Monday, March 31, 2008

Slow Moving

Hectic, hectic, hectic... Easter last weekend and very busy on the personal front means distressingly little got done on TMGS...

Maimed God's Saga Update
Progress can be summed up with two more maps and another conversation written in Word format. One of the maps was a big one; it's the road from Waterdeep to The Bastion of the Maimed God, and it has many points of interest. A screenshot of one of the small corners of that map is included. While I don't believe the screen shot truly does the map justice, I admit I'm not 100% satisfied with it. I'm trying to decide if it's just a matter of more time needed - I've already spent ten or eleven hours - or whether it's just beyond my ability to make perfect. I'm leaning towards the former but may soon switch to the latter.I also figured out I need another map for Act III (it's getting to be huge). 15 maps are done, 3 more are started, and 2 are left.

Podcast Interview
No sooner had I given the Neverwinter Podcast crew a shout-out then they came asking for an interview. Coincidence? Who knows? What I do know is that last Friday evening was partially spent discussing topics ranging from my memories of "Saleron's Gambit" to "The Maimed God's Saga," my work with Ossian, and history-buffiness, among other general modding stuff. I've been told the interview will be released on May 2nd, so keep a look out for it then. And thanks to community member liso for the pleasant conversation and interest in my past and current work.

Musings on Future Projects
Following my last post, I began kicking around an old idea I had for a future project. Back in the concluding days of NWN1, I thought about a module set not in Faerun, but on ancient Earth in the land of "fantastical" Greece. It would have combined what we know historically about Greece with some of the mythology, so the player would traverse the streets of ancient Athens or Sparta but still encounter the sphinx, the medussa, and other such monsters in a sort of "Clash of the Titans." The idea still intrigues me, but it would require new building models, and who knows when those will appear...

Recently, I've modified the idea somewhat to consider a module set in medieval England. I don't really have a story yet. I'm no further than the setting really, and I'm actually considering several different time periods, but I find myself wondering if anyone would play it. So I'm starting to sense my first poll question... before I do any more work on the topic...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

More Maimed God... And a Boring History Alert

Maps Nearing Completion
I should start by saying I’ve done a few rewrites – in essence, there’s been “feature creep” in TMGS, and so the number of maps I will need for Act III has grown to 19. I have completed 3 more since my last Maimed God update, and I now have 13 Act III maps done, 3 more begun, and 3 more left to start.

I’m including a nice shot of the approach to Waterdeep.

As an aside, people may be wondering why the lands closer to the city are so bare when there is lush forestation further away. This is on purpose. Castle-building 101: clear away all trees to at least the distance of an arrow’s flight. That way, while your defenders get to hide behind the defensive wall’s crenellations, archers attacking you will have no cover from your counter-fire (unless they bring their own). I’m not sure that people playing the module will realize this is on purpose or if they will just assume it’s crappy map design, so I put a lot of stumps near the walls to show that the trees were cut down. I also did this “tree cutting” on The Bastion of the Maimed God maps, shown here.

The Other Boleyn Girl
Yesterday, my wife and I went to see "The Other Boleyn Girl." Overall, I thought it was... interesting. Fortunately, the movie (and the book from which it was written) claims to be “historical fiction,” so I don’t have to be a prat and point out the numerous inaccuracies. Suffice it to say, I pray no one actually confuses this movie with actual fact.

Sorry, but I have to say my one caveat again before I proceed. As I mentioned during my discussion of "Elizabeth: the Golden Age," the Tudor era is slightly after what I consider my forte; I’ve actually studied the later Plantagenets far more, but I certainly know enough about the Tudors to be dangerous.

All that said, I rather enjoyed the movie. It was much better than 99% of the near-continuous drivel Hollywood has taken to putting out the last few years. The picture presented of the Tudor court is a dark one in which everyone, even the king, is trapped within stifling layers of duty, protocol, and centuries of expectations. One can not help but leave the theater thinking, “Thank God we don’t have to put up with that anymore!”

Nearly every moment of the film feels stiflingly claustrophobic with a heavy dose of browns and grays infusing nearly every scene with only the occasional splashes of reds, purples, and greens, mostly marking the presence of the royal entourage. Several scene breaks utilize silhouetted castles or manor houses against darkened skies with time-lapsed clouds whipping by, an effect that inevitably presents a gothic feel, and from the moment the Boleyn girls’ mother cautions their father that those who play with the royal court inevitably get burned, for in Henry VIII’s world, treason is simply what the king says it is, one knows that the story isn’t going to end well.

The book has been said to be a picture of how terrible the lives of women were in this era. Again, I could argue with the accuracy of some of the presented details, but by this depiction, it would be hard to disagree. Both Anne and Mary are essentially whored to the king by their father and uncle in an attempt to further their position. Their mother is forced to endure this humiliation, all the while objecting but ultimately ignored. Even the queen, Catherine of Aragon, is forced to admit the two sisters into her entourage despite the full knowledge they are there only so that her husband, the king, has easier access to them. Mary, once impregnated, is shunted into a tiny room for months to give birth even as the king ignores her and eventually turns his attention to Anne. And that’s the better fate, for when Henry in turn tires of Anne, he infamously has her executed on false charges.

But I would argue that the men get off little better in the film other than the uncle, who's a first-rate bastard. The Boleyn girls’ father is heavily indebted and yet still forced to pay for the extravagant tastes of one of Henry’s processions. Mary’s husband is given a place in Henry’s court, but he would plainly rather live with his wife and their eventual children in the countryside. The whole set-up, of course, is a transparent ploy, for he can not refuse the king, and so he is forced to bring his wife within Henry’s reach where he must endure their affair and the bastards it heaps upon his family. Anne and Mary’s brother, George, is forced to marry a girl he despises, and he’s eventually used as a convenient pawn to bring about his sister’s disgrace, and he’s executed for it to boot.

Even Henry himself, though he obviously gets the best deal, is being crushed under the weight of centuries of expectations regarding the birth of a male heir. Now, I realize most people probably roll their eyes at that, given the plethora of problems endured by the other characters; my explanation for this is pretty long, though I actually have tried to shorten it, but I’ll put it at the end and just go on with a discussion of the film.

Where the movie really works is in its core examination of the relationship of its three principles: Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn, Scarlett Johansson as her sister, Mary, and Eric Bana as Henry VIII. It’s odd that an English director would choose non-English actors for all three leads (this decision has been criticized in the British press from what I understand), but I think the three did very well. Henry comes across as alternately charming and cruel, passionate and prone to flights of fancy, but driven, selfish, and determined to get what he wants. Anne is shown to be scheming and conniving, willing to smile to people’s faces while plunging the knife in from behind, all in her quest for greater power and station. Mary is naïve and simple. She wants a normal life, but finds herself swept up in the king’s charisma, only to be cruelly and uncomprehendingly tossed aside when she is no longer of use. Yes, Henry may be a king, but there’s no fairy tale here.

And this is the core reason as to why I like the film. While some of the historical details are wanting, the film did what I consider to be quintessential in historical dramas: it got the “feel” right. In other words, everything else aside, I think a movie-goer could walk away from the film with a pretty good understanding of what Henry and Anne were like especially, even if the specific details were off. I have a little more reservation about the portrayal of Mary; most scholars would probably say she was not nearly so naïve, but there’s so little to go on about her that it’s hard to get too upset about it.

Two quick asides. While I appreciate the film’s portrayal of Anne Boleyn, I do think it’s a bit one-sided. Contrary to the film, she had nothing to do with Mary’s fall from the king’s favor, and there is every indication that the sisters were reasonably close. She saw that Mary, one of Henry’s previous mistresses was used and cast aside, and so she played a harder game with Henry in an effort to secure her long-term position. Her actions led to the removal of one queen and her own installation as the successor, but it only made her despised by the people, disrespected by the courtiers, and trapped by court protocols. Entirely dependent on Henry’s good will for her continued survival, she resorted to ever more desperate measures to secure it as she continually failed to produce the male heir he desired. So in my opinion, Anne was scheming, etc., but there was also a tragic element to her as well. A good book to flesh out her character, for those interested, is Mistress Anne by Carolly Erickson. By the way, I obviously found the book more interesting than many of Amazon’s reviewers did.

Second, in one of the film’s more shocking moments, it actually gave some credence to the whole incest theory. My wife – and many in the theater – started to groan when the idea was hinted at... at which point I leaned over and casually mentioned that Anne actually was executed for, among other things, incest with her brother, George. Of course, the vast bulk of historians believe the charge was absolutely bogus and simply used as a device to make the queen so reprehensible that none would protest the incredibly unusual step of actually executing her. And if the innocent brother also had to be executed... well, who cares, right? Anyway, the movie clearly shows that Anne and her brother didn’t actually go through with it, but I was surprised that it even depicted her considering it. I’m not sure what I think about that little detail to be honest.

A Divergence

Why do I think Henry VIII was also trapped by the court? To put the years in perspective, Henry reigned from 1509 to 1547. Born around 1491, he would have been very aware of the then-immediate history, which I'll briefly sketch here.

In 1377, Edward III died, leaving his ten-year-old grandson, Richard II, as his heir. Richard’s reign was an unmitigated disaster that eventually led to his deposition and murder in 1399. In 1422, Henry V died prematurely, leaving his one-year-old son to be crowned as Henry VI. The infant king, and the lack of monarchical authority that entailed, played a large part in the English collapse in The Hundred Years’ War. The final defeat at Castillon came in 1453, and by 1455, the first Battle of St. Albans kicked off the War of the Roses, a thirty-year period of strife within the government that permanently and irrevocably damaged the monarchy, bankrupted the country, destroyed the aristocracy, and eroded English position in Europe. I don’t really want to get into a long (and boring to all but me) dissertation into why A led to B led to C, but the links are pretty strong.

And, of course, the last chapter of the Wars of the Roses was a sordid mess. Edward IV died in 1483, leaving his twelve-year-old son, Edward V, as his heir and an eight-year-old sibling, Richard, Duke of York, as the spare. However, this arrangement did not last long, as their uncle, Edward IV’s younger brother, another Richard, had both murdered (infamously in the Tower of London) so he could take the throne as Richard III. (And if any members of the Richard III society read this, don’t bother; you know Richard had them “done in!”)

So most people who know a little about the reign of Henry VIII inevitably view him as some kind of misogynistic monster who was just obsessed with having sons. And in my opinion this is probably true at this specific point in his reign, but there is a bit more to the story than that. Many today probably can not fathom the degree to which the birth of a healthy male heir was required for national stability under the version of the monarchy that existed in the sixteenth century. To one burdened for caring for the state, the succession was not a minor concern.

To put it another way, Henry came to the throne as an eighteen-year-old in 1509. For over twenty years, he ruled as most other monarchs before him had. His queen, Catherine of Aragon, produced one healthy female, Mary, and also had several miscarriages, still-births, and (I believe) one son who died within days. For the most part, Henry took all this in stride... until about the time he turned forty. In what will be a very familiar pattern for people even today, it was around his fortieth birthday that Henry seems to have begun seriously thinking of his own mortality. In addition, it was at that point obvious that his wife (who was older than he was) was no longer able to have children, and he had to realize that something had to be done soon if he was to have an adult male heir at the time of his death. At this point, the series of events most people already know about were put into action, and Henry, a king who had actually once been commended by the Pope for his defense of Catholicism against the Germanic protestant reformation, actually chose to break with the Church rather than endure the prospect of an unsure succession.

Once this decision was made, Henry lacked patience with the solution. When Anne had first a girl, Elizabeth, and then a still-born son, it was over for her. The biological truths aside, Anne had tied her own hands with the promise, actually stated according to the accounts, that she could produce boys by the cartload for him. Unfortunately for her, Henry could no longer afford to waste twenty years on someone who then could not, and if you’ve already shown you can get rid of one legitimate queen...

Incidentally, Henry’s fears did indeed come true. He died in 1547, and the civil unrest that resulted lasted until well into the reign of Elizabeth I, say at least until 1565 or even 1570. That’s 18 to 23 years of instability because a male heir of suitable age did not exist at the time of Henry’s death.

Oh, and though this may sound like a defense of Henry, it isn’t meant to be. I’m just trying to bring a little bit of historic perspective to a well-known story. Actually, I think that Henry was a quite the magnificent bastard for many more reasons than are outlined here.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Quick Hits

I don't have a lot to report, but there are several little things of relevance to the NWN community and (in some cases) D&D as a whole.

Gary Gygax (1939-2008)
I'm posting way later than everyone else on this, and there's little that I'm going to add that's new. Suffice it to say that if you're reading this, it's about 99.9% likely that you're one of the millions whose lives were influenced by him. Needless to say, I have enjoyed hundreds if not thousands of hours of fun in my life because of a game he conceived thirty-odd years ago. The gaming community has indeed lost a titan - if not THE titan - of the industry. Farewell, Gary.

New Mysteries of Westgate Video
The introductory video for MoW was released today, and it's pretty awesome. It was the first time I had seen it, believe it or not. Stuff like that tends to be added long after most of the rest of the campaign is completed. For most of my play-throughs it was just load and go look for bugs, verify functionality, etc. When the release finally gets here, it might actually be interesting to play the campaign from start to finish again just to experience it like our customers will... Then again, nah. I've played the campaign - no joke - 15 to 20 times already. As I've said before, there are no longer any "mysteries" in Westgate for me...

Ossian Interview at NWN Podcast
Yes, I'm a couple weeks late in drawing attention to this, but Alan Miranda and Luke Scull were recently interviewed by the NWN Podcast team. In the interview, they discuss all matter of Westgate goodness. Check it out if you haven't already.

It was the first podcast I'd ever listened to. I was, of course, aware that the podcast group existed; at 46 episodes as of this writing, they've been doing their thing for a year now, but I had never had reason to go and check it all out before Ossian was spotlighted. It's just another example of the myriad efforts being pursued that, in total, form a vibrant and friendly community. I'll have to keep a closer eye on them in the future. By the way, guys... it's "OSS-see-an," not "o-SIGH-in..."

Oh, and I did notice in the podcast immediately before Ossian's interview (episode #44), they gave a shout-out to "Saleron's Gambit," so thanks for that. (And yes, liso, that's meant for you. But did you really need to forget the name of my NWN2 project? I'm crushed!)

MoW Spotlights
Yes, the Ossian crew has begun to release episodic spotlights covering many of the cool aspects of Westgate. It is a fantastic setting different in many important ways from the more traditional Sword Coast settings. It is our hope that players will start the adventure with an appreciation of the city's legends, lore, geography, history, population, etc., and that this will make for a more satisfying and engrossing experience.

The first spotlight, released last Friday, was on the "Legend of the Quelzarn," one of the fantastic new monsters players will get to battle. Coming up very soon will be "Cosmopolitan Westgate." Stay tuned for further updates.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

It's March

The Maimed God's Saga
My work on the Maimed God's Saga since the last update can be summed up in two words: two maps. One I'll keep under wraps for now; the second is the exterior grounds of what I've called "The Bastion of the Maimed God." This is a building / institution of my own making that I'm sure will cause Forgotten Realms purists to absolutely foam at the mouth. Oh, well. I'm not about to let established lore get in the way of the story I want to tell... and this particular institution doesn't really trash Realmslore so much as it adds something non-canonical.

The Bastion of the Maimed God is the central temple compound of the Tyrran church, at least in the region of the upper Sword Coast. It is here that councils are held, decisions are made on church orthodoxy, leadership is elected, and most other important church high functions are carried out. Other cathedrals, such as that in Waterdeep already depicted, can be quite impressive, but The Bastion of the Maimed God is the very heart of the church. Think of it as St. Peters for the Tyrran church.

I've located The Bastion up the River Dessarin from Waterdeep, near where the river turns sharply north. In the provided pictures, there is a big event occurring today, for merchants by the droves have come to hawk their wares and knights and nobility have arrived from far and wide, their brightly-colored banners flapping amidst the tent city they are forced to quarter in for lack of space inside.

Three pictures. The first is a toolset-level shot to provide the overall layout. The second is the approach to the cathedral / fortress that is the Bastion of the Maimed God. The third is the tent city on the outskirts.

Charissa Maernos
As I mentioned before, RPG Vault has recently released another developer diary outlining the three companions available in Westgate. In my previous postings, I only mentioned them as a group, but recently Luke Scull revealed on his page that he was responsible for writing the fallen-paladin, Mantides. So what the heck... I'll go ahead and admit to writing Charissa Maernos. (By the way, by process of elimination, everyone can probably now figure out which one of the companions our third writer, Mat Jobe, wrote.)

I'm actually proud of Charissa; she's by far the most layered companion / henchman I've ever written, though the layers aren't forced on you. Players who don't tend to talk to the companions very often will just get the core personality traits, but those who do take the time to talk a bit with her may see a surprisingly complex character.

I'll probably reveal more about her creation as time goes on; I'm not sure what kind of "behind the scenes" stuff I can reveal, so I'll just keep quiet for now... not to mention people have to have some reason for returning here. Hopefully, after release, we'll be able to talk much more freely without wondering if we've let some cat that we shouldn't have out of the bag.

That said, I'll give one tidbit here and now. In the earliest drafts, Charissa was a follower of Lathander, but after fleshing out the character and discussing her place in the story with Luke, he suggested the very change I'd been reluctantly "feeling" for some time... that she actually be a follower of Tyr. I didn't say anything at the time, but with "The Maimed God's Saga" pre-planning finished and my having already written the first draft of up to Chapter 3 (TMGS was originally supposed to be a novel), I was less than enthused about writing another Tyrran. But such is fate. Mine was to eat, sleep, and breathe the Tyrran mindset for a year... and counting.

Westgate Promotion
I've been recently green-lighted by The Powers That Be at Ossian to release some new material about Mysteries of Westgate. I'm still getting it together, but in the coming day or so, I'll be posting details on the BioBoards. Stay tuned.