Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Realistic Fantasy Female Role Model of the Week - Alice

I guess the theme will move from "women my daughter can admire in fantasy and SF fiction" to "women my son will hopefully recognize as ideal portrayals of women in fantasy and SF" instead. With that, I present to you Alice, and a blog article about why she is such a great role model for girls that explains it so much better than I could right here at About-Face.

PvP - The Monkey on the Back of Experience-Driven Gamers

League Of Psychotic Murderers

I like to think of myself as more of an "experience driven" gamer, which means I usually play games, be they tabletop or computer, to have a good time, enjoy a good story, and on rare occasion feel a sense of immersion (which I equate to "good suspension of disbelief"). So Penny Arcade's comic today about League of Legends is especially amusing, since my wife is of a similar mindset and not long ago a bunch of her WoW guildies tried to recruit her into their LoL mania....with results of similar nature. For me, insert "Black Ops," or the name of any other excellent game in which bots are available and are frankly more humane and considerate opponents than the average dedicated pvper and you've pegged my typical experience for such as well!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Rare Political Cartoon

I've tried to avoid serious subjects here (for the most part) but this cartoon was particularly amusing, largely because it is so true:
cartoon: comic about health insurance reform

I'm in that "salaried job" sweet spot but with mounting medical debt that will never go away, and regularly fighting my insurance company over the fact that they consider my diabetes testing and management to be routine care and therefore not covered. So yeah....

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

It's a boy!

This, by the way, was probably the only cute (and least disturbing) photo I could find when I did a random google search for "alien baby!" Do an image search...I dare you....!

Infesting alien babies aside, some actual pictures of little Marcus Torbin right here, at 19 weeks:

Healthy Heart

Healthy Spine

Curled up.

He had his hands up over his head in most of the pics (according to the all looked like Rorschach ink blots to me!)

I guess if the first trimester pictures started with the "tadpole" phase and then moved to the "Cthulhu squid" look, and the last round had a more or less tiny but identifiably mammalian look, then at this stage the pics definitely remind me a bit of H.R. Giger!!!

Actually, I think that before this process is over, I'm going to have an entirely new perspective (and respect) for Giger's art and the underlying themes (at least for some of his work...)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Realistic Fantasy/SF Female Role Model of the Week: Spartan Catherine-B320

A new feature I'd like to offer up (an excuse to peruse pics I guess). Tomorrow we learn the gender of the baby (hopefully!) and if it turns out to be a girl, I'd like to think that the future of fantasy/SF adventure fiction and gaming will hold realistic female characters who wear practical, useful clothes and armor into battle. So in honor of this possibility, I present Kat, from Halo: Reach (yeah yeah I'm a big Halo fan and I'm not 13 so sue me...I also like Black Ops and Gears of War, just for the record!)

The idea here is not to suggest that women can't wear whatever they want (they can, and I am a supporter of women's right and the right to be seen as equal to men in all ways, whether it be through conventional women's liberation all the way to the slutwalk movements of today). BUT! I am also an advocate for realistic portrayals of women in fiction, and I think fantasy and SF artists are notorious for letting libido and marketing direct the image of women in fantastic art rather than the equally cool elements of rational, pragmatic garb. At the very least it looks more realistic and immersive in whatever genre is being depicted, and at best it might teach some of these fantasy artists how to actually draw, and how to actually make strong, intelligent looking female characters that serve a purpose beyond eye candy for men.

Old is New - Ravenloft

One great thing about D&D is that its venerable history ranges across almost the full breadth and depth of my entire lifetime of experience in geek culture, from its inception in the 70's all the way to its current iteration, as heavily influenced in style and aesthetics as it is by the mult-imedia fantasy experience that has become such a polished marketing tool.

Anyway, I've recently had the good fortune of getting my local Saturday group back in to AD&D 2nd edition (not a difficult task, as most of the Saturday gang is very much into the pre-3rd edition iterations of AD&D). I snagged a copy of Domains of Dread (the last 2nd edition campaign book revision for AD&D 2nd edition) and promptly started everyone off in Ravenloft, specifically in Barovian-occupied Gundarak. Lot of fun stuff here, and its reminding me of just how much stuff has been published for Dungeons & Dragons over the years that has never been tapped. I've managed (on average) to run at least 1 and sometimes 2 games a week for most of the last 21 years, with only occasional hiatuses...and honestly have gotten more gaming done in the last ten years than I had in the previous twenty (although on average more actual "adventuring stuff" got done in those games prior to 3rd edition--as opposed to flipping through rule books looking stuff up--but I digress). I mean, I ran Ravenloft fairly regularly in 2nd edition and had a continuing campaign that carried right on through into the early 3.0 days--and yet, for all those games, I never once used Strahd and Barovia in any games! So now's my chance to fix that issue.

So session two of the AD&D 2nd edition campaign met Saturday, and the party is deep in Strahd-land, plunging into the heart of the Balinoks in search of a missing girl, believed to have been kidnapped by a Barovian man with unknown intentions. Were they unrequited lovers, one of Gundark descent and the other of Barovian who stole away to marry against their parents' will? Has she been kidnapped into some sort of white slavery scam? Is there an even more dire unknown purpose? The PCs only know her father wants her found, and he worries that a young man who came courting her a summer back is the one responsible for her disappearance. Meanwhile, the adventurers have to pass under the shadow of Castle Raveloft itself to get to the remote mountain village and its dreadful secrets...

To make things even more fun, my Wednesday Paragon level D&D 4th edition group is also getting to visit the domains of dread, and will indeed be passing through Barovia as well. It's going to start this week, and its going to be a lot of fun; the experiences of a batch of low level AD&D adventurers who are terrified of meeting Strahd will be in direct contrast to the 4E campaign, where a bunch of mid-paragon tier level 15 adventurers are about to boldly stride through Strahd's turf, and its almost going to be impossible for them not to meet the dark lord of Barovia himself....

Anyway, good stuff, and I'll be using Domains of Dread to support both. DoD is a great book, and reminding me of just how awesome the many campaign settings for 2nd edition were; these books offered such a great economy of information, offering enough detail to make great adventures in exotic locales, loaded with inspiring ideas for the DM, yet not overloading the DM with too much content (as, I felt, the later White Wolf-licensed Ravenloft books for 3rd edition tended to do). For me, the best settings were always evocative, giving you an impressive outline of a region painted in broad strokes with slashes of detail, letting the DM riff off of the outline to make it his own. Later campaign settings (especially in the 3rd edition era) had an unfortunate habit of filling the entire picture in, often in elaborate and laborious prose, to the point where the DM felt less like he had a broad painting from which to develop his own adventures from so much as an elaborate painting in which all the details were already painted in and all the DM had left to do was spend many, many hours memorizing every single details and then seeing if he passed the quiz.

So...yeah. Definitely enjoying this revival of AD&D both in reality (Saturdays) and spirit (for 4E) with Ravenloft. I might just have to start hunting down more classics on Ebay in the future. Maybe in a a few years I'll be able to break out the old AD&D books and introduce my kid to that edition!

Friday, June 17, 2011


Runequest II is no longer going to be Wayfarer but will now be Legend. Better choice of name, lends itself to a wider range of more interesting book titles, and stands out a bit better (and rolls off the tongue more easily!) than Wayfarer. Meanwhile the real Wayfarers game not only got some attention out of this, they're getting distribution through Mongoose. I don't know anything about that game, but it is always nice to see an indie publisher get more mainstream distribution and recognition like this.

Check out this mock-up (not sure if it was final) of the Italian RQII cover:

With any luck, Legend will have some decent artwork and eschew the lame history of artless covers. I'd really like it if the books in this line looked more like the Runequest II Compendium's cover, for example. The leather covers were nice and all, but the further away we get from the MRQ 4th edition "generic, artless cheap-o faux designer covers" that are themselves a carry-over from the glut of the D20 years, the better!

It's a tough issue for RPGs these days: art is vital to a good looking RPG, and a quality presentation is practically an industry standard. But RPGs are not big money, and most decent artists command prices way out of the average RPG publisher's range. This leads to the unfortunate problem that is increasingly common today, especially in the small press PDF market: loads and loads of recycled copyright free art, or the same art over and over again from the royalty free art packages available through rpgnow and drivethrurpg. I'm guilty of idea how to work around it, though. If every RPG book required spanky new art to stand out, most of the industry would evaporate overnight.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Warning, Boring Game Theory Post Ahead!

Over at I was chatting in a post with a topic discussing whether 4E or 2E were effectively "more complicated" with sub-systems for rules and such. In the process of discussing some examples (such as the Web spell) I hit upon a major personal revelation about why these systems are so different, and why this can lead to such widely varying opinions among gamers about which one is "better" as D&D and which one was clearly spawned by the Anti-Christ of gaming (except I'm pretty sure Bobby Cotick doesn't care about the paper and pencil hobby, but, well....)

So here's the original posts for posterity. I initially responded to a discussion between Voadam and Cain, who basically were arguing from different perspectives about how much information in each edition was really front-loaded on a character sheet vs. how much required referencing and look-up in the books. My answer: they're both right; both editions are heavy on variable content that can and often will be referenced, but the difference is in exactly how that information is parsed out and presented. Read on:

4E does, in fact, have just as much info to look up as 2E did....but, the key difference that 4E brought to the table is a new form of Information Management. 4E was designed to be played from a character sheet and a handful of power cards. It was addressing the Information Overload issue that prior editions had, something seen as a feature by some and a bug by others, but clearly always an issue. For better or worse, this attempt at reworking how the game's information is parsed out and managed is what makes 4E so different from prior editions of D&D.

For example, here's the text from Web, to use the example given, in AD&D 2nd edition:

Web (Evocation)
Range 5 yards/level Components: VSM Duration: 2 turns/level Casting Time: 2
Area of Effect: 8,000 cubic feet Saving Throw: neg. or -
A web spell creates a many-layered mass of strong, sticky strands similar to spide webs but far larger and tougher. These masses must be anchored to two or more solid and diametrically opposed points-floor and ceiling, opposite walls, etc.--or the web collapses upon itself and disappears.
The web spell covers a maximum area of eight 10-foot x 10-foot x 10-foot cubes and the webs must be at least 10 feet thick, so a mass of 40 feet high, 20 feet wide, and 10 feet deep may be cast. Creatures caught within webs, or simply touching them, become stuck among the gluey fibers.
Anyone in the area when the spell is cast must roll a saving throw vs. spell with a -2 penalty. If the saving throw is successful, two things may have occurred. If the creature has room to escape the area, then it is assumed to have jumped free. If there is no room to escape, then the webs are only half strength. Creatures with less than 13 Strength (7 if the webs are half strength) are stuck until freed by another or until the spell wears off. Missile fire is generally ineffective against creatures trapped in webs.
Creatures with Strengths between 13 and 17 can break through 2 feet of webs per round. If the webs are at half strength these rates are doubled. (Great mass equates to great strength in this case, and creatures of large mass hardly notice webs). Strong and huge creatures can break through 10 feet of webs per round.
Furthermore, the strands of a web spell are flammable. A magical flaming sword can slash them away as easily as a hand brushes away cobwebs. Any fire--torch, flaming oil, flaming sword, etc.--can can set them alight and burn them away in a single round. All creatures within flaming webs suffer 2D4 points of damage from the flames, but those free of the strands are not burned.
The material component of this spell is a bit of spider web.

Whew. Got tired just transcribing that (OCR wasn't doing a good job)

Now, for the 4E web:

Web Wizard Attack 5
You call into being a giant web made of thick magical strands that hang in midair, trapping those within it.
Daily ✦ Arcane, Implement, Zone
Standard Action Area burst 2 within 20 squares
Target: Each creature in burst
Attack: Intelligence vs. Reflex
Hit: The target is immobilized (save ends).
Effect: The burst creates a zone of webs that fills the area until the end of the encounter or for 5 minutes. The zone is considered difficult terrain. Any creature that ends its move in the web is immobilized (save ends).

I will let the two stand side by side for comparison. For extra credit, I challenge someone to condense the effective mechanics of 2E's Web into the same space and font as the 4E Web spell for ease of access on a character sheet.

One of the reasons 4E's Web can work like this is because, it being a D20-based system, several larger unifying mechanics are working behind the scenes to support it, and therefore no specialized systems are required to explain how to handle certain circumstances and conditions as with the 2E Web spell. Conversely, 2nd edition's version is working hard to provide a rational approach to modeling Web in a sort of "thought experiment" style or approach, which is actually pretty appealing in its own right; the game is basically taking a specific application or event (the spell) and then fitting it into an existing rules framework in a manner which tries to be consistent with the simulated fantasy world as defined by those rules.

The 4E version is taking a specific set of mechanical applications derived from the main rules, which lead to specific effects that are then applied to the actions in the game, but only provides a brief analysis of what is "going on" in the fantasy world (the descriptive fluff), and also dispenses with features of the older version that could become complicated or lead to "hang ups" in the gameplay (such as whether there are two points to which webs can adhere to; 4E lets them hang in midair, negating that whole discussion.)

So one problem with the 2E vs. 4E approach here is also a matter of perspective: how can webs bind to thin air? If you subscribe to the 2E method, you need a rational description of how the webs come to be and work. 4E eschews that in favor of "a wizard did it," which ironically is rather true, too.

I can't say either version is "worse." Just different. But I think 4E undisputably has designed a more effective economy of information in its design, thus why it can seem to have a gazillion subsystems yet requires almost no time or effort in cross-referencing and rules argumentation at the table in play. And that, ultimately, is why I love 4E's style and approach so much.

And a follow up:

As an addendum to my prior post, there's one side observation I have about 4E and 2E (especially since I run both right now for different groups):

Because 2E is exceptions-based, and builds most of the subsystems off of rational evaluations of how things "should work in a fantasy world," when conflicts arise in the rules, it is generally easy to resolve: both sides can state their case for why something ought to work a certain way, and the majority opinion of which one makes more sense in context prevails. Failing that, there is always the DM's final call.

Now, technically the same logic can (and in my game does) apply to 4E, but it's really not "built in" as an assumption like 2E...there's no way it could be a feature of the rules and retain the "economy of information" that it does. Therefore, the default approach in 4E (and which most groups other than mine that I've experienced seem to use) is that when a conflict arises, both parties can state their case for why a given element should work the way they think it does, but the ultimate arbiter of how a given feature works is defined by the rules. The rules, in turn, accomodate this by providing a hard-and-fast set of rules that apply to everything.

3.5 did the same thing, but the key difference is that 4E has condensed the rules to the point where memorization of its "hard and fast ruling" is easy for everyone, while 3.5 was far too convoluted for most groups to get through a single night without a meltdown requiring extensive researching (cough >grappling< cough). EDIT: This is at least partially because 3.5 was busy trying to build a universal ruleset that modeled everything under the sun; it was trying to accomplish what 2E did with more common sense and less fanfare, but in the process added elaborate subsystems to what was otherwise a simpler unifying mechanic. To my eyes, at least, 3.5 is a weird amalgamation of the older edition approach merged with the rule-for-everything approach; it doesn't "get better" until it sheds this methodology and turns in to 4E, where the rules dominate and the "story elements" emerge from the rules rather than the other way around. Thus why I love 4E and 2E but 3.X....not so much (unless the group I'm playing with likes to run it 2E-style! Like my awesome Pathfinder group).

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Neverwinter at E3

Neverwinter Nights 2 E3 trailer

For those of you who don't cross-pollinate much in the gaming community, the E3 convention is going on and all sorts of interesting bits of news and marketing (hard to tell the two apart in the console and computer gaming industry) are leaking out. This is the one I was most interested in: Neverwinter.

 Now, I used to dislike Cryptic, as they seemed to be doing a good job of rushing product to market before it was really ready to go. When Champions Online went free to play earlier this year I came back and gave it a try; it might have just been my very nice newer computer, but Champions Online turned out to be a lot more polished and fun than I remembered it on the original day of release, and numerous fixes, patches, and even a few outright changes were evident. I further tried out Star Trek Online for a month and found it to be a perfectly serviceable game (if not as exciting or engaging as I would have liked), so that experience did help alleviate fears that Cryptic would muck up Neverwinter...sort of....

For one problem, there's the announcement that Atari seeks to offload Cryptic, and I have no idea how that will affect the quality of Neverwinter. Will the company really put its all in to this game, knowing they are on the chopping block? The IP and game will have to stay with Atari, I can't imagine it letting that go along with Cryptic if a buyer shows up.

The game promises to have an extensive customizable player-driven Foundry, which is a good thing. My fear now is that we'll get a skeleton of a game maintained by some unrelated Atari employees that requires a massive level of player input to function for the long haul. Worse yet, maybe it will be less "Neverwinter" and more "Champions," with the same core mechanical processes filed off of one and sticky labels with suitable 4E-sounding terminology glued on. That would be sad. But I'm going to try for optimism here....I really have enjoyed both Dungeons & Dragon Online from Turbine and Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2; maybe, just maybe, the new Neverwinter will be a suitable successor to these games...

Monday, June 6, 2011