Sunday, April 28, 2013

Gold as XP, Boston, Munich

Hi there! Welcome back to my every-couple-three-week blog! I’m Rich Baker, author and game designer, and this is where I like to chew on topics that catch my interest. Usually it’s a mix of D&D-type gaming, wargaming, politics, culture, and some of the finer things in life.

If you’re a newcomer and you’re wondering who the heck I am, here’s a very brief bio. I’m a former US Navy officer (surface warfare specialist), which is where I get my interest in naval history and affairs. After my stint of active duty, I went to work as a game designer. I put in twenty years with TSR, Inc. and Wizards of the Coast, during which time I worked on over a hundred game titles. (Some of my credits include the Birthright Campaign Setting, the Alternity Science Fiction Roleplaying Game, 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, and the Axis & Allies Miniatures games.) I’m also an author with fourteen novels and a handful of short stories under my belt; my novels include The Last Mythal trilogy and the best-seller Condemnation.
I’m now helping the folks at Goblinworks to build their Pathfinder Online game, and working on a variety of new projects! (Speaking of which, stay tuned: I have a Big Announcement coming in just a couple of weeks!)

OK, enough about me… this time around, it’s Gold as XP, Boston, and Munich on the Columbia.

Gaming: I miss gold as experience points in D&D. Back in 1st Edition, you used to earn XP for killing monsters, and then you also earned XP for finding treasure. In 2nd Edition, that shifted toward more class-specific experience bonuses, most of which weren’t ever computed or applied. During our design discussions for 3rd Edition, we dropped the idea altogether, since we had a very strong push from many of the D&D fans around WotC to finally toe the line on letting people buy and sell magic items. When 3rd Edition came out and said that was OK, then the treasure you found very quickly became your credit card to shop at the Magic Mart for the gear you’d carry.
Now, I don’t object to that—ever since magic items included a GP sale value, many DMs in the audience allowed players to do some amount of buying and selling of items. In the 3rd Edition and 4th Edition environments, it works well to convert treasure to gear. After all, we remember how silly it was back in 1st Edition when a high-level character might have wealth counted in the millions of GP, and absolutely nothing to spend it on. But I think it’s important to take a step back and think about what sort of play the 3e and 4e systems incentivized. I think the more recent approach to treasure, experience, and magic item purchase actually slices out a little piece of D&D’s roots and moves the game away from its sources of inspiration (rousing tales of fiction) toward a pragmatic, less evocative, gaming system.

In 3e and 4e, treasure *only* has value when converted into gear that makes your character better; it has no intrinsic worth. When the NPC merchant whispers of “a ruby as big as a man’s fist!” you couldn’t care less about an astonishing gemstone of unparalleled beauty; it’s just 5,000 gp toward making your sword +3 instead of +2. The unappreciated wisdom of the 1st Edition rules, in which you earned XP for treasure and couldn’t buy magic items, is that the ruby is its own reward: Finding epic treasures is the sort of things mighty heroes do, and the XP system reflected that.
I also feel that the 3e and 4e model of treasure > gear conversion makes treasure a necessary component of leveling. When you know that you need to have a certain quality level of gear to “live up to” your character level, then the treasure no longer is *why* you go on adventures, it’s *how* you go on adventures. DMs have to offer a social compact of sorts in which they implicitly promise to make sure you get the means to get your +3 sword “on schedule” and players are incentivized to treat magic item descriptions as shopping lists. I think the D&D game is more strongly “sandboxed” and self-directed when players learn of opportunities to find great treasures and then think of ways to go get them, instead of trusting the DM to provide appropriate treasure on schedule.

Anyway, the next time I run a D&D game, I’m going to reinstate the rule that you earn XP for finding treasure, and I’m going to pull the plug on the Magic Marts. I want to see how the game feels when a ruby the size of your fist—or a legendary magic sword—is often the *object* of your quest, not the *means* by which you do something else.

Politics/Current Affairs: I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Boston Marathon bombing was actually the first successful bombing in the US since 9/11. While it’s terrible that it happened and it seems that our counterterror forces had plenty of warning flags about the Tsarnaev brothers, the really remarkable thing is that it’s been almost 12 years since a successful Islamic extremist attack on a civilian target in the US. Overall, Presidents Bush and Obama have done a pretty good job in keeping the homeland safe. However, I feel compelled to comment on two aspects of this attack.
First, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be treated as a criminal suspect, not an unlawful combatant. I am not at all opposed to treating people we capture overseas with our military as hostis humani generis: To my mind, terrorists who fight under no flag and should be treated as enemies to all humankind, like pirates or slavers or bandits in earlier centuries. However, if we’re talking about an act perpetrated on US soil by a US citizen, then full Constitutional protections have to be observed. That said, there’s no reason to allow the guy to clam up under Miranda rights—first of all, he may very well have information about pending attacks, which is a specific exception to Miranda protections, and second, no prosecutor is going to need his statements to convict the guy when there’s video of him setting down the backpack bomb and walking away. Interrogate him, allow his statements to be excluded, and then try him with everything else we’ve already got, but make it a trial, not a military commission.

Second, I find the “weapon of mass destruction” charge strange. Only a few years ago, WMD was understood to mean only three types of weapons: nuclear, biological, or chemical. The idea is that “mass destruction” is indiscriminate and does not distinguish between civilian and military targets. Most civilized nations understood that *none* of these forms of attack were acceptable without like provocation. A backpack bomb is not different in any significant way from, say, a Claymore mine or a Hellfire missile, so are those WMDs now too? I wonder whether the term “WMD” now stands for “anything we don’t like when someone does it to us,” which cheapens and confuses the purpose of the term.
In any event, I am grateful that the authorities found the guy and that justice will be done. The people hurt or killed in Boston deserve no less.

The Finer Things: On Wednesday the 24th I joined a whole posse of Boeing engineers for an excursion to Munich on the Columbia, better known as Portland, Oregon. My friend Chris Zabriskie puts this noble expedition together twice a year; we take the train from Seattle to Portland, buy a one-day transit pass in Oregon, and navigate our way to various brew pubs and microbreweries to sample their wares. This time around, our stops included Prost, the Amnesia Brewing Company, and the Lucky Labrador. Prost doesn’t brew their own, but they import dozens of excellent German beers: I greatly enjoyed the Bayreuther Landbier Dunkel Lager, an excellent dark lager, and a glass of the Paulaner Oktoberfest, an old friend I’ve missed from time to time. Amnesia does brew their own, and it’s really excellent: I sampled their Kolsch, and then had a pint of their “Alt”—a deep amber with just a hint of sweetness in the taste. We ended up at the Lucky Lab, where we had sandwiches and pizza. I tried their Wheat Stout, which was pretty good, but I’m not usually a big stout fan. Then I finished with the Widmer Dunkel Stark Lager, but at that point discretion got the better part of my valor, and I left most of that pint unfinished. Overall, a highly successful day!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Opening Day, real-world D&D sites, phad thai


It’s been a busy few weeks for me, so I am tardy as usual in my blog post. I’m working on Pathfinder Online these days as a writer/developer, but in all honesty most of my Goblinworks tenure so far has been tied up in organizing and managing the Emerald Spire super-adventure, then writing my slice of this epic sixteen-level all-star dungeon delve. Ironically, this is a tabletop RPG product very much like the sort of game products I spent years and years working on for Wizards of the Coast—so my baptism in the game software biz so far looks a whole lot like what I’ve been doing since 1991. I’m just now starting to dive into working on some of the game’s dynamic story elements. Lots to learn!
In other news… baseball’s back! I’m a huge baseball fan, and man, I love Opening Day. I cheer for the Phillies and the Mariners. The M’s have had a rough patch over the last few seasons, but I think they’re going to be a much better club this year. The addition of Michael Morse and Kendry Morales added some excellent veteran power and presence to a young lineup with a lot of potential: Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, and Jesus Montero might blossom into some great hitters now that they have a little protection around them. As for the Phillies, well, I like what I’ve seen of Ben Revere so far, and I’m delighted to see that Chase Utley seems healthy. Michael Young made a couple of ugly plays at third base in the opener, but he also made a couple of excellent throws. We’ll have to see!

Gaming: I have always found real-world ruins and lost cities to be an excellent source of inspiration for D&D adventure locales—for example, my Dungeon magazine adventure Rana Mor is inspired by Angkor Wat. Basing a fantastic location on a real place lends your adventure locale a certain verisimilitude that you can’t easily create out of a wholly imaginary place. Even if your players don’t recognize the place they’re exploring, a strong real-world example helps provide detail and idiosyncratic features you’d never think to include otherwise. Consequently, I’m always keeping my eyes open for really interesting places, especially ones I think the players haven’t seen before. Here are three fascinating real-world locales that I’ve run across in recent online browsing that absolutely deserve to have great D&D adventures built around them. None of these are very well known in the West, for whatever reason—somehow or another Ancient Aliens and similar shows just haven’t gotten around to them yet.
Nan Madol ( ) is a city of stone built on a coral reef on the island of Pohnpei (formerly known as Ponape). It might be the most interesting ancient site that no one’s ever heard of. It’s very unusual, because massive stone cities aren’t something you normally associate with the history of the equatorial Pacific islands. The author A. Merritt used Nan Madol (or a version of it) as the setting for his novel The Moon Pool, but other references in fiction are pretty rare. Anyway, as a D&D setting, Nan Madol would be interesting because it’s a ruined city best explored by small boat, and the small artificial islands would make for really interesting dungeon “rooms.”

Bagan ( ) is a vast, sprawling metropolis of ruins in the middle of Burma—er, Myanmar. It was the ancient capital of the early Burmese state, and is home to literally thousands of ruined temples and stupas. While some of the temples are very large and complex, a huge number are very simple structures—basically, stone pagodas with no interior spaces, or “hollow temples” that only contain a single room. The D&D designer in me cringes at the idea of mapping an ancient city with hundreds of complex structures and interior spaces, but a city composed of one-room temples or elevated pagodas is a much more manageable task—and still quite epic in mood and feel.
Finally, Sigiriya ( ) is an ancient palace in Sri Lanka built atop a huge stone massif. It’s known as the “Lion Rock,” and apparently it’s the most visited ancient site in Sri Lanka. Stairs climb around and through the rock to the palace on top of the flat 200-meter summit. Apparently the huge cliff walls were covered in murals in the distant past. Sigiriya strikes me as interesting because I like the idea of a site where you’d fight your way up a long stairway and through tunnels to emerge on top of a plateau in the ruins of a palace. There’s a pretty substantial city surrounding the Lion Rock itself, too. You can just see that dungeon map coming together, can’t you?

Anyway, there you go: Three great settings just waiting to be turned into epic D&D adventures!
Politics/Current Events: Seems like the news cycle has been slow the last couple of weeks, although the North Korea situation is starting to command some attention. Over the last fifteen or twenty years, the North Koreans have used provocations to win good-behavior bribes in the form of food and energy aid. I expect the current situation to simmer along until the North Koreans step it up by shooting some South Koreans via cross-border shelling or an incident at sea. Trouble is, the South Koreans are in no mood to pay the North Koreans for punching them. The real risk is that one side or the other miscalculates, and they lose control of the escalation. A couple of days ago I was thinking this was just “more of the same” from North Korea, but now I’m watching with more concern—accidents or misunderstandings might take the whole situation off-script in a hurry. I hate the idea of rewarding the Norks for misbehaving, but maybe that’s the most pragmatic way to deal with things.

The Finer Things: Phad thai. I confess it’s the only thing I ever order off a Thai menu. I used to make fun of my wife for ignoring an entire national cuisine and going with sweet and sour chicken every time we got Chinese food, but you know, I do the same thing with Thai food. I used to have a favorite Thai place just a few minutes from the Wizards office where I’d get a great phad thai a couple of times a month. Good news is I found a Thai place in Redmond that fixes a phad thai I like, so that long commute up to Goblinworks just got a little more bearable.