Friday, August 27, 2010

On Power at a Price (and the Starcraft II Editor)

Call me crazy, but I think this thing may actually be *too* powerful.

I've been poking around the Starcraft II Editor a bunch recently, and I have to say, I've been impressed and somewhat terrified.  Clearly, it's been made with the extensive mod community in mind.  You can fiddle with everything - and I mean everything.

On the other hand, I feel like I should only be using the thing with a manual open in my lap, a Youtube tutorial loaded up, and somebody who knows what the f*ck they're doing within arm's reach.

I used the Starcraft I and Warcraft III editors pretty extensively (if very casually - I never did get around to publishing any maps, but I had fun on my own time).  While there were certainly plenty of hiccups and tricky problems (particularly with triggers), I was able to muddle my way through, mostly on my own, through trial and error.  If you wanted to make a new unit, you hit the 'Unit Editor,' and so forth.  It was vaguely intuitive, and the vocabulary was mostly shared with the gameplay.

Not so for the Starcraft II Editor, where it took me five full minutes to figure out how to make a new unit, and I only got there by blindly stumbling upon the 'Data' tab.  Gone are the artificial (but helpful) categories of 'unit,' 'ability,' and 'doodad with Chris Metzen's face on it' - it's all in 'Data' now.  Additionally, the number of factors that go into making a 'Zealot' a 'Zealot,' for instance, has gone from probably 3 and change (change being stats and color balance) to six or so subcategories, each with a wealth of attributes that go right over my head.

Now, I have two worries regarding this change.  The first is small and selfish, which is that this gigantic machine of data coordination scares me sh*tless.  I'm sure I could learn to use this program, if I really wanted to, but just learning to use it would have to compete with schoolwork, workwork, DMing, actually playing video games like Starcraft II itself (and WoW), apathy, and laziness.  And that would be before I could actually even start to make custom maps.  In other words, the barrier to entry is probably just too high.

The second is slightly more relevant: don't all serious modders just hop straight to the code anyway?  And, if that does hold true (and perhaps it doesn't, or won't now that this new utility is available) and the serious modders are doing their modding from within the code anyway, who exactly is this monster of a map editor supposed to help?


Saturday, August 21, 2010

On Morality in RTSes

So, Flask recently wrote a post filled with lots of interesting complex analysis regarding dirty communists trying to steal from John Galt, who is apparently a baker or something in the Dragon Age universe.  He used lots of big words, and challenged us to ask "Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?"

I am here to rant incoherently about the stupid simplicity of moral choices in Starcraft II.  To anybody who has not yet finished the game, please activate your spoiler-o-vision by clicking on this link.  Do not open it in a new tab, as that will diminish its effectiveness significantly.




So, you get three choices of consequence in Starcraft II.  One is purely strategic, so far as I can tell, though admittedly I haven't played it both ways, so I don't know if it has a plot impact.  One is uninterestingly obvious - trust a random character who sounds suspiciously similar to Azula and works for your archenemy or your ol' buddy and all-around great guy Gabriel Tosh, who most certainly isn't a psychopath, as he is quick to assure you.  However, one choice, at least the way the set it up, is an interesting moral quandary that left me thinking for a few minutes.

At the end of the Hanson 'quest chain,' you are confronted by a fleet of Protoss ships headed by Selendis, who inform you that some of Dr. Ariel Hanson's refugees are already infected by the Zerg plague that they have been trying to avoid.  The good doctor then reveals that she already knew, but is working on a cure for the infection (which she has, in the past, been unsuccessful at curbing).  Selendis has brought her fleet to purge the infected colonists, but she offers you the chance to do it yourself, giving you the opportunity to save those colonists who are still healthy.  Dr. Hanson tells you that if you 'stall the Protoss' (aka butcher them in droves), she is certain that she can save all of the colonists - but her past failure casts doubt upon whether or not this confidence is reasonable.

So, you've got the following known pros and cons to each side:

         Kill the Infected Colonists Yourself:

-Guarantee that some colonists survive, even if you have to kill the others yourself
-Guarantee that the infection is contained
-Maintain inter-species relations with the Protoss
-Avoid having to kill the Protoss, who are basically good people trying to do their job and not die horribly

-You can't wait and see if the cure can be found - you have to act immediately.  If a cure was possibly, you've killed lots of innocent people who you might have been able to save.
-Diminished chance of finding a cure in the future (since Dr. Hanson is pretty committed to THIS group of people)

      Fight the Protoss:

-Guarantee that all efforts to save the infected (who are innocent people) are made
-Greater chance of finding a cure that offers a permanent solution
-Improved reputation with your (at that point) potential love interest

-Risk the ire of the Protoss if this incident provokes them
-Loss of Protoss life (Protoss are people, too!)
-Danger of the infection spreading if Dr. Hanson fails
-Danger of the entire population being lost if Dr. Hanson fails

Personally, I'd say this is a pretty difficult decision.  The Protoss counsel safety and conservatism - avoid unnecessary bloodshed between allied forces and prevent the spread of the Zerg.  Dr. Hanson, on the other hand, is a risk-taker - gamble that she can come up with the solution or risk losing everyone on the planet and giving the Zerg a foothold in Protoss space.  Each side is prioritizing its own interests over the other's in a way that is completely understandable, and there are no meaningful incentives distorting the moral ramifications of your options.  Ultimately, I decided to abuse the system and play both routes, then choose the one with the better results.

I was pleased, if annoyed, that the game made me think so deeply about a choice.  I was NOT pleased when the ridiculously lopsided results came back.

       Fight the Protoss:

Dr. Hanson comes up with the cure, all of the colonists are saved, the Protoss suffer minimal casualties and their commander Selendis salutes your valor on the battlefield before leaving without even so much as raising her (psionic) voice at you.  Dr. Hanson gives you a kiss as she leaves to join her people on their new world of sunshine and unicorns.

       Kill the Infected Colonists:

The infection has already spread further than you thought.  You have to kill lots of colonists, and you save a few.  When you return to the ship, you find out that Dr. Hanson's failed attempt to find a cure has caused her to mutate into some kind of Hydralisk thing.  You kill her.  Emotional scarring ensues.  Selendis thanks you and departs.  A news update informs you that the refugee colonists who you saved are being turned away from Inner Colony worlds, left adrift in space.  Footage cuts to a boat drifting peacefully across a lake.

What the f*ck?  Seriously?  It might as well have said GOOD END and BAD END after those things!  I'm surprised that choosing to kill the infected colonists doesn't give you a non-standard game over, honestly, given the stark contrast between the two results.  It'd have been one thing if siding with Hanson had implied that, perhaps, relations with the Protoss were worsened by your choice.  But, if anything, beating Selendis seems to have improved your cred with the psionic space elves.  There are NO downsides to one path, and NO upsides to the other.  So much for moral complexity.

So, what's the lesson?  Remember, when faced with a catch 22, ALWAYS SIDE WITH YOUR LOVE INTEREST.  ALWAYS.

In other news, the end of the game was so f*ck-awesome that I have completely forgiven this hiccup in an otherwise flawless work.  I'm extremely excited to find out what happens in Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm, when it comes out in 2020, right after George R.R. Martin's next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On Storm Front (Book 1 of the Dresden Files)

I read Storm Front on the plane back home today.  It was pretty much the perfect length and complexity for a six-hour plane trip, so that worked out nicely.

Characters:  I liked Butcher's characters quite a bit.  Harry Dresden steals the show from the plot itself.  The background characters are sufficiently compelling, most of the time, although the villains and antagonists lacked characterization (more on this later).

Writing Style:  The pulp-noir writing style that Butcher invoked was spot-on, but it also reminded me of something, which is that I'm not ridiculously fond of pulp-noir.  While it was interesting to see it applied to a fantasy kitchen sink universe (though there are certainly many works that do this, he carried it off very well), I'm not a big fan of first-person narratives that are not explicitly set up within a framing device.  Not having a framing device makes it even more tempting to 'tell' rather than 'show' than usual.  As such, we get Harry's thoughts on everything, but the degree that they're the thoughts of 'omniscient narrator Harry' or 'holy sh*t that demon is trying to eat me RIGHT NOW Harry' is necessarily somewhat blurred because we don't know the circumstances under which he's telling us this tale.  Is this supposed to be written?  Orally passed along?  Something one heard from a friend of a friend?  This means that we get a lot of "she was desperate" or "he was angry" - a mainstay of pulp detective works, to be sure, but I don't like it.  Similarly, because Harry is 'telling' the story, we end up with a very self-centered view of what was going on, and this deprives some more minor characters, including the main antagonist, of the opportunity to shine.

Story:  The mystery itself was neither groundbreaking nor disappointing.  It served well enough as a vehicle for an interesting universe and nifty characters.  The arc-based plot was considerably more compelling than the particulars of the murder case.

Universe: The universe, and especially magic, were very well done  One advantage of the first person narrative was that it let Harry  be Mr. Exposition without requiring an audience surrogate.  This helped flesh these story elements out without making Harry seem like some kind of captain obvious who repeats everything to a bewildered bystander character who otherwise serves no purpose.  And I hate the 'audience surrogate who provides nothing of any real consequence' archetype.

Obligatory Sci-Fi/Fantasy Gratuitious Sex: Made into a plot point, a la Fate/Stay Night (sex = Rite of Flame or Seething Song*, apparently).  Other than that, filtered through the somewhat prudish Harry, and hence not too bad.  Still very, very present, though.

Overall Evaluation:  A fun read.  The story, which is clearly the beginning of a longer saga, had more potential for depth than actual depth - this is probably fleshed out in later books, though I don't know for sure.  Good characters, good universe, passable story and interesting storytelling (even if I personally didn't like some aspects of the genre).  There are other works I'd recommend first, but it was a nice way to pass the time at 30,000 feet.


Monday, August 16, 2010

On Difficult Choices (I'm posting on Starcraft II because it's trendy!)

On Wednesday, I hope to pick up Starcraft II.  When I do, however, I am faced with a difficult choice.

On the one hand, I'm a long-time Protoss player.  Carriers are pretty  much the shit.

On the other hand, Terrans now dominate in the field of giant humaniod robots.  And I looooooove me some giant humanoid robots.

Honestly, though, it will probably come down to whichever feels more natural to me.  That's what I did with WCIII (and how I ended up maining Orcs).  That or whichever is better against Flask.


Sunday, August 8, 2010

On Being Totally Wrong

[Mild spoilers for Legend of Korra]


Apparently, Bumi is not the norm.

In regards to age, that is.  I think we all knew that Bumi wasn't the norm in terms of just about everything already, though.

It'd have been interesting to see some of the original characters outside of flashbacks, but it's probably for the best that we're getting this spoiler so early on.  I'd hate to have expected them to show up and then have it not happen.  Looks like your wish is probably not going to be granted, though, Mr. Flask.  I'd still  be shocked if we don't get at *least* one flashback to the original cast.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

On Doing Things You Know are Stupid (Carefully)

So, my character for the Dark Heresy campaign in which our group is currently engaged is Daret Feliron, a Techpriest who thinks he's the hero of a pulp western film.

My intrepid Cowboy Cogboy is saddled (hur hur) with two dangerous delusions.  Not 'Psyker' dangerous (using psychic powers is basically rolling on a 'ways to kill your party table'), but still not great for his survival chances.  The first is a natural part of being a Techpriest.  Having a Techpriest in your party is the most efficient way to see any and all Pandora's Boxes that you happen to encounter opened before you can say "wait, that's a Necron Tomb!" (note: saying that will actually make the Techpriest open it faster).  The second is the delusion that he's a gunslinging badass who lives in a universe where that counts for something.  He is a gunslinging badass, by most definitions, but so is everybody else, and most of his enemies have both more gun and more ass (the bad kind).

Dark Heresy is not the kind of setting where you can get away with this kind of sh*t.  So I have to work to keep Daret alive while still letting him do his thing.  This balance has lead to some character developments I didn't initially expect.  Being a Techpriest, Daret is supposed to be above squishy things like emotion and vital organs.  But being a Techpriest in an RPG, Daret is guaranteed not to be so far above such 'faults' as he would like, because frankly, playing suicidal Spock is boring.  Hence his delusion that he's a heroic Groxboy, roping giant space-cows and fighting off Eldar wearing bandanas around their faces.  However, my own need to play Daret at least mildly pragmatically has lead this to mutate a step further: Daret is aware that he isn't capable of living up to his own ideals as a Techpriest or a Cowboy.  He still tries to fulfill the genre cliches, though, because he optimistically aspires to such heights.  Just not necessarily while he's being shot at.

Hence moments like the one in the last session, where he kicked in a saloon door with pistol drawn, only to be faced with an entire room full of bad guys.  In the 'picts, of course, he'd have shot the leader and the rest would have panicked and surrendered, leaving him to casually order a drink.  Of course, given that this is Dark Heresy, Daret's gun jammed, and then he exited the building pursued by a significant quantity of ammunition from anti-personel armaments.  But he DID exit the building, even if he was a bit miffed inside about having to do so*.


*"And leaving through the door, how absurd! People always leave saloons through the windows!"

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

On Conversion Ideas

Well, here's an old post I've had simmering on the back burner for a while (read: I wrote half of it and then forgot that it existed for two weeks).

Warhammer 40k lends itself a bit too well to bringing in out-of-universe ideas, characters, and hell, entire armies.  Much as with D&D (or really any RPG worth its salt), you can easily throw together a stat block for just about anything.  However, Warhammer 40k is such an 'everything including the kitchen sink (which also wants to kill you)' universe that, for most science fiction and fantasy military forces can be translated without even having to draw up new stat blocks.  Generally, the less changes I have to make, the greater a success I consider conversion attempt.  It's easy to draw up stat blocks in 40k (they're rather simple), but it's hard to FIND statblocks for every single thing you want to represent.
Every time one of these ideas for a new 'count-as' army takes root in my mind, I end up doing something very dangerous - namely, I consider starting YET ANOTHER army.

A few bouncing around in my head:

Gears of War (Imperial Guard)

The relatively obvious but still inescapable 'Gears of War' IG army, based around the 'Straken Mob in a Vendetta' close combat strategy.  Colonel Straken as Marcus, Commissar Yarrick as Dom, a Techpriest as Baird and a Ministorum Priest with Eviscerator as the inimitable 'Cole Train.'  Straken's command squad as an attached team of Redshirts (perhaps the various Carmine brothers).  Slap it all in a King Raven (Vendetta or Valkyrie) and do exactly what you do in Gears of War - rush in and beat your enemy's face into a pulp.  A few squads of Veterans in Chimeras would round out the army (and, you know, let you hold objectives), as regular COG soldiers in Centaurs (or other APCs).

"Scratch one grub!"

Code Geass (Tau)

When I first watched Code Geass, my immediate response was 'Knightmare Frames ARE Crisis Suits!'  The right size, appropriately armed and armored, highly mobile (but not 'fighter jet' mobile) - admittedly, there are plenty of mecha that would fit these qualifications, but Code Geass is one of the few mecha series I've seen where the focus is as much strategic as tactical.  Most mecha series consist almost purely of dogfighting - which is quite enjoyable, so long as it's well executed.  But, as I've mentioned before, I'd love to see another series with a greater focus on the commanders, and the strategies that win battles in addition to the Ace Pilots who dominate the battlefield.  So Code Geass lends itself rather well to Warhammer 40k more generally.  In this particular case, I freely admit that I did cave in and tweak the codex a bit - nothing terribly substantial, but the ability to mount an Ethereal in a Crisis Suit is long overdue for the Tau anyway, and I couldn't very well have Code Geass without some rules for the Geass itself.  If I ever manage to recover said 'Codex Geass' (hurr hurr) from the depths of my old, very possibly fubar hard drive, I'll probably do a post on it.  I've also modeled about half of this army, and done some paint work (though some of it needs to be redone, and I suspect I'd want to touch a lot of it up, given that it was like two summers ago).

Mobile Suit Gundam (Imperial or Eldar Titans)

Ah, the holy grail.  How to get a Mobile Suit into Warhammer 40k.  Imperial ground forces fit the Earth Federation and Zeon ground forces quite well (since Mobile Suit Gundam is heavily based on World War 2, and so are many Imperial Guard armaments, this is no particular surprise).  For Mobile Suits themselves, however, it's a toss-up between Warhound Titans and Eldar Phantom Titans.  Both are roughly the same size, they're roughly equally resilient.  The Warhound Titan has more choices for armaments, which I like, but the Phantom Titans have superior close-combat skills, an 4+ Invulnerable 'Holofield Dodge' save, and the ability to 'Jump' 36" and then make an assault, as compared to the much more sedate 12" move range of a Warhound Titan.  Perhaps the answer is simply to decide on a case-by-case basis.  As to fielding a Phantom Titan alongside Imperial Forces, well, it's Apocalypse.  You can field 80 Orbital Strikes and nothing else if you feel like it.  I'm not overly concerned about balance.

1 Warhound Titan + 18 Land Speeders with Multi-Meltas = Kshatriya with Funnels

Thanks for letting me borrow the Funnels, Ghostlightning.

Also 1950~ points.  But it's totally worth it for the Funnels.

(Incidentally, Mr. Flask, I've realized that even though you hate everything good  America, you communist! everything not comedy (or so you claim, though I can see through your LIIIIIIES), Funnels are basically psychically controlled robot BEES with frickin' laser beams.  Just thought you should know.)

I feel like Codex: Chaos Daemons also opens up a host of new possibilities in this direction.  Alucard Khornate Daemon army, anyone? (Yes, Alucard would comprise the entire army).  One big, nasty Daemon surrounded by lots of Flesh Hounds, Bloodletters, etc.  Another series I recently picked up on, Nurarihyon no Mago, provides a large and mildly militarized organization of highly diverse demons.  Could be interesting for many of the same reasons as the Armycard, but provide a less uniform modelling experience.

Anybody else thought of any good conversions in this vein (that is to say, repurposing armies.  Though I'm always interested to hear new stat-blocks, too)?