Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Reluctant Geek - Queens, Bishops and phallic fun

So you know that expression about how if it looks like a horse and moves like horse, then it’s probably a horse? Well apparently it isn’t. It’s a Knight. Similarly, if it’s tall and pointy and (let’s be honest) a little bit phallic, then it’s bound to be a Bishop. Freud would be nodding sagely for days about that one.

You may have gleaned from the above that I am relatively new to the world of chess, and thus still not over the desire to think up newer and more cutsey names for the various pieces. ‘Horsey’ and ‘Little tiny marching soldier’ are my personal favourites. This seems to amuse and infuriate my opponents in equal measure, so it’s a strategy worth continuing, even if only for the psych-out factor.

Seriously though, I’m enjoying chess far more than I thought I might. Finally I’ve found a use for the part of my brain that likes to calculate increasingly unlikely scenarios years in advance (This might not sound so bad, but at the stage where you find yourself making contingency plans for the civil war alien flood zombie invasion you know things have gone too far). I like the intellectual element and I like the idea that people have a ‘style’ of play, although mine is currently still floundering in the realms of try-not-to-lose-too-quickly.

My favourite thing about chess though, is the Queen. (Or as I like to call her ‘Kick ass warrior goddess’). Talk about strong female role models! She moves with greater grace and freedom than any other piece on the board, and combats the macho posturing of the knights and bishops with disdainful ease. Losing her dooms a campaign to dismal failure, whereas appreciating her for her unique talents is an excellent way to win.

OK, OK, I know this is unnecessary and slightly simplistic anthropomorphism, and however gender forwards chess might be there are some less progressive class attitudes going on! (Those poor disposable pawns...) I suppose my point is, that after observing the way women are reduced to supporting characters a lot of the time in modern geekery, it’s quite nice to find that the original ‘geeks’ game has a different take on things.

It’s a little depressing to realise then, that off the board chess is still considered to be a man’s game. Women’s participation lags behind men’s at all levels, and the World Chess Federation lists only one woman in its top 100 players (First person to suggest that this is a consequence of women’s intellectual inferiority gets thrown off a cliff for a) missing the point and b) being a massive sexist).

Regardless of perceptions about who the game is for, I am in no way the first person to discover it. Chess is pretty much ingrained in our cultural narrative from Marvel comics villain the Grandmaster toying with his human pawns, to Red Dwarf episode ‘Queeg’ where computer Holly plays for control of the ship (he also adopts my naturalistic approach to naming with ‘horseys’ and ‘prawns’). Chess even has its very own musical, inspired by the careers of some of its most influential players, as well as a rather trippy place in literature from Alice Through The Looking Glass to the Discworld novels.

Ultimately, it’s a game that is so much more than a game. Chess is about power, dominance, out-thinking your opponent. It’s about the triumph of intellectualism over unthinking force. There are a 1000 different styles of chess piece, from the utilitarian to the quirky to the decadent, and a 1000 different styles of play. And ultimately in chess, there is no such thing as an inescapable fate. After all, this is Death’s game of choice and even he sometimes loses.

Despite this grand tradition, I am inevitably, still at the very beginning of understanding the nuances and shades of grey that lie between the deceptively stark simplicity of those black and white pieces on the board. I’m not a brilliant loser either (there may or may not have been some board-sweeping incidents) so it’s frustrating to be plunged into a game that is not immediately and fully comprehensible. Like life though, Chess is better when you play. And as Wilhelm Steinitz once said (yeah, I don’t know who he is either) "Chess is not for timid souls."

This week, Kate is trying not to be taken en passant

Thursday, 24 February 2011

New Beginnings - Amazing Spider-Man #654.1

I have been an on and off Spider-Man fan for quite a while now. There have been many ups, which I have enjoyed, along with several downs, which have marred my opinion of the comic. No matter what I think there are always elements that bring me back. Amazing Spider-Man #654.1 is therefore a good place to pick back up, have a look around and generally see how things fit right now.

One of my favourite parts of Spider-Man has been the symbiotes. Whether it was Venom, Anti-Venom, Carnage, Toxin or any of the “home-grown” symbiotes, the stories have always caught my eye. #654.1 is no different... well mainly. For a comic titled “The Amazing Spider-Man” the wallcrawler's appearance on the cover and ONLY the cover certainly makes for an interesting twist. This issue is solely about Venom, or should I say the NEW Venom.

Written by Dan Slott and drawn by Humberto Ramos the issue explores a new beginning for the most infamous suit with a killer instinct. Now due to a marketing “slip” by Marvel, it was no surprise that Flash Thompson is the new owner and companion for Venom, albeit at the US Government's expense. However, what I really liked is that Slott has made you question if Flash - or indeed this scenario - is really right. The premise provided is that Flash, who has idolised Spider-Man for many years, now has the power and the tools to live up to standards that his icon possesses. But, due to the nature of the symbiote, the government has also enforced a strict limit on how long and often he can don the new guise.

Combined with the added benefit that Flash gets his legs back as a result during his bonding it makes a great grounding for what can turn into a terrible addiction and no doubt ongoing psychological trauma. Early signs of this are already apparent by a certain episode that occurs during this issue as well as a change in his demeanour.

Ramos has done a fantastic job in capturing this, especially towards the end of the issue. The artwork feels slightly cartoony but still works really well. It has a really good variance to it, soft and fine with openness when required but also heavy, hard and almost claustrophobic in others which is in tune with the mood. But this has all been set by Slott’s story which carries the weight in the beginning.

My fondness of the character attracted me to this issue and it was well rewarded. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. However, it comes across as a self-contained teaser, essentially another one-shot which is further compounded by the final double page “Coming Up” trailer. Admittedly Venom is present alongside Spidey and Black Cat, against what could be a new Sinister Six, but I am still left feeling that things will die down again. Additionally, the advert mid-comic for the new Venom series starting in March confuses things further as once again storylines don’t mix and match, as we have a more traditional Eddie Brock behemoth-style Venom drooling over the cover art.

It shows great promise and is a great issue to have but I can’t honestly say I will be back on the Spidey train. I will however, be picking up Venom next month and will also be following the beautifully created Carnage mini-series (slightly hard to come by but at only 3 issues in VERY worth asking Ben nicely to get it for you). As a fan, pick them all up, but as a jump on point I think it jumped and fell short.

Matt Puddy and Ben Fardon clearly disagree on Ramos' artwork.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Big Game Hunting - Turning the tables

I remember the first time I sat down with a group of roleplayers – whom I’d met through the Nanowrimo (it’s a big project that I’m a volunteer for – 50,0000 words in 30 days over the month of November. It’s quite literally, a blast!) and it was widely agreed that I would be a *great* addition to the group. I’m not sure whether it was a mix of stage fright, having not roleplayed since before my kids were born, or both, but those first sessions were horrible!

The next game was better though – it was easier to play, but I still felt something wasn’t quite right. It’s taken several years to get to the understanding that I’ve found, so I thought I’d save new writers the soul searching of "do I suck as a player?"

You don’t – you’re just not used to someone else being in control of the story.
That’s not to say that the GM has sole ‘control’ over the story – the best games are designed to unfold themselves, within guidelines that the GM provides and the players either explore or explode. But as a writer, you might have instincts that lead you to do something else – especially if the story is floundering or nothing seems to be happening. After all, it’s a cardinal writing sin.

No matter what your instincts, you’ve got to let people play out their character development, but still preserve yours. Character development might be following an assassin’s lead because it gets the mission done or it could be a mage threatening to torch a vampire if he doesn’t behave himself, but whatever it is, you have to follow it through.

Writers are legendary for writing themselves out of corners – in the case of roleplaying, you should try to get out of tight spots, but you’ve got to do it without meta-gaming, and without doing something that your character wouldn’t. And that’s the hardest line for a writer – or anyone creative to walk. How do you know whether your character would MacGyver something together because they’ve had a stellar idea, or if they’ve got this knowledge that’s untraceable on the character sheet but work well for that specific roll?

And that’s the big question – and is the difference between your garden variety roleplayer and your overbearing gamer. It’s not just writers that do it, but I’m always aware, as a writer, that I’m always careful to play within boundaries that I set up, for myself. Sometimes I talk with the GM, but in many cases I just work with the character sketch I’ve got. Sometimes I follow my instincts and go for the solution that I’ve come up with, but mostly, I do my best to roll with the punches.

Kai always loves meeting new and returning Nanowrimoers!

Saturday, 19 February 2011

The Reluctant Geek - Geek and Gamer Girls

Last week I touched on the idea that geek culture was currently enjoying something of a renaissance, with gaming, graphic novels and sci-fi TV all happily flourishing away in their corner of the geekery garden. Let’s face it, the common stereotype would have us believe that geeks are in desperate need of some rehabilitation, so it’s probably about time that we all emerged from the Star Trek conventions, marathon D&D sessions and ComiCons and stepped blinking into the light.

But what does popular culture think of geekdom? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for one single second suggesting that we take pop culture as any accurate measure of value or interest – let’s not forget the cult of mass appeal is responsible for X-Factor and S-Club Seven and a host of other abominations. But sometimes it can be interesting to head through the looking glass.

If you frequent the shady corners of 4OD as I occasionally do, then you might have come across a sitcom called The IT Crowd. The premise is pretty simple. Two computing geeks and their luddite boss are consigned to the basement floor of a swanky business corporation from which Dantean perspective they lament their lot, engage in wacky roleplaying high jinx and display a startling lack of social skills. The character of Moss in particular manages to encapsulate every geek stereotype imaginable. He has eccentric hair and thick glasses; he brings a lunchbox to work and still lives with his Mum; he is utterly unable to cope with changes to his routine and struggles to process the emotions of others. And yet for all of this, Moss is kind of cool. He’s a figure of fun definitely, but he’s also the show’s champion in many ways, and much of the comedy comes from the idea that Moss is simply functioning on a different plane of existence to the rest of us. Whilst not always a blindingly brilliant show, what The IT Crowd does do well lies in its ability to embrace the stereotype and twist it simultaneously.

Less successfully, The Big Bang Theory is another show seeking to cash in with some gentle mockery of those blessed with greater technological understanding and fewer social skills than the rest of us. It’s significantly less sharp and surreal than The IT Crowd - even at its best - but what is interesting lies in the way the premises of the two mirror one another. In The IT Crowd, Jen provides the foil to Moss and Roy as an out of her depth, stiletto-wearing would-be corporate high flyer who neither knows nor cares about IT. In The Big Bang Theory four uber-intelligent, uber-awkward college students live opposite one peppy, beautiful cheerleader type who attempts to coax them out of their high-achieving comfort zone. Do I even need to bother pointing out that the geeks in this example are male, and their neighbour is female?

The thing is, whatever small steps geekery and its associated culture may have made above the visibility line of the mainstream, for the most part the stereotypes are still firmly in place. Men are the clever and socially inept ones who can disassemble your computer and turn it into a drinks machine. Women have social skills and care too much about appearances, both indulging and relying upon the technological brilliance of those around them.

And you know what, even in the places where you do find some recognition of diversity in geekery, it’s never entirely straightforward. If you have a Facebook account or have ever been within 100 meters of YouTube, then at some point it’s fairly likely that you’ve come across the infamous Geek and Gamer Girls video - a parody of Katy Perry’s California Girls in which four rather beautiful girls and the ubiquitous Seth Green dance around, playing computer games, cosplaying and LARPing. On the plus side - hey, a catchy song pointing out that girls can be geeks too! On the minus side, there is a certain sense that it’s largely OK because they’re still sexy – the embodiment of every wet dream your average basement-dwelling, World of Warcraft playing male geek has ever had.

I think my point is that it’s OK to be a girl who’s a geek. It’s OK to be pretty, or girly, or sporty and a geek. It’s OK to be 18 or 83 or married with three children and a geek. And it’s even OK to be every geeky stereotype under the sun and a geek.
But most of all, it’s OK to be a reluctant geek.

This week Kate Townshend is dancing around with her LARP sword

Friday, 18 February 2011

Proud Lion will now charge for carrier bags

Hi everyone. With effect from today, Proud Lion will now be charging for plastic carrier bags.

This has been a long time coming. The rising cost of oil has lead to plastic carrier bags being more expensive, which in turn has meant I finally need to introduce this charge. Many of you remember to bring environmentally friendly bags or reuse carrier bags from previous trips, so I trust this will not be a massive problem for most of you.

The cost will be 10 pence per bag.

Currently a plastic carrier bag (averaged between the standard bags and the larger ones we have for board games and large toys) costs Proud Lion £0.076 including VAT.

The 10p charge covers this, with a little extra. From now, at the end of each financial quarter, I will calculate the extra money made from this charge and make a donation to a worthwhile charity.

It is my strong intention that Proud Lion will not profit from this move. I simply wish to cover our costs and encourage you all to consider the impact of plastic carrier bags upon our environment.

It is true that we also offer free plastic comic bags with every comic you buy from us. For now, this will remain free of charge. As a comic book collector myself, I strongly believe that it is important that my customers receive a near-mint copy whenever possible. This is a separate issue and I will treat it as such.

Many thanks for all your continued support.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

New Beginnings - Charismagic #0

Aspen is a relatively shiny new comic book company, under eight years old. Formed by the late Michael Turner - formerly of Top Cow - is it any wonder that I find myself attracted to their portfolio? Previously I reviewed Lady Mechanika, which I loved, and I find myself gleefully pawing at the pages of the teaser Issue #0 for Charismagic.

The first thing I have to mention is that, like all the Aspen comics, the feel of the issue is great. The texture of the cover matches the smooth soft feel the lines and cover artwork give to your eyes. Being a zero issue you don’t necessarily expect a big meaty issue, but there is still a feeling that there is more than enough to get stuck into.

Charismagic opens up in a diner with an elusive conversation between mysterious participants, setting the scene not only in story but in artwork as well. Hernandez has taken the opportunity to set foundations with the zero issue by giving the reader an introduction to what is likely to be a strong heroine, the main protagonist and also Hank the Magnificent! The development of the back story behind it as well means that although there is no direct relationship established between any of the characters portrayed, you can already see where it will head.

The artwork, by Khary Randolf and coloured by Emilio Lopez, is well defined and draws you in. The additional impact added by Lopez with his choice of colours and tone works very well, you can almost feel the hushed tones and nature of the conversation. When it changes to Samsun, the background colour change shifts the mood too. One other point to note is that the artwork isn’t gratuitous. Other titles from Aspen (and similarly Top Cow) can be a little heavy on the T&A. Charismagic has taken a strong female character and specifically not done this.

Now, I know it is only a zero issue. I know that it is designed to be set in front of a reader and tease them, enticing them in, but I still have felt that it was lacking in length. The comic itself is only 13 pages long, interspersed with adverts and the remainder of the comic contains further advertising and a mini encyclopaedia of “Druid Scriptures”. Normally I revel in these types of things but on this occasion I felt lost. It explains characters that have little or no bearing on the information we have already been given, so it felt wasted. The illustrative work, this time by Lopez, didn’t feel as strong as the rest of the comic either, even though it was good.

As a teaser goes it has certainly worked for me. Especially as I still went on the internet to see what else I could find. As a marketing plan I am sad to say that I have been dragged in. So far I like what I've seen and I’m eagerly looking forward to the first issue, however, I still feel that this could be the poor little magical sister of Lady Mechanika that currently is Aspen’s outstanding title for me.

Matt Puddy is a sucker for a girl and her griffin

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Watcher - Paul

Doesn't every man love Valentine’s Day. One of the most uncomfortable and unnecessarily stressful days of the year. But this year, Cupid’s twisted guilt didn't have opportunity to hamper another pleasant evening. Tonight was a trip to the cinema - and not to see some pappy chick flick - but to enjoy the latest outing by Gloucestershire’s prime valentine - Mr Simon Pegg.

Paul is the latest outing by home grown legendary duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Paul is Frost and Pegg taking their instantly recognisable and loveable British twist on comedy, over to American soil.

It follows the story of two English geeks, on a road trip through the United States. After attending the San Diego Comic Con, the road trip continues all around New Mexico, with the pair eager for snaps at all manner of locales along the ‘Extraterrestrial Highway’.

On their way, they discover Paul. An alien (voiced by Seth Rogen) who has just escaped his captivity of the past 60 years in Area 51. He pleads with Graeme and Clive (Pegg and Frost) to help him return to the location of the mothership.

Pegg and Frost again deliver their ability to bring giggles throughout the whole cinema just by appearing on screen. A sea of smiles grew over the faces of the punters by just witnessing their screen debut for the evening. You can tell it’s their script too. The dialogue is bursting at the seams with classic sci-fi references and one liners. It’s an inspired script with many different references spanning the now many generations of our beloved geek culture.

It’s the pedigree of the American actors which really helps to give Paul some clout. In a situation which could of so easily backfired, it’s truly exciting to bear witness to a new form of chemistry being instilled. The brash, dry humour of our loveable natives, folds together brilliantly with a real class line-up of US talent. Under the watchful, tried and tested leadership of director Greg Motolla (Superbad, Adventureland), Seth Rogen leads as the adorable, quick witted and potty mouthed Extra Terrestrial.

Jane Lynch and Kristen Wiig couldn’t have been better cast for the roles they have to fill. Wiig in particular nailing her kooky, zealous and damn right strange performance. A fantastic trio of suits (Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio) provide endless entertainment as the Government's bumbling men in black. Personally I’ve had my eye on Truglio for some time and it’s clear his warped, twisted and bizarre take on comedy is straight from Camp Rogen. He's brilliant and bounces off Bill Hader extremely well throughout the film.

But for all its qualities and legitimate laugh out loud moments, something felt missing. Perhaps it was just missing that extra ‘spark’ of an Edgar Wright directed movie. Perhaps it was Pegg and Frost finding their feet with a new director. But this could be its only criticism.

On the whole it is a light hearted, well written comedy, with some of the greatest comedians from each side of the Atlantic. Any fan of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, or the plethora aforementioned US talent will leave the cinema entertained. It’s a great step forward to providing more and more opportunities to see that ‘Spaced’ chemistry in action. And even if it didn’t quite hit the bar of a standard raised by previous flicks, it’s still a brilliantly enjoyable watch.

Phil Davies is eagerly awaiting the next installment of the Cornetto trilogy

Saturday, 12 February 2011

The Reluctant Geek - Bored? Games!

Over Christmas I spent an unfeasibly large amount of time in the pub. In those four or five days before the big event itself I was barely away from the Railway. If I’d taken a toothbrush and a sleeping bag I could happily have stayed overnight. I say this not to boast, nor to announce my alcoholism to the world (My name is Kate Townshend and I’m *not* an alcoholic) but as a prelude to this week’s subject. Because you see, aside from the sparkling conversation of friends and the more or less constant availability of sausage, one of the things that enabled us to hole up there with such persistence was a variety of board and card games, ranging from the silly to the serious.

I’m not sure how geeky board games are really considered to be these days, perhaps they have garnered some currency in the recent mainstreaming of geek culture in general. Certainly there is a sliding scale to be observed. From the almost chavvy at one end with games like Family Fortunes and Mr and Mrs catering to the masses (No intellectual snobbery here, honest!), to the traditional long haul contenders like Scrabble and Monopoly, to the quirky and cool end of things. Which I’m sure, dear readers, is the place that we can agree we all belong. There is also of course, the realm of the super-geeky sci-fi board game and we might well belong there too, but you take my point...

So without further ado, here are a few of my personal favourites. I’m not claiming them as particular zeitgeists of the gaming world, nor is their appeal necessarily confined to some kind of geek elite, but they *are* the ones that taught me it’s ok to be a gamer!

Apples to Apples
Apples to Apples hits all the right buttons as far as board games go. Matching adjectives to nouns perhaps doesn’t sound like a riotously good time, but actually, it’s sociable, culturally adaptable and enables players to mould playability to their own particular style. Thus if you want to keep things simple you can just go with the most sensible option. If you want to play the intellectual game then you can peer suspiciously over your cards, sizing up the psychology of your opponents. And if, forgive the expression, you’re in it for the ‘lolz’, then there is almost always an innuendo to be forced into proceedings.

Ticket to Ride
Some board games manage to evoke a sense of atmosphere that becomes a massive contributory factor to their appeal. Ticket to Ride is one such game - with versions set in both the US and Europe - in which players seeks to collect trains and fulfil tickets by creating journeys across the board. There is something wonderfully elegant about traversing European cities at the turn of the century and the game design very much nods towards a sense of nostalgia. Aside from this though, the game play lends itself to a certain competitive edge with multiple opportunities to screw over your opponents should that be your particular penchant.

Tales of the Arabian Nights
It’s possible that I’m about to get all literary again, but Arabian Nights is a wonderful combination of choose-your-own-adventure style narrative and board game. You become a hero or heroine seeking your fortune in the mystical East, and coming into contact with all manner of princesses, efreets and sorcerers as you do so. A nice touch is that your fellow players read out your encounters which rather creates the impression that your fate is in their hands, and leads to a reasonable amount of evil cackling as they savour the moment before they reveal you are about to be turned into a giant hairless ape. You have multiple opportunities for choosing the best reactions in the circumstances you are exposed to as well, allowing players to play to their strengths and either beat, cheat or seduce their way out of trouble. I’ll leave it to you to figure out my preferred option. What the games lacks in strategic relevance it more than makes up for in immersion and style, so it really is a bit of a diamond in the rough.

This is of course a tiny if eclectic foray into the gaming world. But board and card games occupy an interesting position at the intersection of ‘geeky’ and ‘normal.’ I urge you to embrace this duality further and play them in the pub! The Railway serves great sausages...

Kate Townshend recommends the dijon mustard at the Railway...

Friday, 11 February 2011

PROMO: Argh! The Ups and Downs of Life as a Comic Book Creator

Folks, something a little different today.

In March, Tim Quinn will be coming to Cheltenham for an event at The Bacon Theatre and the kind folks at the theatre are offering all of you lucky people concessions tickets at just £8.00. All you need to do is quote "Proud Lion' when booking your tickets.

Here's the skinny:

Argh! The Ups and Downs of Life as a Comic Book Creator

The Bacon Theatre, Dean Close School, Cheltenham
Thursday 24th March at 7.30pm
Tickets: £10.00 (£8.00)

The Bacon Theatre at Dean Close School will be hosting a fascinating and hilarious evening of comic book history: Argh! The Ups and Downs of Life as a Comic Book Creator, with the highly experienced scriptwriter, editor and illustrator, Tim Quinn, on Thursday 24th March.

For over 30 years Tim Quinn worked for the world’s most famous comic book companies on everything from Bunty, Desperate Dan, and the Bash Street Kids to Spider-Man, The X-Men, Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk. With a lifelong love and encyclopaedic knowledge of comic books, he will take his audience on a humorous and highly nostalgic trip through the last 150 years of comic book history, screening images of the best and the worst strip creations.

Tim will also take his audience behind the editorial scenes at various comic book companies he worked for both in the UK and the US, including the mighty Marvel Comics, showing just how comic book characters are created.

Speaking for the Bacon Theatre, Jess Waterman said: “This promises to be a rare and hugely entertaining opportunity to sneak inside the pages of some of the biggest names in comic book creation. And Tim Quinn is such a vibrant character himself; this should be quite a treat for comic book fans aged 9 to 109!”

Brave audience members are also invited to come along in capes and masks to really get into the spirit of things.

Tickets for this event cost just £10.00 (concessions £8.00). For more information and to book tickets call the Bacon Theatre on 01242 258002 or visit

Thursday, 10 February 2011

New Beginnings - Invincible Iron Man #500.1

Welcome to the brand new shiny world of Marvel.1!

Starting with Iron Man, Marvel have created brand new jump-on points for readers with many title having a .1 editions. Whether or not the same formula and format is used in other comics, this style has given a very definite and concise insight into the world of Tony Stark and subsequently Iron Man too. This means that avid fans will relate while new readers can also feel like they know who they are reading about without having read the 500 previous issues.
Working in a narrative fashion the issue is given to the reader by Tony himself in a frank, open and almost humble dialogue. Beginning at a point of obvious weakness and expressing himself to complete strangers you get to hear - straight from the horse’s mouth - how he became the giant he was, the business empire, the genius, the head of a superpower and more importantly the self-destructive cycle that takes it all away time and time again.

This has all been epitomised by the title that was strangely hidden at the very end, “What it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.”

Matt Fraction has written quite an in-depth piece in such a small amount of space, producing an easy-to-read and easy-to-follow storyline. Complete with both Larroca and D’Armata as artist and colourist there has also been a great continuity in style from the preceding issues as well. If I’m honest, the artwork hasn’t really been a hit with me but the story has carried it along instead. The lines are fine and detailed but lack the depth and clout that I have come to associate with Iron Man. It feels a little too clean to be the Tony Stark I know, but would a new reader think the same?

The issue itself is completely separate from the current storyline, coming across as a sidestep from the norm which was made easier by the break and relief that issue #500 created. Now in essence this is a good thing, as you are given everything you need to understand the character, but I am left wondering how they will bring this back into line with the current story arcs without the need for wasting a large proportion of the next issue on flashbacks and catch ups - especially without losing or confusing new readers.

For the avid fan I can see this on par with a one-shot, something to collect and treasure. For the new reader it’s a valuable edition to fill in so many blanks and get a good taste for what is happening and where to look for great storylines to catch up on. For those who fall in between, well, I’ll let them decide for themselves as I can see it being loved or left alike. I have it as I now fall into the former category and it’s helped me play catch up easily. All I can say from seeing the final advertising spread is roll on the new stories, as the promise it shows us and teases us with is great!

Matt Puddy is one point ahead of the opposition

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Winston's Wish Thank You

Hi everyone, just a quick follow up to the Winter Raffle. I made the donation the same night we did the prize draw and I recently ha this lovely email back that I thought you'd all like to see. Thank you all again for helping to support Proud Lion and Winston's Wish.

Dear Ben

I am writing on behalf of Winston's Wish to thank you very much for your generous donation of £75.00 raised by your winter raffle. Your donation will help towards our work with bereaved young people.

Every 22 minutes a child in Britain is bereaved of a parent; that's 24,000 newly bereaved children each and every year. At Winston's Wish we believe that the right support at the right time can make a life changing difference to a bereaved child and enable them to face the future with confidence and hope. Thank you for making this possible and helping us to change the lives of bereaved young people across the UK.

“Winston's Wish's capacity for healing is phenomenal…the staff are so skilful and compassionate; they are always on hand to give me a different perspective or to offer an idea as to how to overcome the latest stumbling block”. Craig, parent.

As a registered charity, we rely almost entirely on voluntary donations to raise the £1.5 million we need each year to maintain our service so every contribution really does count. We would be delighted to hear from you if you would like more information about our work and the impact of your support, or feel free to visit our website:

We would like to keep in touch with news of our work and current campaigns but if you would rather not receive further correspondence from Winston's Wish please let us know so that we can update our records.

With best wishes


Clara Browning

Donations Administrator

Picture (Device Independent Bitmap)

Helpline: 08452 03 04 05

Telephone: 01242 515157

New Address: Winston's Wish, 4th Floor, St James's House, St James Square, Cheltenham, Glos, GL50 3PR

The Watcher - Outcasts, episode one

I've been eagerly awaiting Outcasts, the new BBC sci-fi drama from Kudos. The idea of the production company behind great shows like Spooks, Hustle, Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes finally turning its attention to science fiction was fantastic. British sci-fi media has really been improving in recent years from films such as Sunshine through to the relaunched Doctor Who also on BBC TV.

Sadly, I'm a little underwhelmed by episode one. Maybe I was brought low by high expectations but some things really didn't work for me in episode one.

Set in the unbelievably close time of 2040, the series tells the tale of a colony world called Carpathia. Earth has probably fallen and the settlers may be among the last of humanity, anxiously awaiting the arrival of more evacuees from home. The colony has it's own President, a security force, an expeditionary force, a general population trying to build a life and of course, crime. "A society of human beings with everything that involves."

Outcasts immediately tries to wear its science fiction credential on its sleeve, like a try-hard fan boy. The titles phase in against a star field like the start of Alien and the first visual is of a spaceship slowly flying past the camera, like the opening of Star Wars and so many imitators since.

The cast is great on paper, but at first they didn't really gel for me on screen. Liam Cunningham, Amy Manson and Daniel Mays are all fantastic and by act three you can really see Manson and Mays beginning to show a rapport as believable colleagues. Elsewhere, Hermione Norris mostly offers the same bland authority she brought to her role as Ros in Spooks, though I do hope we'll see her subvert my expectations as the series progresses.

Jamie Bamber is entirely wasted in a role that seems to be simply stunt-casting. He is playing the antithesis of Apollo from Battlestar Galactica and he spends a lot of the episode trying to save his performance from melodrama by trying to breath a little realism in the frontiersman he portrays.

It's not Bamber's fault, he does the best with bad material. The dialogue is frequently stilted and some of the dramatic choices are frankly ridiculous. At one point Bamber is forced to shout, "Back off! Or I'll kill you!", whilst brandishing a gun. I though that intention was obvious myself.

Outcasts won't redeem sci-fi for any of the haters. Characters vary wildly in their mannerisms and demeanour, despite hard work from most of the cast to find a baseline to hang their performances on. I was amazed to discover that writer Ben Richards contributed to some great Spooks' scripts of recent years, because here he just can't find a voice for his characters.

Poor Hermione Norris takes the brunt of this poor script. There's one scene where she goes to a bar and picks up the guy she earlier questioned over an assault. For a one night stand. Norris' performance in this latter scene is actually quite believable - despite her having the same sexual screen presence as a stapler - her bland authority almost becomes an asset here in selling this plot point. But the choice of her intended paramour is frankly ludicrous.

The entire narrative framing of this scene is simply to highlight that she isn't as in control as she would have us believe. Her worry and grief over her potentially lost family takes on a self destructive angle. Not unbelievable in itself, but this would have made a much better slow burning plot rather than shoehorning it in before the potential arrival of her daughter in episode two.

The direction isn't much better. There's another scene involving Norris herself that is simply trite. One where she uses a memory recall device called Deep Brain Visualisation (DBV) on herself to recall her missing and presumed dead family, that is rendered completely over-the-top by a jarring piece of classical music and awful camera angles.

This first script also fluffs the potential futurism of science fiction by indulging some incredibly offensive stereotypes. Just because you want to ground it in the realism of colonists struggling to survive, doesn't mean you have to use terrible clichés. The only person with a foreign accent is the au pair of a child. And the child himself - yup, there's a cute little moppet of a child in this. Shoot me now. It's Boxey from Galactica all over again. At least Ron Moore's BSG was smart enough to drop the brat early on.

Despite all this, I don't hate Outcasts and will tune in for episode two. There were some interesting story arc set ups, including hints of a darker back story for Cass Cromwell (excellently played by Daniel Mays, who initially seems to swagger in with a pig, but clearly has much more depth to offer) and the revelation that there are members of the colony that were supposed to be executed, but were instead exiled. They are still out there, seething with resentment, though we haven't seen them yet. My guess is this plot line dovetails neatly into the revelation that the colony's children were ravaged by a deadly virus in the early days, but time will tell.

The hour format remains Kudos and the BBC's greatest strength, having already worked so well in Spooks et al. Despite my misgivings of a lot of the dialogue, some of the character moments are nicely observed. Things that would potentially by lost with the breakneck pace of American TV and the under 45 minute running time.

Ben Fardon would have once used DBV on himself, but is finding he'd rather live in the present

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Big Game Hunting - Down To Specifics

In my last article, I touched on several basics of building a good game for people to explore – where your setting is, your rules system and more. Now I'm going to touch on specifics, such as props and storylines, sub-plots or other design mechanics you may need to pay attention to.

Sub-mechanics are one of the few things that most new GMs overlook – while many people that play in games follow the plot offered up by the GM, there’s also a fair few that find the world that you create too interesting to enjoy the way you’ve laid it out so go off and explore. We're not even talking the players that like to deliberately ‘munchkin’ their characters - designing them so they've got ‘broken’ stats – most players though will just go off and explore the area you've described.

Those sorts of players are actually the best type because they'll give you some of the best feedback on both your world, and the overall plot you've got. A great way to make sure they take up the plot – eventually – is to have a ‘time lock’ on the plot. In other words, put a deadline on it. If you do that the world changes anyway - even if they don’t interact with it - and they may notice the next time they get involved with the plot.

Another way to absorb players into the main plot is to give them props, such as maps that lead them to specific areas of the world that you need them to be in, or letters indicating something is going to happen. This may seem like effort, especially if they’re not involved in the story right now, but if you’re keen to use a subtle clue by four, props are the way to go.

You should also consider encouraging your players to keep notes, and keep them yourself, so you don’t trip yourself up with different information later – these sheets can be props all of themselves and can be the representation of ‘eidetic memory’ if your player wants that talent. If it’s not on the page, they can’t claim they remember. While this seems unnecessarily cruel, when characters are trying to put themselves in a position of controlling the story, or being a critical part of the story with skills that put them at the fore of their party, then you should make them work for it.

Next week, D Kai Wilson-Viola looks at tips for writers playing in games and how not to take over with your own ideas

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Reluctant Geek - The metaphor in the room

I don’t watch much TV these days. But don’t worry, this isn’t going to be some holier than thou tirade about how the Goggle Box rots your brain and gives you cancer and makes puppies sad. I actually kind of love TV as a medium and would happily have a go at convincing anyone that good TV, thoughtful TV is worth easily as much as any book or movie.

Science fiction and fantasy TV tend to span both ends of the spectrum, being either breath-takingly, heart-stoppingly, spine-tinglingly wonderful, or slit-your-own-throat awful. And one of the things that set the two apart is the willingness of the good stuff to delve into the murky world of the metaphor.

Yes, I’m afraid it’s all about to get a little bit literary. But bear with me. Luckily, we have the god-like Joss Whedon as our guide for this particular journey into uncharted territory.

Putting aside for one moment the fact that I want to have his babies, Whedon really set the bar for using the sci-fi and fantasy elements of his shows to explore issues with universal relevance. You don’t have to be a blonde teenage girl with kick-ass dress sense and a stake under your pillow to appreciate the 'high school is hell’ idea which Buffy took and ran with, framing episodes in which ignored teenagers really did disappear and swim team jocks turned out to be even more monstrous than they first appeared. The knack lay in taking those widely accepted ideas and using fantasy settings to really explore them. Thus, the ultimate 'big bad’ in Angel became law firm Wolfram and Hart. Because everyone knows lawyers are evil right? And time and time again, sex in the Buffyverse ‘changes’ people, which plays to all of our fears about falling for someone who isn’t who we think.

The latest British show to use a fantasy setting as a way of playing with ideas about the human condition is the aptly titled Being Human, in which the wacky adventures of a vampire, ghost and werewolf become tropes for a post-modern agenda of alienation, difference and the search for meaning in an ambiguous world. The show also embraces the kind of moral relativism that means the right thing to do rarely has one of those helpful flashing signs and pointy arrows over it. These concepts are turned into moral puzzles for the viewer, with domestic violence, the dark side of sexuality and drug addiction all explored within the fantasy remit. And in many ways, Being Human gets to deal with them more directly and with less of a nod to the censors. Not least because it lends itself to the wide-eyed innocence of ‘we’re just some silly fantasy program’ when challenged directly on its darker content.

And amazingly, the belief that fantasy and science fiction tend not to produce TV to be taken seriously really does persist. This is frustrating when time and time again great shows are overlooked for BAFTAs and other awards, but the bright side is that they accordingly exist on a ‘Wild West’ style frontier, (literally in the case of Firefly!) where the normal rules don’t apply and it’s possible to push boundaries further than in almost any other genre. Being Human and Joss Whedon’s back catalogue are by no means the only great shows doing it either. Even the more mainstream appeal of the re-vamped Doctor Who (bow ties are not just cool, they’re pretty damn sexy too) frequently uses metaphor to delve into deeper issues for its adult viewers, whilst maintaining the fun and action for its younger audience.

The bottom line is that science fiction stories are modern day myths. We’ve figured out that the sun is a big ball of gas a squillion miles away rather than some gorgeous glowing god and that the sound of thunder isn’t Thor’s rolling chariot, but hot air collapsing into cool. But we’re still no nearer to answering the bigger questions - Love, Death, Identity, Meaning. Shows like Buffy and Being Human are the closest thing we have to those comforting stories that might explain such concepts. And at the very least, there are few genres as willing to tackle them head on. As Asimov once famously said, "Reality is a crutch for people who can’t handle science fiction".

Kate Townshend is currently appreciating the pathetic fallacy of the weather.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

New Beginnings - Age Of X: Alpha

Marvel is well known for their “What If” approach spanning their entire catalogue of titles. Usually stemming from a well-known event within the Marvel Universe they offer a singular view of what could have been.

Age Of X is looking to potentially be of a similar vein but extending this further, posing the alternate universe it has created under its own heading as well as two other established titles - X-Men: Legacy and New Mutants.

These are not being titles I am familiar with and as a self confessed comic geek this doesn’t bode massively well. I can’t help but consider if this is just a way to try and rekindle a pair of possibly under-performing comics. That said because I don’t know them I can also push this thought aside and read simply for reading.

There has been an interesting lead up to the release which piqued my interest. In all of the Marvel titles there has been the standard Age Of X advert with the addition of different codes to scan in the bottom corners. These lead to website addresses providing “historical logs” to give the prospective reading supporting information on how the world is now different.

It’s no secret that the premise for this is set to the fact that the X-Men have never existed. There was no Professor X with his vision for man and mutantkind and therefore nothing to change the fear and animosity into something better. The human threat - as seen in Magneto’s eyes - has gone unchecked and the worst possible scenario is getting ever closer. The Decimation event was truly that.

This is the reality that Mike Carey has created on Earth-TRN016.

This opening one-shot itself is the entry to both the past and present of Age of X with tensions fraught from the word go. Interestingly we see more of the why and how we have got to this position than where they actually are. There are a number of flashbacks illustrating some of the key events in this brave new world, which have all received their own artwork to make them stand out that little more. My particular favourite was for Basilisk, which has a very gritty and rough feel to it epitomising the feelings that Basilisk has too. This was a great little nugget that I would encourage people to get the issue for - Carey being brave and pushing outside of the norm.

More evidence of Carey’s apparent fearlessness has been his inclusion of some of the biggest Marvel characters in flashback only. It is looking likely that in this reality some of the Marvel trump cards are gone, leaving a far more desperate situation for all to face.

If you take the time to re-read the issue with this in mind the artwork for the present day really hits home harder. These are bleak uncertain times, the slightly hazy and distorted lines and colouring portray this. Conversely the artwork in the flashbacks is crisp and clear. This is used to highlight facts to be seen and trusted to establish a good basis. A very good tool used well, simply by using contrasting and complimentary styles for similarly different emotions.

I have loved the mechanics and vehicles used in this one-shot with fantastic changes in art, pace and style to whet your appetite. I haven’t however, felt overwhelmed by the story.

There was far too much retrospective in this issue and too many ideas fighting for attention. It left me slightly clueless to what was actually meant to be going on. Considering this is now also going to be spread over a couple of titles I have my concerns, but will try to be opened minded moving forward - in case Carey pulls a rabbit out of the hat.

Matt Puddy heals quickly, like Wolverine but taller.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Big Game Hunting - Bringing Some Tools To The Table

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced recently is planning a massive campaign in a persistent world that already has certain... expectations. Depending on your approach, there’s several ways to work through some of the problems, but to be honest, most of it’s like writing a novel.

Possibly a fan fiction novel but still, a novel nonetheless.

The reason I related it to fan fiction is because in most cases, even when writing your own setting, you’re going to be letting people play in a world that you’ve at least set up some parameters for. So, you’ve created the world, and defined the rules, and others (or yourself) then create campaigns of variable lengths within that world.

And, much like fan fiction, you’ve got NPCs who are probably big players in the world. Your characters might have to interact with them, or they might not. As a GM, using an NPC that’s got clout can often feel like a huge plot stick, so it’s something that can be used sparingly, or the players will feel like bit parts in a bigger story, and not in a good way.

And then there's the plot stick. Or in this case, a path with the occasional "jump up and smack you in the face" rake. I was once told by a very wise GM that even if you've got the map, the best GMs let their players explore and tend not to hit people with the plot stick – but sometimes catch them a shot with a clue-by-four. Even if this means that your story is entirely ignored and they go off and do something else - that's OK! In fact, that's the sign of a good campaign. And yes, it means you're thinking on your toes and it’s one of them most exhilarating thing you'll ever do. Just like novel writing - you gotta give in and let the characters or the story shine through.

And like layering the stories, when you get down to it, the best systems are designed around two core ideas - the characters run the story and the story isn't bogged down by minutiae and dice rolling every thirty seconds.

Having structure to the game isn't a bad thing - in fact quite the opposite, but instead of using it as a ring fence and keeping your players in strictures - they should be the jumping off point for everything that they want to do and every area that they feel the story should go.

On top of that though, there should be tools to make the storytelling easy - giving GMs the freedom to take players on jaunts and campaigns, to create worlds to explore, save or trash - with a skeleton to ladle the flesh of the story onto that gives people what they need.

D Kai Wilson-Viola is marrying that "very wise GM".