A Long Time Ago…

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Today’s the 40th “birthday” of Star Wars, when the film first released to 32 theaters across the country. Which then spawned probably the greatest franchise in history. (Arguably, I’m sure.)

Think about it – how much has this film and its subsequent megalithic mythos permeated global culture? There are currently 8 films already out, three more in production, and more on the way for the foreseeable future. Innumerable books, comics, toys, games, apparel… It’s everywhere.

I’ve been seeing a lot of reflective articles and blogs about how the franchise has impacted lives in so many ways. At the risk of getting lost in the noise, I’ll just add my humble two credits to the pile.

I saw Star Wars when I was 5; I know it wasn’t opening weekend because no theater in Florida had the movie at that time. I do know it was in the summer, probably around my birthday. And what scant memories I have of that night do stick out pretty well. My dad had misread the showtime, so when we arrived, the movie was already underway; we walked in during Leia’s interrogation scene. I otherwise don’t remember that much about the evening other than I was enthralled with the cool starships, lightsabers, and the music.

We returned to see it the next night – dad got the time right, then! – and I was hooked. (It also started an unbroken trend in my life where I’ve seen every Star Wars movie twice during opening weekend.)

I want to say that the movie – and its sequels – were my inspiration to go into the creative route I have followed ever since. But that’s a little disingenuous. Star Wars has certainly played a factor – and a heavy one at that – but my exploration into role-playing in the 80s and comic collecting in the 90s also played large parts.

But I will say that Star Wars fanned the flames of story within me. Because of George Lucas’ creative vision – and risk! – I found myself diving into the universe alongside my brother and our friends. And that has never stopped.

Happy Fortieth, Star Wars. Let’s keep celebrating.

Dominus Rising

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Minis by DAK, photo by BHR

A Darker Vision

Back after I’d completed work on Starterbook: Wolf and Blake, I had several brainstorm chats with then-line developer Herb. We fleshed out a lot of the ‘hidden’ actions of certain characters within the Word of Blake’s Manei Domini faction, especially that of my (at the time) newly created Opacus Venatori and their multi-layered leader, Berith.

Working with the Jihad timeline we were continually constructing at the time, we formulated a few key events that found their way into the background of later products.

In 2012, shortly before Herb was pushed out of the LD position, we’d begun work on fleshing out the storyline and important faction details that would lead to the 3250 setting we were devising. (Not anymore, mind: that entire idea and setting has since been scrapped, for various reasons I won’t rehash here.)

One of the major points I pushed hard for was the re-emergence of the Word of Blake as a primary foe going into the post-3250 era. That meant an evolution of sorts for the faction, so I sketched out my own thoughts on how that would come to pass.

Casting Light on Shadow

Now that I’m completely severed from the line – and that those story plans have been thoroughly trashed – there’s no harm in sharing what my thoughts and ideas were regarding this defunct bit of worldbuilding, including my perceived take on the fate of Berith, his merry band of villains, and the sinister Word of Blake.

(Note that some of the info here conflicts with later published product. Such is reality versus creative brainstorming.)

Enjoy.

Berith and the Exile: (Originally outlined in 2008; additional details added 2013.)

  1. The OV suffers the loss of Portia Thomas during the battle on Gabriel’s moon; a few others are injured, but the unit survives nearly unscathed. (Berith does face down Church again, but to no clear winner. Instead, he uses the opportunity to lure out and kill Stryker, removing the traitor from the Word of Blake’s heart.)
  1. Thomas’ loss is not made up during the unit’s subsequent redeployment to Glengarry (mentioned in Berith’s TRO75 notable); Marita takes it personally and begins to whisper her discontent. To her POV, the Opacus MD are getting better treatment and replenishment, while the Venatori “Frails” are getting the shaft. (This isn’t true, per se, but because of Kari’s bitterness, it becomes truth to her.) Her grumblings become more and more frequent.
  1. Berith leads his Opacus and assassinates the Bounty Hunter. Shortly afterwards, Berith personally kills Chandresekhar Kurita, who had hired the BH to protect him. Berith commands Kendali to “finish them off,” giving her leave to hunt and kill the remaining members of the Hunter’s crew on the planet. With that command, Berith also orders Kendali to take up the BH’s mantle and to watch for an opportunity in the future to relieve Stone of his life. Kendali becomes the next Bounty Hunter and recruits three loyal Light of Mankind operatives as her team; these operatives voluntarily accept cybernetics and “ascend” into MD-hood. They hunt down and kill all surviving members of the previous Hunter.
  1. In 3076, Marita fails in a mission for a critical second; an ambush meant to take out Berith fails only due to the sacrifice of Mi Tomitaki in her Malak, who intercepts the killing shot and dies from internal injuries and brain seizure. Later, as Berith analyzes the data, he notices Marita’s critical failure; coupled with her supposedly quiet whisperings and rumblings, he decides to fix the problem.
  1. After long analysis, Berith concludes the Frails of his OV unit are no longer pure and corrupted just like the rest of humanity. (It had been his deep desire to ‘reclaim’ these six without subjecting them to MDism; his ‘social experiment’ has failed.) During a critical point in a battle on Isesaki, he orders his Opacus to execute the Venatori for their treachery to the MD order. Four of the five remaining Hunters die, caught between the Opacus and their enemies. Bryn Rivenschild is severely injured and, because of the extent of his injuries, is welcomed into the Manei Domini. He replaces Tomitaki’s slot within the Opacus. Not surprisingly, none of the Opacus question their leader.
  1. Berith meets up with Avitue post-76, filling Kendali’s open slot with the Opacus.
  1. At some point, Berith manages to meet with Apollyon for the last time on Gibson, reclaiming Appy’s key and receiving final orders to go into Exile, taking as many of the Filii as possible. He is given command of the remains of the 52nd, which now numbers less than two Level IIs. After word of Apollyon’s death, Berith takes overall command of the Manei Domini and issues Code Omicron, signaling a massive withdrawal of all MD units from the Inner Sphere.
  1. The Opacus is attacked by a hunter squad from the Fidelis on Caph; Achillius manages to lure the squad away from Berith and leads them on a long rabbit trail, which ultimately ends in his and his pursuer’s deaths.
  1. Berith is joined by the remains of the 48th, including Precentor Rimmon. The 48th brings with them a battered Thera-class WarShip and survivors of the fighting in the Federation. The WarShip becomes a refugee vessel. At this time, however, Berith learns (discovers) of another pursuing Fidelis hunter squad. He gives orders for Avitue and Rimmon to head towards the Capellan hidden world. Berith then disbands his Opacus, giving orders to Rufus to act as the fleeing refugee’s Blakist spiritual advisor (a role he knows well). He also orders Cazer to melt into the population [somewhere where we can sow some chaos between the forming ROTS and Capellan or Marik worlds]. He then reassigns a few MD who are nearer to death (mortal wounds or growing psychosis) to himself and sets out to entrap and kill the Fidelis team.
  1. Sometime in 3083-5, Berith manages to escape the clutches of several MD-hunter squads and finally return to the hidden world to carry out Apollyon’s final orders for the Order of Dominus. He brings with him a total of 2-3 more Level IIs of various MDs, most from the shattered 40th.
  1. Kendali, masquerading as the Bounty Hunter, almost manages to assassinate Devlin Stone, failing only due to a faulty detonator circuit. The ensuing blast fails to catch Stone before he finds cover; the Bounty Hunter is killed during her attempted escape, though she manages to wipe out the rest of Stone’s Fidelis bodyguard unit in a massive explosion.
  1. Berith undergoes surgery and his VDNI is removed. He declares himself the Shadow Primus, with Avitue designated as Precentor Martial/ROM. The operation is mostly successful, though Berith suffers a stroke shortly after and is confined to a wheelchair. Out of respect for their new leader, all Domini have their VDNI and DNI implants removed as well; less than half of them remain in service as pilots.
  1. Cazer manages to link up with several former LIC and ROM operatives now displaced from The Republic’s new intelligence services. The group forms the Curaitis Organization, designed to “watch the watchers.” Cazer slowly builds her own secret network, funneling information back to Berith and the hidden Domini.
  1. In the mid-90s, the Word of Blake transfers most of its leadership and core functions to the Eryines. It still maintains a presence on the last remaining Hidden world, deep underground. The Eryines and its escort of WarShips moves periodically across the Periphery, mostly through systems that were charted by IE and classified as dead.
  1. In 3101, Berith dies from another stroke. However, his Triple Core Processor remains active and is removed from his body. The TCP is attached to a mainframe and is revered as an oracle. The new Shadow Primus, Coraline, takes the Ascended name of Anahel and begins expanding the MD’s shadow network of intelligence through the Curaitis Organization and IE (through several dummy corporations and shell organizations). The Shadow Oracle, as Berith’s alternate AI comes to be known, now functions as a key advisor to the transformed leadership group. Over the decades, the Oracle’s AI is merged with that of the Eryines‘ internal network.
  1. The transformed Word of Blake remains dormant and slowly evolves, preparing for an eventual emergence post-3250, after the Third League collapses with internal strife and violence, partially instigated by the shadow empire.

Sketching the Future

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(Also published on AIHA’s Synergist blog and my LinkedIn page.)

Vision? Check. Direction? Check. Concept? Check. Artist? Check.

With our key components in place, it was time to push forward on this burgeoning IH Professional Pathway idea.

I mentioned earlier that we did some extensive focus-group interviews with a variety of AIHA members. The seemingly random and odd questions I inserted into our question bank were about to pay off.

To properly showcase each “career stage,” we had to have scenes involving our avatars. Each scene had to be relevant and appropriate to the different career stages of development, but also be intriguing enough to catch the eye and showcase our future-forward concept.

To that end, we couldn’t really show someone sitting at their desk, evaluating reports, or holding phone conversations. Fortunately, I had a wealth of stories from AIHA members that showed they were just as active in the field as they were in their offices.

I spent a couple of weeks going over the responses from the focus groups and came up with at least two scenes for each stage. After some discussion with other members of the Marketing and Communications team at AIHA, I then narrowed it down to one for each stage.

After writing out detailed descriptions of each scene—I had to “paint the picture” for our artist, after all—I submitted them to our then in-house Certified Industrial Hygienist, Mary Ann Latko. A few earnest discussions later, we had our first look at our project.

Here’s what I had written down for our initial scene involving our early career professional:

Location is a refinery (oil or gas). Female, mid-twenties/early 30s, Asian features, shoulder-length (or longer) hair pulled into ponytail, braid, or bun. She is observing a welder, who is in the midst of construction work. (See dropbox for various photos of welders in action.) In order to have both subjects in close proximity, the welder should not be welding BUT it would be great to see some welding action being done in the background, at a distance. Possibly up higher, using a scaffold.

Female is dressed in a heavy workshirt, jeans, and work boots. She has safety glasses/goggles on (these can be “forward-future” looking) and is consulting a clipboard or tablet (possibly using a pen or stylus). She has a badge, possible lanyard/keycard, a belt accessory back (with small tools/sensors clipped or pocketed). The welder should have a welding mask (raised), tank, torch, possible cart (for a larger tank and fire extinguisher), heavy work shirt, jeans, boots, heavy oversized gloves. He could be kneeling or on one knee, bored, waiting for her assessment of his work. Welder can be any gender/ethnicity.

The immediate work area should be cordoned off in some fashion, either through caution tape, a flexible barricade, or possibly a ‘futuristic’ version of such (maybe with small flashing yellow caution lights?). A construction truck/vehicle (or part of one) could be seen as well, if desired. Try not to use smokestacks or other indications of pollution in the background, but making the area worn out, used, and grimy is fine.

Additional background people are fine, and should include hard hats and safety goggles/glasses.

Mary Ann consulted with a few CIHs and welding professionals and provided some great feedback, which we incorporated into our descriptions for the artist. He then turned back to me with some initial sketches.

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Thanks to Mary Ann’s help, I was able to pinpoint and provide our artist with real-world examples of equipment, procedures, and gear. While he wouldn’t be using the examples directly, they did help him achieve the future-forward visualization that we wanted while still retaining some accuracy as to the common tools and resources used by IHs worldwide.

Interestingly, after we submitted the descriptions, references, and notes to the artist, we realized that our first four avatars might not fully encompass the breadth of our membership’s diversity. Adding another four scenes would have broken our budget, so we instead contracted a fifth scene that captured the “flipside” version of each avatar. Each of our alternates would have similar gear, clothing, theme, and other identifiers. (And later, the same letter to their first name.) These four would make up our fifth and final scene for this phase. They would also give us alternate biographical images, so we could double up our avatar count for minimal cost.

Our artist Klaus added the fifth scene to the project, and soon after we had our first look at the future of IH professionals.

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Proposing Future War: SCOUR and SCYTHE

Wolf vs. Blake

Roughly five years ago, and two years after pushing out the Masters and Minions compilation and sorting out material for Jihad Hot Spots: Terra, a random email conversation with a fellow contractor spawned an idea. What if we could detail one of the biggest operations of BattleTech‘s Jihad Era and possibly kickstart a dormant series?

Operations SCOUR and SCYTHE were two major campaigns that I helped orchestrate within our massive canon timeline. They were officially Stone’s biggest combined campaigns of the war, culminating in the emancipation of Terra from the Word of Blake’s choking grasp.

I went so far as to work up a detailed outline and discussed the possibilities with a couple of writers who were free and whom I trusted most.

Alas, the project didn’t gain much traction because shortly afterwards, the Total Chaos idea came up and was chosen instead. At that point, I just folded over into it pieces of what I had conceived in this project.

Since there’s no chance this will ever be done, I’m posting it here as a ‘what if’ possibility for those interested in such things. It’s also a good example of how to build a project pitch for a plot book – if you happen to be involved in development of a venerable game line someday that actually has money to spend.

Proposal: Historical SCOUR-SCYTHE

Shutdown Sequence Initiated

As of today, I am no longer the Assistant Line Developer for the BattleTech game line. Furthermore, I am no longer pursuing or working on any contracts for the game, or the company that licenses it.

There’s a lot of reasons why, but though I have every right to air them out here, I will not. Dirty laundry should stay in the laundry room, not paraded about in public. I’ve hinted at things here and there, in vague phrasing and comments. That’s more the explosion of frustration than any malicious intent, so take it all with a grain of salt.

I’ve been attached to this game since its early days of production. In 1997, I was introduced to the playtesting side through a local group in Pittsburgh; that was some pretty heady stuff, back in the day. That morphed into working as a playtester for WizKids’ MechWarrior version, and then I was invited to pitch and write for Dawn of the Jihad back in 2001.

Writing for any game line that I enjoyed – and I had quite a few on that list – was a dream come true for me. It was the spark that jolted me out of a drudging career in retail, though I knew I’d never really be able to make a sustainable living at it. Still, it fueled my inspiration and excitement, with every book that printed with my handiwork within.

In 2008, I was asked to step into the Assistant Line Developer role, supporting my long-time gaming friend Herb. Together, we headed a team that fashioned a fantastic storyline for the line, connecting two eras separated by different companies, and pulled them together. Some may disagree – this is the Internet Age after all – but I still think that our Jihad work, and the subsequent material afterwards, was the best storytelling the line has ever had.

I was exposed in full to the game industry through my ALD position, which helped me forge connections and research needed to write my first nonfiction book, Games’ Most Wanted.

My continued work with BattleTech also opened up a wider realization within me, that I loved to write. I plunged headlong into a communications career, adding to my previous years of experience in marketing and media concepts. Now I get to do what I love, which is write, and I actually have a sustainable career doing just that. And more, besides.

Mini and photo by DAK
When my friend Herb was removed from his position as LD, there was a lot of uncertainty floating around. As the line and its direction evolved, it became apparent that my experience and talent wasn’t the right fit any more. I hung on for as long as I could, mainly because I felt that I still had stories to tell in this rich and venerable universe. But that desire has dripped away, siphoned into other projects, ideas, and experiences.

I finally realized a few days ago that I just don’t have it in me to tell those stories anymore. So how is that fair to the readership, the fanbase, the players who thrive on such things? Uninspired writing is dead writing, as I see it. I don’t like writing lifeless words.

So I finally made that painful decision and cut the cord.

BattleTech is still important to me, for what it has done to my life, my experiences, my creativity. But it doesn’t need me anymore, and I can walk on my own now without it. I have new projects, new universes, new ideas to explore – and I hope to share them all with you in the coming years.

If you’re a fan of BattleTech, I say ‘thank you’ for your steadfast devotion and love of the game – even if you don’t like some or all of what I’ve put out. You’re the reason it’s still around, in its varied forms. Enjoy it. Universes like this are hard to come by.

And for my friends, colleagues, and those whose paths I’ve crossed, I say ‘thank you’ as well. You’ve given me a lot to experience and enjoy, and hopefully I will get to work with you on other exciting ventures. Don’t be a stranger.

And to everyone: watch the spines for my name. You’ll see it out there, someday soon.

Seylah.

Artistic Character

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Klaus Scherwinski, artist, illustrator, and way-cool guy.

Last we met, we’d figured out our scope and direction, sketched out our character ideas, and begun sorting out the method of our medium. I’d like to expand on that for this installment, as it’s probably the most-asked question I’ve fielded since the rollout of the IHProPath project.

Why not photographs?

Part of the answer goes back to a concept I mentioned previously: “future forward.” By placing our characters and their scenes a bit forward in the future, we would not be beholden to the stricter details of today. I realized this early on during our character design brainstorms – one of my experts asked me what type of gas chromatography mass spectrometer devices we’d have shown in our student scene. I balked at that, because I first had to look up what that terminology meant!

It became fairly evident rather quickly that aiming for the ‘here and now’ was not going to work. It would mean slavish adherence to every detail, to make sure we got it all absolutely correct. That process alone would add months, if not a year or more, to our tightening timeline.

It would also impact how we presented the images. Photography was the first consideration but it was soon pushed aside after the above implications. Never mind constructing the ‘perfect’ scene with all details covered – finding the right subjects would also increase the project’s time. (And budget!) Rather than go into such mind-boggling detail, I turned to a mainstay I have used in my ‘other’ life as a game freelancer: illustrative art.

Art Trumps Photography

Using artwork has a number of benefits, the biggest being the ability to create a future reality with regards to workspaces, equipment, and backgrounds. By using real-world elements in combination with more futuristic stylings, we would cement the image with identifiable material for the audience while still conveying the idea of just-beyond-the-horizon technology.

ecp-clipUnsure what I mean? For an easy illustration, look at the tablet in the hands of Melinda, our Early Career Professional. The shape, size, and obvious use of the device easily tells you of its function. But by making the screen holographic and transparent, we’re seeing a common tool of today ‘futurized,’ adding to the scene’s more advanced bend.

Notice the other object in the background, to the left of our futuristic tablet? You can easily identify it because it has a familiar shape and is a common item found in setting of the piece – a fire extinguisher. You automatically processed its presence without actively searching it out, and that helped cement the entire scene for you.

So then, my next question – how difficult would it be to recreate this entire scene as a photograph? And if we could, imagine the cost! The illustration conveys a much richer and complex snapshot at a fraction of cost that a photograph could do.

Enter Klaus

Of course, you need to make sure you’ve hired an artist with such skill and capabilities. Fortunately for AIHA, I have a few in my arsenal of contacts.

I quickly put together a Call for Artists document, which gave an outline of the project and a request for a (very) rough sketch based on a sample scene I provided. The Call then went out to several illustrators who have worked in various entertainment-oriented industries, such as comics, animation, video games, and tabletop games. While I did have a shortlist in mind, I wanted to see what this community could come up with.

A few artists responded to my proposal, about half submitted sketches and follow-up questions. Much to my surprise and delight, Klaus Scherwinski, an artist I have worked with extensively on game product in the past, was one of the respondents. He requested a Skype call, during which he proceeded to not only ask great questions about the project as a whole, but also gave some creative suggestions that we’re incorporating in Phase II, coming in 2017.

Klaus is an accomplished illustrator, working as a creative artist for more than a decade. Based in Germany, he’s worked on comic books, game publications, video game art, and at the time, had just begun branching into full-blown animation. When I found out he was not only available for the timeline of our project, but also excited about participating in something revolutionary in a completely different industry, it was a no-brainer to tap him as our lead illustrator for the project.

It would be up to him to give life to our burgeoning vision.