Thursday, February 26, 2015

On Writing Female Characters

I've written many women fantasy characters. Here's my advice on making effective ones.

Note that I do not use "strong" female characters. In most cases, strong is a misnomer. It gets you thinking the wrong way. Strong usually means that you take a character that's a male and switch gender, so the character looks female, but in actuality, she's just a male character with a different skin. Even worse, she's most likely a shallow, poorly written male character with a female skin. Your goal is to write a female character, which means taking advantage of the fact that she's a woman.

If you only have one female character, you'll sink her into a rut of stereotypiness. The more female characters that you can have in your story, the more that you'll prevent yourself from falling into stereotypiness by having variety. More women forces variety on you. You usually can't have two dull women characters at the same time. The characters will naturally differentiate themselves.

For example, we have two warrior sisters. They're both extreme, tough, and beat up anyone in their way, acting in all ways interchangeable. But one is blonde while the other is brunette, so that's OK? No. Hair color doesn't matter.

On the other hand, if you have two warrior sisters, one which thinks tactically, always reviewing their past battles, while the other one is all about pressing the advantage, then you have two different approaches to the same problem, which means that these characters will act and think differently about the same situation. You also have a built in conflict between them, not because you intended the conflict to be there, but merely because their styles will eventually put them at odds.

What you want to avoid is sex while you develop your characters. An interesting character without sex is interesting, but a sexy character without interest is boring. Make your character interesting before throwing sex into the mix. From our above example, you can see that the pensive one may wait for the interested suitor to approach, while the aggressive one may wade into her pool of potential mates. These relationship will be interesting because their approaches are interesting. So the more that you develop your women before you think about sex, the better that the sex/romance will turn out.

And then there are different women in different parts of their life. Just the perspective of older and younger can greatly change a character's outlook.

Those warrior sisters have a mother who still worries about them, teleporting in and saving them far too often. Let's just say that life with mom gets a bit tough when mom is so overprotective. And mom has her opinions, and she certainly lets you know about them, especially when it comes to men. It's not that she's cruel or a man-hater or anything, but she is a shrewd judge of quality and making a profitable match. That, and she really wants grandchildren sooner than now. It's a mother thing.

Meanwhile, younger sister is busting her britches to go on an adventure and she just isn't ready. She'll all ready to prove herself without realizing just how unready she is.

That's all that there is to it. Treat them like people first. And note that I never used the word "strong" to describe any of these characters. I didn't have to.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Fixing the 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder Tier 2 and Tier 2 Classes Through XP Surtax

In yet another idea that I have to fix Tier 1 and Tier 2 character, I would apply a surtax to each of these characters, all in the idea that similar XP should yield characters of similar power.

A surtax works like this. As you go up in level, you go into XP debt for gaining that level. For example, getting to level 2 would put your into 1000 xp of debt. You must pay off that debt before you begin accumulating experience.

Tier 1 character would gain 2-3x XP debt per level. Tier 2 would gain 1-2x XP debt per level. Debt is always based on the character level gained, not the class level.

Although the math is a bit awkward, it gives the player a single number to track with a minimum of issues. While in XP debt, the caster may not spend XP on item creation as they are too exhausted from increasing their own power.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Fixing the 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder Wizard Through XP Tax

You'd think that fixing a Wizard through using an XP tax would be a simple task. The concept is simple: similar XP should yield similar power. Therefore, all the Tier 2 and Tier 1 classes should cost more XP than the Tier 3 classes. Yet, how do you actually price that correctly, especially when you run into issues of runaway power? If I do this right, I balance the wizard out, but if I do it wrong, I've only created a hassle.

My solution is this: all spells cost experience to cast, the XP cost of which is exactly the same as if the spell had been scribed onto a scroll.

So yeah, the wizard can go crazy casting all the spells that he wants to, if he really wants to, nickle and diming himself. Or maybe he'll want to hold onto his XP, restraining himself voluntarily, just like wizards in the stories do.

This should have the side-effect that wizards will gear themselves to be extra-powerful when they do use their magic, which is good, as a wizard opening up should feel like a nova.

If a wizard doesn't want to attack, he can use his "tactical advice" to give his attack to someone else at a +2 to hit.

Will that work? I have no idea, but it beats the tar out of any other crazy pricing scheme that I can think of.

Soul Historica (Review)

There comes a time in every JPRG where a game must follow slavishly in the footsteps of those games that have come before. Soul Historica is that game. If you closed your eyes and guessed what this game was about, you'd ben 90% right. Classes, fighting, spells, jobs, and all the usual mechanics are there. In addition, most of the usual plot stuff is there: go dungeon delving, repeatedly encounter the same enemies, culminating in an airship and a delve into a timeless space dungeon.

Where this game deviates from routine is in its split path play. Late in the story, you can either follow the BOY or the GIRL. WOOT. My daughter loved that we could switch to having the girl as the lead in the story. While entertaining, the twist didn't really add much to the game.

The whole adventure felt rather lackluster, so much so that I almost abandoned the game. This was no Symphony of the Origin. At the price, it'll keep you distracted for ten hours. If you don't know where to spend your money, spend it on Symphony first.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978)

In 1978, Madeleine L'Engle published A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The world had changed since the last book. The cold war had grown tenser, intercontinental missile more terrible, and the doom of the world that much closer. Meanwhile, America's enemies seemed to grow, rather than shrink. The Arab League refused to sell oil to the US, causing an energy crisis. And as for me, I saw this on the shelf but never got around to reading it.

Against this backdrop lies the story of Meg and Charles Wallace, both ten years older than the last story. Meg is married now, and somewhere in her third trimester. The twins are studying at school, aiming for doctor and lawyer. Mom has won a Nobel prize. Dad still gets called by the President. There's a new dog come wandering in. Charles Wallace is still himself. And for some reason, Mrs. O'Keefe, Meg's mother-in-law, has accepted an invitation to Thanksgiving.

To the south, a dictator has acquired nuclear weapons and threatens to use them. Their use is certain, and no one can stop them. No one, it seems, but Charles Wallace.

As usual, Madeleine gets off to a slow start, winding up her story, letting it warm up like an old Chevy that stalls if you start driving too quickly. Nobody would write a book like that these days. Our current fashion of literary theory frowns on such a thing, which is a shame, because a story like this wouldn't really work in modern parlance. In the story, our two lead characters, Meg and Charles Wallace, act as framing devices for other stories. We actually wind up seeing more of Meg, who is pregnant and sitting in bed, than we do of Charles Wallace, who is ostensibly having an adventure by living through multiple somebody else's lives. Around the halfway point, that old engine warms up enough to kick in, and the story begins working and working beautifully.

The story itself is rather timey-wimey, as Charles Wallace changes the future by going into the past. (This isn't a spoiler as you figure out that mechanic pretty quickly.) The time-wimey aspect is used to investigate a mystery, one, which if solved, will rescue the world from total nuclear destruction. It's that mystery which is the heart of the story.

Compared to the other books, this one was longer. The book was on pace for 200 pages at Chapter 6, but the back half took the lion's share of words, but I didn't feel that. The back worked better in that I noticed all the words there less than I noticed the plodding of the first half. I find the books themselves somewhat incomparable, as Madeleine did not produce equivalent books. The center and strength of this book didn't quite match that of the others. The framing of other stories profoundly changed the feeling of these books. Despite its excellence, I preferred this book less than the others.

The Christian themes are still there, with violence avoided, and difficult Christian lessons in its place. This is mainstream Protestant or Catholic Christianity, not Evangelicalism. In that way, the story does not seem didactical or preachy. There's no summary at the end telling you what the lesson was. If the lesson is anything, it's that the work for peace is the work of humanity, which is hard but worth the effort.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Fixing the 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder Druid Through XP Tax

Similar XP should yield similar power. That sounds simple, but in the OGL version of D&D, that is not easily achieved as the classes are so imbalanced. Fortunately, we can price the classes so that the bang for the XP buck is less imbalanced.

For the druid, we can balance the XP buck by splitting the OGL version of the class into three tracks, each of which requires XP to advance. This solution works nicely for a pure druid, but once you  mix in prestige classes, works less well. The tracks are Druid Spellcaster, Druid Beastmaster, and Druid Shapeshifter. In truth, we really have three classes smashed into one. They should be split apart and that will really solve all the leveling issues, but I'm here pricing the existing class, not designing a new one.

At first level, pick the type of druid that you want 1 level in. That's what you get. Whenever you go up a level, that track automatically levels with you. To get the other tracks, you need to pay the XP cost for that track as if it were a level (but you don't get any additional hit points, skill points, or other leveling adjustments).

As you should be able to calculate, keeping up all three tracks on druid would be damned expensive, which is the point.

The problem comes in with Prestige Class that give you additional spell levels. There are so many mechanics with Prestige classes that I can't track them at all. As a rule, any prestige class can only help one track per prestige class level. In most cases, this should be clear. A shapeshifting prestige class should progress the shapeshifting track, while a casting prestige class should help the casting track.

Roughly speaking, this should increase the cost of being a druid by three times. Considering that a well built druid can do the work of three characters, this is good price match. The druid's overall level, if he wants to stay at full power, will always remain one or two levels behind that of the party. At the upper ends, the druid will still hit runaway power.

As an additional rule, beastmasters may replace their beasts for free at any level increase, but between levels, replacing their creatures requires an XP expenditure of some sort. I haven't worked out the math. The cost should be about 1/4 of the current level's experience cost. So if a 2nd level druid were to lose her creature, it would take 250 xp expenditure (as 2nd level requires 1000 xp) to replace her creature in an ad-hoc manner. The druid may go into debt for this. That should prevent any abuses associated with careless creature handling.

As for shapeshifters, the druid should gain one form per level. Each additional form should cost 1/4 of the currently level.

I'm sure that there's a loophole in there somewhere.

I've you're saying to yourself, "This makes druids suck," then I know that I've solved the problem.

Overall, I fear that I haven't taxed the druid enough. All that I've really done is to delay the super-druid for a few levels.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

On Smart Homes

I read through this article on smart homes (and the problems in setting one up) and found the experience as bad as I expected.

Here's the trick: a smart home didn't make this guy's life better and that doesn't surprise me one little bit.

The first thing to know about home automation technology is that it is technology, which means that it is always changing. Given that the lifespan of a home is in decades, if not centuries, you can see that change is absolutely certain. That means that your new smart technology is on the happy trail to obsolescence the moment that you install it because, if there's anything that tech likes to do, tech likes to make itself go obsolete.

The second thing about technology is that tech is a tool, and that tool is only as useful as the problems that it solves. What problem are you solving? When you look at a low-tech house, the first thing that you think is, "This house is low-tech." What you fail to realize is that your house is already high-tech, and the technology in your house has stood the rigors of time. That light switch? That's high tech. It is extremely efficient and durable at solving the problem of turning on a light. Any tech that replaces it must equal or beat the problem that the switch already solves. As the main job of a light is to either be on or off exactly when you want it to be on or off, then your smart technology must do that job better, which it doesn't.

To make a smart home, the home must know what you want, when you want it. We currently solve this problem by manually changing the house ourselves, with automation on some of the easier to solve tasks. For instance, a thermostat, even a smart thermostat, keeps the temperature in a certain livable range. As you are unlikely to want a vastly different temperature at a moment's notice, this works out well. Other tasks, like determining how the shades should go, depend on context: what do you want at this moment? To get what you want from automation, you must plug all that in and define what you mean, and as long as you want that exact condition, you'll be happy, but when you want another condition, you'll have to do work.

The promise of a smart home is getting our environment the way that we want, when we want it. The problem is that smart homes can't read our minds, divine our intentions, or adjust for context. When you think about it, those are hard problems to solve because the requirements are so stunningly vague. 

We really won't be able to have good home automation until the machines running our homes can interface with humans at a  human level through non-specialized human language, using reliable, stable technology.

"House, raise the blinds. No, raise the blinds in THIS room. Put down the blinds in all the other rooms. No, put the blinds back up in this room. Too much. Put them down some. Put the blinds down some. No, only put the blinds down in this room some."

Maybe it's just better if we get up and flip the light switches ourselves. At least we know what we want.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

End of Aspiration (JPRG Review)

If you need a turnkey style Japanese RPG, and you need it right now, then End of Aspiriation is for you.

Just go down the checklist to see that it contains everything that a JRPG should have:
  • Group of Heroes
  • Orphan (and lots of 'em)
  • Fallen Tech Civilzation
  • Ancient Ruins
  • Spells
  • Boss Fights
  • Buying and Selling
  • Chests
  • Dungeon Delving Quests for Widgets
Of note, this game did NOT have:
  • Betrayals
  • Romances
On the whole, you can guess what goes down. An orphan takes up the fight agains the Mafia, gathers a gang of do-gooders, then stomps around kicking evil in the balls. Do you really need more than that?

The battle system itself was a bit slow, but the Auto button worked well enough if I got bored. Sometimes, the frequency of fights got a bit tedious.

The talking heads part tended to drag as all the conversations were functional, often feeling stilted. The conversations conveyed the information that you needed to know, but did so without style. At best, the characterization was sufficient.

The game took me about 12 hours to complete, which is on-par with most Kemco games. This RPG will keep you occupied quite nicely for that time, and end when you've had enough of the game. (This is good in my opinion. It keeps the developers from adding in fluff content just to meet an arbitrary play time quota. Same story, fewer time wasters.) It's not the most amazing game in the world, but you didn't pay for that.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Beautiful and the Damned (1922)

The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was published in 1922, the follow-up to his first hit, This Side of Paradise. As in all his book, Fitzgerald takes the stock story and twists it with a simple concept, breaking an unseen pattern and creating something that felt new, fresh, and modern. To be all together honest, I'm not really sure what the pattern was this time.

The story begins with a young man named Anthony, his aimlessness in life, and his courtship of Gloria, ending that first, almost too brief section, with two young lovers who have finally gotten together. In that, we could call it a typical enough story. What makes this story atypical is two things: Anthony and Gloria. Each is shown as a thoroughly flawed person, and those flaws not only never get ironed out, the grow deeper and more ugly as the novel slips by. If I had to guess, I would say that Mr. Fitzerald met rich people for the first time after he wrote his last book, and they were so terrible that he had to write this one.

If the purpose of this book was to make you despise the upper class, the author succeeded. By the end, despite your human fondness for these characters, you have lost all respect for them. At best, they can be said to party their way from one of this novel to the other, and at worst, illustrate the moral collapse of our so-called better classes. Two people, who never work, systematically flush their lives down the toilet, along with their fortunes, their friends, and their self-esteem.

As in so many books of this period, this book has an ending which you can't call happy and yet you can't call bad. Mostly, this book seems to have an ending because a book must end, and it must end somehow. Since it can't end happily, with everyone older and wiser, the book ends with everyone older and rich, but no wiser. No, there is no wisdom gained in this long, tortuous journey. Life is drunk like a bottle of hard liquor, and when empty, another bottle is ordered, while the empty is discarded, its lessons unlearned.

If you aren't a fan of this sort of book, or a sucker for a long, brutal train wreck in slow motion, then I can't recommend this book. On the other hand, if you want a slice of life from the 1910's and 1920's, devoid of all modern reinterpretation, filled with the sort of things that people in the 1920's would finding both shocking and fascinating, then do read this. There's nothing like a period book to demystify an age so quickly and so fervently.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Fixing D&D 3rd Edition Classes Through XP and Progression

For those who know D&D 3rd Edition, the system has more issues than an insane asylum, with the biggest being the huge disparity in the power and utility of the classes. How to fix that?

In First and Second edition, each class had its own leveling table. As a character tended to only be one class at a time, the power of the class could be taxed through the leveling process. More powerful classes advanced slower than less powerful classes.

Can the same be done for Third Edition?

The short answer is HELL NO, because Third is such the incestuous system. You can't touch one rule without bumping into its entire family.

For example, we could just give each class its own advancement table, but that messes with the system for the freeform mixing and matching of classes. The math to track all the hopping back and forth becomes rather muddled rather quickly. You could write a system for that, and the system would work, but nobody would like it. The system would feel justifiably awkward. Add in the plethora of prestige classes, some of which are lousy, and others of which are lousy unless they're paired with the correct build, in which case they are way powerful. How do you even price something like that? The only way to make that sort of system work is by killing all multiclassing and all prestige classes. And all that is without spending XP on item creation.

The whole case seems hopeless, yet remains as the most powerful tool to rebalancing the game without having to redesign every class. Similar XP should yield similar power, and mucking about with the leveling cost can go boatloads to equaling the field.

As a rough trial o the idea, Tier 1 would be +100% cost, Tier 2 +50%, Tier 3 +0%, Tier 4 -20%, Tier 5 -40%, and Tier 6 -50%.

Glancing down the table, I see that increased cost would add quite the delay to the top spellcasters. Good, that's what we what. However, lower tier discounts just don't matter that much. So although this helps bring the top tiers down, it does little to bring the bottom tiers up.

A second idea that I have is to attach a level penalty to any class level that provides spells. As a guestimate, (sum spell levels) x 1000. So getting 2nd level spells would require a (1+2)x1000 or 3000 XP premium to unlock that spell level, where getting to 3rd level (1+2+3)x1000 would be 6,000. That should provide a brake to the overly rapid advancement of spellcasters. The advantage of this technique is that this is prestige class neutral. As for druids, any new form should cost the sum of the CRs of all his other forms. That makes shapechanging into anything that you want quite the dicey proposition. The more forms that you want, the cheaper in CR that they should be. Tier 2 would only pay 500 xp, and Tier 3 only 100 xp. Lower than Tier 3 would pay nothing for spell levels.

For those bottom tiered classes, I would just put in a first level bonus. Those classes would start at 2nd, 3rd, or 4th level, depending on how far down they began. Essentially, 1st level fighter would begin at the 3rd level  fighter line. Curiously, this solves many of the fighter's power woes. The fighter wins for early advantages, such as massive hit points, than slowly go away.

This doesn't begin to fix all the issues, but the utility of fighters should get extended up a few levels, while the utility of spellcasters should get restricted down a few levels. High levels are still borked, but I don't care about high-level play. That's just broken beyond measure.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Interstellar (Film Review)

Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar achieves much and achieves little, both at the same time.

The film itself tells the near future tale of an earth shaken by blight, where the mid-west has returned to dust bowl status, and our very technological advancement has come to a halt. The only option, it seems, is to double down and plant more corn, and ride that spiral down to global extinction. But there is a hope, and that hope is a wormhole to another galaxy, and in that galaxy, there might be a planet suitable for life.

The film itself was cut with Nolan's usual excellent editing. You bop back and forth between perspectives, complete with time dialations, so keeping track is especially difficult, but Nolan keeps you there without feeling it. This film deserves a prize for editing.

As space exploration films go, this one hits the ball out of the park. It's an order of magnitude better than any space exploration film that I've ever seen. (You don't want to watch those old films unless you are truly dedicated.) You see, space exploration is the stuff of science fiction, and on the screen, science fiction winds up boring. Thus, all too often, lasers and chase scenes get added to spice SF up. Congrats to Nolan for avoiding that cheap content. Some content was typical SF, and he made those work well, such as hostile planets and marooned survivors. We know those tropes well, and we keep using them because they work.

What Nolan replaced the cheap SF content with was cheap emotional content. Despite his attempt to make the story a human-centric story set against the backdrop of science fiction, Nolan gives us content equally sweet, like a Twinky, seemingly full of tasty filling but really mostly air and not very nutritious. You see, although the film claims to have substance, it lacks substance. The claim of substance does not adequately take the place of substance, no more than dessert takes the place of dinner. Despite their resemblance, the differences in nutrition matters more than the similarities in consumption.

I am most disappointed in the ending, where it seemed that all the hard choices weren't made. They seem like they were made, but they weren't made. A hard choice that comes out of a plot twist is not a hard choice. There a difference between someone in the audience saying to themselves, "Don't do it!" and feeling sick to themselves at the loss of a character, and the audience saying, "Everyone will be fine. SURPRISE!" If the audience isn't having a hard time with the film, if the audience isn't feeling uncomfortable with the hard parts, then I modestly suggest that the script isn't doing it's job. For a film that wedges itself into the moral imperative, it doesn't wrestle with those morals much.

Do you know what I wanted out of that film? I wanted a film with a science and a fiction ending, not some fanciful Hollywood ending. Make it hurt. The survival of humanity is at sake, so make it hurt. Imagine if D-Day soldiers suddenly found a giant diesel mech climbing out of the English channel, smashing the German defenses, and saving all their lives. Would't that cheapen the sacrifice of D-Day? The fantastical does not sit well in this sort of SF. (I level the same criticism as 2001, so I'm not playing favorites here.) That tells me that Nolan just didn't work hard enough for the end.

Endings are hard. I should know. I've written enough endings, over and over again, to know just how freaking hard they are. Your end makes or breaks everything that you've done. You could be a genius for 95% of your book only to blow it at that last 5%. This film had one of those endings that seemed freaking awesome at first draft, but when poked hard, proves empty. To me, the ending felt like a plot wrap, not an ending.

Overall, I found the film quite watchable and entertaining. It's good SF candy. Just don't look too hard at it.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Fortuna Magus (Review)

Fortuna Magus is a Japanese RPG released by Kemko for Android and Kindle Fire. I presume that Kemko translated an existing game.

The game itself contains all required JRPG elements, such as orphans (three, just to be sure), betrayals, cynicism, and endless dungeon wandering quests. The mechanics included spells, upgrading weapons, boss battles, special attacks, team attacks, and a big bag of one-shot items.

Overall, I found the game occupying, but not engaging. All the characters pretty much said and did what you would expected of them, no more, no less. At time I completely forgot why I was in a dungeon, but that didn't matter at all. I found the game dull enough that I can't even find enough humor to tear into it.

The main twist of Fortuna Magus is its multiple endings. If you get to one ending, the game tells you that there are additional endings. By the time that I reached ending #1, I didn't care that there were more endings. Playing this phoned-in game once was enough for me.

One play through took me 10 hours. I can't recommend the game, so if you're feeling the JRPG itch, go buy Symphony of the Origin instead.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Wind in the Door (1973)

Madeleine L'Engle published A Wind in the Door, the sequel to A Wrinkle in Time, in 1973. The book was written a time of turmoil in America, for culture in general and main street Protestantism in specific. Urban blight had eaten away at the core of the cities, leading to more violence and more anxiety. The Me Generation of the 1960's had come of age, starting their worship of Bacchus at Woodstock and not stopping until the disco lay in ruins. Many movements had produced radical elements, committing violence in the name of God. And in all of this, where lay the selfless Christian? Where lay Christian love?

That love stands as the crux of this book makes the greatest of sense. By love, I do not mean emotional love and tenderness, although that is held as high in importance, but the general concern for others and their welfare, and actions based on those values. What is selfless love and how does that stand against selfish love? How is it that selfless love builds our world, while selfish love tears our world down, to the ultimate demise of the selfish?

And so we return to Meg, but a long summer after the last book, in the colder part of autumn. Charles Wallace grows ill. The world seems to be tearing itself apart. There's a rip in the cosmos. And from beyond comes a new Teacher for Meg, a few new friends, an old antagonist, and a mission to save Charles Wallace.

Overall, I found the book equally charming as A Wrinkle In Time, written with the same clarity and the same mainstream Protestant ethic. The story proceeds well, never letting itself bog down. The characters are consistent and crisp. The theology is very straight forward, avoiding over-complication in favor of sincerity. The book did get a while to get going, not really kicking in the plot until halfway through the work. That would be death for a book today, but I rather appreciate the attention to character and affection. You really can't empathize with characters that you skim over, and unlike an adventure novel, the resolution does not rely on a fight or a clever ploy, but with character and integrity.