Chad Perrin: SOB

18 March 2009

recommended books (fiction)

Filed under: Geek,Lists,RPG — apotheon @ 03:14

A friend asked me for a list of books he should read. Apparently, he has been reading them faster than he has accumulated them recently (the opposite of the problem I’ve had so far this year). I know he has read some of these, but since I’m posting it here, this list isn’t just for him any longer. I decided to take the opportunity to post a list here, as an SOB entry. Like (most of?) my other list category entries, this one is subject to change in the future.

This list is limited to fiction — novels, in particular. I find that non-fiction book recommendations require a lot more specific tailoring to the recipient.

  • 1984 by George Orwell: It’s one of the holy triumvirate of dystopian classics. It is not to be missed.

  • Anathem by Neal Stephenson: This alternate-world science fiction tome is a very challenging read. In my honest opinion, though, it is well worth it to anyone that is into challenging, philosophy-heavy, technically intricate science fiction novels. The inside of Stephenson’s brain must be an amazing place to live.

  • Animal Farm by George Orwell: It’s a dystopian classic every bit as good and essential as the “holy triumvirate”, even if it doesn’t usually get mentioned in the same breath.

  • Anthem by Ayn Rand: It’s a dystopian classic every bit as good and essential as the “holy triumvirate”, if far less well-known (and shunned by many because of their prejudicial attitudes toward Ayn Rand). It’s also a very short, quick, and easy read.

  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: It’s huge. It has lots and lots of pages with lots and lots of words on them. It is a very long read. It’s also quite good. I think the only people I’ve run into who thought it was poorly written (regardless of what they think of the ideas presented in the book) are people who thought Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was a good book. Anyone who likes that overwrought, self-satisfied, mind-bogglingly dull bucket of excrement is letting his or her political leanings supplant his or her ability to recognize quality of writing.

  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: It’s one of the holy triumvirate of dystopian classics. It is not to be missed.

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr: It’s a post-apocalyptic science fiction classic at least superficially about monks whose purpose is to collect and protect accumulated knowledge that has survived catastrophe.

  • The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger: It’s one of those “coming of age” classics, with one major difference — it’s good.

  • Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson: An amazing piece of kinda-right-now science fiction, basically the best representation of really impressive computer geek fiction I’ve ever seen, and definitive proof that Neal Stephenson is (probably) the best expositional fiction writer in the world. Usually, purely expository writing is a no-no for fiction, but Stephenson proves it doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s an incredibly good thing — at least in his case.

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick: The movie based on it, Bladerunner, is one of my favorite movies — maybe my favorite. This is also a book that’s just too good to pass up. The two are, superficially, almost entirely unlike one another.

  • The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein: It’s not one of the major classics, really. It’s just a really well-written book.

  • Dune by Frank Herbert: It’s one of the major, all-time, can’t-miss science fiction classics. Each book following it in the Dune series is increasingly optional, in my opinion.

  • Elric of MelnibonĂ© by Michael Moorcock: As William Gibson is to science fiction, so Michael Moorcock is to swords and sorcery fantasy, and as Neuromancer is to cyberpunk, so this book is to postmodern fantasy. It’s a classic, and the entire rest of the series is worth reading too.

  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: This is one of the major, all-time, can’t-miss science fiction classics. It is in some respects an interstellar war epic in disguise, but mostly it’s an amazing exploration of a particular perspective on human nature. Each book following it in the Ender series is increasingly optional — Card seems to have lost the stomach for writing like he means it after he grew up. In fact, if you insist on reading the next two books, I recommend waiting a year or so between them, to help maintain the illusion that they aren’t intended as sequels. Just pretend they’re completely unrelated, and the next two books won’t be so disappointing.

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: It’s one of the holy triumvirate of dystopian classics. It is not to be missed.

  • Flatland by Edwin Abbot Abbot: As Isaac Asimov put it, this quirky bit of fiction is “The best introduction one can find into the manner of perceiving dimensions.”

  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman: It’s one of the classic interstellar war epics, and does an amazing job of dealing with the difficulties of time dilation.

  • Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow: It’s a far-reaching story of cyborgs, artificial intelligence, and the meaning of being human. It’s also illustrated — a manga, which is basically the Japanese way of saying something like “comic book” or “graphic novel”. It’s basically the best science fiction graphic novel I’ve ever seen, and one of the best science fiction books I’ve seen in general.

  • Grendel by John Gardner: A truly excellent tale as told from the point of view of the infamous monster of the Beowulf epic, it’s worth the read.

  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: It’s a dystopian classic every bit as good and essential as the “holy triumvirate”, even if it doesn’t usually get mentioned in the same breath.

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: In a very strange way, this is one of the must-read, can’t-miss science fiction classics, even though it’s kind of a cross between a serious satire and a lunatic comedy lark in science fiction window dressing. Keep reading after the first book — read its sequel, and the next book, and the fourth book in the “trilogy”. You should probably read the fifth, too, because it’s also good, but I think the fourth book was the perfect end to the series, and it should have stopped there. Blame Adams’ publishers, who wouldn’t let him stop (he apparently didn’t really like writing in the first place).

  • Illusions by Richard Bach: It’s a touching, probably pseudo-true story of a man’s journey toward enlightenment in the modern world. It’s also an incredibly good book, though it’s one of those things that requires a mind more open than average to enjoy it.

  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach: This is a story of achievement and the power of belief told from the point of view of a seagull. Seriously. It’s also kind of a classic.

  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow: As I said in another SOB entry after I finished it, “This goes on the list of books every intelligent, thinking person should read.” Go read that review for yourself if you want to know more. It’s worth it.

  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry: A parable of clear thinking and the virtue of inquisitiveness, it’s a short, easy read that nonetheless really gets into one’s head and makes one think quite a lot.

  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding: It’s a literary classic about a bunch of young boys stranded on an island. They develop rudimentary government, followed by political corruption, and finally war, in which they turn into a bunch of bloodthirsty savages trying to kill each other. It’s an amazing piece of writing.

  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein: This is pretty much the science fiction classic of a libertarian war of revolution between worlds.

  • Neuromancer by William Gibson: This is one of the key novels of the genre that has come to be known as “cyberpunk”, by the guy who invented the word “cyberspace”. In fact, I’d recommend every single novel he has written, pretty much in the order he wrote them. As an author, the man’s amazing.

  • The Screwtape Letter by C. S. Lewis: An allegorical tale in the form of a collection of letters a senior demon sent to his nephew about the best ways to corrupt humans, it’s just mind-bogglingly good stuff for anyone with an open enough mind to get past the subject matter.

  • Singularity Sky by Charles Stross: This is the only truly post-Singularity novel I’ve read, and it works by the simple expedient of basically being about the people the main thrust of the Singularity left behind. The core plot of the story focuses on the events of, and surrounding, a minor tech/economic singularity event on a world previously under the control of a backwards-looking, neo-luddite interstellar government, and features a couple of central characters who come from a more forward-looking world (post-Singularity Earth, to be precise). It is definitely worth reading for anyone that has any pretensions of, or potential for, interest in a potential Singularity in the future. For some, it will be kind of an interesting wake-up call, as regards the effects of disruptive technologies on backward economies (e.g., the current US economy, as well as almost everywhere else on Earth right now). For others, it will serve as kind of a litmus test — because if all the speculations in this book don’t seem painfully obvious to people who have already considered the potential for Singularity in some depth, they’re probably not going to survive a true Singularity when it comes, since they probably aren’t going to be able to adjust to the far more drastic upsets that come along with it well enough to get by.

  • Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein: One of the key science fiction classics of interstellar war

  • Strange Angels by Kathe Koja: It’s just an amazing piece of writing, from the point of view of a guy who befriends a schizophrenic man. I’ve also read Koja’s Skin, which is also well written, but the story didn’t really grab me the same way.

  • V for Vendetta by Alan Moore: It’s one of the unmissable classic graphic novels, about a revolutionary pseudo-madman fighting against an oppressive government.

  • Watchmen by Alan Moore: There’s a satirical take on the common superheroes of the major comic book publishing companies going on here, but the story is about much, much more than that. This graphic novel was among the New York Times top 100 books of all time.

  • Watership Down by Richard Adams: It’s about a bunch of bunny rabbits trying to find a safe place to live. It’s rife with a rich mythological and cultural depth for the rabbits, the characters are engaging and well-developed, and the story is much, much darker than you might expect from the first sentence of this description.

I’ll come up with more later. I’m still trying to decide whether to include collections of short stories here.

Alternative attribute score system for D20/OGL/PRPG

Filed under: Geek,RPG — Tags: , — apotheon @ 12:23

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

I’ve come to prefer a point-buy system for attributes in D&D 3.x and PathfinderRPG, pretty much lifted directly from Mike Mearls’ revised edition of the D20/OGL Iron Heroes game originally developed by Monte Cook — yes, that Monte Cook. I’m rethinking that, though, in favor of a point-buy system using an actually different means of representing the attributes themselves. The new system is essentially a drop-in replacement for the standard D20/OGL system, without any need to alter anything else in the core rules to use this new system other than how attribute bonuses and penalties (by race or level progression) are assessed.

Problems:

The reason I’m considering using this modified attribute system is that the Iron Heroes point-buy system doesn’t solve a big problem I’ve had with D20/OGL attributes all along (as well as attributes in several other systems, including OD&D): some attributes are basically “dead air”. That is to say (using D20/OGL as the example) that, for instance, increasing your Strength from 11 to 12 gives you a +1 to attack and damage rolls, but increasing it from 12 to 13 doesn’t give you anything in-game. This causes some minor problems such as skewing the motivations for players to buy up to certain attribute numbers as they get their bonus attribute points with level advancement. It changes strategies for character advancement, and even the roleplayers most dedicated to the craft of non-metagaming character development must feel tempted at times to increase one stat rather than another simply because of the stat modifier effects.

Solutions:

I’ve recently become increasingly interested in taking an alternative approach to attribute numbers. Instead of 3-18 attributes with modifiers based on the attribute, I could use the modifiers themselves as the attribute numbers, rather than using numbers between three and eighteen as intermediaries between character creation and in-game effects of attributes. I think this works particularly well for games that use a point-buy system for character creation.

In the following table, there are three columns: the first, “Score”, is the attribute score for the new system; the second, “Cost”, is the cost of purchasing the attribute score at character creation using the point buy system; the third, “Correspondence”, shows the equivalent 3-18 scores (actually 1-20) for standard OGL 3.5 and Pathfinder RPG rules. This chart works not only for giving you an idea of what each modifier-style attribute score means, and for determining the point-buy cost of each score, but also as a means of determining attributes based on a randomized dice-roll character creation system; if you want to roll for your stats, just roll like usual, and just translate from the number in the Correspondence column to the modifier in the Score column (which, in case I haven’t made it obvious, is equal to the attribute modifier for each number in the Correspondence column according to official D20/OGL rules anyway).

Score  Cost    Correspondence

-5     -21     01
-4     -12     02 to 03
-3     -06     04 to 05
-2     -03     06 to 07
-1     -01     08 to 09
+0     +00     10 to 11
+1     +02     12 to 13
+2     +04     14 to 15
+3     +07     16 to 17
+4     +13     18 to 19
+5     +25     20

Origins:

Now that I’ve explained it all in terms of how you get from a traditional 3-18 D&D attribute system to this modifier-as-score system, I’ll let you in on a secret: that’s not really how I ended up considering this as an alternative system. It really started with a “Modern Horror Genre” roleplaying game a friend and I cooked up a couple decades ago for our own use, shortly before the first edition of the White Wolf Vampire: the Masquerade game came out, that we called Inner Sanctum. That system used a random dice roll system to generate attributes that were modifiers rather than numbers that translated to modifiers. Stats were generated using 2d6-7 to produce values between -5 and +5.

More recently, as I mentioned in passing in How do you feel about energy resistance?, I’ve been working on the design of another original roleplaying game. Its working title is currently Apotheosis RPG, though that’s subject to change. Inspired by my own previous work on Inner Sanctum, I decided to go with a basic -5 to +5 system for attributes. I was also inspired, to some degree, by the desire to avoid the problems of the traditional 3-18 system, as well as those of GURPS’ approach of rolling against the attribute numbers themselves as a kind of difficulty target.

By default, I’m looking at a point-buy system for determining attribute scores in ARPG, and the numbers above that match up with the ultimate effects of using the Iron Heroes point-buy system for values from 3-18 are numbers I was considering using, though I won’t settle on anything for sure until I know more about how the rest of the system will fit together (of course). The above table is, in essence, the result of me directly porting the working system for ARPG to Pathfinder RPG (or, in effect, D20/OGL), with the addition of the Correspondence column to give a quick point of reference for making transition from the traditional 3-18 system to using modifiers as attribute scores.

Changes:

All in all, it’s not a really dramatic change. Things are basically the same as they ever were with a D20/OGL compatible system, other than notation. The minor changes, in practice, involve only adjusting attribute bonus and penalty points and skipping all the annoying “some attribute points don’t really matter” stuff.

The first part of changing the way attribute score bonuses and penalties are handled is dead easy. In both the D20 3.5 system and the Pathfinder RPG system, all race-based bonuses and penalties come in twos. Divide the numbers by two, so that a +2 becomes a +1 and a -2 becomes a -1, and you’re golden.

The second part, which consists of dealing with attribute bonuses as a character advances in level, is a little less obvious. In the default system for D20/OGL compatible games including both D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder RPG, a single discretionary point of attribute score bonus is acquired at every level divisible by four. It may seem arithmetically obvious that those points should just be divided by two as well, but that results in no attribute score increases except at 8th and 16th levels. Another option might be to split the difference, going with a bonus point every level divisble by six (6th, 12th, and 18th levels). I think a better option would be to divide by two, but round up, giving a bonus point at 4th, 12th, and 20th levels.

edit: As John points out in the first comment response to this SOB entry, spells and similar effects that temporarily alter attribute scores might also need some conversion, which is a fact I managed to completely fail to notice when I first wrote this. That complicates things significantly for me, if I want to explain all the necessary changes, but I think that for the most part such conversions should be very easy for GMs to sort out on a case-by-case basis.

John also suggests just going with a +1 discretionary attribute score bonus every four levels, exactly as in the standard character progression charts, even though the (theoretical) arithmetic effect in attribute bonuses is doubled. The argument is that the effect in play is not the same as the effect on the attribute modifiers themselves, which is true. Still, it changes the rate of attribute advancement, so I’m reluctant to just jump off the ledge on this one.

Opinions:

I think that about covers it. Have I forgotten anything? What you do you think of the idea? Is there anything I should do differently?

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