Saturday, March 15, 2014

The infinite pi in the sky

So Pi Day has just come and gone. I wouldn't ordinarily notice, seeing as this "holiday" is not really celebrated in my country and nobody in my (admittedly very small) social circle gives even half a shit about it. And even though I could write for days about how its appointed date can only be applicable in the backwards crazy-ass American date notation where for whatever reason you put the smallest unit in between the largest two, or about what's even the point of celebrating pi as it will be there whether you like it or not and how doing so gives you about as much "geek cred" as knowing what that Nintendo thing is, I can generally let stupid people have their stupid rituals and go on with my life. At least, that was until I came across this.

It appears as a pretty harmless article. Okay, so it's Pi Day and you want to celebrate pi? Well, here's ten ways to do it. Alright, that seems harmless enough... uh... What's that in the headline? Pi is infinte?


Okay, that's a pretty dumb thing to say, but this is just a news story and Bob knows that journalists don't really hold all that much factual knowledge. Surely this is a mistake no actual pi fan would make. Right?


Okay, guys, listen closely. I know this will come as a shock to you and you won't believe me at first, but you need to hear it. Ready? OK, here goes:

Pi is not infinite. And we know it's not infinite because its value lies between the two very finite values of 3.14 and 3.15. We know this because every circle in the universe has a finite non-zero radius and circumference. We also know this because we know that infinity is technically not a number.

Words have meanings, especially in the scientific world, and "infinite" is one of them. Using it to describe pi is about as big a boner as calling gravity "just a theory" - that word just doesn't mean what you think it means, Charlene. Do you want to talk about how "the digits just go on and on forever"? We already have a term for that, and you already used it. Irrational. Now, granted, that definition is a bit more strict than that, but having a nonterminating decimal notation is a direct consequence of its primary properties.

What? You still don't believe me? In that case, allow me to shatter your very perception of the number by using a little mathemagic. For my next trick, I shall transform this ugly 3.141592654... into a neat little 10. How did I do that? Simple, I wrote the number pi... in base-pi. Wow, look at that! We have pi, and it's not infinite! It only has two digits, a sleek 1 and an imposing 0! What sorcery is this?

I understand why you celebrate the Pi Day. I don't necessarily agree with it, but I understand it. You are enthusiastic about this mathematical phenomenon, this number that is so simple and yet so advanced, it's so easy to understand, but has just so many ramifications, not just for mathematical calculations, but even the real world. You want to show off your enthusiasm to the world and share it with others. But you're not helping anybody by spouting misinformation about this magical constant.

One of the goals of Pi Day is to encourage people to learn more about mathematics. Maybe you could start by getting your facts about its mascot straight.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Trust me, I do know what's funny

Fuck laugh tracks. Fuck them and the mentality behind them, whether it is "you're so dumb, we have to tell you when to laugh" or "you're much more likely to laugh when you hear other people laughing". In either case, laugh tracks should die, and along with them, all the people who need them, both the creators and executives who think they'll make their shows better, and the viewers who are too dumb to recognize a joke on their own. Seriously, go jump off a building or something. You won't be missed.

"But T-Jack, modern shows usually use live studio audience instead." Well fuck you, hypothetical reader with good intentions. It really pisses me off to no ends when somebody thinks that they're somehow "better" for using live audience's reactions instead of sound clips. First, those people largely do what they're told, anyway. You think those applauses and laughter are genuine? Why do you think studios have large prompt lights with these instructions on them? No, I can't believe these people think they're better for taking living humans and making them do a computer's job. I don't even know if it's a paid job or if those people have to pay for tickets, but you know what? It doesn't matter. Whether you make a living off of laughing on command or pay for it, you are scum. Please refer to the end of the first paragraph.

"But live audiences can provide a much wider range of responses than a laugh track!" Or, in other words, my TV can produce more reactions that the show completely fails to elicit in me. Newsflash, dipshits, there is no difference between canned and actual laughter from the viewer's standpoint, and you don't get to be smug for thinking otherwise. Just look at that picture. Look at the pompous photos and the self-righteous caption. Look at that piece of shit! Fuck you, Chuck Lorre Productions. If you really cared about what the viewers think, you would write a better show.

Some of the funniest shows I've seen had no laugh track at all, except for instances where it was being deliberately mocked, Scrubs and Community being some of them. Hell, the dubbed version of M*A*S*H I grew up with had the laugh track completely removed, and the DVD gives you the option to turn it off. So with such a good record of shows without a laugh track, why do production companies still use it today? The only explanation I can come up with is the Universal Explanation: the malevolence and stupidity of the human race.

Also, wow. For someone who doesn't watch TV, I sure do hold a lot of vitriol against it.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On telling stories and throwing bricks

A brick joke is a seemingly underwhelming joke that, unbeknownst to the listener, serves as a setup for a punchline that is told much later. It got its name from the stereotypical form of two otherwise unrelated jokes connected only by their endings. In the first joke, a brick is tossed away, and in the second, it appears out of nowhere and lands.

Lately, I've been thinking about storytelling in terms of juggling bricks. If you consider a story to be a series of setups and payoffs, a "brick" would be any plot thread or element that plays a certain role in the story, "throwing" it would mean introducing it and "catching" would stand in for it playing its role in the story. Take for example the classic example of Chekhov's Gun: The rifle on the mantle. When it's first shown, the writer takes a metaphorical brick, writes "gun" on it and chucks it in the air. Later, when somebody grabs the rifle and shoots it, the brick falls down, the writer catches it and puts it aside.

So am I just describing basic storytelling in different terms? Well, yes, I am. I'm describing an abstract concept in concrete terms of everyday objects, makng it easier for the human brain to understand and work with it. The brick-juggling metaphor can tell you how to tell a story.

A good story, the idea goes, is like a good brick-juggling performance. The juggler should be doing something at all times - a scene which doesn't move the plot forwards, either as setup or payoff, should be cut. There should always be at least one brick in the air - if you resolve all plot elements in the middle of the story, you might as well cut the story in half. Letting the brick fall on the ground and break - abandoning plot threads without resolution - is viewed as sloppy, while catching bricks that were never thrown - pulling plot resolutions out of your own ass - is just weird. And the more intricate the juggler gets with how he handles each individual brick, the more interesting the performance gets. If you just throw twenty bricks, one by one, and then catch them, the audience will get bored quickly. Better get creative - bounce bricks back up, throw some sneakily, that sort of thing. Often, a performance is the most enjoyable when you can watch it again, knowing well what to expect, and still be surprised at tricks you didn't notice the first time.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Things of Interest: Freefall

Here's an awesome little webcomic that is criminally unknown. Although, "little" may not be the best word to describe it. Although it uses the three panel format native to most newspaper comics, Mark Stanley's Freefall already has over fourteen years of contionuous tri-weekly updates, during which it was able to explore many serious issues wrapped in a nice and well-thought-out hard sci-fi package.

The story is set in distant future on the planet Jean, still in its early stages of terraforming. Human colonists, living safely in the few habitable places on the planet (giant dome cities), are working on turning the hostile Jean into a more hospitable Earth-like planet, but also establishing their culture and improving their homes and lives. And in the middle of all this, we meet our main characters.

Sam Starfall is the "heroic" "captain" of the "spaceship" Savage Chicken. Well, he's more of a petty criminal who's already managed to teach most of Jean's population to watch their wallet whenever he's around. Sam takes the shape of a humanoid in a blue environmental suit, but he's actually a Sqid, an intelligent squid-like alien scavenger (a fact he often uses to justify his crimes). His sidekick is Helix, a none-too-bright warehouse robot and apprentice ne'er-do-well. Although there is a moderately tragic backstory to Sam, these two are mostly used as a comedic duo, and their wacky adventures usually don't have much impact on the overall plot.

The more serious plot threads are carried out by the third and final crewmember, gravitational engineer Florence Ambrose. She, unlike Sam and Helix, has a strong sense of morality and upholding the law. From this stems the early plot's main conflict, as both Sam and Flo attempt to convert each other to their way of seeng the world. Florence, as a part of her occupation, is very knowledgeable about technology, and thus is used to explain, or have explained to her, many of the background elements of Freefall's technology, from various details of Jean's terrafroming, to methods of interstellar travel, to theory and reality of artificial intelligence. Oh, and she's also a Bowman's Wolf, a specimen of red wolf genetically engineered to raise her intelligence and give her bipedal locomotion and hands capable of operating small objects. Her backstory, explaining why she is what she is, is revealed throughout the comic's long run, but the most important fact is that technically, she is classified as an AI, putting her at the same level as Jean's innumerable robotic population.

Oh, yes, the robots. Surrounding them is the main plot of the comic. Since Jean is still largely inhospitable, the planet houses over a hundred thousand times more robots than humans. Normally, this shouldn't be that much of a problem, since all robots are created as the stereotypical Three Laws Compliant, inherently logical and kinda dumb machines, but as Florence soon finds out, the robots start becoming more human-like in their character once they age beyond a certain point. And while Florence investigates the causes and ramifications of this bevaior and the robots themselves start establishing their culture and building towards their push for AI rights, certain humans attempt to undermine them in order to "save" humanity.

Of course, only a small percentage of the strips are dedicated to this main storyline. Most of the comic's run focuses on various episodes in the character's everyday lives. Sam and Helix try to return something they stole in the past, only to incite a hostage situation at the local museum. The crew gets a job deploying sattelites in Jean's orbit, only for Sam to accidentally have a video of him getting his scarf stuck in the toilet sent to other ships' captains. Florence goes shopping for ship supplies, while accompanying a friend to the mall. Sam steal some bread, which results in a fight in the Strategic Pie Reserve Warehouse (seriously). The thing is, the stories are not only consistently funny, they also flow into each other naturally, forming a consistent narrative all the way through.

There are currently over 2,300 Freefall strips published, so if you decide to pick this webcomic up, you'll have a lot to chew through, but let me assure you it's all worth it. You shall be entertained, and a bit educated, all the way through to the, well, today.

Monday, February 11, 2013

I'm a rogue, I do rogue stuff

Here's something that annoys me greatly about traditional RPG systems, something that, unfortunately, is seen as inherent to the very core of role playing games, and that something is the concept of character classes and experience levels. I do realize that RPGs have to take certain liberties with "realism" in order to offer you, the player, comprehensible rules of the game universe, which is how we get hit points as a stand in for a character's health or skill ranks that quantify the character's abilities. However, I believe that the traditional class and experience systems are far more restrictive than they need to be.

For those of you who don't know, a "class" is the RPG term for a character's profession. One way to look at it is that a class is basically a pre-packaged bundle of skills, feats and special abilities that define the character's role in the adventure. Fighters fight, wizards cast spells, bards do bard stuff, rogues do rogue stuff. The problem with this is, though, that your character usually ends up defined entirely by their class. You're not Lord Gabriel of Asken, you're The Fighter. You're not Moonslip the Orphan, you're The Thief. Players are discouraged from differentiating their cleric from the bajillion other clerics that came before. The cause of this problem is the way in which the class system restricts what skills is any given class allowed to possess, either by making investing in cross-class skills expensive or outright impossible. If you're lucky, your system will allow the thief instruct the ranger on how to pick pockets or let the monk train the mage in advanced staff combat skills. If you're not, well, better hope you like having no identity.

I have encountered a particularly nasty case of this in the Czech knock-off version of Dungeons & Dragons called Dračí Doupě ("Dragon's Lair"). In this system, a character's abilities are given entirely by their class, of which there are five (each of which then branches out into two different prestige classes at level 6). The rules spend a lot of time outlining what each class can or can't do, including what equipment they're allowed to use, but then the DM's Handbook contains a section that essentially says "well, of course these things aren't forbidden per se, you just have to think real hard about why they're said so and rule accordingly". In other words, the system forbids perfectly rational actions (such as a ranger using a stolen heavy weapon when breaking out of jail or a wizard wearing armor) for no reason other than ballancing issues and then provides the DM with no way to resolve these issues apart from "use your best judgment".

I have mentioned the traditional experience system, too. Unlike the class system, this one doesn't really irk me all that much and I can see why it's so popular, after all, a character's level is a clear indicator of how strong that character is. Also, it provides an easy way to simulate the growth of a character's capabilities. My only problem with it is that it's really not all that important and it allows the flaws of the class system to exist. This is especially evident in systems that allow players to make multi-class characters, as their experience levels count towards their classes, not the character as a whole. I like to say that the levelling system solves problems that would otherwise not even exist.

Saying all this, I believe it's no surprise that I have decided not to implement a class or levelling system in my homebrew, instead opting to go with an alternate system that has appeared in parts in other games. The cornerstone of this system consists of what I call "advancement points" that are either "bought" for collected experience (the homebrew specifically set the price of one advancement point as 100 experience points) or awarded directly by the GM. These points are then used to, well, advance the character, mainly by increasing skill ranks, but also by buying feats or improving hit points (if your system has those things). I'll be the first to admit that this system is far from perfect - it is rather simplistic, even though its implementation requires balancing out the costs and the rate at which the points are awarded - but I like the way it smooths out character progression.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Die Selection system

Today, I'm going to build on what I said in my last postabout good RPGs only using a minimal number of different dice rolls. Now, you may not believe it, but I have tried to design my own homebrew RPG system in the past, although unsuccessfully. Oh, who am I kidding, of course you're going to believe it. The point is, I do have some basics thought up.

The main thought of that system was to put as much decisive power into the GM's hand as possible and minimise the effect that a character's stats would have on that character's player's roleplaying, and the way I did that was by simplifying the number parts of that system as much as possible. Part of that simplification was the Die Selection system.

The point of the DS system is that each roll is tied to an attribute, usually a character's stat, and that attribute can have one of three values, which are 0 (null), + (plus) and - (minus), with null being average, plus being good and minus being bad, obviously. This has the effect of simplifying character stats, since their attributes' values are only given by one of the three symbols, not a numerical value, thus achieving the second goal stated in the previous paragraph.

The roll itself uses two dice, and although I'll be using d10s for reasons I stated in my last post, they can be of any kind. The only rule is that they have the same amount of sides and different colors.The way it works is that you roll both dice and, barring unusual circumstances that I'll talk about soon, you select which one applies as the result based on the attribute tied to the roll. If the attribute's value is:
  • plus, the higher number rolled applies.
  • minus, the lower number rolled applies.
  • null, the die that was selected beforehand applies.
That last example is why the dice need to have different colors. For example, let's say that you have a blue die and a red die, then you can say that "For all my null rolls, the blue die will apply". But then why even roll the red die? There is a reason for that.

Critical successes and failures (or crits and botches for short) are a big part of any RPG system, which is why I added them into the DS system, too. But I had to find a way that would implement them in an easy way that would give you the same chance of a crit or botch regardless of the roll atrribute. And I found one. So the way critical rolls work is, if the sum of your rolled numbers is 3 or lower, you have rolled a botch, and symmetrically, if the sum is 19 or higher, you have rolled a crit. Critical rolls are resolved before the die selection, meaning "crit" or "botch" is a result of the roll instead of a numerical value, not in addition to. As for what they mean, well, there are multiple ways to handle them. You could say they're autimatic successes/failures, you could have a confirmation roll à la the d20 system or you could come up with your own far more original solution. I'd say let the GM decide.

Now I'll be the first one to damit that this system is far from perfect. One thing in particular that rubs me the wrong way about it is the way how a minus roll will almost never result in anything more than 4 and a plus roll will scarcely drop below 7. But then again, that's kind of the point and let's be honest here, if you find yourself in a situation where a minus roll is inevitable, you've probably done something wrong. Or the DM hates you.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Ten-Sided Master Race

d10s are the only dice that are worth having and using, all the other dice suck. d6s are baby toys, and who the fuck would in their right mind even use a d20? You could just as well roll a marble. d8s look like d6s that got the number of faces and vertices wrong and what the fuck is even a d4? What, you couldn't even afford a face that would, uh, face upwards? You have to read the value off of a point? At least d12s look cool, what with being made of pentagons and all. They're almost as good as d10s, but only almost.

Okay, now that I got the silly out of my system, let me get a bit more serious on this subject. I do believe that ten-sided dice are the best choice for tabletop RPG, a belief I share with Jacob, who nicknamed it rather beautifully "the glorious ten-sided master race". I don't know his reasoning, but my train of thought stems from what I think an ideal RPG should be like.

My ideal RPG would be focused on the role-playing aspect of the game, not on the sheet of paper that defines your character. It would be less about rolling high numbers and more aboput making the right choices in difficult situations. It should also not limit what kind of stories you can tell in them, by which I mean it shouldn't define special rules and, especially, rolls, because once it does, it starts to limit potential stories to a particular genre, or worse yet, setting. Fantasy RPGs are especially guilty of this when they start defining magic systems so interwoven with the central rules that if you take it out, the whole system collapses into an unplayable mess. For those reasons, I think the ideal RPG would have complex rules and very simple dice rolls. Ideally, one single roll.

So why should that one roll use ten-sided dice? Well, it's partly mathematics and partly convenience. Convenience, because some dice are simply "better" at giving random results than other. For one, the general shape of a die influences how well it rolls. I admit, this is a very subjective point, but from my experience, d4s and d8s are very bad in this regard due to their very angular nature. This would imply that the less angular a die is, and the more faces it has, the better it rolls, but there's more to it than just that. You see, most gaming dice aren't exactly fair. They're made in a device called "rock tumbler". Those interested can research the whole process in their own time, but for what I'm saying here it's only important to know that the end result is a die with rounded edges that is more dense in certain parts. While this irregularity only poses as a very small influence on the randomness of that particular die, it's still there and the easier it is for the die to, in physics terms, change from one state to another, the bigger the influence is. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable with hundred-sided dice (yes, they exist, although they're made using more fair methods), but it's mainly a big problem with modern twenty-sided dice. For example, my good ol' purple d20 tends to land on 18 and adjacent numbers (2, 4 and 5) more than anything else.

Following the above logic, the best choices for our one true die are d6, d10 and d12. So why do I choose the d10? As I said before, mathematics. In the most simple case, a one die roll, I don't think the scale of 1-6 is large enough to allow for convenient division. In a simple success/fail case, the probabilities only move in sixths, and the problem only worsens in cases where we have multiple results. In this regard, the 1-12 scale is clearly superior, because it's divisible by 2, 3, 4 and 6. So the d12 sounds like an ideal candidate, and in a way it would be, were I not human. But I am, and as a result I'm primed to think in base-10, which makes operating with numbers between 1-10 much easier, which comes in handy when you need to roll more than one die, not to mention that humans just instinctively understand the scale of 1 to 10 better than any other. There's also the ability to perform a so-called "percentile roll" (d%) that provides you with a scale of 1-100.

In terms of major RPG systems, at least those that I'm somewhat familiar with, d10s are important in Vampire: The Masquerade, and probably other World of Darkness systems as well, with what I think is a very beautiful roll mechanic, where the player's stats influence not an additive modifier to the roll, but rather the number of d10s that they roll. I have seen versions that use d6s rather than d10s, but I believe that was a homebrew "hack" of the game, not any official version. There are other major systems that utilize different kinds of dice, for example GURPS (d6) and the d20 system (guess), so don't think that the d10 is unviersally revered as the Jesus of dice. This is all just my opinion, so feel free to disagree.