Monday, June 16, 2014

K is for Kabul Spy

a series on games I wish I'd played more of.

You are standing outside of an airport terminal building. Fields of tall grass surround the airport...

By modern standards, the graphics are terrible - but at the time it was groundbreaking, or at least it seemed so.

Even the premise is so far out of date many modern gamers would have trouble recognising the setting.

It was needlessly convoluted, and clearly written by people who knowledge of how "tradecraft" actually works. [1]

But something about this game calls to me.  Perhaps it was the fact that it was really the first game I ever had that both wasn't a home computer port of some arcade game and had graphics?  Maybe it was a melding of my enjoyment of Zork [2] with the flash [3] of what I got to see at the console in the corner store?

I don't know what it was, but I deeply regret the my teenage self was the lack of patience that I had for this and for other text adventure games [4]

The effort that went into these games was enormous, and the puzzles and plots built into them were often quite impressive.  But for me - well, for my 12-14 year old self - the sheer frustration of just getting past the first stages and into Afghanistan itself killed my spirit.

This is a shame - I loved some of the other games put out by Sirius Software (Gorgon, Sneakers) and although text adventure games were sort of a new thing for them everything I've read about this game since makes me think it was actually very sophisticated for the time.

To this day, I regret not staying the course and rescuing the professor...

The truth though, is that one of the reasons I regret not having played this and other text adventure games more is that to a large extent they informed my early gaming.  Not directly - as I already mentioned I actually didn't have the patience to play the game very much - but the interesting thing about some of the old text adventure games is that they bore a very close resemblance to choose your own adventure books.  In fact, there were manuals on the shelves of bookstores that explained how you could convert a self-written choose your own adventure book into a text adventure, and a few of them even included some snippets of code (in BASIC!) for you to start with, and gave instructions on how to build databases for managing equipment and other things.

So what has this to do with tabletop RPGs you ask?

Well, the fact of the matter is that with the enthusiasm for both the growing home computer market and the RPG market there was significant crossover - in fact if you look at some of the games first published in the early to mid 1980s, you can see this cross-pollenation.

Several print games have aspects that are clearly connected to computer gaming - some of these games even look unplayable without some kind of computer support, making me wonder if they were initially envisaged as some best-selling computer game that just never got the interest or the funding to get written, but for which the designer had hacked together mechanics and tables and such.

In the same way, some of the computer games of the era were quite consciously trying to shift tabletop gaming into the digital world, where computers could take over all the mechanics and let the players

In that sense, games like Kabul Spy are actually the spiritual ancestors of modern immersive console RPGs.

Or not.

But whatever they were, games like Kabul Spy are what I cut my teeth on, and I wish I'd given them the time they deserved.

1. Caveat: I'm no expert, but even a reading of the James Bond novels would have provided a primer.

2. This game still has staying power, even in this era of CGI!

3. In a relative sense - there were no animations that I recall.

4. Other than Zork II, which I spent hours on.

Friday, June 13, 2014

J is for Jorune

The latest in a series on games I wish I'd played more of.

One of the most inspiring images in gaming.[12]
In 1985, just before my family relocated from the UK to Canada, a friend of mine got his hands on the boxed set of an intriguing game we'd seen advertised in the pages of Dragon magazine [1] - Skyrealms of Jorune. 

This game seemed at first blush to somehow meld a 19th Century imagining of the Renaissance with science fiction and fantasy, and we were desperate to play it, but the publisher was quite a small one [2] and copies of the game were remarkably hard to find.  I've since learned that while Skyrealms of Jorune never really got any traction in the North American games market it was quite popular in the UK, so perhaps the problem was simply that such a small publisher could never keep up with demand.

In any case, get our hands on the boxed set we did [3] and we eagerly sat down to look through the books - and were immediately hungry to play.

The art, of course, was amazing. Back in the 90s, gaming art was just going through a renaissance, but even in that context it was beautiful - perhaps one of the most beautiful gaming books I have ever seen.[4]  But the universe...

There were no elves.[5]  Instead there was a many-layered history of waves of colonization on a far world.  Humans [6] were merely the latest, and society was already rich.  But then disaster struck, and the humans of Jorune were cut off from the wider civilization of humanity, and in true human form the reacted in the obvious fashion: by ignoring the treaties that had carefully established enclaves for them and instead carving out much larger realms with their superior technology. [7] High technology or no, the locals weren't to be so easily pushed around: using a kind of psionics deriving from the glorious vibrations of the crystal at Jorune's heart, the "natives" fought back, and the whole cast of sophonts on Jorune ended up back in the dark ages.

The game begins with a newly ascendant civilization in which the player characters are seeking citizenship - and in order to gain this boon, it's necessary to perform tasks and favours for an established citizen to curry favour and get sponsored.

The races presented, the rich history, the cultures described - they were like dreams to people who had been consuming Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard and all manner of Golden Age science fiction in the school library.  In the course of an afternoon we not only ploughed through the rulebooks, but brainstormed plotlines and adventures and backstories for characters and had grand visions of the campaigns we would play!

Then we started to really read the rules.

For a couple of kids who had previously played BXD&D almost exclusively the mechanics were nightmarishly complex.  When we first started to try to figure out how combat worked, we got so frustrated that my friend threw one of his miniatures [8] across the room and trashed it.  In the end, we never did even play through a short scenario that day, and it wasn't long after that that my family moved, and I never saw a copy of Skyreams of Jorune again - though I often looked at the ads in Dragon with a combination of wistfulness and bitter disappointment.

Many years have passed, and I have played a wider variety of games.[9] I sometimes wonder if the mechanics would make more sense to me now. Of course, if you poke around online no doubt you'll find the same comments and reviews that I see - all of which seem to agree that while the setting was luxurious, the rules themselves were horrifying.

But something else always comes across in online discussion of this game: Inevitably, someone steps forward to say that they played the game for some time with their friends, sometimes for a long time.

The setting was just that good.

Rumour has it that the rights to Skyrealms of Jorune are hopelessly tangled up [10] so it's not likely we'll see a reprint - or, considering the state of the mechanics, a reboot under one of the many excellent systems now being played. [11]

This is a shame, because it's one of the games I would dearly like to play.

1. Which we never bought, but flipped through at the bookstore - because we were die-hard fans of White Dwarf and were loathe to give "that yank rag" our money - so most of what I remember from that era of Dragon was the covers and the full page ads.

2. Surprising, considering the level of the artwork and the amount of advertising!

3. Second edition, I believe, published just a year after the release.  I'm told there was a third edition published in the 90s, but I never saw it - and it seems that there were printing quality issues that would have made that version alone unplayable.

4. It turns out that the main artist has since become a prominent concept artist for Hollywood - check out his achievements here. He started out as concept artist for Legend!

5. Gratuitous Talislanta reference, since we're talking fringe games.

6. Three species of us!

7. The other starfaring races had fallen on hard times after finding Jorune as well, apparently. An ill fated star indeed!

8. Lead - we were old school baby!

9. I also like to think that I'm smarter than I was at 15.

10. No doubt related to the computer game that was made.

11. Or could a film or TV series be considered? With modern CGI it would be fantastic to see the setting realised visually! Of course, we know that Hollywood would gut the concept and turn it into some kind of obscene parody of what it should have been.

12. The image from the cover of the 2nd Edition of the game, explained thus at this website: The caption reads "Death scene of Sho Copra-Tra, Sholari of Tashka" This is a complex and important scene to the setting.  The aged human is probably the muadra Gends, the first of the muadra trained in isho skills by Sho Copra-Tra himself.  A sholari is a priest, and Copra-Tra is another title meaning "master of Tra." The glowing orb between their hands is a naull orb; it is the simplest of isho manifestations, and reveals your personal essence.  It is used as a peaceful greeting among muadra.  Sho Copra-Tra's nuall is almost pure white, the visible portion of tra energy.  The huge figure in the back is a corastin.  These are simple beings of great strength, who frequently hire themselves out as guards. From their poses, it is likely that the human female and the corastin are servents of Gends.

Monday, June 2, 2014

I is for Imperium Galactum

The latest in a series on games I wish I'd played more of.

Today's entry is a short one for two reasons:

Reason the first is that I only vaguely remember playing Imperium Galactum at all.  I do remember it, but mainly because I felt ripped off by it.  I had a copy that had been ported to the Apple II that I traded for in 1984 - the demand was a copy of several ZX Spectrum games that I had acquired over time.

Not that either of us lost anything - in those days, copying your games was as simple as dubbing onto a fresh cassette tape. [1] Well, in my case a little more complicated since my Spectrum used cassette, but our Apple II+ used 5.25 floppies.

But the fact was that I copied several of my ZX Spectrum games onto a couple of cassette tapes and all I had to show for it was a poorly pirated copy of this strange game with inexplicable controls and no apparent purpose.

If only I'd known.

ISS games are well known for their strange obsession with odd conventions - like using the number keys for movement in an era when number pads were an unusual extra, not standard.  Seriously, who designs games they know their customers are going to have trouble using.

The other thing they're known for is having a rich selection of features, most of which are accessible via a not-necessarily-obvious set of hot keys.  I mean, the S key is already tied up with the "shoot" function, so obviously you need a different key to be the "save" key, right?  Sure, but why L? Particularly when this means the L key is now tied up and you need another key to be the "load" key so you can get at your saved games. Since this was a pirated copy of a copy, I obviously didn't have the instruction booklet that came with the game originally so playing the game was more like a cryptography test than a fun strategy game.[2]  The result? I mainly remember two or three attempts to play the game while getting progressively more frustrated and obsessing over how badly I'd been duped by the guy who claimed it was worth all three of the games I'd traded for it. [3]

Reason the second is that my memories of the game and what it was supposed to be like are completely obscured by memories of a later incarnation of the idea: Masters of Orion.

Masters of Orion was a slicker game written in a more sophisticated age.  If nothing else, it was written for computers that had already blown Bill Gates prediction that no-one would ever want more than 512kb of RAM out of the water. [4]  The game was point and click, and the graphics were attractive.  But ultimately it was the same game:

Imperium Galactum was the same kind of game, a game of galactic conquest in which you worked hard to manage the resources of your civilization to achieve technological advances and build up a fleet to be proud of. The shiny colours of Masters of Orion have faded my memory of IG, but what I do remember makes me wish my 14yo self had been a bit more patient in working out the controls[6] 

You see, like many games of the era - and remember, in this era there were even quite popular games that would only run on a UNIX station - what the game didn't have in glitzy features it made up for in sophisticated game play.  I remember learning a few things in those aborted sessions that MOO was never able to do for all its pretty pictures.  And I have learned since that it won awards and accolades in the PC magazines of the era for its sophistication in simulating a far future empire building exercise.

So I wish I had played it more, I wish I had learned more about how it worked - because as the years passed, my impatient 14yo self lost out on a neat strategy game that I now know would have been obsessive indeed.


1. Anyone else have fond memories of the coloured stripes waving back and forth on your TV as the program loaded?

2. I am making the actual keys up - I can't actually recall the controls, but it was pretty much like this.

3. Yes, neither of us actually gave anything up, and yet I was annoyed by the supposedly lost value.  If you feel the need to argue about this, take it up with my 14yo self.

4. I occasionally amuse myself by calculating how many times my old Apple II+ could fit inside an e-mail, or how quickly I would be able to download my entire collection of floppies onto my phone. [5]

5. Yes, I'm easily amused.

6. Or more resourceful in locating a copy of the instructions to crib from.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Mantis on my hand

Mantis on my hand
So green and bright,
And confident:
She will not bite
But combs her hair,
Cocks her head and stares
With iridescent eyes -
Then spreads her wings
And flies.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

H is for Hnefatafl

Some time between 1987 and 1991, I was given a copy of an intriguing game for Christmas that had been marketed under the name "King's Table" [1]

This game was billed as an ancient Viking interpretation of chess, and to my teenage self that was enough: I swiftly enveigled a few family members to play with me. [2] Sadly, once the Christmas season was over, this game only rarely saw the light of day, which is a true shame. I didn't know very much about the game at the time, just the page of notes that preceded the rules.

This was before the explosion of information on just about any subject on the internet, and there was nothing about the game that I could find in encyclopedias or other books in the library. Of course, this was partly because the game I got didn't include any of the names of the real games on which it was based - it was an amalgam of the various guesses as to how the table games played throughout the germanic, norse and celtic world about a thousand years ago probably worked.  The result was that I regarded the game as an interesting chess variant, but didn't really pursue it any further. [3]

A few years ago, I was reading about something [4] for some reason that now eludes me when I inadvertently stepped into a maze of tangent clicks.[5] The next thing I knew, I was reading an article on the question of whether or not dice were used in a game found in Viking graves, and comparison to a Welsh game called tawlbwrdd. As I read, I suddenly remembered the game from that Christmas long ago and realised that there had always been more to this game than just a chess variant.

To start, I realised that I had misinterpreted the rules [6] and play was actually more sophisticated than I had thought. To continue, the possible inclusion of dice in the game suggested that it was far more than merely a local variant of chess, and I had been missing an interesting dimension of the history of games in Europe despite its having been right under my nose.

Since then, I've read a bit more about the game, and my interest in exploring it has only increased. Sadly, malleable relatives are now far away in space and time, and it's more difficult to bully my current social circle into playing games.

Much as I'd love to play Hnefatafl a bit more, it doesn't seem likely I'll get a chance any time soon. [7] That won't stop me from reading more about it of course, but I can't help but chafe at the poor intersection of time and technology that led me to forget about it for so long.


1. I don't remember the exact variant of the game clearly, but it would have been a commercialized version of one of these.

2. For values of "a few" exactly equalling one.

3. Interestingly, though, when I think back my interest in the history, archaeology and anthropology of games basically dates back to this period - I don't clearly remember which came first, though, so I don't know whether my interest led to the purchase of the game, or receiving the game led to my interest in historical games.

4. I don't recall what.

5. As one does.

6.  Or perhaps the reconstruction on which the commercial game was based had been simplified - to its detriment.

7. Though apparently you can play online!

Friday, May 9, 2014

G is for Go

One of a series of articles on games I wish I'd played more of.

I've been fascinated with go ever since I first learned of it.

More properly known as igo in Japanese, this is a kind of ultimate distillation of the concept of games:

Fundamentally, the mechanics are simple, with only a truly minimal handful of rules governing what each player can do.

But this very simplicity leads to a universe of possibilities.

For those unfamiliar with the game, or familiar with it under its various other names [1] Japanese igo is really very, very simple.

You start with a board comprised of a 19x19 grid of lines. [2]

Each player takes turns placing a stone on the intersections.  Stones cannot move once placed.

If a player's stone or group of stones is surrounded by the opponent's stones, with no adjacent intersections open, then they are removed from the board. [3]

When there are no more moves possible that won't result in a capture, you count the empty intersections completely controlled by each player - each is worth 1 point.  The player with the most points wins.

The basics are, as I said, simple, but the sheer scope of options at each turn is such that the board quickly becomes very complex and strategy is very, very sophisticated.

In some ways, this is good: it means that the game can be played by people with a wide variety of skill levels.

In other ways, this is a serious problem, however.

I first started playing igo way back long before I ever moved to Japan. I had heard of the game and had read a bit about it [4] and one year I got a set as part of a game pack one Christmas.  I read the rules, and played a handful of games with anyone who would sit down with me.

It was fascinating, exotic, and incredibly challenging.  For such a simple game, the potential seemed incredible - I was hooked.

But like chess, it can be very hard to find people willing to actually sit and play igo, so for many years I didn't play at all - when I moved to Japan I assumed it would be easy to find partners and finally polish the rather rough game I had developed in the absence of serious players.

How wrong I was.

Like many parts of Asia, igo is played fairly widely in Japan, but the problem is that it's considered a very intellectual and difficult game.  The result? Most people don't start playing until later in life, and when they do they start playing very seriously. [5] This means that for a beginner like me, random friends and acquaintances are unlikely to admit to knowing how to play, and attending an igo club means that the players are so far ahead that it can't possibly be fun for anyone.

When you play igo against a competent, experienced player who is (let's be honest) much, much better than you, they are supposed to give you a handicap in the form of an advantage of stones already on the board.

This handicap is calculated based on a system of grades and levels similar to what you see in martial arts - players are rated as having a kyu number until they reach a reasonable level of proficiency, and then they start working up the dan grades - dan grades are essentially equivalent to having a black belt in igo.

So here's my problem:

I have met any number of people who know about igo, are not particularly proficient, but basically profess not to play.  I have also met a handful of people who tell me they play igo...but are at various dan levels.

The one igo club I've ever gone to where I was made to feel welcome (rather than a stone around the necks of the players who invited me, and therefore were obligated to hold my hand the whole time) the lowest ranked player was 3rd dan. The player who was most enthusiastic about helping me learn the game was 5th dan.

On the face of it, this is great! Who can complain about having enthusiastic, highly skilled players willing to teach you how it's done?

Well, clearly you've never tried this.  The fact of the matter is that it's depressing, humiliating, and not at all fun for anyone involved.

No matter what I did, I couldn't make a single move that made me feel like I was making progress.  Even with humiliatingly enormous handicaps I simply couldn't perform respectably, let alone win.

I don't mind losing while I'm losing a game, but let's face it - not being able to play people your own level makes it very difficult to really learn how to do things right, and is frustrating to boot.

So now I really wish I could meet a few people who, like me, are beginners but seriously interested in learning how to play.  There don't seem to be any Japanese players like this, though, so I guess I may be doomed to play against computers forever.


1. Igo is popular in China and Korea as well, with local variants where there are a few subtle details different from both the Japanese and international versions.

2. Actually, there are variants of various smaller sizes, but most are used only for teaching the basics to new players.

3. In practice, skilled players rarely capture stones because good adversaries won't allow the competition to go that far - they each recognise that a space has been captured and move on to a different part of the board.

4. This was pre-internet, so information was scanty and sketchy.

5. The Japanese take all hobbies seriously. In fact, it seems as though the Japanese are reluctant to admit they have a hobby at all unless they think they can perform creditably - which often means at a nearly professional level.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

F is for Fighting Fantasy

A series on games I wish I’d played more of.

Pretty much anyone my age who was into fantasy and science fiction back in the 70s and 80s will remember the Fighting Fantasy books.

Superficially, these seem to be pretty light entertainment and a novelty that emerged briefly and then essentially disappeared, but few people know that the idea of a branching path story was first pioneered by Jorge Luis Borges[1] in the 40s in a pair of stories that featured fictional books with branching paths in them.  In one, A survey of the works of Herbert Quain, the main character is the author of a book split into three parts, and has two branch points, and is thus able to tell a total of nine different stories.  The other story, The Garden of Forking Paths, [2] contains an element that is much more like the adventure game books we know and love: this story deals in part with a sinologist who has interpreted an ancient Chinese work written by a man tasked to design a maze and to write a book, but in the end produced only a riddle – a book that is a maze, with the reader needing to determine the order in which the sections need to be read in order to navigate the contents.

The “self-directed order of reading” concept manifested as a real type of book in the 50s when it was used by Skinner and others to develop learning materials – in these kinds of books, students selected a question’s answer, and were directed to another page based on that answer.  In some senses, these are the precursors of the online training programmes that a lot of institutions use internally – you read a text (say, the company labour dispute policy) and then have to answer multiple choice questions on the content.  With each answer, you are either moved on to the next question (if you’re right) or redirected to a more comprehensive explanation of the concept you got wrong and offered another question to see if it stuck yet. [3] This aside though, there were a series of “branching path” self-study books published during the 50s and 60s that were used to present a variety of subjects, and in fact these books were acknowledged by the creators of branching path fiction and adventures as a strong influence. [4]

Following on from these directed learning books, branching path fiction really came into its own in the 70s, when “choose your own adventure” and similar types of adventure fiction books started to gain in popularity – right up to the first Fighting Fantasy book published in 1982 by Penguin: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

I had read choose your own adventure books of various kinds in the past, but although they were interesting they never really seemed to have much re-readability.  The Jackson and Livingstone conception took the idea to the next level though, and in the early 80s I was a big fan of their Fighting Fantasy series of fantasy solitaire adventure gamebooks.  I think I actually started with Island of the Lizard King, and I seem to remember my second purchase being Deathtrap Dungeon [5], but in the end I had a shelf with about 10 of the books on it, and even started branching out into series like Lone Wolf – I never really played many of the Lone Wolf books, but the art in that series was gorgeous and it had the rather interesting twist that the books constituted a coherent narrative. [6]

This was an interesting time for games, and one that I kind of wish would come back.  Computer and console games are a sort of extension of the idea [7] but if we’re honest it’s not the same thing – computerized RPGs are quite a different experience from either tabletop playing or the gamebooks of yore.  With the advent of tablets and smartphones, there’s the potential for a comeback, [8] but as far as computer gaming goes, the closest analog to the old gamebooks is probably text adventures like Zork. [9]

By this point, you’ve probably gotten the impression that actually I’ve already played gamebooks quite a lot, so may be wondering why this is in a list of games I wish I’d played more of. 

The answer is actually quite simple: I cheated.

Like many other youngsters playing these books, I looked ahead to see what the consequences of different choices were and thus navigated the books relatively easily. I wish I had played the books more honestly, or that I had payed more attention to how they were organized.  By cheating, I cheated myself of even more fun (and they were plenty fun even cheating!) but I could at least have learned something about game design while I was at it.

Oh, make no mistake, there were TV programmes and books and magazine articles on how these books were designed and made [10] so I learned a lot about their structure – but I was a callow youth, and I wasted the opportunity when it was right in front of me, so I sometimes wish I had played more of them – or at least played them more effectively.

But then, I can play them now if I want to.


1. The influence of Jorge Luis Borges on modern fiction is incredible, and he was a celebrated master of the short form – indeed, anyone who aspires to write fantasy short stories needs to know his work, and his influence can be seen in the works of other masters like Umberto Eco.

2. Both of these stories are available in the collection The Garden of Forking Paths which is unfortunately a bit expensive, but the story The Garden of Forking Paths is often available online as scanned copies, as it’s a popular text in Borges courses.  The story is also included in the collection Labyrinths, which is more reasonably priced and has the added bonus of an introduction by William Gibson.

3. I’m not convinced this approach actually works, but it certainly is popular.

4. Although I doubt the value of this sort of approach to things like corporate training, I do wonder if the approach could be better leveraged for online education programmes – surely the idea could be adapted rather easily to create apps that are essentially primers to certain basic subjects?

5. Which, incidentally, really was a deathtrap.  I played it over and over, but only ever managed to defeat the book without cheating once.

6. Actually, I think that was what prevented me from buying more than a couple of them – you needed to play the books in order for them to really make sense, so it made it hard to just pick up a book at a Motorway rest stop or at an airport. The books were playable as stand-alones, but not very satisfying because it was obvious you were expected to know things that had happened in previous books. FF books on the other hand were mostly stand-alones, though that didn’t stop me and my friends trying things like making a character and trying to use the same one all through the series.

7. Indeed, there were adaptations for a few of the early FF books into games for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, though I only ever played the Spectrum version of Warlock of Firetop Mountain and found it a bit unsatisfying.

8. Actually, if only the Kindle e-ink platform allowed for clearly defined pages, the fact that it supports HTML would make it dead easy to run choose your own adventure type books – and I’m sure that the platform could be made to do things like roll dice and keep track of your character for you. Thinking about this sort of thing is always enough to make me bemoan the fact I stopped keeping up with programming when I stopped using a Unix terminal at university – if I had the time to do it, I’d teach myself and write kindle or tablet based gamebooks with great enthusiasm!

9. Which, by the way, you can play online here. You didn’t need to sleep tonight anyway.

10. If you’re wondering about the web pages, I can only respond: “What! You egg!” and suggest that you go entertain yourself while your elders compare arthritic pains and twinges from long-forgotten wounds.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Petty annoyance or serious problem? You decide.

On April 20, The Sunday Times published an article with the headline:

Grandmother, 71, tackles slave traffickers for the Pope

Really?  A Grandmother?  Amazing!

What's amazing is that this headline somehow manages to sweep away Lady Margaret Archer's professional achievements as irrelevant to her identity in comparison to her grandmotherliness, and simultaneously imply that we should be shocked that a grandmother could possibly be asked to "tackle slave traffickers".

To be brutally fair, the article does in fact briefly survey her career, but this one headline - and the second paragraph, which reads:

"Margaret Archer, a 71-year-old grandmother who has spent most of her academic career at Warwick University, has just been appointed head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences by Pope Francis."

neatly excises facts like:

  • Her PhD in sociology from the University of London
  • Her reputation as one of the most influential theorists in the critical realism school.
  • She was elected president of the International Sociological Association at their 12th World Congress of Sociology
  • She was one of the founding members of both the Academy she now heads and the Academy of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences
  • At the time of appointment she wasn't working at Warwick University (a respectable school) any more, but is actually a professor at l'Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland (one of the world's most prestigious technology universities in the world (ranking 1st in Europe) and home to the Blue Brain Project.)

So, what's the big deal, you might ask - she is a grandmother, right?  Other articles, like this news release from the Vatican give pretty straight-forward coverage of her qualifications, and this is after all the Sunday Times, so we might expect more of an interest story approach than hard-hitting investigative journalism.

I think it's fair to say that in such a piece it would be perfectly ordinary to mention the fact that a researcher is a father (for example) or is from some locale the readership might find interesting. But this information is normally considered secondary - it's just a little garnish to make the subject of the article seem more personable. The meat - the reason you're reading the article at all is the achievement being reported, and if these details aren't at all relevant you certainly don't expect them to be in the headline or to feature prominently in the initial paragraphs.

Unless you're a woman, I guess.

Some won't really understand what I'm getting at, so as an illustration, here are some other articles with their headlines rewritten in the same style:

Welshman finds new beetle in Brazil

Small-town man appointed to national association

Husband of Ojibway woman appointed to Great Lakes Science Advisory Board

Fact: nationality, where you grew up, who you are married to - all irrelevant to the actual news.

Interesting details about the individuals?  Sure - and actually I think it would be great to get more personalization of prominent researchers in the media to help get people more interested in science.

But it doesn't belong in the headline, and it doesn't deserve pride of place in any article purporting to report an individual's professional achievement.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

E is for Exalted

A series on games I wish I had played more of.

In 2001, a friend of mine bought a copy of the Exalted role-playing game by White Wolf Publishing, and was incredibly enthusiastic about trying it.

This was a bit of a departure from our usual fare - to start with, we were pretty deeply invested in Dungeons & Dragons of various flavours, and although we had played a number of other games (Rifts, TMNT, Battletech, Call of Cthulu (the old Chaosium version), ICE's MERP, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Gamma World, Amber, Battletech, and even a homebrew) we always drifted back to the old standard.

To make the sell even more difficult, some of us were - ah - unenthusiastic about gaming in the World of Darkness. We just found the whole angst-ridden vampire trope Anne Rice started left us with a bit of a bad taste in our mouths. [1]

However, our friend's enthusiasm was infectious, and once we'd had a chance to read through some of the background material and the mechanics we agreed to give it a shot because, frankly, we were finding it as interesting as he did by that point.

The WW Storytelling System mechanics were unfamiliar to us, so character creation was a bit tricky, and it also took a bit of a mental stretch to wrap ourselves around the basic concept: that the player characters are all chosen and imbued with power by various deities, thus becoming demigods - thus the name Exalted.  The scope for high-powered play (with plenty of role-playing and political intrigue) seemed wide, and things started to get interesting when we started role-playing through bits of character background. [2]

I don't recall what happened, but sadly our intentions got derailed soon after the first real session, and as intriguing as the game seemed we never tried again.

I suspect this is a game that would demand a fair bit of my time, unfortunately, so I doubt I will ever really get another chance - something I regret.

1. An example of play:
Player: "I ponder despondently the fate of my long-ago bartered human soul."
GM: "OK, roll...uh-oh - Your mournful yet classically beautiful demeanor has attracted the attention of a self-destructed goth teen who is now stalking you and dangerously close to revealing your true identity."
Player: "I evade!"
GM: "Ethical dilemma! You have discovered she is writing suicide-themed poetry inspired by your mysterious persona! Roll to resist befriending her and offering her dark immortality."
Player: "Arg! I failed!"

OK, I admit - the game doesn't really go like this and in fact has both an interesting mechanical foundation and an intriguing setting. Our scepticism was founded more on a reaction to the increasingly annoying trope that was displacing more interesting vampire variants in popular media than on the gaming community's interpretations, most of which were actually quite well thought out. Added to this: one of the ubiquitous "asshole but we tolerate him because he's actually an OK guy most of the time" sort of hangers on was so incredibly enthusiastic about WW's Werewolf game that it was very nearly a kneejerk reaction to be sceptical.

2. Not required by the game, but we did it both so we could practice using the mechanics (and tweak our characters prior to play as we learned what worked and what didn't) and so that our characters would enter play as fully developed as possible, since one aspect of the Storytelling System is that characters typically don't progress much in comparison to other games - they enter play fully formed and progress relatively slowly.

There are bees, and then there are BEES!

Today, my boy informed me in no uncertain terms that I couldn't go to work BECAUSE OF THE BEES and instead should stay home and play.

Good advice, though I doubt my boss would buy what he's selling.

In any case, he's been a bit obsessed with bees lately because we took him strawberry picking a couple of weeks ago, and the lady who took our group to the assigned greenhouse made a big point of telling us that the cardboard box in the middle [1] was FULL OF BEES [2] and that if we disturbed it or swatted away any bees we might see we would be horribly stung [3], and probably die.[4]  

Seriously, rather than pointing out that the bees had to be there to ensure we had strawberries to pick and warning us that bees can sting if frightened so we shouldn't bother the hive or molest any bees we see, she chose to make it into a horror story.

I've done my best to undo the damage (bees help make strawberries, they make honey, they won't hurt you unless they think you're trying to hurt them, etc) but I confess my feelings are conflicted:

You see, I live in Japan where not only are there bees, but there are OH BY THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS HOLY - BEES!

OK, so they're hornets.  But still, the point is that they're actually dangerous[5].  Not only are they big, stinging insects (legitimately off-putting to any rational human being) but they're actively aggressive and known to not only attack but also kill people.  Look at what a slightly smaller relative sub-species in China did last fall.

Vespa mandarina japonica is, I believe, the largest of the bunch, and they are the target of quite intense public safety efforts when they're found in inhabited areas, particularly if those areas are near schools or other places where children play outside.  All through the warm months they forage voraciously, and when new queens reach maturity they set off to find places to nest, and little cracks and holes in the eaves of houses are notoriously popular.  Any area with a number of uninhabited houses will make local authorities nervous - with no one to notice when these monsters are taking an interest, there's no telling how big a nest might get before it's detected - and eliminating a nest of hundreds is a major undertaking requiring serious equipment.

Anyway, thus my conflicted feelings.

On the one hand, I would like him to see videos like this one and say "cool!" rather than have nightmares.

On the other hand, he's too young to really understand that some bees are OK to watch and others demand a quick retreat to safety.

To make things even more tricky?  A history of bee sting allergy in the family.

Though honestly, after getting injected with a cocktail of haemolytic and neurotoxic venom by a hornet this size allergies are not an issue.  Single stings have been known to kill, and the best case scenario is that the sting will feel like a hot nail being driven into your flesh. [6]

Yeah, I'm happy to class the risk of occasional bee-stings as part of growing up, but the risk of having a hot nail driven into you and then dying is not really something kids should have on their already-busy injury schedule.

So, now to think of ways to explain bees in a bee-friendly way while still instilling a healthy terror of respect for giant hornets.

1.  a portable hive for pollination.  Most Japanese fruit growers don't have the luxury of keeping large numbers of bees, and natural pollination isn't sufficient.  Those with greenhouse operations (strawberries and other berries) often use these portable hives to introduce a captive population into a closed area.  Outdoor operations (apples, pears) typically use collected pollen and do it by hand.  Yes, every year Japanese farmers hire armies of middle-aged women to have sex with trees.  And yet GMOs are banned.

2. Her emphasis.

3. Her words.

4. This exaggeration is all mine.

5. Remember the movie Swarm? Yeah, these bad boys girls make "africanized honey bees" look kind of tame in comparison.

6. No, really, scientific eye-witness account:

Sunday, April 20, 2014

D is for The Dying Earth

A series on games I wish I'd played more of.

For this installment I'm going to cheat, and choose a game that I have actually never played but desperately want to: The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game.

This is a game by Pelgrane Press that some [1] will recognise immediately as being based on one of the marvelous universes created by the late, great Jack Vance. [2] By all accounts, it is an excellent game that skillfuly blends the traditional dice-wielding of more mainstream games with the compulsion to role-play that diceless games like Amber bring to the table.

And it's based on the worlds of Vance: this alone is a selling point for me.

The game has accumulated significant reviews like this one, despite being a fairly niche product, and has survived for years.  I am not surprised: Jack Vance apparently not only approved the game, but was actively engaged as a consultant, and the reviews say that it shows.

I am an unabashed fan of Vance, and in fact if I were to be asked to name three authors whose work would remain after a purge of all other books in the world, I suspect my list would be:

1. Jack Vance
2. Vance, Jack
3. The Baron Unspiek

I yearn to play in this setting [3], and I have found everything I've read about the actual mechanics intriguing - should I ever get the chance to buy this game I almost certainly will, even if I never get a chance to play it.

1. You know who you are. And so does the Baron Unspiek.

2. Sadly, this font of beautiful writing (and inexplicable footnotes) passed away on May 26th, 2013. May he be remembered until the Sun is infested with a strange alien mildew.

3. From everything I've read of the mechanics, it actually sounds as though it would be easily adapted to allow play in Vance's science fiction worlds as well.

C is for Chainmail

A series on games I wish I'd played more of.

In 1996, I was pawing through a mound of used gaming books at a favorite store [1] when I came across a buried treasure: one of the last printings of the famous [2] mediaeval wargame Chainmail.

I had played historical wargames in the past, mostly in the form of "simplified" board variants. [3] They were interesting, but somehow not satisfying.  I had also once or twice looked at the Warhammer system from Games Workshop [4] but although it looked interesting it seemed like a little too much of an investment.

But this...This old booklet, with its silver cover and the plastic binding coil, looking as though it had been put together by extremely dedicated amateurs, was a piece of history that any D&D player should know about - this was one of the roots from which Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson developed the first versions of Dungeons and Dragons. And for one dollar, there was no way I was leaving it in the bin!

So I bought the book, took it home, and read it over.  The rules are short and to the point, and my first read through was done in less than an hour [5] - at which point I was seriously enthused.  The rules weren't exactly simple, but they were as simple as possible, using a fairly basic mechanic that you could see had been logically extended to nearly everything you needed to do in the game.

I immediately got down on the floor with "glops" and push pins to try a quick battle between highly generic medium foot. [6]

Unlike many games which are very specific - focusing on battles of the First Punic Wars or the Third Crusade's Assault of Jerusalem for example - Chainmail is a set of generic rules for simulating real or imagined battles from the mediaeval era, and as such the real complexity comes in when trying to figure out which of several unit types is the closest match to whatever forces you're trying to represent, and an additional level comes in if you need to modify the unit with additional weapons etc.

Things of course got even more complicated if you started involving the various fantasy creatures or the heroes which formed the real centerpiece of the game.

This last bit seemed a bit daunting, but since the mechanics themselves seemed straightforward I was confident we could work something out, perhaps gradually building up tables that by consensus we agreed to abide by in building armies.  But my first run through with a couple of relatively small forces of exact equivalence convinced me that it should be quick and easy to run games with the system.  My next logical step, therefore, was to dragoon my brother into trying a slightly more ambitious scenario with me.

We played, argued briefly over interpretation of a rule [7] and ultimately ended the game with no resolution.

But I was hooked.

I had searched for years for a wargame that was straightforward enough to initiate new players with ease, but seemed sophisticated enough to offer actual rewarding play. I looked forward to organizing many games, perhaps even some kind of tournament campaign with my gaming buddies playing different parts in the internicene wars of some crumbling fantasy empire.

But alas it was never to be.  We had ongoing RPG campaigns, and ever-swelling list of obligations in our encroaching "real lives" and apart from a couple of abortive battles that I somehow managed to rope people into we never really played the game.

This is a shame, because the game itself seemed like the sort of game I could actually get into - unlike the ruthlessly serious historical wargames or the various editions of Warhammer.

I no longer have the rules, though no doubt they still live somewhere among the gaming things I left behind in Canada.

But I often think: Man, I wish I could get a real game of Chainmail going...

1. Friends will probably remember this store as being occasionally managed by Odin himself.  This was when they had the location in a strip mall on Pembina Highway, which I admit is a strange place for Odin to run a business.  Surely some place in Gimli would have been more apt?

2. In the circles I travel in. I'm aware that most people would probably be scratching their heads or furiously googling at this point.

3. The next person who promotes a wargaming system to me with the claim that it's "simple" will be punished. There's no such beast.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing - I've seen games that are quite reasonably organized - but please, let's be realistic.

4. The one that over the space of about 3 years completely ruined the iconic gaming magazine White Dwarf, turning it into little more than a figures catalog.  Yes, I am still bitter.

5. There aren't many games for which a single reading of the rules is sufficient to really understand what's going on.

6. I was working with one of those cheapo short-pile carpets, so the push pins stuck in quite satisfactorily, and the "glops" are beads of coloured glass that we were using for counters in another game.

7. If I recall, we consulted the rules to find that the rule we were in disagreement over was in fact written in the confusing and apparently irrational way it seemed, and we actually did agree that it  shouldn't be that way, and so in my first ever game of Chainmail with someone else we came up with a house rule.

Friday, April 18, 2014

B is for Backgammon

A series on games I wish I'd played more of.

My first encounters with backgammon were empty affairs – literally so, in fact: around the time I was introduced to chess and draughts/checkers [1] I received the sorts of encouraging gifts that grandparents and aunts and uncles buy, which included the occasional set of pieces and a board, the flip side of which often had a mysterious pattern of elongated triangles. I could tell that there was something you could do with this pattern, but I didn’t even know enough to be able to formulate questions, so I just forgot about it.

Years later, I encountered the word backgammon in a novel I read for school: when I was about 13, we read a short-ish novel about a young man in a coastal village in Cornwall [2] who gets mixed up with smugglers. Backgammon plays a large role in the story, introducing various characters and plot twists through the game and the gambling that went along with it.  [3] I didn’t really understand what this mysterious game was [4] so no doubt quite a lot of the context was lost on my 13 year old self.

Fast forward to university, and I had finally over the years learned that the strange pattern on the inside of my chess board was a backgammon board.  On top of that, I had come across an old copy of Hoyle’s Games at a booksellers [5] and had been enjoying playing around with long out of fashion card games and the like – naturally, an explanation of backgammon was also in the book. Cue long hours in my room at residence playing backgammon with a friend.

The first few times, I know we messed it up.  Neither of us had ever played before, and we needed to work out what Hoyle’s explanations actually meant [6] but once we had the hang of it, we spent many hours chatting over a game.  And that's a key: unlike many other ancient games, backgammon is very social.

There are other ancient games of course, with long pedigrees and deeply embedded into their various cultures: chess, go, draughts, just to name a few that will be familiar to nearly everyone.  Backgammon takes its place proudly with them, but adds the dimension of not requiring such deep thought.  This makes it far more conducive to casual play over drinks - oh, you can play chess casually as well of course, but one thing that we learned was that once you do know the rules backgammon is surprisingly easy to teach, and the learning curve is very gentle on beginners - probably because of the random dimension introduced by the dice. 

Because of this, backgammon is a game that you can pull out to play with friends after dinner, or to set up on the pub table, and just play over and over and over again - the rattle of the dice becomes part of the conversation, and the movement of the blots almost incidental...until the moment when you lose and are obligated to pay the next round. [7]

Some other ancient games (dominoes comes to mind) are highly social as well, not to mention the multitude of relatively basic card games, and in communities where they are truly ubiquitous I'm sure that chess and similiarly "difficult" games become social as well.  

But we seem to have lost something over the decades of the twentieth century in that these sorts of social games have gradually faded away.

It would be a shame if these things faded entirely.

1. Strangely, I’m fairly certain I was taught chess before any card games more complicated than snap or fish. Not by any parental snobbery, just a coincidence: I have vivid memories of the games nights my parents and their friends had when I was small, but such events petered out before I was old enough to participate and as we only rarely had family gatherings it’s surprising I learned as many games as I did.

2. This is my impression, decades later, and it makes sense, but I’ll grant that we had just moved out of Cornwall so my memory may be defective. I sadly don’t recall the title or even very much about One important note: It was not Jamaica Inn, this much I am certain of.

3. And now I wish I knew the book, and even more wish I could go back to rewrite the essay I submitted on it because in retrospect I’m sure there were themes of brinksmanship and risk-taking echoed in the way the backgammon games played out in the story and the actions of the main characters. Of course, this is all fragmentary memory so may not be reliable. EDIT 2014/6/6: after much searching, I had given up but today by complete chance came across the book in another context - the title is Moonfleet, by John Meade Falkner, available on Gutenberg here

4. Nor, being a typical teenager, did it occur to me to ask the teacher since it didn’t really seem relevant at the time. I will confess to not having been particularly enthusiastic about reading a book about 18th century smugglers. (at the time my reading list mostly involved things like Dune, various Heinlein, the Prydain books, Tolkein and the like – I felt that “pirate stories” were something little kids would be interested in).

5. You kids today have no idea what an enormous leap forward the internet is.  No, really.  Consider: practically my only ways of finding detailed information on how to play backgammon would have been to go to the library and wrestle with the card catalog, to find someone who knew the game well and get them to teach me, or to go out and buy a backgammon set (even though I already had one!) that included a rules card.

6. I haven’t seen any recent versions, but the older versions of Hoyle’s were written and printed in an age where it was reasonable to assume everyone had an understanding of the basic principles of board, card and dice games, and probably had some passing experience with the game in question – they just needed detailed rules on paper to refer to as a way to polish their play and resolve disputes.

7. My sympathies if you were using the doubling die.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A is for Amber

A series on games I wish I'd played more of.

The universe of Amber presented by Roger Zelazny in his books [1] is fascinating.  Imagine a platonic ideal of the universe - Castle Amber - built around an intricate, looping Pattern [2] that is the magical heart of reality.  Everything in Amber is the template for the rest of the universe - and the universe itself consists of a nested, infinite series of variations on Amber, getting ever more different as you move away. All these realities manifest themselves from the Pattern, but of course the further away they are the less true they are to the essence...sorry, the Amber universe is so mind-blowing that it's genuinely impossible to describe in one paragraph, I think.  Possibly half a page of (at least) four dimensional mathematics could do it...

In any case, now imagine that the Lords of Amber, the children of the demi-god Oberon who (reputedly) inscribed the original pattern, have the power to step from one reality to another by force of will.

Imagine as well, that "opposite" [3] Amber is a place called the Courts of Chaos, where there are no rules, and everything is fluid.

Now imagine a game in which the players take on the roles of a few of these Lords of Amber and Chaos and proceed to interact with one another and with other characters in the setting - usually to further a plot to seize the throne of Amber or similar. Amber Diceles Roleplaying is this game.

This is a slightly difficult game to wrap your mind around, if only because the possibilities of the setting are so vast and amorphous that it's quite difficult at first to figure out what you can do. [4]  It takes some experimentation with formats and styles, not to mention group membership, to find the right combination.

I've played this game a handful of times with friends, and each time it got better and better, but never seemed to quite click.  It's a game that demands a significant investment in time, however, so sadly I doubt I will ever get a chance to play it again.

But by every god, how I'd love to!


1. Starting with Nine Princes in Amber - the first series, featuring Prince Corwin, calls to me most.  Zelazny seems to play a bit too much with the concept of "hero" in the second series (which features Corwin's son Merlin) and the disjoint doesn't do it for me - though it may be those books as much as the first series that informs me on the nature of the universe depicted in the game.

2. I imagine it as an enormous, looping rosette - a Celtic or Saxon re-imagining of the labyrinths of Indo-European yore.

3. Whatever that means in a multidimensional universe.

4. Partly, that's because the answer to the question "what can we do?" is literally "Anything you can imagine"

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Red Box that Sealed my Doom

When I was 13 years old, my parents opted out of giving me the traditional chocolate egg [1] for Easter and instead decided to give me a gift that - without being melodramatic - changed my life.

What I received was a red box which, at first glance, appeared to have as its main content a collection of mysterious geometric solids.  On closer inspection, this box was my own personal Black Monolith. [2]

This was my formal introduction to role-playing, via the glossy new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and it was the beginning of the end. Or, rather, the end of the beginning.

Role-playing is by no means limited to obscure games played with strange-looking dice by spotty teenagers fueled mainly by chips and soda.  The reality is that we are all role-playing all the time, taking on different characters and functions throughout the day - the persona you use at home isn't the one you use at work, isn't the one you use when out with friends, isn't the one you project online.  They're all you but like the characters in Flatland not all of you can be projected into the world at the same time, so we pick and choose.  The result is that each aspect of our lives is populated by dramatis personae that are, by some standards, fictional.

With this in mind, it's easy to see why children love to act out tales of drama and adventure from a very early age: playing games like house or doctor is a natural way for them to practice for everyday life, and since the characters they encounter in fiction are often every bit as important to them as regular people it's hardly surprising that their role-play would extend to Tarzan rushing to find medicine to save someone from spider bite, royal tea parties with the king of the bears, and jedi fighting off an army of ogres, dragons and robots. [3] The benefit of games like D&D and the enormous range of RPG variants that have sprung up over the decades is two-fold:

First, while children [4] are quite happy to play out fantasies according to ad hoc rules [5] this can cause difficulties unless the child is playing alone (or with an indulgent [6] adult) - disputes over the rules are almost certain to arise. [7] Formal games have formal rules, however, which automatically provides third-party arbitration [8] even if the rule is as simple as "winner of rock-paper-scissors gets to decide the outcome."  The great thing about this is that it's good practice for the real world: no matter what we do, we're always forced to operate in environments made up of rules.  In some cases, the rules are inviolable so we have to think of ways to work with them [9] and in other cases we have to learn when we can break the rules and how to go about it. [10]

Second, by their very nature role-playing games practically force children to meet new people and to engage them in cooperative endeavours. [11] Learning social skills is tough, as we all know from being teenagers, so trying them out in a small, safe(ish) group of friends under conditions that encourage - nay, require! - that we practice putting on different roles and personalities is the introvert equivalent of pumping iron.  And on top of helping us try out new and exciting ways to interact with our friends in ways that don't cause them to ostracize us, gaming even offers a structured environment in which to meet new friends.

I have met people I consider to be friends through work, studies, and even by chance through random coincidences.  But many of the people in my circle of friends are there either because of a shared interest in gaming or because we have actually gamed together.  Indeed, I have met people who seemed interesting and then gamed with them, and through gaming learned enough about them to know that I didn't really want to be friends [12] - and the context of the game made it easy for me to disengage and move on without anyone feeling bad about it, because the short-term semi-regular gaming session served as a buffer!  During a session, it's pretty easy to get some personal distance and unless the problem is that one of you is actively an asshole [13] you can probably keep playing for a while at least without difficulty, then bow out of the game at a logical juncture.

So role-playing games are great for kids, but they're also good for adults.  For adults, they offer ways to get away from it all into a world of fantasy.  They offer opportunities to meet people, structured excuses to get together with friends or to meet potential new friends.  They offer relatively safe spaces in which to let parts of yourself out of the bag without needing to worry too much about them, which is a desperately important thing for adults in a world where we can sometimes feel like all our actions are constantly under surveillance.  And last, but not least in my opinion, they offer mental exercise and stimulation very different from the demands of every day life - and that's not even considering the added benefit that at least a few of your fellow gamers will almost certainly share your brain-hobby interests. [14]

For myself, except for a brief interlude when I had opportunity to return to my old stomping grounds from 2003 to 2007, and not counting 3 (count em) one-off sessions I've had since then, I haven't gamed since 1997.  This fact sometimes makes me dreadfully sad.

Gaming was very, very important to me as a teen and well into my twenties.  As a teen, gaming helped me get through some pretty rough social patches and as mentioned, many of my good friends I met specifically through gaming.  I don't think I will ever be able to devote the hours and days to gaming that I did when I was younger, but I miss that dimension of my life.  I miss the feeling of getting together with a small group of like-minded people and building something together, even if it could never be anything other than ephemeral - actually, maybe because it would be ephemeral, because the universes you build with other gamers are such personal things, in comparison to the other sorts of cooperative projects people work on in everyday life.

That part of me isn't gone, of course.  I still world-build, I just do it by myself, either by writing or just fantasizing.  And the gaming world hasn't been standing still while other things consumed my time: there are always new games, new versions of old games, new discussions and new gaming blogs.  I can't spend as much time exploring as I would like, but I refuse to give it up.

After all, if I don't keep going I'll never reach name level.


1. Which, in any case, I usually received from other relatives as well. One more iteration was by no means missed.

2. And yes, I both jumped up and down hooting and murmured under my breath: "My's full of stars..."

3.All games I have played with actual children. No ogres were harmed in the making of these fantasies.

4. Let's be honest - adults too.

5. As discussed in games, these rules can actually be quite rigorous.

6. And obviously favourite.

7. "Bang! you're dead!" - "No I'm not, I dodged." - "You can't dodge!" - "Can too." "Can't either!" Repeat as necessary until a ruling is agreed on.

8. At least until the players grow jaded enough to employ sophistry to manipulate the written rules into saying whatever they want them to.

9. Hello gravity!

10. In other words, we need to learn how to boldly split infinitives no one has split before.

11. Something I suspect my parents had in mind when they bought me that box.

12. I'm pretty sure that in every case the feeling was mutual. We've all experienced it: meeting someone who at first blush seems to be pretty cool, but on longer acquaintance turns out either to have pretty incompatible ideas or only seemed cool because of that one single point of congruence.  But in many situations, the two of you choosing no longer to waste time interacting (because you know you're not going to enjoy it, even if you don't actively despise it) can sometimes get weird.

13. Experienced that one for sure.

14. Even if no one in your gaming group shares your interest in reading about [X], the nature of the hobby is such that - provided you're not hijacking the game itself - they'll be quite happy to riff on the idea with you and provide an entertaining conversation about a topic you love.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Writing Tribulations

Like many others, I read the Dragonlance novels back in the day and as a spotty gamer teen I enjoyed them. For that matter, they retain a guilty pleasure sort of reread status even now, though I doubt it would occur to me to buy them new these days. And thus my confusion over an article I came across recently which reported on an interview with Tracy Hickman in which he lamented the state of the industry.[1]

I am a bit saddened to hear that Tracy Hickman is finding it ever more difficult to make a living as a writer, but I have to wonder if the problem is really the disappearing bookstores and the market. 

There certainly are both new- and old-guard fantasy and science fiction writers who seem able to make a living.  And there are some, like Robert Jordan[2], came to their peak after Hickman was practically invisible on the shelves and far surpassed him in popularity writing much the same kind of fiction.  While I doubt Jordan ever rode around town in a gold-plated Humvee drinking champagne and snorting coke[3], my impression is that he made a decent living.  

Here's the thing: Hickman has had some very interesting ideas over the years, particularly when he was working with Margaret Weis[4], and while some of the early work was rough around the edges in my opinion I know he was working under odd conditions, particularly with the TSR stuff [5], and I think that later he caught his stride and produced some pretty good work. 

Pretty good, though. Not great.  Not for my tastes anyway - I know there are people who live and breathe his worlds.

My impression of Hickman is that he's firmly a pulp fantasy author, though a better than average pulp fantasy author.  And there's nothing wrong with that at all - full disclosure: I love pulp - but:

If that's your market, then you have to understand two very important things:

Thing the First:
Tastes shift, and they shift fairly quickly in pulp.  Take a look at the pulp (whether it be fantasy, SF, crime, or what have you) being produced now vs what was being written in the 50s, and the 60s, and the 70s, and the 80s.  
Every decade seems to have its own distinctive flavour. Unless you really are one of the greats of the era such as Robert E Howard[6] it's vanishingly unlikely that your work will enjoy steady sales.  In other words, it's not that readers can't find his older books - it's that marketers feel can't sell them.  There's a very limited nostalgia value market after all.  

To make it in pulp, you need to shift what you're writing very quickly to match what is in vogue.  A sad truth, but important, and an explanation for why he needs to write so much: if the older books aren't selling, you need new books that match the modern market to take its place.  Even the favoured genre of pulp customers changes over time, after all [7] - but very little of what he writes isn't fantasy, so he's limited to whatever the current fashion for fantasy pulp is.

Thing the Second:
The way the market works is different now than it was when he started in with Dragonlance.  Back then, pulp paperbacks where everywhere in book stores, drug stores, airports, supermarkets etc. They were in your face and easy to find. 

In the e-book era (which to his credit he seems to have embraced) you're not as visible. With so many authors, booksellers can't have everyone on the shelves.  And anyway, there's more profit to be had selling something else in that space for any shop that isn't specifically a bookstore.  

There are lots of great marketing opportunities available to drive people to your books and I don't see him doing any of them other than getting out to fan events.  Where are his stories in podcasts? Where are the audiobooks? Where are his appearances on high profile webcasts such as with Wil Wheaton and his gang?  Self promotion is critical now that books aren't automatically thrust into readers' hands and you have to compete with Amazon's whole library.

I'm sad that such a long contributor to the genre feels it's getting harder for him to make a living, but to be blunt I think the message he offered in this interview [8] is less "it's hard to be a writer and getting harder" but more this one:

Writers can no longer rely on the big publishing houses and the basic dynamics of mass-market retail to put their names and their books in front of potential buyers.  Writers need to actively cultivate their public personas and court their readers, keeping themselves always on the edge of memory.

Is this worse than in the past?

In some ways, maybe - the reduced involvement of the publishers (or rather the reduced impact) is certainly unfortunate for a certain type of personality, and that personality seems disproportionately represented in writing. [9]  But in other ways, I think it's positive.  

It has opened the door to a wider range of writers, which certainly makes competition fierce, but honestly speaking the proportion of people who are really writing well is just the same as it was - it just means that now those who want to self-publish have options beyond the PR machinery of the big publishers to draw on.  And since self-promotion is such a major aspect of the market these days, there's more opportunity for even middle-range writers to cultivate a population of loyal readers.

In the article, Hickman is quoted as saying that he has 6 million followers and yet has to struggle to write enough to keep afloat.  I think he misunderstands the numbers though: he has 6 million readers, I'm sure.  But to have followers, you have to cultivate them.  

Perhaps if he were to spend a bit more time marketing himself and cultivating a rich public persona he could generate a smaller but more rewarding community of followers who would buy more of his books and actively promote him to their friends.

Or maybe he's been misrepresented and in fact things aren't as rough as this article makes it seem - but even so, thinking about the message that has been put in his mouth is an interesting study for an aspiring writer:

Is it really possible to just write something and rely on interest to sell it?

For that matter, was it ever possible?


1. Noted that one of the people actually present for the session actually commented on the article that it presents Tracey's comments as being more pessimistic than it seemed at the time.

2. The Robert Jordan of Wheel of Time fame. Sadly, he passed away in 2007 before completing this epic series.

3. Being more inclined to smoke a pipe and take communion multiple times a week.

4. Which appears to have been most of the time.

5. Very tight deadlines and huge volumes.  Some reports say that they put together as many as 30 novels in one year, though obviously not all of them were published on that schedule.

6. Think about it: how many authors also popular during Howard's peak are common names in the pulp genres?

7. My impression right now is that horror is the main one, with sci fi making a strong come back at the moment.  I'm not seeing much fantasy, but if anyone knows of some good fantasy pulp authors please don't hesitate!

8. As noted, it may not be quite an accurate representation of what he meant to say...

9. I suspect if I tried to make my living writing I'd be living in a cardboard box within a week.