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.