Pirates of the Midland Sea

One of the odd elements missing from 13th Age is that there are no pirates.  Rob has said that this is the result of the Emperor's navy and the Archmage's wards.  This strikes me as both a missed opportunity and an overstatement of the extent of the Empire's control.  After all, one of the dominant themes of the game is that the Emperor has a precarious hold on power and that a number of destabilizing elements are loose in the world and gaining in strength.  The new High Druid has a base that borders on the Midland Sea.  The Three hold one of the largest cities, but no one knows how far they can be trusted.  The Shadow Prince is, as ever, a mystery.  And, the Lich King has his base in the center of the sea.  This suggests lots of opportunities for pirates and smugglers.

So, here's my take on a pirate's tour of the Midland Sea:

• Drakkenhall.  The city is nominally loyal to the Emperor, but it is still a city of monsters.  While it might be difficult for pirates to operate openly in Drakkenhall, it is an ideal city for smugglers who may do business with pirates or who may have other reasons and items to smuggle in or out of the city.  The western ruins would provide numerous hiding places.

• The Fangs.  The monster-haunted waters of these swampy shores can be dangerous and can be an excellent place to hide for the brave, strong, or desperate.

• Necropolis.  The Lich King's seat of power is a particularly dangerous place.  A pirate would have to be mad to seek shelter there.  Mad, or working as a servant of the Lich King.

• Proudfort.  Since its destruction two years ago, "expeditions to its ruins have been met with resistance of all types, not just dragons."  Certainly, that could include pirates.  If so, they're likely linked to whatever is going on in Drakkenhall.  Could the Three, or maybe just the Red, be using Proudfort as a base for what they cannot publicly do in Drakkenhall?

• Shadowport.  Described as "a smuggler's haven and pirate's resort," the only real problem with using Shadowport as a base is that it is the first place anyone would come to look for you.  Still, it's a great place to resupply and gather information.

• The Spray.  Not much is known about these islands that extend across the mouth of Pocket Bay between Horizon and Necropolis.  It is likely that they are the home to fishermen, wards of the archmage, and naval watches there to keep an eye on the Necropolis.  The locals might be great sources of information or valuable allies, particularly for smugglers in need of places to stash goods.  It isn't likely that all of the islands are inhabited, and the vacant islands could be useful places for burying treasure or holding clandestine meetings.

• Wild Wood.  The High Druid is no friend of the Emperor.  She might be willing to offer aid and shelter to pirates.  At a minimum, she's likely to have need of sailors who are experienced at avoiding Imperial entanglements.

Open All Night

Terrible Minds Challenge 8-17-2012

  The snow was really coming down.  Big wet flakes covered the windshield almost as soon as the wipers cleared it.  Jim slowed the truck down to a crawl, following the ruts in the snow along the dark highway through the tall pines.  In the pass, he saw an exit sign.  He had no idea where it went but it was time to get off the road.  Pulling up to the stop sign at the end of the ramp, he could see the red light of a neon sign off to the side.  He checked the GPS, but it just showed him as being in the middle of the pass, and his cell had no reception.  He pulled up in the empty parking lot of a diner where he could now make out that the sign said “Open All Night.”
  He opened the door of the truck cab.  The wet flakes blew inside and melted against the interior of the cab.  He dropped down into snow and sank up his ankles.  He ran and slid across the parking lot and through the front door.  He was still shaking off of the snow and unbuttoning his coat when came through the inner door.  The diner was completely empty, but the counter girl had a big smile for him.
  “How you doing hun?” she said putting a menu down on the counter.  “Come on, get out of that coat and make yourself comfortable.  Want some coffee?”
  Jim nodded his agreement and dropped into the swivel chair at the counter.  The place had a classic look, with chrome trim everywhere.
  “Mamma’s made some chicken and dumplin’s, or are you a straight up burger guy?”
  He looked up at her.  She had her hair pulled up with a band and she was wearing a retro pink, cotton uniform with a crow on the left front.  She seemed underdressed.  Then he realized how hot he was.  Jim peeled off his sweater.
  “There you go hun.  What’re you up for?”
  She had her order pad in her hand but she seemed to be offering something off the menu.  Jim could hear her mother banging around in the kitchen.
  “Yeah, chicken and dumplings sound good.”
  “They’ll sure stick to your ribs.”  As she turned to put the order in, Jim admired her ass.  He thought about his ex-wife back in Tacoma and how she’d run off with a longshoreman while he was out on the road.  When he’d gotten home, all he’d found waiting for him was the divorce papers.  He then noticed the picture of a soldier on the wall behind the cash register.  Glitter hearts and stars had been glued around the frame.
  “Who’s that?” he said shaking sugar into his coffee.
  “That’s Bobby,” she said.  “We were going out, but now he’s overseas.”
  Jim nodded and sipped on my coffee.  She went down the counter straightening  shakers and ketchup bottles that didn’t need straightening.  In the kitchen, her mom was humming some tune Jim couldn’t make out.
  The waitress put the bowl of dumplings down in front of him and topped off his coffee.  She was a small thing, delicate as a bird with hair black as night.  
  “Let me know if you need anything else,” she said.  She went back to rearranging the coffee mugs behind the counter.  Jim dug into the dumplings.  They weren’t that tasty but their warmth was good.
  “Would’ve thought there’d be more folks here on a night like this,” Jim said.
  “You would,” she said, turning to look out at the snow.  “We’re off the road a ways, though, and folks can have trouble finding their way here in the dark.”  Her mother coughed from the kitchen, a cackling rattle.
  “You want some seconds or maybe some pie?” she said.
  “No,” Jim said turning to look out at the snow.  He should get back on the road.  He was going to be late getting in, but the snow was still coming down.
  The waitress came out from behind the counter to look out the window.  “Night like this,” she said, “it’s likely to ice over when it stops snowing.”
  Jim reluctantly agreed with her.  They both sat there for a bit looking out at the snow and listening to Momma humming in the kitchen while she sharpened a knife.
  The waitress turned around to look at him and leaned back against a table lit by the red light from the diner sign.  She was wearing a pointed bra, and her breasts were missiles aimed right for him.
  “You aren’t thinking of going back out in that?” she said.
  “No,” Jim said, “Doesn’t seem like a bright idea does it.”
  “Guess we’ll just have to make the best of it,” she said.
  She came over to him.  Jim took a sip of coffee not sure what to do.  She ran her hand along the front edge of his shirt, pulling some of snaps.  She moved closer to him, and he pressed his knees against her hips.  Her hair smelled of pine trees and smoke.   She stepped back and swung his chair around.  Jim saw the picture of the soldier and pulled away from her. 
  “What about your guy?” he asked.
  “You really think he cares?” she said, “Do you think that he’s being a good boy himself over there in ‘Nam?”
  She put her hand inside his shirt, and it was as cold as the grave.

  “Riley here, I found that truck,” the deputy said into the radio.  “Gonna check it out.”
  “10-4,” the dispatcher replied.
  Riley got out of his patrol car, squinting in the glare of sun off of the snow.  The truck was parked in front of the old diner.  They’d been looking for it for a couple of days, since the driver hadn’t turned up with his load.  The truck was covered in snow, and it didn’t look like anything other than a rabbit had been there since the storm.  Riley knocked on the door of the cab and announced himself.  When there was no response after the second knock, he steeled himself and opened the door.  The cab was empty.  He called out again, louder.  The only response he got was cackling from some crows perched on the roof of the burnt out diner.


I've discovered that in this brave new world of social media that changing your job status requires further explanation.  Yesterday I left my job at the Texas Attorney General's office.  The job was okay and stable, but I was increasingly frustrated and it was becoming apparent that the future offered little more than a decayed version of the present.  So, looking at my growing stack of manuscripts and outlines for stories and games, I've made the move to working full time on those projects. 

I'm blessed to have a wife who supports me in this and blessed to have the freedom to be able to take it on.  Now, to produce some results.

More to come.

Recent Readings

This time, two collections of adventure fiction and a book on writing.

- The Collected Short Stories of Louis L’Amour: Vol. 4, the Adventure Stories. An interesting and more than comprehensive collection of contemporary stories from the 30s and 40s. The collection is divided into three general sections: adventure tales, literary tales, and character tales. The first section is the strongest with a varied collection of strong stories, the best being A Diamond of Jeru. It is set in Borneo and features a down-on-his-luck American who is hired by a young couple to take them up river on a diamond-hunting expedition. Their expedition starts off on an ill premise and is soon overthrown by conflicting passions and ambitions. It is a shame that it wasn’t made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart in the lead.

It’s been decades since I read any L’Amour, and I’d forgotten the strong female characters that are featured in many of his stories. L’Amour also draws heavily on his own experiences as a merchant seaman for many of these stories, giving an authentic sheen to exotic ports and cultures. The second section of literary tales are also based on his personal experiences. As told in the biography included at the end of the collection, L’Amour desperately wanted to be seen as a serious writer, along the lines of John Steinbeck, but it was the Westerns and other stories that paid his bills.

The third section compiles Pulp stories featuring recurring characters. The best of these are of Pongo Jim Mayo, a ship captain who’s adventures lead him into conflicts with the Japanese in Indonesia during the run up to the war. Many of the other stories feature Turk Madden, a seaplane pilot who again and again is able to out fly other pilots.

Despite how much I enjoyed some of the individual stories, it took me forever to get through the collection. In part because it is a doorstop of a book, some 662 pages. I suspect that the uneven themes and quality of the stories were also a factor.

- Hunter Quartermain’s Story, H. Rider Haggard.  A surprisingly engaging collection of the further adventures of the hero of King Solomon’s Mines. The tales are rich in the atmosphere of Southern Africa in the late 19th Century. Haggard had a real love for Africa that comes through in these stories. Many lions are killed, and one scene had me contemplating how to model in a game the effect of firing an elephant gun at point blank into a throng of charging baboons.

- The Weekend Novelist, Robert J. Ray and Bret Noriss. This is styled as a 52-week program designed to assist you in completing a novel. The book is in turns insightful and insipid. Ray is a firm believer in outlining and diagraming. He actually doesn’t have you start writing until Week 21, and then he has you focus on building key scenes.

One of the most valuable things that I took away from the book, though, was my own acceptance of the Four Act structure in place of the Three Act structure. Ultimately, there isn’t much difference between a Four Act structure and a Three Act structure with strong midpoint turn. The difficulty that I’ve had working with the Three Act structure is the long second act. Using the Four Act structure gives much more definition to what would otherwise be two halves of Act II.

While I can’t give this book an unqualified endorsement, it has enough merit that I won’t be taking it to Half Price Books. Also, Ray has some conservative, if not archaic, views about women that come forth in the movies he references and particularly in the sample scenes from a novel in progress that he offers. He also presumes far more knowledge of The Accidental Tourist than most people have had since 1990.


Jason and I went down to Owlcon a few weeks ago. Once again, it was a great weekend of gaming, and they set a new attendance record. They have a generous setup where in exchange for running two games you get to play in three. I ran Trail of Cthulhu and Day After Ragnarok (Savage Worlds), and I played in Atomic Highway, 4e, and Dr. Who. Jason ran the Dr. Who game in which I got to play Dr. John Dee, so it was filled with win.

One of the interesting aspects of it being a regional con was the number of games set in Texas and Houston in particular. These included Surviving the Houston Wasteland (Gamma World), Hell Comes to Texas (Monte Cook's World of Darkness), and my own Karankawa Country (Trail) and Guns of Galveston (DAR).

Looking forward to going back next year.

A Month Without Gaming

Due to a confluence of holidays, sick days, and general craziness, neither of my roleplaying groups managed to meet in December. Some of this was just bad timing, with just enough people having conflicts for the groups to lose their quorums. Partly, though, it reflects the difficulty of getting groups of busy adults together.

It also hasn't wholly been without gaming as there have been several boardgames over the holidays and one of the roleplaying sessions was replaced with Carcassonne. Also, I got an Xbox and Kinect for Christmas that I've spent some time with. Plus, I've been enjoying reading the 4e Rules Compendium that I found under the Christmas tree. And, of course, there has been Cataclysm.

Looking ahead to January, there is a promising gaming calendar with the prospect of finishing my Fading Suns/True 20 campaign, switching our Solomon Kane campaign from Savage Worlds to BRP, the prospect of a new Dresden Files game (assuming we find the time), and OwlCon at the end of the month.

WoW Now More Like 4e

One of the earliest and surprisingly lasting critiques against 4e has been that it was trying too hard to be like World of Warcraft and other electronic games. Well, the irony now is that fourth edition WoW with its changes to classes for Cataclysm is now more like 4e. Up until now, characters in WoW have had 80 levels and at every even numbered level and every level after 70 you would need to return to a capital city for a character to train new skills or new ranks in existing skills. That is now over. Now skills are acquired only periodically, with a nice on-screen prompt to let you know when a new one is available, and skill ranks have been done away with completely.

In addition, from levels 10-80, characters used to receive one talent point per level that they were able to allocate in one or more of three talent trees. Now, a character will periodically receive only 37 talents as they advance from 10-85, and the points must be assigned to only one of three talent trees until the highest rank in the tree has been obtained, which will occur sometime in the early 70s.

The combined effect of these changes has been to simplify leveling in WoW, and in many cases, it replicates the 4e philosophy that a player will have a new ability each level, each time chosen from a limited range of options. Which is generally a good thing. Certainly it is nicer not having to travel back to a capital city to visit the trainer every other level to shell out more gold for skill upgrades. And, with talents, the trade-off in being limited to only one tree is more than offset by the more focused approach.

Recent Readings

It’s been awhile since I posted about my reading. Here is a summary of some of what I’ve been reading recently:

- Fans, Friends, & Followers, Scott Kirsner. An overview of success stories of the creative in our digital world. Kirsner opens with a chapter on the new rules for building and audience and creative career that leads into a collection of interview with people that found success online with film, music, writing, visual arts, and performing. An engaging and inspiring read.

- The First Five Pages Noah Lukeman. Writing advice from a literary agent with the objective of keeping your manuscript out of the slush pile. Great insights on how to shape your manuscript,from dialogue to characterization to tone and pacing. My only quibble with it is that Lukeman often offers negative examples and suggests principles that could be used to fix the problems but he doesn’t show how the examples might be fixed. I still strongly recommend this book.

- American Pilgrimages, Mark Ogilbee and Jana Riess. A travelogue of eleven spiritual places in America, grouped into four themes: healing, hospitality, boundary-crossing, and modern devotionals. I actually picked this book up at Chimayo, was drawn into it, and finished it within days. Ogilbee and Riess approach their subjects with open minds and open hearts and provide engaging portraits of diverse spiritual practices, from the traditional to the modern, from the orthodox to the syncretic. They show that pilgrimages can take place close to home.

- The Known World, Edward P. Jones. A novel about black slave owners, their slaves, and others in a fictional Manchester County in antebellum Virginia. A book that is both engaging and frustrating. His characters are all richly drawn, and his focus is on the struggles that each person faces to do good with their lives. But, he also has a darkly cynical view in which no one can escape the sin and corruption of slavery. He also employs a third-person omniscient narrator that jumps around broadly in time, place, and focus, going back into the early lives of his characters and jumping up to the current day at times for reflections back. Unlike most writers of alternative history, he fails to offer an afterward with any information on the historical sources that he drew upon and on how his story departs from those stories. This is troubling when he invents census data and other reports to support his narrative.

Next time I promise more genre fiction.

Elitist Meme

Kuff reports that The Washington Post's Charles Murray has published a column on the Tea Party's rhetoric on elitism in America. This is nothing new, and merely the latest chapter in the long history of anti-intellectualism in America. The right has long implied that if you drink green tea or eat sushi and drive a Volvo that you aren't a "real American."

Murray's column has spawned the following quiz meme:

Read more...Collapse )


I managed to catch the last day of Armadillocon today, sitting in on three great panels. Joe Lansdale anchored a knowledgeable panel on whether Lovecraft was hurting horror (Conclusion: No, it's his lazy imitators). Steven Brust mixed it up with Joe McKinney, Nancy Holzner, and others in a discussion of world-building. And, I finished the day with an amusing steampunk panel.