Reality is the playground of the unimaginative
Home Of Superheroes, Supernatural, and Star Stuff

Wednesday, 31 January 2007

At The Mountains of Madness

The 1930s were a time of great exploration - there were still white spaces on the map and none more enticing than the Antarctic.

So what better place for pulp writer HP Lovecraft - with his fascination for science, exploration and the unknown - to set, what I consider to be, his finest work: At The Mountains of Madness.

Although written in 1931, it didn't see print until its serialisation in Astounding Stories in 1936, but now stands as a cornerstone of his Cthulhu mythos cycle.

The story charts a pioneering exploration of this white wastes by a team of academics, their discovery of a giant, uncharted chain of mountains and the horrors that lay beyond.

While there is some gore when our protagonists discover the aftermath of a stomach-churning massacre of their colleagues, the main horror comes from the building sense of mystery and terrors lurking in the shadows, the anticipation of things to come.

All this has been perfectly captured by the ever-professional HP Lovecraft Historical Society - who brought us the 1920's style, silent movie version of Call of Cthulhu - in its first radio play, now available on CD and for download.

Presented in part as War of The Worlds-style news reports and then concluding with the account of the expedition's only sane survivor, At The Mountains of Madness is Lovecraft as he might have heard his work had it been dramatised while he was alive.

Genuinely gripping, evocative and oozing atmosphere - this is a fantastic piece of theatre and hopefully lays the groundwork for future radio/CD adaptations of the great man's stories.

As an added bonus with the CD you also get some replica props - newspaper clippings, sketches, photographs etc that make this a genuine 'must have' for Lovecraft fans.

HeroPress Is A "Beautiful Thing"...

Well, Knight City actually ... Clare has posted a lovely mention of the campaign on her world famous Three Beautiful Things blog:

"1. The Knight City Chronicles. A former housemate of mine is story telling a small but loyal group through the rainwashed streets of Knight City. This is a place of mystery and gothic horrors, yet it is strangely familiar to anyone from around Tunbridge Wells -- I feel at home despite the abandoned hospitals and sinister circus tents on the Common; despite the porn king dwarf with the hook-hand and the Paddock Wood Old China Town, I know these places. Sometimes when I'm out in town I imagine that if I turn round quickly enough, I'll see Wolfram & Hart's glass edifice; and that Fiveways will transform into White Square."

Who knows what, if any, interest this will generate from the 'outside world'? Perhaps this is the equivalent of Wayne's review of the original game in Computer + Video Games all those years ago?

Monday, 29 January 2007

A Timeless Gift ...

For four weeks, starting at Christmas, the Radio Times gave away free - each week - part of a Dr Who audio book on CD, which meant that if you bought the listings magazine for a month you ended up with two complete Dr Who stories - Feast Of The Drowned and The Stone Rose.

Both stories had their own strengths - with the added bonus of being read by current Doctor, David Tennant. While Feast was quite Lovercraftian in its monsters, Stone started off as being a rather straight forward historical tale, but quickly spun off into wonderful surreal sci-fi.

Dr Who audio books come in three types. The first is the straight forward reading of a novelisation, as these were, sometimes spiced up with sound effects and the reader doing some voices (David Tennant read ths stories in his 'normal' voice and slipped into The Doctor for his character's lines, which was very effective).

Then we have the original full-cast plays, which are also excellent, but I think less common for the Who audios. These are radio plays and are always great fun.

Finally we get the adaptations of old TV episodes, the weakest format. These use the dialogue from the TV epsiode - which is fine - but the linking narration just seems to be the stage directions from the script ... delivered in the present tense (e.g. "A beach, somewhere in England. The TARDIS materialises. The Doctor and Jamie walk out. They build sandcastles.") It's very strange and totally destroys the mystique of a radio play.

It would only take a simple change of tense to make the links more dramatic, but in the meantime I shall stick with audio books that are obviously original works.

Thursday, 25 January 2007

DVD of the Week: Dog Soldiers (2002)

I simply can't believe how good this film was ... and that it has taken me so long to getting round to see it (despite several strong recommendations from friends and fellow genre fans). Not only is this a quality British film (a rarity in itself) but also a wicked monster movie.

Dog Soldiers sees a bunch of squaddies on a training exercise in the Scottish Highlands crossing paths with a pack of werewolves, and retreating to an isolated farmhouse for safety.

All this mayhem and dismemberment results in a top notch spam in a cabin piece (in the same vein as Evil Dead), packed with great thowaway geeky lines (including the best Matrix joke ever), film homages (check out the Zulu theme) and full-on man vs werewolf fight sequences (kudos for the plethora of improvised - and ultimately useless - weaponry).

The portayal of the soldiers - as far as I can tell - is very accurate and Sean Pertwee and Kevin McKidd, as the main squaddies, are on top form.

While the werewolf effects aren't exactly cutting edge they do show that sometimes a 'man in a suit' monster is still better, and less distracting, than rubbish CGI.

Writer/director Neil Marshall, of course, went on to bring us The Descent last year which, while I wouldn't rate it as highly as Dog Soldiers, still demonstrates the enormous potential for British horror films.

Snow Report Update!


The initial snowy promise of 10am has, sadly, melted away as the temperature seems to have risen a degree or two.
What snow there was building up on the paths and roads - and hanging over our heads like the Sword of Damocles - has turned to water and slush. A very poor show - but good news for Rachel, who is up in North Kent organising an exhibition and wouldn't have appreciated having to drive home through snow drifts.
The sky is still quite grey and although the sun has poked its nose through a few times, there's still a chance the temperatures will drop again and maybe we'll wake up tomorrow to a winter wonderland.

They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To ...


Borrowed from: The Lair of The Evil DM (thanks, Jeff)

Many of these Ray Harryhausen clips come from the films that inspired my first Dungeons & Dragons games back in the 70s - namely Jason & The Argonauts (particularly that scene with the skeletons) and the Sinbad films (one of my first characters was called Sinbad, but then had to change his name to Bassin after he killed a couple of dwarves in a bar brawl!)

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

It's Not Alaska, But It's A Start...



My computer wasn't working today - I had to get an engineer in (some sort of conflict between AOL, Internet Explorer and my Router!) - but in the meantime I had DVDs to watch and snow to admire. Okay, most of it was gone by this afternoon, but the weather forecast is for more this evening ...


Tuesday, 23 January 2007

The Wise Woman of HeroPress...


My old housemate, HeroPress' own Clare Grant (aka roving reporter Olivia March on the game's message boards) is currently standing in second place in Saga's poll of the Wisest of the Wise... which makes her a bona fide celbrity in my book; and our old home in Goods Station Road, Tunbridge Wells, worthy of a blue plaque.


She is being honoured for her Three Beautiful Things blog - which is an inspirational work of art and worth reading daily anyway - but for the full story on her "wise" to fame (get the pun?) check out Saga and make sure you vote for Clare!

The Eyes Have It ...

Just had my eyes tested for the first time since my stroke and the optician was very pleased that my eyes appeared to have a full recovery (well, back to what they were pre-stroke, it's not like it was a bite from a radioactive spider or anything!).

The latest innovation - 'gimmick' to us laymen - in eye care is the Digital Retinal Camera and so I present here, for the first time ever, a photograph of the inside of my eyes! How cool is that? This way Wilkinsons - my optician of choice for many years - will be able to more accurately monitor any changes in my peepers year-on-year.

Monday, 22 January 2007

HeroPress Had A Fan Club ...


... well, not really! A Google-search the other day turned up Heropress Millenium's Journal; apparently an old player's attempt to revive the game in its full-on superhero glory. He seems to have been from the Mark/Richard era, so I don't recognise his name - or the name of any of the other old players who made comments on the Livejournal site.

Sadly the site also appears to have lain dormant since September 2001 and the email address it lists no longer works - it's possible to post comments still, but what are the chances that anyone will come back to the site after five years to read them?

The author, Roy Dickel from Liverpool, starts off with a potted history of the game:

"Heropress started life as a diceless SuperHero system devised by a group of friends in Royal Wells (Kent, England, UK)(sic). As they drifted apart due to other commitments it became a pbm. As it became more widely known and popular more people joined it and the original DM became swamped. So players where gathered into other areas run by other dm's usually on a geographic basis. This got too big and collapsed under it's own weight. The concept was ressurected by a magazine called Fantasia who acted as a focal point, posted updates in it's pages and paid the DM's (don't expect that to happen again real soon) This worked really well until Fantasia committed financial suicide.Smaller groups picked up the game concept (including a very Gothic World of Darkness crew that operated out of Cardiff for a while). And that brings us to here. What I want to do is pull it back to it's 3rd period concept with multiple DM's looking after a city or country each with a group of players."

And then goes on to list all the active campaigns he can remember from when he was playing:

  • "Royal Wells (England) - Where it all began

  • Cardiff (Wales) - A gothic mysterious City

  • Belfast (N Ireland) - Sectarian violence and Superheros

  • Vandal City (Canada) - A city breaking apart with racial tensions

  • New York (USA) - The big apple if you can make it there you'll make it anywhere if you can't cut it here you're dead

  • San Angeles (USA) - Created to be the perfect community then all the busnesses went away

  • Volgagrad (Russia) - A soviet center for superheros how's it fared since the USSR collapsed?

  • Tokyo (Japan) - Giant robots, Ninjas, fire breathing reptiles. Think Godzilla vs G-Force

  • Sydney (Australia) - A land down under where superheros are few and someone's keeping it that way

  • Albion - An Alternative world where Camelot never fell. "

There seems to have been some fond reminiscing by a few other players who remembered the game and a brief discussion of their treasured 'source books', but the planned revival never really got anywhere.

Top Of The Pile: The Immortal Iron Fist #1 & 2

Writer Ed Brubaker - Captain America, Daredevil, Uncanny X-Men - can do no wrong at the moment and with The Immortal Iron Fist he continues his 100% batting average by knocking this one out of the park!


For me, Iron Fist has always been a very secondary character in the Marvel Universe; seemingly one of those 'street' characters who came about in the '70s - post-Enter The Dragon - and never really had much depth beyond his cool martial arts and his glowing fist.


In two quick issues, Brubaker has developed the character as not only a troubled industrialist whose business is facing hostile take-over by the wicked forces of a HYDRA front-organisation but the latest in a long line of "Iron Fists" who is about to come face-to-face with his ancestors.


Brubaker clearly loves the superhero genre, but rather than taking a cynical, post-modern approach to his comics, he presents the fantastic elements in a very matter-of-fact way, so that the reader immediately accepts this new reality - because it is so close to our own (just look what he's done with Captain America, The Red Skull and the cosmic cube!)

I was slightly alarmed by Iron Fist's immediate suspicions of the Wai-Go industries "because they were Chinese" - but I can excuse him that rather un-PC attitude for the moment as a character flaw or some sixth sense that I'm not aware of; perhaps he already knew they were a front for HYDRA ... we will have to wait and see.


Another great title from The House of Ideas, with solid writing and great art.



Saturday, 20 January 2007

DVD of the Week: The Invincible Iron Man (2007)

As a teaser for next year's eagerly awaited, live-action Iron Man film, as well as a continuation of Marvel's recent run of fine direct-to-DVD animated features, The Invincible Iron Man is an awesome reworking of the armoured hero's origin.

While it seems odd to put such a technological character into a "supernatural" adventure for his first outing, Greg Johnson's script is so tight and multi-dimensional that you can't help but be swept along on this thrilling rollercoaster.

Tony Stark, the Errol Flynn of the Marvel Universe, is a playboy industrialist drawn into a complex plot surrounding the excavations of an ancient city in China and a prophecy about the return of the evil Mandarin. Injured during a rebel attack, Tony has to rely on a quickly-assembled armour suit to keep him alive. But it turns out this suit isn't the first of its kind ...

Iron Man then has to face the Mandarin's supernatural elemental servants who are racing around the world looking for the keys to raise their wicked master. Wonderful anime-style chop-socky ensues - buildings and statues get demolished, oceans get frozen, volcanoes get violated, the works!

Beyond any shadow of a doubt this epic tale is the best thing yet from Marvel's animation branch and if the forthcoming Dr Strange is as good as this, The House of Ideas have definitely found a new outlet for their creative talents ... and long may it last.

Friday, 19 January 2007

Heroes of HeroPress: Nick Law



HeroPress Campaign: Roland-sur-Mer, France.


HeroPress Character: Nick Law, businessman-adventurer, armed only with his superior intellect, vast banks of knowledge, bottomless pockets, an arsenal of gadgets and a lot of luck.

Despite his apparent ambivalence to the superhero genre (dressing up in skintight clothing and fighting crime is not to every one's taste), his HeroPress character was brilliant. Nick Law as Nick Law was a stroke of genius - a heady blend of Doc Savage, Indiana Jones and James Bond with a garnish of Bruce Wayne (sans the Batman alter ego). A superhero without spandex or exotic powers who helped define the feel of Royal Wells - the HeroPress setting that has morphed into Knight City - and quite possibly the game as a whole, as he emphasised what could be achieved by taking a sideways look at the genre.

Law (with a surname like that, how could he be anything but a 'champion of right'?) was a key player in Royal Wells - and now Knight City - without being able to fly or fire frickin' lasers from his eyes.

Nick pointed out recently that: "I saw Lex Luthor as a character inspiration, although Law was always a much sort of nicer chap."

Away from HeroPress, Nick's really a wargames' man - whether with counters on elaborate maps or painted miniatures on 3D terrain - and an incredible military historian, but I'm hoping to lure him, and his unique perspective, back to the bosom of HeroPress ... playing the cloned 'son' of his former character!

Other RPG Campaigns of Legend:

  • Traveller: Possibly our longest running campaign, following the intergalactic adventures of Jamus Dirkson, big game hunter and ladies' man (Steve), and Marcus DeChambre, the psychotic, trigger-happy mercenary (me). As much as I enjoyed the gun-fu, hack'n'slash of Marcus at the time, I role-played the character very poorly and Nick was extremely tolerant of my juvenile violence obsession - no matter how much it must have screwed with his carefully plotted adventures. Pete made guest appearances every now and again - but always playing different characters as was his M.O. This campaign ran for years and years and only came to an end because 'real life' got in the way and meant regular gaming meets were exiled to the waste bin of history.

Heroes of HeroPress: Steve Delves

HeroPress Campaign: Vandal City, British Columbia, Canada - reknowned for The McCourt Act, which was basically the Superhero Registration Act two decades before Marvel thought of it and used it to fuel their Civil War.

HeroPress Character: Silverfist, a charismatic martial artist, armed with a magical billy club that could transform into any melee weapon. His costume came with glider wings.

Without Steve, I wouldn't be the man I am today. It's as simple as that. He got me hooked on collecting comics, nurtured my role-playing passion and probably even coined the name HeroPress. These days I like to think of us as the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby of the HeroPress universe! That's why there's a statue of him in Knight City.

And this makes it all the sadder that I lost contact with him because I was such an ass about him becoming a Born Again Christian... and a Youth Minister on top of that. I was such a blinkered fool that I saw "the religion" where I should have seen my friend, and so cut myself off from him because I thought we no longer had anything in common. It has taken me a long time - and a brush with death - to appreciate that life is too short for such petty bigotry.

Steve now works as a Youth Minister up in Birmingham, where he lives with his wife and three children.

Other RPG Campaigns of Legend:
  • Villains & Vigilantes: Our big, pre-HeroPress superhero game, which saw the first appearance of The Acrobatic Flea in a strange Dr Who-inspired adventure where we (as ourselves) were kidnapped by aliens to pilot giant space-borne sailing ships in some kind of race ... and in the process developed superpowers. Like Topsy, the campaign grew and grew until, at one stage, we'd developed superhero characters for pretty much everyone we knew from school and lived on a giant Legion Of Superheroes-style spacestation.
  • The Fantasy Trip: Not your run-of-the-mill fantasy game. Our party, which included my ranger Farthorne The Wanderer, was aided by a djinn (modelled on Robin William's character in Aladdin) with a penchant for anachronistic summonings (such as DJ decks and complete disco light systems). We were always being told: "Don't go to the Land Of The Orcs." One day we went to The Land Of The Orcs. We were slaughtered within about five minutes of crossing the border. We should have listened!

A Tea Break ...

Buffy Babes ...

Just as I was getting back into daily doses of Buffy The Vampire Slayer on Sky One, it's unceremoniously yanked from their schedules (admittedly to be replaced by Angel, but still ...)

Buffy's one of those programmes I often take for granted - sure it's not gritty and multi-layered like Battlestar Galactica and the scripts don't play headgames with you like Lost - but it's still brilliant TV that stands up to repeat and multiple viewings.

For the most part the writing is top-notch and sticks to its fan-friendly mythos; it's light-hearted, and has snappy one-liners and dialogue, but does 'serious' very well; it tackles heavy issues without preaching; and rarely turned out a truly awful episode (Xander & Anya's wedding is still a low-point for me), but obviously the whole Buffyverse had one big thing going for it ... everyone is so darned good-looking!

As Nick said to me once: "This is your show!" And it had everything I could ask for: monsters, martial arts, magic, witty banter and hot chicks.

My top ten ladies of the Buffyverse:

Thursday, 18 January 2007

Another Commercial Break ...

A Bit Of History... (part two: Going Pro)

My earliest 'reading' memories are of comic books. Particualrly a green ink British reprint of The Fantastic Four - where they were fighting Dr Doom in his castle and he had traps rigged up for each individual, tailored to their specific powers - and an import copy of Shazam, purchased from a newsagents along Deal coast, back when comics could still be found on revolving racks in English newsagents.

Once I went to Skinners' School, in the early 80s, and met up with my old primary school chum Steve and his brother Pete, I got into comic collecting hardcore. Steve started me off, but then I was flying under my own steam. Even more than roleplaying games - another hobby we shared - American comic books helped define who I was in my own head.

In my first house, one wall of the spare room was floor-to-ceiling sagging shelves of alphabetised and catalogued comics; sadly most of which have now been sold (to continually feed my habit ... and free up space). Such organisation has long gone as well as my collection is now scattered through random packing boxes in Rachel's parents' spare room ... awaiting the day when we can afford to move out of her flat and into a house with room for all my stuff!

Comics drove my passion for creating HeroPress and within a year of the game launching, we had a score of players (including one in the States - again, remember, this is pre-Internet so we had to rely on snail-mail, which was very slow across The Pond). One of them sent the rule books etc into Computer + Video Games, a national glossy with a regular play-by-mail column, and we got a glowing review and the columist - Wayne - became a strong advocate of HeroPress.

Soon we had multiple game masters and more player as the HeroPress juggernaut thundered on. Then in 1991 one of my players told me he was involved in launching a glossy sci-fi/superhero mag called Fantazia and his colleagues were interested in 'adopting' the game. I explained that it was very labour-intensive and they'd never make any money out of it, but that didn't stop them.

HeroPress had a glamourous 'reboot', with new card-covered rule books and new gamesmasters and players, but quite quickly the people behind Fantazia and its gaming spin-off Gamesmaster, realised I had been right all along and we parted company amicably. Gamesmaster and Fantazia went belly-up soon after this - I don't think there was any connection, except that their fanboyish enthusiasm for their hobbies probably outweighed their business prowess.

So, the game was firmly back in my hands, but I had a so-called life by then and didn't really want the hassle of running of it all, so I handed over the reins to Mark (in Brighton) - at the time a househusband - with more brains and ideas than I would ever have. He took the ball and ran with it, eventually, I believe passing it on his friend Richard, who had been the gamesmaster of an 'outer space' campaign in my pre-Fantazia days.

After that ... I don't know, to be honest. I kinda lost touch with my beloved game for a while and hadn't given it much thought until last year when I realised it was a great source of pre-developed material for the Buffy-esque campaign setting I was developing in Wiki format, aka Knight City.

And that pretty much brings us up to date.

Comic Book Hotties ...

When I was a teenager reading comics I always used to snigger at the letters' pages where young men - usually soldiers - would write in and say how much they fancied Starfire (the buxom heroine of the Teen Titans) or some other hand-drawn cutie.

Oh, how silly, I said, when there are so many gorgeous real women out there to admire...


Then Marvel gave us Emma Frost!


Wednesday, 17 January 2007

A Commercial Break ...

A Bit Of History ... (part one: The Fan Years)


"Extremely interesting ... masses of background information"

- Computer + Video Games, 1987

Let us take a journey back in time, to an age without Internet, without websites or email, when fanzines were printed on paper and stapled together by hand, and games were played through "snail-mail".

1987 saw the birth of the HeroPress superhero PBM (play-by-mail), with its own, popular - and sporadic - hand-produced fanzine, which kept players abreast of campaign developments as well as publishing fiction, comic strips, 'controversial' opinion pieces etc.

But several years before that Steve, Pete and I produced an A4 magazine (called HeroPress) for the superhero roleplaying game (Villains & Vigilantes) we were playing at the time (and yes, the Acrobatic Flea was in it even then!), featuring cartoons, character histories, house rules, background information and so on.

Even though we all raved about the magazine (only a single copy was ever printed so that makes it super rare, fan boy), we never got around to producing an issue two because of impending A-Levels and other horrors.

Superhero campaigns came and went (most featuring you-know-who ... hey, it's rare I get a good idea, so I like to milk it when I do!) and in the end we got fed up of not getting anywhere in any of them. So Steve said he would create us all characters and start a big game round at his house one day, for a whole gang of us (not just him, his bro and me).

Not only did he create The New Patrollers (Warhawk, Devilbeast, Warlock, DragonFist, Hellfire, Microtitan and Ironclad) but also a brilliant giant poster of them all in action and this strange little magazine: HeroPress II.

The thing that struck me about the game was that although Steve was a master GM, able to make things up on the fly, and we were all reasonably intelligent players, it didn't capture the feel of the comics that had so inspired us for many years. So fired up by Steve and Pete's work on issues 1 and 2 of this new HeroPress (issue two was the start of the actual adventure we played) I set to work on something I had been thinking about for a while ... a postal superhero game!

And so with issue 3 of HeroPress (and a small advert in The Adventurer - a professional, glossy, roleplaying magazine - which I never actually got to see), the game was born and the rest is, as they say, the stuff legends are made of.

First Recruit ...

Clare signed up to The Knight City Chronicles at 7.08am! Hooray! The game is, as they say, afoot ...

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

HeroPress Reborn ...

Today marked the tentative unveiling of the new look HeroPress "play-by-forum" game on the good old worldwide interweb. Based on a reimagining of a world originally created for a "play-by-snail mail" game back in the Dark Ages (ie 1987 ... before email, internet etc etc).

I had planned the game - this campaign being The Knight City Chronicles - to be a face-to-face, tabletop game for myself, Clare, Nick and Pete; but I have felt quite unwell since Christmas and I've realised that since my stroke (about 18 months ago) my concentration is not what it used to be and probably isn't actually up to the rigours of gamesmastering a real sitdown game.

So what to do? Well, I had this detailed background all ready and waiting (Knight City), players chomping at the bit and a deep well of enthusiasm ... so I went back to first principals and thought about methods I had used before that had worked very well. And the answer was: HeroPress. But dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.

I am already playing in an excellent play-by-forum game elsewhere on the web and so this was the final piece of the puzzle.

E-Invitations have been sent out, story seeds have been planted for players who already had characters ready, now I just have to sit back to wait and see what happens next ...
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