In Memory of Sue the Storyteller

Last week I went to my grandfather’s funeral. It was a sad occasion, but he’d lived a full life and we gave him a good send-off. I can give him no better obituary than this one my brother wrote. This week, I learned of the death of Sue Wilson, a friend from my local writing group, Derby Scribes. She had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, went into hospital for surgery, and never came out again. I had known she was severely ill, but her death still came as a massive shock, one I think will take a long time to fully sink in. Yesterday I went for a walk round the park to try and clear my head, saw an old couple walking happily hand-in-hand, and ended up in tears.

I wouldn’t have described Sue as one of my closest friends, but I realise now – too late, of course – what an important place she had in my life. She was one of the most stalwart members of our writing group, always to be relied upon for knowledge, advice, bright ideas, and board games. She helped me immensely with her advice and encouragement, especially when I was writing my first novel. Her stories were always entertaining and her conversation always enlightening (if not always safe for work). More than anyone I’ve ever known, she was a born storyteller. She spent her life steeped in stories, whether novels, short fiction, or role-playing games. She could narrate literally anything in a way that made it sound exciting, and she had a quirky sense of humour that could make anything amusing, but was never at anyone’s expense.  Her invention never flagged, and nor did her enthusiasm – ever generous with her time, she helped all our group come up with ideas and marshal them into coherent narratives.

Needless to say, she will be much missed – not only by her husband John (and I don’t believe in soul mates, but if I did, I’d believe in those two, since I’ve never met a couple who seemed more perfectly suited) and by the rest of her family and friends, but also by all the Scribes, by all her fans on WriteOn, by all those who played the games she wrote and GM’ed, and by all those who did National Novel Writing Month alongside her – not to mention all the people she helped in her day jobs working with vulnerable children. She touched many lives and left all of us better for her influence.

For her funeral, she has asked attendees not to bring flowers, but to do something creative instead, and if that doesn’t sum up her attitude to life, I don’t know what does. Sue – if you’re somehow reading this in the afterlife, thank you. I will never forget your generosity or your boundless joy in story-telling, and I promise I will keep the story going.

Game Theory

It’s the middle of cold, grey, January, I’m firmly back in the work trench (reached 80,000 words on the first draft of The Silvergreen Sea yesterday and celebrated with a cup of tea), and the Christmas board game season already feels a long time ago. Now, I love board games, although I sometimes struggle to find the time and willing participants. Or the patience to deal with some of my slower friends, who feel the need to over-analyse every possible combination of moves and dice rolls (if you’re reading this, you know who you are). Part of the problem is that, for too many people,  board games are soured by childhood recollections: repeated losses at chess, over-competitive older siblings, blazing rows over the Monopoly board. It’s a sad irony that, while board games have improved tremendously over the last few decades and there are now available countless different options suitable for every taste, the most popular games – and the ones most people think of when ‘board games’ are mentioned – remain those of yesteryear. Monopoly. Scrabble. Risk. Cluedo. Trivial Pursuit. What all these games have in common, besides the fact that they’ve been around for decades, is that they’re utterly terrible.

 
What makes them so very bad? Well, it varies. In the case of Trivial Pursuit, it’s the awful quality of the questions – trust me, as a former question-writing professional, I know of what I speak, and there’s no way those questions would pass muster on The Weakest Link. Oh, and the endless bloody dice-rolling. With Cluedo, it’s the fact that every single time, you guess the weapon and murderer quickly, then spend ages trooping across the board to get to the next room, only to get pulled into the %$£&ing billiards room just when you’re almost there. Scrabble – at least when I play it – degenerates into people trying to block off the triple word score and arguments over whether ‘xi’ and ‘qi’ are permissable words (they TOTALLY are). Monopoly and Risk both have that you-get-eliminated-early-then-the-game-goes-on-forever quality. Yet despite their terribleness, these games continue stumbling on like zombies that just won’t die, spawning endless special editions themed as Sherlock or Star Wars or – appropriately – The Walking Dead.

 
What games, then, are better? Well, one game I’ve played a lot this season, and which I unhesitatingly recommend to anyone, however scarred by that round of Diplomacy (‘The game of interminable backstabbing!’), is Ticket to Ride. It’s fun, it’s simple, and you get to build steam trains to Constantinople. It’s a perfect ‘gateway game’ as boardgamegeek.com would put it. As a fantasy writer and reader, however, I always like to check out games based on created worlds. I’ve had some issues with Tolkien-based games in the past, and the game of Game of Thrones sounds a bit too much like Diplomacy for my liking, but I absolutely love the Ankh-Morpork game, hiding my secret identity as Vimes or Vetinari whilst playing cards like Rosie Palms and Death (‘HELLO’). This Christmas I got to try its sequel, the Witches game, which sadly, wasn’t quite so good, not least because you don’t get to be either Granny Weatherwax or Nanny Ogg. The game features a rule – which my husband decried as ‘stupid’ – that, if there’s ever 3 elf tokens on the board at once, everybody immediately loses. This rule didn’t make much sense to me either, and I realised this must be because I hadn’t actually read the appropriate book (‘Lords and Ladies’) – so I did, immediately, and a fantastic read it is too, one of Pratchett’s best imho. And now the elf rule makes sense.

 

arkham horror game

The Arkham Horror board game in action. Set up for 1 player (no, really). Picture from boardgamegeek.com

Eldritch beings which cause everybody to lose suddenly are the main feature of another game based on a fantasy world, Arkham Horror. This game is quite immersive in the world of HP Lovecraft, but it’s definitely a whatever-is-the-opposite-of-a-gateway-game. There are Sanity Tokens which look like little brains. You fight monsters and the Doom track advances. Then Azathoth awakens and destroys the world, which means everyone automatically loses. Or you could play against Cthulhu instead, in which case you fight for a couple of rounds and then he devours everyone (this also means you lose). It’s a co-operative game, so inevitably, you all lose together. Supposedly the game does have victory conditions, but I’ve not seen much evidence of them in action.

 
Although I’ve yet to encounter a board game in which there actually isn’t any victory condition, many video games have a ‘Survival Mode’ where you just keep going until you die – and I’m old enough to remember when all video games were like that. I commented at my writers’ group that this is, of course, how it works in real life. ‘Life – the game with no victory condition’ – a very January sort of sentiment. Then one of my writerly friends came up with the more optimistic view that you can define your own life victory conditions, which got me thinking. Maybe one day – if I keep writing, and get lucky with those unseen dice rolls – I’ll be able to play a board game based on a fantasy world I’ve created myself. And If that ain’t a victory condition, I don’t know what is.