Sunday, August 23, 2015

Greenwitch (1974)

I stand confused by Greenwitch (1974) by Susan Cooper. By this, I mean that I can't understand how it came to be written. The story combines the Drew kids with Will Stanton in a minimalist tale, light to read, light on description and missing every bit of nuance and symbolism that so dominated The Dark Is Rising. I even found the overall structure weak. It's as if someone else hurriedly wrote this book or rewrote this book, short on time, fulfilling a contract with the least possible effort. Is that true? I don't know. At 158 pages, this is the shortest work in the collection by far.

How does that even happen? I know that corners got cut in the 70's, but this is extreme even for then.

In this book, the Drew children do almost nothing. If they had goofed around and ignored everything around them, the book would still have concluded the same way. Jane Drew did one small thing early on, and from there, nothing else mattered.

Tension? No. Tension requires stakes and possibilities. The experiential moment? No. Most of the description in this tale were matter of fact and clearly related, but not remarkable. Was it the journey, not the plot? No. As I indicated above, the important action took place by Jane in a moment of sympathy. Past that, nothing else mattered.

I often found myself briefly confused when switching character, the author not bringing me along quite skillfully enough, which given Susan's other works, is maddening. This woman is excellent at keeping the audience with the story. And yet, in this work, scenes hop about like a one legged duck.

I dare say that Greenwitch is the best written bad novel that I've ever read. Make no mistake, this thing folds under scrutiny, and I cry for the fabulous tale that this could have been.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Excellence vs Adequacy in RPGs

In a game, according to the knowledgeable communities that surround them, there are "best" things and "crap" things. Take any game of any form, and you will find this attitude. The words might switch around, great/terrible, great/useless, but the same attitude is there.

I bring this up because I'm seeing this sort of attitude in the FAQ for Final Fantasy VI. For those who like to tweak their characters, this is a game filled with little tweaks, and with those tweaks came rankings of what's effective and what isn't, of what's good and what's terrible. To be honest, I have no issue with someone showing how some ability is objectively effective or objectively ineffective. I have no issue accepting that Relm's Draw ability is stunningly ineffective. My issue is that, far too often, relatively terribleness is conflated with ineffectiveness. These are not the same thing.

An objectively terrible choice is one that doesn't work. Hitting the wall with your fist is an objectively terrible choice. A subjectively terrible choice is a choice that looks bad in comparison to the alternative, but is otherwise effective. Using a ball pene hammer to bust open a wall rather than a sledge hammer? The ball pene will still work, but it's nowhere near as effective as the sledge. Will you succeed in opening the wall up to access the pipes if you use the ball pene? Sure, it just will take a bit longer. On paper, the ball pene is subjectively horrible in comparison to the sledgehammer, but in application, the ball pene gets the job done.

All too often, what's missing from the discussions of most games is adequacy. In an RPG, the primary metric of your party is whether they can win a fight. That's the measure of success. If the sum of your choices leads to success, then your choice is adequate. Your tools are adequate. That means that they do the job. In most games, the leeway provided by adequacy is very large.

It's natural in the expert gamer to aim for more than adequacy. They aim for true excellence and, where possible, dominance. For them, adequacy leave room for defeat, and that's not what makes the expert game tick. Thus, adequacy becomes the same as ineffective. Adequacy cannot produce dominance.

For the rest of the gaming world, adequacy is where they live. They aren't the expert gamers. Not being experts, they're making the best decisions with the resources that they have, and they make do. That makes the game harder, and the results more uncertain, but for the non-expert, that's part of the fun. In fact, total dominance often takes away part of the game experience, turning the challenge into a cakewalk. Oddly, expert gamers do that too, but they do it by creating new challenges, or using fewer characters, or playing a game faster. These are all acceptable tactics for the expert gamer while making mediocre choices isn't.

In the gaming world, I'd like to see less optimization and more about adequacy. What does a non-special party needs to pass a challenge? What are alternate ways of dealing with situations? How do you recover when things go wrong? That which is adequate is good, or at least acceptable.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Dark Is Rising (1973)

The Dark is Rising (1973) is Susan Cooper's second book in the series that is now labeled The Dark Is Rising. Compared to all the other books in that series, this one is the monster, a dense and world-bending monument of cinematic description forming the backdrop of a symbolic power play over the winter's solstice. The book was a Newberry award finalist.

Our protagonist is Will, the youngest of a pack of Anglican farm kids living near Windsor Castle. (Although with that many siblings, I thought that they were Catholics.) The first chapter sets us firmly on the night before the solstice, when the old powers grew strong, and Will's world was about to change. In that way, Will is a chosen one, although less obnoxiously chosen than most chosen ones. Where today, a chosen one must save the world by finding signs, this chosen one must find signs, and thus save the world. It looks like a small change in emphasis, but that small flip keeps the story rather earthy, and the story focused on the here and now. This quest takes him all over town, meeting many people, some of whom are help, and others that are hostile.

On strictly artistic merits, this book is a remarkable work, using remarkable descriptions to walk you through unsettling events. The path that young Will is about to make is difficult and filled with gray. Despite allying with the Light, he spend far more time walking between the Light and the Dark than he would prefer. Susan uses her descriptions to keep you in the mood of the weather, the bleakness of the day, and the anxiety of our hero. While we know that our protagonist will be successful in the end, he never feels safe, and when not safe, the vector of his danger is always a matter of doubt.

The book is broken into three acts, emphasizing its screenplay roots. The descriptions of magic and the supernatural retain their celluloid flair, easily filmable through inexpensive techniques of lighting, music, ambiance, crossfades and cuts, although the ending did have a bigger special effects budget that her first book. (Special effects must have been getting cheaper in that day and age, or at least more usual.)

To use the word "symbol" repeatedly is no misnomer, for Will, is tasked to find all the symbols necessary to break the grip of the Dark. With each of those symbols came meaning, some of which I recognized, at a time of meaning, with people who have meaning. There are times when those layers of meaning glow delightfully, and others when the layers lay so thick that you can't tell anything about the meaning at all.

The books is not above reproach. Will, could have been substituted by a mannequin for most of the book. "The mannequin stood there, swept along by events, witnessing another thing." Yet, the books works as a book because the books is more experiential than action. This is a book about the voyage, not path, which I find quite surprising as the first book of the series was entirely path driven. In today's writing, this type of book would not be allowed out of the modern publishing system, let along out of critique groups.

I can't say whether I loved it or hated it, but I did find the path engaging and the narrative voice poetic.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Final Fantasy VI (Game Review)

How do you review a classic game like Final Fantasy VI (1994)? With snark, my friends. With snark.

The game is big. I'm 48 hours into it and I'm not done, despite my best efforts. If you start playing this game, you're in it for the long haul. Don't bring popcorn. Bring C-Rations or something. And if you're going to do this in one sitting, coffee.

The story centers around the great Magictech empire that's stomping about the world rather rudely. Out of this comes a hodge-podge group ready to oppose the Empire and see that it ends is horrible ways. They aren't so much anti-Empire as they are anti-abuse. What follows is a rather extensive cast of characters, each one representing a class, and each one having his or her own story. That's alotta classes and that's a whole lot of story. And humor. The game has no problems hopping into silly mode.

The designers knew their genre, too. They follow their own well established conventions until they broke them. Did you really think that you were done after 35 hours? No way, Jose. This ain't no Kemko RPG.

I'm playing through on the Android version. The adaptation to tablet is rather well done, but it sucks my battery dry with little difficulty. I also need to keep the tablet off solid surfaces because the tablet will overheat to the point where it has troubles. I find the direction controls aggravating. I eventually got used to walking about, but the controls lack finesse. I often find myself walking about in odd directions, or walking in circles. Driving vehicles is even more awkward. However, the menu system works fine. I'm able to navigate in and among the characters very well. I like the auto-equip function, which works reasonably well.

For me, the combat system is a problem and the single biggest impediment to having fun in the game. It's a semi-realtime system, which I despise. These sorts of fights just don't work for me. That means that every fight is an annoyance. The auto-fighting works well enough, with a few quirks, which takes most of the pain out of combat. However, the tough fights often wind up confusing as the game is progressing and not progressing at the same time. The challenge is often whether I can touch buttons quick enough, even with the pause game option turned on. And by being concerned with the buttons, I have trouble paying attention to what's actually happening in the battle. All in all, I find boss battles a grindingly long date with frustration.

There are places in the game where it gets needlessly difficult. The game revels in having moments of incomprehensibly annoying side-mechanics interspersed with the story. Most terribly, there are places where long fights are followed by long cut scenes, preventing any sort of stopping or pausing the game. One sequence took me 90 minutes to complete. I understand that these sorts of challenging game designs were the norm back in the day, because I lived through it and don't need it explained, I still don't appreciate them.

Although I will attempt to reach the end, I really don't care if I do. I'm more likely to get frustrated and walk away, never returning. If I want to know how the game ends, I can watch all the scenes on Youtube. You see, I'm not going to win any cool points by successfully completing the game, and I only have so much tolerance for the grind. There are many more Final Fantasy releases that I haven't played and I'm bound to have more fun than frustrating over this one.

* I do appreciate that this is one of the greatest games ever made, but it relies on a mechanic that absolutely doesn't work for me.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Over Sea, Under Stone (1965)

Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) by Susan Cooper, begins the Dark Is Rising sequence. Three Drew children, Barney, Jane, and Simon, follow clues to discover a long lost Arthurian treasure. However, they aren't the only ones seeking this relic, and those forces are both sinister and cunning.

Although the book is listed as a fantasy, structurally, it's more of a children's clue solving mystery, where the kids move from clue to clue, deciphering their meanings, to an ultimate MacGuffin. The book could just as easily be about hidden atomic secrets and Russian spies. Although there is "magic", it is mostly hinted at and implied, even if implied strongly. By not means is it flashy or even a primary motivator of the plot. Perhaps the book better belongs in the paranormal genre?

As children's mysteries often have some urgency, the book also contains elements of a conspiracy theory thriller. The enemy is intelligent and active, seeking a long lost item of great power. If they get it, then the side of good suffers a tremendous loss. But the enemy isn't dumb, doing its best to out-connive and out-innovate our heroes. The opposition here is very active, adapting their strategies to the moment at hand.

The book works exactly like a film script from the 1960s, as stretches of instigating and parent dodging get interspersed with moments of excitement. The scenes are pretty much structured like film scenes and uses all the expected tropes of the children's mystery genre as seen on TV. As a film, it would be dirt cheap to produce, even using 1960's film technology. (Today, vast waves of special effects would be thrown into it, doing nothing for the film but making it more expensive.)

Overall, I found the book is very tight in its plotting, but a bit weak on engagement. The work was clearly written from an outline, which ensured that hit all the beats that it need to hit, but it doesn't engage emotionally in any other way than a thriller would.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Paladins Are Assholes (D&D 3rd Edition)

Let's face it, Paladins in D&D are assholes. By assholes, I mean massive assholes. They have to be that way because the game rules over the editions generally encouraged the behavior. Structurally, the Paladin had to be an asshole to avoid getting screwed over himself.

Let's explore.

Paladins are a special class in two ways. First, they are special because they are better than the normal person, given special powers. They only keep these powers as long as they keep their behavior regulated. They must always achieve their ideal. However, the party that they serve with is not bound by such strictures, and their actions can create a situation where the Paladin, by not blocking a behavior, condones a behavior by inaction.

Second, Paladins are the only class that lose their powers. As others can cause them to lose their powers, Paladin players must act to regulate their fellow players lest their paladin gets screwed over. Given that the average D&D have a challenged idea of what constitutes good (including genocide), you can see that the Paladin player has been handed a nearly impossible task. At almost every move, he will need to oppose the actions of his party fellows.

You can see where this leads, because you typed in "asshole paladins" and found this blog post.

So, what's the solution? The first solution is to not have a class that gets hosed over through the behavior of his own party. The easiest way to accomplish that is to simply throw out the rule that Paladins can fall from grace. Problem solved. At a minimum, a Paladin's abilities should be no easier to lose than a Cleric's. If this seems counter intuitive, remember that a Cleric can do anything and the rules don't care. Nothing short of DM fiat can reign in his abuses. Second, if the Paladin does lose his specialness, the class needs a clear path to recovery that is less onerous than the death rules. Unfortunately, it's actually easier to come back from the dead than it is to recover your Paladin abilities. (I may be overstating my case here, but not by much.)

So, if you have an asshole Paladin at your table, look at the rules. Most likely, the player is merely trying to survive an impossible situation.

There is a second situation in which a paladin is an asshole: that's when the player is the asshole. The class merely becomes the conduit at that point. This problem is best rectified by removing said player.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Badass (D&D 3rd Edition)

Since the Fighter is a Tier-5 character, it needs a replacement that's not Tier 5 and acceptable to the gaming audience. So, to satisfy this unnecessary niche fulfillment, I propose The Badass.

The Badass

Using badassery, the badass is the most effective combatant on the battlefield. It doesn't matter what he's up against. The monsters will be scared of him.

The Badass has all good saves. d12 hp. Medium armor,  heavy armor, shield, martial weapons.

Skills: Badasses don't need skills. They beat people up and make others do it for them. Or maybe they give a box of cookies. You don't need any skill to buy a box of cookies.

Shrug It Off (Ex) - If the DC of any effect is less than or equal to the badass's level + strength bonus + 10, the badass can shrug off that effect for one round, making the effect take place at the end of his next round instead. Any single effect can be delayed multiple times. At the end of a fight, the badass will suffer any outstanding effects. If the effect has no DC, he can shrug off the effect for only one round for every five levels.

Victory Makes Me Stronger (Ex) - If you slay an opponent in battle, heal its CR + your Con bonus in hit points.

Wear a Hood (Ex) - Wearing a hood substitutes for wearing heavy armor (splint mail).

Army of One (Ex) - Beginning at second level, opponents gain no advantage from flanking you.

Defying Gravitas (Ex) - Beginning at third level, only against you, your opponent gets no advantages due to strength or size.

Ready, Steady, Go (Ex) - Beginning at fourth level, you are never flat-footed, even while asleep, incapacitated, or otherwise denied your Dex bonus. (You are flat footed if you are dead, but by that time, it really doesn't matter.)

I Crush Your Defenses (Ex) - Beginning at fifth level, you can bypass 5 points of special defenses, raising to 10 at 10th level, and 15 at 15th level.

The Leaf that Takes a Thousand Years to Reach the Ground (Ex) - Starting at fifth level, once per day, using strange and exotic sounding techniques that no one else can remember, the badass can time stop for one round. That stretches to two rounds at level 10, three at level 15, and four at level 20. This power can be used at any time, including before the badass's initiative or when the badass is surprised.

Flashing Swords (Ex) - Beginning at 5th level, a full attack takes a standard action.

Cover Won't Save You (Ex) - Starting at 6th level, ignore 20% or lower random miss percentages, and reduce 50% miss or lower chances to 20%. At 10th level, reduce all random miss percentages to 0%.

I Brought Down the Bad Guy (Ex) - Beginning at 7th level, when a badass lands a killing blow against an opponent, all opponents must make a Will save vs. fear, DC of 10 + Strength Bonus + Badass Level. Opponents who miss will be affected as by the fear spell, but without any level limitations.

Begone Foul Spell (Ex) - Beginning at 8th level, the badass can dispel any physical magical effect (earth, air, fire, water, force, plant, etc) by hitting it really, really hard with a big yell and lots of anger. The badass uses his badass level + strength against the spell.