Friday, 26 September 2003

My Life in Glorantha

As anyone who's read my other RPG posts — and especially my background page — will know, I burned out on gaming in early 1995 — and that I spend a lot of time on those pages talking about either variant D&D or Champions, but other systems are only mentioned in passing.

As it happens, I've had a love/hate relationship with RQ/Glorantha for going on 25 years now.

I first encountered Glorantha in the form of the original Nomad Gods game at the Wargames Soc. at college, and thought it a little bit silly — though by no means as bad as Greg Costikyan's humour in the SPI Swords and Sorcery game. It was a while later, when looking to other systems to find bits to plunder to fix D&D, that I picked up a copy of RQ2 (the new edition at £8, as opposed to the old one at £5, this being back in about '78). RQ2 had a lot of things that I thought made for an ideal game — individual skill ratings rather than blanket levels, fixed hit-points — but it didn't have a splashy magic system in that way that *D&D always has, so while I tried a few one-off sessions, and Karen even did her first bit of GMing c1980 with RQ set in a setting of her own, Glorantha languished as something I read fragments of in Cults of Prax, Trollpak, and Cults of Terror, but never did anything with.

Neil Taylor picked up a copy of Borderlands, and started to run a campaign based on that set. The characters were mainly Orlanthi (Sartar's equivalent of the Church of England), with a neo with a death wish playing an Humakti. With the limited source material, we modelled Sartar after high classical Greece, like the pictures in the rule-book suggested, and the Praxians — at Horn Gate, at least — as Arabs at the stereotypical oasis.

And at that sort of time, the group burned out on the whole fantasy genre, and Karen and I moved house from Cambridge to Stevenage because I needed a job. When we found our feet there, we started playing other games with a new set of players (the group that Phil Masters had accumulated), mainly Champions. Meanwhile HeroQuest had gone from being a “source to be published” in the list at the back of the RQ2 rulebook, to an item in the Spring 1982 issue of the Chaosium Games catalogue in which promised it for that summer.

Time passed. RQ3 happened, and the combination of the dollar price hike, and the pound falling almost to parity meant that it cost 5 times what the previous edition did — £40 in 1985 money [by comparison, HeroQuest is priced at about £24 in 2003 money]. I did pick up the hideously expensive boxes of Gloranthan background (Gods of... , Genertela) and pored over them for arcane details, while the modified rules stayed on the games' shop shelves.

By the late 80s, I was back in Cambridge and working at the same company as Neil Taylor. As the Champions game folded due to increasing dissatisfaction with the Hero System, he and I would spend hours going over the minutiae as revealed, especially the new scraps in a new fanzine, Tales of the Reaching Moon. I remember fascinating discussions about recherché topics like the implications of the RQ2 Prax map showing the burial mound of a prehistoric hero even larger that the specially large mountain pictogram used for Kero Fin, the mighty goddess-mountain.

And so he set up an RQ3 game based in a slightly variant Glorantha (the big conflict was Tarsh — oriental in flavour — vs. Sartar — more like the current received wisdom, though Babeester Gor was in the role now occupied by the Vinga cult which hadn't been discovered at the time, and Yelmalio was taken as the cult accepted as the Sun among Storm), based alternately in Pavis and Sartar. I had problems stumbling over bits of rules that had changed subtly since the previous edition; other players had problems with other bits of the system like the experience rolls (one Unicorn Woman had her most frequently used combat skills stick at ~45% while others went up to ~70% because the dice would hardly ever convert a skill check into a % increase). We all found that the restraints on spirit magic meant that the old standby of “Glue” (Healing 6) battle-magic that made combat a survivable thing was no longer a plausible strategy. A belated change to Pendragon, to use the virtues and passions system as part of the cult attributes just made things worse — the movement rates and ranges meant that we had something like five times as many rounds to take damage from emplaced trollkin slingers when advancing from their extreme range to contact. [From this experience, I'm somewhat dubious about Pendragon's ability to truly emulate the almost D&D-like combats in Malory.]

The game also suffered from the “tourist trap” tendency — with a detailed world, the temptation comes to play tour guide, and escort the PCs around all the interesting parts — so our lowly step-and-fetch PCs were sent hither and yon, until the game folded under cumulative dissatisfaction, and I ran some cathartic high level D&D to permit some righteous ass-kicking that the RQ had denied us.

With the '90s also came the RQ-revival, spearheaded by a group that gave the appearance of seeking to play something between “Morris-dancing, the RPG” and “Iron John, the RPG”, which is still present in Hero Wars material like Thunder Rebels. The Glorantha that came out of this was trapped in a Procrustean bed of unsatisfactory mechanics, and with revelations that changed my perception of the world — not essentially trivial things like the (Y)elmal(io) flap, but that the Sartar/Lunar conflict was a lot more German/Roman rather than Greek/Persian as the RQ2 art implied. Yes, Orlanth is meant to be Tiw, not Zeus, and the new vanguard had only contempt for the stuckist grognards who liked the old way better.

In the middle of this I burned out on gaming, and when Hero Wars came out, I couldn't even gather the energy to focus my eyes on Neil's copy. I knew I had reservations about what I heard about the system — important events getting handled in a quantum box, with abstract action points expended until the state collapses and you can tell what happened — like who got wounded and how much. Later on, I did buy Storm Tribe, another gods book, and without the damnable barbarian culture.

But this year, HeroQuest — I did like what I saw at Conjuration enough to look out Storm Tribe, if only to try and answer the question “who are all these strange gods that the demo game PCs were devotees of?” and then get a copy of HQ for my birthday. I'm still not sure about the system, the extended resolution in particular; and when I'm in a mood to worry about having too much arbitrary fiat power as GM at the totally free scope of attributes (like Over the Edge, but more so). The rules hacker in me starts to think about perhaps using something like the West End Games' StarWars D6 system, with a HQ keyword corresponding to an SW stat. But I was motivated to at least think about doing something.

Having been out of the loop for a while, I found much Gregging and counter-Gregging had gone on, but I think that Glorantha has reached a point where it has completed a metamorphosis, to a new understanding and a new system, unlike the very awkward state in the '90s when the New True Way and the uninspired changes that went into RQ3 mechanics tore in different directions. Now at last we have a mechanical exposition that supports, rather than thwarts the subjectivist approach.

For example, back in RQ2 days, there was the assumption that a warrior would be an Humakti, and there was the one-size-fits-all cult of Humakt; but in ST, Humakt is a seriously scary god that only dangerous weirdos follow (normal warriors would follow Orlanth sub-cults that no-one who hasn't been following Gloranthan events in detail for the last few years will have heard of, like Hedkoranth and Helamakt). In HQ, he's back to being a standard warrior god – but only for cultures neighbouring Sartar. This I interpret as being because the core Orlanthi culture has access to all the minor attributes/associates of Orlanth, which squeezes the other big gods out into the margins. A similar process seems to have taken place with Babeester Gor, with the Orlanthi having Vinga in the place that the Earth Avenger takes in related cultures who don't also have the Defender Storm.

Of course the process is not 100% – it doesn't fix the (Y)elma(io) problem that really set the cat amongst the pigeons over a decade ago, and had been just about reconciled (provided you don't enquire too deeply into how the myths fitted together) – the ST version of Elmal as the Orlanthi sun-god doesn't really hang together as a myth (it singularly ignores who it was that the Orlanthi think was the object of the Lightbringer quest, or the fact that Yelmalio is the light of the sunless sky i.e. twilight). So far he's swept under the carpet in HQ, in favour of (St.) Ehilm (a Saint in Aeolian Esvulia (formerly Heortland)) — and we last heard of Ehilm as a western figure, the sorcerer who had become too entangled in solar powers, cognate to Yelm.

It is interesting to note that, having the assumption in the examples of a PC party made up from folk all across the continent, and with only distant ties to their kinfolk (occsaional calling in of favours for support in the play examples), the game has drawn back from the anthropological style of RPG that was going to have killed the setting eventually. The rigid tribal Sartarite society is alien to most 21st century players, more so than easy things like feudalism. Indeed the restrictive elements are stronger than some in real-world societies which are causing active harm to people in the UK caught between their ancestral ways imported from the Indian sub-continent and the ways of their peers and age-cohort.

Having the God of the New Way of Things associated with the people of “We've always done it this way” isn't something that most people will get.

One thing that hasn't changed in HW, and by adoption, HQ, are the rather silly monsters, which hark me back to the first encounter with Nomad Gods. One thing that has improved a bit are the scenarios. I dismissed an early famous RQ scenario with this summary:

The adventurers are approached by a man seeking armed assistance. He explains that he has bought, for resale, a sacred item. The person who he'd bought it from had stolen it from a small nomad tribe, killing most of the adults in the process. When two of the survivors demanded its return from the man now seeking PC assistance, he had his assistant shoot one. He has now found out that they intend to return in force to recover their property, and is seeking help to defend his house and this item. – What do your characters do?

The scenarios in HQ are better than this.

Happy Fun Legal Text

Glorantha is a trademark of Issaries, Inc. HeroQuest, Hero Wars, and Issaries are registered trademarks of Issaries, Inc. These they tell me about on their web site.

Nomad Gods, Borderlands, Cults of Prax, Trollpak, Cults of Terror, Gods of Glorantha, Glorantha : Genertela were presumably Chaosium trademarks (and are presumably with Issaries, Inc. now). Presumably Storm Tribe and Thunder Rebels are trademarks of Issaries, Inc. [I have to guess not only the changes of ownership, but also the trademark status of the current material as the books lack any legal indicia, unlike the usual case with comic-books. Pick up a copy of, say Lucifer, and the On the Ledge section tells you that indicia — and that would include Lucifer and On the Ledge — are trademarks of DC Comics].

I'm not certain of the exact status of the RuneQuest trademark these days. Ditto for Tales of the Reaching Moon. King Arthur Pendragon used to be a Chaosium trademark, but they sold the property on, and I can't remember to whom (Green Knight?).

Over the Edge is a (registered?) trademark of Atlas Games.

D&D is a (registered?) trademark of Hasbro, Inc. Swords and Sorcery turns out to have reverted to Greg Costikyan, rather than having been inherited in the Hasbro buys WotC buys TSR acquires SPI chain of events; Champions and Hero System are (registered?) trademarks of Hero Games.

Star Wars is ultimately a LucasFilms registered trademark, though the game rights are currently with Hasbro, Inc.

Conjuration might well have been a service mark of the British Role-playing Association.

All omissions are purely accidental. I'm certainly not an owner of any of the cited intellectual properties.

Doesn't it get complicated when you try to cover yourself while writing an overview that spans much of the life of this turbulent hobby industry!

Thursday, 10 July 2003


Let's deal with *that* book (You-know-who and the Order of the Phœnix). No, I didn't buy it, I had it forced on me by my parents. It's a pure maguffin-hunt, with the final revelation coming as no surprise (if we didn't already know it, it was pretty obvious if one applied the conventions — or should I say clichés — of the genre. There's a lot of teasing before she actually does kill of the character; and it's not a major one in terms of the reader's estimation, only in terms of Master Potter's. There were a number of places where it seemed that even some light copy-editing hadn't been done. let alone the heavy blue pecilling to cut out the fluff.

Permanence by Karl Schroeder – this starts off in Andre Norton mode (outcast adolescent flees repressive family after death of supportive parent), detours into Carol Cherryh territory (she's soon worrying about financing docking fees when her ship will reach the next civilised port of call), and then takes a left turn deep into strange territory, with ForeRunners like you've hardly seen them before, plus a whole new type of interstellar colonisation. Not a book afraid to confront the Fermi Paradox and that last term in the Drake equation – factors which are strongly correlated with my liking interstellar-SF.

Now in paperback, the Scar returns us to the world of China Miévilles Perdido Street Station, to follow what befalls one of the peripheral characters who got out of New Crobuzon while the going was good. Not quite as bleak as its predecessor, it is still just as darkly Gormenghastian in its construction, both in its use of language, and in its setting in an urban labyrinth. I did manage to read this one all in one sitting, which Perdido certainly didn't lend itself to.

Hannibal's Children by John Maddox Roberts (author of the SPQR Roman mysteries) has Rome losing to Hannibal. It's not surprise that this book (#1 of 3? it doesn't say, but the tempo looks right for that) has them preparing to kick much ass in a belated 3rd Punic war. So-so what-if historical fiction. While in that neck of the woods, I'll belatedly mention Thomas Harlan's Oath of Empire sequence, whose final volume should be out in paperback summer '03 – that one is Rome (+magic) never fell, and has a massive Eastern Empire vs Western Empire vs Persia vs Mohammedan four way struggle in the 620's CE. At worst, harmless holiday reading.

Cat people should definitely look out for Varjak Paw, by SF Said (publ. David Fickling Books, which is a Random House imprint). It's an urban-horror story, as the youngest of a family of pedigree cats has to save the day when the old lady who owns their house dies. As the cover puts it "This cat must learn to fight."

In the field of comics, I recommend the Red Star, a feast of post-Soviet nostalgia for the eyes.

In gaming, well, maybe I spend too much time in odd hangouts, like the Singularitarian SL4 mailing list at, but given the title, I had to buy Transhuman Space. From that context, it does feel very timid even within its no-Singularity remit – comparable to 1980s SF like Voice of the Whirlwind, I'd say. Something very twen-cen is expecting people to buy general purpose computers. Having either cycles on demand (grid computing) for general purpose computation, or special purpose appliances (you don't buy a car for the CPU) that might use spare capacity in the grid would be more plausible. The high-tech smart clipboard (descended from the Tablet PC) is perhaps more 2010s rather than 2100s, but would feel a little more sexy-future-gadget than most of the electronic hardware that the game offers.

Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds – while Chasm City was a detour to fill in some background for his universe, this latest book follows on from the events and disclosures of Revelation Space, and gets us back to the main plot; the discovery that something is wiping out starfaring civilisations, and we're next.
This time more back-story gets filled in as many factions struggle at cross purposes to find ways to cope with the Inhibitors, and the book closes when another little facet of the tale comes to an end. Now there's the frustrating wait for the next part – it feels like there are 2-3 more chunky volumes' worth to come, not counting other side stories.

Marrow by Robert Reed. An STL interstellar setting, set in the lightly populated epoch of the 10^5s CE, with (at least) emortal post-humans as the primary protagonists. It's not afraid to take this to its logical conclusion - a few dozen such are marooned on a marginally habitable planet without equipment. So they respond by spending the next 5000 years building a technological and industrial base sufficient to escape from their exile, and to find who trapped them there.

Security Engineering by Ross Anderson. OK, this is a title I'm also assigning my colleagues for reading, but it is very much the most comprehensive and up to date book on the subject, with plenty of relevant examples of how systems - military and commercial - have failed in the past, usually as the environment in which they operate changes, or the assumptions of what it is that they need to protect changes. The exploits can both be enlightening, and can also be mined for use in modern or soft-cyberpunk type gaming to add an air of verisimilitude.

In similar vein, but definitely more a popular exposition than an instructional text, is Secrets and Lies by Bruce Schneier. This isthe less substantial of the two works.

Cosmonaut Keep by Ken McLeod - His earlier books were all set in one future, but at least had the grace to be free-standing. This one suffers from being a first volume of a trilogy, and is not well paced. There are two strands that alternate chapters (as in his earlier The Stone Canal), which finally meet, but the far future line suffers a lot from keeping mysterious to the reader much of the everyday world of the characters, doesn't well establish the characters (especially their ages - maybe I'm getting old, but I assumed they were a decade or more older than they turned out to be) - and was bloated by a romance sub-plot which failed to advance anything. If only publishers weren't fixated on multi-volume epics, and editors could ply their trade. But it does have Reptoid Greys who would say "Take us to your dealer." which helps to repair things.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. The dangerous idea being that purposeless algorithm is all that's behind the development of life. And that it's algorithms all the way down. And up. Which is what makes people seek refuge in more comfortable magical explanations - and that includes Penrose or Gould as much as the usual suspects. A well reasoned overview of the historical perspective and debunking of contemporary arguments for magic.

There and Back Again by Pat Murphy is a charming re-make of the original work of the same title in the form of a space opera. Not profound literature, but a fun read.

The Stars Dispose/The Stars Compel by Michaela Roessner: cookery and other magics in the Medici household in Florence and Rome c1530. Not books to read when you are feeling peckish already; but they do come with recipes. I expect there to be a third installment at some point.

Restoration London by Liza Picard, covering 1660-70 is every bit as interesting as its companion Dr. Johnson's London. It slices things differently, but covers much the same breadth of topics with reference to the source documents. This is the sort of thing an RPG city sourcebook should be like.

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene is a non-technical survey of string theory by one of the people at the cutting edge. It suffers from having to first cover relativity and quantum theory in order to set the context - and falls into the all too common trap of explaining relativity as if it were Lorentz' Ether Theory, with its length contractions and time dilations. One of these days someone will write a popular book that starts from the geometric approach as presented in Gravitation (Misner, Thorne Wheeler, 1973), which gives a much more intuitive approach, once one has unlearned the LET-preconceptions. The intro to quantum mechanics isn't too stellar, either. However, after these sections, and we get on to what the book is really all about, he does get into his stride, and, with personal anecdote, but without resort to any equations whatsoever, fills in a lot of gaps between the type of popularizations found in New Scientist or Scientific American articles, and the hairy stuff to be found in John Baez' This week's finds in Mathematical Physics ( home/baez/twfshort.html) - I now understand what the fuss about Calabi-Yau orbifolds is about, even if I can't do the math - they satisfy the generalized equivalent of Einstein's field equation on a vacuum, so are as flat as possible while being scrunched up, so give no new background mass-energy density as a consequence of the compactified dimensions.

All of an Instant by Richard Garfinkle. From the alternate hard SF of Celestial Matters, Garfinkle has turned his hand to time travel, and the fight for History, with an equally novel approach to the genre that makes it make sense that the main characters are Africans and Aboriginal Australians from prehistoric times. The very novelty of the approach makes description difficult without spoiling the developments within the tale; so I'll just say that I recommend it.

London, The Biography by Peter Ackroyd covers from the mists of antiquity, but mainly the last 1000 years in a miscellany that spans the whole history of this ever noisy, ever consuming city. It is more than I can hope to summarise here.

The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch is an interesting counterpoint to Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Starting with a brutally direct route from the two-slit experiment to the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, he folds in epistemology, computation and evolution into a credible Theory of Everything (OK, we still need to tidy up the math of super-strings, but that's a detail within this big picture).

Time and Space by Stephen Baxter. I find that a lot of what I feel to be good SF deals in one way or another with the central issue of the Fermi Paradox. This related pair takes two diametrically opposed takes on the issue, starting with the same near future Earth. In the former, we have N=1, and the vision of far deep time of a Universe gardened by human derived intelligences. In the latter life - and star-faring intelligences of nowhere near transcendent technology - are everywhere, and a lot of what looks to be natural is just the action of layer after layer of engineering. They suffer a bit from the "tour of the balloon factory" approach to the genre, but are at least thought provoking, and grist to the SFRPG mill.

King of the City by Michael Moorcock. Despite the cover blurb, this isn't a sequel to Mother London. It interweaves autobiography (the character does things I know MM himself did, like play banjo on Lucky Leif and the Longships) and part tirade against Thatcher, Di, and Blair. It's also, bizarrely, his cyberpunk novel.

Soldiers Live by Glen Cook. Finally, the whole Taglios/Shadowmaster/Kina/Glittering Stone plotline gets resolved. Which means, of course, that this issue, (nearly) everybody dies. Given some of the sprawl over the previous five books, the resolution may not be very tidy, and is downbeat, but overall, satisfying, with a feeling that as best as is possible, closure has been achieved. There are of course some loose ends, and things are set up so that yet another generation of the Black Company can get into further scrapes, but I would hope that he would do something new, at least for a book or two, before succumbing to the temptation to return. If you've stayed the trip with the previous books, you'll enjoy this one.


Although my CD collection does have a lot of stuff that tells you that the golden age of rock is 14, with artists who were around in the 70s (including acts like Hawkwind and BÖC that are getting to be their own tribute bands), my current “I just keep playing these albums” are Godspeed you! Black Emperor';s lift yr. skinny fists like antennas to heaven – mixed rock and orchestral strings along with “found” sounds, and Sigur Ros' Agætis Byrjun – haunting, almost jazz-like.

Both have new albums out - Gy!BE's Yanqui U.X.O. has grown on me; while Sigur Ros' ( ) is positively accessible by comparison with its predecessor, but perhaps not quite so good.

To show I'm still in touch with my roots, I'm also playing Bowie's Heathen, and, more retro yet, Leonard Cohen's The Future (and discovering that he's wilfully misquoted in the Werewolf:the Apocalypse Umbra supplement).

Driving at going on midnight one day, and searching for something tolerable on the radio, ended up listening to Late Junction on BBC Radio 3, I encountered the group Dirty Three, the final track off their album Whatever you love, you are. Their style is violin, guitar and drum instrumental, sometimes slightly Celtic/folksy, often simply an oceanic drift of sound. Then a few days later during the afternoon on Radio 3, I caught Steve Reich's 1974 composition Music for Mallet Instruments, Organ and Voices, which is a minimalist, long time-scale set of rounds. More serendipitous radio discovery, like in previous years with John Adams'Hoodoo Zephyr , or the Afro-Celt Sound System (also known as the Afrocelts), whose Sound Magic(From the Light Continent) is about what you'd expect, from the band's name.

Having gotten into gy!be, it was inevitable that I'd get into other bands on the Constellation label (Silver Mt. Zion, Do Make Say Think, Fly PanAm) which are also into related flavours of instrumental music.

Movie Roundup, 2003

The film Dolls, is made up from three interwoven tales of love and loss in modern Japan, framed by a traditional puppet story on the same theme. The main story ( of a salaryman who breaks with his fiancée to marry the boss' daughter, then leaves the wedding when he hears that on being abandoned, she had attempted suicide, and the two of them ending up wandering around Japan tied together) fails to have the clean resolution of the other episodes (an otaku almost stalks an idoru who has retired after beign disfigured in an accident, and of an aging yakuza oyabun who on getting bad news after a medical check-up, goes to find the woman he abandoned when he took to crime), and spends rather too long on admittedly gorgeous scenery shots. I was surprised to see that the wedding was to have been held in church — I suppose that is, like Kirimasu, another quaint foreign custom that the Japanese have taken to heart.

Matrix:Reloaded is another film that will have been seen by most people who would want to by now. Pity it was only the first half of a five hour movie :-( - there really wasn't a resolution, just a cliff-hanger. The FX were kewl, though. Interestingly, apart from the councillor and Neo, the real-world Zion characters were women, non-white, or both - the white males (Agents and Architect) were Matrix constructs. I agree with Howard Tayler's assessment in an open letter on his Schlock Mercenary site that it could have lost the bump'n'grind/Zion Party digression, near the beginning. Placed where it was, it didn't even have the utility of the smoochy bit in Armageddon which at about half way through the film, came at a good time for taking a leak without missing anything important.

X2 - about as perfect a realization of what have been for most of the last 35 years my favourite super-team as one could hope to see. Good performances all round, and fans will know what has to come in X3.

Russian Ark is a 96 minute single take as a viewpoint character wanders through the St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum, and through the last couple of centuries of Russian history. Visually sumptuous, though it probably packs more punch if you have a decent grouding in the history being covered.

Caught Divine Intervention at the local independent cinema. This is the Palestinian film that did well at film festivals in '02. Strange, quirky, bleak, with a very black sense of humour, from the opening scene where Santa is being hunted down by youths outside Nazareth, to the final one where a mother and son sit in a Ramallah kitchen watching a pressure cooker and she says “It's been long enough. It's time to stop it, now.” via a number of vaguely interwoven slices of life and vignettes. Everything in the film could be read as a metaphor for the desperate situation there, while simultaneously showing that even so, the people can still laugh at human folly.

See 2002 section for Avalon and Revenger's Tragedy.

Also continued at the Film Festival.

Monday, 30 June 2003

Site makeover

Thoughts behind the full redesign from this to something like this.

  1. This site will use valid XHTML and CSS throughout
  2. Coding strives for maximum accessibility to all.
  3. That the site should be usable in most browsers with the minimum of skull sweat on my part.

The image in the banner is a picture of Mt. Taranaki in North Island, New Zealand, taken in November 1996. Fading into the banner is done with the Fade to Black... application.

Valid XHTML and CSS

This site uses the forward looking XHTML 1.1, but with fairly light use of features that are new after HTML 2.0. This means that, while I'm primarily aiming to have it look nice on modern browsers (Netscape 7, IE6), it should be adequately viewable with back-version browsers (I test with Netscape 4.5), or even as plain text. Indeed the difference between Lynx and NN4 is colour and pictures.

Version 4 browsers will not lose anything of substance - just most, but not all of the prettying-up that is done via style sheets, and some of the recent features like tool-tip titles usable on most elements (which I mainly use to explain links and obscure - often Latin - phrases). They, and users who turn off Javascript, will also only get the human-readable form of the contact addresses, as I use scripting to decrypt a version of the link and replace the plaintext human-readable part on the fly with something that has a mailto link in it. I do that to reduce the gain from trawling spammers.

I had used a table hack to put a narrow button-bar down the left, linking to the site map, but only the most recent browsers were able to emulate a stretchable clickable link area, and in small-screen devices running PocketIE, tables break the "fit-to-screen" algorithm for image layout. So I'm going for a for CSS-based formatting that looks good on a modern browser, but degrades gracefully in NN4.x and PocketIE and works for text browsers. I'd like to thank the CSS gurus at,, and for the hints, tips, worked examples and design philosophy.


Not everyone is physically able and in possession of the standard gamut of senses. That's no reason to deny them the Internet. I check my pages with A-prompt, and take heed of its warnings.

Not all pages are marked as accessible. Some are difficult to do over the whole spectrum (pages with many pictures). Some because of assumptions in the A-prompt code. As I code in XHTML 1.1, I don't have the HTML lang="" attribute, to tell what language I'm using - I have the XML xml:lang="" attribute instead, plus the <meta name="language" content="en" /> header tag. Neither are recognised by the checker.

If it weren't for the scripts, this page could gain an AAA rating. As it is, none of the pages with the webmaster address on them are accessible because the significant use of scripting is to replace a part of the page.

I can't tell the checker that a page with script on already has the non-script text in place, so I don't need a <noscript> section (and I don't because such a section is painful in XHTML 1.1). But I can tell the checker that there is no flicker on the page, even if I actually have some really horrid animations, and it will accept that. BTW, there animated images on this page, but they are the only ones on this site, and are well below the fold. [.mng files in a Java applet, rather than animated .gifs; .mng is animated .png, but alas only a few minority browsers have native support for the format.]

As noted above, the e-mail address is replaced that way. I do put the (not at all germane to the point of the page, and usually discoverable through asking the browser for page properties) last modified date in at the same time, and on this page I add the "downgrade to Lynx" experience only if it is a downgrade in what you see.

Once you get into the text-rich parts of the site (the fiction and RPG pages), they are almost all AA-level (and would be AAA if xml:lang was recognised). How well the other pages work will depend on what restrictions you operate under - they should all degrade gracefully to text, but in the picture rich pages, how useful that might be is debatable.

This rolling redesign at Easter-Midsummer '03 is also intended to be friendly for mobile users with small screen devices such as old style PalmOS devices with 160 pixel wide screens, or SPV smartphones at 176 pixels wide. For them a 150-200 pixel wide navigation column at the left eats up all the space you have, leaving the meat of the page several screen-heights down. That rather ruins any attempt that the page would have to put the key stuff "above the fold". The browser is IE3 if you're on a Windows hand-held, which also reduces the scope for fancy stuff.

No Sweat

Most pages are composed in a plain text editor using a standard template file as basis. Where a new page is not trivial, I'll compose it using Amaya ( However composed it will finally be cross-schecked for standards conformance with a dedicated XHTML & CSS validator in Java , also available in .NET for Windows. Amaya is useful in providing a source view with line numbers to match the tool's error messages. The tool and Amaya spot slightly different things as being wrong, but the real definitive place is the validator at run by the W3C, who define what's what.

All the hard work is in putting the templates together and running them and the style-sheets past the various browsers.


While I disagree with some of the more evangelical "web standards" people, who really mean by that "the most recent web standards" - HTML 2.0 is a perfectly adequate standard that will suffice for writing simple, spartan, text plus images hypertext, after all - but they are right in saying that pages shouldn't be coded to employ non-conformant browser quirks, but rather should be coded for general usability across a wide range of platforms. This site works well with PocketIE, Konqueror 3.0, IE6, Netscape 4.5, 6.2 and 7; it is possible that in IE5 the CSS pattern may not lay out so well, due to known bugs, for which there is no valid CSS workround, and it will be less fancy on the older browsers, but will still be usable.

Personally I can see a reason to use browsers on a "horses for courses" basis - NN4.x has a convenient and obvious cache directory that's well placed to wipe with a secure deletion tool if you're being paranoid - NN7.x hides its cache a little more, and IE does its best to keep you from playing that sort of game. In general, if you control you hardware, and it's reasonably modern, and you don't have accessibility issues, you're probably best off accepting that we're no longer living in the mid 1990s, and you should be able to find something better on a cover disk than a 4.x browser for your platform. Or for the really cash conscious, the cheapest way that I know of to get a high-feature modern browser would be to download Mozilla Firefox (Get Firefox) - at 4.7 Mb, for the Win32 version of the 0.9 release, that's less than half an hour with a 56k modem, or about 10% the price of the magazine with the cover disk (using cheap-rate calls) - Amaya may be slightly smaller, but it's very spartan, and is better used as a first pass conformance checker. If you need a browser that's also a mail client, chat client, news client and what have you, and you aren't using EMACS (because it does everything already) go for the full Mozilla, which is about twice the size, or Netscape at three times - both are smaller than a full IE6 download.

Monday, 2 June 2003

Cornwall and The Eden Project

Spring half term in '03 we took in a short break in Cornwall, including visiting the Eden Project.

This is well worth spending a day at if you're in that part of the world (we stayed 5 hours, and stopped only because the day had gone from foggy, with the haar blowing in over the rim of the old china-clay pit that houses the main Eden site, to bright sunshine, and Karen didn't have any sun-block, and was starting to burn around the back of the neck). It's best to get your tickets and one of the orientation leaflets from one of the tourist centres around the region rather than adding to your queueing, and to help plan your visit.

It's not just another botanical garden, or arboretum, interesting as either of those sorts of places might be; it also makes good use of artworks, starting with the horse at the entrance.

Once through the ticket booth, you see the true scope of the project.

Descending to the biomes, you find the inhabitants

Adam, a spiky metal statue on rockers that sways in the wind,

Eve, a green woman of grass

- and not one but three Serpents, of articulated wood, and other lesser pieces of decoration, in amongst the plants.

The Myths and Legends outdoor zone was still bedding down when we were there; and construction seemed to be beginning for the 3rd (desert?) indoor biome, blocking off the eastern end of the site.

I would recommend going early to the humid tropical biome, on a day where there isn't direct sunshine, and when you can feel comfortable outdoors in the light clothing that will be all that is bearable in the 25C/100% humidity within that set of domes. It was humid enough that the camera misted over.

Not so in the Hot Temperate biome - the Med, South Africa and California. Exterior first for scale

and now the interior, Med and California sections.

California scrub.

Stone fruit orchard.

We stayed at the Seapoint House Hotel in Mevagissey, which is just about visible against the sky to the right of the mast in the middle of the picture below. The grey wall above the cars on the harbour-side opposite is the path up, carrying behind the orange house and curling back around the point. Access by car is from above, then along the terrace - but to get to that level, you have to go past several "Unsuitable for Motors" signs and a 30% gradient warning.

We recommend the Mr. Bistro seafood restaurant, just off to the left of the picture (it considers Rick Stein to be a bumptious newcomer), and the Alvorada Portuguese Restaurant (which is far more than just a provider of salt cod, if that is all one has encountered of that cuisine - in fact there was no salt cod on the menu!).

Even by comparison, what we found upon returning home wasn't too shabby.