Getting Shirty

Photo courtesy of @LandryQWalker's Twitter feed

Photo courtesy of @LandryQWalker’s Twitter feed

Okay, so I WAS going to do something on character visual design, but this bullshit blew that clean out of the water. Character design can wait til I’ve patched the hull; let’s discuss what’s really so wrong about a company selling this shirt at WonderCon and why their response to public criticism shows that they are not mature enough to be running a company.

Let’s look beyond the sexism here. It’s not implied; it’s very overt. You’d have to be a space alien to miss it. It’s already been discussed and decried by people who are much more articulate and well-known than I am, and there’s nothing new I can add to that discussion.

And I’m only going to make a passing mention of the heinous disparagement of the Holy Beverage, because if there is ONE THING that has fuelled the gaming, film/television, comics and tech industries, it is coffee. There’s a percentage of the population who either don’t like coffee or can’t drink it for one reason or another — in my experience, they make up roughly 10% of the population. But even then there are very few people who would express an active hatred of coffee; congratulations, you’ve alienated 98% of convention attendees.

At any rate, the company says they make the same shirt, but using the word “fanboys” instead; come on, it’s not sexist, it’s funny! Har har har.

When I was six years old, I broke down in tears in the schoolyard because I realised quite sharply that I didn’t have any friends.

(Princess aurora belongs to Disney; Jedi art by Saehral)

(Princess Aurora belongs to Disney; Jedi art by Saehral)

Allow me to clarify: I had plenty of friends. I had classmates I could work with on projects and swing on the monkey-bars with, and for some unfathomable-to-me reason there were even a few of my classmates who went out of their way to be in my company. We had sleepover parties and worked on homework together, and goofed around in our families’ pools on hot summer days.

But there was nobody who really understood me; nobody I could talk to about the crazy abstractness that exists inside my head. From before I could read, I was a nerd, raised on a diet of classic fantasy and sci-fi by a mom who wrote code for the US Navy and a dad who taught high school physics. Concepts of history, astrophysics, earth sciences, fantasy worlds where the rules are changed, and magic which has direct connections to the existing world rather than for its own sake, utterly fascinated me — they still do. And I recognised that my rejection of societal norms for little girls and preference for advanced books made me difficult for others to understand. I also didn’t care that this was the case — in a very vocal and typically hard-nosed way — and my parents actively encouraged me to do what I wanted rather than what everyone else expected.

The feeling of being the odd one out only got worse as we hit middle and then high school. I tried, I really did; there were more people, as the middle school caught the populations of three elementary schools and the high school took on students from a neighbouring town, and there was a hope that there might be someone among them all who would share my interests. But every time I would try to start conversations about the so-bad-it’s-good B-sci-fi movie I’d caught on TV that weekend, or the awesome steampunk cowboy series that didn’t last more than a season (it’s called Legend, it co-starred John de Lancie, it was awesome), people would stare at me like I was speaking, well, Greek.

Or as if I was a particularly annoying pest that wouldn’t take the hint and find some other lunch table to sit at.

(source)

We speak Geek, not Greek.
(source)

So I stopped trying, and it wasn’t til junior year in high school when a classmate transferred back from the tech school that I found a bunch of genuine nerds who spoke my language. They’d all gone to the tech school, a route I had considered in order to go into electrical engineering; alas, the tech school didn’t have a choir program, and so I stayed in the local public school instead.

I wouldn’t call the ostracism I experienced bullying. It hurt, sure, and a few people did bully me horribly once in a while — and I still remember the names and what they did or said. But by the end of high school I didn’t really talk to or hang out with anyone except the tech school guys — even my first boyfriend was from that school. I wasn’t the only nerd in my own school, but it was the sort of environment where the nerds seemed to avoid associating with each other lest it jeopardise their acceptance with the other social cliques.

That’s a brief summary of eleven years of my life, and I can guarantee you that a lot of sci-fi, fantasy, comics and gaming fans have experienced something similar. The loneliness, the fear that you’d never be able to share your love for things that don’t exist in this world with anyone else. That there is literally nobody who understands you except The Doctor, or Elric, or Dragonrider Lessa.

Now. NOW.

Does this help explain why, in an environment filled with people who survived that sort of childhood — or who are just then experiencing that childhood — who bear the scars of the hard lesson that a majority of the world thinks you’re cracked for wanting to explore fantasy realms, it is so abhorrently juvenile to attempt to market a t-shirt at a convention which actively expresses scorn for the attendees of that convention?

My problem with the shirt isn’t the sexism or lack of respect for coffee. It’s the casual way in which it promotes bullying. The high-school-jock attitude of the shirt’s designers regarding people’s objections shows they really don’t understand, or just don’t care. Hell, maybe it’s just a marketing ploy; companies do objectionable things all the time in order to get people talking about them, anything for publicity. But it’s okay, right, because the fans are the ones wearing it! It’s like Jewish people telling Jew jokes, it’s cool, maaan.

There’s a huge gap between self-deprecating humour and telling others that they are less than worthy.

The fandoms already have “gatekeeper” types who behave as if they are the only “real” fans and everyone else is a poseur who is somehow attempting to… honestly, I don’t know what they think everyone else is trying to do, but they act like their dearest treasure is under threat and nobody else has a right to enjoy the same things they do. That type of attitude destroys the heart and soul of the entire nerd subculture. It’s a form of bullying, and its needs to be spoken out against by those who are mature enough to recognise it.

Playing with Chaos

Not shown: legions of the undead. (source)

Not shown: legions of the undead.
(source)

Computers operate on a principle of order. Events occur either as pre-determined by the designers or according to a series of AI if/then commands created by the programmer.

Humans do not operate on a principle of order.

In Saturday’s Dead House game, our team was sent in to take out an immensely powerful lich whose activities had been the driving force behind the majority of the campaign since before I joined Wyrmhole Gaming‘s alpha testers. The past couple months had been spent interfering with his efforts to gain more power and picking off some of his more bothersome supporters, but time had run out. This was The Boss Fight. We had the entire might of vampire-run House Valu backing us up, running interference with an international army at their disposal to keep the millions of relatively minor nasties off our backs whilst our team of quixotic badasses went after the puppet master, himself. There were a series of challenges to get through, of course — magical shields, an army of undead puppets, several death knights, the lich’s right-hand man and his protegés sitting in a magic-null trap — but we finally located and destroyed the lich’s phylactery before zeroing in on the boss himself.

Now up until this point, this is a fairly routine main campaign climactic battle, and you could find similar formulae in pretty much any game on the market. So of course, this is the point at which Routine decided it had done a hard day’s work and settled down with a cup of chamomile to watch the rest of the show.

Oh, you think so? Guess who just rolled a critical. (source)

Oh, you think so? Guess who just rolled a critical.
(source)

Our target was awaiting our arrival in a chamber filled with bones, clearly intent on using what remained of our life forces to add to his world-ending ritual. In any computer-controlled game, you’d get a nice cutscene with some taunting and watch in horror as the lich forms that pile of bones into a massive construct, which you’ll then need to take apart piece by piece.

One of our team members, however, was feeling a little miffed at an earlier casting attempt getting stuffed by the lich, and interrupted the cutscene by out-rolling the lich and interrupting the spell.

Not everyone likes cutscenes.

Bones rain down from the half-formed construct like hailstones, sending brittle shards flying. The lich discovers the meaning of fear and attempts to run for the exit. The rest of the fight is over within a couple of turns, the mage looks downright chuffed as nuts — as he damn well has a right to be, all things considered — and the citadel crumbles in on itself, its structure being sustained purely by the lich’s force of will. The team retires to the bar to nurse their bruises and celebrate the cancellation of the necromantic apocalypse, although a shadow of unanswered questions looms over the merriment, leaving many wondering if this was only a small aspect of something worse to come. To be continued….

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City of Heroes Halloween event spontaneous boss spawn. Time to dispatch: 45 minutes.

City of Heroes Halloween event boss spawn. Time to dispatch: 45 minutes.

To those who are unfamiliar with the mechanics of tabletop gaming, this probably sounds anticlimactic. I’ve run my share of raids in LotRO and City of Heroes, and battles on this scale can take hours to complete. In fact, they’re designed to require an extensive amount of time and all of the party’s reserves, so that mission completion feels rewarding, that the players have tested themselves to the limits. The same is true in single-player games: I remember the first time I successfully dragged my party, staggering, depleted, and badly injured across the board, out of the Deep Roads back to Orzammar. It felt like they’d been run through the worst wringer in the world, and been handed a challenge they very nearly did not overcome.

Why on earth would you want a system that could potentially be almost too easy if the right events occur, when you can have that massive fist-pump moment of success? Because the computer-generated system is flawed.

I don’t mean that in a negative way, actually. But the computer is predictable.

Can't stop to watch the epicness, I'm focussed on my skillbar. (source)

Can’t stop to watch the epicness, I’m focussed on my skillbar.
(source)

Players — particularly the logic-driven, number-crunching, infovoric ones I’ve known from EVE — figure out the algorithms. It never takes long for guides to show up online. I once spent hours on a puzzle in a game the first time I went through it, and eventually had to look up a guide online because I was well and truly stuck. Recently, I did the same puzzle in ten minutes, not because I had the guide to hand (I lost the URL in the intervening years) or because I remembered the sequence, but because I applied a bit of logic and scribbled a bit on a piece of paper. In fact, the result I got was a good five steps shorter than what the guide had shown.

With a computer-run game or raid which can be run multiple times, this is a failing. After the first run or two, people learn the system and it’s no longer the challenge it’s intended to be. Oh, it may still be challenging — and this is why a number of games offer the ability to increase the difficulty rating — but it’s mechanical. It’s systematic. “Do X, don’t do Y, and watch out for Z. Repeat three times and do the hokey pokey.”

The Sleepers are cranky. (source)

The Sleepers are cranky.
(source)

Some designers are making an effort to spice things up a bit. AI is getting more complex and responsive to player actions and stats — for which we should be praising the long-suffering AI programmers who’ve worked their arses off to make certain the system functions as it should — and sometimes the NPCs are given the ability to legitimately fight back, negating attack attempts in-progress and seeing through stealth actions. But there are still limitations to what the players are able to do; for example, there was no way for a player to shut down a wormhole during a Sansha’s Nation incursion live event in EVE Online — normal wormholes you can overload and collapse, but the incursion ones were static non-interactables. Likewise, there’s no way to hack and shut down a Sleeper installation before your friends get shredded in EVE’s wormhole-space systems.

Live game masters have the potential to be more flexible and more innovative than a pre-programmed computer-run game. That isn’t to suggest they WILL be more flexible all of the time; sometimes a GM will get fed up with players’ attempts to improvise around a certain challenge and enforce the game either by saying, “You just can’t do that,” or by causing something to happen which forces the players to follow the script. Guess which approach will lead to fewer arguments, though? A computer game tells players “You can’t do that” all the time, but when a living person says it, it makes the railroading more unwelcome.

There’s a lot to be said in favour of a pre-set system, of course. Chaotic systems can lead to short fights being drawn-out as the players end up being out-rolled by minor mooks, who are subject to the GM’s very human — and thus, unpredictably inventive — problem-solving abilities. Ordered systems limit the adversaries’ options and can cause them to make decisions which benefit the game designers’ goals, rather than enabling them to make tactical calls which would severely hamper the players — frequently, a programmed NPC will make the heaviest-armoured character their primary target, while a human making the same decision would likely call it on the lighter-armoured magic-users and rogue types. And pre-programmed NPCs often do not run away even when clearly outclassed — they may duck behind a wall to recover some health, but it’s rare for a computer-controlled NPC to run out of the room to call in reinforcements. Computers don’t have much of a sense of self-preservation.

Dual-wielding party members is totally an option. Roll D20 for a strength check. (source)

Dual-wielding party members is totally an option. Roll D20 for a strength check.
(source)

We could run last night’s event a second time, with the same characters, and I can guarantee you that it would be different. Someone else might get the initiative roll first. Someone might not have failed a perceptions check and avoided being kicked off a roof. Success and failure, determined by die rolls as players decide which skill to use given the results. I was rolling badly — as usual, unfortunately — which limited my options, but if my luck had been better, maybe some of my lesser-used skills would have seen some action. When you play a computer game, you’re stuck into a pre-set scenario: walls cannot be blasted through, pre-scripted events can’t be arrested, set pieces cannot be picked up and used as weapons. For that matter, other characters cannot be picked up and used as weapons — throwing NPCs into each other as a result of using various effects might happen, but they aren’t going to have the same bludgeoning stats as two team mates with blades out being swung by the ankles by a spectre with anger management issues.