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).

ForeSight Revisited and the Theory of Fun

It seems that after a long time in the wilderness, ForeSight is going to be published (or republished, depending on how you look at it) and so the history of this project has been turning over in my mind.

ForeSight was originally designed in 1984. It was first used outside my circle of friends for a small role-playing tournament in Armidale (a small town in northern New South Wales) in early 1985. One of its key design constraints from day one was that it be easy to pick up and play.

I designed ForeSight as a direct consequence of the “death” of SPI. I had just spent nearly six months writing a sourcebook for SPI’s UNIVERSE, which I considered to be the first Science Fiction role-playing game to be worth playing. I thought UNIVERSE suffered from not being generic (or as I would later put it, “transparent”), in that it tacitly assumed, within its rules, that the setting worked in a particular way (e.g. psionics existed and were required for interstellar travel). In effect, UNIVERSE was like a Science Fiction equivalent of RuneQuest, only without any explicit information on Glorantha.

I thought that UNIVERSE’s background setting needed to be explicitly documented to allow players and gamemasters to make sense of the rules, and so I designed a very detailed setting that was consistent with UNIVERSE’s implied setting (insofar as that was possible: in UNIVERSE an admiral’s annual retirement income was not enough to rent a “common” household robot) along with rules to fill yawning gaps in UNIVERSE’s existing rules (e.g. rules for building your own spaceships that didn’t have gaping loopholes).

Now, I was young so perhaps my naïve belief that the world’s (then) largest game company would even consider publishing a supplement to its science fiction RPG that defined its setting without having consulted the designers of that game (who presumably had their own setting) may be forgivable. (Certainly, Chaosium would have laughed at anyone attempting to write a complete description of Glorantha having read only RuneQuest 2nd Edition, but as I say, I was young and naïve.)

In any event, SPI was not long for this world, and before they had time to reject “The Gamemaster’s Guide to UNIVERSE”, TSR had taken them over via means described thoroughly elsewhere (look for Greg Costikyan’s blog using Google). The last thing TSR would be doing any time soon was reprinting SPI’s RPG rules or new supplements for them. (Eventually, Ballantine reprinted UNIVERSE, with a very useful skill summary table, and DragonQuest 2nd Edition, with a few errors corrected. Years later, TSR would publish an incompetently bowdlerized DragonQuest 3rd Edition for reasons that escape me.)

So I found myself with a pretty nice science fiction setting and no rule system to use it with. (Traveller, like UNIVERSE and RuneQuest, tacitly assumed a background setting, but in its case a background setting that made no sense. Furthermore, it was missing an experience system and pretty much missing a resolution system. It seemed to be inclined towards combat but its combat system was terrible.)

One day I had one of my usual arguments with a bunch of friends who played AD&D, my position – as usual – being that AD&D was so awful that it would be hard to deliberately design something worse, and was told – as usual – that if I were so smart I should design my own game system. Given my “need” for a good Science Fiction role-playing system, this time I decided to do so.

ForeSight was not the result of any kind of “not invented here” syndrome. I was perfectly happy to use DragonQuest or RuneQuest for fantasy gaming. My friends used Champions and other Hero System games for superhero and pulp games. I’d used UNIVERSE because it was the best system available, but it was in desperate need of reform, and between all twenty-odd of us we had three copies of the rules, and two belonged to me.

UNIVERSE had several key shortcomings that had to be addressed immediately:

  1. Its resolution system was entirely special-case driven. There was no general rule on how anything worked, instead you got a formula and modifiers to cope with each individual circumstance. (D&D 3rd Edition has just managed to attain this level of imperfection!)
  2. It was not “transparent” in that if you looked at your setting through the “window” of the game system, what you saw was grossly distorted. (No RPG is perfectly “transparent”, although GURPS at least tries. D&D is perhaps the most egregious example, in that it has all kinds of ridiculous assumptions in its rules that aren’t even intended to reflect the settings the designers had in mind when they designed it.) Setting-based assumptions were ingrained into every single game system, starting with character creation.
  3. Its character representation rules were ugly. Most characters had the maximum possible human strength, one attribute was on a different scale from all other attributes (for no good reason), while another attribute (Aggression) frequently dictated a character’s behavior and wasn’t something he/she chose during character creation.
  4. A lot of its systems were complex and inflexible. UNIVERSE was designed by war gamers and you could tell. The encounter system, for example, assumed characters (and the parties they encountered) were pretty much automatons.
  5. Key rules, e.g. starship design and robot design, were missing. Why would I want to design new rules for a “dead” game system?
  6. Playing the game required a lot of bookkeeping. E.g. you needed to track experience points separately for every skill.
  7. Playing the game required frequent references to the rules. Some common procedures (e.g. encounters and reactions) were simply to complex to remember. And the special-cases in the skill system always needed looking up. (Even the Ballantine edition’s two page summary of all the skill special cases was only a partial solution.)
  8. Some of the game design was just plain bad. E.g. the number of experience points needed to improve a skill’s level increased linearly with level. So far so good: rules that create laws of diminishing return are, in general, a good thing. But the benefit obtained from a skill level increased linearly with level, which in effect simply meant that skill improvement became choppier with level, and there were no diminishing returns. In summary, the skill system was complex with no end benefit.
  9. The combat system (even if you don’t use it, it’s nice to know it’s there) was both ugly and poorly designed. In part, this was because UNIVERSE tried to cope with vehicular, personal, melee, and fire combat with one set of rules. In part, this was because UNIVERSE owed a lot to tactical board wargame design ideas SPI presumably had “lying around” (it’s almost certainly no coincidence that SPI’s single-man tactical combat games, Patrol and Sniper, used the same scale). In part, I just don’t think the designers really thought it through. The single worst feature was simply this: combat was resolved on a 5 metre hex grid. A game that doesn’t differentiate between grappling with someone hand-to-hand and standing three metres away is, in essence, not a role-playing game. Or to look at it another way, the most popular kind of weapon in modern and science fiction is the handgun whose accuracy diminishes from very high to very low between zero and five metres. (I won’t even go into how bad Traveller’s combat system was, but let’s remember that I think UNIVERSE was the best set of rules then available.)

So, at the very minimum, my game would need to address these key shortcomings. Although I didn’t necessarily articulate all these ideas at the time, ForeSight’s design principles were clearly a direct reaction to my problems with UNIVERSE, and thus I wanted to be sure that:

  1. ForeSight should have one resolution system for all purposes.
  2. ForeSight should be transparent.
  3. ForeSight should be able to represent any realistic fictional or historical character.
  4. ForeSight’s rules should be as simple and intuitive as possible. It should be obvious how and when to ignore and adapt them.
  5. ForeSight should include all the key rules systems a player would reasonably need for a science fiction campaign. No expensive supplements required to build spaceships or play a mercenary.
  6. ForeSight should require little or no bookkeeping.
  7. ForeSight should be playable with all the rules you could remember.
  8. The intention of ForeSight’s rules should be clearly explained, and its rules should implement these intentions.
  9. ForeSight’s combat system needed to kick ass (and shoot ass and stab ass). It needed to cope with the key situations in action/adventure stories, such as hostage situations, ambushes, and negotiations turned sour. Most RPG combat systems (adapted, as they were, from wargames) tacitly assumed that you will almost always fight a meeting engagement (military units move into range of each other). Anything else is more or less ignored, or handled by “surprise” rules. Adventure stories almost never involve meeting engagements. So this is a big problem with almost all RPG rules, but it’s truly appalling when combatants have firearms (or magic spells), and the first shot often decides the outcome.
  10. ForeSight should be easy to learn.

This seems like a nice set of nearly mathematical axioms, but where does “fun” come into all this? Does fun, somewhat like humor, disappear when carefully examined? Fun is something that eludes theory but can be handled practically. Simply stated:

  1. One designs a game one imagines will be fun. (This is a creative process, and defies theory.)
  2. One plays the game.
  3. One enhances or leaves alone the things that were observed to be fun, and changes, removes, or streamlines the things that were observed not to be fun.
  4. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This iterative approach essentially paraphrases the approach taken by Valve in producing their highly successful and widely acclaimed computer game, “Half Life”. Another comment by a computer game designer (I forget his name, but he worked for Electronic Arts at the time) to the effect that a good [computer] game is, in essence, an enjoyable activity combined with an excuse for repeatedly engaging in it, effectively constitutes a usable theory of fun.

A lot of considerations that impact fun are implicit in the considerations above: looking up game rules in the middle of play is not fun and should be avoided. If it were fun, then things would be different. (Paranoia, for example, is far more fun to read than play, so this principle can be turned on its head.)

I owe a lot to the people who tested and criticised ForeSight in 1985 and 1986. I don’t have a list of them all anywhere: they included players in tournaments, friends of friends, and members of ASGARD (our role-playing club). This group was unusually diverse, intelligent, and (crucially) critical.

Unlike many role-playing games, ForeSight was designed from scratch and not essentially something that evolved as a “mod” to an existing game system. Some ideas, notably the resolution system (which is derived from that of Victory Games’ James Bond 007), were adapted from existing game systems, but this was done with a great deal of care (and usually after considering alternatives including entirely innovative systems).

Also, unlike many role-playing games, ForeSight was thoroughly play-tested and blind-tested. I won’t go into what I think of the standards of testing that go into most commercial RPGs.

When it was finished, I sent letters to the three game companies I admired most (given that SPI was gone). Victory Games sent me a horrifying waiver of rights that I had to sign before they would even read my letter. Chaosium said that they were designing their own Science Fiction RPG, “Known Space”, which would be an expanded version of their lamentable “Ringworld” – they didn’t want my game as a whole but they might like to cannibalise it. West End games wanted to see my game. I sent it to them and eventually it was rejected. Greg Costikyan (whom I spoke to) cited some aesthetic issues (it had too many skills – although it had far fewer than their own game Paranoia and covered vastly more ground, and they thought that giving atmosphere compositions in terms of their effect – e.g. “poisonous” – rather than chemical makeup – e.g. “chlorine” – seemed less scientific), but mainly they felt that Science Fiction games were unmarketable. As evidence, he cited disappointing sales of his game “Web War”. So it goes.

I eventually ended up publishing ForeSight myself in 1987. The total cost for printing 200 and binding 150 copies of the rules was $900 (Australian dollars). I sold every copy bar two (which I kept for myself) for $12-15 wholesale (RRP was $25). I also had a small number of copies hardbound. One of these copies has been stolen, and a game collector somewhere has been trying to buy it from the thief for some time. So it goes.

I eventually updated ForeSight. The result, ForeSight Enhanced, was a considerably less professional or satisfying product (it was staple- rather than perfect- bound for starters), which sold fairly well. ForeSight Enhanced’s improvements to ForeSight were largely successful, although most players prefer the treatment of Fields of Knowledge in the original rules, and prefer the way the combat rules in the original rules were presented, although they prefer the way the newer rules work. Probably the single most significant improvement to ForeSight in ForeSight Enhanced was replacing the superficially compelling idea that “older characters have more skills” with the far more useful idea that “characters with more interesting backgrounds have more skills”.

Some aspects of ForeSight have been found, over time, not to be fun, and these need to be changed, streamlined, or removed. The main example of this is spacecraft design and combat. My approach is simple: vehicle pursuit and combat has, over time, been found to be fun, so why not treat spacecraft as other vehicles? This is not realistic, but if I have learned one thing from designing and playing ForeSight, realism should always inform game design, but never dictate it. Another key component of the game has fallen out of synch with scientific thinking and observation (Star System Generation) and also contains tacit background information. This, too, needs revision.

Given the hundreds of players and nearly two decades that have passed since this game was originally designed, the new ForeSight should be a truly robust set of rules. If you’ve read some of my ramblings, you’ll know that I am very disappointed by the tack that game design – paper game design in particular – has taken over the last fifteen to twenty years, learning nothing from what has preceded it (except perhaps how to squeeze more money out of teenagers). I hope if nothing else, ForeSight can serve as a marker for where the State of the Art could and should be. Oh, and I hope that it’s even more fun than the original.

Top 10 Least Recognised Game Designs

Most of the games listed below either addressed or solved a game design conundrum (more-or-less successfully) and yet in many cases their solutions have been ignored by subsequent game designers. Some of these games were commercially successful but no-one seems to realize how influential they were (e.g. Ultima Underworld), while others were brilliant designs that have for some reason not been influential (e.g. DragonQuest).

In no particular order (and including both computer and paper games)…

10. Voyage of the BSM Pandora

This was a paper game designed by SPI and originally published as the “centrefold” of an issue of ARES magazine. There was probably a game like it beforehand (e.g. Source of the Nile, eventually but not originally published by Avalon Hill) or after it (e.g. Tales of the Arabian Nights, by West End Games) that can claim to be earlier or more refined, but this is one of the games that began the entire concept of a content-driven game design.

Like many such games, and many computer games, but unlike most boardgames of the time, Pandora was a solitaire game, where the content, dice, and game algorithms neutrally simulated the universe you explored. As well as tables, the events in the game were driven by numbered paragraphs; tables led to paragraphs which themselves could interconnect based on your decisions: a sort of “choose your own adventure” on steroids (but before the first “choose your own adventure” books were published).

Some computer games are essentially little more than obvious implementations of the concepts of Pandora, e.g. Starflight (itself a near legendary and underrated game), Space Control 2, Alien Legacy, etc. etc., while almost any game that tries to combine open-endedess with content designed for effect (e.g. Grand Theft Auto) owes something conceptually to this game and its brethren.

9. Faerie Tale

Maybe it’s because it was originally released for the Amiga that this game has not received its just recognition, but this was (as far as I know) the first game to try to implement an entire fantasy world in a single mode, and succeed. And, supposedly, it was created entirely by one guy in six months (he even did the music — I’m not sure if he composed it or stole it from some ancient folk music, but it was quite nice). In Faerie Tale you play three brothers (one at a time, it’s kind of like having extra lives in a video game) trying to figure out what’s happened to your father. In the process you defeat a witch, a dragon, ride a giant turtle and a golden swan, rescue a princess, and defeat the major villain in an alternate plane — all seamlessly.

8. Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief (a.k.a. The Dark Project)

This is probably my least controversial choice. Ultima Underworld (which has approximately nothing to do with the Ultima games) was a best selling game of its time, but today people forget that it predated Doom. It was the first seamless true 3D role-playing game (you couldn’t go outdoors — strike one against it — but you could talk to people in game and what you said *mattered*, which more than makes up for it).

It’s interesting to see how the enormously ambitious concept of Ultima Underworld (which allowed you to play a RuneQuest-style jack-of-all-trades-you-practice) was gradually honed into a much more immersive but focussed game in the shape of Thief (where they turned the first person shooter on its head and made you sneak and skulk and avoid combat at all cost; just to show how clear their vision was, when you turned up the difficulty level, you became easier to kill and had more constraints against killing). If only Looking Glass had lived on they might have been able to broaden their vision again and given every character concept the visionary implementation they give thieves in Thief (e.g. consider that Thief probably had the best implementation of fencing and archery any FPS has had to date, and it was hardly a focus of the game).

Why do role-playing games show up so much on this list? Well for one thing they’re often the most ambitious game designs, and for another most megahit games are, in essence, dumbed down role-playing games: e.g. Medal of Honor (you’re a soldier), Grand Theft Auto III (you’re a thug who drives cars), and Diablo (you’re a barbarian with RSI). Even strategy games these days, e.g. Warcraft, tend to (a) personify you, and (b) personify your subordinates, and (c) personify your enemies to give a greater feeling of immersion. RPGs are the original immersive game design, and these days pretty much everything is influenced by RPG design.

7. Cinemaware Games

Cinemaware never really produced a single great game, and their biggest hit (Defender of the Crown) was really a very lackluster piece of work (it was a great showcase for the Amiga’s graphics though, which made it a hit).

Many years ago, SPI used to put one paragraph game concepts in its feedback section and ask readers to rate them. One of my all-time favorite proposals was called “Tale of the Three Kingdoms”, which read like an April Fool’s Day joke or a role-players wet dream. The basic idea was something like, you wake up in the middle of a field in an imaginary central European country sometime in them middle ages, and from there you can become a vagabond, a minstrel, a knight, a duke, or all of the above, waging power politics or sneaking into mansions to steal cheese.

Cinemaware tried to make interactive movies where you could do pretty much anything that would make sense in the movie (always some kind of hackneyed 50’s movie full of cliches), so in Defender of the Crown you commanded an army, snuck into enemy castles, fenced, and tried to court a princess.

Cinemaware was (and remains) remarkable for having tried to implement games where you, the central character, could do almost anything that made sense in terms of the story. It’s not surprising that they, eventually, failed as a company. But it’s amazing that they tried and to some extent succeeded as a game company.

6. DragonQuest, 2nd Edition

DragonQuest achieved so many firsts in role-playing that it’s hard to know where to start. The fact that it was something of a “dog’s breakfast” design somehow managed to enhance rather than detract from it (essentially, the magic, skill, and combat systems were designed separately, and are distinct enough that magic “feels” different from skills and combat, while not feeling like part of a completely different game).

Probably the most important single feature of DragonQuest is that it appears to have been the first role-playing game to have been designed as a simulation. Earlier games essentially seem to have named dice spreads and hoped they behaved in a manner vaguely related to the thing their name was taken from.

Let me give you a simple example: when you put on a suit of armor, it weighs you down and constrains your limbs making you slower and less mobile. There’s no two ways about it — no-one puts on a suit of chainmail before entering a running race. Hitting a person in armor is thus easier than hitting someone dressed in light or no clothing. Hurting them is another matter. So putting on a suit of armor implies trading off between the ability to dodge and the ability to withstand blows. No game prior to DragonQuest made even a pretense of representing this simple fact, and most followed Dungeons & Dragon’s absurd lead in doing the complete reverse (armor makes you harder to hit).

DragonQuest also eschewed the concept of character classes but figured out a way of keeping character design a matter of making tradeoffs (so your character couldn’t just turn into an omnipotent killing machine given a bit of practice). RuneQuest got rid of character classes, but ended up with all characters looking pretty much identical. The Fantasy Trip made you choose between magician and warrior, which is artificial and didn’t work. Traveller had skills, but no experience system.

Speaking of experience systems, DragonQuest was the first role-playing game to give out experience for achieving objectives (rather than killing people or just using one’s skills).

Perhaps the most hilariously original feature of DragonQuest was that its weapons, magic, and item lists were based on actual research (some of it perhaps not so exhaustive as it should have been). The prices of goods were, if not totally accurate, at least plausible. Weapons were actually properly named, had the appropriate characteristics (including weight), and were as useful or useless as they should have been. The magic in the game was designed to resemble specific books (e.g. Naming Incantations was straight out of “A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula K. Le Guin) or mythology (e.g. Greater Summoners were based on the Lesser Key of Solomon). Incredible.

Oh yeah, and it was more fun to play and far less complex than D&D.

It’s amazing to consider that over twenty years after it was published, DragonQuest’s key design features are still ignored in favor of idiotic D&Disms. In most computer (and many paper) RPGs, armor still makes you harder to hit; characters are either RuneQuest-like Swiss Army Knives or members of bizarrely constrained classes (“Argh. My knowledge of magic has rendered me incapable of picking up this axe…”); and the only way to improve your knowledge of alchemy is by killing thousands of orcs.

5. Taskforce, Cityfight

SPI’s game designers had two obsessions which were reflected in many of their later game designs, and which would both turn out to be significant but underexploited benefits of implementing games on computers. TaskForce and Cityfight were both double-blind limited intelligence games that, uniquely among such games at the time, did not require a referee. In essence, both games were designed like highly complex variants of “Battleship” where (unlike in Battleship) your pieces can move, and what you look at in some sense gives away where you are (“If he’s looking at J5 then he must be in an adjacent square”). Both games used brilliant mechanisms to reduce the amount of information given away when you searched an area without making the games unplayable.

The fog of war effect produced by these designs was amazing, and a foretaste of what would be seen in computer games such as Harpoon. Implementing the fog of war is something far easier to do in computer games than in boardgames, and yet remains pretty much restricted to (a) you can’t see enemy units that aren’t in line of sight of your units, and (b) maybe don’t show the map of places you haven’t visited yet.

4. Gulf War

Another of SPI’s and later Victory Games’ obsessions was with removing “modes” from turn-based games. Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader are examples of perhaps the most egregious “sequence of play” ever seen in a boardgame.

For those of you blissfully unaware of this term, the original board war games went something like this: Player A moves any or all of his/her pieces. Player A resolves combat. Player B moves any or all of his/her pieces. Player B resolves combat. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Over time, games got more ambitious, and issues such as supply, artillery, air support, amphibious landings, production, etc., started appearing, and in almost every case they became distinct “phases” of the sequence of play. So a turn became: Players calculate production total. Players allocate production. Players move units in production one step towards completion. Completed units are deployed to staging areas. Players determine unit supply status… And we haven’t even gotten to actually moving or fighting anything yet.

In Gulf War, Mark Herman (formerly of SPI) finally went for the ultimate “in this phase everything happens” game. It was an immensely appealing design idea, and really foreshadows real-time strategy games.

3. The Longest Day

For some reason Avalon Hill thought licensing the name of an old war movie would help sell copies of this behemoth (I still have a copy somewhere, I think: I wonder how much I can get for it on eBay…). The Longest Day was Avalon Hill’s only real foray into the “Monster Game” category (war games with over 1000 units on board at once), but the truly brilliant feature of this game was the way it handled supply.

Supply is the dirty secret of war game design. In most war games it is an afterthought, simply used as an excuse to constrain players from deploying their units in ways that would seem very sensible at first but would be insane in real life. Unfortunately, the rules often break down when the supply rules actually come into play. Typical examples are: (a) when out of supply a unit is suddenly rendered dysfunctional, and (b) you may not voluntarily move a unit “out of supply”.

The idea is simple: in real life a military unit is pretty much useless without (a) fuel, (b) ammunition, and (c) victuals. These are generally furnished by a more-or-less continuous stream of vehicles, peasants, or whatever, between some supply stockpile and this unit. Keeping track of all this is generally seen as too boring and tedious to bother players with, and so it’s usually abstracted to “if you can trace a clear route to a friendly supply depot” you are “in supply”, otherwise you are “out of supply” and either thus drastically affected (e.g. your combat strength is halved, your movement rate is halved, you surrender in two turns, etc.) or destroyed outright.

The sad thing about such abstractions is that they essentially remove from a military simulation what, in many cases, were the kinds of decision that made the difference between good and bad commanders. (Consider that probably the most decisive move of the American Civil War, Grant’s Vicksburg campaign, involved deliberately moving an army “out of supply”, something that many war games simply won’t allow you to do!) It’s like having a marksmanship content where having a nice shiny weapon is more important than hitting the target.

The Longest Day treated supplies as units that could be moved around, stockpiled, and consumed. Supply was still very abstract (e.g. ammunition was not handled separately from fuel, and having a supply unit at your headquarters kept its units “in supply”, but if you did something unusually intense, like mount an attack, a supply unit was consumed). Even so, this introduced the concept of a military unit being able to function well without being “in supply” (in the abstract “trace a line of hexes free of enemy zones of control…” sense) if its stockpiles were sufficient or if, for example, it didn’t have to do much moving or fighting. Suddenly, a prospective Grant could, in this instance, gather up supplies, leave behind surplus units, and boldly strike for the rear to capture a strategically important objective.

Again, it’s sad to see a concept like this, which has been so nicely implemented in a board game, all but ignored by designers of computer games when it would be far less trouble incorporating it into their products. (On the other hand, some games like Close Combat, track every round of ammunition, which may be convenient computationally but is ridiculous in terms of game design — should a commander really have this information even if it is available?)

2. John Carter, Warlord of Mars

It seems to me that the fundamental failure of online RPGs to this point is in their failure to efficiently harness player creativity. This observation might seem out of place in a discussion of “John Carter”, a multiplayer board game, but I contend that John Carter tried (in a rather more rigorous way than Chivalry & Sorcery) to address this issue.

To begin with, John Carter was an early “characters and armies” game — something SPI tried to do, with varying success, with quite a few games (notably its rather good “War of the Ring”). For another it had a very neat fencing game, using cards to “pre plot” moves, making it both more fun and less annoying than GDW’s “En Garde”.

But the really neat trick in John Carter was that each player played a hero and a villain. In other words you were doing dastardly deeds for the player to your left to handle as you yourself handled the outrages perpetrated by the player to your right. And this actually worked! This kind of approach is a far cleverer solution to the lack of dynamic content in online games than, for example, allowing people to build and decorate houses, produce things by tradeskill, or simply fight one another.

1. Swords & Sorcery, Freedom in the Galaxy

These two games represented the pinnacle of the “character and army” game, where everything from diplomacy to commando raids to naval engagements happened in concert on the same board. This genre has since been taken over completely by computer games, but it’s remarkable that very few games even approach the scope of these old paper-based games. The closest attempts are probably Master of Orion, Master of Magic, and their sequels and imitators.

Perhaps the most hilarious thing about Freedom in the Galaxy is that it was published before “The Empire Strikes Back” came out, but — while being an obvious Star Wars parody — it easily allows for pretty much any of the events or story lines seen in the subsequent Star Wars films (including prequels) to occur, and much besides.

A good simulation game should, in my opinion, do a great job with typical situations and a good job with atypical situations; it should do as good a job of allowing what actually happened to occur as it does of allowing what might reasonably have happened instead to occur. (Most simulation games do none of these things!)

The World’s Favorite Conspiracy Theory

Since it’s timely to do so, I’ve been thinking a little about the assassination of JFK. (Oh no! thinks the alert reader and promptly closes this web page.) I guess there are three basic viewpoints on this event:

  1. A lot of people assume Lee Harvey Oswald did it alone, heck stranger things have happened. Ho hum, what’s on TV tonight?
  2. A lot of people assume there was some kind of complex conspiracy, we’ll never know the truth about it any more than we’ll know what was in Nixon’s blank spots, whether Reagan remembered those meetings, if Bush was “out of the loop”, or whatever. Ho hum, what’s on TV tonight?
  3. Then there’s conspiracy nuts.

It’s not exactly clear where the division between category 2 and category 3 lies. In my brief review of the current “literature” I see that one fellow claims he can prove that the Zapruder film was a very clever fake. As a former Super-8 afficionado, I find this credible. 8mm movie film (super or otherwise) is incredibly lousy and faking it would probably be well within the capabilities of government agencies; but why bother?

More disturbingly, Newsweek (usually the Democrat’s answer to TIME) has an article calling for the CIA to finally disclose what it knows (and hasn’t already shredded) about Lee Harvey Oswald. Fascinatingly, this is written by Gerald Posner, author of “Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK” (which claims to definitively settle the matter). Indeed, the entire article is disingenuous. Posner claims that “the massive document release of the past decade reinforces the growing concensus that Oswald alone killed the president”. A more accurate statement may have been: “following the massive document release … many, including this writer, have concluded that…”

I am not aware of any such concensus, or even of anyone having changed their minds following any massive release of documents.

But what set me off was an article in the local free newspaper written by someone claiming to have once been a staunch conspiracy theorist who was converted along with his even more conspiracy-befuddled friends when he read “Oswald” by Norman Mailer. Aside from having gotten the title of the book wrong, he seems to have been convinced by a book that is not trying to do any such convincing. This seems like another highly suspect piece of persuasive writing. Mailer, as best I can judge without having read his book, has pieced together the life of Oswald. It’s a character study.

The best face you can put on the evidence available is, as far as I can see, this:

Lee Harvey Oswald may have shot at the president, but it is highly unlikely he hit him. The evidence that Oswald actually took the rifle to the Book Depository that day is utterly implausible, so at minimum he moved it there earlier or had an accomplice.

It is highly likely that at least one other person may have shot the president, or at the president. It is highly likely that the fatal shot was fired by someone other than Oswald (from somewhere other than the Book Depository).

More shots were fired than are admitted by the Warren Commission. Probably far more.

It is highly unlikely that Oswald fired the fatal shot, since he fired from the wrong direction.

When it became obvious that some of the perpetrators had, most likely, escaped cleanly, the FBI arranged the evidence it had into a neat, tidy package. It would probably have stood up fine in most courthouses of the day, but falls apart under scrutiny. As anyone with a passing familiarity with the FBI under Hoover (and even perhaps now) would know, this was standard operating practice for the FBI, why change it for a presidential assassination?

Probably the favorite claim of conspiracy nuts is that the number of key witnesses to die of unnatural causes within ten years of the assassination is so large as to exceed any reasonable probability. Having looked at this list, I have a simple explanation: a huge number of the people who died were connected to the mafia. Remove them and the list seems much more reasonable. Now, for an explanation of why so many of the key witnesses to the assassination were mob-connected, I can only refer you to James Ellroy’s excellent work of fiction, “American Tabloid”. (As distinct from Posner’s “non-fiction”.)

My favorite dismissal of conspiracy theories goes like this: “Surely if there were some vast conspiracy, someone would have come forward by now and blown the lid on it.” Of course, this is at best stupid and at worst disingenuous. So many people have come forward to blow lids on it that it’s impossible to tell whom to believe. The problem isn’t a lack of testimony, the problem is sorting signal from noise.

When I was a child, parents (including my mother) still told their children to eat carrots because carrots were scientifically proven to be good for one’s eyes. In fact, no such scientific proof exists; it was the result of a disinformation campaign by the English during WWII to cover up the fact that their night fighters had radar (they claimed their pilots were eating carrots to improve their night vision).

Similarly, it appears that the “alien landing” at Roswell was a simple hoax perpetrated by the US Air Force to cover up the crash of a secret experimental aircraft. Of course, maybe it’s possible that we’ve been reaping benefits from studying alien technology ever since (just look at our magnificent Space Shuttle!) and were it not for this the superior Soviet system would have “buried us” with its 200lb vacuum cleaners, etc.. Somehow, I think not.

So I guess I fall somewhere in category 2 (although some adherents of category 1 make no distinction between categories 2 and 3 — you either believe in Oswald’s magic bullet — two magic bullets if you’re Posner — or you’re a nut). To quote Southpark: “dumb dumb dumb”.

What is copyright, exactly?

For reasons I may get into one day I recently downloaded an electronic text version of the complete works of William Shakespeare. (For the record, I obtained it from the gutenberg project — Anyway there’s something darn peculiar about this particular piece of electronic text: it has a copyright notice (unlike most texts from Project Gutenberg).

Now, let’s suppose that I use this text to publish my own edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare… am I in breach of copyright? Perhaps the creators of this text file have, like publishers of tables of logarithms in the past and of maps today, inserted errors in their text so that people selling copies can be detected and sued. But in this case, the only thing copied that was not in the public domain will have been the ERROR (whereas the implication of finding a copied error in a table of logarithms or a map is that the ACCURATE data has also been stolen).

It seems to me that technology creates opportunities for people to make money from intellectual property in novel ways (e.g. the recording industry), and that it is reasonable for governments to make and enforce laws for this to be conducted in a reasonable way. However, when technology destroys the basic underlying rationale for an industry (e.g. it is more convenient to make your own CDs now than to buy them) it behooves government to get out of the way rather than to create legal houses of cards.

Consider the film industry. Disney made Snow White a long time ago. 1939? I don’t remember exactly. It came out the same year that Gone With The Wind and Citizen Kane came out, I remember that.

If it were a book, Disney’s copyright would have expired, or at least it would be likely to expire sometime soon, and we could expect to see cheap copies of it coming out (including free electronic versions from Project Gutenberg) and of people making film versions without needing to obtain the author’s estate’s permission. This is the way copyright works and is intended to work: it provides a limited monopoly on created material to encourage its creation BUT it makes it free eventually because information should be free.

But, Snow White is a film, and so: (a) all the prints of Snow White in circulation were owned by Disney. They could never be legally copied or purchased, only “rented”. (b) Disney has “remastered” the film, resetting its copyright clock (this is the main reason behind remastering stuff, as far as I can see; any thoughts of improving audio quality, or whatever, are purely secondary). In short, if the film industry were to remain theatre-centric there’s no reason we could expect Snow White to ever enter the public domain.

But, the film industry is changing. Disney sells DVDs now. Maybe even DVDs of Snow White. Despite the region restriction system on DVDs (which should simply be illegal in my opinion) and MPEG-2 encryption, it’s possible to “rip” DVDs to hard disk with a typical home computer in about 30% of the DVD’s total content duration. From there it’s a very simple process to convert the DVD more-or-less losslessly into MPEG-4 (so it takes up 1/4 the disk space) and burn DVD movies onto CDs. You can do this now (which is theoretically illegal) or when the copyright expires (which, if the film industry has its way, will be never).

It really doesn’t matter. Let’s suppose that we form a DVD club and pool all the DVDs we own. As long as only one of us is playing a given DVD at a time, we should be fine. Since a typical household might own 100 DVDs and have 0.25 of a DVD playing at any given time (do you watch DVDs more than 6h/day?), there’s pretty much nothing the industry can do except raise the price of DVDs in some kind of death spiral.

In a few years, people will be recording movies and live concerts using the cameras built into their phones anyway (with CCDs offering resolution equivalent or superior to HDTV) — and a fairly simple program will remove any perspective distortion (and shake) prior to distribution from web sites outside the influence of the RIAA; nth generation TiVos will rip TV shows to hard disk and automatically clip commercials from them (sometimes they’ll be wrong and human intervention will be required — so, at most one person will have to watch the ads); and for that matter electronic copies of books and comics will finally start to appear as digitally scanning paper documents gets more automated.