The Death of Imagination; The Funeral of Dungeons and Dragons

The popularity of roleplaying games, typified by Dungeons and Dragons, has declined since the heydays of the 1980s, when the brand was selling 750,000 copies per year — approximately $7.5 million dollars in revenue. Set upon from one side by ever-evolving computer gaming, and with an increase in the popularity of boardgames amongst real-world game aficionados, have we lost a unique and profound tool that built the current generation of creative thinkers?

I played a lot of roleplaying games from my preteen years well into my thirties. It all started with Dungeons and Dragons at my friend Brooke Fishback’s house in primary school. I don’t know how the Fishback boys — there were three of them, Chris, Brooke, and Neale, in descending order of age — got into D&D, but they had a selection of books, and we used them all.

There’s a popular perception of kids who play Dungeons and Dragons being awkward: dorks, geeks, socially-uncomfortable. That would certainly apply to me, but the Fishbacks were pretty popular. So it wasn’t just a harbour for those who didn’t fit in, it was transformational: Dungeons and Dragons allowed us to transcend poverty, escape the fishbowl of school, travel to places we couldn’t even pronounce the names of, and aspire to defeat evil. It wasn’t just playing make-believe, it was playing make-life-better-believe. With (imaginary) swords. The stories we created together were bigger than our real world lives.

It was more than playing make-believe, though. Roleplaying supplemented, and replaced at times, our formal education. It built key skills in creativity, comprehension, mathematics, logic, and group dynamics. To say that Dungeons and Dragons is directly responsible for any academic success I managed is probably not far from the truth. And I’m not the only one who feels that way.

The list of creative people who credit roleplaying games with helping them achieve success is quite broad: Stephen Colbert, Vin Diesel, Jon Favraeu, James Franco, Matt Groening, Dan Harmon, Marilyn Manson, Moby, Mike Myers, Patton Oswalt, Wil Wheaton, and Robin Williams sit alongside more mainstream figures like Tim Duncan, Michael Gove, and Elon Musk — all of whom publicly laud roleplaying, and typically Dungeons and Dragons.

‘A whole new kind of game. No board — just dice, just probabilities. It allowed me to enter the world of the books I was reading. I put more effort into that game than I ever did into my schoolwork.

‘We were all complete outcasts in school — beyond the fringe, beyond nerds. We were our own sub-dimensional bubble of the school. I’m not even sure we were on the rolls of any of the classes; that’s how outcast we were.’
— Stephen Colbert

Those in the creative industries have the most to say about the impact of roleplaying on their careers:

‘[Dungeons and Dragons] gave me a really strong background in imagination, storytelling, understanding how to create tone and a sense of balance. You’re creating this modular, mythic environment where people can play in it.’
— Jon Favreau

But it’s not all upside for Favreau. Like many of us (by choice or circumstance), he is a recovering gamer. It’s maybe not what we want to hear, but there’s some truth to it:

‘When I was young, it was exciting, but as I got older it felt like it was keeping me from progressing. You’re social in your small circle, but it’s asocial to the wider world.’
— Jon Favreau

The cross-over between the collaborative storytelling of Dungeons and Dragons and creative roles is understandable, but the enthusiasm — bordering on obsession, perhaps — that the game inculcates lends itself to all sorts of mathematical, problem-solving, and logic skills as well. Estimating a die roll is inherently teaching the mathematics behind the probability, without the explicit ‘learning outcomes’ that educational institutions are so fond of these days. Michael Gove, a Cabinet Minister in the UK government — and ironically the former Secretary of State for Education — loves the maths of gaming:

‘Michael likes calculating the probabilities of the polyhedral dice – the probability that your character will come across a monster or break down a door.’
— Ian Livingstone, Founder of Games Workshop

The focus on collaboration, not only in the game, but amongst the players — people who meet to play in real life — is perhaps the most important and least lauded skill roleplaying can teach. If you have ever had to manage a group of school-age gamers through something as simple as what kind of pizza to order, you have a head start on most leadership MBA candidates. And if you think technical project management is in your future, the archetypes are all there amongst roleplaying aficionados.

As (at least one of) the father(s) of Dungeons and Dragons says:

‘The essence of a role-playing game is that it is a group, cooperative experience.’
— Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons

Roleplaying games, with Dungeons and Dragons as the prime example, came out of a wargaming background. And wargaming is a type of boardgame, when you get down to it. It’s important to recognise, however, that boardgames are not the same as roleplaying games. Boardgames have closed rulesets, with prescriptive outcomes, and clear winners and losers. They lack the open-ended aspect of roleplaying, and because of that they are often ‘easier’. But that also means that they do not nurture the same skill-set, particularly for creative thought and group dynamics.

‘There is no winning or losing, but rather the value is in the experience of imagining yourself as a character in whatever genre you’re involved in, whether it’s a fantasy game, the Wild West, secret agents or whatever else. You get to sort of vicariously experience those things.’
— Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons

If you compare the proposed outcome, an experience versus a clear winner, you have just glimpsed the difference between a game of Dungeons and Dragons, and one of Warhammer 40,000 — probably the most popular wargame in the world, which is often nicknamed ‘Arguehammer 40,000’.

The very nature of computer programming lends itself to rulesets similar to boardgames. There is no way, currently, to ask a computer to use its imagination. It is also considerably easier to switch on a computer and lose yourself in an immersive scripted environment. Very few, if any, players on World of Warcraft — the most popular online massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) spend time talking to the shopkeeper while buying a latern; in Dungeons and Dragons that interaction could take hours and become a key part of the narrative, as the Dungeon Master reacts to the players’ actions.

Perhaps this is why a rise of board and computer gaming amongst the geek community is worrying. Anecdotally, many former roleplaying aficionados have, like Jon Favreau, stopped playing altogether, or have shifted their focus towards board and/or computer games. And while those games still exercise our logical faculties, they do not train our brains to imagine. We can consume, at voracious speed, but we do not create.

‘Pen-and-paper role-playing is live theater and computer games are television. People want the convenience and instant gratification of turning on the TV rather than getting dressed up and going out to see a live play. In the same way, the computer is a more immediately accessible way to play games.’
— Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons

This is not to say that boardgames and computer games aren’t fun. They certainly are, or the industry wouldn’t have leaned in that direction. However, the loss of roleplaying is a loss of skills and opportunities, across the board.

Are we approaching a post-literate, post-storytelling age? When the newest written entertainment is Facebook, it might be worth wondering. Especially when Dungeons and Dragons had broad appeal, and an impact which was felt throughout society, not just on the creative industries.

Gary Gygax died in 2008. His creative partner, Dave Arneson, died in 2009. While there is some controversy over who did what and the credit that came from Dungeons and Dragons, there is no question that those two men created a cultural phenomenon that touched people throughout society.

‘It really meant a lot to him to hear from people from over the years about how he helped them become a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman, what he gave them… he really enjoyed that.’
— Gail Gygax, Gary Gygax’s widow

Further reading:


Little Mouse

Little mouse

A hundred years
of evolution have
made you the
colour of the

Does it help you see
the point of the Tube?

Sometimes, you see,
I have doubts.


I found this poem stuck into the pages of a book I left at the pub’s new lending library. Good thing I checked, it’s not bad, and I obviously forgot all about it shortly after writing it.

Viola, we’re not in Talia anymore

Another one to file in the ‘some people know this and some people don’t’ category: I parted ways with Talia, the company that I worked with for more than a decade, at the end of last year. I’m proud of the work we did together, growing from three guys in a room to one of the largest independent satellite network operators. I left on what I hope are good terms, and I am sure they will continue to thrive.

Of course, I want to thrive, as well. I’ve done some consulting work since branching out on my own — technical, business development, and brewing — and after looking around, found something I think I can dig my teeth into: a DevOps and Cloud startup that I call Cloud Familiar. And I want you to know about it.

Leaving Talia was a risk, but there were reasons. Over the years I had moved away from being directly involved with technology, and I missed it. I’d also gotten tired of barely escaping war and coups — it makes good stories, but I’m not as young as I used to be. And the satellite market is getting more difficult by the day, with a severe imbalance of supply and demand making the satellite operators hungry for direct sales (again). Talia is addressing the market weakness by adding system integration work, which I think is a good decision. It’s just not what I want to do with my time.

Also, I looked around at a lot of the people slightly older than me. There aren’t that many jobs out there in satellite for the ex-VPs. And probably there will be fewer as time goes on.

I had the luxury of being able to think about what I want to do without immediate pressure. Going back to University, I’ve always been a systems man, and a free open source evangelist. On the side of Talia, I’d kept up with developments in the systems world, and can talk DevOps, automation, the Cloud, Containers, Openstack, and all the new hotnesses. Consulting gigs on those topics are plentiful, and the pay isn’t bad.

But there should be something more exciting than that, right? Well, I thought, let’s do a startup that will leverage all the new hotness and bring something cool to market. We can do the consulting, and then build on it to do something interesting: a Cloud-first DevOps consultancy and automatic Cloud brokerage service.

For those who don’t know, the Cloud is all about hosting services on equipment that’s delivered in an on-demand basis. Basically, it’s renting capacity, and many of the big companies today are using it rather than having any owned infrastructure. Cloud Familiar helps companies get ready for a move to the cloud in a way that doesn’t lock them into any one provider. And then we help them to automatically shift between providers if a better deal comes along, or there’s an outage or other technical problem.

On the side of all this, consulting, satellite, FOSS, Linux, and the developing world are still all definitely on my plate. If the right opportunity, either contract or permanent, presents itself I’m not going to turn it down out of spite.

So, now for a request. You made it this far. If you have Linkedin, and we’ve worked together in the past, a few words of personal recommendation would be very welcome. I will happily reciprocate. And if you need help figuring out the Cloud, need some bizdev work done, or want to talk about satellite, brewing, Linux, or anything else, get in touch. I’d be happy to hear from you!

Pi-Top First Impressions

So, my Pi-Top arrived last week. Today I took everything out and put it together. Here are some initial observations:

Slick packaging, well thought-out, and very professional. It looks like a real product the minute you open the box.

This is a cool educational device that will help kids tinker, but it is definitely a work in progress. But this is not the Arm-based laptop I’ve wanted for years. When I get some time I’ll fire up my Samsung Arm Chromebook and see what modern Ubuntu looks like on it.

Each ‘education’ drive seems to want to roll their own UI. Sugar was pretty radical, but Pi OS just seems like a launcher on top of Raspbian, and is buggy out of the box. I haven’t used a Kano, so I can’t comment there. I do wonder if there’s any real benefit in not sticking to a standard interface — they’re not creating value here, and including LIbreOffice would also probably be a good idea.

The keyboard and trackpad really suck. I mean, really suck. There is no way to touch-type, keypresses often get lost, and the touchpad to the side thing isn’t working for me. I was going to write a review of the Pi-Top on it, but I’m already so frustrated with the keyboard that I don’t think that’s possible. It is the main method of input, so it would be nice if it worked well. Perhaps it will get better the more it’s used. For the record, the OLPC keyboard also sucked.

I’ll kick the tyres on it for a few days, then write up a more detailed review.

The Continuing Adventures of a Newly-Minted Literary Snob (AKA Writing is Hard)

I was out for a concert yesterday with a friend. He’s working up to self-publishing a book, and I’m excited for him. But I think that didn’t come through in the conversation, because I’m (apparently) a literary snob. You could see how that might mask my excitement.

Trying to be a fairly open-minded fellow, I asked why he thought that. His points: basically that I am critical of a lot of self-published work (absolutely true), and that I do admire some ‘classic’ authors — Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Murakami — a bit too much for his liking. The take-away, as the kids call it, was that if I want to read his book, I’m going to have to buy it once it’s published. Which I would have done — and will do — anyway.

I could argue that I have plenty of pop fiction on my shelves: Practical Demonkeeping, Vish Puri, The Laundry series, A Song of Fire and Ice, the Elric saga (all of them), the Black Company… I could go on, but the contents of my reading lists aren’t really in question, I suppose, as much as my attitude to writing is. It was only after a couple of days that I figured that out.

Let’s go back to the beginning of this, and talk about me — but hopefully in an honest way. I am (and have been since a teen) a self-professed writer, who writes so infrequently it’s a joke. I’ve distracted myself with lots of travel (excuse: great source material), work (excuse: gotta bring in the money), and computing (excuse: solve that puzzle).

Truth be told, writing fiction is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s more personal than donating an organ, more intimate than sex, and ultimately expository. Putting words that mean something to you on a page opens your heart to whatever stranger happens to read it. And then, if they don’t like it, you’re — by your own admission — not any good.

To paraphrase the discussion, at one point I said something like: ‘You might as well work in an office, as write transcriptions of roleplaying games.’ And I believe that, but instead of starting with ‘You’ it should have start with ‘I’ because, for me at least, writing should be terrible, hard, and pull from my soul.

I’ve written werewolf screenplays, Cthulhiana , Elric fan-fic, and many more less ‘literary’ things. If I could complete, and sell them, I would do so in a heartbeat. But somehow they’re not enough for me. Yes, there are nuggets of truth found in most written work, but to put myself through the wringer every day, I think my intentions should be to shoot for the stars, not just turn over a paycheque. There are a lot of easier ways to make a living.

So am I a snob? Honestly, I don’t know, because ‘snob’ is a loaded word: ‘A person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to those of other people.’ People will read whatever they like: Dan Brown, Harry Potter, Hemingway, Jim Butcher, and I don’t really care (some of those are on my bookshelves, and some aren’t). A lot of it is just not for me, just as Jane Austin, Bram Stoker, and Moby Dick aren’t. Of course, I’d probably struggle, if not fail, at writing any of the above.

So to my friend, all I can say is that I respect the amount of work you put in. I’ll try and do the same, and hopefully we both come out of it all with something we’re proud of.

Oh, and, I’m definitely reading your book once it’s published!

The Fishmonger of Pike Street Overpass

It’s an unseasonably hot afternoon in Seattle. She’s leaning on the railing of the Pike Street overpass, psychedelic gypsy skirt, black tank top, Audrey Hepburn sunglasses. Her hair is a long, brunette ponytail. She has a partially-completed tattoo sleeve on her left shoulder. It was started a long time ago.

The cars stream down the highway, bright shafts of reflected sunlight seeking uncovered eyes. Hundreds of people on their way somewhere, swimming downstream with society at speed. She’s like a statue. I’m standing with a homeless man by his cardboard encampment. Neither of us are doing what we’re supposed to do right now.

But it can’t last forever.

‘Spare some change?’

I look over, and hand the homeless man $10.

Of course, she’s gone by the time I turn back. Even my memories of her start to slip away, again. True memories, like fish, are deliberately slippery. They’re hard to keep hold of at the best of times.

Moving to the public cloud? Yes, you still need operations staff.

A quick note, following from news of Google Compute outage yesterday, and outages caused by DNS changes at Amazon S3 slightly more than a week ago, it’s important to remember that moving to the cloud still requires operations (sysadmin, devops, whatever we want to call it).

There is a belief that moving to the public cloud allows companies to outsource most, if not all of their operations staff. But there is a very real danger in abrogation of ops responsibility.

If you are outsourced to the cloud, do you have a disaster recovery plan? What happens if the systems that are ‘too big to fail’ do just that?

I’m not saying the cloud is bad — it enables companies to go to the web with next to no capex investment. But that doesn’t mean it is the end all be all, and if you’re not taking care of operations in-house, it’s very likely that you will regret it.

Here’s some further interesting reading: TechTarget Cloud outage report 2014.

Best Picture Nominees 2015

So, maybe you don’t know this, but every year I try to see all the Oscar Best Picture nominees. This has gotten easier over time, and I’m half way there this year.

My short reviews so far:

American Sniper. Bradley Cooper does a great job in a fairly disappointing, overly-sentimental, one-sided movie (not film, movie). This is a ‘Merican movie for ‘Mericans. Shouldn’t have been nominated for Best Picture, for lots of reasons.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Simply amazing, with great depth and nuance. Michael Keaton is brilliant, self-mocking, and transformational. He is my pick for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay.

Boyhood. You have never seen a film (not a movie) like this, because there has never been a film like this. I will watch again for at least 10 years. You owe it to yourself to see it. My pick for Best Picture and Best Director.

The Grand Budapest Hotel. I really liked it, but I also really liked Birdman and Boyhood. It’s not that it’s not good, it’s just not as important. It is WAY better than American Sniper, mind you.

And so, I still have four to go: The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash. I’ll update this later, but I don’t think I’ll find anything to compete with Boyhood at this point. It’s not only in another league, it’s the only film to ever be in that league. Twelve years of filming, people.

Why Privacy Matters, A Real-World Example

Earlier this month, someone I went to school with a long time ago was arrested and charged with some fairly serious crimes. I wouldn’t call him a friend in pre-social media terms, but we knew each other a long time ago, and that’s good enough in the era of Facebook. Which is telling.

I found out about the arrest through his friends posting on his Facebook page, which showed up on my Facebook news feed. Curiosity engaged, a quick search with Big Brother G turned up reports from the local newspaper and television station, which had some pretty gory detail of the accusations. Of course, in the USA, suspects are innocent until proven guilty, right? And these are unproven accusations, right?

Within an hour, the article text from one of the two primary sources spread throughout at least two dozen sites. Whether they are affiliates, or simply stole the content is irrelevant. The information, including the name of the suspect and all the details of what he allegedly did, are now out in the open. And with tools like the Internet Archive (AKA the Wayback Machine) and Google, they can never be sequestered. His life, as he knows it, is over.

When I studied journalism many years ago, we discussed the ethics of police log and courtroom reporting at length. The need to balance the public’s right to know and a subject’s right to privacy was central to those discussions. We knew that publishing misleading information could destroy the life of an innocent person. There was a lot of talk about the difference between a private person and a public figure. Simply because something was in the public record didn’t make it newsworthy, and we understood the tenet of innocent until proven guilty; anonymous and alleged references were common.

Perhaps the new generation of journalists didn’t participate in similar discussions. In the last few years, the local newspaper where I grew up, the San Luis Obispo Tribune, started putting every suspect’s mug shot (for non-Americans, that’s the picture the police take of a suspect when they are booked into jail) online, along with the details of any alleged crime the suspect has committed. While technically legal — the Tribune is not overtly presuming guilt — very few of those on the booking sheets are public figures, and I would argue that there is no public interest served. This practice is little more than gossipmongering, and anyone who purports to be a journalist and participates in it should be ashamed.

Even worse for my old classmate, and stereotypically so for those of us with a print versus broadcast bias, the local television news station, KSBY, decided to go out on the street to solicit responses to a presumably innocent man being charged with a crime that he denies. They gave airtime to the man’s flustered boss, who didn’t know quite what to say, and a local lady who doesn’t like the man’s house, because his curtains are usually drawn when she walks her dog past it. And, yes, this report was also put up online.

Perhaps you would argue that the fault here is not one of lack of privacy, but the ethics of the journalists involved. I agree, however, in the interconnected world anyone can push an agenda and watch it spread. The nature of journalism has fundamentally changed, and the role of the journalist as gatekeeper of the spread of news is long over. Now we pull news with search engines as often as we are pushed it by editors. Sometimes the pull, like Google News, is packaged automatically for us. Algorithms will get better, and as more of our personal data seeps out onto the public Internet, we will be hard pressed to control it. Once you do something people seem to find interesting, it will be available for more and more people to see.

And, there is no such thing as exclusively local news now — as evidenced by the spread of news of my old classmate’s arrest. Memories are stored in the cloud now, not on yellowing newsprint, and the lifespan has gone from years to infinity. There is no way to pull back what has already been released into the wild — the information multiplies like the rabbits outside Stanstead Airport. And a retraction or update, usually buried on an interior page and not even addressed by broadcast news, is much less juicy than an accusation; good luck getting it carried by a dozen more websites.

The European Unions’s Right to be Forgotten is, at best, a bandage over a seeping wound. Google wasn’t Google 20 years ago, and the next sea-change will be just as profound. Until we realise that our data, our reputation and person, are integral to our freedom, we cannot affect a change in the world. Most people don’t even know why they might want to do so.

Perhaps the story of my old classmate can serve some purpose there. Without being proven guilty of any crime, his reputation has been ruined for all time. A quick search online will, now and forever, turn up the details of this arrest. Presuming his innocence (as is the law), that is the opposite of American ideals. If he is guilty, a report on conviction removes any need to report on the arrest.

This both an issue of privacy and of journalistic ethics, so the lines are a bit blurred, but no matter what your opinion on this case, the reality is that there is nothing stopping the same thing happening to you tomorrow. Even if you have nothing to hide, you have something to protect.

P.S. While I’ve tried to anonymise things as much as possible, there are enough identifiers here to find the case, if you care to.

Do Not Throw Away That Laserwriter, Ramsay Wood!

Yesterday I was having dinner with Ramsay Wood at the Priory Tavern. We hadn’t seen each other for a little while, and were having a nice catch up. Then he said something which offended my every sensibility.

‘I have to throw away my Laserwriter,’ he said. ‘My guy came around to install a new printer, and he couldn’t figure out how to make it work. He said something about the drivers.’

‘That doesn’t make any sense,’ I said. ‘Drive me over to your house, and home after I fix it. I’ll have it done in 15 minutes.’

As a bit of history, I used to work with Ramsay, then for Ramsay, and part of that was to help him out with his Mac and small network. I told him to buy the aforementioned Laserwriter more than a decade ago (second-hand — those things were expensive). It is a Laserwriter 16/600 PS, one of the last couple of models made, definitely more than 15 years old, and a total workhorse. I also knew that Ramsay couldn’t have printed more than a couple thousand pages — nothing for this printer — in the last 10 years.

A bit of an aside, here. I expect that even if Ramsay was printing 10,000 pages per year, this printer would likely still be working. But my lovely Lexmark X544 colour laser multifunction printer lasted only two years, and not very many pages, at that. And why, Lexmark, does the scanner stop working if the printer fuser needs to be replaced? But I digress.

What followed was a series of simple troubleshooting. The printer was on the wrong IP subnet (confirmed via the config page that prints at power up). Corrected that via telnet (there aren’t any Macs old enough to run the Laserwriter utility at Ramsay’s), and configured the computers with the new IP using the generic postscript driver (really, new guy, no driver for a postscript printer?). I also took a minute with Ramsay’s new Sky router to make sure that there would be no IP conflicts by setting DHCP static assignments — Sky’s brilliant netadmins specify all IPs from .2 to .254 for DHCP, as well as using a default admin password of ‘sky’. After that, the Laserwriter was back online. I also set the new IOS-friendly printer to a static IP, so it would, you know, continue to work, even if someone else asked for the same IP. Total time elapsed, about an hour.

What lessons were hammered home by all this?

  1. I miss sometimes having simple problems that I can fix myself. Although I’m not sure that I miss doing desktop support for a living.
  2. My current printer is a POS compared to this one which is definitely more than 15 years old. Increasing revenue with consumables and repairs is definitely part of the busieness model.
  3. Ramsay’s new guy definitely didn’t go looking too far into the IP side of things. Or he didn’t understand how things work.
  4. Sky definitely do not care about making their router setup sensible or secure. Even O2 was better.
  5. Time to get the Powerbook G3 Pismo from the office and figure out what’s wrong with it. Who has a copy of MacOS 9 kicking around?
  6. I am not as good as I think I am, but it still was fun!


PS — Anyone have A/UX floppies and a clean ROM for an SE/30? It has ethernet….