Chad Perrin: SOB

23 May 2008

Atlas Shrugged Again

Filed under: Geek,Review — apotheon @ 02:37

The SigO is reading Atlas Shrugged.

Ogre is reading Atlas Shrugged. Technically, I guess he just finished it.

Lexis, a friend I met through gaming, is reading Atlas Shrugged as well.

Some guy I barely know at my local Linux User Group is reading it, too.

I’ve read Atlas Shrugged twice so far — once while I was in high school, and again circa 2001. I liked it quite a bit both times I read it, and three of the above (the SigO, Ogre, and Lexis — I have no idea about the other guy) have all told me how much they like it, too. It’s a huge book, though, and it has been a few years since the last time I read it. Because everyone around me is reading it, I’m beginning to think I should read it again, in part so that I’ll be able to respond more effectively when they talk to me about what they’ve read.

About The Book

There are some things about the story that are a trifle over-simplified. That is, of course, by necessity — a dramatic plot had to be constructed to demonstrate some principles and make for a great read. The real world, in all its grit and shades of gray, would have made for a much, much longer book. It’s already big enough — exactly the right length, in fact, as far as I’m concerned. It’s too long for some people.

It’s about as good as it can possibly be, overall. If there are any real, practical criticisms to be aimed at it, I think they mostly apply to some of the minor details surrounding Dagny’s relationships with the other major protagonist-type characters, and the fact that Galt is perhaps just a trifle too perfect. D’Anconia is basically the same as Galt in that respect, except that he’s a bit off-balance, which I think makes him a more tangible character in some respects.

Hank Rearden, Dagny Taggart, and Ragnar Danneskjold are just awesome in all ways, though — at least, once Rearden gets his head out of his fourth point of contact on the subject of his family.

About Criticisms

There are people out there who have read the book, or tried to read the book, who didn’t like it at all, of course. In my experience, they tend to fall into one of the following categories:

  1. There are those who found the beginning of the book too depressing for their moods at the time they started reading it. I guess I can understand that, even if I don’t really sympathize. To such people, I have to say: Don’t read The Gulag Archipelago. The preface and first chapter in GA alone are much more depressing than any other book I’ve ever read (and so far, the preface, first chapter, and part of the second are all I’ve read of GA — I just started the book). On the other hand, there is something depressing about the beginning of AS, and as such I find that reason for not having finished the book understandable, especially considering the incredible length of AS. That imbecile Paul Verhoeven and his comment that he couldn’t be bothered to finish reading Starship Troopers before he directed that travesty of a film adaptation because the book “bored and depressed” him, however, has no excuse at all.

  2. There are also those who simply state that AS is very badly written. They tend to say things like “I laugh at people who say Atlas Shrugged is the best book they ever read, because it’s just so monumentally bad.” In my experience, every single one of these Philistines just absolutely adored The Jungle, which is easily the worst novel I’ve ever had the misfortune to finish reading. I’ve commented on this before, in my problem with long books, Judge a book by its readers., and a review I wrote. It seems obvious to me that these people are calling AS bad not because they actually dislike the writing (probably didn’t even notice the writing itself, or perhaps are just unable to recognize the difference between good and bad writing), but because they dislike the message. Anyone who loves The Jungle and hates Atlas Shrugged probably either suffers from the worst case of bad-taste-itis I’ve ever seen or is a screaming pinko left-wingnut commie who is so thoroughly devoted to that ideology that he or she can’t see past it to consider the notion that sometimes good writing and good ideas are not the same thing. Of course, I happen to think both the writing and the ideas are good in AS, but if you disagree with me about the ideas, that shouldn’t necessarily mean you disagree with me about the writing — unless you’re an idiot, of course.

  3. Finally, there are those who are severely turned off by the ideas expressed in the book, and are honest enough with themselves and others to state as much without turning it into some kind of unthinking referendum on the writing itself.

Part of the reason I’ve come to such conclusions about the second class of people who disliked AS is the manner in which people who dislike it criticize the book. Notice, for instance, that in my critique of The Jungle I actually address the specific problems with the book (though not all of them, of course). By contrast, anyone I’ve met who simply disliked Atlas Shrugged (rather than being discouraged by its length, its “depressing” beginning, et cetera) has basically had two justifications:

  1. It’s just bad! The writing is so bad! Baaaaaaad! (cue bleating like a sheep)

  2. Ayn Rand was a fascist!

Obviously, option one is absurdly empty of meaning. Option two is just ridiculously inaccurate. Whatever you may think about whether Rand’s ideas were right or wrong, whatever the faults in her ideas may have been, fascism was not one of her problems. Even worse is when someone replaces the word “fascist” with “nazi”. WTF? Her ideas as expressed in AS were, if anything, far more anti-fascist and anti-nazi than anything any left-wingnut has ever said. I mean, sure, a lot of leftists have said fascism and nazis are bad, but then they’d go on to express admiration for policies and philosophies that have a lot more in common with fascism than they might realize (the major difference between state socialism and fascism being the presence of a corporate sector middleman in fascism). Meanwhile, when Ayn Rand got done denouncing fascism and nazis, she went on to write Atlas Shrugged, which clearly expresses a bunch of ideas that are in direct contrast to fascism.

First Steps

If you think Atlas Shrugged is too long for you right now, try reading Anthem as an introduction to Rand’s fiction first. It’s much shorter. It’s also much different — it’s not much like AS at all, frankly, but it’s well written and by the same author, so it’s probably a decent starting point.

After Anthem, you might try The Fountainhead. It’s a long book, but nowhere near as long as AS. It’s also not quite the same as AS, but it’s a lot closer to it in style than Anthem. It’s also not as encompassing in its coverage of Rand’s ideas. There’s a reason AS is considered Rand’s “Magnum Opus”, after all, and it’s not the length of the novel. AS really is her masterpiece.


So . . . yeah. I might read AS again — a third time in my life. I recall reading somewhere that anyone who claims to have actually read all of Atlas Shrugged is a liar, which was amusing considering I had already read it a second time by that point. It’s even more amusing now that I’m contemplating a third read.

I guess, if I decide to tackle it again, the major question will be whether to set aside The Gulag Archipelago for the occasion, and finish GA after I’m done with AS, or to finish GA before taking on AS again.

Pathfinder and other RPG stuff

Filed under: Geek,RPG — apotheon @ 11:35

I’ve decided to add a new category to SOB for now, called RPG. To see only RPG-labeled materials, just click the RPG link in the right-hand column of SOB, under the Categories menu. There’s also an RPG-specific RSS feed if you want to “subscribe” to this via a syndication feed reader. I’ll be discussing matters related to roleplaying games in items assigned to that category. Note that when I say “roleplaying games”, I’m talking about actual roleplaying games for the most part — like D&D — rather than about so-called RPGs like Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy isn’t really a roleplaying game. In fact, it’s more like a “roll-playing” game without the dice, where you’re not really playing a role so much as just assigning actions to a list of stats and seeing how the dice play out.

The inspiration for discussion of matters related to roleplaying games arises at this time in large part because of some changes in the RPG landscape around the D&D community at large.

In addition to new SOB entries about RPGs, I’ve also added a couple older SOB entries to the RPG category. They comprise the introduction to, and first part of, a story that may never get written any further than that first part, based on the events in a roleplaying game that didn’t ultimately go anywhere. C’est la vie.

My RPG History

I started playing D&D something like 25 years ago — and many of the gamers I’ve met over recent years hadn’t even been born back when I started playing. Makes me feel old.

First, I played plain ol’ D&D, then AD&D. When AD&D 2nd Edition came out, I was excited by some of the changes, and overall I found it to be an improvement over the first edition. I still own hundreds of dollars’ worth (retail price) of 2nd Edition AD&D game books.

Over years of running games that all took place in the same game world — a world I came to call The Serpent’s Spine — and years of adding house rules to the 2nd Edition system, what I ultimately ended up with was a game system of my own design, with custom character classes, some custom monsters, custom races, and a(n almost) completely different system for resolving combat. There was, in fact, not a single part of my game system that even used a d20 any longer.

The Non-D&D Period

The Army did some serious damage to my D&D gaming lifestyle. When I eventually got back to RPGs, it was with Vampire: the Masquerade, not D&D. I’d played other RPGs than D&D before that, of course, including Shadowrun, Paranoia, Rifts, Robotech, TMNT, Gamma World, GURPS, Marvel Super Heroes, Star Frontiers, Cyberpunk, and a few others as well. I played VtM, WtA, MtA, WtO, and CtD (the full line of core White Wolf’s World of Darkness games) for a while, pretty much exclusively. Then, I started getting back into 2nd Ed. AD&D too — but I created a new gameworld from scratch in the process, with some new house rules.

When I got out of the Army, the D&D gaming stopped, because the only RPGs being played by any of my friends back in the states at the time were VtM games. I played that for a bit, but ultimately ended up playing no RPGs at all except online (no, not MMORPGs — real RPGs, but played online). Those games were all White Wolf games as well, but I ended up primarily playing CtD online. I “met” some excellent roleplayers there, by the way — good times. Eventually, I soured on the WoD games somewhat because of some issues I had with the release of a “Revised Edition” line from White Wolf, and even more importantly because there were changes going on inside the company that resulted in some incredibly bad customer support behavior from the company. The old guard at White Wolf was gradually replaced by new people who, apparently, hated their customers and thought all WoD gamers were idiots unworthy of the game developers’ august Presence. I’ve purchased a grand total of one book published since the new guard took power, and have been boycotting the company ever since.

Eventually, I ended up playing some superhero games both online and off. After a particularly unsatisfying experience running a superhero game at one point, I decided it was time to “retire” as a GM. I wasn’t interested in running RPGs any longer — I only wanted to play characters in them. That was in 2000, I think, or maybe early 2001, around the same time my WoD purchasing boycott began.

I finally got back to D&D a little bit with 3.0, though only because that’s what other people were using. I was frankly unhappy with a lot of the changes to the core system with 3rd Edition D&D, and in retrospect I guess I kinda thought of it as the Microsoft Windows Millenium of the Dungeons and Dragons line of games. I was also less than pleased with the obsolescence of my entire stack of D&D gamebooks again, but this time because there was a new edition that simply wasn’t as good in many ways. My distaste for the system, it turns out, largely hinged on some key points, though — and on the fact that the system I had created by gradually replacing core 2nd Edition rules with house rules as actually significantly better.

Good Things

Some of the biggest problems in 3rd Ed. were solved, or at least mitigated, with the release of D&D 3.5. In 2007, the SigO actually talked me into running a D&D game again, too, using 3.5 rules. By August, I had started my new D&D campaign, and while half the original four players are gone now (personal problems with one, a change in employment situation for another), I still have the other half in the game and have four current players (five if another player we picked up along the way ever gets her life into some kind of order that lets her get back into the game).

The best thing about 3rd Edition, though, wasn’t the game itself. It was the licensing. When Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR and released 3rd Edition, it also came up with the Open Gaming License — the RPG equivalent of an open source license. This created a strong industry in third-party game supplements that could actually directly modify, and even reprint, some of the core rules for 3rd Edition D&D games, and it helped revive the flagging D&D gaming dynasty. TSR had been in decline for some time with the waning popularity of (A)D&D, and I’m positive that the OGL was a significant factor in WotC’s ability to turn D&D into a blazing RPG market success again. Interestingly, WotC seems to have decided to take things in a new direction from here — one that undermines much of what made D&D 3.x a success.

Fourth Edition

The release of a 4th Edition D&D was announced, and I was predictably less than thrilled with yet another major change to the rules, which would probably make all the gamebooks the SigO and I have on our shelves obsolete. Gradually, as more material hinting at the form of the 4th Ed. game started appearing in game stores (in those preview books you may have noticed, if you’ve been haunting the gaming stores and gaming sections of book and hobby stores like I have), I became more and more convinced that not only would I be dismayed at the way the 3.0 and 3.5 books were made obsolete, and the fact new books for 3.x would not be forthcoming, but also that I would not even like the new system.

The SigO and I, both, pretty quickly came to the conclusion that the new game was being turned into a pencil-and-paper version of a cross between a CCG and an MMORPG, with rules more reminiscent of the clicky buttons in World of Warcraft and color categories of Magic: the Gathering than of classic D&D. Yeah, less than thrilled.

The upside, of course, is that the closer 4th Edition gets to taking over the stores (still not released, though we’re only days away at this point), the cheaper the 3.x books are getting in the stores. Gotta love 75% off cover price.

Still . . . it’s disappointing.

It gets worse. WotC is abandoning the OGL. In its place, for 4th Edition, WotC will be offering the GSL, which (according to what I’ve seen as of this writing) is less permissive in some respects than the OGL. It looks like WotC has gotten what it wanted out of the OGL (increased interest in D&D from the buying public), and is ready to move on and use somewhat stricter licensing to try to “force” people to buy more material directly from Wizards of the Coast.

Perhaps even more problematic, there’s some question over exactly what publishers of GSL materials will be allowed by the new license to do with their OGL game material lines. There will certainly be some distinct restrictions on the ability to simultaneously publish both OGL and GSL materials, according to the current rumors. A WotC insider famously commented in online discussion that any given publisher will have to choose between publishing OGL and GSL materials, a move that would obviously be intended to strongly encourage third-party publishers to stop producing 3rd Edition materials in favor of producing only 4th Edition materials instead — but may instead have the effect of bifurcating the third-party publisher community, creating a strong competitive faction that may stick to its OGL guns and prove something of a problem for more widespread adoption of 4th Edition. More recent announcements seem to suggest that either that policy has changed or was misrepresented, and that a given publisher can publish both OGL and GSL materials — but must choose between the two on an individual basis for each line of game materials it produces. The indication seems to be that publishing OGL/3.x and GSL/4.x versions of the same materials would be verboten.

Frankly, trying to create converts by restricting people doesn’t generally work worth a damn under conditions like this — liberating people is much more effective. If they’d just continued to use the OGL, they probably would have gotten more converts over time, because third-party publishers would be able to publish a single book with rules for both. Publishers would almost certainly have favored 4th Edition materials, with “conversion rules” for people who want to use 3rd Edition rules with the materials instead — and this would have gradually made 4th Edition players of a lot of people who were initially reluctant to make the switch from 3rd, in much the same way that Gaim and Firefox gradually make users of Linux and other open source OSes of people initially reluctant to move away from MS Windows, though certainly with a more rapid rate of conversion than seen by the open source operating system community.

In any case, WotC is making the classic commercial enterprise mistake of assuming that the way to build market domination and revenue is to “trap” customers into buying stuff, rather than simply making it easy to do so — and the company is doing so by using dirty copyright-based trickery. Only the degree of reprehensible restrictions inherent in this trickery is in question at this point, not whether the trickery exists at all. Considering my attitude toward matters of copyright, it should come as no surprise that this doesn’t thrill me either.

Pathfinder RPG

Along comes Paizo, mentioned in the above-linked article about the new information suggesting a publisher doesn’t have to decide, as a whole, whether to go with OGL or GSL. Paizo had taken over publication of the Dungeon and Dragon magazines, under contract from TSR/WotC. I found out about Paizo about the same time I found out about Christ’s Second Coming D&D’s Fourth Coming — and, ironically, right after publication of Dungeon and Dragon had ceased entirely.

What I discovered is that Paizo was producing better modules, gameworld development, and other tertiary (where “primary” is the core rulebooks and “secondary” is supplementary rulebooks like The Complete Arcane, The Tome of Magic, and The Psionics Handbook) materials, than even WotC produced — let alone other third-party publishers. Paizo had basically transitioned smoothly from publishing Dragon and Dungeon to publishing these tertiary materials, even using a subscription-based system for people who wanted a steady influx of new material rather than just buying stuff one piece at a time.

In its tertiary materials, Paizo started developing a whole new game world — and it’s the best published gameworld material I’ve seen since the advent of Dark Sun and Planescape. Ultimately, this combined with the looming 4th Edition, led to the obvious conclusion: Paizo decided to continue development of 3rd Edition, since the core rules are OGL and WotC is abandoning 3rd Edition entirely. Paizo, it seems, was willing to dedicate itself to OGL/3.x-compatible development even if this meant it would be prohibited from publishing anything for 4th Edition. This was a brilliant business move on the part of Paizo, of course, because it has bought the company an incredibly loyal customer base — including me.

Even better, Paizo’s support for OGL/3.x has led to the creation of an entirely OGL update to the 3.5 rules that the company calls the Pathfinder RPG. As WotC is rushing headlong into 4.x development, Paizo is essentially getting ready to publish D&D 3.6 (though, of course, it can’t refer to it by that kind of trademarked name). Even better still, Paizo is using a very transparent game development process, where it is offering alpha and beta test versions of its new Pathfinder RPG gamebook as free PDF downloads on the website. You can get the third and final Alpha release from the Paizo website right now, in fact. At GenCon this August, Paizo will be presenting the Beta test version, which will then be available for free download from the Paizo website (or for purchase as a high quality paperback bound gamebook at a cost lower than the likely cost of printing out the entire Beta PDF). August 2009 will be the release of the final version for purchase, according to the current schedule.

The SigO and I have been using the Alpha PDFs, and (speaking solely for myself, though I think she agrees with me on this) the changes to the rules in the Pathfinder RPG are significant improvements over the 3.5 rules. This, despite the fact that the rules in PRPG are specifically designed with backward compatibility in mind — so that the only materials made obsolete by the new PRPG are the core rules PRPG directly replaces. That means that WotC secondary and tertiary materials, as well as all 3.5-compatible materials from third-party publishers, are all entirely compatible with the PRPG rules. As such, your stack of D&D 3.x materials haven’t just become obsolete if you use the updated rules in PRPG.

My Future With Pathfinder

I see no reason at this point that I wouldn’t buy the Pathfinder RPG when it is released in its final form next August. In fact, I’m really excited. I haven’t been this excited by new RPG materials since AD&D 2nd Edition, with the possible exception of the Lasombra handbook back when VtM 2nd Edition was the game I played most often. This is much more than that, though — it’s a whole new gaming ecosystem, and I’m chomping at the bit to get more of Paizo’s materials.

This is much of the reason I’ve decided to start writing about RPG stuff here at SOB. My interest in matters related to RPG licensing, the bad business practices of WotC in moving toward GSL/4.x (sort of a step backward from its earlier, surprisingly stellar behavior in creating the OGL in the first place — and apparently coinciding with WotC’s purchase by Hasbro), and RPGs in general factor into it as well, of course. In addition to gushing over the new developments at Paizo and analyzing the goings-on in RPG licensing, et cetera, I’ll also likely be discussing a lot of matters related to game design, house rules, and approaches to GMing. Considering I’ve designed a number (a number like 20 or so, to be more explicit) of complete game systems over the years myself, including one that someone else claimed he created and published in a series in a magazine (damned plagiarist), and have in fact been creating and playtesting house rules for RPGs longer than many current game designers have been alive, I figure I’m probably qualified to comment on such matters at some length.

For now, though — that was my tale, leading up to the creation of the RPG category here at SOB. I hope you liked it.

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License