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 (x2)
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)

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

When Has Putin’s Invasion Failed?

And now for something completely different.

Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion had been much stronger than anyone was expecting. Captured documents say the Russian military was expecting this invasion to take about two weeks, and unless the Russians have a really good couple of days ahead of them, that isn’t panning out. But also, blitzing a nation the size of Ukraine in two weeks was delusionally hubristic in the first place. There’s still plenty of room for the Russian blitz to succeed by the standards of actual blitzkriegs that have happened in the real world even despite the imminent failure to live up to their own fantasies. On the other hand, Ukrainians aren’t exactly giving ground quickly. So if we don’t pop the champagne yet, when do we? When has Ukraine officially resisted Russian invasion long enough that we can say this has turned from a blitz to a slog?

Continue reading “When Has Putin’s Invasion Failed?”

Flexible Paranoia

Over the years, Paranoia has done a lot of weird things: Introduced capitalism, blown up the Computer, parodied Mad Max and Westworld, unironically used the phrase “it’s 2016” to try and shame GMs into pro-social behavior. Some of these things worked better than others. I’ve been tinkering with my own very different take on Paranoia lately (I’ve talked about it before), and one thing I’ve been thinking about is what elements of Paranoia are necessary to make it Paranoia and what you can shuffle around. The “Post-MegaWhoops” Paranoia of late 2e is generally agreed to be very bad, but nobody minded the introduction of the very overt and pervasive consumer capitalist dystopia of Paranoia XP (in fact, the prevailing opinion seems to be that Paranoia XP’s version of Alpha Complex is the best, and while that’s more to do with how thoroughly detailed it was than with its consumer capitalist dystopian elements, the latter clearly did not turn people off at all, despite being a major change to Paranoia). So what do you need to retain to make something feel like Paranoia, and what you can change?

Continue reading “Flexible Paranoia”

Conan the Hunter Was Ruined By Its Obsession With Gods

I did a live read of Conan the Hunter in my Discord channel rather than blogging about it regularly, but I’m going to put a summary of my thoughts here so it can be collected with the other Conan posts. Most of the post is gonna be summary, though, just so the series review will be complete by itself.

Conan the Hunter feels a lot like Conan the Bold. It’s deep into the Flanderization of Conan, but still gets pretty close to being a decent popcorn book (is there a more accurate equivalent term for “popcorn movie” as applies to books, seeing as how you don’t eat popcorn with books usually?). Unfortunately, it’s got one particular obsession which grinds hard against the themes of the character as laid down by Robert E. Howard’s originals, the books is bad in direct proportion to how often that obsession shows up, and that obsession dominates the narrative more and more the deeper you get into the book. For Conan the Bold, it was an epic fantasy struggle of good against evil in which Conan was the prophesied champion of the world against an evil space god whose minions sought world domination for the next ten thousand years, in stark contrast to the Nietzschean relativism of Conan. For Conan the Hunter, it’s the obsession with religion and gods providing salvation, in stark contrast to the Nietzschean anti-theism of Conan.

Conan the Hunter begins in Brythunia’s capital city of Pirogia. The Brythunian princess has been killed by an evil sorceress as part of a conspiracy to place a would-be usurper on the throne, and a thief involved in the scheme is looking to pawn the late princesses’ jewelry for cheap off to Conan, who doesn’t know where it came from, then set him up to take the fall for the murder, simultaneously throwing suspicion off of the conspiracy and collecting a reward for catching the princesses’ killer. When the guards arrive, Conan successfully resists arrest and sets out to track down the thief and make him pay for the set up. So far, so good. We’re not exactly embracing Conan’s philosophical depths, but neither did half the Robert E Howard stories.

Then, while Conan is hiding out in the hut of his latest paramour, she fetches a healer for the injuries he sustained while resisting arrest, and that’s where the trouble begins. The healer is a priest of Mitra, which is fine, but he’s also a D&D Cleric who casts Cure Moderate Wounds on Conan using his holy symbol, and who must collect payment for an offering to the local temple of Mitra or else the spell won’t take effect, which is not how regular Cleric spellcasting works but does sound like something an amateur GM might come up with to explain why Cleric services in town charge a fee. It’s a functional (if uncreative) explanation for a D&D game, but Hyboria does not work that way. In Hyboria, this is plainly sorcery, and while you could have a sorcerer who’s a good guy in Conan, you wouldn’t expect Conan himself to just accept it like it isn’t even a big deal. Conan hates sorcery, but here the author seems to be importing the arcane/divine magic divide without even thinking about it, interpreting Conan’s spite for sorcery exclusively as spite for arcane magic (later in the book Conan will muse to himself that he doesn’t like getting entangled with priests and wizards, which might suggest that he does indeed more-or-less equate the two (as he should), but then the problem is that Conan doesn’t raise even the mildest objection to this sorcerer casting a spell directly on him).

This is the seed of the god-obsessed plot tumor that will eventually devour the book, but for now, it’s a pretty minor complaint. Conan’s blase acceptance of sorcery is out of character, but the idea of a sorcerer of Mithra who can heal people with supernatural speed is hardly unimaginable in Hyboria. Conan tries to track down the thief, and he gets chased by guards into a sewer, fights a sewer monster dianoga knock-off, and ends up breaking into the palace in hopes of catching the thief while collecting the reward for identifying the princesses’ alleged murdered to the guards. The action scenes here are all pretty good and if the book had been able to stick to this, it would’ve been a solid B.

While Conan’s closing in on the thief, cutaways introduce us to the king’s supporters on one side and the evil conspirators against him on the other. The king is a pretty standard good ruler for the book’s 1994 release date: He uses trade and diplomacy to bring peace and prosperity to his people, but uses force when necessary to prevent potentially belligerent neighbors from thinking he’s ripe for invasion. He’s a mix between standard Brythunians and some kind of hillfolk ethnicity. Having a biracial good king is kind of a blow struck against the race essentialism of Robert E Howard’s Hyboria, but only kind of, because the setting is ludicrously bio-essentialist but does not have a hierarchy of uber- and untermenschen. Gundermen are naturally adept with wielding pikes and Argosians are natural born sailors and that is racist and weird, but neither of them is especially superior to the other. Racial mixing also explicitly does not weaken races in Hyboria. The book implies that the king’s racial heritage informs how others view him but that his abilities are his own, which is very much a cry of defiance against the bioessentialism of Hyboria, but also it’s only implied, not stated, and it wouldn’t actually be out of place at all if it turned out that race mixing between Brythunian hillmen and the mainstream Brythunian ethnicity happened to produce a race of level-headed diplomats.

The king has three primary allies. The first is a hillman named Kailash, the king’s main bodyguard. It’s not totally clear how long they’ve known each other, but they were clearly friends before the king became king. The second is a captain of the town guard named Salvorus, a hero of the border skirmishes who’s been beating up on raiders from rival nations who’re probing for weaknesses, and got rewarded with a cushy job in the capital. Salvorus is loyal to the king, but spends most of the book as a gullible pawn of the conspiracy. The third major ally is that Cleric imported from D&D, who goes to the palace to report that he’s received a prophecy of an evil sorceress laying a curse upon the king, which indeed she has, slowly killing him.

With his queen (his connection to the Brythunian royal bloodline) and princess dead, the royal line is strictly speaking extinct, so if the king dies, it’s not clear who succeeds him, but the smart money is on a fellow named Valtresca, the general of the Brythunian army (apparently this iron age military has a supreme leader who is not the king, which goes unexplained but is not relevant to the plot so we don’t have to worry about it). Problem is, Valtresca is secretly evil, and the conspiracy against the king is trying to put him on the throne. An evil courtier Lamici (also a eunuch, something which never impacts the plot – the king seems to be monogamous, so why does Brythunia even have eunuchs?) is super racist and wants Veltresca on the throne because Valtresca is ethnically a pure city Brythunian (well, allegedly – racial purity is mostly a myth, but it’s not clear if the author knows that, and it doesn’t come up in any case), the thief Hassem is presumably in it for the money, although the book never really says for sure, and the evil sorceress Azora wants to spread misery and chaos throughout the world, and getting rid of a good king to replace him with some belligerent power-monger will hopefully get the entire region embroiled in war sooner rather than later.

Conan is captured while in the palace, an internecine disagreement between Valtresca the general and Hassem the thief leads Valtresca to try and tie him off as a loose end, so he beats Hassem senseless and orders Salvorus (the guard captain) to take him to the dungeon for execution on the morrow. Hassem attempts escape and poisons Salvorus, then goes on an evil villain rant to the imprisoned Conan about how Valtresca is totally going to usurp the throne, before Salvorus turns out to be alive, stabs Hassem in the back, releases Conan, and then collapses. Then the book remembers that it wants to have a Cleric in the party and has Conan meet up with the priest from earlier only to then immediately backtrack to right where they were before, in the dungeons standing over the poisoned body of guard captain Salvorus. There’s a Cleric now, though, who heals the captain just in time for Valtresca to show up with a bunch of guards and try to tie off all these loose ends at once. Conan and Salvorus fight the guards (including another captain, a hulking brute mini-boss), Valtresca and Salvorus both die, and Salvorus asks Conan to protect the king from the conspiracy with his dying breath. Conan, indebted to Salvorus for saving him from Hassem, takes up the quest.

This probably seems like we should be heading towards an immediate climactic confrontation with the evil sorceress now. And indeed, we definitely should be. We are halfway through the book, and most of what stands between us and the climax is stuff that should’ve just been cut.

Kailash, the king’s bodyguard, believes Conan’s and the priest’s story about the conspiracy, and the priest breaks the evil sorceresses’ curse on the king. Conan’s job isn’t done yet, though, because the sorceress can always call up another demon to finish the job so long as she’s still alive. The priest’s healing has bought the king time, but only killing the sorceress will permanently save him, so Conan’s on the hook to do that in order to fulfill his oath to Salvorus. Conan, Kailash, and the priest set out to confront the evil sorceress in her secret lair in the city, a ruined temple to some god named Talgor who never shows up in any other Conan story.

This could’ve been a perfectly good climax, but instead the priestess teleports (literally teleports) halfway across Hyboria all the way to Shem, leaving Conan, Kailash, and the priest Madresus to clear out an empty dungeon, and this is where the trouble really begins. The final boss waiting at the end of this dungeon, having been vacated by the actual main villain, is instead a demon she summoned. When the demon is defeated, the demon’s boss shows up. Conan and Kailash are dominated by the demon and turn on Madresus, and then the actual literal god Talgor shows up to stomp the demon lord because of an unrelated grudge. It’s a literal deus ex machina.

Madresus is able to figure out where the evil sorceress has gone, so the party sets out across Zamora and into the deserts of Shem to chase her down, and if it feels like this post is really starting to drag on that’s because the book really starting to drag on. The evil courtier Lamici shows up to kill Madresus, Conan and Kailash chase him across the desert to the witch fortress out in the deserts of Shem, the evil sorceresses’ role as main villain is usurped by an evil sorcerer from eons ago who’s been revived and then impregnates the evil sorceress with an evil sorcerer baby which magically reaches the third trimester overnight and it’s exactly as jarring and fetishistic as it sounds. The final assault on the witch fortress ends with Kailash and Conan overcoming some traps and some gargoyles, getting split up during the gargoyle fight, and Kailash confronts the evil sorceress while Conan confronts the new sorcerer guy who came out of nowhere. Kailash is seemingly killed by the sorceress, only for the sorceress to be killed by the gargoyles because she wasn’t properly whitelisted as not-an-intruder. Conan kills the sorcerer. There is absolutely no reason why the sorceress couldn’t have (seemingly) killed Kailash, the stupid whitelist mishap couldn’t have been cut, and the sorceress couldn’t have gone on to confront and be killed by Conan afterwards, which means there’s no need for this evil sorcerer to come out of nowhere.

For that matter, the entire trip across the desert and fake-out final dungeon with the demon lord could’ve been cut completely. Instead, the evil sorceress could just have a secret fortress in the Brythunian countryside, evil courtier Lamici could’ve killed the party Cleric in the palace immediately after the Cleric healed the king, and Conan and Kailash could’ve gone to fight the evil sorceress the next day. This also solves the problem where the narrative goes out of its way to insist that the king is still in danger, only to have the party spend the next month tracking down the evil sorceress to the other side of a desert, where the original conspiracy plot is forgotten and instead a totally unrelated plot about hyper-rapidly breeding an army of evil sorcerers to menace the world pops up, complete with a brand new unrelated villain to take over the role of big bad.

Removing the fakeout final dungeon and skipping directly to the fortress assault at the end also gets rid of the bizarre deus ex machina moment where some random god shows up to save Conan – Conan the barbarian – from a demon lord. This being the same Conan who tells anyone who asks him about gods or prayers that Crom does not answer prayers. He gives Cimmerians the strength and wit to fend for themselves and then ignores them.

This isn’t even the worst intervention of a god. Madresus, the Cleric, has an old mentor guy he meets with at one point for an entire chapter’s worth of exposition dumping on exactly what kind of evil sorceress he’s confronting and how he’s the last of an ancient order who wiped out this particular kind of evil sorcerer thousands of years ago but now they have returned. It all has so little impact on the plot I didn’t even bother to mention it in the summary, but this mysterious mentor figure later on shows up to save Kailash from the witch fortress once it starts collapsing, after he’s seemingly been killed along with the two evil sorcerers. And then it turns out that this mysterious mentor figure is Mitra in person. Just showing up to spit on the themes of Conan super directly for a bit, not even in a way that affects the plot at all, Kailash could’ve just been slightly less injured and been able to stagger out of the collapsing fortress under his own power, but instead we’re shoving another deus ex machina in there.

This book has lots of good individual scenes, but its pacing is atrocious (especially in its second half, when it seems like the climax of the original story is yanked away so that an entire second Conan story can be shoved in to meet wordcount requirements) and its obsession with gods and priests drags the book down every time it comes up, which is unfortunately fairly often and at a couple of crucial points in the plot.

Was 2021 A Good Year For Movies?

Just before the apocalypse, I tossed out a blog post about how 2019 was a good year for movies, cleanly beating out 2015, 2016, and 2017, and getting a less overwhelming but I would say still decisive win over 2018. 2020 was an absolute trainwreck of a year for movies, of course, with the frontrunner being…what, Birds of Prey? New Mutants? Wonder Woman 1984? Sonic the fucking Hedgehog? These are movies that would usually struggle to make it into the top five, and they’re fighting for first place. I have no idea what the final top five movie would even be. Monster Hunter? Mortal Kombat Legends? Onward? We’re basically just grabbing something out of the garbage and shoving it onstage to make sure the live action Mulan doesn’t get it. Maybe we should give fifth place to Xiran Jay Zhao’s YouTube video about why Mulan 2020 is bad. Maybe we should give first place to Xiran Jay Zhao’s YouTube video about why Mulan 2020 is bad.

What about 2021, though? Can it compete with 2018 and 2019? Does it at least hold up to 2015, 2016, and 2017, indicating a recovery from the damage the pandemic did to the film industry? Our standout films of the year are definitely Dune and Encanto, and I think that combo holds up well against the one-two punch of Joker and 1917 that pushed 2019 so high in my estimation. Spider-Man: No Way Home even provides solid competition to Endgame in its fan-service-done-well niche. 2021 also provides a pretty standard share of solid popcorn movies to round out the top five: Shang Chi, Black Widow, The Suicide Squad, No Time To Die. I’ll even call out Free Guy and Jungle Cruise as being fun even though they’re not top five material in this or any other year, but I think it’s worth noting when even the bad films are good enough to pass ninety minutes if (for example) you want to hang out with your little sister for an hour or two while she’s visiting for Christmas.

Still, the top five contenders for 2021 are a bit weak compared to what we’ve had in years past. 2017’s also-rans included Wonder Woman and Lego Batman, 2016 had Rogue One and Zootopia, 2015 had the Martian.

Most years have one stand-out film, and 2021 had both Encanto and Dune. On the other hand, the trailing films compare pretty poorly to most other years and get absolutely pulverized by 2019’s top five contenders, like Knives Out, Endgame, Toy Story 4, Detective Pikachu, the Lego Movie 2, and Spider-Man: Far From Home. Overall, I think 2021 in film holds up well against most other years, and might even be joining 2018 and 2019 in The Best Three Years Of Film Which I Have Bothered To Investigate Even A Little Bit, just on the strength of Dune and Encanto, but it’s doing so as a clear third place behind the other two.

Gravity Falls Has Terrible Dating Advice

In Gravity Falls S2E16, Roadside Attraction, one of the show’s twin protagonists, Dipper Pines, is trying to get over an unrequited crush on a significantly older girl. His friends recommend he try to date someone else, and his great uncle Stan, a professional con artist, gives him vague and confusing advice about talking to girls that eventually gets boiled down to the three Cs: Confidence, comedy, and something else that starts with C. Stan also advises Dipper to practice flirting with lots of different girls, particularly since they’re on a road trip and he’s unlikely to ever see any of the girls again. Dipper takes his advice and sees initial success, but it so happens that every girl he’s talked to shows up at the final roadside attraction on the trip, stumbling across him on his latest date and demanding an explanation. Dipper runs away, leaving them all fuming, one thing leads to another, and they end up fighting a drider. Dipper learns a valuable lesson about respecting women and erases all the phone numbers/email addresses he collected.

Except, uh, that’s bullshit. Gruncle Stan has his redeeming qualities, but none of them really apply here, so we can safely assume that he’s sleazy with women and would’ve encouraged Dipper to be the same, playing the field long past the point where it would’ve been disrespectful to do so. But the narrative acts like Dipper actually did this – he never even got within the same zip code of it. The one interaction with a girl we see outside of montage is a thirty second mildly flirtatious conversation that ends with her giving him his email. Even if we’re really generous with time compression for the sake of a twenty-two minute runtime, this is one conversation that ends with an invitation to a date, not even an actual date, let alone some kind of real commitment. Just because Dipper has been invited to go on a first date with one girl doesn’t mean he’s not within his rights to go on a date with another girl, or even that he’s obligated to tell the first girl (who he’s shared all of one conversation with) about the second.

If Dipper’s done anything even close to wrong, it’s that he doesn’t text or email any of the girls, when accepting their numbers/emails might suggest an intention to communicate more, but 1) his lesson-learned moment at the end is erasing them all, so apparently that’s the opposite of what the show wants from him, and 2) even that’s pretty presumptuous. If it were a boy giving his number to a flirtatious girl and later acting like he’s entitled to communication, we wouldn’t hesitate to call him self-centered and controlling.

Particularly since Dipper wasn’t even particularly flirtatious in the one interaction we actually see entirely. He suggests she pose for a funny picture and then he pretends to drop her phone, which is kind of dickish and the girl would’ve been justified in being mad about that, but instead she takes it in exactly the spirit Dipper intended it and gives him her email address with only a subtle prompt – an email address which Dipper goes on to ignore, so even if she felt that gentle nudge was obligating her to give away contact information she didn’t want to, Dipper never even used it.

Even when Dipper does accept a date from recurring character Candy, who he has no interest in (Stan convinces him he shouldn’t be picky – the one piece of truly bad advice Stan gives to Dipper), he’s showing poor judgment but hasn’t done anything wrong. Candy is the one being more intimate than Dipper is comfortable with (although we can’t hold Candy at fault either, because Dipper has been pressured by someone else entirely into pretending this is what he wants).

It’s realistic that a twelve-year old would lack the maturity to recognize that he hasn’t made any commitments and therefore can’t be held responsible for breaking them, and that his twelve-year old would-be dates would likewise lack the maturity to recognize that just because they feel jealous doesn’t automatically mean that feeling is Dipper’s fault, but the narrative doesn’t treat this like Dipper being buffaloed into thinking he’s done something wrong when he hasn’t. It acts like Dipper has been dating all of these girls steadily without telling any of them he’s seeing other people, or has been making out with them before riding off into the sunset to do the same thing at the next stop, or that he’s directly lied to them about how seriously he’s taking the relationship. The episode wants to make a point about pick-up artists being scummy, but the problem is that actual scummy behavior would be out of character for Dipper, so instead this is an episode about how if you ever crack a joke to someone, they now own you and you’re not allowed to talk to other people without their permission.

Using Poker Hands in TTRPGs

Every now and again, the idea of using poker hands as an RNG for a TTRPG comes up, usually in the context of some kind of western. How would that work?

Five Card Poker

The most obvious way to do this is to just deal out a full five-card poker hand to each player, then let them play a hand whenever they make a check. A better hand is more likely to succeed. After playing a hand, they discard it and draw an entirely new hand.

About 50% of all poker hands are a single, and about 43% are a pair, so you would probably want the standard TN for something anyone could accomplish to be Jack-high, and the TN for most things that you would expect to require expertise to be a pair of Jacks. Your odds of getting two pair or better are about 7%, which is pretty close to a critical hit on a d20. It’s unlikely, but not so unlikely that you don’t usually see one or two in every session. A three-of-a-kind, straight, flush, and full house are all much more rare but still common enough that you’ll very probably see them happen over the course of an entire campaign, loosely comparable to rolling triple sixes on a 3d6, which does happen now and then. Once we get into four-of-a-kind and especially a straight flush or royal flush, we’re getting into territory that’s technically possible but unlikely to come up even once across an entire mid-size campaign.

But this raises the question: How do you add in skills? If your gunslinger is real good at shooting, how does that get reflected in this system? The most obvious way to do it is by allowing them to draw more cards to make a hand out of, but working out the probabilities on that is a huge headache and the value of additional cards goes down the more of them you already have. If you want a narrow range of power between the weakest and strongest characters in the game, that can still work, but even a fairly mundane wild west game wants a deadshot to be much, much better at shooting than a shop keep with broken glasses, so this extra cards approach only works if every character in the game must be a gunslinger with more-or-less the same skills or else if you’re willing to have a game where characters draw 20+ cards to assemble a poker hand out of when they’re using their best skill. At that point, you don’t really feel like you’re playing poker at all.

The second most obvious solution is to convert the poker hand into some kind of total number, to which your skill bonus is added. The problem here is that it’s hard to find a conversion that works across all poker hands. For a single or a pair, the answer seems obvious: Just add the cards together. This way a pair is, on average, worth twice as much as a single. Here’s the problem: Two pair (a hand with four cards to add together) is much more common than three-of-a-kind, and four-of-a-kind is less common than every five-card hand except the straight flush and royal flush. To make the convert-to-number method work, you have to give special conversion methods to most hands (although not the most common hands, at least) to make less common hands more valuable. For example, with two-pair sevens and threes, instead of just adding 7+7+3+3 for 20, you might add 7+3 and then multiply by 1.25 and rounding down for 12. Since three-of-a-kind is on average worth 1.5x a pair, having two-pair be worth on average 1.25x one pair is mathematically sound, but also now you have multiply things by 1.25. Then you have to find some similar conversion for the straight, flush, and full house that all give average results between three-of-a-kind and four-of-a-kind, even though four-of-a-kind is only 1.33x the value of three-of-a-kind. Or you can add a multiplier to four-of-a-kind beyond just adding all four cards together, at which point you’ve sacrificed what little consistency this system had.

The best way (of these three that I’ve thought of, anyway) to incorporate skill bonuses into a poker-based RNG is to have skill bonuses just promote the kind of hand you have. If you have a pair of sevens and a +1 skill bonus, your hand is now two-pair of sevens and some other card that is lower than sevens. With a +2 skill bonus, it becomes three sevens. With a +3 skill bonus, it becomes a seven-high straight. With a +4 bonus, it becomes a seven-high flush. With a +5 bonus, it becomes a full house, sevens over something else.

Two things you’ll notice about this system: First, it’s possible to get normally impossible hands through skill bonuses. If you get a pair of twos with a +3 skill bonus, you now have a two-high straight, which is normally impossible. If you have a pair of sixes with a +4 bonus, it becomes a six-high flush, which is normally impossible because the only way for six to be the highest card of a flush hand is if it’s a straight flush. This is weird, but doesn’t really impact anything. Just roll with it.

Second, we only ever care about the number value of one card in any hand. For two-pair, we only care about the value of the higher pair. For full house, we only care about the value of the triplets. For a straight, we only care about the highest card of the straight. This makes things simpler to resolve anyway. Instead of having over a hundred different combinations of a full house each of which represents a minutely different TN, a full house represents the same two-through-ace scale as every other hand. Jack is the default difficulty, but minor circumstantial bonuses or penalties can nudge the difficulty up to a Queen or down to a ten or whatever.

Hand Building

Another way to do this is with hand building. That means that when you make a check, you don’t discard your whole hand. You discard only the cards used to make the check. You can play a single card to get it out of your hand, taking a dive on whatever check you’re making to try and build up a stronger hand. If you’ve got two-of-a-kind, for example, you could hold onto that and junk other cards until you’re able to get three, or two-pair, or a full house, or something. Building a flush would mean taking a dive on a lot of checks, but it’d be much, much easier to build a flush than to draw one straight from the deck. In fact, it’d be easier to build a flush than a straight, since each card you replace when building to a flush has a 1-in-4 odds of building your flush, but only a 2-in-13 (or slightly worse than 1-in-6) odds of building your straight. Actually, the odds aren’t quite 1-in-4 or 2-in-13, since the cards you’ve already drawn from the deck affect the odds in ways that vary depending on exactly which cards are in your hand, but the basic math still works out: Drawing a flush straight from the deck is less likely than drawing a straight, but building a flush when you get to select which cards to replace will usually go faster than building a straight.

And this also encourages players looking to get rid of junk in their hands to find skill checks that don’t matter so they can safely take a dive on them. This leads to players interacting with the mechanics instead of the narrative, attempting tasks which are challenging enough to warrant a check but which have nothing to do with anything just to manage the abstract, game mechanical resource that is the cards in their hand. Proper game design should be making mechanics and narrative harmonious, so we’ve definitely gone off the rails here.

Hand building sounds interesting, but really only works in board games where you can tightly control when checks are called for in order to guarantee that all checks are relevant and you can never safely take a dive. Then hand building is about minimizing the damage of getting rid of junk, rather than wasting time with actions that totally negate the damage. Unfortunately, the open-ended nature of a TTRPG makes it basically impossible to prevent players from finding things to do that call for a skill check while having no real consequences for failure. They can try to play a fiddle and the worst that’ll happen is they aren’t very good, try to chat up the ladies at the saloon and the worst that’ll happen is they’ll get slapped in the face. They can even throw out some junk cards on activities that could hypothetically cause great harm, but won’t do so except for catastrophic failure. They can try to swim a river to get rid of an unneeded seven of clubs, and while they won’t make it to the other bank, they’re probably not going to straight up drown unless they play a two.

Texas Hold ‘Em

The last RNG idea I’m going to look at here is Texas Hold ‘Em. Each player gets a hand of two cards, and there’s a river of between three and five cards shared between them. With a seven-card hand, the odds of a pair or better are 82%, which means you can make pair of Jacks the base TN for challenges that an ordinary person might struggle with but will probably be able to manage. The odds of three-of-a-kind or better are 15%, which is a pretty good spot for something that experts can manage easily but ordinary people will struggle with, which means you have two pair in between if you need more granularity in the “routine for experts, tough for ordinary people” space. A flush has about 5% odds, making it the natural 20 of the system, and even a four-of-a-kind is not so unusual that you wouldn’t expect to see it once or twice in a campaign. Only the straight flush and royal flush are so rare as to be unlikely to come up across an entire campaign.

On the one hand, it’s good that more hands are coming up. There’s more granularity in the scale of TNs, since more of the potential results are actually achievable, compared to the five-card probability spread where singles and pairs totally dominated the space with only 7.5% of the entire scale left over for anything better than a pair. With seven cards, we have TNs that are 80%, 40%, 15%, 10%, and 5% likely to be hit, and then four more TNs higher than that which are mostly the domain of people with skill bonuses, although an untrained person can still hypothetically hit them. This is a pretty good spread. It gives you room for characters with bonuses ranging from -1 to +3 where each step on that scale is a big deal, so you’d expect this to be the kind of game where you probably don’t level up much, which makes sense. You don’t usually get zero-to-hero stories out of the old west.

The problem is that it’s kinda hard to do the Texas Hold ‘Em thing with three different rounds of revealing cards on the river for every single check. Probably you’ll just put five cards on the river all at once, and then replace them all once a check is made. You could replace just one card, with a first-in, first-out system so that the card that’s been in the river the longest gets removed, but then you get into all the problems with hand building and the bizarre meta-gaming behavior it encourages, with people trying to make useless checks to get the river moving when it’s bad, and trying to avoid all checks to keep the river still when it’s good.

Conclusion

I don’t have one, particularly. I just had a string of disconnected thoughts about how to do some kind of poker-based RNG for a TTRPG, and since I have no plans for any game along those lines any time in the future, this blog post was the only outlet.