Friday, September 28, 2007

What makes a great RPG?

I feel kinda guilty for talking about either science, politics, or video games lately. I just haven't had a lot of truly interesting religious thoughts. At least, not interesting enough to share here.

In any event, over at Twenty Sided, Shamus asked what made a great RPG. I gave my answer there, but I thought I'd share my thoughts and ask for yours.

Part of the trouble everyone had in answering this question was that there are two very different conceptions of an RPG. Western RPGs tend to let you pick a role and then set you loose to play in the sandbox. Japanese RPGs tend to give you a role and then let you play it out. The characteristic that connects them both is that you typically don't engage in a lot of fast, frenetic gameplay (although that is allowable). The games aren't based on fast fingers and great keyboard skills alone, but the time and progress you're willing to put in. You'll have a character who will grow more powerful over time, with in-game statistics that evolve as the game advances, and sometimes options for acquiring better equipment as well.

So, what makes a great RPG to me? The same thing that makes any game great: It's fun to play.

That being said, I should address some rather specific issues.

A lot of people in Shamus's comments harped about freedom and story. They wanted a story that was strong and compelling while being free to make some/any decision in the world they've been planted in. I think both are overrated. Story is necessary to a degree, yes, but
not every game requires a story that is novel or ultra-compelling. The Paper Mario series, for example, was ridiculously fun, yet had a story that most would characterize as shallow. Freedom comes out either way. The Elder Scrolls games were a very open-ended, while any Final Fantasy game will put you on a very specific path ("railroading"). Both are great fun, though.

Three issues that I see as necessary for a great RPG: Advancement, Variety, and Pay-off.

If you're playing a game where the core mechanic revolves around statistics, it should be both reasonable and worthwhile to raise those stats. It shouldn't take 200+ hours to become powerful, but you shouldn't spend a long time playing just to earn increases that are nearly irrelevant. Players like to think that if they start off knowing the magical equivalent of a cigarette lighter, they'll eventually be able to detonate nuclear warheads from their fingertips.

Variety is necessary in any game, but RPGs can be won or lost on this issue. If all the enemies are just palette swaps as you progress ("Oh look, now the soldiers are wearing green instead of blue! Scary!"), there's very little sense of advancement. If you're stuck in some city for half the game, you're going to start feeling wanderlust and boredom. And this ties directly into advancement, too. Every rookie Jedi plans on taking out the dark lord of the Sith, every 1st level adventurer wants to go toe to toe with a dragon. That kind of variety gives a game a meatiness that a good story just can't account for. After all, if the story is great but the game play isn't any fun, why not just turn it into a novel?

Finally, I should note the pay-off. If you play the game for 40+ hours, you ought to be a monster-crushing legend. You ought to be rewarded for sticking it through for so long. An epic boss battle? A tear-jerking wrap-up to the story? Whatever your prize is, the pay-off should be satisfying. Too many games offer up 30 seconds of video as a denouement and expect players to be happy with it. Such a decision can make the difference between an okay game and a legendary game.

If you've stuck with me for this long, good. I just have a few more notes to make, as the original question also asked what mistakes can make a good RPG bad.

My first example is "The Bad-Guy-Bait-and-Switch." I'm sure you'll recognize this. You've spent the game chasing after the Bad Guy, just waiting to get your hands on him and dispense some sharp, stabby justice. Suddenly, you're told he's not the real Bad Guy. Maybe he was being controlled by the Big Bad Guy. Maybe he was just a flunky for the Big Bad Guy. Maybe you just misunderstood his actions for the last 20 hours and didn't realize he was trying to fight against the Big Bad Guy. Either way, your emotional attachment to this villain is now gone, and you're left to fight some Big Bad Guy for reasons that are fuzzy at best.


My next example is the deus ex machina. This involves somebody rescuing you from defeat, rather than allowing you to achieve victory alone. Perhaps the BBG is just too powerful for you, and some guy finishes the job when all seems lost, or weakens him enough for you to strike the final blow. Perhaps your dead parents/friends/lover comes to your side and saves you from the BBG's devastating attack. Either way, you are not a hero, just an "almost-victim." You're forced to watch the end of the game as a spectator, not a participant.


Almost as bad is the touchy-feely story. Your characters bicker and whine a lot and ultimately get in touch with some very sensitive issues and feelings. This can be touching if done right, but almost always ends up trying your patience. When I want to listen to whiny emo kids, I'll just go on MySpace, m'kay?

Finally, I should mention a non-story related faux pas, especially since I didn't feel like ruining any plot devices by naming names. While the game mechanics should be satisfying, an overly-complicated system can make the game too intimidating and ultimately drive away all but the hard-core players. As Final Fantasy games evolved, this started to become a problem. In VI, it was "espers," which allowed every character to learn every spell, ultimately leaving the characters with only superficial differences. In VII, it was a goofy system of "materia" which granted abilities in complicated mixing and matching schemes. In VIII, you had "guardian forces" which bonded to the characters, as well as magic that was siphoned off of enemies and turned into stat boosts. Ten was the worst, with its gargantuan grid of spheres offering skills and spells and stat boosts to whoever would dare probe its vastness. If none of that made any sense to you, then you're already aware of the problem I'm describing. If you have to study to understand the system, fun gets lost somewhere in there.

Well, thanks for sticking around to the end of this lengthy, rambling post. Maybe in the future I should blog about what makes a great blog post. Not that I'd know anything about that.

This day in history

Most significant of all: I was born. Awesome. Since some of you might not care as much, I need to make the day relevant to you. So what else happened?

1066 - William the Conqueror invades England . . . interesting.

1867 - Toronto becomes the capital of Canada. Meh.

2003 - Final game played at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. I guess if you're a Pirates fan (all three of you), this is interesting.

Hm . . . apparently if I were Catholic, I'd know that I share feast days with Saints Leoba, Wencenslas, Lorenzo Ruiz, and Aaron of Auxerre. The more you know.

Any other famous birthdays? Hm . . . Confucius in 4BC. Interesting. Let's see, sports star I've never heard of . . . actors I've never heard of . . . oooh. Apparently I share birthdays with Janeane Garofolo (1964), Moon Unit Zappa (1967), Gwyneth Paltrow (1972), and Hilary Duff (1987). Neat.

Okay, maybe it's not that exciting of a day. I find it to be an important day.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Propaganda on campus

If you haven't been paying attention, then you may not have heard that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, will be speaking at Columbia University in NY this week.

I've seen all kinds of snarky comments floating around. Some like to point out that ROTC isn't allowed at Columbia due to the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, but the President of a country where homosexuality warrants the death penalty is okay. Others have noted that since Ahmadinejad was involved in the hostage crisis involving our embassy in Tehran so many years ago, it would be fitting for Columbia students to hold him hostage for a year or so.

All clever quips aside, I'm just baffled by the level of intellectual denial, on so many levels, that has to take place for Columbia administrators to think that this is a good idea.

First is the absurdity of asking the President of Iran to speak at an American university. Do they forget his repeated calls for the utter destruction of Israel and the US? Have they ignored our government's repeated warnings that Iran is actively waging war against us in Iraq? What possible "dialogue" could fruitfully result from allowing this guy a platform?

Additionally, do these people not understand the value of such propaganda? If this is a country that thinks we're a "paper tiger," what is going to be the result of letting their President just walk onto our soil and lecture us? Have they ignored the usual pattern from his letter to President Bush several months ago?

I'm left in utter disbelief that there are people who think there is something valuable to be gained here. Nothing good can come of this.

Looks like I'm not the only one who thinks so. Captain Ed scolded Columbia for the results of this debacle.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Fantasy Science

I have a bunch of friends who take part in fantasy football leagues. I'm not much of a football buff, so their prolonged conversations about the matter tend to make my mind wander. Still, it gave me a humorous idea.

Why not have fantasy science? Each participant assembles his "research team" of scientists. You can have them work on any project you want, but they'd have to be working together. You couldn't get a psychologist to work on a physics project unless his involvement made at least remote sense.

Then, you assign points to the players over the "season" based on the number of publications members of your team co-author, research funding they pull in, or any special recognitions or awards (departmental chairs, ACS/AAAS recognition, etc.).

Hard to pull off? Oh yeah, especially because you'd be hard-pressed to even find scientists who care that much. On the other hand, how hilarious would this be if someone actually made it happen?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Super Happy Weekend Fun Poll

I'm working on a presentation this weekend, so no political rantings, scientific drudgeries, or philosophical musings. Instead, I thought I might get the rest of you to participate (all 3 of you, or however many actually manage to return).

The new season of Heroes starts Monday, so I thought it might be a good time to break out the question that was asked of me: If you could have any of the Heroes powers, which one would it be?

I think it's a better question than usual. Most other superheroes tend to be overpowered (Spiderman, Superman, etc.), so you usually ask for a package deal. The Heroes cast seem to be one-shot characters.

Your choices:
  • Self-healing (Claire)
  • Healing others (Linderman)
  • Remove memories/block powers (Haitian guy)
  • Create illusions (That one lady)
  • Pass through solid objects (DL)
  • Super strength (Nikki/Jessica)
  • Manipulate electronics (Micah)
  • Communicate with electronics (That Israeli soldier-lady)
  • Manipulate space-time (Hiro)
  • See the future (Isaac)
  • Telepathy (Matt)
  • Manipulate people (Eve)
  • Radioactivity (Ted)
  • See how things are "broken" (Sylar)
  • Invisibility (Australian guy)
  • Appear in people's dreams (That Indian kid)
  • Locate any other hero (Molly)
  • Fly (Nathan)
  • Absorb powers (Peter)
Did I leave anyone out? Vote in the comments, I don't know how to make a poll. Also, feel free to discuss predictions for the new season.

I think I might go with flight. I'd enjoy it more than any of the others without the risk of abusing it, and it comes with far fewer drawbacks than some of the "cool" powers. Linderman's ability to heal others would be nice, but he's right that the weight of only being able to heal the world's wounds one at a time would be taxing.

On the other hand . . . if I had Hiro's powers, I could finally go back and meet Jesus.

After further thought . . . I couldn't be trusted with invisibility. Who could?

By the way . . . yes, I know Blogger allows you to add a poll to the blog. The problem is, it adds it to the sidebar, not in the post, which really screws up the formatting on the page. I really ought to hire a professional to deal with this stuff for me. And when I say "hire," what I really mean is "wheedle into working for free."

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More humor in science

As I mentioned before, I'm taking a plant biotech class, and we've been talking about making transgenic plants (genetically modified organisms, GMOs). Of course, this brings up a classic paper where RNAi (RNA interference) was discovered. Sometimes overexpressing a transgene in a plant can cause the plant to use the transgene against the same copy of the natural gene and eliminate both of them, effectively causing the opposite effect of what the researcher may have intended in the first place.

Of course, when discussing a sample scenario in trying to avoid this, I asked my professor a question about this and her response made me laugh:
Co-suppression occurs as a result of overexpression with the 35S promoter – it’s possible if you used a different promoter, the plant wouldn’t be so pissed off and turn off all gene production.
I had to laugh. How often do your professors talk about a plant getting "pissed off" by overexpressed genes?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The longer you work here, diverse it gets

Okay, maybe there's time for one news article. The Current is UMSL's weekly student newspaper, and this week's issue is a doozy. I've been critical of campus papers for being sophomoric, uninformative, or (in the opinions) downright nonsensical. This is an actual news article, but I'd challenge you to tell me what it's actually about.
"We live in a global society," said Malaika Horne, chair of the Chancellor's Diversity Initiative. "How can you interact with different nations if you can't interact with different ethnic groups in your own country?"

The Chancellor's Diversity Initiative, previously known as the Task Force on Diversity calls itself "cultural diversity in action."

According to Horne, they want to first enhance diversity on campus. Then, identify what is already occurring, find the gaps that exist, then take diversity to the next level.

The initiative is actively taking a role in shaping the acceptance of a diverse population at UM-St. Louis.

"We're walking the walk," said Gerda Ray, Associate Professor of History. "We make sure the initiative is diverse, including faculty, staff and students." Ray has been a member of the initiative since it was started in 2004, when it was started as a task force.
Okay, so what is this "diversity initiative?" No idea. The article does little to say, beyond quoting lots of diversity claptrap from members of the task force (or whatever it is). What does this group do? Sit around and talk about the diversity on campus and its diverse groups. What does that mean? They never say. It's probably the standard, "ethnic/minority/sexuality student groups" and so forth. I always feel a little left out when people go on about diversity without mentioning me. When do I get my White Student Union or the Straight Student Alliance? (By the way, if you can't read sarcasm, you're best bet is to go up to that "back" button on your browser and start clicking for all you're worth)

But why on earth was this article, with about 12 paragraphs of sloppy boot-licking, even written? Well, from what I can tell, the "initiative" wants to change the photographs representing the school, so that more "diversity" is represented therein. In other words, there's too many white people in the pictures. They don't say it, but I'm willing to bet that's the end result. Is it a legitimate grievance? No idea.

My main gripe here is the utter incomprehensibility of the article, the density and silliness of the quotes, and the paucity of actual news to be reported. What was the point of all of this? And why do these people get paid to sit around and slaver about diversity? Remember when universities were actually concerned with educating students?

Science in lieu of news

Oh, there's so much happening in the news lately, and so little time to blog about it right now. I'll get around to it before week's end, I suppose, but in the meantime I shall thrill you all with some scientific geekery. I'm supposed to be giving a presentation next week on microbial bioenergetics, and my initial paper topic fell through. So, since it won't be my presentation, I thought I might share my thoughts with you suckers interested readers.

Recently, the genome for an exotic microbe known as syntrophus aciditrophicus was sequenced. The link goes to the PDF of the news article. I'd originally read it as an HTML story, but I'm not sure if that's open access. You may need access to Science to read these things anymore.

Anyhow, the microbe is already interesting because it's a syntroph. This means that it can't exist on its own but relies on a symbiotic relationship with another microbe, typically a methanogen. S. aciditrophicus creates H2 in the course of its metabolism. However, build-up of the gas shuts down its metabolic processes, making them energetically unfavorable. Thus it partners with another microbe which can utilize the H2 and thus survives.

This diagram take from the article linked above
There's quite a few syntrophs out there, and they have similar metabolic situations. What makes the genomic sequence of S. aciditrophicus so interesting is that it's missing all kinds of genes that they would expect to be there for the metabolism it seems to perform. Many of the genes found have only limited homology to known genes with appropriate functions, but many are just simply not there.

This leads to all kinds of questions about how the thing actually survives. Does it utilize its partner for these missing steps? Does it do the steps with some protein which simply hasn't been identified? Or does it use some novel pathway for accomplishing these processes?

It's an exciting mystery as far as I'm concerned. Your mileage may vary.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

There are worse things than death, unless you can't find a save point

Why does MSNBC have a top five list of the worst ways to die in a video game? Seems like soft news to me. Not that it matters . . . they have it all wrong.

5. Death by camera. Whether it's an accidental step off of a cliff you were trying to sidle up to or being shot in the head by an enemy just off screen, there's no more frustrating or rage-inducing way to die than to be killed by something the "real" character would never have to worry about.

4. Death by blue screen. Well, this isn't really a "death," per se, but losing your progress because the game crashes is maddening. Power outages count on this one, too.

3. Death by zombie. Seriously, who wants to be eaten by, and subsequently drafted into, an army of the rotting undead?

2. Death by blue shell. If you play Mario Kart, then you know. Even worse than the lightning bolt, nothing strikes dread into the heart like the tell-tale buzz of impending doom and last place.

1. Death by stupidity. Oh, if I had a dime for everytime I planted a motion-sensing bomb, only to walk past it later because I forgot that I placed it. Or fired a grenade off and watched it bounce back at my face. Let's face it, nothing is more embarrassing than inadvertently causing your own demise while trying to hasten someone else's.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


I've been taking a plant biotech course this semester, and it's been incredibly interesting. I've learned enough that I could probably create my own transgenic plants, given the right materials (and maybe a few good instructions as well). It's neat stuff, but not the right material for blogging. Well, that was until we started talking about the controversies surrounding genetically modified plants.

When I hear about the riots and protests that take place all over Europe regarding transgenic food crops, it strikes me as being a bit anti-science, with a hint of thinly-veiled agricultural protectionism. Still, we discussed some of the complaints in class, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on the matter. Feel free to contribute your own.
  • "Superweeds" will devastate us all!
This isn't an unrealistic fear. Several species (~12) of Round-Up resistant weeds have been documented, and given its widespread use, there are probably more on the way. This can be curbed, by the use of a variety of herbicides, whether through cycling or through mixes, but we may still be in the situation of an ever-escalating arms race with the weeds.

Partially included in this is the risk that ultra-hardy crops might become weed-like and spread to areas where they'll choke out natural vegetation. This seems unlikely to me, at least anytime soon. After all, if we had a food crop that was anywhere near that robust, we wouldn't be worrying about insect resistance, drought resistance, and so forth.
  • "Superbacteria" will become antibiotic-resistant
This is a bit of an offshoot from the first point. Some crops use genes encoding antibiotic resistance as a selectable marker, and the fear is that bacteria in your gut may pick up the gene and become resistant.

I'm not sure why this is a fear. The bacteria in your gut don't make you sick as it is, and you don't need antibiotics to fight them off. Additionally, the "antibiotics" used as selectable markers usually aren't used therapeutically for people anyhow, as some of them will hurt humans just as easily as plants or bacteria. They're more like general poisons than antibiotics, really.
  • "I'm not eating that!"
The idea here is that unknown toxins or allergens may crop up in food and cause illness. This could be a conscious objection, or just a sub-conscious reaction that people may have, similar to the suggestion of eating insects or chilled monkey brains (the "yuck factor").

I'd say that the only good way to move past this one is education for the public. Transgenic foods undergo incredible amounts of testing before they're deemed safe for public consumption. They are tested to ensure that the chemical composition is identical to natural varieties. Should anything be different, it is tested to determine toxicity or allergenicity. Despite people's fears about heartless corporations, they won't risk billions of dollars trying to sell you food that will kill you. How do dead people buy more food?
  • Monoculture will lead to large-scale crop losses
This is another somewhat valid fear. If a variety of transgenic plants is planted very, very widely, but suddenly becomes vulnerable to some epidemic problem (herbicide-resistant weed, insecticide-resistant pest, a mutant virus, etc.), then a famine and economic fiasco could result. This problem could be more probable if there is little genetic diversity amongst a country's crops.

The fact is, this is a problem for natural plants as well. Hawaii's papaya industry was nearly wiped out by disease ~15 years ago, and it was transgenic papaya plants that saved it. While tinkering may open the door for a problem, those same tools can be used to solve those problems when they arrive.
  • Ecological damage
This is a difficult argument. The idea is that your transgenic crops may harm the environment, whether by leeching something harmful into the soil, or by killing beneficial insects through plants which produce their own pesticides.

There's been very little evidence for either of these happening, and I doubt the first would occur, again because these plants are tested for toxicity. However, it is possible that you could kill good insects. Discovering that fault would take longer than other indications or an unusable transgenic crop.

Still, it doesn't seem like a reason not to genetically modify crops. It seems like more of a "deal with it when we get there" kind of problem. In fact, transgenic crops allow for more environmentally farming practices, including no-till planting and less use of sprays.
  • BigAg wants all your monies!!!
Okay, it's not quite that hysteric, but there are people who argue that a lot of this is just a grab by corporations to get rich off the backs of farmers. Since most transgenic plants are male sterile, the crops can't produce seeds to be used the next year. Instead, the farmer must purchase new seeds each planting season.

This complaint runs head-first into worries that transgenic crops might cross-pollinate with natural fields of said crop and produce something either unknown or unhealthy. The example might be from corn engineered to maximize ethanol production, or to produce an antibiotic or some other industrial compound.

This is solved slightly by using plants which aren't used for food crops as "biorefineries." As for the other problem . . . I'm not sure there's an easy solution to that. There's probably an argument to be made, from the corporation's perspective, that only being able to sell seeds to someone once would be fiscally dangerous. You could even argue that by forcing the buying of seeds each year, you can limit the potential for the development of superweeds/bugs by "updating" the crop.

(Heh. "Yes, I'd like to buy some corn 2.1." "Oh, I'm sorry, but you're going to have to move on to the next version, corn 3.0. We've added lots of great new features!")

Again, this doesn't seem like a reason to not make GMOs to me. Which rather sums up my thoughts on all of these issues. I don't think any of them are deal-breakers, because a lot of them can be avoided through prudent scientific/farming practices, while others are more "what if" types of problems, which could again be solved through the same technologies. Transgenic plants might make it possible to end world hunger some day. Why not take a stab at it?

Surviving the Inevitable

Some people worry endlessly about what they'll do when the zombie uprising comes.

Yeah, that's all well and good, but perhaps a bit unrealistic.

Surviving the robot uprising, on the other hand, will probably be on your to-do list sometime in the next century. That's why you should memorize this handy guide on how to flee from a robot or snoop out one disguised as a human. Although I guess if you watch Battlestar Galactica you already know all of this.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Flashy entrance, you say?

I've previously mused on things I'd like to see at my ideal wedding reception. Some people consider limos to be the best way to say, "I'm coming and going in style." More recently, people have opted for the SUV-limo.


If you're having your big day in London, and you want to show people that you are living la dolce vida, then perhaps you ought to consider this. Nothing will accentuate that blessed day like rolling up in an APC.

And hey, if that drunken relative of yours happens to make a scene at the reception, you can always lay a couple of mines behind his car. Or just crush it. Y'know, whichever is more convenient.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

UMSL Student to leave Russia

In case you didn't hear, that UMSL student who was being held in Russia is now free to leave.

Apparently, the judge asked her to pay a $600 fine and sent her on her way. Happy ending, yes?