Last week’s Journal of the American Medical Association had an excellent article by Chapman et al giving a robust analysis of the effect of the change in Australia’s gun laws that happened in 1996. These laws (the National Firearms Agreement) were enacted very rapidly after a major mass shooting (the Port Arthur massacre) in which 35 people died. Their major components were banning certain kinds of weapon, and introducing a gun buyback scheme to enable gun owners to hand in their guns and be compensated, provided they did so within an amnesty period. Wikipedia describes the law changes in a short paragraph that shows how wide reaching they were:

The law, which was originally enforced by then-Prime Minister of Australia John Howard, included a number of provisions. For example, it established a temporary firearm buyback program for firearms that where once legal now made illegal, that according to the Council on Foreign Relations bought over 650,000 firearms. This program, which cost $230 million, was paid for by an increase in the country’s taxes. The law also created a national firearm registry, a 28-day waiting period for firearm sales, and tightened firearm licensing rules. The law also required anyone wishing to possess or use a firearm with some exceptions, be over the age of 12. Owners must be at least 18 years of age, have secure storage for their firearms and provide a “genuine reason” for doing so.

The laws have been partially evaluated a few times, were the subject of an excellent John Oliver piece, and have been controversial amongst pro-gun activists for some time, with much debate about whether or not they worked. One big problem with analyzing their impact is that the rate of firearm homicides was already in decline when the laws were enacted, and at the same time the rate of non-firearm suicides began to decline in a sharp turnaround from past trends. This has given a lot of room for people concerned about the laws to argue they had no impact.Chapman et al’s article provides a thorough analysis of all the available data on the laws. The analysis uses nationally-available death and population data from 1979 – 2013, so it can analyze two 17 year periods of data to look for changes in rates. It uses the correct analytical method to handle the low numbers of counts (negative binomial regression), and the models are constructed carefully to enable comparison not just of the changes in deaths that occurred at the time the laws were introduced, but to calculate changes in trends at this point in time, and to test if these trends occurred by chance. They conducted the analyses separately for firearm- and non-firearm suicides and homicides, total homicide deaths and gun homicide deaths with mass shooting-related deaths removed. Their key findings were:

    The rate of decline of firearm homicides accelerated, though this acceleration was not statistically significantThe rate of decline of firearm suicides accelerated, and this change was statistically significantThe increase in non-firearm suicides changed to a decrease, and this change was statistically significant

They conclude that there was no evidence of substitution of suicide methods due to the change in laws. Overall their findings seem to be robust, but actually there is a small flaw of interpretation and modeling in this paper that makes it, in my opinion, a missed opportunity to give a definitive answer to the question of the true effect of these laws.

Several limitations with the paper

The big problem with this paper is its failure to directly compare changes in different rates of death. They fitted separate models for the four kinds of death, when in fact they could have fitted a single model for all four kinds of death, plus time and interactions between the four kinds of death with each other, time and the laws. This model would have been slightly nasty to interpret, but would have the benefit of enabling the reader to identify any additional effect of the law on firearm homicides vs. non-firearm homicides, and firearm suicides vs. non-firearm suicides. Statistically significant terms for these parts would imply that the law had a bigger effect on firearm-related deaths than non-firearm-related deaths. This would also have the advantage of giving the model larger numbers of counts, thus reducing confidence intervals. My suspicion, just looking at the data presented in the paper, is that if this more complex model had been fit the authors would have found that the change in laws affected homicide and non-homicide deaths, and suicide and non-suicide deaths. This probably wouldn’t be as interesting a finding, but it would have been more robust.

The second big problem with the paper is that it doesn’t include a control group. I have previously written a post on this, in which I suggested using New Zealand data as a control group, since NZ is very similar to Australia but didn’t enact gun laws at that time. In that post I found that we would probably need to wait until 2023 to make a definitive conclusion on whether the gun laws prevented mass shootings. I didn’t touch so much on the homicide/suicide analyses but the same rules would apply. By using a control group we can rule out any possible cultural changes that may have happened more broadly at that time.

It’s also worth noting that the study doesn’t adjust for age. As Australia ages we expect to see the rate of homicides decline, since older people don’t shoot each other as much as the crazy young’uns, and this adjustment didn’t happen in the study. Given the conclusion about firearm homicides is primarily one based on trends, and a slowly aging society should see the effect of age through changes in trends, this was a missed opportunity. Similarly, suicide tends to happen in age groups where homicides don’t (above the 30s) and an aging society might be at higher risk of suicide, so adjusting for age might find an even bigger effect of the laws. I think it’s possible that a combination of aging society plus increasing proportions of non-white migrants[1] might explain the sudden cessation in mass shootings, especially if you treat mass shooting as an infectious disease, that is less likely to break out as the period of time between outbreaks increases.

Finally, the study doesn’t appear to have actually analyzed statistically the decline in numbers of mass shootings. Is this because the result was non-significant? It’s a strange omission…

Conclusion

This study provides better evidence than previous studies of the effect of the national firearms agreement on firearms-related deaths in Australia, but it is not conclusive. There is still a possibility that the decline in firearm homicides was non-significant, and that the effect on firearm suicides was coincidental. In the absence of a control group, and without constructing a full interaction model testing differences in trends between suicide methods, it is not possible to definitively conclude that the observed effects were due to the national firearm laws. Also, in the absence of a statistical test of the effect on mass shootings, we also cannot conclude that the national firearms agreement reduced these shootings. Nonetheless, the study provides strong evidence that the laws achieved their intended purpose. A more thorough analysis with proper interaction terms might answer this question definitively, but sadly didn’t happen in this particular paper.


fn1: This is probably a slightly controversial position but I have a suspicion – purely theorizing – that mass shootings start off as an in-group thing, they’re something that the majority population do to themselves. This appears to have historically been the case in the USA, with most shooters being white, but somehow in the last 10 years the disease broke out of this group and into non-white minorities, first Asian and then black Americans. I suspect this is unusual, and requires a long period of regular exposure to shootings by the in-group before it happens. This isn’t meant to say that any particular racial group is more prone to mass shootings than any other, just that it starts in the mainstream group and, while it remains a very rare event, remains there. So as the proportion of the population that this group fills declines, the rate of mass shootings also declines, leading to less and less social contagion both within the in-group and between the in-group and others. The exception to this is the USA, where the easy availability of guns means that there is no brake on the continued high rate of events, and eventually the infection spreads out of its main host[2].

fn2: In case it isn’t clear, I think that mass shootings should be seen as a kind of infectious process, spread by media hype, and have suggested changes in media laws to prevent this.

So you look into the land, it will tell you a story
Story about a journey ended long ago
Listen to the motion of the wind in the mountains
Maybe you can hear them talking like I do
They’re gonna betray you, they’re gonna forget you
Are you gonna let them take you over that way?

  • Song of the Path of Tears

[GM Note: This is a report of a part of session 8 of the Spiral Confederacy campaign. Session 8 covered a lot of different events, which are too much to describe in one post, so I’m breaking the write-up over three or four separate posts to keep them manageable]

Having successfully recovered what they believed was the Tablet of the Gods, and received a beautiful spaceship in exchange for trading away their dead cargo, the PCs returned from Slainte to The Reach. On the Reach they investigated the Tombspine again, and then they set off to Niscorp 1743 to interview the Oracle Simon Simon had established there. Unfortunately, once they were in jump space their living human cargo woke up.

Where is she!?

Where is she!?

Red Cloud of the Coming Storm

They were two days into their jump journey, the sky outside the ship its traditional inky, swirling black, all of them enjoying the luxury of having their own cabins and space to move during the week of idleness. Lam had set up a hammock on the bridge and was sleeping as close to the ship’s controls as she could safely get, while the rest of the crew attended to the activities they usually used to pass the time during the endless boredom of jump. Ahmose set about exploring every nook and cranny of the Left Hand of Darkness, familiarizing herself with every twist and turn of its structure against the inevitable time when they would have to defend it against boarders. She was leaning on a wall of the main deck, thinking of defense plans for the corridor linking the recreation area and the forward officer’s cabins, when the spaceship spoke to her. “Captain Ahmose,” It said in its smooth woman’s voice. “I am sorry to interrupt your tactical planning, but I feel I need to warn you that the patient in the medical bay has awoken, and is damaging my medical equipment. Please come and attend to him.”

Ahmose ran to the medical bay, calling to the rest of the crew as she went. They gathered outside the medical bay, Lam carrying a laser rifle, and turned on the screen next to the door. The Left Hand of Darkness showed them first the cryogenic tube that their cargo had been stored in; it had slid out of its wall mount and opened, just as if someone had activated it from outside. The cameras panned to show a scene of rampant vandalism, containers and medical supplies smashed and scattered over the floor, a diagnostic tool broken, and a broken batch of chemicals of some kind burning steadily on a bench. Finally the camera panned around to show their cargo, standing in just his loin cloth in front of a bench at the far side of the medical bay from their door. He was looking around wildly, and in one hand he held a huge hammer wreathed in fire. As they watched he began smashing the hammer down on the bench, scattering more medical equipment and sending wildfire flicking across the surface of the bench.

Ahmose turned on the intercom, and addressed the room.

“This is captain Ahmose. Please put the hammer down.”

The man froze at the sound, turned to face the door. Then he began yelling a stream of invective at the ceiling, looking wildly around the room to find the source of the sound. Nothing he yelled made any sense to them. Ahmose asked ‘Darkness if it understood, but the ship replied “I’m sorry Captain, I am familiar in over 70 languages, but this is not one of them.”

“Fine,” Ahmose grunted. “‘Darkness, please increase the CO2 level in that room until the man passes out. If we can’t speak to him we’ll restrain him.”

“Very well.” They waited and watched for a few minutes. The fire on the pool of burning chemicals began to dim, but the man’s hammer did not stop burning. At some point he began to look dazed and weak, but then he fell to one knee, whispered something to himself, and surged back to his feet, energy renewed.

Ahmose turned to Michael, the ocean priest, who had joined them in the hall. “Michael, is this man working some magic like yours?”

“Perhaps.” The priest was watching the screen intently, as if trying to read the cargo’s mind. “I can work a small invocation to enable us to communicate with him, but I need to be in his physical presence, not merely speaking through one of your technical tricks. Can you let us in?”

Ahmose nodded to Lam. “Sure, but if it gets out of hand the man goes down. We’ll see if any of his little magics are proof against a laser rifle on stun.”

They opened the door and Ahmose and Michael stepped through, Lam lurking behind. Michael whispered some small incantation, and suddenly the man’s ranting became coherent.

“WHERE IS SHE!? WHERE IS THE WITCH!? SHE WAS MINE!!! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH HER?!” He smashed his hammer down on the table, tongues of flame bursting across his hands. He did not charge forward though, perhaps wary at the sight of five people watching him.

“Please sir, calm yourself. I am Ahmose, captain of this ship. What is your name?”

He stopped in mid rant and looked askance at her. “Was it you who imprisoned me in yonder coffin!?” He demanded. He had a deep, mellifluous and multi-layered voice, and an imperious look and tone that suggested he was used to giving orders. “Did you take my witch? DID YOU?!”

Lam made to speak, but Ahmose silenced her with a gesture. “Give me your name first, sir, then we can speak of this ‘witch.’ You are a guest on my ship, and should behave accordingly.”

The man lowered his hammer a little. With his free hand he touched his belly. “I am Red Cloud of the Coming Storm, priest of the Eternal Sun. Are you my captor?”

Somewhere behind Ahmose, Alva sighed the sigh of a man deeply disappointed. Everyone knew his opinion of priests.

“That depends on your behavior, Red Cloud. We rescued you from a …” Remembering she was speaking to a priest of a remnant planet, Ahmose stopped herself from saying things he could not understand, or that Michael’s strange incantation could not translate. “… a bad situation. The ‘witch’ was dead when we found you.”

“What? Rescued me?!” His voice began to rise, and he hit himself on the chest with his free hand. Now that he was in motion, not lying in the cold cryotube, they could see that his body was a lithe mass of rippling muscle, smooth gold-toned skin drawn taut across a young warrior’s body. “What lie is this? I was in battle with the witch, I almost had her, and then suddenly I lost consciousness. You ambushed me in that battle and stole my prey! She was mine! I had the license!!” His voice rose higher, eyes wide with rage. “SHE WAS MINE! MY WITCH TO DESTROY! WHERE IS SHE!?”

“We did not ambush you! We found you in the … coffin … and rescued you from certain death. The witch was already dead.”

“Words – lies? SPEAK THE TRUTH!” After a moment he lowered the hammer, eyes narrowing. “Ah, I see that you are. So you found me already in my coffin, and put me into this dungeon…” He gestured around him. “Why? What is your purpose, woman?”

“Well, we hoped in time to find a way to return you to your … um … lands. But we did not expect you to awake from the … coffin. Please, Red Cloud, put the hammer down. We can speak calmly.”

He did not lower the hammer.

At that moment Lam pushed forward a little, so that Red Cloud could see her, and helpfully declared loudly, “You’re on a space ship, priest man, flying between the stars, and we rescued you from a burning station. You should thank us!”

Ahmose turned to glare at the foolish pilot, but before she could speak Red Cloud had his hammer up again, flaring brilliant orange. “Silence, you PALE WORM!” He looked at Ahmose. “You say you are captain here! But you let this PALE WORM speak!? It is an abomination! It should be killed and its body rendered down for magical components!”

Everyone looked in stunned silence at the gold-skinned man. He stared back at them furiously, almost quivering in rage. Only Lam moved, looking around at her friends in shock.

Simon Simon spoke first. “That’s a bit unreasonable, Red Cloud Storming, don’t you think – ”

“SILENCE, PALE WORM!” He took a step forward, and Lam raised the rifle. Ahmose raised a hand to stop him.

“Stop! No one here is being rendered into magical parts!” She held out her open hand. “These are my crew and you will speak to them respectfully, or by all the gods of the underworld I will stuff you back into that coffin myself, and shove that hammer into your mouth until you SHUT. UP.”

Red Cloud came to a sudden stop. He looked at the group of five, and the angry captain, and the room, and realized that perhaps his situation was not the best. The flames wreathing the hammer faded, and then the hammer itself began to fade, dissipating into nothing after a couple of seconds. Lam gasped in amazement, but had the good sense not to speak.

A moment later, exhaustion from months of cryosleep overtook the priest, and he fell to the floor in a daze.


There cargo was awake. They didn’t know what to do with him. They could not even speak to him if Michael were not present to work his strange magic. They could not return him to Dune, since the Navy required him for a task and they could not break the blockade; but they could not put him back in his cryochamber, not now that he was conscious. They simply had to fit him into the routine of the ship, even though he did not understand anything about it – indeed he came from a desert planet that had no oceans, and might have no concept of a ship at all. After a few hours of thought, once they had fed him and checked his health, Ahmose realized that maybe, if his planet had magic, they might have flying ships, and when she asked him, carefully, she was able to confirm that yes they did, though these vessels were exceedingly rare. She tried to explain that he was on a ship like that, only bigger, that flew between the stars.

This didn’t work, as he burst into an angry stream of rhetoric – the stars were tears cast across the fabric of the universe by an ancient sleeper woken by a nightmare, or some such, and to fly between them was blasphemy. Indeed, to think anything else was a sure sign that the person was a heretic witch, such as the one he had been hunting.

Ahmose calmed him down and managed to learn about the witch he had been chasing, who was apparently an adherent of a secret sect of heretics who believed that the stars were not tears on the fabric of reality, but other worlds, or maybe dreams, and maybe his world was a part of a bigger dream and the stars were all parts of it. This was apparently a great heresy, and anyone who believed it needed to be hunted down and killed. Red Cloud of the Coming Storm made a mission of this, and had been in battle with the witch when suddenly everything went dark and he had gone unconscious. He knew nothing about how or why he had been knocked out. He was obviously used to winning battles and being listened to, and couldn’t comprehend having been ambushed and captured.

He also could not understand much of the ship’s basic functions. Running water shocked him, and they could not speak to him clearly about the eternal night outside the ship, or about their destination or how the ship flew. When they tried to explain anything in too much detail, he would become confused and then angry. He was very quick to anger, and obstinate in his beliefs. Only Ahmose had any understanding of this – to her Red Cloud was like one of her oldest and most rural relatives back on her home planet, people who were so old they could almost remember the world before uplift, and could not understand all the modern changes that had come over her planet in the past century. But they were old and fatalistic; Red Cloud was young and vigorous, and refused to accommodate anything into his beliefs if it did not make sense.

He also had a deep hatred of pale-skinned people, who were apparently an abomination on his planet, very rare, and treated exactly as he had said. Ahmose was a rich dusky brown, but Simon Simon, Alva and Lam were all pale-skinned space dwellers – and not only were they anathema to him, but they refused to show him any respect or deference. For the first two days of their shared journey he would only refer to them as “Pale Worm” and would lose his temper if they spoke to easily to him.

After two days the effort of adaptation became too much for Red Cloud, and he retired in a state of near-depression to hide in his cabin. They set ‘Darkness to monitor him, and began investigating the means by which his cryochamber had opened. ‘Darkness kept detailed logs of the function of everything on the ship, but there was no evidence of any kind of glitch or bug – the records simply showed that the cryochamber spontaneously began its awakening cycle. Simon Simon spent days delving carefully into the deepest possible recesses of ‘Darkness’s coding to see if he could find any bugs, viruses or sleeper programs inserted by DK, the man who sold them their ship, but he found nothing. They looked at video footage of the tube and saw no one tampering with it. Finally, paranoid that the priest had an invisible ally on board, they locked everyone in the ready room and flushed air out of all the rest of the ship, hoping to kill any invisible intruders.

Nothing. There was no explanation, technological or sentient, for what had happened. Their super high-technology brand new ship had simply suffered an inconceivable malfunction that had wakened their cargo.

Only Ahmose had an explanation: “Perhaps his god woke him?”

Nobody else wanted to credit that explanation.

They could think of nothing. They could do nothing except welcome Red Cloud of the Coming Storm onto their crew, and hope their mission was not now ruined.

Red Cloud sulked in his room, and they sped through hyperspace towards Niscorp 1743, and the Oracle. The crew had no faith in gods or spirits, though they had seen plenty of evidence of both, but they could place faith in an AI. Perhaps the Oracle could tell them what had happened.

But secretly they all dreaded it. What if the Oracle could not answer their questions? What if Ahmose was right?

 

 

Save

Today I saw Independence Day: Resurgence, because I wanted to watch something stupid with big explosions and I have forgotten enough of the original to make it feel like I was doing something novel. Of course it was fun – big things got blown up, there were tidal waves and monstrous destruction, heroic fighter pilots taking on the behemoth, etc. But it was also, pretty much from the start, a showcase for everything that is wrong with modern action movies. Except that it’s fun to watch shit blow up, this movie was a completely execrable effort.

It had the usual problems one learns to live with in modern action movies: speeches that are meant to be stirring end-of-the-world heroic efforts but are actually just kind of lame; random shifts in timing that mean that a 4 minute countdown to human extinction takes an hour, but a day-long trip to the moon happens at the speed of plot; American triumphalism that is so common and boring now that it might as well be part of the scenery; and military dialogue that is meant to be snappy and jocular but just comes across as wooden (everyone wants their soldiers to be like Aliens or Dog Soldiers but they just come across as macho try-hards). This movie struggled under the additional burden of occasionally being a bit top-gun like, and having a bunch of relationships between male leads that were way too closet-homosexual (a problem since Top Gun, I guess). I’m pretty sure that two scientists were meant to be gay (one gets killed of course because that’s the rule for same sex relationships) but I don’t want to impugn the actors – they may just have been terrible actors whose ineptitude came across as camp.

But one learns to live with this kind of thing. This movie was weighed down by bigger problems than these – the kind of problems that are too common in modern action movies, and really ruin them. Here are some of these problems, with spoilers (which I hardly think you need to care about – if you go into this movie thinking any of the non-gay heroes are going to die, or that the human race was ever under any real threat, you really do deserve a medal for your naivete).

The pointless alarms: I think there were at least three points in the movie where a major character has a breakthrough of some kind – usually, in this movie, because they have some deep connection to the alien mind – that enables them to realize that there is a big problem coming up, such as a major attack or a trap. Their discovery/revelation of this big issue is a major scene in the movie, and they rush to tell everyone, but in every instance they’re too late. Everyone finds out at exactly the point that the character reveals the issue, because the issue happens right then. There’s a whole subplot of this movie about how some humans were affected by contact with the alien hive-mind and they get insights into the alien’s plans from this contact, but every single time they rush into the control room to yell “it’s a trap!” or appear on the podium to say “they’re coming!” or whatever, it’s irrelevant – the trap springs a moment later, or the shadow of the spaceship is already overhead, or the top secret weapon is activated by someone else who has no connection with the aliens whatsoever. But of course none of our heroes (except the gay one) are allowed to die, so then we are treated to this ridiculous series of complications and implausible events that enable the heroes to escape the trap, or survive the sudden arrival of the alien spaceship, or whatever. The movie would be so much simpler and less irritating and more coherent if these realizations – and all the backstory necessary to support them – were stripped away; or, so much more tense and self-consistent if the warnings came in time to change the course of the story. Instead, since the story writers are complete idiots, the plot is constantly annoying you with this irrelevant backstory to justify urgent warnings that make no difference.

The bad guy’s plans are just dumb: All too often this kind of movie has a bad guy who could win everything by sticking to a simple plan that works, like flying a 3000 km long spaceship over the Atlantic Ocean, blowing up everything in your way, and then sucking all the molten metal out of the earth’s core. Instead, the bad guy does stupid shit that doesn’t make any sense, either from a practical planning point of view or within the framework of the particular form of implacable evil that the bad guy represents. Sometimes the problem is just that the bad guy’s overall plan for world domination is such obvious bullshit that it should be comedy, like when the Joker (or was it the Penguin?) planned to put hallucinogens in the Gotham City water supply and then rule the world (?!). In this movie though it’s the more common problem that the evil bad guy has a simple plan that doesn’t require any embellishment, and so the embellishments don’t make any sense; and then at the end the bad guy does something completely irrational that obviously is high-risk and doesn’t match the bad guy’s personality at all. In this case, having proven that the 3000km long spaceship can destroy every orbital defense in a second, control gravity sufficient to tear entire cities into the sky, and drill a hole to the earth’s core in a day, the bad guy has to lay some kind of trap to lure a few of earth’s bombers inside its 3000km long spaceship and then blow them up. Why? Why doesn’t it just wipe them all out in a millisecond and keep on about its business? And how does this trap in any way relate to its subsequent ability to destroy all the earth’s satellite communications? (The movie suggests that they are linked somehow). This is just incoherent. Of course then subsequently, having proven that it has a spaceship capable of destroying any opposition and protecting it from any harm, the evil bad guy decides to depart in a much smaller ship and attack the main human base, which is heavily defended, rather than just sending minions. Suddenly the bad guy goes from being an implacable insect mind of infinite evil and cruelty to a vengeful viking with no common sense. This kind of sudden change in behavior really obviously was just done to make the plot work, and when the writers betray the principles of the characters so that they can make a story, you just find yourself thinking they’re arseholes with no respect for their audience.

The pointless sacrifices that don’t matter: It’s apparently impossible to send a guided missile through a hole the size of a large crater in this super-technological future, so instead a bunch of brave dudes have to commit to a suicidal run to get that weapon in there, and then of course it doesn’t work anyway because the whole thing was a trap. This might make sense except that moments earlier we’ve been told that the air force will use drones to break down the 3000km long spaceship’s (previously impervious!) shields. I’m sorry, but if you want me to place some value on a person’s self-sacrifice, you actually have to give me a reason why they should kill themselves.

Being a dickhead idiot jock never has consequences: Apparently when you work on a top-secret high-value moon base that holds a weapon so powerful it can destroy massive alien spaceships, that is the prize of earth’s fleet, you can just steal a spaceship, go to earth, pick up a couple of guys you think you might need (who incidentally never told you where they were) then return to the moon and be given no punishment. You can also nearly destroy that weapon by your own stupidity, then do something really reckless to stop it being destroyed, and be grounded for a day. Even though it’s your third offense, and your first offense involved destroying an experimental jet and nearly getting your buddy killed. Here’s the thing, idiot hollywood writers: jocks aren’t cool. They’re bullies and dickheads. You don’t make them cooler by making their bullying, reckless, stupid behavior consequence-free. When you do that you just make most of the audience like them less, and wonder why they’re cheering these people on.

The cataclysms that don’t: This 3000km long spaceship settled over the Atlantic and created a tidal wave so great that it washed away Florida, and hurled cargo ships around like matchsticks; but a tiny salvage ship full of dodgy dudes out in the middle of the Atlantic, a mere kilometre away from the source of the ship’s death ray, was completely untouched and not even rocked by a wave. In case you’re thinking “oh but that was just the eye of the hurricane, right?” the writers are sure to make it clear that this is the only ship left in the area. Similarly we see these ordered refugee columns fleeing the destruction and leaving a lane of the road open for people to pass them by, and we see a rain of destruction in which one city is dropped on another city but our heroes’ valiant spaceship is completely undamaged by being in the middle of it all. This kind of thing is really annoying because it tells you immediately that all the death and destruction you’re going to see is not a threat to your heroes – they’re immune to everything and anything, and the story will make this clear repeatedly, so that by the end you’re bored of the supposed “challenges” they get caught in. Why should I invest any energy into supporting the struggle of a bunch of dudes who I know are going to make it out no matter what, because they’re jocks?

Once, just once, I would like to see one of these movies go through all these stupid errors and then in the last 20 minutes wipe out the earth and kill all the heroes because they’re reckless fools. That, of course, is never going to happen. So instead I have to sit through these movies full of shlock in order to see a few things blown up. I guess if writing these kinds of stories were difficult this might be okay, but I’m a GM and I know how to make a simple plot that involves lots of violence for a good purpose; plus I’ve seen movies like Die Hard, Aliens, Starship Troopers and Dog Soldiers which are able to make a simple story hang together in a believable way, even though every aspect of every one of those movies is completely unrealistic.

This shit is really not difficult to get right. Why is it so hard for modern Hollywood blockbusters to make a decent action movie?

completely insane, our glory
lost in vain
what a perfect view

enter my coffin
my wintercoffin
awaiting to see the faithful king
what a perfect view!

[GM Note: This is a report of a part of session 8 of the Spiral Confederacy campaign. Session 8 covered a lot of different events, which are too much to describe in one post, so I’m breaking the write-up over three or four separate posts to keep them manageable]
Having successfully recovered what they believed was the Tablet of the Gods, and received a beautiful spaceship in exchange for trading away their dead cargo, the PCs returned from Slainte to The Reach. Upon returning to the Reach they were informed that initial exploration of the Tombspine had begun, and a smart young archaeologist had uncovered several graves, scattered out of order in nearby areas, that were probably linked to the graves that the characters had encountered a death priest trying to explore. Preparations were under way to open the graves and exhume its contents but these would take time. In the meantime the archaeologist had identified one particular grave of interest for its unique design, and was preparing to take a deep scanner to investigate its contents. Would Alva like to join her?
Of course our heroes, being men and women of science, wanted to know. They took the ship’s boat from their new, beautiful ship and headed as fast as they could to the Gardens, taking their weapons of course and the young archaeologist who had found the tomb. At the Gardens they found an agent of Pearl 7 acting as a gate guard, ready to report on any suspicious new entrants to the place, but he reported there had been no unusual activity. They hiked up into the hills, following the path they had followed when last they came here chasing the death priest. They reached the scene of their fight with the priest, now tranquil and scrubbed of any sign of violence or demons, and followed a narrow culvert into the hills. Here the Gardens sprawled across the ancient, craggy remains of a Confederacy spaceship, probably an early Continent class ship, that formed the spine of the structure they were walking along. Wrecked probably 2000 years ago in the Confederacy’s first ill-fated encounter with The Reach, when this sector was still well outside the frontier, this ship would have been 100kms long and 50 kms high, a beast of plasteel and field technology too vast to be easily fragmented; its wrecked superstructure formed the spine on which the entire Gardens was built, layers of wreckage piled on top of its flattened and uncoiled shell. At the higher, older reaches of the gardens, though, those other smaller ships were no longer part of the soil, and the characters found themselves toiling up grassy, forested slopes that were once the upper decks and turrets of this ancient, nameless starship. Mists gathered in the many valleys and tree-lined canyons of the ship’s grave, and all along the undulating ruins near the top of the tombspine they could see the remains of ancient turrets, turned thousands of years ago into tombs for fallen pirates.
One of these tombs was their target. The young archaeologist led them along a narrow valley, filled with mist and cascading water, and up to a long, narrow block of plasteel that had endured against the encroaching forest for millenia. This building was once a missile turret, perhaps holding weaponry capable of destroying a cruiser or the entire fleet of a lesser navy. Now it stood abandoned, hollowed out for its new purpose and left to the elements. They pushed through a narrow door and into the turret itself, and the young archaeologist explained the tomb to them.
It’s a central grave, this huge block of black material that’s blast-proof and bullet proof. There was an elaborate trap in the walls of the turret, some kind of complex laser trap triggered by the tomb itself with sufficient power and coverage to turn everyone in the room into chunks of barbequed meat. It’s been disabled now, but the central tomb is a strange arrangement still.
The tomb sat there, a squat and ominous pile of black … something, taking up much of the room. A small pile of flasks and boxes in one corner indicated the presence of grave goods, unopened and unrobbed. The central tomb rose to chest height, a perfect block of bomb-proof black … something, unmarked in every way. Apart from the small pile of pots and pans the rest of the room was empty and undisturbed, light filtering through a few holes in the ceiling and some plants growing out of cracks in the wall. They fired up the scanner.
They scanned the tomb. The outside of the tomb was, as their archaeologist had noticed, a weapon-proof shell. But inside it was another shell, a massive computer edifice devoted to fighting AIs. Inside that was a small computer and a sub-space power system, still running and dedicated to powering both. The AI defence and the smaller computer were both fried, destroyed by some intruder, probably necessary to disable the laser trap in the walls of the tomb. Once these two defenses had been disabled the lid of the tomb could be opened, which it had been. The body inside the tomb appeared to have been disturbed, though on first inspection nothing had been removed. Beneath the body was a small space, a final holder for grave goods, large enough to hold a tablet. It was empty.
Someone had come here, destroyed the AI defences around the central computer, disabled the trap surrounding the tomb, and disturbed the body inside just enough to take a single grave good – a tablet. The PCs could guess the implications of this: the leader of the Cult of the Unredeemed had come here 1000 years ago, broken into the tomb, and asked his AI to break through the defenses. The Starred One had managed to break the defenses but gone crazy during the battle. The cult leader had then removed the tablet and he and his now-crazy AI had jumped onto a sublight ship and headed off to the Perez system to hide.
This tomb told the PCs that someone placed immense value on the tablet they had found, and in particular they thought it needed to be protected from AIs.
What had they found?

This week’s Journal of the American Medical Association features an excellent article by Barack Obama, reviewing the implementation and outcomes of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). Obviously large parts of this article were likely written by someone else, since Obama is too busy with his secret Muslim conspiracies to write a full paper, but some parts – particularly the part on why and how he implemented it – do seem to be written in Obama’s voice, which is nice to see. Vox has a brief report of the article, indicating that it is the result of a six-month Whitehouse review of the legislation and focusing on the implications of one of Obama’s recommendations (for a public option). Like most non-Americans I don’t find the recommendation of a public option to be particularly controversial or striking, so I’m not interested in revisiting it here. Rather, I’d like to briefly discuss the article’s findings on Obamacare’s achievements, take a moment to rant about what a terrible statistician Obama is, and look at some of the other conclusions he draws from his success. I will quote some parts of the article and put up one figure, but I won’t go quote too much or put up too many figures because JAMA probably wouldn’t like that. I would like to say that this is a very easy-to-read article and the choice of figures and data presentation is largely very strong – Obama certainly knows how to make a case. Also note the author affiliation: “President of the United States, Washington, DC”. Classic.

Reduction in the uninsured

In Figure 1 of the paper Obama presents the long-term trend in the proportion of Americans not covered by health insurance, and shows a huge drop after the implementation of Obamacare, from 15% to below 10% of the population. That is a huge achievement, which he states corresponds with roughly 20 million Americans receiving health insurance who would not have received it if Obamacare had not been passed. This still leaves about 30 million people without health insurance in 2015, a pretty shocking number for a developed country (in contrast, Japan has about 98% coverage and the UK about 100%). In Figure 2 Obama shows that the Medicaid expansion was responsible for a major reduction in the uninsured, by comparing the percentage drop in the uninsured in states that accepted the Medicaid expansion and those that didn’t. This drop in the uninsured increases with the proportion of people who had no insurance before the implementation of Obamacare: in a state that had 20% of its population uninsured in 2013, we see a 10% drop in the uninsured rate if the state accepted Medicaid, compared to 5% if it didn’t (these are percentage point drops, too, meaning that the proportion uninsured halved in the Medicaid state!) Obama doesn’t attempt to estimate the total number of people missing out on insurance due to the recalcitrance of the 21 states that refused to accept the Medicaid expansion, but I think the implication is obvious.

Obama’s sad statistics

Figure 2 annoys me because the straight lines shown in the plot are from an ordinary least squares regression of percentage point drop in uninsured against pre-intervention proportion of the uninsured. The straight line fit for non-Medicaid states is quite poor, because of course the relationship between percentage point drops and their starting point is non-linear. Obama would have been better served to take the logit transformation of the proportional drop, fitted a straight line model to that, and then back-transformed the resulting prediction to get two pretty s-shaped curves in his figure. I guess his article wasn’t subjected to JAMA’s usual rigorous peer review standards …

(In truth this isn’t a big deal in this case because the relationship in the data is so obvious that it doesn’t really matter how you handle it. My guess is that this figure was prepared by one of the people doing the review of Obamacare, and I would like to think that the people doing that review can do higher quality work than this!)

The three dimensions of coverage

The three dimensions of coverage

Mixed results on financial protection

Insurance is only good if it covers the services you need and offers financial protection. In health financing we talk about depth, height and breadth of coverage, which are depicted graphically in the figure above that I cribbed from an LSHTM course on financing health. Reducing the number of uninsured increases the breadth of coverage (the proportion of the population covered) but if this comes at the expense of the depth of coverage (which services are covered) or the height of coverage (the proportion of financial protection people receive) the overall benefits of the plan may be limited. Obama tackles these three dimensions in his paper, though he doesn’t use the WHO framework described in the figure above. Regarding depth, he states

Coverage offered on the individual market or to small businesses must now include a core set of health care services, including maternity care and treatment for mental health and substance use disorders, services that were sometimes not covered at all previously

Which indicates that Obamacare has forced minimum standards of coverage onto organizations that offer health insurance. This is something that people living in countries with robust universal health coverage (UHC) systems take for granted, and it’s really hard to imagine having to navigate a health insurance market where this isn’t the case – at the very least setting up a core set of covered health services reduces the risk of mistakenly choosing a health insurance package that doesn’t help you with the things you’re most likely to need it for. Obama’s language here implicitly suggests that the core package of services covered under Obamacare is an expansion of those in the previous system, but he doesn’t present any evidence that this is the case for all plans, or even in general – it could be that in adhering to these core requirements insurers have dumped some other coverage from their plans. I haven’t ever seen any research on how to assess the best services to include in a plan, or how to compare two plans that have quite different and non-overlapping benefits, so I don’t know how to assess this aspect of Obamacare (or if it can be assessed), but from the point of view of consumer protection having a guaranteed core of services seems like a good idea.

Obama's Figure 3

Obama’s Figure 3

On financial protection – the height of services – Obama makes a strong case that his legislation has been very protective. Figure 3 in the article, shown above, shows the trend in the proportion of workers enrolled in an insurance scheme that has no annual upper limit on the amount of out-of-pocket payments they must make. Out of pocket payments for health care are the main source of financial risk for individuals, and typically arise when someone has no health insurance (so must pay everything from their own money) or has health insurance with very high co-payments and deductibles, a common problem in the USA before Obamacare. Obamacare required insurers to put a cap on these out of pocket payments, and the effect on the proportion of workers exposed to unlimited financial risk is obvious in this chart. Unfortunately in a later figure we see that average out of pocket expenses haven’t changed much over time, suggesting that the annual limits that insurers placed on out of pocket payments were set high enough as to not effect the majority of such payments. To properly explore this issue we need to see data on health-related financial catastrophe, distress financing, and impoverishment due to health expenses, which to the best of my knowledge have never been adequately reported for the USA. We see some hints of this in other parts of the report, where Obama notes that the proportion of people not seeking care because they can’t afford it is down, and the average size of Medicaid debts is also down, but the picture here is incomplete. My suspicion is that a lot of healthy people have picked up bronze plans that offer them financial protection in only the most extreme cases, leaving them wearing significant costs for routine care. This isn’t in itself necessarily a problem, but to properly understand the financial protection and equity effects of the law we really need to see measures of who gets screwed by very high costs and how, rather than seeing trends in average costs.

Lessons from this policy battle

Obama concludes, unsurprisingly, that his policy has been highly effective, and I agree with this conclusion. It’s definitely not the best UHC plan out there, and even before it was rewritten by the Supreme Court and repeatedly undermined by Republicans it wasn’t a great plan, but it has achieved a lot and a lot of Americans are much better off for it. He states in the conclusion that he now wants people to accept it as the law of the land and move on to ways of improving it, but first he makes this comment about the challenges of working in American politics which gives some idea of how much of an achievement even this compromised package is:

The first lesson is that any change is difficult, but it is especially difficult in the face of hyperpartisanship. Republicans reversed course and rejected their own ideas once they appeared in the text of a bill that I supported. For example, they supported a fully funded risk-corridor program and a public plan fallback in the Medicare drug benefit in 2003 but opposed them in the ACA. They supported the individual mandate in Massachusetts in 2006 but opposed it in the ACA. They supported the employer mandate in California in 2007 but opposed it in the ACA—and then opposed the administration’s decision to delay it. Moreover, through inadequate funding, opposition to routine technical corrections, excessive oversight, and relentless litigation, Republicans undermined ACA implementation efforts. We could have covered more ground more quickly with cooperation rather than obstruction. It is not obvious that this strategy has paid political dividends for Republicans, but it has clearly come at a cost for the country, most notably for the estimated 4 million Americans left uninsured because they live in GOP-led states that have yet to expand Medicaid

Here he hasn’t gone into great detail about how the Supreme Court rewrote the Medicaid expansion part of his bill, and he has notably understated the effect of obstructionism on the Republicans, but his central point is clear: this legislation could have been better if Republicans would just have supported it, or contributed in any way at all to a constructive debate on health care. Five years have passed since the bill was first introduced to Congress, and Obama has had enough time to review its effects and write a JAMA article on it, and in all that time the Republicans have tried repeatedly to repeal it yet are still to come up with an alternative health care plan. Today they released their convention platform, and as reported by Vox it doesn’t include an alternative health care plan – in an election year. This is beyond juvenile politics, and in any other democratic polity a party that cannot come up with a coherent health policy would be treated as a joke. This is the background of Obama’s legislative efforts.

Finally, Obama makes the point that people working in health financing understand well: that UHC is about a pragmatic pathway to financial protection for everyone, not about an ideological commitment to a specific means of getting there. He says:

The third lesson is the importance of pragmatism in both legislation and implementation. Simpler approaches to addressing our health care problems exist at both ends of the political spectrum: the single-payer model vs government vouchers for all. Yet the nation typically reaches its greatest heights when we find common ground between the public and private good and adjust along the way. That was my approach with the ACA. We engaged with Congress to identify the combination of proven health reform ideas that could pass and have continued to adapt them since. This includes abandoning parts that do not work, like the voluntary long-term care program included in the law

and in this respect I also agree with him. I suspect that if the Republican party were a real political party and not a clown car, they would have recognized the importance of reform and accepted Obamacare as a practical model that protects the free market nature of the existing health system. For those Bernie dead-enders who refuse to accept compromise, nothing except a full single-payer public plan will do, and while this worked completely fine in Australia, Canada and the UK it just won’t make it in the USA, which is probably why those Berniebros find themselves in their current cul-de-sac. Obamacare is an artful example of the importance of compromise in making good health policy, and the value of practical planning over ideology. Shamefully for the Republicans and unfortunately for the country, it hasn’t been able (yet) to achieve its full promise. Obama made a few suggestions for how it can, but ultimately his particular recommendations are less important than the simple need for a return to rational policy-making by the Republicans. Whoever the next president is, she is going to want to begin tinkering with Obamacare to make it better, and hopefully the Republicans will by then have recognized that it is their responsibility to contribute positively to that process, for the good of all Americans.

I don’t see that happening, but like Obama, I can always hope …

What Dreams These?

What Dreams These?

Although it is a post-scarcity utopia, there are some things that even the Spiral Confederacy cannot guarantee its citizens. Ocean class spaceships, for example, 40km long and 10 km wide, require special facilities to build, and so much energy and raw materials that they cannot be built quickly enough to meet demand. Ships of this size are so rare even in the Spiral Confederacy that their citizens are not free to travel where they like, but find themselves bouncing around the Confederacy on missions and tasks that the leadership require. The Confederacy has never built a Dyson sphere, although it has constructed smaller orbitals, because the engineering challenge is too great to be worth the reward. Some technology, such as psionic amplification devices, is still so new that it requires rare elements that are hard to obtain and work with, and so although the Confederacy might in theory have the resources to produce an infinite quantity of such devices, in reality their numbers are never sufficient, and they are not distributed evenly across the Confederacy. Some commodities are limited because the Confederacy’s success has rendered it incapable of mobilizing people to do some tasks, and its strict resistance to allowing AIs into society prevents it from utilizing their prodigious intellects to replace human ingenuity. For this reason the Confederacy never has enough researchers to further its understanding of new planets or to develop new technologies, and until it admits AIs fully into its society will not be able to progress beyond Tech Level 15 at any appreciable speed. Because no one in the Confederacy has to work, real scientific endeavour has stagnated. Although the Confederacy has more stars in its borders than anyone can count, and more people orbiting those stars than it could ever catalog, it suffers from a single scarcity: A scarcity of workers.

This scarcity of willing workers means that the Confederacy suffers two particularly challenging constraints, in delivering sudden death and eternal life. Although the Confederacy is blessed with an infinite supply of the most destructive and violent weapons humans have ever seen, it lacks people to wield them; and although it has developed the technology to save human souls into computers and download them into new bodies, it lacks the medical staff and skilled workers to be able to provide this resleeving service to everyone within its borders. This technology – officially called Sentient Recapture but unofficially and everywhere referred to as “resleeving” – offers the potential for eternal life to anyone who uses it, and liberates human civilization from the fear of death. It enables a human soul, with all its personality and memories, to be stored digitally, and reimplanted into the empty mind of a cloned body. This technology is enormously costly, however, for two reasons: AI attack, and human genetic caprice. Because AIs are excluded from human society, and creep around the fringes of its computer systems, colonizing them and using the human information architecture as parasites use a host body, all major computer systems in the Confederacy have to be built with protection against AI intrusion. Although no one has any evidence that it has ever happened, fear of AI inserting themselves into human stored consciousness, potentially using resleeved humans as experiments in organic AI tech, require that the digital storage sites for backed-up souls be heavily guarded against AI intrusion. Since the primary defense against AI attack is a physically huge computer system with multiple redundant physical structures and huge quantities of highly advanced anti-intrustion software, human download sites are physically massive, use huge amounts of power, and require the constant presence of technicians to monitor the systems. They simply cannot be expanded rapidly enough to accomodate all the humans in their local area, and so some mechanism is needed to ensure that only some privileged people receive this technology.

Similarly, war cannot be fought by AIs, and the Confederacy has put strict limits on robot technology to ensure AIs cannot infect robot soldiers and suddenly uplift them to artificial intelligence. This means that ultimately the Confederacy will rely on physical, human soldiers to do the old-fashioned work of killing enemies – and although it is a utopia, the Confederacy has many enemies. The Confederacy also relies on humans to do some medical work, to do much of its scientific research, and to manage distant space stations and territories. Even if it were willing to work with AIs, AI cannot travel through jump space, so ultimately inter-stellar force projection and border control depends on mobile, committed and well-trained humans. But in the Spiral Confederacy work is considered a bother – people only work for fun, never because they need to, and this principle is so central to the Confederacy’s self-conception that it can never be trained.

The Confederacy’s leaders have solved this problem by offering special rewards to those who serve it voluntarily. These rewards usually take the form of those scarce technologies that are still not ubiquitous even after 20,000 years of constant growth. If someone is willing to spend 10 years running a remote research station she will be given her own starship, so they may fly where they will; if a psionic is willing to spend a couple of years doing field work on a remote planet occupied by semi-sentient psionic lizard creatures, he will be given an amplification device and training in new disciplines. And if someone joins up for the Confederate army and actually goes near a war zone, they will be given a backup. Of course the Confederacy has other means to get people to work – from threats of prison to simple old-fashioned propaganda – but in the end it knows that where principles and a desire for adventure fail, basic rewards will work.

This means that there are really only three reasons that anyone joins the Confederate army: they are a true believer in the Confederate cause; they want to kill people; or they want to live forever. Most of the billions who join the Confederate army will never see action, instead spending a couple of boring years on a space station somewhere before returning to civilian life, perhaps now possessed of some minor reward that will forever set them apart from their peers. But should they be unlucky enough to see actual combat, they will get to enjoy all three of the motivations at once: They will kill many people for the cause, and they will be granted eternal life. All soldiers heading into the field are given a backup, and guaranteed a resleeve in the same body should they die or suffer any injury so serious that they cannot be restored to full health. There are soldiers in the Confederate army who have multiple posthumous medals (and were at the award ceremony for all of them); no Confederate soldier can ever remember the moment of their death, but every soldier who dies receives the coveted broken heart award, that sets them apart from their peers as particularly dedicated to their work (and especially unlucky).

This compact of eternal life makes the Confederate soldier an implacable and fearsome foe, dedicated to the cause he or she has signed up for and committed to killing for it. No soldier ever need fear death, and because most Confederate citizens are genetically engineered to have a euthanasia switch they can engage during periods of prolonged suffering, no soldier need fear torture. Among Confederate soldiers death isn’t just the highest sacrifice – it’s a sacrifice they can live to brag about, though only their peers will be able to tell them how they died. Confederate soldiers do not seek death, but they happily embrace it when the mission demands it. Confederate leaders also know that they can send their soldiers on suicide missions, and throw away whole divisions in reckless gambits or desperate moves. Such sacrifices need only be judged on their merits, as logistical and tactical problems, not on moral grounds. For the enemies of the Confederacy this adds a terrifying additional calculus to every battle. As if it weren’t enough that their opponents carry the best weapons and armour in known space, they do not relent in their use of those weapons or shirk from even the hardest of battles. An enemy of the Confederacy cannot expect to win by forcing their enemy to pay too steep a price – they must entirely exterminate their enemy, or fail.

It is always the case that foolish warmongers fail to properly assess the risks of the war they decided to wage, and so of course reckless rebels or jealous outsiders will attempt war with the Confederacy, thinking that this time they have a strategy that will ensure the price is so high that they will force this vast confederation of uncaring stars to come to some settlement. But then an Ocean class battleship drops a million dedicated soldiers onto their planet, and refuses to even consider negotiation after half a million have died. Seeing such recklessness, the rebel presses the attack even as his or her own losses mount, thinking that the back of that force must break, but still the only official communiques from the Confederacy are surrender requests. The Confederates gain ground, and the rebel’s position begins to become precarious. They suggest a ceasefire, and in return they are given an offer of total capitulation. As their own losses grow their own political support wavers, people begin to fear the insanity of the Confederate strategy. Who can argue with people who are not afraid to die? Every battle they see thousands of their enemy die, and yet they lose every battle. Every culture that has been to war has some version of a story about pyrrhic victories, but it seems that the Confederacy can sustain a thousand pyrrhic victories and never waver in its certainty that it will win. The confidence of the aggressor wavers, and they suggest a negotiated settlement; the Confederate general refuses to accept anything less than the immediate execution of war criminals and unconditional surrender, disarmament, humiliation. The rebel’s generals report that morale is good among the enemy’s soldiers, though they have lost 70% of their number. Another battle, a major city falls, a conquered country’s neighbours switch sides. Political support collapses, and the tumbrils take the warmonger to meet his new Confederate executioners.

On the frontier, the lesson is always the same: there is no use in arguing with people who cannot die.


A note on ideas: I picked up the term “resleeve” and most of the associated ideas from the Richard Morgan book Altered Carbon, which I reviewed here. This sci-fi vision has been something of a fixture in my gaming: the quotes from the Dialectic Ephmeralists that Drew became fond of in the New Horizon cyberpunk Campaign were all drawn from Quellchrist Falconer, a political visionary in Morgan’s books. I don’t do anything original when I game.

Two good friends and I are doing occasional Sunday evening sessions of original Dungeons and Dragons (OD&D) over skype. I reported the first session here, and haven’t reported the subsequent four because … well, because there’s nothing to hang onto. Our second session ended with a TPK, but I think I didn’t report it, and since then we decided to move on to a different module, B1: In Search of the Unknown, which we have been slowly unpicking over three more sessions. We are following a pretty specific plan, which is to play the rules as they are written with no deviations. Basically, if it’s not in the Rules Cyclopaedia we don’t use it. So far we have tried two adventures, the one that came with the 1983 Mentzer Red Box, and B1. We have, to say the least, been underwhelmed, and at the end of the last session we stopped and had a solid discussion about what is wrong with the game and the system. Basically, we concluded that we’re really enjoying hanging out together (we live in different countries and regular skyping is fun) and the game is a good vehicle for that, and we’re having a lot of fun but mostly this fun has increasingly turned to taking the piss out of the game as we play it. This post is an attempt to summarize our complaints about Basic Dungeons and Dragons so far, and perhaps also a brief discussion of what it means that there is a whole movement (the OSR) that is evangelical about how good this stuff is.

So first, the problems we’ve encountered so far.

The PCs are all the same

Even with the Rules Cyclopaedia’s rudimentary skill rules, the PCs are all the same. If you’re not a Fighter, your attributes are basically only meaningful as an XP bonus – for example, intelligence doesn’t improve a wizard’s spellcasting at all, and dexterity makes no difference to a thief’s skills (which are, in any case, absolutely useless). So far our most entertaining characters have been the wizard with 1 hit point (because his death was so assured) and Lefto the Halfling, who managed to get enough hit points to survive a full power blow from a longsword (but still died because my wizard was conserving his sleep spell for when we really needed it). When you’re distinguishing PCs on the basis of their hit points you know you’re plumbing the bottom of the barrel. What reason do we have to keep any of these people alive? Why are they here? Why are we here? More diversity in PC choices and more effort in making them identifiably different at first level would make the game so much more interesting. I’ve heard the argument that in D&D you don’t invest your character with any special meaning at first level because you know it’s going to die, and you wait for its personality to emerge if it survives, but I don’t think the allegedly easy deaths are the reason (especially for fighters and dwarves, who don’t die); the reason is that the PCs simply have nothing to hook onto when you first make them.

The adventures are absolutely terrible

The two modules we have played so far have been, to put it frankly, terrible. The first, the adventure that comes with the Mentzer red box, is an absolute disaster that starts and ends with a TPK. The carrion crawler at the gates is such a stupid idea, it’s beyond ridiculous, but there is another TPK buried at the back of the first level of the dungeon, where your FIRST level characters can break into a room that holds two harpies. You get no warning about these beasts anywhere in the adventure, and for first level characters they are absolutely fatal. Even if your entire party doesn’t get caught by their siren song, their attack is way more than a first level party can handle. Now you could argue that this is just life as an adventurer, but this is meant to be the very first introductory adventure for people who have never played this game before and it is absolutely punishing. It is a prime example of what in Japan we call power harassment, in which the GM simply uses his power to bully the PCs brutally, and nothing they can do can escape it. I’m confident that a great many young people dropped out of this hobby after their first experience of it, simply because of this adventure.

In contrast, the next module we played, In Search of the Unknown, is tedious and stupid and not at all challenging. It famously comes unstocked, with a list of monsters and treasures that the GM is supposed to place at his or her whim throughout the dungeon, but the dungeon is huge and the treasures and monsters list small, so it ends up incredibly dry and boring – the classic endless series of dusty empty rooms. I bulked up the monster and treasure list and it’s still tedious. Furthermore, the dungeon setting is embarrassingly written in so many ways. The dungeon is the lair of two famous adventures, one of whom is called Zelligar the Unknown (even though we have all heard of him), and these two adventurers are incredibly arrogant and insecure – their rooms are full of murals of themselves, and statues to their own prowess, like cheap dictators. The rooms are terribly described, so that for example we learn in some rooms that the walls are carved in intricate detail, yet we are told nothing of what this detail is, while in another room we are given intricately detailed information about some random book (it was meant to be returned to the library!) or other object, ofttimes detail that is impossible for the adventurers to know. I’m told that the hand axe in room 34 has a split handle but I’m told the walls in room 33 have been carved in intricate detail that isn’t explained at all – this isn’t how GMing is supposed to work. This adventure is probably the first adventure that GMs will use to learn how to do this stuff, and it’s a contradictory mess of consistently bad lessons.

It’s boring for another reason too – D&D movement and combat is just not much fun.

The movement rules suck balls

Of course our fighters and clerics are wearing full plate – otherwise fighting would be randomly fatal rather than randomly easy, see below – so our whole party moves at 60′ per turn. That is, 60′ in 10 minutes. As I said, we’re following the rules, so we’re tracking oil flasks and movement and wandering monsters, which is relatively easy because we’re doing this over skype so we have a google doc. We don’t have a “caller” and a “mapper” because as soon as we saw that idea we laughed and decided to use roll20, so now we unveil sections of the map consistent with the lantern range, and avoid mapping. If we were mapping B1 we would be spending most of our sessions arguing about the mistakes in the map, because the dungeon is incredibly complex and hard to map based on a GM’s description, which is what we would be doing back in the 1980s when this game was released – another example of terrible module design, for the first independent module to be designed to be too hard for beginning (or even experienced!) players to map easily.

So we’re spending our time documenting these movements that take 10 minutes to move 60′, and trying to understand why. In a complex dungeon this means that you spend an hour retracing your tracks to explore a room that is literally just around the corner, and you have to go back to town because you’re out of oil. Of course this doesn’t really matter since this game is designed so that you go home as soon as your wizard has used his Sleep spell, but it hangs over us like this oppressive bit of pointless stupidity. Why did it take us 10 minutes to go around the corner, and why did we use an appreciable amount of oil exploring that room? This is even worse if you follow the original rules 100% precisely, which require one turn to explore a 10′ square. Module B1’s most famous room would take about 5 hours to explore, and would take two sessions since the PCs would have to return to town twice to get oil, if you followed those rules.

Speaking of which, Module B1’s most famous room – the one with the pools – is stupid. One of our players immediately thought of using the fish from the pond with fish to test all the other ponds, rendering all the stupid save-or-die traps immediately harmless, and turning the whole thing into an academic exercise.

Level-gaining is random and easy

If you read around the traps, you’ll find this general opinion presented that in original D&D you gained levels slowly after much struggle, and D&D is a low-experience, slow-reward game. Were this true it would be the textbook definition of bullying, since you have been given a completely cookie-cutter character with limited survival chance and been told that he has to go through a large number of near-death experiences at the hands of a save-or-die fickle GM in order to get that one more level that might possibly make him vaguely able to make it on his own efforts.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Because XP is gained from treasure and treasure generation is random, it’s actually really easy to gain a level by blind luck. We’re three four-hour sessions into B1 and we’ve hit second level, because we found a 1500 Gp dragon hide, a 1000Gp treasure horde, and a 5000 GP statue (actually the rules say at least 5000). And we were unlucky. We found a Green Slime, which has treasure type B – with a 25% chance of 1d6 items of jewellery, each of which has a 90% chance of being worth 2000Gp or more (incidentally, the Rules Cyclopaedia estimates of treasure average values are clearly wrong). This reliance on treasure for XP makes leveling up a completely arbitrary process, which either happens randomly and suddenly according to rolls on treasure tables, or is completely determined by GM caprice (but role-playing XP is a bad idea!)

Combat is boring and randomly fatal

Combat is heavily dependent on the position of the fighters when it starts and the initiative roll, which is completely random. If the party wins the initiative the fighters attack with a THAC0 of 15 (because of high strength and weapon mastery). If anything is left after they have done their job it attacks, usually with THAC0 19, unless it’s a TPK machine like a carrion crawler. Typically the enemy is AC 5-7 but we are AC 2-4, so the odds are stacked against the enemy. Occasionally an enemy gets a lucky hit and one of us dies, unless it’s Lefto the halfling who went through multiple attacks and who we left to die rather than waste our sleep spell because he was a henchman and we were going to get more xp if he died but if I cast sleep we would all go home with less.

This is not fun combat. Especially at early levels where everyone literally has one option – attack and roll damage – so combat is just a short series of hit/damage rolls with the outcome primarily determined by initiative. There is no choice of magic items or special abilities that would make your character have some unique contribution, nothing outside of the environment at all to distinguish between the vast majority of characters – at first level literally only wizards and elves have any unique abilities and they can’t use them more than once a day so they hold them back. And even then there is no wizard whose unique ability is ever anything except sleep (held in reserve for when a group of enemies appears) and no elf who hasn’t learnt charm person (because for some stupid incomprehensible reason they’re not allowed to learn sleep).

It’s also telling that the only time we bothered to not use combat as a solution to our problems was when we had an elf with charm person learned. There are no social skills, and all our enemies are evil, so why would we bother?

Important rules are completely missing

There are a lot of rules for basic things missing in D&D. The absence of these rules gives you pause to think, “Hmmm, we’ve learnt a lot in 30 years”. This absence of rules isn’t restricted to the rulebooks but also applies to the modules. For example, B1 is full of secret doors but doesn’t give any information about how they work or how PCs should find them or how GMs should manage them. Similarly, B1 has a couple of obvious huge treasure hauls but no information on how to treat them. The most egregious example is the dragonhide in room 26, which you are told is “immense” and has “brassy scales”. There are no brass dragons in Basic D&D, but the module gives you no information on what this hide might be worth. This same room contains a stuffed cockatrice and some dragon paws, but no idea of their value (consistent with my complaint above, other rooms give details about the monetary value of mouldy cloaks and component parts of beds). So I had to make this up (for those who googled “D&D value dragonhide” I went with 50Gp per hp of the original dragon multiplied by a third, and rolled hps for a large red dragon – the third represented the fact that the hide was incomplete). Why would you give the monetary value of a mouldy cloak but not a dragonhide? Ridiculous.

The most obvious example of this lack of rules is the problem of magic items. There are no rules on how to sell magic items, something that I have also seen presented as a plus about original D&D (who would sell a magic item!?) but this is something that makes no sense once you’ve played five minutes of the game. As soon as you get a magic item you don’t need that someone else obviously wants, you are going to want to sell it, but there is nothing about the obvious market that would result from adventurers surviving modules (except the introductory module, which is inevitably fatal because we want people to enjoy our game so we loaded it with TPKs as an advertising mechanism). Of course you could use the rules on the amount it costs to make magic items as a guide but – shock! – these rules are stupid. The amount of money required to make a magic item is completely out of context to its value. It’s as if there is no connection between the rules for magic items and how they are actually available and used in play.

Say it isn’t so.

Conclusion: This game is not an exemplar of its kind

I hate the Beatles, or rather, I hate the hype about the Beatles. This is the band that wrote Obladioblada, they aren’t good. But people mistake them for good because they were first. There is no song the Beatles ever made that compares with Stairway to Heaven or Child in Time (the video for which is a splendid piece of early musical beauty), and there is no sense in which the Beatles are as connected to the fundamental traditions of the English language as later metal bands are. But the Beatles get the attention because they were there first. I feel that Basic D&D has been treated the same, and just as there is a certain group of “connoisseurs” who have managed to convince themselves that bands like the Beatles were good, rather than just the first, there is a network of revivalists (the OSR) who have convinced themselves that D&D was somehow revolutionary for its content rather than for its timing, as the first. In reality subsequent generations of games are far, far better, and have added so much more to gaming than D&D. They have improved the rules (even AD&D did this) and added new elements of story, character development and GM skill and training to the gaming world. The truth is that gamers don’t want this mechanical dungeon crawl dice rolling stuff, they want story and character development and engrossing adventures with themes and purpose. That kind of stuff doesn’t emerge from crawling around empty, dusty chambers in the dark. It’s a purposive thing, that needs good rules and engaged GMing that is about more than setting up a bunch of rooms for hollow shell-people to die in.

I’ll keep doing my D&D skype thing with my friends, because they’re great and killing kobolds with them is fun. But exploring this game that was at the roots of our gaming experience has shown me that we have all grown since we started, as has the hobby, and we should respect original D&D for its originality and its explosive potential, at the same time as we should accept it for the stunted and narrow game that it was.

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