Captain on the bridge — Part 1

A week or so ago I wrote about my bucket list, or at least one item on my bucket list. This week I’m writing about a dream. The dream is to walk on to the bridge of starship and take command. Just like the captains in Star Trek. I would lead the crew on all sorts of adventures: fascinating exploration missions, daring military raids, and heroic rescue missions. I would also (unlike the Star Trek captains, as far as I know) sometimes take the ship out and roam the galaxy just for fun.

Alas, my dream is unlikely to be fulfilled. There are real spaceships, but my chance of going on one of them is on the wrong side of .00000000000001. To put it bluntly, there is no chance at all that’s going to happen. Even if I did take command of the next version of the space shuttle (did I mention that the chances of that happening are ridiculously small?), no one in my lifetime will go to another star system, let alone going beyond Mars. Even going to Mars in the next twenty or thirty years is a long shot.

So what’s an aspiring starship captain to do? Content himself or herself with watching Captain Jameway or Commander Sisko or Captain Archer? Or maybe channel his or her inner child and watch Star Trek inside a suitably decorated refrigerator box? Fun, perhaps, but much too passive for someone who wants to take command and “boldly go where no one has gone before”.

Well, there are some options: games. After all, where books and movies are passive, games are active. And there are some bridge simulation games where players are the bridge crew of a starship.

A week or two ago I played a game called Space Cadets. I actually bought it a year or so ago, but didn’t get around to playing it until recently.

It’s a fun game. As with other bridge simulation games, there are various stations: captain, engineer, weapons, damage control, shields, sensors, jump drive, tractor beam, and helm. Each station has its own mini game. My favorite mini game is the weapons game, which is more or less a mini tabletop shuffleboard game where you slide a wooden disk along a track to see how much damage a torpedo does. It’s a nice risk-reward tradeoff game: you can play it safe and be almost certain you’ll do some damage, or you can gamble and go for a lot of damage with a big chance that you’ll do no damage at all.

All of the mini games are timed, which adds an element of tension, although when I played there were some games that didn’t take much time. Maybe that’s because the engineer (me) didn’t do a good enough job getting power to the other stations. That meant they didn’t have enough power to do things that take more time.

If each of the bridge officers is in her or his own little world, desperately trying to beat the clock and get a sensor lock or get a torpedo loaded, you might have some tension, but to get real excitement you need the players yelling and screaming at each other, and to get that you need connections between stations. In Space Cadets, the engineering station is connected to all of the other stations because the engineer determines how much power each of the other stations receives. The sensors station is connected to the weapons station because torpedoes will do more damage if there is a sensor lock on the target. And if a core breach is imminent, then all of the players have to work together to prevent it while also doing their regular jobs.

The game I played never got to the core breach level, and there wasn’t any actual yelling and screaming, but the connections between stations definitely played an important role. That shows good design of a bridge simulation game.

Have I found my wish-fulfillment game that lets me command a starship? Not yet. Space Cadets is fun to play and is a great game, but it’s not the ultimate starship captain experience.

One issue that I have with it is that some parts of the game can become tedious. I kept thinking “I could write a program to keep track of this”. There is a mobile app for the timer, which is good, but I kept wanting the app to do more, and it doesn’t. Nor should it, really. Computerizing more of the game could make some things less tedious, and it would allow more complicated rules, but it would also change the game a lot and it would lose its party game flavor. I’ll keep Space Cadets, but I’ll also keep looking for my ultimate game.

When we played Space Cadets, we set the stations out on our kitchen counter. The counter is black with lighter flecks in it and it sort of looks spacey. But the rest of the room is just a kitchen and doesn’t look like a space ship at all, even if it does have stainless steel appliances. A living room or a family room wouldn’t be any better. That’s not a problem if you just want to play a game for a couple of hours. But is it possible to get something more immersive? More on that in a later post. (Hint: I’m not talking about VR.)

In the mean time I’ll get out my crayons and paints and aluminum foil and start decorating that refrigerator box.

Compensated links to amazon.com:
Space Cadets
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Writing and playing adventures

What’s on your bucket list? Going sky diving? Traveling to Europe, or Australia, or Africa? Climbing Mount Everest? Going to Mars, or to the moon, or at least going into space? Yesterday I listened to a podcast (Naked Astronomy) that talked about colonizing Mars and how many people would be there by 2024 (Elon Musk’s goal) or 2030 or 2050. The same podcast episode also talked about space tourism and how you could spend a few million dollars for a few minutes in space. All you need is money. I suppose that’s true for a lot of things on a lot of people’s bucket lists.

I wish my bucket list was that simple.

Maybe that makes it sound like money isn’t an issue for me and that I have piles of the stuff hidden under my mattress or stashed away in a secret Swiss bank account. I don’t. Sometimes I wish I had, but when I really think about it I realize that money won’t buy the thing that’s at the top of my bucket list: writing and playing adventures.

When I say that writing and playing adventures is at the top of my bucket list I don’t mean that it’s my most important goal in my life. And I don’t mean that it’s something that would happen at some well-defined moment, like reaching the summit of Mount Everest. It’s an ability that I want to acquire.

You might agree that the writing part is not easy and is not something that money could buy, but surely there are plenty of opportunities to play adventures, without even spending money. Not really. I’m hard to please. Out of the millions of games that are on the App Store and in Google Play, I have only found a few that I’ve played more than two or three times.

As for tabletop role-playing games, I have played in various campaigns and adventures that I liked. I’m even playing in a good campaign now, although it’s kind of an on-again, off-again thing.

If I really put time and energy into it I could find some good adventures to play in, especially since it’s now possible to play role-playing games over the Internet with virtual tabletop software. But even though playing adventures is part of my top bucket list item, it’s not the most important part. Writing is the most important part. Making adventures. Creating them.

I have written a few adventures that I liked reasonably well. I’ve started writing a whole lot more, more than I like to think about. But they’ve all fallen short of what I expect from a good adventure.

What makes a good adventure? I’m glad you asked.

First of all a good adventure has decisions. That’s what separates games, and role-playing games in particular, from books and movies.

Playing a good adventure makes a good story. The Angry GM’s definition of an adventure is “the smallest segment of a role-playing game that can be considered a complete and satisfying story.” Of course, that raises the question of what makes a good story, and that’s a big question.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and reading about what makes stories work. It’s a fascinating and difficult topic in its own right, but what makes it even more fascinating and difficult for me is how to take the things that I read and learn about stories and relate them to adventures.

One of the most important things to get right in stories is the characters. Kendall Haven, emphasizes that in his book Story Smart. In another book, Story Sense, Paul Lucey advises screenwriters to write simple stories about complex characters. He’s talking about movies, as opposed to novels or other forms of storytelling, but I consider it to be excellent general-purpose advice. If only I could do it.

Creating good characters in role-playing adventures can be tricky because often combat plays a big part in such adventures and combat often means that the character I worked so hard to create is killed in battle at the end of the adventure.

Speaking of combat, for some players that’s the be-all and end-all of role-playing games. I like having a good battle or two in an adventure, especially if there are interesting tactical decisions to make, but combat is less important to me than other aspects of adventures.

I love mysteries (as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog) so for me a mystery can make a great adventure. Or a mystery make an interesting subplot or component of an adventure. I suppose I could have been less specific and said “puzzles”, but “mysteries” sounds a lot better. One reason is because a mystery almost always means there are story elements involved: setting, characters, and plot, whereas a puzzle might have nothing to do with a story.

Whether it’s a “mystery” or a “puzzle” there’s one essential ingredient: clues. Saying that something is a mystery or a puzzle means that there’s unknown information, and that by itself is as likely to be frustrating as it is to be interesting or entertaining. But throw in some intriguing clues and you’ve got me hooked. That’s one of the reasons why I like debugging computer programs: the challenge of recognizing the clues and using them to track down and fix bugs.

One of my big gripes with traps in adventures is when there aren’t any clues about the trap. You either walk into it or you don’t. If you walk into a trap with no clues you get annoyed and frustrated and it detracts from the adventure. If you don’t walk into it you don’t know it exists and it doesn’t add to the adventure. On the other hand, if there are clues about the trap, and you put them together and figure out the trap, then you get a sense of accomplishment that adds a lot to the adventure.

Last and least are props and scenery. I say “least” because they are definitely secondary to decisions, characters and other story elements, clues, and even battles. And some people will argue that good verbal descriptions are as good as pictures. And there’s evidence for that in the fact that books are still popular even though there are movies and other visual and audio forms of entertainment.

But a good map can add a lot to an adventure. So can a hand-written poem or riddle on a scorched piece of parchment paper. Or a pouch of gems.

Some people like to improvise adventures and can do it well. But those improvised adventures are not likely to have maps and pictures and props so they aren’t as good as they could be.

So, I don’t need ten million dollars to cross off the top item on my bucket list. I just need adventures with interesting decisions, complex characters, intriguing clues, a battle or two, and some maps and props. Easy, right? I wish.

Compensated links to amazon.com:
Story Sense by Paul Lucey
Story Smart by Kendall Haven

About the Angry GM
Here’s a (non-compensated) link to the Angry GM’s article about what adventures are. Keep in mind that “Angry” means “swears a lot”. A lot of the swear words have been partially replaced with comic-style punctuation marks. Even so, I would like the site a lot better if it weren’t so angry. You have been warned.
The Angry GM’s article about what adventures are

The magic (unit) circle

This is the story of an index card, a trigonometry book, and a magic circle.

Once upon a time* I was helping my friend, John, prepare for a test in his trigonometry class. His teacher told him that he could take one 3×5 index card into the test. He sharpened a pencil to a fine point and started writing on the card. There are three tables in his textbook that he copied onto his card. One shows the values of trig functions for “special angles” (30°, 45°, and 60°). The book recommends memorizing that table. Another table showed values of trig functions for quadrantal angles (0°, 90°, 180°, and 270°). The third showed signs of trig functions in different quadrants: cosine and sine both positive in Quadrant I, sine positive and cosine negative in Quadrant II, etc.

John copied those tables onto his index card along with some definitions (sin = opp/hyp, etc.) Then he asked me for suggestions for other things to write on the card. I looked at the three tables and suggested that he replace the three tables with a drawing of the unit circle.

The trig book John had does talk about the unit circle a little bit, and John knew what I was talking about when I referred to the unit circle, but I had to look at the book pretty closely to see any mention of it. As far as I could tell, the place where it’s explained is in the section about wrapping functions. Wrapping functions? Never heard of them. Why bury the unit circle in a section about some kind of mathematical formalism that no one ever uses unless they have to learn it for a test? To me that’s heresy.

When I learned trig, back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth (~1975), the unit circle was the key to learning trigonometry. At least it was in Uncle Bill’s class. I remember sitting in a classroom at Skyline High in Salt Lake City, Utah and watching the teacher, Bill Earl (“Uncle Bill”), draw a unit circle on the board at the beginning of class. He would stand by the board and swing his arm around to draw the circle. He was just the right height to get a circle that fit nicely on the board if he had his arm fully extended when he swung it around.

I used the unit circle a lot in Uncle Bill’s class and before long had it memorized, kind of like the authors of John’s math book suggested that students memorize Table 2.2, Trigonometric Functions of Special Angles. But it wasn’t just that I had it memorized. It was that I understood how it worked so that I could draw it any time I wanted to. You could say that I could re-derive it any time I wanted to. Even forty-plus years later, which is what I did when I drew it for John.

Here’s my picture, scribbles and all:
drawing of the unit circle

As you can tell by the scribbles, I didn’t get it right the first time. And I cheated a little bit. But given a little more time I could have reproduced it without using a book or a calculator.

That picture, along with some of the basic definitions (tan = sin/cos) includes all of the information in Tables 2.2 (Trigonometric Functions of Special Angles), 2.4 (Values of Trigonometric Functions of Quadrantal Angles), and 2.5 (Signs of the Trigonometric Functions) in John’s textbook. So John could replace three tables on his index card with one diagram of the unit circle.

Memorizing the circle is easier than memorizing the tables in the book. If you’re familiar with the four quadrants, it’s easy to see why the sign of π/2 is positive and the sine of 3π/2 is negative. Instead of memorizing a table (2.4 or 2.5) filled with arbitray numbers or words you’re looking at quadrants on a graph. It’s true that the textbook’s explanation gives some context for Table 2.5, and there are some diagrams, so they’re not completely arbitrary numbers and words, but why not put everything together in one diagram, and then memorize, or even better learn, that one diagram?

Yes, there might be a few things that you need to memorize, like the values for sine and cosine in Quadrant I. But really the main thing you need to memorize is the sequence 1/2, √2/2, and √3/2. They all have 2 in the denominator, and you can think of the 1 in 1/2 as √1 so you get a nice sequence of √1/2, √2/2, and √3/2. If you understand the overall idea, it’s pretty easy to take care of a few memorization details like that.

If you learn the unit circle and understand it well you won’t need to draw it on an index card to take it into the test. You’ll understand the relationships between different parts of the circle and see how they all fit together, and that makes a big difference.

So why does the title of this post refer to a “magic circle”? Am I trying to convince you that the unit circle magic? No, I’m not. The unit circle is definitely useful, but it’s not magic.

I’m referring to the magic circle of games and game design. The idea is that when players play a game they agree to play by the rules. They pretend that the things in the game are important, even if (or especially if) those things are not at all important in the real world. They get into the game. If they do those things they are entering the magic circle.

If they don’t enter the magic circle, players will probably not enjoy the game. Even worse, they might prevent others from enjoying the game by arguing about the rules or not paying attention and taking their turn when it’s time, or saying out-of-character things.

I have another friend who was a year or two behind me in high school. At first he didn’t like math, he didn’t get good grades in his math classes, and he more or less considered it a waste of time. In game design terms he wasn’t in the magic circle and wasn’t even close to it. Then, for some reason, he decided that math was interesting, or even fun. I don’t know why. Maybe it was something a teacher said or did. Maybe it was an interesting application or just an interesting problem. Maybe he solved a particularly tricky problem and got a confidence boost. But something happened and he entered the magic circle.

Math wasn’t easy for him just because he entered the magic circle. But it was easier. Maybe a better way to put it is that it became easier for him to put in the time and effort needed to learn it. Because he put more time and effort into it, he made better progress, which in turn helped with motivation so that he could continue putting more time and effort into it. Instead of being stuck in a negative feedback loop, he was in a positive feedback loop. Or, as I like to put it, he was “spiraling up” inside the magic circle.

And that’s a good place to be.

Extra Credits video about the magic circle

Compensated links to amazon.com:
• The trig book used in John’s class: College Trigonometry
• The game design book where I first read about the magic circle:
Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design

* I’ve taken the liberty of changing some aspects of this story.

Flavia de Luce

A couple of years ago I was looking through the Overdrive web site (see http://pioneer.utah.gov if you happen to live in Utah like I do) for books to read and came across a book by Alan Bradley called The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I decided to try it, and I’m glad I did, because the Flavia de Luce books are my favorite of all the books and series of books that I’ve read in the past few years.

Why? First of all, they’re mysteries, and I love reading mysteries. I usually don’t realize who the murderer is in the Flavia de Luce books, but when I find out who the murderer is it makes sense. Also, the mystery is important, but there are enough things going on in the book that it’s interesting without a new corpse turning up every chapter.

The Flavia de Luce books have great characters. Flavia is an 11-year old girl who is fascinated by chemistry and poisons. The way she talks about her lab, her experiments, and her heroes of chemistry is entertaining and endearing. Then there’s Dogger, her father’s friend and servant. Dogger is knowledgeable and has impeccable manners. A little bit like Jeeves, but mysterious and sad in addition to being polite and capable. There are other interesting characters, like Flavia’s sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, her father with his wistful sadness and obsession with postage stamps, and the inspector, to name a few, but the ones who really make the books work for me are Flavia and Dogger.

Nowadays I listen to fiction much more often than I read printed books (or ebooks). In the case of the Flavia de Luce, listening is a plus because Jayne Entwistle, the narrator, does a great job. She has a distinctive voice and does a great job of portraying the character of a quirky 11-year-old girl who happens to be a genius of chemistry and a brilliant detective. Flavia is the most important character of course, but there’s something about the way that Entwistle does Dogger’s voice that nails the character.

Even the titles are great. As far as I know, the titles of the four that I have read are all quotes, with Book 4’s title (I Am Half Sick of Shadows) being a quote from a Tennyson poem. I can’t say that I understand the allusions of the titles, but I like them all the same.

I’ve read four of the eight or nine books that have been written in the series so far (I’m rationing them rather than binge-reading them), and every one of them has had things that make me laugh. A lot. The funny parts are perfect counterpoints to the mystery and don’t spoil the sense of mystery at all. There are a number of sad things in every book as well.

The books are set in England fairly soon (five or ten years?) after the end of World War II. I like historical fiction and have read a number of murder mysteries that are historical fiction, ranging from the Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters, which are set in 12th century England, to the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters, which are set in Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Flavia de Luce books are more recent, but Bradley does a great job of making the historical setting interesting without belaboring it.

Here’s a link to the first book in the series on amazon.com. What kind of link is it? That’s a bit tricky because I’ve been sworn to secrecy by the Amazon Associates program and sworn to non-secrecy by the FTC. Suffice it to say that it’s a compensated link, i.e., an advertisement:
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A Flavia de Luce Mystery