November 2010


"A2-Z is our ship's computer. He's the last surviving bargain mascot from the second dotcom crash. The one that destroyed Canada."
The Curator, Starslip Crisis

November 1st, 2010


I think I jinxed myself with my post about DRM on September 30th. In my comments, I mentioned how absolutely reliable my Windows 2000 machine had been. It naturally committed suicide a few days later by burning out a graphics card. I replaced the graphics card and 9 days later the computer crashed again. After many tribulations, I finally concluded that it must be "some damn thing on the motherboard".

So then I had to research, purchase a new computer, wait for it to be delivered, and then go through the laborsome duties of stripping out the bloatware, loading up the essential utilities, and transferring over my files.


On the other hand, the Windows 2000 installation is still humming along merrily, the drive having been transplanted to another machine which it is now running quite pleasantly. (Something which would be impossible under Windows 7, of course, thanks to its DRM. Seriously, I hate DRM.)

By and large, you probably have no reason to care about any of this, except insofar as the conclusion is this: Barring any new catastrophes new content should begin flowing onto the Alexandrian starting tomorrow.

November 2nd, 2010


The Elfish Gene is the story of a sad, pathetic, socially maladjusted boy who suffered from borderline delusions in an effort to escape his sad, pathetic existence. He fell in with a group of assholes and chose to continue hanging out with that group of assholes even when it meant becoming an asshole himself and pissing over the people who were actually his friends. In the process, he grew up to be a sad, pathetic, socially maladjusted adult.

Between those two points on his lifeline, he played Dungeons & Dragons. Ergo, it's only natural for him to conclude that D&D retroactively caused him to be a sad, pathetic, and socially maladjusted person.

He'd also like you to believe that he got over being an asshole. But even in the controlled narrative of his own book he can't hide the fact that he spends a great deal of time considering himself "superior" to wide swaths of people. For example, consider his thesis that "fatties are failures". Or the fact that he considers the moment that he became a responsible adult to be the moment in which he left an injured child in the middle of a park so that he could try to hook up with a cute girl.

And not just any injured child: A child he had actually injured himself.

(I wish I was making that up.)

To the book's credit, most of Barrowcliffe's anecdotes regarding a childhood spent playing D&D and other roleplaying games are charming, resonant, and well-written. His struggle to differentiate between delusion and reality is actually quit harrowing (and great material for a memoir). I can even sympathize that, for a man like Barrowcliffe who has difficulty differentiating fantasy from reality on an everyday basis, D&D might be a dangerous addiction that would feed into his inherent predilection for delusion.

The problem I have with Barrowcliffe, however, is that he claims his personal bad experiences to be universal and then uses that claim as a bludgeon to derogate gamers in general. (Which is, of course, nothing more than Barrowcliffe's continued proclivity to be an asshole rearing its ugly head.) His entire book is written around the thesis that "D&D makes you a bad person and you should run away from it as fast as you can". (Which he literally does at the book's conclusion: "I could hear a noise I couldn't place. Then I looked down and realized it was coming from my feet; I was running. Something in my subconscious was rushing me back to my wife, the dog, the TV, away from the lands of fantasy and towards reality, the place I can now call home.")

It is perhaps unsurprising to discover that I would consider this thesis to be grotesquely repulsive and offensive. In no small part because there's another story of D&D to be told: In my life, D&D was the social venue in which I learned how to interact with fellow human beings in a mature fashion. D&D encouraged my development in both verbal and mathematical skills. D&D is the foundation of the passions which now shape my professional careers. And there are a lot of people like me. People who didn't suffer from delusional mental instability when they came to the game.

Barrowcliffe writes, "Gary Gygax once pointed out that to talk about a 'winner' in D&D is like talking about a winner in real life. If I had to sum D&D up that would be how I'd do it -- a game with no winners but lots of losers." It is perhaps notable that Barrowcliffe feels that real life is populated by losers (there's his asshole tendency again), but I find it more notable that his summary is the exact inverse of mine. In my world, there are no losers in a roleplaying game. Only winners.

Mark Barrowcliffe is an alcoholic who wrote a book concluding that everyone who drinks is an alcoholic. He is no doubt baffled that wine connouisseurs aren't amused with the broad brush he's painted them with.


November 3rd, 2010



One of my long-standing concerns with the D20 system was the skewed probabilities of opposed group checks. For example, consider the example of a PC making a Move Silently check opposed by an NPC's Listen check where both characters have the same skill modifier. In this scenario, a single PC attempting to sneak past a single NPC has a 50% chance of succeeding.

Compare this to a situation in which 5 PCs are attempting to sneak past 5 NPCs (with, again, all of the characters involved having the same skill modifiers). This effectively becomes a check in which the 5 PCs are rolling 5d20 and keeping the lowest result, while the NPCs trying to detect them are rolling 5d20 and keeping the highest result.

The average roll of 5d20-keep-lowest is 3. The average of 5d20-keep-highest is 17. That 14 point differential means that it's virtually impossible for a party of characters to sneak past a group of evenly matched opponents. (And even sneaking past a single watchman is difficult as the average party roll of 3 is opposed by an average roll of 10.)

Of course, the odds are actually worse than this: A successful stealth attempt will also usually require a Hide vs. Spot check, so you need to succeed at not one but two checks at these outrageous odds. And this assumes that the PCs all keep their Stealth skills maxed out (which in practice they won't, particularly since it's so pointless to do so).

The argument can certainly be made that this is realistic in some sense: A large group should have a tougher time sneaking past a sentry than one guy and more eyes means more people who can spot you. But I would argue that the probability skew is large enough that it creates results which are both unrealistic and undesirable.

In practice, the effects of the skew are obvious: Group stealth attempts quickly drop out of the game. When stealth is called for, it takes the form of a sole scout pushing out ahead of the rest of the group. And when the scout becomes too fragile to survive when the check finally fails, stealth stops being a part of the game altogether.

Since I'd prefer stealth to be a potentially viable tactic, a solution is called for.



DISTANCE / DISTRACTION PENALTIES: A guideline that can really help the stealther is the -1 penalty per 10 feet that is supposed to be applied on Listen and Spot checks. Keep about a hundred feet away from the guy trying to spot you and you can quickly cancel out the probability skew of the dice.
    Unfortunately, these modifiers become kind of wonky, particularly when it comes to Spot checks. On the open plains, for example, the "maximum distance at which a Spot check for detecting the nearby presence of others can succeed is 6d6 x 40 feet". The minimum distance of 240 feet, therefore, is supposed to impose a -24 penalty and the maximum distance of 1,440 feet impose a -144 penalty.
    I've tried a few different ways of fixing these modifiers, but am currently just using an ad hoc sense of what the range of the check is.
TARGET NUMBERS: Instead of making these opposed checks, set a target number for the PC's skill check of 10 + the NPC's skill modifier. (This essentially halves the probabilty skew.)
GROUP CHECKS: Make only one check for each group. But what skill modifier to use? Using the average value is cutesy, but impractical at the game table. Using the lowest value still effectively takes group stealth off the table. Using the highest modifier 
    And how big can a group be? One guy with a decent Hide check shouldn't be able to sneak an army of ten thousand soldiers under the nose of a watchtower, but where do you draw the line?
    Maybe you could limit the number of people covered by a check to equal the skill leader's skill ranks? Or impose a -2 penalty per person in the group?
COMBINE STEALTH / PERCEPTION SKILLS: I've been folding Hide/Move Silently into a Stealth skill and Listen/Spot into a single Perception skill intermittently since 2002, so I wasn't particularly surprised when both Pathfinder and 4th Edition went in the same direction. It cuts down on dice rolls and eliminates the undesireable "need to succeed twice" feature of stealth checks.
    This does create some interesting oddities around trying to resolve invisibility, and while I haven't found the perfectly elegant solution yet, this slight corner case is (in my experience) preferable to the constantly degrading effects of splitting the skills.

Using some combination of these solutions tends to mitigate the problem, but I've generally been unsatisfied with the hodgepodge fashion of it all. So taking my unified Stealth and Perception skills in hand, I've been looking for a more elegant solution.



Esoterrorists - GUMSHOE

I found the roots of what I think may prove a usable mechanic in the GUMSHOE system:

When a group of characters act in concert to perform a task together, they designate one to take the lead. That character makes a simple test, spending any number of his own pool points toward the task, as usual. All other characters pay 1 point from their relevant pools in order to gain the benefits of the leader’s action. These points are not added to the leader’s die result. For every character who is unable to pay this piggybacking cost, either because he lacks pool points or does not have the ability at all, the Difficulty Number of the attempt increases by 2.

Obviously the point-spending mechanics which underlie the GUMSHOE system can't be translated directly into the D20 system, but the basic structure of a lead character making a check onto which others could "piggyback" was inspiring.



When the whole group needs to perform a single task collectively (like sneaking past a guard or using group-climbing techniques to scale a cliff) they can make a piggybacking skill check.

(1) One character takes the lead on the check. This character makes the skill check using their normal skill modifier, just like any other skill check.

(2) Other characters can "piggyback" on the lead character's check by succeeding a skill check. The Piggyback DC of the check is equal to half its normal DC. (So if the leader is making a DC 30 check, the other characters must make a DC 15 check to piggyback on the check result.)

(3) The lead character can reduce the Piggyback DC by 1 for every -2 penalty they accept on their check. (They must make this decision before making the check.)

(4) The decision to piggyback on the check must be made before the leader's check is made.

OPPOSED PIGGYBACKING CHECKS: The DC of the check is set by the lead character's check. Just like any other piggybacking check, only characters who succeed on the piggybacking check benefit.

(To simplify the resolution, you can start by rolling only the lead characters' checks. After you've determined which lead character succeeded, you can call for the necessary piggybacking checks. Anyone piggybacking on the failed check, of course, will fail no matter what their piggybacking check would have been.)

November 4th, 2010


This is somewhat belated, but John and Abigail, the play I wrote starring John and Abigail Adams, is now available for the Kindle.

Through war and peace, tragedy and joy, the friendship and love of John Adams and Abigail Smith formed a passionate and enduring marriage which helped shape the future of a newborn America .

Through long years of separation – brought about by John’s work in Boston and Philadelphia during the events of the American Revolution – the couple’s only means of communication were their letters. Literally thousands of letters survive, and this unique adaptation – in the style of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters – allows the couple to live again in their own words.

The play was produced independently in January 2002. It received a second production in August 2007 as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

Of its inaugural performance in 2002, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune wrote: "John and Abigail is an adroit adaptation … a chance to hear about the sacrifices involved in championing the American Revolution. John and Abigail endured their extended separations with pen, paper, and patience, communicating news of disease, death, battles, longing, and love."

The print edition from Lulu is still available, too.

Buy the Script!

Buy the Script on Kindle!

November 5th, 2010


Have you guys seen the BATMAN & ROBIN #16? The ending really knocks your socks off:

(You can see the original comics pages here if you have no idea what I'm talking about. The thing is, this really does open him up for legal liability for every bat-shit thing that Batman has ever done or that anyone could ever accuse Batman of doing.)

November 8th, 2010


Studying the lost authors of early fantasy and science fiction is often a humbling lesson in the fickleness of fate. Authors who were just as talented and creative as Robert E. Howard, Isaac Asimov, H.P. Lovecraft, or Ray Bradbury have been largely forgotten by later generations. Nor can their modern anonymity be explained due to a lack of influence or popularity -- in many cases they were more influential and popular during their publishing careers than contemporaries who remain well-known today.

I first became aware of this phenomenon in the mid '90s when Kurt Busiek pointed me towards Mutant, a collection of stories written by Henry Kuttner that had played a major influence in the creation of the X-Men by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Kuttner, I discovered, had influenced an entire generation of science fiction authors. In 1946, at the height of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, fans were asked to choose between Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, A.E. Van Vogt, and a dozen others to name one of them as the World's Best SF Author. They chose Kuttner. Kuttner married C.L. Moore, who had already become known as the First Lady of Science Fiction. The two of them writing together created an amazing corpus of work at such an incomprehensible pace that it required more than twenty pseudonyms to publish it all.

Kuttner died in 1958. Moore retired form writing. And for half a century their works slowly faded into obscurity. Discovering these lost jewels of speculative fiction (including Fury, which remains one of my Top 10 Science Fiction Novels of all-time) was a real wake-up call.

In the past 10 years or so the information-deluge of the Internet coupled with global access to catalogs of used books and small press collections have started to return many of these Lost Authors to the light. Among them is Clark Ashton Smith.

I originally encountered Smith's writing about a decade ago when I found a collection of his Zothique stories (set on the last continent of a dying Earth). These stories made me want to read more, but it proved devilishly difficult to find more of Smith's writing in print. (At reasonable prices, anyway.)

So when I heard several years ago that Night Shade Books was planning to publish a five volume series collecting all of his stories, I immediately signed up for a subscription. Unfortunately, the series has proven to be absurdly lethargic in the pace of its releases. In fact, it has yet to be completed (although there is great hope that the last volume will appear later this year).

This has not prevented me, however, from sitting down recently to enjoy Volume 1: The End of the Story.

The series presents Smith's writing in the chronological order of its composition, starting in 1925 with "The Abominations of Yondo". This was a story that I had read before, but had no idea that it was Smith's first stab at speculative fiction. It is a remarkable freshmen work, effortlessly conjuring forth an alien and fantastical environment of an utterly unearthly character. This, in fact, becomes Smith's defining strength as an author. The alien planets, alternate universes, and ancient epochs in which he sets his stories are not merely distant in time or space; they are utterly alien in their character.

The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for Yondo lies nearest of all to the world's rim; and strange winds, blowing from a pit no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its ruinous fields with the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns. The dark, orblike mountains which rise from its wrinkled and pitted plain are not all its own, for some are fallen asteroids half-buried in that abysmal sand. Things have crept in from nether space, whose incursion is forbid by the gods of all proper and well-ordered lands; but there are no such gods in Yondo, where live the hoary genii of stars abolished and decrepit demons left homeless by the destruction of antiquated hells.

"... the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns." Could anyone mistake such a place as merely being the analog of some Earthly wasteland?

The strength of "The Abominations of Yondo" aside, however, Smith's talent did not spring forth fully formed from the brow of Zeus. And this volume, containing as it does Smith's earliest efforts, has a fair share of formulaic work: "The Ninth Skeleton", "Phantoms of the Fire", and "The Resurrection of the Rattlesnake", for example, are paint-by-number horror "shockers". "The Last Incantation" and "A Night in Malneant" are thin and predictable morality tales.

But even in these weaker tales there is a vividness of description and a poetic quality of verse which raises them, however slightly, above similar fare. (With the exception of "Phantoms of Fire" which is simply a bad story by any accounting.) The dead streets of Malneant, in particular, continue to echo through the chambers of my mind many long nights after I finished the tale.

There are, similarly, far too many tales starring self-inserted writers of pulp fiction and poverty-stricken poets. But here, again, Smith manages to use this weak conceit to good effect from time to time. For example, "The Monster of the Prophecy" is the tale of a struggling, poverty-stricken poet who is plucked off the street by an alien visitor from a distant planet. Not only does the poet's writing become famous, but he himself is given the opportunity to adventure among the stars. In synopsis, the tale sounds like ripe fodder for a Mary Sue. But, in practice, Smith sidesteps the abyss and produces a memorable (if somewhat flawed) tale.

If Smith suffers from a consistent flaw throughout this volume, it is the weakness of his plots and the forgettable quality of his characters. In some ways, however, this flaw stands in complement to his strengths: His tales often read as travelogues of the bizarre, featuring cipherous everymen who serve as the readers' empty avatars as they wander through the alien vistas.

In many ways, the stories reveal Smith's true passion as a poet: Many read like tone poems, and I found the book most enjoyable when I chose to sample its contents instead of trying to barge from one tale to the next from front cover to back.

I am curious to see, as I continue to work my way through Smith's oeuvre, whether his poetic mastery of language and his mind-blowing descriptions of fantastical landscapes will become wedded to plots of substance and characters that you can care about.

On the other hand, I feel this review will be read as more negative than it perhaps should be. In addition to "The Abominations of Yondo" and "The Monster of the Prophecy", this collection also contains "The Venus of Azombeii" (in which the characters do explode off of the page with a surprising passion), "Thirteen Phantasms" (in which a morality tale is twisted and turned into something unpredictable and beautiful and special), "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" (which could be described as capturing all the vigor and spirit of Howard's Conan stories and wedding it to Smith's fantastical vision, except for the fact that it was written three years before Conan appeared), "The Metamorphosis of the World" (which, although flawed in parts, is majestical in its scope), "Marooned in Andromeda" (an excellent entry in the travelogue category), and "The Immeasurable Horror" (featuring one of the most memorable depictions of the jungles of space opera Venus). And these are all excellent tales which anyone might be well-advised to read.

Perhaps more importantly, Smith's eye for the fantastic is utterly unique. The influence of his writing has been widely felt, but if you haven't read his own work, then you've never read anything quite like Clark Ashton Smith.