Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

Dementedly Inspired

Gonna talk about writing for a bit, namely my own stuff.

I wasn’t even a couple thousand words into my first Misadventure novella when I realized I wrote myself into a corner. Basically, the story revolves around a rescue mission that Cuyudan and Falangost botch by losing the person they’re trying to rescue. I intended to then jump straight to another party claiming the reward for the rescue and taking the story elsewhere…

But where?

It hit around 12:30 last night. I’m lying in bed, waiting for the melatonin to kick in so I can actually get a good night’s rest. Some nights my mind’s running at about 100 miles an hour: thoughts, plans, anxieties — the very stuff that life is made of. This was one of those nights, and I starting thinking about working on my Misadventure and what those two lunkheads are going to do when… pop… there’s the answer.

I didn’t write it down then and there because… well, I had melatonin working it’s way to my brain. Didn’t want to miss out on a night’s sleep because I’ve done enough of that in the past, to be honest. But it’s there now, on a file waiting my further exploitation.

I know some writers like to keep journals so they can write down their dreams and look for inspiration, but the first thing I need to do when the alarm goes of is inspire my sorry ass to move. Let’s just be honest, I’m thankful if I’m semi-coherent when I get up, and I don’t drink coffee in the morning any more. Besides, I don’t put stock in my dreams. The only one that made enough sense that I can recall took place in Moscow and involved a pair of werewolves that had been relocated there from Chernobyl when the reactor shit the bed. Some of the stuff in that dream bothered me, and that’s hard to do — but I’ve yet to write that story.

Oh, and there was that dream from when I was thirteen and beat up the nemesis of a recurring dream I had when I was a kid: some entity disguised as Cookie Monster trying to eat me. I shit you not, that recurring dream ended that night.

I think that’s when I started showing an interest in writing. Either that or I’m weirder than I thought. Both are plausible.

I’ve never been one to wait for inspiration or muses to get me going on a story. I tend to start with an idea and run with it, although typically I hold back until I’ve found a second idea to mate with it to give the story something worthwhile.* Nor am I the type of writer to believe in an “organic process” or that characters have “lives of their own.” No, things happen in stories because I try to make them happen, and if it’s not working for one reason or another, I try something else.

That’s just my approach to the craft. I won’t advocate it as “the way” to tackle the written word because there is no one way. Some people prefer to work in a freeflowing environment. I like a certain measure of order.

Have I been inspired by outside sources? Absolutely! Sometimes it’s by what I read, what I see on TV, or even the spirit of the times. Ultimately the decision of how ideas fit a story — if at all — comes down to me, however. I agree that sometimes the subconscious has to sort things out, but I don’t count on it. I’m the one putting the words on the page after all.

 

*It was a concept in writing that clicked with me when I read Patricia Highsmith’s “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction.” By the way, if the name’s not familiar to you, she wrote “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” which was adapted to a film staring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow

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Whither the Gold Box?

Next Thursday I’ll be getting my geek on at GenCon. Sadly, that’s likely all I’ll be getting on while I’m there, but that’s another topic for…never. Regardless, you might not be hearing from me much late next week as I’ll be drinking with con buddies or slinging dice.

With that in mind I wanted to reminisce for a bit about gaming, specifically on the computer given my recent experience with Dungeon Siege 3. By the end, I mentioned that Ye Olde Games such as the “Gold Box” series are truly a relic of the past. That’s not being bitter — paradigms change, sometimes to make the most of the technology. It would actually be difficult to present the Gold Box game on a gaming console in a way that would make them playable. In doing so, it’s likely they’d lose the nostalgia aspect and evolve into a different form of game altogether.

The Gold Box games were named such because… well, they came in a gold colored cardboard box. Pool of Radiance was the first of the series, released in 1988.* For sake of comparison, a $1400 dollar computer could get you a 286 Intel processor, 640 kilobytes of RAM, a 14″ monitor, and a 3.5″ floppy drive that served as storage (capacity, 1.44 megabytes). Today, that same amount of money will land you a MacBook Air.

Oh, how the times have changed.

But Pool of Radiance was unique in that it was the first official adaptation of the AD&D rules.** You created and essentially micromanaged a party of adventurers with the intent of taking back the city of Phlan from the monsters that overran the place years ago. Game play was fairly simple and straightforward: clear out city blocks, then explore the countryside to deal with other matters threatening the city. The scope suited the plot well, making for a solid experience.

With graphics like these, it’s easy to see that visuals were not that highly regarded. The play was the thing. While they couldn’t adapt all the rules into computer code (The only classes available were Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric and Thief***), they did a bang up job of what they did use. When I say micromanagement, I do mean it. You had to create six adventurers, move and command them individually on the battlefield with each turn, handle equipment and other preparations — you even had to train your party members in order for them to gain a level.

It made for a memorable, if sometimes frustrating experience. More than once was I forced to reload due to death(s) in the party. Or sometimes level loss due to the Valhingen Graveyard. Or because I forgot to map an area and I ended up completely lost as a result. Oh, yes, I drew maps. You had to with these games. I used graph paper to meticulously draw out the 16×16 grids that represented city blocks.

So you can see why this might not translate to the Xbox or the Playstation very well.

Pool of Radiance was followed by Curse of the Azure Bonds (an adaptation of the novel Azure Bonds), Secret of the Silver Blades (probably the best in the series), and ending in 1991 with Pools of Darkness. The series allowed you transfer characters from previous games, meaning your party could get to ridiculously high levels. More often than not, however, the situation warranted it.

Baldur’s Gate was a more refined game engine, utilizing  the technology of 1998 to allow for “real-time” engine and more advanced graphics and animation. Instead of forming a party, you created one central character and could assemble a party from other NPCs you could meet during your journey. What made this game unique was the level of sophistication for the party AI. Khalid would turn and flee if he got too badly hurt. Minsc, if beserk, could start wailing on party members if they got too close. Despite that, this was still a party of adventurers you micromanaged, as you did with the Gold Box.

Also, like the preceding series, this is another game that can’t translate well to the consoles. Even though they have the technology to do so, the nature of console games makes them geared more for faster paced action in an RPG. Do I miss playing these older games? Hell yeah, and in fact I’ve reloaded them on more than one occasion for nostalgia’s sake. Still, new games are coming out that prove the genre of CRPGs is healthy and growing, and not going away any time soon.

And if I really want to get old school, there’s always the pencil & paper RPGs.

But that’s a topic for another day…

*Good Gawd, this game is 23 years old??!? I think I might have to go cry now.

** This was back in the day when we used THAC0 and liked it! Now you goddam kids and your rollerskates get the hell of my lawn!

*** Yeah, we called them Thieves back in the day. That’s because they tended to be Stabby McBastards.

Seven Hours and a Pound of Flesh (eewww…)

Five months ago I made mention of my weight, and I’m happy to say I’ve lost nine pounds since February. That puts me at 198, only 13 pounds from my goal. It feels pretty good to stay under 200, and I’m hoping to be at 195 in time for GenCon. Here’s hoping my kilt still fits.

Last week, friend, colleague and all around Good Person Bill Moran had this to say on the subject of weight loss. He’s right in that the best way to lose weight is to burn more calories then you consume. He’s also right in that for such a simple method, it’s harder than it looks.

It requires a measure of observation and self reflection. The first is taking a look at what and how much you eat, the second is asking if you’re ready to go this route — because it’s not easy. As there’s no magic bullet for losing weight, there’s no one method that is universal. I could say, “eat right and exercise” but even that’s vague — even though there’s truth to it given calories and activity.

I love Five Guys and Fries. Damn good eatin’. But consider that a bacon cheeseburger is about 600 calories, and a “small” order of fries is 900 (at least — if you’ve been there you know how they load you up on the spuds). That’s 1500 calories in one meal. If you normally burn 1500 calories at rest, then anything you eat beyond that is going to get stored as fat. If you like Charley’s Subs, consider that a regular Philly Cheesesteak and gourmet fries runs up 1910 calories. After learning that bit, I’ve yet to get food from Charley’s.

I’m not saying you have to go eat salads every day — hell, I tried salads every other day and that lasted about a week. My point is by being aware of how much fuel goes into your body gives you some idea of the scope of the changes you might need to make. How you make those changes is something else. Maybe you can do salads and be satisfied. Maybe you can eat six small meals a day. Maybe you need to see a doctor or a nutritionist to come up with a plan.

And maybe that’s all you need to lose weight.

I have found, at least in my case, that activity makes a big difference. I work out, on average, about seven hours a week. That’s about 4.2% of the entire week. My father lost thirty pounds in two to three months in part by walking an hour each day. Seven hours a week is not a big investment, but it can be just as difficult to make as changing dietary habits.

It takes time and money, and people can have excuses and reasons not to pony up either commodity. Note that I said “excuses and reasons” — there’s a difference between “can’t” and “won’t.” While it’s true that getting started begins with a decision, it’s not that cut and dry. The same goes with changing diet. A person with an eating disorder isn’t necessarily going to wake up one morning and say “I’m gonna lose all this weight.” He might say, “I need help if I ever want to lose this weight,” or he might end up getting put on a diet and exercise regimen because of major health issues (mental or physical).

It took a heart attack for my Dad to make the change, while it took me being sick and tired of being fat. At the same time, it took me a year to lose what my Dad dropped in three months. Also, he did it on his own by walking (okay so he and his wife went together) and not having thirds at dinner, whereas I worked at a gym with a trainer.

But there is one truth about “the decision” and that’s only you can make it. Sometimes circumstances can force your hand, but it still comes down to you. I’ve known people to persist in a lifestyle despite the effects of it blowing up in their face. When you can say without a doubt you’re ready to do something, you find a way to do it. You may not succeed at it, but if you persevere and learn from your mistakes, you’ll make that goal.

Post Game Analysis: Dungeon Siege 3

Well, I finished Dungeon Siege 3 last night. My review for the game is here, formed after about four hours of game play. The main plot takes about twelve to thirteen hours to complete, and my views haven’t changed since getting through to the end. It’s left me wondering how a company could have wholly missed the feel of the first two games in the series.

Don’t get me wrong — Consoles aren’t PCs, so the gaming experience has to be different on each platform. Managing inventory, for example, can’t possibly port over to the console simply because using the controller as a mouse to Tetris-pack items is counter-intuitive.*

So the questions that should come up, given my review and gripping on Twitter:

1) What the hell was I expecting?

2) Why the hell did I keep playing the game?

We talked about expectations before — I wasn’t expecting anything plot heavy, and even though I did stumble on some poorly presented context regarding an heir to the Kingdom of Ehb, the matter worked itself down to a mere quibble. Nothing by which I can condemn a book or a game by itself. Hell, the first Dungeon Siege game didn’t have much of a plot either: You, a mere farmer, get jumped by a bunch of primitive Kurg. After beating them off with farming tools, you run to civilization to get help only to find things going bat-shit bananas everywhere else. Along the way you find other characters you can bring into your group, and you and your three allies go off to save the Kingdom. By comparison, the sequel has a bit of a deeper more complex plot that ends in a world shattering cataclysm.

And that event is completely ignored in the third game. Yes, it takes place 150 years after the first one, but… earth shattering kaboom! How could you miss that? I think I was expecting a story line that continued off the second game — building from the ashes of a broken world. Didn’t get that at all. Even if the plot was decent, it wasn’t what I thought it would be.

But really, I went into this looking to kick ass and take names with a four person party who got good at what they did by doing it. That’s how the first two games worked. Want to be good at melee? Hit things with a sword. Want to be good at blowing things up with magic? Here’s a spell, go to town. Your characters grew organically as a result. All items, save for healing and mana potions, had prerequisites that could be met if your character worked his or her way up to it.

Not so in the third game. You basically picked one character crammed into a class/level/XP system. Arguably a fair mechanic, but not what I was looking for in a Dungeon Siege game. Also, while described your group as a party, you were really working as a pair — you plus one of the three you didn’t pick as a friendly NPC. And while you have absolute control of the character’s growth of abilities in the game, you can’t control the character in the game itself. I couldn’t understand why you couldn’t do that — Dragon Age could. So could Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. On the other hand, Mass Effect didn’t let you leap between party members, but you could issue orders to your squad.

There was also this “influence” system that depended on your dialogue choices during conversation scenes. It gave little benefit for it to be something for me to care about, but more importantly, it felt like it was trying to play off games that had similar mechanics (both Dragon Age games and Mass Effect 2) without making the commitment that made that aspect of the game important. In DA, loyalty could lead to romance, and it affected the NPC’s performance. In ME2, lack of loyalty could get an NPC killed in the “suicide mission” at the end.

Oh, and save points, because… really, Square Enix?

In many aspects, the game just felt dated, like it was released several years to late.

So why keep playing? One reason is the general principle brought by expense. I paid $60 for the game, so I needed to see the plot through just once. On top of that, the best I could get by returning the game is a portion of the original price in store credit.

The other is that despite my griping the game wasn’t terrible — but it wasn’t awesome. There were times I was having some fun with it, talking smack on my digital enemies as I hacked into them with a big-ass sword that had the sweetest, most sinister red glowing flame about it. I skipped my way through a lot of the dialogues, skimming the subtitles and clicking my choices. Dungeon Siege was always about the action, and I wasn’t there to jaw with Talky Man.

My criteria for accepting or tossing games is nothing like what I use for books — obvious given the difference in mediums — but a game has to truly suck if I’m going to return it to the store without playing it through.

Only one game has ever prompted that: Blood Bowl, the console adaptation of the miniatures game by Games Workshop. If you’re not familiar with it the concept is NFL football with Elves, Orcs, Undead and the like, using a football with spiky bits and the potential for team-mates to have a career ending death.

When I got the XBox version of this game, I was expecting something that played sort of like Madden only with comedic bloodshed. What I got was something with crappy graphics, shitty camera views and boring turn by turn game play that even emulated rolling dice. It went back to the store the same day.

I think if Dungeon Siege 3 played more like its predecessors and less like a typical CRPG, I would have not responded to it the way I did. Instead I feel let down, even wondering if ye olden days of CRPGs (be they console or computer) as set forth by first Pool of Radiance and then Baldur’s Gate are done and gone.

But that’s a topic for another day…

*A XBox game that tries using the controller as a mouse is never going to work well for me. Any more I’m lucky I can shoot straight in an FPS, but that’s a topic for another day.

Upgraded

You know the weather’s scorching when the thermometer on your back porch is asking for a glass of ice water.

Well, I made the call and got a new laptop. Even though the new MacBook Air looked tempting, I couldn’t bite the bullet. Ask me again four or five years later and I might reconsider — of course, by then the Air might be replaced with something else new and expensive.

Instead, I went with the HP Pavilion I was talking about earlier. It may not be as nifty as an Air, but I like it, it’s comfortable to work with, and to be honest an eight hour battery is just too good to pass up. Right now I’m listening to Pandora while typing this, and it’s chugging along just fine. The fact that I’m in the coolest part of the house is probably another reason.

As an experiment, I went out to a local library yesterday to see if it both machine and I were capable of writing in that environment. I’m happy to say that it went well, even though the battery was only at 25% when I took the trip. Cranked out a thousand words in my first misadventure novella with Cuyudan and Falangost. Yes, you heard that right. These guys are going to be screwing up quite a bit in their escapades, and it will be awesome.

The more I use it, the more I feel this laptop was a good purchase. It’s got what I need with a little extra and was highly affordable. I had been comparing it to that Toshiba at Best Buy, and although processing power and memory wasn’t an original concern it did sway my thinking once I did a little more research.

I need to make some adjustments, though. The keyboard doesn’t have a numeric keypad — the Home, Page Up, etc keys are all in a single column down the right. That’s taking a little getting used to. Also, I keep getting this urge to touch the screen to click links and such. I have to remind myself this is not my iPad.  The mouse pad, however, was easy to get used to, and unlike my Acer it can be switched off. The wireless can also be switched off with a function key. That’s good to know, should I need to conserve power or isolate myself from the Web.

Having just transferred all my documents and pics from the Acer to here, I’m going to see if I can find a new home for the laptop. It will come with a caveat that it needs a new battery. I don’t see a laptop that can hold seventy to ninety minutes of charge being very useful.

Looks like I’ll still have a Windows system in this house for a while more.

Setting the Bar (And Stocking It Well)

Tonight I’m going blather about expectations and how they can shape an opinion. Like opinions, expectations are highly subjective, so there’s no absolutes but there are commonalities.

Expectations are shaped by that so very important first impression of a work. Sometimes the specter of stereotype kicks in. Does the front cover of that novel feature a woman wearing tight pvc pants or a mini skirt, perhaps even sport a tattoo somewhere? Chances are you’re looking at paranormal romance, although some might bill it as urban fantasy. I know that’s painting a genre with a broad brush, but trends like that happen.

The common conceits and tropes of genre also help shape perception. It gives you an idea of what’s to come. If a book is described as influenced by the works of Robert E. Howard, then it’s a safe bet that the hero may have rippling thews* and someone at some point is going to get a broadsword to the face. Space opera? Well I’d expect FTL travel and diverse alien races, to name a couple of things.

Establishing expectations is also important in determining the type of emotional investment you want from an audience. If you pick up a Discworld novel thinking you’re getting into some grim and serious fantasy, you…you need therapy. Regardless of how you build up to it, you need to have your audience in the right mindset for what you’re offering.

When something happens that doesn’t fit a preconceived notion, it can throw your audience for a loop. This can be a good thing if you do something unexpected for a reason (one of those “know when to break the rules” moments) and carry it off well. One good example would be the character Jane in the film Thor – someone I predicted would be the hero’s love interest. What I didn’t anticipate was her pursuing him and giving the inevitable kiss before the climatic battle. It was a good character arc and I ended up enjoying the film all the more because of it.

However, if it’s handled poorly for one or more various reasons, it can knock your audience out of the story, and that’s never a good thing. In the television series The Cape, I expected Summer Glau and Keith David to give solid performances. Instead, David was underused (though he made the most of it) and Glau hit a point where she just decided to phone it in.

To be fair, I had other expectations for The Cape, partly because I saw very little in the way of previews for the show, and because I had some notions about the show that were never within its own scope. Sometimes what any given member of your audience may be beyond your ability to influence – it happens. Like the famous cave on Dagobah, it’s “what you take with you.”

Expectations have both a qualitative and a quantitative sense to them. It’s why I still love shows like Farscape and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys but not something like The Cape or The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I liken the experience to food. Every now and then, I like a well made gourmet meal. That can be your Game of Thrones or Mass Effect or something similar. But sometimes I just want a cheeseburger and I’ll go to Wendy’s (Stargate — TV or film, Dynasty Warriors). Now if I reach for my tray when my order’s up and find a Five Guys burger waiting for me – well, it’s not what I ordered, but you know what? That’s a damn good burger (Thor, Left 4 Dead 2, Stargate Universe). Instead if I get some half thawed White Castle sliders (Battlefield Earth, Blood Bowl**) then I’m gonna be a little upset and vociferous.

So, know what you’re getting into when you pick up that book or Blu-Ray. That way you’ll be better suited to focus on the quality of the work, and you might end up pleasantly surprised as a result.

 

 

 

*Remember, only you can talk to your doctor about Rippling Thews.

 

** By this I mean the recent adaptation of the game for consoles (XBox, et al). To this date it is the only game I’ve returned to the store the day I purchased it because it sucked that bad.

Technobabble (Episode the First)

I’m still going to be talking about expectations in fiction on Wednesday, but I want to divert and talk about my quest for technology a little more.

As I said last week I’m in the market for a new laptop. I’ve had an Acer Inspire One Netbook for a few years, and I’m deciding on giving up and going with a full size laptop for several reasons:

1) Too small. A 10″ screen is just too small for me to be productive. The keyboard isn’t crampy, but it’s always felt a little on the tight side. Even on this docking station for my iPad, I feel like my fingers have room to make their own typos — not their neighbor’s. It looks all right when I plug it into a monitor, but that kind of defeats the purpose.

2) Too small. I have to use a lap desk just to use the thing in my lap. Also, kind of defeats the purpose.

3) Battery life. The normal battery life on the Inspire One was originally 3.5 hours. Now, I’m lucky if I can get it go more than an hour without being plugged in. Granted I could shop around for a replacement battery, but the last time I checked they ran about $150, and as I mentioned before I’m tired of staring at a tiny screen.

4) Acer’s Tech Support… not all that great. Acer’s support is web only. There is no number to call if you’re having problems with your product. For me, that’s fine and dandy when I’m at home with the iPad and the Mini and able to browse the web, but at a con, it’s not so good. Yeah, my phone has a web browser, but any ticket I open gets shunted to my email addy, and I don’t like reading email on my phone. But what if the user is someone who doesn’t have any other means of web access? What if I have a presentation to do in an hour, and my computer won’t start up?

Now, what am I looking to use the laptop for? Writing on the go, and posting on the web. The iPad was going to be my web-posting device, but a recent snafu with an entry to my WordPress page made that less appealing(and to be fair, it could have been a PEBCAK issue or a WordPress glitch — I honestly don’t know). Because of that, memory and CPU are not big deals for me. I need three, maybe four pieces of software to run: Open Office, Chrome, MS Office and (maybe) a good Twitter client.

Why Open Office and MS Office? Well, until publishers and agents stop asking for stuff in .doc formats that’s what I gotta use. Yes, Open Office can export an .odt into a .doc, but I need to double check and fix whatever gets screwed up in the translation. Typically the process makes my headers explode. There’s a fix in Open Office for it, but frankly I don’t feel like mucking around in code I don’t understand.

I would love to have a MacBook Air. A 2.9 pound system with a 13″ screen and a seven hour battery life make it a sweet, sweet tool for writing. It would cost me $1390 — and that’s including paying Governor Corbett his due. I wouldn’t have to by MS Office for it, however, as the package I have has a three site license, and I have one left. But still, 14 Benjamins is a bit steep for what I want. On top of that, I’ve heard rumors floating around about the Air getting a hardware upgrade — some of them pointing to a release this very week. Even the guy at the Apple store told me to wait a while.

So, I’ve been looking in the PC market as well. Today I went out to four stores hunting laptops. I was a salesman’s worst nightmare — a consumer who knows the balance between what he wants, what he needs and what he’s willing to to pay for it. I hit four stores: Office Max, Best Buy, Office Depot and HHGregg. My criteria for the laptop were:

1) Base price of $600 or less. If I go with a PC, I’m going to need to buy a copy of MS Office. That’s $150 right there. If I can keep the total price at $800 or less, go me.

2) Screen size of 14 inches or greater. As most of my potential purchases were either 14″ or 15.6″, this was an easy one to fill.

3) Weight less than six pounds. I intend to go places with this thing, and that includes vacations, conventions and the like. If I’m going to be carrying it around for more than an hour or two, I don’t want a lot of excess weight. At a gaming or writing convention, books will be a part of my load, and if I’m dragging weight, my ass will be sure to follow in short order.

4) Battery life of five to six hours. I’d prefer more, naturally, but this seems like a fair amount. I don’t how one gets this measurement, but I figure light use (i.e. writing and not surfing the net) should allow the battery to last longer.

5) Not Acer. I like having support I can call.

Office Max was my first stop. The selection was… okay, but only one laptop really stood out: an HP Pavilion DM4. It only had a 14″ screen, but it boasted an 8 hour battery and weighed only 4.4 pounds. It also came with an offer to bundle in MS Office at a discount ($50 off), racking up a final price tag of $695.47. Pricey, but the battery life and the weight really caught my eye.

Best Buy had the best selection. Six made the muster, the best deal being a Toshiba E-350. 15.6″ in screen, a six-hour battery, and it weighed in at 5.5 pounds. All for $537.97 (with MS Office and tax). The two runners up were the HP B940 and the HP i3-2310M. Both had 14″ screens, six hour batteries (the i3 boasted 6.75) and both weighed in at 4.4 lbs. The B940 was three dollars cheaper, but the i3 came with a higher price tag (Office & tax: $748.98)

The problem is that, as a consumer, I’m not sure if I trust Best Buy. There used to be a similar BigBoxTech style store called CompUsa, and shopping with them yielded less than stellar results — one of which led to my mother being conned into buying an extended warranty that on paper only covered manufacturer’s defects. In other words the salesman lied to my Mom. That’s an act of war in my book. Plus, I’ve heard many tales of woe when it came to calling on BestBuy for support.

I frequently shop at Office Depot, but for some reason today I felt crowded in by sales people, including an HP rep who really wanted my business. Then she got two other clerks in on the conversation and they moved around me to compare systems while effectively talking amongst themselves. It gave me this odd vibe, like I was wanted as a customer but not valued. Four systems made the list, but the best was a Toshiba L655-S5153 — 15.6″ screen, 5 hour battery, 5.48 pounds, all for $588.39. The other three computers weighed in about the same, had the same screen size and slightly better batteries (by about 15 minutes, but the prices were at least $100 higher. Nothing they had there weighed under five pounds as far as I can recall. It was hard to jot things down while the sales people clustered around me.

HHGregg was actually a waste of my time. Only a handful of laptops met the requirement for battery life and none of them listed to weight or offered an easy way to look that info up. Both Office Max and Office Depot had all the stats I needed, and while Best Buy didn’t, they had those little QR codes for each system, so I could scan them and look them up without talking to anyone. Misanthropy aside, I was just there to gather data — I didn’t want to talk to sales people.

So with all this in mind, I’ve got it narrowed down to two picks. Office Max’s HP DM4, or Best Buy’s Toshiba. The next step is to look up product reviews — yeah, I know it’s kind of like reading book reviews on Amazon, but there might just be a smidge or two of information that could sway my decision.

We’ll see what happens. I could be making a decision later this week…

Roll With It? I Don’t Think So…

This morning on Facebook I made a comment about Dungeon Siege 3 not surviving “fridge logic” by apparently failing at math and biology. A friend of mine commented on it, saying I shouldn’t try to “inject logic in a world where you accept the existence of magic, dragons, [etc]…” and that I should “just roll with it.”

Now, I can see where he was coming from, being a fan of fantasy and a DM for over 20 years. However, his response made my brain throw the rant switch, which led to today’s post.

When you’re writing speculative fiction, be it fantasy, SF or horror, you have to be cognizant of one simple fact: the world has rules. Just like D&D has rules on careers (classes), magic, monsters, and the like, the setting of a work has rules on magic/tech, monsters/aliens and so forth. They may not be conveniently codified, but they exist. When it comes to establishing the setting and the more fantastic elements of a story, writers need to understand a very simple rule:

The rules for your setting default to the rules of reality when no precedent is set.

I have a second rule that complements that:

If you break the default rules without precedent, you damn well better make sense doing it, or someone will call bullshit.

Case in point, in the television series Game of Thrones when Khal Drogo has had enough of Viserys Targareyn’s shit, he has a slave empty a stew pot that’s been sitting on a cook fire all day. Drogo tosses a belt made of gold medallions in the pot, watches it melt, then pours the molten metal on Viserys’s head. It’s a cool scene, save for one problem.

Gold melts at 1067 degrees Celsius. Now iron melts at about 1500 degrees, but that’s not the point. The standard cook fire gets up to about 240. It can go up to about 600 degrees if you work it, maybe even enclose it so the combustion is more effective, but the point is that an open cook fire is not sufficient enough to melt gold.*

It was a point I brought up on a message board, and someone played the “It’s fantasy, roll with it card.” Well, no, I don’t have to roll with it. I called bullshit for a reason: somebody didn’t do their homework and got sloppy.

Writers, you may be working in speculative fiction, but you still have to do your homework and that includes research into some very basic things, like the melting point of gold. By comparison, if a first time author of a mystery novel makes a very blatant mistake about firearms, there’s a good chance that the reading community won’t be picking that author’s next book.** Basic mistakes undermine a writer’s credibility and weaken the work as a whole — doesn’t matter if it’s a book, movie or video game, miss a small detail and it’ll come back to bite you.

Now at this point some people reading this might still be tempted to say, “But Mike, it’s fantasy!” If you’re a writer, and this is your defense of a blatant, basic error I point out to you in a workshop/critique session then you are telling me:

1) You didn’t do your homework.
2) You don’t want to do your homework.
3) I don’t need to read any further to know what weak-ass writer you are.

In the case with Dungeon Siege 3, an NPC was telling me about the protagonist’s deposed Queen Roslyn, who’s fighting to get her throne back after the king died thirty years ago and the game’s villain started a rebellion that ousted the legendary 10th Legion. He said, “she should be 17 now, the last surviving heir.”

This is the thought process that followed:

1) My immediate association with the word “heir” is “eldest surviving offspring or sibling.”
2) Roslyn was born 13 years after the King died.
3) What the hell?

That led to my comment on Facebook. Now, I later found out via Wikipedia that Roslyn is the deceased King’s granddaughter, which is okay — I can see how things might have fallen to her, given that the protagonist’s own father died during the years the followed the revolution. That I had to look it up on Wikipedia says that the game failed to convey the information to me — there may be more than one reason for that, but that’s for another time.

As I said, my friend told me to roll with it.

No.

And let’s just bypass the standard “no” escalation and go straight to “fuck, no”. Not when I paid $60 for a game that has so far been unimpressive and failed to meet expectations based on the previous two games. If I see crappy writing in a $7 paperback, I’m going to call bullshit. Why should I ease up on a fantasy CRPG? Why should I be silent when I already gave my money to the writer/game designer? I’m not going to be able to get a refund. Best I can do is sell back the title for store credit.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect pure excellence in any game I play or book I read. I just expect it to carry it’s own weight without tripping over its feet. It should also meet some level of expectation I have for the work — that’s something we’ll discuss on Wednesday.

*It should be noted that in the novel, Martin makes a point of the gold getting soft and losing some of it’s form, but not becoming liquid. Either way, it’s still enough to cook a man’s brain when you have the whole pot plunked on your head like a hat.

** One reason I threw The DaVinci Code across the room at page 27 was because I realized the author couldn’t tell a semi-automatic pistol from a revolver.

Gaming Gab: The Damage Paradigm

For many roleplaying games (be it digital or analog), combat and the damage taken therein is represented as an abstract concept. Dungeons and Dragons is the most famous for this, using hit points as a measure of heartiness, fighting skill, luck, and even divine/infernal blessing.

When playing/running D&D, I’ve always gone by the conceit that the first hit die a character rolls represents the amount of physical trauma he can take. Everything after is that is skill and fate. The high level fighter may take a nick one round, pull a muscle turning a killing blow aside in another, and so forth. You can accurately represent the individual injuries a character takes, but that takes the combat away from abstract and more into realism. Earlier versions of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG are an example of this. A charcter has a small pool of wounds (aka HP), but once those are gone, he starts taking critical hits, which can lead to injury or messy death.

I’m bringing this up because I’ve noticed a shift in CRPGs handling damage — not so much in the receiving but the giving. For further clarification, I’m not referring to MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or City of Heroes. This concept got it’s start in that genre of games and has begun to creep into games like Dragon Age 2 and Dungeon Siege 3. If you’ve played any or all of these games, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Damage per second, or DPS, is the latest unit of measure of combat effectiveness. It’s a basic “at a glance” value that tells you just how damaging a weapon or spell can be. In WoW, a “Battle Tested Blade” has a DPS of 4.4, while a “Harpy Wing Clipper” has a DPS of 5.

It’s not a bad measure for MMOs like WoW et al, because in combat the basic attacks are assumed to hit while you use your special abilities to stack the odds in your favor. What I’ve noticed, though, is games like Dragon Age 2 and Dungeon Seige 3 using DPS as the sole measure, and that’s a problem.*

In WoW, you can see where the DPS comes from with a simple mouse roll-over. The Blade in my previous example has a damage range of 6 to 13 with a weapon speed of 2.1 seconds. Let’s compare it to a bastard sword that does 11 to 33 points of damage but has a speed of 5 seconds. Both have a DPS value of 4.4. Which is better, fast light hits, or slow heavy slams?

There’s more things that DPS doesn’t take into account. What if one weapon has a special ability that sets enemies on fire, while the other slows them down with cold. Also, DPS doesn’t take into account an enemy’s ability to heal or mitigate damage. Yeah, it’s nice that I can swing for 40 DPS, but if his armor reduces that by 20 percent then the fight changes significantly.

Even with that, there’s one critical item that MMOs handle that CRPGs don’t seem to consider. What if I miss?

Most MMOs assume the basic attack will hit and do damage, while special abilities do things to give a player an edge. In CRPGs, you have to point your character at an enemy while pressing a button for each and every attack. This means if your aim is off, you could be flailing like a muppet at air while your opponent flanks you.

It’s the sort of obscura that can lead to lazy game design, something Dungeon Siege 3 is very guilty of doing. If all we have is DPS, how do we know if the firey weapon is better than the icy one?

Do I see this translating into pen and paper RPGS? I don’t think it’s even possible — not unless it was a massive redesign that was more oriented to narrative-style play. The mechanics involved in a CRPG are a bit more complex than what goes on the table top, and in terms of raw math it’s something consoles can resolve very well. Plus at the table, there are nights where dice can get hot… or cold…

In summation, the DPS mechanic is not a bad thing as long as it’s not by itself. Developers need to note this and make sure their players are able to see what’s going on under the hood.

*Dungeon Seige 3 makes it even worse by hiding their game mechanics behind a veil of obscura so you have no idea how they even come to the results they have.

Btb=6-13,2.1 hwc=9-17,2.6 rodentia ssw=7-14,2.3,4.4dps

Change of Plans

Well, my initial tech upgrade did not go as smoothly as I had planned. It turns out I need a special device in order for my Mac Mini to interpret two monitors as an extended display. One company in particular has such an adapter, but I would have to mail order it. On a hunch, I tried a local Radio Shack and bought something I thought would have sufficed.

It didn’t. Instead of an extended display I got a mirrored one, meaning I saw the same thing on two separate screens. Fortunately, the folks at Radio Shack were kind enough to give me a full refund, and now I wait for the proper (and significantly more expense) gadget to arrive.

Also, I still haven’t bought a new laptop yet. I’m shopping around, but the Mac Air seems the best option right now. However there are rumors going around that there may be a never version of the hardware to be released in time with the newest version of OSX — aka Lion. That’s to come some time this month, so I figure waiting two weeks to see how the pricing falls out won’t hurt much.

Keeping with the theme of today’s post, last time I mentioned I was taking a different tack with my writing. Basically, the plan is to write a bunch of serialized novellas primarily for the e-reader market — something a person can enjoy over a couple of lunch hours or on the daily commute. I have several ideas for what I want to write, but publication is a different matter. I’m toying with the idea of going through a market that specializes in e-books, but self-publishing is also (now) a viable option.

Let me say that again: it’s a viable option. A way. Not THE way.

Five years ago I was very much against self-publishing, mostly because the people that I talked to who were advocates were of the “build it and they will come” mentality. That works fine for Field of Dreams but not so much for real life. There’s work to be done if you want to go that route, and quite a bit of it.

While the more traditional venues of publishing may be floundering and flailing in the face of e-books, it’s still a workable means. The money’s not great, but I don’t think it ever will be. Never look to the massive success stories that media homes in on. They aren’t the rule.

What publishing houses provide is editing, layout, printing, and even some publicity, all under one roof. That leaves you free to write and rewrite your next piece of work. If you go the self route, all that is on your shoulders, and it’s not an easy haul. With that in mind, if you as a writer look into and research the amount of work that goes into self-publishing, understanding what you’d be getting into and actually DOING said work, then you’ve got an option that might just do it for you.

Howard Tayler of the web comic Schlock Mercenary is someone I point to as the prime example of doing the homework and accepting the responsibilities.

He started the comic as a hobby in 2000, deciding to leave his day job four years later to attempt going into comics full time. He wanted to find a publisher to make print editions of Schlock. It wasn’t panning out, so he did his research and decided to self-publish. For five years he worked 80-100 hour weeks on the comic both on the site and in print, until his income grew to the point where he could make ends meet and pare back his hours to a more traditional work week.

That comes to about 23,000 man-hours of work over the course of five years, just to grow his comic to where he can make a living off of it. And in all this time he has not missed a single day of the comic.

That’s the sort of effort you could be looking at if you self-publish. I’m not saying that to scare anyone off (although it does make me nervous), but it should be something to consider.

While I’d love to become a rich and famous writer, I work in genre fiction — speculative fiction to be precise. We’re talking a niche within a niche. I don’t expect I’ll make the big bucks, but I’d like to see my writing pay my mortgage and bills, feed myself and the cats, and maybe include a little extra for some fun.

It’s going to be a lot of work getting there. Probably 4,000 to 5,000 words a day at least. While it may slow down my progess on painting that army of Wood Elves on my game-room table, there’s just no way around it.

Gotta write.