Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Game of Dejarik Part 2: Meet the players (or rather, the pieces.)

Continuing with a breakdown of the dejarik game from Star Wars: A New Hope, I identified the pieces and their positions. Each piece has a detailed bio and history on Wookieepedia, but this actually hampered my progress and made me dizzy (trying to determine whether the physical traits of the monsters were clues to its place in the game: maddening.)

Chewie’s pieces:

Chewie 11x7.jpg

R2 D2’s pieces:

R2D2 11x7.jpg

The unique nature of the pieces suggests that each has individual movement and capture rules, or that each piece represents a hierarchy, like the rook, knight, bishop and royals of chess. Star Wars expanded universe books have suggested that the pieces are generated randomly at the start of each game and the players must use what they are given, forming a strategy based on each unique mix. That idea would eliminate the possibility that certain pieces are mirrors of each other. Rather than each player having a “king,” “queen,” “bishop,” etc., each piece provides a unique set of moves the player can choose from during the course of a game.

In earth chess, each piece has a point value based on its power in the game but there are many subtle variations on this calculation and many depend on whether the piece is mid- or endgame (another maddening part of my research.) I decided to skip this complication and focus strictly on movement and capture capabilities.

I think I will save the “individualized pieces” idea for a more complex rules variation. For now, I will work with the idea that each piece represents a type. Offensive (queen: no limits; an attack piece), Defensive (rook and bishop: mobile, able to hold swaths of board from a single position), Controllers (knight: move them into position and control multiple spaces at once; watch the enemy squirm.) To determine which piece is which, I looked at the moves and actions shown in the movie. The finished game should be able to duplicate the movie’s game in principle, thereby maintaining consistency.

The moves shown in the movie progress like this:

Move 1.JPG

R2’s Ng’Ok moves through the center-point to end in front of Chewbacca’s Monnok. He also turns his back on the Monnok (the only piece to change its facing during the game); does this mean it has nothing to fear from the Monnok? I make a note of this.

Move 2.JPG

Chewbacca’s Monnok slides left one space, ending adjacent to R2’s Grimtaash and diagonal to the Ng’Ok. This looks like a threat move to the Ng’Ok (was it blocked from moving to the center? Or can it only capture diagonally, like a pawn in chess?)

Move 3.JPG

The Houjix now moves to the center. This could indicate defensive positioning with respect to the Ng’Ok (if the Monnok moves in, it will be threatened by the Houjix.)

Move 4.JPG

Instead of capturing, Chewie moves his Kintan Strider around behind the Houjix (however, it does not change its facing toward the Houjix.) Threepio’s warning for R2 to “be careful,” makes me wonder about the Strider’s positioning. Most likely it is a stand off: R2’s move could begin a series of captures, reducing the population of the board.

Move 5.JPG

Instead, R2 eliminates the undefended piece. The Mantellian Savrip literally throws down with the Strider and Chewie gets angry (a frustrating loss because he cannot respond in kind? Potentially, if his Monnok captures the Ng’Ok--as I suspect its threat to be--it could in turn be captured by the Houjix from the center-point. And now that the Strider is out, the Houjix has nothing to fear?)

Move 8.JPG

Things here get very weird. The conversation about Wookiees ripping arms from sockets occurs and Han makes the statement, “Let him have it.” Does this imply that the capture should be rescinded? In any case, we do not see the game board for a time because the scene focuses on Luke’s lightsaber training, but when it is shown again the Savrip is back in its original spot, the Strider is still missing, and the Monnok slides two spaces sideways: still diagonal from the Ng’Ok, but closer to the K’Lor’Slug (maybe it is in a position that can be defended by the Slug?)

The game ends here as the characters rush off to discover the fate of Alderaan. My biggest question is the Savrip’s return to its space of origin. did it give up the advantage of center space positioning as a concession to Chewbacca? (Was this in response to Han’s warning?) Or was it a rule of the game that once it eliminated the Strider it returned to the outer ring? (This seems arbitrary and unlikely. Reducing the game to a points-war of elimination seems to devolve its value from “chess” to “tic tac toe.”) While that is not impossible, I doubt valuable star ship space would be devoted to a high tech game of circles and exes.

What do you think of the game’s breakdown? Do you see something I missed? Post in the comments below, please. I welcome other viewpoints. Next time I will explore each move more fully and what I see as the piece’s strengths and limits, hopefully developing a ruleset that stands up to play-testing.

Next: Part 3: Moves and Threats (the strategy of the game.)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

When I Feel...

You can feel however you want to feel, as long as you don’t hurt anyone, even yourself.”

My wife and I always said this to our children, because sometimes--in our respective extended families--emotions were suppressed. People were not allowed to feel or to express what they felt for fear of upsetting things or offending people. There is a fine line between being aware of how your thoughts and words will affect those around you, and not being concerned with what others think of you. Expression is important, and so is fair treatment of others.

As human beings, we are going to have some very extreme thoughts, things we would never in a million years want others to know about, actions that we would never actually go through with (how many times have you said you wanted to kill that driver ahead of you in traffic and how many times have you actually done it?)

Allowing ourselves to feel the way we feel is important. If you are constantly pushing your feelings down without at least reflecting on them briefly, you are doing yourself a disservice. Suppression and repression are what lead to anger management issues, self-loathing and sudden violent temper tantrums. We need to remind ourselves that it is okay to be angry, sad, disappointed just as much as it is important to feel happy, excited and joyful.

We have these emotions for a reason, and we are still reasoning beings. Just because we picture in our heads the obnoxious politician being run over by his own bus, we know that would not solve anything. The sudden movie in our heads is just a passing flash; life goes on and we can write an angry letter, peel some potatoes with a very sharp knife or just snap our fingers at it and dismiss the inconvenience from our consciousness (okay, I wish it were that easy.)

The point here--getting back to it--is to give our children (and ourselves) the tools to handle life’s challenges. And part of that is the emotions we feel. When I was in school, we had an assignment to write our own children’s book. We could do whatever topic we wished, whatever format we liked but it had to conform to children’s literary standards.

I created a book out of construction paper using circles, triangles, squares and other shapes to convey simple scenes with one line of text at the bottom of each page. It was similar to a poem in structure with each back to back set of pages showing a before and after. For example, the first page would go something like:

MomDadGetLoud Branded.jpg

Turning the page over would then show this:

MomDadGetLoudB Branded.jpg

The idea was to show a situation and the response from a child’s perspective. My thinking was to provide a talking point for parents and their children to discuss potentially difficult topics. But in class, some suggested that it gave the children permission to feel unsure about things, that not everything had to have a conclusion and that was okay.

I began to think about this again recently. Here is a more light-hearted sample:

5secondruleA Branded.jpg

Wait for it…

5secondruleB Branded.jpg

What do you think?

What do you do when faced with things that are frustrating or disappointing or downright infuriating?

Tell me how you feel in the comments.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Drive Time

 Drive Time
By David

My youngest son is taking driver training and practicing his skills in the family vehicle. Helping him to put the training book rules into practice is a challenge sometimes; it has required me to do some intentional thinking about how I drive. What are my driving habits? What do I do--subconsciously--as I navigate the streets?

I used to play a boardgame called “Car Wars,” (pictured above) a game of cars with mounted guns trying to outmaneuver other, similarly armed, cars. The game provided a template you set next to your piece; decide how sharply you want to turn and the template showed where your vehicle ended up afterward. Obstacles, and other cars, were easy to see (not always easy to avoid.)

Out on the real streets things are not so cut and dry. Analyzing my own driving habits led me to a pair of recurring actions: I check the rearview mirrors almost constantly--for lane orientation and blind spots--and I spin the steering wheel back at the halfway point in a turn to avoid overcorrecting. I shared these habits with my son, I don’t know if it was the last one, but lately his turns have improved.

Often, we clash over the book (information in the driving manual and what he has learned in the class) and the street (experience with other drivers) The rules don’t always interact well with the traffic on the road. For example, he stops 5-6 feet away from an intersection. Now, I think he should be pulling forward closer to the corner for better visibility, but he does not. Was this instructed to prevent new drivers from stopping too short? It can make for some frightening situations when a tree or other obstruction prevents seeing traffic more than half a block away: either he pulls out without a clear picture of what is coming, or he hesitates too long and misses a window into traffic.

Note: Despite my above questions, we are happy with the driving school we chose. We picked this particular one as it only hires police officers to instruct classes. It is important to start them out on the right track. (And to my children’s credit, they have not had any tickets or accidents so far--two of them have been driving for eight years, combined time.)

Thinking about how I drive led to a discussion at home about “metathinking.” Literally, thinking about thinking. How do we analyze what we know or the way we do things in order to teach others? Breaking processes down into their component parts to make them understandable and comprehensive. The math sentence 2+2=4 seems easy until you think of what is involved in getting to that point. You have to know what a number is, that it means quantity (visually, it is much easier to explain this concept; teaching it verbally requires teaching vocabulary as well.). You have to be able to read the sentence, which means you must know that the symbol “2” means “two,” which means a “pair” of things. Likewise, you have to know the symbols for “plus” and “equals” and the meaning of those terms. You need to know your numbers at least up to four. That is a lot of background just to get to something so simple, don’t you think?

Now, what if the person you are teaching learns differently than you do? You have to be able to present it in a way they will understand and process the information to get the most out of your instruction. How do you approach helping someone to understand and learn something you know? Do you think about such details, or am I overthinking it? (Mega-meta-thinking)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

D & D, the 1d4 edition

By David

Dungeons and Dragons turned 40 this year and a new edition was released. It is being called simply: D&D or Dungeons & Dragons. No number added, no advanced moniker. A starter box is being sold to provide a start up point for new players (it covers just some introductory rules with pre-made characters so a group of players can jump in and try it out before committing to something more. The Basic Rules is available as a free PDF download here. Anyone can take a look, read it and even play it before deciding whether to invest in the printed books (which contain more character options and other extras.) All of this is very encouraging in tone and intention, and I have read many articles and blogs by all sorts of gamers giving the new edition a read and/or try. I have also read many who give it a qualified thumbs-up. Comments range from this being their new system of choice to: its okay, but they are going back to “You can insert other system or edition here.”

Like many, I followed the public playtest--an unprecedented event (at least, it was to D&D’s parent company) and I was impressed. The rules were intriguing, the idea of having a voice in the development was appealing and it seemed they were trying to follow through with the promise of drawing from D&D’s rules history and player feedback to create a game for nearly everyone, even promising rules modularity (player groups can add to, or take away pieces of the rules set to suit individual play styles.) This design, if carried out, would be a formalization of something from the beginning of the game. The oldest editions can be pulled apart, sections altered or rewritten, and played without the entire game collapsing. The original rules were not elegant, but they were very customizable.

So, in theory, one could play the new version of D&D as if it were:

Edition 1 (Advanced, or AD&D) Formalized and comprehensive rules (even though every rule was handled with a different mechanic), intended to provide consistency of play even if you played with different groups. Characters were very individualized, everyone did something special or unique.

Edition 2 (Second) A few tweaks to the AD&D rules, including more survivability (the beginning of adding “plot armor” to the player characters, so no one would feel they “lost” the game.) And more character options (a booklet for every class and race!)

Edition 3 (3.5) Lots and LOTS of crunchy rules (a rule for everything; no arguments, unless it was over rule-interpretation.) Although, most were handled with the same simple die roll: easy to remember which dice to use.  Also, more character options (create nearly ANYTHING you can imagine.)

Edition 4 (4E) Boardgame-like rules. Epic characters (players are unquestioningly the HEROES, complete with full “plot armor” and a menu of options and cool maneuvers (with names, like “Falling Star Strike” and “Rub Some Dirt On It”!)

I like this notion of being able to play your way as a concept; I love tinkering with game rules to run things the way I--and those I play with--enjoy most. I also like several aspects of the new rules set:

Advantage/Disadvantage a simple mechanic for modifying any die roll: most challenges are decided by rolling a single die; if you have advantage, you roll 2 dice and pick the best, disadvantage means you roll 2 dice and pick the worst. In other editions there were, literally, pages and pages of +1, +2, -3, etc., modifying various die rolls for various conditions. The advantage mechanic is a convenient “on the fly” rule simplifying things during play.

Optional special abilities As characters progress, they gain new benefits and features; this can be handled as simply or as complex as a group wants. This is evidence of the modularity they spoke of in the beginning. I like this as a limiting factor in the menu options at the table; I want players to be able to do whatever they imagine, not feel limited to just what is written on their character.

Ease of creation for the referee 4E did this really well and it seems to have carried over to the new edition. There is a lot that goes into a session: trying to give each player a chance to shine, providing challenges, making it all fun (for both the players and the referee) It shouldn’t feel like work to prepare for a night of D&D; this new set seems to understand that for the most part.

What I don’t like is the execution in some areas of the new rules (admittedly, these rules could be removed or altered):

Superhero aspects of the system.

Healing. I understand it is no fun to lose a character; especially when you put a lot of time and creativity into it. And I am not suggesting that characters should be easy to kill. But there is something a little too super about the way characters can recover from near death wounds in this edition. Jeopardy is what makes us care about a character; immortality becomes tiresome.
Magic. Even basic spells are phenomenal. Apprentice wizards are a little more like Nicholas Cage and a little less like Mickey Mouse.

Character advancement and improvement.

Characters begin with too many special abilities--in my opinion. It is far more satisfying to begin simply and gain in power than to begin powerful. Of course, it is a matter of taste. Would you rather be the commoner who aspires to kill the dragon? or the dragonslayer who seeks to slay another?

Monster presentation

The stat block for monsters has too much mechanical detail (it looks very much like 3.5, which pushed me away from that edition and keeps me away from Pathfinder) I don’t want to memorize--or even refer to--a single monster with its own character sheet, especially when I may need to juggle five or more different monsters in a single session.

As an overall complaint, I don’t see the promised modularity of the system yet. Currently it is as customizable as any edition has been, so it may be a non-complaint so far. And the modularity may be something yet to come, but if this is the base from which to decide what to add from here on out, I am not satisfied that it is basic enough (since I would want to remove parts to run it my way.)

Finally, despite the niftyness of the Starter Set ($20) and the convenience of the basic rules with promised updates (all free), I am very discouraged by the price point of the printed books (Player’s Handbook, $50; Monster Manual, $50; Dungeon Master’s Guide, $50; $30 each on Amazon.) Even considering inflation since I purchased my old edition AD&D books (1980’s, $20 each), that is too much money to invest in a rules set I will not use in its entirety.

I think I will sit this edition out and instead stick with the nostalgia of my classic (Moldvay) version.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What Kind of World Do You Want? Part 2

 What Kind of World Do You Want? Part 2
By David

A little basic sociology

In the first part of this post I talked about the hooks, or points of relevance, distinguishing my created fantasy world--Archaborea--from other fantasy environments. I also mentioned how the method to my creation came from a series of articles called “Dungeoncraft,” by Ray Winninger. He had a short list of rules for creating successful worlds which I also choose to use in my process.

Rule #1: Never create more than you must.

Rule #2: Whenever you create something important, create at least one secret tied to it.

Setting the stage for my creation’s adventurers (the players,) I look at the second entry on my list of hooks: The Bad Guys Rule. The evil empire is alive and well on Archaborea. However, due to the nature of the environment (remember that grinning cactus?) even the tyrants have their limitations. So there will be a tyrannical, despotic government but it will be balanced out by the savagery of the natural flora and fauna. I am thinking I may give my heroes a choice to start in a small village under the rule of an ogre-lord “regional governor” or a small village in the wilderness (sort of a pioneer village surrounded by packs of predators and other natural hazards.) They will have a small, manageable homebase, but also some kind of instant challenge, either natural or political.

Along the way, I am aware of potential plotlines and adventure ideas. That is what this process really does, it helps to set things in place and spark ideas, stimulating my creativity. My hope is that my players will feed off of this creative energy as well and together we can build a compelling story within the game, resulting in fun for everyone.

Using rule #2, I have established that the evil rulers of the world (although called “ogre-lords”) are not actually ogrish. They will be beastly in appearance, looking more like minotaurs, with bovine heads and horns, and bulky, hirsute bodies--not fur-covered, just hairy. The secret of their heritage will be something I want the players to discover over the course of the campaign and may include other, unknown villains they will not expect.

My hook established the ogre-lords as conquerors in a war long ended. The length of time I am not sure of yet; somewhere between fifty and one hundred fifty years sounds about right. Enough time for society to have settled a bit, established some norms and traditions in the wake of war, but not so much time that no one remembers the conflict, perhaps lost a parent or grandparent. This being a fantasy realm, its also possible for some long-lived race to have members who actually fought in the war. The war will be a quasi-taboo topic: some want to forget and move on, some want to start it again, hoping for a better outcome.

The village homebase for my players will be a combination of races living and working together. This will allow for the players to be able to choose any race they wish. I don’t want to limit my player’s choices of a character too much because I will be limiting other things as a result of the environment. It is really all about balance, trying to balance what can and cannot be. The village itself will be small, not more than a few hundred at most, with roughly ten to twenty percent of that number belonging to the village militia or guard. When it is decided whether the village will be a pioneer village or an ogre-lord village then that will inform the disposition of the guard.

The village will also be relatively isolated because the nature of the world limits population centers. Nature plays a big role in this world; it will be as much of a challenge as some of the humanoid foes the players will face. A later post will cover this environmental aspect, but for now I will concern myself with some names and personalities the player characters may encounter: the leader of the village, the captain of the guard, a few townspeople (a tradesman, a shopkeeper or two, and maybe a couple farmers.) I will outline the village: a list of major buildings (in alphabetical order for ease of reference.)

Maps will come later, but next part of this series will be religion: god(s) and myths.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Game of Dejarik (Dreams and Suppositions) part 1

By David

Dejarik, holo-chess, the Star Wars chess game. Less than two minutes of screen time and it has obsessed my thoughts for years. I realize it is largely set dressing: distracting background for the scene in which Luke practices the ways of Force-Sense. The animators of the chess pieces probably had the barest of internal logic in mind when they animated the scene. I am sure no rules were written down for the game, it just had to look credible and interesting. I always wanted to own a set of my own, perhaps even learn to play it.

That dream finally had a chance at reality when I discovered the company producing miniatures for Star Wars miniatures games had produced miniature versions of the dejarik pieces! I acquired them by trading some other gaming material I had--but no longer needed--and made a homemade board from wood. Now that I had the physical parts, I needed rules…

My search online resulted in several variations, which all seem to have vanished from the internet, except this one: Holochess by Mike Kelly, But even this one didn’t really seem accurate compared to what I knew from watching the movie. The rules I found seemed like variations on checkers more than chess. When it came down to trying it out, the game moves from the movie could not be duplicated with the fan-created rules available. I decided I would have to do it myself.

I have watched the scene many times over--as I said, I am obsessed--and a gradual pattern began to emerge. There is a definite turn order and even specific moves that vary for each piece that changes position. Some pieces never move, some move off screen (they can be seen in different positions as the scene progresses.) All that remains, in my own thought process, is to determine if an internal consistency can be applied where one might never have existed at all.

I start by mapping the progression of the pieces through the scene. Beginning with the initial placement and the board layout and marking each piece’s changed position as it is shown. The pieces start near to each other on the exterior circle rather than exactly opposite in the board. This suggests either the pieces have already been moved before we see them, or that the placement is not like traditional chess. SInce the pieces are lined up on the outer ring and the action seems to occur mostly on the inner spaces when we see it, I feel safe in assuming what we see is the start of the game.

Next I look at the individual pieces, making notes I hope will help me later in identifying patterns and perhaps pinning down what the pieces represent. The pieces of earth chess are idealized versions of a medieval court, why couldn’t the dejarik pieces be similar stylized avatars or icons?
Next time, I will break down the individual pieces.

Next. Part 2: Meet the players (or rather, the pieces.)