Archive for the ‘Gaming’ Category

Ravenloft

Tuesday, 23 July, 2013

I’ve been wanting to run some more roleplaying for some time, and finally managed to herd the group of cats that are my work friends into the same evening. It’s a few weeks away still, but now I can really start planning. The game will be Dungeons & Dragons, 1st edition, and the adventure will be the original classic I6: Ravenloft.

Oh yes. It will be fun.

Stuff I do

Thursday, 30 May, 2013

I tend to have quite a few projects going all the time. I thought I’d take a couple of minutes to list them all in a note-taking program. I was somewhat surprised with how long the list turned out to be. So I thought I’d share, so you have some idea of what sort of stuff I do in my “spare” time.

  • Webcomics
    • Irregular Webcomic! – I did this as a daily comic strip from 2002-2011. I’m no longer making daily comics, but am rerunning strips with additional writer commentary.
    • Darths & Droids – This strip started in 2007, and is ongoing, three times a week. I write it with a group of friends at work. We usually spend one lunchtime a week writing new strips and reviewing upcoming ones just before they are published.
    • mezzacotta – This is a combination webcomic and irregular blog of odd stuff. The comic actually needs no writing or maintenance, so it’s just the occasional blog post here.
    • Square Root of Minus Garfield – A Garfield parody webcomic, started in 2008, updating daily. Most of the strips are submitted by readers – my role is mostly selecting submissions to publish and adding them to the database.
    • Lightning Made of Owls – An original comic which readers contribute strips for. Started in 2008, updated three times a week for a long time but now subsisting on a trickle of submissions.
    • Comments on a Postcard – A “high concept” webcomic, again generated by reader submissions. Started in 2008, updated daily.
    • There are also two old webcomics which have petered out, so I’m not counting them as active projects.
  • Learning
    • Drumming – I’ve been taking weekly drumming lessons at Big Music since April last year.
    • Forming a band – With the friends from work who write Darths & Droids. We’ve only had a couple of practice sessions, but we plan more.
    • Italian – Learning on Duolingo.
  • Writing
    • Irregular Webcomic! essays – Since the daily new comics ended, I’ve been writing a weekly essay about some topic, often scientific, which appears on Sunday’s update instead of a rerun strip.
    • Travel diaries – Whenever I take a trip, I keep a daily travel diary. I stick them on my website when I get home.
    • Secret project – I have a secret writing project I’ve started and hope to finish some day.
  • Creative
    • Photography – I love taking photos. I take them on trips. I take walks and short drives around where I live to visit places just to take photos. I get up an hour before sunrise to go to the beach and photograph the sunrise. I post some of my photos on Flickr.
    • 365 Days Photography – This is a specific photography project. I’m aiming to take a photo every day during 2013. There’s a special set on Flickr for these.
    • Travel photo books – After an overseas trip, I like to assemble some of the best photos into a print-on-demand book, to give a copy to family members and keep a nice printed copy myself.
    • Puzzle solving – My work friends and I enter the annual MUMS and SUMS puzzle competitions. Our team is the CiSRA Puzzlers, and we have won a few prizes, including first place in MUMS in 2007.
    • Puzzle creating – My work friends and I run the annual CiSRA Puzzle Competition. We create our puzzles in our own time and test solve them during lunchtimes at work.
    • Sketching – I occasionally doodle and sketch things using Paper by 53 on my iPad.
  • Gaming
    • Roleplaying games – I haven’t actually run one for a while, but I always have roleplaying campaigns and adventures bubbling away in the back of my mind. I plan to run my friends through Tomb of Horrors (on the understanding that many characters will die and we shouldn’t treat it too seriously). I also plan to run a campaign based in the giant city of Ravnica, borrowed from Magic: The Gathering.
    • Magic: The Gathering booster drafts – My friends and I play semi-regular Magic booster draft tournaments, using the latest sets published by Wizards of the Coast. We also have a stash of old unopened booster packs going as far back as the original Ravnica block, which we occasionally mix and match to create weird hybrid draft formats. We do this sometimes during lunch breaks, and sometimes on Friday evenings.
    • Magic: The Gathering cube drafts – We create custom cubes for drafting Magic as well. So far, most of my playing group have created a cube which we have used. We’ve done powerful cubes full of high-powered cards, and quirky cubes, such as the off-colour cube (cards whose abilities violate the modern colour pie).
    • Magic: The Gathering invented sets – Not satisfied with what Wizards prints, we create our own entire sets and draft those. We’ve done a total of six different invented sets (from memory, it may be one or two more), and at least one of us is always working on another entire new set.
    • Board games – Sometimes we play board games at lunch. Favourites change over time, but have included Settlers of Catan, Formula De, Modern Art, Ra, Citadels, Poison, Tigris & Euphrates, Power Grid, Dominion, Blokus, Ingenious, Puerto Rico, Goa, Alhambra, Seven Wonders, Notre Dame. (I won’t link them all, look them up on BoardGameGeek.)
    • Invent board games – Not content with existing board games, we invent our own. Some are actually card games. Collectively we’ve invented something like a dozen games.
  • Physical activities
    • Walking project – I share this project with my wife. We have a map of North Sydney Council, in which we we live. We are in the process of walking the full length of every street and every walking track in the council area. We began two years ago, and might complete it this year. (The rule is: for a walk to count, we must do it together, and start and end the walk at our home – no car or public transport allowed.)
    • Stretching – Every weekday I do a short series of stretching exercises to strengthen my lower back muscles and keep my limbs flexible.
    • Swimming – From about October to April I swim. Usually 1200 metres, three times a week.
    • Tennis – I play tennis once a week. Well, up until a few months ago when my opponent had an injury. We should start again soon.

To close this post, I’d just like to say one thing. If your reaction to my list is to think, “Man, you have too much spare time,” then you are wrong. Please read this essay I wrote about creativity and spare time. I don’t think I can say it any better than that here. :-)

Magic Goldfish Draft

Friday, 24 May, 2013

A couple of weeks ago I participated in a Magic: The Gathering draft tournament with my friends, with a difference. We invented this format called the Goldfish Draft. Your goal is to defeat a “goldfish” (an opponent who does nothing but draw and play a land every turn) using cards drafted from a special cube (set of carefully pre-selected cards). You stack your deck any way you like, and deal as much damage as you can in seven turns. The full rules are here.

Anyway, Andrew is posting a series of daily blog posts about his draft choices in the tournament. I also gave him my draft picks and cumulative pick-by-pick score, which he’s mentioning in his posts. Read Andrew’s first post here, and follow daily on his blog.

Missing the Flavour

Friday, 8 June, 2012

So after spending four weeks offline while overseas, I recently caught up on Magic: The Gathering articles over on Daily MTG. The only regular column articles I really read thoroughly are Mark Rosewater’s Making Magic (an absolutely essential read for anyone even vaguely interested in game design of any sort) and what I still like to think of as Matt Cavotta’s Taste the Magic (despite the lamentable fact that Matt gave up the mantle of author to Doug Beyer way back in 2007, accompanied by a name change of the column to Savor the Flavor; not that I have anything against Beyer – he’s a great writer too – but I miss Cavotta).

My reading of Daily MTG is sporadic at the best of times, but I always like to catch up on those columns. I don’t really care so much for all the other columns about optimising your decks, or what the pro players are doing, or what the tournament scene is like, though I do look at them for the cool art and to get the odd idea about how to play the game a bit better. When it comes to player demographics, I’m more of a Melvin/Vorthos than any of Timmy, Johnny, or Spike. (See here if you have no idea what those names mean. Again, they’re worth understanding if you are at all interested in game design, and not just MTG.)

And so it came as a shock to me when I noticed that the archive of Savor the Flavor ended on the 28th of March this year. Doug wrote a farewell column, stating that he was moving on to other jobs within Wizards of the Coast which didn’t give him time to wrote Savor the Flavor any more, and that Wizards hadn’t been able to come up with a suitable replacement writer for the column.

My first reaction: NOOOOOOOO!!!!!

My second reaction, completely unbidden, about three milliseconds later: “I’ll write it!!!”

Of course, this is (almost) completely impractical. I’d have to be given the job by Wizards of the Coast (hmmm, I could live with that). I’d have to be given privy information on upcoming set design (I guess I could live with that). I’d have to write a weekly column on Magic: The Gathering back-story, world design, mythology, art direction, flavour text, and so on, to a strict deadline (I could definitely live with that). Realistically the main obstacle is that Wizards doesn’t know me from a bucket of slime.

This is not to lament my lack of opportunity, but rather to marvel at the fact that my subconscious put me up for the job without any active thought on my part. Actually thinking about it and analysing the idea, I honestly think I could do the job well, but the inner workings of my brain actually realised that before I even had time to give it serious conscious thought. That’s pretty cool.

But, the coolness of my own mysterious subconscious aside, this is (was) a sad day for me, and for everyone else who loves a bit of flavour in their Magic. I just hope Wizards finds a replacement author for the column sooner rather than later. The wider world of Magic will be the poorer in the meantime for not having a dedicated outlet for giving players detailed access to the world, story, and art design of the game.

Caves of Chaos maps

Tuesday, 7 February, 2012

Caves of ChaosDid you ever play or run dungeon module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands? Check out these gorgeous reimagined maps of the Caves of Chaos, by Weem.

The D&D nerd and the cartography nerd within me are both squeeing with glee.

Plasmonic

Saturday, 3 December, 2011

I guess with the Star Trek episodes done, I should post some other things here.

I donated blood plasma today – I think it’s my 44th donation. I usually do whole blood, but they don’t want my red cells for a few months after I visited South America earlier this year. I took a photo of myself hooked up to the apheresis machine (avoid if photos of needles are not your thing – photo here).

And I ran across this: Legend: an OGL fantasy roleplaying game rule set, available for the next week on a “pay what you want” basis, with all proceeds going to Child’s Play, a charity that uses gaming to make kids stuck in hospital feel a bit better. Cool – it’s always nice seeing people contribute work for a good cause.

Early to rise

Saturday, 9 April, 2011

How's the water this morning?I got up at 4:30 on Friday morning to go out to Curl Curl Beach and take some photos of the sunrise. It’s the nicest time of year to do this, and it will probably be my last chance before leaving for South America. The sunrise wasn’t great, but I got some half decent shots.

It was pitch black when I got to the beach, but there were already some people swimming in the rock pool at the southern end. By the time the sun came up, it was like rush hour – dozens of people in the pool, lots of surfers out, a fisher collecting bait on the rocks, several joggers, an entire fitness class being put through a routine with a trainer, and a guy on the beach doing a painting! It would be so nice to live by the beach and get up before dawn every day!

Friday was also Magic night – we played a 5-player round robin draft of the latest two sets: Scars of Mirrodin and Mirrodin Besieged. Alas, I lost every game! And I thought my deck was pretty good when I was assembling it too. Oh well, my excuse is I was too tired!

Loki’s Awesome Draft

Wednesday, 1 December, 2010

I play Magic: The Gathering a lot with friends at work during our lunchtimes. Mostly we tend to play draft format tournaments, in which each player opens three new packs of cards (15 cards per pack) one at a time, picks one card, then passes the pack around the table. You continue picking one card per pack and passing the remainder, until you have 45 cards of your choice, with which you build a deck. We then play a round-robin of 3-game matches, played to completion (i.e. if you win a match 2-0, you still play the third game). Your tournament score is the total number of games you win, with ties broken by countback. A tournament like this takes us about 3 or 4 weeks to finish off, playing at lunchtime.

Anyway, most of the tournaments we do use the brand new card sets that Wizards of the Coast print a few times a year. These are fun and exciting because they involve newly designed cards from the ever-expanding imaginations of the experienced and clever professional game designers.

Another thing we’ve done a few times is to design our own sets of original cards, print up copies, shuffle them into “packs” of 15 random cards each, and draft with those. Our first effort, which we dubbed Inventica, was a joint one, in which we all contributed an equal number of our own card designs. Let me tell you, experience playing Magic does not make you a good card designer. Many of the cards from that set were either just lame and dull, or severely broken in ways that destabilised the game balance. It’s gone down in our joint gaming experience as one of the most severely broken events ever, though it was amusing in hindsight and somewhat fun at the time. We learnt a lot about designing good cards form that experience.

The next invented set was Asgard, which was the product of one of us (Loki) working in secret. This is a daunting task, designing enough cards for 7 players, making them interesting, and trying to make them balanced. Again, it was fun, but the design was perhaps too ambitious, with many new mechanics that didn’t have enough breathing space to really gel. It was nowhere near as brokenly overpowered as Inventica, and in fact probably went the other way.

We began design on another two other joint efforts: Horrifica, for which we decided on a unified theme (which Inventica didn’t have), namely a horror theme. The plan was to design the cards communally, with people submitting ideas and letting everyone comment and tweak until we had a finely tuned set. Alas it never really got off the ground, though we still have the early notes somewhere. The other effort was Thriceborn, which had a theme of three-colour “guilds”. This built on the concept of the two-colour guilds introduced in the official Ravnica block. We came up with this idea before the official Alara block was released, which did three-colour “shards”, and were only partway through the design when it appeared. Thriceborn has been on hold for a while, but it’s about 50% designed and we hope to finish it off some day.

The next creative effort was Draftikar, designed by me. This set used mechanics that actually interacted with the fact that we were using the cards in a draft tournament format. For example, there were cards that, when you drafted them – before any games were even played – did things, like letting you draft an extra card, or pass packs to different players. And when we draft we put the cards into card sleeves that are numbered A1 to A15 for the first pack, B1 to B15 for the second, and C1 to C15 for the third, so we can later record the drafting order and do statistics on it and so on. This means each card has a visible number on it (on the front, not the back) – so I created mechanics that used that number. For example, a spell that does D damage, where D is the draft number of that card. These were somewhat self-balancing, because people didn’t pick them at numbers that were underpowered, and then drafted them at numbers before they became too powerful, lest later players grab them – though in practice the decisions were complex enough that some rather overpowered cards got through. It was fun, but some of the cards were truly broken. More lessons learnt.

Another two players are now working on entire set designs of their own, and we hope to play them some time soon.

But then another thing we are now doing is creating “cubes” of cards, which are simply sets of the necessary numbers of cards gathered from our various card collections, shuffled, and made into “packs”, which are then drafted normally. A cube can have some theme uniting the cards selected. The first one we did was a Dross Cube, made of the weakest and most over-costed cards from one guy’s collection. These are cards that serious players reject and never use, because there are simply better cards in existence. It was amusing to have to build decks comprised of cards that we’d never normally use, and generated some very fun interactions and effects that we never would have seen otherwise. And because it was made entirely from real cards, it was balanced in its own way, and nobody really had an overpowering advantage like in our invented sets.

Now, we’ve just begun another cube – the polar opposite of the Dross Cube. This is the Awesome Cube, made of a collection of some of the most overpowered and insane cards that Wizards have ever printed. Loki went to the effort of buying several cards online to put into this cube, and we are all in awe of what he has assembled. It doesn’t have any of the Power Nine – cards so overpowered that they command prices well over $100 each – but it does have plenty of cards from the next tier of legendarily broken cards. There are cards so powerful they have been banned from official tournaments. But there are dozens of them – in fact pretty much every single card in this cube would be an automatic inclusion in a deck in any other limited format tournament. It was staggering to see packs being handed around during the draft with the best ten cards already taken, and seeing the remaining cards still presenting the dilemma that you wanted to keep 3 or 4 of them because they are just that good.

I’ll talk more about this cube later. I don’t want to say much more now because we’ve just started the tournament and I don’t want the other guys to read what astounding things I have in my deck. My deck is, frankly, awesome and completely and utterly broken. My fear is that everyone else’s deck is at least just as overpowering. :-)

Fighting robots

Friday, 12 March, 2010

I do semi-regular Magic: The Gathering draft tournaments with friends. For anyone who doesn’t know, this involves getting packs of randomly sorted game cards and the drafting them, usually in the following fashion:

  1. Each player opens a pack of 15 cards and picks one card to keep and play the tournament with. The remaining cards are passed to the next player around the table (to the left, initially).
  2. Continue picking one card and passing the rest until everyone has 15 cards.
  3. Repeat for two more packs of cards, reversing the direction of passing each pack.
  4. Each player now has 45 cards, with which to construct a deck to play in the tournament. You typically use about 23 of the cards and add enough basic land cards from a common pool to total a deck size of 40.

So obviously choosing which cards to draft is an important tactical part of the overall tournament performance. It’s also a lot of fun in itself.

One of us had the idea to write a computer code framework to handle the administrative details, with an API that allows it to talk to other programs. Then each of us would write a program to make drafting decisions based on card details given to the program by the framework. We’d abstract a lot of the fiddly details out of the actual Magic cards and work with a much simpler system that basically gives certain card combinations scores based on properties of the cards. Then we’d run about 1000 drafts using the programs and analyse the statistics. The goal is to see which of our programs can draft a “better” deck in this system.

This was proposed to us in an e-mail, suggesting we might want to do this for something fun. The e-mail concluded with the following lines:

Pros:
* Creating robots to fight each other is always fun.

Cons:
* Complete waste of time.

I thought this was amusing… but also slightly inaccurate. After all, something this unutterably geeky should be a complete waste of time in order to be worth doing!

Anyway, since the proposal was made – less than 24 hours ago as I type – one of us has already written a framework program to enable this AI robot card drafting tournament. You can’t keep a good geek down! If we get some interesting results, I’ll be sure to share them.

Reality and unreality

Thursday, 18 February, 2010

A while back I ran a roleplaying adventure for some of my friends. It was a scenario I wrote myself, with a sort of X-Files vibe to it. The PCs were FBI agents, investigating what at first appeared to be an ordinary case, but which turned a bit weird once they uncovered what was really going on.

At this point the game bogged down a bit. I was ready and waiting for the agents to start kicking butt and attacking the problem with guns blazing. After all, Mulder and Scully would leap right in. But my players didn’t. Instead they did the considerably more realistic thing of sneaking around and trying to gather evidence. It was only when I finally threw a rampaging Unseelie horse at them that one of them fired a shot in self-defence. From there the cat was out of the bag and all Hell broke loose, as I’d been hoping it would for about an hour of game time.

The chaos that followed was a lot of fun. But I was just a little mystified as to why the players took so long to get there. Then when the game was over, a couple of them explained that they went into the game taking their roles as FBI agents seriously, determined not to step out of line and to do things by the book. Which was fine and understandable from their point of view, but not what I was expecting.

My assumption was that the PCs would be “TV style” FBI agents, not realistic ones. I expected them to ignore the rules and get their hands dirty to get the job done. The problem was I hadn’t told the players that. I hadn’t run a game for some time, and it felt really bad to have made such a fundamental mistake. But I’ve learnt the lesson now. Make sure your players know what you’re expecting of them. Surprise and secrecy about what is going to happen in the adventure are vital to a roleplaying game, but more important is making sure everyone’s playing under the same assumptions before you begin.

If I’d just said up-front, “You’re flamboyant, TV-style FBI agents who get away with breaking the rules when necessary” as opposed to “realistic agents who do their work silently and never fire a gun,” the game would have run much more smoothly. Ah well. Here’s to experience, and not making the same mistake twice.