My Year in Books

As near as I can figure, the books below are what I read in 2009. This list does not include graphic novels, game books, Osprey titles, or magazines. Looking it over, you’d never guess I’m a raging leftist. I guess I was in a bellicose mood in 2009.

11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour: Armistice Day 1918, World War I and Its Violent Climax by Joseph E. Persico

1453 and Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley

Blackbeard: America’s Most Notorious Pirate by Angus Konstam

Camouflage by Joe Haldeman

The Civil War: A Narrative, Volume 1 by Shelby Foote

The Clash by the Clash

The Crimean War by Clive Ponting

A Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman

Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne by David Gaider

The Family Trade, The Hidden Family, The Clan Corporate, The Merchant’s War, and The Revolution Business by Charles Stross

Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany 1942-1945

The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky

Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman

Gods and Heroes: Myths and Epics of Ancient Greece by Gustav Schwab

Greene, Revolutionary General by Steven E. Siry

Halting State by Charles Stross

Lives of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers by Bryan Mark Rigg

Mechanicum by Graham McNeill

The Napoleonic Wars by Gunther Rothenberg

Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, and Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

Passage at Arms by Glen Cook

Paths of Glory, The French Army 1914-1918 by Anthony Clayton

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Russian Sideshow: America’s Undeclared War 1918-1920 by Robert L. Willett

A Separate War & Other Stories by Joe Haldeman

Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete by Gene Wolfe

Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between G.I. Joe, Barbie, and the Companies That Make Them by G. Wayne Miller

Randomness in Dragon Age

Last week Dragon Age, the game I’ve been working on for the last year, had its electronic debut. It’s at print now (just got the printer proofs today, in fact) and will be in stores in January but you can buy the PDF version right now. This has naturally led to a lot of commentary on the usual gaming message boards.

So my biggest goal for this first Dragon Age release was to create an intro product like the industry hasn’t seen since D&D;’s famed red box from the 80s. I was thus quite careful about what went into Set 1 and what didn’t. I wanted this to be as attractive as possible to people who had never roleplayed. Thus it looks like a game (it comes in a box), it comes with the dice you need, and it includes two modest, 64 page books. I was simply not going to put a 300 page hardback in front of newbs and hope they’d read it. Nor did I want to create an intro product that was disposable. I didn’t want to say, “Spend $30 on this and then you can spend $100 on the real game.” So Set 1 is Dragon Age. It’s the core of the game we’ll be building on and it’s designed to be approachable and easy to learn.

Some long time gamers have expressed surprise at seeing that there are a couple of random elements in the character creation process. Surely we’ve moved past such antiquity methods, they argue. The randomness largely shows up in two places: generating your abilities and gaining some background benefits. The latter is trivial so I’m going to concentrate my comments on abilities. So why is that I decided to go with a random method for generating abilities? Four reasons.

First, I wanted to make this process easy for new players. Generating abilities is the second step of the process. If you are a newb making your first character, your understanding of the game is shaky at best. I didn’t want to ask them to assign stats at this stage. It is much faster and much easier to have them roll some dice.

Second, getting those dice out early in the process serves to engage people. You are making a character and rolling dice makes it feel like you are really doing something. Rolling 3d6 and adding the results together is the key mechanism of the game. This method begins drilling the importance of the 3d6 roll right at the start.

Third, when BioWare approached us about doing a pen & paper RPG for Dragon Age, one of their goals was to play up the old school nature of the Dragon Age property. It’s no secret that the roots of Dragon Age: Origins lay in the earliest days of tabletop roleplaying. While I was not looking to design a retro clone, I did want Dragon Age to have a certain old school feel. To me rolling for abilities strikes the right chord. This is why many people still refer to “rolling up” new characters, even when playing systems that don’t use random stat generation.

Fourth, rolling random abilities can actually lead to interesting characters in a way that other methods do not. You may not have planned for your warrior to be particularly smart, but if you roll a high Cunning, it may suggest a different and fun way to play the character.

Now all of that is fair enough, some folks say, but why not include an optional rule for non-random ability generation? Here’s why. Early on I decided that I did not want Set 1 to include a bunch of optional rules. Every optional rule is another choice that has to be made, and again I did not feel this was friendly to the new players. I’m comfortable putting optional rules in follow-up products because anyone who buys them will have enough experience with the system to make more informed decisions.

Set 2 will include a non-random option, but to prove I’m not a big meanie who is going to make you have badwrongfun, here’s a simple method you can use in the interim. Your abilities start at 0 and you get 10 points to buy them up. No ability can be greater than 3. Why not 4, you may ask, when the random table goes to 4? Well, on the table it’s a rare result. You have a less than 1% chance to rolling an 18 on 3d6. If you could simply buy a 4, that would become the standard not the exception.

I hope that answers everyone’s questions. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got proofs to get back to.

Tree Fluffers

Kate, my always awesome step-daughter, is turning 14 this weekend. I remember how mature I thought I was at 14 and I can only ruefully laugh at myself. Now Kate has grown up plenty. It used to be that I could make double entendres and the like for Nicole’s benefit and they’d go right over Kate’s little head. Now Kate makes a point of saying, “I understood that,” and glaring at me disapprovingly when I’m too saucy. It’s very cute.

But Kate is not all the way grown up just yet. Yesterday she and Nicole went shopping for a Xmas tree. We opted for a wee tree this year, which suits our house well. When they got home, Nicole explained it took them a while to find a good one. Apparently many of the trees had been crushed or bent out of shape or crushed when stacked up in storage.

“It was so sad,” Kate said. “They really need a tree fluffer to fix them.”

I smiled at her like she was being cute, while desperately holding in a belly laugh. “A tree fluffer?” I queried, meeting Nicole’s eye.

“Yeah, you know,” she replied. “Someone who can fluff the trees and get them back into the right shape.”

“Ah, yes,” I said, “an important job. I guess that’d be seasonal work.”

“Yup!” she agreed. “You wouldn’t need a tree fluffer in any other part of the year.”

I let it drop there and Nicole and I managed not to fall over laughing. I was not about to explain to my step-daughter what a fluffer was. Nicole and I had a good laugh about it after Kate went to bed though.