Sunday, 27 July 2014

I Hate Food and so I Must Rant

This started off as a quick comment I was going to use to introduce this Skepchick article when I posted it to facebook (adjust your set accordingly if you've arrived from G+), but it quickly grew out of control. So, copypasta to a blog post of its own. (Food is sooooooooooo boring! Also, why do I have zero clean dishes? I'm hungry now.)

I get MASSIVELY bored when people talk about food, and this is part of why. I'm not certain that I'd compare it so closely to reproductive rights (definitely worth keeping aware of impacts, but they aren't quite as direct and clear), but I think a lot of people talk a lot of uninformed shit. This is both bad in itself, and really, really boring for me personally. (And you are aware that you're here mainly to amuse me, right?)

  • If you want to talk about food for purely entertainment purposes, then, sigh, fine. It bores me, but I guess there's nothing technically dangerous or dubious about it. You can feed me tasty vegan things, sometimes, just don't discuss them with me. (Amuse me!)

  • If a qualified (really qualified, like a real doctor) medical professional has given you a custom personal diet for medical reasons, then that's akin to prescribing you medicine. You wouldn't rush onto FB to tell everyone they really need to start taking the super cool antibiotic you've just received, so don't tell everyone to copy your medical eating plan either.

  • If a non-expert has given you a diet for medical reasons, tell them to fuck off. This includes fitness and weight-loss diets, those are not somehow magically distinct from the rest of biology.

  • I believe I know exactly zero doctors (of medicine) and zero qualified dieticians, so if you want to give other people health-oriented eating advice, then you should fuck off too. At a stretch, if you're really that worried about them, politely suggest they consider seeing if a qualified expert agrees. But I'd save that for cases where there's a sudden dramatic change over a few days or weeks. Any longer than that and they probably already know their own condition well enough. They don't need you shaming them just because you think they look a certain way.

As for food ethics, that's more complicated, as the article suggests, and there is perhaps a little irony in an article complaining about the excess of food ethics preachers, itself preaching food ethics. But I think it was intended to focus attention on steering clear of woo and nonsense, so the bottom line is, know your shit and keep things in perspective. Knowing a cow got grass instead of hay is kind of moot, when either way it gets shot in the skull by someone paid peanuts. Fractional differences should not get your ire up as much as the bigger worries. And made up crap shouldn't bother you at all, except to complain about how crap the made up crap is.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Disagreeing with SU&SD on Flash Point

I bought Flash Point at Icon 2014 and before playing it, had a look to see what Shut Up & Sit Down had to say about it. It was mostly positive and mostly confirmed that the game would work as I hoped it would.

But when my friend Damon and I finally got a chance to test it on Thursday night, I found it didn't really fit SU&SD Matt's criticisms that much, especially about pre-game setup. He contended that it was slow and complicated, something that would scare off new players. We didn't find that at all, adjusting for time wasted on lack of familiarity. The Family rules game comes with a pre-set board arrangement, and you simply copy that directly out of the manual. The Expert rules require randomly generated board arrangements, and that is a little more work, but hardly by much, especially if you're playing at the lowest difficulty setting (which you would, with noobs).

If you have one player who's done it before and knows the rules, then it can be quickly arranged for the other players. And more than that, I'd make a little story out of it, incorporating setup into the fun. Why did the toilet spontaneously combust? What explosive hazmat did the family store on the coffee table that went up so quickly? Whose smoking habit was to blame for the initial blaze? Matt's complaint that the victims seem too anonymous and bland can be partly cured by this little bit of added fluff. If you're trying to get new people into gaming, then making it about more than pure mechanics seems important to me. I feel an element of roleplaying in most boardgames, and I personally find I enjoy games more if that element is greater.

That said, I have to agree that the victims are the weirdest part of the game, the least smooth mechanic. Rescuing 7 seems to give good game balance, it scales well with the size of the board, but it doesn't scale too well with the size of the house represented on the board. Why are there so many people in a moderate two-bedroom suburban house-ablaze? Why did they all get trapped there? And how do new ones keep teleporting into tiny rooms that we've just fucking cleared? It stretches the suspenders of disbelief a bit too far, and I have a vague feeling that it could be solved by scaling the map differently. Perhaps have a similar grid covering a bigger building, like a school, a floor of an apartment block, or a warehouse (for a big, open map). Then perhaps you could fit all of the POI markers in at once, or find a smarter way to make new ones appear on the board than random magic teleportation.

(New fires also appear randomly, but that makes sense. Heat and small tendrils of flame can fit through narrow gaps and travel under floors or over ceilings, spreading in new spots unexpectedly. It's hard to make a person fit under a door, especially if you know they weren't on either side of the door to begin with. Mixing firefighting and stage illusion seems unwise, and distracts from the game.)

I also have to strongly disagree with Matt that rescuing cats and dogs is somehow beneath the proper dignity of firefighters.

One interesting thing Damon and I noticed in our first game: Firefighters should put out fires. We were both so focused on getting to as many victims as possible that we let the place burn freely (and Damon didn't help matters by chopping through any wall in his way), until it all collapsed down on me as I was trying to get the 7th victim out. In our second game, we thought harder about taking on different, complimentary roles, and that worked much better. I look forward to ramping up the difficulty and adding more players.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Icon 2014: I Confirm It Happened

I wrote two years ago about Icon 2012. I was much more involved in Icon 2013, as a player, module writer and wearer-of-Starfleet-uniform, plus I knew way more people who were there that year, but I never got around to writing about it. I'd love to write a lot about Icon 2014, but I was barely there. It was my shortest visit to any Icon since my first in 2000; I was only there 3 hours, when normally I manage an average of over 12 hours per year, and have managed close to 24 hours over 3 days at the longest. I also didn't do much while there. But such is wossname.
Traditional Icon overview photo

I haven't seen official numbers, but it looked like a great crowd, for several reasons. There was less of an obvious gender imbalance than in the past, though some of the specific events (notably the wargaming) were still obviously boy-heavy. I think part of the reason for this is that keeping a good vibe is one thing the organisers have managed to get right. A week or so back, I was peripherally drawn into a sexual harrassment case involving a past Icon, and it all worked out pretty well in the end, with a clear, uncompromising message from the organisers and a lot of general support from other participants. Only one twit was stupid enough to throw the defamation card at the victim. Next goal: Make it not so very, very white.

It also seemed like a really active Icon. Some past years have felt more like glorified geek markets, with little actively going on beyond the selling of shit at the stalls. But this year, there was masses of gaming and geeking, sprawling out much wider than usual, and with a greater variety of games to play, plus the non-games like cosplay and artsy stuff. I might be biased by my short visit, smack in the middle of the weekend's busiest hours, but there was definitely a lot to choose between. Even DeeTwenty, the excellent general-purpose geek venue I spend my free time at [EDIT: I no longer associate with DeeTwenty and can not endorse it in any way], which is not an active purveyor of geek products, had a little mini-lounge set up there, to show off the sort of comforts they offer. I've never experienced an Icon with comfortable seating before. It was amazing.

Boardgames seemed to get a huge boost this year, with way more games played by way more people in way more space. Wil Wheaton may have had something to do with this, but I think it's been a slowly bubbling growth for a few years already, and my crowd have often borrowed the demo boxes to try out new things in past Icons.
Nearly as many different games there as some private collections I know.

The only disappointment I had was the roleplaying. I didn't play in any of the modules on offer, so I can't comment on the quality of those, though I regret missing Guy Scandlers's Friday module, Henchmen, a superhero story from the villain's mooks' point of view. That looked like a lot of fun, and Guy's stuff is always great. What I mean by being disappointed was that roleplaying seemed to get such little support outside of its designated play area. Outer Limits had only one small ground level shelf, right at the back of their area, of 3 or 4 different systems' books that I know they've been struggling to sell for a year or so. They gave geek-themed kitchenware more prominent position than this. And in all the other stalls, I think I found one roleplaying book accidentally tucked among some graphic novels. I know it's awkward timing, with no chance to get the shiny new D&D Next books in on time, but that's far from the only game in town. It's like nobody wants to encourage or support that glorious hobby, which is obviously the objective most important one there, because it's my personal favoured one. It's a trend I've noticed getting worse over a few years now. (I will also point out again a technical worry I have with the competitive roleplaying there.)

But all the other games and hobbies seemed to be doing really well. The admin, which I've mocked in the past, seems to have improved too. So all seems good. I really hope I'm feeling better for an equally good one next year.
15 mugs on my shelf now.

Oh, and for loot, I got myself, on impulse, the boardgame Flash Point, which I'd never heard of before. It's a similar structure to the excellent Pandemic, with a cooperative whackamole troubleshooting style and different difficulty levels. But you get to play as firefighters, who are one of my favourite categories of people! (The first thing-I-was-going-to-be, aged 3, was a firefighter, and that's never fully left me.) I have not tried it yet, but I'm very eager to.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Doreen Buck

My dear old Granny Dee has died. We knew for some time that it was coming, it was no surprise, but it's still not nice. I have nothing clever to say, I'll just miss her.

16 October 1928 - 14 July 2014

Sunday, 13 July 2014

WIP House Rules: Star Trek Next

(This is a work in progress, which will change as I get to test it. I'm definitely happy to receive suggestions and constructive criticism.)

[EDIT: This has now turned into a 30-page document, and I don't feel it's even half done. Still welcome further input.]
Under construction... in SPAAAAAAACE!

A few months ago, I realised the CODA system we'd been using for our regular Star Trek roleplaying was breaking down under stress from over-experienced, over-skilled player characters. Balance was becoming impossible, both in space (two junky old 23rd century Constellation- and Miranda-class starships were able to slaughter an entire Dominion squadron, including battleships) and on the ground (where even the frail Trill doctor eventually had no real worries about charging into Jem'hadar positions). On some common skill checks (like sensor scans and transporter operation), I knew it was basically impossible for certain characters to fail. But I didn't want to just start over totally from scratch, so I decided a conversion to a new system would solve things best.

I didn't want to go back to the older, also-not-great Last Unicorn rules, and instead decided to purchase the Prime Directive d20 rules. But when we spent an unscheduled evening doing character creation, I found that not only had I not yet fully studied these rules sufficiently, but I also didn't really like what I was learning about them. D20 is generally a clear, user-friendly basis for a roleplaying system, but Prime Directive had piled its own complications on top of the d20 Modern variant's complications, and the end result (especially the dependence on D&D-style classes) just doesn't feel right to me. It's not simple or clear, and it's not very Trekkie.

By happy random coincidence, enter 5th ed! We (well, some of us, the group composition has varied) were among of the 170 000 playtesters (I am nearly 0,006% of the creator of that game!) and we've already tried a few interesting things with it. And most importantly, I really like it. It's a good system, with the efficiency of 2nd ed. and the clarity of 3rd, and nothing of bloody 4th. So, I thunk to myself, why not wangle a 5th ed. conversion to Star Trek use? (Apart from the difficulty and likely failure.)

My group may be a little annoyed that we have to do character creation all over again now, but I'm convinced by a charming and handsome young man that it'll all be worth it.

I'm aiming relatively low to start:
1. Take the Basic Rules pdf as our starting point.
2. Until we can get the new PHB, borrow things that aren't in the Basic Rules (like Feats) from the last release of the playtest rules.
3. Make up new Species stats to replace the fantasy Races; focus more on reflecting what's seen on screen than on games balance, because these are once-off modifiers (mostly) which affect the flavour of the setting a lot.
4. Scrap classes. See below.
5. Adapt Skills list, replacing fantasy stuff with scifi stuff, aiming to keep the total number of Skills constant, to help keep #4 more balanced. (I think?)
6. Add new setting-relevant Backgrounds. Not tricky, just adminny. Borrowing the rough forms of existing Last Unicorn and CODA analogues will be handy.
7. Add new equipment. Lament the awkward clash of energy weapon canon vs. gaming. Because of this issue, I'm borrowing the Wounds/Vitality split from several d20 variants. I'll do a bigger starship combat mod next, also using stats I've already generated for the older Spycraft adaptation.

I've sort of partly got #3 worked out, with some custom d20 Species modifiers that I assembled myself years ago in an earlier (abandoned) attempt to figure out a Spycraft/Star Trek hybrid. I'll post a link to those with some 5th ed. modifications in a couple days, when I've had a chance to tweak them.

#5 is quick and easy. Replace the Basic Rules list with these:

 - Athletics

 - Acrobatics
 - Sleight of Hand
 - Stealth
 - Piloting (added; covers controlling any vehicle)

 - Technology (replaces Arcana; building, fixing and operating devices)
 - History
 - Investigation
 - Science (replaces Nature; understanding of why things do things)
 - Cultures (replaces Religion; understanding of why people do things)

 - Animal Handling
 - Sense Motive (renamed Insight)
 - Medicine
 - Perception
 - Survival

 - (removed Deception, it's too similar to Persuasion)
 - Intimidation
 - Entertain (renamed Performance)
 - Persuasion

#4 is the real challenge, but my initial stab at a conversion looks like this:
300 XP needs to buy a Star Trek character as close to the same number and scale of upgrades that a prepackaged step up to level 2 brings. 900 XP needs to be worth as much as level 3, 2 700 XP should equate to level 4, etc. But a pure point-buy system would take some work to reconcile with that; not impossible, but not something I can spit out in a rush. For now, I'm happy to compromise on a classless leveling system (to represent the Federation's classless society?). I also like the Tiers of Play concept (fully qualified Starfleet officers should probably start in tier 2?), and keeping parallel to the D&D levels makes it easy to retain that.

Non-Class Class

  • Wounds: Always equal to Constitution score (maaaaaybe modified by some new Feat?)
  • Vitality Hit Die: d8 (max at level 1) plus/minus Con mod
  • Starting Armour Proficiency: Light
  • Starting Weapon Proficiencies: 2 out of Simple, Martial, Energy (hand and rifle phasers, disruptors, etc.), Heavy (purple space bazookas and starship weapons).
  • Starting Tools: By GM's discretion, tied to skills not class.
  • Saving Throws: Pick any 2 Ability Scores.
  • Skills: Pick any 3 2 Skills.
  • Equipment: Entirely at GM's discretion.
  • Features: Pick 2 at character creation, then pick 1 more at every new level. Full list of features will take some further writing, but assume any from the Basic Rules that the GM doesn't declare "Irrelevant Fantasy Drivel" are acceptable for now.

General To Do list:
  • Feats
  • Species (pretty much done, except maybe Delta quadrant species)
  • Features
  • Backgrounds
  • Equipment
  • Ships
  • Tribbles
  • Telepathy (mostly done) 
[EDIT: Update 1 is here.]

Friday, 11 July 2014

Set Phasers to, quote, "Kill"

Star Trek roleplaying has a weapons problem, and I'm not sure how to solve it. It's not unique to Trek, but it is more prominent here. The trouble is that, on screen, a phaser set to stun almost always stuns the target, obviously and unambiguously. And the kill setting, while potentially survivable if you get grazed, will kill most things most of the time - except for main characters, who have an improbably high rate of grazing shots. And the disintegrate setting better not hit a fucking main character, or that's the last you ever see of them. For screen-writing purposes, it works fine, and it's part of how fans identify and understand the setting.
There are significant exceptions, which are interesting because they are so exceptional.

For roleplaying, it doesn't work so well. Usually, damage in roleplaying games is abstracted into hit points, which may include physical body survivability, but which is mainly representative of the heroic hero style of combat where fists and swords and bullets constantly just miss, or barely nick the clothes, perhaps breaking the skin enough to shed a drop of blood. As things get worse, there can be lost teeth, black eyes and bruising. Sometimes a continuing fight needn't even be that obvious about who's losing, with heavy breathing or a sweaty brow enough to make the point. All of this is mere visual effects, a way of indicating which way a fight is going for each participant, before eventually getting to the final bottom line: Does someone get a sword in the gut or a bullet in the brain, taking them out for good? That end result may be the bottom line of the fight, but it's not the story of the fight, and roleplaying is all about story. (Or to put it another way, the statement, "Ali beat Foreman", just isn't very exciting on its own.)

That's what the bland Hit Point stat in most games is meant to stand in for, especially heroic games in the D&D style, where hit points can just keep growing and growing, no matter how constant the character's physiology remains. Not all players think of it that way, not all GMs explain it that way (I personally like to drop in a few cool special effects when I can see places for them, but otherwise leave it to players to fill in most little details like this in their own manner), but it is what the number is technically meant to represent. This doesn't fit too well with the Boolean efficiency of a typical Star Trek phaser fight. Sure, Kirk can pile on the visual effects for ages in a sweaty, topless fist fight, but as soon as someone pulls an energy weapon, the style of the fight completely changes and it's mostly one hit, one stun/kill. Forcing the phaser's efficient stun setting to fit in with the flowery fisticuffs rules seems to miss the point.

We found a similar issue with Stargate roleplaying and the zat. On screen, that has a really clear set of rules: One hit stuns, two hits kill, three hits vaporise. It's perhaps not the most realistic rule, but the series sticks to it pretty consistently, and then the roleplaying version of it utterly ditched this to force the initial stun shot to comply with more conventional roleplaying combat rules instead, with much more drawn out Saving Throw rules complicating the process.

Of course, instant kill weapons are not unknown in all roleplaying. Some systems (I can't think of an example right now) may explicitly run damage that way, while some like Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer simply keep the weapons damage pretty constant and hit points constanter, and both approaching the same average figure, so that survival is possible, but not inevitable. Getting shot once is probably a terrible thing.

And it would certainly simplify any Star Trek roleplaying system if the whole energy weapon damage scheme boiled down to definitely stunned, wounded (roll for how much), definitely dead (with corpse) or definitely dead (no corpse).

Trouble with instant take-down is that it doesn't lend itself to all kinds of drama, and certainly not the sort that players prefer. Players like their characters to participate, to stay conscious, to carry on from session to session, giving some sense of personal continuity. Outside of silly things like Paranoia or Kobolds Ate My Baby!, PC death is accepted to a point, but not when it's down to little more than a coin toss every time they step outside.

From the GM's point of view, it also becomes difficult to justify why villains wouldn't love such instant take-down weapons. Sure, maybe a Klingon warrior enjoys honourable combat enough to want to use a bat'leth for slower hacking and chopping, but a more to-the-point Romulan or an aggressively obedient Jem'Hadar would surely want to dial their shooter up to 11 and get some killing done and over with. Yet from a storytelling point of view, the GM controlling such NPCs needs to balance such motivations against giving the players a fair chance at survival. Some GMs would worry about that more than others, but it's still got to be a consideration. It was a bizarre oddity in our recent Dominion War campaign that it was more often the 'vicious' Jem'Hadar firing weapons set to stun or low damage, and the 'peaceful' Starfleet officers always looking for the vaporize setting and rolling buckets o' damage dice.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that this all follows the standard D&D model, and in D&D the monsters come pre-built with different amounts of damage at different levels. In Star Trek, a starting character is as likely to face a weapon with a Maximum Super-duper Kill setting (because it's such a common thing that a weapon without it would take a lot more justification, every damn time) as a very experienced character, and all that usually changes is the competence of the weapon's aimer.

The bottom line? There is none. I'm not sure what a reasonable, workable solution to this is. I'm open to any and all thoughts. Begin!