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Starting last night, I began playing a game of the Alien RPG from Free League with Stu Horvath and the folks at Team Unwinnable. The game, a pre-gen “cinematic” scenario called “Destroyer of Worlds,” is a subscriber reward unlocked during the mag’s last subscription drive – and, incidentally, the next one is coming up soon.

We’ll be playing every Thursday night for at least the next couple of weeks and live-streaming the results, so feel free to tune in to Unwinnable’s Twitch channel, if you’re into that kind of thing. You can also watch not-live recordings of the previous game sessions, such as last night’s.

This is my first experience with live-streaming a roleplaying game – or anything else, really, although we did some live-streamed episodes of the Horror Pod Class for a while. It’s also my first experience with the Alien RPG, which is more what I’m here to talk about.

Longtime readers will know that the Alien franchise – and Aliens, in particular – holds a special place in my heart, so playing a game based around it, and specifically one in which we play marines, feeds back into a lot of things from my early life.

The Alien RPG is one of those roleplaying games that presents a much narrower field of possibilities than something like D&D. You would think this limitation, combined with an extensive knowledge of the source material, might make for games that felt stagnant or free from tension. Last night, at least, we found the opposite to be true.

There’s a very famous quote, from an interview with Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, in which Hitchcock explains the difference between suspense and surprise. “Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us,” Hitchcock begins. If the audience doesn’t know it’s there, everyone is surprised when it goes off. However, if the audience does know that it’s there, but the characters do not, that creates suspense.

(That’s a very shortened version. The full conversation is in Hitchcock/Truffaut.)

Something that is easy to forget in a roleplaying game is that you are both the audience and the protagonists. If you’re playing it right, there will be things that you, the players, know that your characters do not.

In some ways, narrative-focused games like Alien are better at exposing and exploiting this tension between character and player than a game like D&D could ever be – and there are other games, more narrative-driven yet, that are better at it still, and that even make it their central mechanism.

In the case of last night’s Alien game, our previous familiarity with the subject matter acted as the audience’s knowledge of the bomb beneath the table, forcing us, as players, to push our characters into situations that we knew (or thought we knew) were going to be disastrous, because they had no way of knowing what we knew. It also allowed us (the players) to be taken in by red herrings – misdirects for the audience that are largely meaningless to the characters.

It’s a reminder that RPGs are capable of more than we often remember to give them credit for, and a very sharp demonstration of Hitchcock’s bomb-under-the-table theory of suspense, and I’m looking forward to more surprises, more tension, more comedy, and more carnage in future installments of this Alien RPG live-stream!

Let’s start with the bad news: I won’t be at NecronomiCon Providence this year. Which is a bummer for any number of reasons, not least because I’ve been helping out (in very small ways) with the film programming, and I’m excited to see that come together. But alas, this year it just isn’t in the cards.

(Also, my contributions to the film programming are borderline nonexistent, so all the good bits are going to be Phil Gelatt’s fault. You can blame me whenever something goes wrong. I won’t be there anyway.)

There are a lot of you that I’m going to miss seeing, which makes me sad. But with any luck we will mostly survive until the next convention (though that seems more touch-and-go than we’d all like these days) and I’ll see you all again soon.

With that out of the way, here’s some better news: It has recently come to my attention that I have not been sufficiently vocal about the fact that I have a new collection coming from Word Horde later this year.

You can expect to hear a whole lot more about How to See Ghosts & Other Figments, my fourth collection of short, spooky stories and, somehow, my seventh full-length solo book in the weeks and months to come, including cover reveals, a table of contents, and other goodies. For now, though, I can let you know that it’s going to be my longest collection to date, with 18 stories from across my writing career.

Also, if you happen to be a reviewer and you’re interested in getting your hands on How to See Ghosts a little early, you can reach out to the folks at Word Horde by emailing publicity[at]wordhorde[.]com, and they’ll hook you up.

That’s about it for now but, if you haven’t already, head over and check out the Kickstarter for the latest thing I worked on at Privateer Press. It’s in its final days and it’s pretty cool, if I do say so myself. You can also read a little more about my involvement in it here.

All the way back in 2013 – nearly ten years ago now – I wrote my first story for Privateer Press. It was a novelette called “Under the Shadow,” a retelling of the Demeter portion of Dracula, centered on the Cryxian general Gerlak Slaughterborn.

By then, I had already been a fan of the setting for… many years, and getting to play in that sandbox was a dream come true. A dream that I got to relive many times in the years that followed, writing additional short stories, novellas, and even a novel set in the Iron Kingdoms world, not to mention contributing plenty of content to the previous iteration of the Iron Kingdoms tabletop roleplaying game.

Then, back in November of 2020, I was asked to work on something new. Iron Kingdoms: Requiem would be the newest attempt to bring my favorite fantasy setting to the TTRPG sphere, this time powered by the popular 5th edition of the world’s oldest roleplaying game.

For that first installment, I wrote more than 50,000 words of mostly setting text, detailing the world and the ways in which it had changed since the last time such a book had been put out. I got a surprising amount of control over some of those changes, and the relationship I had with the material went from adapting it to, in many cases, inventing many aspects whole cloth.

About a year later, and the first expansion for Requiem hit Kickstarter, in the form of Borderlands & Beyond. This time I had written just as much, maybe more, but I also got even more freedom to add to the setting that I loved so much. Perhaps most notably, given that this is me, I got to design a bunch of weird fucking monsters from scratch. If you got the book, see if you can guess which ones I did.

We haven’t been sitting idle in the months since, either. Almost as soon as we had finished Borderlands & Beyond, the same team that had been working on Requiem all this time had already started work on the next installment, which just hit Kickstarter today.

In many ways, this is the most exciting one that I’ve worked on so far. For those who don’t know the Iron Kingdoms setting very well, it has primarily existed in the form of the tabletop wargames Warmachine and Hordes. And one of the four core factions of the former, since the game first launched back in 2003, has been the Nightmare Empire of Cryx.

Ruled by a dragon, Cryx is primarily occupied by the undead, which their necrotechs experiment on to create cyborg undead war machines. Despite its prominent position in the narrative of the game, however, there has never been a sourcebook released to bring Cryx to the table in roleplaying game form. Not in all the years that Privateer Press has been releasing books and games set in the Iron Kingdoms.

Certainly, Cryxians were available as antagonists in previous editions of the game, but there were precious few resources available to play as them, or to explore, in detail, their haunted and haunting empire. With the new Nightmare Empire expansion for Requiem, though, all that changes.

With each new iteration, I have gotten to leave more and more of my stamp on the Requiem roleplaying game and the world of the Iron Kingdoms – along with a talented and dedicated team of writers, artists, designers, and more, all headed up by Matt Goetz, who is as much the captain of this vessel as anyone.

This time around, I got to introduce new places and organizations, flesh out things that had been throwaway mentions in the past, and, most exciting for me, work on developing some of the new subclasses that are presented in the book. I’m very proud of my work there, and I can’t wait for fans of the setting to see it – not to mention newcomers to the world of the Iron Kingdoms, who I hope grow to love it just as much as I always have.

I never actually owned a copy of HeroQuest, the 1989 game that introduced a generation of young nerds (myself included) to the idea of the dungeon crawl and TTRPGs. A neighbor owned one, instead, and it entrhalled me. Still does, a bit. I now have the board and box cover hanging on my office wall.

A few years later, after I had already gotten into Warhammer, Games Workshop (who had worked on the original HeroQuest) released the very first version of Warhammer Quest in 1995 and I did have that. It had many problems, but for a long time it was my favorite game. And it remains, in some ways, my ideal of the dungeon crawl board game.

There are plenty of aspects I could point to that are, for me, elements that have never really been surpassed, at least when it comes to how such a game is designed, played, and sold. The variety of floor tiles. The dramatic, clip-on plastic doors. The way the dungeon was randomly generated (and populated) by turning over cards in a deck. Even the expansions, which offered new adventurers who could be purchased individually, each with their own little rule books and miniatures.

Of course, the game itself was only part of it. I was already in love with the idea of the dungeon crawl, and the fact that it took place in Warhammer’s Old World, the first fantasy setting with which I was ever obsessed, made it irresistible.

Like any well-loved game, my copy grew decidedly worn over the years. Gradually, I lost bits of it piecemeal – selling or trading or breaking them over time and moves and life changes. Finally, I parted with the last remaining bits justĀ  few years ago. I almost regret it, but by then there was not really enough left to play, and I had acquired newer versions of Warhammer Quest, all of which boast their own charms, even while none are quite what the original was.

Recently, a stack of old White Dwarf magazines made me nostalgic for the game that meant so much to me, so I did a cursory search to see what it would cost to collect the original game again in, um, less-loved condition.

The answer was exorbitant. Just… beyond the pale, even as these old games go. I’ll give you an example: One person was trying to sell the box – not any of the contents, mind, just the box – on eBay, and not in pristine condition, either. They were asking $80 for it.

So, collecting that old game again is probably never going to be within reach. Which may be okay. Delightful as it was, it had its problems, too, as I mentioned, and some things are better left in the past.

Still, a skeleton can dream…

Twenty years ago, I did something that remains the best thing I have ever done: I married the love of my life, my spouse and partner, Grace. We celebrated our anniversary over the last few days, during which time we stayed in an adorable cabin next to a mountain stream, where we were greeted by a rare sight of a heron eating a fish (a good omen, as it turned out). It was a wonderful trip.

The time away from the online world was good for me, but it also means I was away from the computer when a lot of things happened, so let’s tackle a few of those. My new column on folk horror launched at Signal Horizon. I’ll be discussing the subject every month, through the lens (at least for the first year or so) of the All the Haunts Be Ours Blu-ray set from Severin Films.

For this first installment (and the next one; the doc is long) we’ll be going over Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, the extensive folk horror documentary from Kier-La Janisse that opens the Blu-ray set.

Speaking of columns, my others are still moving along, and the latest installment of my board game column dropped at Unwinnable, where I’m writing about Tiny Epic Dungeons this month, a recent Kickstarter acquisition. Meanwhile, in proper “me writing for Unwinnable” fashion, I also recently covered some… very disparate films over there, writing reviews of a pair of kung fu pictures and a “classic” erotic thriller from the late ’90s.

I’ve also been movies editor for Exploits, an Unwinnable publication, for a couple of months now, and my latest acquisition was actually the cover story this month, as David Busboom wrote an unmissable review of one of my favorite weirdo flicks, The Monster Club.

Finally, this one hasn’t happened quite yet, but later this month, Tyler Unsell and I will be hosting a live screening of The Mask (1961) at the Stray Cat Film Center, followed by a live episode of the Horror Pod Class. Will it be sssssssssmokin’? No, it will not. But it WILL be in 3D, complete with special stereoscopic 3D glasses at the door and giveaways, trivia, and vaguely academic discussion to follow.

If that sounds like a lot, think how I feel? I’m gradually getting back into the swing of things this week and there’s a lot more to come but, for now, why not have a drink at The Monster Club. I’m sure a member of the wait staff will be with you shortly…

By now, it is no longer a matter of much surprise that I have been working extensively on the newest attempt to bring the Iron Kingdoms, setting of games like Warmachine and Hordes, to the world of tabletop roleplaying. And I think that I’ve made it pretty clear already that our latest project has been a long-awaited sourcebook for one of the game’s original factions – the Nightmare Empire of Cryx.

For those who aren’t familiar with the setting, the Iron Kingdoms were first introduced more than 20 years ago – in a trilogy of adventure modules for what was then 3rd-edition D&D called the “Witchfire Trilogy.” Within two years, it had given rise to Warmachine, the first tabletop wargame to make use of the setting, and one that’s still being played today.

I’ve been a fan ever since that time, and I’ve been working with Privateer Press as a freelancer – on and off – for about a decade now. I’ve written licensed fiction, including my first novel, and worked on the previous attempt at creating an Iron Kingdoms roleplaying game. Now, I’m working very closely on the creation of Iron Kingdoms: Requiem, which brings the setting to the 5th edition of the world’s most popular roleplaying game system.

And here’s what makes our latest project, which should be hitting Kickstarter any day now, so exciting: Since that very first book, Cryx has been one of the core factions of the setting. An island nation of mechanical undead, ruled by a dragon who is essentially a living god, Cryx was one of the original four factions of Warmachine. And yet, despite no less than three versions of Iron Kingdoms roleplaying, dating back as far as 2001, there has never been a book that gave you the tools you needed to play as the forces of Cryx in a roleplaying game.

Until now. Recently, Privateer Press released their first sneak peek at the new material that’s coming in Iron Kingdoms: Nightmare Empire: a list of new classes and subclasses, several of which, I’m happy to say, I worked on designing.

But that’s far from all that will be included in the book. There’s all sorts of exciting stuff in there. A history and gazetteer of the Nightmare Empire, new spells, new monsters, rules for Cryxian warjacks, and even rules for making and playing an iron lich – one of the setting’s most iconic creations, and one that my regular GM and gaming buddy has been clamoring to play as for 20 years now.

I’ll be posting more about my work on the game as the Kickstarter launches but, for now, this is one of the big projects that has been occupying a lot of my time of late, and I’m very excited for people to get to see it come to fruition.

Of course, that’s not all I’ve been up to lately. Panic Fest is starting this coming weekend, and I’ll be covering it for The Pitch, and I’ve also got some other movie-adjacent announcements and things, but those I’ll save for their own post this week…

In the month of January, I watched eleven Shaw Bros. movies. This is noteworthy for a number of reasons, not the least of them because, prior to that, I had seen… one? Maybe two, depending on whether you count their joint production with Hammer, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. It’s possible that I have seen others without remembering or realizing it, over the years, but the number is small, is the point, and over the last month I have certainly much more than doubled it.

This came about because I received a review copy of the very nice Shawscope Vol. One box from Arrow Video, and I have been trying to work my way through it for an eventual piece. I’m not quite there yet, either. There are two movies left to go – there’s a lot of movies in this box – but I’m getting close.

Interestingly, at the same time, I also watched a few of the latest Marvel movies that I had missed because there was a plague on. Now, those who have followed along for a while here know that I am, broadly speaking, a person who enjoys Marvel, and Marvel movies, and, more to the point, not someone who likes to rag on modern movies and go on about how movies were better “back in my day,” notwithstanding that every movie in this Shawscope set was made before I was born.

And yet, it bears mentioning that, with the exception of Mighty Peking Man, which really didn’t do it for me, the worst movie in this Shawscope set is at least several notches above the best offering from the latest batch of Marvel films. (The new Spider-Man possibly notwithstanding – I haven’t seen it yet.)

I’m not really here to rag on the recent slate of Marvel movies, though, as much as I am to just say what a joy it’s been to dig through all of these old Shaw Bros. pictures. I’ll have more coherent, and hopefully thoughtful, thoughts on them in the eventual piece (likely at Unwinnable) that will come out of all this, but it’s just been a lot of fun to get a much fuller view of a slice of cinema that I’ve long been aware of but have rarely seen.

That said, I’ll admit that these flicks (which are all kung fu pictures, with the exception of the aforementioned Mighty Peking Man) are not necessarily well-suited to binge-watching. Like any other very specific sub-field, even my beloved Hammer gothics, they get a bit same-y after you mainline enough of them all in a row. But thus far that hasn’t hampered my ability to appreciate the distinct pleasures each one offers, nor dimmed my enthusiasm to put on the next disc in line.

The other thing that makes it noteworthy that I watched all these movies in the month of January is that it’s vaguely miraculous that I managed to make time to watch anything at all. Chalk it up to basically not being able to leave the house because of the plague, I guess, but I’ve been incredibly busy in the month of January, working on a semi-secret licensed tabletop gaming project that is not terribly hard to guess the particulars of for anyone who has been following along at all.

It has eaten up pretty much all of my time that hasn’t been devoted to watching people kick one-another, and I’m looking forward to being able to discuss it at greater length hopefully very soon. In the meantime, you can read my weirdo thoughts on Matt Wagner’s Grendel and the Saw franchise in the latest issue of Exploits, if you’re so inclined…

Each tick of the clock brings us ever closer to the Great Event, that grandest of all nights, Halloween. In the meantime, though, there are a few other things that are ticking down, too, and some will be over before that one comes to pass.

For those who have been following along, I’ve been doing a lot of work on the new, 5e-compatible Iron Kingdoms: Requiem books for Privateer Press. These tomes not only bring the classic Warmachine and Hordes setting to 5e for the first time, they also update the setting itself to the way it exists today, in the aftermath of the Claiming – also for the first time. And if you don’t know what any of that means, don’t worry, the books will explain it.

Anyway, the latest installment is currently on Kickstarter and it’s entering its final hours. In fact, as I write this there’s only about a day left. It’s already funded, so at this point we’re just blowing away stretch goals, and while the stretch goal that’s a new adventure written by yours truly isn’t likely to materialize, there’s still some pretty cool stuff within reach. So, if you’ve been on the fence about it, now’s the time to get involved.

Plus, if you head on over to the Kickstarter page and check out the updates, you can get a gander of artist’s renditions of just a tiny handful of the many weird creatures I got the pleasure of designing this time around. And there’s plenty more (and plenty weirder) waiting in the wings where that came from.

And that’s not all. While the Kickstarter for Iron Kingdoms: Borderlands & Beyond closes up shop in about a day’s time, the Unwinnable subscription drive runs through the end of the month. For those who don’t know, Unwinnable is an incredible indie publication that pays its writers and publishes some of the best, smartest crit, essays, and cultural appreciation around – all based on an ad-free model that relies on your subscriptions.

We’ve already done really well on the drive, unlocking the “monster” theme issue that I absolutely had to get unlocked in order to survive, but we’ve still got more cool stuff up our sleeves, including a Doom-themed issue that’s about a minute away from unlocking. Besides movie reviews and my regular column on board games over at Unwinnable, I’ve also written long-form essays on everything from Monster Squad to my love of dungeon crawl games to, most recently, the weird fact that the original Universal Mummy sequels are actually set in the 1970s through the ’90s.

Few other publications would give me such free reign, so if you like reading the random nonsense that comes pouring out of my head, toss a coin to the folks at Unwinnable, who help to prop up such bizarro “journalism” from me and plenty of other incredibly talented writers and artists.

That may be the last you hear directly from me in this space before the one-two punch of my birthday and Halloween, but I’ll be very active on social media over the next few days, and there’s still a whole lot going on, so stay tuned…

Around a year ago now, give or take, I was working on a project for Privateer Press that, at the time, I couldn’t talk about. A few months later, it was revealed to be the new Iron Kingdoms: Requiem roleplaying game, compatible with 5e, which launched on Kickstarter in January of this year and blew away its funding goals.

Since then, I’ve been working on something else. A follow-up product that takes players beyond the walls of the Iron Kingdoms themselves and into the wilderness that surrounds them. For those who played the previous IK RPG, this can be seen as a companion to the Unleashed volume released for that game – I wrote an adventure for that, too, BTW, which was printed in the Wild Adventures supplement.

This isn’t just about the wilderness, though. It also explores – in depths that have never really been delved into before – the dwarven kingdom of Rhul and the elven nation of Ios, a nation which has undergone a stark transformation, making it just as alien and unfamiliar to long-term players of the game as it will be to those who are new to the setting.

Called Borderlands & Beyond, this new expansion also just hit Kickstarter today, and was funded within just a couple of hours. We’re already well into the realm of stretch goals now, and the campaign is less than a day old. Which is good, because one of the stretch goals is a new adventure written by yours truly, set to take place in the eerie wilderness of the Glimmerwood.

As with Iron Kingdoms: Requiem, I worked with an incredible team to help bring this book to life, all organized by Matt Goetz, who was the captain of our little ship. I can’t say what parts I did and what parts were the work of other hands, but I can say that, to an extent that has never been true on any previous tabletop gaming product I’ve worked on, we really did collaborate as a team throughout the project, with each person’s contributions informing the others in unique and dynamic ways.

In all, I contributed even more words to this project than I did to Requiem, and got to build more stuff from the ground up than ever before. And I’m already looking forward to the next project, which the success of this one will all-but ensure.

And I can say one other thing, I think, that will likely come as a surprise to no one. If you check out the Kickstarter for Borderlands & Beyond, you’ll note that they mention “a horde of never-before-seen monsters to test every last ounce of your players’ resolve.” The other thing I think I can say is that more than a few of those never-before-seen monsters are ones I helped cook up. And I hope you’re going to love them.

I grew up with Warhammer. While I was too poor to play, I was into the game, its world and its army books, its setting fluff and maps and stupid little models, from very early days. Before I had ever read The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, before I had ever rolled a die in D&D, I had bought my first White Dwarf. (It was this one, by the way.)

So I have an affection for Games Workshop’s products that goes back a long way, and their take on what a bog standard fantasy setting looked like helped to shape my expectations of same. Which means that I am likely to give them a pass in places where they may not deserve one. At the same time, something that initially pulled me into Warhammer was that, even as a kid, I saw the satire in it.

This was not a story about Good versus Evil, even if the Empire or the Imperium or whoever you were talking to at the moment might want you to think it was. Sure, Chaos might be evil, but the alternative was little (maybe no) better, and at least Chaos wasn’t a bunch of hypocrites.

It was deployed with varying degrees of nuance and skill, but always there was something tongue in cheek about the setting, whether that setting was the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy Battles or the grim darkness of the far future. You could spot it in sometimes unlikely places, like the company’s genuine affection for the mindlessly destructive orks or orcs or orruks or whatever.

The “good guys” were mostly fascists, and they spent human life like it was going out of style. They portrayed this as a grim necessity, but the game knew better, and let you in on the joke in various little ways. It was (perhaps unsurprisingly) satire in the Verhoeven or Judge Dredd vein – all too easy to misapply and turn into lionization.

As I’ve gotten back into the gaming sphere in recent years, I’ve seen (and occasionally fielded) a lot of questions about whether or not this was still true. This blog post, which is actually about a game called Kriegsmesser and only tangentially about Warhammer at all, makes a lot of those concerns explicit: over the years, much of the satire has seemingly bled away, replaced by an inadvertent celebration of fascism that is, unfortunately, probably too often embraced by fans as a good thing, actually.

To some extent, this is maybe inevitable. It’s hard to sustain satire when you’re building a massive brand across dozens of games, numerous video games, novels, toy lines, you name it. There’s a reason why punk rock was always afraid of selling out, and it isn’t just that it’s hard to be anti-corporate when you’re a corporation. Satire works well in small, bitter pills. Spread it too thin, and the sting dissipates, to become what it was satirizing in the first place. (See also: RoboCop becoming a toy line, a cartoon series, etc.)

So, is modern Warhammer pro-fascist? I wouldn’t go that far. The satire is still alive, if not necessarily alive and well.

The Imperium is still a bureaucratic nightmare that wipes out entire worlds due to clerical errors, but the barbs which were once the beating heart of Warhammer’s various settings now all too often wither on the vine. And while Age of Sigmar may lean hard into its Moorcockian underpinnings, the ambiguity of those stories is often obscured, when it’s not lacking altogether.

I don’t know the people behind Games Workshop in its modern incarnation, any more than I did the ones behind its earliest ones, but I don’t get the impression that any of this is intentional, or a sop to the worst impulses of their fanbase. Instead, I feel like it is the… if not inevitable, then at least most likely casualty of their own success.

To paraphrase the Green Goblin, you either die a satire, or you live long enough to see yourself become the very thing you were a satire of.