16 December 2010

Star Wars RPG license

So, Mongoose says that another company got the license for a Star Wars role-playing game.


Yet another SWRPG that will start from scratch rather than being able to build on anything from the two versions that came before. (Assuming you count the Wizards of the Coast editions as only a single version.) If it is a smaller company, then the money they have to pay for the license will limit how much they can actually spend on development. If it is a bigger company, they will likely treat it something as a hobby while keeping most of their focus on their products that are not hindered by a license agreement. Plus, we already know that they will not have the license indefinitely.


Yeah, I will be interested to see who gets it. I will be interested to see what they do with it. There is the chance I will even buy it. It is just hard to be excited about it. It seems like their ought to be a better way here.

15 December 2010

The iOS home button

I think I understand why Apple choose to go with the single home button for iOS devices. I think the argument for it is much stronger than the single button mouse. The problem is that they once again didn't live with the limitation they set for themselves. They added double-clicks.

Double-click are much worse than a second button. We’ve known this for years. A number of users have trouble executing double-clicks, so it should only be used as a short-cut. Many other users have trouble understanding the difference between single-clicks and double-clicks. So many users have been mistakenly trained to always double-click. So, we have to program defensively to recognize and ignore double-clicks even when they don’t do anything. Not to mention that some developers fail to understand how to properly use double-clicks, which just leads to more confusion among users.

I like the “recent apps” UI in iOS 4, along with its audio and other controls. What I don’t like is having to double-click to get to it. Worse, double-clicking is the only way to get to it. Though I suppose you could argue there is (almost) nothing the user could do through it they couldn’t do another way.

I think what I’d really like would be three buttons: Home, Spotlight (search), and Recent Apps. Without two more buttons, though, perhaps there’s another way to make it work better.

Consider this: When you are in an app, pressing the home button takes you to the last home screen you were on. Pressing the home button again takes you to the first home screen. Pressing home again takes you to Spotlight. These are not time-based double- or triple-clicks. These are just sequential uses of the home button in different contexts. Given a single button, I think I’d like my first press of it to take me to the recent apps. Pressing the home button again would then take me to Spotlight. A third press would take me to the home screen.

Although, I’m not entirely sure about the order of the last two. Since the recent apps only takes up a strip at the bottom of the screen, perhaps an on-screen Spotlight and Home buttons could be added to allow the user quick access to both. Then the home button becomes simply a “recent apps” button.

11 December 2010

iOS printing

I’m a bit surprised by how much I am actually printing from my iPad now. It is very convenient. I’ve even thought about printing from the iPhone a couple of times, but I haven’t upgraded it yet. Most of it has been pretty straight-forward. Print a PDF. Type up some notes in Pages and print them. But there has been one more involved process:

  1. Take a photo with iPhone
  2. Use Bump to transfer the photo to iPad
  3. Create a Pages document
  4. Add the photo and resize
  5. Duplicate the photo a few times
  6. Print

The early-adoption cynic in me wasn’t expecting that to work so well already.

(One thing I learned: When printing from the iPad Photos app, you can’t tell it what size to print a photo at. Also, AirPrint tries to switch to the printer’s secondary paper tray assuming it holds photo paper. Using Pages allowed resizing and printing from the primary paper tray. And, really, Pages was probably the right way to do what I wanted to do anyway.)

The biggest downside right now is needing to either have a AirPrint enabled printer or a Mac running Printopia. (Not to mention that buying Printopia ought not to be necessary.) Being able to print at friends’ houses could be very convenient too.

09 December 2010

Traveller: the infection

Recently I’ve been occasionally hosting my role-playing gaming group again. The kids are now old enough that they are really paying attention to the game now.

Sunday, after Saturday’s game, Grace (8yo) took at stab at improv’ing a Star Wars game for her brother. No rules, per se. Just imitating what she’d seen us doing.

I printed out a copy of Starter Traveller for Jake (10yo). Space, military, and the phrase “create starships” immediately got his attention. Both kids made characters. (And neither failed a survival roll!) Jake then had me walk him through world generation to give his character a home world. He’s mapping it.

(By the way, Far Future has made Starter Traveller free from DriveThruRPG and RPGNow until the end of the year!)

This week, Jake’s been taking the books to school with him. All his friends have made characters. Last night he made up a planetary system and some NPCs and took his first stab at referee’ing an actual game today. Apparently it went well, and his friends are asking where they can get their own copies of the game. Tonight, after homework and bath, we reviewed space combat since it had come up today and he’d had to improvise because he hadn’t read the rules.

One of the things I’m very impressed about is the way he seems to natural see the rules as tools to use when it suits him and to ignore when they don’t. (Or to gloss over for now and learn later.) He went ahead and improvised space combat until he could look at it later. Even as we were going over the space combat rules, he was deciding how he was going to house rule it. “I’m going to simplify this bit.” & “We’ll ignore that for now.”

08 December 2010

Two weapon fighting in Labyrinth Lord

I haven’t thoroughly read the Labyrinth Lord rules, but—to my knowledge—there is no provision for fighting with two weapons. And I’m perfectly fine with that.

Even so, there are some advantages to it without any mechanical considerations. e.g. Using a sword and a dagger means that you have a dagger ready to throw and a sword ready for melee at the same time. No time need be wasted sheathing or drawing either weapon. That, however, isn’t the reason many people fought with sword and dagger.

The Advanced Edition Companion gives the old AD&D rule. I’ve probably argued against two weapon fighting providing a second attack sufficiently. Suffice it to say, I think a second attack is generally not a good way to model anything in most D&D-derived combat systems.

I’m leaning towards this: Attacks are resolved as if the character were only wielding the primary weapon with an additional +1 “to hit”. The player may decide each round which weapon is considered the primary.

The nice thing about this is that it doesn’t discourage using more unusual combinations—e.g. two scimitars—but it doesn’t encourage them either. Most characters will probably stick to sword and dagger except for style or expediency reasons.

As others have said before me, this is also a nice foil to the -1 to AC granted by a shield.

07 December 2010

01 December 2010


Between buying a new waster at TRF (from Hollow Earth Swordworks) and my look at Labyrinth Lord weapons, I’m beginning to wonder: It it possible that the thing that really made swords and daggers such popular weapons simply the scabbard? It makes them easy to carry and quick to draw.

24 November 2010

Worst Labyrinth Lord melee weapons

OK, the title of this post is sort of a tongue-in-cheek reference to my top ten LL melee weapons. The idea, though, is to look at the thirteen weapons that didn’t make that cut. Well, that was the idea. Some are going to have to wait for another post.

A two-handed sword is mechanically identical to a pole arm except for one thing: It costs more than twice as much.

You might say that pole arms should really only be good in formation fighting, but I think that only really holds for things like a pike. Poleaxes and halberds seem to have been used in similar contexts to swords.

You might say that a sword is a noble’s weapon while a pole arm is a commoner’s weapon. I’m not convinced, but that works. Some characters may be willing to spend the extra gold in order to not be seen wielding a commoner’s weapon.

How about space required? It seems to me that a two-handed sword and a pole arm are going to have similar space requirements, but I don’t know.

I have read, however, that the true two-handed swords were a specialized weapon used mainly on the battlefield. Like (and often against) pikes. So, I think I can be happy with its mechanical inferiority to the pole arm in the game.

The LL trident is a two-handed weapon. I believe retiarii—a type of Roman gladiator—would sometimes use their trident in one hand. Although it may have been most effective when used with both hands. Nice to have it available, but I’m OK with it not being an optimal choice.

The war hammer. Is this something like Mjöllnir or a late medieval bec de corbin kind of thing? Is the latter subsumed within pole arm or pick? Why is it two-handed with no one-handed counterpart? Note that dwarfs can’t wield two-handed weapons, but the magical dwarven [sic] thrower war hammer has special rules when used by a dwarf. I’m beginning not to care that the mechanics are suboptimal and unlikely to be picked by a PC. ☺

A scimitar is (again, mechanically) equivalent to a long sword except for one thing: It’s 50% more expensive. I think the scimitar is the “foreign long sword”. If the PCs travelled to another land, they might find the prices of the long sword and scimitar reversed. So, I might allow a character with a suitably foreign background to buy a scimitar during character creation at the long sword price.

I’ve always thought the spear should be used more often in role-playing games it has been in my experience. Historically, this was an important weapon. In LL, the only thing that really sets it apart is that it is explicitly cited as a weapon that can be braced against a charge for double damage. Although I have yet to see that actually occur in a game.

Why choose a spear instead of the less expensive hand axe? Length, but that doesn’t figure into LL combat except through ad hoc rulings. Although, it could double as probe outside of combat.

Both the mace and flail inflict 1d6 damage, but the mace costs 5 gp while the flail costs but 3. On the other hand, the mace weighs only 3# while the flail weighs 5. I suppose if the full encumbrance rules are being used, those couple of pounds might make a difference. As both these weapons seem unlikely to be chosen by any character but a cleric, the cleric’s specific faith might have an influence the choice.

The mighty Roman gladius, the short sword, gets overshadowed by the long sword and the hand axe. That’s probably just as well. If a campaign was geared more towards ancient times then you might want to adjust all the equipment lists appropriately. As it is, I’m glad the short sword is here, and I don’t know that it needs to be made more attractive a purchase.

The lance seems to call for some special rules, but none are given. Well, not where you might be looking. The “horse, war” entry in the Monsters chapter says that, when charging, a rider with a lance does double damage. If I dropped the light hammer from the top ten list, then perhaps I’d add the lance.

Does anyone actually ever buy a club? It’s the original improvised weapon, eh? Glad we have it listed, but it doesn’t need any differentiation to encourage character’s to buy one.

21 November 2010

Metamorphosis Rama

Having heard that Jim Ward is having some medical bills stacking up, I recently took the opportunity to grab a copy of the first edition of Metamorphosis Alpha from RPGNow. (If you ever wondered where the name “Drawmij” in AD&D came from...there you go.) Looking through it made me think...

Maybe the hub at one end—where the control center lies—would be known as Olympus, home of “the gods”. Perhaps the “engineering section” on the other end would be called Hades.

18 November 2010

The top 10 Labyrinth Lord melee weapons

After running a couple of Basic/Expert D&D campaigns using the regular “all weapons do 1d6 damage” rule, I am considering—along with “switching” to Labyrinth Lord—switching back to variable damage by weapon. So, I want to take a closer look at the melee weapons in LL. This is going to be something of a min/maxing exercise, but I think it may be worthwhile. (Call it “min/maxing so that the players don’t have to”.) Here’s my list of the 10 best weapon choices:

  1. Bastard sword
  2. Pole arm
  3. Long sword
  4. Battle axe
  5. Heavy flail
  6. Hand axe
  7. Flail
  8. Light hammer
  9. Dagger
  10. Silver dagger

The bastard sword’s 2d4 when used two-handed compares well to the 1d10 of the pole arm. When used one-handed, it compares well against the long sword, doing the same damage and only being 2# heavier. The flexibility, however, comes with a price. It is the second most expensive weapon.

A pole arm is equal to the two-handed sword when it comes to damage and weight. At half the price, however, it is a bargain. I think envisioning this as a poleax or halberd is more suitable than, e.g., a pike.

There are 1d8 weapons that are cheaper than a long sword, but they all require two hands.

Although a two-handed weapon, the battle axe does the same damage as the one-handed long sword. It does have one advantage over a long sword, though. It is almost half the price.

The heavy flail is the only 1d8 weapon that a cleric can use.

Among the weapons that do 1d6 damage, the hand axe is the clear winner at only 1 gp and 3#. A quarterstaff is cheaper but requires two hands. A short sword is lighter but more than twice the price. Not to mention that the axe may be thrown as a missile weapon as well.

For the cleric who wants to use a shield, the flail packs the most bang for the buck. The mace is a second choice trading a lower weight for a higher price.

Among the 1d4 weapons, the light hammer rules the roost. It is cheap and light. Really, though, it looks to me like a tool being used as an improvised weapon. I think I’ll probably house rule it down to less damage, which would drop it from this list.

The dagger is the only weapon explicitly allowed to magic-users. It also has one advantage over the light hammer in that it can be thrown.

The silver dagger is the only silver weapon commonly available. While the most expensive weapon listed, it is invaluable when faced with a monster only affected by silver weapons.

An honorable mention goes to the lance, which will be explained further in a follow-up.

You may notice the absence of a couple of iconic weapons, such as the mace and quarterstaff. Likewise the spear, widely used historically, didn’t make the cut.

The next task will be to examine reasons why the other weapons might be chosen.

10 November 2010

Braunstein redux

One of the events we can trace the origins of role-playing games back to are the Braunstein games run by Dave Wesely. The first occurred in 1967. Here’s a description of it from Law Shick’s book, Heroic Worlds:

Some players represented advance elements of the armies just entering the town, and others represented factions from within the town itself. Each player's faction had differing goals and abilities. The players, used to set-piece battles between armies, had never encountered anything like this before, but soon they were deeply engaged in all sorts of intrigue, with their figures chasing each other around the miniature town of Braunstein. The game dissolved into apparent chaos, and the armies never did get to the town.

This undisciplined brawl violated all Wesley’s cherished theories of organized game conduct, and he thought of it as a failure. But the players loved it and were soon pestering him to run “another Braunstein”.

Now consider this PvP blog post, “The Tribunal of Erathis”, from this year (2010):

Last night’s D&D session with my group was really something special. Lucky for me, cause it could have gone either way. And to be honest, I was certain all night that most of my players were bored out of their minds. But after our session, and I apologized for the failed experiment I was met with a surprised merriment. They had a great time and one of my players said it was his favorite night of gaming so far with this group.

It closes with these words:

It was a night of pure role-play. The dice rolled only for skill checks of History, Insight, Diplomacy and Bluffing. And we had a great time.


I encourage all DMs to take at least one night out where the dice are never rolled for combat. And get your players role-playing. It was an incredible time.

The similarities are striking. Why are D&D players in 2010 repeating one of the incidents that led to D&D and being surprised by it?

(Yeah, that’s something of a rhetorical question that I plan to revisit...)

20 October 2010

MacBook versus MacBook Air

Comparing the $999 MacBook to the $999 MacBook Air:

MacBook advantages:

  • Faster processor (+1 gigahertz)
  • More storage (+186 gigabytes)
  • Larger display (+2 inches)
  • Has an optical (CD/DVD) drive

MacBook disadvantages:

  • Lower resolution display (-25 kilopixels)
  • Heavier (+1.7 pounds)
  • Bigger

Comparing specs certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. If I were going to buy a laptop, though, I still think I’d go with the MacBook rather than the Air.

07 October 2010

Sony’s Google TV controller

Sony’s Google TV controller outed on ABC’s Nightline

Gruber says: “Seems like a lot of buttons.”

Most of them, however, are a QWERTY keyboard. That’s a configuration of buttons that is familiar. It’s not intimidating. In fact, I think this remote is a lot less intimidating that a U-verse or DirecTV remote.

The Apple Remote, on the other hand, has always had too few buttons.

That said, I’m not convinced this Google TV remote is a win, but I’m not convinced it’s a fail either.

02 October 2010

iTunes and iOS

I don’t know how many times this happens. I want to listen to music on my iPhone or iPad. Listening to music means iTunes. (That’s what iTunes began life as: A music player.) On the iPhone and iPod, however, iTunes means merely the iTunes store. There’s a separate iPod app for playing music.

(Incidentally, this happen more on the iPad for some reason. Perhaps because the iPhone is physically closer to an iPod while the iPad is physically closer to a Mac.)

“Watch video” on my Mac means iTunes. On my iPhone it means iPod. On my iPad it means the Video app.

Returning to the iTunes store: On my Mac, I get a single iTunes store. On iOS, the App store gets segregated.

On iOS I also get the iBooks store, but only within the iBooks app. Although it does seem to be a branch of the iTunes store under the covers. The iBooks store is unavailable on my Mac. It is very nice to be able to shop from within the iBooks app. But then, it would also be nice to be able to shop for music from within the iPod app. It would be nice to shop for videos from within...the iPod app on the iPhone and the Video app on the iPad.

(Of course, Amazon can’t figure out how to let you buy Kindle books from either the Kindle app or the Amazon app. Very odd and annoying.)

The iTunes store, App store, and iBooks store on the iPad are each slightly different. And I’m not talking about differences that make sense based on their different wares. They are also some of the worst user experiences of any apps on the iPad.

This all seems very poorly thought out, which is usually something Apple excels at.

On the other hand, Apple today is also a company that constantly improves. It’s funny how I forget all the gripes I had about earlier Apple products now that they’ve been fixed.

01 October 2010

Limited time offer

It seems like Lulu always has a discount code. It stops feeling like a deal when I know that as soon as one “limited time offer” expires, there will be another to replace it. Instead, it makes me feel like their “regular” prices are artificially high. The “limited time offer” stops having the effect it was designed to create.

This isn’t something Lulu invented of course. e.g. There’s a local music store I stopped shopping at years ago for the same reason.

30 September 2010

Gumshoe & investigation in role-playing games

I keep reading about how the Gumshoe system provides a fix for investigation in role-playing games. The problem they identify is that a botched die roll can prevent players from gaining a vital clue.

My first thought is that applying mechanics to investigation is the real mistake. Then I think that for a game—like Call of Cthulhu, which is all about investigation—maybe it makes sense.

But then I think, isn’t D&D really about investigation too? You’re trying to locate the McGuffin or explore the unknown or whatever. D&D didn’t have much in the way of mechanics for investigation, and—I think—for good reason. The more such mechanics have been expanded and added to D&D, the more you see people coming up with complaints exactly like the one Gumshoe is designed to address.

Gumshoe’s answer is to provide a resource-based mechanic in place of a dice-based one. (There are still dice rolls, but overall it’s more resource-management focused.) Reading about this, I can’t help but think that I’d rather spend time at the table thinking about the mystery and the clues rather than resource management.

So, I’m back to thinking that applying mechanics to investigation doesn’t seem like such a good idea.

This all feels a little unfair since I haven’t actually read any of the Gumshoe books yet. This, however, is the reason why I haven’t bought or read any of them yet.

22 September 2010

1 gp paid for training = 1 XP

A thought inspired by a thread on the LinkedIn RPG group:

In classic D&D, instead of giving the PCs 1 XP per gp of treasure acquired, make it 1 XP per gp paid to a mentor for training.

Ignoring the word “experience” in “experience point” and “experience level”, I think this puts the horse back in front of the cart. You don’t search for treasure to earn “experience” to get better. You search for treasure in order to afford the training to get better.

Of course, you still get some gain for experience as well. This isn’t completely dumping experience for training.

It reminds me of the “wine, women, and song” rule from Dave Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign in which PCs only got XP for treasure by spending it. It also recalls classic Traveller in which PCs spent money and time to improve their skills rather than through XP.

Although, once the PCs reach a certain level—¿ninth?—perhaps things should change so that they can mentor themselves.

Android and the carriers

Android Is As Open As The Clenched Fist I’d Like To Punch The Carriers With

In theory, I’m right there with you. The thought of a truly open mobile operating system is very appealing. The problem is that in practice, that’s just simply not the reality of the situation. Maybe if Google had their way, the system would be truly open. But they don’t. Sadly, they have to deal with a very big roadblock: the carriers.

Is Google even making an effort to have their way?

An iPhone isn’t a phone. It’s a palmtop computer. The cellular provider for such a device should be much less involved that they have been with cell phones. One of the key pieces of the iPhone is that Apple has pushed AT&T more towards their rightful role for such a device. They haven’t been entirely successful, but they have been very successful.

21 September 2010

Cheating in Sunday school

After some research, I settled on the Olive Tree Bible Reader for iPad.

I really like the Tecarta app, but they didn’t have the NRSV. I really wanted a single app with—at least—the NRSV, the NIV, and the Message.

I used to just use Bible Gateway with my iPhone. It’s a fabulous site, works well with the iPhone, and is completely free. The one downside was that over 3G it was slow enough that I would still be loading when everyone else had already found the passage. Another downside was that the iPhone’s small screen was poorly suited to sharing with your neighbor.

Well, with the Olive Tree app and having the Bibles installed on the iPad, I now find passages while everyone else is still flipping pages. It felt almost like cheating. ^_^ Just four taps to get to any verse.

There is one really weird thing about the Olive Tree app. From the app store, you can buy different versions of it that come bundled with different Bibles. Then there is a sort of “generic” version that allows you to buy multiple translations via in-app purchases.

Once you log-in through one of the bundled versions of the app, Olive Tree will record that you have the bundled Bible (and other bundled books). You can then download those in the generic version of the app.

The weird part is that the versions of the app with the bundles are cheaper than buying the same books directly in the generic app via in-app purchase. So, instead of just buying the generic app and then the translations I wanted via in-app purchase, it was cheaper to buy all the individual bundled apps and then download all the books in the generic app.

It’s hard to even explain. It was confusing for me, and I suspect my background in software and e-books means it was easier for me to understand than for most of their customers.

In any case, I’m pretty happy with the final results. I have the KJV, the NRSV, the NIV, the NIrV, the TNIV, the Message, the ASV, the Vulgate, and the Bible in Esperanto all installed on my iPad in a single app. It’s quick to get to any verse. The search seems decent. And it will do split-screen to compare two versions side-by-side. I also have a couple of commentaries. (In split-screen mode, you can get the commentary for a passage next to the passage.) Plus a few other free e-books. Olive Tree seems to have a good selection of other Bibles, commentaries, and books to buy as well.

20 September 2010


Gazelephants in the Wild

Right Network Logo, New

OK, somebody write up gazelephants for D&D.

19 September 2010


What’s Next for Nokia?:

Nokia’s problem — and I’ve heard this same story from at least half a dozen former and present Nokia employees who read DF — is that their handset business is fundamentally based around hardware teams. When they decide to make a phone, they put together a hardware team for that model, and that team makes all decisions. That’s why they have no cohesive software strategy. Nokia sees software as one component in a hardware-based view of the industry.

The iPhone is a palmtop computer, which happens to also be a phone. I don’t think that is what everyone wants or needs. Some people are happier with a phone that is just a phone. Or perhaps a phone that does a few palmtop-like things.

It seems to me that Nokia ought to continue to focus on hardware. It needs to produce the absolute best phone rather than trying to compete directly against the iPhone.

The problem, I suppose, is that that isn’t a high-margin business. Still, I think trying to play somebody else’s game is a lousy and losing strategy.

13 September 2010

Backlight beats e-ink (for me)

The number of times I want to read an e-book in direct sunlight: Almost never. The number of times I want to read an e-book in the dark: Nearly every night.

08 September 2010

Why selling PDFs has nothing to do with piracy

Selling an electronic edition of your book makes it more more susceptible to piracy, right? No, it just means you’re sticking your head in the sand.

In the video below, the company that digitized The Macintosh Way includes a bit of footage of their book scanning machine. It demonstrates not only how that book was reborn, but how easily pirates can turn your printed book into a illicit PDF.

To me, PDF has always been a very limited e-book format. It was good for a fairly limited range of things. For good or ill, however, it is the e-book format that has had the most success.

The iPad has changed things for me, though. For PDFs, it rivals print. For role-playing game books, I now want an electronic copy. (Formats other than PDF are welcome, though PDF if the most common.) Now, I can carry my library anywhere and get to any book in a few taps. I’ll still buy the occasional paper RPG book. If I can’t get an electronic copy, however, there’s a good chance I won’t actually use it.

07 September 2010

Keeping up appearances

I have written before that I think it is important to recognize that what’s right for me isn’t right for everyone. But I do believe that there are some absolute rights and wrongs.

One such fundamental is this: It doesn’t matter what other people think.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be considerate. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek advice. It simply means that when faced with a choice, you shouldn’t make a decision based on what other people might think about your choice.

If for no other reason than that you are likely wrong about what anyone will think. In fact, I suppose this is a subset of the “don’t make a decisions based on fear” proverb.

Not that I’m perfect at practicing this bit of preaching.

06 September 2010

Carvin & shameless waste

When a Carvin guitar doesn’t meet their quality standards, they destroy it. Not only that, they throw the pieces in the dumpster. In fact, they say they do this because people have pulled guitars out of their dumpster and sold them.

When watching videos of the Carvin factory, one of the things that struck me was the waste of wood that their CNC machines create. Then, on top of that, they’re going to cut up the pieces and throw it in the dumpster if it isn’t perfect?

Surely they can find some way to keep their quality standards without this sort of wastefulness. Surely there are people in this world who could benefit from a not-perfect guitar. Why not allow restaurants to screw a quality reject to their wall for decor as so many do? Why not give it to an artist who wants to smash a guitar on stage?

But cutting it into pieces, throwing it in the dumpster, and bragging about it on YouTube?

05 September 2010

Cardinal rules of role-playing

Leonard H. Kanterman, M.D. wrote Starships & Spacemen. This game has recently been revived by Goblinoid Games.

In an article in Different Worlds magazine, “My Life and Role-Playing”, Dr. Kanterman wrote of four cardinal rules of role-playing.

1. “Firstly, an enjoyable game requires an experienced and imaginative gamemaster;”

I’m going to disagree with this...though perhaps only slightly.

Is the game better with an experienced and imaginative gamemaster? Perhaps. To suggest that the game cannot be enjoyable without this, however, is overstating things, I think. A game that is full of clichés and borrowed ideas can be just as fun. Indeed, it can be more fun because the familiar elements can make the game more accessible.

One cannot become an experienced gamemaster without starting as an inexperienced gamemaster. And many people tend to underestimate their own imagination. So, this statement tends to discourage new gamemasters. We should encourage rather than discourage jumping into the role.

2. “and secondly, the key to interesting and challenging encounters is to fit the degree of hazard to the ability of the characters to deal with it.”

I think this rule is an overly simplistic solution to the problem that inspired it.

In my experience, the game is more fun when encounters vary in difficulty. One encounter goes very easily because the cleric turns the undead or the mage puts the enemies to sleep. The characters must flee from another because they have no direct means of harming the monster. They must now either figure a way around the monster or devise a way to indirectly defeat it. Others fall somewhere between.

Problems occur when the GM doesn’t give the players a choice in what encounters they face. When there isn’t variety in the encounters the players can chose. When the GM doesn’t allow the characters chances to escape encounters. When all monsters always fight to the death. When the GM doesn’t allow creative means of dealing with an encounter from succeeding.

Likewise, nerfing character abilities because the GM never wants the players to have an easy encounter can have a negative effect as much as all encounters being too difficult.

3. “The third rule: role-playing is best among friends, with the corollary to this rule being that, among friends, all should be allowed their chance to participate.”

This one I agree with. Although, at the North Texas RPG Con, I discovered that gaming with strangers can be more fun than I expected.

4. “When playing a character, one should play his role. That is, the best play results when a player fully understands his character, and tries to act as he thinks his character might in a given situation.”

This one I mostly agree with as well. I think, however, that the doctor and I are on the same page here.

“At its best, role-play offers a challenge to our wits and our wiles, while extending the potential for insight into ourselves.”

The cautionary note for me here is that I don’t want to take playing my role so far that I become removed from the equation. I want the game to be a challenge to my wits and wiles, not a simulated challenge of my character’s wits and wiles statistics.

04 September 2010

Ui faux pas

User Interface of the Week: Max Magic Microtuner

I’m all for lambasting a company like Adobe for its user interface sins. A little company, however, could use constructive criticism rather than being held up for humiliation.

In fact, Gruber’s “Ronco Spray-On Usability” contains such advice. To paraphrase: Usability isn’t something you can add later. You need to start with it.

03 September 2010

OED price

From “Oxford English Dictionary ‘will not be printed again’”

Despite its worldwide reputation, the OED has never made a profit. The continuing research costs several million pounds a year. “These are the sort of long-term research projects which will never cover their costs, but are something that we choose to do,” Mr Portwood said.

Huh? So, if the price isn’t covering its costs, why price it so high? Better yet, why not price it high enough to cover the costs?

I always wished I could justify the cost of the OED. Or even a subscription to the online version. It’s kind of annoying to know a price that I can’t justify doesn’t even cover the costs.

07 August 2010

Worthy of study?

I’ve abstracted this from the context that inspired it because I think the abstract situation is more interesting that the specifics of one instance.

The Actor (in the general sense of “someone who does something”) thinks that their Activity is not worthy of study. They request that, upon their death, the Artifacts of their Activity be destroyed. An Observer, however, feels that the Activity is worthy of study. They work to try to preserve those Artifacts.

Let’s further assume that there is something significant about this particular Actor that distinguishes them from any other actors.

There are two aspects of this I wonder about: Selfishness and right versus wrong. (And what does this say about the rightness or wrongness of selfishness?)

Is the Observer’s desire to preserve those Artifacts against the Actor’s wishes selfish? Is it wrong for the Observer to take action to preserve them?

Is the Actor’s desire to have those Artifacts destroyed selfish? Is it wrong for the Actor to put into place measures that would hinder the Observer’s attempt to pursue their own activity of choice, studying the Actor’s Activity through studying those Artifacts?

17 July 2010

“There’s no wrong way to play”

Risus author S. John Ross used to often say, “There’s no wrong way to play Risus.” Today, he says, “There’s no wrong way to play.”

This is a sentiment I also heard in the words of Rob Kuntz and Tim Kask during the “early days of the hobby” round-table at the North Texas RPG Con.

I think it can be very worthwhile to discuss our approaches to role-playing games. It can be hard to remember that what works for me may not work for everyone. Often I see things as “the right way” and “the wrong way” instead of simply as preferences. I try to express my thoughts as first-person opinions. I don’t always succeed.

16 July 2010

A bookshelf app

More often than not, Kindle has a book I’m looking for and the iBook Store does not.

Unfortunately, buying Kindle books isn’t nearly as easy. It’s annoying that I can’t buy books from within the Kindle iOS app as I can from the iBooks app. It’s annoying that I can’t buy Kindle books through the Amazon iOS app. I can’t imagine why this is the case.

The other annoying thing is trying to remember whether I need to go to the iBooks or Kindle app to read a particular book. I wish I had a “bookshelf app” that would show all my iBook and Kindle books and then launch the appropriate reader. It should also have documentation to allow other e-book apps to integrate with it as well.

Pipe dream? Perhaps. It would, however, be “insanely great”.

(I’m less sure about having Good Reader integrate with such a “bookshelf app”.)

15 July 2010

LotFP: RPG: Countdown

Lamentations of the Flame Princess, “Countdown”:

I do provide cross-clone compatibility notes and plug by name “competing” companies and games and publications within my game. Even if someone unfamiliar with anything decides my game looks cool and picks it up at random, they will know that my game is but the latest that celebrates a greater tradition, and they’ll know there are other visions than mine that are producing great things. If I manage to reach new people I hope those people enjoy all of our work, not just mine.

The really sad thing is that there most likely won’t be a single mention of the name Dungeons & Dragons. For legal reasons, whether real or perceived, the original game itself won’t get a mention by name. Unless James chooses to really stick his neck out even farther than he has already.

13 July 2010

Arial versus Helvetica versus...

Thing is, Arial’s faults still don’t make me like Helvetica any better. I wouldn’t mind if both of them disappeared.


There are those who rail against Arial as a poor knock-off of Helvetica. They are known to wail, tear their clothes, and gnash their teeth whenever they spot the impostor insisting that Helvetica should have been used instead.

Bruno Maag feels much the same way about Helvetica, saying that Univers should have been used instead. He has a new typeface, Aktiv Grotesk, which he is billing as the Helvetica killer.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: If Maag was serious about Aktiv Grotesk replacing Helvetica, he would give it away. That’s how Arial has gotten to where it is.† This is simple marketing hype and publicity stunt. Which is fine; let’s just be clear about it.

One commenter, Eric S., wrote, “Aktiv is to Helvetica as Weird Al Yankovic is to the late Michael Jackson.” That’s an funny observation. I’m not sure if it was meant to be a compliment or a disparaging remark. Personally, I have bought more Weird Al albums than Michael Jackson albums.

In any case, I think I can paraphrase myself here: Helvetica’s faults don’t make me like Aktiv.

Commenter gareth perhaps said it best:

no such thing as a bad type face - just poor choice of typeface

context is everything!

†Note that neither Helvetica or Arial are technically free. They are merely liberally licensed. They are only practically given away. Any Helvetica killer has to be licensed at least as liberally as Helvetica is to have any real chance.

12 July 2010

Streaming AV UI

Audio/video players can be playing or paused. Streaming AV players, however, have a third state: Waiting. Waiting is like paused in that the content isn’t being played. In the wait state, however, playing will begin as soon as possible. Unfortunately, this third state isn’t directly exposed to the user.

Often the user can’t definitively distinguish this state. If the player is waiting and the user activates the play/pause control, what should the player do? Often the user can’t move the player between the paused and waiting states, and I know at least one user who often wants to.

There’s another wrinkle. Most players don’t switch from waiting to playing as soon as possible. Instead, they use heuristics to try to ensure that they have enough content buffered to prevent having to fall back into waiting. This is a good thing, but it means that waiting is actually two new states: Waiting and buffering. When the heuristics fail, it is reasonable to allow the user to override them, forcing a transition from buffering to playing. Some players give the user this ability, while others do not.

That’s the basics of the situation. Maybe sometime I’ll put together a chart of the states and figure out what should be communicated to the user and what controls should be provided to the user.

11 July 2010

My favorite die

I like the d10. For anyone unfamiliar with the “polyhedral dice” and dice nomenclature of Dungeons & Dragons, this is a die with ten sides. I like that...

  • It has a zero. The sides are numbered zero to nine instead of one to ten like you might expect. (Although the zero is often treated as ten in play.)
  • You can use multiple d10s to simulate a d100, d1000, etc.

What I don’t care for is the shape, which is termed a pentagonal trapezohedron.

If I had to pick a favorite from among my dice, it might well be this one:

It is the d20—twenty-sided die—from my second set of polyhedral dice. Things I like about it:

  • It’s a precision die from Gamescience, which I find aesthetically pleasing.
  • Like almost all d20s, it is a regular icosahedron, one of the platonic solids, which I find aesthetically pleasing.
  • Unlike almost all d20s made today, it is numbered from zero to nine twice, so it can be used as a d10 and shares all the things I like about d10s.
  • Unlike the earliest d20s, which were numbered in the same fashion, half of the faces have a plus sign, so it can be used as a d20 without using a second die or using two different colors for the numbers.

It was unique among my dice. Well, almost. I also have a “diamond” (i.e. clear plastic) one purchased at the same time, but it is hard to read no matter what color you use for the numbers.

I’m not sure if they still make these. The newer Gamescience dice sets I have bought have come with 1–20 d20s. It turns out, however, that Gamestation does sell some of these “d20+” dice, which I suspect are NOS. So, I ordered some. My favorite die now has some competition.

See also: “I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I gotta say—I’m pretty much through with ten sided dice.”

10 July 2010

Is Apple prepping a new programming language?

waffle → Surpass:

It is my belief that Apple is definitely working on a new language to surpass Objective-C as their intended, primary, publicly recommended programming language...

I’ve been thinking that it seems very strange that Apple’s primary language is (still) Smalltalk grafted onto C.

If he’s right, I hope that, like the A4 processor (which is ARM based) and Safari (which is HTML, CSS, and Javascript based), it isn’t a wholly new language.

Would Smalltalk be a hard sell to developers who have accepted Objective-C?

09 July 2010

Realms of Eternal Epic

New Haven Games has announced a “remake” of second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. They’re calling it Realms of Eternal Epic. (I’m guessing the name was picked because the abbreviation they use, Ro2E, could be read as “return of 2e” or somesuch.) One of the reasons they’re calling it a “remake” instead of a “clone” is this:

...to fix some of the bad or complicated rules in the system...

Good luck getting two fans of a game to agree on what is bad. This is the reason the clones are having more success than most remakes. Make changes for legal reasons, and most people stay on-board. Make changes to make it “better”, and you lose most people. Because, while they agree some small changes could make it better, they don’t agree on the specific changes.

The bad is delicately remade with modern game theory so that only the game play improves.

This throws up another red flag for me. The vast majority of the RPG landscape was explored in the earliest years of the hobby. Find some grognards—the kind that tried every game that came out—and start talking about recent innovations, and you’ll learn about a lot of old games that trod that ground a decade or more ago. Are there still innovations to be found? Sure, but they are harder and harder to find. Is there really any “modern game theory” of any value that wasn’t known over a decade ago?

Anyway, those are just my opinions on what they’ve said so far. I wish them luck.

08 July 2010


I often like to listen to Morning Edition, Fresh Air, and All Things Considered on the local NPR affiliate—KUT—while driving, but then I have to listen to whatever happens to be on while at the time.

The NPR iPhone app is great because it lets me create a playlist of the stories that I’m interested in, which it will then stream on-demand. Unfortunately, cellular data reception doesn’t always coöperate.

Podcasts are good because my iPhone can download them over wi-fi while I’m at home or the office, then I can listen to them in the car without worrying about connectivity. While that works for the podcasts I listen too, it lacks the per-story granularity of the NPR app.

It would be nice to have a hybrid solution. Stories in my NPR playlist should download in the background when I’m on wi-fi. It would also be nice if the app could transparently switch to streaming when necessary.

07 July 2010

Do one thing well or everything poorly

The end of the ipod era, part II:

First, the very last impression that any company wants to give investors, financial analysts and the financial media is that a company can only do a handful of things well, and that the company is too overly dependent on any one of its product lines.

I think this is a problem. It drives businesses towards becoming large, overly-diverse corporations that tend to do nothing well. Sure, some companies—like Apple—manage to avoid it. Many more, however, become Hasbro.

21 June 2010

GodFinger, a free app that’s making money

Despite being free, GodFinger has reached #8 among the top grossing iPad apps.

How can that be? In app purchases. You can trade actual money for in-game awe points.

I haven’t bought any awe points. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing you can do through buying awe points that you can’t do without buying awe points. Buying awe points just lets you do things faster than if you didn’t. You’re buying instant gratification.

18 June 2010

The difference of role-playing games

I’ve written before that the distinguishing characteristic of a role-playing game is the judge. I was never completely comfortable with that, however, because I think there might games that do not have a judge which I would consider a role-playing game.

I think—more generally—the key difference is that, in a role-playing game, the fiction matters more than the rules. You can’t justify going against the rules in chess based on the realities of ancient warfare. You can’t justify going against the rules in Monopoly based on the realities of the real estate business. The game is the rules; the fiction is merely window dressing.

In a role-playing game, however, a rule can be overruled based on the fantasy being played out. The fiction is the game; the rules—guidelines actually—are merely play aids. Once the rules become paramount, then it ceases to be a role-playing game—in my view—and becomes a conventional game. The typical way to make this work is to appoint a judge, but there could be other ways to do it.

If you say that a game needs rules then I’m happy to concede that role-playing games—by my definition—aren’t truly games at all.

03 June 2010

Push the button

(Some Lost spoilers follow.)

Push the button every 108 seconds or the world will end.”

The only way to disprove that is to not press the button, but—if you’re right—it will be a pyrrhic victory.

Given what the candidates knew, could any of them be truly certain whether Jacob or his nemesis was the villain? Even with the extra information we—the viewers—have... We know that Jacob was not infallible. It seems that Smokey’s goal was originally fully justified, even if his methods weren’t.

This, to me, has been one of the strongest messages of Lost. Logic and science can only get us so far. Often we reach a point at which a decision must be made with incomplete information. We have to make a leap of faith, though one informed by reason.

Reason and faith are not choices, as they are sometimes presented. Nor are they opposed to one another. Rather they are tools we use to live our lives. You have to use both, and you have to use them together.

02 June 2010

Nielsen and Norman on Gestures

Gestural interfaces: A step backwards in usability...

Yes, new technologies require new methods, but the refusal to follow well-tested, well-established principles leads to usability disaster.

I completely agree. Most of this article covers this and covers it well. There’s been too much abandoning of important user-interface principals with the iPhone and iPad. Apple ought to know better.

Bold explorations should remain inside the company and university research laboratories and not be inflicted on any customers until those recruited to participate in user research have validated the approach.

Following known principles is important. User testing is important. You cannot, however, fully vet an UI in the lab. Lab testing only goes so far. Then you’re going to learn a lot more a lot faster by releasing it into the wild.

01 June 2010

Tabletop achievements

Many computer games these days have “achievements”. These are little things that you can do in the game that aren’t necessarily part of the main gameplay.

e.g. In the iPhone game Rolando, the object is to save the rolandos in each level by getting them to the level’s exit. There are also diamonds scattered around the levels. Collecting all the diamonds can earn an achievement.

I’ve been thinking about adapting this to tabletop role-playing games. Achieving one could grant a small XP bonus. Generally, a character could only earn each achievement once. Although some achievements may be a superset of another achievement. When it is achieved, the player must record it. (Having a record of your character’s achievements is part of the point of pursuing them, so this really isn’t a bookkeeping burden.)

One of the fun things about this—especially if you have the type of players who will find achievements hard to resist—is that it gives the referee an indirect method of influencing player/character behavior.

This is purely a metagame thing, so it might rub some people the wrong way from the get-go. shrug

Well, they don’t have to be purely metagame, I suppose. They could also help make up for the “only getting XP for killing† and stealing” fault that some find with D&D.

Anyway, I haven’t come up with any good ones yet.

†Although in some cases—such as when I’m DM—this should really be “defeating”.

28 May 2010

iMac apps vs. iPad apps

In a comment to I’ve Changed My Mind About The iPad, Joeflambe wrote:

yuck, an iPad, really?

not a real computer since there are no real apps that you use daily on your current computer.

This seems like an interesting exercise. Let’s look at the most used apps on my iMac and whether there is an iPad equivalent.

  • Safari: Check

I have a Flash blocker installed on my iMac, so lack of Flash on the iPad isn’t much of a change for me.

  • Mail: Check
  • iChat: Check (AIM)
  • iCal: Check
  • Address Book: Check
  • iTunes: Check
  • iPhoto: Check
  • GarageBand: Check (StudioTrack)
  • Evernote: Check

Now, to be fair, the iPad equivalents of the above do not always have all the features of their Mac counterparts. The main functionality is there. The rest...well, the iPad isn’t even a year old yet.

  • Preview (as PDF reader): Check

The iPad has PDF reading built in, but no specific app for it. I do most of my PDF reading/referencing in GoodReader.

  • iWork: Check

Some people will say matter-of-factly that nobody is going to want to write a term paper or create a spreadsheet on an iPad. shrug

OK, Pages for iPad doesn’t have footnotes...yet. It can’t print directly from the iPad—though Jobs himself has allegedly acknowledged that printing is in the works. (Yes, I’ve seen the photocopier pic. I LOL’d...the first time.) With my Bluetooth keyboard, I can’t see why I wouldn’t write a lengthy document with Pages for iPad. Even if I currently have to move it to my iMac for the finishing touches.

The whole keyboard + iPad topic is fodder for its own post.

I’ve created a few spreadsheets on the iPad. No less complex than those I would have created on my iMac. Although, I’m not that much of a spreadsheet user.

The iPad actually seems like a fine platform for creating presentations. We’ll see how it goes when I next need to create one.

I recently bought this Mac app. In fact, I bought it—in part—to produce content for the excellent TabToolkit iPad/iPhone app. (The fact that I can’t use it for that at the moment could be another post.) This is another app—like Keynote—that might actually work as well, if not better, on the iPad.

Unfortunately, Apple’s rules don’t allow for an equivalent to DrScheme.

What if? Well, if it were a fairly straight port, it probably wouldn’t work very well without a keyboard. (Which is OK; I have one.) I can imagine a visual/touch interface for editing Scheme source code, though. (I’m imagining something like what I imagine the Viaweb editor was like.)

I think you could do a “DrEcmaScript” within Apple’s rules, though. As either an app (if it used WebKit) or a web app. I suppose a Scheme interpreter written in Javascript would be allowed, though perhaps not practical.

So...only two strikes.

It might be interesting to look through my iPad apps and see which ones don’t have Mac equivalents...or those for which I wouldn’t want a Mac equivalent.

Is the iPad going to replace my iMac? No, I don’t think so. Not anytime soon. It can, I think, come astonishingly close, however. There is a lot of overlap between the Mac, iPad, and iPhone; but there’s also enough outside those overlaps to justify each. The overlaps mean more flexibility.

The iPad may not replace my iMac, but imagine an iPhone OS desktop device. That might. Of course, being a programmer, I might still want a Linux/FreeBSD system for tinkering. (One of the nice things—for me—about Mac OS X is that I can get to the BSD personality underneath it when I want to.) For getting things done, however, I’m happy to use “app consoles”.

22 May 2010

...hath no whining like Adobe spurned

It’s really sad to see a company like Adobe whining so publicly about not being welcome on the iPad. If anyone has any doubts that the iPad is more just clever marketing, this ought to be it.

Apple’s policy against Flash apps in the App Store seems a bit childish too but not as much.

(For the record, I think that no plug-ins in Mobile Safari is a good decision but keeping Flas—and similar “middleware”—apps out of the App Store is a mistake.)

21 May 2010

What business is Microsoft in?

Gruber asks this:

Think about that observation as applied to Microsoft’s executive leadership: Do they think they’re in the software business, or the Windows business?

Microsoft used to be in the software business. The old Microsoft would have announced Microsoft Office for iPad by now. Today’s Microsoft only has two free iPhone apps, neither of which have be enhanced for the iPad.

20 May 2010

Free RPGs

After hearing Chris Pramas talk about Green Ronin’s Dragon Age (tabletop) RPG on The Game’s the Thing, I was sold...


I’ve got some really great RPGs that are free.

(“Free” can mean a lot of things. In this instance, I mainly mean that anyone with Internet access can download the game legally at no monetary cost beyond what they’re paying for Internet service.)

  1. Labyrinth Lord
  2. GORE
  3. The (3.5) d20 SRD

Just to name three. There are many, many more.

Is Dragon Age really worth choosing over all of them? It’s “stunt system” looks worthy of consideration and possibly emulation. Other than that, though... It does look like the kind of introductory system we haven’t had since Frank Mentzer’s Basic/Expert/Companion/Master sets. Worth gifting perhaps.

I even come up against the same question with games I already own. I really like Dragon Warriors, but it’s really not so different than Labyrinth Lord.

With Labyrinth Lord...

  1. I have a print version
  2. I can print more hardcopies myself or go to a print shop and have hardcopies printed and bound
  3. I can put it on my iPad and iPhone and whatever device I have a decade hence
  4. I can search it
  5. I can copy & paste the rules to make up my own customized version
  6. My players would have free access to the rules and could do all those things as well
  7. If I wanted to publish something for the game (either for free or at a price), I could legally do so without having to pay for the right
  8. I can do all of this forever

With Dragon Warriors or Dragon Age...

  1. I have a print version (DW) or could buy a print version (DA)
  2. I could buy a PDF version for an additional cost

What’s more, Labyrinth Lord is based on my favorite edition of D&D. It has an expansion that makes it easy to import as much or as little AD&D flavor as I wish. It has a similar expansion for the flavor of original D&D. There’s a compatible post-apocalyptic game, Mutant Future. There will soon be a compatible version of Starships & Spacemen.

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of what Goblinoid Games is doing, but there are a lot of other really good free RPGs out there too.

Is any non-free system better enough than the free systems to bother with?

Even if they were, I don’t think I want a system that is that different.

15 May 2010

The Story of Bottled Water

The Story of Bottled Water

The problem with this:

I don’t believe that bottled water is cleaner or tastier than tap water. I know that the bottled water I buy is filtered tap water. I don’t buy tap water because of “manufactured demand”.

I buy it because it is convenient.

So, this presentation—which tries to make me associate drinking bottled water with smoking—comes off as “manufactured discontent”.

If you want to convince me not to buy bottled water, don’t spend so much time on a straw-man argument that essentially calls me stupid.

11 May 2010

3D movies

I like 3D movies. I find that 3D does add something to a film. It makes me feel like I’m actually in a place. It makes me feel that I am actually looking at the characters. Ever notice that a photo of someone sometimes seems really different from when you see them in person? Part of that is the loss of depth in the photo.

Of course, if it is “fake 3D”—added in post-production rather than actually shooting with a pair of cameras—then there’s really no point. Like anything, if it’s reduced to a bullet-point check-box to make some executive happy, there’s no point. Not every film should be 3D. Some films exploit 2D. For those, 3D isn’t appropriate. 3D can cause headaches and other problems for some people, so that is something to consider too. I’m also not a fan of most gimmicky 3D shots either. A film could take advantage of 3D to create a shot you couldn’t do in 2D, but—in general—just adding 3D to regular shots is what I like to see.

Yes, 3D is dimmer than 2D. That, however, is fixable. Even with it, though, I find that the 3D experience makes up for it.

Of course, 3D isn’t necessary to make a good film. A lot of things aren’t necessary. Give Scorsese a flip camera and a shoe-string budget, and he’ll probably still make a Scorsese film. That it isn’t necessary isn’t an argument against it. If you don’t find that it adds anything, then—yes—it is extraneous...for you, but that is a matter of opinion.

I think 3D also increases the imperative to move movies up to a decent frame-rate. That’s something that should’ve been done for all movies by now.

Yeah, theaters are using 3D as an excuse to charge even more. I’m fine with that. 3D gives me a reason to go to a theatre, because I’m not going to get a comparable 3D experience at home any time soon. It’s a value-add, and I’m willing to pay for it. It’s better than a lot of the other ways theaters have and could try to make it in the tough spot they’ve been put into.

08 May 2010

Scratch (no longer) on iDevices

More iPhone PL lockdown...Goodbye Scratch!

My wife has taught a couple of classes using Scratch with young kids, and to see the pride they feel at their creations is a marvelous thing. I think restricting their ability to share that feeling is really reprehensible. And the damage done to the programmers of tomorrow? Hard to say...


Should Apple allow Scratch on iDevices? Yes, I think they should. Does the lack of Scratch on iDevices mean that kids are prevented from programming for iDevices? No. I looked over Scratch, and everything important that it does could be done in Javascript and work with Mobile Safari.

Is Javascript slow on iDevices? Yes. Is it slow enough to make something like Scratch impractical? I doubt it.

Standing for freedom sometimes means missing out

Freedom From Relevance:

Sullivan is more or less arguing the FSF party line, that both Apple and Adobe are unethical because both are promoting things that aren’t free-as-in-freedom. That’s great. So what mobile phone should an FSF devotee buy? Good luck with that.

Probably none. That’s one of the consequences of sticking by your principles. Sometimes you have to not do things that go against your principles. I admire the FSF guys for actually doing that.

Stuart Green on Gizmodo and the iPhone Prototype

iPhone, Gizmodo, and moral clarity about crime:

So what explains this apparent sympathy for Hogan and Chen, and hostility toward Apple and the San Mateo police? One possibility is a basic confusion about the fact that finding and failing to return lost property is a crime, a confusion that may be a vestige of the common, but legally mistaken, schoolyard adage, “finders keepers, losers weepers.”

Sympathy doesn’t have to obey the law. Disagreeing with the law doesn’t (necessarily) mean one is confused or mistaken. Heck, you don’t even have to outright disagree with the law to feel sympathy here.

Finally, there’s the misguided idea, long espoused by many in the tech community, that “information wants to be free.” But whether it’s in the form of proprietary trade secrets embodied by Apple’s latest iPhone or intellectual property subject to seemingly endless illegal downloading and file sharing every second of every day, information is not free.

It takes a lot of time and energy and money to write books, compose music, create movies, and design and market electronic devices like iPhones. Such information deserves legal protection, even when it’s been lost in a bar.

(Sarcasm ahead:) Yeah. Apple is going to lose so much money because they let some trade secrets slip here. They’ll probably just get out of the iPhone business now. Without legal protection of their trade secrets, they’d be forced out of business altogether.

That information wants to be free and that there are costs to produce information are not incompatible. Strike all the intellectual property laws off the books, and there will still be books, music, movies, and iPhones. They people who produce those things will still be making money.

Surely trade secrets are the least kind of intellectual property when it comes to the need for legal protection.

07 May 2010

Rush and keys

Like Van Halen, Rush drew criticism for the increasing use of keyboards. Unlike Van Halen, more keyboards actually did seem to mean less success for Rush.

Counterparts (after the “synth era”) made it to #2 on the charts. Tied with Moving Pictures (before/early “synth era”). 2112 (before the “synth era”) only made it to #61, but went triple platinum. Power Windows and Hold Your Fire—considered the peaks of Rush’s “synth era”—didn’t score as well by either measure.

Having been a more avid Rush than Van Halen fan, I can say that—personally—instrumentation means little to me. I like both their guitar-driven and “synth era” albums.

Apple’s mistakes

From the iPhone OS 4 SDK, section 3.3.1 of the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement:

3.3.1 — Applications may only use Documented APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any private APIs. Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine, and only code written in C, C++, and Objective-C may compile and directly link against the Documented APIs (e.g., Applications that link to Documented APIs through an intermediary translation or compatibility layer or tool are prohibited).

This is one of the ways that Apple is keeping Flash off iDevices. It—intentionally—keeps more than Flash off of them. (See “Thoughts on Flash”.)

It is, unfortunately true, that cross-platform frameworks often have lousy user experiences. Not merely “un-Mac-like” but just plain bad. It’s true that they often only end up supporting the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t have to be like that, however. Cross platform frameworks can support platform-specific features. I’ve worked on ones that have. It is all too rare though.

There’s also the fact that some apps—especially some games—don’t really need standard user interface elements. Flash (and other options) can work well for these things. If anyone chooses to use Flash for another sort of app, they’ll quickly lose to non-Flash apps. I’m glad not to have Flash in Safari on my iPhone or my iPad, but I don’t mind Flash apps.

Section 3.3.1, however, doesn’t only ban cross-platform frameworks. It bans writing honest-to-goodness Cocoa Touch apps written in any but the specified languages. (“Platform Control” by Mark Bernstein.)

It has been suggested that a compromise might be to require any frameworks to be open source. (“A reconciling proposal” by Michel Fortin.) That way, any developer that needs access to a specific feature can add it to the framework. That’s a good idea. Yet, the truth is that such extensions to a framework can be a lot of work—especially for someone who normally only uses the framework.

Ian Bogost has written that “Flash is not a Right”. He is right, I suppose.

Putting aside rights, however, I have to wonder if this is really in Apple’s best interest. I have to wonder if this is really in the best interest of Apple’s customers. Apple’s biggest mistakes, I believe, are when they try to compete via the law. Whether through intellectual property or license agreements. They compete and win in the market. They don’t need to play the legal games.

Rolling dice

In “Playing with the Sword-and-Board Fighter”, Trollsmyth wrote:

The other issue is something I’ve been harping on lately: when you’re rolling the dice, you’re not playing the game. Dice rolls are what happens when the game stops and we wait to see what sort of curveball randomness is going to throw us. People think dice rolls are the game because that’s mostly what we see in the books. But games are about making choices, not rolling dice; the game of craps is in the betting; rolling of the dice only tells you who won.

From “If the thief is rolling the dice he is already dead” over at the Ode to Black Dougal:

If the thief-player is using his head, the find traps ability becomes the last resort—the “holy crap I hope this saves me”—dice roll that a saving throw represents. If the player describes what precautions he is taking and how he is protecting himself, the percentage roll to find traps becomes an after-thought except in the more devious of circumstances.

I usually don’t get a lot of satisfaction out of succeeding at a die roll. Even if I role-played the action. I get satisfaction out of succeeding based on my decisions. (Sometimes from failing based on my decisions.) Oh, sure. I like rolling dice when the time comes. Yet, I generally want to avoid die rolls. When I can’t, I want to do everything I can to tilt the odds in my favor first.

20 April 2010


If I’m going to create something I expect you’ll read on your computer or an e-book device, I’ll probably choose HTML. (Or perhaps something like ePub, but that’s just HTML inside another package.) I’m not going to choose PDF. The best use of PDF is for things meant to be printed.

Hardly anybody—even people who enjoy reading on our computers—enjoys reading PDFs on a computer.

When you download a PDF, that is most likely a hint from the creator that they expect you to print it. PDF is print-on-demand. That’s why it’s the format used to submit manuscripts to Lulu.

If you find that you are reading or wanting to read a lot of PDFs, you should do one of two things...if not both:

  1. Buy the best printer you can afford
  2. Find a good print shop

One of the great things about the iPad, by the way, is that it is the best way to read PDFs short of printing them. (I recommend the Good Reader app.) So, a third option is to buy an iPad.☺Yet, there are still advantages & disadvantages to print vs. iPad, so I’m not selling my printer or my saddle-stitch stapler anytime soon.

15 April 2010

iPad + RPG: The player’s side

My iPad got its first use at an RPG session in a new D&D 3.5e campaign that’s just started.

The Hypertext SRD works well with Safari.

I’m creating a character record in Numbers. Mostly, it’s just a bunch of tables with manually filled in data like a paper character sheet. I do have a few formulas, but I’m not yet sure how much automation I’ll want. It’s a work-in-progress, but the combat and skill sheets worked well in play. The only time I had to reference my paper notes were for my spells, which I haven’t added to the spreadsheet yet.

I used Notes to take some notes. Bouncing between Safari, Numbers, and Notes wasn’t quite the hassle I expected.

Good Reader is the missing app that should’ve been bundled with the system. I’m trying to load up RPG PDFs I have that I might want to use.

So, was it worth it? Does it add any value?

For me, D&D 3e nigh requires making my own custom character sheet for each PC. I expect having a dynamic one that can help me with arithmetic is going to pay off with 3e as well.

Being able to search the rules (SRD) proved useful a couple of times. I also think being able to have a lot of PDFs with me rather than hardcopies will prove very useful. More on the DM’s side of the screen than the player’s side, however.

The iPad VGA adapter

When using the iPad VGA adapter, you don’t get mirroring of the iPad display. Of the bundled apps, only the Video, YouTube, and Photo can display anything on the external display. Even then, you only get anything when you play a video or start a slideshow. Well, except that videos I downloaded from iTunes or “digital copies” of movies won’t work. The iPad claims the external display is not authorized to show them.

This is one area that is not a magical experience.

Keynote will also use the external display, but only when “playing” the presentation.

The last presentation I did involved slides followed by a demo. The demo used a web browser and an SSH client. On my iPad, I have Keynote, Safari, and iSSH. I have everything I would’ve needed...except that Keynote is the only one of those apps that can use the external display.

“Christian militia”

On NPR the other day, the reporter kept referencing a “Christian militia” that had been planning to kill police officers. It’s fairly clear that such a militia is not Christian. Reporters are careful to use “alleged” and “allegedly” since people are innocent until proven guilty. Too bad that their use of adjectives requires no standard of proof.

Which reminds me of an old blog 1.0 post: “Reporting about Serial Killers” (11 October 2002)

Dr. Welner said that the media should change how they cover serial killers. Instead of words like “cunning” and “sniper”, they should use words like “coward” and “shooter”.

14 April 2010

Alice for the iPad

Grubers asks, about Alice for the iPad, “How does the Kindle compete with this?”

This is an app, not a iBook. So this is a question about competing on the platform level.

If I’m Amazon, I don’t want to be in the hardware business. Amazon is a software company that builds a retail platform. If I’m Amazon, I want to write the Kindle app for the iPhone, iPad, Slate, Courier, etc. I want to sell books to people that use other people’s hardware. Amazon created the Kindle hardware because there wasn’t a suitable platform...at least for a certain segment of the market. The iPad has the potential to serve that same market, and Amazon stands to win by supporting the iPad.

It’s with the iBooks app and store that Apple is competing with Amazon.

12 April 2010


People do not fear change. Rather, they have a healthy pessimism about it founded on the experience that change is more often simply different rather than better. Since change is seldom free, the “just different” sort of change generates waste.

10 March 2010

To mini or not to mini

In my first attempts at playing D&D, I had a piece of poster board gridded off in one-inch squares, dominos to serve as walls, and some of the official AD&D Grenadier minis that my dad had bought me. (Those still make up the bulk of my minis.)

My first groups almost never used minis, though. I remember looking through a friend’s collection, but I don’t actually remember using them.

Until I moved and joined a GURPS group. Its advanced combat system really begs to be used with minis and a hex grid. Since, I’ve used them off and on.

I really like the idea of having a bunch of minis of the proper scale and Dwarven Forge or Hirst Arts dungeons. Or just cardboard heroes, sparks, and cardstock dungeons.

I like the idea, but I don’t like the reality. A lot of stuff to buy, store, tote, and organize. I could probably list more cons as well. In any case, part of my “back to basics” tendencies in recent years has included eschewing minis.

I’ve been wondering though: While playing mini-less works fine for me, perhaps—for some players—the lack of such a visual aid is a significant disadvantage.

So, I’m thinking of giving it another try. Just battlemat and pawns, though, to keep things simple. Also, I don’t want to use them simply as visual aids rather than as a minis game. I still plan to run combat in a more free fashion.

Inspired by GROGNARDIA: Minis and Me

Addicting games & computer engineering

Cracked.com has an article on 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted. I think this is a bit sensationalistic, but some interesting things to consider.

Now this may seem completely unrelated... From Google’s blog, Helping computers understand language:

An irony of computer science is that tasks humans struggle with can be performed easily by computer programs, but tasks humans can perform effortlessly remain difficult for computers.

I wouldn’t call this “irony”. Rather, I think I’d call it the fundamental truth of computer engineering. Our task as engineers is to enable human and computer to work together. The computer should be doing the parts of the task that computers are good at, and the human should be doing the parts of the task that humans are good at.

The thing that is odd to me: It seems like a lot of games are getting people to do exactly the sorts of tasks that I’ve dedicated my professional life to automating so that people don’t have to.

16 February 2010

Macworld Expo 2010 Best of Show | Macworld Expo | Macworld

Macworld Expo 2010 Best of Show

Depending on how you count, five to seven of the eleven are actually iPhone products rather than Mac products.

31 January 2010

Classic D&D healing herbs

While I’m not a fan of much buying and selling of magic in classic D&D, I do want to try giving the players some access to accelerated healing beyond cleric spells. I was always a fan of the herbs in Rolemaster that could be used for healing and curing various conditions. So, my plan is to have some herbal treatments available for sale.

Let’s say a single dose heals the equivalent of one day’s rest: 1–3 hp. Based (perhaps only loosely) on the cost of living I’d come up with for the Keep, I decided an herbalist at the keep might sell a dose for 50 gp. Typically 5–10 doses (1d6+4) would be in stock.

Then I found the information about brewing potions from the (Cook/Marsh) Expert guidelines. A standard healing potion (equivalent to the clerical spell Cure Light Wounds: 2–7 hp) would cost a mage 500 gp and one week to make. An alchemist could do it for 250 gp in half a week.

So, let’s call the herbalist an alchemist who is selling to the public (rather than being on retainer like the alchemists in the book). So they’ll have to add a mark-up to that 250 gp in order to make a profit. I’ll double it.

I came up with this list of products:

  • Minor healing herbs, 1–3 hp, 250 gp, 2–16 (2d8) in stock
  • Major healing herbs, 2–7 hp, 500 gp, 1–7 (2d4-1) in stock
  • Universal disease treatment, 1,500 gp, 0–3 in stock (d4-1)
  • Universal antidote, 2,000 gp, 0–2 (d3-1) in stock

I priced the 1–3 hp version at half the regular “healing potion” cost. Also available are the equivalents of Cure Disease and Neutralize Poison. Treatments for specific diseases or poisons could be available at lower costs.

I might come up with some rules for foraging so that the PCs could find some ingredients to sell to the herbalist as well.

Do you really need Flash for the Web?

Do you really need Flash for the Web?
Originally uploaded by Kendall Helmstetter Gelner

Actual screen shots from an iPhone of the sites Lee Brimelow used in his “oh noes...the Internet on iPad won’t work at all without Flash” mock-ups. It turns out that six of the ten serve up Flashless versions of themselves to the iPhone.

Classic D&D cost of living

The question came to me: What would the cost-of-living be for an NPC living in the Keep on the Borderlands?

B2 doesn’t seem to list the rent for the private apartments. A private room in the inn is 1gp/night. That’d make about 30gp/month. On the one hand, a private apartment ought to cost more than just a private room, but hotel rooms cost more than apartments, right? I’ll just stick with 30gp/month.

The Basic Set price list (which happens to be reproduced in B2 for quick & easy reference) gives 5gp for 1 person-week of unpreserved food. So, that would be about 20gp/month.

So, 50gp/month for food and a place to sleep.

30 January 2010

On the iPad/Flash brouhaha

In a comment to this Smarterware blog post, Mark Williamson asks:

I am so torn, do I support 94% of my customers? Or do I let the 6% with either a choice that they made to not have flash or a choice that was made for them by their device supplier dictate how my site might work?

What you do is simply this: You make sites that degrade gracefully. That means you don’t use Flash (or any other such technology) for stuff you don’t need to use it for.

For example, I ordered pizza from Domino’s online recently with Flash disabled. I didn’t get to see the fancy preview image of my pizza with the toppings composited onto it because it required Flash. The actual functionality of the site—ordering food—worked perfectly fine without Flash.

John Nack writes:

And today, more than 15 years after Netscape debuted, Flash remains the only way to, say, display a vector chart across browsers (i.e., such that you can count on every viewer seeing it).

Except that you can’t count on every viewer seeing it. See the Smarterware post above. Those figures don’t even count most iPhone and iPod Touch traffic. That is why nearly every feature that has been added to the web over the years provides for providing alternate content for browsers that don’t support that feature.

It also doesn’t count the visually disabled who can’t see the chart even if they have Flash installed. This is why the standards today provide ways to provide text descriptions of visual elements.

If you use Flash to show a vector chart without providing a raster alternative and a text description, some “viewers” aren’t going to be able to “see” it.

Apple doesn’t support Flash on the iPhone, the iPod Touch, and won’t support it on the iPad. This is not about Flash vs. HTML5. This is not about Apple vs. Adobe.

Apple is not supporting any browser plug-ins on the iPhone OS devices. Why? Because browser plug-ins are the biggest source of Mac OS X crashes.

If you follow the advice of Lee Brimelow, as he wrote in the comments to his “The iPad provides the ultimate browsing experience?” post...

If you can do something in HTML then we recommend people to do that. Use Flash when you need richer interactivity. It’s not HTML OR Flash. They can coexist.

...then the iPad not having Flash won’t be a problem. Flash is for the butter, not the bread.

So, is Apple lying when it claims the iPad is “the ultimate browsing experience”?


Where to even start? The fact that this is opinion? (It’s not hard to find someone who feels that browsing without Flash is better than browsing with it, by the way.) The fact that it is marketing?

29 January 2010

Bing? Really?

From Daring Fireball: Apple, Google, Bing, and Search:

Say what you want about Microsoft in general and Bing in particular, but the fact is, Bing is the only major competitor to Google left standing.

How is it that the last one to enter ends up being the only major competitor?

Bridging print and digital media

The day before the iPad unveiling, in What I Hope Apple Unleashes Tomorrow, Derek Powazek wrote:

I’ve spent my professional career doing basically two things: making websites and making print media. It’s my hope that what Apple unleashes tomorrow is the device that finally bridges the two.

I think the iPad may do some of what Derek hopes but only a little.

Print had value because there was no better way to deliver information. People were always paying more for the delivery than for the content itself. There is a better way now, and it is cheaper. Print is still holding value, but that won’t last. In the long run, people aren’t going to pay as much for digital delivery as they did for print. Moreover, they’re going to pay for print in fewer and fewer cases.

28 January 2010

The iPad does fill a gap.

When you bought a laptop, I said, “That’s not what I want.”

(You know who “you” are. Not everyone reading this will be “you”.)

When you bought a “smart phone”, I said, “That’s not what I want.”

When the iPhone and iPod touch came out, I said, “Close”, and I bought one. I said, “I’d like a tablet-sized one.”

When the MacBook Air was rumored, I thought, “Maybe”. When it came out, I said, “That’s not what I want.”

When the iPad was announced, you said, “That’s not what I want.”

I said, “Finally!” (Perhaps)

(There’s lots of other things that could be mentioned: Newton, Palm (I wanted a tablet version), the worthless tablet PC I bought that ran Microsoft Windows, &c.)

Scoring the iPad without having used it

In iPad About, Stephen Fry writes:

There are many issues you could have with the iPad. No multitasking, still no Flash. No camera, no GPS. They all fall away the minute you use it. I cannot emphasise enough this point: “Hold your judgment until you’ve spent five minutes with it”. No YouTube film, no promotional video, no keynote address, no list of features can even hint at the extraordinary feeling you get from actually using and interacting with one of these magical objects. You know how everyone who has ever done Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? always says, “It’s not the same when you’re actually here. So different from when you’re sitting at home watching.”? You know how often you’ve heard that? Well, you’ll hear the same from anyone who’s handled an iPad. The moment you experience it in your hands you know this is class. This is a different order of experience. The speed, the responsiveness, the smooth glide of it, the richness and detail of the display, the heft in your hand, the rightness of the actions and gestures that you employ, untutored and instinctively, it’s not just a scaled up iPhone or a scaled-down multitouch enhanced laptop – it is a whole new kind of device.

It’s not about the extra features. It’s about doing the basic features right. It isn’t about what it does; it is about how it does it. It isn’t about the number of features; it’s about the user experience.

Yes, you can browse the web and do e-mail on a laptop, a “smart phone”, or a netbook. Yes, the iPad doesn’t have other features that those devices have. What Apple is claiming is that the iPad handles these basic features—like the web and e-mail—better than those other devices.

Here are the tasks Apple touted as what the iPad needs to do better than a “smart phone” or a laptop. I’m guessing at how well it will do in each category.

By the by, I’m not a laptop person. I’ve used laptops, so I can do some comparison, but—for me—the comparison against my iMac tends to stand in for the laptop.

Web browsing: I’ve surfed the web on desktop computers, laptops, “smart phones”, and on my TV. There is a time and a place for using the web from all those devices. Most of the time, however, I’d prefer to be doing it the way it looks in the iPad demo.

E-mail: Pretty much the same story as web browsing. (Except I don’t think I’ve ever done e-mail on my TV.) I still want to access my e-mail from my iPhone and my iMac, but I expect the iPad will become my preferred e-mail access.

Viewing and sharing photos: Yes. Hands down. The iPhone will still be preferable for taking photos simply because it can and the iPad can’t. The iMac will still be preferable for organizing and sharing online. Still, viewing and sharing in person is an important thing that the iPad does look better suited for.

Video: Having watched movies on both a laptop and my iPhone (and my iMac), I think the iPad will be preferable. Of course, I expect my HDTV will still be preferable to the iPad, but perhaps not my standard-definition TV.

Music: I don’t see how the iPad adds significantly to this. Better browsing but that isn’t much. My iPhone will still be my preference.

Games: It depends on the game. Some games are going to be better on my iPhone; some on my iMac; some on the iPad.

E-books: It depends. For some books—like most fiction—I think I’ll still prefer my iPhone. For other books—like PDF RPG manuals—I think I’ll prefer the iPad.

26 January 2010

B/X D&D thief house rule

Just an idea for a house rule for B/X Dungeons & Dragons. Apply a thief’s dexterity adjustment to their level to determine their thief skills. So, a 1st level thief with an 18 dexterity would use the 4th level row of the thief skills table.

The idea is generally like the “Dexterity Table II” from AD&D (PHB p. 12), but in a simpler, more B/X-style form.

Is it crazy?

16 January 2010

Dialogue with a printer

My printer: I’m out of magenta ink.

Me: How about the other inks?

Printer: I’m out of magenta ink.

Me: I know, but just show the status of the other inks like you did when they were all full.

Printer: I’m out of magenta ink.

Me: sigh

Me: Scan this.

Printer: I’m out of magenta ink.

Me: sigh

After buying replacements for all six ink cartridges and replacing magenta...

Me: Print this.

Time passes.

Printer: You know what? The gray is empty.

Replace gray cartridge. Time passes.

Printer: Hey, look! The black and yellow are empty too.

Replace black and yellow cartridges. Time passes.

Printer: OK! What did you want me to print?

Me: sigh