Monday, October 04, 2010

A review of DC Adventures Hero’s Handbook

Green Ronin is the latest company to get the license to produce a DC Comics role playing game. Over the years, there have been some good and bad takes on the DCU. It has been a while since the West End Games version, which in my opinion played okay at the lower levels, but fell apart pretty quickly at the higher levels (Superman needs to make an extra effort attack to destroy a motorcycle? Really?)

I’m something of a Green Ronin fan, although I found Mutants & Masterminds first edition (their first pass at a super hero RPG) to be a little easy to break – even accidentally – although full of good ideas. DC Adventures Hero’s Handbook uses the Mutants & Mastermind 3rd Edition rules, and they have come a long way.
The fact that this book uses the M&M third edition does show – take out a couple of chapters, do some quick edits in the Advantages section, swap out the artwork, and you pretty much have removed the DC from the book. This can be considered either a strength or a weakness, depending on your perspective.

The book is very nice to look at. Cover art by Alex Ross, and interior art by some of the most well-known DC artists.

The system, overall, is easy to understand. It is focused around one base mechanic, and they keep to that throughout. This means that once you get started, it is easy to play. The chapter on Gamemastering is well-written and informative. The chapter on the DC Universe has just enough information to give an overview, but not so much that future supplements can’t expand on it. And the flow makes sense, for the most part.
That said, there certainly are some flaws. Most of these are organizational. A couple of examples:

Do you want to know what happens when you punch someone? How they resist and what the effects are? That is under the “Damage” power. Trying to hit them can be found in the “Abilities” chapter or in the “Action & Adventure” chapter. How they resist can actually be found in the “Actions & Adventure” chapter, as well. But the effects of failing to resist is in the Powers chapter under damage. Sort of. It will tell you there that your opponent is dazed until the end of their next turn. Then back to the “The Basics” chapter to find out the game effects of being dazed. The “Actions & Adventure” chapter really needed a few things – the chart from the Damage power as to the impact of failing a resistance check, a list of the conditions, and an example of combat. If the example can be taken from an actual page in a comic book for flavor, so much the better, but at very least, an example of how combat works between some original characters would have been helpful. But again, this is an organizational issue – I shouldn’t need to look in three different chapters to run a combat. And granted, after playing even just a session or two, you’ll have the mechanics down well enough that it won’t matter. But in trying to learn the game, this was a complication.

Want to know how fast your character can run? There is this line in the “The Basics” chapter: “with normal human ground speed being 0,” which is in ranks, by the way, not their actual speed. Does this mean Batman moves at normal human ground speed? Does Agility, which is said to be “balance, grace, speed and overall physical coordination” play into it? I’ll be honest. I don’t know. Batman clearly cannot run at his Agility rating, or he is running a 12 second mile. That’s 300 miles per hour. That becomes 600 miles per hour if he uses the Athletics skill to increase his running speed by 1. I cannot find any other reference to ground speed for characters, other than the Speed power, but that isn’t really what I am looking for. (If I run a campaign, I’ll be house ruling that the Athletics check to increase speed is a graded check, at least on the success side. This gives Batman a chance to run a 4-minute (or less) mile).

And while I think those complaints are valid, they are not game breakers, especially not for an experienced gamer. And the combat page-flipping one, by the way, is avoided if you download the Quick Start PDF from Green Ronin, which also has stats for a couple of characters not included in the game itself.

There are also some concessions to game balance that won’t necessarily make sense to everybody. Batman, trying to hit Superman with a punch misses only on a roll of “1” on a twenty-sided die. And a 1 always misses. Which means Batman is as likely to hit Superman (super-speed and all) as he is to hit a thug, or even a normal civilian. He won’t hurt Superman of course, but he will hit him. Conversely, Superman, who can move so fast that he can’t be seen, only has a 40% chance to hit Batman. If he does, Batman is pretty likely to be out cold, or at least staggered (that’s defined in “The Basics” by the way). Bats needs a “3” to tag the Flash.

The Power system in DCA is flexible, and this section of the book does have good examples. Combined with the descriptions of DC characters included, it gives you some insight into how to put together the power of your dreams. This is a solid part of the book, for sure.

And lastly, on to my favorite part of any licensed product: Stats for the licensed characters. In the heroes section, we find stats for Aquaman, Batman, Black Canary, Captain Marvel, The Flash, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Nightwing, Plastic Man, Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman and Zatanna. This gives us a look at three different power levels of “non-powered adventurers” in Batman, Nightwing and Robin, as well as gadget-based heroes, a mystic, and a chance to explore the difference between having combat skills through stats and having them through skills and advantages.

On the villain side, we have Black Adam, Black Manta, Braniac, Catwoman, Cheetah, Circe, Darkseid, Gorilla Grodd, Joker, Lex Luthor, Prometheus, Sinestro, Solomon Grundy, Vandal Savage. This gives us an interesting cross-section of power levels, power types and even allows the chance to have a character with a negative ability and a non-existent ability show up in the form of Solomon Grundy.

As with any licensed product, I had some issues with the stats (Batman’s Agility higher than Nightwing’s? I realize they gave Nightwing the better Acrobatics skill, but Nightwing should have better base Agility than Batman – anywhere in that area that Batman outdoes him comes from training that hard, not from greater natural ability. The Flash doesn’t have some kind of Damage power to represent a flurry of superspeed punches, instead doing terrible damage, or relying on whirlwinds and such.) but my biggest problem was that with the awesome Alex Ross painting on the cover portraying all of the characters statted out on the hero side except Zatanna, it also had the Atom and Hawkman and Hawkgirl on the cover. I’m something of a Hawkman fan, and would have loved to see him in there. Atom would have been cool too. That said, I enjoyed this book enough that I am looking forward to the upcoming books DC ADVENTURES Heroes& VillainsVolumesI& II.

Overall, this seems to be a playable game. I’m not sure the system is ideal for DC characters, but it is definitely a solid system, once you get over the organization issues. It has gotten me intrigued enough that I am considering running a game for the first time in a long time.

Overall, this game has some real strengths - it is great to look at, has a system that is easy to play, having one core mechanic, and is easy to teach others - learning it the first time is harder than it needs to be due to the page flipping issues, but still much easier than many other games. It does an acceptable job of modeling the licensed universe, with a couple of oddities that stand out for game balance as noted above. I took a crack at whether or not I could make up some of my more unusual character ideas in the system, and I was able to do so. If you like super hero RPGs, and are a fan of DC comics, this is a solid purchase. However, if you are not a fan of DC, then you may want to wait until Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Edition comes out, which is purported to be using the same system, but without the DC flavor elements.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Some Thoughts on Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 Spoilers ahead. You have been warned.

I saw Iron Man 2 and quite enjoyed it. It was well acted (not hard to believe with that cast) and I found it to be well-paced and fun. I was glad to see Justin Hammer, and glad to see him make it through the movie. I remember the “Power of Iron Man” graphic novel very fondly. I cannot remember which issues it collected, but it told the story of Tony Stark – a Tony Stark very much like the one Robert Downey Jr. plays – descending into alcoholism, using Iron Man as a crutch, which fails, and eventually triumphing.

It was during this time that James “Rhodey” Rhodes first wore the Iron Man suit, and it was a red-and-gold suit at the time, not the silver-and-black War Machine suit that was introduced much later, unlike in the movie. Justin Hammer turned out to be the villain of the piece. He had discovered a way to take over Iron Man’s suit and caused several malfunctions which caused Tony to take the lives of others, including repulsor blasting right through a diplomat’s torso at a very public and high-profile photo op.

This series of comics shows Tony hitting bottom and starting to climb back out with the help of those around him. Then, he takes it to Hammer. Hammer is surrounded by Tony’s enemies, but none of them can stand up to a new and improved, clear thinking Golden Avenger.

All of that was in the comics. I am hoping we get a touch of that in the next Iron Man movie as well. Seeing Hammer come back as a scheming foe – a little harder and more self confident and intimidating for his time in jail – would be very gratifying for this old-school comic geek. And Sam Rockwell could definitely pull it off.

The other thing I really liked about this movie is its attempt (unlike the comics) to show the impact of having a superhero in the world. Tony brags that he has “privatized world peace.” Comic books rarely deal with issues like this; the truth is that a world with super beings in it, particularly super inventors like Stark or like Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, would quickly cease bearing much resemblance to the world we live in. This works fine for short-term entertainment like movies, or one-off graphic novels or books, but for an ongoing comic series, it makes it less accessible to new fans the less the world resembles our own. Could Tony Stark revolutionize power generation? Sure. Could Reed Richards feed the world and solve the ever-growing water shortage issues? It seems likely.

This theme was touched on in Iron Man 2, although not taken too far. However, Nick Fury suggested that revolutionizing the world with cheap, clean energy was something that Stark would be doing in the near future based on the work of his father. It will be interesting to see if they continue to explore the impact of this change on the world. Imagine if oil was no longer used for power, but only for manufacturing. And given that Stark creates a new element in this movie, perhaps he could even come up with a way to take the petro out of petrochemicals. I find these ideas almost more interesting and exciting than the super hero aspects of the movie.

Back to the movie – the action was good, the characters engaging, and the pacing excellent. The effects were well done, and I appreciated that the movie wasn’t forced into 3D. I can understand the complaints I have heard that there are too many divergent plot lines. This movie is not only telling the story of Tony Stark dealing with some of his own issues, competing with Justin Hammer and defending himself against the Senate. He also is dealing with fallout from his family’s past relationships, which ends up circling into his conflict with Hammer. Amidst all of this, he has to deal with the military taking one of his suits of armor. The movie also does some preparation for the Avengers movie, introducing Natasha Romanov, known as the Black Widow and featuring a significant role for Nick Fury.

Again, this certainly is a lot of information. My experience with the source material may have helped me follow, but overall I didn’t find the volume of content to be overwhelming. I thought the story flowed well enough to allow all of this to make sense.

And by the way, continuing in the tradition of the first Iron Man movie, you may want to hang around after the credits for a tiny peak at what is to come from Marvel.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Goodbye to Better Off Ted

News came down this week that ABC has chosen to cancel a couple of shows I was hoping would get another season – FlashForward and Better Off Ted.

I’m going to talk about other shows here – including Lost, and in so doing am going to talk frankly about anything that has happened up to the most recent episodes. Consider this your spoiler alert.

I’m a little disappointed there won’t be more FlashForward, though honestly I was just telling my wife the other day that FlashForward is a funny show in that I like almost none of the characters, but I am still watching. Certainly, I don’t like any of the main characters. It’s been entirely story –driven for me. That is not what usually draws me to a show, and certainly not to follow it regularly. I love Burn Notice – and not because of the ongoing story of Michael Westen trying to get out of Miami. I love the characters on the show – Michael, his mother, and most of all Sam Axe. Put Bruce Campbell on a show, and it is likely I will watch. On FlashForward, there is no one who I care about. John Cho as Demitri Noh is close, but like my other favorite character, Zachary Knighton’s Dr. Bryce Varley, just isn’t enough of a focus.

Lost also pulled me in at least as much with characters I liked as it did with the mysteries and stories – I never have like Jack much. But Sawyer, Sayid, Jin and Sun, Locke in the early seasons, Mr. Eko, Miles, Ben, Hurly, Charlotte, Daniel, Desmond – these were all characters I liked and cared about. This made the mysteries more impactful, because they were happening to people whose future I was invested in. This in fact is one of my complaints about this, the last season. They took Sayid - one of the most interesting characters on the show in my opinion, and turned him into an un-interesting character leading right up to his own death. I suppose his sparing Desmond and sacrificing himself were to represent his own redemption arc, but I would have rather had the capable, determined, yet internally conflicted Sayid we came to enjoy throughout the show.

Better off Ted, (link is to the show's Hulu page - sorry to those outside the US) on the other hand – wow… What to say. Here is show that was never given the chance it deserved to shine. The time was moved around repeatedly, shown in a “burn off” fashion surrounded by reruns, and indeed – the last two episodes have never been shown. Every episode was funny, well written, well acted and fun. It seemed like it would be such a perfect complement to Modern Family on Wednesday nights. Quirky characters, witty dialogue situations that could almost be true – this show should have been a hit, but I was worried right from the beginning when my friends up in Canada told me that they couldn’t even find the show in the listings – that is usually not a good sign. I wish that this show had been picked up by another network or that there could be a last-minute save for the show, but Jay Harrington, the eponymous Ted is already moving on to his next project, an NBC show called “Nathan vs. Nurture.”

I’ll miss FlashForward a little, but I will mourn the passing of Better Off Ted. At least the Season 2 DVD should have the two unaired episodes on it.

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Saturday, February 06, 2010

On Three Authors

There are three authors who have had a very formative impact on my life, and I feel like I should be giving them credit – or is that blame?

I was considering doing these in three parts, counting down to the number one, but given my relatively sparse update schedule, I am going to touch on all three in this post.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, most commonly known as H.P. Lovecraft is one of the original masters of the horror tale. No less than Steven King called him, “the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale." Other authors who speak of his influence on them include two of the greatest comic book authors ever, Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore.

The way Lovecraft wrote was amazing to me. His sentence structure and vocabulary were so precise, so deliberate; he was my first introduction to an author whose sentence structure said as much as the words that made up those sentences. I remember reading these stories, in the days before the internet, not being able to look up words like noisome, or squamous until I got home, and having to intuit the meaning of these words from the context. Other words, I would work through their origins and try to think of similar words that I did know… I think that helped my vocabulary mature and expand more than any of my other reading. Between that vocabulary, the time the books were written, and some of his more obscure references, I recommend the annotated versions of his works for those who are just getting started with his them.

Lovecraft had a dark view of the world his was a world where humans were insignificant. Not even where we irritants to the things that lived here before us, and slept dreaming inconceivable dreams, but instead, we were insignificant, and even understanding our role in the universe could lead to unending madness.

Movies have been made based on Lovecraft’s work, though I know of no good ones. One of the things about Lovecraft’s work is that many of the things are described are inconceivable to human minds – non-Euclidean geometries, things with too many or too few dimensions, or things so utterly alien we cannot understand them. These things cannot be well portrayed on film, which doesn’t stop many people from trying.

Philip K. Dick is one of the most admired science fiction writers ever. In fact, there is now an award recognizing excellence in the genre called the Philip K. Dick award. His tales share some characteristics with those of Lovecraft. The worlds of Dick are dark, with the average or common man being oppressed in many cases by megalithic corporations or authoritarian governments. He used these as a statement on the dangers of letting things reach these points. In this way, he is very different than Lovecraft, who seemed to embrace some of the ideas he wrote about.

Dick, instead, used his writings to explore sociological and political themes. Indeed, I think the two authors would have very much not gotten along had they ever had the chance to meet. Lovecraft was in many ways buttoned-down. He prized the stiff upper lip of the English, and saw people who didn’t as week. Dick described himself as “a flipped-out freak.”

Dick’s stories often deal with the nature of reality, as do Lovecraft’s. Lovecraft’s stories centered around the idea that we can’t even conceive of reality, or that our minds cannot tolerate it if we do. Dick’s tales in many cases deal with the idea that reality is subjective, or perhaps that it is layered. Equally, they deal with personal identity – an area where they diverge greatly from the majority of Lovecraft’s works.

I keep comparing the two, because I find that both have a similar and singular effect on me: if I read too much of either of these brilliant authors, I can actually feel my own view of my universe starting to slide. I see things a little differently after finishing a collection of Dick stories.

Like Lovecraft, movies have been made of, or based on, many of Dick’s work. The difference here is that many of these have been artistic, commercial and some even critical successes. Blade Runner is based on Dick’s story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Minority Report is based on the short story of the same name. Philip K. Dick has quite a list of credits on the Internet Movie Database. Unfortunately, most of these movies were made after Dick’s passing. Dick suffered with financial issues for most of his life.

The last of the authors I who have influenced me over the years is James Ellroy. The “Demon Dog of American crime fiction.” A dark man who tells dark stories. His own past is colored – he admits to breaking into homes to sniff panties in his misguided, drug-addled younger years – and it shows in his writing.

A fascinating man, he has a public persona that he relishes, and it is unclear how much of this is really him, or even derived from him. From the Wikipedia page linked above, here is Ellroy’s own public introduction:

"Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I'm James Ellroy, the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey dick. I'm the author of 16 books, masterpieces all; they precede all my future masterpieces. These books will leave you reamed, steamed and drycleaned, tie-dyed, swept to the side, true-blued, tattooed and bah fongooed. These are books for the whole fuckin' family, if the name of your family is the Manson Family."

He is a character, possibly even more so than the deep (and deeply flawed and human) characters in his books. Ellroy’s stories are at the same time dark and hopeful. Good people exist, and can make a difference, but the status quo is corruption. His writing is a fast and furious style, short sentences, like a boxer’s jabs. He frequently uses alliteration to give that jab-jab-jab even more emphasis. These tendencies make this style almost tiring to read. It demands to be chug-a-lugged and not sipped. It’s a shot of whiskey, not a sip of Chardonnay. Combine all of this with the use of setting- and time-appropriate slang, and an amazing vocabulary use to support all of the above, and you have one of the most distinct voices in literature.

The first of his L.A. Quartet, The Black Dahlia, is a personal tale for him from one side – his mother was raped and killed when he was young, and the crime remained unsolved, much like that of the real Dahlia. This book has many of the usual features of a James Ellroy novel – cops struggling against and with corruption, balancing one view of the “right thing” against another, and being forced to choose which way to tip those scales.

Ellroy’s books are almost impossible for me to put down once I have started reading them. One of my favorite movies of all time is L.A. Confidential – in fact I watched that movie before I ever read one of his books. It was a good adaptation in spirit although it, understandably, had to take some deviations from the book.

The Black Dahlia was a less successful movie adaptation. But there are still more on the way. Ellroy is not for the faint of heart – reading his introduction of himself above should tell you that. But if you can enjoy an unflinching look at the dark side of American society, I highly recommend his works.

These three authors have given me hours of enjoyment and have expanded my vocabulary, my mind and the way I look at the world around me. There are many other great authors out there, and this list is not meant to be a slight against any of them. Really, I just hope that everyone keeps reading, and we never lose sight of the pleasure that can be found in a good book.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Give a Day, Get a Disney Day

I have to say, I am a big fan of Disney's latest big promotion. It's called "Give a Day, Get a Disney Day" and it means that simply by volunteering your time to a charitable organization, you get a free day at a Disney Park. And, if you don't think you'll be making it to Walt Disney World Resort or Disneyland Resort this year, you can also have that ticket donated to a charity that will use it to bring kids who might not otherwise get to experience the magic of a Disney Park.

To promote this, they have teamed up with the Muppets. If you want more information on the "Give a Day, Get a Disney Day" program, just go to... well... why don't I let these guys tell you about it?

What are you waiting for? Click it, already!

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Survivor 19 - Samoa

Was it just me, or was this season one of the most enjoyable ones in recent memory? Russel Hantz made for great television, and was a joy to watch. The setting was beautiful, the challenges interesting, and two contestants were removed for medical reasons.

For anyone who doesn't watch, Russel Hantz was defeated at the final tribal council by Natalie White. Their styles couldn't have been more different. Russel was brash, and always looking ahead to how to make it to the end of the game. Natalie was quiet and more focused on getting to know people.

Jeff Probst, the host of the show, says that Russel was robbed by a bitter jury. Stephen Fishbach, a former contestant himself, tells Probst that he is wrong on his strategy blog.

And I agree with Fishman. Russel points out that the sign for Survivor says "Outwit, Outplay Outlast." That there is no "Out-Socialize" on there. And the fact that even after he lost (weeks after he lost, it seems) he still feels that way shows why he lost. Part of Survivor is the social game. It has been since Richard Hatch won the first season. Let me say that again - social game. One "plays" a game. Russel interpreted "Outplay" as referring to the part of the game he valued. He doesn't see the value of the social game at all.The value of the social game this season was about $1,000,000.

Russel was an amazing player. In fact, I'd go so far as to call him masterful. He found hidden immunity idols with no hints - twice. He played one of those immunity idols at the exact right time when his butt was on the line. He certainly never hurt his own team by actions within a challenge. In many ways, he may have been the best player ever.

He thought outside the box. On the first day, he burned one of his tribe-mates' socks. He dumped out canteens of water, after drinking his fill. He put his own tribe down into the dumps so he could pick them up and take on the role of savior. And it mostly worked. He likes to claim that every vote out was who he wanted voted out. That is not specifically true. He backed down to Jaison on the Ben vote. And there were other times where he announced early who he wanted out next, but circumstances forced him to change. He showd the necessary flexibility. He was good.

But he also wore the hidden immunity idol openly to the last two tribal councils where it could be used, and showed his arrogance by not using it at the last possible opportunity. In front of the jury. At the final tribal council, he made no attempt to mollify the jury, some of whom he had lied to an betrayed, and instead expected them to vote for him based on his skillful game play. And this is where his game fell apart.

Natalie on the other hand actually bonded with the members of the Galu tribe when the merge happened. She almost was ostracized from her own alliance because when it came time to pick teams for a challenge, she picked one of the former Galu members over he own Foa Foa brethren. (By the way, she got his vote at the final tribal council.)

She also was actually, as far as I could tell from the episode, the orchastrator of one of the single most important move of the game. When the two tribes merged, Galu had 8 members, and Foa Foa had 4. If Galu were playing intelligently, they would have split their vote 4 each for any two of those Foa Foa members. Assuming the Foa Foas all vote the same, we have a tie - possibly a three-way tie or - and this is key - if one of the Foa Foa members has and plays the immunity idol, you still have a two-way tie. Now, it is a re-vote. Having decided so before hand, the tribe now all puts their votes down for the person the really want out, or the person who does not have the immunity idol. That play is only possible because of having twice the numbers of the Foa Foa tribe. Instead, they vote out one of their own, Erik, partly at the urging of Natalie, and partly because they all feel secure with the advantage in numbers.

This triggered the next most important moves - one of the Galu members who didn't get along with most of the tribe (Shambo) wasn't in on the switch of vote to one of their own. Several times in later shows, when old Galu members tried to entice her back to voting with them, rather than following Russell, Shambo replied "There is no tribe loyalty. There is no Galu. That ended with Erik." (I'm paraphrasing, but that is the gist.) So, this girl Natalie, who has been accused of doing nothing all game, actually was one of the movers and shakers behind the move that got Foa Foa 5 votes instead of 4.

Even so, it is now 6 against 5. At the next tribal council, Russell has attracted all of the fire, particularly since he is now clearly the ring leader of the Foa Foa group. Once the votes have gone down, he plays his immunity idol. Bam! 5-5. Next, the two tribes vote to a tie, and in the re-vote, instead of having to face a 1-in-8 chance of not being there the next day, John from Galu changes his vote and now, the former Foa Foas have a 5-4 voting advantage. But Russell had told John that if he helped them get rid of a Galu, he would give up a Foa Foa. He had no intention of doing so, and John was next to go.

From there, it was just a numbers game until one of the Galu members made a run of immunity challenge wins, forcing Russell, Natalie and their ally Mick to vote out one of their own, and Jaison was gone. At the last immunity challenge, Russel came up big, and made sure it was only the Foa Foas in the final tribal council - but not before telling Brett (the last remaining Galu) that if Russell won immunity, he would take Brett to the end because Brett was such a good person.

So, in the course of securing his place in the final three, Russel lied to John's face, turned on Shambo, lied to Brett's face and told both Mick and Jaison that they were safe when they had to vote out one of the Foa Foa's, only to vote Jaison out. This is what Russel felt was "outplay." Lying in the faces of people who got to decide if you won a million dollars.

At the end of the day, his social game came back to bite him. Natalie won 7-2, and earned the title of Sole Survivor. Russel and his fans, of which there are many, feel he was robbed. Those folks don't see that survivor is a multi-layered game - backstabbing is part of it, winning challenges is part of it, and finding hidden immunity idols is part of it. Russel exceeded at two of those parts of the game, and pulled out an immunity win when he needed it most, to get rid of Brett. But he was, and still is, ignorant of the part of the game that happens at the end. The way you make the jury members feel about being voted out is as important if not more so as the other parts of the game. Russel expected them all to bow to his greatness, while Natalie expected them all to react like human beings.

Let's see - a driving force in the biggest single move of the game (if Galu had followed the plan I laid out earlier, even Russel's immunity idol wouldn't have helped the next time - one of the Foa Foas were going home again), and a consummate social game. Sounds to me like she made all the right moves, and deserves to be called Sole Survivor.

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Friday, October 02, 2009

More Green Power Wonderings.

Recently, I have read several articles about power-generating "ivy" and I think this idea is fascinating, and possibly brilliant.

The applications of new, greener power systems feel limitless. Reading about this, about the idea of generating power from rain and about any number of similar initiatives give me hope that we can one day have cheap, renewable energy. Cheap, at least, once economies of scale start driving down the the costs of the items required to capture this energy.

In an earlier post, I touched on piezoelectric roads, and mentioned that I was concerned about increased fuel consumption on those roads. Here is an interesting alternative - a giant network of solar panels - cleverly disguised as streets! It's amazing what advancements in areas of materials manufacture have done for green energy initiatives. Glass roads that can be driven on, and actually have even better traction than asphalt. Even in the rain! (It doesn't hurt that the Brusaws - inventors of Solar Roads have a quote from Walt Disney on the www.solarroads.com home page, either.)

It's a fascinating world we live in, and we should all be doing our part to keep it going for as long as possible. Think about it - generating power from things that are currently just contributing to universal entropy. What an amazing idea that is, and how worth striving for.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

The 4th Edition

So, I have finally gotten around to picking up Dungeons & Dragons, 4th edition. I am still running a D&D 3.5 campaign, which has been going strong for over a year. I've been playing since... let's see... the late 70's, not long after Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was introduced. So, I have seen a lot of versions. Below are some very preliminary thoughts on the basics of the system. There will be more entries related to this, and they will go into more detail. 

This one is interesting. There are things that I think are steps in a positive direction, and some I do not like. I really like the fact that they are encouraging a point-based system for character creation, at least as far as stats go. Since the beginning of the game, too much of how good your character ended up being was dependant on the luck of those first rolls. Similarly, giving every class standard hit points at each level makes creating characters along a certain concept easier. No longer will your fighter fall down easily due to a couple of bad hit point rolls. You can conclusively predict how many hit points he will have at each level going forward. 

However, they have completely changed the magic system, which was one of the things that always made D&D relatively unique. I think that the current system (abilities that can be used at will, once per encounter or once per day) is strong in some ways, but feels less like the D&D that I always enjoyed playing. Not to say that this system destroys D&D as a game, but for those of us who have been playing for years, it makes it feel less like the system that brought many of us into the RPG hobby. 

Another change that is interesting and has pluses and minuses is the idea of all rolling happening by the acting character/object. In the old days of D&D, you used to cast a Fireball, and everyone in the area had to make a saving throw to avoid taking some of the damage, then you rolled dice to determine that damage. In the new system, rather than those in the area making a defensive roll, they all have defensive ratings based on their attributes, and you have to beat those ratings with your attack roll. Quite often, for area-based effects, you still do partial damage on a miss, as long as your target is in the area of effect. This is interesting, and has a real strength in that it lets the players determine the results of their own actions. It also has a couple of drawbacks - again, it feels a little less like D&D, also, it means that when you cross an oil slick, rather than you making a roll to keep your feet, the oil slick makes an "attack roll" to try to make you fall. There is a little bit of a weird mind set there - the oil attacks you? Lastly, as a long time DM, it makes it harder for me to cheat. 

As anyone who runs these games knows, sometimes battles don't go the way they "should." Whether that means that an encounter that was not supposed to be challenging for the Players is about to kill them all, or that an encounter that was supposed to be climactic conflict is about to go south, because despite having an 80% chance to resist the spell that a player just cast on them, all of the big bad's 10 henchmen managed to fail the save. This is the kind of time where as a GM, I will cheat (often called "fudging" when the GM does it). Either for or against the players, depending on the situation, and what I think tells the best story. With this new system, it is harder to do so. The players are responsible for the resolution of their actions, with no stop-gap measure for me to adjust things accordingly. I haven't written any adventures for 4th edition yet, so I have no idea if it is easier to balance things so those things are less likely to happen or not. 

I'll keep you posted.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Power-Generating Roads

Okay, another try at blogging. I'm not going to promise to keep this updated as much as I would like, but I'll be trying.

Recently, I have been fascinated with piezoelectric materials (materials which generate electricity when deformed, or alternately deform when electricity is applied to them - follow the link for more detail) and with heel-strike generators (which is a broader term covering both piezoelectric and more traditional mechanical harnessing of the movement of people) as ways of harnessing the power that people naturally put out through their day. Due to this, I was fascinated when a story about Israel converting 100 meters (110 yards for those not fluent in metric) of highway to a piezoelectric generator arrived in my inbox.

This is a really fascinating possibility for harnessing existing traffic into a useful source of power, but it has a couple of downsides in my not-so-humble opinion. The first is that this could very easily increase the energy required to travel over this section of highway, which means that we are turning a relatively scarce resource (gasoline) into something that we have many other ways to generate, many of which are already clean. Sure, the idea is that it is incidentally generated, but that becomes less true if we increase gasoline consumption to generate the power. The second issue is that I think it is fundamentally irresponsible to become more dependent on people driving, at least until hybrids and electrical cars are the rule rather than the exception.

That said, the possibilities of these materials seem practically limitless, including to be used in areas of high pedestrian traffic (running a subway system from the energy of its passengers? Las Vegas casinos running from the power of all the people walking their floors? Dance clubs powering themselves with the energy of dancers?) and perhaps even to power electrical cars, or NEVs within smaller communities. In that case, where we would have electrical vehicles powering themselves, even if they get a little less mileage, it seems to be a very powerful tool. 

I know that I am looking forward to the results of this test. 

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Long time, no post.

Okay, so I haven't posted for a while. Sue me.

I went fishing yesterday. Really fishing. Deep sea fishing. I was further out into the ocean than I have ever been on an ocean-going vessel before. Maybe 60 miles (round that off to 100 kilometers for my Canadian friends) from land. We were hoping to hit Snapper or Grouper. We didn't. A few people on the "party boat" we were on did, but still nothing huge. I did catch a grouper, but it was way below the legal limit, and I had to throw it back. I caught a Ruby Red as well, and used it as bait, but it caught nothing. I enjoyed the experience. I might do it again, but not in a rush.

I also got sunburned. Not badly, but unevenly. The left side of my body took much more than the right, because that is the side that was facing the sun for the hour-and-change ride back in from the fishing spots.

I also learned that there can be some really irritating people on fishing party boats. There was one guy on the boat who was trying to sound like an authority on everything. He, unfortunately, did catch something - a 20.5" Red Snapper - .5" over the legal limit. He even looked like an idiot bringing it in. Rather than bracing his pole against one of his hips, he had it braced against his crotch, just above his junk. And he was pretty much doubled over. And his buddy had to help him. It was sad, and of course, on the way back in, I had trouble blocking out his commentary on catching it. Like he was the great hunter, catching a fish that just barely didn't ahve to be thrown back.

Still, the company was good (I went with my boss, Steve, with whom I get along very well), and being out on the ocean was fun. This is the kind of thing I wanted to try when I came down to Florida. I'm glad I got to. And now?

I'm off to get ready for a visit down here from my wife.