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

 

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My First Worldcon: LoneStarCon 3, Part II

As I mentioned in the previous entry, the main reason I went to LoneStarCon 3 in the first place was because of the Helsinki 2015 Worldcon bid.

On Bidding and Parties

Bidding for a Worldcon is what you’d call a nontrivial matter. Typically, a bid is announced at least two years in advance of the actual vote, or four years in advance of the convention’s proper date. The Helsinki bid was announced only a year in advance. The amount of time, energy and funding even just to take a shot at getting to host a Worldcon is staggering. I was far from the only person to hop over the big pond to help out at the convention (and I probably should reiterate here that I was not a member of the bid committee, just someone to help out with heavy lifting and light banter at LoneStarCon itself – the really hard parts were done by people like Eemeli Aro, Crystal Huff, Jukka Halme and Karoliina Leikomaa and the rest of the bid committee). We printed posters and t-shirts. A sponsorship deal was struck with Lignell & Piispanen, who supplied us with some of their excellent liquors and fortified wines for serving at the room parties.

Our bar. Ignore the photographer.

Our bar. Ignore the photographer.

Incidentally, our bartenders Kevin and Andy discussed our drink offerings (and our bid in general, and other Worldcon things) on the Nerdvana podcast. It’s all worth listening, but the part about American culture shock when encountering Finnish acquired tastes is around 1:11. The cognac & vodka blend they refer to is called the “noble spirit”, or jaloviina. It’s one-star because it comes in one and three star varieties, dependent on the amount of cognac in the mix, and three-star jaloviina is just bad cognac.

A key element of a successful Worldcon bid, it appears, is the hosting of successful room parties. These were a new thing to me. In Finland, with the exception of Finncon, conventions stay put and the conrunner pool is smaller, so there’s no real competition for the hosting rights and thus no need for lobbying parties. Also, it’s common for Finnish conventions such as Tracon and Ropecon to have programming run until midnight or even later, leaving no dedicated time slot for an abundance of room parties. I was somewhat surprised by this.

The thing about the room parties is that they all (or at least all the ones I visited) had an open bar and free alcohol, which, as luck would have it, is my favourite drink. There’s been a lot of commentary on the blogosphere about how the membership of Worldcon is getting on in years, but in my view, if you’re gonna have parties with free drink, it’s better if everyone has had some years to develop a mature attitude about alcohol.

I spent a good portion of our three party evenings checking people’s IDs and giving them their “this person can drink” bracelets. Local law, as it was explained to me, required that we card everyone we don’t personally know before we can serve them alcohol, so I ended up checking the IDs of several Finncon guests of honour, one Hugo winner and a number of people in the age bracket of my grandparents. I heard a rumour that our ID check was so strict that our bracelets – which had our advertising – were accepted as confirmed drinking age even at other parties. Hey, I get told that something is a legal requirement in a foreign country, I don’t start second-guessing. Every place in the world is funny about alcohol in its own way. This, I take it, was how Texas does it.

Our parties, incidentally, were pretty great. The first night we served ice cream and tar syrup, the second night we had gravlax, and the third night we had crackers with a variety of jams and preserves, like Santa Claus brand reindeer paté. I have no idea where that came from, but I can appreciate it.

We may have had slightly too much ice cream, and a lot of it was left over after the Thursday party. This formed a problem when one of our coolers had apparently malfunctioned during the light and allowed a lot of ice cream to thaw out. The guys solved the problem by dumping it into the bathtub in our party suite. Unfortunately, the plug was not pulled. The result was… well, see for yourselves.

You gotta admit, there are worse scents you can have in the bathroom.

You gotta admit, there are worse scents to have in the bathroom.

So yeah. Friday evening, we were entertaining our guests while in one of the bathrooms, behind the curtain, lurked several dozen gallons of ice cream. Vanilla, ’cause that’s how we are.

I am pretty sure that conrunning is the only hobby where you end up with problems like this. Being able to say “Yeah, we filled the bathtub of the Marriott Rivercenter VP suite with vanilla ice cream” and seeing people’s faces makes up for a lot of stress. Especially when they see the photo.

As for the bid itself, well, we lost. We did not, I hasten to add, fail. For the first two rounds of counting votes, we were in the lead. In the third, once Orlando dropped out with 307 votes, the secondary preferences of their votes took Spokane to the lead with 645 votes against our 610.

A defeat of 35 votes, with 1,348 ballots cast, still rankles a bit. But just a bit. After travelling halfway across the world, I just could not let that ruin the convention for me. I had a wonderful time, met wonderful new people and made new friends, ate portions of food that would have their own area codes in Finland, and had the globe become just a bit smaller for me.

Also, we won half the party prizes, for Best Food, Most Crowded and one we shared with Orlando, Best Excuse for Hosting a Room Party (losing a Worldcon bid). We got enough of these shotglasses that even a minor cog in the larger machinery of the bid like me got one.

VICTORY!

Tastes like napalm in the morning

Overall, my convention experience was a good one. Indeed, it was one of the most fun conventions I’ve ever been to. I can easily understand how some fans will travel to the other side of the globe if need be, just to make it to the Worldcon.

Fortunately, I do not have to. Next year, London!

My First Worldcon: LoneStarCon 3, Part I

For the gamers: this is going to be one of those long-ass posts about stuff only tangentially related to role-playing games (there were daily RPG sessions at the con and Steve Jackson was there). Nevertheless, I hope it is a rewarding read even if you do not consider yourself an SF fan.

For the sci-fi fans: this is primarily a gaming blog and for the benefit of my audience, I will explain things you will consider obvious. Feel free to skip the section “A Whatcon?”. I will also likely make errors. I prefer enlightenment to ignorance, so if you spot one, feel free to correct me.

The pileup of conventions that has been my past six months is drawing to a close, and I finally have time to breathe a bit and write stuff like convention reports that are running weeks late.

Last May, I was in Scotland doing my language residency, when one morning I opened up my e-mail and saw a message that went, basically, “Hey we bought you a staff membership for Worldcon in Texas, you think you could make it?”

You understand, I receive an e-mail like this usually about once every 18 months. Other classics of past years have been “hey I thought your blog was pretty cool, wanna write us a book?” and “why are you not already a Pathfinder Society Venture-Captain?” I’m getting used to them. So I ran the numbers and discovered that yes, indeed, it was economically feasible. Especially since most of the accommodations were also paid for.

The lobby of our hotel. It is a very nice lobby.

The lobby of our hotel. It is a very nice lobby.

A Whatcon?

This was a Worldcon, or the World Science Fiction Convention, if you want to be all formal about it. Every year in a different city, host to the Hugo Awards and pretty much the longest-running gathering of science fiction fans in the world. LoneStarCon 3 was the 71st Worldcon. I’d never been to a Worldcon or even had a membership, though by cultural osmosis I sorta knew what to expect. Sorta. I’d also never been outside of Europe, so there’d be that as well.

The reason for the invitation was that Helsinki was bidding to host Worldcon in 2015. The site for a Worldcon is decided two years in advance, and even bidding is a huge project in terms of money, time and nerves. As far as I can tell, the reason the bidding is such an intensive process, usually started two years before the actual vote and requiring presence and representation at multiple conventions throughout that time, including hosting bid parties, is that Worldcon is a tremendously large affair to organize and a would-be organizing committee must demonstrate their capability to raise funding and use it in an intelligent and responsible fashion (as far as these things go…). Also, people like parties. Parties are fun.

Indeed, by certain metrics, Worldcon was the largest convention I’ve ever been to. While the number of paying attendees was around the same as a Ropecon and somewhat less than a Tracon, this was five days long, from Thursday to Monday. At LoneStarCon, there was something like a thousand hours of programming, including a film festival and an academic conference. There are enough guests of honour for three regular conventions, plus a small horde of other people who would not be ill-placed as GoHs themselves, there to attend the Hugo Awards or just because going to conventions is fun.

Also, it’s the most expensive convention I’ve gone to. Ropecon is €28 for three days, Tracon about the same for two, Finncon is free. LoneStarCon 3’s website lists the price of $220 for an attending membership of the whole convention, and that’s before you go into hotels and travel. It was cheaper earlier in the year, but still not exactly pocket money. Also, you get your money’s worth with it. In addition to five days of convention, it fetches you a pocket program, a book of the convention and in San Antonio’s case, a complementary water bottle. Handy thing to have at a con, especially in Texas in August. For 20 hours of work, you’d get your membership fee reimbursed.

Most crucially, though, the membership gets you the Hugo Voter’s Package. It’s downloads of most if not all of the nominated works in the different Hugo Award categories, plus the John W. Campbell Award. That’s free ebooks of works deemed sufficiently good by sufficiently many people to be on the ballot. Novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, other books, magazines, graphic novels. The dramatic presentation categories have not traditionally been available, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Loncon could prise the inevitable Doctor Who episodes from the iron grip of BBC. I must confess that I did not have time to even read everything, which also means I did not vote on all the categories.

The Con Itself!

As mentioned, it was a five-day con, running from Thursday to Monday. I spent most of my time either staffing the convention photo booth, which netted me a nice t-shirt and reimbursement of my admission fee, or working at the Helsinki bid parties. However, I did have some time to roam the convention, see a few program items and make purchases.

Apart from the scale of everything, the first difference between Finnish cons and LoneStarCon was the security. In Finland, convention security is done by fans who have been trained and licenced to work as security personnel. It is standard practice for conventions to spring the cash for a training course every couple of years to refresh the pool of volunteer security personnel. They’re usually unarmed but, if they have the appropriate training, may carry mace, handcuffs, or similar gear.

SIMBAAAA! Photo by Crystal Huff.

SIMBAAAA! Photo by Crystal Huff.

At LoneStarCon, security was provided by uniformed police officers. With guns. I must admit my heart skipped a beat when I first saw them, because over here, a uniformed cop at the con site usually means something’s gone royally pear-shaped.

The photo booth I worked at was (I understand) originally conceived at another convention, Boskone. It was overseen by Crystal Huff, who was also one of the co-chairs of our bid. It was mostly thanks to her efforts that I ever made the trip. At the booth, we had a load of props like funny hats, alien penguins, labcoats, steampunk accoutrements and fluffy bunnies. People would pick stuff out from the prop table (or not) and we’d photograph them and print them one to take home. We also offered the possibility of getting all the shots if they brought their own USB stick.

So yeah, I was not only allowed but expected to use a professional photo setup. It was mostly point-and-shoot, fortunately, and even a newbie like me got the hang of the basics pretty quickly.

The other duty I had on the convention proper was occasionally filling in at the site selection table, where we received the ballots for Worldcon voting. There needed to be a representative from each of the bids to ensure the integrity of the system and that nobody would have cause for complaint afterwards. Having played through Papers, Please a week before, I was right in my element checking that people had signed on the dotted line, checked the boxes and whatnot. Also managed to resist the urge to yoink Michael Swanwick’s signed ballot.

Apart from that, I was free to wander, buy stuff, end up in conversations with new people, buy stuff, eat interesting new things, and buy stuff. I also managed to see a program item, one of the about a dozen of Robert E. Howard themed items over the weekend. Howard, you see, lived close by – less than a thousand miles – and half the Howard scholars in the world are Texans. One is French. The item was a panel called “Robert E. Howard at the Icehouse”, with his boxing stories as its topic.

Sports stories, apparently, were a thing back then. One of the pulps that Howard wrote for had stories about all the major sports of the day – boxing, horse racing and baseball. Even the occasional story about polo. I’ve never actually read any of the boxing stories, though I have The Complete Action Stories anthology somewhere (story of my life: “No, I haven’t read that, but I’m sure I have it somewhere.”). I think I had the same problem with them as i have with Howard’s westerns. The voice that the stories are written in and especially the vernacular of the dialogue are foreign to me and I can’t get a feel for it as easily as I do for Conan, Solomon Kane, or Bran mak Morn. The Howard biographer Mark Finn did an excellent reading for one of the stories, though, which kinda points me in the right direction.

I kept running into the Robert E. Howard Foundation people throughout the convention and ended up with a pile of business cards and two volumes of Howard’s letters. The first book of the three-volume set has been sold out and the rest were horrendously expensive, but the correspondence of early 20th-century authors is fascinating reading and well worth the money. Letter-writing as an art form has more or less been killed by e-mail, but in the days of yore, these guys would write essay-length letters to one another. If you think Lovecraft’s literary output looks modest, his surviving correspondence blots out the sun.

The main exhibit hall also featured stuff like Artemis Spaceship Simulator, exhibits like the Israeli-Texas War Memorial, Jay Lake’s genome, a Doctor Who 50th Anniversary exhibit complete with a dalek who’d periodically tour the hall and shout at people, an art gallery, a mechanical bull (of course), and really far too many fascinating things to take it all in.

Next part: strange things done with ice cream, the infliction of Finnish drinking habits upon innocent and unsuspecting Americans, and observations upon the United States, or at least a part of one of them.

The book haul

The book haul

 

Five Days in Milan

Looking at the RPG Bloggers feed, it seems like pretty much everybody spent last weekend in Indianapolis. I wish I could’ve gone, too. Instead, I had to spend five days carrying my mother’s bags in Milan, Italy.

Milan in August is a horrible holiday destination. It turns out that the Italians have a habit of taking some vacation time themselves around this time of the year, which resulted in half the city being closed for the summer. However, this is a game blog and I will take the full rant elsewhere. Instead, I will focus on the gaming stuff.

The Friendly Local Game Store

Tracking down the local game store was a bit of an ordeal. The first address I managed to find, for a store called Avalon, was from 2008 and the shop had since closed down. Another, Fantamagus, was closed for the summer, and a third address led to an apartment block. Finally, I found one called Joker, on Via della palla, which was not only open but staffed by a friendly guy who spoke pretty good English. Unfortunately, the store only sold Italian translations of American  roleplaying games, most of which were D&D 4E and had no Italian originals at all. So, no additions to my collection this time. However, they had three crates of miscellaneous stuff on 50% discount, which contained some nifty finds. I picked up Hunter Book: Wayward for the old Hunter: The Reckoning and a Scarred Lands module, The Serpent Citadel. I have no idea if it’s any good, but I’m a bit of a fan of the setting and have been picking up the books when I’ve found them for cheap. I also purchased twelve blister packs of Black Scorpion Miniatures’ pirate miniatures, which are beautiful, beautiful pieces of work, and I felt like I was ripping off the store for taking them home for so cheap.

It is mildly bothersome to me that I could not find an Italian original roleplaying game in the most populous and richest city in the country, with something like twelve different universities. I have no idea what the gaming scene is like in Italy, but from my admittedly narrow point of view it looked like it’s localizations of American stuff all the way. I also don’t actually know of any Italian RPGs. I can name original roleplaying games from Poland (Wiedźmin), Spain (Aguelarre, Capitán Alatriste) and France (Cadwallon), but none from Italy. I hope I’m just wrong with this, though. John H. Kim’s listing of Italian games seems to be sorta up to date up to 2008, the newest game is a translation of an English-language game and going by that, it looks like the scene has mostly lain fallow for the last ten years or so. The Italian RPG section of Stratelibri.it isn’t encouraging, either. I can’t seem to find anything that isn’t a comic book or a translation, and they have a couple of hundred titles. I don’t actually understand Italian, though, so again, I might be wrong.

Anybody have more solid knowledge on this?

Sharp Metal Implements, Big Churches

Until Sunday, I was prepared to write a long post about St. Ambrose’s Pusterla Museum, which is a museum of medieval weaponry and criminology in Milan. However, when we got to the door, a bit before noon, it was locked. This was over an hour before the siesta was to begin and according to the website, it should’ve been open. So, I can’t tell you what it was like. However, it has come to my attention recently that many of the horrible torture devices used in the Middle Ages by the Spanish Inquisition and other law enforcement agencies are actually hoaxes, such as the iron maiden or, presumably, the choke pear. The breaking wheel is real, though. While this stuff does have a place in fantasy roleplaying games and the Hellknights of Chelaxia can have all the iron maidens they want, it’s interesting (and somewhat comforting) to know that this stuff wasn’t actually regularly used on heretics at any point in history. Real torture implements, if nothing else, are a lot less creative.

Next to St. Ambrose’s Pusterla Museum is the Basilica of St. Ambrose. This is notable mostly for containing the remains of Ambrose himself, on display (and being a bigass and really old church, but it’s kinda overshadowed by the Duomo, which is the third-biggest cathedral in the world, a couple of miles away).

Personally, I think putting corpses up for display as an act of reverence is mildly disturbing and more than a bit macabre. Therefore, it is excellent fodder for roleplaying games. I don’t really have the time to dig up interesting sources for this thing the Catholic Church has about saints, but there’s a lot of food for thought there. Another thing about saints that I actually knew but couldn’t help but notice when we were going through the art galleries was that each saint tends to be depicted in a certain way, and only in that way, to the degree that after a while, I could walk to the door of a room, glance about, and go “That’s Saint Sebastian, that’s Jerome, that’s Peter, that head on a plate is Saint John the Baptist and the bloke in armour is Saint George“.

The concept of saints in general has been usually overlooked in fantasy roleplaying games, which I think is a pity, because I think applying the concept to a fantasy world would be interesting. What constitutes a miracle when it’s a default assumption that priests wield powers beyond mortal ken? What sort of saints would different deities have? The god of war? The god of love? The god of death?

In general, I think religion in roleplaying games is too often handwaved as lists of spells and powers that priests get, and in some unfortunate cases, the combat stats of the gods themselves. I’ve written about this before, actually. I know that the topic of saints has also been addressed before, but the very fact that I can’t remember any examples off the top of my head tells me that it hasn’t been covered nearly enough.

And that’s all for Milan.

I’ve Been Everywhere, Man

Last Sunday, I returned from my small grand tour of Central Europe. The tour consisted of visiting three capital cities – Budapest in Hungary, Bratislava in Slovakia and Vienna in Austria, in the space of five days. Of course, five days would be barely sufficient for the smallest of these, Bratislava, and to really see Vienna would take a couple of weeks. However, this was what I had, and I put it to use. I think it was pretty good use.

The trip was actually organised by the support association of the Tapiola Sinfonietta, a classical orchestra operating in Espoo. The support association occasionally organises these trips to check out operas and concerts in other countries – Lithuania, Germany, Austria… and in this case, Slovakia. My mother got me a ticket. This, though, meant that the schedule was fairly tight and we had an event of some description every night – a concert, dinner at a fancy restaurant, an opera.

Hungary

The Hungary portion of the trip actually consisted of takeoff and landing at Budapest Ferihegy International Airport, which for some reason had been picked as our airport of choice. I do get not using Bratislava’s airport, since it’s apparently a slice of postcommunist Hell frequented mostly by RyanAir, but Vienna would’ve been about 150 kilometers closer to Bratislava than Budapest. Possibly a cost issue, though with this troupe, I can’t see cost ever being an issue.

For the record, I think I was the only person on the trip who was under 50. Definitely the only one under 40, and the majority were over 60. It was not quite as horrible as it sounds, but there were times in conversations when I could feel myself standing on the edge of the yawning gulf of ages separating myself from the rest. Me, I turned 25 last Friday.

We didn’t see much of Hungary, but I’ve been to Budapest twice before. What we did see was the rural Hungary north of Budapest, where I noticed something quite striking about the landscape. Though it was just fields and forest, it was immediately recognisable as being non-Finnish. In Finland, forests are mainly spruce, pine and birch. They’re airy, there’s a lot of undergrowth and the canopy lets in light. In Hungary, it was this great, big billowy wall of leaves that blocked all visibility. In the few roads we drove through a forest, we saw there was practically no undergrowth and it was very dim. I’m not entirely sure what trees are prevalent in Central and Eastern Europe, but I understand beech, oak, willow and chestnut are common. This, though, led me to think about the differences in the cultural significance of the forest between Finland and Central Europe.

In Finland, the forest is viewed as a place of safety. I understand the Finns in ancient times fled Viking raids into the woods that back then covered pretty much the whole of Finland. The forest wasn’t exactly a friendly place, but it was a source of food, firewood and building materials. It wasn’t going to eat you as long as you respected its ability to do so and weren’t a complete twat.

From Central and Eastern Europe, then, we get stuff like the Grimm’s Tales, where the forest is depicted as something clearly hostile. It’s where wolves roam, the witches dwell and people are taken by fearsome things that go bump in the dark. You get Hansel and Gretel, you get Blair Witch Project (with its woodlands nearly as dense as my backyard).

I’m not making an academic thesis out of this thing and will probably sooner or later get a folklorist in here telling me I’m full of it, but it is an interesting point of note and something to think about when developing settings.

Slovakia

So, then, Bratislava.

It’s an old city, but fairly small. The portions of the city relevant to a tourist are huddled close enough together that I had no need to get acquainted with the local public transportation system. Even with the damage done by the Communist regime, the Old Town is very pretty.

Apparently, the Communists tore down a portion of the Old Town, including a synagogue that even the goddamn Nazis hadn’t touched, to build a bridge over the Danube. It is not the ugliest bridge I have ever seen, but it does get a place in the top ten.

As an interesting bit of trivia, next to the bridge there’s the St. Martin’s Cathedral. This St Martin, as far as I can tell, is the same one who becomes an important plot point in Flesh & Blood, an early Paul Verhoeven film starring Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It is quite good and great inspiration for gritty D&D or Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play.

There are two medieval castles of interest in Bratislava. Firstly, there’s the Bratislava Castle, which is unfortunately closed for renovation until 2011. Secondly, there’s Devín Castle, built in the 700s and demolished by Napoleon in 1809 after the Siege of Pressburg, and some fifteen kilometres outside the actual city. We didn’t go there, but since the primary function of the castle was to watch over the Danube, I got some lovely photos when we sailed past on our way to Vienna.

Finding a game store in Bratislava was a bit of an ordeal, but I managed it. Firstly, I gathered a bunch of likely addresses online, from places such as the Wizards of the Coast and Games Workshop store finder. Apparently, no GW stores in Slovakia, but there is one that stocks a small amount of miniatures, but no roleplaying games.

Strangely enough, the store primarily sold Doc Martens shoes and Games Workshop stuff. This causes me some cognitive dissonance. According to the store clerk, all RPGs had to be ordered through the internet and no shop in Bratislava sold them.

I’m assuming she meant English-language roleplaying games because, as I was making my way back to the hotel, two streets from the first game store I spotted a sign outside a store bearing the image of a dragon. The display window held Magic cards and video games, and I figured it was worth a shot. The store, by the way, was Blroh, on the Heydukova. In there, I found a very friendly shop clerk, who may have also been the manager or owner, and we chatted at length about roleplaying games.

Apparently, there’s no such thing as a Slovakian roleplaying game, but there are several Czech games, of which he presented two. Apparently Czech and Slovak are close enough as languages that Slovakians can understand Czech with just a bit of work. One was the mandatory D&D-ripoff that every country seems to develop at some point, Drači doupě, and the other one was a new game called Střepy snů. It had a pretty cover and it retailed for only €17, so I bought it. The guy also gave me a 10% discount, which was very nice of him. In addition to the Czech games, the store carried nothing but the D&D 4E Starter Set.

I understand the game is a multigenre game of some description, and the guy compared it to GURPS. However, my Czech is nonexistent, and I cannot confirm.

Yeah, I bought a game I can’t understand. It’s what I do. I go to foreign countries, track down their game stores and buy their weird games that I can’t read. I’ve also got Drakar och Demoner and Das Schwarze Auge, though I’ve got enough Swedish and German that I can tackle them with a dictionary and make some sense of things. Czech, though… no.

But it’s got a really pretty cover.

Bratislava also has a museum of arms and armour, in the six-floor tower of the St. Michael’s Gate. While it was nice that all texts were in both Slovak and English, it was fairly small and anyone with a real interest in military history will probably get nothing new out of it. Still, pretty swords.

On Saturday night, we went to see Boris Godunov, an opera by Modest Mussorgsky. Like all Russian art, it was complex, long and heavy, but it is a very good piece and the plot has all kinds of inspiration for a roleplaying game. After the death of Boris Godunov in 1605, Russia was destabilised, and the following period is known as the Time of Troubles. There was courtly intrigue, mobs killing rulers, and the crown changing heads so fast that it barely touched some of them. There were pretenders to the throne, wars with Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, meddling Jesuits, popular uprisings, and all the ingredients of a good story. Just add vodka. When it was all done in 1613, the new royal house were the Romanovs, who went on to rule Russia until the Commies offed them in 1917.

The Restaurant

For Friday, we’d booked ourselves tables at a fancy restaurant that’s in the local TV tower. Great view. However, apparently the electrics of the restaurant had been fried a day or two before, and our booking was relocated to a nearby four-star hotel.

Here, I witnessed the worst service I have ever seen in my life. I’ve been to fifteen countries and restaurants of every stripe and style, but never before have I seen such incompetence and active malice from the waiting staff as was present here.

There were thirty of us, which I understand can be a bit of a handful. However, they’d had at least a day to prepare, and seriously, there are no excuses for some of the stuff. For instance, we ordered light beer, and were told that they were out, and only dark beer was available. However, they merrily served the stuff for every other table. Another table had the same experience with red wine.

Finally, when it came time to pay, our local guide tried to pay with her Visa, only to be told that they don’t take credit cards, forcing her to leave with a restaurant employee to find an ATM and withdraw enough euros to pay for the dinners of thirty people. Fortunately, Slovakia is a very cheap country, but I don’t see her taking another tourist group to that restaurant.

At this point, I felt it completely appropriate to leave a one-cent tip.

Austria

On Friday, we took a boat trip up the Danube to see Vienna. On a catamaran, it took some 90 minutes to get there. Apparently, Vienna and Bratislava are the two closest capital cities in the world, with around 65 kilometres between them. According to our guide, Bratislava and Vienna are the two closest capital cities in the world, but actually, Brazzaville (The Republic of Congo) and Kinshasa (The Democratic Republic of Congo) lie opposite one another on the banks of the Congo River.

It is a pretty river, the Danube. The trip inspired me, and I now want to see a Mad Max or Waterworld-style postapocalyptic film with speedboating river pirates fighting it out for control of the Danube after the collapse of society. The soundtrack should have a heavy metal version of The Blue Danube.

As it is unlikely we’ll ever get that, it could work as a roleplaying game setting. I’m not quite certain what game system would do fast-paced boat combat well, but I’m open to suggestions. Elsewhere in the setting, Finland would have occupied Estonia as a colonial state. I’m thinking this would work well as a mini-campaign or at least a one-shot. Perhaps a convention game.

Vienna itself is a beautiful old city, and far too large and full of interesting things to be taken in during the four hours we had. This was mostly spent shopping and taking photographs of statues. They seem to have a thing for Franz Josef I over there. It would seem I need to return there at some point in the near future, preferably for a whole week.

I did manage to track down a game store in Vienna, with a rather superior selection compared to its Slovak cousin. They had Dark Heresy, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play and Dungeons & Dragons, mostly, plus a pile of German games. Since I already owned Das Schwarze Auge, I just picked up the new Ascension for Dark Heresy.

On Sunday, we returned home. Checked out from the hotel at noon, got home around 22:00, for a total of nine hours of travel.

Wherever I go next, I’ll make sure that it’s got its own damn airport. Life’s too short.