What to do for the rest of Nov? Maybe work on a few ancillary projects. Maybe I indulge myself to write some sci fi. Or…how about I get back to work on MM05, which will supposedly be released in March 2018? ;P
Just a quick announcement to let people know that the first half of my NaNoWriMo 2017 project is complete: the revised 3rd edition for MM01: “Kids These Days”, which will be the script for the audiobook! Recording begins in Dec, because I mentioned the long travel plan this Nov.
What to do for the rest of Nov? Maybe work on a few ancillary projects. Maybe I indulge myself to write some sci fi. Or…how about I get back to work on MM05, which will supposedly be released in March 2018? ;P
November is Na(tional) No(vel) Wri(ting) Mo(nth)! “Nah-no-ree-mo”. In short, it is a movement for authors—of any variety; it’s grown from its indie roots—to support each other during the month of November, which tends to be difficult for everybody, what with SAD, T-Giving, winter holiday assaults on the senses, ad nauseum.
It’s also an opportunity to practice Author Skillz, e.g. writing every day, maintaining focus, approaching one project at a time, setting time/deadlines (even if arbitrary).
I’ll be traveling for just over a week for T-Giving, making my November shorter than usual. I’ve never truly accomplished #NaNoWriMo projects in the past, but I often get pretty close. And this year’s project is quite different from those previous:
I will be narrating my first audiobook!
It will be MM01: Kids These Days! For the past month, I’ve been working on transforming the novel into a script, so I can insert sound effects and background music/noise.
I’ll let you know more as it progresses!
Today (Halloween) marks the end of #PoweredByIndie month. It was less successful for me than last year’s, partially because I was sick for so long in early October.
However, tomorrow marks the beginning of #NaNoWriMo! I’m taking a long week for T-Giving so we can visit the families; not the easiest environment for NaNoWriMo, but I’ll announce tomorrow (1 Nov 2017) my goal for the month!
And if you send me spam-/chain-email, I might do this:
* If you attempt to rob a bank you won't have any trouble with rent/food bills for the next 10 years, whether or not you are successful.
…Which is hardly the point. Join the military; you still have to avoid being raped and killed, but there it’s called “patriotism”.
* Do twins ever realize that one of them is unplanned?
…Not in the 21st Century. My spouse and I are planning for twins. It’s a not-so-twisted path from planning twins to a remodernization of eugenics, but that’s a discussion for a near-future announcement.
* What if my dog only brings back my ball because he thinks I like throwing it?
…The result is the same: you both want a joyful experience with your loved one. And you need the exercise.
* If poison expires, is it more poisonous or is it no longer poisonous?
…This degradation is a chemical reaction; the new substance is not “more or less” poisonous, because the new substance isn’t the original substance.
* Which letter is silent in the word "Scent," the S or the C?
…I knew this was Latin—we get the same “sc” in “science” and “conscious”—but I looked up the origin of the term: “…from Old French sentir…from Latin sentire…perhaps [changed similarly to] ascent, descent, etc., or by influence of science. This [morpheme shift] was a tendency in early Modern English, cf. scythe….” The “c” is silent; in Latin circa 0000 ACE, the “s” is pronounced “ssss” and the “c” gets the hard-k sound, cf. “calendar”, “carry”, or “coffin”. The Greek and Scandinavian influence on English gave us the letter “k” and the soft-c sound.
* Why is the letter W, in English, called double U? Shouldn't it be called double V?
…Again, the result of Latin’s influence on Indoeuropean languages. Originally, the Latin alphabet had no “u”; the “v” was pronounced as consonant “va” or vowel “oo” as appropriate for the word; in a manner similar to how English pronounces “ough” four different ways. (“uff” in “rough”; “aww” in “bought”; “ooo” in “through; and “ohhh” in “although”)
* Maybe oxygen is slowly killing you and it just takes 75-100 years to fully work.
…Ironically, the oxygenation of Terra’s atmosphere did herald a world-wide extinction-level event, possibly killing off all but one bacterial species, the cyanobacteria. While remnants of those lost species persist in archeobacteria, nearly every other lifeform on modern Terra evolved from those oxygenating, “poisonous” cyanobacteria. When they had sufficiently oxygenated the world, oxygen-consuming species—“animals”—began to evolve, able to take advantage of the Electron Transport Chain, a biochemical process 16-17 times more effective in producing energy than the anaerobic (lit. ‘absence of oxygen’) glycolysis or Citric Acid cycles.
* Every time you clean something, you just make something else dirty
…Again, this is a matter of perspective. Presumably, the things that become dirty are being used for that purpose; without dirty things, there would be no need for things that clean other things. “Clean” is also context-dependent; a “clean room” requires a different standard than “go clean your room”.
* The word "swims" upside-down is still "swims".
…Only if you play fast and loose with those “v”s and “u”s, from above.
* Intentionally losing a game of rock, paper, scissors is just as hard as trying to win.
…Yes it is, and it’s fascinating! Chinese texts date a version of RoShamBo (aka Rochambeau, alternately named after some French admiral, possibly given that “roche” is French for “rock”) back to 0000 ACE +/- 200 years. Rochambeau is also a fundamental system in Game Theory—a natural extension of any “flip a coin” system. One could (and should’ve), therefore, have posed this as: “Intentionally losing a game of flip a coin is just as hard as trying to win.”
* 100 years ago everyone owned a horse and only the rich had cars. Today everyone has cars and only the rich own horses.
…No shit. 200 years ago most people couldn’t write; 20 years ago, all schoolchildren were taught handwriting from preschool through middle school; and today, many high school students have difficulty printing, neveryoumind writing cursive. “Hey: have you noticed that technological changes to our society also affect skill adaptation and estate composition?”
Incidentally, not everyone owned horses. Car ownership (among Americans) is more common than horse-ownership was in 1917.
* Your future self is watching you right now through memories.
…False; your memory of this “right now” won’t be made until the immediate time interval following. It won’t be recorded in your memory until your next rest. Your future self will never see your present self if said memory isn’t hard-coded into your hippocampus and temporal lobes; memory encoding failure can result from any number of circumstances, including substance-altered states of consciousness.
I’m actually writing a book that uses this concept loosely. I have always maintained that time is not the fourth dimension, because one can travel only forward in it, but can measure only backward. (Feynman-iacs: please don’t comment; I’m aware of Feynman’s time-reversal.)
* The doctors that told Stephen Hawking he had two years to live in 1953 are probably dead.
…I can’t tell you for how many years I afforded physicians more respect than auto mechanics or computer engineers. It should be noted, however, that Hawking’s condition was a “slow-progressing”, if early-onset version of ALS; he was already in his last year of his undergraduate degree (1962) before anyone noticed his decaying physical acumen; only needed a wheelchair when he became a Ph.D. (1966); could actually “wildly” pilot his wheelchair until ~1980; and the costs of his round-the-clock care were paid by others from 1985 on. Hawking is an exceptional academic who found himself in exceptional circumstances, and benefitted from cutting-edge technology because of his fame.
P.S. …Aaagh, I want to write this P.S., but I’ll save it for later, perhaps when I’m famous.
* If you replace "W" with "T" in "What, Where and When", you get the answer to each of them.
…What a fun coincidence unique to English that only works on half of the question words—no “tow, tho, or thy”?
* Many animals probably need glasses, but nobody knows it.
…Possibly, especially among domesticated animal species. But even just three centuries ago, near-sightedness would have decreased a human’s survival potential, and therefore, the passage of near-sightedness genes. Additionally, the rate of near-sightedness has increased with the amount of time we spend, on average, inside, or focusing on things in the near field (one to ten feet). Near-/Far-sightedness is part genetic, part muscular definition; today’s youths are more near-sighted because they spend less time surveying mountain ranges or receiving lobbed projectiles. Said youths are also less muscularly-defined, more or less for the same reasons, unaided by the prevalence of unhealthy foods in our pantries.
* If you rip a hole in a net, there are actually fewer holes in it than there were before.
…Either a terrible comment on the nature of operational definitions (cf. “hole”), or an interesting conclusion of tessellation.
* If 2/2/22 falls on a Tuesday, we'll just call it "2's Day". (It does fall on a Tuesday.)
…Yet another ‘brilliant’ linguistic coincidence. In Japan, are Sundays for philosophical enlightenment and Saturdays for mocking fools? (Nichi “Nietzsche” yoobi and Do “D’oh!” yoobi, respectively)
I appreciate that people love to find little coincidences in history or language, but I encourage you to stop consuming random facts. “Trivia” is exactly that: trivial, unimportant, useless; surface structure stuff. Engage the world's deep structure with a rigorous, academic fervor. Study fundamental theorems that drive technical development within your chosen discipline, and use them to enlighten your study of others. Logical thinking is hard, but truth derives from logical processes, not from grazing one or two ‘facts’ from the surface-level of a subject.
The ending of “Ascension” *could* be brilliant
What? “Tomorrow” and “the day after” might be the same thing. ;P
To the main event: The ending of “Ascension” could be brilliant!
Background: “Ascension” was a six-episode mini-series on SyFy aired in Dec 2014. Originally, it was supposed to air one episode/week for six weeks, from T-Giving to the New Year; its schedule was changed to two episodes/night for three consecutive days in Dec. Why? Who knows. Probably editing. I’ve said this before: editing is a very important job/task/occupation in any content creation industry. Vitally, fundamentally important. Don’t get angry with your editors; it’s as thankless a task as being a psychotherapist: your clients displace their anxieties and concerns onto you, and then they go away to become happy elsewhere, and you're left holding their negative shit.
Why didn’t I watch Ascension in 2014? Probably because I was busy traveling for the winter holiday. Or because we’d cut our cable down to just internet. Why haven’t I watched it until now, Oct 2017? Reasons. Perhaps because I’m so tired of wading through Netflix to find good stuff. Or perhaps because Netflix didn’t feature Tricia Helfer in Ascension’s thumbnail.
Really, Netflix? Admittedly, I had to be strong-armed into watching “Battlestar Galactica” in 2004. But then I fell in love with it! “Hey, Jessi: did you know that Tricia Helfer is in Ascension?” NO. WHAT? How did I miss that!
“Jessi: it’s pointless to discuss a miniseries nearly three years later.” But it’s not. Because the ending of Ascension—critiqued by critic and audience alike with “meh” reactions—could be brilliant.
Ascension is divided into three Chapters, each with two Parts. After Chapter 1.1, I had guessed that either (A) the Ascension spacecraft was not traveling to Proxima (Centauri, I assume) but was in orbit around Earth or elsewhere in the Sol system, or (B) Ascension had never left the surface of the planet. This was based on my own research while writing MMPR01: Infiniti Eternia (shameless plug, read. my. books!):
(1) The minimum number of people required to successfully (i.e. genetically) populate a 10-generational voyage is somewhere between 80 and 160 people—the population of a large, prehistoric tribe. But the genetic diversity required to repopulate Humanity is much, much larger. One of the evolutionary counters to inbreeding was the nomadic nature of early human tribes; wo/men would engage members of the other tribe in sexual intercourse, for fun, for diplomatic relations, and for cross-breeding.
In actuality, it may require 3,000 to 10,000 individuals, or more; all of Humanity today is descendent from between 2,000 and 20,000 ancestors. Therefore, the 600 people aboard Ascension is nothing more than a guess, just as my ~420k people per habitat was…although my people had far more genetic variance than the Ascension’s crew complement.
(I do not mean that as a passive-aggressive jab at the mostly Caucasian cast of the show. Actually, it was a clever way to express 1960’s racism in the US without dropping an N-word.)
(And for the record, the “lower deckers” is an expression of classism, not racism, although the two issues are strongly correlated even today.)
(2) The fastest human-made object record was set by Helios 2 in 1989…ten years after it’d become a useless lump of metal hurtling in a decaying orbit into the sun. The fastest active spacecraft was Helios 1 (an unmanned probe), 1980: 346,320 km/hr * 1000 m/km * 1/3600 hr/s = 96,200 m/s = 3.21E-4 m/s = 0.032 % lightspeed. At this rate, the journey to Proxima Centauri would require 12,500 years—roughly 500 human generations.
Even in IE, I stated that the journey would require 100 generations for the Rock to reach Terra Nova…whatever or wherever that may be. The beauty of the Rock is that, upon arrival to its target star system, it could settle in a lunar-style orbit with a planet, or in a planetary orbit in-system while new options were considered. Arguably, the builders of the Rock knew far more about its destination than 1960s astrobiologists did about potential life in/around Proxima Centauri.
And though it never came up in IE, I wrote the Rock on the basis that it was outfitted with particle scoops, similar to the Bussard ramjet—a concept, admittedly, proposed in the 1960s, though never directly mentioned on Ascension. Without such a propulsion system, there’d be no way to continue accelerating period, much less constantly for 51 years, such that the crew would have to make “the decision whether to turn around.”
(That would be a very interesting discussion indeed! It was mentioned in Chapter 1.1; I hoped that the ‘turn-around’ would be the central issue of the show. I was entertained by the plot regardless, but the turn-around could’ve made a good transition from mini-series to full-series.)
(3) There has never been any theory suggesting that stars have a dearth of planetary bodies; while the Drake Equation is commonly mis-cited as ‘proof’ that extraterrestrial life exists, astrobiologists theorize that life will exist everywhere it can, developing as fast as possible. Still, the first detection of an exoplanet (a planet orbiting another star) was not made until 1988, not confirmed until 1992. It was only in 2016 that we confirmed there exists a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri.
Since Infiniti Eternia was published in 2015, and I started writing it in Dec 2013, I too was making the vague assumption that there would be *a* planet within Proxima C’s system. While I never state that Proxima C is the system of ‘Terra Nova’, it’s an easy assumption for a reader to make.
Since astrophysicists had no evidence of the existence of exoplanets in the 1960s, and terraforming—though published by Carl Sagan himself in 1960—was never seriously researched (in the USA) until 1979, there would be no reasonable way to prepare the crew of Ascension to colonize anything but the most Earth-similar worlds.
Given these factors, and assuming the show was using as realistic a physics model as it suggested (hold your breath for the ending!), I thought it far more likely that the Ascension was not, in fact, headed toward Proxima Centauri. This was confirmed at the end of Chapter 1.2.
In Chapter 2, the audience is in on the long-con, and the dialogue develops the phenomenon of the “Crisis”—the existential fallout of the realization that the crew of Ascension were sentenced to death before many of them were born. (In Chapter 2.2 and 3, we discover that many of the young people of the original crew were kidnapped!)
This Crisis is one of the reasons why I wrote IE to teach its citizenry that life on the Rock was it—the end-all, be-all. Much like “Earth” in Battlestar Galactica, “Terra Nova” was a legend, a lie, a myth whose truth lay somewhere between BSG’s “Earth” and any civilization’s version of Elysium.
And by the end of Chapter 2.2, the audience learns there may be a hidden purpose to the Ascension experiment: the development of a psychic human. There’s a line in Chapter 2, summarized:
“What do you think the true purpose of Ascension is? To prove that people in close quarters will experience conflict? Reality TV has been showing us this for decades.”
So why the experiment in isolation—an experiment which NASA and other agencies have been testing since the biodomes of the…2011? Ah. Maybe to see if it can be done? Another quote from Chapter 2:
“What do you know of the history of [several technologies, e.g. the MRI]? Take 600 of our best and brightest, lock them up in a confined space, and great things come out.”
Actually, this is a set-up for Chapter 3, in which the young girl Crista (I’m not missing the subtle suggestion here) is given a brain scan by the smallest, most modern MRI ever made, so the audience can see lots of lights going off in her brain just before her psychic-ness saves people and threatens to destroy the illusion of Ascension.
At which point I wondered if the purpose of Ascension was to create psychic humans. In the show, the program directors refer to it as “morphic resonance” and “punctuated evolution”, wherein by virtue of a severe environmental shift, a species experiences evolution more rapidly. It’s similar to the “genetic bottleneck”, when an environmental catastrophe shrinks the genetic variance of a species—and why all modern humans are descendent from 2k to 20k prehistoric humans.
Okay, the show wanted to introduce psychics. That’s fine; I love psychics. And I believe that most of Ascension’s critics were fine with it. There were two other issues proposed by said critics that may have contributed to Ascension’s mixed reviews: “the Star Child must be born”, and the ability of Crista to teleport a human being from Earth to a new world.
And these are why I think Ascension’s ending is not terrible. Actually, it could be brilliant…if you let it.
(1) In the sixth episode, this literal line of dialogue: “The Star Child must be born. [my emphasis]” Most critics felt this line was too corny. (A lot of critics either missed or ignored the girl’s name allusion.)
But the character Sam—an ex-soldier with a tarnished history of service activities that she regrets—invokes this line from Eva, a conspiracy theorist the former thinks has been trying to get to the truth of child kidnappings associated with the initiation of the Ascension experiment, by noting:
‘You’re good. …Is this how Ascension has shut down investigation, by planting you as an obvious conspiracy theorist? A “honey trap”, to catch anyone else looking into the project?’
Eva disarms Sam, then shoots the latter through the eye, giving us the line about the Star Child.
I thought this made a lot of sense, especially given Enzmann’s (Gil Bellows) obsession with the Ascension experiment: what better way to protect Ascension than by creating a cult—a group of equally fanatic people upon whom Enzmann can rely to secure any leaks or oversight blunders? Yes, the birth of the “Star Child” is a trite line, only because a real cult might have spoken those words.
If I think of Eva as a cultist, Enzmann as their fanatical leader, Ascension as the sacred chamber in which the Star Child can be born, given enough time and faith, this plot device makes a lot of sense. The best part is that Enzmann need never share his own, factual knowledge of Ascension! Just his robust obsession with the project. In some ways, Enzmann is a trophy-taking serial killer (Chapter 2), just like Manson. Remember that Director Warren explains in Chapter 3 how she became involved with Ascension:
‘Your [Enzmann’s] father was a man of powerful charisma. He made us believe in Ascension, in its purpose, his vision.’
He would’ve had to; although the Stanford Prison Experiment—widely considered to be a psychological cornerstone in explaining why the people of the Nazis carried out their barbarisms on people of the prison camps—wasn’t conducted until 1974, the Milgram Experiment of 1963 came at the height of academic furor to identify factors of authority figures on their subjects. (These studies, and several others pre- and post-WW2 served also to establish the ethics of modern research.) The show establishes that 70 of the original Ascension crew were academics, in all fields, including philosophy and psychology. It would’ve been impossible to recruit people for the Ascension’s ground-based direction team without the level of charisma that makes smart people do objectively terrible things.
Even if the ‘TC Group’ is led by a board of hard-nosed, economically-focused business sociopaths who’d do anything for money, it would make sense that Enzmann—who, from Chapter 1, is obviously beholden to the TCG despite his father’s founding status, probably because the TCG paid for the experiment—would look outside the corporate structure for people who, like him, can be wrapped up in his cult obsession of Ascension. “The Star Child must be born” is not corny sci-fi banality, but a comment on all of the moronic things believed by any subset of humanity in any era of history.
(2) There were people who didn’t like the finale of BSG! I admit: it’s a stretch of a concept. But in many ways it’s not; earlier, I discussed the genetic bottleneck that resulted in modern humans descending from 2k to 20k people, roughly the population of the remaining BSG fleet.
(The fact that the information ghosts Baltar and #6 are walking around downtown NY/LA/wherever some tens of millennia later can be considered separately.)
Consider the conceit of “Paycheck”, another sci-fi movie panned, unfairly, by critics: ‘What would you pay $500 billion to see? …The future.’
What’s better: paying a trillion dollars (Wayland Corp, Prometheus) to travel to a distant star system, or paying just a billion dollars to develop a teleporter?
Has there been any research that punctuated evolution could create psychic humans? No. Has there been any published literature on any legitimate experiments on the subject? No. Is there any chance, regardless of its infinitessimality, that a psychic human could be produced in just three generations of eugenic breeding? No.
But it’s science fiction, so I move past that point to this: much like the Matrix and X-men, the purpose of Ascension is to force human evolution to produce a special subject, beyond ‘normal’ humans. And they succeeded! It’s as magical as realizing that Event Horizon could’ve been a story told of the early Warhammer 40k universe, or as paralyzing when the Architect tells Neo that there have been several previous attempts by “The Ones” to free humanity from the machines. 51 years ago, Enzmann Sr. predicted, somehow, that he could create a human capable of teleporting other humans across the cosmos.
What’s the future of that humanity?? Does the TC Group come to dominate humanity’s governments? Is Crista unique, or can she be replicated? Can she teleport people back from those new worlds? How does Crista know to which worlds humans can be safely teleported? Can she teleport equipment?
What does Enzmann and/or the TCG do with this revelation? Enzmann ends Chapter 3.2 by reaffirming his belief that the people of Ascension are “space heroes”. Would he use Crista to teleport them to their next planet? Again: can Crista teleport non-biological objects? Or just people and the clothes on their PG-13 backs? Only Gault pops out on that new planet; the other man exposed to Crista’s ‘ability’ is not shown. Does this mean that Crista can only teleport the crew of Ascension? Is her ability somehow dependent upon the others’ isolation with her, that make them susceptible/capable of being teleported?
Does the entire human race get placed into Ascension-like experiments, such that we can all be teleported to new worlds? Can Crista teleport information? Even today (2017), we have no practical means by which to transmit information from one star system to another. The power of a laser required to transmit a light from Sol to Proxima C is astronomical, pardon the pun. Quantum physicists hope we can use quantum computing to do so, but even those signals are limited to traveling at the speed of light. Does a new class of people arise, the “Messenger”: those psychics who can morph their resonance to any Star Child, thereby allowing interstellar mail? What happens when one of these Messengers goes insane or psychotic, and start delivering erroneous or specious information, to a particular colony, to any colony s/he finds?
The possibilities are endless, and, therefore, brilliant. Don’t get caught up on a ‘trite’ line of dialogue, or the sharp curve the plot takes at the end of Ascension.
October is #PoweredByIndie at Amazon! It's pulled me back to social media. Please give an indie author/artist a chance this month.
And selfishly, my books are all available on the Kindle Lending Library, if you're an Amazon Prime subscriber. ;P
Why haven't I updated my website and/or social media accounts in three months exactly? A combination of ennui and waiting for editors to weigh in on some content-laden ancts.
"Jessi, you don't have to have editors review your Twits!"
False. We. Have. Been. Learning. This. Lesson. Every. Day.
What do I have planned for #PoweredByIndie month? Who knows. But I'll try to post some content, plan a giveaway, and generally get beyond this malaise of the last three months. Hey: if you're a content creator, if you work primarily from home, or if you've experienced the unproductivity of summer doldrums, tell us about it: #SummerDoldrums
Just a quick anct to thank GoodReads and its people, its giveaway system, and to the 361 people who entered! Those books have been signed, and will be shipped this Fri, 170707.
A quick note: my first GoodReads giveaway for one of five copies of YMM02: "Steps of a Ghost" ends June 30th. It takes no more effort than creating a GoodReads account, and clicking the 'Enter Giveaway' button.
Best E3 2017 Conference: Microsoft
When it comes to gaming, I am not an ‘industry insider’; my gaming information usually comes from podcasts, and therefore, said information may be skewed by the lens of the speaker. Typically, I could care less: I don’t play most genres of video games, so most gaming information just doesn’t concern me. If I am intrigued about a particular game, I then put in the effort required to assess its purchase and/or play value. (Both are nearly equivalent values for me, since I typically play strategy games, yet find myself with less time in which to do so.)
‘Jessi: since when do you give a fuck about E3?’
Since 2015, when I had identified a select group of ‘content creators’ of whom I could consider their opinions valid. Hell, I actually had a decent time watching E3 2016. (While April 2015, specifically, was a fantastic month for 4X gamers, 2015 was shit for video gaming.) I was looking forward to E3 2017.
A brief detour: most people have terrible memories, such that few remember…shit, most of their lives. Content creators suffer from mechanisms that act to limit memory in two ways: (1) They engage with hundreds or thousands of people on a daily basis. Even I would have difficulty trying to remember which stories or rants I had told to which people were I speaking to a collective 100,000 people on a weekly basis! (2) Everything relatively ‘important’ is recorded for them; not only do content creators maintain a vast collection of their own memories, many of them have a dedicated fanbase who will recall that information for them.
I do not have total recall (neither the psychological state in which one can remember everything s/he’s ever sensed, nor either movie, Schwartzenegger or Farrel), but my memory is exceptional. So I found it strange when, while trying to evaluate 2017’s E3 conferences, the content creators ‘with’ whom I watched said conferences seemed to use a different rubric than they had for 2016’s conferences! Since I am not a gaming industry insider, I adapted the criteria of my content creators’ 2016 assessment of E3 conferences. It is by this rubric that I declare Microsoft to be 2017’s best E3 conference.
Caveat: I did not watch the Nintendo nor PC Gaming conferences (because the content creators who I watch did not commentate them and/or record them to YouTube).
Sony dominated 2016’s E3, in part because its production values were high, its transitions smooth, and its speaking portions confident and short. Microsoft’s presentation satisfied these criteria to the highest degree this year. Their primary speaker (Phil Spencer [??]) spoke confidently, and transitioned from one topic to the next smoothly and with alacrity. Sony’s conference began this way, but Microsoft sustained it for the duration of theirs.
This year, my content creators placed greater emphasis on the emotion behind the presentation. Several noted that Ubisoft’s and EA’s developers spoke with more ‘heart’ when evaluating their respective conferences. Some developers' unabashed tears of joy were noted as particularly meaningful.
Volume and Diversity of Games
Microsoft ‘presented’ 42 games (~a decuria of which were highlighted via montage), spanning big-budget AAA games, indie games, first-person shooters, puzzle platformers, VR games, RPGs, and artistic ‘experiences’. Did any of them interest me particularly? Not really. But the fact that they showed them—showed such a wide variety of games—added value to their conference.
Conversely, the rest of the conferences showed very few games (e.g. Bethesda) or very little diversity of games (e.g. EA’s ‘sport-a-thon’ or Sony’s five first person open world RPGs).
Additionally, Microsoft’s was the only conference to show new hardware. I would give several days of my first-born’s life to learn more about this super-special power management system developed by an X-Box 1-X engineer!
Game Trailers and Gameplay
The most prominent critique of Sony’s 2016 E3 conference was that they showed games back-to-back-to-back in a rapid-fire manner. While some valuation of this criterion is subsumed by ‘Presentation Style’, above, my content creators’ 2016 E3 rubric placed a high emphasis specifically on the rate at which trailers and gameplay were shown, and the celerity of transitions between them. Of the 2017 conferences, Microsoft’s pacing was rapid without detracting from the inherent value of each game.
Some content creators stated that the transitions from one game to the next were ‘too small’—they couldn’t appreciate their thoughts on the games before being forced to move onto the next title. I did not. In fairness: most of the games in Microsoft’s conference did not interest me.
Final Thoughts on 2017 E3
While I consider Microsoft’s conference the most superior of E3 2017, they didn’t show a single game that I actually want to play. But I play a very limited selection of genres, focusing primarily on sci-fi 4X and grand strategy titles. Can’t play those on console.
Although Sony’s conference suffered technical issues for internet viewers, I tried not to consider them in my evaluation.
I did not watch the PC Gaming conference, so I cannot comment on it. But they get an honorable mention for the XCOM 2 expansion.
And I really want to see the tech specs for that XBonX power management system!
Office DoorAnct 170604
Magic Items and Item Creation Rules in RPGs
This monogram is based upon the first query in this video of “Office Hours”, by Adam Koebel. I summarize: “How do I create a system for magical item (MI) creation that is meaningful and interesting, requires special ingredients for each item, but isn’t cumbersome?”
And an offensively short summary of Adam’s eloquent discussion: “Most games have MI creation rules; most of them are terrible. Even indie RPGs tend to handle it poorly. Blades in the Dark (‘Blades’) is my new hotness, and does it well.”
False. I will elucidate: Blades is not my kind of game. It is well-designed, and does almost completely mechanize MI creation. In fact, Blades mechanizes everything…in the most basic lesson of abstract algebra ever game-ified. It’s quite elegant in its design: ‘this’ is an element, ‘that’ is an operation. One combines two elements with one operation to create a third element. A player creates a character with a ‘playbook’ of tags and moves, uses ‘units’ of resources and discrete 'ticks' of ‘clocks’ to further goals. Randomness is handled by a d6.
I’m not a fan of this new genre of RPGs—that of ‘fictional positioning’, ‘narrative focused’, ‘grab and go’ RPGs. It’s a genre on which White Wolf tried to capitalize in the 1990s with their ‘Storyteller’ system, failing because their mechanics were nearly as complicated as those of other games, but confused its players because it was trying so hard to wave the ‘No Mathz!’ flag that there wasn’t enough room in the game book to actually describe (and balance) the system’s stats model.
Of course, this new genre of RPG isn’t trying to appeal to me, nor does it lie about its impeti. I play games with complex, strategy/tactics-first mechanics. The ‘story’ of the game is not created by the narrative actions in-game, but by the twelve successes that turned my basic ball of flame into Jessi’s Raging Magma Storm of Deathstomping, or by applying a bleed effect on a hasted opponent, watching it die because of its own celerity! My RPGs (Coming 2018!) are mechanized w/out regard to fictional positioning—I don’t want to spend twelve years explaining the swings I take with my katana, I just want to roll my dice. I want my comprehensive knowledge of game mechanics and tactical risk-minimization to determine most of how the game goes.
‘Fictional positioning’: the gaming philosophy which requires two criteria be met for an action to be attempted by a character in the game: (1) it must be mechanically possible—the game must have a mechanic that allows the character to attempt said action; and (2) it must make sense within the past or current fiction of the game. That last part is always poorly phrased—rephrase: the stage must be set in such a way that the action may be attempted.
Poor example: proper fictional positioning, sans mechanics: ‘I stand next to this NPC.’ ‘You are standing next to the NPC.’ ‘I would like to give this NPC a great massage.’ ‘Okay…there’s no Massage skill, so…you succeed? Or fail? Roll a Flirt check.’ ‘I’m not flirting; I just want to ease this NPC’s back tension.’ ‘Okay…roll a Medicine check.’ ‘I’m not trying to be a massage therapist.’ ‘Uhh…roll a Perform check?’
Poor example: proper mechanics, sans fictional positioning: ‘I would like to buy power armor.’ ‘Okay: you find the local armorsmith.’ ‘I would like to use my hauntingly beautiful charisma to get her to give me 8% off the purchase price.’ ‘Cool! What do you say to her?’ ‘I rolled a 27 on my Charisma check. Yes! That actually gets me a 13% discount!’ ‘Right, but how do you convince her to give you this discount?’ ‘By using my massive charisma.’ ‘Right, but how? Do you flirt with her?’ ‘No, I don’t have a Flirt skill. I use my Charisma.’ ‘Right. So do you try to befriend her?’ ‘Wouldn’t that be Diplomacy?’
Good example of positioning and mechanics, so good that millions of RP Gamers use it every week w/out realizing it: ‘I move adjacent the goblin.’ ‘You have 10 meters of movement, and can take a Move action to stand adjacent the goblin.’ ‘Do I have any modifiers to attack this goblin?’ ‘Yes, because your friend taunted the goblin’s mother with a successful Taunt roll.’ ‘I would like to stab the grot in her kidney region.’ ‘You already declared that your dagger was readied; are you actually attempting to hit the kidneys?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then your called-shot penalty cancels the taunt bonus. Roll to hit.’ Roll successful. ‘Ha, ha! Die, you pathetic greenskin!’ 'Not on 3 damage, she doesn't....'
Most games, and most gamers, count on a natural social mechanism w/in a gaming group: compromise, give and take. ‘I will give you two lines about what I say to her.’ ‘Excellent. That, with your Charisma roll of 27, enamors her to you, and you get that 13% discount.’ Or: ‘If you recognize that nearly everyone on the planet can perform a decent massage if pressed/motivated to do so, I’ll agree to a DC 5 Medicine check.’ ‘Excellent! You roll a 14. It’s a decent massage; not the best he’s ever had, but welcome.’ And not at all awkward for you to perform in the middle of the tavern.
Adam’s discussion began with the D&D perspective on magical items: find better items to kill bigger monsters to find even better items, et cetera, ad eternia.
But there’s a larger schism at work behind this query, because gamers in their 30s and 40s played D&D in a time when magical items were, simultaneously, the source of great tales and legends, but also essential to one’s survival. In the days before DR (damage reduction; 3.0+ D&D), you just flat-out couldn’t hurt a shadow without a +1 weapon. Werewolves used to be ‘gear checks’; they only had four hit dice, but if you hadn’t accrued enough money to have that spare silver weapon on your person for just such an occasion, they might as well have been invincible.
Yet, from Level 1, each and every one of us were drooling for the day when we’d finally be able to cut off our dominant hand and stick the Hand of Vecna in its place! Because D&D was based upon fantasy literature; a common theme of which is the ultimate quest to retrieve Merlin’s Great and Long Staff of Omnidicking! Every NPC in Ye Olde Land knew (a) the names of every major artifact in the region, (b) the badass dictatrices who currently wield them, and (c) the terrible curse that befalls all whose hubris makes them think they are worthy of the legendary life’s-work of Grit-gnat the Horrific Kneecapper!
Time has since flown; 21st Century RPGs are either combat simulators or narrative-focused ‘Choose Your Own Adventures’. Adam accurately identifies the flaws of magical items in most games: (1) If you go questing for a specific item, you won’t need it when the quest is complete; (2) If you let PCs buy (and sell!) MIs, you’ll ruin the game’s economy; (3) if you make MIs too difficult to build or too rare to find, the PCs will be continuously under-powered. The latter is especially true for non-spellcasters—I don’t care how many bonus feats the fighter gets, if she doesn’t have a magical weapon at level 10, she’s in for a rough time.
Or in modern/sci-fi games: ‘What’s to stop my players from buying the best armor, the most explosive weapons?’ Nothing, unless you (1) force the PCs to go abroad to find them; (2) allow them to sell fifty AK-96s for one suit of power armor; or (3) force the players into isolation with only 9-mils and two magazines. Respectively.
Adam also mentioned creation-focused character classes. Nearly every RPG has one: Deadlands Mad Scientist, Pathfinder Artificer, Rifts Techno-Wizard, Apocalypse World Savvyhead, etc. And any RPG that doesn’t have an explicit item-creation class has skills, feats, and other rules that govern the blueprinting, creation, and repair of objects. And yet, these classes/skills tend to be rarely used!
‘But why, Jessi?’ Fair query. Crafting mechanics have become so important to computer RPGs that a good one often correlates directly to a game’s success. Some of the most popular games in the world have as free-form a crafting system as possible—e.g. Terraria, Minecraft, Legos. And yet, many table-top RP Gamers ignore, subsume, or handle item creation exclusively during downtime. Why??
My theory: item creation systems allow creators to directly affect game mechanics. Minor, incremental changes—a +2 longsword to replace the fighter’s +1 sword; a +1 optical sight for a gun; a nitro tank to a car—are fine. In fact, the GM can simply offload the responsibility for providing such upgrades onto the party’s crafter. How would anyone know--your gaming group has five people! After the first few levels, the group would settle into a routine: give the crafter 10% of your loot, so she can upgrade your favorite submachinegun with an extra-long magazine, stability stock, faster smarklink, etc. Now the group is spending their money on upgrades instead of frequenting local arms dealers; they spend 50 credits every week, instead of 200 credits a month. Balance maintained, while the GM still uses ‘item scarcity’ to keep the grenade launcher out of their hands for a few more levels.
‘What about that new hotness?’ Tha’ fuck would it matter? In narrative-focused games, what’s the point of having a new magical item? To allow access to a new action? It’s narrative-focused. ‘I would like a cape like Dr. Strange’s cape: I want it to pull me out of danger.’ ‘Okay, you’ll need to kill Empress Redcape to get it.’ ‘Nah, I wanna make it.’ ‘Alright. I’ll give you a 42-tick clock. You’ll need to spend a downtime action to tick it forward.’ ‘Any way I can reduce that?’ ‘Sure, you can go to Redcape Mountain and retrieve the Cape of Creation.’ ‘Eh. Can I buy one with money?’ ‘Yep: it’ll take you 42-ticks worth of missions to collect the requisite money.’ ‘What if I steal the Candelabra of 42-Ticks?’ ‘No problem! It’s currently in Dr. R. Edcape’s private collection, just 42 units of Money across the ocean.’ ‘I’d like to make a special class move/book/feat that would allow me to mimic the effects of the cape.’ ‘Excellent choice; just the way I would do it. For completely non-arbitrary reasons, it’ll take 42-ticks worth of Experience to get the first level of this special class.’ ‘Why??’ ‘Because you must cross the Red Ocean, fighting your way through the Creation Pirates to study the 42 Ways under Mistress Cape.’
My apologies; that metaphor just wouldn’t end!
“Office Hours” likes to give specific information and guidance; I share that philosophy:
(1) Game balance is fluid, varying, and subjective. GMs are consumed by game balance. Some have to be, especially if, like Adam, you GM in front of thousands of people. But for your own table top group, one’s only concern is if the players feel like the game is balanced. Often, this means that each player feels s/he brings something unique and powerful to the group’s exploits. If the bard feels like she doesn’t contribute as much as the fighter with the dual vorpal katanas, focus less on combat. Or allow the bard to discover the Melody of Superhotness—a scroll that can only be read/sung/played by a bard that allows her to, 1/day, force her target to remove all of her/his/its clothes in eager anticipation of coitus. My dear friend Sam GMs with this maxim: “Give every character a chance to shine in every adventure, during every game day.”
(2) There is no such thing as a creation system that is meaningful, special, and unencumbered. A system either describes crafting mechanics ad nauseum (e.g. Pathfinder, Deadlands), or places the responsibility of player projects on the shoulders of the ill-advised GM (e.g. nearly every other game). My advice: pick two of the three.
* Special and Unencumbered: Item creation is limited to classes or skills, and those who focus on them—at the expense of other skills and talents—should be allowed to create items on demand, en masse. D&D 3.5’s system does this best: a flat gold fee, a number of 8-hour shifts directly proportional to that fee, etc. No XP cost, no lengthy quests, no special items required. When I’ve played with this kind of system, I even let the players break down old/found items to ease a fraction of the build cost/time for new ones. (See (3), below, for more info.)
* Meaningful and Unencumbered: At regular intervals (e.g. level up, boss completion, shard acquisition) the party can create or commission the creation of an item. This process is unencumbered because the party has control over when this milestone is achieved. Important to this kind of system is to make it as transparent as possible—and in this one regard, Blades in the Dark does player projects well: creating red.Cape requires ten ticks of this clock; it will cost 1 Money and 1 Downtime to tick the clock.
* Meaningful and Special: This was the original standard, in the 1980s RPGs. ‘You may be awarded a daiklaive only by challenging the pack leader to first blood under Luna’s warrior phase while maintaining a Caern’s blessing!’ I want to ensure that you understand: this method of item creation is shit. I just flat-out refuse to play games that use this model of item creation. They’re either stupid:
(‘You now wield the Foot of Smork!’ ‘Okay, so what’s its bonus? +2?’ ‘It is the Foot of Smork! It will make the downfall of your enemies 5% more likely!’ ‘Okay, +1 then. Anyone need a dumb +1 weapon?’)
(‘You now wield the Shoulder Bone of Vecna!’ ‘Excellent! The first thing I do is use it’s once/year ability to summon an army of 1,000 skeletons!’ ‘Behold! Your fearsome army of the dead awaits your bidding!’ ‘Hey, small shit village from level 1: it’s payback time for refusing to pay us double that 5 gold bounty!’ ‘Let’s see…there were 42 people in that village. Roll 42d100s; one a roll of 1, Vecna consumes your soul.’ Rolls a 1. ‘Oops.’ ‘Okay, Kendra the Paladin Valiant is now Vecna the Returned Bad Time. …Time for a new character? Or are we good here? This a good end point for the campaign? Feels like a good end point.’)
(3) Give game balance, and the responsibility for its equilibrium, to the players. ‘But I am a GM! Heavy upon my shoulders and my shoulders alone rests the burden of Game Balance!’ Feels like it sometimes. But it’s wrong, and anyone who tells you otherwise is likewise. Let the space marine have that plasma cannon—it will occasionally explode. Let the psychic focus on mental domination; when the Warp explodes around her, it’ll be hilarious. Let the ork dual-wield Big Choppaz, and just fucking mow through rank after rank of Imperial Guard. How is she going to be helpful in challenging the planetary governor’s tax tariff policies?
Many GMs offer this advice; ‘if character A is too good at action X, then challenge A with action Y.’ And you don’t have to do it in a sneaky or malicious kind of way. Use this ‘fictional positioning’ to your advantage, and rely upon the abundant cornucopia of game circumstances. Yes, “Court of Swords” spends 2- to 3-quarters of a session in combat, because that was the intended focus of the game—they wanted a tactical, combat-driven RPG…probably to contrast the highly-narrative “Blades” and “Nebula Jazz” also running on Roleplay.
Regardless of the game, all campaign worlds are vast and varied. Simply allow the players to pursue their own agendas. Those who want to banter with and seduce NPCs will choose to do so. Ditto for those who need more heads for their belt. Your job, as GM, is to make both of these opportunities available and engaging.
‘The point, Jessi!’
Give the players control over the crafting system of their game. Make the most powerful items in the game only buildable by the players. This is how I treat item creation in my games, and in games with class-focused crafters. Questioner: ask your players if they want a creation system that is “meaningful and interesting…but isn’t cumbersome”. Tell them that a super smart lady told you they can choose two of the three:
For ‘special and unencumbered’, the D&D 3.5 system is pretty good: pay your gold, spend the downtime, here’s your wand of cure light wounds, 50 charges. If you’re not playing a d20 system, I recommend the creation rules for the Mad Scientist in Deadlands, or that of my upcoming titles [??]: ‘I want a ranger long-rifle.’ ‘Cool. Roll Int + Craft. You get one roll per day of creation. You suffer a -5 penalty for not being Eldar, but you can still attempt to build it since you’re a psyker. Do you have a rifle-smithing flair? Good. It’s an Exotic weapon, so you’ll need to accrue 300 successes/hits/7’s.’ Done. That player can now snipe fools from a kilometer. Still not going to be helpful with that damn governor and her shady tax codes.
Especially in this case, I would just not bother giving too many special items as loot. Sci-fi games get off easier in this respect: ‘Congrats, you’ve killed the Vindicare assassin! She’s got a master-crafted Armaggedon-class sniper rifle.’ ‘Aww…I already have one of those!’ ‘Well, her goons also have 53 lasguns, let’s see…twenty of their flak armors are still usable….’ Giving the players the authority to craft the best in-game items will give them the opportunity to engage with player/downtime projects that have actual meaning, because they’ll craft what they want, when they need it. Then, when it breaks, when it jams, when it gets stolen from an unconscious body, the player will feel that sense of personal loss more powerfully—and your game will be more engaging for it.
If you’re playing a d20 game (e.g. D&D, Pathfinder), just use those systems, and let your ego get out of the way. Unless a master-craft item is required, just gloss over the ‘item’ part. Let the druid collect bark on which to scribe scrolls; the naval alchemist to collect various sands and waters for potions; the urban sorcerer to fashion a wand or rod from a length of lead pipe or rebar.
If you’re playing a d6 (e.g. Shadowrun 5e) or d10 game (e.g. any White Wolf game, my games—coming 2018!), use that system’s d10 ‘success/hit/7s’ requirements, but elide any but the most potent, powerful, or rare ingredients or processes. Allow an hourly check for small stuff, daily check for ‘common/mundane’ items, a weekly check for uncommon tech or basic magic item, and a monthly check for the most potent stuff. Be sure that you and the player define the item’s type and the amount of successes required to complete it. Some examples:
* Improvised explosive (Access to cleaning closet; roll 1/hr, 3 successes)
* Convert semi-auto pistol to full-auto (Access to workshop, the gun; roll 1/hr, 4 successes)
* Armored trenchcoat (Access to medium sized town’s shops; roll 1/day, 7 successes)
* Slinky dress (Access to any clothing/fabric store; roll 1/day, 3 successes)
* Basic grenade x10 (Medium town’s shops; roll 1/week, 6 successes)
* Sniper rifle (Machinist’s workshop; roll 1/week, 15 successes)
* Vibro knife (Scientific workshop; roll 1/month, 12 successes)
* Carrier-class interstellar vessel, w/ full complement 100 attack drones (Every kind of workshop, resources of massive cities; roll 1/month, 5000 successes)
‘Jessi, I can’t let a player build a fucking starship!’ Sure you can. She starts designing it in her garage. After a year of adventuring, her Craft skill increases, specializes—and the work goes faster. She spends the bulk of her income building workshops and factories, hiring engineers. A second year goes by; now she’s rolling 100 dice/month, because of those she’s hired. Our shipwright has increased her social, pedagogical, and management skills to make her employees more effective. Another year: the shipwright’s team defeats a group of militants who’d captured a nuclear submarine; you allow her to jury-rig the sub’s fusion drive (w/ a skill check) in exchange for 100 successes.
Finally, the team is ‘15th level’, and her work is complete! Don’t just let it sit there: make it the team’s HQ! The next five ‘levels’ can now take place all over the solar system! How does the shipwright train the crew she’s hired? How does the system’s police force register the carrier? A few minor space combats, then a couple of massive ones. How does the group’s leader change her command style at the helm of the carrier? Will the team’s physician beg the team to come to the aid of the beleaguered miners of asteroid colony FookMee?
Why not?? Why hold players back from making the stuff they want to make? Why shouldn’t the team’s sniper learn how to custom-make her own rifle and/or rounds? Why can’t the team’s priest make a faithful copy of the Mantle of Piousness? Hey, GM: look at yourself in the mirror: ‘Why am I so terrified of allowing players’ characters to engage the game’s item creation mechanics, in the spirit of the game, with little or no encumbrance on my part?’
For ‘meaningful and unencumbered’, I’d recommend offering items for the completion of missions. It doesn’t matter who or how they’re given to the PCs—steal it from the bandit lord, who is known to carry it; loot it from the necromancer’s library after you’ve driven off her dead; offer it as a reward when the party returns to the quest-giver (who might have secretly hoped that they would die on the return trip…). Be a bit stingy on the gold/credits side of treasure, but be sure that they’re paying that armorsmith for something they actually need. Mask it in a bit of secrecy: ‘The armorsmith has finished her work, and bestows upon you the Mark XIII power armor! It’s stats are basic power armor.’ (But then, during a fight when the warrior is downed, tell her that the meaningful investment in this armor actually saves her from the wound!) The Pathfinder rules will probably suit you as is, but play up the ‘fiction’ of the creation process. Have the acquisition of a special ingredient or material be a side quest, such that the party need not choose between killing the bandit lord or yanking ten bear asses off of ten now-bottomless bears on the other side of the county.
For ‘meaningful and special’, go back to the horror that was 2nd ed. AD&D or the original World of Darkness. May the New Moon shine favorably upon you, because if I find you I’ll create a vulgar Prime effect to rend your avatar right the fuck out of my universe.
Jessica White writes several book series based to various degrees on Mercedes Mace, a noir-style private detective in a dystopian, alt-history San Francisco in the 2020's.