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!


  1. Hello, I just found out about your new blog a little while ago and thought I'd say hello.

    Hello. I really enjoyed the Axis & Allies War at Sea game. Unfortunately, nobody really plays around here. I'm picking up a starter for the Air Force minis. We'll see how that goes.

    I'm looking forward to seeing John Carter myself. And the Hobbit movie. Especially the Hobbit movie. I could take or leave the Avengers and Spiderman, though the latter seems intriguing. I've never been much of a Marvel fan.

    Anywho, I'm enjoying your blog and look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

  2. It's always possible that the vast majority of scientists are wrong in concluding that the earth is warming at a rate that does not have precedents in the geological record; and that humans are largely responsible for that change. The science looks incredibly strong to me, but I'm not going to deny that lots of things we have "known" in the past have turned out to be wrong.

    But it's also always possible to raise doubts or find a skeptic to any given theory. No science is ever truly "conclusive," merely persuasive. So if you are politically or ideologically inclined not to be persuaded, you can always find another objection (Earth-centered universe anyone?)

    The premise behind the exercise of science is that--while continuing to challenge the established consensus--you are also willing, at some point, to accept that consensus as a working hypothesis and act on it. If we are not at that point now with man-made warming, or near it, when might we be? What are the criteria for "enough" certainty?

    On your third and forth points, I am in much more agreement. We don't know what the effects of warming may be, and whether they will be generally positive, mixed or profoundly negative; nor how to avert them, and how much that might cost. As a resident of a prosperous, productive nation, I tend to think that vast, unpredictable changes are better avoided. But who knows, maybe the Seattle suburbs will become a tropical paradise with beachfront property.

    The thing I find most disturbing is the general premise that appears to underlie much warming skepticism--namely that we should wait and see if we have (likely irretrievably) ruined our planet before thinking about alternatives.

    It is true that we can't make Canada not mine the oil-shale, and the US cannot stop China and India from industrializing. But conversely, if the US does nothing, then it's a dead certainty that nothing will happen. Maybe that's just fine, and maybe it's disasterous for the human race. Given the time scales involved, it probably won't affect me either way, but I worry on behalf of my grandchildren, who just might end up in a hole they can't dig out of.

  3. Yeah, the global warming thing is pretty flawed science. Basically a bunch of hippies came up with a life or death scenario to get what they want, then they realized, "Hey! We could make money off of this too!". And so started the 'Green Tech' industry and the sad attempts at supplanting the 'evil oil baron' owned fossile fuels.

    If one takes a look at the long and chaotic history of this planet, it changes temperature all the time without the benfit of humans for most of it. Now that doesn't mean I don't think we should care about the environment! Of course we should, I'm a big fan of picking up garbage and having cleaner air. Cleaner technology should be more efficient and save companies money, that's just technological progress. But you can't force that, and when you do try and force something, people suffer. People are suffering right now, and it's not from Global Warming, but the sanctions imposed by the fear of it. Fear has a habbit of doing that.

    But this planet could turn against us at the drop of a hat, with or without our technology. We need to embrace what we have and become as strong as possible while we still can. Otherwise we'll end up like dinosaurs as a species and/or ancient Rome as a civilization.

    I too am looking forward to Avengers and The Hobbit. I found it interesting that one of the earlier actors to play The Doctor on Doctor Who will be playing Radagast the Brown, one of Gandalf's fellow wizards. My guess is that he'll be at the 'White Council' and hopefully will have a larger role in dealing with the necromancer in Mirkwood.

    Take Care!

  4. Well argued, Unknown. I think there's still plenty of doubt about the importance of anthropogenic factors in observed climate change. (Frankly, I worry much more about deforestation and land use issues than I do carbon emissions.) I believe the scientists questioning the more extreme contentions aren't just cranks and fruit loops; therefore, it's reasonable to ask for a higher level of proof before we take drastic actions. And even if a serious problem is demonstrated, I see little point in the US/Western World throwing their economies down the drain, while the developing world keeps on their current course and we wind up with the same amount of emissions we have now, with our economy ruined. I have absolutely no confidence that countries like India or China could be inspired to follow our example, even in the face of seriously unpleasant warming effects. Only in the case of true planetary disaster (a case that I think is far from proven) would China and India come on board with efforts damaging to their economic disaster. And even then I bet they'd cheat.

  5. With respect to oil prices, why does it matter to us if the Keystone pipeline goes through Canada or the USA?

    The price of oil is set by global markets that don't depends on location. If more oil comes out of the ground, it's true oil prices will be reduced, but that's true for every buyer. Neither US citizens, corporations, nor government will receive free oil (or even discounted) oil as an possible result of Canadian shale.

    (I grant that Keystonecould affect US employment, but that's a separate issue.)

  6. Fair enough, Dave -- I should have said "fewer jobs, and less secure oil," as opposed to "more expensive oil" in that second paragraph. And it would be fair to note that the security of our oil supplies would be only moderately improved by Keystone. Mostly I was thinking about the jobs.

  7. Every excuse I heard about not building the pipeline was concern over moving the product over the whole country to the refineries. My take on the oil sands pipeline is that they should instead build refineries on the border and create not just new construction jobs from building the pipeline, but also permanent jobs in dirty tar oil refining. Seems like the best of both worlds to me.

  8. Hi Richard,

    I stumbled onto this blog entry by accident.

    I read your Blades of the Moonsea novels, a while back, after a friend of mine said you sneaked some Spelljammer stuff into the novel Corsair. I had seem some SJ fans being skeptical about 4e, but when I actually read your books myself, I thought the middle section of Corsair was a better description of a Tear of Selune than any of the TSR products! So I was wondering if you might have written something about how you designed the really cool asteroid you created for that novel, but found this page instead.

    I don't play 4e, but given how useful I think Corsair is to SJ gamers, I've been wondering if I should look for a copy of Player’s Option: Heroes of Elemental Chaos. I started a thread over at the Spelljammer forum at The Piazza, called SJ content in Player’s Option: Heroes of Elemental Chaos, but confusingly, the feedback I've gotten there is that there is not really much connection with the original reigar or Spelljammer.

    I was kind of expecting it to be planewalking reigar, rather than spacefaring reigar, but was wondering if you were going to be using the same NPC (Hastain) that you created for SJR5.

    I'm wondering if my SJ friend at The Piazza have missed something. Does some of the other 30 percent of the book that you wrote tie into the Lord of Chaos thing to build a theme for the 1-20 level progression that leads into the Lord of Chaos Epic Destiny?

    Thanks in advance for any background information that you could let me know.

    David "Big Mac" Shepheard

    PS: I think it was a mistake for WotC to let you go, as you have great world-building skills. If they ever bring back Spelljammer for D&D Next, I do hope they have you on the freelance team (at the least) so that you can create some more locations as interesting as Neshuldaar was.

    1. Hi, David --

      Thanks for the compliments! I enjoyed writing "Corsair," and frankly I was a little surprised that I was able to work in as much spelljamming as I did. I don't think I have many more notes about the asteroid other than "secret pirate base," which I then dressed up with a little bit of pulp-adventure style fantastic-world description. There may be a little bit of Burroughs or Clark Asthon Smith hiding in the asteroid concept.

      Other than borrowing the reigar, I didn't put all that much more spelljamming stuff into Elemental Chaos. However, there are a couple of Easter eggs in the 4e Manual of the Planes, including what is essentially a spelljamming ship for 4th Edition.