Friday, May 29, 2009


Zombie Uprising - Vegetarian Style

The latest game-heroin hybrid from Popcap Games is Plants Vs Zombies, a modification of the "tower defense" style game.

Zombies are attacking your house, and you use plants with different powers to defend your lawn and prevent them from entering your house. You buy these plants with Sunshine, the most important resource in the game, which comes from certain plants which generate income, and falls randomly during daytime levels. There are many different variations and mini--games to choose from, and the replayability is high.

 You can get the demo, try it out for yourselves. Like a lot of puzzle-strategy hybrids, you can determine within minutes whether you like it or not, and at $9.99 on Steam, it is a super value.

Here's a picture to illustrate a few tips I picked up. This mostly applies to the endgame, and the harder survival-mode levels. This pic was taken at the end of the first Pool Survival level.
(Ranks go left-right, columns up/down.)

 Notice the blue shaded Garlic Bulbs. The line shows the path zombies take after taking a single bite. They move to the next rank randomly, so Garlic at the lowest and highest ranks forces them to move to the only available space. The second bulb exists as a back-up - Garlics last a long time, because each Z only takes one bite, but they do not last forever. Also, pole-vaulting Z's will jump the first and bite the second. The first two spaces of ranks 2 and 5 have powered-up spike mats, which strike at every Z in their space while they cross, therefore every Z that enters at rank 1, 2, 5, and 6 takes decent damage, almost enough to kill unarmored Z's before they ever reach the second column, or even the edge of the screen. This funnels the enemy to the yellow-shaded area - The Valley Of The Shadow Of Death.

Behold the Star Plant. One of the cheapest offensive plants, it has a very high rate of fire. It has two drawbacks: low health, and it does not shoot directly forward, requiring a little bit of forethought to use. Notice the gray lines, which indicate the paths of fire. A handful of these babies absolutely rain a wicked crossfire into the target zone - a zone full of zombies because of their repulsion to garlic.

In the purple-shaded area, I have Cat-tails, which are upgraded Lily Pads. These are the most flexible offense, firing spikes at a high rate of fire, which hit Zacks at every altitude, including the airborne Bungee and Balloon Zacks. Their rate of fire is nearly as good as the Quadruple Pea Shooters, which cost twice as much. More importantly, the spikes target every zombie on the screen, with the Cat-tails aiming at the Z closest to them. These eight formed the core of my offense - absolutely everything in the lead of any wave starts taking a steady stream of damage the moment it steps on screen.

The Double Sunflowers keep my economy space-efficient, and the Frozen Melon-pults have a splash attack that does decent damage, and slows every Z in every adjacent square to the target, forcing the enemy to spend extra time in the kill zone. In fact, the freezing weapons are the only viable way to keep the tough Football Jock and Ogre Zacks from making openings in your lines.

Kudos to this game - deep strategy options at a bargain.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009


The next tier

This is from an argument I got into over the most common RPG gamer divide - systems with mechanically-enforced character levels, versus systems that do not have these.

* * * * * 

Hold on hombres. Whether you classify Savage Worlds as level-based or skill-based, powers-based, turkey-basted, is really not the point. Let's say it IS level-based, for the sake of argument. I can't defensibly say what definition most gamers use for any particular term is held by the majority. I also don't think there are terribly good arguments for saying SW is broken because it is level-based. I'm more interested in pulling specific issues out into the light and figuring out what causes them. 

The argument I was making above was that the criticisms leveled against traditional level-based systems (almost every game published before 1990, let's face it) mostly don't apply to Savage Worlds.

Some specific ones that come up a lot on RPG boards, and these are all distinct issues that we can all see as being problems in certain games (games of any type, in some cases, not just RPGs):

Accessibility - A 2nd level Crazy walking into a RIFTS campaign where the party is all 8th level and above is essentially dead weight. This is true of AD&D 2e, D20, etc. None of his abilities can affect any of the foes at the tier that the party is operating. I walked into this campaign two ranks below every other PC, and was making significant contributions from the word go; at least I think so.

Skill/Feat/Power Bloat - In Savage Worlds, I like that the Blast I bring to a fight is the same Blast that anyone else brings. More advanced creatures will be tougher, or have more powers, but this streamlines combat a lot. If you have 34 levels of character progression in your game, you better have a LOT of choices to justify each of those tiers. Players have to be rewarded for passing a threshold, in some way, or it is empty. The easy, lazy way to do this is (I think) to add variables to powers that increase in some way with level. As in: 

Your Wizard casts (3 x your level) of Magic Missiles.
Your Cleric turns (5 x your level) in zombies.
Your Warrior does (3.14159265 x your level) each time she Smites Evil.
Your Cow Wrangler owns (23 x your level) in bull testes.
At level 17 you gain access to Super Improved Afghani Pelvis Wrestling.
This leads to another problem.

Rule Bloat - Players explore all these options and find combinations that work well together. This is not my idea of fun, but I respect that a lot of players enjoy this and that it is a real talent to explore a system and find abilities that work well together. The pressure to generate more and more powers means more and more rules to prevent overlapping, preserve the game balance the writers intend, and handle places where mechanics become contradictory. This makes a huge barrier that keeps people out of the hobby, and discourages players from experimenting with other systems when they've invested so much time and energy into learning one. Just watch the Youtube video where a copy of the Hero System 6th Edition stops a bullet with its 650+ pages of charts. Savage Worlds Explorer's Ed: bloated it ain't. I am going to do an experiment with my sister this weekend. She's never gamed, even once, and I'm going to take her through a Savage Worlds story, soup-to-nuts, from character generation to finale, and see how long it takes. There's only a couple of systems I would try this with.

I could go on - a lot more things come up again and again, especially the isolation of setting from rules. In fact, I've gone on too long. Anyone who's been a gamer long enough has been in these conversations. 

For myself, I know that no system can really handle every setting - people who say otherwise are trying to sell you something. The idea of GM fiat itself, that a separate person defines everything in a campaign and has an unrestricted veto power over story paths and solutions to problems, seems uninteresting, silly, and flawed. is not perfect, I have one or two specific problems with it, but it does a good job of compromising crunch, character choices and ease of play, and there are a lot of settings where this system would be a good fit.

I am enjoying the campaign thoroughly, and I haven't yet seen any foes that are insurmountable. If we do try a new system, I would only host or play in something radically different, with cooperative storytelling and narrative control meta-mechanics: Mouse Guard, Dogs in the Vineyard, Polaris, or Grey Ranks.

Friday, May 08, 2009


I want to return

I was lucky to catch the encore screening of “Return to the Scene of the Crime”, a project of “This American Life”. It was simply wonderful – one of the best things I've seen on a movie screen in months. I have a man-crush on Ira Glass, and I am not ashamed to admit it. The greatest show is just watching someone do something that is truly their joy. Somehow, he made the business of audio production (talking into a microphone, fiddling with sliders on a mixer) like watching a magician.

Many times, some of us in that theater had to remind ourselves that this was not the original live broadcast of the show from two weeks ago, but a recording. Hell, more than once, some of us clapped, then stopped suddenly when we realized that the performers on stage couldn't hear us. Ira Glass gave a little bow to us, the folks who would be watching the encore. Dan Savage, Mike Birbiglia, and Starlee Kine all have moments that are so emotionally naked, I had take a breath. They pointed me to many books, podcasts, and spoken word albums I will be looking at in the near future.

Joss Whedon made a great showing, playing piano and singing a song from the DVD commentary of “Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog”, called “A Heart... On Sale Now”. A fact I did not know until last night: the entire commentary to Dr. Horrible is, itself, a musical. It is sung in rhyme, and it manages to simultaneously be commentary on Dr. Horrible and writing as a profession.

As an aside, I wanted to add that the people coming for the This American Life screening were mostly ego-crushingly attractive trustfundafarians in their thirties. I wanted to stand at the door and guess which movie each person was there to see:
Hmmmm, Wolverine... Scene of the Crime... Adventureland, maybe?.. Scene... Scene... Oh, those guys are definitely here for Trek...

The outgoing audience buzz for "Star Trek" was very positive. It even managed to capture a non-geek demographic: the young urban male testosterone-cinema buff. Most of the guys coming out from Trek and Wolverine were gargantuans in the fanboy uniform of black gamer and comic book t-shirts. I say that with love; on another night that description would apply to me.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009



I didn't revive this blog to talk about myself. Really.

I don't see this as a forum for extemporizing. If I broadcast something, it will be something I've taken the effort to think through and polish.

That being said, there was a little medical incident in my life that inspired what I'm putting up today. I've turned this into a fiction piece, but autobiographical asides like this will be the exception, not the rule.

* * * * * 

It began, as all things do, while playing Heroic Cthulhu.

Friday night, I suddenly felt dizzy and tired. If you go back and listen to the right episode of the podcast, you will hear the beginning of my heart beginning to get congested.

I go to sleep, and wake up 2 hours later, with a cramping pain in the enter of my chest. This pain spreads and gets worse every time I try to breathe deeply. 

Indigestion, I think.

I take an antacid, and try to sleep. 8:00 AM comes without real sleep. I doze off for twenty minutes or so, only to wake up when the pain flares. I've realized that I need to see a doctor. I walk to my friendly neighborhood clinic, which is nearly empty on a Saturday morning, and see someone fairly quickly.

The doc gives me an EKG, examines me, comes back five minutes later and says, "I think you should go to a hospital."

"Yes, I want you to get cardiology consult."
"Can't this wait? My dad can drive me this afternoon."
"No, in fact, I've already called an ambulance. The EKG showed markers that you may have had a heart attack very recently, or are having one right now."
"Oh," I say.

The ambulance arrives and takes me to the hospital, still relatively early for a Saturday. The heart-attack people have been notified, and are ready to meet me. I get aspirin, another EKG, and an echocardiogram.

"Hmmm," says the cardiologist, neutrally. She tilts her head and looks at the screen, where my heart is beating away in blurry gray lines.

"Your heart is swollen. It's bigger than it should be. Also, your blood pressure is low. VERY low."

"So that's why the pain breathing?"

"Most likely. Fluid is backing up inside your heart, because your heart beat isn't strong enough to keep up pressure to move fluid out as fast as it comes in. May be a passing thing, just a reaction to a medication, or something you ate."

"So what do I do?"

"We keep you here for observation, at least 24 hours, and see what happens."

"Great, so I get out of here tomorrow? I am starting training for a new job on Monday."

She looks at me, doctor-neutral again.

"Probably not. We'll see."

Some family came by, friends called etc. By dinnertime on Saturday, I was pretty much regretting my decision to go to the hospital.

I've over-reacted. This was probably just stress, or a panic attack, or something. Come lunchtime tomorrow, I will demand that they let me go.

They had connected me to the machine that goes "beep." The beeping is quiet.

The beeping woke me up a little after nine, when the steady beep on the green line had turned into frantic beeping and a red line, with large flashing text box that said "V-TACH."

I hit the nurse call. I tell them, "The pain is back."

Earlier, I'd had an interview with one cardiologist when I'd been referred to the catheterization lab. Someone suggested that a catheter introducing contrast dye into my coronary vessels would highlight any blockages, which are the most common cause of my symptoms.

"Well, I don't think you are having a heart attack," Doctor Catheter says. "You are comfortable, and responsive. People having heart attacks are NOT comfortable. I think the risks of a catheter procedure outweigh the possible benefits. Later, if something happens, we'll be on call, and we'll reassess."

I like Doctor Catheter. He and his team strike me as being levelheaded and experienced.

"OK, I agree. I feel fine."

I am back in the catheter lab within a half-hour of telling the attendings that I am hurting. This time the pain was like someone reaching into my chest with a monkey wrench, and twisting something in my heart. Every inhaled breath was like a line of fire across my chest. I kept talking about what was going on and answering questions. I am being pretty calm, I thought, except for the river of tears running down my cheeks.

"How would you rate the pain, from one to ten, with ten being the worst pain imaginable."


Thinking back on it, I should have said "ten." If I've ever been in worse pain, the amnesia machine that is my brain has blotted it out, because I can't recall it.

The catheter team gets ready, real quick. Talking a little too fast, since I am obviously in distress.

"I'm okay. Take your time."

The atmosphere relaxes, but not my pain, unfortunately. They implant a sheath in my an artery in my thigh, and run a tube into my largest vessels. I watch as my vascular system blooms into contrast against my other tissues, on the large screens.

My arteries are all clear as bells.

"Good, it isn't any blockage, so we don't have to install a stent, which would require you to take medications for the rest of your life."


"However your heart is really inflamed. Your heart capacity is probably down below half of what it should be."

The catheter is withdrawn, and I am placed in a cardiac care unit; a pretty restrictive level of monitoring, just above ICU. I am put on more powerful medications that tease fluid out of my system, reduce my heart rate, and control my blood pressure. No surprise, I am drowsy, and sleep through most of Sunday. Some family comes by, and I fill them in on what's happened.

I am monitored constantly, with blood pressure checks every three hours, until my BP returns to normal on Monday morning. One final sonogram, appointments for followups, and I am discharged Tuesday morning.

They've taken a tragicomic amount of blood from me since then. Tested for many markers for different viruses, Lyme disease, and on and on. I'm still hoping to track down exactly what happened to me that weekend, but it doesn't seem likely at this point.

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