The Cloud

“Cloud” is one of the current buzz words in the computer world. So many companies like to spout off phrases involving the word, and now it’s becoming a hot topic in the consumer area thanks to Apple and iCloud. But like “Web 2.0”, Cloud doesn’t mean anything different or new from what we’ve already had for decades: network- and internet-connected computers.

For the everyday “normal user”, the cloud has two great offerings: file sync and backups. Plenty of systems were around before Apple and Microsoft came into the game, and one of the most popular is Dropbox. Once the software is installed on your system, you’ll have a special folder that you can copy/move/etc. files to, and once there they are uploaded to their servers. Once uploaded, you can either access those same files on their website, or if you install Dropbox on another computer it will download those files there.  You can also share files and folders with other Dropbox users.  Again, it’s a very simple solution for people to use: what’s in the folder is synced and online.

It’s exactly how Microsoft’s Skydrive works.  Compared to Dropbox, there are some disadvantages to using Skydrive.  First, the system requirements for Skydrive are much higher; on OS X you must be running 10.7 (Dropbox still supports 10.4), and on Windows you must be running Vista SP2 (Dropbox still supports XP).  If you’re on the latest and greatest this won’t matter, while there’s still plenty of users all over the world who haven’t upgraded.  Of course, Dropbox also supports Linux, something I doubt will ever come to Skydrive.  When I tried Skydrive on my system, it seemed to work ok at first.  Uploading went fairly quickly considering I had about 4GB (on Skydrive I do have 25GB of free space, while on Dropbox I’m currently around 6GB).  Once synced it was easy to work in its folder as well as on the website.  The biggest downfall happened the next time I started up the computer.  After logging in, Dropbox took a few seconds to check for any changes and show the green checkmark, while Skydrive took over a minute.  During this check, Skydrive also used far more CPU and memory than Dropbox did at its peak.

Google Drive works a little differently, although not as much now that there is a client software that can be installed.  Originally, Google Drive (re-named from Google Docs) was online only; after logging into Google, Gmail, etc. you could choose the Docs section of their website, which would list all of your files.  This was limited to Docs-compatible files, namely text documents, spreadsheets and presentations.  Now images, PDFs, etc. can be added.  The desktop software, like Skydrive, can only be run on Windows and OS X.  Its system requirements aren’t as restrictive: XP and 10.6 are supported.  Unlike the other services, for Google Drive the desktop software is optional.  If you want, you can use it like Google Docs was originally: to create and edit documents online.  This may bother some (me included) as there’s no local copy of files saved, but it does make it far easier if you need to enable sharing and such.  I personally haven’t used their desktop software so I can’t attest if it makes their ecosystem any better or easier to use than the alternatives, but I would at least install the desktop software to have a local copy of the files, which I could then back them up myself.

On the Google Drive and Skydrive websites, office documents can be edited using the company’s respective software.  Google’s has been very popular as a lightweight alternative, especially for Word.  Microsoft has been working on an online version of Office for awhile, but it’s been recently integrated with Skydrive.  It is a bit heavier than Google’s offerings, so depending on your needs it may be too much.  For simple edits, it’ll be hard to beat Google Docs.  Dropbox, on the other hand, is strictly a “file server”; there are no built-in apps to edit text/Word documents, etc.  Again, depending on your needs this can be good or not.  As mentioned in a previous post I’ve been working a lot more with plain-text files.  With Dropbox installed on all 3 OS’s, I can go to each system and open those files with my preferred text editor.  You could do the same with Skydrive and Google Drive, but if you’re not using the native software to edit certain filetypes (.doc and .docx for example) you may either end up with weird appearances or worse, a corrupt file.

One thing to note about these three systems is their mobile apps: all 3 are quite excellent.  I like Dropbox’s as it allows a PIN to be setup, so even if your phone itself is unlocked you don’t have to worry about someone accessing your data easily.  The Skydrive app, while its desktop equivalent isn’t available on Linux, is available on Android, and it’s one of the most well-designed apps I’ve used.  It has a strong Metro appearance, and from what little I’ve used it’s very easy to navigate and use.  It’s also far easier to browse images in the Skydrive app compared to Dropbox, as the icons are larger by default.

So which cloud service to use?  There’s ups and downs to all services, and for file syncing and backup any are better than not using anything (unless you already back-up your data, which of course you do, right?).  If you plan on collaborating with many people and don’t need a heavy office suite, it’s hard to beat Google Drive.  If you do need to use Office but you already have a “proper copy” installed, then you may get by using Dropbox; otherwise if you do need full Office support and don’t have a copy then Skydrive may be the best for you.  If you’re running Linux, then Dropbox may be one of the few or only options out there. There are plenty of other services out there as well (SugarSync, SpiderOak, etc.) and all of them offer a trial, so feel free to try as many as possible before deciding. Welcome to the cloud!

Labyrinth Lord

When searching for a Retroclone to play, it’s impossible to not read about Labyrinth Lord. Written by Dan Proctor of Goblinoid Games, Labyrinth Lord is a clone of Dungeons and Dragons Basic and Expert rulebooks. It’s part of the “first-wave” of retroclones to come out, and has had one major revision since its release (primarily new artwork).

Goblinoid Games knows how to make a nice-looking game, there’s no doubt about it. While the initial release had a more “amateur-looking” cover and artwork, the revised edition, with all art by Steve Zeiser, has a nice uniform look. The font is very easy on the eyes, and each section is clearly marked. Of all the retroclones, Labyrinth Lord may be the best as far as looks.

But to counter that heap of praise, there is something about Labyrinth Lord that I can’t quite pinpoint. As one forum poster noted, reading Labyrinth Lord left him “cold”.  At first I had trouble seeing it that way, but after going back to review the book I can now. I’m not sure if it’s the abundance of blacks/darks in the artwork, very little shading, etc. Or perhaps it’s the nice if straight-forward and no-nonsense writing. This is a book that wastes no time; here’s the game, here’s the set of rules, go play! Compared to the gushing enthusiasm of Swords and Wizardry or even the slight smile from Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord is the straight-faced lecture.

As a Basic/Expert clone, Labyrinth Lord has a solid foundation to build on, while refusing any “wishy-washy” feeling of Swords and Wizardry, or the march of progression of Basic Fantasy. Labyrinth Lord sticks to the guns of Moldvay, Marsh and Cook, and does little to sway from it. Again, it’s a great ruleset and those who aren’t looking for anything different from a “true clone” will be happy to go with Labyrinth Lord and never look back.

In Praise of Plain Text

A recent blog post by John August (here) got me thinking again about my own recent appreciation for working in plain text. When did it start? For me it was getting back into web design and an awesome text editor, Sublime Text 2.  For decades most computer users have relied on word processors for all their needs, whether a simple to-do list or a long novel manuscript.  Yet for as long as computers have been around, so has the text editor.

Text editors

With the example of the to-do list, a word processor is obviously overkill. It should have been a bigger deal in the past, when hard drive space was so much smaller; using a word processor inflates the file size of all documents, even a simple list. Comparatively, a text editor adds none or very little overhead to saved text files. Of course, for things such as a to-do list I may still suggest using pencil and paper (yes really).

While for me it was web design and Sublime Text 2 that got me interested in the power and simplicity of plain text, I would be remiss if I didn’t give an honorable mention to a few other text editors that I used before settling into Sublime Text 2. The first would be Window’s Notepad. This program is about as simple as you can get: open, type, save. Not much else, and easy to use. An equivalent was Apple’s TextEdit; however, it includes the choice of either plain-text or rich-text, so in a way it’s a combination of Windows Notepad and Wordpad. Both TextEdit and WordPad are fine as a poor man’s word processor, but I digress…

When I got back into programming and designing websites, these simple text editors were my home. I could type, save and not worry about any excess features or a cluttered interface. But, I also couldn’t easily see what I needed to. In other words, I needed text highlighting. There were some features in Mozilla/Netscape for it, and there were big programs such as Dreamweaver, but none of those were what I wanted. This was before I dabbled in Linux, so I knew nothing of those options. But I did want something free, something easy. The first thing I found, since I was mostly using a Windows desktop system, was Notepad++. It had what I wanted, and something I didn’t know I needed: tabs. Just like tabbed browsing, introduced first by Opera but popularized by Mozilla, tabs in a text editor was a god-send. It wasn’t a nice feature, it was now a requirement. I couldn’t live without it now.  Notepad++ had a lot of features I never needed, but luckily they stayed out of the way.  And when once in a blue moon I needed to print something, Notepad++ could do that (something Sublime can’t do, but not as crucial as my need to print goes even further down).

So why didn’t I just stick to Notepad++, instead of moving on to Sublime Text 2 where I am today?  It was something superficial: appearance.  There were plenty of themes in Notepad++, and the colors could be customized, but I just never found something I really liked.  Also, the theme wasn’t consistent from file to file, or even in the same file when re-opened later.  I could never figure out if it was a fault of my own or not, but it became a big enough deal that I started searching again, and that’s when I discovered the buzz building up around Sublime.  Once I had downloaded the beta and opened it the first time I knew my search was over.  It looked clean and simple and the default font was easy to read. It had the simplicity of Notepad and the tabs and text highlighting of Notepad++. I also really liked that it ran on all 3 major OS’s, so no matter what system I might be running Sublime is always an option.

What language/markup would you like to use today?

Using a text editor, you have the option of simply typing in words and save to a .txt file, or you can dive into a language and save with that appropriate extension, bringing text highlighting into the mix. While I’m not a heavy programmer, there’s quite a few areas I dabble in: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Python, C, and Fountain. In regards to “simply typing in words”, whenever I work on a novel or script I prefer to start in a text editor, so that I can immediately get words down. I don’t want to worry about formatting or anything else. Of course if I’m writing a script in Fountain I will have a little bit to worry about, but nowhere near what I’d be dealing with in Final Draft. And again, I can work in this format on any system, while Final Draft is tied to both an OS and being activated. Normally that’s not an issue for me (at least at home), but still. The same thing applies to any web work or light programming I do. I don’t want to fire up some huge, slow, costly design suite or IDE just to run a few dozen lines of code. I type it into Sublime, save with the correct extension, and then open with the appropriate command, etc.

The door is never locked

The greatest strength of plain text is that it is readable on any system: any OS, any device. With my files backed up, I can access a script I worked on on my phone, let alone a computer with no chance of getting Final Draft installed on.  I can keep working on a novel idea, even on a computer that only has Notepad installed (and I may not have rights to install Sublime).  Just like an open web allows the user a choice in browser, plain text allows me to choose from so many programs.  I don’t know about you, but I like choice.

Goodbye to the Frenzy

I recently received an email with some bad news: Script Frenzy will no longer be held.

It was hard for me to to digest, though somewhat ironic: every year that I’ve tried it I never wrote anywhere near the required number of pages.  But still, it was easy to get excited to be starting on a script with many other people in the same situation.

Apparently that number wasn’t very high.  According to their website, far more people participate each year in NaNoWriMo, the annual contest for writing a 30,000-word novel in 30 days.  To me, it’s hard to imagine that so many more people would attempt to write a novel rather than a script in a month, let alone in any amount of time.

Why do I think that?

First off, simply the length.  It’s really not that hard to write a screenplay (at least to me).  The structure is more defined than a novel, and the formatting is far more rigid as well, but the fact is there’s far more whitespace on each page of a script, and the total length (both pages and words) is far less than a novel (normally 1 page = 1 minute of screentime).  So for so many eager novice writers, shouldn’t attempting a script be far more tempting?

Second, consider the era that we live in.  Movies are as popular as ever (although video games seem to be on the cusp of edging it out).  Nobody really reads novels anymore (for the most part), and those that do seem to be taking up eReaders and leaving behind the dead-tree form (please note the slight sarcasm I inject into this sentence).  With so many people going to the movies (and even now the advent of online streaming), shouldn’t they be far more motivated to try to write one?  In the past everyone had a great idea for the next Great American Novel; aren’t we now in the time of looking for the next Great Hollywood Blockbuster?

I don’t know if any other website or community will pick up where Script Frenzy left off. I do think there’s plenty of aspiring screenwriters out there. Maybe it really is the structure and formatting that kept alot of people from trying. Even though some software is still expensive (Final Draft) there are far more cheaper and free alternatives available now (Scrivener, Celtx, Trelby, etc.) that can allow people to get into writing. The increasing popularity of streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Apple) and the rise of the indie pictures should surely encourage writers, as well as trying to break into the traditional Hollywood system. If and when an alternative does turn up, I’ll gladly become a part of it.

At the Mouth of the Labyrinth

It’s been a long time since I’ve played an RPG.  Back in middle school we played Rifts and Star Wars, but as time progressed and people moved away I never tried to find another group to play those with.  I had a friend in my church’s youth group that was obsessed with AD&D, but we never really played.  Since then I have followed the forums at RPG.net and read about the new releases of Star Wars and D&D, the stagnation of Palladium Books, and discovered other RPG’s that I now wish I had known about all those years ago.

The biggest trends in the past few years have been the birth and growth of both Pathfinder and Retroclones, otherwise called the OSR (Old-School Revival) movement.  Both are very different paths under the D&D umbrella, but both maintain the Gygaxian spirit of fantasy adventure.

Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder is built upon D&D 3.5 edition, using Wizard of the Coast’s OGL license for those rules to create a foundation for their RPG.  Many who were fans of D&D 3.5 have continued playing that ruleset through Pathfinder, instead of moving on to D&D 4.  Paizo Publishing has also set the standard for digital distribution, selling PDF copies of every one of their titles on their website.  Since Wizards of the Coast offers no PDF copies of current or past releases, many attribute Pathfinder’s success partially due to their amazing webstore.  It also helps that the costs of the PDF releases are far cheaper than paper copies (most rulebooks are only $10!).  I have already purchased the Core Rulebook and Gamemastery Guide, even though I don’t plan on using that ruleset.  Paizo now also offers a Beginner Box, which received far better reviews than the newest Red Box from Wizards of the Coast.

The two first retroclones to come about were Basic Fantasy RPG and OSRIC.  Basic Fantasy RPG focuses on the Basic/Advanced D&D ruleset from the Early 80s.  It is not a “pure” retroclone as it makes some changes to armor class (Ascending AC instead of Descending) and other things (separation of Race and Class).  Basic Fantasy is unique in that it is developed in an “open source” way.  The original documents (in .ODF format) can be downloaded from the website, as well as additional supplements and adventures.  The PDF is also free to download from the site, and the author maintains he prefers interested players do so before considering purchasing a printed copy through Lulu.  I have purchased a hardcover copy from Lulu and am very happy with it.  This will likely be the ruleset that I will use for my game, even as I draw on things from all the other systems.

OSRIC is as straightforward a representation of the AD&D 1E rules as is legally possible.  Expanded in the second edition to include monsters and more, OSRIC has evolved from being a ruleset intended for writers/publishers to anyone who wishes to play without access to the original 1E rulebooks, or even those who simply wish to not subject their original 1E books to further damage.  I have purchased a hardcover copy from Lulu as there is alot of great info in this gigantic book, even if I won’t be using the rulseset.

Lack of access to the actual (A)D&D rulebooks is a key selling point for all of the available retroclones, but especially for those that are based on the original D&D ruleset (the Little Brown Books).  The most popular is Swords and Wizardry, written by the original author of OSRIC, Matthew Finch.  This retroclone can be confusing to newcomers as there are 3 different editions: Whitebox (based on the original 3 rulebooks), Core (including some supplemental material) and Complete (all supplements published before TSR moved on to B/X and AD&D).  The Whitebox and Core editions are available for free from the website, and printed editions are available through Lulu.  The PDF and printed version of the Complete Edition are available from Frog God Games.  The look and artwork are fantastic, and Matt’s writing will inspire you in countless ways.

Labyrinth Lord is similar to Basic Fantasy as it also focuses on the Basic/Advanced D&D rules.  Unlike Basic Fantasy however, it maintains the original rules for armor (Descending AC) and other items.  Some people like that Labyrinth Lord maintains these unique quirks and believe it maintains the D&D “feel”, while others would rather take the improvements offered by Basic Fantasy.  I personally prefer those improvements, but there’s no doubt that Labyrinth Lord is dripping with more flavor than a ribeye steak; in fact, I believe out of all the retroclones it has the most by far (and I have to put OSRIC as having the least).  The writing, artwork and overall look of Labyrinth Lord will leave you raring to go dungeon-delving, no doubt about it.

Castles and Crusades is not a true retroclone; like Basic Fantasy it has presented improvements.  The difference is that C&C has overhauled the whole thing to use their Siege Engine.  I have looked at this game and think it’s a great improvement, but it doesn’t quite click for me.  However coming from a small dedicated company C&C is a great game with some amazing artwork, all done by one man (Peter Bradley).

So which ruleset to go with?  In the end you can’t go wrong, as you’ll still be playing D&D, and all of its progenitors (Gygax, Arneson, Holmes, Cook and Marsh) will be smiling down upon you.  Some of these games have major differences, while other items may be similar if not exact.  Also, in the true spirit of RPGs and D&D in particular you should change any rules you don’t like, and if needed mix-and-match from other games.  Personally I will start with Basic Fantasy, and bolt on a few more races, classes and options as needed.  I can’t wait to start playing again after being gone for so long, and I hope you’ll give one or more of these games a try!