Ultra Throwdown: Your Video And Streaming Options

Man, physician I apparently have a love/hate relationship with streaming my games. On one hand, I don’t have the time to put together a regular schedule, cultivate a following, and promote the process, but on the other hand, my ego would really like me to get involved in some kind of production. Streaming live gameplay is a good, low-cost way to get oneself out there, and I really like the notion that even when playing single player games, they can become multiplayer games in the same way that my friends and I used to sit on the couch and watch a person playing a console game. The comments, suggestions, and hilarity of a mob participating in what was never meant to be a participatory endeavor can be fun and comical.

Thanks to the explosion of Twitch as not just an outlet for amateur videographers but also as a respectable means for companies and events to reach the masses, streaming is the Next Big Business, judging by the number of companies that want you to share your experiences through their pipes. Which to choose? What features do the major players offer? Let’s look, shall we?*

 

The Leader – Twitch

TwitchBalloonIf you’ve ever had any inkling to stream, you no doubt first went to Twitch. Like Jell-O, Kleenex, and iPod, Twitch has become the defacto pronoun for a wider market of services.

The best reason to choose Twitch is that it’s ubiquitous. Events happen on Twitch. Companies stream stuff on Twitch. eSports happens on Twitch (and elsewhere, but it’s Twitch, so…). When people want to find a stream to watch, they lazily roll over towards Twitch and search for what they want.

When you want to stream, Twitch has you covered. You can stream from a PC using third party software, or you can stream from a current gen console (XB1 and PS4). Some games on the PC have streaming to Twitch built in, meaning you don’t need anything other than an account to get started. However, console and integrated streaming is limited; you can’t do the fancy overlays and presentations that you see a lot of users doing. For that, you need a PC and a copy of OBS, XSplit, FFSplit, or one of the sideline participants like Shadowplay, Raptr, or Overwolf.

Twitch’s biggest draw is also potentially it’s biggest problem, as a new streamer is the model of a small fish in a big pond. Unless you have a large social network following or some kind of gimmick or ultra-slick presentation, having people find your League of Legends stream is going to be an uphill battle.

PROS

  • Popular
  • Many streaming software options
  • Video archiving (PC/Mac/Linux only)
  • Export to YouTube
  • Built into many games
  • Built into consoles
  • Hosting mode highlights other streamers while your channel is dormant

CONS

  • Super-populated means discovery is difficult for streamers, and views need to wade through a lot to find you
  • No archiving for consoles
  • Must meet certain criteria in order to form a team with other streamers
  • Depending on software and settings, impact may range from negligible to severe

 

The Challenger – Hitbox

HitBox_Logo_BannerHitbox is probably less well known than Twitch mainly because Twitch is “good enough”, and was first. Hitbox is just as good as Twitch, and actually has some features that Twitch doesn’t have.

While there’s little on the surface that seems to differentiate Hitbox from it’s main competitor, there are some things to consider if you’re looking at Hitbox. First and most prominant is that the only (current) way to stream to Hitbox is from a PC using third party software. I’m not aware of any games that have Hitbox streaming baked in, and no console supports streaming to Hitbox. This means that you’ll be relegated to dealing with bitrate and other esoteric numbers in order to get the best stream. That’s also a plus, though, as some of the “automatic” streams (baked in and consoles) only give you conservative bandwidth options.

Hitbox’s controls are better than Twitch, IMO. Both dashboards allow you to set the title of the stream and pick the game, but Hitbox allows users to tailor the social media message that they can pump out, can push ads for the times when nature calls, and can create interactive polls and giveaway forms that show up in the chat window.

I think Hitbox is growing, and soon (if not already) discovery will start to become an issue if you rely on people to just drop by the Hitbox website and find your stream.

PROS

  • Dedicated dashboard window
  • Ability to create polls, giveaways, and push ads for a breather
  • Can form a team with no pre-requisites
  • Export to YouTube
  • Video archiving of clips

CONS

  • Lesser known than Twitch (Prepare for a lot of “Hitbox? Why not Twitch?” questions)
  • Only works with desktop software like OBS, XSplit, and FFSPlit
  • No in-game integration
  • No hosted promotion of other streamers
  • Depending on software and settings, impact may range from negligible to severe

 

The Contender – Forge (Beta)

ForgeGGLogoForge is eschewing the traditional streaming paradigm of preparation and presentation in favor of ease of use, but also removes some of the features of Twitch and Hitbox which I suspect may be important to those who are attempting to build a brand.

Forge is aimed at those who are interested in the idea of streaming, but aren’t entirely sold on the whole setup and design and cultivation of an audience. Forge uses it’s own client which simply listens for a supported game to start, at which point it just starts streaming to it’s own website under your account. Super simple!

Whether it’s a downside or not depends on your needs, but Forge doesn’t allow streamers to archive their entire stream for replay later (it’s save for 48 hours, I believe). Instead, it allows streamers to extract 15 second highlight clips from the recording. This editing is handled through the desktop client, and the results are instantly (more or less) available on the website. Unlike the above services, Forge doesn’t have live chat, webcam support, overlay support, or microphone support (but they are taking suggestions and are super responsive to community interaction, so features are currently being evaluated).

Forge is also one part social network by allowing users to post comments in between the videos posted to their account. Again, this service seems squarely aimed at casual streamers or viewers who like to drop in/drop out without fuss, and for people who later smack their forehead and wish they’d recorded that raid boss take down.

Disclosure: I have received some promotional materials (T-shirt, sweatshirt, water-bottle, stickers) from the Forge team for being an early and active adopter/tester of their system.

PROS

  • Noob friendly for casual streamers
  • Always on; No forethought needed to start
  • Records everything, then presents the editor
  • Integrated social network
  • Low impact on performance (if any)
  • Super responsive team

CONS

  • Currently in beta
  • Currently invite only to use; can be viewed by anyone on the web
  • No customization of stream
  • No chat
  • No mic input (there may be hacks available, like using a virtual cable, but I’ve not tested it)
  • Only short, user defined clips (~fifteen seconds) are archived
  • Power streamers or brand-builders might find it too limiting
  • Requires the game to be supported by Forge in order for it to stream.

 

The Guy Weezing At The Back Of The Pack – Plays.TV (Beta)

PlaysTVLogoPlays.tv is a recently discovery, and although it’s not really a streaming option, it deals in game videos so I’m including it here. In a nutshell, it’s tightly integrated with the Raptr desktop client, is always on once activated, and saves in ten minute bursts when you tell it to. You can then edit out 90 second clips for uploading to the Plays.tv website.

I’m not entirely sure which market Plays is after. It sits closer to the Nvidia Shadowplay end of the spectrum in that once activated, it records gameplay in a rolling 10 minute window that is written to disk with a keystroke. It doesn’t output to a live website while the game is being played, so it’s more of an on-demand 10 minute snapshot option, and eventually can save 90 seconds worth of gameplay that can be uploaded to the site.

I’ve had problems with Plays, though. One 90 second clip I made said it had uploaded to the website, but that was a few days ago, and I still can’t see it. Another video uploaded right after that one made it through OK. They

The good news is that the quality is really high, and the files are accessible on disk through the UI, so if you want to edit a montage of action footage locally, Plays.tv might be one of the better options.

PROS

  • Uses Raptr, which is a pro if you use Raptr
  • Saves files to disk and are easily accessible
  • Low impact on performance (if any)
  • Excellent quality of local video files, and excellent quality when the files reach the Plays.tv site

CONS

  • Have to remember to start the rolling recording
  • Have to remember to save the clip when you want it
  • Spotty success in actually saving the clips to the website
  • Export to YouTube only exports at max 480 resolution

 

The Guy Handing Out Water Along The Route – Nvidia Shadowplay

NvidiaShadowplay Shadowplay is a weird option, mainly because it occupies a few different places along this spectrum. Natively, it records a rolling window of gameplay which can be saved to disk with a keystroke. However, it can also broadcast to Twitch.

The main benefit of Shadowplay is that if you have a supported Nvidia card (600, 700, or 900 series, with some ‘M’ editions supported) and the “GeForce Experience” software, then you’re already 90% of the way there. The popup window (desktop, not in-game) allows you to record locally or to stream to Twitch, set the quality, and be done with it. There’s no need for additional software except for the eventual editing of the files you’ve saved to disk (if you’re using the “gameplay DVR” option).

I suspect (or hope) that because it’s an option from the hardware manufacturer that it’s got some ace in the hole in regards to how it operates. Some broadcast software sits between the game and the video output and redirects a copy to disk or a remote location, I’m guessing that Shadowplay operates at the hardware level, using your video card to do the crunching. Ideally this would lead to lower latency with your gameplay since there’s no disk I/O involved, and you won’t run the risk of triggering anti-cheat warnings by having something sitting between the game and everything else (see the next entry about that little gem). But that’s just me; I have no idea how it really works.

PROS

  • Already available if you have an Nvidia card and the GeForce Experience software
  • Records locally in DVR mode, or streams to Twitch
  • Easy configuration

CONS

  • Requires an Nvidia card
  • No customization of stream

 

The Over-Hyped Booster With The Obnoxious Banner – Origin

EA_Origin_Logo_723x250 This is a corner case at best. Origin is EA’s digital storefront, and perennial whipping boy of people who like to announce how much they hate Origin and EA.

If you’re playing an EA game that was downloaded via Origin, you have the option to stream – to Twitch, of course – using the Origin overlay system. It’s been a while since I’ve used it, but from what I remember it works pretty well, is easy to configure, and does a serviceable job of accomplishing what you want to accomplish.

However, there’s a slight caveat. Like the next entry, Origin allows you to register a non-EA/Origin game with the Origin client. The icon will show up in your Origin library, and can use the Origin in-game overlay for whatever people use the overlay for. You can also do this in order to stream the non-EA/Origin game to Twitch. I tried this a while back with Defiance, but in short order I was booted from the game and banned for what I was told was a cheat/hack attempt. I managed to explain myself to Trion’s satisfaction and had the record expunged, but Origin seems to use the “slip it in” method of putting itself between the game and the lower-level operations – including network operations, which I assume is what tickled Trion’s anti-cheat warning.

Overall, it’s probably good for Origin-centric games, but otherwise there are much better options out there.

PROS

  • Readily available for Origin-bought/registered games

CONS

  • Specific to Origin-bought/registered games
  • Might be detected by anti-cheat software if you try and use it with a non-Origin game

 

The Dark Horse – Steam (Beta)

Steam_Icon

Although everyone is patting themselves on the back for “having called it”, I think it was never a matter of “if”, but a matter of “when”, and that “when” is “now”.

First, I don’t think this is a game-changer by any means. It’s just another land-locked streaming option. It doesn’t stream to a known streaming outlet, although it does stream to the largest digital games distribution network on the planet.

If you have a game in your Steam library, this should work without any additional fuss. The most important setup option is to determine who gets to see your videos. Unlike the other services, most of the options for Steam Broadcast put the control in the hands of the viewer. The stream doesn’t actually start until someone starts watching it, which means that your bandwidth is safe until someone decides that they want to watch you play The Binding of Isaac.

Quality is decent, and you can watch directly in the Steam client (via their popup web browser) or on the web. You can even use the in-game Steam overlay to pop up a web browser so you can watch yourself in all of your narcissistic glory. I guess it can be used as a feedback monitor.

While it does have mic support, it doesn’t have webcam or custom overlay support. It does have chat support, but unless you have the chat window open (requiring the Steam overlay to be open), you only see a single line of text at the top of the game window.

Like Origin, though, you can add a non-Steam game to Steam and so long as you can use the in-game overlay, you can stream the game. I added Elite: Dangerous to Steam last night and was able to stream it through Steam Broadcasting. I have no idea if this will trigger anti-cheat software to raise an alarm, though.

Again, this is a “good enough” option. Most gamers have Steam, and most gamers have a massive Steam library. That means a lot of games are supported. You can add in non-Steam games to get the benefit of the service. But there’s no social media announcement feature and no easy way to direct people to the fact that you’re streaming or where to find you if you’re streaming to everyone (not just friends), no webcam or customization, and the chat requires that you “step away” from the game to read it in it’s entirety. It’s an option, but I don’t know that it’s a better option than one of the first three contenders on this list.

PROS

  • It’s Steam. It’s probably already on your system. Requires opt into the beta Steam client and then a reboot
  • Works with all Steam games
  • Works with non-Steam games added to Steam
  • Can control who can view the video

CONS

  • Land-locked to the Steam ecosystem
  • No announcement mechanism
  • No customization
  • Chat is awkward

 

Finale

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You have the stamina of an ox!

This is by no means an in-depth compare and contrast of each nuance of each service, but is merely an overview. In truth, I wanted to write this to suss out which audience is targeted by which product, and for what reason, because while there’s some overlap in each, there are three distinct categories at play here:

  1. Live streaming for a brand: If you’re looking to make a name for yourself in the gaming community, want to interact with people as the magic is happening, and desire to make your channel reflect your public face, then Twitch and Hitbox are your best options.
  2. You’re already here, so you might as well: Shadowplay for Nvidia customers, Origin for EA users, and Steam for everyone else. All but Steam require the user who is playing to actively initiate the stream, while Steam allows the viewers to jump in at their leisure.
  3. Casual streamers with bragging clips: For everyone else who’s intrigued with the idea of streaming, but who don’t want to put a lot of time and effort into the process and aren’t interested in creating a brand, Forge is the way to go, assuming your game is supported. It’s easy to set up, easy to use, and you can keep those memories in fifteen second clips for later reminiscing.
  4. Local video for other purposes: While desktop apps like OBS and XSplit allow local recording as well as/in place of streaming, Shadowplay and Plays.tv’s rolling window of gameplay means you don’t need to dedicate your disk space to a massive file, nor do you need special editing software to tease out the clips. It’s the least social of the group, but if you use Raptr and remember to activate the recording, it can produce some nice quality local video for whatever purpose you need.

 

* This is merely an empirical overview and not a guide on how to maximize your followers or promote your video. I’ve had a total of five people online watching me at one time at the peak of my career, so I’m not one to help you get groupies.

Side Project: Notecards

NoteCardsV0.01I really like Fantasy Grounds as a virtual tabletop program, sildenafil but I like it more because it allows a user to create a module within the app. Most vtables are just a way to chat and share maps, this but FG’s notecard-style word processor-light capabilities make it a great way to write and play from a module.

Because I like this design, information pills I decided to take a stab at a general purpose app for taking notes, done in the FG style. This app currently allows you to create a new notebook, and then to add individual notecards to the book.

The hardest thing about it so far has been finding a way to link cards together. My original method was to allow the user to manually link text by highlighting it and then right clicking to select an existing note to link to. This turned out to be problematic because of the way the linking was done (I got the code from CodeProject). So instead, the linking is handled automatically, like Realm Works, by parsing the text in the note and comparing it to the titles of other notes in the system when the current note is saved. The problem with this is that you’ll need to define the cards you want to link to before you work on the card you want to link from, or else you’ll need to edit the card after the destination card has been created. Also, there’s no way to prevent text from auto-linking; I suppose it’s better to be overzealous than to have to guess and guess incorrectly.

So far, it’s working as intended, although it’s as ugly as a WinForms app can be. Ideally, I’d like the saves to sync with a central server so that a notebook can be accessed from anywhere. That’s actually the core of the reason why I wanted something like this, as Fantasy Grounds doesn’t have central storage. Plus, it’s a good way to store information, and while FG could be used, it’s “game centric” skinning means I can’t really use it at work, or for work related purposes.

Humblebrag: My Daughter The Artist

AnimeGirl

Up until about six months ago, see my daughter wanted to be a veterinarian. She loves animals to a scary degree, but the idea of having to do…medical stuff… finally caught up to her and caused her to admit that she’s just not mentally fortified to see wounded animals or perform surgery.

In a random tangent, she now wants to be an animator. She’s getting into anime along with her friends, and has been watching Cartoon Network and Disney since time immemorial. Last Christmas, she took all of her birthday and Christmas money and bought herself a Galaxy Tab tablet with stylus and has been using it to hone her artistic skills. Previously, she had been using good old paper for years, but the tablet allows her to be a lot more mobile. Recently, though, she’s been using my tiny Wacom Bamboo tablet connected to her laptop because the tablet doesn’t have the range of powerful artistic software that the PC has.

I really wish I had a progression of her artistic examples at the ready, but I don’t. I do, however, have her most recent work which, if you did have access to her previous work, you’d recognize how far she’s come in her skills.

I’m very proud of her and her dedication to improving her abilities, and I think it’s paying off. She’s only 13, and I’m excited to see how she improves going forward.

Brokers: Moving Data

Brokers move data. Most of the data is stolen, healing although they also move “data with intent”: information about future events and plans.

The broker system is designed around trust, this site which is inherently difficult to understand about a system that moves ill gotten gains. At it’s core is a network of people who move data obtained by independent contractors — mercenaries — into the possession of people who want to buy that data.

Data comes to the brokers in one of two ways:

  1. A client approaches a broker and wants to hire a team to obtain very specific data from a very specific source.
  2. An independent team has already completed a run and has data to sell.

Case 1:

Clients (corporations, usually, but also crime families and even individuals) will contact a broker that they know about and will put in a request for a job. They’ll provide information to the broker that’s needed to complete the assignment: the target, any specific information the mercenaries will need to know in order to find what is being sought, etc.

The broker almost always gives the same line: “let me put my feelers out and see what I can find.”

They will then use their extensive knowledge of the “mercenary scene” to assemble a team that has what they believe to be the best skills for the job. They will contact those people (or alternates if those people are unavailable, working, or dead) and finally determine a fee based on the team’s understanding of a non-specific overview of the job.

The broker then contacts the client with the fee, and if accepted, the team engages in the run.

Upon completion, the data is placed into an encrypted online bucket. The client is notified and deposits the money into another encrypted online bucket. This bucket distributes the money to the (remaining) participants, including the broker. Once all of these pieces are in place, all of the buckets unlock: the client receives the data, and the broker and the team receive their payments.

Case 2:

An existing team, bored, makes “smash and grab” runs against random corporate targets. They score some data, and approach the broker in order to sell it.

Brokers convene through a darknet connection. The identities of each broker in this connection is anonymous, even though the brokers no doubt know one another in real life. Each broker who has data for sale lists the goods, and the group decides on the relative value.

All unclaimed goods are placed on the Board, a public darknet that teams and corporations can use to browse what is up for sale. The Board does not provide WHICH BROKER has the data or which team provides it.

Interested buyers can put in bids for the data for a certain amount of time. Once the highest bidder is identified (anonymously), the secure bucket delivery service is invoked and everyone is paid.

The system works for several reasons:

  1. Brokers are known, so as to be approachable
  2. Brokers take no sides. They do not work for corporations, nor do they work for mercenaries. They only bring the two together, and act as a go-between when goods need to transfer hands.
  3. Brokers are not to be messed with. Taking on one broker takes on ALL brokers, and blacklists the individual or client (or anyone associated with the client) for varying periods of time, based on the offense.
  4. All those who approach the brokers are considered equals.
  5. Parties remain anonymous when dealing with one another, including the brokers when it comes time to transfer the data.

Exceptional Situations:

Often times the first party to approach a broker about “random data” — data being sold by non-contracted teams — will be the target from whom the data was stolen. Many corporations will make overtures to their favored broker (or sometimes all the ones they know about) to simply buy out the data at exorbitant prices in a bid to get the data back and prevent it from falling into the hands of their competition.

Brokers almost never entertain these requests because it would put their impartiality into question. As a means to dissuade future attempts to “out broker” the broker, the starting bid will usually be set at whatever price the corporate representative quoted that they were willing to pay to buy out the data.

Brokering is not a job one decides to apply for. Brokers are almost always sociable centers of community which gives them access to thousands of people. They appear to work for the community because they approach mercenaries for work, and are often local business owners (because it allows them to centralize and receive local traffic in a single location).

Brokers who violate the trust of the community, or of the corporations, do not last long. Mercenaries will refuse to work for brokers who favor corporations, and even for those brokers who favor mercenaries over corporations because it shows that the broker is unable or unwilling to deal fairly within the working system. In the same vein, corporations may benefit from a favoring broker once, but will rarely have the same opportunity another time, as that broker will be run out of business due to a lack of supply.

The oddest statute of the broker community deals with the division of payout when a team member dies during the run. Early on, unscrupulous mercenaries might have purposefully killed a member or members of their own team once the run was complete in order to receive a larger portion of the payout. Also, some brokers had been caught hiring OTHER teams to kill the original team in order to keep the lion’s share of the payout for himself.

In order to combat this, the secure bucket system was put into play. It ensures that the client receives the goods, the broker receives his or her commission, and the team receives their payment. Any payment that would have gone to a member who is confirmed dead (through secure reports from the local morgues) is donated to the charity of the broker’s choice. It’s weird, but it works: since neither the broker nor the party will receive the dead member’s share, and since the secure buckets will only unlock once ALL of the agreed-upon participants have claimed their portion, there’s no reason for anyone to betray anyone for money.

Finally, brokers only deal in data; for physical goods, they will refer the potential client or provider to the black market, which they have no ties to.

Fantasy Grounds Redux

In the past iterations of LC.com, and I’ve written a lot about virtual tabletop apps and how they can help you get past the “I’ve got no one to play tabletop RPGs with me where I live!” syndrome. My favorite VT, here Fantasy Grounds, has a new 5E update, but more even more interesting…er, it’s being re-written in Unity.

The 5E updates are, as anyone who’s familiar with WotC would expect, minimal. Wizards licenses Dungeons & Dragons to no man, woman, child, kobold, or virtual tabletop. In the past, FG had their own character sheet and their own NPC template designs that users could fill in with official D&D data, but unlike Pathfinder or Numenera, there’s no chance you’ll open FG and magically find that there’s D&D reference info in the Library section, or a replica D&D character sheet or monster stat block.

There’s a bit of a caveat. A hyper-intelligent and dedicated FG user has been working on parsers for D&D data for a few years now. He created a version which scraped the D&D Insider 4E website (subscription required) to build a library for personal use, and has created a stand-alone parser that will take data from the free PDF files that Wizards has created to build libraries for personal use. It’s a lot of work, though, involving cutting and pasting and reformatting, but it should be a “one and done” situation, barring any sudden head injury that makes the WotC lawyers forget their cast iron moratorium on licensing to third parties. That would be a godsend, considering the recent implosion of the deal WotC had with Trapdoor Technologies and the DungeonScape product.

But wait! It gets better! Fantasy Grounds has been posting occasional updates on social networking regarding their re-building of the product in Unity. UNITY! It looks pretty damn slick. This is a super-massive big deal because it will allow FG to go cross platform, for one. Last session we had a player who had to use WINE on his Mac to play with us, so it would have benefited him greatly to have had a version that ran native on the Mac. And not to get ahead of things or to put the FG team in a tight spot, but with Unity’s output options, they could bring the tool to iPads and Android tablets as well, with some concessions. If they really wanted to wow us, then they could announce some kind of cloud storage for modules, but we’ll see if there’s anything of the sort in the wind in the future.

Welch Network Equipment and the VInE

The largest single corporate entity in the world is Welch Network Equipment. Although the name sounds rather bland, stuff this single entity occupies a unique niche in the late 21st century world.

When the US closed its borders, the Internet was in peril. Because it covered the world, but because its governing body was headquartered in the US, a series of meetings were held to figure out what to do about the global network. It was decided that the Internet would remain as is, but with increased restrictions on general traffic into and out of the US. The governing body, however, would remain impartial and accessible to all nations. The rest of the world wasn’t happy about this convenient exception to US isolationist policy, but short of creating their own parallel network — which would result in confusion, conflict, and years worth of downtime and conflicting protocols — the world reluctantly agreed.

During the period of isolation, corporations used the Internet to keep up with the world affairs that the general population was denied. Corporations also heavily utilized the network for their own purposes. This resulted in two things: increased and better security, and more bandwidth. Bring the primary users of the Internet, and because corporations were concerned about favoritism from network providers, it was agreed (behind the “Star Spangled Curtain”, the world adopted name for US isolationist policy) that control over the Internet should be interred with a single, neutral corporate entity.

The responsibility for this task was given to Samantha Welch, the current head of the ICANN. She and her task force were given broad leeway to create a new self-sustaining, for-profit corporation that would administer the Internet and its infrastructure. Although many saw this as a potential conflict of interest — the Internet was meant to be free of meddling, and a single controlling entity meant monopoly — the only mandate that Welch had was that the resulting structure must provide equal access to everyone around the world. There would be no priority, no degradation, no second or third class access or infrastructure. In order for all corporations to use the Internet, no one corporation could be given more access than any other.

Welch created Welch Networking Equipment and took over the core name servers. With a cash infusion from all major corporations, Welch’s R&D department worked tirelessly to create a new, high-speed class of data routers, modems, firewalls, and switches. They also hired thousands of employees and began the daunting task of upgrading the US network to the latest transmission technology all the way from the network operations centers to the point of termination at the jack where the computing device plugged into the wall.

In an effort to get the rest of the world on board with the upgrade, Welch issued and ultimatum: upgrade your hardware and infrastructure at your own expense, or you’ll be cut off. Some countries thumbed their noses at the mandate, and Welch made good on her promise. Those who scrambled to upgrade were helped along by WNE, and were back on-line as quickly as they could perform the work. The few rogue countries which turned their back on the proposal attempted to recreate their isolated segments of the Internet, with varying success.

The end result was a much faster, more modular, easily upgradable network. It was dubbed “Internet 2.0”, and the world enjoyed faster speeds and more universal access for several years.

As the corporations grew, the original estimates for bandwidth usage seemed overly optimistic. Welch and her team needed to open the floodgates and deploy a technology that had virtually no limit to the amount of data that could be passed. Understanding that the speed of the data transmission had a hand in how much data could be moved through a connection, a freak breakthrough in a fringe technology — quantum entanglement — yielded one of humanity’s greatest discoveries, and that discovery lead to near instant data transmissions through regional hubs.

This was “Internet 3.0”.

Most everyone still connected to the Internet via mobile, tablet, or stationary devices, but working in concert with North Point Biometrics, WNE began experimenting with neural interfaces, citing the “BKAC” — Between Keyboard and Chair — to be the last, limiting factor that slows down the transmission of data. NPB and WNE’s research resulted in “direct neural hijacking”. These implants allowed a user to plug in directly to the Internet to see, hear, and feel data being transmitted.

As this technology improved, became safer, and production and ease of implantation dropped in price to the point where its adoption was a viable option for most citizens, corporations salivated at the idea of being able to pump data directly into people’s field of vision or to pipe jingles into their auditory nerves. But visionaries took it one step further and created the VInE: the Virtual Internetworked Environment. With increased bandwidth and ever increasing processing power, corporations were able to host virtual realities that people could inhabit when jacked into the VInE, complete with a full sensory experience and biofeedback.

Citing its mandate as the controller of all things Internet, WNE took over the operation of the VInE. Previously, its revenue stream was built on selling access, but with the implants allowing people to connect to the VInE wherever they went, WNE needed to supplement their income with an ingenious strategy of “virtual real estate”. Since every device connected to the Internet also had a unique address in the VInE, each connected device — a single location in the virtual environment — was taxed. WNE also rented advertising space, and corporations fell over one another in a bid to buy up what they could. Soon, WNE became the singular, most wealthy corporation on the planet.

Still, WNE’s mandate of neutrality meant that they could never favor one entity over another, nor could they restrict any traffic through it’s network. To this day, WNE remains aloof from the usual inter-corporation feuds and crass commercialism that the corporations espouse. WNE isn’t afraid to leverage it’s position, however. If at any time WNE requires resources, leeway, or compliance, it receives it without question and without argument. Should the Internet and the VInE go dark, the world would descend into chaos.

Arcologies and Orbitals

In the mid 21st century, sickness the US had closed its borders to the world after decades of international fatigue. While the rest of the world was both elated and frightened to see the US abdicating it’s duty to the planet in favor of pure protectionism, the people of the US felt tired of being both requested and reviled in equal measure.

During this period of isolation, corporations based within the US took a stronger lead than they had previously accepted. With the need for the country to be almost 100% self sufficient, the federal, state, and local governments alone couldn’t handle the needs of it’s citizens. With deep pockets and vast resources, many corporates stood up and began diversifying their goods and services to meet the needs of the population.

In the course of this activity, corporations saw ways to subvert the government to become premier players in the lives of US citizens. They were providing the things that the people needed, not the government, and corporations found that they could shift public perception in their favor simply through the adjustment of supply and demand. At first, many corporations overplayed their hand and were take aback by the public blowback in response to their overt attempts at manipulation of public opinion, but most corporations quickly mastered the art of advanced public relations in the 21st century to rally the population behind them and their agendas.

Feeling stretched thin by the scare continental resources, corporations began to consolidate their workforce into regional centers. The early “arcologies” were mostly constructs of convenience. Much like San Franciso or Austin in the early 21st century, companies began to relocate far-flung offices to ring their corporate HQ. This kept their employees close at hand, but also allowed them to dominate the region surrounding their corporate offices which they used to their advantage in influencing local and regional policies through economic power.

As regional control grew, it began to clash with other corporations. In order to solve this, decisions were made to move HQs to more open, currently less populated areas that could be developed totally for the needs of the company. Montana and South Dakota were popular for the first waves of corporations, but eventually as the distance between the entities grew, populated hubs were taken over and rebuilt for corporate purposes.

These new mega-cities — the current arcologies — were self-contained city-states that housed the corporate offices, but also provided their employees with housing, recreational and cultural facilities, schools, restaurants, shopping malls, and other venues that were built so that no one had to leave the corporate campus for anything. People were allowed to do so, of course, but few saw any reason to do so outside of visiting distant friends or relatives, or taking vacations to the “common zones” that were not under corporate control.

Despite their size, their number, and their reach, arcologies could not house everyone in the country. Many millions of people would not or could not work for these corporations, and therefor found themselves relegated to the existing cities that ringed the shiny new arcologies. In the slang of condescending corporate citizens, these cities were nicknamed “orbitals”, since they were hangers-on that orbited the arcologies good fortune and existed only because of the gravitational pull of the new upper class.

People who lived in the orbital cities were a mix of anti-corporate revolutionaries, self-made business people who refused to submit to bland corporate white-washing, and immigrants and forgotten people who had no chance of ever moving up into the arcologies even if they wanted to.

Although corporations focus their energies on maintaining the arcologies, their revenue actually comes mostly from the orbitals. In the late 21st century, the corporations forced a weakened US government to re-open the borders, and sent out emissaries to other nations to establish trade routes and outpost offices, manufacturing, and distribution centers. Over time, arcologies were built on other continents by US companies and by foreign companies that wanted to mimic the success and fanatical loyalty of a workforce that depended on them for everything in their lives. Still, the people living in the orbitals vastly outnumbered those who lived and worked in the arcologies, meaning that the corporations had to tailor their marketing strategies and their products for a class of citizen that was socially and economically far beneath their own experiences. This resulted in major reforms to privacy protection disguised as market research, strong-arm tactics to revise consumer protection laws, and a loosening of advertising restrictions that resulted in corporations being allowed to track and monitor their consumers, charge outrageous prices for questionable merchandise, and to market to all people in any way that saw the best results.

As the influence grew, corporations once again began to butt heads, this time more economically than physically. Demographic targets were many, but not infinite, and while corporations felt that their attempts to put on a reassuring face for their consumers was of paramount importance in building the trust, they had no such compulsion when dealing with each other. Corporations soon began building their own security forces, first to protect their assets, but eventually to conduct raids against their competition in a bid to undermine their projects, obtain their research, and even to poach promising researchers and development staff that opposing corporations did not want to lose. The corporations went to great lengths to keep these battles from spilling into the public sector, but it’s a poorly kept secret. Most of the public agrees that for entities as large as these corporations, powerful security is needed to ensure economic competitiveness and therefor look the other way, but on occasion there’s concern that corporations are enjoying too much power inside the country. Usually, corporations tamp down on these situations with sales and new products, and the populations is once again lulled into a consumerist coma.

No Hard Feelings — Social Responsibility Among Guns For Hire

“No hard feelings”

Among freelance soldiers (”solos”), medical there’s a code of ethics that have been agreed upon due to their peculiar working conditions.

Solos generally work, medical as their designation implies, health alone. It’s not uncommon for these soldiers to work together as a pair, or as a group, but it’s generally frowned upon as forming bonds with other soldiers can lead to the code coming unraveled.

Any soldier can be guaranteed to work with a rotating party of other soldiers from the employment pool with every job they’re hired for. Working alone, a soldier cannot get hung up on past grudges that might interfere with future working conditions.

Because of this, soldiers who work with a partner or group run the risk of losing their partner or a member of their group to opposing soldiers for hire. Later, should that soldier find himself paired with a soldier who killed their partner or member of their group, it would negatively affect the cohesion of their team. Worse, if such a vendetta were in effect and were to become known, it could jeopardize a soldier’s job opportunities in the future, as the community might refuse to work with that soldier knowing that doing so could jeopardize their OWN employability.

Because of this, soldiers have been known to frequent the same few locations during their down time in order to maintain this policy of “no hard feelings”. While off-duty, confrontations over previous jobs are frowned upon, but happen. Many times other soldiers will intervene if they see two or more soldiers attempting to violently resolve past grudges, knowing that any soldier who ends up in a group with one or both of these soldiers is putting him or herself in danger.

Soldiers therefor work very hard to either remain on good personal footing with each other, or to at least remain civilized when in each other’s presence, or have trained themselves to put logic and business ahead of interpersonal relationships which allows them to maintain an ongoing partnership within the context of understanding that should either one of them be taken out by another opposing soldier, they can’t seek revenge. This sometimes takes the form of pacts of oaths among partners or groups where all members agree that it’s all business; they are all in the same job for the same reasons and assume the same risks knowingly and without coercion, and that the survivability of those left behind relies upon maintaining “good standing” with the solo community.

People are people, however, and grudges usually take the form of competitions rather than vendettas. It’s not uncommon for solos to be cool and standoffish to one another when “off the clock”, but extra-violent and determined to exact vengeance should they find themselves on opposite sides of a job.

New solos are usually given more leeway than established solos. A new solo will generally be left alone, or the last to die, if he or she knows when they have lost the engagement. Later, a more established solo might take the new soldier under his wing to explain the mistakes she or her partners made so as to avoid making those same mistakes later on. A new solo is usually given two or three encounters before the training wheels come off and the soldier is responsible for her own actions and her own fate.

With “no hard feelings” comes the general rule that previous engagements are not discussed. If one team is tasked with protecting a resource in transit, while another team is tasked with stealing that resource, surviving members of the losing team are not allowed to ask about the resulting outcome. This is because it’s never known when the solo is “off the clock” and when she’s just laying low while still being paid to salvage a previously failed mission.

In that vein, solo contracts with employers are very heavily enforced, even with corporations. Because of the professional courtesy that solos share, screwing over one soldier can lead to blacklisting of employers throughout the community. It’s also why solos insist on strict parameters of their mission, which end when one side achieves the goal, or prevents the other side from achieving their goal. The job is done once the players exit the field, and no employer would risk access to the community for incremental gains.

Of course, some solos refuse to play by these rules. They do not associate with the greater community, and prefer to work within their own clique. Hiring one solider hires their group, and even when off the clock these soldiers will seek revenge against other soldiers. Usually the slight against them need to reach a specific plateau, however; simply besting them on a run isn’t enough. It usually requires something along the lines of eradicating their team, or focusing more on decimating the team than they do on securing the hired goals.

Finally, it’s considered bad form to take out aggressions on a solo’s friends, family, or other relations. It’s seen as violating the community trust, and a cowardly way to exact revenge. In cases like this, the community will usually police it’s own, to the extreme, as the perpetrator is seen as a loose cannon who cannot be trusted personally or professionally.

Goals by Strata in Society

The people in the orbitals are basically lower class citizens socially and economically. The majority of them have no agenda strong enough to drive them, sales so they’ll consume corporate content as readily as anything. They enjoy and talk about corporate TV and tabloids, watch corporate sponsored sports, and obsess over corporate products.

Not all orbitals are alike. Some are fairly affluent, some are lower middle class, but the majority are lower class. Affluent by orbital standards means having a somewhat effective police presence, relative safety in neighborhoods, and single family dwellings, either stand-alone or in high-rises. Lower middle class neighborhoods have a police presence, but it’s often times corrupt and self serving. Things are generally OK during the day, but at dusk it’s dangerous to be outside. Lower class neighborhoods are places where you don’t want to be at all unless you’re a known quantity there. Strangers are instant targets, and there’s almost no police presence unless it’s in full riot gear. Families usually live in dilapidated tenements, sometimes several families to an apartment.

The general goal in the orbitals is safety. The better the neighborhood, though, the more the goals make way for luxuries. Upper class orbitals can think about the latest gadgets and fashions and vacations. The middle class can maybe think about one non-essential purchase per year, per person. Lower class families rarely ever get any luxuries that aren’t stolen.

To make money, the upper class owns small businesses or are lawyers and doctors. Middle class folks work for the upper class folks, and the two strata generally work together well to hold on to what they have, and attempt to become more successful together. The lower class may also work for the upper class, but in a lower capacity such as sanitation or delivery services.

In light of this, the upper class is accepting of the corporate dominance, but believes that there’s room for all sizes of business. Corporations are generic in that they need to reach as many people as they can, while those closer to their communities can provide tailored services. They can also provide services that the corporations don’t bother with, like dry cleaning or mechanic services. The middle class generally are OK with the corporate influence, but are a tad bit more wary. They’re willing to support their local businesses because they have some level of influence over their professional destiny, and see themselves as superior to the white-washed corporate lockstep. The lower class either doesn’t speak the language, isn’t educated enough, or has an overriding distrust of any kind of authority. They prefer to make their own, individual way, which usually means that crime is the only outlet they’re qualified for.

Because of this, the upper and middle classes generally distrust the lower class, and the lower class pretty much as a rule distrusts everyone above them.

Some of the middle and almost all of the lower class have four options for surviving: crime, join the US military, join the corporations in some capacity, or become a soldier for hire.

Crime is the easiest to get into, but the most difficult to get out of (alive). Crime can run the gamut from petty theft to drugs, and all the way from individuals looking for a quick score to organized crime. Most lower and some middle strata citizens start here. In the lower strata orbitals, citizens can’t get away from crime, as it’s either happening TO them, or it’s only one friend away from being accessible at almost any point in time where money is needed. Successful criminals who manage to avoid pissing off the wrong people and who excel at their craft may be picked up by professional crime families or organized street gangs and can actually make a decent living.

The military is an option of last resort. The US military is underfunded and overburdened. It’s a PR tool used by the government to show that they have a strong presence where it’s needed the most. In reality, the forces sent to far-flung regions have low morale, incompetent leaders, and a lack of funding that lead to shortages of everything from rations to armor to ammo. While the government will compensate it’s soldiers, the life of someone in the military is usually short and extremely dangerous. Many soldiers opt to do as little work as possible until they either muster out with a pension, or find a palatable opportunity to defect to the side of opponents who are almost always better funded and more supplied. Beyond the military, few lower strata citizens could pass the most rudimentary corporate application exam for a desk job or a job in public utilities.

Corporations field their own military, in addition to police forces that deal exclusively within their arcologies. Corporations are far more picky about who they take, however, as they need to ensure loyalty and competency for their military. These soldiers are often tasked with black ops, including assassination of opposing corporate figures, extraction of sensitive resources, and defense of corporate property from similar strike teams fielded by other corporations. Among all corporate branches, the military arms are the ones that value the ability for self-sufficiency as the stakes are much higher and the tension is much thicker than in their cubicle farms. Also, their eCorps — the VInE hackers — need to be intelligent and well educated. Most lower strata citizens do not qualify for corporate military or police service.

Soldiering for hire is by far the most attractive option for discerning lower and lower-middle class citizens. It allows the individual to make his or her own rules, work his or her own hours, and determine the workload based on his or her own moral and financial concerns. They work for local concerns — crime bosses, street gangs, individuals with money or convincing enough sob stories — and sometimes for corporations who need an off-grid force to handle an off-grid operation where accountability needs as many layers as possible between the op and the beneficiaries.

The real goal, regardless of strata or avenue, is to build into a comfortable life. While almost anyone can go to work for the corporations and be given a comfortable life in exchange for corporate fealty and all that it entails — mainly a loss of privacy and freedoms — upper, middle, and lower class citizens value the ability for self-determination and, if they’re lucky, the ability to some day “retire” in a manner that will have made their travails worthwhile. It’s fairly easy for the upper strata as they’re reaping the lion’s share of financial security. The middle strata needs to work harder for it, but it’s not impossible. The lower class is rarely ever able to break free of it’s circumstances, though. Most criminals are killed, most of those who enter the military are killed or vanish in the wilds of another country, corporate soldiers are bound by corporate rules, leaving only the guns for hire as the lowest strata’s best option for getting out alive. It’s never a guarantee, but being able to take one’s destiny into one’s own hands gives slightly better odds than any of the other options.

Wrath of the Dragon Guy #AdventureCo #DND5E

When we last left the Adventure Co Brand Adventure Company, information pills they had silently dispatched a group of cultists and kobolds who had been trying to smoke out the refugees holed up in the temple of Chauntea. They had to move quickly as a massive force of cultists and kobolds and their attack drakes were encircling the building on a short timer, sickness and another force was attempting to break down the temple doors.

Inside, the players were met by the provincial priest (lower-case ‘p’) Gibberishfirstname Falconmoon, who was ecstatic to see them. The temple itself was holding firm, but was under obvious assault. Rocks had smashed the windows, torches had been thrown in hoping to set the place alight, and the refugees were on the verge of giving up hope as the cultists repeatedly smashed the reinforced doors with a massive battering ram.

The players first plan offered was to wait until the ram was approaching, open the door in surprise and once the momentum carried the cultists into the vestibule, slam the doors shut behind them, and attack. This would allow the party to deal with the most immediate threat to the temple and buy them time to figure out how to get the 32 people to safety.

Unfortunately, the battering ram was insistent, and it wasn’t long before the doors began to crack, and then to sag on their hinges. The Cleric attempted to Mend the doors as best he could, and while not fully repaired, he did manage to buy the team some time.

When they were sure that the drunken kobold procession had made a complete circuit around the temple, the team began launching refugees out the back door, through the smouldering fires, and into the forest behind the temple. One townsperson fell and cried out in pain and fear, but was quickly masked by the Bard’s Prestidigitation which muffled the shout as just another kobold bark.

The villagers made it out in time, but the procession was nearly back around to the rear of the temple at this point. The Ranger kept the villagers hidden in the forest, and the rest of the party took advantage of the lingering smoke and the cover of the temple itself to exit to the East, just as the procession was rounding the corner.

Since nothing is ever easy, their trip to the keep was interrupted by some last minute looters who intercepted the party, but who were dispatched with relative ease.

The villagers were relieved to be united with their families once inside the keep, but there was a new predicament. Something was happening outside the walls that was drawing everyone’s attention. Escobert and Nighthill and the players took the ramp to the parapets to find the invaders had assembled from around the village and were arrayed in front of the keep. Behind them sat the massive blue dragon who occasionally let out an ear splitting roar.

But it was the half-dragon champion that drew the attention. Backed by a retinue of 10 kobold guards, the champion called out for the keep to send out a champion of their own to meet him in one-on-one combat. To ensure compliance, he presented a woman and her three children as prisoners.

One of the guards on the wall recognized the woman has his sister, and rushed forth to face the half–dragon, but was restrained by the militia. Nighthill reluctantly asked the players if they would consider taking on this challenge, but understood if they were unwilling. Rather than send the Sergeant to his death, the Dwarven Fighter accepted the challenge and left the keep to face the half-dragon.

The enemy agreed to release the children immediately, but kept the woman hostage, vowing that any interference would result in her immediate death. With that, the battle began.

The Fighter charged the half-dragon, lobbing a throwing axe which only missed by a few inches. The half-dragon charged as well, replying with his spear that also missed. The two traded blows when they met, with the Fighter drawing first blood, but the half-dragon drew the last as the Dwarf fell beneath the half-dragon’s greatsword assault.

With the battle concluded, the half-dragon released the woman, the dragon took flight, and the invading forces dispersed, leaving the town of Greenest silent but ruined. The party and Escobert and his militia left the keep and were able to stabilize and resuscitate the Fighter, who earned a hero’s welcome within the fortification. The refugees relaxed; the invaders were leaving, and it was only a few hours until sunrise. The party was finally able to take their much needed rest, with further discussions to be had in the morning.

*   *   *

The “Sanctuary” mini-mission is supposedly the more difficult mission in the first episode of the module. The forces that the players have to deal with amount to a small army, and include a more advanced cultist overseeing the battering ram, and two attack drakes that are with the procession. While the module says that the players could take out the groups at both the front and back of the temple, this is really a situation that calls for patience and finesse.

The party debated a course of action for quite some time. The idea of opening the doors on an in-motion battering ram apparently came from The Seven Samurai, we were told, but the motion was shot down on the grounds that while the missing group at the rear of the temple was obscured by smoke, the procession would notice if the battering ram crew was absent, which might lead them to sober up and assault the temple.

The priest mentioned that there were catacombs beneath the temple, but that there was no other way out, and no way to secure the door from the crypt side (who would want to lock themselves in a crypt?). The only decision, the party decided, was to usher the people out the back and into the forest as quickly as possible (which is technically not the only option, but was by far the best option)

According to the module, the battering ram was supposed to hit anywhere between 15 and 30 seconds in order to keep pressure on the players to find a solution. Unfortunately, this group hasn’t quite reached the point of snap-decision making, so their leeway was lengthened to a whole three minutes per bang. They still “yelped” when the ram hit the door, though, several times exclaiming “we need to move!” The door has 30 HP, and each hit did 1d6 of damage; technically, the door could come down in that three minutes if the interval was 30 seconds. It could have increased the pressure, but it could also have caused a bloodbath that would have certainly gone bad for the players.

Once they decided to move the refugees out the back, I technically sent them out in groups of five, despite the fact that the players wanted them to move out in a continuous stream. The procession was moving at a speed of two minutes per side of the building, so game-wise, the refugees did stream out continuously, but moving 32 people anywhere, especially if they’re terrified, men, women, children, babies, and elderly, there’s a good chance someone might screw things up. Each group of 5 got a d20 roll, and on 10 or less, the group made it to the tree line without issue. 11 or greater and something happened. Thankfully, only one villager stumbled and cried out, but quick thinking masked the shout as just another crazed kobold yelp among many.

The half-dragon champion is the last mini mission in the episode, and is specifically designed to kill someone. If the players are reluctant to face the champion, then the Sergeant will go, as it’s his sister who is being held captive. If he were to go, he’d be dead-dead. If a player goes, the module actually expects that player to get stomped as well. Surprisingly, the Fighter managed to bring the champion down to exactly half his HP before he dealt the down-to-0-HP blow.

Nighthill offered the players 100gp each, a safe place to rest, and access to the town’s remaining resources for repair and replenishment. The cleric took it upon himself to haggle with Nighthill for more money, and despite initial protest that their town had just been ransacked for it’s valuables, agreed to take up a collection from the town to supplement their payment. The Cleric suggested they be granted some property in town, but I’m not sure whether he was serious or not.

We’re using the “level by episode” method rather than the individual XP tracking method because it’s cleaner; we don’t need to constantly update the character sheets (which gets messy when people aren’t paying attention that they’ve just earned the points) and because XP needed to level depends on XP granted which depends on the number of encounters and such, it’s possible that a lower number of encounters could put the players in a position where they’re not level appropriate for the content when they encounter it. Leveling by episode seems the better option for a published module where the design favors certain progression.