captain danger?

The October Gaming Report

I should be using copious free time to better myself and improve the human condition, but instead I play video games. In reverse order of time played (most recent to least) since this summer:
  • Black Mesa: For those who don't know, this is the original Half Life (1998) updated to modern graphics and given away for free. It's wonderful and infuriating in equal measure, much like Half Life 2. One annoying feature is the all-important jumping mechanic. To leap over anything bigger than a coffee cup, you must "crouch-jump": press W to go forward, <space> to leap and <Alt> in the split second before you hit the ground. Forum old-timers denounced critics of the system as whiny, spoiled brats. "Jumping is hard!" they say. Sure! Know what else is hard? Single-handedly wiping out a squadron of marines. When it's easier to do that than a climb over a couch, something is wrong.
  • Fallout: New Vegas: I've had Fallout 3 for years, but found it so crash-prone I never got to play much. Luckily Fallout: New Vegas didn't have that problem and I played to the end, which if anything came too quickly. After a couple false starts I armed my toon with her custom rocket-launcher, "Annabelle," and fired two shots at the Legate before he opened his mouth. Dead Legate, war over, roll credits. Never got to explore DLC content, which is too bad since I was really enjoying the game. (I know I could return to an earlier save-point, but ... I don't want to! So there.)
  • Saints Row IV: Most of you know that when it comes to Saints Row I'm more eager than an 8-year old on Christmas Eve. So I created my Kimberly look-a-like -- her horrified reaction is part of the fun -- and played through the first few hours. Super-jumping, super-speed, blasting aliens with freeze-rays and then blowing them up with rocket-launchers ... I enjoyed myself immensely even if it was a shade too easy. But then I had to leave the Matrix and fly a spaceship through a half-dozen closing metal doors, James Bond-style. I couldn't do it. I tried over and over again, and because SR doesn't have unlimited saves -- you have to restart the mission each time, repeating all the cut-scenes and quick-time events -- I could make no progress. I had to quit the game only 1/3rd of the way through, which greatly depressed me.
  • Bioshock Infinite: This one I almost finished, and when I stopped it was due to real-life distractions rather than a problem with the game, which I thought was excellent. Columbia was gorgeous, the horror bits genuinely creepy, and Elizabeth may be the best "love-interest" in video-game history ... not that that's saying much. (Better than Princess Peach!) I got bogged-down in the towerairship-defense section; I didn't object -- it was obviously a climatic battle and should be harder than the rest -- but we had to prepare for our trip to England and when we got back there were too many other distractions. Hopefully, someday I'll return and find out what happens.
  • Starforge Alpha: This game may have great potential, as it promises to be Minecraft-in-space with better graphics. Alas, there isn't much to do in the latest version which, weirdly, has fewer features than previous ones. Not only that, the manual hasn't been updated and the YouTube play-throughs were for old versions as well. I'll check on the development from time-to-time but I have little confidence in the project.

I picked up other games during Steam's summer sale but none of them excited me too much. I'll have another report in mid-winter or so.

Con-Myth: The Portfolio Cloud

Last year I wrote about divine "portfolios" and how they're a lousy starting-off point when you're designing a divine pantheon. I made the point that "gods can have overlapping portfolios, and the more important ones can have a grab-bag of domains with only obscure connections between them."

Recently I decided to map out some of these "obscure connections" using software called Scrapple. You can see the last draft below (click for a larger version).

In most cases the connections should be obvious; others are more obscure. (For example, the Greeks connected "the sea" and "horses" because crashing waves supposedly resembled galloping horses.) More items and connections can be added to the diagram.

What you might do, when designing a pantheon, is to draw a polygon around a set of connected "portfolios" and then assign them to one god or another. (So for example, you could have a Dwarf god overseeing the Earth, the Underworld, Metals, Blacksmithing, Crafts, the Community and War.) Do that for each of your major deities, and don't worry too much about overlap.

This diagram could also be used in an RPG where each player is a god. As they go up in level they could take over nearby portfolios, making the lesser deities of those areas their "aspects" or followers. Turn your Rudra into a Shiva with a lengthy divine quest-line, in other words.

Some Links on the Looming Catastrophe

It's been about a month since my last entry, and there are lots of things I'd love to write about, but the crisis in Washington keeps sucking me in. Like many folks, I haven't been directly affected by the shutdown, but as the debt ceiling approaches the chance of absolute catastrophe grows ever larger.

No one knows what will happen, exactly, but this seems to be a pretty good primer. I thought it was neutral enough for Facebook (where I try to resist liberal ranting); it may have been so ten days ago. Now though, conservatives have done their usual about-face, deciding the debt-limit is no big deal now that it's politically convenient for them to say so. Yglesias says this is bunk, but even if he's wrong, Obama would have to unilaterally decide what to fund, and what not to fund. Considering how they went apeshit over the memorial closings I can't imagine them being happy with that situation.

Goodbye, Sphinx

I love pets, but the idea of pets always makes me uncomfortable. We take them from their parents, sterilize them, lock them in a house until they're old and sick, and euthanize them. During that time we keep them comfortable and well-fed and ask nothing in return. They love us and we love them, even but we do things to them we've never tolerate on ourselves.

Sphinx was sweet and well-behaved his whole long life. He loved me, and I loved him back. One of his favorite activities was to crawl under the covers, bury his head in my arm-pit and knead the sheets while I scratched his lower back. Of all of Kimberly's cats he was my favorite.

Sphinx was clearly ailing when we returned from upstate New York, and the vet confirmed it was cancer. He received treatment for a few weeks, but only got worse. He barely ate or drank, and couldn't get up to the bed without help. So today we took Sphinx, our poor, terrified cat to the vet and he died in our arms.

On some level I think it was the "humane" thing to do, but on another I feel I helped snuff out a life that wasn't ready to end, that we should've let nature take its course. I support the right to die, but for humans it's a choice, and I hate making the choice for a terrified creature that may not even understand the idea of his own death. Making that choice for Sphinx, who loved and trusted me, seems even more cruel.

Red States Are Different

I highly recommend Sarah Stillman's New Yorker article "The Use and Abuse of Civil Forfeiture." She describes how police departments use a kind of legalized piracy, seizing people's cars, money and even their homes, often on little more than suspicion of drug trafficking. Most of the victims, naturally, are poor blacks and Hispanics; the police are the beneficiaries, as they often get carte blanche to use the cash any way they like. As I said it's well worth reading.

Stillman spends a lot of time talking about the dirt poor small town of Tenaha, Texas. Tenaha used civil forfeiture aggressively under the guidance of an ex-state trooper named Barry Washington. Washington explained why he moved there:
He’d been lying in bed one night ... soon after leaving his old job, when he looked up to see a light burst through his bedroom ceiling. “And it’s like I’m in a trance,” he later recalled. “And God tells me, ‘Go to Tenaha, Texas.’ And I get up the next day, and I laugh about it, until I find out that God may be serious, so I end up in Tenaha.”
Statements like these are why I think the Red and Blue States have different and irreconcilable views of the world. If I heard that the police chief was getting messages from God, I'd be scared out of my fucking mind. I'd be afraid to give him a badge, let alone put him in charge of the department. (Plus, doesn't it sound weird that God is telling him how to make money from passing motorists? That's a lot like God telling you how to save on car insurance.)

I know there are people who listen to Christmas Shoes and find it heart-warming and inspiring rather than preposterous and disturbing. I suspect -- although I don't know for sure -- that they're concentrated in the Red states, and I wonder how it might influence their politics. All I know is that it's completely alien to my way of looking at the world.

Star Wars and World Building

io9's Charlie Jane Anders posts an essay today claiming that Star Wars: A New Hope had "better world building" than The Phantom Menace. I thought I'd talk about it a bit while waiting for a UPS delivery.

Personally, I agree with the commenter who said Anders was confusing "world-building" with exposition. A New Hope had an infinitely better story than The Phantom Menace, but they were set in the same world, and while Menace introduced some terrible elements ("michlorians" my fat ass ...) others didn't bother me. Folks laughed at "the taxation of trade routes," but that's the sort of thing civil wars are fought over! In Anders' "Seven Sins of Worldbuilding" she rightly condemned authors who failed to "think about basic infrastructure," but taxation is part of that infrastructure, and it tells us a lot about the Galactic Republic. As much as the prequels sucked -- and they did! -- I liked their depiction of the Republic as a somewhat primitive, ramshackle affair. It had a bureaucracy but no army (the Jedi were more like federal marshals), made grand proclamations it couldn't enforce (see: slavery), collected taxes on the economic margins, and hovered perpetually on the brink of chaos. It wasn't oppressive like the Empire, but only because it couldn't accomplish much of anything, oppressive or not. It's as if the Polish Commonwealth or Dutch Republic were running an interstellar civilization.

This is why, despite all the disappointments, I still respect the Star Wars universe: It takes assorted modern, pre-modern and science-fiction elements and mixes them together in a convincing way. Sure, Lucas borrowed all over, but while the Jedi may be inspired by the Lensmen, for example, the Jedi look and act like an ancient religious order and the Lensmen do not. You could also make one of them a Gandalf figure, throw him in with Bogart and Bacall and set them loose on a giant space station. In the Star Wars universe it all made sense. Lucas had a lot of help -- a multi-million-dollar budget on set design, costuming and FX makes a big difference -- but he deserves props nonetheless.

I should add that none of this guarantees a good story, and IMO only two of the six films are worth re-watching. That reminds us of what, for me, is an uncomfortable truth: The fact that plot, characterization and dialogue are much more important than world-building. Those three elements are essential, while lots of stories have no real "world building" at all (they're known to most people as "regular books"). I admire great con-worlds and love working on them myself, but one should always remember their relative importance.

The Sword & Sorcery Setting

Thanks to those of you who commented on my next-to-last entry and recommended the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, which filled me in on the scientific consensuses on the terrestrial planets. I was disappointed by the lack of info on the Jovian Moons, but that was hardly the Britannica's fault as astronomers hadn't made out many surface details.

In the meantime I work on other sections in fits and starts. I wrote the following about the "typical" pulp Sword & Sorcery setting:

Some pulp S&S stories are set in Earth's historical past, but most take place in distant pre-history or (like Clark Aston Smith's Zothique) in a distant, decadent, post-scientific future. A few settings were on other planets, at least in theory, although these "planets" would look just like Earth and wouldn't incorporate scientific knowledge about the setting. (For those that did see "Planetary Romance," above.) Purely imaginary worlds, outside our universe, were rare in early stories, but GMs can set campaigns in them if they like.

One advantage to a pre- or post-historical setting is that they could mix real-world elements with made-up ones. Howard, for instance, had historical peoples like the Picts and Iranians, and deities such as Set and Mitra, blended together with those of his own invention. He and Clark Aston Smith drew upon Theosophist beliefs about Mu and Atlantis, and imagined continents rising from the sea, filling up with strange races and civilizations and then crashing back under the waters, explaining why they left no traces behind and their technological advances were lost.

Technology in these stories tends to be at the level of the early Middle Ages, with stirrups and steel weapons, although this varies from one setting to the next. If one could generalize about Sword & Sorcery "culture," I would say it tends to combine the barbarian peoples of Western Europe with the civilizations of the Middle East (or occasionally Medieval Italy). For the latter they took the style of the Arabian Nights, replaced Islam with ancient paganism, and emphasized the wealth, hedonism and decadence of urban life. Their barbarians, by contrast, tended to be land-bound Vikings, with their harsh climate and grim religion, although they often looked and dressed like ancient Celts, dark-haired and half-naked. Other barbarians, stand-ins for Mongols or black Africans, could be found in other parts of the world, threatening the heroes as they travelled, or allying with them against the shifty and decadent city-folk.
Any thoughts, criticisms or suggestions for further details are welcome!

Returning to Two-Fisted Tales: Worlds of Wonder

I'm impressed by folks who can write on a consistent schedule and plow through, regardless of mood, inspiration, illness, work conditions ... I've never been able to do so, even when I'm writing as a labor of love; and when I'm forced to write for school or job it ends up being dreadful shit I can't bear to reread. (It's one reason why my first year in grad school was so awful.)

Happily inspiration struck again recently, and I made some progress on the should've-finished-years-ago supplement to Two-Fisted Tales, Worlds of Wonder. This supplement extends the 2FT rules to four settings: Swords & Sorcery, Swashbuckling Adventure, Golden-Age Superheroes and Space Opera. (I'm debating adding a fifth, Wild West, but it wouldn't have more than gun and lasso tricks.)1

It's been hard-going to many reasons. I was proud of Two-Fisted Tales and want the supplement to be high-quality as well. I'm not as familiar with these genres -- superheroes excepted -- and not as fond of their pulp exemplars, so I have less information to draw upon. With superheroes, on the other hand, I have plenty of background but the rules get unwieldy at superhuman power levels.2

Nevertheless, every once and a while I think up an elegant solution to a problem and it inspires me for a few days of work on the manuscript. Sometimes I get stuck on research questions, though, that I can't quite answer, and it stops me in my tracks. For example...

Bleg: Does anyone where I might find a source online (or offline, if necessary) on old scientific beliefs about the planets? I'd like to know what they knew, or thought they knew, about Mercury, Jupiter, the Jovian moons, Saturn, Titan and so on in the 1910s, 20s and 30s. (I've got a good take on Mars and Venus.)

This is for a part of the Space Opera chapter, in which I tell GMs what they could place on these planets while, if they choose, being consistent with the planetary science of the time. (Of course they can put dinosaurs on Saturn or anywhere else if they think it'd be fun that way.) Any help that might sustain this brief inspirational period would be welcome! Thank you.
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Zimmerman Getting Off

To repeat what I've said elsewhere: I can accept the acquittal. Maybe the prosecution couldn’t disprove a self-defense claim. I’m not a lawyer and I wasn’t in the jury room.

Even so, George Zimmerman stalked, confronted and killed an unarmed teenager for no good reason. He wanted to be Dirty Harry, profiled a black kid armed with Skittles, and got in over his head. Maybe he didn't execute Trevon Martin like a dog, but he's a dangerous loser, not a hero.

So I’m horrified to see conservatives rallying around the guy, and demonizing Trevon Martin for being an imperfect teenager. It’s as good an example as any of the sickness in the conservative movement. The Left can hard to take sometimes (believe me), but I could never imagine joining the other side. Their way lies madness.

What Color Is My Planet?

I stopped playing paper & pencil RPGs in the late 80s and early 90s. What brought me back, oddly enough, was graduate school: As I learned more about government and social science I thought about updating world-generation tables in games like Traveller. (I eventually wrote them up and published them in The Journal of the Traveller's Aid Society.) Those were the early days of the World Wide Web, as well, and I found many planetology web sites with information on the physical details of potential planets.

There was one question they couldn't answer, though: What will be the color of the sky? I asked lots of folks, and their response was always the same: "It's complicated." I had no doubt! Still, I didn't feel comfortable rolling d256-1 for Hue, Saturation and Brightness; surely there are some independent variables? Happily I just found a site that tries to answer my question. It's complicated -- it has to be -- but it gives a potential worldbuilder a little bit of guidance.

That still leaves questions about plant and animal coloring. Will plants tend to be green on other planets? If not, what colors would they take? Are there rules to determine whether animals are camouflaged or brightly colored? On what planets might we find purple-and-red carnivorous Dodo birds, stalking prey through forests of blue-leaved palm trees, against the background of a red sky? Once I know that, how could we procedurally generate that terrain so my computer can take me there?