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.

Friday, January 20, 2012

War at Sea Rules Alternatives, Costa Concordia

It’s amazing how the pure physical conditions of life can sometimes disrupt plans for working up novel outlines, scouting out potential new positions, or working on a blog that’s worth reading. This week it was the Great Seattle Snopocalypse of 2012. The snow days for the kids weren’t so bad, but we lost power for a day and a half and had to get along without heat, lights, TV, the Internet, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. It’s turned into something of a lost week for me… but, on the bright side, I did fun stuff like teaching my girls to play Serenissima, building a fire in the fireplace, and reading stories by candlelight. Anyway, on to the good stuff: Atomic Dragon Battleship!

Gaming: Today I think I’m going to step out of the theoretical ground of the last couple of posts, and muse about something more specific: What do I wish I’d done a little differently with War at Sea (aka Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures)? Overall, I’m pretty happy with the outcome of that design; it’s fast, fun, and serves as a good skeleton for layering on as many house rules and mods as you might want. But I still think I could have done a little better.

The first thing I wish I’d included in the game was a simple facing system. The classic naval tactic of “crossing the T” doesn’t appear in AANM because of the relatively high abstraction of ship movement and position. The reason we didn’t include this early on is because initial design drafts contemplated far more abstract versions of the game, where ships might be grouped into Task Forces fighting in an area of maybe 200 miles by 200 miles. Playtests of this approach showed us that ship dispositions were pretty boring in a large-scale game: You wanted your TFs together, so you wound up with “100 points in a box.” The shift to a more tactically focused game came relatively late in the process. Anyway, here’s a simple implementation of facing rules we could have used:

·         Draw a game map using large hexagons, say 5” or so.

·         Ships and submarines move by a) entering the hex directly ahead and can change heading by up to three hexsides when they enter a new hex, which counts as 1 movement, or b) remain in their current hex and choose any heading. This basically means you can’t make any real distance going “south” on a turn you begin facing “north.” Destroyers and PT boats might be able to start with a course change, and would have more ability to maneuver.

·         Ships and submarines have arcs of fire: Ahead, Astern, Broadside. These basically correspond to shooting “out” of the hexside in front of you, behind you, or the two hexsides on your port or starboard.

·         Submarines can’t make Broadside torpedo attacks (some older subs did have trainable torpedo mounts outside their pressure hulls, but maybe that could be handled with a special ability).

·         Ahead or Astern Gunnery attacks take a penalty of -1 per die. This is an easy way to model reduced volume of fire from a limited number of guns bearing dead ahead or dead astern. Sure, we could present exact Gunnery dice for ahead/broadside/astern attacks for each different ship, but we’re talking about a simple patch we could add now to the game.

·         Some ships (say, Rodney or Richelieu) would gain a negative special ability to the effect of “no Astern Main Gunnery attacks allowed.” Richelieu might also get a special for “no penalty for Ahead Main Gunnery attacks,” I suppose.

There you go – pretty simple, really, and you’d add some fun positional advantages and disadvantages to your War at Sea games. You could force your opponent to choose between moving toward the objective or guarding against having his T crossed, for example. However, be careful, since this makes Initiative *really* important. Whoever moves second gets a big advantage by being able to see exactly where enemy arcs of fire lie and moving accordingly. And submarines suffer from their non-broadside attacks.

Here’s another one: Delayed Torpedo Resolution. Our initial design wanted to make a stronger distinction between gunnery attacks and torpedo attacks for surface ships but really punished destroyers, so we relented in the errata and reprint and moved destroyer torpedo attacks to the same phase as their gunnery attacks. But torpedoes really should have run times of 5 to 10 minutes even at pretty close ranges, which is pretty close to about one game turn. So here is an alternative I wish I had thought of at the time: To simulate the run time of a torpedo attack, when you make a Torpedo attack against a unit, don’t roll the attack on the turn your unit fires its torpedoes. Resolve the attack on the following turn. Here’s how this would work:

·         When a unit fires Torpedoes at another unit, place a Torpedo Attack chit on the target unit.

·         Roll a d6 for each Torpedo Attack chit on the board at the end of the Movement Phase.

·         Torpedo Attack chits “hit” on a roll of 5 or 6. However, a unit can degrade a Torpedo Attack to “hit” only on a 6 by choosing to evade torpedoes instead of moving in the Movement Phase. You could indicate this at the moment the ship evades by flipping the chit to a "degraded" side.

·         Units evading torpedoes do not move. They remain in their hex. (If you use facing, too, the unit must change facing by 2 or 3 hexsides to evade.)

·         Torpedo damage could be randomized—say, 1 to 3 points normally, or 1 to 4 points for a Long Lance attack. It bugs me that destroyers are always killed by torpedoes even though they often survived being torpedoed.

This doesn’t really change the timing of torpedo attacks from surface ships—when you fire the torpedo, it’s on its way, and if you’re blown up in the current Attack Phase, you still get to roll your dice next turn from beyond the grave. This does weaken torpedoes a little bit in that a torpedo attack in Turn X doesn’t affect the claiming of objectives in Turn X, but instead in Turn Y. But it makes torpedo attacks much stronger in that they’re much more likely to hit unless the targets choose not to move. Many times in real battles ships turned away from real or imagined torpedo attacks, and this rule creates that behavior in the game.

Both these systems are all about increasing the simulation value of War at Sea. Whether or not they’re worth the added complexity, well, that’s up to you. But if you’re inclined to tinker under the hood with your War at Sea game, maybe these will spark some ideas for you.

Politics/Current Events: As a former naval officer, I’ve been especially fascinated by the wreck of the Costa Concordia. Thank God the loss of life was relatively low; this ship had thousands of passengers on board, and the vast majority of them get to go home. One under-reported part of this story, IMO, is the sheer size of this ship. Costa Concordia displaced 114,000 tons, was 960 feet long, and could carry 3,700 passengers. That’s the size of an aircraft carrier! It cost $570 million dollars to build. By comparison, the famous Titanic was a wimp, at 46,000 tons and 880 feet. When you see those pictures of the ship lying on its side in the waters off that Tuscan island, you’re not just looking at a picture of an almost comically bad story of ship-driving (and apparent personal cowardice on the part of the captain), you’re also looking at half a billion dollars of capital investment on the part of Carnival Cruises half-sunk on a rock. During my active duty in the Navy, I saw cruise ships do ridiculous things in complete ignorance of sound navigation. On one occasion I watched a cruise ship drive right through the middle of a gunnery range that was in use, merrily steaming between a destroyer banging away in gunfire support exercises and its targets on Vieques Island. (We held fire, of course.) But it goes to show you that no matter how big and luxurious your cruise ship is, the sea still makes the rules. Hmm, there might be an adage in there.

Oh, and the best thing I heard the captain said: “I tripped and fell into a lifeboat.” Don’t know if that’s true or not, but if so, that’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in a long, long time.

The Finer Things: Heat. In normal circumstances my house has heat, which keeps it warm in the wintertime. Heat is awesome. I really missed it over the last day and a half or so, and I am damn glad to have it back.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

5e announcement, more on game vs. sim, Wisconsin recall

Howdy, folks! Time for another exciting issue of Atomic Dragon Battleship! Thanks for stopping by. So the big news this week is obviously the Wizards of the Coast announcement of work on a new edition of D&D. I was involved in that work to some (relatively small) extent, but I can’t really say more right now, other than I was pretty excited with the general direction and I’m looking forward to seeing how things proceed going forward. Oh, and I came up with the codename this time around! That was kind of cool.

Gaming: To continue my thoughts from last time about simulation vs. game… One thing that really confuses this discussion is the conflation of the term “simulation value” – how accurately a system or rule models whatever the reality of the world is – with “simulation,” which I define as an open-ended activity for exploring a situation (such as a fantasy world infested with monsters). As pointed out in the comments on my last post, 3rd Edition D&D is generally high in its aspirations to be a simulation with a robust set of physics behind it, but often falls down in the exact simulation value it achieves in the particulars. For example, a housecat can easily kill a 1st-level human wizard in 3e. Well, believe it or not, it’s a better simulation than what’s available in some editions of D&D, even if the simulation value is unacceptable. In earlier editions of D&D, the housecat isn’t even given stats—if you said, “My wizard attacks the housecat!”, the DM can’t resolve that action with anything other than fiat. (This assumes the core three rulebooks, BTW; I’m sure housecat stats eventually crept into most editions of the game.) 3e is a more robust sim because a resolution is available. 1e and 2e simply overlooked these things, or *counted* on DM fiat, while 4e made a conscious decision to NOT model the wizard-housecat battle, because part of the core philosophy of the system is that heroes should be matched up against appropriate monsters. That’s a very gamist view (or, if you like, a sim of heroic fantasy movies/novels, not a complete fantasy world). The simulationist view is that if you go into a place where you might expect to find a cat and attack one, you’re now fighting a cat.

   Now, inaccurate simulation can be maddening. Poor sim leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering. We want the simulation to respond to our inputs in ways that are logical and make sense. It drove me nuts in Civilization 3 (or was it 4?) when I discovered that planes and artillery could no longer sink ships, because as it turns out, they really can. (Civ 5 corrects this, thank goodness.) All editions of D&D model most things we care about pretty well. But when we look at high-sim versions of D&D, I think it’s not the value of simulation as an activity that we’re arguing about—it’s the accuracy.

Politics/Current Events: There is a fascinating election taking shape this year, and it’s not the one you think: It’s a recall election for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Walker’s the guy who muscled through a change in state law back in March of 2011 effectively disestablishing state public sector unions, in case you don’t remember the story. Many of my Wisconsin friends are fervent Democrats, and it would be hard to overstate how much they loathe Walker after the events of last spring. Remember SEIU filling Madison with protestors? The Democrat state legislators fleeing to Illinois? It was the biggest story in the country for a few weeks. The Democrats need to reach 540,000 signatures on a recall petition by January 17th to set up the recall election for June, and it seems certain they’ll reach that number.

   In fairness to my Wisconsin friends, Walker’s move against the state employee unions, if upheld, definitely would result in a political advantage for the Republicans—state unions are big funders of Democrat candidates. I understand their concern. However, it seems to me that there are very sound reasons for limiting or banning unions of government employees. Public sector unions naturally work hard to elect union-friendly governments… and when a union-elected government negotiates with that public sector union, who exactly is representing the taxpayer at that table? It’s an inherent conflict of interest. Heck, Franklin Roosevelt recognized this back in the 1930s . Here’s an excerpt from FDR’s 1937 letter to the head of the National Federation of Federal Employees on this very topic:

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.

   What’s so wrong about recognizing that it’s a bad idea to let someone sit on both sides of the bargaining table at the same time? FDR got that. If you think that Scott Walker is stupid, crazy, or evil, don’t you have to explain why FDR wasn’t when he held the same view?

   Walker’s collective bargaining reforms are helping Wisconsin to solve some very difficult budgetary challenges. The mayor of Milwaukee admitted that pension reform made possible by Walker’s efforts helped save 300 to 400 city jobs this year. Local school districts throughout the state are now implementing much-needed reforms that were impossible under the previous arrangement. Whether you view Walker’s move as a callous, loathsome political ploy or simply necessary, it seems that Wisconsin’s financial prospects have been substantially improved by the legislation.

   The Wisconsin recall election may be the most important election of 2012 that doesn’t fall on the first Tuesday of November. It’s worth watching. If the unions (Democrats) prevail and recall Walker, the example will stymie efforts across the country to get bloated public sector unions under control. If the Republicans win, it may lead to a harder look at public sector unions all around the country. In my opinion, that’s long overdue.

The Finer Things: Six weeks until pitchers and catchers report! Football is great, but I love the stately progression of the baseball season. My two teams are in very different places this year: The Phillies are aging former champions trying to put together one more World Series run with the core of a team that’s been together for six or seven years now, while the Mariners are young cellar-dwellers who would seem to be out of the race before the season even begins. Strangely enough, I am not so sure they are. Young players like Ackley, Carp, Smoak, Pineda, and of course King Felix are an exciting nucleus for a young team. I think Smoak in particular is headed for a breakout season—he’s only 25, and he’s a switch-hitter with power. The Angels and Rangers are loaded, sure, but I predict a scrappy M’s team adding 10 to 15 wins to their 67 from last year, and improving in all aspects of the game.