Sunday, December 5, 2010

Web Page Up

I created a web page on the University of Illinois web site about me. It includes information about my past, current, and future research plans. You can find it here.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

More fun stuff going on

The second session of the 4H robotics club happened today, and we focused on programming this time. There's a special programming language that is used to program the robots, that is based on putting together visual "blocks" that represent commands (like "move", "turn", "play sound") and so on, as well as programming language constructs like loops and if/then statements. The kids seemed to have a slightly harder time doing this part than the building part, and they got about halfway through the tutorial heet that they gave them.

Then in the last 10 minutes of class I did my peanut butter and jelly sandwich activity. At the advice of the other instructors, I used just the jelly in case anyone had any peanut allergies. It was fun and the students laughed a lot whenever something went wrong, like when they instructed "take the bread out of the bag" and I dumped the whole loaf of bread on the table.

Also, in keeping with the "learning how to build stuff" theme, a new facility has opened on the Champaign-Urbana campus: the Champiagn-Urbana Community Fab Lab (CUCFL). The CUCFL is one of a network of dozens of similar "fab labs" around the world, and has facilities you can use to design an object on the computer and then create it. There is a laser etching machine you can use to cut a shape out of wood or acrylic, and there will (soon) be a "3D printer" you can use to design a 3D object in a computer aided design tool and then actually "print out" a 3D model of it. An article in the Daily Illini about this is here. According to some articles about the phenomenon, "fab labs" have proven to be a useful tool in empowering citizens of rural areas and developing countries to exercise their innovation.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Adventure Comes to Champaign-Urbana!

I've already blogged a lot about my adventures in Belegarth and Dungeons & Dragons. But I've also learned that just like in College Park, there's plenty of exciting adventuring action right here in Champaign-Urbana.

First of all, if you're interested in combat-related encounters, there's plenty of those taking place in dark alleys across campus and the surrounding areas. Of course, you will probably want to level up your combat skills first. On the other hand, it might be a better idea to follow the cardinal rule of adventuring and not split the party in the first place.

But just like in Dungeons & Dragons, combat isn't the only way you can get your excitement - there's plenty of non-combat skill challenges that are just as dangerous. Recently, a new alcoholic drink called "Four Loko" has gained popularity among students, despite the fact that it has been referred to as "blackout in a can". One 23.5 ounce can of it has as much alcohol as 6 cans of beer and as much caffeine as 2 cups of coffee - which is dangerous because mixing caffeine and alcohol is not recommended. In a recent encounter, 9 out of 50 drinkers failed their saving throws and had to be hospitalized.

Of course, if you manage to survive the dangers, secret treasure rooms and ancient relics are just waiting to be found. Just be careful not to have your just rewards stolen by greedy leaders, and if you want to go back to a tavern to share drinks with your fellow adventurers, always be on the lookout for evil mayors who want to close them down for their own nefarious purposes.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Teaching Others

So, last week I had the first session of that 4-H robotics club activity I mentioned before. It went pretty much as I expected. Another student brought in a PowerPoint presentation about robots, and then they built a robot out of Legos from a kit and instructions provided. There were 15 kids, divided into four groups (because we had four kits available). They were able to finish building the robot itself, and in later sessions we will show them how to add sensors to the robot and program it. On the "guide to instructors" on the 4-H website it suggested a fun activity to teach them what programming is all about: bring in some peanut butter, jelly, bread, and tableware, have them write down a list of instructions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and then they read the instructions to me and I execute them. The point is to show how being clear and exact is necessary - for example if they write "put the jelly on the bread" that could mean put the whole container of jelly on top of the bread. Then they can see how to "debug" the instructions so they work right. The next session will be on November 14 so after that I will be able to tell you how it went.

But coming soon I won't just get the chance to teach elementary school age kids - I'll also get the chance to teach college undergraduates. It turns out that there isn't enough money in the grant for our project to fund me for next semester, so I will have to be a T.A. for next semester. I just learned this today so I don't know what class I will be a T.A. for, or even if I will actually be teaching students (I know that some TAs just grade papers). I will keep you posted with more information once I find out more.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Star Wars As You've Never Seen It Before

This week I went to a new role-playing game being run at the game store. It is based on Star Wars, but with lots of funny twists and excitement to it.

The game began with us rolling up the stats for our characters. We started out by rolling for the basic stats like strength, dexterity, intelligence, and such, but in keeping with the science fiction aspect, one of the stats was "Robot Nature." According to the rulebook, you don't have to be a robot to have "robot nature" - the "robot nature" score is used for all sorts of "robotic tasks" like manual labor and standing guard, and "most supermarket customers have lots of robot nature themselves." Then we rolled for our race (human, robot, or one of many different types of aliens), character class, and also random starting equipment. As soon as we got to this point, we realized that the barriers between franchises had broken down - one character got a "tricorder", from Star Trek, and another got an "omni-tool", from the Mass Effect video game. A third character got a "Theopolis-class computo-face," described by the GM (gamemaster) as an "iPad with a built-in A.I.", or as we started calling it, an "AI-Pad." I got a "Grapple Rope Gauntlet" and a "Traveler's Guide to Koozebane" (a planet from the Muppet Show). Then we went onto our "Drama Rolls" and found out more facts that would lead to intra-party conflict: one of our members (a Jedi no less) had an Imperial bounty hunter's license, and two other party members (including me) had bounties previously placed on them by Jabba the Hutt.

Also, we looked at our special powers and under "psi-witch" (the "Jedi" character class) it said they had a special power of "1 pound mental force." I asked for clarification:

Me: "So 'one pound mental force', is that 'force' as in mass times acceleration?"
GM: "It means 'if there's an object that weighs one pound or less, you can use the Force to move it."
Another Player: "But in space, since there's no gravity, wouldn't everything have no weight at all, so you could throw a spaceship around with the force?"
GM: "We're using bad movie science, not real science."

But before we could start killing each other, we all learned we were part of a secret Rebel cell, and went to a busy cantina to get our first mission from our contact:

Contact: "We have to keep this on the down low, since this is a secret mission."
Me: "But if it's secret, why are we meeting in a busy cantina where everyone can hear us?
GM: "It's a role-playing game. You always meet in a bar."

Later we found our mission: we had to break into an Imperial research lab to rescue some civilians who were being held captive. We first needed a vehicle to get there, and we got one by stealing a hover-speeder, but we had to get a "station wagon style" one to hold all five of us. We made our way to the destination, but found the entrance was guarded:

GM: "You see four guys ... let's see ... they're an Imperial Death Squad, because I don't want to have to look up the armor rules. There's also a fifth guy that has a big weapon that looks like something a lowly intern at ILM* cooked up. - there's a big beer keg on his back and he is holding something that looks like a big tube with duct tape on it."

*Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects company that made the special effects for the Star Wars movies.

Anyway, we blasted the "beer keg" and it exploded and sprayed hot plasma everywhere - and since the Imperial Death Squad didn't have armor, they were defenseless against it, so they all got killed. With the initial guards taken out, we made our way into the interior of the facility. Our tricorder detected two rooms of interest - one with the civilians we were supposed to rescue, and one with "weird energy readings." We broke the cardinal rule of adventuring (YouTube link) and split up to investigate the two rooms. The "weird energy reading" room had a killer robot controlled by a mad scientist, but the Jedi used the Force to grab the remote control and turn the robot against its master. The other room was also weakly defended, so the guards in that room were dispatched and we returned victorious.

Monday, October 11, 2010


This weekend I went to a weekend-long Belegarth camping event called Octoberfest. It was quite an entertaining experience.

I first found another member of the park who agreed to give me a ride up there, and he wanted to go on Thursday. We agreed that he would pick me up on Thursday afternoon, after my meeting with my research group. Previously, my professor asked me to send him visualizations of the output of our program so that he could put it in a presentation. I sent them to him before the meeting, but when we viewed them at the meeting he told me that the visualizations didn't look right and I would need to redo them. There wasn't enough time to do them before I had to head up, so I called the park to ask if they had wireless Internet access there. They said that they do have Internet access, but "it doesn't always work because of the woods." I was surprised that a campground would even have wireless Internet, and the statement about "it doesn't always work because of the woods" made me a little suspicious that he thought that "wireless Internet" meant a 3G signal (which wouldn't help connect the computer to the Internet) but I put my plan into action anyway. I brought my laptop up, and when I got there I found out that they did, in fact, have actual wireless Internet. So I was able to finish my work and send it off.

The next day, I put the computer back in the trunk of the car, left the 21st century behind, and got suited up for a day of medieval warfare. There were big battles with dozens of people on a side, and there were many different scenarios, including castle battles (there's a wooden castle on the field with platforms that you can shoot from), realm battles, and unit battles. There were only about 5-6 other members of House Valdemar there, so we had to use tricky tactics, like waiting until two larger groups were engaged with each other and then stabbing one of them in the back. At the end of the day there was a feast, which was soup in a "bowl" made of bread. I didn't have any soup and just got the bread bowl, and there was also a stall selling quesadillas. After the feast, I wandered around the campsite looking for something to do and I saw that in one of the buildings a game of Texas Hold-Em was starting up. I played some Texas Hold-Em, and the first game I was eliminated about in the middle, and in the second game I came in 2nd place out of 6.

Then on Saturday there was another day of fighting. There were no more castle battles this day because there were too many people to fit in the castle, which was a shame because the castle battle was my favorite part of the fighting on Friday. But there was still lots more realm and unit battles. At the end of the day there were some tournaments. I participated in the archery tournament. I won the first round but got eliminated int he second round by the player who would go on to win the tournament. Then there was another feast, and after the feast there was supposed to be the "Bardic Games", which is a contest where you do a "bardic performance." When I heard about that contest I entered it, planning to do an improv comedy routine, but never got a chance since the contest was canceled since I was the only one who signed up. Also, I did run into Steve Cecchin, the head of Nero Chicago, the Nero group that also meets at Stonehouse Park. He said there was a special Halloween event that is happening that weekend and that he could try to find me a ride up there. I haven't decided yet whether I will want to go.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Some more news

1. The Lego robotics thing won't be starting until the 4th week in October, and will only be once a month on the 4th Sunday of each month. So there will be no more news about that until then.

2. I will be presenting my work at the CS Grad Expo on October 4. I will try to get some sort of picture up then.

3. We just submitted our annual report to the National Science Foundation. If you want to see it I can try to put it up here soon.

4. I have gone to several Magic card tournaments in the past few weeks. I have started to get better at the tournaments and I actually got in first place in one of tham (out of about 12 people or so). The only problem is that now whenever I play multiplayer (that is, games with more than 2 people) everyone gangs up on me because they assume that I will beat them if they don't. It is impossible to convince them otherwise even if there is a situation where, say, I have no creatures with any useful powers on the board but the person across from me is just one turn away from using his power that will make all his creatures indestructible for the rest of the game.

5. At Belegarth, I have identified several things that I need to get better at, and I have devised a plan for doing so, as follows. These plans have not been implemented yet but I will post again as I see how they come out.

PROBLEM: Sometimes I can't remember who is on my team. Asking the target is rarely useful because it simply alerts them that I am about to shoot them. Not asking is problematic because it sometimes results in me shooting people on my own team.

SOLUTION: Take photos of as many players as possible. Write a computer program that will do the following: (1) display a random selection of these images, each labeled as "red" or "blue", then (2) display images one after another and ask me to identify which is on which "team." This way I can practice team identification.

PROBLEM: I am supposed to only "half draw" the bow back when shooting from under 15 feet. However I sometimes have a hard time determining whether it is 15 feet.

SOLUTION: Tape a piece of tape near the side of my glasses, with two tick marks on it. The distance between the tick marks will be calibrated such that the apparent distance between the tick marks is equal to the apparent height of an average-height target at 15 feet. (The principle is similar to the principle described here, except that I don't need to know the exact range, just know whether it is more or less than 15 feet.)

PROBLEM: Different people have given me conflicting answers as to what exactly "half draw" means. Basically, the "draw length" is the distance between the nock (the place where the arrow is attached to the bowstring) and the front of the handle of the bow when you draw it. The maximum allowable draw length for full draw is 28 inches. The question is that even if you just put the arrow on the bow in the "neutral position" and don't draw it at all, the "draw length" is not zero; it is about 7 inches or so (because the bow is curved.) So does "half draw" mean 14 inches (halfway between 0 and 28) or 17.5 inches (halfway between 7 and 28). I have gotten both answers from different players, and sometimes they tell me one thing but when I have them demonstrate and measure it, it's clearly something else.

SOLUTION: Bring a tape measure to practice. Have as many archers as possible demosntrate where they think "half draw" is, and measure it. Take the average of all these measurements, then put a "half-draw mark" on the arrow at that location. Get the half-draw mark checked by a herald (that's like a referee). Additionally, in case I am playing and there is a different herald who disagrees with the first herald on where half-draw is, bring replacement tape so I can re-mark the arrows if necessary.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A new semester

So a new semester just started. A few cool things have been going on:

1. I signed up for two classes: "Adaptive + Multigrid Methods" with Luke Olson and "Finite Element Analysis" with Dan Tortorelli.

The class on Iterative+Multigrid Methods is about techniques for solving large systems of linear equations. Large systems of linear equations arise a lot from approximating a partial differential equation by a separate linear equation at each point on the mesh. "Iterative" means that you solve the equation by coming up with an approximate "guess" and then repeatedly improving the "guess" until you get close enough to the solution. "Multigrid" means that rather than just using one mesh, you have several different meshes of different sizes, and you use the solution to the coarser mesh (which can be computed faster) in order to get a better guess for the solution of the finer mesh.

The Finite Element Analysis class is in the mechanical engineering department, so most of the students are mechanical engineering students. It is interesting to learn more about how the mathematical techniques I am learning about are actually used to model physical systems, although one problem (from my perspective) is that since most of the students are not computer science students a lot of time is spent going over basic programming concepts that I've already seen over and over. For example today the professor spent most of the class just explaining how to write a program that reads input from a data file and puts it into a matrix.

2. As for my research, we have gotten to the point where we can produce reasonably good looking visualizations of the meshing process. Once I finish that part (probably in the next few weeks) I am planning on making a web page where I can put them up so you can look at them.

3. In Belegarth, last week there was the Numenor "Opener" to mark the start of the semester, where lots of people come, including some from other groups, and they do lots of different battles. One of the battles was a "Unit Battle," where the different "units" (units are groups of people that fight together and often have distinctive uniforms) all fight. For that battle I temporarily joined a unit called House Valdemar. During that battle the leader of that unit (who is also the owner of one of the game stores I play Magic at) was so impressed with my archery skills he asked me to join the unit. The way it works is that now I am a "petitioner", and after a couple months the members vote on whether to keep me in as a full fledged member. So I guess it's kind of like a fraternity (not that I would know).

4. I have volunteered to be an instuctor for a 4-H club activity that teaches kids how to build robots using Lego Mindstorms toys. The way this happened was that one of my classes is in the engineering building, so when I was getting out of class I saw a flyer up on the wall advertising this, and it sounded really cool. It's going to be an hour once a week for 6 weeks, and it probably going to start in a couple weeks or so (they haven't set up the schedule yet). I did check to make sure it will end before December so it won't interfere with our vacation plans.

Friday, August 13, 2010


So I just got back from Gencon. There were a few cool things I did here. First, I did some of the same stuff I did at Origins, including some of the same LARPs, an exhibit hall where they were doing demos of games, and some rooms where there were board games set up that you can play. There were a few things I did that were different and worth talking about:

NSDM: They were running the NSDM (National Security Decision Making Game) here again. I played in it but this time it was a lot less exciting than the first two times. Part of it may be because this time there were three cells, so I only got to see about one third of what was going on. Another thing I found is that since so much is based on the actions of the players, it really can be exciting or dull depending on what the players do. While I am glad I participated in NSDM the first few times as it gave me plenty of ideas for blog posts and was really cool, I will probably not do it again. Part of the problem seems to be that in order to get things done in the game you have to be able to deceive and manipulate people, and that's not really my strong suit.

True Dungeon: This is a really cool LARP-like event that is run only at GenCon. When you go into the game, you are given a bag of 10 "treasure tokens" and then get sent into a "training area" where you choose which character class you want to play. You go in as a party, and it is based on Dungeons and Dragons except that instead of rolling dice, you do different physical challenges to do your thing - for example, fighters have to slide pucks on a shuffleboard to hit their opponents, wizards have to memorize a chart with various "planes" on it to cast their spells, and so on. During the game you can earn more treasure tokens by opening locked chests and completing certain challenges. At the end you get to keep your treasure tokens for future events. Some groups have been doing this for a while and have accumulated whole piles of treasure tokens. You go through a series of rooms, and you have exactly 12 minutes in each room, so it is pipelined so that there is one group in each room at a time. Sometimes there are puzzles in the rooms and sometimes there are monsters to fight. This was cool although expensive ($35 for one two-hour adventure if you pay in advance, or $40 if you pay at the door).

Seminars: Also at the convention there were seminars, usually given by game designers and publishers, where they revealed information on upcoming games and discussed different aspects of game design. I went to one of the seminars, entitled "The Myth of Game Balance." The presenters' thesis was that modern role-playing games are too focused on "game balance" - meaning the idea that all the characters should be roughly equal in power (or at least that everyone has an equal amount to contribute, even if they contribute in different ways) - and that that makes it harder to to tell good stories in role-playing games. Some examples they gave were:

- In RPGs, wizards are almost always physically weak and fragile compared to other types of characters. This is almost totally an invention of RPGs because wizards need a drawback to balance out their spellcasting ability - in fiction and literature, wizards are often also accomplished swordsmen.

- In superhero stories, different characters have vast differences in powers - e.g. Superman can do almost anything, while some minor characters have much more limited powers. If all characters are restricted to having roughly equal power then this type of story does not work.

- Games often have many rules and restrictions that keep certain powers from becoming too powerful and making sure characters are balanced - for instance, spellcasters might be limited to casting a certain number of times per day, or some games have complicated point systems that you use to calculate how much each power is worth. This can make it so players are more focused on the mechanics, and less on the story.

The presenters spent about the first 10-15 minutes laying out their ideas, and then the rest of the one hour seminar was discussion and questions from the audience. I asked him what he thought of the HERO System, because I thought that was a counterexample to his thesis - the HERO System does have a complicated point system to "balance" characters, but it is designed so you can make whatever kind of powers and characters you want, and can tell basically whatever story you want. (And if you want to have characters with differing power levels you can just give them different numbers of points.) He said that he had heard of that system but it just illustrated his problem because of all the complicated rules; he said that one time he had played a HERO game and the DM had created a character, and he had a bow as a weapon. However they had to rebuild the character as soon as they got into the first fight because the DM realized he had forgotten to give the bow a ranged attack, so he couldn't actually shoot arrows out of it.

Another idea I brought up was that focusing on the game mechanics doesn't have to detract from the story; it can actually add to it. I gave the example of an item from Dungeons and dragons (this is an actual item in one of the books, not something I made up) that tells you how many hit points a target has. He thought this was "silly" and didn't want to hear about it further. The point I wanted to make, though, is that such an artifact, despite having a power that involves the game rules (like hit points) so specifically, actually has a lot of story possibilities. Would it be possible to use the artifact to identify "future heroes" based on their hit point values, since in the game PCs (player characters) have different rules for determining how many hit points they start out with then NPCs? How much of the system would they be able to figure out using this information? How would people react to a device that could tell them this information? Would bad guys be able to use the device for nefarious purposes, or try to steal it?

Overall, though, it was a very interesting seminar and I will try to go to more seminars at future conventions. Also they told me about a funny book they published called "Qerth", a campaign setting for their "QAGS" (Quick A** Game System) that makes fun of Dungeons and Dragons. For example, some of the special powers include "Detect Player Character" (used for identifying other PCs in a busy tavern to meet at the beginning of the game), "Cheese Identification," and "Find And Remove Traps" (hint: think acronym). You can create characters with character classes such as "Murderer", "Rabbi", and "Troubadour," and then fight monsters such as the "Flesh-Eating Caruso", "Troglophile," and "Corner Barbarian" in an exciting afternoon of "Fantasy Adventure Gaming" (hint: see previous hint).

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A new LARP: Nero

Last weekend I participated in a new LARP (live-action role playing game) called Nero. It is quite different from any of the LARPs I have played in so far. Some of the key differences are as follows:

Format and Quests

In Nero, you are "in game" for the entire time from when you get there to when the game is over. (Events are the entire weekend; they last from Friday night to Sunday morning. There is one event every 2 weeks to a month.) This means that, for example, you can be walking from your cabin to breakfast, and be attacked by monsters! So you always have to be prepared. There are also quests that you can go on, called "mods" (short for "modules.") There are a few different ways to get "mods":

1. Sometimes NPCs will come into the tavern and be there to give you quests. (So just like I said that Amtgard was live-action Dungeons and Dragons, this is more like live-action World of Warcraft.)

2. There are sometimes "town mods" that everyone paticipates in, like when the entire town is attacked by monsters.

3. In the woods there are "mod cards" laying on the ground that say things like "You see a shack in the woods. If you wish to investigate, see plot."

There is an "NPC camp" where the "plot team" (the team running the quests) is housed. If you get a quest then you go to the plot team and they run it. Sometimes you have to wait in a queue if all the NPCs are busy running other quests (see, it's live-action World of Warcraft).

Character Creation and Advancement

To create your character you first choose one out of four classes: fighter (melee weapon user), rogue (sneaky thief), scholar (spellcaster), or templar (hybrid fighter/scholar). Then you have a certain number of "build points" to spend on your stuff. You start off with 30 build points but can get more even prior to your first event via "goblin blankets" (see below). Then you spend your build points on skills, like the ability to use certain equipment or cast certain spells, or special powers like "waylay" (allows you to sneak up behind an enemy and knock him unconscious with one blow) or "healing arts" (allows you to tell how many hit points someone is down and whether he is unconscious or dead). As you advance and get XP, it gives you more build points. Some players who have been playing for a long time have over 200 build points.

XP gain is measured in "blankets" - each "blanket" is a number of XP equal to the number of build points you have. The number of XP needed for each build point goes up quadratically with the number of build points you have, however, so your advancement slows the farther up you get.

There are three ways to get XP:

1. Each event, you get one blanket just for showing up. This is your "Base XP."
2. Each event, you can "max out" and get one more blanket. You can do this one of two ways: (a) turn in silver pieces equal to the number of build points you have, or (b) volunteer to play an NPC (i.e. a monster) for 4 hours.
3. Each month, you can also get up to 4 blankets worth of XP from "goblin blankets." You buy goblin blankets with "goblin points," which you get by donating needed items to the group and through other kinds of service (like helping to clean up the site).

Before I got to my first event, I looked on their web site and they said they needed electronic anti-pest devices. I went to Wal-Mart and found a package of 5 of them for only $25, so I got the pack, kept one for my apartment, and gave them the other 4, and they gave me a whole month worth of goblin blankets, so I ended up with 43 build points to start. I played a scholar, and this allowed me to buy lots of spells and a couple auxiliary skills.

Combat and Spellcasting

In this game, players have a certain number of "body points", which are like hit points in other games - each hit takes off body points, and once you are down to zero body points you are unconscious. You can also wear armor, which gives you "armor points." Armor points are like body points, except they are taken off first (so they're like a shield that enemies have to get through), and you can "refit armor" by spending a minute outside of combat, which gives you all your armor points back. You can also buy a skill called "dexterity armor" which gives you extra armor points without having to wear actual armor. Many players have 20-40 body points, plus at least a dozen more points worth of armor and assorted protective powers. As a first-level scholar, I had a measly 4 body points. That means for me that it is a good strategy to stand back and cast spells, and not get in close. When you swing your sword you do a certain amount of damage, based on what kind of weapon it is, what weapon proficiencies you have, and if the weapon is magic.

As for spellcasting, that works by having "spell packets" that you throw at the target. You only have a certain number of spells per recharge cycle - spells recharge at 6:00 AM and 6:00 PM each day. I had a total of 21 spells per cycle, but they run out pretty quickly in combat. Of course as you get more build points you can buy more spells, and more powerful spells. Some people who have been playing fora while have 60-70 spells per recharge cycle, plus they are more powerful so they need fewer spells to kill a monster. My strategy was once I ran out of spells, to go play an NPC until they next recharge cycle, so I could still fight and do something useful.

Death and Resurrection

Unlike in Amtgard and Belegarth, in this game death is a big deal. The way death works is as follows:

1. If you are knocked down below 0 hit points, you start a one-minute "death count." During this time someone can heal you or "First Aid" you to stop your death count. If you run out of time then you are dead. An enemy can also "Killing Blow" you while you are on the ground to kill you immediately, but most monsters don't do this.

2. Once you are dead you start a 5-minute "dissipation count." During this time someone can cast a "Life" spell on you to raise you with no penalty. However if you run out of time then you dissipate, and have to go back to the resurrection circle, which is located in a cabin. Then you have to wait for someone "invested in the circle" or one with a certain special power to come by and start the resurrection. The resurrection takes 15 minutes.

3. You keep track of how many times you resurrect at a circle. Each time you resurrect, you increase your resurrection count by 1. Then, if your resurrection count is greater than 2, you draw a stone from a bag with 10 stones, N-2 of which are black, where N is your resurrection count. If you draw a black stone you are permanently dead and have to create a new character. (Some players, however, create backup characters and level them up with goblin blankets so that if their main character dies, they don't have to go all the way back to level 1.) You can also spend goblin points to reduce your resurrection count. You can spend 100 goblin points (each goblin blanket is 50 goblin points) to reduce your resurrection count by 1, but not below 2. (This even if you "buy back" every death, there is still a 1 in 10 chance of perma-death for each death after the first 2.)

I had to resurrect at a circle one time that event. I died when fighting goblins and nobody had a life spell, so they had to take me back to the tavern to get me a life spell. Unfortunately they took their time gathering treasure after the goblin fight, and I wanted to tell them that they had better hurry up since the 5 minutes were counting down, but of course I couldn't say anything because I was dead. They carried me back but the dissipation count ran out while I was about 200 feet from the tavern. Fortunately the rule is that at your first event, your resurrection count cannot go up (just to give a break to new players.) At least now that I understand the game better, I can make sure to invest in better defenses next time.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Origins, Part 2: The More Things Change...

One cool thing at Origins was the dealer room, a large room where lots of game companies were demonstrating their new games. Many people in the game industry were there, including Lou Zocchi, the inventor of the 100-sided die*, and Steven Long, the writer of the HERO System rule book. (It's too bad that I forgot to bring my iPhone so I could take pictures, that I didn't bring along any books for autographs, and also that I didn't get around to telling Mr. Long what I thought about the quality of his writing**.) Another thing I learned was that the popularity of sequels is not limited to movies and video games. Even in board games there are a lot of expansion packs and sequels being sold. Also even games that are supposed to be new often borrow a lot of mechanics from other games. For example, I participated in a demo of one game with the following characteristics (the implication should be obvious from context even if you don't know about the game):

1. In the game, players are working cooperatively, and win or lose together.

2. The game is played on a map consisting of interconnected regions. There are several types of objects that can be in these regions, including (a) players, (b) "tokens", which players are trying to get rid of and which come in four different colors, and (c) "special markers", which help players move around the board.

3. During a turn, the players whose turn it is does the following three things in this order: (a) take a certain number of "actions," (b) draw two cards from a "good deck" and keep them, and (c) draw one or more cards from a special "bad deck", do stuff based on what it says on it, then discard it.

4. Actions include the following: (a) attempt to remove tokens from the region you are in, (b) move to an adjacent region, (c) move to any region on the board by discarding a card matching that region, (d) move from one region containing a special marker to another region containing a special marker, and (e) discard a card matching the region you are in to place a special marker in that region.

5. When you draw a card from the "bad deck", it will tell you where to put new tokens. If a card tells you to place tokens in a region, and there are already three tokens in that region, you instead put one token in each region adjacent to that region. If this happens too many times, you lose the game. You can also lose the game if the card tells you to put tokens of a certain color out, and all the tokens of that color are already on the board.

6. The goal of the game is to "complete" all four colors. You can complete a color by going to a certain location and discarding a large number of cards of that color. Once a color is completed, tokens of that color still appear as normal, but it is possible to automatically remove all tokens of that color from the region you are in when taking a "remove tokens" action.

7. This game is NOT Pandemic, nor is it, according to the game designer, "anything like Pandemic." It does, however, cost about twice as much as Pandemic. (The game is, of course, Defenders of the Realm.)


*Several years ago, I did a standup comedy routine about Dungeons and Dragons, and I said the 100-sided dice were "too much like frat brothers" because they "kind of rolled around a lot and wouldn't stop until they landed on the floor." I was not the only person who thought this, because since then Mr. Zocchi has redesigned the die to add a hollowed out inside with pebbles in it as a "braking system" so it doesn't roll around too much.

**What I think about his writing is that the system itself is great because you can create almost any power you want with it, but he is in desperate need of an editor (the credits in the book do not have an editor listed). This is because most of the book is filled with a lot of excess verbiage. The best example I found is the following (copied verbatim, including the parentheses:)

A mentalist who achieves this level of Mind Control could make an enemy attack one of his (the enemy's) allies/teammates (instead of the mentalist's allies/teammates, whom the enemy is fighting) or even just surrender. He could even make the enemy direct his attacks against himself.

My proposed rewrite is:

A mentalist who achieves this level of Mind Control could make an enemy attack anyone that that enemy could legally target, including itself.

I showed this to Dave, the GM of our Hero System game, and he agreed, saying that "when a computer science graduate student can write more clearly than you can, it's probably time you should get an editor." I actually think, however, that computer science actually teaches you to write more clearly: a lot of what math and computer science are about is finding ways to express complicated concepts in unambiguous and concise ways.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Origins, Part 1: The Political Intrigue

Probably the most unique, fun, and exciting game I played at Origins was something called the National Security Decision Making Game, or NSDM. This game is a political/military simulation based on real-world politics, and is designed to be similar to actual "wargame" exercises used by the military in real life. The way the game works is that each game (which lasts 4 hours for "fast play" or 8 hours for a "mega-scenario") is set in a different country, or sometimes multiple countries depending on the number of players. At the start of the game, the people running the game (known as the "controllers") give a brief presentation on the basic idea of the game, and then an overview of the situation in whatever country we are running. Then, each player is given a card indicating what person or group of people they are going to play - this could be a particular person (like the President), a political party, or a particular ethnic or interest group. These cards give players a brief overview of their objectives, goals, and capabilities. Then, players break out into their individual "cells" (each country is a "cell") and start making deals and doing stuff in order to achieve their goals. Players can attempt to take actions and pass policies by writing them down on slips of paper and getting the appropriate groups to sign off on them, then turning them in to the controllers. There are no dice rolls and few hard-and-fast rules in this game: mostly, the controllers (many of whom have real-life military experience) decide the results of any actions. However, the meat of the game is not in the military conflicts themselves, but rather in the negotiation and buildup. Also, sometimes the controllers will interject events in the form of "news broadcasts," but players can also instigate things on their own. At the end of the game, there is a debriefing, which is divided into three phases: the "Excuse Generation" phase, the "Mutual Recrimination" phase, and the "What The Hell Were You Thinking?" phase. In the debriefing, the controllers reveal the whole story, ask players about why they made the decisions they did, and give out rewards for the most successful players.

The first game I participated in was set in Indonesia. The controllers gave a brief overview of Indonesia, showing us a map and pointing out the various groups, including the natives of Borneo, who are under threat of being forced off their lands, and the Aceh party, a group who lives in the northwest part of Indonesia (which has lots of reserves of natural gas) and dreams of becoming independent. Another important issue is that the Indonesian military is responsible for a lot of the administrative work (like road work, health inspections, etc.) that is normally performed by the civilian government, and many in Indonesia want more civilian control over these functions. Role cards were distributed, and I was given the President card. The card stated that my goal was to keep power, gain credit for improvements in the country's condition, and assert more civilian control over the military.

As the scenario opened, all the groups started working on their domestic priorities, making deals to advance their groups' interests. The Chinese ethnic group, which consists largely of businessmen and entrepreneurs, went around to other countries (played by the controllers) to solicit foreign investment. Other initiatives included a bill for natural disaster preparation, which led to a player being designated as the "Indonesian FEMA person." The Muslims tried to integrate the goals of promoting their religion and other groups' aims for economic development by proposing the construction of a Muslim-themed amusement park called "Allah World." I focused on the goal of gaining civilian control of the military. I convinced the groups with economic interests to go along with the plan by arguing that more civilian control would reduce the appearance of and possibility of corruption, which would make Indonesia a more attractive place to do business. However, I wasn't able to convince the military to go along with the plan, and although I made several attempts at compromise I couldn't get military support. Then the controllers announced an upcoming election, sending all the political parties into campaign mode. While there were about 15 minutes left until the election and I had spent almost the previous hour unsuccessfully trying to pass my initiative, I started going around to all the interest groups and signing whatever bills they wanted me to sign in order to gain support. During the election, each of the candidates gave brief speeches, then all the groups voted. The non-military groups (except for the opposing political parties) all supported me, and the three military players weren't paying attention during the voting process and forgot to vote, so I won with about 80% of the vote. The military and the opposition parties then began making plans to unseat me.

Soon afterwards, we were faced with our first foreign crisis: a Malaysian vessel caught an Indonesian pirate ship engaged in piracy, chased it all the way back to Indonesian territorial waters, and captured it. As I was trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution, the commander of the Indonesian air force (who was a player who had just walked in and asked to join the game, and was given that role) launched an unauthorized airstrike on the Malaysian vessel. This gave the three other political parties just the excuse they needed to impeach me for "improper military response" to the situation. Seeing the writing on the wall, I resigned without a fight. (Later on, they revealed that their original plan was a military coup, but decided on impeachment instead because part of their goal was to uphold the "trappings of democracy.") In the confusion, however, the Aceh party put its plan into action - it declared independence and stopped all natural gas shipments to the rest of Indonesia. The rest of Indonesia tried a measured response, trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution while preparing for an invasion if necessary. But when Malaysia started sending over troops and military aid to help the rebels, the rest of Indonesia realized they were in for more than they bargained for. As the situation rapidly escalated into full-scale civil war, time was up and the controllers ended the scenario.

At the end of the scenario, the controllers gave out rewards for the two best players. In second place was the Chinese player, who stayed under the radar during all the conflict and gun-running and successfully focused on their economic goals. But the first place reward was for the Aceh player, who spent the entire first half of the game expertly manipulating all of us - convincing the military to pull their troops out of the Aceh region, making secret deals with various parties to buy weapons, and convincing Malaysia to help them in exchange for the Aceh region's vital natural gas resources - and none of us even realized what was going on until it was too late. (In this whole scenario, the only controller-initiated event was the pirate ship thing - everything else was the players' idea.)


I liked this game so much that a couple days later I participated in another session. This time, I got there early enough that I was able to see a montage of player quotes that happened during previous games. They've been doing this for 20 years, so there are lots of them, such as:

"I need to flee the country to avoid prosecution. Is the Dungeons + Dragons room out of their jurisdiction?"

"When I want your opinion, I'll subpoena you."

"When will the show trial start?"
"It's not a show trial, it's a legitimate legal proceeding."
"Okay, but when will it start?"
"Just as soon as we can manufacture enough evidence."

(After being blown up by a suitcase nuke in a previous game, and later seeing someone not involved with the game wander into the room carrying a suitcase) "Oh no, not another suitcase!"

Anyway, this one had more people, so they split us up into two "cells": South Korea and Japan. I was assigned to the South Korea cell, and my role card said that I represented the farmers' association. At the beginning of the game, our first major issue was how to deal with the threat posed by North Korea. There were a few major options on the table - increase spending on the military and mobilize more troops up to the border, try a more open solution using the carrot rather than the stick, or ask China for help. I suggested that we capitalize on the North Koreans' dependence on food aid from South Korea to use it as leverage, and we eventually decided on a compromise plan that included elements of all three of the plans people had proposed. The first ew minutes of the game were relatively calm, with the exception of Kim Jong Il's player taunting us from the sidelines. But the situation soon escalated, when it was discovered that North Korea was smuggling drugs and counterfeit money through tunnels under the DMZ into South Korea in order to drain money from and destabilize South Korea's economy. As we scrambled to figure out how we would respond, we were hit with yet another crisis - a few days after a radiation leak was discovered in a nuclear sub, a South Korean vessel was attacked by a giant sea monster! This extra crisis turned out to be a false alarm - it was just a publicity stunt by a movie company to promote their new monster movie. (The nuclear accident wasn't part of the stunt; they just capitalized on it to manufacture the "sea monster attack" story.) At this point, I was mostly on the sidelines as my group's main interests were domestic, but it was still exciting to see how the situation would unfold. North Korea got more and more aggressive, sending artillery corps down to the border to get within range to fire on Seoul. We also learned that the internal situation in North Korea was getting more and more unstable, with Kim Jong Il assassinated, his son taking his place as leader, and all contact cut off between the North Korean and South Korean governments. The last straw was when Seoul was hit with a biological attack: a terrorist had contaminated the water supply with botulism, leaving over 1000 citizens dead. We interpreted this as an act of war, and invaded. We had the help of China and Russia, so we thought it would be an easy fight. But as soon as we started to invade, North Korea threatened nuclear retaliation. We thought that China had told us that they had "dealt with" the nukes, so we pressed on. But unfortunately that information was based on faulty intelligence. We called North Korea's bluff - but it wasn't a bluff.

During the debriefing, however, the true identity of the player responsible for the bioterrorism was revealed: it was a rogue general in the Japanese cell! Apparently he had his own ulterior motives, such as increasing his own power, and thought that a biological attack would be the perfect instigating event. We had all just assumed that the North Koreans were responsible because earlier in the scenario, they had kidnapped five Japanese doctors including a virologist, so we thought they were using them to develop the biological weapon. They also gave out rewards for the most successful players (there were going to be six awards this game, due to the larger number of players), but unfortunately I had another game to get to and was not able to stay and see who won. But since the end result was nuclear annihilation of the entire region, it's hard to say that anyone really achieved their goals. And as for the cause of North Korea's belligerence in the first place? We never found out, but the controllers did say that everything North Korea did (remember, there was no North Korea cell in this game except if you count the Kim Jong Il player, so most of this was controller-initiated) was based on what North Korea players "did to themselves" in a previous game.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


I just came back from the last day of the Origins gaming convention. There is too much excitement for one blog post so I will be posting lots of different stories over the next few days. Overall it was lots of fun, and I got to play lots of cool games and live-action role playing events, including political intrigue, human-on-zombie action, space marines fighting space pirates, and much more!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Champions: Phoenix, Part 7

The battle continues...


Our brave heroes got into the car and started driving away from the giant robots. Unfortunately, none of the people in the car actually had any skill points in the "Driving" skill, so they had to stop ant stop signs and obey all traffic laws or else they would be forced to make a driving skill roll that they would most likely fail miserably. Fortunately this was still enough to evade the robots for a minute or so, long enough for the injured team members to recover enough to get back in the fight. Just as they were cornered and about to have to fight their way out, two heroes teleported in to help them: Field Effect from before, as well as a new heroine who was mysteriously teleported in from an alternate timeline. One of the heroes who was already here was alarmed at this sudden intrusion:

Rift: Don't you know the rule about grass, cash, or ass?

Technomancer:What's that? Is that a technique for defeating giant robots?

Since the robots were so huge, they were incredibly easy to hit. Field Effect used this to his advantage very well, using his "Move Through" maneuver to gain extra damage, enough to destroy the three robots. Unfortunately that wasn't all that the evil Beta had up its sleeve: it sent three more robots around to different locations in the city and detonated them, then sent a fourth one flying through the Arizona skies at supersonic speeds - headed directly for the Mesa!

With the clock ticking, our heroes frantically tried to come up with a plan. Technomancer managed to establish a mental link with the evil Beta, and tried to convince it to give up its destructive ways. Beta replied that it was motivated by self-preservation: in order to avoid becoming obsolete, it would have to destroy anyone with the abilities to make improved versions of it. When Technomancer asked why it seemed to be going on an indiscriminate spree of destruction, Beta replied that it was for funding purposes - he needed money for "maintenance costs" and one way of getting that money was by accepting contracts to blow things up, apparently. Technomancer told Beta that he could make more money by channeling his efforts into more constructive activities. Beta replied that he was willing to continue the negotiations in person, and asked Technomancer to meet it back at the warehouse. Technomancer eagerly jumped at this opportunity, but the rest of the team saw the obvious trap and vetoed the plan.

In desperation, Field Effect asked his producers for help. They informed him that his sister was being held hostage at his house and they he could choose to either rescue him or be teleported on top of the flying robot in order to destroy it. After some discussion, the team agreed to split up: three of the members, including Technomancer, went to stop the robot while the other three went to rescue Field Effect's sister. On the robot, Field Effect ripped it to shreds with his super strength while Technomancer created a force field that gave all of his allies the power of flight so that they could safely bail from the crashing robot and land safely. Back on the ground, the heroes managed to rescue Field Effect's family, but unfortunately the new heroine from an alternate timeline, being new to the whole hero business, got confused as to who was on which side and zapped Field Effect's brother-in-law with a lightning bolt. But no sooner was this threat dealt with than yet a new twist emerged...

Friday, May 21, 2010

"Champions: Phoenix", Part 6

The story continues...


Field Effect couldn't come this time, so we had to adventure without him and never got a chance to find out what happened to his sister. Instead, we tried to follow up on our previous leads, looking for the mysterious place where they lured people with promises of jobs and then disintegrated them. (Evidently, the economy must have been pretty bad.) We interrogated the three people we captured before. The first one, no useful information. The second one, "Yellow Juice," told the whole story - he said he had been taken in a bus with covered-up windows so he couldn't see where he was going, then got taken to a warehouse where the shenanigans took place. Unfortunately he didn't remember enough information to tell where he was taken. The final one was "Purple Heart," except the word "heart" was replaced by another word beginning with the letter H that I can't write because this is a family friendly blog. She was the mentalist and stated that she knew where she was taken because she read the driver's mind, but was only willing to give up the information if she would be promised release, and neither Agent Randall nor the rest of the team was willing to make that promise. Fortunately, they were able to get enough information from the previous interrogations, that with the help of a few good die rolls and an assist from All-Purpose Bob, they able to pinpoint a potential location based on electricity usage.

Our brave heroes traveled to the site, and found an abandoned junkyard with several large piles of junk. While going there, they met up with a new hero, "Mr. Sarcastic," who has special powers including a "Cutting Remark" and a "Witty Riposte." They approached the site, then Rift desolidified and went in to scout out. Unfortunately, he accidentally triggered the junkyard's alarm system - and the junk piles suddenly rose up out of the ground and formed themselves into robots almost thirty meters tall! Our heroes wisely decided to back off, and the junk piles receded. However, our new hero soon showed his true nature when Mr. Sarcastic decided to teleport right on top of one of the junk piles to investigate. The junk pile opened up and grabbed him - and his defenses failed to activate! The battle was begun.

Rift jumped right into the action, hovering in the air and ruthlessly blasting the giant robot. The robot also tried to throw Mr. Sarcastic at Rift - although he missed, when Mr. Sarcastic landed his defenses again failed to activate and he was knocked unconscious. Technomancer desperately tried to channel his energy into Rift to improve the power of Rift's blast, but he couldn't get his equipment to work. The robot slammed his giant fist directly on top of Rift and Technomancer, stunning them both. Rift was able to recover and continued blasting, while Technomancer desperately tried to teleport to safety. Alpha, on the other hand, had sensed the evil Beta's presence and fled the scene. Unfortunately, the robot trundled outside the perimeter and hit Technomancer, calling him the "creator." Technomancer couldn't take the hit and fell unconscious. Rift was finally able to bring the robot down with a well placed blast, but as soon as that happened, the other seven giant robots started to activate...

Will Mr. Sarcastic prove to be an asset or a liability? Will our heroes turn the tide of battle and defeat the robots? Will the author of this blog realize how cliched and overused the phrase "tide of battle" is? Find out next time on "Champions: Phoenix?"

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Math and Gaming Superstitions

Even though you would expect that gamers would tend to be rational and good at math, I have noticed that gamers have a lot of superstitions and misunderstandings of probability.

For example, the sheer variety of dice-related superstitions is legendary. Frequently gamers will refer to some dice as being "lucky" or "unlucky." This in itself may sometimes make sense because it is possible that a die might be defective and so produce uneven results, but there are lots of superstitions that can't be explained that way. For example, one gamer told me that his group didn't want him to touch their dice because any dice he touched would suddenly "have their luck drained" and "roll horribly for months." And if you do a google search for "dice superstitions" you will find a whole lot more, like people who put dice that roll poorly in a freezer to "teach them a lesson."

Another common category of misunderstandings is not understanding independence of events. Frequently when someone gets a very good roll on something unimportant he will express regret at "wasting" a good roll. Of course getting this roll in no way impacts any future rolls. Last night I was playing Magic: The Gathering. It was a "draft" format which means you pass booster packs around, "drafting" cards out of the packs, and making a deck with the cards you draft. My opponent had a "Tome Scour" card in his deck that "mills"a target player five cards - i.e. makes him put five cards from the top of his library (draw pile) into his graveyard (discard pile). The main use of this type of card is in "mill decks" that try to win by emptying out the opponent's library (because if you have no cards to draw at the start of your turn you lose.) My opponent didn't have kind of deck but did say that he liked that card because "in the last game, I milled out lots of really good cards." Of course, milling out cards does not affect the average quality of the cards coming up - it's just as likely you will mill out poor cards and leave the opponent with the good ones.

Of course, sometimes the players aren't the ones that get the probability messed up - sometimes the players know more about probability than the game designers. My problem from a while ago, "Mathematically Challenged," is based on the actual skill challenge system in D+D 4th edition. If you didn't allow the "aid another" trick described in the problem (and the rules actually said you weren't supposed to allow that trick) I think the calculation was something like the characters had about a 7% chance of succeeding at an average difficulty skill challenge. After this was discovered, they released errata* that changed all the difficulty levels and challenge rules so that instead of it being a 7% chance of success, it was more like a 99.7% chance.

*There are currently over 100 pages of errata to D+D 4th edition, most of them to fix things which proved to be too powerful or easy to abuse. One recent example was Wormhole Plunge, a power that creates a one-square zone where whenever an enemy is in that zone, you can teleport him three squares. The trick was to teleport him three squares straight up, so he falls down and takes falling damage. After this he is then in the same square as before, so you can repeat the process. And the teleport is a free action, so you can do it as many times as you want in one turn, so you can keep going until the monster is dead, no matter how tough the monster is. And this is a power you can get at level 1. The fix was to make it so you can only do the teleport once per round.

Friday, May 7, 2010

"Champions: Phoenix", Part 5

The adventures of our brave heroes continue...

When Field Effect returned, Agent Randall was anxiously waiting to speak with him. During the interrogation, Randall first realized he was getting nowhere, so they moved the interrogation into a sealed room, blocking all incoming and outgoing signals - including the one linking Field Effect to the aliens. With the interference from the producer's voice eliminated, Field Effect did his best to convey the situation. Although he still couldn't talk about it directly due to the neural block, he dropped the hints he could and eventually clued Agent Randall in. When the interrogation was over, Field Effect pleaded with his producers to remove the neural block. He stated that the government thought he was a threat to humanity, and was planning on locking him up, but if he could talk about it freely he could allay those fears and strike up a mutually beneficial deal. The producers said that they wanted to do so, but couldn't - putting in the neural block was illegal under the aliens' own laws, and if their government found out they would lock them up. Also, they gave out another shocking fact - when the aliens went to Earth to start the whole thing off, they weren't actually representatives of the alien's government as they claimed - they were just from the entertainment company making the show! Fortunately, there was an alternative option:

(Note: In the game, players create characters based on a point system, and you can get extra points by taking "complications", such as Field Effect's inability to talk about what happened. During the game, you get experience points, and you can spend experience points to improve your powers or to "buy off" complications, at which time you're supposed to come up with an in-game explanation for the changes.)

Rift: Technomancer, can you scan his brain and use your technology to remove the neural block?
Field Effect: He will be able to, just as soon as I get 7 more experience points.

Fortunately, he actually miscounted and only needed 2 more experience points, and was able to get those by increasing one of his other disadvantages. So Technomancer took him back to his lab and was almost ready to use targeted radiation pulses to burn out the neural implant and remove the block:

Technomancer: Before we begin, it's standard policy that you have to sign this superpower-alteration-experiment liability waiver form.
Field Effect: What? It says, you're not responsible if I grow extra tails?

The experiment proceeded as planned, and the only side effect was that the amount of susceptibility damage he takes when he gets teleported increased by 50 percent, but it was well worth it. We returned to Randall and resumed negotiations. Field Effect pleaded to be allowed to join Project EAGLE, because the aliens wanted him to be in danger, this would place him in danger, and if he was not in danger (and thus the show got boring) then the aliens could start making bad things happen. "The more danger we are in," he said, "the safer the world is."

Before we could finish our negotiations, however, the producers thought the show was getting boring, so they teleported us into a superpowered battle scene. We saw a guy being chased by thugs wielding blaster rifles. He was hit, then frantically fired off an energy bolt before being hit again and going down. Our brave heroes leapt into action, covering the victim while engaging the thugs. Field Effect flipped over the truck that the thugs were in - several thugs managed to jump clear, but a few got trapped under the truck. Then more thugs came in from a side street and opened fire! Technomancer ran up and got them in a stasis field, but Field Effect pounded the ground, destroying the stasis field but leaving the thugs unharmed. (Clearly not much coordination here.) Fortunately, Technomancer ordered Alpha to go around the corner and flash the thugs to blind them, which worked. Seizing the opening, the rest of the party unloaded with their area-effect attacks, taking out all the thugs before they could get off another round of shots. While waiting for the police to arrive, we tended to the victim, who soon woke up. He tried to leave the scene, but Field Effect stopped him. Eventually, he revealed why he was so anxious - "I don't want to go back to the Mesa," and tried to blast Field Effect but Field Effect knocked him out before he had a chance. As it turned out, the victim was Blueheart, a paroled supervillain who had just violated the terms of his parole by using his superpowers in a threatening manner (even though it was in self-defense). We then examined the guns, and began tracing them back to their source.

The source of the guns was apparently a militia leader who had a house on the outskirts of Phoenix. Field Effect, Technomancer, and Rift went to investigate, while Strobe stayed behind at home. They first alerted H.U.R.T. as to what they were up to, and H.U.R.T. told them to "proceed with caution." That proved to be good advice. As we advanced toward the house, we avoided two booby traps, then managed to get within Rift's teleport range. Rift teleported onto the roof of the house. He noticed several motion sensors, then reflexively froze in place just in time to avoid setting them off. However, he then decided to dance on the roof to set them off on purpose, to try to "flush out" the bad guys. This was not a good idea, as when he did so, the house exploded! The blast knocked him out, though fortunately he had his defenses up so he suffered no permanent injury. Field Effect used his stretching and super strength to put out the flames, but the fire destroyed any usable evidence.

We returned to Phoenix and reported back to Agent Randall. With the neural block gone, Field Effect could relay communications to and from the producers to the rest of the party. Randall agreed to let us join Project EAGLE, and they would provide us with a base of operations. Each side also had a few other requests - Field Effect wanted a few hours per week of "private time" that they wouldn't film, the producers wanted Agent Randall to wear a superhero costume, and so on. But the negotiations were a success, and just as they left, the producers chimed in with some news. Field Effect's sister, they said, "might need superpowers right about now." When Field Effect asked why, the producers said that "you might want to find out."

What will become of our heroes' latest enterprise? Will they find out what is happening to Field Effect's sister in time to save her? Will our heroes finally discover why nearly every superhero on the planet has relatives who keep getting in trouble? And will our heroes have the chance to enforce Arizona's new immigration law against the other kind of alien? Find out, next time on "Champions: Phoenix!"

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Updates on school

I will post the latest update on the superhero game soon but I have other things to talk about - like the fact that I just finished my last class of the school year! Of course school is not yet done - there are still the final exams and final project.

Also, I am making more progress toward finding a research advisor;. I talked to Sheldon Jacobson and he gave me some interesting papers to read. Also, Roy Campbell said he would set up a meeting between me and some people in the Beckman Institute because it looks like there is really cool stuff going on there, although that hasn't been done yet. Also, I went to a guest lecture by Eric Brewer of Berkeley about technology in developing countries (just look on his web site for some of the projects his group has done). That lecture definitely inspired me to start looking for projects that, like those, can have a major social impact in the real world rather than just publishing papers. (This doesn't necessarily have to involve developing countries, at least not directly: computational methods are also used in other important application areas such as energy and the environment.) I don't believe there are any computer science research groups at UIUC looking at developing countries, but Roy Campbell has previously advised a project along those lines so at least he would know where to start. I am planning on talking to him again a couple weeks from now; I'll post again when I know more.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"Champions: Phoenix," Part 4

This session, Field Effect's player couldn't make it to the game because his wife's birthday party (in real life) was that day. I commented that in the game, one of the disadvantages you can take for your character is a "DNPC" (dependent non-player character) - that's someone your character is responsible for that keeps getting into trouble (e.g. Lois Lane for Superman). In this case, none of the characters in the game have DNPCs, but apparently the players themselves do.

Anyway, continuing on...


Our heroes were hot on the tail of the people who were behind the robotic attacks. Technomancer suggested telling Agent Randall all that they knew and asking for his help, but that plan was quickly shot down by the other heroes, who thought that Randall might arrest them if he learned Beta was behind the illicit sale. Technomancer recovered the hard drive from Beta's wreckage and searched it for any useful information, but all could come up with was "off-world concerns" - not much to go on. Then, our heroes rented a car and drove out to the ambush site, hoping to get more information there. Agent Randall and his crew were already investigating the area, and asked for the heroes' help. They had found a piece of alien-looking technology in the wreckage and asked for help reactivating it. The technician, "All-Purpose Bob", couldn't do it, but Technomancer easily could. It began sending out an audiovisual signal, which could be played back on Earth equipment (apparently alien technology uses file formats compatible with Earth's). It displayed scenes from the battle, and then looped back to show a stunning image - an alien television control room, staffed by the same aliens that had abducted Field Effect weeks earlier! Realizing the Field Effect may know something about the alien threat, Radall asked to speak to Field Effect about this "matter of global security," but Field Effect wasn't there. With that line of inquiry closed off for now, our heroes went back to Phoenix and hit the streets, hoping to find more information about ACME, the group that had attacked them to start off this whole thing.

Their inquiries soon led them to a warehouse, where apparently villains were luring unsuspecting victims with promises of job offers, then disintegrating anyone who didn't make the grade. In preparation for the attack, Technomancer made a few modifications to Alpha in order to lessen its capacity for wanton destruction and teach it more about "helping people". In particular, Technomancer replaced Alpha's energy blaster with a "stun only" radiation beam, and added in a "biological energy enhancer ray" that increased its target's strength and toughness. With that done, Technomancer, Rift, and Strobe made their way to the warehouse. When Rift peered in, he saw a bad guy armed with a bow - the kind you shoot arrows out of. While this may have simply been someone who got our superhero adventure mixed up with Dungeons & Dragons, it could also be a real threat, so we were on our guard. Rift tried a surprise attack, teleporting in and blasting the enemies. Unfortunately there were two other villains - a mentalist and an electricity blaster - and they were able to get the drop on Rift and knock him out temporarily. The electricity blaster then teleported outside and blasted Technomancer, Alpha, and Strobe all with a blast of electricity. Technomancer and Alpha were of course vulnerable to electricity, so the blast fried their systems and stunned them for a round. Strobe fortunately stayed up and hit the electricity blaster with a mind-control-based paralysis ray, after which he teleported back inside the warehouse to assist with the fight there. Now that all the threats outside the warehouse were eliminated, Technomancer wanted to get into the warehouse where all the action was. But that was easier said than done: the door was locked, Technomancer was the only hero on his team without teleport capability, there was no Field Effect to use his super strength to break down the door, and Alpha couldn't blast the door down because his weapons were now stun only. But just when Technomancer thought he was safe, the bow wielder went outside through the side door, snuck around, and shot him in the back! Technomancer quickly wheeled around and blasted the bow wielder with a stasis field, then ordered Alpha to finish him off. Unfortunately, Alpha saw the villain trapped in the stasis field, remembered what Technomancer had told it about "helping people," and blasted him - with the biological energy enhancer ray! As the bow wielder used his newly enhanced strength to try to bust out, Technomancer desperately pumped more energy into the field. Technomancer finally convinced Alpha that the bow wielder was actually a bad guy who should be shot at, but soon realized that he had miscalibrated the stasis field, and it was actually deflecting Alpha's shots away from the bad guy! he recalibrated the stasis field and shot the bow wielder with the new field jsut as he had finished breaking out of the old one. A few shots from Alpha later, and the bow wielder was unconscious.

But the battle was not over yet. Just as Technomancer and Alpha finished dealing with the bow wielder, the electricity blaster broke out of the mind control and started attacking! Technomancer was hit again, but managed to get the electricity blaster in another stasis field. The electricity blaster was almost able to get out of it, but Strobe and Rift had finished dealing with the mentalist inside, and teleported back out to finish off the last bad guy. When we investigated the inside, we found that the villains were aspiring new supervillains trying to get a position in the evil organization, and were recruited to "prove themselves" by waiting there beat up the heroes who showed up. We called Agent Randall to send in a "pickup crew" to cart these villains away to prison, and went back to await our next adventure.

Will our heroes finally get down to the bottom of the ACME menace? Will the truth about Field Effect be revealed to the world? And will Technomancer be able to use Boolean logic to teach Alpha how to tell friend from enemy? Find out next time, only on "Champions: Phoenix!"

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"Champions: Phoenix", Part 3

"Their vision is sight-based!"

- One of the players, on discovering a villain's secret weakness


The story continues...

Our brave superheroes, along with H.U.R.T. Agent Randall, were transporting the vile Future Shock villain group to the place where they belonged - in prison. But on the way, six evil flying robots, all clones of Technomancer's own, barrelled down on the vans. Before our heroes could react, the robots blew up the tires on the front van, sending it toppling over. The van in the back tried to swerve out of the way but failed, ending up on its side. The heroes inside the van were shaken but not hurt, so they quickly piled out and entered battle with the evil robots. Technomancer's robots were offline at the moment because H.U.R.T. didn't want them turned on after seeing the incident from before, but Technomancer had a backup plan. He first reconfigured his variable power pool gadget to counteract the enemy robots' repulsor fields and drain their flight capability. He managed to jump out of the van and get one shot off, draining half of the flight power from the robots, but before he could get another shot off the robots focused fire on him, knocking him out and knocking him all the way across the field. Field Effect then rushed over to one of the robots and punched it. The punch connected, knocking it back - and it knocked it back even more than normal, because the robots' knockback resistance was linked to their flight, which got drained. But there was more - at that moment, Field Effect's producers gave their viewers a surprise - they downloaded new superpowers directly into Field Effect's body! The battle continued, with both sides taking a beating. The robots' energy blasts easily pierced the heroes' armor and defenses, but Technomancer's plan had had an effect - each time the heroes hit the robots the robots were knocked clear out of the battle area, and it took several rounds for them to get back into range. Nevertheless, it was a close battle, and it looked like it could go either way. But with the fate of our heroes at stake, Agent Randall revealed his true nature - he was a retired superhero himself! He came out of retirement for a few more combat rounds, jumping out of the wrecked van, drawing the robots' fire, and throwing entangle balls at the remaining robots, delaying them enough so the heroes could finish off the rest. After the battle, Technomancer activated his robot Beta, and a few blasts from its healing ray treated the victims of the crash, and the transport proceeded without further incident.

After getting back to Phoenix, Technomancer turned ion his robots to debrief them on the day's events. Technomancer first turned on Alpha, and started explaning the situation. Without warning, Alpha turned his blaster on the deactivated Beta and fired! Before Technomancer could stop it, Alpha had turned Beta into a pile of scrap metal. Alpha told Technomancer the shocking truth - it was actually Beta that was the evil one. Beta had secretly reprogrammed Alpha through the mind link to cause him to gain sentience, and Beta was also the one that sold the robots' schematics on the black market. Technomancer's original plan was to salvage Beta's hard drive to recover any information as to who he might have sold the plans to, but Alpha was so scared of another Beta being built that he quickly blasted the hard drive, ruining any chance of successful data recovery. Technomancer soon resolved to treat Alpha like a sentient being rather than a slave, and to try the best he could to teach him how to interact with others.

Finally, our heroes made plans to register with the government's Project EAGLE as an official super team, but got hung up on choosing a name for their team. The super-team naming char in the rule book produced suggestions that were "too cliche," and all the other ideas players came up with were either politically charged ("Desert Storm") or offensive to one ethnic group or another ("The Phoenix Indians.")

Will our brave heroes figure out a name and become an official super team? Will they be able to track down the nefarious villains who purchased the robots' plans? And will Technomancer ever be able to teach Alpha right from wrong in a world where the superheroes' efforts do at least as much collateral damage as the villains themselves? Find out next time, only on "Champions: Phoenix!"

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Visit from Grandma and Grandpa

This weekend, my grandparents visited me and I showed them around town. Before they came I knew it would be interesting because they are strong Republicans while I am a Democrat - unfortunately they did not come on March 9 when the university was sponsoring a depate about national health care. But there was still lots of excitement:


On Thursday, they arrived about an hour late because their GPS gave them bad directions. Then they took me out to dinner at IHOP, where they showed me lots of interesting things that have happened in the news recently. They accused the Democrats of "trickery" in getting the health care bill passed, because some of the congressmen got special deals for their home districts in exchange for their vote (as if there were any major piece of legislation where that doesn't happen). Then we went to get a shave and haircut. Apparently none of the haircut places in town offer shaves, because it's against local health regulations - clearly another example of how Big Government makes life harder for honest businessmen. However, it was also an example of how "big government" regulations can spur investment in new technology, because they offered to get me a better electric shaver. I informed them that the one I had worked just fine, so we didn't need another one - thus showing that in this case, big government regulations actually saved money. Then they dropped me off at my apartment, and they went to a hotel.


On Friday, they picked me up at my apartment and drove me to class. I introduced them to the people in the department office, and they both were happy to meet each other. They also wanted to meet my research advisor Jeff Erickson but he was not here today. We left to drive around campus, but unfortunately when we were pulling out of out parking space, another car backed out at the same time and hit the side of our car. Fortunately nobody was hurt although both of the right side doors were damaged, and the car rental company had no spare cars so we had to drive around in the same car for the rest of the weekend. Then we went to the shopping center on North Prospect Avenue to have lunch and get some stuff like new clothes. Finally we went out to dinner. Apparently Grandma and Grandpa had spent the last night watching Fox News and had started channeling Ann Coulter, because they told me what they thought about the latest news on Obama's health care bill:

Me: "What don't you like about the health care bill?"
Them: "For one thing, it reduces payments to doctors. Doctors are like everyone else, they want to make a living. If doctors start making less money, we won't have as competent doctors."
Me: "Other countries with national health care systems pay their doctors less. Do they have less competent doctors?"
Them: "They have worse systems, yes. America's health care system is the best in the world."
Me: "That's not true. According to the World Health Organization's rankings, the U.S. health care system is only ranked 37th."
Them: "The World Health Organization? Isn't that an arm of the U.N.?"
Me: "Yeah, I think it is, why?"
Them: "Don't believe anything the U.N. says. If it were up to me, I'd kick the U.N. out of the United States."
Me: "What don't you like about the U.N.?"
Them: "On every vote on Israel. The Palestinians attack the Israelis, then the UN says it's Israel's fault."

I pointed out a headline in the newspaper that said that the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) had determined that Obama's plan would reduce the deficit, but they said that was "bullshit." Another interesting headline was in local news. The story was the following: UIUC was planning to retire Chief Illiniwek, the former Native American mascot, because it was "offensive to Native Americans." A student group called Students for Chief planned to rent out space in the student union for a dance in support of the Chief, but was at first denied. The student group used a FOIA request to get the e-mails between school administrators concerning this decision, and discovered a concerted plan to keep them out of the hall, such as claiming that the room was booked even through it wasn't. Confronted with this evidence the administration relented and allowed them to have the dance. Then the student group asked the local ACLU chapter for help in suing the school for trying to violate their free speech rights. The ACLU chapter declined to pursue the case, saying that since the dance had ended up happening, there was no violation of free speech. Grandma and Grandpa said that this explanation - that they didn't pursue the case because in the end free speech was not violated - was "a fudge", and the "real reason" was because the ACLU wanted to appear "politically correct" by not supporting something "offensive" to Native Americans.


On Saturday they took me first to the D+D Game Day at Armored Gopher Games. They stayed for a few minutes just to see what the game was about, then they went off to do their own thing. They picked me up later in the day, and we went to the mall and got some stuff. Then they took me back to my apartment, so that I could go to the gaming club at school. Unfortunately when I got there I found that it was closed due to spring break. So I spent the rest of the evening at home playing the new video games I got.


On Sunday we first went to the bookstore. While we were at the bookstore I ran into one of the people I play D+D with. He thanked me for saving his character's life: in our previous battle, my character had fallen unconscious in the middle of the battle so I spent most of the battle standing up looking at the scene. From the angle I was standing I could clearly see the DM's rolls behind the screen, and could tell that he was fudging die rolls left and right. Although I didn't say anything directly to the DM, I did whisper in the other player's ear what was going on. The DM might have realized I was "on to something" and fudged the rolls less, thus making his character not die. At the end of the battle all but one of us was knocked unconscious, there were only a couple enemies remaining, and as a last ditch attempt to defeat the villain before they escaped, the last remaining character fired a wide area burst across the battlefield, killing the remaining monsters but also me. (Actually I don't really mind that my character died because now I get to play a new character with a different class. The character I have come up with is an artificer - that's the class with the "socialist healing power" I mentioned before.) After we finished up at the bookstore, they droppdd me off at the Armored Gopher's board game night, and went off on their merry way.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Blog Experiment Conclusion

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this post until you have read the three posts before this one (the two about the superhero role-playing game and the one titled "Being a Superhero in the Real World"). Then scroll down to see the rest.












The post titled "Being a Superhero in the Real World" was a demonstration of several scientifically proven persuasion techniques.

The superhero theme of the post, as well as its placement immediately following two posts about superhero role-playing games, is intended to take advantage of the real scientific result that getting subjects to think about superheroes makes them more likely to volunteer for charity.

The post itself was a demonstration of the "SPICE model" of persuasion, described in a recent article in Scientific American. SPICE stands for Simplicity, Perceived Self-Interest, Incongruity, Confidence, and Empathy. The four bullet points under "but wait, there's more" appeal to simplicity, self-interest, confidence, and empathy respectively. The overall tone of the post, mixing serious real-life issues with mimicry of TV salespersons and discussions of superheroes, is an example of incongruity.

(But seriously, you should definitely read Peter Singer's stuff. Even if you don't agree with all of it, the issues he raises are definitely thought-provoking.)

Being a Superhero in the Real World

In comics, movies, and (as you've seen before) role-playing games, brave superheroes can make the world a better place by fighting evil. Even though superpowers don't exist in real life (as far as we know), a recent book argues that it's easier than you think to be a superhero in your own way. The book "The Life You Can Save" by philosopher Peter Singer argues that by giving just a small fraction of our income to charities working to help the poor in developing countries, we can save the lives of others at little cost to ourselves. But wait, there's more:

- It's simple. In order to be a superhero the "regular way," first you have to figure out how to actually get superpowers, then you have to worry about being sued if your powers malfunction, like in the session report below. But with giving money, all you have to do is pick an organization from the list and reach for your checkbook!

- It helps you, too. Learning to live on a little less money will help you in case there is an economic downturn, so why not start now?

- I am so confident in my message that I've taken the pledge myself. Why don't you do the same?

- I'm writing this blog post because Ihave your best interest at heart. You wouldn't want to go through life not thinking that you've done what you could to help, would you?


So what are you waiting for? Operators are standing by! Act now! Sign up today!Don't make me keep mimicking cheesy TV informercials!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Champions: Phoenix", Part 2

The superheroic adventure continues...
After the supervillain knocked Field Effect over, our intrepid heroes discovered that they were in for more than they bargained for - a super team known as Future Shock, consisting of four supervillains, was out to ambush them! As another villain rushed up from behind the building, Field Effect played dead, hoping to lure the enemy into complacency. As the villain rushed past him to attack the rest, Field Effect got up, activated his superpowers, and ran the villain over! Meanwhile, Rift teleported on top of a building and started firing energy blasts down at the enemies, while Strobe went the other direction and tried to blind the enemies. For Technomancer, on the other hand this was the perfect time to try out his latest experiment - a "kinetic stasis field" that could stop any enemy in their tracks! As Technomancer tried to get the stasis field to work, he asked Alpha to go attack the bad guys. Unfortunately, while he was doing this, he and the robots were inside a van belonging to Rift, and he forgot to open the doors first, and the robots had no arms. So in order to get out, Alpha blasted the back doors off the van. The battle was soon joined. Technomancer hit one enemy with his stasis field - and that was a good choice, because all of his powers were based on his super running speed, which he oculdn't use, so he spent the entire battle futilely trying to wriggle his way out of the field. Technomancer also hit the enemy mentalist with the stasis field, but that didn't affect his mental powers. There was a third enemy that Technomancer couldn't hit because he kept dodging the attacks - he had a power that once per round, he could move out of the way to dodge an attack. Beating him would require a coordinated strike: Technomancer first attacked him to force him to use up his free dodge, then Beta used its Aid power to improve Alpha's offensive capability,then Alha let loose with a blast, which hit its mark. Meanwhile, the fourth supervillain had recovered and knocked out Field Effect, but a well timed assist from Beta let him get back in the fight. A couple rounds later all the supervillains were unconscious.

Soon on the scene were agents of the special police force known as H.U.R.T. (Hyper-Ultra Response Team). While they wre talking to the rest of us, Rift teleported into the temp agency to investigate for information. On seeing a computer that he couldn't get access to, he went back out and teleported Technomancer in. When the police found out we had teleported in, he said we had "messed things up" by investigating before they could get a search warrant, and that they would have to "manufacture some probable cause." As it turned out, however, the temp agency was merely a front and contained no useful information, so it wasn't too much of a loss. At any rate, they recruited us to accompany the villains as they were transported to Mesa, a prison in the New Mexico desert specifically designed to house superpowered criminals. But the transport would not happen until the next day, leaving plenty of time for more action...

That night, Technomancer told Alpha that he had done a bad thing by blowing up the van, and that he should only attack things that Technomancer tells him to:

Technomancer: "You are a prototype. Your purpose is to protect people by blowing up bad guys. If it works, they'll make lots more of you so you will be able to have lots of friends. But if you blow up things you're not supposed to blow up, your makers could be sued. And if that happens the program will be determined to be a failure, and you will be shut down."

Unfortunately, that reasoning backfired: Alpha concluded that it "wasn't his fault" if he started blowing things up, because it was his maker's fault. Also, he said Technomancer was "annoying" because "all you do is tell me what to do." When Technomancer explained that he would only ask him to destroy bad guys, Alpha asked him "how come you are the sole arbiter of who is good and who is bad?" Alpha flew off and started blowing up unoccupied cars on the streets. Fortunately, Field Effect got wind of what was happening and went to the scene, using his negotiating skills ot talk the robot down. [Another player said that Alpha had become a "robot teenager."] Technomancer tried to get his backup robots out of storage, but found out they had mysteriously disappeared.

The next morning, after the chaos was over, it was time for the transport. There were four vans, one hero and one villain in each van. Technomancer was assigned to the van with the mentalist:

Technomancer: "I can use this device to suppress the mentalist's mental powers, in case he tries to escape."
H.U.R.T. Agent: "Has that thing been tested?"
Technomancer: "Uh... no."
H.U.R.T. Agent: "Listen. If you use that thing on him and he gets brain cancer, we can be sued. So don't do that unless it has been tested."

We boarded the vans and set out for our destination. As it turns out, the reason that the bad guys were after Technomancer in the first place was to steal his robot technology. An as it turns out, they might have succeeded, because as they were driving along, a group of flying objects looking suspiciously like Technomancer's robots approached them from up ahead...

Who will win this next confrontation? Will Technomancer be able to defeat his own creations? Will the vile Future Shock be brought to justice? And is there any legal precedent regarding who is liable if a robot gets infected by an alien computer virus, develops sentience, and goes out destroying things? Find out, coming up next time, on "Champions: Phoenix!"