Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Favorite Monsters, 288 Ships, Portland beer

One of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs is “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).” It’s a song about growing up on the Jersey Shore. Since that’s exactly where I grew up, well, the song always just talked to me; I mean, I lived in this song. Here’s the refrain—maybe you recognize it:

Sandy, the aurora is rising behind us
This pier lights our carnival life forever
Love me tonight for I may never see you again
Hey Sandy girl, my baby

As I’m writing this week’s blog entry, I know that my home town (Ocean City, the next island south of Atlantic City) sustained a heavy hit from Sandy. Fortunately, my mom’s okay and her house is more or less intact, but it sounds like hundreds of other houses and businesses in OC are badly damaged or destroyed. The south end of the island was particularly hard hit. I spent several summers driving a canteen truck on the beaches from 41st Street all the way down to 59th Street, and the images I’m seeing from various sites are just unbelievable. Say a prayer for the people whose homes or businesses or beloved family vacation spots were wrecked by the storm; it’s going to be a different Jersey shore in the future. And “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” is never going to mean quite the same thing again.

Anyway, this week: favorite monsters, President Obama vs. the Navy, and Munich on the Columbia.

Gaming: A posting or two back I reflected on some of the D&D adventures I was most proud of. Since it’s Halloween, it seems like a great day to look back and reflect on some of the monsters I’ve added to the D&D game over the years. Creating monsters doesn’t give you immediate payoff, the way writing an adventure does—you don’t really know if you’ve added something durable and popular to the universe of the game until much later, when you slowly pick up secondhand stories from peoples’ games in which your monsters appeared. These are monsters I created (or deftly borrowed from various myths and stories) that have proven to have some real traction—or that deserved to get more traction than they did. Here goes:

10. Storm Devil (4th Edition): This guy appeared in the 4e Manual of the Planes. Making up new devils is tough; the Nine Hells are something of a hierarchy, so you have to make sure that you’re creating something that can fit smoothly into what’s already a fairly complete picture. For the storm devil, it was about fitting a role and level that was underrepresented in the types of devils available—ice devils are freaky bug guys who are all about melee, so creating another powerful devil that would look good in Cania and emphasize the artillery role was a fun opportunity. I’m also proud of the tar devil I created for 4th Edition, because it fits so well in Minauros, where there aren’t many other devil types that seem to really belong. Anyway, I’m a little sad that storm devils didn’t catch on very much; I thought they were pretty solid.

9. The Gorgon (2nd Edition): That’s THE Gorgon, not run-of-the-mill gorgons. It’s not often that you get to create the iconic villain for a whole setting. The Birthright Campaign Setting featured a number of unique monsters known as awnsheghlien, or “blood of darkness,” and the Gorgon was the biggest and baddest awnsheghlien of them all. Prince Raesene was a tragic figure, whose rivalry and estrangement with his brothers led him deeper and deeper into true evil. And he could kill you just by looking at you.

8. Alkilith (2nd Edition): Back around 1994, I took on the Planescape Monstrous Compendium II as an after-hours freelance project. As it turns out, the Planescape MC2 introduced dozens of monsters that stuck around through succeeding editions and gained real traction in the D&D universe. The alkilith is a horrible slime-demon; what’s not to like?

7. Tsochar (3rd Edition): This nasty little piece of work appeared in Lords of Madness as the “new” aberration race. I based them loosely on the parasitic body-melding monsters from Achernar that appeared in Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever stories. The tsochar haven’t picked up a great deal of traction, but I see them kicking around every now and then, and fans remember Lords of Madness kindly.

6. Malkizid, the Branded King (3rd Edition): Unlike every other monster on this list, Malkizid was created first and foremost as an archvillain for one of my novels—well, three, in fact. He was the big baddie in The Last Mythal trilogy. Later on I wrote up a set of game stats for this archdevil in exile, which appeared in the Champions of Ruin sourcebook. Malkizid isn’t very well known outside of a small number of dedicated Realms fans, but I’m proud of the way I was able to interweave his story with existing lore about the Crown Wars, the fall of Myth Drannor, and other Realms history.

5. The Keepers (2nd Edition): Another set of critters introduced in the Planescape MC2, the Keepers are a mysterious race of malevolent not-quite-humans who guard hidden secrets. They’re unabashedly based on the villainous watchers from Dark City. Rob Schwalb picked up the notion and ran with it in 4th Edition by tying them to the wonderfully dark and disturbing city of Gloomwrought in the Shadowfell.

4. Guardinals (2nd Edition): When I outlined the Planescape Monstrous Compendium 2, the game had outsider races native to places like the Seven Heavens, the Nine Hells, the Abyss, and Hades, but conspicuous absences in other parts of the Great Wheel. I created the guardinal race to fill in one of those holes, and gave a little tiny dose of Narnia to the Beastlands. The notion might have been guided by what James Wyatt described as “the desire to create needless symmetry,” but the guardinals turned out to have some legs.

3. Canoloth (2nd Edition): And another Planescape MC 2 creation! Back in 2e and 3e, these guys were yugoloths, but then in 4e, the yugoloths became a family of demons (I never liked that development very much). Anyway, these blind, mastiff-like trackers with prehensile barbed tongues are just creepy. I wrote a great scene in The Shadow Stone where Aeron is chased by one of these things.

2. Bazim-Gorag (3rd Edition): The third unique individual on this list, Bazim-Gorag is a two-headed slaad lord I created for my adventure “Prison of the Firebringer,” which appeared in Dungeon 101. Chris Perkins liked him so much that he gave Bazim-Gorag the cover of the magazine. Bazim-Gorag has outlived his appearance in a Dungeon adventure, and is now counted as one of the very few slaad lords in the D&D universe.

1. Eladrin (2nd Edition): At the top of the list, one final entry from the Planescape Monstrous Compendium 2, the faerie lords known as the eladrin. Like the guardinals, I created the eladrin to populate one of the empty spots on the Great Wheel—in this case, Arborea or Olympus. As the Chaotic Good outsider race, the eladrin thrived in 3rd Edition. Then, in 4e, our creation of a new cosmology model brought the eladrin into tighter focus as a Sidhe-like race who lived in the plane of faerie. Then, as we wrangled over the question of whether the elf player character race was really a wood elf or a high elf, we wound up using the name Eladrin to describe the high elf race, whose great lords and ladies are beings of innate magical power. Anyway, whether they’re angelic outsiders or the nobles of the high elves, the eladrin seem like they’ve contributed to the D&D universe and are going to stick around for a while.

So, there you go: Ten monsters I added to the D&D game. I hope they’ve turned up at your table once or twice!

Politics/Current Affairs: I watched all three presidential debates very seriously this year, but there was only one moment that had me off the couch and shaking my fist at the TV: President Obama’s airy dismissal of the Navy’s shrinking fleet, and his condescending explanation of how we “now have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes take off and land on top, and these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.” The pundits on the left thought that was a great zinger, a real laugh-out-loud line that showed how little Romney knows about things the commander in chief needs to know. The fact that it was delivered by a man who had *NO* military experience at all when he sought the same office four years ago was especially ironic. When Obama mocked Romney’s qualifications to comment, wasn’t he mocking himself too?

On to the substance of the remarks. First, they *had* submarines in 1916. They were actually pretty important weapons of war by that point. And they were working on carriers, too. The US Navy was launching and recovering planes from ships by 1911. I don’t expect anyone but a person with a serious knowledge of naval history to know that, but hey, since the President portrayed himself as an authority, I thought it was worth pointing out.

More importantly: The President claims that it doesn’t matter that we’re down to 288 ships (and predicted to drop down to 240 or less over the next few years) because ships are so much more capable than they used to be. That is a surprisingly naïve view. Here’s the problem: No matter how advanced your ship is, you can’t be in two places at the same time. We maintain ships on station near potential crisis points all around the world, most notably in the Arabian Gulf and the West Pacific. To keep 1 ship on station at all times, you actually need 4 ships: Ships can spend about 6 months out of every 2 years deployed. The rest of the time is dedicated to maintenance and training cycles.

China’s navy consists of about 139 major combatants—and they’re building fast. That number is going to go up. Our ability to check major aggression in the South China Sea or East China Sea is already shaky, and it’s not going to improve if we follow President Obama’s plan (or lack of a plan). The Navy has identified a need for a 313-ship fleet. I think that’s the minimal figure we should maintain. President Obama’s lack of concern about this question is alarming.

One final note… a substantial number of the hulls we expect to make up our fleet in the next ten years are NOT our highly capable destroyers, cruisers, or attack submarines. They’re the new LCS vessels, which are absolutely useless for fighting other warships. The Navy plans to build more than 50 of these things, and the only enemies they can take on are enemies that can’t shoot back. That’s okay for a patrol ship, but it’s not going to do much to deter the People’s Liberation Army Navy from starting a ruckus. I wrote quite a bit about the LCS program a few months back, and let’s just say I’m not a fan.

The Finer Things: Last week I joined a friend of mine and a whole gang on beer aficionados on a train trip down to Portland, which is regarded as perhaps the finest beer city in the United States. We visited the HUB (or Hopworks Urban Brewery), the Apex Brewery, the Burnside Brewery, and the Tugboat Brewery. I sampled some very fine beer! At the HUB, I had a glass of the brewery’s lager, which was quite good. I used to be all about the ambers and reds, but I’ve come to really appreciate good pilsners and lagers these days as well as the darker stuff. Apex served a variety of European beers on draft; I had a fine Belgian called Avec Les Bon Voeux, and a classic pilsner by Veltins. At the Burnside, I enjoyed their Stock Ale, a smooth red-amber ale, and an excellent cubano slider off their happy hour menu. Finally, at the Tugboat, I tried the Chernobyl Stout, which was truly exceptional. I am generally not a beer snob, but it was fun to spend a day roaming around Portland pretending to be one. I heartily recommend each of the pubs we visited if you find yourself in Portland and you’re thirsty.

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me that Obama's "zinger" was a bit silly, but just about as silly as Romney saying that Obama was soft on defense (and pander to Virginia), by using as evidence the fact that the Navy had a similar number of ships as in 1916.

    Both were trying to score political points, without saying much about the real issues we face. Neither are "bad" for doing this, they are just responding to the political environment we have allowed to form.

    The real problem is that we have descended to a point where political campaigns consist of little more than clever sound bites and a blizzard of shallow and misleading campaign ads and phone calls (in 5-6 states), overlaid on a bed of uncompromising partisan ideology.

    We allow this as voters, and it is abetted by a two-party and primary system that limits our options, as well as the court's approval of any and all campaign spending (much of it now unbound by any reporting requirement as well).

    In a sane world, we would discuss the need to reduce the budget, and look for ways to spend less money and spend it more intelligently, across entitlements, defense and domestic spending. Military spending could be done more efficiently, as could things in other areas. We would need to make hard choices. If we drilled down into the navy, we would have to discuss specifics about what we expect our navy to do, what threats we face, what goals we can or can't expect the navy to meet, and where the money we are spending is being used inefficiently or in ways not aligned with those goals (LCS perhaps).

    Both parties know that kind of honesty would lose them the election, so instead we get clever substance-free (often truth-free) canards from everyone...