At first I wanted nothing to do with Facebook. I was already using several social networking sites and didn’t see the need for another one. Nicole started using Facebook though so I decided to give it a shot. I didn’t care for it for many months. All the stupid poking and vampire games were not for me. Scrabulous, however, I really enjoyed and that kept me using Facebook (but boy was I pissed when Hasbro got Scrabulous pulled; thankfully the lawsuit has been dropped).

Lately my attitude has changed and I’ve been really enjoying Facebook. That’s because it has somehow succeeded in doing what none of those other sites have: attracting casual internet users. I have found so many old friends on Facebook, many of whom I haven’t seen in 20 years. Some I had Googled over the years and always come up empty. They just didn’t have a footprint on the internet. These people are signing up for Facebook though and I’m glad. It’s gotten me back in touch with a bunch of people I had been wanting to reconnect with.

I’ve also been enjoying the photo application. I’ve created a bunch of albums and have been uploading pics frequently. This has encouraged me to dig out 20 years worth of photos and start scanning in the better ones. So if you want to see pictures of punk bands (including my own), my first GenCon, my appearence in Details Magazine, and much food porn, friend me on Facebook and mention this blog.

Personal Top 10 of 2008

For the hell I’ve it I’ve decided to put together a personal top 10 for 2008. This is cool stuff that happened to me, affected me, or that I just enjoyed.

10. Going to Game Cons for Fun: Most of the time when I go to a game convention, it’s for work. This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy shows like GTS and GenCon, I do, but working the show is a lot different than going as a player. This year I had several opportunities to go to cons with no other agenda than playing games and having fun. In March I went to Trumpeter Salute in Vancouver, BC for a day and played some minis games. Then in May I spent the whole weekend in Olympia at Enfilade, a historical minis convention. Enjoyed playing everything from the Russian Civil War to Victorian Scifi. Lastly, in October I went to NYC for BillCon, which was a get-together with my college game group. OK, so that was a pretty informal con but we packed in a lot of gaming in three days and had a damn good time.

9. Getting Healthier: This year I made some great strides in getting myself healthier. The insurance I get from Flying Lab allowed me to see some specialists, like a sleep doctor, and identify some problem areas. Nicole and I started doing yoga at a great studio in Georgetown and we recently added strength training to that. I am now sleeping better, eating better, and exercising better than I was a year ago.

8. Return to the Herbfarm: A couple of years back Nicole took me to the Herbfarm, a legendary foodie destination in Woodinville. This year I returned the favor for her birthday. There had been a change of chefs since our last visit, but the food was just as wonderful. The blue cheese ice was mind-bogglingly good. If you’re interested, you can check out the photos of the full meal on my Facebook page. The Herbfarm is not cheap but it’s an experience I’d recommend to anyone who loves food.

7. Hobby Games: The 100 Best Now Award Winning: HG100 is one of my favorite titles Green Ronin has ever published. Basically, we got 100 designers and industry notables to each write about a great game they were not personally involved in. Jim Lowder did a great job putting the project together and it was terribly cool to publish a book with contributions from so many designers whose games I grew up playing. It was thus pretty pleasing to see the book win an Origins Award and a silver Ennie Award over the summer. Jim is currently put together a follow-up that should be out next summer too.

6. 13 on the 13th: My stepdaughter Kate turned 13 this month and she’s really grown up this year. The first time I met Kate she was crawling around a hotel room at GenCon when she was 6 months old. It’s hard to reconcile that with the poised and mature teenager I now see in front of me. Kate gets more awesome every year and I am proud to be the stepdad of the smart, funny, creative, and sweet girl she’s become.

5. Burma Performs Vs: Mission of Burma is one of favorite bands of all time and their best album is the mighty Vs. It was amazing when they got back together and didn’t suck. It was more amazing when they put out new albums that rocked. This year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Vs., they did a tour in which they played the album in its entirety from start to finish. This show made me so happy.

4. GDC Is Go: I’ve been wanting to go to the Game Developers Conference in San Fran for many years and this year I finally got the chance. I’ve come late in my career to the computer gaming side of things and there’s a lot I don’t know. GDC was a chance for me to learn more about the computer game industry and meet folks from other companies. It also turned out to be an excellent opportunity to catch up with old friends from the tabletop gaming industry who made the jump years ago and who I hadn’t seen in some time. As a plus I had time on this trip to stop by Endgame in Oakland, one of the best game stores in the country, and hang out with Chris Hanrahan and crew. Too bad the podcast we recorded got corrupted.

3. Pirate Booty: Speaking of the computer game industry, my first title in that arena shipped this year. Pirates of the Burning Sea is a MMO RPG set in the Caribbean in 1720. If you like kickass naval combat and swashbuckling swordplay, Pirates is a lot of fun. I was one of the lead writers on the game and now I’m the Creative Director at FLS.

2. Throwing the Bastards Out: Eight years of the most criminal and corrupt administration in memory is finally coming to an end. I am so delighted that Bush and Cheney are almost gone and the party that put them there was soundly drubbed in November. What do I want for Xmas next year? Trials for the war criminals. Too bad Obama is almost certain to let them go scot-free.

1. Finland!: Without a doubt the best and most fun thing I did in 2008 was go to Finland for Ropecon. Nicole and I were able to spend a week in Finland, and our excellent hosts took such good care of us that I’m ruined for American cons now. We had time to see the sites in Helsinki, ate delicious food, and then spent the con making some great new friends while drinking ungodly amounts of alcohol (go long drink!). So thanks to Jukka, Katri, Mikko, Timo, Outi, Ville, and all the other crazy Finns who made this trip such a blast, as well as my fellow guests Peter and Greg. As General MacArthur once said, “I shall return!”

Winter Wonderland

I must admit that I’ve been enjoying being snowed in these last few days. Kate is up in Vancouver visiting her dad, so Nicole and I have had the house to ourselves. We have enjoyed the quiet, particularly as the snow and cold have kept the world’s lamest gangstas out of the kiddie park next to our place. We were able to make a supermarket run just as the snow was starting again on Saturday, so we haven’t wanted for anything but a snow shovel (Lowe’s had none). It’s been nice spending some time alone in a calm environment. I shared Love and Death, still my favorite Woody Allen movie, with her last night. Today we took a pleasant walk down to the library. It was icy but the sun was out and the snowy vistas were beautiful.

I’ve gotten a lot of work done on the game I’m designing as well. I’ve written down enough of the thoughts that have been swirling around in my head for the past several months that the basic framework is in place. Now it’s a matter of building on it and refining it.I’ll be doing more of this on my days off over Xmas. Hopefully we’ll be announcing the game in January.

I’ve also been trying to get caught up on GR mail orders. We had a lot come in because of the d20 blowout sale we’ve been running. Orders backed up and the snow has made it worse. We got five bins to the post office on Saturday before the storm. Today I spent an hour in the cold garage picking more orders. Soon this will be handled at our warehouse and I’m so looking forward to that.

My only problem right now is that it’s 2:30 am and I should be asleep. I’m going to try to bus to Flying Lab in the morning and I need to get an early start. I was saying to Nicole earlier that although I’ve been working every day I’ve been home, I still felt more relaxed than usual. She smirked and said, “That’s because you’ve only been working one job.” Good point.

Snow and Sausage

I grew up in New England, which gets all four seasons in full measure. It can get brutally hot in the summer and frigidly cold in the winter. I know how to deal with snow and lived through the blizzard of ’78. Seattle though, has a much milder climate. It only gets really hot for maybe a week of the year and when it does snow, it usually melts in a day or two. That makes this week all the more unusual. It’s been quite cold for starters and then snow began threatening on Tuesday.

I woke up Wednesday expecting to see the ground covered with snow. All the weather reports had said it would definitely snow overnight. So I went to work and heard about snow all around Seattle but not in the city itself. At lunch I went down to the Pike Place Market to get lunch and pick up a few things for home. I got some fresh bread at Three Girls Bakery and then stopped at Bavarian Meats for some charcuterie. The nice German lady was efficiently filling my order for things like liver sausage and blood and tongue sausage when I asked if I could also get three potato sausages. At this she lit up. “Good choice! Are you Norwegian?” For those of you who’ve never met me, I am like an anti-Viking. So I laugh and tell her I’m Greek. “Oh,” she says, ” you have good taste. Do you want more than three? We have more in the back.” I assure her that three is more than enough and head back to work. That night the news says the storm will bypass Seattle completely.

Sure enough the weather reports are wrong for two days running. The next morning everything is white and it’s still coming down. I decide to stay home from work and catch up on Green Ronin business. In the afternoon I shoveled out the backyard path and the front steps and sidewalk. Lacking a snow shovel, I had to use our sad garden shovel, a rake, and an old broom to do the clearing. Naturally an hour after finishing, it started to snow again. It felt like being back east.

Last night I made the potato sausages for dinner, along with baked sweet potatoes and lingonberries. While I had previously baked potato sausages, I thought I’d check the internet to see if that was the correct way to prepare it. I discovered that potato sausage is apparently a traditional Swedish Christmas food, so this was the right season to pick some up. However, the Swedish community seems split on the proper way to prepare it. Some boil it, some bake it, and others poach it. I decided to go with slow boiling and it came out great. The lingonberries were an excellent match. Meat + fruit = win.

Today I foolishly decided to head into Flying Lab. Even more foolishly, I brought two bags full of packages to mail at the post office. These were GR mail orders that had gone awry and I really wanted to get them out before the weekend. I thought the bus might be empty today with many people staying home. In fact, I’ve never seen it more crowded. The bus driver stopped taking on new passengers before we even got off Beacon Hill because we couldn’t fit even one more person onboard. I had to balance my bookbag and the two other bags on my lap while hemmed in by other commuters. What a magical season.

This weekend I’m going to stay in, write, and eat more charcuterie.

The True Story of the Man Who Would Be King

For years I have joked that it was old British movies that made me love imperialism. When I watched films like the Four Feathers and Gunga Din on our black and white TV, I knew there was a historical background but I was in it for the action and adventure. Two of my favorite films growing up were Zulu and The Man Who Would Be King, both starring Michael Caine. My brother and I would “play Zulu” with our neighbors on a regular basis. Two of us would play the British, crouching at the bottom of a small hill with wooden rifles. The other two would play the Zulus, hurling a stream of sticks at the (very) thin red line. To represent their enormous army and British firepower, the Zulus would get gunned down over and over again until was time for hand to hand combat. Then we’d switch sides and do it all over again. Considering the number of sticks we threw at each other, I’m surprised none of us lost an eye.

It is thus no surprise that when I was in NYC a couple of months back and browsing the temple of knowledge that is The Strand, I was drawn to a book called Josiah the Great: The True Story of the Man Who Would Be King. A quick skim convinced me to pick it up and I’m glad I did. Ben Macintyre has written a cracking good biography of a little known American named Josiah Harlan, who was likely the inspiration for Kipling’s tale. Harlan was a Pennsylvania Quaker who swore he would never return to America when his lover jilted him. He traveled to India in 1820 and on the strength of having read his brother’s textbooks got a job as a surgeon in the army of the British East India Company.

This proved just the start of an amazing series of adventures inspired by his idol, Alexander the Great. He met the ousted ruler of Afghanistan and offered to put the man back on the throne in exchange the viziership. He then recruited a small mercenary army under American colors and marched into Afghanistan. Harlan should have died 20 times over but somehow he did not. He ended up working for Dost Mohammed Khan, the very man he had sought to depose. He became a governor for many years and eventually led the Khan’s army. He led an expedition into the Hindu Kush, and while there won a princedom of his own. He never had a chance to rule, however, as the British were marching on Kabul by the time he returned. He was forced to leave Afghanistan and eventually returned to America. He attempted several schemes to get himself back to Central Asia, including one to import camels for use by the US army, but never returned to claim his princedom. Still, this unlikely character managed to raise an American flag in the Hindu Kush in 1839 and become Prince of Ghor, even if briefly.

Ben Macintyre has done some excellent historical detective work and manages to skillfully evoke both the period and Harlan’s eccentric personality. If you like true tales of adventure, I heartily recommend Josiah the Great.

3rd Era

With the status of the d20 logo unclear, I decided to go ahead and create a new brand under which to sell our d20 back catalog. Sparky is working his way through the PDF files, deleting out the d20 logo and its legal language, and subbing in the new 3rd Era logo (nicely designed by Hal). We should be able to put up a couple a week, so in time our whole catalog ought to be available (save for a few titles due to the deals under which they were published). This doesn’t mean we’re going to be doing new D&D; 3.5 material; it’s just a way to ID our existing products.

Some of you may recall that I pondered whether or not to brand our stuff as Pathfinder compatible rather than creating our own brand. I decided that this was the more honest approach. While you’ll certainly be able to use any of the 3rd Era books with Pathfinder, we won’t be spending the time to update them to reflect Pathfinder’s changes to 3.5. I wouldn’t want someone expecting that to be disappointed when they purchased one of our books. 3rd Era seemed a better way to go.

One bonus of this move is that we’re going to start offering these books on Lulu, so folks who want print copies can get them. For titles that have been long out of print (like Book of Fiends), this gives us an easy way to make print copies available again.

There’s a press release about this on GR’s website. You can read it here.

Game Industry PR 101

When you have just laid off 20+ people right before Xmas and it’s time to try to put the best face possible on that, do NOT pull out the bullshit corporate doublespeak. Here is the money quote from WotC President Greg Leeds in an article on ICV2 on the recent layoffs (oh sorry, “digital consolidation”):

“Consolidating internal resources coupled with improved outsourcing allows us to gain efficiencies in executing against our major digital initiatives Magic Online and D&D; Insider. Wizards of the Coast is well positioned to maximize future opportunities, including further brand development on digital platforms. The result of this consolidation is a more streamlined approach to driving core brands.”

Ah yes, gaining efficiencies and maximizing opportunities! The only phrase this masterpiece is missing is “leveraging our core competencies.” Maybe he’s saving that one for the next round of layoffs. Seriously, this sort of soulless gibberish may play with Hasbro shareholders but it the 100% wrong way to communicate with the gamers who make up WotC’s audience. Next time, I suggest Mr. Leeds try showing a human face and some compassion for the people he just put out of work. Quotes that read like passages from 1984 only reinforce the idea of WotC as an “evil empire.” And you don’t need an expensive market research campaign to figure that out.

RPG Musings

Since the announcement of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, there have been continuing flamewars about the game all over the internet. This is to be expected, but what I find interesting is the amount of time that’s also spent discussing whether 4E is selling well or not. Every gaming message board I visit has some variation of this topic right now. For most gamers, you wouldn’t think it would matter. Either they are playing and enjoying 4E or they not. How many others are playing it would seem largely irrelevant, but some people who hate 4E want to crow about its failure and some people who love 4E want to exalt in its success. The trouble with the game industry is that companies rarely share their sales data, and at large companies like WotC accurate data is not necessarily passed down the chain of command. It is thus the executives and the sales people who know what’s really going on at a high level and they of course are the least likely to talk about it. You may see vague and qualified statements, but almost no one provides real numbers.

Due to the GSL situation, Green Ronin isn’t doing much with 4E. Our one planned product, an update of our d20 System Character Record Folio to 4E, just went to print. I am looking forward to its debut because it will give me some direct and measurable data. The original folio was Green Ronin’s best selling product of all time, going through six odd print runs. It will be informative to see how the 4E version stacks up.

Now the anecdotes I hear are sometimes interesting, but I try not to read a lot into them. I had a retailer at the Alliance Open House in Las Vegas, for example, tell me he stopped carrying 4E because his customers tried it, didn’t like it, and went back to playing 3E. I can believe that happened in his store, but I don’t think such an extreme reaction is common. The only commentary I have taken seriously has come from the two halves of the distribution system: the game trade and the book trade. In separate conversations, an executive in the game trade and the former RPG buyer for a major chain of bookstores both told me the same thing: 4E sold in well but follow-up sales were slow. One of them told me that 4E supplements were selling at the same level as 3E supplements at the beginning of this year (i.e. 8 years into 3E’s lifecycle).

That is interesting info if true. Even so the picture might change as more supplements and support material comes out and new organized play programs have an effect. I’ve said previously I don’t think we’ll know what kind of legs 4E has until next summer. A year after release gamers will have had a chance to put it through its paces and judge the development of the line. While brand power is important (and D&D; has plenty of it), it’s ultimately the play experience of the fans that will tell the story.

Yesterday’s layoffs at WotC add an interesting wrinkle, but it’s unclear what they signify (other than a shitty Xmas for the folks who were let go). It seems most of the layoffs were centered on WotC’s digital efforts and certainly their part in the 4E launch did not go as planned. It was surprising to see Jonathan Tweet and Andrew Finch, both long time employees I’d have thought immune to the seasonal layoff cycle, on the list. Their departure could be a cost saving measure, but it’s also possible they volunteered for the layoff. I’ve seen people who are ready to move on take bullets to spare others before.

What is unambiguous to my mind is that the third party market for 4E material is a shadow of its former self. By early 2001 you had publishers selling huge amounts of d20 product and more companies jumping into the fray every week. This time there is a trickle of product and no one is seeing the gangbuster sales of 3E’s heyday as far as I can tell. The GSL revision has yet to appear and the d20 diaspora continues to splinter. If WotC was serious about wanting the support of third party publishers, the GSL has been a strategic failure to date. If the goal was to cull the third party market though, mission accomplished.

Moving into 2009 the state of the biggest RPG in the industry is unclear, the RPG category in general continues to struggle in retail stores, and we are in a recession that may get much worse before it gets better. In this environment you can give up or look for opportunity. I have chosen the latter course and I’ll have more to say about that in the future.