Sunday 29 September 2013

Review - 13th Age

By Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo

Recently, I figured out that I was playing basic Dungeons & Dragons for mainly nostalgic reasons. I do like the game and I have great fun playing it with my gaming group, but I’ve recently started to drift away from the system and I’ve been looking at more story-driven games. Oh, it’s easy to play a D&D game and have it story driven but the mechanics don’t really support it, and if the gaming group isn’t on the same page it can be difficult to do such a thing.

So, this game has come around at a good time for me. I wanted to do more story-driven and dramatic games but the group was loathe to drift away from a system they like to play, and 13th Age pretty much covers both those bases.


The hardback 320-page colour rulebook is impressive. It’s robust and hardy and I’ve always liked a book that’s bound in such a way that you can lay it out on the table so that it sits nicely at the required pages, without having to weigh down the edges of the book or crack the spine. The glossy pages are in an easy-to read font, very clear and concise. It’s a very well laid out book with some really good artwork – I can find very little to criticise about the presentation. The cover image alone certainly made me want to play, and the full colour maps on the inside of the covers are quite exciting, to be honest, as it immediately opens a whole new world to game in.


Chapter 1, ICONS, details the great influential characters of the game. They’re there to lead certain factions and areas present in the constant power struggle that envelopes the land, and the relationship between the Icons and the player characters unfolds the world is shaped. This means that player characters aren’t simply gaming in the world, they’re helping to shape it as they interact with, defy or aid the Icons.

Chapter 2, CHARACTER RULES, is the character creation part of the game. It’s what you already know about the D&D game with some changes to suit this particular incarnation. You can roll for or point-buy character stats which gives players greater control over the abilities of their characters. There is no skill list but a general background description that a player is allowed to choose via a points system, so you could choose something like ‘Wild Mountain Tribe’, and this will enable skill checks to be modified should the PC encounter anything to do with mountains, such as survival or climbing rolls. Skill rolls are made by Rolling D20 + relevant ability modifier + level + the number points in a relevant background versus a difficulty number set by the environment. It’s a neat skill system that doesn’t let a player simply choose a skill they feel they might need, but makes them consider why they are skilled in that area and maybe even add a bit of detail or flavour to the history of the character.
You’ve got plenty of Feats to choose from, too. General Feats, which everyone can choose form, Racial Feats for your chosen race and Class Feats for your chosen profession.
Characters progress from level 1 to level 9. Starting as a level 1 Adventurer, once they reach level 5 they become a level 1 Champion, and get plenty of extra benefits. Upon reaching level 8 they become a level 1 Epic character, with even more benefits. As the levels grow, so does the drama…
My favourite party of the chapter, probably the entire book, is the ‘One Unique Thing’ section and this is what moves the game from a simple set of rules for moving playing pieces around to a much more story-driven game. It not only gives the players an impetus to heavily participate in the unfolding drama of the game but it can also help create a detailed, dramatic background for their characters. The One Unique Thing cannot influence or change abilities or rolls and it cannot give the player any benefits that might influence skills. It has to be something that will give them a specific trait or quirk and it will, through the story as the game progresses, create a larger, possibly world-changing plot device that the GM can weave using the Unique Thing about the player character. It enables story hooks and plot paths that directly affect, and can be directly affected by, the PCs. This helps build drama, suggests the relationships with the Icons and how they can be handled, and allows players to set their character apart not only from the normal people of the world but also from other heroes. Players really can create their own ‘special snowflake’ of a character and the game encourages them to do so.
There are plenty of examples in the book but I’ll use one that one of my players used while I was running this game. His One Unique Thing was ‘Lost in the eyes of the Emperor’s favourite’. Quite simply, this meant that he had fallen in love with a lady in the court of the Emperor who the Emperor himself loved. As the player was also a devotee of the Emperor and had already blood sworn his service to him, making him very close to the Icon and resulting in a barely suppressed father/son relationship, you can see why this would create some incredible drama later on. Maybe the PC decides to elope with her. Maybe she desperately tries to make him love her as she loves him but he denies her because of his duty to the Emperor, making her desperately bitter and making her vengeful. Maybe they meet in secret and the Emperor finds out… who knows what will happen? The actions of the player will help decide, so even though I’ve already had thoughts as to where the story could go it becomes very much a collaborative effort on both mine and the player’s part. I think it’s a fantastic inclusion and will make for some seriously excellent melodramatic roleplaying opportunities.
The rest of the chapter provides some very simple goods and equipment lists and some excellent advice for players to really get into their roles.

Chapter 3 details the playable RACES of the game; Human, Dwarf, Dark Elf, High Elf, Wood Elf, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orc and Halfing. As the Icons are scattered across the alignment board from Lawful Good to Chaotic Evil it gives you plenty of scope as to what kind of race to choose. There are some guideline for optional races, too, and these are Dragonic/Dragonspawn, Holy One/Aasimar, Forgeborn/Dwarf-forged, and Tieflings/Demontouched.

Chapter 4 deals with the CLASSES; Barbarian, Paladin, Fighter, Cleric, Sorcerer, Rogue, bard and Wizard. This gives you the details of each class, the base stats, level progression details, gear, abilities and tier talents from Adventurer to Champion to Epic. It also includes the spell lists for the relevant magic-user classes. There’s some very nice flavour in here and, for the first time ever, it made me want to play a Bard. I honestly can’t tell you why; it just looked kind of cool.

Chapter 5, COMBAT RULES, is a simplified and streamlined version of the general D&D combat rules. It still suffers from a little of the problems I feel that D&D combat suffered from and that’s the switch from story game to conventional dice-rolling wargame; for me that’s a slight shock to the system as the flow of the roleplaying is interrupted for lots of dice rolling, but there’s plenty of options that you can do with or without. I found that by stripping combat back and asking players to describe hard hits, killing blows or their reactions to being severely injured helped. This honestly depends on the group and how they like to play, but it’s a good system and it’s what you’d expect from D&D.

Chapter 6 is all about RUNNING THE GAME, and this details Icon Relationships and how they can affect the character and the story, how to run the three different tiers of play, advice on traps, environments and levelling, campaigns, treasure and magic items, and the gaming world in general. This is all very good support material to help in running a game and there’s some good advice on how to make the game your own.

Chapter 7 is the MONSTERS section and here you’ll find all your monster rules and stats. There’s plenty of beasties here that’ll keep you going in adventures and encounters for months. The statistics are wonderfully simple, literally a title, a few lines of description, stats in the nature of Level, Initiative, Attack and Armour Class, Defences and Hit Points. If it needs them there are also some special rules for magic or special abilities, and that’s pretty much it. The monsters have symbols and icons to represent them; I’m a bit of an old-school gamer and I like to have proper illustrations next to my monsters so that I can hold them up to show my players, but the monsters are your generic fantasy beasts so there should be no difficulty.
There’s a cool little section for DIY monsters, too, so you can create your own foul beasties.

Chapter 8 tells you all about THE DRAGON EMPIRE, the lay of the land and the primary points of interest. This is the default setting of the 13th Age but, as with D&D in general, you can set it wherever you want. However, the realms of the Icons of the 13th Age are detailed here and it’s all filled with flavour. The maps really make me want to explore this place and adventure in the uncharted areas of the realms, both as a player and a GM. It’s a general fantasy setting open to plenty of modification by the GM and the gaming group, if they so wish. There’s also the potential for different kinds of gaming; high adventure, horror, warfare, grim and dirty, politics… the game allows for all kinds of adventure styles.

Chapter 9 gives us MAGIC ITEMS, to both help and hinder the player characters. I’m not sure why this wasn’t included in Chapter 2 along with the equipment but I guess there’s plenty of stuff in here to warrant a section of it’s own.

Finally, Chapter 10 is the introductory adventure BLOOD & LIGHTNING. It helps to introduce the Icon relationship and combat systems, which is great for gamers who are new to it, but it is otherwise a standard cover-all-the-beginner-points adventure for level 1 player characters.

The book is rounded out by a character sheet, an index and glossary, and some charts and tables.


First things first – I think this is a great game. It’s wonderfully presented, colourful, full of flavour and brimming with great ideas that can not only work for 13th Age game but pretty much any roleplaying game, D&D or otherwise. I like the Icons idea as they can add some seriously good depth to the game, and even though it’s only a small part of the game I really like the background skills as it adds even more depth to characters. The proof of the pudding is, though, the One Unique Thing that defines a character and makes them special. This can create all kinds of fantastic discussions around the table regarding the events that led up to the One Unique Thing and the possible repercussions. These conversations alone can spark the imagination and inspire GMs to come up with adventures, plots and courses of action they may not have otherwise even considered. Not only that but these One Unique Things can affect not only the adventure or the campaign but the world as a whole as the Icon relationships unfold, change and progress. It makes for some great roleplaying and allows interesting and creative collaboration between the GM and the players. Usually I’d steer my players away from creating a ‘special snowflake’ of a character. In many ways this game encourages it without compromising the game or the group.

I could see this system being used in any of the D&D settings; Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, any of them. If you want to use the One Unique Thing idea in your existing D&D campaign world I see nothing that stops you from doing that. You will no doubt benefit from the other ideas and changes in the book, as well, so it’s worthy getting even if you’ve got an established D&D game on the go using your favourite interpretation of the system. It’s not simply tied to the world of The Dragon Empire or the rules in the 13th Age book.

The system is D&D and, even with the tweaks and changes they’ve made, it is how we all know it. In fact, I like the changes they’ve made and would recommend this even without the Icons or the One Unique Thing implementations. It’s still a great game in it’s own right and I find the system much more playable with enough detail to make the game feel very rounded and full but not too much to make it feel overly complicated. There is a feeling, however, that this game has been designed with experienced players in mind. Whenever I read a new game I always come at it from the perspective of a first-time roleplayer, a person new to the RPG hobby, and I never got the feeling that this really caters for gamers who have never picked up a roleplaying game before. It’s written as if the reader is already familiar with RPGs and D&D in particular.

Another thing I liked was the little snippets of personal out-the-game information and examples supplied by Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo. They give you insights into how to use the new ideas, how they used them in their games, and lots of other stuff besides. It’s very handy and work well as examples as to how to implement certain rules into your game. It’s handy, informative and makes the game feel very personal.

I can very highly recommend 13th Age, both as a general OGL D&D game - as the changes and streamlining of the rules is very good - and the new Icon and One Unique Thing rules make for an incredibly well put together story-driven system that marries narrative games with old-school roleplaying goodness.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Review - X-Wing Miniatures Game

Along with Jedi News Editor Mark Newbold, we were thrilled earlier in the year to be invited to play test the new Fantasy Flight Games X-Wing Miniatures Game by the gang over at Titan Games in Lichfield.

We had a fantastic battle, the results of which you'll see in the video and we're pleased to report that the game is fantastic and comes highly recommended. Here's a brief video review, featuring the music of the awesome James Semple.


This photo was taken today while I was accompanying my son to a swimming lesson at the secondary school I used to attend in the 1980s. The set of windows on the ground floor tucked into the corner is Room 1A; well, it was back then, I have no ideas what it is now.

I went to Netherstowe Comprehensive School from 1982 to 1987. It wasn't the greatest time of my life and nor was it the worst as I simply kind of existed there, I never got involved in any of the groups and I pretty much kept myself to myself. School came and went.

I was already into fantasy and science fiction before I came here and it was something that I did on my own. I never had a solid circle of friends and those I did know weren't really into the same things that I was. I met my best friend Mark in 1983 and we soon hit it off with our shared love of Star Wars.

But in 1984 I was invited to Room 1A at the school to take part in 'Dungeons & Dragons' club. And for the first time ever I mixed with like-minded people who wanted to use their imaginations and indulge in the stranger things in life.

And for the first time, I actually felt comfortable. I didn't mind talking about what it was I enjoyed doing and I shared my love of all things strange and fantastical. I never felt awkward and I never felt like I needed to hide my passions. I felt liberated, and a great sense of relief washed over me; I wasn't alone.

It was all thanks to this room. I've not stood here, on the grounds of the school, for 26 years, more than quarter of a century. Seeing the room and remembering what happened in there hit me pretty hard and I started laughing as the memories washed over me.

A couple of people looked at me like I was crazy. But I didn't care.

Sunday 15 September 2013

Press Release - Dragonmeet 2013

Dragonmeet 2013

Dragonmeet is once again descending upon Kensington Town Hall in London, this year on the 7th of December.

The event has a new website ( and a new Facebook page.

This year Dragonmeet organisers are planning to build on last year's increased footfall and tip over the 1000 attendee mark.  Dubbed "London's friendliest one day gaming convention", Dragonmeet offers roleplaying, board and card games, special guests, seminars, trade hall, artshow and a charity auction.

Tickets for Dragonmeet go on sale soon, so keep an eye on the website (, Facebook page ( and Twitter account. (@dragonmeet). Further information can be had by emailing

Hold on - have I reached the level of Role Playing Grand Master?

I've just realised something momentous. Possibly Earth-shattering. Screw that, Universe-shattering.

I've been having a fond look through my old gaming books and I dug out Gary Gygax's book Role-Playing Mastery, in which he offers all kinds of hints, tips and ideas to help improve your roleplaying experience. He knew what he was talking about, did Mr Gygax, and even though some of it doesn't really speak to the way I game anymore there's still some great stuff in there.

I was flipping through it and I came to the back of the book - 'An Overview of Progress Toward Mastery'. Here it listed the things that a player should attempt and conquer to reach a level of a Grand Master roleplayer - yeah, I know, it's a bit daft and being a 'Grand Master' in a hobby so subjective as tabletop roleplaying is something of a silly concept. Still - I wanted to see what Gygax himself considered as the pinnacle of gaming so I pressed on.

INDIVIDUAL EFFORT AND PLAYER MASTERY - Oh, yes; from Fighting Fantasy to Basic D&D and beyond I've definitely learned a lot and know what's expected from me at the gaming table. I even wrote articles about it, and published them in a book

PLAY GROUP EXCELLENCE AND MASTERY OF THE ROLE OF THE GAME MASTER - I can certainly say that this is true; after 30+ years of gaming I've mastered a lot of systems, especially Star Wars D6 and Warhammer FRP. I've played in them and run them for many different groups and players over the years.

CONTRIBUTIONS TO AND MASTERY  OF THE CHOSEN GAME SYSTEM - As the chief GM of almost every game system I ran in the 1990s and 2000s, with my games being actively sought after in the 1990s especially, then I can say this is true. Or maybe it was because I was the only GM for miles around... no, I'm going to go with my ego on this one.

CONTRIBUTIONS TO AND ACTIVITY WITHIN THE GREATER GAMING COMMUNITY - I ran convention games, I put on my own convention GammaCon, I reported on other conventions, ran my own store, ran RPG workshops and introduced dozens of people to the hobby, I edited my own webzine, I got involved with the industry on several levels and I take part in the community via this blog and other mediums. Yes, I'd say that this was covered.

So... is this it? Have I attained the level of Roleplayer Grand Master? Well, according to Gary Gygax - yes I have.

So therefore, I am:

* And no, before you say anything I'm not being serious - I just remember reading this book way back in the 1980s and thinking 'Wow, I'll never get to that!' because I took it all far too seriously. It all seems quite quaint, now.

Thursday 12 September 2013

Book review - The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach

'KNOT AFTER KNOT, DAY IN, day out, for an entire lifetime, always the same hand movements, always looping the same knots in the fine hair, so fine and so tiny that with time, the fingers trembled and the eyes became weak from strain-and still the progress was hardly noticeable.'

I first read this book a few years ago, just after my son Bruce was born. It was the book I read during his first two weeks of freedom from the womb and, in between the nappy-changing and feeding, I sat with my son in my arms and read The Carpet Makers.

'Since the time of prehistory, carpet makers have tied intricate knots to form carpets for the court of the Emperor. These carpets are made from the hairs of their makers' wives and daughters; they are so detailed and fragile that each carpet- maker finishes only one single carpet in his entire lifetime. This art has descended from father to son since the beginning of time itself. But, one day, the empire of the God Emperor vanishes... and strangers begin to arrive from the stars in search of the hair carpets. What these strangers discover is beyond all belief, more than anything they could have ever imagined... '

A string of open-ended and seemingly unconnected stories are - dare I use the pun - 'woven' together to create a universe so compelling, so shocking, that it is only now that I have decided to pick it up and read it again. 

I can't recommend this book enough. The Carpet Makers is a story so rich in detail and depth that it practically is a door to another time and another universe. The stories are all connected but each one is also a snapshot of the life of a subject of the God Emperor, the man who has, as far as anyone is concerned, ruled the universe for all time. People familiar with vast universes of Paul Atreides or the Emperor of the Warhammer 40K Imperium will find the setting familiar, a vast galaxy-spanning Empire that's almost inconcievable in it's size and influence. 

Andreas Eschbach creates characters with surprising depth in the few short pages that they have and that's a mark of quality writing; if the author can draw you in with nothing more than a few pages of story, detailing a character who won't be mentioned again for the rest of the book and still carry the overall story along with careful attention to the core idea... it makes me wonder what a full length uninterrupted novel must be like. After reading this, I can't wait to find out.

This is the reason why I waited for several years before reading it again; the sheer size of the concept and the reason for the existence of the carpet makers was staggering and it took me a long time to even begin to grasp the enormity what had happened in the pages of the book. This means that I can't even hint at the plot of the book without giving some small fact away that might ruin it for you. You'll just have to trust me and get a copy and find out for yourselves.

This is a huge book in every sense of the word, starting small but slowly building into an explosion of epic proportions; Andreas Eschbach takes you by the hand and slowly walks you through his world before dragging you into the finale. This is an excellent read from an excellent writer and I am definitely going to hunt down more of his work.

I urge every science fiction fan to buy a copy and lose themselves in the Empire of the God Emperor and his carpets made from human hair.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Nerd Stuff I Kinda Forgot I Had: Part 3

It's an Imperial seal of purity, man! And it's magnetic!

When the computer game Space Marine came out I absolutely loved it - I had it on PS3 and the gameplay, story and music was just great. Yeah, it got a bit samey in some places but the story and characters really worked.

In fact, the cutscenes were a thousand times better than the God Emperor-awful 'Ultramarines' move that came out, the official Games Workshop WH40K film (I was going to review that 'movie' but too much negativity gives me the shits).

In the collector's boxset for the game was this, an Imperial seal, the sort of thing you'd see hanging off the armour. I never bought the boxset, I was given this by a great mate who knew that I coveted it.

It's a great little piece of kit, with the litanies on the ribbons and the mock-wax seal looking the parts. And did I say it was magnetic? Cool! I'd stick it on my power armour, if I had any. But I don't. Because I'm not an eight-foot tall genetically manipulated super soldier.

Which is a bummer.

Tabletop RPG Review - EPOCH, an RPG of character-driven survival horror

Published by Imaginary Empires
Written by Dale Elvy

There comes a time when you just want to sit down and blast out a quick game that everyone can enjoy, and in which you don’t have to spend much time and effort preparing for. There comes a time when you want to let the pressures of GMing go for a little while and let the game and the players do the work for you. There comes a time when you just want to do a fast, fun one-shot.

Welcome to the ‘Experimental Paradigm of Cinematic Horror’ – or EPOCH, the character-drive survival horror roleplaying game.

EPOCH emulates pretty much one thing; those horror movies in which a bunch of people get thrown in to a horrible situation, usually involving monsters, aliens or crazed slashers. You know the films; ‘The Cabin In The Woods’, ‘Alien’, Jason and Freddy movies… pretty much any movie where the protagonists are picked off one by one by a scary, dangerous foe that’s supernatural, insane or out of this world. Or worse, all three. Have you ever wanted to set up a quick game where your players take the role of these unfortunate fools that get themselves into this dire situation? This game lets you do just that, but there’s an elegant little twist that decides who lives and who dies by the end of the game…

This card-based game from Imaginary Empire is a nice little 147-page softback book with colour covers and a black and white interior. The print is easy on the eye and the art, while sparse, is attractive and suitably gruesome. It’s a great little book that’ll fit nicely in your gaming bag in case you need it at a moment’s notice and takes up little room, so you can always have it with you if you need it. The copy I have also came with the card deck that you’ll need – these can be downloaded and printed as a PDF or ordered as a POD. There are 130 cards in total, more than enough to suit even a moderately large group although six is the perfect number (and I suggest getting the POD cards as they’re sturdy, well made and you’ll get a lot of use out of them).

Playing EPOCH is easy and, most of all, a lot of fun. Games are split into Tension Phases, where investigation, character interaction and general gaming takes place; and Challenge Rounds, where the characters are faced with an obstacle or threat that they must overcome. Let’s take the movie ‘Alien’ for example – the Tension Phase is the buildup; waking up to find that you’re still eleven months from Earth, Kane, Dallas and Lambert going into the hold of the crashed ship, trying to get the Nostromo operational again. The Challenge Rounds are for when stuff happens; Kane attacked by the facehugger, Brett attacked by the alien, Dallas attacked in the vents. The pressure is built during the Tension Phase and the Challenge Round releases that pressure as a dramatic explosion.

This is where you get to play your cards – there are no dice with EPOCH.

Cards, when played, help the story along and decide when a character lives or dies (or worse). They detail your traits, strengths, and weaknesses, and they detail the relationship that you have with the other player characters – family, friends or colleagues. All of these cards can be used to help yourself, help others or hinder others. I can guarantee that everyone will be dead by the end of the game except the player who played their cards cleverly, secretly and most of all dramatically. It’s part of what makes EPOCH a lot of fun – not only do you get to roleplay and run around having screaming fits about anti-social aliens and killer clown with axes, you also get to play a cunning game of strategy as you try to be the one who makes it to the end of the scenario alive. This is perfect one-shot material, and the game rules are simple and well explained so you could have a game up and running very easily at a moment’s notice with gamer friends who have never played this before. It’s perfect for single quick games and ongoing stories that might even feature the survivor(s) of the previous game - it’s no wonder it was nominated for 3 ENnie Awards including Best Rules, Best Electronic Book and Product of the Year.

The three scenarios that come in the book, ‘Fever Pitch’, ‘Sunshine Falls’, and ‘Price Slash’ cover the basics of the most popular horror flicks. There are others you can download, too, but it’s very easy to create your own based on your favourite horror movies. Up to yet I’ve run games inspired by Alien, It, War of the Worlds, The Evil Dead, Critters, The Walking Dead and a whole bunch of Cthulhu Mythos adventures. It really covers everything.

Not only that but there’s a lot of information and advice at the beginning of the book regarding running and taking part in games; this covers the distance between a player and their player character and how the closer they are together equals a much more immersive game, how GMs can get their players much more into character and to invest more into the personality they are playing, how to deal with those moments where problems arise that might ruin the atmosphere and how to manage the game with notes and proper preparation. Its really good advice that relates to immersive gaming in general and not just to EPOCH.

EPOCH is an excellent game that suits its horror movie subject matter perfectly. It has an incredibly clever system and a unique approach to narrative in which the GM, the players and the cards that are dealt all influence the outcome of the game. This requires the group to think fast and be on their toes and for the GM to be able to react to sudden changes in the flow of the story, but the nature of a horror survival flick – a small group in a small location with few avenues of escape – certainly makes this much easier to control.

Great fun and a great way to spend an evening with like-minded friends. Highly recommended.

Sunday 8 September 2013

Comic Review – Crusade 1: Simoun Dja

1 - Simoun DjaWriter: Jean Dufaux
Art: Philippe Xavier
Published in English by Cinebook

‘The tale of a forgotten crusade, erased from history because it fell into the shadow of the devil.

Jerusalem is in the hands of Sultan Ab’dul Razim, and the Christians have raised an army to take it back, led by GrĂ©goire of Arcos and the Duke of Taranto. Only Gauthier of Flanders and his sister-in-law Syria of Arcos are opposed to an attack they deem premature. But the stench of brimstone covers everything, and in a war fought in the name of God, it is the Qua’dj, a demon, who could decide the fate of the Holy Land…’

‘Crusade’ immediately grabs the attention with some stark cover art – a crusader knight standing over a corpse with evil in his eyes, and the land around him dark and desolate. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but this striking image is very enticing, and the actual graphic novel itself doesn’t disappoint.

This 56 page full-colour graphic novel is the first in a four-part series. There’s a handy opening that details the historical crusades that sets the scene and the atmosphere of the upcoming tale so reading up on the reality of the holy wars is not a necessity, although having knowledge of the crusades certainly helps. Reading the stories of both sides and how the war and the influence of the evil affects them certainly makes for an intriguing story. As this is the first part of the series nothing gets resolved, it just prepares you for the next step in the saga and sets the scene characters and situations that will follow. Nevertheless a lot happens in this volume, what with the politics and theology on both sides, so it’s a very satisfying read.

Jean Dufaux’s writing is very good and there’s a nice mix of narrative and dialogue; narrative where you need it to keep up and uninterrupted dialogue when you want it. The conversations have little in the way of exposition except where needed to be able to follow the story so it’s a good read, and has a movie script feel to it.

Philippe Xavier’s art is excellent and some of the vistas are impressive, especially the first view of The Holy City and the two-page charge into battle, but there is something slightly lacking in the expressions of the characters. Although they are well defined so that they are identifiable there seems to be no real expressions of emotion on the faces, at least expressions that aren’t highlighted by the story and dialogue; they all seem to be either surprised or moody. This suits the darkness of the story, that’s for sure, so it certainly doesn’t distract from the unfolding tale or the excellent artwork.

Crusade 1: Simoun Dja is an excellent first volume in what promises to be an excellent series. Cinebook has succeeded again in enticing me into sticking with another great title.

Saturday 7 September 2013

Interview - Nick Marsh, author of 'The Express Diaries'

Say hello to Nick Marsh, author of the excellent book 'The Express Diaries' and my interviewee today!

Hello, Nick - perhaps you'd like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Nick Marsh, and I'm a writer, blogger, gamer, and veterinary surgeon - which I'm aware is a strange combination. It can be hard work being a geek in rural Devon, but thanks to the wonders of the internet, I get by.

I've written a number of genre novels - The Ancients (fantasy), Soul Purpose and Past Tense(science fiction) and my latest, The Express Diaries (twenties-period horror)

Tell us about your creative history - what got you into the crazy world of strange fiction?

My parents were both teachers, and when I was a kid, they used to take me on three- or four-week-long holidays around Germany and Austria - a lifetime when you're knee high to a wienerschnitzel. They loved to plan the route themselves, spending months deciding where would be best to go - great fun for them, but as a consequence the holidays consisted in large part of sitting in laybys on the Autobahn, listening to my parents intermittently puzzling and swearing over large maps of the Black Forest, or driving slowly around Baden Baden searching for a magical 'Zimmer Frei' sign that would indicate we would have somewhere to sleep that night.

I got into the habit of taking lots of books from their school's library with me to kill the time (I brought them back, I promise!) during these extended foreign invasions, and two in particular must have hit me at a particularly impressionable time, because they informed what I'd be doing for the rest of my life.

The first (it would be called a 'young adult' novel now but back then was a kid's book) was a novel by Douglas Hill called 'Galactic Warlord', about the adventures of the last Legionary of the fabled planet Moros, selling his superior martial skills to noble causes while he pursued his quest for revenge upon the murderers of his homeworld. The second was 'Every Living Thing' by James Herriot, the tales of a young veterinary surgeon in pre- and post-World War II Yorkshire. I read these books, and suddenly I realised what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

Unfortunately, as I grew up, I discovered that it's actually incredibly difficult to become an indestructable alien mercenary, so I became a vet instead.

Okay, okay, that was flippant, but it's a neat way of summarising the biggest parts of my life; animals and geekdom. University squashed my writing urge for a while, but a few years after qualifying I started writing a novel - initially it was going to be a straight novel about veterinary surgeons, but me being me I soon found aliens and century-dead magicians creeping into the story. That became Soul Purpose, my first novel, which was picked up by Immanion Press. The writing career sort of grew from there.

As far as being a gamer (and although I do play a lot of video games - currently Spelunky, Dishonored and Saint's Row IV, if you're interested! - I mean a gamer in the traditional board- and role-playing games sense) - well, that was thanks to another book from my parent's school's library - The Forest of Doom, by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. That Iain McCaig cover drew me straight in, and I was sold from the first paragraph. From there I graduated to Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, Traveller and all the various games that have brought me so much joy over the years.

What's your favourite genre to read? What's out there at the moment that floats your boat?

Possibly due to mid-life crisis, I'm currently trying to understand a little more about our real-world history - because where we're heading doesn't seem to be a good place. Consequently, the book I'm reading at the moment is Washington's China by James Peck, about the changing attitudes of successive US Governments to China. Its fascinating, but rather dry, so I'm interspersing that with short bursts of After Liff, a sequel to John Lloyd and the extremely sorely-missed Douglas Adams's Meaning of Liff - and bloody good it is too.

So I don't loose too many geek points I will point out that the book I finished last week wasUbik, by Philip K. Dick. I've read a few Dick before, some of which I loved (Time Out of Joint, The Man in the High Castle), some of which I honestly didn't (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) - but I loved Ubik. Just as you would imagine a Philip K. Dick novel to be - reality-bending and thought provoking. Highly recommended!

As a kid, following on from Lord of the Rings, I read an awful lot of fantasy - starting with the Dragonlance Saga (which I still have a very soft spot for) I read a huge amount of fantasy, but after the umpteenth multi-book saga in which very little happened (mutter mutter Belgariad mutter) I grew weary of it, and turned more to SF. In fact, In the last few years I've been trying to read as much classic SF as I can, and the standouts from recent years would be 1984, Flowers for Algernon and Solaris - all excellent, deep and emotional stories in the ways that Science Fiction is often accused of lacking.

I did recently dip my toe back into fantasy with A Game of Thrones, which I found revelatory - breathtakingly well-written. I devoured the rest of the books. Unfortunately, I then hit a Dance With Dragons - and I'm honestly not sure how such a gargantuan book has so little happen within it. I think I'll stick with the excellent HBO show instead in future - praying that George R R Martin knows where he's going with the bloody thing - and the next fantasy I'm likely to pick up will be The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I'm almost universally told is 'sodding brilliant'.

Out of all your projects, what are you most proud of?

Definitely the book I'm happiest with is The Express Diaries - about which more in a moment!

Tell us more about your recent book 'The Express Diaries', 'a tale of a journey into darkness and horror on the world's most famous train'; what was the attraction in writing the book?

Call of Cthulhu is probably my favourite role-playing game of all time. It got me into the dark and fascinating world of HP Lovecraft, and the malign influence of his alien Old Ones has influenced my writing ever since. So when Paul Maclean, the owner of the wonderful Lovecraftian website, asked me if I'd be interested in writing a novelization of his roleplaying groups play-throughs of the classic Chaosium campaign Horror on the Orient Express, I jumped at the chance.

Paul put me in touch with Eric Smith, the artist for the project, and between the three of us we crafted (I can say this because I just wrote the words) a thing of beauty. Eric's illustrations are fantastic, and Paul's devotion to the project helped us create a wonderful hardcover novel, which has pride of place on my shelf.

As far as the writing of the novel goes - I did have some apprehension about writing up a roleplaying game session. Novels along these lines have a long but not necessarily glorious history, and I was determined that The Express Diaries would be accessible to an audience that had never heard of Call of Cthulhu, let alone Horror on the Orient Express. The book has had fantastic reviews and a wonderful response on Goodreads - especially from people who weren't aware of its origins - so I think I managed to get something right!

What are you working on at the moment?

Well, at the urgings of friends and family, I'm taking a (brief!) break from genre fiction to work on a veterinary memoir. I started my blog, Maybe it -should- happen to a vet, several years ago, as a method of venting the stresses and strains of daily life as a veterinary surgeon. I wasn't really expecting a lot of readers - it was really writing as therapy - so I was surprised at the number of views it got. A number of my posts are due to be published in the Veterinary Times, and one of them - Dog #86324 - is up for a major non-fiction literary award, so I'm quite excited about that. My new work is a novelised (i.e. far less 'bloggy') version of my blog. Given that my writing speed makes George R R Martin look incredibly prolific, it might be a while before it comes out!

Thanks for the questions!

Thursday 5 September 2013

Nerd Stuff I Kinda Forgot I Had: Part 2

Once you start plying through boxes and cupboards you simply can't stop, and when you find something that makes you shout, 'No fricking way, man!' it just makes you want to keep going.

I listened to Jeff Wayne's 'War of the Worlds' album long before I read the fabulous book, so the songs, themes and sounds echo in my head whenever I read it again or watch any of the movies (original movie good, Tom Cruise movie a great interpretation though has the saccharine Spielberg ending, TV show does not exist in this dojo).

I used to listen to my older brother's LP - it was the late 1970s - and in the LP sleeves was a softback book with the script, lyrics and some amazing art that pretty much defined War of the Worlds for me, and why I will always want my Victorian-era movie.

I don't have the LPs but I managed to get hold of one of the books - I don't remember where or how - and it's a bit dog-eared and crumpled but still in good condition, and the images are just as striking as they always were.

I've got the CDs of the musical, now, both the original and the newer version with new performers, but the original will always be the best. This book takes me back to the heady days of pre-teen wonder and the crazy thoughts and feelings that the artwork sent whirling through my head.

Monday 2 September 2013

Comic Review - Good Cop Bad Cop: Tiny Acts Of Kindness Part 1

Good Cop Bad Cop – Tiny Acts Of Kindness Part 1

Writer: Jim Alexander
Artist: Luke Cooper

Good Cop Bad Cop is the new title from Planet Jimbot, the independent publisher that bought us the excellent ‘Amongst The Stars’. Where their previous title was some serious science fiction this new title takes us to the dark underbelly of modern day Scotland with Detective Inspector Fisher.

As this is the first issue there some scene setting being done. We get to see Fisher ‘in action’ – that is, he has a Jekyll/Hyde personality that he seemingly allows to happen, the darker, violent nature of his personality coming out when under pressure or threatened. There have been consequences to these outbursts and he’s obviously feeling the strain. His investigation goes from a robbery to a kidnapping which don't seem to be connected...

Meanwhile, a man is tortured in the middle of nowhere by a man and his dogs, and we don’t know why except that the man doing the torturing seems to find justification in his actions, almost as if he’s convincing himself that what he’s doing is for the best...

The story switches between the two incidents and, as this is a first issue, you don’t get the full gist of exactly what is going on. The writing is sharp and crisp – there’s a great ‘Salt and Vinegar do you?’ line that made me laugh – and the dialogue feels natural and certainly gets your attention. No long drawn-out conversations here, just quick and to the point. There’s a moment when you’d like to know exactly what is going on and why, but this is the first issue and there’s no doubt going to be clarification later on. This is simply setting the scene and the characters.

The artwork is very clean and functional, with some very stark black and white images with shades of grey. Its very good art with some computer highlighting, like forced blurring which gives a nice sense of depth. I do feel that this kind of story calls for something a little more detailed and dirty. The artwork here, while very good as you get a real sense of expression on the faces of the characters so it’s not just the words that convey the atmosphere and emotion, seems a little too sharp and clean for a story trying to show the grim darkness of the characters and the things they do. The shading is very good and gives it a wonderful noir-ish feel. I’d like to see Luke Cooper's great art illustrate a gumshoe 1940s story, a private dick in the big city.

I enjoyed this, and a re-read had me appreciating it even more. As a first issue Good Cop Bad Cop: Tiny Acts Of Kindness felt a little lacking at first as I never really got an idea of exactly what is going on, but the mystery of that in itself is enough to make me want to move on to the next issue. I want to see more of Fisher, who and why he is, and more of the strange man with the vicious dogs that he loves so much.


Sunday 1 September 2013

Interview - Simon Powell of DramaScape

Please welcome to Farsight Blogger Simon Powell of the rather excellent Dramascape, 'A wonderland of maps and adventures' for your tabletop games.

1 - Perhaps you'd like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m 49 and live in Newport South Wales UK, I’ve been a bit of a Jack of all trades through my life, from Army to Shop Manager and lastly Fork Lift Instructor. I had to retire 8 years ago due to ill health and had to look for something to occupy my days.

2 - Tell us about your gaming history - what got you into the wonderful world of tabletop?

In my early 20’s I discovered a little shop in Newport called Armchair Adventures, it had lots of wonderful games and figures, after a while of popping into the shop and attending the Dragondaze conventions they ran yearly, in a small hall, I got invited to join in with a group playing Warhammer Fantasy, and that spurred me onto running my own games, I discovered Earthdawn and used to run that weekly at the local gaming club and enjoyed participating in the RedBrick forums.

3 - What is it about the tabletop hobby that attracts you? What do you enjoy most when playing a game?

No matter how your week has been, you can emerge yourself into your character and forget all your troubles; you can enjoy the social interaction of like-minded people who tend to think above the level of “normal” folks. As a gamemaster you enjoy watching the players characters develop and solve the problems set before them, and of course the constant bribing the GM with cups of tea and snacks always helps.

4 - What's your favourite game? What games that are out there at the moment float your boat?

I must say that my favourite game is Earthdawn, it’s the diverse world that’s based on past earth and the way that the dice are open ended so that anything can happen, the dragon can be slain with the lucky shot and of course the totally unlucky can happen too.

5 - Do you still get time to play? What are you playing at the moment?

Unfortunately due to my illness my brain doesn’t work well in live situations and I’m not always well enough to attend regular events. So I’m not currently playing anything but I like to keep an eye on all the new developments in the RPG world.

6 - The tabletop hobby has been through a lot changes over the years and it seems that its death-knell is always sounded when newer hobbies come along such as computer games. It still seems to be able to hold it’s own, though – what do you see happening to the hobby in the future? What changes, if any, do you think will have to be made to ensure its survival?

I think that family interaction through board and RPG games is still as important as it always was; it’s up to us to teach the youngsters what we learnt at their age. There does seem to be a reemergence of board gaming, and especially war games, its seem the be the “eye candy” games that work well and those based on products that are already known to the public, like Star Wars and such.

Virtual technology is also helping restart the gaming scene, we have now copied the MMOG strategy that seems so popular these days, with Virtual Table Tops, players from all over the world can sit down and play games with each other over the internet, with software such as RPMaptools, Battlegrounds and Roll20. I think one of the reasons that DramaScape has been so successful is that we provide a Virtual copy of each map we produce so that it can be used online.

One of the things we have tried to do with our maps is to move away from the traditional hand drawn cartoony look, we have tried to make our maps look realistic and give them the computer game feel.

7 - Out of all your projects, what are you most proud of?

At the moment my favourite map is the Asylum, it’s a five level Victorian style mansion converted into an institution to hold indefinitely the mentally disturbed. The five levels include a basement, three main floors, and an attic each with multiple rooms, this was great fun to create and we worked alongside Aaron Huss from Savage Insider who was looking for a map for an adventure he was writing.

8 - Tell us more about Dramascape; what was the inspiration for creating these wonderful floorplans, what goes into creating them and what are your inspirations?

I have always tried to include maps when I was gamemastering, they say a picture speaks a thousand words and a well-drawn map enhances the gaming experience. I found Dundjinni many years ago and used it to produce my maps. One of the things that I started to use to occupy my time now I’m not working was digital art and after producing a few fan images for RedBrick I was asked to produce some covers, this was something that I really enjoyed, after a while I approached RedBrick and proposed the idea of running a map company within the RedBrick umbrella, and thus DramaScape was born. We went solo in May 2012 when Redbrick closed down.

I met Steven J Black and Vidar Edland who are also part of DramaScape while I was creating images for the RedBrick products and they joined in with me, Steven is the Assistant Manager and writer and Vidar is a writer and editor for us.

The maps are created through 3d modeling, we use high end software to create the scenes sometime making the models ourselves, the scenes are then rendered and put up on our development forum where Steven and Vidar look over them and decide what works and what doesn’t, when we finally have a completed image Steven then writes the descriptions and plot hooks for them, these are then edited by Vidar, I then sort out the layout and then publish them on Onebookshelf. Sometime if we are inspired this process can be very fast, we have gone from inspiration to published product in one day on a few products.

We also like to listen carefully to our Facebook community and if there is a map that they want us to produce we will do our best to create it, these always sell well.

We produce a free map each month and we have found this has done well in introducing people to our product range.

9 - What are you working on at the moment?

We are currently working on a Savage Worlds source book called Tribes of Yggdrasil, this is based on a series of books by Best Selling Canadian Author Hugh Long, it’s a sci-fi setting based on the idea that the Norse Gods are real and that they seeded life on Earth and several planets around the Galaxy.

We are also producing a series of cards for use with the Savage Worlds system, our first one was the Savage Worlds SciFi Weapons Cards and we have a Sci-Fi NPC set in the works too.

We are also working with a few writers to produce a series of generic adventures based on our current and future maps.

And of course we will be continuing to produce the maps that we are known for.