Friday, November 23, 2012

Fantastic Horror, Benghazi, The Nutcracker


I hope you all enjoyed your Thanksgiving! We had a fine turkey dinner, and I also managed to watch a great football game and put up the toughest part of the Christmas lights. We still have more decorating to do, but man, I hate screwing with the lights and I’m always glad to get the tough part behind me.
For this week: The genre of fantastic horror, some thoughts about Benghazi, and the piece of music I’d use to convince aliens not to destroy the Earth.

Gaming: I’m in the habit of occasionally grabbing a random book off my bookshelf and rereading it when I’m between new books. Over the last couple of days, that random story happened to be H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, which I think is one of the three or four best of his stories (The Whisperer in Darkness, the Haunter of the Dark, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth also rate in that top group, IMO). Anyway, The Dunwich Horror reminded me of a really under-explored genre of fantasy that would make an awesome campaign setting someday: A world of fantastic horror.
“Fantastic horror” is a term I coined (for my own use, anyway) to describe a rather narrow and obscure branch of pulp SF/fantasy/horror stories that pit humankind in a fantasy setting against prehuman horrors and things from beyond. It’s not Ravenloft; Ravenloft is gothic horror, and the fantasy elements of D&D frankly get in the way. It’s not Vampire: The Dark Ages—you’re not a monster, you fight monsters. Fantastic horror begins in sword-and-sandals pulp fantasy, but combines it with a world where the worst monsters are profoundly inhuman. Or, to put it another way, it’s a world where Conan can fight Mythos-type monsters.

Lovecraft’s Dreamlands stories have one foot in this genre—The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The White Ship, or Celephais all hint at a whole fantasy world where warriors, rogues, and wizards might roam around and do heroic things. But Lovecraft’s dream stories are strangely passive tales that sort of happen to the hero, and don’t show us the sort of heroes we might want to emulate with player characters. Many of Robert E. Howard’s stories are better examples: for example, The Devil in Iron, The Valley of the Worm, or The Worms of the Earth. When one of Robert E. Howard’s heroes runs across things like Tsathoggua or shoggoths, he leaps at it with a sword and tries to kill it. The Lost World tropes from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Venus, Tarzan, or Pellucidar stories are also a good fit—we’re talking about a world where man is a young and barbaric species, and those tales suit this theme perfectly. However, the real master of fantastic horror was Clark Ashton Smith. Smith’s Hyperborea, Atlantis, and Xiccarph stories really epitomize the sub-genre I’m trying to describe. Stories such as The Seven Geases, The Maze of Maal Dweb, or The Death of Malygris feature many familiar D&D tropes, but mix them up with horrifying magic and Terrible Things Older than Man.
The measure of a great campaign setting is whether you knew what it was before you saw it. That’s why Ravenloft and Dark Sun are so highly regarded: D&D fans knew gothic horror and sword-and-sandal adventure before those settings codified those genres for D&D. That’s why a great steampunk setting would work for D&D, too—you know steampunk when you see it. (Eberron just missed being that setting, which is a shame.)  Anyway, I think fantastic horror might be in that same boat. Someday I want to write that D&D setting.

If you want to run fantastic horror using off-the-shelf components, I think a lot of the resources are already on hand. The Dark Sun Campaign Setting offers a great toolkit for sword-and-sandal adventuring—you can go a long way toward modeling Howard’s Hyboria or Smith’s Hyperborea with the character options and social sensibilities of Dark Sun. Set Dark Sun in the steaming jungles, volcanoes, and glaciers of the polar continent, and serve it up with a generous dollop of dinosaurs and monsters out of D20 Call of Cthulhu, and you’ve got something pretty interesting, or so I would think.

Politics/Current Events: The Benghazi story. There seem to be a lot people in the government-media complex trying to convince us that it doesn’t matter and we shouldn’t be paying attention to it, but I think we deserve better answers than the ones we’re getting. First, who decided to *not* provide the Benghazi consulate with extra protection when it was requested months before the attack in September? Second, who decided to *not* assist our personnel during the attack when help was requested? Third, who made the decision to call the attack a demonstration by people angry about a video and convince us that this was all about defaming Muhammad?
I don’t necessarily blame President Obama or Valerie Jarret or Susan Rice for any of these things. Rice in particular may have been handed a doctored script to read from, although I certainly wonder why she wouldn’t have questioned the story (and I think that I wouldn’t want a Secretary of State who could accept such nonsense as truth and present it to the American people). But I sure as hell want some answers to the obvious questions.

Now, here’s the thing: Sometimes the bad guys have a good day. I don’t regard Pearl Harbor, the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, or 9/11 as shocking indictments of government competence. Yes, they were preventable, but when it comes down to it, clever and determined people came up with a plan to do something that hadn’t been done before. All that the administration had to do was say, “Yeah, we were attacked; bad guys did bad things, and we didn’t see it coming.” The story would be over with. But from where I’m sitting, it looks like someone in Washington put the “optics” of a tight presidential race above telling the American public the truth about what’s going on in Libya. If political considerations led someone to deny security to the Benghazi consulate, stand down a rescue mission, and then pretend an anti-Muhammad video was the cause of the whole thing, well, I want to know who that someone is, and I want them to be held accountable.
Once upon a time, it was said that politics stopped at the water’s edge. I guess those days are long over.

The Finer Things: I picked up tickets to take the family to the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker this year. PNWB’s show features costumes and sets designed by Maurice Sendak, the creator of Where the Wild Things Are. I’ve wanted to go see the show for years, and I’m already stoked about seeing it. While I’m looking forward to the spectacle of the dancers, it’s the prospect of hearing Tchaikovsky’s masterful score performed live in its entirety that I’m really anticipating. I’m a big fan of the Russian composers, and The Nutcracker is simply perfect. I sometimes think that if an alien race was threatening to destroy the Earth unless we demonstrated one reason why humanity should be spared, I might choose The Nutcracker to save our necks.
I’m also quite fond of Prokofiev and Borodin, especially the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor. I might like it even better than The Nutcracker, although it's not anywhere near as well known. Check it out sometime if you’re a classical music fan.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Third Reich, Romney's defeat, birch beer

Thanks for stopping by! Short days and soggy weather make for good movie watching. It’s looking like a good holiday movie season--I caught Skyfall just on Friday, and I have to say, it’s definitely in the top five James Bond movies ever. (For the record, I’d round out that group with From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Casino Royale, and Goldeneye… or maybe For Your Eyes Only. Seems like at least one Roger Moore film ought to sneak in there somewhere.) Only a month and three days until The Hobbit!

Anyway, this time: Third Reich, the election, and birch beer.  

Gaming: Today is Veteran’s Day, and that of course leads me to reflect on my favorite Big Crunchy Wargame of a Thousand Counters, Third Reich. This WW2 strategic wargame was first published in 1974 by Avalon Hill as Rise and Decline of the Third Reich. Avalon Hill went on to publish the updated Advanced Third Reich in 1992, and a companion Pacific Theater game called Empire of the Rising Sun (or just Rising Sun) in 1995. The game is a super-crunchy strategic overview of the whole European theater, played out in three-month turns. Third Reich was built around the strategic role of armor and combined arms, and the exploitation rules let you break through enemy lines and encircle whole armies. It’s probably the best theater-level WW2 wargame/simulation ever done, and still widely played by diehard wargamers.
(Funny story… first time I met Peter Adkison when he came to TSR during the process of Wizards buying TSR, we got to talking about wargames. Turned out he was a huge Third Reich fan. I wound up playing half a dozen games with him and a couple other WotC old guard over the first few years of my time at Wizards.)

Anyway, the game was picked up by Avalanche Press and updated again in 2001 as John Prados’ Third Reich. This version completely discarded the 3R/A3R game engine. Speaking bluntly, I found it unplayable. The revised map could have been great, but it was printed in such a small board that you couldn’t physically manipulate the counters. The naval rules were indecipherable. And the core of the game, the CRT (or Combat Results Table) was replaced by a combat system in which units received d6 attack dice equal to their strength. A 3-3 infantry therefore rolled 3d6 to attack, scoring a “hit” on a 6. In the original 3R system, four 3-3 infantry attacking a single 3-3 infantry defending had a 97% chance to kill the unit and take the hex—the question was how many losses they’d take doing it. In the revised combat engine, that same attack dropped to about 32%. Since the classic opening of the game was for Germany to make two 2-1 attacks to take out Poland in the fall of 1939, your odds of pulling this off went from 95% to 10%. You’d think somebody would have caught that. I understand they’ve published several expansions and accessories since, including a bigger map.
The rules engine was picked up by GMT Games, which published the successor of Advanced Third Reich and Rising Sun in 2003 as A World at War. The GMT Games version is basically Third Reich on steroids, designed to be played on two gigantic maps and provide a down-the-rabbithole simulation that includes research, espionage, diplomacy, oil supply, naval rules for individual capital ships, and scores and scores of specific exceptions and special rules to maximize the strategic simulation—for example, each major power has its own special surrender conditions and procedures. Whew! If you want the full-on, no holds barred, deep end of the pool Third Reich experience, this is the game you play.

While A World at War isn’t for everybody, GMT Games did a couple of very interesting things that offered some lessons a lot of different games might take to heart. First, the rules are “living” rules that are routinely updated and tweaked on line—sure, you get a rulebook with your gigantic game, but the “real” rules are the current PDF posted on the game’s support site. At Wizards of the Coast we often lamented the fact that we couldn’t reach out and update everybody’s rulebooks after they took ‘em home, but the A World at War community is small enough and dedicated enough that this is exactly how they play. Another interesting resource: Not only are the rules available in a PDF, they’re also available in a Windows help file format which is completely hyperlinked within itself. Need to chase down all the special rules about escort carriers? Click, click, click, you can dart around from strategic warfare to amphibious invasions to what-have-you and see everything CVE’s can do for you. Boy, I’d love to see a set of D&D rules that worked like that.

Politics/Current Events: Obviously, I’m surprised and disappointed by the results of the election. I was for Romney because I feel that the best way to get out of our current slump is to unleash the engine of small business, and I thought Romney was the guy who would do more of that. As the election drew near, it seemed to me that Romney’s apparent edge among independents meant that he had the election in the bag. Not only was I wrong about that, but it was clear that the Republicans were hammered up and down the ticket; they lost ground in the Senate when conditions seemed ripe for a potential takeover, and the only reason the GOP didn’t get decimated in the House of Representatives is that they had the chance to gerrymander the congressional districts around the country in 2010. (Before you get up in arms about that, the Democrats do the exact same thing when they have the chance; like the Electoral College, it’s just the rules of the game.) All that said, the election was fair, and Barack Obama is the president for four more years; there’s no point in continuing to fight against his reelection.
So what now? While the results showed clearly that the electorate wasn’t convinced by the GOP’s candidates or message, there are elements of the conservative agenda that are still very popular. Exit polls show that people support the idea of smaller government and a repeal of Obamacare, and oppose raising taxes. Voters know that we’re not on a good trajectory, and we need to make adjustments. But culture-war issues and unrealistic positions on immigration doomed the GOP in this cycle.

I’m not a Republican, but I do favor conservative approaches to many of our country’s challenges. I think it is vitally important for the country to have a party of conservatism near the levers of power, to check the liberal impulse to perhaps try to do too much. I hope that the cold hard reality of the 2012 election forces the Republicans to up their game. Off the top of my head, adopting a “tall fences but wide gates” approach to immigration would be a good start. Get off the culture wars: They’re over, and traditional values lost. Finally, adopt strong platforms for *fixing* entitlements, not getting rid of them. That means working with Democrats to correct the perverse incentives in the ACA (Obamacare), bend the curve on entitlement spending, and close the deficit. We can’t spend a trillion dollars a year more than we take in, and we can’t make up the entirety of that gap by socking the well-off.
We have a chance to see a deeply reformed Republican Party emerge from this loss. I’m excited about the prospect, because whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, a better party is good for the country.

The Finer Things: Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer. A lot of people have no idea what birch beer is; basically, it’s like root beer, but better, and I say that as a root beer fan. The real bummer is that you can’t get it out here in Seattle. There are other brands of birch beer around, including a couple of specialty sodas, but you know? None of them taste exactly right to me. Birch beer has to be Pennsylvania Dutch, or it’s just not birch beer. The proper accompaniment for birch beer, by the way, is Mack and Manco’s pizza, from the boardwalk of Ocean City, New Jersey. Fortunately Hurricane Sandy left the Ocean City boardwalk mostly intact, so you can try this for yourself at the first opportunity.