The Seattle International Film Festival started this weekend and Nicole and I were scheduled to see four films. Yesterday we saw Gitmo: the New Rules of War, a Swedish documentary, and a Prairie Home Companion, the new Robert Altman flick. The doc was so-so. The film makers are young and earnest and I certainly agree with the basic premise that Gitmo as it has been used by the current administration is a shameful betrayal of America’s founding ideals, but it didn’t shed any new light on the subject. It did provide a Swedish perspective, which unfortunately meant several scenes in which a former Gitmo inmate and his father spoke at length in Swedish without being subtitled. This was doubly strange as most of the film was in English. Prairie Home Companion was very good, however, and ended the day on the high note. It had many funny scenes, some very good performances, and a truly Minnesota feel.

Today our first film was the Proposition, an Australian western written by Nick Cave of all people and starring Guy Pearce. I was really looking forward to seeing this movie. Too bad SIFF screwed us. Now we had seen the signs that said there was no late seating, but the previous night we had seen ushers with flashlights seating people as late as 15 minutes into the movie, one right next to us. So when our bus was running late and Nicole started to worry, I told her I was sure it would be fine. We and about 8 other people showed up no more than 5 minutes late. Not only would they not let us in, they wouldn’t refund our money or let us trade in our tickets for another festival film. The guy at the door said, “I’m afraid your tickets are now worthless.” Well thank you very fucking much. Way to treat your paying patrons.

Tonight we saw King Leopold’s Ghost, a documentary about the horrible exploitation the Congo has suffered since the 19th century. This was a truly great film, powerful and haunting. I knew some of the history of how King Leopold of Belgium had taken over the Congo, but the full story is far worse than I remembered. The really amazing thing about it is that he didn’t take the Congo as a Belgium’s colony but his own. He literally owned it himself and after decades of raping the country and killing millions for rubber, ivory, and other natural resources, he then sold it to Belgium for a further staggering sum. Unbelievable. Now the film could have ended with the death of King Leopold but to its credit it continued to the story to the present day. Just when you thought the tale couldn’t be any more of a stain on the oversoul of humanity, it would hit you with something else. Like how the US conspired to have the only democratically elected leader of the Congo assassinated so an anti-communist military strongman more aligned with US interests could take over. The US government gave him huge sums of money while he murdered millions of his own people. Today the exploitation continues, this time at the hands of multinationals and warlords. The story is very well told, totally relevant, and thoroughly nauseating. See King Leopold’s Ghost if you have a chance.

Six Stories of Suckitude

Friday night I went out with Ray, John, and Jenny to see Poseidon at the Imax theater in the Pacific Science Center. To be clear, we knew it was going to suck. We had hoped that it might have that campy feel that made the original Poseidon Adventure entertaining, though granted the lack of Borgnine was a strike against it to start with. We also figured that if nothing else the FX would look good on the six story tall Imax screen. The nautical stuff did indeed look good. The rest was a black hole of suckitude though. The only actor who seemed to be having fun was Kevin Dillon. He played “Lucky” Larry and you knew by the way he kept emphasizing his nickname that he’d die early on in ironic circumstances. Once he was dead, the rest of the cast just played it straight and the film went from one crisis to the next until it was finally spent. It was a real shame to see an actor like Andre Braugher, who was so great in Homicide, just given nothing to work with. I hope he at least got a good paycheck.

I recently saw two much better movies on the small screen. First was Riding Giants, Stacy Peralta’s documentary about big wave surfing. Peralta, a professional skate boarder turned director, used similar techniques to his Dogtown and Z-Boys film, which documented the influential skate scene which he was a part of in his younger days. It is no surprise he would tackle surfing, since the Z-Boys skating style was derived from it. The film features some great footage of the original big wave surfers, a very small group of guys who flew to Hawaii in the 1950s to live on the beaches and inadvertently create surf culture. Peralta follows big wave surfing to the current day, where prodigy Laird Hamilton goes far offshotre and uses the tow-in technique to ride ocean waves 80 feet tall. That is some crazy shit and the footage is quite impressive.

The second movie was Munich, Steven Spielberg’s film about the massacre of Israeli Olympians in 1972 and a team of Mossad-sponsored agents who went to Europe to assassinate those behind it. I am not a big Spielberg fan, but I have to give him props for putting together a very good film. Its biggest accomplishment is that it actual attempts to treat terrorism as the complicated subject that it is and pulls it off. This is not a film of joyous revenge. As time goes by you can see the toll the mission takes on the agents. They begin to wonder if they have accomplished anything at all or just made the situation worse. You can also see the paranoia that living a life of secrets and lies fosters. Eric Bana gives an excellent performance, as does Ciaran Hinds (better known as Julius Caesar in HBO’s Rome). All in all, Munich was a surprisingly effective drama.

Fritz and Me

Just about two years ago my company put out a press release about our acquisition of the Thieves’ World RPG license. As someone who had started reading the series from its inception (and at a young age), this was awfully cool. Shortly after the announcement, an agent who represented the estate of Fritz Leiber contacted me. He had seen the Thieves’ World PR and wanted to know if Green Ronin would be interested in licensing Leiber’s Lankhmar books.

Let me tell you, it was really tempting. I loved the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories and devoured them all as a teenager. Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Michael Moorcock were the fantasy writers that hooked me into the genre in my formative years. As I said, tempting. Much to the chagrin of several of my staffers though, I ultimately decided not to pursue the license. Sad to say, it just didn’t seem commercially viable in the current marketplace. I doubted many young fantasy fans read Leiber anymore and didn’t think the older gamers who did were a big enough audience. Certainly TSR’s two attempts to do Lankmar RPG lines had not been very successful and those were released when the RPG market was much stronger.

It is thus with some interest I note that another publisher has picked up the RPG rights to Lankmar. I’ll be curious to see how that works out.

To Clarify

It’s my own damn fault, I suppose, for commenting on game awards at all yesterday. Over the many years I’ve been in the game industry I’ve participated in endless, often heated, debates about this award and that and what can be done to make each one more respected and perhaps even prestigious. These days I try not to get involved in such arguments, as they are always the same and have little result. Since it seems some folks have gotten the wrong idea about my crack about the Diana Jones Award, however, it seems that I should clarify what I meant.

So one of the many old chestnuts that always come up in awards debates is the idea that there are “too many awards.” Somehow asking people to sit through a 2-hour ceremony once a year so that game designers can get at least some recognition for their work is too much to ask. In recent years the Origins Awards have dropped from 22 or so categories to 12. Somehow this is supposed to make each award be more meaningful or prestigious or something. This now means that there are exactly two roleplaying awards, one for best game and one for everything else. So 32-page adventures have to compete against 400-page campaign settings, for example. This is one of several reasons why Green Ronin declined to participate in the Origins Awards the past two years.

The Diana Jones Award is literally one award and its nominees come from all categories of hobby games. More than that though, the nominees often include other related things that are deemed to exhibit excellence in gaming. Last year, for example, one of the nominees was “the Scandinavian Gaming Community.” This year’s include a game design contest and the legendary Irish convention charity auctions. Recognizing such things is all well and good. Really, who is going to complain about auctions for charity? What strikes me odd about the whole thing though is that these disparate nominees then get judged and one is deemed the winner. How does one define excellence in these situations then? How do you compare the play experience of the Spycraft RPG to money raised for charities? What criteria would you use to decide if a game design contest was better than Perplex City? And that doesn’t even get into the difficulty in comparing an RPG to a boardgame, or a TCG to a miniatures game. Imagine a music contest in which the nominees were a corporate boy band, a death metal band, a punk rock collective, KISS’s stage show, and Keith Richards’ brain surgery. Which one of those is best?

This is what I was thinking yesterday when I was looking over the nominees. “Excellence” in this situation seemed so nebulous as to lose all meaning. Hence my crack about the Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence. This in turn led me to wonder if the whole Diana Jones Award was an elaborate mockery of other game industry awards. Apparently, that is not the case.

For those of you playing along at home, it’s only six weeks until you can talk about what a sham the Origins Awards were this year and how such and such product got robbed. Mark your calendars.

The Field of Excellence

There are a bunch of different awards in the game industry and naturally they are regularly compared to various movie awards. The Origins Awards try to be like the Oscars, with voting done by industry peers. The ENnies try to be the People’s Choice Awards, with the public voting on a list nominees. The Diana Jones nominees were announced this year. It seems they strive to be like the Directors Guild Awards but I finally figured out what they reminded me of today: the Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence. Perhaps that was James Wallis’s intention all along.

For Fun

I talk a lot about the game industry but not so much about the hobby of gaming. Here’s what I’ve been playing for fun recently.

Flames of War: I have played this game a lot over the past six months. It plays pretty well, but I have become a bit frustrated with the way armor and infantry interact. I am looking forward to the new edition this summer and I’ll be curious to see how they revise the rules in light of years of feedback.

Descent: This is Fantasy Flight’s super deluxe dungeon bash board game. It may cost $80, but it is packed with stuff. Hundreds of counters, sturdy dungeon tiles, special dice, and a pile of nicely sculpted plastic heroes and monsters. The rules seem a bit intimidating at first, particularly because there are so many different types of counters, but once you start to play the essence of it is pretty simple. A very good game.

Memoir ’44: This is Days of Wonder’s World War II boardgame based on Richard Borg’s “Commands and Colors” system. Man, I love this game. It has become a real standard for me and is great for those nights when you don’t have time to set up a full minis game or the like. I’ve enjoyed the Eastern Front expansion, as the Soviets really do play differently due to the Commissar rule (basically, you have to chose your order a turn in advance, a limitation your opponents don’t have). The Pacific expansion is out this summer and again I am looking forward to it.

Commands and Colors Ancients: As its name indicates, this game uses the same basic system as Memoir ’44 but tailors it to the ancients era. It is definitely more complicated than Memoir ’44, which you’d expect since it’s published by GMT. Still, it does do a good job of simulating the way ancient battles were fought. Missile fire is good for harassing the enemy but you’ll never win a battle with it. The cards encourage you to do things like set up battle lines with your heavy infantry. Even with the expanded rules, you can still play out big battles in less than two hours.

Mutants & Masterminds: Yes, we finally got a second edition game going around here. I haven’t actually gotten to play M&M; in many years and so far we are having a blast. It’s also nice to take a break from GMing all the time.

D&D;: I’m also playing in Tim’s D&D; game twice a month. Our group has had some trouble with players moving to other cities to take new jobs, but things seem like they’ve stabilized. Since GR still publishes d20 material, it’s good to keep up with the joneses.

Warlord: Reaper has at last gotten serious about doing its own miniatures game. The game is in between a skirmish game and a mass battles game. You don’t have formations, but you do have small units. The game itself plays pretty well. It’s attached to Reaper’s fantasy world but it’s generic enough that you could use these for most fantasy settings.

Drunter & Druber: Everyone showed up for game night this week…except the GM. I busted out Drunter & Druber, a German tile laying game I hadn’t played in 5 years or so. Fun little game and it plays quickly. Basically, you are building roads, rivers, and town walls and demolishing buildings as you go. You are trying to protect your own buildings while leveling those of other players. You can destroy any building with impunity except an outhouse. Those you have to call a vote to level. A card counts for as many votes as it has vowels. So “Ja” is worth one vote but “Jaa!” is worth three. Those wacky Germans.

Attack Sub: This is a late period Avalon Hill game pitting NATO naval forces against Soviet subs. It uses a card-based system similar to the excellent Up Front game, but it’s not nearly as good. I played the Soviets and found that I had a hell of a time even getting a lock on a ship, never mind firing a torpedo at one. It seemed like it would be cool, but was a bit frustrating in the end.

Battlestar Galactica TCG: I played through a scripted demo of this game, which isn’t exactly like playing. Basically, you sit there while someone tells you what cards to play. This does give a nice overview of the system, but it’s not like actually playing the game. Anyway, the game looks interesting. Rather than do the obvious thing and have one person play the cylons and the other the human fleet, the game has each player as a faction inside the fleet. As you play cards the cylon threat level builds and eventually there’s a cylon attack. You then flip up a card from your deck and whoever shows up turns out to be a cylon. I thought that was a nice way to recreate an important element of the show. I will try a full game when this is released.

The True Story of True20, Final Part

Having already gone on far longer than I expected when I started writing this up, I’m going to wrap up the True Story of True20 at last. When I last left off, it was the fall of 2005 and we were getting in entries for the Setting Search. I’m not going to get into the decision making involved in the Setting Search, as that was a public contest and it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment on it in this venue. Suffice to say we got enough good entries to fill out both the core book and the True20 Worlds of Adventure book we planned for summer ’06. The rest of the process was expanding the rules, editing the book, getting the art, laying it out, and sending it print. Nothing really out of the ordinary there.

Moving into 2006 then, it was just a question of maximizing the impact of the game’s launch. Of course, we would do our usual rounds of PDF previews and online hype. We also had Dragon’s announcement of the Setting Search winners in January, which was a nice bit of PR for True20. As we considered what else we could do, we also had another outstanding issue that needed resolution. Namely, what were we going to do for people who had bought the previous PDF?

Our standard operating procedure is to provide people who buy our PDFs with free updates when a product gets revised. That’s usually when we fix bits of errata though or make other small changes. In this instance we were taking a no frills 96 page PDF and blowing it out into a fully illustrated 224 page core rulebook. If we provided the new core book for free, that’d be giving away an awful lot of content.

We batted around several ideas. We could simply give everyone a discount coupon and let them upgrade at their option. We also considered splitting the book into rules and settings, then giving away the rules as a free update and charging for the settings. We didn’t feel like that’d be fair to the Setting Search winners though and the whole point of having the settings was to provide examples of how you can use the True20 rules to model very different genres. A final option was to simply treat this as a new product and not give any special deals at all.

In the end I kept coming back to the free update. That would be a great way to thank the early adopters of True20. It would surely cost us some money in the short term, but the long-term benefits seemed to outweigh that. We had sold an awful lot of that PDF, so providing a free update to all those purchasers would be great, targeted marketing. We hoped that when those folks saw the full core book in PDF form, they’d happily go to their local game stores and pick up a hard copy.

With that in mind, we stopped selling the old PDF in January. Anyone buying it a month or two before the game’s full release would not be an early adopter by any definition. Then we waited until just a few weeks before the print version was going to release and sent out update links to all previous purchasers. The idea was to get them pumped up about True20 just in time to talk it up at their local stores. We hoped this would help create a consumer demand that’d “pull” sales through the three-tier system when the core book launched.

We also launched a dedicated website,, and did a bunch of previews in this period. Hal, Rob, and I attended GAMA Trade Show in Las Vegas in March and promoted the hell out of True20. Shortly after all that, the book finally came out. At Green Ronin HQ there was much rejoicing.

We had hoped that True20 would be like Mutants & Masterminds, but the instant hits are few and far between. Initial sales were good but not through the roof. And that’s what brings us to the current phase of True20’s lifespan: the push. Now the game is out and retailers have had a chance to check it out and see the demand. It’s up to us to keep pushing and make it clear this is a release with weight behind it. The dedicate website is a good indication of that, but just a start. We released a fast play a few weeks ago so people would get a taste of the game. Along with that we released a free True20 version of my Death in Freeport adventure to give new purchasers something they can do with the game right away. Meanwhile, work proceeds on the supplements and the True20 Bestiary goes to print very soon. Damnation Decade, our 1970s scifi freakout setting, is also coming out soon and includes a True20 appendix. True20 Worlds of Adventure is on track for a July release. All this product and activity is meant to show distributors and retailers that True20 is a major line and should be treated as such.

Will it work? Well, that’s the unwritten next chapter of the True Story of True20.


Weekend Shows

I got a bunch of work done over the weekend, but I also found time to go out and have some fun. Friday night Nik and I went to the Epoxies show at El Corazon. She wrote a review of that on her blog, so I won’t go through the whole show. I’ll just add that the Epoxies were great fun and the only downer was that the sound man had Roxy’s vocals down too low for the entire show. It wasn’t until the encore that he finally turned her levels up. That made the last two songs (“Toys” and “Robot Man”) sound terrific; too bad he didn’t figure it out earlier.

Saturday night we met up with Ray and went out to the Bookstore, a downtown bar we dig. Later we went to the Can Can, a new place right at Pike’s Place Market that has attracted an eclectic crowd of hipsters, punks, and lipstick lesbians. It’s modeled after classic French cabarets and has a cool atmosphere. The waitresses periodically converge on the stage to do Can Can routines, which is pretty amusing. The house band plays old style jazz with an accordion in full effect and it really works.

That night there was a music event as well. Christine and Bill joined us just in time to catch the first act, Moonpenny Opera. They are apparently a foursome but that night it was just two guys, a bass player with a stand-up and an accordion player/singer. They had a great carnival meets vaudeville thing going on and we really enjoyed them. The song about the guy who kills himself so he can finally be happy with his necrophiliac girlfriend was priceless.

Next up was Baby Gramps, a fixture on the Seattle music scene for over thirty years. He’s a demented old coot with a big white beard who brought the house down with his one of the kind performance. To quote one review: “Baby Gramps finger picks an old steel national guitar and sings in a wild, extemporaneous gravel vocal style with phenomenal vocal rhythmic improves and a guitar technique that borders on early ragtime. He combines early jazz, blues, ragtime, and good-time novelty music.” I’ll also add that he’s a riot. By the end of the first song he had the whole audience clapping along and shouting out “Fuck-a-doodle-doo”. After a few songs, he said he got gotten the feel of the crowd and then launched into a song all about the scrotum, “the hairy scary voodoo bag.” The whole thing was so eccentric it’s hard to describe but we enjoyed the hell out of it.

The headlining act was Reverend Glasseye from my hometown, Boston, MA. Their music has been described as “Delta blues, ’60s burlesque, and the carnival, after dark,” so you’d think they’d fit in perfectly with the openers. That wasn’t really the case though. Moonpenny Opera and Baby Gramps both had warped senses of humor that served them well. Reverend Glasseye were very serious and they seemed put out by the cabaret nature of the venue. The singer admitted that this was their second month on tour and this was their hardest show. Their songs were interesting but so somber that it was a bit of a let down after the fun of the opening bands. Still and all, it was a good show and I’m glad we discovered a new downtown spot for music and nightlife.