Saturday, August 18, 2012

Part the First-Point-Five

Some noteworthy addendums:

 First, yes, Mike Mearls said they were going to be releasing old back catalog in electronic format.  I don't recall his exact words, but the implication was that they were planning to release everything.  No word on what exact formats would be used, how they'd be priced, etc.  I suspect response to the release of the AD&D core books with new covers may have helped this along, though it's clearly an enticement for OSR types, as well as those who've gone to Paizo (since I'm sure they'll be releasing some 3.5 stuff as well). 

Second, a huge chunk of the presentation was Ed Greenwood, in the dramatic sort of voice I imagine in my head when I read the back-cover blurbs on paperback novels, talking about the Forgotten Realms and six planned novels that will prepare the Realms for 5e.  Novels are still a bright spot on D&D's balance sheet, clearly, and as we left the keynote we were gifted with a poster that included character sketches for the covers of the novels. 

More on what happened Friday as I recover enough to write it up.  Good panels and a great night of gaming with Tavis Allison, tinkering with ACKS mass-combat rules.

Oh, and an encounter with Larry Elmore...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Troll Goes to GenCon XLV: Part the First

Walked my darn feet off, but very glad I came this year.  There’s a heck of a lot going on.

I made it to a panel titled “D&D Digital Discussion” and while they talked about what they’re doing with DDO and the upcoming iteration of Neverwinter Nights (an MMO that, yes, also includes player-created content), the highlight of the panel was chatting with Jon Schindehette.  He’s largely responsible for the move away from the, um, unpleasant style of art direction that dominated 4e previous, especially the covers.  He talked about how they’ve opened things up for a wider range of art, expanding the possibilities so that the art better reflects the content of the book.  So a work with a more humorous topic might have more cartoony art.  I couldn’t help but think of the cover Gabe of Penny Arcade did for the Player’s Strategy Guide, which seemed a good fit since the book appeared to gather together all sorts of advice and strategies that had been floating around on the ‘net.  (And if you haven't been following his blog, The ArtOrder, do so.  Lots of great art to see there.)

After that was “D&D Next: Creating the Core”.  Not a whole lot here that was new and earth-shattering.  They’re taking the playtesting process seriously, they’re working slowly, and they’re willing to scrap an idea and start from scratch if it doesn’t appear to be working (as they’ve already done with the fighter).  They’re still wedded to their simple-core-plus-modules idea.  Alas, my attempts to get Shields Shall be Splintered as part of the official rules were rebuffed.  Curses!  I may have to fall back on my crack team of troll ninjas after all...

That evening, they had “The Future of D&D” at the Rooftop Ballroom of Indiana.  The venue was perfect: a large open room with pro lighting, video, and audio facilities, and a Spanish town-square motif.  Cut-out heroes, halflings, and an owlbear lurked in windows and open spaces.  The smoke machines were probably a bit much, though.

They warmed up the crowd with tunes from The Sword (Austin represent!), Ozzie, and Led Zeppelin.  The audience waited patiently, since the show wasn’t at its originally scheduled location and it was raining.  By the time things got rolling, they had a full house.

Somewhat surprisingly, things started off with Peter Adkinson.  Apparently, this was the first GenCon keynote address, and he clearly hopes to make it a regular thing.  He introduced Greg Leeds, President of WotC, and he introduced Kevin Kulp before leaving the stage.  Kulp introduced Mike Mearls, Jon Schindehette (whose official title is, I think, Creative Director for D&D), and Ed Greenwood.

What followed was both entertaining and mildly uncomfortable.  Part of that, I think, was the fact that D&Ds fans have, to a lesser or greater extent, a mildly adversarial relationship with WotC.  More, I think, was due to the crowd simply not understanding the rhythms of events like this, or being invested in any way in its success.  Obvious applause lines were passed over in silence, while Leeds was clearly taken by surprise by some spontaneous applause for Gygax and Arneson.  In any event, the crowd was ready to be less than impressed by the scripted marketing dog-and-pony show they knew they were getting, but also willing to give props where they were due.  

There was a lot of talk about how “the fans control the brand” of D&D and how trying to have the designers tell people how to play D&D was the wrong tack to take.  (This could be seen as a repudiation of 4e’s design philosophy and, quite frankly, this was among the most anti-4e language I’d yet seen from WotC, though they refrained from naming names.)  Mearls waxed greatly about allowing people to make the game their own at the table.  (For instance, should magic-users use Vancian magic, spell points, or some combination of the two?  Their answer was, “Yes,” and so we get a wizard class, a sorcerer class, and a warlock class.)

That seemed to contrast sharply with Schindehette’s talk about building “the biggest bible ever for the setting of D&D.”  Things started making more sense when Greenwood started speaking about the Forgotten Realms in 5e and how it’s going to be transformed in a set of six novels.  Apparently, the Realms are going to be the first official setting released for 5e, and while they never used the phrase “default setting” that’s the general vibe I got from them.  

One bit of surprise news was the estimate that the playtest might last two years.  Mearls insisted they were not in a hurry to end the playtest, and in the “D&D Next: Creating the Core” he also hit on the notion that they want to get it right the first time, and they’re willing to invest the time and effort necessary to do that.  It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out, but with Magic doing so well right now, perhaps they can afford to take things slowly.

Tomorrow, I’m scheduled to attend the following panels: “The Art of the Art of RPGs”, “The Art of Pathfinder”, and “Fund Your Game Project with Kickstarter”.  I’m also hoping to get some more time in the dealer hall; I barely scratched the surface on that one today.  If you’re at GenCon and you’d like to get together over a brew or a meal, please drop me an email or a comment here.  And if there’s something you’d like to hear more about, let me know.

First bit of art from Cryptic Studios. The photos were generously provided by Elizabeth and Greg M.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Book Review: City of Bones

I’m a big fan of a kinda-genre of literature I jokingly refer to as “anthropology-porn”. Whether it’s Colleen McCullough’s intimate portrayal of life at the end of the Roman Republic, or Walter M. Miller, Jr’s musings on the clash between faith and politics in a world struggling back from nuclear destruction, I love me some wallowing in the daily lives and exotic mores of places that were or could be in a universe next door to our own. My favorite Elric stories are those in which we catch (frustratingly brief) glimpses of Melnibonean culture and Jacqueline Carrey’s exercise in alternative theologies are the icing on the cake of her exceptionally intriguing world-building.

So Martha Wells is, of course, one of my favorites. Just recently, I managed to get my hands on a copy of her second novel, City of Bones. It does not disappoint. The world described has been ravaged by an ancient cataclysm. The potent magics of the pre-cataclysm societies are a pale shadow of what they once were, and dangerous to use. Still, there’s wealth to be reaped from the cast-off rubbish and shattered treasures of the past.

Khat is an expert in finding and evaluating the relics of the ancient world, able to read some of the forgotten languages and discern forgeries. His partner is an impoverished scholar working to acquire enough cash to buy a place in the scholarly community. Unfortunately, both are foreigners in the city of Charisat, a town with a fairly thick streak of xenophobia in its culture. Even worse for Khat, he’s not even really human, but a race bioengineered by the wizards who’d survived the cataclysm in order to produce people who were adapted to live in a world ravaged by fire and poor in water.

Wells gives us a portrait of a culture clearly fashioned by its past. There are traces of what must have been before the cataclysm, surrounded by what has clearly been designed to allow humanity to survive in their ravaged world. And she does it gracefully; there are no blobs of tedious exposition or long lectures. Instead, the world is revealed in little things: how the characters treat one another, the architecture and the real-estate market, the value placed on water and all things pertaining to it.

This is the thing I really love about Wells’ work; her fantastical worlds are not trapped in amber, snapshots of a mere moment, but living and breathing and evolving and growing (or dying) places. We get that in spades in City of Bones, wrapped around mysteries that weave together current politics with the ancient past.

My main gripes about the book are on the outside, not the inside. The title, “City of Bones,” lead me to believe this was a book principally about archeology, in which the characters would be sitting in dusty holes in the ground painstakingly revealing skeletons and pottery shards to piece together clues about ancient events. It’s actually a book about intrigue, politics, theft, greed, and murder in which ancient events echo into the present. Most of the book takes place in Charisat, and Khat spends a lot more time scaling walls and ducking down shadowy alleys than he does out in the wilderness, and the book is stronger for it.

The back cover blurb is even worse, invoking a sort of phantasmagorical faux-1,001 Nights feel, with its mention of genies and “silken courtesans and beggars”. Other than taking place in a desert and a very light sprinkling of Egyptian myth, there’s nothing here for the orientalist. The book feels closer in tone to the pulp stories that informed the Warhammer 40k universe, with its blurring of technology and magic, and its order of ancient sorcerer-warriors struggling to hold the line against a seemingly unstoppable tide of entropy.

In fact, I’d heartily recommend you don’t read the back-cover blurb as it does a decent job of spoiling one of the central mysteries of the book. If you hunger for fantastical stories that don’t assume the bog-standard Tolkien-esque tropes of medieval Europe, you’ll best enjoy City of Bones by simply immersing yourself in what it is, and the world Wells has created.