Friday, 29 August 2014

A new Players' Handbook

The last couple of weeks have been somewhat fraught in real life – primarily illnesses and pressures of work. As a consolation present, Janet got me the D&D5 Players' Handbook (courtesy of Niche Comics who imported a handful of copies).
My initial impression of D&D5 was positive. My first skim through the full rulebook has not changed that. The character creation section emphasises characterisation and background over mechanics. The basic character sheet puts all the game mechanics into less than one side of A4 and then gives the rest of the sheet over to traits, personality, history, friends, allies, appearance, ideals and flaws. Not in a mechanistic style, either – these are matters for the player to come up with to flesh out each PC.

The mechanics system is simple and fast, and the baroque complexities of Pathfinder characters are replaced with simpler basic structures combined with variant suggestions that do not particularly rely on mechanics, more on how each character is played. The paladin, at third level, has to take an oath to confirm his or her outlook – but the oath can be one seeking vengeance or one seeking devotion to a deity. Suddenly we have two very different paladins.

Feats – which were becoming (IMHO) the bane of Pathfinder, are relegated to an optional rule, and greatly simplified in comparison to the vast number of detailed and complex Pathfinder feats.

The emphasis is on building characters, not complicated bundles of stats.

Artwork is less important, but I like the style for D&D5. Much more naturalistic, and also more sensible – just one example is a barbarian who is not clad in just a loincloth.

At the moment I think D&D5 looks better than any other iteration of D&D or similar RPGs I've seen (and I've seen a pretty wide range). So far I've only skimmed a tiny proportion of the PH, and we will have to await the DMG to get the overall picture, but thus far I like what I see. 

Monday, 18 August 2014


I've been a Thunderbirds fan since I was very, very little. 

It was about the only programme we watched on ITV when I was small. My father worked for the BBC, so it felt like treachery to be on the other channel, but it was worth it for Thunderbirds. 

The show had amazing machines and extraordinary technology. Some of the plots were pretty good, too.


The characterisation was functional (though the central characters were all given enough personality to be distinctive – I suspect the influence of Sylvia Anderson here). But it was the boys' toys that grabbed me. Not just the Thunderbirds craft themselves – though they were spectacular – but also the other craft that populated the landscape.


The Sidewinder. 

The helijets. 


And – of course – Fireflash. This was a complete world of the future, or how I wanted, at age 8, to think the future might look.


Thunderbirds was not Gerry Anderson's first or last series, but it was the one that caught the lightning. It is the show that most people remember of Anderson's oeuvre.


Yes, from a 21st Century perspective (ironic, since the studio was Century 21), I can see the problems with all these atomic-engined craft, and the ecological impact of monsters like the Crablogger don't bear consideration. But at the time they felt extraordinary and wonderful. This was an optimistic view of the future that fired my enthusiasm for technology. The Thunderbirds theme tune – especially the fast theme that played behind the snapshots of the episode to come – still makes my heart pump faster and gives me a thrill of excitement.

This was a show about saving lives – rescuing people. Every other action series at the time seemed to involve killing enemies – this was positive and life-affirming.


It even had a decent female role-model in Lady Penelope: not that, as a pre-teen boy, I was desperately interested in such things at the time.

Not all of the thirty-two episodes were great. There are some that make me cringe (Mighty Atom comes to mind, as does Security Hazard – and don't even think about mentioning the Christmas episode). But some stories still stand out and work superbly even now. 


Terror in New York City, where the Empire States Building topples, is still one of my favourites, as is Sun Probe (with the wonderful dichotomy between the astronauts roasting and Virgil and Brains freezing).

I'm not going to deign to mention the appalling Thunderbirds feature film from 2004. There is apparently a new series in production, using a mixture of models and CGI. I wait with interest, but also with trepidation. Thunderbirds was a product of its era – I'm not confident that the lightning can be recaptured. 

But I will always have a great and abiding affection for the original.


Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Worlds in miniature

All right, so why is it remotely interesting to see a miniature replica that at first glance looks a lot like reality?


This thought was sparked by a visit, on holiday in Devon, to Babbacombe Model Village. Vast numbers of tiny figures in and around sets based on buildings and scenes mostly from the latter end of the last century.

 A city shopping arcade.

A garden centre.


A street scene with police.

 A wedding, complete with music.

A small dock area.

So why is this fascinating? All right, so the little humorous details help – the names of solicitors and the detective agency both raised a smile with me.And other little details made me stop and look again to see if I was really seeing them.

The occasional surprises add to the pleasure – this Addams Family mansion, for instance, or Stonehenge with druids.

And some of the scenes were somewhat more dramatic – the medieval castle under siege is unlikely to fall in view of the dragon atop one tower that breathed real fire.

Other scenes were more prosaic, like the modern fire scene - my wicked mind wondered if they had thought of taking the fire tenders to to deal with the dragon...


Morris dancers...

 And even flights of fancy like the rampaging mummies.

The fact that we are seeing a microcosm mirroring the reality around us is one of the fascinations, together with the simple delight in the model-makers' skills. The people responsible for the model village are creating their own reality, and letting us enjoy it. The odd details that catch the eye just add to the attraction. Is it any different to a writer creating a make-believe world?

Of course, my worlds don't contain disasters like this. Honest.

Friday, 8 August 2014

SFFSat 09/08/2014 - Blue Ice 2

This is my snippet this week for SFFSat. SFFSat is a place where a number of authors post snippets from their written works, and give the opportunity for comments, support and encouragement. Please also explore the other blogs that are part of this set - you can find the information here. 

This is part two of Blue Ice. Anton deGama is in the rings of Saturn, planting flowers on a chunk of ice the size of a football field...

He settled the flower into the hole, spread the reagant around it, and it obligingly froze the plant into position. The petals slowly opened, drinking in the sunlight. Beneath the surface, the roots would soon start seeking out the minerals that would make the crop worth harvesting.

His helmet clicked and burred, and a quiet voice broke in. "Hullo, DeGama - what colour are your draxblooms?"

Anton glanced up. This chunk was at the edge of the ring, and from here he got a superlative view of the stars shining steel-and-diamond across the heavens. One particular star was winking infinitesimally from the heart of a cluster of gossamer spiderweb overhead, which had to be the deep space array. Commlasers were not supposed to be bright enough to be visible to the naked eye, but any experienced ringdweller could spot one at this range. He knew Kellerman was handling an upgrade to the array's systems. 

Her question, on the other hand, puzzled him. "Yellow, of course - standard strain fourteen point three two."
Kellerman's voice was edged with concern. "I'm about two hundred klicks above you, and I've got a clear view of Rose and your ring-fragment. There’s a patch of ice showing bright blue – and it’s moving."

The bad news is that SFFS is going off the air for a few weeks - so you won't find out what is going on in the rings of Saturn for a while...

As always, comments appreciated!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Childish pleasures

All right, so I'm childish. Fortunately, I'm old enough not to care what other people think of  me. We went on holiday to Devon and had a wonderful time for a week - and most of the things I enjoyed were childish.

Like clambering into the cockpit of a real jet fighter, courtesy of Boscombe Down Aircraft Collection. The cockpits weren't actually connected to the rest of the aircraft (probably just as well).

Some of the controls lit up when I flicked the switches. For a short time I could imagine I was actually at the controls of a sleek jet. The collection included the Hawk, above; a couple of Jet Provost trainers (left - my son enjoyed both these, too!).


And my favourite, a Harrier jump jet. I've built a couple of Harriers in my time (in kit form only - Airfix models!). Actually sitting in the cockpit, imagining it was climbing into the sky, was great.


And finally I was able to "fly" a simulator - not a jet, just a simple, basic aeroplane, with a joystick and pedals. It, too, felt very real - push the stick forward and the simulator tipped me forward. Tilt it to one side and the simulator obligingly cooperated. Fortunately, it couldn't crash, or I suspect I'd have been a gooey mess on a runway somewhere. Sorrel might not be impressed - but I enjoyed it.

Yes, it was childish.

But I don't care. As the Doctor said in Robot - "There's no point in being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes."  We all need a sense of wonder, a delight in imagining the exciting and impossible, in picturing ourselves as heroes and heroines doing extraordinary acts. It may be childish - but it beats the hell out of real life.

Friday, 1 August 2014

SFFSat 2/8/2014 - Blue Ice 1

This is my snippet this week for SFFSat. SFFSat is a place where a number of authors post snippets from their written works, and give the opportunity for comments, support and encouragement. Please also explore the other blogs that are part of this set - you can find the information here. 

I've been away for a week on holiday in Devon (expect some blog posts about our holiday soon!). But for now I'm posting the first part of the third Anton deGama story, Blue Ice. I can also gleefully add a cover illustration, painted by Janet when I first wrote this story, many moons ago.

If you haven't read the earlier stories, don't worry - you don't need to know Anton's previous adventures.

Initially, the opening simply sets the scene...

The ring fragment spun in the thin light from the distant sun, occasional fractals of colour sparkling from the ragged surface. The Sapphire Rose pirouetted in harmony with the slowly rotating honeycomb of ice, the umbilical cable from the ship undulating gently. Anton shivered inside the excursion suit: even with the heaters at maximum, the chill of the ice struck through the heavy boots. He carefully stepped between the flowers. One touch from a steel toe would shatter the delicate yellow petals. The hard-edged shadows made judgment of position tricky. He glanced up at the Rose; through the umbilical he could hear her singing (off-key as usual). It was just as well that Anton was not particularly musical: Kellerman had refused to board the Rose after hearing her photonsong. Anton was untroubled by the Rose's tones. Her voice told him his new ship was in direct sunlight and was in good shape, and that was all he cared about.

He leaned down and placed the las-drill against the icy surface. A few seconds of power gave a suitable hole, and he holstered the tool. He glanced up at the stars, judging the ring's rotation; this sector of the ring would be staying in sunlight for at least another half-hour. He gingerly opened the padded case by his side, and slowly, gently took out another flower. 

 As always, comments appreciated!