Sunday, 30 June 2013

Hear Inaudible Darmok!

It's funny to think that 5 or 6 years ago, I couldn't even have begun to imagine giving a decent talk to a crowd of strangers. I could eventually stand up in front of my class of familiar peers, but even that always made me feel awkward. Today, after the fiery forge of teaching, I couldn't give a shit about audience size, type or demeanour. Once you've stared down 60 bored teenagers with whom you don't share a mother tongue, in the last lesson on a Friday afternoon, trying to convey the mostly-unobvious reasons that atoms behave the way they do, there is no more challenging public speaking task left in life.

So it's perhaps appropriate that my first public talk to mostly-adults will be about the challenges of communication. Of course, since I'm speaking officially as an officer of the USS Dauntless, at Science Fiction and Fantasy South Africa's Star Trek MiniCon, I won't be looking at conventional  terrestrial human communication. Instead, I want to look at how talking to aliens might go, once we realise that they're unlikely to have much in common with us either physically or psychologically. And rather than just making shit up out of thin air, I'd like to look at what we've learned about communication with non-human animals here on Earth, as a rough, general analogue for extraterrestrial communication. This has some important limits, which I will address, but I think the basic idea should be good as a crash intro to how much we take for granted about humans-only language and interaction.

So, use your human eyes to detect the squiggly absences of EM radiation in the part of the spectrum you're accustomed to detecting visually from the monitor ahead of you, and take note of the brain-sounds these squiggles denote within your shared social context, to interpret the space-time coordinates of this talk of mine, and the MiniCon in general:

The Star Trek MiniCon (which will also feature a talk by the Dauntless's dauntless leader, Owen Swart, plus lots of other fun stuff; see links above) will be from 09:00 11:00 onwards, on Saturday the 20th of July, at the Marie Curie Theatre (digression here for the awesomeness of Marie Curie), Wits Medical School. I believe I'm scheduled to start my particular waffle, titled "Inaudible Darmok," at 12:25.

I don't see it spelled out clearly anywhere yet, but I'm pretty sure entry to the con is pretty cheap too.  Entry for the whole day is R70. So that's nice, right?

Friday, 21 June 2013

Burning Daylight: Best Icon module ever...?

I mentioned a few months ago that my second Icon module is due to be played this year and the Icon 2013 brochure is FINALLY available here.

My module, 'Burning Daylight', is being run in Slot 1, which is much less impressive when you know that means Friday morning, probably the session with the fewest players in attendance. On the other hand, those who do drag themselves out of bed early and/or take a day off work just to play it can probably be taken to be the more serious and dedicated players. And there's always the option of buying the module to play with a group of your own assembly during a later slot. Just bug the people at the registration desk about that.

I really don't want to give away much more plot than the brochure blurb gives, and that (for those unable to access the pdf) says:


Few accusations will spread fear as fast.

Suffering a witch to live is one of the greatest crimes in the Empire, not only because of the witch’s own evil, but because letting them continue that evil shows one is also corrupted by the forces of Chaos. Having survived war and ill fortune, situated uncomfortably close to the cursed county of Sylvania and just down river from the dead city of Mordheim, the town of Krugenheim now faces a threat from within. Accusing the wrong person - and letting the real witch escape - would be disastrous.

I will add that this is a pretty talky scenario, by necessity. Warhammer is among the more vicious systems as far as combat is concerned, and since many of the player characters are simple townsfolk, not mighty adventurers, they'd get torn to shreds in minutes if I'd leaned too heavily on the fight scenes. This doesn't mean you should assume everything will be safety and bunnies - where'd be the fun in that? - but if you want to make the best of this game, leave the dungeon-crawl mentality at home and come prepared to get deeply into character. I've tried to carefully craft some good ones for you.

As an extra bonus for anyone who happens to read this, here is an extra map, not included in the module itself because it makes virtually no difference to anything, showing the location of the town of Krugenheim within the Empire. That's the site of my little story.
Krugenheim: The bright red dot just East of center, incorrectly labelled as 'Krungenheim'

There's one other semi-related thing to mention. My 2008 module, 'Lead the Way', was about US Army Rangers in a near-future debacle, set in 2018, and in the text I went out of my way to explain why I'd gone with realism over representativeness in choosing to make all of the player characters male. In particular, I used the phrase, "The US Army Rangers do not currently allow women to join their ranks, and I don’t believe this is likely to change within the next 10 years." [EDIT: In hindsight, I regret writing it that way; inclusive, representative gaming is clearly more important.]

It's recently been announced that all branches of the US military are going to be required to scrap  sex-based restrictions on combat roles by 2018, with the Rangers due to start training female members in 2015.

This is why I don't do near-future stuff very often.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Frost is Dead

The cat named Frost (a.k.a. Sir Frostalot, Frosteefreedeeleefroodeleefroo, Stumpy, Nothing But Trouble, and briefly as a kitten before we got him "Cracker") was hit by another car this morning and killed.

Not much more to say, I suppose, since few of you ever met him, and fewer still would really care that much. But it's my fucking blog.

He was a bit dim, but very fucking tough for such a small cat. Born in late 2010, he'd been under general anaesthetic over a dozen times. He ate poison mushrooms as a kitten and had to be rushed to have his little stomach pumped. When he got neutered, he ripped his stitches out and almost bled to death (and rushing to deal with that lead to my largest ever speeding fine). He was viciously attacked by one or more evil neighbour cats 3 or 4 times, with deep bites and scratches all over. And he was hit by cars twice! We've had 2 big, tough dogs killed by cars along this same stretch of road in the 1990s, neither lucky enough to survive a single hit. Frost was mighty.

Fucking shit drivers. Only 1 out of those 4 ever stopped and told us what happened. Today's driver didn't.

I've got dozens of photos of Frost with cone collars and stitches and missing fur and pipes sticking out of his head. He had no tail for the last 2 months and was still fairly incontinent. He was a wreck, often. But always a lovely, friendly, soft, little boy regardless.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Out of Darkness

I'd like to formally extend my personal thanks to Abrams and co. They clearly read my critique of 2009's Star Trek: The Star Trek and went out of their way to make Into Darkness a movie I could happily watch. As I wrote way back when, the single biggest problem with their 2009 attempt is that it pretty thoroughly shat on Gene Roddenberry's ideals. This new movie goes the complete opposite direction, thoroughly embracing Gene's Dream, and I can only assume they made this change purely for my benefit. So, thanks.

Of course, I've still got a fine selection of technical quibbles, but this time round I'm happy to enjoy dissecting them as amusing gaffs, rather than feeling they represent a general pattern of intentional disregard for what came before.

I had an extra great time because I went to see it along with a large gathering of the crew of the USS Dauntless, with about half of us in uniform. I'll post a couple photos once I've had a chance to filter out the best ones (free sample included below).

Our mighty commanding officer had put out a press release, which a couple smaller outlets took note of, and we spent a good 30 minutes or so before the movie parading up and down for a camera crew (for some documentary? Nobody really explained it to me). And we may even have had a little recruiting success (results still pending).

Also, this happens to have been only the second 3D movie I've seen, and the first since early 2009, when I saw Coraline in that medium. I'm still not sold on it, but it was ok.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Resist the Competitive Roleplaying Hegemony

I've said before how much I love my annual Icon expedition, and I've hinted that I've made a mysterious and awesome contribution to this year's games. I've been going there longer than I went to any one school, longer than I've stayed at any one job, and longer than I've known some of my best friends. So I know what I'm talking about when I say that Icon's insistence, year in and year out, on having "competitive" roleplaying games is not helpful to anyone. This isn't a complaint against Icon specifically, as I know other local conventions run things in pretty much the same way, and I've seen at least one example - in this excellent analogy by Johnny Nexus of Critical Miss - of a similar problem with a UK convention. I just happen to know the example of Icon SA best.

There are two lines of argument against competitive roleplaying. First, roleplaying games simply don't lend themselves well to objective measures of success and quality. You can make roleplaying games with clear winners and losers (see "Kobolds Ate My Baby!"), but it'd get awfully boring if that was the way the plot was structured every single time (see "reasons for not playing Kobolds Ate My Baby! all the time"). Roleplaying is a form of improvised story-telling, even when it's most heavily weighed down with formal rules for everything (see "extensive list of games I don't like"), and as such it's necessarily going to be a very different experience for different groups with different GMs. Not only will everyone do things differently, but every such difference will also make the whole game beyond that point into an increasingly different scenario, which means it becomes even less meaningful to try to compare the experiences of different players playing nominally identical characters in different groups.

Rating someone's roleplaying or GMing prowess based on small number of brief encounters is pointless. It's a completely subjective matter, tested under completely uncontrolled conditions, using a bad test. Most of the ratings are little more than personal preferences, a popularity contest. Loud players playing loud characters and those bold enough to make sure you definitely know how to spell their names have an obvious advantage over the meek and the good players trying to play meek characters well. One of the few slightly more objective measures I've seen rates GMs on how well they appear to know the rules; I object to that one on personal style grounds alone, as I take great pride in consciously avoiding use of the rules except where unavoidable, to keep the flow of the game going more smoothly. Many players have enjoyed that style, but if they tried to objectively and honestly answer that rating, they'd be within good reason to mark me quite poorly. So is it really a good way to measure GM quality, even if it is technically objective?

It's also always carried out so poorly. I've never seen a public explanation of the rules of the competition, it's never properly explained in person, if at all, and the judging process is pretty opaque. I do NOT subscribe to the conspiracy theory that the organisers' friends always win, but I don't believe that the winners are necessarily really "the best" either, because of the silly assessment system and the piss-poor organisation. I don't think there's anything sinister or malicious afoot, I think it's just a shit idea, run by people who traditionally have pretty piss-poor organisation (see "getting Icon mugs and tshirts delivered on time", "opening Icon doors on time", "getting Icon modules released on time", etc.; seriously, go read my Icon article from last year and bathe in the list of small and mostly acceptable flaws).

So it's just a terrible idea.

But maybe it's a popular idea, no matter how misguided? Well, perhaps among those who win, or seriously aim to win, but I know for a fact that competitive play is a significant barrier for those who don't care for it. It actively chases potential players away. For one thing, the good people at the sign-in table (who generally do their job well on other counts) have historically tended to get a bit pissy with anyone who doesn't understand the competitive system (even though there's no clear, public explanation of it) or anyone who explicitly says they don't want to play competitively. I don't know enough about the organisation of the event to say whether this is because they're just low-ranking slave labourers doing their job (and thus can't be expected to do much about it), or if we are speaking to people with some authority (who should thus have no excuses), but either way, it's not the friendliest or most constructive approach. I'm not saying it's always that way, it varies from sign-up person to sign-up person, but it does give the impression that they've forgotten who the paying customer is. This like-it-or-fuck-off attitude alone has chased some of my fellow players away from convention play for good, which is damn pointless shame.

A marginally trickier problem is that of enforced splitting up. Some of us like to play with people we know, whether this is just two people sticking together to join a group of strangers (and I can see there'd be some extra brain-power required for the admin of this, but not that much; we are only talking about 50 or so players at most), or a whole regular group wanting to celebrate the convention together, as a special occasion, by running something a bit different together; this latter thing is usually called "buying the module". Convention organisers seem to hate these people, and competitive play has often been used as an excuse to fob them off. You can't play together in a competitive module, because the rules say it's got to be random players (and never mind that randomly ending up with the same person in your group would be considered perfectly acceptable) to prevent cheating. And you can't buy the module while the "real" competitive groups are playing it, in case you use it to cheat (as if knowing the plot a few minutes in advance would make you a better, more popular player?). It's just paranoia; the people asking to be excused from the competition are the ones who care about it the least, not the (probably entirely imaginary) ones so desperate to win that they'd try any dumb trick to get an edge.

To be clear, I quite like the random groups system myself. It can be quite fun and exciting, and occasionally you meet some great new people that way. For example, I originally got into Star Trek roleplaying through my friend Richard's random introduction to Jason Green, back at GenCon 2000, and that's had several huge effects on my life and hobbies over the last decade. But the point is that not everyone wants to do totally random groups every single time. Even I like the familiarity of friends, especially friends I don't see so often anymore, for at least some of my modules.

There should be no harm in letting half the players go off in one corner and be competitive, and the other half go off to the other corner and play casually. But it's such a massive fucking uphill struggle every fucking year just to get the organisers to concede that non-competitives even exist, let alone have a right to play in a different style.

I think the reason this hasn't changed in over a decade is that there's a problem of player organisation. The competitive roleplayers are pretty much a coherent, organised group by definition, because the system requires them to be and rewards them for it, so their voice is clearer and more uniform. The non-comps are inherently disorganised and isolated from each other, so even though we probably out-number the hard core of comps, it's much harder to make the organisers listen to us. Perhaps someone should start a petition or a poll, just to give us a better idea of what the true numbers are like. The trouble again is that the players who've been put off by excessive compulsory competition in the past are the ones who'd be hardest to find and get involved in such a poll, because they don't want to associate with conventions anymore.

Let me close by making a prediction: Competitive roleplayers, maybe even one or two of the organisers, who read this will get all defensive and insist that it's more than a mere popularity contest, that casual players are just sore losers or an obstruction to good admin. Allow me to suggest instead that such people try to see it from a different perspective and imagine what the current system would be like if it didn't suit you, as I've described above. Perhaps talk to your friends and fellow players who you know don't pursue competitive play and see what they think about it all. And rather than merely defending the status quo, see if you can instead suggest ways that we can make the system work for everyone, to encourage even more people to join us, not less. It shouldn't be that hard.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Retconning the Enterprises

It's been a stressful week in a stressful month in a stressful year. For a bit of relief, a quick, easy post to vent about something completely unimportant that bugs me regardless of its triviality: The registry numbers and classes of the various Starships Enterprise.

The original USS Enterprise NCC-1701 was reasonable enough, though it would have been nice if they'd clearly defined a decent meaning for NCC, or better still, made up a meaning first  and chosen some other letters to fit it. Maybe Star Fleet Registry (SFR), if you don't mind splitting up the word Starfleet, or Star Ship Number (SSN), or Starfleet Commissioning Number (SCN) or some such. Trying to work out NCC in reverse has not worked well at all; the best anyone's managed is the odd-seeming Naval Commissioning Contract. And while we're at it, the USS abbreviation is dodgy too. It's obviously there as a hangover from an early assumption that this would be a show about Americans in space, but now we're stuck with the awkward prefix of United (Federation of Planets, please just infer this bit on your own) Star Ship. It's hard to say today if USS rolls off the tongue easily because it's a good combination of sounds, or if we're just so used to it now. UFS (for United Federation Starship) seems close enough to me.

But USS Enterprise NCC-1701, Constitution class, worked well enough. Then they sank it.
Voom... Boom! Zoom! Doom.
The replacement should have been something shiny and new, but some production and marketing people were too fucking worried about brand recognition. So instead we got the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A, also Constitution class. Virtually identical to its predecessor, it was the starship equivalent of conveniently bringing back a dead-but-popular character through improbable circumstances. The -A suffix just messes up the registry numbers, and I struggle to believe that people were especially devoted to the number 1701 until the late '80s, when Star Trek IV and The Next Generation both insisted on re-using it with letter suffixes at the end. In other words, we were taught to love the number, it probably wouldn't have emerged naturally. It's just a fucking number! Being attached to names I can understand, but not arbitrary numbers. It's also left quite a bit of uncertainty about what other ships should or shouldn't get letter suffixes. There have been dozens of re-used names (often creating additional clashes, but that's a different complaint), but hardly any other examples of re-used registry numbers with letter prefixes. What exactly does Starfleet require for a number to get recycled?

Re-using the Constitution class was even more dodgy, as this was a 40 year old design at the time, and the Enterprise-A was retired (quite reasonably, considering its competition) after only 8 years of service. This means that it was either newly built in spite of the fact that this was obviously a terrible waste of resources, or (and this is the official story) they took another Constitution class vessel (the USS Yorktown) and told it, "Sorry, other vessel, but screw your own slightly less illustrious name and legacy. You're the spare Enterprise now."

I don't like it.

If I were in charge, back in 1980-something, I would have replaced the first Enterprise with the USS Enterprise NCC-2001, positioning it as the second Excelsior class starship to be commissioned, after the USS Excelsior NCC-2000. The Excelsior was clearly superior, it was shiny and modern, and making the new Enterprise of that same class would have suggested progress and reason, rather than pointless and unhelpful sentiment. Making it second of its class (probably; Starfleet registry numbers have always been unpredictable) would repeat things nicely, as the previous one was second of the Constitution class, and the 01 at the end offers a little visual similarity too. It even fits retroactively with Enterprise NX-01, the ship much further back in history, from Star Trek: Enterprise. But I have issues with the name and number of that ship too, including its potential clash with the conjectural USS Dauntless NCC-01.

Next in real-world order was Next Gen's NCC-1701-D, but it's also obviously established that there were a -B and a -C in between too. The -B really was an Excelsior class, 9 years later than it should have been. Then -C was an Ambassador class, -D a Galaxy class and eventually -E a Sovereign class.

If it had been up to me, though, I'd have blended what we know as the -A and -B into one ship, an Excelsior that replaces the first Constitution. This would have zero effect on the plots of existing series and movies. Sulu could still take command of Excelsior, Kirk could still retire in 2293, and Harriman could take command in the same year, after the -2001 gets a bit of a refit. Easy.

Then the -C would need a registry number somewhere in the Ambassador class range, perhaps NCC-10701, keeping the 01 at the end, and even looking more similar to -1701, while sitting only just beyond the USS Ambassador's registry of NCC-10561 (which isn't strictly canon and could be adjusted to -10700 or something very easily). The Enterprise-D could instead be numbered NCC-70701, just beyond USS Galaxy NCC-70637 (which was only numbered in canon years after the series ended). And the -E could follow the USS Sovereign's NCC-73811 with NCC-73901 or something, since the Sovereign's number also wasn't fixed in canon. But these could all have been sorted out from the start, if only someone had thought of them.

So that's my ranty vent for the weekend out the way. If I got to retcon the Star Trek franchise, I'd apparently make Star Trek: Nemesis a pretty shitty movie about the adventures of the crew of the UFS Enterprise SCN-73901. Because a rose by any other prefix and registry number would smell about the same.
Crunch: More or less smart than the self-destruct switcheroo?