Thursday, April 09, 2015

Using Disney Infinity to Teach Kids to Code



When I was young, my family didn't own any computers. We had an Atari 2600 and a Nintendo NES, but we didn't own any personal computers. Thankfully, I had friends who did. I spent hours playing classic games like Bard's Tale with my friend Sean, and hours playing Maniac Mansion and Zak McCracken with my friend Ron.

Who am I kidding? I spent days playing these games, especially Bard's Tale. I still remember the answers to many of the BT riddles and have fond memories of the frustration of encountering our first "spinner."

Many of the schools I attended, and I attended 12 schools K-12, had computer labs. I spent a fair amount of time in computer labs fiddling around with Oregon Trail and Summer Games. All of this gaming led me to an interest in programming. My Junior and Senior year of High School I had a Zero Period class in computer programming where we learned Basic and used our knowledge to create our own programs. The first year was spent working on projects that the instructor designed, but during the second year students were supposed to design their own projects. My first computer program was a character creator for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but working with my friend Travis we designed character creation programs for Twilight 2000 and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles role playing games. These programming sessions often lasted into the wee hours of the morning.

My senior project was a piece of computer animation that featured a character walking up to a dragon and having the dragon breathe icy breath at the character as it ran away. It was a relatively simple animation in its results, but it took me weeks of one-hour class sessions to program. The dragon graphic was a bit map rendering of the white dragon from the Monster Manual and it took nigh on forever to enter the coordinates in the data file.

My program won second place at a computer programming competition at the University of Nevada. I think my dad still has the plaque I won, but the money I won was spent quickly.

As much as I liked computer programming as a "hobby," I stopped studying it formally after High School. I decided I wanted to be an attorney and began studying Political Science. This happened after my famous 4-year Semester off from Undergraduate education, something I don't recommend to anyone. I still love Political Science, and am working on a Ph.D. in it, but I have zero interest in becoming an attorney. Had I known as a wee lad that my interests would be when I was older, I'd have continued in Political Science and minored in Computer Science. This is especially irksome now that I'm in the Ph.D. program and am having to take time to refresh on my Calculus using MIT's excellent Single Variable Calculus class and the Khan Academy's World of Math refresher. I'm also taking time to learn the R programming language to make myself more marketable.



It's my frustration at never continuing to expand my programming instruction, even on a personal "hobbyist" level other than learning some HTML, that makes me so excited about the fact that Disney is partnering with Code.org to use Disney Infinity characters to teach young people how to write computer programs. While I believe that most of the "killer apps" of the future will be designed by creative people who have a broad "Liberal" education, I also believe that the ability to write code will be the future equivalent of being able to type. It's just something you have to be able to do in order to operate in the business environment.

I look forward to working through the code challenges with History and Mystery in the coming months. Maybe we'll even replicate some of those late night programming and playing sessions I loved so much in my youth.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Another Lankhmar Update: Don't Forget Savage Worlds LANKHMAR!

Earlier this week, I shared my excitement that Goodman Games had acquired a license to release adventures that take place in Fritz Leiber's classic Lankhmar/Nehwon setting. Toward the end of the post, I mentioned that Pinnacle Entertainment Group's Savage Worlds role playing game was the only other game that I thought had the potential to capture the Sword & Sorcery feel of the setting. When I wrote that, I knew that Pinnacle was planning to release their own Lankhmar related products, but I did not know when that release would occur.

Now I do. The Savage Worlds setting book for Lankhmar: City of Thieves will go on sale April 14th. At that time, purchasers will be able to pick up copies of the PDF and pre-order the print copy of the book.



Pinnacle has also given us a glimpse of what the rules will look like with the "No Honor Among Thieves" rule.

No Honor Among Thieves

Betrayal is a part of life in the City of Thieves. Sometimes a companion double-crosses his mates over a few gold pieces. Other times he might cheat on a friend over the love of a woman. Most of these betrayals are met with a wry smile and a vow to reciprocate at some future date. There is no honor among thieves, after all.

Sometimes the betrayal is more personal. In Lankhmar, whenever a character is betrayed by a close friend or associate (a trusted ally or even another player character—Game Master’s call), he cannot spend a Benny to reroll any opposed defensive action.

If the betrayal is an actual attack (almost assuredly with The Drop) and the victim doesn’t Soak all the wounds and / or remove the Shaken, he must make a Vigor roll versus the damage or go unconsciousness per the Knock Out Blow rules on page 25). He may not spend Bennies on this roll.
This rule is an example of how easily the Savage Worlds rules set, and in particular it's ability to incorporate "Setting Rules," make it a good fit for the Lankhmar setting.

I do have one minor complaint though. The image of Fafhrd in the banner ad above doesn't capture the humor he is often expressed as having in the stories. Fafhrd laughs in the face of danger and is often boisterous in the face of adversity. To be fair, the image looks to take place after a particularly dire moment in the series (no spoiler, but rage would be an appropriate expression), but it is too rare that Fafhrd is show smiling. Thankfully, the Pinnacle website has what must be one of the first illustrations of a happy Fafhrd, made all the more enjoyable because he is too rarely illustrated this way.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Lankhmar the Dungeon Crawl Classics Way

Goodman Games announced at Gary Con that they have been granted a license to produce Lankhmar themed Dungeon Crawl Classics products. The Dungeon Crawl Classics role playing game is the first role playing game since the original D&D rules that has been expressly designed to capture the tone and feel of the fiction Gary Gygax highlighted in his famous Appendix N.



Most early post-D&D role playing games fell into three camps. They were either designed to be easier to play versions of D&D that shared some of the inspirations (Tunnels & Trolls falls into this category), designed to emulate more realistic combat and character creation with a consistent world mythology that varied from D&D (Runequest and The Fantasy Trip fall into this category), or D&D micro-improvement clones (Arduin and Warlock) fall into this category. None of these games quite fit into the category of "Fantasy Heartbreaker" coined by Ron Edwards, for reasons that become clear when one reads the full Edwards piece.

Many of these games, The Fantasy Trip I'm looking at you, were designed to present consistent mechanics that emulated some kind of physics. In moving this direction, these games actually moved away from Appendix N influence and became something else. D&D was a hodgepodge of influences, all narrative. Runequest too had a hodgepodge of influences, but one of them was SCA combat experience. Basing combat on real world experience is a solid design goal, but it isn't a design goal driven by an attempt to emulate the fantasy in Appendix N. It's hard to imagine someone attempting Fafhrd's escape from the Ice Witches by strapping fireworks to his skis using the Runequest or The Fantasy Trip rules. They weren't free form enough.

To be fair, it's hard to imagine that happening in AD&D either. I can see it happening in Moldvay/Cook Basic, but interestingly enough that game actually falls into that first category of post-D&D design. All of this brings us back to Dungeon Crawl Classics. It is very easy to imagine this game inspiring such a scene, and Doug Kovac's strong focus on what Jeff Vandermeer calls "The Weird" only adds to the seeming natural connection between DCC and Lankhmar. There is only one other game that I think can capture the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser well, and that's Savage Worlds. A game that I believe also has a license to make Lankhmar based products. The Savage Worlds game will likely, in my completely uninformed opinion, focus more on the street level heroics of Nehwon and so there will be little cannibalism between the two games. In fact, I think there might be some great synergy between publishers.

Goodman Games is running a contest which will allow people to playtest their upcoming adventure at Gen Con.


As an aside, I think that the DCC cover is a nice homage to the old Fantastic cover that featured Ningauble, Fafhrd's weird and enigmatic patron.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Skylanders vs. Disney Infinity SAVAGE WORLDS Style: A Father After my Own Heart

When I first started this blog it was called Cinerati due to my love of film. I started the blog because a friend had shared an article from the conservative website National Review Online that was criticizing an entry in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill saga. I found the article to be reactionary and not very well versed in the genre the author was criticizing. The article seemed to me to be a typical "Culture War" and "High Art" claptrap that raises my ire. I was especially irked by the phrase, "
these films are but vulgar distortions of Japanese film culture."

Someone on the internet was wrong, and I needed to fire my own salvo off into the battlefield. Never mind that the author of the piece was also arguing something that I agree with, that Akira Kurosawa's films are brilliant. The professor had insulted one of my favorite directors and I was going to the mattresses! Even in those days, I was careful to be polite in my criticisms, but I was enjoined in battle.
 
Interestingly, I didn't end up writing as many film related posts as I wanted and ended up writing far more posts about other geek related things. There was a short period where there were other authors on the site, but that eventually faded and I was left as the sole author on the site. I wrote about whatever I wanted, and in 2008 what I wanted to write about took a pretty significant shift when my twin daughters were born.

Oh, I still wanted to write about everything I had been writing about, but now I couldn't wait to write about my gaming experiences with my daughters. Given my busy schedule between work and school, I haven't written about gaming with History and Mystery as much as I'd like. Heck, I haven't even gamed with them as much as I'd like. I have played a lot of games with them though and hope to share more of those experiences as time presents itself. I am particularly excited to share our first Heroquest experience and discuss how badly my daughter History wants to play the Indiana Jones Role Playing Game. She wants to play it more than almost any other game I own.

All of this is my way of saying, expect to see more writing about gaming with kids in the coming months/years. I'll be mixing it up with content about gaming in general, including some 5th edition and Savage Worlds modifications.

Why the sudden inspiration you ask? Well...I saw a father running a Savage Worlds skirmish between Skylander and Disney Infinity characters with his kids and that is pretty awesome.