Monday, 10 October 2011

Giving Presentations

One of the things we do at work is to have small bursts of work known as "sprints". We plan what we'll cover at the start, work on it, then present it with a demo at the end, to all interested parties. On Friday they asked me to do the demonstation part of our presentation.

I went in with no preparation beyond writing down on a post it note the four things I wanted to show people. I stood up and talked to the room of somewhere around 50-60 people about it, and then we moved on. There were more presentations and demonstartions, the last of which was very innovative and flashy and interesting.

After the meeting eight different people came and told me separately how well they thought I'd done. I've been told I paced it well, I was engaging, I put things at the right level for the audience, and that I was a natural.

Now, I was comfortable with the material I was talking about, but I had no preparation time, and didn't feel particularly nervous. This morning two more people told me how well I'd done - and that's after they had a whole weekend for it to fall out of their heads completely.

I appear to have wowed an audience. I can only attribute this to being a side effect of learning to present material in an off-the-cuff way through larp. Give me a skeleton and I can give you back a ritual. Dump some plot on me and I can manufacture a rite. Tell me where we're going and I can pull a transportation rite out of nowhere. And give me the thing I've been working on for three weeks and I can tell you all about it and make it sound impressive.

As a colleague said on Friday - the trick is to work out how to make this skill work for me. Hmm.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Wasteland UK : Event 1 feedback

This piece is written primarily as a feedback exercise for the people who created and ran Wasteland UK's first event, Brum. As such, it will be most meaningful to them and to other players I roleplayed alongside on the field. However, it should still be accessible to others, and I hope it offers an insight into the game and some of the considerations involved in running a larp system. Comments and interaction are utterly welcome.

I've always enjoyed post-apocalyptic stories and enjoyed the latest 2 Fallout offerings. Until I was enticed into larp I was never that into the fantasy genre, and my favourite tabletop to date is Call of Cthulhu, so I was interested to see how a more modern setting would work. Very interested. Especially after reading the website and the build up on the forums. So interested, in fact, that I left my holiday in Wales a day early and drove to the site.

Unfortunately, being in Wales mean that I had no internet access in the preceding week and missed the in character callout message that was at the centre of the event, and had a bit of an issue with the rulebook. It's never easy to get to grips with rules in paper form without the board, online game, or in-person context to attach it to. For me it got extra difficult because I managed to completely and utterly screw up printing them out as a booklet and had a full set of rules page in a completely random seeming order.

I was one of the first on site, met a friend from LT as I arrived and we wandered around the place to see what was there before going for a drink. There I was introduced to Dudge briefly before he and my friend got very chatty and I felt a little out of my depth while they discussed a system I wasn't involved in, so I left them to it. As more people arrived I found more familiar faces, not all of whom I knew by name and we all started to kit up, which immediately gave me a good feeling about things.

The setting, The Grange, would never work for the fantasy sytems, but with the abandonned vehicles and ramshackle house remains it was really good for this system, and the players had done a pretty amazing job of kit. Perhaps some of that army surplus kit looked a tad too new, and to be honest I felt the tents let down the encampment, but beyond that it was fabulous. Looking through published photographs afterwards I've seen stuff I missed in person, and I was impressed while I was there. From the amazingly scary stimpaks to the moustache on our friendly robot, things just kept making me grin inwardly and I loved the ramshackle cobbled together stuff people were swapping. I got good currency selling a pencil and paper, and I liked the early encounter with the trader who was offering "socks. Real socks, never worn! Straight over from Ireland!" And as for the medical side of things... how many fields of gamers can you walk onto and count five stethoscopes? And everyone got right into the whole trading vitals and saving lives (at a cost, of course, the wastes are harsh) as far as I could see.

Despite meeting Dudge briefly beforehand, because I didn't really know him, he's always going to stick in my mind as Skins, now. He was brilliantly suited to that role and one of the best NPCs I've ever seen. Well cast, well played - inspired. I loved his reaction when we talked of our missing family member, taken by slavers. Awesome and immersive.

As mentioned, I hadn't really wrapped my head around how to heal, despite being a doctor character. I wasn't clear on hour or half hour to check on the patient, and didn't immediately realise that they kept getting better as you checked them, and thought for a long time that medicine was more vital than it actually was. On the other hand, when I accepted that my trait meant I started with a level 2 infection and 6 INF points, I didn't realise a dose of medicine wasn't going to wipe out 3 of them at once (the rules said it would, the briefing said otherwise, and when checking with a ref they called on the harsh side). Similarly I got conflicting advice over how many MAL points should be wiped out by cooked food. And yet, I don't want that to come out as a complaint because the ref-attention we got was spot on. Even if we didn't manage to quite figure out what a doctor could do and what a medic could, everyone ran with the spirit of things, and it was refreshing to be checking the pupils of a patient's eyes, his temperature and his heart rate, then administering drugs rather than sitting around chanting as I would in a fantasy setting. Also brutal but fun to play with was the lack of magically getting better overnight, or suddenly having replenished stocks of the stuff that makes people better.

On day 1 one of my group was uncertain about coming back in future. It was complicated, confusing and harsh. By day 3 we were firm fans and have every intention of attending whatever we can. There's been a fair amount of feedback already regarding what worked and what didn't. Personally I think we had it pretty much spot on. No, I didn't get a single chance to use my lockpick skills, and random drops of chems were rare but... so what? I'd expect different settings to have different things being more prolific, and there was chance to barter and I got to acquire more food, break down a chem and do a deal for rad-away. At the end of the event I had less infection than I started with, more malnutrition and more rads. Our stocks of stuff to fix this, and our money have both decreased. As someone else has pointed out, perhaps it wasn't the most lethal start to the system, but keep us going at that level, take us down slowly and it gets interesting.

I'm torn on that, though. I like my character, I like our group concept. And, in fact, two different crew members complimented us on it, so we're not the only ones. And feedback afterwards has mentioned us, too. So while I want the survival stuff to be in the foreground, I am really keen not to lose the character.

People have said that bullets weren't dangerous enough. I can see their point. But if you make bullets more lethal then we need to either reduce their availability even further, or face mass carnage. I don't want to see the latter. We've got a bunch of scavs who know why they're handing around together, now. Kill ten percent of them, and whoever they come back as... well, why the hell would they join us? Really? We need a level of continuity, and I actually think there's more fun to be had with debilitating us massively and bringing us back from the brink than there is in having a high character churn rate. People seemed to be enjoying playing patient in pain and over-radiated characters who couldn't stop chucking up their paltry supplies of food. Bear in mind we're playing characters who have somehow managed to survive the wastes for years, it would be weird if we were to die en masse at every event.

One of the weird things about our group was that we didn't exactly fit the aims of the plot, and we were small. The bigger groups seemed to grab the plot and run with it, while we were at a disadvantage due to there being only three of us, but also because we didn't exactly have a reason to get directly involved. Based on the background we submitted and the trait I was given, I was playing Mary as someone whose absolute priority was looking out for her kids, and although I didn't get to play with the plot as a result of this, it did lead to character development and interaction. With the Cardiff Cartel off monstering, I found myself being the one taking charge and telling the third set of camp invaders "If I were you I wouldn't take another step forward." Similarly, when our original foraging plans had gone nowhere I found myself being the one coralling a new group together, setting down ground rules. "We need one person in charge, who will it be? Right... let's get a count of exactly how many are going out and make sure the same number come back. And preferably the same people IN that number..." It was cool to have influence. I also enjoyed the fact that I could play scary-mum in protection mode and bitch about others as a result. "Yeah, it was raining, no the rain ain't nice and it can fuck you up, but when nearly everyone is in camp and there are five feral fucking zombie ghouls I don't expect me and mine to be taking out three of them with no bloody backup because everyone's cowering under the tower and in their tents."

On the other hand, when the scary gas-masked creature wandered camp we went into lockdown mode, clambering into our tent, killing the lights and staying as still as possible. And as the three of us lay there quietly we all fell asleep - some of us briefly, some of us for longer, and it was a really nice shared group experience of bolting down and enjoying the safety, and replenishing energy to keep going when it was time to hit the raiders. I know it sounds dumb, but it was really cool. My other "my group is cool" moment came when Mary and Solan were outside the Skian Mhor tent and Toby had stopped being Toby briefly, while he turned back into Chris and admired the larp weapons. Solan nudge Mary, nodded over to the trading tent and said something along the lines of "Aww, bless, look at him looking at the weapons. He couldn't do anything with them even if we could afford anything."

Are you getting the impression I liked it yet?

So what wasn't so great? Well, loresheets weren't available and event packs didn't necessarily contain everything they should. But it's not much of a complaint because it all got sorted with minimal fuss. True, the crew did seem pretty stressed and unsure of which problem to fix first, but they figured something out and it got done. And straying back into positives territory: The ref attention was superb. I wandered past the ref hut, and paused waiting for someone in the toilets, and was checked up on - "Are you okay, player?" We were checked on during a rainy downpour. "Are you having fun? Anything not working for you?" and they talked us through the confusing of healing, and they came and told us in private and politely and in a friendly manner when one of us miscounted his hits and didn't fall as soon as he should.

We did get a bit frustrated by not being able to get a scav encounter on Saturday. That was a very weird situation actually. We got a bunch of interested people ready to go out, and alerted the team. Then nothing happened and the group got involved in other stuff. Eventually some of the initial group, frustrated at not having had a chance, went out to look for stuff that might exist outside of properly set up encounter areas - some had improvised and managed to heal MAL with picked berries, and we thought maybe there would be some drops of stuff. There wasn't. As we wandered, we got roleplayed at by some people we found in the wastes, and so we played back, and had a fun encounter. Which it turned out we shouldn't have seen, and which had been set up for someone else. Oops. We stole an encounter. But to be honest, after waiting so long for one of our own I didn't feel guilty for it. The issue, I think, was being understaffed, and the demands from players were hard to meet. But when we complained we did get our own stuff sorted for the next morning and a heads up that it would be available - so it's hard to criticise too much.

What else wasn't great? The site was a bit small. We had to keep being told by refs whether we could see stuff in character, despite it being loud and obvious out of character. I got sunburn. Damn refs, not controlling the weather appropriately. Um... Oh, the wind down at the end was weird. There seemed to be a massive lull after the radbadger (which was awesome - he had talons THIS BIG!) and people drifted off, not sure what was going on. Tents were already being dropped by the time Skins came back to talk to us. The briefing at the end... that was a bit odd. I've never encountered that before, and it was taking a while to get round people. I was sort of expecting more input from plot than the team wanting input from us. I sort of thought it would go "So, over the next two weeks will you be travelling with the party? Right, you encounter x, y, z..." and it was more of a "so what did we do well?". I totally understand why the team needs that, especially when we're kind of still in a beta-test sort of scenario, but we weren't even told to think about the questions we'd be asked, so felt a bit on the spot and unable to answer "what was the high, what was the low?" sort of stuff. And it was necessary to feed back what state our characters were in and what equipment we had, but I don't really want to wait around at the end of an event to be dealt with when I have a massive drive home ahead of me... not sure how we get around that.

Which reminds me of another point others have mentioned. The team running this stuff is small. I'm not convinced it's practical for them to have to find every player and sort out their malnutrition increases, but how else do you handle it?

One concern I have, related to such things, is that the system really, really relies on honour. I strongly doubt that anyone there cheated deliberately at this event, but I suspect that that could change as people grow more attached to characters and the player base increases - especially if a death means a loss of significant skills or stuff which could happen if down-time and continued attendance develops characters. It's way too easy to avoid the hand out of MAL points, or accidentally lose a sticker if you want to - how do we avoid that? Even more ref attention than we already have? Hmm...
Moving on. Something you could take as a negative is that we completely missed our plot hook. My group is on the look out for Lucy, my daughter, the boys' sister. One of the traders we walked away from, happily brandishing our purchase, were actually part of the group of slavers who took her. But we didn't hear what they called themselves. That said, the history I wrote said that Lucy was taken by slavers posing as "nomadic traders" and these guys apparently named themselves as "Nomadic Traders". Thing is, in the wasteland, there are hundreds of nomadic traders who really are just that, I'd not intended it as a company name or similar so even if I'd head it I'd have missed it. It's fine, I'm cool with it - Lucy is an excuse for us to leave home. If we do recover her it'll be quite a surprise to Mary, even if she wouldn't ever tell the boys that.

Some people complained about the random weird things that hit the camp. I have no problem with the seemingly indestructible mystery thing in a gas mask doing that. I like a bit of mystery and fear without a simple and obvious resolution. I liked and was intrigued by the flashing ball, too - although I was a bit surprised when it paralysed me. If paralysis is in the rules I forgot about it, and had no idea how long it was meant to last on me (something I will check).

And that's kind of all I have right now. I loved the atmosphere, I quite liked roleplaying without plastering my face in makeup and wearing a thousand layers. I enjoyed seeing other people's interaction with the game and getting to know people a little bit better. We're keen for more and looking forward to it.

We're not on any kind of a recruitment drive, but if anyone wants to give the system a try the Jones family is pretty enormous - if you're my sort of age or higher you could be a brother or sister to me, younger players could be cousins, distant or close. I definitely recommend the game based on event 1 and as a result of ebay in the aftermath of the event I now own some really rather interesting items. Turn up next time to see what!

Many, many thanks to the team for seeing it through to fruition, for all the work it's taken. I for one appreciate it hugely.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Living in the Future!

Jonathan Coulton sang:

Well it's gonna be the future soon
And I won't always be this way
When the things that make me weak and strange get engineered away

I actually feel like I'm living in the future already. Over the weekend I finally purchased an LCD television. I've noticed that Freecycle has an endless stash of old style CRT televisions to offer, and people carefully make it clear that it's not a "flat screen", forgetting that TV screens got flat a long, long time before they got thin. Along with my new TV I bought a PS3, which, among many other things, allows streaming throughout my house of media downloaded to any of the computers. I'm a few years behind the new-tech curve, but in waiting I ended up paying significantly less for my geek tech items, and I move in circles where geek tech is the norm.

I was pointed at a very interesting article earlier today, which really highlights just how "futuresome" all this stuff is:

This is what I love about science fiction. I like to see the human side of things. I'm amused when I see updates on Facebook that say "I can't access the internet right now!", failing to recognise that the phone is doing just that, in place of the computer usually used for the task and yet far beyond the imagination of most people in the 90s. I like post apocalypse stories that show a society bereft of the magic, and I love second guessing the magic that's coming. And yet, all the same, I do notice the magic that surrounds me for what it is. I don't care if you open up the box of smoke and show me how it functions, it's still magic and I'm surrounded by it. And mashing buttons over the weekend while staring at an enormous 40 inches of magic was a perfectly good way to spend my time, despite the sun coming out for the first time in weeks.

I don't even want the oft mentioned jet pack, then internet is way cooler.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Tivo relaunch screws over faithful subscribers

For a long time I wanted a Tivo, and in December my wish came true when my boyfriend told me he had one stashed at home that he'd not set up and I could have it on long term loan if I wanted. It was a goodun, a series 1 with a Lifetime subscription. It took me a while to get it set up, partially due to discovering that not all telephone cables are created equal, but eventually I had it sitting there, dutifully switching over my Sky+ box and recording new TV on a whim.

It was everything I had hoped for, and I loved it. It's only been running for a month or so, and so it's not learnt a lot about me yet, but I don't know that it's worth teaching, now.

You'll notice I say I hooked it up to my Sky+ box, which may sound a little odd. After all, both Sky+ and the Tivo are set top boxes. Both contain hard drives and offer "series link" functionality. But the thing about Tivo, the killer application as far as I'm concerned, is the depth of its exploration. I can tell my Sky box to record stuff if I know it's on, and I can tell it to record every episode. It will do it in a higher quality and the disk has the capacity for much more content. What's missing, though, is the feedback loop. Tivo will run off and record things for me without my intervention, in a speculative "thought you might like this" kind of way. Then, and this is pretty damn cool, I get to say yay or nay. I hit a green thumbs-up button or a red thumbs-down from one to three times, and by doing so indicate my televisual preferences. Three thumbs down is "What the FUCK were you thinking?! Don't ever, EVER record this kind of shit for me again", while thumbs up compare the recording to sliced bread in a favourable manner. Tivo takes this information and uses it to guide its new choices of recordings.

Furthermore, I can set up the Tivo to record things according to a wishlist. I've asked it to record anything that is ever shown that contains the words "Thamesmead" or "larp" in its metadata. I've also told it to record any movie directed by David Fincher.

Sky+ doesn't even try to offer that kind of thing. And the stuff it does offer, the season links, for example, it doesn't do all that well. I set my Sky box to record House for me before Christmas. As American shows are wont to do, it then went on hiatus for a while. Sky+ has not recognised the second half of the season and hasn't recorded any of it. Tivo would have.

Tivo is relaunching in the UK, under the banner of Virgin. Now, I quite like the Virgin set top boxes as they were back in late 2009. The integrated iPlayer was excellent, and the interface was reasonably intuitive. It was still a bit dumb about recognising the rest of a series after a break, and it did need a reboot every now and then. I have no idea what, if any, innovation Virgin has seen since then, I moved house and the new area I'm in doesn't have Virgin. I assume, and hope, that the marrying of Virgin functionality with Tivo will be nicely put together. But I can't have it. Not in the short term. Not unless I move house.

I've been in touch with Virgin directly, asking when their cable service is likely to be available in my area. They told me they were going to do some costing and come back to me, although it could take up to 8 weeks. With the Christmas break, I gave them 10 weeks before chasing and then prodded the people who responded the first time around. They told me that my area is quite wide and would involve extensive work to cable. They don't know if they're going to do it, they're involved in a costing exercise that may take over a year to complete. So no cable imminent, then. And this is in Zone 4 of London. I'm less than 15 miles from the city, so what hope do people in villages have?

And this is why I was happy to put up with the setup I had, despite its foibles. Every so often Tivo interrupts me watching something to ask if it can turn over the Sky+ channel to record something it thought I might want. Until I changed the setup on the Sky box, I kept accidentally getting involved in recordings of shows, only to find that after 30 minutes it stopped and I was left with a still of the set top box going into power saving mode for the next 30 minutes. It's clunky, and it needs to use a phoneline to dial up for listings and it's not a large hard drive... but what Tivo does it does in a fantastic way. Until June.

Over the last couple of days the Tivo boxes have been collecting messages from base which apologise for the fact that they're going to brick the boxes in June, but encourage us to upgrade to the shiny new offering that Virgin have for us. There are even some kind of discount deals for those following the upgrade path. But for me? Me and all the other people using Tivo Series 1 because there is no real other option? Bye bye, nice knowing you!

It's made me wonder whether to continue my burgeoning relationship with the Tivo I have. Why teach it to never show me any bloody sport or say that yes, I think Buffy is great? It's going to do nothing come June that a basic video recorder in the 1980s couldn't.

The forums are awash with people discussing it. Many are pissed off about the approach, the sudden cut-off although they admit that given that support officially ends several years after it became impossible to purchase the Tivo product we've done pretty well out of it. There are questions over what PVR is the best fit to replace the Tivo. Well, for me there isn't one. Nothing does what Tivo did. I want the serendipity of discovering new content because a box in the corner of the room knows what I like. I like being able to give wide commands like "Record everything you find that has Stephen Fry in it".

Tivo have leapt into bed with Virgin and are working on an exclusive arrangement designed to promote both. There will be a new generation of Tivo subscribers who think it's new and innovative when they can issue those wide commands and let it get on with it. But for those of us outside the Virgin area? Too bad. Read the small print, when we said "lifetime" it never meant what you thought it meant, Tivo's off to play with its new friends.

Some of us are a bit sad about that.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Infinite Gateway

Thrilled to have discovered the Infinite Gateway blog. I think I'm going to pinch a load of their subject lines for my own musings in the future. Check them out if you're interested in larp.

Geeks of London, first meet

Last week I went along to the Geeks of London meetup that I happened across on Twitter. As it turned out, it was the first such meet, and as such it was very successful. Melinda and Christian organised the whole thing, with help from others and a clearly generous donation from Nokia Ovi who not only put money behind the bar for drinks and some nibbles, but also offered a prize of a new phone which was given away during the evening.

The format seemed to work well, with general mixing around the downstairs bar area, and a couple of slightly more formal talks. There were projected slides for the one, but the microphone failed, unfortunately. The theme of the night was gadgets and attendees were encouraged to bring along gadgets to show off and discuss, and they ranged from Terrance Eden's videocamera glasses to my first ever experience of an in-the-flesh slide rule.

I have a couple of video clips to upload at some point as my own gadget for discussion was the non-glasses version of the videocamera sold cheaply online as a "spycam" - a fantastic gadget at a very low price. The quality isn't fantastic but what can you expect for the cost? I'm thinking of getting hold of some of the glasses style versions to modify and turn into kit for larp events at some point.

Meanwhile, I particularly enjoyed Melinda's talk in which she addressed the question of what defines a gadget. Portability? Novelty? Tech? She skirted around all these possibilities, pointing out that it's almost indefinable, you know it when you see it. Although she didn't mention it during her own talk, she did prompt me to recognise that one of the features of a gadget is that it is unnecessary. It might be nice, it's probably a talking point but it's not something anybody needs as such. An iPad is a gadget, while a laptop is less so, particularly in the realm of work. A freezer isn't a gadget, it's seen as a home necessity, but for previous generations perhaps it was. Definitely food for thought.

I will be going along again, some of the faces were familiar from barcamp style events I'd been to and I got talking to a few more people from all over, despite ducking out early due to my stupidly early starts on my daily commute these days.

The next event is to be movie based, probably a couple of meetups, one to watch and one to discuss a film. Look out for them, coming soon.

More info can be found on the website:

Friday, 28 January 2011

Blog posts coming soon

Things to write about when I have time:
The Geeks of London gadget meetup of last night

Monday, 24 January 2011


I bought Bizarre magazine this month at there was an article in it covering the larp system I play. It was a good article, quite sincere and interested rather than piss-taking. Shame it was surrounded by a huge number of pages of adverts featuring scantily clad women and cost over four quid. Still, I did get an article on Neil Gaiman in there as part of the bargain.

If this then that

I've just discovered a forthcoming tool by the name of "If this, then that" which is all set to start connecting together the social networks that are pervading everyday life. It looks pretty cool and I've signed up to be part of the beta as soon as they send out new invitations. My primary reason is that I want a simple way of archiving my Twitter feed in perpetuity without annoying other people with it. One of the irritations of daily online activity is trying to follow one person across multiple sites as man duplicate the content across streams. This is made simple by some tools that will cross post to a blog, Twitter and Facebook all at once. The problem, though, is that followers on each network then try to engage with the original post and the conversation is fractured massively. could just increase the noise in that regard, it looks like it's going to be able to set up some powerful interactions across the board, but I'm hoping that it will also be something that lets me play with data I create in interesting ways when I get a chance to do a bit of hacking. We'll see. I have to wait for my invitation to come through first, anyway.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Optimising the commute

So, we've moved offices. At least, my team has. We used to work in central London, colloquially known as W1 due to the postcode, and we're now in W12, White City.

As an annoying consequence of this, my commute has grown significantly worse. For the first couple of weeks of the new regime I found that my commute was taking longer than it used to take me to get into work when I worked in London and lived in Peterborough - a trip of some 80 miles. I now travel roughly twenty miles into work, which is beyond the realms of cycling distance, even supposing I were fit enough to do so.

My old commute went like this:
12 minute walk to the station
35 minute trip to Charing Cross
25 minute walk to the office

The new one goes like this:
12 minute walk to the station
25 minute trip to London Bridge
15 minute tube to Bond Street
15 minute tube to White City
5 minute walk to the office

On the face of it, the timing looks much the same. Unfortunately, every time you introduce a change you have to allow for movement between platforms, and a massive risk of failure. And every day there was a different failure and it was a total pain in the bum. I have at least discovered that the problems are reduced if I start the trip at 7am instead of 8am. Total time traveling from 8am is just shy of 2 hours. Starting out at 7 means it's more like 1hr 15.

Of course, there are further problems to solve. I have to get used to being up and active before 7am, not an easy thing for a naturally night based person (when I am not working for whatever reason my sleep pattern is to be awake 11am - 4am). And I also have to find some way to fit 50 minutes of exercise per day back into my life. These are not insignificant problems, but at least now I have the timing better sorted.

The 7ish trains are much busier than the 8ish trains. I find this strange as the exact opposite is true of the tubes out of London Bridge. I also wonder how much this is true for trains running twenty minutes or so later or earlier. The investigation into optimal solutions continues.

Meanwhile, I'm intrigued by the train signs at Abbey Wood station. For some reason they have switched their display method from something along the lines of:

7.12 Charing Cross due 7.13


7.12 Charing Cross due 2 mins

Is the latter considered generally easier to read? Or are they simply deliberately obscuring the mismatch between the due time and the published time?