Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Book Publishing in the 21st Century

Let me get this out of the way first before I go on: I am not saying that traditional book publishing is dying. You heard me right, your ability to go to the store of your choice, pick our a paperback or hardback book, take it home and read it will probably not go away... at least not entirely.

Two days ago an interesting thing happened. As described here, on Christmas day more books electronic books were sold through for the Kindle than traditional paperback books. Even before this happened, Amazon's sales of E-books were about on-par with traditional books. In fact, has said that their top selling item in the entire company is the Kindle. I don't think that it is possible to deny that people are switching to electronic reading.

This begs some larger questions though. What of traditional book publishers, like Random House, ACE, TOR, Del Rey, and others? How will they be able to survive in the new marketplace? I'm sure that some people are already rolling their eyes and thinking that this is another article about how new technology is supposedly going to revolutionize life as we know it, change paradigms, and otherwise open up access for the entire world (Cue the old Coke commercial from the '70s and '80s where they just want to buy the world a Coke...). I'll repeat, I don't think paper books are going to go away, and I think that traditional book publishers are going to survive in one form or another for as long as there is demand.

On the other hand, I am talking about technology and electronic readers are presently changing the way that people read books. In a recent interview Amazon's CEO, Jeff Bezos, said three things that I find interesting. First, he said that he was surprised by the success of the Kindle. Second, he said that that he believes that we will see the end to paper publishing, in favor of electronic publishing, at some point in the future. Third, he said that he doesn't read novels in paper form anymore if he can help it. These are bold statements from a man who was one of the first to pioneer E-business. Today, language, text, and technology are all inter-related in new and exciting ways. We haven't seen an innovation to the traditional book of this magnitude since the invention of the printing press. Note that I'm not talking about E-readers specifically, but rather the internet and the wide variety of tech-options for reading information, whether it be short form, like online article or long form, like novels. Paradigms really are shifting right in front of us, and many of the people like me, born in the '70s and before, are either struggling to keep up, or see the modern age as the fulfillment of the promise that was made by science fiction authors.

As we all know, the current model of publishing is where the author creates a brilliant work and then sells it to a publishing house. This often involves an agent, who performs the vital service of selling the author's work to the publisher. The publisher then provides the services of editing the work, providing cover art, marketing, and printing. All three of those items are expensive. Just getting one paperback title onto store shelves costs thousands of dollars. While it's not impossible for an individual to do this themselves, it is not easy.

Whether the traditional publishing houses like it or not, E-publishing changes everything, beginning with printing. Usually, the most expensive part of publishing a book to paper is printing. Thanks to E-readers, you don't need paper anymore. One quarter of the services provided by a traditional publisher has just been eliminated. Now, at this point, the mercenary in many writers thinks, "Hey, I can do this myself now!" In fact, yes, the writer is now free to forego the traditional publishing house and do it all themself. It's called self publishing, and it has actually been around slightly longer than the E-reader due to a number of high quality print on demand outfits. If you recall, however, there are four things that a publisher does for an author, not just one. The other three are still important.

So let me ask you, dear reader, why do you not go to the storefront, peruse the various self-published books, and buy them just as often as the ones from major publishers? Generally, there are three complaints about self-published books: lack of editing, lack of quality cover art, and frankly, you don't exactly know what to buy.

So we're back to traditional publishing, just in a new medium. Right?

Not exactly. I'll preface my remarks by saying that a lot of what I'm about to say is based on information I've received from writers in the field. I personally, am an RPG writer who has not yet published my first novel (more on this later). First of all, traditional book stores are hurting. The ability to buy online as well as the fact that you can only buy books for electronic devices online means that a lot of people are saving themselves the trip to the store. Book publishing companies are also tightening their belts and requiring that a lot of authors do a lot of their own promotion. So that means that the things that traditional book publishers are really doing in the digital age is offer a paper option for customers, offer quality cover art, and offer editing. They are quite good at these things.

Note, however, that these publishers are now trying to claim perpetual E-publishing rights for the books they publish even while established authors are deciding to go it alone and publish their works themselves. After all, if you're an established writer with an established fan base that recommends your books to friends, then you simply don't need publishers to get your work out there. Put them out there yourself and make more money!

So what happens if you aren't an established author? You should be able to get cover art for your book for a few hundred dollars if you know where to look. But even if you have the expertise to edit your own work (which is actually usually a really bad idea), you still need to find some way to promote your books. While traditional publishers are asking authors to do a lot of self promotion, they still list their books with stores, which gets them on the shelf in your local store, which in-turn results in a certain number of sales. No, that doesn't mean that this will land you on the New York Times bestseller list, but it does mean that if they publish your book, you can probably count on a certain amount of money from the deal. The amount of money depends greatly upon things like the popularity of the genre you are writing for, the quality of the cover art they give you, as well as the terms of the contract you sign.

So book publishing in the 21st century looks a lot like book publishing in the 20th century, except with more gadgets? Essentially, that is what I'm arguing. Until you can afford to market your book, you still need the traditional publisher.

But there is another possibility that we might start to see more of: the publishing company that dispenses with the paper and the local book store, and sells directly to people over the internet. After all, with all these Kindles out there that just require data to give you a book, you don't need to invest in print runs. Also, by utilizing services like and Amazon's Booksurge, you can still get your books into print for those customers who still have to have paper. This company would still be responsible for editing, promoting the author's work, and they would be responsible for providing the book with good cover art.

So what's the advantage to this model? Put simply, accessibility. The bar for entry into this field is lowered significantly. In fact, the bar for entry into this market is lower than it is with roleplaying games, the field I'm in, because you don't have to bother with interior art, nor do you have to worry about game mechanics when you're editing. All you have to do is put together a good book and find an audience. This is something that small RPG companies have been doing for years by doing the work they can do themselves, bringing in freelancers to do what they can't, and then finding their audience online.

My argument is that if small RPG companies can do it, so can small electronic novel publishing companies. This also means that aspiring writers will probably start finding it easier to get their first book published, but the flip side of this is that there probably won't be as much money in it, unless you go through the large traditional publishing houses, at least not until that publishing house has built up a reputation for quality, or the author has managed to find an audience.

So in summary, book publishing in the 21st century will see the traditional book publishing Goliaths shrink but not disappear. We will see a rise in small presses that publish directly to electronic formats. We will see more people who are making some money from their writing, but we will probably see fewer authors who will be able to do it full time as their primary means of support.

And this is both good news and bad news to aspiring authors.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Why the Ancient Greeks and Fantasy Were Made For Each Other

The general assumption behind almost the entirety of the fantasy genre is that it is set in a pseudo-medieval period. Maybe this is so that the characters can wear pants, or maybe this is because it's how Tolkien did it, but I really started to question whether it was the right way to go some time ago. While I still enjoy fantasy books and gaming, I feel that the way to make it more interesting is to go Greek. (hint: thesis statement here-->) The reasons I think the Greek civilization is a better model for the fantasy genre is because it was polytheistic, it consisted mainly of independent city states, and because the monsters of its mythology are so commonly associated with the fantasy genre.

Starting with polytheism versus monotheism, many people are willing to ignore this in favor of capturing the overall feel of medieval Europe, but it really is kind of a big deal. In the middle ages, the Christian church dominated everything. For a thousand years, they were the dominant power. It really wasn't until Charlemagne came along that a secular leader managed to recapture real power from the church, and it definitely wasn't until the black death that people realized that the church didn't have all the answers. It wasn't until the crusades, the cultural exchange between the Muslims and the Christians, and the rediscovery of Aristotle that people in Europe realized that they could apply reason rather than faith as the primary means of making decisions. This is huge. It was so huge that the Thomas Aquinas spent a great deal of time and effort trying to merge the reason of Aristotle in with the dogma of religion.

Most fantasy genres, on the other hand, are very polytheistic. Having a multitude of gods that are constantly struggling against one another just makes for more interesting stories. It's more fun creating stories that involve mortals landing in the middle of struggles that are so much larger than they are. Polytheism gives characters an ultimate frontier to strive towards, and it also provides them with a reason to quest on behalf of their deities. In Star Trek V, Kirk asks "God" what he needs with a starship. It's a valid question in a universe where gods are all-powerful, all seeing, and all knowing. In a fantasy universe, the gods are a bit more limited in their abilities, and a Greek god would have a pat answer for Kirk: "Because Zeus got pissed, dumped me off here, and your starship is the only way to leave this dead planet!"

Religious matters aside, fantasy also usually assumes a degree of political intrigue. I'm not going to attempt to make the argument that the middle ages lacked politics - far from it - but I am going to say that a setting where city states were independent and controlled a great deal less territory makes for a more interesting story or game because the politics can change drastically as the heroes travel from one locale to the next. In a kingdom that spans hundreds of miles, if you make an enemy of the wrong person in one town, you will be wanted for most of the other towns within reach. In ancient Greece, if you piss off a king of one city, you make haste out of town, or hop a ship, and when you arrive at the next city, odds are that you get to start clean (or at least with whatever baggage you have from the last time you visited). It's easier to build an episodic story while maintaining the same basic culture throughout.

If you know your history, you could point out that Greece wasn't entirely without large government. There was the Delian League and the Peloponnesian League, which were comprised of a number of city states and were aligned against one another. This is true, and it's also true that Crete was a dominating city state during the bonze age. Despite this, the political influence of Athens, Sparta, and Crete was not as all-encompassing as it would be in a kingdom. The political institutions were completely unstable, which is why looking up the Delian League in Wikipedia turns up a huge list of city states that belonged to it at one point or another, but either dropped out on their own or were conquered by someone larger, forcing them out of the league. Many of the cities of Ionia, for instance, in Modern day Turkey, were part of the league until the Persian Empire came in and conquered them. Persia, in itself, makes for an excellent "evil empire" for characters to struggle against.

Finally, a good percentage of the monsters that form the backbone of fantasy fiction and gaming are either directly taken from Greek mythology, or they are based on these creatures. Off the top of my head, Greek mythology directly contributed the following monsters to D&D: minotaurs, cyclops, lamia, medusa, hydra, dragons, gorgons, centaurs, giants, hags, harpies, demons, ghosts, and more. Or, to put it another way, a good number of the monsters that characters run into in fantasy literature are directly derived from Greek mythology.

Finally, Greek mythology is more loaded with traditional fantasy heroes than medieval literature is. Sure, medieval literature has Beowulf, King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Robin Hood, but the Greeks give us Haracles, Perseus, Theseus, Jason, Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, etc. etc. etc. There's simply more there. And keeps... there were castles in Greece, just like there were castles in the Middle Ages. In fact, King Minos's castle in Greece was both a castle as well as a dungeon.

Now maybe you'll argue that it wasn't until the middle ages that plate armor was invented, that metal craft wasn't perfected until then, or that there are a few more monsters that were picked up through the vikings, or the Americans, or the Arabs, but realistically, the cultural influences from those sources is not felt as greatly as the Greek culture is in most fantasy literature (granted, there are exceptions, but I'm making a general statement here). In fact, in terms of cultural influences, I would further argue that no culture in the history of the world was more influential on our own culture than ancient Greece. It is for all of these reasons that I believe that ancient Greece itself is a long-overlooked source of fantasy fiction. Unsurprisingly, this is an avenue that I am currently exploring, and you'll see the fruits of my experimentation in the coming months.

Monday, December 14, 2009

So another year is almost over and this is the part where we reflect on where things are at as well as where things are headed.

First of all, the big news from me this year at year end is that I have finished all coursework for my undergraduate degree. This is a pretty big deal for me, considering that I opted not to finish at the university my first time through, and I actually did pretty well for myself in the workforce for about a decade after making that decision. That said, I did hit a bit of a glass ceiling due to the lack of a degree, so I finished up only to find that I really enjoy school. In fact, I enjoy it so much that I'm applying for grad school. So much for the glass ceiling, if this happens, it will be a complete change of direction into something that will allow me to do more meaningful work.

The next big news for me is that the grim reaper almost paid me a visit. I'm sure everyone reading this has heard of the swine flu, or the H1N1 virus. Yeah, I had that and it led to pneumonia. The problem was that I didn't know that I had pneumonia and the two times I went into the clinic, they gave me some weak antibiotics and sent me on my way. After this had gone on for a couple weeks and I was still feeling like crap, I went to the emergency room and found out that I had a pretty severe case of pneumonia. My second night there didn't go so well, as my blood O2 levels crashed. Luckily I was in a hospital and they were prepared for that, but had I continued to stay home, it could have been bad. All told, I spent a week in the hospital, another week at home after that recovering, and then there were the two weeks before that, so I missed a grand total of a month worth of school. Most people were suggesting that I take a medical withdrawal and then try again next semester, but I really didn't want to postpone graduation and there were classes I was taking that wouldn't be offered next semester, so I picked myself up by my bootstraps and got myself back to class. The fact that I succeeded says as much about how cool my professors are as it does about my drive to catcht up. It wasn't the easiest thing in the world, and some of my other projects suffered as a result.

Speaking of other projects, I'm currently in the middle of writing the eighth Oathbound book, which will be called Eclipse. What's cool about this project is that Oathbound is really one of those key projects I was involved with very early in my RPG design career, and I really didn't expect that I would get the chance to return to it. When Bastion Press went down, the Oathbound property went to one of its original creators, Greg Dent, and given the state of the RPG industry at that time, it didn't look like it was worth continuing. Things are looking up in the industry this year, however, and he decided to move forward with it again, and with as many of the original crew as possible. As it turns out, the returning crew includes all of three of us: Todd Morasche, myself, and of course Greg Dent, plus we've brought on a newcomer to the field, Clinton J. Boomer, who is a fellow Werecabbage and a hell of a great writer/designer. I should be finished with my part of this project fairly soon, which means that I'll be on to the next thing....

So, on to the next thing! You know those nifty devices that have been coming out for the last few years? Amazon makes one called the Kindle, Sony makes one simply called an E-reader, and there are a few more out there? It struck me that the existence of these devices really blows the doors open for those of us who know we can write novels well, have a desire to do so, but can't seem to get out of the slush pile. Incidentally, it's a fairly common occurrence for RPG authors to have difficulties breaking into novels. In my case, there have been a few near misses, such as the Babylon 5 novel I was to write for Mongoose Publishing, right before their license fell through.... So, tired of near successes, I've decided to take things into my own hands, in typical Darrin Drader fashion, and start up a novel publishing company.

I know what you're thinking: how is this any different than any other self publishing scheme? The answer is that I'm not just going to be publishing myself, but I'll also be publishing other writers. If someone comes to me with an outstanding manuscript, I'll publish their book, but what I'm specifically looking for are game designers and even game studios who want their novels to see the light of day and their game world translated into fiction. I'll be doing the copyediting and layout, providing covers and advertising, and I'll also be making these novels available in multiple formats, so you'll be able to buy them and read them on whatever gadget you prefer, including the PC. Plus, if you're the type who just has to have a dead tree format book, I'll make our books available through one of the print on demand outfits as well.

Right now I'd love to give specifics about what this new venture is going to entail, but I can't do that just yet. What I can say is that I will in fact be publishing a novel of my own, which I'll start writing as soon as I'm done writing this Oathbound book. I can also say that there will be two new shared world settings that I'll be handling, which other authors can get in on. I've picked out a name for the company, which I can't share just yet due to the fact that it remains unregistered as a business, although the web domain has been reserved. I'll make an announcement when we start accepting submissions as soon as things come together.

One little tidbit I can share about my own personal novel project is that it's in one of the shared worlds I mentioned and it takes on traditional fantasy, but frames it differently than I've seen done before and I'm pretty excited about the creative direction it's taking.

So that's it for now. I'll try to blog more often now that I'm finished with school... for now anyway.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The CRAP Principles and You

Question: Why do you think the CRAP Principles are important in design?

Answer: I've studied the CRAP principles in several classes now and I think that the reason that they are important in design is because, very simply, they present a method of design that is easy for the the average user to access. Provided that the user is not color blind, or is simply unable to see the content of your page, the CRAP principles seem to resonate with the naturally occurring brain patterns in people.

People can see your material best when there is some sort of contrast between the various elements on the page. Without contrast, you end up with text or images that blend into their surroundings, requiring the viewer to strain their eyes to try to obtain the meaning from them.

When you repeat elements, it helps provide continuity for the viewer. For example, if you repeat the same font and size of text when you create a new section head, the viewer will quickly recognize the section heads for what they are. Similarly, regular text is easily spotted when compared with the rest of the page and indented text might be quotations. As long as the same format is used for every occurrence of a specific element, the viewer will not become confused.

Alignment is good because it keeps your material from looking scattered. Unless you want a scattered presentation for some reason, using alignment only makes sense is another tool that helps you organize the various elements you are using.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Q: After reading the two McCloud pieces, how do you think McCloud views comics as visually rhetorical?

A: I think McCloud presents a good case for why comics can be just as rhetorical (or perhaps moreso) than ordinary text. In the first piece, he talks about how adding a level of visual abstraction allows the author to more purposefully convey a rhetorical message. He also talks about how the reader can impose himself into the cartoon or comic through abstraction. Showing how a person goes from a realistic photo to a smiley face that we still recognize as a human face demonstrates how we tend to impose our own identity on everything. This allows us to subconsciously identify with the drawn image.

The second piece talks about how the nature of images and text have changed over time, grown away from one another, and then grown back together in the form of comics. In this piece, it is clear that the author is biased towards the comic medium, and is making an argument to back up the claim that comics are a valid form of rhetorical communication. My feeling is that he is correct that images and words can be combined to effectively communicate a rhetorical message, but I also feel that there's the obvious question of how seriously we should take this medium in today's society. In common usage, the comic is used primarily for comic books as well as political cartoons. Comics books, while popular, (in my opinion) tend to be vacuous jaunts into unrealistic superhuman escapist fantasies, and have very little value outside of pure mindless entertainment (though I will admit to some exceptions that intentionally try to make the reader think, or at least challenge conventions. Works such as Persepolis, The Watchmen, or Maus fit my definition of quality despite the medium). Political comics, on the other hand, are typically intended to be funny, amusing, and make people think about the author's message. I find them to be somewhat more relevant, though they still shy away from seriously addressing issues and instead poke fun at the political events of the day.

So to say that I'm not a huge fan of the comic medium would be an accurate assessment, though I do feel that it can be quite effective on the rare instances when it is intentionally used for maximum relevancy and impact.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Q: Can visuals make arguments? How do visuals make arguments? Give an example.

A: Visuals can make arguments, but as is argued in the two articles for today, they do so in much the same way that written or verbal arguments do. In other words, in order for a visual argument to be successful, it must convey a question, and then it must attempt to answer this question in a way that attempts to convince the viewer of the author's point of view. To accomplish this, the visual must reference things that are accepted and understood within a societal and cultural context. This context often changes over time, which is why many visual arguments from decades ago that would have been effective then would not be effective in today's society. One example is how smoking was once a symbol for intellect, cultural refinement enjoying the finer things in life, relaxation, and (believe it or not) health. Today, an argument that attempted to use cigarettes in this manner would either be laughed at or simply not understood.

Likewise, visuals can make effective arguments if they are able to successfully tap into society's collective consciousness. We see this a great deal in two areas: advertisements and political cartoons. As someone who eschews advertisements, I'll bring up a relatively benign cartoon that surfaced on 9/30/2009

In this comic, we see Obama skipping from one troubled area within America to the next with an almost acrobatic ease. Of course most people would agree that the majority of these problems would not be problems if not for the incompetence of the previous administration. Despite this, Obama is the man who currently has the job to fix this mess and this comic makes the argument that he is taking it all on. I think that the argument that it makes is that applying his time and resources to convincing the Olympics Committee to pick Chicago might be a waste, given everything else that he must contend with. Regardless, the Olympics committee is impressed by his abilities, even if Chicago isn't going to win. So, to break this down to its two main arguments: 1. Obama is wasting his time with the Olympics since their importance is not equal to the other issues he must contend with, and 2. Obama is practically running a decathalon by trying to solve all of these problems facing the nation.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Target's Logo

Q: Choose a company logo and write about its qualities as a picture, symbol, and a sign.

As a picture, the Target logo does not invoke a literal association with an actual target. The circles are too perfect and the lack of a background immediately inform the viewer that this is not something that you are going to encounter in the real world, unless you happen to see a picture of it somewhere, say perhaps in or near a shopping mall. As a symbol, when looked at without the text that says "Target", it is clear that this represents a target. The layered red and white rings of varying sizes are unlikely to represent anything else. Someone might interpret this as an indication that they are on the right track, or that the correct path is ahead of them. As a sign, obviously the successful chain of retail stores has saturated culture with their sign through advertising and prominent placement outside of or near malls, that it effectively lets people know that a flyer with the image on it belongs to them, or that if they follow the sign, they will arrive at one of these shopping centers. Because they clearly thought their logo through strategically, there is no question about what it should be associated with. Had they picked a cube, or a pyramid, the association may not come as quickly, which might have negatively impacted the brand they created.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Blog Post 9/7/2009

Q: How are visuals and multimedia rhetorical? Explain.

According to Foss, Foss, and Trapp, rhetoric can be defined very simply as communication. Although they offer a lengthy description about how communication is broken down as symbols and signs that our brains interpret in certain ways, ultimately what they are saying is that rhetoric is the ability to communicate an idea from one person to another. Visuals and multimedia are an important type of communication in today's world because when we see certain images, our brain gives them certain meanings which are based in cultural context. For example, if we see a big octagonal red sign, we interpret that as stop. When we're driving, it means that we need to stop our car and look for traffic moving through an intersection. When we see a the same sign on a website, or in a book, it usually means that we need to take some extra time to consider something, or to not do something. For instance, a software manual might include a stop sign if there are additional steps that must be completed before moving on. Sometimes the portraits of people can carry special meanings as well. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. symbolizes equality and racial co-existence while a picture of Charles Manson, when used in conjunction with discussion of a certain policy might mean that it is dangerous, promoted inequality, or is might kill a person. The multimedia used to convey a message is as limitless as the human imagination, and the effectiveness is determines almost entirely by the author's ability to interpret social consciousness.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Looking Through the Sansa

Aside from my computer, the most used electronic device in the house is not the television, a radio, or a video game machine, but my MP3 player. I suppose that the MP3 player is the modern day high-tech, non-brand-name version of a walkman. Of course it's a walkman that can hold half of the albums I've ever bought on it at one time, which makes it a bit more useful when I go on one of my regular evening walks that lasts about an hour and covers about three miles. Rather than have bulky tapes stuffed in plastic cases that always seem to be falling apart, I instead can finish an album, or a song, and continue along my way, new tunes playing, an no worries about where to stash the tape I had been listening to.

And yes, I do realize that comparing an MP3 player to a Walkman dates me, but hey, at least I've been a computer geek all my life, as opposed to so many others my age who never actually considered using one until they were forced to for work.

So when I look at my Sansa (not Apple... thankfully not Apple), looking AT the thing is the simple act of figuring out how to make it function. Connect interface cord to the device and the other end to USB socket... copy songs to the device... go to settings and choose my memory card, reboot, and load up a bunch more songs... reboot again... wait for the database to refresh... wait some more for the database to refresh... place headset over ears... select music... select artist... look for album... What? Where's the album I want to listen to? I check the computer and realize that none of the MP3 files have the album name, so it's getting shuffled under unsorted. Fix the original files... plug in... load songs... reboot... wait. And this time there it is! The AT is taking the necessary steps to get it to play music. Now I can get past the AT and get to the THROUGH.

For an MP3 player, the THROUGH is simple. Once I hit play, I can listen to whatever I have loaded it with. I find that quite often this ends up being Collective Soul because just about everything album they've made in the last ten years is upbeat enough that it's beat and rhythm keep me moving. When it's not them, sometimes it's the Killers, or U2. It doesn't matter really, because once I get past the steps needed to make it work, it's a matter of enjoyment.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How The University Sees DTC

Question: In regards to these two articles, how do you think the university views multimedia authoring?

Response: Unfortunately I cannot comment on the two articles just yet as I am still waiting for my books to arrive. Rather than continuing to feed the overpriced college book store's voracious hunger for my money, I am instead choosing to buy my books online where they are more reasonably priced.

That said, Jim Haendiges' opening lecture on Tuesday 8/25/2009 suggested that the university humors DTC and that many professors come from such a traditional background that they aren't sure how to grade assignments done in electronic media. I have to say that this is in all likelihood true, but it does not reflect my experience with it.

In my limited experience with the university, the person who represents the greatest "authority" is Bob Eddy, who, I suspect, is someone who would be horrified at the prospect of being constructed as a representative who speaks for the university as a whole. That said, he is my advisor, one of my former professors, and a person who I greatly trust and admire. The reason I bring him into the discussion is because ever since I first met him, he has suggested that I take DTC classes. Last semester Bob advised me to get into Paul Mulhauser's English 355 class and was unable to because it had already been filled. I had actually already elected to do my minor on CES as a prelude to grad school. Unfortunately my wife, who had worked for the university for two years, was let go because of the budget crunch, and as a result I decided not to pursue grad school and instead go for something more immediately useful. When I spoke with Bob about this, he recommended doing a minor in DTC.

The point that I'm arriving at is that in every way that it counts, I have been encouraged to pursue DTC. It therefore came as a surprise that the university doesn't offer strong support DTC.

And Now for Something Completely Different... Again

Yes, for those three and a quarter people who actually follow my blog, I must report that it is being co-opted once again by coursework.

(Image courtesy of

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook Sells Out

If you're a gamer, but now you've heard the news, so I'll skip all the exposition.

This is a win for gaming, and this is significant. For the past decade I've been concerned that the "only game in town" existed under an extremely large and uncaring corporate entity (even if I for a time worked for said entity). After rounds of nonsensical layoffs and corporate decisions that were misguided and just plain mean spirited, I was losing hope that this industry was ever going to re-balance itself and find some of what it enjoyed under TSR at its height. It was my desire to see the game shift to a company that was run by people who actually played RPGs and worried about the state of the game rather than treating it like it was just another one of many expendable brands. That is not to imply that RPGs are not a business and that the people who work in it do so out of pure altruism, but there is spot where good business decisions meet with good products, as well as the proper respect for the game, the people who originally brought it to life, and those who have worked on it ever since.

Last year everything changed when Paizo committed to a course of action that some decried as misguided, foolish, and destined to fail. "Who still wants to play third edition?" They asked. Paizo asked for the community involvement to tell them what we were looking for in our game, and for a year, we told them. Today we are beginning to see the results of this gambit and they are good. We at last have a strong, viable RPG company that is committed to including the players and the fans. After watching them and their products, and after working with them on several Pathfinder AP pieces now, I can say that Paizo is exactly the company I've been hoping would come along and provide some much needed leadership.

Congrats Paizo! You've come a long way from the jettisoned "Periodicals Department" and I look forward to seeing what's next.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Remembering Exalted Deeds

Now that I've been at the whole game design thing for a few years (I think I'm up to nine years of doing this professionally), one of the things I'm allowed to do is look back at past projects and post my thoughts. And what better project to talk about than the Book of Exalted Deeds? I mean let's face it, aside from the core rules, this is one of the 3.5 books that could be considered a hit. Actually, I have no idea how it did in sales; I never asked, but the one thing I do know is that any time I meet D&D players and mention that I have cover credit on the book, there is always familiarity and there are always stories.

It could be said that getting credit on this book was my second lucky break. What was my first? Accidentally not getting credit for some design work I did that ended up in Dragon magazine (it was purely accidental and led to my first paid gig as a designer). So prior to landing this job, I had been working as a temp at WotC, and I had finally worked up the courage to shoot an email to the R&D department about doing a bit of work for them. I was referred to T'Ed Stark, who I sat down and had a good long conversation with about writing and D&D in general. Prior to this I had met Christopher Perkins a couple times, and that was it for the people I knew.

So after I mentioned that I had done some design work on my own and I pointed out the articles with my name on them (and the one that didn't), T'Ed decided to give me a shot on what he pitched as the sequel to the Book of Vile Darkness. Of course, being a huge fanboy at the time, I knew everything about the BoVD. I knew it was a bold new step in a direction that TSR had been afraid to go, and I knew that it had been written by Monte Cook, a guy I still have never met in person, but who had been an inspiration for years, and I knew that it was going to be a tough act to follow. But hey, I was up to the task.

While the Book of Exalted Deeds may have helped put me on the map, the fact is that my co-authors did most of the work. This was really James Wyatt's book. He was the lead designer and he's the guy who came up with the truly original ideas that appeared, such as the Vow of Poverty, the whole of at least the first couple of chapters, and quite a bit of the mechanical stuff that was found throughout. Christopher Perkins had worked on the 2nd edition book called Warriors of Heaven, so his inclusion on this book was a bit of a no-brainer.

So there I was, first real writing job and I got to work with two of the most talented writers/designers in the industry (and I believe that this remains true today) following up the most well known designer in all of gaming, working on the the sequel to one of the most controversial but ultimately well received books in the edition thus far. Oh yeah, no pressure there. None at all!

In all honesty, the work wasn't as long or as hard as I thought it would be. I brainstormed the rules I wanted to work on, I met with T'Ed and Chris a few times, and I figured out how to make things go from ideas to rules. Along the way (and with the permission from the guys), I snagged a few spells from Warriors of Heaven and updated them to work with the current edition. This project went comparatively quickly and then after I made my turnover, Chris and I met to talk about some ideas that worked and some that didn't. I ended up rewriting a few things, but overall it went pretty well.

So what parts of the book did I actually work on? It's been a while and I may not even remember every little thing, but some of the highlights include the owl archon (incidentally, Chris asked me where this came from and I said I made it up. In fact the idea had come to me while I had been in a drunken stupor one night - I used to drink back then. I rarely do anymore, but I didn't go into that), the leskylor (which I think may have been adapted from somewhere else, I don't recall anymore), the sanctified creature, the sanctify the wicked spell, the anointed knight, the beloved of Valarian the sentinel of Bharrai (I think), the skylord, the vassal of Bahamut, and numerous spells.

As I said before, this was really James' book and he did an outstanding job on it. I'm just lucky that they decided to take me along for the ride. Of all the books I've worked on for WotC, there are really two that people remember: the Book of Exalted Deeds and D20 Apocalypse.

After the release of the book, it slowly became apparent to me that this one was popular. First there was the controversy about the Adult Content sticker on the front, which didn't seem to apply to this one as much as it did the BoVD, then there was the constant internet discussions about the Vow of Poverty, and then there was the WotC online convention, in which Chris and I fielded questions about the book. It was a good time and that book opened a lot of doors for me as a freelancer that probably would not have opened had I not been at the right place and at the right time to get assigned the right project.

Obviously these days I'm not with WotC anymore. I'm working on my own RPG brand - Reign of Discordia, and I've been doing some work for the awesomely cool and nice people at Paizo. Everyone who knows me is aware that I'm not down with 4E, but I do owe and want to acknowledge a serious debt of gratitude to T'Ed, Chris, and James. From the bottom of my heart, and I mean this literally, thank you for my career. Cheers and best of luck!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Thank You Mr. Obama For Giving Us Something To Work Towards

Why were the late '90s so awesome? Technology! For a period of about three years I was on the technology bandwagon back in the '90s. I jumped aboard the great technology innovation train about midway in '96, and I rode it for a while. Granted, I wasn't a programmer or developer. Actually I was in sales, but I could also build, repair, and upgrade them. Regardless of my vantage point, nobody is arguing that the speed at which the PC is evolving has slowed way down in the past decade. Well, maybe the last 2/3 of the decade. At any rate, tech isn't what it used to be.

What was cool about the computer revolution was that it was moving fast and it allowed us to do all kinds of things we had never done before. Do you know how many scanners I sold to people because I happened to mention that they could start digitizing the family album? Or photo printers that I sold because I pointed out that once they had digitized the family album, they could then reproduce those treasured old photos themselves? I also sold a crapload of PCs just based on the fact that they could play the latest games. These days the former example is a given since computers are capable of doing everything, and the games have moved to consoles.

I always refer to this decade as the zeroes. I mean aside from quaking in our boots that we were going to get hit by terrorists again, what have we been working towards? Sure, a lot of people jumped aboard the housing bubble before it popped. A lot of people jumped aboard the finance bubble before it popped, but none of that was blazing new ground. OK, we built houses. People bought houses. People loaned money, took a cut, insured the houses and the loans, etc. But were we actually focusing society towards building anything new? I would argue that we haven't and as a result of this and some of the most lousy leadership this country has seen in a long, long time, we were really just drifting forward on the momentum built up over the previous decade. Obviously we have run out of momentum so it's time to start building something new. has an article about how companies are turning their sights towards green technology. In addition to that, they're in the process of passing a new energy bill that will make traditional energy consumption more expensive for the average American. Translation: become more efficient or pay through the nose.

So what will this mean in terms of finding something new for us to set our collective sights on? You guessed it. The next wave of cars will be hybrids, or possibly fully electric. Our next washers and dryers will be designed to use power more efficiently. The same is true for all of our appliances. And what about other things we can do to get each household further self-sufficient? If they keep making solar panels more efficient, people will start installing those instead of traditional roofing. This in-turn, will eventually drive the prices of solar panels into the traditional roofing price range. I don't know about everyone else, but I'd personally love it if I could start producing my own energy instead of continuing to pay the local electric monopoly their monthly extortion.

I also predict that in addition to this being a cost-cutting measure, it will eventually become a matter of prestige. Just like it was once cool to get the upper end Pentium machines so that you could play the latest video games, it will become cool to make the household as energy efficient as possible. Imagine getting together with the neighbors and having bragging rights because you only had to fork over fifty dollars to the power company!

This desire to make things more environmental has been around for decades, but the difference is that now, thanks to a presidential mandate and a new law that's going to sucker punch everyone in the wallet, there's an actual reason to develop this technology. Of course this will create a whole host of new jobs all the way from research and development all the way down to sales. I think this has the potential to turn a recession into a boom, and it might just be the type of boom that becomes so essential that it's the next great American industry.

I'm not exactly known for my optimism, but this is something that I'm actually looking forward to. Save money, make money, and do so in a way that's good for the planet! When was the last time the three of these things aligned in that manner?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Moving Stuff Over

Just got done moving a bunch of stuff from my Facebook notes to my public blog.

Happiness is.... Pullman in the Rearview Mirror

A while back I saw a bumper sticker that said "Happiness is... Pullman in the rearview mirror" and it reminded me that even though nearly twenty years have gone by since I reached the end of my non-optional community arrest in this town, and the world has changed in a number of ways, some things really don't change at all. Back in 1996 I had finally had enough of this town, so I escaped to the West side. My reasons for leaving were numerous: not enough good jobs in this area, hadn't really ever spent any time in a place other than Pullman, all my friends from highschool had gone, all my friends from college were gone. In short, I wanted to go out and experience life, make a name for myself, and move beyond the limitations of this place.

It took several years for homesickness to set in. I'm not talking about the mild kind of homesickness that you get over time as you realize that familiar elements are missing from your life; you know, the kind that you can cure by taking a week to go back, surround yourself with those familiar elements, and then leave, happy that you have the freedom to get away. I'm talking about the kind of homesickness where you realize that even though you have a lot of nice things, a decent life, a career, a new car, a house, children and pets of your own, there are also certain things that just weren't the same - and not in a good way. It takes an hour to get anywhere because the traffic is so congested, it's always raining, except for when it's hot, and when it's hot the humidity makes it sweltering, and then there's the small matter that you have to drive quite a ways to escape urban sprawl.

Someone, and I don't remember who, once described Pullman as a forest in the middle of a wheat field, and I happily agree with them. It isn't exactly a full-on desert, but the summers are hot and dry, the winters require a certain amount of masochism to survive, and you can't help but be aware of the rebirth during the annual greening of the Palouse and then its inverse, when everything changes to shades of yellow and brown and the bite of cold creeps back into the air. During those last few years in Seattle, I really missed the Pullman summers, when the dirt was so dry that it became powder and you could smell the asphalt baking in the streets, and the distinct earthy smell of the rare rainstorm after weeks of being blasted by the heat. The sky was often cloudless and blue during the day and you could actually look up in the night sky and see stars rather than the dull light of the urban sprawl reflected in the ever-present clouds.

Then there's the culture. Many people claimed that Pullman is a cultural wasteland. In fact, Young Jean Lee, who graduated from Pullman in the 1990s (was she in our class?) is now a playwright and was featured in the New Yorker, where they discussed her play entitled "Pullman, WA" One passage reads:

I was surrounded by mermaids. I was lying on soft green grass and they
were standing on their flippers in a circle around me. I looked up and saw
a bright blue sky crisscrossed with rainbows that arched from one puffy
white cloud to another. As I sat up, the mermaids started hopping away
and I could see that the landscape around me was composed almost entirely
of chopped-up mermaid parts.

In interviews, she has said that her father brought the family over from Korea (she was only two at the time) and became an evangelistic preacher—right here in Pullman. She rebelled, became a playwright. “Pullman, WA” isn’t very reader-friendly, but it’s probably fun to perform. One reviewer calls it a performance piece. By willfully NOT being about Pullman, it’s really all about Pullman. It’s about a wasteland, teenage and otherwise.

Despite the perception of Pullman as a cultural wasteland, maybe there's something that people overlook. The community is largely educated, thanks to the presence of the university. Pullman has athletes, and writers, and music, and food, and beer, and nature. A fifteen minute walk from any place in town is all it takes to move beyond the boundary of the city and out into the countryside. Pullman has diversity, and tolerance. Pullman's highschool is not only rated one of the best in the nation, but it's also a place where people are given the tools they need to find their calling in life, and the wisdom that they will probably need to leave Pullman in order to be those things.

So here I am, two and a half years back in Pullman, finishing my degree, that one big project I should have finished more than a decade ago, and I'm looking at this place not in terms of its limitations and shortfalls, but in wonderment at how any of us could have possibly taken this place for granted. While I'm beginning to look once more towards the future, despite the worst economy I've ever seen in my life, I'm beginning to remember Seattle fondly, not quite homesick yet, but remembering the things that are there that are not here like friends, excellent radio to keep me company while I'm stuck in traffic, companies with high paying positions that don't involve teaching college, and the ability to go shopping for something and actually being able to find it. I don't know if Seattle is in my future; there are editing positions with both local universities here, and Pullman is a better place to raise my kids, but I'm not convinced Pullman is the place for me anymore either. For everything that it is, it's also small, and no matter their strengths, small places are limiting places.

Regardless of whether I stay or leave again, the one thing I'm doing differently this time is not allowing myself to take it for granted. The bumper sticker lies. Happiness isn't coming to or leaving a place; it's wanting to be at whatever place you are.

Atheism and You, or What is Christ to an Atheist?

Clearly the fact that I'm an atheist and that I'm writing this means that if you happen to be a member of any Christian denomination, chances are that we have a major fundamental disagreement about the nature of Jesus Christ. I think that there is a common mistake in thinking among Christians and atheists that this disagreement has to be a defining one between us, however. I don't believe that this has to be true. In fact, I would argue that while atheists do not believe that there was anything divine about Christ, he was one of the first widely popular humanists in world history.

When analyzing antiquity, it's very hard to come up with solid facts about very many things. In those times, even though people were just as resourceful then as they are today, they didn't have the same compulsion to record things that we do today. Most people were illiterate and the people who could read and write weren't considered the intellectual elite. The literate were considered more along the lines of secretaries today, who transcribed the thoughts of the truly great thinkers. Now obviously this is a blanket statement, and there are some notable exceptions, like the Arab scholars who preserved many of the works of Greek knowledge recorded astronomical observations, but for the most part, speech was considered far more of an important medium than the written word. Now here we are, thousand of years later and we're left with a lot of incomplete and inaccurate records regarding the things that occurred in antiquity. That said, the modern day is very much derived from antiquity, so we cannot simply walk away from it and reject it as "not modern" or "not enlightened."

When we turn our attention to Jesus Christ, the first thing many of us look at is the fact that nothing was written down in a timely manner. The testaments within the bible were written decades after the death of Jesus. There are Roman documents from the time that discuss Jesus, so we can safely assume that Jesus actually did exist. Christians believe that the holy spirit worked through the various writers to convey to people the exact words of Jesus, thereby sidestepping the question of the accuracy of teachings that were decades old by the time they even started being recorded.

What we know is that the New Testament was compiled based on interviews with eye witnesses, and therein lies a problem. As has been scientifically concluded in recent years, memory is a fragile thing. Memories are easily altered and distorted based on perceptions, suggestions, and beliefs. That's why there have been numerous documented cases of crime victims identifying the wrong suspect after a crime. So, thirty years after the death of Christ, we can only believe that the words and deeds of Jesus were distorted a great deal, particularly by the people who followed him and believed in his message. For example, how would we know Martin Luther King Jr. in the modern day if there were no written or video accounts of the speeches he gave? I would argue that very few of his exact words would be preserved, although the essence of his message would be very much preserved.

I would also argue that in antiquity, people had a very real tendency of mixing the mundane with the supernatural. For example, in ancient Greece, people believed that the sun moved across the sky because it was pulled by the chariot of the god Helios. A prominent sect of Buddhists decided that Buddha was a god rather than a man despite the fact that this is a contradiction of one of the main tenets of the religion. Greek and Roman mythologies were full of stories of various figures being gods or the sons of gods and performing great deeds that would be outside of the realm of normal human beings. In fact, a religion without these elements would have a difficult time finding traction among ancient people. The fact is that there is really nothing new or exceptional about the Jesus story within the context of the ancient world.

So that's a summary of why it is both reasonable and logical to doubt the validity of the full mythology of Jesus that is embraced by the Christian religion. That said, even a non-believer like myself should objectively look at the message of Jesus and evaluate it on its own merits rather than simply discarding it. As I said earlier, even if the exact words of Martin Luther King Jr. were not recorded, the fundamental message would have been remembered and his teachings would probably still have a transformative effect upon society, even if it would take longer for it to spread by word of mouth. So who was Jesus?

Jesus was a religious reformer! His message was that the God of the Old Testament was too harsh to be accurate and that if there was a benign creator, what he really wanted was for people to live peacefully together and be faithful to God. The first part of his message is one of the core underpinnings of Western society while the second part is hardly unexpected given the fact that he was a religious figure. Again, comparing his to Martin Luther King Jr., we would not expect him to preach a message of racial equality and reform and not ground it in his Christian background. Jesus was the same. Once you discard the religious elements of Jesus' teachings, his core tenets were: the golden rule, loving your enemies, repentance and forgiveness, not judging others. In other words, Jesus wanted peace and coexistence. While I think that much of Jesus' actual words were lost, the core tenants were recorded intact, and that they were consistent with enlightened thought.

While atheism is the rejection of supernatural forces upon our lives, one of the things we need to do is come to some sort of realization of the synergies between our lack of belief and the belief systems of those who do believe. It would be wonderful if we could all just be human beings dealing with each other, and most of us believe that the ideal way of achieving this would be through the rejection of ancient outdated dogma upon modern society. Sine that isn't going to happen, we need to figure out a way of dealing with everyone else that doesn't necessarily categorize them as "the enemy" or "the other." It is true that Western civilization is largely based on the Renaissance, which was when people rejected the church's control over every facet of society while embracing the emphasis of reason of the Greeks, but there is a very humanistic moral underpinning that also exists within our civilization. We can come up with non-religious reasons for morality and there are certainly disagreements among many of us regarding what is and is not moral, but the bottom line is that as a culture, we tend to try to do what we consider good.

In my opinion, it would therefore be more productive for Atheists and Christians to work towards understanding and common goals based upon similarities in our ideologies rather than working towards hostility based on our differences. If what we want is consistent with the teachings of Jesus regarding human behavior towards one another then it would not be inappropriate to adopt Jesus Christ within our own context, which is that of an early humanist philosopher. It could even be appropriate for an atheist who identifies with the teachings of Jesus to consider himself a Christian atheist. It should likewise be possible and even useful to take the humanist, rational elements of other religions. Just as science places an emphasis on ancient scientists, many of whom were wrong but "onto something", one does not need to accept superstitious dogmatic beliefs in order to find the value of certain beliefs that emerged from antiquity.

Michael Jackson and Other Sacrifices to the Cult of Celebrity

I'm not going to sit here and claim to be a fan of Michael Jackson, unlike so many other people who have come out of the wookwork since yesterday to express their grief. I'll be honest with myself, and with you. I didn't like him. I admit that I liked Thriller when I was in Middle School, before I started to cultivate a more mature taste in music, but at some point I came to the realization that pop music was a lot like eating empty colories: pleasant for a short time, but ultimately not good for me. But I'm not interested in talking about my dislike for the man's music. Instead, I want to talk about my dislike for the American cult of celebrity.

If you were to talk to these people who are now flooding the stores to buy up all of Jackson's music, or sitting around on sidewalks in small groups singing 'Billie Jean,' how many of these people would have actually been excited about the man if you had talked to them a week ago? Over the last ten years or so, I've heard a lot more people use the terms 'has-been', 'pedophile', or 'wacko-Jacko' to describe him. In fact, what was the last single he released? I certainly don't know because I can only barely remember the last time I heard about him when the media wasn't busy ripping him to shreds.

Not that he didn't bring some of it upon himself. I honestly don't know if he was actually a pedophile or just a strange man who was using children to capture his own lost youth, but just about anyone will agree that inviting young boys to come sleep in your bed isn't a wise thing for an adult to do. Then there's the fact that he kept a zoo at his house, slept in a glass cage, chose odd names for his kids, and hid them behind veils. To say he was eccentric would be an understatement.

Regardless of his weirdness, who are all these people mourning him right now? Why didn't we ever hear people defending him or expressing appreciation during the last fifteen years of his life? And why are all of these television personalities exulting his greatness when a few days ago they were looking for any dirt they could find on him so that they could take it to the public? I'm not going to say that he'd still be alive if the media had just left him alone, but I will say that he had to have felt like he was under a lot of pressure and under appreciated towards the end. Another question - if all these people who are rushing out now to buy his back catalog had done so earlier, would he have been buried in debt?

The truth of the matter is that a good, happy, well adjusted celebrity is boring to the public, and the media leeches don't have a story unless they can tear someone down. So that's what they do. They tear people down, hold them up for public ridicule, harass them as they get out of cars and walk down the streets, and otherwise make it seem as though they're living in a fishbowl. I don't know about the rest of you, but I wouldn't want people following me around and catching every moment I spend away from my house on video to be played back for a bunch of celebrity obsessed morons.

And that brings me to the real culprit. Shows like TMZ wouldn't operate in such an exploitative manner if there wasn't a large audience for such things. People are obsessed with the lives of famous people for some reason. If the people weren't buying, the tabloids wouldn't be selling. Maybe without the constant media pressure there would be fewer celebrities doing themselves in with prescription pain killers. Or maybe some people are just naturally self destructive and they still would. The bottom line though, is that these are human beings, just like the rest of us. They act, or they sing, or they dance, or they just have all the money in the world. That's it. They're also prone to the same vices, weaknesses, and bad behavior as the rest of us. Is it fair to put someone on a pedestal and then intentionally knock it out from under them for all the world to watch?

Like I said, I'm not a fan of Michael Jackson. I didn't buy his records, I avoided watching coverage of him on TV, and I tried to keep my mind occupied with things that actually matter, like the war in Iraq or the unethical corporate decisions that led to the economic meltdown. Nevertheless, even I, someone who actively avoided Michale Jackson, couldn't escape knowledge about him because coverage of him was so utterly pervasive. I couldn't help but absorb everything about him every time I went to the grocery store or turned on the news.

The cult of celebrity allows us to make gods out of men by promoting them to the status of "cultural icon'. We hold them to impossible standards, and then we have to make a big deal out of it when they prove unable to hold with those standards. Once we've finished sacrificing their virtue, honor, and goodness in the eyes of the public, they themselves all too often offer themselves up as bloody sacrifices for the public, which then celebrates them as martyrs. One of the sad truths of our culture is that we rarely allow ourselves to truly appreciate any artist until they're dead.

We're are a society of mean spirited salacious idol worshiping hypocrites. The pressure that we exert continually drives our best and brightest to their early graves. Why do we bother crying over the deaths of people like Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith, Heath Ledger, and so many others when it was our prying interest in their personal lives that compounded their existing problems? Shouldn't we be happy that they finally reached the final conclusion that we steered them towards? Hey America, don't you think that maybe it's time to turn off the TV and stop buying those rags by the checkout counter? Aren't we supposed to be the country that sets the ethical standards for the rest of the world?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Humbling Look Back

Sometimes it's good to look at my early stuff just to see that there has been improvement. In my case (at least in my own humble opinion), the improvement is noticeable and monumental. Before I really got started writing for D&D, I was like a lot of other people in that writing was something I had wanted to do for a very long time, but I didn't keep in practice and I didn't take advantage of the opportunities that were available to submit material to various publications. Even though I wanted to be a writer, I wasn't persistent in my pursuit of success, and I'm really not even sure I was particularly good at it.

Back around August of 2000, when 3rd edition D&D was brand new, I submitted the following proposal for a Dungeon magazine adventure. At the time Chris Perkins was the editor in Chief, and he had shot down every adventure proposal I had sent him prior to this. As luck would have it, this one was not accepted, but he did give me the opportunity to resubmit after making some changes. In looking back on it now, the writing style was awkward and the adventure needed a little more something to make it more interesting. That said, it wasn't a total waste. I could probably rework it now, remove the items that are strictly Wizards IP, get rid of the elements that contribute nothing to the adventure, fix the writing and actually have an adventure that might be kind of cool.

Once I started getting some professional writing gigs, things never really slowed down, and this proposal was lost in the pile. So, for your amusement and mine, here's the unedited proposal for a Dungeon adventure that I never wrote. Don't feel bad if you find it gagworthy, I do too.

The working title of this adventure would be “Conflagration in spring.” It is for 4-6 characters levels 7-9 or 48 total levels. It will be helpful but not necessary for one of the party members to be a ranger. At the center of this adventure is a unique monster, magically created, called a flamespawn. Though similar in appearance to a deepspawn, except made of magma, it has a completely different host of abilities. The creature’s primary ability is to enchant other creatures. Creatures enchanted are converted to evil while under the influence (5 miles) of the flamespawn and given a low-grade breath weapon of fire (1d10 points of damage at will unlimited times per day). These creatures are not under the direct control of the flamespawn, but wander around as agents of chaos. The only creature the flamespawn is able to produce (like the deepspawn) are Burning man golems (from Monstrous Compendium Annual Vol. 2) at a rate of 1 every week. Instead of mouths and eyes attached to the creature it has tentacles of fire. Instead of being a genius its intelligence is merely 8.

The flamespawn was originally contained in a pit in the first layer of Baator (this part can be easily modified if it doesn’t fit with 3rd edition). The creature that created this was a devil of greater power who intended to use this as a weapon of chaos against cold-based demons in the Blood Wars. The author is aware of the fact that Baatezu are lawful, yet this is a weapon designed more to randomly hit less fortified areas of Baator. It was released into the forest here on the prime material plane through a series of events: A party was adventuring through Baator on an unrelated quest. They killed the fiend that kept this monster, but did not encounter the flamespawn itself. They did pick up a scroll, which they had yet to identify. The scroll was designed to be used by lesser Baatezu on missions in the Blood War, and therefore was not difficult to read. The party returned to the prime material plane and was on their way to the next major city to learn more about it when they were unknowingly pick pocketed by a killmoulis (Brownie). The killmoulis was curious and not nearly cautious enough when he read the scroll releasing the flamespawn.

The adventure begins in early spring (or late winter depending on when it would be the easiest for the DM to place it into their campaign) in a forest when the party comes across a group of druids who have just finished fighting off a fire. There is a ½ acre area of burned trees with a stag lying dead at the center of it. The area is still smoking and the druids look extremely weary. The party will undoubtedly stop to ask them what happened here, and the druids will explain to them that they have been fighting more and more unseasonable small fires in this forest for the past month. Worse yet, many of the animals have seemed to be possessed. They’ve been breathing fire at the druids and starting blazes like the one they just finished putting out. So far they’ve been able to contain the blazes but they’ve been increasing in frequency. They have no idea what is causing this, and they will ask for the party’s help in this matter. The only clue they will have in this matter is the location of a killmoulis burrow not far away. Normally they don’t think much of the killmoulis, but recently it seems to have been abandoned.

The killmoulis burrows have in fact been abandoned, as the party will discover upon investigating it. Unfortunately there will also be 2 burning man golems protecting this area. Also present will be 2 possessed cave bears. Since this was the emerging point of the flamespawn, it returns here often. The party will have to defend themselves against the golems and the bears. After clearing the area the party will find a used scroll. A faint trace of ash leaves faint marks where the letters once were (the scroll used to summon the flamespawn). On the outskirts of the area they will find a killmoulis that has been hiding since its village was rampaged by the flamespawn. It will tell them the story of how a big round thing made of fire appeared in their midst and started attacking them. Most were able to escape, but not all.

There will be a very faint trail of ash left by the flamespawn that has been undetectable to the druids. The party can use to track it back to its current lair provided that they either have a ranger present or have other similar tracking skills. There will be several other encounters planned with possessed animals, and a couple possessed monsters along the way. They will also encounter a newly set fire close to the path. The druids have not yet shown up to battle the blaze, so it will be up to the party to stop this one. They can put it out any number of ways – this would be expanded upon in the body of the text.

Upon nearing the lair of the flamespawn they will have a chance of seeing a killmoulis that has been possessed. If it is not stopped it will run into the lair alerting the flamespawn that there are people coming. The lair itself is a small series of caves that belongs to a tribe of orcs. In their present state they should be treated as red neo-orogs (Monstrous compendium annual 3) with the additional breath weapon mentioned above. There will be 23 of these in the lair along with 2 more of the Burning man Golems. The party will have to fight their way through these to get to the flamespawn.

Once the party reaches the chamber with the flamespawn, it will be protected by 1 Burning man Golem, and 5 neo-orogs. The flamespawn will try to possess the members of the party. This should be a pretty tough battle for characters of this level. This will need to be play tested to fine-tune the exact number of monsters in this area prior to publication. Upon the death of the flamespawn, the enchanted creatures and any affected orcs will be released from their enchantment. Life in the forest will return to normal, and the PC’s will have the gratitude of the druids, who will thankfully be able to get back to tending the forest. The party will be rewarded with an offering by the druids of 5000 gp.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Truth is an Onion

The truth that we are fed is nothing but the surface. The explanations we are offered are little more than simplifications, as a father would offer a young child so that he can get them to stop asking so many questions. Truth is layers: history that dates back years, centuries, and millennia. Truth is complexity; unintended slights, shameful acts, misdeeds, noble sacrifices. The problem with truth is that the more you want to understand it, the more layers you must peel back to find it, and the more you find, the more issues you uncover, which themselves must be peeled back until you reach a point where there is no longer any information to find, or the truth challenges the version of the truth that you have come to accept.

Here are a few inconvenient truths that have become clear to me:

* The reformation, which was built on Greek ideals, would not have been possible if Islamic scholars had not saved Greek texts by translating them while Europe was in the dark ages. In a very real sense, the foundation of our current "enlightened" culture owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the very people we war against on the other side of the world.

* The term "Islamofacsists," which the Bush administration coined to refer to Al Qaida, Hamas, and the Taliban really doesn't mean a thing since those groups have very little in common. Rather than refer to Al Qaida as fascists, they should call them what they reall are: anarchists.

* A war of ancient grudges, and by-gone political decisions made by people who were never affected by the results of their actions mean very little to the innocent boys and girls who are being inhumanly murdered by the hundreds by bombs and missiles.

* What happens over there affects us over here. Despite our differences, we all share a common thread of humanity. Attempts to dehumanize the "other" so that we can kill them, occupy their lands, exploit their resources, and seek to replace their culture with our own ultimately serve to dehumanize ourselves.

Truth is an onion, and unfortunately the more layers you peel back, the more it stinks. Next Tuesday a potentially great man will be taking office in this country. It is my belief that he understands the complexity surrounding the issues that have led to such suffering and he will take the necessary actions to restore a sense of humanity to our dealings with other people in far off places. We must restore our moral compass and act in accordance with our conscience instead of blatant self interest.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Reactions to 4E

About a month ago, Ryan asked me the following question:
How do you feel the dumbing down of D&D? I know you blogged on this earlier but thats what it seems like to me. In comparing 3.5 and 4.0 what I've seen is a change towards "user friendliness" that in reality seems to change alot of what appealed to core fans inorder to appeal to a broader base. I found this frustrating but do you think theres a connection between the alienation of the base and the indifference of other markets that are being sought after?

I felt that this is something that deserves its own blog entry because it's kind of a complicated question.

The first issue is whether 4E is a "dumbing down" of D&D. To that I would agree that character customization is certainly different than 3rd edition. Your combat abilities now have more to do with rigid class powers than they have to do with your choice of feats and other decisions you make as you level. I don't consider that so much dumbed down as drastically changed. If that happens to be easier, then whatever gain there is in terms of ease of use is complicated by all of the combat conditions that are placed on characters.Marking opponents, causing them to fall, get pushed, and other conditions end up adding a lot of complication that you used to have to select by performing certain combat actions, or casting certain spells. I'm not going to blow smoke by saying that I like 4E, but I don't think that calling it dumbed down is exactly accurate. I also think that the new approach makes combat more repetetive than what we saw before, and that's not something I particularly like.

The second part of the question - "do you think theres a connection between the alienation of the base and the indifference of other markets that are being sought after?" is more in line with my own criticisms. The things the old guard aren't happy with include the way that powers have become the all important character decisions where combat is concerned, the jettisoning of simulationist mechanics that dealt with things other than combat, the loss of the Vancian magic system, and the shortcomings of the three core books. Is it true that there are poeple who didn't like Vancian magic? Sure. I'm not one of them, but they're out there. Are there people who would rather play a tactical miniatures game? Definitely, and those people seem to be pretty happy with 4E. Are there people who like the ease of use of powers, as opposed to having to use feats and special combat actions? Absolutely. However, some of these systems dated back to the original Dungeons and Dragons game, and for those that didn't they were definitely parts of third edition that people enjoyed.

That begs the question, why would you make such drastic changes? My opinion is that it was done to appeal to a younger audience that might be more familiar with video games than D&D. I believe that 4th edition serves its purpose as a player acquisition product. The main problem that I see with it is that those who have been playing the game for upwards of 30 years see this new version as something other than D&D. I'm in that crowd myself. I feel that what we were handed wasn't so much a new version of D&D as it is a brand new game that happens to bear some resemblance to the D&D we all know and love.

And I agree with Ryan that there is an indifference in the other markets among players that are being sought after. World of Warcraft is huge, so they decided to make many of the mechanics operate more like what you would expect to find in an MMO in an attempt to entice those players to play D&D. The problem is that the vast majority of those players are perfectly satisfied rolelpaying on their computer monitors with people who probably don't live nearby. If this is what they know and enjoy, what is there to motivate them to play a game on a tabletop that simulates the experience that they get, quite vividly, on the computer? They're different games, different experiences, and I think it foolish to try to suck players from one to the other by making one more like the other.

So what of the players who have been with the game for decades? 4E is such a departure from the previous edition that it's a tough sell. Some will embrace it, but a lot won't. That only serves to fracture the existing customer base. If polls at places like ENWorld are to be believed, only about 25% of the existing player base is actually playing 4E. The more telling statistic in this poll is that roughly 31% of the total number of respondents have tried 4E and stuck with 3E. Add that to the 27% that refuse to try it anf it send a clear message: if the D&D brand is a train, people seem to be getting off in record numbers. What this poll doesn't address is whether or not 4E is working as an acquisition product. ENWorld is known as a site composed primarily of older gamers and professionals in the field. Are there newer gamers that we just don't know about? WotC had better hope so.

So for those of us who don't want to play the new game they've given us, we have a few options. We can stick with 3.5; many people are doing exactly that. The problem of course is that they aren't making anything new for it. Sure, there's enough stuff between WotC and other 3rd party publishers to keep people busy gaming for the rest of their lives, but a lot of people like to collect this stuff andaccumulate more. I'm guilty of that. So if you don't like the new game, and if you feel that 3.5 could use some improvement, primarily in the areas of high level play, certain combat actions, and other subsystems, then there's Pathfinder and a few other D20 based systems out there.

I'm personally pretty firmly in the Pathfinder camp. Sure, the beta has yet to address the difficulty of high level play, but I think that the final version will since they've listed that as one of the game's design goals.

Second, what I have played works rather well. The core classes are balanced with 3rd edition prestige classes as well as some of the later core classes. What this does is make it so that you can run a good character without having to take multiple prestige classes or multi-class into a bunch of other core classes. You can also incorporate WotC's prestige classes and core classes from later books without worrying about unbalancing the party. I'm cool with that.

Third, the guys over there at Paizo are some of the friendliest, coolest people in the industry. I have nothing but respect for Jason Bulhman, Erik Mona, James Jacobs, Wesley Schneider, and Sean K. Reynolds.

Fourth, the involvement of Monte Cook and other people who could be considered "Old school TSR," such as Jeff Grubb, Sean K. Reynolds, JD Wiker, and authors like Elaine Cunningham. Monte Cook was one of the three brains behind 3rd edition, and he's acting in the capacity of advisor to Jason Bulhman, the guy who's actually designing the Pathfinder RPG. Who better to help guide you along the way than one of the guys who was responsible for making 3rd edition the smashing success that it was? Who better to contribute to the line than experienced designers who were there at the launch of third edition? Someone put it best when they said that Pathfinder is the spiritual successor to D&D, and I completely agree with that statement.

Finally, I'm biased because they're letting me in on some of the fun. Pathfinder #16 had my first contribution to the Pathfinder line, an article that I wrote about the Drow of Golarion. Also, I wrote a full length adventure that will appear in Pathfinder #23, and I have a pretty good feeling about my prospects of continuing to work with them in the future.

In the final analysis, I doubt that Pathfinder will be able to capture all of the people who are deserting D&D, but I do think that it will capture enough of them to do well for itself. For those of us who want the next version of D&D to be look and feel like the D&D we've always known, Pathfinder is the real deal and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who will listen.

You can download the Pathfinder beta-test rules for free from Paizo's website at