Reality Is The Playground Of The Unimaginative

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Thursday, 31 January 2008

Miss January: Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour (from Live And Let Die)

Lost Returns...

The new season kicks off in the US tonight and it debuts here in the UK on Sky One on Sunday, February 3, at 9pm...

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Torchwood: To The Last Man

To The Last Man, with its echoes of the horrors of the First World War, sees Team Torchwood dealing with a shellshocked soldier who is simultaneously in a 1918 Cardiff hospital and frozen in their vault in the modern day.

The great Cardiff rift in time and space has caused a tear between 1918 and sometime in the future... and it turns out that time is now and unless the team can seal the breach and get the soldier, Tommy (Anthony Lewis), back where he belongs.

Unfortunately, in the meantime Tosh (Naoko Mori) has fallen for the temporally displaced soldier, leading to that familar Torchwood trope of the "last night of happiness" for the time lost soul.

Just as I'd got my head around the time travel aspects of the story and things seemed on track for a satisfying conclusion, the team then pulled a leftfield 'deus ex machina' card from up their sleeve to seal the deal, which replaced my time paradox headaches with a feeling of "huh, what did they just do?"

Written by Helen Raynor, who penned the two-part Doctor Who Season Three story about Daleks in 1930s Manhattan, which I liked but a lot of fans didn't, To The Last Man is a Toshiko-centric episode, which always scores highly in my book.

As well as giving us some insight in WWI era Torchwood, it was very emotional and quite creepy in a Sapphire and Steel kind of way, with the 'ghosts' of different time periods crossing paths with each other, but slightly undermined by the unexplained (as far as Rachel and I could tell) sudden ability to communicate telepathically through time.

A well-made and slick episode that continues this season's high standards, but I wouldn't recommend analysing the storyline too closely.

DVD Of The Week: 3.10 To Yuma (2007)

Yee-haw, I sure loves me some Western action!

It was the Deadlands roleplaying game (the original, pre-Savage Worlds, pre-d20 detour version) that really sparked my nascent passion for the Wild West.

However, it fireballed out of control when I was at university and researching my major, final third year project - a film script based on the life of Elfego Baca, the wannabe lawman who held off a veritable army of riled cowboys from within an adobe hut; the hut took about 4,000 bullets during the 36-hour gun battle but Baca was unharmed!

During that time at university, I watched wall-to-wall Westerns, from the true classics (such as Shane and Hombre) to the cult favourites (like Django and The Magnificent Seven), and read whatever text books I could lay my hands on, to immerse myself in the culture and language of those wild, frontier times.

Sadly, after University, my love of the genre kinda cooled - I'd probably rather overdosed and none of my old gaming buddies shared my interest in the genre (we are British, after all, so I guess it's not even our history!) so except for a few shoot-outs with a homebrew miniatures system I knocked up and the odd DVD purchase, the West rode out of my life and into the sunset.

However, of late, I've noticed it's sneaking back in on the coat tails of the whole 'pulp' thing, helped by Deadwood and several recent cracking films, such as Seraphim Falls and this one. Turns out that as a cinema genre, Westerns weren't dead - they'd just raised their standards.

In 3.10 To Yuma, Christian Bale is crippled, ex-Union sharpshooter-turned-struggling-farmer Dan Evans, who volunteers to escort charming, stone cold killer and outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the train station to catch the 3.10 to Yuma prison.

Evans' 14-year-old son, William (Logan Lerman), who sees his father as a coward and rather idolises Wade, tags along in the small posse - which includes a grizzled bounty hunter (Peter Fonda) and the town's doctor (Alan 'Firefly' Tudyk).

The film starts in Unforgiven territory, but becomes increasingly Young Guns as the escort party's troubles escalate and numbers are whittled down by Wade's pursuing gang, renegade Apaches, troublesome railworkers and in-fighting.

It all builds to a dynamic, heroic and rather far-fetched climax as - having turned into a reluctant buddy flick - Evans and Wade make a final dash for the train, facing up to Wade's merciless gang and vigilante townsfolk.

The ultimate conclusion is suitably powerful and emotional, undermined only by a rather silly final scene.

Crowe is perfect as the supremely confident and calm killer, while Bale is, simply, superb as always; both of these actors are at the top of their game and guarantee a solid performance with every role they take.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Pick Of The Pods: Jake Sampson - Monster Hunter

Jake Sampson - Monster Hunter is a 1930's era adventure serial from BrokenSea Audio.

The first five-episode story in the series sees Jake (voiced by writer/producer Mark Kalita), at the behest of well-known pulp writer Robert E Howard (Perry Whittle) pursuing a beast from the Hyborian Age (i.e. the time of Conan The Barbarian) that Howard has accidentally unleashed on Cross Plains, Texas, through a magical mirror that has come into his possession.

Along the way, square-jawed Jake teams up with barnstormin' pilot Texas Holdem (Bill Hollweg) and multi-talented circus lion-tamer Lucy Carter (Natasha Lathrop).

The story telling is fast and pacey, with epsiodes averaging 10 to 15 minutes, and the voices - for the most part - are suitably 'pulpy'.

There is already a second Jake Sampson adventure (The Tears Of Ra) about the trio's travels to Egypt to visit Lucy's famous archeologist uncle on a dig, but I have yet to listen to that.

Jake Sampson is just one of the many podcasts, audio dramas and book readings that BrokenSea put out (including Planet of The Apes, Logan's Run, Jonny Quest, Doctor Who and the fantasy serial Grog & Gryphon).

Monday, 28 January 2008

Dragonlance - Dragons Of Autumn Twilight (2008)

The long-awaited Dragonlance movie was never likely to live up to the expectations of fans of the source material or the geek community in general.

If the film had come out in the 80s, when the books were first published, it would have been "cutting edge" and possibly even hailed as a classic - as the books are in some quarters - but as it is, the cell animation just looks dated and out of touch with modern styles.

It reminded me of the old Dungeons And Dragons cartoon, and was a style of animation that I thought had been left in the bargain basement Saturday morning children's cartoons.

That said, it is really the bizarre blending in of odd, almost random, pieces of unnecessary CGI animation that make the appearance of this seem rather quirky.

With no fan-investment in the culture of Dragonlance, I was able to approach Dragonlance: Dragons Of Autumn Twilight with a reasonably open mind. Knowing nothing of the story, I had heard so much negative press about the animation in the last week or so that I was expecting something virtually unwatchable... but as it was it was pretty enjoyable.

Like the original Dungeons And Dragons rules system, the story of Dragons of Autumn Twilight wears its Lord of The Rings' influences heavily on its sleeve and the film makes little or no effort to disguise such elements as the comedy Gandalf routine from Fizban (Neil Ross), the Aragorn-lite turn from Tanis (Michael Rosenbaum) and the whole elf community sequence (complete with requisite 'haunting' song).

Dragons Of Autumn Twilight follows a large party of typical Dungeons & Dragons adventurers (there are usually never less than six in the group and often eight or more, which kinda makes you wonder what they're all contributing to the story?) on a series of vague, linked quests to fight the returned evil Dragon God Takhisis.

There are some magical CDs involved, which I didn't really get the point of, but it's all quite exciting, if a bit silly and erratically paced. And there's a surprising - to me, anyway - twist right at the end that actually quite fired me up for a possible sequel (there have been enough books written in the Dragonlance universe over the last 20 years...)!

The dialogue isn't that great either with characters either spouting exposition or describing what's going on around on them, yet not really answering the obvious question of who they all are and why we should care what they are doing?

With so many central characters and so little backstory actually explained there is no reason to really empathise with them - except that they are the protagonists. Only really the kender (hobbit?) Tasslehoff (Jason Marsden) comes across as a rounded creation - and we have no idea who he is either, except for being the group's "locksmith"!

No-one, in their right mind, is ever going to call this a masterpiece - or even that original - but it has enough good moments, as well as several of unintentional humour, that I could see myself picking up any future titles that come out of this franchise (even though that seems unlikely as I fear this DVD is nowhere near good enough to have an impact outside a comparatively niche geek market).

A salient point the source book's original co-auhtor, Tracy Hickman, made on his Dragonhearth podcast though, the other month, was that this "opens the door" for future iterations of the Dragonlance series, reminding us that Lord of The Rings was a Ralph Bakshi cartoon before it was reinvented as Peter Jackson's marvellous epic.

And, if nothing else, it has got me to finally pick up a copy of Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis' Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight, just two decades later than the rest of geekdom!

The Sword of Xanten (2004)

Part Dungeons and Dragons romp, part Xena: Warrior Princess and a smidge of Lord of The Rings, Sword of Xanten is based on the Germanic myth Das Nibelungenlied and the Nordic Volsunga Saga, which also inspired the four-opera cycle by Richard Wagner and Tolkien's world famous ring-centric work.

The Sword of Xanten is swords and sorcery viewed through a soap lens. Weaving a complicated plot, with inevitable unhappy ending, it's easy to see why Wagner would want to adopt this story.

The acting is fine for what it is and you can't help but be distracted by the gorgeous Kristinna Loken, perfectly cast as Icelandic warrior-queen Brunnhild - no longer playing second-fiddle to Arnie as a female Terminator - and the lovely Alica Witt as naive Kriemhild.

Great scenery, slow-motion bundles (it's a bit of an exaggeration to call most of them 'fights'), arch acting and above-average CGI make for a great little pot boiler.

It's quite long (around three hours) but The Sword of Xanten is non-stop fun and frolics all the way - with a bit of sauciness and a bit of blood - that can hold the attention of a willing viewer.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (1973)

This is the one where Sinbad fights the six-armed animated statue of Kali, an image almost as iconic as Jason's clash with the skeletons in Jason And The Argonauts.

The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad sees our titular seacaptain drawn by fate and prophetic dreams into the quest to find a way to save the kingdom of Marabia from the machinations of evil wizard Koura (Tom Baker in the role that I believe secured him the role of Doctor Who).

John Phillip Law is Sinbad in this tale, accompanied by that marvellous example of '70s womanhood, Caroline Munro, as slave girl Margiana whose tattooed hand marks her out as the "Chosen One Of The One-Eyed God" (no Freudian metaphor there, then?).
Also joining Sinbad is Martin Shaw, from TV's The Professionals, sporting a porn star mustache, as first mate Rachid, and Douglas Wilmer as the fireball-scarred and golden facemask-wearing Vizier.

The Golden Voyage is a typical Dungeons & Dragons adventure, in the form of a series of set encounters, complete with a mysterious map, underground caverns, spectral oracles, strange monsters, animated statues and hostile green-skinned natives.

It would be easy for a modern audience to poke fun at the special effects in this movie, especially some of the green screening, but you have to remember that this came out four years before Star Wars and I'd take Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation over most CGI anyday!

Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God (2005)

As a prelude to the arrival of my copy of the Dragonlance movie on DVD (I think it's making its way across the Atlantic in a small boat rowed by a couple of tinker gnomes), I thought I'd catch up on a few other Dungeons & Dragonsy movies while I wait.

This is going to be a pretty random selection as a lot of my fantasy/swords and sorcery DVDs are in storage, but where "better" to start than 2005's Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath Of The Dragon God?

I should have been been in geek heaven. Another Dungeons & Dragons movie? After the critical hit that the first one took, I wouldn't have thought it possible ... but clearly someone has more faith in the franchise than the viewing public.

Wrath of the Dragon God is better cinematically than the original, but just isn't as much fun. While the first went for all the clichés (including the initial tavern rendezvous) and the full-on dragon war climax, the sequel seems oddly low key ... despite its typically apocalyptic plot line.

Over a century has passed and Damodar (Bruce Payne) has returned from undeath with another foul plan for world domination.

A band of experienced adventurers is hastily assembled - representing all the major character classes (a fighter, mage, cleric, rogue and barbarian) - to thwart him. And that's pretty much it.

There's a decent dungeon crawl sequence and some okay fight scenes, but it all seems very pedestrian and just an odd rehash of Hawk The Slayer (still, in my humble opinion, the best non-D&D D&D movie).

We do get a pretty 'realistic' cinematic interpretation of Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons, some eye candy in the Xena-esquire shape of the barbarian Lux (Ellie Chidzey), fanboy in-jokes (in the shape of adventure module name dropping e.g. 'Barrier Peaks' and 'The Ghost Tower of Inverness' to name but two) and a few snippets of witty banter.

But for my two gold pieces, it could have been so much more.

If the movie makers were trying to breathe new life into the franchise they should have tried to make something that was dramatically different from the first, not just another version.

In this sort of low-budget fantasy adventure fare, one quest is very much like another - whatever trinket the champions are seeking.

And enough with the CGI dragons already...

999 experience points to the writers, cast and directors for effort, but not enough to take them up a level yet.

The Campaign Starts Here...

From Cries From The Attic - Jolly ' Knights Of The Dinner Table' Blackburn's website.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Star Trek teaser...

I'm not even a Trekkie (Trekker?) and I still get a tingle when the Leonard Nimoy voiceover says: "Space, the final frontier..."

Here's hoping this is a better movie than recent efforts in this flagging franchise!

Top Movies...

Sometime before Christmas, both Nick and Stuart - an old work colleague - shared their top film lists with me.

Both were incredibly personal and diverse and it got me to thinking if I could possibly narrow my own list down to ten films.

Eventually, after much scribbling, scrossing out, moving things around, I came to this:

1) Fight Club (1999)
2) Blade Runner (1982)
3) Lord Of The Rings (2001-2003)
4) Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
5) Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
6) Curse Of The Golden Flower (2006)
7) The Wicked Lady (1945)
8) Jason And The Argonauts (1963)
9) The Haunting (1963)
10) A Boy And His Dog (1975)

You might find Star Wars' comparatively low-ranking a bit odd, but I'm a fan of Star Wars the "brand", the universe... I'd be hard pushed to argue that any of the films were better than Peter Jackson's three-part magnum opus, Lord Of the Rings.

Just outside the ten, we have classics like Close Encounters of The Third Kind, It's A Wonderful Life, Wizard of Oz and countless others that I can't even remember at the moment!

Friday, 25 January 2008

Eyeball To Eyeball!

Health issues can rarely be considered geeky, but last year my opticians in Tonbridge invested in some swanky new technology called a Digital Retinal Camera that takes pictures of the insides of your eyes.

This time 12 months ago, I had it done because it was something cool and new - but now I get to really see the benefit, as this afternoon the optician was able to compare my eyeballs to the state they were in last year. She called up the images of each eye on the screen, with last year's image next to it, and talked me through the various key areas of the eye.

The good news is that, health-wise, my eyes haven't changed and seem as robust as they were in 2007.

Bottom of The Pile: Buffy - Season Eight #10

I've started this section - Bottom of The Pile - to air my opinions on a worrying trend I've noticed in the dwindling standard of writing in previously good comic book titles.

My feelings over the whole Civil War and One More Day storyline debacles in various Marvel titles have been well voiced, so I'll not repeat them here.

However, I finally caught up on my Buffy reading this week and all I can say is: how the mighty have fallen!

After earning two consecutive Top Of The Pile mentions for issues one and two, the series took a drastic turn for the worse (as I'd feared) with Brian K Vaughan's Faith in England storyline - No Future For You.

Here we were presented with with a painfully cliched image of British aristocracy, with accents leaping from mockney to posh in a single speech bubble.

It would have been bad enough as a one-shot, but this sorry tale got dragged out over four issues; throwing in random "British culture" references for so-called "authenticity" (from Princess Diana to the Arctic Monkeys).

I almost gave up on the title during this run (instead I left the issues to one side to read in a single sitting) but held on because I knew Joss Whedon was coming back to script his most famous creation in the next issue.

Joss is well known for playing fast and loose with such trivial things as "facts" and "science", but he can always be relied on for writing solid characters... right?

Whenever people moan about fictional creations "acting out of character", I can usually rationalise things by saying to myself: "It's the writer's character - surely he should be the final arbiter of how the character will act?"

However, in issue 10 (Anywhere But Here), Joss has a key central character committing a crime that is so "out of character" - and the justification so feeble - that I had to read it a couple of times to see if I'd missed something; if it could have been a dream or an illusion... but it wasn't!

The rest of the story was confusing enough - deliberately, as it dealt with a perception-altering demon - without this curveball.

I shall give Buffy: Season Eight - which I thought would be a shoo-in to stay on my pull-list until it ceased publication - an issue or two more to recover from this nosedive, but then I'll have to accept the fact that I can't afford to waste money on titles I'm just reading out of habit.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Shoot 'Em Up (2007)

To say the plot of action-chase-thriller Shoot 'Em Up is paper thin is a challenge to the masculinity of paper; it really has the depth of the Emporer's New Clothes.

Clive Owen is enigamatic, carrot-munching Mr Smith who stumbles into an attempted hit on a pregnant woman. He saves her, amid a hail of bullets, and delivers the baby. The woman is killed.

Smith goes on the run with the baby, pursued by sleazy hitman Paul Giamatti and a never ending supply of goons. Along the way Mr Smith teams up with a glamorous hooker (Monica Bellucci) and they spend the rest of the 83-minute film shooting things or being shot at.

The dialogue, which comes across as a film student's heavy handed attempts to ape early Quentin Tarantino, is mediocre at best and painfully bad for the most part. This is some of the worst scripted dialogue I have heard in a film for a long time. If you have long fingernails be aware that you might find them drawing blood from your palms as you cringe through Mr Smith's frequent, unfunny and forced "what I hate..." rants.

But what saves this film from being instantly forgettable is the succession of set-piece gun battles that really spice up the chase nature of story. Delivering a baby? Do it during a gun fight. Having sex? Do it during a gun fight. Parachuting out of a plane? Do it during a gun fight... you get the picture.

From car chases to hold-ups, ambushes to icky torture sequences; there's nothing in writer/director Michael Davis' view that can't be improved with a stylish John Woo-style shoot-out. Mr Smith also likes to mix in variations on his signature "death by carrot" trick, which - surprisingly - never grows old.

Ignore the plot, block out the dialogue and just enjoy the visuals; it's less than an half-and-a-half long - what have you got to lose?

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Torchwood: Sleeper

Sleeper began as a Torchwood spin on the classic "locked room murder mystery", escalated through ponderings on "what makes us human" and climaxed in a shoot-out at army base - a staple of Jon Pertwee era Doctor Who!

The team quickly realise that something is afoot when they arrive at the scene of a burglary where the criminals are dead, the husband is unconscious and the wife, Beth (Nikki Amuka-Bird), doesn't know what happened.

Turns out she's actually an alien sleeper agent, spearheading an impending invasion that she is completely oblivious of. Unfortunately, in trying to "deactivate" her, Team Torchwood end up activating the three other members of her cell and carnage ensues on the streets of Cardiff.

A good solid episode, from the writer of the Brit horror Severance, James Moran, that - like last week - continues to amp up the light-hearted elements of the show and ditch the lazy 'shocks' that didn't work in the first season. Gareth David-Lloyd as Ianto Jones, in particular, gets some great lines.

The sleeper agents, unfortunately, do look like cheap imitations of the shape-changing T-1000 cyborg from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and the dated 1970's Doctor Who vibes from the army base sequence make this an acceptable, but unremarkable, episode. Hopefully, though, it is laying the groundwork for the full-scale alien invasion later in the series.

Book Of The Month: Worlds And Monsters

Something has been niggling me about the work I have done to date on my Castles & Crusades campaign setting - Tekralh - but it took reading the first preview book for the Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons to figure out what.

My world is too rooted in pseudo-fact and real world history and lacks the essense of the fantastic that is so integral to a traditional D&D world. There isn't the real sense of mystery or supernatural, otherworldly excitement that I admire in established worlds like Arduin, Greyhawk and, even, Garweeze Wurld (for Hackmaster).

Wizards Present Worlds And Monsters is the first preview of what players - and gamesmasters - have to look forward to in the Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, due out in May.

However, I wish I'd had this book several weeks ago - before I started work on Tekralh - because there's much I would have done differently after reading this. If nothing else, it's obvious that I'll never be a professional world designer!

In fact, there's still much that will almost certainly find its way into my Castles & Crusades campaign.

Wizards' assertion that a D&D world wouldn't be made up of "safe" human empires, but littered with scattered communities, living in the ruins of past glories, is a simple change of mindset from the traditional faux Medieval/Renaissance background, but, in hindsight, a brilliant one to explain the presence of 'dungeons' and other places of mystery within a few days' hike of the players characters' home town!

One of the big shifts in Fourth Edition seems to be adding more colour to the rules (the dryness of 3rd Edition was one of the many things that put me off reading far into the Player's Handbook), fleshing out the backgrounds not only in the artwork, but in the text.

This seems to involve adding more fluff and flavour - with suggestions of less crunch, but no solid evidence. There are comments about monster minions being easier to stat up, the majority of non-player characters being "unclassed" and less 'options' for major monster upgrades.

Those of us expecting more than a passing hint of the new rules systems will be disappointed. This beautifully illustrated 96-page, softback is an insight into the world building process that has gone into the development of a cohesive background for the rules.

The idea seems to be to create a default framework, rather a default setting, but just how much of the rules will hang on the cosmology Wizards of The Coasts has created we will have to wait and see (e.g. my particular bugbears - the human/demon hybrid tieflings - seem to come from a specific ancient empire, that has warred with the ancient empire of the dragonborn, another new player character race. What if I don't want those particular empires in the backstory of my game, will that reduce tieflings and dragonborn just to bland blocks of stats?).

The evocative scenic art and almost poetic prose paints pictures of environments designed for epic adventuring... with a lot more overt Lovecraftian themes than I have seen before.

To be honest, for your £14.99, you're getting a 90-page glorified advert for the forthcoming revision of the oldest roleplaying game on the market, which is still a work in progress. However, what it lacks in crunch at the moment, it more than makes up with its sense of wonder and of place that the most recent iterations lacked in their core rules.

Ultimately, the rules will probably still not be to my taste (if they are anything like Star Wars Saga Edition they will still read like a law book crossed with computer code), but they could prove mighty world building tools for whatever shape I decide to knock my campaign into next.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

DVD Of The Week: Family Guy - Blue Harvest (2007)

What better way to introduce yourself to a new television show than with its Star Wars tribute episode?

Until today I'd never watched Family Guy (there's only so much TV a person - even a lazy, jobless slacker like me - can watch), but I wasn't going to pass up Blue Harvest - their retelling of Episode IV: A New Hope.

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, having heard various 'warnings' via podcasts that this wasn't a "family friendly" show, but I must confess I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion and sat through most of the film's 45-minute duration with a broad grin on my face.

While there is a lot of "toilet" and "sexual" humour, the whole show is such a detailed, loving tribute to George Lucas' original magnum opus that it almost certainly requires repeat viewings to get every single gag and Easter Egg.

Sure, I didn't know who most of the characters were in "real life" (i.e. a normal Family Guy episode) but I still got enough of the jokes that were being made about whoever they were representing in Star Wars to enjoy the show immensely (even the pervy Obi-Wan wasn't as distasteful as I'd been led to believe!)

So much of Blue Harvest is a shot-perfect homage to the source material that if you love Star Wars (as these people obviously do) and have a broad sense of humour, how could you not enjoy this Lucas-approved and supported addition to the Star Wars Universe?

Monday, 21 January 2008

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: Perils of Cupid, 1908

After Attack of The Clones, you know you're onto a loser when you find yourself watching a love story that George Lucas has helped write.

Perils of Cupid, the third of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles telly movies, deals with the young adventurer's early exposures to the turmoils of love.

The first half of the film - set in Vienna - is a sweet, but silly and dull, tale of Indiana Jones falling for Princess Sophie during a riding lesson at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

The rest of story is basically little Indy (Corey Carrier) moping about. This carries over into a long discussion on the nature of love at a dinner party with Sigmund Freud (Max Von Sydow earning himself a nice little cheque for this cameo, no doubt) and Carl Jung!

The tale then builds to an utterly preposterous climax which sees Indy breaking into the palace of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria undetected to see Sophie and give her a snow globe.

She gives him a locket with her picture in - which would have been a great piece of backstory if it was ever mentioned again, but Sophie is soon forgotten as the Jones family hop a train to Florence for their next 'adventure'.

The whole Vienna non-event might have made an interesting sub-plot to a real adventure, but is far too flimsy to justify 45 minutes of this 90-minute TV movie.

After Vienna, the Jones' arrive in Italy and Henry Snr goes off for a week-long lecture tour, leaving his wife Anna, Indiana and Indy's governess in Florence.

This part of the tale wisely shifts the focus away from young Indy as it follows the 'courtship' of Anna (Ruth de Sosa) by opera composer Puccini (George Corraface). Both are married, although Puccini no longer cares for his wife, but Anna tries hard to stay loyal to the absent Henry Snr. Puccini, however, is driven by fiery Latin passions and eventually tries to seduce Anna away from her husband.

The whole story is interwoven with clever metaphors from Indy's science lessons about the pull of gravity, attraction and friction and just about makes up for the triteness of the first half of the story. This, at least, felt like a 'proper' cinematic love story, unlike the Vienna portion which was more akin to a bad children's' TV programme.

This latter segment was directed by Mike Newell, who would go on to direct Four Weddings And A Funeral and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which might explain the improved quality.

The Crusades - Knights Of Christ (1994)

Ever wonder what re-enactors get up to when they're not bashing the heck out of each other at shows like Military Odyssey and War & Peace?

It seems they are appearing as extras in bargain basement historical documentaries like The Crusades - Knights of Christ.

As a way to ease myself into reading the massive tomes Nick got me for my birthday on The Crusades (particularly the 1,000-plus page doorstop God's War by Christopher Tyerman), I thought I'd have a few facts spoon-fed to me first via a DVD.

The Crusades - Knights of Christ is part of The History of Warfare series that can be found on market stalls and in discount bins up and down the country, combining footage of "dramatised 'eye-witness' accounts", with contemporary illustrations, and maps that could have been drawn up on a ZX80.

This is a complex period of history, featuring many bloody battles and much political (and religious) wrangling, so it was unlikely that a 55-minute documentary was ever going to do the period justice, but the few facts I did glean were rather overshadowed by the laughable shots of overenthusiastic extras waving pretend swords at each other badly greenscreened on to stock footage of "desert scenes".

The documentary is neither a dry litany of facts nor a sensational collection of the "gory bits", but languishes somewhere in between.

Others in this line of DVDs focus on a single battle and The Crusades - Knights of Christ would have been better focused on just one or two incidents during these turbulent times, rather than cramming in 200 years-worth of story.

Eddie's First Day At Sunnydale!

Couldn't have asked for a more Whedonesque start to Eddie's time at Sunnydale High in Simon's Buffy The Vampire Slayer RPG.

After an extensive "What Happened Last Season" segment, which allowed everyone to share their tales of teen death, time travel and vampire slaying, we got into the meat of the scene-setting premier episode of Divergent Destinies.

Before school had even started Eddie'd totally failed to hit it off with a couple of attractive girls in a coffee shop (a cute blonde and a frosty brunette who he later discovered were called Harmony Kendall and Cordelia Chase), then he befriended an amazing, grungy, British punk girl (Jez - Mik's character), loaned her a book (Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez) and had taken her for a burger at the nearby mall.

[I must admit when I suggested, before the game, to Simon that my character, Eddie, might have a bit of a crush on the Slayer - ie. Jez (pictured above) - I hadn't realised she was a player-character!]

School started with the usual adolescent rituals - which involved some meathead jock (Hogan) picking on him in homeroom. Eddie gave him some lip and almost got clocked round the head if Jez hadn't stepped in and blocked the thug's blow. It did give Eddie the chance to say: "I'm more a lover than a fighter," before turning red and finding his seat.

Jez also made the acquaintance of Hugh (Andy's character), the only survivor from last season's typical Sunnydale massacre - and was later advised by her very proper Watcher to "keep an eye on him" as Hugh seemed to know a bit too much about Jez's secret identity.

Meanwhile, our young Hispanic hero befriended librarian Miss Markel, by offering to help her stack some new books and tried to keep his head down through his classes... but kept accidentally drawing attention to himself by letting slip the odd clever answer or insightful comment.

He's going to be embarrassed enough when his peers discover that it's his parents' company that is helping finance a lot of the redevelopment work at the school that he doesn't want to draw too much unnecessary attention to himself.

That evening - his parents having gone out (again) and left him a catered meal - Eddie settled down to his English reading assignment: Moby Dick, when some terrifying ghost flew up from the floor, passed through Eddie with its freezing touch and vanished out the wall... totally freaking Eddie out!

Well, he survived his first day of school... but only just...

The Player Speaks: A great afternoon's gaming; after three sessions of Nick's Hollow Earth Expedition game without a punch being thrown I was caught rather unawares when Hogan took a swing for me in homeroom - luckily Jez was there to save my hide (I suspect this is setting a trend for future episodes).

Simon had some brilliant props to help us get into character - including a fully detailed school timetable (so we could work out which classes we shared, when we had free time etc) and Eddie's school registration papers.

All this, along with the initial catch-up conversations and everyone's relaxed attitudes, quickly helped dispel my trepidation of role-playing with an established group that I had only met once before.

The only thing I would say is that Nick and Simon have set the Gamesmastering bar so high, I'm rather intimidated now by the prospect of running my own game later this year.

The next Buffy game is scheduled for two to three weeks' time and I'm looking forward to it; even if just to see if Eddie will have a chance to try out his fledgling magic skills and how he will handle himself when he comes face-to-face real supernatural baddies, more school bullies, his crush (Jez) and the other girl who caught his eye (Harmony).

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Games Day!

In an hour or so, I shall be walking through the corridors of Sunnydale High in Simon's Buffy The Vampire Slayer roleplaying game (a system I've long admired on paper, but have yet to actually play) as Eddie the sorcerer (that's me on the right in Simon's promo poster for the game, above).

Meanwhile, I've finished the first edition of the players' fluff book on my Castles & Crusades campaign (Tekralh). The 1.8MB pdf of the full (illustrated) text can be downloaded from here.

I gave myself a cut-off point or else I could have kept writing and, to be honest, it would be unfair (and totally unrealistic) to expect new players to read through reams and reams of background material before they could create their characters.

Hopefully there's enough there to give them a taste of what I am trying to achieve, with enough leeway and enough hooks for them to feel free enough to create their own backgrounds, communities, NPC suggestions etc within my vague framework.

Feedback and suggestions are welcome on this from any quarter.

I'm also putting together a very small file of 'house rules' for the game, but I'm trying to keep this down to two-sides of A4 maximum as, as much as possible, I'd like to, initially, stick to the basic Castle And Crusades rules (which are, themselves, a slimmed down version of the 3.5 Edition of Dungeons & Dragons).

The opening race of our Formula De season had to be postponed this week due to unforeseen circumstances, and I am currently waiting for Pete and Steve to agree a new date for the Montreal Grand Prix.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Stat Was The Year, Stat Was!

This month marked a very important landmark in the short history of HeroPress: its first anniversary.

This also happened to co-incide (more by luck than judgement) with the 500th post and 10,000 visitor.

Just before the anniversary I had suffered a slight crisis of faith, but thanks to the sterling efforts of The Evil DM in helping promote this site, and the general support of friends and other readers, we live to blog another day... and seem to have seen an influx of new readers as well!

Here are the numbers for the last 30 days.

Where applicable I've included a note of last month's figures for comparison.

Visitor Numbers (as of Saturday, 19 January): 10,174 (8,853)

Average Number of Visitors Per Day: 53 (33)

Top 5 Countries of Origin:
United Kingdom 42% (44%)
United States 40% (40% )
Denmark 4% (-)
Italy 3% (-)
Canada 2% (1%)

Most Popular Entry Pages: (i.e. what brought people to the site). For this, we can take it as read that the most popular "entry page" is always going to be either the current top story or just general browsing, but after that the pages that have brought the most readers to this site have been:

(1) Torchwood: Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang
(2) City of Vice: Not Just Great TV
(3) Extreme Makeover: Gnome Edition
(4) The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: Passion For Life
(5) Six Of The Best With CLARE GRANT

Visitors Over The Last Year
(since records began on February 2, 2007):
February: 373
March: 645
April: 739
May: 818
June: 933
July: 1,016
August: 912
September: 941
October: 872
November: 854
December: 1,055

DVD Of The Week: Michael Palin - Himalaya (2004)

Of all of Michael Palin's spectacular, globe-trotting travelogues, Himalaya was my favourite from the moment I first saw it on television in 2004.

Although I've never been to the mountains - and now probably never will - this part of the world has always held a magical allure for me, especially since my fantastic stay in China (when Paul worked on an English language newspaper in Beijing).

As this six-part documentary shows, this is an area almost alien to our Western way of life and perceptions of the world. Here are quite secretive lands of incredible superstition and amazingly colourful religious beliefs; with unique breathtaking scenery; and simmering political tensions.

I would trade all my Western luxuries in a heart beat for decent health and the chance for Rachel and I to live out there - but I will have to make do with watching high-quality documentaries about that part of the world instead.

Himalaya is Michael Palin at the top of his game, really hitting his stride with the right mix of enthusiasm; fascinating interviews; and gentle, humorous, "Englishman abroad" insights into foreign cultures.

Each disc in the three disc collection contains two hour-long episodes and enough additional material (deleted scenes and interviews with Michael before and after his six-month Odyssey through the mountains) in total to make almost two more complete episodes.

The interview with Michael after he had completed the 2,000-mile trip, reflecting on the emotional highs and physical lows of the arduous and potentially dangerous journey, suggests that much, much more interesting footage remains on the cutting room floor - for instance, his interview with the Dalai Lama lasted for an hour, but we only see (including the deleted scenes) about 10 minutes of this.

Once I get my library out of storage, I must revisit the book that accompanies this series, but in the meantime I have this treasured DVD collection, that Rachel got me for Christmas, to stir my imagination and stimulate my dreams.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Top Of The Pile: Ultimate Human #1

Okay, cards on the table time - I'm a big fan of Marvel's Ultimate imprint, which is, on the whole, far better than 90% of the mainstream fodder the company is currently producing.

If it wasn't for a few notable exceptions (which I have gone on about, at length in this column over the last year), the Marvel element of my pull-list would consist entirely of Ultimate titles.

Clearly some issues are better than others, there are serious issues over continuity between the different lines and some books just seem to disappear in mid-story (e.g. Ultimate Hulk Vs Wolverine and Ultimate Vision), but, when they're at the top of their game, Ultimate titles have an epic cinematic quality about them that I just lap up.

That said, I approached Ultimate Human with some trepidation because my experience of Warren Ellis' writing in the past has been rather hit and miss.

However, Ultimate Human #1 turned out to be everything I could want from an Ultimate comic. It is the simple story of Bruce Banner (aka The Hulk) coming to Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) for scientific help in "lifting his curse" and keeping his inner demon under control.

I could almost hear Robert Downey Jnr whenever Tony Stark spoke and Ed Norton when Banner opened his mouth, the dialogue was that good and punchy. It is a chance to really explore what makes Banner turn into the Hulk and how his powers work, but also what makes him and Stark the men they are.

Of course, things don't go according to plan, The Leader (the Hulk's traditional nemesis) is about to make his Ultimate debut, violence ensues and the comic ends with a technician saying the immortal line: "I don't think I like it when he's angry."

Bring it on!

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Extreme Makeover: Gnome Edition!

With gnomes getting the boot from Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons and Nick opting to play one in my forthcoming Castles & Crusades campaign, it got me thinking about how I wanted to portray the little fellows in Tekralh (my game setting).

Looking through the various fantasy game books I had to hand - ones that aren't in storage at present - I came to two conclusions: (a) there's very little about gnomes out there and (b) I don't particularly like the Dragonlance stuff about "tinker gnomes"... it's a bit too steampunk/Japanese anime for a pure fantasy setting.

Gnomes seem to be the forgotten people of Dungeons & Dragons - basically a bit hobbit, a bit dwarf and some weak natural magical abilities thrown in for good measure. I have a very solid idea of what halflings will be like in my game (they're hobbits from Peter Jackson's Lord of The Rings... not the thieving kender of Dragonlance and Fourth Edition D&D) and I wanted to make sure the gnomes weren't just pale copies of other wee folk.

While Nick is working on the background of his character - with pretty free reign to define the gnomish culture, within some vague boundaries that I set out - I wanted to look at another aspect of this underrated race.

My main issue, to be honest, is what do I want gnomes to really look like? Obviously not 'garden gnomes' with their red hats and fishing rods... but they need to be distinctly different from dwarves and halflings/hobbits. I've drawn up a list of inspirations (pictured above, from left to right) for my take on gnome physicality and wanted to see if anyone had any strong opinions or suggestions:

(a) The aged Doctor from The Last Of The Time Lords episode of Doctor Who;

(b) Dobby The House Elf from Harry Potter;

(c) Master Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back etc.

I realise this is a very cosmetic detail, but I believe it's important as it will help me ensure that both the players and I have - roughly - the same mental images of what's going on in the game. I have to say that the Yoda model is my favourite option, although I'm afraid all my gnome players will start speaking in jumbled English and spouting fortune cookie maxims!

All comments and thoughts are welcome...

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Happy First Anniversary, HeroPress!

(picture 'borrowed' from the Lair of The Evil DM)

Despite a total hard drive failure, several other computer hic-cups, fluctuating health and bouts of general doubt and uncertainty, HeroPress has reached its first anniversary!

And not only that but this is my 500th post and we've just clocked 10,000 visitors, so I think that's three good reasons to celebrate... and thank you all for your support over the last 12 months.

HeroPress, of course, isn't my first crack at blogging - just my most successful.

When I first came out of hospital in July 2005, Rachel and I stayed with my parents until I was well enough to be left on my own. We then moved in to my small, cold flat in Tunbridge Wells and I occupied my time - while Rachel was at work - with Internet shopping, watching DVDs and this strange new thing called "writing a blog".

I didn't really know what I was doing and eventually my blog was "terminated" by the net Nazis at Yahoo for unspecified reasons. I guess it was because I was reproducing BBC news stories on there, but I could never get an answer from Yahoo and despite removing what I thought were the contentious items my Yahoo account was still axed (taking with it various pictures of our holidays, our engagement etc).

Some time later I'd finally sold my flat and this seemed like a good time to start a new blog, as I was moving to Rachel's, our wedding was now on the calendar and my life was back on track.

While my new blog more closely resembled the current incarnation of HeroPress, it was also peppered with increasingly "ranty" texts against chavs and noisy neighbours. Rachel's flat, at that time, being the first floor of an old converted house, had a particularly noisy bloke living downstairs who would play his music at volume 11 all hours of the day, throw drunken parties, argue loudly with his girlfriend and generally live his life without regard to those around him.

Thankfully he did a midnight bunk one day, without paying his rent, and - barring a few incidents - our current neighbours are much, much better.

In the end, I found the blog wasn't calming me down and distracting me, as it was supposed to, but actually winding me up more... so for the sake of my sanity I called it a day and took a few weeks off to think about what I really wanted my blog to be about.

And, after much pontificating, on January 16, 2007, with a tentative announcement about a play-by-forum roleplaying game I was planning on running, HeroPress was born.

Now let's crack open the champagne, order an Indian takeaway, let off the fireworks, warm up the ewok percussionists and party like we're in a galaxy far, far away!

(Pete's first anniversary cover - dated 1987 - for the HeroPress fanzine)

Torchwood: Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang

Wednesday night is Torchwoood night! Captain Jack's back and he's brought Spike with him... well, James Marsters, who played punk vampire Spike for several years in Buffy and Angel, as rogue time agent Captain John Hart.

The irony of casting someone from Angel in a show that is a virtual carbon copy (handsome, brooding, immortal 'hero' in a long coat leads a band of misfits to investigate supernatural/extraterrestrial crimes and misdemeanours) can't have been lost on anyone.

The first series of the show started very poorly, peaked in the middle and came close to trailing off at the end, but just about held it together - by pulling the Doctor Who card out of its bag of tricks.

Once you got past the silly-looking alien man with a fish on his head (hideously reminiscent of a Buffy low-point: the demon loan shark with the head of a shark!), Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang was actually a cracking start to the series.

Captain John Hart (Jack's former partner and lover in The Time Agency) is Captain Jack without a good side - charming, flirtatious, untrustworthy and devious, but a compelling character none the less, with Marsters giving an incredibly charismatic performance with only slight traces of old Spike.

John has arrived on Earth in pursuit, he tells Team Torchwood, of three nuclear cluster bombs, supposedly scattered around Cardiff. But soon he reveals his true colours and Jack is forced to face up to elements of his past that he has been trying to keep secret from his team mates.

So far this season the clunky swearing has been axed and replaced with more humour, while the sexual tension has been ramped up even further until you begin to believe that everyone in Cardiff is homo- or bisexual!

Chris Chibnall, who wrote two of the stronger episodes of season one (End of Days and Countrycide) as well two of the worst (Cyberwoman and Day One), has set a high standard with this great opener; let's hope the rest of the season can keep up to this - or surpass it.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

City of Vice - Not Just Great TV...

Having been catching up with Matt and Nick last night for the first time in months, I had to record Channel 4's new docudrama City of Vice and watch it today.

Mid-18th Century London was a city without an organised police force until magistrates Henry (the author of Tom Jones) and John Fielding (his blind brother) established the famous Bow Street Runners.

Henry is played by Emporer Palpatine himself, Ian McDiarmid, while Iain Glen plays his younger half-brother.

The five-part series kicked off with the Bow Street Runners' first case: the brutal attack on, and eventual murder of, a prostitute in a bath house (bagnio).

CSI this isn't! The small team of crimefighters have no snazzy technology at their beck and call and must rely on their wits, intuition, local knowledge and - often - threats and bribery to solve their crimes, while battling against apathy and corruption.

As a gamer, this is prime fodder to mine for gritty, urban adventure ideas. Not only was the story riveting - and disturbing - but packed with well-rounded characters and throwaway nuggets of colour and trivia (as well as a particularly fine Georgian swearword or two).

The Bow Street Runners themselves would serve as perfect archetypes for a group of non-player characters - or player characters - in almost any setting, as either protagonists or antagonists.

Dances With Dragonlance...

The first Dragonlance adventure modules came out for Dungeons & Dragons in the '80s, at about the time our small gaming group (Steve, Pete, Nick and I) were shifting our focus away from fantasy gaming to the superhero genre (particularly Villains & Vigilantes and Champions).

I'm pretty sure Steve had the first Dragonlance module, and maybe even ran some of it for us, but I think those early modules were rather limited - if not railroaded - in their approach and it was never really a setting that took our fancy.

My knowledge of the Dragonlance series is, then, basically limited to the two general sourcebooks on the setting (the first published by TSR, the second - more recently - by Wizards of The Coast), which I've flicked through and cherry-picked bits and bobs from over the years.

Now over 20 years later I have discovered in recent months (thanks to podcasts like The Dragonlance Chronicles and Dragonhearth) that not only are Dragonlance novels still being churned out, but so are adventures and supplements for the setting, and that today, finally, the first Dragonlance movie is being released, straight to DVD.

Having attracted the vocal talents of the queen of modern sword and sorcery, Lucy 'Xena' Lawless, and the king of action TV, Kiefer '24' Sutherland, you'd hope Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight would have some chops about it.

However, it doesn't bode well that the movie studio moved the DVD's release date from a pre-Christmas slot in November to the dead air of late January and have only unveiled a "rough cut" trailer and little, or no, other publicity.

On the strength of the trailer alone, I can't say I am overly enamoured, but I've ordered a copy anyway (from Amazon in the US) and it's slowly winging its way over the Atlantic as we "speak".

So why buy a copy of the disc? Because it's a Dungeons & Dragons movie, for crying out loud! Of course I want it for my collection!

While I'm looking forward to passing my own judgement on the film, pre-release Internet opinion has been quite divided.

On one hand you have the ultrafans over at The Dragonlance Canticle podcast whipping themselves up into a near sexual frenzy, saying that the trailer is the best thing ever, it reduced them to tears, gave them goosebumps etc and then on the other you have one of the authors of the original novel, Tracy Hickman, criticising some of the 2D animation and saying that the producers tried to squeeze too much story into the film; that the plot should have been ended sooner.

Now I have a lot of respect for the Canticle crew; they do a great podcast and clearly know their stuff when it comes to Dragonlance and if they were being sincere - then good on them!

I hope they weren't saying they loved it because they felt - after 20 plus years - they had to. For me, it has echoes of the pre-publicity for Star Wars Episode I, when us old timers were building ourselves up for the "next great thing"... and instead got tax disputes and Jar Jar Binks.

Personally, I don't know what to expect from this film, although I would love to be pleasantly surprised.

At least, we should be guaranteed a good story and great voice talents, and if nothing else it should encourage me to pick up a copy of one of the early Dragonlance novels to find out what all the fuss is about!

If any HeroPress readers get to see this before I do I'd be really interested to hear their opinions...

Monday, 14 January 2008

Gnome No More...

This one's for Nick... as he rolled up the first gnome player character we've ever had in a game of Dungeons & Dragons on the same day I discovered that the forthcoming Fourth Edition has eliminated gnomes as a core race and replaced them with some sort of superpowered half-demon thingy...

Busy Gaming Calendar...

With work continuing apace on developing the background material for my Castles & Crusades d20 roleplaying campaign (a healthy cocktail of 1st Edition D&D sensibilities, with streamlined 3rd Edition rules and a dash of Hackmaster), I've realised I've goy a busy few weeks ahead of me in gaming terms.

Formula De: The new season of our monthly Formula De League gets under starters' orders this week round at Pete's; hopefully seeing the regular return of Steve to our boardgaming group.

The Grand Prix season kicks off, as always, on the Montreal circuit, then moves tound the globe, ending in Malaysia in November, followed by a prize-giving ceremony in December.

Buffy: The third season of Simon's Buffy The Vampire Slayer RPG (Ashes to Ashes) premiers this weekend with the debut appearance of my character Eddie Carvallo (portrayed by Shia LaBeouf).

The Buffy RPG, from Eden Studios, uses the Unisystem and I've been a massive fan of this game since I first read the rules, but have never got round to playing it - despite using it as the default rules system for the short-lived revival of my Knight City play-by-forum campaign, which launched the HeroPress blog this time last year.

This will be the first time I've played a role-playing game with an entirely new group since "back in the day" - so I hope I don't make an ass of myself.

Hollow Earth Expedition: Later this month the fourth monthly chapter of Nick's superb Hollow Earth Expedition adventure will see my stuffy professor and Clare's naive nun continuing to unravel the increasingly complex web of intrigue they are getting themselves tangled up in.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Back For Seconds...

ITV's "so bad it's almost good" dinosaurs-in-the-modern-day Saturday evening sci-fi show Primeval has returned for its unexpected second series.

For a show best known for its cutest actress dancing around in her underwear at every available opportunity there was a decided lack of Hannah Spearritt's panties in last night's season opener... and from what I've read that, sadly, seems to be the way this new season is going to go (I can see their viewing figures dramatically declining already).

There are some good - almost clever - idea's hidden away in this little show; this season opens where the last finished with Professor Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall) returning from the age of dinosaurs through the "anomaly" to the modern day to find that "things have changed" - his girlfriend has been erased from existence (and everyone else's memories) and the team now have a large, high-tech base.

Cutter keeps saying that "evolution" has been changed - but surely it's history that's been changed? If it was evolution then wouldn't everyone have three eyes or superpowers or something?

And this is my main problem with Primeval - as the acting is pretty decent within a limited palette and the effects are fair, given the limitations of a TV budget, but the writing seems slapdash and shoddy.

For instance, a big deal is made of getting some raptors, who are running rampant in a deserted shopping mall, back to their right time alive, without "altering history"... but then the heroes think nothing of leaving a large metal shopping trolley back on prehistoric Earth; and then - after all that - one of the raptors still gets its rubber head lopped off when the anomaly closes!

If Hannah was dancing around in her pants I probably wouldn't be so picky about all these little niggles, but if they're going to deprive us of that delight, then it's down to the dinosaurs and the script to carry the show. And that can't be a good thing!

American Politics... Nothing To Do With Me...

87% Hillary Clinton
85% Barack Obama
84% John Edwards
84% Joe Biden
79% Bill Richardson
75% Chris Dodd
61% Dennis Kucinich
59% Mike Gravel
55% Rudy Giuliani
45% John McCain
42% Mitt Romney
37% Tom Tancredo
34% Mike Huckabee
32% Fred Thompson
12% Ron Paul

2008 Presidential Candidate Matching Quiz

I'm a middle-aged geek in the UK with minimal political knowledge and confused opinions about some very important issues, so rather oddly I found this quiz to be really interesting... and was quite pleased that I didn't come across as extreme as I feared I would.

Don't harangue me for my views on American politics... as the headline says: it's nothing to do with me! It's your country - you sort it out!

I just hope someone designs a quiz this good and insightful when it comes to our next General Election.

Saturday, 12 January 2008


Looking at HeroPress this morning I noticed that one of the "widgets" wasn't working - and that this had made all my Youtube film clips disappear as well. So I tried to correct this, with my zero skill in computer programming, and only managed to make things worse and my blood pressure rise.

With the first anniversary of the blog site coming up on Wednesday, it just made me wonder if it was all really worth it?

I mean the initial idea of the me turning to blogging was to keep my brain active while I was off-work and give me something to do (not that I could ever be accused of getting bored).

The trouble is if I tackle something like this it has been done properly or not at all and I now sometimes find myself scratching around for something to write about each day.

If I had legions of loyal readers, then it might all serve some purpose, but I reckon I have a hardcore of maybe four or five regular readers (and commentators), including my wife. On the other hand I know - for a fact - that many of my close friends don't read it, or its mirror on Facebook.

It's not as if I am offering anything unique or am an expert in a particular niche of any particular hobby; it's all rather a shotgun approach... just whatever tickles my fancy.

I'm just rambling now; but I shall endeavour to keep HeroPress going until it hits its milestone later this week, but after that we shall just have to wait and see if this is just a temporary depression or a death knell...

Cool Listings...

Oddee is a website I found recently (along with about two million other people) that publishes humourous and interesting lists - from crazy old adverts (see above) to ugliest celebrities. It's the sort of thing you see in viral emails... but all collected in one place! A very entertaining way to lose yourself for an hour or two...

Friday, 11 January 2008

Feng Ying Comes To Tekralh...

The old school fun and frolics begin! Last night, seated at Nick's kitchen table, recently the scene of much Edwardian adventure in his excellent Hollow Earth Expedition campaign, we created his character for my Castles & Crusades role-playing game campaign - Tekralh.

With some above average rolls (but no real superhuman statistics), Nick opted to make his character a gnomish monk - a great, off-the-wall choice... especially as I'd spent ages sketching out the human religions, but only paid lip-service to the dwarvish/gnomic beliefs (they are based on Chinese/Tibetan Buddhism, but I hadn't really gone much further than that).

His name is Feng Ying (he took a dwarvish name when he joined the monastry in the Deng Fang Mountains as a child) and he has left his high altitude home on a quest to track down his mentor - a fellow gnome - who left seeking enlightenment several years ago, but hasn't been seen or heard from since.

Feng is serious and hot tempered when it comes to matters of religion, but still maintains that traditional gnomic sense of humour. He's quite young for a gnome adventurer (only about 100 years old), and is setting out with little more than the clothes on his back and about 18 gold pieces in his pouch.

Nick - who created the astrology system I use in this campaign for one of our D&D campaigns back in our school days - showed me how to do a character's "in-game" horoscope, which he then used to shape Feng's personality... and it all seemed very logical and believable.

I can't wait to read Nick's fully developed character background (if only to find out the name of Feng's mentor, more about the dwarvish religion - perhaps even what its called - and further insights into Feng's psychology), which should help suggest some early low level escapades for the character.

Next stop will be for Nick and I to help Clare roll up a character and then see if I can find anyone else who'd like to join our merry band of adventurers.

It still doesn't seem like a year ago I was bemoaning the lack of gaming in my life (outside of our regular Formula De meetings) and now I'm playing in an Edwardian pulp mystery game, preparing to run a classic, old school fantasy game and - hopefully soon - due to start a Buffy game as Sunnydale High's new teen sorcerer Eduardo Raoul Carvallo.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Pick Of The Pods: The Tome

With the impending release on the Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons still almost six months away and the official Wizards of The Coast Dungeons & Dragons podcast seemingly faded from the airwaves, the best source of knowledgeable information about the forthcoming game is The Tome.

As established podcast - it is up to episode 39 as of this blog entry and still going strong - with a remit to cover all things connected with Dungeons & Dragons.

For the last three episodes, regular host Jeff Greiner has been joined by Chris Engler, of the late, lamented Carpe GM podcast, to discuss 'leaked' information about Fourth Edition - using only material from official sources.

They have so far covered the areas of "classes", "races" and "magic" and I'll confess that everything I've heard so far pretty confirms my initial belief that Wizards of The Coast is turning venerable old D&D into a pen'n'paper version of an online video game - ramping up power levels, giving out more trinket's and baubles etc

Jeff and Chris present each tit-bit of "gossip" in a clear fashion then dissect it in a calm, unbiased manner, giving rational (rather than hysterical) opinions on the various elements revealed.

If you're fascinated by the prospect of this incarnation of the original role-playing game - even if you're never going to play it - then this is the podcast that you should be listening to.

Outside of the current conversation topic, Jeff - and his team of 'guest reviewers' - normally look at D&D supplements, collectible card cards, novels etc or interview relevant writers/designers.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Working For The Man!

This may sound like an odd thing to say but I like deadlines; they give me something to aim for. I guess it's from my early lift as a struggling hack on local rags - and then a sub-editor - that I have always lived with deadlines.

Working to deadlines got me through university as a mature student, where the 18-year-olds on our course couldn't understand how people like Paul and I could get all the work done on time and still party with the best of them.

Nick has been chomping at the bit to roll up some characters for the Castle & Crusades campaign I unveiled at Christmas, and so, having agreed to go round to his flat on Thursday, that meant I have had to knuckle down and try to get some order from the random notes I've been scribbling between reading back issues of Knights of The Dinner Table and The Dragon, watching a variety of DVDs (for "research" purposes) etc

The initial draft of the rough player notes can be found here in pdf form.

The world is called Tekralh and the theme for the setting, as my 'thing' for the year is the Crusades, is religious intolerance and holy wars.

What I love about Castles & Crusades is that it allows me to bring back all those elements that have, over the years, been branded as "outdated" by non-D&D players (such as character classes, alignment, levels, hit points etc) but which I grew up on.

For years after I stopped playing D&D regularly I railed against the whole alignment system and when one of my favourite new podcasts - Grimm Studios - launched into its series of devoting one show to the study of one alignment, I'll admit I groaned.

But the discussion was far more stimulating and interesting than I'd been expecting and got me to seriously re-examining my approach to alignment. Couple that with the whole "law/chaos" vibe of the Elric books I've been reading and I'm pretty fired up for an alignment-led role-playing game.

Thursday will also be the first time either of us have actually "rolled up" characters for a game for a long, long time as so many games these days - including our current Hollow Earth Expedition game - use a point buy system.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Top Of The Pile: Ultimate Spider-Man #117

Since my stroke and major surgery I have been more susceptible to crying - apparently this is a common side effect of traumatic operations. Anything can set me off these days: emotional music, television, films (you don't want to be around me when I'm watching 50 First Dates - I go to pieces so badly you'll get hit by the shrapnel)...

But I haven't been moved by reading a comic since the death of Terra in 1984's Tales of the Teen Titans Annual #3, until the climax of Ultimate Spider-Man #117 - the end of the six-issue Death of A Goblin storyline - brought a lump to my throat as young Peter Parker stood up in class and asked his colleagues to take a moment to talk about one of their own who has passed away.

I couldn't imagine anyone but Brian Michael Bendis writing this title, which (along with Nova, Thor, Immortal Iron Fist, Annihilation, and the Fantastic Four) has brought to a halt the migration of my pull-list from a Marvel bias to a DC bias. Bendis is a master of teen dialogue and almost soap opera levels of tangled sub-plots... that all have a knack of paying off.

Coming, as this did, in the same shipment of comics as the mind-boggling conclusion to the One More Day storyline in the main Spidey titles (by the usually reliable J.Michael Straczynski) - which seems to have turned the last however many decades of mainstream Spider-Man continuity into either 'What If...' or 'dream' stories and totally undone the dramatic public revelation of Spidey's secret identity (one of the few interesting things to come out of the silly Civil War) - I might have walked away completely from one of my oldest comic book heroes, if it wasn't for the Ultimate imprint.

Ultimate Spider-Man is the Spider-Man story as I think it should be told these days. The mainstream titles had become too chocked on their own layers of complex continuity and certainly needed a reboot (much as John Byrne did with Superman in 1986) but not the strange, half-in, half-out mess that appears to have been left by One More Day.

Thank goodness for Bendis and Ultimate Spider-Man; a retreat away from the current madness of mainstream Marvel.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

The End Of Christmas :-(

That time of year has come again... Twelfth Night and my favourite extended holiday (Christmas) officially has to go back in the box for another 12 months.

But it's been a good couple of weeks: we've given and received some great presents, been pampered by Rachel's parents, eaten a lot of turkey and stuffing, gone for some energetic walks and done all the requisite Christmassy things!

It even snowed the other day - although it didn't settle; which gave me a chance to get out for a walk in a mini snow storm.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Step Back In Time...

Castles And Crusades - my roleplaying game of choice for this year's return to gamesmastering - is, for wont of a better description, everything I loved about original 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but with the best (and simplest) bits of the new(ish) d20/Third Edition iteration of the game inserted.

Or, as Nick would have, it's "so retro you need to wear flares to play it".

As part of my drive to "up" the 1st Edition elements in the game I have finally caved and invested in an excellent copy of the original printing of the Deities & Demigods hardback - the 144-page version complete with Elric's Melnibonean gods and monsters as well as sundry creatures from the Cthulhu mythos.

Later printings saw these two pantheons exorcised, possibly because of licencing concerns over Chaosium's Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu games.

I acquired this fine publication from the excellent Asgi RPG Store, a veritable treasure trove of old gaming material from the '70s and '80s. Prices on the site vary, depending on what you're looking for, but bargains are possible and the service from site owner Alan Silcock is first rate.

It certainly beats the vagaries of eBay when it's a book you really, really want (as does every other game collector in the Western world). You're paying that bit extra to guarantee the book will be in your hands rather than trusting that the auction gods will favour your bid.

I consider this book my last Christmas present - to myself - and a symbol of the investment I'm looking to make into my new roleplaying campaign. It also completes my library of the main five 1st Edition AD&D books: The Player's Handbook, The Dungeonmaster's Guide, The Monster Manual, The Fiend Folio and now Deities And Demigods.

The clock in the library has been set back to 1980... now let's get this party started!

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