Tuesday, 20 October 2015

It's Holiday Time! So I'll leave you with this...

I'll be back in action early next month with new reviews, articles and interviews. In the meantime, here is some music. And visuals. And a return to greatness.

God, please don't let me die before December 18th.


Sunday, 18 October 2015

Book Review - Back to the Future: The Ultimate Visual History

By Michael Klastorin and Randal Atamaniuk

Published by Titan Books

"Great Scott! Few films have made an impact on popular culture like the Back to the Future trilogy. This deluxe, officially licensed book goes behind the scenes to tell the complete story of the making of these hugely popular movies and how the adventures of Marty McFly and Doc Brown became an international phenomenon.

Created in conjunction with Universal Pictures and fully endorsed by director/co-creator Robert Zemeckis and producer/co-creator Bob Gale, Back to the Future: The Ultimate Visual History is a stunning journey into the creation of this beloved time-traveling saga and features hundreds of rare and never-before-seen images from the set of the movies, along with concept art, storyboards, and other visual treasures.

The book also features exclusive, in-depth interviews with key cast and crewmembers— including Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy, and more—and tells the complete story of the production of the movies, from the initial concept to the staging of iconic scenes, such as the Enchantment Under The Sea dance and the hoverboard sequence, and the film’s groundbreaking special effects. The book will also delve into the wider Back to the Future universe, exploring the animated TV show, Back to the Future: The Ride, Back to the Future merchandise, and much, much more."

I was 14 years old when I went to see back to the Future back in early 1986. I was getting into my movies then - there were plenty of fun, action-packed movies to see and travelling to the cinema on my own or with friends was becoming a regular thing. I saw a lot of movies but there were few that stuck with me beyond the 1980s, and one of these films was Back to the Future.

All three films are fun, entertaining and thrilling, the first film especially, and I made sure they were part of my movie collection from very early on. They've not lost any of their sparkle or magic and even though their predictions of the future weren't exactly spot on - it's their arrival date on the 21st October 2015 and sadly we still don't have flying cars, hoverboards or huge holographic sharks - it's an amazing look at the ages as seen through the lens of the 1980s.

And this is what the visual history gives us - a look back at the attitudes and techniques of the people who bought us these wonderful films. From the original, and very different, drafts of the project, through the original shoot with Eric Stoltz to Michael J Fox's inclusion and beyond. It covers the films and even the non-movie projects such as Back to the Future: The Ride and the animated series. Peppered with interviews and comments from the stars and crew, as well as stories about the sometimes troubled production there's an absolute treasure trove of information in here.

I'm a fan of the movies but I've never been a collector, so I can't tell you what in here that die-hard fans of the franchise might find new and enlightening, but personally I found a lot of the content to be full of facts and figures I wasn't aware of. The Eric Stoltz stories especially piqued my interest as I'd heard that there had been issues with his involvement but didn't fully realise the extent of it. This book fills in those blanks, and even though it doesn't appear to be anyone's fault there's a sense of relief when Michael J Fox is bought in.

Beyond this fascinating look at the early production the book then talks you through the rest of the primary film, and then the next two films. We get first drafts of scripts and ideas, early designs, storyboards and even internal memos and casting calls; it really is fascinating, A lot of the attention to detail is on the first film, and with good reason, but the next two films are discussed at length and there's a lot to learn. It's a great read.

But just reading the book isn't the only thing it's good for - it's interactive as well. Inside the book there are plenty of little treats that you can remove and have as keepsakes, reproduced mementoes of the movies. It starts with the photo of Marty and his brother and sister that you see in the movie - and when you tilt it the brother and sister vanish. Then there's a 'Save the Clock Tower' flyer, then a Hill Valley High School Tardy Slip... there's so much in here that you can take out, handle, read and simply geek out over it's wonderful. I didn't think it could get any better until I got to the back of the book and found a poster of Jaws 19 in the inside back cover. Now I can't decide whether it stays in the book or goes on my wall. Each item is
held in with simple glue that means you can tale it out to have a look and then pop it straight back in again.

Back to the Future: The Ultimate Visual History is a wonderful book and a great read. It fills you in with the details, the designs and the drama behind the making of the films and I had a lot of fun reading it. This book is what I hoped for in a 'Making Of' book. It was my density.

Highly recommended.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Book Review - The Mutant Files: Deadeye

Inline image 1by William C Dietz

Publisher: Titan Books

Review by Richard Williams

"Detective Cassandra Lee of Los Angeles’s Special Investigative Section has built a fierce reputation taking down some of the city’s most notorious criminals. But the serial cop killer known as Bonebreaker - who murdered Lee’s father - is still at large. Officially, she’s too personally involved to work on the Bonebreaker case. Unofficially, she’s going to hunt him to the ends of the earth.

In the meantime, duty calls when the daughter of Bishop Screed, head of the Church of Human Purity, is kidnapped by mutants and taken into the red zone to be used for breeding. Assigned to rescue her, Lee must trust her new partner - mutant lawman Deputy Ras Omo - to guide her not only through the unfamiliar territory but through the prejudicial divisions between mutants and norms…”

The Mutant Files is a series of books set in a not too distant future where the world has been ravaged by an airborne disease that has affected millions. This society is divided into mutants and ‘norms’ with the mutants getting the raw end of the deal. Special clothing and masks need to be worn and simple luxuries such as eating out have become a masterclass in trying to prevent the spread of infection with specially treated partitions, booths and masks/nasal filters.

In short it’s all a bit grim.

Our protagonist in these dire times is an LA street cop named Cassandra Lee and damn me if the author wasn’t trying to throw every clich√© in the book into… well, the book. Lee is a tough as nails ass-kicking heroine who prefers to work alone because of the partners she’s lost in the past, armed with a non-standard issue weapon, tasked with a job that comes straight from the mayor’s office which is putting pressure on the department, who spends her free time trying to solve the murder of her father, also a cop, whilst being stalked by the very same murderer who is both seemingly omniscient and unburdened by too many demands on his/her time. So yeah, just about every cop drama clich√© I can think of has been thrown at this book as though the creator said ‘gee, I wonder how you write something almost guaranteed to get picked up by a network’.

I say that because I get the strong feeling that this book would make a great bad TV show. The all-too familiar lead female with her textbook problems (which in TV land of course includes a homicidal stalker) working with poor unfortunate mutants that a costume department would love. I’m particularly thinking along the lines of the Buffy/Angel shows where you had ‘whatever the heck’ demon of the week and then a fairly harmless set of demons that could be shown enjoying a drink in a demon bar. The mutants in this book are the bar demons. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved Buffy and I didn’t love angel but OK, it had some good moments, but in this book I found the idea of an airborne disease that gives some people long floppy ears like a donkey and other people tentacle arms and other people just seriously messed-up puss-filled wounds a little too much to take on faith. This story could have tackled the issues of segregation and divided societies whilst demonstrating the troubles of policing a near post-apocalyptic world without the Carnivale freak-show of mutations. Just replace those with some genuinely upsetting physical symptoms of disease that kills 40-70% of those infected and boom, you’ve got compelling drama without the dead cop father (which wasn’t very compelling).

But I shall try not to judge this book on what it isn’t and might have been. So what is it? It’s a short book with plenty of action that seeks to entertain you until you reach the last page and no further. I doubt you will be talking about this book long after you put it down. The bad guys are purely bad guys, the good guys have shades of light and dark and the setting is post-post-apocalyptic. It’s the kind of story where bad guys get killed and you’re allowed to feel good about it.

If you like a quick read that doesn’t make too many demands on time or attention and has the usual cast of hard-bitten heroes, refreshingly cruel villains and poor unfortunate victims that are either saved in the last minute or discover they had a hero in them the whole time then you might just love this book.


Alternatively you can just wait for it to come out on the Fox network.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Random nerd thoughts. I'm tired.

I'm going to be running a Star Trek D6 game for the next couple of weeks, just to see how we get on. I'm using the original Task Force Games' 'Prime Directive' rulebook and the 1st Edition WEG Star Wars RPG, and I've done a quick and dirty conversion so that we can use them both for the D6 system. Hopefully, something will come of it. If not - oh well, we have to try these things.

I'm missing my story-driven, heavy-duty roleplaying with some proper characterisation and melodrama. At first I think 'go complicated' and consider rules heavy games, like MERP or Pathfinder, but then I feel that the rules get in the way. That's why I like D&D 5th, it can be as lite as you want it to be.

In view of that, I'm now looking at Fighting Fantasy again, as keeping it simple might result in some decent roleplaying. Not only that, it'd be nice to game in Titan again.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Book Review - The Autobiography of James T. Kirk

By David A. Goodmnan

Published by Titan Books

I'm a big Star Trek fan, but I've always leaned more towards the movies and The Next Generation and subsequent spin-offs. Recently I've been catching up on classic Star Trek and remembering just how wonderful a show it is, but to do 'The Autobiography of James T. Kirk' book justice I'm handing you over to my wife Lisa Hicks, who was into The Original Series before I was.

'The Autobiography of James T. Kirk chronicles the greatest Starfleet captain's life (2233–2293), in his own words. From his youth spent on Tarsus IV, his time in the Starfleet Academy, his meteoric raise through the ranks of Starfleet, and his illustrious career at the helm of the Enterprise, this in-world memoir uncovers Captain Kirk in a way Star Trek fans have never seen. Kirk's singular voice rings throughout the text, giving insight into his convictions, his bravery, and his commitment to the life—in all forms—throughout this Galaxy and beyond. Excerpts from his personal correspondence, captain's logs, and more give Kirk's personal narrative further depth.'

“I've already got a female to worry about. Her name is the Enterprise.”

CAPTAIN KIRK, Star Trek: The Original Series, "The Corbomite Maneuver"

I first became a trekker at the tender age of 6. My imagination had become a solid base quite evolved from the dribbling and occasional dabble of Dusty Bin and Andy Pandy. Star Trek by day and Batman by night I quickly joined the ranks of baby Uber Nerd.

My mother had felt I was mature enough to cope with the technological age which brought us Metal Mickey so I was allowed to sit at my dad’s feet and through the medium of T.V I Boldly went where no man has ever gone before.

To our household the hero was always Scotty. That institution of my father’s Scotland that held everything together in a complete shit storm and managed to get the old girl ship shape in a space second or the ever dashing Dr McCoy who was the right degree of miserable for me and perhaps formed my current persona "Damn it Jim! I’m a watcher not a writer!".

In the end it doesn’t matter who your favourite was, all characters are surpassed by the charming and sly fox known as Captain James Tiberius Kirk. To be given a glimpse into the origin story of this Starfleet bad boy is a dream come true and with this book you are given full access to his humble beginnings and decadent space adventures.

David A Goodman gives you everything, setting, story and memories. Even watching the original series again from the beginning you can’t help but fill in the gaps of what happened after the extra special episodes back on ship or to Kirk's friends who you really should NOT become attached to. You feel for him and hear more from him on his relationship with Carol and his son David and you weep a little inside when you see pictures of them included as ‘The Search For Spock’ plays in your brain. 

On a read-back I know that this review sounds like a eulogy but when you are raised on Star Trek and then raise your own children on it, it’s special to you. Kirk is a family friend. His ideals and love for Starfleet gives you a morale boost and you long to be travelling through the stars on your own journey and I would definitely choose Starfleet over anything else any day! You also feel that his relationship with his one true woman ‘Enterprise’ keeps him together and you understand why its decommissioning and his desk job would have killed him. 

This book may not be classed as canon by the hard-core of us but to me it’s perfect. It’s well researched and just brilliant. Goodman captures the brilliant and heart-warming friendship between Kirk, Spock & McCoy wonderfully and you realise just how much you miss them all every week you walk with them through good and bad times and indeed their first meeting.
For me my favourite part was the bit I prayed for when this book fell into my hands; "Please please let the Kobayashi Maru be in here”...and without spoiling it... it is. If you’re a fan of Star Trek this is a lovely little read that really does no harm but continue on the legend when you need it the most.

If this was a eulogy...I would simply say Kirk led Such a tragic but beautiful life. One that was truly lived to every potential. 

Lucky Bugger.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Hints & Tips - WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON, ANYWAY?

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on www.rpg.net and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

What makes Gamesmasters act the way they do? Jonathan Hicks would like to know, but he can't be bothered to get involved with all that psychological rubbish. Let's have a look at some of the more common styles of refereeing instead. It’s much more fun.

Gamesmasters. The very words are enough to strike the fear of the gods into the heart of even the hardiest roleplayer. Why? Well, why do you think? The Gamesmaster (GM) is the one person with the power to allow your well-cultivated character to live- or die.

It's ultimate power. It's the ability to spend a few hours with total control over your group of friends. Nothing compares to the feeling of having all the PC's by the proverbials.

But that's not entirely true, is it? Other than being a dining table god, the GM also has a major responsibility to the players. The GM has to supply an evening's play that the players will enjoy, and if the job is done well they come back for more. But that doesn't stop a few GM's from abusing their power every now and then. So what do you look out for? What are the traits that make the power hungry megalomaniacs stick out?

If you're new to roleplaying, then you may find the next few examples interesting. It may give you an idea of who to avoid. If you’re not so new to it all, then there may be a few descriptions you recognise...

The SMARMY GIT GM

GM: Right, you've broken into the warehouse, and as far as you can tell the alarms haven't gone off.
PLAYER 1: I'll sneak to the crates in the corner.
PLAYER 2: I'll cover him.
GM: As you sneak across, you hit a tripwire and a laser hits you in the back, doing damage... (The GM rolls dice secretly behind his screen. As the numbers come up, a slow smile spreads across his face and he slowly looks up at the player. His eyes are twinkling.) Boy, that's gonna hurt. That's gonna hurt real bad.
PLAYER 1: How much damage did I take?
GM: (Shaking his head and pursing his lips.) Oooh, painful.
PLAYER 1: (Getting exasperated.) How much damage have I taken?!?
GM: Oh, do I pity you... etc.

Oh, it makes you mad. Fair enough, the player may have made a mistake or an error in judgement, but there is no reason to lay it on so thick. The Smarmy Git GM will almost sneer at the player as the misfortune piles up, or they'll make the odd comment, such as 'I wouldn't have done that'. Well, of course you wouldn't have done that, you wrote the bloody scenario! Needless to say, this kind of GM doesn't hang on to players long. It's fair enough the villains of the game laughing in the PC's face when something goes wrong, but when you get the impression that the GM is getting some sort of sardonic pleasure out of your misfortune... well, would you stay in his games?

The BLAND GM

GM: You walk out of the starport.
PLAYER 1: What do I see?
GM: The street. Some people.
PLAYER 1: Anything else?
GM: Yeah, some speeders.
PLAYER 1: Any taxis?
GM: Not that you can see.
PLAYER 2: Any chance of a little enthusiasm, GM?
(The GM shrugs.)

You kind of get the impression that they don't really want to be there. The Bland GM talks in monosyllables, doesn't inject enough energy or description in his GM'ing. In short, they're boring. How can you get that sense of being somewhere when every location is as dull as the last? Games don't last long if the player's imaginations aren't sparked enough for them to visualise their surroundings, or get a sense of individuality from the NPC's. The name of the game is entertainment, after all.

The OVER-THE-TOP GM

GM: The mist swirls around your ankles as you approach the dark building. The trees loom over oppressively, the branches clawing at the sky. As the building comes into view, you see that the metal walls are gnarled, twisting like some architect's nightmare, the sides forming and reforming, as the glass roof appears to oscillate with dark and bright colours. The windows are warped, casting bent reflections across the glade. The mist appears to be pouring from the single exhaust pipe the building possesses, flowing from it like something alive, covering everything around with moisture from it's damp touch. The ground underfoot... etc.
(The players rap their fingers on the table and look at their watches.)

On the other side of the coin there's the Over-The-Top GM. In an almost direct contrast to the Bland ref., the OTT GM can go off on a descriptive tangent about a location, a character, and an object. Although it's good that whatever the PC's are looking at is well described, there is such a thing as overdoing it, and the OTT GM is probably doing the game more to show off his narrative skills than to actually get anywhere. Well designed and described places only work when your players are able to interact with them without having ten pages of prose jammed down their throats every few minutes.

The COMPETITIVE GM

GM: You turn the corner and you see four guards lounging around the door to the hangar, but they have their blasters out. What are you going to do?
PLAYER 1: I'll throw my grenade and hit the deck.
PLAYER 2: I'll take cover in a door alcove and open up on the first one.
GM: Right. Initiative rolls... good. They get the drop on you. They're very good shots. They fire... two hit you, the other one hits you...
PLAYER 1: Hang on; I thought you said they were lounging around. Don't we get surprise?
GM: No, they're professionals, and you'd better deduct some hit points.
PLAYER 2: Shit.

It's not a game; it's a competition to see if the players can beat the scenario he's designed for them. At least, that's the way the Competitive GM sees it. Roleplaying is not a form of entertainment, it's a set of rules designed to pit players against a GM's creations. If the players don't complete the goal set out for them, they've lost. Hmm. Now, I'm sure I've read somewhere that there are no winners or losers in a roleplaying game, and that the whole group is there for an evening's entertainment and to participate in a game where everyone can have fun. From what I can gather, the GM is supposed to supply stimulating stories for the players to get their teeth into. Oh, that's where I've read it. It's included in every roleplaying game ever written.

The RULES LAWYER GM

GM: So, what was it you wanted to do again?
PLAYER 2: I want to pull my blade whilst grabbing the rope and leaping off the building. If I've judged the length of the rope right, I should swing in through the window and right on top Baron DeGungey.
GM: So you want to draw your blade (flips through pages of rulebook and looks up penalties for drawing a weapon), leap off the building with the rope (looks up difficulty ratings for using a rope in the rulebook companion volume), aim for the window (flips through pages of another supplement for the strength of glass against a swinging human body), and land on Baron DeGungey (consults the book for stats and then quickly noses through the grappling rules in the rulebook). Right, roll for your leap.
PLAYER 2: (Looking at her watch) Actually, I've got to go now.

Nothing is more frustrating than waiting for a ruling from the GM whilst he ploughs through tomes of rules to locate the adjustments for your roll, or to try and find a rule that covers your action. The rules of a particular game should be treated as guidelines because trying to find a reference to every player action takes up too much time. It's also impossible to allow for every idea a player has, but does that stop the Rules Lawyer GM? Oh, no. He'll spend the time looking for that particular rule that decides on the outcome. Even if the rule isn't included in the book, there are several supplements to choose from, no doubt. And even then, the rules will have to be interpreted from an amalgamation of several different rules if the rule isn't there... see what I mean? This is the exact way to stunt a game. GM's should be able to make rulings on the spot, not ruin the pace of a game with their noses in books.

The EGO-TRIP GM

GM: The door to the starship swings open.
PLAYER 1: What do we see?
GM: The figure that strides confidently down the ramp is dressed in dark armour, giving an evil look. The gun slung over one shoulder is huge and powerful. Yeah, this one looks as though he can handle a fight. Mean and moody, with a touch of danger, that's what you can sense.
PLAYER 2: I don't suppose this is your old PC from last year's campaign, is it, GM?
GM: Errr...

Let's skip this one quick, because it is one of the most annoying. The ego-trip GM will bring a powerful NPC into the game, maybe even his old character from an old campaign, and will run it as one of the group, saving the day and rolling high. And why? Well, this GM gets a sense of pleasure from showing up the party with a character that fits all his ideas of a good PC. You have to ask the question- whose pleasure is the game being played for?

The FAVOURITISM GM

GM: The hatchway looks unlocked, and you know for a fact that the computer centre is down there.
PLAYER 1: I'll make my down through the hatch.
PLAYER 2: I'll draw my pistol and get my flashlight out.
GM: (Ignoring player 1) You pull your gun and descend through the hatch.
PLAYER 1: I thought I was going first.
PLAYER 2: I'll check the floor for booby traps and sensors with my infrared.
PLAYER 1: I'll head over to the computer bank.
GM: There doesn't seem to be any traps or alarm systems, but your eyes do detect a heat trace in the corner.
PLAYER 1: Hello, GM? What about me?

This kind of GM is not too common and good job too. The Favouritism GM will pretty much give most attention to the player whose character he likes the most, or to the character whose player he gets on with better. Players have gone to a lot of trouble to turn up for a few hours of gaming, so can you imagine their frustration at being dealt with for a few seconds every few minutes? The ignored players are the ones that don't return to a game because they don't like the thought of sitting around while other players hog the game. I mean, it's alright for the GM; he'll constantly have a hand in the game. It's not much fun watching others have a better time.


See any you recognise? See any you would avoid at all costs? Do you see any you can relate to as a GM? The examples are nothing but surface observations. It would be way too difficult to postulate on why the GM does certain things in certain ways to certain characters or players. Not only would it relate to how the GM's mind works, but it would also have links to the relationship between GM and player. Once again, the diversity of the roleplaying hobby has bred different views on how a game should be run, but all games should have a common factor - that it should be entertaining to both players and GM's to further the enjoyment of participation and the growth of a healthy campaign. Fair enough, the examples may make you point your finger at your GM and shout, 'That's you, that is!' Just think about the similarities between the script and paragraph and your own games for a moment. Do you think what the GM is doing will ruin the game? Will it stunt the growth of the campaign? If the worst comes to the worst, will it cause animosity between friends? Maybe, as a player, you are used to that kind of GM'ing, and may actually enjoy the way the games are being run.

The examples can be used for three things- as a reference for new players, so they can think about what kind of GM they want to game with, or avoid. For experienced players, so they can be aware of problems in their game. And most of all the GM, who can look at the example and question himself... am I like that? What will happen to my sessions if I don't correct the problem?

It's also a bit of a laugh, so players can point the finger at the GM and say, 'that's you, that is!'