Thursday, December 29, 2011

Game or Simulation; Operation Praying Mantis

The week between Christmas and New Year's has been pretty quiet around the house, so I figured I'd take an hour and pre-blog before the New Year's revelry. 2012 is shaping up as a very strange year for me, after my long stint with TSR/Wizards of the Coast. Looking into the Magic 8-Ball of life, I'm getting the not very helpful result of, "Answer hazy, ask again later." Where will Christmas of 2012 find me? I'm not sure. Maybe I'm in the game biz, maybe I'm doing some other sort of writing, maybe I'm looking at a relocation, maybe we're fine where we are. I'm not a big fan of uncertainty (who is?) but I look forward to seeing what comes up next.

Idle aside: We are now deep enough into the current century to drop awkward verbalizations such as "two thousand twelve" or "twenty-oh-twelve" or "two-twelve," all of which I hear every now and then. We spent the last ninety years or so of the twentieth century saying things like "nineteen oh five" or "nineteen fifty-six" or "nineteen ninety-one." So I hereby direct that people are now to simply say "twenty-twelve," or twenty followed by the last two digits of the year read as a double-digit number, when referring to years in the 21st century. When will Alex graduate high school? Twenty-thirteen. When did the Phillies win the series? Twenty-oh-eight. Just like that.

Gaming Thoughts: This week, it's D&D. I have long held the belief that D&D is not actually a game. It's a simulation. Games have objectives and winning conditions. Games tell you what you can do when it's your turn, and define concrete, specific actions that you can choose from. Simulations are imaginary worlds defined only by a set of "physics" -- things that are true in that world, such as "fall a thousand feet and you die" or "dragons breathe fire." In a simulation, you define your own objectives and you can do anything you want that conforms to the physics. In fact, thinking of clever ways to make use of the world "physics" is a lot of the fun. You need to start a forest fire? Great, dragons breathe fire. Maybe you could use a dragon to do that. Any objectives you come up with are self-imposed in a simulation, and you can modify or abandon them at will. There is no set action that wins or loses the simulation, other than you just stop doing it.
   This, by the way, was the genius of Jonathan Tweet's work on 3e D&D. He recognized that D&D is a simulation, not a game, and directed a serious and comprehensive look at the physics of the world.
   Now, "simulation" is kind of a dirty word in the RPG or board game design business. Us professional game designers warn each other all the time about dropping too far down the rabbit hole of simulation, which we generally seem to think is the antithesis of fun. I think part of the problem is that we mix up the ideas of "low abstraction" and "simulation." A highly detailed combat system taking into account many factors about your character and the thing you're fighting has low abstraction, and therefore simulates combat quite accurately -- but that does not mean it is a *simulation.* After all, that combat system could be a part of a dueling game that proceeds toward a clear win or loss, and might be the entirety of the game... or it could be a piece of the "physics" the world-simulation operates under. In a simulation, you might decide to explore what happens when you bust a lantern over your enemy's head. A low-abstraction simulation tells you exactly how to do that. A high-abstraction simulation probably groups that up with "improvised attacks" and gives the GM some guidelines on evaluating the results. A game, however, tries very hard to not let you make up actions that aren't what the game designer wants you to do.
   This is the essential philosophical divide between 1e/2e/3e and 4e Dungeons & Dragons. 4e leans much harder toward "game" over "sim."
   This may sound like I'm really flogging "games" as bad RPGS or crowing that simulation is best. That's only somewhat true. Simulation is hard to GM, it's hard to teach, and it doesn't fit well in a busy schedule. There are many different ways to experience a concept like "D&D," and that can embrace true games (such as the recent Castle Ravenloft or Wrath of Ashardalon boardgames) as well as classic open-ended simulations such as regular RPG play. The "right" version really depends on what you're looking for in your play time.

Politics/Current Events: More saber-rattling in the Persian Gulf, it seems. Here's a story that is worth keeping an eye on:

Iran is reminding everybody that they can make the costs of oil skyrocket any time they choose, while we're reminding Iran that we wouldn't take that lying down. The first thing I think of whenever the Straits of Hormuz come up in this sort of story is Operation Praying Mantis, which is virtually unknown to the American public for some reason. Most people have no idea that the US Navy fought a one-day war against the Iranian Navy back on April 18th, 1988. Now, at the time I was just about to be commissioned as a naval officer, so I had reason to pay attention. But still I can't believe that something that involved this much shooting is just not *remembered* by our country. Here's a link:

A few months ago I told one of my co-workers, a guy 40 years old with an interest in military stuff, about this, and he just had no idea any of this ever happened. Amazing.

The Finer Things: Silver Lake Roza Red. We had this very nice Washington blended table wine with our rib roast Christmas dinner. My wife doesn't like astringent wines at all, so many reds scare her off, but this was quite smooth without being really fruity. Washington state has about the second-best viticultural region in the country, behind only Napa valley in California. Every year or so we drive over Chinook pass and spend a couple of days visiting wineries out in the Yakima area. The drive along route 410 is maybe one of the top ten drives in the country, by my way of thinking, and the vineyards are just amazing. Strange thing, though--the last time we were out there, just a couple of months back, it seemed chardonnays were crazy hard to find. Going out there regularly you see the vineyard's offerings change over time, and I guess the chardonnays just weren't their best in the last couple of years.

Friday, December 23, 2011

My New Blog Site; Christmas 2011 Update

Merry Christmas, folks!

I've maintained a somewhat infrequent blog for years over at, but since I am now a Free Agent, I figure it's time to establish my online thoughts in a new venue. In this blog I'm going to bounce around a bit from gaming and writing to politics and current events and the occasional reflection on the finer things in life. If you're a gamer or reader who just wants to keep up with my professional news and finds it annoying when a "celebrity" bludgeons you with his politics, please feel free to stop reading after the first part of my regular entry -- I intend to segregate out those thoughts for those who don't want 'em. My goal is to post around the 1st and the 15th of each month; we'll see how that goes.

Oh, and if you're curious about my old wizards blogs, you can find them here:

Who Am I Anyway?: I'm Richard Baker, a game designer (award-winning) and author of fantasy and science fiction (best-selling, once so far). I grew up on the Jersey shore, went to college at Virginia Tech (I was in A/I companies of the Corps of Cadets), served as a deck officer in the US Navy, married my college sweetheart Kim, and then went to work at TSR, Inc., in 1991. I've worked on D&D off and on for twenty years, and I'm also behind the Alternity science-fiction game, the 2010 edition of Gamma World, the Conquest of Nerath boardgame, and three different Axis & Allies Miniatures games. I now live in western Washington with my wife and our two teenage daughters.

Game Design and Writing News: Well, you have probably heard by now that Wizards of the Coast eliminated my position back on December 14th. I'm a little sore about that, as you might imagine. However, I want to make a couple of things clear for folks...
  1. I'm OK. Wizards offers a pretty enlightened severance package, and I now have a great opportunity to think about what I want to do next.
  2. I'm not particularly bothered by the "axed before Christmas" thing. It would kinda suck at any time of year, and Christmas is pretty much bought and paid for at this point. So I don't regard the folks who made the decision as peculiarly soulless corporate ghouls because of the timing of things. They're generally good folks, and I think they genuinely didn't want to let me go.
  3. I am planning to start off my new self-employed career with a couple of novel projects. Down the road I may contract with Wizards for some game design work. However, I now have an opportunity to write anything I want, and I'm going to take advantage of that.
  4. I am naturally exploring the idea of making the jump to game software, or sticking around in the analog game biz. However, I intend to take my time and make sure I make the best decision for my family. I am not in a hurry (see point 1)... but if the right position drops into my lap, well, I wouldn't say no.
Revenant Projects: In case you're curious, several new games and sourcebooks are going to come out in the next few months with my name on them. (I call 'em revenant projects because they're continuing on after I'm "dead" so to speak.) At Wizards, we often worked many months in advance of a game or project's release, so there are some things in the pipeline.
   Axis & Allies Air Force Miniatures: This new miniatures game of WW2 air combat will be out in February of 2012. I designed the game and the first sets of miniatures. You can check back at the Wizards of the Coast site for previews next month; if I see them start, I'll link them.
   Heroes of the Elemental Chaos: My next D&D sourcebook will be out in the first trimester of 2012. It's a look at characters who wield the power of elemental magic, co-written by Rob Schwalb. (Actually, Rob wrote most of the book, I did maybe 30 or 40 percent of it.)
   Prince of Ravens: My next Forgotten Realms novel is Prince of Ravens, an ebook release scheduled for the summer of 2012. This book returns to the character Jack Ravenwild from City of Ravens, which is a lot of fun. My author relationship with Wizards is sort of a separate deal from my employment relationship, so I may be taking on some new writing work soon.

Politics/Current Events: A short one to start... our presidential nomination process is ridiculous. Why are the parties constrained to put the matter up for a popular vote? Theoretically they're private organizations that should be able to choose and present the slates they want. Back in the day candidates were selected at the conventions. If they decided to choose candidates by drawing lots, taking tests, or having them compete in single-elimination unlimited mixed martial arts tournaments, that would be the party's own business. As matters stand, the fact that party political selection machinery is distributed through statewide elections processes seems to open the whole thing up to all sorts of nonsense. In 2008 Rush Limbaugh suggested "Operation Chaos," encouraging listeners in firmly red states to register as Democrats for the purpose of voting in the Democratic nomination process. Democrats have used similiar stratagems against Republicans. And, even more worrisome to me, making the nomination into an election rather than a selection means that the media plays an outsized role in deciding who the candidates will be. John McCain and Barack Obama were both pretty flawed candidates, but those are the choices the media narratives gave us last time. I think our nomination process would be better if it were more internal to each party, maybe even decided at the big conventions the way it was a long time ago. We would get candidates who more honestly represented their party's platforms.

The Finer Things: Trade Route Brewing Company's Jet Stream Lager. The Trade Route is a little hole in the wall taproom that opened up in a sort of industrial park just a mile from my house. A friend of mine is one of the partners behind it. Anyway, they brew several very good beers, but my favorite is the Jet Stream -- an excellent, crisp, tasty lager. I used to be all over reds and IPAs and ESBs and ambers, but in the last couple of years I've come to really appreciate pilsners and lagers again, and Jet Stream is one of the best I've ever had. As it turns out, beer makes me happy.