Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Riding the Storm Out

Here's one I've been meaning to post for a while, now.

Twenty years ago TSR was looking for a new campaign setting. I proposed one called Storm Front (also called Stormfront) which involved ships sailing on clouds. These days every anime seems to have ships sailing on clouds, and I will point back to Peter Pan for an earlier incarnation, but here were looking for a new concept (a "gizmo") to hang the game on. 
Inspirational Illustration from Winsor McCay.

I had lost the original two-page proposal, but Steve Winter (who had mentioned it in a podcast) did not, and dropped me off a copy, which I am presenting below. The other sources referred to in the first paragraph were other concepts that were bouncing around at that time, which were either naval-style campaigns or monster-dominated "reverse dungeons" where the bulk of the world was hostile. So this is the last of a series of similar proposals, and reflects the input of others on the TSR team.

I am leaving the text as it was originally written, with corrections in [red brackets] and footnotes.

The story of how Stormfront came to be, and what happened to it, can be found here. I wanted to get this out there before an entire year had passed since my last mentioning it. Some fans have responded to the stories about it with interest, and now you know as much as our management did at the time about the product. 

Storm front1
A Campaign Setting Proposal by
Jeff Grubb
5 January 1994 

Note: This proposal combines elements of a number of previous proposals from other sources, including the Under Siege collection of monster-dominated worlds, the Water Worlds, including Sea of Shadows, The Illythids, and the Earth-Sky proposal[s], and I hope it to be a synthesis of those ideas, dealing with the objections raised for each.

The Nugget: Man shall live on Mountain-Tops, and the world beneath is wrapped in clouds, storms, and shadow.

The Images: A world of eternal cloud cover and storms, where the forces of good and law can only survive on the few mountain-tops which pierce these clouds. The cloud layer is at a set altitude and is regular, and cloud-traders sail its surface in magical ships. Beneath the surface of the clouds the land is ruled by evil and chaos, by huge ever-changing nations and gangs controlled by beastly monstrosities known as the Abominations.

The Back Story: Long ago, Stormfront’s world was much like the Realms, perhaps a little further advanced in the magical department. A human dared to challenge the power of the sea gods, and best [bent] them to her will. The harnessing of the sea gods brought a golden age of power to the land, but in the end the powerful sea-deities revolted. The gods could not deluge the land without wiping out followers or causing other gods to step in, so they instead pumped much of their water vapor into the air, enchanting it as they did so. The result was a continual cloud cover which wrapped the cloud [world] save for its highest mountain chains. The land beneath the clouds changed, and its people changed with it. Lush vegetation in riotous colors broke out everywhere, deserts flooded, cities were inundated, fields became swamps, and civilization collapsed. The good and lawful races retreated upwards in the face of this onslaught. Those which remained were twisted by the magical rains in warped forms, and the most warped of these developed great powers – they became the Abominations.

Life Above the Clouds: The Nations of Light survive among the peaks of what were Stormfront’s highest mountains, and the largest of these is the Spine, a ragged archipelago with a main island a thousand miles long and a few hundred miles across at its widest. Spine is heavily populated and its population is clustered into huge cities, the bulk of its land needed for farming to feed its people. Where the mountain-nation descends to the cloud level is the Fogwall, a continually-guarded fortified wall which keeps those creatures which climb the mountains at bay.
            In addition to the Nations of Light, there is a polyracial alliance known as the cloud-skimmers. When the clouds first overlook [overtook] the world, their founding wizards found a method to travel on their tops. They are the transportation and communication guild, and are as powerful as any nation. They also may be dealing with the Abominations, but this is merely rumor.
            The other races live with the humans, but a few have their own settlements. Dwarves tunnel beneath the peaks, seeking to extend their domains downward, eventually linking up with their original homelands beneath the cloud level. Some elves have abandoned the world entirely, forming great floating orbs hovering over the surface of the cloud-ocean. Halflings live as pirates in stolen cloud-skimmers, providing an alternative (and a threat) to the power of the cloud-skimmers2. The gnomes dominate the cloud-skimmers, particularly in the higher reaches of power, and are a more solemn, threatening people.

Life Beneath the Clouds: The land beneath the clouds is one of continual shadow and darkness, at its brightest the color of an overcast day. Storms move a random across its surface, and rains of blood, dead animals, snow, and insects are common. Those humans which remain beneath the layers are worn, beaten, and very, very depressed, such that most have abandoned hope of the light and follow dark masters.
            With the transformation of the oceans, new life appeared beneath the cloud cover – sea creatures and their twisted spawn now could live in the wet, thick air, and air-sharks, orcas, flying squid, and coin-bright swarms of piranhas are common. Locathah and sahaguin live on the surface (though they cannot live on the mountain tops of light, and hate the inhabitants there for that reason).
            The most powerful creatures of the darkness are the Abominations – creatures that once may have been mortal, or even human, but now are a combination of life and living natural force. These are the most evil and chaotic, and each seeks to establish itself as the dominant Abomination on the planet, slaying or enslaving everything else (This permits a variety of powerful bad guys, one of which may succeed the next over time).
            In the shadow of the Abominations are the Mind Flayers – non-psionic traditional types who interact among the Abominations much as the Cloud Skimmers3 do among the Nations of Light. They have their own secret societies and hidden agendas, and seek to gather enough power that they may control the Abominations, and with it the rest of the world.
            The land is wet and dark, the ground generally marshy and uneven. Areas are regularly flooded, and even recent mays may be altered at will. The level of the true oceans has dropped as a result of the god’s [gods’] manipulation, and the swollen rivers now wind far out from the original coasts, pitching finally over the edge of the continental shelf in huge waterfalls. In these extremely salty oceans lay the domains of the sea gods, still angry regarding their once-enslavement.
            The land beneath the clouds also holds the remains of the human nations and cities, and the knowledge within. The Nations of Light must continually send brave adventurers down into this rain-darkened land to recover now-long [now-lost] magical knowledge to keep the Abominations and the forces of darkness from completely taking over the planet. That’s here the adventurers come in. A typical “dungeon crawl” may be taking a Cloud Skimmer out to the location of an Ancient City, parachuting down (a difficult, but not impossible task), raiding, and the (the tough part) walking back.
            If we need an epic (after the first year or so) here goes – the level of the clouds is rising, and threatens to finally consume the Nations of Light. The heroes must seek out the most powerful Abomination to destroy his holy McGuffin and return the world to stability (in [if] not to the time before the floods).

Benefits of this world:
·         Takes advantage of the water-worlds (new monsters, sea travel, swashbuckling, pirates) without the disadvantages (drowning rules, 3-D movement on a regular basis, fire and spell modifications).
·         Gives us a large number of bad guys in the form of the Abominations (similar to the various evil organizations in Faerun or the Lords of Ravenloft).
·         Gives us a “gizmo world” (a physically different world from standard AD&D) which uses standard AD&D rules.
·         Gives us a world with one big problem (the gizmo – in this case the continual cloud cover) which cannot be cured – that is the status quo. A lot of little problems (abominations, other nations, the cloud skimmers, pirates) become problems the player characters can deal with.
·         Creates the “surrounded citadel” approach of good besieged by evil, without making that citadel dark itself. (the nations are in light, not in a dungeon, but still surrounded).
·         New monsters as the marine creatures have “thick-air” variants.

What do you think, sirs4?

1 – I would like to say the “Storm front” name, with its odd capitalization, was a pretentious affectation intended to make the name look artier, but it looks more like a globby typo after I went back and forth between two words and one.
2 – This is probably the most unclear sentence in the presentation – It should read – “Halflings live as pirates in stolen cloud-ships, providing an alternative (and a threat) to the power of the cloud-skimmers.” The gnomes would be a dominant force in the magical/merchant version Cloud Skimmers
3 – The cloud-skimmers became the Cloud Skimmers (as an official organization) over the course of writing the proposal, and the word was used to refer to both the organization and the ships they sailed. The legal department once got mad at me for Spelljammer, which I used as a noun, a proper noun, a verb, and would have been an adjective if I could have gotten away with it. I did that sort of thing again here.
4 – Yes, that is a MST3K reference. 

More later, 

Monday, March 30, 2015

In Spring a Young Man's Fancy Turns to No Quarter! (Part VI)

With the coming of spring, we see the release of this year's collectible US quarter designs into the wild. This blog has for a long time followed the design of these coins; first the State series, where each state (or territory) got the backside of a quarter to promote themselves, and now the "America the Beautiful" series where each state gets to pitch a particular national park, site, monument, preserve, forest, nature area, battlefield, or chunk of tarmac on this choice piece of promotional terrain.

And as I have noted before, here is our handy rating system:

Way Cool = A
Not Bad = B
Kinda Lame (Meh) = C
Very Lame = D
Looks like you can get two plays in an old pinball machine with them = E

National Homestead Monument of America - Nebraska

This one is a challenge to the coin-carvers. How do you commemorate a location that is honestly SUPPOSED to be in the middle of nowhere? One with few distinctive or redeeming features? One the really deals more with an idea than a place? I honestly think that the Nebraska Quarter rises to that challenge.

A little history. Starting 1862, the federal government passed a series of Homestead Acts which offered people free land in exchange for residency and improvement. Parties such as the Free Soil Party and the newly hatched Republicans were big on putting land into the hands of small independent farmers, as opposed to wealthy landholders. The Democrats, in particular Southern Democrats, scuttled such bills whenever they showed up, so everyone just waited until the south left the room Union and passed the bill. There were additional homestead acts to expand the area granted, and promises of planting timber, but this one in 1862 was the biggie.

The downside of the idea of "Free Land" was the fact that the land was in places like, well, Nebraska, which I believe is a Hekawi word for "Big Empty Desert Made of Grass". However, the promise of free land and the concept of the yeoman farmer, stolid and dependable, led many into the plains, where many perished from the fact that the plains were pretty inhospitable. Such founders get the nickname sodbusters, since there usually wasn't anything along the lines of stone or wood to build with. Hence, the early houses were sod.

This particular location did have wood to build (eventually) and is on the site of one of the first homesteaders. If that statement it sounds vague, part of it is because the individual who made that claim made a lot of claims over the years about being the first, and while they can determine he was among the first, whether he was exactly in first line is debated. Close enough for government work, at least.

In any event, the coin actually really cool for having to present a bunch of nothing but a idea. The mud and timber cabin dominates the center, framed by stalks of wheat, and with a small hand-pump in the middle. It actually captures the feeling of the struggle to survive on the prairie. In addition, the timber and mud layers of house should provide a good feel to the coin as well. Yeah, it's pretty well done.

Rating: A (Way Cool)

Kiatchie National Forest - Louisiana 

Well, the good news is that they chose a location pretty far inland for the site of this Louisiana quarter, making it relatively safe from rising oceans, oil spills, Mardi Gras tourists, and the ever-popular hurricanes. The downside is that this may the first time you've ever heard of it.

Kiatchie (the name is derived from the Kichie tribe that once lived in the neighborhood) is a swath of upland forest in the northern half of the state,, divided into five big chunks over seven parishes. Like the Homestead Monument, there is not a lot of define it on the back of a quarter. Unlike the Homestead Monument, there isn't as much as an idea here to crystallize around, either. So in the end, they chose a local inhabitant. The turkey. Yes, that is what that's supposed to be.

And they showed the turkey in flight, which demonstrates that you really shouldn't show a turkey in flight. It's embarrassing for everyone involved.  It looks like one of those primitive biplanes that gets shot off a catapult to get it into the air, It creates a question in the mind of the viewer: Will the next coin show a majestic swooping bird, or a tangle of feathers and bone as it augers in on a low-hanging cyprus branch. It looks like a velociraptor trying to fan-dance.

Honestly, only in my lifetime have people determined that the birds are direct descendants of the dinosaurs. Looking at the form of this splayed-feathered demi-reptile trying to scrabble its way aloft into a hostile sky, I thought it would have been obvious years ago.

Rating: B (Not Bad, but that remains one ugly turkey)

Blue Ridge Parkway - North Carolina

Here we see the classic cartoon site where Wile E. Coyote painted the picture of the tunnel on a cliff-face, built a road up to it, and waited for the Roadrunner to smash into it. The Roadrunner, of course, ran into the picture of the tunnel, not knowing any better. When Wile E. Coyote attempted to follow, armed with the knowledge of reality, he smashed into the rock wall, stunned himself, staggered off, and fell off a cliff. Humor.

OK, actually, this is one of many tunnels along the US's longest park, which threads some 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina, with North Carolina JUST getting the bragging rights on having the biggest half. It is apparently the most-visited of the sites under the watch of the National Park Service because, well, it's a road. Started during the Depression and finished in the eighties, the Parkway snakes through some beautiful country.

The coin itself achieves something very nice - a sense of depth. The carvings have gotten better over the years, as have the designs, but this does not just use two planes of depth, but actually funnels you attention from the right, with its masonry foreground (coming out of another tunnel?) and (I'm guessing) dogwood blooms, brought along the curve of the road (no horizon line to distract - just white space, then to the tunnel itself, and down through the short tunnel to the exit. And there, very small, at the far end, you can just see ... the Roadrunner.

Beep Beep.

Rating: A (Way Cool - I really like this one).

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge - Delaware

This quarter plays off its strengths, and pushes its waterfowl. In this case, it reveals that it is the winter nesting ground of the kaiju monster Rodan. OK, actually, that is ....

That is ...

Hang on. I'm getting this strange sense of deja vu. Almost like...

Yeah, let's hop in the wayback machine and go back a year to...

Yes!  I knew it. This actually nothing more than a reskin of the Everglades/Florida quarter from last year. I've got the swamp. I've got the two birds. They're in the same positions. Somebody threw the Florida quarter on a light table and got out their tracing paper. My god. Did they think no one would NOTICE?

I mean, I can sympathize. We are talking Delaware, here, a fully-owned subsidiary of the credit card industry. What would they put on the quarter? A listing of US household debt? But even so, if your best feature is Bombay Hook (named after the Doctor in Bewitched), the least you could do would be to show some originality. If you're going to steal stock photographs, at least show the decency to flip the image.

Yeah, I really liked this presentation, -when I SAW IT LAST YEAR. No, you don't get another chance, Delaware. You should have thought of it before.

Rating: D (Just ... Just leave. I'll be sending a letter to your parents).

Saratoga National Monument - New York

The last quarter for the year also deals with a concept as opposed to the importance of a particular place, though the place is important. In this case, the quarter celebrates the first successful pickpocket attempt in a D&D game outside of Lake Geneva.

No, actually it commemorates the defeat of the British forces, under General Burgoyne, by the American rebels under General Gates. It was the military turning point of the war. Burgoyne was supposed to sweep down from Canada and hook up with General Howe's forces coming up from New York City. And indeed, Burgoyne uprooted the Americans out of Fort Ticonderoga, so he kept his side of the deal. Howe, though, decided to invade Philadelphia instead, and left Burgoyne hanging. Another support column coming up the Mohawk River was been turned back, and this and the loss of Native American allies left Burgoyne on a very thin branch, which Gates and his aggressive major general, Benedict Arnold (yeah, that guy) lopped off the branch and forced a surrender.

So, does the coin work? I'm going to say no, since you have to label it to get any sense of what is happening here. The idea that the brocade on a sleeve indicates "British" to the user is a bit of a reach, and most folk don't remember that turning over your sword is the old-fashion-y method of surrender. Plus labeling it British Surrender might mean you're going to get some mail from Yorktown.

I think it is actually too subtle.

Rating C (Meh).

Tune in next year folks, and we get to  start the Civil War with two different coins. Plus some other places you've never heard of until now.

And Delaware ... I'm watching you. Just so you know.

More later,

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Gaming News

There is a lot of gaming news that gets passed around these days. However, most of it is on Facebook, which means you will see it once, think that you might get back to it later, and then never see it again as the feed churns relentless onward. Here are some things of note from the past few days.

First off, Baker Street: Roleplaying in the world of Sherlock Holmes is for sale on RPGNow. This is a nice game which works off the very inspired conceit that while Holmes was off on his European Holiday (and the world assumes that he had plunged to his death at Reichenbach Falls), Watson employed talented amateurs to fill the Great Detective's shoes. Those talented amateurs would be the player characters, who negotiate clues and get to the truth of matters great and small.

As part of a stretch goal for the product, Fearlight Games produced a Baker Street Casebook, which involves a handful of talented individuals such as Skip Williams, Bryce Whitacre, Steven S. Long, and yours truly. Naturally, given the chance, I wrote about the goings-on at a club on Pall Mall where the younger members pinch policemen's helmets. Because I could. Find out more about it here.

Secondly, speaking of Kickstarter, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the talented and lovely Rob Schwalb has a kickstarter going on for his new project, a dark fantasy RPG called Shadow of the Demon Lord. The game has already burst past its inital and is wracking up the stretch goals even as I write this. Go check it out here.

Third, I am planning to go to GenCon in Indianapolis for the first time in many years, despite the best efforts of the Indiana State Legislature to convince me otherwise. The state legislature has passed a bill, SB101, which pretty much says you can refuse service to anyone as long as you belong to a faith that says its all right to do so. It is pretty much aimed at the GLBTQ community, although under the law of unintentional consequences, things can get out of hand pretty damned quickly. Being Indiana, the bill was passed by the legislature and now only needs the governor's signature.

Now GenCon is currently hosted in Indy, but is run out of this part of the country, and a goodly chunk of it and many other game companies are part of, or friends and/or relatives and/or co-workers of, the very community that the bill is targeting. GenCon put together a very cogent, polite letter pointing out that the convention brings some 50 mill into downtown Indy and, if they and their friends aren't wanted, they will gladly take that business to people who are more willing to treat their convention-goers with respect. A lot of the click-bait online sites are calling it a threat, but it sounds pretty damned calm and reasonable. You can read the letter here.

It is a pity, after spending years trying to convince people that they should actually go to Indianapolis in the middle of August (And I have BEEN in Indiana in August), they are now determined to flush all that away.

Finally, on a very sad note, I must report the passing of Mike McArtor. I worked with Mike on the D&D 3.5 Spell Compendium, which was pretty much my last WotC D&D project. Mike would go to work on Magic: The Gathering and for Paizo, and he and his wife joined our gaming group of a while, playing Call of Cthulhu. Mike died in a car accident yesterday, and I will honest, has left me rattled. He was a pleasant, talented, thoughtful young man, and the industry is lessened by his passing. Rest in Peace, Mike.

More later,

Saturday, March 21, 2015

DOW Breaks 18,000

Actually, this happened before Christmas. And then it dropped below for a while and then it showed up again in February, and then it dropped for another while and now it is back again. And it will probably drop again and rise again, but I suppose I should mention it before it gets to 19k.

The market in recent years has taken huge swings. Once, long ago, a hundred point swing was considered a major news item - now it is Tuesday. Part of this is because the nature of how stocks are traded. The human factor seems to be almost completely eliminated, such that even the once ubiquitous independent day traders from when I started this blog have settled into a small clique, while the bulk of decisions are made by computer agents programmed to response to particular trends.

For the mildly paranoid, releasing untested rules into the wild tends to create unintended consequences, where independent programs tend to cause spikes and crashes. For the really paranoid, it is but a small step between programs which analyze and play the market and those which analyze and manipulate the market without need of human direction. These pop up as a minor concept in William Gibson's recent book, The Peripheral, where Aunties - autonomous financial programs from the future, are unleashed further up the timestream to affect a divergent universe.

But that sort of things does not capture our attention so much as something closer to home - gas prices. They went into a steep dive of late, getting to below $2.50 here in the Puget Sound region and below two bucks in the more accessible parts of the country. And there were a flurry of articles about how this is a bad thing, most of them in the line of "Yeah, its good for most drivers, BUT..." And then they would talk about how low gas prices add to instability by undermining fracking or oil shale or solar power (yeah, I don't get this one either) or makes Russia or Iran or Alberta more desperate by reducing their income.

In the short run, things seem to have stabilized, which most of us means that prices have been slowly climbing upwards. But that comes with a price - apparently a lot of gas is being kept off the market, warehoused for the eventual day when it will bring more money. And we're running out of space to hide it. So sometime this summer we should see another price drop and another round of pearl-clutching as the producers are faced with either reducing production (which has happened to some degree, ending booms in South Dakota) or actually selling the product they have. And prepare for another round of worries about how this will affect the status quo, as if that status is considered to be the ultimate desirable quo.

Unless, of course, the Aunties from the future do something else to jimmy with our markets.

More later,

Monday, March 16, 2015

Play: Mean Girls

The Comparables by Laura Schellhardt, Directed by Braden Abraham, Seattle Rep through March 29

Remember when I used this space to talk about stuff that wasn't politics or theatre? Yeah, me neither. Probably those two last topics survive here because they are time-sensitive - elections resolve and plays run their course. Other subjects I tend to overthink, or leave fallow, or abandon entirely. But still, for the moment, theatre.

I want to like The Comparables more than I do. It has a lot of the stuff that I'm always going on about in this space. World premiere. Developed here. Playwright wrote the excellent K of D from a few seasons back. Two thirds of the actresses have tread the boards before. It clocks in at about the right time ( hour and a half, no intermission). Does not succumb to polemic. So what happened here?

Let me start out with the basics. Monica (Cheyenne Casebier) works for Bette (Linda Gehringer), a high end New York real estate firm. Iris (Keiko Green) is a rookie who comes in for an interview with Bette, crashes and burns with the pre-interview with Monica, but gets hired anyway, Iris and Monica become both rivals and allies as the play deals with the conflicts that women have with each other as well as with the old-boys network of society at large.

But the play never really seems to find its level, and quantum jumps all over to the place to different energy states. The stated conflicts feel pretty facile (Bette has a reality show coming up, while Monica and Iris are working on opposing sides of a divorcing couple, seeking to get them to purchase multiple new digs). The deeper issues of Monica's own paralysis in her job are interesting and universal, and but it seems to take its time finding its way to the surface, egged on by frenemy Iris.

And it misfires, particularly when talking about corporations. The initial interview involves sharing way too much personal information, which serves plot but undermines character. Iris and Monica flip between allies and rivals way too often, and suspicions that either one is playing the other sort of evaporates in the shuffle. Bette shifts between Devil-Wearing-Prada to King Lear seeking to pass on her kingdom all too quickly.

Similarly, the play itself flips between a sitcom staginess (Iris encounters Bette in the elevator on the way out and gets the job anyway) and real issues for women operating both in a man's world and against other women. They aren't really competing (comparing) because they are all at different levels in life and professionalism. The action builds to slapstick of a Laverne and Shirley level, then sort of all falls apart in the denouement. Violence on stage is difficult, particularly in the build-up, and it is tough to believe that the characters went that far. (A similar problem existed in Mamet's American Buffalo, where the violence builds to a particular level only to dissipate in an avalanche of pillows).

The comparative age of the characters holds hope for an Maiden/Mother/Crone analysis (as in Three Tall Women). And even here there is room for some definition of character. Iris could be a trickster Loki, getting by on wits and charm. Monica, the matronly self-declared load-building pillar of the company, is very matronly. And again, if we had taken Bette either to wisdom or to dotage we would have had more definitive characterizations.

It felt like the characters were too similar and at the same time not defined enough. On the way in, I passed a portrait of the three actresses, and they had the exact same smile. It may have been intended, that superior, real-estate broker mask in all three, but that mask frustrated me getting to the characters themselves, and to empathizing with them. And it may be as simple as that - I want to root for Monica, but I don't get a lot to base that desire on.

In short (I know, too late for that), it was a failure, but a good failure. It feels like it needs a couple more turns on the wheel, a little more time in the oven, to come up with something with deeper feeling and meaning.

More later,