Sunday, October 30, 2011

Further Tales of the CPAN

It’s been a CPAN weekend.

Now, several months ago, I talked about uploading my first module to CPAN.  I basically said then that I had no idea why it had taken me so long to finally get off my ass and upload something.

Well, now I know.  Because as soon as you start uploading crap to CPAN, people expect you to actually support it.  And, man ... that takes time.

It’s not that big a deal, really.  You don’t have to support your modules, of course, but I think I explained in some detail the whole “pride of ownership” thing, right?  And people judging you by your CPAN modules?  So you do end up feeling a sense of responsibility for making things work if other people are trying to use your code and having problems.  Plus you’d hate for your fellow Perlites to come along and think you were a slackass who never responded to bug reports.

So I try to keep up, and I try to make things work well.  Besides my first solo module, I’ve also been named comaintainer of another module that I’ve contributed heavily to, plus I agreed to take over yet another module that had a bug in it and its author had gotten out of the Perl game.  I’m still working on the first official release of that last one; I’ll probably have to spend part of what little remains of my weekend working on it, in fact.  There’s some weird problem in one of the test files, which I changed from the original because I found a bug in there, which I found when I tried to fix the original bug ... I’m dealing with three modules here, and I’m already starting to feel a bit overwhelmed!  How do people with a buttload of modules handle it?  Crazy, man ...

Actually, a big part of what I’ve been working on this weekend is repository surgery.  If you’re not a technogeek like me (and assuming you’ve bothered to read this far (which I don’t know why you would (but then I don’t know why you’d bother to read at all (reminder: see name of blog)))), perhaps you don’t know what I mean when I say “repository.”  It’s where you put your source code, for your software, when you want to keep track of all the history of it.  Now, as it turns out, some code that I originally wrote a long time ago, and have taken with me to various jobs, is actually being used by somebody other than me.  Not via CPAN, because I’m too much of a lameass to have put it up there, of course, but by a former co-worker who got it from me directly.  And recently (okay, like 3 weeks ago) he emailed me to ask me if he (or I) could put it up on CPAN now.  And, since I’m a bit less of a lameass now, I thought that was a pretty good idea.

So step 1 is to get the thing into a repository.  And, while it’s not absolutely necessary, I really would prefer for that repository to have the complete history of all the code.  But the code in question is only part of a larger repository that’s in an older format (i.e. Subversion) instead of the newer format I use nowadays (i.e. git).  So I have to convert and trim it down and move it over, and it still won’t be fit for release onto CPAN until I at least clean up the test suite a bit.  But I made a good start on that this weekend.  It’s not done, but ... well, it’s a start.

I’ve also been considering starting another blog.  Something a little more focussed on Perl, that perhaps might be more interesting to my fellow Perl travelers.  Which, on the face of it, is ridiculous.  First there’s my opinion on blogs in general, which certainly hasn’t changed.  And then there’s the fact that I barely have enough time to write this blog every week, much less write another one.  But, hey: I’m not gettin’ any younger ovah heah.  I’ve been doing Perl for about 15 years, programming professionally for over 20 (roughly half my life, at this point), programming in toto for around 30.  It’s not that I have a burning desire to be famous or anything.  But there’s a certain freedom that comes with recognition in your field, and I think it might be nice for a change to comment on a post on the Internet or somesuch and have people know that you actually know what you’re talking about instead of having a knee-jerk reaction of “who is this guy again?”  I dunno, maybe it is all selfish self-aggrandizement, but it seems at least worthwhile, if not strictly necessary.

If nothing else, it’ll give you twice as many options for ignoring me.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Heroscape Forever

So I’ve talked about my two favorite games: Heroscape and Pathfinder.  Pathfinder is still a relatively young game at the time I write this, having just recently celebrated its two-year anniversary.  Heroscape, however, was released in 2004, and, at the end of last year (2010), Wizards of the Coast discontinued it.

If you’ve followed my recounting of the saga of Pathfinder’s ascension, you’ll recognize that WotC is the same company that was responsible (in my opinion) for the downfall of Dungeons & Dragons.  Is this coincidence?  Probably not.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the original WotC—the one which invented Magic: the Gathering, the one run by Peter Adkinson—was a decent company.  I didn’t care for all the blind purchase crap that CCGs brought to the table, but there was always a sense that Wizards at least had some respect for its customers.  The fact that the OGL was developed before WotC’s sale to Hasbro (although released after it) is significant, I think.  Hasbro’s leadership made a huge difference in the way Wizards was run.  And, as I mentioned: Peter Adkinson was soon gone from the company he founded.

Heroscape was created by Hasbro as a game to be sold in Wal-Marts and Targets, but it had a collectible aspect to it.  That caused a huge dissonance between manufacturer and retailer.  For instance, some Heroscape units are “unique,” which means you can only have 1 of them in your army.  Some, on the other hand, are “common,” which means you can have as many as you like (and, in some cases, like orcs or zombies, you really need a lot of them to make the best of their abilities).  So here’s Hasbro producing a “wave” of new units, half of which are unique and half of which are common, and here’s Wal-Mart purchasing “wave 4” or whatever, not realizing that half their product is going to sell out at a frightening rate while the other half is going to sit around forever.  And Wal-Mart is never going to purchase “old” waves.  Wal-Mart doesn’t do “old.”  It’s always “new” “new” “new.”  But, if you’re just discovering the game around about wave 4, you really want to get some of wave 1, not to mention waves 2 and 3.  It was a marriage made in hell, and on one of the deeper levels.

So eventually Hasbro decided to shuffle Heroscape off to their subsidiary that actually dealt with weird collectible games, the ones who were more comfortable dealing with local gaming stores than big box retailers.  And, if they could have shuffled it off to the WotC that had existed at the time that D&D 3e came out, that might have even been a good idea.  But that WotC was long dead.  The new WotC was in the position that every successful smaller company bought by a huge corporate giant finds itself in: the definition of “success” had changed out from under them, and they were under constant pressure to perform better, produce more profits, increase their bottom line, reduce their “waste” ... note that I don’t know this personally, but I’ve been in that exact corporate situation time and time again (and I’m in it yet again in my current job), so I know exactly how it goes.  Uncomfortable company meetings where they tell you that you made X tens of millions of dollars this year, which was short of your “goals” by 10 million dollars, so you better buckle down and do a lot better in the coming year.  Or else things will get ... bleak.  Whatever fun there had been in the work (and, in a gaming company, I would imagine there’s even more fun in the work than usual) is mercilessly wrung out and drained away, leaving only the cracking whip of the corporate overseers, and the constant whisper, as in D. H. Lawrence’s excellent short story, “There must be more money!”

And so, Heroscape’s stay at WotC was predictably short.  Eventually they proclaimed that they were focussing on their “core competencies” (how many betrayals and abandonments have been masked with that facile corporate doublespeak!) of D&D and Magic.  And Heroscape, one amongst many other games in the Wizards stable, was no more.

Now, just last week I talked about what happens when a game is discontinued.  If you didn’t read it (and don’t care to), I’ll quote the relevant bit:

But the truth is that a dead game loses ground quickly.  There are no new expansions to attract the old fans, and nothing whatsoever to attract new ones.  In fact, if you’re just getting into a game, why would you start with a game (or a game version) that’s been discontinued?  Doesn’t make sense.  New products will come out for other games, or for the newer versions, that will leave you behind.  Technology will move on, advances in systems will be made, and you ... you will be left, eventually, playing a 20-year-old game with your two other curmudgeon friends while everyone else laughs and calls you “luddite” under their breath.

So, yes, it’s true (as always) that we’ll always have the expansions we’ve collected over the years, and there’s nothing keeping us from playing the game as it stands today, but, nonetheless, it’s a bit depressing knowing that we’ll never see any more new expansions come out, knowing that the number of new Heroscape fans that are created in the coming years will be miniscule at best.

Unless you could do something about that.

Making up homemade stuff for games (particularly expandable games) has a long and storied history.  Tweaks to the rules, generally called “house rules,” probably started with card games (particularly poker), and then expanded to venerable board games, like Monopoly and Risk.  When D&D came out, it was “expandable” in the sense that it was a set of rules that tried to model reality (and not even the real reality—a fantasy version of reality), and thus was always incomplete.  D&D “expansions” were essentially new rule books, covering new environments, new fantasy archetypes, new combat styles and weapons, and so forth.  Thus, house rules were customized expansions.

Magic: the Gathering made it a bit more complex.  Sure, you could have house rules.  But that didn’t replace the continuous expansions.  If you wanted customized expansions (generally shortened to just “customs”), that meant making up your own cards.  Now, on the one hand, you could see that, right?  You’re sitting around playing a card game in which almost every card is different, and you have dozens of combinations to choose from, but every once in a while you find that you need that one extra card to make the perfect combo.  Except that the company that makes that game hasn’t invented that card yet.  So you invent it.  What the hey: you’ve been playing this game so long that you know all the cards’ text by heart; you can easily make up some card text of your own.  Of course, it’s more complicated than that: Magic cards don’t just have text: they have pictures.  Often very beautiful pictures.  So you’ve got to have a picture too, and maybe you’re not an artist, but maybe you can find someone to draw it for you.  And still, at the end, you’ve got to print out your custom card and make it look all nice and official.

When M:tG first came out, that wasn’t very easy to do.  Nowadays we have cheap color printers, and places like Kinko’s and Staples that will professionally print things for you for little or nothing.  Printing your own Magic cards is a snap, if you can create them first.  And even that isn’t as hard as it used to be: PhotoShop, and its open source cousin the Gimp, is everywhere, and more and more people are learning how to manipulate images while said manipulation becomes easier and easier.

But what about a game like Heroscape, that has prepainted plastic figures, and premodled plastic terrain pieces?  How could you possibly come out with customs for that?

Surprisingly, people have always done it, ever since the game was first announced.  It turns out that the scale that Heroscape uses (which is more or less 28mm) is not that uncommon.  Many other games are roughly the right scale: HeroClix (and all its fellow ‘Clix games, like HorrorClix and Mage Knight), D&D Miniatures (and its brother Star Wars Minis), Dreamblade, Sabretooth’s short-lived Lord of the Rings game, and, more recently, Reaper’s Legendary Encounters line, and two from Rackham: Confrontation and AT-43.  And those are just the ones that come in prepainted plastic.  If you’re willing to use metal or resin, and/or willing to do a little painting yourself, the possibilities really open up.

So, all you need is a figure (preferably prepainted plastic), which you might have to do a little surgery on to “rebase” it (the figure bases for some games fit well with Heroscape, while the bases for others are completely unworkable), and then a copy of PhotoShop or Gimp to create a new card for it.  A little bit of photography to get a picture of the figure to composite into your card art, a little bit of playtesting to make sure your new figure works well with the existing units—not too powerful, not too wimpy, priced appropriately—and Bob’s yer uncle.  You’re all set.

Now, of course, hundreds (or thousands) of different fans all doing that at once creates a chaotic scene.  Everybody’s coming up with similar ideas going in radically different directions, using the same figures for radically different concepts, with radically varying levels of quality in the art, the text, and the playtesting.  There’s no way you could keep a dying game alive that way.

But what if you could get a smaller batch of fans together, perhaps divide them up into groups: the people talented with coming up with new units that don’t break the game would design the new units, the people talented with PhotoShop and Gimp would make the new cards, the people who were nitpicky about the wording being just right would edit the text, the people who could be the most critical while actually playing would be the playtesters ... maybe a few people to oversee the whole thing and make sure nothing got too out of hand and everything proceeded according to a grand plan.  If you could do that, then maybe ... just maybe ... you could keep a dying game alive.  It would never have the life it once had, and your efforts could never reach more than the most hardcore fans, of course, but it would be something.

Hasbro released 10 “waves” of figure expansions for Heroscape before handing over to WotC.  Wizards released 3 more.  I’m very proud to be part of the group that has recently “released” Wave 14.

That’s the figures taken care of.  Now if only we can think of a way to do some new terrain ...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Destination: Pathfinder

Last week, I went into some detail about the history of D&D, both from a corporate and personal perspective.  If you haven’t read that yet, you need to, or there’s not much point in reading this.  Not that there’s ever much point, of course.  But even less point than usual.  So go read that before proceeding.

Okay, so remember I told you what happens when someone tries to take a free piece of software and make it proprietary?  Someone forks it.  Netscape was forked to make Mozilla (which begat Firefox).  AT&T’s original Unix was forked to make BSD when they claimed System V was proprietary.  And, when you take an open game and say, this next version isn’t open any more, someone’s bound to fork it.  And that someone was Paizo.

Now, you may recall from last week that Paizo was the company that Hasbro spun off from WotC to handle the continuing publication of Dragon magazine (and its cousin, Dungeon).  So it was, originally, a small publishing company with a very narrow focus.  Obviously you can’t build an entire business off publishing two magazines with a limited appeal.  (Note that Dragonand, to a lesser extent, Dungeonhad a very wide appeal to players of D&D, but of course that’s still a pretty small percentage of the total population.)  So they worked on expanding that.  Remember how I said that one of the reasons the OGL was a good idea was that games need ancillary products like adventures in order to flourish, but publishing adventures is too unprofitable for a larger company? so smaller companies can take on that task and fill out the ecosystem?  Well, all of a sudden Paizo was a smaller company, and their business was publishing.  Why not publish adventures for D&D?

So they did.  And they decided to publish regular adventures.  One of the annoying things about adventures is that they’re always for “adventurers of X-Y levels.”  So, what do you do if your characters aren’t those levels?  Wouldn’t it be cooler if there was an adventure that started out for first level characters, and then, as you gained levels, there’d be another adventure for higher level characters, in the same world, and then another adventure for even higher level characters, and so on up through the highest level characters that people normally play before they get bored and start over at first level again?  Sure it would.  And you, of course, would want a subscription to those adventures, which should come out every month or two, just when the GM is getting ready to prepare for the next installment of her campaign.  And, hey: who better to come up with a subscription to adventures than the company who’s already publishing D&D magazines?

Paizo called them “adventure paths.”

They tried a few other magazines, but they didn’t work that well.  They expanded to producing GM products, and selling miniatures, and a web storefront, and that was working okay.  But when Hasbro came out with 4e and proclaimed that Dragon would be moving to online-only content and that Paizo’s license was just ... cancelled ... well, that was a pretty hefty blow.

So Paizo had to figure out what to do, and figure it out fast.  Possibly their adventure paths could keep them afloat, along with all the other things they had going on, but that was problematic too.  Because these would now be adventure paths for a “dead” game: D&D 3e.  They couldn’t publish 4e adventures, because the 4e license didn’t allow it.  Now, many people will tell you that it doesn’t matter when a company cancels a game, or comes out with a new, incompatible version.  You still have your old copy, right?  It’s not like WotC is going to come to your house and burn all your 3e books!  (I can’t tell you how many times I read that moronic piece of pablum in gaming blogs and forums.)  You can keep playing 3e all you want ... they say.

But the truth is that a dead game loses ground quickly.  There are no new expansions to attract the old fans, and nothing whatsoever to attract new ones.  In fact, if you’re just getting into a game, why would you start with a game (or a game version) that’s been discontinued?  Doesn’t make sense.  New products will come out for other games, or for the newer versions, that will leave you behind.  Technology will move on, advances in systems will be made, and you ... you will be left, eventually, playing a 20-year-old game with your two other curmudgeon friends while everyone else laughs and calls you “luddite” under their breath.  And as far as subscriptions to adventure paths for such a game ... well, let’s just say they’d be “shrinking” at best.

So what could Paizo do?  They had all this 3e/3.5e material floating around, and they wanted to keep producing it ad infinitum.  There would never be another version of D&D, as far as they were concerned.  There would never be a 3.6e, or a 3.75e.  Well, not from Hasbro, anyway.  Except ... except that 3e and 3.5e were OGL.  So we didn’t actually need Hasbro for a new 3.Xe version of D&D.  It couldn’t actually be called D&D of course—the OGL didn’t extend to the actual trademarked namebut it could work just like it, maybe have a few improvements here and there, be essentially the same game, only better and with a different name.  If only someone would do that ...

So Paizo did it.

It was inevitable, really.  4e was such a disappointment to so many people.  Not just me; I could point you at dozens of other blogs that agree with me.  Sure, many people thought it was okay; a few even loved it.  But with so many people so disappointed, and the OGL D&D just sitting there ...

And, just as I said that all the things wrong with 4e might not have mattered if the game itself was good enough (but it wasn’t), so it was that all that Paizo did might not have mattered if they hadn’t managed to get it right.  Because it wasn’t enough to repackage the same tired 3.5e rules and slap a new name on it: if they wanted to put out a new game with a new name, it had to offer something that 3.5e didn’t have.

And, as I said, 3.5e had a lot.  It was an improvement over 3e, just as 3e was an improvement over the previous versions.  But it was far from perfect.  It had its warts.  And Paizo fixed just about all of them.  And they did by holding a giant, year-long, open playtest.  That is, they put out the new rules for free, for everyone to look at, and they opened up special sections on their web forums for feedback, and they actually listened to what people had to say.  And, man, does it show.

I’ll give you 3 simple reasons why Pathfinder is better than 3.5e (never mind why it’s better than 4e—that’s not hard to do).  Again, if you’re not an RPG gamer, this may not mean much, but I’ll see if I can make it make sense.

First, they eliminated “dead levels.”  In D&D, there have always been levels for certain classes where you advanced to that level, but you didn’t get anything much for it.  You got to rub out a couple of numbers on your character sheet and write in some new, bigger ones.  Some classes were worse than others in this respect: for fighters in 1e, for instance, every level was a dead level.  3e/3.5e was much better, but still, many classes, such as fighters and barbarians, had a dead level every other level.  It meant that playing (or at least advancing) those classes was boring half the time.  But Pathfinder fixes that, by giving you something (even if it’s just a little thing) to look forward to every level.

Secondly, they fixed the maximum skill ranks problem.  In 3e/3.5e, you have skill ranks, and the most ranks you can have in a skill is your level + 3.  Except for cross-class skills, where it’s half that.  Every level, you get skill points, and 1 skill point equals 1 skill rank, if it’s a class skill, or 2 skill points equals 1 skill rank for cross-class skills.  Oh, and at first level you get 4 times as many skill points.  If all that sounds complicated, that’s because it is.  Pathfinder eliminates skill points and just gives you skill ranks every level.  The maximum number of ranks in every skill is now your level, and class skills give you a +3 bonus if you put any ranks in them.  This simple, elegant change works out to almost the same mathematically, but it’s so much simpler to deal with.  Pathfinder is full of things like that.

Thirdly, they changed the way favored classes work.  In 3e/3.5e, races have favored classes (humans can pick any class), and taking levels in your favored class eliminates XP penalties for multiclassing.  Yes, if you want to multiclass, you get penalties.  In Pathfinder, though, there are no penalties for multiclassing.  Instead, favored classes (which can be chosen by anyone, regardless of race) give you an extra hit point or an extra skill rank (your choice) every level you take that class.  In other words, they changed the stick into a carrot.  Much nicer to encourage people to stick with one class by offering them something shiny than to try to impose penalties (complicated math penalties, even) on them when they don’t.

Notice I said “thirdly” and not “finally.”  That’s because there’s lots more reasons why Pathfinder is an improvement over 3.5e.  Consolidation of skills (no more having to waste skill points on both Hide in Shadows and Move Silently if you want to be sneaky), races get two bonuses and one penalty (instead of one and one), simplification of grapple rules (and combination of them with other combat maneuvers such as trip or disarm), feats at every other level instead of every third, removal of limits on cantrips/orisons, elimination of XP costs for magic items and spells, capstone abilities for all classes, simplification of some of the more stupidly complex spells (such as polymorph) ... I could go on and on.  I suppose Pathfinder isn’t a perfect game either, but it seems to have no new flaws, and it fixes many (not all, admittedly) of the flaws that 3e/3.5e brought to the table.  What more could you ask for?

In the end, it’s easier for me to make the character I want with Pathfinder.  It’s more flexible, and it continues to make sense.  I wish the combat could be more streamlined (and I plan on experimenting with combining True20 with Pathfinder to help address that), but that’s my only major complaint with the system, and that was inherited straight from D&D, from 1e all the way through to 3.5e.  So, overall, Pathfinder is a mighty fine system, and I’m glad Paizo has blessed us with it.  The core books are gorgeous, there’s only two of them (making it cheaper for the base set than D&D), and you can get PDFs of them as well, which are also well-crafted.  I still love D&D, and as far as I’m concerned I’m still playing it.  It just has a new name now.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Path to Pathfinder

Between talking about Heroscape and Darwin’s World, I’ve already explained my personal history with D&D, and I started to explain about the various editions of D&D.  I covered 1e (that’s first edition), and 2e, and then I said 3e (the d20 edition) was perhaps the most popular, for several reasons (but then I only mentioned one).  I also noted that I don’t technically play D&D any more: I play Pathfinder.  I think perhaps it’s time to clear up what all that actually means.  Go and review the other two blog posts if you missed them the first time around.

Back?  Okay, so there are two open questions from all that.  First, what’s the other big reason that D&D 3e was so popular?  And, secondly, if I love D&D so much, why do I play Pathfinder now?  Well, as it turns out, the answers to those two questions are related.

While I talked about the edition history of D&D, I didn’t talk about the corporate history, and that turns out to be important too.  D&D was started by Gygax and Arneson, and they formed a little company called Tactical Studies Rules.  (Technically, Arneson wasn’t one of the partners, and there were a couple of other guys involved, but we don’t need to be that detailed.)  Tactical Studies Rules became TSR Hobbies, which became TSR, Inc.  Gygax, often considered the father of D&D and, by extension, the grandfather of all RPGs, was eventually forced out of the company he helped found, and TSR became more about business than about gaming.

One of the most annoying habits that grew out of this changeover was the litigiousness.  Early in the company’s history, they were sued by the Tolkien estate, and, as a result, there are no longer hobbits, ents, or balrogs in D&D; instead we have halflings, treants, and balors.  But it’s almost as if this experience scarred them somehow, because not so long after that, TSR started suing other people.  First any gaming company that published anything that used D&D gaming terms (like “hit points” or “armor class”), and then later on they actually started sending cease and desist letters to individuals operating D&D fan sites on the new-fangled world-wide web.  Here’s a tip for any of you budding entrepreneurs out there: threatening to sue your customers is not a good business model.

Soon TSR was all set to go bankrupt and D&D would be lost forever.  And then, along comes ... Wizards of the Coast.

So, remember in my discussion about what led up to Heroscape I mentioned CCG (collectible card games)? and, in particular, the grandaddy of all CCGs, Magic: the Gathering?  Well, that was Wizards, or “WotC” as they’re (sometimes affectionately) known.  WotC had its own fall from gaming grace to corporate sludgehood, but that is chronicled elsewhere and doesn’t directly impact the story.  The important bit is that someone over at WotC figured out that trying to shut down the people who were spreading the good word about your product wasn’t that bright of an idea.  The fans, whose word of mouth you counted on to attract new customers, and teach their children your game instead of someone else’s, that much was obvious.  But what about those other companies? the ones who wanted to produce products that used your game’s rules?  They were downright taking food off your table, weren’t they?

Well, only if you actually wanted to print those products yourself.  And, it turned out, you didn’t.  The sorts of D&D “add-on” books that these smaller gaming companies were putting out were niche products: the type of thing with a maximum audience of a few thousand.  There’s no way a big company can make a decent profit on that.  And, anyway: the more products that are out there utilizing your game’s rules (as opposed to someone else’s game’s rules), the more people want to play your game, because your game has the most support.  So it turns out that you actually want to encourage people to develop add-on products, not try to sue them.

And someone over at WotC (typically Ryan Dancey gets the credit) had a brainstorm.  The world of software was exploding with creativity because of the whole open source movement.  What if we could apply that to PnP RPGs?  Thus, open gaming was born, and D&D 3e was issued under the OGL.

It’s true that D&D 3e was markedly simpler to learn and to play than 1e or 2e (still not simple, mind you, but simpler).  It’s true that certain rules, such as multi-classing (the ability to be, say, both a fighter and a wizard, as opposed to having to choose one or the other and be stuck with that choice for your character’s entire career), were much less restrictive and appealing to a broader swath of gamers.  It’s true that the art was better, and the books were higher quality.  It’s true that many of the warts were removed, and the game was overall fairer to all concerned: being a wizard wasn’t quite so much like double-entry accounting, and being a fighter was more interesting than just saying “I attack!” over and over again.  But in my opinion (and the opinion of many other folks who follow such things), the real reason for the success of D&D 3e was the Open Game License.

All of a sudden, little RPG publishing outfits were publishing D&D add-on products instead of trying to come up with their own games.  The stuff that WotC couldn’t make money on, but that you had to have for a full-bodied RPG ecology (e.g. adventures) were coming out in droves.  And everything pointed back to the “core rulebooks” ... every single one of those products by someone other than Wizards had a big blurb on it saying “this product requires use of the D&D 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual.”  That’s $60+ a set back to Hasbro every time someone new wants to get the latest adventure or newest campaign from Mongoose or Alderac or Green Ronin.

Yes, that’s right: Hasbro.  Because WotC got sold just like TSR got sold, and Peter Adkinson left just like Gary Gygax did.  Slightly different reasons, and certainly Adkinson made out better in the end than Gygax ever had, but the pattern is clear: it starts out being all about the games, and it ends up being all about the money.  And, eventually, that kills it.

The problem, of course, was that Hasbro was a big corporation, and it just didn’t understand this whole “open gaming” thing.  You mean other people—other companiescan use our intellectual property?  And not pay us?  Insanity!  It didn’t seem to make a difference that D&D was more popular than it had been since the late 70’s (really, more popular than it had ever been), that whole new generations of gamers were signing up, that the ironic hipsters who thumbed their noses at “old-fashioned” D&D and sported flashy new games like GURPS and Storyteller and Hero were suddenly wholesale converting to the d20 craze, that the money-losing propositions were being fronted by other companies.  If Hasbro couldn’t have all the money, then, dammit, no one else should be able to either.

This is my opinion of course.  Many people say that Hasbro/WotC’s release of a new edition that wasn’t quite a new edition—dubbed “3.5e” by everyone in what would soon become at least partially a derogatory tone—is what killed it.  Certainly many people saw 3.5e as a blatant cash grab: tweaking the rules just enough to force everyone to drop another $60 for the core rulebooks all over again.  And it certainly did cause some confusion in the ancillary publishers: should they be releasing add-on’s for 3.5e, or still for 3e, or ... ?  It was a bit like what would happen if Apple were to release a new version of the Macintosh without letting the software vendors have an advance copy first.  Of course, Apple would never do such a silly thing.  So there’s no doubt that 3.5e didn’t do D&D any favors.  But it wasn’t what killed the game ... at least not for me.

That would be 4e.

The first moronic thing Hasbro did was to completely reverse course on the OGL.  D&D 4e has a license that it’s released under, but it can’t be considered “open” by any stretch of the imagination.  All of a sudden no one can produce D&D material except Hasbro, and all the reasons to stick with D&D instead of looking at new games are all gone.  That’s why I say Hasbro’s short-sightedness and lack of comprehension on long-term profitability with an open model are the culprits.  You want to know how stupid they were?  They took away the rights of Paizo Publishing to produce Dragon Magazine.  Now, Dragon had been published continuously since 1976; it was originally published by TSR directly, and WotC bought that as well, and Hasbro itself had spun the magazine publishing off of Wizards soon after they bought it, looking to “streamline” and “maintain core competencies” or somesuch bullshit.  And now they were killing one of the greatest ambassadors that D&D ever had, so they could publish online content without “competition.”

But, you know what?  All that would have been fine.  I could have forgiven them all that and much more, if not for one measly problem: 4e sucks.  Now, that is certainly not a unverisally held opinion.  There are those out there that feel that 4e is a much better game than 3e/3.5e.  More common is an attitude that they’re just two entirely different games which happen to share the same name, perhaps unfortunately.  But what I personally believe is even more common is the attitude that I have.  Not that I’m stubbornly holding on to my old edition, refusing to get with the times like some RPG version of the classic Luddite.  I loved 1e, but I loved 2e better.  When the raft of core bolt-ons for 2e came out (Skills & Powers, Spells & Magic, and Combat & Tactics; what some called in retrospect 2.5e), I loved that even more.  When 3e came out, I loved that best, until 3.5e came out and it was so much better than I never even complained about having to spend yet another $60 for what was suspiciously close to the same set of rules I’d just purchased a mere 3 years before.  And, when 4e was announced 4 years later, I was excited all over again.  I had no reason to believe 4e would not be just as awesomer than 3.5e as each previous edition had been over its predecessors.  When 4e was released the following year (2008, that would have been), I eagerly bought a boxed set of all 3 core rulebooks and tore into them, anxious to see what they had to offer.

And I was disappointed.

There are any number of reasons I could give you.  If you’re a gamer, I can say that mainly it comes down a lack of options: genericization of powers essentially eliminate spells, many of the races and classes that I’d come to consider “core” were gone, and most especially the complete excoriation of multi-classing, which meant that it was now harder to build whatever character I dreamed up.  New editions are supposed to make that easier.  If you’re not a gamer, let’s just leave it at: this was not the same game.  3e is not the same game as 2e, to some extent, but there is a fundamental connecting thread running them.  4e, for me at least, cuts that thread and moves into a whole new, weird space.  It has some good ideas, and some subsytems were improved, but overall I just didn’t want to play it after reading the rules.  It left a flat, metallic taste in my mouth, like trying to eat your favorite food when you have a cold.

Now, being a software geek just as much as a gamer geek, I can easily tell you what happens when someone takes a piece of open source software and releases the new version under a proprietary license.  It’s quite simple: somebody forks it.  Which means, they take the last version that was free, and they improve it a bit here and there, and then they release it under a new name competing with the original.  So when Netscape gets bought by AOL, you get Mozilla (and, eventually, Firefox).  And when D&D’s OGL gets co-opted by parent corp Hasbro to produce 4e, you get ... Pathfinder.

Next week I’ll get more in depth into how Pathfinder came into being and why you should care.  Well, if you’re a fan of D&D’s 3rd Edition (either 3e or 3.5e), you should care.  Keep that breath baited!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Proscription Drugs

I believe that we, as human beings, like to simplify things.

The truth is, we live in a complex world.  The laws of physics that we know about are far beyond what most of us can comprehend, and most physicists agree that we don’t know all of them yet.  The intricacies of the human body are no less baffling to all but the most learned biochemists and neurologists and geneticists, and, there again, there are still mysteries which counfound even them.  History is full of factual ambiguity; philosophy is full of moral ambiguity; literature is full of contextual ambiguity ... is it any wonder that we need to find a way to reduce things, simply to cope with living in the universe we find ourselves in?

Of course, the danger when simplifying is that we may oversimplify.  I’ve discussed before how we “know” that there is no black and white in the world, and yet stubbornly persist on perceiving most things in absolute terms such as “true” and “false.”  (In fact, you might even go far as to say our view of balance is itself a paradox.  But that’s straying too far afield from my point.)  Let’s take a field at random ... oh, let’s say ... English grammar.

How many of you out there know that it is wrong to split an infinitive?  Go on, raise your hands proudly and be counted.  You know the rules of grammar, right?  You were taught this stuff in school.  Splitting infinitives is just one of those things which is downwright wrong.

Of course, “right” and “wrong” would be just like “black” and “white” ... right?  And we know there’s no black and white in the world ... right?

Now let me ask you this: for those of you who didn’t raise your hand about the split infinitive being wrong, why not?  Did you trot out that chestnut about the English language contantly evolving?  Don’t get me wrong, that’s true, but what it implies is that splitting infinitives used to be wrong, but now it’s okay.  And I’m not sure I agree with that.

Wikipedia, of course, is pleased to present us with a history of the issue, and the executive precis is that not only is there no rule against splitting infinitives today, there never has been.  Some folks came along and said they didn’t like it, and gave some great examples of instances where it really is quite awful to do.  But somehow we took “here’s a technique which is often abused and needs to be carefully examined” and turned it into “never do this!”  We oversimplified.

What brought this to my mind today was reading an online post from someone (whom I greatly respect) who dismissed a suggested wording change because it used the passive voice.  And we all know that passive voice is wrong, don’t we?  After all, Microsoft Word marks it as a grammar error, so it must be wrong.  Except it’s not.  Passive voice isn’t wrong.  It can be used very poorly, I’ll grant you that ... but isn’t that true of practically any grammatical construction?

This one in particular dates to the classic Strunk & White.  They gave us all sorts of great advice on how to write more clearly.  Except that most of it was pretty bad advice, unfortunately.  And, if you’re not the sort of person who’s so inclined to click on perfectly good links that I drop into my blog posts, let me quote you the most important sentence of the article, at least as regards the proscription on passive voice: “Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses.”  That’s right folks: in the section of Strunk & White that tells you why you shouldn’t be using the passive voice, only 25% of their “bad examples” are even passive themselves.  And this is a book that many people regard as definitive, in terms of grammatical correctness!

But, regardless of the correctness of the examples, the point is that even Strunk & White don’t say “passive voice is wrong.”  They say “it should be avoided, wherever possible.”  If you want my opinion, even that’s too strong a statement, but let’s overlook that for now.  How did we get to the point where, in a discussion about what the best wording for something might be, the very thought of using a passive voice construction is dismissed with such casual prejudice?  Not even worthy of consideration?

In another discussion (same web site, different interlocutor, far less respect), someone chastised me for ending a sentence with a preposition.  I cheerfully responded with the quote, commonly attributed to Winston Churchill (although most likely apocryphally), that that was “nonsense up with which I would not put.”  The response, given in some distress, was that Churchill was known to suffer from “mental illness” (which is utterly irrelevant, of course, whether true or not), followed by a plea to “save the language.”


Ending a sentence with a preposition is not only incontrovertibly wrong, but so utterly wrong as to spell the doom of the English language as a whole?

No, unfortunately, it’s not even wrong at all.  This “rule” stems from a fellow named Robert Lowth, author of A Short Introduction to English Grammar, and, once again, even he doesn’t say “never do it.”  He says, in fact: “This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing; but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated Style.”  See?  Not “wrong.”  Just “sounds better the other way.”  In his opinion.  As a clergyman.  Who wrote “an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to” in a sentence about not ending things with prepositions.

I could even point you to several other lists of mythical grammatical rules such as these, as well as many others (don’t start a sentence with a conjunction, never use double negatives, etc), but the point is that, even when the proscription doesn’t reach the level of “rule,” we still can’t resist stating it as an absolute.

Let’s take the case of adverbs.  Mark Twain says “I am dead to adverbs ... they mean absolutely nothing to me.”  Graham Greene called them “beastly” and said they were “far more damaging to a writer than an adjective.”  Elmore Leonard has started a “War on Adverbs” and says “to use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin”; Stephen King apparently concurs when he notes that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs” and that by the time “you see them for the weeds they really are” it’s too late.  Because of these types of opinions, any number of web sites will tell you that you should never use adverbs or that you should ruthlessly expunge all of them from your prose.

Of course “never” is an adverb, as is “ruthlessly.”

For that matter, all four of the authors I quoted above, railing against adverbs, use adverbs themselves ... in fact, there are adverbs in all four quotes.  As with the proscription against the passive voice, the first problem with advising people to get rid of all their adverbs is that most people can’t identify them.  “Very” is an adverb, as is “always,” or “far,” or “sometimes,” or even “not.”  Imagine trying to write a piece of prose of any appreciable length without using the word “not.”  No doubt you could do it, as an exercise, but it would be painful, and your piece would most likely sound tortured in at least a couple of places.

Getting rid of all adverbs is such a patently ridiculous idea that some of the smarter know-it-alls have scaled back their advice.  “Not all the adverbs,” they hasten to clarify.  “Just the -ly ones.”  So, you know, just get rid of all those ”-ly” words.  Like, you know: friendly, silly, lovely, beastly, deathly.  Those sorts.

Except those are all adjectives.

Yes, that’s right: when J.K. Rowling was criticized for an overuse of adverbs, for the sin of putting one right there in the title of her final Harry Potter book, it was a bit of an embarrasment to realize that “Deathly” was actually an adjective, modifying the noun “Hallows.”  At least I hope that author had the good grace to be embarrassed over the faux pas.

In some cases the advice gets watered down to the point where people tell you to get rid of all your adverbs that end in -ly unless they make the sentence better.  But, at that point, the advice has little to do with adverbs, and should instead apply to every word in your prose.

Personally, I love adverbs.  Sure, overuse of them is bad.  Overuse of anything is bad: that’s built into the definition of “overuse.”  Blanket statements about expunging them (ruthlessly or not) are just moronic (even if they do come from one of my most treasured literary idols).

But, as always, it is our human nature to want to simplify the “rule” to make it easier to remember.  What’s simpler? “don’t overuse adverbs, or use them in cases where a stronger verb would serve the purpose equally well, or use them redundantly, or attach them too often to ‘he said’ tags”? or “don’t use adverbs”?  What’s easier to teach: “don’t split an infinitive when the number or quality of the words between the ‘to’ and the verb cause the infinitive itself to be weakened,” or “never split an infinitive”?  What’s the cleaner aphorism: “don’t use the passive voice when the agent is known and the active voice is stronger, unless you specifically want to de-emphasize the agent, but not merely as a means to avoid responsibility for the agent or to pretend that there is no agent at all” or “don’t use passive voice because MS Word underlines it in green”?

And so we take a complex but useful piece of advice and turn it into something simple and profoundly useless.  We take a reasoned approach that glories in balance (and occasionally even paradox) and make it black and white: do this, don’t do that.

It makes it much easier to be able to correct other people with all our mistaken impressions.