American Horror Story: Roanoke – why the world needs Delta Green

American Horror Story: Roanoke – why the world needs Delta Green

I’ve just watched American Horror Story: Roanoke on Netflix, and it turns out it’s a great example of the vital importance of the work of conspiracy groups in fiction, like Delta Green or Torchwood or the Sleepers from Unknown Armies, whose job is to make sure that no one ever finds out about ghosts or aliens or whatever.

In the modern world, the supernatural must be covered up, for the safety of the public. Roanoke demonstrates this by making a single supernatural phenomenon famous.

In true American Horror Story tradition, it leads to a hell of a lot of deaths. As any agent of Delta Green can tell you, deaths draw attention.

 

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

 

Since the colonial era, the Butcher and her associated ghosts killed a few people every few years. It was a remote area of North Carolina, so no one really paid much attention, and things ticked over without much attention. Even the police investigation of the ‘MURDE’ nurses and their old people’s home was just a passing incidence.

However, the modern day changed that.

Shelby, Matt, Lee and Flora weren’t the first people to survive the Blood Moon at the Roanoke house. Edward Mott’s lover escaped alive (as did, technically, all those house servants that Mott locked in the storm cellar – it would have taken them a while to starve to death). The author Elias Cunningham, whose Blair Witch videos Shelby discovered, also escaped the house alive (on that occasion at least).

Nevertheless, none of these previous escapes drew extensive attention to the house.

However, this time, the Millers’ experience was dramatised for television. My Roanoke Nightmare became a hit TV show with a massive following online. Add in speculation over whether Lee murdered her husband or not, and it more or less guaranteed someone would go there the next year, rather than the house being left empty for a few years or decades, as per usual.

Year One deaths: 4 – Mason Harris, Cain Polk, Elias Cunningham and Cricket Marlowe the small medium.

 

The second year of the show’s events saw the house host season two of My Roanoke Nightmare, as well as Agnes Mary Winstead, the unhinged actress who’d played the Butcher in season one, plus the three superfans. If My Roanoke Nightmare hadn’t been made, the only person in that house would have been Matt, who would have gone back to be with the witch Scathach, who he’d fallen in love with. Matt probably wouldn’t even have died, as Scathach clearly had a bit of a thing for him, or if he had it would have been voluntary, so that they could be together forever. Instead, the death toll went up massively.

Year Two deaths: 19 – Three members of the Polk family, Shelby and Matt Miller, the actors who played the Millers, Lee, Edward Mott, the Butcher and the Butcher’s son in season one, four members of the production team, three superfans and an unlucky rigger with a chainsaw.

 

In the third year, it gets even worse. To begin with, there was the unspecified number of the deaths caused during Lot Polk’s shooting spree (it was good to see Lana Winters again though, wasn’t it?). Even though this happened away from the house, they were a direct revenge attack based on the events of the second year’s Blood Moon. Year two’s massacre and the publicity (and money) surrounding it draws in the Spirit Chasers TV show, before escalating into a fully-fledged siege.

And then there’s another ghost massacre, broadcast live on the news, just after the season end credits start to roll

Year Three deaths: lots, but only 12 are shown on screen – Lot Polk, that production assistant we see him kill, all three presenters of Spirit Chasers, each of which had their own camera operator, the actor who played Cricket Marlowe in My Roanoke Nightmare, two cops investigating the Spirit Chasers team’s trespass on private property, and Lee Harris… and many, if not all, of the people still on the site at the end of the episode as the ghosts close in.

 

And what happens next? The Masquerade has been well and truly breached. American Horror Story: Coven may well have ended with its witches going public, but that could easily be dismissed as a hoax or forgotten about. This is live-broadcast footage of bullet-proof and, in some cases, clearly inhuman ghosts butchering police officers and TV journalists. There’ll be news stories for weeks, lawsuits from family members of the dead Spirit Chasers, congressional hearings, conspiracy theories, more adrenaline-hungry ghost hunters and, don’t forget, Lot Polk was a redneck whose family prominently displayed the Confederate battle flag at their home and on their vehicles, and who was shot dead on live television while trying to kill an African-American woman with an AR-15, having previously posted on Youtube his intent to do just that.

Unless Scathach and the Butcher are somehow magically put down (the witches from Coven, perhaps?), things are just going to get worse. The destruction of the house isn’t an end to the haunting, since the ghosts have haunted this area since long before Mott built it.

 

Meanwhile, Delta Green would have pulled strings to ensure that My Roanoke Nightmare was never made, even if that involved sabotage, blackmail of Sidney James or, as a last resort, discreetly force-feeding an entire bottle of sleeping pills down the throats of one or more of the traumatised survivors, all of whom had mental health problems or, in Matt’s case, a brain injury. The network pulls the show before it’s ever broadcast. Lee is never prosecuted for the murder of Mason and she disappears from public view or interest.

Finally, Delta Green buys the land through a CIA shell company, demolishes the house to ensure no one even attempts to move in there, and probably quietly eliminates the Polk family (who no one, other than the people they grew marijuana for, would really miss, and they’re not likely to cause a fuss).

Problem solved with minimal fatalities or public exposure and, since the Butcher has got the privacy she so desires, zero risk of escalation

Advertisements

Review – Pandorax

Review – Pandorax

I recently read two Warhammer 40,000 novels, Pandorax by C.Z. Dunn, and The Horusian Wars: Resurrection, by John French. The Black Library is often a gamble in terms of quality, particularly when you’re trying something by an author you’ve not read before. Both of these authors were new to me (aside from a John French short story I’ve read, but can’t quite remember, from an anthology).

Today, I’m going to do Pandorax. I’ll have a go at Resurrection on another day because I got carried away writing this and ran out of time.

One of these books is a great example of how to do a tie-in novel. The other is a great example of how not to do a tie-in novel.

This is a review of the latter.

 

Pandorax (C. Z. Dunn, 2013)

Pandorax is one of the Space Marine Battles series of books, which is a series I’ve dodged because it sounds as if someone at the Black Library said, “You know how everyone criticises our Space Marine novels as being bolter-porn? Well, what if we do a series that’s entirely bolter-porn?” That might be unfair. Like I say, I’ve avoided the Space Marine Battles series.

As well as being part of a series of books that doesn’t inspire confidence in those seeking good plot and characterisation, Pandorax is also a tie-in to the Apocalypse War Zone: Pandorax setting book for the 40k wargame’s ‘buy as many cool models as possible, line them all up in their deployment zones, and then remove most of them in turn one’ Apocalypse variant. (Back in my day, if you really wanted Titans and aircraft and tank companies on the battlefield, you played in 6mm epic-scale and actually had space on the tabletop to manoeuvre your troops.) In other words, Pandorax is one of those Black Library novels that, rather than just trying to sell the wargame setting in general, is specifically milking a recent release.

Those were my two main concerns going into the book: Battle Bro bolter-fests and ‘If you enjoyed this novel, maybe remortgage your house for this other book and loads of plastic soldiers and tanks.’ The former wasn’t so much of a hindrance to the story. The latter… was.

Pandorax starts out from the points of view of some Catachan Jungle Fighters and a reasonably nicely-drawn Inquisitorial retinue. (One of them is a traitor. Slight spoiler: it’s the one who’s a horrible person… Really? That’s the one the author picked? In the Inquisition, you shouldn’t beware the nice ones?) I really liked this segment of the story. There was a nice exploration of Catachan culture that I personally haven’t seen before, as well as a characterful depiction of the deathworld of Pythos. (Confusingly, and in contradiction to most systems portrayed in Warhammer 40,000, the Pandorax system and its primary inhabited world have completely different names.)

Things happen, Chaos turns up, someone turns traitor, and Rambo-style Catachan badassery ensues. This section of the story went well, although the abilities of the Catachans seems overstated. When Gaunt’s Ghosts go up against traitor Marines in Dan Abnett’s work, it’s always an effort to take down a single one of the superhumans. Here, Plague Marines fall like Star Wars stormtroopers, having apparently forgotten that they have enhanced hearing and centuries of combat experience. Catachans are badass guerilla warriors, but they’re still only human. They shouldn’t be slaughtering Astartes quite so easily, or silently.

Anyway, once Chaos arrives, the plot becomes a race to get the Inquisitorial team’s astropath to the capital so that they can send a request for reinforcements off-world, all of Pythos’ astropaths having been killed by sorcery early in the invasion. (I would remark on how contrived it was that they had an astropath on their team, but it’s a pretty common trope of the setting that Inquisitors like to have their own private psychic emailer.)

During this section, we spend a lot of time with Inquisitorial agent Tzula Digriiz (a black female protagonist – how often do you see those in science fiction, let alone Games Workshop science fiction?) and Colonel ‘Death’ Strike of the 183rd Catachan Regiment and various of their comrades and companions.

Tzula is a nice character. And by nice, I mean she’s actually a good guy. She’s a professional thief recruited to the Inquisition, but as much as I like her, she doesn’t feel like a member of an organisation that has the legal right and ability to commit genocide against its own side if it’s in the best interests of the Imperium. She possesses the McGuffin upon which the entire story hinges. She also gets a pretty good payoff at the end of the story, and (without spoilering) I think she’s the best Inquisition agent for that job. Certainly, she’d never make a good Inquisitor anyway.

Colonel ‘Death’ Strike’s main defining characteristic is that he has a goddamn stupid nickname, which he got early in his career, because the only thing those who fight against him have to hope for is… death. Really? Seriously? Who wrote this, a 12-year-old who thought he was being cool? Of the millions of soldiers that Catachan has given to the Imperium, he’s the one who gets the nickname of ‘Death’? Or is there a guy called ‘Death’ in every other squad, who fights alongside ‘Killer’ and ‘Knifeman’ and ‘Shadow Stalker’ and ‘Two Guns’ (who fights with two guns akimbo because it’s cool)? He doesn’t have much else in the way of personality, beyond being a kind commander who looks after his men. Unfortunately, this is an Apocalypse tie-in, so even when he’s leading a guerilla war against the invaders, he’s doing it with the most un-Catachanny of fighting methods, a super-heavy tank. A goddamn tank the size of a building, that can be heard from a mile away, is armed with ordnance that can be heard from even further, and is available as a plastic kit from Games Workshop. There is a nice touch that the Inquisitorial team included a Jokaero alien, who falls in love with the tank and starts tinkering with it. Unfortunately, the author gets carried away and decides that Jokaero abilities are so awesome (to be fair, they are, but not this awesome) that a tank that normally moves at 20-30 miles per hour is suddenly capable of 200 miles per hour. This is on a jungle deathworld not noted for its road network.

I’ve just realised… ‘Death’ Strike isn’t a character in the grimdark of Warhammer 40,000. He’s a supporting character from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

The good guy Space Marines, around whom the entire Battles series is based, don’t actually show up until reasonably late in the story, but when they do, it’s in the form of the entire Dark Angels Chapter, all one thousand of them, and a bunch of Grey Knights. Because all the Dark Angels are there, that means all the named characters from the tabletop game are there, along with Dark Angels characters from other novels. Also, Supreme Grand Master Azrael is an arse. He’s a complete and utter arse. Some reviews I’ve seen of this book don’t like that revelation. I don’t know if it marries up with other portrayals of the character in other books, but I like that one of our shining heroes of the Imperium, available from Games Workshop Mail Order, complete with Watcher in the Dark Helmet Bearer(tm), is a git. The supreme boss guy of the Grey Knights turns up as well, and there’s a bit of friction because the Grey Knights don’t trust the Dark Angels and the Dark Angels are scared that the Grey Knights will find out their secrets. (Spoiler: they already know.)

It’s around the time of the Space Marines arriving that the story on Pythos ceases to be interesting. Oh look, Abaddon and Huron Blackheart are sort-of allies. That’s nice, but has no real bearing on events. As much as I like the Red Corsairs, Huron could have been left out of the story. Everything he provides to Abaddon is something that Abaddon could plausibly have already had in his arsenal.

This being an Apocalypse and Space Marine Battles tie-in, everything degenerates into massive battles. Even the finale of the story takes place in the middle of a pitched battle of hundreds of thousands of combatants. There are two problems with this.

Firstly, the author can’t really write large battles (even if the smaller guerilla actions of the early book were pretty decent). They all seem to be Hollywood-style, in which two armies line up and attack each other until one side is wiped out. And yet, despite the vast amount of ordnance and the tightly packed bodies of the troops, named characters are still running around and not being blown to pieces. It turns out that even the sneak thief Tzula is such a badass that she can run around alongside Space Marines and not get hacked to bits by the kinds of things they face.

Secondly, and most egregiously, the large battles scream, “WE ARE GAMES WORKSHOP AND YOU MUST BUY OUR MODELS!!!!” Every hideous daemon that materialises from the Warp, despite the infinite variety of Chaos, is one of those found in the Codex: Chaos Daemons army list. Every Imperial vehicle is named by its model name, rather than by its general type (e.g. ‘Leman Russ Demolisher’ rather than ‘siege tank’). Every single Space Marine squad is available as a boxed set. Every single regiment of Imperial Guardsmen present on Pythos has a model range behind it. How boring. Characters do reference other regiments that aren’t in the order of battle, but they also have model ranges. In the million worlds of the Imperium, our characters only know the ones whose tithed troops are for sale in your local Games Workshop store? All of the large battles seem to have been written with the primary aim of being scenarios for apocalypse-scale games of Warhammer 40,000.

Aside from the plot and merchandising, the actual writing style of the novel was pretty poor. It wasn’t as bad as, say, Twilight or anything by Dan Brown, but I was still halting after reading sentences and thinking about how I could have written that sentence so much better. There were cool things that happened that were utterly ridiculous, even within the heroic grimdark of 40k.

Here’s an example: one of the defining character moments of Shira, a viewpoint character who’s a hotshot space fighter pilot, is when she deliberately sets of a sonic boom in a hangar bay because she’s annoyed at the officer who reprimanded her for not wearing regulation uniform and then sentenced her to a fortnight in the brig when she comes back from the mission she’s about to go on. She’s a maverick, see, who plays by her own rules and won’t let anyone tell her… wait, what? This is the Imperial Navy. She just caused severe damage to a launch bay on one of the God-Emperor’s own voidships, as well as to the hearing of every person in the immediate vicinity. While they’re engaged in battle. That fortnight in the brig should have been escalated to immediate summary execution and no one in-setting would have batted an eyelid.

(Disclaimer: I’m an unpublished author, bitterly so at times, and it bugs me to read prose that is inferior to my own.)

Fortunately, everyone who knew that Shira is a saboteur and traitor dies shortly afterwards, so the author gets to keep her in the story.

I mentioned diversity earlier. She’s part of the gender diversity of the characters. There are a few others, including passing references to female soldiers among the Catachans. I have a big issue with the racial and gender issues in Games Workshop’s settings (I’ve ranted about it before – though apparently not on this blog). The Black Library is getting a lot better at gender balancing its casts, so long as you ignore Space Marines, who are canonically all male, but every time they do a good job, it throws the actual miniature ranges into stark relief. There have probably been less than a dozen female Imperial Guard models released by Games Workshop in the past thirty years, and yet the Black Library regularly includes women amongst the Imperial Guard’s ranks. And as for the new Primaris range of Space Marines missing the opportunity for female Astartes…

Anyway, I’ll grant Pandorax the credit that my initial recommender gave it for diversity, but overall, it’s still an example of how not to write a tie-in novel. The Black Library has released several series of novels that are amazing. The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition tie-ins were great, as were The Ambassador Chronicles. The Eisenhorn trilogy is still one of my favourites, such that I recently bought the 15th anniversary special editions. The Gaunt’s Ghosts and Ciaphas Cain series are rightly renowned amongst Black Library fans, and the epic Horus Heresy series has thrown us some amazing tales of tragedy from Dan Abnett, Aaron Dembski-Bowden and others (although with a few stinkers from other authors, to be fair). Sadly, this isn’t one of the Black Library’s high points. Although it has its moments, it feels like it was written to order with the instruction to include a checklist of canon characters, events and products. There’s nothing wrong with writing to order, but the finished product shouldn’t feel like it was written to order.

It’s a good job that I’ve given up on ever being published by Games Workshop because C.Z. Dunn, author of Pandorax, is actually one of the Black Library’s senior editors…

 

Game of Thrones – Hope Like Hell Your Captor is Evil

Game of Thrones – Hope Like Hell Your Captor is Evil

I’ve been running a deadpool at work for the current season of Game of Thrones. Basically, people pick one or more named characters, pay £1 per character into the pool, and if one of their picks is the first to die, they get the entire pool.

Surprisingly, episode three has just ended and no one has won yet.

It was a difficult decision with this episode, because…

Wait one moment. Spoiler warning. Stop reading if you’ve not seen the episode yet.

Really, if you’re still reading this post, you only have yourself to blame.

One of my players had whatserface as one of their picks.

You know, her. Thingy. Whatserface. Pretty, Dornish, mostly pointless as a character, not stuck on the front of a ship?

That’s it: Tyene, apparently. (Thanks, Google.)

Unfortunately, one of my players picked her after last week, having correctly predicted that Cersei would target her, rather than Ellaria Sand, as vengeance for Ellaria’s murder of Myrcella. This led to a tricky quandary. Tyene was poisoned, supposedly with the same substance that killed Myrcella. I personally think that we’ll not see her alive again. However, she didn’t die on screen.

I wrote a few rules for the Deadpool of Thrones when I started it: “Flashbacks, bodies found long after death, weird mystical crow visions count in the order they’re broadcast, not when they occurred in-setting! If your character later comes back from the dead, but was actually definitely dead as far as the audience of that episode is concerned, it still counts.”

Tyene is likely to fall into the ‘bodies found long after death’ category, presumably the next time we see (an extremely traumatised) Ellaria Sand, but she’s not there yet. Ergo, she didn’t count as a death for the purposes of the game.

No one picked Olenna Tyrell, but then, no one really expected her to snuff it, least of all Olenna Tyrell. I’m glad of this, because (perhaps controversially) I’d say her death would have counted, despite the scene in which she was poisoned also ending with her still breathing.

For me, it all comes down to the nature of the poisoner.

Game of Thrones is fond of drawing comparisons between characters within an episode. In this case, the Lannister twins each killed a prisoner using poison, but the way it happened was completely different. In his Discworld novel, Men at Arms, Terry Pratchett wrote:

If a man has you entirely at his mercy, then hope like hell that man is an evil man. Because the evil like power, power over people, and they want to see you in fear. They want you to know you’re going to die. So they’ll talk. They’ll gloat.

They’ll watch you squirm. They’ll put off the moment of murder like another man will put off a good cigar.

So hope like hell your captor is an evil man. A good man will kill you with hardly a word.

Now, Jaime Lannister is not a conventionally good person, what with various murders and that time he pushed a child out of a window to cover up his incestuous affair with Cersei, but he’s still got a sense of honour and has been gradually developing a sort of decency since he hung out with that proper example of knightly chivalry, Brienne. He makes sure the poison he brings to Olenna Tyrell is painless and quick. When Olenna admitted to poisoning Joffrey in a very brutal fashion, I half-expected him to pull out his dagger and stab her to death out of anger, but he kept his word. He leaves the room to give her privacy to die, but Olenna, it is safe to say, is definitely dead.

Conversely, Cersei is evil. Her only redeeming features were her genuine love for her children, and the fact that she brought 67% of them up to become lovely human beings. As each of them has died off, and particularly since Tommen’s… uh… vertical abdication, she’s become soulless. Being evil, Cersei doesn’t even kill her actual enemy, instead promising to keep Ellaria alive, but murdering someone else instead. She poisons Tyene as vengeance for Ellaria doing the same to Myrcella. Cersei promises that the death could take a few hours, or it could be drawn out for weeks, and she’s going to leave the daughter to decompose in the cell occupied by her mother.

But she’s not dead yet, and Ellaria isn’t going to die for a very long time, because Cersei is evil.

What if Yara or someone else rescues Tyene and her mother? What if we see Tyene in a later episode, coughing up blood but still clinging onto life? What if there was never any poison and it was a cruel bluff by Cersei to torture both Dornishwomen?

Personally, I think Tyene’s had it. The Sand Snakes hardly served a narrative purpose in the show (and I barely remember them from the books, though the Dorne sequence completely failed to grab me when I read it) and it was obvious that the only reason she survived the battle at sea to be captured alongside Ellaria was for something more ghastly to happen to her later on.

My money is on Tyene being a corpse the next time we see her. So long as no one else croaks first, that would count as a win for the deadpool.

Ellaria though? As Cersei once said:

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”

Olenna Tyrell lost. Fortunately for Ellaria Sand, Cersei is evil.

 

 

Game of Thrones: Thoughts on Thoros of Myr

Game of Thrones: Thoughts on Thoros of Myr
Game of Thrones Warning – if you haven’t seen the first episode of season seven, look away now…
 
….
….
“You’re not fooling anyone with that topknot.”
 
The relationship between Sandor Clegane and Thoros of Myr is interesting, to say the least. I’ve just encountered some criticism online that the Hound’s vision in the flames doesn’t feel like Game of Thrones.
 
But… but… the exact same situation occurred a few seasons ago with Stannis and Melisandre. She used her magic, or acted as a conduit for the Lord of Light, maybe, to show him a vision in the flames. It was a major part of the tragedy that was Stannis’ character arc.
 
The Red Priests do this thing where they latch onto someone they see as critical to the future and guide them. Kinvara is doing a similar thing, albeit more at an arm’s length, with Daenerys, by preaching about her across Essos. Of course, it was Melisandre’s guidance that led Stannis to his death, but she was trying it again with Jon Snow until Davos called her out for murdering Shireen. It’ll be interesting to see where she shows up next in the series – perhaps at Dragonstone to adopt Daenerys, or maybe at King’s Landing to adopt Queen Firestarter herself, who’s already made mortal enemies of anyone who follows the Seven?
 
Thoros is doing this ‘trusted advisor’ thing with the Hound, and has also been doing it with Beric Dondarrion as well. He may not be as cold and ruthless about it as Melisandre, and he may have developed a far more humane outlook on life since he wound up with the Brotherhood Without Banners, but he’s still a devout Red Priest of the Lord of Light and he’s still working towards the same goal as Melisandre – the eventual defeat of the ‘darkness’ (presumably The Night King).
 
Game of Thrones is well onto the closing arc of its story, and narrative tropes that seemed to be consistently averted in earlier seasons (if you judge each season as a standalone piece, rather than as chapters in a larger book) are coming back into play.
 
Narratively, Sandor Clegane/The Hound still has an important role in the story. No one has more narrative right to kill Gregor Clegane/The Mountain than he does, not least for Gregor being the one who held his little brother’s face into a fire. Sandor’s pyrophobia has been a constant part of the character (remember what prompted his desertion at Blackwater?), and was flagged up again during the scene in which he has his vision. To close that arc, he’ll have to kill Gregor.
 
And how will anyone (Jaime, for example) kill Cersei without the Mountain being out of the way?
 
Cersei needs removing before the Seven Kingdoms can defend themselves against the Night King, because she’s threatening war against the North, which is where the battle with the White Walkers is going to happen. Thus, it serves the Lord of Light for her to be defeated. (And if Melisandre gets another karmic comeuppance for siding with the wrong monarch and helping bring them to their doom by isolating them from any allies they might have, all the better.)

Fantasy Worldbuilding: Why Khorne Should Die

Fantasy Worldbuilding: Why Khorne Should Die

I’ve been thinking recently about the way that gods of war turn up in miniature wargaming settings, and why that’s often a pretty bad idea. (This article is geared towards the needs of a miniature wargame setting, but may provide food for thought for aspiring fantasy authors and roleplayers as well.)

Most fantasy worlds are polytheistic, usually with actual literal deities involved. Why? Because polytheism’s different from our own traditionally monotheistic culture, and so it’s exotic and interesting. Add in the needs of a wargame and you’ve got another layer: variety.

Religion is a great way of a) theming an army of little plastic or metal soldiers, and b) a great excuse to pit against another army of little plastic or metal soldiers. It’s simpler than coming up with complex socio-economic or political reasons why Faction A is fighting against Faction B. This is particularly the case with bad guys. Fantasy loves its evil gods as a motivation for why a particular faction consistently does horrible things. “Yes, I shall ravage your cities and put all your people to the sword because we’d quite like a bit more land on which to graze our cattle, muwahahahahaaaa!” isn’t exactly the most villainous proclamation ever.

Going back to the title, Why Khorne Should Die, the four Chaos Powers of the Warhammer settings are essentially avatars of humanity’s dark primal instincts. In the case of Khorne, it’s war, anger, rage and assorted other reasons to hit someone with an axe. As such, the followers of Khorne are generally warriors. So far, so good.

However, Tzeentch, the Chaos god of change, magic, mutation, and the entropic impermanence of everything also exists, and (because this is a wargame) has to have its own armies.

Likewise, Nurgle, who specialises in disease, decay and mortality, and Slaanesh, who deals in sex, drugs and rock and roll, both reflect aspects related to stuff other than straight-up hack-and-slash bloodshed, and yet (because this is a wargame) have to have their own armies.

In a roleplaying setting (which exists in the currently out-of-print Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the five Warhammer 40,000 RPG lines), this varied approach to evil can be reflected in very different ways: Nurgle cultists poison wells or break plague quarantines, Tzeentchian sorcerers summon daemons or cause babies to be born with mutations, and servants of Slaanesh tempt the devout into sin and debauchery.

On the battlefield though, it essentially boils down to killing stuff. You can add flavours to it, through the use of themed magic spells or Nurgle biological weapons or special rules or signature units for each god, but ultimately each Chaos Power looks pretty similar on the field.

A certain logical flaw with all this came to mind when I was painting my fallen dwarf army for Dragon Rampant recently. The general gist of the army is that this dwarven clan had started praying to certain ‘Deep Gods’ who were remarkably similar to the Warhammer Chaos Powers, and were a nasty, corrupt society as a result. Every now and then, I’ve painted a mark of Chaos onto a model’s armour, shield or as a tattoo. However, this was almost always the Mark of Khorne. The only exceptions are for the army sorcerers, who bear the Mark of Tzeentch. Nurgle and Slaanesh didn’t get a look in, because there were no appropriate models for it. Why not?

Because they’re soldiers. These models are soldiers who are on campaign. They live in a polytheistic society and so the primary subject of their devotion at the moment is to the god that helps them kill stuff. Maybe when the soldier goes home, takes off his helmet, and decides to start a family, he’ll pray to Slaanesh that he’ll be good at it, to Tzeentch that he can create new life, and to Nurgle that the child is healthy, but for now, he just wants to not die on the battlefield.

Even if you argue that many or most Chaos worshippers are full-time devotees of a particular god, that counts against armies of Slaanesh, Tzeentch and Nurgle being a thing. Chaos tends to fight among itself as much as against other factions, and Khorne, specialising in warfare, would stamp out any uppity followers of the other powers because that’s just the kind of people they are. Dedicated warriors of Khorne don’t sit down and read books or experiment with heroin or deliberately infect themselves with plague as part of their religious devotions; they slaughter people. As such, they’re better at it. If you wanted to fight for the rest of your life as a warrior of Chaos, you’d devote yourself to Khorne, because that deity more represents the kind of monster that you are.

As a result, Khorne is the one with the best armies. But they’re really, really, boring armies. Nurgle gets biological weapons, Tzeentch gets its sorcerers and Slaanesh gets (in Warhammer 40,000 at least) heavy metal sonic weaponry. Khorne gets axes. That’s it. The bigger the warrior, the bigger the axe. Maybe a mace if his name’s ‘Skullcrush Hammerblow’. Khorne is boring.

So, if Khorne’s armies are both boring and dominant among the Chaos Powers, what happens if we remove Khorne from the equation, and the four Chaos Powers instead become three?

Chaos-infected society is still as violent as ever, because these are horrible, selfish individuals who hate and are hated by sane society. However, without a dedicated war god, religiously-inclined soldiers no longer have a better offer than the three Chaos Powers. The Unholy Trinity finally have Chaos warriors who aren’t just the also-rans who weren’t good enough for the proper Chaos armies, but are actual badasses. Also, those warriors who enjoy fighting? We’ve just found a selling point for Slaanesh that isn’t about desperately avoiding the implied problems Slaanesh worshippers have with consent. So, Slaanesh is now a new Khorne? No, because Slaanesh is far wider than just killing everything that annoys you.

(I actually have another article lined up about how I perceive Slaanesh, based on some comments I made on Tumblr. I’ll get to it at some point.)

This argument’s specifically about the Chaos Powers of the Warhammer settings, but the same general rule applies to any fantasy wargame setting. War gods might be cool (if you didn’t think that, you’d probably not be writing a fantasy wargame), but try leaving them out of your next setting.

An army of warriors is easy, but an army dedicated to the god of craftsmanship, or the god of trees, or herdsmen, or trade, or storms, or mining?

 

Writing: Formatting Dialogue

Writing: Formatting Dialogue

Someone on Quora asked ‘What are the most common dialogue mistakes writers make that ruin a story?‘, so I generously shared the wisdom of an unpublished wannabe author:

One mistake that I keep encountering among aspiring writers isn’t so much the content of what characters are saying, but how it’s written on the page. It’s a failure to understand the formatting of dialogue, particularly in terms of speech tags.

Single or Double Quotes?

In other words, ‘this’ as opposed to “this”.

There probably is a rule somewhere, written several centuries ago, but in the modern day, it varies from publisher to publisher. Personally, I prefer writing single quotes for dialogue, as it looks nicer on the page. However, since this article has both quoted text and examples of dialogue, I’m going to use double quotes for dialogue here.

The Basics

The key thing to remember is that this is, in a way, a single sentence:

“Everything I say is rubbish. It’s absolutely awful, just like a Dan Brown novel,” said Max.

Sure, there are several sentences within the speech, but that’s irrelevant. As far as the formatting goes, it’s all one sentence. The entire content of the speech, even if it’s John Galt’s 100-page monologue from Atlas Shrugged, can be compressed down to:

“[whatever Max says],” said Max.

In other words, there’s never a full stop/period at the end of ‘[whatever Max says]’, as it’s the same sentence as the speech tag (‘said Max’). Instead, it’s a comma, as the sentence is continuing outside the speech tags.

Remember that basic foundation, and all the extra variations will fall into place.

Oh yes, and the ending punctuation belongs inside the speech marks, not outside.

Shouting and questions

Question marks and exclamations are the most obvious variation (although it’s a good idea to minimise the presence of exclamation marks/points, saving them for when they really, really matter). When there’s a speech tag present, use these instead of the comma, but pretend it’s a comma.

Don’t stress over this bit; your word processing package knows that it’s not really a new sentence when you put a ? or a ! at the end of speech. How can you tell? Because it doesn’t auto-capitalise the first letter of ‘said Max’ and the grammar checker won’t put a wiggly green line under it.

Also, don’t combine the two ‘?!’ except in the most extreme of circumstances. If you’re shouting a question, use a question mark. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” makes clear that it’s an exclamation. “Do you want fries with that?” is rarely shouted, except at the height of the lunchtime rush (okay, so bad example, but the reader will generally assume).

‘Max said’, or ‘said Max’?

As an aside, is it ‘said Max’ or ‘Max said’? Either works, although the unnamed equivalent ‘said he’ or ‘said she’ sound archaic, and so should be avoided, even when writing something set in the past. Of course, if a 15th Century character is saying, ‘said he’ in conversation, then that’s allowed.

‘He said’, ‘she said’

You don’t always need to use character names in speech tags. So long as it’s clear who is being referenced, use another pronoun in place of the name. Usually, this is ‘he’ or ‘she’, but others are available.

This doesn’t just apply to speech tags, but in general narrative as well, but ‘it’ is for a talking door knocker, artificial intelligence or an animal or supernatural creature whose sex or gender isn’t obvious. As a note, using ‘it’ tends to be extremely offensive when used about humans (it’s dehumanising, basically, and is hate speech when used for trans people), and can feel jarring when used about creatures that are virtually human. (I once wrote a novel where about half the character were angels, and used ‘it’ as their pronoun. Bad idea.)

‘They’ usually works as a gender neutral singular pronoun in English, even if its ‘correct’ form is to refer to a group of people. Apparently, Chaucer used ‘they’ for the singular, so there’s that as well.

If it still doesn’t feel right to use ‘they’, think of it this way: someone walks out of the desert, wrapped in mask, goggles and heavy robes, before sitting down at your protagonist’s campfire. The newcomer speaks with a voice muffled by their mask. Your protagonist has no idea if that person is male or female, and thus nor does your reader. You could assume masculinity and use ‘he’ to refer to this figure, but that says more about your protagonist’s prejudices (or, less charitably, yours) than it does about the character. You could use this to surprise the protagonist when the newcomer removes her mask, but that’s tough to pull off without it seeming a bit cliche. That said, it can be done; Brienne of Tarth removing her helmet for the first time in Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire might have been a minor surprise for the reader, but the reveal that she was female was an outrageous breach of propriety for the majority of the witnesses at the tournament. (See Samus is a Girl for examples of this trope in action.)

As an alternative to using names or pronouns, in either speech tags or narrative, you can also describe the person in question. If you have Ned Stark arguing with Robert Baratheon, both parties are male so pronouns have the potential of getting confusing, while ‘Ned’ and ‘Robert’ will get annoying if overused. Instead, refer to Robert as ‘the king’ or similar. If it’s parent and child, use ‘her daughter’ or ‘his mother’.

Pronouns get easier in first person narrative, of course, as ‘I’ cannot be mistaken for any other character. The same applies to the second person ‘you’, although you rarely see that except in Choose Your Own Adventure-style stories or the novelisation of the Space Truckers film. (Although, if I recall, that shifted perspective between chapters, while still keeping a ‘story in a trucker bar’ feel to the narrative by using ‘you’. Quite bold, for a tie-in of a film scoring 5.2 on IMDB.)

Paragraphs and Speech

Every new speaker in a conversation starts a new paragraph. This is entirely non-negotiable. Every single time, without fail. Even if you break every other rule of writing (and writing often involves breaking the rules to achieve a desired effect), this is one that shouldn’t be disregarded. Well, okay, you can disregard it, but make sure you’ve got a damn good reason to confuse your reader and annoy your agent/publisher.

Said, said, said, said, said, said…

Firstly, ‘Said’ is, 90% of the time, invisible to the reader. Don’t worry if it seems to be there too much.

Don’t go through the thesaurus and have a conversation in which characters ‘interject’, ‘argue’, ‘exclaim’, ‘blurt’, ‘sigh’ or even ‘ejaculate’. Sure, sometimes a different speech tag (particularly ‘asked’) is more illustrative of how something is being said, but the reader doesn’t usually notice. As per breaking rules, one of Harry Harrison’s Bill The Galactic Hero novels manages to do a conversation that lasts for several pages, consisting only of dialogue and a different and more absurd speech tag for every utterance. This was, of course, for comedy effect, ridiculing the thesaurus approach.

Helping with avoiding ‘said’ repetition, don’t overuse speech tags. Go without.

Speech tags are only needed when it’s not clear to the reader who is speaking. Ideally, strong characterisation and context should make that clear.

Max raised a hand.

Jordan paused. “Go on.”

“You mean I should just let my dialogue fly naked?”

“Something like that, though I would never phrase it that way myself.”

You should be able to tell who is speaking in that exchange. There was a slight cheat in that the first utterance was in a paragraph about what Jordan was doing (in this case, pausing), but it sets the context up so that the only other speaker is Max, and the only person able to reply is .

This is, of course, harder when there are more than two people involved in the conversation. If Jules was also in the scene, and added, “I often fly naked. I’ve been banned from El Al, but Qantas still takes me,” I’d likely name-check them and then make sure it was clear who was speaking later in the conversation before I decided to drop speech tags again.

Putting Speech Tags in the Middle of an Utterance

Jules’ comment above is pretty long. You could start it with a speech tag (see below for the rules on that), but I’m quite fond of breaking up long dialogue with speech tags instead.

“I often fly naked,” Jules said. “I’ve been banned from El Al, but Qantas still takes me.”

In that version, the speech tag ends the first sentence of the dialogue, and so adopts its full stop/period. The trick is to insert the speech tag early enough that it serves its purpose of telling the reader who is speaking and how – after the first phrase is usually the best spot.

Jordan’s comment earlier could have had a speech tag inserted as well:

“Something like that,” Jordan said, cautiously, “though I would never phrase it that way myself.”

In this example, the speech tag is interjected into the middle of a sentence of dialogue, so it has a comma at the end before the speech resumes.

Putting a Speech Tag at the Start of an Utterance

Going back to that weird grammar lesson example above, if Jules hadn’t paused to give context, but instead there was a speech tag, it gets complicated. There’s two schools of thought on this. The first is that ‘Jules said’ should be followed by a colon (one of these: : ) because the speech is what’s being presented by the speech tag.

Jules said: “Go on.”

The second is that the speech tag is just a part of the sentence and so it should be treated like any other speech tag:

Jules said, “Go on.”

One way or another is probably correct in some grammar book or other, but I’ve seen both used in professionally published works.

I’ve seen it argued that colons should be used for longer utterances, and commas for shorter ones, so the first example wouldn’t be favoured by that camp, but ultimately it doesn’t seem to matter.

Language changes, so this kind of oddity arises.

The Best Advice Anyone Will Ever Give to an Aspiring Author

Read a novel.

Not a self- or vanity-published one (no guarantee of quality control) and not a literary novel (more likely to break the rules for effect), but something published for the mass market by a reputable publishing house.

Take a look at how that author uses dialogue. The words said, the speech tags, the accompanying descriptions, the presence or lack of fillers like ‘uh’ or ‘well’. The best way to becoming a good writer, slightly ahead in my mind to actually writing stuff, is to read stuff.

Wargaming: Xenos Rampant

Wargaming: Xenos Rampant

Hey, wait, what, you can insert documents into basic WordPress blogs?

Awesome. In that case, here’s Xenos Rampant – futuristic wargaming in Dragon Rampant v1 (opens as .pdf).

Xenos Rampant is an unofficial supplement to Daniel Mersey’s Dragon Rampant, published by Osprey Games. It is designed to allow platoon-level skirmishes in a more advanced historical setting than the official Rampant games. You could probably also play historical 20th-century games (the World Wars, for example) using these rules, or even in the present day, although they are intended for battles waged in a science fiction setting.

It should also be noted that the existence or involvement of aliens is not a required component in such a game; Xenos Rampant is just the coolest title I could think of, and certainly more evocative than my working title of Future Rampant. Also, Lasers Rampant was already taken…

As this is a supplement, rather than as a standalone game, assume that all rules in the Dragon Rampant rulebook apply to games of Xenos Rampant, except for where specifically tweaked in this document.

As a further note, like Dragon RampantXenos Rampant is setting-neutral. You can use models from any manufacturer or setting, in any scale. Personally, I’ve messed around with models from Warhammer 40,000, Warpath, Afterlife, Necromunda, Gorkamorka and various game-neutral ranges.

Obviously, as an unofficial fan supplement, this is a completely non-profit project. Furthermore, any feedback from players is more than welcome, and will be incorporated into the next version.

 

(The header image is a bunch of science fiction cultists – probably Light Infantry or Militia Rabble in Xenos Rampant – painted by myself. The models are Frostgrave soldier bodies, Frostgrave cultist heads and arms and guns from Victoria Miniatures.)