Thursday, March 5, 2015

Painting Imperial Assault, Part 1: The Non-Uniques

I've had my eyes on Descent since before I got back into painting because of the quality of the miniatures. I still have yet to play, but it's a popular fantasy romp. When I heard about Imperial Assault, which is essentially bugfixed Descent + Star Wars, I think we all knew it was a matter of when and not if. It made a good Christmas gift to myself, and I think I started in on the miniatures the day after.


After cleaning up the miniatures, my next step was to think about basing. The tiles in Imperial Assault come in three fundamental types: badlands, forest, and indoor. It took some careful paint mixing to get the shades right, but I was able to match the badlands and forest ground color fairly well.


Even while I worked on it, though, I had some doubts. The game rules include the concept of "deployment groups," so for example, the nine Stormtrooper miniatures are deployed in groups of three. I thought that basing would be a good way to visually distinguish the groups. The more I got into it, however, the more I worried about a visual-story dissonance: badlands troopers would look kind of silly deployed in an imperial base, for example. I turned to Facebook to ask for some feedback, and two of my artist friends quickly responded with, essentially, "I'd just paint them black." It hurt a bit to undo the work that I had done, but I am also acutely aware of the sunk cost fallacy. On the positive side, this gave me the occasion to buy some Simple Green and try stripping. It worked well enough on the Imperial Assault miniatures and some other hard plastic ones that my sons wanted to repaint, but I was surprised at how poorly it worked on the handful of Bones miniatures we also threw in.


For the Stormtroopers, I followed the approach recommended on this BGG thread, namely, using a light basecoat and then highlighting the contours with greylining. All but one of the Stormtroopers was primed white, and after enough layers, you cannot really tell who was my black-prime test. The sequence of layers was a bit frustrating: I did the black after the greylining, but inevitably, I got black outside of where it should be, since it's all in recessed areas. The color I needed to clean this up was, essentially, the greylining shade. I switched the order for the gunners, as described below. I colored the shoulders of the units in order to distinguish between deployment groups. Painting nine nigh-identical Stormtroopers was a bit tedious, but I think they look great assembled together.


The probe droids started with a straightforward metallic drybrush on black primer. The two in the back were done together and were originally identical. The bronze color was achieved through two layers of ink, which did exactly what I hoped it would do. I had only recently built up my collection of inks, and it's been fun for me to experiment with inks alone as well as mixing inks and acrylic paints. I wasn't sure how to do the lenses, so I again followed the advice on the BGG thread, which is actually an old technique used for painting fantasy gems. I sat on the third probe droid for some time, trying to determine how to make it visually distinct from the other two. I ended up just giving it lighter tones all around, which, as you can see, is sufficient.


I am glad I am not the only one who is unclear on the pronunciation of "Trandoshan," but here they are. (I've fallen into the tran-DOH-shun camp, following on the lines that they are from planet Dosh. Thanks, Internet!) I did the yellow pair first and the brown-green ones a few weeks later. If anyone asks "How many layers of yellow did it take to paint these miniatures?" the answer is "One less than infinity." Clearly, the ones on the left are painted to look like Bossk, who, incidentally, is wearing an unaltered High-Altitude Windak High Pressure Suit designed for the Royal Air Force in 1962 (Thanks again, Internet!) I am pleased with the contrast between the smooth cloth suit and the rough, lizard-like skin. The photo does not really show it, but I also pulled some tricks with varnish here: the skin and metal bits are done with Liquitex Matte Varnish, which has more of a satin finish, and the cloth is done with Model Masters Acryl, which is flat/matte. The eyes and inside of the mouth are gloss varnished, and the effect is subtle but pleasing on the table.

If you look carefully, you'll see that the white flak jacket is painted slightly differently on the two deployment groups. On the right, I used the greylining technique as done on the Stormtroopers to bring out the contrast a bit more, whereas the left was done with pure layering. I prefer the ones on the right, as there's a bit more contrast. I have been thinking about contrast a lot lately and wondering if I should include it more deliberately in my painting. I find that I tend toward more gentle gradients that look good under my painting light, where sharper contrast may help the miniature read better from across the table. The Trandoshans are good example of this. All the yellows on the left two are very close to each other, even though I started with a medium brown and worked up from there. The two on the right, I tried more deliberately to separate shades and highlights, to what I believe is good effect. Of course, the colors are so vastly different that it might just be a matter of apples and oranges.

One last note on the Trandoshans: the yellow ones were the first in this batch where I was working deliberately with blacks. As I've mentioned before, black and white are challenging because you cannot shade black and you cannot highlight white. Yet, many of these Star Wars minis feature blacks and whites, Stormtroopers being the classic example. For the Trandoshans, I was careful to use shades of grey to highlight the backpack and cuffs, while trying to make them still "read" as black. This leads into the next set:


These Imperial Officers are wearing black suits, but again, they were painted in all shades of grey, with pure black only used in the deepest recesses and achieved with black ink. They are deployed individually, and so each had to be visually distinguishable from the rest. Since gloves are optional for Stormtrooper officers (wow, Internet, you have a lot of Star Wars information), I decided to have one gloved officer; his hair is also a mix of browns and greys, trying to make him look middle-aged, although the fact you cannot tell from the photo says it probably wasn't worth the effort. The Imperial Assault card art features Imperial Officers with trim goatees, so I decided to put facial hair on one officer to make him stand out. It works, but it also feels kind of strange to put a beard on a military officer. I don't remember seeing any facial hair throughout the Death Star. Anyway, it matches the card art, so we'll take it for now. I am pleased with how, again, the uniforms look black but still contain discernible highlights.


I believe it was while working on the royal guard that my wife pointed out how monochromatic the villains are. I suppose this reflects in the story as well: in the movies, these guys are scary looking soldiers that don't actually do much of anything. Red can be a tricky color to paint, but I am really happy with the result here. The shade layer is a mix of red and brown, going up to a main highlight color of flat red. For additional highlights, I use light shades of orange, but even knowing it's there, you cannot really see it: it simply looks like highlights. It's a bit hard to tell in the photo here, but the tips of their staffs are different, to make it clear that they are in two deployment groups of two. I also did some varnish tricks here, doing the helmets in the satiny Liquitex Matte Varnish and the robes in Model Masters Acryl flat. I was rather disappointed, however, to see how the Acryl muted the vibrancy of the reds. It's not just a matter of the helmets being more shiny: the actual tone of the red was taken down by the flat varnish. In future figures, after doing a bit of research, I've been thinning the Acryl with a little water. It's hard to say if this has changed it significantly, however, since no other figure has two sections that would otherwise be the same color but using the different varnishes.


These nexus are the only real monsters in the set, and so I was looking forward to painting them as a break from humanoids. Knowing there would certainly be some lore about them on the Internet, I looked them up, and I was disappointed to see that they come from the dreaded prequel trilogy. As much as I love painting, I wasn't sure I wanted to melt them down and mold them into some kind of baby rancors.

The fur is base coat, ink wash, and a few layers of drybrushing, with the stripes painted in sepia ink. My intention here was to try to shade the color of the fur rather than paint a stripe over it, and I think that worked. It probably would also have worked with regular paint, of course, but since it worked on one, I did it on the other. (Actually, in my first pass didn't go quite as well. The stripes were too far apart, and I tried adding highlights just to them. I ended up repainting them entirely to what you see in the photo.) The tails were done with the same basic approach I used about a year ago with my Mice and Mystics minis, using a flesh tone and a brown wash. The spines and claws were done in very dark browns, with varying varnishes again used to make the spines, eyes, and inside of the mouth shine. The mouth itself is done in dark purples, but looking at it here, it probably could have been brighter. Still, I'm happy with it, as it leaves the comically large mouth looking cavernous.


The Silliest Name in Imperial Assault Award goes to the E-Web Engineers. I ended up priming the gunner himself white while the gun, generator, and base were primed black. The gun was originally just layers of metallic drybrushing, but this looked drab after finishing the gunner, so I went back over several areas in the brighter steel color seen here. I have generally been working with black primer for the past several months, in part because I've been following a lot of the techniques from Dr. Faust's Painting Clinic. With these guys, I was reminded of how annoying white primer can be: it's easy to miss a seam between two colors, and so you get white spots are lines in what should be the darkest recesses. Unlike the Stormtroopers, where I used a basecoat and painted in the shadows, these were layered up from shade layer to highlight layer. It probably took longer per figure, but there were only two. As with the Stormtroopers, it was a good exercise in painting both blacks and whites. In case you're curious, these miniatures are deployed individually, and the only visual distinction between them is the readout on top of the generator: the one on the left has green details and the one on the right has red.

That's it for the non-unique Imperial Assault miniatures. Next up will be the unique heroes and villains, who are cleaned and primed but not yet started. I'll post a report when they're done. Who knows, maybe some day I'll even play the game.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

On Measurement in Computer Science

In a chance encounter last semester, I befriended an undergraduate honors student who was not involved in any of my courses. She has become enamored of the notion of measurement—what it is and what it means. She asked me to contribute an essay on measurement in Computer Science for a collection that will become her honors thesis. It was an honor to be asked, and although I had plenty of inspiration, I found the actual writing to be difficult. After a few discarded drafts, I decided to focus on the paradox of the measurable and the unmeasurable within Computer Science, while trying to stay apart from political debate (we need more Computer Scientists!) or research loggerheads (agile vs waterfall). Without further ado, this is the final draft I sent to her yesterday, although I wonder if I may tweak it a bit before she publishes it.

The discrete and formal measurements of Computer Science reflect its foundations in mathematics and electrical engineering. Computer programs are composed of unambiguously parsed statements and expressions, which are compiled into atomic hardware directives. Information is transmitted over networks by measuring electronic pulses and radio waves, interpreting these as bits and bytes. Computational theory tells us that all computable problems belong to a single space-time hierarchy and that some problems cannot be computed at all. This leads us to the biggest question of Computer Science—the question of whether P=NP—which is fascinating not only because we do not know the answer, but because we also do not know if it is answerable.

These discretely measurable aspects of the discipline complement a more humanistic side. Creativity and ingenuity are required in determining what line of code to write, what proof technique to use, or what software architecture to follow. First attempts almost always fail, and so we learn to approach problems iteratively, using formal and informal heuristics to determine whether we are moving closer to a desirable solution. That is, we recognize that doing Computer Science is a learning process, that building a system is the process of learning how to build the system. Unlike in engineering and architecture, where models are built for others to manufacture, the computer scientist deals directly with the elements that compose the artifact. This creates a rapid feedback loop for the reflective practitioner, giving rise to the model of expert computer scientist as master craftsman.

Building any nontrivial software system requires a multidisciplinary collaboration, where the tools of the Computer Scientist are combined with approaches from the social sciences, humanities, and the arts. Research consistently shows that teams with strong communication practices produce better results; how to actually conduct these measurements is a perennial research question. Martin Fowler—a recognized industry leader software development—has gone so far as to claim that productivity cannot be measured at all, and that any attempted measurements will only produce misinformation.

My own scholarship involves building original educational video games with multidisciplinary teams of undergraduates. When interviewed about what most contributed to their successes, teams inevitably split their answers between the measurable and the non-measurable. They find that formal processes and communication patterns, quantitative feedback, and technical structure give them the confidence to build and revise complex software systems. At the same time, they recognize that empathy has the most dramatic effect on both team productivity and the quality of the product. These two sides, the scientific and the humanistic, are not opposed to each other: they form a synergy that can propel a team to success or, in their absence, drag a team to a near standstill.

This harmonious balance of the measurable and the unmeasurable characterizes Computer Science. Alistair Cockburn captures this paradox in his cooperative game principle in which he defines software development as a cooperative game of invention and communication. Both kinds of moves are necessary for the team to create a solution of value to stakeholders and, thereby, to win the game. A winning team must make measurable and unmeasurable moves, creating technical and artistic artifacts while continuing to build empathy, all the while reflecting on how they are learning through this process.



Friday, February 6, 2015

Spring 2015 Game Studio project announcement: Collaboration Station

It's been a busy time here, and it seems I missed January entirely on my blog. One of the reasons for the tight schedule is that I am once again mentoring a major immersive learning project, working with an multidisciplinary team of ten undergraduates to create an original educational game. We're partnering with the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, who are helping to provide feedback as we work on Collaboration Station, a cooperative game about the International Space Station.

Our social media presence just went live, so please visit the team's blog and check out our Twitter feed. Right now, there's just an introduction to the project, but you can expect more content in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

CS222 Fall 2014: What we learned, and where we're going

The final exam for my CS222 class once again featured the construction of a list of what the students learned (or more properly, what they think they learned). They compiled a list of 111 items, and each student was asked to pick their top seven. Once all the votes were tallied, these was most consensus around these four items:

ItemVotes
Test-Driven Development16
JUnit testing12
Make realistic goals12
You can learn a lot from failures10

Transcribing the list is like a semester-in-review. There are some very powerful ideas that the students brought up, many of which only had one or two votes. Examples include "Nobody owns code in a group project," "Dirty code is easy to write and hard to maintain," "Be wary of second-order ignorance," and "Donuts solve most transgressions." I could tell stories about each one of these—and I know that if I don't write down the stories, the details will be lost to the sands of time. However, I also know that this is going to be a long post, so I will have to leave out some of these details. It's worth noting that some of the items in the list also embody lingering confusion. I just write down what the students say during this exercise, only asking for clarifications. Still, my teacher-sense was tingling when students offered items like "Instantiating variables," which shows a misunderstanding of terminology, semantics, or both.

The students were asked to write about what experiences led them to learn one of these items. I believe everybody chose to write about learning from failure, which turned out to be a good theme for the semester, as I talk about more below. One of the students, in his closing essay, pointed out that "make realistic goals" and "learn from failure" are the kind of thing you'd expect to hear from a weekend leadership workshop at a hotel, which I thought was an astute observation and brought a smile to my face. He himself acknowledged that these items are easy to say and hard to follow, and I found it uplifting to read about how so many students had transformative experiences around personal and team failures during the semester. My hope is that they integrate these lessons into better practices as they move forward in college and then in their lives as alumni.

Taking a step back from the end of the semester, let me set the context for this particular class. About two years ago, the Foundations Curriculum Committee approved a change to our introductory Computer Science class. We decided to adopt the combination of Media Computing, Pair Programming, and Peer Instruction that proved so successful at San Diego. The CS222 course that I have been working on for a few years comes two semesters after this course, and so this Fall I had my first cohort of students from this change. The change of context went along with a change of language, so whereas previously my students had two introductory semesters in Java, this group had a semester of Python and a semester of Java.

I was a bit surprised that these students did not appear to be any better or any worse prepared for CS222 with respect to maturity of programming. As always, they could generally hit the keys until programs kind of worked. There were some who still struggled with basic control structures, almost uniform misuse of technical terminology, and practically no understanding of either object-oriented programming or its syntactic elements. I suppose this means that our first round of data point to the change being a success, since I did not notice any real change in preparation, yet more students are sticking with the major. (Then again, it could just be the economy.)

I think I had slightly overestimated their understanding of Java in the early part of the semester. My intention was to give some warm-up exercises, but I think these were neither formal enough nor scaffolded enough. There were several days where I posed a challenge and said, "Try this for next time!" but—with shades of when I tried making the final project not worth course credit—because it wasn't collected and graded, I do not think many people really tried. For the Spring, I have integrated three formal assignments, one per week before the two-week project. Because these assignments are intended to form students' for the coming weeks of activity, I have decided to adopt a mastery learning approach here: students have to do the assignments until they are correct. (As I write this, I realize that there may be a hole here: right now, I have it set up so that the assignments must be correct to get higher than a 'D' in the course, but this means students might put them off. I think I will have to revise that before Spring, to actually stop them from moving on in the course somehow until the assignments are done, or put a strict time limit on how long they have to submit a reasonable revision.)

The two-week project in the Fall was a good experience, although I think the students didn't realize it until for a few weeks afterward. I gave them a good technical challenge, involving processing data from NPR's RSS feeds, and Clean Code with TDD was required. Of course, many students did not start the project when they should have, but more importantly, I don't think that anybody actually followed the requirements. Several students had projects that ostensibly worked, and they were proud of these, but they were horribly written. I was honest in the grading, which I think many of the students had never experienced before either. Many of them panicked, but then I pointed out to them that the project had no contribution to their final grade at all. This allowed us to talk honestly about the difference between requirement and suggestion, and it forced them to rethink their own processes. In their end-of-semester essays, many students came back to this as one of the most important experiences of the course—a real eye-opener. I am fairly certain this contributed to "learn from failure" being one of the top items of consensus in the final exam.

I realized too late in the semester that I had a problem with the achievement-based grading system. I had designed several interesting quests, which a student had to complete in order to unlock A-level grades. One of them, "Clean Coder," was designed to be the easiest one: it required the completion of several achievements related to Clean Code, which was required for the project anyway. However, it looked like it was harder, because it had more steps than the others. The other achievements had fewer steps required because I knew that students would be doing Clean Code activities as well. Sadly, the students didn't think this through, and I did not convey it clearly enough, with the result that nobody pursued the Clean Code achievements. Not coincidentally, many teams struggled with fundamental Clean Code ideas in their projects.

I also encountered something new this semester, which could actually be novel although I suspect it was previously under my radar. As in previous semesters, I allowed collaborative achievement submissions, since much of the work is intended to be done by the team collectively. However, it came to my attention that a few teams were assigning an "achievements person" who became responsible for doing the achievement work while the rest did other things. This is quite a reasonable division of labor, but it's not at all what I intended.

Because of the quest difficulties and the unintended division of labor, I made several changes to the achievement-based assessment system for the Spring. All achievement claims will now be made by individuals, which helps me ensure that I know each student earns their keep. I also reduced the number required to unlock different grade levels. However, the total workload should be about the same, as I am bringing in end-of-iteration reflection essays. Several semesters ago, I required both achievements and reflection essays, but I found this to be too much work. I find myself wanting students to tie their experiences more to our essential questions, and so I'm pulling the end-of-iteration essay idea from my studio courses into CS222. I think it should be a good fit here, although I am dreading the return of the inevitable "This feels like a writing course!" evaluations from students who don't recognize the epistemic value of writing.

I have also completely removed the quest construct. Many of the items that were quests are now simply achievements. The quests are fun and provide a nice narrative on top of the achievements ("I am becoming an engineer!" "I care about user-centered design!"), but they also bound the students too early to a specific path: a team who decided on one quest could not feasibly change paths to take another, which is unfortunate since the whole thing was really designed to be inspirational, not constricting. In the Spring, then, there will be no other barrier between B-level and A-level grades aside from the number of achievements. Realistically, it's the project grade that most influences final grades anyway.

Before winter break is over, I plan to make a checklist for the final project iterations. I don't know if students actually will read it or use it, but maybe it will help those teams who are working diligently but suffering from second-order ignorance. Common items that teams forget before the submission include removing compiler warnings, tagging the repository, and checking out their project onto a clean machine to ensure that all of their dependencies are properly configured or documented.

I incorporated self- and peer-evaluations into each iteration in the Fall, and these provided a throttle on how many points an individual could earn from a collective team project. The design, obviously, is to catch freeloaders. I used a similar system in my game programming course, where I also asked students to reflect on it explicitly, and that group was pretty evenly split between people who liked it, those who didn't, and the neutral. Although I did not ask students to reflect on these evaluations explicitly in CS222, I was surprised that it just didn't come up in most students' writings, and where it did, it was very positively. There were some teams where I think they even helped students to air some difficulties early and get over them. I still need to find a better way to help students recognize that, given a rubric, all I want is an honest response. I did hear students talking about giving each other "good" evaluations, and I tried to convince them that it wasn't about "good" and "bad", but about honest feedback. Perhaps it's an intractable problem because these evaluations contribute to a grade, and so inevitably students pragmatically see "good" and "bad" as having priority over team cohesion.

The course evaluations for Fall were nice to read, as the students praised the areas of the course that I think went well, and they provided constructive criticism in places where things were rocky. At least two students described the achievement-based system as feeling like it was "still in beta," but both were quite forgiving of this as well. I think drawing on video game metaphors here helped me, as students recognize that "beta" incorporates their feedback for the betterment of future players. Despite generally high praise for my course, I cannot get out of my head the fact that more than one student wrote something like, "Don't believe the people who say you are a monster." Two used the word "monster" specifically. These were all couched in grateful and kind ways, from students encouraging me to continue to be honest in my critical feedback. I suppose I must have a mixed reputation. I know I shouldn't let it get to me, but I cannot help but wish to be a fly on the wall.

This was a really fun group of students, and I think we did a lot of good work together. I hope they carry these big ideas of software development and craftsmanship with them as they move on. In my last presentation to them, I reminded them that I spent the last fifteen weeks holding them accountable to high professional standards, and that in the coming semesters, they will be responsible for holding themselves and each other accountable. I hope they do.

Some references:

Friday, December 19, 2014

Painting The aMAZing Labyrinth

I try to play a lot of board games with my boys, although because of their ages this often restricts us from playing the more complex games in my collection. One of our games that sees the most play is The aMAZEing Labyrinth, a classic and relatively simple tile-shifting game.

This one was recommended to me by a student when my oldest son was quite young. This alumnus had fond memories of playing the game when he was a kid, and he still played it on occasion with his parents. It's easy to teach, although as the spatial reasoning can be tricky for adult players, kids often need a bit of help. Each player normally has a deck of six goal cards, and you seek one at a time. With very young players, we let them see all six at once and try to figure out which one is closer. This means they almost always win, but this does not bother me as long as we are consistent with the rules. Letting each player have the same number of turns increases the fairness as well as the pressure for adults to make clever moves.
The game comes with four wizard characters:
Given how I've enjoyed painting miniatures for about the last year, and that this game sees much more table time than almost anything else, I decided this would make a fun painting project. As I've written about before, I have been experimenting with different primers, and lately—inspired by The Painting Clinic—I have been seeing what I can do with black primer and layering. I decided that these bold-colored, cartoony miniatures would be a good case study.
Without further ado, here are the final results, front and back.
The sculpts are mostly robe, and there was not a lot of detail there to bring out. On the blue and green models, I played with using short strokes and dots to imply a cloth-like texture, and I think it's effective in comparison to the smooth shading of yellow and red. I picked up some new inks specifically for glazing these figures, and I think it helped bring together the colors on blue, yellow, and red. This was done with simple ink wash, just thinning with a little water. I also did some blacklining with black or dark brown ink, which was mixed with Future polish to help it get into the cracks. In the picture, you can see some examples of this under the belt of the yellow and red figures and separating the robe and cloak on the blue and green figures.
I decided to do some object-source lighting (OSL) with the blue wizard's staff and the green wizard's orb. This was done with very thin layers of paint, occasionally using my glazing medium to give the ultra-thin mixture a bit more body. Blue's was fairly straightforward, the only real trick being working around the conical shape and the brim of the hat. I'm still not so sure about green's. Originally, I had the light going down to her elbows, but once that was done, it wasn't clear there was a direct line from the orb to there, so I re-painted the sleeves. Before OSL, her face was highlighted as if the light came from above, and so once I put on pale green from underneath, it made her look weird... but then again, that's what happens when you put a colored light source under your face. There's a reason we put flashlights under our chins when telling ghost stories: our brains are hardwired to recognize faces using lighting from above, and going the other way is just strange. In green's case, it's not a very bright light from below, just enough to give her a green pallor, making her look a bit unhealthy.
I'll point out one other bit that I'm rather proud of: the left sleeve of the blue wizard. The model actually has no detail there at all, but I think that my use of color gives the illusion that the sleeve is open. In particular, putting a little highlight at the bottom of the faux cuff makes it look like light is hitting the inside of the sleeve.
I think the overall effect of the figures is nice, and I'm happy with the layering and detail. However, once put on the board, they do look a little drab.
Note that the lighting here is suboptimally centered above the board, so we're on the shadow side of yellow and red. Still, you can tell that they're a bit darker than the tiles. I think this again speaks to my unintentional avoidance of using white as a highlight color. If I were to do it again or consider touching them up, I would definitely try brightening the highlights to see if this gives the whole figure a more bright look. Regardless, I think they look good on the board, but they don't match the tone of the tiles as well as I would have liked.
The next figure I'm painting is Argalad from Middle Earth Quest, who is a mostly-green elf. He's also primed in black and being painted in layers, but I'm trying to be more intentional about bringing up the highlights. I know I read somewhere that one of the challenges of black primer is that you get extremely high contrast while you can still see any of the primer, and I think that's part of what's happening here. Argalad's blonde hair was one of the last features I painted, and so since his hair was jet black until then, everything else looked weirdly bright. Once I painted the hair, it came together. I wasn't planning to post a picture, but since I'm talking about it, I'll take a shot now and put it here. It's nearly complete, but still a work-in-progress: I need to do the sword, touch up some shadows and maybe some highlights, and finish up the base.
Thanks for reading!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Digging up my first CS education research work

Once again, it is Computer Science Education Week. In previous years, I feel like my inbox and news feed were inundated with reminders and requests to take action. My participation has taken the form of blog posts the last few years. This year, no one requested it—and maybe they didn't last year either, since it seems I made no CSEdWeek post in 2013—but it turns out that I have a good and relevant story to tell anyway.

My first semester as an Assistant Professor was Fall 2005 at Ball State University. I had come to Ball State on the strength of my doctoral work in interactive program visualization, which was a line of inquiry I intended to continue pursuing. One of the reasons I had become interested in this work was because it had implications to Computer Science education, helping people to understand the semantics of program execution; however, my own doctoral work was more theoretical and engineering, not assessment of application. 

In that first semester, I was assigned to teach CS120, the department's introduction to Computer Science, which at the time was taught in C++. The textbook contained classic and uninteresting problems, and as I had done in graduate school, I spent some time crafting my own programming projects. The students' final project was to make a text-based adventure game set in Mounds State Park. This was inspired by John Estell's Nifty Assignment. I remember the project having been a great success in terms of students' engagement and learning outcomes.

I was reminded of this assignment yesterday, when I was gathering scrap paper to bring to my CS222 final exam. My exam followed a similar format to what I described two years ago, although I have stopped asking for mind maps. My scrap paper supply has been getting smaller, and so I grabbed the whole stack to bring downstairs. At the bottom of the stack were about thirty of these forms:

It's a survey I designed in Fall 2005 to gather some feedback from students about the final project. This represents the first effort I can remember of trying to conduct actual Computer Science Education research: to have real data and coherent theories about the relationship between what I was doing and what the students were learning. Looking at the form now, having been involved in Computer Science Education research for almost ten years, I was bit surprised to see that I think it's a decent instrument. At the time, I knew nothing of qualitative research methods or even quantitative research methods, and I had no formal understanding of constructivism or constructionism. Not too bad for a novice.

Today, in 2014, I feel much more comfortable with Computer Science Education Research as part of my identity as a scholar. I have written several articles in this area, and while my more technical work still has more citations, the metrics suggest that my work has made a real difference in the community—a small difference, but a difference nonetheless. This gives me great satisfaction, to know that I am helping students here in Muncie, and that through a network of like-minded scholars, there can be a ripple effect to other places and instutitions, similar to how John Estell's Nifty Assignment prompted me to make an interesting new assignment for my students.

It was fun to post this same picture on Facebook and hear back from students I had that semester. It was a memorable assignment for them as well!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Painting Wrath of Ashardalon

While I was still finishing painting the miniatures from The Legend of Drizzt (part 1, part 2), I picked up a copy of Wrath of Ashardalon, another game from the same D&D Adventure series that comes jam-packed with unpainted miniatures. This post tells the story of painting the Ashardalon miniatures, a project that  took about six months. I'll be giving a bit of background, exposition, criticism, and reflection in the prose, but I don't mind if you just flip through and look at the pictures.

Obligatory box cover image
I had taken a hiatus from painting after finishing Drizzt, and after cleaning up the Ashardalon minis, I wanted to ease back in gently. I started with these cultists.

Human cultists: Never enough skulls
You know what? Black is difficult to paint. You cannot shade it, and you really have to focus on how it reflects light. Starting with these guys was a tactical error. I did a fair job on them and then moved on.

Legion Devils
You know what? Red is difficult to paint. The sculpts have very little detail on their faces, and one was pretty badly miscast. I got them basecoated in red, but I couldn't get a good highlight from there: red + white makes pink, and I'm not sure pink devils would be quite as intimidating. This led me to read more about how to paint red. I've learned since then to basecoat in red-brown and work up to red as a highlight color.

I also had trouble picking colors for the shield, since I didn't want to overdo it on the red and black motif. I picked the green and bronze by playing with a color wheel, and I don't really care for it, but neither did I feel like going back and repainting it. After these and the cultists, I took another short break before painting anybody else. Fortunately, it all gets better from here.

Duergar
Duergar Captain
I am much happier with the duergar. I painted all four in a batch to make sure I could match the colors of their skin and cloaks. I used the same basing technique as I did for Drizzt, figuring that these guys really belong in the Underdark anyway. I think the highlights turned out quite nicely, especially on the cloaks. This was a nice little win after feeling a bit defeated by the cultists and devils. (I wonder, what kind of search traffic will that previous sentence bring to the blog?)

Rage Drake. He's mad because of the size of the dentist's tool.
Here's the rage drake from the set. His neck had a pretty bad seam in it that needed to be filled. While travelling this summer, I picked up a dentist's tool at a flea market, and it worked perfectly for working some Milliput into the gap and smoothing it out.

Take a close look at the rage drake's base, and you'll see one of my first creative basing experiments. Watching Teri Litorco's video about pumice gels inspired me to pick some up and try them. The rage drake's base has a thin layer of fine pumice gel that was worked up with a craft stick.

Now he's mad because he cannot play in the mud.
Here he is again, with the base painted and highlighted to look like wet mud. I think it works well as wet mud; the problem is that the rage drake is somehow floating on top of the mud instead of sunk into it. I ended up repainting it to look like a blasted desert wasteland instead, and I think they yellow/beige color works better with the warm colors of the drake anyway.

Now he's mad because red is still hard to highlight.
This is the final version. It's a fine piece, but I made the same mistake here as with the legion devils, basecoating in a deep red, washing with a red-brown, and then not having much farther "up" to go with my highlights. Still, the bit of glazing I did on the face turned out OK, though it's hard to tell from the camera glare. It's a decent paint job, and my first foray into more interesting bases.

Orc Basher standing nowhere in particular
Next up, I had a bunch of orcs—three archers and three bashers. Seen here is a basher that is complete aside from the base. Given the strength of Tolkein's influence on D&D, and Ashardalon being a D&D game, I decided to go with a sallow flesh color. I am very pleased with the highlighting here, especially on the flesh. Around when I was finishing the bashers was the time that I bought some static grass. Given how much I liked the paint job, I was honestly a bit afraid of putting on the static grass. I'm not sure how exactly it could have gone wrong, but there was that fear of the unknown. I may have squealed in delight when I saw the result.

Orc Basher standing in the grass

Static grass was a good investment. I used a standard technique for applying it, first dabbing some thinned PVA glue onto the base, then pushing a ridiculous amount of static grass into it. After waiting a few moments, I tapped off the excess, blew from the sides, and sure enough—up it stands, like magic. My only regret here was that I followed another tutorial (which I cannot find now) that suggested spraying matte varnish from a spritz bottle onto the grass in order to varnish post-flocking. I probably put on too much, and it pooled around the base, so some of the Bashers' bases look funny if you get too close. Solution: don't get too close to an Orc Basher. I didn't have to worry about further experimenting with that technique anyway, since the varnish clogged by dollar store spritz bottle, and nothing of value was lost.

Around this time, I watched The Painting Clinic video series on highlighting, in which he goes over the basics with some historical militia. During the series, he casually mentions that the miniatures will all be wearing different colors because they are a militia, not army regulars. When he said this, and I looked over at my Bashers, I realized they were identical for no particular reason. I had painted all three at the same time, which let me reuse colors, and so reuse I did. On the archers, however, I had only done the skin to match the Bashers, the rest being unpainted. This inspired me to give the archers each their own colors.

Orc Archers, proudly displaying their unique tunics
The orcs agreed to pose for one action shot.
After finishing the archers, I moved on to the Orc Shaman, whose flesh I had also done with the rest.

Orc Shaman, almost complete
Orc Shaman, almost complete
These shots show the near-final miniature. His top and back are dominated by the fur that he is wearing, and so I knew I wanted something more interesting than just a monochrome drybrush. I looked up patterns of timber wolves, and then I blocked in the basic colors and drybrushed highlights. Notice that the Shaman has the same kind of red wristbands as the armbands of the Orc Bashers—an intentional matching of colors and themes that I think works quite well here.

I had decided before starting the figure that this would be an opportunity to try object-source lighting (OSL) on his holy symbol. Finishing the rest of the model, and being rather happy with, I had the same hesitation as with the static grass, but perhaps stronger. I had spent hours on this one miniature: did I really want to risk ruining it in trying to make it look like the symbol was glowing? This model contains no non-mixed colors, so there was almost no chance of re-creating any of the colors if I wanted to paint over them. I reminded myself that one of the whole points of the endeavor was to learn something new, and that nobody would really see the result anyway (I mean, nobody except you, dear reader). All right, let's do yellow.

Orc Shaman, finished
Orc Shaman, finished
Here he is, with a cool glowing holy symbol. It took a lot of thin layers of glazing, but I think the result is worth it. Honestly, it looks a bit better in person, but they all do. I'm still just taking pictures with a work lamp and my Nexus 4.

Cave Bears from the Tea & Spice Forest
In between the orcs, I was also working on these cave bears. The paint job was pretty straightforward, and kind of lazy: base coat, wash to get into the shadows, and drybrush the highlights. I did a grey glaze to make the noses look wet. Where I had some fun with these guys was in the basing, continuing a theme of this set. From left to right above, I used loose rooibos tea, bagged black tea, and Italian seasoning from the dollar store. The best of the three is the one in front. I had hoped the rooibos would look like the rich soil in a coniferous forest, but the scale was not quite right: it might work better if I had either filtered out the big pieces or chopped it more finely. The Italian seasoning presented a similar case: the variety of leaves was nice, but they were just too big. The bagged tea, on the other hand, was very fine, and this helped keep the illusion of the scale.

There were actually a few more steps to the bases here. First, I laid down some coarse pumice gel and painted it dark brown, and then I stuck the leaves onto the bases using thinned PVA glue. The leaves were not laying flat: they looked like... well, they looked like someone had haphazardly dumped some leaves and sticks onto the base, which is exactly what happened. I covered these piles in matte varnish—the same I was using to experiment with the Orc Bashers' bases—but the result was that the leaves looked very wet. They soaked up the varnish and became limp, then stuck in place. I put on a second, thin layer of leaves, and this gave a nice effect, looking like newly-fallen leaves on top of older, darker, wetter ones.

A quick note on the coarse pumice gel: I used it on a few models of this set, and it is very easy to tint with inks and slap onto the base. However, it's too regular for most of my uses. On later pieces, such as the dragon, I went back to a mix of different sizes of grit, laying them on with thinned PVA glue, and painting them to look like dirt and stones.

Snakes looking for a snack
I was initially excited to do these snakes and spent some time looking for color schemes on real snakes. However, as I got into them, I really didn't like the sculpts. Clearly, they are snakes, but they don't match the scale pattern of actual snakes. The sculpts have all sorts of bumps and chest plates instead of scales, and there were a lot of casting problems that I had neither patched nor filed off. Without much fanfare, I painted them up and put them in the box. Enough about that, let's do something more interesting.

Grells are interesting.
How about grells? Consider: if you were making a D&D board game with an iconic red dragon on the cover, what kind of classic monsters would you include? Orcs! Cultists! Demons! ... Grells? Yeah, me neither.

Anyway, given three grells, and my still having some difficulty deciding how I liked priming things, I figured I would try comparing my Liquitex white gesso to my Vallejo white surface primer. Both were causing me a bit of frustration: the gesso had noticeable particulate, and the primer (brushed on) wasn't opaque after two coats on colored plastic and tended to form rings. From the picture above, you can see I was diligent in making sure I used multiple coats to get a good, solid white on which to paint.

It was fascinating—and frustrating—to try to paint these three at once. Whereas the brush would glide over Vallejo-primer grells, pulling it over the Liquitex-gesso grell was like pulling a comb through hair. Even when I couldn't see the particulate, I could feel it dragging on the brush. After basecoating, I started using washes for highlights, and here is where the difference became stark: the washes sank into the crevices of the primer grells as expected, whereas with the gesso grell, it just sat where I put it, essentially "shading" the whole darned model. There was not an elegant recovery here except to say, "Some grells are this color, and some grells are that color." I mean, they're grell—who really cares anyway?

Grell in a play dough and varnish swamp, not yet dry
 As with the bears, I decided to try three different bases for the grells. The most ambitious was my attempt at a water base, for which I put on several layers of Future wax. In order to keep the varnish from running over the edge of the base, I whipped up a barrier from the kids' homemade play dough.

Swamp Grell
Tea Grell (gesso)
Rocky Grell
The final swamp grell shows some aberration around the edge of the base, where the varnish and dough had interacted. It would have been crisper had I used something non-porous, I'm sure, but it's good enough. The gesso grell was based in Bigelow Lemon Lift tea, which worked nicely, except I'm not sure I like the light-colored bits. The third one was done in ruins, using cork on top of coarse pumice gel for the rocks and a touch of green turf as moss.

Gibbering Mouthers. Seriously.
Let's try again... Orcs! Cultists! Demons! ... Gibbering Mouthers?

Not sure they would have been high on my list, but they were fun to paint. These were done with a basecoat, a wash for shadows, and many layers of highlights. Lovely and nightmarish. While the popular culture version of "high medieval fantasy" tends to emphasize the Tolkienesque, it's interesting to notice and remember how much impact H. P. Lovecraft had (and clearly still has) on D&D.

Gauth?
All right, a beholder! Now that's an iconic D&D monster. Let's just take a look at the rulebook and find out some more about this ... gauth? Wait a minute now, Wrath of Ashardalon. First, a gauth is even more esoteric than a gibbering mouther. Second, this is clearly not a guath: it should have a big central eye surrounded by six different eyes, which it uses for consuming magic. I know this from my hours of studying the Monstrous Compendium back in the 1990s, and it's corroborated at this handy Web site. In a search for corroborating evidence, however, you may end up on an excerpt from the the D&D 3.5 rules that say that the gauth has ... eyes on stalks?! Come on, Wizards of the Coast, if you're going to change the definition of a gauth then why should we even bother memorizing such details to the extent that we can draw upon them twenty years later?

This is another paint job that features red, although leaning toward purple. I was still trying to figure out how to highlight such colors, and with this one, it worked well to go toward fleshy pink. I think it worked well here, given the purple tone, in a way that it would look too pink on, say, a red cloak or the Legion Devils.

Kobolds. Actually iconic.
Now kobolds, they are actually iconic, and I believe it is still in the D&D rulebook that you have to fight kobolds, goblins, and giant rats while first level. I think the kobolds turned out well, although the common ones probably are too shiny. I got caught up in practicing painting armor, and when I was done, I was happy with the result—except who ever heard of a clean, shiny kobold? I figured since they're working for a dragon, they have had to start washing behind their ears.

Otyugh, front

Otyugh, back
No jokes about iconic monsters here: I love the otyugh. I remember first seeing one in Curse of the Azure Bonds, and I'm sure I threw these at my players back in the day. For the base on this figure, I started with two lumps of Milliput. Onto this, I glued tea leaves, and then I covered these in matte varnish as I had done for the bears. As I hoped, this made it look like a pile of refuse—exactly what an otyugh would call home. Unlike the bears, I did not add second dry layer, so as to keep the trashy look. I basecoated the figure and then gave it a generous sepia wash using Les' wash recipe. This gave the figure a satisfyingly filthy look. However, then I realized it would be nigh impossible to highlight without taking away the dirty look, or I would need to re-wash it. There were so many nooks and crannies in the figure, I couldn't pick out areas to highlight without making it look "clean" in those areas. In retrospect, I should have drybrushed on the highlights before the wash. I had painted myself into a corner so to speak, and I decided to just leave the figure as-is rather than try to be too fancy with highlights or repaint it. It's a big miniature, and these are kind of tedious anyway.

To finish up the base, I mixed up some black and sepia ink into fine pumice gel and worked that around the leaf pile and the otyugh's legs. Actually working up the creature's toes and legs makes it look like it's "in" the muck, in a way that wasn't working with the rage drake. Looking carefully, you may also see Milliput bones that I sculpted and stuck into the muck, under the creature's back leg.

The otyugh was the last of the monsters aside from the dragon, and so I moved on to the heroes, starting with the half-orc rogue.

A thin layer of milliput
Carving into the milliput with hobby knife and dentist tool
Painting the base to look like stone
For the rogue's base, I wanted to give him something more urban, less outdoorsy. The soles on his shoes were large enough to allow me to lay down milliput around his feet and not make it look like he had sunk in. I carved in the blocks and also rolled crumpled tin foil over them to add some texture. A few iterations of washing and drybrushing, and I think it's convincing stone tile.

Half-orc rogue
I wanted to get his flesh tone between a classic European hero's and the orcs, but it came out leaning much more toward orc. However, the face shape is more human, and this gives a reasonable half-orc look. I like how the highlights came out on both his pants and his leather armor.

In the game, each hero has his own ability cards, and these cards have corresponding colors. The rogue's is black, and I think I was able to capture the dark theme of a rogue in the paint job.


Dwarf warrior WIP, starting with the flesh and armor

Dwarf warrior WIP, with a red cape
The dwarf warrior's color was red, and I knew I wanted to bring out that color in the armor. I spent a lot of time on the flesh, and I think this part is one of my best. At first, I thought I would bring out the red in the cloak as well. Notice how I'm using dark red-brown here as a base color and working up to red, in an approach that gives a lot more variation in shade than I had in my other red pieces in this set. As much as I liked the red effect on the cloak, I was afraid that it looked too much like I was trying to make it splattered in blood—a layer of cheese in which I was not interested. I decided to re-do the cloak in tans, still trying to keep a warm color scheme for the figure.

Dwarf warrior, front
Dwarf warrior, back
Changing the cloak color forced me to rethink much of the rest of the figure. I decided to go with a pelt inspired by an arctic wolf. There is very little texture on the pelt, especially compared to the Orc Shaman. I used a stippling technique on the pelt, and it worked exactly like I hoped it would, giving the illusion of texture along with highlights. The emblem on the shield was freehand painted, which is terrifying. It doesn't "pop" as much as I had hoped, but it matches the colors and is sufficient. The gold jewelry is a nice subtle accent to the rather complex texture of this figure.

"Don't paint eyebrows" is one of the cardinal rules of miniature painting that I have read in multiple places. However, she was looking kind of strange without them, given how dark her hair and armor are. I glazed in eyebrows, and I think it gives the face a lot more warmth and realism.

Dwarf warrior and mysterious metallic likeness of a bald man
Around this time, a friend was at the house who had seen some of my Facebook posts about painting. When he saw the miniature's size, he was shocked: he had assumed they were closer to six inches tall. I took this picture to show scale, so now, in case you didn't know, this is how big they are.

Elf paladin, front
Elf paladin, back
The critical reader may have noticed that, somewhere in the middle of this set, I switched again from white to black primer. This was inspired in part by regularly watching The Painting Clinic videos, and he always works up from black. This paladin was my test of my primer since I knew I wanted her to have bright blues and whites. Her cards are blue, which I brought out in the sash. I am pleased with the final result, especially the shining plates of armor and the sash. I decided to do her tiara and sword hilt in non-metallic metallics (NMM, that is, painting in plain colors rather than metallic paints). I had not really done this technique before, but I think it turned out well, with the orange complementing the blues.

I made a blue flower out of a pin and static grass, with the intent of adding it to this figure to continue my creative basing theme. However, as I held it next to this base, I just couldn't make it fit: the flower was very static, whereas the figure is very dynamic. I decided to leave well enough alone and call her finished.

Human cleric WIP, showing the original base color of the cloak and a lighter skin tone
Human cleric, front
Human cleric, side
Human cleric, back

Before starting the human cleric, I got my tube of Kroma Crackle, and I decided to try putting the cleric in a cracked wasteland. It took about a week to dry, but after drybrushing, it gave me pretty much exactly what I wanted. The armor was pretty straightforward, though a bit tricky to highlight with all the various plates and curves. Also, his face was horribly miscast, and so he has that big scar down his cheeks—and that's after filing it down substantially. To get a yellow cloak from a black basecoat took about a billion layers, but this also gave me very tight control over the shadows and highlights. It's easy to say now that it was worth it, because I like how it looks, and I am not currently holding my brush and staring at yet another pool of thinned yellow paint. His card color is a tawny yellow, and I think I've captured that idea in the color scheme.

Also, is it just me, or is this guy really awkward-looking? He is leading with his right foot, but is also swinging backward with his right arm. This is counter to how I would swing such a weapon: shouldn't you step into the swing, not against it? I guess that's why he's a cleric and not a fighter.

Dragonborn wizard
Dragonborn wizard
Dragonborn wizard
The dragonborn wizard is probably the best of the set. The figure is full of detail and in an interesting pose. The cards are purple, which I decided to use for the cloak, and then I pulled in orange, green, and blue for a tetrad color scheme. The cloak, like the cleric's, took many thin glaze layers, but I love the result. Interesting fact: the sculpt only has one leg. I had thought about using OSL on his staff more aggressively, but I decided that a subtle blue glow would be nicer than a harsh one. The range of the OSL only goes about to the wizard's hands—maybe too subtle, but good enough for this.

His base was done with a thin layer of fine pumice gel, as with the rage drake, but this time I tried to make it look more swampy. I picked up GF9 swamp grass while traveling and used it here.

Ashardalon, front
Ashardalon, back
Ashardalon, side
And finally, here's Ashardalon. Like the baalor from Drizzt, he's mostly red and has big wings. I returned to white primer for the dragon, knowing that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life working black up to red and yellow. I basecoated the figure in a mix of about 3 parts red to 1 part green, to get a nice deep red. I put a darker wash over the figure and did some drybrushing to block in the highlights. I stippled on more highlights on the face, shoulders, arms, and tops of the thighs, as well as the tops of the wings and around the wing bone joints. The very best parts, which took a lot of time and patience, are the yellow tips of the frills. That's a lot of glaze layers, but I love the effect. I used ink washes on the horns, claws, and breast to add some depth. In the front-right of the base, I used my Kroma Crackle to make a charred area, as if a fireball had long since blasted the ground. I had thought about trying to add some charred wood or blackened grass around it, but once it was all together, I decided to leave well enough alone.

That about wraps up this edition of my painting update, representing about half a year's hobbying around. I'm not sure if this epic-post format is any better or worse than breaking them up. It's fun to go back through my notes and photographs and think about how I got to where I am. After about a year since my return to the hobby, I am feeling more confident in my abilities. There were a few other things I painted in the middle of this set, which I may write about as part of another post. I have a few options of what to paint next, and there are also a few games I've been eyeballing for Christmas. Don't worry, you'll be able to read all about that... maybe six months or so after it happens.

Thanks for reading, and as always, please feel free to leave comments.