Sunday, August 10, 2014

Player's Handbook

So late week I received my consultant's copy of the new D&D Player's Handbook, and have spent the weekend leafing through it. And (spoilers) it makes me excited about playing D&D.

First off, the nature of my consultancy - I was asked by WotC to serve as a consultant, and provided with a (very) early draft of the rules. And, to be frank, I wasn't very impressed, and said so (I believe I used the word "meh" in my initial review). Not that it was horrible, but that it wasn't very impressive, such that if someone pressed it into my hands and said it was their homebrewed set of rules, or their favorite OSR (Old School Revision/Revival/Renaissance) game, it would have been fine. But from the guys who have taken on the mantle of D&D, it fell a little short.

That was then. Now, the book in my hands is a charming combination of old and new, paying attention to the past without slavish reverence, and, more importantly, moving the dialogue of games forward.

(And yeah, I've said this a number of times, but I think of game design as a dialogue - every new edition or new game in the hobby field has a strong sense of "Yeah, that's OK, but HERE'S how you fix it". It is a conversation, and we expect new editions to be better because they build off of what has gone before).

And yeah, I can see the previous editions peeking through from all the angles, from the foundational work of the first AD&D to the increasing AC of 3rd to the heroic tiers and grid options of 4th. Here is the latest version of the UA's Barbarian and 4th's Warlock. It feels complete. It feels right. This is no basic set, no starter, no "to-be-continued" introduction. It feels whole.

Better yet, it is paying attention to its heritage more than any other edition. While earlier editions leaned heavily on mythology or other writers in the field, this one actually fesses up and admits that yeah, people have been writing D&D novels for 30+ years now, and it quotes from them. And it does not rely on a particular home world exclusively - it moves around in its examples from FR to DL to Eberron to mighty Greyhawk. It talks about the gods of all these places, plus game versions of historical pantheons. It becomes a unifying edition.

And hey, in the back, the Great Wheel of the Planes is back. That makes me both very happy and amused.

The rules are both comfortable for us old grogs as well as trying new things. I like the way they settled on the Proficiency Bonus (there were various versions along the way, as other playtesters will tell you). I think the advantage and disadvantage approach is a sweet way of handling such situations without breaking down into a roster-check of every possible plus or minus that some editions thrived on. Still moving my ancient brain around the idea of using Hit Dice for recovery, but I like it as an attempt to blend the short and long rests into the new game. And the inspiration concept feels like it can trace its roots back through FATE and other indie games.

The presentation is clean and the rules are eminently readable. Sidebars highlight but do not overwhelm. And the entire volume feels like the opening gun for new projects of classes and feats and worlds. There is enough here to show the potential, and get you excited.

I've got a couple gripes, but they are mostly in the graphics end (I will probably come up with more grouses about the mechanics as I put them into play, but that is fairly normal - the art always hits you first). The use of a red logo on a red cover is regrettable. I've never been a fan of full-bleed full-page color art, even when it was 2nd Edition. And the halflings look like bobble-heads more suitable for The Great Khan Game. On the other hand, the armor and outfits tends towards useful as opposed to, um, heroic, and it looks like people can actually go into combat wearing this stuff.

The WotC team set a very high bar for themselves, and released this new edition into a very different landscape than any previous edition. It had to separate itself both from other games as well as lay claim the D&D's heritage. That's pretty tough. But I think the new Player's Handbook shows it can be down, and I look forward to seeing the other core books.

More later,

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Jeff Recommends: Primary

So, after giving you a grab bag of facts about the way we do things here in Washington State, let me open my ballot and get down to brass tacks.

And, let's see. Nothing for the Executive. Our State Senator has two more years before running. State Legislator Position Two has two candidates, so both of them are going forward. State Legislator Position One has only ONE candidate, so congratulations on your re-election, Zack Hudgins. No judges. No primary positions for Kent, which is probably just as well, since I now have to do a criminal background check for local elections, apparently. No referendums or initiatives.

To be frank, it is pretty empty in this neck of the woods, with the notable exception of US House of Representatives for the 9th District, which will probably be incumbent Adam Smith versus the guy who will lose to Adam Smith.

That's because Adam Smith (no, not the guy who wrote about the Invisible Hand) is a very strong candidate. Even though they shook up his district like a mix-master before the last one, he is a capable incumbent with a lot of experience and heavy governmental chops. Mark Greene of the Citizens Party makes the case that the two major parties are more aligned than different. Looking at the Online Voting Guide (which I always use as as a good place to start, I have a hard time arguing with him), he's got a point. Smith talks about jobs, economy, and veterans (he's if favor all three) , which Republican candidate Doug Basler talks about the economy, jobs, and veterans (he is also in favor of all three). The other listed Democrat, Don Rivers, also name-checks the economy, jobs, and veterans, along with prison reform, education, environment and infrastructure (long list, no paragraph breaks, and yes, he's in favor of all of them).  Mr Greene's notes aside, Mr. Rivers actually looks pretty good, and if you don't want Mr. Smith, I would strongly recommend Mr. Rivers as "the other Democrat". For myself, I will stay with Adam Smith.

So yeah, Adam Smith. Yep, that's it. And yeah, it feels weird not having much more to talk about. Oh! Yeah, for your own races, check the Online Voting Guide for an introduction to the candidates. The Municipal League of King County gives candidate evaluations, which while not being all-consuming, also gives a good starting point. The Seattle Times goes through the motions of weighing the options before choosing the candidate that hates unions the most. The Stranger remains rude, lewd, and generally accurate in their calls. And political gadfly David "Goldy" Goldstein pretty much sums things up for this political season.

Oh, since we don't have enough of this in the coming months, have an honest political ad -

And we're done here, at least until the November election churns around.

More later,

Friday, July 18, 2014

Political Desk: Primary Education

So the ballot for the August 5th Primary has reached Grubb Street, and to be frank, things are pretty quiet. Deathly so. There is only one race that has more than two candidates in it, and that pretty much is going to be a walk-away (spoilers). So this is a chance to summarize the nature of politics at the moment in Washington State, for those who wander into this site who are not from around here.

1) Washington State has Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches, like you learned in civics class (Do they still HAVE civics class, or do they let kids pick up politics on the playground? For that matter, do they still HAVE playground?) Anyway, we have a couple major differences. In Wash State the ENTIRE Executive goes up for election in one go - none of this appointing stuff, so we choose from governor down to insurance commissioner, and can have a mix of the two parties in power, all elected in one fell swoop. In reality, this means we tend to have a Democratic Party executive branch, with occasional GOPs, usually in positions like attorney general. But since we do this in one swell foop, and this is not the swell year, nothing is on the ballot for them.

2) We also elect the bulk of our judges. There are a smattering this year, but none of them in our neck of the woods as far as the primary is concerned.

3) In part, as a result of this direct election of what would be appointed positions in other states, the governor doesn't have as much power as elsewhere. The real heart of lawmaking lies within our legislature. This is a part-time operation, and while various committees meet throughout the year, the bulk of lawmaking occurs in a three-month session from January to March, after the ice breaks but before everyone has to be back home for spring planting.

4) As with Executive, the Legislature- House and Senate - are usually in the hands of the Democratic Party, though that edge is often narrow. This most recent session, after convincing two Dems to switch parties and welcoming back a GOP senator previously banned from caucusing for attitude problems, the Republican have gained control. And as so often happens when a party that believes governing is bad has to actually govern, things came to a complete halt. The big things left undone from this last session included a coherent transportation package, infrastructure, mass transit in the Seattle area, and most importantly, finding funding for a Supreme Court mandated reduction to classroom size. Note that, regardless of party, the legislature had no trouble coughing up several billion in bennies to get Boeing to build the Triple-7 X here, though the company then turned around and shipped 1000 engineering jobs out of the state.

5) I did get a sponsored Facebook post from the State Republicans, however, bragging that the Legislature did not have go into a special session this year (the governing equivalent of extra time). This is sort of like your contractor not finishing the house addition, but sending a note saying that at least they remembered to take their tools with them when they abandoned the job.

6) One thing I am noticing that is different this year is that I am getting sponsored Facebook posts from the State Republicans. One edge that the Dems have held has been a technological one, but the GOP is finding out how to use it. Yeah, yeah, I know that social media is often a "live mic" situation for conservatives, where unfortunate truths are inadvertently revealed, but they are getting BETTER at it. And that's a good thing, even if it means the Dems will have to work harder.

7) Further, I've seen more Republican ads on cable this year, primarily for incumbents, so they are running and running hard this far out. Even Mark Hargrove, whose district (The fighting 47th) I have been redistricted out of, is running ads on local block of the Food Network. They are taking this election very seriously.

8) Now, the primary is top-two, a recent development which pretty much excludes minor parties from the entire deal. What this means usually is that we are looking at a Dem versus a Rep, but there are cases of two Dems or two Reps squaring off. Most often there are only two candidates period, which makes the Primary sort of an early straw poll. And there are places where there is only one candidate on the ballot, and the other side couldn't even muster up the energy to get a sacrificial lamb onto the ballot (and if either party is interested, I know people who could be available for such a position, and would be unelectable but not embarrassing, at a reasonable fee).

9) In addition to the three major branches of the government, we have an initiative process in this state. The process allows the citizenry to propose laws with sufficient signatures, which are put on the ballot, as well as allow referendums, where the legislature passes laws that are subject to approval by the citizenry. Sounds good, but it is a place where hot-button issues are usually kicked out to the populace to decide, and where deep pockets to hire signature-gatherers tend to carry the field. There are no initiatives and referendums in the primary, as they are still sorting out who qualifies for the fall ballot.

10) And finally, speaking of bouncing the decision-making back down to the citizenry, raises in school taxes or park levies are put onto the ballot as well. To me this always smacks of save-the-cute-animals, in that every x number of years the schools have to get out their sackcloth and begging bowls to pony up the funds for a few more microscopes. The city of Seattle is seeking this time out to get around that by creating an honest-to-gosh Park's District, which doesn't sound like a bad idea, but, situated in the upper right corner of Kent, one I don't get to vote on.

And that's the basics on the ground in Washington State.  Oh yeah, one more:

11) Washington State is an all-mail balloting state, and while I miss the semi-yearly visit to the polls, I have to say that mail balloting has worked out pretty well. And that you have no reason to put off voting.

Recommendations next time. More later.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

DOW Breaks 17,000!

It has only been about seven months since the last time the DOW (our unofficial, single-point, cheerleading indication of our economy) crested 16k, but it feels a lot longer. The stock market has risen, stalled, fell back a little, took up a long occupancy in the middle 16000s, flirted with the next milepost, then finally leveled up, gaining three skill points and a new Feat from the Paragon list.

It almost feels like the market is a little reluctant to admit that it is doing pretty well. With a rising level of awareness of the difference in income between the very rich and the rest of us mugs, the wealthy seem to want to downplay the idea that, through sheer financial inertia, they will continue to get richer. One of the items that has been passed around the 'net was a bit from one of these very wealthy guys you probably have never heard of, Nick Hanauer, an Amazon founder, who points out that unless we start addressing the evergrowing canyon of wealth inequity, the lower ranks will be putting their money into the noted hedgefund of Pitchforks and Torches LLC. This guy has been talking about it for some time, but finally got a podium for his thoughts at Politico, a mostly conservative operation that the Haves tend to read. Needless to say, these readers have not taken the news well.

Not an analogy for Boeing. Nope, not at all.
Meanwhile, one of the favorite local targets for corporate greed has been Boeing, which shook down received from the state government a huge chunk of benefits in exchange for setting up the triple-7x production here in this state. So yay! Then they turned around neatly and shipped 1100 engineering jobs out of the Puget Sound region and to other, more comfortable, less unionish locations. So, um, yay. (Anyone in state government negotiating with Boeing should really play D&D, in particular those sessions where the DM is trying to pimp them over with the wording of a wish spell).

And speaking of Boeing, there was a recent accident involving them shipping fuselages from Wichita to Renton (because, of course, it is more profitable to build things far away and then bring them here rather than actually pay people here to do the work). In any event, the train derailed, pitching the unfinished green fuselages into the Clark Fork River, where a group of white water rafters took pictures of them. They are pretty impressive in color. So of course the Seattle Times ran the picture in black and white. On one of the interior pages, where you might miss it.

Of course, looking at this, am I the only one to ask: Aren't these the same rail lines that they want to ship those perfectly-safe, nothing-to-worry-about, hey-trust-us oil and coal trains that will soon be coming through Seattle?

More later,

Friday, July 04, 2014

Bits and Pieces

A lot of stuff worth noting:

The Basic Rules for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons is out, and you can get the free pdf version of it here. I am credited in the book both for "Drawing from further development by:" and "Additional consultation provided by:" Both are accurate credits and I am pleased to be mentioned. On the latter credit, I reviewed a (very) early draft and gave them my curmudgeonly what-for. On a quick scan of the final product I find that it is is readable, engaging, and moves the discussion that is the D&D game forward. I particularly like that they have pulled from the TSR novels for their examples and archetypes, and have woven the worlds tighter to the core rules.


The D&D Starter Set, which is starting to show up, has the rules, plus dice and an adventure. Not to miss a trick, Frog God Games has released the first non-WotC D&D Adventure here. The adventure is by Clark Peterson and Christopher Laurent, but I would be remiss to point out the veteran TSR editor Steve Winter is listed as developer and one of the editors. Steve is also one of the designers (with Wolfgang Baur)  on the first separate WotC D&D adventure, Tyranny of Dragons.


Speaking of games, the new season of the Guild Wars 2 Living Story has just launched, and has gotten great responses, which makes everyone at work very happy.


One of the GW2 team, Leif Chappelle, has had his first novel published - City of Tigers, available in kindle and dead tree editions. Leif was kind enough to provide me with a downloaded ARC a few months back, and I have failed him utterly by not reading it. But you should check it out, regardless of my failure.


Another member of the GW2 Team, Matthew Medina, has HIS first novel out - Bloodfire, in both electronic and paper editions.


Another friend and member of the old TSR Crew, Troy Denning, has his new book Crucible, for Star Wars, just out in paperback.


That's enough AND for the moment. There will be more. Later.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Meanwhile, 100 Years Ago ...

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sofie, Duchess of Hohenberg, shortly before being shot in Sarajevo.

More later,

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Adventure: Pulp Tentacles VIII - A (P)Review

Starfall Over the Plateau of Leng by Jon Hook, an Age of Cthulhu Adventure from Goodman Games.

This is an interesting situation. Those readers who have hung on through this blog through thin and thinner know that I will review adventures, but primarily adventures that I have run, which for the past few years has been the Age of Cthulhu adventures from Goodman Games. But because I want to run them first before reviewing them, such reviews usually trail the release of the product by months.

Not so in this case. After swatting Goodman Games about the head and shoulders, one of the authors finally got in contact with me and asked if my group would playtest the next upcoming adventure. We did so, and delivered a healthy chunk of advice, comments, and nit-picking, I was more recently asked if I wanted to do a review of the mostly-finished product, since they are currently doing a kickstarter to get the thing printed. As a result of all this, this review has a different tone than others that have appeared in this space. Previously I have been comfortable of issuing a spoiler warning and then going off on my merry way, since so much time has passed that most of those who initially purchased the adventure would have time to play it. Here I must be more circumspect, in that I don't want to give too much away. I am going to try to keep the facts revealed to those on the Kickstarter page itself.

Here is the short version - It was a very good adventure in the initial draft, and it is even better now. The changes made involved some tucking in of historical nits, answering a few open questions, and sharpening up some NPC motivations. It gives the players an excellent doorway into the Dreamlands, Lovecraft's semi-medieval dimension world that lays alongside our own reality.

The adventure opens with an assignment - the investigators are charged by a historical society, IHAS (no cheeseburger jokes - we told them all already) to track down an artist who has gone suspiciously silent. IHAS stands for International Historical and Archaeological Society, and serves as a starting point for investigators from diverse backgrounds to operate under a common origin. Such societies are a bit perilous in games, in that if they are too knowledgeable about the mythos, the players tend to treat them as a crutch, going to them whenever they need info. If they are too much in the dark, they tend to be useless. This one strikes the balance between monster and whirlpool and provides a solid launching point for the adventure.

For my ongoing group, I had already brought them together as a group, so this was less a worry. The group currently consists of the The Writer, Her Heroic Subject, the Secret Agent/Photographer, the Archaeology Student, the Wealthy Dilettante and the Mobster. They are based out of London as opposed to Arkham, so I managed a little shifting about that seemed to work out well. IHAS operates out of a London Club within my universe, and I have previously used club society as a way to introduce other NPCs for adventures.

Back to the plot. IHAS was dealing with an artist, but the artist had a major mental crackup, and was sent away for a cure in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Now no word is coming out the sleep clinic she was bundled off to, and would the characters be so kind as to give a look-in? For my group, this had the added benefit that the Mobster was on the run from Chicago organization, so going back to the states involved some sleight-of-hand and laying low. For the adventure, it gives you a great deal of information on the path between Arkham and Eureka Springs, including rules for thumbing a lift.

Eureka Springs has its horrors, but the investigators' path ultimately leads to the Dreamlands and its fabled Plateau of Leng (its in the title - I give nothing away here). The challenge for any Dreamlands adventure is getting the player there in the first place, and Starfall gives it to you in spades. In the course of play I sent one character there physically, one by use of a new skill, one who drank the dream brew, and the remainder with a mystic ceremony. Oh, and one I spiked his chicory when nothing else worked. The adventure leads, by twists and turns, to the Pharos of Leng, a mighty lighthouse that is bringing down upon it the destruction of both Dreamlands and reality.

So how does it all come together? It is less the blazing pulp of the previous previous Indian adventure, and is a good intro to Dreamlands without getting too deep into the separate world (ownership of any of the various editions of the Chaosium Dreamlands book is helpful but not required). The adventure itself is neatly self-contained and does not commit your adventurers to a long-term campaign in the Dreamlands (unless, of course, they want it).

For my own group's adventures, I would mention the Mobster playing hide-and-seek with other members of the Chicago Outfit, the point the group was almost defeated by a staircase, the fact they could actually use the Tibetian they had learned in a previous adventure, experiments with the Dreaming Skill, the Writer in mourning over the death of her Heroic Subject and the Heroic Subject dressed in a kilt made of Zoog pelts. But to say more would involve spoilers.

One thing that I am inordinately pleased about is the maps and illos. Bradley K. McDevitt does his usual wonders with the black and white art style, and Tom Martin gets the nod for the maps. But this adventure gets kudos for avoiding the traditional "Curse of Cthulhu" - maps which are unclear, or contrary to the text they are supposed to co-ordinate with. Nicely done on that.

As mentioned above, Goodman Games is doing a Kickstarter, and at the time of this writing it has a week to run. It has already made its nut, and is now reaching for stretch goals - at the moment, the reward is a mini-adventure for Eureka Springs, which would a cool thing to have if your group is the type that needs to cool its heels while translating something from Polish, or something similar. Its worth checking out and supporting, because this is an excellent entry into Lovecraft's Dreamlands.

More later,