An Adventurer’s Guide to the Middle Ages: Town Watch? Where?

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015 | Posted by M Harold Page


…an Ankh Morpork-style town watch

The first thing that Conan — or Locke Lamora, or Grey Mouser, or Vimes, or a D&D party  — would notice about a real medieval city would be the almost total absence of an Ankh Morpork-style town watch.

It’s a stock trope: here come a dozen Keystone Cops town watch in their funny armour, to arrest the drunken barbarian or catch the thief. Only it’s not like that in reality, or at least not quite like that in Later Medieval and Early Modern England, France, and Germany.

That’s not a criticism. Fantasy writers must write what they will. Dickensian thief takers are plausible, and raise themes to do with policing and justice. However, if, like me, you write Historical Adventure Fiction , then you need to know how policing worked because integrity, and because somebody else will know and will gleefully correct you in reviews. (It’s funny when your research is better than theirs though — and the one time I ever answered a review.)

It’s actually quite hard to drill down to D&D level details about the medieval past. Scholars are usually more interested in the development of legal systems and local authority than what happens when Conan gets into a brawl. However, there are a few useful sources: This PhD thesis on trial by battle; The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century (link); The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the Right of Arms (link); plus various more antiquarian tomes on my research shelf.

And, there are some surprises beneath the crust of sometimes dry text. Let’s kick off with what every aspiring thief and rogue needs to know…

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The Series Series: Why Do We Do This To Ourselves? I Can Explain!

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015 | Posted by Sarah Avery

The Wheel of Time-small

What’s up with the Big Fat Fantasy books? Books that crest a thousand pages, books that fell forests, books that travel in savage packs of series. We wait three years, five years, ten years for the next volume. Meanwhile, the scope of what the author must remind readers about between installments expands  (a storytelling problem anatomized over here by Edward Carmien). We click over to the fan-run online encyclopedia to remind ourselves who the characters are, both because it’s been so long since the last volume, and because the cast size is just that large.

Yet many of us love such books. In my case — and maybe yours, too — not just a few odd specimens of the type, but the type itself.

Thomas Parker laid out all the objections that can be leveled against the sprawl of our genre’s most popular novels, not as an outsider but precisely as an insider shocked at what has become normal to him. (Embrace the tongue-in-cheek hyperbole and just go with it — the main point’s still sincere.)

Someone please tell me. Why? Why do we do this to ourselves, we devotees of science fiction, horror, and (especially) fantasy? What did we do to deserve this? What crime did we commit in some previous existence that we now have to expiate with such bitter tears? Judge, I deserve to know! I demand answers!

If readers are asking themselves that question in that way, even in jest, you can bet the authors are, too, often with a greater level of frustration.

I have to marshal all my hubris to say this in public, but guys, I think I might have the answer. Seriously, not just an answer, but maybe the central answer.

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Kickstarting the Mindjammer Universe: A Far Future Transhuman Utopia?

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015 | Posted by Sarah Newton


Yesterday Mindjammer Press launched a Kickstarter for my far future transhuman science-fiction roleplaying game and fiction setting Mindjammer, to fund a series of RPG supplements and fiction for the game, including sourcebooks, adventures, and even a version for the Traveller rules. It made its initial funding goal this morning in a little less than 24 hours, and John very kindly invited me to Black Gate to speak about the Kickstarter and the Mindjammer setting.

You may know something about Mindjammer already — John O’Neill and Howard Andrew Jones have both written about it before, and I’ve blogged about it here too. It’s set in Earth’s far, far future — approximately 17,000AD — during the Expansionary Era, when a formerly stagnant civilization on Old Earth has reinvented itself as a “New Commonality of Humankind” following the discovery of “planing” — faster-than-light travel. Now, two centuries on, the Commonality is journeying to the stars, rediscovering lost colonies settled from Old Earth by slower-than-light generation and stasis ships millennia before. Cultural conflict is everywhere, between this vibrant, optimistic, yet overwhelmingly strong interstellar civilization, and the disunited, often highly divergent lost colony cultures which are facing “integration” at the Commonality’s hands.

The Commonality considers itself the brightest and greatest civilization of humankind. The Mindscape, a vast interstellar shared consciousness and data storage medium to which all Commonality citizens are linked by neural implant, gifts its citizens with technological telepathy and the awesome powers of technopsi. It also lets them upload their memories, and download the memories of other people — even dead people. Artificial life forms with synthetic personalities based on the memory engrams of dead heroes abound: even the starships are sentient beings, the eponymous “Mindjammers”, faster-than-light vessels which travel between the stars, updating the Mindscape and knitting transhumanity’s interstellar civilization together.

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How I Used Steampunk to do George Orwell (But With More Sword Fights and Magic)

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015 | Posted by M Harold Page

SVT 256

“Holy ####! I’m a Steampunk author!”

“Holy ####! I’m a Steampunk author!”

I was staring at the Amazon Kindle rankings and the first volume of Swords Versus Tanks had just crept into the top 10.

Actually, I like Steampunk, but the story was supposed to be Heroic Fantasy or even Sword and Sorcery. After all, swords is what I do for fun.

Back when I was planning what I hoped would be my début novel, I wanted to put magically-enhanced medieval knights up against tanks, but I didn’t want to involve a modern military — too sophisticated with too much tech; I would end up spending most of the novel finding magical ways to break drones and cruise missiles that didn’t also break the medieval setting.

If my tanks were going to be pre-modern, then I might as well pick the era with the coolest looking tanks — that gave me WWI, which also gave me Zeppelins.

So Great War tanks and Zeppelins and semi-automatic weapons. That made at least half the story Steampunk  (Decopunk actually)… not half the novel as in the first (or second) half. Rather half the genre. The other half is Heroic Fantasy. As a reviewer kindly put it:

…it’s like every fantasy, steam punk or alternative history novel thrust screaming into a thunderdome and told to fight for our entertainment.

But Steampunk provided more than just carefully calibrated tactical situations with nice aesthetics, it also let me write about big ideologies.

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: David C. Smith on Bran Mak Morn

Saturday, November 14th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

BranMak_MistsI discovered Oron before I first read a Conan tale. It was pretty much my introduction to barbarians in the world of fantasy. Author David C. Smith co-wrote the Red Sonja and Bran Mak Morn books with Richard Tierney. It’s safe to say that he knows his Howard. And about barbarians. So it’s natural that our ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series turned to Dave to talk about Bran Mak Morn. “Worms of the Earth” was one of the first non-Conan stories I read from REH. Wow. Read on for Dave’s take on yet another topic for the series.

I was around 14 or 15 years old when I discovered the Hyborian. So now what will become of us, without barbarians. Those men were one sort of resolution.

— “Waiting for the Barbarians” (1897-1908) Constantine Cavafy

Howard knew the truth of these lines by Cavafy, just as South African author J. M. Coetzee did in his acclaimed novel of the same title. What do the barbarians bring to societies that are past their glory, that are overripe, living softly, in decline? What do the barbarians bring to societies whose citizens exist with each day the same as the day before, overripe citizens living softly?

These citizens have become soft while standing on the backs of those they kept down, slaves and serfs, and those they have conquered or coerced — the barbarians. When at last the barbarians turn on the overripe soft ones who keep them down, it is indeed one sort of resolution.

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Of Necromancers & Frog Gods – Part One (The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes)

Monday, November 9th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne


OGL and D20

Necro_LogoWhen Wizards of the Coast rolled out the Open Game License for 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons, a plethora of third party companies would produce products, leaving players with a seemingly unlimited number of options available for purchase. A few were great, more were terrible and most were in between.

That period was known as the d20 boom, which inevitably led to a d20 bust and is explained in depth in Shannon Appelcline’s tremendous, four-volume RPG history, Designers and Dragons. If you have any interest in role playing history, you will love those books (they are broken up into decades: The Seventies, Eighties, Nineties and Two Thousands).

Along the way, many new and existing companies entered the official Dungeons and Dragons world. One of the most popular and successful was Necromancer Games, founded by Clark Peterson and Bill Webb. Under a different name, Necromancer’s offspring is a major player in the RPG scene today.

The Open Gaming License (OGL) made the 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons mechanics permanently “open use” and the basis of a System Reference Document (SRD). The OGL was accompanied by the d20 license, which verified that third party products were compatible with 3rd Edition.

The OGL and d20 licenses had distinguishing characteristics and somebody more versed than I in the intricacies should write a post on that whole shebang. Suffice to say here, companies began rolling out d20 products from day one.

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Discovering Robert E Howard: Morten Braten on The Road To Xoth: World-building in the Footsteps of Robert E. Howard

Thursday, November 5th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

The Spider-God’s Bride and Other Tales of Sword and Sorcery-small Song of the Beast Gods-small Citadel Beyond the North Wind-small

XothMapBGDue mostly to time constraints, I don’t play RPGs these days, but I still read RPG books pretty regularly – primarily Pathfinder and 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons. The pulpiest, most Robert E. Howard-ish stuff I have found is Morten Braten’s World of Xoth. Morten, who wrote the quasi-historical Ancient Kingdoms: Mesopotamia for Necromancer Games, clearly draws heavily on Robert E. Howard in his RPG design. If you haven’t discovered Xoth, you should give it a look. You can start by downloading the new, free, Player’s Guide! Here’s Morten…

I was around 14 or 15 years old when I discovered the Hyborian Age. Hanging out at a friend’s house, waiting for my turn to play some late 80s computer game, I noticed some black and white Conan comics on a bookshelf. The inside cover of each comic had a map of Conan’s world, apparently our own earth as it looked 10,000 years ago.

Even before I had read a single Conan story, the evocative names on that map filled my mind with colorful visions of long-lost lands: Hyperborea, Stygia and Zembabwei; and mysterious places such as Shadizar, Kutchemes, Kheshatta and Xuchotl.

I immediately knew that I wanted to run a role-playing game set in that world. Just around the same time, I had been introduced to Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D 2nd Edition, to be more specific), but at the time I was just learning the system as a player and was not yet ready to take on game mastering duties. In fact, my Hyborian Age campaign did not become a reality until a decade later. By then I had been game mastering several traditional fantasy campaigns, and I had learned a lot about world building from the Greyhawk boxed set.

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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Haining’s ‘The Final Adventures of SH’

Monday, November 2nd, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

FinalAdventures_CoverThere are a LOT of books, fiction and non, about Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle that are worthy of standing alongside the sixty-story Canon of original Holmes tales. Today, we’re going to look at one I particularly like.

Barnes and Noble has been reproducing classic works for years and selling them at affordable prices. Their editions are a great way to get folks introduced to the classics.

But their output ranges father afield, and my Sherlockian bookshelf includes several of their titles, such as The Sherlock Holmes Companion, The Lost Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

This last book is similar to the out of print and often difficult to find Sherlock Holmes: The Published Apocrypha by Jack Tracy. Both books include the “almost Sherlock Holmes” stories and plays that don’t fit in the Canon, but are certainly in the neighborhood. Back before you could find everything you ever wanted to look for on the Internet, The Final Adventures was quite the resource.

The introduction discusses the pieces that make up the book and you will find some interesting tidbits (much of which was previously in Tracy’s book).

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The Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava, October 25, 1854, Part II of II

Sunday, October 25th, 2015 | Posted by Barbara Barrett

British Hussars attack Russian guns at Balaklava

Read Part I here.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

There were four speeds for the cavalry:

Walk: not to exceed four miles per hour
Trot: not to exceed eight and a half miles per hour
Gallop: eleven miles per hour
Charge: not to exceed the utmost speed of the slowest horse

The Light Brigade started at a walk because the horses could not maintain the charge speed for over a mile. When the first line was well clear of the second, Cardigan ordered “Trot.” The more experienced men knew at that speed it would take them about seven minutes to reach the battery. As they trotted down the valley, ten Russian guns could reach them.

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The Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava, October 25, 1854, Part I of II

Saturday, October 24th, 2015 | Posted by Barbara Barrett

Hell Riders-smallIntroduction

At 11:10 a.m., on October 25, 1854, one hundred sixty-one years ago, the almost seven hundred men of the Light Brigade stood waiting. The Brigade moved forward when the officer’s trumpeter sounded the “Walk.” It was immediately taken up by the regimental trumpeters to the right and left, so that it could be heard by the whole body of cavalry. When the first line was clear of the second, the order came to “Trot.” The bugles sounded again and the regiment increased its pace to about eight miles an hour. The more experienced cavalry men were adept at judging distances and knew at this pace, it would take them at least seven minutes to reach the enemy.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of volumes have been written about the events during and leading up to that seven minutes. An in-depth analysis of the battle is beyond the scope of this article. The story for this anniversary is told as much as possible in the voices of the men who rode down that valley. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and facts are from Hell Riders The True Story of the Charge of the Light Brigade by Terry Brighton (2004). This is possible because the author, Terry Brighton, a British military history, using his unique access to regimental archives, draws on twenty years of research to tell the story of the survivors, in their own words. Only a small portion of their stories can be told here. This fascinating book is available online and is highly recommended.

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