26 December 2012

Thoughts on Zombie Movies


To me, two of the most fascinating zombie movies are Day of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead. They're smart movies, each with totally a different affect or feel. They balance horror and humor on quite opposite ends of an experiential spectrum. Day of the Dead is a great horror movie (perhaps Romero's best, in my opinion, next to the original Night of the Living Dead), and Shaun of the Dead is laugh out loud funny, but they also share an important similarity. They ask about this imagined zombie weltkrieg: “What do we do when zombies start acting like normal people?”

Admittedly, Day of the Dead as a scenario has more to do with the question of how we get zombies to be civilized people than what we do when they are civilized. The civilized zombie is in the minority, which is sort of terrifying when one considers zombies as people, but momentum builds toward civilization and the acceptance of the formerly non-human human people as people. I think we can take the doctor's method (“They have to be rewarded...”) as a constant. If they had been re-civilized, zombies could be treated as equal citizens, but then anti-zombie prejudice and ignorance from militant white men with guns means there must be blood everywhere before that can happen.

Shaun of the Dead raises human/zombie normality issues pretty constantly. The whole beginning of the movie relies on human/zombie similarity. It provides most of the gags. I think you could say it's a theme of the movie. The ending, especially, explores the idea of how to civilize zombies-- hilariously.

Unfortunately, neither movie seems to address the question of zombie personhood in the long-term. It is interesting, though, that such long-term thinking drives the scientists in Day of the Dead to start re-educating zombies in the first place. However, they both look at the most important aspect of the global undead revolt myth: what happens when it is no longer a war?

HPL, cat blogger

A picture I made today of H.P. Lovecraft and Grumpy Cat.  In some ways, they're really a perfect match!  HPL was a pessimist, much like Grumpy Cat.

H.P. loved cats.  He founded the fictitious group Kappa Alpha Tau amongst a circle of writers, who kept each other up to date on local cats.  Howard liked a particular kitten he'd met whom he named Samuel Perkins, and whom he wrote about until the cat's untimely demise.

HPL: original cat blogger?

10 November 2012

Word Cloud: "Spiders from the Shadow"


This word cloud represents the 100 most used words from an incomplete draft of "Spiders from the Shadow."

29 October 2012

DM Tip: "To Hit" Coaster

This is a handy trick for DMs that don't have a DM screen and need other ways to conceal their notes. It's also just a nice reference tool for anyone who wants to speedier combat in your tabletop game. Even if you already have a DM screen, you can stick this to the top of your screen with a paperclip or a piece of tape, ready for reference.  It's important to have a custom one of these for every adventure, because you'll always have new monsters you'll need information for.

Things You'll Need
paper, pen, monster ACs, PC bonuses to hit, 1 coffee mug or other non-sticky, non-translucent cup.

...

Take a piece of paper and make a table on it which looks like this. Don't make the table really big, because you're about to have to hide this information by putting a cup on top of it.  For this example, assume an adventure where three heroes fight some bugbears, pirates, and a Dark Wizard.  You should list as many items on the Y axis as you have types of monsters with distinctive ACs.

r/m
A
B
C
Bugbears
8+/13+

9+/10+
16+/16 <7/16>
Pirates
6+/11+

7+/8+
14+/14 <6/14>
Dark Wizard
15+/n

16+/17+
n/n <14/n>

The “r/m” in the upper left is a key reminding you that these are numbers to hit "ranged/melee."  These are calculated by taking a monster's armor class and subtracting a character's bonus to hit. For example, you'll see that hero A needs to roll an 8 or higher to hit a bugbear with a ranged attack and a 13 or higher to hit it in melee.

Character C is a wizard with a familiar or other summoned creature that can also attack in combat, which has its own numbers noted next to that character's in <>.

The Dark Wizard has a very high armor class and can only be hit in some cases on a natural 20, denoted with an n (looks like it's all up to hero B!).  Note that the table has a little room left under every entry.  If the players find a way to lower the Dark Wizard's AC temporarily or permanently, you may want to write in the new numbers so you don't forget.

Now cut out this table at about the size of a coaster, pour yourself a drink, and put your cup on top of it. Your cup should be heavy enough that it won't fall over and opaque enough that nobody can see your notes beneath it. Practice picking it up a time or two to make sure the paper won't stick.

When you're playing later and players start making attack rolls against your bugbears, pirates, or Dark Wizard, you'll be able to check if they hit with discretion. Try to internalize the numbers so you don't end up drinking every time players roll the dice. If you find yourself picking up your cup too often, try hiding this sheet in your palm, sleeve, or lap.

Even if you have a DM screen, this will help speed up the game because you'll know where your reference information is. Rather than having to rifle through a pile of notes, open another book, or search for a section in a digital document, the numbers are right there, ready to keep your session flowing.

21 October 2012

Relativistic Alignment Models: “Seven Senses”


The 2nd edition AD&D Player's Handbook (1989) notes that alignment is an important tool in roleplaying, but emphasizes that it should be “a tool, not a straitjacket.” An alignment system serves as a moral codex which dictates not necessarily a player character's exact behaviour, but provides a model of moral reasoning that delineates a character's ethical boundaries for roleplay. In this blog post, I'll take a closer look at AD&D's alignment model, problematize its absolute representations of evil, and propose an alternative, relativistic model for alignment called Seven Senses.

Alignment models like those used in the 2nd edition AD&D PHB traditionally situate ethical behaviour in a biaxial model of absolutes (law/chaos & good/evil-- the ethical and moral axes, respectively), a style I refer to as “Ethical Axes.” This style of using prescribed moral absolutes essentializes the nature of evil in all people to whom it is ascribed. In so doing, it fails to re-create a few complex, but common social relations.

In an absolute model like the “Ethical Axes” of D&D, monsters are distinct from characters because they self-identify as evil. We know that few people do this because of the social and cultural importance of moral self-identity. While providing a convenient hand-wave to the unethical acts committed against those it prescribes as evil, the rhetorical allowance of absolute evil tends to prevent a situation from arising in which two people knowingly doing what they see as good can see each other as evil. There is no variance in moral cognition between characters in an absolute system. Even should two Chaotic Good characters become hated enemies, they would still perceive each other as their respective alignments. The absolute model supposes that evil is omnideducible (i.e., that it's always possible to know who is evil because evil is either constant or permanent), which is problematic for a number of reasons that for brevity's sake I won't go into.

The model of Senses restructures alignment as a way of ambiguating the nature of evil. It does this to assist in recreating common, but complex phenomena where two self-identified moral persons both think each other evil. Rather than being tied to the problematically absolute dialectics of D&D's Ethical Axes, a Sense-based alignment system models morality relative to the observer. This way, we might end up in a situation where (as Spoony says) “To... orcs, these assholes who are kicking down their doors and killing their babies are evil!"

In a Sense-based alignment system, the structuring of morality as relative is based on different worldviews or “Senses of the world.” Each Sense generally summarizes a semiotic ideology, that is how a character perceives information, as well as how they ascribe value and derive meaning from their surroundings. As an alignment system is a moral codex, they do this with a particular focus on how characters read ethical behaviour into their actions and from those of others. They constrain, but do not prescribe, action based on Tenets.

For this post, I will provide a list of Seven Senses, describe their Tenets, and give an example of how each ideology allows its user to read ethical behaviour into actions. Next time, I will try to draw out how these Senses might aid players creating and resolving two distinct moral situations in play: the prisoner dilemma and divvying. Specifically, I will explore how evil might signify in the absence of an absolute using “The Seven Senses” as a sample model for a relativistic alignment system. When I finish, I plan on creating guidelines for players to create their own character Senses.

One final thing, before I list them: I must note that mechanisms for social perception are not exclusive to any Sense. Rather all types of Sense are available to player characters, but their character's Sense represents an exaggeration of some mode which typifies their responses.

The Seven Senses: Speaking Sense, Holistic Sense, Gut Sense, Animal Sense, Battle Sense, Money Sense, Common Sense, Insensible.

Speaking Sense (SS): Values mutual communication and literacy; good speech demonstrates good reason. Generally, the speaker's language (and language family) is considered “good.” For example, an elf who bases his morality on Speaking Sense would see Elvish, Fairy, and Wizardy speakers as good people (see Fig. 1.1). Elves typically get bonus languages for having high INT, and frequently intermingle with dwarves. Note that speaking more languages would allow a character of this type to understand more peoples empathically. Tenets of Speaking Sense include candor and contracts.

Fig. 1.1: Languages of the Land & Their Interrelations

To justify their behaviour, a Speaking Sense character might say, “I meant what I said,” or “Nobody talks to me that way,” or even “I was just following orders.” To condemn evil, an SS character might point to things said or communicated or to a lack of “good speech” (however the character defines that).

Holistic Sense (HS): Life is a system of relations and interconnections. A character with Holistic Sense tries to think of what their actions mean for the world or a local area as a whole, as habitats or ecosystems. Tenets of Holistic Sense might include gemeinschaft (community), harmony, or may represent a character who simply prefers a “bigger picture” sort of view.

To justify their behaviour, a Holistic Sense character might say, “I've restored balance,” “The Realm will be less troubled for my actions,” or “In the long run, it was the right thing.” To condemn evil, an HS character might decry the upsetting of a beneficial network, offense to a chosen higher cause, or a long-term judgment about the impact of an event on a personality.

Gut Sense (GS): Traditionally the basis of halfling morality, “Gut Sense” directly correlates gastronomy with moral potential. Halflings who use their mealcunning to track or consume things other than good food may become corrupted (Table: “Halfling Mealsense Corruption” not yet available). A halfling without Gut Sense has a +6 to resist food corruption, but cannot use mealcunning. Non-halfling peoples with Gut Sense also become subject to food corruption, but may gain mealcunning.

To justify their actions, a GS character might say, “But I did it in good taste” or they might convince themselves something is okay if it “doesn't leave a bad aftertaste” in their conscience. An evil person may be a “tasteless” or “rotten,” an eater of icky or strange things.

Animal Sense (AS): Animals tend to make sense of the world differently from people. The world to an animal is mostly about food, survival, and mating. Animals may or may not be territorial. Wolves, cats, and deer all have animal sense, though feral people might also adopt it.

Will an action serve them somehow in getting prey or otherwise guaranteeing survival? Might a person be possible competition for food or a mate? These are some questions that might occur to an Animal Sense character, though some are more eusocial than others. An Animal Sense character raised by wolves is going to act much differently, for example, than one who is obsessed by the order-driven world of ants.

Note that not all animals may use Animal Sense as their alignment.  A familiar, for example, may share alignment with its caster as a result of their telepathic link.

An AS character might justify behaviour by measuring it against the survival value of an action. They could condemn evil as that which impedes on their survival or that of a “pack” or “hive” if their Sense is based on a pack or hive animal.

Battle Sense (BS): This is a sense of the world based around a martial code. Be it complex as chivalry or Bushido, or simple as the rule of might, these characters make sense of the world through conduct on a battlefield. Paladins, for example, live famously complicated codes of honor.

A BS character will justify their actions against their code of combat, for example: “I defend the weak,” “He who raises a sword is willing to die by it,” or “A worthy foe should be granted reprieve.” They will condemn evil by standards meant for battle.

Money Sense (MS): For some, money determines right or wrong. This type of Sense might be common amongst merchants and mercenaries. Common tenets can be quite diverse, so long as they are currency-related. They might include “A penny saved is a penny earned” or “He who has the gold makes the rules.” A Money Sense character could be a greedy elf jewel miner or ascetic folk who count every penny they give away.

To justify their behaviour, a Money Sense character might say something like, “At least I have more (or less) money,” “I can always buy another,” “Down with the rich!”, or “At least I did (or didn't) steal my money!”

Common Sense (CS): Unlike its name suggests, common sense is neither truly common, nor is it truly a sense in the way taste, sight, or hearing are. Rather, it is more like an intuitive understanding of morality held by a group of folk. Tenets of common sense include self-preservation, the golden rule (“Do unto others”), evidence, social proof, and the right to agree to disagree. Folk morality is generally based on common sense. It's perfectly possible for two people using common sense to debate for hours and come to completely different conclusions.

Insensible (I): This describes an often single-minded, one dimensional sort of thinking that cannot be reasoned with. Unconscious people lose their sense and become Insensible. It might also describe people robbed of sense by e.g., being under the effect of a fear spell or compelled by a magical suggestion. Madmen, berzerkers, hurricanes, and golems might be Insensible.

An Insensible character is incapable of moral decision-making and judgment. Characters who return from this state will attempt to make sense of things as they would normally.

14 October 2012

Horror Writers of America Accept Games & I.F.

Browsing the eligibility requires for the Horror Writers of America today, I came across these possible qualifications:

ix.  The writing of three role-playing games, gaming modules, scenarios, sourcebooks, or other role-playing gaming projects related to horror or dark literature of at least 10,000 words each, and each paying at least five cents (5¢) per word.

x. The writing of one role-playing game, gaming module, scenario, sourcebook, or other role-playing gaming project related to horror or dark literature of at least 40,000 words, paying at least five cents (5¢) per word.

xi. Payment of $2,000 for the scripting of a computer game related to horror or dark literature, or a single work of interactive fiction intended for electronic media, regardless of length or memory usage.

xii. The writing of a computer game or a single work of interactive fiction related to horror or dark literature for electronic media without payment in advance, but with a paid circulation exceeding 1,000 copies, of which all or part of that payment has been received by the writer -- i.e., "shareware" with over 1,000 registered copies.


30 September 2012

ADRIFT v5 IntroComp Reviews (2012)


It's sad to see that of the six games in this competition, only ONE has a fully proofread introduction sequence.  Not a good sign.  The only errorless one's three-sentence introduction was basically too short to have had any sort of mistake or typo, but errors did show up later in that game, anyway.

It seems to me like maybe it's time to bring back some of the writing challenges and exercises that used to be on the Forum.  Maybe they could help people develop their technique.

At any rate, you didn't come here to hear me complain about spelling and grammar.  You want to hear about the games.  Specifically, which one did I want to play the most?

For me, answering that came down to a few questions.  Did the author give me an intro with a hook that grabbed my interest from the start?  Did the author provide me with a compelling narrative, with strongly defined characters and goals?  And did the author's design give me evidence that they could effectively accomplish the goals they set forward in the introduction?

I do have some detailed notes from each game I played which I may post at a later time, either at the ADRIFT Forum or directly to their authors, whichever they prefer.  For now, I've decided I'm going to borrow a page from Christopher Huang's book and, after discussing each game a bit, identify each game with a meal.  In this case, I'm imagining each as an appetizer.  No numerical scores here.  Without further ado, then, the reviews...

____________________

The Axe of Kolt needs to give me something to sink my teeth into.  We don't need to see our hero getting to a tavern to volunteer for an adventure, we need to see the adventure.  As it stands, there's evidence of worldbuilding, but it's severely railroaded, unexciting, and ends with Guess the Subject trouble or a long wait.  I would've liked for the adventure to start in the tavern, preferably to start right about when it ended (which is when we get a peek at the beginning of the game's conflict).

Appetizer: The waiter (in his Ren Faire best) came by with water and kept my glass filled, but then just kept telling me about ye olde menu without ever bringing it.
____________________

The Blank Wall jumps tracks without warning.  It starts strong, but loses sight of its conflict when the PC and the player are both constantly bewildered by magic they don't understand.  Still, I'm intrigued, and there's definite evidence from this intro that the author has the craft to pull this thing off.

Appetizer: I ordered a hard-boiled egg (odd to see on an appetizer menu, but there is was).  Some bafflement happened in the kitchen-- or else my order was deliberately switched without warning-- and I received a scrambled egg.  Still willing to eat it, but I'm left scratching my head about the whole incident.
____________________

Head Case is going to give me a migraine-- and I don't even have migraines.  It's a mess.  Please understand that I don't intend what I'm about to say in a mean-spirited way, but if the author has re-read his game even once and thinks that it looks fine, he needs to stop writing and start playing games by other authors to see how it's done.

Appetizer: The disorganized state of the restaurant and bad smells coming from the kitchen forced me to reconsider my dining experience for the night.
____________________

Organic strands me without a definite control scheme or even a hint system.  Its intro starts strong, but the gameworld isn't yet fully realized enough to sustain it.

Appetizer: The spinach dip looked great, but arrived still sealed in a display case.  When I wanted to ask how I was supposed to eat it, it turned out the staff had disappeared.
____________________

Shattered Memory needs to decide what's the most important element of its story and either go full scene, starting players in at an earlier point of the story where they can interact with their sister while she's still alive (not a spoiler), or it needs to cut the crap and start at around where the intro ends.

Appetizer: The wait staff brought me gin instead of water, but before I could drink, they switched it out with water again.  And then gin again.  Then water.  By the time I got the menu in my hands, the restaurant had closed.  Probably worth noting that, though it's drinkable, I'm not particularly a fan of gin.
____________________

Trapped needs to actually trap the player by sustaining its conflict.  As it is, it's practically over as soon as it starts.  

Appetizer: I came for an appetizer and got a spoonful of peas... delightfully absurd, to be sure, but rather disappointing when the bill came and it turned out to be the whole dinner, too.
____________________

23 September 2012

Review: King of Dragons (SNES)



King of Dragons is a 2D sidescrolling beat 'em up with Gygaxian fantasy overtones for 1-4 players released in arcades 1991 and ported to the Super Nintendo in 1994. For this review, I will be focusing on the SNES release. From what I have played of the arcade version, the gameplay is basically identical-- the difficulty is just toned down since a console doesn't need to bleed you of your quarters.

From the character selection screen, it's pretty obvious the game seeks to emulate classic Dungeons & Dragons. The types of characters you can choose break down exactly along the class lines available in the original D&D1, with the exception of excluding halflings and calling one class a “wizard” instead of the tackier, but more technical label “magic user.” Also a notable similarity to classic rather than future forms of D&D, the demi-human races represent their own classes-- the elf and the dwarf. To further hit home the point that what you're playing is kinda like D&D, every character you can choose has “LV 1” written above his name, even though this is basically redundant information since nobody starts at a different level. It is worth noting, though, that Capcom would later produce two more fantasy-themed beat 'em ups with the TSR license: Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara. At their core, these games are basically all clones of Golden Axe-- if you didn't like Golden Axe, you probably won't like these games. If what you wanted was a better version of Golden Axe, all of these games are for you.

Each character type has their own advantages and disadvantages. The elf and wizard are both ranged fighters, while the fighter, cleric, and dwarf use a melee attack. While ranged characters can keep their distance from a fight, they don't have shields, so they can't block attacks. On the other hand, blocking is only useful if it is timed correctly with an opponent's attack. The fighter has the most powerful attacks, the cleric has the most health, and the dwarf has the special advantage of being able to attack low-lying slimes that creep along the floor without having to wait for them to jump up.

Personally, I don't really see a reason to play as anyone other than the elf. Having a ranged attack is a major advantage in this game. Most enemies in King of Dragons have some kind of shield they can use to block attacks and then counter-attack briefly after blocking. Players are expected to trade blows back-and-forth to some extent, timing blocks and probably taking damage in the process. If you're fighting more than one enemy at a time-- which you almost always are if you're on single player-- blocking has such a short window that a staggered enemy attack, where one is just a split-second away from the other, will always hit you. I guess you could choose one of the melee characters if you're a masochist and want more of a challenge, but-- especially in single player-- it seems to me like more hassle than it's worth.

With a ranged attack, there's no need for this song and dance. Enemies that block will take your next arrow when they lash out, since attacking means they drop their guard. Ideally their attack will miss because you'll be on the other side of the screen. I generally choose the elf over the wizard, too, since the wizard's weapon at a couple points in the game may change into a shorter-range burst of flame or lightning. It's powerful, true, but sadly robs him of his range advantage. The elf's attacks never go through this hiccup-- he just gets fancier bows (for better range) and bigger, more bad ass arrows (for more damage).

So, those are the characters you can play as. What about all the ones you'll be fighting?

The game starts off rather underwhelmingly with some standard orcs. Yawn. There's a wolfman in there that shoots a crossbow, at least (and players will see more of his palette swaps as the game progresses), but when the level boss is just “The Orc King,” it doesn't look too promising. Does every level 1 adventurer have to make his way killing orcs? Is this a law or something? Aren't there other low level creatures a designer could throw out there or-- shock of shocks!-- are there any new ones they could invent?

Luckily, this is just the game easing the player in. I guess once the Orc King is dead we can go past the issue and get on with more interesting villains. The orcs don't ever go away entirely-- they're back in blue and red forms, each stronger than the last-- but for the most part, this cliché is gotten over with quickly.

The rest of the common foes the player will face do feel a bit generic, too, but they at least demonstrate good variety. These include (but are not limited to) skeletons that jump around, slime that grabs the player's feet, merfolk with big polearms, kamikaze lizardmen, harpies, and mummies that will lift player characters off the ground to choke them. Many of the oncoming waves of enemies are designed to look as though they are assaults planned out by an enemy commander rather than just a game designer. For example, goons will capture players in pincer formations, fire at them with a row of archers, or bombard them with homunculi. Generally, these are just a result of the material constraints on the screen, however, including number of enemies, allowable frame rates, and having two sides from which to attack. Clearly the enemies don't subscribe to the school of military thought that says one should strike with overwhelming force, but goons fighting heroes rarely do. This is part of what makes them goons and our allows heroes to be heroes. Overall, though there are moments where their strategic placement and unique attack patterns make the game challenging, the enemies in King of Dragons are a blend of fairly standard, high fantasy monsters and nothing too much to write home about.

There's one particular enemy I had trouble classifying. I would hesitate to call them dragons. Now, the game does refer to them as dragons2, but while they are fire-breathing reptiles, they are bipedal with shortened forelimbs, flightless (wingless, even!), and not too much taller than a man. On the other hand, dragons can have a variety of breath weapons, it's true, but as a rule they are quadripedal reptiles that fly with wings and are freaking ginormous. These other monsters are clearly inspired by what the credits of Golden Axe refer to as “dragons,” but those weren't actually dragons either, for the same reasons. They're a little more like big, fire-breathing velociraptors than dragons. Not that those aren't awesome in their own way, let's be clear here, they're just not dragons. What should these things be called? They must have a technical name somewhere, but I haven't yet found it.

Regardless of its mostly generic goons, the boss enemies are where King of Dragons really gets to shine. The game really lives up to the “Dragons” in its title. It showcases several dragon-type enemies aside from the dragon rider. There's an accurate wyvern3, a non-regenerating hydra whose three heads shoot different elemental attacks, “The Great Dragonian” who's a sort of bad ass, magic-wielding man-dragon in armor4, and of course an ancient, red dragon named Gildiss-- the titular King of Dragons and seemingly a tip of the hat to Smaug-- for the finish.

Even aside from the dragon-type bosses, the game plumbs mythology and high fantasy for a few more unique fights. There's a fight with a minotaur where the floor breaks, and the player can for a few seconds battle the minotaur in mid-air before landing on the next level of the palace. I wish this mid-air fight was longer, because it changes the physics of the game for that while, too, which is an interesting concept. Then there's a cyclops that throws rocks like Polyphemus in Homer's Odyssey and tries to chomp on people's heads. Combat with a swarm of giant spiders in a dark forest clearly aims to reference Bilbo's fight to rescue his dwarven companions in Mirkwood.

One of my favorite non-dragon boss fights is the Dark Wizard. What I love about this fight is the way the level sets the player up for it. The level is called “Dark Wizard's Tower,” so you know what you're getting into from the get-go. Then at the end of the first section, the players battle a puny-looking wizard in a funny hat with some kinda weak, but kinda cheap spells.

That guy can take a bit to defeat, but he leaves you thinking, “Was that it? Some wizard, pshaw!” And then your characters step inside the tower to loot some treasure and this foreboding music starts up. Then you get a dialog box from someone speaking invisibly and this big, super mean, and ultra tough wizard comes flying at you, spewing fire and lightning. It's a tough boss fight, no doubt, but it's the way that it's played for surprise that makes the Dark Wizard one of the most memorable bosses in the game.

The stages in the game5 pretty much mirror its goons: generic, but diverse. The heroes travel through a couple forests, caves, castles, catacombs, and even a boat. For the most part, they're all just window dressing for a series of 2D sidescrolling bits of land. The graphics aren't what I would call bad by any stretch, but they're not awe-inspiring, either. Only a few of the stages have many unique affordances, like the way that the limits of being on a boat prevent players from fighting enemies off-screen, or the way players can move and fight mid-air while the floor falls out from under them in the minotaur's stage.

I think that the primary intention of the stages in King of Dragons is, in combination with particular choices of enemies, to evoke in the player the sense of other adventures. When we land a ship on a beach to fight skeletons and harpies, leading us up to a minotaur and cyclops, we should be reminded of Jason and the Argonauts fighting Ray Harryhausen's monsters. When we defeat giant spiders in the Trent Woods, we should be recalling Bilbo in Mirkwood. When we fight a bunch of orcs in the woods, we should be reminded of just about any time we've had a first level character in D&D. And so on. This sort of structure makes the game less about the heroes' main quest-- killing Gildiss-- and more about acting as a fantasy pastiche where everybody can get a piece of the pie that pleases them.

Speaking of the game's stages and enemies, every now and then there are little, floating one-use-only orbs that come up. If a player hits them, they'll trigger a magic attack that will clear all the enemies from a screen (except for bosses, naturally). There's even an especially pleasing variety of magical effects that come from these orbs, from fairly standard spouts of fire or lightning to calling down meteors or even turning all on-screen enemies into frogs. Can't say I know too many other games where you turn your enemies into frogs! Normally polymorphing into toads is an evil spell that gets used against heroes, like in Quest For Glory, so it's kind of cathartic to turn the tables, especially when the spell is so powerful that it affects all enemies on the screen. Take that!

Besides being one-use-only, a few things set these orbs apart from their near-analogue in Golden Axe-- collecting the magic pots. The first is that they avoid the morally questionable abuse of and theft from little people. The second is their unique, floaty-bobbly physics and the way that players can move them around by running into them. And lastly, while their time sensitivity doesn't distinguish them from the magic pots of Golden Axe, their positioning is often meted out in a very exact and predictable way that make their time sensitivity into a challenge to get the best use out of them.

Generally, a magic orb will appear during a fight with a wave of weak enemies, followed by a slightly stronger wave, and then the strongest. The implicit challenge of these orbs, then, is to fight through the first wave or two of enemies quickly without hitting the orb (which can be done accidentally), then moving it along fast enough to hit the entirety of the tougher group of enemies with it before it disappears. Giving players this limited window of opportunity offers a more interesting strategic challenge, in my opinion, than seeing how many pots they can kick out of a dwarf and letting them use that magic whenever they feel like it.

One last thing I'd like to mention is the leveling system for King of Dragons. As I mentioned, players all start at level one. In this game, the player's score acts as an analogy to the experience points of Dungeons & Dragons. Your score goes up when you defeat a monster or collect treasure, and you level at predictable benchmarks, which refills your health and boosts your maximum hit points. This means that the treasure in the game is actually worth something in-game, which is a bit of a relief. It always annoys me when a game features a scoring system, but just as a vestigial growth of the arcade high score board without in any way relating it to in-game performance or using it to guide players or... anything useful really. Building levels this way also gives less skilled players a way to boost their character periodically and keep paced with a more skilled player. When I play with my brother, sometimes I just let him get all the treasure because I know he'll need the eventual extra health more than I will.

Now, aside from leveling by score and increasing a player's maximum health, the boss of most stages will also drop a golden treasure chest that contains upgrades for players. These vary by player class, but generally increase weapon power or range (for the elf and wizard) or else power or defense (for melee characters). I could see this being improved a little if the player to have a choice of upgrades. At the end of every stage, for example, a wizard might have been given a choice to upgrade attack range or power. A system like this could be potentially gamebreaking if used without limits (“More damage, more damage, more damage, more damage... oh, bosses only take three hits now? Well, that's... interesting.”), but if players could upgrade by choice to a set maximum, I don't think it would be a problem, so long as enemy reach and endurance continued to offer the players a threat.

The set weapon progression is, however, nicely balanced, so I can't complain too much about it. The designers even provoke players a bit, faking them out a couple times by not awarding new upgrades at the end of a stage. So you reach the end of a stage and go, “Wait, what about my weapons!? Noooo...!” But then you'll find new ones somewhere in the next stage. It's a nice variation in pacing that subverts players' expectations for affect. A one-time gag, yes, but it adds some variety to the game's progression, and makes for a couple interesting combat scenarios, like where you have to grab your new weapons while fighting off skeletons or slimes that can prevent you from moving.

My one complaint about Capcom's execution of this leveling technique is that after the weapon upgrades appear, they're on a timer and either the item will start blinking and disappear (if you found it before the stage boss), or else the stage will end completely without warning if you take too long, which can be really frustrating. Falling behind in power seems like a little harsh of a penalty for not escaping from a slime fast enough or dropping your controller or running to answer the phone and expecting your friend to pause or any other conceivable scenario that might make you miss an upgrade. The upgrades are static, though, so you can always catch up. For example, The Cave of Hydra will always have a Level 3 Elf Bow if you're playing as an elf. Because weapon upgrades tend to alternate, however, missing one will leave a player one upgrade behind the curve in their shield, sword, bow, staff, or whatever for two stages. Still, if you can tough it out a couple stages, it's a pretty forgiving penalty.

In summary, King of Dragons is a fun way to pass the time as a fantasy hero, an improvement over playing early Gauntlet games or Golden Axe, marred mostly by its generic presentation. This was the sort of game I used to play when nobody else was around to play D&D or if I just wanted to get my mind into a fantasy mode in a brief period of time with no planning-- just pick up the controller and play. It's even better with a friend. If you're looking for a good hack 'n slash game on the SNES, definitely check this one out.

___________________________
1Fighter, cleric, dwarf, elf, or magic user.
2As evident in the name of the first enemy using one as a steed, the boss known as, “Dragon Rider.”
3Distinguishable by having wings on its forelimbs with no arms and a stinger on its tail. Sadly, in King of Dragons, the wyvern never uses its stinger.
4The Great Dragonian also has the most spectacular death in the game, it should be noted.
5The game doesn't seem to present a preferred term for its stages, but I use the term rather than “levels” to avoid confusion with talking about character levels.

16 September 2012

The Procrastinator

Tomorrow I think I'll... never mind.

30 August 2012

On the 2012 RNC Keynote


Applause for Chris Christie is less than deafening at the RNC, which is too bad because I might've enjoyed his keynote speech more if I hadn't been able to hear it. It's disgusting. This entire convention so far has consisted of watching elephants try to fart like mice.

There's some point in the speech, Chris Christie mentions that sort of “we're all here tonight” shtick and when he says “farmers” this one guy in a crazy hat can be seen looking at all the people around him. He might see a lot of people who own stock in companies that have bought out farms. But his search for farmers ends visibly on camera, confused and unsuccessful.

These people are applauding getting rid of teachers? Shame on them. And shame on Republicans for running people out of their jobs.

Visually, they're really trying hard to make Christie look like a moderate. He keeps talking about how Democratic New Jersey is, he's got on a purple tie, and and the screen behind him is blue.

What is this steam blowing behind Chris Christie? Are we supposed to be in a blue Hell or something? Or are we supposed to be imagining Christie's head in the sky? It would explain why he sounds like he has his head in the clouds. If he shoves his head much further up his ass, they'll have to change it brown.

Christie: “We believe in telling people the truth about our financial situation...” Except that Mitt Romney has featured at least two ads featuring mistruths, both regarding our current economic situation: “Obama dropped the work to welfare requirement,” or that the “Affordable Care Act cost us $700 billion.” These claims have been disproven by every news source-- even Chris Wallce is calling Christie “off-key”; Fox News contributer Sally Kohn reported these points are “blatant lies.” In response, one Republican pollster said he wouldn't let the Romney campaign be defined by “fact checkers.”

12:22-12:30-- Asking old people to take cuts in Medicare and Medicaid. “Our seniors are not selfish.” Listen to the little patter of applause after that.  Hardly anyone is clapping.  How could you?  Who goes down into Florida and starts attacking the elderly?  Republicans should lose Florida for going there to bully my grandma!

12:35-- Is that the voice of a senior booing? Quick, we found probably an isolated black person at this event! Uh oh... she doesn't look too enthusiastic. Camera zooms to let us see her hands, and that she is, in fact, barely clapping. Listen as the old lady continues to boo for a bit.

13:13-- put students first... by getting rid of teachers? Just say it to yourself. It doesn't make sense. This platform actively hurts education in the country at the same time as it inflates unemployment.

14:00-- Christie “believes in teachers?” Teaching is mythical to him or something?

“Strength of our ideas, not our rhetoric, draws people to our party.” Republicans don't want it to be about what you say or do, but what they believe. Someone sic Bill Nye on these people!

“We lose when we scare and divide”... then he goes on immediately to scaring.

“Get results for the people who gave us these jobs.” (Remember, this only makes sense if you buy into the Republican delusion that corporations are people)

Old ladies half-heartedly shaking American flags. They are holding them backwards.

The old “putting bureaucrats between people and their doctors” bit. Oh, please. We all know our children need health potions. Under the Affordable Care Act, every party can keep their cleric.

Christie calls Obama's leadership “absentee?” No, excuse me, there's only been one absent party this past 4 years and that's been the obstructionist Republican regime which abused filibuster on needed stimulus and diluted any solution, weakening our recovery from a double-dip recession (caused by the previous administration's adherence to failed economic policies) because they so badly wanted Barack Obama to be a one term president.

“We all must share in this sacrifice,” says a rich man about to give more money to rich people.

Republicans are big on this fall from grace concept that America somehow stopped being a superpower under Obama. They say they support the American people, or that they are great, but they're always talking about needing to “be great again” as if we've lost it. Their entire endorsement of “American exceptionalism” is that they believe we somehow stopped being exceptional and need to reclaim it. The kind of doublethink required to believe it is typical of Republicans, especially visible in those ridiculous Corporate Tea Party signs saying shit like, “Get the Gov't Out of MY Medicare!” … Medicare is a federal government program.

Hey, y'know what's insane?  Asking your hands to get out of your hands.

After “second American century,” now Christie is surrounded by fire, which I think visually confirms that he is supposed to be speaking from Hell.  Or maybe they just want people to think he's a "fiery" speaker.

“New era of truth-telling.” Again, from the campaign that isn't letting itself be defined by an adherence to facts. I believe this should be called what it is: a new era of relying on an old era's bullshit.

12:52-- a large, older woman wearing a fanny pack is waving her arms, trying to get somebody's attention. She doesn't seem to know she has the camera's eye. “No!” she shouts.

It's easy to see why Republicans aren't excited this year.

Errata: apparently, it's “dictate,” not “define.” It was Neil Newhouse that said: “We won't let fact checkers dictate our campaign. We're not going to let truth get in the way.”

16 August 2012

Curse of the Keyboard


Test Transcript #1

Dangerous though it may be, I now type upon the Cursed Keyboard. A live and public test of this artifact seems the only way to put to rest the legends of its corrupting powers over human linguistic functioning when connected to the Internet. For want of minimal exposure to any possible damage, we have devised a 30-day experiment which should satisfy for both rigor and safety. Transcripts will be selected after testing which highlight any key developments.

Let this first entry serve as baseline.

* * *
Test Transcript #2

Hello to all teh folks out there watching. As you can see, the MRI & EEG readings still show normal activity. Though I have experienced some misspellings, we cannot as yet ascribe these to the mythical “corruption” of the keyboard as much as we might an accidental slip of the fingers. As far as effects go, so far I have also noticed a slight increase in irritability, but little moar. lol

* * *
Test Transcript #3

OK, we're startin 2 see stuff on teh MRI and EEG, specificly in Wernicke and Broca's areas. Soem people rite 2 me sayin it's messed up. ffs omfg wtf that's just their opinion! i tpye totes fine, i mean cant u read ppl!?

#yolo

* * *
Test Transcript #4

omg srsly cognitiv malfunction? moar liek teh 2 epicness of ym brian. u jelly!or there all stupid.ima kep doin it ya u dont no wtf ppl y u no raed me? y u no liek n subscrib? follo teh reserch 4 kittehs ppl!

* * *
Test Transcript #5

avpne'vje dbrh[bhjewom m ;ribuwehvonpv m;ls hiev8ihwvcnpw; ' ; neb9ehv89ejfvpevl; el hj vyu f67ef

* * *

[Experimenters' note: After one viewer brought the fifth transcript to the attention of the research team involved, the full month-long test has been canceled in favor of maintaining the health and safety of Subject A.  Subject A has since been provided with opportunities for rehabilitation, but the overall prognosis is uncertain at best.  The team expresses sincere condolences to the family of Subject A, but stands firmly by the waiver signed by all subjects and Subject A's typed statement of “#yolo.”]

12 August 2012

Crypt Thief Word Cloud

The following is an image of a word cloud I created at Wordle.net from the 100 most-used words in four stories I've written about crypt thieves.


02 August 2012

WTF, Online News Source?

Thanks for putting a video with this article, Online News Source.  That's mighty convenient.  From the size of the scrollbar, this looks like a longish article and this video will save me time.

You want me to watch an ad first?  Sucky, but okay.  Fine.  I'll sit through it.  Hopefully there's not a second one.  Hopefully the video won't repeat.  Hopefully it'll be shorter than this video you thought was so important you would put it before the article.  Hopefully it'll be a different-- no?  Okay, fine, I'll watch this one commercial again, just get to the content.

Oh.  Oh, Online News Source.  We have some problems here.  The commercial that interrupted was, like, twice as long as the actual news segment.  Also, the segment didn't tell me anything.  It was barely even on the same topic as the article.  This whole thing was just a tangent.  I could've been halfway done with this article by now!  Not to mention your advertiser's banner in the corner is censoring your content!

If all of this wasn't enough, your videos keep playing when I'm finished with them.  The end of the video doesn't give me an opportunity to pause, nor can I pause the ad that will continue to play.  I have to mute my computer and try to just hurry and read the article before you assault me with more nonsense.

Why, Online News Source, why!?

09 February 2012

2011: A Self-Retrospective in Numbers

Looking back at my writerly productivity for the year of 2011. In 2011 I...

Published 4 games.
("Delusions Again"
"Whitterscap's Key"
"The Crooked Estate"
"Attack of Doc Lobster's Mutant Menagerie of Horror")

Organized 1 successful IF competition.
(Ectocomp 2011, which we finally opened to non-ADRIFT entries)
Beta-tested 2 games.
("Brain Dead Weekend"
"Cursed")

Received special thanks in 2 games.
("In Memory"
"Back Home")

Wrote ~27 IF reviews.
(on IFDB and the ADRIFT website)

Got 1 reward for IF reviewing.
(1st place in ADRIFT Review Comp 2011)

Got 2 rewards for my games.
(2nd place in Ectocomp 2011, w/ Doc Lobster
... and 1st to "The Crooked Estate" as only entry?)

Wrote 12 works of short prose fiction.
("A Heavy Pack"
"A Ruined House"
"Brochure Found Near Storm Drain"
"Jabeld's Casket" ["The Black Pillars"]
"Laserman Vs. Dash Dervish & the Tornado Machine"
"One Estate, As Left by Owners"
"Pennies of Doom"
"Teiselwalk's Bridge"
"The Damned Cat"
"The Last Laugh at Signus Station"
"The Pendant of Zeklin Kha"
"Underneath the Cemetery")

Made 27 submissions to publishers.

Published 6 short prose fictions.
("A Ruined House"
"One Estate, As Left by Owners"
"Underneath the Cemetery"
"Brochure Found by Storm Drain"
"The Pendant of Zeklin Kha"
"Pennies of Doom")

Successfully requested 2 misprinted stories be fixed.
("The Pendant of Zeklin Kha"
"Pennies of Doom")

Successfully had 2 continually misprinted stories taken down.
("The Pendant of Zeklin Kha"
"Pennies of Doom")

... overall, a good year?

07 January 2012

Rejection Letter #1 from Untied Shoelaces of the Mind

We can't use your story at this time. We hope you have some luck placing it with another market. See below for editor notes. Please submit more fiction.

Your submission of "A Pirate's Punishment" was reviewed by Geoffrey C Porter.

I read about half of it. It just wasn't hitting my funny bone. The whole back and forth over the fax thing was no good for me.

Form letter rejection. Editor didn't enjoy the beginning enough or it wasn't suitable for our market, so editor stopped reading. We hate to select this form letter, but we've read so many stories, if the beginning is no good for us odds are astronomically good that the middle and end won't be satisfactory.

06 January 2012

Return to Camelot

Continuing where I left off on my letters to ADRIFT authors who entered last year's IFComp. Here's one to Finn Rosenloev, author of Return to Camelot. Some spoilery content may follow.

* * * *

Finn,

It occurs to me that it is likely few of the other judges have played the original Camelot to which your recent IFComp entry, Return to Camelot, is a sequel. While I don't think knowledge of the previous game is necessary to complete or enjoy Return to Camelot, I wonder if I would be wrong in assuming that this previous knowledge makes me part of a select few-- the ideal audience for this game!

No doubt-- recalling how critical I was of Camelot-- you may think I have a laundry list of bad things to say about your latest game, but that's not quite so this time. I did find a lot of bugs, true, and some of the writing could use a brush-up (this has been discussed in other reviews-- I won't mention it since you've no doubt already heard it), but overall I was pleasantly surprised by Return to Camelot. I came away amused with your fun, light fantasy piece-- my enjoyment rated it a solid 3/5.

For one thing, I was glad to find there was no conflict in tone throughout this one aside from the opening fake-out. I was a little disappointed to find that the protagonist being a detective didn't play a larger role in the story, but didn't feel it actively detracted from the story. I would've liked to see more of Igor and Merlin and to have done more investigating. Was the shoulder holster an important item in a puzzle I missed?

I had some problems with ADRIFT 5, but I don't know how much control you had over these things and whether they should be classified as author or platform problems. It's interesting to be in this position for once, being so much less familiar with 5 than 4, especially since so many complaints about ADRIFT games derive from this very aspect. So here are two of the problems I ran into: “w” autocompletes to “wear” instead of “west” and the suit of armour was incredibly fiddly about how I referred to it... such that I had to get it by using a (puzzle-breaking?) >GET ALL. On a second test playthrough just recently, I'm told the knight in the room warns me away from it, but I end up with it in my inventory anyway. I also got this error message from time to time which said "Error evaluating PassSingleRestriction for restriction 'Player must be in same room as Any Character.' The given key was not present in the dictionary."

The castle layout is familiar from the last game, which made it easy for me to navigate, and even more pleasing to find little secrets throughout that we didn't get to see in the last one. One thing that was mysteriously missing which I thought could have been explained, though, was the door from the maid's room to Guinevere's... unless I just missed where that was explained, which is possible. From playing this game, I think that the presentation of the kitchen and courtyard are basically emblematic of each game in the Camelot series thus far-- the first had a brutal kitchen and the courtyard's most noticeable feature were its mean-spirited guards, but here we have a more cheerful kitchen and the setup for a circus in the courtyard.

Is the kitchen maid, perhaps, the first non-sexualized female character to be represented in one of your games? Seeing “her muscles through the thin woven blouse she's wearing” seems to toe the line of sexuality in the description, but in contrast to other females in your games this looks to be a step forward. On the other hand, it also reinforces the “sturdy” nature of peasantry under King Arthur, so it seems to be commenting on social conditions within the castle. They've have definitely improved since the use of slave labour in the original.

I never did find the Wizard's Nightclub, or make a sandwich, or get a rose for the maid, but I did manage to finish the game. I may have missed quite a bit of it. What do you think? Regardless, I might not have been able to finish within the time limit otherwise!

The major mechanic involving the ring and paintings was easy to pick up on, used enough throughout to make it into a pattern, and it pays off dramatically at the end of the game. There was one weird moment where I had to remove the ring and wear it again to get it to work. The final few puzzles especially reminded me of a wacky Errol Flynn adventure, which I think is the overall tone this game was going for.

If you're interested in discussing any other bugs I found, telling me where the Wizard's Nightclub is, or in talking about the game in any other way, please let me know.

Hope all is well,
Duncan