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The Six Months Hoist

It was just about eighteen years ago when I was a member of a youth parliament and we were to debate a contentious piece of legislation. It was not a hot-button issue or related to the events of the time. It was the internal bylaw which defined the age limits for the membership of the parliament. During this debate I could see that emotions were running high. I believed that the proposed changes were the right thing to do, but could also see that it was not going to be helpful to be more forceful in words. Perhaps there was some kind of procedural trick we could employ to end the debate for the moment, depressurize our emotions before resuming, but not defeat the bill and risk sending the message that the changes were not a good idea.

Aha! Right there in the standing orders: the six months hoist. We can take a little while to cool down and then move on to pass the bill, right? Wrong. Due to the way the Westminster system works, when a session of parliament ends all bills not passed are basically tossed in the bin. Being that our sessions lasted for one week per year, to move to adopt a six-month pause in one of our debates was to, essentially, pick up a pen and introduce a motion never to discuss it again. Or at least until a similar bill is drafted from square one, now with the baggage of having been recently voted down in its previous form. The pause button I was looking for simply did not exist.

The big change, if you are curious, was to define the age range to be 15-21 instead of 15-20 with an extra year available only to a 20-year-old who wins election to one of the four top leadership positions. It was the right thing to do at the time. It eventually happened, though too late for me. But that’s not the point of the anecdote.

On second thought, let’s not go to parliament. It is a silly place.

So why do I bring it up at the beginning of the eighth month of 2019, when my most recent post was close to the start of the second month of the same year? Because it was never my intention to disappear entirely. I had intended to follow up with the conclusion of the short D&D adventure I was running at the time before running more Full Steam Ahead. But one week turned into two, one month into two, and every week that I failed to post, the worse I felt about getting down to writing anything or even logging in to see if there was a comment to approve, an update to install, or traffic numbers to look at.

And so while I never got around to announcing the start of it, I am here to announce that my six months hoist is now complete. I have been running more D&D adventures that I will be unpacking in this space. There is more Full Steam Ahead in the hopper. I am getting into some other projects that are kind-of gaming-adjacent, and certainly things I can talk about from an intellectual perspective. I’ve been really getting into Don’t Starve Together despite my apparent inability to get my dedicated server up and running. I’m still alive and things are happening, but it’s going to take a few weeks for me to get into all of it.

This is not an apology. Saying sorry for not posting often enough is usually the last post on blogs that have been dormant for several years and counting. This is what trying to break out of a rut looks like. I started this project because I knew that going any further in writing and publishing starts with showing up, and so there is no time like the present to get up and get my head on straight.

Full Steam Ahead – Terraria

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 63 minutes

This blog is, as the header says, about games. However, even those who are not familiar with the world of games are aware, at least in passing, of the phenomenon of the game Minecraft. I’ve often heard Minecraft compared to Lego bricks, in that their simplicity of design and ease of access allow imagination and creativity to blossom. As a kid, I spent hours with my family’s of tub of assorted lego bricks; no plans, just play. As an adult, I’ve spent hours hours in Minecraft building castles, palaces, complex transport systems, and often just exploring the winding depths of tunnels and far away biomes.

By the way, this post isn’t about Minecraft, at least not directly. However, I find it hard to think of Terraria outside of the context of Minecraft.

I’m not sure why I felt the need to mention that, in retrospect. You all have read the title of this post, you all know it’s going to be about Terraria in the end.

A Successful Defence of The Knuckle

Glitterdoom is an adventure for 5th Edition D&D that I didn’t seek out. It came into my possession because it was included in the same gift bag as my copy of the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. It was an appropriate accessory, but nothing about the product description (you can read it on the page I linked to) really screamed to me “RUN THIS ADVENTURE, IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE!” But after running two sessions (with different player groups) based on this little book, I have found that playing through Glitterdoom has made me feel very successful in doing what I want to do with D&D.

As I wrote about very early in this blog’s history, I’ve become quite weary of dungeon crawls where monsters lack any sense of self-preservation or motives of their own and only exist to wait for the players to arrive and then fight them to the death. I also feel like the true potential of the game is squandered when everything about a battle is reduced to numbers, even if there is a scripted “morale check” or something in the encounter notes that are provided to the DM. In a game that not only allows but often encourages the narrative to change in real time based on many different players making choices, what good is it for any of us to insist on limiting ourselves to running a meat grinder powered by dice?

In Glitterdoom I have found a group of foes that really make it easy to threaten the player characters with hostile undead monsters while at the same time avoiding tedious roll play. The Stone Ghosts are nasty creatures, but they exist for a reason other than waiting for some chumps to come fight them. The lore in the book is well-written but not especially innovative in its narrative. Dwarves grow too fond of their shinies, become too obsessed with mining, dig too deep, then doom their own civilization with an amalgam of greed and foul curses/magic. That is a tale at least as old as Tolkien. But that’s okay because this is written for games rather than for publishing as literature. There was just enough there to give me a good starting point from where I can start improvising. For the DM running a game, that’s better than a finely crafted story that doesn’t leave any space for making up a few things on the spot.

Steelhand Hall, as interpreted by the dungeon tiles I happened to have on hand at the time. This is not a meat grinder that churns out XP and dank loot.

This is accompanied with good mechanics; I have heard from players of both sessions I have run that the Stone Ghosts strike them as tough and dangerous yet not so far out of their league as to make the conflict pointless. Hearing that fills me with glee, as I often struggle to make foes seem like a genuine threat without being practically invincible. This adventure demonstrates what I consider to be great encounter design in being able to give me, as DM, everything I need on the page in front of me to present a difficult but not hopeless challenge to the power of the player characters to fight their way to victory.

There was one more thing I needed to feel successful in showing the Stone Ghosts as effective defenders of their home in The Knuckle. And that is retreat: using their supernatural abilities and home-field advantage, they have slaughtered other (off-screen NPC) adventuring parties. Neither of my player-character parties were killed because they were evidently a bit tougher, having been able to force the Stone Ghosts to withdraw but at such a heavy cost that they too find themselves unwilling to penetrate further into Steelhand Hall (the building that sits on top of the mine). In this, the Stone Ghosts have a purpose other than to wait for the players to arrive and fight. They are there to use whatever unholy means are necessary to keep intruders out of their haunted mine. In this they have suffered a casualty or two, but have largely been successful since Okkar Ironeyes led the first expedition to take place in hundreds of years. Who knows how long they can hold it together against the most recent group?

Whatever happens, I have already been successful in portraying a group of enemies as beings with their own motives and desire for self-preservation. I can feel confident in saying that because the players have indicated that although I only promised it as a one-off that they are interested in giving it another go. A DM knows they have done something right when the players are asking for more.

Annus Praxeos

This year-in-review post’s neologistic title is derived from praxis, which is a word that comes to English from Greek via Latin, meaning the practical application of learning. This time it is chosen not just as a reflection on the year past, but to set an intention for the year ahead.

In 2018 I have struggled a bit with the praxis of Almost Infinite as a whole. I spent a lot of this year coming up with bits and pieces of ideas for what I want to write about and not as much time turning those bits and pieces into coherent prose. Looking back on the list of posts for this year, I can see that Full Steam Ahead has done a lot to keep the updates coming and for that I am very grateful to m friend Alastair. This series really deserves its own description page, which is on my agenda for early 2019.

Almost Infinite is proud to continue Full Steam Ahead in 2019.

Looking back at what I have posted, I am happy with the fact that I have had the opportunity to talk about a variety of different kinds of games and have recently completed a series that is heavier on ideas than “this is the cool thing I am playing this week.” That’s what I wanted to do when I started this, and I can say that this year has been a success as far as staying focused on the original intention rather than devolving into a banal list of nerd stuff that Graham likes.

My intention for 2019 is to do more of the things I have been thinking about doing and talking about doing. That starts in six days, when I am scheduled to stop talking about how much I like the idea of running more TTRPG adventures and getting to the business of running some D&D. As the year unfolds, these are some of the things I intend to be doing with this little soapbox I have:

  • More about political games, especially what one might call the ‘meta’ rather than the nuts and bolts of how contests play out. To be as brief as possible about this: it’s going to be an interesting year in Alberta, Canada, and the world but the internet is already saturated with outlets for hot takes. I want to do something different, for the same reasons I play and write about odd and/or old video games and try to talk more about meaning and philosophy than about media and mechanics. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have positions or personal biases but I really don’t think it’s worth any of our time for me to put on a partisan jersey and try to grab your attention away from more established opinion leaders. Not only am I unlikely to be successful in changing minds and votes, but I would honestly rather talk about ideas than specific outcomes of the contests we are likely to see in 2019. It is also the case that this blog has a geographically diverse readership, and I want to be able to speak to people who don’t live in or have a personal stake in (m)any of the places that are directly relevant to my situation.
  • I would like to continue what I started in the four aspects of a TTRPG series. That is, go deeper into the experience and ideas rather than just sharing war stories from the D&D table. That’s a fine thing to do, but as above, my intention is to look at a different angle rather than compete with the gobs of good content that’s already out there. My goal is to self-publish some sort of TTRPG resource on this site in 2019, though I haven’t nailed down what that is going to look like yet. What I do know is that it will relate to the praxis of putting the ideas I like to talk about into motion at the game table. I’ve always wanted to use the blog as a springboard to other projects, so this could be the first thing I do with Almost Infinite that isn’t strictly a blog post of some kind.
  • Try some new things with the site. Prose with pictures will remain the primary medium, but I’ve been wondering to myself and musing to my friends about looking at interactive fiction as a sort of crossover between game and literature. So in addition to writing about experiences with existing work, I might look at doing some of that kind of content on my own site as well.

So, as I prepare to take another cup o’ kindness yet for auld lang syne, I would like to thank everyone for another great year and express my appreciation for your taking the time to read the stuff we post here. It means a lot to know that people find value in our work.

December 23, 2013

Five years ago today I volunteered to drive a friend to her brother’s house, about two hours each way, so that she could spend Christmas with her family. When we got to the town we were headed to, before we found the house and went inside for tea I decided to ask her if she was interested in us being a couple. Today I am posting from where my wife and I are spending Christmas this year with her family.

For some people there are no special holidays at this time of year. Some of “the holidays” have already come and gone while other folks will be waiting another week or two for their holy days to arrive. For some, Christmas is a profoundly holy time while others are less moved by religion than by their love for the time of social and cultural celebration with loved ones. For some people this is a time of joy, for others it’s difficult. Whatever your tradition and/or disposition, it is my hope that every person reading this will find blessing in their own way as the wheel of the year completes another turn and the light begins to grow longer each day.

I’m back from holidays for a year-end post next Sunday where I will talk about some of the content you can expect to see in 2019.

Full Steam Ahead – Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: none.

Hello again everyone! I’m now writing Full Steam Ahead from my wife’s computer! Sarah was gracious enough to let me transfer my files and games to her desktop (named Numenor). Hopefully, this means I will be able to get Full Steam Ahead back on track, and continue playing games without further delay. Seeing as this is something of a fresh start for me, it’s somewhat appropriate that the first game I play is a game about going back in time. It’s time to return to the middle-eastern fairytale setting of Prince of Persia.

R.I.P. Owner PC. 2010-2018, your name a tribute to how bad I was at naming things.

Press W to Pay Respects

There is a meme out there about unnecessary interactivity. Press F to pay respects. Having heard people talking about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, I assumed that I would find it interesting as a story and uninteresting as a game, just like developer Chinese Room’s previous work, Dear Esther. I would say yes, both, moreso that I expected. I loved the story and the sense of place developed in the valley. I liked having the narrative broken apart and then discovered nonsequentially. However, I think that as a game, this could have been named Unnecessary Interactivity. It’s a lovely setting, but moving through it is very, very slow and the parts where you have to “tune” a memory are not adequately explained at first. Did I mention that movement is slow? The title of this post was inspired by my experience of the game side of it: I was asked to press a button but it didn’t make the experience any more meaningfully interactive.

This is the image I had hoped would capture my experience with the game.

By far the most frustrating part of playing this game was trying to get the image above. I was playing the game via Steam, in which I had remapped the “take screenshot” key to something other than the default. But that was before my hard drive failed and I had to reinstall everything, so I figured I could just alt-tab, reset the key binding, then go take the picture. Did you know that changing Steam settings while a game is running will force-restart a game? I found out in that moment, and then started to scream and pound on my desk. I was psychologically committed to finishing this game and writing a post about it. But I would have to do it all again, from step one, not even able to skip the long artsy intro. It turned out well enough, on the second try I had a much better time with figuring out how to “tune” some of the major plot point anomalies, but the fact that having to redo any part of it caused me such grief says at least as much about my experience as the picture that I intended to take.

As a plot, it was wonderful and interesting. As I described it to my wife, she had mentioned that it has been compared to the film Annihilation. So we watched that film the next day. These are very different stories, though I can see how they can be compared and contrasted, but because I had just finished Rapture and was watching the film because I wanted to know how similar or different it was, the strongest conclusion I could draw was this: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture should have been a film. It would of course require a few subtle changes, but the best thing about Annihilation was that it was able to keep a good pace. It felt neither rushed nor frustratingly slow as Rapture. And no need to mash any keys on my keyboard in the vain hope of picking up a little bit of velocity.

Full Steam Ahead – Endless Space

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 16 minutes

Earlier, while playing The Sims 4, Sarah brought up an interesting point for me to consider: how do I know when I’ve played a game enough to write about it? For some, the plot or story is easily completed in my spare time. For others, the story is loosely defined or not a central part of the game and I need to figure out how much of the game I need to play to get a good feel for it. Two hours? Ten? Twenty? Full Steam Ahead is a fun project, but I am not without my limits; I’ve come to terms with the fact that there are some games I will not be able to fully explore before writing my post.

Well, today’s game is called Endless Space, so I think we can all guess whether I discovered everything or not.

To quote Luke Skywalker, “This is not going to go the way you think.”

Powers of Four: Decisions

This one has taken me a while to write up because I’ve made the mistake of conflating it with agency. It is related, but when we decided that this was an important characteristic of a tabletop roleplaying game I think we were at this point focused on what the GM/DM/storyteller does with those decisions. OK, so you’ve been offered some choices, made them, but where do we go from here?

This is where I might start taking about “sandbox” in opposition to “railroad” if I wasn’t getting tired of those metaphors. I admire those who could run a true “sandbox” at the RPG table; I am not someone who can improv everything on the spot without making a cliche collage. What I have done, and what we identified as typical of an “open world” video game RPG, is to offer a set number of areas that need not be done sequentially. This took the form of there being a castle with four towers and a central keep. Each tower was designed as a stand-alone dungeon with opportunities for players to make choices and face the consequences. In the end, I could have done a better job of making those consequences have more impact on the finale, but it made a big difference to have towers 1, A, i, and α rather than 1, 2, 3, and 4. It means a bit of work on the DM’s part (especially when balancing 4e encounters was the order of the day; one would have to be ready to run four different encounters rather than one), but I think it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in the DM’s chair.

Continuing with the video game metaphors, we also identified the Rockstar/GTA style of “open world” where there is a point A and a point B, but you can take any path through a grid of streets to get there. This does not mean there are no boundaries, because the storyteller still needs to be able to describe interesting things at each point, but it’s probably the most preparation-intensive way to do it when you’re playing a system like World of Darkness. It’s something I would like to try more of, though limited time and patience for being sufficiently prepared is a bit of a daunting challenge.

And then when it comes to the “railroad” the video games we thought of were the Legend of Zelda style (see the fishbone diagram I mentioned in the main post) and the Bioware RPG style, which is more of a curved line with many branches. You can play a lot of the game out on the branches, but there is a main arc to get back to eventually. In a Zelda type game, there are diversions, but there really is only one way forward. These more straightforward modes of progression can offer different levels of agency, but there is a much better defined way to measure progress in the plot. These work well when planning time is at a premium and I certainly don’t mind being “railroaded” especially when the other choice is to bang my head against the wall because I can’t guess what the DM secretly wants me to do/find. Many of our games end up falling somewhere between those, and that’s been OK even though it can sometimes make previous choices feel less important.

So, again, as in all of the rest of the series, I am not here to say that one way is better than any other, just that there are some that have worked better in some situations for me and my group than for others. I hope that this series, mined from the notes I took from that one particularly interesting conversation I had a few months ago, is something that you have found worth the time to read. Alastair returns next week with the next episode of Full Steam Ahead.

Full Steam Ahead – Cosmic DJ

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 1 hour

There are several games I’ve covered (and many more to come) in this series that are difficult to write about. Some are simply too short for me to get much of a read on them. Others are outside my area of expertise. Others are big enough games that I would have to dedicate inordinate amounts of time in order to do them justice.

Others are just kind of weird. The weird games are often the most difficult to write about for a variety of reasons. First of all, weird is an awfully subjective term. For all I know, the weirdest game I’ve ever played could be completely mundane to someone else. What’s more, I always feel like there must be something I’ve missed, some key to help me understand the game, and that I’m not giving it a fair shake.

Cosmic DJ is a short game. It is a game about dance music, a subject where I’m competely clueless. And while it’s not terribly complex or difficult, it is certainly weird.

Growing up, local FM radion station 106.1 (The Goat) had a DJ whose name was Poncho Parker. There, that’s a thing you know now.