Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Same or Different, the 5-sided Seesaw

Thanks for stopping by! I saw an interesting article in the paper today, which I’ve been wondering about for years: Roman numerals are becoming unwieldy for Super Bowl titles. It turns out the XLVI is not terribly easy for people to parse, especially for younger adults and kids since Roman numerals aren’t taught much anymore. What’s going to happen when they get to Super Bowl 50? Are they really going to call it Super Bowl L? Or will they give up at that point? I guess we’ll find out in IV more years.

        Gaming: My Thursday night group threw me a curve a couple of weeks ago. Instead of jumping into the new D&D playtesting, they decided they wanted to play Star Wars Saga Edition. Now, I kind of figured that we were getting plenty of Star Wars with SWTOR (that’s Star Wars: The Old Republic for the non-gamers following the blog), but okay, who am I to say too much Star Wars? Anyway, I'm taking a very serious look at Star Wars Saga Edition for the first time in several years, and I have to say I’d forgotten how excellent this game is. SWSE served as a testbed for several 4th Edition D&D concepts, but was still rooted in 3rd-Edition style character building. Chris Perkins, Rodney Thompson, and Owen Stephens did a truly outstanding job of game design across Saga’s lifespan, and the books are beautifully laid out and very nicely illustrated. I should have been paying more attention!

        Anyway, working on my character did bring me up against one thing I don’t like in the game: Talents and Feats are so much alike. It’s really hard to say why Game Effect X belongs in one category or the other. This reminds me of an excellent design maxim I heard from Jonathan Tweet during the 3e design process: Things should be the same or different. In other words, it’s bad design to have a spell that deals 3d6 fire damage in a 10-foot cone alongside a spell that deals 2d10 fire damage in a 15-foot line. You should probably have one close-range fire-damage spell, or if you really want two, make sure the second one is significantly different. Add a level or two and crank up the damage, or change the energy type, or bolt on an obvious secondary effect, or something. You don’t want players to look at those two things and wonder which is the right one to take—make it easy to see the difference between them, like single-target vs. multi-target, or fire vs. cold, or damage vs. debuff.

        While that principle works great for individual game effects, I think it’s also important for game systems too. A game’s simulation value is improved when systems measuring different components of your character don’t wind up with very similar effects. I think SWSE’s Feats and Talents are occupying the same conceptual space (special training or knacks my character has), and the only real difference is that one set is derived from your character class and the other is free to pick. If I had a magic wand to make it exactly the way I would want it to be, I think I would kick a lot of minor talents into feat choices, and have fewer, more significant talent choices, probably grouped into “builds” or “paths.” If it’s important for you to be able to decide if you’re a sneaky scoundrel, a pilot scoundrel, a fighting scoundrel, or a bluffing scoundrel, those choices could be more strongly cordoned off and the benefits made bigger. Or so I think.

        Oh, I wound up making a Bothan pilot, by the way. I decided that I liked the talent trees available in both Scout and Scoundrel, so I’m multiclassing from each for the first few levels.

        Politics/Current Events: I think I’ve figured out Newt Gingrich, and it’s the proclamation that we should have a moonbase that pointed me in the right direction. Gingrich, I think, is a nationalist, not a conservative. Now, we have a strong knee-jerk reaction against nationalism as a political philosophy, because we automatically make a mental leap from nationalism to national socialism and assume that anyone who is a nationalist is ergo a Nazi or a Nazi wannabee. But presidents as diverse as Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, JFK, and Reagan were all nationalists. Anyway, nationalists don’t shy away from designing “big government” answers to problems. That’s where Gingrich is coming from, and why he seems to be awful progressive for a Republican on some issues and staunchly conservative on others: We're trying to make the term "conservative" do too much work. 

        I think nationalist is a tag or descriptor that you can use to help classify a political philosophy on top of the simple binary question of liberal or conservative. There are other descriptors like that: progressive, libertarian, capitalist. In other words, our political dialogue is confused and imperfect because we’re all using the metaphor of a seesaw with two ends, liberalism and conservatism. But I’m beginning to think our philosophical seesaw is a three-way, four-way, or five-way seesaw, and that things we think of as being in opposition might not be 180 degrees across the pivot point from each other. Each plank-end is a value: Equality, Freedom, Strength, Wealth, and so on. Some are indeed antithetical to some degree: If you have maximum equality by definition you can’t have maximum freedom, and vice versa. Other plank-end values aren’t necessarily opposed. And our big political parties aren’t necessarily sitting squarely on just one plank-end each; Ron Paul’s brand of libertarianism sits on Freedom above all other values, but most Republicans aren’t truly libertarians and have other values they regard as just as important.

        Maybe this is all covered in Political Science 101, and I’m building a metaphor for something that is well understood already. But I do know that our national discourse is stuck in a narrative that depicts Democrat-Republican as polar opposites, and I don’t think that story fits the facts as well as it might.

        The Finer Things: I thought I’d share some of my recent reading. I’ll leave out re-reads, which I do more or less constantly; most recently it’s Nine Princes in Amber. Anyway, here goes: Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet books (I’m up to Courageous); James MacPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom; Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; Stephen Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign; Locked On, by Tom Clancy; Rainbow’s End, by Vernor Vinge; How Firm a Foundation, by David Weber. I’ve also been looking all over for Oil on the Water, by Eric Bergerud. He’s the guy who wrote Fire in the Sky, a tremendously good history of the air war in the South Pacific, and I’ve been waiting years for his take on the naval campaign. The book was supposed to be out in September, but I can’t find a peep about it now.


  1. Heya Rich! Thanks for the kind words about Saga. :D

    I'm genuinely curious if you feel the same way about 3.x rogue class talents and feats being too similar? I definitely see your point, but I also remember why we thought it was a good idea, and I love kicking game design questions around.

    Also, I am enjoying your blog a lot.

  2. Hiya, Owen! I think the reason I *don't* see this as a problem in the 3.0/3.5 rogue is because there is much less configurability in rogue class abilities than there are in Star Wars class talent picks. In 3e, each class has *one* talent tree--its class abilities--and you progress along it in fixed order. Saga blows class configurability wide open by letting you pick your "class abilities," but many of these are very feat-like choices. So the tricky thing in Saga is that you're building your character along two axes at the same time. Both axes work very similarly, and "things you can do" appear on one axis or the other for reasons that aren't readily apparent to the player. There are some exceptions, such as the Sneak Attack talent--that's clearly derived from a 3e class ability, so it's easy to recognize.

    In other words, I think one "currency" for character customization, or two very different currencies, is more elegant than two similar currencies. As a relative newcomer to the Saga edition, I would have liked having one axis of choice to hold a different *type* of decision than the other. Maybe I'm overlooking a set of inherent rules for what sorts of things are talents and what sorts of things are feats; if I am, then my argument is off the mark.

  3. I tried to organize a Star Wars role playing game many many years ago, (I've forgetten what the book was called) game was a massive failure LOL. I do remember one of the best character types in the book was the Quixotic Jedi, although I pronounced it Quix-otic instead of Key-hoe-tic. Have fun with the Bothan!

  4. If your going to do star wars check out the newly revamped swrpgnetwork. http://holonet.swrpgnetwork.com/forum.php

  5. Really nice collection of reading material. I have read several of the history books that you mention. 'Battle Cry' is one of the finest books ever written about the CW, along with Shelby Foote's Trilogy. I've read a LOT of Sears books on the war. Always a different approach in my opinion on the subject, and though I liked 'Gates of Richmond' It didn't carry the same weight with me as the others. I've read some Weber. Very prolific guy. I only read the 'Off Armageddon Reef' book of the Safehold series. The Honor Harrington series was good but I gave it up way back in the late 90's. I knew you were a master reader - but Good Lord what a busy guy you are. Take it from an old retired military guy. You Rock!