Encounter Balance in 5e

There is a rule in 5e which is applied when creating encounters: when you’re creating an encounter, you scale the total XP budget by a certain factor depending on the number of monsters. So if you have a single monster with an XP value of 100, then the encounter’s adjusted XP value is 100, but if you have a pair of monsters worth 50 XP each, then the adjusted XP for the encounter is 150.  The point of the adjusted XP is to take into account the fact that multiple monsters making multiple attacks have multiple chances to do damage to a party; this protects parties from death of a thousand cuts (did you hear about the 5th level party that was decimated by kobolds?).

However, this only really works if you’re using enemies of a similar CR.  I ran an encounter over the weekend with an Archmage (CR 12), a couple of Acolytes (reskinned Cult Fanatics – CR 2) and a horde of zombies (CR 1/4).  The party was 7 level-8 PCs, and I was pitching the difficulty of the encounter somewhere between “hard” and “deadly”.  My goal was to have a boss who would pose a major threat to the party (the Archmage), some support characters (the Acolytes), and some minions who would soak up the party’s attacks for a few rounds, and maybe do some damage.  I was very fond of the “minion” class of enemies in 4e which could deal out level-appropriate damage, while not being punching bags, and I was trying to do something similar with these zombies.  I specced up the encounter with http://kobold.club/fight/#/encounter-builder, and it told me that it would be a deadly encounter for my party.

The party destroyed the encounter.  The mage was dead in three rounds of combat, and his acolytes didn’t even last that long (although they were able to get a few decent hits in).  Startlingly, the zombies were the ones who lasted longest (thanks to undead fortitude), but unsurprisingly, they did the least damage.  I guess the lesson that I learned here is that it’s better to use a smaller number of level-appropriate mooks than a large number of low-level mooks.  It’s also worth thinking about XP scaling applies to PCs – 7 PCs focusing their attacks on the mage took less than two rounds to kill him.

Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs

We arrived in Seattle yesterday. We’re going to be here for the foreseeable future. I’ve decided to keep a half-assed journal of my thoughts about the move for myself, and for anyone who’s interested to read.

We landed late on Thursday night; our travel time wasn’t particularly long, but from the time we left the house in Dublin to the time we got in the door in Seattle, it was 22 hours – by no means an arduous duration, but we arrived cranky and tired.  We checked into our temporary accommodation with having to talk to an actual person (which was actually pretty great), and then crumpled into bed.  We woke up on Friday morning to a day that was dull and grey, which helped to put us at our ease.  We found a lovely wee place for breakfast, and then set about getting ourselves sorted.

I have the following advice for anyone looking to move overseas: get a large, faceless multinational organisation to do all of the work for you.  We had been able to set up a bank account from home, and we walked straight into the bank, and picked up our ATM cards.  We walked into a mobile phone shop, and were able to use our visas in lieu of an outstanding credit history to get bill-pay SIM cards without an outrageous deposit (the other shop we visited wanted a $500 deposit per phone!).  We went to pick up our rental car, and didn’t have to do any paperwork.

So far, things have gone really smoothly, aside from a few internet connection issues in our apartment.  People have been friendly, and I’m looking forward to starting at work, and most of all, to getting to know a new city.

The Weirdest Letter I’ve Ever Received

I received a letter yesterday from Time magazine inviting me to subscribe. I was briefly subscribed to the Economist, and I’m currently subscribed to the National Geographic Magazine, so it’s not outside the realms of possibility that I might be interested in subscribing. However, the letter inviting me to subscribe is a work of such inventive, malign wank that I just had to share it:

Click for larger
Click for larger

The text reads:

“Dear Reader,

You are, by any standard, a successful person. Perhaps one to whom colleagues and friends turn for advice or an experienced view. But have you ever wondered, as I have, where success comes from?

For the answer, I want you to look back to the early days of your career. You were well qualified, ambitious and driven, I am sure. Yet on their own, these credentials can only take a person so far.”

This is flattery that would embarrass even Louis XIV .  Its obsequiousness oozes from the page so palpably that I felt I needed to wipe my hands after reading. Perhaps worse is that it is inaccurate. I have never been described as ambitious or driven. If you could think of a list words to describe me, these would not be on the list. They might, in fact, be on a list of words to exclude from the other list. Then again, this is just a form letter attempting to garner subscription money. What sort of vain, air-headed, self-important twat would actually buy into this? This actually makes me less likely to ever read Time magazine. The snivelling tone is an offence both to the dignity of the woman who signed it and to my intelligence.

The letter continues:

“I suspect that you invested in a commodity some of your colleagues at the time might have regarded as foolish. It’s my guess you invested in acquiring knowledge.

It’s not who you know, it’s what you know

The acquisition of knowledge, and the intelligence to know what to do with it, is a common factor in the lives of many of today’s most influential and dynamic people. And that is why I am writing to you about TIME.”

I did invest in a commodity that some of my colleagues thought foolish – I developed a rather distinguished drinking habit.  I specifically avoided acquiring knowledge and I went to tremendous lengths to kill the braincells that contained the knowledge that I had acquired.  The letter goes on and on and on, by turns being fellatial in its flattery and Ferengi in ferocious pursuit of a sale.

Additionally, if any of the stories in Ireland’s paper prove a point it’s the opposite of the one that Time rendered in that red that is beautifully reminiscent of their logo; in this country it’s all about who you know. So now not only have they shown a poor understanding of the potential customer, they have offered a flawed commentary on his national politics. Taken together, these points lead me to the conclusion that Time – a magazine that put Enda Kenny, a man who couldn’t even smile correctly for a cover-shot, on the cover with the slogan “The Celtic Comeback” – isn’t quite for me.

I wanted to send back a note respectfully declining their offer, making use of the convenient postage-paid envelope they included:

Post Paid Envelope

Alas, the more I read, the more my respect for Time magazine dropped, to the point where I thought it would be disingenuous of me to send them a note that included the word respect. Given that I’ve just spent 500 words explaining why their disingenuousness bothered me, I decided to send them a bunch of sweets wrappers instead:

My Heroes

Edit: My response has been mailed.

Direct and to the Point

“I’ve always had a problem with the whole concept of celebrity – it reduces people to things.”

Celebrity is something that Nathan McNamara is starting to get more and more first-hand experience of now.  He laughs:

“It also annoys me because sometimes I’ll meet someone, and I’ll think ‘I just read an interview with you, so now I feel like I already know everything that’s going on with you’.  I’ve learned not to read interviews, actually, otherwise I find myself creating a lot of awkward silences.”

McNamara’s most recent film Rage Not, his first for a major studio, is a tender romance that is earning praise and accolades at every festival where it has been shown.  It was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, the first film by an Irish director to receive such an honour in a decade.  It’s easy to see why.

The film follows Liadan, a Sligo girl who comes to Dublin to study, and falls in love with Will, a trendy but thoughtful Dub.  After a Hollywood-esque “meet-cute”, McNamara deconstructs many of the clichés of the film romance, and does it without detriment to the story-telling.  The characters are easy to like, but have enough foibles to be realistic.  The movie is clearly informed by McNamara’s time at Trinity College Dublin

“Well, Trinity is very important to me, and Rage Not draws a lot from the people I met during my time there; the trouser incident actually happened to a friend of mine!  But more than that, I just thought that it’s such a wonderful place to make a film.  You have these magnificent, grand, buildings from the 18th and 19th century that exude gravitas juxtaposed with the more utilitarian buildings of the last century.  That allowed us to have a sort of continuity of location, but still be able to set the tone of different scenes depending on where they were on campus.”

Indeed, Rage Not makes great use of the different locations around the college – idyllic sequences in a garden near the older parts of the college are suffused with warmth and the scent of summer; starker moments are cast against the clinical backdrop of the genetech laboratory where Liadan spends her time as first an undergruaduate, and then as a post-graduate student, and invite the viewer to share in the loneliness and bewilderment that she’s feeling.  These cinematographic flourishes by McNamara’s long-time collaborator Mark Quinlan builds on work they had done in previous films.

“While I was very proud of the work we did on Careful, Boy, I felt like it could have happened in any house in any town in almost any country.  For Rage Not, we needed the characters to be studying the same subject from completely different sides, but still have the opportunity to interact regularly.  Trinity was the obvious choice – it’s where the pioneering work was done on the Simulacra program, and it’s still quite a small community.  Given how familiar I am with where the action occurs, I couldn’t accept anything less than perfection.  I wanted to be able to watch the film myself and feel like I was in the café with with Will and Liadan.  The only way to achieve that, I felt, was to aim for complete verisimilitude in terms of the cinematography.  Mark was brilliant here – he really captured it.  I could almost taste the awful coffee in the café sequence.  I’m incredibly pleased with how this has turned out for us. ”

Rage Not is also notable for featuring a non-human character.  This is not McNamara’s first work to include Sims in the cast, and his insistence on having Sims feature as more than just extras has led to problems finding funding in the past.  McNamara is unapologetic here, though:

“In this case, it was a little easier to sell to the studio – setting the film in Trinity, with the leads studying in the genetech and cognitive engineering departments meant that it was only natural to have Simulacs around.  And I can argue expositional necessity too – explaining heartache to an artifical consciousness, to a new type of being whose experience differs so much from our own allows you to externalise some of the doubts that the characters feel, some of their internal conflict.  I think the fact that Sino gives Liadan advice and she actually takes it will probably annoy the old-fashioned, ‘down-with-this-sort-of-thing’ crowd, but they wouldn’t have gone to see my film anyway.”

McNamara’s point stands – the conversations between Liadan and Sino, her Simulac Teaching Assistant never feel contrived.  These conversations are a touching in their intimacy, and the innocence and naivete of Sino (protrayed here by Simulac Tan T) push Liadan towards an honesty that could be overlooked with a simple voiceover.  Although Sino’s character servers purpose, I get the feeling that McNamara is more pleased with getting a proper, almost human Simulac character into his film.

“Well, it is what it is,” McNamara says with a twinkle in his eye.  “I think it goes back to what I said earlier about celebrity – treating people as things.  When you have a preconceived notion of what someone can or can’t do, what they can or can’t be, then you turn them into a thing.  Opinions are what shape action, and if people have such limited opinions, then they tolerate a more limited range of actions – that’s why turn celebrity mistakes into scandals.  I think that people should be able to live their life free from perturbation, whether or not they are biological.”

Can McNamara ever see a time when there are Simulac celebrities?

“That is a punishment I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy!” he says with a laugh.  However if he and film makers like him have their way, actors like Rage Not’s Tan T may be among the first generation of Simulac film stars.

Rage Not is in cinemas across Ireland from Jan 15.

This article reproduced from Friday’s Irish Times with permission

I’m Hatin’ It

It’s the first time I’ve ever lost a job.

And it’s all because of them.

It was a Thursday afternoon when they came in, and things started to go down hill. They came up to my till and just stood silently, staring up at the menu, their dumb faces showing blank expressions. I greeted them like I was supposed to, and waited for them to decide what they wanted, but they just stood there. I was the only till open, and a queue was starting to form, so I wanted to get them moving.

“Excuse me”, I said, “would you order, please? Only there are people waiting”.

One of them looked at me.

“Wait” it said. I think. It’s always so hard to understand their accent.

At this stage there were three or four people waiting behind them, and I was really getting annoyed. “If you’re not ready to order, could you let someone else who is. There are people waiting behind you”. I wasn’t trying to be rude, and I’m not racist – I’ve no problem getting into a taxi, even if the driver is a Black or Chinese.

Again, just “Wait, please”.

I lost it. “Look, you won’t even like this – it’s not for your lot. Why don’t you go down the street and get something that you’ll really like, and let the honest to goodness real people behind you order their food!”. I was shouting by the end. It was then that they asked to see the supervisor. Used an entire sentence too.

I pulled down the customer service screen, and tapped the icon for the duty manager for Dublin South. She was ready for my call, and had actually been about to call me. Apparently the “Automated Incident Response System” had noticed my heart rate rise, and alerted her that there might be a problem. Without even waiting to hear my side of the story, she sided with the Lacks, tripping over herself to apologise to them. Then she gave them a €100 voucher. That was when I knew I was for the high-jump.

They accepted their voucher without saying a word and turned to go, but as they did, one of them looked at me; the one who’d spoken all of three words to me up to this point. Just as it turned to go, the light dimmed in one of its eyes for just a second – the fucking thing winked at me! It’d been trying to piss me off and it’d succeeded, made me look stupid with his enhanced artificial fucking intelligence.

After that, they left. I was called to the back, and listened with my face glazed over as the district manager recited the company policy; I’ve had the words burned into my brain since: “It is the policy of McDonalds Incorporated that Humanoid Simulacra (Simulacs) are to be treated the same as any other customer, as provided for by the Artificial Intelligence Equality Act. Failure to uphold McDonalds standards of customer respect with any customer, Simulac or Human, is grounds for dismissal”. That was it for me. I’d be blacklisted across the whole of the fast-food sector in Dublin.

Bollocks to them anyway, fucking Lacks.

The Space Station Blues

I watched a video today that taught me a number of lessons that I didn’t expect to learn when I woke up this morning.

  1. The ISS is huge.  Like bigger than my house.  It takes Mike Fossum, our narrator and camera-man, quite a while to go from one end to the other.  And then there’s up and down.
  2. The ISS is noisy.  In space, there’s no air, and so there’s nothing to carry vibrations to your ear drums.  However in a gigantic space station, there’s a constant whir of fans recirculating air and keeping things cool.  I recall a school trip where I was sitting next to someone who was flying for the first time.  As the engines roared, and we took off, he asked me with a rather strained look on his face if that noise would stop.  I pointed out that the noise was a combination of the air conditioning and the engines, and if either stopped, he’d be a lot more uncomfortable than he was with the noise.  I imagine living on the ISS would be similar, only instead of crashing, you have slow death by CO2 poisoning.
  3. There is something that I am better at than an astronaut.  While Ron Garan may be better at playing-guitar-in-space than I am, I am reasonably certain that I am better at playing-guitar than he is.  All I need to work on is that getting-to-space thing.  No hassle, right?

Here’s the video.  Honestly, the tour of the ISS is more interesting than the guitar playing.  Still, it’s all good fun!

Orion’s Sword, and other sky-things

I’m giving a public lecture tomorrow – which sounds awfully formal and grown up; rest assured, it won’t be – at the Knowledge Exchange in Temple Bar.  It should be fun, and hopefully it will be a little educational.

I really liked the idea of the Knowledge Exchange, but I thought that some of the topics of the talks in previous series were a little esoteric.  So I decided that the only way to change that was to step up and do a talk of my own.  I originally wanted to talk about Cloud Computing, pitched at the level that my parents could understand, but getting that cleared by work would have taken a lot of time, and would probably also have killed any enthusiasm I had for the project.  So I’m talking about something else.  Space.  Because space is awesome.  How awesome?  Come along tomorrow and find out.

Leap Card: First Impressions

The Leap Card is Transport for Ireland‘s integrated public transport card for Dublin. It allows you to use Dublin Bus, the Luas and the Dart without having to fish in your pocket for change.  It’s Dublin’s answer to the Oyster card.

I love the Oyster card. It’s ones of the things that excites me about visiting London: I get to make use of this fully integrated system that seems to have been designed by someone with actual common sense; it has made the experience of working with London’s bewildering (compared to Dublin) public transport infrastructure a little less confusing. It has eliminated the old “Will I get a daily travel card or not? How much are bus-fares anyway?” question that I had to deal with every time I took public transport in London.  It also means that you never have to fiddle in your pocket to find change when getting on a bus.  You can only imagine my delight when I found out that something similar was coming for Dublin.

Yesterday morning, I had to head in to the city centre to pick up my bike.  I had no change.  I thought to myself “Aha! This is a perfect excuse to pick up a leap card.”.  So I went to the local newsagent and picked one up.  The woman behind the counter asked “do you know how this works?”.  I said “em, no, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out”. I paid, went outside and hopped on the first bus that came by.  I put my card on the ticket machine and announced my destination.  The driver pressed a button, and then looked bemused.  He said “hold on there a minute, I’ve never used one of these things before.”.  I stood aside and let all the other passengers get sorted out, and then the driver asked me to put my card on the machine again, and he poked a few buttons to see what was what.  It turns out there was no credit on the card to start off with.  That’s fair enough.  I’d gotten change from buying the card, so I paid my fare, and away I went.

I got to the office, and I went online to register my card and top it up. Registering your card means that in the event you lose your card, you don’t lose your credit.  It also means that the operator can track you in a rather Orwellian manner, but fuck that, I love me some convenience.  I applied a €20 top up, and clicked a button saying that I would pick it up by swiping at a red-line Luas stop.  At lunch, I trundled up the road to the Luas stop and put my card in the ticket machine.  It told me that my card was inactive and I should call the helpline.  I did so, and spoke to a lovely guy named John.  Unfortunately, John wasn’t able to help me, but he did arrange a call-back.

Later that day, the call-back came.  I have to go back to the newsagent and get my card activated.  I’m going to do that this morning on the way to work.

So all in all, the only problems I’ve had so far with the Leap Card is that no one knows how to use the fecking thing.  I kinda anticipated some teething problems with the system, but I didn’t expect it to take 24 hours and a return to the point of purchase on my part to get it sorted.  I thought the point of a “Smart” card is that it’s centrally managed, and can be controlled from the back-office.  Once I get thing working, I may share more.