Monday, December 31, 2012

Back to 4e, the wizard, 2nd amendment

Welcome back, and Happy New Year!

Hope your holidays have been enjoyable! We’ve had a very nice Christmas, even if it’s been a bit soggy—one of the hazards of living in the Seattle area, I suppose. On the bright side, the ski slopes have had plenty of snow.
Not much new to report this time around. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be helping the folks at Goblinworks with the Kickstarter for their Pathfinder Online game. Even if you’re not a MMO fan, you ought to check out what they’re giving away in tabletop game materials for participating in the Kickstarter—it’s a fantastic deal even if you never play a minute of the MMO.

Gaming: Well, my experiment in returning to 3e and running a 4e adventure in a 2e setting is wrapped up. There were many things I loved about 3e, but playing that rule set again after years in 4e was more challenging than I thought. It’s a much swingier version of D&D, and encounter building is tougher than I remembered.  For example, the druid in the party blew up two big encounters with a 1st-level spell (entangle); in 4e, that spell would be (save ends) and maybe a burst 3, as opposed to a burst 10. Anyway, I started working up some house rules and patches to 4e-ify my game a little bit around the edges—say, adding save-each-round versus status effects--and it wound up being a lot more involved than I would have thought.  And my group missed the Character Builder.
Anyway, I’m now thinking about just sticking to 4e. But now I’m thinking about what I might want to houserule in 4e. The two things that bug me the most: Grindy combat, and bland wizards.

By grindy combat, I’m referring to fights where everyone’s used all the encounter and daily powers they care to expend, but the monsters still have more hit points to go through. I’ve seen too many 4e combats stretch out 10 rounds after the fun was finished. A simple patch is to cut monster hit points in half, but that of course just reduces the danger to PCs since monsters drop before they achieve their expected threat against the PCs. If you halve monster hp but double monster damage, you’d get pretty close to balancing it out, but I worry that might actually be too swingy—the effect of a monster getting just a little lucky and rolling a hit three rounds in a row instead of miss-hit-miss or hit-miss-hit would be too severe, especially if it’s a high damage monster like a brute. I’m almost wondering if I could quietly apply something like a +4 attack bonus on my side of the screen to increase damage output without quite so much swinginess.
By bland wizards, I mean wizards that look too much like other classes. This is really an aesthetic issue for me, not a game balance issue: in 4e, wizards just aren’t “different” enough from other characters for my tastes. I feel like 4e wizards would be more true to the D&D idiom if, say, they had maybe 60 percent of the hit points they currently do, but their damage output or offensive power increased in some way. Wizards should be glass cannons, and protecting wizards from enemy attack is a classic D&D tactic that gets short shrift in 4e. IMO, it should be the case that the scariest thing that can happen to you in D&D is to get targeted by an enemy wizard’s highest-level spell… but in 4e, that’s generally not the case.  The striker is way more scary. So what kind of offensive benefit would I give wizards to make them more like glass cannons? Well, I’m not sure yet. I think it could be something like this:

Metamagic: Three times per day, you can use metamagic on a spell you’re casting. Choose one of the following effects: increase a burst or blast by 1; add 10/20/40 damage by tier; change “save ends” to “2 saves end.”
Making it a daily resource is interesting to me, because managing an important daily resource is what wizards have always been about. I want to find a happy medium between the 3e wizard’s ability to absolutely blow up an encounter, and the 4e wizard’s lack of ability to do so (in my experience, the 4e wizard doesn’t kill many foes, although there are certainly obnoxious orb builds that can stun lock foes).

I think I might also houserule a ritual bonus of some sort, like “you have 2/3/4 ritual slots in addition to your utility slots.” Tracking ritual components is no fun, but it’s a shame that rituals just don’t get used in play. I miss the occasional Knock spell.
Politics/Current Events: I’ve been thinking more about the question of gun control and the right to bear arms, and I got to someplace I didn’t expect. Many people don’t realize that the Second Amendment was created specifically to serve as a check on the government’s power. The Founding Fathers were revolutionaries who recognized that a people oppressed by their government had the right to take up arms and free themselves. They wanted to assure the people of the various states that, if the federal government became oppressive, the people would retain the means to protect themselves against tyranny. Of course, in the 18th century, it was possible for individuals to provide themselves with current, military-grade gear. A farmer’s musket was equal in firepower to a soldier’s musket.

In the 21st century, it’s no longer possible for individual or small-community effort to field a modern military force. Not many private citizens can afford to own tanks or jet fighters. However, our country does have militia organizations that do exactly that—the National Guard. While it’s true that we don’t really have town or county militias anymore, the Guard of today is what the Founding Fathers were protecting in the 18th century. So if the National Guard meets the need foreseen by the Framers when they created the Second Amendment, what does that mean for private gun ownership?
I find myself thinking that private gun ownership actually has very little to do with the Second Amendment—and I say this as a gun owner who would absolutely refuse to comply with any kind of confiscation program. Private gun ownership isn’t about the right to bear arms, it’s about the right of self-defense.  The principle of self-defense is enshrined in our legal system in many places; it’s one of those “natural rights” that form the philosophical foundation of our legal and political systems. In a world where you might be attacked with lethal force, you have the right to use lethal force to protect yourself (and your property, to some extent). And that means you can make sure the means of self-defense are close at hand.

So, I think it’s not unreasonable to tighten up gun regulations, but it’s important that people can arm themselves for self-defense if they want to. I don’t think there is a Constitutionally mandated right to own a Hellfire missile or a heavy machine gun—but I think there is a natural right to own a hunting rifle or a pistol, and that right shouldn’t be infringed or limited by government without very good reason.  Let’s just make sure that the regulations we create for gun control are logical and effective, and don’t wind up taking guns away from responsible people while leaving them in the hands of criminals.

The Finer Things: The Twilight Zone. There’s a marathon on the Sci Fi channel today. Man, these shows are great. Best part? My daughter is a real aficionado, too. Nice to know that I’m raising her right.



Saturday, December 22, 2012

More War at Sea, the NRA, Johnson's Popcorn


Thanks for dropping by. It’s been a busy Christmas season for me: I’m working on a short-term contract up in Redmond, which as it turns out is a 55-minute drive from my house in good conditions. The good news is that I’ve worked out a route that keeps me off our jammed freeways and moving for most of the time. It’s a scenic drive: I get a nice look at the Cascades on Route 18, I drive through a pretty valley with striking forested cliffs and picturesque homes along the Issaquah-Hobart Road, and then I drive by multi-million dollar lakefront homes along the East Lake Sammamish Parkway. But it’s two hours in the car each day, no two ways about it.
Anyway, this week: What I was thinking for the last set of War at Sea, the NRA, and Johnson’s Popcorn.

Gaming: As promised, this week I’m going to continue with my reflections on things I hoped to do with a final set of War at Sea. Last time I looked at the Axis side, so naturally this time I’ll share some thoughts about the Allied side.
Belleau Wood (reprint): The Independence-class CVLs are represented by only one unit in Set 1, so they’re long overdue for another unit. Belleau Wood had an excellent war record; her planes sank the Japanese carrier Hiyo at the Philippine Sea. Making a point of providing a different SA mix from Princeton was all I really had in mind.

Expert Dauntless (reprint): We took note of the fact that players wanted more of the early-set carrier aircraft just to fill out their fleet builds, so we were working on reprinting the really useful planes. I figured the US could use a dive bomber with a Search bonus for long-range scenarios—LCDR McCluskey certainly deserves an AANM flavor text mention!
USS Marblehead (reprint): We only had one representative of the Omaha class light cruisers. USS Marblehead had the good fortune to be badly damaged in the early part of the Dutch East Indies campaign and sent off for repairs, thus avoiding destruction at Java Sea. I was thinking about maybe giving this unit to the Russians as the Murmansk—the US Navy gave the Russians the cruiser USS Milwaukee in 1944.

New Orleans (reprint): A reprint of USS San Francisco. That was a big class of cruisers, and we only had the one so far.
USS Patterson (reprint): This was basically a reprint of USS Bagley, which hadn’t been reprinted yet. USS Patterson had a very active war career—Pearl Harbor, Savo Island, subhunting, kamikaze defense, everything. I was thinking of taking off the Defective Torpedoes SA that Bagley has, and maybe giving her Close Escort, which the US doesn’t have very much of.

PV-1 Ventura (new sculpt): The US had a number of good patrol planes that we hadn’t gotten to yet. The Ventura could have provided the US with a torpedo- or rocket-capable patrol bomber. Sure, we could have done the B-26 or B-17, but they already had similar units in play. The Ventura would have been more different in the US inventory, and it was pretty important historically.
USS South Dakota (reprint): The Massachusetts has been looking for a reprint since set 2. And South Dakota would have provided us with an excuse to print a major US combatant with a nasty negative SA, just to show all those “RB is a US fanboy” guys that yes, I really would do that.

USS Texas (new sculpt): We were waffling between Texas and New Mexico, and Texas was going to win out because she’s a monument that you can go visit today. She was going to get some shore bombardment specials or shore battery suppression, to commemorate her role in the Battle of Cherbourg.
HMS Implacable (new sculpt): The British have several early- and mid-war carriers to choose from; this would have provided a late-war option, with performance and capacity close to the major American fleet carriers. Her planes attacked Tirpitz in Norway, and she saw action in the British Pacific Fleet.

HMS Lion (new sculpt): The British still had lots of old battleships to do, but we wanted to provide a sexier late-war option if possible. We were really torn between Vanguard, which appeared too late to see any action, and a hypothetical battleship. Since we indulged in fantasy battleships for the US and the Germans, we figured we could give the British one of their speculative ships.
HMS Upholder (new sculpt): This has been on my list for a long time. The U-class submarines were smaller than the T-class boats, which are the only other British submarine we have in print. It would be comparable in basic stats to the Type VII U-boats--the Allies don't have a defense 4 submarine yet. Upholder had an amazing war record, too.

Seafire (new sculpt): This one, too. The Seafires saw a lot of action in the Pacific, specializing in fleet defense against kamikaze attacks. The Sea Hurricane is a second-rate carrier fighter, so the Seafire would give the Brits a good late-war carrier fighter with the Combat Air Patrol special. I’m not sure exactly where it would have measured up vs. the Hellcat, Fw 190, Corsair, or George; I bet there’s a great debate to be had about where exactly it would fall in that mix.
HMS Valiant (reprint): I mentioned this one a little while back. It was close enough to HMS Warspite that we could use it as a reprint. She saw action at the Battle of Cape Matapan, beating the tar out of some Italian heavy cruisers. I was thinking about giving her a Night Fighter special ability—the Brits were probably the second-best night fighters after the Japanese, and the Italians did NOT want to engage the British in night actions. I wanted to sprinkle some more night fighting into the Royal Navy.  

HMS Berwick (reprint): Through Set VI, the Australians had two County-class heavy cruisers, while the British only had one. In fact, the British hadn’t seen a modern heavy cruiser since Set II. The County-class ships had a bunch of different configurations, so it’s tricky to find one that’s a reasonably close match to the existing model. Berwick dueled the Hipper while defending a convoy, and also worked the Murmansk Run, so she might have received a Bad Weather Fighter special ability.
HMS Naiad (reprint): We only had one Dido-class model out there (the Euryalus in Set V), and we felt that the British could use more light cruisers. The Dido sculpt is a decent looking model, and these ships were very active in the war. I also considered HMS Edinburgh as a pick-up in this slot. I would have loved to do more new models of the old cruisers still in service, but as I observed before, the budget just wasn’t going to allow it.

Joffre (new sculpt): If the Germans get the Graf Zeppelin, the French can certainly have the Joffre. It was a much better design than Bearn, if not quite up to the standards of the modern carrier designs in other fleets. With a capacity of 40 aircraft, she would have had a capacity of 2 squadrons.
Late.299 (new sculpt): If the French had continued to develop their carrier aviation, they were considering a new carrier-borne torpedo bomber based on the Late.298 seaplane. While this plane is a bit hypothetical, we thought it was important for each country to eventually receive at least one unit in each unit category. The French could in good conscience embark the D.520 or Wildcat as a fighter and the Vindicator as a dive bomber; the Late.299 would have served as their torpedo bomber option.

Bezeviers (reprint): The French only had one submarine in the game, Casabianca, and we neglected to give her the ability to engage other submarines. I’d been meaning to fix that for a while, and Bezeviers is the most noteworthy sister ship of the existing French submarine.
Java (new sculpt): This is another one that we’d wanted to get to for several sets now, just so you could get closer to a Battle of the Java Sea scenario. The Dutch cruisers Sumatra and Java were roughly comparable to the Omaha-class cruisers in the US Navy.

ORP Krakowiak (new sculpt): A British Hunt-class destroyer escort manned by the Polish Navy. The Hunt class was one of the largest and most important ship classes not yet represented in the game, so we were anxious to get to them. Krakowiak would have provided many proxies for us. The Hunt-class DE’s were very active in the Channel skirmishing.
K21 (new sculpt): I was waffling between giving the US another submarine class, or giving the Russians a large submarine option. The existing Russian sub, S13, is quite small; K21 was a large seagoing fleet submarine. She attacked Tirpitz during the 1942 convoy battles; the Soviets claimed two hits, the Germans noticed none. But I might have given her a Battleship Hunter SA for trying.

So, there you go—the Allied units I hoped to get to in a Set VII of the game. Sorry we didn’t get there, I think there were some very interesting units in this mix.

Politics/Current Events: The Newtown shooting is too terrible for words; I have actively avoided watching the coverage, because I can’t bear to see it. With good reason, this horrible event is prompting a renewed debate about guns in America, and it’s pretty clear that lawmakers are going to be wrangling over the issue in the next few months, so it’s unfortunately a political issue as well as a terrible tragedy.
I will say this much: The NRA’s “armed guards” proposal doesn’t strike me as ludicrous. Would any law short of universal gun confiscation have stopped the Newtown massacre? Probably not. But a trained person with a gun in the right place might have. Many liberal commentators (and quite a few of my liberal friends) have reacted to this as if it is the most insane idea they’ve ever heard, right up there with “let’s not have schools anymore” or “perhaps we should shoot the students beforehand to deny the killer targets.” I’m not sure that providing schools with armed guards is a *good* idea, but it’s pretty clear to me that people entrusted with protecting other people against threats of horrible violence are usually armed. Maybe an armed guard would have been victim number one, and nothing would have been different—or maybe that attack would have been deterred, or stopped before it ran its terrible course. It seems to me that the idea is worth discussing, in conjunction with measures to control access to firearms, restrict high-capacity magazines, or improve public mental-health services. What’s wrong with an “all of the above” approach?

I have some more to say on the right to bear arms, what it meant historically, and perhaps what it ought to be construed as in the modern world… but I’m already running long on this post, so I’ll save them for now.

The Finer Things: Johnson’s Popcorn caramel corn. This is a staple of the Ocean City boardwalk, and is perhaps the finest caramel-covered popcorn in the world. Each year around Christmastime we usually receive a tin or two as gifts from family back home, and man, is it good. You can actually order the stuff online these days, and you know what? It’s so awesome I’m going to share the link.

To me, it tastes like summer. What more can I say?




Monday, December 10, 2012

Finishing War at Sea, the Hot Stove

Welcome back!

My apologies for a bit of a gap between posts; it’s the holiday season, and things are getting busy around the household. Professionally, I’m also up to my eyeballs in exciting new projects. Most of them are still a little too far out for me to get into specifics, but in case you’re wondering what I’ve been up to lately, here are a few things I can hint at:
First, I’ve agreed to pitch in and help out the gang at Paizo/Goblinworks with some design work on The Emerald Spire, a megadungeon that’s planned as a Kickstarter reward for Pathfinder Online. If you’ve been following the Pathfinder Online Kickstarters, you’ve seen something about this book. (And if you think you’d like to stomp around the streets of Thornkeep yourself sometime soon, well, I encourage you to check out )

Second, I just finished designing an adventure for an upcoming D&D Encounters Season for Wizards of the Coast. I’m also engaged in revising a 20,000-word “faux history” essay tied to the upcoming Sundering storyline for the Forgotten Realms setting. You should see both of those sometime in 2013.
Third, I’m outlining and writing a comic book series. The series should kick off in 2013. Working on a comic book is a new medium for me, but I’ve always been a very “visual” writer; I look forward to seeing what I can do with a little bit of dialogue and a whole lot of artwork. Not sure how much more I can say about this right at the moment, so I’ll stop there.

Finally, I’m working on a modern-day military thriller. I wrote the first draft over the last six months or so, and now I’m discovering all the ins and outs of breaking into mainstream publishing. I’m pretty excited about this, as you might imagine, and I hope to be able to provide some more information on this front soon.     
Exciting times! We’ll see how it all works out.

Gaming: Back in May, I posted about a few Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures pieces I would have wanted for a Set 7 if it ever came around. Well, it’s been more than a year since Set 6, and I’m pretty sure Wizards has no plans for a Set 7. So, at the risk of rubbing some salt in the wounds of you AANM fans out there, I’m just going to go ahead and tell you about what I was planning before WotC told me to call it a day.
I had figured that Set 7, if we actually did it, was probably going to be the last set, and was going to be pinched for new sculpts. Reprints would have to be selected from the most efficient combination of existing tools (think mold groups) available—for example, if the molds for ship A and ship B were in the same tool, they’d be a better reprint than ship A and ship C or ship B and ship C. Under those constraints, I built a set list that would cover the most important missing pieces that were still absent after the first six sets, and pushed hard to convince the Powers That Be to let us do just one last War at Sea set to wrap things up. Alas, it didn’t pan out.

This week I’ll talk about my last-set notions for the Axis; next time I’ll talk about the Allies.
Shinano (new sculpt): Of the Japanese carriers we didn’t get to through six sets, Shinano was probably the most interesting. It would have had a low basing capacity (no more than 2 or 3 squadrons) but some sort of plane replenishment special ability, since it was intended to carry a lot of replacement aircraft. Of course, it would also have had a ton of hull points and high armor. That makes for interesting game play—Shinano would have played very differently from any other carrier available.

Kinugasa (reprint):  The Aoba was a nice-looking sculpt. Kinugasa would have been an Aoba with less flag rating, and maybe a shore bombardment or anti-airfield special ability.
Mutsu (reprint): Just about the last operational Japanese battleship left to do. I was thinking of giving her a landing special ability, since she was used to transport troops in China operations before the war. 

P1Y Francis (new sculpt): The P1Y Francis was a Japanese land-based patrol bomber like the Mitsubishi Betty; I figured the Japanese hadn’t seen an uncommon plane in several sets, and they were due for a new land-based patrol bomber.
Expert Val (reprint): Like the B5N2 Kate we did in Set 6, this was essentially a reprint of the Val dive bomber. Players needed more copies of common attack aircraft, so I was trying to get more of ‘em in circulation. I was thinking of giving this Val a search bonus for long-range engagements.

RO-41 (reprint): A reprint of the set 5 RO-51, a decent medium submarine. Less expensive than the big Japanese I-boats.
Takanami (new): This would have been a new sculpt of a Yugumo class destroyer. The Yugumos were very close to the Kageros, but the profiles were off by just enough that we would have needed a new sculpt. Takanami torpedoed a couple of US cruisers at Tassafaronga before sinking under heavy gunfire.

P-class Battlecruiser (new sculpt): The P-class was a German battlecruiser or pocket battleship design that was a lot like an enlarged Deutschland. It was one of the collection of Plan Z designs that never were built, but might have been.  
Peter Strasser (reprint): This was the hypothetical sister ship to the never-completed German Graf Zeppelin. Like the GZ, it would have been a fairly robust 2-cap carrier. Really, the point of this was to give folks more Graf Zeppelins.

Force X Stuka (reprint): The 10th Fliegerkorps was a Luftwaffe formation that was ordered to Sicily to break the Allied lines of communication through the Med in 1941, and later proved decisive in the German victory in the Dodecanese campaign of 1943. But really this was intended to provide more Stukas—common attack planes were a little constrained in the game. 
Uj202 (reprint): This was an Italian Gabbiano-class corvette that the Germans seized after the Italian surrender and recommissioned as a Kriegsmarine vessel. The Germans operated a number of small Italian escorts and subchasers in the last months of the Mediterranean war. It would be interesting as the cheapest and smallest German ship.

Pola (reprint): The Italians hadn’t gotten a front-line heavy cruiser since Set 4. And, well, we were running out of other options for the Italian rares.
Abruzzi (reprint): This repeats the Set 3 Garibaldi. Far and away the best Italian light cruiser.

Ramb I (new sculpt): The Ramb I was an Italian auxiliary cruiser that was intended for a commerce raiding cruise in the Indian Ocean, but was sunk before it could take any prizes. I wanted to do the piece because it would provide something that could pass as an Italian transport or freighter in scenario play, and have a game function similar to the German commerce raider Atlantis.
Ciclone (reprint): Close enough to the set 3 Pegaso in profile, but with a smidgen more AA.

Vesihiisi (reprint): This was a Finnish submarine that was essentially a look-alike prototype to the Type VII U-boat.  The Versailles treaty banned the Germans from building submarines, so their naval designers stayed in practice by designing subs for other countries. The Vetehinen class boats were submarine minelayers, so she would have had a mine SA, and maybe a sub-killer SA too (Vesihiisi got a Soviet sub).

I sure wish I’d gotten the chance to “finish” the War at Sea game out with just one more set. There were a couple more Axis pieces I wanted to see done—a U-boat tender, some Japanese planes, an Italian tanker or troop transport, a couple of stray Z-plan designs—but we were definitely scraping the bottom of the barrel on the Axis navies. Maybe the Team Poseidon guys at Forumini will be inspired to cook up some stats for my “almost” list.

Politics/Current Events: Eh, nothing this time. I could tell you a heck of a story about local politics and our idiotic mayor… maybe next time.

The Finer Things: Baseball’s Hot Stove season. I’m a baseball junkie, as many of you know. This time of year, I’m checking a dozen different sports news sites ten times a day to see who the Phillies and Mariners are chasing. In the spirit of armchair GMs everywhere, I’ll share a couple of thoughts about the Phillies offseason so far…

1)      Trading for Minnesota’s Ben Revere. I like this move. Ben Revere essentially brings everything to the table that Michael Bourn brings, but he’s only 24 and costs only half a million a year. It’s a clever solution to the Phillies’ centerfield vacancy, and the Phillies fixed it without overpaying. Getting a free agent CF was going to cost 15 million a year or more. The cost wasn’t cheap—Worley is a tough kid as a pitcher, and May has a great upside. But it’s sure looking easier to sign a #4 starter than a good centerfielder in this market, so it’s reasonable.

2)      Trading for Michael Young. Maybe Young is done at 36, but the guy is only one year removed from a .338 season with over 200 hits, and more importantly, the Phils didn't pay much to get him. He’s going to be rough to watch at the hot corner, and he doesn’t bring a lot of patience to a lineup that already doesn’t work enough walks out of opposing pitchers, but there weren’t many third base choices out there. Myself, I would have tried to sign Eric Chavez and set up a 3b platoon, but Chavez went off the board fast. If the Phillies are smart, they’ll put Young in between Utley and Howard in the batting order, and make it a little harder for a lefty specialist to shut down the lineup.

The Phils could still use a corner outfielder power bat, a setup man, and now a #4 pitcher. There are still options for those out there. Myself, I’d like to see Nick Swisher in Philly… but we’ll see. It turns out that GM Ruben Amaro doesn’t call me up to run his moves by me.


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.

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 na├»ve 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.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Horror RPGs, Conservative Liberals, Moody Blues

Hi, folks! Thanks for dropping in. I’ve been working like crazy on some new writing, and hopefully I’ll be able to report some news on that front soon. In the meantime, you may be interested to learn that a number of my older book titles—The Last Mythal, Blades of the Moonsea, and City of Ravens—have now been released in Kindle editions. I’ve heard there might be some audiobooks in the works, too, but I don’t have much that I can report with confidence.

Anyway, this week: Horror games, The Who, and the Moody Blues.
Gaming: It’s the season for haunted houses and horror movies, so naturally I’ve been thinking a little about horror in RPGs, especially D&D. Horror is really tough to do in D&D, since so many things in D&D run counter to being creeped out by what’s going on around you. Players are trained to attack monsters, stick together, avoid fleeing, and generally behave heroically. D&D, in other words, is about empowerment. Horror is really about disempowerment—it’s about people coming up against things they don’t understand and learning that things or people they count on aren’t going to help.

So, how do you disempower the players in a mutually agreeable way? The Ravenloft setting used fear and horror checks to compel the player characters to behave unheroically in situations where a jaded D&D player might otherwise shrug and say, “Skeletons, shmeletons, I smash ‘em.” Call of Cthulhu gave characters an essentially nonrenewable store of hit points that were damaged by seeing and encountering things that humans weren’t supposed to see—the Sanity score. Those systems work, but they’re not terribly organic to the storytelling experience of a horror game. They’re mechanics, and pretty intrusive.
Ideally, you’d like to create horror scenarios within the bounds of the game by building a situation in which the *players* are scared. It’s pretty easy to make players scared for their characters—throw overpowering or unfair encounters at them. But it would be preferable to present a story that is so inherently unsettling and suspenseful that the players experience dread, foreboding, alarm, all the great emotions that a good horror story provokes.

What are some good ways to do this at the table? First, suspense: A horror scenario doesn’t give the players a lot of opportunities for successful combat. You shouldn’t see the monster right away, and the first meeting or two should be arranged in the monster’s favor—it strikes when the party is separated, it can hit and retreat, it murders surrogate victims and avoids showing itself. Second, don’t let the players know exactly what they’re up against—keep them guessing. Experienced players know exactly what a wraith is, but “the dreadful apparition that haunts Darmask Manor” is more mysterious. Third, the adventure shouldn’t reward the normal approaches and methods. For example, the monster might be uniquely difficult to defeat without something the PCs don’t have (the monster has DR or resistances the heroes can’t beat, or it’s a unique monster such as a vampire that can only be killed with one special stake). The race to find the items or materials needed to defeat the monster before it picks off the heroes one by one… now that’s a horror adventure.
Finally, the best horror scenarios sneak up on the players. About ten years back, I ran a short-lived Alternity game that I called “Cthulhu 1885” – Wild West Cthulhu, in other words. I put together a little adventure about mi-go mining in the Black Hills, and a train wreck in which one of the boxcars was found dropped from the sky on the open plain several miles from the track. Anyway, the heroes wind up in a lonely cabin in a desolate part of the hills with some horrible Cthulhish monster—a byakhee, or a flying polyp, or a shantak, something like that—ripping up pieces of the cabin roof to get at the characters holed in inside. My friend Josh was playing a pretty straight-up gunfighter… and Josh, the player, was FREAKED. “WHAT is on the roof?” he demanded. “What in the HELL is going on?” It turns out that Josh had never even *heard* of Cthulhu, or HP Lovecraft, or any of the Mythos creatures. He thought we were playing a Wild West game and trying to solve a strange crime, and the idea that his character was up against the supernatural—to be specific, a spectrum of supernatural that he had no experience with and could make no rational analysis of—caught him completely off-guard. I, of course, had NO idea that someone working at Wizards of the Coast could possibly have missed Cthulhu during his gaming and reading, but somehow Josh had, and it turned out to be one of the best horror-game RPG sessions I ever ran. D&D players can be cocky and overconfident; well, there’s nothing quite so brittle as the self-assurance that comes from misplaced confidence, and that’s doubly true when the players don’t see it coming.

Politics/Current Events: What’s conservative, and what’s liberal? For example, is the Tea Party conservative? Political conservatism is generally defined as protective of the status quo, but you can make an argument that in today’s America the status quo consists of Social Security, Medicare, and liberal control of institutions like higher education and the media. In this view of the nation, the Tea Party is a force for reform, and liberals are the defenders of the status quo. I think a better pair of terms to describe our political forces is “progressive” and “libertarian.” Either you want to organize government to actively improve the lives of people, or you think people are the best judges of their own good and government should stay the hell out of the way.
Naturally, my neat little scheme gets complicated when you try to account for the cultural and moral components to our political forces. I think you’d want a pair of terms such as postmodern and traditional for that element of our political conversation, a “two-component” alignment system to borrow a notion from D&D. A Blue Dog Democrat or so-called RINO is progressive with traditional values. A Tea Partier is a libertarian with traditional values. Academia is progressive with postmodern values. Libertarian-postmoderns, I guess those are the anarchists.   

As The Who put it so succinctly in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”…. The party on the left is now the party on the right. That doesn’t mean they’re the same. It means that when your revolution succeeds, your interests change from overthrowing the order to preserving what you’ve done. Liberalism achieved the vast majority of its objectives over the last hundred years, and these days it’s playing defense.

The Finer Things: The Moody Blues, the old stuff. My daughter was asking me about theme albums the other day, so I was telling her about Alan Parsons’ Tales of Mystery and Imagination and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. That reminded me of the old Moody Blues concept albums, so I pulled out my CDs of Days of Future Passed, On the Threshold of a Dream, and In Search of the Lost Chord. I listened to ‘em a bunch in the last few days while working on my writing. Yeah, they’re OLD now, but I love a lot of different music, and I don’t listen to CDs much anymore. On due consideration, I think On the Threshold of a Dream is the best of ‘em. I especially love “Have You Heard,” the final track. There’s an epic fantasy quest trying to escape from the interlude in the middle of the song, I just know it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Platoons, My Favorite Adventures, Debates

Greetings, all! Time for another exciting edition of Atomic Battleship Dragon! This week, a word about my new campaign, adventures I’m proud of, and the down-to-the-wire presidential race.
But before all that… As you know, I’m a big Phillies fan. I’ve been thinking for weeks and weeks now that the 2013 Phillies would be smart to set up a couple of strong platoons rather than finding expensive everyday talent. Right now platoon players are undervalued in the big leagues, but platoons can outproduce single players who cost more than both platoon players put together. I don’t see why Ryan Howard should start against lefties, or why John Mayberry ought to start against righties. Anyway, it turns out a very serious analyst has put together a great piece on this very topic, and I recommend it to any baseball fans who happen to be reading (and doubly so if you’re also Phillies fans):

 Gaming: Just last week, I did something I hadn’t done in years: I stepped up to the DM screen and started a new D&D game, with Yours Truly as the DM. For a long time now, I’ve been pretty lazy about volunteering to be the DM. Most of the time, my excuse was that I was working all day on D&D stuff and writing D&D novels at night, so finding the extra little bit of creativity or energy to run a game too was hard. Well, since I am now my own boss and I’m spending most of my time working on non-D&D things, I figured it was time to step up again when the Thursday night group decided it was time to go back to the dungeon.
We had a good discussion of which edition of D&D we wanted to run, and I settled on 3.5 with some small tweaks. (I like running 4e, but we’ve spent the last few years pushing minis around on the map and using encounter powers, and I wanted something that felt a little more sim-driven than gamist.) I intend to run the game without a combat grid as much as possible, and re-emphasize roleplaying and exploration… and yeah, I got those ideas from my exposure to the early stages of D&D Next when I was still in the shop at Wizards. I stole some no-grid rules we’d worked up for a canceled game, and made a few adjustments. Then I made the crazy offer to set the game in the world of the Birthright setting. My players leaped at that one, so that’s where we are. I haven’t run a Birthright game in oh, about fifteen years or so.

Naturally, after everyone expressed interest in playing in Cerilia, I had one player tell me he wanted to be a ninja. And another player wanted to be a warlock-like magical assassin that he saw in some anime or another. And there’s one more complication: I think I’m going to be lazy and shamelessly raid adventures I wrote across various editions to form the basis of the campaign, so I’m starting with Dark Legacy of Evard, a 4th Edition Encounters Season adventure, and I may move on to Reavers of Harkenwold next. Okay, so we’re playing Birthright, a 2nd Edition setting, with 3.5 rules, D&D Next sensibilities, and the Book of Nine Swords, and I’m running 4th Edition adventures. I don’t see what could possibly go wrong with this plan.
I find that when I do run D&D games, I’m strongly inclined to run adventures I wrote. I think it’s simply a matter of familiarity and confidence. It’s good to be comfortable with the material; you’d like an adventure you run to feel like a well broken-in shoe, easy on the feet and ready to take you to your favorite places. Because I often used home games for playtesting adventures I was working on in my day job over a long career of working on D&D, most of the adventures I gained that familiarity with were the ones I was working on for publication. I guess that’s a weird narcissistic side effect of being a professional adventure designer.

Since this might turn into a campaign of Rich Baker’s Greatest Hits, I thought I’d take a moment and share a short list of the adventures I’m most proud of. I think most of them are worth a play, but of course they’re in very different editions these days, and your mileage may vary. Anyway, here goes:
10. Dragon’s Crown: I only wrote part of this Dark Sun epic, but I was the lead designer and had the job of herding all the cats. A cabal of super-powerful psionicists want to take over the world, how fun is that?

9. King of the Trollhaunt Warrens: My cowriter was Logan Bonner. The whole time I was working on the Trollhaunt, I was thinking of the Star Trek episode The Galileo Seven and the misty planet haunted by giant hostile humanoids.
8. Prison of the Firebringer: This Dungeon magazine adventure began as a high-level FR homebrew for the game group I was running at the time. It’s about the only time I ever ran the process in reverse, starting an adventure as a homebrew and turning it into something I published.

7. Prism Keep: My first Dungeon adventure, a take on the classic “castle in the clouds” adventure. I wrote this because I had a horrible tax bill looming and needed a thousand bucks, but for all that I think it’s a fun little sandbox and puzzle-solving adventure.
6. Dark Legacy of Evard: A 4th Edition Encounters Season. I’m proud of this one because it oozes flavor, and it’s maybe the best ghost story I’ve managed to frame as a D&D adventure.

5. Rana Mor: The middle of my three Dungeon adventures, written early in 3rd Edition. Kind of based on the Jungle Cruise ride in Disneyworld, the part where you go through the ruined temple in Cambodia or India. There aren’t many good Angkor Wat adventures in D&D, so I took a shot at writing one.
4. Cleric’s Challenge: The basic premise is a tough challenge for an adventure design—write an adventure for one PC, specifically, a cleric. I like this one because it’s a good story that works well for a whole group as well as a solo PC.

3. Red Hand of Doom: Co-written with James Jacobs. I sort of feel that the D&D universe can always use adventures that capture classic tropes. For RHoD, I decided I wanted to write a good stop-the-horde adventure, which I hadn’t seen anyone try to do in a while. Most of my work is in the very beginning, and the event-encounters early in part 2.
2. Reavers of Harkenwold: The adventure no one knows about, I would guess. It’s in the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Kit. This time, I took a shot at writing the Robin Hood adventure. It’s a classic fantasy adventure bit that gets you out of the dungeon for the bulk of the play, and culminates in storming the castle. Chris Perkins gave me a hand when the format changed a bit, and did it so well that I can’t tell which parts are mine and which parts are his.

1. Forge of Fury: Probably my most widely-played adventure. All I wanted to do here is hit something right down the middle of the fairway, since it was very early in 3rd Edition and we wanted people to experience classic dungeon delving. My editor’s the person responsible for the succubus; it was a quasit in my original draft. But if you’ve ever been killed by the dragon Nightscale—and I guess quite a few of you have—yeah, that’s all me.

Oh, and if you’re curious about adventures I like by other people: I’m a big fan of Night Below, Return to the Tomb of Horrors, and Desert of Desolation.

Politics/Current Events: Beats me if I know what’s going to happen in this election. Part of me thinks this is 1980, and Mitt Romney is Ronald Reagan. Part of me thinks this is 2004, and Mitt Romney is John Kerry. I suspect that Romney has a strong lead at this point, and is going to score a big upset of a sitting president, and if I had to make a prediction, that’s how I would go. But he’s got to do well in so many states to make up the ground Obama claimed in 2008.
Put me down as a big fan of last week’s debate: I can’t remember the last time the two candidates were able to really talk to each other and were given time and elbow room to fully develop their points. It was far and away the most instructive and least artificial national debate I’ve watched since I started paying attention to presidential politics. It will be really interesting to see how President Obama comes back for rounds 2 and 3 over the next couple of weeks; I doubt he will make a better impression by trying to be less polite or by insisting that Romney is lying. He’d like to show America a truly pissed-off Romney who looks less presidential, or lead Romney into a mortal gaffe (“Eastern Europe is not under Soviet domination”), but you have to believe that Romney will be ready for that. We’ll see how it goes.

The Finer Things: A fine fall day. We’ve had a spectacular run out here in Seattle, with crisp, clear afternoons and the best fall color I’ve seen in the Northwest. It’s not quite like fall in Wisconsin or New England, but it’s still pretty good. On the downside, I think I missed my last chance to go hike at Rainier for the season—I was just doing too much writing.


Monday, October 1, 2012

City of Heroes, Aduria, the Four Feathers

Hi, folks! This week, a few words about City of Heroes, the mysterious continent of Aduria, and The Four Feathers.

Gaming Part I: A bit of sad news came in this week: City of Heroes is shutting down for good next month. It’s a strange thing when an MMO dies; most of the time when a game company closes its doors, you can keep playing whatever you bought from them for as long as you want. I have dozens of games from defunct companies that I pull out and play occasionally. Even old PC software resurfaces in places like Good Old Games or Beamdog. But when someone turns off the server for a MMO, I guess that’s it.
City of Heroes is, so far, my favorite MMO. I played the hell out of it for several years. I started playing mostly because I wanted a change of genre for my personal gaming; when you work on D&D all day and write D&D novels at night, well, you’re not in a rush to make a D&D clone your principal timewaster in your leisure hours. I was a very late adapter for WoW as a result, and invested in City of Heroes first. I ran through the game levels 1 to 50 several times, and played with a good group of my coworkers and friends for many months.

City of Heroes had an amazing variety of character types compared to WoW or Star Wars or most other big-budget MMOs; not only did a role like Tanker or Scrapper come with a hundred builds instead of three (each had something like 8-12 offense sets and 6-10 defense sets, for 50-100 combinations), but you also got to use the awesome character illustrator tool to make your beginning character absolutely unique. You weren’t just playing with minor details like hair color or eye color or the shape of the face; you could build a *concept* for your character that was absolutely your own, and was reflected in both powers and appearance. I built awesome characters like Ghost Marshal, the rifle-armed flying stealthed hero in a duster, cowboy boots, and a Western hat; Runemight, the arcane champion who used dark melee powers to fight evil and whose slate-grey skin was covered with glowing purple runes of power; and Moon Mage, the Dr. Strange-esque masked magician who aided other heroes with his lunar sorcery. Building characters like that felt *amazing* -- while World of Warcraft was a big sprawling place to explore, you never got that same sense of character investment from your race and class selection.
I haven’t played City of Heroes much in the last couple of years; I guess people like me who moved on are why it’s going away. But I think it’s important to look back and celebrate what a good game it was, and what it did better than any of its competitors: It let you *create* something amazing.

Gaming Part II: As requested, here is my old map of the mysterious southern continent in the Birthright setting. It turns out my sketch of Aduria has been kicking around the internet for a while now, but some of you Birthright fans might not have found the right spot, so here it is:

I can’t claim credit for the nice labels; those were added by someone else whose image I’m linking to. (Since I’m the original creator of this map and I came up with most of the names on it, I feel no guilt about that.)
And here’s a link to descriptions of the various areas:

The site is a fantastic resource for you diehard Birthright fans out there. If you’re not familiar with it, you really ought to wander on over and visit sometime. A lot of the language and content around the Lost Continent of Aduria wiki entry looks pretty familiar to me. A long time ago I wrote a small series of online articles (or was it for Polyhedron? I don’t remember) that described the former Anuirean colonies of Aduria’s northern coast. The Sere Coast, Oeried, Rhandel, Lurech, and Mhor Atha are drawn from my work on that article. The area labeled Lucitia is where the realm of Alitaine exists in the current day of the setting (although Alitaine also extends to the plains on the north side of the inland sea). Alitaine is the accommodation we made to work Aquitaine into the setting, as I noted in my comments on last week’s post.
I think that Ed Stark and Carrie Bebris came up with Nehalim, Ghanim, the Beastlands, and the Mountain States. Zaynani, I don’t remember. I seem to recall a concept meeting back in the old TSR building where we talked about how my map sketch for Aduria ought to be filled in; I think many of these notions came from that meeting.

Anyway, you Birthright diehards out there: Enjoy!
Politics/Current Events: A double shot of gaming this time, so I’ll skip it for now. Be sure to tune into the first presidential debate on Wednesday, it ought to be a good one.

The Finer Things: I watched The Four Feathers the other night—the 1939 version, which is regarded as the best of them all. It’s a great old movie that I hadn’t ever seen in its entirety. It’s set against a fascinating historical backdrop--the Mahdist uprising in the Sudan and the 1898 Battle of Omdurman. (Interesting historical tidbit: a young Winston Churchill was with Kitchener at Omdurman.) Anyway, The Four Feathers reminded me a lot of one of my other favorites from the same era: Beau Geste. The novel itself is not very PC, but it’s a product of its times, and it’s a classic adventure story. For that matter, I’m a big fan of Lawrence of Arabia, too. I guess something about the combination of desert, the British Empire, and rousing adventure works for me. They just don’t make movies like those anymore.