I Want My $40, Mr. VH1

I’ve been watching the occasional episode of I Love the 80s: Strikes Back on VH1. It’s surprising how much stuff I forgot about the 80s, even though I lived through them. If you haven’t seen the show, the basic format is this. An 80s person/event/video/fad/whatever is brought up and various actors, musicians, and comedians talk about said thing. It is at least somewhat more amusing than it sounds. Anyhow, one of the guys on this show is Michael Ian Black. He’s apparently on that show Ed, which I’ve never seen. Anyhow, he’s all over this show (and the I Love the 70s one too). I watching him and thinking, “I know this guy from somewhere.” It nags me, but I can’t figure it out.

A few weeks ago the local Seattle arts paper had an ad for upcoming appearance from a comedy group whose name escapes me. Michael Ian Black was part of the group and under his name it says, “From MTV’s the State.” That rings a bell. The State was a comedy group that got its start at NYU while I was going there. In fact, one of my old roommates had been in the State. I wondered if this was the same guy. He seemed familiar but the name was all wrong.

Well, thank god for obsessive internet fans. I found a history of the State website that chronicled the group back to its genesis, going so far as to specify the dates of when they played at Judson Hall and the like. This site noted that back then Michael Ian Black was known as Michael Schwartz. That’s when the bells went off. Michael Schwartz, that was my fucking roommate. He seemed sort of familiar to me because I lived with him for nine months! Imagine that.

This was my junior year at NYU and I was living in Hayden Hall, a dorm right on Washington Square. I had a single room that year, but it was within a larger suite. I shared a kitchen and bathroom with Schwartz and this guy Rick (who’s last name I’ve forgotten). We also shared a phone and it was in my name. Big mistake. End of the year comes, both Rick and Mike tell me they’ll send me checks for the last months phone bill. What do you know both those assholes stiffed me. I never saw either of them again.

If he comes to Seattle again, I think I may crash his gig. I’m sure he’d be perplexed if someone started shouting out, “I want my $40, Mr. VH1!” In the meantime I can comfort myself with this thought: he may have ripped me off for $40 but he had to listen to me have sex all year long while his girlfriend was in New Jersey. TouchĂ©.

Stop Staring At Me, You Freaky Ghoul!

I know the media can’t resist a good Michael Jackson story. Or even a bad one, as those of you who remember the New York Post’s headline “Jacko On His Back-o” can attest. But can I please stop seeing pictures of that freaky ghoul every time I sign on to check my e-mail, open a frickin’ magazine, and or turn on the TV? There’s so little of his original face left that he seriously looks undead. It reminds me of the first time I went to Las Vegas and was confronted by a 50-foot billboard of Siegfried and Roy looking like a pair of liches. If seeing huge renditions the walking dead duo was supposed to entice to me to see their show, it did not work (although Nik and I did visit their hilariously named “Secret Garden” to see the tigers).

Is Jackson a child molester? Hell if I know. His “Neverland” surely must make one raise an eyebrow. At this point, with all the allegations and all the hush up money, the cops either need to prove something or vindicate the guy. Maybe he’s just a rich freak, I don’t know. I do know that “freak engages in freaky behavior” is not news.

Bring Those Guys Over Here

Thanksgiving, 2003: Bring Those Guys Over Here

I’ve been trying hard not to work today. I figure it’s a holiday and I deserve a day off. It’s hard to escape the feeling that I ought to be doing something productive though. So while I went to go look at the review of one of our new books today, I stopped as soon as I got to the part where the reviewer 1) notes other companies have covered a similar topic and 2) then complains that didn’t do exactly what they did (and the point of that would be?). No, I did not read on, I just closed the window and said, “Fuck it, today I’m not working.”

So, no game industry crap today. Instead, let’s talk about Georgia. No, not the state, the country. There’s an interesting article from the Washington Post about the recent success of their opposition movement, which bloodlessly deposed long-time politico Eduard Shevardnadze. The Georgian opposition was apparently inspired by the revolution that swept Yugoslavia’s president, Slobodan Milosevic, from power in October 2000. The Georgians traveled to meet with leaders of the Serb resistance (and vice versa) and many were trained in the techniques used in Belgrade. The Georgians also got a TV station to twice run a documentary about the ouster of Milosevic, which further helped spread knowledge of the tactics used. According to the article:

“Most important was the film,” said Ivane Merabishvili, general secretary of the National Movement party that led the revolt. “All the demonstrators knew the tactics of the revolution in Belgrade by heart because they showed . . . the film on their revolution. Everyone knew what to do. This was a copy of that revolution, only louder.”

So here’s what I’m thinking. If the election next year is also stolen, we fly some Serbs and Georgians over here to teach their tactics, then head off to Washington. And seeing as how criminals like Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris have not be prosecuted (to the contrary, stripping people of their voting rights was a great career move for Harris) for their despicable actions in 2000, I see no reason to feel assured that the current administration will give up its stranglehold on Washington.

Now one key fact about both of the revolutions above is that the US and Russia were involved, sending diplomats to say, “You’re done, buddy, time to move along.” I’m sure this helped things along. Trouble is there’s only one superpower these days. There’s no one to send an ambassador to DC to say, “Bush, Cheney, Rummy, you’re out, chuckleheads.”

Maybe I shouldn’t be so cynical. Then again the shenanigans surrounding Bush’s Omnibus Appropriations Bill and the huge problems and conflicts of interest surrounding computer voting terminals does not make me feel optimistic.

Ahead of My Time

As many of you know, I was involved in Wizards of the Coast’s first forays into miniatures (i.e. toy soldiers). I spent two years working on a game called Chainmail, only to see it cancelled nine months after its debut and one week before it received at Origins Award. One of the struggles we faced trying to launch a game that used traditional, pewter miniatures was that Mage Knight launched about a year before Chainmail. Mage Knight was a game that used pre-painted plastic miniatures that were sold randomly in sealed boxes (so you never knew what you were going to get). To be honest, I thought Mage Knight was a stupid idea when I heard it. Who in their right mind would pay for box of minis when you didn’t even know what figure you would get?

Of course, I was dead wrong and the game was a big hit. So big that the WotC brass were just dying to get a piece of that action. They wanted to know if we’d be making 10 million dollars the first year. We were honest and they didn’t like that answer. They kept asking if we could do a game like Mage Knight. Some wanted to change Chainmail into a Mage Knight clone. I thought that would be a bad idea. Eventually, a big meeting was called in the executive boardroom to discuss the future of minis. We had more VPs than you could shake a stick at, sales people, marketing people, brand people, and even a game designer or two. My opposition to the changing Chainmail was well known, so when the CEO wanted to hear an opposing point of view, everyone in the room looked at me. I argued that changing Chainmail would piss off a lot of fans that were already dubious about WotC doing minis at all. I told them I understood why they wanted to try a pre-painted plastic game, but that Chainmail was not the game to do it with. However, there was a property, to which WotC already owned the minis rights, that would be ideal for this venture.

Star Wars. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

Despite the fact that huge advances had already been paid to Lucasfilm and that the RPG was not exactly burning up the charts, reception to my idea was lukewarm at best. The consensus was that doing that game would be no good because then WotC would have to give Lucas a cut of the money. I wondered, at that moment, if anyone had considered this while negotiating the license to begin with. Surely it occurred to someone that licenses involve paying royalties.

Anyhow, my idea was trounced on and never discussed again. The meeting wasn’t a disaster though. Since they didn’t want to pay fees and WotC was part of Hasbro, it was decided to look at some Hasbro brands for a possible game. It didn’t take long to settle on G.I. Joe. Certainly an IP with strong recognition and popular for a long time. While the “Joe vs. Cobra” iteration was frankly lame in my opinion, I could see how it’d make a good intro product that would hopefully create new gamers. As fate would have it, I was assigned as lead designer for this project.

No more than two weeks later, the brand people wanted to do market research on the game. WotC has a testing facility with two-way mirrors onsite, so they were going to bring in several groups of 10-12 year olds over two days to try the game. I would hand teach them the game and run them through it once, then I’d leave the room and we’d see if they could play it again by themselves. The problem: there was no game yet. I spent the next week whipping together enough rules and material to run the tests. While I was dubious about a test of this sort when design had barely begun, it turned out to be quite instructive. We got some good feedback from the kids, and they really seemed to take to the core ideas of the game.

About a month after I was given the task of designing this game, there was another meeting in the executive conference room. This time the minis brand manager was presenting his business plan for the G.I. Joe minis game. I was away (at a con, I think) so I missed the meeting. Honestly, I thought it would be a slam dunk, even considering the ineptitude of the brand manager. We were all surprised to hear that the WotC brass didn’t want to go forward with the game because there was going to be no new G.I. Joe cartoon. If it wasn’t on TV, they argued, it wasn’t worth doing. This is what happens to a company that achieves a success like the Pokemon TCG, I guess. Turning up their noses at one of the strongest toy brands in the world because it doesn’t have a current TV show? Astounding.

Oh, and here’s the best part. We had pitched a launch date of August, 2001. Gee, do you think a game where “a real American hero” fights Cobra terrorists would have struck any kind of chord after the 9/11 attacks? Think maybe it would have sold pretty well that Christmas Season? Yeah, me too.

So it is with some amusement that I reflect on two recent announcements. First, WotC is going to do a G.I. Joe trading card game. Guess they changed their mind about that TV show requirement. I also heard today that the just-released WotC 2004 catalog includes a new pre-painted collectible miniatures game. That’s right, it’s Star Wars.

How times have changed.

I’m So Postmodern

Last night I found myself reading Noam Chomsky’s latest book while watching the Behind the Music episode about the Spice Girls. Such are the contradictions of life in the new century, I guess.

I’ve been working hard the past week to get Book of Fiends finished and I’m almost there. I don’t want to jinx anything but I’m feeling like I’m only one hurdle away from getting caught up. If I can finish up the Nocturnals book this week too, I think Green Ronin’s entire schedule can regularize. Tonight I was writing up sales text for our April releases and was delighted to note that all necesarry manuscripts are done and in editing already. That is a nice feeling.

We’re also perilously close to closing some deals we’ve been working on for some time. December may be a good month.

Half a Weekend Is Better Than None

Been up my eyeballs in the Book of Fiends all week, after finishing up Black Sails Over Freeport (which is at print, wohoo). Felt a real need to get out last night, so when Ray Winninger invited Nik and I over for dinner and drinks by the fireplace I gladly accepted. Its been micky fricky cold here of late, so the fireplace was appreciated. After several hours of booze and conversation, Nik dozed off and Christine went upstairs to bed. Ray and I then had one of our epic talks about the game industry and game design. Few of my peers these days have the breadth of knowledge and experience that Ray does, so I always enjoy these talks. Nicole roused at 2:30 in the morning and we drove home.

I was awoken today by the burgler alarm; odd, because it wasn’t even on. I went downstairs and discovered that it was beeping because the power was out. Doh. I decided that since the house was already freezing, the best thing to do would be to go back to bed and hope it fixed itself by the time I got up. My slothful plan was vindicated. I no sooner sat upright in bed then the house powered up. Ah, sloth, the underrated sin.

Nik and I went to see Mike Daisey’s play, 21 Dog Years, in the afternoon. It was inspired by Mike’s time working at Amazon and it’s really quite funny. Actually made WotC seem tame by comparison, as its worst corporate excesses were nothing compared to Amazon.

Late in the afternoon, we stopped at Barnes and Noble for awhile and then went to our friend Tim’s house. Time works for Microsoft, has a brand new big house with a huge tv and surround sound, and he was offering up the extended Two Towers for viewing. He and some of his other friends had started early with the Fellowship. Luckily, we showed up between flicks. I may write in more detail about the Two Towers later (or not) but to sum up:

The same things that bugged me in the theater bugged me still (Gimli as laughing stock, adding in new material for no good reason, endless speeches of doom, mischaracterization of Theoden and the Rohirrim), and the extras didn’t seem to make this as good as the Fellowship redo. My favorite addition was the Huorns, who I missed in the original. Adding them in took all of two minutes and I would much rather have had them in the movie the first time around instead of a fourth “speech of doom”. Faramir’s action made a lot more sense with the extra material, though I still question the need for the change in his character and the whole ridiculous Osgiliath sequence. Still not as good as the first movie. I hope the Return of the King is better.

Tomorrow it’s back to the Book of Fiends. Got to finish my development pass so I can finally finish the Nocturnals books. Got way too much to do to still be mucking about with that book.

Credit Where It’s Due

I’ve always been a great believer in credit where it’s due. When I was freelancing, I always appreciated the companies that would put my name on the cover of a book I had written and I’ve made sure to follow that practice at Green Ronin. I was frankly a little surprised to find how good Wizards of the Coast is at this sort of thing, at least in general. If you look at the credits of the 3E Oriental Adventures, for instance, author James Wyatt lists titles and authors for all his direct sources, down to the level of Dragon Magazine articles from 10+ years ago. Sometimes, WotC has even given more credit than is due. For example, if you look in the Chainmail rule booklet, you’ll see a bunch of guys credited with “original design” or somesuch. Those guys worked on a Heroquest-styled boardgame before there WotC did minis and honestly very little of what they did had any bearing on the Chainmail rules. Nonetheless, they were duly credited.

So imagine my surprise to look over a copy of the new WotC minis rules and discover that no mention of Chainmail or its design team is made. From what I hear from people on the inside, a conscious effort was made to distance the new game from Chainmail, even though the rules are clearly Chainmail 2.0. While I can sympathize with their concerns (I wouldn’t want to release a product tied to a previous failed product either) I can’t imagine a simple credit or even a special thanks would have infected the new game with the corpse-smell of failure.

I saw that rulebook back at San Diego Comic Con in July and it got me a little riled up, but I let is pass. Recently, the Miniatures Handbook came out. This one took it a step further. It includes rules for running a skirmish campaign, and those rules come directly from the Ghostwind Campaign, a Chainmail book I was lead designer on. Now WotC has every right to use that material. They own it after all. But this time they went so far as to use my actual writing (and I know this because the book uses the same examples from Ghostwind, complete with the names of my gaming group!) and again do not credit me or the Ghostwind Campaign as a source. Nor did anyone think to send me a copy.

I think the miniatures team at WotC could learn a little something from the rest of the company.

Ramen: Comfort Food for the “Me” Generation

“Eating ramen” has become a sort of short hand for “I work in the game industry.” It’s one of those long time jokes that lasts because it’s sadly based in reality. (The other big one of these is, “Do you know how to make a small fortune in the game industry? Start with a large one!”). Funny thing is, even when I was eating on $15 a week, I didn’t eat ramen. Maybe because I had a lot of it as a kid.

Recently, Nicole brought home some ramen. It was 10 for a dollar and she figured Kate (who is nearly 8) might like it. And indeed, Kate loved it and asked for more. What’s funnier is that Nicole and I have started eating it again. There was one day, when it was especially cold in the house, that we made ramen, got under the covers, and watched an old Bogey flick together. We both found ourselves digging on the ramen. It was so familiar, so reminiscent of childhood. It was like a comfort food for kids who grew up in the 70s.

We had to laugh about the situation. If there’s one thing we like to do, it’s spend too much money on fancy eating. We wanted a new couch two years ago, for example, and we still don’t have one. We’ve have joked that we’ve “eaten the couch” three times over by this point. Maybe if the ramen-eating continues, we’ll get that couch in 2004!

Dulles Speaks from the Grave

Foreign affairs has put up a very interesting article. It comes from the Council on Foreign Relations archive. In 1945 “superspook” Allen Dulles (a station chief for the OSS and later the head of the CIA) gave a talk to the CFR about the post-war situation in Germany. Quite relevant in light of the current situation in Iraq. Of particular interest is the section where he talks about the difficulties of rebuilding the country without using former members of the Nazi party. The US is taking a similar stance with former members of the Bath Party. Or how about this quote?

“If we do not find some work for the Germans and if we do not solve the refugee problem, the Germans will have their revenge in one form or another though it takes a hundred years.”

Sheer Terror and Sheer Futility

One of my favorite bands “back in the day” was Government Issue from, appropriately enough, Washington D.C.. They were one of the few bands from the Class of ’81 to actually stay together for any amount of time, releasing a string of excellent records throughout the 80s. I saw GI many times and they were a great live band as well. I knew they were going to break up the last time I saw them, at the Pyramid in NYC, because they so clearly lacked the aggressive energy that had made their previous live shows so memorable.

While I have a large amount of GI vinyl, I nonetheless picked up their Complete History Volume 1 double CD set awhile back. I’ve had in on heavy rotation lately and it’s great stuff. But even I, a diehard GI fan, cannot fathom why they felt the need to put FIVE different versions of the song Sheer Terror on here, four of them on disc one. I like that song as much as the next punk, but I don’t need to hear it four times every hour each time I play disc one! GI frontman John Stabb was notorious for dressing and acting in ways calculated to annoy people (and indeed that is what Sheer Terror is all about), so I guess this is his way of ensuring his spirit lives on.

On the Sheer Futility front, I’ve just put up a new article called Prophet of the Sleepers in the Game Writing sidebar to your right. This is an adventure I wrote for the Legend of the Five Rings RPG back in 1997 that was never published. You can find out why (well, at least somewhat) in the introduction to the article. Enjoy.