Sunday, July 30, 2006

Relativistic time dilation as a campaign concept

The fundamental problem of any interstellar science fiction roleplaying campaign is relativity. Thou cannot exceed the speed of light, says Einstein; but the stars are simply too far away to travel much between them without doing so. Even getting too close to the speed of light causes the intriguing, but still difficult, concept of time dilation: time stretches for you, so while ten years pass for you hundreds may pass for the folks you left behind, which makes it hard to run a campaign if very time you travel the whole world reinvents itself before you get back.

Most sci-fi games that involve interstellar travel (other than as a one-way trip) handwave this away by counting on the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the players, sometimes combined with the likelihood they won't know enough about relativity to know why their handwave doesn't really work. For instance, the jumpgate/wormhole/etc. approach feels neat and tidy; no one really goes faster than light, right? They just take a "shortcut". People who don't know relativity are convinced this is a way to avoid its limitations, but in fact, this doesn't quite work: specifically, like all other kinds of FTL, it is fundamentally equivalent to time travel, and therefore far outside the bounds of physics as we understand it. Nothing wrong with that, of course; it's just that most people running a wormhole-based SF game don't realize that they're one step away from time travel and the attendant complications and separation from "real world" physics.

My favorite handwave is one I came up with a few years ago. It in no way avoids the time travel paradox, but it's very simple and elegant, it leads to some interesting consequences, and I've never seen it used. Speaking mathematically, the impact of time dilation as one approaches the speed of light in vacuum is fairly similar to the part of the curve of an tangent function between 0 and pi/2, in how it climbs to infinity as it asymptotically approaches a vertical. (The curve isn't exactly the same as that, I think, but the asymptotic approach is the same.) Advances in physics often involve realizing that what was known before was true as a special case of a more general rule; the best example being how relativistic physics approaches classical Newtonian physics as velocities approach zero. What if relativity turns out to be a particular case of a more general rule in which the effect of time dilation turns out to resemble the whole tangent curve, with c (the speed of light in vacuum) corresponding to pi/2? Then dilation reaches infinite values at c, but is zero at 2c, infite at 3c, zero at 4c, etc. Assuming a drive that can skip discontinuously over the intervening velocities (i.e., infinite instantaneous accelerations, but hey, this is a handwave, right?) but at an energy cost proportional to the number of multiples of c jumped over, you can get places awfully quickly without any messy time dilation if you can spare the energy. Nice and tidy. Trouble is, how many people would understand it? I might as well call it a heebie-jeebie drive.

Assuming you want to run an interstellar sci-fi campaign within our current understanding of relativity, there is one very easy solution that hardly anyone even considers. Simply posit a species that is exactly like humans (or isn't, as you see fit), except for one thing: they have a metabolism one one-hundredth the speed, and a correspondingly longer lifespan. They live on a world which rotates and revolves that much more slowly, too. There are some side-effects of living at a hundredth the speed which would have to be considered (there are any number of physical processes, like chemical reactions, which would still happen at the same rate), but it'd be feasible to have a society and culture just like humans but at a hundredth the pace, so that a c/2 trip to Barnard's Star with nearly no time dilation to worry about would take the equivalent of 51 days. There, all solved!

However, I've always found it compelling to run a campaign which embraces time dilation as a premise. I don't mind positing FTL for these campaigns, but time dilation is still a key point. Here are the two ideas which I have played with, half-developed, but never completed and run.

The Long Road: In the near future a colony-ship is launched using technologies we could almost build right now (if we had the will and money) to travel at near-lightspeed to an eligible planet for colonization, to preserve humanity through an anticipated global disaster. While the crew is incommunicado due to time dilation, the disaster is averted, hundreds of years pass, and a method of FTL travel without time dilation is discovered. The characters emerge not to the wild frontier of an empty planet ready to be colonized, as they expected and prepared for, but a fully colonized planet, part of an interstellar civilization of humans. I've seen this idea dabbled with before, but never really explored as well as I'd've liked.

The Empty Sky: Same starting premise. However, during the hundreds of years, expanding humanity has encountered another species of interstellar travelers. Something happened since which, inexplicably (at least at first), caused every human and every one of these aliens to simply vanish instantly and simultaneously. The slowship travelers are the only exception, having been preserved from this fate by a form of dilation not known to Einstein by which complexity, and even intelligence, diminishes as one approaches the speed of light (a weird jumble of quantum mechanics, relativity, and information theory -- it made more sense when I wrote it all out). Now they find themselves travelling the empty halls of a vanished civilization gathering clues about what happened, and maybe eventually finding a way to undo it.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The squeaky wheel gets the grease

Most of us have a lot of people making demands on us to do things, to expend time or effort on their behalf, and we have to prioritize these things. Consider two kinds of people who are making demands on my time.

The first one is always demanding and never considerate. Everything she asks is urgent priority. She never values my time, but instead dumps as much on me as she can without putting in any effort herself to make it possible for me to use my time more efficiently. She expects both small things and large things with equal insistence. And if I do more for her, the rate of demands does not decrease; it actually increases.

The second is always considerate and courteous. He tries to find his own ways to do things whenever possible. When he makes requests, he does not call them all top priority; he saves that for the few things that really are. He spends some time beforehand ensuring that his request is complete, allowing me to act as efficiently as possible on it. He's always grateful for what I can do, and while he may remind me on things I didn't do, he's never shrill or nagging.

Naturally, I tend to prioritize his requests over hers, and in the long run, perhaps as a matter of encouraging courtesy and respect, and perhaps just because of the efficiency of it, I'll do more for him than I will for her. (Which will only make her even more shrill as she feels neglected.)

I always try to be the second type of person myself. I'm very careful to think in the long term, to think things through, and to make sure if I make a request of someone, it's not artificially inflated in urgency, it's as complete as possible, and it's carefully envisioned to be the widest wedge: that is, to get the most bang for me out of the least time invested for the person I'm asking.

Somehow, though, it seems in every case, with every person and in every situation, I end up getting the short end out of it. My requests are passed over because I didn't scream "urgent" every time; I end up waiting longer than the squeaky wheels, and getting a more superficial job done with my requests, even though I took pains to provide a very complete and concise statement of what would be best. And in the end I always feel like people resent my intrusions more even though I've gone to so much more effort to make them rare, courteous, and non-intrusive. So I come out being more resented for my requests and getting less, always lowest on everyone's priority lists.

This isn't any single person or situation I'm thinking of as I write this, though I could list dozens of examples. The point of this post is to observe a common theme. Do I really have to get more obnoxious, demanding, and wasteful of everyone else's time to get anything done and to stop being resented? Everyone imagines they do, or at least try to do, more for the polite people... which makes it so much harder to get them to really realize that they don't. But it seems pointless to wait for the world to become sane around me. Maybe I should just join the insanity.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The history of the Serenguard

Back when I used to play Lusternia, my character was a member of, and eventually the spiritual leader of, a guild called the Serenguard, a group of tribal warriors charged with the defense of the Serenwilde Forest. Alone amongst all the guilds in Lusternia, the Serenguard were not mentioned at all in the world history, and had no explanation for where they came from, how they were founded, or whether they had any tradition.

For a while I struggled to figure out these things, in character. I gathered all the clues available, many of which bordered on being mutually contradictory, but I found resolutions for the contradictions. I presented my findings as I went, both IC and OOC, in case the admins ever wanted to provide some more clues (or even an event) that'd help fill in the gaps. I roleplayed out going on vision quests, asking NPCs for answers they should have had, and communing with the Great Spirits, even embarking on a quest that led to a prophet and seer to ask him. Eventually, it boiled down to one pivotal question, when the guild was founded, which I could find only circumstantial evidence to answer.

I chose what I thought made the best answer that made the best sense and also provided the best potential for the guild's future: that the guild was founded at the time the Serenwilde went into seclusion to protect itself from the Taint. The result of this was a bunch of really good roleplay, plus a story, To Arms, which won the bardic contest for the month (as judged by the admins) and which may be the best short story I've ever written. But though I gave the admins every possible chance to make it canon, they simply ignored it and gave the guild no answers.

It was a year and a half into the game's play (that's more than forty game years), long after I gave up on Lusternia, that they finally decided to address the question. I just recently found out their story... and it sucks.

It contradicts a number of clues that can be found around the game and in the game's histories. It's muddled and messy. Worst of all, it almost completely deprives the guild of any nobility or sense of purpose, any reason to have any traditions or culture of its own, or really much of a reason to continue existing. It doesn't build upon the histories. About all it does is provide a method to force yet another change on the Serenwilde that the admins wanted to force on them in their never-ending quest to react to complaints with knee-jerk changes that miss the real point of the complaints entirely, then whine that no one appreciates that they're listening and doing what they're asked to do. And it has no poetry, no mythic overtones, no charm.

Yet another summary in small of what's so awful about Lusternia. Beautiful potential, brutally wasted.

Someday I'm going to convert Lusternia into a roleplaying game setting, and when I do, my history of the Serenguard will be the true one.

Why aren't you using RSS?

An RSS-reader is essentially a bit of software that checks web sites you've specified (and that support it) for updates and gathers them for you automatically, then stores them so you can easily read, sort, filter, and search them. Not only does it grab the updates for you, so you don't have to remember to check sites and yet you get them as soon as they're posted, it keeps track for you of which ones you've read already and highlights the ones you haven't. And that's just the start of what RSS can do.

All this from a small, free, easy program you can have installed and working in five minutes. So what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

On the diabetes wagon

Diagnosis: Five years ago this coming October I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes, and put on amaryl. I spent two hours being annoyed at my doctor for the fact that I had to be the one to diagnose it, despite that I was a clear high-risk case and by the time of diagnosis my sugars were incredibly high (an A1c of 12.1, where normal range is 4.0-6.0). Then I was over that and started working on figuring out what I needed to do.

Education: The first thing was learning all I could about diabetes. Within a mpnth I'm sure I knew more about it than my doctor does. I didn't just read the medical descriptions, but also accounts of people who had been living with it, and found these to be sometimes at odds; generally speaking, there was value and truth in both. The best sources I found were the Usenet newsgroup and the book The First Year Type 2 Diabetes: An Essential Guide for the Newly Diagnosed. The worst source: the American Diabetes Association, which seems to have missed a few sea-changes in diabetes management, and still recommends practices which are deleterious to good control.

Treatment: My efforts went into full swing within a couple of days. The key elements were diet and exercise. The key fact about diabetes management today is that it's patient-driven: easy access to frequent blood glucose tests lets the patient develop his own regimen by seeing how his body responds to different kinds of food, activities, and meds. With diligence and determination you can get remarkable levels of control using diet and exercise by taking advantage of that.

Diet: The key is carbs. Almost immediately I learned how the profiles of carbs, protein, and fat affected blood glucose, both in the theoretical and in the practical. Taking blood tests before and two hours after meals let me see precisely what different kinds and combinations of foods did to me. This can be predicted by counting digestible carbs and considering glycemic index, but I was learning this in the days before the Atkins diet craze, so this was esoteric stuff back then. However, even those only give you a rough idea; your own body's reactions may differ, and mine did in a few ways. After a while, I could predict the impact of a meal on my glucose.

It's important to note that the American Diabetes Association still recommends a diet which is almost all carbs. If you follow their diet, your numbers are likely to go up, not down, unless controlled with meds. Their reasoning for this is backwards. Uncontrolled or poorly controlled diabetes causes higher risk of heart disease; consumption of fats and proteins exacerbates such risks. Ergo, avoid proteins and fats if you're diabetic. The flaw: controlled diabetes does not generally cause higher risk in those areas, and a key part of the best way to control diabetes requires fats and proteins.

The ADA also focuses on weight loss. No surprise there; the whole medical community obsesses about weight loss. Whenever they're shown any of the volumes of evidence that show that it's the underlying metabolism that causes weight gain which causes almost all of the higher risks associated with weight, that losing weight rarely works at all and when it does rarely reduces the associated risks appreciably (any more than bleaching dark skin reduces the risk of sickle-cell anemia), and that health factors such as blood glucose control and blood pressure are far, far better predictors of longevity, they stick their fingers in their ears and hum loudly. Most GPs would, if presented with a fat patient who'd just been hit by a bus, suggest that it was their weight which caused their injuries and suggest a diet. Weight loss often happens as a side effect of the things one does for good glucose control, but pursuing the decrease of that one arbitrary and mostly-meaningless number is a good way to lose sight of what you're really trying to do, and screw it up. Usually weight control is a way to distract people from doing what they really should be doing for their health, since weight is a nice simple easy number, and like most nice simple easy answers, it's a dangerously wrong answer.

It wasn't hard to find lower-carb ways of doing most things; but it wasn't easy, either. The Atkins craze helped a lot, and I'm sad to see it go, but even in its height, there were a few things it was hard to find a substitute for. It's not that it's impossible to make desserts that satisfy a sweet tooth without hitting blood glucose hard. It's that it takes a lot of work. You don't realize how much of a difference it makes to be able to just pick up some muffins, a pint of ice cream, a candy bar, a cake, or even canned fruit, until you are forced to make equivalents yourself or do without. That, more than anything, is the greatest source of temptations to break the diet; do you want to stop what you're doing and bake a batch of low-carb cupcakes from scratch, or just nosh on something in the pantry?

Ultimately, what you end up with is nothing more or less than a budget. You can afford a certain number of carbs (or more accurately a certain amount of blood-glucose-impact) in any stretch of time. If you cherish fruit juice but could take or leave ice cream, you spend your budget accordingly. You look for places where you can free up carbs to use elsewhere: leaving off the buns on a burger means you can afford to have some pasta with it, for instance.

Exercise: If carbs are something you buy on a budget, exercise is the currency with which you purchase them. Want more carbs today? Just do more exercise to pay for them. I started out right away walking three times a day, after each meal: at first only a few minutes of very light walking, but gradually building up to thirty minutes of moderately brisk walking. I maintained this regimen steadily, rain or shine, every day, for years. I soon learned that timing was very important: the same walk done before eating, or more than two hours after, tended to be of relatively little use. The closer to the sweet-spot of about an hour after eating, the better it did at keeping my glucose down, since it was burning up glucose just about the time it most needed burning.

I also learned that walking was the ideal exercise. Something more aerobic like fast swimming would tend to raise my blood glucose, not lower it. Your body gets into "fight-or-flight" mode when you work hard, and your liver dumps glucose into the bloodstream thinking you're about to need it for a rush of activity, which would be fine if your insulin was up to managing that glucose, which it isn't. Generally speaking you want to have the most brisk exercise you can make yourself do regularly which does not make you out of breath; usually, that's walking, and you vary it by picking up the pace. I find walking on a treadmill at 2.4mph gets me the best balance; walking on a path ends up too relaxed and slow, so has no heart benefits. (But there are other advantages to it, so I still do that sometimes too, depending on weather.)

Results: I am sure my doctor didn't expect much of me. But within two months, I brought my A1c (a measure of long-term glucose control) down from 12.1 (somewhere in the stratosphere of "emergency!") to 7.1 (which was not too long ago the target level for diabetics, and generally considered something it takes years to reach). By five months I was within target ranges, and had gone off meds entirely on the way, controlling my glucose entirely with diet and exercise. Three months later I was within the range of normal people, something even the doctors don't suggest aiming for. My doctor was floored.

Falling Off: I kept up this regiment for about three years unfailingly. I never missed a day getting my three walks in. But gradually I tested my blood less and less because I already knew what it was going to be, and I hadn't had a significant spike in months, years. After a while, I decided to ease off on myself a little; I felt I had my control good and solid enough that if I eased off, my control was still strong enough to be able to take it, since my numbers were so incredibly rock-steady. I kept testing for a while as I eased off to make sure the numbers didn't slip, and they didn't, and then I cut back on testing again. And gradually, I got out of the habits.

First, I let the exercise ease. I decided I didn't have to rigidly do exactly three walks every day at prescribed times. Adding a little flexibility to my daily schedule was a boon I appreciated greatly. Then diet slipped. The convenience of pre-prepared foods and the time it took up to avoid them with homemade, plus the few things there was no proper substitute for (like a simple chocolate bar -- virtually all the substitutes are based on sugar alcohols, which cause me way too much gastrointestinal distress to be worth it) and cravings for those made it harder and harder. Gradually our pantry filled up with sweet and salty carby snacks; none of them was inherently bad, they were all fine as part of a carb budget, but they were being used instead of the low-carb equivalents and blowing the budget more and more as time went by, and those homemade low-carb solutions that are better and tastier, gradually stopped getting made, ever. All those high-carb snacks in the pantry nag at me; I'm too frugal to be willing to throw them away, so they become a burden I have a hard time resisting. And my fasting (morning) glucose numbers crept back up.

Fortunately, my A1c has mostly held within tolerable ranges. Even having fallen off the wagon this badly I still have some of the habits. But it's been creeping up. If I have one more slip, I'll probably go back on metformin for a while. (Which isn't bad, really; metformin doesn't give me any bad side effects, and it's actually good for heart health on its own.)

Getting Back On: A few times over the last few months I've made attempts to get back into those habits, but it seems to be harder to re-establish them than it was to establish them in the first place. One thing I did wrong was trying to jump right back in where I left off; thirty-minute walks were killing me and that was discouraging. So I'm trying to ease up with shorter walks instead, to recreate the gradual steps by which I worked my way into the habits the first time. Even so, it's been a lot of false starts; and the more false starts you have, the easier it is for each new one to get set aside because you can always try another new start next week.

Yesterday was the first day of another start but I'm determined it'll be the one. I am going to test before and after meals again, and make sure my walks happen at the right time. I'm going to carefully budget my carbs: I won't give up all the snacks, but I'll put them in the budget, and won't let the pantry feel like a to-do list. I will record all my meals so I won't be unaware of what I'm doing with my carb budget. And I'm not going to let it slip again.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Begging the question

It's almost time to get back to some more philosophizing, but first, yet another in the ever-popular series, Ranting About Language Misuses, soon to become a major motion picture (starring Tom Hanks as the dangling modifier).

"Begging the question" doesn't mean "raising the question". Fortunately, "raising the question" already means that, so we don't need another phrase that does.

"Begging the question" means a particular logical fallacy in which you, essentially, assume that the hypothesis is true in the process of proving the hypothesis. For example, it is begging the question to claim that abortion should be illegal because murder is illegal. Most forms of circular reasoning fallacies (e.g., "God must exist because the Bible says so, the Bible must be true because God created it") are also begging the question.

It's bad enough people don't understand logical fallacies, without also subsuming their names for a perfectly ordinary thing for which we already have a perfectly functional phrase.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


I'm not looking to debate the virtues of the motorcycle against their disadvantages here. Maybe another day. What I want to ask about is much simpler.

Regulation of automobiles includes a number of strict requirements which are intended to ensure that each automobile is a "good neighbor". There are safety requirements before automobiles may be sold or operated on public roads, concerning both their ability to withstand a crash and the amount of damage they can do to others. There was a while that convertibles were almost never made because materials technology wasn't up to making convertibles that could pass the roll tests, for instance. There are very specific requirements concerning emissions to control pollution. There are even requirements concerning noise levels. Most of these requirements are confirmed before the car is ever sold and then reconfirmed on an annual basis at an inspection, at the driver's cost. This system may not be perfect, but there are few (outside of libertarians, I imagine) that are advocating its elimination.

It seems that most of these rules are simply waived for motorcycles. Not weakened, not adapted, but simply omitted. Motorcycles do not and cannot offer even a miniscule fraction of the safety features of even the most dangerous car. Admittedly most of these glaring shortcomings are in dangers to the driver, though it's arguable that there are demonstrable ways in which a motorcycle makes the road more dangerous for others by his presence, due to his bike's almost complete lack of safety features. Motorcycles are routinely far, far louder than any car would be allowed to be and still pass its inspection. It's hard to think of any requirement automobiles have to pass that motorcycles have to pass; in fact, companies have made cutting-edge automobile designs into three-wheelers specifically to take advantage of the huge disparity in requirements.

What I don't understand is why the disparity is so great. Seems that all the reasons that justify most (probably not all, but most) of the requirements for automobiles should apply just as well to vehicles with fewer wheels.

Some of these requirements are intended to provide the driver protection for himself and his passengers, and I can accept that motorcyclists are allowed to knowingly, by informed consent, give up those protections -- for that I'll merely call them fools. (It can be and sometimes is argued that there's some room to argue against allowing people wantonly self-destructive behavior because of costs to society from such, but it's easily noted that's the slipperiest of slopes, so only the absolutely most egregious forms of victimless self-destruction are generally regulated on this basis. Whether motorcycles, with their incredibly high accident and fatality rates, constitute sufficiently egregious self-destruction is a fair question; but in the absence of a compelling case, I'll grant bikers the benefit of the doubt and say it isn't.)

But why are motorcyclists allowed to cause accidents that harm others at a vastly higher rate than other drivers do? Why are they allowed to make harsh blaring noise louder than five other cars put together as they rip through neighborhoods?

(To be fair, I'll point out that I realize a few things. Motorcycles get fantastic mileage and thus produce far less emissions. They take up less space in parking lots, even on roads. Their manufacture and disposal may well have less environmental impact. They probably cause less wear and tear on the road system. Duly noted, all. But as I said, I'm not here to debate the advantages and disadvantages of motorcycles, just to ask why the disparity exists on our society's standards for their impact on the rest of traffic.)

Friday, July 21, 2006


For me, the semicolon is one of the most useful punctuation marks out there. Commas and periods are functional and necessary, but they're like basic building blocks, essential but devoid of any lustre. But semicolons add something.

However, it seems like their use is dying out. Time and again I see them being deprecated in use suggesting their importance is diminished. For instance, quick keyboards on my Palm (whether hardware or software) relegate them to a secondary screen for less-commonly-used symbols. They're too far into the list of punctuation on my cell phone's keyboard entry. And in everyday writing I hardly ever see people use them. Often, I see people writing sentences that should have them, but putting a comma in instead, creating a run-on sentence. Sometimes I see people putting periods in their place, creating a bunch of incomplete sentences. But by and large, I don't see them anywhere.

Semicolons used to be considered so indispensable that they were positioned in a key place on the keyboard, a prime position other punctuation-marks could only envy, and for good reason; they were used that often. Your full-sized keyboard probably still has that key in that place, but most people probably imagine it to be another "anachronism" of an outdated keyboard design that dates from typewriter days.

I wonder if someday linguists will say things like "but near the beginning of the 21st century, the semicolon began to fall out of common usage" in that section of the dictionary where they talk about the interrobang and the thorn.

Monday, July 17, 2006

A clue about inbound port forwarding?

I ran out of ideas for things to check a long time ago with my problems with inbound port forwarding but I just had something happen that might provide a clue. (I'm assuming you've read that other post about the problem so I won't repeat the pertinent details here.)

I do most of my browsing in Opera, of course, but I keep IE around for those very few sites that need it. One of them is, unfortunately, HomeSeer's primary interface; thus, my IE home page is set to as that's the main place I go with it. Thanks to the Linksys's router, even though that maps to my network's external address (at the moment), even from inside it gets directed through the port forwarding to the right place.

IE is also the only way to access Windows Update, which I typically do from work. Thus, I start up IE and it tries to go to my HomeSeer site, fails, and I click Windows Update and it goes on from there. Done this dozens of times since the inbound port forwarding problem showed up and it went the same way each time.

Except today, it popped up the login credentials box to access HomeSeer, with the user ID and password already filled in. Excitedly, I clicked OK, and then... got the blank "The page cannot be displayed" page after all.

How could it be getting in at all, and then failing? One would wonder if the problem is in HomeSeer, thought it's hard to see how; but if it were, why would the same problem affect using SSH to get into my Linux box in the basement? Also, why would it be affecting attempts to access it using Opera just the same?

Attempts to repeat this odd little incident failed; it's back to the usual behavior of not loading at all. Maybe it doesn't mean anything.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Roleplaying game system "complexity"

RPGs are usually classified along a single, poorly defined, badly named axis: "complexity". At one end are so-called "rules-light" games which eschew having a lot of rules in favor of more use of GM fiat; their proponents are usually, though not always, overzealous about them, not content to espouse the virtues of those games but instead insisting they are the only way to play, everything, positing rules-light gaming as a "revolution". (Thankfully, this attitude has died down in the last few years considerably, but it still shows up.) The other end is variously called "rules-heavy" (usually by the rules-light proponents), "crunch", or occasionally, "rules-rich" (well, that's mostly just me).

The use of the word "complexity" for this is particularly unhelpful, not only because people have wildly different ideas of what adds complexity, but because bulk of rules does not really determine complexity (there is a correlation, but it's not a perfect one). Consider Rolemaster, usually the whipping boy for rules complexity. Is it complex? Yes, actually; but not at all for the reasons given.

It's called complex because of its combat charts: it has one chart for every weapon, with a column for every armor type. Is this complex? No, it's remarkably simple. Roll one die, add one number, add one of a very small set of possible bonuses or minuses, look it up. You've, without having had to think about it, already and automatically accounted for factors like how different classes of armor handle different classes of weapon differently, things which in other game systems require complex, multi-step rules involving conditional logic and multiple cross-references. Rolemaster handles those things better than almost any game out there, and it does it without using any rules, or requiring you to do any work, to get it -- because all that intelligence is encoded in the data in those charts, precalculated and stored. In practice, Rolemaster's combat system is by far the simplest of any game that actually attempts to model even half as much as it does.

Where Rolemaster is complex is in character generation. Some of this is inexcusable: its use of classes and levels, its varying skill costs being determined by a chart when a formula would do just as easily, and how stats take three forms, only one of which is used 95% of the time. You can only chalk those up to the time when it was created, and the evolutionary way it was designed. But some of it is entirely justified, in how it adds expressive range to the character system (I'll talk more about this later).

Rules-light zealots tend to insist that rules only get in the way of roleplaying, but in my opinion, that just means they haven't learned how to use them properly. Used well, they exist to facilitate the game, and will do so far more than they interfere with immersion or momentum. Sometimes you want more rules and sometimes less, depending on the intent of the game, its expected duration, the kinds of things characters will need to be able to do, etc. but you generally always need some, because they serve a number of important purposes.

Player knowledge of world physics: Unless you never play anything but Psychosis, it's probable that your characters will know something about their own skills, what they can and can't reasonably expect to do, what is likely to happen when they do it, and how to achieve straightforward objectives. Can I expect to be able to jump over that gap? If I fight that orc, will I die of an infection even if I triumph? If my Foraging skill is 8, can I survive in the woods during the summer? How about during the winter? Rules help players and GMs ensure they're on the same page. Fewer (or less clear) rules makes it more likely that players will get caught thinking they could do something the GM thinks they can't, which causes all kinds of ugly problems. It also makes it more likely that players will fail to attempt something that should have worked. In both cases, it means players won't have their characters do things that their characters should have realized to do, and thus, breaks realism and immersion at the same time.

Granularity: If you're running a quick one-shot, it's no problem that characters tend to be shallow clichés, and results of their actions tend to be repetitive and unrealistic. It's okay that it's impossible to have the rules distinguish between two similar, but notably different, kinds of characters, because they'd both be described in game terms in the same way. As a game becomes longer, deeper, or more involved, or covers a broader range of possibilities (like a time travel or dimension hopping game), you need a higher degree of granularity. This shows up particularly in character generation (as mentioned above for Rolemaster), where you want characters to be able to be different from one another in ways that aren't just special effects and window dressing, but actually have an impact on game mechanics. You also want granularity in the system that determines the outcomes of actions, such as skill rolls and combat rolls, to add richness to the range of possible outcomes and to allow all that granularity in character generation to actually matter mechanically.

Consistency: Even the best GM can't be as consistent as the simplest written rule. Consistency can be a boondoggle if used inappropriately; a good GM knows when to deviate from it. But throwing out consistency entirely because of this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It is precisely because of the background of consistency that inconsistency is so impactful; get rid of consistency and you take away the impact of deviations from it.

Filling in the gaps: No matter how well practiced a GM you are, you will fall into ruts. There will be whole classes of things that should happen that you would never be inspired to include in your games unless something reminds you now and then. GMing is hard and takes up a lot of your concentration. You have so many things to think about at once! The more you can offload some of that work into something else (like rules), and rely on them to remind you of the things it's hard to remember yourself, the better a realistic spread of outcomes you can achieve, all while freeing more of your own attention for the things you can do best that rules can't do, like creative endeavors.

Of course, in all these cases, bad rules will do worse than no rules. A lot of the arguments made by rules-light zealots are predicated on the assumption that the rules you'd be using are bad ones. For instance, that they would take up more of the GM's attention than they would free; or that they would create as many unrealisms as realisms. To be sure there are bad rules sets out there, and some of them are the larger or more "complex" ones, others the more popular ones, in some cases both; but it doesn't have to be that way. There are good rules sets out there that are easy to learn, quick to run, inspirational to the GM, and achieve all of these needs -- though perhaps there's no single game that is all of these things at once!

Rules are the engine that helps the GM do the bits that can be easily handled by rules; they don't replace GMing, and GMing doesn't replace them, if you want the best results. Sometimes you want lighter ones and sometimes heavier ones, because sometimes you want to pull a lighter load quickly, and sometimes you want to pull a heavier load a longer distance. Let me conclude with a bit of silliness with some truth in it:
(note: plans are currently underway to put two more trailers on)
(someday, I hope to get a trailer...)
(note: gears are grinding because it's been overloaded with too many yummy pastries)
(yes, you can play a ninja... even in Bunnies & Burrows)
Risussame as FUDGE, but with all the safety gear stripped off for speed, then replaced with garish, fluorescent racing stripes
The Window
(comes with the first eight pages of the skateboard repair manual, reprinted in medieval blackletter)

Friday, July 14, 2006

For all intensive purposes

There are a lot of little phrases and words that people only hear, never read, and so they don't know how to spell them or even what words are in them. There are some that are slang terms that almost everyone only hears, and then there are some that only get misspelled by those who don't read much -- like the title of this post, one of my favorites. I like to collect these. (Yes, I collect words; they're cheaper than stamps. Someday I'll talk about fossil phrases here, too.)

How about "beaucoup" (which is usually spelled "buko")? One that I don't know a proper spelling for, if there is one, is "bupkis". I know it is frequently argued whether the proper phrasing is "you've got another think coming" or "you've got another thing coming" (I lean towards the latter). Another one I see a lot is "persay".

Suggest a few others in comments to this post.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A word about words about words

Back in the 80s when I read Omni Magazine (before it transitioned into being the "paranormal crap" magazine) I remember one article, possibly in the Games column, which discussed a list of unusual words. The thing they had in common was that they were all words which described a class of words. Examples of words like that are "verb", "onomatopoeia", and "predicate", but this list was much more obscure words of the same class.

One of the words in the list, which was my favorite (thanks to my obsession with self-referentiality), was a word which described the class of words which are themselves descriptions of classes of words. In other words, the word which named the list itself in that article.

Unfortunately, I cannot remember what the word is. And for years, I've been unable to find it anywhere. I even went through archives of Omni Magazines once trying to find that article, to no avail. There's even a chance I read it in something else other than Omni, though my memory is pretty clear.

Anyone know what that word is, or have an idea for how I could find it?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Returning from vacation

Today is my first day back after a week of sit-around-at-home vacation.

The Week: Relaxing, in an amorphous, blurry way. Got a lot done on Bloodweavers, and a little on a few other projects, watched a few movies, did a little housework.

Saturday: We'd had an HDTV party when the HDTV was first in, but we didn't have any HD content. Now we have an HD DVR and an HD-DVD player, so a second party, this time using HD DVDs, was proposed and ended up on this date. It was kind of a bust; only two people showed up, and we didn't end up watching a single DVD. But I took the opportunity to make good Mexican food, including salsa cruda and crema, as well as fajitas (more Tex-Mex than Mexican), which was yummy. (Next time, tinga poblana, or chiles rellenos.)

Sunday: My 39th birthday, and a very fine and fun day. Resuming, after three years, playing a roleplaying campaign set in Hârn; it was a gentle reintroduction since we all were so blurry on our memories, plus starting a relatively novice roleplayer on a very complicated system. This was a blast; I love this campaign and my character in it. Also had leftover Mexican, supplemented with frijoles de olla (simple but yummy beans, as made in Mexico), and for dessert, trifle with fresh cherries and blueberries (yum!). Also some presents...

Legos: Actually, Mega-Bloks. I have a fairly good-sized collection, and added a wonderful 1200-piece set of nicely generic pieces in a variety of colors, including some I didn't have. I always prefer generic pieces in generic sets, compared to sets that have a particular model in mind, particularly if they have pieces that are little use except in that model. It's relaxing to just start building without even deciding what you're building, even if the result is sometimes a little silly. Played with these all day, while roleplaying.

Rubik's Cube: Back in the heyday, I had one, but I didn't solve it myself; it seemed too daunting, I didn't know where to start. So like most everyone else, I bought a cheat-book with a solution, learned it, and got fast with it. And looking at it, I realized what I'd been missing and that I should have been able to solve it; I always regretted not doing it myself, but it was too late, I already knew the solution. Fast-forward 25 years... and I still remember the few key concepts needed to get started, but do not remember the solution, so now I can actually solve it myself. So far I've only dabbled idly, without making notes or really focusing, but I've been able to do the first few steps -- of the 20 cubes that need to be positioned and oriented, I have 11. Not bad for just fiddling disorganizedly. Amusingly, the 25th anniversary edition comes with a solution in a booklet in the package, which I'm not going to read.

Back To Work: So far the transition back to work has been relatively painless, but it's still a little difficult. Thankfully there wasn't a huge pile of waiting issues awaiting me, nor did my cow-orkers mess up my workspace (a running office prank whenever anyone's on vacation, but I rarely get hit because I rarely participate in the hijinks myself). Getting back into the swing of things.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Meden agan: nothing too much

I've noticed a recurring theme in several of my recent posts:

Rejecting one side of a spectrum of possibilities doesn't justify accepting the other extreme.

Just because statistics can be deceptive doesn't mean they are worthless. Just because too much planning can be bad doesn't mean you should use none. Just because victim mentality exists doesn't mean people shouldn't have safeguards.

The Apollonian "golden mean", in Greek, was expressed "meden agan": "nothing too much". It applies in so many cases and situations. Another one I run into a lot: if everyone is extra special, then no one is; what is grand takes its grandeur from comparison to what isn't. So many people can't differentiate between raising the baseline and raising some point on the curve -- for instance, the difference between making everyone's standard of living a little better, and making your standard of living better.

I wish I could find a really complete but concise way to express how all these are the same thing, the same element missing from the thinking of so many people.

Sha la la la, live for today

I can appreciate the virtues of spontaneity and whimsy, but it seems the converse virtues of organization and planning are not so well respected in popular culture. Perhaps it's just because there's a personality-type correlation between artistic types and a distaste for planning (correlation, not equivalence!) or perhaps it's more endemic.

Consider the idea of vacation travel. Being organized is often equated with "no fun"; one imagines a stuffy bureaucrat with a clipboard and a stopwatch, taking a perfunctory picture of Big Ben, making a tiny tick in a tiny checkbox, then hurrying off to Westminster Abbey from 3:38 to 3:46. The idealized romantic fantasy is that you just grab a few things, hop in the car or on a plane, breeze through some interesting place, and have lots of exciting, unpredictable adventures and experiences.

That's how it happens, too... in romantic comedies. In real life, the person who is being spontaneous may well have a wonderful vacation; I've done the "let's leave tomorrow" trip during peak season and had it all work out wonderfully, so it can happen. But it's far more likely they'll pay twice as much to spend half as much time and do half as many things, they'll wait in long lines and not be able to get in to places they want to go, and they'll come away disappointed.

And there is no reason that a planned trip has to be no fun. The clipboard-and-stopwatch image is an absurd extreme. A more moderate and realistic trip would have blocks of time for things, to make sure to arrive when you need to, and to have reservations where needed, but it wouldn't be broken down to the minute, nor would it be rigidly adhered to regardless of circumstance or whim.

That doesn't mean there isn't a time to get away from some of the organization in your life. Being on vacation (albeit stay-at-home vacation) myself this week, I've just been thinking about that. But you don't have to go to the far extreme; that's throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The trick is to use the right amount of organization, not too little or too much, to suit the activity.

Time is the one thing you can't ever get more of. "Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of." - Benjamin Franklin

Monday, July 03, 2006

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

With the July Fourth holiday rolling around, this old chestnut has been brought up again:
In a recent study these dates, ranked in order, were identified as the 10 deadliest days of the year to drive. Mark these on your calendar and stay put on these dates.
The list that follows is notably mostly holidays, particularly summer holidays. The list is usually provided without any explanation of methodology.

Some people conclude you should stay home on those dates. Far too many, in fact. But of course even a moment's thought will reveal the problem: there are more fatalities on those dates for no more reason than that there are more cars on the road. I don't mean "heavier traffic causes collisions" (though that may well be true); I mean simply, if there's more cars out there, there's more collisions.

At a bare minimum, the study should be reporting number of fatalities per thousand cars on the road, or per thousand people in cars on the road, or something. If there are four times as many cars on the road tomorrow as today, and twice as many collisions, is it safer to drive today or tomorrow? Obviously tomorrow.

Fine, easy enough. I've written before about this. But let's push up another level. What really gets my goat is that, if you point this out, the knee-jerk, thoughtless chorus of "oh my, we should stay home that day" idiots are replaced by another knee-jerk, thoughtless chorus of "statistics are all lies" idiots.

Yes, statistics can be deliberately deceptive. And they are often deceptive unintentionally, particularly to those who (a) don't understand them, and (b) aren't in the habit of thinking critically. However, that's not a trait of statistics. Charts can be deceptive to those same people. Essays can. Photographs can. Sentences can. Words can. Inarticulate grunts can.

The problem isn't in statistics. It's in the people who mislead with them, and even more, in the people who do not understand them and then pass blame for that on everyone but themselves. Statistical analysis can be a fine and effective tool for uncovering, describing, and understanding truth, particularly patterns in the world around us. But they depend on the listener to invest a little thought, understanding, and wisdom, as well as the speaker, if they're going to work. Don't blame statistics themselves.

Being medieval

Here's another rant inspired by Harshlands, but posted here to avoid a big unwarranted flareup. Also, it's not by any means limited to Harshlands, but affects all medieval-analogue game settings. Harshlands actually does the best in this regard of any game I've seen (other than a scant handful of pencil-and-paper games, including Harn-set ones) -- which is why the times it doesn't seem so important.

The medieval mindset is very different from the modern mindset in some key ways. One of the most important ways is that it was far more uniform. Diversity of opinion itself is a relatively modern concept, and was much more circumscribed in the Middle Ages. Here are some key social tenets that were nearly universally believed in the Middle Ages that modern people often have trouble with.

  • Nobles are different from commoners. They are genuinely better than commoners. They may have flaws, but even so, the flaws are exceptions.

  • Marriage is the core unit of society. The purpose of marriage is to create a family -- that means children. Those who reject marriage put themselves in the same fringe of society as occupied by harlots and thieves.

  • Worker's rights? What are those? The vast majority of people barely subsist and consider themselves lucky for it.

  • There's no such thing as free trade, and the idea of laissez-faire economics is absurd. Monopolies are not just part of trade, they are almost all of it.

  • Social mobility is a fairy tale. (Literally. Think back to the fairy tales you learned as a child. How many of them, especially the oldest, talk about the incredibly unlikely or even magical means by which a peasant leaves the peasant class?)

  • You can't hope to "deserve" fairness and justice. When you get them, consider yourself lucky. That's the exception; most of the time, might (and wealth) makes right.

  • Almost everyone is, by modern standards, ugly. Between poor hygiene, rampant disease, vastly higher costs for clothing (and even more so for colorful or luxurious clothing), and long work under the sun, people are drab, wrinkled, pockmarked, and plain.

  • Beer and ale are mainstream things everyone drinks. Water is often unsafe, but beer is more likely to be safer. And beer in those days is far weaker even than American beer today; distilled spirits strong enough to get drunk off are too expensive for you. Children drink beer and are none the worse for it.

  • Everyone professes a religion. Someone who does not is not to be trusted, and perhaps seen as somewhat insane.
It's entirely possible for someone in a medieval setting to deviate from one or more of these. Particularly player-characters, since they are by definition expected to be exceptional in some way. It's good roleplaying to deviate from one of them for some specific reason in your background, and then to live with the consequences as the society around you rejects you for that. It's bad roleplaying to deviate from most or all of them habitually, especially without a good reason. And it's worse roleplaying (or not roleplaying at all) to deviate from them and not expect and accept the in-character consequences.

When everyone in a game deviates from its setting's social norms, those norms start to get ephemeral and feel unimportant. It's important that a lot of players make a point of embracing most of these norms. It's fine to deviate from some of them to make your character more interesting, but you should also "do your part" by embracing others to help establish the norms. After all, if no one established the norm you're rebelling against, it won't be very interesting for you to rebel against it. So help other people get that same frisson by giving them bits of the social norm to contrast with when possible.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

On vacation!

Today marks the start of a week's vacation for me, and none too soon. I have no big plans for it; I'll mostly be sitting around watching movies, working on Bloodweavers, and playing games.

By nature, or at least by habit, I have the kind of personality that means I'm always looking to see what the next thing is on my project list. I am a list-maker. I'm very bad at doing nothing. When I go away on a vacation, it takes me hours to stop thinking, literally every minute or two, "okay, that's done, what should I be doing next?"

This isn't that kind of get-away-from-everything vacation, and I may indulge myself in doing a few projects. But I am going to give myself permission to do nothing at least some of the time. Also to do things, even project things, that I feel like, even if they're not next.