Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Why I left TSR

A couple years back I talked about Stormfront, the TSR world that I never ended up creating. And in the initial entry I said:
" Stormfront was pretty much my swan song at TSR. I was sad about the decision, though this was not what eventually convinced me it was time to leave the company (that would be Mystara ...)."
And I left it there until someone asked about. Well, someone finally did ask about it, I wrote up a response to them, and now I'm putting it in the blog as well. Here's the story of Mystara, why it was the way it was, why it was as good as it was, and why it sent me out the door.

The initial idea was "Bring the Known World of D&D into AD&D Second Edition". D&D had an excellent life apart from the AD&D line, through the BECMI line of boxed set rules (That's Basic, Expert, Companion, Masters, Immortals) and the Gazetteer series of source books. But D&D as a competing game system to AD&D was going to be curtailed. The Known World (as it was called at the time) would be converted to AD&D.
I was dubious. The Known World already had a long and successful life over in the D&D (mostly due to the work of Bruce Heard, who was its champion). The Known World had a unique look and feel and should it be made an AD&D world would be in direct competition with FR. But D&D was going to end as a set of game rules, and it would be AD&D going forward. And because I brought the Realms into TSR, I was a good candidate to help translate the Known World into AD&D.

I've been a fan of the Known World. I loved the maps and I loved the ever-increasing number of character sub-classes that showed up in the Gazetteers. Kits had worked very well in Al-Qadim, and I brought that concept over to revised setting. The initial idea was to do a massive overview on the world laid out by the Gazetteers, with a lot of crunchy bits in transfering all the regional subclasses to kits/. Unlike the Realms, which had empty space where Ed hadn't any stories/games in (Sembia, for example), there was a very complete world to start with here I wanted to embrace the complexity.

And I set to work - renaming the world Mystara (Known World felt too close to Forgotten Realms), and poking at all the nooks and crannies. And then everything went to hell over the logo. Yeah, the LOGO.
The Sales VP (perhaps it was the Marketing VP - TSR seemed to always have one but not the other) wanted to be deeply involved in creating the logo. And since fantasy meant knights, dragons, castles, and wizards, he wanted all of these things. On the logo. It was a dog's breakfast of a design. A couple of the artists threw up their hands trying to put it together, and no one in design liked the proposal much. Any attempt to minimize any one element was rejected. Finally there was a come-to-Jesus moment where a multi-discipline group confronted the Sales/Marketing guy and said this was a bad idea. (We eventually ended up with the logo shown here).
And he backed down. That was Thursday.

And by next Monday the entire nature of the project had changed, by order of management (including the Sales/Marketing guy). Instead of doing all of Mystara, the project would concentrate on Karameikos only. Oh, and since it would now tie in with our First Quest line, we would put Audio CDs into it. And the deadlines would not change.

All the material I had put together was pretty much wiped off the board (I found a manuscript of part of it the other day, while looking for other things). Fellow creatives came to my aid - Thomas Reid took up the adventure and the CD. Andria Hayday did a championship job with the editing and influenced the graphic presentation (as she had previously done on Al-Qadim). We got good artists. Jennell Jacquays did a triptic art piece we chopped up for three different covers. Walter Velez did some interiors. The fact that Karameikos had a indigenous population and a group of conquerors made it an interesting setting, and reflected in such things as we did the art as if it were in the world - so we had the same event drawn with different styles.

One of the challenges to Karameikos, though, was that Aaron Alston did a great job in creating a complete fantasy kingdom, but as a result, it was very difficult to add the Player Characters to the mix. What would they do in a kingdom where all the political forces were so evenly balanced? I referred to this as "trying to bite a billiard ball" and was pleased to have come up with some things for the PCs to do. I managed to do that without destabilizing the kingdom too much. I liked that.
And I renamed the Known Worlds as Mystara (or at least I'll take the blame for it). I also take the blame for renaming Specularum to Mirros - at the request of several co-workers who were squidged out by the similarity of the original name to "speculum" - explanations that both words came from the same core availed me nothing, so I changed it.

I stayed away from the CD side of the project for this and for Mark of Amber - I let Thomas carry that forward, and any stories on that I leave for him to tell. The books were also problematic - DJ Hienrich and Thorrin Gunnarsson were both pen names, and I had little influence on their efforts. I completed my part of the revision, wished Monte the best of luck on Glantri and walked away (well, there were Poor Wizards/Joshuan's Almanacs but I was pretty much done with the world).

Looking back through the 'net, most of the response to Karameikos, Kingdom of Adventure was very positive, which is nice. What we ended up with worked well. Whatever challenges we faced getting it across the finish line didn't reflect on the quality of the final project. However, getting there involved some scrambling to account for managerial decisions, and kinda burned me out. I was pretty much done.

After Karameikos, I just sort of moved on. Mark of Amber was a smooth design, but there was little to do beyond adapting Aaron's work to the new CD-based reality (I actually growled at my boss about my getting billing on that). Neither Man nor Beast for Ravenloft would be my last original project. But by that time I was disappointed with the atmosphere at the company. I would love to say that I was prescient about the bad financial times to come, but actually I had no real clue, and just felt it was time to go. Most of my cadre of designers and editors had moved on. When Margaret Weis offered me the chance to join Mag Force 7 in 1994, I took it, and left the operation. I loaded up all my personal stuff in a couple boxes, and everyone came down to wish me well as I left the building.

Then they went back up and looted all the stuff I left back in my cube.

More later,

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Gaming News

With summer Kickstarter has suddenly exploded with RPG options. I have swooped in and collected a bunch of them for your consideration.  Kickstarter has demonstrated an ability to reach out to a target market at a very personal level, which makes it fantastic for niche-operations like RPGs (and for niches-within-niches like Spy RPGs). I'm not backing all of these, but there some interesting stuff here that should pique yours interest.

The Lost Citadel: Some campaign settings aim at big, sprawling canvases that can accommodate any style or subgenre of play. The Lost Citadel is a lot more defined and refined - its world is founded by a single event, an underlying tragedy that informs everything that follows. Magic has died, the dead have risen, the last outpost of the living is a huge city of Redoubt. It is a dark world, with a single flickering point of light. This one has some serious talent, behind it and has funded and is knocking down stretch goals left and right. It also wraps in about a week.

The Yellow King: I don't know if this would exist without Kickstarter's ability to fund extremely dedicated markets. This is a four-volume set of adventures based on the Gumshoe rules used in Trail of Cthulhu, but not based on Lovecraft's work (a niche to start with) but in the King in Yellow, the creation of Robert Chambers. Starting in Belle Epoque Paris, the story bounces to an alternate universe with a horrific war, then to the present of that world, then back to "our" world with a few nasty changes around the edges. As a heads-up, this one looks like it is based out of England, and notes up front that the pledge does not support shipping.

War of the Cross: This looks like a diplomacy variant set in Theah, the "Europe" of the 7th Sea RPG. When I say diplomacy variant, it has armies, navies, area movement, convoys, etc... But it also has heroes (do differentiate the various nations) and treasures. This one has a while to go, both in time and funding - as a board game, it has a large up-front.[Update: Alas, this one has been suspended]

Torg Eternity: Long ago and far away there was TORG (The Other Roleplaying Game) from West End by BIll Slavicsek, Greg Gordon, and others. It used the multi-genre idea in divvying up the Earth into different zones, like the pulpy Egypt, the cyberpunky religious France, and horror-filled Indonesia. Now its back. You're a Storm Knight that can move between zones and fight the big bads.Torg Eternity rolled out with a 16-page introduction on Free RPG Day which was a good enticement.

Calidar: Dreams of Aerie: I mentioned Calidar as while back as Bruce Heard's design descendant of the Princess Ark concepts of flying ships. This time out he brings to the table a literal flying circus (as in three-ring) as a the centerpiece of his adventure. Suitable for use in any campaign with an atmosphere. You can see the initial maps at the link, which look cool. This one has just hit its numbers, but can increase through its stretch goals.

Top Secret: New World Order: This one has yet to go live, [Update: it is LIVE] but has an excellent provenance. The original Top Secret was one of the early non-fantasy games I encountered back in the day, and I contributed to the Top Secret: SI line with a cyberpunky future called FREELancers featuring old movie monsters re-imagined in a sinking Mirror-shaded Chicago.  And I had a pitch in for a TS Module called: Operation: Tin Man, which involved a camera on Mars sending back a picture of a banner saying "Surrender Dorothy!". Ah, yeah, good times. Do not know more about the details here, other than Merle "The Administrator" Rasmussen and Allen "The original editor" Hammack are on board for this  It has a spiffy video as well.

Check 'em out. More later.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Play: Serious Wimsey

Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers (and M. St. Claire Byrne, whom the program neglects to credit), Taproot Theatre Company, through June 24th.

The Lovely B and I recently removed ourselves from the safe bounds of Seattle Rep season tickets with an excursion to a new venue - the Taproot Theatre, north of the city on 85th Street in Greenwood. Situated at a confluence of major roads, it is one of those neighborhoods with a variety of restaurants and somewhat challenging parking (the e-tickets specifically state that, though it may look tempting, do NOT park in the Fred Meyers).

The Taproot is a 200-seat venue built around a thrust stage (that is, audience on three sides). This particular performance of Dorothy Sayers' mystery is very popular, such that we got tickets on the right-hand balcony, along a single row fronted by a low, extremely clear glass. Nice seats, good view of the action but I have a bit of crick in my neck from two and half hours of looking slightly to the right to follow the action.

Busman's Honeymoon was originally a play (one of Sayers' first) and later a novel (one of Sayers' last). It is set in Hertfordshire, where the newly-married detectives Lord Peter and Lady Harriet Vane have decamped for a honeymoon away from the bright lights of the press, with their loyal butler Bunter. They arrive at their newly-purchased cottage to find nothing prepared for them and the previous owner dead in the basement. The house is soon awash with typically British characters; the previous owner's mousy niece, the pottering vicar, the angry handyman, and the local constable (who actually says "What's all this, then" upon his entrance).

And Sayers/Byrne do an excellent job of the challenge of bringing the mystery genre to the stage. Sayers tends to play fair with her readers, and it shows here. The scene of the crime shows up early, and all the clues are in place to be discovered, including bits of business that seem innocent but later become revealing. If you've read the book, you'll know from the outset, but for those who have not, and those who have forgotten, I will leave it there.

But where the play succeeds is in the relationship of the newlyweds Peter and Harriet. Peter at his core is delighted to be married, but saddened by his very serious detective work, which will ultimately result in the destruction of the life of the guilty. Terry Edward Moore is a weary Wimsey, and you can see when he is positively delighted and when he is putting on the good show for others. With Harriet (a sparkling Alyson Scadron Branner) he has his strength, urging him onward, matching him pace for pace, but she comes from writing mysteries as opposed to solving them, and now she is yoked to that same sense of duty that drives Peter forward.

The rest of the cast is very good. Nolan Palmer is an arch-eyebrowed Bunter, settling into having a mistress as well as a master to tend to. The setting is Hertfordshire, but the accents of the locals span the the British Isles, and fortunately are carried forward with the vim and vigor of an island fragmented by a common language. Reginald Andre Jackson as Mr. Puffett the sweep digs in deep every time he has to talk about the "carroopted sut" clogging the chimney, while Brad Walker as Constable Sellon is a bit too young and slender to pull off the officer.

It is a good performance with good performers, and actually does a bit more digging into the characters than the 1940 movie (based on this play) which has the American Robert Montgomery as a very Mid-Atlantic Wimsey. In fact, I like the play more than the book that evolved out of it - the play is tighter, stronger, and uses the space to front the relationship of Harriet and Peter and to demonstrate that they are a match made for the courts.

One minor niggle, from the program book - Sayers is identified as a member of the Inklings, an Oxford group of writers that included Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, she was Oxfordian, and her letters are included with some of the Inklings at Wheaton College in Illinois but she was never a member. That's sort of like calling Ed Greenwood an Alliterate - while a fine writer with a shared heritage, he never officially part of the group.

As for the play - worth seeing, better than the movie and the book.

More later,