Saved By The Meme

I have a bunch of things I want to write about but I’ve lacked time and focus this week. Probably for the best that my “friend-for-life” Cecil tagged me with the following then:

– 10 years ago –
I was living in New York City, working in a coffee store in the mornings, going to grad school in the afternoons, and freelance RPG writing in the evenings. I was also singing for a punk rock band called Adverse Possession and I was helping to run ABC No Rio, a non-profit arts space and punk rock venue. ABC was engaged in a lengthy (and ultimately successful) struggle with New York’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, who were trying to sell the building out from under us as part of a gentrification program. At this same time “Jackboot” Rudy Giuliani had declared war on the 13th Street Squats, illegally evicting them in spite of a court order to the contrary.

Amusingly, it was about this time that I last saw Cecil (she who tagged me). Her band Bite came to play at ABC No Rio and put on a great show. Hopefully, we’ll have a chance to catch up when I’m in LA in November for GenCon SoCal.

– 5 years ago –
I had moved here to Seattle and I was working as a game designer at Wizards of the Coast. By this point I had moved from RPGs to WotC’s new Miniatures Division and we were engaged in a series of major internal political struggles to make the new division go. I was working on a Dungeons & Dragons miniatures game, later known (foolishly) as Chainmail. More importantly, I had already started my own company (Green Ronin Publishing) on the side and our first ever product (Ork! the Roleplaying Game) came out this month. At this point our second product was at print and readying for a GenCon release. That was Death in Freeport, which put us on the RPG map and kicked off this whole crazy d20 thing.

– 1 year ago –
I was utterly consumed with the design of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 2nd Edition. I worked on this seven days a week for months on end and didn’t really do much else in this period.

– yesterday –
I continued to work on a book called Realms of Sorcery. I also did some design work on another RPG that has yet to be announced. I went downtown late in the afternoon for a bank and post office run, and then tried a Chinese restaurant I’ve been walking by for years. It was nothing special but it was also fairly cheap. Late in the evening I did some research on an ancestor of mine who died in the trenches in WWI. I’ll probably write an article about that at some point.

– tomorrow –
Why it’s more Realms of Sorcery of course! I may also take one of my birthday gifts (a video) over to my friend Ray’s place for a viewing on his enormous TV. The video is of a film called the Battle of Stalingrad. What’s interesting about it is that it was made in the Soviet Union in 1949. They shot it in Stalingrad itself and used Red Army soldiers to recreate the battle. While I’m sure it won’t be a great film (propaganda films rarely are), it’s too historically interesting for me to pass up. I looked at it for several years at various conventions until Hal went and bought it for me this past Origins, likely to shut me up. Thanks, buddy!

– 5 snacks I enjoy –
Cashews, pistachios, jerky, salteens, chocolate covered espresso beans

– 5 bands/artists that I know the lyrics to most of their songs –
The Clash, Subhumans, Minor Threat, Reagan Youth, Buzzcocks

– 5 things I would do with a $100,000,000 –
Travel the world
Buy my mom her dream house
Buy an apartment in NYC so I can visit whenever I like
Fight the power

– 5 locations I would like to run away to –
New Zealand
Hong Kong

– 5 bad habits I have –
Not getting enough exercise
Trying to do too much at once
Working every day

– 5 things I like doing –
Eating well (see “Overindulging” above)
Reading and writing
Going to shows
Playing games

– 5 things I will never wear –
A “Frankie says” t-shirt
A sweater vest
Assless chaps
An “America: Love it Or Leave It” t-shirt

– 5 t.v. shows I like(d) –
The Wire
The Sopranos
Band of Brothers
Daily Show
Cook’s Tour

– 5 movies I like –
Seven Samurai
The Professionals
36th Chamber of Shaolin
Bad Day at Black Rock
The Big Red One (restored)

– 5 people I’d like to meet –
Emma Goldman
Joe Strummer
J.R.R. Tolkien
Thomas Jefferson
Jon Stewart (Token “actually alive” candidate)

– 5 biggest joys at the moment –
The Kate (AKA my step-daughter)
Grillin’ and chillin’ at Ray and Christine’s place
Sushi at Tojo’s in Vancouver
Green Ronin getting 15 ENnie Award nominations

– 5 favorite toys –
Dr. Zaius action figure
Helm’s Deep Fortress (in 28mm scale)
Praetorian Imperial Guard army for Warhammer 40K
A bust of Makita from the Red Star comic
Plushy Cthulhu

Getting It Right

One thing the hobby game industry has never been very good at is tracking sales. Oh, people try, but most companies are privately held and they don’t want to share sales numbers. Many retailers still don’t have POS systems either, which only adds to the problem. So, industry folks talk amongst themselves and try to build a picture based on what they know (their own sales) and what intelligence they can gather by talking to distributors and clueful retailers. The closest thing we have to actual data is what’s gathered by Comics and Games Retailer. The trouble with their numbers is that they’re based on the retailers who chose to participate each month. Since sales can be weirdly regional and the pool is self-selected, what we get is an echo of what’s going on. Sometimes it’s right, but sometimes it’s very wrong.

I got the latest issue today and checked the Top 20 chart for RPGs. Green Ronin once again has two spots, one for miscellaneous d20 and one for Mutants & Masterminds. No surprises there. There is one thing that is glaringly absent though: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I know from both internal and external souces that the game is selling like crazy. It outsold Mutants & Masterminds in this period by a wide margin (and M&M; is a very successful game) and it just keeps chugging along. Yet if you look at C&GR;, you’d never know it existed. Interestingly, I also got the latest ICV2 Guide to Games today. What was the headline of their RPG section? “Warhammer Fantasy Soars to Number 3!” It then goes on to talk about how WFRP left most of its competition in the dust and how after only a few months of release it only ranks behind D&D; and World of Darkness. WFRP has been the RPG success story of the past year and I was glad to see that someone got it right.

Durham, Here I Come

It seems like I just got back from Origins and tonight Nik and I are leaving again. This time, Trinoc*Con in North Carolina (, where I am the Gaming Guest of Honor. This is a “speculative fiction” convention, so it’s not just gaming, but also scifi, comics, etc. I’ve never been to it before so I have no idea what to expect. Hopefully, it’ll be fun. If you are in the Durham area, do come see us. I may even have a preview copy of the Thieves’ World Player’s Manual with me (cue cursing from Australia…).

Naturally enough, things have been crazy all day leading up to our departure tonight (for yet another redeye; wohoo). Nik and I are trying to finish up dozens of niggling tasks, so no one starts freaking out while we are out of the office. So instead of doing the writing I desperately needed to do today I was emptying my e-mail inbox, filling out forms, writing checks, packing up samples, and just generally battening down the hatches. I left my laptop here on the Origins trip, but I’m taking it this time. I’m hoping for a least a couple of hours a day where I can take advantage of the quiet of my hotel room to get some writing done.

When I get back, I may finally write up the analogy I’ve been using lately to describe the current state of the D&D; rules and how that led me to design WFRP the way I did. Since the analogy is a bit rude though, maybe not…

Flames of War

Michelle Lyons asked me for my impressions of Flames of War, which is a World War II miniatures game published by a New Zealand company called Battlefront. I’ve been collecting a German Afrika Korps army based on the historic Ramcke Brigade of paratroopers, though it has been going slowly due to a distinct lack of free time on my part. My friend Rick is doing a British Desert Rats army, so we can (eventually) clash in the deserts of North Africa.

The game is probably the biggest thing to hit historical miniatures since Warhammer Ancients and the two share some features. This is likely no coincidence, since I believe several of the Battlefront staff are ex-GW folk. In any case, what Flames of War does is take the Warhammer approach and apply it to historical gaming. To whit:

· There is one core book and a series of army books. Some of these are specific to unit types (like the Diving Eagles book on German paratroopers), some of them are broader national treatments (like the Yanks book on the US Army), and some of them cover specific battles (like the Stalingrad book). The core book has a variety of army lists from the mid-war period so you can play with just that, while the army books present many other army list options.
· All the books have a very high level of visual appeal and excellent graphic design. In the historical minis industry, this is more rare than a Bush administration hawk that actually went to Vietnam. Most companies in that business either don’t see it as important or can’t afford it. The Flames of War books are beautifully put together, with full color pictures of painted miniatures, archival photos, and a small amount of original art.
· The hobby side of miniatures is played up, with sections on painting and modeling. These often include color schemes for the uniforms that tell you what paint from a variety of lines is most appropriate, which is a nice touch.
· Then of course there are the minis. Although there are many 15mm WWII minis to choose from, of course Battlefront has its own extensive range. They do both unit and army boxed sets in addition to blisters, and the army sets in particular make it easy to jump into the game. The sculpting is generally of high quality and done in pewter. The tanks and vehicles are usually a mix of resin and pewter.
· Flames of War also has an excellent website, with constant updates. These include previews and battle reports, but they also have a nice series of historical articles as well. These include army lists for more obscure forces (Greeks, for example).
· The game runs off the familiar six-sided die. The rules are fairly straight forward, particularly if you’ve played other minis games before.

All that said, I have one big caveat: I haven’t actually played the game yet. My army is halfway done but I need some free time to finish gluing my tanks together and to fill out my infantry with some specialized squads. The rules read just fine. Players alternate turns and there’s the typical Move-Shoot-Assault breakdown. Perhaps the most unusual feature is that hitting the enemy is based on his experience, not your skill. It’s much easier to hit poorly trained Red Army conscripts, for example, than veteran German grenadiers. I’ve only run across a couple of rules that made me scratch my head (the biggest one being that flame thrower units get to shoot once and then are removed from the game), but I’d have to see how those worked in play before getting too critical.

Flames of War is a company scale game, so the core of your army is either an infantry of tank company. Tactical units are platoons. The 15mm scale means you can field a real combined arms force, which is much more difficult in 28mm skirmish-style games. A typical army features infantry, tanks, and artillery. You can also add varying levels of air support. While it’d be unusually to see more than a couple of planes on the tabletop at any one time, it’s good to see air power represented in the game. And what’s a German army with a screaming Stuka or two?

That’s my brief overview. Hopefully, I can actually play a game soon and then maybe I’ll have more to say. If you are interested, I’d recommend taking a look at

When Designers Pontificate!

When game designers talk about games and game design, you may want to consider what they have to say. As this is their chosen vocation, they may actually know a thing or two about the topic.
When game designers want to pontificate about the business of the game industry, it’s best to just ignore them unless they are talking about specific experiences (the pitfalls of freelancing, for example) or they are also publishers. Unless they have real experience to back up their opinions and prognostications, they are almost inevitably full of shit. It doesn’t matter how many freelance assignments they’ve completed, how many hours they’ve spent hanging out at the Big Bar on 2 at Origins, or how many Ryan Dancey manifestos they’ve memorized. If game designers say they’re going to tell you how the game industry “really works” or tell you what’s going to happen to the business in the future, just keep on cruising down the information superhighway.

Back in the Red

We have finally returned from Origins, after a somewhat arduous journey. We made it into Seattle last night about 11 pm, a time that is usually quiet at the airport. However, a huge number of people were returning from holiday excursions and we flew in just as the fireworks were finishing up. This meant an exodus to the ground transportation level that totally overwhelmed the airport’s capacity. Cab lines were horrendous due to downtown gridlock from the fireworks watchers and even though we had a Shuttle Express reservation, it was over two hours until we finally got assigned a van. Ugh. By the time we got home, it was 5 am to our body clocks. Then we discovered Kate’s hamster had escaped from his cage at some point and we feared him dead. Kate searched for him forlornly whilst weeping. Thankfully, Nicole found him alive under the downstairs couch, though Digger was clearly starving and dehydrated. We have no idea how many days he was out of his cage. It could have been many days. Hopefully, little Digger will bounce back after some food, water, and rest.

Origins was fairly subdued this year. It could be it only seems that way in comparison to last year’s rancorous politics, but there just didn’t seem to be that much excitement in the air. Our sales were fine and we got the marketing mojo going for Thieves’ World and Mutants & Masterminds Second Edition. The crowds in the Exhibit Hall were pretty thin though, particularly on Saturday, which is usually the best day. Since attendance was said to be up, this may have something to do with the move of the Exhibit Hall further away from the escalators. I certainly heard other exhibitors complaining about it. The Exhibit Hall was definitely smaller than previous years. Many companies were missing, either because they’ve gone out of business or because they were cutting their expenses to the bone. Many industry friends I’d expect to see were not there, which only added to the general sense of industry malaise that’s been the story of 2005 so far. Amusingly, our booth was as big as the WotC booth. Take it, Hasbro!

As expected the Origins Awards were a pathetic sham this year. Apparently, we as an industry don’t even have enough self-respect to merit our own awards ceremony anymore. Instead, the winners were announced to the largely disinterested crowd gathered to await the opening of the Exhibit Hall. This meant, of course, that most of the creators of these games couldn’t even be there because they were likely inside the Exhibit Hall preparing their booths. And even if you were there, you had no chance to actually accept the award or say anything. No, for that, you had to go to the “party” on Friday night. Winners got in free but others had to pay $30 if they wanted to attend. The whole thing was ill conceived, lame, and frankly insulting. In five years, the fan-created and -run ENnie Awards have far surpassed the Origins Awards in respect and prestige. I look forward to the ENnies at GenCon next month.

As for stuff, I kept it light this year (I can’t fit all my crap in my office as it is). The guys at Aberrant, a new company with a nice looking scifi minis game called Rezolution, were old WFRP fans who were so happy with the new edition that they gave me a copy of their game. That was quite nice of them. I also traded for a new Avalanche wargame called Gazala. It’s WWII North African action that apparently uses an updated version of the old Panzergruppe Guderian rules from SPI. Speakig of the DAK, Don Perrin also gave me some of his company’s Stuka and ME109 minis for my Flames of War army. As for purchases, I picked up a copy of the old Avalon Hill minis game Napoleon’s Battles for a good price and an Osprey book on the Battle of Austerlitz. I also bought Kate Woolly Bully, a tile laying game about sheep that she asked for. If she likes it, maybe I can teach her Carcassone in a year or two.

Well, I’ve got tons of work to do, so other Origins thoughts will have to wait until later.