Saturday, January 31, 2009

Thinking Way Too Hard About: Guns vs Swords

For the sake of clarity, this post will not deal with swords that are also guns, other than to say that they are awesome.

In the real world, there are swords and there are guns, and there's really no point in comparing the two. While there are apparently still some people out there who kill other people with swords, these people are usually insane enough for it not to count. Plus, modern-day sword-using killers tend to kill people who are unarmed and not particularly interested in fighting back. If someone with a sword tries to fight someone with a gun, the results are unlikely to surprise anybody.

When you take the realm of fiction, however, the situation is often reversed. This is partially because fictional worlds operate not so much on stodgy systems of "logic" than on systems of "awesome," and partially because the protagonists of these stories need a challenge that usually isn't offered by gunning down sword-wielding enemies from across the room.

Giving your protagonist a sword when his enemies all have guns is a good way of establishing his badassitude. Whether he has to rely on his sneakiness, his forethought, or simply his bullet-dodging acrobatics, he's going to be the underdog, which makes his victory that much more impressive. As an added bonus, the anachronism of using such an elegant weapon hearkens back to a more civilized age, so our hero gets the associated ideals of honor, duty, etc.

So far, so good. If you're writing a book, comic book, or movie about a guy who uses swords to fight guys with guns, it's not going to take a whole lot of explanation for me to say, "Okay, you've got me sold, now let's see some violence, plz kthx." This is an advantage to the "my story, let me show you it" method of storytelling: total control over the plot lets you sacrifice logic for the sake of awesome thanks to the underlying assumption that, if this was anyone else with a sword, they'd be shot to pieces in five seconds, and it's only because our hero is so skilled, trained, lucky, and badass that he gets to carve up his enemies instead.

Of course, there is another method of storytelling that we nerds experience, and that is the "my story, plz tell it to me" method found in video games and roleplaying games. In this method, the system is laid out for you, but it's up to the viewer to generate the actual events. This means that, rather than being able to say "99% of the time gun beats sword, now let me show you the 1%," you have to set up a scenario in which sword always beats gun, or at least stands a good chance against it. And this is where things get weird.

Perhaps the most famous example of this is Final Fantasy VII, in which a guy with a sword (Cloud) does a crapload more damage than a guy with a gun (Vincent). Then you've got systems (see: D&D) where a great big sword is going to be doing more damage than a gun. One wonders, therefore, why anyone would bother using, or even inventing, a firearm, when a sharpened piece of metal is more effective.

There is a reason behind this decision, however, and it deals with the main underlying difference in combat in video games and RPGs versus real life (or media based on real life, such as novels and movies). In real life, it takes a single good hit to take someone out of a fight. This hit could come from a sword, a gun, a rock, or a Scud missile: the result is the same. Death. In video games and RPGs (and RPG video games, and RPGs based on video games), a single good hit is going to hurt your opponent, but they will keep fighting. They lose hit points, but they are not dead, and now it's their turn to hit you.

So while real life combat operates on a more or less binary system of damage (dead/not dead), video games and RPGs have to come up with a sliding scale of damage ('tis but a scratch through MASSIVE DAMAGE). Realism goes out the window, and now we have to decide whether a bullet to the chest should do more or less damage than a sword to the chest. Looking around for something to base this decision on, we come across the previously-mentioned principle of "awesome," and naturally decide that a sword should do more damage.

Because, fundamentally, it's cooler to stab someone than to shoot them.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Happy Obama, Everybody!

Okay, so I probably already wished you a Happy Obama when Obama was first elected, but I'd like to take this opportunity to wish you a Happy Obama once more.

I know that a lot of you are very optimistic about Obama. I know that his policies on education, health care, international relations, energy, and the economy seem like exactly what we've all been hoping for throughout these eight long, painful years of Bush and his cronies running things. But let's not forget that Obama is inheriting a nation that is in the midst of* an economic crisis, and perhaps worse, in a very dangerous position in world politics.

*(It seems like people are always saying "In the midst of" a crisis. What's up with that?)

Russia is once more rattling its saber, and I'm not convinced that Obama will be able to handle a man like Putin. Sure, Obama is highly educated and charismatic. America has got lots of fancy weapons and technology on its side, along with the scientific know-how to develop, build, and maintain even more. But Putin's background is gritty and real. He was trained as a warrior as part of one of the most feared groups in modern history. He has the experience and tenacity. Whereas Obama was brought up pampered and upper-class, Putin was raised in Soviet Russia. Russia may not have America's arsenal or technological power, but it counters that with tenacity, ferocity, and sheer bloody-mindedness.

If history has shown anything, it's that Russia can take a beating and come back for more. Enemies may nearly destory the nation, but they will find the skeleton of Russian determination is unbreakable. America may have fancy weapons, but behind the high-tech armor of high technology is a soft and untested nation. Whereas Russia has always gotten into the conflict and fought all out, America prefers to stand back and pick off enemies with minimal risk.

Wait, this is starting to sound somewhat familiar. In fact, it's given me an idea....


If you say this isn't awesome, you are lying.

For the record, I love America and think we would kick Russia's ass if it ever came to that. But rather than going to war, couldn't we go with my idea instead?

Happy Obama, everybody!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Raise a tankard to Alestorm, the Scottish Metal Pirates!

I want more wenches
Wenches and mead
I want more wenches
Lots of wenches is what I need
--Alestorm, "Wenches and Mead"

While this does not properly belong to the Metal CD Project, I could not resist writing about this excellent band. The CD was bought as a New Year's gift for a piratical friend. Once we saw that one of the songs was "Nancy the Tavern Wench," and this piratical friend of ours happens to have a piratical wench wife named Nancy, we couldn't help but pick it up for them.

The CD is Captain Morgan's Revenge, by the Scottish Pirate Metal band Alestorm. As you can imagine, it's pirate-and-beer themed, which was the whole reason we bought it. As an added bonus, the songs are great, and have been aptly described as "metal sea shanties." Some of the songs are good, rollicking drinking songs ("Nancy the Tavern Wench," "Captain Morgan's Revenge") while others are more straight-up rock ("The Huntmaster" will remind you of an infamous Nightwish song).

Of course, the real stand-out on an already great album is "Wenches and Mead." When I saw the title on the back of the CD, I was just happy that there was a song out there called "Wenches and Mead." When I actually listened to the song... it was everything I had hoped for.

So whether you're a cutlass-swinging, rum-swilling pirate or a ninja-loving pansy, you owe it to yourself to check out Alestorm. I haven't had this much fun with metal since I got into DragonForce, and that's about the best recommendation any band could get.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Nameless Day: Defeated!

A bit of background: a friend of mine, whose opinion I have high regard for, lent me a copy of The Nameless Day. Its premise sounded fascinating: a medieval monk, who was formerly a soldier, receives a vision that the world is crawling with demons, and only he can resume an ancient duty and send the demons back to hell. But are his visions really from Saint Michael, and are the demons really the enemy?

Oh joy, I thought! Colon-three kitten face! A medieval setting? A monk, formerly a soldier, as the main character? Battling demons? Where do I sign?

Maybe I should have read the reviews on Amazon first. Several people comment that they rarely abandon books before finishing them, but they had to make an exception for this one. Their main concern soon became my concern: namely, that the main character isn't likable. At all. Some of the reviews point out that the first book merely sets up the character, and that he improves as the series goes on. But who wants to read an entire book where the main character is an elitist misogynist?

The monk, Thomas Neville, is repulsed by the idea of people being able to choose their own position in life (Gasp! That goes against the hierarchy established by God!). He believes that all women are manipulative temptresses (Eve, apple, lust, bla bla bla). Plus, though Sara Douglass goes out of the way to repeatedly point out that Thomas used to be a soldier, still has soldierly inclinations and instincts, and is in pretty good shape, he never once lays the smack down on a demon. Not a single freaking one. Demons repeatedly show up to taunt him, warn him, and confuse him, but he never whips out a sword and starts wailing on one.

Now, allow me to improve on one of Douglass's scenes for a moment. To set the scene, Thomas has awoken in the middle of the night to find an enormous demon squatting on his chest, choking the life from him and taunting him for several pages about how he's going to fail his quest. We join Douglass at the end of the scene:

It blinked, and cocked its head, its horns catching a shimmer of moonlight.

Then it looked back at Thomas. "You think to lead the armies of righteousness against us, Thomas. You think to be God's General. Well, one day, one wicked black day, you will crucify righteousness for the sake of evil!"

Then the fingers still about Thomas's neck tightened to impossible cruelties, and Thomas blacked out somehow managed to find the strength to lift himself, just barely, and drag himself the agonizing distance to the nearest sleeping soldier. He reached out and took the soldier's nearby sword in his hand. Years of training and practice on the battlefield combined with his righteous anger and disgust, and he swung the sword in a wide arc and chopped the demon's head right the fuck off.

A single scene like that would have gone a long way in making me enjoy this book a lot more. That scene could easily have ended that way--it's not like the demon is an important character, and this way we get to see a little bit of payoff for all the angst and bigotry we've slogged through to get there. A scene like that would have gotten me through the next fifty pages easily.

In The Nameless Day, Sara Douglass delights in giving us pages of internal strife. Thomas Neville torments himself about the demons' plans to use a woman to lure him astray, and he resolves that the harlot will never win in her demonic plans! But what if she's as innocent as she says? Oh no! Agony and indecision! Then we get a chapter or so of plot development, followed by virtually the exact same introspective angst.

The only thing Sara Douglass likes as much as internal strife are sleeves. When a new character is introduced, you can bet your ass you're going to find out what his or her sleeves look like.

What she doesn't like is action. Even when the characters do get into fights, we get white-knuckle scenes like this:

Several of their bands attacked Thomas and his escort, but Philip's soldiers were good, and battle hardened, and managed to beat them back.

***Major spoiler warning***
That's not to say that the book had no redeeming value. Its historical setting was masterfully done: Douglass has clearly done her research, and the setting feels gritty and real. There is also one scene, quite well done, where The Black Prince is killed by an unnatural storm in France, with twisted demons gamboling about him, while Edward III, his father, dies in England with mummers dancing about. Then the demons turn to the survivors of The Black Prince's party and say the refrain to the mummers' song, even as the mummers do the same to the king's surviving sons at the party in England. Quite an effective, chilling scene, but hardly worth reading the rest of the book for.
***Spoiler over***

My main complaint with her writing style, aside from the typos that made it into the book, is Douglass's use of the word "Whatever" to begin sentences. She seems to use this as a synonym for "Regardless" or "In any case." It ends up sounding informal and out of place, and I can only see a bleached-blond Valley girl throwing out her palm and saying "What-eva!" (even though Douglass is Australian). It seems to happen more later in the book, which I take as an indication that her editor had gotten tired of changing it each time she used it.

It took me about three months to finish this novel. Three months to get through 529 paperback pages is pretty crappy progress. October was spent mostly putting off reading the book. It wasn't good enough to make me want to read it, but it wasn't bad enough for me to give up on it and start a new one, so I just didn't read for days on end. Then November was spent writing a novel, so I had little time for reading. December came around, and toward the end of the month I launched another concerted effort to finish the book. Then, the start of January, and victory.

I hope that this post doesn't end up sounding ungrateful to my friend who the recommended this book. Like I said earlier, it should have been right up my alley. It easily could have been. It just wasn't.

So, now that I have finished it and am moving on with my life, I would like to leave you with this image that, I think, most accurately sums up how I feel about having finished The Nameless Day.

Thinking Way Too Hard About: Character Classes

Despite the similarities between RPGs and epic stories, there is a fundamental difference between them. Epic stories are, fundamentally, about one person: Conan is about Conan, Star Wars is about Luke Skywalker, Dune is about Paul Atreides. RPGs, on the other hand, are about groups of people, or parties. The limelight and the glory get spread around evenly in RPGs (at least ideally, when the DM knows what (s)he's doing and the players are at about the same level of roleplaying skill).

While Star Wars includes Han, Chewie, Leia, R2, and Threepio, the story is really about Luke. Luke is a good shot, a good pilot, and good with the Force. Similarly, Conan is good at all sorts of things. He's an accomplished thief, sailor, general, and king, and of course he can kick ass with any weapon, including his mighty fists.

If these characters were in an RPG, though, they would have to pick character classes, at which point they would choose which things they could be good at. If Luke wanted to be good at using the Force, he'd have to give up his amazing piloting skills. If Conan wanted to be able to take on ten sword-wielding barbarians at once, he would have to give up his stealthy thieving skills. So on, and so forth.

This is one of the reasons why it's so dangerous to think about an RPG storyline as an epic story. It's really not. Despite what R. A. Salvatore might have led you to believe, it takes more than a single ranger to make a good D&D party. This is purposeful, of course: it encourages the party to act as a team, with various team members contributing in various ways so that everybody is integral to the party's victory. If a cleric's player would otherwise fade into the background while the more showy players of the warrior and thief take the center stage and dominate the game, that cleric will at least have a moment in the sun when the party comes across a buch of skeletons, or an ancient curse, or at least when they take some bashes around the skull and need the cleric for some healing. The formula is well-known: the warrior soaks up damage, the cleric heals it, the wizard causes it, and the thief gets the party around traps and locks. Everyone has a role to play; everyone is guaranteed an area where they, and only they, can contribute.

Unfortunately, by making certain areas integral to certain classes, RPG designers have made those same areas off-limits to the other classes. Would you like to play a warrior who excels in shadowy assassinations just as much as open combat? Too bad. Would you like your (good-aligned) cleric to be as good at dealing damage as healing it? Suck it up. That's just not your area. I'm not saying that fighters can't put ranks into Stealth, or that clerics don't have spells that do damage. But why bother making a fighter marginally good at sneaking, at the expense of far more useful fighter-y skills, when a thief could excel at sneaking so much more easily?

I can understand the reasoning behind this, but my complaint is simple: it's not fun to suck. It's not fun to be a one-trick pony who fails at everything else. Luke Skywalker may not be Han Solo, but he's not such a bad pilot himself. He's also quite self-sufficient: he can fire a blaster, swing a lightsaber, use the Force, repair his X-Wing, do some fancy acrobatics, etc. For a Player Character, however, it's hard to feel badass knowing that you're only effective as part of a group. Sure, a thief could go out on his own and make Stealth checks to avoid dangers that would normally be overcome by the rest of the party... until he fails a Stealth check. At that point, he's too weak to stand and fight, so he can only run like hell. Similarly, a wizard could fling fireballs at every door, zap trap-filled rooms with lightning, and never let anything get close enough for his lack of armor and scrawniness to come into play... until he runs out of spells, when he has to run like hell.

Running like hell should never be a necessary part of a plan. Maybe Plan C, but definitely not the last step of Plan A.

One possible way around this is with multi-class characters. The rules for multi-class characters have become a lot more simplified in recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons, so they do make a viable alternative. Unfortunately, multi-classing replaces the necessity of being a one-trick pony with being a two-half-trick pony. You can do two things marginally well, but only half as well as someone who specializes. Maybe this makes sense, so I shouldn't whine about it, but it seems like it should be a whole lot easier to be a decent wizard and a decent warrior than it is to be the greatest wizard or the greatest warrior in the land.

Which leads me to my suggestion. First, the way multiclassing currently works in D&D: Say you're a tenth-level wizard, and you decide to take a level of fighter. It takes just as much experience to get that first level of fighter as it would have to take an eleventh level of wizard. If you go on to get a second level of fighter, it costs as much as a twelfth level of wizard would have. Which is a lot.

So what I would suggest would be a system in which picking up a new class is much easier than advancing to extremely high levels of your existing classes. Maybe each new class you pick up should advance along a separate experience track, and each new one should cost twice as much to level up as it would have if it had been your starting class. So characters who take fighter as their second class pay twice as much to level it up, while characters who take it as their third pay four times as much, etc. This sounds expensive, but it would still be a whole lot less expensive than paying high-level experience costs for low-level classes.

Of course, if you're a low-level wizard who wants low-level fighter classes, my remedy above would end up costing you more than it otherwise would have. For this reason, it should be optional which route you take.

Obviously, I have never playtested this rule (or even thought it out very far), so it might make no sense at all. Feel free to point out any obvious glaring problems in the comments! See you next time!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Something New Years-ish

It's the new year, so it's time for the new year's blog post.

Strange paradox: while the past year sucked for our country and the world, it was absolutely fantastic for me. I hit my stride at work, I strengthened friendships with the finest people I have ever known, I did some writing I'm proud of, and, yes, I met a certain young lady.

I suppose that I should be worried about the state of the world. Old tensions are re-igniting in the Middle East as well as between Russia and the USA. The world economy is spiraling down. America is increasingly polarized between the conservative, religious right and the liberal, starry-eyed left. Even Obama is starting to look more and more human now that the initial thrill has worn off.

But I'm not worried. In fact, I'm looking forward to this next year more than any other. There is nothing I can do about the state of the world, so the best I can do is hope it gets better and hang on for the ride.

I can't wait to see the things we will create, to hear the jokes we will tell, to share the experiences we will find. I realize that everything cannot be perfect, and that events will doubtless come along that will blindside me and throw my year off track. But there is no point in worrying about such things. What will happen will happen. Right now, it looks like the upcoming year will be golden, and I can't wait to share it with all of you.

And New Year's Resolutions? I don't know if I should be making resolutions, because I have found that trying to bind something or give something extra gravity often ends up ruining the thing you were trying to create. So instead I will say something I would like to do: get published. I now join every other wannabe writer in this resolution, but you never know.

Happy New Year, everybody.