Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Ding Dong!

In what has become my customary final blog of the year, I'd like to wish all my friends, family, fans, readers, supporters and clients all the compliments of the season. 2017 has been a pretty good year at Lost Victorian Towers, and I think next year will be better still, with at least two novels, a few short stories, and some stonkingly exciting top-secret gaming projects all in the works.

And it's you lovely people who make it all possible. So Gawd bless yer, ev'ry one!

(This year's Lost Victorian Christmas card created by Dom Murray - @sinistersnowmen on Twitter. (c) 2017.)

Friday, 15 December 2017

Festive Frighteners

Every year, I carp on about spooky short stories for the festive season, but I realise I haven’t talked about another little tradition in my house: spooky films for Christmas! Not necessarily Christmas movies, you understand, but the celluloid equivalent of that old English tradition, the Christmas ghost story. I have sort of an essential viewing list for the Yuletide period. Some of my festive favourites aren’t scary movies at all (for instance the Peter Cushing version of The Blue Carbuncle), but the following list represents my top five, must-see haunting films for the season.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)
For me, this 1968 film from the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas series is one of the finest adaptations of a Jamesian story ever committed to celluloid. The haunting location and amazing soundscape create an unsettling atmosphere throughout, offset by the comedic bumbling of Michael Horden’s Parkins. The finale, whilst not quite [ahem...] meeting modern standards of special effects and execution, is still as fine a portrayal of someone being scared witless as you’ll ever see.

An honourable mention should go to the Nunkie Theatre company’s dramatic reading of this story, which is really masterfully done, and is available here.

The Signalman (1976)
Adapted from the 1866 Dickens short story, this is another of Andrew Davies’ BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, and one that I love more than is reasonable. This is the film I watch in front of a fire, with a glass of scotch in hand and the dog curled up next to me. It’s an intimate performance, carried by two brilliant actors in Denholm Elliott and Bernard Lloyd, with such a great atmosphere. Like most of the series, it’s quite a slow, gentle haunter, with just a few momentary blasts of violence.

The Children of Green Knowe (1986)
Okay, this is a bit of a cheat, as it’s a kid’s BBC mini-series, and isn’t really that frightening for grown-ups. But god, it’s great! I loved this as a child, and the scene of a statue of St Christopher coming to life and wandering about the grounds of the spooky old house haunted me for years, until finally I tracked the series down and rewatched it. Now it’s a firm favourite, although it by no means meets the flashy standards demanded by the youth of today. Don’t know they’re born, etc. Until recently, Youtube was the only way to watch this children's classic, but it now finally has a DVD release.

The Woman in Black (1989)
Regular readers of the blog will know already that I really like this ITV adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel (far more than the big-budget Hammer remake). It doesn’t have the money for flashy effects, so it uses great locations, costumes, music and camerawork to promote a really chilling atmosphere – it’s certainly the most outright scary movie on this list. And it contains, of course, ‘that’ scene, which gave me nightmares as a kid. Sadly, due to a dispute with Susan Hill, this version is no longer available to buy, but you can watch it here.

Scrooge (1951)
Alright, this one isn’t really renowned as a scary movie, despite it being all about ghosts, but it is an all-time classic. It also does contain some rather unsettling scenes (particularly in the segment of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) that set this classic movie aside from the rest of the over-sentimental, mushy adaptations of the tale. If you only watch one version of A Christmas Carol, make it the Alistair Sim one.

Honourable Mentions
You can have pretty much any of the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas if I’m honest – I only listed my favourites above, but I also watch The Number 13, A View from a Hill and The Stalls of Barchester (starring the late Robert Hardy) every year without fail. There’s also a wonderful collection of M R James dramatic readings by Robert Powell, which I’d highly recommend.

If you fancy something a bit more modern and sensational as a seasonal frightener, the recent(ish) movie Krampus isn’t terrible (now there’s an endorsement). But the real gem for me in recent years was the William Shatner-fronted anthology movie, A Christmas Horror Story. A few missteps in the collection, but overall a great little horror movie that’ll make you block up your chimney.

Finally, if you're after general scary movie recommendations, rather than just my seasonal favourites, try this list.

Monday, 20 November 2017

A Foot in the Door

Recently I took part in an event at the University of Derby called ‘Foot in the Door’, a panel-based workshop aimed at aspiring writers, with a view to providing practical information on making writing a career.

It was a really cool event, and I think a lot of the students (not just from the university) got something very worthwhile out of it.

Some of the questions put to the panel crop up regularly in any writer’s life, and I think it’s worth sharing some of the discussion here. Note that these aren’t just my responses, but a general consensus between myself and fellow panellists Anne Zouroudi and Jane Linfoot.

How did you first come to be published?
There are quite a few variations on this theme, and we all agreed that you can ditch the usual protocols if you plan on exploring digital routes to market, or even if you’d rather work on licenced fiction (like novelizations of movies, or Games Workshop’s Black Library imprint, for instance). But the usual way to get published is this:
1.      Write a full manuscript. Finished, edited, polished as best as you can make it, and make sure other people have read it and that you’ve listened to their feedback.
2.      Only when that’s done can you start to look for an agent. Buy the latest copy of the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook. Identify a handful of agents (maybe half a dozen to start with) who are specialists in your chosen genre. Follow their submission guidelines VERY carefully to avoid ending up in the trash. If they want a covering letter/email, spellcheck it to death. If they want 3 chapters, don’t send them the whole book, and so on.
3.      Give the first batch of agents a reasonable length of time (up to 3 months) before submitting to further agents.
4.      Do not take rejection personally – fiction is subjective, and it’s all part of the learning curve. I had one well-known agent tell me the Lazarus Gate was ‘boring’. The very next week I had two other agents say they loved it and were interested in seeing more.
5.      If you have more than one offer, pick the agent you like the best, but also bear in mind their stable of authors. Check the contract. Sign on the line. And wait… The agent will go away and sell your book. It might take a week. It might take a year. You might get offered a six-figure sum. Most likely it’ll be four. Patience, padawan. Your time will come.

Was there a change in attitude – necessary or voluntary – that you had to take once your first book was out?
God, yes. Once book one is edited and prepping for publication, there’s a very good chance you’ll already be writing book two. Now it all gets very real: whether you’re a full-time writer, or propping up the writing with a full-time job, you need to hit your deadlines. Worst-case scenario, there are financial penalties for being late (although they are rarely enforced, best not push it by being unreliable).

Most people write their first book in their spare time. It takes ages (Lazarus took me 2 years). But when you sign a multi-book deal, publishers want one book a year, same time every year. No excuses. Get cracking. NOW!

I worked in magazines for nearly 15 years before becoming a full-time writer. That means I feed off the energy of deadline week. But if you’re the kind of person who hates pressure, then the best favour you can do yourself is to get organised, and write steadily rather than do it all in a frenzy at the end.

How did you find that marketing side of things once the book was released? Is there any advice you would give to aspiring authors in that respect?
Be prepared to spend a *lot* of time promoting the book. Publicists might support and facilitate, but they won’t do it for you. In this day and age writers need a social media presence. You’ll probably be invited to panels, and readings, and book launches. As most writers are introverts at heart, this bit can be terrifying. Thankfully, event organisers and more experienced writers will almost always take you under their wing, and honestly, you might never grow to love it, but you’ll learn how to do it, and that’s nine tenths of the battle.

One note that came up: Also be prepared for sales department pressure on your book content, sometimes more so than editorial. Comments like ‘readers really liked that character, can you bring him back from the dead in the next book please?’ are sadly all-too common. And not always negotiable…

Is there anything about being a professional, published author that has come as a real surprise?
Multiple contracts are no guarantee of further contracts – it’s absolutely true that you’re only as good as your last book. Think several books ahead – where is your next sale going to come from?

What words of advice you would give to authors looking to get published and established?
My word of advice was this: It’s very hard to get rich in the writing game these days. The days of the ‘mid-list-author' are pretty much finished, and it’s quite telling that many of the superstar novelists we know today have been superstar novelists for decades – they made it big when it was still fairly commonplace to do so, and the marketplace wasn’t so packed. This isn’t meant to be negative: there’s still room to carve your niche. But don’t write just to make money. You’ll only end up following trends and writing stuff you think will sell, rather than make good art. Write what you’d like to read, and what you’re inspired by, and you’ll find an agent and editor who love it and are also inspired by it.

There you have it – a whistle-stop round-up of the discussion, and only my personal recollections. Similar events take place up and down the country on a fairly regular basis. If you’ve been thinking seriously about turning writing into a career, I’d highly recommend checking them out. 

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Lazarus Gate Easter Egg Hunt

In an interview earlier this year, I was asked about ‘easter eggs’ hidden in my books – those little nods to pop culture, historical figures and wry in-jokes that many writers like to seed into their work. And as I’m no exception to those writers, it got me to thinking just how many times I insert some vague references, or make myself smile with a line that calls to mind some classic Victorian novel. Now, a lot of these references get edited out. Some are unconscious, and I end up removing them when I realise what I’ve done. Some, however, are obscure enough and personal enough to me to make the final cut.

For this blog, I’ve gone right back to book one, the Lazarus Gate, and picked out my top five easter eggs. There are lots of others – if you spot them, drop me a line here. There’s literally a No-Prize for guessing…

Charles Dickens References
There are many Dickens riffs in the Lazarus Gate, because more than one character has a passion for his work – notably Rosanna. Ever the one for an oblique reference, for example, I adapted two lines from the short story ‘The Queer Chair’ as simple descriptors in the text. The originals are: ‘If any Bagman of that day could have caught sight of the little neck-or-nothing sort of gig…’ and ‘The wind blew… sending the rain slanting down like the lines they used to rule in the copy-books at school, to make the boys slope well.’

 John’s Boarding House
It won’t come as much of a shock to learn that Hardwick is inspired by several Victorian characters, notably Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (he has a little of both in him). I wanted a Sherlockian nod in the book, and decided to have him staying at a boarding house, run by a Mrs Hudson-esque housekeeper. The address, however, is the fun bit. Because the real-world 11 George Street is situated next door to the building used as 221B Baker Street in the BBC Sherlock TV series, better known today as ‘Speedy’s’ sandwich shop.

You Can Take the Boy out of Stoke…
When I was a youngster growing up in Stoke-on-Trent, I was a big fan of Stoke City Football Club, and even though I live in a different city now, I still follow their fortunes (and, mostly, misfortunes). But I’ll never forget my first match, which was at the old Victoria ground in Stoke during the 92/93 championship-winning season, which saw us promoted to the first division (later ‘the Championship’, for reasons). The point of this story? Well, the winning team comprised players such as Regis, Gleghorn, and Cranson – and a whole bunch of other names that have cropped up throughout the Apollonian Casefiles trilogy as hard-pressed policemen.

Big Dave Regis, right; one of my boyhood heroes.

Tsun Pen
The Artist’s true name is Tsun Pen, and his namesake is Ts’ui Pên, the ancestor of Doctor Yu Tsun from The Garden of Forking Paths. This story had a profound influence on The Lazarus Gate far beyond the character of the Artist; the uncanny string of coincidences that leads John to the Artist, the circle of circumstance that makes the Artist able to interpret all fates but for his own, and the strange environs of the House of Zhengming, are all inspired by Ts’ui Pên’s great work—a hypertextual novel that represents his unnavigable, infinite labyrinth. It’s a strange and wondrous short story, as trippy as a trip to Tsun Pen’s opium den…

The USS Helen B. Jackson
The ship name comes from the four-masted schooner in the F. Marion Crawford novella, ‘Man Overboard!’, a supernatural tale that centres on the story of identical twins putting out to sea. This is a really great story, and some of the themes were just too perfect, so I knew I had to give a wink to it in the Apollonian Casefiles.

Friday, 15 September 2017

The Blog Tour Was Foreseen...

To accompany the imminent release of The Legion Prophecy, I'm delighted to announce the latest blog tour! Please do check out these wonderful friends of the Apollonian Club and join us on a walk between worlds...

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Review: The Blackcoat's Daughter

Today’s horror movie review is an odd fish and, to be honest, not really what I expected from the blurb or the trailer. Read on…

I actually watched this one as an import under the alternative title ‘February’ – a far better name, actually, because as far as I could tell the ‘Blackcoat’ only really appears in the first few minutes of the film, and it’s never made clear if the girl at the centre of proceedings is his (or maybe her) daughter or not.

The setup has great potential. Two girls at a religious boarding school are left behind when school breaks up for the holidays, because their parents don’t collect them. The older girl, Rose, is instructed to babysit the younger, Kat, until their parents turn up. The remote location, and the idea of these two kids being alone in a huge empty school with something sinister roaming the halls is a great premise. Elsewhere, we have a mysterious, troubled girl, Joan, hitching a ride toward the school, although it’s not explained at first what her connection is.

What we have here is a slow-burn, psychological movie, which may or may not be supernatural in nature. In fact, nothing much is made very clear to the viewer at all, with the movie’s predilection for non-linear narrative, jumbled, juxtaposed images, and very little dialogue. It’s almost art-house at times, beautifully shot, and sometimes poignant. In style and atmosphere, themes and location, and certainly in terms of the soundtrack, it’s very similar to one of my favourites, Session9. However, although not a terrible film, it does fall a long way short of that particular horror gem.

Where Session 9 genuinely fills every frame with a sense of unease, The Blackcoat’s Daughter attempts to artificially wring that sense from its scenes through a jarring soundtrack overlaid onto the most mundane shots. It’s only later when director Osgood Perkins fills in the blanks through flashbacks that we see what he was driving at, but by then I fear a few people may have switched off because, aside from a few truly creepy moments, the movie is almost unforgivably dull. It’s not helped by the fact that the biggest twist is rather clumsily handled – the only reason you don’t guess it right from the start is because the on-screen captioning – the thing you look to for concrete information such as location, character name and/or timeframe – deliberately misleads you. That doesn’t sit well with me – I’d rather have no captions than ones that fib. And sadly, it’s not an original twist – it’s been done much more successfully elsewhere, and very recently (not wanting to post spoilers, but see HBO’s Westworld).

The Blackcoat’s Daughter is eerie, hauntingly beautiful in parts, and does have a rather poignant ending, with serious questions about diminished responsibility. The possession aspect is pretty original, and rarely resorts to tired tropes. While she doesn’t have a huge amount to do, Emma Roberts further cements her acting credentials, and I reckon it’s a matter of time before she becomes a box office draw in her own right. It’s just a shame the pacing is so cretaceous, and the whole doesn’t mesh slightly better.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Red Tower

Very pleased to reveal the rather spiffing cover of my next Sherlock Holmes novel for Titan Books. Released in spring 2018, Sherlock Holmes: The Red Tower is a Gothic mystery for Holmes and Watson, featuring a medieval tower, a ghostly red lady presaging a family curse, a seance on a stormy night, and dark deeds afoot.

Coming in Your Ears

With Alan Clifford in the studio.
So here's a thing: yesterday, I was on the radio. I know, right?!

Thanks to the attention drawn to my Victorian scribblings in my Left Lion Magazine interview, I was contacted by the peeps at BBC Radio Nottingham to do a live chat spot on their Afternoon Show with Alan Clifford.

We had a good chinwag about Victoriana, Sherlock Holmes, the difference between Victorian SF and Steampunk, whether people talk to their dogs, and other random musings. You can find the segment here (starting at about 3:07:30).

And yes, as my agent tells me, the dictionary definition of 'cringe' is 'hearing your own voice on a recording', but I'll make this small sacrifice for you, dear readers!

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Silver Scream

Like most nerds, I’m a massive movie fan, undoubtedly spending too much of my precious time slobbing out on the sofa in front of the latest films. My particular penchant, as regular followers will know, is horror movies (and TV series) – preferably, although not limited to, atmospheric ghost stories rather than crazy slasher flicks. I realised the other day that I’ve started to binge on horror movies of late, old and new, and because I’m a huge fan of the genre I’ve decided to start publishing short reviews on the blog.

Reviews are really subjective, and I certainly won’t be doing star ratings, but hopefully you’ll find my musings useful, especially if you like the same sorts of movies as me. For a quick primer on what I consider to be great horror, check out a previousblog post on the subject here. One of the things I find interesting about the horror genre is that it usually gets a lower critical rating overall when compared to other genres – on IMDB for example, the best horror struggles to reach a 7.0 rating, while the poorest superhero movie will easily surpass that. This leads to specialist horror movie reviewers giving their genre a bit of an easy ride, whereas actually in some cases horror really needs to up its game and steer away from formulaic tropes in order to be, well, scarier!

To get up-to-date on my watch list, I’m going to kick off with three mini-reviews.

The Void

In a nutshell, this much-hyped movie is a mash-up of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing, which are about the finest influences a pseudo-80s horror flick could have. Here we have a bunch of misfits trapped in a hospital, with knife-wielding cultists outside, and something horrendous inside. The movie has a great look and feel, from the design of the cultist robes (pictured) to the Lovecraftian horrors we encounter in the basement of the hospital. The body horror moments are well handled, the practical effects impressive, and the performances are generally solid.

Where The Void falls down is that it wears its influences too readily on its sleeve. There is the germ of a really cool story here, about dark magic helping humans to the next stage of evolution. But it gets a little lost in the blood and gore, which starts very early and doesn’t really let up. Too much of the emotional connection between protagonist Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) and his nurse ex-girlfriend Allison (Kathleen Munroe) seems forced and contrived, lacking the time required to grow our attachment for these characters organically.

This movie wants really badly to be John Carpenter’s The Thing, but lacks the character studies, nuance and sense of paranoia it needs to pull that feat off. It’s a worthy effort, and well worth a look, but I doubt it’ll stand the test of time half as well as its inspiration.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

I was inspired to check this one out on the recommendation of horror maestro Adam Nevill, which is certainly enough for me. The last time I checked out a movie he recommended it was the Taking of Deborah Logan, which I really enjoyed. But I digress.

Autopsy’ revolves around a mysterious body – a ‘Jane Doe’ – that is brought to a coroner (the excellent Brian Cox) and his assistant son (the slightly less excellent Emile Hirsch) to identify. The setup is really effective – it’s a remote location, after hours, the father is a stickler for procedure, the son just wants to go catch a movie with his girlfriend but agrees to stay. The body is a real enigma, showing signs of internal trauma and burning simply not possible for its flawless external condition, and having a suppleness that a long-dead corpse really shouldn’t have.

When the really weird stuff starts happening, we’re embroiled in a tense, panicky battle with dark forces, witchcraft and the walking dead. Unfortunately, that’s when the movie also starts getting a bit silly. There’s no real rhyme or reason to Jane Doe’s vendetta against the two coroners, and no real explanation of the extent (or limitations) of her powers. So what follows is really a collection of excellent horror set-pieces that don’t quite gel. There are a few annoying plot holes and inconsistencies, including one obvious error that had me shouting at the screen, but for all its faults Autopsy remains one of the best horror movies of the year. Well worth a watch.

Jordskott (TV series)

Part Scandi-noir crime, part folkloric horror, part environmental think-piece, Jordskott is a really unusual piece of television, and one of the weirdest and most absorbing things I’ve watched in a long time.

Detective Inspector Eva Thörnblad (Moa Gammel) returns to Silver Height seven years after her daughter Josefine disappeared by a lake in the woods. The body was never found and the girl was believed to have drowned. Now a boy has vanished without a trace and Thörnblad wants to find out if there is a link to her daughter's disappearance. That in itself might be intriguing, but when you throw in a corporate conspiracy spanning decades, the monsters who live in the woods (some in human form), and a sinister hitman with a vendetta against said monsters, you have a recipe for a wild ride.

The writing and acting in Jordskott is uniformly excellent, although quite often character points will be dragged out for far too long for little reason other than that the narrative requires it. The characters are well-rounded – even minor characters get a chance to shine, and all have believable backstories. There does come a point where the show could very easily tip into superhero territory, but it just about manages to tread that particular tightropes without becoming ridiculous. And the ending… well, as a crime drama, it wraps up nicely, but the deeper mystery about the titular Jordskott is left open. Lucky they’ve announced season 2 already…

That’s all for now. Let me know if you like this sort of content, and if so I’ll try to make it a little more frequent. In the meantime, don’t have nightmares…

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Chosen Men: Austria

I've been working on some extra content for Chosen Men for a while now, and I'm pleased to announce the first fruits of my labours is ready for public consumption. The Austrian army is ready to take to the field!

You can download the list for free here.

If you want to see more free wargames downloads from me, please do consider supporting me on Patreon. No one pays me for the continued support of these games, and as my ongoing titles expand, it gets harder and harder to devote time to bonus content.

And finally, a bit of historical background for those who like that sort of thing...

Often defeated, and sometimes bowed into submission, Austria’s army were nonetheless always ready to renew the fight. Each time, they learned from past mistakes; each time, they were that much more experienced. From the time of Napoleon’s first campaign in Italy to his surrender almost two decades later, Austria remained the staunchest threat to his aspirations.

The Austrian army that fought Napoleon in 1796 was a relic. Its troops paid dearly for their officers’ lack of ability and the conservatism of their commanders-in-chief. After their defeat in the Italian campaign, Archduke Charles reformed the army, switching the emphasis from linear tactics to manageable battlefield formations. When the army was defeated again in 1800 and 1805, those reforms had still not taken full effect, leaving the commanders frustrated.

It was a very different case in 1809, when the reorganised and rejuvenated Austrian army – the largest army in the world at that time – inflicted a humiliating defeat on Napoleon at Aspern-Essling, before succumbing to the French juggernaut at Wagram. However, emboldened by its partial success, the army introduced further reforms, creating Army Corps in the French style. For a time the Austrians fought alongside the French, marching with Napoleon into Russia in 1812, though their hearts were never in the fight. In 1813, the Austrians declared war again, and their commitment was not in question. The Austrian army harried the French all the way back to Paris, and their efforts were instrumental in Napoleon’s final defeat.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Carthago Delenda Est

One of the things I've been working on in the background of late is a collection of new rules and content for Broken Legions. Aimed at tying together my Cthulhu Campaigns: Ancient Rome sourcebook with the Broken Legions wargame, this project includes new warbands, wandering monsters and special rules galore.

You'll be seeing these efforts in various formats over the coming months, but for now, have a free warband, on me.

The Scions of Hannibal are the last remnants of old Carthage, sworn enemies of Rome, and followers of sinister gods. They might have nowhere to call home any more, but with War Elephants and hideous Behemoths to call upon, however, they are not to be sniffed at!

You can download the rules here!

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Cover Reveal: It is Foreseen

The cover for the third book in the Apollonian Casefiles is up now!

From the Jacket:

1893. Colonel John Hardwick is an embittered veteran of the secret war against the Othersiders, and lives a life of reclusive solitude away from London. But when members of his old unit are killed at the hands of monstrous creatures, and whispers abound that the Artist, Tsun Pen, has returned from the grave, fears spread for Hardwick’s life.
     John’s former friend, Captain Jim Denny, and the American adventuress Marie Furnival, must persuade John to come out of self-imposed exile, and help them discover this impostor who carries the Artist’s name. But defeating this new threat will lead them to discover dark secrets at the heart of the Order of Apollo – secrets that could shake the fabric of the world just as surely as the Lazarus Gate. 

This is the big one – the book that binds The Lazarus Gate and The Iscariot Sanction together, and introduces some new characters, too. The Legion Prophecy hits stores in September.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Writing Like There's No Tomorrow

A bit quiet on the blog front again, primarily because I'm so darned busy I can barely keep up! A few recent releases to keep you informed about though, well worth a plug on here for posterity.

First up, my first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Betrayal in Blood, is in all good bookshops now. Published by Titan, this feature-length Holmes story is actually based on some research I did years ago when I was studying Bram Stoker's Dracula, and asks the question, what if Dracula was innocent of all charges? This book was great fun, and it was a real challenge trying to capture not only the voice of Watson, but also of the key players in Dracula. Early reviews indicate I was pretty successful, so do check it out!

Secondly, I just received my author copy of the charming A Clockwork Iris, a collection of Iris Wildthyme short stories which includes my tale, Petit Fours, Petite Mort. For those who don't know, Iris Wildthyme is a time-travelling adventuress sort-of-but-not-quite in the Dr Who universe, made famous by Whovian companion Katy Manning in the popular audio series. It's the first time I've had a comedy tale published, and really enjoyed writing it.

The other week I was delighted to receive a new edition of my Sleepy Hollow book. Originally written for Osprey Dark, it's been re-released as Hunting the Headless Horseman, with a lovely library-edition hardcover in the US, by Rosen Publishing. It might be a year old, but it felt pretty special to get a hardback release!

Finally, for the wargaming crowd, I received my author samples of the Arkham Knight Campaign Book from Knight Models. This was my first contribution to the Batman Miniature Game as author rather than editor, and I'm very proud of this. Big shout out to Luis at Knight for his incredible graphic design work - he makes us writers look good!

It doesn't stop there: keep your eyes peeled in the very near future for some Broken Legions articles in the venerable pages of Wargames Illustrated, a feature on the Apollonian Case Files in the Nottingham arts magazine Left Lion, and a short story in the forthcoming Ghost Archipelago anthology from Osprey Publishing.

My very own Hound of the Baskervilles, #bdog,
helping out with editing the Legion Prophecy.
I'll be blogging on a few of these titles, and more, in the near future. For now, I need to finish editing the third Apollonian book, The Legion Prophecy, start my second Sherlock Holmes novel, finish a Holmes short story for a forthcoming Gothic anthology, and get to work on several top secret licensed games (keep an eye out on my Facebook page for more details as they emerge). Busy busy busy!

Friday, 17 March 2017

Getting Started in Games Design

Recently I gave a couple of talks at a local college in Nottingham as part of their Industry Week. Aimed at Games Design students primarily invested in the video games industry, it was a great opportunity to introduce some of those young people to the world of tabletop games, and to meet a few existing fans, too.

A few questions came up about games design, and about freelancing generally, which made me think about my own career path, and what advice, if any, I could give to aspiring freelancers. So here’s what I came up with.

Becoming a Games Designer
There are three things that need to fall into place to become a professional games designer: hone the craft, develop a thick skin, and land the gig. Let me explain.

Honing the craft means taking games design seriously. Everyone thinks they can do it, and everyone has an opinion on it, but until you actually dedicate a chunk of your life to it as an academic effort, it’s rare to really grasp what goes into good design. Start by playing as many games as possible – different games. Learn the way different types of activation work and why, understand why dice and bell curves work the way they do. Tear them apart and reconstruct them. You also need to understand the difference between a casual game, a tournament game and a simulation. A lot of games these days try to be all three. If you’re serious about design, you have to address the watertight tournament mindset, because there’s no better way of making robust rules than to have serious competitive gamers dismantle them for you. (FUN vs MATHS)

That brings me nicely to the thick skin bit. Feedback is the number one way of improving, so your rules will need to be read (and most importantly, played) by lots of people, preferably strangers. Asking for honest feedback and taking that feedback on board is essential. I was terrible at this when I started out! A thick skin also prepares you for inevitable rejections, when no one wants to publish your game, or everyone hates it, or you don’t get the job you wanted. Which brings me to…

Admittedly, White Dwarf is
such a big brand that it's
opened a lot of doors for me.
My lucky break!
Getting the gig. As I said, it’s a long process to land any kind of major games development project. Going it alone is the hardest path by far. The most common, and easiest path, is to get a job with a large games company. Games Workshop, Mantic, Warlord, Privateer Press, Modiphius, Fantasy Flight, etc. Get a job as a writer or editor. It’ll be a junior role, but you’ll learn from experienced heads. You know what made me improve the most in all the years I’ve been at it? Working with Jervis Johnson and Rick Priestly, and realising just how much those guys think about every percentage, every special rule, every word on the page. And there’s a lot to be said about cutting your teeth on an existing games system, like 40K or Kings of War – it gives you the safety net of a system that’s already been developed over time, while teaching you how it all works and letting you add your own little niche to that system. While I was there, I managed to write a couple of games freelance for Warhammer Historical (sadly now defunct). The people who liked those games invited me to a wargames show. When I was there I landed a job writing an article for an historical gaming mag. That in turn introduced me to a few other people, who offered me editing work. By the time I’d worked my way up to lead editor on 40K, I had dozens of contacts in the industry, and enough clout to pitch for work. So there you have it, a very long wall of text, which boils down to: practice, work hard, and network.

Not everyone wants to work their way up. Some people want to jump in at the deep end as freelancers, or become ‘specialists’ at the really fun bits, like world-building and background writing, or board game design consultancy. Let me tell you – no one gets these gigs without first doing the grunt work. Why? Because everyone wants to do it, and lots more people already think they can, but very few people can actually do it well.

In short, if you’re starting out in the industry, don’t expect to offer your services as a freelancer straight away, because it’s quite likely you’ll be lacking three essentials: technical ability, experience and reputation. The only way to get these is to go and work for someone, full time in an office, and start acquiring them! Do as much training as you can; go on courses; talk to designers about their process; learn how books and magazines are put together from concept to publishing; learn how components and miniatures are manufactured, and how that informs your design decisions; learn about budgetary considerations; and playtesting best practice; and… everything!

Managing Relationships
A huge part of freelancing is networking, compromise, and negotiations. Sometimes you’ll have to negotiate around your fee. Sometimes you’ll have to compromise around a game element that you’re really proud of, but that the client simply doesn’t like. Being precious when you’re getting paid freelance isn’t a commodity most people can afford, unless you’ve already got a reputation for being the best in the business (and even then it’s a risky strategy, if you don’t want to become known as an egotistical jerk). Knowing when you’re right and when you’re being precious is always difficult. Knowing when you have to concede even if you are right is even harder. But remember – whatever you might believe deep down, the customer (the client) is always right! (Except when they forget to pay an invoice, in which case by all means rain righteous fury upon them).

Variety is the Spice of Life
When you do decide to take the step into the freelance world, make sure you use all of those contacts I mentioned earlier to get the widest variety of clients possible. Say yes to every job in those early days (unless you really can’t deliver). Bust a gut, and become the go-to guy for as many companies as possible. The variety of work will keep everything fresh and interesting for you, provide all-important income, and the challenge of prioritising workloads and meeting ever-shifting and ever-increasing deadlines will help you become disciplined. And whatever you do, don’t think that because you’re a creative-type that you don’t have to be organised. You’re running a business now. You have no project manager, no secretary, no admin staff. It’s just you, a calendar, and a computer. It’s time to step up!

In my earliest days, the contacts I had weren’t quite enough to make ends meet. So I went phishing. No, not like a fake Nigerian princess via email, but rather targeted touting of my skills. Remember, I’d done all that groundwork for fifteen years, so I had a good CV to show people. I got work via LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. I asked old contacts for personal introductions to prospective clients (I still do this now – I’m currently working for a pretty big tabletop company because a good friend knew a guy who knew a guy…). I even found companies who I felt made good product, but could use my skills to improve, and so I dropped them a line cold, and a couple of them came back and gave me work. If you’re open and honest, hard-working, with a proven track record, these techniques will pay dividends. But like any creative gig, you have to steel yourself for inevitable rejection. I’d like to think I get a foot in the door with most gaming companies, but I’m afraid to say it’s not always true – some simply don’t return calls from unsolicited freelancers as a company policy. Don’t take it personally – move on to the next email on your list!

I’ll leave it there, as that’s probably a lot to take in. As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments below. I might even revisit this topic at a later date.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Oh... FAQ!

I was putting together the obligatory FAQ and Errata document for my game Broken Legions the other day (located here, if you’re interested), and I had that inner voice groaning at me as I worked, the same one that always groans at me when I work on these things. Because I hate FAQs and Errata.

What are FAQs and errata? Basically, FAQs are frequently asked questions regarding rules, usually cropping up because of unforeseen combos or circumstances that didn’t arise during playtesting, while errata is simply Latin for errors. These are genuine mistakes, ranging from simple to typos in the book, to omissions that got left out of the layout, or cut-and-paste errors where rules from an earlier version got left in the final manuscript, etc.

I called these documents obligatory before, and it’s true – if you produce a set of wargames rules, FAQs are usually necessary, but always expected. It’s virtually impossible to make an error-free book, and God knows I’ve tried. The biggest and most professional rulebook production team I ever worked in was at Games Workshop – a whole team of writers and game designers, who’d often ‘peer review’ each other’s work, two playtesting teams (one internal, one external), two sub-editors, a rules editor, a layout team to check each other’s graphic design, and me overseeing it all. And still we managed to make mistakes. Basically, when a set of rules gets released into the wild, suddenly you have thousands of people looking at it, whereas before there was only a couple of dozen. You also get people playing games with armies/warbands/crews that you may not have had the chance to test yourself, so the combination of Army X vs Army Y throws up all kinds of conflicts you just couldn’t have predicted. You get ‘min-maxers’ – competitive gamers who choose the most lethal combos they can see in order to mince their opponents… all these things tend to throw up questions.

Most FAQs can be solved by carefully re-reading the rules as written. Some can’t really be resolved with a simple ruling, and you might just need to accept that these things are never perfect, roll a dice to see who’s interpretation holds sway on this occasion, and move on. Others really do need clarification – it’s likely that the rules aren’t as clearly expressed as the author believed, or even if they are enough people have queried it as to require a more thorough explanation. If a question arises as a result of a mistake somewhere in the rules, that’s covered by the errata, rather than the FAQ.

With me? If so, strap in…

Errata are dangerous. They are foul beasts, designed to tempt the unwary games designer into the worst imaginable sin: tinkering.

It’s all well and good to correct errors, but should you use errata to change rules for the sake of improving balance, or because you had a better idea later? Where does it end? I was reminded of this great sin just today, after reading yet another swathe of errata for the X-Wing Miniatures Game. These ‘corrections’ make sweeping changes in the form of nerfs and buffs to various ships and pilot cards in the game, usually in response to abuses of the game’s ‘meta’ amongst tournament players. And it’s mad as a box of frogs.

Why? Because who really seeks out errata? X-Wing is a game that relies on masses and masses of cards, all with rules printed on them. When a new player buys the game, his/her cards are already invalid. If you do have the errata, in order to have a game you have to select your cards, find the errata, realise your selection has been nerfed a dozen times since they were printed, change your selection, repeat. But who really keeps on top of the errata? I keep asking that because it’s important – competitive players are interested in errata, and actively seek them out. Casual players often don’t know they even exist. Are the casual players doing it wrong? Or are we, as designers, saying it doesn’t matter – as long as you have fun, who cares which version of the rules you play? But in that case why put so much time and effort into a document that only (and I hesitate to say this, as it’s not universally true) the minority of gamers will ever use?

I was picking on X-wing earlier, and that’s perhaps unfair, as all of my own games gave their fair share of FAQs and Errata. But I do try to be disciplined about what I cover. I do the bare minimum to make sure that the original intent of the design is upheld, and to atone for human error. I flat-out refuse to make wholesale changes to a game – even if those changes would ‘improve’ the game. My view is that wholesale changes should be noted down and reserved for a ‘second edition’ in the years to follow, rather than tinker with a published set, invalidate people’s purchases, and perhaps cause further problems.

Looking to the future (the future is now…), digital rulebooks have already revolutionised this entire process. Some companies make errata without you ever realising, ‘pushing’ through the changes as part of an update to the ebook. In some respects, that’s really cool, right? But what if you’re the guy who’s spent thousands of dollars on an army, only to have it nerfed via an update to a five-dollar app? What if you have a print copy of the book, but your opponent has the digital copy? Is the digital copy ‘right’, even though you purchased your print copy just yesterday? These are the questions that games companies (and humble freelancers like me) are wrestling with daily.

For now, I accept them as a necessary evil. Sometimes, if used responsibly and publicised well, they can even do good! But on the whole… I really hate ’em.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

A Visit to Knight Models

For the past few years, I’ve been working on a freelance basis for a pretty cool tabletop miniatures company called Knight Models, based in Madrid. If you don’t know who they are, they’re the masterminds behind the Batman Miniature Game, the DC Universe Miniature game, a host of awesome collectable miniatures, and very soon, the much-talked-about Harry Potter Miniature Game. I know, right?

The kind of office that could tempt
me back into office work...
This week, I paid them a visit, finally putting faces to the names that I’d known for so long. As it was my first time in Madrid, the guys whisked me around the beautiful city of Madrid for some evening sightseeing and a business dinner. Next day, I spent some time in the office, seeing where the magic happens – almost literally in the case of Harry Potter! I talked to the owner of the company, Jose, about the many projects and plans he had lined up – and he allocated some incredible jobs to me, including some rather tasty Batman expansions for release over the next couple of years. I then spent some time with games designer Gustavo Cuadrado, working on the Harry Potter game mechanics. It’s been a real privilege to be involved in this one from the start, bouncing ideas around for rules and cool physical gaming components. Not long now before we can share those ideas, but for now I’m afraid it’ll have to be a secret.

The Knight Models team is small but dedicated, working feverishly in an office directly above their factory (aka the Batcave). Figure-painters, graphic designers and writers work hard, surrounded by comics and memorabilia, and some out-of-this-world Harry Potter collectibles. The guys showed me the miniatures they’ve produced to date, and you’ll have to take my word that they’re gob-smackingly good. The best output I’ve seen from a company already known for its dynamic sculpts.
Finally, in-house painter Borja proudly showed me the office cabinets, full of studio-quality miniatures. I’m not allowed to show you all the pictures I took, of course, but a few sneaky shots managed to find their way onto Twitter. (Whistles innocently).

I left Spain with armfuls of new toys, some great new friends, and more work than a mere mortal should take on. But what a trip. Viva España!

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Chosen Men: Design Notes

**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the January 2017 edition of Wargames Illustrated. Produced here by kind permission.

The 29th Foot driving the 9th Light Infantry off the Cerro de Medellin at bayonet point,
by Graham Turner © Osprey Publishing. Taken from Campaign 253: Talavera 1809.

Ah, the smell of musket-smoke, the roar of cannon-fire, the pounding of hooves on cracked earth. It’s been a while, but it’s good to be back in the Napoleonic era with Chosen Men. My previous efforts have included Trafalgar and Waterloo, both for the now-defunct Warhammer Historical, and two very different exercises in games design for me. Trafalgar, for instance, was written as a fast-play, cinematic interpretation of Napoleonic naval combat – something I thought was lacking in an otherwise packed field of ‘simulation’ type naval games. Waterloo, on the other hand, was an effort to take the huge breadth of Napoleonic-era land battles and wrap them up into an accessible set of rules for all, sort of bridging the gap between glossy fantasy battles and the grit and substance of the historical Napoleonics gaming scene.

So, where does Chosen Men fit on that scale? Naturally, as it’s me, somewhere between the two! This is very much a ‘Mark Latham’ game, so if you like what I’ve done before, you’ll probably like this one too – it plays differently, but has a similar vibe. However, I know that fans of Osprey’s wargames series want as much grit as can be reasonably milled into those slimline volumes. Therefore, while I haven’t become a grognard overnight, I’ve gone for a balancing act between a cinematic feel and ‘realistic’ mechanics. It’s a tricky one, that’s for sure…

The Inspiration

I’ve loved Napoleonic history for a long time, but as I’ve always said, gaming for me is rarely about simulation, but about fun and action, and telling stories through the use of miniatures. I get the same thrill from a good tabletop game as I do from watching a movie, playing a video game or reading a good book. As such, when I start designing an historical game, I start by gathering inspirational material. Out came the Waterloo DVD and Sharpe box set. The Master & Commander soundtrack got queued up on the PC. My reading list went from the usual Sherlock Holmes and Gothic horror books to Cornwell, Scarrow and O’Brian. (Yep, Sharpe appeared in twice on that list. And I’m unabashed – the game is called Chosen Men, after all).

A Bit of History

The format of Osprey wargames books can make it tricky to include much in the way of background text (the dreaded ‘fluff’). With my last Osprey project, Broken Legions, I tried to circumvent the issue by having a line or two of flavour text next to various rules, and making the rules themselves get across the themes. With Chosen Men, the lack of historical text is more than compensated for by the vast range of Osprey history books available. These allow players to buy one or two ready-made ‘sourcebooks’ for their chosen force. Let’s be honest, my collection of Osprey volumes made up the bulk of my research for this game! They also provided rich pickings for the editors when furnishing the book with art. As well as some fantastic new pieces, and that stunning cover, the book includes some of those lovely colour plates for which Osprey is so famed.

In fact, the only limitation I really felt from the limited space was that I couldn’t fit a set of campaign rules into the book – anyone who knows my games design history knows that I love me some campaigning!

At a Glance

Chosen Men is a set of fast-action skirmish rules detailing the bloody skirmishes between light troops in the Napoleonic Wars. The primary focus of the game is on soldiers and NCOs in light ‘wing’ companies, as they scout ahead of larger forces and take part in man-to-man actions against enemy skirmishers. The game can be set in a number of theatres of war: such as the Peninsular War, where British and Portuguese riflemen, and Spanish Guerillas, not only acted as part of Wellington’s army, but also engaged in small objective-driven actions across Spain against the French; the Hundred Days campaign, where skirmishers on both sides were sent to clear key objectives in vicious building-to-building combat; and 1812, where the Russians launch brutal hit-and-run attacks on Napoleon’s starving, retreating army.

This game is about small actions set against a backdrop of unrelenting war, where morale and tenacity often count for more than accurate musketry. For the most part, officers are not swashbuckling super-heroes, but staunch commanders who rally and direct their men to achieve the battlefield objectives.

Chosen Men focuses on small, agile units of, on average, 5-20 men. It might be imagined that these are hand-picked men sent to achieve some objective away from the main theatre of war – this game doesn’t concern itself with larger-scale conflicts, except to give a broad impression that they’re going on ‘off-camera’, so to speak. Although some regular and elite infantry and cavalry are present for the sake of providing options, the ‘army lists’ stick mainly to light troops and irregulars.

Typically, an ‘army’ in Chosen Men will number 30-50 men, depending on quality, and possibly a light cannon or two. A game of that size should play out in about an hour once you’re familiar with the rules.

This, then, is a fast-play set of rules, operating on a 1:1 figure ratio, with small autonomous units. Not your usual Napoleonic game, but then, it’s not meant to be – this is a great point of entry for people who just want to field small formations of 28mm figures, and might be put off by big battalions.

The Core Mechanics

Units are pretty much autonomous on the battlefield, although having officer nearby, or actually part of a unit, greatly enhances their ability to stand when the going gets tough. Units have their own stats and leadership value, and can take a number of actions in a turn based on their Tactical value – the higher this number, the more well-drilled the troops, and the more actions they get in a turn. These points, however, must be split between manoeuvring, shooting and fighting, so must be used wisely. The game is not strictly IGOUGO, but ‘alternating action’. Players take it in turns to move and act with a unit at a time. However, officers can sometimes use their command radius to move a whole section of their force at once, or forego this option to move out-of-position troops into the fray more quickly.

The game uses a D6 system. Whereas my other recent Osprey game, Broken Legions, used D10s to deal with very granular modifiers and drawn out one-on-one combats, this game is more about group musketry and quick, bloody hand-to-hand fights. You’re dealing with units of men at a time rather than individuals, and so I’ve tried to keep modifiers to a minimum.  The complexity of the mechanics comes in the combinations of special rules and orders, representing the intricacies of command and control on the battlefield – the basic actions taken by units on the other hand, are streamlined, allowing for fast gameplay.

Special Features

The nuts and bolts of the rules – moving, shooting, fighting, and morale – naturally make up the bulk of the book. Army lists and scenarios make up the remainder - the armies included are France (and their Peninsular allies), Great Britain (and both their Peninsular and Waterloo allies), and Prussia. However, every game needs one or two special features beyond merely [sparkling, flawless] core mechanics to make them stand out from the crowd. The two bits I’m most pleased with in this game are the Cauldron of War Strategies and Commander Traits.

Cauldron of War Strategies are randomly determined for each player in the first turn of the game. This special rule represents the raging battle that is going on just beyond the bounds of the gaming area, as though the skirmish taking place is merely a snapshot of a much larger engagement being fought all around. So, for instance, you might gain ‘The Big Battalions’, which means you have some large blocks of infantry just off the board, and when your opponent moves a unit to within 12” of the edge, you can give them a volley of massed musket fire. Similarly, you might roll ‘Artillery Bombardment’, meaning that some of your army’s cannons are directed in the direction of the skirmish action, sending a timely bombardment to shock and awe the enemy.

Commander Traits are less epic in scale, but no less influential. Every army has an overall commander, usually an officer of Colonel rank or similar (although as this is a skirmish game, you might also have things people such as Spies in charge of your little task-force). You can purchase Traits for your commander to show just what kind of leader he is. Some, like ‘Flogging Officer’ might allow you to automatically rally a broken unit, but at the cost of a Morale value penalty for the rest of the game. Others, like Tactical Genius, show on officer’s real quality, by allowing his units to perform additional actions. There are lots to choose from, and they allow you to not only personalise your force’s leader, but by extension your whole army.

So there you have it – this is a game all about stirring, heroic actions and feats of derring-do, set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s campaigns. I hope you have as much fun playing it as I had writing it!

Chosen Men is published by Osprey Wargames, and is available now from all good bookstores. You can order it direct from Osprey here.