November 2006

"It's not so much that you can't make this stuff up,

it's that you wish you had to."

Jon Stewart, The Daily Show (2/2/06)

November 11th, 2006

Okay, welcome back to June 14th, 2006!

... It's not June 14th? What are you talking about? I could've sworn...


Well, apparently I've fallen through a timewarp and lost nearly five months of my life. Weird.

Well, in any case: Welcome back. I'm proud to (at long last) present:

Rappan AthukRappan Athuk - Level 7B: The Ethereal Palace

You'll also want the appropriate inset map, along with the maps for Level 1 and Level 2 of the Palace. An HTML version of the level can be found on the Creations page.

This level expands the domains of the dreaded phase minotaurs. Used in conjunction with the new mazes for level 7A (see the archives for June or the Creations page), it transforms the phase minotaurs from monsters living amidst rags into the dying nobility of a proud and ancient race. Your players, meanwhile, will be treated to an exploration of a level both magical and enigmatical.

Rappan Athuk Reloaded was, in fact, released during my span of missing time. You should check it out.


November 12th, 2006

Following the recommendation of Shamus Young I've decided to add a picture of myself. I'm going to immediately inflict myself upon you:

It's in black and white, 'cause that's classy. (Or possibly because this is my head shot.) In the future, there'll be a link to this picture in the Bibliography (for lack of a better place to stick it).

Speaking of Shamus Young, though, he intermittently includes the absolutely hilarious DM of the Rings in his blog. If you're a gamer, you should definitely check it out.


November 13th, 1006

Mike Mearls is talking about skills. His brief thoughts prompted a rather lengthy train of thoughts from me.

There are basically two types of utility that can be gained from a skill system:

At one extreme, you give a unified mechanic for setting difficulty levels and skill checks. This system is extremely simple to use because all a GM has to do is decide how difficult he wants a task to be (or thinks a task should be). It gives complete flexibility, but no support. For some people this is great: The GM is capable of making consistent, on-the-fly decisions that are satisfying for his players and the rules are extremely easy to learn and remember.

By adding more complexity to the system, you can offer more support to the GM in setting difficulty levels. This is what the core rulebooks do: For any given skill, there are specific guidelines for how difficult various tasks are. For some people this is great because it hard codes a consistency into the system: Players are able to anticipate how hard a task is going to be and the difficulty of a task will remain consistent from one session to the next and even from one group to the next.

(What I like about this approach in the core rulebooks is that you ALSO have a unified mechanic for determining DCs: It's the best of both worlds. If you want or need the support of the specific guidelines, they're there for you. If you don't then you can just ignore them.)

By adding complexity to the system, you can also make using skills either more interesting or more precise. Examples of this include the Craft skill (which already includes a mini-mechanical system for more precisely handling the crafting of items), but could also include stunt systems designed to let you use skills in more complicated and inter-related ways.

Thus, when Mearls says: "Adding more rules to the D&D skill system [...] doesn't make it more interesting. It just bloats the system." I don't follow the logic. Certainly adding more rules CAN be nothing more than bloat, but they don't NEED to be nothing more than bloat.

For example, let's take a non-RPG example in an attempt to weed out people's biases. We could talk about Monopoly and Candyland and Chutes & Ladders, for example: Sure, you can strip out all the rules about collecting rents and buying properties from Monopoly. Similarly, you can strip out all the rules about Rainbow Trails and Lollipop Woods from Candyland. But, in either case, you've simply stripped the game down to a mechanic of: "Use randomizer. Move piece around board."

Similarly, you could remove all the rules for combining cards into more powerful hands in Poker, and thus boil the game down to "high card wins".

Now, there are lots of people who don't play RPGs in order to experience a game which is MECHANICALLY interesting. They don't want interesting gameplay from the system, they just want a mechanical structure on which to hang their storytelling and roleplaying. That's why lots of people want nothing more than a simple, unified mechanic with no bells or whistles: Roll a die, add a modifier, compare to a DC. 

For people who want a mechanically interesting game, however, that simplicity is boring. You need more rules in order to make the mechanics interesting -- in order to make Monopoly a different game from Chutes & Ladders.

Now, certainly, that doesn't mean that "more rules = more fun". For example, Monopoly probably wouldn't benefit from a system in which you had to re-calculate variable interest rates for loans and mortgages, with those variable interest rates also impacting the rental rates for various properties.

But if you've got a stunt system in D&D which does nothing except "bloat the system", then what you've got is a very poorly designed stunt system. Which is why it's fairly shocking to hear Mearls, the designer of very good stunt systems (IMO), repudiating them as bloated design.

Also, Mearls' math is wrong. In a system in which skill checks are 1d20 + ability score vs. DC, he claims that: "The (DC - the ability score + 1) times 5 is the chance of success." It's not. Take a DC 10 task attempted by someone with an ability score of 10, for example. Mearls claims that the chance of success is 5% (10 - 10 + 1 = 1 x 5 = 5%). It's not, it's actually 105%.

(The DC is 10. Your check is d20 + 10. Even with a roll of 1, your result is 11 and you succeed at the check.) 

Mearls actually meant that the chance is (DC + the ability score + 1) times 5 is the chance of success.

Adding further perplexity is the fact that Mearls talks about this in connection to a house rule which is primarily about how skills are selected at character creation/advancement, rather than about how DCs are calculated.

Which leads to the other problem with Mearls' system: There's no mechanic for advancing skills. Since the DM is apparently supposed to just set a difficulty based on the percentage chance of success he wants a character to have, this isn't a big deal... except when it comes to opposed checks.

So, boiling it down, I feel here are two points trying to be made here:

1. It would be nice if you didn't have to spend skill points. Particularly from the POV of GM prep, having to spend all those points is time-consuming. 

2. If you just want a barebones mechanic for determining success or failure, it would be nice not to have all these other rules and guidelines "bloating" the system for you.

Both strong points, but Mearls' suggested solution is over-wrought and ill-thought, IMO. Here's an easier solution:

1. Characters have a skill bonus equal to "class skill max ranks". Thus, a 3rd level character has a skill bonus of +6.

2. Characters select a number of skills equal to their class' skill points per level + their Intelligence modifier (minimum 1).

3. Skill checks are d20 + ability modifier + skill bonus.

4. Ignore all of the suggested DCs in the Skills chapter. For an average person the task is:

DC 0: Automatic
DC 5: Simplistic
DC 10: Easy
DC 15: Average
DC 20: Difficult
DC 25: Very Difficult
DC 30: Almost Impossible
DC 40: Impossible

There you go. For prepping characters, all you've got to worry about is selecting which skills they have. For resolving an action, the DM just picks the DC he feels is appropriate. Plus, the system is completely compatible with the existing rules.

(Note: You are expliciting ignoring the class/cross-class distinction between skills. You are also ignoring synergy bonuses.)


November 14th, 2006

Randi Rhodes is flippin' insane. I was just listening to her on Air America Minnesota and this is what she proposed for an Iraqi exit strategy:

1. Pull every American soldier and contractor out of the country, starting immediately.

2. Move every single Iraqi citizen back to their hometown.

3. Give every Iraqi ownership of the house or apartment they're living in.

4. Give every Iraqi a rifle.

5. Tell every Iraqi to use that rifle to defend their home.

This is like claiming that the best way to fight a fire is to send the fire department home, give everyone who lives in the building a can of gasoline, and then send them all back into the building.

Economically, she simultaneously suggests that America force every Muslim nation to match their monetary contributions to Iraq on a dollar-for-dollar basis, and that this money should then be evenly distributed and then given individually to every Iraqi. The money from oil revenues should also be evenly distributed and individually given to every Iraqi. The individual Iraqis can then be made "responsible" for fixing their own neighborhoods. (How is all this money being collected and distributed? By magical fairies, I suppose.)

She's literally saying that, not only should America pull out of Iraq, but that they should take every step possible to impose complete and utter anarchy on the country before leaving.

Randi Rhodes is not the left's answer to Rush Limbaugh, she is Rush Limbaugh. Her rhetoric is shrill, hysterical, and irrational. She is incapable of contributing anything to the public discourse except frothing fury.


November 15th, 2005

Post-Election Democrats

Part 1: The Republican Myth Machine

For me, it started on election night. I was watching CNN and listened to one Republican talking-head after another talk about the "conservative Democrats" and "Republicans in sheep's clothing" being responsible for the historic Democratic victory. By the end of the evening you could see that this incessant droning had accomplished its goal: The supposedly impartial news anchors were now repeating the same propaganda. Through the sheer act of repetition, the Republican talking-heads had defined the way the story was going to be presented. Within a couple of days, the Republican spin machine was pushing the story that these "conservative Democrats" were going to be rebellious against the liberal Democratic leadership and make it difficult for them to accomplish anything.

But this isn't the only spin being pushed by the Republicans in an effort to blunt the perception of the overwhelming Democratic victory. Within the week, for example, Ann Coulter was claiming that the Democrats' gains in the sixth year of a Presidential term were under-performing historical averages during the past century. Not only was she blatantly lying, she had also apparently forgotten that the Republicans had actually lost seats in the sixth year of Clinton's term.

The third tent-pole of the Republican spin machine is to attack the Democrats' goals. There are two facets to this attack: First, they claim that the Democrats don't stand for anything. Second, they claim that the Democratic leadership is super-liberal and their agenda out of touch with mainstream America. That's right: Not only don't the Democrats have any ideas, they're all bad ideas, too. (Don't try to follow the logic, you'll just hurt yourself.)

The pitch is simple: The Democrats may have won, but they didn't win as many seats as they should have. And they didn't really win, the Republicans just lost. Actually, the Republicans didn't even lose, conservatives won. And it's not like the Democrats ever had any ideas. Besides, they're all bad, un-American ideas. And they won't be able to do anything because the conservatives won, after all.


We Didn't Really Lose!

Let's tear this spin-machine rhetoric apart, point by point, starting with Coulter's schtick. Coulter is only an example of the behavior, but she's a good one. By early October, the Republicans had concluded they were definitely going to lose control of the House. The only questions remaining were: How bad were the going to lose? And how were they going to spin it?

In early October, Coulter started spitting out her talking points: On October 3rd, she claimed that, since the average mid-term election post-World War II resulted in the opposing party gaining 40 seats, the Democrats would need to gain 60-70 seats in order to have REALLY won the election. Anything less and it would practically be a loss! In fact, according to Coulter, if the Democrats couldn't win at least 60 to 70 seats in the House, "then they may as well, you know, go away as a party".

Surprisingly, according to Coulter, the Republicans should have simply "gone away as a party" after the Republican Revolution in 1994: After all, they only managed to pick up 54 seats in that mid-term election.

Unsurprisingly, Coulter was even lying about the "facts" she was basing her dubious conclusion on: The actual average pick-up during a mid-term election post-World War II is actually 25 seats. You'll note that the Democrats' actual gain in seats is, in fact, well above that average.

They're Not Really Democrats!

When I first heard that the elections had resulted in a whole bunch of "conservative Democrats" being elected and that these "conservative Democrats" were going to make it impossible for the Democratic party leadership to keep control of their own party, I was immediately skeptical. I remembered reading, way back at the beginning of this election cycle, that Nancy Pelosi, Charles Schumer, Howard Dean, Rahm Emanuel, and the Democratic strategists were rigorously interviewing and carefully hand-picking every candidate they would endorse. It seemed ridiculous to me that they would go through all that work and then select candidates who, if they were elected, would cause them nothing but headaches.

And, of course, the reality is that they didn't. As MediaMatters reports, these supposedly "conservative Democrats" have all campaigned on liberal platforms.

Does this mean that the Democrats should start pushing through legislation that's desired only by the most extreme wings of their party (in a fashion similar to what the Republicans have been doing)? Of course not. In a democracy, you govern from the ground you share in common. What the Republicans are having problems understanding is that America's common ground is a fairly liberal place: It's a place where people want free speech and civil rights and a healthy middle class.

Why are the Republicans having a difficult time understanding this? Because, increasingly, the Republicans seem to have actually started BELIEVING their own spin. You can see this in Rove's relentless optimism that, contrary to what the facts are, his dream of a permanent Republican majority is a reality. It is merely another expression of their disdain for reality.

There is a sizable faction of Republicans who literally believe that spin creates reality: If they say it, then it's truth.

This interacts badly with the fact that "America is a conservative nation" is a common myth perpetuated by 25 years of concerted Republican propaganda: When people are asked if they are "liberal" or "conservative", however, they identify with conservatives. But when they're polled on the actual issues, they consistently reveal a preference for liberal solutions. 

The reason for this is that the Democrats have historically lost the battle of perception. Classic case in point: Who's the party of big government and irresponsible spending?

You might say the Republicans now, because the Democrats have finally begun to make people realize the truth. But Bush's huge deficits are hardly a new phenomenon: His father and Reagan before him ran up record-setting deficits. And they did so by routinely pushing for budgets larger than those which their Democratic congresses forced them to compromise on. (As described here.)

If you want a fiscally responsible government, the Democrats have consistently been the party to choose for the past quarter century. In fact, the debt today is entirely due to World War II, Reagan, Bush, and Bush. Every other President for the past 60 years has paid the debt down. (See this report.)

The Republican myth-machine has been remarkably effective in shaping not only public opinion, but public debate. And you can see this in another of their propaganda myths: The Democrats don't have any ideas.

They Don't Have Any Ideas!

This is an important myth for the Republicans to sell: After all, if the Democrats actually had a platform of policy ideas, then it's remotely conceivable that the American public might have put the Democrats into power because they would like to see those ideas made reality. If the Democrats don't have any ideas, then the election was really just about the massive corruption and sexual scandal of the Republican party.

(You can see the desperation of the Republicans when their messages boils down to, "This election wasn't about the Democrats. It was about us being a bunch of incompetent crooks and perverts.")

I've been saying for months that the Democrats needed to get in front of this one. They need something directly akin to the Contract with America that the Republicans put forward in 1994: A clear, concise statement of specific goals they would work to achieve upon being elected. A true party platform.

I was disappointd when the Democrats apparently failed to put forth such a platform before the election. I was delighted, however, when I heard Pelosi's celebratory speechs following the election lay out a six point plan:

SIX FOR '06 

1. MAKE HEALTH CARE MORE AFFORDABLE. Fix the prescription drug program by putting people ahead of drug companies and HMOs, eliminating wasteful subsidies, negotiating lower drug prices and ensuring the program works for all seniors; invest in stem cell and other medical research.

2. LOWER GAS PRICES AND ACHIEVE ENERGY INDEPENDENCE. Crack down on price gouging; eliminate billions in subsidies for oil and gas companies and use the savings to provide consumer relief and develop American alternatives, including biofuels; promote energy efficient technology.

3. HELP WORKING FAMILIES. Raise the minimum wage; repeal tax giveaways that encourage companies to move jobs overseas.

4. CUT COLLEGE COSTS. Make college tuition deductible from taxes; expand Pell grants and cut student loan costs.

5. ENSURE DIGNIFIED RETIREMENT. Prevent the privatization of Social Security; expand savings incentives; ensure pension fairness.

6. REQUIRE FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY. Restore the budget discipline of the 1990s that helped eliminate deficits and spur record economic growth.

She even said they'd be accomplishing these things in the first 100 hours of the new Congress.

I was impressed. This was exactly the kind of platform that I thought they needed to put forward before the election. It may have been a little late for my tastes, but it was definitely setting the right post-election tone: You've elected us, now let's get to work.

But when I took a closer look at the Six for '06 I was even more amazed to discovered that it had, in fact, been announced MONTHS before the election: It was first rolled out in June. Why hadn't I heard about it? Well, part of the problem was that the Democrats didn't do a very good job of putting the platform directly in front of the American people. And the national media, influenced by the Republican spin-machine, simply didn't talk about the Six for '06. And, when they did, they generally spent more time talking about how the Republicans were characterizing the platform than what the platform actually said.

For example, take a look at CNN's coverage of the announcement.

Notice that the only thing they hit are the bullet points, not the actual policies being proposed. And they spend more time talking about the Republican criticisms than they do the acutal proposal being criticized.

What Really Happened

Did the countless and overwhelming Republican scandals have an impact on the election results? Of course. Did President Bush's incompetent bungling of foreign and domestic policy result in a backlash from voters? Of course.

But there's another side to this election, and it's one the Republicans would prefer that we don't notice: The Democrats ran on a platform of providing fair, honest, effective government for the people and by the people; not for the rich and by the corrupt.

And the American people want it.

The American people are tired of being bankrupted by skyrocketing healthcare costs. The American people want renewable, responsible energy. The American people want to be paid a fair wage. The American people want affordable education for their children. The American people want fiscal responsibility.

The people have spoken, and they want the Democratic vision of what America can be; what America should be; and what America will be.


November 16th, 2006

Post-Election Democrats

Part 2: Going the Distance

The Republican strategy for the next two years is deadly simple: Don't let the Democrats accomplish anything.

The problem the Republicans have is that what the Democrats want to accomplish is, in fact, insanely popular with America. Let's take a look at a few of the Six for '06 proposals again:

1. Increase the minimum wage. According to the Pew Research Center, 83% of Americans believe that the minimum wage should be raised.

2. Achieve energy independence. According to Foreign Affairs, fully 90% of Americans believe that the lack of energy independence jeopardizes national security. Polls conducted last June also show that 91% of Americans believe we're facing an energy crisis, while 78% support increasing the use of ethanol.

3. Make health care more affordable. According to ABCNews, over 80% of Americans are dissatisfied with the costs of healthcare.

Spotting the pattern? A poll conducted by Newsweek immediately after the election showed massive, overwhelming support for every single item on the Democrats' agenda. None of the initiatives had less than 75% support, and many of them are actually supported by more than 90% of Americans.

Thus, the Republican dilemma: If you let the Democrats accomplish the incredibly popular things they want to accomplish, people are probably going to like them even more than they do now. So you've got to stop them. But you can't stop them by openly opposing the incredibly popular things they want to do because, after all, they are incredibly popular.

The Republican Strategy

The Republican strategy, therefore, can't be a substantive debate on the issues. Instead, they will focus on controlling perception: In practical terms, they will do everything they can to block the Democrats' immensely popular goals. And then they'll try to spin their obstructionist tactics as a Democratic failure.

The story they're going to try to tell is simple: The Democrats are ineffective failures. With them in power, it was just business-as-usual in Washington.

There will be three major elements to their strategy:

First, they'll try to stop the Democrats' policy initiatives from making the public radar. This won't last forever, but they'll flood the mainstream media with the claim that "Democrats don't have any ideas". The goal here is to stop the general public from being left with any kind of lasting impression that the Democrats actually DO stand for something.

Second, they'll publicly call for bipartisanship. They'll avoid doing anything that's actually meaningfully bipartisan, but they'll definitely get in front of as many video cameras as they possibly can and talk about how important bipartisanship is. They'll simultaneously flood the lame-duck Congress with dead-on-arrival legislation (such as the John Bolton's nomination or Bush's attempt to legalize his wiretaps after the fact), knowing that the Democrats will have no choice but to filibuster it. The goal here is to leave a perception that the Republicans tried to help the Democrats get things done. If they can establish the perception that they're "reaching out to the other party", even while they're actively sabotaging every Democratic effort to accomplish something, then the resulting failure will be laid on the Democrats.

Finally, they'll have to actually stop the legislation from passing. They have several ways of accomplishing this, which we'll come back and touch on in a moment.

The Democratic Strategy

In order to understand how the Democrats can successfully counter the Republican strategy, one thing needs to be understood: If the Republicans don't want a piece of legislation passed into law, they can stop it from being passed into law. The Democrats don't have a veto-proof majority in the Senate, so President Bush can veto absolutely anything he wants to and the Democrats can't do anything about it.

So, if this was a sporting event where points were scored based on how much legislation you actually got passed into law, the Democrats would lose. Fortunately, that isn't the case. The Democrats can beat the Republicans in two ways:

1. They can actually get their legislation passed. By doing so, they'll not only be delivering what the American people want, they'll also be demonstrating that they're capable of effective and efficient governance. They'll have demonstrated that they'll keep their promises and do exactly what they were elected to do, creating a strong argument that they should be returned to power in 2008.

2. They can force President Bush to veto their legislation. By forcing Bush to veto positive legislation that the majority of Americans want, they'll demonstrate that the Republicans are out of touch with the nation and create a strong argument that they should be returned to power in 2008.

This is, really, just a variation on Clinton's highly effective governing strategy from '95 through the end of his presidency: Present yourselves as the party trying to get things done. Either you accomplish those things and give yourself a strong platform and identity. Or the other guy chooses to block your efforts, painting him as an uncivil obstructionist who's putting party politics above the best interests of the American people.

In order to be successful, the Democrats need to keep their eye on the ball: If, in the first hundred hours of the new Congress, they can use their new majorities in the House and Senate to rapidly and smoothly pass the Six for '06 proposals, then they'll have delivered a crushing blow to the Republicans. From that point forward, they would essentially be in control of the public debate and public perception for the next two years.

Avoiding Congressional Gridlock

The biggest obstacle for the Democrats lies not in President Bush's veto, but in a Senate filibuster.

The reason for this is public perception: A Presidential veto is not only clear-cut, it's a significant event. It makes newspaper headlines (particularly given how rarely Bush has used his veto power). If the Democratic Congress sends a bill to the White House allowing Medicare to negotiate for better drug prices, for example, and Bush vetoes it, the blame for that bill failing to pass will rest firmly on Bush's shoulders.

If a bill simply gets bogged down in Congress, on the other hand, that's a muddier affair. It becomes a news story about procedural jargon and committee proceedings. It affords the Republicans a chance to paint the Democratic congress as ineffectual and incapable.

The Democrats, of course, have control of both the House and the Senate. In the House, the Democratic leadership is not going to have any problems: Those bills are going to be voted on and they're going to be passed. And if a vote is ever held in the Senate, the Democrats will win there, too. So, if the Republicans are going to be successful, they're going to have to stop the Democratic Six for '06 from ever coming to a vote on the Senate floor. And, to do that, they're going to employ filibusters.

Here's the trick, though: Senate Republicans shot themselves in the foot when they threatened to use the "nuclear option" to eliminate the filibuster for judicial appointments last year. The Democrats will need to handle this carefully, but if they can frame the debate as: "You guys wanted to get rid of the filibuster, and now you're using it to block legislation that the American people want!" Then they can simultaneously paint them as being both hypocritical and out of touch with America.

The Republicans, on the other hand, will be trying to paint the Democrats as hypocritical for criticizing their use of filibusters: "You said that filibusters were an important part of governance, and now you're criticizing us for using them!"

In order to avoid the Republican trap, the Democrats have to stay on message: The Republicans can't actually justify their filibusters (they'd have to try to characterize things like minimum wage increases and the 9/11 Commission Report recommendations as "too extreme"), so if the Democrats can keep the debate on the ISSUES, they'll win. If they allow the debate to become about the use of filibusters, then they'll be giving the Republicans a chance to win the battle of perception.

This, however, is why getting control of the Senate was such a huge win for the Democrats: If the Republicans had still been in control of the Senate, it would have been much easier for them to make sure that the Six for '06 agenda disappear in inter-chamber bickering. In the process, the Democrats would have been painted as partisan politicians too interested in scoring political points to govern effectively. The legislation would never have gotten out of Congress and, eventually, it would have dropped out of public consciousnss altogether. 2008 would role around and the Democrats would have been "in power" for two years with nothing to show for it, and the Republican spin machine would eat them alive.

By winning the Senate, the Democrats have pushed the Republicans back on their heels. The only things the Republicans can do is filibuster and veto: Those are narrow options, and the Democrats can use that narrowness to demonstrate Republican obstinancy in the face of the people's will.


November 30th, 2006

My apologies for the delays in updating. The week of Thanksgiving intervened, and when I came back from the holiday events had overtaken my originals plans. Post-Election Democrats was originally going to be an essay in three parts. It is now going to include a coda of sorts, commenting on what the Democrats have actually been doing with the past three weeks.

All of that will have to wait for a day or two, however.

For the moment, however, in the interest of not leaving you bereft of content, I've added my Bio to the site. This was prompted by the suggestion of Stefano, who pointed out (quite kindly) that the site gives absolutely no clue regarding who I am or what I'm doing here. (It was also encouraged by the lackluster feedback I got on my placement of a photo on the Bibliography page.

Way back when I first started the site, on July 4th of 2005, I thoughtfully wrote an entry describing myself and my intentions for the Alexandrian. And then quite promptly failed to enshrine that information anywhere where people could be reasonable expected to find it. Hopefully this fixes the problem.

The Bio can normally be accessed by hitting the Contact button up on the right there. I may end up changing the button, but for the moment I'm stymied on an appropriate label. ("Bio" indicates the page's new content, but it doesn't note that it's where you should go if you want to drop me an e-mail.)