Limited Access

In other news, my desktop computer is kaput.  I’ve ordered a new one (and am writing this from Annie’s old Macbook which has some sort of weird, intermittent video problem where the screen goes all snowy and unresponsive sometimes).  Since the HP desktop I had been using was more than 6 years old and not so hot to begin with, I guess it was time, but now I have to engage in the pain-in-the-assery of trying to recover all my data from the old machine — mostly scans of artwork (and some of the artwork I don’t have anymore, so getting the scans is pretty important).  I think the hard disk is OK, so I guess when I get the new machine I need to figure out how to set up the old one as an external drive and then just move the files.

Texas politicians oppose "higher order thinking skills"

I hope this is fake but I worry it is not.

“Texas Republican Party Calls For Abstinence Only Sex Ed, Corporal Punishment In Schools”

My favorite nugget:

The position causing the most controversy, however, is the statement that they oppose the teaching of “higher order thinking skills” — a curriculum which strives to encourage critical thinking — arguing that it might challenge “student’s fixed beliefs” and undermine “parental authority.” 

Yee-fucking-haw. We are doomed.

Addendum: I went to the source.  Visit the homepage of the Texas GOP Convention and you can download a copy of their platform statement.  I didn’t read the whole document, but found this:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

Based on this, one of the ways in which the Texas GOP has been misrepresented is that they state opposition to a certain kind of teaching philosophy, and not “thinking” itself, but the meat of the criticism seems to stand.  Since the platform statement is intended to be the ‘doorbuster’ that gets people fired up about what these politicians are going to do for them, this is some scary shit.  Granted, based on past and current performance, the opposition isn’t any better, but sheee-it.  So seldom have politicians been so honest.

Fantasy Economy Boondoggles

Is that a chastity belt on the counter?

One of the curiousities of RPGs (computer or, my favorite, playing RPGs with people) is that I often seem to end up playing one of those characters who is always picking shit up all of the time and taking it with me, hoping that it will either prove useful, or, more often, selling it for money so I can buy goods and/or services that my in-game character wants or needs (usually healing and more weapons/armor). This is strange, because in real life I don’t ever kill someone, take their stuff and sell it. But I also wonder where all that stuff that I loot and sell goes.  Does the merchant at the corner store have an absurdly large inventory? Do other adventurers walk into the store, decide what I just dropped off looks like something they need and then buy it? Or is there some ‘off the map’ market for all of these used goods? I imagine some gigantic underground cavern economy, far from the sight and knowledge of most, where goblins, kobolds, feral gnomes and mutants buy and sell used underpants, old shoes and rusty daggers by the cartload and do gods-know-what with it. I guess in real life I have bought a used firearm in a gunshop and I have been in the ‘Salvation Army’ thrift shop more than once; that (and bottle rocket fights or urban exploration) is probably about as close as living “La vida adventura” that I have come.

Just a few of the 2,700 pairs of shoes of Imelda Marcos

I fear my deep-seated natural greed becomes more assertive when I am playing computer games than in real life (or in ‘pencil and paper’ rpg games).  Perhaps that is because in computer games, I can ‘take’ something by just clicking on it, whereas in the real world I have to pick it up and carry it with me and in pencil-and-paper games I have to (sigh) write it down.  In some of my favorite computer games (Oblivion and Fallout 3), I have a penchant for playing real packrat characters. While playing ‘Oblivion’ I noticed that the designers had included an unusually large number of different kinds of shoes in the game (most of which had, as far as I could tell, no effect on game play— wearing ‘padded leather shoes’ did not make you walk faster/slower/noisier/more quietly than wearing any other kinds of shoes, which was curious because what kinds of boots you wore did make a difference). I made it my goal to collect at least one sample of each kind of shoe which I stored in a chest in my character’s house just so my character could have a “hobby.” ‘Collecting shoes’ was actually not strategic for gathering the most coins with the least trouble; in Oblivion, shoes have a much less favorable weight-to-value factor than many other things (like expensive wine or rare books).

Donkey thinks, “Well, this sucks more than usual.”

I don’t have a lot of experience with CRPGs, but the few I have played always make me want to find/buy a house for my character because that is usually the way you can get around the carrying capacity limitation. Your character can only carry ‘X’ amount, and each item is given a weight — once the total of that weight surpasses your carrying capacity you start to move at a snail’s pace (or, if you are playing Oblivion, you suddenly can’t move at all).  I discovered the hard way that if you just found a cabinet or box in the game and stuffed your extra belongings into it, they might not be there when you came back to collect them, but if you owned the house, your stuff wouldn’t dissapear.  My Fallout 3 character has/had piles of spare weapons, armor, food, liquor, clothing, etc., squirreled away in his house’s storage lockers. How does he fit 14 Assault rifles in various states of disrepair in a desk drawer?  I have no idea.  How does he carry over 800 shotgun shells in his pockets? Curiously, in Fallout 3, ammunition has no weight but empty whiskey bottles, tin cans and mole rat meat do, so I can carry enough ammo to supply an army, no problem, but pick up one too many bits of road kill or trash and suddenly I can barely move.

You can eat the mole rat, but would you want to?

The realities of spoilage are similarly usually ignored in rpgs, whether computer-based or played in the real world with books and pencils.  If I remember right, my Fallout 3 guy had mole rat steaks and other disgusting meats stuffed into a filing cabinet where it stayed, without rotting, for weeks.  My Oblivion character similarly kept mutton, beef, venison, etc., in his pockets or his cupboard without ever suffering food poisoning. In real life, I’m constantly sniffing and tasting things because I’d rather be hungry than have food poisoning.  In Dungeons & Dragons, I think my characters always ate ‘iron rations.’ I’m not sure what ‘iron rations’ were supposed to be but I always assumed they were the medieval equivalent of c-rations/MREs.  Aside from pretzels and ‘Panneforte,’ I can’t think of any medieval foods made specifically for travel — any ideas?

Search Terms

These are the search terms people used yesterday morning to find their way to this blog. I don’t know if ‘search terms’ means someone entered this and then clicked on my blog or if it just means that they entered the search terms and my blog showed up in their umpteen gajillion results (I suspect the former due to the size of the internet and the numbers involved… search term #1 topped out at 4 times this morning which seems too low for ‘appeared in google search’).

The terms are:

galaxy of terror worm scene
a bug eating a guys face
cat faced spider florida
crystal eyeglasses prometheus
freak scene art show
old man zombie skull
prometheus absurd
prometheus she eats like a chinese
torches angry crowd

The one that has me curious us “prometheus she eats like a chinese.”  What does “eats like a chinese” mean?  I’ve seen Chinese people in China Town hold a bowl close to their chin with one hand and put the food in their mouth with the other hand — is that what they were thinking of when they entered that?  And what does that have to do with “Prometheus” (the movie or the myth)? And “cat faced spider florida“?

I love this unintentionally dadaist shit.

What is ‘good RPG writing’?

As a part of my day job, I have been doing some very tedious but necessary technical writing.  Basically, I’m writing manuals with step by step instructions on such fascinating things as to how to fill out a purchase requisition based on a vendor quote.  In order to be useful, the ‘process documents’ I am writing need to be correct in the details and their order, clear and not subject to multiple interpretations, and as short as possible since the longer the boring document or memo, the less likely it will be read. The document that results could most kindly be described as ‘utilitarian.’

At the same time, I enjoy reading fiction that is filled with possible multiple interpretations and ambiguity (current favorite: Thomas Ligotti; my all-time favorite book is hard to choose, but might be either “Heart of Darkness” by Conrad or “The Crying of Lot 49” by Pynchon), which seems funny since I have to write stuff that (hopefully) can be understood only one way by the reader for my day job yet my favorite books are ones that seem to delight in leaving the reader more confused than when they started.  Providence is always giving us the finger — the guy who likes ambiguity and multiple meanings in writing has to write as precisely as he can to earn a buck.*

All of this is a long winded introduction to me wanting to think about ‘what makes good writing for an RPG product?’ And I am interested in how my opinion of ‘good’ will differ from the opinions of others. Here are a few things I like to see in an RPG adventure:

·         I prefer the author keep plot, motivation, etc., to a minimum. I’d rather have a location with some maps, encounters and a few ‘possibilities’ described rather than a clusterfuck of quests and subquests and whatnot.  I’d consider it perfectly acceptable to develop a great deal of this ‘plot’ stuff on the fly… i.e.: if random encounters in the wilderness keep giving you orcs, why not cook up an orc invasion?

·         Adventures that concentrate on being locations rather than ‘story driven series of encounters.’  To give concrete examples, I have much fonder memories of playing adventures like “Against the Giants” than “Egg of the Phoenix.”  In “Against the Giants,” I felt the players set their own agenda after being initially hamfisted into an adventure (“Find out who is sending the giants against us or else!”) versus the more story-based “Start at point A, get told to go to point B, etc.”  The “Egg of the Phoenix” is probably more involved, detailed and impressive, but there is less player agency in getting from point A to point B.

·         Simple, short encounter descriptions and not too much flowery language with everything you need in one place.  If I were to run a published adventure, I’d want to review it before play started, then be able to get ‘up to speed’ on what is going on in one location or another by glancing at the text during play.  I wouldn’t want to say, “Hold on!” to the players while I search the paragraphs of verbiage for the one bit of info I need (I’m looking at you, “Temple of Excessive Description,” er, I mean, “Elemental Evil.”).

·         I don’t know of any published adventure that offers this, but how about a small bit of whitespace after every entry where the DM can make notes?  I know a lot of people resent white space in a product they paid for (equating quantity of ink on the page with ‘quality’), but I’ve taken to seeing published adventures  as more utilitarian documents than literature… that is to say, they are there to be used to speed and enable play, not amuse the reader like a novel.

·         Interesting, quirky, suggestive stuff that the DM can use to run off on his own tangents or red herrings that can be expanded upon if the DM wishes or the players choose to pursue them.  Adventures like ‘Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor’ or ‘Rappan Athuk’ are great for this kind of stuff.
I hesitate to say that these things define ‘good,’ I’m just saying that they are what I like to see. Since, when I DM, I’ve decided like to create my own adventures anyway, I’m hoping
* I don’t consider myself a writer of talent.  I like to write things (like this blog) but don’t think my writing has any significance other than some possibly therapeutic value for me. It’s just a fun way for me to explore topics I am thinking about.

The Old Grind

I was reading Paul’s “Quickly, Quietly, Carefully” blog recently where he was posting about treasure and XP.  Paul was looking at a published dungeon and pondering how much XP could be gathered from it in the form of XP for monsters, gold, etc., and whether or not that would be enough to raise the average party to the appropriate level for the next dungeon or adventure and it made me think a bit on of one of the staples of the old school games that seems to have fallen out of favor with many contemporary players… a little thing we call “The Grind.”

“The Grind” is where you have to earn x amount of experience points in order to advance in power so you can advance to greater challenges.  The adventurer’s desire for more power turns him/her/it into a little XP whore who may start killing everything and looting everything just to earn the needed XP for ‘one more level.’  This can seem dull and mechanical, hence the term, ‘the grind.’

And ‘grinds’ seem to have fallen out of favor, at least in gaming circles I am in touch with.  I used to count up every monster killed, treasure found, etc., after the session and calculate it all up, then divide it by the number of participants (with NPCs getting 1/2 share) and then letting everyone know how many XP they had at the start of the next session. I was never particularly good at (or fond of) math, but I remember enjoying this bit of book keeping, maybe because it made me feel like the rewards (XP) were not handed out by me via some system where the DM gives the players XP like some nobleman distributing favors to his courtiers. I liked to establish rules (you will get XP for X, Y and Z) and players knew the rules and would get whatever XP they earn. 

One of the arguments against the grind is that it can lead to ridiculous situations in which players will notice they are just a handful of XP away from gaining a level and will then wander around looking for some weak little monster to kill so they can earn the last few XP they need to level up. Many groups of players I am familiar with simplify or handwave the process — “everyone earns X number of XP per session” or “You level up every X number of sessions,” etc. I understand why people would want to do of this: less book keeping and the rules for XP seem somewhat arbitrary (i.e.: 1 xp per gold piece FREX).  I also remember the silly players in my teenage group (myself included) would do in order to earn the XP needed.  I seem to remember a debate as to whether or not fireballing a herd of sheep would earn the handful of XP needed to push a character over the threshold…

However, the ‘levelling up by DM decree’ or ‘everybody gets XP just for showing up’ can also feel like the race where everyone gets a trophy no matter when they finish.  One loses the feeling of accomplishment you get when your little hero earns just enough to hit the next level. When you have had to scrabble for every point, a ‘level up’ can feel like a real accomplishment.

Mob Rule

I was reading J.R. IV’s post, “In Case Anyone is Unclear,” over on his blog this morning. I wanted to comment there, but comments are disabled, so I’ll do it here.  

On the subject of ‘shit about to hit the fan’ over the easily offended  sensibilities of others, Raggi writes, “The presentation of something in a fictional space, no matter how it is presented, is not an endorsement of that thing in real life. Enjoying something in fiction (or enjoying fiction that contains something) does not mean that a person would enjoy that same thing in real life.”
I don’t know what ‘shit storms’ James is talking about (perhaps something on Google+ ?*), but I believe that reading (or writing) a book like Lolita does not make you a pedophile any more than singing the words of ‘The National Anthem’ makes you a patriot. 
Singing the national anthem might make other people THINK you must be a patriot, but people can (and do) say “I love my job/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/god/etc.” all the time without meaning it, so I don’t know why words alone fool anyone.  But public displays of ‘piety’ or ‘patriotism’ or ‘right thinking’ seem very important to people with self-promoting agendas… a fact I try to keep in mind whenever another lynch mob gathers to ‘punish’ someone for writing a book, drawing a picture or singing a song that others might find offensive. Behind every ‘obscenity’ trial one can eventually find a politician, district attorney, sheriff or public figure wannabe pandering to his/her base by throwing them the red meat of a crusade against perverts or the gays or the communists or whatever.  Behind every moral crusade one can probably find someone’s social ambition to be ‘king of the hill**” as well as a mob of followers who just enjoy reinforcing the peck order.  Fuck them all for intellectual and imaginative cowardice.
I probably shouldn’t be surprised that so many people who describe themselves as ‘gamers’ or ‘fantasy fans’ or claim to be interested in ‘games of the imagination’ have such a problem keeping fantasy and reality straight — look at the Carcosa flap and similar — but the more cynical part of my mind wonders if many of these folks just have an agenda of some sort or want to amuse themselves by stirring up shit and enjoying the hot flush of outrage that “someone else would write/draw/sing/etc. something like that!”  You would think after Paula Pulling and Bothered About D&D, the people who actually play (or played) D&D and knew how full of shit her claims were would be a little more wary of the ‘moral crusade.’  But riding the high horse in the moral crusade of the moment (or being a part of the angry mob) is too much fun for most people to give up, so I don’t expect the situation to change.
*I have a google+ account but haven’t taken the time to figure out how or why to use it.
**In the case of The OSR (or whatever it is being called today), the “hill” these people want to be king of is a particularly obscure bit of real estate, but sometimes the smaller the spoils, the more bitterly they fight for it.  Go figure.