How to do a 3D Star Map that’s Not Overwhelming

Image result for traveller sector map

Flat Star Chart (click for source)

(For my alternative to 3D mapping, scroll down.)

I’ve been revisiting Traveller RPG. One thing that’s not changed over the years is that the star charts are flat. Here’s an example (right). As a kid I hated this. I’d have said that it was because it just wasn’t a proper simulation! Space is 3D, right? I actually spent — wasted — time trying to make 3D star charts.

Then a game called Space Opera came along and that did have 3D charts. I thought this was the best thing since the BBC B Micro computer — 32K!

Unfortunately, the maps were way too hard to comprehend. Navigation was a chore… a trigonometric chore. They also didn’t really add that much to what play we got out of the game.

Image result for fgu space opera star chart

Space Opera is 3D (and hard to play)

It was simply too much overhead and too overwhelming. A truly 3D star chart needs a computer interface — not available to me back in the 1980s, and a bit of an intrusion into tabletop gaming, not least because it would be hard for a GM to add stuff on the fly without breaking flow to fiddle with the laptop.

This brings us back to flat star charts as “good enough”.

There’s a particularly compelling blog post (here) that makes the simple argument:

…when the PCs reach new worlds there will be things they don’t know, whether it be details of the environment, changes in local politics, and so on. And then, when they turn around, they’ll be making the same calculated risk (or broad gambles) they made when they made the half of the journeys. The Age of Sails is a common reference in Classic Traveller (and rightly so). In this tradition, the Player Characters travelling half way up a subsector are like sailors make their way from England down and around the Cape of South Africa

So flat star charts are an abstraction like Zones in Fate. It certainly works well enough — the Traveller universe is well-loved and well-trodden. I was a fool and should have gotten on with enjoying the actual roleplaying.

Even so, I still don’t like the Traveller 2D astrogation charts! My reasons are the same as when I was a teenager,  however — three decades later — I am better able to articulate them…

Read more ›

Posted in Blog Post, Roleplaying, Space Opera Tagged with: , ,

Morgenstern and the March of the Women


“…she gets abducted by aliens but she kills them all with a sword and then flies the spaceship home.”

11 pm Sunday night, and I find Morgenstern (9) sitting up in bed, tangled blond hair making her look like a sleepy wood elf. 

She grins at me. “I couldn’t sleep, so I used my Story Cubes.”

Wonderful things those cubes. Little dice with tropes on them. They can keep one or two imaginative children happy for hours, especially if you’ve taught them how to connect them using “but”.

As I tuck her up with her over-sized plush rabbit, I ask, “What story did you come up with?”

She yawns. “Oh, it was about a girl who gets abducted by aliens.”

“How does it go?”

“Well, Daddy, she gets abducted by aliens but she kills them all with a sword and then flies the spaceship home.”

“Great,” I say, unsurprised. After all, this is the girl who teaches her male friends to play Halo…

Ted: “Stop shooting me, Morgenstern!”

Morgenstern: “Well get out of my line of fire, Ted!”

Story Cubes

Little dice with tropes on them. 

In the morning she confides that she still couldn’t sleep so watched an episode of Sky At Night and it was a new one with Neil deGrasse Tyson guesting which we have to watch together.

And I’m reminded of when Morgenstern was four, her and her best friend running around the garden in their pretty princess dresses, barefoot and jumping in muddy puddles and climbing trees and still Being Princesses.

Her entire cohort are like this!

Nobody has told them they have to choose between being a girl and making their mark on the world.

The boys for the most part take this for granted. They’re used to households where the mums have jobs at least as important as the dads, and where the housework and nurturing get shared according to practicality, not gender.

Of course, the real parenting challenge is preparing all these little Bradamantes for when somebody does tell them that they can’t do something because they’re a girl.

“Just bashing them” stops being an appropriate solution as you get older…


Posted in Geek Parenting, Modern Culture


Just in case you were confused by artistic conventions, the covers of my SWORDS VERSUS TANKS series depict the Actual Story Content! They are NOT montages.

Here’s the first book: Armoured heroes clash across the centuries!

SVT 256

Sir Ranulph really does take on the WWI-style mega-tank!

Sir Ranulph Dacre (left), armed with his trusty runic sword Steelcutter (shown) really does face off against a WWI-style mega-tank (right), commanded by former bohemian Colonel Jasmine Klimt, who has spent youth fantasising about her historical hero. Complex love triangle ensues…

Next book: Vikings battle Zeppelins while forbidden desires spark!


The Vikings really do leap onto the back of the Zeppelin!

OK it is a montage, but not all of it. The fire in the background is the burning castle. The sorceress (red-haired woman in green dress (and third member of the love triangle)) Lady Maud is actually standing on the battlements controlling an air elemental. However, the Vikings led by Sir Ranulph (top right) really are leaping off the battlements onto the back of a Zeppelin. There’s also a fireside love scene involving an invisible Lady Maud and a somewhat confused Colonel Jasmine Klimt, who has a thing for Real Princess. (Sir Ranulph is confused.)

Third book: Pyramid of Blood:


The Vikings really to make a last stand on an Aztec-style pyramid!

There really is a Viking shield wall making  a last stand on top of an Aztec-style pyramid. No artistic license here! Oh and Colonel Jasmine Klimt finally beds her hero, only to then tangle with a Tolmec priestess in a bizarre act of sex magic.

Penultimate book: Warlords race for power while the final battle looms!


There really is a motorbike chase involving a Medieval swordsman and his Modern lover!

I hope you’re getting the idea! This one really does have a bike chase involving swords — gay biker rescues lover, bad guys pursue. A Zeppelin also rains bombs on them. Sir Ranulph kills some people.

Finally, the finale! Champions Battle for the Fate of the Future!


Flying dragon ship. Burning castle. Sky full of tracer bullets. Ragnarok-grade battle and Vikings with Tommy guns not depicted.

This is almost too bonkers to describe. But the scene is in. A flying dragon ship really does escape through a tracer-laced sky. There’s also a massive… MASSIVE battle between knights and tanks, and a warband of Vikings rampages around with Tommy guns. There might possibly also be some sex.

Swords Versus Tanks: Does what it says on the tin.

Click here to get the omnibus edition and experience this genre mayhem for yourself!

Posted in Steampunk, Swords Versus Tanks Tagged with:

How to Fix Your Novel (If It’s Too Short, Slow-Paced, or Tells Not Shows)

Teaching Creative OutliningSo you’ve completed your novel. It’s a story with a beginning, middle and satisfying end. You’ve polished the prose until it shines.

However, it’s too short, or too slow-paced, or it tells rather than shows.


Actually, don’t worry. This is quite normal.

The only mistake you’ve made is to waste time editing the text before fixing the story. Even so, you probably need to change less than you think.

Here’s how I go about it (these days I actually do this anyway when I get about 66% through a draft, but it works on a completed manuscript as well).

Read more ›

Posted in Blog Post, Writing Fiction Faster, Writing Tips Tagged with: , ,

Creatives! Grieve. Give support. Then get back to work. This shoe will be a long time falling.

114We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. For those of us who remotely identify with the left, tracking its trajectory is agony.

Some of us need to take time out to process and grieve, and to support to our vulnerable friends. However, when the dust settles that shoe will still be falling.

This isn’t a sim. Real world turns take months and years to play out. That shoe will be a long time falling. We must not let it clog our brains and fritter away the precious unstructured time that lets us create.

We should remember that, though creating is a passion, it is also a job. We have every right to protect our work and confine our activism to our spare time. (And if we do our creative work in our spare time, we should treat it as a second job and also protect that.)

Now, more than ever, we cannot afford to be diverted from productivity.

Like everybody else, we must build professional momentum and financial reserves against looming hard times. No further justification is needed. No cause owns our output.

However, in  a small way, we can help people through what’s to come. Fighting the good fight is not pain free. The escapism we purvey is easily applied first aid for the soul. It can also be inspiring.

So, please get back to work as soon as you can!

Posted in Blog Post, Writing Life

Howard and Tolkien’s “Strider the Ranger Series”

One of the stranger quirks of literary history is the collaboration between the big morose Texan pulpster and the genteel Oxford don.

To blame is a mysterious Englishman who interrupted Howard’s planned suicide by suggesting he instead seek death by volunteering in the Spanish Civil War. This in turn led to Howard being wounded and sent to convalesce in England with an Oxford-based group of left wing sympathisers.

Though he was still guilt-wracked because of the death of his buddy, Hemmingway – as everybody knows, the two finally egged each other on into a heroic but fatal escapade within six months of the war’s end – he immediately hit it off with an academic he encountered while quaffing ale in a “quaint old English tavern”.

Tolkien, on his part, saw in the Texan “…the very manifestation of the men of Middle Earth.” Abandoning attempts to create what would have surely been a very cumbersome work in the Romantic tradition, Tolkien set about cheering up his new friend.

What started out as a weekend’s literary game on the banks of Lake Windermere, blossomed into a collaboration that only ended with Tolkien’s death in 1973.

Who has not thrilled at Strider’s adventures in the mysterious Eastern Lands (the classic example being “Strider the Oliphant Rider”)?

Or gawped at arguably the highpoint of the series where Strider carves his way into Mordor, uses an ancient artefact to force Sauron to manifest in corporeal form, then hacks off the head of the Dark Lord, and casts it into the pit of a volcano?

An interesting literary footnote is Tolkien’s little-read solo effort “Lord of the Hyborian Age”.  Howard, in mourning for his friend, revived this project and spent the years 1975 until 1990 knocking out well over five million words in the what became known as the Conan Saga. The child who grew up listening to the tales of old gunfighters, lived to see his vision translated to silver screen, TV, tabletop and ultimately – as a grand old man –  computer games.

Posted in Alternative History Tagged with: ,

Feeling Grown Up – a Hypothesis


“Great Great Granddad never shot a Frenchman”

There’s this idea that few of us feel truly grown up, that inside the typical 60 year old is a 16 year old going, “What the hell is happening to me?

Charlie wrote a wise article about this (comments are also worth reading). In a nutshell:

We can never measure up to the apparently godlike adults we observed when we were kids because: (1) they only looked godlike to a child, and (2) each generation is different. It follows we all finds ourselves wanting compared to the our elders! You don’t wear a suit and act serious. Dad didn’t work down the mines. Granddad wasn’t a farmer. Great Granddad never wore a redcoat in India. Great Great Granddad never shot a Frenchman. (And of course, the older generation can derive status by reminding us of this.)


That has to be true. However, I think the corollary is also important:

The previous generations are really no longer a valid source of validation because our lives are so different from theirs.

Once upon a time, your granddad could say, “I see your potato field is doing well,” and that meant something because he was a farmer or agricultural worker before you.

Now the best he can manage probably translates as, “I can see you’re teching the tech in some remunerative way because you don’t appear to be broke. What was your job title again?”

Once he could say, “I see your daughter is doing well in the [quaint rural pastime here] competition.” Now it’s, “So explain to me again what a Goth is?”

That would be fine if we could get meaningful validation from other hierarchies.

However, even at work, as soon as you occupy any sort of professional role, you probably know your particular job better than your boss does. They may compliment you on delivering on time and under budget, but they’ve got neither the time nor, probably, the knowledge to understand your elegant code well enough to praise it. (And you couldn’t do their job either, much as you might bitch about non-technical managers.)

So, one curse of modernity is that, outside a small number of professions — e.g. military and medical — and a handful of pastimes — e.g. martial arts  –, we don’t tend to have anybody older and wiser to look up to who is also informed enough about what we do to truly validate our efforts and make us feel like a grown up.

It follows that we must either be self validating, or go looking for it in the right places… but where?

Posted in Modern Culture

It wasn’t the casualty rate that made the Somme so bad


Blenheim and Towton were worse!

Obviously, the Battle of the Somme was bloody awful. Arguably, it was an appalling waste. But, in the grand scheme of things, how bad was it really?

It was certainly a horrific mega battle, running for 5 months, with British Empire casualties estimated at 419,654 killed and wounded (source).

It’s certainly a hell of a lot of dead and injured — something like twenty times the casualties of Waterloo. However, given 2,500,000 to 3,000,000 (source) men took part on “our” side, that gives us a casualty rate of 13% to 16%, which — tragically — isn’t actually all that bad.

Take a look at a random selection of battles:

Read more ›

Posted in History, Military, Uncategorized

Day one of Conpulsion!

A long long day. Took Kurtzhau and friend there via bus, the lads being old enough to help haul swords and bags. We went off to our separate MilSF games, then I dashed downstairs to demo swords with DDS. Short break, coffee and water, then teaching Storyteller Tools to an amazing group of gamers, game designers and aspiring writers.

Posted in Blog Post

My Young Adult Books


There are two books in the Scholar Knight series, but you’re best buying the double edition.

I write my books for adults, but some of them are also suitable for Young Adults…

Shieldwall: Barbarians!

The Shieldwall series was inspired by playing Rome Total War: Barbarian Invasion. It’s an old-fashioned boy’s adventure, basically “young officer finds his feet” except that the young officer is actually a pagan barbarian prince and it ends in an apocalyptic battle. Black Gate gave it a nice review.

“You can fight, boy. Now you must learn to lead.”

AD 451. The Dark Ages.

Could YOU lead a barbarian warband? Keep them out of trouble? Deal with your murderous rivals? Carve a path to victory, sword-in-hand, wading through the mayhem while the sky fills with Hunnish arrows?

That’s the challenge facing young Prince Hengest.

Saxon slave raiders have taken his sister, so now he must lead his pagan warriors into the middle of Attila the Hun’s apocalyptic invasion of the Roman Empire!

All will be well as long as the shieldwall holds.

An action-packed tale in the tradition of Conan and Young Gladiator, Shieldwall: Barbarians! is most certainly not for the faint hearted.

No basic training. No qualms.

No dragons. No wizards.

Just armies clashing and shields splitting as men of grim purpose decide the fate of the Empire.

Scholar Knight: Double Edition

The two Scholar Knight books were written to tie-in with the Paradox War of the Roses game. I wrote them as YA, though with violence that would not be out of place in a Warhammer 40K book. (NB Berserker King is a bit more Game of Thrones and most certainly not YA).

“The blade sheared through padding, collar bone, ribs, and came out the other side. Head, arm and shoulder thudded to the ground. The remainder of the corpse still stood, sheared torso like a bucket of steaming offal.”

England AD 1454, the chaotic eve of the Wars of the Roses.

Jack Rose would rather be a scholar than a knight. However, when a brutal landowner steals his family estates and plans to evict the tenants, Jack must take up the sword and win back his inheritance by force of arms. As he wades through increasingly lethal encounters, it becomes clear that War is in his blood. Now he must decide who he really is…

This double edition of the Scholar Knight series collects the novels “The Sword is Mightier” and “Blood in the Streets” into a single book. Follow Jack Rose fighting his path from scholar to knight, in the dramatic days of the Wars of the Roses.

Marshal versus the Assassins: A Foreworld SideQuest (The Foreworld Saga)

This really isn’t supposed to be a YA book! The 30-something hero is having  a midlife crisis… while chasing a mystic artefact to the Holy Land, battling Assassins, Crusaders and Saracens, before finally performing a deed-of-arms  worthy of Conan. And yes, it is about THE William Marshal, a real character whose life reads like an adventure story.

Sir William the Marshal, legend in his own time, has promised to go on crusade, a vow made to his Young King as he lay dying. But when the Oliphant, legendary war horn of Roland, is stolen by the lethal Assassins, he’s charged with returning the relic in order to stop the very thing he’d vowed to undertake—a crusade; this one engineered by the thieves.

With his small band of trusted companions—Sir Baldwin, his tourney compatriot; Eustace, his squire; and Henrik, the giant Norseman—William sets out to take back the relic. But treachery abounds, and when William loses two of his companions, he discovers an unlikely ally—Da’ud, an Assassin himself, bent on taking the Oliphant from the heretic faction that has stolen it. The three fight their way across land, sea, and desert, only to find themselves facing an army…and the Oliphant within their grasp.

I Was a Teenage Space Mercenary (Looking for a publisher as you read this)

Teenage Space Merc

(Placeholder cover… the real one would show a teenage boy in battle armour, wielding a laser carbine…)

A book for the Halo generation, inspired by games mastering FATE Diaspora for my son and his friend. Sooner or later it will find a publisher…

When his Uncle Max, a “security contractor”, rescues him from hi-tech slavery, 18-year-old uber-geek Jason’s troubles have only just begun.

Uncle Max drags him off to fulfill a two-man contract to protect an archaeological expedition on a remote jungle moon. Worse, he covers up Jason’s age and lack of experience by introducing him as “a Peter”, a 300-year-old immortal super soldier.

Up until this point, Jason’s life has been mostly online. Now he must deal with the reality of sweaty jungle patrols and lethal combat where you can’t respawn — unlike in the NetShooters, where he once reigned supreme. He must also deal with meeting real girls.

It all turns out to be not like in the sims…

You might just have noticed that these books are all old school yarns with wild adventure and dollops of combat. It’s what I grew up on; “Biggles”, Rosemary Sutcliff and especially Ronald Welch. No surprise then that some of my books have the same feel…

Posted in Blog Post