Saturday, July 14, 2018

ICRPG Session Report: The Eye of Clune (Part 1...?)

Ah, summer break, when a professor's imagination turns to tabletop role-playing games.

For those who don't know, I have a bunch of kids. One of my goals for the summer was to do some kind of tabletop RPG with them. My desire to play ICRPG was recently reignited by something I saw on the Runehammer / Drunkens & Dragons channel. I think it was the Death and TPK episode, although I cannot remember how I ended up there in the first place. In any case, it led to my watching the Aliens One-Shot on Roll for Effort's channel. (Spoiler: it's a two-shot.) Regular readers may recall that I spent an afternoon with ICRPG when it first came out, publishing one of the first public reflections on the core rules. I ran my three eldest kids through character creation and a trial, but that's as far as it went. For a few weeks now I've been kicking around adventure ideas, and I decided that today would be a great day to put pencil to paper and actually run the guys through it.

All my notes for the day's adventure
What follows is a session report of our day with ICRPG, starting character creation at around 11:00AM, breaking for lunch, and finishing up around 2:30PM. I've included a few reflections about the system and family dynamics along with the session report. If this sounds interesting to you, read on!

You may notice that there's no other pictures here. Despite my nice collection of painted miniatures, I decided to play entirely in theater of the mind. This seemed to be the least fiddly, and as I expected, the guys caught right on. I thought about using quick sketches on index cards—it is Index Card RPG after all. Despite having watched all the Paint By Monster episodes I can, my drawing skills are still pretty rudimentary. I decided to focus on getting something fun to the table; maybe future games will include more visual aesthetics.

A little background on the setting is in order. Son #2 (8) has, for years, been talking about a world called "Magic Sword." It used to be much more common than it is now, how he would go off on stories about the mythologies and conflicts of this made-up world. I figured this would be a good a world as any for a one-shot adventure, so he agreed that we could use his setting.

After I explained the fundamentals of the game, we got into character creation. Son #1 (11) created an alchemist gnome strongly inspired by the quatryl tinkerer he recently retired in Gloomhaven. Gnomes are not listed as a race in the ICRPG core rules, so we decided to give him +1 INT and +1 DEX as racial bonuses. Son #2—the creator of Magic Sword—chose to play an abandoned healer. The abandoned are of his own creation: they are skeletons of people who were virtuous in life and so, when reanimated in death, they rejected the evil rule of the necromancer and regained their autonomy. (Of course, that's not quite how he words it, but that's the idea.) It's rather a clever bioform, I think. In any case, we gave him a +1 WIS to represent piety and willpower along with a +1 Armor to represent his not having skin or guts to stab. Son #3 (5) went with a human fighter, taking the usual +1 INT and +1 Weapon effort.

For the classes, I took inspiration from the Alfheim classes in ICRPG Core 2nd edition, but we didn't use them directly. The fighter took a +2 Ring of Protection as a starter bonus. We gave the alchemist a Fire Bomb kit that lets him use INT checks to make explosive potions and the capacity to carry six at a time. The healer took the Healing Touch WIS power from the rulebook. The guys set themselves up with starter loot and basic equipment and we set to it.

Here they were, the mighty heroes! A gnome alchemist named Gonff! A living skeleton healer named ... Tim. And a human fighter named ... Jeff? *sigh*. Names that will strike fear into the hearts of their foes, indeed.

The party was approached by The Red Wizard, a mysterious, powerful, and wealthy denizen of the capital city of indeterminate gender and age. The Wizard asked the party to retrieve for him the Eye of Clune, which he recently discovered was hidden in a secret temple in the mountains. The way to the temple has been blocked for hundreds of years by a magical door, but the Wizard gave the party the Ruby Lens to decipher the ancient language. (Heh.) The Wizard promised them a reward of 100 gold coins each if they could claim the Eye and return the Lens. The party was given a map and warned that the forests were infested with kobolds and that a group of harpies had settled in the cave.

Let me go on one or two little asides here. First, I spent a lot of time the past few weeks not creating an adventure. I let my mind wander, I thought about inspirational stories, I tried to convince myself that I could still make adventures like I did back in the day. It might be one of those cases where if I just put pencil to paper, something would have spilled out. It was kind of a weird feeling, in part because I was worried about making something too dark for my 5-year-old. He did ask, when they finally met the harpies, "Are they real?" I explained that they were not real, just like kobolds. Hopefully he sleeps OK tonight.

Through high school and into college, I loved to create my own worlds and run D&D adventures in them. In my first year of college, I took an intro philosophy course with a young, bespectacled, bearded, pony-tailed instructor named Mr. Clune. At the time, I was working on a pantheon of gods for a fantasy world, and so the god of philosophy was aptly named "Clune." When I was thinking about what kind of adventure to present to my kids, "The Eye of Clune" came to mind: a mysterious artifact of an ancient power—some say he was a wizard, some say he was a god. Actually, looks like he's an adjunct at Sam Houston State University. Good enough for me. Makes me wonder if somewhere there's a party of young adventurers seeking "The Accursed Tome of Doktorjee."

Back to the session report. The party traveled through the valley, arriving at the cliffs before sunset. They could see the cave, forty feet up a sixty foot cliff. Rather than attempt the difficult climb, they opted to seek a path to the top of the cliff, from which it would be an easier climb down into the cave's mouth.

One of the tips in ICRPG Core is No content left behind. I designed a kobold ambush encounter that could be used on the party if they took this path up the cliff, and if they instead made the tricky climb, I could reuse it for the trek back to town. It's good advice, and I don't think it's the kind of thing I used to do "back in the day." Too much attention to realism back then, not enough to epic narrative. Can't go back, though.

The party approached a clearing as the sun was setting and noticed a dead elk in the middle of it. Curious, Jeff advanced. His successful WIS check let him see the ambush before it was too late: six kobolds leaping up from cover to attack whatever would approach the bait. By chance, this was an encounter with 1HP enemies, and it was a good way to start: the kids could focus on learning the basics of combat without worrying about damage effort. Jeff is clearly the tank, with 16 Armor, so it worked out well that he tripped the ambush: the kobolds never touched him. Gonff blew up a few kobolds with a fire bomb and then began picking them off with his sling. The highlight here was when he rolled a 1, so we had him roll again for a fumble: another 1! He hit Jeff in the back of the head, rolling max damage. In the end, the party took more damage from Gonff's errant shot than the one kobold who struck a blow against Tim.

This battle was the first time that I used a DM Timer. This is a technique out of Drunkens & Dragons in which a timer ticks down on the DM's turn. I was using it for something fairly mundane: when it hit zero, the sun would set and everything would be come hard (-3 on all checks). This added tension very nicely, though.

After the battle, Gonff searched for treasure, rolling on the Shabby Loot table and finding... a 12-foot ladder. That's beautiful: a group of kobolds waiting in ambush would of course bring with them a 12-foot ladder. Turns out, a ladder is just the kind of thing the party needed to help climb the cliffs, so this bizarre roll ended up being quite the boon.

The next morning, the trio headed to the top of the cliff. Jeff had the option to use give up his climbing gear to rig up a trivial climb or to complete a one heart challenge to figure out how to situate the ladder to allow the guys to climb down to the cave. He went for the latter, botching the first roll, which was no big deal. Then, I started another DM timer: in five rounds, the harpies would hear them! Again, this DM timer rule added tension and excitement to what would otherwise just be fiddling with a kobold's ladder. Turns out, the party got the ladder situated just as the harpies became aware of them, and then they began their song. WIS check to avoid becoming enchanted: Jeff passes, but Tim and Gonff fail and begin walking toward the edge of the cliff and the 60-foot drop! Thinking fast (and with some player help from his older brothers), Jeff pulled out his climbing rope and used it to tie his comrades fast to a tree. Saving the party just in time earned Jeff a Hero Coin. This is another inspirational idea from ICRPG, somewhat analogous to Advantage in D&D 5e: do something epic and earn a coin that can be used later. Unlike Advantage, the player chooses when to apply the Hero Coin. Listening to that Aliens One-Shot while painting, I heard the Hero Coins often be the difference between life and death. This was the only Hero Coin awarded during our adventure today, and I'm glad the we had one hit the table. That rule is a keeper.

Tim and Gonff were able to shake off the enchantment and hustled down the ladder into the cave. They were attacked by the harpies, but when Jeff came down, the harpies saw they were outnumbered and fled. DM Timer time: 5 rounds until they come back with reinforcements! Jeff began deciphering the ancient writing on the wall while Gonff searched for treasure. I knew I wanted some loot in the harpy nests, and Gonff found a valuable gem on his first search. He asked if he could keep searching, and so I decided to go with the cursed table for the second search. He discovered [possible item spoiler from the ICRPG table] the Cloven Blade: it gives +2 to hit and +2 damage, but it cannot be put down, and it slowly turns the wielder into a goat. Fun!

Let me mention here that basic effort is really slow. Deciphering the text was a one-heart challenge, requiring ten effort. First one has to make the check, and then roll a d4 to make progress. Turns out Son #3 rolls a lot of ones. This inspired him to spend his hero coin on the task, which worked out for the best, since he opened the door the same round that the harpies returned. DM's Honest Truth: once again, the DM timer and the heroes' efforts aligned for perfect cinematic progression. The party ran through the door and heard the harpies at the mouth of the cave. Jeff's first instinct was to fight them off, but his comrades convinced him that closing the door would be safer.

The party continued through a long, descending tunnel. Halfway through, they were attacked by mysterious magical black tendrils, groping at the party and attempting to pull them toward the wall to be devoured by emerging mouths. Their inclination was to stand and fight the tendrils, even though in the first round, Gonff was knocked to half his health. I pointed this out, and they realized that discretion was the better part of valor. Gonff and Tim booked it to the end of the hall, but Jeff was knocked senseless by a critical hit: rolling a d6 and a d12 yielded 12 damage, Jeff fell to the ground. "You hear a shout, and then silence. The absence of the sound of Jeff's booted feet running down the hallway is deafening." Ah, one of my better moments of improvisational storytelling. My wife happened to walk through at this point and snickered. No accounting for taste.

I explained to the guys the rules for death and dying in ICRPG. I said that, to stop someone from bleeding out, you just had to spend an action grabbing their unconscious body and shouting, "Don't die on me, man!" They thought this was great. There's something really funny about deploying parody tropes to people who really have no idea what the trope is. It reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend the other day about the story in Charterstone (which, incidentally, I have not played, but expect I'll pick up at some point). He said that the story draws heavily on established tropes, such that he could see where it was going. However, he was playing with his kids, who are about the same ages as my kids, and to them, there was essentially no such thing as tropes: the story was new to them. I suppose that's partially why I could give my sons a fetch quest and make it exciting.

In any case, the guys had no idea that I had set up a very difficult challenge here with an ulterior motive. Gonff dropped a flare at the end of the hallway and ran back to Jeff, discovering the black tendrils snaking into Jeff's pack, retrieving the Ruby Lens, and consuming it from one of the mysterious wall-mouths. With that, the tendrils were gone, but so was the Lens. The party was reunited and whole, but there was no way to retrieve the Lens and complete their mission. Son #1 was a bit upset at this, but I pointed out that survival was always the first priority.

Tim used his Healing Touch to revive Jeff, but he rolled a 1. I had printed out the Holy Backfire table from ICRPG Core 2e and decided to use that, as a sort of narrative counter to the otherwise hypothetically endless healing available to the party. Tim's failure summoned a fog of fear, and I indicated that this would hasten their peril.

In the great cavern they discovered the rotten remains of some kind of encampment. In the center of the room was a spiral staircase carved into a giant stalagmite, at the top of which—nested in the very limestone—was the Eye. Beyond that, there was a treasure chest and a rift in the ground leading to what sounded like an underground river. Jeff climbed the stairs and began digging at the stalagmite with his conveniently-chosen mining tools. As he begin to chisel away at it, the whole cavern began to shake and tremble, and six skeletons arose, rusty weapons in hand. I set the DM counter to five, though it would have been six had Tim not earlier had a Holy Backfire. Gonff blasted four of the skeletons with a fire bomb, but it was not enough to stop them from arising; he ran up the stairs, Tim close behind.

Now they were stuck: Jeff kept hacking away at the Eye, Son #3 continuing to roll pitifully low on his basic effort. Gonff and Tim tried to keep the skeletons at bay. Being on the stairs, there was only one attacking them per round, but one solid hit was able to take down Gonff. Tim brought him back, but the room continued to quake with more and more intensity. The DM Timer is at two now. With two effort required to free the Eye, and Jeff makes the attempt... rolling a 1! Gonff takes a might swing with the Cloven Sword, and he frees it! They realized there was only one way out: looks like we're gonna have to jump! Tim jumped down, suffering just a few points of damage, but then being attacked by the skeleton closest the bottom of the stairs, bringing him near death. With the DM counter at 1, Jeff took his whole turn to leap down the stalagmite and make a blind jump into the chasm. Gonff had taken another hit and was down to three hit points. He leaped behind Jeff, and took a d6 for falling damage... two! One hit point left, and he scrapes his way into the chasm, falling headfirst into the void. Tim doesn't look back, also hurtling into the blackness.

With a splash, the three heroes land in a rushing underground river. I give them a STR or CON check to see if they can swim to safety. Amazingly, all three make the roll, and their heads emerge from the river back in the valley. By this time, their lungs were aching for air. They made the trip back to the city and delivered the Eye of Clune to the Red Wizard, giving him (or her? or it?) the bad news about the Ruby Lens being taken by a mysterious evil force in the temple. Though disappointed, the Wizard still paid out his reward—though Gonff chose to have the cursed sword taken from him rather than take the 100 coins.

We had a little debriefing at the end of the adventure. All the guys said they had good time, and Son #1 said he'd really like to play Gonff again. This would have been a great time to award Milestones, but we hadn't set any out ahead of time, and I was feeling a bit creatively drained. Son #3 said he liked it, but that he might prefer Stuffed Fables because it is shorter. The duration of the game definitely was a stretch on his ability to sit still, but the structure of the game—with quick turns around the table and a focus on action—helped keep his attention.

One of the things I found most powerful about applying what I learned from ICRPG Core 2e is that this whole adventure was expressed in one sketchy page in my notebook. I only printed out character sheets, the lists of starter loot and adventuring gear, the Holy Backfire table, and the Loot Tables; the rest of the rules and the story easily fit in my head. I suspect we may try to do another session before the summer is out. After all, doesn't Clune have two eyes?

That's the story of our Saturday with ICRPG. I had a great time, and I am still kind of amazed at how we were able to keep all the interactions right on the wire. I hope you enjoyed reading about our adventure and my reflections; I wrote it, in part, so I could come back and enjoy reading it again myself in the future. Hello, from the past!

Friday, July 6, 2018

Summer Course Revisions 2018: Game Programming

This morning, I pushed up the revised course site for my Fall 2018 CS315 Game Programming class. I would like to record here the major changes I made to the course, as I did with describing the revisions to my game design course. Keep in mind that last summer, I made the major change of converting from PlayN to Unreal Engine 4, and I wrote an extensive reflection on the Fall 2017 offering. I believe the revisions have captured most of the ideas from that reflection.

More Small, Structured Projects

Last year, I gave the students one short, structured project, and then we moved fairly quickly into a larger one. Many students felt left behind, and they responded positively to closing the semester with another short, themed assignment. For this year, I have written up specifications for two "mini-projects," each expected to take about two weeks. The first is the same as the one I used last year—an introduction to UE4 Blueprints and physics simulation using a simple cannon. I will follow that with a second mini-project, which will be creating a minimal shoot-'em-up game in classic, top-down arcade fashion. This will introduce the students to issues of input management, more robust state management, and dealing with enemy pawns. I have a third project in mind but not fully articulated on the course site: it will likely involve creating a simple first-person shooter, modifying one of the starter projects. I want to hold off on the articulation of this until I can see how the first two go.

From there, I am not sure if we'll do a small project related to C++ integrations or move right into the final project; if the latter, I can make C++ integrations a requirement for a certain grade. It's something I want everyone to try, at least, to build some understanding of the layered nature of game architectures.

I plan on having a meeting with the class halfway through the semester where we collaboratively develop the criteria for the final project. I expect we will end up with some loose specifications and a menu of potential features to explore, such as AI or multiplayer.

Specifications Grading

The MacGuffins system I used last Fall was too coarse grained. I adopted it in part because it was relatively forgiving to a massive change in the course, but I knew that as I refined the course I would want higher fidelity. This Fall, for at least the mini-projects, I will be using specifications grading. This is a trendy "new" approach; in fact, I used a variation on it years ago in CS222, before the idea had new branding. The details on the first two mini-projects lay out what features or functionality must be present to earn a D, C, B, or A, with the higher levels assuming the lower ones. I am interested to see if students strive for A—with some failing to reach it—or if they pick the grade they want and simply work at that level. 

I have added a project report requirement to the conventional specifications grading approach. Each individual or team needs to state, in their report, which grade they have earned, with what is essentially a checklist of features. I intend this to serve two purposes: the first is to foster metacognition, and the second is to help students catch their mistakes. 

Perforce Helix

My Spring 2018 Game Studio team learned Perforce Helix, which proved much more fit for purpose than Git for UE4 game development. The good folks at Perforce were kind enough to grant us an academic license that allows me to continue using their software for Fall's game programming course. There will be a bit of manual administration on my part, creating all the requisite users and depots, but I think it will be worth the hassle of having integrated asset locking support. Nothing's worse than divergent binary assets.

Simple Achievements

I was tempted to abandon Achievements for this course, in the name of simplicity. However, more than that, I wanted an incentive for students to share independent findings through in-class presentations. Some of the most memorable meetings from last Fall were the student-led tutorials on Blender and on Godot Engine. I decided on a very simple system whereby students can earn a single achievement that counts for 5% of their final grade. That amount was chosen because it allows a student who earns on A on everything else to earn an A in the course. I've only provided three options: attending a games-related conference; participating in a game jam; and giving an in-class presentation. I don't really expect anyone to chose the first, but if they do, I want to reward the effort. The growth of itch.io makes participating in a game jam much easier than it used to be.

Decorum

I've copied over the decorum section of the Game Design course plan over to this one, with some modifications made around the appropriate use of portable electronics. I have traditionally not had the kinds of problems in Game Programming as I wrote about in my Human-Computer Interaction class, but I figure there's no harm in it.

Diversity

Two years ago, the Faculty Senate (or somebody like them) passed a resolution that requires all course plans to include an official Statement on Diversity, chosen from one of two official options. The primary difference between them is that one includes contact information for the Bias Response Team, and the other does not. This mandate made me uncomfortable at the time, but it has taken some time for me to articulate the root causes.

Here's a good story that I have not told here before. At the end of my HCI course in the Spring, I asked the students to reflect on the most important things they learned during the semester. One of the responses surprised me, in part because it came from a student who had not shared much during the semester; he said that he learned that everyone is biased. That's true, of course, and I asked him how it had come up in the course. He reminded me that I shared my thoughts about this as my reaction to the Statement on Diversity in the very first class. You never know what's going to stick.

The version I chose to include on my course plans is the one that does not encourage students to report to the Bias Response Team:
Ball State University aspires to be a university that attracts and retains a diverse faculty, staff, and student body. We are committed to ensuring that all members of the community are welcome, through valuing the various experiences and worldviews represented at Ball State and among those we serve. We promote a culture of respect and civil discourse as expressed in our Beneficence Pledge and through university resources found at http://cms.bsu.edu/campuslife/multiculturalcenter.
I asked my chair earlier this Summer to help me find the actual mandate regarding this statement in the university or faculty handbook. Turns out it's a resolution, but it has not been recorded anywhere else. This by itself strikes me as problematic: where is one supposed to go to find the rules one is supposed to follow? Wading through all the minutes of all the Faculty Senate meetings for all of the institution's history.

Procedural matters aside, my email conversation with my chair helped me to better articulate what bothered me about this statement. The short answer is that it is a lie, and I have no tolerance for lies. To be clear, the Beneficence Pledge is pretty good, although it has a few problems. Given that I've never heard any student or faculty member reference it, I don't think it's actually part of university culture, not like honor codes are at some institutions. Also, people who recite it honestly and live by its values are the same people who don't need it in the first place; it's like preaching to the choir.

I decided to include not only the Statement on Diversity but also the fact that I am required to include it. I then ask them to consider three questions:

  • Who speaks for Ball State University and its aspirations?
  • What philosophies espouse mandated statements of aspiration?
  • Is it appropriate to value all worldviews?
I might riff on these a bit in the first week of the semester, or I might leave them for students to consider. I thought about adding a fourth one, "Who benefits from this mandate?" For now, I'm sticking with three. Here are short answers for the interested reader:
  • Not the person being mandated to include this on their course plans, that's for sure.
  • Totalitarianism, at least.
  • Clearly not.
These answers beg another question, "Does the Statement on Diversity do anything to advance diversity?" It might be like the Beneficence Pledge if it simply maintained neutrality, except that in being mandated, it speaks volumes. Maybe it's a good time to bring back my tradition of making my students recite the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear.

I may copy these reflection questions over to the Game Design course plan to see if the Honors Students react any differently to it, but I haven't decided yet.

Wrapping up

I'm eager to teach the Game Programming course again with this incremental yet significant revision on last year's plans. I think I can get my students involved in a colleague's research project on specifications grading with very little extra effort. Even though there are some unknowns yet for this course, such as the number of mini-projects and exact nature of the final project, I feel good about having the revisions in place. I think I am in a good position to move on to my third summer course revision, although that's going to require a bit of networking over the next two weeks. Tune in later to see how it all turns out.

As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Painting Myth: Dark Frontier

I was happy to back the Kickstarter campaign for Myth: Dark Frontier, a cooperative city-defense game set in the Myth universe. One of the reasons I backed the project was that it came with the alternate-gender versions of the characters from Myth, which I painted two years ago or so. Dark Frontiers comes with cardboard tokens for enemies, but if you have the Myth miniatures for these, you can use them as well. This was a clever way to keep production costs down while also giving extra mileage to those fans of the series who already invested time and money.
The game itself has a fun and interesting core mechanism. Each player chooses three actions from a handful of action cards: battle, quest, travel, fortify, and encounter. The players place each into one of three stacks for morning, day, and evening, and a random enemy action is shuffled into each as well. The actions are then played out in sequence. While each player has the same actions available, each one plays out slightly differently in terms of how they affect the board and shared resources. Much of the dynamics of the gameplay then involve planning with your fellows around who is best to handle which threat—and there's always a lot of threat to manage. It might be a bit long for what it is, and there's lots of story text on the cards that is easily skipped over. We have enjoyed our handful of plays with it, though, and I'll be happy to get it back out with the depicted characters now painted; we had been using the gender-swapped characters, which was fine, but there's something rewarding about having your miniature match the card art. (Well, I think so, anyway, which is one of the reasons I paint at all!)

One other preface before I get into the heroes themselves. I'm still getting used to my airbrush, and I'm feeling confident with zenithal priming for sure. In fact, I look forward to trying Ghool's speed-painting approach, maybe even on some Massive Darkness roaming monsters. Of course, his idea of "speed" is not the same as mine: he's spending 15 hours on a miniature, and I'm spending around three. I wanted to use a similar basing technique to my original Myth painted figures, but I figured I could save some time by priming the figure after basing. Turns out, this was a bad idea:

As the primer dried, it pulled up the white glue that was holding down the grit. The Brigand shown above was the worst offender. I was able to remedy the problem by hitting the edges with matte medium, and the worst spots were simply covered with flock later. My simple approach of laying down white glue followed by grit is quick and easy, although I have been thinking about trying a superglue and baking soda approach as described by Atom Smasher. It certainly looks nice, and I like the idea that the base tells a story; also, the superglue would certainly hold up against the draw of the drying primer. Still, for the kinds of painting I tend to do, maybe that much attention to detail on the bases is overkill. My Temple of Elemental Evil set is the one where I spent the most time on basing, but these have been sitting in a box for some time now.

Enough background. On to the heroes!




The first figure is the Swordsworn hero, who is the one that is not an alt-gender from Myth. Unfortunately, this figure had the same kind of casting problems as the two extra ships from the same publisher's Emergence Event: surfaces pocked with little bubbles. It looked like the same kind of plastic too, perhaps the same (presumably sub-standard but cheap) manufacturer. I filled the worst offenders, and after painting, it does not stand out to the naked eye. You can see it in the photos in his lower back, which is the worst.

In terms of style, I used a two-brush approach for almost everything, thinning paint with a bit of water and using a second brush to feather the edges. The Swordsworn here is pretty straightforward, and I think I did a fair job with the shadows and highlights on his skin and pants. He has some color in his face in the card art, so I did add a little red glaze to his cheeks, which added a little bit of color variation that was needed. I could have gone farther with colored glazes in the recesses, for example, but the truth is that it's hard to know how many times these guys will get to the table. I am happy with just a good tabletop quality here.


This is the acolyte, who has the most interesting pose of the lot. The artist really likes his characters to have heroic stances, feet as far as possible apart. I think here it really sells the idea that she is tough and swinging that staff around. Looking at it now, I could have added more shadows to her hair.

One of my pet peeves is when fantasy games draw upon Christian (or, generally, Earth culture) symbolism in inauthentic ways. You see this in video games all the time, where the inevitable undead-filled graveyards are filled with crosses, and yet there is no Christianity. The apprentice here has a cross dominating her outfit. However, Myth also includes "priests" who wear black shirt and pants and clerical collars. I've never seen that in a fantasy world before, but I don't remember ever seeing any explicit reference to Christianity in the fiction—not that I've read much. It leaves me curious whether this is an intentional inclusion of Christian symbolism or an accidental cultural appropriation.


Archers are one of my son's favorite types of characters, and this is a pretty good one. He has that classic miniature problem that the arrow is much to large at scale, but it's still a pretty good sculpt—legs wide apart in true Myth fashion, of course.

When I set him up next to his feminine counterpart, I was reminded that I put a little static grass on her base just because otherwise it looked pretty plain. Maybe I will do the same to this guy. The rest of the flock is a mix of turf and black and green tea.


The Apprentice's primary magic power is that she can stand on one leg without her center of mass over it. Amazing! Maybe I should have tried harder to straighten her up. Oh well. I do like the figure, with its dynamic pose. Her palette is interesting too, and I think I captured it well in the painting. She's another case of extreme backlighting, and one might argue with the interpretation. Still, I like the deep skin tones and brown-purple hair. Her counterpart is as red as a cooked lobster, after all.


The soldier seems to be some kind of lady badger. I've never really seen the appeal of anthropomorphic animals in fantasy settings. People are interesting enough. Still, their IP, their world, I'll just paint her up to match. She was fairly quick to paint due to her being mostly fur. Once again, I think this is a great pose, and it has that characteristic Myth wide stance.


The last one is the brigand. Wide stance: check. Here's something I really like about this figure: this is the female brigand. Such a sculpt would never pass muster at CMON.

There they are, all together: the heroes from Myth: Dark Frontier.

And there they are with their alternate-gender counterparts, those who have them. (Not pictured are the Tinkerers, of which I already had a male and female set, and the Swordsworn, who only comes in male, as far as I know.)

While Myth: Dark Frontier was successfully Kickstarted, I get the impression it didn't do as well as the publishers wanted. I know Megacon Games has been having some business challenges for some time now, and they said that this game will likely never see retail. That's a shame, since it is an interesting design. If you want to check it out, you'll have to track down one of the lucky few who have a copy.

Incidentally, the centerpiece of Dark Frontier is a modular city miniature. It comes in several pieces that are removed as the city is damaged. If the city is destroyed, you lose the game. This is kind of fun but a little fiddly. Fortunately, my son seems to have invested the time in remembering how it goes together; all that origami training paying off in spatial reasoning skills, perhaps. I do not have any plans to paint the city at this time.

And finally, my notes to myself about the photographs. I took two sets on white backgrounds, trying to reproduce the style I had in my last post, but the white balance was off in both sets. These ones were taken on a black felt background using OpenCamera, ISO 50, and just ever-so-slightly increasing the shutter speed.

Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to leave a comment.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Noise comments in Android Studio with Flutter

Flutter sounds neat, doesn't it? I decided to take a look yesterday, and it distracted me quite a bit from my course revision work. With my course revision and reflective blog post done, I decided to get into the Flutter codelab and see what I could do.

Step one is basically to copy and paste this code into Android Studio:
OK, copy, paste, and I get this abomination:
What the...?!

Those end-of-line comments are clearly not in the code. I do not want them. They are concretely, undeniably, irrevocably bad.

My first thought was, "I need to get Android Studio not to add those comments when I paste in code." I tried Googling for variations on this, but to no avail. Maybe I was calling it the wrong thing? I searched the preferences in Android Studio but couldn't find a good match either. Not wanting to waste more time, I decided I'd just go in and manually eliminate them for now.

I cannot.

They are not actually content in the editor! Those characters are not in the file. The view of the file is showing me data that do not exist. OK, stop and think about that, think about that for a long time if you have to. If you added this feature to Android Studio in particular, think about this for a long, long, long time. This is the worst idea.

But it's not the first time I've seen it. A few versions ago, IntelliJ IDEA added a "feature" in which it would show formal parameter names at the site of the actual parameter. It looks like this:

The text "bar:" is what they call a "parameter hint." It is not selectable or erasable. It's not really there in the data—once again, the view of the file is showing something that's not in the file. When I first saw this, I was aghast, and I could feel it in my bones that bad things were coming. I make all my students turn this abomination of a feature off.

Now, we see that my intuition was right. It's getting worse. Now, the view of my Dart source code file isn't just showing data that's not there: it's rendering that data as if it were. It's not using a different font or size, as in the parameter hints.

The good news is that this helped me consider where I might turn this off, and sharing this knowledge is the primary reason for this post. If you understand a modicum of what it means to write clean and maintainable code, then go to the File Menu, open the Settings dialog, and go to the Appearance section (with the Flutter Plug-in enabled, of course).


There it is. Untick that box and accept the changes, and your source code editor will be purified.

You're welcome.

Summer Course Revisions 2018: Game Design

It's that time of year again, where I review my notes and memories from the past academic year and make changes to my Fall courses. First on the docket is my Honors Colloquium on Game Design, which may be the simplest revision because I have already done the most thinking about it. The Fall 2018 course plan is online, and I will share here the highlights of what has changed.

More Rigorous Playtesting
Last year, I laid out a simple taxonomy of internal vs. external testing, but it wasn't until too late that I realized I neglected to assign any readings or exercises around playtesting itself. I believe that this contributed to some of the troubles I encountered in the game studio last semester as well. In the Fall, we will still be using Ian Schreiber's excellent Game Design Concepts for most of our readings, and I have put in required reading of levels 12–15. These levels describe self-testing, testing with designers, testing with non-designers, and "blindtesting". I have never before required that last one, but when Megacon Games' Brian Shotton came and gave a talk in Fall 2016's class, this was one of his strongest points: that blind playtesting, interpreted through a producer, was invaluable to the development of his team's games. In the Fall, students will be required to complete one round of blindtesting. I expect them to use each other to run these sessions, although that will not be required.

Game Design Logs
Past students have been required to give oral status reports, supported with summary posters. Sometimes, it's hard to tell what exactly someone had been working on; frequently, students fail to address the required elements of the report. This is not unreasonable, however, given that there is a very limited time to give the report, and there is sometimes a prominent and complex idea that the student would rather share instead. This Fall, students will be required to keep a design log, inspired by Dan Cook's style, where they track work on their project. Specifically, this log will contain an entry for each status report as well, where the requirement components of the status report—what was your goal, how did you prototype a solution, how did you test it, what were your results, what will you do next—will be documented.

No More Art
Last time I taught the course, we read Schreiber's level on "games as art," and then the topic came up several times during the semester. In my expert opinion, it was a waste of time. Everybody has something to say, but nobody has any coherent definition of "art", so it turned into students taking turns talking with nobody really listening. Mine is not a course on game studies: we're doing design work here. Questioning whether or not someone calls it "art" is not worth the time.

No Achievements
My game design course was one of the first in which I experimented with using achievements—formalized incentives for activities taken outside the normal confines of a class. That was when I was doing a very short, roughly five-week crash introduction to game design followed by roughly ten weeks of iterative development. Achievements were an option for students to take on a week when they wanted a break from their main project. Since then, I expanded the portion of the course devoted to readings and exercises, trying to get students a firmer foundation for when they are production mode. For Fall 2018, there are only five status reports for each student, so replacing one of these with an achievement means 20% cut in production time and opportunities for feedback. The downside is that there won't be any incentives for students to engage in quasi-curricular activities such as game nights or game jams. That said, I think the other changes are all raising the bar of expectations, so there isn't reasonable wiggle room to fit in, say, a three-hour game night or reading a classic text, into a nine-hours-per-week expectation. I thought about making these other events "extra credit," but I really don't like the concept of extra credit because it is essentialy inflation: it devalues the other credit.

Decorum
I have been thinking a lot about what kinds of classroom policies I might use to help increase student learning, both in the class and to prepare them for lifetime learning. The truth is that many students are good at school but bad at learning. I am generally not one to pass the buck. If it's my job to make lifetime learners out of these students, then I feel like I have an obligation to at least attempt to undo the damage of my predecessors. Here is my current draft for the new decorum section that is in the course plan miscellany:

We will begin our meetings on time, which means you should arrive a few minutes beforehand, to give you time to get situated and exchange greetings with your classmates. Recognize that it is inconsiderate to miss or be tardy for a meeting. Consider bringing treats to a future meeting by way of apology; your classmates will not forget this kindness. 
Stow all portable electronic devices for the duration of meetings. If you anticipate receipt of a communiqué so critical as to merit an interruption, it is certainly better not to be in that meeting at all. 
Always have paper and a writing implement on hand during meetings. Be ready to take notes or record questions as inspiration strikes you. The most frequent lie that we tell ourselves is, “I will remember this.” 
Listen actively. Assume the person you are listening to might know something you do not. Listening this way means you are not simply waiting for your chance to speak. More often, you are asking probing questions in order to build a better understanding of the other person's experience.
I hinted at my work along these lines in my reflection of the Spring HCI class. The only piece that's missing—both in the policy and in my mind—is what the enforcement policy looks like. What if I remind students to stow their devices and someone doesn't? My imagination keeps returning to a scenario in which I point out that the student must believe they know better than me, and so I excuse myself from the class and leave them in charge. That's sort of like going from zero to infinity, but one thing I've been considering a lot as a parent is that leniency is counterproductive to maintaining order and setting expectations.

Polymer 3.0
I have been building course sites using Polymer for several years now. Polymer 3 recently came out, which features a transition away from bower to npm. I had no trouble with bower, but I understand that many developers encouraged this shift to improve interoperability. Even though I was fluent with Polymer 2, there were enough changes to the API that I had to spend a lot of time double-checking templates and samples to get simple structures right. Now I have my own, though, and so I feel confident in being able to do future Polymer 3 projects should the need arise.

Those are all the major changes. We're going to be partnering with Minnetrista again and funded through the Immersive Learning program, and I am very grateful for both of these. I'm looking forward to the class, which at this time has twelve students enrolled from a great variety of majors.

Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Painting Stuffed Fables

I was very excited when I heard news of Stuffed Fables' development. For those who don't know, it is a miniature-based, narrative-focused, cooperative, tactical board game designed by Jerry Hawthorne and published by Plaid Hat Games. Hawthorne designed Mice & Mystics, the game that drew me back into the painting hobby. The SHUX preview mentioned that each story ends with a series of talking points, reflective questions for family groups who are playing the game. That's a brilliant idea. It looks like the perfect game for me: a game explicitly for families that doesn't sacrifice gameplay, and that comes with some fun miniatures for painting.



I picked up a copy as soon as I could and got the figures primed, but then I went several weeks without touching my brushes. There were a few reasons for this, including Divinity: Original Sin 2 and Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, as well as more professional obligations. I find that there's a problem here where the longer you put the brushes down, somehow they become more intimidating to pick up. When I primed the figures, I was struck by how very round they are. Most of the miniatures are comprised of simple, smooth geometric shapes with very little detail. This means they do look like children's toys, but it also means a lot of trouble painting. Smooth, featureless surfaces are the worst—there's nowhere to hide.

Once I got my head clear and my confidence up, I jumped in with the mongrels. For those who don't know, "weathering" is the process of taking a nicely painted miniature and making it look dirty and worn. It's not something I've ever done. When I paint a miniature, especially if I am happy with it, then I am loath to risk messing it up. Almost all of my colors are custom mixed from a limited collection of paints, and so it's arduous or impossible to re-mix base colors should I need to cover up weathering gone awry. I interpreted the card art of the mongrels to depict old, rusty, mechanical dogs, and I decided this would be a good chance to try painting rust. Regular readers will remember that I've been using zenithal priming on my miniatures since acquiring an airbrush last Fall; the mongrels were the first that I've primed differently since then, using a basecoat of Vallejo Model Air GunMetal and zenithal highlights of VMA Steel. Knowing I could easily brush these back on gave me a bit of courage to move forward with the weathering.

I started very tentatively, adding just a few spots of very thin Vallejo Model Color Flat Brown, then layering on mixes of that with VMC Flat Orange, up to a few very small specks of pure orange. It's a dramatic change to go from an entirely shiny, metallic figure to a flat one! I realized at this point that in my excitement, I had forgotten to add a wash that would deepen the shadows of the figures. I mixed up a wash with brown and black inks and applied that to all three models. The wash helped soften the first weathered mongrel, in addition to the usual enhancement of shadows. Once the wash dried, I jumped in with adding rust to the other three. Happy with the results, I looked back at the first one and realized how tentative I had been; this prompted me to go back and add even more rust to it. For all of the rust effects here, I just used my mixing brush, which is a beat up old synthetic Princeton #2, perfect for dabbing and stippling.

I should also mention, as a note to future self, that all the enemies' bases were painted with a mix of Americana Slate Grey with just a dab of Americana Lamp Black—roughly a 6:1 ratio to get a more neutral grey.
With the mongrels completed, I turned to the crawlies, which are undoubtedly the creepiest of the miniatures.
Crawlies are, of course, rusty metallic hermit crabs that make their homes in abandoned dolls' heads. A fun family game! Anyway, I am happy with how they turned out. I had used a conventional monochrome zenithal prime on these, so I brushed on the VMA gunmetal to the mechanical parts and drybrushed silver highlights before following the same weathering process as the mongrels.

For the dolls' heads, I followed a fairly normal flesh approach except for mixing in a bit of purple to add a deathly pallor. Sure, I know they're not really dead dolls, but they still seemed to call out for such coloration. The hair was the easiest part thanks to the zenithal priming approach, as I've noted in previous painting posts: mix the color, thin with some glaze medium and a little water, and brush it on. The white undercoat gives highlights for free, which can then be touched up by hand in any spots that call for it.

Only one more set of minions to go, and that's the Dark Hearts.
These seem to be stitched-together amalgams of discarded stuffies. The card art suggests that some pieces are striped, but I opted for simple monochrome sections taken from a single palette of green, purple, and pale yellow. These were the first of the rounded, featureless miniatures, and so I used it as an excuse to brush up (ha!) on my wet blending. Each section was wet-blended, using a bit of the magic Vallejo Glaze Medium to add open time and workability. Looking over them, I could go back in and add some polka dots and stripes if I wanted to, but these are satisfactory. The shading and highlighting is decent, but I think the stitching and chest cavities are really the best parts: it's a clever sculpt, despite being uncomplicated, and the painted stitches and stuffing really sell the illusion.

Twelve minions is probably enough minions, and so from here I moved on to the heroes. I was inspired by Duke of the Blood Keep's Stuffed Fables painting series to paint the base of each hero according to the color of die associated with them. I'll show the heroes in the order I painted them, even though I found out later it's not the order they show up in the game.
Given her prominent position in the fiction and the box art, one senses that Theadora is the heroine of the stuffies. Also, remember the trope: fantasy character with sword = leader. She's the one who doesn't have a particular die color associated with her, so she got an off-white base. 

All of these heroes were painted primarily using wet blending, occasionally with a bit of layering to accentuate highlights and shadows. I matched the colors on the card art as well as I could. I think she turned out nicely. Held up close on in the pictures, you can see a few spots where the blends are not as smooth as I would like, but it looks fine on the table (especially considering that my gaming table has rather diffuse lighting). I did not spend inordinate time on any of the heroes, each taking around two or three hours.


This is Stitch, who has a lot more detail than the rest of the stuffies. Stuffed Fables story is about a little girl's transition to her "big girl bed," and while she sleeps, her stuffies protect her from harm. In the game, Stitch is the only intergenerational hero, having been passed from the mother to her daughter. He takes the role of the sage, the wise elder who is mentoring the rest of the party—and some of his lines had me laughing out loud.

Like the Dark Hearts, Stitch is a patchwork of other pieces, and I followed the card art's colors. Unlike the Dark Hearts, I also painted in the stripes from the illustration.
Here's Lumpy, no relation to Chewbacca. From detailed Stitch to the king of plain. I think I did a good job with the blending here. I used cool greys, mixing in some of his thematic blue. Not much else to say about the paint job here, but he is the character I ended up playing. There's a funny bit of ludonarrative dissonance in that the blue dice represent strength and defense, and you can use blue dice to encourage or support your friends. Yet, Lumpy seems to be a whiny coward. I read his voice a bit like Eeyore's, which is funny when the story says something like, "Lumpy lets out a high-pitched shriek." Classic Lumpy moment: in the first Story, the party had to convince an unfriendly character to let us into her house, and we succeeded only through the persistent, devoted whinging of the elephant.


"Lionel" sounds a lot like "Lion-O", but I don't think my kids care about that. I opted for a softer tone than the card art here, which is more brown or tawny. He was a very quick paint job: wet blend the body, thinned paint on the mane, and it's basically done. We haven't met him yet in the game, but he seems like a nice guy, what with the leaning and the pointed teeth.

One piece I am not really happy with is the patch. In the card art, it looks like a green and red plaid or checkered design. I dropped red spots onto a green patch, but they don't pop and are not very even. I may go back and clean that up, but I think it's too small to really get the card art design in place; I would have to do something with similar colors but a slightly different design. Either that or buy new detail brushes I suppose.


My younger boys love Mo Willem's Elephant and Piggie books, so I figured this character would be the first to be selected. However, like Lionel, we have not yet met Piggle. Big smooth areas, with the added bonus of stripes, but I think it turned out good. The card art has the shield as being the top of a Play-Doh can (defensively labeled "Play Clay" instead), but I decided to leave it plain rather than spend the time required to try to freehand such detail. 

This is a good point to mention a particular pet peeve with the game. There are five colors of dice, plus black and white. The colors are called blue, red, purple, green, and yellow. Look at the dice, though:

What colors do you see? I'll accept green, blue, and yellow. The "red" is orange, maybe vermilion if you're feeling generous. Their "purple" though is not at all purple: it's magenta! Magenta is a real color. In fact, it's a primary color when mixing pigments, as in CMYK color space. Why do we, as a society, pretend this color doesn't exist, and call it "purple" or "pink" instead? For this game, it's not clear to me why one would choose these particular plastics to be called by those names when, surely, one could manufacture dice that are actually purple and red instead.

[/rant]

Flops is the last of the stuffy heroes, and he was a nice one to end with, being a mix of some large rounded surfaces like the ears and a few little details like the fletching. Flops suffers from another little bit of ludonarrative dissonance, where the in-game text refers to her as having a bow (as in the sculpt), whereas the game at that point prevents the player from actually using the toy bow item card.

At this point in the painting process, we got the game to the table. I did a bit of research to determine that we would not need any of the boss figures right away, and I wanted to see what the boys and I thought of the game. I've been playing with my 11-year-old, 8-year-old, and 5-year-old, and we absolutely love it. The decisions are quite interesting, much more so than in Mice & Mystics. Being cooperative, we can help each other to sort out what is best for the group. The simple mechanism whereby one player can give up dice to another player has wonderful synergy with the theme: it is really cooperative in that you have to sacrifice to help each other, rather than the style where each person is essentially playing alone toward the same goal. The 5-year-old in particular has been asking to play, and he referred to it as his being able to play a "big kid game." There are lots of other games he sees me play with his big brothers, but this is his chance to join in. Thanks, Plaid Hat!

Inspired by the great time we were having at the table, I painted the boss figures in the order they enter the game. I was hoping to find illustrations of all of them online but had no luck, so I had to dig through the "secret" story cards to find art so I could match the colors.


The first boss is the big, big monkey man, Knuckle. Big, smooth, round surfaces—you know the drill. The card art is a little strange on this one, with his cleaver honestly looking more like it has a few blood stains on it than rust. I decided to kick the rust way up as compared to the art, closer to the level of the mongrels and crawlies. It is a little incongruous, the rust and the smooth green fur, but it's good enough. I do like how the stuffing is visible through the Knuckle's seams, once again selling the idea that this is a stuffed creature and not an organic one.


This is the Snatcher. Or is it just Snatcher? I don't know, we haven't encountered him in the game yet. The card art is just two colors, but it's a huge figure. I did a bit of searching to see how others had painted it, and I see some have added more tones to the limbs. After some consideration, I decided to see what I could do, keeping to the two-tone palette and some weathering. The copper color is a mix of Vallejo Game Color Glorious Gold with VMC Flat Orange and Flat Brown. You know how much trouble getting the right kind of gold can be, but I think I really nailed it here. 

I decided to switch painting techniques on the Snatcher, using two-brush blending instead of wet blending. I started with a base coat over the whole figure, and then I used a spot wash to deepen the shadows, especially in the joints and hands. Mixing more matte paints into the shadows gives some real depth to the shadows, and adding more silver metallics to the highlights makes them really shine. Finally, I used some of the rust colors previously applied to drag some rusty oily lines over the body, and I used a mix of black and sepia inks to add greasy stains around some of the joints and bolts. I'm quite happy with the result.

I noticed in my searching that many people painted the Snatcher and mongrels to match. That's a fine idea, and the card art certainly suggests it. I happened to see the mongrels as being rusty and the Snatcher as being copper. One might see the crawlies as equally ambiguous. I wonder if the story will shed any light on if there is supposed to be a unifying scheme or not. For now, I'm fine with mine mismatching. As a painter, I like how I was able to explore different techniques with the different models and feel good about them.


Here is the Dollmaker. For folks who want a larger version of the card art, Plaid Hat has released a free story expansion to Stuffed Fables, and page 3 has a nice view of it. This image also highlights a curious distinction between the card art and the miniature: the card art gives the Dollmaker a face that is either itself a stuffy or at least in a stitched mask, whereas the sculpt looks like a human face complete with nose and ears. Like other painters I've seen online, I decided to paint these areas in flesh tones rather than the orange suggested in the card art. (Also, I'll point out that many images in Stuffed Fables fall into the Gloomhaven trap of using dynamic backlit illustrations that look good on paper but make it very hard to intrerpret what colors to use!)

I continued with two-brush blending after working on the Snatcher. I am happy with the result for the Dollmaker, but it was a little frustrating to paint him because, after spending an hour or two on the lab coat, I set it down next to a zenithally primed figure and found almost no difference. To be clear, there is a difference, but it sure is subtle. For tabletop play, I probably could have left it as naked primer and nobody would have been the wiser!

What figure was he next to on the painting table? None other than the unnerving penultimate boss, Skreela.


Skreela's card art is more monochromatic, with pale barely-purple flesh being practically the same tone as the top of her frock, and the dress/nightshirt itself being another variation on pale purple. I futzed around a lot with skin tones before settling on something colder and more saturated, a cold blue tone.

I painted the hair as described above and used two-brush blending on the rest. It wasn't until I was getting ready to varnish the bosses that I looked again at her dress and thought it was too clean. The card art clearly has her looking dirty (and more manic, but part of me is glad the miniature isn't as creepy as the card art in this regard). Empowered by my experience with rust and streaks, I decided to add some dirt to her dress, although I laid down a coat of gloss varnish first in case I needed to wipe away mistakes. I used a bit of foam that I had sitting on my painting desk and used that to stipple on two colors of dirt. I forgot to take a "before" picture, but I think the result is good. Perhaps the dirt is a bit too regular around the back, and I could still add some more spots further up to break the circular pattern. 

I have a few options for what I might paint next, but I am definitely thinking more about playing with weathering effects. Regular readers know that I'm a fan of Dr. Faust's Painting Clinic, and I've seen him do some amazing work with weathering products, especially on models. For miniatures, maybe it's overkill. It makes me remember to stop and count my blessings that I can afford to spend a few bucks on streaking grime just to try it out.

Finally, here comes the big bad:

That's Crepitus, whose card art is, once again, strongly backlit. I have seen other reasonable interpretations of his palette, but I decided to go for a very limited color selection. It took several trials to get a flesh color I was happy with, but once I nailed that, the rest came pretty easily. Two-brush blending continued to be the technique here, with the addition of layering to bring out the highlights. At the very end, just before varnishing (as with Skreela above), I decided to add a modicum of what Sorastro calls "tonal variation" by brushing some thinned purple paint into some of the deeper folds and recesses. It was a subtle improvement and something I want to explore more in other sets.

In the continuing saga of camera problems, I was excited to see Ghool post an informative video for his patrons about how he photographs his miniatures. My lovely wife helped me dig up an old digital camera that supports manual white balance along with other materials to recreate Ghool's technique. I spent some time on that this morning, and I didn't have any luck at all, mostly because the old Canon wouldn't focus on a miniature. However, the video did help me understand a few things I really didn't before. One is that the ISO should be low, since I am photographing still items. The other is that the mysterious lines I've been seeing in my photographs are coming from my lamp. The bulb in my painting lamp is flickering imperceptibly, but when combined with the capture rate of my smartphone camera, the result is shaded bands. Of course! I tried a few other bulbs that we had around the house, but none of them are "natural daylight" like the one I use—they were all too warm. Maybe I'll shop around for a better painting lamp or bulb (again, counting my blessings).

In the meantime, my new knowledge helped me sort out a workaround that I used in most of the pictures you see above. OpenCamera allows me to manually adjust the ISO as well as the shutter speed and white balance via sliders. Setting the ISO to 50 and looking at my minis on white paper, I was able to see the banding effect, similar to what I was seeing with the default camera app. However, as I increased the shutter speed, the bands narrowed and, eventually, disappeared. By fiddling with the shutter speed and white balance setting, I was able to get the minis on-screen to look very much like the ones sitting in front of me. Huzzah! OpenCamera only keeps those settings for one shot by default, but there is a lock feature to prevent them from being reset. Huzzah! Unfortunately, if you leave the application—for example, to look at photos or check an email— the lock is lost. That's why a few of the pictures above have perceptibly different background hues: the camera switched to automatic mode without my noticing. Still, progress is progress.

One of Ghool's tips was to shoot on black backgrounds. Toward the end of my shooting this morning, I decided to try that, prompted in part by the difficulty I had getting any kind of reasonable settings for that mostly-white Dollmaker. Compare:





Here's another experiment, using the crawlies:

The black certainly seems more consistent, whereas you can see above what I was talking about before: the camera dropped my settings between activities, and I didn't quite get the balance of shutter speed and white balance right to get a true white. Maybe I should shoot my next set entirely on black? At least I now have some stuff black felt that I could try, since it's one of the many materials my wife helped me find.

It's a bit of an epic post. I'm happy with this painted set, and my boys and I are really enjoying Stuffed Fables. I am looking forward to painting figures that don't have quite so many large, round, featureless areas though. 

Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to leave a comment.