Monday, October 22, 2012

Breaking Balls

Last Friday, pitcher Barry Zito became an unlikely hero to the baseball fans of San Francisco when he pitched 7 2/3 shutout innings and saved the Giants' season in beating the Cardinals, staving off elimination in the National League Championship Series, and bringing the final two games of the series home to AT&T Park. Zito, the 2002 AL Cy Young winner with the Oakland A's, came to the Giants in 2007 as the highest paid pitcher in baseball and promptly proved to be a bust, turning in end-of-the-rotation outings while drawing an ace pitcher's salary. This season saw him turn things around a bit, going 15-8, but even the regular season resurgence didn't really prepare anyone for his Game 5 gem.

In a league where most of the pitchers can hit the low to mid-nineties with their heaters, Zito beat a good-hitting Cardinals lineup with a fastball that never clocked over eighty-six miles per hour, and that only twice. What made it work was a remarkably sharp curveball that he consistently pitched for strikes. The beauty of Zito's curve, which travels in the low to mid-seventies, is that hitters have to adjust their timing to be ready for it, and when they do, an eighty-three mile-per-hour fastball suddenly looks rocket propelled by comparison.

I watched the game, and I honestly have to say it was one of the best pitching performances I've seen - including King Felix's perfecto earlier this season - in recent memory. He snapped off breaking ball after breaking ball that dropped through the zone, and when the Cards' hitters went after it, he shut them down with a high fastball. This is what it must've been like watching Sal Maglie pitch.

I was reminded of great curveballs by the cheese my players threw at me this weekend. After returning from Milan on their mission to located and perhaps ransom the vicomte de Praz-de-Lys, they received word that the king's grace was granted to them and they were free to return to Paris, their exile ended. However, with rumors of the long-delayed English fleet on its way to the Mediterranean at last swirling around Turin, and their new commander dangling the prize of sacking Genoa before them when the ships arrived, they decided to blow off returning to France, to remain in Turin in anticipation of the spring campaign against the Genoese and the Spanish.

What the adventurers did not and could not know is that the English warships, soundly defeated by the Spanish during a raid on Cadiz, and that the French were pursuing a separate peace with Spain which culminated in the Treaty of Monçon in March 1626. There never was going to be a resumption of the campaign against Genoa.

And that's perhaps why I didn't expect the players to opt to stay in Turin. From our previous game-day, it sounded like they were ready for their characters to head back to Paris. I planted the rumors of the English fleet and the spring offensive more for reasons of historical interest - this is what was being discussed in the courts of Europe in December 1625 - but I didn't really expect them to bite.

And rather than following through on their plans to go home, they opted to stay for the fireworks instead.

Meanwhile, Riordan O'Neill, the King's Musketeer, has been carrying on an affair with a lady-in-waiting to the princess of Piedmont during his time in Savoy, and I got another curveball there - he was actively pursuing a way to marry his mistress, despite their differences in social standing, even to the point of hoping he would get her pregnant before she was married off to a Savoyard soldier.

And then, when his hopes were dashed, he made sure the break was clean by trying to seduce her maid.

Running a sandbox means being prepared to handle the breaking balls the players send my way. Instead of rushing back to Paris with the vicomte's coded message to 'PROTECT WIFE' in their minds, they decided to pursue fortune and glory and settled for a chimera instead.

In practical terms for me as the referee, this advances my timeline considerably. Rather than arriving in Paris in January, they will arrive in April. I need to consider how the passage of four months affects the machinations of different non-player characters and their complex web of intrigues. What happened to the vicomte's family in Paris, for example? The players' original determination to aid the vicomte disappeared when presented with the chance to fill their saddlebags with Genoese loot. Now the fates of the vicomte and vicomtesse may take a very different turn.

These sweeping 11-5 curveballs that buckle the knees are what make running a sandbox so much fun for me. I'm spending the next couple of weeks figuring out what happens now, how the social landscape of the game changes as a result of the players' and characters' choices.

I'l probably work on it tonight, with my laptop on my knees, as I watch the Giants battle the Cards in a win-or-go-home Game 7 to determine who goes to the World Series on Wednesday.

I hope Matt Cain's curveball is as sharp as Barry Zito's.


  1. Is it also possible that the historical trajectory won't come to pass? That Genoa does get beseiged, etc.?

    1. Generally speaking, not unless it's the adventurers who alter the trajectory.

      I've been fine with changing some things, but the overall sweep of history continues along the historical timeline until the players and their characters are in a position to change it in-game.

    2. Very cool. That does create a significantly different context from a "typical" RPG.