Friday, July 31, 2009

Well, It's One D Better, Isn't It?

As a coda to King's discussing the film Coraline, Colleen and I watched the movie yesterday. We both enjoyed it, me especially. After seeing so much recent movie fantasy skew epic, towards Tolkien or even C.S. Lewis, it's comforting to see such a dedicated treatment of fantasy of the Carrollean tradition: Stories that are personal and reflexive, placing the mundane in sharp relief against the wondrous.

Coraline is weird and wonderful. It isn't often you find a film that succeeds both in being perfectly intimate, and perfectly monomythic.

But! The same technology that King expounded upon, I found jarring and newfangled. Watching it on our tv at home, we found quickly that the benefits of 3D were strongly outweighed by the cons - namely, we found it loused up an otherwise fine colour palette, transforming the shabbilly beautiful shades of the film into a muddy smudge. After watching about 20 minutes, we switched to 2D... it may be one D worse, but we got by just fine.

Despite everything, I'm quite happy we got two pairs of rinky-dink glasses with the rental for free. Now, if I ever stumble across a re-run of "The Bots Master", I'll have 3D shades at the ready.

Or, more accurately, "3D Shaaaaaaaaaaaaaaades."

Oh, look. It's my childhood. What can I say? I'm a sucker for jive-talking robots.

- Rook

Saturday, July 25, 2009

It's kind of like a kobold....

As Rook mentioned earlier in the week, I recently hosted a game of 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons. It was a real treat to be back in the drivers seat after a hiatus of a couple of years. We didn't get into any story or roleplaying this time as it was just a test session to practice a few things. Namely, the 4th edition system, and the software.

Something Rook didn't mention was that this game was run entirely online. I distributed PDFs of the core books, had everyone build their characters with
Wizards of the Coasts Character Builder, connected through Skype for voice chat, and Maptools for a virtual grid and dice roller.

First, let's get PDFs and piracy out of the way. Yes, distributing PDFs to my players is technically piracy but let's be honest folks, back in the day each player didn't own a full set of books, we all had a couple different ones and passed them between each other as needed, I feel that PDFs are simply the digital version of the same practice.

The Character Builder is simply one of the most powerful tools we have and one of the best products Wizards has ever released. It seems simple at first, in that it takes you through character creation step-by-step and automatically builds the numbers based on your choices. Populating things like defenses, skill bonuses and so forth. It's when you start selecting powers and feats that you realize you have something amazing at your fingertips. See Character Builder pulls information from every book printed and provides not only references to book and page number but also the relevant text. It's like having a magical tome that opens to the page of your choice, from the book of your choice, at will.

It may not look it, but this darkness is about to get attacked

Next up we have Skype. Now I just don't get how Skype hasn't seen more widespread adoption. It's a free phone line, with no long distance charges, assuming you're using your computer as the phone and the person you're calling also has Skype. You can of course use it to call normal landline numbers, though that has a cost associated. At any rate it also incorporates an instant messenger and, most importantly, allows conference calls. To get our game started I simply call up all the players via a conference call and away we go.

Finally, We have Maptools. This software is also free, and coded with pure love by a couple of dudes and we all know what kind of quality pure love coding gets us. Maptools has a virtual grid, a chat window, and a dice roller all built in. You can Import tokens and textures to draw your own maps and populate them, or you can simply drop in a jpg which is particularly nice when using a printed adventure. The grid allows you to move the tokens around, draw Area of Effect templates and just about anything else you could do on a kitchen table with some graph paper and pens, but you can never knock the map over with an errant die toss.

The die roller is extremely handy especially with 4th edition, as you can set up rolling macros. All the players have set up their various character powers as macros. When the mage wants to cast a magic missile he simply presses the magic missile button and the software populates the results. It's also handy that, when I have everyone roll for something like initiative I can just glance at the chat window to see the results instead of having to ask the players for their results one by one.

Well, if this isn't the future I don't now what is.

That's really only the tip of the iceberg with Maptools. It has fog of war and line of sight options and, if you wanted to put the effort in could be made into an entirely automated version of DnD. I could actually set up statistics for the PCs and the monsters and have Maptools take care of everything. I doubt we'll ever dive into that but it's cool to know it's there.

In closing, one of the cool things about a digital game is that it's pretty easy to record it. We recorded the first encounter, but look forward to full sessions in the weeks to come once we start the game proper. Until then this will give you a fair idea of how DnD 4th comes together in a simple encounter.


Monday, July 20, 2009

I Meta man with seven wives

I had the great opportunity to play a session of D&D this week, hosted by King. It was my first in several years, and my first experience with the 4th Edition of the rules. Playing in a new system was a pleasure in itself, and not only because of the many changes made since I set the game aside. It was oddly exhilarating to not know everything anymore.

There is a certain epistemological crisis to roleplaying: The more you do it, the more information you have that you are forced to suppress. Playing characters with independent intelligence and wisdom from your own means, to some extent, having to fake it. You begin as a novice player roleplaying that he has a clue what’s going on, and end up as an experienced player roleplaying that he doesn’t.

This type of metagaming lends itself to some pretty absurd scenarios, of course. Sometimes common knowledge blends into play knowledge, until everything turns into an Abbott and Costello routine.

DM: All right, so you enter the tomb. There’s a fancily dressed pale guy, with two really sharp teeth.

PLAYER 1: Oh no! A vampire!

DM: You don’t know what a vampire is.

PLAYER 1: I mean, Oh no! A pale guy!

PLAYER 2: Wait, we live in a world where vampires are real, and we don’t know one when we see one?

PLAYER 3: I show it my holy symbol. Does it hiss?

PLAYER 2: No, that doesn’t work. You have to impale it. Or expose it to the sun.

DM: You don’t know that.

PLAYER 1: But I thought when you expose vampires to the sun they just twinkled like diamonds.

PLAYER 3: Okay, but I show my holy symbol. Does it hiss?

DM: Sure. Yeah. It hisses.

PLAYER 1: Oh no! The pale guy is hissing!

It’s for this exact reason that every vampire movie starts with a speech explaining why everything you know about vampires is wrong.

“Forget what you know about vampires. Now remember half of it again. That’s the true half.”

In these cases, metagaming is something recursive and reflexive, the unavoidable baggage of prolonged play-pretend. As a function of the game, is self-defeating: if a fantasy space is defined by the wonder of difference, once the fantasy becomes the function normal, it ceases to be different.

Recently I talked a friend of mine and longtime gamer about his playing of MMOGs. He had been playing World of Warcraft for several years, and had risen through the ranks to becoming the top raid leader in his server. I asked him if he still got any enjoyment out of the game.

He thought about it, and said, “I guess so. But I’d give anything to be a noob again.”

But is metagame inevitably self-defeating? In the days and weeks to come, I’ll be looking at ways in which our inevitable metagame experience changes and accentuates play experiences. From platformer games about platform gaming to violent videogames about videogame violence, we have begun to see a new breed of games that deliberately engage player knowledge of genre. There are games that know they’re games, games that are played by changing the rules, and games where the only way to win is not to play.

Thanks, Ferris Bueller. Thanks for thermonuclear war.

It’s a lot to chew on, but I’m game. Are you?

- Rook

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Pick up eggs, cheese, milk.

I hate lists. Something about them drive me up the wall. If I were to pin down the Top Five Reasons They Get Under My Skin, they would have to be :

1. Lists can cobble together information without extracting any useful insight.
2. . Lists can be used to present subjective opinion through a lens of false objective value.
3. Lists can be a crutch that stand in for actual writing.
4. Oh God, no.
5. I've become everything I hate.

Don't get me wrong. Often lists can be helpful and serve a purpose. A grocery list, for example, is often more practical than a grocery pie chart.

You win this day, Cheap Cheese. But I'll be back.

But more often than not, you have either opinion masquerading as data, or data masquerading as useful. I'm well aware that I'm in the minority on this one. List-based comedy abounds on these treacherous tubes, and we've begun to chart the merits and failings of art through increasingly listy groupthink. It may be that I'm preparing myself for a future in which everything on the internet is something I dislike, in which case I suspect I'll need a new hobby.

But then there that occasional list that takes my breath away. A list that attains that trifecta of listdom: One that somehow manages to be pointless, irrelevant and inaccurate all at once.

Newsweek has decided to dabble its toe into the the murky waters of games journalism, with a List of the Top-Ten Best-Selling Video Games of All Time, a piece that begins with the priceless observation that "Playing video games is serious business."

Serious business.

For those interested, Newsweek outlines the top ten games as follows:

Grand Theft Auto
Grand Theft Auto
Guitar Hero
Madden NFL
Grand Theft Auto
Madden NFL
Madden NFL
Call of Duty
Grand Theft Auto

Congratulations, Grand Theft Auto! Your pluck and determination have won you first, second, fifth and tenth place. This list stands as a helpful reminder to the world that we still like cars, rock music, football and war. I notice that Barbie Horse Adventure didn't manage to crack the list. I hope there are still horses out there, somewhere.

You'd think in light of the franchise dominance at work here, they'd opt to sort them in terms of sum profit, or gross.You also might imagine that they'd be drawing from a complete set from information: However, some of the games listed as 'top-selling of all time' are not sorted by posted profits, but rather by units sold. And, if that's the criterion they're going by, they're not just confusing. They're wrong.

Even if you slice the pie another way, and conclude that gamers instead prefer saving princesses, playing with cute animals, solving brain teasers, and putting around on go-karts, what does this tell us? Even a completely subjective "Best Whatever" list stands as a statement to what succeeds, and what doesn't. Everything else just boils down to them most basic Boolean splat: Popular Things Are Popular!

If we're hoping for a better games journalism, both as a more intelligent investigation and a more meditative look at why we play, this is exactly the type of empty fat we've got to trim. No matter how you break it down, counting to ten is kid's stuff.

Nightmarish, horrifying kid's stuff.

- Rook

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

This Is Your Brain Online

Do you suffer from a fear of social contact? Do you have difficulty concentrating or sleeping? Do you spend around six hours online… and, when offline, do you occasionally miss the time you spend surfing these glorious tubes?

Final question: Despite these other pressing health concerns, are you on the Internet RIGHT NOW?

Hmm. I’m no doctor, so I’ve referred your case to my friend Dr. Yang Yongxin. He thinks you should be shocked repeatedly.

In the brain.

I can hear your collective sighs of relief now. At least he’s not going to be strapping electrodes to your nether bits, right? And your nipples are safe too. So it’s nothing weird, just a quick little zap to the cranium, thus eliciting a seizure. We’ll keep it up until you no longer want to go on the internet… or, I guess, if the internet goes away.

In a case of what I might refer to as “news of the weird,” if I thought unwilling ECT was more weird than, say, horrible and ethically unsound, a doctor in the Shandong Province of China has been experimenting with exactly this, sometimes conducting his experiments on unwilling participants. I can’t say I fully blame him, either. After all, there’s been a long history of using it to correct delusional kids who have trouble separating fantasy from reality.

China has stepped in and outlawed the procedure, recognizing that Yongxin has crossed the fine line between regular old-fashioned quackery and cartoonish super villainy. Apparently this guy was also administering shocks to patients who broke any of his house rules, including eating chocolate, locking the bathroom door, or sitting in his chair.

To be fair, it does look super comfy.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is no room for outlining pathology when it comes to new technologies, or that work towards understanding these conditions is in any way unwelcome. Consider the work being done to understand the Japanese phenomenon of Hikkikomori, a shut-in community made possible through extensive technological connections. But there is a danger to thinking that we have easy answers to these questions… or that drastic solutions are the only ones available to us.

Yes, Yongxin is a kook, but he isn’t alone. A quick glance at sites like Warcraft Addiction and WoW Detox show that commonly the issue of ‘playing too much video games’ is framed not just as a compulsive problem, but as a mental disorder rivaling alcoholism or drug addiction. Agree or disagree with such thinking, it’s interesting to see the extent of their diagnoses: Warcraft Addiction opens with the disclaimer that they are “not professional therapists,” and then go on to provide opinions based off of ‘years of study of the addiction.’ WoW Detox provides a link for a ‘situation in which there is no hope.’ It leads to a suicide hotline.

This is how it works, people.

If nothing else, the case of Linyi City’s psychiatric hospital’s unwilling electroshock is a reminder that snake-oil salesmen are an endlessly inventive bunch. When all you are doing is pulling treatments out of thin air, anything and everything can be cured. But the specific lesson here is that to overreact to a misunderstood problem may lead to a cure more harmful than problem itself.

- Rook