Marketing a non-D20 RPG

Well it looks like ForeSight Second Edition might just be published soon, and my thoughts are turning to the, perhaps unenviable, job of marketing a game firmly based on percentile dice (also known as D100): i.e. a pair of dice which when rolled give you a random number from 1 to 100.

The D20 juggernaut is basically a D&D thing. It’s not clear whether it’s an effort to keep third-party dice manufacturers happy, or a plot to convince people that the morasse of special cases, tables, and bizarre rules that constitute D&D is in fact a “system”. In any event, my reasons for eschewing D20s are technical, much as my reasons for eschewing 3D6 (as discussed earlier).

In any role-playing game there tend to die roll ranges for which exceptional outcomes are assigned. For D20-games these are rolls of 1 and 20. In other words, 10% of all resolution rolls (cases where a die is cast to determine what happens in a situation) result in something outlandish occurring (e.g. an automatic success or failure regardless of the odds).

Shit happens. But should it happen 10% of the time?

Now, in action movies and similar genres from which RPGs tend to take their cures, shit does indeed happen 10% of the time. But unfortunately, the 10% of the time we’re talking about is actually a gross understatement.

For example, a mid-level warrior in D&D will swing his/her sword three times in a single round of combat, which means he/she has three chances to have shit happen. If he/she is fighting a similarly capable opponent, that’s another three chances to have shit happen.

(For the statistically inclined, that’s a 1 – (0.9 ^ 6) probability of shit occurring in a single round — a few seconds — of combat, or roughly 47%. Most fights last several rounds. If this were a movie, this would be like half of fights having something ridiculous happen, such as someone trip over their feet or hit someone in the eye with a lucky shot, the moment a fight started.)

In RuneQuest 2nd Edition, a D100-based system, there were various tiny percentage chances of shit — things like a warrior slicing his own head off — happening every time someone did something. Of course when you did the math (and an article along these lines was posted to Murphy’s rules) you ended up with ridiculous results: in a battle of 1000 warriors lasting five minutes, some insane number would decapitate themselves, some far larger number would chop off their own limb, and so on. In each case the results were simply constructed by taking (1 – probability of ridiculous outcome) and raising it to the power of the number of times the dice would be rolled (50 for ten minutes of RuneQuest combat) — and that’s the probability that you will escape that ridiculous outcome.

When the probability of an extraordinary outcome is 10%, you know you’re in big trouble.

Of course, the extraordinary outcomes in D20 can’t be too ridiculous or the system would seem obviously broken. Instead they’re just low key enough to have lots of silly effects (e.g. because armor does not block damage but instead reduces hit probability, and because a roll of 20 is always a hit, a huge number of tiny attacks will automatically kill someone in plate armor) while not giving the feel of “critical hits” (the finest archer cannot kill a healthy 10th level paladin with a single ordinary shot) while neither implementing any concept of “degree of success” nor producing genuinely unexpected results to create drama.

Before I start rambling too far, I will mention one funny thing. D20 system is in fact D20 + D12 + D10 + D8 + D6 + D4 system. The D20 games rely on a ridiculous set of dice and use them to achieve an unnecessary level of granularity (a weapon either does D6 or D8 damage, nothing in-between).

Anyway, here are two possible slogans for D100 System games.

D100 System. Shit happens, but not 10% of the time.

D100 System. You already have the dice.

Software: The Disservice Model

Note: the author’s copy of Adobe Illustrator 10.0.3 hung twice while being launchd during the writing of this piece, which may explain a few things.

A friend of mine has a theory that if Microsoft ever produced a version of Word that actually worked, it would go out of business. (A lot of Macintosh users think that as of version 5.1 they did, and have never upgraded since, hence the theory.)

New versions of Word are usually notable for additional “functionality” that most users don’t want and can’t figure out how to turn off which slow it down to the speed of the previous version on much faster hardware. Recent versions do “helpful” things like prevent you from making points (a), (b), and (c) … because (c) must be a copyright symbol, or superscripting the “th” in “4th” whether you want it to or not. By far the majority of Word users do not want these features and cannot switch them off.

Meanwhile, Adobe has incorporated some kind of dynamic update service for its various flagship programs (such as Photoshop and Illustrator) which is presumably intended to make sure that if Adobe finds and fixes a bug, it can be seamlessly fixed before you necessarily notice it. Of course, the dynamic update service is the single worst bug in their software, and they don’t seem to be interested in fixing it.

Beyond this, there is a general trend towards switching from software licenses (which work kind of like ownership) to software subscriptions (which don’t). It all started going “pear-shaped” when Microsoft (for example) decided to refer to versions of its software by model year (like cars and evening gowns) rather than significant revision.

The software “service” model wanted to make software products less like appliances (such as your telephone) and more like services (such as your telephone service). Most people I know are happy with most or all of their appliances and loath and despise most or all of their services. E.g. wireless phone services and cable TV services are the two most despised classes of business in the USA (according to consumerreports.com).

It may not seem so bad to only have to pay for Word when you want to use it (which is probably what Microsoft realised when it stepped back from the brink). After all, most people get a version of Office with their computer and then don’t use most of it (how many businesses pay to put a copy of Access on every PC?), and forget they own it when they give the computer away or drop it into landfill. But imagine getting a monthly “Office Service” bill and having all your documents deleted (or just inaccessible) should you fail to pay it; this is the kind of “service” such companies would like to provide.

It’s funny how language evolves. Imagine what the word “service” will mean in a few decades.

The March of Folly, continued

The government policy which immediately sprang to my mind as I read “The March of Folly” was (obviously, I think) the US invasion (or, if you prefer, liberation) of Iraq. In fact, I often felt as I read the section on Vietnam that entire paragraphs and pages might be taken as accurately describing Iraq if only the word Vietnam were replaced with Iraq throughout.

After finishing the book, however, I second-guessed myself. Was the invasion so clearly a folly in hindsight? Was not the war justified solely on the grounds of removing Saddam from power? Were we clearly going to fail? (After all, a correct policy incompetently pursued is not a folly at all, either by Tuchman’s definition or in common parlance.)

I was quite staggered, however, to read the latest Atlantic Monthly feature story, “Blind into Baghdad”. The upshot: almost every problem encountered by the US in its occupation of Iraq was predicted (and in many cases workable solutions proposed) by organisations inside the US government (e.g. the State Department, USAID) and NGOs before the invasion took place. Their advice was wilfully ignored by the Office of the Secretary of Defence, which went so far as to forbid the participation of Pentagon officials in crucial meetings.

It is important to point out that critics of the war — especially politicians — have focussed almost solely on (a) the way the US went into it alone without gathering allies, and (b) the fact that Weapons of Mass Destruction (the ostensible justification for the war) were not found. The first is not an argument of justification but of means — if the war was just then the US’s lack of allies does not make it unjust and vice versa. (French and German participation in a war are hardly indicators of its being just, and yet almost all such criticism would have been squelched had they been involved.) The second is not as important as you think: many wars are not fought for their stated reason. E.g. we did not fight WWII simply because of Pearl Harbour or the Civil War simply because of Fort Sumter.

Neither of these criticisms (if they were accurate) would qualify this war as folly. The real questions we should be asking are: (a) was the war in our interest? and (b) has the war been conducted competently? Unless the occupation turns into an absolute fiaco of Vietnam proportions or another vicious tyrant takes over Iraq as soon as the US leaves it may never be possible to answer the first question definitively. As to the second, it seems quite clear that the rift between the Bush II administration and the State Department (or indeed any sources of information not wholly in agreement with its wishful thinking) has seriously degraded the quality of US policy.

The March of Folly

I’m reading Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” at the moment. The basic point of this book is that nations can be as irrational and dysfunctional at a policy level as individuals are in managing their own affairs. To this end she cites the Trojans (in their war with Greece, and particularly in bringing the horse into their city against the dictates of caution and prophecy), the Renaissance popes, England’s handling of her American colonies, and US involvement in Vietnam. The book was written in the context of the arms race with the Soviet Union just prior to Perestroika (I hope I spelled that correctly), with the hardly tacit implication that this was the Great Folly of that time.

Tuchman’s definition of Folly is very precise. It’s much more specific than simply “a really stupid thing to do”.

To qualify as folly for this inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three criteria: it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. … Secondly a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. … third … the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual leader.

These are quite exacting criteria. The first means that there must have been a reasoned outcry against the policy at the time. The second that reasonable alternatives were put forward. And the last that the whims of individual fools are discounted.

It’s easy to look at government policies in today’s world of which one might disapprove (I’m sure you can think of several) and, on the assumption that they will fail, mark them as follies, but it seems to me that in any reasonably free or democratic society, there will always be arguments that a policy is “counter-productive”, and many “feasible alternatives” (such as doing nothing) tabled. As such, almost any failed policy of a modern democracy will qualify as folly by Tuchman’s definition.

For democracies, it seems that to qualify as folly a policy should have nearly overwhelming public support (rather than merely being pursued by a group) at least at its inception. Sadly, the examples I’m thinking of easily meet this criterion as well.

It’s my birthday, so it must be time for the new Lord of the Rings film

The only upside to having a birthday near Christmas, as far as I can tell, is that good movies often open on or near my birthday in order to make it out in time for the following year’s academy awards. (The fact that when a movie comes out has a significant effect on its ability to win Academy Awards is a good indication of just how fair they are, but that’s another topic.)

Warning: spoilers.

In any attempt to make a film version of Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King would seem to me to be the easiest of the three books to get right. More happens in The Return of the King than both other volumes combined, it’s the shortest of the three books, and one third or so of its pages are taken up by appendices and post-denouement subplots of no interest to sane readers (indeed, I find one such subplot actively offensive). In other words, unlike the turgid first book, and the deliberately paced second book, Return of the King is pretty exciting.

Anyone who has read and enjoyed the trilogy will already be somewhat annoyed by the character assassination of Faramir in The Two Towers movie. In the books, Faramir is pretty much the only intelligent man in Gondor, and he’s an unconventional hero: a would-be scholar turned warrior, performing covert operations to buy Gondor time. He’s also important in that Gondor’s only other representatives among major characters are Boromir (evil) and Denethor (insane). It seems a good idea for Gondor (the thing everyone is dying to preserve) to seem to have someone in it worth saving.

Peter Jackson, oft-quoted for his love of the books and desire to keep stuff as close to the books as possible and belief that when he has a problem with the script he just moves it closer to the books (gotta love DVD “special features”, huh?), seems to have thought it necessary to make Faramir into an chinless, ineffectual, indecisive, whiney, weak-willed, fool. All in an effort to dramatise his relationship to his dad (because, of course, we’ve never seen that done in a movie before).

(No-one in the story appears to have a mother.)

It seemed to me that perhaps Jackson wanted Faramir to redeem himself in the final film, and that by initially portraying him so unfavorably, his redemption would be all the more impactful when it happened. Instead, he has Faramir help defend Osgiliath with utter incompetence (example: in defending against an amphibious attack he waits for the enemy landing craft to make it ashore and disgorge all their troops rather than harassing them while they’re still in the water), flee back to Minas Tirith, accept a pointless suicide mission (against Gandalf’s and others’ good advice), be dragged back to Minas Tirith by his horse as the sole survivor of the battle, and finally spend the battle of Pelennor Plain (such as it is rendered in the movie) unconscious. All this heroism and cleverness is rewarded by his appearing to gain the love of Eowyn, the only strong female character in the story (either the film or the book).

Aside from pace and plot (which always need adjustment for film), if there were any global weaknesses in Lord of the Rings which I would attempt to address in filming it, they would be racism and sexism. Jackson’s caricatured Maori orcs and flaxen-haired fellowship made it clear from the start that his blindness towards (I assume not approval of) Tolkien’s racism was complete, so it is no surprise that in Return of the King the human allies of Sauron are turbaned and/or dark skinned, while the “men of the west” are entirely “fair” (a word Tolkien consistently uses both as a racial and moral description), but in the sexism department Jackson made a promising start by merging Glorfindel (the deus ex machina who saves the hobbits from the Nazgul on their way into Rivendell) into Arwen (the beautiful and insipid daughter of Elrond whom Aragorn plans to marry).

I don’t know of a single fan who objected to this change. (In the horrible earlier attempt to film these books, the Ralph Bakshi animated feature, Glorfindel was merged into Legolas, which was actually more objectionable since Glorfindel is very powerful and having him around for the rest of the story unhinges the plot.)

Beefing up Arwen seemed like a big step in the right direction. Now, Aragorn would have a bride as formidable as himself, rather than a colorless maiden who has no notable virtue beyond her looks. An obvious next step would be to merge the “sons of Elrond” (who do a great deal in the third book) into Arwen and really turn her into a major player in the story. But it was not to be. Arwen does nothing much in the third movie except collapse from an unknown sickness after persuading Elrond to reforge Narsil — implying that he was planning not to, because this would only give the good guys “hope” — is Elrond supposed to be a sympathetic character, or not?

Jackson’s more subtle abomination in the second film was to portray the elves as bailing out on the “men of the west” before the battles had even been fought. The few elves who help are massacred at the bizarrely rendered Battle of Helm’s Deep, the “sons of Elrond” don’t show up in Gondor, but instead Elrond has to be coaxed into reforging Narsil and is able to conveniently pop up and hand it to Aragorn just before he has to go get his army of undead (if Elrond is able to make such journeys so easily, why was it such a struggle for the Fellowship?)

Speaking of Jackson’s rendering of battles, he seems to be captivated by visuals to the point of being crippled by them, while having no skill with fight direction. In his efforts to make armies of orcs look formidable, he makes them look impregnable. When they are decimated by cavalry it looks like an impossible sleight of hand (the orc formations at Helm’s Deep bristle with pikes, making them exactly the worst kind of enemy for cavalry to charge, yet when the cavalry strike we see no sign of pikes being used as intended). Similarly, Minas Tirith’s walls are impossibly high and appear utterly impregnable. Fortunately, Sauron’s seige engines are ridiculously powerful and utterly accurate, destroying entire stone towers with a single hit. The same problem occurs in the one-on-one fights. The only way to interpret them is as some kind of cinema rendition of a Dungeons & Dragons battle, in which the hero is somehow able to be stabbed in the head ten times without dying, while the monster has no such luck. Legolas is more skateboard punk than archer. The fights have no heft, weight, or flow to them. Armies charge into each other, take enormous casualties, and then someone wins.

I’ve written thus far without checking what reviewers have had to say. A quick check reveals that the herd has given The Return of the King a big thumbs up; I will have to wait for the New Yorker, perhaps, to see some real criticism (Stephen Whitty, of the Star-Ledger, had some reasonable things to say, particularly on the film’s racism). I’m sure that the herd will give it great box office, and Peter Jackson will probably get his Oscars, at last.

For me, most of the really annoying stuff was at the beginning of the film, and once it got going I started to enjoy myself, only really getting restless with its multiple false endings (a lot of nothing happens at the end of the book, and not all of it is omitted from the film). The rather crude use of fades to and from black during the multiple near endings is grating. Oddly enough, the use of a map-tracking shot to explain the return to the Shire is a device that really needed to be used more in the film. I doubt anyone seeing the film without having read the books has the faintest clue as to the geography intrinsic to the story (which is lucky, given Elrond’s travels in the movie).

Studio execs, of course, will probably take The Return of the King as a sign that “sequels can make a ton of money” and ignore the fact that it was based on a solid work of literature rather than being spawned by the desire to make more money off a tired concept that worked well last time (the way most sequels and prequels are).