Friday, March 29, 2013

Can we stop with all the zombies already?

Let's say that we're going to make an alien invasion film. The film starts with a dramatic meteor storm that results in space rocks falling to earth all around the globe. These rocks (in an obvious ripoff of The Blob) contain spores that grow, over the course of a few weeks, into person-size alien creatures. The aliens will have a horrific appearance: some sort of rubbery, glistening, half-insect, half-lizard nightmare. Not even remotely human. They pop up in the millions all over the planet, and begin seeking human flesh to feast upon.

Sounds pretty scary, right?

But they're slow. They're so slow that they can't catch you if you're moving at a brisk walk. They're pretty strong, but they don't have any poison stingers or laser guns or super-sharp claws. They just have to hope to catch you by surprise or surround you with superior numbers, grab hold of you and gnaw you to death.

Also, they're kind of stupid. They'll blindly wander into traps or stagger forward into oncoming gunfire, without any sense of self-preservation. They are kind of tough to kill, but the people of Earth quickly learn that a single sharp blow to a particular sensitive location will kill them instantly.

Not so scary any more, right? In fact, this sounds like a pretty boring movie all of a sudden. The so-called "action" scenes would just be a bunch of CGI alien critters lumbering slowly forward in a straight line while the heroes calmly pick them off one by one.

But if you take out the slow, stupid aliens, and put in zombies, suddenly you have the same concept that's been driving countless movies, video games, comic books, and so forth, for decades.

So what's the big deal? Why is the basic concept behind the original Night of the Living Dead movie so popular that we keep seeing the same zombie-apocalypse idea come out over and over again? What, exactly, is the appeal?

Some properties (such as The Walking Dead) try to use the basic idea of a global catastrophe to tell more compelling, human stories. Sometimes we'll see a variation on the basic zombie characteristics (like in 28 Days Later). but it's safe to say that the vast majority of zombie-related entertainment is about a hero or heroes who, when the apocalypse comes, go round up a pile of guns and blast their way to safety through hundreds or thousands of mindless, slow-moving, animated corpses.

I have to wonder if most zombie entertainment is so popular because they are, essentially, mass-murder fantasies. The heroes in these stories are able to kill vast numbers of people with impunity. This mass slaughter is justified because (1) their targets are supposedly already dead, (2) the zombies are, in their slow, methodical fashion, trying to kill the heroes, and (3) society has collapsed, so there's no one to really pass judgment on the heroes. The story allows the viewer (or reader, or player) to temporarily live in a world where it's okay to kill as many people as they like (as long as those people are "zombies"). If the targets weren't human, the appeal of the fantasy is gone.

Just my low-budget pop psychology rambling for the day.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Running Shadowrun with Fate - Part 2

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I'm guessing that my strategy for handling cybernetics using the Fate system is to assume that every character automatically has a base level of cybernetics that would be appropriate for that character. Furthermore, I'm assuming that a character's listed skills factor in the use of those cybernetics. If you're a street samurai, I assume that you have a smartgun link, and I assume that your Firearms skill level includes any benefits provided by that link.

This is the point where the voice of my inner powergamer pipes up. "So," it says, "how about if my character has deliberately trained with non-smartlinked weapons. That means my base skill level applies to non-smartlinked guns, and if I get my hands on a smartgun, I should get a bonus."

I have to reject this as an invalid approach. Let's say that your character has developed a proficiency with flintlock weapons. Your character should not automatically be an even better shot with modern, 21st century pistols. Modern pistols work differently than flintlocks do, even if they are more inherently accurate and reliable. Someone who was a crack shot with a flintlock would need to do quite a bit of retraining to get used to a .45 semi-automatic.

It would also be inappropriate to try to represent this ability as a stunt. A stunt can provide a +2 bonus to a skill under a narrow set of circumstances. In Shadowrun, having access to a smartgun is not a rare circumstance, any more than having access to a smartphone is a rare circumstance in year 2013 America.

I can see where a character could receive some benefits from an "I know how to do things old-school style" approach. This would make for a good aspect, at least, which could be invoked in conditions where the character's technology becomes unreliable. Also, magician characters would benefit from a "pure body, pure spirit" aspect, since one of the assumptions of Shadowrun is that cybernetics interferes with natural energy flow, and thus interferes with spellcasting.

This strategy is something that I'd have to try out in practice to see where the pitfalls are, but I think it's much more Fate-like than providing giant shopping lists of cybernetics.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Running Shadowrun with Fate

I'm excited about the upcoming release of the Fate Core rules. As a backer of the project's Kickstarter, I've been privy to the early drafts of the new rules, and they address a lot of the problems I had with Fate as presented in Spirit of the Century. I'm keen to run a campaign with the new rules (eventually) and I've been considering the idea of using them for a Shadowrun campaign. Of course, this means that I'll have to figure out how to handle Shadowrun magic and cybernetics using Fate.

Cybernetics will be tricky, since I think I'll be handling them much differently than a traditional roleplaying game would. Games like Cyberpunk and Shadowrun contain a variety of subsystems to limit how much cyberware a character can possess. Limiting factors can include any or all of the following:
  • Financial cost
  • Health effects
  • Psychological effects
  • Physical size of cybernetic implants
  • Effects on other character abilities, such as magic
And, of course, Cyberpunk and Shadowrun both come with extensive catalogs of cybernetics for players to browse through and choose from.

It seems to me that the shopping lists and fiddly rules run counter to the principles of Fate. The new rules explicitly state that it is the default assumption of a Fate game that all characters possess the tools of their profession, and that the use of these tools is "baked in" to standard skill rolls. Mechanics will have tools; warriors will have swords. A mechanic wouldn't have a skill bonus for having a toolkit; rather, the mechanic would receive a penalty if, for some reason, the mechanic was temporarily deprived of his or her tools. Equipment only provides bonuses if the equipment is particularly exceptional or unusual.

Extending this to Shadowrun suggests that all characters would be assumed to have the basic cybernetics required to perform their jobs on with a level of competence on par with that of their peers. Hackers should have commlinks loaded with hacking software; street samurai should have smartweapon links. Pretty much everyone should have AR (augmented reality) implants of some type, since access to AR is a basic requirement for survival in Shadowrun.

What about things like infrared and ultraviolet vision? These would be fairly common implants for certain character types; should we assume that characters have them by default? Quite possibly, I think. I expect that I would need to determine what a "default" set of cybernetic implants looks like. (Similarly, supernatural vision might be a default ability for nonhumans such as elves and dwarves, and such characters might receive these abilities for free if they taken an appropriate aspect to identify themselves as nonhuman.)

If a player wants his or her character to gain some specific game benefits from cyberware, I can see two ways to do this. First, the player might choose some sort of aspect for the character, such as "All Cybered Up" or "Elite Cyber Special Forces" or "Prototype Deltaware" or some such. Then the character could invoke this aspect for bonuses at appropriate points during the game (making impossible shots with firearms, making impossible rooftop leaps, etcetera). The GM could compel these aspects as well. For instance, the character who used to be part of "Elite Cyber Special Forces" might have government-installed shutoff switches in her cyberware, which might get triggered by government agents at the worse possible time.

The player could also invent stunts to gain consistent and specific benefits, such as:
  • Safe Aim: the character's smartgun link is programmed to avoid collateral damage. The character can ignore up to -2 worth of penalties that would be incurred if the character is trying to fire at a target who is concealed within a crowd.
  • Threat Detection: expert-system software within the character's cybernetics is able to monitor environmental factors and measure the probability that the character is about to be in physical danger. The character gains +2 to resist being surprised.
  • Firewall: the character's implanted wireless link is shielded against hazardous signals. The character gains +2 to defend against cyberattacks launched through the Matrix that might cause physical harm.
This raises certain questions about what happens if characters are suddenly forced to use non-modern equipment, such as guns without smartlinks, but I'll post my thoughts on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Upload Me!

I think this just goes to show that the Internet is a fantastic source for story inspirations or role-playing adventure hooks.

You could create an entire world based on the assumption that the folks at 2045 are able to deliver what they plan: a means of uploading consciousness into a digital representation, and transfer that representation into an artificial body. In fact, the worlds of Ghost in the Shell and The Surrogates (among others) have already explored this fairly extensively.

If you assume that the 2045 folks are just pulling a scam for the purposes of soliciting money from rich investors, you've probably got enough material for a con-artist story (the kind you might see on Hustle or Leverage). Or this might make a good foundation for a murder mystery: when several millionaires and billionaires are cheated out of their fortunes, someone is likely to be killing mad.

I think the most interesting direction to take this is with the assumption that the 2045 folks have a hidden, sinister purpose. It should be fairly easy to work these folks into a Call of Cthulhu campaign, or any other sort of globacl conspiracy story.

To suggest one specific example off the top of my head: let's say that the 2045 team starts accepting clients, uploading their minds and giving them immortal bodies -- but they keep copies of their clients' consciousnesses, using those copies to create even more copies, and secretly installing those copies in additional bodies, making sure to insert a few software tweaks to ensure compliant behavior. They then sell those copy bodies to buyers who have a use for a human-like robot with human-level intelligence. These copied bodies look like people, and act like people, but they have no paper trail documenting their identity. They can be stronger, faster, and more durable than normal, meat-type people. You can order them to do whatever you like, without consequence. After all, the original clients are off living their privileged immortal lives. These are just echoes of those clients; mechanical slaves who can be manufactured on-demand and turned off with a switch.

Just to be clear, it's entirely likely that the actual folks behind the 2045 project are well-intentioned and have no other agenda. But from my point of view, even if they never produce anything beyond a few pretty charts and graphs, at least they've given us some excellent gaming material.

Monday, March 25, 2013

OUYA: Genius or Gimmick?

I'm going to spoil the conclusion of this post by stating up front that I think it's too early to tell whether the OUYA will be a fantastic new console or a quickly-forgotten curiosity. As a programmer, a Linux user, and an Android user, I'm naturally curious about the possibility of a low-cost, Android-based game console. But there's a very vocal and confident faction on the Internet that seems convinced that the OUYA will be a waste of time.

Most of the criticisms seem to be from armchair console designers (is that a phrase?) who sneer at the supposedly underpowered hardware in the OUYA, or from weary patrons of the Google Play store who don't see any benefit in providing yet another platform for "free-to-play" revenue siphons or amateur-hour hobby efforts. And then there are those who point out that current Android phones with HDMI outputs and Bluetooth connectivity can do right now what the OUYA promises to do in a few months. Hook your phone up to your hi-def TV and pair it to your PS3 controller and you have your very own Android gaming console.

I expect it will all come down to the games. If compelling games show up on the OUYA -- games that aren't available anywhere else, or that just wouldn't be the same if you were playing them on your little phone or tablet -- then the gamers will follow. If the console gets nothing but ports of titles that are available elsewhere, then there will be no reason for folks to clutter up their house with another gaming box and stack of controllers.

I guess I'm still cautiously optimistic, and we'll see what happens once the average gamer is able to pick these things up at Target or wherever.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Value of Education

Yes, in fact, all that geometry they taught us in school is useful to me in my everyday life. It's just that my "everyday life" turns out to include writing little video games in my spare time.

The game I'm currently working on requires me to assemble and draw an tessellated group of hexagons. The program logic therefore needs to determine:
  • The screen coordinates of a given hexagon
  • The coordinates of the vertices representing the corners of a hexagon
  • Whether or not two hexagons are adjacent
  • Whether or not two hexagons are in the same position
  • How to rotate a group of hexagons in 60-degree steps around a chosen "pivot" hexagon
The logic I wound up with is based on sort of a polar hexagon-based coordinate system. A coordinate pair consists of two numeric values, the first being the distance from a chosen "origin" hexagon, and the second being a rotational value. For instance, given a hexagonal grid and a chosen "origin" hexagon, you find the hexagon at coordinates (2, 5) by starting at the origin hexagon, moving two hexes in a pre-designated "north" direction, and then taking 5 steps clockwise in a circular direction around the origin hexagon.

This lets me perform my hex-group rotation operation fairly quickly, but presents a problem when I'm trying to determine whether two different locations in the hexagonal grid are adjacent to each other. I'm sort of cheating here by mapping my hexagonal coordinates to X-Y screen coordinates, and then checking the proximity of those coordinates to see if they are sufficiently close to one another to be adjacent hexagons.

My design document (a sheet of scrap paper sitting on my desk) is full of scribbled diagrams showing hexagons and vertices and congruent angles. It's good that all of the time I spent in school messing around with protractors and such is finally showing some benefit, but if I wind up designing a game that requires some calculus, I'm just going to integrate someone's math library. I honestly never want to see another integral sign again.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Just a Simple Hobby

Last night, I dreamed of visiting another group's D&D campaign, and found their gaming setup to be a little more elaborate than the usual crowded-table-in-the-basement arrangement.

The game itself seemed to be a heavily-houseruled mishmash of 1st edition AD&D rules and Basic/Expert rules, and was set on an alternate Earth that combined historical elements anywhere from the 5th century A.D. to the 19th century, with a bunch of elves and orcs thrown in for good measure, of course. It was the kind of D&D game Baron Munchausen would have played. I wouldn't mind trying a game like that myself, but the game wasn't as remarkable as the way it was played.

The group, which seemed to encompass about twenty members, met in a space the size of a gymnasium. On the walls were banner-size posters showing maps of the game world, diagrams of the airships the PC's used for transport, and so forth. LCD projectors were used to display up-to-date game statistics as well as other media.

The group's standard game session was divided into three phases, with a pre-determined amount of time allotted for each. The first phase was conventional dice-and-paper roleplaying, managed by the gamemaster. The second phase was reserved to allow players to give multimedia presentations of what their characters had been up to in between game sessions. (A friend of mine, who appeared in the dream, had used a platform-style video game to prepare a machinima movie showing his warrior-mage's exploits.) The third phase was dedicated to free-form roleplaying between the players.

This seems like more effort than I personally would be willing to devote to a session of roleplaying, but I wouldn't be entirely surprised to find out that some group, somewhere, is doing exactly this. I do, however, think the idea of a "buffet table of history" game world might be interesting, and I'll have to put it on my mental idea shelf for possible use later.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Angel of the Revolution

The Angel of the Revolution: A Tale of the Coming Terror is a science-fiction novel written in 1893 by George Griffith. I've just finished reading it, courtesy of Project Gutenberg, and while I'm glad I read it, I'm not sure I can recommend it unconditonally.

I can state with accuracy that it's a book about a young inventor who is recruited by a secret society, whose goal is to depose the corrupt and tyrannical governments of the major nations of the world. This society knows that a vast, international war is soon to develop, and that it will be fought with terrible new machines of destruction. The society intends to put an end to this conflict, and furthermore, to make any future war impossible, leading the world into a new age of peace and enlightenment. It's competently written, with several excellent illustrations, and if you don't look too closely, it might be a quaintly dated work of speculative fiction, with some romance, intrigue, and warfare thrown in for good measure.

The problem is that the hundred-plus years worth of cultural baggage we've accumulated between 1893 and now makes it impossible to enjoy this book as a mere harmless bit of escapism.

To give one example: the secret society which recruits the young inventor calls itself the Brotherhood of Freedom, but it operates under several other names as well. Most often, they are also known as the Terrorists.

There's just no way to use the T word these days without implying a lot of things that didn't come attached to that word back in 1893. In addition, the Brotherhood is sympathetic to Socialist philosophy; they regard the idle rich as parasites and criminals; they even favor gun control. This book is a Republican nightmare. There's even a scene where the American constitution is torn to shreds by the victorious Brotherhood ... why? Because ... well, let me quote directly from the book:

Representative government in America had by this time become a complete sham. The whole political machinery and internal resources of the United States were now virtually at the command of a great Ring of capitalists who, through the medium of the huge monopolies which they controlled, and the enormous sums of money at their command, held the country in the hollow of their hand. These men were as totally devoid of all human feeling or public sentiment as it was possible for human beings to be. They had grown rich in virtue of their contempt of every principle of justice and mercy, and they had no other object in life than to still further increase their gigantic hoards of wealth, and to multiply the enormous powers which they already wielded ... and ignoring, as such wretches would naturally do, all ties of blood and kindred speech, they had determined to take advantage of the situation to the utmost.

You can see how this book could never be published in America today. If some hapless publisher did try to print it, the Glenn Becks of the country would be frothing at the mouth and burning every copy they could find. (Odd, though, that this particular paragraph sounds awfully contemporary to us here in the 21st century U.S.A, isn't it? This could have come right out of an Occupy manifesto.)

Aerial warfare is a central innovation and topic of the book and it seems to be the author's assertion -- stated explicitly at certain points -- that such an advance would make the continuance of war impossible, since the results of aerial bombardments against military and civilian targets would be so horrible and inhuman that no nation could tolerate them. This viewpoint is just adorable, and you just want to tousle the author's hair and say, "That's right, kiddo, you just keep believing that."

On top of this, the author also suggests that the global government formed by the Brotherhood in the climactic scenes of the book would be utterly free of corruption, and that the world under this government would naturally be at peace. There would be no corruption because the leaders of the government would have all earthly wealth at their command, and so there would be nothing you could bribe them with that wasn't already theirs. There would be no armed conflicts, because the global government would have a complete monopoly of force.

Oh, and of course, we can trust that the leaders of the new world government will not abuse their power, because they're so intelligent and well-educated and morally upright. I'm reassured, aren't you?

Read through modern eyes, the "good guys" of this book seem a lot more like the bad guys of any 21st century fiction. The Angel of the Revolution reads like a propaganda piece or a recruiting tool authored by the folks at KAOS. It's the book that Cobra Commander read every night when he was a child.

There are some cool bits of Jules-Verne-style technology in here, such as the airships invented by the main character, which are like the ancestors of S.H.I.E.L.D helicarriers. And the book does provide an interesting viewpoint of the politics and issues of the end of the 19th century.

But it does suggest the question: will the political ideals of today always become the naïveté of tomorrow?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

In Absentia

The problem with tabletop roleplaying, as opposed to other forms of tabletop gaming, is the dilemma of what to do when a player is absent. If you're just playing a game about kicking in doors and killing monsters, this isn't much of a problem ... but then, you're really just wargaming, and not roleplaying, right?

If you're roleplaying, you're telling a coherent, long-term story about your characters and their struggles and victories. If Bernadette was here last week, playing her paladin character, and she had just tracked down her arch-enemy the Silent Sorcerer before the group had to quit for the night, and now this week, Bernadette is absent ... well, what do you do? The big showdown between the paladin and the sorcerer is all set up and ready to go, and there's no paladin. Sure, someone else could run Bernadette's character, but it would deprive her of a victory she's been working over the past half-dozen gaming sessions to achieve. Plus, whoever plays Bernadette's character will not play her the same way that Bernadette would. Whether the paladin triumphs or perishes, it won't seem quite as genuine, because Bernadette isn't behind the wheel.

You could just skip the game for a week and play something else, but what happens if Bernadette doesn't show next week, either? Or the week after? Now the gamemaster has to seriously consider writing the paladin out of the story, especially if the rest of the group is about to head off to the Shadow Dimension. You could keep her around as a long-term NPC, but that can get cumbersome. You can leave her behind, but what happens if Bernadette suddenly returns to gaming? How does her paladin catch up with the rest of the team, who are already halfway across the Shadow Dimension?

Whereas if you were all just playing Carcassonne, you could just leave a chair empty at the table.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Kickstarter > Petitions

I'm still kind of amazed that I'm living in a time when it's possible for someone to raise $2 million from an international collection of backers in less than 12 hours. Especially when that someone isn't a politician or tycoon, or both.

In the not too distant past, raising this much money this quickly would have only been possible in a madcap caper movie. The heroes, a pack of plucky would-be filmmakers, would have a souped-up car and they would race across the country, begging various token celebrities for their contribution. The rival movie studio, of course, would be trying to sabotage their efforts, both directly, and through a corrupt, comically-incompetent police officer who is hot on the heroes' tail the entire film. It comes down to a last-minute photo-finish, as the heroes crash their sports car into the window of the bank where they need to deposit the cash, just before time runs out.

When fans see a beloved property of theirs die (such as Firefly, or Google Reader), the kneejerk reaction seems to be to start a petition. This rarely works, because corporations aren't around for the purpose of producing entertainment. They're around to produce profit. A big stack of signatures is not negotiable currency.

Kickstarter allowed the Veronica Mars fans to kick in dollars instead of signatures, and ta-dah! Veronica Mars movie. I can only hope that fans spend less time in the future putting together futile and naive petitions, and start finding ways to get money into the hands of the people with the power and ability to build the projects that the fans want to see.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


The current draft of Stone of Names is a smidge over 60,000 words, which means it's a shortish novel. The story, from my point of view, is complete, and I'd like to be done with the major part of the writing, and I'd like to move on to editing and reviewing.

However, I'm also hoping to shop the novel out to literary agents, and there's always the possibility that the short length will make the book hard to sell. What do I do if an agent comes back and says "We might take this if it's a little longer"?

It would seem that the smart move would be to do whatever the agent suggests; after all, if adding 10,000 words to the novel gets it published, isn't that a victory? The problem is, I have no idea what I would do with an additional 10,000 words. What if I'm asked for 20,000? 40,000?

It's probably a silly thing to worry about unless the question actually comes up. For all I know, there may be a booming market in short novels these days.

The temptation, of course, is to just bypass the whole "agent" process and just self-publish again. I could probably have this thing up on Amazon after a Saturday's worth of work. But I've promised myself that I'd try to go the conventional route this time, so that's what I'll do.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

When Software Works

I was a little dubious about the utility of the Scrivener writing software when I first saw it. It looked like just a word processor dressed up with a few extra bookkeeping features to make it "writer-friendly." Why would I pay good money for Scrivener, when I could use either LibreOffice (if I want to do some serious word processing) or FocusWriter (if I just want to bang out some prose) for free?

After trying out the Scrivener demo, I was more interested. I liked how I could use Scrivener to keep scenes and chapters separate from one another, but still view the entire manuscript as a whole if I needed to. And I really liked the "compile" feature, which promised to output my manuscript in a variety of different formats, including PDF and MOBI.

I wound up buying Scrivener, and last night, I tried out the "compile" feature on my full novel manuscript. That one compile completely justified my purchase.

You might wonder what the big deal is, since this so-called "compile" feature just sounds like the "save as" feature in any old word processor. But here's the beauty: when you compile, Scrivener completely reformats the output with a consistent set of format settings, including font, margins, paragraph indents, chapter headings, and so forth. You define these output settings through an easy-to-use configuration window. So even if your original manuscript had some inconsistent formatting, the compile feature smooths that all out and produces a final document with a coherent look.

And if I decide I want to tweak the way the output looks, I don't have to modify the formatting of the original document at all. I just change the compile settings, and poof! The output looks completely different.

I compiled my manuscript to MOBI format so that Mary Lynn and I could review it on our Kindles. The final output needs a little work in regard to chapter headings and title pages, but otherwise the output looks nice and clean. Last time I tried converting a LibreOffice document to the Kindle format on my own, it was a painful, manual process. This was mostly my fault: my original document was a mess of different margin and paragraph styles, and finding and removing all of those inconsistencies took a lot of effort. Keeping the original document clean would have helped, but Scrivener makes sure that I don't have to worry about it.

Also, if I decide I want to send the manuscript to an agent for review, I just have to choose the Microsoft Word compile format, tweak the output settings, and go. Without Scrivener, I would need to keep multiple copies of my manuscript around, one formatted to be Kindle-friendly, one to be agent-friendly, and so forth. And then what happens if I want to make a change to the text? With Scrivener, I only have one master document to keep track of, and it generates the output I need for different destinations, on-demand.

I realize that, as a programmer, I really should be producing my prose using Vim or Emacs and then running the whole thing through LaTeX or some other set of open-source command-line utilities to generate my final documents. But in this case, I think I'll stick with Scrivener for a while.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sim Neo-Tokyo

I didn't buy the new Sim City, but I did buy Diablo 3, so I know exactly what the would-be Sim City players are going through. I think this is another excellent reason to quit rewarding the big game studios and start supporting the smaller developers, but I'm not planning to post a Sim City rant here.

I like city-building games in general, but the game I want hasn't been written yet, so far as I can tell. What I want is a city-builder that lets me build Mega City One or Neo-Tokyo. I want a game that puts me in charge of a failing near-future metropolis, where I must curry the favor of global mega-corporations so that they will build offices and factories in my city, provide revenue for my treasury, and provide employment for my citizens. I want to send paramilitary city security teams into the slums to root out heavily-armed gangs. I want to clean up the wreckage of an inter-corporation shooting war that wiped out several blocks of my commercial district. I want to employ all of the varied tools of a well-equipped police state to root out hackers, terrorists, and free-thinkers. I want to sit in front of my monitor and gaze down at a smog-filled skyline of corporate ziggurats and overcrowded tenements.

I've heard that SimCity: Societies allows you to build a cyberpunk-style city, but I've also heard that it's not a very good game, so I haven't bothered running down a copy. Tropico 4 actually seems to be spiritually similar to what I'm looking for, but I'd prefer something with a mega-urban, Blade Runner sort of look and feel.

I'll just add it to the list of games I'd like to build when I have the time.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Double Feature! (popcorn not included)

There are a couple of YouTube videos I'd like to recommend to everyone of the gaming persuasion. The first is footage showing an early alpha build of Shadowrun Returns, a 2D tactical roleplaying game that I mentioned in yesterday's blog entry. I chipped in for the Kickstarter of this project, and from what I see in this video, it's going to be money well-spent. I like everything I see in this video: the style of the game world and the characters, the 2D tactical gameplay, the dialogue trees, and the enemy AI ... but what I think I like the most is what you don't see, exactly, and that's the editor they used to build the mission shown in the video. The game will release with a mission editor to allow players to build their own stories, and I'm keenly interested in getting a chance to tell stories in this world.

The second video is the start of a series that I think should be required viewing for any gamer, and, more importantly, for every game designer. It's the first installment of Anita Sarkeesian's video series, "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games." The series is planned to be a deep and well-researched discussion of negative portrayals of women in video games. I'd be willing to have a discussion with anyone about why this series is necessary and important, but I think the most telling justification for the series is the sustained harassment campaign that was conducted against Anita Sarkeesian when she first proposed the project. (More on the same topic here.) This should be sufficient evidence of the fact that gamer culture needs serious maintenance, and hopefully the Tropes vs. Women series and similar projects will help shed some much-needed light on an ugly aspect of the hobby and the community.

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Tale of Two Dystopias - Part 2

In yesterday's blog post, I mentioned how I had reacted with contempt to the first advertisements for the Shadowrun roleplaying game. I assumed at the time that the game would be a flop, because its players would quickly realize that the game did not present an experience faithful to the cyberpunk genre.

I was young, and naive, and I underestimated the power of marketing. Whereas the Cyberpunk game produced by R. Talsorian was (in my opinion) thematically superior, Shadowrun was released by industry giant FASA (assuming any 1980's hobby gaming company could reasonably be called a "giant"). So, while I continued to faithfully purchase every supplement released for Cyberpunk, I kept seeing new Shadowrun books appear at my local gaming store.

More significantly, I kept seeing evidence that Shadowrun had been adopted by the gaming community at large as their archetypal concept of cyberpunk. For example, I kept hearing my peers use the word "decker" to refer to computer hackers. This is a Shadowrun term; the equivalent term in the Cyberpunk game is "netrunner". The quirky but entertaining hacking game Decker used the Shadowrun term for its title. When I went to see Terminator 2, the gamers in front of me compared the protagonists to a team of Shadowrun PC's, pointing to the John Connor character and suggesting "He's their decker."

It was vexing to me to find that when mainstream gamers thought of the cyberpunk genre, their first thought was of a roleplaying game with elves in it.

Yet Shadowrun had clearly become a well-loved property. One sign of Shadowrun's success are the four Shadowrun-based video games that have been released to date, on the SNES, the Genesis, the Sega CD, and on the PC and Xbox.

Crowdfunding has provided the development costs for a new Shadowrun computer game, called Shadowrun Returns. This is planned to be a roleplaying game with turn-based tactical combat, and with tools to provide player-authored content.

This is where my resistance to Shadowrun finally evaporated. The more I read about Shadowrun Returns, the more it appeared to be a labor of love, produced by folks who loved the roleplaying game (including Jordan Wiseman, one of Shadowrun's original designers). I've become less of a gaming snob in my advancing age, and I figured that if people had this much affection for Shadowrun, that maybe it was worth me taking a look.

I've backed the Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter. In my e-mail box right now is a video of the alpha version of the game; I can't wait to get home and watch it. I also bought the fourth edition of the tabletop RPG, which is an absolutely gorgeous book. The art is fantastic, and the contents are presented in a clear and organized fashion. The combat and hacking rules are a bit more complex than I currently care for, but I expect I could easily port the game to Fate.

If the four editions of the tabletop game and the four (and counting) video games show anything, it shows that Shadowrun's mix of machine and magic is quite popular. I still have a hard time classifying the game as "cyberpunk"; I'd say it was urban fantasy with cyberpunk elements. But, again, I'm not as much of a gaming snob these days, and I'm willing to try anything that lets me tell cool stories about colorful characters.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Tale of Two Dystopias - Part 1

I remember seeing the first advertisements for the Shadowrun roleplaying game. I was appalled. Whereas the pictures did show people struggling through a dangerous high-tech near-future neo-urban environment, those people seemed to be elves and orcs and wizards.

I knew what cyberpunk was. Cyberpunk was (and is) Blade Runner, and Neuromancer, and Max Headroom. The Shadowrun art looked like someone's D&D campaign, with guns.

When R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk game came out, however, I snatched it up as soon as I saw it. The reasons for this may not be immediately apparent, particularly if you went to the web site I just linked to. But believe me, the first edition of Cyberpunk was fantastic.

Reading the first edition Cyberpunk rules told me that the game designers really understood what cyberpunk was supposed to be about. Cyberpunk should be about telling stories of a dark future where traditional governments have been replaced by mega-corporations, and the overcrowded cities of the world have become little more than prisons for impoverished and oppressed workers. Cyberpunk should be telling stories about the victory of technology over humanity, and of the digital world over the physical world. Cyberpunk is about what it means to be human when your limbs are replaced by machinery and your brain is connected to a computer network.

The art in the Cyberpunk books was excellent: sleek and stylish. The books themselves had a sort of desktop-published feel to them; the layout was clean and professional, but it had a low-budget feel that I found endearing. This wasn't a glossy game produced by a big company in order to hit a target demographic; this was a game produced by folks because they loved it, they'd worked hard on it, and they wanted to share it with you.

The rules were straightforward and quick to play, with only a few glitches (Solo-class characters, for instance, could dodge bullets, and were thus nearly immune to any threat less than a tactical air strike). I could go on and on about the good things I remember about the first edition of Cyberpunk, but unfortunately, this isn't a story that has a happy ending.

When the second edition of the game came out (Cyberpunk I naturally bought it on first sight. A few of the rules had been cleaned up, but the rest of the book was somewhat disappointing. The new art for the book was abysmal: it looked as if it had been done at the last minute, by the lowest bidder, with a broken pencil. Some of the original art from the first edition was still in there, which just made the new art look worse by contrast. The layout had lost its unique "I did this at home on my Mac" look.

Then came the supplement books for the second edition, which were a seemingly bottomless assortment of weapons and cybernetics, each more potent and overpowered than the last. It was clear that the developers were trying to appeal to gamers who had been watching Bubblegum Crisis or Ghost in the Shell. It seemed as if the new game wanted you to play a cybered-up assassin who jumps out of VTOL's into hot combat zones with a platoon's worth of firepower strapped to his back.

I wanted to be Rick Deckard, hiding in a shot-up building with a pistol and two broken fingers, waiting for a synthetic superhuman to find him and kill him.

Sure, you could still play a classic cyberpunk-type story using the Cyberpunk rules, but you had to throw out most of the equipment and a fair amount of the implied setting. The game may have suggested that a lot of the military-scale equipment in the books were hard for a character to come by, but if they really meant for that sort of weaponry and armor to be rare, why did they spend so many pages and words describing it? And you can't really use that kind of gear if you're in a police state where your every move is monitored, and you live and die at the whim of corporate executives who live in orbital habitats because the Earth has become a trash dump.

The books seemed to be encouraging you to run your game in the wild places, in the ruins of old cities and in the wastelands beyond, where there is no law, no authority only than your own strength. Out in these uncontrolled territories, murderous gangs of savages run wild, violence is an everyday occurrence, and exceptional weapons and armor are required in order to survive and triumph.

Which sounds like someone's D&D campaign, with guns.

There was a third edition of Cyberpunk, which I haven't seen in person, but I've heard nothing good about it. I've heard that the art consists of photographs of action figures dress up like Cyberpunk characters. I've heard that the developers were trying to incorporate some transhumanist elements, that there was nanotech with near-magical powers, that there were shark-men. I chose to get off this particular bus. I didn't care for where it was headed.

I've heard that CD Projekt is going to be producing a computer game in the R. Talsorian Cyberpunk setting. I'm keeping my eye on it; I hope that they're able to retain the noirish, cautionary-tale style that good cyberpunk is based on. But apart from that particular bright spark, it looks as if Cyberpunk's star is fading.

Shadowrun, on the other hand ...

But I'll talk about that tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Game of Chips

Last night I dreamed about playing a semi-electronic roleplaying game. It's wildly impractical, like most of the games I wind up inventing and playing in my dreams, but it was interesting enough that I remembered it when I woke up.

There are two essential components to the game. The first component is a small electronic kiosk. These can be found at gaming shops, malls, conventions, and so forth. The kiosks have small, color, touch-screen displays, and slots for accepting and dispensing small plastic chips.

The chips are the second component. When you first start playing the game, you go to your gaming store and buy a starter pack which contains about thirty of these chips (a random assortment, naturally). Most of the chips are "effort" chips; these are printed with numbers indicating how much effort the player wishes to expend to win a game challenge. Each starter pack also contains one slightly larger "environment" chip, which designates an in-game challenge environment (such as "Elven Forest: Levels 1-5"). There is also a chance of finding a few special powers chips in your starter pack.

To play, you walk up to a kiosk and put your environment chip in a slot at the top of the screen. The game then randomly generates a series of challenges ("Defeat the Orcs", "Rescue the King", "Find the Lost Jewels", etc.). The kiosk screen lists these challenges, along with a numerical difficulty rating for each. The player selects a challenge and then inserts an effort token (or a power token) into the machine. The machine then randomly calculates whether you have defeated the challenge. The chip you deposited will increase your chance of victory: larger effort numbers provide a greater boost to your chances. An effort token with a small rating may be sufficient to win an easy challenge, but for a difficult challenge, the player would need a token with a higher effort rating. (I have no idea what the "special power" chips do.)

If you win a challenge, the game dispenses another chip (or more than one). More difficult challenges yield more powerful or more numerous chips. You can also receive in-game rewards, which are simply icons on the screen that represent bonuses or penalties that apply during your current game session. Sometimes you'll receive another environment chip as a reward, which allows you to play against new challenges and receive new types of chips.

The player's role, therefore, is to compare the challenges presented to the effort tokens the player is holding, and try to choose combinations of challenges and tokens that will yield the greatest rewards and chances of success. For instance, a high-value token will easily defeat a low-level challenge, but is that really a good use for such a valuable token? You might need that high-value token to have any chance at all at of defeating a high-risk challenge, but then again, a higher-risk challenge means a greater risk of losing that token and getting nothing in return.
The game session ends with a final, climactic challenge, which yields even more valuable rewards if you beat it. After this is an in-game shop, where you can trade your in-game electronic rewards for more plastic chips, or somehow apply them to future games in their electronic form (I have no idea how the kiosk identifies you or retains your electronic rewards from session to session ... maybe they're stored on your environment chip somehow).

Obviously this is, in essence, an incredibly complicated slot machine. For this to have any chance of being commercially successful, you'd have to lose enough challenges to keep you buying game packs. However, in the dream, it seemed as if players never really ended a game with less chips than they started with, in which case I have no idea where the revenue came from.

You can be assured that I have no immediate plans to start building some little kiosks and plastic chips, but there's always the possibility that I'll be able to pull a useful idea out of this in the future.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Why, Java, Why?

So I have a Java application that runs under Windows, but doesn't have its own window or UI. It runs in the background.

My application starts up a copy of a MySQL database. The application needs to shut down the database reliably when the application itself shuts down. A nice, controlled shutdown will prevent data corruption.

There's no way for my app to react to an operating system shutdown.

I'm supposed to be able to use Runtime shutdown hooks to react to a shutdown of the JVM. This doesn't seem to work. I'm not the only person who's noticed this.

I can't react to window closing events because I don't have a window. The app doesn't have a UI.

I'm baffled that a programming language with the stature, age, and usage of Java would behave in this fashion.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Stone of Names - March Status Update

Sometime this month, I expect to be finished with my first editing pass of Stone of Names. I'm down to just resolving the points in the text where I was uncomfortable with the wording I'd chosen, but I needed to just write something and move on.

Once all of those issue are resolved, I'm going to do something I probably didn't do extensively enough with the last novel: send it out to several "beta test" readers for criticism. Mary Lynn had gone over Back in the Game with me, but I expect I need to incorporate feedback from as many different viewpoints as possible.

Once that's done, I need to try to find a literary agent to help me sell this thing. The last time I tried looking for an agent, it was still a very paper-based process. I expect a lot more agents are online these days, which should accelerate the process.

If I can't find an agent, I can always try self-publishing again, but I would really need to work on my marketing skills, and possibly be willing to drop some money on advertising. I'd also need to hire an editor: someone who can comb through my text and find all of my egregious punctuation errors. I'd really prefer to have an agent who knows the business of selling books, and who can get my book in the hands of a publisher who can do editing and cover art and all of that. (I've actually already invested in some cover art for Stone of Names that I think will be reasonably okay, but it would be much better to have a professional artist working on it.)


Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Banner Saga: Factions

I've had my eye on The Banner Saga for a while now, and the multiplayer component of the game, called Factions, is now available on Steam, for free. I've played a little of it, and it looks like the full game is going to be worth the wait.

At its heart, The Banner Saga is a turn-based tactical combat game, similar to Gladius, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Disgaea. From what I've seen so far, the element of luck is minimized, which means that victory comes down to careful positioning of your troops, knowing the strengths of your forces and the weaknesses of the enemy, and trying to think several moves ahead.

As I've said, only the multiplayer portion of the game is available right now, which is all player-versus-player skirmish combat. The good news for gamers closer to my age is that this isn't an action game where victory goes to the player who has the fastest reflexes, or who has the most precise mouse, or who has the fastest net connection or monitor, or who's managed to install his aimbot software correctly. If you lose a game of Factions, it's because the other player out-thought you.

It's no surprise that the game supports microtransactions; however, it looks like the game store only lets you buy cosmetic improvements or renown (which serves as experience points), or allows you to hire a few experienced warriors. Since renown is earned through play, and you can use renown both to level up your warriors and hire new warriors, these real-money purchases aren't giving you anything you couldn't earn yourself. Also, it looks like the multiplayer matchmaking service tries to match players whose forces have a similar strength level, so even if you buy enough renown to power-level your entire team, all this accomplishes is to thrown you into combat with other players who have teams as strong as yours. And if some those players have earned their renown through play instead of just buying it, they might actually be better at running their team than you are.

The most impressive part of the game is the style. There's more artistry and imagination in the first ten minutes of this game than in a lot of the mainstream games that will come out this year. It's a fantasy game, but the world is not just another Tolkien clone; it has more of a Norse-like flair to it. I found it was a distinct relief to start the tutorial battle and not see the usual assortment of elves and dwarves. The art is all 2d and hand-drawn, from the character images to the backgrounds, and it's all gorgeous. Even the little descriptions of each of the character classes are full of mystery and flavor.

It looks like the multiplayer game will get more interesting the more you play, since promoting your units allows you to choose new abilities for them, giving you more tactical options and giving your warriors a different strategic profile than the warriors of your opponents. If this small part of The Banner Saga is this good, I'm keenly anticipating the release of the full single-player game.

Friday, March 1, 2013

In the Library, With the Candlestick

I'm pretty certain at this point that the next novel I write is going to be a mystery of some type. It might be an alt-history cyberpunk time-travel conspiracy-theory mystery (or some such), but it will be a mystery. I've already been inflicting whodunits on my roleplaying group; I might as well try to write one for real.

There are two things I like about mystery stories, the first being the problem-solving aspect. I like solving puzzles, and even though I'm terrible at solving a mystery story before the protagonists do, I get a vicarious thrill out of watching them do it. I like to watch the heroes discussing possibilities and spinning out theories to connect the known events.

Second, I think that mysteries present an interesting way to perform character exploration in fiction. In a good detective story (or at least what I consider to be a good detective story), when the sleuth interviews a suspect, the interview provides more than just information. The interviews reveal the personalities and the motivations of the suspects, as well as their perceptions of the other characters, by way of dialogue. The author can use these scenes as opportunities to deliver a concentrated dose of character development.

As such, I expect my hypothetical mystery novel will be more of a crime story than a whodunit, since I don't expect to lay out an intricate web of clues that would lead the observant reader to an inevitable deduction of the identity of the guilty party. I expect to set my protagonist on a search for the truth in the middle of a pack of characters who are all lying about something, for their own reasons, and let them all flirt and fight and scheme until the gunsmoke settles and the facts are revealed.

Maybe instead, it should be a historical coming-of-age urban-fantasy romantic mystery...