Space Hamsters To Return

January 5, 2022 Leave a comment

So it looks like Spelljammer is coming back.

In case you missed it, Spelljammer  was a setting for second edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons1 which introduced wooden space-ships and let players ‘set sail’ to other worlds (other D&D settings). 

Now you may wonder how that works. Most D&D worlds are pseudo-medieval after all, how does all the space stuff work? The answer is magic. Powerful devices called spelljamming helms ‘power’ the wooden ships and gravity works in a way convenient to the plot. They also borrowed ideas for 2nd Century AD astrophysics2 to add phlogiston and crystal spheres; basically oceans and mountains but ‘in space’. Because fantasy.

The setting blends 1950’s era pulp sci-fi with age of sail style fantasy. So we get pirates, buccaneers, mysterious ports and so on. The setting came out in 1989, a messy time for D&D. The company owned the rights to Amazing Stories3and Buck Rogers4at the time and this informed the game. They’d taken the things that had inspired Star Wars such as John Carter of Mars and added swashbuckling pirates and high fantasy magic.  It was an amazing idea.

Of course, the initial boxed set was a mess. Not enough setting and too many rules, lots of cardboard. The supplements where better and it’s big move was to give the brain-eating squid monsters known as Mind Flayers their own evil space-ships, that looked like horrific sea beasties. On the other hand, it had Giant Space Hamsters. Which worked exactly the way you think they would, big tubes to crawl in and everything.

It did well enough. It also almost became it’s own ‘Video Interactive Boardgame’ – TSR had produced one for vanilla D&D called DragonStrike and Spelljammer: Wildspace would have been next, had the company not headed into financial difficulties. Instead all we have is this:

Spelljammer sort of went away as the game moved on, but was not forgotten. Later editions couldn’t resist dropping it in as an Easter Egg here and there and Third Edition did get a mini-supplement in an issue of Dungeon Magazine. Spelljammer ships have appeared in a couple of the adventure supplements for D&D Fifth Edition as well (I won’t say which ones because of spoilers). The new Baldur’s Gate video game also features something very familar to fans of Spelljammer. 

So why am I saying it’s back? Well there’s two massive clues. One is that Wizards of the Coast recently released an article on their ‘Unearthed Arcana’ blog heavily features beasties from the old Spell Jammer game, as well as a few things from elsewhere. (You can find it here if you fancy a quick look.) These articles tend to ‘test the waters’ before a book comes out.

The other massive clue is a lovely sneak peak we got recently in a “Future of D&D” panel. It seems that one of the books features Boo on the cover. Now Boo is the hamster companion to Minsc, one of D&D’s iconic heroes. But he’s not just any hamster. He’s a miniature giant space hamster.

BOO!


It also doesn’t hurt that lead designer Chris Perkins admitted to having written screen plays based on another old property, Star Frontiers. Which is Spelljammer adjacent, sharing a lot of the feel and mood of the setting. So it really looks like D&D Fifth Edition is about to boldly go into some sort of wild space like setting. It’ll be fascinating to see how this effects more up-to-date D&D settings like Eberron and Ravnica. Will we see the Vox Machina crew take on Space Pirates? We’ll have to wait and see.



1: Nothing terribly advanced about AD&D – the ‘advanced’ was added so Gygax didn’t have to share royalties.  Confused the heck out of me when I was 11 and put loads of kids off. Nice one Gary.

2: The word astrophysics is doing a lot of heavy lifting here.

3: Amazing was a big deal when it came to science fiction back in the day. Deserves it’s own post
.

4: TSR produced a Buck Rogers RPG. It was much better than it had any right to be.

Categories: Games, Geek, Reviews, Writing

So that was 2021

December 29, 2021 Leave a comment

Well, that was 2021. Very low on updates; I moved to Scotland, wrote a couple of books (first drafts only, alas) and tried to stay the heck away from that global pandemic that’s currently going on. So I’m afraid this humble blog got a little neglected, the poor thing.

Ended up running an awful lot of D&D for friends, thanks to the magic of Zoom and D&D Beyond. I also got to play-test a few games, pitch in on some projects and generally get some cool stuff done. There’s some amazing one-shots coming up for the Force Majeure Podcast, some new Brave New Words show coming up and of course, Starburst Magazine is back on the shelves after a long hiatus.

Stay tuned to this spot, more rambling will be appearing on this page on future. And thanks for checking this humble blog out.

Categories: Rants

Brian Blessed – Timelord

August 8, 2020 Leave a comment

I note with interest that the UK tabloids have picked up on the fact that Brian Blessed hasn’t been out of the house in a while and is freely available to chat away online. Namely, there’s a headline floating around stating that Brian ‘shocked the BBC’ with his pitch for Doctor Who.

They are several problems with this. One is that it’s pretty hard to shock the BBC. Partially because corporations aren’t people1 but mostly because the people working for the Beeb have pretty much heard it all. The general public have many ideas and aren’t backwards about sharing them.2. Also this is an anecdote from the 1960s. But my main problem is this is a gag taken way out of context. And before we get started, yes, Brian has frequently made the point that name Who sounds like the Chinese surname Hu. It’s one of his standard celeb stories and he’s been telling it for decades.

I’ve seen Brian Blessed on stage quite a few times and have chatted away with him more than once, mostly back-stage3. It is possible to have a normal volume conversation with the man and he’s a very interesting and well-travelled chap.

Brian is a regular on the UK sci-fi convention scene and he has a ‘routine’, which is a highly charismatic ramble about the state of the world, science fiction and science in general. It’s something of a ‘feel good’ rally; Mr Blessed is a kind man with a wealth of life experience and mostly what he says is practical motivational stuff in which he tells us that the world can still be a bright and good place.

Brian Blessed

The Brian Blessed impersonator helpline is currently experiencing a very high call volume.

I once had the total pleasure of watching professional insult merchant John Robertson interview him on stage and goodness me was that fun; the two riffed on each other very well indeed and Blessed was a delight. John was in his element; he fed the lines and Mr B kept producing the funnies. All of which came with an added measure of joy, rude-words, mischief and love. Blessed’s bombastic nature is tempered by wisdom and respect.

Brian doesn’t simply swear; he produces artisan crafted profanity designed to delight. One of the few true Profanomancers, a wizard with the pun and the naughty word. Which brings us to ‘the Doctor Who thing’. Inevitably whilst on stage some member of the general public will ask if Blessed would ever play Doctor Who and you will get one of two responses; he’ll either talk about Blake’s 7 (which is close enough and he was actually in that), or he’ll claim that he wanted the character to be called Doctor Hu. Because that’s a Chinese name. And that’s the whole bit, a pun on Hu/Who4. Sometimes he’ll then point out that if they actually did that it should of course go to a more appropiate actor5. We would see Brian’s serious face. Then he’ll talk about his travels across the world. Then he’ll talk about Tibet and kicking the Dalai Lama in the bum. Which is a whole other story which again, taken out of context sounds terrible but is actually just a very silly story told by an elderly actor who’s been doing that all his life.

Because that’s the gig, and that’s the act. And a little thing like a global pandemic isn’t going stop Brian Blessed from telling ridiculous stories.

1: Let’s recognise corporate personhood for the nonsense it is. Though the idea of Amazon Prime suddenly manifesting a body and going to parties does amuse me. I’d imagine he’d be able to transform into a truck.
2: All I need to say is “Mrs Brown’s Boys”.
3: Be under no illusion; he has no idea who I am beyond ‘oh yes, Starburst.’
4: He also once declared he’d quite like to play The Corsair6 in Doctor Who, but of course that was a run up to some jokes about The Pirates of Penzance.
5: Not that anyone asked me, but let’s have Jessica Henwick as the next Doctor.
6: Once someone explained to him what a TimeLord Space Pirate was. Did you know Brian has trained to go into space? Because of course he has.

Brave New Words Award 2020

April 15, 2020 Leave a comment

Back in March,  STARBURST Magazine announced it’s finalists  for the Brave New Words Award. They are:

Evan WinterRage of Dragons (Orbit Books)
Max Gladstone and Amal El-MohtarThis is How You Lose the Time War (Jo Fletcher Books)
Tyler HayesThe Imaginary Corpse (Angry Robot)
Sady DoyleDead Blondes and Bad Mothers (MHP Books)
Nisi ShawlNew Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color (Rebellion)
Tamsyn MuirGideon the Ninth (Tor)

BNW-Award-2020-1024x1024

This year’s Brave New Words list is very exciting

In case you don’t know the award, it’s pretty simple. It’s an award for words that are Brave and New. It covers a lot of space, can go to editors, writers, bloggers and the like.  It’s always exciting to managed.

I walked away from this year’s  Starburst International Film Festival in March after vigorous chat with the team, which is the final bit of the of the shortlist process.  We announced the finalists via the main website and in print.  The plan was to then get the judges to judge the books, and announce the winner at Edge Lit. (We’d selected judges in January.)

Covid-19 had other ideas, and Edge Lit got cancelled.  So we are taking our time with it all, and the results are likely to turn up an online convention in October/November 2020. Goodness knows how we are getting the award to people, that’s a job for a future Ed.

We are also planning to a new award, the Starburst Hero Award for Literary excellence. It does what it says on the tin, the designs are very exciting.

The panel of judges for the Brave New Words Award includes genre critics and media professionals. The panel includes Urban Fantasy author Russell Smith media expert Rebecca Derrick, book podcaster Jane Hanmer and book blogger Matt Cavanagh Finally, we welcome narrative expert Professor Esther MacCallum-Stewartto the team.  They are excellent people and I’m looking forward to announcing who the winner is.

(Thanks to the magic of editing old blogs, you can find out who won here. )

Categories: Books, Brave New Words

Brave New Words Award 2019 / Edge Lit

July 14, 2019 Leave a comment

Well that’s another Brave New Words Award done and dusted. The winner is Tasha Suri. The judges felt that her book, Empire of Sand, was just the sort of thing the award is far. It’s brave, it’s new and the words are absolutely lovely.

The award itself is on it’s way to Tasha. Expect to find the award’s journey appear on the Brave New Words Instagram sometime soon.

The actual statue is called ‘The Roboto’ and it modelled on the original Starburst Fantasy Award from the 70s. It’s the same model that get’s given away during the Starburst Film Festival, but with a slightly different base.

The judging process was fun. This time round we had more time go through the short list. Last year we had to work with a March deadline, as the award ceremony was a the Starburst International Film Festival. 2019’s award ceremony happened at Edge Lit in Derby, so we had ages to read all the books.

It was still an extremely tough list choice though.  The final judging process was fun though. A long chat with lovely, intelligent well read people where we beat out what we liked about each work. As the chief judge I get to say ‘why’ a lot to the jurors, which was both fun and frustrating.

brave-new-words-award-nominees-announcedThe short list was: Aliya Whiteley – The Loosening Skin , Tasha Suri – Empire of Sand, Rachel Armstrong – Origamy, Claire North – 84K, Micah Yongo- Lost Gods and Tade Thompson – Rosewater.

Genre fans might notice that some of these nominations have appeared elsewhere in other award lists; The Brave’s mission statement tends to have some cross-over with The Clarke and The Kitschies after all.  I think the nominations nail the very strong state of genre thus far, and the winner is totally spot on.

The final announcement happened at Edge Lit and was on just before the legendary raffle. Thanks massively to Del who came up with some genius slides and I think I wasn’t too boring. The audience seemed amused at my terrible puns, I think.  I did leave the Roboto on the podium and had to rescue it just before the infamous drunken raffle occured and now it’s on it’s amazing voyage.

Starburst Editorial have given the okay to do this again next year, and Edge Lit is going to be a two-day affair next year. And yes, the podcast is coming back. It’s been a busy year.

Oh, and Edge Lit itself was awesome. I got to hang out with some of my favourite people, attend a couple of useful workshops and here some of the best writers in the industry talk about their work. Looking forward to next year.

Categories: Books, Brave New Words

On Starfury Speed and other stories

February 3, 2019 Leave a comment

One of the things about spending a chunk of your life writing about other people’s fictional tales is you think a lot about how stories get put together. And if you’re me, you then get kind of annoyed when other people miss the point and try and pull a good tale apart for all the wrong reasons.

I love good criticism. A well written review is an art in itself. And I adore it when someone takes a great story and takes it apart skilfully. What I can’t stand is when a work gets taken apart because the critic decides that the story itself is wrong. For example, someone complaining that a vampire movie is bad because the vampires can walk in sunlight without exploding1, ignoring the fact that it’s a story and the storyteller can do whatever the hell they like with the tale.

The Starfury Speed trope is a modern example of favouring story over accuracy. It comes from the 90’s TV show Babylon 5. The show featured small fighter craft that happened to be very quick and agile2. Various parts of the story had the ships turning up in the nick of time, or just too late. So obviously fans corner the show’s creator JMS and ask “How fast do Starfuries travel? Or for that matter, any of the show’s many cool spaceships?”

starfury

How does it work? Unless the story is about the science, or that engineering is part of the creators message, then rule of cool applies. And Starfuries are really cool. (Image via TMC-Deluxe )

 

His reply? “At the speed of plot.” It’s a perfect answer from someone whose job it is to tell stories. Expanding on this though, it should be taken as read that if, say, the tabletop miniatures game states that the SA-32A Mitchell-Hyundyne Starfury travels at a certain speed, that doesn’t make it a rule that applies to all other media. It’s just a thing they’ve done to make the game work.

Looking for details that aren’t relevant to the story in order to criticise a story is not productive. If your argument that Superman is a bad movie because in the real world people don’t fly, you’ve missed an important step somewhere.

There are lots of examples available. My personal favourite comes from the UK LARP scene, were myself and friends happened to be playing Samurai Badger people in a fantasy setting. Various geeks wanted to impress upon us their knowledge of Feudal Japan by asking us stupid out of character questions and lecturing us at length about how ‘Samurai don’t work that way’. We had to patiently point out to people that we weren’t aware giant badger people existed in the real world.

All of this ties into another frustrating trope, called The Thermian Argument.3 You see, just because a thing works in a story, and you can justify it in the context of the story, doesn’t make you immune from real world criticism. Claiming its okay to overtly mock a whole section of real-world society because you’ve made up this thing that says it’s okay, doesn’t make it okay.

Good criticism is an art in its own right, and it’s healthy to bring stories into their real world context. It is not a contradiction to enjoy a story in its context and then pull it to bits when your pop it on the workbench that is a the real world, or even the context of another genre with different conventions. But deciding that one made-up thing is more valuable than another made up thing because they contradict each other misses the point of stories.

—————-

1: Vampiric allergy to sunlight of course, being something that’s toggled from story to story, and a clue that all vampire stories don’t share the same universe. You’d think this was obvious, but no.
2: The design was so simple that apparently NASA drew inspiration from it during their research into smaller space vehicles. I understand it was a ‘Why didn’t we think of that’ moment.
3: Coined by Folding Ideas here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxV8gAGmbtk. To be clear, The Thermian Argument is where you use a made up thing to defend yourself from criticism about problems wih the stories real world context. You justify something awful by saying ‘It makes sense in the story’.

Categories: Rants, TV

Lies Sleeping – Ben Aaronovitch

December 1, 2018 Leave a comment

If you are into both detective fiction and supernatural adventure stories, then we’d be surprised if you haven’t at least heard of the Peter Grant novels. The long running novel series has recently spawned its own comic book spin-offs, novellas and a TV show is still in development. Lies Sleeping is the seventh novel is the series proper, and we are happy to report that it’s still as fresh as ever.

Typically Peter Grant novels start with some sort of incident that can only be handled by Falcon; The Metropolitan Police’s own specialist supernatural crime division can handle. This time round though, we are pretty much dipped straight into the over-arching plot from the previous books. The mysterious Faceless Man, the villain from the last six books or so, is the focus of a major sting operation. This means changes for the team. It’s nice to see how things have developed.

LiesSleeping

                                                      Merchandise. 

In the first book of the series, Peter Grant was a humble Police Constable, still wet around the ears. By book seven he’s made it to Detective and regularly taking swims in rivers. His magical abilities are accomplished and reliable. His mentor, DCI Nightingale also feels much more powerful in both confidence and magical might. Even their cosy little base of operations, The Folly, has become a full-on operational centre, with everyday crime fighting professionals rubbing shoulders with the casual creepiness that lies in The Folly. This makes for solid development of the series; after all the characters must progress at some point and it’s been a joy so far to watch them strive through every little set-back.

Aaronovitch melds the magical and mundane extremely well. There’s a good mix of ‘London practicality’ and ‘unimaginable terror’ here; this isn’t a world where everyone can take the idea that magic is a real thing in their stride. Fear of the unknown keeps things in the margins, which provides a back-drop for the main characters struggles. Practical policing versus existential horror, to put in another way.

Lies Sleeping doesn’t try to catch up new readers, which is quite right. (Though if this sounds like your thing, do go and read Rivers of London first.). The plot dives straight into strands from the previous serious, tying up plot threads going all the way back to book one, whilst fraying new threads to keep the intrigue going. The pace is solid and steady, the action is as thrilling as ever and the whole thing ticks along like an old yet exciting friend. It would be unfair to call this more of the same, as the story delivers many answers. And at the same time, asks plenty of questions.

A must for fans of the series so far, and as always, we can’t wait to read the next one.

Categories: Books, Old Reviews

How To Invent Everything by Ryan North

October 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Ryan North is as funny and he is smart, and he is very funny. Known for things such as Dinosaur Comics, Squirrel Girl and To Be or Not to Be, a book which turned the events of Macbeth into an adventure game. North’s signature style is funny yet informative, and with his latest How To Invent Everything, he completely outdoes all his previous work.

The premise of How To Invent Everything is that it’s a copy of survival guide for a stranded time travel. Allegedly discovered by North in the fossil record, it tells the reader that there is no way to repair a time machine. Instead, it advises the reader to rebuild civilisation from scratch, this time without making as many mistakes.

The first chapter is a description of both history and Earth’s place in the cosmos, cunningly disguised as a ‘how to work out where the time machine as dumped you’. Next we are onto the very basics; the fundamental technologies for civilisation turn out not to be fidget spinners and yodelling, but spoken and written language, scientific method, numbers that work and having some spare food. We then get into farming, mining, animal husbandry and so. All the good stuff.

Though disguised as a technical manual, this is anything but. It’s a fun history and explanation of humanity’s scientific achievements so far, with an added ‘how to’ on top. One of the recurring themes is exactly how long it took humans to come up with simple ideas such as wheelbarrows or keeping infants warm. They are fascinating (and carefully researched) facts here, all relating to human nature and their relationship with technology.

The conversational tone is charming, as well as the occasional gag about time-travel. (The fictional author in the book is angry at his boss at the time travel agency, for example.) It’s filled with lovely touches, such as all the historic quotes being from you, because you’ve gone back in time and nabbed those quotes. (They are also properly attributed, as is everything else)

Clever and well observed, it’s filled with everything you need to reboot civilisation. It includes substantial notes in the appendices and a general guide to useful animals and plants. This book is an almost essential primer on the story so far when it comes to science. We even go as far as basic computing, whilst also covering music, art and medicine. How To Invent Everything follows the Reithian principles of information, education, and entertainment, though it has the latter in spades.

I’ll be installing my copy in my personal time machine, of course. And getting copies for all my adventurous friends.

Categories: Books, Old Reviews

Art Matters – Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

September 1, 2018 1 comment

Any type of creative work will create outliers who combine skill, talent and a sense of cool into something unique. Neil Gaiman has, over the years, become a rock star of genre literature. Though not easily pigeon-holed, Gaiman has produced a wide and varied array of iconic and memorable work. Charismatic, creative and clever, he’s easily an icon of geek culture.

As such, he has a lot to say about working in the creative industry and on the subject of being a writer. And he says it all in such a pretty way that it deserves illustration. Art Matters brings together four of Gaiman’s well regarded musings on the subject of creativity, and combines them with art from former Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell.

The first piece is Credo, which originally appeared in the New Stateman. It’s about the nature of free speech and how ideas are pretty hard to stop. It’s a notion that is unpalatable to some and inspiring to others, and a rallying speech about freedom of expression. Inspirational and strong.

Next up is a thing called “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming”, and it was originally a lecture given to The Reading Agency. It’s a short, sharp speech on why reading is good for the soul and good for society. It’s something that shouldn’t need saying, but obviously does, and it’s wonderfully put.

Making a Chair comes from a CD called An evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer. It’s about making a damned chair. Because sometimes you have to make a chair. There’s a clever metaphor here, we are sure. The illustrations are great and it is quite funny. Finally we get to Make Good Art, originally a keynote speech for The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

It’s a speech about how Gaiman got to where he is today. It’s filled with clever little observations and witty little asides, but it’s essential message is Make Good Art. It’s a good speech, one designed to make people struggling at the creative process to keep going. It’s a reminder that the task ahead is possible. It’s filled with hope, and very useful, especially when things seem gloomy.

Riddell’s artwork is delightful throughout, punctuating Gaiman’s intent and making powerful words all the more poignant.

This is a small, pocket sized book filled with inspirational words and ideas. It’s the sort of thing that can brighten your mood during a gloomy English winter, when everything is dark, work feels like it’s too hard and every time you try and do something creative, something else gets in the way. This is a lifeline of sorts, something to keep the creative spark going during a storm. Invaluable for anyone who creates, which is pretty much everyone

Categories: Books, Old Reviews

Escape The Dark Castle

July 1, 2018 Leave a comment

For those who grew up in the 80’s, it’s odd to think of that decade of having its own distinctive style. The distinctive and simple style is immediately recognisable to many; not just the faded VHS and faux-neon look, but a simpler, scrappy style common amongst fringe magazines and books. Rapid fire adventure game Escape the Dark Castle taps into this retro vibe to create something that feels it could have been 1985’s hot new thing.

Escape the Dark Castle is elegant in its simplicity. You pick a character (A miller, a cook, a smith) etc. You’ve been imprisoned in the Dark Castle and you’re trying to escape. Each character has a bespoke dice and this reflects their strengths. The Smith does well in physical challenges so has lots of fist icons on their die. The Tailor isn’t that strong but is smarter and their die reflects this and so on.

Each round you draw a card called a ‘chapter’. You read out the encounter and roll dice to pass the test. Typically, this is a fight, but not always. You work together to defeat the encounter and move on, until you face ‘a boss monster’. Aesthetically, the whole thing looks great. A jet black box with a line art illustrations that look like they’ve come screaming out of some dark abyss of 1980’s style gothic fantasy. Big chunky dice. All the monsters are ghosts, demons, skeletons, proper old school nightmare fuel, the sort of thing aged moral guardians would make a fuss about. Cracking stuff. Quick to play as well, takes about 20 minutes.

It’s a fun team game with a solid narrative and a proper look and feel. It’s so retro I can imagine the Stranger Things kids playing it, but that just makes us love it even more. Like all good games of this sort, it generates fun stories amongst players. For example, when playtesting we ran into an encounter that lead to some particularly hilarious mental images where one of our heroes kept foul of traps. In-jokes where swiftly formed; it’s that sort of game.

This is a game that feels like it’s from the 80’s and is so good it’s survived the test of time. It’s a new game with an easy to pick up mechanic and feel that makes it feel like a classic. I understand the games producers have big plans for the future, so that’s exciting.

Categories: Games, Old Reviews