Browsing the blog archives for May, 2006

The Silent Forge


As I’ve mentioned before, when I read some of the erstwhile game theorists I frequently feel as if I’m reading — Not another language, nor something that is merely densely packed language like academic jargon — something that is talking about a completely foreign experience. Being a long time admirer and occasionally a player and a GameMaster I find that hard to believe. My guess is that I simply don’t have experiences that are nearly as focused, nor the vocabulary to describe fine distinctions in play.

In response I’ve been reading forums at The Forge. In particular, the RPG Theory forums. Strangely as it may be considering this is, in theory, the belly of the beast, I find the discussions taking place here to be much more lucid to me — Perhaps my feelings of incomprehension hinge upon the lack of proper context. In any case, it’s somewhat disappointing that the Theory forums have been shut down, but at least they are still publicly available for perusal.

The other day I was reading about “Alignment” as a possible anti-Pattern in game design. This terminology might seem a bit foreign unless you have a coding background. Essentially, though, what the author of the thread was speculating is that D&D’s “Alignment” system is the worst possible solution to various game objectives and should never be used. As much as I dislike D&D’s alignment system I have to think it’s not entirely without merit. Looking towards Alignment as an anti-Pattern is almost assuredly a personal response rather than an objective assessment.

What I enjoy about reading threads such as this is they help to clarify my own understanding of the game (in this instance, D&D). Better than I could manage, the people break down Alignment into various functions and patterns. It’s interesting although a bit tangential. What really kept me reading was the hope of learning more about this game called Nobilis.

Nobilis seems like an intriguing game. In the context of the thread, it’s introduced with a given set of “Codes” that are compared to D&D’s alignment. Examples given were:

Code of the Heaven
1.) Beauty is the highest principle.
2.) Justice is a form of beauty.
3.) Lesser beings should respect their betters.

Code of the Wild
1.) Freedom is the highest principle.
2.) Sanity and mundanity are prisons.
3.) Give in kind with a gift received.

Frankly, I find this absolutely fascinating and am just barely restraining myself from writing up a whole set of Codes for my own game. Ultimately I might end up doing so, my main worry is that with the number of ideas floating around in my head at this moment that I am at serious risk of completely throwing away the concept that my campaign is a “D&D” campaign and starting to implement my own system altogether.

As much as I’m tempted by the prospect, I know that it’d just be completely unfair for my players.

Living Text

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I find myself increasingly living in a world of text. In particular, digital text. Perhaps it’s getting to me. I’ve noticed that my days seem to feel both long and short. I have my obligations to my Dungeons and Dragons groups, yes, but it seems like so much of my time is spent concerned with that. Am I accomplishing the things I want and need to, otherwise? The past few days I’ve made lists of things I need to do, yet mysteriously not managed to get much further than “D&D.”

The task of late seems straightforward — To write, compile, and make available various texts that exist within the campaign setting. The reality is that there is only one way that I will feel satisfied in my task, and that is to create every text from the game world in real life. Obviously this is a little overboard. I [attempt to] share information with the players in my campaign by making this information available on my website. Maybe I’m just slightly compulsive about having characters be cognizant of major setting features like the dominant religion or prejudices arising from past events.

Ever since I took a course on the Nag Hammadi codices I feel that I’ve become increasingly aware of the sensual properties of books. Reading the Nag Hammadi codices on The Gnostic Society website just isn’t appropriate. So many elements of the text are lost by the point that it comes to your computer screen that it’s not the same thing anymore.

That’s not to say I wasn’t conscious of books as sensual objects before. Like most of the people I associate with, I devour books when I can. I have a great love for illuminated texts, such as those of Blake, but I don’t think it was until I dealt with the Nag Hammadi texts that I realized what I might be missing. Were the Nag Hammadi texts hymns? Sermons? Meditative aids? We’ll never really know. We translate these fragile thousand year old fragments, half eaten away by worms or microbes, place nondescript indicators in brackets where we can’t decipher the obscured or missing words, and send it out over the internet for someone to read in their bedroom. The latter experience has so little to do with how the texts must have been experienced first hand.

In my quest to create my campaign setting for my players I find myself downloading endless images of texts. Ancient texts decorated with dutiful craftsmanship, each page a work of art in text and image. I create texts and have images in my mind of what they look like, their physical condition, how the text is arranged on the page or on the scroll. What other information is contained in the book besides the mere words? Is the text dry and undecorated? Is the text abundant with life and color? Do the text’s other elements tend towards romanticism or the grotesque?

I’ve created some images — In particular I found some images of libraries that I altered in PhotoShop and am now using to evoke the physical space wherein books in my campaign are contained — But creating each codex or scroll in PhotoShop is clearly too much work. So I compromise. The text goes on the screen, the mere skeleton of the experience, and I write a few notes about the text’s condition. In time I hope to have the opportunity to visit each one in turn, making each one into a work. In the meantime I settle, and hope to accomplish more elsewhere. Turn my mind from text, so much text that I can’t escape it, and everything I do requires text.

Dungeons and Anime

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Having a DVR is largely a liberating experience, but as with all things there is a certain amount of obligation associated with a DVR, particularly in the realm of keeping it clean of trash. For those of you without a DVR, most of them seem to have a “Recommendation” feature that selects and records shows for you automatically based on viewing habits. It seems that most people turn this feature off, as it can clog up your DVR with unwanted shows. Instead of doing so, I’ve made the decision to train the feature and see how well it performs. Already I’ve found a few shows through the recommendation feature that I’ve enjoyed.

The DVR consistently tries to record shows from the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim program block. Most of these shows are bad. I’m not familiar with their current lineup, but it seems like it’s always an amalgam of the worst in anime — Full Metal Alchemist, Inuyasha, and Big O come to mind. I’m not terribly fond of Samurai Champloo, but it’s not horrible, I’m just not sure if I care enough about it to watch it. Cowboy Bebop, of course, is an excellent show (and I don’t quite know why Steven seems to have changed his mind about it — too much kawaii?) but I would never be able to force myself to wait a week between episodes.

To continue my story, I found myself cleaning out the shows that the DVR had selected for me last night and found Inuyasha among the lineup. Normally I wouldn’t waste my time watching this dreck, but I decided to anyway. I’ve actually been thinking a fair bit about this show recently, what it does right and what it does wrong, and how it relates to Dungeons and Dragons.

The cast:

Inuyasha 1 Inuyasha 2 Inuyasha 3
Inuyasha, the title character. He’s not exactly the main character, he’s just the one that male anime fans are supposed to envy. He wields a huge sword and is supposedly a half-demon. He’s a fighter.

Kagome, ostensibly the main character. She’s a schoolgirl in a mystical, feudal Japan setting. She acts as a general foil and love interest to Inuyasha. She’s an archer.

A monk character. He has a distinguishing characteristic in that he’s lecherous. He uses spells to defeat most of his opponents.

Inuyasha 4 Inuyasha 5 Inuyasha 6
Another female character, this time a love-interest for the monk. She uses a giant boomerang and sometimes rides around on a flaming cat creature.

The comic relief and mischevious character.

The villain. He uses monologues and well-groomed hair to foil the protagonists.

(Pictures culled from the Adult Swim website, visit them if you want more information on the show.)

Now, note that I’m not really delving into the background for all of these characters, or even giving them names. Mostly this is because I don’t even know the names for these characters. Even after having watched a total of five or six episodes of the show, apparently my mind finds it entirely unnecessary to remember their names. My secondary reason is because I see the characters in Inuyasha more as archetypes (or, to put it in a less high-minded fashion, anime tropes) than as characters. My general premise here is that the show is actually like one extended Dungeons and Dragons campaign, or, in a more general sense, that Inuyasha has something to bring to Dungeons and Dragons.

The show’s basic story is this: Kagome is a schoolgirl from modern day Japan (this is irrelevant) who is transported magically to this fantasy world where all of the other characters reside. Somehow she finds herself in an adventuring party which is seeking magical items called sacred jewel shards. I don’t know how many shards there are, but since this show has been going on for over 150 episodes we can gather that there are probably quite a few.

The thing that strikes me about Inuyasha, if seen from the perspective that it is a show about Dungeons and Dragons, is how well it works. The key here is that all of the player characters have the simple common goal of collecting the jewel shards and defeating the villain. I can’t but help of thinking of how frequently the common D&D falls apart because the characters share nothing in common. You meet in an inn. You have nothing in common, you group together out of the metagame consideration that you wouldn’t be playing the game if you weren’t in a group. Unless you’re gaming with people you know and trust extremely well, it’s unsafe to ever try and interact with other characters as characters, you risk the possibility of running into those nasty issues that plague games: You’re good, you’re evil, why are we grouping? or Why are we risking our lives for some small pittance?

Now, I’m not saying that Inuyasha is great, it certainly is not. But the reason why it “works” better than your average D&D game is that the players, as it were, are all on the same page. None of the characters in the show are deep, none of them are really characterized beyond quirky distinguishing gimmicks. The monk is lecherous, yet presumably in love with the boomerang-wielding female. This conflict leads to humor, not to serious character exploration. Inuyasha is half-demon wolf, yet it seems the only importance this carries is that Kagome can make dog jokes about him. Kagome is from an entirely different world, yet she takes everything in stride as if she’s been living there her entire life. The villain is bad because he’s the villain, that’s all you need to know.

I’ve been reading Bankuei and associated blogs off-and-on for awhile now, and he and other Forge affiliated role-playing-game theorists are frequently discussing things that I just have a hard time understanding — My entire experience with Role-Playing games comes from Dungeons and Dragons. Goals of play, styles of play, from an exclusively Dungeons and Dragons perspective these things are alien concepts. To this day I still feel very out of place when I read these guys, I just don’t know exactly what they’re talking about. I am starting to see though, between the game I’m playing in and the game that I’m running, some of what they must mean.

Unfortunately the issue isn’t quite as simple as sitting down and explaining to your gaming friends that you want to run a campaign with a particular type of play, or a particular theme. Although I consider myself largely to be a power gamer (or, Min-Maxer, if you prefer), I can enjoy role-playing intensive campaigns. I don’t know if your casual D&D players even have the vocabulary to articulate their favored style of play, though.

Visual Poetry

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A link via Alarm-Alarm leads me to this trailer for The Promise movie. If you’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hero, or House of Flying Daggers you know what this movie offers: A questionable plot surrounded by astounding visuals. The Promise actually seems to remind me largely of Casshern, seeming to be more of a comic-book or a fairy-tale brought to life than a romanticized historical movie.

The Promise 1

Seeing yet another movie in the genre of Extraordinary Beauty, I’m forced to wonder: Where are the Western movies? Yes, we have The Lord of the Rings, which has moments of astounding beauty, and yes I would probably prefer to watch The Lord of the Rings over almost any of these Eastern movies. The problem is that the choice is not really between The Lord of the Rings and Hero, the choice is between Dungeons and Dragons and Casshern. When it comes down to a pathetic movie with horrible visual design, or an overly complicated and schizophrenic movie which is nonetheless striking as a perfect adaptation of anime visual style into a movie, I know what I’d rather have.

The Promise 2

It seems that Western historical fantasy is always of a certain type: dreary blues and greys, people with perpetually wet and dishevelled hair. You know the movies: The Two Towers, The Thirteenth Warrior, Tristan and Isolde, et cetera. Even something like the BBC’s production of Gormenghast was primarily an affair in portraying characters who have various grotesque features.

The Promise 3

I wonder if it’s something in the psychology of Western moviemakers that we can’t seem to have an idealized vision of our past. Everything must always be a “warts-and-all” approach, interspersed only by moments of the sublime. Perhaps we’re so accustomed to critiquing our own faults that we can’t help but carrying them into our fantasy. Maybe it’s just that the stylized visuals of anime are mainstream in Asia, where comics in America have always been not only less stylized, but largely denigrated as an art form. Maybe I’m just not aware of the American movies that strive to capture so much beauty.

Fallow Ground

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Peter at Alarm-Alarm writes:

Why is no one writing good, strong cultural criticism about video games? Most video game magazine reviews are redundant and narrow-minded, rehashes of a litany of familiar technical questions about controls, graphics, difficulty, code glitches, and some mysterious factor generally referred to as “gameplay”–otherwise known as “fun.”

Full posthere.

The first thing that comes to mind is that writing cultural criticism of video games just seems boring. Maybe I’m prejudiced against the term cultural criticism to immediately think of the four interpretive paradigms of academia: racism, sexism, Marxism, and deconstructionism. To write about games in that vein, I can think of nothing more dry, boring, and unneeded. While racism, Marxism, and deconstructionism are not necessarily frequent targets of this sort of calumny, we get enough share from the feminist criticism. What we need, I think, is less of the intent to write manifestoes and more of the intent to simply write about games. What I mean by that is not writing game reviews, but also not writing for the sake of showing off your own erudition or making a cultural commentary, but simply writing for the love of a game.

Gom Jabbar

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In order to prove that you are a human, please type in the letters that appear in the following image:

Captcha 1

Did you type “673HT0”? Sorry then, you are not human.

If you’re like me, you’ve encountered this sort of test before, but usually find them easy. Recently my luck has changed and I’m finding lots of these things everywhere and they’re becoming a real thorn in my side. The above test was found at The Escapist when I was attempting to publish a comment there. I tried two different combinations and then gave up on it.

I never knew these sorts of image tests had a name but apparently they are called CAPTCHAs. Perhaps I’m just running into these things more frequently now that I have begun to read regularly. Here is a CAPTCHA from Digg:

Captcha 2

If you typed “FVJDe” then you are not human. The answer to this one is simple, “FVjDe.” I tried to find a harder one but none came up after I reloaded the page half a dozen times. Still, the letter form doesn’t make it totally clear that the J is supposed to be lowercase.

I have a theory that the difficulty of the CAPTCHA is proportional to the length of your remarks — If you are writing a short comment then the CAPTCHA will be easy. If you spent an hour writing a lengthy reply then the CAPTCHA will be extremely ambiguous. You will click “Post Comment” and then a page will load indicating to you that you have filled out the form incorrectly and redirect you back to the comment page. Helpfully, most webpages that implement this feature will usually erase everything you’ve written, allowing you to type not only the CAPTCHA all over again, but also your entire comment.

Spammer Syndicates

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The lesson to be learned, Reshef said, is that large ISPs and governments need to recognize that spammers are connected to criminal syndicates and that they, not a small startup, are the only ones who can shut down these networks.

Is this just more Wired sensationalism, or is it really true? To be honest I wouldn’t be surprised if spammers are connected to criminal syndicates. Who else would risk their reputation to advertise via spam, and who else would have access to large quantities of cheap drugs?

In any case, too bad for Blue Security. I’d love to see the government step in to shut down spammers.

Mental Congestion

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Every once in awhile … Every day or two things end up building to a point where I have trouble keeping track of them all and need to step back and write some of it down. It’s even worse than usual with this so-called blog thing, as I’m reaching out into various media corners that I don’t normally explore.

Spinning is an intriguing website — It seems to be somewhat of a stream of consciousness. When I first looked at it, I couldn’t understand any of it. Now I can see the meaning behind the words. The author mentions philosophy: Longinus and Lucretius. Philosophy is not well-read online.

I search for medieval songs and ballads, partially for my own interest, partially as a D&D related task. I find Chinese literature. Philosophy is not well-read online.

Elijah came there to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of Yahweh came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” … “Go out, and stand on the mountain before Yahweh.” Behold, Yahweh passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before Yahweh; but Yahweh was not in the wind. After the wind an earthquake; but Yahweh was not in the earthquake.

After the earthquake a fire passed; but Yahweh was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. It was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave. Behold, a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

The Belmont Club speaks of the bicameral mind:

Jaynes asserts that until roughly the times written about in Homer’s Iliad, humans did not generally have the self-awareness characteristic of consciousness as most people experience it today. Rather, Jaynes argued that the bicameral individual was guided by mental commands believed to be issued by external “gods”—the commands which were so often recorded in ancient myths, legends and historical accounts; these commands were however emanating from individuals’ own minds. This is exemplified not only in the commands given to characters in ancient epics but also the very muses of Greek mythology which “sang” the poems: Jaynes argues that while later interpretations see the muses as a simple personification of creative inspiration, the ancients literally heard muses as the direct source of their music and poetry.

Jaynes inferred that these “voices” came from the right brain counterparts of the left brain language centres—specifically, the counterparts to Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area. These regions are somewhat dormant in the right brains of most modern humans, but Jaynes noted that some studies show that auditory hallucinations cause increased activity in these areas of the brain. For example, he asserts that, in The Iliad and sections of the Old Testament in The Bible that no mention is made of any kind of cognitive processes such as introspection, and he argues that there is no apparent indication that the writers were self-aware.

I am reminded of Spinning . I listen to new music, some of it seems to speak, an enveloping experience. I complete some trivial amount of work for the D&D campaign, but which was hanging around like a mosquito. Over at Gene Expression a discussion is started about differing cultural sexual preferences, leading to the excellent vocabulary word callipygian and to this:

The only physical characteristic upon which the love-shy might be construed as being somewhat less demanding than the non-shy is that of breasts. Most of the love-shys in both groups indicated that they were turned off by large breasted women.

They tended to prefer women with small-to-medium sized breasts, comparatively thin legs, and thighs, and trim figure. This finding did not surprise me inasmuch as psychologists have known since the late 1960s that introverts tend to prefer small-breasted women, whereas extroverts tend to prefer those with large breasts. In fact, there appears to be a rather strong statistical relationship between how extroverted (outgoing) a man is, and how large he wants the breasts of his female partner to be.

Whereas extroverts tend to be governed first and foremost by the attractiveness of personality factor, breast size is typically the first specifically physical factor they notice in a woman. In the case of the love-shy the face is invariably the first and foremost physical feature of a woman to receive focused attention. It must be pretty (no make-up), and it must have long (straight or tousled) hair, with no complex or fancy hair styles. When the love-shy do look beyond the face, the second item likely to capture their attention is the legs/thighs (which they like thin), followed by the rear end, which they like small and well-rounded. Very unlike the extroverts, breasts are not noticed by them at all, unless the breasts are viewed as being too large.

Gene Expression leads to Theodore Dalrymple, who must simply be one of the most insightful essayists of our time. Thoughts crystallized:

I take it as axiomatic first that human existence is always to some extent unsatisfactory, and second by that most, or at least many, men desire transcendence in the sense that they want their lives to have some larger purpose than the flux of day-to-day existence. Shopping and going to the pub are all very well in their way, but for people of larger spirit they are not enough.

Radical politics answers the need for transcendence and provides a plausible, though erroneous, explanation for the existential shortcomings of human existence. It kills two birds with one stone. It gives a transcendent purpose to life, by allowing participants the illusion that they are helping to bring about a life that is completely without dissatisfaction.

A further two axioms need to be added to explain the rise of monomaniacal fanaticism. The first is that hatred is a much more powerful political emotion than love, and is therefore also a stronger motive for action. It is my guess, for example, that Mr Brown hates the rich much more than he loves the poor, and that anti-racists, for example, hate whites, even when they are white themselves, more than they love members of minorities.

The second additional axiom is that aggressiveness, destruction and violence are their own reward, because they are enjoyable, at least for quite large numbers of people, in themselves. There is also great pleasure to be had from intimidating and striking fear into people. This is no doubt a regrettable feature of human nature, but it is a real one. Anyone who has observed a riot will have been struck not by the misery of the crowd but by its happiness. To feel morally superior while doing evil is one of the most exquisite pleasures known to man.

I have decided that I am going to try a regimen of meditation every day, if I can ever find a few minutes undisturbed by the relentless sound of other people.

Unexpected Consequences (UT99 to UT2003)

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Reposting some things here that were said on the Atari Unreal Tournament forums, as I may want to reference them at a later date. A bit of prefacing here, the posts are made as part of a discussion about what development choices Epic Games should make for the forthcoming Unreal Tournament 2007 game. In particular, the discussion is about whether to keep the so-called “double jump” that was introduced in the UT2003 game. While UT99 was the most popular FPS of its time, the UT2003 followup squandered the market dominance of the game (and to this day more people play UT99 than play UT2003 or UT2004). It is my belief and the belief of many others that the double jump is one of the driving factors in making the 200X iterations of Unreal Tournament less enjoyable than their predecessors.

tbh, more people prefer ut99’s movement over 2k4’s, however I like wall dodging and it’s functionality makes sense. If your falling and you happen to be close to a wall, dodge and you will push off the wall. This is very simple and easy to understand plus it just makes SENSE. However i just can’t understand this “hut….HUT” crap ala double jump and dodge jump. Jump then press jump again and you’ll get even higher. How you ask? Doesn’t matter it’s the “Unreal” universe.. TAKE IT OUT, it really serves no purpose…

I’m not saying everything in the game has to have a logical explanation, i do know it’s a video game. But to me the dodge jump and double jump are both very corny and gimicky and do not belong in Unreal. Unreal is rooted in DEATHmatch where the idea is to KILL the other person, who gives a isht about trick jumping all over a map. Also the run speed is faster in 2k7. This type of movement should be reserved for mutators.

Totally agreed with you here. Not only is it really irritating having people say, “The name of this game is UNreal!” every time they want to try and justify their opinions on how the game should be (can you justify something in the game based purely on a superficial semantic point?), but it’s immaterial to the real issue of whether it improved the game. If UT2k7 gave every player a rocket pack to start with capable of boosting a character’s jump as high or as fast as a Manta we’d still see people praising the movement style as “awsum” and “adding depth.” And in a sense, I don’t disagree. However you have to ask yourself at what point the benefits of increasing potential movement options end up negatively impacting other important aspects of the game.

Go take a look at Low-Gravity Instagib CTF servers. If these maps play anything except Bridge of Fate and FaceClassic, most likely they’re playing variations on CTF-Subtracted10240Cube. For all the amazing architecture and visuals UE2.5 is capable of producing people choose to play on maps that are frequently worse looking than even crummy UT99 maps like Wootabulous. This isn’t just a problem with lazy mappers, either, it’s a problem with way the game’s movement is dictating map design. Low gravity aggravates this to the extreme, but it’s something that I’ve noticed in most good UT2k4 maps — Too big, too empty, too inhuman. (In bad maps they’re not too empty, which means you get caught on every little protrusion.) Map design decided by the prevalence of the double jump means boxes are usually over 8ft high, corridors are 20ft wide. (We call a 20’x20′ enclosure a “room” where I’m from.)

Have huge areas? Well, now your players look smaller. What’s the point of having Malcom modelled down to the acne craters on his face when you will never even come within 50ft of him? Have really detailed character models at a distance? Chances are they’re blending into the really detailed background. Got weapons that work better than others at a distance? Well, they’ll work better in general if your basic combat range is longer.

The negatives of the double jump go on and on without providing any quantifiable benefits to the game other than allowing players to traverse long distances faster. Yes — double jumps give you more movement options, making it harder for people to kill you, which makes it a double edged sword. Killing people is what the game is about, and if it’s too difficult to kill people the pace of the game slows down.

I’m convinced that, no matter Epic’s efforts to “ground” the double jump that it is fundamentally flawed. It’s just a basic physics issue — If dodging is faster than walking, but nominally counterbalanced by a slight pause time, then adding more hang time will maximize the benefits of the dodge while minimizing the drawbacks. As long as dodgejumping gets you there faster (and it must) then it’s going to be the dominant form of movement. Dodging was already marginally faster than running in UT99, but dodgejumping blows it away entirely. Yet somehow UT99 players manage to deal with playing the game with spammier weapons and such “limited” movement options.

More isn’t always better.