Thoughts on The Extra Life Experience

Extra Life 2014 is now unofficially over, order although it’s something that’s never really over. You can continue to donate and receive donations, pharmacy but I’d guess that the core draw for sponsors — the playing and watching of games, and the community effort over a 24 hour period — is winding down significantly.

I have to say, it was really fun! Nevermind that what we were doing — playing games — is what we’d have been doing anyway during the same time period. But our group, the Alliance of Awesome, is a kind of meta-group of people from other groups who interact on social media, mostly, but who often find our interests align in-game. Many members probably played alongside one another in the past without really knowing it, and with many of us being so transient about the games we play, the AofA is meant to widen the pool of people who are around that we can tap for mutual in-game support.

The team did fantastic during Extra Life, raising over $1700 for various children’s hospitals. Most of us were first timers and took it slow, carving out just a few hours of the 24 hour window to do our thing. I think it did well, but I wish there was a better technical support system in place to accommodate situations like this.

We used Hitbox, because Hitbox allows for anyone to create a team. A team is really just a page that aggregates the members for easy searching, and also shows you who’s live at the time, and where you can find their library of recorded videos. Ideally, you’d pass out your team’s URL so that anyone stopping by can pick a stream to watch, without having to pass viewers down the chain to the next streamer, and the next streamer, and so on.

Twitch, of course, has the mindshare for video game streaming, but the streamers need to have some kind of minimum viewership in order to form a team. I don’t understand the thought process behind that, though. What really sucks is that Twitch implemented their “sharing” mechanism which allows a streamer to feature another streamer on their channel when their channel is not in use. I don’t think it would alleviate the need to jump from channel to channel, but it could have been leveraged for something like displaying a schedule that’s replicated across the dormant channels.

Ideally, though, there’d be a mechanism that allows streamers to get together on one channel. This baffles me, really. How do none of these services allow for a merging of signal, or allow for multiple inputs from different remote sources? It’s not a technical limitation; I set up my own RTMP server, which is probably a much smaller version of what Twitch and Hitbox use, but I found a way to get several different signals into a single output. It would require some management tools on the server side — the display management that we use via OBS or XSplit would have to be ported to the web to allow for users to arrange the output to the channel — but I’m sure there are smarter folks than I who could make it happen. I suppose that these services are all about the individual branding and promotion, so allowing a non-standard rotation of people to show up on the channel would defeat that.

Still, a single channel with multiple streamers, even if they had to switch off use of the entire channel, could be quite an attractive prospect. We had people popping in and out of each other’s channels, with some folks showing up to watch and support when they could, but ducking out when they had real life responsibilities. I think it would have been a lot more convenient if there were one channel where everyone could hang out during the 24 hour period.

Maybe next year we can come up with an actual “team channel”, and agree to carve out blocks where the current streamer abdicates the channel for the next streamer. Or maybe I could get the RTMP server up and running, have people connect, and then someone (or someones) could be the “channel manager” to do the channel layout and composition. It might be a lot of work, but I think it’d be really cool to try, and could present a really united front from the team.

Corporate Guide To Social Media And Complacent Hashtivism

Here’s the first entry under the Writing category. It’s also a “working example” of the kind of post I’ll be putting under this category. 

In this case, ampoule I’m starting out with a description of something. Here, more about it’s social media and one way that it’s used. Because this is filed under the “Cyberpunk” subcategory, the second half is how this modern system is or could be used in the future, written almost in a “handbook of social media dos and don’ts from highly effective corporations” style. 

Again, this isn’t an endorsement or a condemnation of practices, but rather an interpretation of how — in this case — social media might evolve, from the perspective of a cyberpunk universe.

Social Media Now

One of the supposed benefits of social media is that it allows people to address entities larger then them, but also to aggregate their telepresence for a cause. Social media has given individuals the opportunity to broadcast their voices into a void, but to tie their posts together via links and hashtags so that what would otherwise be a single unheard voice merges together with thousands or millions of others in a show of force that is difficult to ignore.

Despite the various troubles that social media has (privacy concerns, pop culture irrelevance, harassment, etc), it is a democratic platform in both design and in purpose.

Social Media Later

The downside to this kind of hashtivism is that it’s only one step above doing nothing at all.

The history of organized movements dead-ended the day that the hashtag was born. Before our ability to reach everywhere on the back of a pound-symbol, human beings had to gather in public in order to make a significant statement. This ranged anywhere from peaceful sit-ins to unruly mobs, but getting on board for something required an effort, which meant that those who actually showed up were really serious about the situation.

Today, it takes almost zero effort to re-Tweet or to sign an online petition. It’s almost a throw-away action that can be done in less time than it takes for a commercial break. Anyone can claim themselves to be on-board with a movement if all it takes is no effort at all, but the best part is that everyone can see you doing it, thanks to the follows and re-Tweets that reach around the globe.

This is beneficial to concerned parties because a pile of Tweets does not an angry mob make, no matter how much sarcasm or profanity is involved. For a savvy organization, be it a corporation or a government,  proper management of hashtivism can make consumers and voters feel that they’re involved in a process by encouraging that they put as little effort into the process as possible.

There’s no guarantee that any hashtags or petitions actually reach anyone who is in any position to do anything about it, nor is there any reassurance that if the aggregated ire is seen by those who can act upon it, any action is taken. Managing the belief that “someone is listening” can be of great benefit to an organization or government because just having that perception that good is being done with a tap is enough to give people a “warm glow” that they’re helping without having to actually get involved with money or time.

The best way to do this is to ensure that the outcome of the campaign that hashtivists are aligning against is pre-determined, to provide a “honey-pot” campaign that ties up the efforts of organizers, or to simply inundate social media with so many false positives that their involvement becomes muddied and meaningless. In any case, the participants may either feel that they accomplished their goals, or they will simply “fire and forget their ire” as they return to their binge viewing and meme generation.

The A-Team

We had our weekly Dungeons & Dragons night last night, medicine and I will admit that was concerned in the run-up. My plan had been to retcon the previous session’s disaster, find returning the monk to life and converting the failed mercenary sub-plot to the resolution of “The Prisoner” section from the first chapter of the Hoard of the Dragon Queen. We’ve been in this chapter for several weeks now, and personally I was looking for a way to just end it. I had planned on running the final scenario, but things took an exciting turn.

First off, I reiterated what happened before the things that happened last: the players had “saved” half the mill, and had taken a prisoner back to the keep for interrogation. They took a short rest, and that’s where things needed the change. This time, Escobert and Nighthill approached the players camp to keep with information, to them in the loop.

Nighthill expressed his appreciation to the players, telling them that he knows that they got caught up in this dreadful situation, and have been awesome by putting their lives on the line to help out. Most importantly, he assured them that they’d be compensated for their time and effort.

Escobert relayed the tactical situation. The prisoner revealed that the cult’s plan was essentially to drive all the people from their homes to the keep through a “shock and awe” campaign of numbers and terror, which would allow them to ransack the village for all valuables they could carry. The soldier didn’t know why, exactly, the cult needed these valuables, except that it had something to do with a ritual they were planning. Escobert expressed his discomfort with this, because the cult had a camp only a day’s march away, and if this ritual needed an entire town’s worth of valuables to complete, chances are it wasn’t going to be limited to a local tea party. It could have dire ramifications for the whole region. On the bright side, they all learned that the cult would be moving on once they collected as much as they could, which could be anywhere from an hour to eight hours from that point. There was a light on the horizon, so they had a few options at this point. They could sit tight in the keep, wait it out, and hope that any villagers who weren’t inside the keep had found safety, or they could continue to attempt search and rescue missions in the town to bring people back to the fortress.

The players opted to keep fighting the good fight. Escobert mentioned that villagers might be holed up in basements, barns, or the temple to the southeast, since it’s the second largest building and also the second strongest building in town. I was super excited that the players picked the temple to go to out of other potential sorties because the temple is actually one of the missions in the first chapter! It’s also the most difficult mission in the first chapter.

The temple is surrounded by a low fence which only demarcates the property, so the players approached from the southwest to find the temple surrounded. At the front, a contingent of cultists and kobolds were trying to use a battering ram to knock down the front door. At the back, another set of cultists and kobolds were trying to smoke the villagers out by burning the back of the building, but were only successful in creating a large, low lying cloud of dark smoke. The worst part, however, was the massive parade of kobolds and cultists that were circling the temple like some kind of Forgotten Realms Mardi Gras, barking and hollering and rough-housing in either celebration of intimidation. With them were two squat, muscular attack drakes on harnesses…really nasty.

Shit got real when the players opted to wait until the procession moved to the far side of the building, at which point the party quickly and silently moved in, one by one, using the smoke to conceal their presence. The rolls had never been hotter, as I think only a single attack missed, and the kobolds and cultists in the smoke were cut down before they could get their bearings to mount a counter-attack.

Unfortunately, we had lost one player due to fatigue and technical difficulties, and another player had to leave the fray early. I was exceedingly pleased with how everything went, from the organic progression of the plot, to the rolls, to the speed with which the encounter was resolved (we didn’t use tactical this time), to the decision making process the players went though to quickly and decisively start what is certainly the most difficult encounter in the first chapter. I was sad that we had to close up shop so early, but it’ll give me a week to think on the rest of this encounter, because now the players have to find a way to get the villagers OUT of the temple while avoiding the literally dozens of cult members that are mere moments from bashing down the front doors.

A Slow Bumpy Ride Into Hell #DnD

I’m feeling less than pleased with how our Thursday night D&D sessions are going.

I’m finding that I’m not nearly as mentally agile as I need to be in order to run a game. The first and most important rule of DMing is “be flexible”, link because the DM isn’t dictating a story to the players; he’s providing a framework for the players, more about and is then responding to the actions of the players. In order to do that, a DM has to be able to present the setting, take the input, and return the results in a consistent and interesting way. It’s one part mechanical: you pull the lever, the door closes, and one part artistic: you pull the rusty lever with all your might, and suddenly the steel door slams shut with a clang, darkening the room. I can do the first one, but the second one is just not coming to me.

I thought that with the Hoard of the Dragon Queen module that 90% of the work would be done, and I could focus my preparation time on the other 10% of “flavoring” the framework. It’s turning out to be not that way. It’s been something like four or five sessions and we’re still in Greenest. I need to watch some recorded play-throughs from other people, but I’m pretty certain we’re way behind. It feels that the game has been nothing but combat, which is what I had hoped we could avoid (not combat, just combat all the time). Last week, I tried to send the players on a non-combat side-mission that I had created, but the players opted to skip it entirely until I forced them back to that track, and it ended with disastrous results.

When I step back and assess the way things are going, I’m getting a strong sense of deja vu about how things are playing out. The game is playing and is being played almost like a CRPG, where the computer provides limited and predictable content that the players can easily adapt to in ways that save them from having to inject any meaningful thought or presence. In a way, I DO blame our decades of online gaming for this; I think it’s difficult for all of us to think outside the box, to react as characters instead of reacting as people PLAYING characters, and to provide a sense of place and ownership using just the imagination. We’re all so used to limiting our understanding to telegraphs and ability rotations that we’ve lost interest or the ability to act and react within a world that we’re making up as we go along.

I’m not sure that the players are really having fun. I’m not sure that I’m really having fun. Combat is too frequent, and takes too much time (we’ve already broken the first edict NOT to use tactical combat, and I think we’re suffering for it). The role playing opportunities are being bypassed either because they’re not recognized, not interesting, ill-prepared, or just because of standard meta-game thinking. At this point, I’m ready to conclude Episode One just to see if Episode Two is tighter and easier to focus on than the “choose your own adventure” potpourri that is Episode One.

Throwdown: Elite: Dangerous Versus Star Citizen

Disclaimer: Yeah, web I know neither is finished. Yeah, I know there’s a lot left to do on both. This is a casual overview of what I personally feel about the two games after having spent some time with each this past weekend. 

Everything is cyclical. We suffered through a “Woodstock 2”, and some weird fascination with the 1980’s, and now that kids born in the 90’s are getting older, I suspect that we’ll have a revival of…eh…what did we get from the 90’s, exactly?

So goes video games. We’ve gotten revivals of adventure games, plaformers, and other early concepts that were only cool back then because it was the best technology could do. It seems that the next big new wave (see what I did there?) of resurgence is the space simulator genre, because aside from Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous, there’s a lot of other spaceship cowboy games out there like Starpoint Gemini 2 and Entropy and more in the X series of games, among others.

Both SC and E:D have important pedigrees. SC is from Chris Roberts, who basically defined what we have come to expect from space sims, thanks to Wing Commander. Although Wing Commander might be considered to be THE reason early gamers shelled out hundreds of dollars for a CD ROM drive, the game wouldn’t exist if not for Elite, a seriously old school black-and-white wire-frame “3D” space sim and trading game from David Braben and Ian Bell. That each of these games are (more or less) coming back to the fore with a vengeance is good for the suffering space sim fan, but because the Internet demands the best, we’re forced to ask: which one is better?

Ohhhh…Loaded words, those. “Better” is subjective. I can only give you my point of view here, based on my experiences with each. I’d advise you to put your grimy hands on each (which I assume you have done if you’re a space sim fan, or are looking forward to doing otherwise) and make up your own mind.

Star Citizen

Even if you’re not a space sim fan, you probably know about Star Citizenalthough you could be mistaken in thinking that Robert’s was trying to build a Death Star based on the amount of money he’s pulled into to fuel this (some would say stupidly) ambitious project.

SC is actually one half of a whole: There’s Star Citizenthe “MMO-esque” online space sim universe, and Squadron 42, which we’re told will be a single-player or co-op experience (think Borderlands). Right now, Cloud Imperium (the developer, not an in-game faction) has released bits of the product to backers and early adopters, starting with an interactive hangar, and currently with Arena Commander.

Arena Commander allows backers who have supported the project at certain levels to get into their ship (or a loaner ship) and fly around, shooting drones or other players in “arena” combat. There’s also a free-roam scenario if you just want to get the feel for piloting without stress.

One of the technical selling points of SC is how their ship design and the physics model interact. As you maneuver your ship, rather than just applying the physics to the ship as a whole, maneuvering thrusters on the ship are used to actively push the ship in the desired direction. This can lead to scenarios where damage to your ship could prevent your thrusters from working, thereby causing you navigational issues. It’s a pretty cool feature that I’m sure will lead to a lot of swearing from players when they can only spin in place because they lost most of their maneuverability. Another mechanic tied to maneuvering is “G-forces”. If you accelerate too fast, too quickly, your camera starts to gray out, and if you sustain this state for too long, you can black out. While I appreciate the “realism” of this specific mechanic, I’m not entirely sure if I care for it. But we are talking about a game that forces you to open the hatch of your ship, climb a ladder, walk to your command chair, and activate the ship before you can actually play, so I guess modeling the whole experience is part of what we agreed to when we bought into this project.

I found Star Citizen to be the easier to control of the two games, and although it might be my atrophied skill with a flight stick, I found it a lot better to use the keyboard and mouse. The flight mechanics seemed to be well done at this point. I wasn’t always sure about speed, though; My speed seemed to change from where I swear I had left it. Might be due to the damage conditions I mentioned above, though, which would be really cool.

Using weapons is intuitive. You lead the target by firing at the boxes that extend in front of it, although there were two boxes, labeled 1 and 2, with no explanation of difference noted in the game itself. Your primary weapons are neigh unlimited, and your secondary weapons (on the Origin 300i that I have) have a much lower RoF and are, I assume, more powerful for it. Missiles require a lock on by clicking the mouse wheel, and the clicking again fires the missile. Since 90% of what you need for basic flight sits on the mouse, it’s really easy to get flying with Star Citizen.

One thing that I’m not a fan of is the overall simplicity of the game. However, this is Arena Commander. It’s an “arcade shooter” with some additional mechanics thrown in. It’s not supposed to be more than it currently is. You launch, find your targets, and engage. End of story. I already mentioned the black-out mechanic, but I’ll reiterate that I’m not a fan. I’m also not a fan of abysmal load times. I had issues installing the game, first off, with download speeds reported in the kilobytes for a seventeen gigabyte product. The game itself also takes a long time to load. Again, it’s a WiP, so I’m not going to say “fuck it” and chuck the…media I don’t have…out the window.

Elite: Dangerous

I was on the fence about Elite: Dangerous for a while. I had backed SC during it’s Kickstarter phase, and thought that it’s ambition would be enough to satisfy my Wing Commander slash Freelancer (both Chris Roberts products, BTW) cravings. Then I saw a video in which the player had to actually land his ship, complete with landing gear and everything, and realized that I needed this game. I bought the Mercenary Edition pre-order, but over the weekend I upgraded to the pre-release Beta Access tier so I could play the game as it stands.

I never played the original Elite. I think in 1984 I was on the Commodore 64 playing mostly RPGs. It wasn’t until the late 80’s when a friend bought a Tandy 386 that I looked at simulations like MechWarrior and Wing Commander. I had another friend who was really into the hardcore sims like flight simulators and military wargames, but I couldn’t even lift those manuals let alone keep all the jargon straight. The late-model sims I played had just enough keyboard commands (via keyboard overlays!) to keep me feeling like I was pushing buttons and flipping switches, but not so many that it was all I was doing.

But this genre kind of fell out of favor as gaming transitioned to an almost all console, all the time market, where you had to be able to do everything with just four buttons, a D-pad, and two thumb-sticks. Using a complex series of button and trigger combos, sim games could be played, but to me, part of the “simulation” nomenclature means having a certain feeling of complexity that comes from replicating the mundane as well as the exciting, and playing DDR with your thumbs and fingers doesn’t have the same resonance as flying your hands over your keyboard does.

Like SC, there’s two components to E:D, an online massive universe (I mean, massive — supposedly there will be 400 billion stars to visit) where you have to suffer…I mean, play…with other people, and a solo component where you can play alone or in a “group” where, from what I understand as I read it, allows you to play exclusively with your friends, a la Freelancer.

E:D‘s flying seems a bit more complex than SC‘s. One benefit is that my Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS X is recognized as a pre-mapped input device (unlike in SC) and all of the buttons are more or less spoken for. However, the controls default to some weird combos. Pitch is forward and back, roll is side to side, and yaw is either twisting the stick, or using the rocker on the throttle control. However, it doesn’t feel right in this configuration, for some reason. This threw me off because I wasn’t able to effectively steer using the stick, which was made all the more difficult when trying to align myself to the small entrance to the station that was constantly rotating. I re-mapped the yaw to the X-axis and the roll to the twist/rocker, and I think that feels better.

One benefit, though, is that you can opt to have the game present a “pre-flight checklist” before you leave the station. This is an actual checklist that has you activate each of the items listed. You have an entry for each button action, and when you hit that button, you get a check-mark. Only when everything is checked can you leave the station. It’s a good sanity check for when you return to the game after absence, or need to get used to the control schema.

You have to actually raise and lower your landing gear. Hardcore! When you leave the station, you need to fly through the station’s aperture to leave, and again when you land. You can (and will) encounter traffic trying to use the exit in the opposite direction (word on the street is that griefers in the online version are making sure you know this fact). When landing, you need to go to the proper platform, lower your gear, and actually land on the platform before the magnetic locks take over and put you on the ground. When you leave a station, fly near a sun or planet or other object, you have “mass locking”, which is gravity that prevents you from using your jump drives. Just fly away far enough, and you’re golden.

Jumping between system is either wonky, or I just don’t understand it. There’s two phases: the initial in-system jump, and then the between system jump. You travel between PoI in a system using the first, and between solar systems using the second. Each takes fuel (I believe), so you need to find a station and top off if you have to make long trips. I’ve frequently overshot destinations (when I could find them) and I really don’t understand what the UI is telling me (“slow down” is both descriptive and vague at the same time) or what I need to do in order to get to where I need to be. I do love this mechanic, though, as it reminds me of — once again — Freelancer, which my friends and I ran a server for, and played to death.

Combat is a little more frustrating than in SC, mainly because of the controls. I’m finding that personally, I’m having a harder time lining up shots, although the above-board availability of three axes of movement allows me move around objects like asteroids with ease. I was totally destroyed with consistency in the combat tutorials, though the death sequences are really nice: shields down, your cockpit takes gradual damage with the canopy developing cracks, until you take enough damage to explode. Thrilling!

Right now, E:D is further along in development than SC, which is frustrating for SC because I think E:D has less money, and went to Kickstarter after SC did. So they’ve done more at this point with less. You can take missions, transport and bounty, and even do some free-trading by picking up goods at a station for a low price, and then selling them for a high price at another station. There’s contraband (complete with police scanning your ship) and black market goods. Ships can be upgraded, and new ships can be bought. I haven’t gotten to that point yet, though I have done a few between-system delivery missions for easy cash.

Who Wins?

Right now, I prefer Elite: Dangerous because it’s more of “a game” than just an arena. But that’s not the whole story, because if we look at the road map for both SC and E:D, they have really similar ambitions, down to the potential for first person, out-of-ship action on planets and stations. I think maybe E:D has a better chance at appealing to the explorer mindset, as 400 billion systems is just an opportunity too great to ignore, while SC will appeal to fans of more traditional MMO-style “action and bravado” gameplay. I also think that E:D might appeal more to fans of EVE Online who want a first-person EVE experience, but I can’t articulate why I feel that way.

If you want the more complete experience right now, I’d suggest Elite: Dangerous because it’s further along. However, if you don’t want to spend the $75 USD for the beta, you can probably get into Star Citizen for less and get your ship exploding fix just the same. In the long run, however, it’ll require another look at both, side by side, to see if either one comes out on top.

On Doctor Who

Like  a lot of people my age, website I started watching Doctor Who in the 1980’s, information pills which means that for the longest time, Tom Baker was “my Doctor”. I didn’t really keep watching after he left the series, and it wasn’t until the series was resurrected (regenerated?) in 2005 that I had the time and inclination to start watching again.

The thing about Doctor Who is that despite it’s often silly execution and relatively low-rent effects, it’s become a character show. The effects are sometimes only a step above community theater, and some of the episodes are just played for slapstick effect, but the structure of the episodes in relation to one another is such that whenever you get a light-hearted episode one week, you know you’re going to get a punch in the face real soon that will make you sad or creep you out.

Some people have said that Doctor Who is kind of a children’s show. It’s not really super violent, and the idea of struggling with pacifism is built into the narrative. But I think people assume because people aren’t being shot or getting into hand-to-hand combat, coupled with the sometimes silly and eye-rolling effects and creatures, that it’s intended for younger audiences. While I think overall it’s appropriate for younger audiences (immediate pre- and teens), there’s a lot of complex themes dealt with that younger audiences might not have references for.

How anyone watching the series can have a reference for the problems encountered by a 2000 year old time traveler is not really the point. Despite the Internet’s insistence of puffing up to try and make itself sound really smart by picking apart episodes and crapping on things it’s high-mindedness doesn’t like, I personally like the way the characters are written, and the circumstances that the characters endure in order to make the points about humanity and our interaction with the universe around us. Of course the Doctor has chosen to protect humanity, both past, present and future, and that allows humanity to continue up until the end of the Universe. We’re everywhere, and not only does that have ramifications on the universe, but most importantly, it has ramifications on the character of the Doctor himself.

Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor was kind of a preface (as he admitted that he left over disagreements with the management after one season), which made way for a younger generation’s apparently favorite Doctor, David Tennant. While the Eccleston Doctor treated us to vague notions that the Doctor had a missing period in his life that he refused to talk about, Tennant kind of started the emotional ball rolling over the situation. He also started a deeper engagement with the companions the Doctor traveled with, which set a precedent that continued through to Matt Smith.

Tom Baker more or less started the current “manic Doctor” persona, but until Tennant, the character was more of a mentor and kindly caretaker of his companions. Tennant and Smith were, I assume, cast to appeal to a younger demographic, and could be viewed as more of a friend to the companions — and even potentially a winking romantic interest. Both were young and energetic, and many of the scripts seemed to focus on fun they were having. The series became a lot about the fun of traveling through time and space; like cruising around with your first friend who get his or her driver’s license. Of course, there was the undercurrent of pathos running through the series: the Doctor had seen (and done) some shit that we were never fully informed about (until later in the game), but which could explain why his behavior was so manic.

That’s why I find that I’m preferring Peter Capaldi over Tennant and Smith. I liked both, but I think they were cast to bring life into the role so the series could literally burst out of hiatus with unconstrained energy and appeal to a new demographic that shows up for the attractive cast, but stays for the fun of the series. Capaldi is older than the previous Doctors, which circles back around the very early days of the show, but instead of being the “grandfather” that the Doctor started out as, he continues the manic presentation started by Baker. Still, we’re now on the other side of knowing more or less why the 21st century Doctor is haunted. It’s not a secret to us any more, which means that from a writing perspective, we need to find another concern that the character can brood about. So far, it’s a conflict between the now-pacifist Doctor and soldiering. In the first episodes, we see the character asking his companion Clara “am I a good man?”, and admitting that he’s made mistakes, and now it’s time to do something about them.

I expect we’ll be seeing a less fun-loving Doctor and a more contrite and grumpy Doctor (which has already started), but also a Doctor we can relate to. While Tennant and Smith embodied the potential fun of being able to go anywhere and any when, Capaldi shows us what can happen when the past — a very, very long past — starts to catch up to us, and starts to weigh on us, beyond the simple 100 yard stares we got from Tennant and Smith that were meant to convey something was bothering him. It’s a maturation of sorts, because in the real world we have to come to grips with the fact that we’re not as young as we feel, and that we have to own up and answer for the things we did when we were younger, and that those things which seemed like a good idea at the time weren’t actually the best decisions we could have made. The most telling episode so far this season was “Listen”, where we’re introduced to the idea of fear that’s always with us, and is embodied in scene when Clara comforts the Doctor as a child by telling him to listen to his fears. This new, “older” Doctor takes this to hearts (!), and is being more open to his fears that he’s been trying to avoid for the past three incarnations.

I guess it remains to be seen if the Tennant/Smith fans will take to the Capaldi Doctor as ardently. Aside from the fact that he is older (“I’m not your boyfriend”, he tells Clara, and as a nod to the sentiment fostered with the previous actors), he’s shaping up to be crankier and more morose. From a character stand point, it’s something I like. From a demographic standpoint, we’ll need to see how it plays out.

Burning Down (Half) The House #DnD

Last night’s session saw the Adventure Co Brand Adventure Company watching the mill at Greenest (which sounds like a B&B, treat but is not). As usual, information pills spoilers ahead.


At the end of the previous session, check the players crept around the mill and found themselves a secluded vantage point on the top of a hill overlooking the mill. From there, the Bard’s keen eye for performance noticed that the cultists they were sent to stop were just phoning it in; they were half-heartedly waving torches in the direction of the mill, but up close, it was obvious it was just for show.

Sensing that something was up, the Cleric asked around for a torch and a light, cast Disguise Self to appear as a cultist himself, and boldly walked down the hill to where one of the acolytes was pretending to set fire to things. Recognizing a brother (in the religious sense, not fraternal), the acolyte struck up a conversation with the Cleric, who managed to convince the acolyte that he was ordered over here to provide additional fakery for the…eh…why are we here, exactly?

The acolyte spilled the beans, thinking he was talking to another cultist: they were creating a diversion in the hopes that the late-arriving adventurers would be sent out here to “deal with them”, at which point the fake fire-starters would run away, and the adventurers would be ambushed by the small army of cultists and soldiers hiding inside the mill. The Cleric doubled down on the comradeship he was forging with the acolyte and cast Charm Person. He sent his newly acquired minion around to the others to tell them that cultist reinforcements had arrived to help out, and not to get trigger happy (or sword or spell happy).

Returning to the group, the Cleric was chastised by the Ranger for not having asked about the number of people inside the barn. Relying on the adage “If you want something done, right, do it your elf”, the Ranger (who is an elf…) had the Cleric introduce him as a raider, and the Ranger grilled the hell out of the acolyte before quietly introducing his sword to his internal organs.

Meanwhile, the Bard, still in full kobold regalia, slipped down the hill to the edge of light cast by the other cultists surrounding the mill. Her disguise worked well enough to allow her to approach the nearest cultist within Prestidigitation distance, and she snuffed out his torch. This immediately set the cultist off like a car alarm at 3 AM, and he and the remaining faux-firestarter fled shouting “They’re here! They’re here!”

At this point, the session turned into “Die Hard”, but only in that there were people holed up inside a building, and there were people outside the building trying to figure out a way to get said people out of the building without having to go in to the building.

The Bard — a 3′ tall gnome — opted to open the bottom half of the dwarven door (which we call a “dutch door” here IRL) and peek inside. It was too dark to see anything, so the Bard used Prestidigitation to light a nearby crate on fire. Unfortunately, the crate was isolated enough from everything else in the room that any unseen adversaries didn’t seem worried about it, and remained hidden.

While the bulk of the force held a committee at the front of the mill, the Cleric was hanging out with the dead body of his former acolyte friend, peering into one of the windows of the mill (being one of the only people who could reach the window, it made sense). Either because he was at is wit’s end, or simply because he wanted to get a better look inside as the only member of the party without Darkvision, the Cleric smashed the window and threw his lit torch into the flour mill.

In a move that no one saw coming, the torch bounced across the floor towards the grinding stone, and promptly ignited an unseen cloud of flour dust which blew out half of the mill building into the river.

Now the party could see the raiders inside. Three of them were charcoal briquettes, but the rest of them — seven assorted guards and cultists — were sufficiently convinced that the jig was up, and started leaping from the loft. Unfortunately, the dwarven door, only open half way, could not accommodate a party of bloodthirsty adventurers, and the Cleric — who lost his eyebrows in the explosion (not kidding — he only suffered 1 HP of damage in the luckiest roll ever) — was running back and forth between the flaming wreckage and the river, filling his water-skin and dumping it on the fire in one of the most comically pathetic sketches this side of The Benny Hill Show.

And of course this would be when the reinforcements show up from the keep. A bewildered captain interrogated the Ranger, who smoothly convinced the soldier that the raiders overplayed their hand and ignited the flour dust within while the party was totaly otherwise in control of the situation like the consummate professionals that they were. The captain, rubbing his face as if somehow trying to slough the incredulity of the situation away, told the Ranger that they had to see if they couldn’t capture one of the fleeing raiders. Escobert wants to interrogate someone, and although he’d prefer a higher-up in the raider organization, this might be a decent opportunity to get anyone into custody.

As luck would have it, the Bard’s earlier decision to open the gnome-part of the door paid off: one panicked cultist saw the light from the doorway and ran towards it at full speed, without realizing that it was only half the door that was opened, and that the half that was closed was where his face needed to pass through. The Fighter (a dwarf) ducked into the doorway and dragged the unconscious soldier out into the open air and turned him over to the keep militia.

With the mill in partial flames, the militia captain tasked the players with taking the captive back to Escobert for questioning while he and his men held down the fort (what was left of it).

Next Week: The players escort a captive back to the keep.

*   *   *

This is why tabletop RPGs are so awesome. You send the party out to protect a building, and it’s them who end up blowing it up.

The first phase of the session went well. The Cleric’s Disguise Self ruse went off without a hitch (there was no reason for it to fail, as he specifically said he wanted to appear as any cultist they ran into earlier for potential familiarity purposes), but he didn’t ask enough questions for a full picture, which brought the Ranger into the conversation to get the rest of the intel.

The second phase  was rather difficult. The players successfully short-circuited the raider’s plans, but the raiders were counting on the player’s reticence to actually burn down the mill. After all, their plan counted on the players wanting to save the mill, and then jumping them when they entered the building. The players were wary of putting themselves into harms way, knowing that there were 10 unseen enemies in strategic positions inside the mill, so a standoff ensued. I really had no idea how to move this forward. The raiders were technically safe in the mill, knowing the players weren’t going to do anything stupid (on purpose), so they could have stayed in there all night. They had no idea about the reinforcements on the way, though, so I guess it would have ended badly for them eventually.

I actually didn’t come up with the idea of blowing the thing up until maybe 10 minutes or so into this standoff. The image I had for the mill showed a pile of flour sacks in the lower right corner of the building. Then the Bard wanted to “set something on fire”. I was hoping she’d opt to try and set the flour stock on fire, but because she didn’t want to venture too far onto the mill floor, that wasn’t going to happen. The raiders certainly weren’t going to set the mill on fire with themselves inside, and they weren’t going to leave with the party camping the only viable exit.

Enter the Cleric, the only guy without Darkvision. I think his intent was merely to smash the window, shout something inside, and throw the torch in as a threat, but that was really all that was needed to put the flour plan into action.

When the reinforcements showed up, the Captain had no idea whether or not the players were telling the truth about the raiders having done the deed. Hell, they’re cultists; they’re supposed to be all about the martyrdom, so why wouldn’t they blow up the building in an otherwise un-winnable situation? At least half the building was left standing, and they had scored a captive for interrogation.

The night was ended with a discussion over appointing a leader for the group. Up to this point, there hasn’t been a lot of need for a leader, as the encounters have been relatively straight-forward, but during this session, the party was divided as the Cleric and Ranger were interrogating the acolyte, the Bard was attempting to shut down the two other cultists outside, and the Fighter and the Monk (the party has a Monk, remember) were holding down the fort on the hill overlooking the mill without opportunity to take meaningful action for most of the night.

Essentially, it was as the Bard said during the discussion: everyone is so used to being responsible for themselves through years of online gaming that the concept of reaching a consensus in a free-form environment has atrophied. While everyone was working towards “the goal”, the party has relied on individual strengths, individually, rather than coming up with ideas on how they can work together towards a single strategy. Part of it has to do with years of online gaming, but I think part of it also has to do with no one wanting to diminish anyone else’s potential contributions or ideas. Everyone is really respectful of each other’s approaches, but almost to a fault. We talked a bit about how Episode 1 could be considered to be the “tutorial” chapter, and going forward things are going to get messier and more difficult, and will require greater team work and communication.

In the end, the Ranger accepted the mantle of leadership (which is a good choice, as he’s also DM’s his own 5E sessions, which provides a useful perspective). It was suggested that maybe in between this session and the next that the party get together OOC and discuss how they can work together, either via Roll20 or via the forums on Anook. Of course, once the party starts to organize, that means I’m going to have to work much harder to ensure that they’re challenged.

Math Is Why America Is So Fat

So I went to my annual physical (which I hadn’t had since 2011) and I was told that I needed to lose weight if I didn’t want to die of a heart attack at some point in my life (my take-away message). I mean, search  anyone can die of a heart attack, more about so the best we can do is manage our chances to the best of our ability. One way to do that is to manage weight. This involves “exercise and eating right” which is what you hear every single health and fitness guru and commercial tell you.

What the hell does “exercise and eating right” mean, physician exactly? Exercise is pretty simple: get off your fat ass. I bought a FitBit, which has been serving as a totem to remind me to get up and move (I sit at a desk all day). I have been walking the dog in the morning before work, getting outside to do walking laps at work twice per day, and have been using the dust collecto…elliptical machine…that we have at home. FitBit wants me to hit 10,000 steps per day, so FitBit can go fuck itself because even with the regimen listed above (which I can achieve because I’m at work and need to get the hell outside), I’m not going to hit 10,000 — close, but no granola bar. Still, the 9000+ steps I do manage is about 8975 more steps than I was taking previously, so I’m pretty focused on the exercise part.

The eating part, though…that’s a lot tougher, but not entirely for the reasons you’d think. One thing my doctor said that resonated with me was “portion control”. Here in the U.S., we’re blasted for eating unhealthy foods, but what really gets us, I think, is that we’re given so damn much food. We like to eat food because it tastes good, and because we’re on the tail end of the generation that was raised to clear it’s plate before we could leave the dinner table. That’s a pretty bad combo right there, because we end up eating way more than we really should. We’re given more, it tastes good, and we don’t want to feel that we’re wasting food. If you’re a parent, it’s worse when you eat what your kids don’t manage to finish.

Still, our bodies require a certain amount of energy in the form of calories, based on our age, height, current weight, and other voodoo. If we don’t satisfy this need, we go into ketosis which is a scientific term for tapping the fat reserves, although you’ll hear fitness-terrorists refer to it as “starvation mode” because technically it’s what your body does — naturally — if you aren’t meeting your caloric needs.

So we’re supposed to essentially burn more calories than we take in, and that’s “losing weight”. There’s a lot of other aspects of “eating healthy” like fat and sodium and protein, but as far as losing weight goes, it makes sense that for all the calories we take in, we need to expunge an equal or greater amount through exercise.

Which leads me to this:


See, this is my stats from the FitBit site, circa 2:30 PM today. So far, I’ve had breakfast, lunch, some snack, a coffee, and a lot of water. I’ve also walked the dog and completed two circuits around the office park. I’ve burned 1920 calories, and have taken in 1075 calories. Technically, I’m doing well per the logical assessment of how we’re supposed to lose weight, right?

No. Because I’ve got this nagging at me (from


Look at that asterisk. I’ve “earned” an extra 490 calories. Out of the aether, I have been granted some kind of cosmic dispensation to take in another 490 calories.

Hold up: I need 2700 calories according to the Mayo Clinic. The meal plan that FitBit has me on wants me to take in about 2225 calories per day to reach my weight loss goal of 14 pounds (1 stone for my international readers). I’ve burned 1920 calories so far today, and have eaten 1075 calories so far today. By my math — fucking math — I need to eat 1380 calories to reach that 2225.

Is that right? I have no fucking clue. FitBit gives me a vague bunch of numbers and graphs in fancy “Web 2.0” fashion. Another dashboard tells me I can eat another 1150 calories. Add that to what I’ve eaten today and you get 2225, which is on target for my plan. But if I eat 1150 to reach the 2225, my total day’s caloric intake exceeds my current caloric burn of 1920. Making maters worse (in my mind) is that this 1150 they tell me I can still eat is a shifting goal based on my daily need and what I burn. If I hit the elliptical when I get home, I’ll burn more calories, and that 1150 need will increase.

If I’m understanding this correctly, and omitting considerations surrounding other elements (fat, sodium, et al.) I’ll need to actually eat more the more exercise I do. Where in the manual is this actually explained? Nowhere, that’s where. It’s totally counter-intuitive. The platitude of “eat well and exercise” is about as reductionist as this subject can get, and considering the amount of math and sliding scales that exist under the covers, I can totally understand why people may start on the fitness trail and get quickly derailed. It’s also why nutritionist and fitness coaches have to have degrees and certifications.

The best I can do at this point is rely totally on these charts and graphs, logging every food and recording every exercise. As I go, I’ll see what I’m taking in and what I’m getting rid of, and hopefully get a better feel for the rhythm of weight loss. But right now, the numbers and their esoteric calculations are throwing me off. Fucking math.

Session 2 – It’s Not A Sewer

Session two of Hoard of the Dragon Queen went swimmingly. As usual, information pills There Will Be Spoilers.

The players had just arrived in the keep, and were immediately asked by Escobert the Red to help out with their efforts. Being significantly more capable than the rank and file garrison soldier (even at level one), the adventurers were asked to head out and harass the raiders and/or bring back as many townspeople as they could to the (relative safety) of the keep.

Before they got their gear on, however, a scout reported to Escobert that the town mill was under assault. Being the slaves to carbohydrates that they are, this would strike a devastating blow for Greenest’s nascent toast industry, so Escobert re-routed the players to go save the mill (and bring back some bagels).

Problem: There’s a nasty hoard of cultists outside the front gates. Solution: The builders of the keep thoughtfully created a secret tunnel beneath the keep that runs south to the river. It was built to allow people inside the keep to get fresh water, should the keep be under siege. This seemed like one of those times, so Escobert gave the players two keys: one for the door in the basement on the keep-end, and one for the grate at the river end of the tunnel. He left them with one bit of advice: don’t let anyone see you using that tunnel, or everyone in the keep would be screwed.

What’s funnier than a party of five in which four members have Darkvision, but the drunken cleric doesn’t? Not much. The players leapfrogged through the single-file tunnel until they met up with a Swarm of Rats, who turned out to be nothing more than a speed bump on the way to the rusted grate at the end of the tunnel.

Someone decided that the dwarven fighter would be the one who had the best chance of using the delicate key in the rusted lock. Murphy, god of hilarious outcomes, was on duty that night, as the dwarf applied just a bit too much pressure and snapped the key in the lock. Cue the sad trombone.

In one of those moments that makes a DM proud, the Bard used Prestidigitation to remove the rust from the grate, and the Cleric used Mending to repair the key. This allowed the party to open the grate silently (no more rusty hinges!) and surprise a cultist party that was scouting the riverbanks.

Sadly, the distance between the party and the raiders was pretty large. The elven ranger managed to snipe a few kobolds as the monk — hitherto refered to as “some random guy who’s been following the party this whole time, but otherwise not really doing much” — was the second one out of the tunnel. Seeing an opportunity to show he was one of the guys, he Dashed into the fray, only to be the first semi-casualty of the campaign. The dwarven fighter took time out of her busy schedule of cutting humans in half with her battleaxe to stabilize him, and the Cleric eventually helped him get his groove back. The bard — know nicknamed “Pottymouth” — spent the night debuffing the enemies with Disadvantage through Vicious Mockery, calling into question everyone’s parentage, and generally harshing the cultist’s mellow.

The problem, though, is that after the battle the party realized that this wasn’t even their main mission. Spells were spent. Damage was taken. And they still needed to get to the mill and stop the raiders from burning it to the ground.

Quote of the night: After the Cleric announced his intention to use Blessing of the Trickster on the Ranger (which required a laying on of hands): “Show us on the character sheet where the Cleric touched you.”

*   *   *

This was a good session. I could see that folks were getting into the situation and contemplating the potential outcomes. The cleaning of the grate and the repairing of the key took me by surprise, but both were well within the parameters of ability and saved the party from noisily destroying the grate, which would have allowed the cultists in the river to gain Surprise to ambush the players. One bullet dodged!

Before the session, I was in Roll20 setting up some maps. Nothing fancy: I’ve started relying on R20’s drawing options to create the scene, which is totally 1/2 assed. It’s not optimal, but I realized that I didn’t have a tunnel map, nor did I have time to make one. I also spent time setting up the mill using the drawing tools, but with another week to prepare, I’ll revisit that and see if I can’t make something better looking.

Two things of concern from the DM side: The river encounter included 2 cultists and 6 kobolds. Ideally, we would have winged it like we did with the first kobold encounter, but there were too many enemies to keep track of. I placed them on the map intending to just use them for reference, but the encounter instantly morphed into tactical combat. It took a while to complete, leaving us no time to actually get to the mill scenario — the actual point of leaving the keep. The second issue is that of scale. I’ve been playing fast and loose with this, starting on the map of Greenest at 30′ per square, which makes sense for a town map. In actuality as I write this, I remember that in the settings for the map in Roll20, there’s actually a scale setting — and each square represents 5′ by default. This would have SIGNIFICANT effect on all kinds of things movement and distance related, and I’ve dropped the ball in keeping this consistent. I’ve built the mill map with the 5′ square standard, but I treated the river encounter squares are 30′, which is total BS on my part. Going forward, all encounter map squares will default to 5′. Larger overland maps will need to have their scale adjusted to simulate travel time.

And finally, I have to say, Realm Works paid for itself last night. Having the mission in bullet point form allowed me to skim quickly for information, and the hyperlinks to monster stats was a godsend. I’m totally sold on Realm Works as a gaming tool.

Realm Works from Lone Wolf Development

I’m a fan of getting shit together. Judging my my self-assessed performance last session on Hoard of the Dragon Queen, no rx I need to step up my organizational game when it comes to preparedness.

RealmWorksI found Realm Works from Lone Wolf Development (makers of Hero Lab) when I was cruising around the net looking for RPG resources. Now, healingswear by Fantasy Grounds, pharm which is excellent for creating brand new modules and campaigns, but I need something to allow me to just take notes of important aspects of the different sections of each episode in HotDQ. I can get the long winded low-down by reading the book, but sometimes things double back on plot points, so when I reach further in the campaign, I realize I’ve flubbed an important part by not having read ahead, or done some rather slick RP that ends up not fitting into the narrative. So reading ahead and taking notes and organizing plot points so I don’t run over my own foot is something I really need. I could use regular pen and paper, but with the need to cross reference and get speedy access to stats and other characters at the point in time where they’re needed, having a technological method should help a lot.

Realm Works is like a massive wiki, but also not. It’s a three ring binder, but which provides tabbed dividers that you can fill with whatever you need. It’s not really a great campaign creation tool, although with a big shoehorn you could get it done; Fantasy Grounds is far superior in this regard. RW is like a three ring binder of index cards, then: you supply a lot of one-liners that describe what you need: “King Gerald is having an affair with the ambassador from Luretia”, or “The players will be watched as they attend the opera”. Using dedicated, structured sections, a GM can fill out a few lines with shorthand info that makes it good reference tool for quick information.

The UI is pretty daunting, however. While very flexible, it doesn’t allow for custom layouts. Information is presented in a list format, divided by headers and sub-headers. Sometimes labels are present, sometimes they aren’t. Everything is initially entered in a one-line textbox that expands as you need it, unless it’s numeric or special case data. Naturally, there’s integration with Hero Lab (which I don’t own) for NPCs, and you can also “embed” maps, external documents, and even audio and video (I think). The best part is that you can create or modify existing structures as needed. For example, I created a “template” for a D&D 5E monster/NPC which contains all of the info I need. I just fill in the form and save the record, and that creation is available for reference when I need it. The best part is that all I have to do is use the name of a record in the body text of a field, and RW will offer potential matches to other known records, automatically creating hyperlinks between the two.

All of the reference material constantly talks about how RW is a GM tool for creating and managing campaigns, and that a player edition is forthcoming. RW is not a virtual tabletop. However, it does allow a GM to reveal information to players on a record by record basis. For example, amidst everything listed about the King, the line above about him having an affair could be released to the players on it’s own. This way, the GM can push out just what the players learn as opposed to dumping everything at their feet (including maps and such). I have no use for this whatsoever. I can see how a party in agreement might pick up RW and the upcoming player versions ($9.99 per individual license is the current, proposed MSRP for the Player Edition), and how it would work well for folks not needing or wanting a vTable, but I have to circle back to the UI; it’s just not all that appealing. It’s functional, and I cannot think of any way to allow for the flexible management of data that RW is aiming to handle, but…yeesh. The gaming group would need to just spend a few sessions doing dry runs to ensure that everyone knew how to use the software properly. The benefit is that anything shared with the players goes into their personal dossier, so they can refer back to info they learned without actually having to meta-memorize it. That has a lot of merit.

From my perspective, though, as an organizational tool, it works great…when it works. It just completed a KS campaign, and the tool itself is widely available, although admittedly incomplete. There are a few things remaining on their to-do list (which can be found scattered around the forums). One thing that needs some work is their SimCity-esque design choice to authenticate and sync data to “The Cloud”. See, in order to get the data from GM to players, LWD requires that users A) create an account on their server, and B) connect to “the cloud” to create a new campaign (which they call a “realm”). Then, and only then, you can either sync the realm to “the cloud” once changes are made, or work offline and sync when you damn well please. When I bought the software, I couldn’t create an account. I tried several times over two days. I finally uninstalled it and re-installed it to the suggested directory on my PC (I normally put everything on a platter drive to keep my SSD as lean as possible), and I was able to register. That’s correlation and not causation, so do with it as you will. Then, however, I tried to create a new realm — create a new file — and I was denied because of a connection error when trying to sync the new file to their server. While I can see the appeal of having data like this in “the cloud” — it’s actually one of the things that sold me on this product, being able to sync between stations without Dropbox or something similar — LWD’s infrastructure is experiencing some issues that, due to design choices, makes the program a virtual paperweight when it experiences issues (in honesty, only when you sign in, or create a new realm, not if you want to work offline and un-synchronized, which works just fine).

I think that maybe RW is overkill for what I need, or maybe it’s because the unflattering UI makes it seem less worthwhile than Fantasy Grounds, Evernote or OneNote, or just good old Google Docs, but once you get over the learning curve and adapt to the clunky visual representation, Realm Works is a great organizational tool which should help speed up a gaming session for the GM.