22 April 2009

Best tweet ever

Adam Savage (a.k.a. @donttrythis) wrote:

I met a girl (my first kiss) playing D&D while in the employ of Warner Library, in Tarrytown. I was the Dungeonmaster.

11 April 2009

The extraordinary among the ordinary

So, I’m listening to Grimm Studios Podcast episode 1 and the subject comes up about whether a hero is an extraordinary person or an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances.

(I think both. I think it’s also interesting to note, however, that when the hero is extraordinary, the challenges faced are often so much more extraordinary that the hero’s extraordinariness† is immaterial.)

It occurs to me that this might be why I’m not crazy about things like The Watchmen. In some ways they are about extraordinary persons in ordinary circumstances. I can appreciate that sort of thing but only so much.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy The Watchmen‡. I did. It’s just never going to be on my list of favorites.

†Wow. This derivative of extraordinary—as awkward as it is—is actually explicitly listed in the Mac’s New Oxford American Dictionary.

‡Not the movie. The comic. Although I haven’t actually so much read the comic as watched the “motion comic”.

Surfing with the Alien

I’m really bad at keeping up with music. I’ve been making an effort to regularly buy albums, but it hasn’t really helped since I seem to mostly be buying digital version of my old cassette tape collection.

One such is Joe “Satch” Satriani’s 1987 Surfing with the Alien. Of course, I didn’t know when I bought the CD at Half Price Books last June that in 2007 he’d released an expanded 20th anniversary edition.

As I recall, Joe came to fame as a former guitar teacher of Steve Vai’s after Steve had come to fame playing with David Lee Roth when Diamond Dave left Van Halen. Of course, “fame” here means that if you’re a guitar player you have probably heard of them.

Here’s my two degrees of separation: One of my guitar teachers, Danny Blitz, once jammed with Joe. During that time when Joe was known only as “Steve Vai’s guitar teacher”.

Joe has built an impressive career on electric guitar instrumentals. He’s only recently joined a “regular band”, Chickenfoot.

Anyway, back to 1987: Alien, Joe’s second album, reached 29 on The Billboard 200 at a time when rock instrumentals hadn’t charted in years or were heard on the radio much.

There’s no doubt that Joe has mad guitar skillz, but the things I love about this album aren’t so much the flashy tricks. “Always with me, always with you” is a melodic ballad in which the few bursts of shredding or whammy bar squeals or right-hand tapping are used only in service to the song. That’s probably my favorite track. “Midnight” explores two-handed tapping but not for flash. Overall, besides the flashy, rocking title track and “Satch Boogie” hits, there’s just a really nice mix of pieces here that cover a lot of territory.

09 April 2009

Journey to the City of the Gods

There may be as many opinions on the various roles and contributions of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson to the creation of Dungeons & Dragons as there are people who recognize those names. By all accounts, though, they were both interesting, imperfect, and genuinely nice characters. And also very different.

The hobby they created has given me fun, but it also gave me an impetus to study history and probability. It introduced me to literature I might never have read otherwise. And it helped me find and have an excuse to hang out with some of the best friends I’ve ever had.

Though I never met either of them, Gary’s passing last year and Dave’s now have both felt a bit like losing a mentor.

In honor of Dave and Gary, I’ve pulled out Oearth Journal #6 to read “Robilar Remembers: Journey to the City of the Gods”. It is Rob Kuntz’s account of a session in which his character Robilar and Gary’s Mordenkainen explore Blackmoor’s famed “City of the Gods”. It includes some Dungeon Masters Comments from Dave as well.

08 April 2009

D&D’s death spiral

On the business of role-playing games...

Ryan Dancey made a comment on a post at RPGpundit’s blog. I found it interesting enough that I’m quoting the whole thing below.

One of the reasons I find Ryan’s opinion interesting is because he’s a former Wizards of the Coast Vice President.

(I saw this due to Randall posting about it on the RetroRoleplaying blog.)

This is a classic example of Death Spiral. As things go bad, the regressive forces inside the organization (lawyers, commissioned sales people, creative folk who feel stifled by history, precariously tenured executives) are increasingly able to exert their agenda. It always makes a bad situation worse, but there’s no magic bullet that would likely make the bad situation better so you get a rapid unbalance in the Corporate Force towards the Dark Side.

Risky (someone might make us look bad, steal our ideas before we print them, or create a competitive brand that siphons off sales), and lack of faith in network marketing devalues ROI assumptions. Kill it.
Causes endless problems with hardcopy partners creating pressure on sales team they could really do without, and revenues are so small as to be non-strategic. Cut it.
Every time you talk about it someone produces a $10 million minimum cost estimate to “do it right”. After spending 3–5× this amount in a series of failed initiatives (lead by utterly unqualified people), executives assume Online is plutonium. No qualified lead or team will touch it.
Sales of each unit are going down and few products have any staying power. The only (seemingly viable) solution is to put more books in production—make up for the revenue hole caused by lack of evergreen sales by getting more money out of each customer. The Treadmill.

The next things that will take hits are the RPGA (costs a lot to operate—slash its budget), then quality (put fewer words and less art on fewer pages and raise the price), then consistency (rules varients generated by inexperienced designers and/or overworked developers start to spawn and cohesion in rulings breaks down leading to ad hoc interpretations as the de facto way to play).

Meanwhile sales just keep going down, the gap in the budget keeps getting bigger, and no matter how many heads roll, there isn’t any light at the end of the tunnel.

Wizards is about to be forced into the D&D end-game which is something that many publishers have gone through but none ever with a game the scale and impact of D&D (TSR walked right up to this cliff but WotC saved them from going over the edge). There are 3 outcomes:

  1. A total collapse, and the game ceases meaningful publication and distribution at least for one gamer generation and maybe forever.
  2. Downsizing until overhead matches income; could involve some kind of out-license or spin off of the business—think BattleTech in its current incarnation.
  3. Traumatic rebirth, meaning that someone, somewhere finds some way to cut out the cancers that are eating the tabletop game and restarts the mass market business for D&D.

Note that 2 and 3 can be mileposts on the road to 1.

07 April 2009

Time travel

The new Star Trek film features time traveling.


Sure, time travel is a sci-fi staple. It can be used to really good effect. It is definitely, however, something for which less is more. The Trek franchise long ago used up their allowance.

06 April 2009

In defense of attacks of opportunity

The “attack of opportunity” (AOO) rules in Wizards D&D 3e get disparaged a lot. The rules—at least in the 3.0 PHB—weren’t described well, but the rules themselves are actually pretty good.

Nigh every wargame of a certain level has “zone of control” (ZOC) rules. These are rules that attempt to compensate for the turned-based nature and other artifacts of the game. If you don’t realize that the AOO rules are ZOC rules, then they can often not make a lot of sense. Like much of the combat system, they’re an abstraction, so they can’t be taken too literally.

AOO have a couple of advantages as ZOC rules. One, they are actually pretty simple in play for their “payoff” compared to other ZOC rules. Secondly, they are not as “hard”. A character willing to take a chance at being hit, can effectively ignore the AOO. Or one PC can draw an AOO from an opponent preventing that opponent from getting an AOO against another PC later that round. (Provided the opponent lacks the Combat Reflexes Feat, of course.) Some ZOC rules never allow for circumventing them.

Personally, while I like the AOO rules, I don’t think they are appropriate as default rules for the flagship role-playing game. For a skirmish wargame or for an optional set of advanced combat rules for a role-playing game, sure. It’s the context I don’t like about them more than the actual rules themselves.

Indie elves and old-school dwarves

Ken Hite:

I’ll have more to say on the storied rivalries—and eerie similarities—between indie elves and old-school dwarves in later columns

When—around 2004—I found that the two role-playing games I wanted to play most were classic Traveller and Expert D&D, this was the thing I had noticed. These games from c. 1981 seemed to have a lot in common with current indie games. I’m looking forward to reading Ken’s thoughts about that.

Microsoft and e-book research

Speaking of e-books... When Microsoft first came out with Microsoft Reader—their e-book technology—I had the opportunity to go to Redmond and learn about it first-hand.

They talked for a long time in detail about research that had studied the experience of reading. They talked about the findings of those studies. They talked about how the features of their e-book technology had been based on those findings.

So I asked if there was any research confirming that their technology had in fact reproduced the same things that the original studies had found.

I suppose I was actually rather impressed that the lead Microsoft guy there didn’t completely side-step the question. He knew that there wasn’t. He stated so plainly. He actually used the word “anecdotal” to qualify what “evidence” they did have.

I mean...it was an honest question. I’d just come to expect that questions like that get answered with a “yes”, a “don’t know”, or a lot of blather to cover up a “don’t know”. A rather straightforward, informed “no” was a bit of a surprise.

A dim future for p-books?

Josh Marshall wrote:

Finally, only a few months ago, I purged a decent chunk of my collection. And most are now in storage. But in our living room we have two big inset shelves where I keep all the books I feel like I need or want ready at hand. And last night, sitting in front of them, I had this dark epiphany. How much longer are these things going to be around? Not my books, though maybe them too. But just books. Physical, paper books. The few hundred or so I was looking at suddenly seemed like they were taking up an awful lot of space, like the whole business could dealt with a lot more cleanly and efficiently, if at some moral loss.

I’ve never been one to predict the death of paper books. I’ve experienced the same thing he has, though.

When I actually tried the Rocket eBook, I soon found myself reading it more than paper books. When I actually tried reading books on my Palm, likewise. I recently bought electronic copies for Stanza of most of the books that had been piling up on my nightstand and returned the paper copies to their owners. If I was OK with reading on the screen of my Palm V, how could I not be OK with the iPhone’s screen?

No matter how much the “experts” pontificated about the deficiencies of all these devices for reading, none of their arguments has held up for me in practice.

Maybe p-books are doomed in the long run, but I expect they’ll always have a place in my home. Indeed, I’ve got a duplex printer and a saddle stapler because I enjoy making booklets from PDFs.

What I really want is all my books to be digital but with the equipment and the freedom to create hard-copies of those I want hard-copies of.

Doubly linked lists

I found it funny that I happened to read these two pages within days of each other.

A better way, developed by Bernard Greenberg in Multics EMACS and used in ZWEI, is to represent the buffer as a doubly-linked list containing pointers to strings, one for each line. Newline characters are not actually present, but implicitly appear after each line except the last.

—Richard Stallman
EMACS: The Extensible, Customizable Display Editor

On only one occasion have I used doubly linked lists, and it soon became clear that this was a mistake. This was when I tried to implement a simple text editor, with each line of text being a list item. This is the wrong approach because text is composed of characters, and newline characters should be treated, for most purposes, like any other character. Lists, doubly or singly linked, are not the right data structure here.

—Donald Fisk
Doubly Linked Lists