The war is on and Bob is the first victim. The agency, and the “order” it represents, kind of dies with him. And to us is left the quest of honoring that and, in the case of us Saayans sympathizers, to go beyond that. 

Gnocchi w/ fresh tomato sauce

It’s summer. Straight from my vegetable garden (semi-destroyed by the recent floods) I got my own tomatoes… taste like the sun. Some fresh gnocchi to go and we are in business. The only problem is I ate all of them… in one sitting. 

You need some good olive oil, a little garlic, baby onions. Brown. Add the chopped tomatoes and cook until they start turning mushy and the juice blends with the oil (1). Turn off the heat and add some fresh basil (chopped). Add the cooked gnocchi and sauté (2). Serve (3). If you like cheese on your pasta I suggest grated goat cheese. 

Stories Untold

The other day I spent a couple of hours playing this little game called Stories Untold. It wasn’t half bad.

S.U. is one of those games that leans heavily on the nostalgia factor. Look at the poster (designed by Stranger things artist Kyle Lambert… no one would have EVER guessed that!), it’s pure 1980s modern antiques. And I don’t mean this in a negative way. Obviously it’s a dish best served to those who have actually tasted the original thing. I actually had a tv like that and a computer like that and played textual adventures like the one at the core of the tale. It’s the 30-year cycle (some say it’s 20 or 40 but hey, let’s not argue sociology here)… I’ve always liked that period of my life but now you get the feeling that, finally, everyone is getting it; now we are all big on the 1980s, shoulder pads and all! 

The game consists of four chapters, the first three apparently isolated but ending up connected through the fourth. The story isn’t actually as clever as it wants to be, albeit clever enough for younger people who probably haven’t played/read/watched as many stories as someone my age has. Nevertheless the execution does have exceptional charms. The aesthetics, the sounds, the music are a labour of love. And most importantly the gaming itself. The four chapters are four distinct gameplay experiences, you get to do different things in each of them. It’s a mix of text-based adventure, practical simulation (the second chapter reminded me of oldies like Life or Death), walking simulator, and more. 

It’s cheap, short and sweetly creepy, definitely time well spent.

2019 July roundup! My favourites (part 3)

And finally we get back to more familiar grounds, England, to delve into the elegantly ethereal and intimately sensual world of miss Rosie Lowe. Just look at the cover…

She is SO British. The damp dress, the look that you don’t get to see but you know is staring right back at you, poised, fierce. And her music is just like that, tough, personal yet capable of creating a great emphatic bond, to communicate feelings, emotions.

Take Lifeline, the very first song from her second album YU. It has got these swooping yet chopped synth stabs (very “Hypna”, if it was ever a thing), her voice unflinching yet with a vulnerability you can hear at the end of each line. And the delay and the vocoder come and go as if they wanted to mimic the faltering conviction of each statement… “it could all be so simple…. but.”. She is scary, she is asking herself, as well as us, “why… you?!” (…YU). And the whole album is about YU. The songwriting is gorgeous and the production is stellar. She goes from the funk/pop of The way (great rhythm parts all over, just like in the previous Control, kick drums you just can’t listen to with earphones) to the dirty R&B of Birdsong (which to me sounds like 90’s Prince, with the sultry male choirs of songs like Emale… but she was probably more inspired by D’Angelo’s Voodoo!). And in between you have all these moody yet chirpy pop songs that make you feel all serious only to make fun of you for feeling that way (“You’re so lovely, but you’re dehydrated. May be a genius, but you’re not hydrated”).

I may not be a genius, but she is. Best served in a dark room (or a garden on a summer night) with a side of, very, large speakers. 

2019 July roundup! My favourites (part 2)

After Austria we go to Japan and my second favourite j-pop (?!?) band right now: ポルカドットスティングレイ (Polkadot Stingray)!

What would you get if you crossed LADYBABY with Red Hot Chili Peppers?! To me, Polkadot Stingray is kawaii funk/rock, noisy but catchy, rowdy but elegant. They are young but technically very proficient, great rhythm section, great guitar playing (just like my 一番好きなバンド, ゲスの極み乙女 [Gesu No Kiwami Otome]).

Their second album is called 有頂天 (uchoten), “ecstasy”, and it’s a very urban affair. Songs about love given/taken/broken/fought over, like in funky highlight パンドラボックス (Pandora’s Box), or modern city life, like the aptly titled 化けものだらけの街 (“a city full of monsters“) (stylised as “City Life” for the western markets). The songwriting is good (the previous 全知全能 had much greater consistency but sophomores are always harder) and the playing has… lots of traction. A great listen-while-you’re-driving kind of album!

2019 July roundup! My favourites (part 1)

“Ein Leben ohne Grenzen
Eine Freedom zu verschenken
Eine Freiheit, nicht zu denken
I better open my eyes
Ich mach’ die Augen auf”

I’ve been listening to lots of very good stuff lately (right now I have Erika de Casier’s Essentials on deck) but so far my favourites from 2019 aren’t new personal discoveries but rather three new offerings from acts that I already knew and loved.

First we got the new album from Austrian genius kids Bilderbuch, Vernissage my heart. An ideal continuation of 2018 Mea Culpa, it’s so obnoxiously inventive… can’t they just make two songs alike?! For once!

Although the record doesn’t have disarmingly perfect songs such as Gibraltar or Checkpoint, it’s a very charming thing. You get the opening triptych of Kids Im Park / Frisbeee /Led Go that take you somewhere weird: heavy guitars, shouted choruses, low-fi vocal samples, oblique structures. They are not going for catchy here but rather multifaceted. Then you get the catchier stuff: Ich hab Gefühle, Vernissage and Europa 22. And here is what I like about Maurice Ernst & Co., the rhythms, the (keyboard) riffs, the bass… the bass!!! Funksters from Kremsmünster… yeah right! 

No, it’s real. You listen to the verse of Vernissage my heart  and it’s driven by just drums and bass, groovy and melodic, it feels like you don’t need anything else. And you don’t. But they give it to you anyway, like guitarist Michael Krammer does. What he plays is so subtle, smart, so bent on servicing the song that it would almost be self-effacing if not for the fact that you can’t help but notice every single note he churns out of his guitar. 

Lyrics can be silly, like Frisbee, but some of them, like Europa 22, can really resonate. 

Bilderbuch is beautiful soundscapes that you can make your own. I was listening to this record in the snows of the Dolomites and I’ll listen to it again lying on a beach somewhere this summer. Equally appropriate, equally enticing. 

Mansions of Madness: Astral Alchemy

Yesterday night we played the scenario Astral Alchemy from the Streets of Arkham expansion for the first time and nailed it right away. We did play with a good (average?!) team (Finn Edwards, Ashcan Pete, Tommy Muldoon and Agnes Baker) and we did have good rolls but I didn’t expect it to go so smoothly. That made me wonder about the MoM difficulty rating system a bit… I don’t know, there have been 3-stars that we failed, more or less, spectacularly (like Behind Closed Doors or Murder on the Stargazer Majestic) and 5-stars that were relatively painless. I know that it might all just boil down to luck but I think that sometimes it’s the internal logic, the writers’ assumptions about what you should take away from each clue or encounter, that makes things difficult.

*** Spoiler alert ***

I remember that in MotSM we couldn’t really grab the meaning of the clues. Some were vague, some were ambiguous, some even conflicting. That might be the whole point of the story but I think you do need some thread that, after exploring everything, helps you paint a clear picture. Instead we failed, or rather I remember I failed, the “final question” quite hard.

On the other hand, AA was quite straightforward: list of things to grab. Once you got them you’d know. Deliver. The end. Lots of monsters since the very beginning (that’s where the luck factor kicks in) but you felt like you knew what you were doing. Probably too straightforward?!

I guess my point is either some scenarios are rated too harshly (like AA) or some are rated too lightly (like MotSM). So, don’t trust those 5-point stars!

End-of-game board

N5!

I’ve been studying Japanese for some time now and last December I tried the JLPT N5 exam…and passed!

…Now I can even say my name in Jap! … well, and age too!

Here comes… The Prince!

I’ve finally completed my gaming table! Almost three months of hard work but… here it is in all its home-made glory.

I had the idea  when  some friends from my gaming group, “The Starjammers”, told me I should have a proper table. So, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of our merry band, I decided to buy one… or not. I couldn’t afford it. So I built one.

I took inspiration from observing real gaming tables, from GeekChic, Rathskellers, Ultimate gaming and many more. I wanted it to be as geeky as possible so cup holders, dice holders, lights, sounds, the works. Obviously, as I am no carpenter, I thought I’d use common wood, not the expensive polished ones, and then line it with (fake) leather.

At first, I hadn’t planned to add the built-in monitor (more expensive, big hassle to cut, line, set up, etc.) but then, while I was working in secret, one of the guys sent me a picture,  innocently stating – “look at this table with the built-in monitor! It would be great to have that!”… Obviously I had to back go and… cut some more!

What I decided to do differently from other tables was adding that vertical structure on one side. We mainly play RPGs so I want a natural DM’s screen. Furthermore the screen  could house the speakers and function as a bottle holder and bookcase. 

Everyone was excited by the table… As well they should be! It’s either that or lose a ton of levels!