27 December 2014

26 December 2014

My web site

I posted about this on G+, but I don’t think I actually mentioned it here. The web host I was using has gone defunct. I’ve taken the opportunity, while moving to a new host, to finally update and reorganize some of the content. I’m also trying to set up redirects so that links to any content that has moved still work. If there’s anything that’s not yet on the new site that you’d like to see back up, please let me know. I’ll bump it up on my “to do” list. Also, let me know if you see any problems with the new site.


24 December 2014

Merry Christmas

If there is no year zero, was Jesus born in 1 BC or AD 1?

The answer is neither since Dennis the Short messed things up.

Of course, it doesn’t matter that Jesus wasn’t born on 25 December 0. It doesn’t really matter whether He was wholly man or wholly God or both or neither.

What matters is that we try to be nice to each other. Even our families.

Happy holidays!

23 December 2014

My classic D&D armor

I came up with some different rules for armor in classic D&D. Rather than trying to get the tables to look nice on the blog, I just went ahead and added it to the web site: “Vaguely historical armor

I had chosen to go more abstract with weapons. I had started down the same path with armor, but instead I decided to actually make it more concrete instead.

21 December 2014

On public television

When I was a kid, public television was inspirational. They (seemingly, at least) proved that, against conventional wisdom, individuals could come together to build something good and give it away for free. In the day when only six organizations could afford to broadcast television in a market the size of Houston. For those idealists to be able to stand alongside the national networks on the VHF band was impressive.

Somewhere along the line, though, they became addicted to corporate money and tacky pledge drives and selling DVDs. The differences between public television and private television were no longer very clear.

I know that some great programming was funded by the money that brought in. But at what cost? The loss of what made public television different. If it isn’t different, what’s the point? I would rather have less programming with lower production values that had stuck to their ideals.

When I said anything, the letters I got back said that I wasn’t as important as their corporate sponsors and the success of their pledge drives.

Now, they send me a letter telling me they’re counting on me because the corporate money is drying up. Now, Nova is interrupted by commercials that look exactly like the shopping channels and nothing like public television. The only thing they are inspiring in my son is snarky comments.

Maybe I’ll help them out. Maybe they’ll rediscover those ideals. Or maybe I’ll instead support what they’re doing on YouTube. Because I get the feeling it is that stuff, of anything they’re doing, that will inspire my kids.

03 December 2014


Instead of painting all in-app purchases with the same brush, let’s call the problem by name: Nagware. (“Pay to win” is also acceptable.)

Even then, though, it is hard for me to get too worked up about it. While the nagware model might be making Rovio (e.g.) more money, they’re getting less of my money than they used to. Yet I still get to enjoy their games.

The funniest bit to me is where they want me to pay or take a break from playing. For me, that’s a feature. I need a reminder to take a break. I’ve stayed up way too late playing Angry Birds several times. Why would I pay to eliminate a feature?

27 October 2014

Thin iMacs

Dear Apple,

Please stop touting how thin the iMac is. (1) The iMac was thin enough for a desktop machine before you started curving the back. Nobody cares if it is thinner than that. (2) It makes you look stupid to tout how thin it is at the edge when we can all see the bulge in the back.

Please, instead, focus the energy you’ve spent on making the edge thin on improvements that actually matter for a desktop computer.

Thank you.

P.S. On the other hand, I’m loving how thin and light my iPad Air 2 is.

This was also submitted as iMac feedback.

18 October 2014

Encryption backdoors and presumed innocence

FBI wants you to lock up data, but allow tech companies to keep the keys

I like and believe very much that we should have to obtain a warrant from an independent judge to be able to take the content of anyone's closet or their smart phone. The notion that someone would market a closet that could never be opened -- even if it involves a case involving a child kidnapper and a court order -- to me does not make any sense.

Yes, I am catching up on unfinished posts...

Flawed analogy. A closet and a data storage are very different things.

We are asked to trust companies and the government—and judges are part of the government—with back doors to get to our data because we might hide clues to illegal activities in that data.

That isn’t a valid justification in a society with presumed innocence.

Especially when you consider the breaches of trust from both companies and the government.

Can you commit a crime and the only evidence be encrypted data?

Even if you can, I’m not convinced that overrides the presumption of innocence.

17 October 2014

Unsubscribe should be instant

Here are your choices:

  1. Don’t ever send mass e-mails
  2. Provide instant unsubscriptions

If it takes you more time than a web page loading to process requests to unsubscribe, that leaves you with only option #1.

16 October 2014

Can a Dungeon Master Cheat?

Matt Finch addressed the question: Can a Dungeon Master cheat?

I don’t think an RPG is a game. Also, for RPGs fiction and rulings are more important than rules. So I’m not convinced that the concept of cheating applies at all.

I do know that a referee can be unfair. Although it isn’t a clear cut & dried thing. The rule I hope to live by is that it is better for a ref to spoil a surprise than to seem unfair.

15 October 2014

Thoughts while reading “Chess is not an RPG”

After watching the conversation between John and Zak and putting down my thoughts about it, I decided to read John’s article that started that conversation. Here are my thoughts as I read it.

Because the focus of an RPG is to tell stories.

I am not convinced that is the case.

The first four editions of D&D are not roleplaying games. You can successfully play them without roleplaying. Call of Cthulhu, on the other hand, is a game you cannot successfully play without roleplaying. If you try it, you get… well, you actually violate the basic tenant of the game: to make yourself scared through your character’s choices.

I’m not convinced that a game can require role-playing. I haven’t played Call of Cthulhu. (And even if I had, I wouldn’t have played it trying to not role-play.) So I may admittedly be missing something here.

And the goal of those games is to win. Roleplaying, in the end, sabotages the goal of the game.

I think the lack of winning is an important distinction. It’s what puts RPGs in the same category as something like SimCity. Which is perhaps more toy than game. (Although whether there is winning in RPGs is an often fought argument of its own.)

roleplaying game: a game in which the players are rewarded for making choices that are consistent with the character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.

If that is a role-playing game, I don’t want to play. I don’t want to codify my character’s motivations to the extent that they can be rewarded. I don’t want to “further the plot of the story”. That would suck all the fun out of the game for me.

Because if the most important part of your game is balancing the damage, rate-of-fire, range modifiers, damage dice, ablative armor, dodge modifiers and speed factors, you aren’t playing a roleplaying game. You’re playing a board game.

For me, I think that’s true. Not because it is about telling a story. Rather it is because, for me, a role-playing game is about playing the hand you’re dealt. Like how the Fantastic Four has to figure out how to deal with Galactus even though he makes their powers moot.

As a GM, your job is to help the players tell the stories of their characters.

My job as referee has three parts:

  • To determine what obstacles are between the PCs and their goals
  • To figure out what forces exist in the world that might intersect with the PCs and what the goals of those forces are
  • Make rulings to resolve the actions the PCs attempt

Are those the same as “help the players tell the stories of their characters”? Maybe?

What matters is spotlight.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with a referee trying to ensure each PC gets spotlight time, but I’m not convinced that is their an obligation. I think it is OK if players are sometimes required to earn the spotlight. And I enjoy playing supporting characters who seldom get the spotlight.

Maybe “earn” is not the right word. As referee, perhaps I ought to ensure that each player gets a chance to take the spotlight, but it is up to them to take it.

The reason roleplaying games are a unique art form is because they are the only literary genre where we walk in the hero’s shoes. We are not following the hero, we are not watching her from afar, we are not being told the story. As Robin Laws now famously said, “A roleplaying game is the only genre where the audience and the author are the same person.”

This touches on something I don’t like about some role-playing games. Making authorial choices is not making choices in-character.

And what exactly does speed factor have to do with this? Or ablative armor? Or rate of fire?

These are things that my character makes decisions about. Which tools to use in a given situation. These things provide some of the in-character decisions for me to make. They aren’t required (there are other decisions I could be making), but they are perfectly valid sorts of choices to be making.

You don’t get to say, “I have a high charisma because I’m not very good at roleplaying.”

Sure, but that’s because role-playing isn’t being charismatic.

14 October 2014

Thoughts while watching the conversation between John and Zak

A conversation between John Wick and Zak S.

That conversation was spawned by John’s “Chess is not an RPG”. (I haven’t read that article at the time I’m watching the conversation.)

(Edit: I have now read the article...thoughts here.)

Note: These are just my thoughts. They are not necessarily absolute truths even if I seem to be stating them as such. As always on this blog, this is thinking out loud.

Role-playing—in the context of role-playing games—is making decisions in-character. Therefore you can role-play in any game that allows you to make decisions.

Since role-playing is making choices, the choices a game allows determines how much the game supports role-playing. By trading rules for rulings by a referee, you trade a finite number of responses to any choice for an infinite number. Sometimes called “tactical infinity”.

(There’s a point to be made that even with tactical infinity there may be limits on the choices. Infinity plus limits does not necessarily equal a finite set. But that’s probably a whole ’nother discussion.)

There is no denying that by the Moldvay edited Basic D&D booklet (pp. B2, B3, B60) and first edition AD&D DMG (pp. 7, 9, 230) DM rulings over rules is the explicit intent of D&D and AD&D.

I’d argue that it was there in the original game too, but the text is less clear. Also, descriptions of Chainmail games from before D&D indicate that Gygax and associates played that game very much in a “rulings over rules” fashion. For example, there was a story told of a Chainmail game where one side set fire to the woods where the other side had units holed up. (If anyone has a reference to a telling on that story, please post the link.)

It should be noted that even the original D&D had an example of play that does give some idea of how the game is meant to be played.

I laughed when John said that if you want to role-play don’t be a fighter. To me it is exactly the opposite. The fighter is the blank slate that only becomes interesting through role-playing. Although there has been some effort over the years to take that away from the class.

I like Zak’s analogy of a supermarket versus a set of ingredients and a recipe.

Although in a couple of editions of D&D a three minute combat might take three hours to play out, that hasn’t generally been the case.

Has there ever been an edition of D&D that explicitly says seducing a barmaid can be done in a minute with a single die roll? Even in editions with skills and even if it were a single roll, wouldn’t that typically be played out by doing a lot of things over time to accumulate bonuses to that roll?

Unless you just want to get it out-of-the-way fast because it isn’t something the group wants to spend time on. In which case this is a feature. And it still is a ruling instead of a rule.

There is something about the simplicity of the battle rules in Diplomacy that really seems to drive the negotiation aspect of the game.

The combat system in Moldvay’s Basic D&D really is simple and not the majority of the book. In my experience, this is essentially how people played combat most of the time in AD&D. Others have told me their experience is similar.

That simplicity, however, seems to allow real tactics to be applied effectively. Rules mastery is not required. Which, I think, makes it easier to make decision more in-character and less as-player.


What is the difference between a role-playing game and a conventional game?

When I am attempting to design a conventional game, I am trying to make a closed system. When I am attempting to design a role-playing game, I am trying to leave things open for player creativity and referee rulings. So the difference between a conventional game and a role-playing game isn’t that the rules tell you to role-play but that the rules leave space for role-playing.

Did the original D&D do this intentionally or accidentally? shrug Maybe both. The afterword seems to say that it was at least partially intentional.

While it may not be that people role-played in D&D because the rules were incomplete, I don’t think that can be counted out as a factor.

And, as always, I’m not sure that role-playing games even are games.

Another thought: “Role-playing” in the sense of “playing a role-playing game” is making decisions for the character. Those choices may not be made purely in-character. (Role-playing2 is not always purely role-playing1.) I’m OK with some amount of “metagaming”.

29 August 2014

A comparison of D&D5e fighting styles

I might generally be down on complexity in role-playing game mechanics, but I do enjoy running the numbers.

Here’s one comparison of three fighting styles in D&D5e. Caveats: This is based only on the PHB (as it is the only book out when I’m writing this). I’ve chosen a very specific situation to analyze; there may be no generalizations to make. This is only about averages; once you’re rolling dice, anything can happen. This doesn’t consider tactics and such. Also, there’s every possibility I made a mistake.

Huey, Dewey, and Louis are triplets. They’re all 1st level fighters with 16 (+3 modifier) strength, 14 (+2 modifier) dexterity, and 15 (+2 modifier) constitution. They each have 12 hp. They’ve all got “chain mail” (AC 16) armor. Their proficiency bonus is +2.

(The “chain mail” doesn’t let them use their dexterity bonus for AC, but they got it as part of the starting equipment. The only armor that would give them a better AC would be half plate, but they can’t afford it.)

Huey has chosen the Defense fighting style (+1 AC), a war pick (d8), and a shield (+2 AC). His AC is 19.

Dewey has choosen the Two-Weapon Fighting style (add ability modifier to off-hand attack damage) and two shortswords (d6). His AC is 16.

Louis has choosen the Great Weapon Fighting style (reroll damage rolls of 1 or 2) and a maul (2d6). His AC is also 16.

They’re going to have a little tournament among themselves. (They’ll use the “Knocking a Creature Out” rule to keep from killing one another.) Since they all have the same number of hit points, their chance of winning a bout can be determined by comparing their average damage per round versus their opponent’s AC.

Bout 1: The odds favor Dewey (4.9 average points of damage per round) over Huey (3.975).

Bout 2: The odds favor Louis (4.383) over Huey (3.975).

Bout 3: The odds favor Dewey (6.85) over Louis (6.083).

So, Dewey with his two shortswords is favored in two of the three bouts. Huey with his war pick and shield is not favored in any.

26 August 2014

D&D5e Great Weapon Fighting

The Great Weapon Fighting style in D&D5e allows rerolling any 1 or 2 on a damage roll. How does that effect the odds? AnyDice time: D&D5e GWF

17 August 2014

I did not fail

Looking back over some old posts, I read this in “Separation”:

I failed in the one thing I wanted to do in life: Make Andrea happy. I failed to give my children a happy, whole home.

I was wrong.

Shortly after that, I had several conversations with my ex-wife in which I only asked questions and listened to the answers. It took a long time, but her answers finally convinced me of something.

Even if I had been perfect, that wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Not that I didn’t have faults or make mistakes, but they weren’t the cause of my divorce. They weren’t even contributing factors.

I was also wrong in taking responsibility for anyone else’s happiness. I should show love to—try to fill the tank of—my loved ones. But just as love is a choice, so is happiness a choice. A choice each person has to make for themself.

Anyway, I thought it was important to finally have a follow-up to that post.

18 July 2014

The cinematic anti-death spiral (RPG rule)

(This is something of a Joesky Tax, since I haven’t posted any usable game stuff in a while.)

I have ranted before about “death spirals” in RPGs, where a character accrues penalties as they take damage. They tend to not be fun and are arguably less realistic too. (Although realism is the usual justification.)

In many movies and other fiction, you will observe the opposite. The hero becomes more effective as they take damage. In this spirit, I offer the cinematic anti-death spiral for D&D-style games. For every 5 points of damage a character takes, they gain a +1 to all rolls. And let’s give their opponents an equivalent penalty to their saving throws versus the characters spells and such.

This applies mainly to player characters, but the referee might also use it for “big name” NPCs.

(I should probably mention the “escalation die” that some game—13th Age?—uses, but I don’t really have anything to say about it.)

17 July 2014

On RPG clones, retro and otherwise

Taxodermic Owlbear has assembled an impressive list of retroclones. (Though I might nitpick that only a few are technically retroclones.)

It is periodically asked if we need another clone or D&D knock-off. Rhetorically, since you only ask that if you think the answer is “no, we already have too many”.

But consider the passion and imagination that that list reflects. Very few of those games made anyone a living, and even people who write RPGs for a living don’t do it because it is anything close to lucrative. That list is proof to me that the traditional RPG hobby can have a life beyond the RPG industry.

And I think it is great that all those games can leverage a time-tested core while adding just a few or a lot of unique spins.

Some may say that that passion and imagination would be better channeled into other things. e.g. adventures or games with more originality. I say that telling someone what they should do with their passion and imagination is the quickest way to kill it.

Do we need another clone? Yes, I think we do. We need people to follow their individual muses and inspire us with the results.

16 July 2014

Thoughts occasioned upon watching Maleficent

...featuring spoilers.

If you’re going to make a “from the villain’s point-of-view” retelling of a story, it seems to me that you should aim for something more nuanced than simply making someone else the villain.

If you’re going to make “from the villain’s point-of-view” and simply make someone else the villain, you should make that villain at least as believable as the original villain in the original story. (Honestly, I haven’t seen the Disney Sleeping Beauty in ages—if at all, but I thought the dark fairy in the original tale was a perfectly believable villain. You know...as far as fairies go.)

I hate it when the villain accidentally dies. Let the hero either decide to kill them or decide to let them live and deal with that. An accidental death is a storytelling cop-out.

(That said, I really enjoyed Maleficent. I wouldn’t criticize if I didn’t care. I especially like the twist on “true love’s kiss”.)

12 June 2014


If you had told me before WWDC 2014 that Apple would introduce a new programming language, I would sadly shake my head. So many programming languages are created without leveraging any of the lessons of languages that have been around for decades. My general attitude is that there is little reason to create a new language instead of building off an existing one.

So far, however, Swift has impressed me. I can’t really find much to complain about.†

You could argue that in many ways Swift does build off Objective-C rather than being a new language, but that argument sells Swift short. This is a very impressive design.

†OK...here’s a...observation: It seems like having some kind of cycle-detection to augment ARC ought to be there.

27 May 2014

Basic D&D 5e

About Basic Dungeons & Dragons 5e

The Basic version of the next edition of D&D, which we’ll call 5e whether Wizards does or not, will be a free PDF.

This isn’t big news to those of us who know there are lots of really good free RPGs out there—including clones of older editions of D&D.

But, the D&D brand is the most likely first encounter that potential new players will have with the hobby. Will this be a good introduction to the hobby for them? Let’s hope so.

11 May 2014

NTRPGCon 2014 schedule

I finally registered for this years North Texas RPG Con. I was worried, but there were still plenty of interesting games open.

  • Thursday PM: Terekaptra, Lejendary Adventures, Chris Clark
  • Friday AM: The Mines of Valdhum, Labyrinth Lord, Matt Evens (odinist)
  • Friday PM: Oil Rights and Midnight Fights!, Twilight 2000, Karl Pajak
  • Saturday AM: The Circle of Columns, Bethorm, Jeff Dee
  • Saturday PM: Dark Colony, Lance RPG, Jim Ward
  • Sunday AM: Night Run, AD&D2e, Zeb Cook

08 May 2014

Star Wars comics

I recently bought the Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago..., Volume 1, which has the first 26 issues of the 1970s Marvel comics.

I had a giant version of the original six issues that covered the original movie, as well as normal-sized copies of a few of the following issues.

Looking through it, it occurs to me that—in the days before we had a VCR—this was as much Star Wars to me as the movie itself. I only saw the movie once (until years later), but I read these comics over-and-over.

They even had deleted scenes...

07 May 2014

Apple, Amazon, and Comixology

This issue: Comixology has been the #1 way to buy and read digital comic books on iPads. Amazon bought Comixology. It is no longer possibly to buy comics through the Comixology app, presumably because Amazon isn’t willing to continue paying the 30% that Apple requires of in-app purchase.

Oddly enough, this has proved to be a positive for me. My local comic book store has a Comixology web store. When I buy digital comic books from it, I still read them on my iPad, but I also support my local store. In-app purchase going away made me actually do that.

It seems to me that what Apple makes off of their 30% of in-app purchases is peanuts compared to their primary sources of income. I would think Apple would be more interested in improving the user experience than on holding the line on their 30% cut.

On the other hand, I’m not convinced the damage to the user experience here is all that great. I still buy Kindle books. I still by Comixology books.

One interesting difference between the Kindle app and the new Comixology app: In the Comixology app, you can still browse their store and add things to your wishlist.

06 May 2014

Why Zak likes RPGs

It is things like “I like RPGs” that make me say that Zak is the smartest person writing about RPGs.

11 April 2014

Restaurant menus on the web

If any one out there with a restaurant is listening...

Making me click to view different categories annoys me unless you have different menus at different times. If you have completely different menus for breakfast and lunch/dinner, then splitting them that way on the web is useful. Making me click to view appetizers and then go back and click again to view one subset of entrées and then go back and click again to view a second subset of entrées...this isn’t useful. I want to be able to see all your dishes by merely scrolling instead of clicking.

(You may have read something against scrolling web pages. That was an over-reaction. Scrolling is fine when appropriate. Not scrolling when scrolling is appropriate is inappropriate.)

When should I have to click to get more information? To get the kind of specifics that I can’t get from a paper menu. e.g. a complete list of ingredients and nutritional information. The real power of the web is its ability for you to deliver this kind of in-depth information to your customers. You really should take advantage of it.

And pictures. You ought to have a picture of every dish. Ideally with thumbnails on the main menu page and a full-size image when I click for more information about a particular dish.

10 April 2014

The simple argument against DRM

I don’t know that I’ve ever put it this way before, but it seemed so simple when I did.

Except perhaps in some very specific circumstances, I have not been convinced that anti-piracy measures ever increase sales, much less pay for themselves.

Piracy doesn’t matter; sales do. Any anti-piracy measure has to prove that it is going to generate additional sales to more than make up for its costs.

09 April 2014


This is Android TV

Android TV may sound like a semantic difference — after all, Google TV was based on Android — but it’s something very different. Android TV is no longer a crazy attempt to turn your TV into a bigger, more powerful smartphone. "Android TV is an entertainment interface, not a computing platform," writes Google. "It’s all about finding and enjoying content with the least amount of friction." It will be "cinematic, fun, fluid, and fast."

The thing about convergence was that people wanted the technologies in the background to converge, but they never wanted the experiences to converge. Watching video is ideally done on a TV; web surfing is ideally done on a tablet, and writing a novel is ideally done on a PC. That’s not to say that we shouldn't be able to do all three tasks on all three platforms, but we don’t want, e.g., the full PC experience on our TVs.

01 April 2014

Flappy bird

Yesterday’s post about Threes and 2048 reminded me of some things I wanted to say about Flappy Bird. Maybe Flappy Bird is a horrible game that doesn’t deserve the popularity it garnered, but I do think there are a lot of lessons game developers could take from it.

A couple I can think of: It starts up fast. You get to playing fast. There is as little as possible between launching the game and playing the game. There is no point at which the gameplay that the player has been enjoying changes to gameplay they may not enjoy.

There is also an idea out there that players today will not accept a difficult game. Flappy Bird soundly refutes that. While I greatly enjoy some games that are basically “no lose”, it is satisfying to have games that are significant challenges too.

30 March 2014

Threes and 2048

One of the creators of Threes: The Rip-offs & Making Our Original Game

What the creators of Threes don’t realize is that—just as subtle differences between Threes and 2048 makes Threes a better game—some of the subtle difference also make 2048 a better game.

The biggest is perhaps start-up time. In a quick one-sample trial, Threes took 12 seconds from launch to play; 2048, 2. For a mobile game, that can be the difference from getting in ten seconds of play versus not playing at all.

As much as I appreciate the personality of Threes (and I appreciated the catchy soundtrack enough to buy it from iTunes), I also appreciate the austerity of 2048.

Threes is deeper, and it shows.

I can’t say it comes easy to me, but I think we’d be better off if we could get past this ownership of ideas concept.

If so, then people would also be more likely to openly credit their inspirations.

25 March 2014

Why can’t Johnny reverse a linked list?

Colleges: You are graduating computer science/software engineering students who don’t understand pointers, floating-point, or what a closure is. (And I don’t mean that they don’t understand the terms; they don’t understand the concepts.)

It is so frustrating when I don’t get to talk to an interview candidate about higher level concerns because they don’t know the fundamentals. (It is even more frustrating when I do get a chance to talk about higher level concepts only to find they don’t have a grasp of those either.)

Even if you don’t believe that pointers and floating-point are as fundamental to the working software engineer as reading is to a secondary school student, at least tell them not to put C on their resume if they don’t understand these concepts. And tell them not to list Javascript if they don’t understand floating-point or closures.

I’m not so idealistic to think that a degree can ever be a guarantee of anything, but the current situation is that the degrees you are handing out are worthless.

Students: I don’t think the moral of the story is to not go to college. I may not have graduated, but college did expose me to things I might not have been exposed to otherwise. Understand that college will not prepare you for your career. College is an opportunity for you to prepare yourself for your career. You will get out of it what you put in.

16 February 2014

Rocksmith 2014

Rocksmith (2014...I never tried the original). Using a real guitar (or bass) means that it becomes less about playing a game and more about actually playing guitar (or bass). Of all the computerized guitar teachers or “Guitar Hero with a real guitar” things I’ve tried, this one seems to work the best. It is work to learn the songs, but it doesn’t feel like you’re fighting against the software to do so. And like a good teacher, instead of asking you what difficulty you want, as soon as you’re starting to feel comfortable, it pushes you just a little more.

I haven’t taken lessons in some twenty-odd years, but this software makes me feel like I am. In the best way.

15 February 2014

iOS ergonomics

On the Accidental Tech Podcast, John Siracusa posited that perhaps some people in the future will work at a drafting-table-like iOS-like device instead of at a personal computer. Some feedback he got was that this would be ergonomically worse than horizontal keyboard and mouse with vertical monitor.

I do already suffer from “iPad neck” on occasion, but...some thinking out loud...

Firstly, John was making an educated guess. The important point is that for some workers in the future a touch-based device may well replace a PC. We know that there are ergonomic problems with touch-screen PCs, so whatever the workstation looks like, it won’t look just like a PC.

Secondly, ergonomics is overblown. It is important, and for some people it is more important than others. But ergonomics can easily go beyond what is necessary. We don’t need a perfect workplace; we need one that is good enough.

Thirdly, office ergonomics best practices have been built up around the PC. So, it is no surprise that the recommendations favor the PC setup. When our devices no longer look like PCs, new ergonomic advice will be formed.

Fourthly, the most important lesson of ergonomics is to not sit in one posture for too long. Even with the best ergonomically design workspace, people need to not sit in one posture too long. And if you aren’t, then many ergonomic concerns become less important.

14 February 2014

A thought about tourneys in D&D

Whenever you read about any sort of martial competition, you are likely to run into lengthy discussion of the imperfections of the referees. To add a touch of the subjectiveness of judges to your D&D tournaments, apply the combatants’ charisma modifiers to their attacks or damage.

There are lots of other factors you could bring to bear as well: Wealth, social class, etc.

13 February 2014

Classic D&D monster conversion and improv

One of the great things about classic D&D is that it is very easy to improvise monsters. This can be handy not only for “winging it” in general, but to “convert” adventures written for other systems on-the-fly. On G+, it was suggested that this may not be obvious to beginning DMs, so here are some thoughts on it.

If it matters to interpret anything I say below, this is aimed towards the 1981 version of non-Advanced D&D—often called B/X or Moldvay/Cook/Marsh—simply because that’s my D&D lingua franca. It probably won’t matter.

The first thing to say is: Don’t panic. It’s OK if you mess it up. Firstly because there’s a lot of variability in the game. Once the dice hit the table, a monster that was carefully design to be unbeatable dies in one round and a monster that was carefully designed to be no more than a distraction kills the entire party. Secondly because, if you give the PCs the freedom you should, they can figure out how to handle whatever you throw at them. Thirdly because the only way you’ll get any better is to mess it up first.

Let’s start with HD: Hit dice. A monster’s HD tells you most of what you need to know about it from a mechanical viewpoint. Just think of it as equivalent to character level. It isn’t, but it is close enough. (See “Don’t panic” above.) Ask yourself, what level should this monster be if it were an NPC, and set that as its HD.

If you want to roughly scale the monsters versus your players’ characters, add up the levels of the PCs. A group of monsters with an equal number of HD is—in theory—their match. e.g. For a party of 4 second-level characters this might be one 8 HD monster or eight 1 HD monsters. Generally you don’t want every encounters to be an equal match, so scale back accordingly. (Or, if appropriate, scale up.) But keep in mind that there are a lot of variables that determine the outcome of an encounter. This is no guarantee; simply a guideline. (See “Don’t panic” above.)

I say, don’t worry about trying to factor special abilities into this equation. But, if you want to, go ahead. Just make your best guess.

Also, keep in mind that many low HD monsters have one advantage over a single high HD monster: More actions. Eight 1HD monsters get 8 attacks per round. One 8HD monster might only get one.

Next up is AC: Armor class. The first thing to realize is that hit points (and thus HD) determine a monster’s (or character’s) combat effectiveness more than AC. That means it matters even less whether you pick AC “right”. There are four numbers you need to memorize:

9: The equivalent of unarmored

7: The equivalent of light/leather armor

5: The equivalent of medium/mail armor

3: The equivalent of heavy/plate armor

Note that they’re simply the odd numbers from 3 to 9, which makes it even easier to remember. If you’re unsure which of two categories it should be, pick the even number between them.

Then think about the monster’s dexterity. If you think it would be significantly better or worse than the average PC, then subtract or add 1 to 3 points.

Next, damage: 90% of the time, you can just give it one attack doing 1d6 damage.

If you think the monster should do less than normal, change it to d4. If you think they should do more than normal, change it to d8. If you think they should do a lot more than normal, change it to d10.

I generally like to stick to one attack per combatant. Big monsters who are typically on there own, however, can be well served by multiple attacks.

For saving throws, 99% of the time, you can just use the fighter saving throws using the monsters HD as its fighter level.

If you think the monster is particularly similar to one of the other classes, use it instead. You might decide the monster should have better or worse saves for some reason, in which case you can just use the next higher or lower line on the saving throw table.

For movement: 120 for the same speed as an unarmored PC. Adjust up or down to taste.

For alignment, when it doubt, choose neutral.

For morale: 12 means it never runs away; 2, it never fights. The book tells us 6–8 is average. 6 means it keeps fighting about 42% of the time when morale is checked; 7, 58%; 8, 72%.

Special abilities: If you never give an improv’d monster a special ability, that will be fine. (But I’m betting you’ll come up with some ideas.) Also, don’t worry too much that a special ability may be “too good”. (See “Don’t panic” above.)

There are two schools of thought here. One says that special abilities have more impact when only a few monsters have them. Others feel every monster deserves a special ability, which makes the game richer. Either way, my best advice is to spend some time reading through the monster sections/books to get a feel for what has been done. Keep notes of any you find especially interesting to reference during play. And brainstorm your own.

If you’re converting an adventure on the fly, the text or stats there might also provide inspiration.

Study: You can prepare to improv. While I hope this will convince you that anyone can do a good enough job improvising classic D&D monsters, as with special abilities above, reading the stock monsters or other sources of monsters can help to improve your ability to improv.

Make quick references: Perhaps the most important thing you can do to prepare to improv is to develop some quick reference pages or a DM screen. Having the combat and saving throw tables, AC table, weapon damage table, reaction roll and morale tables, etc. handy can help both improvising monsters and running the game. If, while running the game, there is anything you wish you had handy for reference, jot down a note about it. Then make sure you add it before the next session.

Finally, keep in mind that this game is not about combat. (Combat takes up only 5 of the 64 pages in the 1981 Basic rules booklet.) The things that really bring the game to life can’t be found in the combat stats. Think of a monster as an NPC. They have motivations, needs, desires, quirks, etc. Using reaction rolls and morale rolls (or good judgement by the DM) will mean that a number of encounters never get to combat and those that do sometimes end in surrender or retreat.

12 February 2014


If you are a C++ programmer with a Mac, buy Nikolai Krill’s CodeRunner from the Mac App Store. It is great for banging out quick experiments. Pick C++, write the code, hit the run button.

It also does AppleScript, C, C#, Java, Javascript, Lua, Objective-C, Perl, PHP, Python, Ruby, and shell scripts. And you can configure more yourself.

11 February 2014

Generalizing hit points

Despite its issues, it is hard to argue with the success of the hit point mechanic in D&D. (That’s a post of its own.)

I think what makes it so great is that it spreads an outcome over several die rolls, and it gives the player several points at which to decide to cut their losses or press their luck. And it doesn’t simply function that way in one combat either. Combat and many of the other hazards encountered in the dungeon will deplete hit points. It’s a press-your-luck mechanic for the entire expedition.

Compare this to what has become a more conventional mechanic. The big burley fighter with the 17 strength (part of the top 1.4% of the world’s strongest people) walks up to a door. The player rolls 1d6...one. The door doesn’t open. The mage’s player then rolls 1d6...six, and—bing—the door opens.

Now, I’m not sure what the best mechanic for opening doors is, but I’m beginning to think that if anything is worth rolling for, it’s worth heading more in the hit points direction than the open doors direction.

Spells in Sovereign Stone have a casting threshold. Each round, the caster makes the appropriate die roll and adds its result to a running total. When the total exceeds the casting threshold, the spell is cast. That sounds much better to me than those games I played where a single die roll determined if my spell was cast or failed.

The AGE system from Green Ronin generalizes this into advanced ability tests that can be used for anything.

(I’m certain there are other systems with similar mechanics. I’m just listing the ones that come to mind.)

I think a reversal of this could be interesting. Say a party heads out on a stealth mission. The GM sets several thresholds at which the alertness of the place being infiltrated steps up. X failed rolls means that the denizens are suspicious. Y failed rolls means they know something is up and are actively searching. Z failed rolls means the jig is up, and the PC’s have been found.

Much better than a single failed stealth check by a single player killing the whole mission. Plus, the players have a chance to change tactics midway through depending on how things are going.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of generalizing the hit point mechanic is Robin Laws’ Dying Earth. The die rolls are a straight d6 with the same chance of success or failure (or exceptional success or exceptional failure) every time. The player can then spent points from their attributes for a chance to reroll. I found it very off-putting the first time I read it, but now I’m thinking that I need to give it a chance.

Plus the system of trumps in Dying Earth is great too.

10 February 2014

The apps called Paper

So, FiftyThree had an app called “Paper” before Facebook, and someone else had an app called “Paper” before FiftyThree. Forget the posturing and legalities. Just don’t give your product such a dumb name.

09 February 2014

Nye and Ham

To me, there’s only one thing to say to people like Ham: You are missing the point of the scriptures. Until he—or anyone inclined to agree with him—hears that, there’s no point in saying anything else.

28 January 2014

Inking GS dice

In the past, I’d found that extra fine Sharpie paint pens worked better than markers for me when inking Gamescience dice. Recently, however, I gave the Sharpie extra fine markers another try, and they worked great. Less messy than the paint pens, and the paint pens seem to dry out very quickly when stored after first use.

22 January 2014


Every Google product I’ve used has at some point started getting worse rather than better, if not simply canceled. From search to docs to notebooks to reader to YouTube to gmail, etc. My problem with all the G+ integration with other products not for any privacy concerns but because the result is worse than what it was before.

So, the reason I won’t be buying a Nest or Protect now is not because I’m afraid of Google spying on me. It is because my expectation is that being part of Google will make these products worse.

08 January 2014

Not why English is hard to learn

While such idiosyncrasies are what makes languages interesting, this has nothing to do with the difficulty of learning English. Why?

  • Oxes
  • Gooses
  • Mouses
  • Mans
  • Foots
  • Tooths
  • Brothers

A new English speaker is unlikely to say “methren”. These are the mistakes they are likely to make. In context, you are going to understand these “incorrect” plurals. (And “brothers” isn’t even incorrect.) Mastering these irregular plurals is one of the least important aspects of learning English.

Pronouns tend to be irregular in any language. That’s because they’re used a lot. Which also means that they are the irregular words that students will most quickly master.

Compare this to the inflections of the Romance languages or the two syllabaries plus Kanji used to write Japanese. Although, I have found that the difficulties of different languages don’t matter much in the end. If, in addition to study, you use the language everyday, you will learn it. If you don’t use the language regularly, you will struggle no matter how “easy to learn” it may be.

07 January 2014

Unblind faith

Not all faith is blind faith.