Sunday, 21 September 2014

Taking Dungeons & Dragons' 5th edition out for a spin

Cover of the Player’s Handbook
for the new edition
I've played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons in its various incarnations over the years, so when a new edition (5th) was released a few weeks ago, I was very curious to see what the latest incarnation of the game was like. I was particularly encouraged by the reports I'd read that the new revision took a more back-to-basics approach. To clarify where I'm coming from, I really disliked the 3rd edition of the game (released in 2000, updated in 2003) and had touched the 4th edition (released 2008) only barely enough to recognise that I liked it far, far less then even 3rd edition.

So, on Friday night, I played 5th edition with a group of friends, most of whom I've been gaming with for 25 years now. We were playing an adventure published specifically as an introduction to the new rules, in which we took the parts of inexperienced (1st-level) adventurers serving as mercenaries escorting a caravan of mining equipment 85 miles. I chose to portray a cleric of Lliira, goddess of joy. We generated our characters (and our Dungeon Master ran the game) from the basic subset of rules available for free download from the game's official site. (The full ruleset won't be out till November).

Creating a character

Character generation follows the same general pattern that it always has, so I'll just focus on a few things that stood out to me.

I was very surprised and gladdened to see that feats have been significantly scaled back to the degree of becoming only an optional rule. Surprised, because I know how popular this feature is among 3E+ players, and gladdened, because feats are one of the things about 3E+ that I like least. Thematically, these powers felt like "superhero-isation" to me—something I'm just not into—and mechanically because of the extra complexity they added to the game and especially to combat. More on this later.
In common with some role-playing systems that aim for more naturalism than D&D traditionally has, 5E makes specifying aspects of a character's background (such as "bonds" to the past) a formal, core part of the character generation process, and attaches a mechanical effect to it in the game. That is, Dungeon Masters can award "Inspiration" to players who role-play in accordance with their characters' backgrounds; and Inspiration can buy advantages to dice rolls during play. I'm not a big fan of this approach: as Jeff Okamoto famously satirised, different players get different things out of role-playing games, and mechanics like these smack to me of telling some of these folks that they're enjoying the role-playing experience incorrectly (and I'm very definitely a "Rôle-Player").

Playing the game

I must say that 5E plays very slick. I'm not above admitting that I feel a certain nostalgic twinge for some of the outright eccentricities of the game mechanics of 1E and 2E, but can't dispute that the refinements made from 3E onwards mostly result in much easier play. 5E continues and extends that trend. For example, saving throws are now completely subsumed into modified ability checks. Likewise, notions of THAC0 (2E) and BAB (3E and 4E) are likewise replaced by modified ability checks. Skills also function this way (as they did when they were non-weapon proficiencies back in 1E and 2E).

Modifying various rolls in previous editions was an exercise in adding and subtracting what was sometimes a long list of factors to eventually come up with a number that could be applied to the roll and then compared to a target number. By the time 3E came out, this became so onerous that I routinely opted out of adding in various bonuses that my characters were entitled to, simply because I couldn't be f**ked doing the maths. 5E collapses all this to one question: is your character operating under an advantage or disadvantage in this situation? If your character is advantaged, you roll two dice instead of one, and select the higher number rolled. If disadvantaged, roll two dice and select the lower. There's no question that this results in a loss of granularity, but like I said, I was already past caring, so 5E feels like a breath of fresh air in this regard.

Turning to combat specifically, 5E goes a long way to de-crufting a combat system that, IMHO, had become tedious and almost unworkable. Combat in 1E and 2E was fast and abstract,and 5E returns to that. The range of available actions is vastly reduced, sacrificed to simplicity and speed. I like this very much. Additionally, the emphasis on miniatures that was evident in 1E, absent in 2E, back in 3E, and practically mandated in 4E has been diminished again. The 3E notion of the combat grid is relegated to a variant rule (literally in a sidebar in the basic rules). Goodbye and good riddance! If I wanted agonisingly detailed combat I'd be off playing Phoenix Command or something, not D&D.


Overall, I had a really favourable impression of 5E. Up until Friday night, if I'd been contemplating running a D&D game, 2E would have been the only set of rules that I would have even considered. That's changed now. I want to play more 5E to confirm this early experience of the system. Of course, 5E doesn't yet have anything like the breadth of supporting materials that 2E had, but that's of course bound to change.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Ten books that have stayed with me

At the moment, there's a game sweeping Facebook asking people to nominate ten books that have "stayed with them" somehow. Sure! It's a fun exercise, but I thought I'd like to record my response somewhere more easily accessible than a Facebook post, so here it is:

Rules: List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don't take more than a few minutes and don't think too hard - they don't have to be the "right" or "great" works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag 10 friends (or as many as you think would be interested to play) including me, so I'll see your list.

Tales from Shakespeare Volume 1 — Mary and Charles Lamb

My Grandma gave me a hefty, hardcover copy of this when I was about 8 years old and it began a life-long love of Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet was my early favourite because tragic love story!

The Moon is Hell! — John W. Campbell

I discovered this in a second-hand bookshop when I was about 8 years old and the title seemed very naughty. It was very different from any other sci-fi I had read up to that point: it's the story of astronauts trying to survive on the moon after a spacecraft crash, as their food and oxygen run low. Many of the expedition don't make it, and I still have vivid memories of the survivors' fingernails, hair, and teeth falling out as their predicament becomes more dire. It all seemed very real and dangerously exciting to me. It was probably also an early influencer in my preference for all-round capable explorers as characters, a hallmark of Campbell's writing

Cosmos — Carl Sagan

I'll admit that I saw the TV series first. It was broadcast late at night (9:30? 10:00?) on ABC TV in 1982 when I was 10 years old. I was spellbound, staying up late to watch it and make cassette-tape recordings of Sagan's wise and sonorous voice. I remember saving a *lot* of pocket money to buy this book! I think it was $24.95 -- a king's ransom back then (and about $80 in today's money, if I'm indeed remembering right! Could it really have been so?) So not only did I listen to the audio tapes over and over and over again, but I had the visuals in this book (plus lots of other interesting marginalia that didn't make it to TV).

The World of Star Trek — David Gerrold

I found this in a remainder bin of paperbacks at our local Woolworths when I was 10, and it was like stumbling across the Holy Grail being used as a doorstop. This is a book about the behind-the-scenes of how the show came to be made, and about the global fan phenomenon that it had sparked. It was one of the first pieces of evidence I had that other people existed who had interests similar to mine. It also had a complete list of all the episodes! I will never be able to explain to the internet age what a find that was... but I can say that it would be nearly ten years before I came across another such list. I probably learned the word "marijuana" from this book.

Лётчики-космонавты СССР (Pilot-cosmonauts of the USSR) — anonymous

Only loosely a "book", this is a folio of several dozen cards, each with a nice portrait of a Soviet cosmonaut and a biography in Russian. I bought this from a UQ book sale when I was about 10 or 11 (I don't know whether this was already the Alumni book sale that still happens today, but it was something similar). I was attracted by the Soyuz rocket on the cover and by the portraits of a few cosmonauts I recognised (Gagarin, Tereshkova, Leonov) but I was mostly intrigued that I wanted so badly to know what the text said and I couldn't even read the script! These cards provided many hours of intense fascination with a Russian-English dictionary over the next few years as I struggled to extract small snippets of sense from them. This made me very interested in how languages work.

Animal Farm — George Orwell

I read this at about age 13 and it has been utterly unforgettable. I believe that so much human nature (and much of human politcs) is captured in this simple tale. It has furnished me a lens through which I understand humans as political animals and to which I constantly turn for insight. Enough said.

Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) — anonymous, late 14th century

For whatever reason, I've been drawn to the obscure and the esoteric practically my whole life. So I hadn't been long at university before I abandoned my engineering studies to study mediaeval literature instead. When I was 18, I discovered this poem in one of my classes and it was like a religious experience to me. Sir Gawain's attempt to (and, ultimately, failure to) uphold and balance both the laws of chivalry and those of courtly love resonated with me like little else has before or since. I sometimes point to this as what is, to me, the pinnacle of English literature.

Preludes and Nocturnes — Neil Gaiman

I came to Neil Gaiman's comic The Sandman late. Probably the only component of geek culture that has never really appealed to me is the superhero, so I haven't followed many comics (and those I have have been mostly tie-ins to favourite TV or movie franchises). So by the time The Sandman appeared on my radar, it had already been going for about 4 years and was already being collected into graphic novels. I read these voraciously! They made me re-appraise comics as a storytelling medium and I was amazed by Gaiman's breadth of literary and historical allusion. I had a real "I am not worthy" feeling while reading these. The Sandman made me a life-long Gaiman fan, and I'm still waiting for the next comic to have the same effect on me.

Tartuffe — Molière

I have such a vivid memory of reading this for the first time at around age 20. I was sitting on the back steps of my family home reading this and laughing out loud again and again. I was struck by the savagery of the satire and delighted by Molière's uncompromising attack on hypocrisy. (I think I already found this the most routinely amusing of human qualities). But moreover, I was conscious at the time of the humour crossing time, space, and language (I was reading in translation). I was new to Molière and what a joyful discovery this was!

The Time Traveler's Wife — Audrey Niffenegger

I started this list with tragic love story and I finish with the same. No book has ever made me weep like this book made me weep. I love it for the brilliance of its premise, and its ability to manipulate my emotions so thoroughly and completely. I read it not long after it was published, so it's been with me ten years. I've not yet re-read it, because I'm a little fearful of its dark magic!

Honourable mention

Growing up before video recorders were common in Australian homes, I re-lived favourite movie and TV experiences through the novels that inspired them, or which were published as novelisations afterwards. Three paperbacks that I read over and over again until they literally disintegrated were Peter Benchley's Jaws (I don't like the ocean for a number of reasons, and this is one of them) William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist and Alan Dean Foster's novelisation of Star Wars (writing under George Lucas' name) -- the first line of this is sheer poetry: "It was a vast, shining globe and it cast a light of lambent topaz into space—but it was not a sun."

I also wished I could have included The Silmarillion. Probably Chariots of the Gods? too. Oh, and James Blish's original Star Trek novel, Spock Must Die!

Future candidates

If I were to do this exercise again in a few years, I would fully expect Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Samuel Delaney's Dahlgren to be on this list too. But I need to let my experiences of them seep into memory first.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The problem of Doctor Who: Deep Breath and its Tyrannosaurus

So today, I was extremely happy to get along to one of the cinema screenings of the new Doctor Who season opener, “Deep Breath”, which also of course introduces Peter Capaldi as the 12th 13th 14th whateverth Doctor.

I enjoyed it! I found the story was mostly forgettable, but that’s normal for a new Doctor’s introduction, where the focus is very definitely on the character. (Doctor Who is a series with a mild, recurring case of pilotitis) The real joy was watching Capaldi’s interpretation of this much-beloved character. Anyway, I digress.

One thing bothered me, though: the size of the Tyrannosaurus. I had no real idea of how big the clock tower of Westminster Palace (popularly, though inaccurately known as “Big Ben”) is, but I knew it had to be much bigger than it appears to be beside the Tyrannosaurus stomping around beside it. When I got home, I looked it up, and the tower is quite huge—96 metres high!

Yet shots like these make it clear that the dinosaur is meant to be very nearly as tall as the clock tower, and the multiple angles and directions confirm that this is not just a trick of perspective, but that this is the intended size:

Now, an adult Tyrannosaurus was only about 4 metres tall at the hip, so really, to be in proper scale, it would have to look more like this:

Can’t see it? It’s just about almost as tall as the clump of greenery there at the base of the tower:

So really, a very very long way away from what was depicted on screen!

As a final note, the last time Doctor Who depicted a Tyrannosaurus loose in London was in 1974’s serial “Invasion of the Dinosaurs”. Here’s what it looked like back then:

There’s obviously no contest in realism here (or in accuracy—we know so much more about these animals now than we did forty years ago!)

However—and this is the important point—notice that the 1974 Tyrannosaurus is depicted around about the right size! If anything, it looks very slightly too small for an adult, maybe around 3 metres at the hip. So perhaps this one was a juvenile?

All images from Doctor Who are copyright BBC. I assert that my use here is fair dealing for the purposes of criticism and review.

My composite images of the correctly-scaled Tyrannosaurus against the clock tower are made from an image of the clock tower by Adriano Aurelio (via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons CC-BY 2.0 licence) and an image of a model Tyrannosaurus by User Pibwl (via Wikimedia Commons under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 licence). I release this composite image under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Categories: That's not a...

A little while ago, I ranted about how when somebody says that a book or movie or other creative work is “bad”, what they almost certainly mean is that they themselves didn’t happen to like it. Today, I’m going to make a similar observation that when somebody says that something doesn’t belong in a particular category, there’s almost always an unspoken “I like” at the end.

For example:
  • “That’s not a word” probably means “That’s not a word I like”
  • “That’s not art” probably means “That’s not art I like”
  • “That’s not science fiction” probably means “That’s not the kind of science fiction I like” or, coming from a science-fiction fan, probably just means “I didn’t like that book or film”.
Next time one of the major dictionaries announces that they’ve added some recently coined words, or recognised new usages of some existing words, watch the “that’s not a word” folks come out in force. (Aside: in truth, my biggest disappointment with these people is that none of them sound much like Chaucer at all. Ah well.)

Like other primates, we humans understand our environment by categorising the things that we encounter in it. However, our advanced language skills soon show us that other individuals do not necessarily share the categories we have chosen. Most of the labels we use are arbitrary and debatable (even things we tend to think of as universal, like colours). Hard-and-fast definitions are largely confined to mathematics and hard sciences, and even there, a few years ago astronomers notoriously decreased the number of planets in our solar system by a wave of a definition.

“That’s not a baby. That’s a Mr. Potato
Head.” — an example of a useful categorisation
from Amazon Women on the Moon. Copyright
Universal Pictures.
Arguing for the inclusion a particular item in a particular category (or for its exclusion from that category) is sometimes useful if it enables us to make observations about the category that are improved in some way.  Biologists routinely make this kind of argument when deciding how to classify or reclassify an organism. Moreover, the argument for inclusion or exclusion might itself prove illuminating, regardless of the conclusion.

So, to revisit the examples from above:
  • Instead of claiming that something “isn’t a word” (which is almost certainly is, for any useful definition of the word “word”), how about we just admit that it isn’t a word we ourselves would use, or which we would only use in a certain, particular context?
  • Instead of claiming that something “isn’t art”, how about we talk about what kind of art we like or don’t like?
  • Instead of claiming that something “isn’t science-fiction”, how about we talk about the elements that we see as common in the genre and the degree to which they’re present or absent in a particular film or book? (I want to write more on this subject soon).
Attempting to exclude an item from a category by simply shifting the category boundaries closely resembles the “no true Scotsman” logical fallacy. In both cases, the person making a claim attempts to evade having to explain or defend a position. In this case, the position is almost certainly one which, under closer scrutiny, turns out to be just an arbitrary personal preference of some kind.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Stop telling me it's good just because you liked it!

In the vast majority of cases, I find that when somebody says that some movie or book or TV show is “good”, all they really mean is that they liked it, and when they say something is “bad” or “stupid”, what they really mean is that they didn’t like it. Which is fine and all, but unless I know the reviewer and their æsthetic preferences really well, it’s a pretty meaningless appraisal.

For some time now, I’ve been trying to be more explicit about whether my appraisal of something is an evaluation of its quality, or is a description of my own reception of it.

Good things that I don’t like

The need to make this distinction was driven home to me this week as I read Jonathan Tropper’s novel This is Where I Leave You

My full review is on Goodreads, but the gist of it is that:
  • I think this book is extremely well executed, and
  • I didn’t like it much at all.
That is, I think it is very much a good book, even it it’s not my thing.

In practical terms, this means that I would very honestly and enthusiastically recommend it to somebody whose æsthetic preferences I know run in the direction that Tropper takes his readers. (I don’t immediately know who that is, but I strongly suspect that if you liked The Royal Tenenbaums or Arrested Development, you’ll get some good laughs out of this book.)

Similarly, in TV terms, I might not have liked The Wire, but I would confidently recommend it to fans of gritty police procedurals, and although I ground my teeth all the way through the episodes of Glee that I sampled, I have honestly, wholeheartedly, and successfully recommended it to other people.

Things I like that are not good

In the opposite direction, I’m perfectly comfortable to say that there’s a lot of stuff that I like or even love that isn’t very good in any objective sense. I’m talking about the books, movies, and TV shows that people too often describe as “guilty pleasures” — a term I despise and reject because of its inherent notion of shamefulness at simply liking something that other people don’t like.


First, as a connoisseur of truly awful cinema, it’s important for me to distinguish between things I like despite their being not very good, and things I like because they’re really, really bad. The first category recognises that there’s more to æsthetic preference than simply the quality (“how-well-done-ness”) of a book, film, or TV show. The second category just reveals some kind of gleeful schadenfreude on my part.

To put that in perspective, the films I’m talking about in the second category aren’t the multi-million-dollar Hollywood flops that make up the “worst movie” lists of the Internet, but the films that make those flops look like masterpieces of cinematic art. I’m talking about the indie films that can’t even keep a shot in focus, or where (as a product of the script or the edit) whole scenes make no sense at all (“what just happened there?”), or where hapless actors unconvincingly pretend to be terrorised by a giant turkey head made of papier-mâché, or where the whole thing appears to have been shot in one take on a camcorder by some dude who clearly saw The Exorcist that one time. Seriously.

So as much as I enjoy watching these train wrecks, I think my enjoyment of them comes from a different place and does not reflect æsthetic appeal. And yet, I honestly liked Blood Freak and enjoyed the time I spent watching it more than the time I’ve spent watching many highly-acclaimed and competent films (anything by Quentin Tarantino, for example).

Investment in a bigger narrative

Maybe the most common examples of narratives that I (and probably many other people) like for reasons other than quality are individual sub-par installments of  TV shows, novel series, or film franchises. As a Star Trek fan, this investment in a larger narrative has kept me watching “Spock’s Brain” over and over and over again across decades as the episode comes up in my regular re-watches of the series.

My reception of this episode and similar atrocities from the Star Trek and Doctor Who canons can be explained wholly in terms of a belief in the overall quality of the series or franchise. (And I still draw the line at Voyager :P)

Geniune aesthetic appeal

Yet, there are still other narratives I like not for their incompetence, not for their part in a bigger narrative that I like, but simply—for whatever reason—on their own terms. 

For example, consider End of Days. I adore this film. I like its scope, its themes, its look, and its end-of-the-millennium vibe (for long-term readers familiar with my system of appeal characteristics, it scores high on story and affect; and medium-low on craft and idea). However, there’s no way that I’m ever going to try and defend it as a good film, and I have no idea of to whom I could possibly ever recommend it. There’s plenty of other genre films I could name here too, whose appeal to me is entirely disproportional to the skill of their execution or their ability to realise their creators‘ visions.


Next time you go to tell someone how “good” or “bad” you think a book, movie, or TV show (or painting, or dance performance, or game, or album) is, stop for a moment and ask yourself what you’re really claiming. Is the piece really that terrible or stupid just because it doesn’t appeal to you personally? And is your approbation all that’s required for a work to be “good”?

At the very least, framing an appraisal in terms of either “good” or “liked” makes further discussion and debate meaningful: the parameters are defined and explicit.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Aerospace anniversaries update 1

So, work on editing last year's series of aerospace anniversaries posts continues, and I've just passed my first milestone: January is complete!

It turns out that editing these early entries takes about as long as writing them from scratch (remember that entries prior to mid-April are really just Twitter-length photo captions). So there's a lot of revisiting sources.

I'm also investing time to build a comprehensive index of the people, vehicles, places, and organisations mentioned in the posts. Fortunately, I'm authoring in a format (DocBook XML) that makes generating an index like this incredibly easy and flexible—it's one of the reasons I chose DocBook for this project. This flexibility has been really useful in these first stages of the project where I've been working out the index design and I've frequently had to go back and revisit the index terms I used for previous entries.

The biggest time-suck however is finding usable images. So far, I've been able to get through almost all of January with just images from the public domain (expired copyrights or works of the US federal government) and a few photos licensed under Creative Commons by their owners. Out of 41 events documented for the month, images for 33 came from the public domain, 3 from Creative Commons-licensed sources, and I'm still missing the other 5.

I'm exploring options to fill those gaps, and I'll post more details in a future update as these efforts see fruit. For now, I'll just say that since I've benefited from freely-licensed media, I'm eager to be able to give back to the commons and repay some of the favour. To me, the willingness to give back is the difference between free culture and freeloading.

Speaking of freeloading, I'm really disappointed by organisations that assert copyright ownership over materials whose copyrights have plainly expired or never existed in the first place. This kind of "copyfraud" (as one professor of law terms it) is noxious and unconscionable when anyone does it, but is especially so when perpetrated by institutions whose mission is the furtherance of knowledge and culture, and by public institutions whose existence is purportedly for the common good.

Based on my experiences with January, I have to revise my time estimate upwards. If I assume that editing entries up to the middle of April (the first 30% of the year) takes as long as they did to write in the first place, this adds another 200 hours. And given that I spend the bulk of the time indexing entries and sourcing and clearing images, I'll assume that the rest of the year will take around 80% of the time it took to write in the first place, which adds another 400 hours. So the whole project should now cost around 1,300 hours. This equates to $21,281 in gross profit to equal minimum wage here in Australia, and around $41,163 to be commensurate with Australia’s median income.