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I'm doing a Facebook Live at 1.30 on Friday 9th Feb!

I'm going to be doing a Facebook live over at Harper Voyager on Friday 9th February at 1.30, talking life, books and donuts. Feel free to come say hi!

Tea and Jeopardy Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 2

Advent 2016 Day 2 in the tea lair

Advent 2016 Day 2 in the tea lair

Day 2 of the Tea and Jeopardy advent calendar features a card and gift from Sebastien de Castell. A song is mentioned in the episode that you can listen to here.

You can listen to the episode by clicking here.

Good Things – Dragon Age: Inquisition

Dragon_Age_Inquisition_I love Bioware. They don’t always get it right (who does) but I love what they try to achieve. From Baldur’s Gate, to Knights of the Old Republic, to Mass Effect, they’ve been one of the top names when it comes to story and character driven games.

I’ve been playing Dragon Age: Inquisition on and off for about six months now and feel it’s time to write a part-review, part-enthuse about it. I will do my best to avoid spoilers.

For those of you who don’t know, Dragon Age is a roleplaying game series that involves pauseable real time combat, detailed character creation, multiple story and dialogue choices and some of the most nuanced party members you’re likely to find on a computer or console.

This is the third in the series. Dragon Age: Origins came first. It did epic really well, had some fantastic characters (yes, Alistair and Morrigan, I’m looking at you), and did an excellent line in genuinely tough moral dilemmas. The only problem was that the protagonist (you) wasn’t voiced, and sometimes seemed a bit flat compared to the vibrant company you keep over the game.

Then came Dragon Age 2. They tried to fix the problem of the first game by simplifying game mechanics and providing a character for you to play called Hawke, I imagine hoping to replicate the success of Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard. Unfortunately, where Shepard seems to be near universally loved*, Hawke was quite divisive, turning away some players immediately. Also, where the first game felt epic, the second game seemed much more narrow in its focus (and the Deep Roads are sooooooo boring visually). However my biggest complaint with it was that the choices that you had were only poor illusions. I often like to play these games more than once to see how things would have been if I’d taken the other path and was sad to discover that even the biggest game choices had very little impact on the story.

That’s not to say that Dragon Age 2 wasn’t fun, it just didn’t work as well as the first game in my opinion. But, while it may not have worked, it was clear that Hawke was an attempt to fix a problem and that the Bioware team were aware of past criticisms.

Dragon Age: Inquisition strikes a much better balance. There’s a really in-depth character creation engine which gives you a great deal of control over how your character looks and you have two voice options per gender. This means that the character feels like yours but also has a presence in the game.

Quick Tip: When creating your character, there’s an option to control how shiny their lips are. I’d suggest turning that down to zero.

In terms of the actual game, it feels a lot like Skyrim but with better story and proper characters. Each of the game’s areas is beautifully designed and feels fully realised, with lots of interesting things to find. You’ll spend a lot of your time running about and fighting things but there’s much more to the game than that, including:

Resource Collecting

This is largely optional but by collecting the various plants and materials across Thedas, you open up all sorts of crafting options. In addition to getting swanky new kit, you can also craft things to help in certain missions or to help the people you’re trying to protect.

Making kit

And naming kit too! If you’ve always wanted your very own helmet of badassitude, your time has come! As in most games, taking the time to make your own stuff tends to mean you’re much stronger than you’d be relying on in-game loot. Also, when you make additions to your kit it’s visually represented (which I love).

The War table

This feature enables you to make bigger decisions for the Inquisition. It allows you to open up new areas of the map, make alterations to existing areas (like building watchtowers or bridges to get to previous unaccessible regions) and deal with other factions. You have three advisors to aid you in this and they will each suggest different solutions to the many problems you face. It’s all too easy to simply look at the time each solution takes and go with the quickest but it’s well worth looking carefully at the text as sometimes your decisions can come back on you and some advisors are more bloodthirsty than others.


Sometimes you get to decide the fate of fallen enemies. More often than not, the options all have a little bit of grey mixed in.

Talking to people

This is a Bioware game after all. In terms of tone, you usually have three options: to be earnest and good, to be sarcastic and good, to be blunt or aggressive. It’s rare that the third options feels right, limiting responses somewhat. I still feel like Mass Effect had the right of it when they used the Paragon / Renegade model. Where Renegade options were ruthless rather than evil and felt like a valid approach.

That said, the voice acting is top notch and Bioware have done an excellent job of animating faces to the extent that I grew genuinely fond of the people of Thedas.

Cassandra is the best. Deal. With. It.

Cassandra is the best. Deal. With. It.


You can fall in love with your companions and try to win them over. Some characters are much harder to please than others. As far as I can tell, Iron Bull is easy and will take pretty much any inquisitor. Cassandra on the other hand is much trickier to impress. Each party member has their own sexual preferences and opinions on things, so if you have your heart set on a particular romance, it might be worth checking before you generate your character.

Collecting things

There are lots of things to find! Magical shards, mosaic pieces, bits of old lore, bottle of wine. They’re all optional but most reward you in some way if you pursue them.


Every so often you are presented with a puzzle. Some are trickier than others but if (like me) your ability to think at the end of the day is limited, don’t worry. Most of them are optional.

One of the things I like most about about the game is that it supports different play styles. You can play in normal mode, auto level your party and just run about fighting things in real time, or you can play on a harder difficulty and carefully build your party, micromanaging them through tough fights via tactical menus.

If I was being super picky, I still don’t think that the dilemmas in the side quests are as complex as those in Dragon Age: Origins and the tone is generally lighter (not a criticism). I’d also say that I’d liked to have had more made out of the issue of whether your character is religious icon or not, but that might just be me.

However, what Bioware has pulled off here is excellent. Dragon Age: Inquisition has a vibrant world that changes constantly as you start to take action. They’ve created party members that have relationships that develop both with you and with each other. It looks great too. I’m already on a second play through and really appreciating how much foreshadowing is in the dialogue.

One last thing. They’ve made a genuine attempt to present a broad range of characters. I’m talking here about sexuality, gender, and how they identify themselves. It’s really good to see. So bravo Bioware! I’m looking forward to the DLC hitting the UK soon.

*In my corner of the internet at least.



Dungeons and Dragons 5e: Classes!

WARNING: If you do not like Dungeons & Dragons and are turned off by words like ‘system’, ‘hit dice’ and ‘spell slots’… RUN AWAY NOW! And don’t look back.

Okay, to the few who remain, I recently wrote a post about the 5th edition (or 5e as it’s known to the cool kids) Players Handbook, in which I sung its praises. Since then I’ve had the joy of actually playing in a game up to 6th level and wanted to take the time to talk about the classes in a bit more detail. I’ve only seen a few of them in play though I’ve now seen enough of the system to be able to make educated guesses about the good and the bad features of the others.

Ready? Here we go…


Big hit dice and the ability to add your con to your AC, the barbarian seems stronger to me than in 3rd edition. You won’t be able to match the AC of fighter in armour (unless you got really lucky rolling stats) but you won’t be far off. Also bouncing sword blades with only the power of your mighty muscles is just plain cool and allows you to totally go into battle Conan style. Rage abilities are also lots of fun and allow you to berserk your way to victory.

There are two variants as you get to higher levels. The EVEN MORE BERSERK version and the totem animal version. Both get some neat tricks.

Barbarian is also good for players new to the system as they have a fairly small set of options to consider in combat.


In 5e, Bards get a pretty sweet deal. Up to 9th level casting, generous spell slots and better hit points and armour than a wizard, plus bard specials. So we’re talking a full caster that can also fight and gets healing magic. Sounds kind of broken to me. I still don’t want to play one mind you because I don’t like bards very much. But if I did, this would be the edition I’d go for.

You can choose to be a bardy bard, in which case you get to nick spells from other spell lists (sings songs and casts fireball*) or a fighty bard, in which case you get medium armour, an extra attack and the ability to cast and attack in the same turn.

So Bards are looking pretty good in 5e. If you like that sort of thing.


Clerics are pretty much as they’ve always been. Also up to 9th level casting and better armour than a bard, assumedly to compensate for the fact the rest of the party will want healing from time to time (though this is less of an issue in 5e as characters can recover hit dice during rests). So healing and buffing with a bit of zapping as you might expect.

Each cleric chooses a divine domain that gives them bonus spells for their lists, along with specials. There are too many to list here  but sample specials include: being able to wear heavy armour, channelling divine knowledge to temporarily use skills, and maxing the damage of an attack spell.

Clerics remain a strong class with good utility both in and out of combat.


I seem to remember a time when Druids were not as good as clerics. That time has passed. Druids still get good casting, d8 hits and medium armour which is pretty good off the bat. But wait. Wait there. We need to talk about Wild Shape. Wild Shape is wonderful. It lets you turn into an animal (which is always cool). At low levels you can’t become a flying animal but you can still be a something small for scouting or something tough for fighting. You get the animals physical stats and attacks and their hit points ADD ON to yours. It’s amazing!

You can be a druidy druid where you get some (yawn) bonus spells and some nice nature style tricks (yawn) OR YOU CAN BE A BADASS SHAPESHIFTER DRUID AND BECOME A DEATHDEALING BEAR AT 2ND LEVEL!!!!!!!!!!!!! But completely your choice, they’ve both got merits.


Fighters are pretty solid (that’s not a pun). As you’d expect they get better hit points than everyone except the Barbarian, and the best armour and weapons choices. They also get more ability upgrades (which is even more potent if your DM is using the FEATS system).

They get some interesting choices to make too. You can be the (relatively dull) Champion which gives you better crits and things. Or you can be the Battle Master which gives you special tactics you can use to change the flow of combat. I’d love to see how one of these plays. Lastly you can be an Eldritch Knight (the title alone sells me) where you get to summon magic weapons and cast spells and teleport! Bad. Ass.


I love the 5e monk. They’ve got a nice feel to them. Good attack rate, not bad AC considering they don’t wear armour and some lovely abilities powered off Ki that allows them to dodge super-fast or leap like they do in the martial arts movies. Also: They can catch arrows!

You can choose to be a martial arts monk, a badass shadow ninja monk or a cool elemental bending monk. It’s a win/win/win.


Paladins rock. They just do, it’s a fact of life. Excellent hit points, AC and loads of cool abilities like protective auras, lay on hands (that’s healing for the newcomers) and a good spell selection that gives really interesting tactical choices. A lot of their spells can be cast as bonus actions too so you don’t even lose an attack to use them. And they get smite. Smite allows you to burn spell slots for lots of extra damage. Rolling lots of damage dice is one of life’s special pleasures. You should try it.

You can be a traditional heroic paladin (awesome), a nature paladin (not so awesome), or a vengeance paladin (awesome and has great emo potential).


I’ve always felt that Rangers have lacked something. In 5e they get a good range of flavourful abilities, medium armour, d10 hit points. If you’re in their favoured terrain they seem awesome. If you’re not… well they don’t seem as good. Still, they can heal (but then so can a paladin) and they have some cool buffs (almost as good as a paladin’s). So, if you want to be a dynamic fighter type and don’t fancy playing a fighter or a paladin then Ranger is for you. Alternatively if you want to play a quick agile fighter and don’t like Rouges or Monks it’s also a good choice. For some though it’s about the flavour. And if you really want a character who is at home in the wild places and you don’t like Druids, then I heartily recommend Ranger.

You can choose to be a tough fighty ranger that gets some neat tricks or you can have an animal companion which fights at your side (but only at the cost of your actions). Or you could choose another class. Just sayin.


Ah, I remember when the Rogue could only sneak attack humanoids that had organs in the regular places. If you up came against undead, demons, hell, most of the monster manual, the rogue was about as much use as the wizard when they’d run out of spells. No longer! Now rogues can sneak attack everything.

But I digress. The Rogue is your stealthy scout with strong skills, light armour, d8 hits and of course, sneak attack. They work pretty well and have several tricks to stop you getting mashed by the first fireball or giant with an axe that you encounter.

You can choose to be a Roguey Rogue, and get bonuses to climbing and sneaking. Or you can be an Assassin where you get to kill things really effectively (I doubt many folk will go for that one!) or the Arcane Trickster where you get some nice spells and a special version of Mage Hand or as I like to call it, the hand of infinite sneak attacks.

Depending on the specialty you go for, rogue’s are another good bet for new players.


I never touched 4th Edition D&D but I can tell you that Sorcerer’s are waaaay better in 5e than they were in 3rd or 3.5. D6 hit points, no armour (but this isn’t new), and of course 9th level casting. Sorcerer’s have smaller spell lists than the other classes but can always cast what they need when they need it and, thanks to a really nice metamagic system, can either trade sorcery points to get extra spell slots or use points to enhance spells to make them more subtle, last longer, be more damaging etc. It’s a simple system that gives them a lot of flexibility. Also, cantrips (your lowest level spells) can be cast infinitely now so you never run out of spells and attack cantrips scale as you level so they never become obsolete. Woo hoo!

You can choose to be a Draconic sorcerer and get natural armour, wings and elemental bonuses or you can choose the other one**. Don’t choose the other one.


Oh god I love the Warlock concept. You’re a spellcaster that gets your powers through a deal with a supernatural entity. Warlocks get a mix of spells, invocations (special abilities granted by the patron) and other specials depending on which road you take. All ablilites are not created equal and I think Warlocks work best with people who have a good understanding of the system. D8 HP and light armour are just good enough to make you think you can fight but unless you get the right abilities behind you, things will end quickly and badly. At first glance the spell slots may seem punishingly low but unlike other casters, warlocks regain spells after any short rest, which makes it much less painful.

You can choose to be a fighty warlock (which is full of style but hard to pull off effectively), a magicy warlock (which has the potential to be very strong) or get a powerful familiar (also very strong).

As I said, Warlocks are full of flavour but need careful planning.


Wizards rock. Like Sorcerers and Warlocks they benefit from infinite cantrips. They have a much broader number of spells than their counterparts but have to prepare them in advance. They also get ritual casting (and I should add, so do Bards and Clerics), which allows them to infinitely cast any ritual spell, though such castings take 10x as long as normal. All the classic spells are in (you can fly, teleport, shoot fire, change shape, use illusions, raise the dead, etc).

There are lots of different spell schools you can choose to specialise in and they all have some really nice tricks, even divination.  Especially divination.

So there you go. All the classes have things going for them and deserve playing. Go play them! Seriously, if you like D&D, there has never been a better time.


*A bard with fireball? WTAF! This breaks my world on a fundamental level.

**Where your spells have the chance to have random effects, like turn you into a mushroom.  No. Just no.

RIP Uncle David

Uncle DavidMy Uncle David passed away just before Christmas. His funeral was last week.

He and I didn’t have a lot in common. To me, he was a traditional manly man. He liked his beer and his sports, was very practical, good with machines and gardens. And let me tell you, Star Trek never got a look in when the football was on.

But it was hard not to warm to him. He was always generous and upbeat and good company, the kind of guy you want at a dinner or a party. Most of my memories are of him laughing or making those around him laugh.

He was also passionate about people and wasn’t afraid to say hard things if they needed saying. He made a difference in the lives of those around him, supporting work mates (as friend, union rep and latterly, as a father figure to some) and actively investing in the local community, especially the Branston Home Guard Club (where he could often be found enjoying a pint).

He loved his family, especially his grandchildren who never tired of playing with him, hugging him and using him as an epic climbing frame.

His roast dinners were also legendary.

When my Aunt Mary was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis he was incredible. I don’t doubt there were tears but it seemed to me that they both made the most of their time together. As her condition worsened he became her full time carer. To my knowledge he never complained or succumbed to despair. He just got on and did the best he could.

And that’s the thing about Uncle David. He took life head on, no matter what. He was a good man, larger than life, and irrepressible right till the end.

Goodbye Uncle David.

Good Things – D&D 5th Edition PHB

Don't judge this book by its cover.

Don't judge this book by its cover.

Back in October I had a visit from the D&D fairy. He came, bearded and majestic into my house and presented me with a copy of the 5th Edition Players Handbook. I said thank you.

Then I read it.

Then I read it some more.

Then, well, then there was the Tea and Jeopardy Advent Calendar and Christmas, New Year etc. But now, now it’s time to talk about the book. Is 5th Edition any good? Does it work? Does it look like fun?

Quick answer: Yes.

The longer answer is going to spread over a couple of posts. This one is going to talk about the races and classes, the artwork, that kind of thing and the next post will focus on how things work in play. So, here we go…


The book feels nice and solid and well able to survive the rigours of adventuring on the train, bus or back of a car. The cover art is dubious but the general art quality is good and it was nice to see an effort has been made in terms of male / female representation. There’s a clear index and it was easy to plunge in. It’s also nice to see the recommended reading list in there as well. The 5th Edition world presented here is very generic but they give plenty of places to go for inspiration if you fancy a world off the beaten fantasy track.


All the standard races are there: elves, half-elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, half-orcs and of course, those pesky humans as well as tieflings (half-demons) and dragonborn (half-gerbils*). I’m possibly showing my ignorance here but I always wondered why you didn’t get half-dwarves or half-gnomes or crosses between those races or, for that matter, orcs rather than half-orcs. But I digress. Each race has a set of unique benefits. Unlike previous additions the focus is positive, races getting bonuses and specials rather than negative modifiers, which I like.


Here we’re getting to the serious business and I have to say 5th edition excels. You can choose between: Barbarian, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Ranger, Rogue, Paladin, Sorcerer, Warlock and Wizard. Each class has a cool trick or two up its sleeve and there are built in options for customisation. Most of the classes have three different types you can choose when you hit third level.

For example, the Paladin can become a Devotion Paladin (ie standard, chivalric sort), swear an oath of the ancients (nature paladin) or become a vengeance paladin (badass vigilante paladin).

Perhaps the most noticeable shift is with spellcasters. 5th ed makes them cool. No longer are they an extra bag to carried by the party until they hit fifth level, spellcasters are now capable from the start and, thanks to having infinite castings of their cantrips, always able to do something.


The system is solid and streamlined. Compared to 3rd edition it looks positively joyous to run. Numbers are much smaller (base attack bonuses go up to +6 at 20th level rather than +20) and multiple attacks use the same modifiers unlike previous versions where each attack had a different bonus to calculate with.

Stats are therefore more important and armour class much more significant, even at the higher levels.

Attacks, skills and saves all run off the same proficiency bonus and the system has a very neat advantage or disadvantage method for most issues so instead of dealing with lots of numbers, if your character ‘has advantage’, they roll two d20 and take the best result. If they ‘have disadvantage’, they roll two d20 and take the worst. Simple but widely applicable.

There’s also insight points, awarded for good roleplay that players can spend to get advantage when they really need it.

If I’m sounding overwhelmingly positive about this, it’s because I am. I think it captures the nostalgia of earlier editions but ditches a lot of the clunkiness.

I still think a Ranger is fundamentally not as interesting or potent as the other classes but that’s probably as much down to my personal preference as it is to the system.

If you’ve played D&D years ago and fancy getting back in, I think you’ll absolutely love 5th Edition. If you haven’t played before, this is the most accessible version of the game I’ve seen.


*just checking you're awake

Good things: Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

18th Feb Assassins Apprentice PB inddHere’s my spoiler-free, part review, part enthuse about Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb:

I’m a little late to this party as the book came out in 1995 but in this case, better late than never is certainly true.

It’s good.  Really good. Imagine your favourite superlatives and ladle them liberally onto this book. Repeat until thoroughly excited.

Assassin’s Apprentice is quite simply one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read. It’s beautifully written, accessible, character driven, nuanced, with a world that makes sense, full of twists and turns.

A word of warning: heart strings are pulled without mercy and things are not always easy for our protagonist so don’t pick this up when you want mindless fun or back to back silly fights.

I’ll definitely be reading the sequel(s) but I’m deliberately going to wait before I do to savour the anticipation.

If you haven’t already, read it!

Goodbye Kate

Kate was frightening good at a large number of things, from dressmaking to web design, from tango to medieval history, from psychology to roleplaying. She made a damn good roast too.

Whatever she turned herself to was spectacular, even if that was being late to things. I’ve never been so frustrated and so awed by one person and suspect I never will again.

Kate touched my life in a number of ways. She was the Maid of Honour at our wedding, an enthusiastic supporter of my writing (she also set up this website) and was an essential part of Emma’s life.

I know she struggled with anxiety and depression, with food, and often with the outside world. Yet despite that she achieved amazing things and touched a lot of lives deeply.

When I think of Kate, I remember her playing the perfect Fiona in an Amber live roleplaying game. I remember how epic she was running the Split Worlds live game at Nine Worlds 2013. I remember the mischief in her eye when Emma would finish reading to her and she would beg for ‘just one more chapter’. And I remember her hugs. She gave great hugs.

Goodbye Kate.

From left to right: Phil Tozer, Andrew Munro, Kate Harding, Me, Emma Newman, Daniel Singer, Amanda Henriques, Matt O'Connell

From left to right: Phil Tozer, Andrew Munro, Kate Harding, Peter Newman, Emma Newman, Daniel Singer, Amanda Henriques, Matt O'Connell

MegazordCon (aka Nine Worlds 2014 and Loncon3) Part 2

Here’s the belated follow up to part 1 as I got a little distracted by other things yesterday.

As you may have heard, Nine Worlds 2014 was a lovely convention. Full to the brim with a wide variety of things to do (from geeky crafts, to geeky food, to Waterdancing classes, to books and films and makes room for a bit of real science too!) all tied together with bows of inclusiveness and ribbons of fun.

I got to meet lots of new people, went to a brilliant talk about Black Holes*, did my first public reading of The Vagrant, and met the Goblin King.

In fact, the event was pretty much perfect so long as we don’t talk about the food prices or the lack of service in certain parts of the hotel…

Regardless, I’ve booked to go back next year, and by the sounds of it, so have a lot of other folks. And I’m already looking forward to it!

I used to think of Nine Worlds as a large convention but that changed when I went to the Excel Centre for Loncon3. It was huge! Like Death Star huge. Even the ten thousand or so attendees didn’t manage to clutter the place. Everything I went to was well attended, and whenever a big name was involved, people were packing every available space.

I had minimal commitments during the convention which meant that I spent most of the time talking to people, catching up with old friends, making new ones and generally failing to go anywhere I’d planned to go. And it was glorious!

Between the marathon bouts of socialising, I had my first panel, was interviewed on camera, and had a great time at the new peoples greeting session on the Friday, which was packed for two hours with people making friends. Lovely.

The Hugos are classy. You even get a fancy ribbon if you lose!

The Hugos are classy. You even get a fancy ribbon if you lose!

And there was the Hugo awards. They were amazing. It’s been a long time since I’ve needed to dress up for anything and I must admit I rather enjoyed doing it again. Our category was announced early so we didn’t have to stew for too long. We didn’t win but we came fourth! Not bad for a podcasting whippersnapper.

I have to say, that I was really proud of the results. Every winner was deserving, every speech dignified (and sometimes funny) and overall, the message was one of inclusivity.

Yay us!


*I'm now pretty sure they do exist.

And then the misogyny kept coming.

WARNING: All links in this post are upsetting either in their use of language or content.

So I was all set to write a post about how wonderful and inclusive Nine Worlds was this year and about how the results of the Hugo awards made me feel genuinely proud and hopeful.

But frankly, I’m finding it hard to hold onto that feeling under the sheer onslaught of misogyny flying around the web at the moment.

Whether it’s in politics where women are being talked about in the most bizarre manner.

Or in the games industry, where Anita Sarkeesian expresses an opinion and is sent death threats.

Or in responses to book reviews. Where again, a woman expresses an opinion and is called a c***.

The thing that links these examples for me is the thread that women are not being seen as human beings. Somehow, in our culture, we are sending the message that if a woman makes a point, not only is it okay to shoot them down but that it’s okay to do some with a deluge of offensive, hostile, degrading language.

That if they dare to voice an opinion it’s entirely okay to threaten them with assault, to sexually threaten, to talk about disfiguring them, or slitting their throat.

It’s not okay. It’s sick and wrong.

And I can’t believe that it’s even necessary to say in this day and age in a so called civilised society. I mean, isn’t this obvious?

Isn’t this just idiot level being a human?

Apparently not for people like Michael, who thought that this was an appropriate way to debate the merits of a computer game. Not life and death. Not even a major change to the law or to somebody's standard of living.

A computer game.

If Michael owns a dog, I doubt he’d use the kind of violent, hate filled language that he does in this message.

I nearly didn’t write this post. I think a lot of other better educated and more affected people than me have already spoken out. But then I couldn’t stand the idea of my silence being taken for compliance.

And even as I write this, I can see more examples. Like the one where a woman is punched in the face at the Notting Hill Carnival because she asked a man to stop groping her.

And I don’t even know where to start on what the  World Congress of Families are doing.

It makes me sick.