UK 50th Birthday Trip

UK Games Expo, the first major stop on my trip.

A year ago I was recently arrived in the UK for a month long trip to celebrate my 50th birthday. Turning 50 felt a lot different than turning 40. For my 40th, Nicole threw me a great party with lots of friends. For my 50th I wanted to go somewhere remote and be alone. Times change, eh?

The being alone would come later in the trip though. After an overnight stay in London and a great dinner at Dishoom with our friend Namrata, Nicole and I took the train to Birmingham for the UK Games Expo. This is a convention we’d heard a lot about and wanted to check out, and working a con meant the flights would be a business expense. You need to work it when you’re a small business owner.

We were able to do UK Games Expo thanks to the help of friends. Dave Salisbury owns the excellent Fan Boy Three game store in Manchester, and he gave us space in his booth and helped us get product in to sell. Huge thanks to Dave, Heidi, Scott, and their whole crew for hosting us and giving us a way to try out the show without committing to a full booth. The convention was good and quite sizable, easily the biggest one I’ve been to in the UK.

John Kovalic was also over and he whisked us offsite for some terrific Indian food one night. UK Games Expo is at a convention center outside Birmingham and the food options were not great, so this was appreciated. Later in the show the three of us met up with James Wallis and Marc Gascoigne and that was a delightful reunion. We’ve all been friends since the 90s but are rarely in the same place at the same time.

I’m going to try to post more about this trip over the coming month. For one thing, I never did write about it, apart from my social media posts as it was happening. It’s also been on my mind quite a bit as my 51st birthday approaches. Travel has been a huge part of my adult life. It’s one of my favorite things to do, and I’m thankful the game industry has enabled me to go from Finland to Brazil to New Zealand and many places in between. 2019 was a particularly gonzo year for travel: 101 days on the road, traveling over 81,000 miles on 11 trips to 5 countries and 40 cities while attending 9 conventions. So it is now deeply weird to not only be home all the time, but also to have no idea when I might be able to travel again. Every convention we had planned to attend this year has been cancelled. We had hoped to go to Prague with a group of gamers this summer but that too is off. I just couldn’t have imagined when I left for my trip last year how much different the world would be in 2020.

So in between my curated quarantine posts and me screaming about America’s descent into fascism, I’m going to look back on what turned out to be a very memorable trip indeed. There’s still so much I want to see but for now I’ll just have to look back and hope in the future the world won’t be quite so on fire.

Fun in LA

I spent last weekend in Los Angeles, or Burbank to be more precise. I wasn’t there that long, but it was funny how many LA stories I got out of it. Saturday afternoon, for example, I was coming back from a mediocre lunch at the oldest remaining Bob’s Big Boy (it dates to 1949, though hopefully the food does not). I saw a woman with a big stroller crossing the street with what looked like the entourage of a rap star. As they got closer to me, I saw that a cameraman was filming the whole posse. I don’t know if the baby mama was the center of attention or if she was a nanny for someone else in the group. I walked right by them and couldn’t tell you who anyone was, but it’s possible I made a 2 second cameo is some dreadful reality show.

Later I was in a quiet hotel bar doing some Dragon Age work. Two women came in, and a few minutes later a Latino guy in a fedora joined them. The women start to interview him, and they seem pretty excited. Again, I had no idea who he was. I was sitting maybe 10 feet away so I could hear the whole thing. As he dropped clues, I used my iPad to run Google searches. I finally figured that it was Jaime Monroy. I had never heard of him, though apparently he was the warm up comic for Solid Gold and opened for the Jacksons on the Victory Tour. He had some interesting stories but he lost me when he said that his hero was Ronald Reagan.

Finally my old friend Cecil Castellucci came and picked me up at the bar. Cecil and I met as college freshmen at NYU and fate kept throwing us together until we decided we were friends for life. Our most improbable meeting was in the middle of Dachau the year I Eurailed around the Old World. We have both ended up with careers in the geek world. I do the gaming thing, of course, and she writes YA novels and graphic novels (her Plain Jains book for DC was terrific). We have crossed paths at conventions from time to time but we needed a proper catch up and this was the night. She used Twitter to find a cool bar in Burbank called Tony’s Darts Away. We stayed there until it got too loud and crowded (damn hipsters), then we moved to an old school diner place we happened across called Talleyrand (founded by a fan of French diplomacy?). They still had bundt cake on the menu so I got a slice and we kept talking until I got a call from Wil Wheaton. I had a great time talking to my old friend and wished it could have gone on longer, but we had to leave.

I was crashing at Wil’s the next two nights so Cecil was kind enough to drop me off. Everyone was sick at the house and they had been working all day, so they went to bed by midnight. I’m a night owl, so I was up until 4ish. Then I got up at 8 am because I had somewhere to be early. I can’t talk about the rest of the trip yet, but that should change come March. I will say it was nerdy, fun, and a little bit Hollywood. I got home and at first thought I had missed the plague. It was sneaky though and I didn’t get sick Thursday. Now that head cold is ragin’ full on. Glad I can stay home this weekend.

Originally published on LiveJournal on February 10, 2012. 

The Highlights of My Year

2011 wasn’t the worst of years, but it wasn’t the best either. It was up and down, sweet and sour. I started the year living in Austin and working a day job at Vigil Games as lead writer on the Warhammer 40K MMO. I’m ending it back in Seattle with my family and I’m pretty damn happy to have reunited with Nik and Kate on a permanent basis. I don’t want to dwell on the negative so here are the top 5 other highlights of the year.

1. Kate’s Birthday

I wrote about this a few weeks ago so I won’t go on about it, but the most joyous event of the year had to be Kate’s surprise 16th birthday party. I often feel like it’s my job to apologize to Kate for how disappointing the world is, so it was awesome to see how happy our girl was with her party and all the friends who came out for it.

2. Brazil

In May I flew to Curitiba to be a guest at World RPG Con. This was my first (but hopefully not my last) trip to Brazil, and my first time south of the equator as well. I had a great time, though as usual with big trips like this I wish I could have stayed longer. The con was small but the organizers and attendees were super enthusiastic and they made me feel so welcome. I met many excellent gamers and had the chance to actually hang out with Steve Jackson (the other American game designer guest) for the first time.

The day after the con we got to ride the Curitiba-Paranaguá Railroad. It was a three and a half hour, 116 kilometer trip through the rain forested highlands to the coast. The route went through 13 tunnels and over 30 bridges, and the whole trip was in a vintage Italian train from the 60s. Then we had a huge seafood feast in Paranaguá, followed by more sightseeing by bus before the drive back to Curitiba. All in all, pretty awesome.

3. Seattle: The Returning

I moved back to Seattle in August. Nicole flew down to Austin, we loaded up a truck with the help of friends, and then it was a five day ride through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. I’ve mentioned my happiness about getting back with my family, but here I’m talking about the trip itself. When I moved down, I had a fixed deadline so it was four days of hard driving and nothing else. This time Nicole and I had no schedule we had to keep to so we decided to be more casual. I’m glad we did.

Our first stop was at Reaper Miniatures in Denton, TX. Ed Pugh and Ron Hawkins gave us a thorough tour of their facility. They have a really impressive operation going on there and it was cool to see it. We probably spent too much time swapping game industry stories, but hey, how often are we getting to Denton? When it was time for us to move on, they gifted Nicole with some out of production Mousling miniatures, which made her squee with delight.

Next we stopped at the Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Center in Hutchinson. It’s a really unlikely place for a museum dedicated to rocketry and space flight it’s quite well done. Apparently NASA wanted to get rid of a bunch of stuff back in the 70s, so Hutchinson said, “Give it to us and we’ll make a museum!” The history is well presented and they have some great artifacts, including the lovingly restored capsule from Apollo 13. Worth a stop if you find yourself in Kansas.

In Denver we stopped to have lunch with college pal Pat Brown at the Buckhorn Exchange. We worked out the meet up over Facebook on my phone while we cruised down the interstate. Thanks, technology. Pat recommended an over the top gourmet shop outside town so we had to pop in there as well. They had a huge room full of cheese that was essentially a giant refrigerator. The store keeps coats on hand in case you get cold, but after Texas I enjoyed it in there. Cheese and other goodies we got there made our dinner in the hotel later that night.

As we rode through Wyoming, I thought we were done with stops. Then I noticed on the map that the highway went right by Little Big Horn in Montana. Turns out you can get from the highway to the hill where Custer died in less than 10 minutes. Clearly we had to do it.

4. Dragon Age, Set 2

Professionally speaking, the highlight of the year for me was the release of Set 2 for Dragon Age. It took way longer to get done than I figured, but I’m pleased with the result. The release made me feel great for an hour or two. Then someone asked, “So when is Set 3 coming out?” Oh, gamers. 🙂

5. Steve Ignorant: The Last Supper

I’m ending my list with a bit of punk rock. I did not get to a lot of shows in Austin because I lived in north, north Austin and had neither license nor car. So when German band the Spermbirds came to America for the first time to play South by Southwest, I ended up missing their show. When I heard that Steve Ignorant was bringing his Last Supper show to Emo’s, I determined that I would be there. Thanks to pal Donna Prior, who agreed to drive and come to the show with me despite the music not exactly being her thing, I got my wish.

Steve Ignorant was the singer for Crass, an uncompromising British punk band of the 70s and 80s that went the Sex Pistols one better by taking their anarchism very seriously indeed. They became a hugely influential band, and ran a record label that put out lots of other anarcho-punk bands. Crass broke up in the mid-80s and I never had a chance to see them. I think they only got to America once and then briefly. A couple of years ago Steve Ignorant decided to put on a show called The Last Supper. Basically, he wanted to perform those old songs a final time as “a celebration of what Crass meant” to him.

So this was not a Crass reunion per se, but Steve singing songs from ’77 to ’84 backed by musicians from bands like Conflict, Killing Joke, and the English Dogs. I’m sure a lot of people saw the whole thing as a cynical endeavor but I don’t give a shit: it was awesome. Steve was into it, the band was tight, and hearing those classic songs live was a treat. The real surprise of the night was the performance of many songs from Penis Envy, Crass’s feminist statement on which Eve Libertine handled most of the vocals. A younger singer named Carol Hodge sang the Penis Envy songs and she killed it. She was fierce and delivered those songs with conviction and energy. It was the icing on my punk rock cake.

Originally published on LiveJournal on December 31, 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. 

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. 

The Pramas Fall Tour

The last two months has been one the most intense periods of travel and activity of my life. This is how it went down.

It started with a weekend trip to Vancouver, BC with Nicole. At this point we knew craziness was about to descend, so we decided to get a weekend to ourselves in and enjoy one of our favorite cities. We returned to Tojo’s, a great Japanese restaurant Nicole first introduced me to in 1995, for the first time in many years. We also took the opportunity to see Machete (awesome), The Girl Who Played with Fire (very good), and The American (meh).

We got back late on a Sunday night. The very next morning I went to the airport to fly back to Canada. This time my destination was Edmonton. I spent a couple of days visiting BioWare’s office and talking about all things Dragon Age. I got to see some of Dragon Age 2, which looks awesome, and had good discussions with the folks there.

The day after I returned from Edmonton, the Green Ronin crew began arriving for our annual summit. This is usually a three day affair at which we make our plans for the following year and discuss the overall state of the company. We extended it one day this year so we could have most of the staff in town for our 10 year anniversary party at Dragon’s Lair in Bellevue. Summit and party both went well, and we had a productive few days and a bit of fun.

Before all the Ronins had even left Seattle, I was on board another plane and heading to Chicago. I was there for a week, primarily to attend Riot Fest. I saw 24 punk bands in 5 days and had a blast. Most awesome for me was finally getting to see Articles of Faith, one of my favorite hardcore bands of all time. I had waited 23 years for the opportunity and they did not disappoint. Since they also played a “secret show,” I got to see them twice. Bonus! Other great moments included the Busted at Oz reunion show (featuring bands like the Subverts, Silver Abuse, and the original lineup of Naked Raygun) and a terrific performance by the Zero Boys.

The punk rock was awesome but that was only part of the Chicago fun. Ken Hite was kind enough to put me up at his house and when I wasn’t at punk shows I was eating my way across Chi-town with Ken and frequent guest Will Hindmarch. Had some great food at Hot Doug’s, Frontera Grill, Xoco, The Publican, Kuma’s Corner, and Dawali Mediterranean Grill. Also got to see a Nazi u-boat, play For the People, and talk a lot of history with Ken. I squeezed a lot into those 7 days.

I got back to Seattle late on October 11. I then had two days to pack because I was moving to Austin! Thankfully, I was not trying to pack up all my shit, just what I thought I’d want to have in Texas in my new apartment. In moves that were very much us, Nicole started by packing up kitchen stuff so I could cook, while I picked what games and miniatures to bring so I could play. By Thursday morning the U-Haul was packed and ready, and we’d even squeezed in a dinner with Rob Schwalb, who was in town visiting his corporate masters. Always great to see Dr. Evil.

We took off on the 14th and we had four days to get to Austin. Nicole had a clever plan to stop in Portland and go to Ikea for the furniture I’d need. Since there’s no sales tax in Oregon, we saved a bunch of dough. The drive was about 2500 miles and Nicole had to do it all since I have no license. She was awesome and did not blanch even at the 15 hour day we had on Saturday. We listened to two audio books on the way (American On Purpose by Craig Ferguson and Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett) and they really helped pass the time. We went east through Oregon into Idaho, then south through Utah, and southeast through Arizona, New Mexico, and finally Texas. We arrived at my new apartment on Sunday night. Phil, Gina, and Andrew helped us with the move in, for which we were very grateful. Then at 9 am the next day I started my new job at Vigil on the 40K MMO.

I’ll talk about Vigil and settling into Austin later. For now suffice to say that I had a couple of weeks to acclimatize to both new city and new job and things are going well. Nicole flew back to Seattle after the first couple of days. It was weird to live alone all of a sudden but I had something to look forward to: NeonCon. This convention in Las Vegas happened to fall just a couple of days before Nicole’s birthday. We decided to meet there to celebrate. This gave us a chance to see a bunch of our friends and enjoy Vegas for a couple of days. It was a brief reunion but we made the most of it. I won’t see Nicole or Miss Kate now until Christmas (boo!).

You’d think that would be quite enough travel for the time being but I have one more trip this year. On Thanksgiving Day I’m flying to London. I’m going to be a guest at Dragonmeet, a one day game convention held on November 27. I last attended Dragonmeet in 2002 and it was a great time. I’m looking forward to going again, seeing many of my UK friends, and squeezing in as much London fun as I can manage. After that the whirlwind really will subside. The return to a day job means accruing vacation days and such, so such travel won’t be as easy. I also won’t be as broke, so it’s a trade-off. I guess I really need a day job that’ll pay me well and allow me to travel a lot, but for now the grim darkness of the far future will have to do.

Originally published on LiveJournal on November 10, 2010. 

Vancouver Weekend

This Thursday is Nicole and I’s 9 year wedding anniversary. Since I’m going to be up visiting BioWare Monday to Wednesday and on Thursday the guys are arriving for the Green Ronin Summit, we decided we had best celebrate over the weekend. So Friday we drove up to Vancouver, dropped Kate off with her dad, and checked into the Hyatt downtown. Our plan was simple: spent time together alone. Our apologies to our Vancouver friends, but we just wanted to relax and be together. We did not bring computers and tried not to worry about work, money, or my impending move to Austin.

We’re back now and I have to say mission accomplished. We decided we didn’t want to run around a lot, so the basic plan was to eat well, see movies, and lounge around in between. We saw three movies: Machete, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The American. That’s the order we saw them in and also how’d I’d rank them for enjoyment. Machete was a blast. It delivered exactly what was promised in that original trailer and then some. Over the top, funny, and politically appropriate for this year. The Girl Who Played With Fire was also good. Both of the leads do an excellent job and the story continues to be engaging. The American I was lukewarm on. It was slow paced, didn’t have a lot of dialog, and didn’t do much to make me give a shit about George Clooney’s character. And the ending was pretty much exactly what you’d suspect.

For food we went to a mix of old favorites and new places. Friday night we just sort of stumbled on to a Greek place, Kalypso. While it was no Panos Kleftiko (our favorite Greek place in Seattle), it was decent and their calamari was excellent. Saturday we went to this placed called The Edge. We had picked it because its menu boasted things like poutine with ox tail gravy. On arrival we discovered that they were only serving food from their brunch menu, so no poutine. On the upside, the eggs benedict with sockeye salmon was delicious. Saturday night we went to Tojo’s, a great Japanese restaurant we’ve been patronizing since the 90s. We were saddened to discovered one of favorite dishes (Tojo’s baked oysters) was taken off the menu during the Olympics and has not been reinstated. We love that dish so much we had planned to order one for each of us and lick the shells clean. The food we did have was excellent apart from the snapper (which was a little tough and not nearly as buttery as the sablefish they typically serve). Sunday we went for dim sum at the restaurant formerly known as Bo Kong. It’s called the Whole Vegetarian Restaurant now, but the menu is exactly the same and just as good. We got many old favorites like fried bean curds in black bean sauce and turnip cakes, but also tried some new stuff like vegetable cutlets with orange sauce. That latter tasted uncannily like fried chicken and we devoured it.

Saturday we also spent a couple of hours browsing at Chapters. I always like seeing what Canadian bookstores have that you wouldn’t find down here. I ended up getting Juno: Canadians at D-Day, June 6, 1944 by Ted Barris. I noticed that there was a cookbook for Vij’s, a terrific Indian restaurant in Vancouver that we did not get to on this trip, and that came home with Nicole. I’m looking forward to tasting some of those recipes.

I’m glad we had a chance to get away, even for a couple of days. Cheers to 9 great years with my awesome wife. I’m going to miss Nicole and Kate hard when I’m in Austin without them.

And now that I’m back from Canada…I’m leaving for Canada in the morning. This time to Edmonton for business. I have unpacked and repacked and I’m ready to go. Maybe I can get some poutine up there…

Originally published on LiveJournal on September 27, 2010. 

Prague, You Will Be Mine!

In 1990 I spent a couple of months of the summer traveling Europe with my girlfriend Stacey and our friend Kathy. We started in Scotland, moved down to England, and then over to the Continent, where it was youth hostels and Eurail all over. We visited many countries and had a great time. One place we didn’t get to, however, was Prague. It was on my list for sure, but when we got the Eurail passes in NYC, we were told they were no good in Czechoslovakia. Since our budget was already quite tight ($20 a day for hostel, food, and fun), we decided to save the expense of an extra train ticket and skip Prague.

Towards the end of the trip, we were in Munich and went to visit Dachau. Perhaps the most bizarre incident of the whole trip occurred when I ran into my friend Cecil (Castellucci, author of the awesome The Plain Janes graphic novels; you should buy her new book Rose Sees Red next month) in the middle of Dachau. The Nazi death camp. We had met at NYU but she had left (for Montreal IIRC) the year before and I hadn’t seen her since. To run into each other there of all places was pretty weird. She and her friend had just come from Prague and they said they had gone there on Eurail passes. So we had been lied to in NYC and now it was too late to work Prague into our schedule. Lame.

In 1994 I was back in Europe for another two month trip, this time as a roadie for a French punk band called Scraps. That’s a long story for another day, but the pertinent bit is that we were scheduled to do a gig in Prague. I had been robbed in 1990 and here at last was a chance to make good. After various misadventures in France, Basque country, Spain, and Italy, we moved into Germany to do the biggest shows of the tour, many of them with a shitty straight edge band from California.

We were driving down the autobahn one day when I smelled something funny. Well, funnier than a van with 8-10 punks in it at any rate. Suddenly the driver swerved to the side of the road and yelled that we should all bail out. The reason was obvious when I jumped out: the engine was on fire! I and several others moved to the back of the van and started tossing out our bags and the equipment. Meanwhile, others tried to get the fire out. The bass player succeeded when he dumped soy milk on the blaze. The good news was that the van had not blown up or burned out. The bad news was that we were stranded in an East German town know for its Nazi skinheads. Awesome.

We got the van to a shop and they said it was going to take several days to fix. In the meantime, we had to rent a couple of cars and continue on to Berlin, where we had our next gig. We were supposed to go to Prague after that but guess what? The cars we rented could not be taken across the border. Apparently too many people were renting cars, driving to Eastern Europe to sell them, and then reporting them stolen. Once again I was denied a chance to see Prague. To make matters worse, when we next played with the band from Callie they said the Prague show was great and they had had an awesome time there.

I thought of all this tonight because I was watching the Prague episode of No Reservations. Seeing Bourdain gallivanting around the city and eating an endless array of pork and sausage made me think about how I still hadn’t gotten there in all these years. The game business has taken me back to Germany and England, and even to Finland, but not to goddamn Prague. Someday I will cross that city off my list.

Originally published on LiveJournal on July 6, 2010.