Sunday 30 November 2014

Review - Assassin's Creed Unity: Abstergo Entertainment Employee Handbook

Inline image 1By: Christie Golden
Published by Titan Books

Review by Richard Williams

I wasn't really sure what to expect when I opened my new Abstergo employee handbook and was thus very pleasantly surprised. There's plenty of really nice artwork throughout the book taken from all of the games (although largely from Black Flag and Unity) and the accompanying text is both well written and informative. Characters from the games are cast in a new light, the assassins now bloodthirsty anarchists while the Templars are glowing models of decency, and we can see the ideas that have been kicked about the Abstergo office for other time periods to explore. The only down side of this is that it might make you wish they had been made.

Occasionally there are little pull-out goodies (letters, pictures, etc) which are well made and add an extra dimension to the book and the way the book is laid out, divided by sections as in a real company handbook, is fitting and a nice attention to detail.

One of the things I like most about this book is the subtle undercurrent of the Templar's true intentions. While the book talks in glowing terms and with an eye towards the glorious future that technology will bring there are little clues to Abstergo's real motivations written between the lines. Health monitors that record your every heartbeat and bead of sweat and Abstergo's plans for Fluoride+ (Google 'fluoride' and 'conspiracy' and you'll see why this is funny) are just some examples and I appreciate the extreme subtly used by the author with many of the other 'beneficial technological developments'.

This is not a big book but is is colourful, fun and well thought out and fans of Assassin's Creed will get a kick out of it. Ideal present material, in my opinion.

- Richard Williams

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Interview - Aaron and Ryan of the LARP Census

Please welcome Aaron Vanek and Ryan Paddy of the LARP Census.

Live Action Role-Playing is huge across the world, and these guys have set up a website in an attempt to get an idea of the scale of the hobby. What is this all about? Well, let me share with you the first two questions on the website's FAQ:

What is larp?

Larp or LARP is an acronym that stands for Live Action Role Playing. Some people think of larp as a sport, some as a hobby, some as a medium of expression, and some as an art form.

Larp means you portray a character—who may be a mindless zombie or who may be very close to the real you—with other people doing the same. The overall experience is designed and guided by someone or a group who may or may not also portray characters during the event. There is rarely a detailed script to follow like staged theater. This improv acting is performed for personal satisfaction and the fulfillment of your fellow role-players; larp is not for a passive audience that has no agency in the narrative.

Larp goes by many names, and instances of it have appeared throughout global history. It appears to be in a global resurgence, with larp communities in many different countries.

Why a global larp census?

Although some countries have rough estimates of their larp population, there has not been a comprehensive global census taken of self-identifying larpers on this scale. We really want to count everyone who larps, has larped, and wants to larp.

The information we acquire will be publicly shared so scholars can analyze the data and make conclusions that will, hopefully, increase both the quantity and quality of larps around the globe.

Before we talk about the LARP Census, tell us something about your own gaming histories.

Aaron Vanek - A friend of my mom's gave me the white box (three tan books) version of Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid. I made a few characters but couldn't find anyone to play with, nor did I really understand the rules. I recall trying to buy the Chainmail expansion from a game store a few blocks from home. Instead I got the D&D Basic Set (the purple 1981 version), and found one friend to play with. One player slowly grew to well over a dozen by high school. This group enjoyed playing games, mostly RPG's, almost every weekend; Traveller, Top Secret, Champions, and Call of Cthulhu were the usual fare, but we tried a lot (anyone remember Fringeworthy or Stalking the Night Fantastic?). We also played board games (Arkham Horror 1st Ed., Talisman, etc.), card games (Nuclear War, Illuminati), and video games (Infocom on the C-64, Star Saga, Bard's Tale, Wasteland, etc.).

I published a quick and dirty system for chases in games in the revamped Space Gamer/Fantasy Gamer magazine (Red Rahm, editor), and then nothing until the 21st century when a few of my Call of Cthulhu scenarios were published by Chaosium and Pegasus Spiele.

I've worked for two defunct video game companies, and in 2012 started my own 501c3 nonprofit company, Seekers Unlimited, that makes educational larps.

I've been playing games of one kind or another for a little more than 30 years. There's more info and credits, if anyone cares, on my website.

Ryan Paddy - My older brother played tabletop roleplaying games, and I grew up hanging around and listening in to all kinds of games. Reading his game books got me excited from an early age, but it wasn't until teenage years that I met a bunch of friends who liked it too. We took turns running a lot of different games. MERP, Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia and Harn all have special places as part of my growing up experience.

We wrote our own systems and settings to play among ourselves too. I made a game called Pakewaitara ("Legends") based on traditional Maori stories. These ancient tales were recorded from oral tradition back in the 1800s during colonial times here in New Zealand, and the heroes and villains often have amazing powers over their bodies, nature and the spirit world, transforming themselves into animals and engaging in epic journeys and battles. Perfect fodder for a roleplaying game, and something with special meaning where I live.

What was the attraction to LARP?

AV - For me, it was getting off my ass and away from the table. Where I grew up there was a creek and runoff passageway next to the train tracks near my apartment. All the kids called it "Mummy's Cave." Paralleling the tracks were giant eucalyptus trees, like temple columns. It was a natural setting for larping if you ignored the cars and trains. I made some very simple larp scenarios set there, but never had enough smarts, resources, or friends to make them "official." it was just play pretend with a fantasy theme and hit points. Except that I now consider play pretend to be live action role playing.

At a local game convention I attended through middle and high school, the IFGS (International Fantasy Gaming Society) ran a few larp scenarios, which I enjoyed. The driving attraction was relying on my real skills instead of random dice rolls.

In college I larped almost once a month through Enigma, UCLA's science fiction, fantasy, horror and gaming club. The attraction still hasn't gone away. I love engaging all five of my senses as well as exercising my physical, mental, and emotional being. I never got that from traditional table games, at least not while I was growing up. I think gaming has matured considerably since my early days. Nowadays I am excited to play and even try to combine the progressive trends in indie RPGs, indie video games, board games, card games, and larps. We live during a golden gaming renaissance that enriches all types, styles, genres, and experiences.

RP - I also heard about larp through my older brother. He had a school friend who was playing in a "widegaming" group - that's what we called larp back then. My brother's friend came over with some really rudimentary foam weaopns (this was around 1988), and when we fought with them something clicked in my mind. Those weapons made me instantly imagine how we could bring to life fantasy worlds in a much more immediate and interactive way, telling stories in real time and staying fully in character rather than popping out of character to resolve conflicts like with tabletop.

After that, alongside tabletop RPGs I started running larps with some school friends. Where I grew up on the North Shore of Auckland is blessed with lots of small forested parks, and we ran classic fantasy quests through them. It started out with a handful of people, but quickly grew to 40 or so kids, a rulebook we wrote, and regular adventures. It was all pretty basic looking back, but a lot of good silly fun was had and we loved it at the time. We also ran some non-fantasy games, usually horror scenarios set in the modern day with pre-written characters.

As teens we once constructed an elaborate cardboard maze in the crawlspace under my parent's house, only a couple of feet high. It was incredibly claustrophobic crawling through there with just a flashlight. We'd already has some creepy scenes with seances and an undead house invasion before the players found it, so they were pretty freaked out. One player was armed with an unloaded airsoft pistol, the rule was that if it was "fired" it always hit the target. Deep in the maze under the house, he encountered a madwoman who came flailing and screaming at him down the tunnel like something out of Aliens. He fired wildly at her, then panicked and crawled backwards all the way back out (it was that tight), then when he got out he mistook his friends waiting outside for more enemies and shot them too! Nowadays that player works in a tactical unit in the police. True story!

The last time I LARPed was fifteen years ago, and I spent my time monstering and having great fun. This meant hiding in bushes, hitting people and shouting out my damage score. Has LARP changed much since those early days?

AV - No and yes. No, it hasn't changed at all. What you describe is still the prevalent style of live action role playing, especially in Europe, America, and lands down under.

But yes, it has changed, deeply, radically, but only in limited areas. There are larps used for business and military training, education, or to evoke social change. Some larps have almost no rules and deal with deeply emotional issues. Some larps have only two or three players, no GM, held in a private, tiny room, while other larps have hundreds or thousands of players and are set on a battleship or in a medieval castle. And there is quite a lot in between, too. It's not all fantasy, either: there are science fiction larps, horror larps, post-apocalypse larps, historical larps, dramatic larps, comedy larps, and experimental larps. Some run for years, some less than an hour.

I've said this many times before, but I feel that fantasy foam combat campaigns are to larp what super heroes are to comic books: colorful, popular, and too often mistaken as the default form of larp. That's just one type of larp content; it's not what live action role playing is. I personally think of larp as an ancient art form--there are examples of larps from before, long before, D&D was a gleam in Gary Gygax's eye. Some regard larp as a hobby or, occasionally, a sport. We're all correct.

RP - Every larp is so different. Even back in 2000 when you last larped Jonathan, there was already a massive diversity of larps happening beyond what you experienced, and it's only grown since then. It's never even been all foam weapons and adventure games, right from the first larps in the early 1980s there were games using alternative mechanics like rock-paper-scissors, often indoor games which were about intrigue and politics between a group of pre-written player characters rather than adventuring or factional conflicts. In Australia, the first recorded larp (although they called it a "freeform RPG") was a live game of Traveller played at a convention, where the convention rooms represented a starship and the players walked around and talked in character. They used dice and had lot of GMs to referee, but as soon as you get up and embody your character and represent the setting in real space, you've crossed the very fuzzy line from tabletop to larp. A lot of early larp origin stories are like that, basically tabletop games that went a bit feral and turned into something else - a larp.

The major change of the last decade has been a recognition of how larp can be used not only for entertainment but also for education, emotional catharsis, political activism, and so much more. The immediacy of larp makes it a very powerful and personal medium. The international larp scene has also become increasingly connected through technology. This started as early as 1994 when I first got onto newsgroups and talked to larpers in the UK and the US, but technology like Facebook now means that you don't have to go looking for groups or forums, international larpers come find you.

I'm also starting to see a lot more professional involvement in larp. Making and retailing costumes and props is a growing industry, and has attracted the attention of some big players including manufacturers for licenses like Age of Conan and The Hobbit. There are a lot of professional movie prop makers & costumers getting into supplying larp too. Movie work is often uncertain for these folks, so they can use larp sales to fill the gaps between productions. As a result there's an explosion of really high-quality gear coming out, and there's a virtuous circle where all the pretty gear attracts more new larpers, and that growing market in turn attracts more industry to these customers. We're also starting to see things like electronics products purpose-built for larp.

Tell us more about the LARP census - what's it all about?

AV - The Larp Census is a non-profit project that Ryan Paddy and I developed over the past two years to count every larper on Earth. No small task, that, and it's doomed to failure. Still, we want to count as many as possible and find out more about them: where are they, how old are they, how many larps have they participated in, why do they larp, do they make things for larp, etc.

By gathering this information and then releasing it freely to anyone via a Creative Commons license, we hope the quantity and quality of larps everywhere will increase. We'll have hard figures about who is doing this art-hobby-sport, and what is working and what might not be working. Ideally, larpers around the world will realize that they aren't alone, that larp is a global phenomenon. Unlike tabletop RPGs that can point to D&D as their origin, there wasn't really--and still isn't--a single larp game or rule set from whence everything else sprang, at least not globally. We hope to show people that there's more going on here than what your local larp is doing.

RP - The Larp Census is about curiosity. Or call it science, perhaps. Who is larping? Where are we? How do we do it, how many of us are there, and what do we enjoy most about it? Nobody knows, and we want to find out. We've already started looking at the data collected so far, and every single statistic has a surprising and interesting story to tell.

Not only that, but now is the right time for a census. Because larp is on the verge of a big step-change. If you've been to any big pop-culture conventions, you'll know that there's a massive convergence of costuming, gaming and fandom going on. More and more people want to dress up and get fully immersed. So what activity lets you dress up, tell a story and play a game all at once? Larp combines all these things better than any other medium.

We're seeing the emergence of a new breed of larps with amazing production values and huge general appeal. It's happening at the same time as the market for this kind of game is reaching maturity. That market and those games are about to meet, and there's going to be quite an explosion. Now is the time to document the "before" picture, while larp is still young and mostly amateur.

What do you hope to achieve with the census? What will it be used for?

RP - The Larp Census is really an absurdly ambitious project. I don't know of anything else like it, trying to document an activity across the entire globe. If nothing else we've demonstrated that we have the technology to survey the whole world about a niche thing they love, that's pretty cool in itself! At launch we had thousands of responses flooding in per day, which was quite a rush. Social media has played a big part, giving the project a viral boost.

Fundamentally we want larpers, organisers and suppliers to know where, how and why people are larping, so that more and better games can be created and played.

Also, we want to help along the process of bringing the worldwide larping community together, breaking down barriers and building new international collaborations. We're already seeing that happen from the early census results we've published so far, they have started conversations between regional larp communities and made people aware of all the unexpected countries where larp is being played.

LARP is still big across the world. What do you see in it's future? 

AV - I think, and hope, that larp will be recognized as a valid art form--it already is in some countries. Maybe larp will be understood as "structured experiences" that can create very profound changes in not just individual lives, but societies as well.

Or larp is just a fad that will die out in a few years. But I doubt that.

RP - We're going to see larp go commercial and mainstream in our lifetimes, with massive games and incredible production values. There are some larps with thousands of players at events now, but the entertainment industry is only beginning to catch on to this growing market. In a world where media piracy is the new norm, there is special value in a medium like larp that can only be experienced physically. Players engage and invest in larps over a long period of time, often buying multiple in-character wardrobes as well as paying for events. We're already seeing companies like Disney invest in larp-like in-character interactive games at their amusement parks. Strange as it might sound, larp is a bandwagon that a lot of companies are about to jump on.

The real question is: will any of the new breed of big commercial larps be any good? Just as successful blockbuster movies can have terrible scripts and acting, and huge MMOs can lean on pointless but addictive grinding, we may see larps emerge that are fine-tuned to extract money without having either the artistic merit or the strong aspect of personal creativity from the players that less commercialised efforts allow for. I imagine we'll some big commerical larps that are high on glitz and short on substance, but I also hope we'll see some quality mega-larps too, drawing on the experience of larp organisers to help design games that are spectacular and also have depth.

Monday 24 November 2014

Soundtrack Mini Review – ‘300’ by Tyler Bates

‘300’ is a cracking comic-book movie that gives us a heavily stylised and fantastical version of the Spartan stand against the Persians at Thermopylae.

The mood of the film is both slow and daunting, interspersed with moments of intense action, and the music reacts to these beats well. The choral music, which you hear in the trailer, is powerful and really drives the mood. However, the more ethereal singing and the inclusion of heavy guitar riffs kind of works in the film but sounds out of place when listening to the soundtrack as music on it’s own.

All in all it’s a great soundtrack; Tyler Bates really captures the mood of the film. Maybe not so much the era, but considering that this is a fantasy version of a second-hand story of a legend, that’s perfectly understandable.

Saturday 22 November 2014

Review - New Space Frontiers: Venturing into Earth Orbit and Beyond

By Piers Bizony

Published by Zenith Press

When I’m working on new projects, when I’m looking for ideas for my writing, I often turn to all kinds of sources for inspiration, from TV shows to books to movies to the internet. It was great, then, to not only get my hands on a book that’s filled to the brim with some incredibly inspirational images covering the early days of spaceflight to the future of manned and unmanned exploration, but also containing a lot of small and enlightening facts that even I, a follower of space programs worldwide, didn’t realise.

‘Get ready to experience the excitement of adventure with New Space Frontiers. Through gorgeous photography and engaging writing, noted space and science author Piers Bizony speculates beyond just today's hardware and explores what might be possible for the next generation.’

Chapter 1, ‘Escape From Planet Earth, covers the hardware we are and can be using to get vehicles into low Earth orbit. It details different ways to get into and back from orbit, from the existing vehicles to ones in preparation, and the images on show are excellent, especially one visually stunning photograph of a Soyuz night recovery mission.

Chapter 2, ‘Almost Space Flight’, gives us a look at the sub-orbital vehicles in development and, even though it does sometimes read like a promotional brochure for the firms taking part in the research, there are, once again, some great images on show.

Chapter 3, ‘Islands In The Sky’, entices us with the possibility of orbital habitations, space stations where humans could live, work and even raise families. From the small cramped ISS to the huge visions of wheeled cities in space – peppered with images from science fiction as well as the visions of conceptual artists – it’s inspirational stuff.

Chapter 4, ‘Destination Moon’, talks about future journeys to our closest celestial body and even establishing a base or colony there. There are some great images of Moonbases, again from science fiction as well as actual concept renderings, and the next generation Moon vehicles are incredibly fascinating.

Chapter 5, ‘Interplanetary Adventures’, throws us beyond Earth orbit and talks about exploring the other planets of our solar system and the challenges such a thing creates. Again, there’s a wealth of wonderful images in this chapter that inspire and make your mind whirl with the possibilities and the logistics of it all.

Finally, Chapter 6, ‘Across The Gulf Of Stars’, takes us even further, beyond our solar system and to the nearest stars via telescopes, nuclear-powered robot probes and even possible manned missions to the potential worlds that surround us. Much of this is purely speculative, of course, although much of the science is hard and, once again, the wonderful images make it all very possible.

Piers Bizony gives us an excellent journey through the next actual and possible steps of space exploration and gives us both the practical and fantastical. The reality of existing space programs and the technology they use blends with the conceptual and then the almost unbelievable, so when reading this you feel like everything is reachable and the stars are closer than you think.

There are a few issues; there are some errors in the type and the layout breaks up the text so it sometimes feels that sentences are left hanging and incomplete, only to be picked up on a page or two later. This is a little jarring and when the text is filling your head with ideas, to have yourself yanked out of the narrative flow is disorientating and ruins the impact slightly.

The images are gorgeous. The full colour glossy pages gives us some amazingly detailed photographs, paintings and renderings and I found myself wishing the pages were a little larger so that I could see more detail. This brings me on to another issue I had with the book and that’s the landscape presentation; I’m not a fan as I find books like that a little clumsy in my hands, but that’s a personal thing and does not detract from the book at all.

New Space Frontiers is a great book and it’s filled with some amazing images that you will no doubt find inspirational on many levels. Piers Bizony’s writing is functional and he explains things well and, typos and layout aside, it’s a good read.

If you want to learn more about the near future of space exploration, then I can recommend this tome quite easily. It’s a fascinating look at the past, present and future of our journey into space.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Review: The Art of Assassin's Creed - Unity

Author: Paul Davies
Published by Titan Books

Review by Richard Williams

*WARNING: Contains spoilers for the game*

Assassin's Creed Unity has come under a lot of flack for a number of reasons. Thankfully I have the pleasure of reviewing not the game but this outstanding collection of concept art. Those who have bought previous books in this series will be pleased to find that Titan Books have kept to their tried, tested and outstanding format and have produced yet other concept art book where the emphasis is on art, rather than design. I feel that this is an important point to make. Concept art is experiencing something of a heyday and is now a thing worth collecting in its own right. However, due to the reason for its existence, concept art, however artistic it may be, is functional and intended to be useful to developers later on. As such it is typically a collection of usable things, people out of context and places for the sake of testing the lighting. The art books of Assassin's Creed are a bold exception to this rule and you will be hard pressed to find concept art where so much is done in a painterly style and where page after page of work wouldn't look out of place framed on a gallery wall.

However that does not mean that this is all you'll find here. Of course there is plenty of design work but I did notice there was strangely nothing of the gear, weapons and equipment. This will displease quite a few people, I'm sure, although it took me several goes looking through this book before it dawned on me that it was under-represented.

Firstly there is an impressive amount of character design, almost fifty pages of it, with each drawing as pleasing to look at as the next. The outfits are rich in detail and the faces tell the life story of the characters who wear them. I would complain that there is hardly any exploration of the design process (early stages through to production pieces) but with so much on show it would frankly just sound ungrateful. A completionist (to borrow a word from gaming) would mind the missing work but a fan of art would merely enjoy the really nice work on show, much of it full page. Character design has always been one of Assassin's Creed's strongest elements in the art books and I can honestly say that I think Unity showcases their best work.

Other than character design the rest is almost entirely locations. This might not please everyone such as the people who want a catalogue of everything that had to be designed for the game (much as the artbook for Thief provided) and considering this is a book of concept art it isn't an unfair gripe. Had the artwork in this book been less to shout about I might have felt myself cheated too. But there are few games where the location design work is so majestic. The colours are rich and vibrant and the detail is stunning. Just as the artists capture the luxury, elegance and grandeur of Parisian high society they are no less inspired in their depiction of the poverty and desperation of the poorer districts with gritty, overcrowded streets and a dour and darker colour palette.

Due to the new capabilities of the next-gen consoles AC: Unity features a lot more game time indoors exploring the great buildings of Paris such as Notre Dame, the Louvre and the Tuileries Palace. Subsequently we are treated to the designs for those interiors and it's the kind of artwork that leaves you feeling a little worse off about your own house. Not since I was a little boy have I found myself looking through a book saying 'want' quite so much.

An interesting surprise (and the forewarned spoiler) is the art showing Paris in different time periods. The game does not stay settled in revolutionary Paris but also takes place across 'memories' of the French capital during the second world war, the medieval period as well as what is known as 'La Belle Epoch'. These sections are small, given that they are only a smaller part of the game, but provide some of the best art in the book. Fans of the games have often said 'they should set the game in ...... period' and it is nice to see such things through the prism of Assassin's Creed. Who hasn't thought of setting the Assassins against the Nazis. Seems the creators finally gave in to what the fans wanted, even if only a little bit.

There is not much writing accompanying the art but what there is is interesting and to the point. It also credits the artists and lets them explain in their own words what they were trying to convey and I think that this is an area that Titan Books does really well. There is so much that the designers have to take into account when they make these games that I think we, as gamers and art lovers, take for granted and reading about the many little points of consideration that needs to be taken into account gives me a much better appreciation for the work they do.

The book itself is very nice to look at and will fit nicely with other books in the series. I suppose one day there will be no more Assassin's Creed books and when that day comes there will be a special collectors edition bringing all the books together in one boxed set priced at a princely sum. Canny art lovers will spare themselves some pennies and buy the books now.

So to sum up; This is a big beautiful book which brings revolutionary Paris to life, filled with incredible art work (much of which is shown off to best effect across a two page spread), with succinct and interesting commentary from the artists. Yes, there are some things missing from this book, most noticeably the weapons and equipment, and I hope that in future this will be included as I know a lot of people really like to see it. However I don't see how anyone can claim to be a collector of concept art and not own this book.

- Richard Williams

Saturday 15 November 2014

And now for a word from...

The first of the regular Autocratik vidblogs takes a look at the size of tabletop roleplaying books. Remember the days when RPG books were small? How could this be employed with new RPGs?

This is an insight into upcoming episodes and the companion series - Roll Your Own Life.

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Sunday 9 November 2014

Review - Empire of the Wolf (Graphic Novel)

Written by Michael Kogge
Art by Dan Parsons, David Rabbitte and Marshall Dillon
Published by Alterna Comics

‘During the Roman conquest of Britain, a werewolf’s bite re-ignites the legendary feud between the wolf-brothers Romulus and Remus. This curse of the full moon pits two centurions against each other in an epic battle of werewolves, placing not only the life of the woman they both love in mortal peril, but also the fate of Roman Empire itself. Empire of the Wolf is the saga that reveals the myth behind the history of ancient Rome.’

This is possibly one of the best things you could ever put in front of me – I have a very healthy interest in Roman history and I have an even healthier interest in the supernatural and the folklore that comes with it, so to drop a graphic novel on my desk that involves the Roman Empire and werewolves is going to not only grab my attention, it’s going to make me drop everything I’m doing and dive in head-first.

Empire of the Wolf is a graphic novel that collects Michael Kogge’s four-issue run of the same name. We like Michael Kogge – he gave us lots of Star Wars Insider stuff and, more importantly to me, he also gave us some Star Wars roleplaying game goodness, from the West End Games days right up to the present incarnation. In fact, his association with Star Wars is lengthy and varied, so it was interesting to see what he was going to throw at us with this new creation.

Now, I’m not fussed about the direction supernatural lore takes as I see every interpretation of it in books, movies and TV shows as a different take on a similar theme. I also don’t take umbrage with small changes to Roman history as long as it’s telling a compelling story – I love the movie ‘Gladiator’ even though it’s about as historically inaccurate as you can get - so stepping into this graphic novel was both exciting and intriguing. What would Kogge do with both these angles?

What he does is weave a story about two centurions in Britannia in the middle of the first century AD, Canisius Sarcipio, an ex-gladiator who won his freedom, and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the nephew of the Emperor Claudius. They are fighting against a tribe who defy them and put up a bloody fight but it is their leader, Caradog, wielder of the Moonblade, who is their greatest threat and not only does this man pull them into the dark magics of his kind, he bestows on them a legacy that they will take to Rome, and perhaps beyond. It doesn’t help that they are both after the attentions of a woman back in the Eternal City, Lavinia, a Virgin of Vesta. Although the men have fought hard together and consider themselves brothers in arms, there is already a division between them that indicates that there is trouble to come.

Kogge’s writing is detailed and captures a great sense of the time period. There’s a gravitas to it that lends little to no time to merriment so you’re continually plunged into a dark, brooding tale of mystery and despair, with powerful stabs of violence and intrigue. It’s a good read and there’s plenty of text to sink your teeth into. The story is complex so Kogge uses a narrative style, with boxouts for description and information that‘s written in a flowing dramatic style. It’s necessary as it helps to set scenes and draw you into the world he has created. The dialogue is good but sometimes feels a little flowery, like an attempt to recreate dialogue from classic Roman epic movies, but that actually works in the story’s favour, in some respects, as it’s how we as the audience have come to expect these people to speak thanks to those every same films. It’s a great story, nonetheless, and it’s holds the attention all the way through and doesn’t really give you any reason to put it down for long periods of time.

I can’t say that the Roman setting is completely accurate; an image of what appears to be the Flavian Amphitheatre (the Coliseum) on one page is telling as the structure wasn’t built until after this story’s time. This isn’t an issue, to be fair, and if I were reading a novel that had stated ‘This is what happened in the Empire!’ then it would have grated, but we’re talking about a story involving werewolves and ancient magic, here, so it hardly matters. Nitpicking over things like this, things that do not directly affect the story as a whole, is pretty futile and it really is that; nitpicking.

The art is by Dan Parsons (books 1 and 2) and David Rabbitte (books 3 and 4) and, while it did throw me a little bit as the artwork changes mid-story, it’s of a high standard and really well lettered and coloured. It captures the feel of the period well and certainly sets the atmosphere for the story. It’s dynamic when it needs to be and delightfully gory when necessary. There are times when dimensions get a little skewed or the proportions of a body may seem more than a little out, but both artists do a great job of depicting the action. There’s very little to criticise with the artwork although I did notice that while the Roman costumes are very well done and look the part, some of the people of Britannia were dressed a little too ‘high-fantasy’ for my liking, with sexy slits down the dress for the leg to appear or what appeared to be a 60s go-go skirt, but in tartan. The scenes in Britannia are set in the cold of winter, but it seems to be fine for the ladies to be wandering around with very little on. It’s a design choice and I can respect that, and I suppose that helps illustrate the divide between the reality of the Empire and the perceived fantasy of the northern borders. Regardless of that, the artwork is really very well done.

Empire of the Wolf takes the classic werewolf story, the history and birth of Rome and the grandeur of a Roman Epic and creates a well-realised and entertaining story that fans of both the period and the supernatural will enjoy. I’m a lover of both and I enjoyed the book, so I have no problems recommending this.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Review - D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual

Published by Wizards of the Coast
Monster Manual

I quite like monster manuals. I like the fact that you can have, at your fingertips, everything you need to challenge players with some pretty nifty encounters. It’s good if you’ve got something planned, great if you need a quick off-the-cuff monster to have a bit of a fight with, and excellent when the monsters slot neatly into the campaign and you don’t have to do too much work on their stats or abilities. Yes, monster manuals take a lot of work out of the Dungeon Master’s design process and games are lot better off with them involved.

I like my lists of beasties to be concise, easy to use, adaptable to the campaign I’m running and illustrated. Thankfully, the D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual ticks all those boxes for me.


This hardback book uses the same cover layout of the other books – which, and I hate to say it, I’m not a fan of – but it’s the interior where it shines. The front cover illustration of a somewhat anti-social Beholder is a great piece of art and quite dynamic but, once again, I don’t think it’s the best image to help sell a book like this. Once again, as I did with the Player’s Handbook, I’m looking to the interior illustrations and I find a cracking picture of a dragon on the first glossy page that would have looked great. I’m fully aware that this is personal preference and doesn’t really make an impact on the contents of the manual, but – and I hate to use the phrase – where books like this are concerned beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and the cover doesn’t really strike me as an inspirational choice.

The book gets to the meat of the manual pretty much straight away. The introduction is short and sweet and gives you everything you need to get stuck in with just a few pages of pointers and advice on how to use the book and what all the statistics mean. It talks about monsters, where they dwell, which ones to use and when, the different types of adversary and how things like alignment, armour class, skills and special traits work, and anything else pertinent to the stat block including actions and equipment. Old hands with manuals will pretty much know what to expect from this book and will no doubt dive in with a cruel smile, but newcomers will find this introduction very helpful. It’s not that much of a chore to get through, either, as it’s just six pages of text and is easy to understand.

Then the book begins in earnest. The monsters are laid out in alphabetical order from the get-go, so there’s no sections of creature types and if you want it, you can just page-flip for it without having to go to a certain section beforehand. Not only this, but there’s a really handy alphabetical index at the back so you can get to your chosen beastie in seconds. The new D&D 5th Edition game plays much quicker than the previous editions so this doesn’t slow down the action at all, especially if you suddenly need to get hold of a creature you didn’t prepare for. That makes referencing the book easy and quick, which is something I like in my games as I tend to strip back a bit on rules so that I can keep the action fast and flowing. This book allows me to keep that speed going.

After the long list of monsters we get to three appendices; a collection of miscellaneous creatures, again all in alphabetical order, so that you can get hold of some more mundane, and not so mundane, smaller creatures. Then there’s a pretty good NPC appendix which, I’ll be honest, I wish was a bit more detailed and longer as there are some good characters in here, from an acolyte to a gladiator to a spy and people in between. They’re very handy if you need a quick NPC and you can use the stat blocks for a variety of different characters, not just the ones listed. In some of my games, my players sometimes take an interest in NPCs that I had no intention of lasting more than a few moments or minutes in my adventure, so if they do take an interest for whatever reason it’s great to have stat blocks like this handy in case the NPC ends up doing much more than even I bargained for. Players are unpredictable like that. The final appendix is the full index that, of course, is invaluable in a book such as this.


This is an impressive book; it’s easy to use, quick to reference, has some cracking creatures in there, some new ones as well the old favourites, and – most importantly for me – it’s fully illustrated throughout. This is important for me because I’m the kind of DM, as I mentioned earlier, who likes to keep the action flowing. Unless I’ve prepared a creature and I have a definite idea of how it looks and acts, I much prefer to be able to hold the book up and point at the monsters and say ‘This is it’. Depending on the monster you’ve chosen you get a much better reaction from the players when they actually see the adversary than when you try to describe it to them, and just saying ‘it’s a Manticore’ is a little flat. The illustrations, all of high quality and full colour on glossy pages, do for you what a page of written description can’t. A picture really is worth a thousand words.

The D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual is easy to use, doesn’t beat around the bush and is designed to be as user friendly as possible. The stat blocks are clear and concise, special abilities are well described and there’s enough background information for you to flesh out a variant or two. There are longer entries for the more dynamic monsters, such as Beholders and Dragons, but ever monster gets a fair crack at the Balor’s whip. In fact, on top of everything else, this book is also a great read. There’s some good stuff in here that’ll help you come up with your own adventures based around the creatures themselves.

I’ve been impressed by D&D 5th up to yet and this book only enforces my opinion of this new edition. It’s invaluable as you really will need it to get the most out of the Player’s Handbook and the game at large, but it’s a solid product on it’s own merits.

Now… let me see… page 100… oh, yes – he’ll do for my next encounter. Mu-hahahahah!!

Monday 3 November 2014

Exclusive Preview - The 13th Age Soundtrack

James Semple has been writing music for Pelgrane Press for a while now. I got a lot of use and gave a lot of love to his previous compositions for Ashen Stars ('All We Have Forgotten') and Night's Black Agents ('Dust and Mirrors'), but he's been working on a soundtrack that I'm really excited about - music for the 13th Age roleplaying game.

The tracks that I've heard, two of which I'll be sharing with you here, are incredible and promise to add a lot of depth to your campaign.

I caught up with James a few days ago to find out a bit more about the score, and asked him about how he was approaching the source material and the sound he wanted to create, and about the creation process between him and the game's creators.

'The entire team was hugely inspired by the source material. We would also work closely with Rob Heinsoo about our ideas and get his feedback and input. This was absolutely invaluable in terms of really capturing the right spirit for the game and imbuing the music with authenticity. The tracks were surprisingly varied conjuring many different moods and often using eclectic instrumentation. The Dragon Empire is full of wondrous locations that immediately get the creative juices flowing. You think "I have a GREAT idea for this place" and then run into the studio and start writing! Once we'd written and orchestrated the music we then employed live soloists to really help bring this all to life!'

I've also got a couple of tracks to share today. The first is the main theme, and I asked James about what he was looking for in the music.

'So the very first thing I created for this suite was the main 13th Age theme. Although it's ostensibly a fantasy theme for me this all about adventure! I wanted a rousing, swashbuckling theme that just gave that timeless quality of excitement and heroism! I wanted players to hear it and think "yeah I want to go and adventure in THAT world!"'

The second track was 'Dreams of a Lost Age', and I asked James about how he developed this particular track.

'At the other end of the spectrum, Dreams of a Lost Age was the last thing I wrote for the suite. I wanted this to feel like a kind of plaintive Elven lullaby that harkens back to their ancient realms, now lost beneath the seas. I wrote this specifically for the fantastic violinist, Eos Chater, and it was wonderful to hear her sublime playing on this piece. This is a real personal favourite of mine and a last minute addition to the suite.'

The 13th Age score is shaping up to be an invaluable addition to any gamer's collection, and I for one am more than excited about it. It's released very soon, so keep your eyes and ears open on the run up to Christmas.

Sunday 2 November 2014

Exclusive Review - Letters to Lovecraft

Edited by Jesse Bullington

Published by Stone Skin Press

‘Like cultists poring over a forbidden tome, 18 modern masters of horror have gathered to engage with Lovecraft’s famous essay, 'Supernatural Horror in Literature'. Rather than responding with articles of their own, these authors have written new short stories inspired by Lovecraft's treatise, offering their own whispers to the darkness. They tell of monsters and madmen, of our strange past and our weirder future, of terrors stalking the winter woods, the broiling desert, and eeriest of all, our bustling cities, our family homes.’

I’m a Lovecraft fan. I was introduced to his work through the tabletop roleplaying game ‘Call of Cthulhu’ way back in the 1980s, and I got into his work soon after. I’m a huge fan of his Mythos, especially because it doesn’t directly deal with the physical, blood-spattered type of horror that seems to permeate popular culture these days. It’s horrific in the sense that it utilises the fear of the unknown and that sense of hopelessness that gives you the chills, as if everything is out of your control and that reality isn’t what it seems. That’s what makes his work appeal to me; Lovecraft never needed to talk about flailing entrails, torture or screaming cheerleaders being dragged to a very visual fate. He hinted at what was in the darkness, which was terrifying in itself, so on those occasions when the monsters are revealed the terror is multiplied.

Lovecraft wrote essays about the nature of horror and that’s what this book hooks on to. Eighteen authors have all taken snippets from Lovecraft’s essays and created their own short stories based on these quotes. Although not all are typically Lovecraftian they do latch on to that sense of terror and fear that can only really be felt when you do not fully understand what it is that you are terrified of.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the stories but once I got past the opening two stories, ‘Past Reno’ and ‘Only Unity Saves The Damned’, I got a feel as to what the book was going to offer; a lot of psychological horror. In fact, the second story ‘Only Unity Saves The Damned’ by Nadia Bulkin, which is my favourite story in the collection, captures that perfectly and intertwines what I‘d call and almost Edgar Allen Poe (which is strange, as the book is Lovecraft-inspired) feeling of darkness with modern day found-footage mockumentaries and video hoaxes. It’s a wonderful - if wonderful is the right word - tale of being trapped in a small town and the dispossessed trying to carve their own sense of identity. If I had to choose a story that captures the mood and atmosphere the anthology was going for then I’d have to say that this was it. The final two pages still make me shudder, truth be told.

‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.’

This is incredibly true and as one of Lovecraft’s most famous quotes it permeates every one of the stories in this collection, regardless of the part of the essay that the author chose.

The book has an informative introduction by editor Jesse Bullington talking about Lovecraft’s legacy, his less-than-acceptable views on the world, his legacy and how it is perceived today and his essay ‘Supernatural Horror In Literature’, the work from which the authors selected their passages and wrote their stories. I’m sure that reading his essays would cast more light on the themes and drives of the stories but each entry has an introduction that details the selected passage and a short note from the author explaining why they chose that particular piece and how they used it to mould their story. This is more than enough to be going on with and gives you all the framework you need to understand and appreciate the work.

Letters to Lovecraft is a very good book. There isn’t really a bad story in the collection though they do vary in quality – I can’t say that I really disliked any of the chosen stories – and while some of the stories might not link directly to the Mythos it’s not the cosmic horrors that exploded from Lovecraft’s mind that are the driving force behind these stories, but the theme of unknown horror that he tried to explain in his essay. To that end, each of the authors have contributed excellent stories and it’s more than worth the attention of both Lovecraft and general horror fans

Letters to Lovecraft is available on the 1st December 2014 and is recommended reading on these cold, lonely winter nights.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Review - The Art of Alien: Isolation

Author: Andy McVittie
Published by Titan Books

'The Art of Alien: Isolation is a high-end art book featuring over 300 images from the latest game in the critically and commercially acclaimed Alien franchise. Taking players back to the survival horror atmosphere of the first film, Alien: Isolation features Amanda Ripley as the hero trying to survive on a wrecked space station. This book is the ultimate gallery of the game, a must-have for any fan.'

One of the great things about being an Alien fan back in the day was that we got a great publication to sink our teeth into called ‘The Book Of Alien’, which gave us an amazing look behind the scenes of the film but, more importantly, we got to see the initial designs of the movie, from spacesuits to spaceships, from eggs to aliens, from couches to corridors. This was a great way to get involved in the Alien universe and experience the design process in general.

Because of three decades of exposure to the Alien movie, as well as the three sequels, I was pretty nervous about the Alien: Isolation game, especially after the disaster that was Aliens: Colonial Marines. I got this book before playing the game and, after reading the amount of care and attention that had gone into the design of the adventure and the almost reverent attitude to the design and feel of the 1970s movie, I was somewhat uplifted and finally gave in and got excited about the game. I’ve played it since… but that’s another review.

The hardback book has a very atmospheric cover and looks great, but the choice of landscape is a bit clunky in my hands and not my favourite format. The artwork throughout is a divide between sketching, painting and rendering but what stands out is the number of straightforward drawn art there is. Usually, art books about video games are filled to the brim with renderings and digital art and that can get a little frustrating because art books, in my mind, should be about the designs leading up to the finished product.

That’s what I loved about a lot of the movie art books I own, so why should computer game books be any different? Fortunately, this book harks back to the days of ‘The Book Of Alien’, in which we do get to see much of the designs of the characters, tools and the setting. They even show them against the inspiration the designers took from original film images, from movie stills to drawings, so you can see what they were trying to achieve.

Still, let’s not forget that this is 2014 and we’re talking about a computer game here – there’s still a lot of rendering, especially with the starship design section, but even here it’s great to see the ships in all their glory. I know I’m being biased, and they’re all nice designs, but they still don’t match the Nostromo and it was nice to see the deckplans included. The bulk of setting material, though, belongs to the Sevastopol Station, and this is simply glorious and really captures the mood and atmosphere of the original film. The mix of recognisable designs and new takes on the original lo-fi sci-fi designs is incredible and it’s great to flip through the pages and absorb all of this detail. It’s great because you get to spend plenty of time poring over the images, unlike in the game where you spend all your time fearing what’s behind the next door, or around the next corner. There‘s no time for sightseeing in the game so it’s great to revel in the setting in the book.

I think what struck me the most about this book is the fact that the designers, from the original artists to the devs to the renderers, all seemed to have a clear visual goal in their heads; this is based on a 1970s movie, so the look, feel and tech will be 1970s. The design approach is wonderful and not only captures the analog science fiction atmosphere that I love so much - with the clunky buttons, CRT screens and bitty graphics – it creates a tangible world that looks and feels almost real, and any gamer can tell you that when a game world absorbs you, sucks you into the reality that it’s created in such a way that you have a tangible emotional reaction to it, well… that’s half the game’s job done. It no doubt hits me harder being the Alien fan that I am but the world presented in this book really is that well defined.

The Art of Alien: Isolation is a really good book. I’m not overly fond of the landscape format and, truth be told, I’d have liked a lot more text talking to the designers and artists, but there’s enough here to keep me satisfied. I like to draw and I’m no professional artist, so I like my art books to be inspirational and informative. I’m sure there’s a hell of a lot more original pencil and ink art they could have shared, and I’d have paid extra for a larger book to fit all that in, but what we get here is an excellent and informative book that not only gives you some background to the game but also makes the Alien universe much deeper and richer.

That’s a hell of a thing to achieve for an ‘Art Of’ book, let alone the game itself.

Preview - D&D Attack Wing

So, I popped into my local Titan Games today and saw this little beauty laid out on their gaming table. It's the new tactical miniatures game from Wizkids 'D&D Attack Wing', and it follows on from their hugely successful 'Star Trek: Attack Wing', which in itself follows on from 'X-Wing Miniatures Game' from Fantasy Flight Games.

That's a pretty good pedigree.

'D&D Attack Wing is a Dungeons & Dragons tactical flight and ground combat miniatures game, featuring pre-painted dragons, siege weaponry, and troops from the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms®   universe.

Utilizing the FlightPath™ maneuver system, command your army in epic aerial and ground combat & customize your army with spells, equipment, weapons, special abilities and more!'

It looked and played really well, and considering the additional releases the game has on the way I think it's going to be a cracking game that'll allow the fantasy fans to get in on the fun of the starship combat game, except they'll have ground units to play with, too!

The models were nice, not groundbreaking, but for you modelers out there it's possible to paint them up if you so wish. They're pretty good and serve the game well. The box itself is hefty and you get everything you need for three players, so you get your money's worth. The system is pretty good but I'll need more play time to get the full feel of it, but you can download the quickstart from the Wizkids website if you want to have a look at what they've done with the rules.

Sorry about the rubbish in-game pictures - that'll teach me to leave the house without my camera.