Three Is Not Enough Party Members For A BioWare Game

Back in the golden age of BioWare, their party members set a new standard for what a party member could be in an RPG, especially a western RPG with a (more or less) customizable protagonist. Which is why it’s so infuriating that the party limit for these games is as low as three.

I’m defining the “golden age of BioWare” here as the time between Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect 2, inclusive. You can fuss with the exact boundaries of that, and I’ll freely admit that the only reason I’m not including Neverwinter Nights is because I never played it. A quick Google confirms it has a maximum party size of two, and if it’s got the character quality of Baldur’s Gate before or KotOR after, that isn’t nearly enough. But let’s stick to what I have direct experience with.

Continue reading “Three Is Not Enough Party Members For A BioWare Game”

The Traveler’s Guide to the Darkwood Post-Mortem

The Traveler’s Guide to the Darkwood crowdfunded from May 1st to May 16th. It got a total of 347 backers and raised $6,007. This is a 20% contraction from the average 437.2 backers I got for Harlequin, Kessler, Caspar, Ozaka, and Cora, the five books of the previous series where I’d hit a plateau and was getting fairly consistent results. We’re in a new series now, so it’s not clear how much data from the old series applies, which means we’re back in speculation mode.

It’s possible that the series is totally unsustainable, kept as high as it is only by the momentum of the previous series. If this is the case, my backer count will steadily decline until it falls below the 300 backers (ish) needed to justify the ongoing existence of the series and it shuts down halfway through.

It’s possible that I’ve immediately hit the plateau for this series, and 300-400 is the new normal. This is going to be extremely punishing on my budget, because that is enough to justify the series, but barely.

It’s possible that the new series just needs to build up momentum and get exposure effect working for it just like the old one. If this is the case, we should see at least 10% growth from each project until a plateau is reached, most likely in the same 400-500 range that the last series plateau’d. A backer count of at least 380 (roughly 10% growth) in the next project would indicate this is the case.

There’s also another variable, which is that I’ve started experimenting with buying advertising services. The idea is to buy some ad services’ fairly affordable packages and see if they’re profitable, and if so buy a more expensive package and see if it scales. Today’s candidates are Olivia and William, the “duo expert crowd funders” who send lots of Kickstarter messages to everyone who tries to crowdfund anything. That certainly suggests they’re not the most effective crowdfunding marketing that exists (when you’re the best, clients usually come to you), but I probably can’t afford whoever that is anyway, and they don’t have to be literally the best ever to be worth it. If sending a DM to every crowdfunding project on the platform works, then that means they have successfully advertised themselves and can probably do the same for me.

But the results are looking pretty grim for them. It’s impossible to say for sure how much worse the project would’ve gone without their support, and from the analytics they sent me, they did successfully get three thousand people to click through to my project. If we assume that 1% of those clicks actually pledged and the vast majority of them are being hidden in the “direct traffic no referrer information” category, then they might be responsible for as much as 30 of my backers, for an average of $520. Considering I paid $200 for a 10-day advertisement package, this most optimistic estimate suggests that they were worth it, albeit barely, and that there’s little room to scale for a project that only lasts 15 days anyway.

But that’s blindly assuming that 1% of all clicks turn into pledges. More careful examination paints a more pessimistic picture. A little over 400 of the clicks came from Twitter. Only one backer came via Twitter (backing at a fairly standard $17). If we assume a standard rate of 1 backer per 400 clicks backing at an average of $17, that’s about $127.50, which means they aren’t even making me back the money I paid them for the campaign.

This assumes both that the rate for other pledge sources (which are too vague in Bitly’s dashboard for me to draw firm conclusions about) had an identical hit rate to Twitter, masked by Kickstarter’s “direct traffic no referrer information” category, and that the one Twitter backer actually came from this advertising campaign and not from my own tweet. My Twitter presence is really bad so this is a reasonable assumption, but as a counterbalance to the very optimistic $520 scenario, there is also the very pessimistic $0 scenario where that one Twitter backer was a lucky pick-up from my own tweet and the entire advertising campaign accomplished nothing. Certainly the only tweet that ever mentioned me (and it came from an account I’ve never seen before that does nothing but tweet about crowdfunding, so I assume it’s part of Olivia and William’s campaign) got a grand total of four likes, one of which was from me, so while I put my money on the $127.50 scenario being closest to the truth, I think the $0 scenario is more likely than the $520 scenario. In fairness, I was biased that way from the beginning – my thought here was always “I should at least check if these things work” rather than “surely this is the missing ingredient to push me over 600 backers!”

So long as the budget permits, I still intend to try other advertising services to see if some are more effective. I’m worried that effective advertising has a floor cost of several thousand dollars, which my campaigns just don’t make enough to justify, but it’s possible that effective advertising that works at small scale does exist, even if it’s lost in a sea of mediocrity. For that matter, if this second series does pick up momentum over time, I might give Olivia and William a second chance. It’s possible that this first campaign was let down by a weak product rather than a weak advertising campaign.

Humble Bundle Giveaway

Fairly regularly I’ll buy a Humble Bundle that has a couple of games I want, and end up with a copy of a game I already have. So I’m listing them here, and you can leave a comment or go to my Discord or something and tell me if you want one. I’ve actually got a ton more games I’ve never heard of buried in my library, but I’m limiting myself to just games that I’ve actually heard of and expect someone might want. I’ve bolded the ones that I think are especially amazing.

911 Operator
Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Call of Duty: WW2
Cultist Simulator
Destiny 2
Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham
Lego Movie Videogame
Lord of the Rings Adventure Card Game (but instead of regular it’s a video game)
Love Letter (but instead of regular it’s a video game)
Magicka
Monster Prom
My Time At Portia
Party Hard
Psychonauts
Running With Rifles
Scythe: Digital Edition
Sniper Elite 3
Sonic Mania
Soul Calibur VI
Starfinder: Pact Worlds Campaign Setting
SUPERHOT
This is the Police
Tropico 4
Tropico 5
Twilight Struggle (but instead of regular it’s a video game)
The Witness
Yooka-Laylee (x2)

Star Wars: Racer

You can probably tell that I got a bunch of Star Wars games during the May the Fourth sale. It was like thirty dollars for eight of them.

Star Wars: Racer is a podracing game released around the same time as the Phantom Menace, and I have relatively little to say about it, partially because I don’t play racing games much and partially because, at least as far as I can tell, it’s just uncomplicatedly good so there isn’t a whole lot to be said. Criticism requires explanation, but praise is pretty much limited to “it is good at the things that it is doing.” In this case, Star Wars: Racer is a racing game set on many different planets in which you pilot floating space chariots at high speed through dangerous circuits and upgrade your pod between races, and it’s mostly just unambiguously good at that.

What criticisms I have are almost entirely about the upgrade and pit droid system, which is opaque and missing some critical features even after being explained. Your pod is made up of seven different parts which control attributes like acceleration, top speed, traction, and so forth. During the career mode, you use the credits you get from winning races to upgrade. The parts also take damage (randomly?) in each race, and need to be repaired. You start out with one pit droid which repairs one damaged part after each race, and you can buy up to three more, so four out of your seven parts will always be in top condition. You don’t get to choose which four, though, and your base parts are invincible (maximally damaged upgraded parts just reduce their performance down to the base, non-upgraded level) so the optimal strategy is to only ever upgrade four out of the seven stats. Doing this means you will run out of things to buy much faster than if you played intuitively. It’s never a good sign when the optimal strategy is to have less fun.

There are three ways to fix the problem. The first is the most straightforward: Allow the player to buy seven pit droids, thus preserving all seven parts against all damage.

The second requires a bit more doing, but is more interesting in the long run: Allow the player to assign pit droids to repair specific parts, so that they can rotate some of the droids between less important parts to prevent any of them from getting too damaged while keeping their most important parts (like top speed and acceleration) perpetually in top condition. You could remove some of the busywork from this by giving the pit droids two modes, one where they automatically repair the most damaged part, whatever it is, and another where they’re locked to a specific part, always repairing that one. If you want total control, you can keep all pit droids in locked mode and lock them to specific parts between each race, but you can also just pick two or three parts to keep in top condition always and let the leftover pit droid(s) repair whatever happens to be the most damaged.

The third takes a glitch in the game and just makes it a game mechanic. You can sell a damaged part back to Watto for a percentage based on how damaged it is (100% of the price if it’s at maximum durability, 1 credit if it’s so badly damaged it no longer provides any improvement over the base part). If you swap to a different racer, you can then rebuy a fully repaired version of the part you just sold to Watto. Upgrades are shared between racers, so you can then swap back to your original racer and keep the fully repaired part. This effectively allows you to pay some credits to repair a damaged part that your own pit droids aren’t fixing, which is a perfectly fine mechanic that could just be added to the game.

Star Wars: Bounty Hunter

Star Wars: Bounty Hunter is a PS2 and Gamecube game starring Jango Fett that depicts a hunt for the leader of a dark Force cult, which Darth Tyrannus is using as a test to find the greatest bounty hunter in the galaxy for cloning. I played it as a kid, and have been replaying it lately. It’s got the foundations of being a great bounty hunter game, but it’s let down by some flaws and missed opportunities.

Flaw the first: Detective vision hadn’t been invented yet. Jango has that little scanner eyepiece dealy that sticks up from his helmet, and in this game you can activate it to scan for bounties. The problem is that it’s a weapon on its own, so you can’t bring it down mid-combat to see if the person you’re aiming at right now has a price on their head. This means the scanner is only useful between combats, either scanning enemies from outside range or scanning civilians who don’t attack you. Both of these feel really cool, but they’re a puny fraction of the game, 80% of which are close range firefights in which enemies are shooting at you from the moment you’re in the same room as them. Making the scanner a detective mode that allows you to keep moving and fighting while you use it rather than a weapon that locks you in place in first-person view (the game is otherwise a third-person shooter) would’ve greatly improved this and made the secondary objective far more manageable. This is big, because most of what makes you feel like a bounty hunter in this game is the process of marking a bounty, zooming in to capture or kill them, and then fighting your way out of their gang of heavily armed buddies.

Flaw the second: No easy target-switching. In order to get around the limitations of console shooting, the game allows you to lock onto opponents. This is good, but without any way of switching targets, it’s extremely difficult to blast away the non-bounty mooks to isolate and capture a bounty. Instead of just tapping a target-switch button to move to the next baddie, you have to fly around the battlefield until the bounty is no longer the nearest enemy. If the quarters are close enough, you can just switch to your cord and capture them immediately, but the cord has a pretty limited range (and having to zoom in close to capture a bounty alive is an important part of the bounty hunter feel), so most of the time this isn’t really an option.

Continue reading “Star Wars: Bounty Hunter”

How To Make A Lego Game

I haven’t played the more recent Lego games. I may get around to them eventually, but right now I’m happy replaying Lego Star Wars, and I’ll see how I feel about tackling Lego Batman once I get there. My understanding is that Lego Batman 2 was kind of a sea change for the series, so maybe what I’m about to say here is really more like “how to make a pre-2012 Lego game.”

The heart of those early games (and maybe also the new ones, I dunno, I’ll see when I get there) is exploration and collection. The combat is perfunctory, and while I think it could be improved, it shouldn’t be a focus. Likewise, I think puzzles leading to optional areas could stand to be a bit more difficult (still easy enough to be solved by casual play, but not as idiot-proofed as the main route has to be to allow six year olds to complete the levels), although it’s hard to write a post about that because each puzzle should be at least a little unique, so at that point I’m doing level-by-level design for an entire game. Neither of these should be as major a focus as the exploration and collection, though, which is what Lego games focus on and what they absolutely nail, which is why I like them despite their deficiencies in their secondary attributes.

But it’s definitely possible to do better. I can see why Lego Star Wars in particular didn’t end up going the route I’m going to propose, but only because it was an early game. “Let’s make a silly Lego version of Star Wars” was a perfectly good starting point, but what it should really be ultimately is “let’s make an explorable Lego world based on Star Wars.” I think one level that gets close to this is level 4-2, Through The Jundland Wastes. This level starts you out in Tusken territory, takes you through a Jawa sandcrawler, and ends you back at the moisture farms. It’s a tour of about half the cool places in Tattooine that starts you off with Luke Skywalker and Ben Kenobi and lets you pick up C3PO and R2D2 along the way. You’re exploring a cool place and collecting cool Lego minifigs with abilities that let you unlock new side areas for additional studs. It’s one of my favorite levels.

To the extent that the exploration in Lego Star Wars: The Complete* Saga isn’t flawless, it’s mainly in that not enough levels are like Through The Jundland Wastes, and even the one that are aren’t as open as I’d like them to be. I don’t think an open world approach is a good fit for every franchise that gets Lego-fied, but I think making the hub-and-levels transition more seamless is a good idea. Later Lego games actually did have a full open world, and I’m not sure that’ll accomplish what I’m getting at here, but I’ll see when I get there. I bought a couple of them on sale about a week ago, so I’ll get around to them.

Enough beating around the bush: How would I do it? I’d have a level that was just Tattooine. You would start at a spaceport of some kind, so in this case, Mos Eisley. I might have Mos Eisley and Mos Espa be separate locations, but more likely I’d combine them into some kind of Lego pun-name like Mos Brickley. It doesn’t have to be a particularly clever pun (although someone better at puns than me might be able to come up with one anyway), but it establishes that this is, in the spirit of Lego, a location built from the components of Tattooine but isn’t necessarily arranged the same way we see in the movies.

This town would contain the cantina, Watto’s shop (he’d probably sell vehicles or let you customize them or something), a place to initiate the pod race mini-game, and basically all the contents of level IV-3, which takes place in Mos Eisley in the game as-is. Leaving town through various paths, you could get to the locations in the Jundland Wastes, and you can also find Jabba’s Palace and the Great Pit of Carkoon, which are also already present in the game. Maybe also have the pod race track go through the Jundland Wastes and let you explore the locations both at mach speed in a pod race and at a slower pace on foot, where your path criss-crosses the track as you find secrets and discover shortcuts.

You’d have a party of characters you could recruit here, who would collectively cover every ability needed to progress through any part of the whole of Tattooine. For example, the local bounty hunter might be Princess Leia in the Boussh outfit. At the spaceport, you can go into your spaceship and swap in any character with capabilities that your local party already has. For example, IG-88 is a ranged fighter, a bounty hunter, and can operate both protocol droid and astromech panels. In order to bring IG-88 to Tattooine, you would need Princess Leia (Boussh), who is a bounty hunter and a ranged character (you could also have Boba Fett be the local bounty hunter, but I’d save him for Bespin), C3PO, and R2-D2, who are of course a protocol and astromech droid respectively. The local Jedi is Ben Kenobi, and the local Sith might be…well, we need Darth Maul for Naboo and we need Emperor Palpatine for Coruscant, so let’s say Savage Opress, so if you unlock Ben Kenobi (who may be available from the start) you can bring in Ki Adi Mundi or Qui-Gon Jinn episode VI Luke or whoever, and if you unlock Savage Opress you can bring in Darth Vader or Count Dooku or whoever.

I’d handle custom characters somewhat differently: You can bring them anywhere, but any abilities that haven’t been unlocked locally are unavailable. If your custom character is a bounty hunter but you haven’t found Princess Leia (Boussh) on Tattooine yet, they can’t use their thermal detonators or open bounty hunter doors.

You could fly to different planets from the space port, and then take different routes to unlock different characters. Each planet would have some kind of main villain whose defeat would be sold as the “primary quest” (possibly requiring all of the other characters available on the planet to reach) and one of the challenge modes would involve speedrunning a reset version of the map to defeat the villain, or defeating the villain without dying, or whatever. True Jedi would be split up by location (so Tattooine would have separate True Jedi tracks for Mos Brickley, the Jundland Wastes, the Great Pit of Carkoon, and Jabba’s Palace) and the studs would reset any time you changed maps. You could have minigames like pod races or bounty hunts scattered around, but there wouldn’t necessarily have to be one on every planet (or just one on any specific planet).

Some other planets you could feature:

-Naboo (main villain: Darth Maul) has a lot of content from episode I you could recycle, but you’d definitely also want to add content for the underwater gungan city, which is too cool not to be an explorable location (hot take: gungans in general are reasonably cool, they just get disliked by association with Jar Jar), and you could condense levels I-3, I-5, and I-6 (which take place in the streets of Theed, the Theed Palace, and the generator room inside the Theed Palace, respectively) to make room. Likewise, the gungan ruins hideout and the plain outside Theed where they fight the battle droids should probably feature, although neither would have to be very big (and the latter is basically just a flat-ish field with gungans and battle droids running around fighting each other, with probably some tanks to destroy or something).

-Geonosis (main villain: Count Dooku) is featured in levels 3-6 of Episode II, which should be plenty enough to make a full planet out of.

-Levels IV-4, IV-5, and VI-5 take place inside one Death Star (main villain: Darth Vader) or another, and levels IV-6 and VI-6 take place in ships outside of them (or inside of them but in a tunnel, in VI-6’s case). Like with Mos Eisley and Mos Espa, I think combining the Death Star is fine, and you can have hangars like the Falcon lands in during episode IV be transition points between the inside walk-around-y bits and the outside fly-around-y bits.

-Hoth (main villain: ???), Endor (”), and Bespin (main villain: Boba Fett) each get two levels. In all cases, I think this is sufficient to make an explorable planet out of and a cool enough location to definitely keep. Likewise, I don’t think any of them particularly need to be expanded, although the interior guts of Cloud City should be a general exploratory level and not a confrontation with Darth Vader (because you want to put Darth Vader on the Death Star instead). I don’t know what you’d use for Hoth or Endor’s main villain, but you can fish some Clone Wars characters like Savage Opress out.

-Coruscant (main villain: The Emperor) is technically a two-level planet, with II-1 being a vehicle level in the “streets” and III-5 taking place in the Jedi Temple. I think it’d be a good idea to keep Coruscant, but it needs to be expanded. There needs to be routes into the scummy underworld like we see at the start of the Episode II movie, some high-class floaty penthouse stuff like we saw Padme hanging out in during the Episode III movie, and we need to be able to visit the Galactic Senate building. Cut whichever of the planets listed below as are necessary to make this happen.

-Dagobah and Kashyyyk both get just one level. They’re both somewhat like Through The Jundland Wastes in that they take you through a bunch of different locations in their respective planets, but they don’t have as much variety. In both cases, I think this is mainly because the planets as depicted in the movies have less stuff in them compared to the Jundland Wastes, and both of them could potentially be improved just by asking the level designers to add some more stuff with the time and effort freed up by cutting some of the levels listed further down (or alternatively, cutting one of Kashyyyk or Dagobah to focus on the other). Since (as we’ll get into in a bit) we’re probably cutting Utapau, Kashyyyk is a good planet with lots of droids to make General Grievous the main villain.

-Kamino (main villain: Jango Fett) is also a one-level planet that I feel could be expanded, although its one level is mainly an extended battle with Jango Fett and doesn’t do as good a job being a scaled down (and more linear) version of the kind of exploration-focused level I’d like to see in a Lego game. The whole Jango Fett battle sequence would be a perfectly good route to have branching off from the main Kamino hub, though. Either way, Kamino would require more expansion than Dagobah or Kashyyyk and isn’t any more iconic than either of them, so it’s a low priority.

-Mustafar (main villain: Anakin Skywalker) is a one-level planet and also its one level revolves around a gameplay mechanic that necessitates linearity, so we probably just need to leave it on the cutting room floor.

-Utapau just needs to be cut. Its one level is purely a fight with General Grievous. It’s a cool environment, but it’s just not as important a location as some of the other planets and there’s almost nothing to build on here. Unless it turns out that making new levels is actually super easy and we can just have more content than the Complete Saga (which combined the efforts of two different games’ worth of development, mind you), Utapau is probably not making it.

-Levels I-1, III-2, and IV-1 take place on space ships, and level III-1 takes place in a space battle between space ships. Level V-3 also sort of takes place in a space battle (more unambiguously so at the beginning). You could combine these into one big space battle, but I think letting ships just be kinda small would also be fine. All of these spaceships are kinda same-y, though, and also similar to the Death Star, so I think they’re good options to cut in favor of expanding other locations. I think the big space battle can stay, but actually getting into the spaceships to run around, while definitely super cool, is the lowest priority on this list.

My recommendations for cut content at the bottom here transition us smoothly into the concept of DLC. I wouldn’t want this to turn into some EA-style scam where you sell the base game for $60 but only ship it with half the levels and sell the others piecemeal, but certainly there are plenty of other planets you could package with new characters and sell as DLC because they would be expanding upon the amount of content sold in the game as it actually exists. Utapau and Mustafar are obvious places to start, along with any of Dagobah, Kashyyyk, and Kamino that ended up having to get cut. Adding explorable space ships for the space battle would also be cool. You could also add planets that weren’t in the original game at all, like Yavin 4, Dathomir, Mandalore, Rhen Var, Korriban, Ord Mantell, Canto Bight, or Scarif.

Better Lego Star Wars Combat

I’m playing through Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga, a name which has aged poorly, but the game itself has aged pretty well, provided that you go into it with the mindset that this is a charming game intended for ages 6 and up and is not going to be very challenging.

Despite that preamble, my thesis here is that Lego Star Wars’ combat could nevertheless have been better. The thing that keeps the game accessible for kids is first and foremost the True Jedi mechanic, wherein each level has a certain quota of studs (Lego currency) you must gather in order to achieve “True Jedi,” and the penalty for death is that your studs go flying and you may or may not be able to regather them all before they disappear. Coming back from one or two deaths is still pretty easy, but if you’re dying left and right, it’s usually impossible to regather enough of your studs in time to hit True Jedi.

So we have room to make combat more interesting without hurting the game’s accessibility, especially since that is a very low bar to clear. Lego Star Wars has fun platforming, but its combat is easily the least fun part of the game. The game is fun in inverse proportion to how much combat is in it, because the combat boils down to “press the fight button until you win.” As a melee character, the combat button both deflects blaster bolts and attacks the enemy. As a ranged character, it both dodges incoming shots and fires your blaster. The closest thing to a challenge is when you need to fight a melee character, and there the secret is just to use the groundpound attack over and over, because it can’t be countered and melee enemies never think to use it themselves.

You can see how we can make this system more complex without locking out six year olds, particularly when placed alongside the True Jedi system that makes it nearly impossible to actually lose, and instead the actual skill challenge is purely in an optional objective.

Continue reading “Better Lego Star Wars Combat”

How Chess Pieces Actually Behave

I’ve talked before on this blog about how I’ll play games as a quick break between chunks of work. Chess is really good for this, because 3-minute blitz games take approximately five minutes each, so it’s very easy to slip into my schedule. As a result, I have played a stupid amount of chess over the past two months.

Fantasy worldbuilding will sometimes have cultural chess variants where the pieces work the same but have different names. This makes perfect sense. Chess pieces get translated differently in different languages even in the real world. Bishops and rooks in particular tend to get renamed a lot. The rook is a ship in Russia, an elephant in India, a cannon in Bulgaria, and a chariot in Vietnam. The bishop is an elephant in Russia and Vietnam, a camel in India, an officer in Bulgaria, a jester in France, a standard-bearer in Italy, and a hunter in Slovenia. I’m guessing these names are, at least in some of these languages, giving way to “bishop” and “castle” in modern use because that’s what they look like in the Staunton set used by the International Chess Federation, but traditionally Indian chess kings marched into battle with a full menagerie backing up their front line.

When creating fantasy variants, they’re often plainly derived from the Staunton standard we’re all familiar with. At that point, why not just actually use Staunton pieces? Replacing the bishop in particular may be necessary if the setting you’re making a chess set for just doesn’t have bishops, but beyond that, I say either stick to the familiar in order to enhance legibility for the audience or else do it right by choosing new pieces based on their role in the game, not just making very slightly fantastical equivalents to the Staunton set.

For example, if you’re redesigning all of the pieces of your chess set for a D&D-style fantasy world, then your knights should probably be some kind of rogue. Rogues don’t show up in regular chess because they don’t show up on the battlefield. Whoever heard of bringing thieves to war in the real world? But in D&D-style fantasy, this is much less bizarre. A major use of a knight in chess is to jump over the enemy front line, slipping past an otherwise impenetrable pawn wall to sit in enemy territory, surrounded by enemy pieces, and yet not be threatened by any of them. Knights are sneaky.

On the other hand, knights and pawns are the two pieces that basically never get renamed, except in minor variations on whether they’re called “cavalry,” “horses,” or “riders.”

Bishops are very long ranged. They also tend to end up getting names that make them seem like upgraded pawns. Bishops capture the same way pawns do, just at longer range, and bishops blocked in by their own side’s pawns are referred to as “tall pawns” because they don’t do anything a pawn in the same position wouldn’t, guarding the two pawns diagonally in front of them and nothing else (well, they also have the option to retreat, but you usually don’t want to do that). This is why bishops are sometimes called officers, since an officer is a sort of upgraded level 2 infantry, and being some kind of archer would also make sense. In D&D settings specifically, a sorcerer would also make sense, since sorcerers can pop up anywhere, in any class background, so they kind of make sense as an upgraded peasant, and just like a sorcerer, a good bishop has lots of ranged attack options, but a bad bishop (like a Sorcerer with no spells left) is basically indistinguishable from a peasant/pawn. Bishops are also often some kind of animal like a camel or elephant, to go with the knight/horse, so if you have some weird fantasy animal you want to add, like a manticore or something, a bishop is a good piece to do it with.

Rooks are usually associated with something bulky. Elephants, cannons, ships, or heavily armored chariots. Rooks are really good at cleaning up pawns in the later part of the game, when the board is open and the rooks have had a chance to peel themselves out of the corner and develop, which I’m guessing is why they’re usually associated with something big enough to crush a hapless farmer. Some kind of giant or golem would be appropriate, if you want to stick to playable classes in D&D this is a good place to put a tanky Fighter or Barbarian, and you can also just let them be castles.

Queens are almost always either left as queens or replaced with some kind of vizier or prime minister. If you’re not using the Staunton set, you should probably change this one. It’s got some weird gender role baggage, and while it’s not cut-and-dry misogyny (the queen being the most powerful piece on the board – a development that happened after the piece transitioned from being a vizier to being a queen – is a strong counterargument to the idea that Victorian levels of misogyny were the norm back in the medieval era), that, if anything, makes it more annoying to deal with. Cut-and-dry misogyny is, at least, very easy to get across to an audience. The queen is powerful and maneuverable, so this is a great place to put something that is both strong and fast. A wizard makes sense in a setting where wizards are just better than everyone else, but less so in a D&D-style setting with class balance. A dragon or similar super-monster would also work. You can also use the vizier/prime minister, the lieutenant of the king.

Speaking of the king, for the same reason you shouldn’t use the queen unless you’re just using the Staunton set unaltered, you should probably refer to the king as the gender-neutral “sovereign.”

The Inevitable Extinction Of Humanity Isn’t

In the back half of the 20th century, everyone was worried about nuclear apocalypse. That cooled off for a while at the very end, but as the 21st century has got going, not only is it back on the table, but there are several new apocalypses we have to worry about. There is a minority but not uncommon attitude of inevitable doom.

And it’s really unambiguously wrong.

I don’t want to overstate this case. There are a lot of very bad outcomes on the table and we should work to avoid them. There’s almost no scenario where all of humanity is destroyed, though, let alone a probable one, and let far alone an inevitable one. There’s also plausible scenarios where humanity gets through the whole 21st century largely unscathed, bloodied only by the usual wars and pandemics that have marred every century of history. For that matter, if the last ten years are the worst the 21st century has to throw at us, it’s going to unambiguously be a golden age. Covid is a huge improvement over the Spanish Flu and the cholera pandemics (of which the 19th century had five, each of which individually lasted at least five years and often more than a decade), and Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine combined have nothing on the Great War or Napoleonic Wars. Even without taking population growth into account, the 21st century has been serving some pretty weak tea compared to the first 25 years of the 20th and 19th centuries. People call Francis Fukuyama (the End of History guy) the wrongest man in history, but if these doomer predictions ever get gathered up into a particularly notable book, Francis will have to settle for second behind that book’s author.

Certainly there is no reason to assume our luck in the next 80 years will be as good as it has been in the last 20, 2010 to 2020 have certainly been noticeably worse than 1990-2000 or 2000-2010, and we should not ignore potential dangers, but things are actually going quite well overall.

Continue reading “The Inevitable Extinction Of Humanity Isn’t”

Flash Fiction, Short Story, Novelette, Novella, Novel

And now for something completely the same.

For anyone who was concerned that this was going to become a political blog, don’t worry, the Ukraine post was just me dumping the answer to a research question I happened to have into a blog post, which is the source of a lot of my blog posts and rarely politically related. For example, this time I’m trying to nail down reasonable boundaries for a flash fiction, short story, novelette, novella, and novel.

Flash fiction is easy: Any story 1,000 words or less. People agree on this one. The average adult reading speed is somewhere between 200 and 350 words per minute with the average being about 250 (unless you’re speed reading, but people rarely speed read when reading for pleasure), so taking 250 as an average, a flash fiction takes about four minutes to read. 1,250 might actually be a more reasonable amount, but people actually agree that 1,000 and less is flash fiction, so I won’t try in vain to move that needle.

Short stories are also fairly well agreed upon as capping out at 7,500 words, although some people don’t start them out at 1,000 like you’d expect (or technically 1,001, if you really want to split hairs), but instead insist on starting them at somewhere around 3,000 words. These articles do not say what a story of 1,000 to 3,000 words would be called. In any case, our 250 wpm reader can finish a short story in 5-30 minutes, depending on its exact length, which I feel like is a good category. Short stories are stories you can read during a quick break between 40-ish minute periods of work. Chapters of a larger novel should probably also gravitate towards this length, so that they can fit into the same window.

The boundary between novelette, novella, and novel is far less agreed upon. People agree on the 7,500 word lower bound for novelette matching up with the max length of a short story, but given upper limits include 17,000, 17,500, 19,000, and 20,000 words. I like 20,000 words as an upper limit because it’s pretty close to being an hour and a half long for our 250 wpm reader, and 90 minutes is the amount of time we tend to gravitate towards for entertainment that’s big enough that you dedicate time to sit down and consume it (rather than reading/watching it on impulse during a break) but small enough that it’s still considered light entertainment. This is the length of time that movie comedies tend to gravitate towards, for example. It’s also a nice, round number, which makes it easier to remember.

Naturally, the lower limit on novellas has the same spread as the upper limit on novelettes, because that’s how length categories work, but the two upper limits for a novella I’ve been able to find are Writer’s Digest’s assertion of 55,000 words or the Hugos assertion of 40,000 words. The Hugos have been a public tire fire for years now (and were probably a secret tire fire for years before that), but that doesn’t mean their word count suggestions are tainted by the Warp and must be shunned.

Ultimately, however, I think the Writer’s Digest number is better on the grounds that you should be able to comfortably read a novella in one day without taking off work (or setting aside all of your other daily errands and obligations besides work), even if they’re long enough that most casual readers might not want to spend that much time reading all in one go. Our 250 wpm reader can read 55,000 words in just under four hours, which feels about right for that length. The extended editions of Lord of the Rings run from 3 hours and 28 minutes (for Fellowship) to 4 hours and 11 minutes (for Return of the King – you thought the endings were long in the theatrical release? I have not yet begun to end), and that seems like a good maximum benchmark for things that people might consume in one sitting if they really like it, without having to plan their day around it (besides committing to probably doing just that one thing for fun).

4 hours is also a commonly accepted length for a D&D session, which is another thing that people expect to be able to do regularly, but which dominates your spare time for the day that you play.

40,000 words, contrariwise, does not even take three hours for our 250 wpm reader to read, and while three hours is a long time, people who really like a thing are clearly willing to dedicate four hours to the thing in one sitting on a regular basis, so I think the 4-ish hour 55,000 word upper limit works better for something that can be (but doesn’t have to be) consumed in one long sitting.

As the largest category, a novel could just be anything longer than 55,000 words. Lord of the Rings was split up from one ~500,000 word book into three ~150,000 word books, but that was because of publishing constraints. A lot of people writing very long stories these days publish them serially online, and even for books that do go to print, the Lord of the Rings option of splitting it up into multiple volumes is still there.

However, just like novelettes, novellas, and novels benefit from being split into chapters that can be consumed in 15-30 minute chunks, and are thus structured much like a short story collection (with the obvious difference that each “short story” is sequential and assumes you’ve read the others, but that’s not a structural difference), once stories reach a certain length, they benefit from being broken up into a series of novels.

There are two places you might place the upper limit of a novel. The first is that a novel should take no more than two weeks to read assuming someone dedicates a chunk of their afternoon (but not the entire afternoon) to reading it each day. In that case, a novel should be no more than fourteen times the length of a novelette, or 280,000 words, which we can round up to 300,000 just to be make it nice and neat, since no one’s going to complain if you refer to fifteen days as being two weeks-ish. The other way of measuring it is that someone should be able to read a novel in a single all-day marathon reading session wherein they have cleared their schedule completely and read from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed, with only brief breaks for meals, a shower, etc. This is going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 words, depending on exactly how much time we leave for things like meals.

Ultimately, I gravitate more towards 300,000 words, because I think someone reading a book for an hour a two per day and wanting to be done with it in no more than 15 days is much more common than someone clearing away a full day to read an entire book all in one go. The kind of person who does the latter probably also does the former, and much more often, and the exceptions are mainly for once-in-a-generation phenomena like Harry Potter where people obsessively read books in that series but don’t necessarily read much of anything else. Particularly for book one of a series, worrying about the maximum word length past which people won’t take a chance on it because it’s too much of a time commitment to finish makes much more sense than worrying about the maximum word length past which your most obsessive fans won’t be able to read the entire book cover to cover after clearing their whole Sunday for it.

I have assembled my conclusion into a little table, because that is the data-obsessed nerd that I am.

200 wpm250 wpm300 wpm350 wpm
Flash fiction (0-1,000 words)5m4m3m 20s2m 51s
Short story (1,000-7,500 words)37m 30s30m25m21m 15s
Novelette (7,500-20,000 words)1h 40m1h 20m1h 16m 40s57m 8s
Novella (20,000-55,000 words)4h 35m3h 40m3h 3m 20s2h 37m 8s
Novel (55,000-300,000 words)25h20h16h 40m14h 17m 8s