Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Big-screen monitor

I've been meaning to get a long enough HDMI cable to reach from my laptop to my 62" DLP HDTV but never got around to it. I happened to see one at a great price at, of all places, Big Lots, so now I can use the big screen TV as my second monitor. It makes a very impressive 1920x1080 display when you put anything from a web browser to the demo of Celestia on it.

While I might try playing some computer games on it (a flight simulator on that would be literally dizzying) the main thing I intend to do with it for now is use it as a gamemaster. To start with, it'll be a step up from using the PS3 to display visual aids and maps -- I have more control in zooming in, altering images, putting multiple images at once, etc. The second step will be combat maps; I once worked out a good way to use Paint Shop Pro to do this on a spare LCD monitor, but haven't used that technique in years, and now I can't really figure out how I did it. (I thought it was just the juxtaposition of a raster and a vector layer, but it doesn't seem to work that way.)

But the real big step will be an addition to my IRIS software. This is a little program I put together that automates a lot of the mechanics of running combat using Prism and particularly IRIS, its initiative system.

While the software tracks actions and combat stats and a lot more, it leaves all this for me to see, and the players are a little cut off from it. When someone's action comes up, they often don't know it's coming, and aren't ready. Sometimes they've lost track of the situation their characters are in. This slows things down, which makes combat less engaging, which makes them bored and detached, which makes it more likely that by their next action they'll be even farther removed and less ready to go with an action.

Some of this I can blame on the people at the table (myself included!). We could all make things move twice as fast by having our actions chosen ahead of time (including NPC actions), our dice and skill sheets ready, etc. But we are by disposition very inclined to distraction. Even so, some of the blame falls on the system. Its design lends itself well to an abstracted, idealized situation that isn't very realistic, particularly at the present time with limits in technology. It is more of a criticism than self-praise to say it's ahead of its time; it would make more sense with more pervasive and smart technology, because it'll turn out eventually to be very well suited to a day when pervasive technology facilitating roleplaying games is commonplace. But until then it depends too much on players thinking like me -- which they don't.

This simple $15 cable and a few hours of coding time (which I am very much looking forward to, once time allows) will be I think a very big step, though. It's not an ambitious goal to start. All I will have is a "player's view" of the combat in a separate window I can drag over to the second monitor. It will show the current phase, who's acting, and their status; then a table of all the player characters, when they will act next, and their status; and then details on the status of any one of those player characters I click on (or the one whose action it is). No more than that. But in big, bold letters, plainly visible throughout the combat to everyone.

My hope is that this will offer players an opportunity to be more engaged and ready. When your action comes up you know your character's situation, you knew the action was coming, you are hopefully ready to go. Maybe you'll take the next step and have dice and character sheet ready already. And then the vicious cycle may turn to a virtuous cycle: if combat picks up in pace, it becomes more interesting, and that makes people more eager for their next action, and then more ready for it when it comes, and thus combat picks up in pace even more.

Then we'll see what else should go there. The obvious next thing is to make a combat map system integrated with IRIS. Then if you move from point A to point B, you pass through the intervening spots at the appropriate times. All the advantages of highly granular systems like GURPS where a long move is done as a series of independent steps (e.g., you can intercept someone mid-movement) without the disadvantages (e.g., having to take each individual step instead of just declaring one action and letting it carry you there). By the time that's done I'll probably have lots of other ideas.

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