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.