September 2010


"I find that a well-placed "ohhh shit, yeah" really brings Shakespeare's sonnets to life."
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

September 22nd, 2010


Things have been quiet around here lately. Partly because September has been a hell of a month for me (although I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now), and partly because there was an abortive effort behind the scenes to update the site to a Wordpress installation (which will probably happen at some point, but didn't work out this time).

If you're starved for Alexandrian verbiage, you might be interested to know that I've been posting Shakespeare-related essays at the American Shakespeare Repertory. And we should also start seeing some fresh material around here in the next couple of days.

Meanwhile, a public service announcement:

September 28th, 2010


I don't have much interest in 4th Edition (see D&D is Dead, Long Live 4th Edition), but when I heard about the new D&D Starter Set I was hopeful that WotC was finally doing something that's about 20 years overdue.

I've talked here before about the lack of a Gateway Product for D&D (and, by extension, the lack of a gateway product for the entire roleplaying industry). To sum up: From 1974 to 1991, D&D was available in a single boxed set (just like other games) with a relatively inexpensive price point. In 1991, however, the Basic Set became a pay-to-preview product. (The distinction being that pre-1991 you might buy the Expert Set, but you would continue playing with your Basic Set. After 1991, when you bought the Rules Cyclopedia or the AD&D core rulebooks you took your Basic Set, stuck it in the closet, and never looked at it again: You were paying for an ephemeral piece of advertising that was designed to sell you the "real game".)

Thus, starting in 1991, the real entry point for the game became a hardcover book. And when the Rules Cyclopedia went out of print, the cost of buying the game skyrocketed to $100+. D&D was now a game that (a) didn't look like other games, (b) was extraordinarily expensive compared to other games, and (c) also required an immense investment in terms of time before you could even start playing (going from less than 100 pages including a solo adventure to 800+ pages spread across three hardbacks).

Basic Sets and Basic Games continued to be produced, but all of them were pay-to-preview products: Instead of descending from the tradition of Gygax/Arneson, Holmes, Moldvay, and Mentzer, these were created in the same fashion as the AD&D First Quest boxed set: In other words, these are products which tanked when they were first created and have continued to tank for two decades.



So when I heard they were releasing a new red box Starter Set and specifically evoking the 1983 Mentzer set as part of a product line that was specifically designed to provide a stable set of introductory products and a clear pathway for new players into the game I thought, "Hey, maybe they've finally figured it out."

Did they?

Nope. The Starter Set is still a pay-to-preview product. You can't even get to page 3 of the Dungeon Master's Book before the game is trying to sell you the full version of the game you apparently should have been buying in the first place. And once you buy those additional books, the Starter Set is specifically designed to be stuck in the closet and never looked at again. Suckers.

This is a product which new players joining experienced groups will be told to skip; which smart consumers will identify as as a pay-to-preview false start; and which less aware consumers will buy, discover is an incomplete pay-to-preview version of the game, and either (a) stop buying D&D products or (b) feel vaguely ripped off when they go to buy the book they should have bought in the first place.



The other stated goal of the D&D Essentials line is to eliminate the market confusion surrounding D&D. Imagine that you heard about a game called "Dungeons & Dragons" and you walked into a store tomorrow looking to buy a copy. In this scenario, there are arguably two problems with the PHB/DMG/MM triumvirate:

(1) They're too expensive. $105 is an insanely high cost of entry.

(2) It's entirely unclear that those are the three books, out of the vast number of D&D books available, that you're supposed to buy.

So does Essentials solve these problems?

Of course not.

COST: Because the Starter Set is a pay-to-preview product, it's a fake entry point to the game (suffering the exact same problem that the multiple versions of the 3rd Edition Basic Game did). If you're entering the game through the Essentials line, the products you're looking for are D&D Rules Compendium, at least one of the Heroes books, the Dungeon Master's Kit, and the Monster Vault. Total cost of entry? $110. ($130 if you count both Heroes books. $150 if you bought the Starter Set.)

CONFUSION: The supposed ideal was that when someone asked, "What do I buy to play D&D?" The answer could be, "The Essentials." But that doesn't actually pan out because there are 9 different Essentials products (not including the dice set). You're still facing a wall of confusing product and trying to figure out which three esoterically named products you're supposed to be looking for (and that's before we add in the extra confusion caused by the Starter Set fake-out).

Or maybe you're supposed to buy all of them? At a whopping $210? That's way too expensive, no thanks.

And this, of course, assumes that the consumer has gotten your note about the Essentials being the products they should be looking at. If they haven't, they're now faced with all of the Essentials products plus all of the non-Essentials products while trying to (a) realize that there are three different entry points into the exact same game and (b) which products, exactly, belong to which entry point.

COMPATIBILITY: But is D&D Essentials really the "exact same game"? It's a debateable point. One can certainly say that D&D Essentials is just including (a) the errata and (b) alternate-but-completely compatible class builds.

But if I'm playing a fighter from Heroes of the Fallen Lands and my DM is using the Player's Handbook, then we have two different versions of the fighter. That's every bit as confusing as a player using a 3.5 ranger while the DM is using the 3.0 Player's Handbook. Plus, the 4th Edition errata goes deep. This is a game which completely revised one of its core mechanics within mere weeks of being released, and more recently changed the basic foundation on which monsters are built. And the important point here is that not everyone uses the errata. Someone using a 4th Edition PHB without errata and someone using the new Rules Compendium are playing two versions of the game every bit as different as 3.0 and 3.5.

Now, I'm generally of the school of thought that 3.0 and 3.5 were more inter-compatible than most people gave them credit for. But I've certainly seen plenty of hiccups at tables where 3.0 and 3.5 PHBs were being used interchangeably. These sorts of problems will also crop up at tables attempting to use "vanilla 4th" and "Essentials 4th" at the same time.



I've talked before about WotC's habit of saying, "Our goal is to do X. And in order to do X, we're going to do not-X."

So when Bill Slavicsek says, "[Essentials] forms the foundation of the the game moving forward and are designed to be the perfect way for new people to get into the game -- thanks to the format, the price, and the approach to class builds." Perhaps I should be unsurprised when we end up with is a format which is confusing to new players at a price point more expensive than any previous entry point for the game.

The Essentials line may or may not be a success for WotC. It certainly seems to be successful in getting some people (including myself) to take a second look at 4th Edition. (Unfortunately, the game I find waiting for me has the same basic problem that it's still 4th Edition. And 4th Edition is still a game fundamentally designed to take most of the things I enjoy about roleplaying games out of D&D.)

But what I can guarantee you is that it will fail in its wider goal of reaching out to new customers in a new way. The Starter Set remains the same pay-to-preview product that has failed over and over and over again for the past 20 years. And the rest of the Essentials line is more expensive and more confusing to new customers than the existing options.

It's a triple package of fail.

Which is not, of course, to say that no new players will enter the hobby through the Essentials products. First Quest may have been a failed product compared to OD&D or the '77 thru '91 Basic Sets, but people still bought it. And plenty of people have entered D&D through the PHB/DMG/MM triumvirate even if they are expensive and confusing for new players.

But we're still waiting for WotC to offer a true gateway product for the RPG industry. And I anticipate that both D&D and the RPG industry as a whole will continue to suffer for it.

September 29th, 2010



Tonight at the Gremlin Theater in Minneapolis, MN, the Complete Readings of William Shakespeare continue with Richard II:

SEPTEMBER 29th, 2010
7:30 PM
Tickets: Pay What You Can!

Gremlin Theater
2400 University Avenue West
St. Paul, MN
Directions to the Theater

Richard II is the second part of a September Saga which reunites two plays starring Richard II which haven't appeared on the same stage and starring the same acting company since the reign of King James I. It started two weeks ago with the little-known Richard II: Thomas of Woodstock.

Richard II: Thomas of Woodstock only survives in a well-thumbed manuscript. Literally well-thumbed: The edges of its pages, worn thin by apparently decades of use as a playhouse prompt script, are disintegrating.

But that’s not all: The manuscript’s cover sheet has been lost, taking with it the original name of the play and the author’s name. The last few pages are also missing, taking with them the end of the play.

Despite being battered and beaten, the play has survived. And it brings with it a host of mysteries of enigmas.

First, and perhaps foremost, is the play’s anonymity. Take any half-decent, anonymous play from Elizabethan England and it won’t be long before the question, “Who wrote this?” starts attracting answers of, “William Shakespeare”.

Richard II: Thomas of Woodstock, on the other hand, is a very good play from Elizabethan England, so it shouldn’t be too surprising to discover that the name “William Shakespeare” has been periodically dogging its heels for at least the last couple of centuries. But the heat really cranked up in 2005 when Michael Egan picked up the torch. Egan didn’t just content himself with writing a mammoth tome making his case that Shakespeare was the author of “Richard II, Part 1″ (as he called it): He wrote four. And then he followed it up with a blitzkrieg of publicity.

Which, to make a long story short, is how the play finds its way into the apocryphal cycle of the Complete Readings of William Shakespeare.


Putting together a script for Richard II: Thomas of Woodstock was a complicated project, and you can read more about the general problems I face in this essay. But what I want to particularly focus on right now is the most devastating loss suffered by the manuscript: Its finale.

At least one full leaf is missing at the end of the play, taking with it at least 120 lines (based on the number of lines per leaf in the rest of the manuscript). It’s unlikely that we are missing more than one or two leaves, as the play is already rather long at 2,989 lines and is clearly heading towards a conclusion.

The ending of a play, of course, contains the culmination of its plot, theme, and characters. Therefore, in order to discuss or analyze Richard II: Thomas of Woodstock, one must hypothesize the nature of its ending. (If Godot shows up, Waiting for Godot looks like a very different play.) And if one is going to perform it, of course, a conclusion of some sort must be written.

It is perhaps unsurprising to discover that the hypothetical ending of the play has become a crucible for the authorship debate: Write the ending one way, and it strengthens the play’s ties to Shakespeare’s Richard II. Write it a different way and the plays become completely incompatible.

(If you'd like to, you can read the full play and/or the new ending before delving into the discussion of what I did and why I did it.)



Much like the authorship debate itself, there are basically two possibilities for the ending of Richard II: Thomas of Woodstock:

First, the play could be viewed as a complete conflation of Richard’s reign: The cronies of Richard’s final crisis (Bushy, Bagot, Scroop, and Green) are transplanted into Richard’s first crisis (which historically featured an entirely different set of nobles). Gloucester’s death, which in real life took place between the two crises, is dramatically shifted to the culmination of the first. But instead of being resolved in a series of primarily political maneuvers, this crisis is instead resolved on the field of battle in the fashion of the second crisis.

Theoretically one could argue that this is not a prequel to Shakespeare’s Richard II, but rather supercedes it entirely: All one needs to do is provide an ending in which Richard abdicates his throne in order to complete the play’s masterful blending of every crisis in Richard’s reign into a single, unified narrative.

This theory runs into a rather significant stumbling block, however, when one notices that Henry Bolingbroke – Richard’s replacement and the future Henry IV – is conspicuously missing from the play. While it’s impossible to completely rule out a last minute revelation of the heir apparent (akin to Henry VII in Richard III or Fortinbras in Hamlet), it’s rather difficult to imagine how the play would simultaneously remove Bolingbroke’s father (the Duke of Lancaster), who has also been left rather inconveniently alive.

Thus we are forced to turn to the second possibility, in which Richard’s first deposition is carried out: Stripped of his friends and with their tyrannies revoked, Richard is allowed to keep his throne. Much like the historical record, there is a return to a sort of status quo, allowing for a relatively seamless continuity with the beginning of Richard II.

In addition to Richard’s fate, there’s the question of how the issue of Woodstock’s murder was to be resolved. It has been hypothesized that Lapoole’s entrance as a prisoner at the top of the scene must presage an ultimate revelation of Woodstock’s fate, but this isn’t necessarily true: Lapoole may merely be rounding out the crowd of Richard’s cronies who have been captured during the battle (and destined to be sentenced during the course of the scene). If the play is connected to Richard II, it’s notable that while Gloucester’s death is known at the beginning of that play, even Lancaster and York are left to speculate on the king’s guilt in the matter.



Tying off the loose ends of the plot in R2: Woodstock is largely a matter of shuffling historical necessity and guessing which bits the author intended to include. More difficult to guess are the particular conclusions of each character’s arc, since each character – although largely drawn from the historical record – is nevertheless the unique creation of the author’s genius.

Of course, not every character in a drama is necessarily worthy of equal attention. Therefore, one needs to choose which characters are to be given the spotlight’s focus. In the case of R2: Woodstock, my best guess is that this focus belongs to Nimble and Tresilian (who have been the focus of the play’s B-plot), Richard (by necessity of his deposition if nothing else), and the king’s surviving uncles (partly as a continuation of Woodstock’s important legacy within he play).

As for Nimble and Tresilian, the thrust of their arc has already been initiated in Act 5, Scene 5, and is being drawn to a close when the script abruptly cuts off. It’s not difficult, therefore, to round off an ending in which the servant becomes the master (completing a cycle of class inversion found throughout the play) and Tresilian is brought to justice for his tricks in the culmination of a final trick played by Nimble.

Next we turn to Richard, who is most likely brought onstage as a captive by the Duke of York (who is conspicuously absent at the beginning of the final scene). Is he to be humbled like Tresilian? Perhaps. But if Richard is to end with his crown intact, it may make more sense to draw a contrast between his fate and that of his false judge. Let us instead suppose a Richard who, out of his need to find some strength to rely on, turns to the surety of his divine right to the throne: This harrowing experience can actually serve to strengthen and purify that belief, already found as a subtext throughout R2: Woodstock, into the central tenet of his existence (and thus setting the stage for Richard II).

Finally we come to the dukes of York and Lancaster. Throughout the play they have largely acted in concert as “headstrong uncles to the gentle king” (as Greene describes them in 1.2), but there have also been subtle divisions drawn between their characters: The “relenting Duke of York” (2.1) being contrasted against a Lancaster who is frequently “past all patience” (1.1).

Let’s suppose that in this final scene this division between brothers is brought into the open, perhaps driven by their different responses to Woodstock’s death. Lancaster, who had already sworn to “call King Richard to a strict account” (5.3) can follow their initial inclination to its extreme and depose Richard. York, on the other hand, can learn from Woodstock’s counsel and follow his example of temperance and patience, thus turning Woodstock’s death into a final sacrifice in accordance with Woodstock’s final prayer.

(And this, too, transitions the characters naturally to the beginning of Richard II.)



Even moreso than with plot or character, attempting to provide a thematic conclusion for the play bears the risk of stamping it with one’s own interpretation of the drama. Thus I have chosen to walk carefully, preferring to include thematic elements without necessarily seeking to summarize or pass judgment on them.

Occasionally, however, boldness is called for. In particular, I have chosen to take up key themes of Richard II. Many of these themes have already been highlighted in Richard II: Thomas of Woodstock, but others which have not previously been present in the play are established as the transformation of one theme into another.

Thus, for example, a king who has been vain turns reflective. And whereas in the aftermath of Anne a Beame’s death Richard says of himself, “My wounds are inward, inward burn my woe.” In the face of fresher losses, we find that his woe has consumed entirely, transforming him into a hollow king.

Have I overstepped scholastic certainty? Of course. But the ending of a play should never be completely predictable. So if we limit ourselves to providing an ending which does nothing that is not already contained in the play as it exists, we would confine ourselves to an artistically and dramatically unfulfilling conclusion. In seeking to push the boundaries of the play beyond the known limitation of its final, broken page, aiming towards Richard II as lodestar provides at least some guidance where we might otherwise find ourselves stumbling blindly in the dark.



Here are links to PDF copies of the new ending and the full script of Richard II: Thomas of Woodstock. You can find more about the play at the American Shakespeare Repertory.



Permission to use this additional material in print or production is freely granted as long as the following notice is included on either (a) the title page or cover of the printed publication or (b) the cover of the production’s program, website, and any posters, postcards, or similar advertising:

New Ending Written by Justin Alexander

Originally Produced by the
American Shakespeare Repertory

September 30th, 2010


Not that long ago I wrote about the Long Con of DRM. As a follow-up to those thoughts, I talked about the fact that Valve's Steam is often seen as an exception to the general vileness of DRM systems, largely because it (a) added value through instant delivery and by allowing you to access your Steam account from any computer in the world and (b) Steam is generally not as intrusive as it might be.

Valve apparently decided I hadn't made my point about how goddamn awful DRM is strongly enough, so they decided to give me some compelling supportive evidence: As of September 1st, I can no longer play any of my games -- games I have been playing for a decade -- because Valve decided to retroactively make those games incompatible with my computer's operating system.

Ah, DRM, how I despise you.

(And if you think I'm ever buying another piece of software through Steam then you must think I'm a goddamn idiot.)