Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Blatent Plug Department

Just got my hands on a hard copy/dead tree edition of The Kobold Guide to Game Design, Volume III, to which I contributed but a single sentence (the blurb on the front cover). However, it is a wonderful book, with essays by Monte Cook on Game Balance, Rob Heinsoo on Key Mechanics and Hooks, Ed Greenwood on Plots, Colin McComb on Combat Systems, and Wolfgang Baur on drums (and everything else). A great little book, and highly recommended.

More later,

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Origins Awards

Sigh. It is a sign of how far out of the RPG orbit I have drifted in that I almost missed linking to the winners of the Origins Awards this year. But it is nice to see that Margaret Weis's company took an award for Big Damn Heroes Handbook for Serenity. No power in the 'Verse can stop them.

More later,

Sunday, June 20, 2010


This is a tough time of the year for me. My sleep patterns tend to be shaped by the sun, and while I can wake and function in darkness, I have a difficult time sleeping when it is light. In Seattle, the northernmost major city in the continental US, that makes for difficulties when the sky lightens a 5 AM and does not grow dark again until after 10.

You read that right. I am bagging on Seattle for having too much sunlight. Go figure.

However, the official start of summer has its nice points, one of the chiefmost being the Fremont Solstice Parade, a whacky local event that draws most of the city to this off-kilter territory.

Fremont, for those who are not in the know, is the self-declared center of the universe, and home to both the Fremont Troll and the Lenin Statue. It was for many years a haven for artists, and under the rules of modern gentrification has been upgraded a couple times, but still seeks to maintain its quirky and peculiar charm. In particular, the parade, which bans logos, printed words, or motorized vehicles.

Oh yeah, it has the naked bicyclists as well. The organizers resisted it for many years, but have finally embraced the idea of a massive tour de nude at the start of the parade to just get it out of the system. The challenge, though, is that the rest of the parade is more of a saunter than a march, with teams of salsa dancers, belly dancers,gymnasts, puppeteers, and other foot traffic, so there is a big gap between when the cyclists come through and when the parade proper arrives. Fortunately, the "Chalk Fairies" (members of the local teamsters) pass out chalk and the kids (and adults) draw on the parade route until the parade meanders down to your area. If you're in a hurry, you're in the wrong neighborhood.

And it was cool this year, both in temperature and temperament. Much less political and anti-corp than in previous years. Dick Cheney in prison stripes on a bike was present, but seemed almost a little passe, like the guys in the Dick Nixon masks. But there were things like a float powered by pedaling Elvises (Elvii), the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a giant white dog puppet name Dogody, a giant spider puppet with stuffed animals and cabbage-patch kids in its web, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a treant (with sapling) and a giant walking totem pole. Oh, a big Yellow Submarine as part of a multi-part effort that included Green Apple Bonkers, Blue Meanies, Snapping Turtle Turks, Sgt. Pepper, and a bunch of ersatz Beatles leading a sing-along from the crowd.

And yeah, its an interactive parade, which accounts for its leisurely nature. Everyone gets pictures. The dodgeball team is encouraging small kids to kick balls into the street. And you too can play in the Sea of Holes or help paint an art piece being created over the parade route.And you can lay down in front of a big twenty-foot beach ball rolls down the street.

What there weren't a lot of was visible police presence. Most of the people keeping folk back towards the curbs were local volunteers in orange jackets, and the cops only seemed to reveal themselves at the very end, once the parade had passed down to Gasworks Park and the streets had to be reclaimed for car traffic. And like a passing dream, the Midsummer Dream of Fremont passed on.

And now we go into Summer, and I hopefully can get a bit more sleep.

More later.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Slouching Towards Olympia

The season is upon us. The early invites to town halls, kick-off lunches, and pizza parties have arrived. The phone calls at inopportune times. The first push polls (so pushy they call back when hung up on). In the wake of Memorial Day, election season has begun.

And I, for one, just can't get into the spirit.

Part of it probably campaign fatigue left over from 2008. A large number of blogs I've followed haven't updated since Obama's election. Part of it is the difficulty of actually watching people govern in troubled times. But I think a big chunk of it is simply that I was in Pennsylvania right before its primary last month.

And the land was awash in political campaign ads. Every opponent was either a member of Pelosi's soviet legions or the most cold-hearted Republican in all of Bedford Falls. Arlen Specter covered the airwaves with accusations that his opponent underpaid his campaign staff while family members got paychecks (That's the best you could throw at him? He doesn't pay retail for his help?). "Just another politician" sniffed the ads, which supported re-electing the newly democratic Specter for his 75th term (Specter lost, in case you didn't know).

And so I had a vision of the future that yawns before Washington State - the broken wellhead of political bile that will issue into our state. Yet there are handfuls (handfuls, I say!) of readers who tune in for the politics, so here we go again.

The GOOD news is that, despite our wonky primary system in which you can't be a Democrat but instead can only "prefer Democratic Party", there was minimal high-jinx in the registering to run. Republicans are confident to run as Republicans, shedding even the fig-leaf of the GOP brand or qualifier like "Real Republican Party". And I think that's a good thing.

There are two big races in my part of Washington State - Senate and the 8th District House. Senate has incumbent Dem Patty Murray against both traditional GOP choice Dino Rossi and more conservative GOP favorite Clint Didier (there are others, but they have already been discounted by the media). Rossi entered the race the week after the Seattle Times obligingly printed a hatchet job accusing anti-government farmer Didier of (gasp) taking government subsidies. Normally the two big teams line up and choose their guy and that's the end of it, but Didier on the Further Right (he has since snagged an endorsement from Sarah Palin) may make this interesting.

In the House, we flip the situation - the incumbent is Republican David Reichert, former King County Sheriff with a tendency to reveal his political motivation a tad too often. Against him is another progressive technocrat, Suzan DelBene, of which I know little but will end up finding out more. This is supposed to be an anti-incumbent year, but it never seems to be that way for incumbents from the OTHER party.

In Olympia, Geoff Simpson, Pat Sullivan, and Claudia Kaufmann are all up for re-election in the State House races (all three come up at once). More on them and their competition later, but the push poll mentioned at the top of the article was sounding out various strategies against Pat Sullivan and seeing what would "message" best.

And finally we have our initiative process, intended to further democratize the system but in reality being yet another arm for money to enter the political process. This year we have the possibility of two different measures to privatize liquor sales, a measure to decriminalize pot, a tax-the-wealthy measure put forward by Bill Gates' dad, and the regular "Pull out the engine so we can complain that the car won't start" anti-government measure from Tim Eyeman.

Fun all around. So now I'm heading to the store to buy election-season decorations and send out my "Sorry to hear you have to vote" cards.

More later,

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Mike Cook

The word went out earlier this week, by jungle drum, internet, and mojo wire, regarding the passing Mike Cook. Mike was (under various similar titles) the Vice President of TSR's creative departments under the Blume brothers, Gary Gygax, and Lorraine Williams. He was 60.

The thing I remember best of Mike was what I called at the time "Wisconsin Management Style". This meant using beer as a resource in smoothing the relationship between management and employee (this IS Wisconsin I'm talking about). There were a number of occasions when a general discussion or employee concern adjourned to the Next Door Pub for further discussion, or the designers were scheduled for an after-hours conference there. It sounds strange, but moving a concern out of the office and into a more relaxed setting did a lot to get around the normal problems of worker and management. It is a management and communication style that I've used to great effect - "Lemme get a coffee with you" or "So, who wants sushi?" - out on the West Coast.

This summer, as members of the late, great, TSR fraternity gather at conventions, memories will be revived and beers will be lifted in Mike's memory. He will be missed.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


So for most of the morning, the police kept me at my desk.

OK, let me unspool this for you. There was an "incident" at our office park. A man bashed in the front windows of a debt collection agency with an axe. Needless to say, the workers at that agency retreated to a back room, pushed filing cabinets in front of the door, and called the cops.

The police arrived and sealed off the office complex (there are only two roads into it, and it is surrounded by water). They asked all the workers to stay indoors and the management locked the accessible doors. So for about three hours, half the staff was locked inside and half the staff was stopped at the roadblock and turned back. Most went to work at home.

We on the inside were treated to Bellevue police moving through the parking lots and King County Troopers with heavy weapons and K9 Units beating the bushes, followed by police choppers, and later on news copters. They did a pretty thorough job (we were watching them from the windows), but after three hours did not find the culprit and lifted the lockdown.

And yeah, its not the NORMAL state of affairs in our office, but things like this do happen to liven up our lives.

More later,

Monday, June 07, 2010


I've mentioned before, here and elsewhere, that we're in a new golden age of Cthulhu, in particular as far as RPGs concerned. Once the domain of once-every-blue-moon releases, this particular niche has grown into a highly populated gaming environment, with new works from Chaosium, Miskatonic Press, Super Genius Games, Goodman Games, Pelgrane Press, Pagan Publishing, Cubicle 7 and others.

So it is with scant surprise (and no need to reach for the percentile dice for a SAN check) to discover that The Unspeakable Oath is returning from its shallow grave. The Unspeakable Oath was a revolutionary magazine as far as the CoC universe is concerned, so much that I consider it and Delta Green to be the initiation of its own Age of Cthulhu (though I have since broadened the definition of that age). Its sensibilities were much more psychological that previous incarnations, and its ultimate theme was "The stars have come right, and we are the monsters".

The first new issue is going to be out at the end of year, and they are taking submissions until 19 July. In addition, their editorial board reads like a Who's Who of Cthulhu's disturbed sleep of the past twenty years.

I thought very highly of the original UO, and really look forward to this new one.

More later,

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Evolutionary Wars

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins, Free Press, Distributed by Simon & Schuster Digital Sales, 2009

How I Got This Book: Recommended by a coworker who name-checked a number of books he has been reading. Since I was looking for books to take on my Pittsburgh trip, I downloaded a couple of them onto my Kindle.

I've talked about my Kindle before, and find it to be an excellent travel book, but some volumes do not fair well on the device. This is one of them. Greatest Show makes copious use of annotations and footnoted sources (which it navigates well enough). It uses extensive black and white illos and tables (which reproduce badly) and color plates (which reproduce worse), and the bibliography and index sprawl over more Kindle pages than they really need to, since the multiple indents in their formatting do not come across easily.

And while it is tempting to think about this book's possible evolutionary success within the environmental niche of e-publishing, that would be pretty wrong. Because evolution by natural selection belongs to one particular science, and when you transport it to another field, things get dodgy fast (like the "Social Darwinism" of Herbert Spenser, which takes Darwin's biology and transfers it into a rationale of why Rich People need not feel sympathy for Poor People). While tempting (and I do it all the time), when you're talking about natural selection, the natural part of the concept is applicable.

In any event, the book was both a good summary of stuff I knew (speciation, continental drift, mutation) and things I needed updated on (protein folding, which is sort of organic origami). Dawkins is best known for his avowed opposition to the religious who reject Darwinism (and most of the post-15th century) out of hand. He fires more than a few high hard ones against the religious institutions and their minions, but over the course of the book, I find that I can understand where the religious-based evolution-deniers are coming from.

I mean, if evolution was a religion, it would make the Cthulhu Mythos look all warm and cuddly.

First off, it take an uncaring universe to its logical extreme. There is a pass-fail existence where the tests come continually and the price of failure is always death. Old-Testament Jehovah is more forgiving than this grim clockwork of action and reaction.

And it's about species, and not about you. Not only are you just another of the striver in the universe, success of your species means absolutely nothing about your personal needs. It is about a larger genetic grading, of which you are a very very small part.

And its not really about you species than about your genes, stupid. The entire purpose of natural selection is the guarantee that the most suitable genes survive. You survive only because your genetic package crafted a suitable housing to create more genes. In these terms, the childless are evolutionary failures (I can envision a conservative evolutionary distopia where children are mandated, and only tested and harvested before they can reproduce). Genetic duplication (with all of its additional mutations) is about as close to salvation as you can hope for.

And because it is about your genes, your fate is sealed at birth. Never mind the concept of "Grace" among us Protestants - this is worse. Your genetic makeup is sealed before you even attained sentience. And if that makeup is suitable for the current environment, or even if that makeup is outdone by the makeups of OTHER individuals whose mutations are better, well, it sucks to be you.

And in the face of all this, we have a strong strain of "human exceptionalism". Despite this supposedly uncaring universe, we are here, and thriving (mostly). We take care of our suboptimal mutations and, spitting in the face of nature, allow them to pass on genetic material. We also pass along a "soft" heritage in culture, art, and knowledge, which exists outside the hardwired chemistry and biology of our forms. You can make a case of both secular and religious thought as being in direct opposition to the uncaring clockwork of natural selection.

The big thing is, of course, that evolution is NOT a belief system, any more than gravity (also called "Intelligent Falling") is. It is a scientific tool that explains the natural world, and knowing where that tool can be applied (like a hammer to a nail) and when it shouldn't (like a hammer to a screw) is part of the process. To haul evolution into the court of beliefs is like hauling religion into the court of science. It is condemning those apples for making overly tart orange juice.

But if you consider science to be an alternate belief system (as opposed to, you know, science), the frightening nature of evolution is apparent. You can suddenly sense the palpable revulsion in the faithful to the threat of this line of thought, even though there should be no threat.

Lovecraft would, on the other hand, be delighted.

More later,

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Begun, the Serial Comma Wars Have ...

Head writer Bobby Stein has posted a great article on the ArenaNet blog about setting up the writing style for Guild Wars 2. And while his tone is light (he is a word-nerd adrift in a sea of game-nerds), his purpose is completely serious. One of the goals of the game is create a regular and consistent look and feel in the game experience, which is reflected by gameplay, mechanics, art, and yeah, the writing.

It sounds obvious, but it is not. Even though most of us have some form of writing chops, there are a lot of personal and regional variations. Go back to the early days of the country, and you could describe our spelling and language as "freestyle", with whatever personal solutions to communications worked out on the fly (what is this "Purfuit of Happineff stuff, anyway?). In the age of Spellcheck and Grammarcheck that has eased off a bit, but still, there are enough variations to make a multi-creator project like a computer game a veritable minefield of conflicting styles.

So putting together a style guide is a challenge because we are all married to the way we've done things. I get personally insulted when the word processor underlines in green a perfectly good sentence and says "fragment (consider revising)". No, Mr. Microsoft, YOU consider revising. And convincing people that your methodology is the best can lead to some very nasty encounters.

Here's a story from the old days of TSR. Our manager (no names, here), put one of the editors in charge of creating a style guide. Said editor put one together, including that we would use serial commas (that is putting a comma before a conjunction, such as "Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme"). However, said manager did not care for serial commas (it should be "Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme"), and the two were soon butting heads. Soon salvos were fired off in the office mail, sides were taken, red pens were stockpiled, paragraphs were set ablaze,and everyone ended up feeling bad about it (and I don't think we ever solved that particular problem).

So style does stir up a lot of deep-seated feelings in people - how do we communicate? How much of my personal style much be sacrificed for the good of the project. Why the heck CAN'T I capitalize whatever I want (I blame Gary Gygax for this last one - he would begin his columns "Gentle Reader")? The passion behind such decisions, unseen by the ultimate consumer, is real and unwavering.

So I want the people supporting Strunk & White on the right hand side of the room, and those supporting Chicago Manual of Style over on the left. Dodgeballs will be passed out.

More later,

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Horrors

Arkham Horror designed by Richard Launius, Lynn Willis, Sandy Peterson, and Charlie Crank,1987, Chaosium Games
Arkham Horror designed by Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson, 2005, Fantasy Flight Games

Many years ago, I played the original Arkham Horror from Chaosium, and found it to be a fun game (though I don't remember if I finished it). Several years ago, I played the revised Arkham Horror from Fantasy Flight (and did not finish it). When I was in Pittsburgh recently, I had the chance to play the revised game (and did not finish it again), but resolved that I would eventually finish the game. And one evening, with my regular Call of Cthulhu crew, we DID finish the revised game (and there was much rejoicing). And then over the recent long weekend, I had the chance to play the original game (and did not finish it), but did regain enough knowledge and sanity to be able to compare the two.

So the question is: what is it about this game, a game where most of its sessions remain unfinished, that attracts one so?

Both games share the same framework - You're an investigator in Arkham, ground zero of the Cthulhu mythos. Gates are opening all over town to the Other Worldsh. And monsters are coming out. Your job is to close the gates. It is a cooperative game, which means that everyone wins (with a bonus to the one killing the most monsters), or everyone loses.

Now both versions skim the "eldritch horror in an uncaring universe" part of the Necronomicon, and bore more down on the "use everything and kitchen sink approach". All manner of mythos deities, minions, and locations make their head-nod, which leaves the games more of a primer to the mythos than a deep probing into the psyche of a hideous reality. But that doesn't really matter, since one of the joys of the game is explaining to others what a "shoggoth" is.

And both are "play to exhaustion" style games. The basic goal of the game is to close portals, which are springing up as fast (or faster) than you can shut them down. And with every new gate, the ending of the game comes closer, while every time you close a gate, that ending and the sweet, sweet release of completion moves further away. I think this is the reason that so many games end in everyone taking a deep breath and putting it all back into the box - you play until you decide to stop playing. Like hitting yourself with a board, the relief comes when you finally stop.

The first edition is ruled by tables - a table for where the gate appears, small tables for encounters in every location. Simple D6 rolls rule with all sorts of mods applied. High roll wins in combat. Fighting by magic is nigh-impossible, unless you got the Bind Monster, which is an auto door-closer as you throw you gug at the gate to the Abyss. All monsters are equal in chance to appear, so you have the same chance of hitting a maniac as finding Cthulhu wandering down the street.

The second edition has vastly improved physical components, but then uses them to create a bunch of different systems and tracking devices. You have three movable skill-pairs PLUS counters for your Sanity and Strength. The Candyland-like path-map of first edition is replaced with point-movement that does not give the same feeling of connectivity and sense of place. Instead of a high-role success combat shifts to a "number of successes" resolution, where you are looking for additional dice to increase your chances. And the "great powers" of Cthulhu are now moved to the endgame - instead of the game just ending after time, a particular pre-chosen Old-One (with particular universal effects during the game) shows up and everyone fights it (though they have the "classic game" solution if the baddie is Azathoth. He shows up at 13 gates and everyone dies automatically.

And while the second edition is incredibly popular (six or seven expansion), the sheer amount of fiddly bits included makes my head hurt. There is a lot more to the second game, and therefore a lot more to forget and get wrong (survival tip for the second edition - get multiple copies of the rule set (available in pdf from the Fantasy Flight site) before starting in). The ease-of-play of the original worked to its benefit, and the various modifications to add speed, depth, or variety just overloads the senses and capabilities.

Both games are rainy-day games for people in it for the long haul - not for folk starting something in late evening. It ranks with Talisman as one of those games you continue because you don't want to admit to be beaten by the game's sheer inertia. Yet my grognard heart goes out to the original as opposed to the later version.

More later,