A Different Kind of Sequel

Those who follow me online have probably observed that I almost never refer to my son by name. Online, he is usually referred to as the Gremlin (formerly the Peanut, which went right out when he started growling), as it’s generally good Internet practice to minimize identifying information. Further, parents often have nicknames or code names for their kids (especially before they’re born – I chatted with a friend who had a daughter this last year, and he mentioned the baby code name was Monkey Ruckus). Such names usually have something to do with a kid’s traits or behaviors (hence the Gremlin’s nickname).

But after three months of development, there’s not much for identifying traits yet. For brevity and wit, the wife and I decided that our number two is best described as the Sequel. Hopefully, Sequel will be more along the lines of The Empire Strikes Back than, say, Spider-Man 3. We announced at Christmas; I’m curious as to see how many people will click through from Facebook or Twitter to read this, and how many will tell me in a couple months, “I didn’t know you and your wife were expecting!”

Coming soon – hopefully after I have a couple more books out. Yes, I’m hard at work on those sequels too, but my side business has really picked up and I need to build a new bedroom in the house, too.

Broken Game Mechanics

In some ways, sports fans have great advantages over those of us who are computer gaming nerds. In general, most popular sports were established decades ago at the minimum. The vast majority of the flaws and loopholes in the rules have been corrected and closed, so sports are, in a sense, predictable. (As predictable as anything run by humans, of course.)

Video games, on the other hand, generally don’t last long enough to work out all the problems. Developers may patch the biggest problems, but very few games have a lifespan of a decade plus with active development to improve the game and remove options for play that are game-breaking.

And make no mistake – sometimes code, implemented as designed, is game-breaking. Developers are not gods; they make mistakes, miss implications of their own ideas, and generally screw things up.

As you may have guessed, I’ve been pondering some elements of Star Wars Galaxies.

Before talking about the particular game-breaking issue I have in mind, I suppose I should define “game-breaking”. And to do that, I need to point out that what’s game-breaking in a multiplayer game is not necessarily game-breaking in a single-player game.

Take, for example, KOTOR 2. KOTOR was, first and foremost, a lightsaber game. There is no doubt the devs intended it to be played as a Jedi, swinging a lightsaber to cut down Sith Lords. KOTOR 2, on the other hand, introduced feats and specials to make ranged combat viable – even against lightsaber-wielding enemies. On the balance, the game still favored lightsaber combat over Force combat over ranged combat; however, the game was playable and beatable with any sort of build. Some were certainly more optimized than others, but players had options.

If you carry that paradigm into multiplayer, it fails, especially if it’s player-vs-player multiplayer. As a rule of thumb, you have three types of players: min-max players, who do everything to minimize weaknesses and maximize strengths to make their characters as powerful as possible; casual players, who generally choose skills and options they perceive of as “cool” without worrying about overall effectiveness; and players looking for a challenge, who either gimp their characters deliberately or try to pull off feats that the developers intended to be impossible.

When player-vs-player is introduced, you’ve now put your casual players at a great disadvantage. The min-maxers are going to stomp on them, and the challenge players are probably going to be min-maxing too.

With that in mind, in an MMO, I’d define game-breaking as “Skills, items, or game mechanics that render entire player classes moot.”

In Star Wars Galaxies, particularly pre-CU, that mechanic was Armor Piercing.

SWG had some amazingly in-depth systems. The crafting system was insane (and is still something I struggle to completely grasp) in its depth. Space and starship outfitting was almost an art in mass and power management to maximize fighter performance. Entire cities were built and managed by players. Even decorating was almost a profession in itself, due to the options available to players.

But parts of combat were very wrong.

Raph Koster wrote a series of posts on SWG this year, and they’re well worth reading from a game design perspective, so I understand why they got it wrong and things didn’t work. But there are still fans of the old pre-Combat Upgrade SWG that don’t seem to understand how broken several aspects are.

I’m now six hundred words in, and I’ll finally get to the topic I wanted to talk about!

SWG’s damage reduction worked in several ways. If you had the appropriate skill to examine a creature, or if you picked up a piece of armor, there were several sets of stats to look at. Damage reduction from armor was handled by two separate, yet equally important stats: Resistances and Armor Level.

Resistances offered a flat reduction to incoming damage based on the percentage. If the armor had 80% resists to energy, and you attacked with an energy weapon, only 20% of your damage got through on a successful hit. Not rocket science. The proliferation of the best armor in the game, composite, due to overpowered doctor buffs led to many people using stun weapons, since composite’s lowest resistance was always to stun.

Armor Levels for a target could range from 0 to 3. Think of it is unarmed, light armor, medium armor, and heavy armor. (That’s how it was described in game.) Player armor maxed at 1, but creature and NPC armor went all the way up to 3. Armor Piercing on weapons could also range from 0 to 3 (none, light, medium, heavy); player weapons were acquirable at all four levels.

The interaction of those two numbers was catastrophically game-breaking.

When AP was compared to AL, damage penalties and bonuses applied, starting at 25%. AP2 attacks against AL1 meant 25% bonus damage; AP3 attacks against AL1 meant 50% damage bonus.

Flipping that, an AP0 attack against an AL3 creature meant 75% damage reduction…before the flat damage reduction from resists. Attacking a creature with AL3 with your AP0 weapon, and said creature has 80% resists against your damage type? You’re doing 5% of your weapon’s rated damage.

“Get yourself a weapon with higher AP rating!” seems like the obvious answer, right? The problem is that many classes couldn’t get an AP3 weapon. Particularly gimped were Pistols-based builds; no pistol had a ranking higher than AP1. Period.

Entire classes built around weapon types were utterly useless at high-end PvE or PvP. (Yes, some PvPers could pull off pistols at various points, mostly due to bounty hunter’s eyeshot and a Geonosian sonic blaster for stun damage, while maximizing dodge by taking points in fencer. I’m talking casual play here, not min-max. Also, no one could PvE at high end with pistols.)

At the time, the implications weren’t well-understood. It took time for players to understand the mechanics in-depth, and quite often those at the top of the food chain weren’t in a hurry to share that information with others. But years have passed since then; now days, log into a SWG emulator for pre-CU, and what classes are almost everyone playing?

Rifleman: Armor Piercing 3 T-21 blaster rifle.

Swordsman: Armor Piercing 3 blast hammer.

Could something have been done to fix it?

I would argue, from Raph Koster’s posts, that no, nothing could be done about it. Giving all classes an AP3 weapon would be a very stopgap “fix” – it means everyone needs to use their high-end weapon. The way weapon refire rates were calculated meant speeding up lighter weapons wasn’t an option; pistols were already at the 1 attack per second cap, and combat speeds even faster than that simply weren’t an option at the time. (See Raph Koster’s post on the server hardware limitations.) Slowing down the heavy AP weapons would’ve been virtually impossible, again due to how weapon speeds were calculated. (With a full set of skills in a weapon, everyone attacks at or very near speed cap.)

I have no doubt the idea of Armor Piercing/Armor Levels was designed to allow more diversity in weapon choice. Instead, it killed off all but a few viable options for combat.

When designing a mechanic, think long and hard about all the repercussions of it. Also, bring in a min-maxer or three and see if they can figure out a way to exploit it that you haven’t thought of. I guarantee they’ll find something new.

Who is your god?

Two general rules of thumb for polite conversation are to never discuss politics or religion. With a title like the one for this post, you’re probably assuming I’m going to be breaking the second part. Further, most authors are reluctant to discuss politics or religion for fear of alienating readers.

I’m going to break the rule. It’s for a good cause.

Anyone who knows me and has read this site knows I’m a Christian. It might not be the focus of most of my posts here, but it’s readily apparent in large and small ways.

Matthew 6:24 has been on my mind recently: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (NIV translation) Most sermons and lessons I’ve heard couple the verse with 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

The problem with this pairing is that Matthew 6:24 isn’t just about money – it’s about serving two masters. Money is incidental and common, but hardly singular.

My social media feed is filled with all types: political activists of most stripes, hunters, vegans, weightlifters, video gamers, blue-collar workers on food stamps to middle management, wage slaves and contractors, government employees and private business owners, and authors both independent and signed with a major publishing house. In short, I see a lot of diverse opinions on virtually any subject that comes up.

Many of them, perhaps most of them, don’t realize what god they worship. (Lowercase god is intentional.)

It’s important to me that I note here that I’m not criticizing anyone here – this understanding only surfaced after some long reflection on myself and my own priorities.

I see self-proclaimed Christians who seem to focus solely on their jobs. All of their energy and concentration seem to be bound up in their employment. Self-employed people tend to have this the worst: a focus so intent on a business succeeding that there is no time for spiritual affairs or the business of the church.

Those who work for others spend their off-hours energy elsewhere. Many worship at the altar of fitness – their Facebook and Twitter posts are about Crossfit, about marathon running, about triathlons or powerlifting. Often related to this are the latest diet fads, be they paleo or vegan or Atkins. These people are focused on the body and absolute physical health, believing it necessary or perhaps even the key to finding spiritual health and happiness.

Others revel in leisure activities, ranging from the intensely indoors (video games – MMORPGs tend to be the worst) to the intensely outdoors (hunting, fishing, boating, hiking, camping). They worship creation, not the Creator, with their actions betraying the lies of their words.

The idol of human knowledge is the target of much worship. Even among those who line the pews on Sunday morning are quick to ignore the Word for the next six days while seeking only the secular.

I’m as ugly a sinner as any. This is not a holier-than-thou post. But if you’re a believer in any faith, and you read this, I ask you: by your actions, by your money, by your time and energy, what do you worship?

Star Wars Rebels: A Season 1 Review

Warning: this post contains spoilers for Season 1 of Star Wars Rebels.

Anyone who knows me, or has spent any time perusing this website, probably knows I’m a big Star Wars fan. I have been since I first watched the trilogy on VHS (a late-nighter with a cousin, and I fell asleep during the last half hour of Return of the Jedi). I’m not old enough to have seen the original trilogy in theaters, and I was in high school when The Phantom Menace came out in 1999. I actually made the premiere showing of Revenge of the Sith and wound up sitting in the front row. I spent the first twenty minutes of the movie (the opening starfighter sequence, plus a little recovery time) motion sick from watching it at a weird angle.

The Star Wars media marched on, most notably in the TV show Star Wars: The Clone Wars. This isn’t a post for getting deep into that show, but suffice to say, I didn’t like some of the choices they made. Mostly, I found it lacked the sense of adventure that the original trilogy had evoked. It felt more like the reimagined Battlestar Galactica with a Star Wars skin, and the themes and level of violence felt a bit inappropriate for a kids’ show. (Don’t get me wrong, I liked BSG; but it should be and is a different beast from Star Wars.)

The great Disney buyout happened, The Clone Wars ended, and a new show was announced: Star Wars Rebels. (Look at that! I got to my subject by the third paragraph!)

I was rather skeptical at the start, mostly because of The Clone Wars. Setting it in the original trilogy period seemed like a great idea, but as more details started trickling my skepticism grew. A Jedi character central to the cast in a show set after the Jedi had been wiped out? A pink Mandalorian graffiti artist? An alien from a species we haven’t even seen before (sort of – it was based on concept art for the Wookiees)? A random street kid thief? Okay, I bought the pilot character and the astromech droid, but that’s two out of six.

I didn’t watch the shorts before the Season 1 premiere (which was a good thing, or I might not have watched the one-hour opener). My wonderful wife and I settled in to watch, though, and we were both prepared to dislike it. (Incidentally, my wife liked The Clone Wars even less than I did, though she’s a Star Wars fan as well.)

An hour and several bowls of popcorn later, and we were both stunned. We actually liked it.

Even more stunning, I liked the Jedi character, Kanan.

Side note: as I’ve grown older, I have found I dislike Jedi more and more. I don’t have some Karen Traviss-level hatred; I’m certainly not going to call fans of Jedi characters Nazis. Rather, I’ve disliked how, more and more throughout the Star Wars Expanded Universe (now Legends; we’ll see if the new canon does this any better) nothing happens without a Jedi being involved. It wasn’t always that bad – for example, the Rebel Alliance in the original trilogy and the old EU was composed of common people and political firebrands who chose to fight the Empire.

Then The Force Unleashed video game and novel happened. Suddenly, no one was willing to act unless a Jedi was involved. The common people never act in their own interest, but rely on the Jedi for, well, everything.

Star Wars Rebels flipped that on its head. The Jedi character, Kanan, is nominally the leader of the resistance group in question, but even in the premiere (and later confirmed in the story) the true leader is actually the pilot, Hera. She’s allowed Kanan to take the public face as leader because he’s a more capable combatant, but she’s the one who actually has all the knowledge.

As the series progressed, we find not only are people capable of acting without the Jedi, they have. Bail Organa is building cells of resistance, using another Jedi as his agent. While the Jedi are certainly important in the grand plan, they are also not necessary – even without Fulcrum or Kanan, the resistance effort would certainly be built.

Early episodes were on the childish side (and hey, this is a kids’ show!) like “Fighter Flight”. Surprisingly, though, the series maintains an extremely strong sense of continuity. Even the seemingly stand-alone and kid-friendly episodes tie into the later plot, and mistakes the crew makes along the way – even those that seem inconsequential, like breaking protocol to use a name instead of a callsign – come back to haunt them.

Surprisingly, the character (as explored thus far) have more depth than would be expected from a kids’ show, particularly on Disney. The aforementioned Kanan is uncertain of his own powers, having hid them away to survive the Jedi purge and only recently begun using them again. While he initially projects an aura of invincibility, the first time he crosses lightsabers with an Imperial Inquisitor shows just how outclassed and out of his depth he is when it comes to actually acting as a Jedi.

Ezra, the boy and the viewers’ hook into the group, has emotional issues ranging from uncertainty to rage to a fear of vulnerability. If Ezra had stood before the old Jedi Council and asked for training, they would’ve tossed him out so fast he would’ve suffered whiplash. And it shows – he’s unintentionally tapped into the dark side of the Force, and his future is very uncertain.

The Twi’lek pilot, Hera Syndulla, has an unexplored past but a delicately approached present. She has a strong sense of duty, to the point she was willing to let Kanan die to prevent her mission and the larger rebellion-in-progress from failing. It wasn’t until her own crew disobeyed her to pursue Kanan that she was willing to take a chance on saving him.

Zeb (Garazeb Orrelios, but only to his mother and to Hera when she’s chewing him out) is one of the few survivors of the genocide of his people. He burns with hatred toward the Imperial agent responsible for the deaths of his people, and pursuing vengeance nearly kills him in the first regular episode of the series. He’s a bit of a loose cannon, but he can generally be talked down by his own allies.

Chopper, the token astromech droid on the crew, is a bit of a controversial character. While he does the usual R2-D2 type work by fixing the ship and generally going places only droids can go, he’s acted in ways that endanger the crew. He was indirectly responsible for the near-death of Hera and Sabine in “Out of Darkness” and Ezra’s fall off the Ghost in “Rise of the Old Masters”, and was nearly as much harm as help. Perhaps the writing team understood the character was over the line, giving him heroic moments later in Season 1 like summoning a Rebel fleet in “Fire Across the Galaxy” to save his crew.

Sabine is the final major protagonist, and the least explored. There are hints she was at one point an Imperial and had been betrayed, but only hints – hopefully hints that are followed up on in Season 2. She’s the team’s demolitions expert and very good with blaster pistols, though the latter actually nearly gets  her killed in the Season 2 premiere, “Siege of Lothal”.

The show isn’t perfect by any means; the Empire seems extraordinarily incompetent, though the arrival of actually dangerous characters makes the incompetence rather blatant. And while the show was very light-hearted in early episodes in spite of subject matter (arms trafficking, for example), it becomes far more serious when the Inquisitor arrives and is shown to be a danger to the crew. A later episode turns even more serious when Tarkin shows up and summarily has two Imperial officers executed (off-screen but heard) for incompetence, and Kanan is captured and tortured.

The show started out very light, but by the end of Season 1 there were complaints that the show was violating the spirit if not the letter of its TV-Y7 rating.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely. It brings back the spirit of the original trilogy – the sense of adventure, the mystery of the Force, the danger of an Empire unchecked, and the heroic spirit of those who oppose it.

If you’re concerned about your young children watching it, I’d recommend screening episodes in advance. There are certain sequences and scenes that could be disturbing for young children.

Nothing can do everything, or Commentary from a Gamer on the JSF

I’m currently sitting in my office, waiting for the washing machine to kick out so I can move laundry over to the dryer. As is the norm for me, I’ve been reading current event threads and stories to see what’s going on in the world.

Lo and behold, I ran across yet another article about the Joint Strike Fighter.

For those who don’t know, the JSF (also known as the F-35) is an ongoing money pit project to build an aircraft that can fulfill multiple roles. In essence, it’s designed for air superiority, light bombing, and close ground support roles.

It’s one of the most expensive projects in history, with some $200 billion already sunk into it (last I checked), and an estimated total cost of $1 trillion.

In the last year, reports keep surfacing of problems with the JSF project. Aside from the almost-expected delays and cost overruns, there have been reports of simulated dogfights with the JSF not able to keep up with last-generation fighters in a scrap. Detractors of the project point to the JSF as a failure that we should pull funding from (and usually add things like redirect the money to refurbishing or building new A-10s and F-22s); supporters tend to point out the limitations of the fighter v fighter tests or discuss the F-35s ability to fight beyond visual range (BVR) with standoff missiles.

What some of the naysayers seem to understand, and supporters don’t, is that a Swiss army knife approach to building an aircraft is a poor philosophy.

Why do I say that? Gaming experience.

Star Wars Galaxies was, depending on your perspective, one of the finest games or worst failures ever pushed out onto the market. And lost in the discussion of the various revamps the game went through is arguably the finest expansion ever released for an MMO: Jump to Lightspeed.

JtL, as I’ll abbreviate, allowed players to build and equip starfighters and engage in combat. The various ships were given stats based on their “canon” roles as fighter, bomber, or interceptor. Essentially, all ships were on a sliding scale with high speed and maneuverability worked opposite equipment hardpoints and total ship “mass”. In essence, the more firepower you could put on a ship, the slower and less maneuverable it was.

In fiction, the “balanced” fighters are usually the best, most noticeably with the X-wing, the supposed perfect blend of speed, maneuverability, and firepower. In stories that works out well, but players are competitive, and they tend to look for the advantage rather than the story. Competitive players in anything, be it a video game or a sport, will work to maximize their chances of winning, both offensively and defensively.

And gamers are competitive.

Early in JtL, as people were beginning to understand the system, players flocked to those “balanced” craft – not unlike a JSF, they could do everything a player needed. They could fight in a turn, carry plenty of firepower, were reasonably fast, etc.

As the metagame aged, players began moving away from the “balanced” craft in favor of the interceptors. Faster, smaller (and thus harder to hit), and lighter-armed, players found the additional speed and maneuverability were more important than the additional firepower of the “balanced” craft. They went from jack-of-all-trade ships to dedicated dogfighters, and the “balanced’ craft couldn’t keep up.

The metagame truly hit maturity when an enterprising group of players found a weakness in the high-speed, high-maneuverability dogfight and instead switched to slow but missile-heavy bombers. The interceptors initially had plenty of trouble trying to save themselves from multiple missile hits – hits the light interceptors generally couldn’t absorb.

Initial response to the metagame shift was to slip back into the “balanced” multirole craft. However, the slow missile-dedicated craft were still fast enough and plenty powerful enough to kill the multirole craft nearly as well as the interceptors. Players slid back away from multirole craft into either more missile-heavy craft, or back into interceptors with different approach tactics and loadouts to kill the missile-spammers.

“How in the world does this apply to the JSF program?” you’re asking.

It’s pretty simple: the best aircraft (or spacecraft, if you were playing Jump to Lightspeed) is one that maximizes its advantages and minimizes its disadvantages.

Interceptors maximized their speed and agility and minimized their fragileness through superior maneuvering and their firepower by loading that single offensive hardpoint with the biggest gun they could manage.

Missile craft maximized their straightline speed with high-performance engines and large boosters to minimize their maneuvering disadvantage, and loaded up the biggest missiles possible to maximize their firepower.

Those “balanced” craft? To stay in the game, they wound up doing much of the same, but were never as effective as either the interceptors or the missile craft. While they could actually keep up with many interceptors in straight-line flight with dedicated speed engines, they were massacred in the turn. Their heavy firepower took the form of lasers instead of missiles, which were harder to aim and hit, which meant the bombers could more reliably land blows. They fell into a middle ground where they weren’t the best at anything.

That’s the road we’re walking down with the JSF. By putting everything into a single platform, it can’t do everything well, because there are always trade-offs. By trying to do everything, it will be outperformed by platforms that are committed solely to their task.

Too long, didn’t read? “Specialization is a good thing.”

With that thought, the laundry is done.

Also, I’m working on another fiction-writing column that started with a short story I read about a B-wing squadron. Working title: “Keeping the small details consistent.”

When to End the Story

I watched the Supernatural Season 10 finale tonight. When it finished, I felt like I should go back and watch the Season 5 finale to get something more satisfying.

Supernatural is something of a guilty pleasure of mine. I first caught an episode while home sick from work one day – the Season 3 episode “Jus in Bello”. It intrigued me at the time, but I never got around to watching more of it (in part because, at the time, I didn’t have Netflix).

Fast forward to two years ago, when I began watching Supernatural on Netflix to catch up, and then getting one episode per week like longtime viewers. Ultimately, after watching the Season 10 finale, I concluded the show’s run could be a modern case study in what happens when the story goes too long.

The ur example, I suppose, would be Sherlock Holmes – Doyle wound up writing Sherlock stories much longer than he ever intended, bringing him back after killing him in “The Final Problem.” But Supernatural is a great modern example.

For those uninitiated in the ten-year-old show (which was renewed for an 11th season), it follows the exploits of two brothers as they battle supernatural evil in various forms. Elder brother Dean followed his father’s footsteps as the loyal son, while younger brother Sam rebelled and abandoned the lifestyle of the “hunter”, only to be pulled back in by Dean during a quest to find their missing father.

The series started as a “monster of the week” type show, with a surprisingly creepy atmosphere and genuinely threatening creatures, overlaid with rock music and a cool classic car. By the end of Season 1, though, the show had become something more – Jensen Ackles and and Jared Padalecki found a surprisingly convincing chemistry as brothers who loved and hated each other all at the same time.

Season 1 ended with a gut-wrenching twist; after escaping the Yellow-Eyed Demon, the murderer of their mother, with their father in tow, their car was t-boned intentionally by a demon-possessed semi driver, leaving open the question of who had survived and who had died.

The following season would end with revenge upon the Yellow-Eyed Demon for the death of both the boys’ parents, but the unleashing of hundreds of demons on Earth, setting in play the story elements that would wind through the next three seasons, culminating with Season 5’s season-long story arc of the boys’ campaign to kill the devil to prevent literal Armageddon. Ultimately, they prevailed, but with younger brother Sam sacrificing himself to bind the devil again.

The first five seasons followed a great story arc. The brothers grew in both skill and maturity, starting as young hunters inexperienced enough to be troubled by simple hauntings to veterans capable of taking the war to the devil. As brothers, they began as immature siblings with trust issues and tension over their father’s love but blind loyalty to each other, repeatedly lying to each other but eventually growing to trust each other, with Dean willing to let Sam go at the end of Season 5 for the sake of victory.

While the story felt stitched together at times, their was also clearly a long story planned from the beginning, and the writers team executed their part with great pains. It doesn’t mean there weren’t flop episodes in there (Season 1’s “Bugs” immediately jumps to mind, or Season 3’s “Seven Deadly Sins”), but as an arc of episodic episodes it was amazing.

The problems began with Season 6.

In part, the story suffered from the “Nuke the fridge” problem. The Winchesters had beaten Lucifer himself; what could be more threatening than the Prince of Darkness himself? To continue the story, the writers had to undo far too much of what had happened in the first five seasons. Sam was resurrected after his heroic sacrifice, the brothers’ relationship backslid, and they seemed to have forgotten important lessons about hunting and brotherhood that they had spent the previous five years learning the hard way.

The big story arc involved a civil war in heaven after the derailing of Armageddon, but because it was beyond the boys’ capacity to help, it was largely executed off-screen, leaving the episodes feeling disjointed and unimportant. Not until the very end of the season did it seem to actually matter, and then it was quickly resolved.

Season 7 tried to bring back a “big bad” to defeat (which they did in the finale), and Season 8 wandered aimlessly for quite a while until they stumbled onto an epic quest to close the gates of Hell. Season 9 reverted to “brother lies to brother” for dramatic tension – after eight years of hunting together, you’d think they’d have learned to tell each other the truth, as those lies always backfire – and Season 10’s arc was about Dean under a curse.

Season 11 looks to be bringing in another “big bad” for them to fight – one that, by all rights – should be beyond their capability, since apparently it took God and the archangels to beat back the last time. (Side note – Season 11 could actually be a great throwback to Season 5 if the writers bring back the prophet Chuck and the two surviving archangels from their prison, but I’m doubtful about whether they’re willing to go that direction.)

Looking at the series as a whole, Season 5’s finale would have wrapped the series up in a neat bow. The ending wasn’t happy for all the main characters, but that’s okay. It was satisfying. Unfortunately, the money and the ratings were apparently more than satisfying, too, since they continued a story that clearly was finished.

None of this is to say that the later seasons didn’t have some good stories. For that matter, there are some standout episodes (including my favorite episode in the entire series, “Weekend at Bobby’s”, which was early in Season 6). As a whole, though, the arc storytelling simply lost its punch.

I’m a writer by trade – I’ve finished five novels (the first three were fanfictions that gave me the experience and the confidence to actually try something original), and I’m by no means an expert. I’m still honing my craft, and I suspect I will be for many years to come…probably until they plant a headstone on me.

But at some point, the story needs to end. When the good guys have won, and sacrificed, and learned their lessons, they need to be able to go home. Continually pitching them into the flames again and again ebbs the life and spirit of a work.

Let it go when it needs to go. Zombies are never a good thing. Dean himself states, “What’s dead should stay dead.”

So bring on Star Wars: The Force Awakens!


A Few Thoughts on Leadership

For the past several days, I’ve been examining what I know about leadership. Some of it’s relevant to books I’m working on; some of it is applicable to some circumstances my wife and I have been discussing. One conclusion I came to is that a lot is said about leadership, but much of it is either untrue or not relevant to a given situation.

Because of the honors program and scholarship I had in college, I graduated with a minor in Leadership. We took classes in a variety of areas – ethics, decision-making, group psychology, and yes, leadership. The program “icon” was Theodore Roosevelt (a man that, seven years out of college, I finally no longer despise), and thus a lot of our leadership discussions/conferences/luncheons/etc focused around him.

But I’ve found that “leadership” as discussed in such ways is often too large a scope, too broad a concept, to apply when it’s really relevant.

I’ve been a leader of different groups going back to my time in high school. I was president or officer of several different clubs and organizations. I typically coordinated group projects for classes. And those roles didn’t change much when I went to college; I often found myself doing the same things.

But I also got myself into leadership positions (sometimes unwillingly) in a very different area, too: online gaming.

My earliest experiences were with an online gaming group that played custom missions for games with competitions for top score and best narratives. In those early days, I didn’t have Internet at home, and many of my fellow gamers in the group either had similar situations or didn’t have fast enough connections or computers to make direct online gaming feasible. I intentionally sought (and achieved) leadership roles, which gave me a small degree of prestige and a lot of work.

Later, after going to college, I started playing massively multiplayer online games – in those days, best thought of as living, breathing, but virtual worlds. (Modern MMOs tend to play not-so-differently from a regular game, save difficulty and time commitments.) I had learned lessons from my earlier experiences in online gaming and didn’t seek leadership roles, yet they found me anyway.

It was after I started resigning those leadership roles and attempted to try some new things that I began to notice trends. These trends became even more obvious after a stint as manager at my last job, before resigning to start working on more novels and to stay home with the Peanut.

While we often discuss how our leaders need to be the best and brightest and smartest people, I’ve found that our actual leaders are seldom any of those three – and for good reason. This led me to my first principle of leadership: our leaders tend to be the most active people in an organization.

Time to make up statistics!

In my experience, something like 75% of the people in a given organization are “average” – they aren’t exceptionally active or inactive and generally go along with most anything the leadership decides to do (barring some terrible decisions). In most cases, I don’t mind being in that 75%.

Of the remaining 25%, let’s say 15% are Active In Name Only. Yes, we’ll call them AINOs, which makes no sense at all, but we’ll go for it. These are the people that don’t show up, or do show up but don’t participate, or show up, complain about the decisions, and do nothing to support the group. Every organization I’ve been in has some AINOs – the trick is to keep the number minimized and to prevent them from sapping the energy and momentum of a group.

Then there’s the final 10%. Those are your ultra-active members. They’re the ones who have fingers in every pie and are suggesting new recipes all the time. They seldom complain but throw themselves whole-heartedly into the work of the organization. (In my early gaming days, that was me entirely, and I burned myself out doing so.) Few people remain ultra-active; with time, they slip into the 75% or even all the way down to AINO status.

However, these 10% tend to be put into the leadership roles. And that’s a good thing. Putting a 75%er or an AINO in charge is a good way to kill a group; it’s important for the leadership to be that 10% of highly-active, highly-motivated, high-energy people, because they will do their best to bring the group along. That sort of energy is infectious, and without it, groups whither and die.

This leads into the second principle I’ve found: once a leader of a group, always a leader of a group.

If someone has risen through the ranks and become an active leader, they tend to always be viewed as a leader. After stepping down from the leadership role, their opinion will still be sought after and given a heavy amount of weight.

It goes even further than that, though. If that now ex-leader leaves the group to start a new group or join a competing group, members of the former group will follow.

I’ll give an example from my gaming days.

Anyone who knows my gaming habits knows I love flying. (I like it in real life, too, but it’s rather expensive.) I’ve played quite a few flight sims over the years, like Falcon and the Jane’s series, but the one that hooked me the most was (due to my other interests) the classic X-Wing series.

Now, when I went to college, Star Wars Galaxies came out that same year. I picked it up and played it casually until the first expansion came out: Jump to Lightspeed, which added space combat themed similarly (though the mechanics were different) to the old X-Wing games I loved.

I played it obsessively at times, and casually at others, but almost never walked away from it for more than a week or so at a time. The guild I played with tried roping me into leadership for the space division multiple times, but I avoided it right up until the Rebel space coordinator on the server (the man, the myth, the legend: Gwreng) quit and turned everything over to me.

Suddenly, I was in charge.

I became a fixture in the space scene on our server. (It’s a good thing this happened in college, because if I tried putting that kind of time into a game now, it’d probably cost me my marriage, even though my wife enjoys gaming, too.) As often happens, though, over time I slowly burned out. I think I was the space coordinator for about a year and a half, and our guild leader for about ten months, when I finally insisted on stepping down.

I played with the old guild for about a month after my resignation as leader, and found I couldn’t stay anymore. For major decisions, one of two things happened: either I was consulted in detail, and it annoyed me, or I wasn’t consulted, and the resulting decision bothered me even more. (That’s not to say the decisions made were necessarily wrong; I had spent too much time in charge there to fall back into the normal ranks.)

So I quit the guild. It was not done in a mean-spirited way; in my resignation, I asked guild members to stay. I had decided to form a new group with a different purpose (training pilots) and didn’t want to sabotage the group I’d spent years playing with.

In spite of my best intentions, the group still splintered with my departure. It didn’t happen immediately, but within six months of my leaving I had several of their best vets on my roster as trainers and a core of others had left to form several new groups.

And oddly enough, even those who formed new groups /still/ looked to me for guidance.

And that could be a problem. When my own energy and interest waned, so too did some of the groups. My actions had further-reaching consequences than I realized, particularly my (I can now say) wrong-headed reactions to certain developments in the game. Even when I wasn’t officially in charge, my mistakes still led others down detrimental paths.

That last part is what sparked this whole reflection, because I’m seeing it offline these days. Old leaders who no longer have the enthusiasm they once did now negatively affect the activities of their groups, and they usually don’t even realize it.

Once a leader, always a leader.


There are times when a person can’t help but feel some heartache.

On a personal level? My Peanut has been sick all week and clearly suffering. His head cold clearly came from his daddy. He had vaccinations on Monday which also spiked him a fever and really put him under the weather. He hasn’t been my happy-go-lucky kid all week, and I hate not being able to do anything about it.

On a community level? This week an FFA advisor and shop teacher, while driving a bus, was involved in an accident at a train crossing that killed both himself and a 17-year-old student, with virtually every other student on the bus injured. I didn’t know any of them personally, but my heart still aches for their families in Larimore. My nightmares are made of the very stuff a couple living near the accident experienced – wrapping injured kids in blankets and pulling them out of the wreckage of a school bus while waiting for first responders to arrive.

On a world level? Twelve people shot dead by Muslim terrorists over satirical cartoons. Cartoons are worth killing people over? Not only that, but the sons of bitches escaped. As of this morning, when I’m writing this, they’re apparently cornered in a hostage standoff outside Paris, and have made statements that they wish to die as martyrs. How many more will they kill?

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

It doesn’t help that we’re in the middle of a deep freeze in the Midwest. Outdoor temperature (before windchill) barely even approaches zero, and we’ve had windchill warnings pretty much every day this week. Cold and gloom tends to sap the will and cheer.

Some days it’s a struggle to remember that things can be, and will be, better than they are right now.

Then pealed the bells, more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Turning Over the Odometer

Today I turn over the odometer.

No, I’m not talking about any of my vehicles – I have a tendency to buy them when they’re already over a hundred thousand miles, and thus far we’ve run into major mechanical issues on any of them that near the 200,000 mark.

Today I turn 30.

When I was a kid, I heard adults (including my parents) tell me things like “Time goes so fast” and “The years just fly by.” As a kid, I didn’t understand that – I mean, time was slow and it took forever.

Not so much anymore.

A year and a half ago, when I had my ten-year class reunion, it started to dawn on me just how fast time flies. It certainly hadn’t seemed like I’d been out of high school for ten years, but the evidence was incontrovertible. And now even more time has gone by.

It’s official.

I’m getting old.

But if I am getting old, at least I have a few things to show for it. I have a home, a wonderful wife, a too-smart kid. I’ve written and published several books, with more on the way. I graduated with two bachelor’s degrees and a minor. I’ve been in the small-business world and climbed a couple rungs on a corporate ladder.

I can’t wait to see what I manage in the next thirty years.