Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
 
Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition official translations

Tonight I am going to play 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons with my regular group of friends. We have been playing together for over a decade, using different role-playing game systems. Of the six players, half don't speak English, so we play in French. And while the majority of Dungeons & Dragons players of the world have moved on from 4th edition to 5th edition, we keep playing 4E for the simple reason that 5th edition isn't available in French. Or any other language than English. So the news yesterday that Wizards of the Coast is in fact planning a localization is significant. They partnered with Gale Force 9 to translate 5th edition into French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese, with more to follow. Already this year, over the summer, the three core rule-books will be released one after the other. I will need to discuss with my group whether and when we want to switch.

While this is good news for me, I know some people who are going to be extremely angry at this announcement. Up to now there was no word at all from Wizards of the Coast on a possible translation. But there is an "open source" / "open game license (OGL)" version of 5th edition rules called the System Reference Document (SRD), also in English. And while I don't know about other languages, on the French side there were not one, but two different Kickstarter projects that have been successfully crowdfunded to translate the SRD into French to create a "French 5th edition" equivalent. However obviously a crowdfunded project doesn't have the same resources as a big company. So the official 5E translation will arrive on the market *before* the crowdfunded translations. And the SRD has minor differences from the official version, with well-known monsters, spells, and character options missing. Being not even much cheaper than the official version, I don't think the crowdfunded translations will do very well. Such are the dangers of Kickstarter projects!

Monday, March 20, 2017
 
Total War: Warhammer

I bought Total War: Warhammer in a half-price sale and have played it for 16 hours, according to Steam. Time enough to have formed an opinion, although obviously I haven't seen everything yet. This is from the point of view of somebody who like strategy games, but isn't a great Total War fan. Again according to Steam the only Total War game I played more than this is Empire: Total War for 65 hours. So don't expect any deep expertise here.

Given that lack of expertise I started the first game with the one race marked as being easy, the dwarves, and selected easy difficulty level. However that first game was far from easy for a beginner, because the tutorial isn't great and sometimes even misled me (e.g. the advisor said that it might be advisable to lay siege instead of attacking at the first enemy settlement, which turned out to be a complete waste of time). What ultimately killed me was the fact that you need a lot of provinces to pay the upkeep of even a single large army, so you end up having few armies even if you already have a large territory. And at one point I had both my large armies in the south when I was attacked from two different sides in the north. With dwarves being slow and no fast travel except for some quest battles, I just gave up with a lesson learned and restarted.

Other than being slow, the dwarves were in fact a good choice for starters. They earn the most gold in a game where gold is frequently the scarcest resource. And except for the slayer troops, the dwarven troops are all well armored and frequently have shields. Even the archers. Which in practice hilariously makes the dwarven archers better than the elven ones, as your dwarven archers are still alive and kicking once they got attacked by the light cavalry that ran around your front line.

Compared to other Total War games I have played, I appreciate the larger variety of Total War: Warhammer regarding troops and race-specific features. That also includes race-specific diplomacy, with other dwarf tribes being naturally more favorable to you in diplomacy than humans, elves, vampires, or orcs. At first neighboring dwarf tribes were more of a nuisance, as there is no diplomacy option of trading settlements, and I ended up having a lot of half provinces. But in mid-game I had so much favor with my dwarven neighbors that they joined my "confederation", which is a fancy term of saying that they simply handed over all their settlements and troops to me. The first time that happened I doubled my territory and suddenly had 5 complete provinces instead of 2. I suspect that won't happen with other races. It took forever to get to any friendly relations with the border princes. That was annoying because enemies ran through their territories to attack me, and I couldn't cross that same area because that would have been trespassing and gotten me into trouble with them.

I now more or less got the hang of the strategic map and province management. What I find annoying is that defending provinces still is a nuisance. You can't choose what and how many troops to use as garrison. You can increase the garrison by building defensive buildings, but with most settlements only having at max 3 building slots, you don't want to use that option very often. And putting an army in for defense is relatively expensive because you need a general. I don't know how I'll do with races that earn less gold.

There are some other features that either I haven't understood or that aren't all that useful. I can put my army in a tunneling stance, in which they appear to tunnel from A to B instead of walking. I imagine it could work to tunnel under an enemy troop and avoid its zone of control, because that is how the orcs are trying to use it against me. And sometimes that ends with me intercepting them, and there being an underground battle. However the advisor suggested that I could tunnel under mountains, but even if I am in tunnel stance and click on a destination on the other side of a mountain chain, the army moves around it instead of through it. I probably haven't found the right area yet to tunnel efficiently. I hear it can help against attrition from badlands, which would be nifty, because attrition is probably one of the most annoying features of the game.

The main reason I don't often play Total War games is that the battles are in real time, and I've always been more of a turn-based fan. However with the dwarves at least I am doing fine, because they don't relay of fast maneuvering anyway. Enemies run circles around me, and then die. While the AI is definitively cheating and the game sometimes throws unexpected new modes of invasions your way, I'm doing pretty well in my second game. And the real time battles are somewhat less repetitive than they were in Empire: Total War, because the troops of different races are more different from each other.

I don't regret to have bought Total War: Warhammer at half price, but more would have been too much. Which also means that I am not in the market for $20 DLCs to make the elves a playable race, or similar nonsense. Most of the negative comments on Steam are about the DLC policy. The other advantage of waiting for a sale is avoiding the early bugs, which Total War games frequently have. So up to now I haven't encountered any major bugs. The AI still isn't the most brilliant (never was in the series), but the game is quite playable as it is.

Thursday, March 16, 2017
 
Cheaper than buying a console

For the past 20 years or so I have done most of my gaming on a PC. These days I'm also playing a lot of mobile games on my iPad, but still the PC is one of my major gaming platforms. I don't currently have any console connected to a screen in my household. However in the past I did buy a few consoles, namely a PS2, a PS3, and a Gamecube. In each of these cases I wanted to play very specific games (e.g. Final Fantasy, Red Dead Redemption, Zelda) and ended up buying the console for it. Often I then bought only a few other games, so console gaming never occupied a huge percentage of my gaming time except for short periods of time.

These days I am very much in a "too many games, not enough time" mood. It isn't as if I don't think I would enjoy playing the latest Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, or a PS4 game like Horizon Zero Dawn. But buying a Switch console plus the Zelda game is nearly 400 Euro, and a PS4 plus Horizon is between 300 and 450, depending on which version of the console I take. If there are so many other games, why spend 400 bucks to be able to play a game?

Now I am reading the news that PS4 games will soon come to PlayStation Now, a video game streaming service which works on PCs. I'd need to check whether my PS3 controller works on my PC, or buy a new one, but then I would be able to play a range of Playstation 3 and soon 4 on my PC without having to buy a whole console for it. I do have the highspeed broadband connection required for video game streaming.

I'm not quite sure yet whether I will go for it, but at the very least this option is much cheaper than buying a console. I just hope that one day Nintendo offers something similar.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017
 
D&D 5th edition challenge ratings

Different people have different preferences regarding character deaths in pen & paper roleplaying games. My previous campaign had about 1 death per year, and that was fine by me. I don't want players to think that their characters can't die, but I do want character deaths to be rare and special. A good part of the motivation for roleplaying games in general comes from character progression, and death puts a damper on that progress and thus on the motivation.

Now 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons basic concept was one of extreme balance. Two characters of the same level have the same number of daily, encounter, and at will powers, regardless of class. While there is some necessary difference between ranged and melee classes, a ranger shooting people with arrows has powers that are very much comparable with a wizard shooting people with spells. Between the balanced classes and powers, and the splitting of combat into more rounds, 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons fight were relatively predictable. Good tools in the DMG helped me to repeatedly design challenging fights in which players were afraid for their lives, but ultimately succeeded in a satisfying win.

5th edition is lacking those tools. Or rather the DMG is trying to provide tools, but they don't really work well for different cases. That is not because the developers didn't put effort in trying to build the encounter design tools, but rather due to the different combat math of 5th edition: 5th edition was built on the idea that extreme balance is boring, and we should have the choice between classes that deal a more constant stream of damage for a long time and classes that are essentially glass cannons, able to deal massive damage for a short time before running out of steam. And because the goal was to make combat shorter, in each round a higher percentage of the total hit points of player characters and monsters needs to be dealt. If a fight is designed for 3 turns, the players need to deal damage equal to a third of the total hit points of all enemies each turn. With these high stakes each turn, a single fumbled attack or a critical hit can determine whether the players win or lose the fight. Unpredictability makes for difficult encounter design.

The tools that 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons has to build encounters are built around a concept of "challenge rating" of the monsters. Which is more or less equivalent to the 4E concept of having an experience point budget for monsters in an encounter. There is a table in the 5E DMG on page 274 in which for each challenge rating you can find both defensive stats (AC, hit points) and offensive stats (to hit, damage). The overall challenge rating is the average between defensive CR and offensive CR, so your monsters can be built more aggressively or more defensive. As long as the enemies are simple monsters with standard melee or ranged attacks, that works reasonably well. There is a lot of disagreement what the correct monster challenge rating should be for a party of n characters of level X, but that has more to do with different preferences of deadliness, as discussed above.

But when I tried to use that challenge rating tool for the villain of the adventure I am planning, an evil sorcerer, I quickly discovered the limitations of that approach. In a world where a player sorcerer or wizard has very low defenses and a few very powerful spells, an enemy sorcerer with high hitpoints and constant damage every turn wouldn't really look believable. The table doesn't even tell you for a given challenge rating what level that spellcaster enemy should be. The monster manual, which has some examples of NPC enemies, suggests that caster level is about 1.5 x challenge rating. But even if I decide on a caster level, let's say making my evil sorcerer level 5 to give a good challenge to my group of players of level 3, I'm still far from having done my work.

The NPC enemies in the Monster Manual all have far higher hit points than a player character of the same level would have. A player sorcerer level 5 would have around 30 hit points. That would be rather low for a boss encounter main villain, because he would risk being killed on the first turn by a level 2 spell or some lucky rolls from the players. On the other hand the suggested hit points for a monster of that challenge rating are over 100, which seems too high for a sorcerer. I think the good compromise is somewhere in the middle of that.

Much more difficult to assess is the damage output of the villain. A level 5 sorcerer has access to level 3 spells, but there are huge differences in the power of different spells of the same level. A fireball, dealing 8d6 damage in a large area, could potentially we a one-shot total party kill for a group of level 3 characters if you consider that a level 3 fighter has on average 28 hit points, which is just the average damage of that fireball. Other level 3 spells for a sorcerer (except lightning bolt) are comparatively harmless and would just constitute minor inconveniences to the player characters. So the caster level and hit points aren't enough to determine the challenge rating of a NPC villain, it depends very much on the exact spells chosen for him.

What I will basically have to do is to determine the attack spells that the villain is likely to cast in three rounds of combat, estimate how many players might get caught in these spells, determine the average damage per turn from that, and then look up to what sort of offensive challenge rating that corresponds. Not an easy exercise, and there is an obvious danger that the real combat will be very much different from that estimate.

Sunday, March 12, 2017
 
Diving into 5th edition

Besides the ongoing 4th edition D&D campaign I run at my house, I play some 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons at a roleplaying club in the city. And now I decided to run a 5E adventure there as well. While I do like the tactical combat, good balance, and many options that 4th edition D&D has, 5E is definitively more popular, faster, and easier to prepare as a DM.

However one thing I'm still struggling with is building balanced encounters, which might be a problem for the adventure I'm planning. Between the DMG, the encounter building rules in Unearthed Arcana, and the advice you get on the internet there are big differences. The fundamental problem here is that 5th edition re-introduced a strong imbalance between casters and non-casters that 4th edition had removed. A wizard or similar magic-using class casting actual spells (not cantrips) every round has a far higher damage output than the weapon-using classes, but then eventually runs out of spell slots and is reduced to relatively harmless cantrips.

As a result, if you use the official rules the encounters tend to be somewhat too easy, unless you prevent the characters from resting and do the suggested 5 encounters between long rests. That works reasonably well in some settings, like dungeons, but a lot less well in other settings. If you want a mix of combat encounters and role-playing encounters, preventing players from resting becomes a somewhat artificial and strained exercise. You need to invent time constraints or interruptions, just so that the encounters don't become too easy for an alpha-striking wizard. And then you need to invent situations that enable the group to rest after 5 encounters or so despite the constraints you put up earlier.

So no wonder that if you look elsewhere on the internet, people consider the balanced encounters of the official rules as too easy, and prefer higher challenge ratings. However at higher challenge ratings another fundamental property of 5th edition is aggravated: 5E is the most unpredictable version of Dungeons & Dragons due to combat mathematics. Many monsters as well as many spells of players deal a lot of dice of damage, and critical hits double the number of dice. Friday my level 3 paladin was fighting a monster that only had a 20% chance to hit him in his plate armor and shield, but dealt on average 20 points of damage compared to the 28 maximum hitpoints of my character, and had multiple attacks. Even with using all my healing power on myself on my turn, the monster knocked me unconscious by hitting me 3 times in 3 rounds with some lucky rolls.

For the adventure I'm designing, I really don't want to use monsters that can take more than half of somebody's hit points with a single hit, and one-shot a full health character on a critical hit. But if you compare the monsters in the Monster Manual with the "Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating" table on page 274 of the Dungeon Masters Guide, it is clear that most monsters are built around a low defensive challenge rating and a high offensive challenge rating. That results in the typical 5E "fast combat" experience, but is somewhat of a gamble for encounter balance. If every fight lasts only a few rounds with few attacks, the same monster can end up being a complete pushover with unlucky rolls or cause a total party kill on high rolls. A lot of DMs get around that problem by fudging dice. I don't like that method, because it is very hard not to overdo it and basically take the game out of D&D. It also is an admission of defeat, you fudge dice because the mathematics of the system with rolling dice just don't work.

For my adventure I am using a mix of official and self-created monsters. And the monsters I made will be a little less 5E and a little more 4E, lasting a bit longer in combat but also draining the life of the players a bit more slowly. I hope that will solve several of the problems of 5E, on the one side teaching the casters not to use spell slots every turn, while on the other side being a bit more predictable and letting me roll dice in the open. The adventure is designed to have 50:50 combat encounters and role-playing encounters, and if every combat was finished after 2 turns that would be not enough time spent in combat. It isn't so much the number of encounters between rests that is needed by the 5th edition rules, but rather the number of combat turns between rests.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017
 
Zeitgeist: Digging for Lies - Session 3

In the previous session the constables of the Royal Homeland Constabulary found that the monsters appearing suddenly at the exposition were in fact linked to Mayor Macbannin from their previous adventure. An employee of his, Kaja Stewart, had apparently emptied Macbannin's safe during the events surrounding his arrest. Now she was selling the contents and other black market weapons. The group had set up a rendezvous with her in the evening at a subrail station that is currently under construction close to the exposition.

As the rails for the subrail system were already laid, the group decided to not only go early to the meeting with Kaja, but go under ground in order not to be seen. However when they arrived at the construction site, it was still full of construction workers, and they had to make up a bogus story about following a fugitive in the subrail tunnels. Once the afternoon rains made the construction workers leave, the constables set up their ambush and hid in stacks of construction materials. Only one of them, posing as the buyer, stood in the middle of the station.

Kaja arrives with 2 thugs carrying a weapons crate together, and one very tall and muscular bodyguard in a long coat and hat, who carried a weapon crate under each of his arms. While a bit surprised that the buyer was early, Kaja wasn't too alarmed. However she pulled a box with a big red button out of her coat, ready to use. Merian, posing as buyer, bought a pistol from Kaja, proceeded towards the exit, only to then turn around and attack her to start the ambush.

The tall bodyguard turned out to be a sort of golem, and when Kaja pressed the red button on her box that activated four walking turrets that were hidden close to where the players were also hiding. That somewhat negated the group's advantage from the ambush. The bodyguard had an aura that dealt damage to enemies in range that were attacking somebody else, thus "tanking" to protect Kaja. The thugs and walking turrets mostly fired at the closest target, preferring soft targets to heavily armored ones. That caused some problems to the casters in the group, especially to Aria, who stood right in the open to cast her spells.

The fight didn't go too well for the group for a while. They generally have problems if there are too many targets that are serious threats, and often disperse their fire because they think they can't "ignore" one of the threats. After several turns they had only killed one of the thugs and one of the turrets, while most of them had lost over half their health. But then they finally managed to kill Kaja, and use her box with the red button to deactivate the remaining turrets. That left only the bodyguard and one thug, who were then easily dispatched.

As we had combined the session with a birthday celebration, it was already late when the fight finished, and we decided to call it a day and play the interrogation of Kaja (they had used non-lethal damage to bring her down) in the next session.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2017
 
Why I can live without other players in my games

I fully agree with Gevlon that we moved from a game design where people depended on other players to a game design where you either play solo, or your interaction with other players is deliberately limited in some ways, e.g. by not allowing chat. Gevlon thinks that this ruins games. I am quite happy with the new way. So why is that? Is Gevlon a friendly, social character, while I am a natural hermit?

To get to the bottom of that, we need to look at the kind of interaction between players that was most prevalent in the games that Gevlon is missing today. Consider this thought experiment: You take a big computer and feed it with all the blog posts ever made about MMORPGs. You search for all the occurrences of the word "guild". And then you make a histogram or word cloud of the word coming right after each occurrence of the word "guild". I don't have the means to actually perform the experiment, but I would bet that the most frequent word you would find after "guild" in all MMORPG blogs would be "drama".

Just look at Gevlon's blog itself. How does he describe the other players he is missing so much now? He calls them "morons & slackers". Even I, who spent most of his time in WoW in a social guild, have experienced my share of guild drama. Guilds were never designed for positive social interaction, they were always a means to an end of individual character progress. You *needed* those other people to get the most powerful gear in the game. And the way there wasn't exactly a constant stream of friendship and happiness. Look at what MMORPG blog posts have been mostly about when talking about their guilds: First people complain if others aren't investing as much as they do and become a hindrance to killing raid bosses, and then when the raid boss is finally dead they complain that somebody else got the loot.

I've been playing Dungeons & Dragons for 35 years, and never ever did I have a group in which we needed a complicated "DKP" points system to distribute loot. If friends are people who help you move your furniture, and good friends are people who help you move the body, then where do online friends rank on that scale? Way below, I would say, without wanting to express any disrespect to my online friends. I have met a lot of nice people over my years in various games, but I would never want to have to rely on them. They all moved on over time to other games or other activities.

I find it curious that the people most loudly complaining about the lack of other players being forced to play with them are the kind of people with the most predatory play styles. If you want to make millions in virtual currency from auction house manipulations, or be a renowned player killer in PvP, that works best if you have a large supply of potential victims. If you give the sheep the choice of playing other games in which they aren't being griefed or exploited by the wolves, the sheep wander off and the wolves complain about the "lack of community".

I do think that the genre of virtual world games has failed to provide better positive social interactions, better ways to collaborate between players in which each contribution is valuable and appreciated by other players. As it is, the people who cause you the most problems in a multiplayer game are the people on your team. Games turning chat possibilities off is because that chat was too frequently used for hurling insults. No wonder the majority of players these days prefer games with limited or no interaction with other players. It is because these games didn't live up to the promise of positive social interaction, real friends, and real communities. What is there to miss?

Monday, March 06, 2017
 
Challenge accepted

Yesterday Gevlon challenged me with the question "Are you finally accepting that games changed for the worse over the last decade? Remember the vibrant community back then around WoW!". No, games didn't change, the audience did. To understand what happened, we need to go back in time and look at what happened with TV:

In 1980, 80 million Americans watched Dallas at the same time in order to find out who shot J.R.. A few years later, in 1983 the final episode of MASH had 106 million viewers. Today even a hit TV show like Game of Thrones doesn't get more than 8 million people in front of the TV at the same time. So, does that mean that 80's soap operas and sitcoms are better TV than Game of Thrones? No, it means that the audience has dispersed. The number of available TV channels to an average household in the USA went up from 10 in 1980 to hundreds today. Ownership of VCRs took off in 1985, DVD players in 2006, and DVRs in 2008. And that's before Netflix and other "video on demand" services made their breakthrough. Today far more people spend more time than in the 80's to watch TV series, but they don't watch the same series at the same time as they used to in the 80's.

The same dispersion is happening to video games. In all of 2013, 562 games were released on Steam. In 2014 that went up to 1769, in 2015 to 2936, and in 2016 to 4811 games released in a single year. And that is just Steam, the number of mobile games is far bigger, three quarters of a million games on the Apple app store alone. Even a niche genre like MMORPGs has 200 different games listed on Wikipedia.

As I said yesterday, for game blogging that is a problem. Just like today you can't start a conversation at the water cooler any more about last nights' episode of Dallas and be pretty sure most people around you did watch it, today I can't write about games any more and assume my readers played that game recently. It would be hard enough if I played games when they came out, but as I said, with Steam sales I now tend to play last year's games.

That doesn't mean games changed for the worse. If it were possible to get a group of game testers today that have never played World of Warcraft before and let them play both vanilla WoW and Legion, I'm pretty sure the majority would prefer the modern version. If the "vibrant community" isn't there any more, it is because that community dispersed over the many games that came out since.

In addition we all get older. Sometimes you hear very old people tell you that sugar was sweeter when they were young. Well, white crystal sugar is a single chemical compound, not a mixture, and so it can't ever change its taste. But in older people the taste buds on the tongue deteriorate, and to them sugar now tastes less sweet. I put a second lump of sugar in my tea myself these days, but I don't blame the sugar for it. MMORPGs taste less sweet to us because of age and experience with these games, the novelty is gone, and so are our guild mates. None of which has anything to do with the quality of games today.

Yes, if you pick a random one of the 4811 games from 2016 on Steam, chances are that the game won't be very innovative and novel. There simply aren't that many genres of games! That doesn't mean that those games aren't good, or that innovative games don't exist any more. They just get drowned out in the flood. I can still sometimes find a game like Beholder and say "I have never played a game like this before". Or I find a game like Empires & Puzzles on the app store and find that while it has very familiar components (match 3 puzzles, heroes collection, base building) it combines those features in ways that are quite good and haven't been done quite so in that combination before.

Just as I think that TV is better in 2017 than it was in the 80's, because I simply have more choice, I think that gaming is better today than a decade or two ago. We just don't watch or play the same thing at the same time anymore, which makes talking about them harder and gives you less of a sense of community. But much of that "community" was an illusion anyway, there is a huge difference in quality between friends and online friends. So overall I think it changed for the better. Until the industry crashes, which is inevitable for any exponential progression bubble.

Sunday, March 05, 2017
 
Nothing to say

I had a very busy time at work, followed by a week of well-deserved vacation in the sun. So I have been rather inactive on the blog. Well, if you are one of the last remaining regular readers you will have noticed that my posting frequency went way down anyway, to about once per week. I simply don't feel the need to express my thoughts in writing any more, and can't think of anything interesting to write about. A new console comes out, Nintendo Switch, and I'm not even faintly interested (what would I need a "mobile console" with 2 hours battery life and few games for?). I haven't played any MMORPG since my last short visit to World of Warcraft. And there are so many games coming out every week now that writing about any game means mostly talking to an audience that doesn't know that game and isn't even all that interested.

On the PC I frequently play games that came out months or even years ago, because Steam sales make that so much more attractive than buying the latest games for $50 to $60. Steam sales also mean that 200 out of the 300 games in my steam library are still unplayed. There is a glut of games, and far too little time to play them all. Never mind blogging about them to an audience that isn't interested in my thoughts about last year's games anyway.

The one thing I am sure to continue is the journal of my Dungeons & Dragons 4E Zeitgeist campaign, but we play at most twice per month. I am currently thinking about starting another campaign in a local role-playing club, but that won't be soon either. I'd first want to test the waters by DM'ing a one-off adventure to see how it goes. And the campaign I'd like to run would again be Zeitgeist, but this time in 5th edition. Only the publication of that just started on EN5ider, publishing short chapters about every 2 weeks. At this rate it'll be months before I even have the first adventure together.

I do like 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, or "D&D Tactics" as I like to call it. I'd love to have the opportunity to play it, but I can't find a DM for it. And the one campaign I do run as the DM shows one reason for that: 4E is a lot more work for the DM than 5E. And I'm getting lazier. :) So the future for me is definitively 5th edition. Only in my current Zeitgeist campaign half the players don't speak English, and although there are two projects of unofficial translations of D&D 5E into French crowdfunded (Héros & Dragons and Dragons), it'll still take a while before those deliver. So don't expect a lot of blogging activity about that anytime soon.

Friday, February 24, 2017
 
Keeping score

A few months ago I watched the HBO series Veep, all of the first 3 seasons I bought together in a box. The series is still going strong, with a 6th season announced for this year. I am wondering how it will be doing this year: The underlying running joke of Veep is the lack of gravitas of Selina Meyer, and at least in the seasons I saw she had actually *more* gravitas than the current president of the United States.

However, if I look at the daily news from America and all the shouting and fighting and excitation going on, I can't help but think that the noise, which is mostly unfavorable to Trump, makes us overlook the underlying shifts in reality. The moment you manage to ignore the noise and the daily "scandals" and protests, you get the impression that where it really counts, Trump is winning.

In part I actually think that Trump is a lot less stupid than people think, at least regarding political strategy, and that some of his actions are designed to lead his opponents into traps. The "transgender use of bathrooms" decision doesn't actually do anything, but it provokes a foreseeable response from liberals about identity politics, which is not a winning strategy for them. The party that wins elections is the party of which the "99%" believe that it is the party that represents their interests against the elite. It is quite an achievement for an administration full of billionaires to make people believe that it is the opposition who represent the elite.

If you want to keep score and see who is actually winning, you need to look at where the USA is really changing: The most conservative Supreme Court in decades. A proposed change to US tax laws which would deal a severe blow to global supply chains and globalisation. An isolationist foreign policy based on nuclear deterrence. Severe restrictions to the free movement of people. There is a lot of stuff going on which could very well mean that the USA will be a very different place in 4 years than it was only one year ago.

One thing that always comes up in political comedies like Veep is how politicians are so worried about who might possibly be offended by anything they say or do that they end up being complete non-entities which say only hollow phrases and never take any decisive decisions. Nobody would accuse Trump of being afraid of offending somebody. And the people who thought that the outrageous things he said during his election campaign would be quickly forgotten once he got elected, now find it is actually his agenda.

A US president who is actually willing to change America as much as possible in 4 years is a lot more dangerous than one who is mostly concerned about his re-election. Even if a "Wall to Mexico" or a "Muslim travel ban" remain rather impractical concepts, getting whatever is actually in the power of the president done in those directions will still have a huge impact on the world. And as long as the opposition concentrates on Trump's personality, moral outrage, and identity politics instead of explaining why the future we are being promised is actually not so bright, Trump remains the most dangerous man on earth.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017
 
Magic Duels and random numbers

A mathematician will tell you that computer cannot produce "real" random numbers, from a purely mathematical point of view. However algorithms exist that produce numbers that are so close to perfectly random that they are perfectly viable for even such demanding applications as cryptography. For games such random number generators are more than perfectly adequate.

The second big problem with random numbers is that human brains are so wired for pattern recognition that we see patterns even if there ain't any. A perfectly random sequence of heads and tails coin flips has more long sequences of one side coming up repeatedly than most people would expect. Studies have been performed where test persons were asked to identify sequences as random or not random, and it turned out that people are notoriously bad at that.

In the particular case of Magic the Gathering, an added factor is that some people have experience with physical cards. And most methods of shuffling do not produce a perfectly random sequence. Many people for example take all their lands and "riffle shuffle" them into the other cards. Even some subsequent regular shuffling will not produce a perfectly random sequence, but rather a higher dispersion of land cards in the deck than true randomness. As this is what players want, this is actually a minor form of cheating, but as there are few mathematicians in MtG tournaments, nobody complains.

Having said all that, one could expect that a computer game like Magic Duels has a reasonable random number generator, and that people complaining on forums about bad draws are just sore losers with a limited grasp of mathematics. However after playing thousands of games I am pretty much convinced that the random number generator in Magic Duels is garbage, and produces a statistically significant deviation from randomness, leading to noticeable "lumping" of cards.

A typical Magic deck has about 40% lands, 24 out of 60 cards. Randomness means that it is perfectly possible to draw a hand of 7 cards and find anything between 0 and 7 lands. However the quality of a good random number generator would result in the statistical probability of you drawing 3 lands being the highest, having 2 or 4 lands being less likely, having 1 or 5 lands being even less likely, 0 or 6 lands being very rare, and getting 7 lands being extremely rare.

If you compare that to the actual draws of Magic Duels, you'll quickly notice that less likely outcomes like 1 or 5 lands appear far more frequently than statistics would suggest. Even weirder, mathematics tells you that the statistical probability of drawing another land after your starting hand only depends on the number of remaining lands and cards. So if you have already 5 out of 7 cards being lands in your starting hand, the probability of drawing another land as your next draw is 19/53 or 36%. Curiously in Magic Duels that probability is somehow inverted, and if you drew 5 lands in your starting hand you are more likely than not to draw a 6th land as your next draw.

The particular "lumping" of cards in Magic Duels is also sometimes very visible in other cards than lands. While a Magic deck has usually 60 cards, unless you or your opponent have build their deck around special "milling" or card drawing engines, you probably will only see something like 20 out of the 60 cards in your deck. People put up to 4 copies of the same card in their deck precisely to assure that they have a good chance to see a specific card in that first third of the deck. Finding that card twice is a distinct probability, 3 times should be rare, and 4 times exotic. However in Magic Duels you see the same card 3 or 4 times early in the game far more often than statistically probable.

While I do think the Magic Duels would need a better random number generator, it is doubtful that we'll ever get one. The lumping of cards doesn't make the game unplayable. Especially not against the AI, where you can quickly quit and restart a game where the random number generator swamped you with lands. As a general rule I quit every game in which 7+ out of the first 10 cards are lands. Which statistically shouldn't happen all that often, but in reality it does. Hasbro just announced a new digital version of Magic the Gathering called Magic Digital Next, so hopefully the random number generator of that one is better. However Magic Duels is very player-friendly in limiting the number or legendary and rare cards you can have, making it far easier to achieve a full collection. Unless Magic Digital Next has the same mechanic, I would be loath to switch to a new game and lose all my existing card collection in favor of a game where each expansion would cost much more money.

Sunday, February 19, 2017
 
Zeitgeist: Digging for Lies - Session 2

In the previous session the constables of the RHC were sent to supervise security at the Kaybeau Arms and Technology Exposition. There they got involved in an incident where a young mage apparently inadvertently had summoned a bunch of extra-terrestrial monsters. This session started in the middle of the fight against those monsters. With a fresh approach the players this time managed to get some movement into the fight, while previously they had been very dispersed. That proved to be a winning strategy, and although the fight was hard, they won it without losses.

During the fight one thing had happened: One of the NPCs helping the constables was Rock Rackus, a "docker" street artist of considerable fame who was trying to shoot the monsters with his diamond-encrusted golden pistol. However he wasn't that good of a shot, and had accidentally struck and killed one innocent bystander. Another NPC ally, dwarf sharpshooter Kvarti Gorbotiy, loudly proclaimed that to arriving local police, who proceeded to arrest Rock Rackus. The constables considered intervening, but the local police claimed that it was their jurisdiction. When the press arrived the group followed the earlier advice of their boss to try to not appear in the papers, and retreated with the young mage who had summoned the monsters into the shooting range tent.

The young mage, Simon Langfield, had apparently started the incident by using his new staff at the shooting range. Every time he used his staff, the staff turned into solid gold and summoned a monster. But as the first monsters had been summoned just outside the tent, he hadn't even noticed before the third monster, and when attacking one with a magic missile from his staff had summoned a fourth. Simon hadn't intended any of this, and showed very remorseful and eager to help the constables. Asked about the staff, he told them that he had received a tip in a tavern that if you went to the trinket stand at the fair and asked for a "anniversary gift for my wife Ethel", you received for a handful of gold pieces a little box containing a paper with instruction where and when to meet a black market arms dealer called Kaja Stewart. That is where he had bought the staff at about 20% rebate from the normal value.

The constables remembered Kaja Stewart from being on the wanted list in connection with their previous case, Kaja having been an employee of Mayor Reed Macbannin. They knew that the mayor had had a large safe with magical protection in his office, which was found empty after the fire in the mansion. The staff might well have come from there. A history check also told them that in pre-historic times a people only known as "the Ancients" had lived, and while they were primitive and used mostly stone tools, they also had a lot of solid gold weapons, with historians unsure of how the Ancients would have crafted those. At the suggestion of the constables, Simon Langfield volunteered to make another trip to the trinket stand and get another rendezvous with Kaja Stewart.

The constables confiscated the staff, and Aria was visibly trying to keep the staff for herself, asking Simon to not mention the confiscation of the staff in his interview at the RHC the next day. However while the constables then went and checked out another clue, on coming back to the gun range they saw Simon talking to a lady dressed in black. Approached, the lady disappeared skillfully into the crowd. Simon said that she was RHC too, having shown him a golden RHC badge (the players only have bronze ones). She had asked him about the staff, and in particular about the confiscation of it. So ultimately the group decided that it was wiser to declare the staff as confiscated good when they got back to the RHC.

At the RHC they were told that the HQ had a visit from Lord Viscount Inspector Nigel Price-Hill, the head of the RHC from the capital, and his entourage. Apparently the lady in black was part of that entourage. Lord Price-Hill was introduced to the group and told them that due to the corruption they had revealed with the mayor, there were now investigations at all levels to see how widespread the corruption was, and that the lord was conducting an audit of the RHC in Flint. That didn't bode well for them, because in their investigation they hadn't always proceeded by the book and had relied on help of several different criminal elements, like the mafia boss Morgan Cippiano or the eco-terrorist Gale. But the constables decided that their best defense was feigning innocence and remaining silent. We'll see how that works out. Aria trying to misappropriate the staff while already being observed by the auditors won't help. :)

The next morning the group was asked to transport the corpses of the monsters to the Battalion, which was not only the place where they had trained to become RHC officers, but also the place that had the cities most knowledgeable experts on exotic monsters. Up to know the origin of the monsters was uncertain, other than they had a connection to the staff, and no similar monsters had ever been reported in history. After this task the group started to prepare for their meeting with Kaja Stewart in the early evening, planning to ambush her. At this point we ended the session.

[DM's note: It's good that we stopped here. The written module presumes that the players would approach Kaja posing as weapon's buyers. But my group often isn't all that subtle. Stopping here gives me the opportunity to plan how the encounter should be set up with this more heavy-handed approach.]

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