Monday, 30 April 2012

"D" - animated short film

An unusual and very creative take on the horror genre, this short film is set in a study on a dark, stormy night.


Highly recommended!

Thursday, 26 April 2012

1d10 design mistakes in DnD 4e - Damage calculations

Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition uses a fairly simple system for determining combat outcomes. A 20-sided dice roll determines if an attack is a miss, a hit or a critical hit. For a hit, damage is then rolled using various dice depending on your weapon and for a crit you always do maximum damage.

As combat is often a key dramatic part of game play, player enjoyment may be deeply linked to how combat results play out. It is therefore unfortunate that the game system has a number of design mistakes.

1) The less powerful your weapon, the more likely you will match 'critical' damage on a regular hit.

For example, with a dagger a critical hit can not be distinguished from a regular hit in 25% of all cases. This undermines the dramatic effect of critical hits.

This could have been addressed by placing critical damage outside the range of normal hits or by adding additional effects. Some efforts have been made towards that goal by giving extra effects through feats, powers or magical weapons but at low levels the reaction to a crit may often be 'meh, whatever'.

2) The higher the level of power you are using, the stronger your damage will trend towards the average.

This is quite silly as it slows down game play while players tally ever increasing number of dice rolls while at the same time making it less dramatic by making most outcomes fall in a small expected range.

At level 1, a character might roll 1D12 for damage and see maximum damage in 8% of cases - it is a completely flat distribution. At level 9, the same character rolls 3D12 and sees the maximum results in only 0.06% of cases (1 out of 1728)! Thus it is more than two orders of magnitude less likely that you will see the most powerful outcome.

As your powers increase, you will become average.
More after the break.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

1d10 design mistakes in DnD 4e - Magical ammunition

If presented with the choice between shooting at a target with magical arrows or mundane arrows, which would you prefer?

Most people would of course prefer the magical arrow, assuming that it would bring some benefit such as greater accuracy or more severe wounds. This is based on a long tradition of fantasy literature with magical swords and such granting advantages to their owners.

However, in Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition it appears that the designers decided that the risk of players gaining advantage from ammunition was just too great and they ruled that if a magical arrow is fired from a magical bow, then the properties of both can not apply.

This leads to the perverse situation that a character may lose a significant part of their ability to deal damage by using better arrows!

Using a paragon-level ranger as an example, consider the case of using the Twin Strike power ten times with a +3 bow and mundane arrows against a target where the ranger has 75% chance to hit. Each Twin Strike involves firing two arrows, so a total of 20 arrows are used and 15 are expected to hit. Each hit does an average of 12 damage, for a total of 180 damage.

Now switch to +1 arrows with some added property that makes them desirable to use. In order to enable that property, the ranger must calculate the attacks using the +1 bonus of the arrows and can not use the +3 bonus of the bow. This drops the hit chance to 65% and the average damage to 10 points, resulting in only 13 hits and 130 damage.

Thus the magical arrows do only 72% of the damage that the mundane arrows would do. It also understates the damage lost somewhat as using the properties of the arrow also involves giving up the effect on critical hit that most weapons have. This is counter-intuitive, using better (and highly expensive) ammunition should never result in a worse outcome.

I'll look at how this probably came to be and how it could have been done after the break.

Small World Underground

The original Small World is a fast-playing strategy game for up to 5 players who take turns commanding quirky races conquering provinces on a map which quickly becomes crowded.

The mechanics ensure that each race reaches the limit of their ability to expand in about three turns, encouraging players to place the race into decline and move on to another race. This results in waves of expansion which are more dynamic than a typical 'province control' game where players gradually accumulate ever larger stacks of counters (such as RISK).

The Underground sequel introduces a number of new game elements, adding a certain amount of complexity and uncertainty to the gameplay.

Relics are powerful magical items that provide new powers. The relics move to wherever they are used and therefore usually end up on the frontlines where they are exposed to counterattack and seizure by other players. For example a magical rug (shown in image below) allows your force to fly anywhere on the map, giving you the option of a surprise attack behind the front lines but then leaves the rug in that spot.

Places are stationary sources of additional income or abilities, such as a deep mine providing extra income or a keep providing defences and income (shown in picture below). They often become the focus for savage battles between the races as successive waves of invaders try to seize them for advantage.

While it could be argued that relics and places are too central to winning and therefore detract from what was a more balanced, free-for-all approach in the original game I would counter that there is a valid winning strategy in avoiding relics and places altogether. Maintaining a low profile and staying out of bloody wars can boost income as much or more than holding a mine for a short time.

Similar to the original Small World game, each race is randomly matched with a power. As these combinations vary each time you play the game will remain fresh for longer, throwing up new twists that change how each race plays and adds a degree of strategic choice about when to activate a specific race. Some powers encourage cannibalisation of your declined race while others may provide income when other players attack you. They may also give specific advantages linked to terrain, not having neighbours of another race and so on. This provides a strong influence on tactics.

The map has a dark colour theme, well suited to the underground realms it seeks to depict. A major feature is the river which divides the map, providing either an obstacle to expansion or a highway for rapid conquest depending on which race you control.

The game ships with multiple maps, each adapted to suit a certain number of players. This is a very welcome addition that should be adopted by other game makers.

Because of the way the river splits the board it could cause the game to split into two separate battlefields, however if the aquatic Kraken and Lizardmen come into play or if the rug or pipes are in play then this counteracts this tendency. Any race with the Quarrelling attribute may also find the river useful as a way of quickly expanding into pockets of occupation to maximise their income.

Counters are of good quality with distinctive graphics, using colours, icons and illustrations to allow easy identification. They are also sufficiently thick to make it easy to pick them up. Reverse side is used for when the race is in decline.

Game play is fast, with the situation on the board changing rapidly with each player turn. The objective is to accumulate victory coins which are rewarded primarily from province control exerted both by the active race and the race in decline for each player at the end of his or her turn. Coins are kept face down, making it difficult to track the exact position of each player and victory thus remains uncertain until the very last turn and counting of coins.

The game ends when the turn marker has reached the last position (nine turns for a 5-player game) so typically each player will control three races, two of which will have been put into decline.

Overall this is an excellent game for a small group and I would definitely recommend checking it out.

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These photographs are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Complexity in RPGs

When I started playing (usually as the Dungeon Master) Advanced Dungeons & Dragons about 30 years ago, hitting an opponent with an arrow resulted in rolling 1D6, a single six-sided dice, to determine the amount of damage done.

Over the following years, much experimentation with different systems gave me a feeling for what worked and didn't work during game sessions. More rules could bring clarity or, done to excess, it could bog down game play. Sometimes a system might hit a sweet point where it didn't intrude on enjoyment either by leaving huge gaps (which could lead to arguments about interpretation or how to resolve a situation) or by imposing huge burdens which slows everything down and confuses those who haven't spent their time studying rule books instead of school exams.

My system of choice back then tended to get a lot of criticism from players who felt it was too complex, involving table look-up for results. I liked it as I had achieved a certain level of mastery that put me in a state of 'flow' when running it, but the critics had a good point when comparing it to contemporary systems such as the aforementioned AD&D with the simple damage roll. Rolling 1D6 was pretty much as fast and simple as it could get without eliminating chance.

Twenty to thirty years later I find myself as a player in a D&D group. During the early levels of heroic adventures (levels 1 through 10) the system often threw up problems with how long it took to resolve combat and mistakes were prevalent due to the amount of modifiers, often of a fleeting nature, that had to be applied to get the final results to determine if an attack hit and then what damage it would do. Note that this is with bright people (IT professionals and a doctor of biology) who have been into RPGs for 25-30 years, in many cases having played all editions of D&D as well as many other systems.

Last night we had a session at paragon level, starting at level 11 and reaching level 12 during the session. This brought in some additional factors for each character as various class powers are unlocked at those levels, leading to everybody struggling more than usual. Temporary boosts from our Warlord were usually forgotten completely and I know that I failed to apply a large amount of damage in several cases despite usually being au fait with the system.

Therefore I decided to map out exactly how damage is resolved for my character. He has ten different powers that can deal damage, each of which has many quirks, so I decided to focus on just one to limit the scope of the exercise. The following flowchart illustrates the process using one of my ranged attacks (shooting an arrow):

Image is available here and can be used freely with no restrictions.

There is an assumption in this example that the power was successfully used as the starting point is the "hit or critical", thus the chart doesn't actually show the entire process. Some of the powers also have an effect on miss, making it a bit more complicated than what is shown above.

Contrasting today's D&D with the 1978 version that used a simple 1D6 roll to determine damage really brings home how much the complexity in RPGs has changed.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Great webcomics

Light entertainment, socio-political commentary and deep insight into the human condition can be found in webcomics. Published regularly or irregularly, sometimes with a side business in posters, t-shirts or other collectibles, they are an enduring and widespread side of the web that I have come to love.

No day is complete without visiting at least a few of the following, some of which are occasionally NSFW (and Oglaf is always NSFW) depending on how enlightened your employer is:

xkcd by Randall Munroe

Cyanide and Happiness by Kris Wilson, Rob DenBleyker, Matt Melvin and Dave McElfatrick

Scandinavia and the World by humon

Sinfest by Tatsuya Ishida

Questionable Content by Jeph Jaques

oglaf by Trudy Cooper

Image Copyright

Least I could do by Ryan Sohmer

smbc by Zach Weinersmith

Wondermark by David Malki

Jesus and Mo by Mohammed Jones (notably Mo is a body double, thereby avoiding the restriction on depicting the prophet)

Penny Arcade by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik

Looking for Group by Ryan Sohmer and Lar deSouza

Image Copyright © 2012 Blind Ferret

Also an honourable mention for userfriendly because I read it for years and erfworld because the first book is really very good for anybody who is into boardgames.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Glasgow orchid fair 2012

The Glasgow orchid fair takes place in the Botanic Gardens every spring. As a free event it offers an excellent opportunity to see some very beautiful flowers and photograph them. This year was the first time I had a macro lens and the photos from the fair reflects this.

The full set of pictures is available on Flickr.

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These photographs are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Changing seasons

Temperatures in Scotland in March are usually around 10 degrees Celsius. This year the temperature highs that had stood unchallenged for over 50 years were broken, then broken again the next day and broken a third time the day after that with temperatures reaching 23.6C.

The United Kingdom was almost entirely cloud-free, as shown in this stunning satellite picture. The contrast with the usual existence under steel grey skies could not be greater.

Of course it didn't last and a week later we had snow falling for most of a day and staying on the ground in much of Scotland. This varied weather made me think of the excellent movie Seasons, by the talented Erica Haowei Hu, which captures the dynamics of changing seasons beautifully.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The beauty of earthporn

Porn has been making its way into culture in many ways, not least in colloquial language where it is increasingly common to append 'porn' to signify a collection of something.

One such example is earthporn, as seen in one of Reddit's many communities. While this might at first give the impression of something sexual it is actually a collection of photographs featuring planet Earth at its most beautiful, unusual or awe-inspiring.

Below are a few sample photographs, all of which make me want to grab my camera and book a flight to go exploring. The last one also seems like an excellent location for a mad scientist engineer to create a base for bringing plans of world domination to fruition.

Tsingy de Bemeraha

Horseshoe Bend

Himmeltindan, Vestvågøy, Norway

Entrance to an ice cave

Aogashima, Japan

Monday, 9 April 2012

Macro photography

Reproducing subjects at 1:1 ratio or greater can reveal a world which is not normally visible for us to study closely without difficulty. Macro photography is commonly seen today with subjects such as insects and flowers, for example there is a large community on G+ tagging shots with #macromonday to share such photos. The Closer and Closer Macro group on Flickr has nearly a million photographs, demonstrating the popularity of macro photography.

A typical macro shot has razor sharp focus on the subject matter and a narrow depth of field (sometimes extended with focus stacking). The use of a ring flash or a flash diffuser is common in order to improve light conditions as the photographer needs to work very close to the subject. Tripods are not required but are very helpful in order to stabilise the camera when longer exposures are needed to compensate for poor light conditions and the subject can be relied on to not fly off while you are setting up the tripod.

Personally I use the Canon EF 100mm 2.8 USM lens on a 60D with a 430 EX II flash and a diffuser. Below are some sample photographs taken with the lens.

View on black here. This shot of a hornet has been cropped and rotated to improve the composition. Some photographers feel strongly that using crop to achieve a 'macro effect' is not appropriate. In this case the original shot was already a macro shot, as can be seen here. If you are shooting for your own enjoyment then there is no reason to worry about 'rules' but just be aware that some people may take a purist position.

This is a shot of an ice cube on a printed circuit board, with an air bubble (about 2 to 3 mm wide) trapped in the melting water. Again the shot has been cropped for composition. View on black here.

Euro coin, uncropped image shot af f/5.0, 1/400s with ISO 100 and no post processing (JPEG file straight from camera). View on black. Criticism of this picture would probably include that the coin is not fully in focus and that the subject does not fill the frame. A second light source would have been helpful as well.

In conclusion, macro photography can bring out previously unseen colours and details in the world around you. It can be great fun and range from very easy shots such as the coin to very difficult where the subject is prone to flee at the slightest provocation. There are some inexpensive ways, such as extension tubes, to get into macro photography or you can pick up some good glass - many macro lenses have excellent optical characteristics.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Remote Kill

 “Six hours in profiling, that is just nuts!” Connor said, shaking his head in disbelief at his companion.

  “Yeah, I'm used to it though”, Mohmad answered, then continued with a smile. “When your mother is from Chechnya and your father from Iran you get used to showing up at the airport really early and still potentially missing your flight. They ask every question seven different ways trying to trip you up in a contradiction so they can deny you boarding. They've got monthly targets for 'detections' so unless they've already met quota I'm always in for a rough ride.”

 Laughing and still shaking his head, Connor picked up his bacon sandwich and bit into it but as his jaw closed there was an audible crack and he winced.

 ”What the...” he said, reaching into his mouth gingerly. In moments he confirmed his suspicion, feeling the jagged edge where only smooth surface should exist. He checked for any hard objects in the sandwich but saw nothing that would give reason for raising a complaint with the restaurant staff.

 “Broken tooth?” Mohmad asked. “Haven't seen that happen in years.”

  “Yeah it is weird”, Connor answered, “I'd better message my dentist.”

  Grabbing a glass of water, he swirled some around his mouth to clear it. A look of consternation came across his face and he froze momentarily, then spat into the glass. Quickly sinking through the water were two whole teeth, with complete roots. The friends both stared quietly at the glass in quiet disbelief.

  After several seconds Connor shook off the shock and reached for his communicator, hitting the entry for his dentist. Seconds later a short text message appeared on the screen, stating that the clinic was closed for the day.

  “Why would the clinic be closed at one in the afternoon on a weekday?” Connor asked.

  “Why don't you call my dentist instead, she's great. Really knows her stuff and doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Here I'll wave the contact to you.”

  Quickly manipulating his device, Mohmad brought up the entry for his dentist and then held his communicator over Connor's communicator, shaking it gently once as if adding a little salt to a dish.

  The entry appeared on Connor's communicator and he selected it, sending a brief query. Just six seconds later a calendar appointment opened up on screen and he confirmed acceptance. A Galileo position dot instantly appeared on the map application, showing estimated travel time from his current location to the clinic.

 “Ok, I've got an appointment 45 minutes from now so I'd better get going. Catch up with you another time, ok? Maybe at the old library, they've turned it into a hacker space and maker's workshop now, some of the kids are turning out really cool micro-satellites.”

  “All right, yeah I'll see you there. Go get your teeth fixed, I'll get the bill here.” Mohmad answered, waving his friend away before Connor could reach for the NFC pod on the table.


 “Ok, you've broken a molar and lost two incisors. It is very unusual, actually I've never seen anything like this. You said you haven't had any sore gums or bleeding?” the dentist, Jaśmina, asked.

 “None, no problems at all for years.” Connor answered, speaking as well as he could with the dentist probing deep inside his mouth with a metal instrument.

  “I'm going to probe the area around the adjacent teeth, signal if you feel any pain.” Jaśmina continued.

 Moments later she paused, shock registering on her face before she slammed down a neutral, professional demeanour. Slowly she retracted a whole tooth, dropping it into a tray and then turned slightly towards her lapel microphone, calmly dictacting into it.

 “Lower right premolar detached when probed, no sign of gum disease or damage. No bleeding or pain”. The case file on her computer instantly updated with the voice clip and a transcript.

 Turning back to Connor, she continued “What is your dental history? Anything unusual, maybe something in the family history?”

 Connor shook his head, staring at the tooth in the tray. “No, nothing unusual. I had a full replacement about six years ago and no problems since then, not a single cavity. They were the good stuff, some patented method. My dentist went on about how great they were and I paid a fortune for the job, but it was worth it... well, until now I suppose.”

 “I'm going to need the contact details for your dentist and authority to pull your case from central records, Connor. I don't want to speculate so if you could please be patient and let me investigate this fully I'll get back to you, ok? Don't eat anything for now, maybe just get water or get a smoothie. Use a straw if you are hungry and absolutely have to eat.”


  It was almost seven in the evening before his communicator buzzed. Picking it up immediately he scanned the message, seeing it was another appointment with Jaśmina at the dental clinic in just an hour. He quickly accepted, glancing down at the glass in front of him. At the bottom of the clear water were another six teeth, gleaming white with long roots. It had been a horrifying experience, sitting at the franchise chia outlet, feeling his teeth falling out one after the other.

 He hadn't been able to drink or eat anything, fearing that it would dislodge the remaining teeth, and had spent the day cursing his old dentist and trying to contact him to get answers. The office had remained closed and none of the alternate contacts or even emergency number had worked. He had given up on hearing back from Jaśmina today so the message was an enormous relief.

 An hour later he was at the clinic but wasn't called into the treatment room. Instead Jaśmina invited him into her office and asked him to sit down. She unrolled a display on the desk in front of him, the bright screen showing Connor's treatment history.

 “I couldn't reach your old dentist today, it seems the clinic has been closed. I've checked the tooth that I extracted earlier today and compared it to your dental records. Connor, it seems that you were sold unlicensed teeth.”

 “Unlicensed? What does that mean?” he answered, confusion clear on his face. “I paid a fortune! What about consumer rights, don't I have some kind of legal protection?”

 “Consumer rights don't protect you when you have bought counterfeit goods, actually you could be fined for buying them. Your dentist was not an authorized practitioner. It looks like his license had expired about six months before he grew your teeth from stem cells using the patented method. The rights holder seems to have caught up with him and discovered the malpractice. They activated the remote kill switch yesterday and your teeth are dislodging.”

 “Remote kill switch! What are you talking about? How can somebody kill my teeth?” Connor replied in horror. “They were grown from my stem cells, I paid for the procedure, they are my teeth!”

  “It is like remote deletion of ebooks”, Jaśmina answered. “You know how when they find copyright infringement in a text, like unattributed quotes, the title is removed remotely?” Connor nodded and she went on “Basically each tooth is implanted with a tiny chip that includes details on method, the dentist license number, a serial number and so on. It also has a remote kill switch, so if the manufacturer needs to do a safety recall then they can deactivate it remotely.”

 “What? There is a safety issue with my teeth? Are they poisoning me?” Connor cried out, getting more agitated as he spoke.

 “No, no, sorry, please calm down. Do you remember the Third Berne Convention? It was just after the nuclear bomb attack in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus so the mainstream media didn't really report a lot on the negotiations, but that is when they brought in the new rules on intellectual property. There was a patient safety provision which mandated the inclusion of the chip so they could track defects. There is nothing wrong with your teeth, they are not dangerous. It is just that they used the safety feature to remotely kill them because your dentist had not paid the licensing fees. Basically your teeth are unlicensed and infringing manufactured goods.”

 Connor was shaking his head in disbelief, refusing to believe what he was hearing. His dentist had sold the treatment to him as being top of the range, with a life time guarantee. How could this be happening? He wasn't some fake designer leather purse from a Chinese sweatshop or pirated music clip exceeding the 3-second limit on fair use for previewing! This was his own body, his teeth grown from his own cells.

  Slowly be became aware that Jaśmina had continued talking. “... not reversible I'm afraid. The teeth can't be re-implanted and as you had a full set you are going to lose all of them. I can remove them now if you want or you can wait for them to fall out on their own. I can give you a set of temporary dentures while we grow a new set of your own teeth.”

  Connor looked at her, started to speak and then caught himself, pausing briefly before continuing “Look, I'm a little dazed and confused. Can we take a break so I can go splash some cold water on my face?”


 Coming back from the restroom, Connor said “Are you licensed?”, looking straight into the dentist's eyes.

 Jaśmina smiled at him. “Yes, I'm licensed but not for the patented method that your previous dentist used. I do mostly OpenTeeth work. Here, let me show you my current accreditations.” She worked the screen briefly, bringing up her profile with live links to a standards body that verified her certificates.

 Connor nodded, checked the certificates closely and then asked her “OpenTeeth? What is that?”

  “It is similar to the treatment you had before, but it is not covered by patents. The work was done in collaboration between the University of Gothenburg – that is in Sweden - and the Dental Hospital in Glasgow, then licensed under Creative Commons. There are no extra fees for using it as it was developed by public funded research, they publish everything in open journals as there are strict policies against patenting anything that is derived from research initiatives that are funded by taxation.”

  “Ok, eh, I haven't heard about this before. Why didn't my dentist use it then, is it substandard?” Connor asked.

  “No, they are feature equivalent but because there is no advertising they don't really have the same name recognition as the major brands. A lot of people haven't heard of it, I mean if you are not a dentist then you probably don't read dental journals, right? That is really the only place this gets discussed. Teeth are like any other consumer product, when people don't have any real insight they tend to use price as a guide to quality and the patent methods are by far the most expensive. Your dentist could charge a much higher price for using the patented method and as he wasn't paying license fees the money went straight into his pocket.”

 “Speaking of my money, how do I get it back? It looks like my dentist is gone and the clinic closed down” Connor said. “Can I claim against the rights holders?”

 Shaking her head, Jaśmina answered “No, they will state that the teeth were implanted by fraudulent means and deny responsibility, saying you should have checked his licenses. You could pursue a claim against the dentist if you can find him, but other than that it is a lost cause.”

 “Are there any, uhm, safety provisions in the OpenTeeth?” Connor asked.

  “No, the researchers didn't see any reason to include it. There are no known safety risks with teeth grown in the lab from the patients own stem cells. The stimulus methods provide strict control over growth and the implant step is done after growth is completed.” Jaśmina said. “There are no hazardous materials in the teeth either, they are identical to original human teeth except for enhanced resistance and durability.”

 “Has there ever been a safety issue with these teeth? Or with the patented ones I had before?” he asked.

  “No, none, it really is a proven method. The only remote kills ever done were on patented teeth due to invalid licensing and there has never been a recall of OpenTeeth product” she answered. “Also, it is not like the books or music that used to be in the public domain before it was sold off to private rights holders, the Creative Commons is a real license that protects works but it doesn't try to extract fees from users. There are some specific rules about how it can be used, for example I can only charge you for my time and costs, not for the design of the teeth. Also I have to encode the teeth with the license and attribute the design to the original researchers, not to my own name. The final product is yours though, free to use in perpetuity but you can't sell them to anybody.”

 “I don't see any reason I would ever sell my own teeth.” Connor said “You have convinced me. No extra fees, no remote kill. It looks like I'll be getting some of those OpenTeeth then.”


Published under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

This work takes part in the Future of Copyright Contest”

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.