Monday, November 23, 2015

Grey Ranks

July 2nd, 1944: a letter authorising to break curfew and a pair of boots spotted with blood

Lukasz, Julia, Jadwiga and Janusz, teenage members of the Grey Ranks, are gearing up to steal some gasoline right out of a truck with German soldiers sitting in the cabin, at a checkpoint. It's the middle of the night and everything's quiet. Jadwiga takes the letter authorising her to break curfew and walks up to the barrier to distract the soldiers. Meanwhile, Janusz does his best to open the tank stealthily and to not choke on gasoline when he siphons it out. The first can is filled with gasoline and Lukasz takes it and runs.

At the checkpoint, things are not going too well and Jadwiga turns on the waterworks. One of the soldiers in the truck gets out to see what's the problem, Julia and Janusz take a dive under the truck. They have a little more time to half-fill the last can, almost attract the attention of the soldiers and can make it to the meeting point. A couple of minutes later, Jadwiga joins them, the soldiers allowed her through. At the last moment, she spotted the blood on the soldiers' boots and it was all she could do not to run. There is some bickering between the four, but on the whole, their first mission for the Home Army went well.

July 27th 1944: A freight train, a bridge, a soft-hearted officer and some rags, bottles and ten litres of gasoline

A lucky accident has played into the hands of the group: they have the time table for a train carrying horses and other goods to the Easterns Front. Eager to make a contribution, they plan to stop the train on a bridge outside Warsaw so that the Home Army can raid or destroy it. Jadwiga steals papers and tickets to Krakow for Janusz and herself and Lukasz steals a truck from a greengrocer as transportation and to barricade the bridge.

Janusz and Jadwiga, carrying a big chest filled with the bottles and the gasoline, pretty much just walk up to the train and don't get noticed among the forced labourers who are loading the train. They hide away in the carriage with the horses and soon, the train starts moving. They have some time for a talk, fuelled by some wine left in one of the bottles. They talk about their families - Janusz is Jewish, his father is hiding in the woods around Warsaw and Jadwiga's family disapproves of her being part of the Grey Ranks - and about what they would do if the war ended tomorrow. Janusz wants to open a nursery and Jadwiga wants to go to university. They make a pact that they will go to Paris together once this is all over and both are only half joking.

Julia and Lukasz have reached the bridge and Julia walks up to the checkpoint. She spins a story about needing to visit her grandmother in the next village and the officer is kind-hearted enough to let her through. Once she reaches the checkpoint on the other side of the bridge, she attacks the guard and shoves him off the bridge. She then climbs up on the bridge's support beams to distract the soldiers who start shooting at her. This gives Lukasz the chance to drive up on the bridge, ramming the two soldiers in his way and probably killing them. But they don't stop to check, just firebomb the car, steal the weapons and get off the bridge. The train is getting close and starts to slow once the engineer spots the burning truck. Janusz and Jadwiga jump off and throw Molotov cocktails into the carriage, setting the straw and the horses on fire. It's chaos in a matter of seconds and the Home Army attacks. The screams of the dying horses follow them into the night.

August 4th 1944: German police are abandoning Pawiak Prison, a midnight blue dress, a box of chocolates and a supervised visit

Pavel Wiczek, an engineer with important knowledge, is supposed to be brought to Germany in the next few days and the Home Army wants to keep him in Poland. The group uses the confusion of the last days before the Germans will abandon the prison to try and get him out. They have organised a box of chocolate, papers that make Jadwiga into Pavel's daughter and a beautiful blue dress that unfortunately belongs to the wife of the prison's commander. Jadwiga has never before worn anything like this, cannot get the zipper of the dress closed and calls Janusz for help. He navigates that situation pretty well, if a bit taken aback by the sight of Jadwiga in a dress and high-heeled shoes.

A couple of hours later, everyone is in place: Janusz on a rooftop, ready to snipe away at the guards, Julia and Lukasz in the sewers, ready to get Pavel out. Jadwiga gets into the prison without problems and visits Pavel. When he's brought back to his cell, he passes right next to the courtyard with the sewer grating Lukasz has just climb out of. Lukasz attack the guards and at the same time Jadwiga has to make a run for it because soldiers recognise the dress. The prison suddenly is in uproar, Pavel gets shot in the leg, Janusz starts shooting and Julia throws a grenade at the guards who try to stop Lukasz. They make it back into the sewer and run for it, as fast as they can. Lukasz keeps himself upright through sheer willpower, he has been peppered with grenade fragments and is bleeding heavily. Once they reach the support troops of the Home Army who take care of Pavel, he collapses. Julia does her best to dress his wounds and sings a song for him, like her mother used to sing for her. But Lukasz is unconscious and does not hear her.

August 7th 1944: An apartment near the ruins of Leszno Street, a thick album full of family photos, a brief moment of peace and Unterfeldwebel Walter Singer and his battle-hardened squad

The four are sitting in the apartment of Janusz' family, now a ruin missing the entire front wall. They have come here to make plans, but Janusz has found an old photo album and leafs through it, showing the others the photos. Everyone listens to his stories about the past, when life was still good and there was hope. From outside, they hear the sound of a violin - someone is playing amidst the ruins.

Their short moment of peace is over when the door gets kicked in and they recognise Walter Singer, an Unterfeldwebel with a very bad reputation. Jadwiga starts shooting immediately, Lukasz grabs the maps and plans they had spread out on the table. One of the soldiers throws a grenade and so does Julia. Jadwiga grabs the album and drags Janusz simply out through the destroyed wall, falling a couple of meters. Lukasz is too slow and gets caught in the blast of the grenades, he's badly hurt but makes the jump down to the street at well. Julia jumps, too, and they all run, while the rest of the German patrol is shooting at them.

They make their way to the cemetery near the street where they hope to find a hiding place. When they arrive there, Julia is not with them. Jadwiga give Janusz the album and then goes to look for Julia. She finds her cowered into a doorway, staring at a photo of her and her family. Unknown to the others, Julia has seen the old man playing the violin while they ran. He smiled at her and then collapsed, hit by one of the bullets meant for them. It takes a while, but Jadwiga manages to talk her into getting up and they join the others at the cemetery.

September 2. 1944: Dozens of Polish children are kept hostage at their school, a Nazi informant, a 14 year old deaf boy lost in hostile territory and a sniper picking off people one by one

After a tip by an informant, the Germans have imprisoned dozens of Polish children at their (illegal) school. The group is on their way there to free them when they come across a young boy wandering through enemy territory. Other Home Army soldiers have been trying to reach him but they have been shot by a sniper. The boy does not hear their frantic calling and so they come up with a desperate plan: Janusz climbs up high to get a good vantage point and will try to snipe the sniper. But he needs one more shot to spot him. Lukasz will draw fire by running out into the street. At least he picks up a helmet lost by a German soldier. Before Janusz leaves, Jadwiga hugs and kisses him for the first time. The plan works, although Lukasz gets shot in the shoulder and Janusz's rifle jams on the first shot.

They get the boy to safety and make their way to the school. The boy has escaped from there and has told them that the soldiers are Russian auxillary forces, well known for their cruelty. By chance, two other Grey Ranks members, Radio and Alice, have captured a German tank and Julia climbs aboard, to try and draw the soldiers out. Lukasz and Janusz hide, planning to shoot at the soldiers when they leave the school and Jadwiga makes her way to the back of the school to get the children out. At first, this plan also works. The soldiers are so glad to see one of their own tanks in what is more or less enemy territory that they do leave the school. Jadwiga shoots two guards, gets shot herself, but she can lead the children out at the back.

Radio opens fire with the tank's main gun, pulverising many of the soldiers and a fire fight begins. In their panic, many of the children run off in the wrong direction, right into the line of fire. They are almost all cut down, Jadwiga can only save two of them. One of the soldiers fires a Panzerschreck and Janusz is too slow to stop him with his very last shot. It's not a full hit, but the tank is damaged badly, driving right into some ruins. The fighting has drawn other Home Army soldiers and the Germans retreat. When the group gets to the tank, they find Radio and Alice dead and Julia in bad shape. On their way home, Janusz almost breaks down and they all try to tell him that he did all he could and that there is sense in what they are doing. He is half-convinced at best.

September 10th 1944: The headquarters of the 4. Panzerdivision in Ochota, a talk about love, patriotism and faith, a solemn promise and driving away the one you love for their own good

The Russians have arrived, but they have stopped and do not advance on Warsaw, leaving the Home Army to fend for itself in a desperate situation. The group has orders to attack the headquarters of the 4th Panzerdivision and to kill as many officers as possible. Before they go, Jadwiga takes Janusz aside and they promise each other that if they survive, they are going to flee the city and make their way to Paris. Lukasz hears that and waits until Janusz is alone before he confronts him. They have a heated discussion about patriotism and duty. Lukasz throws Janusz's own words into his face about how he wanted to do something, to fight for a better future and Janusz throws a punch. In the end, Lukasz cannot convince him and walks away, disappointed.

At the heavily guarded headquarters, Jadwiga takes a British-made time-fuse and some explosives to blow up an ammunitions depot as a diversion. She gets into the compound unseen, as do Lukasz and Julia. But the depot explodes way too early and Lukasz and Julia are caught out in the open, between the guards and the soldiers coming out of the headquarters. Janusz does his best to snipe as many enemies as possible. Lukasz grabs his grenades, shoves Julia over to keep her from following him and runs into the house to take out as many people as he can. By the time Julia has gotten to her feet again, the explosions have started. Janusz has to watch Julia getting overpowered by German soldiers. He takes aim to shoot her, but he cannot do it and she's taken away. Jadwiga does not return. When Janusz makes his way back to the meeting point, only Lukasz waits for him there.

October 3rd 1944

The Home Army puts down their weapons. The fight is lost.

In the end, Jadwiga died when the time-fuse malfunctioned. Julia was taken prisoner, tortured and died. Lukasz committed suicide when his personal hero Bór, commander in chief of the Home Army, capitulated and the country was lost. Janusz made his way to Paris and, after the war, opened a nursery. He returned to Warsaw in 1994. On a memorial, he found the names of Julia and Jadwiga. Lukasz fate is unclear and Janusz prefers to keep it that way, he'd rather think of Lukasz as alive.


Grey Ranks is a freeform roleplaying game set during the time of the Warsaw Uprising. We played it in a single, long session and cut a few scenes - it is meant to be played over three sessions normally. But it still worked very well. Players pick situation elements for each of the ten chapters and with hindsight, it was interesting how we automatically raised the stakes for our characters. We took a break after each chapter and particularly for the last three, it was badly needed. If you haven't gathered as much from the theme, Grey Ranks does not make for light-hearted play. Things got very intense.

Proceed with caution and do absolutely not skip the suggested pre-play discussion about themes you'd rather avoid and the talk about the game afterwards. But it's absolutely worth playing. I suggest that you read at least the information provided by the rulebook about the Grey Ranks and the Warsaw Uprising and maybe do some more research. The game is absolutely playable without detailed knowledge, though, and provides important information with Radio Lighting broadcasts before each chapter. These are also very handy to set the mood for the chapters and to get a sense of the passing time.

The Warsaw Uprising Museum has produced a documentary of original footage, colourised and with added dialogue taken from eyewitness accounts. You can watch it here:

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Out of Dodge

After a botched heist, Mole leadfoots it out of there, with Toad bleeding all over the backseat next to Badger and Rat riding shotgun. None of them really knows what went wrong, just that there were a lot more people in the shop than they reckoned with and,more importantly, a lot more serious firepower.

Toad has managed to grab a bag that he says contains the gold. The others are sceptical and after some bickering, Badger grabs the bag and opens it. It contains coins, Reichsmark to be exact. Not the loot they were hoping for and nothing they can sell quickly. Toad begs them to take him to a doctor and Mole says that they’ll cross the river first to get some more miles between them and the crime scene, then they’ll just put a gun to the head of the next doctor they find.

Badger comes up with another idea: how about they ask the Afghan, you know, Mole, that guy who bought all that heroin from us that time? Mole stops the car and turns on Badger. „We don’t fucking talk about the Afghan! You know I want nothing to do with that guy! Apologise or we can sit here all day, fine by me.“

Badger not only doesn’t apologise, she cannot fucking believe that Mole still has a chip on his shoulder about the Afghan. „Come on, the guy can help us! He’ll give us a good price for the coins AND he’ll have a doctor for Toad. Hands up everyone who’s for the Afghan.“ Two hands go up in the backseat, Rat’s undecided and Mole is pissed off, but at least starts driving again.

„Okay. Here’s an idea, how about we go to Prague?“ Badger almost punches Mole at hearing this. „Prague? Are you out of your mind, we can’t go back to Prague! I don’t even want to THINK about Prague. Man, I never puked so hard in my life, what were you thinking doing THAT to the guy in OUR hotel room? Fuck Prague.“

Toad interrupts the discussion by dying noisily and in agony. That solves the doctor problem, but not the problem of where to go and adds the problem of where to put the body. Another problem is that the ferry won’t leave for some time. Still, they take a break at the small harbour, Mole goes for a smoke and the three people left in the car start to wonder if there might be a rat among them. Everyone looks at Rat. „Jeez, guys, it’s a codename!“ It does nothing for their peace of mind that Badger recognises a car that she thinks she has seen at the jewellery story. They drive off again and Rat really starts to dig into Badger, harping on how it was her contact who came up with the idea for the heist.

Mole tells her to check Toad, to see if he’s wired. Badger does that, pulls Toad’s gun and shoots Rat in the head, splattering the windshield with blood and brains. Mole almost drives the car off the road. „You cannot shoot people while I’m driving! Couldn’t you have waited until we pull over again?“ Badger isn’t very sorry for what she did. „That guy got on my nerve.“ On cue, they encounter a parade of five tractors, driving very slowly. There is no way they can have missed all that blood. Five hundred metres down the road, there’s the annual firefighter festival, with even more people and, of course, firefighters and police.

Mole takes a desperate turn to get off that particular road and fairly quickly, he no longer has any idea where they are headed. „We’re NOT lost,I just don’t know where we are going!“ With only the two of them in the car, talk turns to Mole’s therapy (he no longer goes and may or may not have killed his psychiatrist), bickering about Prague and the Afghan („We don’t fucking talk about…“) and the realisation that it might be a good time to take a break from each other.

Mole makes a stop at a small dirt track to give them a chance to hide the two bodies in the boot of the car. He takes his pistol because he’s not an idiot and has a bad feeling about Badger, but she still gets the drop on him and he goes down with a bullet to the head. Badger takes a deep breath, enjoys the quiet for a moment and then realises that she’s standing next to a car with three bodies, with rubbish coins for loot, that she cannot drive and is in the middle of nowhere. She can only hope that the Afghan will make good on his promise.


And that was our game of Out of Dodge. For me (Badger),it really picked up speed when the Afghan was brought into play. He immediately turned into the Keyser Soyze-figure and suddenly, Mole and Badger had a past together.

The way the game works is that everyone has a keyword they are supposed to work into the conversation. That word is a prompt for one of the others to say or do something specific. If anyone dies, they can still play – sniping the conversation with suggestions like: don’t you think she will betray you? Wasn’t Mole supposed to be in therapy for that? Didn’t work out or what?.

The timing of me shooting Rat and the tractor parade was flawless. Mole had just said: ‘people will see all that blood!’ when they came into view and they would have had to have been blind indeed to miss the blood if this had been real.

It’s not strictly neccessary, but we took nerf guns along for the ride, without ammo, and that made for some extra realism. Please do not wave fake guns around where people can get nervous about it. Also a nice surprise: Mr Ook had switched our generic fake coins to real Reichsmark without telling me - I had asked him to prepare the props and character envelopes because I didn’t want to spoil myself.

So, if you’ve got a car, three friends and some time on your hand, go play this. It’s hilarious and there are no rules to learn, just: improvise. Don’t be afraid to make a mess of the situation…what AM I saying, the situation IS already a mess. Roll with it.

Monday, June 1, 2015

I Aten't Dead

I'm sorry for the silence, but I lost my laptop to a faulty mainboard and I'm using my tablet just now. The mobile Blogger interface makes me want to kill it with fire. Regular services will resume as soon as possible.

In the meantime, let me recommend The Corpse Door to you, a short,animated comic about a dead Norseman. Very creepy and very well done.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

If you find me

Carey lives hidden away in the woods with her little sister Jenessa and their meth-addicted mother. One day, her mother has been gone for weeks already, her father comes to take the girls to live with him.

If you find me by Emily Murdoch is a chilling book to read, especially when you think about that children really go through this: abducted by their own parent, hidden away somewhere, abused. But what happened to Carey in the woods is revealed only slowly and mostly, you have to read between the lines, until the very end of the book.

One thing that bothered me a bit is that Carey is something of a Mary Sue. She is very beautiful, she's an extremely talented violin player, she's very intelligent and the most popular boy in her grade immediately falls in love with her. There's a reason why he's interested in her, but the other things are pretty Mary Sue-ish. It doesn't really harm the book because it's well written and the story is gripping. Also, the reason why Mary Sues are so popular and get written so often is that young girls identify with them, they make them feel powerful. When you see it like that, it's actually a plus for the book. Also, the horrible things that happened to the girls are never glamorised or idealised.

I love the relationship between the characters, between Carey and her new family. Even her new stepsister, who doesn't like her at all - but she has her reasons and she's not the caricature of a Mean Girl she could have been. The relationship between Carey and her sister is my favourite, though. Carey has been more her mother than their real mother has ever been and whenever Janessa is concerned, she quickly switches back into adult mode. You get to see the world through the eyes of a girl who has had only very little contact with everything we think of as normal and just enough that this doesn't turn into The Wolf Boy.

I highly recommend this book because of its subtlety and because of its positive outlook. There are many YA novels that deal with teens who have a horrible life, but way too many of them never offer any hope or way out. Kevin Brooks, I'm looking at you. When You Find Me is different and that's important.

3. book for the Everything YA challenge

Reviews 2015

Monday, April 27, 2015

Alif the Unseen

Alif thought that State cybersecurity are the biggest of his worries. Evading them on his mission to protect his clients, people with opinions forbidden in the Emirate, is hard enough. But when he suddenly steps into a part of the city where he encounters marid, effrit and a book that is even more wanted by State security than he himself is, his life suddenly gets a lot worse.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson is Cyberpunk goes 1001 Nights during the Arabian Spring. The setting works really well and the combination of jinn and cybertechnology starts to look fairly natural. But never so natural as to be boring, more like: yeah, okay, sounds logical now that I think about it. I mean, of course jinn will go with the time and acquire their own computers. Create the Jinnternet.

The book has the same kind of energy I love about, for example, Cory Doctorow's novels, the excitement about technology and the changes it brings to society. The new ways people interact and link the online world with the real one. If there is such a distinction to be made at all. It's a fast-paced story, hilarious at times, and yet it always finds time for some philosophy. Seeing technology through the eyes of jinn opens the way for some really creative hacking.

Alif may be the main character, but it's the women who drive this book. In particular, Alif's childhood friend Dina, a deeply religious woman who gets caught up in Alif's problems against her will. I liked it very much that she stays true to her beliefs during the book and doesn't confirm to some Western idea of a free woman. She's independent, but on her own terms, thank you very much.

Reviews 2015

Third book for the Diversity on the Shelves Challenge.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Vampire: Don't Drink the Pianist

Here's a transcript of the diary I found at the archive. It's been badly damaged by mold and mice, but it's still readable, mainly thanks to the owner's Copperplate penmanship. A lost art, methinks. Anyway, read it and tell me this isn't huge.


The Prince held the first Conclave for ten years and he has opened his own house for it. It was a grand occasion and people had dressed the part, which meant that fashion styles from the last five hundred years were being worn. It was the first time I had ever seen all of our society in one place and there were quite a few people I hadn't met before or only heard about. Rolf introduced me to some and later I made my own way around the room, ending up at a table with some archeologists. There were discussing the possibility of an expedition to Russia and Poland to recover artifacts, but decided that the time was not yet right for this. And after all, there was so much still in Germany. Which is a very polite way of saying that the Germans have stolen and plundered their way across the continent.

The talk was interrupted, mostly pleasantly, by Lysann Couronne who captured everyone's attention with a beautiful piano piece she performed on the Steinway and dedicated to the Prince. He was flattered indeed. Quite to my surprise, he invited me to keep him company when Rolf introduced me. A few minutes later, I found myself in the library with the Prince, Miss Couronne and Professor Justus-Emmanuel Hoffman, the archeologist who had advised patience in the matter of the Russian expedition. The Prince told us that he is expecting a train from Berlin and for reasons unknown to him, it's three days overdue. That is late even considering the fact that the route has just been restored from the damage it took during the war. The reason he is so eager for the train to arrive is that an heirloom of his is on board, a dagger supposedly enchanted by the Tremere. It enables Ventrue to forgo their clan weakness and chose any vessel to drink from. We have been charged with finding that train. Despite my low status, my ability with languages has made me part of this. I suspect that my experiences during the war have been taken into consideration as well.

Before we left the room, Lysann noticed that a single rose placed in a vase had moved even though none of us were anywhere near it. We also saw someone making a very hurried exit from the main room. I followed him, but once outside, I saw no-one, except for one of the British soldiers guarding the house. He told me that he had seen no-one. Well. For someone with enough practice in obfuscating themselves, the guard wouldn't have been much of a problem. Professor Hoffmann had followed me and searched for tracks, but found none. However, I did find a soldier, half-hidden in the bushes with his neck broken. The same soldier standing guard outside the door. Who was gone when we looked again. This, too, is possible for someone who has a higher degree of Obfuscate, but we hadn't heard anything. I know of no clan possessing that kind of power. Rolf did, when I asked him, the Assamites.

I told the Price of my suspicion. There had been rumours about the Sabbath making their way into Germany from the East and it seems they are true. After checking the guest list, one name turned up: Arno Friedman. Apparently a Russian spy who disappeared right after being captured. His real name is Nikolas Poliakov and the Prince identified him as Ragna, an Assamite who has been feuding with him for the last two hundred years and who will now be on his way to get the dagger for himself.

This has made our mission that much more dangerous and urgent. We left Hamburg the next evening, equipped with fake travel documents, a truck and enough gas to last us the way. I volunteered as driver, I've always enjoyed it. We all brought along our ghouls. I do hope Miss Couronne's ghoul is less of a Quex that he looks to be or Peter may be hard-pressed to hold his tongue. While driving, I found myself telling Miss Couronne about my past. Not in detail, but if she hasn't known before, she and Hoffmann now know that I fought in Warsaw, once on the winning and once of the losing side.

We were stopped by the British when we left Hamburg. Apparently, they are on the lookout for a murdered. Miss Couronne solved the situation by charming the Sergeant. It's a useful skill to have, I must admit. I'm sure we'll have need of it again before this is over.

So. Did I promise too much? I don't think so. I haven't found out much yet, but the diary's owner is one Albin Wozniak, a Pole captured during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and brought to Germany as a Fremdarbeiter (the other Battle of Warsaw he mentions is probably the 1920 one). Official records state that he was killed during the bombing of the Lagerhaus G, a subcamp of the Konzentrationslager Neuengamme. I haven't yet found out about the people he's working with, but give me time. I don't know if you know what a Quex is, I had to look it up. Seems that the guy looks like the perfect model for the Hitler Youth. Probably not something that wins him any sympathies with Albin.

It's an intriguing find, wouldn't you say? I'm very sure that it's genuine.


It's been ages since I last played Vampire: The Masquerade. It was my first roleplaying game and I love it very much. I was a bit afraid that this might be nostalgia, but so far it's holding up. The dreaded meeting of the characters went really well, we connected over a couple of things and it wasn't just the Prince's order to work together.

I did a lot of reading for Albin's backstory - Polish history is complicated. I always played older vampires, but he's only 2 years old. Very much a child, as far as the others are concerned. And he still feels connected to his old life, I doubt that this will stop any time soon.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Northern Lights

Northern Lights in real time. Take five minutes and watch this, it's absolutely worth your time.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Strange Beasts: Harvestmen

The enemy troops come into view and while the foot soldiers look like any other army except for the masks they wear, the cavalry is seated upon high-legged beasts resembling spiders. They are colourful, have spikes all over their body and prove to be dangerously fast. Their stench fills the air over the battlefield, huge jaws grab soldiers and cut them clean in half and they just won't fall, even when soldiers band together and manage to hack one or two legs off. Indeed, the beasts will drop legs on their own accord when attacked, leaving the soldiers to deal with the thrashing limb while they stalk on. After a while, the smell becomes almost unbearable and the reason for the masks apparent: any soldier without one becomes sluggish and some even fall, unconscious or dead.

I'm sure you have seen harvestmen before. They look a lot like spiders, but they are their own order of arachnids, the Opiliones (shepherds). They are perfectly harmless and even beneficial because a lot of them feed on decaying plant and animal matter, some even hunt for insects. One species has specialised in eating slugs.


In their normal size, I think they are adorable. But let's make them big enough to ride. They will tower over everything and they will be freakishly fast. Many of them can indeed drop legs when attacked. And all harvestman species will secret a smelly liquid when they feel threatened. The liquid is irritating to skin and lungs (although one harvestman will not secret enough of it to bother a human). For invertebrates, it can make them unconscious or even kill them. Put enough harvestmen in a container and they will knock each other out with it (please don't actually try this). So, you have a steed that is big, can cover a good distance in one stride, it has fangs and it even carries a built-in chemical weapon. What's not to like. Also, it looks badass.

Extremely stinky harvestman (Holoversia nigra)

A List of Strange Beasts

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Shadowrun Rat's Nest: Schrödinger's Biker

The group is driving along Lake Erie and decided they'd rather not drive through Cleveland. Apologies to Clevelanders, but I decided that the city was in the throes of death, with next to no jobs left and people abandoning ship. So they left the highway and made a detour through the suburbs, which didn't look any nicer. Lots of abandoned buildings, squatters, gang tags everywhere, burned out cars sitting in the road, the works.

A lone biker starts following the truck.

He does not look like someone who just drives around his midlife-crisis Harley Davidson.

The players start worrying. Oh shit, they say, he's a ganger. He's going to call his buddies and we're going to be toast. They'll have a barricade further along the road. Can we fight our way out of this, do we try to just drive through it or do we stop and negotiate? In the end, they stopped, got out and the biker (now with two friends) remarked that hey, this is a nice RV and wouldn't it be a shame if something happened, the streets are so unsafe these days, it's a shame, they're just keeping an eye out. 500 Nuyen later, the players are on their way again.

This was Schrödinger's Biker. I had no plans at all for him. I just let the players tell me all about him. After this display of high-level paranoia, I was a bit worried that they wouldn't bite the next story hook because, ideally, I needed them to go and join some strangers for dinner. But not to worry, when I mentioned the nice, big farmhouse they could see from the rest stop they had chosen for the night, they went: heeey, let's go there and ask if we can stay there instead. Story saved.

Monday, March 16, 2015


Jewel cannot talk to her parents because ever since her brother Bird died, it's like they don't even notice she's there. And she cannot talk to her grandfather because he locks himself in his room and doesn't speak, ever. But she can talk to John, a boy she meets one day on top of the cliff her brother jumped from. And once they started talking, her family's silence and all those secrets it keeps hidden starts to unravel.

Bird by Crystal Chan is a book I put away a couple of times because I got so angry with Jewel's parents who are so caught up in their own grief that they don't even try to understand their daughter. But the story always drew me back in, I wanted to know what happened next, what's the deal with John (a black boy adopted by a white family), what happened to Bird and why Jewel's grandfather never speaks. Her grandfather is my favourite character, even though he barely has ten lines of dialogue in the book. Jewel finds it very hard to live with him until she starts asking herself why he's the way he is and they slowly start to connect.

Jewel come from a family that's part Mexican, part Jamaican and her background plays a big role in the story, Jamaican beliefs, culture and music. The first thing I did after finishing the book was go on YouTube and listen to the music mentioned in the book. I had never even heard of Mento before (although I had heard Mento songs, but never under that name). I always love it when books introduce me to new things.

Book 2 for both the Everything YA and Diversity on the Shelves Reading Challenge

Reviews 2015

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Time of the Dark

Gil dreams of a world where the people have good reason to be afraid of the dark and where humans are struggling for their civilization to survive. She keeps seeing a wizard in those dreams and one day, the wizard sits in her kitchen, with a child he has rescued from that world.

I picked up The Time of the Dark by Barbara Hambly as part of a Humble Bundle and read it without knowing anything about it. I'm glad I did because it's, on the surface, just the kind of fantasy I really do not like at all. But it's extremely well written, even if the story of 'ordinary people must survive in a fantasy world' has been done so many time before and since. Gil and Rudy are very relatable characters and the wizard Ingold, let's just say I'd follow him into hell if I were in their place, too.

The Dark are terrifying villains. They are extremely hard to fight, you cannot see them coming and you never get a closer look at them throughout the book. There are hints of a more complex backstory to them and I always like that about a villain.

What really sold me on this book was Hambly's writing, though. It took half a page at most and I was lost in the world, even on the subway. Her prose is extremely vivid and she describes scenes for all senses. I appreciate it a lot when authors do that and I try to do it myself when I run a roleplaying game because it's a lot more immersive than just sight and sound.

When I looked Barbara Hambly up, I found out that she had written, among a lot of other things, one of my favourite Star Trek novels: Ishmael.. I used to read tons of these novels, but Ishamel still stands out to me even after, I don't know, twenty years. I absolutely plan on reading the rest of the Darwath trilogy and maybe the Benjamin January novels because those sound interesting - New Orleans in the 1830 and a free man of colour, a doctor and musician, as the main character.

Reviews 2015

Monday, February 23, 2015

Live Stream from ISS

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream So I recently found out that the ISS has a couple of high-definition cameras installed that livestream a view of Earth 24 hours a day. Enjoy. The website for this project - the whole experiment is run by high school students, who designed parts of the cameras and operate them.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Deadlands: Blizzard

Cast of Characters:
Alan Trehorn: Half-Apsalooke/Crow scout who might be taken for a greenhorn, but at your own risk.
Etienne DuMont: Texas Ranger. He used to be dead, but he got better.
Kenneth Lake: Professional poker player and reluctant participant in these events.
Dr. Frances Gray: Doctor and a strong believer in science and natural explanations.
Sister Elisabeth: A nun of maybe questionable past, but unquestionable faith.
Eliah Davis: Black cowboy who has seen some weird shit in his life. He spins this tale for you, somewhere at a camp fire on the prairie.

last time

I've always hated travelling in the winter and I usually see to it that I have employment on some farm well before the snow starts. I didn't plan to start doing things differently now, but travelling with Alan and the others, hunkering down somewhere was not in the cards. We found our way to Downsville, like Etienne was ordered, and arrived there with the first snow.

People here make their living with fur trading and mining mostly and a lot of men camped up on the mountains, closer to the actual mine. The mayor of Downsville told us that they hadn't heard from the camp for a while now and that the last they had heard was that there was some kind of plague. The doc had already sent for drugs, but the stagecoach from Denver was overdue already. We agreed to go look for the coach and bring the drugs to the snow camp, if we could.

The weather got worse when we set out. It snowed, but the worst thing was the sharp wind. The cold sets into your bones in that kind of weather and you just can't get warm, not matter how many clothes you wear. If you work up a sweat or get your clothes wet another way, you die.

At least we found the stagecoach. It had slipped down a steep hill and crushed its driver. The horses were dead, too. At least there were no passengers. The drugs were there and none of them damaged, too. Elisabeth came down after me and almost threw Kenneth off the rope we were using to climb, she was that eager to reach the coach. It had valuables on board, money and other stuff, and when we didn't agree to take them with us, she tried to steal some gold coins, but I caught her.

We took the drugs and the letters for the mining camp with us and decided to make our way there directly. We didn't make it in one day and got caught in a blizzard in the canyon leading up to the camp. In the middle of the night, wolves attacked us - they were mangy and sick, maybe suffering from the same plague as the people at the camp, the winter wasn't nearly long enough for them to be in such bad shape. They bit some of us and some of the horses, but we all survived and came to the mining camp the next day.

Monday, February 9, 2015

RPG Blog Carnival: Game Prep

The theme of February's RPG Blog Carnival is How and Where I Write and/or Game Prep.

I improvise a lot during my sessions. But you do need some prep, even if it's only coming up with non-ridiculous character names or some cool photos of locations as inspiration. We play weekly, so I do bits and pieces whenever I find time, mostly on my laptop, where ever I might be at the moment. It all gets transferred to my tablet and/or sheets of paper stuffed into the rulebook and that I take with me to game night.

Actually coming up with ideas for scenarios and adventures is the hardest part for me. That's why I do most of that at the breakfast table with Mr Bookscorpion. He's a gamer himself, but I don't think that this is strictly necessary. I would just need someone willing to listen and to think about how the story could go. I throw ideas at him and he makes suggestions. Whether I take those up or not, explaining the situation to him and talking about where the group could be headed next helps a lot. Usually, I think about what we have come up with for the weekend, turning it over in my head until the rough edges are gone and then I go ahead and start the actual game prep.

The Carnival is hosted at Leicester's Ramble. Age of Ravens has a short survey about game prep, so if you have two minutes (six questions only), why not go and take it!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ancillary Justice

Breq used to be a spaceship and had thousands of bodies. These days, she only has one and is trying to exact her revenge on the Lord of the Radch, who is responsible for the destruction of the ship.

I saw Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie mentioned on The Ferret and it sounded interesting, so I bought it. I was not disappointed. Breq or Justice of Toren, to use her ship-name, is a fascinating character. An AI that is used to seeing through thousands of eyes, to having complete command over thousands of bodies and now has to get used to having only one single body.

The story is told in flashbacks and it takes a while before it all starts to come together. That's a style I really enjoy, I don't need it all neatly laid out for me. The cultures I encountered reading this book were interesting and believable, Leckie did some solid world building. There are no big space fights, but the story is well-paced and exciting, with conspiracies and secrets all along the way. Nothing really is what is seems here.

Speaking of which. The Radchaai have no use for gender in their society, neither in looks nor in language. So Breq struggles to identify gender in other races and languages and she solves the problem by calling everyone female pronouns. That makes for an interesting reading experience - automatically, the universe is populated exclusively with women, until sometimes another character identifies someone as male in conversation. Breq herself has a female (non-Radchaai) body, but doesn't identify as either male or female.

I count the book towards the Diversity on the Shelves challenge - Breq has dark skin and so have the Radchaai. There's an option to turn the Ancillary trilogy into a TV show and I really hope they don't mess this up and the Radchaai remain dark-skinned and genderless.

Reviews 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Song of Kali

Robert Luczak comes to India to find out whether the great poet M. Das is still alive and whether the poem that has surfaced has indeed been written by that man. He quickly comes to realise that this will be a lot harder than he expected and may cost him more than just a little time and money.

Song of Kali by Dan Simmons is an exercise in othering. It's set in Calcutta and there is not one single Indian character who's really likeable or even just decent, with the exception of the main character's wife. But she's nothing more than a sounding board for Robert and doesn't really do anything. The description of Calcutta are not flattering, to put it mildly, which is kind of the point of the whole book that sets out to make the city into the villain of the story. I have no first-hand knowledge of India, but I imagine that people do get a huge culture shock, so yes, that explains some of it. But still, it left a bad taste for me, there are no saving graces in what the characters experience, it's all bad.

I also hated the relationship between the Robert and his wife. They rarely tell each other the truth, their daughter was conceived because his wife stopped taking the pill without telling him and he knows perfectly well that she does not want to go to India, let alone take their newborn daughter and still goes ahead with it.

After a couple of pages, I could pretty much see where all this was going. An American takes his wife and newborn child into a dangerous, mysterious city where neither of them speaks the language (his wife only speak Hindi, not Bengali) and the book is called Song of Kali. I wouldn't have bet any money on the life of the kid.

Having said all that, I have to admit that the story is well done. It's incredibly creepy at times, fast-paced and well-written. So I'm in two minds about this. Robert is not exactly a great hero or a likeable character - that would have made the whole book insufferable. Even so, I found the whole description of India bordering on racist at the very least. It's a bit like reading Kipling (and with much less excuse since the book was published in 1985). So read at your own risk.

Reviews 2015

Monday, January 12, 2015

Everything YA Reading and Diversity on the Shelves Challenge

It's January and that means signing up for reading challenges. I read so little last year, I make myself sad thinking about it. I'm not going to be overly ambitious, thought, and I'll only sign up to two challenges.

First, the Everything YA Reading Challenge. I'm reading a lot of YA literature anyway (for the job and because I enjoy it a lot) and I've been meaning to blog more about it.
I intend to read at least ten books for this challenge. Any YA book counts towards it. You'll find the links to all reviews below:

1. Blink Once
2. Bird by Crystal Chan
3. If you find me by Emily Murdoch

and secondly, the Diversity on the Shelves Challenge.

My Little Pocketbooks

The goal is to read more books by persons of colour and/or with persons of colour as the main character. I'm signing up for the second shelf: 7-12 books. Reviews will be below.

1. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
2. Bird by Crystal Chan
3. Alif the Unseen by G. Willow WIlson

Blink Once

West wakes up at the hospital. he cannot really remember how he got there, but he's paralyzed and although he can hear everything that's going on, people seem to think he is unconscious. For the, he is on a coma. The only person who actually assumes that he's awake is the girl from the next room, Olivia. She comes to visit him, tells him what's going on outside and he falls in love with her. Seeing her again is his biggest motivation for waking up again. After an operation has restored his ability to move and communicate, he can't wait to see her again. But there's a mystery to Olivia.

There be spoilers from here on.

It's not hard to see that Olivia's story has a twist to it, I suspected as much right from the beginning. It was still a satisfying turn of events when West and I found out about here. Satisfying and heartbreaking. I wanted them to have a happy ending so much. The supernatural element of the story is not overplayed, which I liked very much. No explanations are given and both West and the reader have to come to their own conclusions about what happened.

It's book whose main protagonist does little else than lie in bed, but it's still a gripping read and I went through it in two days. There's something strange about Olivia and by the time the story reaches its conclusion, it has turned into a very eerie tale without ever resorting to shock effects.

Cylin Busby has a website if you want to know more about her - with awesome bee artwork, which makes me like her instantly.

Reviews 2015

Everything YA Reading Challenge

Reviews 2015

1. Blink once by Cylin Busby
2. Song of Kali by Dan Simmons
3. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
4. The Time of the Dark by Barbara Hambly
5. Bird by Crystal Chan
6. Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
7. If you find me by Emily Murdoch

Friday, January 9, 2015

Shadowrun Rat's Nest: Flamethrowers

Ah, yes, the quiet and peace of the pre-holiday season. Exactly the right time to hand out some flamethrowers and assault guns and ask four of my players to do their best and kill the fifth one.

Fog is an adept and wants to add another initiation (a certain magical technique). That requires some sort of test and since he has a mentor spirit, Crow, it should fit at least loosely to the goals and rules of that spirit. Crow hates senseless waste, of things and life, but on the other hand he is not greedy and does not put things over life. From there, I went to creating a situation where lives were carelessly wasted and where greed was a definite option instead of stopping the waste.

Here things get a bit wild. We're in the wastelands around Chicago now and Fog has been scouting for the night, so he's away from the group. The first hint that not all is well is a deer that jumps into the road, its fur on fire. Fog has a WTF moment and drives on (failing several perception tests). Then a couple of shacks by the side of the road go up in flames and he sees people running out. One of them gets shot down by a couple of soldiers? Black OPS? Shit, this looks like it's straight out of Starship Troopers. But he doesn't have much time to think about it because a woman with two kids are running towards him and he lets them climb on his bike and hightails it out of there.

One of the kids loses his grip, but Fog can't slow down, he's getting shot at, the bike is hit. Things are personal now. He still has no idea what is going on, but he's pissed and so he lends the woman the bike and goes off into the woods to find someone to ask some serious questions.

Meanwhile, the group who paid a lot of money for their Starship Trooper experience are having a good time. They don't know for sure where they are, but who cares. There are Bugs to shoot at, they have alcohol and drugs and they get to handle real guns (which don't shot at other players, but at everything else). They have been told that everything inside the compound is fair game and admire the highly realistic special effects.

I was not at all sure that Fog's player would go through with this. I had not been kind to him when I made the stats for the other characters and their weapons. Since it was supposed to be an initiation test, there had to be real danger. But the wager paid off and we had ourselves some beautiful player versus player gaming. In the end, Fog fought and killed almost all the others, even though the prospect of just getting the hell out of there with some top-grade armour as loot was tempting. Crow will be pleased and even a little impressed.

I love the fact that I can do stuff like this with the group. Tell one player: please wait outside. Hand basic character sheets to the others, explain the situation and then just lean back and enjoy the resulting mayhem. No: oh, this is Fog, we cannot kill him. Or: nah, come one, we want to play our own characters, not let one player have the spotlight for the evening. No-one takes any aggression outside of the game, but when they play, they play hard.

This is not something you can do too often, but once in a while it's fun to do something a little different with the game. Whether it's a situation like this or playing another game inside the other, like we did when we played a game of Dread and Shadowrun at the same time.

The campaign is on Obsidian Portal and Fog wrote about the whole thing here