Sunday, June 10, 2012

Multiplayer games, Wisconsin, Seattle spring

Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I took some time earlier this week to guest-post in the Pathfinder Online blog about my work on the village of Thornkeep, part of the Pathfinder Online setting. If you’re curious, you can find my post here:

I have a couple of other projects keeping me busy these days, but nothing else I can really talk about yet. Keep your eyes peeled for Prince of Ravens, my upcoming e-book; next time I post I’ll make sure I provide some good links or pointers to places where you can find it.
Oh, and no blog entry next week: We’ve got family visiting from the East Coast. So don’t expect me back here until June 30th or so with a good long look at what’s next in Jack Ravenwild’s life.

Gaming: I’ve long held the opinion that multiplayer games without preset sides are a uniquely difficult social dynamic for many people. Games like Risk, Diplomacy, Kingmaker, Empires of the Middle Ages, or Twilight Imperium all present the player with a viciously hard decision right at the very beginning: Who are you going to screw over? That’s bad enough, because you often don’t really know what the right answer is when you make a decision that affects the rest of the game. But, even worse, there’s a metagame element to it too. When you decide to stop Joe from grabbing North America right at the start of a Risk game, maybe he shrugs it off as part of the game—or maybe he nurses a grudge against you all week. Be honest now: You’ve played Risk with Joe, haven’t you? Everybody has at one point or another.
That wicked social dynamic is the reason why I’ve always enjoyed the Axis & Allies boardgames. Only the most absolutely unreasonable Joe will hold a grudge if he’s playing Russia and Germany attacks him. The game’s preset alliances provide a fig leaf of decency to that first punch in the nose. There’s no opportunity for betrayal, or even perceived fictional betrayals, when your adversaries have to announce themselves up front. It’s why I designed Conquest of Nerath to work as a faction game as well as a free-for-all game.

I think that many game designers really overlook that tough social dynamic when building free-for-all games, and count on players to self-regulate in cooperating against the frontrunner or manage the endgame. If we’re all confident, mature, thick-skinned gamers, sure, that works. But we’re not—we don’t want to pick fights, we get angry when people pick on us, we hold grudges. I sometimes wonder if games like Risk would be better if it included a spinner with the different player-piece colors marked on it, just to help out those folks who can’t stand to make friends sore at them. I bet the psychology of being able to point to the spinner and say, “Dude, I’m sorry, but the spinner says I gotta attack you” would prevent a surprising amount of arguments and bruised friendships.
Back when I was first starting out in the game design biz, I had the good fortune to work with veteran TSR designer Bruce Nesmith. Bruce had a great insight about multiplayer, free-for-all games that has served me well for years: Every time you sit down to play, pick one person at the table to be your ally, and one to be your enemy. Never do anything to screw your ally (unless of course he breaks the alliance first), and never cut your enemy a break. Don’t let fleeting opportunities or setbacks change your allegiances. If you have a hard time choosing sides in free-for-all games, give this a try!

Politics/Current Events: A few months ago I wrote about the upcoming Wisconsin recall election, and why I thought it was important. As you might imagine, I was gratified to see that Walker survived his recall. Some of my Wisconsin friends have now moved on to a “well, Walker’s a criminal who is about to be indicted” argument. I really can’t speak to that, since I’m not familiar with the accusations. But I find that I’m just a little dubious about the latest calls for Walker’s head after the string of Democrat efforts to stop him at any cost. Busing out-of-state protestors into Madison, death threats against Republican legislators, Democrat legislators fleeing to Illinois to deny a quorum, the full-court press to elect a more favorable State Supreme Court and the ridiculous accusations of assault against judge David Prosser when that failed, the endless Hitler comparisons, and of course the effort to recall just about every potentially vulnerable Republican in state government… sorry, somewhere along the way you lost me.
At the end of the day, the single most illuminating element of this debate might be what the public-sector union employees have done with their money since Wisconsin law stopped auto-deducting union dues out of their paychecks. Membership in AFSCME dropped from 63,000 in March 2011 to 28,700 a year later. In other words, half the union members chose to keep the money that formerly had to go to union coffers. Think about that for a moment: First of all, didn’t these former union members *gain* the right to *not* participate in a union if they didn’t want to? Isn’t that a valuable worker’s right, too? And secondly, the old system took money from taxpayers of all parties and (through public sector employee salaries) paid it to unions, who then of course donated overwhelmingly to the Democratic party. Somehow it just seems wrong to force folks to make campaign contributions to people they disagree with. How is that not an infringement on their freedom of speech?

I don’t have a problem with unions in the private sector. There is no doubt that they won many important improvements in working conditions that all Americans benefit from today. But a union in the private sector has to exist in a symbiosis with the company its workers are employed by. If you drive your employer out of business with your demands, everybody loses, so you don’t do that. The difficulty with a public sector union is that it has the ability to elect the people it will negotiate with, and that it has no fear of putting the government out of business. Who exactly is looking out for the taxpayers’ interests when AFSCME or SEIU sits down across the table from Democrat politicians they helped to elect?

The Finer Things: One thing I’ve come to look forward to each year in the Northwest is the stately progression of one thing after another playing the starring role in the spring. First it’s the cherry trees with their beautiful pink blossoms, then the dogwoods with their more modest white ones. Then we get a week or two of cottonwood blizzards, with the air full of drifting fluff. After that the rhododendrons bloom in an outrageous variety of colors with blossoms the size of bowling balls. And somewhere in there the scotch broom, a dry and scraggly weed for most of the year, covers itself in tiny bell-shaped flowers like dabs of bright yellow butter, and suddenly every hillside you can see has turned gold. I never considered myself much of a gardener, but I have to say that every year I’m just a little more impressed by the show.


  1. Great post, Rich. Especially the stuff about Wisconsin. It's nice to get different points of view on political issues.

  2. No kidding in regards to multiplayer and risk I had people who would hold on to the grudge and wait to the next game (if I eliminated them) so they could attack me full out right off the bat , its hard to smooth over the resentment people have.

  3. Rich,

    Excellent Blog....As a life long Wisconsonite you nailed it. Very well put.

  4. Very true about grudge gaming, lol. I tended to cull alot of those in many games, these were mostly CCGs, but I had a nasty habbit of winning, alot. It got to the point where in a few multiplayer games I found myself facing all the other players before they would really attack eachother. The worst it got was the LotR CCG, I played the Hobbit deck, one of my last games. By the time poor Sam, Frodo, Pippin and Merry were finished, only Sam was left alive, now carrying the One Ring and he was one token from being corrupted... ah, good times... cause I won anyways. The only reason I remember it even. Heheh

    Wisconsin... I can't agree more. And I'll leave it at that. ;-)

  5. I do tend to agree with the idea that people should not be required to participate in a union and contribute dues in order to be employed. However, it doesn't make sense to me that any employee, public or private, should not be allowed to work with other employees to advance their interests.

    I think the issue you are really getting at is the now-unlimited influence of big money in all aspects of politics. After all, I might ask, who protects the interests of lower and middle class individuals when a rich billionare with a gigantic PAC sits down at the table with the Republican politican he just got elected to outline his legislative agenda? Remember, the unions got out-spent 3-1 or so in the recall election...


  6. Did I remember to say how glad I am that the corrupt mob unions lost that recall election scam in Wisconsin? It's seems so rare these days when the good guys win I've decided it's okay for me to make a bigger deal out of it. (Big Smile)

  7. Did you sleep through 2010 through the present enabrantain? Tea Party Republicans (which I believe is how you define "the good guys"?) seem to be cleaning up right now (a prospect I find disturbing for our nation's future, but that's another story...)

    On a happier note, we have a little bit of land here in the Seattle area, and I also enjoy watching the changing flowers and foliage over the seasons and years. I must admit our plot was a bit more than we were ready to care for, and got away from us in the early years. But we are slowly reclaiming it, and it's been interesting to see the waves of different plants colonize the land, have their day, and then die back. Those scotch brooms you were everywhere for a while (the snapping of their seed pods on a hot midsummer day was like popcorn), and then blackberries, and now it's tall grass and red alders. It's surprising sometimes how the whole landscape can seem to change from year to year.


  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Dear Mr. Baker,

    I have great regard for the incredible work you've done in your career and am now in a position to contact you regarding a freelance writing opportunity. I have been unable to find any way to contact you other than leaving a comment here (I have had bad experiences with LinkIn and do not use it).

    Please email me at michaeljwinegar (at symbol) for further details.

    Very Truly Yours,
    Michael J Winegar

  10. Hi,

    Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I couldn't find a contact email for you.

    A while ago I put out an ebook of my writing, called The New Death and others. It's mostly short stories, with some obvious gamer-interest material. For example I have a story inspired by OD&D elves, as well as poems which retell Robert E Howard's King Kull story The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune and HP Lovecraft's Under the Pyramids.

    I was wondering if you'd be interested in doing a review on your blog (either a normal book review, or a review of its suitability as gaming inspiration).

    If so, please let me know your email, and what file format is easiest for you, and I'll send you a free copy. You can email me ( or reply to this thread.

    You can download a sample from Smashwords:

    I'll also link to your review from my blog.


  11. Hey, this is well after the fact, but I just wanted to tell you're pretty much dead wrong on everything about Wisconsin. Let's do a point by point:
    1)Busing out-of-state protestors into Madison. Didn't happen. Seriously, it's absolute nonsense, propaganda, and right-wing radio foilhat talking points. There were, however, counter-protesters who were being bussed in. I was there when the buses arrived...

    2)death threats against Republican legislators.
    Had not heard of this at all. Perhaps one or two unruly protesters shouting as they came to work? Nothing substantive.

    3)Democrat(ic) legislators fleeing to Illinois to deny a quorum.
    They sure did. It was a dirty move, but it was in response to an even dirtier one. The Democrats were filibustering the "budget repair bill" and the Republicans called for a vote to break the filibuster...without telling the Democrats. Basically they went "all in favor say aye AYE. PASSED" in about 5 seconds time and stormed out leaving the Democrats puzzled as to what happened. The bill eventually did pass, once the Republicans had (supposedly) removed all budgetary measures from the budget repair bill and voted without allowing Democratic legislators see the new version.

    3) the full-court press to elect a more favorable State Supreme Court and the ridiculous accusations of assault against judge David Prosser.
    I'm not sure how the assault is "ridiculous". It's not even the first case against him for physical assault, all of his colleagues saw him, and he has legally browbeaten them into recusing themselves. The only reason he won is because a former aide was in charge of the votes in a key county. The night of the election she had some "voting irregularities", was the last county to finish counting votes, and at the last moment "found" just enough votes to swing the election in Prosser's favor.

    As for the union thing:
    1)How is it different than Republicans offering huge tax breaks, incentives and exemptions to corporations who line their pocket?
    2)Did you know that in the state of Wisconsin you can choose to refuse to pay the portion of Union dues that would go to political advocacy? For a teacher making about $40k a year, it amounts to 10 bucks a paycheck.

    I understand the stance against public sector unions, but it's just a smokescreen to decrease wages in America. There's this continual crunch in corporate America to decrease labor costs and maximize profit, and that meme, as it were, has carried over into neo-con, Ayn Rand "conservatism" in shouts of "starve the beast." With an honest government, they'd say "we have to reduce costs, and that includes labor", they'd slash wages, but that money would go somewhere important like investment in infrastructure or education. Not just more tax breaks for corporations.

    The whole "budget repair bill" was nonsense anyway. We had a projected surplus in 2011, and he basically gave away 150 million--the amount he said there was now a deficit of that we need to fix--in tax breaks to big, out of state corporations. Same ones who contributed to his election fund hmmm...

    Walker (unconstitutionally, as it turns out) revoked unions' right to bargain for anything except wages. Then he cuts wages. A veteran teacher who had a Masters and was teaching for 20+ years was maybe making $45k/year due to merit raises, length of service increases, and a premium due to special training (masters). All that was washed away, and that same teacher will top out at $36k/year. On top of newly crappified healthcare, a 20% paycut is a hard thing to handle. Just an example from one of my many friends who are teachers.

  12. Hi, Meatrace, thanks for reading... wow, this is a bit of a belated conversation. I'm looking for more evidence on the out-of-state protesters thing from a neutral news source--I want to make sure I'm correct about that. I am pretty sure I *am* correct about the death threats; here's a link to a neutral source:

    The story was also reported in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Here's more on the Prosser-Walsh dust-up, also from the MJS. This is after the incident was investigated. As best I can tell, nobody was choked, but a couple of justices were certainly out of line. I feel justified in referring to the charge as ridiculous, since it was dropped.

    You raise a good question with "How is it different from Republicans offering huge tax breaks [Etc.] to corporations?" Well, in the first place, it's pretty clear the corporations buy access to both parties, and both parties receive huge amounts of corporate money (have to do some digging to find out who gets more). But as to how it's different, well, unions vote, and corporations don't. Yes, big money can influence elections, but a politician can't directly buy 10,000 votes from a corporation the way he can from a union.

    A small anecdote: Former NJ governer Jon Corzine went to the New Jersey teachers union a few years back, and promised to help them stick it to the man in a big stemwinder of an address. As a voter, I was pretty outraged. Who the hell is the man? It's me, and anybody else paying taxes. When Corzine sits down with the teachers union to negotiate the next big union contract, who in the world is representing the taxpayer at that table? That's my objection to public sector unions -- it's privatizing payoff and collectivizing risk.