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.