The User’s Guide

While browsing about for Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine resources, I happened upon A User’s Guide to the Apocalypse, a fan supplement of uncommon size and depth.

It is extraordinary.

I haven’t finished reading the thing, but even from partial experience, the layers of meaning in the project boggle the mind. User’s Guide* can, to scratch the surface, be read as:

  • A playable alternative campaign setting for Chuubo’s
  • A reflection on life and relationships while dealing with abuse or the lingering trauma thereof
  • A love letter to/eulogy for a now unraveled online community
  • A codex of or guide to Replay Value, a Homestuck alternate universe
  • Speculative fiction of the cautionary tale variety, exploring the potentially disastrous nexus of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and gamification
  • An existentialist parable, grappling with the search for meaning in a universe where, given sufficient time, all things are futile
  • A deconstruction of video game tropes, particularly those belonging to the MMORPG genre
  • An examination of digital addictions to games and discussion fora
  • A sociological commentary on the communities that come and go across the Internet

The author herself lays out the first few I listed; the rest unfold in emergent fashion from the work. It’s the kind of thing that makes me wish I still had a foot in the educational sphere, to teach this text or write a thesis on it!

Prior to discovering User’s Guide, I hadn’t quite understood alternate universe fandoms, or AUs. The idea of an alternate universe for a fictional setting was straightforward enough, but e.g. Undertale with its Underfell, Reapertale, Flowertale, etc., etc., each with their own fan art and other assorted media, mystified me. User’s Guide, though, made it click. When a fandom grows large enough, like-minded individuals within it gather into sub-fandoms, and one way such a group can coalesce is around a particular AU. The AU itself—whether via the ongoing efforts of a central author, or the roleplay and works of its fandom, or both—takes on a life of its own. It brings back a sense of belonging to those longtime fans of the parent work who feel crowded out by its becoming too popular or mainstream. And it revitalizes fannish activity when the depths of the parent canon might otherwise seem tapped out.

Now I’m in the curious position of becoming a fan of a specific AU’s commemorative project, without any familiarity in the parent work. I know Chuubo’s, of course, but I’ve never made it further than a couple of pages into Homestuck. I’ll take a look again, but it may be that’s how it stays! If that’s how it goes, all the more credit to User’s Guide author Elaine “OJ” Wang for managing to so mesmerize someone who doesn’t even get Homestuck.


* The author tends to refer to the work as “RV Chuubo’s,” but I find that a bit cumbersome for casual use. Not least because it suggests a Chuubo’s campaign involving road trips with really bad gas mileage.

Review: On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

I’m gonna say this straight up: Honor Harrington is a Mary Sue. At least in On Basilisk Station. Spoilers ahead…

I don’t mean that she’s a self-insert, or that she’s stunningly beautiful and has every possible magical power. She’s not that blatant. But she is one of those eye-rolling characters who has no discernible character flaws, never makes a mistake, has privileges no other character gets, and receives the respect and admiration of almost every single character in the book even when it makes no sense.

Our first introduction to Harrington treats us to her treecat companion, Nimitz. While I’m generally in favor of feline companions for characters, and Nimitz is a pleasantly quirky addition to an otherwise serious-minded space opera, the critter has no plot role whatsoever in the book. He’s a status symbol, allowed to pal around with the protagonist despite military regulations because reasons. Perhaps if any other character in the book had such a companion, I’d be cool with it, but HH is the only person ever depicted with a treecat buddy. He’s a special-snowflake marker, nothing more.

Nimitz also kicks off one of the book’s biggest facepalms: Honor’s strained relationship with her executive officer, McKeon. I might have hoped that McKeon, with his dislike of Honor leading to stubborn, passive-aggressive behavior, would be an example of a character not swooning with adoration of the sainted protagonist. But it turns out, well, he resents her because she’s just too awesome and he wishes he was that good. I kid you not. Even the villains have a tendency to get interludes lamenting how HH is troubling them by being such a badass. There’s exactly one character who isn’t doe-eyed over Honor Harrington, and that’s the slacker ship’s doctor, whom the book goes out of its way to show as a terrible person nobody likes anyway. So there’s that.

Not that I can blame the characters themselves, I guess; it’s not like author Weber gave HH any character flaws to speak of. She’s depicted as something of a hardass, which would be interesting if the book weren’t so in love with military discipline and regulation that doing things by the book turns out to be the right answer nine times out of ten. And in those remaining ten percent of situations, Harrington lets things slide a bit anyway. So, not a character flaw: it never hinders her in any noticeable way. She’s said to be bad at math. But since she’s the captain, not an astrogator, she never needs deep math skills; plus, she does sophisticated arithmetic in her head all the time, and sometimes higher-maths stuff by “instinct,” always arriving at the correct answer. Heck, it doesn’t even impede her in her backstory, poor grades in that area of study failing to bring down her class-topping scores across the board. The only other criticism the book levels at her is that she’s unpretty, I guess? Which A.) isn’t particularly relevant in a romance-free space opera, and B.) everybody gapes at her looks anyway, they’re just not described in gushing feminine terms.

Lastly, though HH does get to face some hardship, it’s never on any level her fault. She makes no mistakes, no errors of judgment, no wrong calls on matters of chance. Her ship gets kicked around in war games, demoralizing the crew, but that only happens because higher-ups gave her ship a dubious armament configuration and because she managed to “kill” an enemy flagship with it in the first set of maneuvers, earning the jealousy of the opposing team. Another case of hating her for being too awesome! There’s one field operation where a bunch of soldiers get killed in a trap laid by the enemy, but Honor isn’t in command of that attack, and the other characters quickly absolve her of any fault. And while maybe you could argue that she lost too many crew, took too much damage, in the climactic starship chase, you’d be hard pressed to make a strong case for that reading. It’s pretty clear from the heaps of commendations HH earns for her adventure that she did the absolute best she could with what she had.

It’s not that I want to see the protagonist make pratfalls, or that I begrudge a book having a happy ending. And I did enjoy On Basilisk Station enough to finish reading it. The SF world-building is particularly strong, with just enough technobabble to justify the dramatic space battles in ways that feel internally consistent. But if I’m to read any more of the many novels featuring this character, I need to confirm from someone else who’s read them that Weber lets Harrington off her pedestal at some point. It reads to me like she has a nasty case of Strong Female Protagonist Syndrome—that in an attempt to break gender norms for space opera heroes, Weber forgot that a woman character still needs to feel human. Unlike Honor Harrington, humans sometimes make mistakes, have unpleasant quirks, and have to deal with people simply not liking them.

Review: WTF Is Wrong With Video Games?

A couple of entries back I mentioned having my brain tickled by an excerpt from WTF Is Wrong With Video Games: How a multi-billion-dollar creative industry refuses to grow up, by Phil Owen. Curious how much further the author’s premise developed in the book, I went ahead and bought it for my Kindle.

The book’s been brigaded with 1-star reviews, because the excerpt drew the attention and ire of the Internet’s gamer manbaby population. Sigh. There’s enough worthy thought in there that it doesn’t deserve that treatment, but it doesn’t shine as a stellar example of games criticism, either. I rated it three stars of five.

WTF has nine chapters, but divides conceptually into three parts:

  1. That exasperated grumble about AAA video games’ failures as art;
  2. A mini-memoir of Owen’s time working as a games journalist, serving as a light exposé of the games industry as a whole;
  3. A retrospective on the Mass Effect trilogy, the closest anything has come to satisfying Owen’s AAA-art-game itch.

It’s a shame that part 1 has gotten so much attention via that excerpt, because part 2 is the strongest stretch of the book, with some eye-opening anecdotes about games development and the gaming press. I’ll go further to say that if I’d been Owen’s editor (did he have one?), I’d have urged him to scrap parts 1 and 3 and unfold part 2 as the whole of the work. It could have come together really well, interweaving stories of Owen’s life and career with the arc of a few case-study games from initial concept to critical reception. Owen appears to know enough about the development of Uncharted 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, to have spent much more time and word count on them. The book would still have been brigaded by Gators, because Owen rightly bears no love for GamerGate and that factors in his life story, but it would have made the book a better catch for those of us who don’t venerate hate mobs.

Part 3, a sort of extended Mass Effect 1-3 review occupying the longest chapter of the book, serves to show that Owen doesn’t hate video gaming universally. He praises the games’ storytelling and replayability, while continuing to highlight the design and writing choices he found incongruous, such as the seeming irrelevance of Mass Effect 2‘s plot to the trilogy’s overall arc. The chapter illustrates that Owen’s skillset remains in critique of individual works, and would have made a fine article on any of today’s big-name games writing sites.

That first part, though!

Owen’s premise, that AAA games don’t cohere as works of art, is a head-scratcher in that it’s trivially true. Of course they aren’t great art; they’re mass-market entertainment. You could as easily say that summer blockbuster popcorn action movies aren’t very good art–and in fact Owen goes there in one chapter, discussing the goofy disaster film San Andreas as a parallel example to his gripes about AAA gaming. Owen comes perilously close to recognizing that he’s barking up the wrong tree, mentioning in a couple of places that perhaps AAA games are designed to maximize addictive fun factor rather than to make thematic statements. If he’d recognized the merit of that and focused his attention there instead of on the art angle, he’d still have a strong critique to make: AAA games often suck at being fun, too! But he waves that away, taking the AAA industry’s occasional lip service to artistic aspiration at face value.

The paragraph that disappoints me the most with Owen’s approach, though, is this bit about indie games, from the introduction:

I’m also not going to delve too deeply into the realm of indies because there’s far too much variety there to make the sort of grand, sweeping statements I’ll be throwing down here. I can, however, confidently assert that the indie space has many of the same fundamental issues as the bigger budget projects (AAA), as that sphere is largely made up of the same kinds of people.

Owen’s dismissal of indie development makes me sad, because it’s in the avant garde of video gaming that he’s most likely to find what he’s looking for. Design the from top down, start to finish, with the purpose of delivering an artistic theme is exactly the sort of thing that altgames go for. Perhaps Owen’s experience with “indies” is limited to the likes of Braid, whose convoluted puzzles and collect-every-widget victory condition do no service whatsoever to its aim of deconstructing “save the damsel” storylines. In that case I can understand how his frustrations would be the same as with AAA games. It’s not a sufficient pool of experience to “confidently assert” anything, though, in that case, and assuming low-budget games have “the same fundamental issues” shakes out to be pretty nonsensical once he gets into discussion of AAA corporate structure and marketing.

I’d thus exhort Phil Owen: come over to the altgames side, we have what you’re looking for! Play some Twine games designed to enlighten cishet white dudes about the lived experiences of the marginalized, like Bloom or 12 Hours. Wade into some of the weird, political, artsy stuff that comes out of game jams. Widen your narrow focus, currently fixated on the $60+ shelf. You’ll wonder why you ever went looking for love in AAA places.

Burning Empires: Good On Paper, But…

Adulath Caracai II:

I have a short list of tabletop RPGs with which I have an ongoing love-hate relationship. I so very much want to enjoy them, since reading them and reading about them shows reveals such enormous potential for fun. But whenever I try to actually play the damn things, the experience invariably ranges from mediocre to downright painful. Exalted, which I’ve mentioned here a few times, is one such game. Luke Crane’s Burning Empires is another, and that game is the topic of today’s post.

I’ve tried to play Burning Empires on three occasions. Two of them were face-to-face games and one was play-by-post; I GMed one of the face-to-face games and was a normal player in the other two. In all cases it turned out to be just too much of a pain in the butt to run the game, whether it was me or somebody else in the GM’s seat (though the PbP game may have fallen afoul of general PbP issues not specific to BE). I can sum up the problem in two words: cognitive load. At any given point in gameplay, you’re expected to process a multitude of sometimes conflicting rules and priorities, making it impossible to get into a flow where you can just play your character. That exhausting mental effort, plus a few other less head-hurty but still frustrating issues, make the game unplayable to me in any practical sense. In the remainder of this post, I’ll lay out some of these particular problems, then brainstorm on what I might do to fix them if I should ever dare to run the game again.

First, the stuff that looks good on paper but actually doesn’t work. For all these, keep in mind that the person running the game has to deal with it threefold or more, since they have at least three major NPCs who follow all the same rules.

The advancement system. Burning Empires and the various other RPGs in the “Burning” family are well known for their unusual, detailed system of character advancement. Characters build up their skills and attributes by practice: in order to level something up, you need to put it to use a certain number of times in play against a variety of levels of difficulty. On paper, this is a clever way to encourage you to get your character in trouble; if you constantly set yourself up to roll against favorable odds, your character will never grow. In practice, though, the system slows down gameplay to a painful degree. You need to remember several odd exceptions on each roll: some bonuses count against you when determining how difficult a roll is, while others don’t; some situations let you rack up multiple points toward advancement, while others don’t. Figuring out what counts for what level of difficulty, or how many rolls of each difficulty you need before you can advance, requires table lookups. And woe betide you if you get some downtime and want to use the rules for practicing skills off-camera! You’d better have a spreadsheet and an accountant to check your work.

Stakes-setting. The Burning games champion a particular approach to dice rolls that looks great on paper. Each roll is important–don’t roll unless there’s something exciting at stake! Know the consequences before you roll! Once the dice fall, you must live by the result! This is good advice for most games, helping sidestep some common pitfalls. Unfortunately, it steps sideways and falls into quite another pit. Before a roll, the GM and player negotiate what the outcomes of success and failure will be, which adds substantial overhead to every roll, and means that half of your collaboration–the outcome that the dice didn’t give you–will be wasted, every time! I found it exhausting.

Scene economy. Burning Empires uses a novel system for setting scenes. During any given session, each player gets a particular number of scenes for their character, and the number of rolls you can make within those scenes is also limited. In theory, this cuts out the sort of meandering, scenery-chewing roleplaying that can suck the energy out of a game, since you’ve gotta make those scenes count! In practice, though, it causes paralysis. With only so many rolls you’re allowed to make, and getting exactly the right rolls crucial to your character’s advancement (see above), players are encouraged to agonize over every roll and second-guess their actions when it turns out the circumstances don’t favor the exact odds you need. A strong-handed GM could force people’s hands and keep things moving, but that would feel like punishment, not fun.

Competitive strategic macrogame. Layered above the scene economy is a broader big-picture game where the scenes you play out feed into actions in a large-scale conflict of Humans and Vaylen (aliens). It’s a cool idea and promotes some very interesting forethought and maneuvering. Unfortunately, it’s also an extremely frustrating system to work with unless you’ve absolutely mastered it. You need very specific skills available to the characters participating in the strategic game, and if you don’t have them, you’re hosed unless you get extraordinarily lucky. It cuts the legs out of the otherwise cool lifepath-based character creation process, since building the character you want to play takes a back seat to building a character who has the strategic skill bases covered.

Resources and the Technology Burner. This is not so much a cognitive-load thing, but it still falls into the “good on paper, ass in play” category. BE features a nifty system whereby characters can build or acquire custom technology. You stat up a gadget using “technology points” for all its bonuses and subsystems, then make a roll using your character’s Resources stat to see if you get it free and clear, or if it comes with quirks or diminishes your available funds. All well and good. Unfortunately, the balance of the system is all out of whack. Characters need to be among the richest in the Galaxy to have an even chance at purchasing so much as a rifle without loans and help from other characters. It’s built for disappointment: dream up an amazing new gadget, but in all likelihood, by the time you actually get it, it will be a piece of crap!

The typical rejoinder from BE fans is that these things all get easier with time. Being difficult doesn’t mean the game is poorly designed, after all! You just need practice. To which I say: bull pocky. The games I most appreciate are those where you can still enjoy yourself while you’re getting the hang of it. And since I’ve now played things like Apocalypse World, where the game comes together so smoothly that you can have 100% of the available fun from the very first session, something like BE has a lot to prove before it convinces me it’s worth slogging through the not-fun learning curve parts to get to the good stuff.

Enough grousing, though. I am not such a negative person as to leave it at that. If I were to run the game again, these are the things I would consider for fixing or at least mitigating the above problems. I wouldn’t necessarily use all of them, note; some of them are even mutually exclusive. Which tweaks I’d use would come from discussion between me and the players, and they’d come out the other side as house rules.

Enemy Figures of Note are players too. I’ve found that I don’t mind most of the above when I’m a player running a single character or a character and second-in-command. It gets unmanageable and unfun when it’s tripled or more in the GM’s seat, though. To mitigate this, I’d have players take roles on both sides of the game’s central conflict. You’d basically have two “teams” of players: one running Human characters, one running Vaylen. You’d still have a GM with governance over miscellaneous NPCs, executive powers like the ability to buy tech outright without rolling Resources, etc., but they’d have only one principal character to keep track of all the fiddly bits for.

Remove the macrogame and scene structure. Without the scene economy or strategic mechanics, BE would run like its predecessor Burning Wheel, but in a science fiction setting. You could build characters according to what you want to play, and act them out according to their Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits, not according to the pressures and demands of the metagame. It would require a bit more GM finesse in setting scenes and driving play, but seeing as BW is a perfectly serviceable playable thing, I doubt BE would break with a similar setup. As a side benefit, it would give freedom to have games that aren’t specifically about the Vaylen invasion, a thing that doesn’t bother me but might help some folks.

Adopt the simplified advancement system from Mouse Guard. Mouse Guard, a later Burning-based game, uses a streamlined version of those systems’ advancement mechanics. Instead of rolling against particular difficulties a particular number of times, you need to fail a certain number of rolls and succeed at a certain number of rolls using the skill. It makes perfect sense and requires a bare fraction of the calculation and bookkeeping involved in BE’s setup.

Scale Technology points and Resources points differently. This one I’m least sure of and would take some playtesting. Buying technology during character creation in BE gives you more oomph per point when you’re on a high-tech world vs. a low-tech one, but this doesn’t carry forward into the main game–higher tech levels give access to more things, but nothing costs less. If tech points per Resource obstacle scaled according to your world’s available technology (say, the default is for a zero index world, and on a low index world you can get 1.5 tech points per Resource obstacle, 2 at high index, something like that), gadgets would be easier to acquire in games where tech is a major focus.

I feel like with some of these things in place, I might actually want to run Burning Empires again. What do you Burners out there think?

Late to the Party: Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy

“Late to the Party” is my caption for media reviews, mainly of video games. I rarely acquire games on their release date, so by the time I get around to buying and playing through them, they’re old news at best. Even so, games sometimes make such an impression on me that I can’t help but write about them! Thus, late-to-the-party reviews.

Adulath II:

Dissidia 012 for the PlayStation Portable is an expanded edition of the original Dissidia, a Japanese-style action RPG with fighting-game stylings involving characters from across the main Final Fantasy franchise. When the first was announced, Square Enix was careful not to bill it as a fighting game, referring to it instead as “dramatic progressive action,” and I too would hesitate to put it in a category that brings to mind Street Fighter and BlazBlue. You will not find here the sort of intense competitive environment known to those games, where players one-up each other with new and inventive techniques and split-second stratagems. You will, however, find a highly entertaining and addictive action-RPG with easily hundreds of hours of playable content.

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