RPG Novel Talk, Pathfinder Stats for LotFP, Stuff

Time for one of these again!

I really have been up to a lot this year.

I had two program items at Ropecon this year, they were both filmed, and they are also both already up on YouTube.

First, there’s the Astraterra presentation with Miska Fredman. The sound quality is a bit wonky, unfortunately.

And then there’s the talk I did about the game novel now and then. I am very happy with both the presentation, though the structure kinda breaks down towards the end, and the video itself, which has clear sound. It contains the filthiest things ever published about Space Marines. I also observe who’s the biggest sex symbol in all of D&D. In between the funny bits, I tell why these novels exist and also what they’re good for.

Meanwhile, Lamentations of the Flame Princess has released Jeff Rients’s Broodmother Sky Fortress to rave reviews. The Pathfinder RPG stats in the PDF version are my work, as were the PF stats in the previous Towers Two and Forgive Us.

While Towers Two is probably the weirdest writing project I’ve been part of – I’m pretty sure I’m the only game designer on the planet who has had to figure out how to mechanically express a man literally vanishing up his own asshole – Broodmother Sky Fortress was the most fun to design. There’s an entity in the adventure that’s so powerful it made no sense to stat it up at all in the low-powered, old-school LotFP system.

Pathfinder RPG don’t roll that way. My creation, which took five hours of crunching numbers, is no match for the Great Cthulhu, but is quite capable of ruining the day of your average 20th-level adventuring party. Solo.

Finally, I’ve gotten involved with PlayLab!, a webzine by the game studies folks at the University of Tampere, and until the end of the spring term will be producing game reviews, popular articles about research papers, and a few other things for them. Thus far, out are my review of World of Warcraft: Legion and the Finnish tabletop role-playing game Praedor. A longer article about College of Wizardry is forthcoming.


College of Wizardry 10, or, “I want to go back”

Last Monday, I returned home from the larp College of Wizardry, tenth of its name. Physically, at least. Mentally, I haven’t yet, not really. Emotionally… time will tell.

If the concept is not familiar, CoW is a Harry Potter -inspired larp for 135 players, played at Czocha Castle in Poland and organized by the primarily Polish-Danish team Dziobak Larp Studios. Unlike the boarding school of Hogwarts, the Czocha College of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a university-level institution, where the students are adults and have already graduated from one magic school. Not Hogwarts, though – the CoW larp series started out as a Harry Potter spinoff, but the serial numbers were filed off after the third game. The family resemblances remain, but it is its own thing.

First thing out of the way, when I say “Czocha Castle”, I really mean castle. It was built in the 14th century, is accessed by a bridge, and features both dungeons and secret passages. Like, actual secret passages. While at least one of them is dead obvious by the marks on the floor in front of the bookcase, I cannot get over how cool it is to move a bookshelf to reveal a stone staircase beyond.

The characters are both staff and students – Headmaster, professors, janitor, and juniors, sophomores and seniors. The students are sorted into five Houses. There’s the coldly intellectual and ruthlessly pragmatic Faust, the tight-knit and secretive Molin, the diplomatic and honourable Sendivogius, the artistic and bohemian Libussa1, and Durentius, whose motto is “valour and diligence” but who are really the party house.

The game is set at the beginning of term, starting with the students marching over the bridge into the castle on Thursday evening and ending with the Grand Opening Ball on Saturday night. In between, there’s two full schooldays, a few student parties, the Sorting Ceremony, and lots of drama, relationships, duels, and demon summoning. As students do.

Staff and Students, Living and Dead

The characters are handled differently from what I am used to in Finnish larps. We had the option of either writing up a character ourselves or taking a prewritten one. I opted for the latter because I was aware of constraints on my time, and because I wanted to see how they’re executed. The character was formed of a series of elements. There was their unique background and personality bit – in my character’s case, his mother was from an old and respected Hexblood family, but had married a Mundaneborn, which my character resented and had moved to his grandparents as soon as it was possible – and a number of boilerplate elements like House, what school he’d gone to before coming to Czocha, what was his year of studies, an extracurricular club, and his Path. The paths were Artificer, Healer, Guardian, Curse Breaker, Cryptozoologist. All of the material except House, year, and Path were just suggestions that you could edit, adapt, discard and change at will.

Charles Duke. No smiling.

Charles Duke. No smiling.

The characters were written to be gender-neutral, with a first name initial and a surname. It is thus that Charles Duke, Sophomore of House Faust, student of the Guardian Path, graduate of Stenøya Trolldom Akademiet, and member in good standing of the Alliance for Reclaiming Magic, was born.

Some readers may have twigged on to what was not included in the above – contacts. Those you had to figure out for yourself, and for the avid player, there was ample pre-game available online in the formation of relationships, friendships, acquisition of friends and enemies. People used Facebook, Google+ hangouts, Google Docs, and a special social networking site set up just for the larp, Czochabook.

Or then you could just skip that and show up at the larp. There were pre-game workshops for Path and House, where we figured out a bunch of contacts, how we think about one another, and generally who’s who and what’s what. This worked to a degree, though it’s still on the player to figure out what they want to do in the game and come up with plot. This is not a bug as such, just how the system works. It’s also entirely possible to go through the game just attending class and playing a student in as close to an everyday life it’s possible to have in a school for witchards. There’s also the race for the Czocha Cup and the acquisition of House Points, which offers additional structure and motivation to attend classes, answer the Professor’s questions, do homework and generally come up with stuff. It’s of course up to your character whether they care about all that. Mine was ambivalent; House Faust had won the past six House Cups, and Charles thought such a long streak would breed resentment in the other Houses and complacency in Faust, which would weaken them all as well as the whole of Czocha, where his deepest loyalty lay.

Learn from Your Elders and Learn from Your Peers

So, how’d it go for me? It was a learning experience. Point one: I should’ve engaged in the pre-game. I had a lot of real life going on and deadlines up the wazoo and back again, but I should’ve squeezed in something. The thing is, Charles was written as a kind of a dick. He was Hexist – that is, prejudiced against those with Mundane blood – hated werewolves, and was active in the A.R.M., which was the conservative political club. Additionally, he was House Faust, who have more than a little of the Slytherin in their DNA. Just showing up and playing a dick is problematic, because if everyone else’s character thinks your character is the online comment thread in the flesh, they have no motivation to drag you along into wacky student hijinks, and a lot of your game is going to be brooding in the corner. To my mind, it would’ve required preparing some contacts, both for like-minded characters and a few with a history of mutual antagonism just to keep things interesting. In the end, Charles was much less of a dick than I’d figured him; traditionalist, conservative, utterly humourless, polite and formal.

Another reason to do the pre-game would’ve been to get a better feel for who the character is before being thrown into his shoes and forced me to prepare with more depth. I could’ve figured out the elements which I needed to jettison earlier, and generally been farther along in the process of developing Charles into a person by the time I needed to embody him. Having a history tied to people at the school would have made me answer quite a few more “whys” of his past and personality than I did.

I did have one contact set up before the game; my mother played Assistant Professor Laura Ulfred, my character’s aunt, but we had very little contact during the game beyond her threatening to dock House Faust points if I did not ask my date for one more dance during the Grand Ball, fifteen minutes before the Book of Points was closed for the evening.

House Faust, incidentally, won the House Cup by one point, 536 points vs. Libussa’s 535. The victory was made of the Faust’s Fireball Dragons victory, so many extracurricular activities, homework essays, clever answers and questions in class, trespasses we got away with and such small moments. That one point made it special. Everything we did mattered.

One thing about having a game with so many players is the variety of experience. My genre was comic fantasy, to the point of being harassed with a cube-shaped rooster named Cockblock. I’m reasonably sure that was the experience most players had (comic fantasy, not Cockblock – though that bird got around). However, there were also dark, tragic, and even epic plotlines played out. Two characters died on Saturday night. I think there is room for it all as long as the plots are inclusive. The original source material gets both dark and epic at times, occasionally at the same time.

Magic Will Flow Through Your Hands and Your Heart

So, witchard school. Lots of magic thrown around. Magic in a larp is always slightly tricky since you can code a spaceship navigation system, you can simulate beating people up by beating people up, and you drugs can be so realistic people will wonder for years afterwards what they actually were, but magic doesn’t exist in the real world. Hence, the need for rules. In College of Wizardry, they were delightfully elegant: the target decides what the spell does. Most of the characters were still students and students’ spells didn’t always work as intended. It was always helpful to inform the recipient what you were trying to accomplish, like “Imma set your hair on fire, you werewolf-lover! FUEGO!” This rule was coupled with the aesthetic of “Play to Lose” – it’s more collaborative and usually gets you better story. Of course, this was more or less only relevant when dealing with attack spells, like in duel situations. My character wasn’t so much as threatened with violence, though did end up witnessing a very dramatic one between the gentlemen Rayford Elton and Raiden Grim.

Most of the spells cast were during class, mostly testing stuff on one another. This ranged from summoning the spirits of the dead inside one’s classmates to prank spells like “vox animalis”. There was also a chapter on common basic spells in the student handbook. The Czocha College of Witchcraft and Wizardry Student Handbook, incidentally, is a 559-page faux-leatherbound book that was included in the price of the ticket. It’s also available as a free PDF, as is the Von Schlichtwald Grand Bestiary. There’s also the out-of-character Book of College of Wizardry 4-6, which is a work of documentation. I know they are working on a series of other CoW books, both in- and out-of-character. For a bibliophile such as I, this is a very exciting game.

Reading them was by no means necessary to play, though it did deepen the experience. Still, out of the six teachers Charles had, two noted that the book was useless and one declared it should be burned. The fourth, Professor of Alchemy, on Friday mentioned he hadn’t actually read what the book said about alchemy. The following day, he had studied it and said it was actually quite good, but we should not feel bound by the printed word, so how about each of you pass this book around, tear out a page, and burn it on a candle.

The classes were a big part of the game. While you could skip them (and I did, once) without losing points, they were very entertaining. In Demonology, we summoned spirits of mischief and interrogated angels. In Necromancy, we summoned the spirits of the dead. In Mind Magic, we first simulated different fears and the second day, to offset the heaviness, Professor Nikandros had drinks and prank spells for everyone.

Oh, and in physical education we did knife blocking techniques. The second day, Professor Ikonomopoulos graded the bruises.

Two points for Faust.

Two points for Faust.

You know you’re in it when your sparring partner is the only guy in class who had separate gym clothes2.

Of course, there was also homework. I am fairly sure I have written less material for real-life college courses than I did during College of Wizardry. My favourite was an essay about consent and mind magic.

Listen to the Tide of the Centuries

We also summoned so many demons. There was an excellent NPC system in place. If you needed NPCs, like summoned demons, angels, visiting parents, investigating Guardians, drunk alumni, or harpies, you could go into the NPC room, explain what you needed, what kind of scene it was for, when, and where, and then you’d get the appropriate NPC in the appropriate time and place to do its NPC thing. The results were impressive. So. Many. Demons.

On the topic of drunk alumni, there was an interesting cultural difference to how alcohol is handled in Finnish larps, where in my experience it’s typically “not until the afterparty” or at least strongly limited. Here it was “bar’s open after the classes” and afterwards some of the teacher players remarked that this was the first time the teacher’s lounge wasn’t a drinking club. I didn’t see any disruption because of drunken players. We were all there to larp rather than get liquored up. Some did sleep a little late but that may also have been due to past-curfew rituals in the dungeon. Faustians, I would note, were generally early risers3.

In general, apart from some kitchen hiccups and a certain confusion about our bus from Tegel Airport, the game was extraordinarily well organized. Stuff that needed to happen happened. Information was delivered. When schedules shifted, as they sometimes did, new ones were distributed with such smoothness I barely registered anything had happened. Conveniently, in the setting, magic was not incompatible with technology and I could carry a mobile phone with me. A lot of stuff ran on schedule and knowing the time was important.

Raise Your Wand to What Lies Ahead

Three days is a long time to live in the skin of another person. You discover stuff about them. For instance, Charles was a much less terrible dancer than I am. The game also stuck around for a while, and the morning after I’d returned I first spoke to my girlfriend in English before realizing I’m not in the castle anymore. For a couple of days, I couldn’t really accomplish much beyond gluing myself to the Facebook groups and going “I want back” in Google+ Hangouts. Straight off the plane, it was hard to relate to non-players. This text is already my fourth longer piece about the game, and there’s a fifth one coming, maybe even a sixth.

There’s something magical about the whole experience. I wouldn’t necessarily call it bleed since my character had the emotional range of a dead cod, but afterwards I had all the feels. There’s a sense of community, a feeling of shared experience. Together, we created stories. We made friends. Hearing the Hymn of Czocha, sung both at the beginning and the very end of the game, makes me misty-eyed.

Whether Charles Duke will be returning to Czocha is still up in the air. I think there’s still a good story in him, and it is not dependent on really any other specific characters from CoW10 being present. I might go for a midterm game with him. For another term-starter, perhaps something else. We shall see.

I know that I am returning. The 11th and 12th games are sold out, but the rest of next year’s lineup will be released on December 16th. It may not be cheap, but I like eating noodles.


1 I only figured it out now. Libussa was founded by the mythical hero Libuše, who founded Prague. IN BOHEMIA.

2 As a point of order, we did a brief OOC negotiation on how hard we’re going to play this and concluded “let’s just do this”. The same repeated on Saturday with another player, on whom I had both reach and weight, but who happened to have self-defence training. I limped for half the larp.

3 Leading to the breakfast table exchange “Why are all the Faustians up so early?” “It’s the nightmares.” My best line in the game and I don’t think anybody even heard it with everybody else talking. Oh well.

Bcon, Barcelona

A while back, I had the delight to visit Bcon, in sunny Barcelona.

Predictably, the day after we left for Spain, where it was still t-shirt weather despite all the locals wearing parkas and shivering, the Stark words came true and two inches of snow got dumped on Helsinki. Coming back was a bit of a shock.

The convention was three days long, and the roster of guests of honour was most respectable: Johanna Sinisalo, Richard Morgan, Andrzej Sapkowski, Aliette de Bodard, Rhianna Pratchett, as well as the unknown-to-me Péter Michaleczky, Enrique Corominas, and Rosa Montero.

My Spanish is just about sufficient for basic survival and my Catalan is nonexistent, but fortunately a lot of the program was English and everyone I needed to have an actual conversation with spoke good English, both within the convention and outside it in the city.

The convention’s “main area” was the dealer’s room, which featured a bar as well as the local vendor Gigamesh peddling off stuff that was apparently taking up inconvenient storage space at prices which could only be lower if they had been paying me to take the books away.

My convention experience, as is usual, was rather coloured by occupying the Worldcon 75 table. I did have time to catch a few program items, such as “The Failures of Futurology”, a discussion of what we failed to predict. There’s apparently a largish passenger airplane in existence whose in-flight entertainment system is hooked up to the internet through a satellite link, and shares hardware with the computers that actually keep the plane in the air, which is so remarkably short-sighted I’m not sure it works even as a technothriller plot point. There was also reminiscing about the late Stanislaw Lem, a worldbuilding panel where Andrzej Sapkowski made a splash at the start by declaring the whole endeavour pointless, and other interesting things.

But don’t take my word for it. Impressively, they streamed the whole convention program and it is now available on YouTube.

Apart from the above, I recommend Political SF, as well as anything with Adam Roberts, Richard Morgan, Johanna Sinisalo, Charles Stross, or Aliette de Bodard.

Another cool thing was an English-language edition of the Polish fanzine Smokopolis, with short fiction and a history of the Polish role-playing scene. It was later made available as a free download.

Barcelona itself is a beautiful city, and I recommend it as a travel destination. For the geek, there’s the science fiction and gaming store Gigamesh and its sister shops in the same city block. It is also an old city, and a sense of history and oldness oozes from the cobblestones in the older quarters of the city, a warren of streets and alleys it’s easy to get lost in and inspired by. On the newer side of things, there are the truly outlandish Gaudí buildings, such as the cathedral Sagrada Família, a work in progress since 1882, and Casa Batlló, or “the House of Bones” as it’s also known. Gaudí’s dreamlike architecture unlike anything I have seen in that scale. It feels like something from Sigil or Tanelorn or Amber instead of the real world.

I have traveled much this year. While Bcon may not have been my favourite trip of many, many rewarding wanderings, Barcelona has become one of my favourite cities.

I mean, look at this thing. Casa Batlló, photo by Wikipedia user Amadalvarez, CC BY-SA 3.0

I mean, look at this thing. Casa Batlló, photo by Wikipedia user Amadalvarez, CC BY-SA 3.0


What I’ve Been Up To

It’s been quiet here. It’s not that I’m not gaming or writing, it’s that I’ve been writing so great many other things, and there’s only so much time I am able to spend at the keyboard.

The most important of those other things is the English translation of Astraterra, a project that morphed under my feet into the second edition of the game. Look for it in the first quarter of 2017.

Earlier this year, we also had the larp conference Solmukohta, on the Helsinki-Stockholm ferry. The pre-event highlights included End of the Line, the first official Vampire larp under White Wolf’s new management. Along with Mika Loponen and Kaisa Kangas, I also edited the two conference books, Larp Realia and Larp Politics (free downloads). I think they’re pretty good books, all thanks to our writers, and it was a pretty damn good con, at least for me. Conrunning on a boat was a calculated risk and could’ve gone south in so many ways, but the team pulled it off and the feedback is mostly positive. Next year, Norway.

In late 2015, we premiered the gaming convention Tracon Hitpoint in Tampere, a younger cousin of the anime and gaming convention Tracon. Hitpoint is dedicated solely to games. It skipped 2016, but will be back next year. I’m not organizing anything beyond the obligatory few gaming sessions or a presentation, since my conrunning energy for 2017 is directed at Worldcon 75.

Worldcon 75 is hitting Helsinki next year, and I’m the games program head. It’s going to be the culmination of a project I’ve been part of since 2013. I’ve travelled four times to the United States for it. I’ve worked for it in London and Stockholm, and will be adding Barcelona to that list next week. I’ve manned the convention’s promotional table at countless conventions. There’s a huge amount of time, money, and energy invested in it, and I’m looking forward to its fruition.

Oh, and I’m still trying to graduate.

Anyway, I will try to update this a bit more frequently, since two updates in nearly a year is just sad. I am currently playing in Pathfinder RPG campaigns Curse of the Crimson Throne and Reign of Winter, in their fifth and fourth books respectively, and will be doing big postmortems on those when they’re done. Likewise, I am resurrecting a Legacy of Fire campaign I originally started in 2009 just so I can finish the damn story. Finally, I have a one-shot of Vampire: The Masquerade scheduled for research purposes in a few weeks. There’s also going to be a report on the Barcelona Eurocon as well as some reviews, one of which has been in draft form for over a year after the WordPress editor ate half my work and really should be posted, especially since I got a free PDF out of it. Finally, I have a game of my own in the works. More on that later.

Ropecon 2016, or, “I’m taking this year easy.”

We had a Ropecon again last weekend! Woo!

As my sole reader from last year will remember, the convention had to finally depart, after 18 beautiful years, the non-Euclidean fever dream that was the Dipoli Conference Centre. We found expansive new digs at the Helsinki Fair Centre, which, if nothing else, would have room for us to grow. There’s a new conference wing that suits convention style programming well, and big, huge exhibition halls where we placed the miniature gamers, card gamers, the dealers’ room, the boffer fighting, the archery range, and the wrestling show. Those all fit into a single hall. I’ve been in smaller aeroplane hangars. For the first time in my recollection, the dealers’ room was not cramped.

We all wondered if Ropecon can make the transition or if it would be disfigured by the barren expo halls. I think it survived just fine. Some things changed – the green parks of Otaniemi have been replaced by the office park that is Pasila – while others remained the same. While the card gamers finally have enough oxygen, the air quality in the tabletop gaming rooms was as musty as ever.

Our guests of honour this year were the excellent Ross Watson, whom I’d met before at Tracon 2013, and the rock star Claus Raasted, who was originally a Ropecon guest of honour ten years ago but since then pretty much changed the face of larp so we figured we could have him back.

I keep saying “we”. I haven’t had an official position at Ropecon for some years now, but old habits die hard. Like the habit of Ropecon veterans of asking me to do “just this one small thing”, which is how I wound up on two different awards juries this year. I assume it’s punishment for my admittedly smug advertising of how I’ve kept my duties light.

The first thing on my plate was a Pathfinder Society scenario on Friday, #7-22 Bid for Alabastrine. It was my kind of scenario, in that it required the PCs to be proactive in attaining their goals and was designed for solutions other than killing everyone. Actually, killing everyone would be a Bad Thing and probably not possible. I also liked how as a social scenario with as little combat as possible, it still left the barbarians and other heavy hitters something to do. The game went well, running only a hair under the four-hour time slot, with a crew of three beginner players and one more experienced one.

My Saturday morning program item was “Game Novel Then and Now”, a two-hour look into the history and meaning of role-playing game tie-in novels. It ties in with an article series I wrote for the Loki blog a couple of years back as well as my MA thesis. Game novels are a fascinating topic that basically nobody writes about, the Scribe Awards habitually overlook, and academia barely acknowledges. I’ve been delving deep into the weirdness of late, and brought back things of great interest, some of which I’ll post about soon.

Finally, on Sunday, I had a presentation with Miska Fredman about the English translation of Astraterra. The translation is more or less done and we should have the IndieGoGo campaign up and running in the near future.

Typically of me, with a full plate of programming, I didn’t actually get to see much. The things I did see were the postmortem of Solmukohta 2016 – went reasonably well, we learned a great many things, larpers can be difficult customers – and the first half of the vaunted Pokémon musical. The costuming was top-notch.

As for the rest of the con, some things went well, some did not. The poor availability of food has been discussed elsewhere to exhaustion already – of the something like 22 restaurants in the Fair Centre, a total of five were open during the con, and only the burger joint and the prohibitively expensive hotel restaurant (also the only place serving alcohol) were open beyond lunch hours. This was apparently due to the company running the show colossally misunderstanding the demographics of Ropecon, which I think is a bit rich at a venue that hosts conferences, conventions, expos and fairs of every type.

Anoher thing I thought could’ve been done better was the ticket queues before the con opened. We could’ve done with opening another one or two ticket counters to shorten the lines. This, though, was mostly a bit clumsy. For proper failure, look at Rio Olympics.

Overall, though, it was a good convention. The criticisms are things that stick out because they didn’t work, while the capable work often goes unnoticed because smooth running does not draw attention to itself. Despite the move, despite the loss of the green spaces and the non-Euclidean architecture, it still felt like Ropecon. Ropecon is more than just the walls at weird angles and though they housed us well, the soul of the event is in the people, and the people came. It was home.

My Ropecon Schedule

Finland’s premier gaming convention Ropecon is right around the corner. I’ve lately been swimming in the deep waters of Worldcon organizing and am not part of the concom this year, but I do have a number of scheduled appearances.

On Friday, at 18:00, I’ll be running the Pathfinder Society scenario Bid for Alabastrine. Here’s the blurb for that.

A Pathfinder Society Scenario designed for levels 1–5. Decades ago, the merchant nation of Druma anticipated a wave of migrants and built the city Alabastrine to accommodate them. The mass migration never happened. Always seeking a return on investment, Druma recently began auctioning off control of the city to the highest bidders and wealthiest entrepreneurs for five years at a time. The next auction begins soon, and the powerful Aspis Consortium gold agent Myrosype—an enemy of the Society responsible for countless Pathfinders’ deaths—is poised to take control of the whole city for her own nefarious ends. The Society has secured a few invitations for the PCs to attend the auction. Can they disrupt the event’s delicate politics in order to stop their rival, or will the Aspis Consortium gain an unassailable stronghold?

It was assigned to me, but looks right up my alley. Intrigue and mystery that punishes players who think only with their damage dice.

What I consider as my main event for the convention is at 11:00 on Saturday morning, Game Novels Then and Now. It’s a two-hour presentation in English, about the phenomenon of the role-playing game tie-in novel, about its history, idiosyncrasies, and reasons why you should or should not read them. I’ve been reading game novels at the pace of about one per day for the past week for this.

Ropecon is home to many sorts of games. For better or for worse, these games have consequences where you can’t impact the outcome – novels. From Dungeons & Dragons to Settlers of Catan, from Magic: The Gathering to Necromunda, these novels come by the thousands. Come hear about the unpublished tales of Drizzt Do’Urden, a Warhammer novel that isn’t Warhammer, and a series that needs to be deciphered with a flow chart.

And finally, on Sunday at 11:00, I have Astraterra: An adventure RPG for all ages with Miska Fredman, who actually wrote the thing. I just translated it. This is about the game’s impending release in English, where we discuss the game, the work, and what happens next.

There’s also a list of stuff I am interested in seeing but due to scheduling conflicts, my body’s need for food and laziness will probably miss until they are posted on YouTube:

  • The release presentation of Juhana Pettersson’s role-playing game Tšernobyl, rakastettuni (Chernobyl mon amour), which I helped proofread. This is at 18:00 on Friday, same time as my game, so I will miss it.
  • At 23:00 on Friday, there’s a screening of Mike Pohjola’s heavy metal musical 1827, about the Fire of Turku. I saw it the last time it was screened at Ropecon and rather enjoyed it.
  • “So you went to work in Japan”, by Joonas Kirsi, Saturday from 12:00, overlapping my presentation. Joonas is an excellent speaker, and here he discusses what work life in Japan is really like, based on 18 months of personal experience.
  • “All the Mistakes We’ve Made”, by Massi Hannula Thorhauge, Claus Raasted, Riikka Böök, and Jukka Seppänen. This has become a traditional thing, where a bunch of larp organizers tell about a mistake that was made in running a larp, now that they can laugh about it, and what can be learned from it. This is right after my thing, so I can make it!
  • Unless, that is, I go see Tuomas Pirinen’s “Creating Chaos”, where the Games Workshop veteran discusses creating Realms of Chaos for Warhammer, and what Chaos is and how it works.
  • At 15:00 on Saturday, Jukka Sorsa talks about his new beginner RPG, Hood, based on the Robin Hood mythology. I playtested it way long ago, and I rather like it.
  • At the same time, there’s Massi again with “Solmukohta 2016 – How did it go?”, where she offers a postmortem on the Solmukohta larp conference. I was there and on the concom, so I kinda know what happened, but I am nevertheless interested.
  • Following from that, there’s Jaakko Stenros discussing the Finnish Game Museum and its role-playing game and larp exhibits. I crowdfunded the project as well as donated a load of material to the museum, so I am somewhat intrigued by how things are shaping up.
  • At 17:00 on Saturday, Juhana Pettersson talks “Blood, Sex, and Techno Music: The New Vampire Larp”, which is about the new Vampire larp by White Wolf Publishing. I played in The End of the Line back in February, and am quite interested in attending Enlightenment in Blood next year in Berlin.
  • Sunday at noon, shunted from his usual spot late on Saturday, is Esa Perkiö giving us yet another lecture on a horrible element of history and its use in games. This time, genocide. He’s a tremendously good speaker with relentlessly grim topics, and I’ve enjoyed every one of his presentations.

I may also try to play a game.

Sasquan: Not a Convention Report

Well, this report has been some time in the writing. Jetlag kicked my ass and it’s stayed kicked for a week and counting.

The other week, I was at Sasquan, the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention, in Spokane, Washington.

My long-time reader may remember how in 2013, I worked on the Helsinki in 2015 bid that ultimately lost the site selection vote at LoneStarCon 3 (and if the previous sentence contains unfamiliar concepts to you such as “bid” and “site selection”, I recommend you go back and read the LoneStarCon report for the explanations). Well, this was it, and we were back.

This is not going to be much of a convention report, since I did not actually see much convention. The Helsinki 2017 bid owned me for the duration, so my time in the convention centre was spent behind and around our bid table, telling passersby about Helsinki, Finnish science fiction literature and fandom, and other stuff that was asked of me.

I think the strangest question I fielded was about the genes of Eero Mäntyranta.

My time at the parties was mostly spent cleaning up and tending bar, except for a short while on Friday night after dinner, before the news about site selection results broke. I was on my way to the Dublin in 2019 bid party, when I was waylaid by a member of the DC in 2017 bid committee, who started pumping my hand and offered his congratulations and condolences.

It’s like they say. Losing a Worldcon bid is horrible. Winning it is terrifying.

For my part, I am happy that this vote stood in stark contrast to the other one at this year’s Worldcon. The competition between the bids was friendly, clean, fair, and fun. My condolences to the other bid committees – I’ve been there. I know how it feels.

And now, they say, the hard work begins. I’ve travelled abroad three times for this thing already and I’m only middle management at best. I think it’s been pretty hard already. At least I get to keep to my own time zone for most of this.

I managed to witness precisely two program items: the Hugo Award Ceremony and the first twenty minutes of Saturday’s business meeting, where the site selection results, already public since the previous night, were officially ratified.

I was at the ceremony as the plus one of Hanna Hakkarainen, who was the designated acceptor should our friend Ninni Aalto win Best Fan Artist. This came complete with access to a slightly awkward pre-ceremony cocktail reception and a somewhat awkward Hugo Nominees’ Reception where I was talked at by a remarkably grumpy gentleman who had just lost a Campbell.

Oh, and the Hugo Losers’ Party. Which was awesome. George has the details.

The actual ceremony was excellent. It could have been as awkward as the events that bookended it, but it managed to be warm, positive, and funny. Though there were all kinds of glitches, David Gerrold and Tananarive Due kept the show going on and at no point did it lag. Likewise, Robert Silverberg and Connie Willis are fixtures of these ceremonies for a very good reason. There was song, there was dance, there was a Dalek, a man announced his presidential candidacy, a woman thanked the patriarchy, entertainment was had, and some rockets were actually given out.

Don’t take my word for it, watch the recording! The actual ceremony kicks off at around 1:06 in the second video.

For the record, I disagree with some of the results, mostly in that the Editor categories got nuked. However, I believe we have now seen exactly what voting slates are good for, so could we please dispense with them in the future?

The business meeting is also online. It is much less exciting, though watching Kevin Standlee do his thing is pleasant in the way that watching the work of someone utterly competent often is. Also, some of the debate-heavy parts, such as Sunday, cause my will to live ebb.

Next year, MidAmeriCon II. In 2017, Worldcon 75. See you there.

Hugo Neepery, the 2015 Edition

These past couple of posts I’ve been warning that I’ll be writing up a separate post discussing the Hugos this year. It’s a somewhat controversial topic this year. You may remember how last year we had some trouble with a few authors having an entitlement problem. Well, they’re back, and this time the lunatic fringe also showed up to the party.

The way the Hugo nomination process works is that if you have at least a supporting membership of an appropriate Worldcon, costing around $40, you get to nominate works for the Hugo ballot. Since the English-speaking world sees some 1,000 works published for the novel category alone each year and the field is very broad, ranging from fantasy of manners to hard military science fiction, the votes tend to spread out quite a bit. Because of this, were someone to write up a slate of nominations, which Brad Torgersen did and then Theodore Beale imitated and expanded upon, and tell all their friends and family and fans to vote on it, it would only take a couple of hundred warm bodies to have an effect. This is entirely legal by the rules, but tremendously unsportsmanlike.

So, we’re left with the end result that the majority of nominees on the ballot did not make it there on literary merit alone. Indeed, there are a number of works there entirely lacking in merit literary and otherwise. The short fiction categories and Best Related Work are a lost cause this year, and though there are a couple of works there that I thought were pretty decent, like Kary English’s “Totaled”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Day the World Turned Upside Down” (though last year’s “Ink Readers of Doi Saket” was much better) and one or two others, they’re still not quite what I’d think of as Hugo quality and the rest of the nominees are too weak for me to call it a contest. This is one of the more insidious things about slate voting. Even if there was something that would normally have a fighting chance on the ballot, the contest isn’t going to be fair if it’s accompanied there by stuff that’s merely okay or worse, and an award won in a category where the rest of the nominees are present only because Little Teddy wants to promote his vanity press is hollow. It’s a spectacularly shitty thing to do to writers who neither asked nor were asked to be on the slate.

Best Novella is particularly dire and contained nothing that I did not detest outright. I shall also single out John C. Wright’s Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and the Awful Truth as the worst book I have ever read, a nearly perfect intellectual, artistic, and moral failure.

That said, Best Novel has a lot of good stuff, and I think Best Graphic Story was the strongest it’s been in years.

My vote for Best Novel goes to Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, a novel about a fish out of water in a setting of courtly intrigue. It’s very much “Jane Austen’s The Lord of the Rings“. The prose is beautiful and the main character, Maia, is relatable to a degree that’s starting to feel manipulative. It’s sentimental and cozy, and somehow makes it work. It was also light in tone, which is a refreshing break from all the George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie I’ve been reading lately.

I also liked Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword and Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. Actually, Addison only edged out Leckie for first spot on my ballot because Leckie already won pretty much everything except the Pulitzer last year. Liu’s novel was interesting and a worthy successor to its models in the grand tradition of idea sci-fi, but the prose and characters felt flat to me. So sue me. I’m not a big fan of Clarke, Dick or Asimov either.

Jim Butcher’s Skin Game I can take or leave. I loved Cold Days, but this one just left me cold. I’ve been a fan of the series, and Butcher still writes eminently readable stuff. However, the focus on Dresden’s sexual frustration in this one was tremendously awkward to read, and the end resolution felt anticlimactic for all the stakes they had piled up. Also, the pop culture references went far over the top. Especially at the end.

Kevin J. Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars I found merely dull. It’s very long, has aliens with katanas, and is simultaneously the sequel to a long series that it assumes you’ve read and the start of a new series, so it sort of assumes that you know all this stuff already and the actual payoff is going to be delivered a few books down the line.

For Graphic Story, I’m giving it to Rat Queens, Vol. 1: Sass & Sorcery. I have been reading a lot of Order of the Stick and Nodwick lately, and Rat Queens draws from the same well, the genre of D&D fantasy, where adventurers are a profession unto itself and mysterious strangers hand out quests in taverns. All three comics play with the tropes of the game and the genre, but whereas Nodwick is just a loose collection of jokes and Order of the Stick is an epic fantasy tale layered with the trappings of a role-playing game, Rat Queens captures the actual play experience like nothing I have seen before. It deftly weaves together the absurdity of a casual gaming group with the ostensible seriousness of the adventures they have. It’s also too funny to be read in public while trying to maintain decorum. And the art is pretty.

After Rat Queens, there’s the third installment of Saga, the first trade paperback collection of Ms. Marvel, and the first volume of Sex Criminals, all of which I liked. There was also a zombie comic of some sort, but it was not included in the voter package, was off the Sad Puppy slate and is a zombie story, which together killed my interest and I could not even be bothered to dig it up.

Also, it is a crying shame that Sing No Evil was not on the ballot. Or The Causal Angel, or Memory of Water, or “The Truth About Owls”, or the Southern Reach Trilogy, or The Blood of Angels, or Only Lovers Left Alive, or What Makes This Book So Great, or Sibilant Fricative, or The World of Ice and Fire or the second part of Heinlein’s biography, or nearly anything else than what we in so many categories received.

The Hugo voting is open until July 31st, and there’s still plenty of time to get your Sasquan membership and Hugo Voter Pack and see for yourself if I’m right or wrong.

Archipelacon: A Convention Report

I was originally going to start off this post with something along the lines of “I don’t know what you did over the weekend, but if you weren’t at Archipelacon, I had way more fun than you did”, but it looks like we weren’t the only ones with a reason to be happy.

Archipelacon was a four-day sci-fi convention in Mariehamn, on the island of Åland, branded as “the most fun you can have in a demilitarized zone”. The guests of honour were Karin Tidbeck, Johanna Sinisalo, Gary K. Wolfe, Parris McBride, and following the tradition of our Åland conventions of inviting up-and-coming, lesser-known authors, one George R.R. Martin.

And it was great.

The Quinsonitus ensemble. After the intermission, they would be back. Photo by Henry Söderlund, used with permission.

The Quinsonitus ensemble. After the intermission, they would be back. Photo by Henry Söderlund, used with permission.

How Great? Pretty Damn Great

Thursday dawned grey in Tampere. This is the summer, so dawn comes at around 3 a.m., which should give you a good picture of how early I had to get up to get on the bus that’d take me to the Turku harbour and onwards to the ferry that would take us all to Mariehamn. The Tampere fandom had reserved a bus for our own use.

Actually, I didn’t even get up. Being the neurotic that I am, I never went to sleep at all and spent my time watching stuff off Netflix. For the record, A Million Ways to Die in the West cannot be recommended.

The con really started at the bus stop, with all the other sleep-deprived fen, and continued on the ferry, where I met Johanna Sinisalo and Cheryl Morgan. I’d been recruited to be Johanna’s minder for the convention and was doing both the “Fear and Loathing in Hugoland” panel and masquerade with Cheryl. In addition, I had the literary Hugo discussion on Friday morning and my talk “Science Fiction and Role-Playing Games” on Sunday.

The Hugo stuff deserves a post of its own and anyone reading deserves it to be there, since it’s a bit off topic and not particularly fun this year. I will also do a separate post on the sci-fi game talk.

Apart from my own items, I did not see a whole lot of program. What I did see, however, was great. On Friday evening, there was the Deep Space Overture, a concert where a brass and percussion ensemble from Turku called Quinsonitus played a selection of music from science fiction film and television. They were very good.

I also saw Johanna Sinisalo’s guest of honour speech. She discussed how she discovered reading at the age of around two years, became a feminist at five and was given a five-year artist grant last weekend. This, in Finland, is a very big deal. Then, she also won the Finlandia Prize in 2000 with Not Before Sundown, which was also a big deal, because back then our most prestigious literature award did not usually go to speculative fiction. Incidentally, if you haven’t read it, do so. Now. I’ll be waiting. She also read an excerpt of the upcoming translation of her novel The Core of the Sun, a scene where the narrator ate chili, one of the last sources of pleasure legally available in its dystopian Finland. The description was synesthetic, almost erotic in a way. I am a self-confessed fan of prolonged descriptions of characters’ inner lives while they’re eating (I sometimes dig up this scene from Cryptonomicon and read it aloud to myself and marvel at it), and this was right up my alley. I need to read that book. I have it somewhere, I am sure.

I saw Shimo Suntila declare himself the Last Trash Writer of Finland, in a reprise of the event at last year’s Finncon. This time, neither Boris Hurtta nor Tuomas Saloranta were there to dispute the claim.

I went to see the latest installment Jukka Halme’s quiz show “Kuis?”, where contestants are forcibly drafted from among late arrivals, scoring is only tangentially related to correct answers, and it is possible (and common) to answer the question “What is your team name?” wrong.

On Friday evening was the Game of Thrones burlesque show. “The night is dark and full of tassels”, indeed… A lot of ketchup, there. It’s been suggested that if Helsinki wins the Worldcon bid for 2017, there might be a repeat performance. (And you can vote! We can make it happen, folks!)

There's a climbing mast at the local Seafaring Museum. Yours truly at top, Hugo-nominee Ninni Aalto climbing up, Henry Söderlund behind the camera. Photo used with permission.

There’s a climbing mast at the local Seafaring Museum. Yours truly at top, Hugo nominee Ninni Aalto climbing up, Henry Söderlund behind the camera. Photo used with permission.

The Masquerade, This Time No Song or Dance

On Saturday night, I hosted the masquerade! This has become something of a tradition since I was first forcibly drafted into the job by Jukka Halme, all those years ago in Jyväskylä. Cheryl took care of wrangling the judges (Parris, Johanna, and herself), while I did all the posturing on stage. This time the technology worked perfectly and I did not need to entertain the audience with poetry recital, dances or singing while the redshirts were trying to figure out how to fix things.

People keep calling it the cosplay contest, but I think it’s useful to keep the terminology separate here. Archipelacon (and Finncon) has a masquerade show. It’s not half as serious as a major anime convention’s cosplay show. It’s whimsical. There’s a low entry threshold and only two series and the the other one is for those who need their parents to accompany them on stage. While the level can be very high, it doesn’t need to be. This year, one guy showed up with a costume he made during the convention with stuff he found in the garbage bin outside the conference centre. I accepted two new sign-ups for the show during the show.

While at Archipelacon, we had to limit our prizes to the top three, at Finncon the tradition has been to give something to everyone. While one of them is the Best in Show, I myself have an award from 2008 for “Best Sucking Up to the Judges” (we were a team of characters from Petri Hiltunen’s graphic novels, while Petri was one of the judges), and can remember from the same year “Best Use of a Toaster” (accessorizing a Battlestar Galactica costume) and “Most Unexpected” (the Spanish Inquisition). From 2010 I have the award for “Best Fool’s Dance” – and that’s the time I was hosting!

All the Masquerade participants. Prizes went to Loki and Bilbo on the far right and Miss Darth Maul, right of the centre. Photo by Simo Ulvi, used with permission.

All the Masquerade participants. Prizes went to Loki and Bilbo on the far right and Miss Darth Maul, right of the centre. Photo by Simo Ulvi, used with permission.

What Makes This Fandom So Great

Finally, I saw the panel “My Life in Fandom” with George R.R. Martin, Parris McBride, and Gary K. Wolfe. They talked about their experiences in the fandom over the decades, such as how Gary had gone to a convention dressed in a normal academic fashion – you know the type, wool sweater with leather elbow patches – and very soon someone asked him which Doctor he was. Parris and George related the tale of how they’d first met, in a sauna in a Cleveland convention. On the ladies’ side. Joe Haldeman was on hand to introduce them. Parris ended the panel with a note that resonated with me and summed up why I do this and why Archipelacon was one of the best conventions I’ve been to. She asked us to go and meet someone new.

It’s about the community. It’s about friendship. It’s about being able to hang out with a like-minded crowd without fear of being judged for who we are or what we like (Unless it’s Highlander 2. But we judge with love.). The reason I saw relatively little programming was that I spent most of my time at the bar, meeting new people. We talked literature, politics, gaming, comics, science, academics, conrunning, languages, beer, history, and everything else with people from a dozen countries. We had fun together. There was karaoke, and a chocolate tasting, and we all bought bags of books without even denting the selection at the Alvarfonden book sale. I ended up with a folder full of Swedish filk and a bottle of twelve-year-old ouzo from a Swedish fan fund auction. It’s kinda like Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, except in real life (and I’m suddenly struck by the suspicion that in fact, it may be the other way around). A lot of the online discussion within fandom has these past couple of days been less than happy, and Archipelacon was a helpful and welcome affirmation that there’s a real reason why we’re doing all this. To quote the Fan Guest of Honour Jukka Halme of Finncon 2014: “Fandom is love.”

My book haul. And this was cheap. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

My book haul. And this was cheap. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

My Archipelacon Schedule

Archipelacon is in a couple of days!

I’ve somehow managed to get myself an impressively busy schedule, with a total of four program items, one for every day. On Thursday, right after the opening ceremony at 17:00, I am sitting on a panel with Cheryl Morgan and hopefully other people yet to be announced, titled “Fear and Loathing in Hugoland”. If you can’t tell by the title what that one’s about, spare your sanity and your faith in humanity and don’t try to find out. I’ll be splitting my eventual convention report into the Hugo half and the convention report to spare you the neepery.

The following morning, from 11 to 13, along with Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf, Marianna Leikomaa and Tommy Persson, I’ll be discussing some more Hugos, this time focusing on the nominees themselves and their merits or lack thereof. Same thing as last year’s Finncon, really.

Saturday evening, Cheryl and I will be hosting the masquerade. Don’t expect me to sing this year.

And finally, Sunday morning from 10 to 11, I’ll be discussing science fiction in role-playing games and why things get harder to play the harder the SF is.

I also compiled a schedule of stuff I would like to see. Note the total of four overlapping items I want to see that are right before the masquerade on Saturday evening. Such are the sacrifices we make. Not that I’d end up seeing more than half of the stuff I’ve earmarked anyway. Conventions have a way of distracting you from your intended goal.

But now, I still have a pile of short fiction to read and some slides to prepare.