Saturday, June 30, 2012

Prince of Ravens, Obamacare, Boston

Hi, there! Thanks for stopping by. I know it’s been about three weeks or so, but I skipped my June 20th post because we were entertaining my wife’s parents, who were visiting from out of state. We went up to Vancouver to pick them up as they returned from an Alaskan cruise, and then took them over to Victoria BC to spend a few days sightseeing and playing tourist. The unexpected gem of the trip for me was the amazing crossing from Vancouver to Victoria—the ferry route passes through the Gulf Islands, which are essentially the Canadian equivalent of Washington’s San Juan Islands. The scenery is nothing short of spectacular, and we even saw some orcas in one of the channels, although they were a good distance off.

Anyway, in this week’s edition of Atomic Dragon Battleship: Prince of Ravens, health care, and Boston.

Prince of Ravens: On July 3rd, my latest Forgotten Realms novel goes on sale. Prince of Ravens will be available as an ebook at various online stores. Here are a couple of links to the book’s product pages on Amazon and Barnes and Noble:

Prince of Ravens returns to the story of Jack Ravenwild, one of my most well-loved characters. Jack debuted in my 2000 novel City of Ravens; he’s part Gray Mouser, part Cugel the Clever, and part Fletch. He’s ambitious and greedy, but too lazy to try to get ahead though anything resembling hard honest work; the world owes him a life of luxury and comfort, or so Jack feels. He’s always on the lookout for his next big chance, especially if it offers the opportunity to get rich quick, and just can’t say no to the next scheme that presents itself. Of course, it’s Jack’s peculiar misfortune to find himself in the middle of situations where he needs to act like a hero.

In Prince of Ravens, Jack awakes in the Underdark after a hundred years of magical imprisonment. Unfortunately, he wakes up in the power of a drow noble family who now hold the Underdark beneath the city of Ravens Bluff. He has no idea who imprisoned him or why, and the drow of course prove quite capable of seeing through his bluffs, schemes, and deceits. Things have changed in Ravens Bluff, but Jack is soon embroiled in a whole nest of plots and schemes again—the pursuit of a rich noble’s daughter, the return of a dangerous old foe, the mystery of his magical imprisonment, and of course, the threat posed to the city by the drow realm a mile below the streets. Misadventure ensues!

One more thing I’ll add that I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned before… if you get a hold of the old City of Ravens, make sure you look for the Easter eggs. There are dozens in the book. Here are just a few:

·        The Dread Delgath, the name Jack adopts when he joins the Wizard Guild, is of course one of the pregenerated PCs appearing in the back of the old modules A1 through A4.

·        Jack shouts “Take that, you fiend!” when he hits his double with a magic missile. TTYF is a spell from the old Tunnels & Trolls game.

·        When Iphegor’s familiar challenges Jack in the necromancer’s library, he says, “Here now, who are you?” – the same line spoken by the troll’s purse in The Hobbit.

·        The Orb of Khundrukar is named after Khundrukar, the dwarven fortress in Forge of Fury.

Anyway, check out the new Prince of Ravens. It’s a good read, with plenty of action and intrigue, and a good dose of humor as well. I hope you like it!

Politics/Current Events: Like just about everybody else in the country, I was eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act, AKA Obamacare. I found Thursday’s verdict disappointing, because I felt pretty sure that the mandate was not constitutional and I think that the law is a big stinking mess of exemptions, influence-peddling, and impossibly unfunded promises. But, that said, I am satisfied that the constitutionality question has been put to rest. The Supreme Court has put Congress on notice that they can’t disguise a tax by calling it a mandate, and that is a reasonable position to take. Everybody on the planet could see that the authors of the legislation were disingenuous in the extreme as they tried to hide the fact that they were passing a tax measure to make the legislation work; I doubt that the ACA would have passed if they’d been honest about that.

It’s also noteworthy that the Roberts opinion firmly upholds the decision on the basis of Congress’s tax authority, not the Commerce Clause. Some conservative commentators have been citing this as a hidden victory in the decision. I feel that they’re looking for the silver lining with that line of reasoning, and I’m not at all convinced that future iterations of the Supreme Court will give the Roberts opinion all that much deference. The Supreme Court has certainly dispensed with precedent before when it’s in one of its more political phases. But this should inform decisions for the next 20 or 30 years, and that’s a good start.

While I think the law is now constitutional enough to stand, it’s still a terrible piece of legislation and desperately needs to be repaired. It’s not going to do a thing to contain health care expenses or “bend the curve” as the President promised. It’s going to add hundreds of billions of dollars of domestic spending to our overstretched budget every year. And it is inherently partisan and unfair, because hundreds of industries and special classifications—most Democrat influence groups—have been singled out for exemptions from its requirements. Passing laws that some people have to abide by and other people don’t isn’t the way to address our national health care challenges.

One final thought about Obamacare: Watch out for the challenge on the HHS contraception and abortion services directive. There’s another day in court coming on this bill, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a different ruling came down from the high court next time.

The Finer Things: Boston, as in the band, not the city. Was there ever a better debut album than Boston’s first record? I had one of those truly excellent parental moments the other day when my daughter Hannah and I were driving up to Fatburger to grab a couple of burgers. “Foreplay/Long Time” came on the radio. Hannah’s 14 now, and of course she’s into various pop music, but every now and then I get a chance to expose her to the classics. Anyway, I pointed out the great little acoustic guitar breaks in “Long Time,” and told her to get ready for a serious dose of awesomeness, right about… now, when that third break hits but it’s the electric guitar, not the acoustic. Hannah just grinned in delight and said, “All right, Dad, that was pretty awesome.” It give me hope for her generation, maybe they’re salvageable still.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Multiplayer games, Wisconsin, Seattle spring

Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I took some time earlier this week to guest-post in the Pathfinder Online blog about my work on the village of Thornkeep, part of the Pathfinder Online setting. If you’re curious, you can find my post here:

I have a couple of other projects keeping me busy these days, but nothing else I can really talk about yet. Keep your eyes peeled for Prince of Ravens, my upcoming e-book; next time I post I’ll make sure I provide some good links or pointers to places where you can find it.
Oh, and no blog entry next week: We’ve got family visiting from the East Coast. So don’t expect me back here until June 30th or so with a good long look at what’s next in Jack Ravenwild’s life.

Gaming: I’ve long held the opinion that multiplayer games without preset sides are a uniquely difficult social dynamic for many people. Games like Risk, Diplomacy, Kingmaker, Empires of the Middle Ages, or Twilight Imperium all present the player with a viciously hard decision right at the very beginning: Who are you going to screw over? That’s bad enough, because you often don’t really know what the right answer is when you make a decision that affects the rest of the game. But, even worse, there’s a metagame element to it too. When you decide to stop Joe from grabbing North America right at the start of a Risk game, maybe he shrugs it off as part of the game—or maybe he nurses a grudge against you all week. Be honest now: You’ve played Risk with Joe, haven’t you? Everybody has at one point or another.
That wicked social dynamic is the reason why I’ve always enjoyed the Axis & Allies boardgames. Only the most absolutely unreasonable Joe will hold a grudge if he’s playing Russia and Germany attacks him. The game’s preset alliances provide a fig leaf of decency to that first punch in the nose. There’s no opportunity for betrayal, or even perceived fictional betrayals, when your adversaries have to announce themselves up front. It’s why I designed Conquest of Nerath to work as a faction game as well as a free-for-all game.

I think that many game designers really overlook that tough social dynamic when building free-for-all games, and count on players to self-regulate in cooperating against the frontrunner or manage the endgame. If we’re all confident, mature, thick-skinned gamers, sure, that works. But we’re not—we don’t want to pick fights, we get angry when people pick on us, we hold grudges. I sometimes wonder if games like Risk would be better if it included a spinner with the different player-piece colors marked on it, just to help out those folks who can’t stand to make friends sore at them. I bet the psychology of being able to point to the spinner and say, “Dude, I’m sorry, but the spinner says I gotta attack you” would prevent a surprising amount of arguments and bruised friendships.
Back when I was first starting out in the game design biz, I had the good fortune to work with veteran TSR designer Bruce Nesmith. Bruce had a great insight about multiplayer, free-for-all games that has served me well for years: Every time you sit down to play, pick one person at the table to be your ally, and one to be your enemy. Never do anything to screw your ally (unless of course he breaks the alliance first), and never cut your enemy a break. Don’t let fleeting opportunities or setbacks change your allegiances. If you have a hard time choosing sides in free-for-all games, give this a try!

Politics/Current Events: A few months ago I wrote about the upcoming Wisconsin recall election, and why I thought it was important. As you might imagine, I was gratified to see that Walker survived his recall. Some of my Wisconsin friends have now moved on to a “well, Walker’s a criminal who is about to be indicted” argument. I really can’t speak to that, since I’m not familiar with the accusations. But I find that I’m just a little dubious about the latest calls for Walker’s head after the string of Democrat efforts to stop him at any cost. Busing out-of-state protestors into Madison, death threats against Republican legislators, Democrat legislators fleeing to Illinois to deny a quorum, the full-court press to elect a more favorable State Supreme Court and the ridiculous accusations of assault against judge David Prosser when that failed, the endless Hitler comparisons, and of course the effort to recall just about every potentially vulnerable Republican in state government… sorry, somewhere along the way you lost me.
At the end of the day, the single most illuminating element of this debate might be what the public-sector union employees have done with their money since Wisconsin law stopped auto-deducting union dues out of their paychecks. Membership in AFSCME dropped from 63,000 in March 2011 to 28,700 a year later. In other words, half the union members chose to keep the money that formerly had to go to union coffers. Think about that for a moment: First of all, didn’t these former union members *gain* the right to *not* participate in a union if they didn’t want to? Isn’t that a valuable worker’s right, too? And secondly, the old system took money from taxpayers of all parties and (through public sector employee salaries) paid it to unions, who then of course donated overwhelmingly to the Democratic party. Somehow it just seems wrong to force folks to make campaign contributions to people they disagree with. How is that not an infringement on their freedom of speech?

I don’t have a problem with unions in the private sector. There is no doubt that they won many important improvements in working conditions that all Americans benefit from today. But a union in the private sector has to exist in a symbiosis with the company its workers are employed by. If you drive your employer out of business with your demands, everybody loses, so you don’t do that. The difficulty with a public sector union is that it has the ability to elect the people it will negotiate with, and that it has no fear of putting the government out of business. Who exactly is looking out for the taxpayers’ interests when AFSCME or SEIU sits down across the table from Democrat politicians they helped to elect?

The Finer Things: One thing I’ve come to look forward to each year in the Northwest is the stately progression of one thing after another playing the starring role in the spring. First it’s the cherry trees with their beautiful pink blossoms, then the dogwoods with their more modest white ones. Then we get a week or two of cottonwood blizzards, with the air full of drifting fluff. After that the rhododendrons bloom in an outrageous variety of colors with blossoms the size of bowling balls. And somewhere in there the scotch broom, a dry and scraggly weed for most of the year, covers itself in tiny bell-shaped flowers like dabs of bright yellow butter, and suddenly every hillside you can see has turned gold. I never considered myself much of a gardener, but I have to say that every year I’m just a little more impressed by the show.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Conquest of Nerath, A Bad Week in Seattle

Hello, everybody! Welcome back to another issue of Atomic Dragon Battleship.

Sorry for a tardy posting this time around. I’m up against a deadline on Monday (the Thornkeep book for the friendly folks at Paizo/Goblinworks), so I’ve been burning the candle at both ends to get that design done on time while keeping up with my current novel. I’ll try to get back on schedule next time.

Gaming: I just learned that my conquer-the-world boardgame Conquest of Nerath won the Origins award for best boardgame of 2011. I’ve been fortunate enough to win a handful of Origins awards over my professional career, but this is one I’ll especially prize. In the first place, Conquest of Nerath was something of a labor of love that went seven years between design and publication. Secondly, it’s likely the last Origins I’ll win in the colors of Wizards of the Coast, so it’s one more marker of change in my career. I won my first Origins in 1994 for the Birthright Campaign Setting, and with the callowness of youth I assumed I’d knock one down every year or so. Turns out they don’t come around as often as you might think.

I’m pretty happy with the way Conquest of Nerath turned out. It’s a fun strategy game with good replayability and a solid balance of deterministic elements and randomness. Pete Lee, the lead developer of the game, did a great job of working through the piece balance and card balance. A year or so ago, Pete and I sat down with Rodney Thompson and Jeremy Crawford and played the heck out of the just-printed game for a month and a half of lunchtimes, running through multiple games in different positions, and we were pretty happy with how it turned out. I wish we’d set the game in Krynn or Faerun, but as it turned out we generated some pretty good story content for the Nentir Vale world when we built the map.

If there’s one mechanic I’d change for the game, it’s dragons. We were all over the place in development and playtesting for the cost of the dragon and the exact lineup of its special abilities. (At one point, dragons cost 7 gold each.) But in the real world with thousands of people playing the game, dragons turned out to be too good. It’s hard to see why you don’t just build a stack of 4 or 5 dragons and use that as your army. So, here’s my simple recommendation: You can’t ever have more than 1 dragon of your color in the same space. Dragons are extremely suspicious and paranoid toward their own kind, and never willingly cooperate with each other. If for some reason you end your turn with 2 or more dragons in the same space, they fight until only 1 is left.

The dragon “problem” really isn’t a problem until you have multiple dragons in the same space and multiple hits you can negate. This rule patches that nicely without nerfing the value of an individual dragon in your army. Anyway, if you play Conquest of Nerath and dragons are a problem, try this as a houserule.

Politics/Current Events: This has been a rough week in Seattle. I’m sure most of you have heard about the coffee shop shooting. You may not know that the shooter carjacked a woman a few blocks from the scene and killed her, too. There was also a shooting at the Folk Life Festival in the Seattle Center last weekend (fortunately, not lethal). And on Thursday night there was a shooting right here in my hometown—a 13-year-old boy was killed in his apartment not half a mile from my house.

Most  of the time when you hear about a shooting in the city you live in (or near), you don’t have any connection to it. But this week the six degrees of separation wore thin for my family. My oldest daughter was at the Seattle Center on a school trip when the Folk Life Festival shooting occurred; they hurriedly evacuated the area. My wife’s officemate knew one of the people who had managed to escape the coffee shop, and the mother of my younger daughter’s best friend was close enough to the carjacking scene to hear the shots. And, finally, the boy who was murdered here in Pacific was a good friend of my younger daughter. They were part of the same lunch table and shared many of the same interests. My youngest is shaken up, but seems okay; I don’t think it has really hit her yet. I know that I didn’t lose any close friends until I was in college, so I can’t imagine how I would have reacted at her age (middle school).

It’s impossible to make sense of the senseless, so I’m not going to try. At times like these the only answer I come up with is that God must surely value free will above all else, and allows people to do evil things because making them not happen would do even more harm. Anyway, this week I’m happy to hug my kids and thank God that we still had a degree or two of separation to spare.

The Finer Things: Game of Thrones. I’m finally taking the time to work my way through the series. I have a curious mental defect that makes me delay reading things in proportion to the number of people trying to convince me that I need to read them *now*, so I tend to be the last guy to get around to a popular series. Anyway, I’m halfway through A Clash of Kings now, and I’m really enjoying it. My only problem is that my wife is watching the HBO series, and I don’t dare watch any of the episodes with her.