Monday, November 29, 2021

Book: The Gygax Years

Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons by Jon Peterson , The MIT Press, 2021

Provenance - One of my housemates heard me mention that I interested (and maybe mentioned in) this book, and she ordered me a copy. I read it in the evenings over my stay in Disney World.

Yep, I'm mentioned in it.

Review - Jon Peterson has been doing a fantastic job detailing the history of roleplaying games. His Playing at the World is a voluminous history of the hobby from the first Kriegspielers to the arrival of Dungeons & Dragons. The Elusive Shift is a detailed study of the early TTRPG gaming environment, its fandom, and the effect that fandom had on the development of D&D. This time he gets into the meat of the situation - the business history of TSR, D&D's original publisher, from its conception to when Gary Gygax lost control of the company.

Peterson uses primary sources to great effect. He's not relying completely on the stories of those who were there, as memories fade and are often refurbished by their owners over time. He's done the digging through old records and sales information and memos that have survived to this day. And as a result, the picture he paints is detailed and accurate.

The core of the story begins with the creation of the game and the foundation of the company. Originally a group of hobbyists codifying rules, it tracks through the early Geneva Conventions (GenCon, in the old Horticulture Hall) to the conversations between Lake Geneva and Minneapolis to the creation of a going concern that actually paid people to early success and later challenges.

Peterson credits both men for their achievements - Arneson for the key components of roleplaying and Gygax for developing and presenting them. The bone of contention is what happens when that development outstrips the original concepts. To a great degree, the evolution of D&D left Arneson behind, and that lack of not only recognition but also recompense lay at the heart of their disagreements.

This was a slow read for me, as I would read a few pages, then stop to reflect. Is this something I already knew about? Is this new information? Does it fit with what I knew at the time? There are a lot of stories from the past that surface here - The passing of original founder Don Kaye, Dallas Egbert and the Steam Tunnels, BADD. And there is stuff that I have tucked into the back of mind over the years - Gygax versus the small press, the Origins/GenCon Rivalry, the Avalon Hill Rivalry. And there is stuff that I really didn't know much about - for example, the original split not only between Gary and Dave, but  between the Lake Geneva and Minnesota crews, or that the original Chainmail published by Guidon games, or the idea that GAMA (the Game Manufacturers Association) was founded in response to TSR's actions in the hobby at large.

I was there for part of the time covered, but this isn't my story. The design department of 1985 - Me, Tracy, Zeb, Doug, Bruce, Merle, are sources, but we're minor actors in this particular passion play. At the time we were mushrooms (literally, our offices on Sheridan Springs Road had no windows). We were hobbits (to quote one of our managers, who referred to himself as a Ranger protecting Hobbitown). We were the country mice in our rural environment, far from the cool stuff in Hollywood. We were the little folk we. We would hear the distant thunder. We were mostly innocent bystanders, and on more than a few occasions, collateral damage.

So I am here, but as a cameo. My arrival (and Tracy's) is noted in passing, as are our early work during this turbulent time (sales, to my surprise, were declining when I was hired, but by the time the torch was passed, we in the design department were "pulling its own weight" financially, and we started such projects as Dragonlance and Marvel Super Heroes). There's a picture of us in a tug of war contest from a company picnic, and we look like the Junior Achievement branch of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players - I am in denim jeans and a denim vest, wearing a headband - I look like I was an extra from "The Warriors". 

But the main players here are Gary and Dave, and the conflict that came out of their early collaboration. Peterson delves deep into the lawsuits and the sales records to bust some earlier myths and to track the economic history of TSR. He makes the case that Egbert, BADD, and the horrendous 60 minutes episode served to raise people's awareness of D&D and with it the game's popularity. I have to concur, but I think another factor was the rise of the mall and big box bookstores - TSR was distributed at the time not by another publishing group, but by Random House's merchandising department, who was looking to fill space in these now-larger venues.

Peterson tells much but not all and, I will still have stories to tell over beers. Things like the Dungeons & Diamonds game show, or the D&D Amusement Park we were going to set up in Lake Geneva. Or any of a half-dozen other blue-sky projects or wild ideas that may have been spun with moonbeams. Peterson treats most of his subjects gently, pushing points that he can support only through factual material. Gary's lifestyle in Hollywood is portrayed as merely "wild", and Lorraine William in credited with saving the company, and comes off as rational and sensible.

I'd be very interested in seeing "what happens next", but I don't know if the circumstances would allow it. The post-Gygax, post-Blume years at TSR were a bit of a tighter ship, absent a lot of the internal and external drama of the earlier years. There are fewer source documents and internal memos to rely on, less public denouncements of our competition, and less of a paper trail. Still, it would be interesting to see. 

If you play D&D and want to know its history, this is the book to pick up. It shows where the bodies are buried and unearths treasures from the past. It was a different world in the 70s for game design, as opposed to today, and it is solid tale of relationships, design, and the growth of RPGs.

An Epic Battle, indeed. More later.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Theatre: Here Be Monsters

We've Battled Monsters Before - Book, Music, and Lyrics by Justin Huertas, Directed by Mathew Wright, Arts West, Through December 28.

Theatre is back. Sorta. The Lovely Bride and I attended what turned out to be opening night for We've Battled Monsters Before at the Arts West. They were checking vaccination cards at the door and the audience remained masked through the performance, and empty seats were more the case of social distancing than lack of interest. But, it was live theatre after too many months of empty stages.

Arts West is set up in a former department store at the Junction neighborhood in West Seattle, a neighborhood that is now mostly cut off from Restof Seattle by the anticipated collapse of the West Seattle Bridge. So between plague and impending construction, it is not the easy access venue that it once was. But on the other hand parking was not as hard to come by (though my lot of choice is soon to be plowed under for more condos). As for the theater itself, the performance area itself was in the round (well, in the oblong, at least), with a raised stage and for this play, a tree about three feet away from my seat at the top of an aisle.

The tree exists in the Whisper, a timeless (literally) chuck of property outside of Seattle. Here is a rift in time that grants wishes, and is used by a family of Filipino babaylan wise women. The current generation consists of the not-so-wise Adarna (Rheanna Atendido) and her brother Diego (Justin Huertas, who is also playwright, lyricist, and takes on the role of Lola, their grandmother, when need be). Adarna is studying to become a spellcaster, and aches to be a warrior for her people. Her attempts, even when well-meaning, often affect Diego (he becomes a werewolf. And then becomes a GIANT werewolf, but the play is focused primarily on Ardarna). It is about spellcasting, responsibilities, family, and food. Oh, yeah, it's a musical. 

Huertas has a wonderful flair for urban fantasy and magical realism (his songs aren't bad, either). His Lizard Boy was super-heroes in Seattle. His Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion was a chunk of NW folklore turned mystical. Here he pulls from the tales of his own heritage to transpose Filipino folklore into a modern age. This one was good - I liked Last Octopus more, and the Lovely B still prefers Lizard Boy, but this was a small, tidy, personal musical which sought out the magic and found it. It is an excellent start to the Arts West season, and worth a trip to the distant wilds of West Seattle.

More later.

Monday, November 08, 2021

Book: Life In Dis-United States

Break It Up; Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union by Richard Kreitner, Little, Brown, and Company, 2020

OK, we're done talking about politics. Let's talk about a book instead ... about politics!

Provenance: Purchased from Amazon after seeing it reviewed on a progressive website.

Review: History is a big bag of stuff, from which we spin out narratives and create our own national backstory. George Washington is a folktale figure, his lore filled with cherry trees and skipping coins across the Potomac. Washington is the great man of Valley Forge and the First Presidency. George Washington is the man with dentures made from the teeth of slaves. George Washington is a land speculator seeking to keep the Forks of the Ohio out of the hands of those Pennsylvanians, and in the process kicking off the Seven Years' War in Europe and America. All these are stories, all have their truth, and if you pick apart the threads of our past, you can see a number of them all functioning at the same time.

In the case of Break It Up, the story presented is that United States has never been particularly United, and at any one time part of its population is threatening, edging, or dashing for the exits. Krietner's work overturns a big box of data points to make the case that US and its people have always been heading for a crack-up.

How could it be otherwise? The thirteen English colonies were founded for different reasons by different groups. Here is a prison colony, there a group of religious separatists, over there a failed business venture or three, and here's one to pay off a debt by the Crown. We swallowed New Amsterdam, and New Sweden, expanded into established Native American lands and grabbed territories claimed by other European Powers. Those groups that were not disenfranchised were set up in continual rivalries. The Beta Test of the whole shebang, known as the Articles of the Confederation, crashed and burned.

And the big elephant in the room for much of our history is slavery and the elites that supported it. Even within the Constitution itself, which by counting the South's declared property as partial people for representation, put Virginia in the driver's seat for many years (Such that four of the first five presidents were from Virginia - there's a reason for that). From that moment on, our political history is a case of "Make Virginia (and by extension the South) happy". And where things happen like New England seceding (yeah, it was a thing), it was because the northerners felt Virginia had TOO much power. 

And that's sort of where secession comes from - You won't let me do something, at a state level, so I'm going home. From nullification acts to outright secession, the ruling class of those states pushing headlong into separatism are fired up about their rights being trampled. In example after example, those heading to the exits are claiming that they are the "real" Americans, the followers of those original founding fathers that believed in life, liberty, and often the ownership of slaves. 

Further, where states break off from other states, it is because they don't feel they are getting their slice of the power - the brief state of Jefferson comes to mind, as well such nascent movements as the Upper Peninsula and east of the Cascades. Heck, in the last few elections, nonbinding resolutions in Oregon have eight counties expressing a desire to join Idaho.

The flip side of "Make Virginia Happy" is "Virginia Gets Kicked In the Teeth", which could be the title of another book with much of the same facts. Virginia's original colonial claims went out to Minnesota, yet the same spirit of compromise whittled it back and eroded its power. When push came to shove in the 1860s, they lost about half the state west of the mountains (which didn't like the eastern half that much anyway - see previous paragraph) to form Kanawha/West Virginia. Of course, Virginia got their part of the original District of Columbia back so they could still bring in slaves through Alexandria. 

Krietner grabs fistfuls of examples in the first hundred years, though in doing so chooses to glances briefly over a bunch and other parts gets lost in the shuffle. He addresses the Mormon migration and Deseret, but not the other utopian communities that set themselves up apart from the world, like the Shakers, Millerites, and Amish. He hits the origin of Texas as an independent nation playing into the them of separatism but gives a short shrift to Hawai'i. And the fate of the Indian Reservations and federal lands throughout the west are not addressed (And the nature of the reservations to the rest of the country? The most recent examples are that Oklahoman law does not apply to the area that at one time wanted to be the state of Sequoyah, and Elon Musk is setting up dealerships on New Mexican reservations to avoid NM's prohibition of manufacturers directly selling their cars).

The bulk of the book is antebellum America, where the spirit of compromise and consensus passes the nation through an ever-narrowing set of gates, such that ultimately secession seemed inevitable, though each generation would make sure it didn't happen on their watch. After the Civil War, the book jumps about 50 years to tensions on the borders with Mexico in the First World War. The Civil War was a period when we went from the The United States are to the United States as a singular, but still, such a large gap it undercuts the argument.

And he makes connections between the separatism of the prewar and that of today's Red and Blue America. The thing is, I don't see this current crisis as being Unity versus States' Rights, but rather about who is controlling the whole shebang. Further, the weakening of States' Militias (and the rise of the National Guard as a national military unit) has weakened the ability of entire states to walk away. Still, the thriving right-wing militia movement (which hit a high point on Jan 6 of this year) and the ongoing attempts of Nullification of Federal Laws by Texas indicates that the nature of the battlefield has changed, but still remains a battlefield.

I think that Separatism, Factionalism, and Sectionalism are features, not a bugs, in modern nations regardless of their origins and intentions. This is not just a US thing. I'm looking at a European union that is currently dealing with Brexit and Polish nullification. Britain itself deals with continual calls for Scotland and Northern Ireland to go their own ways. Canada has always had to deal with its Quebec problem. And the entire Soviet Union collapsed on itself like a shaken souffle, and its primary inheritor, the Russian Federation, is trying to put the pieces back together. 

One thing I am going to dun Kreitner for is his footnotes, particularly coming off the latest Three Musketeers novels. This book's foot notes are not numbered where they appear, so you have to check in the back to see if there are any references or additional comments for that particular line or quote. Worse, the footnotes in the back are not tied to page numbers, so you really don't have any idea what is getting footnoted or not. That's a basic error, and weakens his presentation.

From a gaming side, this book does have some resonance. We designers love to carve up the map. Shadowrun. Cyberpunk, Castle Falkenstein, Crimson Skies. Deadlands. Heck, even my own FREELancers took a shot at it. The idea of separatism a (even if we don't aspire to it) and a balkanized United States is a gaming trope - it creates conflict, and out of that, stories.

But there is another interesting gaming intersection here I want to touch on briefly. In the classic (1975) White Bear and Red Moon, the foundation of Runequest and Glorantha, the two cultures in collision are guided by separate and equally powerful principles. The Lunar Empire believes that "We are All Us", while the barbarian Sartar live by the motto of "No One Can Make You Do Anything." Inclusion vs. Individuality. Oddly, that echoes with the current situation.

In the books I want to write but never probably will is one called "Worst Election Ever", which works off the initial idea that EVERY presidential election is worse than the one preceding it. Given the tonnage of data points I can utilize, I think I can make a good case for it. Kreitner gives a great amount of points, but needed to carry through on how the separatism of the Antebellum period downshifted into the current state of affairs. Same battles. New battlefields.

More later,

Friday, November 05, 2021

The Political Desk: The Dust Settles

 I wait a few days after the election to post the results because of the nature of elections in Washington State. We vote by mail, so it takes several days for the final results to be determined. Votes postmarked by the evening of election day need to be counted, and they can often swing the election. In most places, that will often swing conservative as older voters finally get around to voting on election day. In King County, it goes the other direction, and the more left-leaning, younger folk tend to get their ballots in under the deadline, so leading on election night is not a definite victory.

On the other hand, if you're ahead 10+ points on the first count, it is likely you're good for the position, in particular in elections with low voter turnouts (and we're talking about 33 40 percent of the eligibles this time out).

OK, so how did things turn out up here in the upper left-hand corner of the country? Here are the results three days after election day.

Advisory Vote No. 36 - Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 1477 -  Maintained. Like, you know, it matters.

Advisory Vote No. 37 - Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5096 - Repealed, but it still kinda close. Like, you know, it matters. (Whups, it flipped to Maintained. Still doesn't matter).

Advisory Vote No. 38 - Second Substitute Senate Bill 5315 -  Maintained. Like, oh, you know the drill.

King County Charter Amendment No. 1 Preamble - YES

King County Charter Amendment No. 2 Initiative, Referendum and Charter Amendment Timelines and Processes - YES

King County Executive - Dow Constantine

Metropolitan King County, Council District No 5 - Dave Upthegrove

Port of Seattle Position 1 - Ryan Calkins

Port of Seattle Position 3 Hamdi Mohamed

Port of Seattle Position 4Toshiko Grace Hasagawa (Both Mohamed and Hasagawa were slightly behind on the day one count, but made up the difference and are now ahead).

Mayor of Kent: Dana Ralph

City of Kent Council Position Number 4 -  Tina Troutner

City of Kent Council Position Number 6 - Brenda Fincher 

Kent School District No. 415, Director District No. 4 Awale Farah

Kent School District No. 415, Director District No. 5 - Tim Clark

Soos Creek Water and Sewer District Commissioner Position No. 4 - Darold Stroud

Soos Creek Water and Sewer District Commissioner Position No. 5 - Logan K. Wallace

Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner District No. 2 -  Jim Griggs (but, again, close).

Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner District No. 4 Monique Taylor-Swan (and this one actually made me nervous - Ms. Taylor-Swan's opponent ran as an open-communication and transparency candidate, but is reported by KUOW to be a stealth anti-vaxer and was at the Jan 6 rally that kicked of the insurrection. So now I guess I'm going to have to check out candidates' social media as well).

General overview? Incumbents did well, except where they didn't. A lot of work on the ground game from those who won - Mayor Ralph did a LOT of mailers and positive robo-calls ("We've done well and have more to do."). You want to win? You get out the vote. 

The Centrists did OK. I recommended some more progressive candidates, and they didn't do as well. But it is not like rooting for a sports team. The goal here is to put good people in office, and we're fortunate that in most cases that we had a choice of good candidates, with only a couple choices of good versus Oh-My-God.

One thing to whine about? The Stranger finally got outside its Downtown-shaped bubble and reported on us out in the hinterlands. On election day. Yeah, thanks a lot for that timely advice, dudes. 

And with that the Political Desk goes dormant for the winter. More (about other stuff) later.

Monday, November 01, 2021

Eating Disney

 Who in their right mind goes to Disney World in a pandemic?

>Sheepishly raises his hand.<

So, here's the story. We made reservations - park, plane, hotel - like, eight months previously, on the assumption that we would be over the worst of it by then. Disney World was running a EPCOT Food and Wine Festival, and this was a good a reason as any. And when it seemed like the worst of it was NOT over, the Lovely Bride was headstrong in her desire to go, as long as we made proper preparations.

So we went to Florida and emerged OK.

Mind you, we were vacced, and there was solid mask discipline throughout, particularly in the park (the Lovely B did call out a couple people indoors w/o their masks, at the cost of harsh looks but higher safety). I brought KN95s, which were surprisingly comfortable.The few maskless I encountered seemed to also have a minimal understanding of sunscreen as well, so they were easily identified. And I was chided on the plane down by a flight attendant to not keeping masked while chewing (OK, I feel that inner Karen rising, but it was a fair cop). We were cautious and generally smart, and afterwards we self-isolated on the chance that we did pick something up (though to be honest, I always welcome the opportunity to not see other people).

And we were helped by perfect weather - warm but not too hot, low humidity, no rain. Some of the natives were commenting that it was the best weather for months.  Crowds were containable, except for the lines, which were long. Drinking at EPCOT is apparently a major draw - I saw a lot of varieties of "Drinking Around the World" T-shirts, but I saw surprisingly few drunks. It was in many ways a magical kingdom. 

OK, fine. You went to EPCOT for the food. How was it?

It was good. Really good. In addition to their regular restaurants scattered among the various national districts, they installed a host of other locations to sample. Belgium. Australia.Hawai'i. Brazil, Germany. Much good food. Many small bites. Many mimosas (we started to keep our dead soldiers, and returned with a host of plastic stemware). There was a booth selling lobster with a bisque sauce that was a highlight. Weirdest booth? A place selling hand-made noodles called "The Noodle Exchange." Wait, what? (OK, it is not as weird as being in the Canada district and hearing "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" on the background music. Is that the new Canadian anthem?).

Of the established restaurants, we had favorites that we went back to, and a new one. The top three were:

Morocco - Spice Road Table - Small plates - hummus, lamb kefta, tiroptakia, served in the open air part of the cafe. A friend had posted pictures of  a recent meal, and I felt challenged to respond in kind. Only meal we did photos for, because we kept forgetting to take pictures unitl after we ate.

Japan - Tokyo - Some of the best sushi I have had, hands down. Incredible service, though we arrived late, then ordered another round after the initial. They were incredibly accommodating. "Yes, we've had sushi, but what about second sushi?" Also, no Sapuro beer (the sole case of the shipping crisis casting its shadow on us). Closed the joint down - we were last ones out the door.

Animal Kingdom - Tiffins - An upscale restaurant in Animal Kingdom that you would normally miss on the way to get on the Pandora/Avatar movie rides. Spices from South Asia and Africa. The LB had scallops and steak, I had a perfect veal. I mean, platonic ideal of veal. Incredibly well-presented, well- seasoned, and generally fantastic. One of those hidden gems. 

The worst meal we had (and it is in my all-time five bottom meals) was at a hotel off the property - Il Mulino at the Swan. Air conditioning full blast, cafeteria-loud venue, snippy front desk, slow service, long waits between courses, inedible saltimbocca. I can groove on a two hour meal, but not a that level of discomfort. So yeah - go for the park for the food.

However, the Swan (and its companion, the Dolphin, where we stayed) were excellent hotels otherwise. Close enough to be in walking distance to parks, plus had boat service to EPCOT and Disney Hollywood. Boats running so often we never had to wait long. And, the gondolas from my youth (and Disneyland) were back, hooking up Hollywood and EPCOT with some of the other resorts, and to be honest, we spent a morning riding those.

The rides were great as well. We abjured the Magic Kingdom, did EPCOT for two days, Animal Kingdom for one, and Hollywood (also known as "Everything else Disney owns") for a day and change. Star Wars Land/Galaxy's edge was good. Rise of the Resistance was worth the two hour wait and an intriguing study in presenting an experience themed around a ride. Smuggler's Run (you get the fly the Millennium Falcon) was great, and we went back a second day to improve our score. The Flight of Passage Pandora ride was worth the wait, the slow boat Na'vi River Ride not so much. The new Ratatouille ride was amusing, but not overwhelming. And I finally got to ride a couple rides that I never had time for before, like the Test Track at Epcot (another nice total experience) and the Tower of Terror (I went alone, the LB waited drinking mango rum slushies from a nearby place of safety, then we had great ice cream to celebrate from Hollywood Scoops - go hunt it down if you're there.

And the people working the park were pretty darn impressive as well. The staff was omnipresent and positive without being creepy. While we were there, they rolled out a new app for line management and reservations, which promptly crashed, so the bulk of the staff I saw (mostly but not exclusively young people) were spending a lot time showing guests (mostly but not exclusively older) how to use their phones. 

And that was it. If you are a person who bridles at $3.75 cokes at a hotel, you don't want to take this type of vacation. But if you can throw caution to the winds (or have a Lovely Spouse who is actually spending the money), it was a delightful break, and the first time out of the house for a real vacation in two years. 

More later,