Farewell to Vortex

I had some rather sad news last week. It appears that Battlefield Press has lost the license to the Vortex System, the game engine behind the Doctor Who Roleplaying Game (formerly known as Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space), as well as Primeval, Rocket Age and (unfortunately for me) Pulp Fantastic.

Pulp Fantastic was my first proper game writing credit, and it holds a warm place in my heart. The original Pulp Fantasy from BPI was a D20 derivative, which I re-wrote for Vortex, expanding the game world so ably crafted by Chris Helton, Jonathan Thompson and others as I went. The resulting game was toolkit for rollicking high-octane pulp adventures, and while flawed, I still think it was pretty good. When the word came down that we’d lost the license, I was just finishing up an extensive magic system for inclusion in the second edition, which we were hoping to unveil at GenCon in August.

I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t upset. Working on the magic system had been a welcome distraction over the last year, helping me recover from the shock of my best friend’s suicide. To be denied when we were so close was a horrible blow. For the first time in my life I left work early, went to the pub and cried on a friend’s shoulder for a while.

Since then, with a bit of distance and some time to think, I’ve realised that this is a good thing. Vortex was a good fit, but it could have been better. There are always problems arising when dealing with a licensed system – you want to keep the material you produce close enough to the source that it remains compatible, but you still need the flexibility to be creative. It’s a tricky line to walk, and I’m not sure how successful we were – in many ways Pulp Fantastic is it’s own system due to the tweaks I made to make it fit the genre. With that experience under my belt, there are so many things I would have done differently.

One of the advantages of working on Pulp Fantastic has been the realisation of my own strengths and weaknesses. I’m not a big “crunch” guy. The rules systems I love are elegant, fast, clean and simple. As much as I love D20 in all it’s forms, asking me to write it will just bog down a project. I’m a writer at heart, and my strength is creating worlds. I can write “fluff” (such a misnomer – it’s the meat of a setting, what drives the characters and what they’re fighting for. Not fluffy at all) of a sort that will make players think and want to explore more. I make compelling villains, relatable heroes and NPC’s that live and breath. I need to focus more on that.

So, where next? Well, Vortex may be off the table, but the world of Pulp Fantastic remains. I know Jonathan Thompson has plans for it, and hopefully I’ll be involved. This is, I think, an opportunity for us to create something better. What it will be, and the shape it will take, we’re just beginning to get a sense of.

But it’ll be awesome.

Pop Culture, Weird Science

The world ends when Superman poops

Because I have the sort of annoying brain that simply will not stop, I often go to bed trying to puzzle things out. There’s a mounting body of evidence to suggest that not only does my brain continue this while I’m asleep, but also that it often comes up with answers too. The most notable example comes from when I was a child, staying at my grandparents house over Christmas, watching some war movie and realising that I didn’t understand how the ballast tanks in submarines work. Later that night, I apparently woke my little brother up in our shared room and explained how they worked to him, all without waking up. Clearly, my freaky brain had been figuring it out and, upon coming to a conclusion, decided to regurgitate the information immediately, whether I was awake or not.

What I didn’t realise is that my brain – if it doesn’t have anything to chew over – will go looking for things. This morning I woke myself up wondering aloud “Wait, why hasn’t Superman’s immune system wiped out all life on the planet? If living things from Krypton are invulnerable under our yellow sun, why haven’t we all been eaten by Superman’s intestinal bacteria?”

Hmmm, okay, this would have been solved if DC had kept to the origin from John Byrne’s Man of Steel mini-series, in which Kal-El is actually born on Earth from his gestation matrix and is never exposed to Krypton’s atmosphere. Recent interpretations of Superman imply that his powers developed slowly over time, and that he didn’t spend enough time to Krypton to be colonized by microbes, but that doesn’t address the problem of those older Kryptonians who come to Earth out of the Phantom Zone, or via delayed rockets (such as Kara Zor-El, AKA Supergirl).

You see, the situation gets even worse if you follow the classic Superman narrative, in which he is a baby on Krypton before coming to Earth. You see, this means that he’s had time to acquire a population of Kryptonian intestinal flora and fauna, as well as the various bacteria and viruses that exist on the skin of all living things. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a problem, but for one, tiny little fact.

Kryptonians – all Kryptonians – develop superpowers under our yellow sun. In the comics, Superman has had to deal with Kryptonian animals and once even a Kryptonian disease, and they all turned super on Earth. So Superman’s gut bacteria are super, which is fine as long as he never poops. Also, we shed living cells almost all the time as our skin replenishes itself. Under a yellow sun, those things are invulnerable. If they behave like normal cells do, they’d just keep replicating until they ran out of nutrients, but because they’re Kryptonian they could eat almost anything, survive almost anything.

Moreover, assuming that he is basically biologically human (as is implied by the fact that he can lose his powers under certain circumstances, which suggests that they are not an intrinsic result of his physiology but may actually be “extra-physical”), then he, as a human male, has probably experienced nocturnal emissions, as well as more deliberate ones – c’mon, he’s a guy. Are you honestly telling me you think he’s never had a wank?  Sperm are normally very short-lived, but again, if they’re super-powered on Earth? That could get very, very messy (asee Larry Niven’s excellent satirical essay “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” for a further exploration of this theme). He’s been made to bleed too. What happened to those blood cells? If his leukocytes and antibodies are indestructible, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t continue to function outside of him. If he’s a secreter, or if he ever bleeds, that stuff is out in the wild. Since everything not Kal-El will look like an infection to these cells, we’re looking at a biological apocalypse.

Forget the whole “fist fights levelling cities” thing. Kal-El is a walking ecological disaster waiting to happen. In Man of Steel (which I like), General Zod and his Kryptonian warriors could have wiped out humanity just by pooping out the hatch of their ship.


Science Fiction

Pipe & Rocket

In the years following the end of World War II, British children were introduced to a new kind of hero; the courageous rocket pilot. The most famous of these is Colonel Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, but there he has many imitators. Space Ace, Jet-Ace Logan, Captain Condor and Rick Random were all cut from the same cloth, to a greater or lesser extent. The template for all of these characters was one that the British were already very familiar with and idolised – the World War II fighter ace.

Of them all, the first – Dan Dare – shows it’s roots most clearly. Dan may be a space pilot for the Interplanet Space Fleet in the (then far away and exotic) 1990’s, but his dress, manner, sense of personal honour and decency all hark back to war-time cinema and literature. He’s even seen smoking a pipe on occasion!

Dare has been described as “Biggles in Space” – referring to the iconic creation of Captain W.E. Johns, himself cast in the mould of British fighter pilots of the first World War – and showcases those values and qualities held in high regard by the British at the time. Dare is courageous, respectful to those who have earned it, true to his friends, decent and fair-minded, calm in adversity, confident and competent, with a sense of humour. He is an uncompromising and uncompromised hero, free from the angst and introspection that plagued many heroes in the 1970’s onward. He is an optimist, a man who refuses to believe in the “no-win scenario”, who holds that if you expect the best from everyone they will rarely disappoint. He believes that there is right and wrong, and that it’s not very hard to tell the difference. Interestingly for the time, though Dare is very much a man of his age, he shows none of the common prejudices of the British people. While he is a living example of British exceptionalism (and white privilege), he embraces everyone as an equal, no matter their colour, creed, species or planet of origin. Not because he’s being “politically correct” either. He does it because it simply doesn’t occur to him that there is any other way to be.

For a character with no character flaws, Dare is far from boring. While an officer and a gentleman, he is good humoured and well-regarded by his comrades. His relationship with his “batman” (an airman assigned to a commissioned officer as a personal aide, rather than a black-clad avenger of the night) is one of friendship, rather than that of an officer to an underling. In adversity Dare displays some of the “stiff-upper lip” so often parodied these days, but was in all other ways a man of action and heart. When confronted with injustice or tyranny he can be stirred to anger (but never vengefulness), and while rare he has also been seen to display fear or alarm. Most often though, Dare embodies the spirit of discovery, of yearning to voyage far and make friends with new nations and worlds. In many ways, Dare is the British as we would most like to be, even though we know we aren’t and never will be.

Dan Dare is uniquely a creation of his time, a fact most aptly demonstrated by the many failed attempts to revive the character in the years since his comic strip appearances in the legendary Eagle comic (running from 1950 to 1969) ended. In 1977, the weekly 2000AD comic launched with Dan Dare strip as it’s flagship character (Judge Dredd didn’t appear until issue #2). In keeping with the tone of the comic, this version of Dan Dare was all action hero, with none of the charm or morality of the original. Grotesque and horrible deaths were the main feature of the strip, with Dare himself a passionate and vengeful hero with a habit of blasting everything in sight. This isn’t to say the strip is bad; first illustrated by Massimo Bellardinelli and later by Dave Gibbons, the strip was a first-class post-punk space action comic. It just wasn’t really Dan Dare.

After the demise of the 2000AD comic strip in 1979 (ending on a cliff-hanger with the dreaded Mekon triumphant and Dare a wanted man), a second attempt to revive Dare appeared in the re-launched Eagle, running from 1984 to 1992. Initially this version of Dare was the great-grandson of the original (who was unnecessarily retconned to be a WWII fighter ace who’d been transported through time, in a bid to explain the presence of such an old-fashioned hero in the bright and shiny future). In 1989 the strip brought back the “original” Dan Dare, with artwork by one of the original’s art team – Keith Watson. Again, much of the heroic decency of the character was missing, and this incarnation has now faded into obscurity.

Later revivals have sought to portray Dan as a man out of time, even in his own era. The serial Dare, presented in Revolver magazine, was a bleak satire of 1980’s British politics, with Treens confined to ghettos on Earth and subject to racists abuse, spacefleet privatised, and Britain in the hands of a barely-concealed fascist government, secretly in league with the Mekon. Written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Rian Hughes, it’s a great (if very depressing) story. But again, it’s not Dan Dare.

In 2002 a short-lived CGI animated series came out, which stream-lined much of the mythology and once again turned Dare into a devil-may-care space pilot with a ready fist and a blaster. The series wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t very good either, and the voice casting for Dare himself left much to be desired.

In 2007 Virgin Comics published a Dan Dare mini-series, written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Gary Erskine. This again portrays Dan as a bastion of old-fashioned values, considered an anachronism by those around him, but still noble, courageous and determined to do the right thing. Controversially the series suggests that the original stories were propaganda stories for children, the reality being somewhat more complex. This version of Dare takes the stiff-upper lip to an extreme, yet simultaneously makes Dare more human than other revivals. The story is darkly heroic, an epic final battle between Dare and his arch-nemesis, the Mekon. The artwork is fittingly superb, with the same kind of thought and detail given to the technical aspects of Dare’s world as in the original comic strips. Of all the comic strip revivals, perhaps this one comes closest to capturing some of what made the original so good, but even this is tainted by post-modern cynicism.

Most recently, B7 Media produced Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future as a series of audio dramas, available on-line through Big Finish Productions. Of all the revivals in various forms, this one comes closest to capturing the essence of the character. While the setting has been updated, and the character’s biography tweaked, the essential decency and uncompromised nature of the man remain. Other character’s have been similarly tweaked to make them more accessible for a modern audience, with the effect that they become more rounded human beings. Dare’s sidekick Digby, for example, has been reimagined from a light-hearted comic relief character into an initially dour and cynical old-soldier, who is gradually transformed by Dare’s nobility and optimism into a far warmer character. While the mythology and the stories themselves have been slimmed down to fit the format, Dare’s universe has been translated with remarkable faith – though not slavish adherence – to the spirit of the original stories. This then, after many false starts, is truly a Dan Dare for the new millennium.


Imposter Syndrome

I submitted a short story to an anthology that will hopefully be coming out later this year. It’s a Lovecraftian horror tale, with elements of body horror, and so far it’s been well received. Because I’m not great with deadlines, I was writing the thing until about 1:20am on Saturday, at which point I sent it off.

From then until Sunday evening, I then suffered from the kind of crippling anxiety that only another writer will understand. Is it any good? Is it actually scary? Did I telegraph the ending?

It’s odd, when you think about it. I’m in my early fifties now (still have no idea how that happened). I’m reasonably successful at my day job, to the point that my boss gets worried that I’ll leave. I’m a published game writer and designer, and I’ve got a few short stories and a novel under my belt. While I’ve garnered a few rejection letters, they’ve all been very positive about my writing and when I’ve been unsuccessful, it’s been because a big name has responded at the last minute (the last time it was Len Wein, which is perfectly fine by me!).

In short, I should have a little more confidence in my own ability.

So why, when my fiancée (a writer herself and utterly trustworthy when it comes to an honest critique) told me she’d read the thing on Saturday and loved it, did I then have a mini-meltdown? She told me the thing was scary, and disturbing, and that I didn’t telegraph the ending at all. Even though this was the best outcome I could have expected, and even though I trust her absolutely, I kept having to check that this was real. Not due to any lack of faith in her, you understand, but because I have no faith in myself.

Is every writer like this?

Personal, Ranting

I know which of my friends…

Oh goody. Looking at my Facebook feed, I can see it’s emotional blackmail posting season again. You know the sort of posts I mean. “If you know someone who’s been eaten by dragons, please display this status in your feed”, “only 3.57% of people will repost this, but I think I know which of my friends will”, blah, blah, blah.

Okay, here’s the deal. Don’t ask me to “prove” what a great friend I am by cutting and pasting the thing that you cut and pasted from someone who emotionally blackmailed you into posting to show the world what a great person you are. It’s insulting. It implies that I need to court your approval in order to be a good friend. It’s insidious, using carefully chosen language to imply that the poster has already judged you for something you may or may not do. It’s emotionally manipulative, and while I’m sure that most people who post these things don’t consider it as such, it’s vile.

Most of my friends know that I don’t need their approval to feel like a good friend, nor do I need to advertise my good deeds. Should I feel the need, I’ll tell everyone what a great and virtuous person I am in my own time. If I don’t, that’s none of your business – feel free to assume I’m a selfish git who does nothing at all to help anyone; that’s your prerogative.

Posting these idiotic memes does nothing except signal your “virtue” to the world, and perhaps salve the consciences of those who – through unfortunate circumstance – are unable rather than unwilling to do much themselves.

You want to do something positive? You want to raise awareness? Run a marathon, raise some money, do a sponsored car wash, do something real instead of pretending to care on Facebook.

Possibly the only things I think that are worse are all those text images of sad kittens or broken hearts going on about how no-one reads their posts but only “true” friends will respond. Maybe, if they weren’t so needy, people might respond a little more? Food for thought.

Of course, when I posted this on Facebook, I was inundated with requests from people asking me if they could cut and paste it on to their feeds…


Not with a bang, but a whisper

Much as I love you humans – you’re quite my favourite species…aside from squirrels, of course – there are days when I’m convinced that you’re all doomed. More specifically, that you’ll blithely doom yourselves, due to your simple inability not to do shit that hurts you.

Some time ago, I’m waiting for the bus home, and a young guy in a T-shirt wanders up to me from the direction of the nearby hospital. He’s got a mostly shaved head with some impressive looking scars on his scalp, but without the usual small skull deformities that speak of inter-cranial surgery. He does, however, have a bandage around his throat, with a plastic insert over his Adam’s apple. When he speaks to me, he presses his thumb over the insert, and I can hear air whistling in an out of it where he’s not pressing hard enough to make a proper seal. The first time he speaks, I can’t make out what he’s saying at all. The second time, I get it, and I’m convinced the human race is doomed.

“If I give you some ‘baccy and a Rizla, could you make me a roll-up?”

I can’t abide smoking, though I know and love several smokers. I know it’s an addiction, perhaps one of the most insidious. I know how tough it is to beat, so I don’t nag or make faces or any of that bullshit. I stopped smoking over twenty years ago, and every now and then, when I catch a whiff of someone else smoke, I still get cravings. At weddings, the scent of cigars makes my hands shake.

But you know, when you’ve got a fucking hole in your throat with nicotine seeping out and staining your bandages brown, maybe now’s the time to think about quitting. So I turn him down.

“Sorry mate. Every time I’ve made a roll-up I’ve made a mess of it.”

He nods, willing to accept the lie. Eyes flicking hungrily to the next person in the bus queue, he turns away, unaware that he has just become the perfect metaphor for my most pessimistic view of humanity, and shambles into the uncertain future.

I for one welcome our squirrel overlords.


In space, no one can hear you eat brains…

From the Games I’ll Probably Never Get To Run file, here’s a little something I came up with for All Flesh Must Be Eaten a few years ago…

Titan Run

“In Space, no-one can hear you eat brains”

Time: The Future

Location: Deep Space, somewhere between Sol and Epsilon Eridani

Yeah baby, we’re talking the future, starships and all. When the Tembler Drive was discovered in 2105, everyone thought the stars would be ours. Turns out that even though the drive can get a ship up over the speed of light and into hyperspace, it still takes months to get to any planet worth visiting. What’s more, the damn drives are expensive, and the only economical way to use them is to build them into huge ships so you can shift as much material as possible in one go. For most folks, this means being stuffed into a hypersleep capsule, chilled down to just above abosolute zero, and stacked in the hold like kindling. Of course, some folks always want to travel first class.

Hence the TUS Titan, a starship over a mile long and quarter of a mile deep. Titan is currently carrying a “colony-in-a-bottle”, a self-assembling city and about a million people to willing populate it, desperate to escape Earth and the seething mass of war and disease it has become. Of course, that million are travelling low-berths, as human popsicles, but that’s okay. Nothing’s going to happen to them, right?

First class on this ship is a dream. The super rich (and the crew, when the rich aren’t around) have the run of a vast entertainment complex, full of parks, pools, ski-slopes, dance-halls and sundry other places. The place is so big that the crew and passengers use little buggies to tool around the corridors. The plants in the parks will become part of the new colony’s ecology at journey’s end, but the rest of the upper decks are pure pleasure, to keep the super-rich from making too much trouble during the trip. Could be almost pleasent, but for one tiny problem. Something went wrong with the computer running life support for the low berths, and one million people just died. What’s worse, they died in hyperspace, and that’s simply never happened to a human before. What the first-class passengers and crew of the Terran Union Ship Titan are about to find out is that hyperspace isn’t empty. It’s full of etherial energy beings, hungry for the world of matter, just waiting for a vessel into which they can pour their essence. And they’ve just found a rapidly warming source of them.

There are about 25 crew on board, 14 “flight attendants” (pretty but dumb sex toys), and 25 first class passengers. Players could either be the ultra-rich, ultra spoiled passengers, or the tired and cynical crew. Does the billionaire have a team of bodyguards? Has the corporate princess learned how to shoot a gun? Is the Rollerball champion up to the game of his life? Populate the NPC’s with the usual aray of disaster movie characters, including a fair spread of despicable backstabbers, cowards, corporate lackeys and airheads, and season to taste. The crew has some small arms, locked in a locker to which only the Captain and First Mate have keys (having these two stalwarts die early, and then forcing the cast to hunt down these two zombies and retrieve the keys would of course, be just plain mean…but fun). The amount of re-animated corpsicles that can get out is limited by their position in the hold and the number of doors they can open, (and possibly by the power of the creatures animating them) and the ship is so large that they’ll take a while to find the fresh meat (unless you want to equip them with “Life Sense”, in which case the running and screaming will start a whole lot faster).

The cast have a number of options. They’re still at least two months out when the turds hit the torus, and with a million hungry dead on board, sitting tight really isn’t a survival tactic. The ship has two shuttles below the engine decks, with room for 10 passengers each and life-support enough to get them to safety, though they’ll need to be fuelled and loaded with supplies. There are life pods aplenty, but they just happen to be close to the entrances to the low berths, so using them might be difficult (and of course, they might not be entirely empty – the broadcast shrieks of someone who ejects to find himself trapped in a very small space with a very hungry dead thing might well serve to discourage this line of escape). Sadly, either option is impossible without dropping the ship back into normal space, and with the Captain and First Mate dead, the ship is going to stay on auto-pilot unless the engines are destroyed. Smart cast members might want to eject the low berths into hyperspace, but there are still enough dead already in the passenger decks to cause problems, and the idea of space-walking zombies clinging to the hull and clawing their way back in somewhere else has a certain undeniable appeal.

Additional complications could include the possibility that the energy beings animating the dead are getting smarter. By consuming the brians of the living, they’re absorbing knowledge, and a small handful are becoming strategic thinkers. Also, the dead may well have gotten into the vent system, meaning they could be anywhere on board ship. The ships computer may also become a problem, as its programming won’t allow harm to come to the passengers or crew. Unfortunately, the glitch that killed the lower berths means that it can’t now tell the difference between live passengers and dead ones, so blowing airlocks and flushing the dead into space becomes a whole lot harder (it won’t allow corpses to be flushed or incinerated either). Should the cast eventually succeed, the trauma of breaking its programming might just drive the computer insane. Truly nasty GM’s might consider having the cast arrive at the shuttles to find that they need the palm print of a senior crewmember, like the Captain or First Mate, before they’ll power up. Very few GM’s worth their salt will be able to resist the urge to force the characters into hunting an undead senior officer so that they can us his or her hand to get them out of there.

Of course, if the colony finds out they’ve got a ship of the hungry dead coming their way, they might just blow it up, whether the cast are off or not.

The Zombies of Hyperspace

Hyperspace Zombies are “Slow and Steady” due to their recent emergence from hypersleep. As they warm up, they’ll get faster, becoming “Life-Like” and eventually the “Quick Dead” as the creatures possessing them get used to their new vessels. Strength wise, they start out “Strong like Bull”, but don’t get much stronger once they’ve warmed up. Due to the drying effect of being chilled without life-support, these withered creatures are damage resistant. Their sense are like the dead, but the creatures within them could have Life Sense, if the GM feels like losing some friends, or possibly infra-vision. The creatures need to feed daily, and while they’ll eat anything alive, they just love brains. Hyperzombies start out dumb as dead wood, but get smarter with every brain they eat (Wicked GM’s might want to use the option that the dead are all being animated by a single creature, so whenever they eat a brain, they all get smarter), and can rapidly become smarter than the crew. Anyone who dies on the ship while it’s in hyperspace, be it at the hands of a zombie or not, will re-animate in about an hour. For added fun and games, the hyperzombies could have a Chilling Touch attack, where their flesh is still so cold from hypersleep that it cause burns on those they touch. Weakness are up to the individual GM, but I’d make them able to animate severed limbs until the brain is destroyed.

GM’s should think “Event Horizon”, “Alien”, “Supernova” and “Titanic” for this one. A masterplan of the upper decks might help, but isn’t essential. They should have a few key locations planned out before hand however.

A final thought. With the slow rise in temperature in the low berths, several compartments have become clogged with liquified flesh from the rapidly decaying corpses of the first sleepers to die. Wouldn’t it be kind of neat to have the cast find out that that huge pool of stinking goop is animated too? 🙂