Monday, February 20, 2012

Elemental Chaos, Keystone pipeline, Barsoom

Kaor, child of Jasoom!

Double geek points to anybody who understands my greeting this week. Welcome back to Atomic Dragon Battleship, and thanks for stopping by! Lots of interesting stuff going on these days, so I’ll settle for the first couple of things that pop into my mind. Hope you enjoy!

Gaming: Last time I promised I’d talk a little about my new releases. Since Air Force Miniatures is still a couple of days shy of its release date and Heroes of Elemental Chaos is already on the shelves, I’ll go with D&D this time and A&A next week.
        First things first: As far as I know, Player’s Option: Heroes of Elemental Chaos is the last D&D work of mine that is going to see print. I did a fair amount of writing on early drafts of D&D Next, but by the time the new edition is actually released, I suspect that very few of my words will remain in the material. It’s not that my work is going to be suppressed or anything sinister like that, it’s simply the fact that the material is going to undergo several major revisions and expansions before the work is done, and by the end of that process everything I did will be overwritten at least once or twice. So it’s a very strange feeling to hold Elemental Chaos in my hands and reflect on the fact that it’s the end of an era for me. The first game product I ever published was Rock of Bral, a Spelljammer sourcebook; Heroes of Elemental Chaos is now the other bookend for my long career with D&D. Of course, you never know what might come around; it’s possible that I might find myself freelancing for Wizards in the future. But at this moment, Heroes of Elemental Chaos is it.

        (Speaking of Spelljammer… there is a surprising if somewhat obscure common element between Rock of Bral and Heroes of Elemental Chaos: Both sourcebooks touch on the reigar, a monster that was introduced in the Spelljammer Monstrous Compendium way back in the day. I included a reigar’s palace in the Rock of Bral way back in the day. When I was working on the epic destinies for Elemental Chaos, I had some idea of writing up a “lord of chaos” destiny—something a little bit like the princes of Amber or their counterparts in the Courts of Chaos, something not quite mortal and not quite god. Looking back through old D&D lore for something to anchor the concept to, I recalled Spelljammer’s reigar, and decided to marry the ideas together. The funny part is I don’t believe I wrote a word about the reigar at any point in between the 1992 2e sourcebook and the 2012 4e sourcebook. Strange.)
        (And speaking of the Lord of Chaos destiny, I sort of wish I’d added a special note to the whim of creation power that makes it an encounter power when you’re in the Elemental Chaos. It’s not that strong, but the flavor is pretty cool. Oh well.)

        Anyway, I’m responsible for maybe 30 percent of Elemental Chaos; Rob Schwalb, my co-designer, handled the lion’s share of the book, including that great bit of scholarly discussion up front. My big contributions include the Elementalist sorcerer; four of the themes (elemental initiate, janissary, moteborn, and primordial adept); some of the work on the druid and warlock; some of the paragon paths, including the Herald of Vezzuvu, the Speaker of Xaos, and the Elemental Anchorite; the roster of known primordials; and a number of the sidebars and discussions found throughout the book.

        I’m especially happy with the elementalist sorcerer. It’s not quite the same version I designed; the developers did a lot of streamlining and reorganizing with my work, which I think has helped to bring the idea into focus. But I always liked the elemental magic school introduced back in the 2e Tome of Magic, and the idea of marrying that up with the sorcerer is obvious. In 3e I often built sorcerers with strong elemental themes to their powers; this is just taking the process to the next level. The elementalist is intended to work a little like the slayer sub-class from the Essentials books; it’s a way to play a spellcaster who doesn’t have dozens of powers to keep track of. I made an effort to build a number of “toolbox” utility powers that were more oriented toward real adventure utility, rather than highly programmed defensive powers. I don’t know exactly what players will do with powers such as raise stone, water to ice, or control flames, but I believe that clever players will think of very cool stunts to pull off with these abilities. 4e D&D needs a few more things like that, really.
        So, there you have it: Heroes of Elemental Chaos. It might not be my magnum opus for D&D, but hopefully it’s an enjoyable 4e sourcebook that will provide you with hours of fun at the gaming table. That’s about as much as a RPG designer can hope for.

Politics/Current Events: The Keystone pipeline. For those who don’t know, the Keystone pipeline is a proposed crude oil pipeline leading from the Canadian oil sands (a vast oil reserve) to the US Gulf Coast. The Obama administration has blocked construction of the pipeline, despite the fact that the Canadians are proceeding full-speed ahead with their development of the oil sands. The pipeline would bring serious economic benefits to the US, including more assurance of oil supplies from a friendly ally and thousands of jobs. But now that the US refuses to let the pipeline be built across our country, the Canadians are naturally thinking about building the pipeline west instead of south, and selling their oil to China since we’re not interested.
        Now, here’s the thing: If the goal of our administration’s obstruction is to shut down a nasty supply of CO2 emissions and force Americans to look for greener solutions, then blocking the pipeline does no good at all. Canada is going to extract that oil, and if we don’t want it, it will be burned in China instead of here. The same amount of CO2 will go into the atmosphere, but we’ll simply have fewer jobs and more expensive oil. (I guess that does fight CO2 emissions to some extent, since economic activity and energy usage have a strong correlation; crush our economy and we’ll burn less oil because fewer businesses will be open and fewer Americans will be commuting to jobs.) But the question remains: How much economic pain are we willing to endure for the sake of limiting emissions?

        I’ve been a global warming skeptic for years. When I say “global warming,” I refer to the contention that increasing CO2 levels caused by man-made fossil fuel emissions is going to cause catastrophic, species-threatening planetary warming, and that this must be prevented by any means possible, regardless of cost. When I say “skeptic,” I mean that I am still unconvinced; I am not a denier, I have yet to be persuaded the theory is correct. In any event, I think there are several sub-contentions that have to be proved before you concede that wrecking our economy to fight global warming is a good idea:

-        Is unusual global warming or climate change occurring?
-        Is it largely anthropogenic (man-made)?
-        Is it on the whole bad?
-        Is the cost of preventing it less than the cost of living with its effects?

        If we can’t answer “Yes” to all four questions, then we shouldn’t invest in expensive measures to prevent climate change from occurring. Right now my assessment of the answers on these questions are: Possibly, in part, unknown, doubtful. And those answers don’t make me a hateful troglodyte or an anti-science bigot. They make me a skeptic, someone exercising what is supposed to be the cardinal virtue of scientific investigation. Despite the assertions of the alarmists, the science is not conclusive. For example, Danish physicist Henrik Svensmark has demonstrated a link between cosmic rays and cloud formation that could call the predictions of many climate models into questions (the models generally downplay the role of solar activity and cloud formation). Is Svensmark right? I don’t know. But observation and experiment is better science than computer modeling, isn’t it?
        There are other possible angles to the Keystone story, involving crony capitalism--who owns the railroads that would move the Canadian oil south if the pipeline isn’t built?--and what seem to me to be trumped-up concerns over protecting aquifers in the country’s breadbasket. But I think the decision to block the pipeline is mostly tied up in the simple premise that Oil is Evil, and More Oil is More Evil. The Obama administration wants to give the environmental left a cookie, and that’s that.

        The Finer Things: You know, 2012 is shaping up to be a GREAT year for sci-fi and fantasy movies. John Carter, the Avengers, Spiderman, the Hobbit… wow. I’m nervous about John Carter, just because the fact that they left “of Mars” out of the title is a bad sign. Interesting bit of film history: Did you know that Walt Disney almost made A Princess of Mars instead of Snow White? Just think about how motion picture history would be different if that had worked out. Anyway, the trailer shows the Barsoomian white ape in what appears to be a very faithful rendition that is 15 feet tall and hexapedal. And the green Martians look good, too. So… maybe it’ll respect the Burroughs vision? We’ll find out in another couple of weeks!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Best RPG Sourcebooks, The Uncomfortable Majority

Greetings! It’s time for another installment of Atomic Dragon Battleship! It’s amazing (and a little scary) how quickly the routine business of the day seems to expand to fill the time you have. Over the last couple of weeks I made three trips to the dentist (two for my daughter, one routine checkup for me), nine trips to the Y, reviewed the edited file of my upcoming novel Prince of Ravens, and outlined a new action/military thriller that I’m anxious to try out… and somehow after all of that I find myself wondering if I got enough done.

Anyway, this month will see two of my final game product releases from Wizards of the Coast: Player’s Option: Heroes of the Elemental Chaos, and Axis & Allies Air Force Miniatures: Angels 20. Elemental Chaos is a sourcebook providing interesting new options for characters who draw their power from the elemental planes, while A&A Air Force Minis is a brand-new collectible miniature game of WW2 fighter combat. In my next couple of blog entries I’ll talk more about these releases and my part in them, but for right now I want to make sure I don’t jump the gun on the previews and coverage that Wizards of the Coast is providing.

Gaming: I happened to be sorting out my gaming resource shelf the other day, and I stumbled across some of my favorite RPG sourcebooks of all time. The Campaign Module series of sourcebooks for the Middle Earth Role Playing Campaign Modules were, in my opinion, some of the best “geography”-based sourcebooks anybody ever printed. They were published way back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, so they’re a real blast from the past (although many were reprinted in second editions well into the ‘90s). The titles I have on my shelf include Gorgoroth, The Grey Mountains, Empire of the Witch-King, and Lost Realm of Cardolan, but there are a dozen more covering places such as Mirkwood, Isengard, Harad, and so on. You can find ‘em kicking around on Ebay and various hobby collector sites if you look around, but they can be pretty pricey these days.

So, what made these books so good? First of all, many featured the awesome cover art of Angus McBride, and scads of excellent maps by Pete Fenlon (and others). The case-point presentation isn’t terribly helpful, but the overall organization is generally quite good. But the thing I really admired about these sourcebooks was the fact that they were excellent, excellent DM toolkits. Each one provided a good snapshot of the history, geography, flora, fauna, and key NPCs of the area. Most importantly, a good half-dozen adventure locales or sites of interest were mapped and described in detail. They weren’t quite adventures per se, but they were adventure *ingredients*, just the sort of thing a DM could take and turn into a great little dungeon. Finally, a number of the campaign modules included actual fleshed-out adventures, so you could just run something right out of the book if you had a mind to.

I was such a fan of the format and style of the ICE campaign modules that I tried very hard to steer Forgotten Realms sourcebooks along similar lines when I was creative director of the line early in the 3rd Edition days. The FR book that shows this emphasis most clearly is Silver Marches, which I am still quite proud of. Ed Greenwood did most of the writing for Silver Marches (with some help from Jason Carl), but I pitched in with a lot of additional description and sites to make that book into the best “DM toolkit” we could make. If you look through Silver Marches you’ll find maps and materials to create half a dozen good dungeons or short adventures, plus a pretty good “microcampaign” set in and around Deadsnows. To make sure we weren’t just reiterating things that had already been said in Savage Frontier and The North, I encouraged Ed and Jason to make up tons of interesting new Realmslore… which is how many of the little forests and hamlets in the area first got their names and descriptions.

Unfortunately it was hard to convince our business team to do more DM-oriented sourcebooks like Silver Marches when the better money seemed to be over in player-oriented splatbooks. It was a constant struggle to get those “DM-toolkit” books on the product schedule. We did manage to maintain some elements of the format in sourcebooks such as Unapproachable East and Underdark, but we never produced anywhere near as much of the Realms “geography” sourcebooks as I wanted to see. In fact, I often had to promise our brand folks that we were actually just packaging player splat options in different wrappers. I felt that was a major missed opportunity at the time, and I still think so today.

Current Events: So much going on I don’t know where to start. I guess I’ll limit my remarks this time to a simple observation: I never, never imagined that the pro-choice/pro-life debate was going to surface in this election, but now it’s on. My gut impression is that this is a big political advantage for Obama, since anything that distracts from the questions of whether the economy and job situation are really recovering and whether Obamacare is constitutional seems to be to his advantage. Americans won’t vote to make abortion illegal; only 23 percent of Americans (as of a 2010 Gallup poll, the quickest recent poll I could find on the topic) think abortion should be banned. In other words, if Obama can make the election into a referendum on whether women have the right to choose *at all*, he wins.

However… only 22 percent of Americans (same poll) think a women’s right to choose should be unrestricted (abortion should always be legal regardless of circumstances). So that suggests to me that 55 percent of Americans are in the middle, in a place where they don’t want to think about it or generally want to leave the status quo alone. I wonder if the big storms caused by the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood brouhaha and the Obamacare “no religious exception” mandate represent that huge 55 percent in the middle reacting to *attempts* (perceived or real) to change the status quo, one way or the other. In other words, we shouldn’t draw the conclusion that the country is overwhelmingly pro-choice because Susan G. Komen got blasted for their actions, or overwhelmingly pro-life because Obama was ambushed by the Catholic rebellion. I think the lesson is that America doesn’t want to make a war out of this right now and is going to react angrily to anyone who seems to trying to stir one up.

The Finer Things: Pistachios. My dad used to eat pistachios all the time. A bowl of pistachios was a permanent fixture within easy reach on football-watching days. But I just don’t ever think to buy pistachios for gnoshing. Anyway, the women’s group at church has a sale of various sorts of nuts each year, and I picked up a bag of pistachios mostly to be a good sport and support the cause. I soon learned that I’d forgotten how much I like ‘em! So now I’m into my second bag, and I have to say if the ladies are still selling them on Sunday, I might be getting a third.

Oh, and pitchers and catchers report tomorrow (for the Mariners). Awesome! I like football just fine, but there’s just something magical about spring training and the promise of a new baseball season. You read it here first: The 2012 Mariners are going to improve by at least 10 games from last year’s team. Of course, that’s a tepid prediction of 77 wins, but given how tough the Rangers and Angels are looking, I think that would be quite an accomplishment.