Apologizing to the Rice

I realized late last night I had called the book “Trails of Cthulhu” with an s instead of “Trail of Cthulhu.”  I chalk this up to my insidious Michigan accent which compels me to pluralize words regardless if they need to be pluralized or not.  Meijers.  Krogers.  Kmarts.  C’mon, Michigan people, you know you have said a sentence construction like this:

“So you wanna go down to Krogers, then?”

I am personally very concerned about the prospect of multiple trails of Cthulhu. Imagine enormous world-spanning trails of sticky slime.  Like giant ants.  With face tentacles.  Ew.   They look like this!

It was corrected in the post. And I hang my head in shame. It’s all Michigan’s fault.

[RPG Review] Trail of Cthulhu

Trail of Cthulhu by Ken Hite from Pelgrane Press

In middle school I discovered horror fiction.

I cannot remember what was the first book — I suspect Stephen King’s the Shining in used book form — but I do distinctly remember reading anything that had a dismemberment. If it featured splatters of blood, I read it. Good writing, bad writing, schlock writing, I read it all, and in great spews. Somewhere in there I laid hands on a collection of horror short stories that contained the usual standbys of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”* It also had HP Lovecraft’s “Rats in the Walls.” And that one was my favorite. I read it over and over.

Later I read the rest of HP Lovecraft’s stuff. Some of it was good. Some of it was terrible. Some of it was incomprehensible. And some of it was the Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath.

My copy of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu 5th Edition** is actually the second copy as my first copy disintegrated from overuse. The glue binding did not hold up to the love and after a while the pages fell out. The second one is a used copy from somewhere or other. I know dimly there was a 6th edition but I only have the 5th; that was the version for me. Even reading the rules of the BRP version of CoC belied the obvious: the only way someone was going to get out of an adventure was by being an illiterate track star. The BRP rules were charming in their crappiness but they had that one beautiful sanity meter rule, and that was a permanent brain worm. For 20 years I have been rolling my SAN and I am pretty sure by now it’s pretty low.

BRP had a special lethal charm. I knew of Runemaster games ended in the first five minutes by the entire party failing swim rolls when crossing a river. Or another character killed by a highly dangerous glass of water. But BRP was what was in Chaosium’s books and Chaosium’s books were special so we played it, and made it work, and CoC got ran and played anyway. That’s the greatness of CoC.

That brings me around to Trail of Cthulhu, a game I read and fell fiercely in love with but for completely different reasons than the clunky charm of CoC 5th Edition. It’s CoC where you get to live until you get your head eaten by Azathoth in the end, and that’s the kind of CoC we want to be playing.

A bit about GUMSHOE

I talked about GUMSHOE in my review of the Esoterrorists, so for an overview of GUMSHOE it’s best to consult there. Trail runs with the core idea of getting to the end of the story and not being held up by the system. When we watch Law Dramas, we don’t want the Intrepid Cops to end the plot because they failed a “look for clue” roll. We don’t want House not figure out the disease in the last act because he failed to make some surgery roll halfway through. We do not want our Cthulhu hunters to be killed by a wayward glass of water.*** It’s no good to be blocked because of a botched roll, so GUMSHOE waves that part. The players always get the clue. The question is what do they do with it? That’s where the play is.

And that’s what Trail brings to the table. It feels less blatantly horror-focused as Esoterrorists, it adds some new skills, it goes in with Drives to give players motivation for why they are hunting down the terrors that go bump in the night. The SAN meter is now dual tracked: you can take a Stability hit or take actual Sanity damage but it takes a bit to shave off a little of the ol’ SAN. The focus is on episodes like a show: the point is not the bumbling around with skill checks; the point is to get to the end of the story — where no doubt everyone is turned into splatters.

GUMSHOE is a perfect fit for Cthulhu. You don’t need to be an illiterate track star. You can still be that uber college professor and run away. Run away! AIIII!


Trail is set in the 30s where, yes, there are Nazis. And where there are Nazis, there are guns and planes and tanks and Socialists and Swinging Archeologists and other such tropes. Trail provides two modes of play: PURIST and PULP.

I get people want to play Cthulhu in all its deadly, terrible, horror glory. And that is what PURIST is for — as close to a simulation of the old BRP system with high levels of DEATH. A great thing for those who love difficulty in their gaming and where a gun is going to kill you.

Then there is PULP. PULP is where you get to shoot Cthulhu. In the face. Or ram him with a boat — HP Lovecraft’s preferred Cthulhu Removal Device. But who doesn’t want to shoot a tentacle or two? It might seem a little silly but hoards of evil cults with dark books that cast horrible spells are also a little silly. So is Hitler on his quest for the Spear of Longinus. It’s all silly, but sometimes, horror calls for a little pulp horror.

Dark horror vs. the Mummy. I find I want to run the game in PULP mode. Who said Cthulhu wasn’t high adventure?  When isn’t the dark spawn of the universe high adventure?

The Awesome of the Call-Out Boxes

RPGs almost always have these inset boxes with little bits of random information or skills or stats or tables or whatever in them. They tend to be a bit lame; I find them annoying and want to read around them. In Trail read the call-out boxes because they’re the best parts. Either about the 30s or how to build cults (please add cults!) or about Gods (please don’t add more Gods!) or creeping totalitarianism, they are all wonderful. The boxes are plentiful and worth the price of the book alone. They don’t contain any rules, per se, but they are so chock full of goodness that it is worth sitting there with the book and flipping from call-out box to call-out box.

I need to mention the call-out boxes because they are so deeply wonderful.

Oh, and while I am talking about the call-out boxes with all their wonder, the section on the Cthulhu Elder Gods/Outer Gods is superb and packed with so many incredibly insane ideas for running plots it is hard to talk about it without waving hands around incoherently. One small sentence about Elder Gods as meme loads was so compelling it was a hot topic in my house for three days. If you’re into CoC at all, this is worth getting to juice up campaigns and take them to 11.

And Overall…

I can gush about Trail of Cthulhu for a long time. Much of the original Call of Cthulhu (5th Edition) was preserved from one edition to the next. It’s all here: the Gods, the Monsters, the Cults, the Horrible Books, the Spells, the must and the rain, the horrible New England cities. The Cults section is wonderful**** and full of juicy goodness of evil. The GM section on how to build an adventure from the Horror to the Beginning and then through a list of clues is also very helpful — the advice is spot-on for crafting a horror based adventure.

Me? I am picky about my Cthulhu. I don’t like no d20 editions or LARP editions or Savage Realms. I don’t do Cthulhu card games.  In my mind, it is the crumbling second copy of CoC 5th Edition. This is the only worthy successor and it’s glorious.

So I’m fanboying a little bit. I do that on very rare occasions because I’m a curmudgeon and I hate everything. But this is truly, honestly a great version of Cthulhu. It is not Call — it’s a different system — but Trail is an excellent game with compulsively readable text that has ideas and stuff packed into every corner and page. Is it worth the $40? Yes. Would I run it? In pulp mode, yes. Would I play it? Definitely. Can I recommend it? Oh hell yes.

Go buy it. Stop reading blog posts! I bought my PDF+Hard cover bundle from Indie Press Revolution right here.

* The only work by Faulkner I ever liked. A tiny bit of excellent gothic horror.
** Always 5th Edition.
*** Okay, maybe we do. It’s Cthulhu. Those glasses of water are dangerous as hell.
**** And one section turned into a new supplement, the Booksellers of London.

Book Review: River of Gods

River of GodsRiver of Gods by Ian McDonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In August in 2047, in the city of Varanasi in the country of Bharat in central India, nine people converge on one singular event that changes everything for mankind. For some, it’s an asteroid containing the alien relic the Tabernacle. For others it is chasing down AIs. And for others, it is about finding themselves in the midst of a water war when the monsoon rains no longer come and the Ganga runs dry.

The good: River of Gods does very interesting things with the arc of the growth of computers and computing into every corner of life. Even the very popular soap, “Town and Country,” is completely computer rendered with fake AI actors having fake AI-based weddings and entire “People Magazine”-like publications fawn over the imaginary private lives of the AIs inhabiting the rendered soap opera. Everyone has a cellphone-like device, even the most poor. Everything is wired together. And AIs (called aeais in the book) fill every corner of existence — driving cars (but apparently not the taxis), running heating and cooling systems, injecting themselves into medical devices, everywhere. One of the main themes of the book is hunting down rogue AIs, those who have somehow “evolved” through illicit programming or through happenstance to become “Generation Three” AIs, those AIs that have developed full native intelligence. The question the book grapples with is not only how these beings come about and flow through the interconnectedness of all computers, but how they see existence and how their consciousness is represented by copying millions of copies of themselves. The other is how humans react to the super intelligent AIs, hunting them down, and “excommunicating” them with huge EMP pulses and destroying all the copies hiding in the machines.

Another bit of good comes from grappling with how humans are forcing their own evolution through selective breeding, gene therapy, and remaking themselves with extensive surgery. From this comes a shortage of women, strange children who age at 1/2 the rate of regular human beings called Brahmins who have no empathy for the human race, and nutes — a group of people who have surgically removed all gender. The reaction from normal humans is revulsion but the book implies this is the forward trajectory of humanity and the normal people will soon be an out-bred relic of the past.

The bad: I generally like books with multiple viewpoints but River of Gods has nine and it felt overdone. The themes of the book were focused over the actual characterization of the characters. Only the nute Tal really stood out as a distinct personality. The rest of the characters tended to flow together into one amorphous mass. All the characters _do_ get a different view of the actions during August 2047 to give a perspective on how the whole plot comes together in the end — with a little bit of Science Fiction Plot Device thrown in.

The science fiction is a little too precious at times. Sometimes it wants to be Arthur C. Clarke and sometimes it wants to be Blade Runner with just a dash of the original Philip K Dick and it doesn’t seem to know which is which.

The Hindi sprinkled through is not much of a challenge. However, the kindle version of the book lacks bookmarks so looking up terms in the back of the book is a major challenge. Also, the kindle version is sprinkled throughout the text with enough typos for it to be called out.

The ending is about middling for a science fiction book. It’s not awful. It’s no Sphere. It’s not a total collapse like Snow Crash. The book ends very definitively.

River of Gods by Ian McDonald is an awful lot of book. It’s big. In parts it goes on and on and on and on. Some of it drags in places when it goes BEHOLD MY INDIA OF THE FUTURE! For an easy comparison on pure word count, it’s about 1 Red Mars. Figure out how long it took to read Red Mars, add a tax for having to look up all the words in Hindi in the appendix in the back, and that’s about how long it takes to get through River of Gods.

So, not bad. I made it all the way through. It definitely does have some good ideas and it is one of the better science fiction novels floating around. It’s in the “pretty good” category but it’s not Childhood’s End or anything. It’s a decent read but it’s not one of those science fiction novels that lays hooks in your brain that lie there and fester until they get disgorged in some argument one day. I give it about a 3.75 stars but the rating system isn’t that fine grained so I round it up to a four. It’s not quite a four star book. It’s very much a 3.75 star book.

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RPGs as Data Driven Apps

I meant to work on this post earlier this week but my week got real busy and I lost my time to write up posts.

I spent some time thinking about how pen-and-paper RPGs are best represented in an electronic medium. I don’t mean writing a full game like Neverwinter Nights; I mean representing the actual experience of the books, rules and dice in an app format. I realized that RPGs are by their very nature data driven: the character sheet, the rule set, the world setting, and the information that goes with it. Because everything is created whole-cloth — even those settings based on established properties — the game must be communicated with information for it to go. This is different than a card game or a board game which require a very small amount of fixed information (what’s on a card, say, or a die roll moves you 5 spaces, or you need to play this token) and a large set of rules. An RPG requires a large amount of information and an arguable amount of rules.

The devil is in the details with the amount and control of the information surrounding an RPG. This lies at the heart of many rules and design-based conflicts: how much information is needed for a person to interact with the world, how is the information manipulated to model the world, and how is this information communicated and stored. In the past, games often required a HIGH amount of information to interact with a HIGH number of system rules to determine a HIGHLY DETAILED piece of data after running the system — a simulationist system. Today, we have a huge number of styles from a low data with small ruleset games (like Fiasco) to moderate sized amount of data/character and data/world with moderate sized rule sets (like FATE or Cortex) to high information games with high detail (like D&D4).

This is all run on data. The nice thing about data is that data is about all a computer understands. It can hold data, process rulesets on data, and present data-driven results at the end of processing. So for example we have a large piece of data model in a character sheet. A character sheet possess stats in some form (d8 Wits, 18 Strength, 3 dots in Hawt, etc). The world may also possess similar unified stats — an NPC, a known test, a quantified piece of the world. Passing the world stats and the character stats through a known resolution engine generates a known result, which may also be stored and used to modify other data.

This is all basic game writing 101 and absolutely nothing new, but it’s important to lay out the basics before figuring out how to make it go. A character sheet is simply a line from a data model that has a paper-based persistence model representing a shared contract between player and game world. What becomes more interesting is in building up databases of world information. Pulling up, for example, cult information for Trail of Cthulhu with lists of cults (pick one) and integrated NPC and evil book lists, perhaps be able to cross-reference this with information either found online (automatically populate a database with reference information that auto-loads inline) and information in published material. Work against perhaps web services of a master repository that hosts a bigger centralized database and… but this is starting to get off the device and into web servers and databases and LAMP stacks and generally wandering off the reservation. But this is the idea — RPGs are data driven applications and more data makes them better.

This is where my mind is starting to go for RPG-based apps. There’s more to it than that, though:

* Core Data for storage, persistence, data modelling and all the CRUD facilities (create, read, update, delete).
* Cocos2D engine for dice rolling, card playing, and visual representations of game mechanics.
* WebKit for integrating web resources and maybe a shared repository
* Quartz for drawing really nice character sheets, game sheets, NPC sheets, and to generate PDFs on the fly.
* UIKit with Cocos2D for front end data management screens.
* Network stack for cross-communication between devices, communication with back end web services.

I think it would be nice to be able to have a database of NPCs whose sheets render nicely on the screen and then with a click be able to summon up world information around the NPC — their horrible organization, say, or, GOD FORBID, a RELATIONSHIP MAP… Computers are really good at knitting all this data together into a palm of the hand player, GM and gaming community set of tools. It’s what they do.

These are where my thoughts are sort of going for apps, but I also have lots of thought about an iFiasco app too which hasn’t been fleshed out yet.

And Man… iPad based Smallville Relationship Maps with integrated character sheets. Just…. damn. Can it be done? OF COURSE.

iPad Game Programming

Friday I had a spirited conversation about what sort of widgets and toys I need to really make game-based iPad apps. I came up with a list that looked like:

  • Handle Playing Cards (backs, fronts, turn, flip over, etc.)
  • Handle Game Tokens (rotate, pass around with a gesture, etc)
  • Handle Dice (roll dice, move dice around, support pools)
  • Handle Game Play Surface (game boards, playing surface)

I sort of skuttled around the Internet for a while and found Cocos2D. I downloaded it, installed the Xcode 4 templates, built the library, and worked through the first two tutorials (of about 20). I have to say, other than my brain tried to fold itself into unnatural corners of space time trying to remember basic geometry* from High School — which I just blanked on — I was stunningly impressed with the library. If you’re following along with what I am doing, I encourage you to go look at the library and start thinking about the possibilities. Will it work for rendering screens for card games and board games and dice based games? As soon as I figure out how to get dice to roll without having to use Cocos3D (although I may have to) then yes, I can build up a library for making interactive games on the iPad.

Current plan is with my new knowledge of Cocoa Programming and the way it handles stuff is to expand into mastery of Cocos2D, persistence libraries (for saving game state), networking, and some Core Data for something I’ll talk about at length tomorrow — I had some deep thoughts over the weekend for how a certain kind of app should work and I’ll delve into it.

Meanwhile, as sort of a joke, I was trying to come up with a name for an LLC since these apps need a name of a company. In my throbbing brainmeats, the current forerunner is Naked Llama Games, LLC after my friend the poor, shaved llama who gave up its downy undercoat to be blended with cotton to make a sublime wool for those who really want to make very expensive hats. Sadly, my copy of Adobe Illustrator is insisting my license is no good despite having the CDs and the license, so for a logo I will have to use Inkscape. Not that there’s a single thing wrong with Inkscape.

* I am going to need to pick up some sort of geometry refresher. Perhaps wikipedia can help me out here.

Review: Cocoa Programming: A Quick-Start Guide for Developers

Cocoa Programming: A Quick-Start Guide for DevelopersCocoa Programming: A Quick-Start Guide for Developers by Daniel Steinberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I usually don’t read tech books cover to cover. Typically, they’re used for reference — looking up something here or there, finding a technique and reading the chapter, or just giving up because the book is written so badly the more advanced sections are completely impenetrable. This was an exception. I read every chapter, did every exercise, and came out feeling I actually learned enough to be dangerous.

"Cocoa Programming: A Quick Start" is not for beginners. It assumes from the outside the reader has had years of C and C++ experience, is familiar with all of the standard programming techniques and the standards OO development techniques and, near the end, has a good grasp of threading and functional programming. The idea is not to teach /programming/ per se but to get a professional software engineer from 0 to building useful MacOSX, iPhone and iPad apps in a relatively short about of time. Projects begin with the very simple, no code required application using widgets all the way through to writing somewhat complex applications using threading and queuing with all the very important pieces — delegates, notifications, memory management, persistence, introductions to core data — in between.

For someone dedicated to working through the book, I found it takes about three weeks to get through all of the tutorials. The tutorials must be completed — no skipping steps — because the next chapter often builds upon the first. The text is clear and I found all the code samples in the book to be pretty bug-free. The concepts move pretty fast. Only a few paragraphs are spared for a new concept before jumping in feet first. Since I’m one of those people who "learn by doing" this worked for me. After typing in the tutorials by the end of the book I was comfortable with the Objective C MVC models, I understood how connections and bindings worked, and I could see how to extend my own controllers with new messages to make new event-driven models. I was surprised how many applications fall into CRUD models (create/read/update/delete) but also pleasantly surprised how easy it is to work with Core Data to make data-driven applications.

I only have really two issues with the book. The first is mechanical: the text applies to XCode 3. XCode 4 was a major revision to the GUI interface of the iDE so many of the hot keys and screen shots no longer apply. This was incredibly confusing for the first few chapters until I learned where everything was. The second is finishing the book leaves me with a "what now?" feeling. There’s a few days of failing while ideas about projects coalesce.

I would and do recommend this book to seasoned adventurers who are looking for a brave new world to conquer. Objective C, once one gets past the mildly bizarre Simula-based syntax, isn’t that bad and there’s lots of cool things to build. "Cocoa Programming" is a pretty strong place to start to get oriented and get going causing app-based havoc.

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iPad App Ideas!

Having finished reading Cocoa Programming by Daniel Steinberg and worked through all 27 (!) chapters with the hands-on projects, and now starting to delve heavily into specific topics (UIKit, CoreGraphics, Core Data and the network tools) I feel I have officially leveled up and gained a new feat: ability to craft small applications and possibly, eventually, try to get them through the Apple Doom Process.

I am looking for your ideas! I have some small ideas in mind but, after talking with many people, I know other people have other ideas about apps they would like to see! Now, the first few apps will be small, and free, so I am thinking things that I can wrap my arms around and come up with a plan and get done. Understand the first few apps will be a bit slow getting out the gate while I learn process.

How does one leave me an idea to discuss turning it into an actual piece of code?

1. Leave a comment on my blog.
2. Leave a comment on the blog on Livejournal.
3. Leave a comment for me on facebook.
4. Send me a direct message on twitter. (Name: multiplexer)
5. Email me at edresner@gmail.com.
6. Track me down in person. (GASP)

I will go back and forth about graphics and layout and user interaction — the stuff I don’t very well — and attempt to turn it into a real thing that runs — the stuff I do do well.

So! If you have something in mind or something you are envisioning, this is a head’s up that you should talk to me about your idea and I’ll try to figure out how hard it is and work to get it done!

And again, the first few are free to counterbalance my fumbling around a bit.

I Feel Like I am Taking Crazy Pills!

I have been ignoring politics for the last several weeks to focus on learning Objective-C and knit and read giant security tomes and generally doing other things.  Tonight I made the mistake of reading the blogs.  So let me get this right:

1. Republicans hate ObamaCare because of the universal mandate to buy health insurance.  Fair enough.

2. Republicans have just offered a budget that….

a. Cancels all of Medicare except for those already enrolled in it.

b. Replaces Medicare with a universal mandate to buy health insurance except…

c. It is only for seniors and…

d. It is subsidized by a voucher system paid out of everyone’s 15.3% FICA tax.

Oooookay.  No one listens to themselves speak, I guess. Also…

1. Obama puts down universal mandate.  This is called socialist, communist, Islamofascist (??), atheist, and evil.

2. Republicans put down universal mandate.  It is called courageous, brilliant, and daring.

At this point, I am going back to knitting and learning Objective-C.  Someone can tell me when it’s safe to come out of my hole again because this is more crazy than I can handle.


Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar FishesUnfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The day Unfamiliar Fishes came out, it was downloaded to my Kindle. I loved Sarah Vowell’s previous books, especially Assassination Vacation. Sarah Vowell has turned into a sort of deep sticky underbelly of American History sort of historian whose books feel like long episodes of The American Life (and I love This American Life). I foist them on everyone I see — “Want to learn bizarre facts of American History? Read these books!”

I liked Unfamiliar Fishes, a book on the history of Hawai’i from 1778-1900, but the subject matter is so soul-crushingly depressing the upbeat sarcastic tone of the text clashed with the actual text at times. The narrative begins with the death of Captain Cook in 1778 at the then-named “Sandwich Islands” for doing horrible things to the local natives and then discusses what Hawai’i was like at that time: not a peaceful paradise. The islands had just been forged into a Kingdom after a bloody civil war. The society was highly stratified with bloodlines of chiefs and a feudalistic system of land division. Men and women were segregated from one another at meal times and women were forbidden to eat certain foods under kapu laws. They had their own Gods — Ku the War God gets prominent mention for his prominent temple. Then the missionaries came with their Jesus and their Bibles in 1820 and everything changed.

Everything would have changed anyway. Had it not been the missionaries it would have been someone else. The missionaries at least came with the printing press and a zeal for learning. They translated the Bible into a new written form of Hawai’ian and, from there, others wrote down all the chants and religion and myths and culture they could to preserve it. The missionaries came to save the Hawai’ians, which meant stamping out the local culture, shoving New England Protestantism on it, and persuading the high Chiefs to do away with various bits of their culture to make it more “modern.” Granted, by the time the missionaries came, the Hawai’ians were starting to dismantle some of their culture anyway, so perhaps some of it is moot, but it would have taken a different course.

Then the shipping came, and then the sugar plantations, and the imported workers, and the round trips from newly established and totally hot San Francisco, and then with it came the smallpox and the malaria and the dysentery and everything else that could wipe out a local population. In time, the US Navy started eying Hawai’i as a Pacific port, especially with the sexy Pearl Harbor. Enterprising grandchildren of the original missionaries decided to stage a coup, and then decided to get Hawai’i annexed to the US to avoid tariffs on sugar. When Congress voted against the treaty of annexation due to the protest of the islanders, Pres. William McKinley decided it was good old “American Manifest Destiny” and figured out a back door to get annexation through anyway.

The sugar plantations are gone, now. And there’s a huge revival of local culture — a good thing.

Why did I give this book 3 stars? Mostly because Goodreads won’t allow me to set 3.5. This is a good book, but not a great book. It does feel like a long episode of This American Life, but not one that sticks in the memory. I also felt terrible and depressed at the end because it’s a terrible and depressing subject, and no amount of sarcasm and no number of funny stories about insane Mormons who are trying to become King of the Pacific make up for how sad and depressing the story is. It reminded me strongly of George Carlin’s bit, “Religious Lift.” It goes like this:

“Like I say, religion is a lift in your shoe, man. If you need it, cool. Just don’t let me wear your shoes if I don’t want ’em and we don’t have to go down and nail lifts onto the native’s feet!”

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