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.


My GenCon Schedule

Below you will find the list of the panels I’ll be on at GenCon. Other than these seminars, I’m most likely to be found at the Green Ronin booth (#1517) between the hours of 10 am and 6 pm. I will be ducking out for meetings and such at various points, but I try to spend as much time in the booth as I can.


10-11 am: The State of Superheroes at Green Ronin

Crowne Plaza : Victoria Stn C/D

3-4 pm: Pathfinder and Green Ronin

Crowne Plaza : Pennsylvania Stn A


12-1 pm: Emerald Spire* All-Stars

Convention Center, Room 231

* This is a Pathfinder super dungeon I wrote a chapter of for Paizo Publishing. It’s a two hour seminar but I can only be there for the first hour.

1-2 pm: What’s Up at Green Ronin Publishing?

Crowne Plaza : Conrail Stn

See you in Indy!

RPG a Day, Part 1

David Chapman started a thing on his blog called RPG a Day. It’s basically an excuse to talk about RPGs so, hey, let’s do that. August is my busiest month of the year, with GenCon and PAX happening. I’m thus going to do this in two parts instead of daily. Part 1 will take me through GenCon.

1st – First RPG Played: Dungeons & Dragons. This was 1979 and I was 10 years old.

2nd – First RPG Gamemastered: D&D again. I cannot not tell you what I ran. Probably a dungeon of my own devising. 

3rd – First RPG Purchased: The original D&D white boxed set. I can’t say I played it though. My brother and I brought it home and tried to make sense of it. There was obviously something cool there but as a 10 year old with no background in wargaming (yet!), how you actually played was unclear to me. We got the Holmes Basic Set and then the AD&D Player’s Handbook in short order and that’s when I really started to play.

4th – Most recent RPG purchase: I backed a Kickstarter from my pals at Pagan Publishing. It’s for Horrors of War, a collection of Call of Cthulhu scenarios set in World War 1. Backing that was a no brainer for a history nerd like me.

5th – Most Old School RPG owned: OD&D white box. I might also add the original Chainmail game. It’s a minis game, not a RPG, but its “fantasy supplement” was the genesis of D&D.

6th – Favourite RPG Never get to play: That’s an easy one: Pendragon. Love that game, but I never have the right group to play it with. 

7th – Most “intellectual” RPG owned: Aria, Canticle of the Monomyth. I think the title says it all.

8th – Favourite character: Finn, my halfling rogue from my friend Bill’s long running AD&D campaign from college. Freeport fans may know him as the Crime Lord of the Eastern District. I decided that he had retired to Freeport after his adventuring days ended. :)

9th – Favourite Die / Dice Set: The recently released Dragon Age dice that Q Workshop did for Green Ronin. These are the first custom dice ever done for one of my RPGs, so they’ve got to be my choice!

10th – Favourite tie-in Novel / Game Fiction: The Horus Heresy line of 40K novels is better than it has any right to be. I do worry about it finishing in my lifetime though (30 novels and still going…). 

11th – Weirdest RPG owned: Many options, but I’ll go with Khaotic, a 1994 game from Marquee Press. This was a scifi game with a wacky premise. Player Characters were members of a “jump-team” that projected their minds to an alien planet. The twist is that the entire group inhabits the body of a sort of living war machine. Only one character can control the body at a time though! Much of the game takes place within its mind, as the characters debate about what to do and who gets to control the body. 

12th – Old RPG you still play / read: Well, I recently wrapped up a two year AD&D campaign set in Greyhawk. I started it because I wanted my step-daughter to get a sense of what D&D was like back in the day. One day she was looking through the 2nd edition Monster Manual and she asked me, “Is there a more recent version of this book with better art?” I had to laugh. 

13th – Most Memorable Character Death: I was in college and we were playing the module X2: Castle Amber. I had played it once before, when I was 12 or so, but I didn’t remember much about it. The GM describe the room we had just entered and it seemed familiar. I said, “Hmmm, I think I died in this room.” And then I proceeded to do so again!

14th – Best Convention Purchase: I got copies of the original Greyhawk and Blackmoor books (supplements 1 and 2 for original D&D) for $10 each in the bring and buy area of a con once.

15th – Favourite Convention Game: Before I got into the game industry, I spent four years running an Ars Magica tournament at GenCon. I put a ridiculous amount of work into it each year, but it was worth it.

16th – Game you wish you owned: TSR’s Empire of the Petal Throne RPG from 1975. I never even saw a copy until 1997. I was at a small con in British Columbia and a copy came up for auction. I thought, “This is a small con and maybe no one knows what it is.” I had recently moved to the West Coast and was trying to make a living by freelance writing, so I had little money. I thought I could I could go as high as $50. The bidding started at $20. Before I could even raise my hand, it was up to $200 and ended up going for close to $500. Turns out plenty of other people knew what Tekumel was!

17th – Funniest Game you’ve played: When Nicole and I used to attend DundraCon more regularly, we would play in Steve Long’s Special Violence Task Force game. The PCs were a group of especially violent law enforcement officers from various organizations who teamed up for ridiculous adventures. It was a hoot. This was technically a Hero System game but we barely even rolled dice.


A Lesson from D-Day

There are a lot of lessons one might take away from the D-Day landings 70 years ago today. In a time when ugly nationalism is once again on the rise, the one I’d like to bring home is that the defeat of Fascism was a team effort. We know well the roles of British and American soldiers, sailors, and airmen. In recent years the Canadians have finally been getting their due for Juno Beach. It goes beyond that though. There were Dutch, Belgian, Polish, and Norwegian sailors in the Channel; Czech, Polish and Norwegian pilots flying support missions; and French commandos and partisans on the ground. Two months later, when the German army was on the run, it was tankers of the Polish 1st Armoured Division who closed the Falaise Gap. And of course none of this would have been possible if the Soviets had not torn the guts out of German armed forces in three years of savage fighting on the Eastern Front. We would do well this day not to honor just the dead of our own nation, but all those who died to end fascism.