James Wallis levels with you

Alas and alack

Just wanted to share something I’ll be talking up at Dragonmeet this Saturday:

Artwork by Niki Hunter. ‘Godfather of indie game design’ quote from Robin D. Laws, who will also be at Dragonmeet.

(Should you be at Dragonmeet too, I’ll be running demonstration games of the new edition of Once Upon a Time in the lobby from noon until someone tells me to stop. Then at 16.30 I’ll be chairing a panel on ‘The British RPG Industry—Where It Came From, Where It’s Going’ with the help of Phil Masters, Simon Rogers, Dom McDowall-Thompson and Piers Newman. It should be a good one.)

Once Upon a Time – interview with the director

Last week I posted a link to the short film Once Upon a Time, based on my card-game Once Upon a Time—if you missed it it’s here:

It’s a labour of love and remarkably accomplished for a first film from a writer/director. So having badgered him to put the film online, I badgered him into talking about how the film came to be and some of the creative challenges in converting a card-game into a half-hour drama.

Who are you and what are you doing on my blog?

I’m Andrew Shellshear! The “!” is silent. I’m an amateur film-maker, puzzle designer, webcomic writer, juggler, classical guitarist, computer programmer, and game designer. I lack focus, is what I’m saying.

I am here thanks to kind words Mr Wallis had for a short film I made twelve years ago. It was my first short film, and I decided to make it about a game of Once Upon a Time.

Why did you choose Once Upon a Time as the subject for a film?

Film-making is expensive now, but was cripplingly expensive before the late 1990s. Video cameras were several thousand dollars and produced less than broadcast quality, but that was nothing compared with the cost of the editing equipment. By 1999 you could finally do editing on home computers (with specialised video capture boards) for only a couple of thousand dollars. So, having blown all my money on equipment, I wanted to make a first film that wouldn’t cost much, which meant a small cast, few locations, and indoors (outdoor locations are a pain in the neck). People sitting around talking. I had recently been playing OUaT and it struck me that a film about a bunch of people sitting around playing it would be cheap, and potentially dramatic: we can have parallel stories of the fairy tale and the tellers, and the levels could interact in interesting ways.

Did you use the game itself to help the creative process?

Yes – I knew the rough beats of the story, but used OUaT cards to inspire most of the fairy tale elements – more like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, though. I’ve used OUaT cards for that a few times, particularly when participating in Nanowrimo.

Watching people play a card-game can be a bit static. How did you get around that?

Actually, because this was my first film, I was happy to confine it to the traditional “bunch of people talking” scene. It was good practice for the kind of film-making you have to do a lot. I storyboarded the whole film and put in a couple of dolly shots (using a home-made tripod dolly which proved nightmarishly difficult to move around), and tried to make sure I had good coverage (that is, shooting the same scene from several different angles including a master wide shot) to allow variety in editing. I didn’t want to get too adventurous because I knew we only had two weekends to film 30 minutes worth of footage. The main trick to keeping it interesting was to make sure the story was interesting enough, and I tried to make it as tense as I could. Viewed twelve years later, that’s an aspect that does still work, I think.

The story within the film—is that really the kind of story you guys were telling with the game?

Noooooo. I’ve never played a game remotely like that. The script really needed to be punchy to get around the aforementioned static card game problem.

How did the shoot go?

It was a frantic rush. I prepared for it more than I’ve done for any other shoot, but I made a lot of mistakes as well – recording audio separately on minidisk proved a massive pain in editing, and I made a huge mistake in deciding to capture using the Sony TRV900’s “Progressive Scan” mode – it had a frame-rate of 12.5 frames per second (slow and jerky) and the result looked grainy and washed out. On the positive side I had a great crew, and we got through everything in the two weekends allocated.

How was the film received?

I didn’t attempt much of a release – just showed it to my friends and sent it to the creators of the game. Having said that, I *did* rent out a movie theatre and limo, made up posters and t-shirts. The premiere was great! Everyone laughed at the right moments.

The film version of Once Upon a Time modifies the game’s rules. Is that for dramatic convenience, or are there actual house rules in there?

I incorporated a house rule I always use: you only get the ending cards after the first card is played. I found it stopped people planning ahead too much. Otherwise yeah, the changes were because it takes too long to explain about interrupt cards. The game would never work as played in the film.

What other films have you made? What are you working on at the moment? Do you still play Once Upon a Time?

I really burned out on OUaT after the film, but I still use it for the Oblique Strategies on story ideas. This discussion has gotten me thinking about it again, though! I’ll introduce it to my lunchtime game group (the Comic Irregulars).

I’ve made a dozen or so short films, but none that have reached a professional standard. The best two (besides OUaT) are a music video for my friend Evan’s band (he provided the closing credits tune on OUaT), and a fifteen-second segment of the final cut of the Star Wars Uncut film (Scene 302, 1:17:42).

It’s very hard work, and I’m just not focused enough on film-making to push it beyond the occasional amateur effort. I have a full-length movie script about a botched kidnapping, which I’m very proud of – but I just can’t see how I’ll ever get the time to get it made! Nowadays I just make Youtube videos featuring my daughter.

Many thanks to Andrew for talking to me, and for making the film in the first place. Having someone adapt one of your works for a different medium is a wild compliment, and when the end result is as good as the—you’ve not watched it yet, have you? Go and watch it. Really.

And a quick reminder that the third edition of Once Upon a Time—the Games 100 card-game not the film—is newly released and available from all good games stores.

Once Upon a Time – the movie

How do you make a film based on a card-game? Not even Hasbro has tried it yet, but in the late 1990s I received a mysterious videotape in the post from Australia. A young film-maker called Andrew Shellshear had sent me a copy of his first half-hour movie. It was titled ‘Once Upon a Time’ and it was based on the card-game that I’d created with Andrew Rilstone and Richard Lambert.

To celebrate the release of the third edition of Once Upon a Time, which should be arriving in shops as you read this, I’ve finally persuaded Andrew to put the whole film up on YouTube for your delectation. Here it is.

Be warned that the language is not safe for work and specially not safe for children. But it’s a fun way to spend half an hour, and remarkably faithful to the original game. In a future post I’ll be talking to Andrew about how he created the multi-layered narrative and why he chose to write a script based on a card-game in the first place. For now, settle down and enjoy the movie.

(If you want to see more of the new edition of Once Upon a Time, Andrew Rilstone has published a series of unboxing pictures at his blog. It is very nice. If you want to see how it plays, I’ll be demonstrating it at Dragonmeet on 1st December.)



Sudden Sway: a Walk in the Park

Cities change all the time. They are constantly altering, growing, modernising and putting in speed bumps. They’ve been at it since before we were born, and they will be digging up the same bit of road every few years long after we’re dead or moved to the seaside. “It’ll be lovely here,” goes the standard London joke (and Sydney and Paris and New York and everywhere else), “as soon as they finish it.”

But not parks. Parks, surely, change only with the seasons. Why would you update a park—particularly one of the Royal Parks like Regents Park? The great swathe of green, bracketed by London Zoo and the Regent’s Canal to the north and the Marylebone Road and the Circle Line to the south: surely it doesn’t suffer the indignities of a new skateboard park or refreshments kiosk? Surely it is, as Vivian Stanshall described Rawlinson End, “English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal water, Miss Havishambling opsimath and eremite”?

You’d think so.

Imagine therefore the confusion of Kevan Davis and myself as we, standing by the appointed gateway into the park, simultaneously switched on our MP3 players for the Klub Londinium ‘Mystic’ walk and were greeted with the words ‘Take the first turn to your left, passing the small wooden hut’.

There was no wooden hut.

‘As you pass the first bench to your left, look beyond to the cream mansions and the vista southwards.’

There were no benches.

We gave up and went to the pub.

No! We persevered. The park furniture may have disappeared since the Klub Londinium walks were recorded and first organised in 1990, but the path is in the same place, and it was there to be followed.

This was the Mystic walk, one of four created by the experimental pop group Sudden Sway as part of a psychogeographical system for putting people into the heads or at least the mindsets of people mostly unlike themselves. I did the Outsider walk in 1990 and blogged about it recently here. Our journey was an attempt to see how the walks had survived 22 years, and whether it stood up to other, more technologically advanced or better funded experiences along the same lines.

Audio-based walks have been around a while, but they seem to be going through a resurgence. This morning an email from Meetup alerted me to a new group meeting in my local park for walk-and-tell experiences, and Improv Everywhere has just announced Audiogram, an ‘interactive audio adventure’ in collaboration with the Guggenheim in New York, following on from its annual MP3 Experiments. James Bridle reminded me about the Janet Cardiff walk for the Whitechapel Gallery, ‘The Missing Voice (Case Study B)’ (2001), which crosses some of the same terrain as Sudden Sway’s ‘Outsider’ walk, geographically if not artistically.

The Klub Londinium walks aren’t just geographical, they’re explicitly psychogeographical: they show the walker a part of London as it would be experienced by someone with a different worldview. It’s an interesting approach, interestingly executed. In 1990 it was not like anything else. Today, with transmedia a part of every digital agency’s basic toolkit, how would it have aged?

‘Mystic’ was not as I remembered ‘Outsider’. The recording was mono, not stereo (I had been sure that the narrator was in one ear, the voice of the persona in the other). The background music is not bits and fits but a continuous 45-minute piece, and very good indeed. The thing that struck me was how meticulous the timing is: not just the voice track but how well it’s synced to the music, and the music to the walking pace. A great deal of work went into this.

The narrator is more obtrusive, less ambiguous than I remember. It’s not a dry voice giving the general background for the persona to filter and interpret. They collaborate on creating the tone and mood. Given that ‘Mystic’ is a 22-year-old tongue-in-cheek take on new-age mysticism, it’s a mood that hasn’t aged terribly well.

There are three places in the walk where there are references to actors or stooges along the way (I only remember two on the Outsider walk). One is a simple call to observe someone doing something. The second is an interaction, and it’s not clear from the recording exactly what that interaction would have been. The third is—sadly—a repeat of a splendid piece of theatre that had been part of the Outsider walk. I say ‘had been’, though actually the Mystic walk was originally executed before the Outsider one. I know this because I remember people talking about it in the pub after I did Outsider, which brought me the only anecdote I know about the whole Klub Londinium experience.

A bit of context: the Mystic walk takes place almost entirely inside Regents Park. Mostly it’s along wide and well-trodden paths, but there are a couple of bits where the route is more secluded. Along the way the voices on the recording have worked hard to put you into a different state of consciousness—not a trance exactly but a different headspace, one where everything you encounter has a symbolic purpose and position. It’s definitely entertaining, but it’s definitely not a normal state of mind.

So back in 1990 participants were experiencing ‘Mystic’ as intended, walking ten minutes apart, each in their own little bubble of headphoned space, and expecting to meet agents along the way. One of the walkers is a young lady. And in one of the more isolated spots in the park, a flasher leaps out of the bushes and exposes himself to her.

She, of course, has no idea whether this is meant to be part of the experience, and freaks out quite badly.

That’s the anecdote.

The moral of the anecdote, for those of us who plan large-scale game-events, is that there’s always some bastard, whether a player or a member of the public, who will do something you never anticipated. Usually it’s obscene. Even in pre-internet 1990, a walk in the park could have a time-to-cock measurable in minutes.

‘Mystic’ is a journey in space, but also a journey in time. The park had changed, as I said: objects like huts and benches had gone, but less obviously some of the paths had changed their position. We got lost at one point, trying to work out which direction around a pond we were meant to take, and had to stop the audio and re-sync our players. The fact it was late summer meant that the trees were in full leaf and some of the views the Narrator told us to look at were blocked.

And at one point the walker is told to look at some graffiti on a wall, to read the words ‘Infidel’, ‘Hypocrite’ and ‘Sinner’. These words are long gone, but we found them over-written—probably not by a Sudden Sway collaborator but who can tell—with the motto ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’. Faced with such synchronicity, should the modern walker believe the words in their head, or take this new information and assimilate it as a new layer of the experience? We did both. Also it made us laugh.

All in all, it was a very pleasant way to spend a late-summer evening. The gist of the experience survives, transformed by the passage of time, but also changed by the user’s own understanding of the spaces they’re passing through. The walk concludes on Primrose Hill—I don’t think anyone is going to call me out for spoilering a transmedia experience almost a quarter-century old—in an atmosphere of uplifted joy. However my personal memories of Primrose Hill involve my ex-wife, and there’s no way that couldn’t add its own colour to the climax of ‘Mystic’. It’s all grist for the psychogeographic mill.

Do try the Klub Londinium walks, if you get the chance. There are MP3s of most of them, if you know who to ask, and I suspect that walking ‘Hedonist’ (through Leicester Square and Soho) and ‘Materialist’ (the Square Mile) would be fascinating for the student of London’s swift-changing urban landscapes. As experiences they’re still thoroughly engrossing and entertaining, whether you take them at face value or accept the changed city as part of the experience.

In the last post I talked about the walks being an early form of transmedia. Thinking about it more, I think they were actually part of a proto-Alternate Reality Game, based around an exploration of the extraordinary universe created by Sudden Sway over their ten-year career, from neuro-activity modules and the single ‘To You With ReGard’—a dot-com style mid-word capitalisation there, but this was released in 1981—to the finale of their last album Ko-Opera, which to my shame I have never actually heard.

The albums, their related materials, the ICA shows, the sporadic interviews and appearances all link together in strange and lovely ways. For example: one of the tracks the band recorded for their second Peel Session in 1984 is called ‘A Walk In The Park’, and documents a man taking a futuristic dreamlike and decidedly ARG-like guided walk—a ‘hypnostroll’—through a park. Six years later appears Klub Londinium and the ‘Mystic’ walk, and suddenly you are that walker, moving through and into the future.

Extraordinarily imaginative, bizarrely prescient and musically quite wonderful. And a product, so we’re led to believe, of Inprac, a research division of Conseptat, the Idea Agency.

The material’s still out there, for those prepared to dive through digital record bins and the dustier bits of Myspace. Here’s a couple of links to get you started.

The band’s old Myspace page, including recordings and photographs of the legendary Spacemate boxed set

An entirely different Sudden Sway Myspace page, with recordings of the second Peel Session (never formally released) including A Walk In The Park



Klub Londinium: not the Mystic Walk

On Friday last week Kevan Davis and I met in Regents Park and did—simultaneously and not as it’s supposed to be done—the Klub Londinium ‘Mystic’ walk. It was a lovely evening, the temperature and mood were just right, and the experience was transfigurative. I’m still in the process of mustering my thoughts and forcing them into digital form. Shortly.

In the meantime my old friend and comrade-in-arms Mr Cardhouse (we have met once, six years ago) has posted his experience of the Jejeune Institute ARG. It is considerable. Also excellent, because Cardhouse is very high on my list of ‘If you didn’t write like you, who would you like to write like?’ people on the internet, and though not a games guy in the usual sense he gets it. (He was one of the guys behind X/Worship the X, which was part of the early-90s flowering of simply amazing US music/culture zines that also produced Greed (Kurt Sayenga, where are you now?) and Might (ed. one Dave Eggars) and slightly later Raygun. You should know X if only for Evan Dorkin’s amazing two-page comic-strip retelling of Catcher in the Rye illustrated entirely with drawings of Fisher-Price Little People. Yes you should.)

(Fuck me, twenty years ago. Much like Klub Londinium. Was there something in the water?)

Anyway, Cardhouse has caught the lightning-in-a-bottle sensation of being in an ARG experience: the information overload, data coming to you in the wrong order, sometimes weeks or months late, the other people, and the amazing confusion and weirdness and joy of it all. I commend it to you.

Back to it.

Sudden Sway: Neuro-Activity Modules and Klub Londinium

‘This is a Neuro-Activity Module, broadcast to you on the wavelength of sound. NAMs help you “be” more easily. From Conceptat, the idea agency.’

The words jolted me out of my late-evening fervour of typing. It was the early 1980s and I was in my study at boarding school, banging out an article for the gaming fanzine I’d set up a few months earlier, Wereman, with the John Peel show on Radio One in the background. But suddenly—this. This wasn’t Peel’s usual eclectic noisy nonsense. This wasn’t even music. What was it?

‘Kev and Kath, function and data processors for Conceptat—the idea agency—have recently attended the office self-awareness weekend at the Olde Mill By The Stream. Kath is under stress as a result of an attack made outside the Green Man. Kev has left his first wife, who he has understood so well that she no longer exists. Hrrrh hrrrh winebar, hrrrh hrrrh cosy place between town and country. However, the noisy quiet has been broken by a card from the local society. “Come to the Union Ball!” it reads. “Bring two presents, a What and a Why.” Kev is anxious.’ 

What the hell? The text was half-way between the new turks of cyberpunk and Philip K Dick, the audio production like a well-produced self-help tape. Kev and Kath chatted earnestly about Whats and Whys, and spinach gnocchi. It was J G Ballard’s banal future brought vividly to life with quiet hysteria—not knowing whether to laugh or scream. And then, as a distorted voice pronounced ‘Please press [Return] on your computers now’ and the radio speaker broke into the shrill staccato of a home computer programme recorded on cassette, I decided that whoever these people were, and whether or not they got around to making any music, they were going to be one of my favourite bands of all time.

Fast-forward to 1990. Sudden Sway’s two Peel Session tracks, ‘Relationships’ and ‘Let’s Evolve’, have entered legend. The band is about to release its third proper album, having put out the extraordinary Spacemate in 1986—a double album in a box five centimetres thick, stuffed with literature and ephemera about a bizarre and strangely plausible over-commercialised near-future, costing their label WEA a great deal of money that I’m sure it never saw again, and ’76 Kids Forever, the soundtrack of a never-produced musical trading on a faux-nostalgia for the 70s and 80s that didn’t exist yet.

They’ve also released Sing Song, eight different 7” singles pushed out simultaneously in identical packaging to a bewildered and somewhat oblivious public; followed by Autumn Cutback Joblot Offer, an eight-track album on a 7” single. They’d done a residency at the ICA Gallery in London, sitting in a chipboard hexagon playing songs when visitors pressed one of four buttons, while an exhibit around them extolled the delights of the fictional new town of Heavenly Springs. They are still one of my favourite bands.

And then a small mention in Time Out notified me of Klub Londinium, guided experiences by Sudden Sway, by application only. Of course I applied. In return I got… a personality test?

At this point my memories of the event are just that—twenty-year-old memories—so if you’re a Sudden Sway completist please do not rely on the details of what I’m saying here. This is what I took away from the event, not necessarily what was actually organised or actually happened.

I filled in the personality test and sent it back, and was told to turn up at Liverpool Street Station on a Saturday afternoon, with a portable cassette player and headphones. I think at some point a fiver changed hands, and at some point I got a cassette marked ‘Klub Londinium: Outsider’. And this, at last, was the Neuro-Activity Module I’d been promised a decade earlier.

The instructions explained the intention: having graded people into four personality types—Materialists, Hedonists, Mystics and Outsiders—the organisers wanted to give paticipants a way of experiencing London through a different set of cultural filters, by letting them take a tour designed around a different personality type.

‘Ah, psychogeography,’ the smarties are already muttering, ‘the Situationist International, the idea that cities only exist as we perceive them, everybody knows a different London’ and that was part of it, certainly. But this appeared to be the first example of a system for letting you experience someone else’s London—not just giving you their places but their interpretation of them, within the intimacy of a pair of headphones. For the 45 minutes that the tape played you had someone else walking with you, their voice in your head, not talking to you but talking to themselves. And more besides. It was, in 1990—Margaret Thatcher still prime minister, Amstrad computers still considered acceptable—transmedia.

How did it work? Participants were met outside Liverpool Street Station by a representative of Klub Londinium, who gave them an identity badge and told them when to start the walk. Participants walked on their own, with only the tape for company, to guide them and keep them at the right pace. I think there was a ten-minute interval between walkers; it may have been less but it should be fairly obvious already that this wasn’t an activity that was going to scale well.

Press play, and follow the tape’s instructions. There are three elements on the tape: the Narrator, who tells you where to go; a musical score that comes and goes; and the Outsider, your companion on the journey, your Virgil through the seven circles of east London and your guide to this stranger’s perspective.

The only problem was that on the personality test I’d come out as an Outsider, so this wasn’t a million miles from how I’d have seen the walk anyway. It wasn’t me exactly, but it was a worldview I recognised, though exaggerated and unnecessarily depressed. Nonetheless, interesting.

The walk lasted forty-five minutes, and covered—I’d guess—slightly more than two miles. I don’t remember the details of its course—do you remember the route of a 45-minute walk you did once twenty years ago—and most of the sights along the way I’ve forgotten too. The general tone was about urban degeneration, the loss of community, the searching for somewhere to live and to call home. It wasn’t political at all, there was nothing that might alienate the walker from the recorded soundtrack—but the soundtrack was working to create a sense of alienation from the environment, a sense of displacement and discomfort.

It was very well done. It was also quite depressing, that being the core of the Outsider personality. It’s difficult to distance yourself from voices in your head, to gain a sense of detachment and a space in which to analyse what you’re experiencing, and besides it was 1990, nice people didn’t do that sort of thing.

I do remember two specific things:

1. Entering a raised area, like a large courtyard, surrounded by modern buildings. I want to say it was a housing estate or at least modern flats, but that seems unlikely. At this point the narrator makes a reference to something like a surveillance society, and the voice in my head starts going a bit paranoid: ‘I feel like I’m being watched, like I’m a test subject in their laboratory. Are they following me? Are they observing me?’

—except there were people following and observing me, carrying clipboards. They were keeping their distance but there was no question, of all the people around (and admittedly it was a quiet Saturday afternoon so there weren’t many) they were explicitly paying attention to me.

It took my internal games-designer a few seconds to realise that they were stooges who were reacting to people wearing Klub Londinium badges, but for anyone less analytical it must have been an eerie and disorienting experience.

2. Further on, probably two-thirds of the way through the course, there was a long bridge under a railway. The afternoon was overcast and drizzly and the space under the bridge, shadowy at the best of times, was dark and ominous. The narrator warned of crime, of dispossessed youths with nowhere to go, and the Outsider began to worry about danger, about what might be lurking in the shadows

—and there was someone in the shadows, silhouetted against the daylight at the far end of the tunnel, leaning against the wall in a post of arrogant, youthful hostility. Just waiting, not moving. And it was clear that the tape was taking me towards them, right past them.

No one else in sight. Just me and this unknown figure, and the voices in my head: the Narrator calm but insistent that I proceed; the Outsider increasingly panicked by the possibility of confrontation or worse.

Fifty feet away. Twenty feet. Ten. And as I reached arms-distance from the lounging youth he suddenly stepped away from the wall, turning towards me, took a step towards me—

—and another, and walked past me, the way I’d come, and away.

My heart meanwhile, was going like an over-caffeinated jackhammer. It was a brilliant piece of minimal theatre, with me as unwitting stooge and audience together.

The walk concluded at the Geffrye Museum in Bethnal Green, as the Outsider either evaporated or expired in a frenzy of exclusion from the selection of homes that the museum offered; and the participants rendez-voused with members of the band at a nearby pub for something of a postmortem.

I don’t remember much about that part, to be honest. But about the same time I saw Derek Jacobi perform Henry IV parts 1 and 2 over successive nights and I don’t remember anything at all of that. And Klub Londinium made such an impact on me that twenty years later I can still recall the face of the man in the tunnel, a face I saw once, in shadow, for a handful of seconds two decades ago. Anyone who doubts the power of transmedia hasn’t seen it done properly, is what I’m saying.

But why am I telling you this? Klub Londinium was a one-off series of four events and as far as I know they were never repeated. Sudden Sway seem to have ebbed away as the 90s witnessed their predictions of a bland future of corporate brain-whitewashing beginning to come into actuality. But as technology has given games designers the tools to create psychogeographical walks with transmedia elements, geo-synched events and even augmented-reality add-ons, I thought it would be useful to make a record of what must have been one of the earliest attempts to do something like this.

Perhaps not the earliest, though. I’m sure the ghost-walks where hidden watchers cue spooky events have been around for centuries, whether with a human guide and narrator, or with participants following a map.

But Klub Londinium was a specifically media-based experience, possibly one of the first real transmedia experiences, more than twenty years ago, before portable technology included CD players let alone MP3s, GPS or Google Maps. And it’s interesting to look back and compare how cassette-based technology and a couple of friends stand up to today’s enhanced digital experiences.

To this end in a few days Kevan Davis and I are going to redo one of the Klub Londinium walks. Obviously it won’t be the same: the geography of the city will have changed over twenty years—though we’re deliberately doing the Mystic, the one set in Regents Park, to minimise that—and there won’t be any actors or stooges along the way to bring the psychogeographical elements of the landscape alive the way that Sudden Sway originally intended. But we will reconstruct what we can, compare it to the state of the art, and report back.

(Klub Londinium tape inserts courtesy of Fruitier than Thou.)

Hey kids, comics!

With great regret I am selling off my comics collection, prior to moving house. I loved this stuff but it’s spent the last ten years under the bed not being looked at.

We are talking about three full boxes of comics, measuring almost two metres. Probably not far off a thousand actual comics. High points: lots of Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell, Cerebus, Peter Bagge, Jim Woodring (lots of early Jim Woodring), Fantagraphics, Eclipse Comics, weird little b/w indies and art-comics like the Drawn & Quarterly anthologies, some silver/bronze-age oddities. Not a lot of superheroes, basically no Marvel apart from stuff like the Bill & Ted comic by Evan Dorkin (not the movie adaption—though he did that too—but all-new Bill & Ted material by the writer/artist of Milk & Cheese: Dairy Products Gone Bad. Which I’m also selling quite a lot of).

Very little rubbish–apart from a small section labelled ‘worst comics in the world ever’, which I briefly collected. I just discovered that one of them, Neutro, is worth $50 these days. That’s not included in this set.

No, there is no Sandman. Yes, there is every issue (I think) of Reid Fleming: World’s Toughest Milkman and the indescribably awesome Tales of the Beanworld (Actually there is some Sandman, but not much.)

It’s a complete grab-bag of curiosity. There may be some stuff of actual £££ value in here but frankly who knows.

I will take literally the best offer I get. If that’s £5, that’s £5. And you collect or arrange for shipping.

Key points:

I’m not going to spend a complete day making a complete list of everything. If you want to know if I’ve got any specific titles then ping me and I’ll tell you. But no cherry-picking: one person will get the whole collection. This is an exercise in house-clearance, not maximising the value of this thing.

This collection is not suitable for children. Some of it isn’t suitable for teenagers. A few of the books aren’t suitable for anybody.

Most of the comics are bagged. Some of the unbagged ones are  slightly yellowed. General condition is very good–near mint.

Bear in mind that in the late 80s and early 90s I did a lot of comics reviewing and interviewing for the comics magazines of the day (Speakeasy, Fantasy Advertiser, et al). Comics as a medium for art and creative storytelling was a subject I took seriously, and this collection reflects that.

If you’ve got any questions, stick them in the comments. If you’ve got any bids, stick them in the comments too.

I will take the best bid  received by 6pm on Friday 10th August. You have to arrange collection of the comics from Clapham by 14th August at the latest.

If you win, be gentle with them. Lots of good memories here, and I’d like them to go to a good home.

 Update: £60  is bid, lads and gentledames.

Alms and the Beast

Stone Skin Press, the fiction offshoot of Pelgrane Press, has been running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the release of their first four short-story anthologies: The New Hero vols 1 and 2, Shotguns vs Cthulhu and The Lion and the Aardvark: Aesop’s Modern Fables.

This is interesting to me because I like the Pelgrane folk immensely, they have had the considerable good sense to appoint Robin D. Laws as line-editor on the books, Robin has had the lesser good sense to include a new story of mine, ‘Alms and the Beast’ in New Hero vol. 2, and it is featured on the front page of the Stoneskin Press site today.








The basis of the New Hero series is a great concept. In each story, style and genre are less important than the character of the protagonist. He, she or it must be a catalyst within the narrative: provoking change and fuelling the action and reactions, but coming out at the end fundamentally unchanged by what has happened. Conan is a good example but not a great one; James Bond and Judge Dredd come closer to the platonic ideal. So there’s SF, fantasy, modern-day, weirdness, and quasi-historical fiction. Which is where I come in.

For ‘Alms and the Beast’ I’ve revisited some of my favourite themes for short fiction: medieval England as a backdrop; dark forces at work in the world; the interplay of duty, honour and faith; and a protagonist stripped back to their core, trying to find a new role in life and striving how to be a good man who must do bad things. People who know my earlier work may spot similarities with the nameless priest of Morr, god of Death, who appears in the novel Hammers of Ulric which I co-wrote with Dan Abnett and Nik Vincent, or the mutating hero of my Marks of Chaos novels for Games Workshop, who fights Chaos in the Old World and within his own body. And the background might as well be the Dragon Warriors RPG, which I published until last year.

I don’t keep coming back to these themes because I find them easy to write about. The truth lies in the other direction: these are meaty subjects that demand to be explored in different contexts. I don’t write for my own satisfaction, but if I don’t believe in what I’m writing then neither will you. I am drawn to these ideas and the characters who embody them because they fascinate me and pull me in. Easy? If I wanted to write easy fiction I’d be churning out post-Dan Brown thrillers.

Plus I enjoy torturing protagonists, giving them a difficult time, and sinking their barges, whether real or metaphorical. That way lies strong emotions and conflict, and if you don’t have those in a story you might as well be writing a letter to your mum.

So we have a nameless protagonist who wears a leather cloak covered in silver and tin badges from a hundred different sites of pilgrimage; dark schemes and strange rituals in the English summer; disaffected knights returned from an unfinished crusade to a land where their roles are increasingly undefined; and a man who has lost everything in the name of trying to protect what he believes in. It feels like fertile ground for more stories. If you agree, go and throw some money at the Stoneskin kickstarter.

Once Upon a Time in Texas

It’s almost twenty years since Atlas Games released the first edition of Once Upon a Time, the card-game I co-developed with Andrew Rilstone and Richard Lambert. Since then it’s sold around a quarter of a million copies, and is available in ten languages including the pirated Chinese edition. And Once Upon a Time 3rd Edition will be released in time for Christmas this year with all-new art and packaging, and some tweaks and refinements to the gameplay you know.

The game has also sparked the interest of many, many people around the world, who have found ways to use the game and its cards to do things we never dreamed of when we were prototyping the thing on the backs of old business cards at the start of the 1990s.

A couple of weeks ago I heard from Alex Gray, an old RPG designer contact of mine who played one of the OUaT draft decks with me at the Chicago WorldCon in 1992. He told me that two of his friends in the Austin improv scene, Firth and Arjet, are using Once Upon a Time cards as part of their shows at the Hideout Theatre. This sounded awesome, so I got in touch. Here’s Kristen Firth to explain:

Before the show we get audience members to fill out slips we’ve printed on color-coded construction paper, where we ask them for a location, object, or character type that might be in a fairy tale. (Originally we asked for a “character” but got a lot of already existing named characters instead of things like “princess”.) We put the suggestions in a hat, then grab one character and one object and use that to inspire the beginning of the show and protagonist. One of us runs backstage to get into a makeshift costume as that character, while the other begins narrating a story.

We tell the story via a bunch of improv scenes and occasionally more narrating. The non-protagonist ends up playing a lot of other characters, and the protagonist usually at least one or two others briefly as well. Throughout the show we periodically go to the hat and grab one of the three types of suggestions and incorporate it into whatever is happening at the time.

At about five minutes before our show time is up we get the people running the lights/sound at the theater to sound a horn (or whatever noise device they have), and we freeze the show. We go to a deck of ending cards from Once Upon a Time (including both the base game and Dark Tales expansion), choose a few cards randomly, then read them to the audience. Then we go through the choices and let the audience applaud for which ending they want to see. Then we unfreeze, go back to the story, and wrap up in the next five or so minutes ending with the sentence that they chose.

Honestly we could do the whole show with only the cards from the game, and that is how we rehearsed the format before the run. For our performances though we often try to heavily incorporate audience involvement into our various formats, so letting them supply some of the details does that very well. But having a well-constructed ending makes for a nice touch.

If you’re in Austin, go and check out Firth & Arjet at the Hideout Theatre. And if you’re doing something interesting or different with Once Upon a Time, please get in touch.

Every Old Hero Is New Again

Robin Laws has just posted the full cover for The New Hero vol.2 anthology, due from Stoneskin Press in February 2013. It’s a gorgeous piece by Gene Ha, featuring every protagonist from every story in the book, in the style of a classic Japanese woodcut.

I have a story in TNH2, and my character can be seen standing on the bridge on the left-hand side. He’s the tall fellow in medieval clothes, with a pudding-bowl haircut. I can’t tell you his name because he doesn’t have one, but I can tell you that the silver dots on his leather cloak are pilgrim’s badges. If you remember that I’ve written about a fantasy hero with no name and a religious angle before, please be reassured that this guy is very, very different. I think you’ll like him.