Sunday, 29 May 2011

Saffron Threads - What do motorcycles, Zen and diplomatic intrigue have in common?

Well, there's the book about “The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance” but the action in that doesn't look out of the USA, and is not hallowed for being particularly accurate on either Zen or motorcycle maintenance, instead being a setting for deep philosophical discussions. Anyway, that isn't what I'm going to write about today.

My topic for this month is Babylon 5. I know, I know, I'm waayyy late to the B5 party given that it stopped airing in 1999. I first heard about it when it was in its second or third season* and was assured my by sci-fi aficionado friends that it was pointless trying to pick it up at that point, and I should just wait until it had finished then start from the beginning. I'm not sure they expected me to take a further 11 years to “get around to it”.**

So, I'm watching B5 from start to end. Thus far, I'm spoiler free too: I was aware of the character of Londo – thanks to a regular (female) sci-fi convention guest who would remain in character for the weekend – and the Nimbari (or so I thought they were called), but that was it. Everything and everyone else was brand spanking new to me. I'm about seven episodes out from the end of Season One at the moment, which by common consensus means it's just about to start getting Really, Really Good.

I have several favourite parts or themes thus far. The first is the point where Garibaldi is restoring an old Earth motorcycle in the episode “Eyes”. I've just taken my CBT, with plans to get my full license later this summer, so the sight of gleaming black and chrome certainly piqued my interest. Up to this point, Lennier was vaguely irritating to me, in an adoring puppy kind of way. It baffled me how the Minbari could select someone as serene and quietly powerful as Delenn as their ambassador, yet send the keen and oh-so-eager-to-please Lennier as her deputy? Perhaps it was what my old boss would have euphemistically called a “development opportunity” for them both? Anyway, in this episode Lennier still retains his over-eagerness, but this time channeled through a love of history and a desire to immerse himself in the language and workings of the bike – and its Japanese instruction manual.

The scenes between Garibaldi and Lennier show another aspect of Babylon 5's writing that I love: it's the familiar banter and small talk discussions that happen in every day life between people who live and/or work together. All to often, this is absent from TV (and book) writing: dialogue is there to drive plot forward, provide exposition, or to establish a character's current mood or personality. It's rarely there to make the setting of all those elements more believable.

Sticking with the Minbari theme for the moment, the Zen Garden introduced early on in the season intrigues me. In a station described as “two hundred fifty thousand tonnes of spinning metal”, to have devoted the time and space to something as apparently pointless as a space for tranquility and rest is wonderful. Thus far, the garden has been used for some shady information trades, but the only one who appreciates it for its true purpose and beauty is Delenn. I have a suspicion, though, that the serenity she radiates conceals a much, much darker side: her flash of temper when her Grey Council membership was mentioned in public; her membership of it in its own right; her cryptic references to the “hole in your (Sinclair's) head”, and the implication at this point that the Minbari had a strong hand in Sinclair being given command of the station over the heads of many more qualified and senior candidates. Time will tell how much of this is borne out and becomes important...

Finally, I'll own to to being shallow enough that any TV series I watch in its entirely has to have at least one character I find strikingly attractive. It's not a guarantee that I'll watch it (even Eliza Dushku couldn't save Tru Calling for me) but it's definitely a prerequisite. In this case, it's Claudia Christian, playing the dichotomous Lt Cmdr Susan Ivonova. I'll leave you with this image:

* I'll dig my geek card out and hand it back soon

** random trivia point: a shop in my local market town when I was very little used to sell plates saying “This is a round tuit. Now I have no excuse not to get on with all those things I've been putting off”. To this day I regret not saving my pocket money up to by one.

This week, Saffron is still stressing about exams, and Lindy Hopping her socks off in a bid to forget about impending exams

Saturday, 28 May 2011

The Reluctant Geek - Girl on girl action

So obviously usually my Saturday nights involve sex, drugs and rock and roll (OK, maybe not the middle one). But they say a change is as good as a rest, so a few weeks ago I decided to stay in on a Saturday and watch TV. Well sort of... the TV in question was the Eurovision Song Contest (that covers the rock and roll element right?) and since one of my weird but wonderful friends is an inexplicably huge fan of aforementioned competition we all gathered at her house for some spangle-covered, sequin-encrusted, good old fashioned Euro-cheese. (There was actual cheese too in the form of some achingly retro cheese and pineapple on sticks!)

I’ll be honest – the music wasn’t grabbing me and whilst I appreciate a bit of good old fashioned randomness as much as the next person (unicycles and angel costumes anyone?), I suspect my attention might still have wandered. Wandered that is, were it not for the fact that the atmosphere in the room changed as soon as the Slovenian entry sashayed on stage. As it turned out, the gathering’s verdict on Slovenia was pretty much focused around the fact that the female singer was 'hot", "fine" and walking around on a pair of "legs up to most people’s head height." (Surely this would just be kind of inconvenient?!)

Now don’t get me wrong. I know my friends so this jovial objectification was no particular surprise... however when it evolved into detailed imaginings of some kind of love tryst between Slovenian leg woman and befrocked Swiss cute girl, I couldn’t help but ponder the question of how many living rooms up and down the country were engaged in similar discussions.

Probably the majority if we’re being realistic about it, but I suspect ours was one of the few that could have applied the correct term to this blatant fantasising. Yes ladies and gentlemen, we were inadvertently fem-slashing the Eurovision Song Contest.

Faithful readers might remember that a month or so back I talked about the ‘regular’ form of slash fiction, if such a term isn’t a misnomer. This process of imagining (often through fan fiction) heterosexual male characters from films and TV into complex, intense romantic and/or sexual relationships with one another is still pretty much hidden from the casual viewer. And femslash is a sub-genre of this already most niche of genres. As the name suggests, it requires taking two straight female characters and coupling them. Think Willow and Buffy before Willow came out, or the reams and reams of literature that would have Xena: Warrior Princess pair off with her erstwhile companion Gabrielle for some mythological fun.

Ironically though, despite its comparatively tiny corner in the slash community, this idea of lesbian subtext between ostensibly straight female characters seems to be far closer to ‘making it mainstream’ than male slash ever has. Which is even stranger when you consider that slash fiction frequently arises when an already complex on screen relationship is taken by fans to its next logical step. As The Bechdel Test has taught us, there just aren’t that many storylines where women are portrayed as having meaningful same sex friendships, so theoretically the pool of material for fem-slashing it up is pretty small. From Danerys’ ‘close’ relationship with her handmaid in Game of Thrones to Xena and Gabby - when it *does* happen, producers and writers seem fairly willing to nod towards the girl on girl subtext that their fans are so keen to will into existence. I mean, honestly, when every fan fiction writer and their dog were busy slashing Willow up, Wheddon eventually made her gay in response!

So what is this all about? Are we already back to the homophobic notion that two women together are somehow more palatable than two men? Do we still somehow see fem-slash as softer, more romantic and therefore more suitable for pre-watershed hints than the alternative? Whilst I wish that male slash were afforded the same courtesies (rather than the abject horror that greets it in some quarters) I’m glad that TV shows are increasingly willing to portray strong female relationships, with all of the implied complexity these might involve.

And actually, fem-slash can be a really fun way of re-examining some of the fantasy and sci-fi canon that has written women into bit parts in the past. Arwen/Eowyn slash throws Lord of the Rings into a whole new light, while Alice/Bella Twilight (sorry) re-imagining takes steps towards combatting some of the misogyny and sadism of the original.

Really, the potential for those illicit and therefore deliciously naughty pairings is everywhere. But when you’re finding them on Eurovision, it might be time to back off a bit...

This week Kate will be pretending to be a mermaid down in Cornwall. (Or alternatively, shivering miserably in the freezing British weather!)

Thursday, 26 May 2011

New Beginnings - Batman: Gates of Gotham

Recently, we have seen a massive change in the Batman titles that DC have been putting on our shelves. From the re-energised Detective Comics to the brand new Batman Incorporated. All of the titles have embraced the recent changes in roster and attitude since the Return of Bruce Wayne, so do we need another title? Even if it is just a five part mini-series?

Batman: Gates of Gotham certainly poses this question.

Written by a collaboration of Scott Snyder and Kyle Higgins, this arc veers away from the current norm. It retains all of the now familiar cast but with a focus quite clearly on the past - a very interesting take on Gotham. Opening in the 1880s we meet the founders of Gotham, including none other than Alan Wayne.

The story jumps back to a more familiar time showcasing the new Batman crew in all of its youth, also including some of the very new faces from Batman Inc. It’s certainly trying to bridge the clash between old and new in this respect, especially when you consider that villains such as Penguin are brought under the scrutiny of the Bat, only to reveal more of the history behind Gotham.

As a first issue it has a lot of turns already and is posing a really interesting story. Gotham as we all know it had to come from somewhere - and here it is, complete with its founding fathers. Now, as we’ve seen already all is not what it seems and I feel that Snyder and Higgins have more up their sleeves.

My uncertainty comes from the presentation of such an intriguing story though. If anything it has really frustrated me. There are pages and frames where I simply don’t like the artwork at all. In some instances it is very cartoon like, as if a storyboard for Batman rather than a comic. In others you’re presented with caricatures of those involved. Yet another change is given when you see the 7th page, which is a distance shot of Gotham full of gothic overtone and details. The final frame itself is yet another different style too. I really don’t understand why Trevor McCarthy has done this as it is a real shame. The lack of continuity ruins things for me. The cover is a prime example of this. You have a multitude of layers within one image, but look at it again and how many styles can you actually see?

As I said I am really struggling with this title. You have a brilliant and well thought out story with the scripting and dialogue to match only to be brought down by how it looks. They say that when you dine the first bite of the meal is made with the eyes and that it is this first bite sets up the success or failure of the meal. Well this is also the case for comics. If it weren’t for the strength of the story I wouldn’t be in favour for it at all - so thank you Higgins and Snyder, you’ve saved a story for me.

Matt Puddy is comprised of many styles, but he makes it work.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Watcher - Five reasons this Summer is looking Shiney!

X-Men: First Class – released June 1st in the UK

Colourful, sexy, epic, fun! Lots of glimpses of the young cast, 60s setting and stunning action, underpinned by tense snatches of conversation between the commanding central duo - James ‘Professor X’ McAvoy and Michael ‘Magneto’ Fassbender - which not only tease the plot nicely, but also hint at the pair’s fractured destiny. Director Matthew Vaughan and producer Bryan Singer seem to have the X-Men back on track. Here is a piece that promises the weight of Singer’s X-Verse, together with fresh characters and a welcome dash of colour. The sea-based action looks original and epic, and I like the pulsing prog-metal soundtrack here. Let’s hope the proper film score is equally suited to the tone. True to the comic’s? Possibly not. Too cool for school? Hell Yeah!

Green Lantern – released June 17th in the UK

This movie could be a big gamble for DC – competing in a summer dominated by Marvel Studios productions, Green Lantern, a relative unknown outside the comics community, has to stand apart. What we’re offered looks thrilling. Outer space has never looked so good, the appeal of flying through the stars so thrilling and in contrast to many earth based superhero films, this offers plenty of strange new worlds and characters for the genre to explore. Ryan Reynolds seems to be acting with conviction, but will he be lost under all that CGI? Early criticisms of the CGI Lantern suit are still a worry, but when seen in the context of the fully realised CGI world of the Green Lantern Corps, we might just be in for a visual feast on a par with Avatar. Either way it looks like a lot of fun. What do fans of the comic think?

Transformers: Dark Of The Moon – released July 1st in the UK

Having neither found the time, nor inclination to see the first two Transformers movies at the cinema, this trailer had me stand up and take notice. From the Apollo 11 teaser, echoing Alien, to a serious looking Shia LaBeouf, this actually intrigues me. The stakes, with what looks like a full scale invasion, collapsing skyscrapers and a breathless pace, look impossibly high. Whether 2D or 3D, I think I’m sold – and I didn’t even notice the absence of Megan Fox!

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part II – released July 15th in the UK (TBC)

I can’t remember the point when I stopped waiting for each new J.K. Rowling adaptation with eager anticipation. Was it that having completed the books I kind of lost interest, or is it simply that the film series has proved a little inconsistent? Either way, the above trailer has sparked my interest anew. After a relatively dull part one, we’re promised plenty of Wizarding mayhem as seven years worth of plots finally come to a spectacular conclusion. There are glimpses of many minor characters making a welcome return (did you spot Julie Walters in what’s sure to be a stand out moment?), and the effects look better than ever. Hopefully the knockout character moments from the book won’t be lost under all the bluster, and also, hopefully they’ll leave us wanting more rather than simply relieved that it’s all over!

Captain America: The First Avenger – released July 29th in the UK

This trailer promises a pretty faithful re-telling of Captain America’s WWII origins, with a cleverly rendered ‘weedy’ Chris Evan’s volunteering for an experimental procedure to produce the perfect soldier/model. Although the WWII setting has been done to death, ‘The First Avenger’ promises a new take on a classic genre, with tantalising glimpses of Cap in action against not only Nazi soldiers, but also Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull and hordes of Hydra agents. This trailer is stunning on the big screen and the whole thing has than unmistakable Marvel Studios sheen. The reference to Howard Stark also set my fanboy senses tingling. Fingers crossed, this does Thor and Iron Man proud! Roll on the Avengers!

Robert Barton-Ancliffe ran out of time to include Cowboys And Aliens, due out in August. Here at Proud Lion, we have every faith in Jon Favs to deliver something quite special!

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Reluctant Geek - A life less ordinary

When I was in my mid-teens, I developed a deep and abiding resentment towards my parents for not being American. It was totally unreasonable, not to mention somewhat uninformed, but at that age I hadn’t yet learned to associate the states with fast food, draconian attitudes towards abortion and Fox News. Instead, television had taught me that in order for anything truly thrilling, meaningful, exciting or dramatic to happen, it had to happen in America.

To be fair, based on the evidence of my limited experience, it wasn’t entirely surprising that I had catapulted towards this conclusion. While British TV was best known for Coronation Street and Eastenders, where people with inexplicable regional accents yelled at each other, had tawdry affairs and got run over; the States had Buffy and The X-Files. Week after week witty and committed protagonists with whom I could identify engaged in a spot of saving the world with a side of smouldering sexual tension. There was no contest really. I didn’t want to be a whinging Northerner in the rain. I wanted to be a glamorous, kick-ass heroine whose life had significance and purpose. And on some level, that meant I wanted to be in the good ‘ol USA.

That’s why I will always be grateful to the newer incarnations of Doctor Who. OK, he came along a little too late to save my teenage years, but it was the first show that taught me that the UK could be a setting for danger, excitement and narrative with meaning, just as much as anywhere else.

(I know what you’re thinking… Obviously I don’t *really* believe in time travel, aliens and magic phone boxes. It’s just nice to know that if a TARDIS did suddenly spring into existence, it might just as easily be in say, Montpellier, as the Arizona Desert!)

The early series of the modern Doctor Who massively played on this desire that humans have had to a greater or lesser extent since the days when we were living in trees and riding on pterodactyls.* We all want to be rescued from the humdrum of our daily nine ‘til five, of doing the ironing and going to the pub, just as Rose is when Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor first breezes into her life. More than any other show I’ve come across, Doctor Who taps into our craving for adventure and significance. A string of companions face the ultimate ‘intervention’ and the perfect escape, whether it’s from the wedding from hell, the family from hell, or just the soul smashing tedium of normality.

That’s why it’s really rather wonderful to have The Doctor back, as enigmatically brilliant as he always is. Matt Smith’s Doctor plays out the dichotomy of saviour versus utterly unknowable alien incredibly well and Stephen Moffat has thus far proved pretty keen to point out that all of this racing around the universe, engaging in daring escapades and seeing things that humans just weren’t meant to see, comes at a price.

Of course, where Doctor Who leads, other shows frequently follow. The Who universe spin-off Torchwood makes Cardiff look every bit as cool as any brooding American city and turns detective work into a shiny, slick, technological indulgence to rival CSI or 24 or any of the big American shows. I’m not ashamed to admit to a massive fan-girl rush standing on the Plaza, following in Jack’s footsteps (although to be honest, I’d happily follow Jack pretty much anywhere) and in this sense really exciting British TV does the UK Tourist Board a massive favour. In fact, Wales is where all of the cool kids are hanging out these days, after Being Human’s relocation, although I still feel a certain fondness for the gritty, decaying glamour of Bristol, entirely appropriate for a show about vampires and werewolves, let’s face it.

The opening scene of one of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who begins with the words, "For the first nineteen years of my life nothing happened. Nothing at all. Not ever.' When I was a teenager myself I could hardly imagine anything worse than a life where nothing happened, so perhaps this is why the next line of this soliloquy will always send shivers down my spine: "And then I met a man called The Doctor." Thank goodness then, that he’s back for the Spring and the Autumn. Not to mention, Christmas!

This week, Kate is looking for her mojo. It’s probably under the couch again...

*Please don’t send me hate mail, I know we didn’t ever really ride on pterodactyls!

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Mane Event - Flashpoint #1

A few weeks ago I reviewed Marvel's event book du jour - Fear Itself. Timed a few weeks after its release, DC has launched Flashpoint.

I have been trying very hard not to get involved in all the hype. There have been teasers and thoughts pushed by every major comic site - avoiding them has been an exceptional test of restraint. With many early statements leading to speculation of whom, what and how I’ve only been unable to stay away from, ironically, The Flash as I have followed it since the rebirth. Setting up since the late times of Brightest Day, the entrance of Eobard Thawne has pointed to a fractured universe for the Flash where nothing is as it was.

You can tell that DC is investing in this as well. Not only are there more than 14 crossovers hitting every main character and some of the Flash’s more significant enemies of the past too, but also they have stepped outside of the DCU to pave the way. This could be make or break as it will challenge all of the preconceived ideas we have about our favourite heroes, as they may not have come to be, or even exist in the way we know them at all. The glue that will hold it all together is the scripting of none other than Geoff Johns.

His workload must be hectic considering all the other titles he is involved in at present but it’s worth it. Essentially, if it has Johns’ name on it at the moment it is at least worth picking up and taking a peek at and Flashpoint is no exception. Johns has the DC Midas touch right now.

From the moment the main story starts it moves at a very fast pace... but not the pace of the Flash as we know him. Waking up mid-case after pulling an all-nighter, Barry Allen runs as fast as he can, slips, trips and falls down the stairs into someone he never thought he’s see again, his mother. This is just the first of many changes he has to adjust to in this brave new world.

As the issue opens out further we are given insight into other ripples that have crossed the DCU. Batman is now sporting red instead of yellow, a tiny change but even more noticeable is his demeanour. The subsequent discussion with Cyborg and his assembled team, which contains an interesting assortment of characters from both sides of the former moral fence, is another pivotal point as it’s here that we learn of the war on this earth. The only difference is that it is between Atlantis and the Amazons and affecting everyone.

With the changing outlook of different players and a whole new environment, Johns has managed to set a multitude of scenes in waiting for this series. Admittedly not all of them, and there are plenty that aren't even alluded to, but that is also a good thing as there is simply not enough space to do that effectively. What he does do is leave you hanging with a massive twist at the end. One I have to admit not see coming at all.

Andy Kubert has teamed up for the artwork and he makes an impact immediately with the cover shot. It is vibrant and intriguing all at once, fantastically drawn and definitely an eye catcher.

The contents of the issue are no different either. I’ve not seen a lot of Kubert’s work as he has been on titles I don’t normally read but now I’ve seen his work I’m really impressed. There is a huge amount of detail in every frame, both fore and background, without crushing or cramming the frames. There’s also been the chance to be more expressive too, considering that all the individuals we see are people we know but just not quite, meaning that a new take or twist can be added when drawing them. Batman’s horned shoulders are but one example of this. I’m also fairly sure that there are plenty of references and hints in there that I’ll only notice in retrospect. Sandra Hope has worked harmoniously with Kubert as well to give a very well presented issue.

The upshot of this all, without blowing too much from the issue, is that I’m glad that I have pre-ordered Flashpoint as well as specific cross over pieces. If this is a mark of what is to come then things are looking very bright. More importantly, the delicate balance of the DCU isn’t being messed with so it also means that anyone who isn’t a fan is not going to be left out or left behind too.

Matt Puddy feels this is another gem from Geoff Johns.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Watcher Retrospective - Batman vs. The Dark Knight

Much like in the pages of Grant Morrison’s latest epic ‘Batman Incorporated’, the Dark Knight is going global - filling comic shops shelves throughout the world with no less than six regular titles not to mention numerous spin-offs and a show stealing turn in DC’s summer event, ‘Flashpoint’. With an eagerly anticipated third chapter in Christopher Nolan’s blockbusting film trilogy coming soon, Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s creation has never been hotter. Like a gazillion others, I helped fill the multiplex (twice) for ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008) and look forward to next year’s ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ with eager anticipation... or do I?

During a post-Christmas Batman drought, I found myself enthralled by another Caped Crusader. I admit, the sight of ‘Batman: The Movie (Special Edition)’ (1966) starring the original Dynamic Duo of Adam West and Burt Ward, had me stupidly excited. Had I gone mad? Despite being an avid viewer in my youth, the ‘Batman’ TV series (1966) was at best the subject of mockery and at worst, a complete Bat-astrophe, the cause of many Frank Miller/Tim Burton worshipping fanboys’ collective exasperation.

Consider the character’s dark origins. A man witnesses his parents’ murder at the age of ten and embarks on an obsessive quest to inflict justice on the criminal underworld, dressed as a bat, with only a teenage acrobat and an English butler for help. Okay, it could sound pretty silly. But still, ABC’s Sixties interpretation was sillier. A camp, colourful romp, laced with innuendo and two grown men in satin shorts who really should have known better, fighting crime with an array of ridiculous gadgets (Shark Repellent Bat-Spray anyone?) and all the athletic ability of Morecombe & Wise. Holy Travesty Batman! What were they thinking?

A true product of the Sixties, the series has an eye catching look, sharing the same primary colour palette as many genre shows of the day, the overall style somewhere between ‘Star Trek’ (1966) and ‘The Avengers’ (1961). The costumes, gadgets and set were all equally as colourful as the performances, which included a rogues’ gallery that seemed determined to out-silly each other on a weekly basis, while still staying true to the original characters.

The editing, while oft-derided as silly, is also part of the fun. As Batman and Robin lay into the villains the screen fills with pop arty sound effects such as ‘Biff!!’, ‘Zonk!’, ‘Kapow!!’ in true comic book style. The spinning scene cuts are a cool touch too, and the cliff hangers - "same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!" clearly influenced the work of current Bat-writer Grant Morrison. ‘Batman’ was colourful, harmless, family fun, but there were plenty of winks to the adults, the knowing humour predating Austin Powers by thirty years.

If nothing else, it also boasts a ridiculously catchy theme tune, which once heard, buries itself deep in your subconscious to the point where you can’t even hold a conversation without a constant "Nana nana nana nana BATMAN!" running through your head. I have to admit I was slightly miffed that the movie, produced after the first season, didn’t feature this intro, or several of the key stylistic touches mentioned above.

But we still have the iconic central duo of Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin. As the movie commentary and documentaries reveal, the two had plenty of fun during filming. West taps into the potential silliness of the character, while still owning Christian Bale in the suave, sophisticated stakes. His delivery as Bruce Wayne/Batman plays like a mash up of William Shatner and Sean Connery on acid, and Ward plays it admirably straight, with an earnest fist shake and a patented ‘Holy Batman!’ for every occasion.

I do love Christopher Nolan’s bold, sweeping take on the Batman Saga. The themes of terrorism, organised crime and urban decay definitely reflect the times we live in. But Christian Bale, tense and dynamic as you may be, why so serious? You’re freakin’ Batman, not Vito Corleone! So please dude, forgive me if the next time I need a hero to brighten these dark days, I go with West - the original and best.

Robert Barton-Ancliffe knows that some days you just can't get rid of a bomb

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Big Game Hunting - Short stories aren’t necessarily short campaigns

In my previous article, I talked about why I thought GM’s should have a storyboard. As it comes up to when Glass Block is released (WOOOO!), I’ve been thinking more and more about player and reader experience rather than one of a writer, a GM or a designer. One of the major things I’ve hit on is that the games I enjoy most are those that I know there’s something churning away in the background. But I can’t decide if I prefer the stuff that’s driven by my character, or the stuff that I do in response to what’s going on around her.

This got me thinking about short stories. Are there any parallels in construction between the two that would work to give people an idea about running one shots?

While this feels suspiciously like stripping away the innards of a magic trick and showing people sleight of hand, one of the biggest things I learned at Uni in my first year was that character driven stories engage people more than stories driven by circumstance - and that’s the difference between short stories and short campaigns.

Short stories are often character driven, while gaming is almost always response driven – unless your character is seriously proactive. But there’s less of an issue with that in fiction – characters are almost always proactive and almost always move the story forward by their actions, whether deliberately or otherwise. One shots are the essence of this in most cases – there’s little time and a smaller story arc to deal with, but things move forward. If they don’t, the one shot feels dissatisfying and can really put a crimp on deciding whether to go back to the universe for longer games. But that’s the other half to this equation – not everything that would make a great short story would make a good one shot.

I guess one of the major drawbacks with this is it’s kind of like saying that one form of media is instantly comparable to another. Which of course they aren’t. If you’re looking for a way to understand gaming more, it might be an idea to slip into a couple of one shot games (Free RPG Day is an ideal way to get your hands on some to try, if you don’t have many) and see where your characters lead you - see if they’re doing the things that you’d expect. Then think about the same story, as a short story, and write it. It’s a fair bet that you’ll think of different ways to deal with the things you faced in the one shot, which might give you an idea for your own next games.

This week, Kai is frantically putting the finishing touches on blowing up a prison and trying to make sure Elliot gets out alive...

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Reluctant Geek - Spoiled rotten

Since moving house and turning thirty, I’ve discovered a previously unknown love of gardening. I know what you’re thinking. Next stop radio four and the shipping forecast and before you know it, I’m holed up in the corner of some godforsaken nursing home rambling about the good old days when the Tenth Doctor was in charge of the TARDIS. But far from this being further evidence of some kind of unstoppable slide into the realms of the elderly, I’d quite like to make the argument that gardening can be, in its way, a bit rock and roll. All of that rubbing the earth between your fingers, pulling up enormous vegetables and spreading your seed all over the place. It’s practically a porn movie waiting to happen.

Unfortunately, it has also brought about a new manifestation of one of my absolute worst habits. I can be a tad impatient you see. Thumbing a tiny mottled seed into the earth and waiting for it to grow is all very well and good, but once it’s down there it’s kind of hard to see what’s going on. And that moment when the first sign of a shiny green shoot thrusts its way out of the ground is so utterly, childishly thrilling that sometimes I just can’t wait for it. So I’ve taken to, um, peeking. Raking the soil over in the hope of uncovering what’s going on beneath just a tiny bit early.

Really, this should be no surprise. I’ve always lacked fundamental self-control when it comes to spoilers. (Or should that be, "Spoilers, sweetie.") And for a geek - reluctant or otherwise - this is a bit of a character flaw. In my mid-teens, mad for Buffy and vampires and the end of the world, I took to loitering about a website called Spoilerslayer, where rumours, hints and tidbits about forthcoming plot lines were posted daily. Like a crack addict in denial I would then watch episodes with my friends, gasping along at the latest death/romantic entanglement/big bad, whilst guilt and smugness gave battle for my soul.

I wish I could dismiss this as the folly of youth, but since then the same pattern has repeated itself. If I love a TV show, or a series of comics or books sufficiently passionately, then I care about the characters. And if I care about the characters then I want to know what’s going to happen to them. Who *is* River Song? What will come of Daenerys’ desire to come home? You could almost dress it up as altruism with the right PR.

There is a darker side though, and it’s the side that knows that knowledge is power, and acts accordingly. Whenever I begin to doubt the idea that I am in any way geeky, I run up against the brick wall of my recent romantic history. The GM of truly brilliant roleplaying game called Orpheus Gaze, the first in command of my LARP faction, and most recently and wonderfully, a referee from the same LARP system. (There are one or two ‘normal’ boys in there as well, honest). When faced with not just a game where I don’t know what will happen, but a close relationship with a person who *does*, it’s very hard not to seek out some real life spoilers. Luckily all three boys have been upstanding and virtuous enough to resist the pleas of my weaker moments, and I sometimes think I know less than a regular player rather than more in an over-compensatory insistence on spoiler silence. The point is, left to my own devices, or entangled with lesser men, I’m not sure that my desire to ‘know’ things could be kept in check.

And actually, this would be a real shame. Because as much as I crave spoilers, as much as I’ll chase an internet forum thread all over the place in pursuit of them, I kind of know they aren’t really good for me. To know what was going to happen would ruin my role-playing experience utterly, and in LARP as in life, it’s usually more fun when it’s unscripted. Even with TV shows, there is nothing really quite like the unexpected punch in the stomach that comes with an unexpected character death, or the adrenalin rush of a plot twist that leaves you breathless and squealing incoherently at the screen. Almost all fictional experiences, whether books or films or games, seek to emulate a version of real life with a greater concentration of intensity, and in real life, the next step is always uncertain. The pavement could be there just as we expect, the ground could give way and crumble beneath our feet leaving us freefalling through space, or we could walk ourselves right into the path of that handsome stranger. Therein lies the beauty, and the horror, of the whole thing.
And as someone pointed out to me recently, if I’m not careful, the impatient raking of my seedlings might just stop them from growing at all. Sometimes the magic only happens when you let it.

This week Kate is checking for imaginary burglars.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

New Beginnings - X-Men: Prelude To Schism

2011 has been advertised so far as “The Year of the X-Men”. We have already had the opening for The Age of X and there are big events set to occur in X-Men Legacy and Uncanny X-Men. For the more mainstream roster we have Schism.

Written by Paul Jenkins, this is very much a scene setting and personal piece as it revolves around Cyclops and the position he has now been put in. Utopia is under threat and now Scott is forced into making tough decisions about the future and direction, essentially, for all mutant kind.

Without diving into the current situation, Jenkins has written quite a moody but sombre story which emphasises the moral dilemma and internal struggle that Scott is facing. Throughout the history of the X-Men readers have seen him grow and develop from the young leader of the X-Men to now, where all carriers of the X gene turn to him as a figurehead. Now, forced into making the decisions he followed and enforced, we are given how he chooses his path.

The issue spends as much time reminiscing on what made Cyclops the man he is, as it does on the actual story. I don’t find that there is a huge amount of development made, essentially starting and finishing with the same frame albeit from a different angle. Compared to some other comics it’s also incredibly speech light so the any involvement is from a narrative or internal monologue point of view. It’s easy to follow but it didn’t strike me as wholly engaging.

The artwork is by Roberto De La Torre and has a lot of work in it. There is a lot of detail work done in the actual line work, which is then added to and supported by the colouring of Lee Loughridge. I was slightly disappointed when I can see a frame that simply looks like a recoloured enlargement. The style is also completely different to the cover art as well, both have a strong dependency on the pencilling but there are finer cleaner lines on the cover than in the issue. Had this style been in the pages as well then I would have liked it more.

Although I don’t favour the artwork, the colouring by Loughridge supports it fantastically and feeds into the mood very well. The palette that he has used is emotionally driven and each frame is fed by the colour around it. A nice touch and well worked.

Overall the comic as a whole didn’t impress me, as I didn’t feel I got a huge amount out of it. The look of it isn’t my particular favourite and I didn’t get any feeling of development or urgency really. The frustrating thing is that I know that it is going to be part of something bigger, but based on what I have read in this issue I have no solid idea of what that looks like.

Matt Puddy is waiting for Hope to oust Scott

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Big Game Hunting - Should GM’s have a storyboard?

One of my friends was in chat with me the other evening and was idly talking about gaming and ideas for games and asking about some of the stuff that I write, when we hit on one of the questions that she’d always meant to ask, but hadn’t remembered before.

Should GM’s have a storyboard?

That’s kinda like asking whether a writer should have a plot but bear with me on this.

One of the major areas players have a problem with gaming is when they’re put in a position of feeling like they’re not playing the game – they have no control and are instead being shoehorned into a story that doesn’t work for them, or anyone else in the party. In other words, their GM isn’t so much as giving them a place to play and explore as putting them into a linear story that can’t be influenced. In some cases, in other words, a rigid story isn’t a good idea. But rigid stories and storyboards aren't quite the same thing.

As a writer, I’ve spent the last seven or so years listening to one main male voice in my head. His name is Elliot and he’s the main character in seven of my books and lives in a universe with two other characters, which also have their own books. Elliot’s world or stories weren’t consciously storyboarded and unfolded as they went, but at the same time, I had this overarching ‘arc’ that was storyboarded, planned and meticulously plotted in my head. I’m sure many people would argue that you can’t do both, but I did. And as a GM I do the same thing.

Writing and designing games means that you have to have sets of storyboards in your head, but it’s a lot more flexible, because your GMs will eventually come up with the story themselves. But if you’re GMing, you’ve got to walk a very fine line – there has to be a goal, a story arc to reach for, but at the same time, you gotta give your players enough control over some of the incidents that are happening around them to ensure that they not only engage with the game, but feel like it’s positively contributing to the world around them. Only then can you be sure that your players are getting the most out of the game and are feeling good about how they move on from whatever predicament they’ve found themselves in. But, at the same time, it doesn’t mean that you’ve got do deal with your arc in a ‘linear, the players have to be involved too’ way – in fact, sometimes, the occasional element that slipped passed them (such as choosing to deal with one thing over another) makes things even more interesting. Games shouldn’t be about players being all powerful – in fact, kicking their feet out from under them occasionally because of their choices is a good thing.

Which is why I argue overarching storyboards are not only essential, but make the game more enjoyable.

This week, Kai has been starting at storyboards so much that she keeps thinking her conservatory windows are whiteboards...

Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Reluctant Geek - Incest, prostitution and dragons' eggs

As it turns out, moving house can be a bit of a faff. All of that putting things in boxes, and taking things out of boxes. It just isn’t fun, unless you’re using the boxes in some elaborate game of ‘Hide the shoe’. And no-one wants to play that with me after last time...

This somewhat off topic pre-amble readers, is partially my attempt to illicit your sympathy (‘Oh that poor Reluctant Geek! Bravely soldiering on with her column while chaos reigns around her!’) and partially because the other unfortunate thing about moving is that you find yourself temporarily lacking access to life’s essentials.

Several hours into actually hanging out at the new house I was practically rocking and twitching with the strain of internet withdrawal symptoms. How could I catch up with news as it happened? What if some crucial email was awaiting my attention? Even worse, what if someone had posted what they’d had for lunch on Facebook and I’d missed it? Clearly social death loomed. I had become the weird kid at school whose parents believe that hours of TV might not be the best thing for a developing mind, and who can’t therefore discuss the finer points of Neighbours versus Home and Away.

Of course, I still had the Blackberry, which went some way towards calming my addled mind. But no amount of shiny mobile technology could compensate for the sudden and alarming lack of access to a squillion or so TV channels. Regular readers will know that I’m not a ‘watch the Antiques roadshow just cos it’s on kind of girl’ but I do tend to devote myself to certain shows with all the passionate devotion of a novitiate nun. And there was one particular show that I was unreconcilled to missing.

I’ve raved about the Song of Ice and Fire series here before, so it may not surprise you to learn that I have been anticipating the Game of Thrones TV show with a fair amount of high pitched enthusiasm. And LARP/moving/work complications meant that in the end I was forced to throw myself upon the mercy of a friend, watching all of the first three episodes in some kind of orgiastic frenzy of fantasy TV appreciation.

And as it turns out, ‘orgiastic’ is a strangely apposite adjective, since one of Game of Thrones defining features is its ‘adult’ content. I was worried that they might have been tempted to go with the fantasy TV = kids TV precedent and just cut out vast swathes of the sex and violence. But then, there wouldn’t be much of a show left. So even if I was slightly alarmed by the fact that ‘boob count’ had made it into double figures by the end of episode one, I was vaguely relieved as well.

Naked ladies aside, did I like Game of Thrones? Do LARPers like plastic weapons?! The answer is yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

For starters, it’s gorgeous to look at. The Wall is awe inspiring, and the gritty Northern vistas of Winterfell strike perfect chords of melancholy beauty. The books are epic in scale, and the TV show is really managing to capture some of that dynastic immensity, particularly in the jumps from location to location, Winterfell to Kings Landing to the Free Cities.

More than this though, Game of Thrones also encapsulates that dichotomy of ‘real’ fantasy that the books handle so well. Yes there are dragons, and Dire wolves, but there are also petty squabbles, characters with their own unique insecurities, and the practical minutiae of life to be contended with. This immediacy is striking and compelling. The misery of Catelyn’s haggard bedside vigil, in a cold and cheerless room, as wolves howl at her door is difficult and thus brilliant, to watch.

It helps that for the most part the characterisation is spot on. Dwarf or not, Tyrion Lannister is so witty and clever that he may just count as my new ‘weird crush’ (I’m really sorry Noel Fielding). Cersei is brilliantly, languorously resentful, with a sense of entitlement that is practically palpable. And Daenerys has all of the regal vulnerability that you could hope for.

With any luck, Game of Thrones will turn out to be a bit of a landmark for television, proving that there really is a market for ‘grown up’ fantasy. I want to watch TV that transports me to a different world, without any patronizingly pesky moral message getting in the way of the story. The bottom line is, it doesn’t always have to be about talking lions and magic boxes. Sometimes it’s about incest, prostitution and dragons' eggs too.

This week, Kate is off to stay in a Mongolian Yurt for a few days. Just call me Genghis.

Friday, 6 May 2011

FREE COMIC BOOK DAY - now with added Magic The Gathering

Tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day 2011 and personally I can't wait!

Yesterday, Wizards Of The Coast got in on the action and send Proud Lion a bunch of freebies to give away.

Whilst stocks last, you can get a free Magic The Gathering comic, a free How To Play CD-ROM and one of five free 30 card demo decks! Each one is themed around a famous Planeswalker - choose from Chandra Nalaar, Garruk Wildspeaker, Ajani Goldmane, Jace Beleren or Liliana Vess.

Supplies are limited, so get down early to avoid disappointment! Proud Lion is open from 10:00am.

See you all at Free Comic Book Day tomorrow!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

New Beginnings - The Mighty Thor #1

As I start writing my review this week I have one resounding thought running as my internal monologue. So what do I say? Normally I have a good understanding of the character and background, some of the more outstanding nuances and foibles and know where I’m going but this week, if I’m honest, I’m finding things tricky. Not because the comic is bad or it looks wrong, but because I am very aware of the timing of both the launch and the recent movie tie-in that Marvel have put on our cinema screens.

Having not read anything that is specifically about Thor, or really followed him outside of brief encounters as guest appearances or crossovers, you could say that I have a completely innocent perspective, but isn’t that what it’s all about?

The first thing I need to mention about the issue is the cover. It’s bright, powerful and full of energy. There is a point around the centre of the image that everything is bursting out of which is great to see. It also adds some further intrigue, as you see not only Thor staring out at you but also the Silver Surfer.

The issue has been written by Matt Fraction, who I am liking more and more. Currently writing on both Fear Itself and Invincible Iron Man, you get the feeling that he is covering all bases. Especially seeing as he recently stepped down from Uncanny X-Men! From the outset there is a very human and theological point made revolving around the fall and rebuilding of Asgard and essentially who or what is god. A very bold step made in a nondescript way for all religions. But it does leave you wondering where it is all going. By the end of the issue I can see tangible links between religion, the Norse “guests” and Galactus. That said, I may be over-thinking what was really being put forward here about the significance of beings in the grand scheme of things no matter who or what you are.

As an opening issue I am also not surprised to see multiple storylines and narratives which don’t seemingly cross as yet, but that is all to come I’m sure. A sticking point for me, however, was the lack of continuity with the other titles. Especially considering who is writing them. Given that we are in the infant stages of Marvel's big event you would think that a pivotal character would be bound closer to it.

The writing has an easy to follow, almost literal, feel to it but at times can be a little word heavy. I did find myself skimming at one point and still fully grasping all around me. This could also be the storylines and diversity.

The outstanding pieces for me though were Coipel’s big pages. There are a couple where a single page is dedicated to an image and the odd word. Supported by Mark Morales inking, I think that the two pages containing the Silver Surfer are phenomenal. In a simple combination of body positioning and posture - entwined with an understated but apt background - there has been created two images which, although contradictory in elements, speak more than anything else in the entire issue. It’s just a shame that at this point in time they have nothing to do with the cover character. Normally I am a fan of huge amounts of detail and fine line work (for example Larroca) but in this instance I’m sold! Conversely though, I’m not completely taken by the smaller frames.

The individual elements of the issue are good, but can come across as confusing when put together. I am also left with an overwhelming idea that this has been created to capture an audience off of the back of the cinema release even though it follows more the current environment as opposed to the screenplay.

I’m unsure about this one, beautiful yet flawed.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Watcher Retrospective - Daredevil: The Man Without Sequels

While the Man Without Fear™ is currently on the comeback trail in the pages of Marvel Comics, he’s also set to return to cinemas in an all new film ‘reboot’, slated for 2014. But with a starring role in 1990’s ‘The Trial of the Incredible Hulk’ and 2003’s ‘Daredevil’ only eight years old, why has this much loved property failed to spawn any proper sequels?

With over thirty years of comic book history, there’s more than enough material to inspire dozens of scripts, and it’s a shame that the ‘bigger picture’ has so far failed to get past the first hurdle on screen. Other film franchises have already shown that mixed reviews and relatively poor financial returns don’t necessarily prevent hasty follow-ups. So what gives?

1990’s ‘The Trial of the Incredible Hulk’, was partially a ‘backdoor pilot’ for a Daredevil TV series and is accordingly focussed on Daredevil, with plenty of room for Murdoch’s story to develop under Banner’s watchful eye. Rex Smith is equally at home portraying lawyer Matt Murdoch as he is indulging in black-clad ninja fisticuffs with local thugs as Daredevil. And in a show-down with the shadowy Wilson Fisk, played by John Rhys Davies (oh so menacing in wrap-around shades), our hero not only overcomes self doubt and saves the day, but also sets up a potential series into the bargain.

Looking back though, it’s easy to see why the pilot was unsuccessful. The no frills ‘beat-em-up/drama’ format that powered ‘The Incredible Hulk’ to TV success in the Seventies was starting to look tired two decades on. And with genre TV about to go super-nova with shows such as ‘The X-Files’, ‘Babylon 5’ and ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, there was no longer a place for shows that evoked such 80’s kitsch as ‘Street Hawk’ and ‘Miami Vice’.

It was over a decade later when Marvel's blind lawyer superhero would next appear in a live action production. ‘Daredevil’ (2003) starring Ben Affleck, rode the crest of a new wave of big budget, big screen hits including ‘Blade’ (1998), ‘X-Men’ (2000) and ‘Spider-Man’ (2002).

Visually, ‘Daredevil’ represents a huge leap forward in 13 years, with breathtaking acrobatic roof-top duels, gorgeous, spandex-free costume design and stunningly realised visualisations of the title character’s ‘radar sense’.

The casting too is spot on - the key performance being Michael Clarke Duncan, whose brute physicality and raw charisma ensure that he owns the screen as Wilson Fisk, outshining even Colin Farrell’s authentically bat-shit crazy turn as Bullseye. Affleck and future wife Jennifer Garner ‘Elektra’ make an enthralling couple, and there are great comic cameos from future Iron Man director Jon Favreau and Kevin Smith.

With only a curious spin-off in 2005’s ‘Elektra’, a sequel failed to appear. Many possible reasons include the indifference of leading man Ben Affleck, who described the experience as ‘humiliating’, fanboy apathy over liberties taken with comic book lore and even the sad fact that the story itself fails to hang together – even with the much improved ‘Daredevil: Director’s Cut’ (2004).

But the Devil is in the timing once more. As a standalone film, ‘Daredevil’ still impresses today, but the influences of such recent classics as ‘The Crow’ (1994), The Matrix (1999) and the comic book films that preceded it are clear to see in every frame. As with ‘The Incredible Hulk Returns’ before it, 'Daredevil' simply offered nothing new.

So I start to wonder about the reboot. To give new director David Slade ('30 Days Of Night. (2007), 'Hard Candy' (2005)) his due, 11 years is a respectfully long time nowadays, compared with the hurried production of the ‘Hulk’, ‘Punisher’ and ‘Spider-Man’ reboots. But arriving so late in the game in 2014, the new Daredevil is once again in danger of missing the mark. We can only hope that David Slade is not just good, he’s magic.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Big Game Hunting - Dragon Age, Box Set 2 - PRE-ORDER OFFER

Green Ronin informed us this week that Dragon Age Box Set 2 is finally finished and has been approved by BioWare. It's at the printers right now and expected to start arriving in stores in the coming month or so!

Continuing the wonderful bricks and mortar retailer support that Green Ronin offer, they have sent me pre-order codes for Box Set 2.

If you pre-order Box Set 2 with Proud Lion and pay the non-refundable deposit of £15.00 (this is 50% of the total price, which is expected to be £30.00) then I will email you a code that you can use at the Green Ronin webstore to get the PDF edition NOW for only $5.00!

This offer is available until July 31st 2011.