How to Get Me to Your Con

There are more game conventions and events than any one person or company could possibly attend each year. There are some that are must-gos for Green Ronin, like GenCon and GAMA Trade Show. Other than those bedrock shows, the cons I attend vary from year to year. I’ve never gone into how these decisions are made and a recent Facebook thread made it clear to me that people have some misconceptions. Let me clarify a few things.

First, I love to travel. Game industry wages being what they are, I don’t have the money for many actual vacations. Conventions then provide a great way to see more of the world. I can do a one day show in London like Dragonmeet and then have a few days to enjoy the city. My best overseas trip (a week in Finland) was thanks to the amazing Ropecon. So traveling for me? Not a hardship.

So what does it take to get me to your convention? Three things:
1) A plane ticket.
2) A hotel room.
3) A date that works with my schedule. I do have to spend time at home writing and running the company, so I can’t do everything, as much as I’d like to.

The following aren’t required but they are big plusses:
1) An interesting location, particularly if its overseas.
2) One or more locals to show me around. Always better than a guidebook.
3) Good food, particularly local cuisine I can’t get every day in Seattle.

And that’s it really. I don’t have speakers fees. I don’t demand you pick all the cashews out of the nut assortment or that you remove all the red M&Ms from the candy dish. My most outrageous demands would be a chance to play some games and trips to nearby museums or historical sites.

In short, if you’d like me to come to your con, ask me! Nicole will usually come with me if possible, so really you get two Ronins for the price of one.

And Poland, China, Australia, Japan, and the Czech Republic? Call me. :)

Nothing But…Star Wars (and Spoilers)

My wife is likely wiser than I am. Her attitude about The Force Awakens is that it’s a pretty soap bubble and she doesn’t want to poke it. And that is a totally fair way to approach. I, of course, have been thinking about it so I thought I’d jot down some observations.

Spoilers follow.

First, the good things.

It’s better than prequels. This may seem like a low bar. Indeed I’ve joked elsewhere that Abrams merely needed to step over it. Still though, it is worth acknowledging that The Force Awakens was much better than any of the wretched and best forgotten prequels.

The new cast is excellent. This is probably the biggest win for the new movies. Rey, Finn, and Poe are good characters and very well-cast. The torch being passed to them seems in good hands.

It feels like Star Wars. This is something that could easily have gone wrong but it didn’t.

The welcome return of humor. And I don’t mean fart and poop jokes. Force Awakens had nice touches of humor that felt right at home with the original trilogy.

No fucking Tatooine. One of the things that bugged the shit out of me about the prequels was how it returned to Tatooine again and again. This was supposed to be a backwater planet that Luke could grow up on in obscurity, not the center of many important events of recent history. Now I’ll grant you that Jakku is an awful lot like Tatooine, but at least it’s a different planet with its own implied events. Star Wars has a whole galaxy to play with, so I hope this trend of creating new worlds continues.

Now on to the not so good things.

Finn needs more backstory. If the film is to be believed, Finn was a happy cog in the First Order machine until he experienced the brutality of battle. Then he instantly flips sides and becomes a renegade. And if the blood of his dead friend was that horrifying to him, it surely does’t stop him from killing often and with enthusiasm for the rest of the film. I like the character, but I wish the movie spent a little more time building up his defection.

Gwendoline Christie was wasted. I remember when she was cast, but I didn’t realize she was Captain Phasma while watching the movie. Phasma was a nothing of a character with little to do. I understand she’s in the sequels, so hopefully they do something better with her.

The politics are muddy. I guess Abrams and crew were gun-shy of spending too much time explaining galactic politics after the prequels, but I would have appreciated a better explanation of the relationship between the Republic and the Resistance. It was more like, “OK, these are the new Empire and Rebellion respectively, and go!”

The map to Luke is a weird macguffin. Who made the map? It’d have to be Luke, right, because no one else knows where he went. But he’s not buried treasure, he’s a living Jedi master. Is his plan to just wait on a rock until someone shows up? Weird. Also, the heroes are totally cavalier about what they have in their possession. They tell everyone they run across, “Oh, we have a map to Luke Skywalker!”

Space is meaningless. Abrams has had this problem before, in the Star Trek movies. Basically, the very concept of space seems to be an inconvenience to him. Distance doesn’t matter. You can get anywhere in the galaxy in like 5 minutes. And yet there is apparently an entire sector of space no one knows anything about.

Smart characters acting dumb. It doesn’t even occur to famed smuggler Han Solo to disguise or conceal the droid the entire First Order is looking for? Veteran General Leia Organa doesn’t even try to evacuate her base when the planet it’s on may be blown up imminently?

Ren’s hero worship makes little sense. OK, so Kylo Ren idolizes Darth Vader. He even has Vader’s mask as a keepsake. But surely, being the son of Han and Leia, he knows the final chapter of Vader’s story, right? The one where he kills the Emperor, redeems himself, and becomes a happy force ghost. If his great idol ultimately turned away from the Dark Side, how does Ren square that with his adulation?

AFDS. Look, it’s Star Wars. I expect a certain amount of callbacks to the original trilogy. There will be Jedi mind tricks and someone will have a bad feeling about this, but seriously, another fucking Death Star? This was the point of The Force Awakens in which my eye rolling began in earnest. There are other epic threats they could have imagined. One of my friends called the use of the third Death Star mythic. I call it lazy, and the implication of this repetition is…

The original trilogy means nothing now. The Force Awakens very consciously reestablishes the status quo from the beginning of A New Hope. There’s a new Empire and new Rebellion, a new Obi-wan and a new Dark Vader. This means that the events of the original trilogy were essentially pointless. The defeat of the empire was a hollow victory.

So overall, I give The Force Awakens a B-. Maybe it’s the palette cleanser people need after the prequels to set the stage for newer, more exciting movies. I hope that’s the case. I think the new cast could do a lot if they get the scripts they deserve. What Star Wars desperately needs now is some original ideas. It’s hard to remember how different Star Wars was when it debuted in 1977 but it pushed the envelope in so many ways. I hope the new caretakers of Star Wars do not content themselves with telling the same stories over and over again. There’s a galaxy of possibilities out there.

Katherine’s African Adventure

Several people have asked about sending Kate birthday or Christmas-inspired money to put towards her trip to Africa in March 2016. She will be spending a month working at two different animal rescue organizations; the first is working with urban animals in Capetown, South Africa and the second is working with wild animals outside of Harare, Zimbabwe. In addition to the travel itself she has also had to arrange for travel insurance (including medical evacuation coverage) and undergo a series of unexpectedly expensive travel immunizations (including a $900 round of rabies preventative that we’re unclear about insurance coverage on) so gifts of money towards her trip this holiday season are deeply appreciated!

So, friends and family, here’s your chance.

We thought about setting up a GoFundMe or a FundMyTravel account for her but decided to go with just putting up a PayPal donation button. We hope you find it simple to use. Feel free to contact Nicole if you run into any problems, though! And THANKS from The Kate.




I Was a Teenage Homophobe

I am not shy about expressing my progressive politics. I am a feminist and an atheist, a supporter of LBGT and civil rights. I laugh out loud when I hear corporate friendly, drone happy Obama called a radical leftist. I was also a full blown homophobe when I was I was a teenager.

I grew up in Massachusetts in the 1970s. While the Bay State is known for being a Democratic stronghold, I can tell you that it was also home to plenty of racism and bigotry. When I was a kid, homophobia was the norm. Fag was a dire grade school insult. There were rumors about people in the community being gay, but I never met someone who was out. As far as I could tell, gay people were weirdos and degenerates. That’s what everyone said. It was known, Khaleesi!

In one hilarious incident, my aunt got me a Village People album for Xmas when I was 10. She worked at this department store called Lechmere and she had gone to their record department and asked what the kids listened to these days. I was polite about it but secretly appalled. This was disco bullshit and we liked rock and roll! It did lead to a serious (and in retrospect, hilarious) conversation in which we debated whether the Village People were gay or not. After due consideration, our jury of 10 year olds decided that no, that couldn’t possibly be true. If I may continue the GoT theme, we knew nothing, Jon Snow. And apparently, neither did the US Navy, because I remember very clearly seeing a TV special in which the Village People performed “In the Navy” on a ship to a crowd of sailors. No, really.

So how did my opinions change? Well, it started at a party at a friend’s house my freshman year of high school. It was one of those parties that went late because we were having what we considered to be “deep” conversations. Somehow the topic of gay people came up, and I spouted that classic hetero dude opinion, “Lesbians are OK but gay guys I can’t deal with.” And for the first time, someone challenged me on that bullshit! My friend Lisa, who was a couple of years older than me, put me on the spot. “If two people want to be together,” she asked, “what business is it of yours?” And that gave me serious pause.

I went home and thought about it. I never really had before, just accepted the common attitude. When I worked it over in my mind, I had to conclude that Lisa was right. Other people’s sexual orientation was none of my goddamn business. If people love each other and want to be together, isn’t that the most important thing? That was a big breakthrough for me. Then, of course, I moved to New York City for college and became friends with actual, out gay people. And hey, they were just people whose tastes were a little different than my own. This was NYC in the 80s, with ACT UP on the rise, so my education proceeded swiftly.

My step-daughter Kate grew up in a society whose attitudes were already changing. She had multiple friends in high school who were openly gay. This was inconceivable in the 1980s. For Kate though, she grew up with LBGT people in the community. I think she views homophobia as a relic of a bygone age. And I hope that’s true in another generation or two. Today’s Supreme Court decision was certainly a major move in the right direction. I’m glad all my friends now have the chance to legally marry if they want to in all 50 states.

If this decision has made you angry, if you can’t believe the nerve of these uppity queers, allow me to follow Lisa’s lead and call you on your bullshit. Who someone chooses to love is none of your business. I encourage you to chew that over.

The Deserters: A Hidden History of WWII by Charles Glass


This is a terrific book on topic rarely covered in WW2 histories. It uses the stories of three men–two American and one British–as a lens to examine desertion and a host of related topics: battle fatigue, military justice, battlefield psychology, and leadership. It also highlights how truly terrible the American system was for combat infantrymen and their replacements. Basically, the Americans put the burden of the fighting on a relatively small number of divisions. Whereas other counties (and America in other wars) would rotate units off the front line to recuperate and incorporate replacements, the US army had a system that put replacement soldiers into a general pool and then assigned them to units on an ad hoc basis while the units were still in combat. Instead of going into battle with a group of men they knew and had trained with, the replacements were dumped into units where they knew no one. Many were killed within days of arriving, sometimes before their new officers even learned their names. It is no surprise that veterans reached a breaking point after too many consecutive days in combat, and that replacements deserted after being cast adrift with no support network. If you are interested in WW2 at all, I totally recommend The Deserters.

Star Wars: The Feels Awaken

The other day when the new Star Wars trailer hit, I almost said some snarky things on social media but held back. First, I didn’t want to shit on anyone’s enthusiasm. Second, my stance on Star Wars can’t be summed up in 140 characters. Hence this bit of blogging. For clarity’s sake, let me point out that I generally avoid trailers because I prefer to go into movies knowing as little about them as possible. I like the experience to wash over me. I thus skipped the trailer, though of course I have not been able to avoid the chatter and the stills.

I remember quite clearly when the first trailer for Star Wars, Episode I came out. I was working at Wizards of the Coast and basically all of R&D stopped working, gathered around computer screens, and watched it. And people were jazzed about it. “I felt like I was 8 years old again,” was a common refrain. It seemed like the old Star Wars was going to come back. For my part, I was cautiously enthusiastic. I hoped the prequels would be good. The original movies had been an important part of my childhood. I saw Star Wars in the theater 13 times in 1977. (In retrospect, I wish I had spent 1977 seeing The Clash, The Damned, The Avengers, the The Saints, and other first gen punk bands, but I was 8 years old so that was pretty unlikely.)

You, of course, know how this story goes. They made some nice trailers but the prequels were fucking awful. Just absolute dreck that killed most of my enthusiasm for Star Wars. The positive feelings I retained were solely due to BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic video game, which was terrific and felt way more Star Wars than any of the new movies. Ironically, it was during this period that I got to work on Star Wars miniatures at Wizards of the Coast and visit Skywalker Ranch on two occasions. The second time was to read the script of Episode 2 while it was in production (I hoped to make a Star Wars space combat minis game but that never happened). The script was a mess and I actually asked the Lucas licensing people about a major story point that made no goddamn sense. They were sure George would “fix it.” He didn’t.

Anyway, those three movies were like kicks in the face and I know I was not alone in feeling that way. So after that, I’m going to take a lot more convincing. As a rational person, there is one thing that would change my mind: evidence. My basic plan is to avoid all the hype and just wait until the new movie comes out. No two minute trailer can undo those prequels. If reviews are actually good, I will go see it. If it’s the prequels all over again, I will not.

The one positive thing I can say at this juncture is that I’m happy that two of my friends (Cecil Castellucci and Chuck Wendig) are getting to write Star Wars novels. Cecil has been a huge fan as long as I’ve know her (we met in 1987 at college) and I know getting to write a Princess Leia novel is a dream come true for her. So kudos, writer pals! I hope your stories are 100% awesome and 0% Jar Jar.

Our Future is not Star Trek

It’s been almost 50 years since Star Trek debuted on television and in that time we’ve seen many great advances in technology. The sad news of Leonard Nimoy’s death today spread at a speed unimaginable in 1966 thanks to the internet. Our cell phones are essentially tricorders, able to call up the sum of human knowledge and use satellites to pinpoint our exact locations on Earth. We put people on the moon and just recently a robot on Mars. We don’t have transporters yet (damn!) but in many ways we are living the future imagined by science fiction in the 1960s.

Star Trek, however, was not just about technology and gadgets. It also promoted a humanist philosophy and used the exploration of space as a metaphor for the exploration of ideas. Certainly we’ve seen some strides in the betterment of our society. Something that was shocking when Star Trek did it–the first interracial kiss on TV–is now routine. We’ve seen the advancement of civil rights across a broad spectrum. For a while there it seemed that what MLK said was true: the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

I hope that’s true. I really do, but having lived through the last 35 years of American politics, I have my doubts. Science and the scientific method itself are under attack. America tortures in the name of freedom. Voter ID laws–created in response to the made up problem of in person voter fraud–are undoing the hard won battles of the Civil Rights era. Seemingly uncontroversial ideas (like all human beings deserve a place to live, food to eat, and at least basic health care) are being replaced with Randian “I’ve got mine, screw you” sociopathy. Instead of working towards a society where money is less important, money is now the only measure of success. If some rich asshole can get just a little richer by screwing over workers, poisoning the environment, bribing politicians, and not paying his fair share of taxes, his profit-seeking at all costs is viewed not just as laudable but morally correct. And while all that money is flowing upwards to Wall Street and multi-national corporations, engorging the 1% to unprecedented levels, we are told that America “can’t’ afford” health care and education for everyone, never mind upgrading our crumbling infrastructure. Endless wars though? Well, there’s always money for those.

All this is a vision of the future all right, but not Star Trek’s. We are not arcing towards justice but dystopia. So as you read about Leonard Nimoy on your tricorder today, try using that empathy you are feeling as a lens to see the world. How would you feel if you loved someone very much and wanted to marry, but it was against the law in your state? How would you feel if a group of people who had never had a hungry day in their lives decided to cut off the food assistance that let you feed your family? How would you feel if the police routinely stopped and harassed you because of your skin color?

America is re-dedicating itself to a cruelty that we should have left behind. That is not the way forward. We should aspire to something greater and it starts with empathy. If we can take that step, maybe we can one day make it to justice.

The 24 Hour Rule

When I became a freelance RPG writer in the early 90s, the internet was young. When you had something published, it might be weeks or even months until reviews started to appear. Of course, as a creative person, I was always interested to see how the work was being received. I wished the reviews happened faster, so I could get that feedback.

You know what they say: be careful what you wish for.

Now, feedback happens with frightening speed. And most of it is not thoughtful reviews based on careful consideration. It’s off the cuff impressions, honestly emotional but often not factual. I have, on more than one occasion, released a new gaming PDF and started to see bitching about it 10 minutes later. I can’t tell you what a drag this is.

When you are working on a creative project of any sort for months, there is a feeling of triumph and satisfaction when it goes live. At last the thing you’ve been toiling on will get in front of an audience. Hooray! And you’d like to, at least briefly, feel good about the accomplishment of finishing a creative work and getting it out there. So when (often well-meaning) fans immediately pounce and start cataloging your perceived failures, it totally deflates you. It can make you feel like shit. Make you feel like you should be doing something else. That there is little appreciation for the work you put into that brand new thing.

I would thus like to propose the 24 Hour Rule. It is simply this: save your criticisms of a new creative work for at least 24 hours. More, ideally, but I know that’s asking a lot of the current internet. Give the people behind the things you like a brief period to bask in that feeling of accomplishment. Criticism will surely come (it’s the internet) but at least there will be one day they can savor the completion and release of their work. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

RPG a Day, Part 2

19th – Favourite Published Adventure: I’m still quite fond of Shadows Over Bogenhafen from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s Enemy Within campaign. This is a great adventure I’ve had fun both playing and running. And writing a sequel to!

20th – Will still play in 20 years time…: D&D and Call of Cthulhu I’m sure. 

21st – Favourite Licensed RPG: James Bond 007: Role Playing in Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Victory Games. Great game. We dusted this off a few years ago with my Monday night group and had a fun time with it. 

22nd – Best Secondhand RPG Purchase: Last year I ran across a Craig’s List ad for a huge pile of BECMI D&D modules for a super reasonable price (including a mint copy of X10: Red Arrow, Black Shield). The seller was local to Seattle, so we agreed to meet up. It happened in the parking lot of the Renton Transit Center and I’m sure it looked like a drug deal. Me pawing through things in a bag and then producing cash in exchange. Thankfully, no cops were watching. :)

23rd – Coolest looking RPG product / book: The Underground RPG from Mayfair Games blew me away with its great art and innovative layout when it was first released. I just got the two volume Guide to Glorantha and it is a seriously impressive piece of work too.

24th – Most Complicated RPG Owned: Aftermath by Fantasy Games Unlimited. We actually tried to play this in college and it was a disaster. I believe this hit location graphic says it all. So granular it turns your brain to dust!

25th – Favourite RPG no one else wants to play: Sadly the same as my all time favorite game: Pendragon. You need to have the right group for a Pendragon campaign. None of my regular groups have had the right temperament for it. 

26th – Coolest character sheet: AD&D had these awesome golden character sheets. I only had one pack of them, so I ended up erasing a lot of characters so I could re-use them. 

27th – Game You’d like to see a new / improved edition of…: Towards the end of Green Ronin’s time on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Rob Schwalb and I talked over the way we’d want to do a Third Edition of the game. We thought we could take what we had built in Second Edition and improve upon it. That was never to be and Third Edition, when it appeared, was done by another company in a very different way. Sometimes I still think about what I’d do if I had another crack it it. 

28th – Scariest Game you’ve played: I played a Call of Cthulhu game one GenCon in the early 90s. The set-up was that we played 10-12 year old kids who have been dared to go into the creepy house at the end of the block. The GM was terrific and it felt like we were playing through a horror movie. 

29th – Most memorable encounter: I was running a playtest of a Freeport adventure for my Monday night group. In the scenario the PCs get a treasure map on which X marks the spot. It’s a lie, of course, and what’s really going on is that a necromancer is luring adventuring parties to his island to kill them. So the PCs get near the location and pause. Jess Lebow, playing a shaman, decides to make the whole party invisible. Then, rather than go to the spot with the X, they decide to go past it an investigate a cave they can see. Turns out this is where the necromancer is lurking, so at the start of the adventure they walk in invisibly and cap the guy. So much for that cunning plan! This is exhibit A in any discussion of players doing things you don’t expect. 

30th – Rarest RPG Owned: The one that springs to mind is 23rd Letter, a game about psychics fighting a secret war in the modern world. It was published by a company from Northern Ireland called Crucible Design, which I know nothing about. I found it in a Bay Area game store in the late 90s, and I’ve never talked to anyone else who owns it. 

31st – Favourite RPG of all time: Still Pendragon after all these years!

25 GenCons Later…

It is strange to think that I’ve just come back from my 25th GenCon in a row. There are few things in my life I have done as consistently as attend GenCon. I’m not really certain at which point going was just something I took for granted. The 10 year mark maybe? That year, 1999, I was working at Wizards of the Coast and it seemed I had “made it” in the game industry. If not that year then certainly by 2002, when it was clear that Green Ronin was going to be much more than a short-lived side project.

Here I am playing a minis game at GenCon, 1990.

Here I am playing a minis game at GenCon, 1990.

I’ve written about my first GenCon before, so I won’t repeat all that here. It is funny to think about that first year and how I literally knew no one at the show though. Now I just don’t have enough GenCon to catch up with all the friends that attend each year, but that first time I was on my own. In a way I miss that freedom. I just did whatever I wanted for four days. I didn’t have to worry about running a booth or having meetings or pleasing anybody but myself. I just played a lot of games, spent hours in the auction, and attended seminars. These days there are certain cons I go to just for fun and I try to recapture some of that magic there. Here’s the thing though: there is no con like GenCon. Not for gamers. And that’s as true now as it ever was.

So how was my GenCon. It was…good. It wasn’t a stand out year, but I had a fun time. Green Ronin had two new books for the show: the Icons RPG and Gadget Guides for Mutants & Masterminds. Icons: The Assembled Edition was the clear hit. There was much interest and we sold a bunch. We did not, sad to say, have Dragon Age Set 3 there. The printers just could not do it in time, which was disappointing to me and many people who came by our booth looking for it. We did host a puzzle for the Dragon Age egg hunt, which was cool. This is something I’ve been working on with Mike Selinker’s Loan Shark Games. Basically, Mike and his team make the puzzles and I provide the Dragon Age lore. This is a year long event that’s happening at multiple conventions.

Most of my con was spent working the Green Ronin booth. I like to be there as much as possible, so people can find me easily. I did four seminars, took a bunch of meetings, and did many interviews. I usually try to set aside a couple of hours on Sunday to walk the exhibit hall and see what other companies are up to. This year I had a flurry of last minute interview requests so I only got 15 minutes to walk around right at the end. That was good for my wallet, as I did not have time to pick up much stuff, but I do wish I had had more time. This may be the first GenCon ever I brought home no miniatures. Zero. Zip. Not even one. Inconceivable!

The best part of GenCon these days is seeing friends. I caught up with so many people, but still missed some folks I would like to have had a drink with. For me GenCon is sort of like a class reunion, except it’s people that I want to see (for the most part) and it happens every year. One friend has been working on a new RPG and I got to playtest it one night. That was the one bit of actual gaming I got to do and it was a good time. I can’t tell you who or what game now but I’ll be posting about when he makes it public.

I am really looking forward to next year. Not just because it’s GenCon but because we have some exciting stuff planned for 2015. We have two things getting started now that are super cool, though I can’t talk about either of them at this time. Trust me when I say, you will hear about them. Also trust me when I say that neither one of them is Mass Effect*.

Big kudos to the Green Ronin staff and volunteers for all their hard work at GenCon. Our booth crew was so efficient, in fact, that they had packed up all the books at show’s end before I pulled copies of Icons and Gadget Guides for myself! That’s OK though because we are exhibiting at PAX Prime here in Seattle next week and we’re shipping in the new books for that too. I must say, I’m not quite ready for another big, four day convention, but such is life in the game industry.

25 years of GenCon. Damn. Do I get a silver watch or d20 or something? :)

 

* I’m just throwing that out now as a matter of course, because if I say anything vague people jump right to Mass Effect. Like to do it, can’t, end of story.