Bookjacking is a real thing, a real sh;tty thing

So I’ve never been terribly fond of Amazon.com for many reasons (they are a giant welfare queen, they put b&m bookstores out of business, the Kindle is disposable rather than repairable, … feel free to add your own grievances to the list).

But today I learned of yet another atrocity. In this case it is not really Amazon’s fault, though it is something they tolerate and apparently make no effort to stop. I am talking about “bookjacking” — the practice of using software to find books listed on one but not another book seller site (Amazon, Abebooks, Half.com, etc.) and automatically relisting said item on the other sites, at a markup. And by “markup” I mean a potentially huge markup. Though you could say “caveat emptor” and yeah you should probably shop around, the fact is that they are exploiting and hurting consumers, plain and simple. By automating this process, these phony sellers are able generate sales, and feedback, so that they look legit, even though they just act as middlemen and do nothing but run algorithms through the sites. A more detailed explanation of the process is here at Zubal Books’ site.  Do not patronize the bookjackers identified there.

If you are like me, you occasionally purchase out of print titles. These bookjackers drive up prices  and use deceptive advertisements (see Zubal Books above — the bookjackers use weasel words and ambiguous, generic descriptions because they are not examining the merchandise, they never see it). If you want to see what bookjacking looks like for RPG titles, see this listing (it will no doubt change over time but as of this writing there are listings for the Judges Guild “Dark Tower” module with prices all ranging from $115 to over $325, and all the conditions are blank or generic BS like this: “Item may show signs of shelf wear. Pages may include limited notes and highlighting. Includes supplemental or companion materials if applicable. Access codes may or may not work. Connecting readers since 1972. Customer service is our top priority.” (emphasis added)

<Update!> A colleague suggested another way to check if a seller is bookjacking:

Check to see if they offer expedited shipping. They cannot because they do not have the book in hand. This also applies to a seller supplying a print on demand title. In addition, this will separate out sellers who allegedly are located in the US but ship from the UK–or Norway or India or wherever.

 

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Published in: on December 5, 2014 at 11:27 pm  Comments (65)  
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Multiclassing BTB; plus the Headless

When Tom agreed to run AD&D, I went back to the Player’s Handbook to check out how multi-classing works in 1e.  I never liked the 3e version of multiclassing, which was a bit too easy to exploit (I recall running a half-orc barbarian/rogue/ranger that was certainly an ass kicker but I would have rather played an AD&D fighter/assassin…).

Since I was pretty set on running a half-orc cleric/assassin, I wanted to see how stuff like HP and XP would work after he hit the 4th level “ceiling” in cleric.  I think this may be where the AD&D rules are a little harsh.  The PHB write-up on cleric/assassins mentions that they are a good choice because of the extra HP from the cleric HD.  By the book, a cleric/assassin will have slightly better HP (for the first 4 levels) but afterward the drop-off is steep, because as the character continue to gain assassin levels beyond fourth, the HP accumulated are still divided by two.  That is, for any multi-classed character, HP are (total HD / classes).  So, at the beginning a multi-class gets a HP total that would be midway between the expected total for a character of the same level in either class (a 4th/4th c/a would have (4d8+4d6)/2 HP).  That’s cool.  But a low level limit in one class (and half-orc clerics are the most extreme case) will cause your c/a to have astonishingly low HP compared to PC of similar XP, as each assassin level of 5th+ will net just (d6/2) HP.  By 8th level, whatever advantage those first four levels with their extra 1 HP on average had has been lost.  From here on out, the character’s HP are worse than single-classed assassin of the same level (i.e., a character with 1/2 the XP).  Don’t get me wrong, the ability to cast a few clerical spells is damn nice for an assassin (command, light/darkness, sanctuary, and remove/cause fear at first level, and the killer Hold person and Silence, 15′ radius).  But it’s sort of a double-whammy, isn’t it?  Never get spells above 2nd level, and advance at 1/2 rate with 1/2 HP?  I know some old schoolers blanche at any mention of the dread word “balance” but what did Gary have against half-orcs? In my experience it’s those damn half-elves that unbalance everything 🙂

At any rate in Tom’s game he’s going with the slightly more lenient level limits in Unearthed Arcana which allow half-orc clerics to reach up to 6th level, and the hope of access to a third level spell makes this bargain much more palatable.  We can expect about 10-12 sessions max before the campaign goes on hiatus due to the bambino, so even the 4th level limit is probably not something we’ll be bucking against any time soon.  Still, it’s nice to think the combination is viable for the long term.

So enough whining about rules that will probably never actually come into play.  Joesky tax time:

New monster: The headless.

Aberrations created by some forgotten, but obviously mad, magic-user, these creatures appear in a human form lacking a neck and head.  Their senses somehow allow them find and attack their foes, perhaps through magical or psionic means.  Light, darkness, and purely visual illusions have no effect on them, but they can be fooled by illusions that incorporate sound or other tactile components, and they do respond to sound despite their lack of ears, so moving silently may allow one to slip by them.  They wear no armor and use no weapons on their own, as they are most often encountered, but Headless in the service of other monsters or NPCs (most commonly Beholders, magic-users, and evil high priests) may be armed and armored and would increase their AC and damage accordingly.

They do not seem to need to eat or drink, but are not undead.  It is unclear if they are created from normal humans or created entirely in a laboratory.  They can obey simple commands when led but if encountered with no NPC or monster leader, they move about in a loose flock, keeping with 10′ or so of each at all times.  They attack humans and demi-humans immediately (although some secret spells can control them) and will simply pound them into mush if they can, leaving the bodies uneaten but unrecognizable.  They carry and hoard no treasure but their lairs may be surrounded with the incidental leavings of their victims (a wilderness hex containing a headless lair should have treasure type B scattered about in small hoards, accompanied by piles of mush or splintered bones.

No. appearing: 2-16 (4-24) ; HD 2 ; AC 13  or by armor ; dam. d6 (fists) or by weapon ; Mv. 12″ ; Save: F2 ; Morale: 8.

If you played Ultima IV or V, or Ultima Underworld, you’ll recognize these guys.  If you want make them a little creepier, maybe use the Fletcher Hanks version with a single eye in their chests:

Published in: on August 5, 2011 at 12:00 pm  Comments (5)  
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How the invisible hand ruins everything (a rant that kind of trails off at the end)

I’m sorry to interrupt the fun & games but something has been gestating in my mind for years now and I thought I might put it into writing. Today’s topic is how the invisible hand ruins everything. (The “invisible hand” being a metaphor attributed to Adam Smith, describing the hidden forces of the market or capital…)

But before looking at Adam Smith our story begins with a note about Aristotle. Aristotle taught that the proper function (purpose) of vegetable life is to grow. Not just to flourish or reproduce — the organism itself must constantly grow, if it is to be considered successful. Think of a bamboo stalk as a fairly perfect plant specimen.

Back to the invisible hand. This is Adam Smith’s metaphor that has been more or less cast into a golden idol by modern American economists. His idea is basically that self-interest, rationality, and supply-and-demand converge as unified force that guides economic activity. The “invisible hand” pushes an agenda, and it is an article of faith in a capitalist society that this agenda ultimately benefits everyone.

Adam Smith would have described himself as a moral philosopher, but his reputation today is largely as an economic thinker. I don’t know that he would approve of the many uses to which his ideas have been put (including this use here!). But it is undeniable that his notion of an invisible hand, and the lassiez-faire capitalist ideology that looks to his ideas for support, have a moral component, and it is simply this: the invisible hand is basically a force for good. This belief is a cornerstone of American social and economic conservatism.

And it is mistaken.

If the “invisible hand” exists at all, I would say it is amoral with immoral tendencies. The church of the invisible hand professes that market forces should be trusted to make decisions about how we live, how we distribute goods and services, and how we organize our society. Rationality and supply and demand and self-interest obviously can’t be ignored and I would even say that none of them are evil or immoral in themselves. But notice that in this model of self-interest and rationality and supply-and-demand there is no account made of altruism, or the interests of others, apart from whatever can be justified by rational self-interest. Certainly self-interest may lead us to respect the rights and interests of others as we would want our own respected (the golden rule & silver rule — which after all can be derived from almost any ethical theory with enough logical gymnastics). Self-interest may even lead us to go for a social contract. But because the rights and interests of others are merely derived goods, and not seen as good in themselves, I think they often get overlooked, set aside, bracketed, even ignored.

Here is where Aristotle comes back into the picture. Aristotle’s idea of the properly functioning vegetable life is centered on growth. This idea is generalized to see success as growth, especially in economics, and especially in business. A successful business does not merely pay its employees, fill a need and turn a profit. The profits must grow.

Example: Ben & Jerry’s sells (out?) to Unilever

The founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream were forced to sell to Unilever. They might have tried to fight it, but the legal case was inarguable, because corporations have a duty to maximize profits and so maximize returns for investors. Ben & Jerry’s had a very laudable and socially responsible mission as a private company, but the ugly truth is that as soon as they became publicly traded, they had an obligation, under the law, to maximize shareholder dividends. Here is a contemporary (to the sale) analysis:

The Motley Fool, styled as the commonsense voice of the common shareholder, recently complained that Ben & Jerry’s has “underperformed the market’s historical average during the greatest bull run in the stock market history. That’s unacceptable any way you slice it.” As for the company’s famous program of donating 7.5 percent of pretax profits to charity, that may be “commendable,” but “the program lost its luster when the company failed to deliver reasonable results to its long-term investors.” A Prudential research note on the deal cited by TheStreet.com sounds a note of disgust, as well, taking the populist tack of complaining that Perry Oak, the Ben & Jerry’s chief executive since 1997, holds options that will be worth about $13 million at Unilever’s takeover price–“which is incredible considering that [Ben & Jerry’s] lost all sorts of share under his tenure.” Still, the analyst concedes the silver lining: “For shareholders, this is more than a fair price.” Power to the people, right on.–Slate magazine, April 12, 2000

It’s not that Ben & Jerry’s was unprofitable, or failing to grow, or failing to return profits. It is that they failed to grow as much as they might have. No good being healthy and green and growing in a sustainable way. The invisible hand says, “Couldn’t you grow another seven inches this week? Look at that bamboo, an inch a day.”

This, then, is how the invisible hand ruins everything. I suppose you might want to argue that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is still as good and socially responsible as ever. I don’t really eat a lot of ice cream actually so I can’t say if that has changed. I would have to assume that at least some of the charity and whatnot was cut back, based on the stated goals of maximizing investor returns and increasing market share. And the larger point is this: any business, to survive, has to do those things. The quality and integrity of a product only matters in so far as they promote those two goals. If you can reduce either, at some savings of costs, that is OK as long as the bottom line is no worse than it was before. Apparently advertising is more cost effective than creating a good product anyway. If you listen to music, watch television or movies, or read papers or magazines or books, you know that quality and integrity are not priorities except for certain niche markets. There are some good shows and bands and papers, but they are not usually the most successful ones.

I think this has happened in gaming as well, because the giants of the industry are focused, laser-like, on selling product. It would be foolish and revisionist and false to claim that the old game companies weren’t in it for the money; by and large they were. But that was before the art of selling crap was as sophisticated as it is now. And now that D&D is in the hands of a really big business (Hasbro owns WotC/TSR, sure, but it also owns Parker Bros., Milton Bradley, Coleco, Tonka, Kenner, Playskool….most of the toy and game companies I remember as separate entities when I was a kid), the expectations of sales and profit are very high. So high that turning D&D into something the average teenager (who has not read anything in Appendix N but has read some manga and series like Harry Potter and so on) will buy means turning it into something geared toward the mass audience. When I was a kid, we had free time to make shit up and research polearms and all that. Kids these days don’t (actually they do but they have other passive forms of entertainment available and why work at having fun?). Maybe a better way to put it is that as long the hobby is a small niche, the hardcore gamers can control the direction of development. But when it becomes a mass media entertainment, it has to have mass appeal and appeal to the demands of (lowest) common denominator.

I don’t know that this OSR thing can continue to flourish as a mostly free hobby for most of us. It is still the minority that are actually selling their products, and frankly a lot of the free stuff is very mediocre, but a lot of the free stuff is also amazing and inspired and even polished. If getting some remuneration for your efforts makes it worthwhile for some people to share their campaign materials, I have no problem with that. Heck, if your dream job is to be an RPG publisher, I’m not going to rain on your parade, sell away! But I think we have to recognize that the OSR is just as much a reaction against commercialism and the results of letting the invisible hand guide the evolution of the games as it is a reaction against the particular changes we didn’t like. What I’m trying to say is that in order for TSR (and WotC and Hasbro) to survive and flourish as publicly traded corporations, they had to ruin D&D. They had to broaden the appeal beyond The Swordsmen and Sorcerer’s Guild of America; they had to remove the devils and demons and assassins and half-orcs; they had to dumb things down so that people who never played a wargame or read Robert E. Howard or had the patience to look up what a glaive is, could still play. And they had to add infinite splatbooks and settings and railroad modules based on novel series based on rehashed fantasy classics, to make it all profitable.

Hate the game, not the players, right?

But hobbyist publications (free or for sale, print or web/blog only) don’t have this restriction. So we get our Carcosas and Swords & Wizardrys and LotFPs and all the rest.

Update #1. Since I wrote this essay several months back, LotFP has become more obviously a full-time enterprise for James Raggi and it will be publishing Carcosa, and S&W has moved to a “real” publisher too. But still these are not publicly traded companies and are hobbyist efforts in spirit, so I think the larger point still holds up. Substitute “Land of Nod” and “Age of Conan” as poster children of the OSR if you prefer.)

The invisible hasn’t and can’t ruin these, as long as they stay hobbyist.

As the “industry” discovers and mobilizes to exploit interest in the “old school” games, maybe we’ll see glossier and more professional and more soulless, inartistic crap emerge. So anyway I for one am hoping moderate success to everyone publishing in the OSR. Do well enough to support your hobby, and maybe pay some bills, but not so well that Hasbro or Games Workshop or Blizzard notice you, and buy you out, and realize they could sell a lot more copies of Carcosa if they edited out the objectionable content and made the characters more powerful and heroic, or could tie Mazes and Minotaurs in with the Percy Jackson franchise and sell a card game version to the tweens. Because they would owe it to their investors to do it.

Update#2: After polishing this essay a little for posting, this morning I heard that WotC are dropping their D&D minis and Heroscape; this on the heels of introducing collectible cards for 4e. The hobbyists and gamers are rightly unhappy about these moves, but again, this is just how capitalism works. It’s not necessarily that the minis were posting losses, only that they weren’t posting big enough profits. The invisible hand strikes again. WotC and Hasbro are not in the business of supporting D&D or gaming or creativity or anything like that. They are in the business of maximizing profits, full stop.

****

OK — that’s two blah blah blah rants in a row. I’m done.
JOESKY penance for your D&D game:
invisible hands are thought to be, like so many creatures, merely the results of a wizard’s experimentation, or perhaps phantasms left over when ghosts or other insubstantial undead are destroyed incompletely. Certain sages disagree and argue that they are in fact the residue of spell casting which becomes “stuck” in the prime material plane after the spell effects wear off.
Invisible hands seem to range in size from a normal human hand to massive titanic hands, lending credence to the sages’ theory.

AC 0[20]; HD 1/2-9; special: invisible; damage: d6 per HD and see below; save: as MU; MV: 18″; Alignment: varies, usually chaotic.
Any time telekinesis type spells like Mage Hand, touch-attack spells like Shocking Grasp or Bigby’s Hand spells, and similar are cast, there is a 10% chance that an invisible hand will remain after the spell’s effect ends. Invisible hands retain the special effects of the spells that create them (Shocking Grasp hands cause electrical damage, Vampiric Touch hands drain HP, etc.), and their size is based on the spell that created them (1/2 HD for cantrips, 1 HD for first level spells, etc.) The invisible hand is never under the caster’s control and will immediately pursue its own agenda. Some hoard or redistribute treasure; some play harmless but humiliating pranks such as copping random feels; and some attempt to strangle or pummel people.

Published in: on January 14, 2011 at 9:00 am  Comments (23)  
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I picked the wrong year to stop buying minis

Got the heads up from Scottsz that Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is dropping the pre-painted plastic D&D minis line.

Big deal, I thought. This has been a long time coming from what I could tell anyway.  Then I checked out the ol’ blogosphere and learned that Heroscape had been quietly dropped earlier.  Snikes. I was assuming the D&D minis were being dropped for the sake of Heroscape.  Now I guess the idea is that WotC will still sell a few “super collectibles” like the “Beholder collection” (I’m holding out for some official Flumph figures…I may have to make that my next Sculpy project…) and also have minis in the current & upcoming the boardgames (I almost resisted making a comment about 4e being a board game, but this parenthetical comment documents my failure).

I swore off all mini buying this year because of my painting backlog and general austerity measures we’re taking and now the few D&D plastics I figured I’d pick up “later” have become collectible.  Crap.  I picked the wrong year to stop buying minis.

I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue, too

Seriously, I thought the prepainted minis were, on the whole, a good thing, even if I could very rarely bring myself to swallow buying “random packs”.  The singles were great and I bought a passel from Noble Knight this year.  They save time and it’s nice to have a subset of minis I can throw into a bin and bring to someone else’s house or a con (after the Great Lead Drop of ’04, when I dropped a box full of giants and ogres and trolls on the sidewalk the eve of a snow storm which left me unable to even look for the missing bits for weeks, I am very protective of my minis!).

I hate to see them go but I am not entirely surprised.  People talk about “saturation” and how old grognards like me aren’t buying enough minis to keep it viable for WotC.  The fact is there would need to be new people getting into the hobby for the market for WotC’s minis to remain strong and apparently it just ain’t happening.  (Stunningly, I’ve even seen people comment they’d like to learn to play D&D but they have heard how the rules keep changing and you have to keep buying stuff and they aren’t interested in that.  Not OSR shills, real comments on mainstream sites.  Mission deccomplished, WotC!)    Skip the rest if this post is already tiresome.

(more…)

Published in: on January 13, 2011 at 11:02 am  Comments (9)  
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Glory road and WTF Heinlein?

Just finished reading Heinlein’s Glory Road, one of his few (only?) forays into something akin to fantasy, although technically it is more of a science fantasy/planetary romance type thing. Which is to say there is magic and dragons and sword fighting, but it all takes place on another planet in our universe (or our multiverse, I guess, there is talk of other universes too).

Glory road is not in Gygax’s Appendix N to the DMG but it could be, as there are several other “planetary romances” listed there. Anyway my review:

Let me start by saying that I really enjoyed a lot about this book. There were some good characters, some decent action, interesting challenges for the heroes, and a dungeon-like tower that has some fruitful ideas for D&D. (I don’t rate books on how well they provide fodder for D&D but it doesn’t hurt!) There are some genuinely funny jokes, and a few emotional scenes that work, and some interesting ideas. But... (more…)

Published in: on November 24, 2010 at 10:00 am  Comments (23)  
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