Jun 17 2021

My Super-Spoilery Loki Predictions (as of Ep 2)

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Tired of voting for the lesser evil?

Richard Grant = The actual “evil Loki”
Sophia Di Martino = The Enchantress, working for Richard Grant
TVA = Actual Baddies, or at least taking them down will be the endgame
Kang the Conquerer = middle time keeper, will be the next phase’s Thanos trying to restore “sacred timeline”

Confidence in these predictions? 65-70%.

-TG

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Jun 09 2021

Ev’rybody Talk About… Gneech Music!

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Last night in his Beat Saber stream, Ink Blitz was asking his viewers about their music preferences, and described mine as “’70s, ’80s, and ’90s stuff,” to which I replied “It’s way more than that!”

Of course, his exposure to “my music” comes mostly from the things I request in his streams, plus music I’ve played on my own art streams etc. in the past, so it’s skewed by things like what’s actually available to request, and what suits the mood of the venue. And in those contexts, it’s true that I gravitate mostly towards bubblegum pop or new wave and ’80s alternative. But that just scratches the surface: I have a deep love for ’30s/’40s swing, Japanese city pop (“that anime sound”), baroque and classical (Mrs. Gneech and I have very different opinions on Vivaldi), bossa nova and calypso, and lots more.

The truth of it is that I approach music the same way I approach just about everything else: I look for depth, I explore the weird corners of genre, and I apply that “bringing the awesome” philosophy of searching for things that are better than they need to be. I like glam and putting on a good show, I give preferential treatment to songs that are about more than just “Baby I Loooove You,” and melody is way better than rhythm. I’m not super-into vamping (once I’ve heard a riff three times, I consider that riff done), I think patter must be used sparingly and with a sense of whimsy or not at all (which destroys 90% of rap for me), and I cannot tolerate anything designed to excuse or comfort small-mindedness or deliberate mediocrity (looking at you, most of country-western).

So you might find me listening to Clannad one minute and Cab Calloway the next, then rolling into a Jazz Butcher song that gets followed up by Lady Gaga. So it’s hard to just point at a genre and say “This is my jam.” My jam is the creative process that went into making the music, at least as much as the time period in which it was composed and the medium it was presented in. There are some genres that I’m more drawn to because they embrace those processes more than others (jazz, new wave, etc. all have that counterculture “done because it’s good first and if it makes a buck that’s fine, too” creed), but I can find music to like just about anywhere.

-TG

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Jun 08 2021

Blog as Social Connector

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I miss my LiveJournal.

Putting some thought this morning into the much-mourned LiveJournal. I mean yes, technically LiveJournal still exists, but even if it hadn’t been yucked up by its sale, it was already a ghost of its former self at that point. At its height, LiveJournal combined the experience of a blogging community, an active Twitter feed, and an RSS reader all in one. With powerful community-searching and keywords, and a PAGINATED, CHRONOLOGICAL FEED (*bows and presses hands together at such a wonder*), LiveJournal was a way to connect with your current friends, find new ones, and have as deep or as frivolous a conversation as you wanted without being sabotaged by the algorithm. You could get bot-swarmed by trolls, that’s a danger everywhere on the internet, but there were also tools for dealing with that.

Of course, the problem was that it was expensive to run, and as the airline industry (and just the *#$^ing existence of MS Word) proves, some individuals may be willing to pay for something that doesn’t suck, but people in the aggregate will not pay a single cent for an objectively much better experience if they can get something terrible that does the same job for cheaper or free. And so Facebook, Twitter, and other “you’re the product not the customer” scramble-your-feed-for-pay services flourished, while LiveJournal, where you had to put in your own HTML code and pay for the privilege, did not.

Unfortunately, the 21st century has shown that the nature of modern technology is to start out pretty cool and over time get progressively worse, and social media is no exception. There are still some blogs around, writers banging away stubbornly on their keyboards because that’s who writers are, in the same way that newspaper comic strips technically still exist. But I can’t remember the last time I got involved in a meaningful discussion with a community through them. I gather that Discord (and to a lesser extent Telegram) is the place for that kind of connection, but I’ve never been able to operate in that kind of environment. I like my discussions to be high signal-to-noise and siloed by topic–in a way that I can find and reference later, mind you–but forums are just as moribund as blogs are.

So what to do? Twitter’s own users regularly refer to it as “this hellsite” and lament their own seeming addiction to it. (See also, Hank Green’s recent video, “Is Twitter Redeemable?”)

Facebook is and always has been a dumpster fire, partially due to the technology, but mostly due to the “hate speech is peachy as long as it pays” avarice of its owners. Tumblr is a niche platform that keeps trying to evict its only users. Pillowfort and Dreamwidth are the Good Guys, but they also don’t have the enough of a user base to create and sustain community (and Pillowfort has been plagued by bugs and long term shutdowns). I don’t have an answer; it may be that the journaling format was just a 15-year blip that has gone the way of BBS’s and editorial pages, and I should just let it go.

But I really like it, and I want it to come back.

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Jun 07 2021

Fictionlet

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Greg paused, staring at a forkful of alfredo noodles.

“What?” said Brigid.

“Do you suppose,” Greg said slowly, thinking it through, “that when Harry Nilsson starts going wah-woh-wah-wah like one of Charlie Brown’s teachers, that’s supposed to be all the people talking at him that he can’t understand?”

Brigid plunked her fork down on the table. “For fuck’s sake, Greg,” she said. “Don’t you realize how old that song is?”

He blinked at her. “I guess so?” he said. “But you still knew which song I meant.”

She winced and closed her eyes. “I hate you,” she said.

Greg shrugged. “Sorry,” he said. “Next time I’ll try to be a little more gentle on your mind.”

“SHUTUP SHUTUP SHUTUP!”

-The Gneech

<-- previous B&G
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May 28 2021

Writing Game Mechanics For a Plot Device

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Enigma Sector is intended to be “big tent” space opera the way D&D is “big tent” fantasy, so it pulls from a lot of sources, and of course Star Wars is a big one. One of the things I’ve been trying to fit into the game is “ion damage” as it’s presented in Star Wars. We see four clear examples of it:

  • Jawas zap R2-D2, he keels over
  • Controls of Luke’s snowspeeder become ionized and he crashes
  • Hoth ion cannon disables a star destroyer and the transport ships breeze past
  • Y-Wings hit a star destroyer with ion torpedoes and disable it, allowing a hammerhead corvette to play billiards with it

It could be that ion damage is the “stun setting” that knocks out Leia in Ep IV and that she uses on Poe in Ep VII, as well, that’s harder to say. That’s how I’ve been treating it, anyhow.

But the common element of all of these is that ion damage, while not inherently lethal, is presented as a one-punch fight ender*, which can have its place when it’s a plot device, but poison when you want to have a playable game. The biggest question it leads to, however, is “If you have a cannon/torpedo that can one-punch a star destroyer, why wouldn’t you just do that all the time?” Or to put it into game terms, if you give the players in your game an “I win!” button, they’ll just press it over and over. And if you give the enemies the same button, the only real contest becomes the initiative check to see who can hit the “I win!” button first.

(*Sort of. The Hoth ion cannon fires four shots, and we see two connect, while the Y-Wings in Rogue One just pummel the star destroyer with something like six hits, and that’s explicitly after the shields being knocked down “made an opening.” But in both cases, the star destroyer goes from “fine or mostly fine” to “dead in space” in a matter of seconds.)

So this brings us to ion weapons and spaceship combat. My original idea was that a hit from an ion weapon would knock down a ship’s shields, which is kinda-sorta what we see in the case of the star destroyers: the first hit mucks up the shields, and the followup hit(s) muck up the controls. Since all the hits happen in rapid succession, we don’t get to see if the star destroyers could recover from the first one in time. But that led me to imagining my players, in their own little not-quite-the-Millennium Falcon, being swarmed by enemy fighters with ion guns that lead to a super-fast death spiral of the shields going down and staying down. I’ve already established that ion weapons have shorter range and do less damage than blasters, but that add-on effect is still hella powerful.

(In the case of Luke’s snowspeeder, there’s no indication that the walkers are firing ion weapons, so I’m assuming that would come under the heading of system damage: the regular blaster hit incapacitated the ship for a round and, being next to an enormous obstacle (i.e., the planet), the snowspeeder crashed into it. That incapacitation just happened to come in the form of ionized controls.)

So how do I fit ion weapons into that Venn Diagram sweet spot between “doesn’t add math,” “is worth doing sometimes,” and “doesn’t become the only thing worth doing”? I started looking at monster debuffs for inspiration here. 4E was full of “controller” monsters, who all pretty much did the same thing: “Piddly damage, and the target is dazed (save ends).” Dazed in 4E was roughly analogous to 5E’s version of the slow spell: attackers had advantage on you, you could move or attack (but not both), and you couldn’t use bonus actions or reactions. That’s not bad, honestly. (Slow tweaks the numbers and adds some stuff about spell failure that isn’t really relevant here.) 5E’s major monster debuffs come from grapples, poison, or petrification, which all do variations of the same thing. Grapples hold you in place, poison gives you disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks, and petrification starts with being restrained (can’t move and attackers have advantage) and gets worse from there.

So let’s break these down…

  • Grappled (immobilized): Having a movement speed of 0 can range from being immaterial (if your plan was to just buzz around shooting anyway) to being a game-ender (if your plan was to escape to the jump-point). There is a vague vibe of “moving fast = hard to hit, not moving = sitting duck” that isn’t reflected in the rules per se. That leads to…
  • Restrained: Your speed becomes 0, as above, but attackers have advantage against you, and you have disadvantage on Dex saves. This is a heck of a debuff, especially when the enemies pile on, but while you can’t move, you can at least still act. This pretty accurately reflects ion damage as presented, but it’s also dangerously close to the “becomes the only thing worth doing” category.
  • Poisoned: You have disadvantage on attacks and ability checks. Probably the worst thing you can do to a rogue because it tends to kill sneak attack, but is mostly a nuisance for everyone else, and also doesn’t model the desired result.
  • 4E-style Dazed/5E-style Slowed: You have to choose whether to move or attack (choices are interesting!) and have a fairly significant debuff, whether it’s advantage for your enemies, or -2 AC/Dex saves for you.

Of the choices, I think I’m liking the 4E dazed the best. (Hey, 4E wasn’t all bad.) In 4E, “save ends” meant that at the end of your turn, roll 10+ on a d20 and the condition went away (rather than being impacted by your stats like a 5E saving throw). This was a key part of the design: debuffs were meant to sting, but they were also meant to be something you could shake off fairly easily, on the grounds that being hamstrung through the whole fight was anti-fun. And I still want that to be the case here: tying recovery to a Constitution saving throw would make it way too hard for small ships to recover, and way too easy for big ones. So how about something like this…

Ionized (Condition): The vehicle’s controls are locked up by ionization. The vehicle can’t take reactions, and it can’t move unless it uses the Dash action. Attackers have advantage against the vehicle, and it has disadvantage on Dexerity saving throws. At the end of the vehicle’s turn, roll 1d20: the ionization effect ends on a roll of 10 or higher. The vehicle may also end the effect by using its action to spend a hit die as damage control.

This could also work for droids being hit by ion weapons as well. Whattya think?

-TG

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May 12 2021

Traveller, And Why Enigma Sector Is Not That

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Enigma Sector banner

I recently started a D&D space opera campaign which I’m quite pleased with. It’s in a homebrew setting (I hesitate to use the term “original” here) designed to be a giant mashup of all the spacey tropes, in the same way that standard D&D is a mashup of all the fantasy tropes. So we’ve got not-Jedi, we’ve got a “good guys” Federation and a “bad guys” Empire, battledroids, bug-eyed monsters, and so on. It’s a lot of fun!

So when it came time to figure out spaceships and the whole economy of trawling around in a little freighter, I naturally looked to Traveller, the grand-daddy of space RPGs and pretty much the unacknowledged model for things like Babylon 5 and Firefly. Its “tonnage + Credits” ship-building model has been imitated dozens of times by dozens of other games, and its interplanetary trade matrices have appeared in places as weird as Savage Worlds’s gothy-fantasy pirates 50 Fathoms campaign.

But you can’t just lift those systems out of Traveller and plug them in to D&D—the numbers are crazy and designed for a very specific gameplay loop. As SirPoley describes succinctly in his Four Table Legs of Traveller series, the game assumes that your party will be paying out huge amounts of money to pay for their ship every month, which will in turn drive them to engage in trade and/or exploration to scrounge up enough money to keep the bounty hunters off their tail. This trade/exploration is procedurally handled by the GM via random encounter tables and except for the random appearance of “Patron” encounters, could all be done faster via computer if you were so inclined.

And this is where we come to why I’ve never run Traveller. Just like I have little patience for grinding in a video game, I ain’t got time to build self-populating spreadsheets just to watch the numbers roll. Patrons, those rare high-paying jobs that actually force you to get out of your acceleration chair and go do stuff, are intended to be the spice of Traveller, a fun diversion that creates a break from the core gameplay loop. And I’m just… no. -.- For me, that should be the meat of the game, with the trade/cargo/passengers business being a fun little mini-game for the people who are interested in it.

So while I’m lifting some of the trade rules and tables from Traveller, the math is going to require some heavy tweaking to make it work for my purposes. The Enigma Sector characters already have a small ship that they used to escape from their Badguy Empire captors, and there are enough planets it could reach that they never have to upgrade if they don’t want to, so the “exorbitant debt payment” motivator is out. In its place, I’ve reduced the amount of money that cargo and passengers will make, and increased the operating expenses of the ship itself (in the form of fuel and spaceport fees) so that it’s still worth engaging in that system, but not to the point where taking time off from cargo hauling to go on adventures seems insane. (As SirPoley mentions, the pay scale for Patron encounters in Traveller is keyed off the size of your party’s cargo hold rather than having a diegetic in-universe value in order to guarantee this, which is taking handwavium just a little too far for me.)

I also want the players to be able to spend money on gear and such—partly because this is still D&D, and partly because at least one of my players just really loves that and I want them to be able to engage on that front. If they’re breathing fumes as far as money is concerned because they have to pay $50,000/month just to keep their ship running, they’re more likely to dump the ship than to go out exploring, which kinda negates the purpose.

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