“You mean, it’ll be… Captain Tartan’s Redemption?”

You should always sail into the sea of the unknown on a voyage of discovery.

I go to Science Fiction conventions, events full of… well, everything. They’re a maelstrom of activity that washes over you in a sea fury?

Recently, a convention up in Sheffield. ‘Redemption’, asked me to be one of their Guests of Honour.  Quite something.  My fellow guests included a senior lecturer on ‘War Studies’ at Sandhurst, a videogame developer, an artist and a film historian specialising in silent cinema.

It was fantastic to be there, but I missed most of it.

There was, apparently, Fight Choreography for Writers (which I think I’ve now missed at three different conventions), Lock picking, Ration Roulette (a tasting session for survival rations) and talks on The Prisoner at 50 and Star Wars at 40.  You could be involved in the cabaret, the play, the ceilidh, Morris Longsword dancing or a publishing project.  There was a sewing workshop, Victorian martial arts lessons, cookery through the ages and the now obligatory Tea Duelling.

Lectures and discussions ranged from historical re-enactment, Artificial People (a talk on robots and androids in media and reality), on dystopian fiction (perfect for those studying English), What Are E-Sports?, Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Where Next for the Large Hadron Collider, How Safe Are We Digitally to Victorian Costuming,

That covers subjects like English, Physics, History, Media, Sport and Home Economics. I can’t think of any environment, even University, that offers so much intellectual stimulation in such a short span of space and time.

Myself? My guest talk was on writing and I starred in the play, Captain Tartan – Redemption.  I also ran a panel discussion called Where Have All The Heroines Gone?, which, due to last minutes changes, turned into just me, a bloke, mansplaining feminism to a room full of women.

I sold some books.

And it had a pirate theme.

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Freeform Roleplaying

I was nattering over New Year with some University chums, and the subject of roleplaying games came up.  Back in the day, we used to run these gigantic freeform entertainments.

“When was this?” Martin Ellis asked.  “Were you the first?”

I can’t believe we were actually the first, but we must have been in that mix.

“It’s all written up in inter*action or whatever that games journal Andrew Rilstone edited,” I replied.

“Freeform games are a sub-category of live-action role-playing.  They appear to have been invented independently in several gaming groups in Britain, America and Australia in the middle of the 1980s.”

Inter*action, Issue 1 (1994)

But it wasn’t a sub-category of live-action role-playing.

At Birmingham University, it all started with people playing Dungeons & Dragons and Runequest, but there was a gradual split between those collecting the various supplements to study at all hours and those of us who began to create our own systems.  I was particularly proud of one that used every dice I had: it was superb at simulating machine guns, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, more than makes up for it being unsatisfyingly cumbersome and overly complex at everything else.  Our freeform, you see, came from tabletop gaming.

I remember James Steel’s furiously consulting notes and rolling dice behind his GM screen as the adventure continued.  I was there to observe (mostly likely waiting for them to finish so we could all go to the bar), so I walked around to see what he was doing: his notes were blank, he was ignoring the dice rolls; the players had ‘gone off the map’.

He was just making it up.

This clearly was the way to go and I soon dumped all the rules in the games I ran.  (Or rather, I had rules that were ignored, players seemed to need the reassurance of the props, much as James had been doing with his notes and dice.  They wanted to be playing a game, not just making it up as we all went along.)

The ‘systemless’ system eventually boiled down to the following:-

Character Creation: pick a major and minor skill, anything.

Game Mechanics: ignore the skills and use ad-hoc mechanisms for any adjudication.

Campaign Background: what you’re in, e.g. a spaceship in orbit around… etc.

I do remember one player, at a particularly sticky moment in the game, suddenly shout: “Wait!  I have ‘spider sense’ as a minor skill.  What does it tell me?”

“Hmm…” I replied.  “Your spider sense tells you that you are in great danger.”

“Oh… great.”

I think that was the only time that game mechanics reared its ugly head.

These games became popular, expanded and collided with Mike Ibeji’s games, and the two of us ended up co-running these massive games for 30+ people.  We sort of stepped away from the table and started running about.  We took this to a gaming convention a few times.  Andrew Rilstone described it quite well in the quote I’d been looking for, which wasn’t in Inter*action (or Interactive Fantasy as it became) at all, but in his fanzine.

“The other excitement arose when I bumped into a group of people from Birmingham University.  Imagine my delight at finding myself in the middle of a group of people who have been independently experimenting with very much the same types of games we were describing in the ‘Real Life Roleplaying’ supplement, last issue.  Indeed for me the highlight of the whole convention was playing this group’s live action Star Wars game.  I don’t know what the opposite of Limited Environment Gaming is, but this was it.  The game started in the Millennium Falcon, hastily constructed out of chairs in a corridor, and shifted to the college grounds when we landed on Endor.  At this point, we appeared to be acquiring an audience… most of whom were hastily written into the game as ‘extras’.  The game was full of clever ideas, like the players playing (alternately) both the rebels and the stormtroopers; and combat being resolved on the basis of the players reflexes (if you have ever tried to pilot a TIE fighter through an asteroid field, simply by saying ‘up’, ‘Down’, ‘Left’, ‘Right’ or ’Forward’ as the referee describes where in your field of vision the various large hunks of rocks are, you’ll know it isn’t as easy as it looks.)  Resolving combat against Darth Vader with rubber lightsabres is also fun.  Very, very silly, and an awful lot of fun: I certainly hope to see this group running a more serious game at some time in the future.”

Aslan, Issue 10

I do miss it.  I’ve not role-played in an age and I’m put off joining groups for the same reason as was before: I can’t be bothered learning a lot of irrelevant rules.  I do occasionally go to Box of Frogs, an Improv acting group that meets on a Tuesday, opposite the pub were the writing group meets at the same time.  An Improvisation instruction (possibly from the audience) like, say, ‘you’re a businessman with a secret’ could easily be interpreted as a rolling-up a character.

Strangely, in the first issue of Inter*action there’s an article: Improvisation in the Theatre by the one and only, Michael Cule.  He and I have acted on stage and talked about gaming.

But maybe I’m still doing it.  After all, what’s writing, if it isn’t rolling up a bunch of characters and playing all them in your head.

ArmadaCon 26

I was at ArmadaCon in Plymouth last weekend, looking forward to a small and relaxing con, but unfortunately I volunteered to do a play, a film and a talk. But then I don’t really like cons where I’ve nothing to do. So I did a play on the Friday, a restaging of “One of Our Eastercons is Missing”, Saturday some filming, on Sunday I set the alarm for 7:40am – conventions have that time in the morning, who’d have thought!? – in order to do some more filming and that afternoon I gave a talk. So, a very full con.

The film was Alan and Linda Marques “Convention of Death”, set at a convention with death. I did some 1st ADing, so I got to shout a lot. I also got to do some acting, both in reality and in front of a green screen. I’m looking forward to seeing the results.
I tested my ‘trundler’, a cut down coffee table from Loncon’s Tartan play, which is a sort of boxy, zimmer frame that doubles as a portable bookshop and beer garden. There were numerous suggestions to install optics (or an alcohol drip) and remote control. Quite a few people came up to me for the sequel to the Derring-Do Club. It was grand to have the books selling themselves. I was called to film my death scene and someone caught me to sign a copy: I put “The last book I signed before my death”, then, as I was filming my death scene, I became rather concerned that I was tempting fate, so I was relived to sell another copy and so write “The first book I signed after my death”. Phew really. Not that I’m – touch wood – superstitious for anything.

I think I went to more programme items than at Worldcon. Certainly stayed to the end of more, 100%, as opposed to Loncon’s somewhat lower total.

But really conventions are made by the people. The usual crowd, of course, Gary, Liz, Ali, David, Ros and – now I’ve started a list I’m going to miss someone and they’ll feel left out – everyone. They made me very welcome last year when I was Guest of Honour for their 25th Anniversary. This year was Andrew Cartmel and Philip Reeve. I thoroughly enjoyed Andrew Cartmel’s interview and live audio commentary as well as a natter in the dealer’s room. Nice to meet someone who has the same attitude to SF as you do. i.e. we should have SF. Now I’m half-way through his memoirs of his time as Doctor Who’s script editor, I’d like another conversation.

Philip Reeve was the other Guest of Honour, timetabled against morning’s or filming, so I missed his programme items and we only chatted in passing. He was in my play though, which name checked him and Andrew Cartmel.
I sat with three people I didn’t know for the convention meal and we had a lively conversation about a research idea I have for a novel – very useful. That’s what’s great, meeting people.

Cat, Sam and Jon were the other theatre group (ah, the ego, but our play was on first) and we shared rather too much red wine and talked theatre, writing and so forth. Their Friday piece was a collection of shorts acts on the theme of horror… and burlesque. On Sunday, I did a talk on writing and they helped out first with a reading and then, as we took a short break for tea and biscuits sponsored by the Plymouth Tea Company, they talked about their writing method. I stopped them: we should share this with everyone, so we reconvened the talk and used that as a spring board.

I came back very unrelaxed and somewhat exhausted, but I had a good time.