31 January 2007

Settlers of Catan

This is not a review, but rather a play report and some thoughts after first experience with the game. It will be of little interest or use to people completely unfamiliar with Settlers. Sorry about that!

Last weekend, with my brother and his girlfriend up, no firm ideas and time schedules an idea was posited that I had meant to bring up several times before. I have owned Settlers of Catan for a good few years now, but there has always been something here or there that has prevented me from actually playing: too many people, or too few; or the wrong people; or not enough time or space; or the worst one: forgetting about it.

But this weekend we (collectively) remembered it; on Saturday it was cracked out after lunch and the four of us (me, my brother, his girlfriend and my mother) set up the board with the suggested beginner's starting positions and set about trying to learn the game. It was left to me to read the rules, which I did very slowly (but not very carefully), and tried to explain them to the others. We decided - perhaps self-defeatingly - to play the first game with open hands with regards to resource cards so that everyone could get an idea of how the game worked. In hindsight this was a bad move. While there is no doubt it helped us to grasp the uses of the various resources and their relative worth at different stages of the game, it also took a lot of the strategy, in trading and targeting of the Robber piece, out of the game and, ultimately, directly governed the final winning move. There were other problems, too; the randomness of resource generation coupled to the default starting positions meant that the red player ended up with nothing and thus couldn't build. By the time they got the resources needed to build they got shut in and isolated; unable to build for that reason. This seemed like sheer bad luck though and, combined with the realisations that: a) we would get more out of a closed-hand game and b) we may have missed out on a lot by using the default starting set-up. Random isle-generation and self determination of starting location would make a huge difference, we reasoned, and we'd seen enough to ensure a return to the game, with closed hands and a variable board. My interest was piqued, certainly even if I hadn't enjoyed the first game.

On the Sunday, again after lunch, we settled down to play explicitly by the rules and with, on the whole, a much better understanding of the game. We used variable set-up and placed settlements ourselves; the difference this made to the perception of the game was immense, even if - as is quite possible - the effect it had was small. The red player again got shafted, but this time it was a consequence of poor choices of location and ill-advised road placement in the early phase. The biggest difference was obvious: trading was more prevalent when we didn't know precisely what each other had and use of the robber (through soldier cards and 7s) was more targeted by who was winning, how many cards people were holding and what they'd picked up in recent rounds. I suspect a lot of the strategy for development card usage passed us by; from what little discussion I have had, heard or read from Settlers veterans there are good times to hold onto development cards - even ones that aren't hidden victory points. I can certainly see some situations where holding onto things like a Monopoly might be of benefit, for instance. Despite that I feel I learnt a lot more about good placement and the relative weighting of resources which might serve me well when I play again; I intend to play again, as I enjoyed the game.

There are, however, downsides. The shutting off of the fourth player owed a lot to poor placement on their part in this game, and the worst of the default starting positions in the first game. However it was compounded by randomness that then enforced a lack of resources for that player and if people are being stubborn and unhelpful by not trading then an unlucky sequence of dice rolls can easily rule you out of the game in the early stages. Certainly, too, it is frustrating at stages when you cannot make a significant move on your turn; the randomness behind resource generation means it is quite possible - likely, even, in some circumstances - that you will be able to do no more than roll for resources then pass the dice on to the next player. Between that and (possible) reticence of others to trade it can write people off too early. We also found that it took too long - hence the interest of the game was balanced against a boredom of slow-moving play; this is especially the case if someone does get cut out of any real victory chance. It is definitely the case, however, that gameplay speeds up as you get a better handle on what you are doing and a any future third game should probably run a lot smoother and faster than the first two. This is good, but to my mind it is really a bad game to play with people who are unfamiliar with it: the advantage given to people who know what they're doing and the time factor seem to be disadvantages in this sense.

The randomness? Well it appears that many people have looked to lessen this as streaks of lucky/unlucky or statistically unlikely die rolls can have huge impact. I don't know where I stand yet but I certainly see it as a contributing factor to the unsatisfactory elements of the two games played. Another informed outing with the dice is certainly warranted before looking to house-rule on this score.

All in all, I'm very glad to have played. Settlers is an interesting game and potentially a very fun way of passing the time. There are flaws, but then there are with anything. My interest remains high though and I hope I do not have to wait another 2 years or more to play again!

30 January 2007


I may have mentioned this before but it is something that really gets to me: I am isolated here in Oxford and this lack of friends around me is a real kicker that compounds the issues stressing me.

Mainly it just means that I can't just call, text or email someone and go out later. Which translates to me having less of an outlet for whinging, moaning and, more importantly, making light of, getting support for or putting my worries into context: worries like job hunting, lack of sleep or so forth. So little can really be done over the phone that distance really is a factor, but less of one than the issue of having to plan meets weeks in advance. There are friends I haven't seen in over a year because it's tough as hell to fix up dates due to differing schedules, finances and transportation issues.

It drives me mad and, on days like today (or even months like this one), when the stresses and strains take their toll and I really feel the need to kick back and go out with some friends... I can't. None around. Thankfully as I was writing this I did get a call and I have spent the last 20 minutes or so chatting with friends but great as that is... it's not quite the "sit it the pub talking shite" category of relaxation and emotional recharging. Life is a stressful business, and one needs ones friends to keep it from getting too much at times. Isolation prevents that; isolation sucks.

29 January 2007

Drama and Nostalgia

Saturday night was strange. I say this because what should have just been a family meal out (it was both my brother's and my mother's birthdays in the last week or so) turned into a nostalgic evening and a meeting with people I'd not seen or spoke to for 10 years.

First a not insignificant factor in this is that my dad and stepmother weren't able to be there due to complications travelling over from Greece. Nevertheless, my brother and his girlfriend were up from London and four of us went out for a meal as planned. In the cab on the way back my brother suggested heading down to our local for a drink and although my mother didn't wish to join us we other three set off after dropping her home.

It was in the pub the weirdness began; shortly after taking seats with our drinks (Guinness all round) we noticed a group stood at the bar and got "I'm sure I recognise him" reactions from each other with regards to one of them. It struck us that it was a guy who we'd both been in a youth drama group, the North Oxford Youth Theatre, with 10 years ago. It dawned, too, that he was with his parents who (if I recall) had had active roles behind the scenes with the productions and that that evening was the last night of the annual Winter play. Turned out he recognised us, too and hellos were said, re-introductions made. A very short while later two more of the old crowd appeared: they'd all come up for the last night of the play; not just any play either: this one had been written especially for its cast at the time... 10 years ago when we'd all been in it. The three ex-members who we bumped into that night had all been principle members of that cast who had been integral to the writing whilst my brother and I, a couple of years their junior, had just been general cast members. One of the writers then walked in; he was (again) doing the music and co-producing and hadn't changed a bit either. We'd known the play was on this year (it had been discussed at Christmas), and we'd half talked about going; it had quickly got forgotten and passed out of mind. When we set off to the Plough that night neither my brother nor I had twigged that that night was the last night of the play.

Still, a large group had thus formed and a quick drink and a bit of a natter later we'd been implored to swing by what passed for the aftershow party. It should be noted that this just meant a bit of a wind-down and chin-wag since the cast were all 17 or under, but we figured it'd be good to see some old faces again (as we'd established many of the people running the group were the same as they had been when we were in it). So we drank up, and wandered by. The Wolvercote village hall is exactly as it was when I'd last been there, 10 years ago. The production team, stagehands, make-up and costume staff were as they were 10 years ago. The only difference was the cast: non of them had been there 10 years ago, as even the youngest from my time there would have had to leave by now. It was odd, but nice; it triggered a lot of memories and it was surprising and pleasant to be remembered by people. We stuck around throughout the wind-up, and my brother and I ended up getting involved in the traditional game of Alfie, still played after all these years.

It was a bizarre experience all told, but rewarding and prompted nostalgic conversation when we got home, too. The main feeling though was that however much things changed, some things had stayed so much the same it was scary. We walked in and it was like we'd never been away. People had aged but that was all, and yet it was a not insignificant passage of time: 10 years is more than a third of my life after all, and longer than either of us were involved in the group for. It is the group's 50th anniversary in a couple of years time and at least two of those working backstage in 2007 had been cast members in the early years, such is the strength of feeling for the activities, plays and opportunities it gives the children involved. I know my brother has stronger feeling for the group than I do but I don't share that will to get involved or strength of feeling for the group. The past is the past, and I've lost touch with a staggering amount of mine, but should I still be around Oxford in early 2009 I might just have to attend any 50th anniversary bash.

Assuming, that is, I remember it is on.

26 January 2007

The Good, The Bad & The Queen

Damon Albarn has done it again. He is commonly described by the press as Britpop's most significant surviver - after huge success with Blur his work with Gorillaz ensured that his name lived on where others have fallen by the wayside. After deciding to end the Gorillaz project in the wake of Demon Days, and following the Mali Music project, his latest work hit the shops on Tuesday. Albarn teamed up with some high-profile colleagues - Tony Allen, Paul Simonon and Simon Tong along with Gorillaz producer Danger Mouse - and The Good, The Bad & The Queen is the result. The album has been hotly anticipated as the group has been in the public consciousness since October 2006 and the BBC Electric Proms and indeed that was when my interest was piqued. I enjoyed the catalogue produced by Gorillaz and, whilst Blur were not my cup of tea (at least at the time; I've warmed to some of their stuff since) I have long held Damon Albarn in high regard.

Financially I should never have bought the album this week nor would I have done, but for having to order my brother a birthday present: a second purchase was needed to get free shipping and the opportunity was too much to pass up. Music has long appealed to my baser nature and in many ways it is my chief vice - certainly it is my most expensive hobby - and so the album arrived through my mailbox this morning. It's currently getting its third and fourth plays as I type these thoughts.

Overall, this is an album with a dark yet engaging tone. At times both very simple and yet with rich depth and several audible layers it never feels over-complicated, self reverential or beholden to the back-catalogues of those involved. Its melodies, beats and harmonies all strike the listener as deliberate, precise and exactly appropriate: this is music crafted by true artisans. Albarn's voice lends itself perfectly to this type of project too - at times cracked and dry, others warm and engaging, or soft, or distant but always sounding smoke-y, dusky and unique. It shares the properties of the music and lyrics it conveys. What strikes me though is that while the overall tone is fairly dark, the album ends with an uplifting feeling: perhaps it is not as dark as all that. There is fun and funk in the eponymous closing track with its long, upbeat lead out and once you've heard the whole work once you begin to hear similar nuances in the other eleven tracks when you revisit them.

The album opens with an (semi-)acoustic guitar riff and a dark and vaguely threatening tone but one that demands aural attention. History song is a bit of a hotch-potch, an introductory piece, showcasing some of what is to come. When 80's Life kicks in it has a brighter sound, cleaner and lighter with harmonies that remind me a touch of some of Angelo Badalamenti's score to Twin Peaks; the vocals come across somewhat darker and the contrast holds the attention with a pervading sense of wistfulness. The third track, Northern Whale, mixes sporadic electronica with some fine piano chords and then insertions from the other musicians as a complex of overlaid themes, riffs and ideas meshes together to lend an interesting backdrop which - at times - threatens to swallow the vocal, so fully does it hold the ear.

Then come the singles - Kingdom of Doom and Herculean - back to back. The opening of the former reminds me very much of the intro to the Thea Gilmore song Saint Luke's Summer (from Rules for Jokers) which itself makes me think of Tom Waits for some reason. The rest kicks in though and the similarity ends in seconds. The pitch and tone of the song mesh with a fragile, yet old and knowing, vocal and make a fine listen. Herculean follows immediately much warmer than the previous track, a fine contrast: where the vocals on Kingdom of Doom are close and the tone of the track more cold and bleak, Herculean is warm but with distant-sounding vocals. It is the beats that draw the ear though and as the track progresses through the vocal sections it evolves into a rich sound with repeating loops and plenty of sustained interest. This couplet is the heart of the album, without a doubt.

It's not downhill from there, but the pattern is set: elements in each piece evoke similar feelings of warmth or chill, distance or claustrophobia as covered by these two tracks. There are influences or similarities to others to be heard, too; Nature Springs brought to mind the distinctive use of electronica and rhythm-heavy nature that has permeated Radiohead's more recent work (and especially Thom Yorke's album The Eraser) whilst going beyond that and adding more melody over the top of it (especially in vocal comparison). Later, Three Changes opens with a carnival-like sound which immediately brought Tom Waits to mind and Albarn lends his voice in different ways - shorter phrases, more staccato delivery and a snappiness that is foot-tappingly good. There are definite hints of fun here, which go from hint to blaring declaration by the time everything kicks off in the title track.

The Good, The Bad & The Queen is my favourite track on the album. It starts with a stark piano and not much else, vaguely dischordant and somewhat melancholy; that all changes when the vocal and rhythm kick in. There is certainly an edge to the pace and a driving power hidden in the bass. The vocal finishes almost as soon as it starts and then the tempo ratchets up and sends you into aural heaven: pure gold; pure fun; pure happiness.

A fine album to be sure. Not a mind-blowing one in the sense that it leaps into the psyche and will not be budged but one that grabs you at every opportunity and demands listening - demands repeating. It will end as one of the albums of 2007, to be sure - and it's only January. The only shame is that it will probably be a one-off.

25 January 2007

The Kiss of Death

Well, it seems like I put the mockers on the U's when I commented last month on Oxford's promising season. The team haven't won in the Conference since November and now lie second, but six points behind new leaders Dagenham and Redbridge.

To be honest I think they're lucky to only be six points behind. Dagenham's results have been kind to Oxford for the most part with the Daggers seemingly failing to take advantage of United's stumbling. Well no more; this week Woking beat the U's, while Dagenham won away at Grays to open up the 6 point gap. With only one going up by rights Oxford need to rediscover their early season form fast or risk the playoffs lottery and the problems of another season outside the Football League.

In not-much brighter news Dundee United aren't doing great either. The Arabs are Garry's team and now my adoptive Scottish side; they've twice been hammered 5-1 by Falkirk this season and got drubbed 5-0 by Rangers recently. I'm heading up to Dundee in February and we're going to a game... I just hope I'm not in for drubbings: at least Oxford are only losing by the odd goal and drawing games they should win, not getting spanked off the park!

Plans, Counter Plans and a Change of Plans

Best session yet, by some margin. There was a lot going on and I'm sure I missed half of it because at any one time the group were generally split: in character conversations, plotting and conniving between PCs were commonly in parallel to others working with the GM elsewhere in game.


After Zeff had stormed out, the others at the table were treated to Col outlining an outlandish plan to steal the Trebezond, involving flaming swords, dressing up as dead gods, tarring and feathering people and much more. It was enough to drive even Adenaar to drink (with a little prompting from Kelvin) but Col spun his ideas as a weaver works a loom and had both Kelvin and Adenaar - and, indeed, Kasmin - convinced by the time he was done, along with roles assigned for the act itself. Adenaar had too much to drink (it was his first exposure to alcohol) and wandered off, failing to make it home and with no memory of anything that happened after he left the inn and only a hazy recollection of the plan.

Zeff, meanwhile, had been taking Kasmin's words to heart. After storming around the city to work off his rage - being called simple (whilst true) was too much insult for him to take - he decided he had to show everyone that he could think and act for himself. Earlier that day he had, by accident, discovered that his channeling could make him intangible - he had been running from the Sky Cities guards after pilfering the "zapper" when his powers took him through a wall instead of up it - and he figured that this would make getting onto the Trebezond a simple task. If he could walk through walls then how could anyone stop him?

By midnight he'd made his way over to the docks; once there he began his rhythmic "dance" and tried to replicate the feeling he'd had earlier. It worked. Zeff brazenly approached the guards on the walkways around the tent under which the ship was being constructed; when commanded to stop and show ID he just continued on.... through the guard. Convinced now, Zeff moved on and into the tent, then up onto the deck, pausing only to taunt and "scare" - the guards had named him a ghost so he played on it a little. He was attracting a lot of attention, but none of the guards could touch or impede him (equally Zeff could not harm them even had he wanted to); one did wave a doll, wailing about spirits and, in an effort to perhaps lose some attention, Zeff "fell" through the floor onto a lower deck. The aim had been to look around the ship, but no-one was working at this time and below decks no lamps were lit; not being able to see in the blackness Zeff called it a night, resolving to get himself a reliable light source and come back another night.

Next day; Col went to "work" on the Trebezond and found rumours circulating about ghostly presences the night before. Intuitively he talked them up, stirring the pot and encouraging the sense of fear and uncertainty that accompanied the unexplained, serendipitously they fit well with the ideas he had for causing fear and confusion at the launch party, especially as Zeff's rather peasantry appearance had already been exaggerated over the early hours to a likeness of the god encased below - complete with flaming sword. Kelvin spent the day in his workshop, working on a substance to recreate flaming swords in actuality - it was integral to Col's plan, after all. Adenaar turned up late to his teaching appointment: he had committed himself to teaching the squad of widowmakers. Hungover and unsure of his last few hours he bungled through the lesson in constant need of water and a clearer head. It was as the class ended that Zeff happened by - commenting on Adenaar's lack of wellbeing and wondering what had happened the night before. They walked and talked - about plans, Col and what to do about the Trebezond. Zeff told Adenaar about his late-night visit, and the latter counselled against an immediate return or trying to destroy the ship where it was but could sense that caution was not (entirely) sinking in.

They went in search of Kelvin and found him in the pub that evening; Zeff was trying to talk the alchemist into providing him with some of his more explosive or flammable creations but Kelvin was having none of it. He did, however, show the two of them his way of recreating the flaming sword effect - by lighting Adenaar's knife in the middle of the pub. Col happened by by the end of his shift (and a date with Captain Winter, one of the widowmakers to have been with them in the underfaust) and heard from Adenaar about Zeff's escapade the previous night (Zeff himself had nipped out when Col appeared) and was immediately struck with questions. Kelvin, meanwhile had another new idea, utilizing the explosive power of cowshit and ran off to "play" whilst before Col could ask Zeff anything Adenaar's revelations about the speaking stone (he'd just clicked that it was now speaking his language) prompted a more urgent trip. Col and Adenaar headed off to the Opera House to see the priestess who, it turned out, was Col's daughter. Much hypothesizing on Skygarden and dragons followed, but it was determined that the dragons were being sent from the future somehow, the stone could sense the temporal distortions. By the time the conversation had run its course and Adenaar went off to the restaurant to work his shift (sweeping up at the end of the day), Col had returned to the pub as he hoped to catch Zeff to ask him about the previous night, but the latter had retired for the night, heeding Adenaar's advice that a quiet night on the ship would stoke fears and uncertainty more than a repeat appearance.

The day dawned with Col again going to work on the Trebezond, but managing to fit in meetings with sundry others with whom he called in favours in order to prepare his plan for stealing the huge ship. Adenaar was much better prepared for his class this time, and recaptured the faith of those that showed, though he was visited by Whitehands who revealed that the Council of Surtur's Throne did not actually know what the Trebezond was for; Whitehands had apparently argued against working with the Sky Cities to build it, but the other council members had overruled him. Kelvin was again in his workshop, this time working on smoke bombs; Zeff was hanging around him like a bad smell (in the hope of getting the chance to lift something explosive without Kelvin noticing, given the alchemist's refusal to give Zeff anything) and getting in the way. Kelvin sent the boy out to get lunch, and in the time he was gone worked unfettered and perfected the smoke devices.

Zeff returned and showed enough interest in Kelvin's work to convince the older man to show him his explosives; Kelvin demonstrated the power of the "fertilizer bomb" he'd manufactured from manure. Further prodding convinced Kelvin to refine the mixture - it was too liquid to transport easily, and the alchemist worked on a drier form, essentially creating a very powerful bomb in his old leather pack. Kelvin was very edgy about this creation, not at all sure of its safety but Zeff has never seen any of Kelvin's creations fail and with the confidence that can only come from youth and stupidity gladly took possession of his tool - his aim to secrete it on the Trebezond that night and find some way to detonate it; from the scaled down tests Kelvin had demonstrated, the pack contained enough oomph to cripple the ship. Kelvin had run from the scene to the pub and was drinking heavily. Zeff had wandered back and, unconcerned, had just stashed the bomb in his room in the inn; when Kelvin realised this he went white and tried to counteract the "danger" by taking the pack an immersing it in water - but Zeff dogged his every step and his hectic, fidgety nagging combined with Kelvin's worst-case brain working overtime spooked the alchemist who simply handed over the pack and ran off into the night. Zeff shrugged, went to store the pack again, and descended to find Col and then Adenaar in the bar.

Col asked Zeff about his intangibility and whether he could use it on others but Zeff wasn't sure; all his powers are derived from instinct and feeling (as far as he is consciously aware) and he'd never used them on anyone else. Besides, trust in Col was running low and Zeff still did not know the details of the man's plan, having put his efforts into his own. Zeff was waiting for midnight as he planned to pilfer a lantern, take the bomb and load it onto the Trebezond that night, before finding some way to set it off. Adennar, on his arrival, sensed that Zeff would not wait; he also bore news (from the speaking stone) that more temporal incusions had happened beneath the city. Specifically it reported that 24 dragons ( or rather eggs) had appeared in the underfaust. He made a case for advancing the theft: they could no longer afford to wait for the launch party, he said, and somehow he made Col believe him. They would act that night if the ship would fly, and Col estimated that it would.

Final preparations were hastily made: Col dragged Zeff with him to clue in his crew (Col's vessel had a part to play later in the piece) whilst Adenaar went to track down Kelvin and convince him to take part. They would meet back in the pub at midnight and proceed from there.


And there we left it, on the verge of major happenings. The combination of rushed and incomplete plans, a (presumed) super-bomb in the hands of an overconfident and headstrong simpleton, the forthcoming theft of a major artifact and the unknown threat of dragons beneath the city is one hell of a setup for next time but, whilst that gives good potential for action and events next session what really made this session for me was the fact the characters really came to life.

It was the second game that all four players had been present and it showed, with a marked improvement in flow compared to the last one and characters tripping off each other now a degree of consistency was there. I think all 6 possible pairings of characters shared moments, and there were moments with groups of 3 whilst one was doing stuff with the GM too. Personalities and outlooks really came to the fore and there was real verve to the interactions and schemes. Adenaar's straight-faced truthfulness showed up Col's flashy untruths and Zeff's unthinking impulse. Zeff's impetuosity and impulsiveness were at stark contrast to Kelvin's caution and I particularly enjoyed the interplays between the two in context of the backpack bomb. Col's exuberance and embellishment won over doubters, yet he was himself implored (by the NPC Kasmin) to look at how he treated Zeff in light of their frosty relationship. All in all this session provided everything: big personal decisions and milestones, provocation of self-examination and whilst there was no overt action there was always something going on and it all felt part of an inevitable crescendo.

In short: the game has started to really fulfill the potential I saw in the group of PCs, and that rocks.

24 January 2007

Witch Hunters in the Baronies

Rather than Dogs in the Vineyard.

As I read Dogs I posted to RPGnet about first impressions - generally good with a couple of queries that need be tested in play - and then later there, and here, about how I'd felt a little uneasy with the tones in the game regarding religion. Then, yesterday, I posted a thread about a campaign idea I've been kicking around for a few months: a WFRP game where the PCs are the empowered staff of a minor baron's household, tasked with executing his will and doing what's best for his smallfolk in times of trouble (wars or raids brewing, chaos stirring and so forth). The way it developed and a sleepless night thereafter, gave me and pause and time for thought and I realised as I lay waiting for sleep that Dogs could just as well be about the Witch Hunters in the Cult of Sigmar.

The parallels with the default setting are many, though there are as many differences to be sure. Essentially though it comes down to the same ultimate moral authority, which is a requisite baseline for the premise of Dogs to hold up. Warhammer is a renaissance fantasy, rather than medieval, and Witch Hunters certainly have access to firearms, even if the general populace do not and in essence this means that the rules port across as they are - escalation and all. OK, some of the conflicts that face Witch Hunters are not well represented by the rules in Dogs, things like facing down undead might require slight tinkering to work for example, but by and large the match is a good one and - more importantly from a personal point of view - it doesn't trip my comfort warnings the way the not-mormonism did in Dogs as written. I would still run it with the efficacy of Sigmarite prayers dialed down however: part of the appeal of Warhammer to me is that in many ways Sigmar is portrayed as a false deity (he was just, y'know, this guy who happened to be a hero in his time) but that the powers of magic and chaos are very real. Naked faith (albeit stacked with ritual understanding and black powder weapons) standing against a quantifiable, yet simultaneously subversive and secretive foe.

Either way, I think my campaign pitch has changed now! It'll still be Warhammer, just not WFRP... unless the group prefer that when all is said and done and I cannot persuade them otherwise.

Mayor Clarkson?

Now this is interesting, if by interesting I mean amusing. Jeremy Clarkson, him of Top Gear fame with the big head and big mouth has been suggested as a possible Tory candidate for Mayor of London. OK, so this came out last year - and Clarkson himself wrote a column on it last August - but it only reached my ears on Monday when I was out chatting with a friend.

Actually, it's not interesting: I, frankly, care little for London or who is mayor of it as I avoid that city altogether for the most part and whomever is mayor affects me little-to-none. However I do have time for Clarkson for various reasons, mostly because I find him funny and occasionally pertinent and well observed. Clarkson may give off the air of an ignorant brute and he makes no effort to hide his very un-PC views - paid, as he is, by the Sunday Times to espouse them in print. I don't read the Sunday Times but I have, of late, been reading the first of the books compiled from his column, The World According to Clarkson, as I trundle to and from Bicester on the bus every Wednesday. These columns cover the early years of this decade and while those that were topical are dated most are just Mr Clarkson running his mouth off. And therein lies the charm - he shows wit, humour, astuteness, but also bullheadedness, chauvinism and myopia. In short - he shows humanity; it has dispelled my view of him as ignorant or bigoted.

But most of all the book has made me laugh, even on the bus, and its format makes it a perfect companion in this type of short journey. I shall be seeking later volumes, given the opportunity.

And in other, completely unrelated, news: I walked down to town today in shoes I hadn't worn for a couple of years or so. Gave myself a blasted blister and am currently hobbling about like a one-legged man. Joy of joys!

20 January 2007

What is on TV?

Obviously I don't mean right now, and I'm not going to start talking about all the sundry shows I think are just plain awful. No: this is a post about television shows that are currently, were recently, or will shortly be available to watch on free-to-air TV in the UK and that have a level of value or interest for me. I will, however, first mention in passing how woefully bad I consider most TV to be: soaps, docu-soaps, reality shows and game (rather than quiz) shows all have no merits in my mind, and make up an ever larger quantity of the programming available to watch. Good films are few and far between and, on the evidence of recent weeks, are being further marginalised by pushing them largely into graveyard schedules (starting 11pm or later).

True, there are also quality programmes being made and, in many ways, the quality level of modern programmes is way above that of older shows: higher budgets and production values leading to better produced end product. However it is evident that any individual viewer will rate the aired programmes differently in terms of enjoyment and content, and whilst I can recognise the high production values of something like the BBC's recent Doctor Who spin off Torchwood, for instance, the actual content of the programme left me bored.

So what have I found interesting lately? Not a lot. I must admit part of this is that as a general rule I vastly prefer my entertainment interactive to passive, so games and other people over film or TV. I do, however, enjoy the visual media when done well (such as Memento, for example), and the medium of television has some strong points too. In fact (ironically?) the TV show format quite strongly influences my favoured approach to roleplaying, thanks in no small part to Matt Wilson's excellent Primetime Adventures. Whilst most shows just lack that spark of interest there are, however, the odd exceptions: shows that capture my interest when I come across them by accident and do enough not just to keep me watching there and then, but to seek out future episodes.

Currently there is only one show airing on free-to-air TV in the UK that falls into this category; I am enthralled by Vincent D'Onofrio's portrayal of Robert Goren in Law and Order: Criminal Intent. I have no real love for the genre as a whole, and feel no pull to watch any other of the Law and Order iterations, but there is something about the way this one character is written and acted that demands my attention. The actor's mannerisms and detail combined with intelligent writing - the mind games the character uses to get into his suspects' heads or to the bottom of the crime must come from the writing - are just magnetism for my eyes. Certainly without that character I wouldn't watch the show; I suspect I wouldn't watch it with another actor, either.

The last show that I ended up sitting down to watch was when ITV picked up series one of Supernatural. I stumbled across it on a few occasions before I actually decided I would make an effort to watch it if it was on when I was free (and awake). First impressions were bad, but after I got over the whole American Teen vibe given off by the leads I warmed to the show - which has a very strong feel of gaming about it, and actually the relationships between the characters were well written. I'm pleased to hear that the second series is arriving on ITV2 next week, and I'll be looking to watch it.

I'm also periodically catching re-runs of Due South on ITV3 (and Quantum Leap which follows it) but these are both cases of take-it or leave-it nostalgia more than anything else: I enjoyed both when I was much younger and seeing them now is equal parts bemusement and amusement.

But really that's it, at least as far as drama is concerned. There are other things I will watch if they happen to be on and I flick by, though largely as background noise whilst doing other things. I will not sit down and invest wholly in something that doesn't really grab me in some way. There are other things I sit down and watch but they're not dramas: I love University Challenge and get mileage out of shows like QI or Have I Got News For You; watching Football Focus is a Saturday ritual, and Channel 4 News is a staple of most weekdays and as and when I catch episodes of Scrubs that I've not seen before I will sit and giggle.

TV shows make up a good 50% or more of my DVD collection, too, but it is mostly comedy (The Fast Show, Father Ted, etc.). The only dramas I have on DVD are 10 or more years old, and of exceptional quality or quirkiness: Twin Peaks (season 1), Channel 4's Ultraviolet and This Life.

In essence I'm hard to please when it comes to passive forms of visual entertainment and there's very little around that comes close to meeting my exacting standards for seeking return viewings.

19 January 2007

A Song of Ice and Fire: the TV Show?

So I learned yesterday that one of the epics of recent fantasy literature is to be made into a television show. George R. R. Martin's dense humanocentric political saga A Song of Ice and Fire has been picked up by HBO with a view to televising the whole work - which has yet to be completed. Four of the (planned) seven books are published to date, with the plots not expected to be wound up finally until 2011; given the fickle nature of TV audiences, the likelihood is that however much the intent is there to serialise the whole work it will get cancelled before it gets that far.

At this point I am currently reading the fourth book. I have, on balance, enjoyed the series to date as it hits enough of my sweet spots to remain interesting: political machinations, humanocentric, actions with consequences and the spotlight on characters more than events. The caveat is that as each book has gone by it seems there is less of interest - not because any of the above have dissolved away but because the original cast of spotlight characters have largely been killed and replaced as protagonists with others of varying degrees of interest and, whilst still being about the characters more than events the books have seemed more and more ponderous. The newer viewpoint characters tend to engender less sympathy or empathy and, having had so many spotlights burn out, I find a reluctance to commit interest in their stories because they are likely to end prematurely. Yes, the series is about events bigger than any one character and the infighting and machinations are what makes the saga interesting on the one hand but lack of investiture in those who serve as a window on the world is an interest killer when it happens on such a grand scale. I also have issues with the age of a number of the protagonists which produces cognitive dissonance with the tone of their "voice" or thoughts in the writing and impairs my suspension of disbelief over some of the happenings.

All of that might suggest I'm underwhelmed by the idea of ASoIaF spawning a visual rendition: I'm not. In fact I'm very interested (else why write this?), and I can certainly see it working well. I am hugely glad that it has been picked up for television and not for film, as the small screen is a far better medium for the level of complexity and scale. The huge cast of significant characters would not lend itself to film, but is little problem in TV where each can have an episode here or there or, because total running time is longer for a series than a motion picture, cutting between them can be done without making it nauseating or underwhelming. The chances are that for TV purposes the characters will all be aged a little, removing a lot of the issues I have with their ages and actions, and the internalised thoughts (often the most jarring reading in the books, IMO) should disappear with (hopefully) good interpretation of the external dialogue and context used to give those insights instead. I also think that given the turnover in protagonists television, which is to me a much less personal medium (inspiring less investiture in the protagonists than literature encourages), will give a better dispassionate depiction of the characters: their dying when having previously been your view on events will be less jarring than I find it in the books.

Of course being, as I am, outside the US and, as it is, that the rights have only just been picked up in the first place it is debatable whether this oeuvre will ever reach my screen. Even if it does it is a long way away and plenty more information will trickle out between now and then which will guide he ultimate decision of whether to watch or not. I am cautiously optimistic, though. My reticence to go back and re-read books of this type (a good memory, short patience and not enough energy to read as many books for the first time as I would like to make re-reading something an exceptional event for me) means that this show, should it arrive will be a fresh insight and not undermined by devotion to the source material, even if my memory might find points of disagreement with the results.

I await with interest; I believe that is the first time I've genuinely felt that about a forthcoming TV show since the first series of 24.

18 January 2007

And Then There Were Four!

Last night, for the first time in five sessions, the entire group made it to our Savage Worlds game and, as anticipated, it made a difference. The session was still somewhat disjointed as the various situations from the past four sessions were aligned and two characters that had not met were brought together but as a player in the game I certainly felt more at home (yet, somehow, more of a fifth wheel character-wise in the particular events of the session).


Adenaar "woke" to a strange sensation. He had no idea where he was, but was dressed as he had been when he had retired the night following the butchery outside a Free Brigades' safe house. It was just he, his sword and the speaking stone. It took him a while to figure out where he was - whether it was a dream or not was to the forefront of his mind - but the stone spoke up eventually: he had traveled not (just) in space, but in time. He was in Skygarden: the mausoleum of the gods 250 years and more earlier. The stone, or Skygarden itself, informed him that there were 26 gods entombed there, but that the Emperor had "stolen" 13 of them. The inference being that the stolen bodies of the missing gods were the artefacts powering the Sky Cities.

After learning this and sundry less pertinent informations Adenaar was transported back to the present, arriving - with mild confusion - in the hallway in front of the others as they fled the dragon-induced cave-in. Brief introductions followed, for Col had not met Adenaar before, as the Widowmaker captain, Winter, led them flawlessly out of the underfaust. At this point the group split: Kelvin headed for the pub, with Zeff (hoping to find Kasmin there) in tow, whilst Col walked Adenaar back to the restaurant before heading off to catch some shut-eye before his first day at work on the ship being put together amidst the security of the docks. It had been surmised by this point that it was to be powered by one of the missing gods: Trebezond had been a Sky City before it had been crashed as part of the original rebellion.

Next day dawned; Adenaar woke up to find 20 Widowmakers waiting for him, Zeff hadn't slept and went looking for Kasmin whilst Kelvin went to his workshop to work on a flame retardant and Col kept his work appointment. Adenaar's predicament was unnerving but not threatening: the posse of guards had come asking tuition not to arrest, kill or fight: evidently he had made a positive impression after standing toe-to-toe with Chardun Whitehands in the previous brawl. He told them to come back the next day for he had to think about the proposition (of teaching them). Zeff found Kasmin under the Opera House: she had been sleeping in a prop bed and availing herself - and, as it turned out, Zeff - of the prop clothing. A quick rundown of the previous evening's events followed, and Zeff left with word for Adenaar that Kasmin wanted to see him, and "get his size". Col's day as a "keel engineer" on the huge ship brought him into contact with the artefact: a 10" tall "dead" man in a lead coffin, holding a flaming sword. This artefact needed aligning with the hull to permit the ship to fly, and this was Col's remit. He did not get far with that, but did manage to sort out his pay, and score tickets to the launch party and find out about those running the project.

Everyone reconvened in the evening, after variously eventful days. It was then that Col's family ties came into the open: his brother was a Sky City count, and his nephew was revealed as the one running the Trebezond project. Just as tensions were rising following this snippet, Adenaar was warned by the speaking stone that something was coming - and suddenly the group were pulled out of the timeflow and confronted by three 10' tall figures brandishing swords. These temporal assassins, for want of a better descriptor, looked scary, but fell stunningly fast to Adenaar's blade, Kelvin's repeating bow and Col's use of a Sky Cities "zapper" that Zeff had pilfered earlier. Dropping back into time caused a couple to lose their lunches but discussion soon sprung up once more about who Col was, how much trust could be placed in him and how and what the Free Brigades could or would do about the imminent launch of the new Trebezond-class ship. Suggestions of stealing it came to light; Zeff was chastised for questioning if there would be leadership from the Brigades on the issue, told that all were members and should think and act for themselves. Col called Zeff simple, and ended with a blade-tip to his throat, but the situation was backed down before it cut, and Zeff stormed out into the Surtur's Throne evening air...


Good set up in the end. Seemed to take a while to get to it but large parts of that were down to the way things were organised and the requirements to tie the various threads together (not least as a result of having the first full group of the campaign). Not quite sure what is going to happen next, but having now been explicitly told to do things for himself, and having learnt some new tricks, Zeff is liable to go and cause serious havoc on the Trebezond. Having also been made aware of Col's ties to the Sky Cities, and especially the information that "nothing the Baileys have ever done has been good for the Lowlanders" IC trust is running very low indeed.

16 January 2007

Religion in RPGs

Cross-posted from here.

It struck me last week, whilst reading Dogs in the Vineyard, that actually I find the strong (central) presence and projection of religion an active turn off in games. Likewise the objective worth of religion (i.e. if no religion is objectively a bad thing for a character I'll likely be put off).

I have always shied away from playing divine or religiously motivated characters, but previously put it down to just not knowing how to play them right, what with me being decidedly non-religious myself. I've just never had a handle on the motivations or, if I'm honest, found organised faith an interesting enough a concept to play around with.

I qualify that because I think on an individual level faith and the questions it poses are interesting and character defining, but take it to the level of organised religion and I balk. However, again if I'm honest, my only interest comes from stripping faith away, actively questioning it; I personally see no value or interest in objectively proving it true ("divine magic" in DnD, prayers for miracles being answered etc.). This is much more applicable on an individual level than at that of a whole organised religion, and my inclination is to do it with characters whose belief structures are very individual, or at least not knowingly following a unified code.

Reading Dogs, where faith is objectively powerful in the default setting and the PCs are explicitly guardians of the faith, went further: it actually made me feel uncomfortable. I could never play, or run, it straight as the objective power - and salience - given to religion made my atheistic skin crawl. I am aware that functionally the premise is no different than saying "all PCs are cops" or "all PCs are [insert prerequisite here]" yet the fact that it was religion actively made me squirm. Thankfully (from my point of view) the game has much else of interest and can be ported to other settings or genres to lose the religious angle.

Note I do not have a problem with games featuring religion, deities or otherwise, just with making religion something beyond the personal and projecting it onto others. Take Exalted, for instance: I have more issue with the high power levels of characters than I do with them being the chosen of a god. I never felt a belief structure was being imposed or that to be Exalted mandated worship or overt religiousness.

I have no issue with clerics or paladins in DnD, though I am left cold and uninterested by the overt nature of their power being granted by their gods (ideally, and personally, I would leave the root of their magics ambiguous). I simply have no desire to play one myself even if I could get past my distaste for the system itself - though a godless paladin (where the role of a god is replaced by something personal) would potentially interest me.

In Warhammer the religions bother me not at all: in fact I like the idea of the Cult of Sigmar, perhaps because it is largely described as a cult and the "magic" available to priests is explicitly from the same roots as all other magic. Faith in WFRP reads and feels like a very personal phenomenon to me, despite its central presence in life in the Empire and the superstructure of clergy and sundry others that it supports.

In all those cases aspects of religion are present but are not projected onto a character; ones beliefs are ultimately ones own to decide, and one choses whether to belong to a religious organisation and follow its rules. Religion is not central to the game unless you make it so. Once that choice is taken away and religion is explicitly a large part of the game I lose interest and/or gain aversion.

I can only see that this is a reflection of life: to me religion is an intensely personal thing. I lack it, while others find great strength in the various different organised or personal belief structures out there. To me religion has no place in school or state (not least because there are so many different religions and I have a really hard time swallowing a claim that any given religion is more right than any other), or any sphere other than the personal.

When it comes to games if religion is explicitly present at all then the same freedom of choice (none, one, many) and subjective worth (none, some, lots, good, bad etc.) must hold true in order for me to feel comfortable and stay interested. I have not come across an explicit proscription of religion in gaming but I could only assume that because it is in line with my take on life it would not bother me the way explicitly prescribed religion does.

Note too: this is not intended as an attack on organised religion in any way. Rather it is just the articulation of thoughts that have struck me about my personal preferences since I picked up Dogs. These thoughts were spurred by both my reaction to that game as written and a retrospective look at games and characters I have played in the past. They are specifically related to games and gaming.

15 January 2007


Yet again we were down a man: are Col and Adenaar the same person?! Well no, but they've yet to be in the same place at the same time. This session was more fragmented and I must admit I was struggling for concentration through most of it - not that I'm quite sure why. There was certainly some inspired play, though not from me, and it was fun enough but I think other things may have been on my mind and detracted somewhat from the game. It was a fractured affair with the three characters each pursuing their own goals for most of it, and only coming together towards the end. So no full actual play this time, just a quick summary for each present PC.

Col: Docked back in the Throne and started searching for replacement crew. Managed to wrangle a job for a company supplying workers to the joint Sky Cities/Throne ship, including a requirement to tattoo himself with their mark. Picked up information here and there about strange goings on in the lava tunnels under the city.

Kelvin: Went to work in his lab making sundry new explosive goodies.

Zeff: Staked out the Widowmaker's guild, eventually falling into step behind a group of three out on patrol. Followed them to a poor area where they entered a shop and shook down the owner. Overheard information about strange goings on under the city, waited for the Widowmakers to leave and then threatened the shopkeep to find out the rest, including the identity of a child slaver (who ran stolen kids in brothels).

All three met up, talked about goings on, and Zeff made a vengeance and hatred case to the others for tracking down the seller of children who was said to be on a "hunting" expedition in the underfaust - the community of the forgotten which inhabited the lava tunnels. Additionally it Col had a date first but thereafter met the other two and they set out into the tunnels; additional information both Col and Zeff had happened by indicated that a cult had grown up around some kind of stone, and that unusual creatures were being seen. Shapes in the darkness were all that were observed before Kelvin made out noises: chanting in the distance. The alchemist had been guiding the others as his crystal shard was vibrating when pointed down certain forks.

It took them to a huge chamber - around which cultists were thronging and dancing to some occult beat. In the centre was a huge crystal with a dark shape moving inside it. Col was caught by the mood and moved down into the throng, where he was confronted and, inevitably, things kicked off. The trio, and the same three widowmakers from earlier, investigating the shopkeep's information, ended up facing a number of mutant beings, transformed from human by the power of the huge crystal. The whole throng did not join the scuffle but enough did to keep all six busy until one of the cultists could smash the crystal with a ritual boom.

It hatched a new dragon, and promptly cleared the room - the trio all escaping with various degrees of burns. No slaying heroics on this occasion. One of the widowmakers snuffed it, but two survived as the cavern was escaped and a route to the surface found...


Late on Thursday night my PC shut down and wouldn't start up.

It had been giving me intermittent power problems for a few years now, but I'd always figured it was just a loose connection as unplugging and replacing the power cord had proved enough to bring it back on every occasion. More, it had actually been better recently than it had been at other times - such as one very warm summer in Bath or at the back end of last year when a fault on the power grid brought about by awful weather was tripping all the PCs in the house, and the lights, on a regular basis. But this time it went and nothing would bring it back.

A fresh look in the morning, after some sleep, confirmed it was dead, and a quick fiddle inside the box led to a thorough clean (not that it had been that long since I last cleaned out the internals) and the conclusion that it had to be the PSU that had gone. I know sod all about components and costs but I know I'm next to broke; I was a little concerned about the potential costs, especially if I had to get someone in to do it. Thankfully my diagnostic was correct; I went and got a replacement at a decent cost and fitted the thing myself.

The trek was a pain though: firstly I had to stop by my dad's flat to pick up my bike. I'd tried a couple of days before but had trouble opening the code-locked shed. I had thought I had been given the wrong code but, when I went back and tried again, I found it was just a question of the wooden door having swollen and gotten stiff in the frame. I'd not cycled for a good few years though and damn was I tired by the time I reached the store on the far side of Oxford. My legs were so shot I could hardly walk as I dismounted!

I was a little better when I got home after it, but the whole experience has reminded me why I detest cycling in the wintertime: cold air blasts my lungs to crap and sets my nose a-streaming. This forces me to breathe through my mouth, drying it out and leaving me gasping, knackered and breathless even before the exercise is taken into account. Secondly at this time of year, especially when it has been as wet as it has in the last week or so, there's so much crap on the roads that one cannot cycle anywhere without getting coated in it. Bleh.

Oh well - I have the bike back, and a working PC once more; plus the exercise will have done me some good. Thus for the price of a new PSU I'm a touch fitter, connected again and more mobile than I was: a decent outcome, I guess.

07 January 2007


Wow. Finally, 6 or 7 years late I've just seen this film; Film4 became free late last year, I got digital TV just before Christmas and yet the screening of Memento last night was the first time I sat and watched a film on the channel: everything else shown in that timescale has either been something I've seen, something I've no interest in or on at inaccessible times.

The plot for Memento was once that always vaguely intrigued me, but never enough to get me to go out and rent the thing and I've never had the chance to see it on the small screen before. An amazing idea, fantastically executed, the film may move slowly at times but overall it is a masterwork and has immediately jumped onto my list of favourite films (perhaps a subject for another day). I must admit I'm not generally a huge fan of film or TV: there are relatively few things that really engage me enough for me to sit down and watch, and such media are most commonly employed as background noise - like music, but less interesting and less important to me. That said, I am not closed minded about it and there have always been strong, brave, different or simply outstanding works that penetrate this general disinterest. To put this into context, Memento is only the fifth film I have sat down to watch in the last few months - (the other four being LA Confidential, Secretary, Enemy of the State (for some reason; post-Christmas mental shutdown?) and Adaptation), and the number of TV shows I make a point of actually paying attention to is no higher.

I must add that part of the reason for wanting to watch it is down to rating Guy Pearce as an actor, and the rest is attributable to the fact it was genuinely different to the majority of film output. But none of this was enough to get me off my arse into a cinema in 2000 or off to a rental shop since (I've never had a membership; never been bothered for any film). In some ways I am glad: I'd managed to avoid overly spoiling on the film in the meantime and I came to it fresh - and with an extra 6 or 7 years of experience and a refreshed perspective on narrative, plot and what makes a good film compared to my 19 or 20 year old self. Gaming is a wonderful hobby that way; getting back into RPGs has rebooted my take on a number of arts, books, TV and film especially (even if I don't watch a lot of the latter two).

I loved the mechanisms used. Starting with the end was an interesting one, but one still open to a big twist by the time 2 hours had passed. I also found it interesting, even clever, that the very start was the only point where time rolled backwards; for the rest of the film the scenes in colour were in reverse chronological order but forward-running. First viewing may not have been enough to pick this up but I think there was only the one scene hidden in the backward-counting progression - and that would have been a conversation Natalie and Leonard had in Ferdy's, whatever convinced her to take him home. I liked how it was split into colour (counting backwards) and black and white (running forwards) and the two were interspersed until until it worked back to the point at which they met. The fact that Leonard had memory of his condition - or rather memory of dealing with someone who had had it - would be a stretch in life, but in film it is a necessary conceit: dramatic license and all that. It takes a while to get going as at first one does not know the rules the screenplay is following, but once the duality is established the flow is very good. There are enough things going on to hold the interest, and clues scattered in the early scenes that engage, make the viewer interested in how something happened or why a certain note was made - things like the smashed window of Leonard's car or the scribbled out note on the back of his photo of Natalie.

The twist in the tail is an interesting one indeed. Do we take Teddy's speech as truth, and take it at face value? I think so. At least, I think it makes it a better film if so. The counterpoint is that Leonard had very few photos and fewer notes.

But that is all conjecture: speculating about what happens before or after the period which the film covers is a sure way to lose the plot altogether: not just with Memento but with most films. Judging the work on what it does cover and contain is a better method and this film contained a lot - both the obvious and the less-so. Memento is one film that I now really want on DVD; stunningly good.

06 January 2007

Widowmakers Widowmade

On Wednesday we met for the first game session of 2007, and more Savage Worlds goodness. Unfortunately we were just three players plus GM again, with Col being reduced to (largely off-screen) NPC status for this week. The session began by covering what Adenaar had been up to whilst the other three were taking the slaves home and slaying dragons.


Adenaar had a regular job, to which he had returned after freeing the slaves just outside the city the previous night. He was a dish-washer and general cleaner in a restaurant in Sutur's Throne, and it was here he first had a run in with the Guild of Widowmakers. He was at work as usual on the day following events outside the city, when he heard a commotion out front in the restaurant and moved out from the kitchen to investigate.

The scene was set - patrons fleeing and the owners looking on worriedly as a trio of Widowmakers - assassins, guards and swordsman under the leadership of Chardun Whitehands, a member of the Council - stood over a trio of out-of-towners: two elderly monks and a young priestess. Widowmakers, whilst being killers for hire, have a reputation as thinking of themselves as honourable: they would not kill unarmed targets. As such the trio were attempting to make one of their prey to pick up a sword presented to them. After a stand off of sorts, Adenaar stepped forward and retrieved the blade, angering the Widowmakers who then opted to see him as standing with their targets. To their loss.

The situation was clearly not about to resolve itself without a fight; when it was over two Widowmakers were dead, a third sent packing and the trio of foreign types alive and well. Adenaar was unscathed. His employers were somewhat astounded; given the afternoon off, Adenaar escorted the three to the Opera House and turned them over to Kasmin's care. Kasmin was Zeff's mentor and the group's handler with the Free Brigades. It turned out that the Widowmakers had been after a sacred Talking Stone which the priestess had been carrying magically embedded in her stomach. A consultation with the stone then resulted in the priestess presenting it to Adenaar claiming he would soon be taking it on a great journey, at it's request. That was that, for the next week or so - Adenaar familiarised himself with the stone, and figured out the trick of embedding it in his stomach but otherwise life was "normal."

Col's ship was repaired over those few days and, 6 days after leaving on a single night's mission, Kelvin and Zeff arrived back in Surtur's Throne. Coming in at the skydock, they both saw for the first time an area of the dock hidden under a giant marquee - the rumour was that the Council and the Sky Cities were collaborating on a new and revolutionary skyship design. The site was heavily guarded, and whilst Zeff wanted to investigate for once common sense stayed his hand. After waiting all day evaluating the guards and their patterns whilst patrolling the nearby quayside, he headed back to the Opera House to inform Kasmin of his return. Kelvin, meanwhile, had been straight home to his alchemical lab and began tinkering with various materials picked up on the trip - making some impressive explosives.

Kasmin was unimpressed by Zeff's late arrival but did seem to take note of his account of the past week or so. Alas there were more pressing matters though - and she informed him of a meeting that night; all agents of the Free Brigades were encouraged to attend. Adenaar and Kelvin had both received word too - and so had about 20-30 other Free Brigadiers - and were present at the meeting where it became apparent the Free Brigades had acquired design specifications for the Council's project skyship. It was resolved that the Brigades must try to find a way to discover yet more before the ship's launch in a fortnight and more, would try to sneak agents on board at the launch party if possible. However before the meeting could be properly concluded Adenaar was alerted, via the stone which he now carried on him, that something might be up. Zeff skipped out of the house and up onto a nearby roof to look for trouble but he did not spot the group of guards approaching the address until Adenaar had whistled to call his attention to them. Taking up a position behind the host, Zeff was back on ground level as Adenaar barred the front door and alerted the others at the meeting. Kelvin climbed to the upper floor of the house and used the windows to find out what was happening whilst the rest of those present made for the rear door.

Upon bursting out it was apparent the house was surrounded by a large squad of Widowmakers who began to lay into the Free Brigadiers. The fight that followed was bloody, Kelvin using his recently made explosives to good effect and Adenaar butchering many of the Widowmakers he engaged. Zeff used his mobility to get up onto a roof and manoeuvre into a position to get between one group of Widowmakers and the Free Brigadiers who by and large weren't prepared for the fight, content to just hold off the attackers and give his colleagues the chance to escape - though he did floor two in the process and disorient others. Kasmin used her abilities to bound up the walls and escape, and the actions of Kelvin (who had also set the meeting-house alight with further explosives in dealing with the few Widowmakers who had entered the premises porper) with his explosive pebbles and crossbow, Zeff and Adenaar presented the majority of the rest of the Free Brigadiers with an opportunity to slip away.

There were several Widowmakers still standing, and both Zeff and Adenaar had somehow avoided blows that would have gutted lesser fighters, when things got worse for the trio still fighting. First, Kasmin re-appeared, bleeding and falling from the rooftop to land not far from her charge. Her appearance was followed swiftly by two figures on a rooftop, one robed and conjuring globes of darkness which he hurled at Zeff and Adenaar and the other jumping down to engage the sword-monk whilst the Widowmakers gathered like flies around Zeff who had been stunned by the wizard's globe. He regained his senses just soon enough and made a break for it - scooping up the injured Kasmin and carrying her off to safety. His departure left a group of 6 Widowmakers, and the newly arrived wizard, standing close together - and presented Kelvin with an inviting target. One accurately thrown pebble later and there was just more carnage. Adenaar, meanwhile, was facing off in a futile duel with the other new arrival; futile in the sense that after several exchanges neither man had received more than the odd scratch. The enemy revealed himself to be none other than Whitehands himself, who was more than a little put out by the losses of so many men. Nevertheless the scrap ended with neither down, as both "honourable" combattants would not strike once the other was disarmed; they slipped away in opposite directions.

A short while later Adenaar arrived at a nearby inn, the back room of which served as a Free Brigades' safe house. Zeff had been there awhile, with the injured, but breathing, Kasmin. Kelvin was also present, tending to the lady's wounds, and she had regained consciousness enough to discuss events...


Writing that, it does not seem like a lot actually happened. We play short sessions - largely prescribed because of my bus schedule getting to and from the game - but on the evening we always seem to get a fair bit done. That said, I really would like to have all four characters present - it has been somewhat frustrating not to have a full group as yet.

But those quibbles aside, it was another enjoyable session - and not as focussed around the one battle as it seems from my telling: the opening was more splintered and took longer to establish around the table, as everyone was off doing their own thing to a fair degree. The combat itself lends itself to discussion, and despite both Zeff and Adenaar being very well set up for combat both had moments when they needed to use Bennies to avoid being gutted like a fish. I ended up using all three on the same soak roll as I rolled really badly on the first two. I aced the last though and came away without a scratch from a blow that raised so much on damage it would have incapacitated Zeff outright. Certainly it has made me value Bennies a lot more!

Again, it ended up feeling like a bit of a set-up session, however from a certain point of view that is ideal: every session has been rewarding but felt like it is building to the "real thing" starting "next time", and for that I am grateful.

Ashes 2006/2007: The Final Humiliation

5-0. The first whitewash in 86 years. An absolutely disgusting performance from the tourists and a tour de force from the home side.

The result was confirmed after a farcical couple of hours on the fourth morning of the fifth and final Test, but it was written in the previous day when England let Australia's tail wag in a way they could only wish their own would copy and the tourists' top order collapsed in a gutless display of I'm An England Cricketer - Get Me Out Of Here! The series was not held entirely in the jungle, but the visitors certainly made it seem that way.

The whitewash was a last hurrah for Warne, McGrath and Langer who all bow out of Test cricket with the culmination of the series and it was a deserved reward for a hugely motivated Australian side who outperformed their hapless opponents from start to finish. It has been stated many times by the England hierarchy during this series but it is true that the side competed with Australia in small patches. A session or a day here and there went England's way but the fight, and ability, was not there to compete for every session of every day - the absolute minimum a successful tour would have required.

I'll not delve into what went wrong - I've said enough in the past and every site and blog following proceedings likely has too - nor heap further praise on the Australians: they were awesome, the scoreline fairly reflects this. Anything more is embellishment for the sake of it and picking out stars isn't appropriate, for it was a true team performance (all the bowlers took significant wickets; each of their top 7 made centuries, Martyn and his premature departure aside).

The ECB have announced an inquest into why things turned out quite as badly as they did but the short answer is it does not matter: unless England's players, selectors and - yes - coach take a good hard look at themselves and make a point of learning from this as the Aussies did in 2005 things will not improve further. The side must learn to function as a team, must learn to focus, must believe and must strive to improve. Focusing on 2009 would be a big mistake. Focus must move to the one-day arena now - with individuals and the team conspiring to actually perform in the tri-series and World Cup to the best of their abilities. Then, focus must shift to the summer's Test series, and each and every match must be fought for and played with full concentration and desire. Changes to the team will happen over time and, personally, I hope the coach will change too: Fletcher lost the plot on this tour and whilst he has been great fro England over his reign I feel his tenure is growing stale - typified by the selection issues for the Brisbane Test.

England must also think about shifting to a 6 and 4 structure, rather than sticking to 5 and 5 like dogma. 5 bowlers worked fantastically with Simon Jones in the side, and has worked against lesser sides where the shortened batting has not been a worry. But when the fifth seamer is not capable at all with the bat and patchy at best with the ball they simply do not warrant a place - especially against sides which do bat well down the order. Sajid Mahmood just does not have the quality - at least at this stage - to be the fifth bowler and number 8 batsman and I am convinced the England side would have been stronger in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney had Ed Joyce played ahead of Mahmood.

But most of all the management need to prepare players properly for Test matches. The team needs to be fit and in form going in to the series, not finding fitness and form as the matches pass them by. Flintoff needed batting and Harmison needed bowling - his best spell was the last morning; proper preparation before series means allowing your key players to get match practice and fitness!

To end on a positive note: England are still, deservedly, the second best Test side behind Australia. The team contains true stars (Flintoff, Pietersen) and players with big futures (Cook, Bell, Panesar) and is young enough to be around as a team for a long time. Lessons must be learned, yes, but the team is not a bad one for one awful series. As and England fan I must hope and believe that this team will learn the lessons there for them and the management will get them right. If so, the summer should be one to enjoy; if not the damage to cricket in England - now off free-to-air TV in the home summer - could be irreparable in terms of lost interest.

02 January 2007

The Future is Now

And I don't mean for Australian cricket, not this time.

This time I mean for me, as the arduous task of recovering begins, having fallen off the end of the academic conveyor belt when I submitted the final version of my PhD in mid-December. Christmas being Christmas (and bah humbug to it!) I've not really had the time or energy to think too much about jobs since the thesis was finally rid of. Nor have I had any significant "me" time, time in which to relax after the weight of getting it done has been lifted or to get my head straight and ready for the "real world" of work; my financial situation means I won't get that, at all.

I need an income and fast. It was the 1st of July 2005 when I last got paid - the final installment of my stipend - and in the 17 months since I have been living solely off what I'd saved in the meantime., which means now I'm very close to the line and out of any wiggle-room. It also means that I will have to find a way to write the two papers I think my Thesis will yield whilst working Temp jobs or other low-paid, short-term positions to balance the books. Why? Because I could not get them done in the two weeks before Christmas descended and, despite my objections, I was commandeered to help with the sundry chores that make up hosting Christmas.

I have never had to find a job before as I was always been following a clear path; a path which ended on December 12th. My current situation finds me needing to do three things at once: find an immediate source of income, apply for longer-term jobs and lastly (but not least) get two papers written so that I can enhance my chances of getting a desirable longer-term job.

All of this when I do not really know what I want to do - in the short or longer term. I owe it to myself to give research another try as the horror show in Bath was not representative of what life would be like in a decent size lab with other people about and a consistent output. I also like the idea - first posited to me by my external examiner during a lull in my viva voce - of branching out into science writing, although I have no idea how or where to go about such a move.

I am intrigued with the prospect though as I do love writing, which may be obvious from posts here of late. I guess my ideal "job-that-I-could-never-really-have" would probably be writing about cricket or music. Or both: Tim de Lisle, a former editor of Wisden, has my dream job and writes for Cricinfo.com and newspapers on cricket, and a Sunday paper as a music reviewer. I have no pedigree in either that goes any deeper than being a fan, although I was once asked if I was interested in writing music reviews; I (perhaps mistakenly) laughed the suggestion off as a joke - it was an unsolicited email from an unknown sender called "Lisa Simpson" that arrived after I had submitted a customer review of Beth Orton's third album, Daybreaker, on Amazon.co.uk.

Science, on the other hand... well, I have the papers to prove my credentials there, but nothing concrete to support my ability to write - short of one comment from an examiner and remarks from a few friends who have read what I post here. If only that were enough to glow in the context of a CV!

However it ends up, 2007 will be a year of changes; I just hope they'll be for the better.

01 January 2007

Reggae Computer

So I was browsing Amazon whilst ordering the smattering of low-cost Christmas presents I could afford to get for myself given the festive income and my tight financial situation when I came across a couple of albums that made me sit up and take note. They were thrust into view, I surmise, by the fact I had finally got around to ordering No Protection, the Mad Professor remixes of Massive Attack's second album, Protection. Whilst No Protection has not dropped through my door yet, Dub Side of the Moon and Radiodread have - and on first listen have both blown me away.

As one may guess from the title of both this post and the albums themselves these two works are reggae interpretations of two classic albums from massively successful artists: Pink Floyd's seminal Dark Side of the Moon and Radiohead's 1997 masterwork OK Computer. When I saw them the idea just made me laugh up front - neither of the original albums, and especially not OK Computer seemed to me to be obvious candidates for this type of reworking. I was prepared to let them slide by out of my consciousness again until I scrolled down the Radiodread page and noticed the track listing. It was then I saw that Airbag was vocalised by Horace Andy and, in that moment, it struck me just how well that could (or would) work; I decided to buy both in that epiphany. As I've mentioned before, I'm a huge admirer of Andy's vocal style and his uniqueness and I was champing at the bit to play that track from the second I clicked to buy it to the minute it dropped through the letterbox.

Technically I suppose I ought to have listened to Dub Side... first since that was the earlier effort, but it was Airbag that sold me on the concept of the dub re-workings and so Radiodread got the first play. I was doing domestic chores at the time, but almost as soon as the record began to spin a smile etched itself onto my face - a smile I did not lose until after it ended. At times very close to its inspiration (they kept the wailing guitar with which Airbag opens for instance) and at times a lot further from it (were it not for the vocal line I would not have recognised Exit Music, though it is stonkingly good) Radiodread nevertheless maintains a high level of musicianship - the album contains no samples from OK Computer, it is all original recordings - and holds the interest impeccably. Admittedly I would never have given the album a second look - with or without Horace Andy - had I not been a huge Radiohead fan already so the interest it sustained on first listen could well have been a morbid one, but no - a couple of days later it still holds a fascination. Paranoid Android is especially well done, considering that in its original form it comes in so many distinct sections and tones. The one low point for me (Fitter Happier aside, but that I take for granted on both versions) is Let Down: which tallies with my finding that the weakest of the original tracks too by quite some margin. When listening to either copy I will skip that track as it simply does nothing for me even though when OK computer was first released I loved Let Down and thought it was the best thing on the album - weird how perceptions change, but I lost that view by the Millennium, not in a recent airing.

So Radiodread is definitely going onto a favourites list. It was also a 2006 new release so would certainly get a place if I were to ret-con my review of the musical year. As for Dub Side... I'm less smitten but I do think it is an amazing work and I will be listening to it a fair bit more but it has not quite got the same bite to me as the later work. I hold DSotM in its original conception in very high regard, though I came to it more from the Pulse live album (and now DVD) than from the original recording, but I guess given my age and musical growth OK Computer always had a bigger impact on me no matter how much praise has been lavished on DSotM over the years. Contrary to some of the Amazon reviewers I think Dub Side... is actually less polished than Radiodread, or at least less of a challenge to those undertaking the work. This may just be because I listened to the second album first and thus the "novelty" aspect was eroded - I had a better idea of what to expect and was less taken aback by the interpretations of the original tracks. Alternatively it could be a reflection of my preference with respect to the source material. Either way it leaves me feeling I cannot fairly say more about Dub Side... than I have already despite the fact I've listened to it a touch more than the other in the last couple of days. I'll suffice to recommend both albums - as a fan of both Pink Floyd and Radiohead and without any reggae or dub knowledge or experience beyond my like for Horace Andy, born of his work with Massive Attack - with genuine enthusiasm. Both works are done with great respect to their source material rather than as rip-offs or novelty records, and both have integrity. Both are significantly different to the albums they cover yet both are more than recognisable and worthy of a listen if you approach them from a musical angle derived from the original works.

Do yourself a favour and try to give both a listen - it may just blow your mind.

And, for what it is worth - Happy New Year.