Monday 30 December 2013

2013: A Year in Review

Although it is surprising to remember, I actually kicked off this year in my hometown of Greensboro, NC, at an Avett Brother’s concert with my wife, sisters and their spouses. It proved a fantastic beginning to a fantastic year.

I opened the year with one main goal – get out of debt. I have basically been in debt for the last eight years, dating back to my marriage, immigration, and various periods of unemployment by me and my wife. This year I decided I had had enough. Using a combination of ruthless saving and selling off anything in the house that wasn’t nailed down, I did it. I got back to zero, and I have felt a little better about life ever since.

It was also another big year for travel. In the spring, we flew to Athens and spent ten days exploring our way up mainland Greece, a country neither of us had ever previously visited. In July, I flew to Washington, D.C. for work, got to spend a few days with my parents, and attend a couple of Washington Nationals baseball games. Soon after my return, my wife and I spent two great weeks in the Lake District, going for long walks, climbing a few fells, and generally having a relaxing time. Just recently, I made my first trip to Germany, again for work, spending a long weekend in the city of Essen. That’s enough for one year.

In my moonlight life as an author, I had a few successes worth mentioning. March saw the publication of my fifth book, Dragonslayers: From Beowulf to St. George. In September, my book Zombies: A Hunter’s Guide was re-released in a deluxe hardback edition. Finally, I wrote the first draft of my first wargame, Frostgrave, which is currently being playtested.

Hobby-wise, I read 58 books to completion, painted 196 miniatures, picked up my 100th softball hit,  and cycled well over a thousand miles. I also managed a pretty heft amount of blogging!

Okay, not everything this year went to plan. I’m currently typing with a cast on my left arm due to breaking my arm and wrist in a cycle crash. (It is scheduled to come off later today!). I also managed to tear the tendon in my right foot, which made several months of walking a lot more painful than normal (this is mostly healed). Really though, those were the only major negatives in the year, and if that is the case, it must have been a pretty good year. 

Finally, this year saw the birth of my nephew (hey, Cassian!), the marriage of my older sister (Congratulations, Liz!). Also, this year brought news that will likely change my life forever and make 2014 an even more memorable year...

Sunday 29 December 2013

Little Treasures

Even as Games Workshop releases new miniatures for The Hobbit movies, they are slowly letting their remaining The Lord of the Rings miniatures go out of stock. Partly this is caused by their movement away from metal miniatures, but seems to have more to do with their dwindling interest in the product line. As usual, GW has been very tight-lipped about their plans for the license, but it is looking more and more likely that they will let it go pretty soon after the movies are finished.

This is a real shame for me, because they are my favourite fantasy miniatures, partly for their subject matter, partly for the size, scale, and style adopted for the line.

On the plus side, it did mean I got some little treasures for Christmas. The first was a Gondorian Command pack, with a captain and standard bearer which I received from my sister and brother-in-law. Although you can still get these figures in yucky resin, this pack must have come from a second-hand dealer, and I am thrilled to have them in metal. They will serve in both my someday-to-be Gondorian army as well as part of the crew of the Glaurung. Since I don’t really like the plastic Gondorians, due to their small size, any metal additions are fantastic.

The second pack, containing three Dunlendings with two-handed weapons, came from my mother. This is another exciting little treasure. These figures went out-of-stock in the UK months ago. Mom managed to snag me this pack from GW US. It must have been one of the last packs they had, as they have now disappeared from their website. These are great little figures, perfect fantasy Vikings.

There will soon come a day when it is no longer easily possible to obtain a blister pack of GW The Lord of the Rings miniatures. I’m glad to have these on hand to crack open at some (probably not too distant) time.

Thursday 26 December 2013

An Embarrassment of Riches

I’m currently in the town of Hythe on the Kentish coast to celebrate the season with my in-laws. Christmas itself flew by yesterday in a flurry of presents, food, comings and goings, laughter, and games.  I had planned to report on all the great gifts I received, but, in truth, I received such an embarrassment of riches, that I am reluctant to list them all. People were exceptionally generous towards me this year. Most of the presents I received will likely get mentioned in future blog posts anyway.

It’s Boxing Day today; half the population of the area will currently be descending on Canterbury for ‘the sales’. I went along one year and it was awful, worse than any day on the build up to Christmas. I’ve never really understood ‘the sales’. Why, on the day after I was given a huge pile of stuff, would I want to go out and buy more? I don’t care how deep the discounts go.

There are alternatives, of course. Some will have gone down to the beach for the ‘Boxing Day Dip’. I think this rather chilly tradition is probably better left to the young with stronger constitutions, or perhaps those still drunk from the night before. There is also the 5K run around Saltwood (the village bordering Hythe). I’ve never been much for running, and the constant rain that has turned large chunks of the track to mud, did not increase the appeal.

So instead, I began my Boxing Day by sleeping in and then watching the Doctor Who Christmas special which I recorded the night before. After that, I went for a quick constitutional with the family. Things are quiet now, but only for a bit. This evening we are all over to the Grandparents for a gathering of the full clan.

Monday 23 December 2013

Rejection – Number 192

A few days ago, I received a polite email from the editor of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, rejecting my story ‘Golden Idol, Iron God’. He said the story was a ‘near miss’ and called me a ‘good writer’, but in the end, it just didn’t quite make the cut. He also sent back a copy of the manuscript, complete with some notes and questions. This is going above and beyond for an editor, and I must say that most of his points seem fair.

I haven’t written much fiction lately; I’ve been too busy with non-fiction and wargaming. I wrote ‘Golden Idol, Iron God’ almost ten years ago, and it remains the only story I have written about Stevan the Targeteer that has not seen print.

So why 192? That is the number of times I have had one of my fiction stories rejected. If it sounds like a lot, I assure you it is not. I’m sure some people have been rejected thousands of times. It is part of being a writer. If you can’t learn to live with rejection, you’ll never make it in the business, so it is important to find a coping mechanism. Stephen King says he would impale his rejection letters on a railroad spike. Personally, I just keep count, and celebrate whenever I reach a milestone.

Being only 8 rejections away from the big 200 makes me want to write a few more stories and get them sent out. Only by sending them out can I get them rejected. And only by risking rejection can I ever hope to get anything accepted.

My first ‘professional’ fiction sale was a Stevan story entitled ‘Stand at Llieva’ which appeared in Black Gate Magazine 5, pictured above.

Sunday 22 December 2013

The Frostgrave Playtests

Playtesting for Frostgrave is now well and truly underway. The good news is that the testers have so far found the basic rules easy to learn and fun to play. There is still a lot of work to be done on balancing the different spells, the way experience is handled, and rules for games with warbands of widely different levels of experience. Also, it appears that at least one of the scenarios has some serious problems that need to be sorted out.

Thankfully, these are all minor issues and exactly the kind of problems that playtesting is suppose to reveal. So, a big thank you to all those who have played a playtest game or two already.

This has also led to the first game of Frostgrave appearing upon a blog. The photo above comes from Arjun Choong, who posted it and several others on Cor Blog Me!. Check out that Dwarven Forge terrain! I’ve only had a chance to read through the first few pages of this blog, but it looks like it has loads of fun stuff for the fantasy gamer.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Word of the Day: Widdershins

Essentially, ‘Widdershins’ is old British world meaning to move in a counter-clockwise direction, although ‘to move contrary to the movement of the sun’ might be a more appropriate definition.

I’ve encountered the word twice in the last few weeks. The first was in an old English story about the young Charlemagne, in which his sister runs widdershins around a church and is whisked off to fairyland.  The second time was in Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, which I’m currently reading, where an elf dances widdershins around a troll as part of the process for creating a changeling.

It is notable that both uses involve the fey or fairyland. There seems to be a connection between the unnatural movement of widdershins and the other world. In fact, the movement seems to have been considered so unnatural, that there isn’t a clear opposite to the word. That is, there seems to be no equivalent word for moving clockwise. Apparently moving around something was only worthy of mention if it was done ‘otherworldly’.

Monday 16 December 2013

The Hobbit:The Desolation of Smaug

Sunday morning, my wife and I caught the early (non-3D) showing of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Even with the 11 AM start time, the theatre was mostly full. Three hours later, we emerged, slightly bleary-eyed and packed with popcorn*, but with big smiles on our faces. Put simply, we both really enjoyed it and thought it significantly better than the first instalment of the trilogy.

It was beautiful, action-packed, and filled with more fantastical elements than any of the previous Peter Jackson, Middle-Earth films. True, in some places it wandered rather far from the source material, but I actually believe it was a better movie for it. The ending was a little sudden and seemingly arbitrary, but we all know it is a trilogy, so that’s not a major issue for me.

If you are a fan of high-fantasy and can accepted that the movie is not the book, then I think you would be hard-pressed not to enjoy the movie.

* British cinemas generally offer two types of popcorn, salted and sweet. Neither tastes as good as American buttered popcorn, but then neither leave you feeling quite so queasy either. Salted is a bit too bland for my taste, so I go with sweet. I'm not sure what the 'sweet' flavour is, but it is pretty light.

Monday 9 December 2013

Frostgrave – A Call for Playtesters

Several months ago, I announced that Frostgrave, my wizard-focused, fantasy skirmish wargame rule set was going to be published in the Osprey Wargames series in early 2015.  Sometime later, I posted up a little piece of completed artwork for the game and talked about why I had decided to base the system around the d20.

Today I’m taking another step forward and opening the game up for playtesting. I actually finished writing the first draft of the manuscript a couple of months ago. Since then I have been playing around with it and tweaking little things here and there. But you can only do so much by yourself. Wargames such as this are too complicated for one person, even the author, to explore all corners. So, I’m asking my fellow wargamers for help.

If you would be interested in helping out, getting an early look at the game, and even getting your name in the book, please send me an email.

It is slightly nerve-wracking sending the game out in draft form, unsupported by beautiful artwork and nice design. Even worse asking people to critique it and mean it. (Usually authors ask for critique, but secretly just want praise.) But, it must be done. This time I really need the criticisms.

In the meantime, enjoy some cool little Necromancer sketches. These were quick concepts made by the artist to get a feel for the game before he started on the full colour artwork.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Quick Shot Movie Reviews

Gravity (Seen in the theatre in 3D)
A very enjoyable space disaster/survival movie. It packs it’s (refreshingly short) 90-odd minutes with breath-taking, 0-gravity, 3D destruction. There isn’t really a huge amount of story, but the solid performances, by the very small cast, pulls the viewer along; although sometimes Clooney sounds a lot like Buzz Lightyear.

Pacific Rim (Seen on DVD)
Several of my friends went to see this in the theatre and really enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to it. Now, I don’t expect too much from a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters, but I expect better than this. The story was like a cliché convention. The main character is a hot shot robot pilot whose brother/wingman is killed in battle. He quits, but is called back into duty by his old commander, who is contaminated with robot radiation and will die if he ever pilots a robot again. He is also the surrogate father of the...oh, never mind. That’s actually the better part of the movie. The subplot involving the two semi-comedic scientists is agony. Combine that with mediocre battle scenes and you have a movie not worth watching.

Babylon AD  (Seen on TV)
I don’t know if this movie was ever released in theatres. If so I missed it. Basically, Vin Diesel is a fugitive/mercenary living in post-apocalyptic Russia who is hired to smuggle a young woman and her minder into America. I really enjoyed the first half of the movie, but after that it seemed to lose its way a bit. I’m still not sure I completely understand the ending, and I kind of feel there was a piece missing. I believe it claimed to be based on a book which might be worth checking out. Not a bad film, but could have been better.  

Dew Update

Not only did USA Food Store provide me with real American Mountain Dew, they delivered it about 20 hours after I ordered it. It looks like it will be a sweet and syrupy Christmas after all!

Tuesday 3 December 2013

The Great Mountain Dew Betrayal

For the last couple of years, I have ordered myself a Christmas treat of a case of Mountain Dew from and used it as my own super-caffeinated advent calendar. This year’s order arrived today, but my excitement quickly turned to disappointment when I discovered that the Dew was actually from Poland! I gave it a try, but at best it can be described as vaguely similar. Not the taste of home I was after!

I wrote to American Soda asking for an explanation. I received a quick, if curt, reply saying that that the website made this clear. I checked the website again. Here is the page for Mountain Dew. Now if you click on ‘More Information’, it is true that they do say that it is a European product, ‘based on’ the American recipe.

Now I ask you, gentlemen of the jury. If I am shopping on a site called ‘American Soda’, that has, in the past, supplied American Mountain Dew, is it really fair to expect customers to go looking for a change that they have no reason to suspect?

After another email, I got American Soda to offer to refund my money if I ship the soda back to them. Of course, they know full well that the cost to an individual to ship 24 cans of soda would cost as much, or more, than the soda itself.

Live and learn. I will not shop with American Soda again. I have already ordered a replacement case from USA Food Store. Note how theyproclaim that they have the genuine article! I’ll let everyone know if they deliver on the promise.     


On the third email, American Soda has informed me that American Mountain Dew is now banned in the EU.  A quick search reveals this to be true. One wonders why they didn’t mention this in the first email (it also makes me wonder about the case I have on order?). The plot thickens, and I am given one more reason to dislike the European Union.

Sunday 1 December 2013

The Sirens of Kickstarter

If I can make it another twelve hours, I will have successful resisted my forth kickstarter! Hurry up and end Battle Systems!

Now don’t get me wrong, I love Kickstarter. I think it is the most interesting development in the use of the internet in years and probably within the whole of capitalism. The idea of using crowd funding to create products that would otherwise be impossible or ignored by traditional funding methods is very appealing.

However there I think there is a dark side, a psychological danger in kickstarter that has been successfully exploited by a lot of miniatures companies. (That makes it sound a bit more sinister than I intended, but depending on the individual in question it is very true).

Take two examples. A year ago, both Reaper Miniatures and Mantic Games ran extremely successful kickstarters. Both companies were blown away by the success, and all of the participants received loads of freebie extras. This year both companies ran second kickstarters, but this time, if the various forums were any indication, people were backing the project, not for what it was, but for what it might become if the amount of funding went way above what was actually required. There is a thrill in watching the numbers roll up, seeing what new prizes you win. It is, dare I say it, addictive.

I was able to resist both of those kickstarters, although especially with Mantic’s Deadzone, it was by the skin of my teeth. Two questions have saved me. First, would I buy that if I walked into a store and saw it right now. Since most of these companies have determined that the ‘sweet spot’ for getting people’s money is £75, the answer is almost always no. I very rarely spend that much in one go on my miniatures hobby. I’d rather space the spending out with more little purchases. The other, related, question is, do I want that much stuff all at one time. Again, with minis, I don’t want to buy too many at once, because I know I will likely lose interest before I finish painting them all. I resisted both kickstarters and in retrospect, I am happy about.

The Battle System kickstater has been especially tough. It looks like a great product. I love good card stock terrain. It doesn’t need painting. It’s good to have a lot of it, and I always return to sci-fi at some point. But why buy in now? The project is well over its funding, so it doesn’t need my help to become a reality. Yes, if I invest now, I’ll get more stuff for less money than if I buy in later. Of course that’s just an ‘if’. It’s not due out for six months, a lot can change in that time.

Would I walk into a store and plunk down £75? Maybe, probably not. I’d probably get the £30 set to see if I really like it and then go back for more if I did. This strikes me as a wiser and more fun way to do it anyway.

This isn’t a criticism of people who back these kickstarters; far be it for me to tell people how they should spend their hobby money. But there is a type of person, myself included, who are prone to obsessive thinking, and I think they need to be careful with kickstarter.