Introducing Tir y Dail

Ah, the Spring Equinox (in the Northern Hemisphere, at any rate). It is a time of new beginnings, and so perhaps a time to talk about new things. Things, at any rate, that have been gestating over the winter.

When I lived in Wiltshire, I knew hardly anyone else who lived near me (which was probably just as well, given how very patriotically English and Tory most people there were). Most of my friends were in Bath or Bristol, so I could visit them, but not hang out for any great amount of time.

Here in South Wales I have several good friends who live locally, and who have many of the same interests as me. Those interests include role-playing; something I have not been able to do seriously for around three decades due to lack of a suitable local group (not to mention lack of time).

At the same time I have read Nicola Griffith’s Spear, and am keenly aware that the place where I live was once the home of the great boar, Twrch Trwyth. This area is as steeped in Arthuriana as the area around Glastonbury where I grew up.

Now it so happens that one of my favourite role-playing game systems is Chaosium’s Pendragon. I ran a campaign many years ago. But Pendragon is very much based on Malory and Le Morte d’Arthur. It is a high mediaeval and English version of the Arthur cycle. Would it be possible, I wondered, to do something more Welsh? Something that was rooted instead in The Mabinogion?

Well, never fear. I did, after all, grow up on Original D&D (the white box version). As a consequence, I never met a role-playing system that I didn’t want to customize. I could do this.

Out of such thoughts grew Tir y Dail, a role-playing campaign set (at least initially) in South Wales, and using a variant of the Pendragon rules to create a distinctly Welsh feel to the game. Specifically the campaign begins in Ystrad Tywi, the same location in which we find ourselves at the start of Spear. But Tir y Dail is not the stylized, mythical land of Griffith’s story. It is something much more similar to the world of Hild and Menewood. Whereas in Spear, Ystrad Tywi is a wild land occupied only by a few peasants and bandits, in Tir y Dail it is a bustling post-Roman culture just beginning to learn to live with the absence of colonial rule.

The most obvious sign of Roman presence is the still-busy port town of Moridunum (Carmarthen), the most westerly outpost of the Roman Empire. From here, local goods can be traded for wine and pottery from the continent. There are two sizeable villas in the region, one south-west of the city, and one north-east. Hill forts are everywhere. Tir y Dail (The Land of Leaves) is the name of the local settlement here in Ammanford, but there are many others dotted about the region. To the north, keeping watch over the Tywi, are the impressive Dinefwr Castle and the stately home that stands in its shadow. Those are more modern constructions, but in the 5th Century the hill on which they stand still boasted a Roman fort, guarding the road west to Moridunum.

I’m telling you all this now for a number of reasons. I am NOT planning to keep a campaign diary. However, I do want to talk about the worldbuilding, and the historical research that went into it. Some of that I will only be able to drop once the players have moved past the events in question. Also I see from BlueSky that my good friend Hal Duncan is working on something similar but based in Scotland (and presumably fiction). I hope people will find the contrast illuminating.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with doing Arthurian stories set in Scotland. We should remember that, before the Romans came, “Wales” – the country of Prydain, inhabited by the Cymry – covered the entire island, at least to the edge of the Highlands. (I’ll talk about the problem of the Picts in a later post.) Glasgow is a Cymric city. The name, Glas Cae, means “blue field”, and is indicative of especially good grazing.

In the time of Tir y Dail, the Ystrad Clut (the valley of the Clyde) is ruled over by the Damnonii tribe whose capital was the imposing fortress of Alt Clut (Dumbarton Rock). It stayed that way until around 870 when Ivar the Boneless and his Viking buddies finally managed to sack the place. The Damnonii then moved their capital to Glasgow – specifically to the area called Govan which is just over the river from the Event Campus where Worldcon will be held. They also fell under the influence of their Gaelic-speaking neighbours, the Scotii of Dál Riada. The new kingdom, known as Strathclyde, remained independent until just after the Norman invasion of England, at which point they joined the kingdom of Alba (possibly because they were conquered by MacBeth).

But I digress. There’s a huge amount of Welsh history that I want to talk about. The Irish will be in on it as well (though mostly as villains to begin with). I’ll stop for now, but there will be more.

Glasgow Does D&D

The lovely people at the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at Glasgow University, in collaboration with the univeristy’s Games Lab, have run an online event about the origins and history of Dungeons and Dragons. It was fun, and really heartwarming to see so many young people who love RPGs watching the event. As history, however, it could have been better. That’s one of the things about having been there when it happened. You remember stuff.

John D Rateliff, who was the principal speaker, used to work for TSR, and for the company we tend to refer to as Wizards of the Cost, so he knows his stuff. But he didn’t start playing D&D until 1980 so he missed a lot of the frenzy of development in the early years. Heck, Runequest was two years old by then.

Rateliff did mention a book by Jon Peterson, The Elusive Shift, which chronicles the early history of the hobby with some reference to fanzines. A quick scan through shows that the fanzines referenced were mostly American (many of them from Bruce Pelz’s collection), but I did see a few names that I recognised. Peterson does mention postal Diplomacy quite a lot, and En Garde!, all of which is very familiar.

When it comes down to it, there are basically only two main debates about RPGs. The first one is about whether the game should be set in a closed world (e.g. a game based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or on the Arthurian legends), or in an open one where GMs are free to create their own world. D&D started off open-ended, went through a phase where the owners were trying to lock people in, and has now apparently gone back to being open-ended again. Given that Tékumel is older than D&D, you can argue that this debate has been raging from the start. I was pleased to see Rateliff cite flexibility as D&D‘s key selling point. Back in the 1970s we all used say that we played “D&D“, even though most of us had tossed those first edition rulebooks and made up our own rules.

The other main debate, which has absolutely been with us from the start, is the narrative v rules debate. Those on the narrative side see the game as what we used to called Improvised Freeform Theatre (a term I think Paul Mason may have coined), and the rule-players see it as a form of wargame where knowledge of the rules is crucial to success. I’m delighted to see that the young gamers at the event were pretty much all on the narrative side. Maybe that’s because all of the rules-players have gone off to do Warhammer.

Rateliff, who is a highly-respected fantasy fiction scholar, was very solid on the fictional roots of the game. He seemed to know a bit less about the wargaming side. I was a bit surprised to see no mention of Tony Bath’s legendary Hyboria campaign. But the two elements have always been side-by-side. I bought my first D&D set thanks to an ad in one of my father’s copies of Minature Wargames. I played my first game thanks to friends who had discovered it through the Tolkien Society at St. Andrews.

With all this academic interest in roleplaying, I hope that someone will one day write a history of the early days of the hobby in the UK. Most of us are still alive. They could interview Steve Jackson, Ian Livingstone, Marc Gasgoine and so on, and a lot of us hobbyists.

In the meantime, you can watch tonight’s show below:

Glasgow Fantasy Centre Does D&D

The lovely people at the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow are doing another online event. This one is titled, “D&D and Fantasy Fiction: Giants in the Oerth”. I am definitely looking forward to this. As someone who bought one of the first (white box) sets of D&D in the UK, I can definitely say “I was there!”. And of course my fellow players were all avid fantasy readers. I’ll be fascinated to see what history says about us.

The event will be at 6:00pm GMT on January 28th. Registration is required but free (and they will probably live stream on YouTube if they exceed their Zoom capacity). More details here.

Tampere Site Visit

I have no idea whether the Finns are serious about bidding for Tampere in 2032, but just in case I paid the proposed site a visit today.

Tampere is just over an hour by train from Helsinki and has been the site of many successful Finncons. Right now it does not have the facilities to host a Worldcon, but there are plans to build a brand new convention center around the railway station. This is an ideal location. There are already many hotels in the area, including two Scandics, a Holiday Inn that appears to be undergoing a massive expansion, and a giant Sokos that might be the ugliest hotel in the world. There are cheaper hotels as well.

There are plenty of places to eat in the area, and as the university is close by some of them are very cheap. And there is a small shopping mall. The city is building a tram network that will be in operation much sooner than the convention center is built, so getting to other parts of the city will be easy. My only reservation is the airport, which is very small and currently only has bus links to the city.

The main attraction of Tampere is the brand new Moomin Museum located inside Tampere-talo, a massive arts complex located just 5 minutes walk from the railway station. I visited the Moomin Museum a few years back and, while it had lots of great things in it, it all looked a bit sad. The new museum has put a lot of work into presentation and is well worth a visit if you have any interest in Moomins (save for eating them, Paul).

The city also has a fascinating cathedral with some great art, and the world’s only Lenin museum. The great revolutionary lived in Tampere for some time while plotting his take-over of Russia and the city has lots of interesting material connected to his time there.

Today I visited Vapriikki, a museum complex a little further out of town. It contains several discrete exhibitions including a brand new games museum. Most of the material in it is concerned with electronic games, for which Finland is justly famous, but it has some board games and RPG material as well, including a whole section on Finland’s annual role-playing event, Ropecon, which was in Messukeskus two weeks before us.

Vapriikki also contains a natural history section, a geology section, exhibits about life in Tampere in 1918 and 1017, a doll museum, and Finland’s Ice Hockey Hall of Fame. It does not yet have an exhibition devoted to the sayings of Kimi Raikkonen, though I am sure that will come eventually.

Right now there is also a traveling exhibition with material from the Forbidden City in Beijing. It is Qing Dynasty, so relatively modern, and very impressive.

I put a whole lot of photos on Twitter today if you want to see more.

Arabian Nights Questions

Something else I did over Christmas, as a bit of a break from the Wagnerthon, was remind myself of the rules for Arabian Nights, just in case I should end up in a game at Chance & Counters. There are solo play rules, and it didn’t take long to get back into the swing of things (not to mention crippled, enslaved, and ensorcelled). However, a couple of questions occurred to me along the way and I was wondering if anyone out there could enlighten me.

First up, I remember from playing the original version that you were not allowed to win if you were gender-swapped. Indeed, I wrote a whole blog post about that a couple of years ago. Checking the rules of the new edition it appears that rule has been dropped. The card for Geas still says you can’t win while you have that status, but no other statuses seem to have that effect. Can anyone confirm this, or have I missed something?

Second, in order to win the solo game you have to become Fabulously Wealthy. That’s not as easy as it seems because so many of the events that increase your wealth level have upper limits as to how wealthy they can make you. The obvious way to do this is to acquire the Giant Diamonds. You can also do it using the Book of Hidden Treasures, the Yellow Kohl or, if you are lucky, the Magic Lamp. What I’m wondering is this: is the solo game specifically a matter of knowing how to get the particular treasures that you need, or are there other ways to win that don’t require you to seek out specific encounters (probably in Places of Power)?

By the way, coming back to the gender-swapping issue, the game still needs a bit of an overhaul to become properly LGBT+ friendly. You ought to be able to play as a gay, lesbian or bisexual character. I also note that the rules are silent on the subject of what happens if you get gender-swapped while married. Even if the marriage is still legal, you are not going to be having any more children. Something to think about when I have an idle moment (which doubtless means never).

Thunderbirds, the Board Game

Last night a bunch of reprobates – Cavan Scott, Jonathan L Howard, Stark Holborn and myself, descended upon the Chance and Counters board game cafe in Bristol. For our entertainment for the evening we chose the Thunderbirds game, mainly because Jonathan has been playing it a lot and therefore we had someone who knew the rules well. I was pleased about this because I had backed the Kickstarter and thus own the game, but haven’t had a chance to play it yet.

Thunderbirds was designed by Matt Leacock, who is best known for Pandemic. Like Pandemic, and Forbidden Island which Kevin and I got a lot of enjoyment out of on the train to Barcelona, it is a collaborative game. That means that the players work together to defeat the game scenario. Either everyone wins, or everyone loses.

Obviously these things have to be fairly difficult so that you don’t win all of the time. We played on the lowest difficulty setting, and we lost all four games we played. A lot of that seemed to be down to luck. It’s not like any of us are novices at board games, and Jonathan has a lot of experience with this one, though we did consume a pint or two each in the course of the evening which might have hindered us. (The cafe has an interesting selection of craft beers – I tried Wiper & True’s Plum Pudding Porter, which is rather nice.)

The game proceeds with a succession of disasters unfolding around the world. The players, as members of International Rescue, have to mount rescue operations. Successful rescues mean that you acquire abilities that help with future rescues and also allow you to defeat the machinations of the evil Hood. The most obvious ways to lose are to be overwhelmed by disasters that you can’t fix, or you fail to foil one of the Hood’s plans in time.

Luck comes into the game in three main ways. The mix of disasters you are faced with is random, and you may not have the right characters and equipment in the right places to mount rescues in time. A successful rescue requires a dice roll, and while you can weight the odds in your favor you can still fail. The Hood’s plans also proceed at random, based both on card draws and dice rolls.

Each player takes the part of one of the characters from the TV series, though there is no requirement that they must use use the correct iconic vehicle. Obviously each character is different, and some are more fun to play than others. John has some very useful special powers, but to use them he has to stay stuck in space on Thunderbird 5 most of the time. Cav spent a lot of time playing Lady Penelope, and sadly Penny seems fairly useless as character. The basic game does not allow you to play Brains, Tin-Tin or Parker, but there is an expansion set which adds them to the mix.

Fans of the TV series will be interested to know that most of the disasters are based on actual TV episodes. Jonathan tells me that the designers had to add a bunch of space-based disasters in order to give Alan and John more to do.

We very much enjoyed playing the game, though based on Cav’s experience you may want to not have anyone playing Penny. I want to beat the damn game at some point, but for our next trip Stark and I want to introduce the boys to the delights of Arabian Nights. What better game for a bunch of authors to play?

Cersi is a Winner


Every so often Covet Fashion has what are essentially cosplay competitions, in that you have to style a look from fiction. This week, to coincide with the start of the new series of Game of Thrones, they asked us to design an outfit for a ruthless queen of a fantasy kingdom. They weren’t allowed to use the name, of course, but from the background image it was pretty clear which fantasy kingdom they had in mind.

Naturally I had to do Cersi. The dress isn’t really very queenly, but as I’m new to the game I haven’t accumulated many ballgowns and can’t really afford to buy one. However, I had won a green one in a previous contest so I went with it. I’m really pleased with the choice of makeup. I think it makes our girl look suitably villainous yet still very pretty. And she got more than 4 stars, which means she won a prize for me.

A New Time Sink – Playing Dress-Up

If I have no time to do anything for anyone from now on, you can totally blame Rachel Swirsky for introducing me to Covet Fashion. It is an online game, and basically the idea is that you get to spend game money on virtual designer clothes that you could never afford in real life, and put together fabulous outfits.

Well it is a bit more complicated than that, obviously. There are contests that you can enter to win more game money and status by designing outfits for specific events. You can also get game money by swapping it for real money at a non-ruinous exchange rate. And you can hook the thing up to Facebook and play with your friends.

There are caveats, obviously. It doesn’t appear to be ruinously expensive, but it is ferociously addictive if, like me, you love fashion. The virtual self that you get to dress up will look nothing like you unless you happen to be supermodel material (though she’s a damn sight more curvy than Barbie). And you will never be able to afford the very real designer clothes that you buy virtual versions of, although the game will occasionally try to persuade you to do so. Of course if you are good at this fashion lark you’ll know that the thing to do is get a sense of what the designers are offering this season and then find a cheap knock-off of the look in chain stores.

It occurs to me that if you are new to femininity (and I’m assuming a few of you are) then a game like this can be a really good way of learning about fashion. As I said earlier, the model in the game won’t look like you, so you can’t necessarily use it to decide what to wear yourself, but you will learn a lot about putting a look together, and about how to assemble a utilitarian wardrobe.

Now I need to work out how I can save pictures of the outfits I have designed so that I can share them here.

Oh, and if anyone wants to start playing, let me know. You can earn game money for introducing friends.

Once There Were Heroes

This is another post about a Kickstarter campaign. Kevin Rolfe is raising funds to produce a sourcebook for a superhero role-playing game whose title can’t be mentioned for legal reasons but which will be familiar to anyone who played RPGs back in the 1980s. Marc Gascoigne and I may have been involved in the production of some of the material to be included in it. I am not benefiting from this in any way, save for the pleasure of seeing it back in print. Obviously this is unlikely to appeal to you unless you are familiar with the game, but I’m throwing it out anyway because I know some of you are.

What Was She Smoking?

Today, for reasons nothing to do with this post, I spent a few hours on Skype chatting with an academic about social media (as you do). A chance exchange at the end, after we had finished our business, set off a light bulb in one of the less sane regions of my brain. Here is a mad idea.

I want to run a modern day superhero role-playing campaign in which the heroes, their secret identities, the villains, and various key NPCs such as the mayor of the city, the police chief, the newspaper editor and so on all have public Twitter accounts that people can follow.

Luckily for you lot, I don’t have the time to do this. Then again, with the right group of players, it could be awesome.

Girl On Film

A couple of years ago I was interviewed for something called the Trans*Geek Movie. It is essentially a documentary project about trans people who are involved in geekdom. The project is being run on a shoestring so it is taking a bit of time to come to fruition, but last weekend a preview was shown at GaymerX2, the QUILTBAG gamer conference in San Francisco. Much to my surprise, parts of the interview with me were included. The whole thing is available on YouTube, and my bit starts around 9:40 (though I recommend that you watch all of it).

My first reaction was, of course, “OMG, I look so FAT!!!” That, of course, is my own fault for being so fond of good food, and not exercising enough. However, I seem to look better on film that I do in photos, the voice sounds OK, and most importantly I do not seem to have said anything particularly stupid.

My thanks once again to Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights for allowing me to use their store for the interview.

Dicing With Dragons: A Blast From The Past

Some of you may have noticed that this year is the 40th Anniversary of the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. Wizards of the Cost* have marked the occasion by, amongst other things, unveiling a new logo. Ten years ago, however, BBC Radio 4 took it upon itself to mark the 30th Anniversary by commissioning Kim Newman to make a documentary about the strange game which Beeb staffers probably still think is a weird and possibly dangerous cult. The program was called Dicing With Dragons, and it is currently available once more via the iPlayer.

In putting together the show, Kim talked to a variety of people, including Steve Jackson (UK) and Ian Livingstone, the founders of Games Workshop. He also hauled in some of the formerly-young people who had made a name for themselves through the game, including Marc Gascoigne (now of Angry Robot) and myself. There was also someone who played the game at school and wrote numerous letters to White Dwarf, a chap called China Miéville.

I was in California at the time Kim was making the show, so the BBC arranged for me to pop into a local radio station in San José so that Kim and I could record an interview of sufficient quality to put in a BBC program. Needless to say, most of my contributions ended up on the cutting room floor, but I do get two short sound bites. As this is probably the only time I will appear on national radio, I still remember to program fondly.

It is also interesting to note that, despite Kim’s air of doom and gloom, role-playing is still not yet dead. Obviously it is no longer the cultural phenomenon that it was, but I don’t think interest in it has decreased at all in the intervening 10 years. If anything it might have grown a bit. I find that strangely comforting.

* Deliberate invocation of a legendary typo.

Thirsty Meeples – A Games Café


I spent yesterday afternoon at Thirsty Meeples, a “games café” in Oxford. It is like an ordinary café, except that the walls are lined with bookshelves full of games. You can rent them to play while you are sipping your boutique coffee. I’ve seen cafés that have games available before, but nothing on this scale. Thirsty Meeples has hundreds of different boardgames and card games, most of which I had never heard of. The staff are very knowledgeable and are happy to help you find and try out new games. The food and drink are good too.

The illustration above is the box of Morels, a lovely little card game about collecting and cooking mushrooms. I was really impressed with it. The designer, Brent Povis, has done a great job of making the game feel like it is about collecting mushrooms, not just strategic card play, but at the same time the game is very playable. The mechanics are quite simple, and the game moves quickly taking about half an hour to play. The only possible disadvantage is the space needed for the spread of cards during play. I was not surprised to discover that it was voted Best New Card Game of 2013 by Games Magazine.

I warmly recommend both Thirsty Meeples and Morels.

On Gender-Swapped Gaming

Foz Meadows has a brilliant post up today abut the phenomenon of people who play gender-swapped characters in online games. Famously, on the Internet, no one knows that you are really a dog. Cross-species play is perhaps rare, but cross-gender play is apparently very common. Somewhat more women play male characters than men play female characters, but in both cases more than 50% had at least experimented.

What is so interesting is the reasons that people give for cross-gender play. With women the most common reasons for playing a male character are so that you can get taken seriously by the male players, and to avoid the constant sexual harassment to which female characters are subjected. Men, on the other hand, play female characters because they know that they can play on the insecurities of their sex-starved brethren and use “female” charms to wheedle favors out of them.

Foz, quite brilliantly, points out that the behavior of these gender-swapping male players is very much like something “fake girl gamers” get accused of. The intriguing possibility arises that the majority of the annoyingly manipulative behavior that male players are subjected to by female characters is in fact being done by gender-swapped male players. Of course we girls get the blame for this. No guy is going to admit to being conned by the feminine wiles of a gender-swapped male player. As Foz says, the whole thing is a giant misogynist shell game.

Because I am a bad girl and can’t resist turning something like this into a teaching moment, I have been pondering what this means for trans people. I can quite see that the TERFs1 will be all over this. They will see it as proof of the perfidy of trans women. But there some very major differences between people who gender-swap in gaming and those who do so in real life.

The male players who play gender-swapped in order to exploit their fellow men do not identify as women. They know that they are perpetrating a scam. That’s why they are not worried about the sexual harassment that their characters will inevitably be subjected to. It is not personal for them. Actual women, people who identify as women, whether cis or trans, have to live in the real world, and face the very real consequences of sexual harassment. For us, being subjected to such treatment in a game is deeply personal. Gender-swapped gamers behave as they do because they perceive real in-game advantages in doing so. Trans people live as they do despite the very real social and economic disadvantages that result from being trans in real life.

Nevertheless, many cis people persist in assuming that trans women are, in fact, deceivers, that we live as we do for the sole purpose of tricking other people into believing we are something we are not and, unless we are genuinely insane, know we are not. What they are doing is projecting their attitudes onto us.

It reminds me a lot of how Kevin and I have come to see people who accuse fan groups of conspiracies. Those people who are convinced that con-runners make a fortune out of putting on conventions are the sort of people who would not get involved in con-running unless they could make big profits from it. Those people who are convinced that all awards are fixed are the sort of people who would fix awards if they ran them. And equally people who accuse trans women of being out to trick others (whether to sneak into women’s toilets and rape anyone they find there, or to lure straight men into gay relationships) are the sort of people who can’t imagine transitioning for any other purpose.

Now if only those people could turn their attentions to people who are actually out to trick others — male gamers who play gender-swapped to trick other male gamers — then perhaps the rest of us could get on with our lives in peace.

1 TERF = Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist — sad people who think that being obsessed with hatred of trans women somehow makes them “radical”.

Trans Awareness: Games and Reality

With the Day of Remembrance over, I thought I should also do a post that is more about trans awareness and education. This is it.

A while back I noticed a trans activist having a small rant about people portraying gender reassignment as a negative thing. An example given was an unnamed game in which a “sex change” is seen as a curse and prevents you from winning. “I know that game”, I thought to myself. It is Greg Costikyan’s Arabian Nights boardgame, and it is a favorite of mine. Really, it is. So what gives?

Well, the thing is that the characters in the game are not presented as trans people. The game is based, fairly obviously, on the Arabian Nights stories. Each player takes the role of a character known from the stories: Sinbad, Aladdin, Scheherazade and so on (the designers made an effort to provide female characters even though the stories don’t contain many adventurous female roles). Your character then travels about the world having encounters with people, artifacts and places from the Arabian Nights. You might meet an helpful Djinn, or a vengeful ghul; you could pick up a flying carpet or an enchanted lamp; you might even be lucky enough to find Aladdin’s Cave, or the Elephant’s Graveyard. And you might run across the Sex Change Spring, and end up undergoing a magical transformation.

The important point here is that all of the characters are assumed to be cis. So if they undergo a “sex change” they are not receiving medical (well, magical) treatment for a problem they have, they are being made trans. And if they happen to view that as “a curse”, well yes. For many people, it is.

Not all, I note. For some people who are genderqueer being trans may be the best thing in the world and an ideal expression of their personal identity. But for people at the far ends of the trans gender spectrum, people who are deeply uncomfortable in their bodies, it most certainly can seem a curse.

I suspect that most cis people, if they were magically transformed in this way, would also regard themselves as having been cursed. Indeed, if they were the sort of people who would say, “well that might be interesting”, then I submit that they are already somewhat genderqueer themselves, as they clearly have no great attachment to their gender.

The trouble we trans folk often have in explaining ourselves is that cis people consider the possibility of gender transition, recoil with horror, and decide that anyone wanting to do so must be mad. But trans people who want to transition are not doing so from a place of contentment with themselves. They have already suffered the curse of the magical transformation. What they want is to get back to being the people they ought to be. And from that point of view, what they do is not nearly so crazy.

Finally, what about that “unable to win” thing? Well, if you are deeply unhappy in your own body, and prone to fits of depression or self-harm, the chances of your becoming a great hero are not high. You should actually concentrate on fixing yourself first. But is there a way to play the game as a trans character, starting out under the supposed “sex change curse”? I think there is.

When I play the game I have an added house rule. The victory conditions for the game are based on the collection of Story Points and Reputation Points. Under my house rule, if you want to win as a sex-changed character what you have to do is go back to Baghdad, set your reputation points to zero, and then get back to the game.

The rationale for this is that while going through gender reassignment is a great addition to your life story, from then on people will tend to see you as a different person. If you transition in mid life you have to rebuild your career from scratch, getting people to know you and trust you again. It isn’t quite as bad these days. More and more trans people, at least in the UK, are able to transition and keep their jobs, their families and their friends. That wasn’t the case when I transitioned, or when I first encountered the Arabian Nights game, so the house rule made perfect sense to me.

If you think about it, then, the Arabian Nights game has quite a bit to teach cis people about the realities of being trans. And games are a good vehicle for educating people. You just need to make sure they understand the message.

In Which I Invent A Game

Yesterday was pretty miserable for sport. Wales threw away a very good half time lead to lose the Junior Rugby World Cup Final to England, and after a great deal of faffing around with the weather England contrived to lose the Champions’ Trophy Final to India. Thanks to the rain, however, and a bit of prompting from Dru Marland, I managed to invent a new game. It is called Edgbaston, and it goes like this.

I’m sure you are all familiar with the famous game of Mornington Crescent, based on the London Underground system. Well Edgbaston works a bit like that. The players take it in turns to name an English cricket ground. The first one to name a ground where it is not raining wins. As I am sure you can see, this can be very difficult.

Bruce, Reindeer and Me

Given last year’s traffic nightmare trying to get out of Helsinki, Otto, Paula and I hit the road nice and early this time. As a consequence we arrived in Turku in very good time and spent the afternoon exploring the city. Otto & Paula have some sort of alternate reality game on their tablets that requires them to visit locations around the world and register at “portals” there. It is sort of like geo-caching, except the treasure is all virtual and you are also part of a team game. It is also a very good excuse to visit interesting buildings, public works of art and so on.

We ended up wandering around the riverside area of Turku in search of somewhere to eat. Otto spotted a steakhouse, and that sounded fairly harmless, so in we went.

Inside it looked very posh, and also very quiet. The waiter who greeted us explained something in Finnish which Otto translated as their having just re-opened after a private party. I thought no more of this and got to examining the menu.

It quickly became obvious that we had stumbled into somewhere very expensive. This was Stefan’s Steakhouse, owned by Stefan Richter who was a finalist on American Top Chef. When you are in such a place, the only thing to do is eat well and worry about the bill later. For comparison, it cost around the same as a meal at Bell’s Diner in Bristol, and is in a similar league quality-wise.

First up a comment about the aperitif they offered. The waiter described it as a mixture of white wine, red soda and cranberries. This was precisely correct. Not wine, soda and cranberry juice; wine, soda and cranberries. It was lovely.

For starters I had to try the roast bone marrow. It is something I had never eaten before. Once extracted from the surrounding bone, it is not the most appetizing-looking stuff in the world, but it tastes wonderful and I was glad to have tried it.

My main course was reindeer sirloin. It is one of the nicest pieces of meat I have ever eaten. I’ve eaten reindeer before, of course, but this was spectacular. Otto & Paula were similarly happy with their steaks.

I’m not sure I’d recommend Stefan’s for dessert. I’ve never seen brownies presented more beautifully, but I have had them cooked better. Otto said his cheesecake was delicious, but it was very small. Still, given the overall quality of the food, I’m not at all unhappy we went there.

Afterwards we headed off to the Cosmic Comic Cafe, where Finnish fandom was gathering for the night. I got talking to Hannah who explained that a lot of people were not going to be there, either because of the USA-Finland ice hockey game, or because of the Bruce Springsteen concert…

I did not strangle anyone. I may have made faces that said, “there is a Springsteen concert on tonight and no one told me? WHY!!!!??????”

Actually Bruce played two nights in Turku (with very different sets for the two nights so all of the hard core fans went to both). Tickets sold out within 15 minutes of them being made available, so there’s no way I would have got one unless I’d known well in advance. But still…

“Oh yes,” said Otto, “that’s what the guy in the restaurant was on about. They had just re-opened after a private function for Springsteen and his tour party.”

So there you have it. Entirely by chance, we ate in the same restaurant as Bruce and the E-Street Band, just after he had left. For all I know, I could have sat in the same chair he used. I am going to pretend that it is so. I hope he enjoyed his meal as much as I did.

Kickstarter Project News

There are a couple of Kickstarter projects that I’m interested in that are due up fairly soon.

The first is Fearful Symmetries, an un-themed anthology of original horror fiction to be edited by Ellen Datlow and published by ChiZine. I didn’t pay a lot of notice to this initially as I figured it would breeze past the funding goal and appear in my bookstore in due course. Much to my surprise, however, it is still only just over 2/3 of the way to the goal with just 4 days left. Why?

Ellen has promises of stories from Laird Barron, Kaaron Warren, Elizabeth Hand, Lucius Shepard, Sarah Pinborough, Jeffrey Ford and Joe. R. Lansdale, plus she is planning to have an open submissions period. This will be a great book, and it is a great opportunity for new horror writers. It is well worth backing.

I note also that the $25 backer level is very good value because it gets you an ebook edition of the book plus two other ebooks of your choice from the ChiZine catalog. That means you’ll be getting three fine books at less than cover prize.

Anyway, I’ve backed it. I hope some of you will too.

Much better news is that You Are The Hero, Jonathan Green’s proposed history of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, has reached both the initial goal and the stretch goal for funding additional internal artwork. There are just 20 hours to go if you want to get in on any of the exclusive backer rewards.

Fighting Fantasy – The History

One of the things about getting old is that people start getting nostalgic for things they did when they were kids. Sometimes those are things that they got into heavily when they were 12 but wouldn’t be seen dead doing by the time they were 16. I was already out of college and addicted to role-playing games when The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was published, so I never played the books very much. We used to laugh at them a bit. I could see, however, that they were very popular with kids, and they held out the promise of luring more people into the hobby that I loved.

A quick look over the list of books reminds me that they had some fabulous covers. The artists used on them included Les Edwards, Chris Achilleos, Jim Burns, Brian Bolland and Rodney Matthews. And of course someone had to write them. My friend Paul Mason did four. And another member of my gaming group, a lad called Marc Gascoigne, wrote one and then went on to play a major role in editing the series. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that without Fighting Fantasy there would be no Angry Robot — Marco is a talented guy and he would have found another way to develop his career — but I’m sure that the success of the series gave him valuable experience of the ups and downs of publishing.

Now there are new books. E-books are, of course, ideal for the choose-your-own-adventure structure, and I’m sure that has helped. One of the original authors-for-hire, Jonathan Green, has done a lot of work on the new books, and is now looking to publish an history of the franchise. He has a Kickstarter project. I have just backed it.

I’ll be interested to see what Jonathan comes up with. As I understand it, he’ll be sticking to the Fighting Fantasy books, so we will be spared the horrors of HeartQuest. I have no idea whether he’ll just cover the traditional gamebooks, or if he’ll venture off into the spin-off series such as the novels, or the Advanced Fighting Fantasy books (which were proper role-playing, yay!). Of course nothing will happen at all if the project doesn’t get funded, so if you remember those books fondly, please consider helping out.

Exchanging Fire

I have a few quick reports from the battlefront today.

On my own part I have engaged in discussions with Sky, Channel 4 and Cheltenham Racecourse. I have also entered a formal complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority.

The Sky customer service people were duly apologetic and sorry to be losing me. As subscriptions are paid in advance they have a month or so to change their minds and win me back (though I won’t be watching in the meantime, I have had enough of that ad.). The guy I spoke to gave me an address to write to so that I could send the complaint up the chain.

Channel 4 were only able to help me lodge a formal complaint.

The discussion with Cheltenham was interesting. They told me that the whole thing was done without their knowledge or approval. They say that they lack the necessary trademarks to prevent Paddy Power from appearing to speak for them. Nevertheless they seem strangely reluctant to make a public statement dissociating themselves from the Paddy Power stunt.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the front, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas has opened fire on The Sun. If you are lucky enough to live somewhere that has a sane MP you may be able to ask them to support that motion.

And finally, I received email from reporting some welcome success in the video games story I mentioned yesterday:

I would just like to let you all know that as of a couple of hours ago, BioWare have released a statement on their forums and their Twitter feed condemning the abuse directed at Jennifer Hepler, and pledging to donate $1000 to Bullying Canada on her behalf.

Which is exactly the sort of thing I am coming to expect from Bioware. They seem to be very good people.