I built a pie

I’ve wanted to build something with Raspberry Pi for a while now. But I never really came across any projects that interested me, and/or I didn’t want to solder stuff. But then Nintendo flipped everyone off with NES Classic Edition, and word is that SNES Classic Edition is now in the works. I’m not holding my breath that supply will be able to meet demand this time.

So F it – I’ll make my own! But better!

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I knew the Pi would be a relatively simple and straightforward little gadget to assemble, but dang. It was literally just a few pieces to fit and sometimes snap together.

Look at those cute little heat sinks.

I was surprised by how small this thing is. Fits in the palm of your hand.

So that was easy. Reformatting the microSD card (using the nifty little USB adapter provided in the kit) and loading up an image with the Retropie OS was really the hardest part of “building” it, mostly because there were several steps and a few little utilities to download.

 

The main hurdle was my display, actually. Damn Insignia TV was overscanning and cutting off the border of the Retropie’s display, and apparently this model has no fit-to-screen or overscan setting to toggle.

So I had to dig into the OS’s config file and play around with the overscan properties – lucky that’s an option! It was a little tricky when the text was cut off at the edge of the screen, but eventually got it sorted. Woot!

Now all that’s left is to load up some roms! Legally, I can only download and play games that I already own. But if I were to download the entire SNES, NES, and Sega libraries and do some sorting, and then select titles from other consoles like Dreamcast, PS, N64, and maybe some arcade games…well, I imagine that would be the most time-consuming piece of this project.

Anyway, it always feels nice to successfully build something. F you, Nintendo.

l

-Bushi

bushi

Mobs vs Monsters: Death of a PC Part 2

Earlier this week I wrote a little about player character death in pen and paper gaming, and how it impedes one from becoming the pulp hero master of all. If you are dead, you cannot be Conan.

Branching off a little, Alex of Cirsova and I exchanged a few thoughts on the nature of hero deaths and the primary mortal threats to iconic barbarians and the like.

Alex went on to expand upon his point here.

I agree with him on the danger of groups of enemies. Play enough games (of various types) and you’ll learn that mobs of low-powered foes can pose plenty threat.

What about for the characters in the kinds of stories we often model our own gaming characters after? Well, we find a mix. In the Cirsova post, there is talk of “economy of force.” That is to say, when there’s one big monster, it is usually fighting against multiple adventurers who get more attacks than it does, or do more damage or can take more punishment in aggregate. Thus it’s pretty much outgunned, even if it’s super strong.

Two things about this. First, in the kinds of stories we often read of heroes facing off against terrible horrors and fell beasts, the numbers are usually more even. Or at least they are more likely to be than in a game of D&D. Conan picks up occasional companions, it’s true, and he is a leader of men. But he also operates and fights alone quite often. Thus his eldritch encounters are usually pretty close to 1:1.

Second, I’d argue that game mechanics are limiting. A party of heroes facing off against a giant may have a pretty decent shot in a gaming context, but in a written setting…well, of course that in large part depends on the author. But a “written” giant is unbound by combat rules. D&D and other systems may do a decent job approximating battle mechanics with armor class and hit points and attacks of opportunity, but how likely is a DM-enthralled giant to just step on a PC or PCs and insta-smoosh them (though I’m sure this does happen)? And what are the odds that a party (if there are multiple adventurers) is capable of retaliating in kind?

Of course I haven’t read every fantasy book, nor am I an expert of man on monster combat. But it just seems to me that in such stories, even when in groups, heroes are often forced to rely on more than economy of force and the fairness of turn-based combat. They often need clever plans, strong magic, or favorable circumstances. It’s not to say that they can’t win otherwise, but usually the odds are stacked against the good guys in such cases.

(Warning: some spoilers ahead for Lord of the Rings, The Gods of Mars, various Conan stories, and Three Hearts and Three Lions)

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Then again, in some settings, heroes have the advantage. In Dickson’s Dragon and the George, for instance, dragon vs knight is an uneven fight…in favor of the human! Fully armored men, with lance and steed, pose grave risk to dragons, as the protagonist quite painfully learns.

Looking at mobs, Alex is clearly correct. Our own Conan is frequently forced to run when outnumbered and able. In the Lord of the Rings, the party flees from orcs and trolls in Moria, and the mighty Boromir is taken down by an overwhelming pack of Saruman’s orcs. Early in the Gods of Mars, John Carter and his companion Tars Tarkas barely escape from a horde of plant men and great white apes.

So as Alex says, “The difference between your characters who died and Conan could be that Conan knew when to run and you didn’t.” Yes, very true.

Where I do want to diverge a bit is in the estimation of mobs as more of a threat than monsters. To be fair, I don’t think Alex is making this as a blanket claim. His post seems more limited to a gaming context. It’s unfortunate that so many games, through their mechanics, make this distinction important, though.

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In the Conan stories, the barbarian runs from unwinnable battles presented by both man and monster. The very last paragraph from “The God in the Bowl”:

At last the movements ceased and Conan looked gingerly behind the screen. Then the full horror of it all rushed over the Cimmerian, and he fled, nor did he slacken his headlong flight until the spires of Numalia faded into the dawn behind him. The thought of Set was like a nightmare, and the children of Set who once ruled the earth and who now sleep in their nighted caverns far below the black pyramids. Behind that gilded screen there had been no human body—only the shimmering, headless coils of a gigantic serpent.

In “The Slithering Shadow” Conan runs from a mob of soldiers, trying to find his woman. He ends up encountering a terrible beast from which there is no escape. He barely survives:

A footstep roused her out of her apathy of horror, to see Conan emerging from the darkness. At the sight she found her voice in a shriek which echoed down the vaulted tunnel. The manhandling the Cimmerian had received was appalling to behold. At every step he dripped blood. His face was skinned and bruised as if he had been beaten with a bludgeon. His lips were pulped, and blood oozed down his face from a wound in his scalp. There were deep gashes in his thighs, calves and forearms, and great bruises showed on his limbs and body from impacts against the stone floor. But his shoulders, back and upper-breast muscles had suffered most. The flesh was bruised, swollen and lacerated, the skin hanging in loose strips, as if he had been lashed with wire whips.

Once again in the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Grey fights the terrible Durin’s Bane. While the wizard is able to slay the powerful Balrog, he gets as good as he gives.

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In Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, the party’s battle against the troll is a costly one. One of the party members is killed, and my memory is a bit fuzzy but I think the protagonist’s memorable steed, Papillon, may also be lost.

In our favorite stories, there are many dangers, both magical and mundane. A hero can be slain by a large group of foes or by one large foe. Discretion is indeed often the better part of valor, and living to fight another day is usually the best option. Once they’re dead, they don’t get another chance (unless Gandalf).

In game terms, the calculus may differ. When the most important thing is the survival of the party, you may not care about losing a member or two so long as you win the battle. If the dragon fries your fighter, you can just roll up a new one.

Returning to what I was talking about last time, though, I think many (most?) players come into a campaign with personal goals. Sure, sometimes they just want to be part of a cool story. Sometimes they want to amass a huge fortune or delve deeper into the dungeon than anyone before them. Sometimes a player wants to create a memorable hero – the most powerful wizard of the century, or the Conan or Solomon Kane clone (minus being a Puritan, probably), or the next Robin Hood. For those guys, losing their character to the lich king (even if the party wins) may be just as devastating as a TPK at the hands of a mob of bandits.

That’s not to say that a DM or a gaming system has to or even necessarily should consider the hurt feelings of such players. It’s just to say that on an individual basis, a monster may be just as threatening as a mob.

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

The death of a PC

There were a couple of interesting tabletop-game-related discussions over on Twitter the other day, branching into two related topics I want to talk about.

It all started with a tweet by JimFear138:

So, player death. That got me ruminating about my own (relatively limited) experience with D&D and other tabletops, and also about D&D in the context of the vintage SFF stuff I’ve been diving into.

I’m mostly just stirring the pot here to see what comes out of it, I think. I don’t really believe that the newer editions of D&D are closer in spirit to the pulps and classics of yore. However I do think there’s an argument to be made that for players and groups who are less interested in high stakes, high difficulty gaming, the newer editions offer a way for PCs to come close to playing as a Conan or Legolas or Merlin. Not all players, especially those you may be dragging in from non-gaming backgrounds, may be willing to invest hours into a character who can easily be mugged and deleted a couple sessions into a campaign. Some players have precious little time; some are sore losers; and some are “casuals” eyeing up that Fruit of Gaming that we as DMs are dangling seductively above our tables.

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That is to say, don’t older school versions of D&D, where I’m told player (character [thanks for pointing out the error of omission here, friends]) death is a relatively common occurrence, make it a lot more difficult for characters to achieve that kind of kickass heroic status?

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And the answer is: not really. Or perhaps I should say, it depends more on the DM than which game or edition you’re playing. Here’s a great thought from Cirsova:

Jeffro and Alex and others have pointed out that older versions of D&D make it much easier to roll new characters. In the newer editions, creating a character is a process. All kinds of points to distribute, feats to take, skills to research, racials traits to read about. This was the case in the games I played, all 3.5 edition. Character creation can literally take hours. So when your guy dies, you may not feel like going through all that again. These logistical concerns may be one reason why many DMs lose their willingness to readily kill off their players, even when the PCs deserve it.

Incidentally, the first campaign I DMed ended when PC death became unavoidable. There was an impending goblinoid attack on a town that the PCs had granted protection. Instead of digging in and waiting, they decided to do some recon as a group. Unfortunately they were discovered sneaking around the goblin camp and pursued. One of the players rightly decided to hightail it out of there. I’m still not sure if it was a case of unwarranted bravado or if their motivation was just petering out, but the others decided to turn on the goblins and make a stand. They were overtaken, and that wound up being our last session.

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Returning to the topic at hand, the earlier versions of D&D do alleviate this concern. There are less numbers and abilities to keep track of (which can be a positive or negative depending on what kind of player you are), and so it’s much easier to discard spent characters and move on to new ones. Thus we can say that while older versions of D&D don’t limit a group to this type of roll-die-reroll style of play, they certainly make it a lot easier.

Without having actually played anything other than 3.5, I can only speculate and conjecture. And so I conject this – that earlier iterations of the game are much more friendly to minimalists, those who relish oodles of quick and dirty battles, folk who enjoy playing multiple characters per game, and those fans of roguelikes and Iron Man modes in games.

They are also probably the proper vehicles for DMs who act as antagonists to their PCs.

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PA what!

Following along with Cirsova’s tweet, then, I put forward that newer versions of D&D, including 3.5, are more suited for people who enjoy spreadsheets, those who dervive enjoyment from incessant rolling of dice, fans of Story modes or Normal difficulty modes in games, or else players and DMs who want to reach that Conan or John Carter level of heroics with minimal risk of death and ruin. For if the Conans and other pulp heroes are the ones who survive, then newer versions (contingent upon the DM once again, of course, but by and large) are much more conducive to allowing the players to survive and gain that coveted status. Whether that reduced difficulty is a good thing will largely depend upon the group. After all, some people are more into the storytelling aspects of the game rather than the struggle.

Next time I’ll talk about how players and pulp heroes die.

-Bushi

bushi

 

Heroes, witchcraft, and more Amber

As I go into a busy couple of work weeks before the holiday lull, I’ve been focusing most of my “game time” recently on Heroes of the Storm (with a little Dominions IV on weekends). For a long stretch I’d been sticking to Quick Match (casual play), but now something inside me has reawakened and I’ve been jumping back into ranked. Perhaps it’s the changing meta or watching pro and semi-pro games online that have whetted my appetite.

 

Side note: it’s a little off-putting that so many people don’t know how to properly pronounce “aegis.” With the last few hero releases, the meta (that is, the popular play style and character picks) have definitely come to revolve more around mobility and lockdown. Varian, for example, may not have a super high win rate right now (mysteriously), but he’s incredibly difficult to fight against. That short cooldown stun and dash plus his solid damage mitigation make him a high threat in both solo lane dueling and team fights. Keep your distance or you’re likely to get chunked or erased.

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Luckily I haven’t seen a whole lot of Varian in Team League. Unluckily, this is because there are a bunch of other characters who are dominating the scene at the moment and can be incredibly frustrating to play against.

Chen is not one of these, and yet strangely the only two games my team won last night were games in which I went with the Pandaran asshole.

At any rate, I hear the ranked system will undergo an overhaul for season 3, and I’m looking forward to it. Should make Team League a lot more accessible once again.

In other news, I finished up with the Hand of Oberon last night. Onto the Courts of Chaos. I won’t include any spoilers here, but the Amber books do a very nice job of ladling out the intrigue and reveals in never-quite-satiating portions, leaving you always wanting to know more about the setting or the family or who’s plotting to kill who.

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I do not picture Benedict as Fabio with a robo arm.

I’ve also stuffed Fritz Leiber’s Gather, Darkness! into my bag as train reading material. I’m about 40 pages in and so far it’s not really up my alley. Major, organized religions as the bad guys and bad guys as the actual good guys are not usually tropes I enjoy, and we seem to have both going on here. Still, it’s a short book so I’ll power through it and see if something changes my mind.

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Closing thought: I wonder if the scarlet priests were an inspiration for the Forgotten Realms red wizards, visually at the very least.

 

-Bushi

bushi

Berserking rules, defending sucks (usually)

It’s almost Thanksgiving, and one thing I am grateful for is the bounty of SFF games and books within my reach.

Dominions IV continues to engross. I studied up a little bit last week on some of the game’s mechanics, but the manual is 454 pages long. So now I’m mostly just enjoying it as I play. At the moment I’m fighting a two-front war against the Japanesey demon army on land and the Triton kingdom at sea. So far the Tritons are weak sauce; I didn’t even need to summon up any water armies or forge water-breathing equipment to march my legions into the depths. I just recruited a ton of amphibious mermen weanies from one of my shore provinces and told them to take a dive. After getting a foothold, I gained access to some much more scary units. Shark riders are as awesome as they sound.

I’ve finished Sign of the Unicorn and moved on to the fourth Amber book, the Hand of Oberon. So far I’m alternatingly entranced by these books and frustrated with Zelazny’s semi-psychedelic writing. The politics, the cliffhangers, and family dynamics – all excellent. The periodic stream of consciousness, dream-like descriptions of shadow walking and layers of reality – meh.

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I’ve also been reading Fred Saberhagen’s first Berserker book. I had heard mixed things about it from the SFF crowd online, but I think the general consensus was that the first book isn’t that great and then series picks up after it. If that’s the case then I’m going to love these stories, because I’m about halfway through the maligned first installment and I’m really digging it.

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So far, this is a collection of short stories about Man’s war against a fleet (?) of semi-autonomous, intelligent, world-sized machines that fly around in space trying to exterminate all life. These machines, known as berserkers, are clever, cruel, and unpredictable, and seem to have been unleashed upon the universe by a race of militant conquerors. And humans are the only space-faring race with the nads to put up a fight. Great stuff. So far the stories remind me a bit of Asimov’s Foundation stories, with more action. Each one features a human or humans pitted up against the dreaded berserkers. So far the humans always prevail in some way – by outwitting the machines, defeating them by sheer determination, or perhaps being strategically spared only to kindle a resolve to FIGHT.

While we’re on the topic of fighting, there were a couple of interesting posts last week on defending in games.

Alex at Cirsova encountered a mechanic in a particular game that helped him realize the intended purpose of parrying and similar defensive mechanics:

With an active defense vis a vis Parrying, a Fighter character can potentially lock down a much tougher opponent longer without sustaining damage to give thief classes more opportunities to backstab. As strong as a fighter’s attack is, a Thief’s backstab is ALWAYS better. Depending on the system, you could easily be doing 3-4 times as much damage per hit with a bonus against the enemy’s AC. The high dex parrying skill negates that huge attack advantage monsters tend to have over PCs and classed NPCs so that a fighter can go toe to toe against something that could very well cream him otherwise for an extra round or two. Yeah, he may not get his chance to do 1d8 damage, but the Thief is almost guaranteed to get 4d6 damage. As long as the DM is abiding by proper melee rules, the Fighter can always keep one baddie locked down so as to ensure that the Thief can get his backstab on.

I think the “defense” skills have been very poorly done over the years. In pen-and-paper games they could perhaps at times be used creatively by players to some effect. But such skills largely sucked in their base forms. I remember playing D&D 3.5 and trying to find situations to use actions like “fighting defensively,” but they never seemed particularly useful. -4 to hit for a +2 dodge AC? Meh. Not an even trade!

In most RPGs as far back as I can remember, you usually have some kind of standard “Defend” command in battle. It reduces damage taken if you’re hit, but (1) you usually don’t know who’s going to be targeted and (2) you don’t know how much damage/reduction you’re getting. So you usually wind up wasting a turn. With the ubiquity of “phoenix downs” and other such items, it’s usually worth risking death or else just using a heal. Why defend?

Games that have implemented telegraphed attacks (usually by bosses) have provided more incentive to Defend. Still not really a fun mechanic, but at least not useless. If you can out-damage an enemy with normal attacks but get wrecked by special moves, the game needs to provide you with the means to block those abilities and to know when they’re coming.

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Although in this case the right action is to use lightning, not Defend, but…

Really the best use of Defending presents in the form of counter attacks and taunts. One of my favorite classes in the recent iOS game Guild of Dungeoneering was the Bruiser. He had a natural passive ability that would inflict damage upon an enemy whenever its attacks were fully blocked. This works well for this particular game because you can see what attacks are coming and thus you can plan accordingly to use your blocks when you know there’s a certain type of attack on the way. Offense by defending.

Other game genres (or RPG battles that are more actiony and less turn-based) are perhaps better mediums for counter attacking. The MOBA comes to mind for me pretty quickly. The League of Legends “duelist” character, Fiora, possesses a potent counter-attack ability called Riposte. Back when I used to play LoL, this was a lot cheesier, but it still looks pretty effective. Essentially you’ve got an ability that must be timed correctly. When you’re about to take damage (hopefully a lot of damage), you pop it. Not only do you block all that incoming hurt, but you give some to your antagonist.

MMORPGs like World of Warcraft have long been using the “taunt” formula. Tank characters combine damage-reduction talents and abilities with the ability to draw enemies to them, allowing DPS characters like rogues and mages to deal heavy damage unmolested. In these cases, it’s important that there be a party present to synergize with the taunt. Otherwise you’ve just got a warrior doing crap for damage and taking crap for damage. Tedious at best.

That’s also why it’s important to provide “tank classes” like warriors with the ability to do some damage, or to “spec” into such roles. Imagine this – you want to be a badass with a big blade, so you roll up a warrior…only to learn a few hours into your game that you’ll never be as big a threat as the guy with the butter knives or the chick with a stick and dunce hat. Lame. Unless tanking is your jam, I guess. Then you win!

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

The way of the gods

I’ve almost had my fill of Stardew Valley, though not quite yet. It’s one of those games where there’s really a ton to do, but once you’ve seen it all…well, you can always invest hundreds of hours into making YouTube videos, I guess (I say semi-jokingly, as I actually like this guy’s vids).

The game is a bit fuller and more adult than the Harvest Moon series, but again, once you’ve gotten all the cutscenes…there’s not really much more there.

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Is it wrong for me to keep gifting beer to Shane?

While playing yesterday, my character went to bed on a night like any other, except I was presented with a rather plain black screen and some text asking if I’d like to have a baby. I chose the affirmative, and then the game continued on as it always does. I guess that means I’ll be an in-game daddy at some point?

After a while I started itching for some non-farming gameplay. None of my Heroes of the Storm friends play on weekends, it seems, and I haven’t been in a very Witchery mood recently. Time for another foray into super complicated strategy, perhaps?

Yup. I’ve been sitting on Dominions IV for a while. It caught my eye and went on sale some time ago, but it looked pretty intimidating. Still, I got into Crusader Kings 2; anything else should be accessible at this point.

I only played for a couple of hours, but I think I’ve got the gist. It strikes me as one of those games that one doesn’t fully learn in one or two playthroughs.

The graphics are certainly dated, but that’s forgivable when you look at what’s going on here.

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DIV is a strategy game about the contention of pretender gods for the Throne – that is, to become the new chief god of the world. There are a butt ton of customization options. I think you can create your own nation and god. But there are also presets to work with. Just to give you a taste, each nation has its own flavor. There are ones whose armies consist mainly of animals. There are nations of giants, dwarves, and mermen. Some excel at magic or have particularly strong priests. I chose a nation of Rome-like dudes who employ lines of skirmishers, shielded infantry, and pikemen. In a pinch, they can deploy skilled gladiators, but they aren’t regular troops and will only stick around for one battle. They also have holy nobles who take to the field as cavalry units. Oh, and lizardmen are part of their forces too, for some reason. For my god, I choose the avatar of the God of the Underworld. So in battle, he’s this giant Roman god-looking dude who runs around shooting magic and beating up enemies. Some of the other avatar choices were similar-looking deities, but I also could have chosen a fountain of blood or some other weird stuff.

Battles seem to play out on a Total War-ish field, but you don’t assume direct control of your units. Instead, you assign most of the grunt-level guys to commanders. Different commanders can handle different amounts of unit and squads. You can then assign each squad individual orders, like telling them to attack at range and keep their distance, or fire off a couple volleys and then engage the nearest enemies in melee, or you can assign certain squads to defend their commander. There’s really a lot of depth to it.

Then there’s province management, research, magic, crafting, and all kinds of other good stuff that I’m sure I’ve only skimmed the surface of. It’s good to be a gamer!

-Bushi

bushi

Changes

The past week or two have been a little quiet here, I know. Well, my wife moved in and I’ve been interviewing for a new job, so something’s gotta give. Or some things.

Not only have I been playing less Heroes lately, but I’ve had less motivation and energy to do so. I suppose this bodes ill for when I start having kids. I may just collapse in on myself, a dusty, leathery, masticated husk. Well, at least I was able to claw my way to level 20 with Nova. Whether that’s an accomplishment or a mark of shame I know not.

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I’m still crawling along in Witcher 3. “Crawling” may be an exaggeration. Whatever method of locomotion slugs employ would probably be a more apt term.

Stardew Valley is still drawing my eye. I was excited for the latest update. And yet I feel stuck. My old save file feels foreign and clumsy, like a forgotten article of clothing that no longer fits. But the implications of starting a new game also scare me. So much work to do. And while Penny and Leah beg to be wooed, what of my waifu Haley? We barely spent any time together as husband and wife.

Maybe that paralysis is the primary driver of my jump back into Starbound. Which is quite different from the Early Access version I remember in some ways. I mean it’s still Terraria in space, but now there are actually quests and a storyline and stuff. Meh. I just want to find phat loot and build a cool colony. But these damn monsters and long drops keep killing me and then I have to spend 15 minutes running back to where I died to get my crap back.

What an interesting time to be alive.

Oh, I still haven’t really touched that Gordon Dickson book, but I’m making my way steadily through the first Amber entry. So far so good!

-Bushi

bushi