"He has suggested that being President of this country was, to a certain extent, about character. I can tell you, without hesitation: Being President of this country is entirely about character."
August 2nd, 2007
As some of you may already be aware, the35W Interstate bridge across the Mississippi in Minneapolis collapsed last night at around 6 o'clock p.m. I am posting this around 1 a.m. to let everyone know that I am safe, and -- as far as I can tell -- everyone I know in the area is safe. I have, however, been forced to turn off my phone, because I am exhausted and I must sleep. Thank you for your concern, however. And my own thoughts and best wishes lie with all those who are still awake tonight with doubt or fear or grief in their hearts.
The reason I'm so exhausted at the moment? We finished the tech period for John & Abigail today. With the exception of mending a few buttons on our costumes and tucking away a few other odds and ends, we are as ready as we'll ever for our opening at 6 p.m., August 3rd at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater (810 West Lake Street). We're essentially taking tomorrow off to give everyone involved a chance to recuperate and rest, so that we can explode onto the stage Friday night with the best play you'll see at this year's Minnesota Fringe Festival.
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August 2nd, 2007 (2nd Update)
THE LIST OF IDIOCY
NUMBER TWO: Some idiot plagiarized Jane Austen and thensubmitted the work to eighteen major publishers. This would be pretty stupid in its own right, but the bloke receives something of a reprieve because it was, in fact, a stunt. He typed out the manuscripts, using a pseudonym that cleverly alluded to Jane Austen's early pen-name, and submitted them to see what kind of reaction he would get.
So why does this guy deserve a prominent spot on The List of Idiocy?
Because he actually thought that this would be some sort of meaningful demonstration of the difficulty of getting a novel published.
Wait. It gets better: Moron boy here actually uses the boilerplate rejection letters he receives as "evidence" that the publishing industry wouldn't publish a piece of classic literature if it arrived at their doorstep.
Think about it for a second: If you're reading a manuscript (one of many dozens that you receive every day) and you quickly realize that what you're reading is, in fact, the plagiarized opening chapter of a Jane Austen novel, would you bother writing out a lengthy response explaining that you would publish this novel if it were not, in fact, plagiarized? Probably not. You're just going to grab your standard rejection letter, stuff it in this moronic plagiarist's SASE, and stick it in your Outbox.
Or you'll simply dump the whole package into your trash bin, which is what many of the publishers apparently did. (And, hilariously, this too is used as "evidence" that Jane Austen couldn't get published today.)
The only thing this "experiment" manages to "prove" is that someone blatantly plagiarizing Jane Austen can't get published today.
Now, if you want to talk about the possibility that short-sighted publishers are rejecting manuscripts which later go on to be huge successes with massive readerships... well, you don't have to look too far. A sequel to The Hobbit was requested by the publisher, who then rejected The Lord of the Rings twelve years later (before a fortunate chain of events led to the book being published). Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time was rejected 26 times before it was published. More recently, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was rejected by at least a dozen publishers before being purchased by Bloomsbury.
Is it possible that there are authors just as talented as Jane Austen who have never been published and whose work has been lost to the misty tides of history? Almost certainly. Has this somehow become more prevalent in recent years? Almost certainly not.
For example, let's take Jane Austen herself: She originally sold Susan (the novel which would later become Northanger Abbey) to an extremely minor publisher in 1803, four years after it had been completed. This minor publisher never actually got around to publishing the book, however, and it was not until 1811 that Jane Austen's first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published... at her own expense.
That's right, Jane Austen herself was originally published by the 19th century equivalent of a vanity press.
So even if we were to accept this idiot's premise that submitting blatant plagiaries of Jane Austen's work demonstrates anything at all about the likelihood of escaping the slush pile, the only thing he's demonstrated is that absolutely nothing has changed in two hundred years. (At least, when it comes to editors being gifted with some unique insight into what will or won't be embraced by the public.)
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August 3rd, 2007
Adapted from the Letters of John and Abigail Adams
John and Abigail opens tonight at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater in Minneapolis, MN as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival. I both wrote the play (adapting it from the original letters of John Adams and his wife Abigail) and star in it (as John Adams).
When you come to see the show, don't be afraid to introduce yourself. Please be aware, however, that -- due to the tight schedule constraints of the Fringe Festival -- my crew and I only have 20 minutes to completely vacate the theatre and make way for the next performance. So you might have to hang around for a bit until we've finished scurrying around.
Hope to see you there!
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August 7th, 2007
Three random thoughts from perusing Amazon.com:
(1) One of Amazon's many recommendation features tells you that, of the people who looked at this book, what percentage of them (a) bought this book and (b) bought other specific books on the site. I am amused to discover that essentially every single book of recent vintage that I care to look at includesHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows prominently on this list.
(3) Today is also the day that A Play of Lords, the fourth book in my mother's Player Joliffe series, comes out. For those of you who aren't already familiar with it, the series -- which begins with A Play of Isaac -- follows a troupe of actors in medieval England.
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August 9th, 2007
JOHN AND ABIGAIL PRODUCTION PHOTOS
Production photos fromJohn & Abigail are now available. You can see them here. Only two more shows remain: Saturday at 4 pm and Sunday at 2 pm (both at the Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, MN). We've been getting some fabulous reviews. A few sample quotes:
"Alexander cuts a fine figure as John... he smolders..." - Fringe Audience Review
"This play... is full of insight and charm." - Fringe Audience Review
"I found myself being drawn into the letters of two remarkable people and the sacrifices they made..." - Fringe Audience Review
"Patriotic Minimalism: John and Abigail does what Fringe shows do best..." - Fringe Audience Review
I also highly recommend Killer Smile, written by Steve Moulds and directed by Brian Balcom. This is quite possibly the best show in this year's Fringe (my own work of towering genius excepted, of course... >ahem<) and there's only show left (Sunday at 4 pm). So what you should do is come and see John & Abigail at 2 pm and then drive a half mile or so down Lyndale Ave. to the Theater Garage and catch Killer Smile at 4 pm.
EDIT: The production photos were taken by Marci Tiesel. Ms. Tiesel is also available for weddings, birthdays, and other celebrations. She can be reached at 612-743-4634.
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August 20th, 2007
Sorry for the long break between updates. I was going to get some stuff posted last week, but then the news about the 4th Edition of D&D hit and put me into something of a scramble. As I've mentioned a couple of times previously, Dream Machine Productions is getting ready to launch its third line of products with Rule Supplement 1: Mounted Combat. With the eminent release of 4th Edition only eight months away, however, the implementation of this product line becomes murkier: How much commercial interest is there really going to be in rule supplements to a game system that's going to be defunct in less than a year?
So I've spent the last week considering my options, rearranging our productions schedule, and intermittently panicking. The final result of all this is that Dream Machine Productions will release the rule supplements on which meaningful design work has already taken place. This will definitely include:
Rule Supplement 1: Mounted Combat
Rule Supplement 2: Flight
Rule Supplement 3: Vehicles
It may also include Rule Supplement 4: Advanced Skills and (even more tentatively) Rule Supplement 5: Advanced Training. This will depend on how the first three perform in terms of sales. In any case, the release schedule for all of these supplements will be accelerated, with the last volume being released no later than October or November.
This means that other products will be pushed back in the development and release schedule. But I don't see that I have much choice: Either this material gets released fast to capitalize on the remaining market for 3rd Edition crunch material or I write off all the work I've already done on it.
For those with zero interest in the Rule Supplements, don't worry: Our release schedule over the next couple of months will still include City Supplements and Adventure Supplements.
After 4th Edition has been released, it's my current intention to update the existing City Supplements and Adventure Supplements to the new edition. At the very least, this will mean free conversion notes posted to the Dream Machine website. What will happen with the Rule Supplements will be an open question and will depend largely on what 4th Edition looks like.
THOUGHTS ON 4th EDITION
So what are my thoughts on 4th Edition? Thoroughly mixed.
For example, here's ateaser video that Wizards of the Coast posted to YouTube. The only message I take away from that video is that WotC's Research & Development is of the opinion that they've spent the last 30 years making the game so complex that nobody wants to use the grapple rules any more, and with 4th Edition they're going to make the rules even MORE complex, but it'll be okay because everyone will have a laptop to help them run and play the game.
On the other hand, in various press briefings and the like, WotC has said that they plan to make the game "easier to use" and that the Saga Edition of Star Wars is a "major preview" of what they're planning for 4th Edition.
So which direction are they actually going?
Well, it's important to understand that WotC has now established a lengthy track record of lying through its teeth when it comes to the release and content of new editions. Back in February of this year, for example, they claimed that they had no plans for a new edition of D&D and that the earliest we could conceivably see it would be 2009. Well, now it turns out that they -- even as they were saying that -- they'd already been in development for 4th Edition for more than a year. And, before that, there were the false claims that the 3.5 revision of the rules would not be incompatible with the 3.0 rules.
The lie about the nature of the 3.5 revision contributed significantly to the d20 collapse: Third party producers continued their development cycles and local retailers continued stocking their products in good faith that they would not be rendered obsolete with the release of 3.5, only to be sand-bagged when the actual rules came out and did precisely that. I, personally, built a business plan which took into consideration WotC's February statement regarding the non-imminent release of 4th Edition (and I'm sure many other third-party publishers did the same).
My point with all this is that, frankly, I'm not really going to expect anything in particular until we actually see the books in May of next year. Anything that's said before then may not, in fact, have any resemblance to what actually happens.
With that being said, I already have two reasons to be skeptical of 4th Edition.
First, there's Bill Slavicsek. Bill Slavicsek is now the head of RPG R&D at WotC. In my opinion, Slavicsek has never displayed anything but mediocrity in his game designs: He's responsible for the infamously bad 5th Edition of Paranoia and clumsy non-entity of Alternity. He not only screwed up the original D20 version of Star Wars, but was responsible -- as a result -- for setting a very unfortunate precedent for how D20 games should be designed. He negated the primary benefit of using the same rule system (familiarity with the rules) by filling his design with a plethora of minor changes which didn't accomplish much of anything except being different.
Slavicsek, to his credit, does try to pioneer innovative game mechanics. Take Torg, for example. But the result is often clumsy and in need of refinement, and I suspect this is because Slavicsek is not particularly good at figuring out what the actual consequences of a given mechanic are when he designs it. For example, he championed the VP/WP system. The VP/WP system not only increases bookkeeping and rule complexity to achieve a mediocre result, but the result it achieves (increased lethality) is actually exactly the opposite of what Slavicsek and his design team claimed that it achieved (cinematic battles).
So, I don't have high expectations from any game that Slavicsek is responsible for.
On the other hand, Mike Mearls is the head developer for 4th Edition. Mearls is responsible for a slew of high quality D20 supplements and the generally excellent Iron Heroes.
Unfortunately, since Mearls started working at WotC, there are plenty of indications that he's swallowed the Kool-Aid. Which leads to the other big strike 4th Edition has against it, in my opinion...
DESIGN ETHOS AT WIZARDS
The current design ethos which seems to be holding sway at WotC is radically out-of-step with my own tastes in game design and gameplay.
Take, for example, an article Mearls wrote on the rust monster as part of the "Design & Development" column at WotC's website. Here we have a rust monster given an ability which corrodes, warps, and cracks metallic equipment and weapons. 10 minutes later, though, the metallic equipment and weapons are A-OK. They just repair themselves without any explanation.
This design is an example of the "per encounter" and "no long-term consequences, because long-term consequences aren't fun" schools of thought which the WotC design department seem to be mired in at the moment. But the result is a cartoony game system: My characters no longer live in a world I can believe in. They live in a cartoony reality where actions don't have long-term consequences and the grid-lines of the holodeck are clearly visible.
Another example from Mearls would be his blog post about skills from late last year, to which I have already written a response. I'm not saying that this skill system is one we're likely to see in 4th Edition, but I am saying that it shows that Mearls' design sense has radically altered since he designed Iron Heroes and The Book of Iron Might.
Let's take a look at a recent quote from David Noonan: "Powers unique to the new monster are often better than spell-like abilities. At first glance, this principle seems counterintuitive. Isn’t it easier and more elegant to give a monster a tried-and-true power from the Player’s Handbook? On the surface, sure. But watch how it works at the table. The DM sees the spell-like entry, grabs a Player’s Handbook, flips through it to find the relevant spell, reads the relevant spell, decides whether to use it, then resumes the action. See where I’m going with this? That’s a far more cumbersome process than reading a specific monster ability that’s already in the stat block. Heck, the physical placement of one more open rulebook is a hassle for a lot of DMs."
This quote is interesting to me, because it shows the type of wrong-headed logic skew that I see prevalent in a lot of the WotC design decisions of late. Basically the thought process here goes something like this:
So far, so good. This is all absolutely true.
Right again. Some people might complain about "wasted space", but I would love the utility of it. I have a similar reaction whenever I see "undead traits" in the stat block. You mean I have to flip back-and-forth through my copy of the MM to keep on top of this creature? It took me many months of DMing 3rd Edition before my undead stopped losing random abilities from that "undead traits" entry.
... what the hell? How did you go skewing suddenly off to the side like that?
The problem is that Noonan is fallaciously conflating two types of utility:
(1) Spell-like abilities make it easier to use the rules because, as your familiarity with the rules for various spells grow, you will gain greater and greater mastery over a larger and larger swath of the ruleset.
(2) Putting all the information you need to run a creature in the creature's stat block makes it easier to use the creature because all the information you need is immediately accessible (without needing to look in multiple places, which also ties up books you may need to be using to reference other information).
There's no need to jettison utility #1 in order to achieve utility #2.
The correct solution is to use spell-like abilities and list
(Which is not to say that a creature should never have a unique ability. There is no spell to model a hydra's many-heads, for example. The point here isn't to stifle creativity. The point is to avoid reinventing the wheel every time you want to build a car.)
We actually saw a similar logic-skew in Mearls' treatment of the rust monster:
This is absolutely correct.
... and there they go again, skewing off towards the cliff's edge.
(The correct answer here, by the way, is: "The rust monster will use the existing mechanics for attacking items. Because we want the rust monster's ability to be frightening and unusual, we will allow it to bypass hardness. The damage will also be inflicted on metallic items used to attack the rust monster. Magic items are affected, but may make a saving throw to avoid the damage.")
Let's take another quote form Noonan: "Our underlying reason was pretty simple: We wanted our presentation of monsters to reflect how they’re actually used in D&D gameplay. A typical monster has a lifespan of five rounds. That means it basically does five things, ever, period, the end. (Forgive me if that seems like a totally obvious insight.) Too often, we designers want to give our intelligent, high-level monsters a bunch of spell-like abilities—if not a bunch of actual spellcaster levels. Giving a monster detect thoughts or telekinesis, for example, makes us feel like those monsters are magically in the minds of their minions and are making objects float across the room all the time. But they aren’t! Until the moment they interact with the PCs, they’re in a state of stasis. And five rounds later, they’re done."
This is yet another logic skew at work. They correctly identified a problem ("when combat and non-combat abilities are mixed together in the stat block, it's difficult to quickly find the combat abilities on-the-fly") and simultaneously came up with two solutions:
1. We will have a new stat block that separates the combat information from the non-combat information. This will make it much easier to use the stat block during combat, and if it adds a little extra time outside of combat (when time pressure isn't so severe) that's OK. (You can see the logic behind this solution discussed, quite correctly, by James Wyatt in another column.)
2. We will get rid of all the non-combat abilities a monster has, since
they'll never have a chance to use them given their expected
Now, ignoring all the obvious problems in the second design philosophy, why do you even need to implement such a "solution" when you've already got solution #1 in place?
(In case the design problems in the second "solution" aren't obvious, here's another quote from David Noonan: "Unless the shaedling queen is sitting on a pile of eggs, it doesn’t matter how the shaedlings reproduce. The players will never ask, and the characters will never need to know." What Noonan is ignoring there is that the reason the PCs might be encountering the shaedling queen in the first place is the pile of eggs.
If D&D were simply a skirmish game, Noonan would be right: You'd set up your miniatures and fight. And the reasons behind the fight would never become important. But D&D isn't a skirmish game -- it's a roleplaying game. And it's often the abilities that a creature has outside of combat which create the scenario. And not just the scenario which leads to combat with that particular creature, but scenarios which can lead to many different and interesting combats. Noonan, for example, dismisses the importance of detect thoughts allowing a demon to magically penetrate the minds of its minions. But it's that very ability which may explain why the demon has all of these minions for the PCs to fight; which explains why the demon is able to blackmail the city councillor that the PCs are trying to help; and which allows the demon to turn the PCs' closest friend into a traitor.
And, even more broadly, the assumption that detect thoughts will never be used when the PCs are around assumes that the PCs will never do anything with an NPC except try to hack their heads off.
One is forced to wonder how much the design team is playing D&D and how much the design team is playing the D&D Miniatures game.)
All of this is not to say that I'm rejecting 4th Edition out of hand. There are certainly lots of interesting things coming out of the WotC design shop at the moment, too. And, like I say, there's really no way to tell what 4th Edition will actually be like until we actually have it in our hands.
For example, I was really excited to read about racial levels -- at every level you would gain not only class abilities, but racial abilties (making your choice of race more flavorful and meaningful). That sounds like a really nifty mechanic. Of course, later in that same essay they explain that they've backed a way off on that idea.
One of the things I would love to see fixed in 4th Edition is the amount of prep time for the DM. But it's fairly clear that this is not going to actually be addressed in a direct fashion. For example, look at what they're planning for classes: A multitude of decision points. This is great for the player, but it makes it ever more difficult to stat up NPCs quickly and on-the-fly for the DM.
People complained about having to spend skill points, but that's always been easy to kludge: Pick a number of class skills equal to your class skill points per level + your Intelligence bonus and max out the ranks. I don't see any way to kludge this type of level-by-level decision tree, however. You're going to have to actually go through and make those decisions every time you stat up an NPC.
I suspect that everything WotC has to say about "easier to prep" and "easier to use" really means "look at the nifty online tools you have to pay a monthly subscription for". Is that cynical? Maybe. And there seems to be a good chance these online tools won't require the same subscription fee as D&D Insider access will. But, even then, this just brings me back around to my original point:
A game so complex I need to bring my laptop along to prep it and run it?
That doesn't sound appealing to me at all.
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August 22nd, 2007
ELIZABETHAN THEATER AND SCHOLARSHIP
As the result of random conversational tangents, I found myself wandering through the Lost Play of Shakespeare as described on Wikipedia. This random intellectual sampling has reminded me of why I find so much of the scholarship surrounding Elizabethan theater so amusing.
For example, here's a quote from the discussion of The Puritan:
Stop for a moment and think about the bare thread of logic which is being employed here. Consider that other possibilities include: The author had an out of date almanac. The author made a mistake. The author just didn't care and referred to July 15th as a Tuesday because he needed it to be a Tuesday or because "Tuesday" fit the scansion and "Saturday" didn't.
Now, in this particular case, there is supplementary evidence which clearly suggests that the play was written at some point during the first decade of the 17th century (and no later than 1607 when it was published). My point is that, when trying to date the composition and performance of Elizabethan plays, scholars are working in a near-vacuum when it comes to reliable information. Thus they scramble for any potential tidbit of correlation like a desperate man trying to find a wisp of oxygen.
This is probably made all the worse because the field of Shakespearean scholarship has been so thoroughly masticated over the last four centuries that there is little room for fresh insight. In such an environment, the need to secure tenure creates a tendency for over-reaching convolutions and the resulting navel-gazing simply makes matters worse.
Here's another example, this time from a discussion on the authorship of Sir Thomas More:
These are two passages with completely different subjects, contents, and structure (one is a question and the other is a statement). But they have five words in common, and thus they are offered as "evidence" that Shakespeare must have written it. Using this type of "logic" one can demonstrate quite aptly that J.R.R. Tolkien is responsible for The Sword of Shannara, The Dark is Rising, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
It's also entertaining to watch scholars try to "prove" authorship by comparing plot structures. As if the similarities between Lethal Weapon, 48 Hrs, and The Hard Way demonstrate that all buddy cop films were written by the same guy.
In general, when Shakespearean scholars say things like "clearly" or "obviously" what they really mean is "I have no evidence that this is true, and it's not even particularly logical to think it the most likely explanation, but I'm hoping that you won't notice".
But this is likely to get me started on Hamlet. And we should be here all night if that were the case.
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August 26th, 2007
Dream Machine Productions is proud to announce its largest product to date.Rule Supplement 1: Mounted Combat is 90 pages long, giving you everything you'll ever need to incorporate mounts of every size and type into your campaigns.
One of the things that sets Dream Machine's Rule Supplements apart from the pack is the innovative system of sidebar cross-referencing that they use. If you've seen Ptolus (which is excellent and comes highly recommended), then you've seen a similar system applied to setting material. We're expanding it and applying it to rule systems.
For example, on page 8 of Mounted Combat I look at what happens when a mount tries to squeeze into a space (one of many scenarios not address by the core rulebooks). And right in the sidebar on that page is this entry:
Penalties for Squeezing - PHB, Chapter 8,
Using this format, rules are presented exactly when and where they're needed whenever it's possible to do so. When the rule is too lengthy, a specific page reference is given. Not only does it make it easier to reference the rule if you need to (since you're being told exactly where to look for it), but it keeps those page references and other unwieldy repetition out of the actual body of the text (which makes the explanation of the immediate rule being discussed smoother and easier to use).
As I talked about a couple days ago, Rule Supplement 1: Mounted Combat will be followed by Rule Supplement 2: Flight and Rule Supplement 3: Flight. We'll be using these products to gauge whether there's still a market for 3.5-related crunch supplements. If they're a success, we'll be following up with Rule Supplement 4: Advanced Skills and Rule Supplement 5: Advanced Training.
Where we'll go from there will depend a lot on what happens to the market with the release of 4th Edition.
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August 28th, 2007
WHAT I'M READING #51:
RAINBOWS END by Vernor Vinge
It seemed to me that Rainbows
For starters, Vernor Vinge was an author
who could truly boast that every single novel he’d ever
written was better than the one he’d written before: The
Witling was better than Grimm's World; The Peace
better than The Witling; Marooned in Realtime was better than
The Peace War; A Fire Upon the Deep was better than
Marooned in Realtime; and A Deepness in the Sky was better than
A Fire Upon the Deep. If Rainbows
"Fast Times at Fairmont High" excited me even more than "The Blabber". Vinge was working his future history talents at their finest: He forwarded half a dozen different technical fields all at once and then started looking at how that would change us as a society and as individuals. His vision was compelling, startling, dynamic, and utterly believable. If those technologies become prevalent, society is going to look a lot like "Fast Times at Fairmont High" -- you can already see the beginning of those trend lines forming in the high schools of today as the technology of today reshapes the contours of daily life. And those trend lines are even clearer today than they were in 2001 when he published the story.
So when I approached
Finally, on a
personal level, Rainbows
Unfortunately, I was to be disappointed in this.
To be clear, the book – considered in and of itself – is just fine. It’s a solid near-future techno-thriller. It’s very well executed, with some really interesting twists, and I give it a B+ with a solid recommendation to accompany it.
But I still can’t shake the feeling that,
with Rainbows End, Vinge played chicken and he lost. He got
into a staring contest… and he blinked. Rainbows
To take one example, in “Fast Times at
Fairmont High”, Vinge looked at the ways in which augmented
reality would fundamentally change social interaction. In Rainbows
There was, to put it more bluntly, more complexity of world-building in his short story than there was in his novel. And, ultimately, I consider that to be a colossal failure.
Vinge seems to have suffered a failure of imagination. And that's not a flaw I ever thought I'd see in him.
For additional comments on Rainbows End, which include SPOILERS, click here.
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August 29th, 2007
THE DRUGGING OF OUR CHILDREN