Tools for creative writing

October 15, 2013 

It’s a nice rant, but as I had a quiet day at work, I took the time to plough through the comments, a mix of horror stories, insight and ‘a-ha’ moments of illumination. 

When I first started designing boardgames on the first relatively modern PC that I owned in 1998 I used a mix of Word (for rules) and CorelDraw (for maps).  I eventually also ended up using Word to design cards and counters, through the use of text boxes and a mix of text and inserted images. It has always been clunky way to do it, as it could not manage to do layers, and this limited how I could display information (I could display text underneath an image easily, but trying to get text to float above an image, in a way that could be easily seen, was hell). 

I never updated my version of Corel Draw, which eventually stopped working on my replacement PCs.  Digital decay has hit other projects I have worked on – I’m not good at off-site backups, copying to DVD or dumping onto external drives – so I lost quite a bit of stuff when my laptop melted down at the start of 2012.  All the early Housewar files (1992-1994) were written in Fulltext, a basic text editor that ran on the old XT PC that I had (with its twin floppy drives and green MDA screen).  I had a few files on a spread sheet as well, but the low memory on the XT prevented me doing anything more fancy. 

While I looked at a few graphic software packages to replace Corel in the early noughties, the one I eventually adopted was Campaign Cartographer, a CAD software system purpose built for maps (and map design was my key focus in playing with graphics) with a lot of symbol files and other tools for people who liked fantasy RPGs.  It can do other things too, such as counters and cards, but I kept using Word for those as it was just a bit faster to use when going through multiple iterations in a short period of time (and because it was much easier to drop image files into than CC was, and a lot of dingbat fonts were useful for this as well).  Certainly though there was a subtle constraint on my design in restricting myself to counter and card design that was easy to do in a word processor. 

CC has been reasonably good for map design, but like all powerful software packages, you need to be constantly working in it to accumulate and retain skill.  Every time I go back and start a new project I am reminded of the importance of getting the layers right at the start, and then of the importance of being self-disciplined about switching between the layers when working on different parts of the map.  The CC publishers have also switched away from occasional CD releases of new symbol files and map types, to doing a monthly update combining examples, tutorials and new symbol sets (later purchasable as an annual collection), but the price point has always made me hold off.  I also still like hand drawing maps the old school way (although if I want to keep doing that I should invest in a scanner).  Even with a specific Fractal terrain world generator, CC struggles to make world maps that look real to me (a 70/30 water/earth map just looks empty compared to a Mercator projection of Earth). 

I parted company with Word when I upgraded my laptop in early 2012.  I just got tired of shelling out hundreds of dollars for software I knew would be replaced a few years later, and I decided to have a go with one of the freeware options.  Since then I have been using Apache OpenOffice.  This has been okay for most of my projects but I have had a few specific problems around writing rulebooks (it does not like having image files dropped into the text, it is not as good for quick counter/card design as Word was, and the auto format style for indents and lists is as bad as anything in word and makes trying to order things logically an exercise in frustration) and a more general issue (word processors are just not good tools for long form creative writing being more suited to short business letters).

 A new problem I realised today – I am usually writing rules in a two column format (it keeps the overall length of the document down) – and then exporting the final into .pdf format for email or uploading to a website.  The two column format for .pdf is not easy to read on modern tablet devices, so I am not sure if there is an alternate format that can repaginate text flow across multiple e-reader platforms, or if I’m going to be stuck with suboptimal layout due to content gardens. 

I have learned that most of the OpenOffice community has moved to LibreOffice over the last couple of years, so just switching software packages might solve a few of my current specific issues.  It is also possible, that I might need to invest in software that is more focused on layout for desk top publishing given that I need to be able to get text and images looking exactly like how I need them to look like in a games rulebook.  Scribus is the name  of the freeware I might go and investigate next. 

For creative writing though, I am intrigued by Scrivener.  I have noticed of late, that trying to write long RPG scenarios or campaign outlines in a Word-style word processors just breaks down as the document reaches a point where I want to jump back and forth between different sections.  The one word after another dictate just doesn’t reflect how I brainstorm ideas out on sheets of paper.  Scrivener seems to promise the ability to switch easily between short creative notes, chunks of research documents, text outlines, editing and an easy offsite backup in drop box. 

Collaborative creative work still looks tricky.  I had a wiki for a couple of years, before a domain name expiry made it vanish, and managed to do some shared work on the wiki for an e-mail based Matrix game, and then for an RPG setting I developed.  I had hoped it would be easy to be able to jump from writing about one topic into writing about related topics.  I didn’t find the wiki language all that intuitive, and again, once you stop using it every day, the skill vanishes quickly.  Like CAD layers, the initial structures needed to be clear, otherwise work could vanish off into hard to find dead ends.  While I have worked on a couple of shared Google doc documents, there is something about Google docs that just doesn’t grab my attention.  If Word is an attempt to integrate everything into one programme, and the trade-off is doing everything sub optimally, Google docs has just felt a bit like an inferior version of Word.

Anyhow, I’m downloading Scribus and LibreOffice, and may give Scrivener a go.

RIFT: first impressions

April 24, 2011

Installation, took about an hour with the 2 GB download of patches.

First I played a Defiant warrior (paladin) to Level 20, then I played a Guardian rogue (assassin) to Level 20.  This gets you through the training quests and first major zone.

The Defiant storyline features a lot of fantasy technolgy, and a few examples of tech being used in situations where the means justifies the end.  There is some background dialogue in the starting instance where its clear that your comrades are using machines to turn living people into medical experiments.  The major story arc in the first zone is to deal with a former King, returned from the grave, and his army of crypt things.

The Guardians try to be more the good guys … if doing exactly what the Gods tell you to do is your idea of good.  The major story arc of the first zone is dealing with an Elf who is choosing to defend his own terriotry from Goblins, rather than sending all his resources off to Sanctum to do the Vigil’s bidding.

Its probably impossible to play a Defiant pacifist as you have to complete the story arc to leave the starter zone, which involves killing.

I ran into my first gold farmer spam within 70 minutes of play.  With my first character, just about the only trade chat in the city was from people trying to run gambling games.  With the second character, it was a bit better.

For the most part, the quests are the standard “Kill X Floozles”, “Collect Y Widgets” and “Express Delivery” to the next quest hub.  Not a lot of room for thinking here, although I found the rogues stealth ability allowed them to complete quests much more quickly as they could bypass a lot of potential enemies.  The poor warrior on the other hand spent a lot of time slowly killing things that objected to her breathing oxygen.  I did encounter one puzzle quest in the Defiant zone which was fun to do.  One annoyance I ran into, is that quests involving Elite NPCs that will squish you like a bug are not explicitly flagged for “bring friends with you or die”.

Quest hubs were okay.  I did get screwed around at first by the fact that the system stopped tracking your first five quests when it got another five.  So I had a few cases where I revisited an area 3-4 times.

Public quests and automatic grouping are a major feature of RIFT.  People can just invite you to groups, and you’re in the group without having to click accept.  When you encounter mobile armies of extra-planar invaders, or their actual invasion footholds, you get the option of joining any group that is already fighting them.  The main advantage of this, is that your will be easier for the healers to help in the default User Interface.  For the most part, I found invasion groups to be 100% Zerg and Zero% Communication.  I do wonder if rifts were ignored completely, where the game engine does allow the world to be overrun. Certainly if you play in short bursts the rifts can be extremely annoying, as they eat questgivers.

The pvp quests do not come with a warning that attempting them at level 11 will lead to pain and humiliation, which could be off-putting to a new player to MMOs.

Graphics are okay, tending towards green and dark shades in the zones I have seen so far.  More like LOTRO than WOW.  certainly the individual characters are pretty, although the plate/chain armour displays for female models are ridiculous … lots of exposed skin so that the gear you have by L20 makes you look a lot like a go go dancer.  A major plus for me was that when I looked at slope/wall and thought I can climb/jump it, I nearly always could do that, unlike WOW where I often mistake whetehr or not I can climb a particular slope on a hill – leading to much futile jumping on the spot.

User Interface is a lot like WOW, with a few more options than baseline WOW, but less customisation than you can get in WOW with addons.  The macro system might be a little more powerful in terms of stringing different abilities together.

In common with where many MMOs are going, each of the four main classes (Cleric, Mage, Rogue, Warrior) has multiple talent trees and options.  There are no pure dps classes, they nearly all have solid tanking/healing options.  So a Rogue includes assassins and bards and hunters with pets.  When you spend points in the talent “branches”, you get matching points in the talent “roots”.  So the roots provide common abilities, while the branches provide optional customisation.  The roots also make it hard to spend your talent points in a way that builds a complete failure of a character.  There is an increasing cap on how many points your can put into one soul tree, so as you level you are encouraged to spend a few points in the other trees open to you.  Access to multiple souls is interesting, but the early root abilities involve a lot of repetition of duplicate attacks (with different names and icons, took me a while to notice this and delete half the icons off my action bar).

I found the defiant city of Meridian to be grey and dull. I disliked the lack of connections between the different wings. Felt like a fortress, not a city.  The Guardian city of Sanctum was a little better, essentially one big cathedral full of NPCs surrounded by a ring road connecting all the services together.  The music inside the Cathedral was nice enough to make me stop and listen to it for a while.

Crafting: the big yawn. One reason I stopped playing LOTRO was the immensely frustrating craft system, which was filled with pointless grinding. No innovations here, beyond daily quests at skill 1. I dislike the model, where to level skill, you produce duplicate copies of items that are worthless. Its also difficult to tell at the start, which of the skills would be useful at the level cap. Based on previous experience, skills that modify gear in games are always more profitable than skills that make gear. So I choose enchanting and artificing, and took mining as the 3rd to get me into trouble (Rock! Shiny Rock! Must have the Shiny!).   For my second character I choose to ignore professions entirely.

There are reputation grinds too, again, not a favourite feature.  Again, I decided to ignore this completely.  I know there are NPCs out there that will sell me cool stuff if I’m “decorated” with their faction, but I really couldn’t be bothered trying to figure out who would sell me what.

Levelling experience: not too hard, nearly always get a new talent point or two each time, which I prefer to the crazy mix WoW now has of a point every second or third level plus one more for each of the last five. Skill training is still retrograde – run back to a trainer, hand over the cash, and now you are Johnny Awesome. I did like how certain skills in LOTOR were learned from practice in the field – its just a pain that it took a lot of Kill 100 mobs, kill another 100 mobs, to get anywhere.

Combat experience: typical, level equivalent normal mobs are trivial, elite mobs eat you for lunch, packs of mobs will nibble you to death. Game makes it clear form the start you are an ascended immortal soul, so one perk is once per hour you can rez where you died rather than running back in ghost form from the GY.

Instancing: yet to try this. Its old school in that you have to build a group by asking for help from people, and then actually walk to the instance.  Nothing I have seen in game suggests its all that different from WOW, although probably more like old school MMORPGs with a bigger requirement for communication and crowd control.

Rewards: quest items usually offer small upgrades to existing gear, with something for everyone.  Quashing rifts, especially the major invasions when 20+ rifts open at once, grants you extra currency for use in buying pretty good items.

In summary:

– its a competently executed fantasy theme park MMORPG, nothing too radical but so far I have seen no bugs, which is what killed several other games launched to compete with WOW

– solo play is fine, a good way to kill a few hours … but I doubt its going to keep my subscription for very long as my intial motivation to buy was to play with my brother, and he has already cancelled his sub

– for me, nothing to quit playing WOW for … there is nothing here my WOW guild would stop playing WOW for.  Its very much everything we do now, just in different skins, but we would all be starting scratch again for resources.