Tuesday, 3 October 2017

EVENT: An afternoon of playing Werewolf, and a variety of other hidden role games
CAUSE: Raising money for homeless charity, St. Mungo's
DATE: November 11th 2017 (12pm onwards) 
LOCATION: A pub in Tooting, south London (The Antelope) 

DETAILS: An afternoon (technically from around lunch and into the evening) to not only raise a bit of money for charity, but also to play games of social deduction and bluffing, such as Werewolf, where amongst the players pretending to be villagers living in an idyllic village, there are those players who are secretly chosen to be werewolves, picking off the innocent villagers one by one. We hope to have several games going at once so that, as players get eliminated from one game they can join another one that is just about to start, rather than sit in their first game and be unable to start another game.

And it won't just be werewolves plaguing villages. We've also got alien parasites inhabiting isolated scientists and soldiers, cultists picking off investigators in a house during an unnatural storm, agents of dystopian governments infiltrating rebellious cells, outlaws and renegades trying to take down the sheriff in a wild west frontier town. And possibly other hidden role games on top.

At the end of the night we had planned to have a live show, where ten players at a time would bring the village to life in front of the rest of us, as an audience - but due to a small number of confirmed numbers it was looking as if the performers might out-number the audience. Instead we'll end the night on as big a game of Werewolf as we can manage, to end the night on a band (or rather, a howl)!

It's not long after Halloween, so feel free to treat it as a second opportunity to dress up a bit. Admittedly, most of you will be innocent villagers, but any decorations you have post-Halloween, or bloody wound special effects you can use to make your deaths looks somewhat more authentic are welcome.

Possibly there will be a small auction and cakes to buy, to further pry charity money from your hands. :-)

The event was originally set up as a Private event on Facebook, but as I was unable to find a way to convert it to a Public event I've had to create a new one (at the time of writing 17 people have confirmed they'll be coming). 

WHAT IS WEREWOLF? Werewolf, to use it's simplest name, is a spin-off (or 'reskin') of an older game called Mafia, wherein everyone around a table is given a random playing card which determines which side they are on and, through a process of turns during which people are instructed to close their eyes and some are asked to open their eyes and select victims, the bad guys slowly whittle down the good guys, whilst the good guys have a chance to accuse and lynch the bad guys, with the chance they'll kill one of their own. It's a game of bluff and deduction, but also a game of adopting a fictional role and acting the part of a villager in an archetypal isolated old village - it can be played as seriously or as silly as the participants wish. Games are given extra depth and complexity by having additional good guy/bad guy characters with special abilities they can choose to use.

I'll have several versions of the game, including the popular Ultimate Werewolf, the beautifully illustrated Wolfed (see the art work above), the more abstractly illustrated Werewolves of Miller's Hollow, the Werewolves of Miller's Hollow spin-off The Village (which gives most characters a home from which to earn a living plus, thematically, some poor villagers without a home), plus others. I may have even have created a pack of my own.

OTHER GAMES? I will have a few other games with me but, at the very least, you'll be able to play Salem 1692, wherein you seek witches in the real world town (featuring real world historical salem townsfolk), Are You The Cultist? which transplants the action to an isolated mansion during a storm in the 1920s, pitting cultists against decent upstanding investigators, Stay Away! which rips off the film The Thing but with a nice Cthulhuesque twist, The Resistance, wherein agents of the rebellion fight to find the government spies in their midsts whilst they perform missions, Leaders of Euphoria, a similar dystopian future where two rival factions equipped with amusing tools try to take out the hidden enemy leaders and Bang! The Dice Game, wherein the Sheriff of a western town must pick off the hidden Outlaws and Renegades, with the aid of his unknown Deputies.

Other games may be available, and people are encouraged to bring their own. 

ELABORATE BACKSTORY: A while back, after seeing Jon Gracey's Werewolf Live, I was reminded of the Werewolf sessions I used to play with friends years ago, including a session with Dave Gorman that - due to a number of factors - never made it into his book of games. Off the back of Jon's event myself and another Werewolf player of old put our heads together and decided to arrange an event to raise a bit of money.

Friday, 7 July 2017

A Dark Room...

Welcome, to one of my sporadic blog posts, that I fire off about once every six months...

There was a full moon in the sky the night I died. I didn’t realise, because I was in a dark room, but as my spirit made its way home there it was, looking down at me, like a face glowering out of the darkness. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

John Robertson is a man who, like many men, does a stage show. Unlike many men (or, perhaps I should say, like many of the more unsavoury men), he invites you in a dark room, and demands many decisions of you, and should you make the wrong one, you’re dead.

It didn’t begin auspiciously. My phone battery had died not long after reaching the venue, and having failed to convince anyone to come along to the venue, was now unable to be contactable. Worse still, I was to enter the dark with no means of contacting the world outside. The future was looking bleak already.

It was made somewhat less bleak by the drinking of two pints.

We descended into the darkness. It’s a venue I’ve been to many times before, illuminated by a red neon sign, but now it was dark. Only the bar at the back of the room was lit, whilst jazz music played. The front row already claimed by people who were clearly fans, I opted for a seat in the second row.  Seated before the projections of words meant to calm the soul, to put the audience at ease. “The Dark Room,” it said, reassuring us that we were where we’d planned to be. “You are about to die,” it declared, reminding us of why we had come.

The audience filtered in slowly, many of the people clearly veterans of finding themselves in a dark room, greeting each other. We sat, in the darkness, old friends and total strangers, the same two messages flashing across the screen in front of us, music lulling us into a false sense of security. A man darted around, setting things up. A wizard of sorts, who eventually disappeared behind his curtain to do important things. Only once the room descended into a darker sort of darkness did the man reappear. A different sort of wizard, perhaps, for he was one who wore lights about the shoulders and shone a torch upon his face. And, indeed, with his long white hair, his mock English accent and a certain gleam in his eye he seemed to be channelling Gandalf himself, albeit a younger Gandalf who might’ve been a jock at university, and had never quite given up the wearing of impressive pads about the shoulders. He entered the Room with a villainous laugh, and strode around the room around as he explained how things worked. Which was good. I’ve never been in a Darkened Room with such pronounced initial letters, and so was eager to understand the rules. I’d descended into the darkness with a strategy, to see how people tackled the Dark Room, because I’d been warned by sage voices before hand. “It’s not horror,” those sage voices had told me, “but there will be many dead.” And indeed, there were, by the end of it.

If I were to evaluate my strategy, in retrospect, I would say that there were three fundamental flaws. Firstly, and you may have anticipated this one, was that I was sitting in the second row and, should participants be chosen from the audience rather than be volunteer (as, indeed, I had in the Werewolf Live show a week before*) then I was in a bad position.

Secondly, I had chosen to sit in an aisle seat.

Thirdly, and perhaps my biggest single mistake, was wearing a white shirt in a dark room.

The man’s face, suddenly very close to me and illuminated by torch-light, grinned down at me. “You,” it said, between grins, “What is your name?” And I answered. But, alas, my strategy having already fallen apart, I was unable to correctly answer. “Oh no,” said the illuminated face, suddenly not grinning. For there is only one correct answer to this question. And only now, having experienced The Dark Room, can I answer – truthfully and honestly – what my name is.

It will not do for me to reveal that answer to the unititated.

“You awake to find yourself in a dark room,” the face announced. I was pressed for an answer, a selection of one of four possible answers which were shown on the screen.  Four options: SLEEP, FIND LIGHT SWITCH, ABANDON HOPE or GO NORTH. This was familiar ground, at least. I’d seen these options on the website. “Go North” I declared, with some authority.

I was henceforth rebuked for my folly, the man’s voice echoed by those around us, no doubt familiar with fools who seek to venture north in the darkness. And so my brief adventure began.

And brief it was, though memorable. It ended shortly after I’d clicked my heels together three times, and clearly enunciated “There’s no place like Leningrad,” at which point Stalin appeared unto me. And you know what happens when Stalin appears to you?

You’re dead. And you will be told this several times. And everyone will tell you this.

I was the first to die. I was by no means the last.

And so other ‘brave adventurers’ (mostly people who cowered away from attention, but also at least one very enthusiastic girl), all with much the same name, ventured forth, awakening anew in a dark room. And so, as a room, we sought to exhaust the possible pathways out of the darkness, in the slim hope that one of us might walk away with £1,000. And though no-one did, some people unlocked Plot Points along the way. One person in the audience earned a plastic duck for interjecting with a well timed funny joke (whilst another was merely taunted with one, for a substandard joke). And finally many of those who walked the path in the darkness earned a ‘gift’ from the table of wondrous things. Such things as a box that may, or may not, have contained a cat, such things as a rare computer game, such things as a ‘flamboyant potato’ (again, you might just have to venture into The Dark Room to discover what this is. Or, I don’t know, do a Google search. It’s probably there). I didn’t win a gift, alas, but given that one of the gifts was a front headlight from a car that had been discovered lying in a street, I’m quite glad I didn’t have a trophy to take home with me.

And so, having all of us died (for, with the final democracy round the entire audience had all died collectively) we ascended once more from the dark, blinking in the daylight of a relatively light summer’s evening. Slightly less sure of ourselves. But maybe, just maybe, considering returning to that Dark Room, some day, wherever it appears.

The Dark Room will be materialising, very soon, at the Soho Theatre. Check it out HERE!

* That’s another blog, one I’ve not yet got around to writing. Sorry Ghost Master.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Behind Her Eyes

So, here's a book that's been exploding all over my social media since the end of last year (admittedly because I'm a friend of the author on Facebook and have mutual Twitter buddies too), but only came out this Friday (27th January). I picked up my own copy last night, started reading it on the journey home, and then ploughed through it most of today.

The hype has been all about the twist in the end, and I love a good twist in the ending (it's exactly the sort of thing I like to build into my short stories and game scenarios). The Twitter hashtag used to promote the book has been #wtfthatending - which, of course, means you pick the book up expecting things to not be exactly what they might appear from first impressions. It also means that a whole lot of the fun is in the speculation and theorising of what might be this ending that has summoned forth such swathes of WTF across the internet, but as a result it's very hard to say a great deal about what goes on beyond a certain point, or how easy or difficult it is to anticipate the ending. Here though, to get you in the mood, are a blurb or seven from the dust jacket.

"Sarah Pinborough is a literary chameleon of astonishing power and grace."
Neil Gaiman

"Lean and mean, dark and disturbing, this is the kind of novel that takes over your life."
Joe Hill

"Twisty and twisted. Jealousy, lies, betrayal, guilt, toxic, spouses, madness. They're all in here."
Adam Nevill

"Just when you think you've nailed it, Pinborough pulls the rug out from underneath you."
Sam Baker

"Fully realised characters, peerless writing, a tank of a plot that sustains the suspense right to the end, and a whammy of a finale. It takes a lot to catch me out, but this one did."
Joanne Harris

"When you close the book, with paper cuts from turning pages so fast, you'll want everyone you know to read it too so you can talk about it."
Simon Toyne

"The most unsettling thriller of the year... Read it now before someone spoils the end for you."
John Connolly

I have to be honest and say I really enjoyed it. I love getting into the heads of characters, especially when it's clear that there are mysteries to be solved and that the characters you may be spending time in the head of may be keeping secrets of their own. There was much in common with Sarah's YA book '13 Minutes', with the two female points of view throughout, though the book is also peppered with flashbacks to a third person perspective of event back 'Then'. These add context to events as we learn more from the perspective of our main protagonist Louise, as she slowly learns more about the man who has become her new boss at a clinic, David, and his reclusive wife, Adele, whose life appears to be somewhat under her husband's thumb. Developing relationships of the two independently, keeping each relationship secret from the other, we have Louise slowly unpicking at the seams of their lives, of their secretive pasts, of the reasons for the routines they've established. And then, from Adele's perspective, we see a fragile character trying to take control of her own life, though she is economic with the details of her past, only hinting of what she must do.

The story unfolds much like a dramatic thriller, focussing mostly on the contrast of the chaotic life of single-mother Louise, and the simpler, almost mechanical routine of Adele. Louise has friends she can turn to, open up to, and we see how she struggles to get on with her life as those around her, those in couples, seem to be moving on, living their more exciting lives. Adele, by contrast, has no friends until she bumps into Louise, just the routine of being housewife to David, and of going to the gym. These worlds collide, and a strong friendship develops between the two, even as they maintain secrets from each other. David is often a presence just off centre stage, and enigmatic figure - as we don't get into his head for most of the book, we never really know his motives - pretty much til the final pages.

Suffice to say, with the promise of plot twists and WTF that ending, it didn't take long before I was starting to see potential truths peeking from behind curtains all over the place, to see common interests between characters, or common phrases spoken by different characters, as hinting at something greater (and, ultimately, whilst some of these are great signposts, some of them are enticing distractions). There's a brief hint of things to come, from the opening passage of the book, which is later revealed to be a passage written in another book, a journal about dreams. And so, from my first WTF moment at the end of page 60, the story meanders through the possibilities of the twist being psychological, to fantastical, to maybe something even more than that.

I won't say any more about the story as such, but will linger briefly on the aspect of dreams. Adele reminded me, at times, of some of the darker interpretations of Alice and her Wonderland, although one of the characters in the book instead thinks of her more as a Sleeping Beauty. It was interesting to see how lucid dreaming was portrayed in the book, as the description didn't really match anything I've heard of before, and yet it falls into place nicer, and is reassuringly consistent for the purposes of driving the story forward. There's perhaps a slight jolt from going from going from darker psychological territory into talk of dreams (and, god knows, I've bored countless Facebook followers with my own dream recollections*), but it's a minor thing.

Ultimately I have to say I loved this book. Yes, there was a degree of hype that made me rush through to the end of the story, to be able to converse with like minded souls but, seriously, when the details were all revealed at the end, as the curtain was pulled back and we were exposed to the truth, I had a big grin on my face. I can't ask for much more than that from a book.

Four and a half out of five. Or nine out of ten. :-) I think I marginally preferred '13 Minutes' more, because it's more subtle and less fantastic in its execution, plus has the vibrancy of teenaged relationships, and several different perspectives throughout.

* The weirdest coincidence, upon reading this book, was finding the suggestion of dreams about Robert Downey Jr in Chapter 27. On the morning of the 27th January I wrote a Facebook post about my dream, which featured Robert Downey Jr. Another WTF moment in the book, but I don't think one the author had anticipated. :-)

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Half a year on...

It's 2016. Time has passed. Things have changed. I'm currently looking for work, and have created a website to act as an online portfolio (you'll find I've put together a blog of sorts tacked onto the end of it, that at least goes back into April of this year... https://simonrjbrake.squarespace.com/blog/)

I've been trying to get some writing done but, to be honest, the attempts to get a website up to showcase my artworking skills has been more important. I've been working on a few roleplaying ideas on the side but reviewing my last post reminds me that I was contacted earlier in the year to see if I wanted to write something for David (and reminds me that I should get it written sooner rather than later). I guess having time away from a job, even when searching for a job, gives me more time to poke around the less visited corners of my life and remind myself of things I promised I'd do.

I did have plans to go to Bristol last weekend, but they fell through a few months ago. I'm not sure when I'll next be free to make the trip, but I've certainly got more time free to write something for David, to read up on some of the things he wrote in order to better pay him tribute.

Here's to you, Dave. Here's to the stories so far left untold, and to those which ended all too soon.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

November 2015 - Between Life and Death

Just before Halloween, I began to run a game for several friends about teenagers, but teenagers that just happen to be monsters. The game is designed to explore the volatile nature of teenage emotions and obsessions more so than serve as any sort of supernatural escapism. One of the characters has an ability that forces them to admit to a secret weakness or a happy memory of a sibling, in exchange for another character having to tell them about their relationship with death.

This is a blog about my relationship with death.

Up until Friday 13th November, it had been a good month. I got married last year in November, and so the first week was spent in Ireland in the run up to our first anniversary. We had a great time over there, and I summed it up as being a week largely about tea and babies (if only because we don't drink tea at home, and don't have a baby, and yet on this trip we met our new baby niece, our London-based friends with a baby whose trip over coincided with our own and, as is usual, I was offered frequent cups of tea).

I was trying to finish off a document I'd been writing for a while, a short game played with a deck of cards, called Curtain Call. It's about friends lost somewhere between dream and reality, life and death. I finished it and emailed it off on the Tuesday, a few days before the events of Friday night.

The news about what had happened in Paris was shocking. Before this year I'd never been to Paris. We'd visited early in the year, on a mini-honeymoon, and I loved the place. Much like our proper honeymoon in September, to New York, I found myself in a place full of iconic landmarks, places that were reassuringly familiar and yet were slightly magical as they'd only ever existed in magazines, on TV shows or in films before now, beforeI found myself standing in the streets, staring up at them (or found myself high up on one of those landmarks, staring down at the streets). The Charlie Hebdoe attacks had happened a little while before, so there was some tension, but you always assume that those things are in the past, and the chances are slim that they would happen again or, at the very least, that they would happen right here, right now. And indeed, nothing happened whilst we were there. Nothing happened for many months.

When it did happen it was no longer such a distant place. I had some emotional connection to it. And yet it seems terrible that, to all intents and purposes, these events struck harder than, for example, those killed by bombing in Syria, or by genocide in Africa. The brain understands simple mathematics, of course. Hundreds of deaths are more terrible than a handful of deaths, which in turn is more terrible than one. Yet it's never really simple mathematics that determine how you feel about a tragedy. It's distance. Or rather how close you are..

Last weekend a friend of mine died.

I only found out on the Monday evening, and it didn't really hit hard til the following day, but still, there were emotional ties there that made me so much more closely consider death, and the finality of existence, than perhaps the death of countless strangers had. And it's odd, because this is a person I'd never met. But my friend David was someone I'd talked to a lot online over the last ten years or so, as I'd discovered him whilst researching something we had a common interest in, we'd both read each others work (although, admittedly, he has an extensive back catalogue of published material whereas I have, so far, something in a small press publication, a haiku that won a prize and a letter in Kerrang). He also introduced to a few other people who I'm friends with on Facebook. Still, it feels a little weird having such a strong emotional connection with someone I've not directly met.

Nevertheless, if I was to look back over the years at my relationship with death, maybe it's not altogether odd. I have to admit to having had a somewhat unconventional understanding of death since I was a kid, because my father's parents were spiritualists. They went to a spiritual church, and they spoke to people who were dead. I grew up believing this to be fact and, though I never experienced a church meeting myself, always had a fascination with things unseen, the idea that there's something just beyond this world. I always assumed that, upon their deaths, the spirits of my grandparents might sense my ceaseless curiosity and appear to me, to confirm that, look, we're still here. They never did, although there's a few interesting transcripts of spirit mediums passing on messages from beyond that appeared in a small press publication of their life stories and poetry. Regardless of how I feel about that those early years shaped my relationship with death.

By the time they had died I was also a keen reader, and somewhat fascinated by quotes and aphorisms, the wisdom of poets and thinkers who'd been around longer than me and, in many cases, already died, that wisdom distilled into a one or two line soundbite. There's a quote by poet (and clergyman) Henry Scott Holland that reads "Death is nothing at all, I have only slipped into the next room" which I always took to heart. It's a metaphor that can be interpreted in many ways but, in reality, it's clear that those who pass through the door don't come wandering back to check up on us. That's what makes death so difficult to deal with. Someone has left the room, and they're never coming back to the party. Sometimes it's just those left behind who are lost for a moment, having not had time to say things they wanted to say, or just feeling that crushing absence of someone who played a big part of their life. Sometimes you feel bad for the person who left, as it was clearly not their time, and they clearly had concerns of their own. You can only feel a sense of anguish over what their last thoughts may be.

My grandmother, I know, felt her journey was at an end, and was ready to go onto that next room. She died in 2001. My grandfather died in 2003; those final years were clearly difficult, for him and those immediately around him. I felt sad, of course, that I would never see them again, but in many ways I was young and could not appreciate the weight of years they'd carried, nor the burden that fell upon the generation in between. My grandparents lived a fair distance away, and the distance of years between me and them also meant that sometimes I felt I didn't know them that well, certainly not to the extent I know, for example, my parents. And, of course, I knew that they knew they were going on to a better place. There were at peace.

However, there was another death that occurred when I was younger that resonated a little more. I'm sorry to say I can't remember his name, but as a child there was a Dutch boy I would occasionally see and play with, through friends of my Dutch mother. I didn't really speak Dutch, and he didn't really speak English, but I remember him being interested in some of the books I'd bring around, illustrated game manuals usually. Kids don't need to speak the same language to play, of course.

One day my mother told me he'd died. It was, apparently, suicide. He'd drunk acid of some type, that had killed him over a matter of days I think, rather than hours. And the idea horrified me. Not simply the idea of the death being as painful as it sounded, but knowing that he'd decided to end it all and, having made the decision, continued to walk around knowing that he was going to die. Seeing the faces of those around him, and knowing that soon he would be dead and that they would have to pick up the pieces. Wondering how terrible must a life be to want to end it, and how much more terrible it must have been to spend painful hours doing so, perhaps with regret.

It was soul-crushing.

I'd found my own childhood quite lonely, because I was pretty introvert. On the plus side I lived at home with two parents, two sisters and a varying number of cats, so I was pretty grounded emotionally. When I moved out I probably experienced the most lonely periods of my life. I'd never had a girlfriend until I was in my 20s, and I didn't really retain many friends from my school days, so whilst I made friends over the years I often went out alone, and often came home alone, and often felt crushed, broken, in pieces (although I was a goth, and that's possibly par for the course). I'd feel depressed, and there'd be nights where I'd find myself crying in the mirror, hoping that I could go to sleep and never have to wake up to face the aftermath. There were never suicidal thoughts as such, because I knew that there were people out there that cared for me, and that my death would weigh heavy on them, but I sometimes wished that I could maybe not have to worry about the 'terrible things' in my life, and not have to be worry about the responsibility for that decision. But, inevitably, I'd wake up next morning, pick myself up, and start again.

At some stage in my past I'd begun writing journals and writing bad angsty poetry. But, with my love of other people's writings (and my new found appreciation of goth night clubs) it was soon quite apparent that this was not something I alone experienced. The same miserable lonely experiences resonated across countless generations. On the other hand, as heart breakingly sad as I knew life could be those words also promised much more exciting and beautiful experiences. As you grow up you learn that bad things happen. But you pick yourself up and start again.

Friends came and went. Relationships came and went. Experiences came and went. There were maybe a few constants. There were two friends from art school who I'd kept in contact with for a while. Andy was a guy who was always confident and funny, great at design and into his martial arts. Around the time I was first living alone he joined me for a New Year's bash at the local pub, on Edgware Road, but eventually we stopped catching up with each other. Chris was sillier, a bit more like myself perhaps, but someone who I'd shared similar tastes in with music and had sometimes gone to play games with. We shared in jokes that were no more elaborate than a word or phrase (like 'octopi' or 'Green Park') said in an amusing manner, or would quote Ren and Stimpy cartoons. Ultimately Chris was the only person I regularly kept in contact with, though after a few years of me living in London he'd up and left the country to live in Cambodia. He'd fly back every once in a while, but he'd usually be at 'home' abroad, teaching English, and taking incredible pictures.

We kept in contact on Facebook, but gradually the messages grew less frequent. There was a moment just under ten years ago when I had an accident on my bike, suffering concussion and being battered and bruised, spending a long time recovering and lying in bed and just thinking. Chris had had something similar occur, a mugging where he'd been wrenched off a bike I think, though it was something I only learnt of later when relaying my own story. I'd not seen him for a good while when I invited him to be my best man at my (first) wedding. He said he was honoured and would get back to me, and dragged his feet a while until I suggested that, if it was going to be a problem I could find someone else, and he admitted that it might be a problem, but he hadn't wanted to let me down. But that was cool. Still, I came to terms that he was pretty much based in Cambodia now, and I probably wouldn't see so much of him.

It was around December 2013 that I was on a coach passing the pub on Edgware Road when I thought about the New Year's Eve spent there, and about trying to contact Andy on Facebook. I naturally sought out our mutual friend, Chris, only to find messages of condolence. I found out that he'd died in May 2012.

I felt immediately terrible, because he had been the friend I'd had longest, close enough for him to be my first consideration for a best man, but I felt terrible too for having not tried to contact him in well over a year, his death having completely passed me by.

And then I scanned back past the messages, to find out what he'd last posted, to try to get an inkling into what had happened, for amongst the messages there were some people asking why, but which seemed to have a greater idea about what had happened. I found four YouTube uploads from three days before he'd died, of tracks that sounded sad and ethereal, and a profile pic change to traces of car lights into the distance in the night, and wondered if his death was something that had been planned, if it was something he saw as inevitable. Further checks through the many many posts left on his wall, some from fellow British expats, but so many from students he'd taught over the years revealed how much he was loved. There were simple messages mixed with stories of how Chris had been talking about coming back to London for a visit soon, mixed with longer stories, and as I read those that recounted the memory of Chris being somewhat of a quiet guy, sitting in the corner, but then liable to come out with the silliest things once he was comfortable enough with your presence I realised he was more like me than I ever realised when he was alive.

I left my own message on the wall when I found out, and added a second after I'd had a day to let it sink in, whilst the tears were still flowing...

"It's been a really miserable 24 hours since I found out. But I've loved reading back through this page, seeing how Chris touched so many people with his... well... his ability to be Chris. His silly sense of humour especially.

A human life isn't quite like a light-bulb - when the light goes out you can't get a replacement. Everyone lights up a room in their own unique way. And no-one will ever light up a room quite the same way Chris did.

I wish you'd made that trip back to London. I'm really going to miss never seeing you again, or hearing your voice. X"

And I guess that's what you realise when someone dies. That there's not just that one relationship you had with a person, there's those many connections, all unique, that other people had with them, and those connections sometimes tell you a little about your own relationship, reminding you of what that person was like or perhaps why you were friends. That moment when you start to see yourself in some of the descriptions of your friend are when it feels all the more sad, knowing that there was that common element, and yet you weren't there for them when they needed someone.

I was never too clear on whether Chris planned to take his own life, but he died from a combination of medication and alcohol, both which I believe were combating depression. Two of the last things he posted were quotes about the world, one by Oscar Wilde, about the world when viewed when drinking absinthe (containing the line "Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world") and one by Hermann Hesse (“Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours”) and I can only imagine that he had had enough, or suffered enough, that the things he felt were truly of importance weren't there to be had.

I can only hope he drifted away peacefully. Regardless, listening to the last few tunes he posted, all instrumental pieces with titles like 'What Heaven Allows' and 'Shining Through', has me imagining him drifting off to sleep, never to awake.

Learning of David's death, this week, has been something of a reminder of Chris's death. In part it's because we only really spoke over the internet, and I only ever saw his world through the series of pictures he took of friends and locations around the world. But where Chris was often quiet on Facebook, David's life came to life for me through it and his Blog - with regular updates of what he was up to, getting up early in the morning with a cup of coffee, watching the sun rise as he completed a chapter of his latest book, or visiting friends abroad, sharing a drink. Playing Fury of Dracula with his friends. Running the game Yellow Dawn that he wrote, based on the Call of Cthulhu game but mixing in a healthy does of zombie-ravaged post apocalyptic landscape and techno thriller, and, to my delight, writing up a blog entry about a scenario I'd written, which he'd run as a Yellow Dawn adventure. Posts about recent leaps in science that felt slightly cyberpunky, or to art that he found inspiring, or music that he found cool. I was never directly in his life, and yet it felt like I was able to dip into it, like I was a fly on the wall, one that he never felt the need to swat away.

Discovering he had died was a shock because he'd always seemed like he was enjoying life to the fullest. He'd inspired me not only at a distance but through directly enthusing about some of the stuff I'd sent his way, and so I felt there was that cerebral connection. And, much like Chris, who'd been a year old than me (plus a couple of weeks), Dave had been four years older than me (exactly four years, as we share the same birthday). So, whilst there was some distance there - I never made the trip to Bristol I'd hoped to be able to make, and he never made it to my 40th birthday in London, although he'd considered making the trip up - it genuinely felt like he was part of my life. Indeed, he's been someone I've chatted online with fairly regularly online with for around ten years. That's longer than I've known the close friends I regularly meet in London.

I've heard the details of what was going on in David's life from one of the people he introduced me to online (just to confuse matters his name is also Chris) and, again, it's crushingly sad. I've heard not a small number of friends recently admit to anxiety and depression online - David, although I never knew of it from his posts online, and the wealth of material he was putting out into the world, was suffering pretty badly. And, in the end, it was too much. I can only imagine what he was feeling.

Much like Chris, again, it's great to see a wall of posts by the people who knew him better than me, the stories that people have of their first meetings and the real sense of character he had that I never got to see, and I'll always regret not having made more of an effort to travel down to Bristol to have that first encounter of my own. I can't find my earliest messages to him, as they were via a now defunct email account, but I first contacted him about his Yellow Dawn game when I was scouring the internet for material to put on my King in Yellow wiki, and he was generous in sending me a copy of the 1st edition. One of the last exchanges on Facebook Messenger was for a scenario I had offered to write for the game, and after coming up with the idea him messaging an enthusiastic "Yes! Yes! Yes! That's it!"

I never got to see him, so I never got to tell him how much of an inspiration he was, even if I've largely failed to use that inspiration and wrestle it into a successful series of books as he was able to do. David, I admired your attitude to just going out there with your creation and continuing to push it out there, and for showing me an adventurous lifestyle that I was able to live through reading your posts. I loved the way you made every post feel like a personal message, as you slid in on a light beam to share a few words, or an observation, and then zoomed back out again. The actual online conversations we had were great too, and I only wish I'd followed up on some of the things sooner. You'll be greatly missed, but never forgotten.

So. Death, when it comes, looms closest when it strikes those you feel closest to. When it takes those who are strangers, even in a tragedy that takes countless lives, it is a vague shadow, a terrible presence but, like the Paris and New York I know from the screen, somehow unreal. When it pulls away a person who is so closely connected to you, you feel it pulling at your very heart strings. I can't mention the death of friends without mentioning the death last year of someone that many friends took to heart - Terry Pratchett. So many of us connected with the man, who wrote words in fiction that resonated so closely as to mean much more than simple fact does. Whenever I think of the impact his death had on me I feel that, unlike most of the people the world over, Sir Terry was someone who got under my skin. He got inside my head, he shaped my very imagination, in many ways he helped make me who I am today. As any true friend does. With Sir Terry I felt loss at a great mind, but there was some comfort in knowing he'd come so far on his long journey, that he'd done all he felt he could do, and was ready to go. And his legacy was to leave us so many guidebooks to show us points of interest along the way. Some of my friends, it feels, took a shortcut, and maybe didn't get to see all the world has to offer, nor did the world get to see all they had to offer. And the world is all the poorer for it.

As I quoted around the time of Sir Terry's death: “No more words. We know them all, all the words that should not be said. But you have made my world more perfect.”

Thank you, Terry Pratchett. Thank you, Chris. Thank you, David. I can only hope to make other people's lives more perfect in my own way.

The video below is a sad tune I've been listening to over the last week. There have been a few, but this one simply has some sad music, over which a voice over finally talks to us a little, about loss, about grief, about what we think we know. But if you've lost someone recently, it might just break your heart.

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, Month 1

This blog post is about our first session ('January 2016') of the game Pandemic Legacy. There is a brief summary at the beginning of what the game is about. But it's not really a review so much as it's a fictional account of the events that occurred in the game, in order that our players can jump back into the game next time round with a good idea of where it stands, and other people can read and wonder about the stories they could be telling, without getting too bogged down with mechanics (I won't for example, be mentioning every city where a single disease cube turns up). It's also worth pointing out that there ARE spoilers, so if you're planning to play, and have not reached the end of the first month in the game, you'll be ruining a few of the surprises.

Okay then. Pandemic Legacy is a spin-off of the popular co-operative board game Pandemic. The game came in a choice of red or blue box, so you can run two games at the same time, in increasingly divergent world; it's worth noting too that the box in both cases is labeled Season 1, so we can only imagine there will be a second season down the line where the world is shaken anew by a different (but thematically similar) threat.

In brief the Legacy game, like the original version, pits up to four individuals against four diseases that are spreading around the globe. in one way it's very much the reverse of the Plague Inc game that many people have played, and indeed, there's a Pandemic app that lets you play the game, playing four characters at once. In the standard game, however, losing (by one of free ways) means you've failed, the game is over, and you just start your next game afresh, the world restore to it's pre-disease ridden glory.

In Pandemic Legacy, however, events that occur during the game permanently change elements of the game, and when the game ends the world does not entirely reset. Cities that get so disease ridden that the viruses spread to neighbouring cities become unstable, and with increased outbreaks can fall to rioting and worse. Characters caught in one of these cities where a disease has run out of control get scars, psychological scars, that hinder their activities. But, at the end of each game, win or lose, there's the opportunity for characters to earn helpful new abilities from their experiences, to build permanent research stations, to mutate an eradicated disease in a positive way, or to allow some other positive events into the game. Over time the board evolves. It's even possible to have characters lost in action, forever removed from the game.

Our starting group were four characters working for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) - although this isn't specified in the game itself, this is the organisation we started with. In alphabetically order our characters were: Si Baxter (the Di-spatcher), who sits at a computer most of the time arranging additional transportation for the other characters, by flight, ferry or road; Lofanda Cromwell (the Researcher), who meets up with other characters to give them important information; Tallulah Speakeasy (the Medic), who has extra healing powers to combat the diseases and; Jenny Spinning (the Gen-eralist), who just does things super fast and gets to perform an extra action each turn.

Called into the Atlanta office on the Friday 1st January 2016, nursing their New Years Eve hangovers, they receive their first Mission Briefing:

You know the drill. We've got four viruses causing us problems. They seem to be mutating faster than usual - we have someone looking into that. For now, keep it under control as one of them may grow beyond our capabilities. 

Checking the global situation, the troubles seemed to be worse in India, specifically in Kolkata and Chennai, where one (un-named but colour coded black) virus was threaten to outbreak) and around the city of Essen ("Bloody Essen!" exclaimed Tallulah the Medic) where a third virus (colour coded blue). The blue virus had spread further to the east, and reached as far as St. Petersburg, but to not such a terrifying extent. There was news of a third virus in Sao Paulo (colour coded yellow), and a fourth in  Ho Chi Minh City, amongst the islands of the Pacific Rim (colour coded red). A few isolated cases appeared in southern Japan, in central Africa and on the east coast of the United States.

Our plucky Medic raced over to Europe, stopping in Madrid. As Japan began to report further instances of the red virus, Lofonda the Researcher nipped over to Tokyo to help. As Si the Dispatcher checked the monitors that evening, events appeared to be spiraling out of control in Asia. Tehran was reporting an epidemic of the black virus that had first appeared in India, whilst outbreaks were reported in both Kolkata and Chennai and the east coast exploded. Surrounding cities reported infections as the whole country fell victim to the virus, with reports of it surfacing in Hong Kong, Bangkok and Jakarta. Si arranged transport for Tallulah the Medic and Jenny the Generalist to get to Hong Kong. And with three of the team working hard to fight the viruses in the far East, the situation in Essen blew out of control, spreading into the various countries of northern Europe.

As they watched the news reports from their hotel room in Hong Kong, Tallulah muttered "Bloody Essen..."

Jenny the Generalist raced across the northern edge of India, helping where she could, as she tried to reach northern Europe. Tallulah remained in India, helping fight back the viruses to incredible effect, though the cities remain shook up, permanently affected by what they've experienced.

In Ho Chi Minh City the red virus raged, unchecked, so Lofanda the Researcher traveled down from Hong Kong to try to help the locals deal with the problem. With Lofanda focused on the Pacific Rim, Tallulah concentrating on India and Jenny shooting across the map towards northern Europe, other parts of the world were going unchecked. As Lofanda settles in for a long night, and Si the Dispatcher looks for where he needs to be sending people next, news of an epidemic in Bogota, in South America, are reported. With little time to adjust to this new information, the four members of the team receive a Mission Briefing Update:

Worst fears confirmed. The disease…(for reasons listed on the card it was the blue virus that was selected) ...is now classified as "COdA-403a." The cure to COdA can no longer be found using known techniques.

(the game objective now becomes to discover cures for the three diseases we CAN still discover cures for)

"Essen!" Si cried, and then looked in how to best get both the Medic and the Generalist into Europe on the next available flights to deal with the newly mutated COdA strain. He then arranged a third flight to get himself to Ho Chi Minh City, to pick up some valuable research from the Researcher.
With the dawn rising on a new day news came in of increasing numbers of infected in Chennai. But worse was yet to come. Having barely arrived in Essen, Tallulah found the COdA virus has spread even further across northern Europe and in Essen, where things had been getting increasingly worse for some time, people were rioting. Flights in and out of the city were canceled. Jenny, in St. Petersburg, found that the events in Essen had had a knock on effect here, and pushed on through, spreading further east to Moscow, even as the transport the Dispatcher had arranged had been carrying her the other way. "Bloody Essen!" snapped Jenny, with the realisation of how bad things had got.

Jenny and Tallulah raced around Europe, keeping COdA in check, but as they did this, and Lofanda and Si remained in Ho Chi Minh City, events were raging out of control in South America. As Bogata remained unvisited by the desperate team, despite warnings by the Medic, a further outbreak spread from it across much of the continent and up through Central America. South Japan was reporting the highest levels seen so far of the un-named red virus that had originated in the Pacific Rim, but almost simultaneously Si, having picked up important details from Lofanda, flew back to the States, and made it to the Atlanta research station where the CDC were able to devise a cure for it. 

A brief interlude had our researchers heeding the warning of a mysterious voice speaking of a world where New York was rioting and there had been multiple outbreaks of disease ravaging South America (in reality this news from the Blue Box game that had ended badly in the neighbouring room).

Upon the visitation vanishing all eyes turned to South America, as the virus got worse in Sao Paulo, and spread out further across South America, almost as if prophesied. Bogota, under an influx of diseased travelers, fell to rioting. "Nooo!" cried Lofanda, seeing watching the news in her Ho Chi Minh City hotel as the team realised they'd not managed to achieve our objectives. They'd spent  maybe the best part of a week racing around the globe, and yet they'd not managed to get to all fur corners of the map. The Medic, safe in Milan, nevertheless shook her head, as she'd being saying all along they needed to get down there, to sort the problem out.

With Botaga and Essen rioting, the team were called back to Atlanta, to lick their wounds, and consider the situation anew. The Medic spent time online establishing Local Connections, so that when she is traveling the world she can get locals to travel to neighbouring cities with the required medical aid. Meanwhile the Dispatcher updated his computer software in order to have a method of better Forecasting where the infections would resurface. The Generalist had other important things to work on, and so the Scientist Carlos Edam was called in to replace her. By mid January the team was assembled in Atlanta once more, seeing how the world had changed whilst left in the hands of local healthcare workers.

Some things never change, it seems. Chennai, where the black disease had thrived before, was once more ravaged by victims of the insidious un-named virus. Riyrdh, which had not suffered terribly at the beginning of January was now gripped by the black virus. Tokyo and its surroundings was now suffering from the red virus that had previously held sway over the southern tip of Japan. Tehran, which had previously suffered an epidemic, was again reporting high numbers of sufferers, whilst COdA had begun to surface in London and Chicago. San Francisco had some reports of COdA surfacing too, and there were reports of some  minor activity from the yellow virus in Africa. Though Chennai was the main harbour of disease in India there had also been reports in Karachi.

The objectives remained the same, to seek a cure for the three weaker diseases, and to keep COdA in check.

Si the Dispatcher checked to see where there was a probability of viruses appearing, and Johannesburg and Los Angeles were flagged up. He then arranged transport to get Carlos the Scientist to Milan, and then have Tallulah the Medic join him there. Whilst they'd be concentrating initially on the diseases in the Middle East and India, as they crossed the map, their presence in Europe would mean that they could keep an eye on COdA there. Si was pretty much convinced that he'd be spending the rest of the month in North America, preventing the incurable disease from getting out of control there.

Over the following day Carlos oversaw the construction of a research station in Milan, then traveled to London in the evening, via Paris. "We'll be relying on you to keep London safe," Si said to the Scientist, whilst the team where on a conference call, adding, as an afterthought "From the rioters of Essen."

As night set on Europe, a new threat was rising in the east, as an epidemic broke in Shanghai. In Riyrdh meanwhile, the existing situation had grown work, and an outbreak spread east into India and west into Africa, and threatened Baghdad to the north. In the light of a new day Tallulah raced into the Middle East to mobilise locals into helping fight back the black virus. Si meanwhile arranged for some remote treatment to be dropped into Shangai and Chennai, to keep them from causing further outbreaks. Lofanda traveled out to Tokyo, to help fight back the virus there. Even as she did so, the disease was spreading once more in Shangai, an outbreak kept at bay by the last minute medicine supplied to the city.

The Dispatcher helped get the Medic a little further east, to Tehran, before dealing with an appearance of COdA in Chicago. The Scientist mopped up some cases of COdA in London, just before further cases were reported there, as well as further cases of the black virus in Chennai. The Medic continued to continue eastwards, getting as far as Kolkata, healing people on the way. The Researcher is still present in Tokyo, as more cases appear there, that would've caused a serious outbreak had the Lofanda not already been there and working with local healthcare. Lofanda continued her work before a flight back to San Francisco, to fight the slow spread of COdA on North America's west coast.

As she settled in at San Francisco that evening, news spread of a new epidemic, this time in St. Petersburg. Carlos raced there from London to deal with it, whilst Si concentrated on the North American cities. Tallulah continued moving eastward, and into Shanghai, where she was able to heal all cases of the red virus. Awakening in San Francisco Lofanda moved back across the Pacific to Tokyo, to help there. During the various journeys she had been able to work on a lot of research into the red and yellow viruses, which she hoped to get to Carlos in Europe quickly. Si arranged transport for both of them to convene in Milan, where the research station waited for them. Carlos accepted some of the research and finds a cure for the yellow disease.

With the new found cure, Tallulah was able to fly direct to Khartoum, and concentrated on removing traces of the yellow virus, having first cleared the map of the last traces of the red virus in Tokyo.  With Carlos close to curing the red virus, it looked as if the two diseases might be eradicated completely. Lofanda continued to treat victims of COdA in Europe, whilst Si treated victims of the yellow virus in Los Angeles, but before the red virus could be wiped out completely, it surfaced once more in Tokyo.

"It's not the end of the world," Carlos stated, before adding "Yet." In Milan he revealed to the world his cure for the red disease.

Tallulah spent the next day traveling into the Middle East to heal victims of the black virus. Si, temporarily relocated to Los Angeles, found COdA spreading in his absence further inland, including a full outbreak in Chicago. Si flew Tallulah down to Lima, where she was able to remove signs of the virus from Santiago too. Still, there was a desperate need to provide a cure for the black virus. The group has a brief conference call to decide whether they would take a little time out to concentrate on eradicating the yellow or red disease, naming one of them and working on methods to make it easier to defeat further down the line. Eventually though they decided to crack down on the black virus, to tackle it before something new appeared somewhere unexpected and, with vital information, Si flew out to Paris and then drove down to Algiers. Carlos drove down to meet him, whilst Tallulah used government funding to arrange for a research station to be built there. By the end of the day the station had been built, and the black virus had been cured.

The team, this time, had won. With their success they established a permanent research station at Algiers, just outside the blue Eurozone that would likely see more trouble with COdA and then helped get the Dispatcher a qualification as a Pilot (or else he now has his own personal Pilot to run errands for him), in order to help him move other players around the world without using up valuable research.

And so, we begin the next month with Essen (bloody Essen!) and Bogata dealing with riots. Chicago, Sao Paula, St Petersburg, Riyrdh, Kolkata and Chennai are all unstable, which means they're closer to rioting than any other city, but otherwise are fine. The whole region around the Pacific Rim, where the red virus continually flourishes, is so far holding fast against the menace of the viruses and refuses to acknowledge any weakness.

It's unknown when exactly we'll be playing 'February 2016', but hopefully it'll be before ACTUAL February 2016. Watch this space.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

New York, New York

First morning awakening in New York. Out our window is the start of the Williamsburg Bridge, so close it obscures the view of anything bar the people/cyclists/cars and trains crossing it below our room. And yet surprisingly quiet, so I've slept well.

We flew into JFK, on a journey that was beautifully sunny, reaching the American coastline somewhere around New England and following it south. As we came down to land the individual houses below, set apart from each other and constructed of wooden timbers painted white and so different from the bunched up houses and streets of the UK, immediately set the scene. Stepping off the plane we were greater with warm air, and as we got our cab into the city the colours in the late day Sun seemed a little brighter, the air cleaner, the colours brighter. I have my honeymoon head on, I know, but it was lovely to be greater by such good weather.

As we finally approached the city the iconic skyline was backed by an incredible sunset. Photos taken on my phone from a moving taxi didn't do it a great deal of justice and, to be honest, I think by the time I considered taking a photo after just soaking up the visual effect I'd maybe have missed the best opportunity. I figure people know what the skyline of New York looks like, or can at least identify the Empire State and Chrystler buildings, but seeing the icons in real life, lit up against a darkening orange and pink dusk, there was no way I'd capture that moment so gave up trying to line up a blurry image through my camera phone and enjoyed the view unobscured.

Crossing over the water into the city proper, the sky now a deep blue, we sat in traffic for another 10-20 minutes, stll afforded glimpses of a much closer skyline and potential photo opportunities as we crept along the bridge. Although the city felt much more like London than the general American landscape represents the British one, the soundtrack of passing radio stations, most noteably the sounds of US radio hosts, immediately reminded we were in this strange fascinating world I've only really witnessed in film, TV and games like GTA before. It didn't take long to aclimbatise, but it's impossible to escape the sensation of being in a world I've spent 40 years only witnessing on a screen, a world that's pretty much been peopled by fictional characters. In many ways it's like stepping into a modern day fairy tale, allowing for the fact I always knew these tales had a real world grounding.

After watching Neil Patrick Harris presenting a show modelled so much on Saturday Night Takeaway that Ant and Dec appeared in it (but so much better because, hell, Neil Patrick Harris) we spent the evening wandering, trying to keep awake in order to better. Carol showed me the area she used to work in, and walked us up Wall Street, then after a quick bite to eat in a TGI Friday (suspicially quiet for a Friday Night) we headed back to the waterfront from where could see the Statue of Liberty. We walked around a bit more - it's greener and feels more open than I was expecting, with the sounds of crickets coming from every bush or shrub - and then got a taxi back with a driver with no idea where we were going. One thing that I noticed, something I've read about, and seen depicted in New York inspired art and photography, is the constant desire to just look upwards at the building. Apparently looking upward is a really touristy thing to do, but it's difficult not to constantly look up in awe.

Having a lazy morning so far. I have to say, American ads are pretty damn cool.

Will try to upload some pictures today. We forgot to pick up plug adaptors at the airport, so had to buy some whilst we were out in order to recharge our phones (we didn't get the chance on the plane). I imagine we'll look super touristy.