Sunday, December 18, 2011

Editing IE settings in the registry via C#

We have a weird setup at work where our Internet Explorer LAN configuration settings are periodically reset by people who manage the network. This brings IE and TFS to a crawl for the programmers. It doesn't seem to happen to everyone all at once or at a designated time. It can take a few minutes to realise what is going on as there are a number of issues that show similar behaviour. For new programmers, this is especially frustrating because they're not aware of this strange policy.

To the Windows registry Batman! I haven't played with this thing in years. I never really understood it very well. "Hierarchical database? All these weird names? Huh? What's going on?!" Seems so simple now.

Editing the registry in the .NET environment is easy. See here.
Finding how to change LAN proxy configuration settings took a little longer to find. Explained here.
Proxy exceptions? See here.

With the app working, all that is left to do is set the script to run every 15mins on the programmers' computers, and we're done.

Code looks like:

var key = Registry.CurrentUser.OpenSubKey(@"Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Internet Settings\Connections"true);
 
if (key == null)
  throw new NullReferenceException("Registry SubKey not found.");
 
const string defaultConnectionSettings = "DefaultConnectionSettings";
var defaultConnectionSettingsValue = (byte[])key.GetValue(defaultConnectionSettings);
 
defaultConnectionSettingsValue[8] = 1;
key.SetValue(defaultConnectionSettings, defaultConnectionSettingsValue, RegistryValueKind.Binary);

Friday, December 16, 2011

Code generation in C#

I wrote my first code generator on the weekend. The real work - generating the C# class files - was trivial. Getting the generator into a state so that it could be easily used was more difficult.

There are a few ways you could do code generation in .NET. I explored:
I went with T4 Templates. They were a little obscure at first but provided the easiest entry point into using the code generator. You just build-up your source file and then right-click and select "Run Custom Tool" on the .tt file to generate the code.

I encounted a few issues when trying to write my template. They were:
  • Extension methods can't be embedded into a T4 Template. There is a workaround. I ended up converting my extension methods into normal methods (I only had two).
  • Accessing your assemblies is difficult in Visual Studio 2010. It has been explained very well. I managed to access my assemblies by writing something like <#@ assembly name="$(SolutionDir)..\DomainEntities\bin\Debug\Cpa.DomainEntities.dll" #>
The example T4 Templates I found on the Internet were a little more complex than what I wanted. (Examples should be as simple as possible.) I wanted to load a source file into memory and generate class files from that. Download my example template if you want something similar. It loads in a CSV file that has two columns (first column is the name of the class, second column the name of the property) and generates some puesdo-code of what the class files will eventually look like. I used this as my base template, then expanded it to create proper C# class files.




Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Comments on Skyrim


I've been playing Skyrim in my (ever dwindling) spare time.

Good things:
  • I play by simply allowing myself to be drawn to whatever seems interesting. I don't particularly care about completing quests, I wander. It's working really well for me. I'm often stumbling onto something interesting.
  • I went on a quest to recover a helmet. (I deliberately chose the most banal of the quests.) It was fun. I crossed over a bridge in a treacherous cavern. I fought a couple of frost trolls. Burnt 'em.
  • I started back to Solitude (a city of Skyrim) and saw the ghost of a headless horseman ride by. It just appeared and rode off. I tried to follow it for a while but was distracted by some midnight revellers who offered me a drink. I drank. When I looked back, the horseman was gone.
  • I saw some rabbits hopping around underwater. Then I saw a white wolf walking underwater. Mammals in Skyrim have strong lungs.
  • On the quest to "find King Olaf's verse," I made my way to the body of Svaknir, at the bottom of a stairway. I was expecting to find a book here. There was no book. My character became trapped in a dungeon, never to escape. (Some bugs are cool.)
Bad things:
  • Books in Skyrim are boring. Tip for next time: Bethesda, if you're going to have poorly written text, write less of it and link it to the gameworld in some way. I only open books because of the possible quests or skill bonuses.
  • Food appears to be useless. They've put so much effort into it, it would have been good to have a requirement where you need to eat and drink occasionally to keep your stamina up.
  • The UI is bad. You can use it and thankfully the core of it (choosing spells and items) is okay, but it's still bad. You have to hit 'tab' to close the menu? What's wrong with 'esc'? See: interface comments.
Skyrim screenshots

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Occupy Melbourne

I went to my first Occupy Melbourne general assembly this evening (the 16th they've had). It wasn't deliberate, I was walking on Swanston St, eating my chips & tomato sauce, and there they were. I stayed for a couple of hours. My impressions follow.

I'm not very good with numbers, maybe there were 100 people. They used the (predominate) megaphone and the human microphone. Decisions were run on a consensus basis.

It was very much a left ghetto event. However, it was as though the factions had set their differences aside for participation in Occupy Melbourne.

The first hour was reports from various workgroups (legal, direct action, media, etc.) on what they’d been doing since the last GA. The legal team were going to court over whether Occupy Melbourne could have structures and political posters at Treasury Gardens. They wanted people to await the outcome of legal proceedings before Occupy Melbourne decided to do anything more.

I was disinterested by the first hour. If I were a part of Occupy Melbourne, maybe I’d have been more interested (but probably not).

After the reports there were some more substantial suggestions. The first motion was that Occupy Melbourne has a minute silence for the dead of WWI. I was shocked. I had thought that nothing so conservative would ever dare to be tabled. A show of hands for, then against. There was massive dissent. It was quickly reformulated as "all that have died in all wars". There was massive dissent. Others spoke against war per se. They didn’t want to honour victims, they wanted to attack the perpetrators of war, the 1%. I was encouraged by this, but by then, 10-20min of my life had already disappeared before the motion was thrown out. (I definitely would have walked away forever if it had been accepted in any of its forms.)

After, there was a proposal that we build structures on Saturday, regardless of the legal outcome. There was general (60-70%) support for this. One dissenter made an absurd analogy to guerrilla tactics saying "now is not the time to attack but harry the enemy." This received quite a bit of support. One commenter riposte with "This isn't the Vietnam war." Another dissenter talked of not wanting to jeopardise legal proceedings (the interim outcome, everyone already knew, would be known before Saturday). This rhetorical nonsense (clearly suffering for causal misdirection), received even more support than the guerrilla fighter. However, speakers for or against were unable to sway the numbers significantly. (I voted for occupation with structures, too horrified by the nonsense of the dissenters to abstain any longer.) It was decided to revisit the issue on Saturday. After that, I left.

I was generally quite impressed. For all my critical thoughts, it seemed like a movement with promise. Are the "Occupys" around the world the beginnings of a 21st century soviet? I don't know. I don't think anyone could know that. They probably aren't though. They'll probably fizzle and burn out. To avoid that fait, they need to inspire people to take control of their lives. I have no idea how they're going to do that. Hundreds of years of failure gnaws at the edges of the general assembly.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs once said

"Live every day as though it were your last." Absolutely, do not do this. You will be wrong for every day except for one.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Some funny code...

I often sigh while reading the source code at me new job. Occasionally, I have a few laughs too. For example:

            catch (Exception exception)
            {
                throw new Exception(exception.ToString());
            }


I'm not sure what it is about exception handling but it seems to be the most frequently mis-understood/mis-used area of programming C#. The lines above are not nearly has bad as:

            catch (Exception exception)
            {
            }

which I've seen a lot of too, but it's more of a sigh moment than laugh.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I ran home after work tonight...

I ran home after work tonight; first time ever. What would spur on such extreme activity? I've been wanting to run/ride more frequently, but it's been difficult to find the motivation. I thought back to a time where I always tried to ride just that little bit harder. Turns out that was when I had a bike computer. It was decided, geekdom is to be my exercise motivator.

Last week I bought the Forerunner 310XT, designed for running and riding. It has a heart rate monitor, cadence monitor, and a GPS for tracking a whole bunch of data.

After installing a bunch of drivers and plugins, I updated the 301XT's firmware and was ready to go... Except first you need to plug in your height, weight and age for energy burning calculations. Then setup the display screens, make sure the HRM is detected, turn on/off auto settings like auto pause (for traffic lights, etc.), auto lap, and auto scroll. It's all very detailed. Thus far, however, I've been very happy with the features and user interface.

I think the exercise plan is going to work. I barely noticed that I was running, too busy looking at BPMs, time/distance, and trying to outrun my virtual partner that was doing 5:45 minute kms. The jerk beat me by 2mins.

My first run is recorded on the Garmin website.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Tools for learning F#

Every few months I try to learn me some more F#. It isn’t easy.

I stumbled across a nice learning tool by Chris Marinos. It works on the premise that you learn by making the unit tests pass (initially, they all fail). It's a nice idea. The only issue is that the testing framework it uses was written in NUnit. I don't use NUnit anymore. With a couple of little changes I switched it to Microsoft's unit testing framework. You can get my version here.

There is also http://www.tryfsharp.org/. It gives a good intro to F# that you can do online (don't need Visual Studio or nothink).

I tried to do some interoperability between C# and F#. When testing an F# console app in a C# test project, my functions didn't return results. I changed my F# console app to a F# library and it worked correctly. (Don't know why C# can't use an F# console app.)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Le Jeu de la Guerre thoughts

During 2005 I tried to make a computer game version of Le Jeu de la Guerre (war game) by Guy Debord. I never finished it. It didn't help that the translation was poor (and still is in the latest English translation. Corrections here and here.)

I stumbled on Kriegspiel again while writing a negamax algorithm to play noughts and crosses. Debord said of Kriegspiel:
So I have studied the logic of war. Indeed I succeeded long ago in representing its essential movements on a rather simple game-board… I played this game, and in the often difficult conduct of my life drew a few lessons from it — setting rules for my life, and abiding by them. The surprises vouchsafed by this Kriegspiel of mine seem endless; I rather fear it may turn out to be the only one of my works to which people will venture to accord any value. As to whether I have made good use of its lessons, I shall leave that for others to judge. (Panegyric, 1989)


Debord need not have feared, I doubt Kriegspiel will ever be accorded much value. It's not a terrible game, but it doesn't offer all that much either.

One concept that Kriegspiel does very well is the lines of support. I've always loved how you need to keep your units supplied from the arsenal and relay units, else they become useless. That idea is evocative and well implemented.

Nevertheless, I think Heller sums up the game nicely: "Between the arithmetic and the boggling geometries, it may, in fact, be reminiscent of a certain dream you had the night before the SAT." (What is it good for? Guy Debord believed his war board game would be his legacy)

Of more interest, however, is trying to determine who Debord was by the rules he defined for Kriegspiel.

Kriegspiel is a perfect information game. In war, there are spies, scouts, propaganda, miscommunication, stealth, radar, etc. I don't see how a perfect information game captures the "essential movements" of warfare. I wonder why he chose it. Did Debord not like leaving anything to chance? Was he always completely honest (wasn't interested in hidden units/movement)?

The terrain is asymmetric, yes, but the opponents face each other as equals. For someone who lived the class war, I find it strange that Debord didn't apply the asymmetry to the players. There has probably never been a battle where opponents faced each other with equal force. Not Bored discuss this lack of asymmetry in Dispensing with Clausewitz, though I don't agree with their defence of Kriegspiel/Debord. As McHugh points out, Debord would have experienced asymmetry in '68, yet it's not there in Kriegspiel. Yes, '68 wasn't a war but it was an armed conflict and even so, there are hundreds of historical examples of asymmetrical conflicts (Battle of Thermopylae, Battle of Rorke's Drift, US vs Vietnamese, US vs Afgans, etc.)

Debord designed Kriegspiel as a zero-sum game. Zero-sum games are great but they often don't reflect the subtly of reality. They are just on/off, binary type games. Zero-sum games are not what I imagine a communist or someone who thinks dialectically would create.

Still, Kriegspiel is an interesting game. I noticed that the two computer implementations of it don't have a computer opponent. One day I might get around to writing one. I wonder what Debord would have thought when a computer plays the game better than he could ever have.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Computer Opponent: Noughts & Crosses

The next task on my list for making a strategy game is writing a computer opponent. In the tutorial I describe how I’ve used variations on the minimax algorithm to play noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe). I chose noughts and crosses because it’s finite (always ends in 5-9 moves) and simple, yet there are thousands of different solutions. Eventually, I plan on using a minimax type algorithm for a game which will use the hex board tutorial I created in Unity earlier.

The C# source code for this project is available here.
The tutorial is available here.

The end result of this project is a console application that plays noughts and crosses with itself. It cycles through games using negamax, alpha-beta pruning and negascout. Every game is, of course, a draw. (You may notice that negascout is slower than alpha-beta pruning. This is because I haven’t ordered the search tree, it’s such a simple game that it isn’t worth it.) There is also a test project that runs a number of tests to make sure that the algorithms are doing what I expect them to do.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Unity, hexagons and path-finding

I’m creating a strategy computer game again. This time I thought I’d write some tutorials as I go. In this tutorial, I bring path-finding on an hexagonal grid together with Unity.

I assume a good knowledge of C# and no knowledge of Unity. If you know how the A* search algorithm works, you’ll probably be able to read all the code without any problems.

You can access the tutorial here.
The source code and Unity project file are available here (7zip).
A Windows binary is available here.
A Mac binary is available here.


Screenshot of the result

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

MSI, Orca and file permissions: or it's 2011 and installers still suck

I had to create an MSI for distributing some software. After installing, I noticed that one of the files didn't allow read/write permissions to my application. You'd think that would be easy to fix: just go into Visual Studio, select the file and change the security permissions, right? Wrong.

If you have the same problem, one way to resolve it is:
  1. Download Orca (it allows you to edit MSI files)
  2. Run Orca and open an MSI file
  3. Go to the LockPermissions table
  4. Add a new row and fill in four of the five fields (see image). The fields are:
    1. LockObject (the ID of the file, this is found in the File table);
    2. Table (the name of the table that you're editing, in this case the "File" table, but it could be "Registry" or something else);
    3. Domain (I left this bank);
    4. User (I put in "Everyone" which is incredible insecure, but I really don't care);
    5. Permission (the meaning of the numbers is explained here);
  5. Save the MSI and exit Orca


Usually, installed files take on the permissions of the directory they are installed to. If you install to "C:\Program Files," your files will get the permissions that the program files directory has. However, using LockPermissions will overwrite all of these permissions and just assign SYSTEM and the permissions you added in the LockPermissions table. This is super-dodgy, but then, the whole thing is super-dodgy. Other people recommend using a custom action as part of the installation, e.g., using "ICacls". This is probably a better way to do it, I was just running out of time.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

1 in 70 trillion

I was talking to Liz about Aida (our new child) the other day. She wanted to see a catalogue of what all the different versions of our children would look like. "Hmm...", I thought. "I think that would be quite a big catalogue." It's currently impossible to produce such a catalogue as we don't know all the genes that contribute to appearances. However, I did figure out how unique Aida is.

There are 46 chromosomes per individual. During reproduction 23 chromosomes come from each parent. Therefore, there are 223 (8,388,608) different possible reproductive cells per parent. Each egg could combine with any of the 223 different sperms, so there are 8,388,6082 or 70,368,744,177,664 (70 trillion) different combinations of people that could result between any human couple.

Aida is not so much one in a million, but 1 in 70 trillion. (This does not take into account random mutation.)

If we were going to look through the catalogue, at one snapshot a second, it would take a million years to see every possible combination.

If Liz and I were any other of the great apes, Aida would be far more unique, 1 in 281,474,976,710,656 (281 trillion) as most of the great apes have 48 chromosomes rather than 46 (one of ours got fused along the way).

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

WPF copy/paste column names on DataGrid

I always forget that you can easily include column names when copying a DataGrid by setting
ClipboardCopyMode="IncludeHeader"
in the XAML of the DataGrid.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Death in Haiti

From my sister:
One of my neighbours, Abner, caught cholera a few weeks ago. He is the baker and the father of the girls who fetch my water, do my washing and occasionally cook for me.

Anyway he spent a week or so in hospital, was let out, went to someone we would probably call a witch doctor, and then returned home yesterday on a stretcher, no longer able to speak. He died last night, his daughters and wife started wailing at 2am in the morning - the traditional way of expressing grief and letting everyone know that he passed away. Of course, the worse part is that he leaves behind his family of 4 daughters (one of whom has a 4 month old baby) and 2 sons (one 4 years old, the other a teenager). I have no idea how they are going to survive this. I suspect the girls wont be going to school for much longer.

Cholera has returned to my zone, after a brief reprieve... I just wish they’d wash their bloody hands.
Just one person dead, yet it made me feel a lot more sad than "By late January 2011 some 4,131 people have died and 117,312 are hospitalised." (wikipedia) Of course, I already knew it would, but even as someone who has tried to think/feel in large numbers and concepts, to feel worse about a single case than other 4,130, is really pathetic. Truly pathetic. Even more so because the cholera outbreak is a tiny number of people. As far as deaths go, this has only just surpassed the most over-hyped event of the naughties. (Though, to be fair, millions of people had their lives ruined because of it - 1 & 2) Compared with other events, it's not even worth mentioning (and isn't mentioned). It's an order of magnitude less people than the earthquake in January 2010. Not even worth mentioning.

The second thing that affects me is "I just wish they’d wash their bloody hands." I know exactly what my sister means. It seems utterly absurd. A simple, obvious, easy solution. It's as though Haitians are willing themselves to die. Are they simply stupid brown people? I think a lot of people in the West would answer "yes" to that question. I lot of people I know would answer "yes" to that question. The same people who live their lives drowned in their own absurd beliefs and superstitions. This society functions - its modus operandi - is faith and superstition. Just because our beliefs don't have us dying of easily preventable water-born diseases, doesn't mean that our own absurdity doesn't cripple our existence as obese, angry, faithful, TV watching drones.

It's sad, it's strange, but it's perfectly understandable why someone wouldn't think to wash their hands and go to a witch doctor instead of getting proper treatment.

It's a fucked-up world and all I know is that it doesn't actually have to be like this. The solutions exist already - the solutions to cholera, obesity, faithfulness and irrationality all exist. But finding that path out of madness, that's the only difficult problem left to solve.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The worst thing about Entity Framework

Generally, I like Entity Framework, especially the newest version (part of Visual Studio 2010). The absolute worst thing about it is the error message you can get when you are hooking-up your POCO files to an entity model. The error message is: "Mapping and metadata information could not be found for EntityType [...]"

EF tells you in which class the error is located, but that's it. It could be any of the properties that don't work! If you have a database table with 20 or 50 fields, good luck in tracking down the error. The best info I've found is that the error can be caused by:
  • Misspelled properties (case-sensitive!)
  • Properties missing in the POCO class
  • Type mismatches between the POCO and entity-type (e.g., int instead of long)
  • Enums in the POCO (EF doesn't support enums right now as I understand)
It has got to be the worst error message I've seen from Microsoft in a long time.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Original Dungeons and Dragons

More investigations into role-playing games (mostly to plunder them for ideas) led me to a couple of re-writes of the original Dungeons and Dragons game (the red and blue books! Remember?) The games are Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry (White Box Rules). And you know what? Original D&D sucks. Badly.

There are horrible tables (attack roll tables?!), saving throws, experience points, ability scores, spell levels, Vancian magic systems, alignments, arbitrary weapon restrictions (as if clerics don't shed blood, come on! The crusades, anyone?), etc.

The idea of moving away from D&D 3rd and 4th edition is a good one. Not moving back to AD&D 1st or 2nd edition is also a good idea. But moving back to original D&D? Not a good idea.

What the authors should have done: Taken the idea of "simple" and applied reasoning to it. Take the nostalgia and remould it into a simple and yet modern RPG. The great thing that original D&D has over 4th edition D&D is evocation. Reading about Charm Person is a lot more evocative than reading about Ray of Enfeeblement. These OD&D games have the evocation but they're extremely tedious, power-gamey and complex.

Who are these RPGs even aimed at? I can't imagine how anyone new to the past-time would be even slightly intrigued by the complexity and weirdness of the books. They're not logical nor do they create a space for players to envision their characters. Therefore, I can only imagine that the new releases are for old-school players. If that's the case, why wouldn't we just grab our old red and blue books from the attic, basement, parents' house, siblings' house, etc.? I know I could, but I'm not going to.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

HeroQuest comments

I looked at HeroQuest while looking for a RuneQuest replacement. It's the other Glorantha RPG. It's almost a good replacement. There are few special rules. Keywords, derived from a character's description, are tied to numbers from 1 to 20. Rolling below this number (on a d20) determines success. That is basically it.

The maths, however, like most RPGs, is a fail.
HeroQuest abilities are scored on a range of 1–20, but are scalable. When you raise a rating of 20 by one point, it increases not to 21, but to 1W. The W signifies a game abstraction called a mastery. You have now reached a new order of excellence in that ability. (HeroQuest 2nd edition, pg 19)
To fix this deeply broken idea, the game-master is expected to keep pace (of course):
Supporting characters, with whom you have relationships, improve over time. Values for their ratings are comparative to yours. As you improve, so will they. Narrators needn't track the improvement over time, but simply update their ratings whenever they reappear in the storyline. (pg 61)
And to justify it, the author declares:
Why Advance Characters At All?

Few of the adventure genres we draw inspiration from actually feature significant character improvement through the course of a series. Mysteries, pulps, military adventures, westerns, and space operas tend to feature characters who are highly competent from the outset. Occasionally a secondary character, most often a male ingénue, starts out as a greenhorn and proves himself in the course of the story. (Just as often, a once-competent secondary character redeems himself and returns to his legendary past level of competence.) Other, grimmer genres, like horror, satirical SF, and arguably post-apocalyptic survivalism, keep their protagonists relatively weak throughout.

Fantasy is a prominent exception: it is not uncommon to follow a character from humble beginnings to epic achievement.

Rate of improvement is basically, then, a genre element. Narrators who want a rapid growth curve should decrease the costs of ability improvement. Those who want slower growth should increase them.

That said, roleplayers really enjoy increasing their PC’s abilities on a regular basis. Regular ability boosts helps to keep them invested in their characters, and thinking of their futures. This is one area where HeroQuest bows more to the demands of the roleplaying form than to precedents set by the source material.

In series fiction, relationships are another common exception; highly competent heroes often make friends or contacts they meet again in a sequel. Narrators can encourage this with directed improvements. (pg 58)
This justification is muddled. Within fantasy, "it is not uncommon to follow a character from humble beginnings to epic achievement." Epic achievement maybe, but that isn't the same as numerical advancement. Not at all. There is little "advancement" in the classic of all fantasy novels, The Lord of the Rings. The characters develop, undeniably, but do they advance in any way reminiscent of RPGs? Gandalf does, perhaps, when he becomes Gandalf the White. Nevertheless, the changes aren't similar to the way one advances in RPGs. The other characters, Boromir, Legolas, Gimli, Strider and the hobbits just don't advance, yet they all achieve great things. Frodo, if anything, regresses. The weight of the ring bares down on him. He barely survives and is certainly no stronger for it.

The conclusion is "This is one area where HeroQuest bows more to the demands of the roleplaying form than to precedents set by the source material." Screw that! All we need do is teach roleplayers basic arithmetic and then move on to great achievements, huge rewards, challenging and fun stories. We just don't need grade 3 sums to do that.

And the rest of the HeroQuest? I don't know, I didn't read too much more. I was too enraged and wanted to ride my hobby-horse. However, I think I should return because there are lots of ideas about how to play an RPG, something that is deeply lacking in RPGs these days.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

FateQuest session report 4

Our fourth role-playing session was different again to the previous sessions. The biggest change was the abandonment of RuneQuest II as the game system. We still have the same adventurers, the same setting (Glorantha) and the same plot (Summons of the Wyter), but a new set of rules. Rules that I've been working out for a while. I'm calling it FateQuest.

FateQuest is basically a hack between RuneQuest and FATE (hence the name). All the good things I liked about RuneQuest (lots of the combat stuff) and the good things I like about FATE (skill pyramid and aspects) have been melded together. The result worked better than what I imagined (and I was imagining something pretty good). I've already tweaked it some more, so it should run even smoother, without a loss of detail.

There is issue, however. It isn't about the game system as such, more about how people play. Half the group of six have never or barely played an RPG before. The other half have either played a lot or at least have preconceived ideas about how to play an RPG (me included). That's tricky. Furthermore, at least one of us wants to play more free-form (few rules, few dice, mostly narrative and role-play). At least two of us like the game/simulation element and the dice, though not all of the time. We all like the debating and figuring out what should happen.

The main thing I tried to do with FateQuest was expunge all of the power-gaming by design aspects of RuneQuest. I think I've achieved that. But it's still a game. Depending on how you look at it, you can still win. It's suppose to be more of a simulation than a game (see GNS Theory) but those two aspects can easily meld together. And people feel good when they win. I don't want them to lose the feeling you get when having a clever idea or solving a problem. In fact, I want to encourage it.

I like frameworks, they can help stimulate ideas and they can give you a game within a game. I'm not sure how we could completely free-form it, though the thought reoccurs. I.e., drop the rules and dice entirely. But who/what would decide? If the adventurer's life is in the balance, I don't want the game-master to decide the outcome. That's too much responsibility. That's why game-masters hide behind a probability wall - they can always blame the dice. And yet, adventurers' lives should hang in the balance. Perhaps all the players (GM included) can simply agree that the adventurer got into too much trouble to be able to survive, or at least, remain conscious. I dunno.

The other potential problem with free-forming it is that events will probably move a lot faster. We'd definitely be moving out of the Glorantha setting in no time. We'll also move out of an ancients setting too (i.e., Greek/Roman). Mostly because we don't know all that much about Glorantha (I know at least ten times more than the other players, but very little overall) and I don't think any of us know very much about an ancient way of life, though more than a regular schmuck. Neither of those things are necessarily bad, but I'm enthralled by Glorantha and imagining other ways of life is what role-playing is all about.

Trying to speed through the combat section - because I didn't want anyone to get bored - without actually allowing players to collectively decide what they were doing wasn't a great move. However, because we had a new set of rules, needing explanation at the same time as being played, it was quite difficult to fit everything in.

Events:
The horsemen approached Verstead. Hengall hastily organised a shield wall at the broken gates (the only feasible entrance to the stead, at least on horseback). As the horsemen closed in, it became apparent that they were clan-members from the Orldor family. They were Old Ways Traditionalists, perhaps, but not enemies. The shield wall came down.

As the horsemen rode into camp it became apparent rather quickly that something was amiss. Some of the Orldor carls looked nervous. Iddi Iddrosson, the Orldor leader, almost looked pleased.

Soon enough, Iddi declared that he'd like to move into Verstead now that the Jendarls wouldn't be needing it any more. Hengall and the adventurers attacked. Of course, the adventurers went straight for Iddi. Most blows were ineffectual, but Flavias managed to strike Iddi's head with an arrow, though his helmet protected him from any serious injury.

Anid, Trax and Soliste were heavily involved in fighting the carls and weaponthanes. Flavis, with her bow, attempted to stay further away. Ben Poleo slipped away to try to free Arlyn. Ben also shouted out to the assailants that their attack was without honour, further demoralising the carls.

Anid and Trax are competent warriors and they could hold their own against the carls and thanes. Soliste, on the other hand, struggled. By the time Hengall ordered them to leave to save the wyter at the Black Grove, Soliste had already suffered injuries. A short-spear became impaled in her left arm. With the help of Anid, she was able to retreat from the battle.

The party gathered their horses once they were out of the fight. All six (including Arlyn) mounted their three remaining horses - there was no time to acquire new horses. As Soliste mounted her horse she was forced to withdraw the impaled short-spear. The pain was overwhelming and she fell unconscious.

The group rode towards the bared exit. With Arlyn's help, the group managed to easily flee Verstead.

We left them as they were on their way to the Black Grove.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Opposed Tests (in RPGs)

Most role-playing games use opposed tests. E.g., RuneQuest:
An opposed skill roll occurs when one skill is actively resisted by another. For example, a thief attempts to sneak past a wily palace guard who, being vigilant is on the look-out for potential crooks. (pg 34)
(This is a confused concept in RuneQuest because combat rolls aren't exactly considered opposed tests, which is a little discombobulating because surely combat tests are "actively resisted by another.")

Or Diaspora:
You want to beat someone else at something. The defender rolls defensively and you need to meet or beat that roll offensively. (pg 9)
Opposed tests don't change your odds of success. However, some tasks that you could never achieve with a single roll may be achievable with an opposed test as it opens out a larger range of results. The inverse is also true, you can fail when you normally wouldn't.

I don't know where the idea for opposed tests came from, but they're a wacky idea. One of the main issues is figuring out, philosophically, what is and is not an opposed test. In RuneQuest, sneaking past an alert guard is an opposed roll, but trying to cut her throat whilst she attempts the same to you, is not, technically. This isn't solely an issue with RuneQuest, most games seem to struggle with the concept.

Opposed tests are usually reserved for resolving a conflict of one sentient being against another. Why is that? If one wants to cross a dangerous suspension bridge, one isn't allowed to roll an opposed test against the designers/builders of the bridge. However, if one of those builders were shaking the bridge from the other end, you might be allowed an opposed test. That seems quite odd.

I think that the only logical use of an opposed tests is to use them when you want, for whatever you want and just because they are fun. Playing with opposed tests makes it feel like there is a real conflict going on. And you can stunningly succeed or fail, so that has to be fun, surely. Of course, if a game never used opposed tests, it wouldn't be any less of a game and it would definitely speed the game up a little too.

Friday, February 4, 2011

RuneQuest session report 3

We played our third RuneQuest session a couple of weeks ago. It started with a bit of roleplaying philosophy and discussion of what this game should be about. I presented the idea that the RuneQuest rules should be generously relaxed, due to the unnecessary complexity, categorisation issues and issues regarding maths.

I brought along a bunch of FUDGE dice as a possible way of resolving un-categorisable tasks and allowing granularity of results (not just success/fail).

The session followed closely to the Summons of the Wyter adventure, though there were a number of embellishments along the way.
The party arrived at Verstead to be greeted, not by their family and friends, but smashed village gates and burning buildings. During the previous evening, the stead was attacked by unknown enemies. The clan leader was trapped and burnt to death inside his house. Only tens of people survived.

The adventurers helped rescue their clans-folk. They pulled, from the rubble and collapsed beams, Soliste's aunt, Arlyn. Addi, a herb and spice trader, was also a notable survivor.

Hengall Boneblade (the stead champion) had reluctantly assumed leadership. He arrested Addi, then Arlyn, then Soliste, accusing them of betraying the clan. Arlyn and Soliste were accused of witchcraft (both have knowledge of God Learner alchemy and sorcery). Addi was arrested simply because he was an unknown visitor to the stead.

The accusation of treachery and witchcraft made against Soliste was resolved well by Trax who declared any accusation absurd as Soliste hadn't been in town for months, "and besides, she's been fighting against the clan's enemies, the God Learners of Seshnela."

Addi was also convincing. He'd lost half of his herbs and spices and was almost killed in the night's mayhem. If he had betrayed the clan, why would he have remained in the stead?

Arlyn remained tied up, with Hengall refusing to release her, no matter what argument was made.

An intense headache, then a vision of the clan's wyter (a theistic guardian being of an Orlanthi community) flashed into the minds of the people of The Black Grove Clan (including Trax and Soliste). The wyter was in danger!

Hengall began to organise a small group of weaponthanes and carls to assist the wyter, located in the Black Grove, an hours ride from the ruined Verstead. The wyter had to be saved or it would spell the final doom for the clan.

As they were about to ride for the grove, horsemen were spotted, riding towards the stead from the south.
I don't feel like it was an overly successful session. There was a lot of time spent establishing the story to come, which meant not many interesting decisions for the players. Futhermore, of the few decisions that existed, I struggled at making them genuine. Allowing players to influence the plot has got to be the most challenging aspect of an RPG. Nevertheless, I had fun and I think that generally we enjoyed the session.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Diaspora review

Diaspora is a recent sci-fi role-playing game. It's part of the "indie" crowd (Burning Wheel, Fiasco, Spirit of the Century, Dogs in the Vineyard, etc). It's basically a dramatic re-imagining of Traveller.

Diaspora has:
  • one great idea, cluster creation and integration with character creation
  • one excellent solution to numerical advancement (i.e., power-gaming by design, an issue with most RPGs)
  • a bunch of interesting ideas, the sub-games.
Diaspora uses a modified FATE system (FATE is a good, generic system for RPGs that uses FUDGE dice.)

Someone else's review describes a lot of the content, so I won't focus too much on those aspects. I agree with their "The Good" and "The Bad" conclusions. Especially:
I'd love to see a 2nd edition that goes into greater depth discussing hard sci-fi concepts, physics considerations, and how to make all of that fun at the gaming table. More attention to technological development of societies and its implications would have been helpful, especially given the importance of societal tech level in this game.
Otherwise, I don't think the game is lacking anything. I love how it's quite simple and yet offers a huge amount of scope.

Cluster Creation

The theme of the game, as the title suggests, is diaspora. Humanity has spread out over the universe/galaxy and become fragmented. No-one really knows where home is, they're lost in a sea of stars. All one knows is a small cluster of star systems that one can travel between using slipknots (sci-fi gobbledegook - otherwise the game is hard sci-fi). They don't even know how far away, in kilometres, each star system is from another. It's a lot of unknowns. Great start!

The setup, then, is to create star-systems and link them together. Each star system has three "stats" associated with them; technology, environment and resources. This is enough to give you a good basis for a description of each system. Players add information to each system, trying to evoke as interesting a system as possible. Individual planets are described also, especially the habitable ones. Finally, each system is linked into a network.

Cluster creation is a clever idea. In most RPGs, the players interact with an established setting, either from published material or from the gamemaster's creation. In Diaspora, everyone is involved with establishing the setting. From this point, the characters are grown.

Game Mechanics and Character Creation

Diaspora uses a modified FATE games system, an upgrade to FUDGE. Without boring you with the details, undoubtedly FATE is better than FUDGE. FATE uses two main mechanics, skills and aspects. Skills are terms associated with numbers (e.g., Engineer 2, Climbing 1). The higher the number, the better able you are at performing the skill. Aspects, on the other hand, are solely terms. Aspects are, for instance, "all attractive people must die," or "rich people are the bee's knees." One uses aspects to modify skill rolls. I see Skills and Aspects as the core concepts to FATE, or at least to Diaspora's modified system.

I'll quote the book to elucidate all the elements of a character.
Characters are composed of four mechanical elements: their Aspects, their Skills, their Stunts, and their stress tracks (Health, Composure, and Wealth). Aspects are short, evocative statements that describe the character in ways that can be used mechanically both for and against the character as well as being points at which the referee can suggest actions to players for their characters. Skills are the basic abilities of the character, chosen from a list provided later in this section, and used mechanically to add to the basic roll during any conflict in which the Skill is relevant. Stunts are new rules that apply to the character. Stress tracks are indications of how stressed the character is physically, mentally, and financially. Aspects derive from the character’s story. Skills and Stunts are selected after the story is constructed. Stress tracks have a basic rating modified by some Skills and Stunts. (pg 32)
You might notice one thing missing, something that virtually all RPGs possess, ability scores (those "innate" abilities that all characters have). This is a great thing as they are redundant concepts. Often, all ability scores do is go on to become new numbers (strength bonus, initiate bonus, etc.), like some weird number generating machine.

The only Diaspora mechanic I dislike are Stunts. They seem like a trite way to get a bonus. Why aren't Aspects sufficient? Aspects are used, when applicable, to give a +2 bonus to a skill or a re-roll. A stunt seems to give an extra bonus on top of that. I don't see the utility, though perhaps I'm missing something subtle. The game could be played perfectly well without Stunts, so it doesn't matter.

The real innovation, in my opinion, is the idea that Skills don't "improve" in the way they appear to in most RPGs. Instead, characters have a pyramid of abilities.
Players select 15 Skills for their character and rank them in a pyramid: one at level 5, two at 4, three at 3, four at 2, and five at 1. (Pg 34)
A player may move any Skill up the Skill pyramid one place (though not past 5) and then must move a Skill from that new rank down one level. That is, the Skill pyramid must be maintained, always having one Skill at rank five, two at rank four, and so on. (Pg 59)
This innovation goes against basically all ideas in conventional RPGs. When I first read it, I was horrified. After thinking about the consequences, I realised that that's how all RPGs should work.

Sub-games

The sub-games are: personal combat, space combat, social combat and platoon combat. I've only read personal combat and bits of social combat. They look like good fun. With personal combat, you draw up an abstract map, place aspects on objects in the world (uneven terrain, furniture, trees, etc.) and costs to move between areas. This gives you an abstract but very usable way of describing the game world. Combined with rules for weapons and wounds, I find the personal combat rules very compelling.

The other sub-games might be good too, I wouldn't know. The great thing about them is that all the sub-games are completely optional. You can add/remove/modify without disrupting other parts of the game.

From an author:
So, we loved Traveller but one day we started experimenting with "new" games. We built a setting with Universalis and that was enlightening -- games could go places we hadn't thought of. We played Burning Wheel in that setting and that was enlightening -- different ways to think about success and failure, reward cycles, and players communicating what they wanted from the story through these. We played some Spirit of the Century and had a couple of months of the most inclusive, honest fun we'd ever had gaming. It had distinct flaws, but we found those attractive because we like to fix things.

But we loved Traveller. It wasn't delivering on the level of some of these new games, but then these new games weren't hitting the sweet note that Traveller did for us either. So we had a stupid idea: what if we hacked SotC to do Traveller? (The RPG Haven)
Now I just want someone to hack Diaspora and do RuneQuest.

Conclusion

I think Diaspora is one of the most innovative RPG books I've ever read. It ditches so many bad ideas (e.g., false ideas of progress, ability scores, unnecessary complexity, etc.) and presents a game system that is incredibly playable. Even if you're not into sci-fi at all, this should be the game you're looking at at the moment. Take the ideas from cluster creation, the re-working of FATE (minus Stunts, perhaps), and anything from the sub-games and you probably have the best RPG that currently exists.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

FUDGE dice

FUDGE dice? See picture. You roll 4dF, add the pluses and minuses and that becomes your result, ranging from -4 to 4 (e.g., -1 in the picture). They're great. Why? Well, not because of the reasons I've read around the place. e.g.,
"A bell curve distribution such as this is excellent for RPG gaming because though it does indeed introduce a degree of randomness into an event, the bell curve's statistical properties still favor character traits over absolute randomness." (FATE wiki)
That statement is 100% false. Using FUDGE dice, or any dice rolling method, is no more or less random than any other (except weighted dice, I guess). The table they provide on the website clearly states that.

4dF Modifier Result
Odds
Chance of rolling this result exactly
Chance of rolling this result or higher
Chance of rolling this result or lower
+4 1/81 1.2% 1.2% 100.0%
+3 4/81 4.9% 6.2% 98.8%
+2 10/81 12.3% 18.5% 93.8%
+1 16/81 19.8% 38.3% 81.5%
0 19/81 23.5% 61.7% 61.7%
-1 16/81 19.8% 81.5% 38.3%
-2 10/81 12.3% 93.8% 18.5%
-3 4/81 4.9% 98.8% 6.2%
-4 1/81 1.2% 100.0% 1.2%

A "bell curve" property does not favour character traits over "absolute" randomness. e.g., your character has an engineering skill of 2. Lets say that to succeed at a task, she needs a result of 4. Using FUDGE dice, her chance is 18.5% (i.e., the chance of rolling two or more pluses.) Or use percentile dice, where less than 19% is a success. The randomness is essentially equivalent (give or take .5%) even though percentile dice are a uniform distribution rather than the normal distribution of FUDGE dice. Use one die, four dice, percentile dice, or a million dice, the randomness is the same. The chance of success is whatever the game designer, game master or players decide it is.

What FUDGE dice do, however, is give you a non-uniform distribution that you can use when you want to define varying possibly outcomes, each having varying probability. So, you could, for instance, define a series of results, such as:
  • 4: Your sword cuts deep into your opponents neck. They slump to the ground and die, quickly, as blood seeps from the mortal wound;
  • 3: The blade gashes armour and flesh from your opponent's left arm. They drop their weapon.
  • 1 or 2: Your blade strikes hard against your foe's armour. They're shaken, morale faltering, yet steady themselves and grimace.
  • 0, -1 or -2: Shield meets shield, bronze meets bronze. There is noise and sharp flashes of pain, but little else.
  • -3: You trip and fumble, slicing into your left thigh. Walking will be painful and slow, at least for two weeks.
  • -4: Not only do you fail to land a blow, your enemy ripostes and strikes your right hand. The weapon falls to the ground - you won't be able to use a weapon for two months.
You can assign fairly extreme results to 4 and -4 because they don't occur very often (1.2% chance). Zero, being the most common result can mean the status quo is maintained. Positive results can favour the roller and negative can punish them. They're good for making up a whole range of results, common and run of the mill to unlikely and extreme.

You can do all this on percentile dice, of course, but FUDGE dice are much faster to assign. You can also apply modifiers with ease using FUDGE dice, which is quite impractical using percentile dice.

Every roleplayer needs a set of FUDGE dice. Don't leave home without them.

The FATE RPG makes great use of FUDGE dice.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Conflict vs task resolution

I'm having fun exploring role-playing games and their concepts and mechanisms. I'd forgotten how much fun they were. Fun to play, fun to read about, fun to criticise, and fun to create (to play an RPG is to create one).

The topic for today? Conflict vs task resolution. I’d seen mention of these terms, especially from Burning Wheel fans. I didn’t really understand what they were talking about. To paraphrase: “All he’s interested in is task resolution, that’s why he doesn’t like Burning Wheel.”

So I looked up what these terms mean. From RPG Theory Glossary:

Conflict resolution

A Forge term for a resolution mechanic which depends on the abstract higher-level conflict, rather than on the component tasks within that conflict. For example, one might roll to get past a guard -- regardless of whether you bluff, sneak, or fight your way past him. When using this technique, inanimate objects may be considered to have "interests" at odds with the character, if necessary.

Task resolution

A technique in which the resolution mechanisms of play focus on within-game cause, in linear in-game time, in terms of whether the acting character is competent to perform a task.


Reading that, one must conclude that task and conflict resolution are the same thing. No-one is going to attempt to model a world along reductionist lines, you'd be talking about the movement of atoms rather than the blow-by-blow conflicts of RuneQuest or the more distant conflicts of other RPGs. Therefore, all so-called task resolution mechanics must also be conflict resolution and vice-versa. It's merely the level of detail that your interested in that counts. That interest in detail changes from moment to moment within any RPG. Seconds, days, years, millennia can go by in game time with only moments of our time. Do RPGs that are labelled "task resolution" games involve cooking, defecating and brushing your hair? None I've played, but they could, if you were interested in that level of detail.

A better example:
All combat is a matter of taking thinking about time, space, kinetic energy, potential energy, material sciences, anatomy, willpower and distilling it into a natural reaction which requires no real thought, is mostly muscle memory and instinct. These principles cross all imaginary separations and divisions, thought becomes action without actual thought.

In game terms there are a ton of skills which people don't normally think of as contributing toward combat, which are really useful as a basis for real combat skills. For instance Lore (Animal, Mineral, Plant), these are essentially Anatomy, Chemistry, Botany. What do they tell us? Where to hit, what I can use to hit with, what might be useful as a poison, what is safe to move over etc. Perception is the basis of situational awareness, not walking into ambushes, knowing where attacks are coming from is vital to protecting yourself. Athletic and Acrobatics aid your movement over terrain, Evade is necessary to tactical movement keeping the enemy in each others way, Persistence and Resilience provide the mental and physical endurance to persevere and win in battle. To be a good warrior already requires a multitude of skills. Faelan Niall
If interested, the same sort of discussion is had on the gaming philosopher blog.

Paragliding

My paragliding adventures took their best turn last weekend. Two days of perfect weather, 3 (of 4) great flights. For the first time, I really felt comfortable flying (though I felt sick on the first day due to turbulence).

I definitely flew my highest too. At a guess, maybe 1200 metres. (Mark probably made it to 1500m.) It started to get a little cold. It's going to be weird when we make it to 3000m.

Launching and landing seem second nature now. The stress has ebbed away and I can focus on making sure I'm safe rather than pandering to unfounded fears. I understand the equipment and I know when it's setup right. I feel like I've got the process down fairly well now.

There are three things Mark and I lack:
  1. Instruments (we need a vario/altimeter and GPS)
  2. Meteorological knowledge
  3. Time in the air (learning how to stay in a thermal, judge distances/height, etc.)

Monday, January 17, 2011

RuneQuest II aids

There are a few RuneQuest aids out there that are useful. They are:
People seem to upload them to the Basic Role-Playing website. The Mongoose site has a bunch of things too.

RuneQuest II: Modifying the maths

Okay, you've realised that the maths in RuneQuest II (and virtually all RPGs) isn't great, what do you do? You could ditch the game system and play free-form. That's a good idea. However, unlike most RPGs, fixing the maths in RuneQuest might not be too difficult. Here's what you could do:

Free Skill Points
  1. Adventurers initially receive 500 free skill points to distribute.
  2. Starting adventurers may assign no more than 30 points (i.e., 30%) to Common Skills and Combat Styles.
  3. Advanced skills learnt as part of the Cultural Background or Profession process can by improved by 30 points.
  4. Advanced skills, chosen by the player, cost 10 skill points to achieve the base level. These may be improved by no more than 20 points.
  5. Adventurers never receive additional skill points (see below for Improvement Points).
Common Magic
  1. Adventurers receive a total of 12 points to use in buying Common Magic spells.
  2. Initially, the maximum magnitude of a Common Magic spell is 2.
  3. Adventurers never receive any more points to buy more Common Magic, though they can swap spells out for others using Improvement Points (see below).
Improvement Points

Improvement Points are distributed by the GM, at the appropriate time, as usual. These points can be used, to not increase Characteristics, Skills, and magic, but to shuffle them around.

For Skills:
  • Select the skill to be increased and roll 1D100. Add the Adventurer’s INT characteristic to the result of the 1D100 roll.
  • If this 1D100 result is greater than the skill’s current score, the skill increases by 1D4+1 points.
  • If this 1D100 result is equal to or less than the skill’s current score, the skill only increases by one point.
  • Select another skill. Reduce this skill by the same amount that you increased the first skill.
  • A common skill can never be reduced below its base - i.e., Characteristic + background and profession modifiers.
  • Skill percentages may only be increased up to 90%.
Learning new advanced skills functions in the same way as described in the core rulebook. Any improvement beyond the basic characteristic-derived score, however, follows the same rules as above.

For teaching, mentors and learning new advanced skills, they work in the same sort of way as described in the RuneQuest II core rulebook. Keep in mind that you may not have a net increase in skills - you must decrease a skill in order to learn another.

For Characteristics:
  • Select the Characteristic that you want to increase.
  • Select the Characteristic that you want to decrease.
  • The difference between the two Characteristics is the number of Improvement Points that you that need to spend in order increase/decrease the Characteristics by one point.
For Common Magic:

Common Magic spells can be improved, learnt or discarded by using Improvement Points. This improvement works along the same lines as Skills and Characteristics. To increase the magnitude of a Common Magic spell, one needs to decrease or discard a current spell. Use the Learning Common Magic Spells table (page 107) from the core rulebook to see the costs of improving Common Magic. e.g., Arlyn knows Bladesharp 2 and Warmth 2. She uses 2 Improvement Points to increase Warmth to magnitude of 3. At the same time Bladesharp decreases to magnitude 1. Note: To learn/change Common Magic spells, the adventurer is still required to locate a teacher willing to reveal its secrets.

Skill mechanics

Critical success, fumble and opposed rolls work exactly the same way as described in the core rulebook. Adventurers' skills can never rise above 90%, so generally you can ignore rules for skills over 100%. Occasionally, however, you'll want a powerful opponent with percentage over 100% (a dragon, perhaps?)

Profession and Cultural Background

During a period of downtime, a new profession may be taken-up by an adventurer. In doing so, they gain all of the benefits of the new profession. However, they also lose all the benefits of the old profession.

Over a period of years, the cultural background of an adventurer may be changed (if they spend a considerable amount of time within the new culture). All the benefits of the old background are lost. All the benefits of the new background are gained.

Magic & Spells

Nothing may increase a skill beyond 90%. e.g., If you have the Sword and Shield Combat Style of 80% and cast Bladesharp 3 (normally +15% to combat style) on yourself, your chance of success is 90%, not 95%. It's no fun unless you always have a decent chance of failure. (You still get a +3 bonus to damage.)

A note on rewards

The gamemaster should not reward magic items that permanently increase either skills or damage. This will ruin the maths and start the illusory arms race all over again. Get creative! Don't just reward players with numbers.

People already understand this idea. Carl Walmsley, in Compendium I, wrote alternate rewards for players/adventurers to help avoid the maths getting out of hand. For example:
Potion of Fortune
Drinking this potion makes the character unfeasibly lucky. It is as though the universe smiles down on him and everything seems to go his way. The character receives a +10% bonus on all Skill tests, and adventurers who attempt any actions which are to the detriment of the character receive a -10% penalty. In addition, the character gains either an additional Hero Point or an additional Combat Action (determine this benefit randomly), usable within the potion’s duration. At the end of the potion’s duration the Hero Point or Combat Action is lost as the luck ebbs away. A Potion of Fortune’s effects last for 12 hours.
This magic item is a fantastic example of what you can do to reward plays without breaking the maths.
If one contrasts this with a reward from Summons of the Wyter (an otherwise excellent adventure), one can see the difference in effect.
The Needle – a broadsword with a strangely carved hilt, handle and pommel (it is made of a human arm). The broadsword has the normal characteristics of a broadsword but is also capable of the Sunder Combat Manoeuvre and is treated as a weapon cast with a permanent Bladesharp 3 spell (so, +15% to the Combat Style and +3 damage).
They're similar items in many ways (grant a bonus to skills). The Potion of Fortune is, in many ways, more powerful, but the power won't last long. The Needle, on the other hand, is a permanent Bladesharp 3 spell. A item like this will start the Maths Wars all over again.

A note on cults

Cults are a great way for adventurers to advance. Gamemasters should grant the usual bonuses (new spells, social standing, etc.). However, don't forget that with this advancement comes new responsibilities.

A note on published material

Published material, by Mongoose Publishing or whomever, will operate along the lines of the Rules as Written. This is may appear, at first, to be a big issue. However, as every gamemaster already knows, one often needs to mold the adventure to fit with the current abilities of the party. In fact, the only reason adventures need to be manipulated like this is because the maths in RPGs is all screwy. If RuneQuest II used rules similar to the ones above, any adventure, if it fit with the story and development of the adventurers, would be suitable to play without any fudging of rules whatsoever.

Mongoose Publishing, thus far,
have created material that is generally usable. The creatures in the core rulebook and Monster Coliseum have not been power-mathed. Hopefully, the forthcoming Monster Island will follow a similar vein.

Conclusion

These rule changes fix the bulk of the maths issues found in RuneQuest II. One may need to revise a few more things, here and there, but generally the resulting
adventurers will be balanced and fun to play for the entirety of the campaign. In many ways they'll begin quite powerful (with double the Skill points and Common Magic than normal starting characters) though this will be spread across many skills and spells. Players can still take pleasure in the advancement of their adventurer, in a real sense, as they move from generalists to specialists, over a number of game sessions. Admittedly, they could never compete with "Hero" level adventurers, but these changes are about creating interesting and challenging situations and stories for everyone involved (players and gamemasters), rather than trying to out maths each other. Using these rules and the accompanying notes should allow the gamemaster to focus on the story rather than worrying too much about numbers.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Advancement rules in roleplaying games

Numerical advancement in roleplaying games, where there is a net increase in values (skills, stats, attributes, etc.), is like treading water in a river flowing downstream. You may feel like you're swimming, but it's the current that's taking you along for the ride.

Lets take Dungeons and Dragons in the simplest form. You start with a +2 bonus. Roll a twenty-sided die and add the bonus. Against a goblin, 15 or above is a success. A little later you "advance". You now get a +4 bonus. Against the same goblin, your chance of success has improved. If that's all there was to it, it would be a real improvement. Of course, that isn't all there is to it. If you advance a few more times, your chance of success gets so high that there is barely any point in rolling. So what does the game master do to spice things up? Simple. A goblin with a helmet (need 18 or above). Or two goblins. Or an Orc (24 or above). That is, the game master has to change the odds to stop the game from becoming boring. It becomes an illusory arms race. Once you do the arithmetic, however, you're back to where you started.

If you're someone what doesn't understand maths, there isn't an issue. It's fun to think your character is getting better and better (rather than more and more uselessly complex). But what do you do if you want to play RPGs and you understand maths? You could pretend the issue doesn't exist, find a game without these silly advancement rules or modify an existing game so there is no superficial advancement.

In our next game session, I'm going to modify RuneQuest so it's not tied to any form of net numerical advancement. The only logical way to do this is to completely excise the game system. Drastic, but the entire system is tied to advancement, so it all has to go. What's left? Lots of stuff:
  • An evocative explanation of how ancient forms of combat worked
  • Great descriptions of ancient weapons and equipment
  • Good lists of professions
  • Great ideas for magic and spell descriptions
In fact, hardly anything is really lost. And there is still Glorantha. Glorious Glorantha.

Are there any RPGs that don't try this rather trite gimmick? Everything (D&D/Pathfinder, RuneQuest/HeroQuest, Traveller, Rolemaster/MERP, Burning Wheel, FUDGE/FATE, HarnMaster, T&T, Savage Worlds, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, etc.) but two games; Fiasco and Diaspora. (There may be more.)

I am left wondering how any of this came to be. I've got a few ideas.
  • The market. You can sell a lot more books if you convince people that they'll need tougher monsters and better magic items. You need more and more and more.
  • People don't understand maths. They really don't. (Myself included, a lot of the time.) It can be very confusing. So many dice, so many game systems, so much options and layers. It's difficult to figure it all out.
  • Legacy. Some guys thought it up in the 70s, so it must be right, huh?
  • Bourgeois ideology. The need to reproduce notions of progress is so deeply embedded in all thought and practice in the modern world that any progress, even non-existent progress, is clutched at.
  • People love inventing systems. Even if the system is nonsense, people just love to invent them. I don't know why.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Burning Wheel forum is an interesting read

Whoa, I'm getting some rather harsh (somewhat unfair?) criticism from The Burning Wheel forum. I must truly be a moron because the captcha keeps blocking my registration. Therefore...
"He thinks the DoW is too complicated and doesn't understand it at all, nor can he see how anyone else might understand it."
I believe I understand duel of wits and say nothing about other peoples' understanding. The reason I like Fight! compared with DoW is probably due to history. I expect combat in RPGs to be complicated. I like how old style games don't prescribe rule systems for non-combat. It leaves the players to determine all that. I enjoy the dichotomy of freedom and roleplay for social stuff, complex and strict for combat.

I think, if I were to design an RPG, I would do the exact opposite of The Burning Wheel. Instead of bringing systems into non-combat, I'd take the system out of combat. In fact, I'd probably design something that is almost no system at all. The players/GM would be responsible for providing all the continuity and determining the results of events. Dice, probably just a d10, would be used when you want chance to assist in determining outcomes. Anyways...
"Well, I like d100 in theory... but it's boils down to the tens die. Once you roll that, it doesn't matter about the other die in 9/10s of the cases."
Quite correct, except if you use critical success and fumble. Then it's 7/10. Or opposed test, 6/10. Still annoying, however. If only physical d100s weren't so crap...
"The dice pool thing is some personal problem he has..."

"I'm amused that he gets the complex ideas (BITs and Let It Ride) but doesn't get dice pools."
Personal problem? Well, yes, you can call it that, if you want. It sort of belittles things like alcoholism and depression, but whatever. Another way of putting it is "I don't like dice pools for reasons x, y, and z." I do understand them, however. Why do people often conclude that just because you don't like something you don't understand it?
"he wants straight ExP awards in place of Arthas. So he hasn't gone through the rewards cycle, advancing skills/stats, shade shifting to get a feel for it."
Not true. I want something simple. If ExP (I assume you mean D&D XP) is simple, I want it. I like RuneQuest's reward system. It's immediate and you can apply it to things like improving skills/stats, learning new skills and learning new magic. It blows away stupid stuff like going up levels in D&D, for example.



None of these generally absurd comments improve my disposition towards The Burning Wheel. It doesn't turn me off in any way either. One day I'd like to discover a forum that wasn't 75% tools, but it'll probably never happen.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Burning Wheel review

I've heard some good things about The Burning Wheel role-playing game. It attempts to fully integrate character actions into the story. This is a very good idea and what should drive RPGs.

Game System

I dislike the basic game system. It uses dice pools. You roll a number of six-sided dice and count results of 4 or more. If the count fulfils the number required, you succeed in your action. If not, you fail. The reason why I dislike this system is that you always have to grab different numbers of dice, spend a couple of seconds figuring out if you succeeded (not really knowing what your chances were) and pick up, from the floor, a lost die because you had to roll 5 of them. It just screams of a design by someone who doesn't understand probability or how to get take the tedium out of RPGs.

What you are looking for when rolling a die is a way to take a decision out of the hands of the players and game master, and into the hands of chance. Generally, the result is binary (success/fail), occasionally more interesting (critical success, success, fail, fumble), but it's never anything that requires such an involved method as what Burning Wheel uses. Obviously, flipping a coin won't work. However, does that mean you want varying numbers of dice, a variable "success" requirement (4 or above, 3 or above, 2 or more) or varying counts required to succeed? E.g., in The Burning Wheel, you could need 5 "successes" with 7 dice, each "success" being a roll of 3 or more. Not only that, occasionally when you roll a six you get to roll another die! Argh! What is the point of all this complexity?

What is better: Take all those variables into account and figure out your percentage chance of success and roll a d100. What is best: Ditch the system entirely and use something sensible.

RPG advice

It's not all bad news. The book is really very good in describing what roleplaying games are all about. It's about characters and story and their interaction. Dice, the book explains, are used whenever you can't just say "yes" to a request by a player. That is, if the character wants something that someone doesn't want it to have, you roll. Keeping this in mind when playing RPGs is invaluable.

There is also the "Let it Ride" rule. This is such a simple and seemingly obvious rule that I'm surprised I've never used it. It can apply to any RPG. It is, essentially: Just roll once to perform a task, no matter the subtlety or the game time involved. Rolling multiple times can often mean you didn't get the result you really wanted. Learn to deal with the result rather than re-rolling.

Characters

Another extremely good idea are the beliefs, instincts and traits of a character. (In reality, only beliefs and instincts are innovative. Traits already exist in many games, like Savage Worlds' edges and hindrances and RuneQuest's gifts and compulsions.) A player is instructed to write down three beliefs that their character has (e.g., "the poor are little more than pebbles to be trodden on"). If the player plays their character inline with their beliefs, they are rewarded. Attributing beliefs, instincts and traits to characters distinguishes them from other characters much better than stats ("my character is strong") or roles ("my character is the thief") do.

However, having described these new ways of characterisation, The Burning Wheel then imposes a rather complex reward mechanism that the author calls "artha". It's all too much complexity and I can't see how it does anything other than detract from the storytelling, which seems at odds with the overall idea of the RPG. I'd much rather have my players write down their beliefs, instincts and traits and simply award a RuneQuest improvement point (or D&D XP) whenever they play their characters correctly. A storytelling RPG should be all about simplifying and adding ways to improve the storytelling process, not hindering it by adding complexity.

Duel of Wits

The duel of wits sub-game is an clever attempt to undertake social conflict as part of a game. It's an expanded rock-paper-scissors. Players write down a series of argumental/rhetorical volleys, each as a type of action. In a duel of wits, the player may:
  • Avoid the topic
  • Dismiss your interlocutor
  • Feint
  • Incite
  • Obfuscate
  • Make a point
  • Rebut
Each action interacts with the other actions differently. Each speaker writes down a series of three actions at a time and they are played off against each other. The actions resolve simultaneously. This all needs to be role-played at the same time too. You can't just say "I make an eloquent point."

It's a clever system, but it seems too complicated. I don't see why one needs to formulate social interaction. In fact, once you have the idea of a debate in your head, you couldn't you allow the discussion to evolve more organically, rather than systematising it?

Combat System

The combat system is similar to the duel of wits. Players write down their actions in a series of volleys and all combat occurs simultaneously (like in Diplomacy). Actions are:
  • Avoid
  • Beat and bind (attempt to knock away a weapon)
  • Block
  • Charge/Tackle
  • Counterstrike
  • Disarm
  • Feint
  • Great Strike
  • Lock (i.e., grapple)
  • Push
  • Strike
  • Throw Opponent
I like it. It's simpler than most combat systems and yet there are a whole heap of cinematic options that could result in some fairly interestingly unpredictable battles. Still, I do kind of like the control you get in turn-based games like RuneQuest (which has all those combat manoeuvres and more).

Conclusion

The simultaneous conflict in Burning Wheel is a cool idea. I could see how that would be very fun to play. It might even speed up the often very slow combat sequences in RPGs. The way characters are created and played is also really cool. Nevertheless, I can't see why I'd ever play the Burning Wheel. The basic game mechanic (dice pools) is dire and infects every element of the game. It's too complicated and too tedious. Furthermore, there are too many rules! It's a 300 page book, almost entirely made up of rules. I'd need to completely re-work the whole thing to make far less mechanistic and complicated.

However, it's not all bad news. A lot of the ideas from the Burning Wheel went into making Diaspora. The end result for that RPG is very different. But that's for another day.