Friday, September 21, 2012

Birthright Campign Setting Reflections, 47%

Hi, everybody – welcome back! A couple of weeks back, Nicolas Santarelli asked about my recollections of working on the Birthright Campaign Setting. I went and broke out an old BRCS box to remind myself of what the world was all about; it’s been a few years, after all. So this week I’m going to take walk down memory lane with the Birthright Campaign Setting, reflect briefly on campaign “gaffes,” and pay homage to teriyaki.

First, a funny story about the Birthright Campaign Setting. The designers and editors were asked to brainstorm up some marketing taglines. We kicked around dozens of possibilities. One that kept coming up was “Blood and Honor,” which seemed okay—the setting was about characters with heroic bloodlines, ruling honorably. But something sounded familiar about that. I thought hard about it, and realized that there was a reason it sounded familiar: Blut und Ehre was a slogan of the SS Hitler Youth. I suggested to my colleagues that we probably didn’t want a Nazi motto for our marketing tagline, so we kept trying. We circled back around to Blood and Honor like four or five times, and each time I had to shout out, “No! Nazi slogan! Try again!”
Eventually, upper management grew tired of our efforts, and retained a Chicago marketing firm to create our motto for us. They came up with, “When greatness by right is thrust upon you, it is best to be ready.” I kid you not. I don’t recall the alternatives we came up with (other than Blood and Honor) but I know they were better than that! I mean, it doesn’t even make sense. Do you have greatness by right, or are you becoming great because greatness is being thrust upon you? Sigh. The real tragedy is that for those fourteen clumsy words, TSR paid more than they paid Colin McComb and I to write the whole damned setting over six months of work. No wonder they went out of business.

Gaming: Okay, so what do I think about the Birthright Campaign Setting fifteen years after publishing it? Well, I love the art and the maps. I like the human cultures that populate the continent, and I like the spooky and interesting takes on the elves and halflings. But the real point of retrospection is thinking about what you would have done differently, and of course when I look at something I worked on a long time ago, I want to go back and tinker. So what’s on my list?
First, I wish we’d actually stuffed the box with things the setting really needed instead of the mish-mash of poster maps, reference cards, battle cards, and a fold-up battle card storage unit. I didn’t really want all that clutter in the box, nor did Colin or Anne or Sue or Andria—all of us creative sorts felt that we were including things we didn’t need. But the orders from higher up were clear: Here are the components, use them all. It turned out that the cost of the goods of the product  was so high that there was no way it could ever make money, but that sort of information wasn’t shared with the creative types back at old TSR. Did I mention they eventually ran the company out of business?

In world design, I wish we’d left a little more open frontier on the map of Cerilia. While it’s pretty clear that low-rated provinces in the middle of nowhere are probably pretty lawless and open for development by anyone who comes along, the map seems to suggest much more firmly established borders. Maybe we could have come up with a graphic treatment to distinguish between the borders different realms *claim* and the borders they actually *control.* In retrospect, the classic D&D trope of clearing wilderness and becoming a minor noble would have worked well in the setting and could have been integrated better into the Domain rules.
In domain mechanics, I wish that wizards weren’t so concerned with unspoiled lands. It makes wizards into very druid-like figures, and I think that’s just a little bit off. Part of this arose out of the edition of D&D we were working with: In 2nd Edition, druids were considered examples of specialty priests, not a full character class like the cleric. Had we done the same material in 3rd Edition or 4th Edition, we probably would have assigned the wizard’s mechanics for gathering regency to the druid. Interestingly enough, the power source notion described in 4th Edition might have been a very powerful tool for organizing the system of holdings and regency points. In the 4e idiom, Primal characters would be the guys drawing power from sources and ley lines, and that just feels right.

That begs the question of what the wizard should have been doing instead. If I were to do it over again, I might get rid of permanent arcane holdings altogether. Instead, I’d tie the wizard’s ability to use the Realm Magic system to possession of “items of power”: a legendary spellbook, a mystic crystal, a demon prince’s heart, etc. They’re generally not portable, so the wizard’s holding really represents a fortress or lair in which the items of power are protected. Items of power might include things that aren’t even items per se, for example, a circle or guild of lesser mages, the patronage of a powerful extraplanar being, or a curse or prophecy. If you lose your item or items of power, you’re still a high-level wizard, you just lose access to Realm Magic.
Okay, and last but not least. Here’s what might be the most heretical thought for you Birthright fans out there: I think I would really downplay the idea of bloodlines and bloodline powers in a redo. “Your character is the king” was enough of a hook for the setting that we didn’t need to make those characters mystically better than ordinary people with extensive bloodline powers. That would also mean revisiting a number of the awnsheghlien: Too many of them are tragic figures because we got overly hung up on the notion of the bloodlines. And, unfortunately, other designers missed the mood of the setting and went for grotesque with the monstrous bloodlines. The Blood Enemies book really suffered for that reason, I think.

Overall... Sometimes less is more, and I feel that we succumbed to the temptation to “kitchen sink” the setting and included too many new things. I would like to go back, narrow the focus, and make it really sing with a great campaign narrative and a lot more support for the most difficult and innovative concept in the setting—running kingdoms while you’re playing your heroes.

Politics/Current Events: I’ve decided that I am not particularly shocked by Mitt Romney’s 47% remark. It’s probably something that he wishes he hadn’t said, but I just don’t think it’s any kind of game-changer in the presidential race. Answer honestly: Does the story change your intended vote? I’m guessing probably not. Most people are already pretty well settled on voting for Obama, or are equally determined to vote against him. Either way, the Romney kerfluffle isn’t making many people change their minds. There’s maybe a narrow band of say 5 to 10 percent of the voters in the middle who *might* still be in play for something like that, but in all honesty, Obama has said things that are nearly as bad—for example, his “bitter clingers” remark about guns and religion, his “spread the wealth around” comment to Joe the Plumber, or the recent audio that’s been airing in which he endorses the redistribution of wealth as a goal of government. All candidates tailor their remarks to the audience they’re speaking in front of, and say things in front of core donors that they wouldn’t necessarily say to the broader voting public. It ain’t news.
I’m amazed by how many times in the last couple of months the collected punditry of the country has decided to declare Obama the winner of the election. Romney’s tax returns were supposed to be the lethal blow, then the quiet Republican convention, then the rowdy Democrat convention, then the criticism of the administration’s Middle East policy, and now the 47 percent remark. That’s five times in the last ten weeks that liberal commentators have unanimously declared that NOW MITT ROMNEY CAN’T POSSIBLY WIN! I’ve got an idea: How about we just go ahead and hold the election anyway, and we’ll see?

The Finer Things: Teriyaki. A funny thing about the Pacific Northwest: You can’t walk one hundred yards in a straight line without bumping into a teriyaki shop (or a coffee stand, for that matter). I grew up on the Jersey shore, and there were a handful of Japanese restaurants around. Out here, teriyaki places are like sub shops in Jersey. Every shopping center has one, maybe two. You can put down maybe $6 or $7 and get a great chicken teriyaki almost anywhere out here. Someday we’ll probably find ourselves on the East Coast again, and when we do, am I going to miss a teriyaki place on every corner!
In case you’re wondering, Teriyaki 2 U has the best yakisoba; Ginger Teriyaki has the best katsu; and Ono Teriyaki up in Renton has a spicy chicken that is out of this world.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Getting Ganked, Awesome Saxophones

I love this time of year. The baseball pennant races are getting really interesting, college football comes on Saturdays, and the NFL’s on Sundays. The weeks between the start of football season and the end of the World Series are really the acme of my sports year… and I love the September and October weather, too. Out here in the Northwest our temperatures are diving into the 40s at night but warming up to the low 70s by day. There’s a lot to love about early fall!

By the way, my apologies for a late posting; it seems like getting back into the school routine for the kids just threw off my schedule for the last week or so. I’ll try to be more punctual next time!

Gaming: I’m playing a lot of EVE Online these days. EVE has been around for a while, of course, but I wanted to take a few weeks and really explore some of the gameplay, since it’s the gold standard of “sandbox” style play for a lot of people, and I wanted to educate myself a bit. There is a ton of room for self-directed play that I find really intriguing, but of course the downside is that any player is free to misbehave toward other players in almost any way they want; EVE is not for the faint of heart. Naturally, I’ve been ganked a couple of times, once with such outright malice that I almost quit the game right there.
In case you don’t know, to “gank” someone is to kill them in PvP combat. Because EVE is a sandbox, there’s nothing to stop stronger/better equipped players from blasting noobs into space-dust except for the fact that NPC guards may intervene in high-security areas. Anyway, in my really savage ganking, I’d been playing a few weeks, and I’d worked my way up to Cruiser size ships. I took a huge hunk of my money and bought myself a shiny new cruiser, lovingly outfitting it with everything I wanted. On my new ship’s maiden voyage, I set out to try it in an easy little NPC mission… but as I was on my way to the mission locale, I received a chat request from another player.

“Hey, can you help me out?” Zander Killer asks me.

Maybe the name should have been my first clue, but whatever.I hadn’t socialized with other players at all at that point, and I really wanted to see how it worked. Plus, I want to be a good citizen and help where I can. “Um, sure,” I reply. “What do you need?”

“I need some help testing out my new tanking fitting. Can you put some fire on me so I can see how it works?”
Okay, that sounded just a wee bit dodgy; I really didn’t want to shoot at another player for any reason. But I was still pretty new to the game, and I could certainly understand the desire to test out a new ship design in a controlled environment where the provider of the firepower could stop and start at your request, or shoot at different ranges, or whatever. “Are you sure?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah, it’s no problem,” Zander Killer replied. “Just come on back to the station.”
“Okay, if you say so,” I replied, and went back to the vicinity of the station. There were a surprising number of wrecks floating right by the station, which perhaps should have been another clue. But I hardly knew what a wreck was at that point in my Eve career.

“Now drop a can,” Zander Killer replied.
“Drop a can?” I asked. Did I say I was pretty new to the game? It turns out that in order to exchange fire with another player in a high-security system, you have to have a reason to shoot at him, or vice versa. Stealing cargo is a casus belli that the game’s NPC peacekeepers recognize and stand back from, as is self-defense. So, get someone to pick up a cargo container you jettison, and you can shoot at that guy. And once you’re shot at, you can of course shoot back. Zander Killer patiently explained all this to me, and then instructed me in how I could jettison a bit of cargo, which I didn’t know how to do.

“Okay, I guess I’m ready,” I said.
“Me too,” said Zander Killer. “Go ahead and shoot!”

So, I shot. I noticed my cruiser guns hardly scratched Zander Killer’s shields. And I noticed that Zander Killer was in a really big ship, too—a battlecruiser at least, maybe even a battleship. “All right,” I told him. “I don’t think I can make a dent in your shields. Your ship is pretty solid.”
At that point, Zander Killer opened up on me. In about three seconds of firing he dropped my shields, peeled every ounce of armor off my brand new shiny cruiser, and whacked down through half of my structure points.

“Hey, be careful there!” I told him. “Your ship is REALLY solid.”
“Give me 10 million credits or I’ll kill you,” Zander Killer replied.

“Wait, what?” I sputtered.
“10 million credits. You’ve got 10 seconds.”

I stared at my screen in dismay. I only had 7 million credits to my name after building that brand new shiny cruiser. I tried to find the button on my screen that would let me warp out of there, or go back into the station, or at least die with my boots on, shooting back for all I was worth. But really, the betrayal was complete: I was so stunned that I couldn’t do anything but stare in dismay.
“Asshat!” I finally managed to reply.

“3… 2… 1… bye!” And Zander Killer atomized my brand new shiny cruiser on its maiden voyage, before I’d done anything else with it but leave the damned station. I jumped up from my computer, stomped around the room, and swore like a sailor. My family was quite entertained.
Fortunately, the cruiser was insured. But I lost about two-thirds of my wealth in one exchange of fire. Afterwards, I got to thinking about it, trying to figure out why I was so angry that I would’ve shot the man in the kneecap if he’d been in the room with me at that moment. I knew that EVE was an open PvP environment, and that you could be killed at any time by another player. In fact, I’d lost a couple of little ships that way already, with only minor irritation. My previous demises had been pretty impersonal, just players with bigger ships stepping on me when I was a long way out in the wilds, not even a word of greeting first. Tough, but that’s the environment; I knew I was in risky spots both times.

I realized the two things that really pissed me off about the Zander Killer incident were that, first, I’d lost a sexy new ship before I had a chance to do anything at all with it, and more importantly, Zander Killer had gone out of his way to betray and murder a noob who was trying to be a Good Samaritan. That’s not just playing hard—that is sociopathic. To do something like that, you have to enjoy asking for someone’s help, winning their trust, patiently explaining to them the steps they need to take, and then deliberately kneeing them in the balls when they think they’re helping you out. I don’t know who Zander Killer is, but wherever that dude is, he needs to be locked up. That is just vicious.
Anyway, I got over my initial impulse to quit the game then and there, and I’ve been having fun playing it since. I’ve heard for years that the EVE community is filled with real charmers, and I received a nasty object lesson. I watch other players now like they’re rattlesnakes, and I check and see if someone’s a total outlaw or not when they’re in my vicinity. I don’t have any real impulse to pay Zander Killer back by going and ganking some other poor noob myself, but I hope that someday I might get good enough at the game to be a pretty serious hunter of outlaws like him.

Oh, and one more thing: I can’t offer anything like the nine-figure bounties that real reprobates in EVE seem to command, and I’m going to have to play the game for months and months to afford a ship that could beat Zander Killer. So, I’ll crowdsource this: If you send me a screen shot of Zander Killer’s capsule exploding or the smoking wreck of his ship, I will commend you as a hero to the worldwide gaming audience and celebrate your achievement here in my blog with a paean to your triumph.
Chalk it down as a learning experience.

Politics/Current Events: Eh, I’ll leave this be this time around. I have a couple of axes to grind, but I’m already worked up about the Zander Killer thing and I don’t need to spin any more wheels today.

The Finer Things: Awesome saxophone solos. There is a short but incredible sax solo in Steely Dan’s “Dr. Wu” that I regard as the gold standard of sax solos; stop what you’re doing right now and go listen to it if you don’t know the song. The solo is played by a fellow named Phil Woods, who also played the great sax for Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” has a beautiful sax through the whole darned song (the work of Raphael Ravenscroft). And of course many, many Bruce Springsteen songs feature the work of the Big Man, Clarence Clemons—I really like the solos in “She’s the One,” “Born to Run,” and “Rosalita” (not quite a solo, but still fantastic). Just thinking about ‘em makes my brain happy.