Seattle, Here I Come!

Nine months ago I moved down to Austin to take a job with Vigil Games. I left my wife Nicole and step-daughter Kate behind and I’ve only seen them once every 5-6 weeks. I knew it would not be easy and it was not. When I first got here, I got an apartment near work with a 10 month lease. The plan was that I’d work the job while Kate did her first year of high school in Seattle. Come summertime, we’d assess the situation. If things were going well, we’d consider moving Nik and Kate down to join me and we’d upgrade to a bigger place. If they were not, I could return to Seattle with some valuable experience under my belt.

In May I asked the leadership at Vigil if they’d consider letting me telecommute. I argued that my many months here had allowed me to learn the game and the team and that the major part of job, writing, was something I could do from anywhere. I also told them I’d be happy to fly down once a month for planning sessions, brainstorming, etc. They said they would indeed considerate it and for a couple of weeks I thought I might be able to both go home and keep the paycheck and insurance for the family. As it turned out though, the managers all agreed that telecommuting was right out. It was stay in Austin or leave the job.

This was a tough decision. On the one hand, I wanted to return to Seattle and rejoin my family. On the other hand, the factors that had led me to take the gig in the first place (insurance in particular) would reassert themselves as soon as I quit. The other option would have been to sell our house in Seattle and move Nik and Kate down here. I had many months to chew on that and I decided I just couldn’t do it to Miss Kate. She was at her stupid hippie school for so many years and finally this year was at a decent school she was doing well at. She had also grown up in Seattle and I didn’t want to tear her away from her home and all her friends.

Meanwhile, my apartment complex had given me a deadline. I needed to tell them by June 16, two months before my lease ran out, if I’d be renewing it. If I lived anywhere near the cool things in Austin, if the city had a decent public transportation system so I could get around on my own, if I had found the work more fulfilling–well, maybe the choice would have been harder. In the end though, my heart knew what it wanted: a return to the Emerald City and my family.

Folks at Vigil were understanding and we’re parting amicably. I’ll be going to GenCon as planned and returning here for one more week of work. Then Nicole and I will have another four day adventure moving all my stuff back home. I should be back in Seattle by the 20th or so. I will then return to working for Green Ronin full time and consider my options. We may be destitute by Xmas, but at least we’ll be together.

While these past nine months have been challenging in many ways, I don’t want to give the impression that it was misery either. I knew some people from the area before I got here and many of them have become real friends. There are many cool and talented people at Vigil and I made some good friends there as well. Without their willingness to take my non-driving ass around, I never would have experienced the better restaurants or gone to any punk rock shows. So thank you, Austin friends. I’m sure we will game and eat BBQ again together in the future.

Now I need to pack, plan for GenCon, and think about my next move. Seattle, here I come!

Originally published on LiveJournal on July 20, 2011.

An All Too Brief Interlude

When I took the job at Vigil six months ago, I knew it was not going to be easy. I was moving 2,000 miles away from not only Nicole and Kate, but also Seattle, a city that had become a home after 13 years there. And sure enough, the transition to Austin has been hard. I was lucky enough to have some friends here already, and more have moved to the area after me. Still, I miss my family, I miss my house, and I miss my city. Since the move, I’ve been able to see Nicole at least once every 5-6 weeks and Kate a bit less than that. These visits, be they here on back in Seattle, are the things I look forward to the most. After one particularly shitty day at work, Nicole texted me a simple message: “Three weeks.” That was the time until her next visit.

Said visit ended this morning when Nicole left my apartment at 4:40 am to catch her flights home. It was, as always, difficult to part. We had three and a half days together and they went too quickly. She arrived Wednesday afternoon and it was tough to get through those last few hours at work before practically sprinting to my apartment. That thing about absence making the heart grow fonder? Totally true, in case you were wondering.

While I was at work on Thursday, Nicole was on a mission. Back in Seattle, she would sometimes organize freezer parties with friends, which entailed people getting together to prep a bunch of freezer ready dinners that could be pulled out as needed. I can and do cook, but I don’t enjoy as much as Nik and I’m lazier about it. She was determined to leave me a freezer full of food that was ready to go. It was a freezer party for one. I was amazed how much she got done in a day and deeply appreciative for the culinary feat. I will be eating a lot better for the next month and a half.

Friday I took a personal day and we decided to drive over to Houston, a city I’ve only ever flown through. Nicole had a friend there she wanted to visit and I was ready for some time away from my apartment so we took off late Friday morning. We had hoped to squeeze in a trip to NASA in the afternoon, but we got a slightly later start than we wanted and then we spent an hour in traffic once we got to Houston before we made it to our hotel. So instead of exploring space we began eating and drinking early at Pappasito’s Cantina. While a Tex-Mex joint, this is part of a local food empire started by a Greek family. Too funny. We met Nicole’s friend Ruth and her boyfriend Bill there and had a surprisingly tasty dinner. It was way better Tex-Mex than anything I get near my office. I did notice one small nod to Greece in the appetizer section though: flaming cheese. This brings to mind one of my old sayings: “I like my cheese flaming and my wine fortified.”

After dinner Ruth invited us back to her house and we sat out on the patio drinking and talking until midnight. Ruth is a teacher and she invited over one of her cohorts who’s a game nerd. He’s a music teacher primarily but teaches a mini course about board game design, which is quite cool. There was no one teaching game design anything when I was in middle school.

Saturday we spent most of the day at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site. I had been drawn there by the USS Texas, a battleship launched in 1912 that fought in both World Wars. I enjoy touring old warships, particularly from World War 2. Reading about ships like this is one thing but getting inside one is something else entirely. Standing under those 14″ guns, it’s still hard to imagine the heat and the noise that must have erupted when those things were fired. Once we got to the bowels of the ship, however, I found it all too easy to imagine drowning down there. I snapped a lot of photos and I’ll be making a Facebook album for them shortly.

After touring the ship we drove across the park to the big monument (or as I jokingly called it, the “penis of Texas”). It commemorates the Battle of San Jacinto, fought on that spot in 1836. This was the battle in which Texas won its independence from Mexico, so it’s an important part of state identity. The monument is large and suitably impressive and you can take an elevator up to an observation platform, which we did. Below there’s a modest but well put together museum about the fight for Texas independence. We watched a 35-minute documentary on the topic in a theater by the museum as well. There appeared to be some markers out on the battlefield itself, but they were not organized into a walking tour like you can find at Manassas, for example. That made it harder to get a sense of the ground, but we enjoyed the museum and the view from the top of the monument.

On our way out of town we stopped on Bellaire Blvd, which seems like Houston’s equivalent of the International District. We tried a place called Crawfish and Noodles that Nicole had read about. We had Viet-Cajun crawfish and spicy basil fried rice and both were fantastic. We did not overdo it on crawfish so we felt justified walking across the plaza to a place we had spied on the way in: Chez Beignets. This silver lining of French colonialism made us beignets to order and I got some chicory coffee as well. Steaming hot doughnuts is a fine way to end any day. With full bellies, we then listened to Tin Fey’s book Bossypants on the three hour drive back to Austin. It is, as you’d expect, quite funny and her reading makes it even better.
So now I wait for another five weeks. Next time I get to see Kate and other friends in Seattle, so I’m looking forward to it. In the interim I’m actually going to Brazil (visa willing) in mid-May. More on that another day.
Originally published on LiveJournal on April 25, 2011. 

GenCon and PAX

The rise of the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle has been pretty spectacular. It’s gone from something small to an event that tops 60,000 people in just a few years. Then they did it again in Boston, pulling in similar numbers after just two years of PAX East. The focus is on video games, but there has always been a tabletop gaming element as well and this has continued to grow. This past year I was on a panel called The Evolution of RPGs with Richard Garfield, John Tynes, and Keith Baker and the turnout was huge. We had over 400 people in the room and they turned people away. A far cry most from RPG related seminars that I’m on.

So clearly, Penny Arcade is doing some things right and both of their shows have become events for geeks of all sorts. This inevitably leads to comparisons, like the Origins vs. GenCon debates that have gone on for 30 years. Until PAX came on the scene, GenCon was the biggest game show in America (though both are still outdone by Spiel in Essen in Germany). GenCon is in some ways the opposite of PAX. It is firmly a tabletop gaming show, but there is a video game presence as well. While there was some fear that the move from its home in Milwaukee to Indianapolis would spoil the show’s special alchemy, that did not end up being the case. GenCon is more successful than ever, bringing in 30,000 gamers and acting as the yearly cornerstone of the tabletop game industry.

I am thus somewhat perplexed when I hear rumblings of doom and gloom for GenCon because of PAX. I see people asserting that GenCon needs to learn from PAX or it will be left by the wayside. Or that Gencon panders to the base while PAX is more inclusive. It’s like because there is a different show that draws more people, somehow GenCon is diminished despite the fact that it is bigger than ever. I have to say, I don’t get it.

To me GenCon and PAX are both great shows that are different. They overlap in some areas, but each has different strengths and different core audiences. I see no reason why both cannot continue to thrive. The biggest factor that may have made them competitors—geography—is not in play. GenCon is in the Midwest and the PAX shows are on the coasts.

For Green Ronin GenCon is indispensable. Our sales there dwarf those of any other convention and it is also one of major marketing efforts of the year. PAX I always have a good time at, but it has been less awesome for business. I’d have to say that we haven’t figured out the best way for GR to take advantage of it yet. We’ve tried a few different ways (last year Sandstorm sold our stuff and hosted demos in their room, for example) but none of them have been satisfactory. We have been reluctant to go for the full on booth because our experience at shows like San Diego Comic Con made us wary. That show has huge attendance but it didn’t translate into sales good enough to justify us continuing to get a booth after a several year stint. I’d like to see if we can do PAX better this year, particularly with our Dragon Age RPG (which should have a natural audience there).

If I have a point here, it’s that we shouldn’t be wringing our hands because we have three big, successful game shows in America; we should be celebrating it.

Originally published on LiveJournal on March 20, 2011.

Vigil 40K Tournament

We’re making a Warhammer 40,000 MMO at Vigil so it’s no surprise that the company includes players of the original game. In fact, it’s the only minis game anyone at Vigil plays (which initially made me feel that bringing down all those WWI and WWII armies was perhaps futile). The company has a game night every Thursday and 40K is usually on the agenda. To encourage people to play more and to get the competitive juices flowing, we’ve also just started a company wide tournament. It’s going to be four rounds, double elimination, and Vigil is providing minis as prizes for the top finishers.

My original plan was to play Salamander Space Marines. Having seen the way folks play at Vigil (lots of HTH, expensive heroes and monstrous creatures), it seemed like a good choice. When we had a kickoff meeting and I saw on the whiteboard that 75% of the armies were either Space Marine or Chaos Space Marine, I knew I’d have to be true to my roots and play Imperial Guard though. No one else at Vigil plays IG and most of them haven’t been playing long enough to even recognize my Praetorian troops. I brought back a few things with me on my recent trip to Seattle (including my Hydra flak tank, which I assembled like 8 years ago but have never fielded) and made a 1500 point army tonight. The list can’t change once the tourney starts, so I had to put something together that could handle a variety of opponents. Hopefully, I have chosen wisely.

My first game is Thursday vs. (surprise, surprise) Chaos Space Marines. My opponent is using the favorite tricks of Vigil CSM players: demon prince, sorcerer with lash of submission, and a greater demon. The key will be using my superior numbers to concentrate firepower on his assault units before they get into my battle line. This can be challenging in 40K, which is why shooty armies like Imperial Guard and Tau are a lot less popular than the HTH armies.

I’m not worried about losing the tournament. This is all for fun and when you wargame you need to cultivate being a good loser. My only concern is the tourney rules themselves. Right now they state that tied games have to be replayed until there is a winner. I argued that there should be a system for determining who wins in case of a tie but I’m not the organizer. The first round mission is Capture and Control, in which ties are quite common due to the rules for seizing objectives. Sure enough, the first three games played have all been ties. One battle was re-fought and resulted in…another tie. If this continues, I will lobby for a rules change. Otherwise, this tourney will never end. While I do appreciate the idea of motivating people to play more often, if we’re still playing the first round a month from now everyone will lose steam.

Praetorians, prepare for battle!

Originally published on LiveJournal on February 2, 2011.

Hometown Eats

I hadn’t quite realized how much Seattle had become home to me until I had to leave it. I grew up on the Boston area and the lived in NYC for 9 years. Those are also places I think of as home. In Boston and New York both there are must have foods that no trip is complete without. In Boston it is New England style fried clams (in Essex if possible). In New York it’s a hot pastrami on rye with mustard (at Katz’s if possible). Sure, there’s plenty of other good stuff and I like to try new things as well, but those two dishes say, “I’m home.”

Soon I’m heading back to Seattle for a couple of days. It’ll be my first time there since moving to Austin in October. I’ve been making plans with Nicole and various friends, some of which of course involve going out to eat. When weighing the options, I realized that I did not have a go to Seattle dish, something that I craved and just wasn’t as good anywhere else. Certainly Seattle has some great eats–mole salami (and well, everything else) at Salumi, noodles and dumplings at Judy Fu’s, donuts at Top Pot, sushi at Umi Sake House, loukaniko and gigantes at Panos Kleftiko, and pear cardamom coffee cake at Columbia City Bakery to name but a few–but I haven’t had that overriding urge for the one dish that says Seattle. Maybe that’ll come in time. Or maybe I’ll just have to cover more ground when I go home to Seattle!

Originally published on LiveJournal on January 25, 2011. 

A Look Back at D&D Minis

It seems that with the exception of special products like the recently released beholder set, D&D minis are dead. A few years ago the line was doing well so this is quite a change of fortune. So what happened?

For a product like D&D minis, you have three basic types of consumers:
1) People who use them as RPG accessories.
2) People who use them to play miniatures games.
3) People who like to collect cool minis/D&D paraphernalia.

There is some overlap between the groups (I am a classic roleplayer/minis player hybrid) but the crossover is smaller than many people think. Ten years ago when I was working on the game that was ultimately called D&D Chainmail, my team was trying to build a game to appeal to minis players. Since these were going to be minis of D&D monsters and heroes, we also hoped to appeal to the roleplayers but they were the secondary target. (I wanted to maintain a separate line of RPG accessory minis but that idea of kiboshed and Chainmail was increasingly expected to do double duty.)

The plan was to do a skirmish game (something you can play with 8-12 minis per side) and then scale it up to a full mass battles game (in which you’d commonly see over 100 figures per side). Miniatures players are willing to make that sort of investment. Many will buy multiple armies. With a compelling setting and halfway decent rules, you can keep minis gamers buying lots of figs for a long, long time. See Games Workshop. Roleplayers, as we’ll see, have a different psychology.

D&D Chainmail had a troubled existence from the get go, but two events drove the nails into its coffin. First, the decision was made to make it a skirmish game only. Something that was meant to be a six month phase turned into the entire game. Not at all what we planned. Second, Mage Knight came out and proved collectible minis could sell. My team had been trying to set up a more traditional pewter, non-collectible minis business. We faced tough internal pressure to figure out some way to apply the Magic business model to minis, but we really didn’t think that was a good idea. When Mage Knight was selling like crazy, it was hard to argue against it though. This was the Pokemon era when expectations were ridiculous. We were asked by a VP once if Chainmail would make over $10 million in its first year. We said it was unlikely, and that the business would need time to grow to that level. No one wanted to hear that at WotC in 2001.

When Chainmail launched, it was already a compromised product. It got crap support from the company and a key decision from an idiot brand manager made the production costs much higher than the needed to be while creating packaging that did a poor job of showcasing the minis. A year later the game rules won an Origins Award…one week after WotC cancelled it. By this point all the members of that original team had quit or been laid off. Interestingly, two of them (Matt Wilson and Mike McVey) went off and formed Privateer Press, which went to to publish the Warmachine and Hordes miniatures games.

When D&D Minis came back, it was in a pre-painted, collectible format like Mage Knight. There was an attached game (ironically enough, a revised version of the Chainmail rules) but the main target was roleplayers. IIRC, the first starters didn’t even say miniatures game on them. The setting, factions, characters, and stories we tried to create with Chainmail were jettisoned. If you wanted to play the game, you had your choice of bland, alignment-based factions with no background, no cohesion, and no particular reason to fight.

For roleplayers though, the new approach worked initially. Most of the sculpts and paint jobs were mediocre but the roleplayers didn’t care as much about those things as the minis players. They liked popping something ready to use out of the package and if it looked halfway decent on the table, that was good enough. No glue, painting, or assembly required. A secondary market sprang up where common (but useful in a RPG) minis were available pretty cheaply (I bought ten giant frogs once because they were ten cents each). The rare figures were more expensive, of course, and many desirable monsters were only available as rares.

For several years new sets of D&D minis came out regularly and seemed to sell well. WotC was making money, the roleplayers were generally satisfied, and D&D itself became increasingly minis-centric, which should only have reinforced demand. And yet, it eventually became apparent that things weren’t going so well. WotC stopped supporting the minis game. Sets become less frequent. Some gamers complained the quality of the minis was dropping. So what was going on?

My suspicion (and remember I was long gone from WotC when this stuff went down) is the the nature of the roleplaying consumer eventually bit Wotc in the ass. A roleplayer wants enough minis to support his or her RPG sessions and the minis are in many ways incidental to the game experience. A minis gamer wants to build armies and the minis are a key element of the game experience. I believe many of the roleplayers who bought cases of minis for the first few sets began to slow down as their collections grew. At a certain point they had most of their bases covered. So instead of buying a case, they bought a few boosters or cherry picked a few figs from the secondary market.

At the same time, the cost of making the minis was going up. Pre-painted collectible figures are all done in Asia but you may have noticed the weakening American dollar and the recession we’ve been in the last few years. So as sales on each set eroded, the cost to make the minis was going up. Declining sales + increasing costs = the almost inevitable death of D&D minis as we knew them.

It seems that the era of the collectible mini is nearing an end after only a decade. Mage Knight, the pioneer in the field, was ironically one of the first to die. The ups, downs, and acquisitions of its publisher, Wizkids, is a whole other story. They are now part of Neca and seem to be doing OK with a revived Heroclix. Few other games are left standing. The more traditional minis companies survive and in many cases thrive. Games Workshop still dominates the field. Privateer has experimented with a pre-painted plastic game but their bread and butter seems to still be Warmachine and Hordes. Reaper looks solid as a rock and they still do great business selling pewter minis to D&D players.

WotC, I suspect, plans to migrate the minis aspect of D&D play to the virtual tabletop online with the rest of the game. There may even be a business model there, selling packs of virtual creatures and characters. For my part, I wish D&D had gotten a real mass battles miniatures game supported by a full line of pewter and multi-part plastic miniatures. Something that played great on its own but could also tie into your RPG campaign. Something that made the most of D&D’s rich worlds and added new lore and stories to that tradition. I’m a crazy dreamer like that.

Originally published on LiveJournal on January 13, 2011. 

A Long Time Ago in a Childhood Far, Far Away

While today I can wish that I was in London in seeing The Clash, The Damned, and the X-Ray Spex in 1977, in truth I was 8 years old at the time and thus the perfect age for the debut of Star Wars that summer. Like legions of burgeoning scifi and fantasy fans, I loved Star Wars instantly. I don’t think I ever saw a movie in the theater more than once before that, but Star Wars I saw something like 13 times. My brother and I would get dropped off at the theater at 1 pm and watch both afternoon showings, comically hiding from the indifferent teenage ushers between them so we could see it twice for the cost of one matinée ticket. We waited eagerly for the next two installments, and I was so smitten with the series that I could even forgive it Ewoks.

When I was in college, the Star Wars RPG from West End came out. Despite it being the 10 year anniversary of the first movie, there was surprisingly little going on with Star Wars when the game came out. I played a fair bit of the game over the years, and for the longest time it was the RPG I’d recommend to introduce new gamers. No need to explain the setting, you say, “It’s Star Wars; go!” The archetypes also made it easy to make characters, which was a plus.

Round about the time those Timothy Zahn novels started coming out, my interest began to wane. To me Star Wars was always the movies and just the movies and I didn’t care about the comics or the novels. Naturally, my interest perked up when I heard there were going to be new movies. I was working at WotC when these started. I remember the day the first trailer came out. We all gathered around monitors and had a shared geek moment. The trailer looked promising, so we dared to hope. The reality: Phantom Menace was a piece of shit. Still, we hoped that this was but a misstep and the rest of the trilogy would find the spirit of the original movies that seemed so lacking in Phantom Menace.

In 2001 I had an interesting opportunity. I was working on miniatures at WotC. We were planning some RPG accessory minis but we wanted to do some Star Wars games as well. I was interested in doing a spaceship combat game with two iterations. One would be a simple game using a limited number of ships and targeted at the mass market. The second would be a full on fleet battle game with scaled up rules for the hobby.

That year I made two trips to Skywalker Ranch. The first was to hand carry sculpts of our first Star Wars miniatures down there for approval. The second trip I and several other designers got to read the script for Attack of the Clones. I was hoping for a lot of spaceship combat, so i could tie in the proposed mass market game to the new movie. I was also hoping for a better movie. The script unfortunately had serious problems. After the reading, the licensing people asked what we thought. I said I wasn’t sure about this whole clone army business. It clearly seemed like a Sith plot but Yoda of all people shrugs and says, “Who cares who created this clone army we’ve never heard of before? Let’s use it and damn the consequences!” While one of my co-workers was having a heart attack that I had dared to criticize the script in the heart of Lucas country, I was assured by the licensing people that efforts were already underway to make the whole clone army thing more ambiguous, so its embrace by the Jedi would make more sense.

I was quite curious to see the finished movie. How much would it differ from the script I had read? As it turned out, hardly at all. They had a scene with young Jedi in weird animal clans and that got cut. All the stuff that I thought was problematic? Still in there. By the time the third movie came out, I didn’t even care enough to go see it. If you told my 8 year old that the fabled sixth Star Wars movie with the origin of Darth Vader would come out and I would skip it, I would never have believed it.

I eventually did see Revenge of the Sith. I was on a business trip in Ft. Wayne, IN and I stayed over on a Sunday night when everyone else had already gone home. Let me tell you, there’s is crap all to do in Ft. Wayne on a Sunday night, so I watched Episode III in my hotel room. And yeah, it was a little bit better than the previous installments, but it still sucked. The entire prequel trilogy was terrible and it’s a shame that young kids think that is Star Wars.

The only bright spot in its galaxy in the last decade has been the Knights of the Old Republic video game. That was awesome and felt so much more like Star Wars than any of the prequels. And maybe BioWare can do it again with their upcoming MMO (and if they can’t, no one can). Overall though, the Star Wars brand is badly damaged. Those prequels missed the mark so widely that bashing them has become a competitive sport at geek gatherings of all sorts. And that shit has been licensed to death. If you can slap Star Wars on it, it’s probably been licensed.

So yes, Star Wars shambles on, a zombie property bereft of the creative spark that enthralled me in my youth. And hey, if folks still like it, I have no beef with that. For me though, Star Wars is over. The original trilogy is still two and a half good movies, but that’s where my interest ends.

You can imagine my reaction then when I started getting all these e-mails yesterday asking if Green Ronin had secured the rights to Star Wars. This trip down memory lane was a very long way of saying no, no we did not. Nor would we even try.

Originally published on on LiveJournal on December 16, 2010. 

London Swag

It wouldn’t be a trip unless I brought home some books and games. I like to travel light these days, so I can carry everything on, but that’s at odds with my love of books. I could easily have found more to buy, but knowing I’d have to hump it all home constrained me. I suppose that’s a good thing. In any case, here’s what I brought back:

The Afghan Wars, 1839-1919 by T.A. Heathcote: Picked this up at the National Army Museum. I’ve read some about Britain’s colonial wars in Afghanistan, but going to that exhibit made me want to know more.

Atomic Highway by Colin Chapman: Traded with Dom from Cubicle 7 for this. It’s a post-apocalyptic RPG I’ve been wanting to check out.

City of Thieves by Ian Livingstone: Ian brought a bunch of signed Fighting Fantasy books to sell in the charity auction. I won this one.

Crusaders of the Amber Coast by by Paolo Guccione: Another Cubicle 7 trade. This is a RPG sourcebook for BRP on running a campaign during the Baltic Crusades. I had not heard of it before, but I’m always interested in gaming supplements that take on history.

Duty and Honour  by Neil Gow: And speaking of history, there’s Duty and Honour, a RPG in which you play a British soldier during the Napoleonic Wars. Many years ago I contacted Bernard Cornwell’s agent to try to license the Sharpe’s novels, so it didn’t take much to sell me on this.

Hospitallers, The History of the Order of St. John by Jonathan Riley-Smith: Short history of the Hospitallers I got at the Order of St. John’s museum.

Imperial Armor, Volume 9, The Badab Campaign, Part One: The Forge World 40K books are gorgeous but also spendy. I arranged a trade before Dragonmeet with Andrew Kenrick so I could bring this baby home with me. Back in the 90s I wrote a short story for GW, Into the Maelstrom, about Huron and the Red Corsairs, so I was naturally interested in a book all about the Tyrant of Badab’s famous conflict with the Imperium. Now must wait for volume 2.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess by James Raggi: James was nice enough to give me a copy of his fantasy RPG and a bunch of its adventures. I was already curious about this because it seemed to be a game from the Old School Renaissance that was more than a copy of some iteration of D&D. And it’s a boxed set and everyone knows I love boxed sets.

Marlborough’s Wars, Eyewitness Accounts, 1702-1713 by James Falkner: My other purchase at the National Army Museum: This was tries to get at the lgend of Marlborough through the accounts of people who were there. Looks interesting.

Originally published on LiveJournal on December 3, 2010. 

London, Days 2 and 3

Saturday was Dragonmeet. Since it’s one day show, I made sure to get up early and fortify myself with a classic English breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. This was such a calorie fest I skipped lunch, but that was fine because it let me spend all day at the con. I had two seminars to do. The first was a general Green Ronin Q+A in the early afternoon. Then at the end of the day I was on a group panel with Ken Hite, Robin Laws, and Jeff Combos. Both of them were well-attended, which was nice to see after NeonCon (which had a great slate of seminars that few attendees went to). The standing room only seminar, however, was put on by Ian Livingstone. I attended this one, as I’d never seen him speak and he was doing a sort of career overview. So he talked about the founding of GW, the early days working with TSR to sell D&D in Europe, the rise of Warhammer, the Fighting Fantasy series, and then on into Eidos, Tomb Raider, and beyond. This was accompanied by a slide show with some great old pictures he had scanned in. The best of these was Ian posing with his GW co-founder Steve Jackson, TSR’s Gary Gygax, fantasy author Fritz Leiber, and Tekumel creator M.A.R. Barker. That’s a GenCon I wish I had gone to. I really enjoyed the presentation and I’m glad I had the chance to see it. My only regret is that I didn’t get a moment to talk to Ian myself. He was swamped with people asking for autographs at the end of his seminar and I had one right after. I wanted to introduce myself and thank him for contributing to Hobby Games and Family Games: The 100 Best. Sadly, our paths did not cross the rest of the day so I missed the opportunity.

The seminars were staggered such that I didn’t have time to play any games at Dragonmeet. I basically spent the rest of the day talking to people. This was a mix of old friends, industry folks I knew by reputation but had never met in person, and con goers who wanted to chat about this or that. It met several people I only knew from online and it was nice to put faces to names. In some cases it was more putting 2 and 2 together. James Raggi was over from Finland to sell his Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG, for example. I’ve been reading about the game, but did not realize I had met James at Ropecon in 2008. Or rather, I remembered talking to him, but didn’t make the connection between that conversation and Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

After the exhibit hall closed down there was the traditional charity auction. This one seemed a little more subdued than what I remember from 2002. People made some crazy bids that year and I remember the audience goading James Wallis to literally sell the shirt off his back. But hey, we’ve had a recession and a global financial crisis since then, so I can’t blame people for being a little more careful. I had forgotten about this aspect of the show and was feeling like a dumbass for not bringing anything to contribute until Angus auctioned off a bunch of upcoming Cubicle 7 titles. This gave me the idea of offering up $150 of GR PDFs, and that ended up contributing 75 pounds to the auction. The total was over 2000 pounds (more than $3,000 at current exchange rates), so it was still a fine showing for charity.

That night I went to Randa, a Lebanese restaurant Erik Mona recommended. I had falafel, foul mudammas, and lisanat. The latter is cooked lamb tongues in lemon and olive oil and it was the standout dish. Really delicious. I tried to order one of several lamb tartar dishes but the waiter told they no longer served them at this location (which raises the question why are they still on the menu then?). Anyway, good dinner and it made up for skipping lunch.

To the great surprise of no one I’m sure, I ended the night in a pub. Due some faulty directions, I walked up and down Kensington High Street for half an hour in the cold before I found the Prince of Wales pub. Met up with Angus, Alice-Amanda, and other Dragonmeet folks for more cider and conversation.

Sunday it was off to…another pub. This time it was a post-con get together with various industry folks and con organizers. I paid homage to my WFRP roots by having a meat pie. Alice-Amanda taught Jeff and I how to play a pirate card game called Antigua that came out this year. We didn’t get to finish (the food came) but it was pretty interesting and I think I’ll pick it up. After eating I had a chance to catch up with Sasha Bilton, which is always good fun. He’s one of the few game industry people who likes punk as much as I do, so we always have plenty to talk about. Also squeezed in a bit of conversation with Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press and Ken Hite (who probably saw plenty of me the week I was at his house in October).

I could easily have spent the rest of the afternoon chatting and drinking but it was last chance to hit a museum and I had one in mind. I took the tube over the National Army Museum, which is right by the Royal Hospital. I’ve been to the Imperial War Museum a couple of times but this one was new to me. I had been drawn in by a special exhibit about Britain’s wars in Afghanistan in the 19th century but the whole museum was worthwhile. It starts in the basement with the Battle of Hastings and you work your way up through the different eras of the British armies. There are many uniforms, weapons, and other artifacts all the way to the present day. I was also delighted to discover that this was the final resting place of Captain Siborne’s famous diorama of the Battle of Waterloo. I will be writing more about that later.

For my final dinner of the trip I went to Wodka, a Polish restaurant I turned up while browsing the internet at a coffee shop. It was not on the list I researched before the trip but I thought some Eastern European food sounded good and I made a good choice. This was the best meal of the trip. I had steak tartar, blini with smoked salmon, and blood sausage served on latkes with fried onions and pears. And several kinds of vodka, of course. I think it must be all those years I spent on the Lower East Side of NYC, but I find this kind of food very comforting. It was a great way to end the trip.

Originally published on LiveJournal on December 2, 2010. 

London, Day 1

Last week on Thanksgiving I was flying to London instead of packing away turkey and stuffing. I had been invited to a one day convention called Dragonmeet that dates back to the 80s. Nicole and I had gone in 2002 but I hadn’t had the chance to go back until this year. It was a whirlwind trip but I squeezed a lot in and had an excellent time. I had planned to write only one post about it but the day 1 write up went so long I’ve decided to break it up into installments.

Traveling on Thanksgiving was actually quite nice. Both of my flights were half empty so I didn’t have to sit next to anybody. I had some sake on my layover in Detroit, hoping it’d help me sleep on the transatlantic flight, but no such luck. I was wide awake the whole time and arrived in London at 7:30 am Friday not having slept a wink. It did give me a chance to finally finish The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 by Antony Beevor, which was excellent.

I took the tube to Kensington and found my hotel. Took a while for them to find my reservation and even then they wanted to charge me a 35 pound early check in fee to get in the room at 9 am. I had planned to take a nap for a couple of hours and go out in the afternoon, so I said to hell with it and opted to reverse that plan. I checked my bag, went back to the tube, and found my way to St. John’s gate in Clerkenwell. I opted for that area for two reasons, one historical and one culinary.

My first stop was the Museum of the Order of St. John. They were an order of medieval knights known as the Hospitallers, similar to their better known brethren the Templars. St. John’s Gate was the entrance to the order’s English priory (their headquarters basically) and now it serves as a museum for both the original religious-military order and the modern day charitable organization that is its successor. The museum had been closed for a 3.7 million pound renovation and had only re-opened on November 2. The staff said I was one of the first 500 people to come to see the new exhibits.

The museum is of modest size but well presented and filled with interesting artifacts. The centerpiece is a huge model of the sort of order galley that fought the Ottomans and Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean. I thought it was a modern day reconstruction but it turns out the model dates to the 1700s. It apparently comes apart down the middle to display the interior of the galley, so it may have been used as a teaching tool. While the museum’s main focus is on the order, it also covers the history of St. John’s Gate after the knight’s departure. It was the site of the Revels Office, where 30 of Shakespeare’s players were registered. The Gentleman’s Magazine was also published here in the 18th century. This was the first modern general interest periodical and the first to call itself a magazine. Interesting stuff.

Across the way the Order of St. John has a church. Normally, the church should be open for visitors at the same time as the museum but it was closed that day due to staffing issues. However, it so  happened that an American couple from Atlanta was there at the same time as me. The husband was a member of St. John Ambulance, and he is apparently organizing a fund raiser for the organization. Since he dropped by, they rustled up a staffer to give he and his wife a guided tour of the church. Since I had asked about it, they let me tag along. The church itself was blown up during the Blitz in 1940 and had to be rebuilt. The crypts beneath date back to 12th century and the earliest years of the Order of St. John in England. I suppose English people are blasé about this sort of thing but it was pretty cool to go into a crypt built in the 1140s.

After a couple of hours of history nerding, I was ready for lunch and luckily for me the aptly named restaurant St. John was a block away. This is one of the those foodie destinations that books up weeks in advance. I dropped in to see if I could get a last minute table. I was rebuffed from the dining room by a classic snooty maître d’, but they had an attached bar with a more casual atmosphere and much of the same food so I went there. I was able to get the roasted marrow bones I had been wanting, as well as Welsh rarebit and cider. It was quite delicious but the marrow was so rich that I found I couldn’t even finish the rarebit.

I got back to the hotel around 2 and was finally able to check in. By this point I had been up something like 25 hours straight and I had to get a bit of sleep. I did not want to go down for the day though, as that would screw me up for Saturday and the con. So I sleep for about two and a half hours and got up. I got in touch with Angus, my genial host, and made plans to meet up with him and other Dragonmeet folks later for drinks. I then went to Kensington High Street to walk around and do a bit of shopping. I needed a winter hat for one thing because I didn’t have one in Austin to bring with me and it was quite cold in London. Also found a perfect little something for Kate that I’m saving for Xmas.

Feeling rather fatigued by this point, I did not want to go on another tube excursion so I opted for something nearby for dinner. Martin, a friend of mine from high school, had recommended a place called Maggie Jones and it was right off Kensington High Street. The only available table was right in front of the door, but I sucked it up and I’m glad I did. Their fresh game special that day was partridge and I knew I had to try it. All I knew about partridges was their penchant for pear trees, at least in song, but I had never eaten one. So a partridge is basically a game bird and they wrapped the whole thing in bacon and roasted it. Nothing wrong with that! It was served with peas and more bacon and then I got some mash on the side. I really didn’t need dessert but when I saw they had bread and butter pudding with hot custard my willpower crumbled and I ordered it. A very fine meal all in all, though getting dessert added an hour to the experience due to a slow kitchen.

Finally around 9:30 I met up with Dragonmeet folks who were also staying at my hotel for drinks in the bar. There was cider and the first of many good conversations. By the time I went to bed at midnight, I was ready to crash hard. I had to be up the next morning for Dragonmeet itself.

Originally published on LiveJournal on November 30, 2010.