Friday, 19 August 2016

Everyday Medieval Terrors

Lots of fantasy books have an approximately medieval world, and many of them (including my forthcoming trilogy) focus on war. That’s understandable, as warfare has much tension, violence, betrayal and mercy/ruthlessness. It’s a smorgasbord of emotion and drama.

However, there were other threats to ordinary folk, which may seem mundane, but probably killed rather more people.

Fire has always been a love-hate thing for mankind. For warmth, light and cooking (sidenote: even lions prefer cooked meat to raw stuff, when offered a choice), it’s vital. Raging infernos, however, are a significant downside. Medieval houses might be fairly spread out in a village, but in a city they’re crammed together (and highly flammable). When open fires and candles are the order of the day for illumination, the prospect of a fire is never far away. There’s no fire brigade, and no house insurance.

The NHS is often in the news, sometimes with ‘funding crisis’ attached to it. However, imagine a world where there’s not only no NHS, there are no antibiotics at all. Most diseases are treated poorly or are totally incurable, and your main options are ‘get better by yourself’ or ‘die’. Lack of knowledge means diseases spread more rapidly, and because people are understandably frightened, most people would be looked after by their family, so if you infect anyone, it’s likely to be someone you dearly love.

In the 14th century the Black Death wiped out huge numbers of people. In fact, the death toll was so massive it had dramatic economic implications. The price of swords plunged (because a significant minority of their owners dropped dead and suddenly the supply of them increased relative to demand), and the cost of food soared (because many peasant workers were dead, which meant the survivors could charge more for their labour, increasing food prices).

If you are curious about a world without antibiotics, give it another few decades. Excessive prescription (and use in farming) means we’re running out of effective drugs to combat bacteria, and may soon be back to a world where they don’t work.

Bad harvests still happen. And they still push up prices. But because of globalised trade, all that really happens is we import more. If there’s a bad harvest in the medieval world, you get to play a tense game of ‘Will I starve to death this winter?’. If you’ve got kids, there’s a terrible dilemma. Feed them, and you grow weak. Too weak, you’ll be unable to work, your kids will be orphaned, and who knows what will happen to them. If you feed yourself, you may have to watch one or more of your children starve. It’s a horrendous choice, and was a danger every single year.

Now, I did mention war separately above. But beyond the obvious downside of potentially getting your house burnt down, subjected to starvation by being besieged or being raped/killed, there was another, almost incidental problem, but which could also have a substantial impact on an ordinary chap’s life.


That does sound harmless. Except, most farmers, or farm workers, worked on a subsistence basis. After paying taxes (often in food rather than money), there’d be enough left to feed you and your family until next harvest, and a bumper crop meant a bit extra to sell at market for a little bit of cash.

A marauding army does not give a damn about that. They’ve got soldiers to feed. And when you go out foraging, you don’t want your friends to go hungry because you’re soft. So, maybe you kill a few chickens. Not so bad, and a bit of tasty meat. Except those chickens are hugely valuable to a farmer. Chicken is by far the cheapest animal to keep (certainly in medieval times). Not only that, regular eggs provide not only eggs to eat directly, but eggs that can be used in cakes and in stuff like chutney, so food lasts longer (important in an age where fridges aren’t even dreamt of).

But for the sake of a little meat, the nearby army (even being relatively kind) will butcher your chicken, and you’ll lose hundreds of eggs (over that chicken’s now theoretical lifetime).

So, whilst war was commonplace in the medieval era, in terms of casualties, you’re more likely to be done in by something as mundane as poor hygiene, or bad weather.

Incidentally, Explorations, the sci-fi anthology in which I have the short story Dead Weight, should be out in about a fortnight. I’ll put up a post when it’s out.


Friday, 12 August 2016

Art: Nagoya Castle and Dog

When I’m not writing, most of my other activities also involve sitting down, staring at a screen [or possibly a page]. In an exciting divergence, I decided to, just casually, try sitting down and drawing some stuff.

This is my effort of the exterior of Nagoya Castle (the original drawing is in the Unofficial Samurai Manual, which I reviewed here).

Fairly pleased with how it turned out. The distinctive curving slope of the stone base is tricky (and I should stress the more slanted tiles on the second highest roof is deliberate rather than cock-up). It’s a pretty simple drawing, using single point perspective.

I should stress I wasn't intending to draw anything beyond the wall, the green is just there to avoid a big blank gap.

As well as the curving stone base (which helps to make it earthquake-resistant) a difference between this and the English/Welsh castles I saw as a child is that the upper parts (here whitewashed) are largely wooden. That’s partly a function of time, earlier British castles being entirely wooden, but I’m not sure if castles in the Far East ever became almost totally stone.

Never going to try doing my own cover art or illustrating my own books, but if I can improve I might try drawing bits and pieces for readers to enjoy, or for promotional nonsense. Speaking of which, here’s a picture, with Egyptian style and Greek colouring, of the heroic Dog battling a monster in The Adventures of Sir Edric.

And, as it was today announced there’ll be a Witcher 3 Game of the Year (GOTY) edition out on 30 August with all DLC on-disc, here’s Triss Merigold looking thrilled at the prospect of once again being passed over in favour of Yen.


Friday, 5 August 2016

Ancient Olympics

With the Olympics just about under way in Rio, the time is ripe for a look at the original Olympics Games. Some things are broadly similar, others rather different.

The Games were taken very seriously, as they are today, but there was a crucial difference. The competitors, as well as all being male, were also all naked. The sole exception to the hanging loose rule was a specific armoured spring race, for which the chaps would be not merely clothed but wearing the panoply of a hoplite.

Many events had application in war (javelin being the most obvious). Running and jumping were also useful, as was boxing. Speaking of boxing, as well being the only sport that was safer in the 14th century than it is in the 21st, this may have been done with cestus, which are a variety of ancient knuckle-duster. They may (also) have been used in pankration, an extreme form of wrestling.

Another Ancient Greek link is the goddess Nike, who personified victory (as well as having other sporting aspects in the modern world).

Artists would display their creations at the Games and, originally, this was carried through to the modern Olympics which (initially) included such events as poetry.

Whether airy-fairy marketing tosh or genuine desire to ‘bring the world together’, the modern Olympics does have that global harmonious aim. It was similar (on a naturally smaller scale) way back when, as the Games were held amid a truce to enable competitors to turn up without being slain along the way.

There were other Games in Ancient Greece (the Nemean Games, for example) but the Olympics were the most prestigious and were, just as people only remember the Delphic Oracle, the ones that people remembered for centuries down the line before they were revived.

As an aside, Olympic was the sister ship of the Titanic (the Olympians and Titans, of course, going to war in Ancient Greek myth).

Incidentally, Explorations: Through The Wormhole (in which I have a short story entitled Dead Weight), is due to be released in about four weeks, so keep your eyes peeled for that.


Friday, 22 July 2016

Review: Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence (PS4)

Disclaimer: I don’t play many strategy games. Discounting tactical games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, smaller scale games like Civilisation Revolution and the like, this is the first strategy game I’ve played since Civilisation II, in 1999.

Nobunaga’s Ambition is a strategy game set in the Warring States period of Japanese history (16th and early 17th century). I know a smidgen about this because I played Kessen III (set in precisely the same period) for the PS2 some time ago. Historical knowledge is not necessary as the gist is: there’s a massive war in Japan. Pick a clan and kick the stuffing out of your enemies.

Initially the vast array of menus can seem bewildering, or did to me. However, once you get used to how things work, which doesn’t take long, most commands are obvious and it’s usually not hard to work out the slightly more finickity ones.

It’s a mix of turn-based and real-time strategy which dovetails very nicely. Turns happen each month, and during this phase you set policy for each city (or can delegate it, which, after the initial part of the game, makes sense), negotiate with other clans to try and get them on-side, conduct trade, give gifts to officers, improve roads and bolster defences. In addition, you can plan military attacks, although this can also be done in the real-time phase.

Battles can either just be left for the computer to resolve or you handle them yourself. In addition, there are ordinary battles and mass battles. The latter involve very large numbers of troops and are won or lost when one commanding general’s unit is destroyed (so they can present an opportunity for an inferior force to defeat a larger one), which also eliminates all other units on that side. The battles are fairly simple, with numbers being the single largest determining factor. However, officers do have skills (bolstering defence, increasing speed, etc) which can change things and commanding officers’ stats improve/diminish a unit’s capabilities. It’s pretty basic and quick, but this is a strategic rather than tactical game.

I’ve completed the game on Easy (read a review which recommended starting on that if not au fait with strategy games, but found it a bit, er, easy) and Normal. Normal seems a nice challenge without being too difficult. [As well as the basic Easy/Normal/Hard settings you can customise difficulty to make aspects such as individual resources harder or easier for you or the computer to gather etc]. Your rivals are not passive, and will attack you, sometimes collectively. Early on in my Normal game I’d sent out forces to take out a mountain city (slow roads) and a neighbouring daimyo sent two units to attack my cities (which I’d emptied of troops). I sent reinforcements which managed to see off the units (who were forced into a circuitous mountain detour) and then attacked that daimyo’s cities. Later in the same game, out of nowhere a six daimyo coalition against me was organised. Fortunately, I’d done diplomacy and had a comparable number of allies.

There are three major resources: supplies [which do not spoil over time], money, and troops. Supplies are necessary to feed your soldiers, so if you emphasise troop numbers and don’t improve your agriculture you may have 5,000 soldiers rather than 3,000, but you won’t be able to deploy them. Money, as well as being accrued through each turn’s income, can be increased by selling supplies to the merchant. Sale (and purchase) prices will vary. If there’s a famine in parts of Japan but your land is unaffected, you can benefit from prices being up perhaps 40%. As well as supplies, horses and muskets (for war) can be purchased, as can treasures (to butter up your officers or other daimyos).

The music is fantastic, one of the real highlights of the game. Sound effects are good but limited (as you might expect). Voice-acting is generally quite good but the sheer number (literally hundreds) of officers means you’ll get repetition of voice actors/actresses.

You can also make your own characters (hundreds, I think). More can be made on the PC, where you can also import your own custom headshots (rather than using the in-game ones) but that’s still very flexible. Additional fictional characters are earnt as you progress through the game, and including the extra characters or not is up to the player (you can also turn off or on individual fictional characters, so if you loathe Lady Okatsu, you can keep her out of your game).

The translation is generally very good but there’s one quest early on (not especially important) where you have to capture a castle. Only you don’t, because it’s meant to say ‘capture a province’ [provinces usually had at least 2-3 settlements and often more].

I’ve completed the game twice (held back the review because I wanted to ensure there were multiple ways to do it). The first time I conquered a hefty chunk of Japan, got made Shogun and then was able to impose a War Ban which ended the game. The second time, I conquered the whole country, which took quite a while. I did have to dissolve a couple of marriage alliances to declare war on my erstwhile allies (one of whom had repeatedly failed to honour requests to reinforce me, so that was sweet revenge).

Replayability is significant. Having finished it twice in a row, I am on a short break but have begun a third game. Whilst most will pick the Oda clan, you can choose any you like or even make a new one (though I haven’t tried that yet).

Downsides? Building up a strong position, whether through diplomacy, improving your road network (if you can get troops to defend/attack more quickly than the enemy, that’s a real advantage) or allowing troop numbers to recover between wars all take time. Par for the course with a strategy game, but it’ll take a while to win. Also, when playing various scenarios (starting points) the snippets of history interspersed [not all the time, just every few months or more] may be repeated, which gets slightly tedious. The battles could perhaps be a bit more advanced, but I’m being picky (it is a strategy not a tactical game).

Again, I’m not a strategy connoisseur, but I did enjoy this and will be returning to it. If I were to slap a score on, it’d probably be about 8.5/10.