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It's been a while, yet again, and this time I have no good reason for it. It's not illness or complications. It is one thing. Star Trek Online. The Open Beta consumed me, which gave way to the Headstart consuming me, and then Launch, and here we are now. If I have had a computer open, it is to play this game. I am obsessed, and I am not only not ashamed but proud of it.

How obsessed?

I took vacation so that I could bury myself in the game. And, admittedly, in various car repairs. So I am both poor and obsessed, but rich in spirit.

Needless to say, I like the game. I like it a lot. And I'm not alone. One report Atari has issued indicated one million active accounts after Launch. That's pretty freakin' huge. And the game has had congestion issues which have led to Queues to get in, because the concurrent users continues to be monumental -- which means a much larger than expected percentage of the total player base is actually in the game playing -- or trying to be -- at any one time. People are trying to play, and after they play they're coming back for more.

Naturally, this has led inexorably to claims the game is doomed. DOOOOOOOMED! After all, if people are having to wait in queues to play, they'll be turned off by Cryptic's unprofessionalism and leave.

That's right. This game is doomed because it's too crowded.

This is the kind of problem developers dream of having.

This is not to say, however, that the game doesn't have problems that need resolving. It has them, all right, and it does indeed need to fix them and build upon them. In a lot of cases they're stuff that another six months in development would have helped -- content issues, some gameplay bugs and the like. But, for various reasons that was not to be (most of them spelled A-T-A-R-I and M-O-N-E-Y if some of the interim shareholder reports are to be believed), so the question becomes simple:

What next?

Look, this is a hit. You don't get to a million users, all trying desperately to play, and call it anything but a hit. But as others smarter than I have said, MMOs aren't a sprint -- they're a marathon. In six months or a year you're still going to want to have hundreds of thousands of players. What's worse, a good number of the most dedicated players aren't going to be contributing to the bottom line any more. See, there was a 'Lifetime Subscription Deal' which mean that for two hundred and fifty bucks you got to have extra character slots, plus the ability to have your Captain be a 'Liberated Borg,' plus you'd never have to pay the monthly fee. The true believers, the hungry gameplayers and the far game thinkers grabbed that deal. Hell, I grabbed that deal, representing most of my personal 'fun' money for the next half year, honestly speaking.

And that's fine and dandy, but that means at least tens of thousands of players -- maybe more -- who are both going to be demanding and who aren't going to contribute fifteen bucks a month to the game. That means Cryptic needs needs needs needs needs to hold on to the teeming masses who aren't hardcore believers and fans of Star Trek Online to keep paying the bills. And that means the next 12 months are crucial to the success of this game.

These are the same issues plaguing unqualified hit games like Warhammer Online and Age of Conan, it's worth noting -- huge initial sales, followed by steep dropoffs in subscriptions moving forward. And it's very unlikely that Star Trek Online will grow in subscriptions past the six month mark right now. In order to gain the kind of forward momentum and actual subscriber growth that something like World of Warcraft enjoys, Star Trek Online is going to need to do more development moving forward than it did previous to release. It needs more people working on the game, in other words. Not only can't they rest on their laurels, they need to start cultivating fields and planting more laurel trees stat.

To their credit, they seem to know this. Right as we opened Headstart, they began to tease the first free content update. High end/endgame content. "Raidisodes" which will require teams to complete, with the depth of the full "episode" style mission-arcs. The Borg. More playable species. Klingon PvE content (exploration style, which means they can explore strange, new worlds... seek out new life forms and new civilizations... and conquer them for the honor and glory of the empire! Kai kassai!), et cetera et cetera. That's good. It's a start -- a palpable start.

But it's not enough. It can't begin to be enough. They need way more than they're even implying.

Here then is my humble offering: a course they could set through the choppy postlaunch waters, if you will. There are many like it, but these are mine.

1. Hire at least two more full content development teams. Look, the head writer of Star Trek Online -- Christine "Kestrel" Thompson -- is fantastic. She really is. If you haven't yet gotten out of the Sirius Sector Block, and are convinced the game is nothing more than "destroy six Orion ships," you haven't begun to understand where this game is going. About the time you step through the Guardian of Forever or find yourself staring down the hungry maw of one of the most iconic and horrible threats to come out of Star Trek you realize the game's got depth. When you actually get a reasonable explanation for the horrific 'physics' behind the destruction of Romulus in last summer's Star Trek movie, you're into full-on thrilled territory.

However, Thompson is just one person, and the content development team she works with is already maxxed out trying to keep ahead of her vision. No matter how good the rapid development tools they have are, a lot needs to happen to turn an outline into a coherent and engaging story.

So. Priority number one for Cryptic needs to be hiring more content-specific development teams. Not add more developers to the existing teams, but whole new teams. Give Thompson a well-deserved raise and make her both Head Writer and Editor, while Craig Zinkovich stays the Executive Producer. In effect, make Zinkovich into Rick Berman (or Gene Roddenberry if you can't stand to consider Rick Berman, ignoring for a moment that he was responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed Trek as well as some of the most panned stuff) and make Thompson into Brannon Braga or Ronald D. Moore, with multiple dedicated writing/art teams doing nothing but content development underneath them. This leads us to point two....

2. Create multiple 'sequel series' in Star Trek Online. One of the cool dimensions of Star Trek Online is the "Episode" Structure. See, an Episode, in game terms, is a multiple-mission arc, usually with both space and ground components, wherein you work your way through a story -- the idea being this is a one or two-part episode of a television series. These episodes are interrelated, and connect together to form 'seasons' that correspond with the level requirements of the missions. Season 1, for example, is a Klingon-heavy season (with bonus Gorn, Orions and Nausicaans). Season two brings us into Romulan territory with the Romulans, Remans and-- well, but that would be telling. Season three heads out to Cardassian space and Deep Space Nine. And so on, and so forth.

This is smart. Brilliant even. Kudos to the whole team for the concept. Well done.

So what happens when you get to the last episode of the last season?

It's not enough to have 'endgame' episodes, now with bonus team requirements. Up until that day you hit maximum level in your stunningly powerful starship, you are the star of your own Star Trek series. You have seen your Bridge Officers develop. You have your logs. But where do you go from there?

Well, the current development team is working on that -- working on ways to push beyond that maximum level. Working on ways to give you more late game and endgame content. But the other option in an MMO has always -- always -- been to roll a new character and try something different with them. You've had your Dwarf Rogue? Try a Human Priest or an Elf Hunter instead -- or jump the fence and go with a Troll or Orc. Here's all new places, quests, stuff to do, things to see. You can do this many, many times before you run out.

In Star Trek Online, on the Federation side, you can roll your new Captain -- go with a different race and specialty maybe. Replace your human tactical officer with a new Vulcan science officer, say....

...and proceed to do the exact same episodes in the exact same order you did the first time.

Oh, there's other stuff to do. You can run exploration content and get perks and advancement, or Deep Space Encounters -- little mini fleet actions -- or PvP PvP PvP. But if you're looking for the game you just played from Ensign to Rear Admiral, there are no more surprises left.

And if you want to be a Klingon? Well, like I said in my last post on the subject -- they're in the game, and that's all they are. You can do some cursory PvE content (with exploration 'on the way), and you can fight other Klingon players or Federation players in a variety of scenarios. In fact, they'd like it very much if you'd do just that, because without you all those Feds who want to try out PvP have very little to do.

So. The solution is this. Sequel 'series.'

Remember point one? Hire at least two more full content development teams? This is why. One team should do nothing but Klingon development. PvE development, mind. Their task is to create a full story of all the necessary 'seasons' of episodes from Level 1 (not 5, as it currently stands) to Endgame, all for Klingons. Period. The second team does the same thing on the Federation side. Have them create a new starting area -- say in a spacedock on Vulcan instead of a spacedock over Earth -- with all the episodes to make up all the seasons to go from 1 to endgame on the other side. Focus on the Gorn to start with -- go in depth on what's going on in their subjugated state. Or focus on the Orions. Or heck -- do lower level Romulan content for a much lower Klingonesque storyline.

And then -- and this is key -- don't let people who haven't played through the PvE content in the 'main' storyline touch the new content. In fact, when a player plays the last episode of the last season in the current content, automatically unlock a new character slot for him and unlock the ability to play through the new series. If someone wants a single character to play through both, he'll need to team with someone who has the other series. (In effect, 'guest starring' in their series.)

When these are done, do them again. And again. Do a Cardassian-focused series based out of Andor. Do an Orion-based series based out of Risa. On the Klingon side, do a series based out of Rura Penthe.

And don't charge extra for these series. These are being developed purely as new and fresh content for existing players. Don't create new Sectors or environments -- use the vaunted Genesis engine and build these out of the current stuff you have. Yes, there will need to be ongoing art and other assets created for the new episodes. There's no getting around that. That's why you need new, dedicated teams that do nothing but develop them.

In the meantime, the original team(s) develop content just as they are now -- new high level/endgame content. And of course, new expansions - the kind of expansions that give us entirely new factions to play. Those can be for pay. If you let me not only play as a Cardassian but play as a Cardassian in the Obsidian Order serving the True Way and the fragmented Alpha Quadrant castoffs of the Dominion War (with bonus Breen!), I will happily give you another fifty dollars for the privilege.

But right now, work on ways to let players go from Ensign to Admiral in entirely different series, each new old unlocking the new. If someone wants to play through the old content of a given series again, let them. Some people love to do that kind of thing. But for someone who wants something new around every corner, there should be a chance for them to have it.

3. Develop new stuff for the Cryptic Store, and release it on a set and regular schedule. Right at the beginning, as we were all trying to unlock our preorder content so we could take our new Constitution Class ships and Joined Trill out for a spin (for the record? Both rock.) we discovered that someone had been added to the Cryptic Store. This made sense, since a number of the 'preorder' packages put out by different vendors included Cryptic Points that could be spent in the store -- I remember Cryptic not having anything in the Cryptic Store on day one of Champions Online, and wondering what good the free points I had for it would do me.

Well, the stuff in the store now? Are unlocks that let Federation players make Klingon and Ferengi Starfleet Officers.

For my lights, this is a perfect use of the Cryptic Store. You don't need a Klingon Starfleet Captain (you can get Klingon Bridge Officers without buying them from the Cryptic Store) to enjoy the rich taste of Star Trek Online, but it's worth the less than three bucks it costs if you want it. I have never been anti-microtransaction. So long as the game can be played without the purchases, then go for it, I say.

Well, the Cryptic Store needs to have regular infusions of new stuff -- stuff that costs just a little bit of cash mangled through Cryptic's own currency -- to keep our interest. And that stuff should be cool while being moderately resource-light to create. New playable species are -- like I said -- perfect. We can easily see Orions joining Starfleet. That should be in there. Humans and Andorians should be in the store as well -- purchasable for the Klingon Defense Force.

Or, take the very popular (and cool) preorder original Constitution Class ship. I have that from my own preorder bonuses, and it's great. It takes the place of my Tier 1 Miranda, and it's neat. I have blue phasers and nostalgia wrapped up in an off-white hull, and at the same time with the exception of an engineering console slot, I have no real advantage over other players. A well kitted out Miranda is just as effective in combat as a well kitted out original Constitution class ship.

So, extend that. For example -- a lot of people have asked for an Excelsior class ship. The Vesper looks a bit like a squashed Excelsior, but it's not an Excelsior (as flown by Sulu, not to mention the Enterprise-B that Kirk died on or half the non-Enterprise ships on Star Trek: The Next Generation). Fine. Put an Excelsior in the store for, say, 340 points. For a few dollars, someone could buy one. Have it as a 'replacement ship' for Tier 3 -- don't let someone climb into their Excelsior until they make Captain. Give it an extra console slot. Now here you are, with a replacement starship that's iconic and fun, yet inexpensive. It might not be the four-nacelled Constellation class knockoffs currently at Tier 2, but it would be distinctive enough to make recognizing it simple.

Do that same thing elsewhere. Want to fly a Nebula? Make it a Tier 5 replacement for the Luna. Want an original D-7 Battlecruiser from the original series in place of your initial Bird of Prey? Just a couple bucks.

Add in distinctive ship paint patterns in the store, distinctive costume sets for your characters, additional character slots, additional costume slots for your characters (and for your bridge crew -- more expensive to pay for the additional database space), and designate a specific day of the week new C-Store content drops, and you have a never-ending cycle of enthusiasm. And bitching, from the anti-microtransaction crowd, but trust me you're going to have that no matter what. And that trickle of cash will naturally help pay for point 2's additional development teams and give Jack Emmert a bigger money bin to swim in, and both of those are fine by me.

Also, Wednesday would very very very much like it if there could be Star Trek: The Motion Picture pajama-style uniforms and Deltans in that store. I'd like them too, mind.

(Other things that could go in? Enterprise era jumpsuits, the suede 'Captain's Jacket' Picard wore for the last few years of TNG, the Captain's Vest that Kirk and Scotty wore near the end of the original cast's movie era, the white 'plug suit' radiation suits from the movie era, the variation Captain's Vest Picard wore in Insurrection and Sisko wore the last couple of years of Deep Space 9, a specific 'lightning bolt' ship paint design a la the I.S.S. Enterprise from the two part "In a Mirror Darkly" episodes of Enterprise, Porthos the beagle or Spot the cat who can follow you around a Starbase....)

4. Communicate each of these well in advance, and improve communication in general. Right now, communication is Cryptic's kryptonite. They're just plain not good at announcing new products. Over on the Champions side, this has become a comedy of errors that has led -- possibly -- to at least one good community representative being fired for -- possibly -- saying too much.

And when there's a real problem -- say, the servers going down because eight hundred thousand people worldwide all try to play at once, and man isn't that the kind of problem a developer loves to fix? -- there is no easy or focused means by which that problem is acknowledged and information is spread. Right now, eventually a notice goes up on the Support page and someone posts a notice (eventually) on the forums -- but part of the problem is all of Cryptic's communications equipment is interconnected. The same authentication servers that log someone into the game also log them into the website or forum, and account information is bound up in there. So, when the server goes down, things like the forum search function die a horrible relooping death -- and right now the only official way to filter out Developer comments from a thousand angry forumites shouting at once that they can't log in is the "Dev Tracker," which needs that search function to work in the first place. So, when the server dies the Dev Tracker goes with it, right when the users most need a single place to go for updates on these issues.

(The Support page doesn't count for this -- once a notice goes up on the page, it rarely changes. It's nice to have the acknowledgement, but it's not enough.)

So, the already frustrating situation of the servers being down becomes infuriating for the average user when all Cryptic's pages take forever to load because they're sending calls to a broken server as part of the process and they can't filter out other other infuriated users from the decent updates on the situation.

That has to stop. Cryptic needs to fix that across the board, and they need to do it today.

One advantage they have is a gregarious and engaged developer community. Folks like Coderanger and Gozer (not, I'm given to understand, their real names) love to interact with the forum community one on one. But developers answering questions (and community managers managing that connection and passing info back and forth) are not a real communication strategy. Communication is as much marketing and perception as it is information, and that's problematic right now.

Finally, in addition to gameplay and expansion information and emergency information needed during outages, there also needs to be 'in-game' information updates on a smooth and regular process. Things like the old "Path to 2409" which stopped updating right when they went into Beta, stunningly enough, or ship class information pages, or details about who some of the movers and shakers in the 25th century Star Trek Online universe are. Right now, we get little bits here and there, but not nearly enough.

So, this point has three subpoints. We'll call them 4a, 4b and 4c.

4a. Create a 'clearinghouse page' for server status and regular updates during outages, completely independent from all other Cryptic webpages and their interdependencies, and have a designated person who updates it during downtimes regardless of the time of day. Really, this is basic. Take a basic, straight XHTML page with absolutely no database or other calls to the Cryptic servers, whether we're discussing the game server controller or the authentication server or streaming ads or anything else. Make it rock solid and loadable using techniques proved to work since, oh, 1997 with tens of thousands of hits per second hitting it. And have someone on duty in the customer service department 24 hours a day 7 days a week whose first priority whenever there is an outage to immediately update that server acknowledging the issue. Then, whenever an update comes out of netops or whoever else needs to be involved, that person posts it to that site immediately. It should have estimated downtime (expressed as times, not "two hours" or other things that are meaningless without referents" and should reassure the customer that Cryptic is both aware of the problem and working on it.

Hand in hand with that should be an official twitter account -- say, @startrekonlinestatus or the like -- that repeats the basics.

(As a side note, in the absence of either of these tools all STO players should know about @sto_devtrack -- this is a third party unofficial twitter replicator of the dev tracker posted over twitter that doesn't need the Dev Tracker working to keep churning stuff out. So for right now, if there's an outage and you want the latest words from the developers about it, this twitter account is your best friend.)

All this does, in the end, is give everyone a place to go that calmly acknowledges issues and makes it clear someone's working on them. There should be no comment fields or anything like them. People who want to vent about how the evil developers and their crappy servers are viciously keeping them from their game can go to the forums to do that, just like they do right now. For a huge number of players, just having some sense of what's going on and knowing someone knows about it and is trying to fix it is huge, and making and updating a page like this is trivial. And it will resolve one of the worst 'immediate' communication issues almost completely.

Which brings us to the non-immediate communication issues -- less emergency, more marketing. And that brings us to:

4b. There should be weekly updates on future development for Star Trek Online, right on the front page. Right now, PR is very haphazard. We don't know when we're going to get an update and when we do it's often stuff we've already heard. (For about a month before launch, 95% of the PR posts on the Star Trek Online website amounted to a post pointing out where other people had written about STO -- and 99% of that was information anyone interested in Star Trek Online already knew. The eighteenth time you read that tired joke of Craig Zinkovich's about how they considered having a guy level up by pushing a button in Transporter Room 3 every twenty minutes for twelve hours -- insert EvE Online subjoke B-9-Alpha here -- you were ready to spork your own eyes out.

At this point, the game is live. There are paying customers. And right now job number one of the public relations department isn't getting new subscribers. It's keeping the old ones. Those folks who weren't passionate or certain enough to fork out $250 for a Lifetime or even $100 for a yearly subscription, but are deciding with each monthly credit card bill to stay or leave. That's the folks they need right now, and those folks need something to look forward to. It isn't enough to give them a good game experience today. You have to convince them they'll have nothing but fun in six months, too.

So, alongside the above-mentioned regular influx of new content into the Cryptic store for people to spend points on, you need to have a weekly update on future projects. Things that do nothing but tease stuff that's going to be coming out, with everything from specific release dates for stuff coming out in the month (and pimping the new C-Store stuff that came out that week) to vague "look for this -- we hope -- in the Fall of 2011" mentions. Give people the sense that you've got a ton of content coming out, and that ton of content is progressing. Make the game eternally in a state of continued development and be proud of that fact. Give everything fun codenames like "Project: Targ Bait" or "Let This Be Your Next Battlefield." Have a weekly interview with someone on what's around the corner, and touch on things in the far pipeline. Most of all, give people a reason to keep coming back to your website often. When they've burned through all the pregenerated content on the site, are sick of Exploration and Deep Space Encounters and can't imagine going back to that freakin' "Ghost Ship" PvP map, give them hope for the future.

Of course, for this to work there needs to be new content coming out on a regular basis in a regular stream. See Points 1-3 above once more. Develop develop develop. There is no ending, there is only Zuul.

4c. Every week should also add in-game information and content to the main website. Do you see a trend here?

Look closely.

That's right. Weekly content, updated without fail. Right now, I'm proposing at least one new thing in the C-Store every week, a full update from the PR guys on what's coming up every week, and now something updating the Lore of the game every week. This goes all the way back to the core Webcomics truism: consistent updates are the key to audience retention.

In fact, let's make this a little plan. On wednesdays of each week, there should be a new piece of Lore. A "Path to 2409" update, say, whether a main year or supplemental. A new starship writeup for "Ships of the Line." A brief essay on Sela, or the new Klingon Chancellor, or Admiral Quinn. A report on the weird variety of new tribbles that a somewhat shady breeder has found in his travels. Science officer reports on the odd gravimetric forces that are shattering so many freakin' planets. All kinds of potential stuff.

Then on thursdays put something new in the C-Store. Big or small almost doesn't matter. It's just a quick thing so people have a reason to come back and see what it is.

Then on fridays we have the PR update, which makes mention of both the wednesday and thursday updates (hey, stuff to talk about automatically) plus appropriate tidbits about what's coming up -- what new wednesday content might be seen, what c-store stuff is close to release, and most of all what new free (and paid) expansions are coming with vague-to-specific timeframes for them. This gives people the weekend to discuss everything and a chance for the forums to declare it A) wonderful, B) the final doom of Star Trek Online, or C) both. And then we start over.

This is a lot of work. A lot of work. But that's what Cryptic signed on for. Right now, they have a million mouths to feed, and that means doing tons of cooking, right from the start.

Let me reiterate something I said up top. I love this game. I really do. It ate my brain and now I serve it as its host body, and I'm okay with that. This is not an angry, frothing letter about how Cryptic is doooooomed. But because I love this game -- and because I have a lifetime subscription -- I want to be playing it five years from now with great prospects for five more. That doesn't just mean the game today needs to be good. It means the game needs to keep getting better, keep upping replay value, keep increasing endgame talent, and keep adding stuff. And being much, much better about telling us about that stuff than they have been. They have the perfect chance to get started on this -- the game has outperformed expectations, which means they have money in the bank. That has to go into the long term health of the game.

Whether or not it does we just won't know yet. If they don't take this course through the post-launch waters, I hope the one they do take will be a good one -- because those seas are rough, and lots of big boats have gone down in them.

Are these nautical terms doing anything for you? Anything? Ah well. See you you at Spacedock.

Captain Teegan of the U.S.S. Fort Kent(All pictures are screenshots taken by me while in Star Trek Online. Click on the thumbnails to get full sized easily looked at pictures and junk.)

So here we are. It's January. Earlier this week, Star Trek Online went into Open Beta after being in Closed Beta since October.

And, unlike many or even most folks, I've actually been in that Closed Beta almost from the beginning. My invite came in early October, which isn't quite the beginning but is near enough as no-nevermind. Certainly, I feel fortunate in that regard.

And so, I've seen a lot of changes and evolution, I've written forum posts and bug reports. I've tried my best to make it a better game. And now here I am and I can finally talk about it publicly.

Do you want the 'in a nutshell?' Okay. This is a good game. It's a lot of fun. It's pretty darn Star Trekish. I'm glad to have been a tester, I am preordered for the game, and I expect to be playing it for years to come.

Not everyone will agree with me on these facts -- which is understandable. The game isn't what I would have created if I were capable of creating a game. Neither is it the game you would have created. In the back of every gamer's head, every Star Trek fan's head, and every game-playing star trek fan's head is a nebulous half-formed idea of what a Star Trek Game should be. It's impossible for any of us to articulate what that is, because it's just a half-formed notion. However, you will know it when you see it. And when you look at Star Trek Online or any other game, you're going to have to leven your "this is so cool!" or "this sucks!" reaction with the sure knowledge that this game isn't that game in the back of your head. It can't be.

So. I'm going to go through some of my impressions of the game, and some of my beta experiences, and there will be lots of screenshots. Not screenshots generated by the press kits or PR folks at Cryptic, mind. These are the screen shots I took as I went along in the game. The ships you see in these shots are ones I created and piloted. The characters you see are either my Captains or their trusty Bridge Officers. That initial picture up in the corner? That's a perky red haired Trill Captain, crouching next to her Captain's chair on the bridge of the U.S.S. Fort Kent.

And at least one of those bridge officers? Is a tree. I totally made a Tree bridge officer. I am weirdly proud of this fact.

And, as this is going to be long and there will be many pictures, I am going to put it behind a 'click here to continue' wall. And I'm going to try and avoid just going over all the stuff that press previews and beta reviews and the like have done. This is "what Eric Burns-White liked as he went through the game." Sure, I like the whole "fight in space and then down on the ground in an episode" thing, but that didn't excite me nearly as much as "oh my God did that tribble reproduce?" and "Holy crap, I made a Tree bridge officer!"

Click on, if you dare. Or, you know, feel like it.

Order of the Stick!

(From The Order of the Stick! Click on the thumbnail for full sized stereotypical cravings!)

With the end of the last major storyline, Rich Burlew took the opportunity to divide his cast while putting the Order's leader -- action Roy Greenhilt -- out of contact through death. While this greatly increased his storytelling abilities -- letting him progress to a certain point on one side, then moving to the other where enough has happened to put things into a whole new in media res situation -- the other advantage this has granted is an increased secondary cast. Each subgroup of the Order of the Stick has its own supporting cast, its own antagonists, and its own situations to work through. Where once the strip was essentially the primary adventurers and their primary antagonists, now Burlew has a device that lets him develop his world and the people who live in it.

These two -- Kazumi Kato and her husband Daigo (last name withheld in case of emergency as an anti Redshirt function) -- are probably my favorite of these new supporting character. Two soldiers who have become adventurers, the pair has developed a relationship on the periphery of the Order's activities, culminating in their marriage and Kazumi's pregnancy. On the one hand, the pair have become yet another example of the various d20 jokes and roleplaying convention parodies that populate the strip. On the other, they're just a nice example of a couple of budding heroes who have essentially no angst in them no matter what's happening around them. Sure, their city's been invaded and occupied, their liege is on the run for his life, and there's always the danger of Ninja Attack, but on the other hand they're gaining levels and they have each other, and they're pretty happy.

That may be about to change, with Daigo unconscious and Kazumi fighting for her life while many months pregnant... but with today's strip, I can't say I'm seeing any down side. Frankly, this made me laugh for fifty-two minutes straight, and even now I find myself muttering "why should I care how many people I have to kill? I can just make more in my TUMMY!" and giggling all over again.

In a way, this is the fantasy equivalent of one of my favorite Super Stupor strips. In lots of fiction, the most kick-ass of women becomes little more than a helpless plot device, unable to do anything to save herself when someone shows up to kill her -- at least until some (male) hero comes and saves her helpless pregnant body.

Not so here. Burlew put Daigo down fast, and let the "helpless" Kazumi to herself. And, flush with hormones and righteous anger, she has proceeded to slaughter all in her way. It's not like she's endangering her unborn child more than helplessly waiting to be stabbed, after all. And she is, in the end, a hero, and the idea that a pack of low level ninja assassins are going to take her down just because -- in her words -- "her egg's perimeter was breached" is just plain ridiculous.

Power to her. Win or lose, triumph or tragedy, this was downright kick-ass.

Bruce Baugh's one of the better people I know, both in general and from my RPG developer's days. These days, he's covering Roleplaying Games and other such stuff at the shiny, new Tor.com blog, which means... well, y'know. He's a blogger now. About cool things. Kickass.

Well, Mr. Baugh done pinged me last week over a new thing on Facebook -- Dungeons and Dragons Tiny Adventures. And it's sweeping Facebook like a hungry fire, desperately burning through profiles hungry for time sinks and glitter in the wake of the death of Scrabulous. He's blogged about it himself, with a more formal review than I'm going to give it. I'll just try to hit the high points.

Dungeons and Dragons Tiny Adventures is a Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro designed app, meant to be advertising for the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. And I'll be honest -- it's shiny and cute, and proves once again that you don't need monumental graphics or even true interactivity to make a compelling game. In Tiny Adventures, you create a character -- a Dwarf Warlord, say, or a Half-Elf Paladin, or a cross section of others. There's no questions of alignment or stuff like that. You name your character. You get starting equipment. And then you send your character out on a quest.

And I mean the above, by the way. You don't go out on a quest. You send your character out on a quest. And every few minutes -- anything from five minutes to fifteen depending on server load, on average -- you get a report back of one of his encounters. An encounter, for the record, seems to be defined as "any situation where you roll a d20." It might be a strength check, or a wisdom check, or an attack, or defending against being attack. Your character has a given difficulty number he has to roll over, he has his d20 roll, and he has any applicable bonuses due to statistics, magical effects, or other. He either makes or fails that roll, and either way, you get a brief paragraph or two describing what the situation was and what happened in it. Either way, he either gets some experience and/or some gold, and sometimes he finds equipment or a magical item or two. Adventures seem to run anywhere from six to fifteen encounters, which gives you a nice little synopsis of the adventure he had. And a given adventure will therefore take somewhere from a half hour to three hours when everything's running properly.

That's it. You don't actually do any of the dice rolling. You don't make any decisions in the encounters. Your relationship to your character is less role playing and more a sponsorship like the Christian Children's Fund. ("For just 2 silver pieces a day, you can adopt this Dragonborn Ranger, and make sure he has enough food to eat and healing potions to drink.") In between encounters you can use one of the two potions you've chosen for him to equip for the adventure. You can buy and sell magical items, and equip any of the non-potion ones. But otherwise, you're pretty much running on automatic.

Sounds dull, right?

It's not.

One of the things is -- when you send your character on his adventure, he goes through to the end. If you leave your computer and go do actual things, he continues plucking away -- you might find he's gone unconscious and failed the adventure when you come back, or he might be a conquering hero with a Dragon's head in his hand. But either way, it's a wonderfully light sense of engagement. You do the things you can do, and you wait for the timer to count down, but otherwise you don't have to monofocus on the game. You can go ahead and do all your normal online activities.

And, like the best Facebook apps -- especially when those apps are really thinly disguised advertisements -- there is the networking aspect.

You see, one of your tabs says "Friends," and when you click on it, every one of your Facebook friends who's also playing the game has his or her character appear in the list, along with their name. You can see their level, what adventure they're running, how many encounters they're into it, how much experience they need for the next level, and how many hit points they have left. And you can affect their character. If the character is in between adventures and is injured, you can send their character healing, making them ready to go back out all the faster. If they're actually involved in an adventure, you can send a 'buff' to them, giving them up to +2 on all their ability checks for three encounters. If you have a good number of friends playing, and you're all on at once, you can spend a good amount of that ten minutes counting down just clicking on buff and heal icons. It costs you nothing. And you have a list of all your friends who've sent you healing or buffs.

And that's genius. It creates a sense of camaraderie without actually requiring actual contact. You can be feeling entirely antisocial and still buff your college buddies' characters, and you can see a list of people who've actually sent you just the tiniest bit of goodwill. That's the kind of app that succeeds -- low investment, good emotional reward. That's using Facebook well, and this tiny little app is one of the best expressions of Facebook's innate capability for connection and advertising to come out recently.

That is the blessing of Dungeons and Dragons Tiny Adventures. It is also its curse.

You see if this was just a game where you had a character who went off and had adventures without you but couldn't put on a pair of gloves without your say so, you could just call it "Developmentally Disabled Adventures" and call it a day. This would scale up immeasurably, because each transaction could be queued up. There might sometimes be moderately high system load, but it wouldn't be any big deal. Just databases and algorithms, after all.

But, consider this. The database has to track every person on your friends list, and note which one's signed up for the app. When someone new signs up for the app, it has to flag every one he's friends with at the same time all his friends are checked for flags. When you hit the Friends tab, it has to query the status of all your friends' characters, indicate who can be healed, who can be buffed, who has been healed or buffed, and who's healed or buffed you. In real time. And refresh it every time you click an icon.

Since this game came out, it has grown exponentially -- and it has followed a viral pattern of friendslists. Which means that system load and bandwidth requirements have just exploded. The first day of the game the player base melted the server that Dungeons and Dragons Tiny Adventures runs on into slag. They upgraded bandwidth, servers, and ultimately providers. And that got us into the weekend.

By Sunday, their new much more robust server was -- you guessed it -- melted into slag. And according to the front page of the currently non-functional app, there is a strong possibility that all character data will need to be rolled back to Friday. Which means tens of thousands of characters and millions of encounters with their attendant experience, items and gold will just vanish. My own Dwarf Warlord will probably drop from fifth level to second, and have hard won buffs and magical items melt into the aether.

They promised to get the server back by noon P.S.T. They're now saying six P.S.T. It wouldn't shock me if it was later still. And I have no idea how they're going to ultimately fix this. They've clearly had to rewrite half the game optimizing it, but so long as there is the hope that the game will return and be stable, then the game's population will mushroom, and despite the fact that we're discussing a tiny little text based game where turns only trigger every fifteen minutes with as little direct interactivity as possible, the only thing this game can do is swell up beyond the bandwidth and processor capacity of whatever server it's running on and whatever provider has been contracted for it. It's the kind of problem we saw a lot of in the nineties, and it's the exact same kind of problem that makes Twitter so infamously unreliable now -- as users join the game, they represent a lot more processor activity than one more user on the system, and systems can only scale so much.

In the meantime, when Tiny Adventures comes back, I'll play it again, even though I'll probably need to rebuild my character back up. Worse things have happened to me, after all, and as I'm going into the Ohmygodbusy part of my year (ah, September at a school), a game where I can click a few icons, then walk away from it for fifteen minutes or longer and still have it doing stuff is appealing.

But, unless it becomes so unreliable that it gets a reputation and becomes largely abandoned, Tiny Adventures is going to have a rocky road of it. Time will tell if the potential advertising benefit of millions of people seeing the D&D 4th Edition logo and learning some of the basic terms and concepts outweighs the hosting costs and developer time required to keep it from exploding again.

I roll to disbelieve.

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If there is a book I have bought more often than the Player's Handbook, I'm not sure what it is.

Understand, it's not that I've bought the same book multiple times. Mostly. The original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player's Handbook I did, of course. I wore two of them out, and later I got a PDF of the thing. And I think I bought a couple of Second Edition over time. But stepping away from that, I've gotten pretty much every new edition that they've thrown in my direction.

Which has sometimes been a joy, mind, but as often -- especially recently -- it's been an obligation. I'll admit it. I never really cottoned to either Third Edition or "3.5." And it's made me wonder sometimes if somewhere along the way I actually grew old.

And that's something of a digression.

Dungeons and Dragons has been a part of my life for essentially all of my life. Some of the things I bought when I first got into the game -- in the seventies, mind, with the Dragon Box Dungeons and Dragons that was simultaneously a precursor to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and Basic Dungeons and Dragons -- were for the original three book set that Gygax and Arneson put out long, long ago. I've read that original set (I own facsimiles of that too) along the way, and locked well away I have myself Gods, Demigods and Heroes -- one of the cool Original D&D supplements, bought back when that kind of thing could be found on hobby store shelves, over by the Judges' Guild supplements, near the Traveller, two shelves down from the Avalon Hill wargames and across the aisle from Boy Scout supplies, model rocketry kits and balsa wood. My earliest dice wore down into marbles. I have dozens of RPGs I've never come close to playing. I own some of the least useful AD&D products ever developed -- I own both the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide and the Wilderness Survival Guide. New books for the ol' D&D -- especially when they were hardcover instead of perfect bound -- were a happy find for literally decades of my life. Softcover could be cool, but a D&D hardcover book was an event.

Third Edition wasn't like that for me.

It had been some years since my last Second Edition campaign had ended as all campaigns do -- by people gradually finding other ways to spend their weekends. Oh, I still had an interest -- but GURPS and Hero and White Wolf products had long since filled the casual "devour the book and distill the concepts into my understanding of the roleplay omniverse" gap that once had puzzled out Nonweapon Proficiences and Weapon speed factors. When I moved out to Seattle, I moved in with a hardcore GURPS fiend. And Seattle in the 90's wasn't exactly a mecca for the old school. The cool kids didn't make graph paper maps and wield +4 halberds. The cool kids made Ventrue and Malkavians and dressed in vintage clothes and tried to score with Goth chicks, and while I liked White Wolf that wasn't really my scene, and over time I fell out of some of the old habits.

And then I came back to this side of the country, and the cool kids stopped being so cool and there was a resurgence of the old school aesthetic and then there was third edition -- one for the new millennium. And like everyone else who once rolled twenty sided dice for twenty six hours in a row, I snapped it up.

And... my brain just didn't glean it. It seemed like a mass of numbers to me. Part of the problem was the graphic design -- some moron at Wizards of the Coast thought it would be a good idea to print black text on brown backgrounds, reducing contrast to the point where reading these things invited headaches. And there were feats and prestige classes and THAC0 was gone only there was something else and....

...well, I got used to it. I had to. By now, I was actually writing stuff, and d20 was the order of the day in a lot of ways. And that was monumental too -- Wizards had opened (most of) their rules up, so anyone could develop for them, and a lot of people did. And I got the hang of d20, and d20 Modern, and d20 Future, and Superlink, and True20, and lots of other variations that sprouted from the giant oak of Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition. When the v3.5 Players Handbook came out, I was a little disgruntled -- hadn't I just bought one of these? -- but I sucked it up and bought the thing. And when I read through the rules -- even the ones that were hard to pick through or that broke my brain -- I could still see the game that had formed part of the foundation of my life, all those years before. I could still figure out exactly how I'd adapt my game world (ah Arthe. How I miss you) for this new setting. And when the good folks hammering out OSRIC and other open source versions of first edition AD&D started doing things, I felt old stirrings in the back of my brain. Sure, I was old now and I couldn't get excited for these things any more and there seemed like way more bookkeeping now and man, really, 3.5 but at the very least, I could be nostalgic.

And like a lot of people, I looked at the prospects of a fourth edition warily at best. The developers proudly talked (in at least one case) of how much they hated the old 1st and 2nd edition rules, and it wasn't until 3rd edition that they really began to like this thing. We heard the rumors -- this was going to be a backport of World of Warcraft. They were going to abandon the foundations that have made the game! Magic users would be remade from scratch! Gnomes were being consigned to the Abyss! All was chaos! All was chaos!

Hell, look at the masthead. I changed it to "Protected Gnomish Habitat since 2008" some months ago, after I heard about the Gnomish exile. That's the kind of thing an old man does, when he finds out what those damn kids were up to.

And that... well, that's sort of what it all felt like, to me. Punk kids -- most of whom weren't alive when I was running extensive campaigns -- had taken the reins of Dungeons and Dragons, and clearly didn't care about folks like me. And why should they? Galavanting around the Flanaess is a game for the young, Doctor. Leaving us relics behind was just part of the cost of doing business.

Most galling of all, however, was this sense that this was going to be a new game -- not an update or a new edition, but something entirely new, seeking to tap into those millions of people playing World of Warcraft. They talked about how the new game would follow MMORPG conventions, all the better to make the tabletop experience a seamless transition from their computers. And no one seemed to care about what was being lost, not when there were new markets to tap.

But, I kept mostly quiet about these fears. I wanted to see what would come of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. Would it be D&D in name only?

And now I've seen it. I have read the books. I know the new edition. I now know who was right -- the fans rabidly anticipating the new books, and the fans dreading and castigating it as a false pretender to the throne.

And interestingly enough... they're both right.

I am reminded, in a way, of White Wolf in 2003 and 2004. Having gotten themselves so choked with continuity cruft that one couldn't throw a stone on a street without hitting three or four supernatural monsters with dark intent and angst-ridden hearts, they decided to take their various Worlds of Darkness and end them once and for all, publishing both sourcebooks for individual storytellers to run Ragnarok and novels detailing the "official" end of the world for each of their game lines. And, once this was done, they released a new World of Darkness, with entirely new rules and a new setting and new basic tenets and emphases. White Wolf hoped their players would come along for the ride, but they had little intention of bringing the characters into this new world.

So it is, in the end, with the new Dungeons and Dragons.

The core of the game is simplicity. The rules are at the least familiar, but character progression is now standardized -- almost cookie cutter. Classes all progress in abilities at exactly the same rate. Level one character from 1 to 20, and you can level any character from 1 to 20. Powers are broken down by the rate you can use them. At Will powers can be used every time it's your character's turn. Encounter powers can be used once an 'encounter.' (Essentially, once in any given battle against a specific set of foes.) Daily powers can be used -- you guessed it -- once per game day, like spells used to be. So, while a fighter's at will powers involve specific maneuvers where they hit people with metal things, a ranger's at will powers involve shooting arrows into their enemies and a wizard's at-will powers involve things like magic missiles. As promised (or warned), the roles of the different classes are far better defined -- and do indeed follow MMORPG standards. Fighters and paladins are defenders, who draw the attention of their foes and have the fortitude to withstand the most deadly of blows. In other words, they're tanks/tankers, and their job is aggro management while other people kill things. Clerics and Warlords are leaders, who "inspire, heal, and aid the other characters in an adventuring group." In other words, they're the buffers. Rangers, Rogues and Warlocks are the strikers. They do the damage to single targets, hitting them with massive blows. (Warlocks at range, Rogues up close, and Rangers one or the other depending on what they specialize in.) By any other name? They're DPS. And Wizards are controllers, locking down enemies and laying down damage over groups instead of individuals -- so, area effect damage plus debuffs plus holds. The press materials promised that all party members would have something to do every time play comes to them, and that much is true -- the balance of at-will, daily and encounter powers inside the above roles means there's always something to do. And it feels like nothing so much as click powers in a tray in an interface.

A lot of the names are the same, but that doesn't mean the characters are. For example, Paladins can be any alignment now, and any race now. In a game where once it was insisted (by Gary Gygax himself) that there was never a reason to champion chaotic evil and so there would never be an official anti-paladin NPC, we now have chaotic evil paladins. Rangers are, as mentioned, strikers. They can lay down immense damage and all their abilities center around that fact. Which is good, because there's no real wilderness powers at all. They don't even need to take wilderness skills if they don't want to. (Amusingly, Belkar from Order of the Stick is now a perfect ranger -- he can be evil, he doesn't really have any of those tracking or wilderness skills, and man can he lay down hit points of damage.) Warlocks and wizards, far from having to manage their daily spells and utilize them when they'd best be appropriate, can fire off eldrich bolts and rays of enfeeblement every time their turn comes around if they want. Heck, it's going to take some folks some time to adjust to the idea that the fighter doesn't do the most damage in melee combat.

And let's not kid ourselves. This is a game of combat -- as much as the original D&D was, if not more so. This is not a game of out-of-combat nuanced roleplay and complicated social mores. This is a game where your character is an optimized killing machine. Yeah, you can take intimidate or bluff if you really want to, but honestly, you have a charisma score, do you really need more than that? Especially when most of the time, your intimidate skill will take a back seat to your Riposte Strike at-will power or a well timed Shadow Wasp Strike. Your characters will feel most at home in a darkened corridor, decimating all around them.

And honestly? That part right there seems like perfectly good Dungeons and Dragons to me. Yeah, not every DM did the dungeon crawl thing, but the dungeon crawl is the essence of the original game. Purple worms and beholders and kobolds alike existed to be slaughtered for their treasure and their bellies full of sweet experience points.

At the same time, one fear raised up is unquestionably true. This is not an update to Dungeons and Dragons. This is an entirely new game that happens to be called Dungeons and Dragons, and the sooner you get your head wrapped around that idea, the happier you will be. You may have played the same character since 1979, moving from Basic to Advanced D&D, then doing 2nd, 3rd and version 3.5 with him, painstakingly converting him each time. Shake his hand and put him in a drawer and wait for the next time someone wants to play one of those earlier games, because if you try to 'upgrade' him to the new game, you're going to find yourself with an entirely different character with entirely new powers and abilities that don't work the same way, and it can only frustrate you.

And, of course, if you play one of the classes that's absent from this version of the game, you're out of luck. Thieves are now rogues and are way better at killing than thieving (there's nothing that even says you need to take thief skills). Bards? Gone, with no real sense of whether or not they're going to return. There are 'power sources' in this game -- Martial for 'natural' heroes, Divine for Paladins and Clerics, and Arcane for Wizards and Warlocks -- with more coming, but none of them's going to be music. In fact, the ones we know about are psionic, elemental, ki, primal, nature and shadow. There will come a day that monks will be kicking ass again, barbarians and druids will return to the game and do that voodoo they do so well, and we'll even get fire types if we want them.

But... it makes sense, now, that the gnomes are absent from the game right now. In the older game, their best trick was being illusionists... and there is no illusionist, and unless 'shadow' will be an illusionist power source, there's not going to be. Illusions don't really fit the structure of the new game -- they're not used much as it is, and they don't fall into the same role structure as the others.

That's one of the hardest things to work out in this new game with the old name, really. It's not the changes to the rules -- it's the necessity of letting go of the past, as completely as possible, if you're going to embrace this game. Really, the two sides of this little dichotomy are best shown in something Scott Kurtz said over in the blog attached to PVP:

Guess what? Your 3.5 edition stuff did not disintegrate into a pile of black dust today. Get over yourselves. Nobody gives a shit that you committed all the old books to memory and figured out the math of the rules to totally max out your character. Nobody wants you at the table. We only invited you because you got all the books and so many goddamn miniatures.

As happens with Scott Kurtz, I was amazed at how many sides he managed to evoke all at once. On the one side, I completely understood why he said that -- he was taking a lot of crap from people because he was enjoying the game he had been playing, and he wanted to throw some cold reality on them. He's right. There's no reason anyone who wants to play an earlier edition can't go ahead and play an earlier edition. Hell, thanks to the Open Gaming License, development on the old edition proceeds apace in a number of places -- perhaps most successfully at Paizo, where the Pathfinder Role Playing Game is cheerfully revising the 3.5 rules into the next edition of the older game concept. And there's no excuse for trashing someone because he happened to like a game in practice that you despise in theory. None of our opinions are natural laws, after all.

On the other side... honestly, not everyone's ready to be philosophical about this stuff. Telling someone that his ten, or twenty, or thirty year old campaign world can't be effectively upgraded to the new edition of a game he's been playing for most of his post-pubescent life and he should "get over himself" is... well, cold. Callous. And only adds more misery. And misery begets misery.

As for me... I'm on both sides of it. Arthe as it has always been simply doesn't fit this new game. I couldn't revise it into the new rules if I wanted to. My old books haven't disappeared -- I could run an Arthe campaign tomorrow, but I can't do it in Dungeons and Dragons. I can only do it in Pathfinder, or Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (first or second edition). Dungeons and Dragons has left that world behind.

But on the other side... 3rd edition (and 3.5) did nothing for me. They were masses of badly contrasted text that I had to force my brain to follow. The things I really loved (Savage Species is a downright great book, for example) were rare. The game didn't excite me. I was old.

But this new Dungeons and Dragons is cool. I loved reading the books. I wanted to dive in and make characters and generate dungeons and get a group together. I want to play this game.

Reading these rules, I want to dream. I want to imagine. I want to build. And I want to fucking massacre me some kobolds.

Reading these rules, I am young.

And that makes me think that maybe... just maybe... it was D&D that was old. And like the phoenix, it could only rebirth itself in fire.

I don't know, man. All I know is, I can't wait for the next hardcover to get published. These three books just aren't enough.

Logo: Sleeping Snarky

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