Monday, November 29, 2010

Why Is There No CSI: The Roleplaying Game?

The post title says it all. It's a serious question. It came back to me while I was inputting a bunch of notes I made a couple years ago about adapting a nascent homebrew system to the police procedural genre. To me, this idea seems like such a no-brainer that I wonder why nobody in the industry ever thought of it. There are two major advantages to being the company that brings out that game.


One of the weaknesses of the RPG industry is that most of its fans (and thus, presumably, its designers and bean-counters) are geeks who enamored of the relatively esoteric genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Thus, the industry has remained viable, though not spectacularly healthy, even in down times, due to the devotion of its fan base. However, it's never really been mainstream. Well, there were probably a couple of periods when it was on the cusp: the early 80s before the Dallas Egbert incident and the early 2000s when D&D 3e first came out.

I wonder if part of the problem is that nobody ever makes a tabletop RPG out of something that has mainstream popularity. It's not like there's no precedent for a non-sf roleplaying-type game to enjoy some success. For example, murder mystery dinner party games, which appear to still have a following due to the magic of internet downloads, were actually somewhat fashionable in the mid to late 80s. Crime and mystery (along with action-adventure) are genres with some crossover appeal to both geeks and everybody else. This has been even more the case in the last decade, with shows like the Law and Order and CSI franchises dominating fictional network TV. If mainstream culture is ever going to be convinced that roleplaying isn't something only done by the terminally weird, this is the genre to do it in. And the potential for actual profit in exploiting a popular genre is also a factor for an industry that's always short on money.

One Shots

One of the biggest hassles of roleplaying is the idea of the ongoing campaign. It's amazing how many ambitious campaigns are derailed by schedules and life changes. Something that was supposed to last for a year or more of weekly sessions often ends up lasting maybe a month. And that's with a bunch of dedicated sf/roleplaying geeks. Imagine how hard it is to get through a planned campaign with more casual players. The idea that roleplaying must be done in long, interconnected arcs covering many sessions is probably one of the biggest psychological barriers to entering the hobby.

Fortunately, using TV crime shows as source material directly addresses this concern. Every show is a one-shot, so duplicating the feel of the genre dictates one-shot scenarios. That means there are no continuity issues if a player can't make it one week. The availability of a more casual kind of tabletop gaming makes the hobby accessible to a large number of casual players, possibly increasing the customer base.

So why hasn't anyone thought of this idea before? Is the industry really that bad at marketing?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Linux Mint 10 (Julia)

Last week, Linux Mint 10, codenamed Julia, was released. I'd been using the release candidate on my laptop for a while, but waited for the official release to post my thoughts. The new release continues Mint's tradition of pushing the envelope in terms of visual theming. Further, given the direction of Ubuntu's look and feel in the last couple of releases, Mint looks more and more like the best intro to Linux for Windows users.

Look and Feel

The most notable change from previous versions of Mint is the new default theme, Mint-X-Metal. This theme takes advantage of a new feature of MintMenu, Mint's Windows-like start menu. In the new release, the menu can be themed differently from the rest of the GNOME desktop. Mint-X-Metal applies a metallic texture to the menu.

The overall theme has changed radically from the last few versions of Mint. Instead of the bright greens of previous Shiki-Wise (green version of Shiki-Colors) themed desktops, Mint-X features a metallic gray look in both the theme and the default wallpaper. There's also a new icon set heavily based on Faenza, the Linux community's favorite square icons. Here's a screenshot of my laptop screen with all windows minimized.

Modified Linux Mint Desktop      

My desktop isn't the default setup. For one thing, the default setup has the panel on the bottom. There's also no dock out of the box; that's a program called Docky, which is available in the Linux Mint reposotories. One of the reasons I prefer Mint over Ubuntu is that it's easier in Mint to get this one-panel setup I've preferred since fairly soon after I started using Ubuntu.

Other Things

As usual, Mint comes with a more familiar set of default applications than Ubuntu (Thunderbird instead of Evolution for e-mail, Pidgin instead of Empathy for IM). In another advance for user friendliness, the Linux Mint Welcome Screen gives you a convenient set of links to helpful resources, including a downloadable user manual in .pdf format and tutorials and forums on the Linux Mint site. Overall, it's much easier to jump in and find out about Mint than about Ubuntu.

So far, the only drawback I've noticed is that Pidgin logs me out of Facebook chat a lot. Other than that, everything runs smoothly, making this the first Mint release that I didn't have some kind of major issue with.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


So I went to the Books & Co. at the Greene to attend an author event promoted in the store's newsletter. The book was a guide to how to pitch a book to a publisher and start collecting those royalty checks (if you're lucky). Now, I'm nowhere near finishing a novel, but I figured this is stuff I need to know, so I decided to show up anyway.

Unfortunately, the e-mail didn't mention that this event was something called "Pitchapalooza." Now, I'd read the name in a couple of places, but I hadn't connected it to this particular night at Books & Co. The concept is that these two authors listen to people pitch their book ideas and critique them, crowning a winner at the end of the night who gets a free consultation with them.

I left even though I could probably have come up with a pitch for one of my embryonic long-form fiction ideas. I can imagine something like this:

It's a fantasy novel, but instead of telling the story of how the farmhand becomes a great hero, it's the story of how the farmland becomes the dark overlord. We pervert every trope of the genre. For example, our protagonist meets a wizard who befriends and mentors him. Eventually, the protagonist kills him. The reader starts out routing for the kid then spends most of the book saying, "Oh no he didnt!" They'll be traumatized, but they won't be able to put it down!

The mainstream publishing industry is apparently so timid these days that this pitch wouldn't work for literary or popular fiction, but sf geeks love their violence, so it could have worked for the genre. In any case, now I think I should have stayed to see just how far I could have played this up and freaked out a room full of innocent people.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Writing and Work Routine

So I've decided that, if I ever want to get all the stuff I have scattered in legal pads around the house digitized, I should get back to a work routine similar to what I was doing when I had that brief freelance assignment. There's so much material that it would take forever to get it all done during my occasional nights at a bookstore cafe. So I've decided, five days a week, to make sure I spend at least a little time typing up and saving all those stories and RPG ideas. I can also spend some of this time working on things like my resume (which at this point is only hypothetical). I could also stand to work on the portfolio for my tech writing certificate. That way, I'll have plenty of time to improve things before I finally get that last class over with. I can also use some time to get some more of my classic raw cursive writing done for my newer story ideas. If I can get some kind of routine or system worked out, I could start flooding fiction magazines with material.

Anyway, today I got some work done on an original RPG system that I'd discarded a couple years ago. I also got a little more of a short story written. This story is particularly interesting to me because it lives in a sort of middle ground. The idea is that the main character hears the voices of what he believes to be "ice demons." However, even though the setting is clearly a made-up place that has nothing to do with the real world, I want the reader to wonder whether what the character experiences is real. 

The question is whether I can pull that off. And whether any market would be interested in such an ambiguous story. My guess is that, since I'm going to drop enough "fantasy setting" buzzwords early, I should be able to avoid the curse of the mistaken genre.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

DC Adventures RPG

So I picked up Green Ronin's new DC Adventures Hero's Handbook. I haven't read comic books on a regular basis in ages, and some of the Silver-Ageish conventions that DC mostly adheres to even today put me off. However, this book is the first rollout of the new Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition rules, and I was really curious about those, based on what I've heard. Once I saw that the new DC Adventures book included rules for creating new characters, not just for playing existing DC heroes, I decided to check it out. From what I've seen so far, I like the new rules, and my (minor) complaints are about the presentation and explanations rather than the mechanics themselves.

(Note: This entry uses a lot of tabletop gamer terminology and assumes the reader knows the meaning of these basic terms).


The biggest change in the M&M 3e rules is the change from D&D-based ability scores to a system more like Green Ronin's other flagship system, True 20. While D&D sets 10 as the average human score in each ability and adds +1 to the die roll modifier for every two points over 10, True20 and M&M 3e/DC Adventures use the ability score itself as the die roll modifier. Thus, the average adult human has a score of 0 in all abilities and every increase in an ability score also increases the modifier. A character can also "sell down" an ability, taking a penalty of up to -5 to die rolls involving that ability in order to gain more points for other abilities (and in M&M/DCA for other character traits).

As much as I love and respect D&D and its place in RPG history (4e aside), I much prefer a system in which your ability score is your modifier. It simplifies things and makes point-based character creation much easier. A bonus with applying this system to a superhero game is that hardly any character will need to sell down an ability, making the system psychologically more palatable.

M&M has always valued all ability scores the same in their point-based character creation system. This has been problematic because, using the traditional six d20 abilities, Strength and Dexterity have always been the most useful abilities in a combat-oriented supers game (with Strength influencing melee damage and a host of other things, while Dexterity affected the accuracy and damage of ranged attacks and the Reflex save).

Green Ronin solved this problem in the new rules by dividing Strength and Dex into two abilities. The new Strength attribute only affects the hero's ability to lift things and perform other impressive feats; the melee attack bonuses now belong to a new ability called Fighting. Similarly, Dexterity now only affects ranged attacks, while the Reflex defense bonus goes to the newly-minted Agility. This change also solves a problem inherent in most d20-based systems: ranged fighters are inherently better than melee fighters because a high Dex improves a character both offensively and defensively.

Power Design

The new M&M/DCA super power design rules move more in the direction of traditional supers games like Champions, separating flavor and mechanics completely. The Powers chapter mostly lists a series of "effects" that characters can generate, while leaving it to the player to decide what the effect is called or looks like in game.

For example, one effect is called Damage. It allows a character to make a melee attack and force the target to make a Toughness check to avoid gaining an injury. It's up to the player to decide whether this damage happens because the hero's fist turns to stone or because the hero uses special kung fu moves or for some other exotic reason.

This approach to power design can be overwhelming to the novice player, who might not have any idea how effects translate into the kinds of iconic superpowers they see in comic books. Fortunately, the game provides many prefabricated powers as examples of how the process works.


The biggest problem with the book is the way that iconic characters are used inconsistently in examples vs. their stats. For example, Captain Marvel is used as an example of the Activation flaw (which lowers the cost of normally always-on powers in exchange for a requirement that the character take an action to turn the power on). The idea is that, since Billy Batson must say the magic word "Shazam" to turn into Captain Marvel, all of Captain Marvel's powers actually have the Activation flaw. It makes sense and fits with the way Captain Marvel is presented in the comics, but it's not consistent with the way Captain Marvel's stats are presented in the back of the book. There, the requirement to say the magic word is presented as part of Cap's Secret Identity complication and a Power Loss complication that kicks in if Cap ever says the magic word and turns back to Billy Batson.

For the record, I think the way they handled Captain Marvel's powers in the back of the book is the correct way. However, this dual approach also highlights the fact that there's no real guidance about when to use an Alternate Form (heroic) power vs. when to make a transformation to heroic form a mere complication. I think I can figure out a pretty good guideline, but this issue might be really confusing to others.

Overall Impression

Despite the minor issues raised in the last section, I still like the system overall. The mechanics are flexible and consistent with the source material (though the power spread of the DC characters may have been compressed a little bit, especially at the upper end). My issues with consistency of presentation are only the difference between an A+ and an A-.



Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election 2010

I had originally planned to do a post detailing my predictions for the upcoming elections. Unfortunately, my time management skills suck, and I spent a lot of time yesterday trying to deal with a bad router. So my nice detailed post with race-by-race predictions for the Senate went down the tubes. However, since I just voted and the results are just starting to trickle in (and I'm not in a place where I can watch election results coverage anyway), I figured I'd post my general predictions. 

In analyzing the elections, I'm making a few assumptions that go against the conventional wisdom. The polls seem to indicate the Democrats will end up with 51-52 seats in the Senate, a loss of 7-8, while the Republicans will take over the Senate with around 230 seats, a Democratic loss of around 50 seats. However, there are a few problems with the polls. First, Rasmussen tends to do more polls than anyone else, and he has a pronounced house effect. Second, there's some evidence that even old reliable Gallup has put its thumb on the scale. Third, this may be the first election in which the exclusion of cell phones and the use of robo-polls may be misleading, as there's a pronounced robo-poll house effect
for the first time.

In light of these uncertainties, I assume that the Democrats will do better than people are thinking. That doesn't mean they won't lose seats. It's hard not to lose seats as the party in power in a stagnant, jobless recovery.

Senate:  Conventional wisdom says the Democrats will barely hold on to a majority in the Senate. I think they'll keep their majority with a decent margin of 54-55 seats, a loss of only 4-5. That doesn't mean everything's going to be rosy for the Dems on this side of Congress. I fully expect Harry Reid to lose in Nevada. I assume that Dems will win most races that have been considered close, but Harry Reid is a known and not very well-liked quantity in Nevada. True, there are multiple ways to vote against Harry Reid. However, there are also multiple ways to vote against Sharron Angle, and followers of the party in power are more likely to cast meaningless protest votes.

House: Unlike the pollsters and pundits, I expect control of the House to be closely contested. The Republicans will pick up quite a few seats, both because of economic discontentment and the fact that Republicans controlled redistricting in most states after the last census in 2000 (a factor that never enters into Senate races). Though I think the Democrats might have a fighting chance of holding the majority, I believe the most likely outcome is a narrow Republican majority somewhere in the 220s, a wave but not the kind of wave they've been hyping. I further predict the first act of the new Republican majority will be to form the Select Committee on Dead Horse Flogging to investigate whether the defunct ACORN rigged the election to keep the Reps from gaining 70 seats.

Governors: I have less to go on in these races than in the Senate contests because I never got the chance to go over the polling trends in individual races. I have no idea how many governors nationwide will be Republican or Democratic after today. I do have a strange feeling Ted Strickland will actually pull out his race over John Kasich. Strickland's been showing a sharp upward trend in the polls over the last few weeks, and Ohio's been seeing more economic "green shoots" than other states (though unemployment still remains over 10% statewide).