Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Random Thoughts on Adventuring in the Solar System

Mars with an Arctic Ocean, Image by NASA
The internet got some scientific excitement yesterday with NASA's announcement of discovering evidence of water on Mars.

This got me thinking to science fiction set in our own solar system - primarily in RPGs. It's not a particularly common setting, especially once you remove retro style games which focus on a pulpier version of the solar system such as Space: 1889 and Rocket Age. Those are wonderful games, but I'm talking games set in a slightly harder setting.

Off the top of my head, I can think of a few - many of which I've minimal familiarity with. The one I know best is probably TSR's old XXVc RPG, published in the late 80s and early 90s. It gets a fair amount of negative attention, largely due, I suspect, to the fact that heirs of the John F. Dille, creators of Buck Rogers, were in control of TSR and dictated this game be made. With that caveat, I do feel it to have been an unappreciated game - looking at the credits of the game and its supplements I see designers like Mike Pondsmith and Ray Winninger. It wasn't an especially hard game, with massive amounts of genetic engineering and some pretty advanced propulsion systems, but it made the attempt to at least feel grounded in the real solar system. Essentially, Earth has become quite the wasteland in the aftermath of nuclear warfare and ecological collapse, with a terraformed Mars being the superpower in the system.

Other games grounded in our solar system, games I'm less familiar with, include The Mutant Chronicles, Jovian Chronicles, Cyberpunk: 2020Eclipse Phase, and GURPS Transhuman Space - the last two having strong elements of transhumanism - going beyond humanity with your mind being software. Though its default setting is an interstellar empire, most incarnations of the Traveller RPG give a thorough overview of interplanetary travel.

One item I like, both from Mutant Chronicles and XXVc, is the idea that the Earth is used up. It gives a heck of an incentive to be out there in the unfriendly environment of the solar system - and it really is a hostile place. Earth is a great place to live. We're used to the gravity, the atmosphere shields us from the worst of the sun's radiation, there's food pretty much everywhere.

Off the top of my head, I'd say there's a number of challenges to be overcome and a number of things you need in a solar system-based RPG. Since you're avoiding the pulp connotations of magic rockets and exotic substances like Space: 1889's liftwood, you at least need to give some thought to how expensive it is to leave the gravity of the Earth.  Look at the Apollo missions to the moon - a whole lot of fuel and propulsion and just a teeny tiny bit of cargo and passenger space. Generally speaking, most settings do assume some pretty big advances in rocket technology and it is also reasonable to make use of concepts like the space elevator or the skyhook to make it cheaper to achieve orbit.

You also need something to do. XXVc made Mars the "bad guys" of the solar system, making life difficult for people trying to earn a dishonest living and providing an enemy for those seeking Earth's independence. Mutant Chronicles adds some esoteric elements like the Brotherhood and the Dark Symmetry and have hobbled the "thinking engines" of mankind. Eclipse Phase featured an AI that almost destroyed humanity and the aftermath of this war against humanity left behind wormholes known as Pandora Gates. This avoids the standard "ooh, easy FTL travel" by making passage through such gates often fatal and usually one-way.

Looking through some of these random thoughts I've posted, thoughts I might explore further at another point, I see that while grounded in reality, the games that appeal the most to me make some bold decisions with their backgrounds, going well beyond "well let's calculate your delta-v based on the fuel you can burn..."

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Common Core Math

In my Facebook feed I see a lot of pictures mocking common core math. The latest to go viral is the dad who used "common core math" to write a check.

Friendly Atheist over at Patheos wrote a blog post The Dad Who Wrote a Check Using “Common Core” Math Doesn’t Know What He’s Talking About which describes what the deal is with "ten boxes" and how the check isn't even correct for using ten boxes.

I'm mildly qualified to give my own opinions on the whole common core math thingamabobber. I'm married to a science teacher which gives me access to someone in the business (though not in math). But don't take any of this to be her opinion; this is all me. More importantly, I've two kids, ages 10 and 13, who often need help with math homework. Imagine my surprise the first time I tried to help them and they told me I was "doing it all wrong". So I get the frustration a lot of parents feel.

Last year I attended a curriculum night for my younger daughter, then in 4th grade. Her math teacher talked about what's the intention behind common core math. The big thing is for kids to understand just what it is they are doing. Why when performing arithmetic do you borrow from the column to your left. What does it mean to "carry the 1". Kids are still taught the "old way" as well but the new standards allow kids to get the why and to also have tools to doing math quickly (more on that later as it might seem counter-intuitive). What I witnessed happening to me in the 80s and 90s is calculators made me dumb at simple math. I had to wean myself off of using them for everything. When you use a calculator you have no visibility at all what you're really doing. That's not to discount them as tools - when you're doing complicated equations they can be essential. But they can also blind you to the what's going on. This becomes even more important as you get to higher math - not something all kids will need but being prepared for the possibility is a good thing. For example, just what is a sine? A cosine? A derivative? What does it mean to integrate? These become essential in fields like engineering. For example, when you know the math you see that the formula for acceleration is just integrating the velocity.

"Fine. But most kids won't need that." And I agree, though most kids won't need chemistry either and I see the value in teaching that. But also consider doing math in your head. If I asked you to add 297 and 184 in your head could you? Probably. How would you do it? For me, I'd notice that 297 is just 3 away from  300 so I'm going to call it 300. Then I'll take those 3 away from the 184 to get 181. 481. Boom. Or to write it out..
297 + 184
297 + 184 + 3 - 3
(297 + 3) + (184 - 3)
300 + 181
Written out it looks a lot more complicated. That's because you are breaking it down into steps, steps that you're able to do intuitively. Common core math is all about teaching kids these steps. It's giving kids a toolkit and often with multiple ways of solving a problem.

Do I blame parents for the frustration? Not really. Like I said, it was frustrating for me to be told I was doing math wrong. I wound up googling to figure out the way the kids were being taught. But I have the advantage of being an engineer with a background in math. I think the best thing schools can do is make sure that parents are prepared for what they are going to be seeing from their kids - when using new teaching methods it is easy to dismiss the concerns of parents. I feel that the school isn't just teaching the kids they are also teaching the parents - at the very least you need to tell the parents why you are doing things the way you are - and in most cases, you can also assure them you will also be teaching them the "old way". I'd also suggest that in addition to teaching the why, schools should also make available the how. Prepare a pamphlet or handout for parents for each unit of math, explaining what is being taught, why it's being taught, and how help your kids with such problems. It certainly is more work for the schools but I feel it would go a long way towards buying parent buy-in. And saving my Facebook feed from angry parents puzzling over their kids' math homework.


Some follow-up thoughts a few hours after my initial post... A friend pointed out (as you can see in comments) common core does give more opportunity for something to go wrong. I actually agree with that diagnosis. I still think common core math is worth pursuing as the goal is to truly understand what you're doing with the math. That said, I've also seen it done incredibly wrong. Common core is not present "this is the way to do it", it is supposed to show "this is a way to do it". Having kids try different ways absolutely makes sense. But making them do it only one way is against the whole point. When "ten boxes" or other strategies are presented as the way, you are combining the worst of both worlds - a method which might not be initially intuitive along with a method that is rote.

Why do something that might not be initially intuitive? So that what we work our kids towards is mastery - understanding what it is they are doing, why they are doing it. Rote "carry the 1, borrow a 10, first-outside-inside-last" are methods to do something but do not necessarily impart knowledge.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Fiction Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness  

I first discovered Ursula K. Le Guin in my last semester at UConn, in the first half of 1994. I'd met almost all of my engineering requirements, needing two computer classes - compilers and graphics. I also needed some additional credits and it turned out they could be in literally anything. So I rounded my college experience out with classes in racquetball (yes I got a credit to play racquetball!), dinosaurs, and science fiction. Le Guin's novel The Dispossessed was one of the works we covered in our science fiction class. I absolutely loved it. The entire class actually proved to be rather influential for me - it introduced me to various science fiction movements, an introduction to fanzines, exposure to early debates on the proper term for science fiction, and even an introduction to the "slash" fiction of the 1970s. It was a great class - I was disappointed I never had the opportunity to take the class the professor taught in the fall semesters, covering graphic novels. (I knew some people in my dorm who took it the previous semester thinking they were going to have an easy class since they'd "only" be reading comic books. I recall many people being mystified by the complicated plotlines of Watchmen and understandably shaken by the experience of reading Maus.)

Going from memory, our syllabus consisted of the following works:

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 1
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldiss
  • China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh
  • Startide Rising by David Brin
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson

I enjoyed all of those works with the possible exception of Frankenstein Unbound - I seem to recall not caring for it but it's been so long I can't remember why - maybe it's time to take it for another spin...

Anyways I've read a variety of Le Guin books since then but for some reason I got around to reading one of her more famous ones, The Left Hand of Darkness. The novel is part of her Hainish Cycle. I'll confess to being far from an expert on the cycle, only having read this and The Dispossessed in that cycle. The universe is one in which a very long time ago humanity was seeded to a number of worlds, Earth among them. The different branches of humanity have many physical and social differences between them. The union of worlds in The Left Hand of Darkness is called the Ekumen. It's not quite like the Federation of Star Trek, it is a much looser arrangement. In this setting faster than light travel is not possible - starships travel close to the speed of light, with time dilation making these long voyages possible. However the worlds are united socially with an exchange of ideas made possible by the ansible, an instantaneous faster-than-light communications device, albeit one of low bandwidth. This is the opposite of universes like that of Traveller's Imperium where FTL travel is possible but communication is limited by the speed of travel.

The plot of The Left Hand of Darkness deals with the Ekumen's envoy, Genly Ai of Earth, sent to the planet Winter (called Gethen by the natives) as a solo representative to encourage the Gethenians to join the Ekumen. He is on his own as is standard for such contacts by the Ekumen.

Winter is, as one can imagine, a cold world. Its habitable region is between two glaciers. It has no axial tilt, with its mild summers caused by the distance of the planet from its star. It is notable for the sexuality of its branch of humanity - the people there are androgynous for the bulk of their month. However in a narrow window they enter a period of kemmer where their normally dormant sexuality emerges and they are filled with a strong desire to mate. In a coupling, one will take on male traits and the other partner female ones. The gender one assumes is variable - the same partners in a couple will likely take on different sexual roles in different couplings. They consider Genly to be something of a deviant, always, from their perspective, in a kemmer state. Outside of kemmer the people of Winter have no interest in sex, inside it it becomes an obsession. In the case of a pregnancy the female gender will be maintained throughout the pregnancy and nursing, otherwise the participants will return to their androgynous states.

Possibly as a result of their unique gender roles, the people of Winter are different from other humans in many ways. The most obvious is they have no concept of gender roles. Though conflict is not uncommon (and much of the novel deals with a territorial dispute between two Gethen nations), all-out war is unknown - conflicts stay localized. Genly spends his time in two nations, learning about the people of Winter, the differences between the nations, their religions, their legends. He encourages the leadership of both nations to join the Ekumen, knowing if one joins its rival will almost certainly do so as well.

As the preceding paragraph indicates, Winter has more than one nation. The two main nations dealt with are rivals, with some hints that they may be approaching their first real war. The leaders of the nations have their own assumptions about what Genly is "really" doing and their own plans on how best to use him for their own purposes. Genly has to learn just who it is he can trust.

In the tradition of the best science fiction Le Guin takes real-world issues and explores them in an otherworldly manner. Winter and its people feel real yet alien - more alien than your typical "funky foeheaded alien of the week" often seen on television. The people of Winter have their own dreams, failures, glories, and dreams. I recommend it strongly.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

First Impressions of D&D 5th Edition

It's a little late to be doing a review of D&D 5th edition. Be that as it may, I recently ran my first 5th edition game and it seemed a reasonable topic to give my first impressions of it.

This isn't a full review - a little googling will find a few gazillion of those.

First, some background. Earlier in the year we played some Dungeon Crawl Classics. It was a blast, at least until the total party kill. I'd gladly play again, but I felt free to allow my GM ADD to reign. We played Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. It's a game I enjoyed, but it's a bit of a mental shift from other game which had me doing a lot of legwork as GM. With me beginning my long delayed (part-time) pursuit of a Master's Degree this fall I wanted something that didn't require quite as much prep work. After some back and forth we kicked off a 5th edition D&D game set on Eberron.

So one of the goals of 5th edition D&D, as I understand it, was to bring players from older adventures back into the game. Though I've played all versions of D&D, I have to confess to some frustration with newer versions - 3/3.5 took far too long to prep for and while 4th edition was much quicker for prepping, we found combats lasted far too long for our tastes. The combats were a ton of fun mind you, just too much a time sink. I'm not going to run through every detail of 5th edition but some things stuck out for me.

First of all, the universal d20 mechanic of 3rd and 4th editions remains. For nearly everything you want to roll high on a d20. However, the extreme min-maxing that the 3.x editions encouraged is largely gone. Feats from the 3.x editions are still possible but are optional - every few levels characters have a chance to bump up two ability scores. In place of that a character can take a feat. Feats are considerably more potent as a result, but you can absolutely play without them without missing them a bit. Or have some players use them and others not.

One thing which did surprise me is the fact that some ideas from the 4th edition were used - for example, all characters get a proficiency bonus which increases as they level up. For things they are proficient with - spells, certain weapons (or all for fighters), certain skills, certain saving throws, etc. the proficiency bonus is applied to d20 rolls in addition to other bonuses. Otherwise it's just a straight d20 roll, modified by ability scores. One thing I found noteworthy is the proficiency bonus is modest - it starts off at +2 and maxes out at 17th level at +6. This greatly smooths out the power curve of the game. As a result, magic items are more modest as well and it wouldn't be all that difficult to run a game without any magic items or with very few - something that other versions of D&D would have difficulty with.

Prestige classes are gone. Instead at low levels characters make choices which can shape their character. For example, a 2nd level ranger chooses a fighting style and at 3rd level chooses and archetype (the Player's Handbook offers hunter or beast master for rangers). Multi-classing remains possible though not perhaps as necessary - for example there's a fighter archetype that gives access to some basic offensive and defensive wizard spells, in keeping with elven fighter/wizards.

Magic using characters have a bit more flexibility - a character can have a certain number of spells in memory and also a certain number of casting slots. When a spell is cast it uses up a casting slot, but no spell is forgotten.

As far as how it actually played - I'm still getting my feet wet. However I will say I was able to prep the first adventure we did from scratch very quickly and in a brief session we were able to get through some roleplaying scenes and multiple combats. No miniatures were needed though they might have helped a little bit - not so much for tactical usage, more for a clearer big-picture sort of idea. No deaths from our first adventure but one character came awfully close and more than one fell to zero hit points.

I haven't yet gotten a feel for the advancement pace of the game - leveling up to 2nd level was very quick, easily achieved after one session. I'm not sure if the pace remains fast or if it levels off like it did in older editions. I might do a little work on a spreadsheet to get an idea of how fast a party will level up when presented with challenges appropriate for the party's abilities.

Wizards of the Coast seems to be keeping releases for this new game to a minimum. A few large-scale adventures and a few sourcebooks/rules expansions, some of them outsourced. To be honest, I actually prefer this strategy - in the era of the splatbook the game you played could diverge considerably from other people playing the same edition of the game. From a business perspective, I'm a little unclear what that means - does Hasbro have more modest expectations? Do they want more of the business to come from other products such as video games, novels, etc.? One peeve is the lack of any digital version of the game - no pdf/epub/mobi version of the core books. Wizards of the Coast has begun rolling out pdf versions of older core books over the past few months, so there is hope they are now open to core books available digitally, but we will see if that extends to the current version of the game.

Regardless of the business side of things, my impression so far is it is enjoyable and smooth enough to keep running at least through my first trimester at Brandeis, after which we'll see. Call of Cthulhu always wants to be played and zombie apocalypses are always fun...

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Developing Diverse Characters

Cover to Black Goliath #1 [1]
I seem to be on my "Social Justice Warrior" kick and my previous post on Diversity in Comics got a decent amount of traffic (well by my blog's standards) - with some interesting comments, both here and in other places I posted links.

One thing that showed up in some discussions is the absolute possibility of being extremely clumsy in the well meaning attempt at including diversity. The 1970s is rife with this - an era when diversity often meant tacking the word "black" in front of a character's name. Black Lightning is perhaps the most notorious example and Black Goliath comes to mind as well. The character Black Panther headlining a comic book entitled Jungle Action just seems terrible in retrospect.

What you're running into in those cases is creation of a character whose entire reason to exist is their ethnicity. We don't live in a color-blind world so totally ignoring a characters ethnicity is untrue but making their ethnicity (or religion or sexual orientation) totally irrelevant seems less than genuine.

There is also the challenge of writers needing at least some knowledge of the people they are writing about. That's not to say one cannot write about a character of a different background from oneself - if so the author is limiting what he or she can write. My wife went back to school several years ago to obtain her Master's Degree in Teaching and they spent a large amount of time focusing on the different experiences of people of different races, economic backgrounds, etc. An author can absolutely learn about different backgrounds beyond his or her own. When authors don't write from personal experiences or honest research, the results can be very clumsy - something which has been seen very often.

Though it's perhaps something of a side topic, something that really has been on my mind is a class of comment I read in Chuck Wendig's blog post Star Wars: Aftermath - Reviews, News, and Such! His new Star Wars novel covers the time some months after the events of Return of the Jedi, being the first book in the Force Unleashed continuity to do so. There have been three main controversies about his new novel:

  1. The fact that as being part of the new canon it breaks with the previously established EU continuity.
  2. The use of third person present narrative.
  3. The inclusion of several gay or lesbian characters (one of the protagonists is gay, there is a lesbian couple, and another character is mentioned as having two fathers).
It is the third objection that I'm thinking about now. One of the comments says:
I don’t mind gay people, I have some gay friends. However, I don’t like it when people, like you, try to include real life problems and controversy inside of a Star Wars story. If I want to read a book about a gay character, I will. However, as soon as I learned there were gay characters in this book I thought “well there is going to be a fight about this controversy.” You put them in there just to bring out controversy, that is the problem I have with your book. I say I don’t care if the characters are gay because I could care less about their sexual orientation, in this case it adds nothing to the story value. [2]

I'm not picking on this specific comment - it is rather representative of a perspective I've encountered with some frequency that I disagree with. My own response to such a comment is "why not?" It is worth noting that the lesbian couple in Mr. Wendig's book is also a interracial couple:
Shirene is the opposite of Esmelle in many ways—Esmelle is thin, reedy, pale as a ghost. Shirene is rounded, pillowy, skin as dark as a handful of overturned soil. Her hair is short and curly and close to the scalp; Esmelle’s is long, a silver cascade down her back. [3]
Go back to the 1980s and you will find the presence of an interracial couple would be controversial in and of itself. Pew Social Trends writes that:
As of 1987, two decades after the Supreme Court ruling, just 48% of the public said it was “all right for blacks and whites to date each other.” By 2009, that share had grown to 83%. [4]
What is controversial today may not be controversial tomorrow. A heterosexual interracial couple would generate be viewed acceptable by 48% of the public back in 1987, suggesting over half would find it unacceptable. I do not believe it is the obligation of an author to wait for the public to be comfortable with a controversial topic.

[And since I'm going back to school  part-time for my Master's Degree - which may kill my recently restored posting frequency - I'm getting used to using MLA citations...]

[1] Buckler, Rich. "Cover to Black Goliath #1, February, 1976. Art by Rich Buckler." Black Goliath #1. Marvel Comics, 1 Feb. 1976. Web. 14 Sept. 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Foster_(comics)#/media/File:Blackgoliath_bill.jpg>.

[2]  "Star Wars: Aftermath -- Reviews, News, And Such!" Terribleminds Chuck Wendig. 7 Sept. 2015. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.

[3] Wendig, Chuck. "Chapter Fourteen." Aftermath: Star Wars: Journey to The Force Awakens. New York City: Del Rey, 2015. Kindle Edition.

[4] "Chapter 4: Public Attitudes on Intermarriage." Pew Research Centers Social Demographic Trends Project RSS. 15 Feb. 2012. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Diversity in Comics

Green Lantern 
Marvel and DC Comics have, over the past few years, increased the diversity in comics characters. Earth 2 has featured a gay Green Lantern leading character. The current Ms. Marvel is a Pakistani-American teen-aged girl. The lead of Ultimate Spider-Man transferred from white Peter Parker to mixed race (of African American and Latino descent) Miles Morales.

I've read some controversy as to whether this is "pandering". I've also heard some people upset that iconic characters who had been white males being replaced by other types of characters - "why not make an original African American character?" for example.

I'll start off with the second comment - "why not make an original xxx character?" From one perspective, I get the question. On the other hand, legacy characters have been a tradition in comics since Barry Allen was struck by lightning and become the second Flash. Looking at new Marvel comics that came out this week I see pretty much every comic is either a team book or features a character not invented within the past ten years. (For example, while the current Ms. Marvel comic features a new character, the character itself is decades old.)

Ms. Marvel
Is it pandering? I don't think so. I think it is knowing your audience. I read in comments older readers saying "this is why I've not read xxx since 1989". That's clearly not their target audience. The image of genre fans as a bunch of white males is outdated. Tonight my younger daughter (10) is sleeping over a friend's house, along with another friend. The three girls are having a Doctor Who marathon.

Can't you enjoy characters different from yourself? Of course you can. I absolutely love reading the comics that have featured Miles Morales as Spider-Man. But why not feature a universe that has the same diversity that the real world has. I've seen my older daughter (13) happily hanging out with friends and being the only white girl present. I think it presents a problem though when you have a universe whose main characters got their start in the 30s through 60s - they will be almost entirely white with perhaps a token minority and token woman. Give me comics that reflect the diversity of the real world.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Analog Parts of My Gaming Toolkit

I like tech toys a lot - well enough to have gotten rather proficient at selling older items on eBay to help feed my habit for new items that sane people are perfectly happy waiting for...

Oddly, one area I find myself turning to some vintage technology is when I need to record my thoughts. Both in hobbies and at work I find myself making use of pen and paper as my preferred way of doing so. It's not that I'm uncomfortable with more modern methods - for example in my family we use tools Google Calendar and Google Keep as tools to keep track of everyone's activities and to maintain shopping and todo lists. When I'm at my local supermarket I'll have my cell phone in hand clicking off items as I put them in my shopping cart.

However, when it comes time to recording my thoughts, I've not found a good replacement for pen and paper. I've tried a number of them and I am quite fond of my Microsoft Surface Pro 3 with it's active pen. My usual workflow is to record things in a notebook, possibly refine them, and eventually record them digitally should I feel the need to do so. For example, when I'm taking notes at a meeting in work I'll jot them down on paper and then transcribe them into a document.

For gaming, I often use a combination of technologies. I'll give an example from my most recent D&D adventure. Assuming all goes as planned, I'll be playing it on the evening of September 7th and posting this blog entry later that evening (I'm writing this on the evening of the 6th but I'm working out a new posting system.) Though my initial inclination was to be using a premade adventure, I was jotting down ideas and came up with an idea I found I liked. I wound up getting an outline of an adventure, drawing a map, and figuring out who the baddies were and what their motivation was. Most of it exists primarily in my creative journal (it's basically for all-purpose notes outside of work - random thoughts, adventure ideas, blog ideas, initial notes from meetings with my kids' teachers, etc.), though I did fire up Campaign Cartographer 3 to make some dungeon maps. I thought it might be neat to share some of the tools I used for this.

First here's a view of my current notebook and pen. I'm using a Lamy 2000 Fountain Pen with an extra-fine point. I started using fountain pens a few years ago, find they make for a much more pleasant writing experience - I'm able to write with a lot less force than I normally needed and I find the pen glides nicely across the paper. One does need to be a bit more careful about smudging when using a fountain pen and you need to be a bit more picky about paper. Normally I go for heavier papers so I worry less about ghosting (your writing be visible on the opposite side of the paper) but I'm experimenting with a B5-sized journal from Paper for Fountain Pens. It uses extremely thin paper. The disadvantage of such paper is for my writing style I really need to stick to one side of the paper. The advantage though is I'm able to put a template sheet behind the blank page I'm currently writing on. The paper is so thin I'm able to use that template as guidelines, allowing me to mix and match - if I need to write in a grid I can have a sheet of graph paper behind, if I need to write more traditionally I can have a lined sheet behind it. I'm letting myself fill up this notebook to see if I keep using this style or go back to a more traditional book.

This second image gives an idea of what a typical page of text in my journal might look like. On this page you can see I'm in the process of balancing encounters out - I've figured out the story, mapped out the dungeon, and now I was in the process of figuring out how to balance out the various encounters I'd been planning. You can also see some of the ghosting I'd talked about above. Also I made the mistake of closing the notebook before the ink fully dried (the ink I'm using takes a few seconds).

I also make use of an Android App called Genius Scan when I want to pull in some of notes I'm working on into an app like Microsoft OneNote. Below you can see an example of what this produces, the image above cleaned up and rendered in black and white:

You can also see my writing is absolutely horrible. I'm in the process of teaching myself cursive again, but in the meantime there's my horrific writing at present.

Often I'll sketch out a rough map and then either scan it or render it in Campaign Cartographer 3. This time I had a pretty good idea as to the kinds of dungeons I wanted so I was able to work directly in CC3. Below is one of the dungeons I'd worked out for this adventure:

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Movie Review: The Princess Bride

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
Image from The Princess Bride Ltd. site.
I didn't see The Princess Bride when it came out in theaters in 1987. Not many people did. Pulling up IMDB, the movies that I saw in 1987 when they did come out were Spaceballs, Can't Buy Me Love, A Nightmare On Elm Street 3, Superman IV, and Teen Wolf Too. I turned 16 that year so I really shouldn't have been able to see Elm Street without an adult but this was the 80s where the way to get into an R movie as a teenager was to buy a ticket to that movie.

I can safely say that The Princess Bride blows all of them away. I first saw it in the early 90s while at UConn. I don't remember if a friend had it or someone rented it but a bunch of us watched it in my dorm room on my VCR, attached to an extremely tiny TV. It's pretty much obligatory viewing for those in gaming, if for no other reason than to get all the references other players will be making.

Though I didn't read Goldman's novel of the same name until several years later, the film is a pretty accurate adaptation, down to the metafiction of the tale being taken from a book. This isn't surprising, given he wrote the screenplay as well.

If you've not seen it, the best advice I can give is to do so now.

What's it about? It's the story of a boy home sick whose grandfather visits him and reads him the tale of The Princess Bride. The boy pretty much endures this until being drawn into the story. And what kind of story?
The Grandson: Has it got any sports in it? 
Grandpa: Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles... 
The Grandson: Doesn't sound too bad. I'll try to stay awake. 
Grandpa: Oh, well, thank you very much, very nice of you. Your vote of confidence is overwhelming.
As we enter the story from this framing device, we learn of the farm boy Westley and his love for the beautiful Buttercup. He goes off to seek his fortune and is apparently lost to the Dread Pirate Roberts. Is he dead though? "This is true love - you think this happens every day?" Of course not.

As the story progresses, Buttercup has been engaged to marry the prince of the land. But she has been kidnapped by some nefarious rogues working to start a war - the genius Vizzini, the hulking Fezzik, and the swordsman Inigo Montoya. Though as it turns out they're not such bad guys - in all honesty they're pretty similar to your typical D&D party.

Fezzik: You never said anything about killing anyone. 
Vizzini: I've hired you to help me start a war. It's an prestigious line of work, with a long and glorious tradition. 
Fezzik: I just don't think it's right, killing an innocent girl. 
Vizzini: Am I going MAD, or did the word "think" escape your lips? You were not hired for your brains, you hippopotamic land mass. 
Inigo Montoya: I agree with Fezzik.

You see I'm doing an awful lot of quoting. The movie is a goldmine of classic lines, many of which find their way to D&D games. I first heard of the movie when a two-weapon wielding Drow I was playing (hey it was second edition) lost one his weapons and I declared "I'll fight him left handed", unknowingly referencing the movie. ("If I use my right... over too quickly.") However, The Princess Bride is far more than a bunch of great quotes. It is full of all the things Grandpa promised - and full of them with absolute sincerity. True love is a power here. Both in the story and between the grandfather and the grandson. The characters are perfectly cast, from Cary Elwes and Robin Wright near the beginning of their careers as Westley and Buttercup to established actors like Peter Falk as Grandpa.

I was watching a special on The Princess Bride and Director Rob Reiner commented that as they were making it he indicated he didn't want to make another Wizard of Oz - something that didn't do particularly well on release but later found its audience as a classic.

‘The studio never knew how to market it,’ said Reiner. ‘We literally never had a trailer. They tried to sell it like a zany comedy. I remember having this conversation with Barry Diller, who was the head of Fox at the time. I was screaming at him. I said, “Barry, I don’t want to have a Wizard of Oz!” Because when The Wizard of Oz came out, it was a disaster – nobody liked it and it didn’t do well. I’ll never forget what he said to me. He said, “Rob, don’t let anybody ever hear you say that. You’d be so happy to have a Wizard of Oz!”’
- Fiction Machine, This is True Love

The Princess Bride did in many ways become another Wizard of Oz. To this day it's one of my favorite movies, one that can always bring a smile to my face. And it makes for great quotes at the D&D table.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Rewind to Damnation Decade

Warriors, come out to play!

I recently reread Stephen King's novel Salem's Lot. Among the many things it does well is capture 1970s America. It's not too surprising given it was written then, but there are some books, television shows, etc. that really are products of their times.

Born in 1971, I don't have the clearest memories of the 1970s. I bounced around a number of places - New York City, suburbs of Syracuse, New York, some time in New Jersey, and finally winding up in Connecticut. I think it's best to say my memories of the 70s are in flashes. Technology with wood paneling, a cable box with dozens of buttons. TVs that took time to warm up. Watching Godzilla and Planet of the Apes movies on the television. The bicentennial. Graffiti all over the subway trains. Huge cars. Everyone smoking. My brother being born. Lots of corduroy. A boy in my kindergarten with a metal pincher hand.  Disaster movies. Star Trek reruns. Star Wars. The Star Wars Holiday Special. Leonard Nimoy hosting In Search Of.

2006 saw Green Ronin Release Damnation Decade, a campaign setting for d20 Modern and True20 designed to capture the 1970s. It's one of those campaign settings I've never really gotten a chance to play that I got to thinking about while reading some Bronze Age comics.

I'm not really doing a full review of it - I'm pretty sure you could Google it. Rather I'm throwing out just how groovily awesome it was. It takes place in an alternate reality - one slightly different from our own. Americo instead of America.  Stanton Morango Spobeck instead of Richard Milhous Nixon. To be honest, I wasn't a huge fan of the name changes, though I can imagine the reason behind them - for me it allows for a mental disconnect from our world, giving permission to change things. Well beyond the fact it all went to hell in 1974, just as Nixon... Spobeck was about to resign, with California falling into the sea. Canada's equivalent has been flooded by the melted polar ice cap. The state of Alamo has been cordoned off. Killer bees are on the loose. Baseball has been replaced by the far bloodier Omegaball. Scary cults are out there. Androids are replacing people. A Hugh Hefner equivalent is preparing to run against Spobeck in 1976.

It's a setting that oozes style. Something you could run campy or play straight, depending on one's mood. It's also something that can be mined for all sorts of ideas. It's still available on RPGNow and is still worth checking out even if you never use it as intended. And it's one of those settings that kinda sits in my mind, wanting to be tried out.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Is Objectionable Content OK?

There was a bit of a tempest last week when the OneBookshelf (i.e. DriveThruRPG, RPGNow) sites hosted for a period a d20 supplement entitled "Tournament of Rapists".

I'll begin with I can't even to begin to imagine why one would think producing such a product to be a good idea. The summary of the product, quoted from Tenkar's Tavern, is:
The Tournament of Rapists details the sadistic Rape Pure Fight circuit, expanding on what you’ve seen already and introducing dangerous new sexual predators. This sadistic bloodsport takes place in abandoned office buildings and atop Tokyo rooftops. An assortment of superhumanly powerful and inhumanly misogynistic men, and even worse women, step into impromptu fighting arenas, killing and raping the weaker in search of a multi-billion yen fight purse provided by a half-oni billionaire in thrall to dark impulses.
So why would one ever make such a product is truly beyond me. I think Tenkar's title of "WTF Were They Thinking" says it all.

The other controversy was OBS's decision to host the product, resulting in a number of boycotts and calls for boycott. They have since developed an objectionable content policy which includes:
If a reported title looks questionable, then we will suspend it from sale while we review its content internally, and we will speak with its publisher to determine the fate of the title on our marketplace. Our default will be to suspend titles rather than our prior default of letting titles stay public. 

I'll be honest in that I'm torn. My own leanings are along the lines of what some have derisively referred to as that of a "Social Justice Warrior".

That said, everyone's threshold for offensiveness varies. For example, I'm not a huge fan of grindhouse though I nevertheless enjoy most of Lamentations of the Flame Princess' products. Probably despite the grindhouse aspects, not because of them. I personally don't care for products like Carcosa's providinig mechanical benefits to human sacrifice. It is certainly emulating some of the nastier elements of the sword and sorcery genre. However, my preference would be to shove that element in the background - i.e. they are bad, they sacrifice kids instead of statting out the benefits of sacrificing those kids. But it's also my prerogative not to buy that product or if I do so, to give a negative review.

I hate being wishy washy, giving the "both sides have a point" argument. Merchants are often held accountable for the products they sell - look at Amazon pulling Confederate flags earlier this year. And I imagine no one would fault OBS for choosing not to host games like the Racial Holy War RPG (yes, I'm sorry to say that's a thing). Or an adventure where the goal is to molest children.

I guess where I end up standing is the realization that any store is going to apply some discretion to what it carries. My own preference is that they exercise extreme care when choosing not to carry something, trusting to customers to make their own decisions.

The problem with taking down offensive content is knowing that people can very easily be sincerely offended. Blue Rose, a romantic fantasy RPG, managed to offend a number of people as it incorporated inclusiveness of same-sex couples. It was published at a time when the only state in the United States that legalized same-sex marriages was Massachusetts. Should Blue Rose have been pulled if it offended enough people? What about the novel Lolita, dealing with hebephilia? I'm a fan of Nine Inch Nails, music which many people are understandably offended by.

Where I believe my nervousness lies is in the reporting policy OBS is developing. I worry it could be easy to create a flood of controversy over a title. The policy also includes the following, which I hope will prove to be the case:
I will be the final arbiter of what OneBookShelf deems offensive. I will tend to err toward including content, even when it challenges readers and deals with sensitive issues, so long as it does so maturely and not gratuitously. 
I think the jury is still out on what "maturely" and "gratuitously" is. Is art depicting a naked man turned to stone by a medusa mid-coitus (complete with erect penis) mature? Is it gratuitous? 

My thought is OBS should sell products that some people, even most people, will find offensive, even when I'm among those people. That doesn't mean I won't speak out against those who produce such materials should I feel it appropriate to do. Rather I would prefer to aim my disagreement at those who choose to produce such material, not those who sell it. I'd prefer censorship to be minimized. As a store it is certainly OBS's right to censor what it puts up for sale, I hope they will do with extreme rarity.