Monday, June 30, 2008

I'd Like To Thank The Academy

The ORIGINS game convention was this past week, and with them the Origins Awards, one of the two major hobby gaming awards (the other being the ENnies, given out at GenCon). And this year, a project I worked on (and mentioned previously in this journal), Hobby Games: The 100 Best, took the Non-Fiction Publication of the Year category.

I'm delighted to share the award with such distinguished company - over a hundred other essayists (counting intros and afterwords), all wrangled between two covers by editor James Lowder. James took the Fiction Publication of the Year category as well with the short story collection: Astounding Hero Tales.

One of the nice things about awards is that point out the high marks of the past year, so if you were thinking about getting the book, here's a big thumbs-up from gaming itself. Go check it out.

More later,

Earth-Shattering Kaboom

A hundred years ago, SOMETHING smacked into the Earth in Siberia, resulting the Tunguska Event.

Comet? Meteorite? UFO? Tesla's Death Ray? We dunno.

Happy birthday, Tunguska, and keep watching the skies.

More later,

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Self-Fufilling Fortune Cookie

"You will receive a small fortune"

(About six words long - yep, that's short).

More later,

Friday, June 27, 2008


So one of our founders took our design group out to see Wall-E, the new Pixar movie, this afternoon.

I really don't want to say much about it, just out of respect (the trailers have been fairly good at avoiding spoilers), and you really, really want to encounter it with a relatively unspoiled brain. It is sweet without being saccharine and so good that you regularly forget you're watching CGI.

Seriously, the tech has caught up and the writing is extremely good. Go see it.

More later,

Green Dragon

OK, so our Thursday Night Group fought a 4E green dragon, and it was both balanced and impressive.

The "dragons" part of Dungeons and Dragons has always been a little problematic. Supposedly the toughest monster, it still needs to be the most accessible to players. In the originals we had subdual rules, which meant you always had a chance of one-shotting the big bag of hit points. But so weakened, the scaly monster was quickly bypassed by extraplanar creatures like demons, devils, and devas, so it wasn't as cool. Second Ed tried to expand their capabilities and varieties, but in the process made them a tad bit ... complex. They had too much going on, particularly for a game where position was not as important as it is today. And the set hit points per age category made the first encounters with dragons either total-party-kills or created that woozy moral feeling you get when you're beating up on white dragon children.

Third Edition continued this trend, and made matters worse by trying to bring dragons back to the forefront by toughening them up and, worse yet, undercosting them. They were packing d12 hit dice by now, yet this little fact had little to do with setting their CR. As a result, a battle against a dragon was always uphill fight, and one that would be generally avoided both by players and GMs.

Anyway, the battle with the green last night evidenced none of these problems. We started at a tactical disadvantage, with the party spread out through an underground complex to work the ritual to open the mystic doors. Dragon comes up from its lair (a 100' deep pit) and our paladin was waiting for it. The green dragon was officially a level 6 monster, and we were six 6th level characters.

We found ourselves in a challenging fight where neither side overwhelmed the other. We were pulling powers, exploits, and spells out of our hat every round, and the dailies disappeared quickly. Between the paladin's divine challenge and my warlord abilities we were, well, not controlling the dragon's actions, but keeping it from exploiting its powers as effectively as it might otherwise. The dwarf mage pulled off a semi-successful sleep spell that kept it grounded as well. And my warlord was doing the combat bureaucrat thing like he was a Kindergarten monitor, dispensing power bonuses and healing surges like candy. We made a few errors in the battle, with the halfling warlock (which is 4E for "Chaotic Neutral") firing off a close burst that nailed my character but left the dragon unscathed (thanks, guy).

And the DM seemed comfortable with the dragon as well, managing fly-bys and tail sweeps and recharging breaths. He flung my warlord into the 100 foot deep pit and shoved the paladin in front of a rolling "doomsphere" (don't ask). The DM, given a large but limited group of abilities, picked and chose according to the tactical situation.

And it was a good fight - we won, and no one died, but it was mobile and varied and everyone got into the act. I was fearful for our survival without feeling totally overwhelmed. This is the time after the hype, when everyone is taking the game out for a spin and seeing how it shapes up. And this time, they did dragons right.

More later,

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Audio Book: English Magic

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, read by Simon Prebble.

A weakness in a novel can become a strength in an audiobook. So it is that the massive JS&MN really shines in its audio form. The book itself, all the rage in SF circles a few years back, is a weighty, involved, carefully considered, heavily footnoted tome that verges over the line into the ponderous. And while I know many that have picked it up, I know fewer who have not grounded on the shoals of its prodigious size and its determined non-genre approach (more on that later). For those who have bailed, I recommend the audio version, which allows the entire intricate mass to be ingested in many small commutes or several seriously long drives.

In my case, I dealt with many weeks of this audio, capped by taking it with me and the Lovely Bride for a road trip from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., half of which was occupied solely with bringing her up to speed in the richly detailed novel. Even after two long trips (there and back), I still ended up leaving disks at home for her to finish.

The title characters are the first practicing magicians in England in the 1800's. Actually, the first true magicians in hundreds of years, the ages of the golden and silver mages and of a magical kingdom centered on Newcastle long since gone. Most of the wizards of Britain of the later age are theoretical magicians, those who study magic but would never think to cast a spell.

And the book opens with one such group, a kind-hearted but ineffectual bunch that evoke Tolkien's hobbits or Wodehouse's Drones. Into their midst comes Norrell, who claims to be a practicing magician, and will prove it, but only if the members of the group promise to abjure from magic, theoretical or not, forever. He does so, crushing the hopes and dreams of these harmless hobbyists and you feel Norrell is the bad guy.

Until the next section pops up, where Norrell goes to London to aid in the war against Napoleon, only to be bruised and battered by the High Society set. And you come to, if not like Norrell, at least respect him and hope for him. And this is a very interesting, useful, and non-genre thing about the book. Its protagonists are complicated, erratic, and very human characters. They are both strong and weak, wise and foolish, emotional and centered.

As a result, the plot shifts and moves in strange and interesting ways. Whereas in the traditional fantasy genre you square off between the forces of good and evil in direct battle, here the game is slightly skewed. Characters miss asking the right question or making the right comment at the exactly precise moment, so you find that bolt of revelation delayed. Fights that you are convinced the author is building up to are defused, messages are missed, choices are made that make sense within a real world but leave the reader waiting for the plot to progress. In the end, all the characters resolve, yet the major battle between the protagonists never fully materializes. And yet it has a well and good resolution, and you walk away feeling satisfied, in a strange fashion.

If anything, you get the feeling that the Brits could rule the world through magic, if not for the fact that they are, well, British, and that in the hands of a less woolen-headed nationality things would have gone much worse.

And then there is the theory of magic itself. There is not one, at least to the degree that it is quantifiable. Norrell and Strange's English Magic lacks the intricacies of Vancian magics, and its rules, such as they are, have to be picked up in the process. They are simultaneously grounded and all over the place. No universal system of spellcasting exists - this is an age of hobbyists, and despite their interest, magic refuses to comply to examination and dissection. The other wondrous key in regards to magic is the fact that, like fish in a sea, people under the effects of magic are unaware of its presences - a forest grows in a urban street and everyone rewrites their memories so that it always seemed to be there. Understanding that the worlds itself can be twisted by creatures of magic is one of the underlying themes of the book, as is the changes necessary to understand those twistings.

In the end, its a lovely little world and beautiful book, and defies traditional genre depictions in the same manner as magic does within the world. If you have it sitting on your shelf, in your I-mean-to-get-back-to-it pile, it is worth checking out on disk.

There is one weakness of the audiobook format, and that is that it is very difficult to go back and check earlier matter. This is despite the fact that they've done an excellent job breaking the book into discrete tracks, and gave all the copious footnotes their own tracks. However, there is a prophesy in the book, long and involved, which comes true over time, in its own fashion, which the listener might want to refer to. Fortunately, as with all things, there is a wiki on the 'net to aid, though there are spoilers laying about, so to enjoy the book fully, don't poke around too much.

More later,

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin

Is it me, or does it feel like God is just picking up the spares right now?

Carlin, Tim Russert, Stan Winston, Jim McKay, Cyd Charisse, Bo Diddley,Yves St.Laurent, Harvey Korman, Algis Budrys, Sydney Pollack, Erick Wujcik, Dick Martin, Arthur C. Clarke. People famous enough to be missed, their passing viewed with sadness by the people they entertained and influenced.

If there is any justice in the world, the navel-gazing media will fly into a weeklong mourning for Carlin, the way they did for Russert.

And the tombstone reel at the Oscars is going to be longer than most of the "best-music" entries.

All I can say is that the afterlife is hosting a heckuva "Welcome to the Neighborhood" brunch.

More later,

Update: Tits? Still doesn't belong on the list.

My Weekend

Let's see. Friday night involved a long lunch at Gene Coulon, a friend's fortieth, red velvet cake, a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, and a screening of Pulp Fiction.

Saturday involved much rushing about, consisting of a shortcut that relied on using a Viaduct shut down for a Marathon, a long hike off Queen Anne Hill, naked cyclists, a giant flag-decorated blunt, a long hike back up Queen Anne, a one-man play about Nepal, and finding a book about the shape of the states. Oh, and pizza.

Sunday was calmer by comparison, consisting of a headless dinosaur and dinner with friends consisting of smoked duck, beets, and asparagus.

How was YOUR weekend?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

DOW Breaks 12000!

Well, this ain't any fun.

Easier to pick on Wall Street when its doing better, but I tend to check in at the major milestones and this currently one reflects a severe sinking since May of this year. Hacking a thousand points off over the course of a month and change takes some serious work.

Of course, part of the sudden downturn may be because of friday's arrest of a couple of Bear-Stearns flunkies for hornswaggling their customers about the health of the subprime mortgage market, telling the marks to invest more cash while bailing out as fast as they could.

It may just be that a lot of other investors are suddenly looking over their shoulders and deciding that it is time for a long summer vacation.

More later,

Friday, June 20, 2008

Free RPGs!

This Saturday is Free RPG, and your friendly local game store is giving away games from WotC, White Wolf, Paizo, Green Ronin, and Margaret Weis Productions. In the Seattle area, the participating store is Gary's Games and Hobbies, up on Greenwood.

In addition, the mighty Stan! is getting into the act with his brand-new company, Super Genius Games. He's making the first of his One Night Stand series of adventures (one night one-shots) available for Free on The adventure is "The Forgotten Tomb of Felgar the Goblin King' and the info about is here.

So go off and play games!

More later,

Thursday, June 19, 2008

GSL and Pie

So Mike Mearls, lead developer on the D&D 4E and former OGL designer, has some well-reasoned and thoughtful comments on the earlier Open Gaming License, in part to give a sense of history as WotC moves into its Game System License (GSL) for 4E. He's pretty accurate about successes and weaknesses, and the comments pick up the parts he misses, in particular the turning potential competition into content producers.

I can only add the following - the big discussion at the start of the OGL process was between the concepts of "Keeping the Pie" and "Making the Pie Bigger by Sharing". While I can point out the various hazards of the OGL (particularly in the early years, when we were learning what worked and what didn't), in general, I have to call it a success.

More later,

Update: What's all the fuss about? Want to know without having to wade through the legalese? Morrus over at ENWorld has posted a very readable GSL for Dummies summary.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


With all the gnashing and wailing about the WotC GSL, I don't want this to be lost in the ruckus. I picked this up from and confirmed at

The following is announcement text from WizKids

Today, we are announcing several changes at WizKids games that will be implemented later this year. The changes are largely focused on consolidating administrative functions to our corporate office in New York City. However, there are also a few changes from a development perspective as we align our staff with our product portfolio. The changes will take place over the next several months as we integrate functions and systems into Topps.

As we move forward, we will be focusing on our 3 core brands all of which have exciting product and promotion plans for the rest of 2008 and beyond.

· Marvel & DC HeroClix has seen significant growth since our Avengers release last June. DC Crisis sold at an unprecedented rate and our presales for our next release, Marvel Secret Invasion, are outpacing DC Crisis 2 to 1.
· Star Wars PocketModel Trading Card Game is ready and waiting for a whole new generation of Star Wars fans. The Clone Wars movie releases August 15th followed shortly by the Clone Wars television show launching in October. We’re ready for the rush with 2 expansions Clone Wars (July) and Clone Wars Tactics (October).
· Pirates PocketModel Game - With rumors of a 4th Pirates of the Caribbean movie on the horizon, we’re busy planning out the line so we can capitalize on all the hype that will surround one of the most anticipated movies of all time.

Ultimately, we believe that these changes will allow WizKids to add greater value to and better leverage the assets of the Topps organization. WizKids, and specifically gaming, remains a valuable part of the Topps organization and its game division will continue to be based in Seattle.


Lax Chandra
President, WizKids

I have worked with a lot of good people at Wizkids, a lot of whom have over the past few years become former employees of Wizkids. I don't know what it means (yet) about "administrative functions" and whether that means there will continue to be a WizKids in Seattle. Time will tell.

More later,

Spore Spawn

So yesterday the Spore Character Creator Demo went live. Now Spore is an upcoming game from Maxis in which you create and evolve a simulated species. Sort of SimEarth with better graphics. Intelligent Design where God has a budget.

And the immediate reaction of the fellow designers was along the lines of "What?" - the game it is connected to won't be out for months, this is heavily nerfed (a lot of features disabled) and the complete version will be for sale separately. What were they thinking. Then we started dinking around with it, and within about twenty minutes, everyone was poking around with it.

And it is a surprisingly robust and dynamic engine, and its graphics make you drool. Yeah, its building critters out of component parts, but it proves very difficult to build a non-viable creature, even for those of us with limited artistic ability. The gang was soon creating Games Workshop Genestealers and Guild Wars Devourers.

And Pokemon. The inherent cuteness of the creatures make it a Pokemon generator.

Now I'm looking forward to the game itself, so Maxis has accomplished its goal. GG!

More later,

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Audio Book: Aubreyad

I haven't mentioned listening to books on tape for a while, mainly since I've been listening to just one story, which has gone through seventeen packets of CDs and a couple years worth of commute. Note that I don't consider my commute all that excessive -30-45 minutes, twice a day, and quite often I drive in relative silence since I am writing mentally while I drive. In fact, one of the problems of books on tape is that it is not easy to track back to the exact passage you missed through inattention. So you will suddenly hear something which sends you into a mental side-channel, and then come back and realize the CD is still going and you haven't been paying attention.

Anyway, the "book" has been sixteen books (and a fragment) of the Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. I first experienced the series many years ago through Margaret Weis, and read the first four volumes (from Master and Commander through The Mauritius Command . Starting with Desolation Island, however, I switched to tape/CD, mainly because the Lovely Bride and I were in Jersey with a rented car and long stretches of driving ahead of us.

And the series makes for a good listen. It is the tales of Captain Jack Aubrey and his companion ship's surgeon/naturalist/spy Stephen Maturin, in the age of fighting sail, the time of wooden ships and iron men. Most people know about it from the Master and Commander movie. Both books and movie have the same basic story engine: They sail around, and stuff happens.

And that is pretty much it. O'Brien doesn't abide to the pacing of a novel as much as the pacing of the sea. There are long stretches of "nothing" going on in the books, followed by a series of quick events. Long periods of tedium followed by a collection of blind panic and action. This is particularly noticeable in the CDs, where the act of replacing the disks breaks the story in different places than the standard chapter arrangement. You realize that the ship's crew has spent the entire previous disk becalmed in the tropics, or preparing for a dinner party. Then immediately you are confronted by three ship-to-ship battles, a shipwreck, and a volcano, all in the space of a few tracks.

Captain Aubrey, based on the real life career of Thomas Cochran, is easy to describe - confident and capable at sea, bludgeon-headed and beset by continual troubles when land-bound, he is at his best when freed of those constraints. His partner in sail, Stephen Maturin, is in many ways O'Brien's personality distilled in the book, and as a result has a wide variety of knowledge - surgeon, ornithologist, druggie, naturalist Irish revolutionary, and spy, and he provides continual detailed sidebars not available solely through the military Aubrey.

There are a number of audio versions circulating, but the best ones have Patrick Tull as the reader. There were a couple we couldn't get with his recordings, and the other readers felt irritating, reducing Stephen's mild, cultured tongue to a thick, impenetrable brogue and cranking up Aubrey authoritative voice to bombast.

I have probably more to say on Aubrey and Maturin, but as far as the CDs are concerned, they have been good company on the trips. And they've seen some mileage as well, since I passed them on to Steve Miller, then packaged them up to my brother back in Pittsburgh. And the pacing of the books match up well the commute.

More later,

Monday, June 16, 2008


It's a bad time to be a Republican.

The wars go badly. The economy is in dire straits. Scandals rage through the administration. It looks like we're going to lose another American city to high water and burst levies. And people are blaming the current resident of the White House and the party that continues to obstruct any attempt to fix stuff.

So the answer for an aspiring candidate is easy - stop being a Republican.

I don't mean become a Democrat or even an independent. I mean change the party name. Bring back the GOP.

GOP, or Grand Old Party, apparently started back in 1875 or so, referring to the Southern Democrats as the Gallant Old Party, but was applied to the Republicans in 1888 when they finally got the White House back after the debacle of the Grant Administration (The Chicago Tribune was cited as the first use). Since then it has been used interchangeably with Republican, and has been a boon to political cartoonists (and bloggers) who don't like longer words. The phrase was pretty well established for the Eisenhower Administration, but dropped off significantly with the Nixon admin and hasn't been seen since. Reagan and the two Bushes were Republicans, and GOP seemed to go away, a relic of the past.

Until now. I've been going through the filing documents for the upcoming primary. Now, I've had issues with the "top two" primary we're doing, but that's another rant for another day. What is interesting is that as a result, we don't do "official" party affiliation, but rather a self-declared "preference" for party. So we have Democratic and Republican candidates, but also the occasional "True Democrat" and "Tax Cut Republican", using even the ballot as space to push their message (Shades of Goodspaceguy Nelson, a perennial candidate who believes in ... space).

And there is a surprising number of candidates who are running as "GOP Party" (Grand Old Party Party?). Is this really a bit of shell game? Despite mention elsewhere, I had pretty much just written it off to shorthand for people who didn't like to type (like, um, me). But even a few years ago, some newspapers were abandoning the term because of potential reader confusion.

But still, I didn't think it was deliberate, or at least until I saw the first of the lawn signs for the primary on my way into Bellevue. Candidate's Name in big letters, beneath a fighter jet, which both shouts "Strong Defense" and "Boeing" (though I don't know if State Senators get to scramble fighter jets). And there in the corner, in tiny squint-o-type, is the party affiliation.


Maybe its a winning strategy. If the "brand" is having a hard time, go to a new brand.

More later,

Saturday, June 14, 2008


So one of my stories, "Catch of the Day", is being reprinted in a new anthology from Paizo - Worlds of Their Own. This is collection of original stories set in original worlds by a group of authors who are best known for creating original stories in original worlds which they do not control or own. And James has put together another groups of All-Stars, in much the same way as he did for the Hobby Games: The 100 Best last year.

Here are the (un)usual suspects:

Contents: Introduction: "The Last Word Matters" by James Lowder
- "Mather’s Blood" by R.A. Salvatore
- "Keeping Score" by Michael A. Stackpole
- "The Oaths of Gods" by Nancy Virginia Varian
- "The Doom of Swords" by Greg Stolze
- "Catch of the Day" by Jeff Grubb
- "Ghosts of Love" by Steven Savile
- "The Wisdom of Nightingales" by Richard E. Dansky
- "The Guardian of the Dawn" by William King
- "How Fear Came to Ornath" by Ed Greenwood
- "The Admiral’s Reckoning" by J. Robert King
- "Memories and Ghosts" by Monte Cook
- "Three Impossible Things" by Lisa Smedman
- "Near the End of the World" by Greg Stafford
- "Confession" by Paul S. Kemp
- "Lorelei" by Elaine Cunningham
- "The Unquiet Dreams of Cingris the Stout" by James Lowder
- "On the Off-Ramp of the Intergalactic Superhighway" by Will McDermott
- Twistbuck’s Game" by Gary Gygax

Coming out in August. Keep an eye out.

More later,

Friday, June 13, 2008

End of World As You Know It

The world ended yesterday. Nuclear war, as I understand it. Yeah, I know, I missed it too. Just got too busy, and things backed up, and we had a game last night and before you know it, the day was done and so was the globe, all in a nuclear fireball.

No, really, this guy not only called for a nuclear war by yesterday if not sooner, but has gotten national press coverage for his statements. This despite being wrong before (September 12, 2006, for you apocalypse aficionados).

And it reminded me of the Millerites, who were the followers of minister William Miller and a predecessor of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Throughout the 1830s, Miller and his followers preached on the imminent return of Christ, no later than March 21, 1844. When that deadline passed, there was a reconvening and a reconfiguring using a different calender, setting a new date for April 18 of that year. When THAT day passed, they settled on October 22, a date now known as "The Great Disappointment" due to the lack of heavenly trumpets and ending of the earth.

And in the wake, there were a number of theories about what happened, ranging from the idea that doomsday was pushed back due to the inherent goodness of Miller's followers to the proposal that doomsday had happened, but it was a heavenly event and we just didn't get the memo.

Me, I think the minister pushing the current doomsday (who has the nickname "Buffalo Bill", which I think if from the book of Hezekiah) was just trying to spare us from another Friday the 13th. Nice try, but no mushroom cloud.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the Midwest has been wracked by heavy storms and floods. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is underwater, and the man-made Lake Delton, near the Wisconsin Dells, has been swept away. Oddly, this doesn't seem to get the same level of press as a crazy preacher in Texas calling for doomsday.

The natives of Lake Delton describe the dam break as "The End of the World", and it is a horrible thing. But, alas, it the end of the world by water, not fire, so we can't even give "Buffalo Bill" half-credit.

More later,

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Game So Far

So enough with the warm fuzzy memories of the past and pointing out influences and everything, Jeff. What do YOU think of the new game?

Well, I like it. I like it a lot.

Stan! points out that the only ones who can do "definitive reviews" right now are early playtesters and designers, but I have to disagree with that. As one of the playtesters (I am Em the Warlord is the game that Steve Winter blogs about) I saw a cavalcade of changes over the months as we fine-tuned the character classes. My first playtest character was a Warlock (I wanted to avoid the standard classes), and I went through a "Warlock of the week" period as class abilities and powers flexed and altered as the result of other playtesting). And I had feedback, but in general relished the Warlock role of striker.

We restarted the campaign and I went with a Eladrin Warlord this time, and at first was less happy, in part because after the freewilled independence of the Warlock, the Warlord (I liked the suggested names of "marshal" and "cavalier", by the way) required much more attention to the tactical situation. Translation - I had to pay attention to the game when it wasn't my turn (oh, the horrors). I mocked the warlock as "Bard 2.0" and as "Combat Bureaucrat" but I really warmed to it over time, and realized that even though the new system had levels the number of abilities across the board for the new classes, how they used those abilities resulted in different play experiences from different classes. And that's a good thing.

Since then I have run a Dwarf Fighter and a Human Wizard in Keep on the Shadowfell(TM). I've already done the Chuck Norris riff on the Fighter abilities, and I have to say the Wizard is pretty fun as well. Despite the much-hullabalooed death of the Vancian magic styem, they kept the idea of the spellbook, though the system of choosing your daily and utility powers feels almost quaint and charming in an old-school way.

And I've been running Shadowfell for some of my co-workers, which range from old-school players to miniature gamers to complete newbiess to tabletop RPGs (of course, these "newbs" spend their days creating next-generation level MMORPGS). And THIS group has been the most 'role-playingish" in that they aren't trying to distill down the mechanics and solve the game. And It has been watching how the players grow both with the knowledge and the comfort of the new system. And I am enheartened.

Now in all this, I never heard anyone say "You know, I really miss counting 1.5 for a diagonal" or "You know, I really miss negative hit points". Yeah, there is some brain-wrapping that goes on with the nature of marking an opponent and the "three rolls to death", but in general, not a lot is missed in the experience. And to my surprise, no one seems to bemoan the lack of auto-hit with the magic missile. So the definition of "what is D&D?" spreads out just a bit more.

So now I'm leisurely digging through the Player's Handbook, coming up with gems. One popped up last night, when the group I was running wondered about subduing an opponent. At first I was resistant, but found the surrender option in the Intimidate skill laid out pretty clearly, and made it available once the target was blooded (they still blew about four attempts before the dwarf got frustrated and decided to take him down).

Oh, and the "Rogue with a splash of Warlock Eyebite" combo I mentioned in the last entry? Make it a half-elf as well, get training in bluff (another gem in the skills section) and spend as much time as you can with combat advantage.

There is more to learn on this system and more to unlearn from previous editions, but I'm enjoying the new system, as well as having the excuse to do way too much gaming.

Its a brand new game. Check it out.

More later,

Monday, June 09, 2008


So there are people who state that D&D4E is heavily influenced by computer games. And they're right. And there are people who claim that D&D4E is heavily influenced by miniature games. And they're right. And there are those people who claim that D&D4E is influenced by collectable card games. And THEY are right.

And I think all of that is a good thing.

Let's look at the influences, starting with the computer games. MMORPGs in general and WoW in particular have entered the national consciousness in a big way, and are based heavily on the archetypes that D&D had back in the 1970s (with a big heavy hat-tip in the department of Orc design to Warhammer). A lot of the bones at the heart of these games comes straight out of D&D campaigns from the dawn of (hobby gaming) time.

Now it comes full circle, with roleplaying games looking at what works in computer games. One sign of this is the use of roles within the party - Striker, Leader, Controller, Defender. While this assignment of roles stretches back to original roleplaying itself ("Quick, we need a cleric in the party!"), the assignment of larger meta-roles comes from the computer games, and allows the classes that fill those roles to show more variety.

From computer games we get a similarity of user interface among the classes. I mentioned before that I prefer the old-school Dwarf Fighter for its ease of utility, aware that that cleric or magic-user requires more things to keep track of, and indeed has a completely different ruleset affecting its actions. In 4E, we see all the classes have a similar interface - a listing of at-will, encounter, daily, and utility powers set at particular levels. At first this gave me pause, that we were looking at a homogenization of the classes. But just as the WoW rogue has a different play experience from the mage, so too does the D&D wizard differ from the cleric or fighter.

And before I move on, I am a fan of D&D's system marking, which is a good simulation of drawing and holding aggro in computer games. Yeah, there can be a lot of counters on the board in a typical fight, but it does keep the bads off the wizard.

The debt to miniature games is more obvious, given that the game, like 3.5, makes extensive use of the D&D miniatures, and the ubiquitous nature of the grid. But D&D was originally a miniatures game, way back in the day, where distance was measured in inches and gamers were expected to have tape measures close at hand. And back in the days of Original/Classic D&D, it was possible to play without miniatures and measurements, but this depended more on relying on the DM to make a far estimate of locations and distances, of how far you can move and what you can do in a round. And you can do without miniatures in 4E as well if you're willing to deal with that same relationship and workload on the DM. Use of miniatures (and the eventual virtual gametable) increases the common ground between players, and in a game which rewards positioning so effectively, it is recommended. This does not make D&D a miniature game, but it does give it some strong miniatures support.

Lastly, CCGs. If you think of the various powers, exploits, and spells as individual cards, the comparison comes easily. You are building a deck with your abilities, which are played for free (At-Wills), Tap (Encounters), or Discard (Dailies). In addition, you can add additional powers/cards as the game expands.

That last bit, I think, is going to be the design challenge. CCGs have to contend with real and inadvertent power creep as more cards are added to the set. Further, killer combos can be constructed that might overbalance the game and given more cards, the chances of that increase (Go ahead, create that human Rogue with a Pack Initiate Feat and the warlock's Eyebite ability, and just get it out of your system now). However, 3E weathered the rogues with spiked chains, so the game should manage this.

A greater challenge for DMs can be that, after the initial blush of everyone learning the game, the players will be building customized decks, while the DM will be challenged with playing with a series of precon decks. The players have to master one style of play - the DMs will have to bring a wider variety of styles. Depending on what style of gaming you like - variety versus creating a single cool deck, you may be better suited as a DM or a player.

So yeah, 4E shows its roots dramatically, and well it should. The original game came out of the warm, fertile earth of the hobby at the time. We used miniature wargames, rolled polyhedral dice from educational games, and even had a name-check for Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival game. As the flavors of the hobby have expanded, so too should the sources that influence the new game.

I've made the statement that game design is a conversation, and 4E was not developed in silence. It represents the world around both the designers and the players of the game.

And I'm good with that.

More later

And finally

Saturday, June 07, 2008


So the post after this winds all around the place, so let me encapsulate it.

No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

Edition 1 - D&D, called Original D&D or Classic D&D.
What it was: Three half-sized pamphlets and some tables in a small wood-grained or white box.
What is did: Started the whole thing, aimed at an audience who already played miniature wargames.

Edition 2 - D&D, called Blue Box D&D.
What it was: Full-sized booklets with various additional material
What is did: Explained the game to people who never held a polyhedral die before.

Edition 3 - D&D, called Red Box Basic or BECMI.
What it was: A series of boxes that progressed the levels of the characters.
What is did: Refined the idea of an expandable ruleset.

Edition 4 - AD&D, also called First Edition
What it was: Three hardback books released over two years.
What is did: Expanded into the bookstore trade, sought a higher level of completeness for the rules.

Edition 5 - AD&D 2nd Edition.
What it was: Two hardback books and a ring binder, later 3 hardback books. Two-color interiors.
What is did: Cleaned up both the rules and background to a wider market.

Edition 6 - D&D Rules Cyclopedia.
What it was: Single hardback volume.
What is did: Encompassed the Basic D&D line, culmination of BECMI, only one-volume Edition.

Edition 7 - AD&D 2nd Edition, later AD&D, most recently AD&D 2.5.
What it was: Three hardback books, full color throughout.
What is did: Reorganized, Strove for accessibility.

Edition 8 - D&D 3rd Edition
What it was: Three hardback books that looked like books, full color interior.
What is did: Revised, streamlined, made gaming cool.

Edition 9 - D&D 3.5
What it was: Three hardback books.
What is did: Further and definitive refinement of the 3.0 rules.

Edition 10 - D&D 4.0, also called 4E
What it is: Three hardback books, full color
What is does: Complete revision of the system from the roots up.

Hmmm. I think even my summary needs a summary.

More later,

Thursday, June 05, 2008


As I stand at the cusp of the release of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition (4E), it is only fitting that to look back at the previous three editions. Or previous five editions. Or previous eight or nine editions, depending on how you count.

Hang on, if the new one is the fourth edition, how can there be more than three previous editions?

Like many things involving D&D, it's complicated. So here's the (not-so) short tour. Each edition had its own strengths and weaknesses, and was written with different intentions and goals. It is in many ways the history of our hobby for the past thirty years.

First off, the predecessors. Yes, the "Fantasy Supplement" of the Chainmail Rules was a key, but I've seen people make a case of Fight in the Skies, a WWI flying game, as an ancestor as well, in that you gained experience for your character (ace) over several sessions. But nothing springs completely formed, and I begin with the original appearance of Dungeons & Dragons.

The first D&D was the D&D Boxed set, known as the wood-grained box or the white box, more recently as original D&D or OD&D. It contained three pamphlet-sized books and some tables. This was the standard size for miniature rules, and indeed, even the name of the game would not look out of place next to other miniature games of the era - Cavaliers & Roundheads and Wooden Ships & Iron Men. It was written primarily with the terminology of miniatures as well - distances in inches, combat in equivalents of the hero. Indeed, most of us playing the game in those days (and I date back to 75, the year after it came out), quickly embraced the "alternative combat system" which compared level against AC. Even the concept of THAC0 was years in the future.

The game was written by hobbyists for hobbyists, and assumed that shared knowledge base. If you had a question, you either knew somebody or knew somebody who knew somebody and information disseminated leisurely. The original set saw five supplements - Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, Gods, Demigods & Heroes, and Swords & Spells, though the last is often dropped from the list as an attempt to bring the cycle full circle and back to miniature games (There would be a variety of such attempts over the years, of varying degrees of success).

So we had OD&D and it was good. And in 1977 TSR released a new, larger boxed set, which is known as Blue Box Basic D&D by the long-timers. It was different from the original version which we were happily playing, in that it was a teaching tool. It was intended to instruct people how to play the game. It covered much of the ground of Original, with a LOT of the pieces filled in, and was aimed at people who were not miniature gamers. It was a boxed set, in part, because the polyhedral dice that it relied on were not yet ubiquitous, and needed to be included. it deserves being called out as its own edition. It didn't go up more than a few levels.

Now the D&D Family Line splits, and let me follow one branch, then the other. The boxes named "Dungeons and Dragons" went through several revisions, with a major revision in 1981. This usually gets the designation "Red Box Basic" though the first version of this was not red. The thing in the Red Box Basic kicked in a large expansion that extended the number of levels for the game, through Expert, Companion, Masters, and finally Immortals, known as the shorthand BECMI. This was an expanded, multi-box version, and its campaign setting, originally just called "The Known World" and later "Mystara" saw a great deal of worldbuilding in the years that followed. Call this version, which was now looking forward to further expansions, as edition three.

Finally in this line there is the D&D Rules Cyclopedia of 1991, a hardbound book with a white spine. The goal of this one was to gather together all the disparate rules of BECM (though not so much I) under one roof and remains the best single-volume D&D rulebook for completeness and playability. After this, the line dies out, though the name will reappear in the other lineage. But call this version the 6th Edition, only because the other line of descent for D&D had a couple editions before it. If you want to play "classic" D&D with none of the "A" versions in front of it, this one really shines.

Let's go back to 1977 and the release of the first Monster Manual for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Over the next two years, TSR released one new hardback a year, Player's Handbook in 1978 and Dungeon Master's Guide in 1979. I mention that there was a two year space between the first book and the last of these core books, such that we were playing with MM and earlier editions, despite it being a new game. Compare that to the instant gratification of getting all three books in one weekend (young whippersnappers!)

While D&D was supposed to be a little more fast and loose, AD&D was aiming at complete, and added a lot of things that got beyond the typical dungeon delve, like aging tables, types of government, and the infamous random prostitute table. It was also the first edition to be entirely in hardbound book form - the book trade was having problems with "shrinkage" involving the boxed sets (that is - people breaking them open in the store and taking the dice). It was supposed to be complete, but it was also expandable, and we saw that expansion with both more hardbacks and with expanded game worlds. AD&D was the system of early Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, and the game I was designing for early in my TSR career. Call that Fourth Edition.

The Fifth major version of the game was called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition, and all three books were released in 1989. I remember saying at the time that our intention was to reduce the need for players to use their "official D&D Forklift" to carry around all their official D&D books. In reality, as time has shown, such an attempt was like trying to get rid of gods in the Forgotten Realms - despite your best efforts, when all was said and done, you end up with more of them than when you started with. Such was the case. One of the original ideas was to embrace an idea that the fans had suggested - a ring-binder for the monsters instead of a hardback. Great in concept, not so good in practice, as ring binders are notorious for jams and rips. Hey, we tried. This one definitely aimed at a more mainstream market than its predecessors, and was notorious for renaming its demons and devils.

The rules were changed in appearance, though just shaken up a bit in mechanics, with a version released in 1995. Now called AD&D 2.5, it attempted to lay the groundwork for the Player's Options. Generally and unfairly reviled, this all-color edition is usually what the next generation was complaining about, but it merits being 7th edition (#6 was the D&D Cyclopedia, above). Versions 5 and 7 though did represent trying to push back the envelope of "what was D&D" into more related genres. But just to add to confusion, somewhere along the line, we stopped calling it AD&D2 and just went back to AD&D.

And then 3rd Edition (1997), which by this count is 8th edition, but you might by this point just despair of any rational numbering convention. Third Edition was the first edition that did a complete overhaul - there was no guarantee that previous edition stuff would work (There were dramatic changes from 1 to 2, but they could generally be papered over - this was a firm and determined break). It also represented an attempt to remake the system around a coherent, central mechanic. I always describe 1st edition AD&D as an accumulation of various rules, and 2nd as an attempt to make them function together. Third Edition was the attempt to weld the AD&D system into a whole, so that a change in other stat could affect several others. It was the most holistic approach so far to the game.

And to complete our naming confusion, 3rd edition got rid of the A entirely, and went back to being just D&D, the once and future game. It also saw the launch of the system as base system for the industry in the d20 license, though that is a long story for another day. Breaking the system away from its fantasy roots allowed it to apply to new licenses (Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu), new eras (D20 Modern), and for others to embrace it, some in mild ways, some is amazing permutations (Mutants and Masterminds is the most exotic, and to my mind brilliant, turning the system on its head while maintaining it basic strengths).

Then there was 3.5 in 2003, as much of a housecleaning and tightening up of the rules for 3rd edition as the unofficial 2.5 was for 2. However, this was announced as such, and in part showed the evolution of the game both in its depth and its complexity. The jump from 3 to 3.5 was not as dramatic as 1 to 2 or 2.5 to 3. (Update:If 2.5 is an edition, then this one should be the 9th Edition, and is so noted).

And now we are at 4th edition, which is 10th edition by this accounting, though your mileage will vary. This edition is, in my opinion, the most radical one yet, such that attempts to bring over campaigns of the past will be more in spirit of the rules than in mechanics. In many ways, it gets back to basic core of the original as a game of miniatures and tactics, focused on direct actions, but by the same token benefits from everything that has come between then and now. I have a couple things to say about 4th, but for the moment, I recognize it as a new dawn in the industry and whole new ballgame.

More later,

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Stanley Cup

I am no great hockey fans (I had to go look up icing in the wikipedia), but I am very, very proud of the Pittsburgh Penguins, despite their loss. Go Pens!

More later,

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Poplar Demand

So it has been cool but clear for the past week or so, and with the mild weather, great clouds of tree-fluff have been sailing on the wind past my workplace window. These are the seeds of the cottonwood and poplar trees along the Mercer Slough, which have been floating on the breeze and piling up every nook and cranny, looking for all the world like blond frost.

But from my office, watching them float on the gentle breeze, it is like working in a snow globe.

More later,

Monday, June 02, 2008

Spell Component: Brick

So I'm playing in the 4E adventure Keep on the Shadowfell(TM) and running a dwarf fighter. Dwarf fighters have been my stock in trade since the dawn of D&D - they are pretty low maintenance while having some cool little powers. 4E dwarf fighters are a little more involved, but still fun. So much fun, that I decided, halfway through the session, that all the Fighter exploits were Chuck Norris jokes:

Cleave, which allows you to do additional damage to a different target becomes Chuck Norris hits you so hard your friend takes damage.

Reaping Strike, which does damage even if you miss becomes Chuck Norris hits you so hard that the breeze from a miss does damage.

Brute Strike, which does massive damage but is not expended if you miss becomes Chuck Norris does not miss - he merely delays inflicting pain.

And this impromptu renaming brought to mind something from 2nd Edition that Karen Boomgarden and I came up with (Karen was the editor of the original Forgotten Realms grey box, among other things). She put forward the idea that most of the low-level Wizard spells could be performed with the Spell Component: Brick. Examples.

Magic Missile: Spell Component: Brick. Throw brick at target.
Sleep Spell: Spell Component: Brick. Knock out target with brick.
Charm Person: Spell Component: Brick. Threaten person with brick unless they agree to be your friend.
Rope Trick: Spell Component: Brick. Tie brick to rope, throw brick through upper story window, climb up rope to window and hide there.

It is one of the strengths of roleplaying that, regardless of the system or edition, stuff happens around the table that no designer could or would anticipate.

More later,

Update: The Lovely Bride reminds me that I used Spell Component: Brick, in one of our novels. It is now official - senility is setting in.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

If Books were more like MMORPGS

Some of the discussions I have been having of late are about story, narrative flow, and massively multiplayer games. And it is admitting that the games have different requirements, features, and challenges than, say, your typical novel, which provides all sorts of potential opportunities and pitfalls when comparing the two. In the midst of this, we turned it around, and tried to imagine what would happen if novels behaved like mmorpgs.

If novels were more like mmorpgs -
- The publisher and author wouldn't expect you to finish the book.
- Most of the action, cool imagery, and editing would be concentrated in the first five chapters, where more people could see it.
- The first chapter would be a tutorial on how to read the book. Every time.
- Special attention would be paid in the first appearance of the question mark and the exclamation point.
- The colon makes its appearance in Chapter Seven: There is no particular mention of it.
- It will be assumed that everyone will know the ending, thanks to spoilers on the internet.
- Most people aren't really reading the book for the story, so don't throw in anything that gets in the way of the words appearing on the page.
- The last three chapters are considered "high end content" and expected to be read only in groups, like book clubs.
- If you finish the book, the author sends you a cookie.
- Your advanced reading copy would be more like a beta weekend. If you didn't like something, it would be gone from the final book.
- Three weeks after purchase, ninjas break into your home and replace the book with a version with all the typos corrected.
- Three months after purchase, ninjas break into your home and replace the book with a version where the protagonist is less powerful. You find out about this from people on the net complaining about the hero being nerfed.
- Three years after purchase, if not enough people are reading the book, ninjas break into your home and remove all copies.
- Your credit card reflects an ongoing charge for owning the book, whether you are reading it or not.

Anything else? More later.