Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Art of Mastering the Game

I've been playing role playing games, in one form or another, for about 26+ years (I started playing Dungeons & Dragons ™ when I was 13; I'm now 39 – do the math). Which means, I've been playing these types of games for longer than some of the members of my current gaming group have even been alive (holy shit, I'm old!). There are a couple of things that make these games fun; for me anyway. There's the social interaction, for one, but mostly it's just fun to be able to vent frustrations by portraying a character that can do things that I can't – either because I don't have the skills, or because in the real world, I'd be in jail if I did many of things my characters have done in game. There's also the fact that by participating in a role playing game, I get the feeling that I'm one among a group of authors who are collaborating to “write” an open ended story. I've always wanted to write a novel, but anytime I get an idea and start writing, I realize that I'm just rehashing typical fantasy stories, or my idea is to much like some author's work, and I really don't want to get sued, so I stop writing. Playing an RPG helps to satiate my desire to write.

The balancing act of keeping the game fun and interesting falls squarely in the lap of the Game Master (aka, Dungeon Master, Storyteller, Weaver, referee, etc.). The GM, has the job of coming up with the setting and plot of this open ended story – sometimes using published works specifically written for the game, sometimes coming up with their own (or, in the case of games I have run as GM, a combination of both). The players, portraying various characters within the setting, collaborate with the GM to unfold a dynamic story.

The challenge any GM has is to not only come up with a story arc that is compelling and draws the players in, but to also keep a balance withing the mechanics of the game. Almost every RPG uses statistics and dice to help determine outcomes. It's all well and good for me to announce that my player performs a certain action, but, as in real life, success is not a foregone conclusion, so dice are rolled and compared to the character's abilities and skills versus how difficult the task is, or versus another character's ability to out maneuver or out smart the player's character. For example, a decide that my character wants to climb a wall and he has a climbing skill of, let's say +2. I roll a twenty sided die (d20), and add my +2 climbing skill to the die roll. The GM then has to decide just how difficult this particular wall is to climb; is it smooth, or does it have spots that jut out that could be used for hand and foot holds? He/she sets a target number that the character has to meet to succeed. So, for this example, we'll say that it's not a terribly high wall, and has places to grab, so the GM sets the target number at 10. I roll a 9 on the d20, adding my +2 for my climbing skill for a total of 11. My character succeeds in climbing the wall. The trick is, the GM has keep mechanics like this balanced – and by balanced I mean both fair and challenging. Sometimes, a task is very simple, sometimes it's challenging, and sometimes it's downright heroic or epic in scope. If the GM sets the target numbers to low, the games not challenging enough. If he sets them to high, then players get upset that there's no way to succeed (player characters, for the record, tend to be better than average in certain skills by design – that's kind of the point, the players are portraying characters intended to be heroes in the story). (1)

There are good GM's, there are great GM's, and unfortunately there are also bad GM's. Some people just can't tell a good story. Others have a GM vs the Players attitude. Some give the players to much, others don't give the players enough. As I said, it's a balancing act, and the truth is, not everyone who plays RPGs is capable of being a GM. And that's all I have to say about that.

~ JC

(1) this example happens to be from the d20 System – there are systems that utilize 10-sided dice or 6-sided dice. My example in no way is intended to, necessarily, advocate that the d20 system is any better or worse... blah, blah, blah... disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer. :-P

Friday, August 19, 2011

Turning My Tooth Blue Again with an Incredible Droid

Upgrading from Droid to Droid

Nearly two years ago I obtained my first Android based mobile phone, the Motorola Droid, from Verizon Wireless. Last week, I upgraded to a new device. After a lot of researching and comparison, I finally decided on the HTC Droid Incredible 2, also from Verizon Wireless. It is safe to say that I'm sold on the Android platform and highly doubt that any future devices will be anything but Android. After only a week of having the Incredible 2, I have to say that I love it! There's a noticeable difference in overall performance, and even a slightly better difference in signal strength between the Droid and the Incredible 2. Then again, I suppose going from a 550MHz processor with 256MB of RAM to a device with a 1Ghz processor with 768MB of RAM. So, let's just quickly compare the two with a handy dandy table, shall we?

Motorola Droid
HTC Droid Incredible 2
Operating System Android 2.0, upgraded to 2.2.2 Android 2.3.3 (pretty sure it came with 2.2, but it updated the very day I bought it)
Processor Arm Cortex A8 550 MHz Processor 1GHz Qualcomm MSM8655 Snapdragon
RAM Not listed on Android Central, but I believe it's 256MB 768MB
Dimensions 2.4 x 4.6 x.5 inches 4.7 inches x 2.5 inches x 0.48 inches
Weight 6 ounces 4.8 ounces
Screen Size 3.7-inch WVGA (854x480), 16:9 touchscreen 4-inch WVGA TFT display
Internal Storage Not listed on Android Central, but I think it's only 256MB 1GB
Removable Storage Supports up to a 32GB microSD, came with a 16GB microSD Supports up to a 32GB microSD, came with a 16GB microSD
Camera 5 Mega Pixel w/Flash 8 Mega Pixel w/Flash + 1.3 MP front facing for video conferencing

Additionally, both devices are Wi-Fi capable with the Droid supporting types b/g, while the Incredible 2 supports b/g/n. The larger screen on the HTC is a bonus as I have started experimenting with e-books, plus I'm myopic as hell (that means I'm near sighted and blind as a bat without my glasses).

My personal review of the Incredible 2 is simply that I am very happy with the upgrade. I loved my Moto Droid, but it was finally getting to the point of just being to slow and the memory was getting full. I still use the Droid; it now sits on my desk connected to the Wi-Fi and a set of portable speakers playing Slacker Radio. The decision to go with HTC vs staying with Motorola (I had considered the Droid X2, in fact) is primarily that HTC just gets great reviews on most of, if not all, of their devices. The fact that Apple has sued HTC for patent infringement further endears me to HTC because I really hate Apple, and if Apple feels that threatened by HTC that they have to seek lawsuits against them, then they must be doing something right.

My Tooth is Blue Again

A phone upgrade isn't complete without new accessories, right? Naturally, when I got the Incredible 2, I went with an accessory package from the Verizon store that included a case/clip combo, car charger and screen protectors. Being that I already owned a Bluetooth headset, I figured on continuing to use it, hoping that the connectivity issues it was having with the Droid would be overcome by the Incredible 2. Alas, I was mistaken, and came to find out that the BlueAnt Z9 has known software issues with Android based devices for which there isn't a likely solution since the Z9 isn't really supported any longer by BlueAnt. So, not only did I upgrade to a new phone, but I upgraded to a new Bluetooth headset as well.

Having a device that is practically a complete mobile solution for phone calls, email, internet and entertainment (including books, music and videos), I decided to go with a headset that would support stereo audio as well as standard mono sound. I found the perfect solution in the Samsung Modus 3500. At only $40, it's very impressive for its price range. I am used to paying up to $100 or more for a Bluetooth that has sound quality worth fooling with. The Modus sound really good, and others have reported that they can hear me quite clearly as well. The bonus part of the Modus is that, not only is it the typical ear bug that everyone is used to seeing for Bluetooth devices, but it also comes with a set of stereo ear buds that plug into the main headset's micro USB port to provide stereos quality sound while listening to music.

This is a great solution for me, as I tend to listen to music while sitting in my cubicle at work. With the Modus I can set my phone on my desk and listen to music without having to disturb my coworkers or getting tangled up in a long audio cable. Granted, the sound quality isn't quite as good as my Skull Candy earbuds, but it's damn close! And, the Modus came with an adapter for the micro USB to accommodate standard 3.5mm headphones/earbuds, so I can use my Skull Candy earbuds with it if I so choose. Good job, Samsung!

~ JC
Reference Blogs:
This is the DROID I've Been Looking For” ( – Sunday, November 9, 2009
Droid Part 2” ( – Sunday, December 20, 2009