Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Funny and Horrific. At the same time!

So today, I had to good fortune to learn about "Chick Tracts". Contrary to what you might initially think, these have nothing to do with women or about tracts of land. No, instead these long comic strips are of the proselytizing variety... I should really just let the work speak for itself. Here is a gem about roleplaying:
























Wow, huh! That was crazy. For citation's sake visit the original
. At first it reads like a deliciously funny play off of the 1980s
fears about roleplaying... But then... around about where the gal dies, you
relize that its not really all that funny. Oh, and also its being serious...

So in this vein we found a few other chick tracts that are good:

  1. Not Even Christian Rock is good Rock
  2. Love the Jews, lest you get smited
  3. Islam, the I is for evIl!

Pretty crazy stuff... The ultimate chick tract isn't even written by Jack
Chick! You too should learn about the dangers of Galactus!.

I think my team probably lost half a day to this insanity. Its pretty crazy
stuff... I'll try not to insult anyone, but everyone has their crazies...

Oh, and here's a great video about MORMONISM!. Evidently the native americans were once white and from israel, who knew?? The mormons, thats who. In case it wasn't obvious, BTW, I'm not trying to hurt morman faith in any way, but the video is hilarious (I have no idea how closely it matches with their beliefs and a similar video could be made about christanity, probably even more ridiculous!)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Programming and Christmas

So, someone complained to me that my blog hadn't been updated in a while. I admit that that is correct. I've been extremely busy at work. I'm on a big project that keeps sucking all of my time. Also, I've been waiting for a hordes of loyal fans (yes all 2 of you) to comment on Chrome Dawn. Given that no one has, I'm guess no one will. I know a couple of you have definitely given it a look, so tell me what you think!

In other news, Keith and I have finally gotten our Record Stream project up on the web. Check out the project site here. If you want submit access to the project, let me know! For those of you who don't know, RecordStream is a project that takes input (like from log files, configuration files, etc), creates JSON hashes with them, and then gives you a set of tools to slice and dice on the command line. One good example is havn't you ever wanted to grep for a column where the column value is > 5? Well, I have... and RecordStream lets you do that. It also lets you produce some very awesome statistics using recs-collate, like what is the average connect time for each url people access on my site (this would be analyzing apache access logs). Anyway, I'm sure I'll post more about record stream later.

The first version of the code is up on Google Code, we're currently in the middle of re-writing all of the scripts to be modules and adding tests. This is all driven by the recs-chain idea, which is that we'll turn shell pipe chains into in-memory chains, avoiding JSON serialization/deserialization costs. I'm also hoping to get Josh's fast-as-hell collate integrated into RecordStream proper in a manner that all of us can appreciate.

On another note... Unfortunately I won't be making it back to Oklahoma for Christmas. This big project at work is too important for me to be missing around this critical time. I also have extremely few vacation days, what with the 2 emergency trips to Oklahoma back in October and driving Mike to Atlanta back in August. I'm hoping to get back to OK-land this spring or summer though.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Chrome Dawn

Just before Mike left for Georgia Tech, he and I began discussing a new roleplaying system. Nothing crystallized since he and I were running around trying to get him ready to leave. However we did have some time available on the 3k car ride to Atlanta. Now as some of you may have heard, that particular trip didn't go entirely smoothly. But, we were able to come with a pretty awesome system, called Chrome Dawn.

Before I get too far into it, here is a link to a pdf version of our booklet: ChromeDawn.pdf.

The thing to know about Chrome dawn is that, as Mike likes to say, its a system for those of your who think current cyberpunk games are missing some cyberware. This is a hardcore game for really cyberpunk lovers. Once example of this is the power level, Chrome Dawn rangs from levels 1 to 10. We figure most other systems top out at level 2 and some manage to make it to level 3.

Perhaps it is better to take an example from the write up.

For instance, at level 8, the level at which you can modify groups of other people at will, the Dawn of Cyberspace and the Engine of Cyberspace Child Adept could read like:

With the power and wisdom of the King, the great net gates are built: orante magnificent archways that allow AI and man to pass freely from one realm to the next. Also forged are the great Cyberswords: Excalibur, Arondight, and others; physical weapons of pure cybernetic energy identifying the avatars of the King. These terrible weapons carry almost he full power of their creator - dangerous and powerful in both worlds and accorded great respect among all those who seek the favor of the king of cyberspace

I highly recommend reading through the examples of various cyberware, its a cool read and part of the system we spent a great deal of time on (starts at page 4 in the pdf).

I really like the system, in concept at least. Having cooperatively chosen realms of conflict (the first thing you do in the game is define the 3 dawns of cyberware that are the only areas in which you have stats / tests) is great. Having "Just In Time Character Creation" is another great thing. But I think one of the neatest things is having an entire character defined in terms of cyberware (the only stats in the game are all cyberware related).

We took this game to GenCon and played 3 games with friends. I think it went OK. Mike and I I think were both a little bit overwhelmed by the 4 days of driving we had just done, and I think our games suffered a little bit. Nevertheless there were some cool moments, and I really enjoyed the fashion dawn that occurred in one of Mike's games.

Anyway, I would love to get the opinions of some people out there, I know there are a number of roleplayers who read this blog, and I'd love to get your comments. I think there are some rough edges. In particular, I fear the Steel (the defensive version of Engine) may be too powerful. I also feel like the overemphasis on Engine means that chrome (smaller pieces of cyberware) fall by the wayside.

For those of you who aren't roleplayers, you may still get a kick out of the cyberware descriptions in the booklet.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Kindling and other news

As per my previous post, I do now have an Amazon Kindle. Perhaps even more interesting is that I've almost finished reading my first Kindle book. It works pretty well. Books are actually still better (due to being able to grip it anywhere, but it definitely works even for long reading sessions.

In addition to the book I'm reading ("Poison Study" if you care), I am also experimenting with a newspaper and magazine subscription (Seattle Times and Times, respectively). This is actually going really well for the newspaper, every morning I take a little time to skim the headlines and read some of the articles, and I feel much more in touch with the world. The convenience of having it wireless delivered is really quite large.

I'm also trying to convert my library of DRM-free roleplaying books to the Kindle. I already have a really good version of Bliss Stage on there, but Amber and Exalted are having a very tough time getting translated (partially because they are 50 MB in size). But it is working somewhat, and does allow me to search through the books on the kindle.

But enough about what I love about the device, if you really want to read poetic verse about it, read this MacWorld opinion piece on the subject, its very very positive, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Moving on... I'm not sure I ever updated the blog with car news, but I did end up buying a BMW 5 series. It has been built (I had to order it because I wanted a manual transmission), and is currently on a boat coming to california. It will arrive there in 24-30 days, and another 10 days after that will be up here in Seattle. It's a long process, but hopefully one that will be worth it.

I recently bought several bookshelves, 2 6ft. tall ones and 2 "media" bookshelves for DVDs/video games. I've got all but one of them assembled and put together, and I'm really glad I got them all. Now I have room for all of my books that heretofore were piled in stacks throughout my apartment. My dad is coming to visit next week, which is why all of the work. Hopefully I'll have it all done by the time he gets here.

We finished the Bliss Stage game. The endgame, at least when you're trying to force your crew to an end, doesn't work as smoothly as other portions, and I kept having trouble trying to bring about the semblance of a plot I cooked up, but overall I'm pretty sure everyone had a great time. I for one hope to play another game, and maybe then I can play a pilot and actually get a mecha. We had a little wrap up and we all agreed that the best portion of the game was the interludes with the character development rather than the mecha fighting, even Nikita, whom I had to entice to the game with talk of laser guns and missile tubes and so forth. Next week we try out my crazy DnD idea, where we take DnD for a 2-4 session trial to see how the other side lives. And yes, we've all pointed out that we're playing DnD on "indie" night, but we're still going to do it.

Thats all for now!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Amazon Kindle: The Re-readin-ing

Just a quick note: Amazon Kindle is out! This is big because its the first e-ink device to launch with a good library of titles, IMO.

Yes, I've already ordered mine. Cool features include:

  1. EVDO Wireless Internet Access - Anywhere, always on, for FREE! No service contracts, no worries!
  2. Free Wikipedia access - The power of the world's shared brain anywhere on a great screen
  3. E-ink display - no backlight need apply, no eye strain, it looks like printed paper
  4. Wireless purchase books where ever you are
  5. 3 thousand launch titles in Sci-Fi/Fantasy alone (88k total)
  6. Email content to your kindle wirelessly
  7. Just In: You can go to arbitrary web pages! (according to the device manual)

There are some disappointments. I don't think a $400 device is going to really revolutionize things, but I hope it will get cheaper as time. Also, its not shipping with PDF support. Hopefully that will change, but it does support MOBI files, which I hear there are PDF -> MOBI file converters.

Anyway, I'll be getting the device tomorrow, so more on it then! Welcome to the future!

Playtest: Bliss Stage Part 2/3

So we just wrapped up the 3rd game in our Bliss Stage campaign. I know I never blogged about our second game, but I'm here now aren't I... Next week we're going to play a little bit of a fourth game, but we could probably keep playing for at least another 3-6 sessions if we let it. This game is awesome.

There are definitely some hiccups with the game, and perhaps I should detail them before going into how awesome it is. The structure of the game is such that as the GM I feel that I am very powerless to effect a story. I have almost no control over the mission actions, other than to state their goal in the voice of a character, and I have even less control over interlude actions other than to specify who is in them. I have more control as a player of the authority figure / secondary characters than I do as the GM. I don't really have a problem with taking away the GM's power, quite the contrary, I enjoy even GM-less games like Polaris and Shock. But this in between state where I have to decided what interlude actions exist, and what the missions goals are makes it very difficult to craft some kind of story (like the players want) without stepping on their toes by giving motivations to characters or by taking little bits of narration over from the anchor in the mission actions.

The other big problem with Bliss Stage, I think, is the big dichotomy between mission actions and interlude actions. Interlude actions are where the meat of the story lies. Its where all the betrayal happens, where the trust building happens, where the gritty life of the characters occur. After 3 sessions of play, I can definitely say that it seems like the interlude is what we want to be playing, and the mission actions exist just to give us a break and to effect our characters mechanics. They are necessary to propel change and strife in the relationships, but are not the meat of the story. Consequently, they lack a certain earnestness on the part of the players. To counterbalance that effect, I try to provide the characters with meaningful goals that are personal and character related (or I try to do that by adding nightmare elements to the scene, galvanizing the character). See above for why that is difficult to do.

So, now that I've mention the two difficult things about Bliss Stage, I should definitely talk about the awesome things about Bliss Stage. The greatest thing about Bliss Stage is that there is nothing to do but develop relationships. Its like the designer removed from the entire universe everything that wasn't either developing or destroying a relationship. Indeed except for 2 things (trauma and bliss) there are no stats other than relationships. That combined with the fact that ever interlude action has to have a mechanical effect of some sort, means that every time characters are interacting they are effecting a relationship.

Because of this, you can effect some significant change in relationships. In the last session we saw:

  1. An abusive father apologize to his daughter, and a new, changed, interaction between the two arise.
  2. A devoted lover enter into an affair while the other side was reaffirming their relationship by rejecting another suitor
  3. A brand new relationship gain intimacy up to and including sex.
  4. Two old lovers rekindle their relationship in a completely new and different way.

Maybe I'm not playing the right kind of games, but those kind of actions are a once a campaign style of thing, not all in one session. This compression of development is incredible and really gives you a feeling of anticipation as you wait with baited breath for the next shoe to drop.

The most amazing part to me is that despite all the character development emphasis, everyone in my group has seemed to enjoy the game. This includes people whom I wouldn't have predicted enjoying a purely relationship focused game. If that particular feat is repeatable, then Bliss Stage will have achieved something truly remarkable.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ambercon Northwest 2007

Ambercon NW happened again this year, this time it was the first weekend in November (they've moved it up to accommodate another scheduling conflict). Once again, it was held at the glorious McMenamins Edgefield, and incredible hotel, with what looks like 9 restaurants or bars on site. This is the best convention I go to all year, and a decent part of that is the Edgefield.

This is the first year that I managed to get another person (besides myself and Lee) to come to North West, Keith joined us. This was Keith's second Ambercon and I think he really enjoyed coming to this one.

The big event of the con turned out to be the plague. Evidently Guy (one of the con organizers) got a bad stomach virus right before the con, and before he knew he was sick, managed to infect several people. This provided merry fun as games had to be canceled or combined with others due to missing people, and in general it seemed like every 3rd person you talked to was either sick or getting there. There was even a story of one GM trying to run his game from the bathroom! I managed to avoid it, though Keith did not.

But besides the plague, the con went very well, and I got to play in a lot of very cool games. The most memorable were:

  1. Monster Mayhem III - Run by Lee, this is the continueing moster movie themed game that I had played in twice before. I played a very fun character "Robert Noble (, yes I am)" and his sidekick "Pippy" a tweleve year old girl. Actually a horde-quantity 52 pt item, but you get the idea. There was much frivolity, and Pippy managed to get killed at least 13 times by player characters, the first one before character description!
  2. Giants in the Playground - We played a game-within-a-game with the elders playing DnD with Order of the Stick characters. This was hilarious! All the sniping between elders and all the grittiness of DnD. The game was made especially good by (I believer her name was) Susanne, who played Dara, the mother of Merlin the GM. It was priceless, and a lot of fun.
  3. To Trip the Light Fantastic - I ran a game of Persona cyberpunk, and for once a con game by me went well. There were only 3 plaerys, but I think they all enjoyed themselves a lot, as they got to experience the craziness that is persona in all its glory. At the end of the game, humanity evolved into a group mind and left earth behind... Very Cyberpunk.
  4. OMG!! We're like totally BFFs! - Ah yes, the Best Friends game. Or more appropriately, the game were Ben, Leslie, Chris, John, and Pol get to play snarky backstabbing high school girls. It was awesome. Leslie started us with the idea of all playing girls with T names (Tina, Trisha, etc), and Chris expanded that to be all variations of Kristen. So we had: Keirstan, Krysten, Christina, and Kristeen. Oh, and June. June had replaced Kris (the villian of the story, sorta), whom we had had a falling out with last year after she stole a boyfriend or some such. We had a secret sign and a load of puns, like Kris-tastic, Krissy Council, Krissy Quorum, and the best, Krys-tastrophy (which must be said with a frown, and very sadly). Additionally we had I believe no less than 3 or 4 boyfriend stealing events (the game started with one), a car accident while trying to make a subtle get-away, and one girl getting herself drunk to seduce someone. It was glorious.

As always, I had fun with all my games, those were just the highlights. We are now looking forward to ACUS in March. Oh, also, I even managed to win an Obie (think Oscar, only for ACNW) in the category of "The Prince Brand Memorial Award for Necrotic Merit" for Pippy. ;)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Playtest: Wacky Samurai Sports

The last week of indie night we eschewed our Bliss Stage game (though it will return at least once more, we can't get enough of those angsty teenagers fighting for humanity). Instead, we returned to Persona and played a great game of Squash. Yes, thats right. We roleplaying a high-school squash team. And it rocked.

For those of you who aren't aware, there is a sub-genre of anime that can be very strange. Mike and I call it "wacky samurai action anime." But that isn't quite fair because its not exactly wacky (at least the characters in the series take is very seriously), there are never any samurai involved, and unless you count high school sports as action, there isn't action. There is, however anime. Its wacky samurai action because these showes generally follow a formula that we were first exposed in Rurouni Kenshin, a samurai anime. Generally they will concentrate on one particular sport or activity (Street Racing, Go, Girls Baseball, American Football, Soccer, etc), and they will have crazy techniques with names ("Oh my god, its the Dunk Smash", "Drive B!", "The Hand of God"), and a lot of commentary. Generally the main character is extremely good at the sport (from breeding, practice, or natural talent), and they join a team, and proceed to have many many many fights exploring their skill relative to others.

So, last sunday, after explaining all of this to my reluctant players, we attempted to play some wacky samurai sports anime. I suggested Squash because it seems to have a lot of awesome stunting potential, and one of our players plays. I read up on wikipedia about the game, and we were just about off.

Our cast of characters consisted of:

  1. Hideki - The old captain, experienced in the ways of squash, and therefore life.

  2. John Cockran - The former curling player who brought the skills of the ice to the court

  3. Naoki - Tragically injured in a Kendo match, and never able to play again, Naoki has entered the squash circuit looking to escape his past

In addition, we generated rivals for everyone. This worked out pretty well, as there was a lot of room for comedy.

  1. Squash Player X - With special dispensation for medical reasons, squash player X wears a face mask at all of his actions. He also goes to the same school as Hideki's younger brother, and, oddly, those two are never seen together

  2. Hiroyuki Sakai - This french chief has been insulted one too many times by Cockran, and is now out for blood
  3. Ryu Hiyote - Naoki's former kendo rival, responsible for his inability to ever play kendo again has followed Naoki to the squash courts

As you can see we had a colorful cast of characters. After having our first clash of the titans and establishing the Hideo High squash style as the "Squash of the Heart", we quickly moved into the training portion of the adventure. At this point, I went all out on the comedy. After flying the team to tibet, the coach informed them that in order to have any hope of competing at nationals, they would have to climb a mountain without gear, without food, and without help. That mountain: Mt. Everest.

They had to face 4 challenges:

  1. Don't die from starvation! - Wherein we learned that the northern bear squash style can evidently take out goats
  2. The Ice Cliffs of Death - Wherein we learned serving strategies for climbing sheer cliffs
  3. The Thin Air of Everest - Wherein we learned that the vaccuum ball technique can be used to increase the air pressure of an area, also evidently the Squash of the Heart only requires one breath to accomplish anything
  4. The Helicopter of Death - Wherein machine-gun like squash serving machines were imployed to knock the characters off the mountain

These were a lot of fun. And everything culminated in the nationals. There was much stunting and awesome tricks played on opponents.

In the end, I think I convinced myself of a couple of things: almost anything can be a fun roleplaying game, as long as you're willing to be loose about it (and you use Persona). Making technique a cheap fragement is really effective at promoting a "wacky samurai" feel. Fun games don't have to be planned, at all, but it helps to know the rules of squash.

I'm not sure if I'll run another wacky samurai game soon, but I do know I won't hesitate to in the future.

And just to sum up, some of the awesome techniques we saw:

  1. The Spirit Of Japan
  2. The Eiffel Tower (and its cousin - The Tokyo Tower)
  3. Vaccuum Exploding Ball Serve
  4. Hurricane Whirlwind Double Wall Bounce
  5. Snowman-san
  6. Squash of the Heart
  7. Gyrosopically Minded Ball

If anyone from the game remembers any of the names better or more techniques, tell me and I'll update this

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Today's Jeopardy Category: Potpourri

If you don't watch Jeopardy, you should. The show is awesome. Unless you get 75% of the questions correct, though, don't try out. From my research from when Ken Jennings (google it) was on the show, most contestants know all the answers, and its mainly a buzzer issue (or at least that is what the jeopardy forums will tell you). Anyway, if you watch jeopardy then you know I'm about to throw a bunch of random things out, so here goes.

First of all I'm off to Ambercon North West next week, and I can't wait. I've got some great games lined up, and I'm even running a game. This will be my second con game of all time, and the first one didn't go so well. I've got some more GM'ing experience, and I'm running a less out there adventure (the previous one was Little Fears), and the game is right in my comfort zone, so here's to hoping everything goes well!

The second thing, I suppose is that my ancestral dog died (the one I grew up with). As I've mentioned previously, Kiwi had lymphoma, but I was hoping she would be able to make it a bit longer. I'm sorry to say that that didn't happen, but I'm sure she's happier now and in a lot less pain.

My car is in the shop (finally), after getting it running and driving it to a closed service station (I didn't KNOW it was closed at the time), we finally went and got it again. Then we drove to a Chrysler service center that didn't even exist (much less out of business), and finally we took a long trek across the lake to Bellevue and found an actual service location, and left it there. Of course, they couldn't reproduce the problem, and couldn't find any faults, so I'm just having them replace the starter anyway. There goes another $700 :/. But, thats ok, as long as they get it done in time to go to ACNW, I'll be fine, but you can bet I'm bringing a hammer on the trip (you can get the starter to work again by hitting it with a hammer, believe it or not).

Sort of in response to this, and also because I've been dissatisfied with my car for a while, I'm also considering replacing that car. On principal, I wouldn't do that, because I always wanted to be more like my parents, who seem to drive cars until they quit than like someone who replaces there car every 3 years (I've had mine for just 5 years), but I've never really liked the PT Cruiser, and with these service issues, I've been considering solving my problems with money... I haven't even really decided what price range I'm in yet. Maybe a Saturn thats under 15k? But, to be honest, I test drove a 3 series BMW, and I am intrigued. I'm planning on driving an Audi A3 or A4 today, hopefully, and maybe also looking into a Chrysler 300, which my dad has, and I like quite a lot. Fortunately, unlike the last time, I have almost as much time as I need to make a decision, so I can even factory order a car to meet my specifications, which seems likely to me (unless I go the cheap route). If any of you have suggestions in this area, I'm all ears.

If anyone is an anime fan out there, I highly recommend "Prince of Tennis." Its a sports anime, so it really is wacky samurai tennis action, and it is a little slower even than most wacky samurai action series (which are slow to begin with), but its a lot of fun, nonetheless. I'm looking forward to finishing up volume 3, which I received from the fine folks at Amazon this week.

Well, thats about all the news thats news. I should have Bliss Stage pt. 2 up soonish (we play tonight).

Monday, October 22, 2007

Playtest Report: Bliss Stage Part 1

This is the first installment of what I hope to be a number of playtest reports. See, I am a member of 3 different gaming groups. Wednesdays is Exalted, approximating twice monthly on Saturdays is the "Amber" group (though we often end up playing non-amber games), and Sundays is the "Indie" group.

The original goal of the indie group is to play a new game every week. Sometimes, we just play some persona setting, or someone wants to run a particular system that we've tried before, but I do think we see a decent variety of systems. We've managed to try out: Shock, Polaris, Dogs in the Vineyard, Hero's Banner, Shockaris (A blend of Shock and Polaris), L5R (Legend of the Five Rings, not exactly indie, but what can you do), and maybe a couple of others that I can't remember. I hope to write up play reports for each of these games, now that I'm blogging, so that others can live vicariously through me (Mike, I'm looking at you ;))

This last Sunday, we managed to get together a crew for the very awesome Bliss Stage game. This is part one of the report, because we all agreed to play another session of it, since we didn't get through all of the adventure I had planned.

Let me start by giving a brief overview of the world of Bliss Stage and the system. Basically, at the moment you sit down to the game (as far as a timeline goes), "The Bliss" takes out the adult population of the world (16-17+). Everyone just gets sleepy and falls asleep, never to wake up. For a little while, the children have fun with that, looting stores, eating candy and the like. But after a while, you want your mother and father to wake up and take care of you. Too bad. After a month, all the modern services, like water and electricity are completely shutdown. After 2 years, some sort of society is beginning to form. Then the aliens come. They brought the bliss, and now they have remotes that can operate in our world, and they begin hunting down the nascent society that is forming (which already has troubles, with its oldest members "Blissing out"). 5 years after the Bliss, someone finally manages to take down one of the alien remotes. They begin studying its technology. 6 years out, they start experimenting with reversing the technology and allowing some of the kids to enter the dreaming with their own remotes, the tests are brutal. At 7 years, the technology is ready and the pilots are trained, and its time to strike back!

So, if you haven't picked up on this yet, its a roleplaying game for playing mecha pilots who are children, fighting against an alien force that has already conquered the Earth. Wow! But the fun doesn't stop there, it gets much better. The mecha that the children pilot in the alien world of the dreaming are formed out of the strong relationships the children have with other characters in the resistance cell! Your shield is your love of Alice, your lover, your rocket powered fists is the loyality you feel towards the cell's leader, etc. Wow! But wait, there's more. When a pilot enters the dreaming, his anchor (another child trained in instrument reading) must interpret the reading and tell the pilot what he is seeing and what he should do. Thats right, the anchor (a child in the cell) GM's the pilots combat actions in character voice! Wow! Ok, now I'm basically done.

Those of you who know my roleplaying preferences and my anime preferences have probably realized that it would be difficult to make a game more to my liking. Add in the fact that every number / mechanic in the game is designed to either reaffirm or destroy your relationships with other characters, and you've basically got everything I could ask for in a game. Now that I've told you a bit about the game setup, let me tell you about the world we created.

We started with where we were located. The book suggests that we create a resistance cell somewhere near where we are physically in the world. So we thought about where around post-apocalyptic Seattle a resistance cell might be. After discarding as too obvious the Bus Tunnels and the Space Needle, we settled on House boats, lashed together in the middle of Lake Washington. We decided that we had ready access to fish (being on the water), and were fairly able to defend the boats against other bands of children. We decided we didn't have electricity and that sanitation in the middle of a lake was also an issue. When it came time to decided what the aliens were like, it was a little more difficult. We tossed around a couple of ideas, but eventually decided on the very awesome "they are twisted mimicries of people you have relationships with." Going from there, it was fairly obvious that the dreaming was a twisted mimicry of the physical world around Seattle. Some color includes trees growing upside down and buildings in the real world occasionally being replaced by their twisted doppelgangers. That dream stuff, we decided, is what powers the mecha creches we use to fight the aliens.

Once we had established our setting, it was time to get into character creation. Characters in Bliss Stage are generated by the group collaboratively all at once. Once they are all created, the characters are handed out to various players sort of willy nilly (with characters with close ties hopefully going to different players). We started with the Authority Figure. The AF is an adult who has managed to stay awake for the last 7 years. After 7 years, these guys are normally a bit crazy and only being kept alive through some combination of drugs, meditation, gilligan's island tapes and lots of coffee. They are the leader of the cell, and the person who brought in the mecha machines. For our group, we made Robert Morealis. He was a commercial fisherman, who when the Bliss hit was forced to pilot the big hauling boat back to seattle by himself (throwing overboard his shipmates, probably). When he returned to Seattle he found some kids looting his house boat (let by Jed, a pilot), and got them to rally around him. He also led a search team to find his daughters Kat (A pilot) and Meredith (older sister, since fallen into the Bliss, but kept around on the boat and regularly visited by Robert and Kat). Kat is a young hotshot pilot trying to prove herself; to the world, to Robert and also to herself. Jed is the most experience ANIMa (mecha) pilot, and he is growing bitter with the world (and getting close to the Bliss), he has authority issues with Robert and probably half the kids on the House Boat Rafts are still loyal to him. Roderick (Ro for short) is the final of three pilots, who is in love with his Anchor Alice, and the only couple of have had a child "Spike" a one year old boy. Other characters include Sergey, the son of meth lab junkies who carries on his parents work to help keep Robert awake. Megan a girl on the rafts that is in love with Ro, who schemes with Jed (who has a crush on Alice) to break up the only fruitful relationship on the boat, and Shevaun, the unsteady Anchor for Jed (replacing the one that died in his arms after one disastrous mission), who is still unsure of her worth to the group.

Needless to say, with a twisty maze of relationships like that (I haven't even enumerated all of the craziness we came up with), the character interaction just basically flowed easily from there. I think we were also all grateful for the shared character creation, which allowed a lot of voices to really get into these characters and really make them damaged or ambitious or caring.

After that, it was finally time to play (only took about 2.5 hrs to explain the rules, eat, and generate characters and setting). Every game of Bliss Stage is supposed to start with a "defend the base!" kind of mission. This was definitely what we did, and it was really cool to see people get into character voice on both sides of the equation, and really go at the aliens. By the end of the mission, everyone had nightmare elements (sent by the aliens) in their world view, and there are some really twisted things we were able to come up with. The mecha combat was fairly smooth and not very painful as far as mechanics are concerned.

Once that was done, it was time to tackle interlude actions, where we get the chance to really get some character interactions and play with our relationships. Jed and Shevaun had an interesting interaction where they talked about some of what it really meant to be involved in the resistance and why they both worked as pilot/anchor. And what it meant to see the dead anchor reflected in the aliens as Jed fought them. Ro and Alice had it out about why Ro was able to so casually destroy aliens that looked like both Alice and their son Spike. And, in one of the funnest roleplaying moments I have ever taken part in, Robert and Kat argued about how she failed to really give it to the aliens, and hesitated over the demon that looked like Robert. Robert also pointed out that she has to be better than she is if she ever expects to save anyone from the aliens. Then they slapped and punched each other, really hitting and hating the other one.

We were about to go into the next mission, when we realized it was late, and we should probably play again next week.

Once we understood the system, it was fairly lightweight and generally awesome. It really forced us to focus on the twisted, strained relationships that must happen in such a horrific situation. And it allowed for some awesome mecha combat. Wow! What more could you want from an indie RPG?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Goal Oriented Stunting

Recently, I saw the epic action masterpiece that is Dead Fantasy. The second totally awesome "EAM" from Monty Oum (the previous being Haloid). If you haven't seen these two movies, you should see them immediately (just click those links), at least if you like video games characters doing very awesome violence to each other.

While watching Dead Fantasy, I got annoyed once again by how movies and action sequences can do outrageously great stunts that just do not work in roleplaying. Some of these are fairly simple to describe, like the in ability to just be fast. In the mind's eye of roleplaying combat, moving fast just isn't anything, timing things correctly just isn't anything awesome either. But these are both techniques exploited to great effect in action movies. With Dead Fantasy, however, I saw a different kind of stunting that we never use in roleplaying, but that really rocked. That is linked stunting where you do something awesome in one action, and that changes the environment and you doing something enabled by that in the next action, and so on. Occasionally, you do get this kind of imaginative synergy, and it is really awesome, but the system is actually driving you away from it.

See, the way it works is that as soon as you know there is going to be combat, you immediately start thinking of stunts to do, once you do them, you don't try to build off the last one because someone else's awesome stunt will probably change the situation enough that if you build stunt to stunt, your idea would just be wiped away. In combat you always have goals (hurt the enemy), but you rarely have a specific moment of time (you have a setting of some sort, but not a bunch of things flying through the air or thing moving or toppling), generally you're stunting in a time vaccuum.

I was discussing this issue with Mike, and I even challenged him to get us to develop a system that explicitly encouraged linked stunting (as I was calling it), but instead Mike made a very interesting suggestion:

One thing that might be interesting to me is if we explored how to use stunts to exert more careful control on the game. What if you tried to stunt loosing a fight? Or maybe stunt a fight in which after 3 rounds, the Zeppelin you're riding crashes into a city building? Or a conversation in which (to nobody's in-character desire) a PC and an NPC fall in love?

Perhaps something like a system in which, at beginning of a conflict, the GM and players try to interest each other in challenges with this more subtile stunt goal system. With the prize being experience maybe if the stunting was good? A system like this might also make it possible to try new stuff - like these linked stunts you're talking about - and see what happens.

I thought this was very interesting. Plus, I was very excited about the possibility of doing some of the things that are more far afield for most roleplaying games (like the PC and NPC falling in love). I was especially excited about getting more stunting going on outside of combat, which I feel is a big hole in our stunting abilities.

So in last Wednesday's game we tried some of these. Only briefly, but I hope we get to continue to work with it, because I think it has a lot of value. Actually re-reading it, I don't think I accurately conveyed Mike's idea to the group, but what we did was interesting nonetheless. We tried a scene in which we stunting getting a lead on finding someone in the city we were in. This worked OK, but we were very unsure of how it was supposed to work. If instead of stunting a nebulous goal, we use the kind of goals that mike was talking about, which are very specific sort of side-goals to the stunting, this work work better... Instead of stunting getting a lead for instance would could stunt finding someone, but causing a riot in the process (causing the riot would be the side-goal side of the stunt). I think this could be a useful tool for getting player buy in for plot elements that the GM wants to introduce...

Needless to say, this kind of stunting I think requires a lot of trust between GM and players (and between players too), but I think we can manage it. Unfortunately with new people joining us, I don't know when we'll be able to get back into this experimentation, but hopefully it won't be too long (we don't want to be trying out new things that we're not comfortable with until the new people get comfortable with our group, goes back to the trust thing).

Anyway. We're playing Bliss Stage tomorrow, and I can't wait to see how that turns out. Children in a world of sleeping adults fight aliens in giant fighting robots comprised of their relationships with other characters! Who could want more!?! Assuming we do play, I'll post something about what happened.

Its been a little while...

So, I've been running around pretty swamped recently, and this blogging thing has suffered a little bit, but not to fear, I still have 11 draft posts in flight, and I plan on getting back into the swing of things. So, what has happened since I last posted.

Just before the previous post, I went to see my grandfather in Oklahoma. As it turns out, he wasn't doing so well. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer back in April (I think), and due to his age (I believe he was 92), they weren't going to be able to do anything for him. So I went back to see him. I should've gone back earlier, but I was very glad to be able to talk to him nonetheless.

It was pretty clear how things were going from that visit, and so I was not very surprised (although deeply saddened) to hear about his death a little time after the post on the 9th. So I managed to get a flight back very quickly and I went to his funeral. Emily also made it (back from France) which I think was very nice. One note: I flew on frequently flyer miles, and I recommend the strategy of saving up enough miles to have an anytime trip to everyone, it takes a lot of the stress away if you have to fly for an emergency.

Anyway, I'm back in Seattle again, a little bit light on vacation, but ready to get back into the swing of things again.

Other news from my front. I think I may have found 2 different people to join my two roleplaying groups (looking like 1 for each). I hope they do show up, and I hope they enjoy themselves. We also have another maybe from a TPM at work, which would also be cool. This is great news because those groups have been shrinking for a while and were almost at criticality now (3 players, 1 GM; I consider 4-5 players to be optimal, and 2 players to be uncomfortable).

My older childhood dog (not Belle, but Kiwi) is probably going to die fairly soon. She has lymphoma, which would be hard to beat, especially in dog of 14 years. I just hope she enjoys what time she has left :)

Tuesday, October 9, 2007


Sorry for the delay in updates, I was traveling last week and I only really had time for the one on thursday. My goal is about 2 a week, and I think I still made it last week, but it still feels like a long time. So on to the big news!

I made SDE III! With the help of Paul (my new manager) and Tim (my old manager), we were able to make the case that I've been performing at the III level, and its finally official. I've been working towards this seriously since around January when I decided to step it up and see what I could do. I'm pretty excited about this development, and looking forward to the new challenges. So , what are the new challenges? Well, I'm not really sure. As a good friend of mine says, "Amazon is in the habit of promoting people who are already performing at their new level", so perhaps not that much will change. I hope to be more involved in cross-team efforts, in driving them, in creating them, being involved in their design and initial planning.

Along with awesome new responsibilities (who doesn't love responsibilities!) I also got some stock (golden chains), and a nice raise, so gadgets, here I come ;).

Anyway, I've suspected for a little while, but I just got official word today along with the compensation changes, so I can now shout it to the heavens :).

I don't have much more than that on this particular subject. Look for returning to our regularly scheduled blog soonish :)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

A Quick Update

So, I wanted to post some sort of long ramblings on subjects only a few people in the world could care about, but instead, I'm going to just drop a note here. I've been out on a recruiting trip to UIUC since monday.

The recruiting went pretty well, I think. We got a lot of resumes and a few did manage to stand out from the rest. The big highlight was that the Tech Talk was on the following day at 5:00, which meant I had about 24 hours of free time at UIUC. So, I went up to Chicago and saw Dave Goodell. It was great to see Dave and Heather, and I enjoyed getting to see their house as well (its very nice, with an extremely well appointed kitchen).

I got back to Urbana-Champaign in time to eat something and collapse, for I had gotten a little sick. Nevertheless, I made it on time for the tech talk. I think the talk itself went pretty well (at least I hope it did), and I could see some additional excitement in the students after I was finished.

So, now I find myself back in Seattle for one night only (16 hours only) before getting back on a plane to see family in Oklahoma. Woof. If I had this to do over, I think I would've flown directly to Oklahoma or maybe (just maybe) scheduled them on different days.

I did manage to watch a few movies on the trip (some with Dave, some on the DVD player, one in a theater), some of which I liked, and some of which I didn't... Heres the break down:

  • Wonderfalls - Ok not really a movie, but definitely funny and cool, series is being delivered to me from Amazon

  • Madlax - Anime, I liked half the story, but its by the same people that do Noir, and suffers from the same slowness and empty scenes

  • Fracture - Anthony Hopkins! Oh Sir Hopkins, you are so very awesome. The plot was superb if one or twice predictable. Definitely worth seeing, especially if you enjoy Tony at his most evil

  • Next - Great action film, but the ending leaves you wanting

  • Aqua Teen Hunger Force - Very funny at points, better than the series

  • Condemned - Stone Cold Steve Austin. Those pro-wrestling guys can really do a great stunt or two. Austin isn't as good as, say, The Rock, but is as good as John Cena (The Marine). The stunts are a little less flashy than the other two, but all in all a decent action movie, that will have you squirming from societal insights at times.

  • The Brave One - Awesome. Jodie Foster shows us again why I consider her to be one of the best female actors of the modern age. Really really powerful and striking and thought provoking. Plus, based loosely on an NPR radio person

  • Fantastic Four 2 - About as good as the first movie, which is to say not very good. How did they greenlight a second one? While I didn't regret watching these, I probably wouldn't see a third one

  • Vacancy - Ok horror/slasher fic. Clumsy storytelling, but the thriller aspects were gripping nonetheless.

Hmm... that does seem like an awful lot of movies... Oh well, I do like watching 'em.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Stunts: A Glorious Passion

I just got done with a pretty stunt-tastic game (yes, I stand by my word choice). Keith GM'ed a pretty rockin' Rifts-in-Persona game. Yes, once again we have decided to play an established setting (Rifts) in our home brew generic system (Persona), and I think it works better than the published system, but that may just be me. Rifts, as I found out, is sort of an interesting setting. Its the future, and society has had some sort of great apocalypse that killed 3/4s of the word's population. This meant that all of their gooey ectoplasm went into the ley lines, and restarted magic. Oh, and it also opened up a whole bunch of "rifts" in the world that are actually portals to other dimensions/worlds/universes.

The cool thing about this setting is that you can (if you're playing PersonaRifts) create a whole world that your character is from, you can craft out a very strange situation, or you can play a human who's gained magic powers, or anything in between. To give you a sample, one of the characters was a wolf, who was actually an energy being (from an appropriate dimension) forced into corporeal form. He just found himself one day in the body of a wolf. Combine that with a crazy gun nut and an even crazier Glitterboy pilot who won't leave her armor because the world scares her, and you have a glimpse at some of the interesting characters possible in this dynamic setting.

Anyway, my point with this post is not to talk about Rifts but to talk about stunts. For those of you not familiar, stunts are the awesome favor text you put around what your character does. For instance, instead of saying "I get on the computer and hack into their mainframe", you might say "I leap into my fully prepared computer sensorium, where my every body movement is interpreted into the electric impulses computers need to function on. As I submerse myself into the electronic world, it is almost as if the computer reads my mind as node after node of the public 'net flits by in the blink of an eye. I lift my fingers and begin to play a symphony as electrons spew forth from my fortress, attacking the enemy. Indeed, what electronic guardian could resist my siren musical call?".

Great stunts have only recently begun to come up in the games I play. About 1.5 years ago, I think, Ghen-ki, Mike, and I were in a car, and it came up that we all thought we could be stunting more in our exalted game. In response we decided to make a couple of changes to the way stunts were given out: 1. Award all stunts, even if its just minorly. 2. Allow all kinds of stunts, including flashbacks we you can reveal some scene from your past. 3. Try to think of something for every action. After committing to these changes, our stunting game started to become much much better.

It is interesting to watch what stunting does for a game. I don't think every game should be heavily stunted, in fact I think for many games, that would ruin the atmosphere of the game, in particular character drama oriented games, I think suffer from too much heroic stunting. In those kinds of games, character emotion and acting I think play a bigger role. But, in an adventure oriented game where everyone is out to have some fun, I think stunting can be a big influence on the fun. Rather than just hitting him with your sword, you're now leaping from rope to rope, brandishing your rapier as you barely mange to keep the pirates at bay. Much more evocative, much more engaging, and it's a whole rush when you finish describing a particularly cool action, and you get to see the reactions of the other players (oo, wow, etc).

One bad thing I have noticed about stunts is when there are different levels of stunting in the crew (players) or when a new player is joined. On several occasions it has seemed to me that new players were getting overwhelmed by the amount and voraciousness of the stunts, and it has actually intimidated players. This is really bad because any healthy group is going to see people come and go from it, and you have to be able to recruit new players. This is one of the reasons I think my wednesday and saturday games are struggling a little bit for players. This badness can also manifest through other players disengaging from the adventure, because they don't feel like they contribute as much to the game as others.

So, concluding, I thought I would take a little bit and describe some of the techniques I use to craft my stunts, and ask anyone reading my ramblings if they might contribute as well in the comments.

If I'm struggling to think of something I will often do two things: 1. Ask the GM for details of the setting... What is in the room? What are people wearing? How is the ceiling or floor constructed? Who is in the crowd (if anyone)? 2. Take stock of what my character has / is doing / is thinking about. The best stunts are ones that combine some part of your character with some part of the setting and some part of the enemy. Show emotion! Grab his scarf and use it to fling him around the room! Use the extras in the area as an appreciative audience.

Sometimes it can help to work from the problem backwards, especially in fighting stunts. Stunting against a blank page can be extremely difficult but if someone asks you how you're going to get to say drilling your sword like a spinning top into the guy's chest, that is much much easier. So, you might think of one awesome way to hurt or injure you're opponent. For instance, maybe you're fighting some sort of demon three times the size of you. Well, how might you hurt them? Say, drop a mountain on it? Ok, now you have to think of a way to do that... Much easier than hurt the demon (In this particular case, I attacked the side of the mountain we were in and caused an landslide).

Another great source of inspiration are movies. Try to get the GM to set the scene, and then picture it in your mind. Now think about how a movie might play out with that setup, what is dramatically appropriate? What are some catch phrases your character might use? You do have to be careful here, though. Lots of movie scenes can come out very very poorly in stunts. For instance, if in the movie Jet Li seems to move into a blur of motion and attacks the 10 guys basically simultaneously, well, thats great for Jet Li and whatever movie he is in, but multiple attack stunts rarely work out that well for roleplaying games. Another type of stunting that doesn't work out well is the skillful stunts. He skillfully jabs a dagger through the metal rings of his ring mail isn't really the best you can do.

One thing that Keith pointed out to me one night when we were discussing stunts is that you want to use words that evoke visuals. For instance if your stunt involves something happening "skillfully" you need to think of other words. How can someone move skilfully? It doesn't evoke any visuals. But if someone moves gracefully like a hunting tigress (or "as graceful as a cow is not", sorry in-joke), that can really invoke a certain feel or scene.

Another technique I sometimes use is to have my characters emotions or feelings manifest physically, for instance, if my character is shouting, screaming in pain, perhaps their swords is forced out of the way by the power of my words. In a magical setting, I one has a songstress who regularly blocked swords with the notes of her songs made physical through her desire.

Well, thats about all I have time for right now, but I'm sure that I'll be posting more on stunts in the future. In the mean time, anyone out there have other suggestions?

Friday, September 28, 2007

A house a house my kingdom for a House

Or is it that a man's home is his kingdom, so giving it up for a house wouldn't make sense? I don't know. What I do know is that I don't really believe in owning property. Why? Well that is a simple question with a complicated answer. While growing up, my family moved an awful lot. While I don't think that was necessarily a bad thing, it did give me an extreme adversion to owning any property. How can you really think sinking a whole bunch of money (including opening/closing/commission/etc costs) when you move every 4 years? One thing is for certain, I almost never believe that it is a good deal.

But, not to get too hippie here, the American ideal certainly includes home ownership. Car, home, kids. I'm currently at 1 of 3. And you can feel the other 2 closing in from all sides. Friends all over Seattle are buying houses, and loving it. And to be honest, I do want to live in a house (though not necessarily own it). It's a little trying to have 2 motorcycles and a large dog with no garage and no back yard.

So in response to societal pressures and my own hidden desires (even if I think its actually a bad idea) I'm embarking on a house buying. I've been saving since april or so, and plan on actually sealing the deal in may/june of next year. I guess I'll start looking in February or so. But as soon as you say something like that, things start happening and you start having to make a decision. Where do you look? Well, if money were no object, Mercer Island, or some place on one of the lakes. Both of those places are upscale (nice) and fairly close to work (almost as close as you can get and be in a house). But, seeing as how I don 't have a couple of million dollars to spend (or borrow), I guess I'll have to settle for something else. So, if you take what my mid-west upbringing says I should pay for a house (80k - 150k), we get a very different neighborhood. So different its in Montana. So you pick some price range, size/features, and try to find a neighborhood. But the decision is so monumental. Will I live there for the next 20 years... What will it be like in 20 years? I know I don't want to move if I can avoid it, but that doesn't seem very likely, so you also have to look for a place that is appreciating.

At the end of the day, I'm currently thinking about: Greenlake, Ballard, Issaquah, Delridge, and someplace down by SeaTac that I can't remember. Don't worry, I think you'll be seeing a bunch more posts about this subject as the time gets nearer. I anticipate stressing about lenders, agents, inspectors, what books I should be reading, and the color of the door :).

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Amazon MP3: w00t!

Amazon finally launched our Digital Music Store, and get this: the music is plain old MP3s. No DRM, no nonsense. I've already switched to using it as my primary source of music, going there first before iTunes. So far, I've been impressed with its selection. It has a bunch of independent artists as well as some of the more popular musicians I look for. In particular it seems to have a very good folk selection and I've already been able to discover several pieces I probably wouldn't've found otherwise (iTunes discoverability is abysmal, IMO, and its just the sort of thing we're (Amazon) is good at).

I'm super excited about possibly no longer having Apple's vendor lock in. For a long time I've had some ideas about a sort of programmable playlist program that could really let you tweak what songs get played. For instance... Most of the time I have about 2-4 songs that I want played a lot. These are songs I've generally just added to my collection, that I'm trying to memorize and enjoy. But, I really don't want to listen to just those 2-4 songs. What I'd really like is for half of the time to pick a song from that small set and the other half, choose from my regular playlist (of about 3k songs). Whats more is that I want to be able to do this for a play list or for a set of songs. Even more, maybe what I want is for from that 1/2 time playlist, 1/2 the time for songs to come from one set of songs, and the other half from another. And so on. You should also be able to apply specific percentages as well as timing "17% or every 5th time should both be valid. Also, I want to have the ability to easily "link songs" together. For instance, if you play one of these tracks you then must go on to the next song. These linked songs should be able to say whether or not you can play the second song without the first one as well. All of these rules should apply to playlists (which can contain other playlists) as well as individual songs. There are a couple of other ideas involving track splitting and track management, as well as volume management (tweak a song to be higher or lower volume all the time), but I think you get the gist. I've been wanting to do this for a while, but ever since I've been locked into iTunes, such a thing has been essentially beyond my control (yes, you can probably do it through AppleScript or some such, but the documentation for application interface with iTunes doesn't seem that good).

Anyway, now that there seems to be a good alternative, I may be embarking on this project in my spare time. Especially if I can convince someone else (like Keith) to help me out on the project.

So check out the new store, I think its pretty kickass. There is both a Windows and Mac downloader program (though you don't need it to download individual tracks), and a Linux version is said to be coming soon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Palantir - To the Future and Beyond?

Recently, my good friend John Carrino stopped by Seattle to do some recruiting for Palantir, his new company (John used to work for Amazon, even on the team that I recently joined, but left this last June). It was really great to see John again, and evidently Palo Alto is treating him and Robin (his girlfriend) well. While he was in Seattle, he mentioned that his company was doing a recruiting event, so I decided to attend.

I've never been to a startup recruiting event before, but this one was pretty jazzy. It sorta felt like like dot-com late 90s. The event was held at an expensive downtown hotel (Hotel 1000), and it was very posh. The event was catered and had an open bar (I think they won over about half the people with just that fact). Josh (another former Amazonian) was also there, and it was great to have a very nice meal with both of them (as well as Catherine, one of Josh's BillMonk colleges). The niceness of the setting aside, the presentation was extremely compelling.

They started by talking about the development of one of their two products, the government application (I believe called simply Palantir). This is a program for government analysts, to try to make sense of large amounts of data to spot suspicious behavior. Very big brother, but awesome nonetheless. Just the interface alone was extremely cool. Evidently its all done in swing (java), but you really can't tell by looking at it. Everything was done up with images, slick opening and closing. But the real meat of the presentation was how powerfully they are able to work with the data. Every time we thought we had seen everything, they blew our minds again with a whole additional set of functionality, with a clear and compelling interface. The collaboration tools and the abstraction of work with metaphors familiar to the user is a really really powerful concept. It was extremely exciting, compelling.

After that they talked a little bit about the company life. They definitely have the excitement factor down. They also seem to be playing to the creature comfort desires of programmers. Two catered meals a day, great office space, a game room.. All the hallmarks of a fun startup.

After this they went on to the financial software. It used similar abstraction techniques to the government application, but was fairly obviously a less polished product. That's not a real knock, I believe its been in development for a lot less time, and the functionality looked incredible, once again, it was just that the shine wasn't quite there.

One thing that became quite clear to me was that their software was extremely focused. It seems obvious to me that without experience in the two target demographics, I would not be able to make the best use of the software, not even close. This lead me to wondering about the future of programming. Are we all going to have an extremely targeted application custom built for our field of work? I think we might, because a really compelling interface can be the greatest thing ever for productivity and general happiness.

I'm convinced that both products, and the company in general, is going to make it fairly big. If they can parley all their great talent into software useful for other areas (programming?? please!), I think they could be huge. John is in for an exciting ride :).

Monday, September 24, 2007

A History of a Roleplayer

I've been roleplaying for a while... Maybe not as long as _some_ people, but 16 years is still a long time. During that time I've gone through several of what I'll call stages for lack of a better term. At the end of each stage, my style of play / GMing changed in some significant way. Mainly because I want to and partially because I think it might be useful, I'm going to go through the stages that I've gone through.

I was introduced to roleplaying by a student teacher in the small, small town of Bethany, WV. See, in Bethany it was a regular thing for college students on the teaching track to mentor in some way a long kid. I was in fourth grade at the time, and had never heard of roleplaying, but Becky (I believe her name was) roleplayed with some other students at the college, and one day she brought me along. I can't really remember what the adventure was about, but I do remember playing a wizard and casting magic missile at least once. What I do remember is that the world they lived in seemed to be pretty cool. Everyone had an awesome character, and they got visions about the future, and where on some sort of holy quest of some sort. After playing with them (once and only once) I asked my parents for a DnD box set for Christmas. I remember being disappointed that I didn't get the monster manual (because monsters are what the game is about, right?!?), mainly because it was bigger and had cooler pictures, but I did actually manage to play a few times with my sister... I don't even consider this to be a stage in my gaming development, since so little was done, and I quickly lost most of my interest.

While I lived in Indianola, IA I did what I consider to be my first roleplaying. In many ways I consider this to be the most pure of my roleplaying... We had the Shadowrun rules, but only vaguely used them for anything (character generation mainly). Mainly this was pure far future fantasy, no rules. Our GM (Tony) would talk to us separately (this was a kind of PBeM where it was by phone instead of by eMail) and synthesize them into terns. And the scale was massive. Empires in space colliding, hundreds of years, etc. Rules did not bind us into a cramped pre-defined setting, and it was fun. That being said, it was little different from games of pretend, except that we kept developing the world and decisions had consequences.

After leaving Indianola, I entered into the second phase of my roleplaying career, the guns and grit stage. This was the most simulationist I ever played, and is the first time I ever used the real rules for a game. We were generally still playing shadowrun, and it was still fun, it was just a different kind of fun. Now it was more like playing a strategy game. You had to carefully balance points between equipment, stats, and skills. Your characters were more defined by their style of fighting and make of guns then they were by relationships or personality. This style of play is very seductive, and I know that some people prefer this style and never really leave it. Certainly, I think it is this aspect of roleplaying that causes me to enjoy Exalted, for the most part.

After high school, my roleplaying style changed yet again. I started concentrating more and more on the character and what it meant to play him/her. They became living people with thoughts, feelings motivations. While the external things where necessary for the rules of the game, it was mainly an internal thing for me. I longed for serious games where my characters would be challenged in their beliefs (I wasn't really ready to play these kinds of games, yet, but I knew I wanted to play them). I played a long time at this stage, and some of my favorite gaming moments come from college. For the most part, I still play at this level.

The final (so far!) stage of play for me was primarily a shift in my GM'ing style. My GM'ing had mainly followed in step with my playing style. Only recently have I come to the hard-hitting, fast paced style of game I'm running now. As I've discussed before, this style involves engaging the players at all times and making fast decisions. Also, concentration on the setting rather than plot. This basically happened post college, and it wasn't until then that I really felt like I was a worthwhile GM.

So where do I go from here? I'm always looking to improve my game, and I try to study the roleplayers I consider better than myself. Here are a few ideas:

  • Metagame. As a player, you need to share the responsibility with the GM of having everyone at the table have fun at the game. This means that sometimes you must compromise character to get someone involved or draw a shy player out of their shell. Of course, metagaming must be used sparingly, extremely sparingly, but I think it is also very important to recognize when to do it.

  • World Building. My worlds are almost always extremely simple (unless I've stolen it from a book or other source)... I primarily rely on making good decisions during play to flesh it out. This works for most things, but a really immersive, interesting and unique world can really engage players in a game.

  • Get Engaged yourself. I have this problem mainly in what I call theory games at cons. I don't normally feel like engaging myself in a game debating the theory of the universe. Also, if the GM doesn't specifically involve me, I tend to disengage, especially at cons. This is my top reason for disappointing con games, and is definitely something I need to figure out how to do smoothly.

I know there are other areas to work on, those are just the ones I'm concentrating on now.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Late Night Programming

I've just concluded a session of late night programming. I've gotta say, its one of the best coding experiences I regularly participate in. Its just so awesome to sit down and tackle a problem that can be completed in one night. I'm not always sure it results in the best code (and I try to never submit code that I've done at night until I can get a code review), but the feeling of accomplishment is awesome. Also the amount of work you can do in one go is just incredible. Day to day, I think its difficult to see how much the rest of your job interferes with you actually coding. Rather it be talking with teammates (something I think is strictly a good thing), going to meetings (bad), going to lunch (good), or just being distracted by incoming email (bad and good), my day life is pretty interrupt driven. When you have all these distractions, it can be difficult to really hunker down and get in the zone.

So, sometimes (especially when I'm excited about some project), I just come in on the weekend or late at night. Everything is quiet. There are no emails, no teammates, and no Air Conditioning (they turn it off). Just you and the code (and music, if you're me). For me, it all comes together when you get done and you send your victory email. For me this normally takes the form of a code review request. Once I've decided I'm ready, I switch over to the email client for the first time in many hours, and I get to enumerate what I've been able to accomplish to someone. Its great.

Recently, I've been starting to obsess about these interrupt issues during the day. I've unsubscribed from several high-traffic email lists, and I try to force myself to not even look at the email client more than once every 10-20 minutes. But given what I feel like now, even that is not enough, so sometimes I work at night :).

Working at night can also lead to some bad things. For instance, you don't have the resources you do during the day. You can't ask your CSS master officemate questions, you have to look up answers. While this can make you better (much better) at solving your own problems or working around them (you quickly start ignoring things that touch other teams, for instance), it can waste an enormous amount of time. You sorta have to know when you've ratholled too long, and start thinking about ways of skipping that part of the problem until you can discuss it with others.

I'm not going to stop this behavior anytime soon, though... Its quite a rush.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thoughts on GM'ing

For proper understanding of this article, you will need to know that a GM is the GameMaster who creates the setting, plot, and other characters (Non-Player Characters) in a roleplaying game. I've probably already lost anyone who didn't already know the term, so 'nuff said about that.

So I GM. For some people, who knew me a while ago, this would be a revelation. Not because they wouldn't know that I roleplay (I've been doing that since 4th grade), but because before college, I really never GM'ed. I thought at the time that I didn't have what it takes to do a good game, and whenever I tried, I would fail utterly and miserably (miserable for both me and the players). These days, I think I do a passable job, but it hasn't been an easy road.

I used to think that the hard part about GM'ing was coming up with an interesting, intricate, enticing plot. One that got the characters hooked early and kept them coming back for more. I also thought it would be impossible to come up with a plot that would lead into a year's worth of sessions. Well, I still have problem with the latter, but the former I hardly consider an issue at all. Indeed, I consider plot to be the least of my concerns when I plan out a game.

When I think about GM'ing and what GMs I have liked in the past have done, I find things slotting into 2 big areas. 1) Things that you can prepare for before the game. 2) Things that you do during the game.

Things that occur before the game include that plot I was talking about (although it doesn't have to), and setting. Setting is where I spend most of my time before a game, and I think it is time well spent. The problem with plot is that players are experts at avoiding it. They'll miss your hook, kill your main NPC, or destroy your little plot-filled village without even blinking, and they won't even know they're doing it. See the GM and players roles are extremely different. GMs create wolds and characters, set plots in motion and try to guide players to interesting parts of their worlds. Players, on the other hand are generally out to play a character and interact with the world, and have little thought to what happens in the plot (besides wanting to get in it). This is why I only really have the sketchiest of plots for any of my campaigns. The long-range plan for my most recent campaign was literally "Benedict is a dictator, and the unicorn is actually a demon." This over-arching thought guided some fiarly complicated sessions. Most of the time, I would think of enough plot to last for a single session (generating just enough but not too much is a difficult thing to master), and that would be it. The setting on the other hand is very important to think a lot about, in my opinion. With a rich setting, you can have motivations for all your NPCs, which can guide you as to what they've been up to if your characters seek them out (or if you want them to show up). I have found this motivation planning extremely valuable, for it lets my cast of NPCs be doing things while the characters are running through the adventure. If you know why the mad old wizard isn't helping the kingdom in its time of need, then when the characters confront him about it, you can already know where he is and what he has been doing, and whether or not he will take kindly to interruption.

Over doing plot or setting planning can both be bad as well. If you over do your plot planning, then more than likely your characters will feel railroaded into your story, and it won't feel like they have any control or input into what is happening. They will resent your plot hooks and actively avoid them. If you over do setting, then you can have the tendency to let your characters just waltz through adventure after adventure. You know what else is happening in your universe, and you can't understand why the players are rushing for it. Meanwhile your players have completely sidetracked into building businesses in the capitol city, which they can do because you've already fleshed out 10 different competing grocers in the city.

So, once you've done your world preparation, you still have to run the game itself. This is the hardest thing to do, mainly because the only way to get good at it is to run a lot of games and get used to what it takes. A lot of it can also be specific to how your group likes to operate. Do they like fast paced epic, heroic adventures, or do they like scheming, plotting adventures that build over time? Either way, as the GM its your job to make sure everyone's having fun.

There are four big areas I think a GM needs to consider during a game:

  1. Controlling players

  2. Make it interesting for the players and characters

  3. Engage players all the time

  4. Make decisions fast

Since this post is going fairly long, I'm going to fishing up, and if anyone actually wants to read more on this, they can ask for it.

Controlling players - There are two forms of this: Making sure one player doesn't ruin the fun for the other players through rules-lawyering, table behavior, character actions, etc. The second form is getting the players/characters into your plot without destroying it. I with a friendly group (and if they aren't your friends, why are you playing?), this shouldn't be an issue, especially if you do the other things here

Make it interesting for the players and character - More than likely you'll have 2 competing sets of goals inherent the audience of the game (the players). One set is what the players want to have happen (make a dent in the world, get their character killed gloriously, have a duel with someone, figure out some mechanics of the system), and what the characters want (to make it home, to find love, to kill the dragon). I've found that the best games get both the players and the characters interested. You can get the players interested by playing with the universe, having a twisty plot, or by just having a fun universe to play in. But even if the players on on board 100%, you can have problems if the characters don't have a good reason to be in the plot. You've got to appeal to their motivations, their desires and wishes. Even if the players want to take down the dragon and free the princess, if the characters are a bunch of farm boys who are unambitious, there are going to be issues. You could have the dragon burn down their farm, kidnap their wife / children, place a curse on them, etc. These are all clumsy examples, but I always try to identify what the motivations of the PCs (Player Characters) are, and play to them with the adventure.

Engage Players all the time - This is really tough, and I mess this one up sometimes. Some GMs you never notice the camera time (the time when the GM is listening to you or your characters), and sometimes your trying to find something, anything to kill the time until they get back to you. So, its very important to keep the players engaged as much as possible. If it is at all possible, let your players talk to each other while your GMing someone else. Even if its improbable, I generally let players talk as much as they want. Another facet of this is that everyone should get to do something new. I've played under some GMs where if you make the wrong decision at one point, you are stuck doing that for a long time (real time). For instance say the PCs, are hunting werewolves in the rural Oklahoma town, and one of them decides to walk to the next town to get supplies from the hospital. What you should not do is GM the rest of the PCs for a hour while the unfortunate PC is walking to the next town. My policy is the next time I talk to a player, they have finished whatever it was they were doing before, that or something interesting has come up. So the next time I get to the walker, maybe werewolves are attacking him. Maybe he found a truck and is already at the hospital. Maybe he just walks really fast. Anyway you slice it, that player deserves some more camera and decision making time, and if you don't give it to him/her, then they are going to be bored.

Make decisions fast - In general this means letting the players get away with murder. But it also means dropping the hammer in a big way too. Did the players just uncover your big secret that was supposed to last 10 more sessions? Don't cover that up, run with it! What does it mean? How will the world/NPCs react to the discovery? Don't hesitate to let players do what they want, even if you're worried about the consequences, just get into the mode that the whole world is fluid and subject to change, once you learn to go with that, I think you become a much better GM. By the way, this is one of the reasons that I do the NPC motivations thinking ahead of time. If the world changes out from underneath them, you quickly extrapolate how NPCs will react, if you know why they are doing things.

Well, thats all for now... Let me know if any of you like this kind of stuff, I'm interested to hear people's opinions :).

New addendum Tim has pointed out an interesting article in this same vane.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Arr, it be talk like a pirate day!

Don't believe me.? Let the God of Knowledge (wikipedia) impart knowning to ya.

Avast me scurvy dogs. Ya dinna know how 'ard it be to be writing technical emails while trying to balance on a peg leg!

I could try to parley this into something more serious about expressing technical problems in a language other than their native format. But natives are fur plunderin', there be no serious thinkin' on Talk Like a pirate day!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Joy of the Road

I really love motorcycling. I can't tell you what exactly makes it so very great, but I can tell you about some of the constituents.

I used to hate driving. I think this was mainly due to the way I approached it. Driving was always an obstacle to be overcome, like some sort of proving ground. It was as if the universe were saying: sure, go visit interesting places, but to get there, you're going to have to suffer. It didn't help that many of my first experiences with longer distance driving were done with little preparation and little forethought. When I finally discovered that taking along music or a book on tape was a good idea, my driving became much less labored. But I don't think I'll ever really enjoy driving for driving's sake. Especially not as long as I know I could be driving a motorcycle.

There is something raw and intensely physical about riding a motorcycle. The wind's loud, ever present roar, the thrill of never quite knowing if the cars nearby have actually seen you, and the manual muscle memory twitches of every little pieces of the bike all contribute to the feeling of really being present on the road. It also helps that you're generally riding in extremely scenic places that are off the beaten path.

One of the best rides to do around the Seattle area is the backside of Mount St. Helens. This is just an incredible ride, scoring off the charts in all of the categories: scenic, twisty (very, very twisty), and traffic. I've been up 3 times now, and each and every time it doesn't disappoint. If you're interested in seeing more pictures take a look at this gallery and I think you'll get a feeling for the kind of beautiful scenery and perfect roads you can experience there.

One of the more unexpected things I enjoy about motorcycling is the food. I almost always hold out for mom and pop cafe establishments, hopefully ones that are frequented by the locals. I almost always have a burger or pasta, and I always eat well. Motorcycling can take a lot out of you, and since I don't go on long rides terribly often (maybe once a month) I indulge myself a little bit. While the food is not always of the legendary Jane and Michael Stern level of quality, it is almost always good, and always filling.

Another thing that is great about motorcycling is the isolation. Sometimes I ride with friends, but often I can't get anyone to spend a whole weekend riding. I used to regret not having anyone along, but I've gotten to where I actually like it. I don't have to stop when I don't want to, or continue when I want to stop. I get to think a lot, engage my introspective side a little bit. I always bring along a couple of good books and a DVD or two, and I get to relax and luxuriate in a hotel room at night. Its one of the few times I truly get to be alone, without even a dog to keep me company. And since you're riding most of the day, you miss all your phone calls as well, and don't even have to feel guilty about it. In the busy, busy, cellphone using world of today this is a rare thing indeed. I'm not saying I'd want to be on the road all the time, or even be disconnected like that every weekend, far from it, I would go crazy if it didn't have a definite end.

In the end, motorcycling has taught me how to appreciate two things I don't think I ever would've truly appreciated: driving, and being alone. Both of these things must be taken in moderation, but they are definitely big pieces of why I look forward to climbing on my bike.

Programming and Arrogance

When you live and work in a culture of programmers (as almost any unmarried Amazon programmer seems to), its easy to see some trends emerge that are both interesting, cool, and/or troubling. The trend I was really forced to notice is a culture of Arrogance that seems to permeate the culture at Amazon. This culture is really not limited to Amazon, Google practically oozes arrogance, and it is much the same with every company that believes in itself that I've talked to. Part of this is the difficultly in hiring good programmers, exemplified here Why Can't Programmers... Program. Everyone has this problem, and most people do reject 199 out of 200 applicants (as the article mentions), but as that discussion indicates (follow some of the links), rejecting 199 people doesn't mean you're hiring the top 0.5%, just the top 0.5% of the applicant pool. Most programmers aren't looking for jobs, and companies try to keep the good ones anyway.

I think a fair amount of the arrogance comes from the art itself. When you sit down to code, normally you have some idea of the shape of the solution you want to implement, and it seems to me that a large portion of getting that solution written is being so stubborn and unable to give up on that idea that your willpower literally bends the electrons in the computer to your will making little slaves of them. How can you not be arrogant when every day you're conquering your computer all over again, programming something that (at least most of the time) no one has written before.

Another portion of the equation is the attitude of other programmers. Whatever you might say, about nature or nuture or genes making a person's profession, something attracts a lot of smart but socially challenging individuals to programing. These people are used to being right (see the previous paragraph), and are not ready for you or even Linus Torvald himself to tell them they are wrong.

I think most good or great programmers (at least in a commercial setting) have to learn to put away this arrogance, but its not something that comes easy (at least for me). Admitting that you might be wrong about a proposed solution is extremely difficult. Paradoxically, I find that once a solution is implemented, most programmers are willing (and even eager) to admit to the solutions failings or even to start over and reimplement everything differently (this happens a lot during development and is called refactoring, at least in some way). Being a decent company programmer I think also means learning to work around these foibles in others (in addition to suppressing your own instincts).

Thats all I have for now, but I have some more thoughts for later... How does aggression fit in? What about the programmers that seem to be naturally immune to these kinds of feelings? How does this affect the gender inequality in the profession?

Music - The Language of the Soul?

Ok, so I couldn't come up with an original post title, but I do have some thoughts on the subject.

I really enjoy a good story. So much so that I think it directly contributes to the amount of roleplaying, the massive number of books I own (and yes, have read), and even what video games I end up enjoying. I love hearing about daring deeds, love at first sight, or really anything dramatic and interesting. The biggest area where this predilection of mine comes up is in music. I love story-based music. This leads to some odd tastes.

I love almost any piece of folk music, since they are basically only story. In the car, though, I can't generally get a folk only station, so I switch to Country. I love a good sad/happy country song (check out "Skin" by Rascal Flatts to see what I'm talking about). Sea shanties have the same quality as folk music - almost everything tells some kind of story. You'll, of course, notice that I haven't mentioned any type of music that would allow me to stay in the "cool" crowd. At the end of the day, I have favorite songs in almost every category of music. Even heavy metal ("Master of Puppets", "The Gods Made Heavy Metal"), electronica ("Winter Born" by Ethernaut), and even dance music ("Tarzan & Jane").

But, you'll never find me listening to certain kinds of music. Despite what I consider a fairly wide ranging collection, I have absolutely 0 tracks of classical, and very few instrumental (I delete them whenever they sneak in).

Because most of my music tells stories, I normally group them based on what I'm feeling like right then. If I'm happy then I want to hear happy, high energy songs, if I'm angry, well its time to crank up the volume and descend into some rock music (though musicals have a good selection of that kind of music as well). I love the effect this has. When I really hit the correct emotional note, I almost instantly drop into that "zone" that programmers talk about so often. Rocking out with code is evidently synonymous with rocking to the beat, at least in my head.

Perhaps I can share with you some of my favorite lines from songs I love:

  • 'So this is Beauty's finish. Like Rodin's "Belle Heaulmière"' - Lies by Stan Rogers

  • "How did we we get here? How the hell?" - Halloween in Rent (musical)

  • "Now is the time to sieze the day!" - Seize the Day in Newsies

  • "They say the sky's the limit, but we both know its the ground!" - Pirate Bill & Squidly by Heather Alexander

  • "I still feel your touch in my dreams. Forgive me my weakness..." - Every Time We Touch by Cascada

Music is so much more than just words sung to notes, its very interesting that it can cause dizzying highs and hellish lows. What is it about notes and words that make us want to shout to the heavens?