Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween desserts

We're having a pot luck Halloween lunch today at work, in addition to a costume contest and department decorating contest. I spent an amazing amount of time this weekend cooking, both to bring stuff to Saturday's halloween party, and for the pot luck. Leftovers from the party also came to the pot luck so there's no shortage of goodies!

Here's some recipes:

Pumpkin pie

  • Puff pastry to line a pie dish (Pepperidge Farms brand frozen sheets are an easy cheat if you don't want to make it by hand)
  • 1.5 cups mashed kabocha or buttercup squash (or pumpkin). Easiest way to prepare this is cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, wrap in foil, and bake for 30-60 minutes in a medium heat oven until it's soft, then it just scoops out.
  • 2 tbs (1oz) melted butter
  • 1 tsp each of ginger, cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp each of mace, ground cloves
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup (4oz) brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (4oz) white sugar
  • 2 tbs flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 cup milk

Line a pie dish with the pastry and chill in fridge till ready.

In a bowl stir together mashed squash, butter, and spices.

In another bowl beat eggs thoroughly with fork or whisk, then stir in sugar, flour, salt, and milk.

Fold the two mixtures together and pour into the pastry. Bake at 450 F for 15 minutes, then turn down to 350F for another 45 minutes (until a knife comes out clean).

For the halloween version, I used some of the pastry scraps to make a pumpkin face, and baked them separately on some parchment paper for about 20 minutes, then put them back in the oven on top of the pie about 10 minutes before the pie was done.

McCall's Best Cheesecake

  • 3/4 cup cookie crumbs (chocolate graham crackers for example, or digestive biscuits)
  • 2 tbs melted butter
  • Combine, mix well, and press onto the bottom of a spring form pan. Leave to set in fridge.

Main body
  • 24oz (680g) plain cream cheese at room temperature
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 cup (8oz) sugar

Preheat oven to 375F. Beat the cream cheese until light and smooth, then add eggs one at a time and mix until blended. Add vanilla, lemon juice, and sugar, mixing till light and smooth. Pour over crust in tin, and bake about 45 minutes until beginning to set.

  • 2 cups (500g tub) sour cream
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
Mix together in the sour cream tub. When the cheesecake is ready, remove from oven and spread this topping over it. Return to oven for another 10 minutes, then remove and allow to cool in tin.

Refrigerate overnight before serving. Good with strawberries or strawberry sauce.

For the Halloween version, I made a spider web pattern on top with melted chocolate, and put a little model spider on the top.

Egg-free chocolate cupcakes

  • 3 oz salted butter
  • 2 oz cocoa powder
  • 8 oz (1cup) sugar
  • 7 oz all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup organic apple sauce
  • 2/3 cup water
  • ½ tsp vanilla
  • ½ cup mini dark chocolate chips
Melt butter gently and allow to cool for a minute or two. Add everything else except chocolate chips and mix well using a fork or whisk until smooth. Add chocolate chips (can either mix in, or leave sprinkled on top). Line a cupcake pan with cupcake papers and fill them about 2/3 full, then bake in a preheated oven at 350F for about 20 minutes, until a toothpick stuck into the cupcake comes out clean. Wait until cool (refrigerate or even freeze so they don't crumble when being iced), then cover with the icing below.  (You can also use this recipe to make one big cake, just pour into a lined or greased cake pan and cook a little longer.)

Buttercream icing

  • 4 oz (½ cup) salted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups powdered confectioner's sugar
  • 2 tablespoons corn starch or Bird's custard powder (can also use vanilla pudding mix)
  • 1-2 shots of whisky or other strong alcohol (e.g grand marnier, brandy, rum, Bailey's) or cream
  • ½ cup cocoa powder
Mix well, adding more liquid if needed to soften up. Spread on cooled cupcakes then refrigerate.

For halloween version I just sprinkled them with some little pumpkin candies.

I also made butter tarts (which were eaten so fast I didn't get a photo) and macaroni and cheese for the pot luck today.

And I made my awesome dalek costume, as seen below facing off vs Doctor Who ...

The LEDs in my headpiece do actually light up but by this time of the evening I'd turned them off.  I'll probably post more details about the costume another time!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Path of the Beastlord

My Beastlord lore article is now officially posted, so here it is also. This was an interesting story to write and I had to do a bit of research, since the first precursors to the return of the beastlord class actually happened during the mystic epic weapon quest several years ago, although players did not realize that then. But since I don't play a mystic, I hadn't done the epic quest, so write-ups on fan sites were a big help. I ended up using's write-up most heavily since it contained helpful dialog details too.

I spent quite a while before even starting to write debating how to tell the story - what person should tell it, from what perspective. I considered telling it from the point of view of a player character doing the prelude quests, or a mystic doing the epic quest but in the end I decided it might be a more interesting story if I told it from the "bad guys" side, especially as we know very little about the Cult of Sellok from the in-game content. I think it turned out well in the end, hope you do too.


Have you ever had a leader so self-assured, so charismatic, so confident that it seems somehow unthinkable to pursue any goals but his? That's how it was with Sellok.

To be honest, I was just in it for the money at first. Work was short that winter, but I'd left home only that summer, and I was determined to earn my own way in the world. I'd rather have starved than return home to admit defeat and face the mockery of my brothers. So, when the hooded figure approached me on the Nektulos docks with an offer of steady income, I wasn't inclined to look too closely at the details.

I'd always been quick on my feet and good with a blade, so it hardly seemed like work at all when they asked me to infiltrate myself into adventuring parties exploring the recently rediscovered continent of Kunark. I was to look for an ancient scroll or tome containing the writings of an ancient sage. I would know it by the age and the language it was written in; they showed me samples of the ancient script known as Death's Whisper so I would be able to recognize the angular runes when I saw it.

Several months passed while I offered my services to this or that group of adventurers exploring in one dungeon or another. I had grown almost complacent with this lifestyle, content even; and then I found the tome.

I had joined a group exploring the ancient Iksar tomb known as Charasis. We found ourselves in an area I was later to hear called the Vault of Eternal Sleep, but at the time we just called it a deathtrap and other names that were less polite. The halls were riddled with pit traps and other hazards, and after the umpteenth time we had to get ourselves out of one, I was long past ready to leave. I was prowling around the final room when a massive and weighty tome caught my eye. Glancing at the others to make sure their attention was still focused on dividing up the loot, I cautiously opened the book to the first page and immediately recognized the spiky runes I'd been taught were Death's Whisper. Unfortunately, the tome was far too heavy to take with me, so I copied the first few phrases into my journal and returned to the adventuring party to find our way back to the safety of daylight.

When I showed the runes in my journal to my hooded contacts, there was an immediate rush of activity. In no time at all I was taken to their encampment in a hidden vale, and brought before their leader. Introducing himself as Sellok, he demanded to hear every detail of my expedition and the location of the tome, and then there was no option but to immediately assemble a party to return.

Eventually we reached the tome, and Sellok's disciples set up a makeshift camp and scribing table, while Sellok spent several days studying it and making copious notes before we were allowed to leave again. I should have taken my payment then and left; I could have returned home with enough gold to buy a modest farm of my own. But while we were holed up in that vault with no one else to talk to but the skeletons, Sellok took an interest in me. He said that he was impressed by my initiative. I'd succeeded where dozens of other hirelings had failed. During the short breaks he took from studying the tome, he explained a little - a very little - about his research.

He told me of the Truespirit, beings locked in a plane between planes, a world of spiritual power and energies that lay parallel to ours. In the past, he said these spirits had found their way into our world, possessing and corrupting animals into what he called "spirit guides," and using them to lead innocent mortals into evil ways. The root of this corruption was in the city of Shar Vahl on the moon Luclin, where the resident Vah Shir kept what they called a sacred glade filled with these corrupted animals. Sellok said their evil influence grew over the city to such an extent that the gods themselves were eventually forced to destroy Luclin entirely to free the world from these Truespirits. He added that since the destruction of Norrath's moon, we have been free of their control, but they are ever trying to return, looking for more more mortals to enslave. He hoped to use the knowledge in the tome I found to be able to control these spirits and prevent their return to Norrath. And I, naive farmer that I was, didn't think to question what he told me, nor think that the kind of knowledge that is likely to be found locked away in a sealed forbidden tomb is unlikely to be wholesome.

You'd think that growing up with three elder brothers I should have known better than to accept any story unquestioningly. But as I said, Sellok was a man of great charisma and conviction. When he spoke, we all felt like lowly insects crawling in the presence of greatness. When he asked for something, we all leaped to earn a precious word of his praise. And so, when we left Charasis I too donned the hooded robes of his disciples, and joined the cult of Sellok.

The following months were a blur. I worked harder than I'd ever worked on my parents' farm, and that is no easy life even with three brothers to share the load. Some of the demands from Sellok seemed odd, but we followed unquestioningly. We traveled the length and breadth of Kunark, rounding up the skeletons of long dead Iksar warriors so that he could test his theories. He constructed a strange altar in the hidden vale, and told us it was to trap the spirits into the old bones as they tried to enter our world.

The agonized wailing and shrieking of the spirits as Sellok caused the skeletons to become animated were dismaying at first, but he assured us it was merely the Truespirit fighting to escape him, and that we were protecting Norrath by entrapping them into these old bones. Most learned to ignore the sounds; some, like me, preferred to leave the area entirely when the wailing started. When it got too hard to listen at these times I would visit the plains of Antonica. Walking through the farmland there never failed to remind me of home and calm my mind as I assured myself it was lands like these that I was now protecting.

It was on one of these excursions that I encountered the wolf. It was sitting in a quiet glade and seemed to watch me with almost human intelligence. I knelt slowly on the soft grass nearby so as not to startle the wolf, and enjoyed the scents of life all around me. As I knelt there, I felt strength returning that I didn't even realize I had lost. The bees buzzed in the background, the birds sang in the distance, and a small badger waddled out of the bushes nearby and stuck a cold wet nose on my arm.

"Your spirit seems remarkably untroubled for one who has helped create so much pain," said the wolf suddenly. His voice sounded as old as the hills themselves.

"Your pardon?" I almost replied in surprise. I looked hastily around, half thinking someone was playing a trick on me. Norrath can be a strange place at times, but talking wolves are not something you encounter every day.

"You work for the necromancer," said the wolf and his pelt twitched inadvertently as if flinching in revulsion at the very mention of Sellok. "You bring him skeletons, corpses, and dead husks in which he traps the living spirits as they attempt to enter this world to bring help and life. Surely you cannot be deaf to their cries of agony. I hear them day and night now, trapped in their dead prisons, unable to escape."

"That is necessary!" I shouted, standing up in anger. "They would corrupt Norrath! Just as they did to Luclin, which is why it was destroyed!"

"Young one, the tragedy of Luclin had nothing to do with the spirit realm. And as for the Truespirit, we only wish to help. Our role in Shar Vahl was as friends, advisors, and guides. We took animal form to best travel in this realm and partner with mortals, but we have only ever gone where we were freely invited."

"'We?'" I repeated, more confused now than anything, but stubbornly holding on to my anger as the one thing I could be sure of. The wolf certainly didn't seem like an evil, corrupting influence, but if I believed his words then it meant my master had deliberately led us all astray, and I had been unwittingly aiding in the most terrible of deeds. "Don't you touch me!"

The wolf gave me a long, sorrowful gaze. "Listen to your instincts, young one," was his only reply before twitching his whiskers and vanishing from sight in a few powerful leaps.

I tried to return to life as normal, but the wolf's words haunted me. What did I really know about the Truespirit? Was there any evidence to support what Sellok had told me? The questions plagued me, and the next time Sellok tried to trap the spirits in the skeletons of the dead, I didn't leave but instead crept close and watched. The look on his face was not that of a man selflessly saving the world. It was a self-absorbed, power-hungry look that made me feel unclean. Watching one of the undead Iksar shambling around afterwards, I seemed to feel the agony they were in, and couldn't bear it any more. I swung my blade and ended the abomination there and then, feeling its gratitude like a whisper in passing as the spirit escaped its prison.

My life was only saved at that point by the coincidence of a group of adventurers entering the hidden vale at that moment. As Sellok and the cultists fought for their lives, I slipped out of the vale, arranging it to look as if I had died in the battle.

Since then, I've dedicated myself to finding the spirits Sellok had trapped in the undead bodies and ending their suffering. Nowadays I seem able to see an almost visible spirit essence escaping, and sometimes it seems to whisper something to me as it passes by. I heard Sellok himself had been killed by a group of adventurers, possibly those whose arrival allowed my escape. I hear his followers scattered but I have lost track of them as I continue to travel the lands of Kunark, seeking to free the trapped spirits. I don't know if I can ever atone for the pain I helped to cause, but I can at least free those I helped to harm, and in doing so I am learning to see the signs of the spirit realm where it touches Norrath.

Despite Sellok's best efforts, it seems the Truespirit are touching our world more frequently now. I have not seen the wolf again, but something tells me that once I have finished undoing the damage I wrought, we will meet again. And when we do, I intend to ask him more about the secrets of Shar Vahl. I want to learn how the spirit guides and chosen mortals formed a bond as strong as life itself. I want to learn to work with the Truespirit to truly protect Norrath, as I had misguidedly thought I was doing long ago. I want to discover the joy of facing the world with my spirit warder by my side. I want to learn to become a beastlord.

(The events in this story make reference to the Mystic epic weapon quest, "A Sleeping Stone." The beastlord prelude quests are currently available from Caalina in Antonica, or Elmin in Commonlands. The beastlord class is coming in winter 2011 with the EverQuest II expansion: Age of Discovery!)


Final note: did you think the story's speaker was male, or female? I deliberately left it completely unmentioned and I've been interested to talk to people who've read the story and come away with completely different opinions.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Elements of Lore

Game teams can be very different in their organization from one company to another. I've got some friends working at other companies who tell me their team is very compartmentalized: one player writes the quest outline and dialog, another one puts it in the game, a third one does things like choose what the quest NPCs and items look like, a fourth creates the reward items, etc. Other companies have broader roles, so that just one or two people might do all of the above. On the EQ2 team we tend more towards the latter. Although everyone has areas of specialty, and there are certainly some things (like spell balance) that need a dedicated specialist, many things can be done by many people which does allow for more flexibility of assigning tasks when needed.

As tradeskill designer for many years I was particularly fortunate, because tradeskills is an area that touches almost every other aspect of the game, at least in EQ2. So while you might think "making recipes" when you hear the word tradeskills, I also had to learn how to make items themselves (the final itemization balance was approved by our main itemization guy of course), create or request appearances for items and NPCs, make quests, which included making quest instances, populating said instances, house items, harvest nodes, zone decorations (such as when I created the central crafting areas in West Freeport and North Qeynos) and even occasional tradeskill-specific spells (such as revamping the reaction arts). Short of actual scripted group or raid encounters I probably learned at least a little of almost everything the design team did, which was really great for me since it wasn't long before I was able to fill in if the team was short handed in one area or another. For example, when we revamped Lavastorm I helped out with adding some quests, and not just the tradeskill line; I'm the one who redecorated the Temple of Thunder, and I added the new mount paths and teleporters around the zone (yes, I'm the reason those lava horses run IN the lava streams just to give you a little fright and a nice view). I count myself very lucky to have had that opportunity, since I like to learn things and I like to help also!

One of the things that I also do from time to time is writing. Obviously, when writing quests there is some writing skill involved, and in fact I know a number of game designers in the industry who do come from a purely creative writing background. Some quests need more storytelling skill than others of course; a kill-ten-rats type quest doesn't need much fine dialog. On the other hand, other quest lines are an opportunity to entertain the player (such as Advanced Journeyman Tasks - poor Vanesta!) or pass some lore to the player as in Shadows of the Betrayed, or the coldain prayer shawl. I actually sniffled a bit writing the dialog for that last one, I made myself so sad about the guilt the Coldain had born all this time!

I used to enjoy writing short stories about EverQuest; I did it quite regularly in EQ1 just for the entertainment of my guild and server, and when the print magazine EQuinox came out for EQ2 I contributed at least half a dozen articles between the two issues. These days I don't get a huge amount of time for writing, but I do occasionally have the chance to step in when our more regular writers are busy with other things, and last weekend I got to write a little lore article about the beastlords that are coming up with the Age of Discovery expansion.

That story hasn't been officially posted yet, so I'll refrain from further details until it is, but here's an older lore story that I wrote in 2009 for Game Update 51, Elements of Corruption. We were releasing a new zone in which the dark elf mage Najena finds herself fighting for her survival against the infiltration of the void forces of Roehn Theer. (In the actual zone, she will contact adventurers and agree to an uneasy truce provided they help her against the void invaders, who are trying to obtain artifacts that are key to the Ages End prophecy.)

Elements of Corruption

…And the Nameless created the Gods and the Gods created all the races of Norrath to worship them and bring them honor and for many years all was well. But soon the Gods grew jealous and each coveted the worship of all mortals, that each might grow more powerful than the others. And the Gods of the Light and the Gods of the Dark made common cause against each other and mighty were the battles between them and all Norrath trembled.

Then came the Nameless, He who created all things and He who shall end all things, and He sent forth His avatar into the world saying "Keep thou the balance, that no lesser God shall rise all powerful, and that neither Light nor Dark shall reign supreme." And thus did Roehn Theer the Godslayer come to Norrath and so did the Gods come to fear one who was both less and more than a God and for a short time peace returned to Norrath.

But the Gods wished not for balance and together they caught the Godslayer unawares and threw him into the Void and bound him there, that they might advance their own ends in Norrath without fear of reprisal. And once more did Norrath tremble and all the races of Norrath bowed down before the Gods and the Gods strode without fear among men and we were much afraid...

~ fragment of text attributed to Zebuxoruk, translated by Eylee Zephyrswell

The shadowy figure bowed its head, eyes closed, concentrating deeply. Had an observer been present in the room, they would have heard nothing and seen no more than the figure of a powerful void being floating in the air, apparently deep in meditation. However, in the reverent silence with which a worshipper communes with his god, an internal conversation was occurring.

"What progress can you report? Have you located the artifacts we sensed?"

A frown crossed the void man's face. "We have confirmed that the artifacts do, indeed, appear to have been created by the mage Najena, as we suspected. Unfortunately, she was alerted by our probing and discovered the presence of the void anchor in Lavastorm much more quickly than we had expected."

"Has the anchor been damaged?"

"Fortunately, no. Once the mage detected our presence, she interfered somehow with the concealment illusion, stripping it off completely. She then attempted to close the anchor, but we were able to turn back her attempts and it remains open. We are currently working to restore it."

"No. The element of surprise is clearly lost; we must simply press forward. The mage is attempting to create artifacts that can counter my powers and stopping her must be your first priority; anything else is secondary."

"Yes, Master. The beach has already been secured and the forces are even now advancing on Najena's tower. We shall have the artifacts within the week, if all goes well."

"See that you do, Munzok. Since Anashti revealed our presence prematurely, our only option is a rapid advance before they can find a new way to prevent my return to Norrath. Get those artifacts by any means possible, and do it now. Fail in this and there will be no corner of Norrath or the Void in which you can escape me."

Moosh panted, his breath coming in gasps as his powerful legs pounded down the stairs to his mistress's inner stronghold. Behind him, the sounds of approaching battle followed swiftly; more swiftly than even their worst fears could have predicted.

"Mauls! To me!" he barked. As they approached the entryway, the ogre troop fell efficiently into their accustomed formation behind him. Heavily armored and in peak fighting condition, the Mauls were Najena's most trusted defenders. Moosh felt a fierce pride as he surveyed the troop: veterans of many a battle and like himself, descended from the original ogres who had been Najena's sole defenders when she left Neriak so many years ago to begin her lone research. Every one among them was fiercely loyal to Moosh and to their mistress, and they would not fail her now.

He nodded, drawing his sword and gesturing towards the sounds of approaching combat. "We make our stand here. They must pass no further. We will prevail."

The Mauls drew their weapons, settling into an alert guarding stance, ready for the enemy's approach. Within moments, a bolt of fiery magic splashed against Moosh's shield, singeing his eyebrows. Around the corner came a wave of elemental constructs and soon the Mauls were fully occupied defending themselves. Balls of fire and blasts of frost flew from side to side and the smell of scorched hair and burned flesh filled the air.

Moosh shattered an ice elemental with his sharp blade and then dodged a blow from an earth golem. Stepping backward to evade the blow, his foot slipped in an unexpected patch of ice and he found himself suddenly on his back, with the golem towering over him. The golem's massive foot stamped down to crush his skull... and was deflected at the last moment as Drash's massive spear pinned the golem to the nearby wall as if it were as insubstantial as a butterfly. Moosh scrambled to his feet, nodding thanks to his comrade.

"Where is the mistress?" grunted Drash as he dispatched the earth golem and retrieved his spear. "Why has she not dispelled these pests?" He ducked to avoid a fireball and then charged forward to attack the fireball's creator before Moosh could reply.

Moosh turned to deflect a sword blow with his shield and pondered this question himself. Najena's mastery over elements was as close to absolute as any being could achieve after hundreds of years to perfect it. For an enemy to attack her using elemental minions was beyond foolhardy, it was bordering on suicidal. She should have either dispelled or assumed control of these elementals as easily as an ogre might swat a fly, and yet the Mauls were still occupied defending themselves. Could she be injured? She should be safe in the Ward of Elements and the Mauls were guarding the only entrance. Could the enemy somehow be interfering with her ability to see what was passing outside?

Parrying another blow, Moosh focused on the weapon attacking him for the first time, and was surprised to find he recognized the massive sword. Hand-chipped from a single massive block of stone, this sword could as easily be used to bludgeon the enemy to death as to slash flesh. Indeed, he had seen this sword many times before and listened to many ale-fueled tales describing the arduous process of handcrafting a traditional weapon like this one. Moosh looked past the sword to his attacker's face and a chill grasped his spine as he recognized his long-time acquaintance and comrade, the master of Najena's jails.

"Ca'iluer!" he shouted. "What are you doing? It's me! Drop your weapon, old man, before I have to hurt you!" Moosh fell back a few steps, defending himself, but hesitant to press his attack. The old man was full of stories and boasts, but no match for the strength of an ogre in the prime of life.

"We are everywhere, Maul." The words came from Ca'iluer's mouth, but were not spoken as he normally would. As the jailor swung the huge stone sword at Moosh once again, a purplish flicker seemed to pass over his body. For a second, it seemed to Moosh that the man became transparent and he could see through Ca'iluer's body to note that the fighting around them seemed to have died down; then with another flicker the man's solidity returned and the sword connected with Moosh's pauldron. Unbalanced by surprise and the sheer weight of the weapon, Moosh stumbled, but found himself steadied by a strong ogre hand grasping his arm as Drash appeared beside him once again.

"Drash, it's Ca'iluer! Help me hold him..." Moosh's voice trailed off as the firm grasp on his arm was not relinquished and in fact became tighter. "Let me go!"

A dread foreboding grasped him, and he turned to look into the eyes of his most trusted fighting companion and friend since youth. Drash smiled back and a purplish flicker seemed to pass momentarily across his face.

"So glad you could join us..."