Saturday, March 31, 2012

Star Wars, Buffing Spells, Supreme Court

Hi there! Thanks for stopping by. Things are settling down for me after a very busy few weeks—between visiting family, my daughter’s busy performance schedule in the school play, and a trip down to spring training, I fell behind on a lot of stuff. But now I feel like I’m finally catching up. The girls are home all next week for spring break, so I’m thinking of setting up a Star Wars marathon—they haven’t seen all the movies yet. And I think I’ll show them in the order of 4, 5, 2, 3, 6. I read a compelling argument online that the whole saga is really at its best when the prequels form an extended flashback right after the big reveal at the end of Empire Strikes Back. I think I’m going to give it a try.

Here's a link to a fascinating discussion of story telling across a series of movies:

(Oh, and as to episode 1… it turns out it is not really necessary, and actually interferes with this plan. Maybe we’ll watch it after the others.)

Gaming: I’ve been thinking about the next D&D game I would like to run, and I’ve been looking at the various editions of the game on my bookshelf to ask myself which would be right for my next game. Naturally, I find myself wanting to pull elements from multiple editions to make what I think would be the best D&D. That seems like a daunting piece of work, and one that’s likely to duplicate a lot of the effort a whole team of folks at WotC are now engaged in, so I don’t know if I would really do it or not. It would seem better to pick an edition I like and make some minor modifications to it. Anyway, that whole line of thought got me looking at 3.0 again, and wondering what exactly I would change or houserule to make 3.0 a game I liked better. And the salient thing that stuck out to me was simply, Fix buffing spells.

It’s unfortunately true that buffing spells have been hard to balance throughout the game’s history. In 3.0, they were so strong that they were mandatory for smart play. Many players wouldn’t budge from the inn until the party wizard or cleric had hit ‘em with bull’s strength, stoneskin, fly, false life, death ward, and maybe polymorph other into some useful form like a troll. It was a little beneficial in that it was a system for transferring character power from spellcasters to nonspellcasters, but it was still pretty obnoxious. In fact, we found it so obnoxious that in 3.5 we killed the duration of buff spells to minutes instead of all day so that people wouldn’t have them all running all day. But that just exacerbated the problem of the 5-minute adventuring day and “scry and fry” tactics. So when 4th Edition came around, we ruthlessly expunged anything that gave off the faintest whiff of buffing spell from the system. We finally fixed the problem by shooting it in the head and burying it in the woods… even after we invented a ritual system to do the job. So rituals, instead of being the natural place to harbor buff effects, were nerfed even before the game launched.

I found that answer less than satisfying. There is a lot of coolness and iconic D&D beats in the buffing spells, and I think 4th Edition really misses them.

Anyway, I think I’ve come up with an idea that might fix the problem: the Mantle keyword. Basically, the great majority of buffing spells gain a keyword called [mantle]. A creature can only be affected by one mantle at a time. When you receive a new mantle, whatever you had in the spot goes away (or maybe you get to choose which you keep, whatever). The idea is that your soul, spirit, or psychomagical aura can’t absorb more than one mantle effect at a time. To put it another way, some magic affects you by making a persistent alteration to your psychomagical “true essence.” Just like you can’t paint something red and blue at the same time, you can’t alter someone’s aura in two ways at the same time.

Once we limit folks to one buff at a time, we can restore the long durations of buffing spells from 3.0 days – buffing spells are a LOT less problematic if each character in the party only has one at a time to deal with. You’re not Superman, you’re Ultraboy. Note that it makes dispel magic a lot less tedious, too; you won’t be churning through three or four ongoing buffs.

I could imagine adding another keyword called [benediction] which does the same thing with various sorts of divine blessings – there was always the strange stacking of bless and prayer and recitation in earlier editions, and it would seem to make sense that one blessing or abjuration might overwrite another. But I don’t think short-term buffs are as much of a problem, since they often come with an action cost at a time when you have hard choices about how to spend your actions.

What other elements of D&D 3.0 could stand a little houseruling? I could imagine some work on save DCs, looking for ways to incorporate themes/kits from 2e/4e, or building some at-will attacks for each class. Maybe I’ll make a rainy day project out of it sometime.

Politics/Current Events: Like many people, I followed the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) arguments at the Supreme Court this last week. I think no one really knows how the Court is going to rule on it, but I was gratified to see some very hard questions asked. My opinion (which is worth nothing, of course) is that the Act appears unconstitutional. Throwing it out would be a mess, but keeping it on the books is dangerous. The high-handed regulation-making from HHS Secretary Sebelius that trampled on religious liberty a few weeks back was a pretty good demonstration of what’s at stake. People talk about “the social safety net” all the time—well, the Constitution is a political safety net, designed to prevent the exercise of intrusive power by a government that does not have to answer to the people. We weaken it at our peril.

The Democrats had many options available for moving toward a national health care system that would have been much more sound in Constitutional terms. For example, if they had established a tax authority to pay for it instead of a system of mandates and penalties, they would have been on much more solid ground. Or they could have legislated the system they designed separately in each of the fifty states, since states have the power to create laws that the federal government can’t (that’s why Romneycare is legal in Massachusetts). But the Democratic-controlled Congress tried to minimize the political fallout by using “penalties” instead of taxes and playing games with accounting, and wound up outsmarting themselves by building something that may not pass Constitutional muster. Speaker of the House Pelosi asked “Are you serious?” when challenged on this a couple of years ago. Maybe she should have taken the warning to heart.

So what happens if the Affordable Care Act gets tossed? Well, I think it’s clear that we need *something* to improve the financial underpinnings of our health care system. Off the top of my head, I’d begin with opening up insurance across state lines and examining the question of tort reform. That wouldn’t be enough to fix things, but at least it would be a start.

The Finer Things: Cherry trees. Washington DC is famous for them, but it turns out that the other Washington is darned near ideal for cherry trees too. We have thousands of ‘em in the valley area between Puyallup and Renton. They started really blooming about three weeks ago, so they’re starting to reach the end of their amazing color. But there are so many around here you’ll actually get drifts of petals like patches of pink snow here and there. I never paid much attention to trees, flowers, etc., until I moved out here, but the cherry trees really are something special.


  1. I wish I was in a place where I had any desire to return to past editions. Early editions were full of potential, but my friends were never organized or focused enough to learn and apply it, so I don't have strong affection for them, remembering mostly the complicated and often completely unworkable rules. I took a hiatus but came back with 3rd Edition. I liked this for a while until I discovered or was taught what didn't work and what worked far too well. Maybe if I hadn't had access to the internet and people who had "figured out" the game, I would have enjoyed it longer, but I was shown the cracks and the imbalance and now I wouldn't want to use it unless I'd carefully vetted the group and the DM.

    4th Edition really works for me, because it's balanced, works, and comfortably abstract. That said, maybe another edition will come along to make me wonder how I could have been so blind.

    I'm glad buff spells of those old kinds aren't in D&D at all anymore. I think you'd get into the same situation just to a lesser degree, where everyone would "need" to have a particular buff before heading out, and would "have" to stop and rest if the buff was dispelled (which I guess wouldn't be a problem until Dispel became a common power for enemies). Furthermore, it would "require" a party to have a wizard and a cleric with those rituals. One hopes that anyone with Ritual Casting could do it, and there wouldn't be a skill roll involved, but still I'm made uncomfortable by the idea that this is something "many players" would do before budging from the inn.

    What other elements of 3.0 could stand houseruling? See, this flabbergasts me. A little houseruling? How about metamagic, two-weapon fighting, crafting, skills, multiclassing, the wealth/level system, or, I don't know, how about the major imbalance between spellcasters and Fighters? I'd love to play in a 3.0 game with someone who has figured out how not to have to houserule anything. I suppose I could do it, but I feel like I'd have to avoid or ignore a lot about the system.

    Sorry to sound harsh. I like a lot about 3.0, but the things I liked turned out to be broken & I'm now scared to play it because I won't know if the DM is up to fixing them.

  2. I think you are wise to leave out Episode 1. Jar Jar is best left on the shelf. The film festival I am looking forward to at some point when I have time on my hands is the LOTR trilogy, I've never gotten around to watching them all together.

    I don’t agree with your opinion on the health insurance mandate, but I understand it. I remember my reaction when I was 18 and bought my first car and found out that the (state) government required me to buy car insurance. “What the heck?! They can’t do that!!”

    As you point out, this issue is different than car insurance, since it involves the federal government and not the state government. Frankly the distinction doesn’t affect me a whole lot. But more to the point, there’s an extremely reasonable argument that in this case, the medical system is a giant, unique interstate commercial network that I cannot avoid participating in simply because I’m alive--and thus does fall under federal authority.

    Keep in mind that the choice here is not between the (admittedly flawed) health care law and “something better.” It’s either the law we got or nothing. If the law is upheld, it might conceivably be tweaked in the coming years. But if it is struck down, no politician will touch this issue for decades to come. The Democrats and Republicans can’t even agree to pay the government’s debts right now. Meanwhile costs will just keep going up.

    Do we even need a health care law—wouldn’t it be better to just roll it back? I sure don’t think so. As Republican politicians agree, the reality is that there is, in fact, universal care of a sort in America. This is because most Americans do not agree with Scalia that we should just “not commit to that,” i.e., “let them die.” I’m glad I live in a nation that feels that way. But that care is provided in a terribly inefficient way via emergency intervention, bankruptcy, costs passed on under the covers to insured people, etc.

    For example, you and I, as residents of Washington state, already have a stealth $1000 a year or so added to our insurance bills to cover uninsured and underinsured people. I’d rather get that money out in the open, and get some of it back—and the health law, with its mandate, is the only game in town.

    More broadly speaking, I'm somewhat appalled that we pay 2-3 times as much as any other developed nation for health care, and (as far as I can see) really don't get all that much better care for our money. The health care law is maybe a piece in the puzzle to helping to correct that situation.

    I do wish the Republicans had engaged with the writing of the law in 2009. Obama was desperate to achieve some level of bipartisanship—that is why large parts of the bill, including the mandate, were originally conservative proposals. If they had been willing to play ball, the GOP could have put better cost controls in place and gotten tort reform. The law would have been more centrist and better served the nation. But instead Republicans (running scared of Tea Party activists) decided to use it as a political weapon, and thus the fringe votes on both ends of the Democratic party got a disproportionate say and things became terribly messy.

    One more thing to consider—if the law is ruled unconstitional, it appears that it will be a 5-4, partisan lines decision to kill a highly charged piece of legislation, that was passed by an elected congress and president, and which most legal observers (and many conservative federal judges) do consider constitutional, during an election year. That's really not how Roberts presented himself during confirmation hearings (consensus building, non-activist, etc.). How would any Supreme Court justice will ever be confirmed again? It would add a whole new dimension to the gridlock.


  3. Centauri: Given the choice between making an incremental improvement to a troublesome system (buffing spells) or discarding that system altogether, I wish we'd tried harder to improve it. One of 4e's big failings is that too many pieces of D&D-ness were thrown away rather than fixed. Perhaps things like Strength, Protection from Evil, Fly, Stoneskin, Heroes' Feast, etc. were tedious and un-fun when everybody had to have them... but that doesn't mean they weren't part of the greater D&D gestalt, or that *some* players don't miss them when they're gone. It would have been nice if we'd made Rituals the mechanism for delivering on those abilities; that would have helped the ritual system right out of the gate. Anyway, thank you for the response.

  4. Fredmiracle: Thank you for your response. You make a good point that reasonable people can argue that it's constitutional under the Commerce Clause, and are in fact doing so right now. If it was OBVIOUSLY and INARGUABLY unconstitutional, well, we wouldn't need the Supreme Court to rule on it. I think you're also right about the repercussions if it does get tossed out: No one will want to touch this issue with a 10-foot pole. On the other hand, it's far from clear to me that the ACA really addresses the health care issues in the country. It won't contain costs, it won't improve quality, and no, you won't be able to keep your doctor, because employers will dump coverage and pay the penalty--they're already doing so. There is also a horrible Medicaid hand grenade for all the states. About the only things the ACA does improve are coverage for currently uninsured folks and people with preexisting conditions. Those are things that probably should be fixed, but boy, there's gotta be a better way.

    An aside: I find it infuriating that Obama is harping about the process now, claiming that the Court shouldn't overturn it because the law passed with "strong majority of a democratically elected Congress." The vote was 219-212 in the House and 60-39 in the Senate, without a single Republican vote in support. Maybe those Republicans were being obstinate, but still, that is far from what I would call a strong majority. It was shoved through without regard for Republican objections. Maybe if the Democrats had incorporated some Republican suggestions they might have gotten bipartisan support.

  5. We will never know what happened in the meetings in which potential compromises on the health care act were discussed. From my perspective, it appeared Obama was very willing to compromise substantially if he could get 10 or so Republican senators on board. This would have given a lot more maneuverability with respect to Democratic hold-outs, confirmed his "positioning" as a consensus builder, made the law much more likely to succeed against challenges, etc. It appeared to me (from my potentially biased view) that all but maybe 2-3 GOP senators (i.e. from Maine) made the politically astute call VERY early on to poison the bill at all costs and make it a political liability for the Democrats. But we'll never know. Certainly I'll concede that it was not passed with a strong majority or any bipartisan consensus.

    But the bigger picture is that in 2008, you had a President and Congress elected with health care reform, along the lines it was pursued, as a major plank. This was no "bait and switch." More importantly, I think a large majority of Americans agree on many basic points: all Americans should have some kind of access to health care (we are not willing to "let them die"); people should not be able to "freeload" on the backs of others; costs are out of control and need to be reined in; we need to preserve choice, flexibility and excellence in our medical system; we need to rationalize out-of-control litigation; responsible citizens should be able to maintain coverage if they get a major medical condition (even if they switch jobs, etc.)

    Balancing these considerations is a tall order--but I firmly believe there was and is a wide range of compromise positions with the potential to move us forward toward these goals. Unfortunately both parties are more interested in political gamesmanship. The fact that health care now a political football to be decided by 5-4 court decision that will inevitably make our political sphere even more toxic is a travesty.

    From my perspective, the real call to action here would be for independents and reasonable members of both parties to get involved in the primary process to demand that all political candidates moderate their positions and show a willingness to compromise for the common good of our country. We have a lot of ugliness to dig out from under, but maybe it's time to start the work...


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  7. this illustrates the point I was trying to make a couple of weeks ago enabrantain--just because you dislike Obamacare or disagree with its premises, does not mean you have to trivialize the issues involved, and denigrate and demonize those people who disagree with you.

    When you do this, you are doing exactly what the politicians want. They believe that the way to get your vote is to make you angry at Americans that hold differing opinions--to encourage you to suspect them of base motives, 'treason' or at least stupidity and gullability, rather than engaging with them in respectful dialogue. Same with the political commentators in the media, except they want your dollar instead of your vote. Don't play their game!


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  9. Gentlemen:

    I'm delighted that my thoughts are provoking some spirited discussion, but let's keep it civil. I really don't want to have to police these threads. Debate the point, not the person making it.


  10. Was only kidding around... but the entire comment that was removed was actually me sarcastically describing myself in a false way, but meant to be comical. Good thing I don't do stand-up, eh?