My friend Lore (whose site badgods is back up, go see) was musing about D&D on Twitter, which made me consider how D&D works as a game. It’s not pretty.

Overall: Gamers will recognize the usual mechanics of the RPG: character creation, stats, hit points, armor, loot, leveling up. But the UI is terrible– everything requires flipping through pages and pages of rules and tables– and everything has been run through some kind of tediumizer. Combat rules are arcane (try to get someone to explain “attacks of opportunity”) yet damage is generic (no headshots). There’s no aiming or skill involved; everything is based on dice rolls. Combat is turn-based rather than real-time, and there’s no option to automate attacks. It can take hours of play to advance a single level.

Character creation: Unlimited cosmetic appearance options, but classes and “races” (species) are limited and subject to bizarre restrictions. There are literally hundreds of monster types available, but only a small subset are available for PCs. Characters can be female, but there are limit caps on their strength attribute.

Weapons: There’s a promising range– you can wield things like a fauchard, bec de corbin, glaive, ranseur, or voulge– but for the most part these are just names for different attack rolls and they don’t feel different. Most weapons can’t be upgraded, and finding better weapons is slow and capricious.

Magic: The magic system is complicated as fuck, but powerful… except that the number of spells you can cast is absurdly limited. There’s no mana regeneration or cooldowns– so you can run out of spells in the middle of a dungeon and, since you’re a squish, end up near-useless. Cross-classing is possible but subject to weird rules.

Graphics: If you don’t use miniatures, it’s basically a text adventure. If you do, the ‘graphics’ are really nothing more than a diagram of combat positions.

Conworlding: Amateur and incoherent. The procedure implied in the rules is basically this:

  • Open up Lord of the Rings, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Conan, H.P. Lovecraft, a mythology book, and your kid’s damn dinosaur book.
  • Use everything from all of them.

Story: Depends on your DM, but almost always derivative and poorly integrated with gameplay. It can be said that roleplaying actions have consequences; on the other hand, you rarely run into an NPC you care about.

Voice acting: Embarrassing.

Difficulty curve: Harsh. No saves. Near-absolute power is handed to one player, the DM, who determines difficulty. Unsurprisingly many DMs abuse this power and essentially make war against the other players. The general mechanic is permadeath— resurrection is sometimes possible, but may take literally hours. It’s all the more frustrating because most deaths aren’t cause by errors so much as bad luck, if not actual DM player-trolling.

Price: Can be significant.  At a minimum the DM will have to acquire several books, plus special dice.  There is an endless array of DLC, though none of it is necessary.  Miniatures can drive up the investment substantially. On the plus side, it’s never pay-to-win and you’ll never run into NPCs hawking extra paid content.

Multiplayer: The redeeming feature for all of this nonsense.  Although it’s all PvE, it’s fun to take on enemies as a team, there are genuine strategic decisions to make that emerge from the gameplay, and often the open-ended rules allow for some improvisational and memorable scenes.

(Pedantic note: molest me not with protestations that such-and-such edition fixes some of these problems. I had years of experience with AD&D 1.0, and that’s what most of this is based on.  Of course the details would differ if my experience was with another edition.)

To put it all more bluntly: about 90% of the fun of D&D is captured, and far better, by video games like Skyrim or Torchlight or Borderlands or Dragon Age or VTM:Bloodlines.  Tabletop D&D is generally too slow and too tedious to be a good goblin-death simulator.

Lore muses, “Maybe what I really want is to write collaborative, improvisational, non-published fanfic.”  And I think he’s on to something there. That 10% of D&D that isn’t captured by video games is the unpredictable, open-ended storytelling that sometimes emerges from a campaign.  I hosted an IRC campaign once, jettisoning almost all of the detailed rules, and including stuff like an excursion into space opera.  In a good D&D game the DM can surprise the players, and vice versa; you’re not going to get that in Skyrim.

The pundit pages are pretty boring this week, as they contemplate the big non-news of the GOP midterm victory. This was exactly as predicted, so there’s no tasty pundit juice to be wrung out of it. The Senate seats that were up for grabs were mostly Democratic, many in red states that temporarily swung that way in 2008.

Then there’s the turnout issue, seen in this chart from here, to which I’ve added the 2014 data in a near-seamless fashion:

2014-turnout

For the last half-century, as much as 20% of the electorate stays home during the midterms. This used to not matter much, but as it happens the people who don’t vote as much (especially the young) skew highly Democratic, and the people who vote all the time (especially the old) skew Republican. You can ignore any pundit who makes a big deal of the Message Of The Election without mentioning this huge factor.

I had a frustrating conversation with a friend recently, who expressed discontent with both parties, mostly for doing nothing about the economy. It’s frustrating because it’s a false equivalence. The ongoing recession is GOP policy. At the state level, where they’re mostly in control, they implemented harsh austerity measures: i.e., they fired lots of state workers, making things worse. At the federal level, they tried to do the same thing, and were able to do on on a smaller scale. They have consistently prevented more infrastructure spending or any other stimulus, refused to continue long-term unemployment benefits, opposed Obamacare (a huge boon to entrepreneurs, the unemployed, and the poor). All out of spite because Obama beat them twice.

Oh, but they want to reduce the size of government? Piffle. During the recession in 2002, what did they do? Implement an austerity program? Of course, not, they spent money like it was water, because there was a Republican president.

Oh, but Obama is to blame somehow? What is he supposed to have done? He can’t pass laws. He can’t make Boehner pass legislation. Even Boehner can’t get his party to pass legislation. When one party is committed to pure obstructionism, our system lets them obstruct to their heart’s content, and a large fraction of the press and public will assume that the other side must be at fault. And the GOP will keep doing it, because to them 2010 and 2014 mean THEY ARE WINNARZ.

What happens now? On the macro level, my guess is: not much. The GOP could show that they have a reasonable governing agenda… but any success they’d have would be shared with Obama, so they won’t do that. The safest thing for everyone is to punt to 2016, and I expect there will be a lot of drama but it’ll come down to that.

(Of course, we now have the prospect that the Supreme Court could remove millions of people’s insurance. So maybe something significant will happen: the GOP will get a chance to just fuck over millions of people. How proud they’ll be!)

I don’t write much about politics any more, because a) there are pundits who have the patience to do it much better, and b) it’d mostly be like this: frustration that a radical party is tearing the country apart in a fit of fury.  About all one can do is take a grim amusement from the absurdity of the drama itself.  From that perspective, 2015 should be entertaining– I have a feeling Boehner and McConnell are going to be not-entirely-covertly at war.  Plus, filibusters!

Tonight I finished Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (see initial thoughts here), and then had some terrible games in LOL, so I’m a little cranky.  I’ll try not to take it out on BLTPS.

Don't fall off! (I fell off twice)

Don’t fall off! (I fell off twice)

I needed my friend Momo to do the last mission. The jet fighter, MK-5, is a bastard– trying to solo it, I died enough that I was losing all my money. Momo, for once, had a lower-level character, so I was actually keeping him alive, but it worked out fine. The final bosses are actually far easier. (The last area is tedious: it’s swarming with Guardians, who seem to respawn randomly and are generally annoying.)

The later missions are mostly set on Helios, Hyperion’s H-shaped space station, which makes a nice change. There are some beautiful vistas– such as the one above, which is from the most interesting area, an under-construction area outside the space station itself.  I think they missed an opportunity to show us something really huge. Helios is made up of half a dozen maps, so mostly you’re in a huge building with a few nice exterior sights. Saints Row IV, where you get up really high over an immense map, had more of a sense of hugeness.

There were times when I experienced, I hate to say it, a bit of Borderlands fatigue. I don’t think it was anything wrong with the game. If I add up all my BL hours, I get… well, a very large number. It’s an awfully long time to keep going hoping for one really cool-ass gun. Could I spend another few hundred hours with that hope? Probably, but for BL 3, I really hope they don’t just do more of the same, but add new kinds of gameplay. Weird puzzle sections? Less linearity?  Romance options? Spaceship races? Farming simulation? I dunno, but I’d like to see them shake it up a little. (Or maybe it’s just that BL2, abd BLTPS even more, feel like they’ve damped down the awesome-weapon-getting. I could play for hours without finding a better gun.)

On the story, they set out to explain how Jack turned into Handsome Jack, and I think it works pretty well. It left me with some questions, though. Spoilers follow, so select the text to read:

1. Moxxi’s betrayal seems premature. Jack’s personality may be evil, but he hasn’t done much at that point, certainly not enough to justify killing everyone else on Helios.

2. Is Zarpedon supposed to be evil, or misguided, or actually doing the right thing? It’s hard to see how she needs to destroy the moon when the whole notion of the games is that you can hire a few Vault Hunters to get the job done. (Hell, Lilith and Roland were available.)

3. Wait, didn’t BL2 tell us that Jack and Angel were masterminding the events of BL1? Yet there’s a picture on Jack’s desk of what appears to be a years-younger Angel. I’m not sure they thought this bit through.

4. I really liked Nisha, and now I feel sad that she was such a pitiful boss in BL2. (Wilhelm is a tough fight, at least.)

5. I wish they’d addressed why NPCs who’ve been PCs can die for good. Did somebody lose the New-U files?)

I began a playthrough with Fragtrap. It’s fun, though the Gunzerker will tend to annoy your co-op partners as it wastes ammo. My one complaint is that it takes awhile to fire up your skill.

I’ve been reading a lot about China lately; this is a bit of a teaser.

Reading about the 19th century is embarrassing: it was one reverse for China after another, starting with the first Opium War in 1839-42. China had been trading with the West for a few centuries. The West wanted various things– silk, porcelain, tea, carpets– while about all the Chinese wanted was silver. But Britain had recently come up with a new product: opium, grown in India. This was a winner, though immoral.

Dowager Empress Cixi, the de facto ruler for the last half of the century

Dowager Empress Cixi, the de facto ruler for the last half of the century. It was her fault, in part

The Chinese understandably objected, and sought to ban the trade. Britain responded with war, and trounced China. The price was high: an indemnity; extraterritoriality; Hong Kong Island; opening several treaty ports, and of course allowing the opium trade. This was only the first of many humiliations.

Which raises many questions: Didn’t people realize what was at stake? Why didn’t China modernize, when Japan managed it so fast that it became one of the Great Powers oppressing China by 1894? For that matter, how could Dèng Xiǎopíng do it a hundred years later?

There is no one answer, but a constellation of factors:

  • It was a huge, sudden adjustment. The 18C in China had been a huge success. China had never had a larger empire; it was stable and prosperous; it was largely peaceful at a time when war between the Western powers was near-constant; it wasn’t troubled by Western problems like religious wars and aristocracy. As late as 1800, the Chinese could feel that they were the most civilized nation on Earth, and see little around them to contradict this.
  • If you’ve been on top of the world, it’s hard to grasp that things have changed. This is a lesson we might learn today. In a hundred years, people will have as many questions about us as we have about the Qīng: Why did they ignore climate change? Why did they persist with a government structure that obstructed itself? Why did they ignore the domination of the 1%?
  • It didn’t help that China wasn’t run by the Chinese, but by the Manchus. As a foreign conquest dynasty, their chief priority was hanging onto power, and their basic attitude was conservative.
  • Yet the Manchus were perhaps too flexible. For millennia Chinese policy was to both fight and appease the barbarians, as seemed appropriate. You gave way a little in order to buy time and lessen threats; most likely the barbarians would all sinify sooner or later anyway.
  • Peasant rebellions, especially that of the Tàipíng, were far more destructive than the Western incursions, and till the end were more of a preoccupation to the elite.
  • China’s civil service examinations produced an elite defined not by wealth or blood, but by their shared achievement in mastering the Confucian classics.  The scholars could not embrace any educational reform that would eliminate their achievement and their status. In the 1870s there was a program to send Chinese students to US universities. It was controversial— and was canceled—because the students were being deprived of the opportunity to take the Confucian examinations.
  • The government was not well structured to address either development or foreign affairs. Much of the work that was done, including setting up factories and even fighting wars, was left to local officials.
  • China had long had merchants, but little of the underpinnings of capitalism: banks, insurance, civil law, an effective administration, bourgeois self-government.
  • The Western nations (including the US) had all protected their native manufactures by high tariffs; this was forbidden to the Chinese by the unequal treaties.
  • There was no real model to follow— contrast Dèng, who without even leaving the Sinosphere could contemplate Táiwān, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Curiously, there was a precedent for the unequal treaties, only a few years before. Chinese power in Xīnjiāng, 3500 miles from Běijīng, had to be excercised with a light hand: the local population was Muslim, and were best ruled indirectly, through their own leaders. Kokand, in modern Uzbekistan, just outside Xīnjiāng, demanded extraterritoriality for its merchants, and fought a war to get it (1826-35).

Things did get done— after the first few wars, there was something China wanted very much: rifles and steamships.  It built arsenals, steelyards, shipyards.  It should also be noted that the service firms Westerners dealt with (‘compradors’), essentially their local partners, became huge enterprises that sometimes became richer than the Westerners they dealt with.

As for why Japan could modernize— just forty years after Commodore Perry’s visit in 1853 it was able to win a war with China— I’d point to some key differences:

  • Japan had less than a tenth of China’s population; smaller nations are easier to control and change.
  • It was used to borrowing ideas and institutions from abroad, whereas China had not really imported anything major after Buddhism.
  • Japan’s modernization required a coup d’état; but once this was done it had an effective government— when orders were issued, things got done. The Manchus never had that guarantee.
  • There was no scholar-bureaucrat class. The samurai elite defined itself militarily, and had less trouble embracing Western science and technology.
  • The Japanese had a stronger mercantile and maritime focus,which seems to offer a leg up on development— it was Britain and the Netherlands that led the way to modern capitalism.

Things started changing in 1911… but then everything fell apart.  But that’s a story for later.

So, tonight was Rocky Horror night. My friend Harry saw it in Austin and wanted to do it again. We went to the midnight show organized, with a complete shadow cast, by these fine folks.

Who let him in?

Who let him in?

I’m not a Rocky Horror virgin; I went back in college with my pal Chris Vargas (if you’re out there, Chris, hiya!), not long after doing RHPS had become A Thing. I was curious how much the movie has held up, and the answer is: surprisingly well. Though the audience involvement thing is a pre-MST3K MSTing of the movie, it’s never done as parody; it’s not a bad movie at all. It’s a thoroughly weird movie, an affectionate nod to the Hammer Horror films, and everybody involved gives it their all. Plus the tunes are irresistible.

If you tried to take the plot seriously you’d have to probably condemn, you know, the cannibalism among other things, but why would you take it seriously? The theme of the movie is what sticks with you– “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure… don’t dream it, be it.” Brad and Janet go through a hell of a night, but one feels that they’ve been un-squared, shaken up in a necessary way.

At least, I think that’s how it goes, since I’ve never watched it without the audience participation, which turns the movie into a celebration of the cheerfully transgressive. It’s fun to see the costumes and fishnets, the parallel live performance (our Criminologist was dressed in a full Svengali costume for Halloween), and it’s just giddy fun to watch everyone waving glowsticks or tossing toilet paper.

Curiously, they frisk you as you enter the theater, so you don’t bring in breakable objects or guns. The Midnight Madness site also includes a list of rules for cast members, whose length and specificity suggest that there must be some very interesting stories behind those rules.

Before the show we had an interesting chat about Chairman Mao. But that’s a story for another time.

So, it’s Borderlands 2.5 time!  I’m about 16 hours in, taking my time.

How is it?  It’s very Borderlandsy. That’s a relief, since it’s made by a different studio, and we’ve seen that not work so well. But 2K Australia has got the basic elements: the gorgeous visuals, the shooting and looting, the over-the-top characters, the redneck humor.

More things to accidentally drive into!

More things to accidentally drive into!

In terms of gameplay, the big things are the reduced gravity, allowing you to jump up and deal down death from above, and the oxygen mechanic. The O2 is done just about right: it’s rarely onerous (there are frequent O2 fields, and enemies drop canisters), but it provides a light constraint that will sometimes affect your decisionmaking. The jumps are fun; you can also slam down onto the ground, which I haven’t mastered yet. You can also use the oxygen to glide, which takes some getting used to.

There’s also a hovercraft, not like the skimmers from the BL2 DLC, but one that can actually go up in the air, which adds to the theme of verticality. There’s also lasers and guns that freeze your enemies solid.  Oh, and what are basically Portal 2 aerial faith plates (complete with a similar sound effect)

The story this time is set on that big Hyperion space station, and then on the moon, Elpis– which turns out to be populated by Australians. The accents are adorable. More cheekily, they’ve made Handsome Jack from BL2 into a good guy, more or less. Mostly less. He’s a mid-level Hyperion guy, who you have to rescue from an attack on the space station, and who then helps you save Elpis from the pirates who took it over and, for some reason, want to destroy the moon with a giant laser. And you play what were minor villains in BL2: Nisha the sheriff, Wilhelm the cyborg, Athena the assassin. Or a more than usually crazy Claptrap.

So far they’ve handled this very well, principally by keeping Jack’s basic character: he’s a total asshole. The arrogance, the sadism, the amorality, the fratboy pleasure in exercising power, are all there– they just haven’t focused yet into complete psychopathy. They didn’t Anikinize him into an actual nice guy.

I’ve been playing as Nisha, whose skill is a few seconds of auto-aim and high damage– not quite as fun as the Siren powers, but not bad. (It’s not entirely skill-less– she won’t fire at enemies behind you or otherwise out of sight.) I’m eager to try Claptrap, too.

(sound of Western music)

(sound of Western music)

The PCs talk more than in any previous BL. I think all you got in BL1/2 was a few grunts, plus comments when they leveled up or got a critical hit. Nisha talks back to Jack and to quest givers, and I think this makes everybody seem more human. It turns out that a silent protagonist really isn’t more immersive.

The level design is notable for not holding your hand too much. There are multiple routes through any one installation, and buildings you can choose to explore or not. You can get a little lost sometimes, but I like the move away from railroading.

I only have some minor complaints. They took away the “junk” icon– you can still sell all your junk at once, but you do this by marking “favorites”, which seems backwards to me. Some of the vehicle jumps don’t work well. I’d also have to say that Nina, who replaces Dr. Zed, is rather a clumsy stereotype.

Oh, and I still resent the price… $60 is steep, though I’d’ve happily paid $50. But Borderlands is about the only game on my must-buy-now list. Arkham Knight comes close, but there I can wait for a sale.

One more thing… again based on the first 16 hours, the game seems easier than BL2. The boss fights haven’t been as hard, and though you can face a bunch of bandits at once, it’s also rarely hard to find some cover to recover your shield.

Edit: Thoughts on finishing the game.

My ears have been itching and hurting, and this weekend it was affecting my hearing. So today I went to a nurse.  I thought it might be an ear infection, but it was impacted cerumen, or in English, a whole ton of wax.  If you’re curious, what they do is spritz water with water and peroxide into your ear… kind of hosing it out.

Which is hardly blogworthy, but I thought the perceptual effect was. It was like having the volume knob turned up on the world. But not uniformly– certain sounds jumped out, like my car keys jangling, or water running, or the refrigerator.  I’m guessing a range of high-frequency sounds had been suppressed, and now they were back.  It was like having a Foley artist a few steps behind me.

My wife must’ve thought I sounded crazy– “Does our refrigerator always sound like that?”  I’m sure I won’t even notice all this by tomorrow, but it was kind of weird.

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