Monthly Archives: July 2015

Two very different books

I have read two books in the last two weeks, both of them, I think come from the same place in the authors psyche, but with very different results. The two books are “The Chronicles of Benjamin Jamison: Call Sign Reaper” by Thomas Wright and “Armada” by Ernest Cline. This is more of an observation than a review of either of these books, although I will probably write a full review of Armada at some point. Both of these books are nerd teenage boy fantasy books. Both of them reflect a desire to have something interesting happen and be the hero. Quite frankly, I had both of these fantasies when I was 14 years old.

Call Sign Reaper is a story driven by pure testosterone, from the opening scene where the protagonist beats up 5 guys in bar, through the katana fights, the sexual submission of the female lead, until the final scene where he has assembled his own fleet. The author is really not a bad writer and while I get where this came from, I really had to fight my way through to finish the book, because this is the type of fantasy that should have been outgrown.

Armada is driven more by nostalgia and fond memories of the teenage years. The author is about 10 years younger than I am, so while I was in my 20s during the 80s, he was a teenager. Like his first book “Ready Player One“, Armada I think is a homage to those dorky movies they made during that time, like Real Genius, Weird Science and yes, the Last Star Fighter, which this book barrows heavily from. Even so, it is still at its core, the fantasy of a 14 year old boy.

The key difference between these two books, is Reaper comes off as kind of creepy and not in a good way. It sort of has this “I never got over being bullied in High School, so I am killing surrogates in my book” tone to it. Armada on the other hand is pretty harmless, beckons back to a simpler time and feeds into our love of coming of age stories. One of these is perfectly normal and even healthy, the other is not, if you went to High School with Thomas Wright, you should probably skip your class reunion.

RIP OpenRPG

So this morning I was culling my home folder of shit I do not need anymore and I came across my old OpenRPG folder. For those who do not know what OpenRPG is, it was a program used for playing RPGs online. We used it from 2002 up until 2013 when we switched to Roll20. I decided to fire it and see if it still ran, one of the problems I was having, was no one had updated the program in 2 or 3 years and as time progressed things started breaking, especially in the server side. The program ran after spewing some interesting Python error messages at me, however when I opened the Server browser, I discovered no more servers were online.

This was something I had been expecting for awhile. In OpenRPGs hey day, you could find 30+ servers online with full lobbies of players waiting for a GM to come along and start a game. In the last couple of years, the number of servers dwindled to 3 the last time I looked several months ago. I am frankly surprised the Meta-Server is still online, my guess is as soon as whoever is paying for it gets his next bill, even that will go offline. So long OpenRPG, with great sadness, I am now deleting you from my hard drive. ;(

Computer Hacking in RPGs Part I

Something that has been bothering me lately is how computer hacking is represented in role playing games such as ShadowRun and GURPS Cyberpunk. Most RPGs handle this in the same way they handle combat, which means the mainframe has a defense rating, the hacker has an attack rating and you roll a few dice to see who wins. The reality of hacking is it takes days, weeks or months to compromise a system. It also requires more than just a “Hacking Skill” to do, often there is a people component required as well as investigative skills like dumpster diving and research on hardware, software, organizations and the people who make up that organization.

Of course from the meta game stand point this is pretty boring stuff. So there needs to be some sort of off screen activity that can be expressed as an in game resource. So when the team leader says “I need access to Evil Corps mainframes, can you do it?”, instead of the Hacker guy saying, “They have the most sophisticated security in the world, impossible to hack……give me 20 minutes!”, he will say “Yeah, I have been working on penetrating their ICE for the last three months, while I don’t have root access, I do have a regular user account I might be able leverage”.

Things needed to do a hacking job:

  • Money: Hackers need hardware, in theory you can hack with a $400 laptop sitting in a coffee shop, but the reality is, more is better. A professional hacker is going to have multiple machines working  on several projects and may even have a multi node cluster for cracking passwords or other encrypted data. Pro hackers will also need a lot of expensive software and is going to be familiar with all the major operating systems and is going to have systems running those OSs for testing and development purposes. They will also have copies of most major software packages used for providing services on the internet. Most pro hackers will also have multiple internet feeds both wireless broadband and more traditional cable based access.
  • Investigative skills: Hacker live and die by information, and every good hack starts with collecting information on your target. Before the hacker ever makes his first attempts as penetration, he is going to collect IP addresses, names of employee and their email addresses, what types of hardware and software they are using and generally looking for the weak link.
  • Social Engineering skills: The best source of insider information is the employees of the hackers target. Once you have a few names, it takes actual social skills to insert yourself into their lives. It is generally much easier to compromise a personal system at home than it is to compromise a corporate asset. Once he has good information on several employees, the hacker than uses that information to talk his way deeper into the target.
  • Allies: Hacker trade information, you need an account on a particular server, you may not need to spend 3 months getting in, someone you know may have already done the hard work for you and better yet, they may already owe you a favor.
  • Reputation: If the hacker has already made a name for himself, he can trade on that name to get lower level hackers to do what they want. N00bs are always looking for a score, pro hackers will use them to test new exploits or go to a place where the pro hacker is already known. Favors to n00bs can be paid off with access to servers the pro no longer needs.

Now how to convert this to an easy to use game mechanic?

Review: Mr Robot

In theory, I should love this TV show, Mr Robot is a techno thriller borderline Cyberpunk story. It is about the main character raging against the evil mega corporation with plenty of liberal politics slathered in. I do not love this TV show, I do not even like it.

The pacing of this show is terrible, the character development and plot move in extreme slow motion. The show seems to be constantly on the verge of doing something, but never delivers. The music is a plodding strum that does nothing to enhance the experience. Even the parts that are suppose to be fast paced and exciting are nothing of the sort. During episode three, they did threaten the protagonist Elliot with some character development and GASP! even some human emotion, but alas, by the end of the episode he was right back to where he was at the beginning of episode two.

The characters in Mr Robot are even worse than the “FUCKING DO SOMETHING PLEASE!” pace of the show. The primary character is obviously suppose to be emotionally dysfunctional and distant. The problem is the actor, Rami Malek, is not good enough at his craft to pull this off. Instead of getting an interesting character with problems, we get a stone faced idiot staring at the world with dead uncomprehending eyes. With only one exception, every other character is completely boring, two dimensional and the female characters are the worst. The one exception is Christian Slater, who is not a great actor, but when he shares the screen with anybody else, he cannot help but dominate and shine, by virtue of being the only competent actor on the show. The problem is his character Mr Robot is unlikable and generally just a prick who needs to have his ass kicked.

I have watched the three episodes I give every new show that shows promise and this one failed to deliver on almost every level. If you are looking for a great techno thriller watch Person of Interest instead. Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson are good actors who know how to pull off “Emotionally Broken” and still be likable and interesting. The show is fast paced and fun to watch and even the minor characters get their chance to shine and do interesting things.

Hometown SciFi Conventions

It looks like after 30 years my hometown Billings Montana is about to have another Science Fiction Convention. Tragic City Alternacon is taking place July 10th through the 12th. Looking at the schedule, I do not see much gaming going on, even under Tournaments and Contests, there does not seem to be anything specific. The Panel list also does not look terribly interesting either, although admittedly, the 8PM Friday Boobzilla Slideshow sounds like it has some potential, but I suspect it is not what I think it is and would disappoint me. Those of you who live in Billings, I do hope some of you go, because I really hope this is more fun than it looks. TreasureCon I, II and III were all a lot of fun and Billings is big enough that there really is no reason they should not have a small genre convention each year.

Haven’t we been here before?

The other night PezWitch asked me if I thought GamerGate could have happened in another medium. At the time I was not sure, GamerGate was basically a perfect storm. A lot of factors all came together at once along with a group of people willing to fight the good fight. After having thought about it for a day or two, I came to the conclusion that something similar already occurred with the fall of TSR and the decline of Dungeons & Dragons in the 90’s.

In 1984 Gary Gygax hired Lorainne Williams to manage TSR while he went to California to over see the D&D cartoon. In 1985 Williams gained controlling interest in TSR and kicked Gary Gygax to the curb. I will not go into detail about this, it is well documented and several points of view are available online. Williams controlled TSR until 1997 when the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and was bought out by Wizards of the Coast.

The problems started early when Williams came to despise gamers, people who worked for TSR are on record as having said she considered herself superior to gamers and she had developed the attitude that gamers would buy anything TSR put out regardless of what it was or the quality of the work.  While there was some early success with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd edition, as time went on, sales fell. TSR started putting out what is colloquially known as splat books. These splat books covered a wide array of topics, often going into details no one cared about, these books were generally low quality and poorly edited with no eye towards game balance, often breaking the game in hilarious ways. TSR also started putting out settings, Birthright, Council of Dragons, Dark Sun, to name just a few. While some of these settings were considered quite good, most of them failed to find a niche. It was also during this time the Internet came into relevancy, TSR decided for whatever reason to sue any website with any D&D content at all, causing a large amount of ill will.

Many people site poor management of the company as the primary reason for TSR’s downfall, and it might be some of that. However, I would point out, Williams was an experienced manager. When she took over the company, she saved it from bankruptcy in 1985, returning the company to profitability. She had successfully run companies prior to TSR and has been successful since then. While there was not organized band of scruffy gamers ready to fight the Boss Creature, individually gamers simply stopped buying TSR products or at the very least, got picky about what they did buy. If you were on the internet during that time and involved with D&D, there was a lot of anger at TSR in general and Williams specifically. Many of these hard feelings can still be seen on forums where old school gamers hang out.

Reading back on my post, I see this really just sounds like a company putting out poor quality product and going out of business as a consequence. But if you look at the backlash against TSR and the years of animosity and the loss of trust, you will see there was a consumer revolt against TSR which is still going on today with those people who were playing the game at the time. There are those who refuse to call D&D 3E by name and even refused to purchase the AD&D 1E and 2E books published a couple of years ago simply because they would not give TSR one red cent of their money. So yes, I believe this was a proto-GamerGate, we had a company whose management disdained their customers and a group of alpha gamers who refused to be talked down to. This cost Williams her company and gamers did win in the end.