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Theseus and the Werewolves

September 7, 2014 Leave a comment

Wait, what?

It’s all right. I haven’t created a new contemporary urban fantasy franchise with sparkly Greek heroes battling emo lycanthropes in high school. But hold on while I just make a note of that….

No, this post is going to be about my next two books for Osprey Adventures. If you haven’t heard of Osprey Adventures before, the legendary military history publisher has been branching out with two new lines aimed – at least partly – at gamers and fantasy fans.

Osprey Myths and Legends does exactly what it says on the tin. This series presents the world’s greatest heroes (and monsters) in the classic Osprey format, combining well-researched text with lavish illustration and high production values. My first book in this series, Thor: Viking God of Thunder, was well received (click here for some links to reviews), so I was asked to write another – on Theseus and the Minotaur this time. It’s scheduled for release on November 18th and features some stunning color plates by Jose Pena.

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I guess I was seven or eight years old when I first discovered this tale. I had become obsessed with Greek mythology after discovering a children’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in my school library and seeing a Saturday-morning rescreening of Ray Harryhausen’s 1963 classic Jason and the Argonauts on TV. Over a decade later, my first game of Dungeons & Dragons featured a fatal encounter with a minotaur. Along the way, I also read about Theseus’ early adventures on the road to Athens. But when I got stuck into the research for this book, I discovered something intriguing. Well, two things, actually.

The first is that Greek myths used the comic-book technique of “retconning.” After he became the Official Hero of Athens, Theseus began to pop up in the adventures of Hercules and various other heroes, usually in a minor role. He was one of the super-team that took part in the Hunt for the Calydonian Boar, along with his faithful sidekick Pirithous. He appears as a wise and compassionate King of Athens in the tragic tale of Oedipus. A few writers even tried to add him to Jason’s companions aboard the Argo, but some serious timeline problems prevented their attempts from sticking. He was too old for the Trojan War, but a couple of his sons were among the Greek troops in the legendary wooden horse.

The other intriguing thing is that the core of the Theseus myth looks like it could be an allegory. Theseus lived – if he lived – at a time when Athens was growing in power and throwing off Minoan and Mycenaean cultural and economic domination of the Greek mainland. It was developing its own distinctly Greek identity, which would become the template for Classical Greek culture. There is evidence for a war – or at least a raid – led by Athens in which the famous Minoan palace of Knossos was burned. And some ancient sources refer to a Cretan general with the name, or nickname, of Taurus, the Bull. Likewise, the six enemies Theseus defeated on his journey to Athens could be seen as symbols of the various independent city-states that Athens assimilated as its influence spread across Attica. There’s little if any definitive proof that the myth of Theseus is based on actual historical events, but the coincidences do seem to be telling a consistent story, and it made my dormant archaeological reflex twitch.

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The second book, Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide, is for the Dark Osprey line which focuses on horror and conspiracy, and follows on from earlier volumes about Zombies and Vampires. I collected werewolf legends and trial reports from across Europe and researched shapechanger myths worldwide to paint a picture of lycanthropy that expands upon what you will find in most movies, games, and novels. It touches on the standard fare – silver, the moon, Viking berserkers, SS werewolves, and so on – but I also uncovered a few surprises. Like, for instance, the fact that there are at least four distinct types of werewolf, each with its own unique characteristics. And the Greek tradition that a dead werewolf rises from the grave as a vampire. And the ancient werewolf cult that centers on Mount Lykaion in Greece.

Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide
is scheduled for release in March 2015, and there are some interesting titles scheduled for both of Osprey’s non-historical ranges.

Osprey has also expanded into wargames with an interesting and growing range of rule sets presented in slim, affordable books. There are historical rules, of course, but they also cover mythology, steampunk, and Hong Kong action movies. My personal favorite is Of Gods and Mortals, a compact and tidy little skirmish game in which the gods of various mythologies can take to the battlefield as super-units, accompanied by mortal and monstrous followers. It has a very neat mechanic which makes gods and mortals heavily interdependent.

Osprey Publishing has a long-standing reputation for quality that is very well deserved. I’m very happy to see them expanding into these new areas, and even happier to play a modest part myself. Check out the links below. I’ll be very surprised if you don’t find at least one title that surprises and intrigues you.

Osprey Myths and Legends
Dark Osprey
Osprey Wargames

The Truth about Fimir

April 9, 2014 5 comments

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Over the years I’ve been asked many times, “What happened to the Fimir?” A lot of people seem to like this strange race, and there seems to be a lot of curiosity about why they were quietly dropped from Warhammer canon.

I’ve been thinking for some time about writing a post that gives the whole story of the Fimir’s creation, short life, and eventual demise – but now I don’t have to. Warhammer fan Luke Maciak, author of the excellent Terminally Incoherent blog, has painstakingly collected all the information from various sources and assembled it into a full and complete account of the beasts, and added some great insights of his own.

The Fimir reappear from time to time, both in GW publications (fleetingly) and in fan works (often in great depth). Here are a few useful links I found:

A scan of the Fimir promo from WD102, including an adventure that I still regard as one of the worst I’ve ever written, “There’s a One-Eyed Fellow Hiding to the North of Kammendun.” Oldhammer fans will also find a 3rd edition Fimir army list.

An unofficial 8th edition Warhammer army book for Fimir created by some German fans (and written, impressively, in English).

My earlier post on Forge World’s announcement of their Fimir miniatures.

David Stafford’s impressive Fimir army, with inspiration from 2000AD’s Slaine comic and broader Irish mythology.

Warpstone magazine devoted issue 25 to a Fimir special.

I’m sure this list just scratches the surface of what’s out there. If I happen upon anything else interesting, I’ll post links in the comments section below.

2013 and Beyond

February 10, 2014 Leave a comment

2014 is shaping up to be a busy year. Right now I’ve got four mobile games, two tabletop RPG books, and two nonfiction books at various stages of development, and I’m also trying to keep my promise to myself that I will write more fiction.

With all this going on, I haven’t had time to put together an elegant and well-reasoned thought piece or a vivid and fascinating memory of The Old Days for this update. However, there are a few bits and pieces that might be of interest:

Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North is now in its third year, and still going strong. I’m currently helping develop a great new feature that I can’t really talk about, which will be released later in the year. You’ll see some familiar faces, and I think that fans of deeper Arthurian lore will be pleasantly surprised. That’s the intention, anyway.

In other KBN news, the game is ranked #10 by worldwide revenue in App Annie’s 2013 retrospective. A year ago, it was the iTunes Store’s #1 top-grossing app of 2012. And, of course, it’s also available for Android. I’ve been involved with KBN since the very start, and I’m delighted with its continuing success.

Another Kabam title I’ve worked on also did well in 2013, according to App Annie. The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth ranked #8 by revenue in the U.S., #5 in the UK, and #6 in both France and Germany. Over the last year I worked on a narrative campaign feature that allows players to fight the Goblins of the Misty Mountains alongside heroes from the movies – and, in the most recent instalment, lets them take on the dread Necromancer from Mirkwood to Amon Lanc and beyond. Like all of Kabam’s mobile games, this is also available on Android.

Dragons of Atlantis: Heirs of the Dragon has just acquired a great little feature that allows your dragon to go exploring when you’re not using it in battle, and find you all kinds of interesting treasures. I wasn’t involved with that particular feature, but throughout the last year I’ve been working on new dragons, new troops, and various other expansions. More on those when I’m allowed to talk about them. Also on Android.

Beside these three, I’ve been working on localization editing for a whole bunch of games from China that are hoping to build on their success in that booming market and move into the West. Three projects down so far, and two more in progress: more when I can talk about them. There is some good stuff coming out of China, for sure, and many commentators have tagged it as a market to watch. Russia, India, and Brazil are also poised to become significant mobile-games markets in 2014, according to many analysts.

And finally in mobile gaming, I’ve been working on a new fantasy RPG for iOS. I can’t give any details at this stage, but I will say that the setting is interesting and I’ve been having a very good time developing the backstory and advising on some quite intriguing features, both in narrative and gameplay.

The two books I wrote for Osprey Adventures in 2013 have been well received, and I’ve signed up to write two more. Thor: Viking God of Thunder in the Myths and Legends line has been getting good reviews, and the new Templar conspiracy I laid out in Knights Templar: A Secret History has been well reviewed and has inspired both fiction writers and tabletop RPG designers. I’ve been contracted to write two more titles: Theseus and the Minotaur is due to be released in November this year, and I’m just starting work on a yet-to-be-announced Dark Osprey title.

I’ve also been indulging my love for historical fantasy in a few tabletop RPG projects.

Colonial Gothic, the game of horror and conspiracy at the dawn of American history, received a great boost from the release of the Second Edition Rulebook, and that was followed up with the release of the Bestiary in October.

Just open for preorders is Lost Colony, a unique two-period adventure that explores the mystery of Massachusetts’ ill-fated Popham colony in both 1607 and 1776. It is written by award-winning author Jennifer Brozek, whose previous credits for Colonial Gothic include the acclaimed Locations mini-campaigns and the groundbreaking e-book The Ross-Allen Letters, which blurs the lines between adventure and fiction.

I’m working on another Colonial Gothic supplement at the moment. I can’t talk about it yet, but it’s one that has been very long in the planning and it reunites me with a favorite collaborator from my Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay days. We haven’t worked together for more than twenty years, and this project promises to be a lot of fun.

As much as I love Colonial Gothic, I am occasionally tempted by other tabletop RPG projects. When author and roleplaying luminary Robin D. Laws was recruiting talent for his Hillfolk Kickstarter campaign, I was honored to be one of the people he asked to submit an original setting for this fascinating game. I pitched Pyrates as “Firefly of the Caribbean,” and it was a lot of fun to write.

British publisher Chronicle City ran a Kickstarter campaign for their version of the Steampunk classic Space: 1889 – a favorite of mine from the 80s – and I offered an adventure for a stretch goal that, sadly, was not reached. I still hope to write it someday. Their Kickstarter campaign for Cthulhu Britannica saw me contribute to their intriguing postcard-based adventure generator. I was especially happy to be involved with this project because my first commissioned work for Games Workshop, way back in 1985, came when they were developing A Green and Pleasant Land, the first ever British sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu.

Last year I wrote a couple of articles for Steve Jackson Games’ Pyramid magazine, both about obscure guns. The Puckle Gun, a repeating heavy musket, was covered in issue 3/52 (February), while the fearsome Nock volley gun appeared in issue 3/57. I’m planning to adapt both these weapons for Colonial Gothic in the near future, possibly in an unannounced supplement that I have on the back burner. Meanwhile, I have another article – not gun-related this time – being considered for a future issue of Pyramid.

Finally, 2013 was the year I discovered the Oldhammer movement. It seems that there are a lot of folks out there who remember the Games Workshop products of the 80s with great affection, and several of them asked me to give them interviews or to share my memories of working at GW during what some regard as that golden age. I have a couple more interviews lined up, but here are links to some that have appeared so far.

So that’s what 2013 looked like for me, and what 2014 is looking like so far. As always, I’ll be covering ongoing projects in more detail just as soon as I’m allowed to talk about them. But now I’d better get back to work – there’s plenty to do.

Euro-friends!

December 21, 2013 1 comment

If you read my blog from anywhere in the Euro-zone, this might be of interest. I’ve just discovered that Amazon.de has the (English) Kindle version of “Thor: Viking God of Thunder” marked down to 0,99 Euros.

Knights Templar: A Secret History

October 9, 2013 10 comments

After I finished writing Thor: Viking God of Thunder, Osprey Publishing asked me to write a Templar conspiracy title for their Dark Osprey line. Knights Templar: A Secret History is due for release later this month, and pre-orders are open on your favorite online retailer. The first review I’ve seen tells me the finished product lived up to my intentions, which is always nice to know.

I had a lot of fun writing this book. As well as poking about in the dark corners of history, I was able to spend time reviewing the history of the Templar conspiracy phenomenon and add a brand new one of my own devising. I deliberately refrained from making up any historical facts – that would be too easy – but I really let myself go when drawing conclusions from them. It was something like kitbashing, a modeling term for the process of assembling parts from different kits in a way the designers never intended and producing an entirely new plane, tank, or whatever.

This isn’t my first book on the Templars. The Colonial Gothic Templars sourcebook was a similar exercise on a smaller scale, geared to the needs of the game and focusing on Templar activity in the North American colonies during the Revolutionary War era. This new book suffers no such restrictions, and I trace the Templars – and the Holy Grail – across the Atlantic and back again as they engage in a three-way secret war with the Vatican and the Freemasons. Are the Templars using the European Union to create a global state ruled by a heretical religion? Read the facts and judge for yourself.

Early Buzz for “Thor: Viking God of Thunder”

August 19, 2013 16 comments

I posted earlier about Thor: Viking God of Thunder, which I wrote for Osprey Publishing’s new Myths and Legends line. It was a lot of fun to research and write, and I guess that must show because it’s getting some great early reviews. I just received a very excited email from my editor, Joseph McCullough, to let me know that it has won a coveted Kirkus starred review. If you subscribe to Kirkus, you can read it here.

Kirkus is not the only place that people have been saying nice things about the book. Here are a few more:
Goodreads
Blog of Erised
Comicbuzz

The book is due for release on September 17, and it’s currently available to preorder from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and, as they say, all good booksellers. I recently received an advance copy, and I have to say it looks absolutely gorgeous. The team at Osprey did a bang-up job with the graphic design and layout.

The Vikings have been good to me down the years. When I couldn’t find a grant to fund my Ph.D. research on the British Bronze Age, Chris Morris at Durham University found me a job processing material from his excavation of two Viking farms in the Orkneys. My first freelance project after leaving Games Workshop in 1990 was writing GURPS Vikings for Steve Jackson Games, and a decade later Steve asked me to create an expanded second edition: it’s still selling steadily as an ebook. My first video game contract was to write some Viking storylines for Interplay’s historical strategy game add-on Castles: The Northern Campaign. A few years after that, The Creative Assembly contracted me as a writer and researcher on the Viking Invasion expansion for their acclaimed PC strategy game Medieval: Total War: the add-on garnered some very good reviews and led to more freelance work and a job offer. More recently, and in a more light-hearted vein, the Russian mobile game developer AILove hired me to develop the characters and dialogue for their arcade-y Viking Tales iPhone game.

I’m currently working on a second Myths and Legends book for Osprey, and having even more fun. This one is on a Greek myth, and I’m finding all kinds of interesting corners to poke around in. More news on that when Osprey makes the official announcement.

In Praise of Historical Fantasy

July 5, 2013 2 comments

I’ve worked on a lot of historical fantasy projects over the years: the AD&D Celts Campaign Sourcebook, GURPS Vikings, GURPS Middle Ages 1, d20 Eternal Rome, Colonial Gothic, and a host of articles for various gaming magazines and web sites. Sometimes a project starts as historical fantasy and extends into contemporary fantasy and conspiracy theory, like my Dark Osprey book on the Knights Templar. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, of course, is set in a fictional Old World that had a lot in common with 15th-century Europe.

I could go on at length about how I came to prefer historical fantasy, starting with Enid Blyton retellings of the tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood, Saturday morning rescreenings of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts, and summer holidays spent visiting Roman villas and medieval castles across the south of England. But I’ll try not to, because that’s not the point I want to make.

It could be argued that almost all fantasy is historical fantasy. The ratio of history to fantasy varies, of course. Some fantasy settings take only the trappings of medieval Europe: castles, walled towns, and styles of weapons and armor. Others, including a lot of my own work, try to recreate the historical setting more or less faithfully, and layer in the types of fantasy elements that the people of that time and place really believed in: in the case of a Viking setting this includes trolls, draugr, one-eyed wizards who talk in riddles, and ways into the realms of Asgard, Alfheim, Jotunheim, and the rest. This is the style of fantasy I personally prefer, but that’s just me.

My first experience of this kind of fantasy came in about 1980. By then, I had been playing D&D/AD&D for about three years: I had resisted starting a Traveller campaign because I was an archaeology student and a fantasy and folklore fan whereas most of my college gaming group were studying physics and consumed science fiction like termites in a sawmill. Their own AD&D campaigns featured things like gigawatt lasers, time and dimension travel, and one memorable guest appearance by Slippery Jim deGris. In a medieval fantasy setting, I felt I could keep things under control, but if I had run Traveller for that group, there’s no telling what they might have talked me into allowing. Pistols that fire point singularities? The mind reels. Sorry – reminiscing again. Back to the point.

Playing Bushido (shortly after watching the miniseries of James Clavell’s Shogun) gave me a window into another culture, another place and time, and I was enthralled. I started to write my own RPG set in the world of Irish myth and saga with the working title Fiana, but it never got beyond a couple of playtest sessions.

As I continued to study, and read, and play, I came to realize that medieval (or “generic”) fantasy had a far stronger basis in history than simply castles and knights. Tolkien’s Middle-earth was grounded in the world of Anglo-Saxon literature, Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age showed a grasp of inter-war archaeology that surprised me, and the worlds of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy novels were, if not historically-based in the same sense, still a window into the decadent London Scene of the late 60s and early 70s.

The point – and I promise, I do have one – is this: fantasy is most accessible when it gives the new reader, or player, something familiar to hang on to rather than plunging them into a world that is completely original. Original fantasy worlds can be disorienting at first, and while they may have many virtues from a literary standpoint, accessibility is not necessarily one of them. Professor M.A.R. Barker created a dazzlingly original fantasy setting for Empire of the Petal Throne and his world of Tekumel still has loyal fans, but AD&D settings like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms proved themselves much friendlier to neophytes and enjoyed much greater commercial success. A little later Skyrealms of Jorune presented players with very original and thought-provoking SF races and cultures, but its very originality made it harder to play in: a player would start out knowing far less about the world than his or her character did, and it took a lot of quite determined study to figure the setting out. Skyrealms is rightly regarded as a classic, but comparatively few people have ever played it.

While history makes fantasy more accessible, an injection of fantasy can make history a lot more fun. I came to appreciate history fairly late in life, after more than a decade harboring resentment against the teachers who had made it so deadly dull – for me, at least. Would the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have been so successful if they had eschewed the supernatural and striven to recreate the real story of the Golden Age of Piracy? Would they have been as much fun? While I’ve read some very entertaining history books about Caribbean piracy, I have to say I doubt it.

Compare, for example, the Patrick Bergin Robin Hood movie with Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves. They were in production at the same time but took very different approaches. The Bergin film paid scrupulous attention to historical detail: the producers employed a historian who was well versed in the contemporary theories about who and what the Hooded Man might really have been, if he truly did live in Norman England. The result: no Sheriff of Nottingham, few if any of the expected story vignettes (although it has to be said that only the Errol Flynn version really satisfies on that score), and the film comes across as earnest but rather dull. Costner embraced the big-budget historical romp, and for every offended scholar who stayed away many more regular folks came, watched, and enjoyed. Likewise, Clive Owen’s well-intentioned King Arthur movie got bogged down in historical (semi) reality – and as an archaeology grad I have to say it showed an impressive level of research in everything except its treatment of the Picts – but it took away a lot of what makes Arthur Arthur in most people’s minds.

More recently we have seen movies like National Treasure, the seemingly unstoppable Pirates of the Caribbean, and of course the Game of Thrones omni-media juggernaut which owes at least some kind of debt to England’s 15th-century Wars of the Roses (I’m waiting for someone to make a Game of Thrones version of Kingmaker). And then there’s the rise of the contemporary urban fantasy genre in fiction, which uses the most familiar setting of all: not historical fantasy, I admit, but it does support my point about the importance of accessibility in a fantasy setting.

Although the exact proportion of history to fantasy is a matter of personal taste, it seems to me that they really do play well together. Fantasy without history can be confusing, and while I would never say that history is dull – except in school – pure, unadulterated history suffers from an image problem.

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