How I voted on all the California propositions and why
I voted by mail yesterday.
I basically didn't like any of the candidates for statewide races. They are lame and I don't even want to talk about them. I considered voting third party but since a lot of the polling has been pretty close I ended up reverting to "lesser of two evils" mode.
But enough about that. Let's talk about the half of the ballot I was actually excited to fill in. There are nine statewide propositions on the California ballot this year and some of them are issues I care about quite a lot.
- Prop 19: Marijuana legalization
- Prop 20: Anti-gerrymandering
- Prop 21: Charge car owners, use money to keep state parks open
- Prop 22: State can't appropriate local money
- Prop 23: Neuters air pollution control law
- Prop 24: Closes tax loopholes
- Prop 25: Pass laws with simple majority instead of 2/3 majority
- Prop 26: Require 2/3 majority for environmental fees/regulations
- Prop 27: Anti-anti-gerrymandering
The rest of this post explains how I voted and the reasoning behind my choices. If you can vote in California, please read this, and please don't forget to vote on Tuesday!
California, the ungovernable state, the state of perpetual budget crisis, the state of the ever-changing constitution. The state where it takes a 2/3 majority of the legislature to pass a budget, but only a simple majority of voters to modify the state constitution, overriding anything the legislature could do anyway. The predictable result is that we never have a functional budget, and we have a legal regime that lurches drunkenly about at the whims of an electorate asked to vote on an endless series of arcane and poorly-worded technical changes that it barely understands.
Well, at least this year there's a proposition for changing one of those things! (facepalm).
Yes on Prop 19 - Marijuana Legalization, for reasons I've already explained in great detail.
Yes on 20 and No on 27 - the redistricting propositions
These two propositions are so closely related - both have to do with redistricting - that it doesn't make sense to discuss them separately.
Redistricting is a hot topic right now because the 2010 census results are going to be used to redraw all the voting districts in California.
California is one of the most badly gerrymandered states, both for USA congressional districts and for state legislature districts. (I live in a district that doesn't include the next town over but does include random neighborhoods on the opposite side of a mountain range from us.) We have very few competitive elections; incumbents pick their voters to ensure their own safety. This is a big part of why nobody feels Sacramento is accountable.
In the last election we passed a ballot measure that established an independent body of 14 people to draw the district lines around areas of equal population, based on a set of criteria like compactness and preservation of community boundaries, for all the state legislative districts.
Prop 20 would expand the powers of this group to also draw the lines for USA congressional districts as well as state legislature districts. Prop 27, nearly the opposite, would undo the previous measure, disband the group, and give the line-drawing authority to the state legislature.
The Democratic campaign propaganda I got, if it took any position on propositions, was uniformly for 27 and against 20. This was where I had my biggest differences with them. California Democrats benefit a lot from uncompetitive, gerrymandered districts. So of course Democrats want preserve the status quo. The Republican campaign propaganda I got was also for 27 and against 20. Both parties benefit from having safe districts they don't have to compete for. But why should we let them?
I'm pretty sure Prop 27 is a bad idea. It would undo a reform before we have a chance to see whether the reform works or not. Maybe the independent body won't do a great job of creating competitive districts with non-joke boundaries, but it could hardly do a worse job, and I think it's worth giving it a shot. Besides, letting the legislature draw the boundaries for their own districts, as prop 27 would allow, is a pretty clear conflict of interest and a great way to let incumbents protect themselves from voters.
All of the "Yes on 27" arguments that I've gotten (they show up in my mailbox constantly) are very, very disingenuous. They don't spell out what the proposition actually does, because they know it would be a hard sell if they said "We want to let politicians keep drawing their own districts so they can be the ones deciding who will get to vote for them!" Instead the propoganda usually say "Stop wating our money on nonsense!". If you read further, the Prop. 27 supporters refer to the redistricting body as an "unelected bureaucracy", which sure sounds bad, and warns about the cost. But let's be clear: this is a bureaucracy of 14 people who would meet to do a single job once every 10 years. It's not a huge expansion of state government by any means. It's also funny how the yes on 27 website says the voters "grudgingly passed X by a bare 51-49 margin", as if to say "You voted for redistricting commission last time but you didn't really mean to, right?"
So I was very much opposed to 27, but somewhat undecided on 20. Maybe we should just try out the redistricting panel on the state legislature districts before we apply it to U.S. congress districts. I wiffled and waffled and eventually voted for it.
But after reading this article I kind of wished I hadn't. That article points out that buried in the language of prop 20 is a clause that requires a district to include areas with "similar living standards" and "similar work opportunities" which could be interpreted to actually force segregation by income level. That's a pretty bad idea.
Hm. Maybe I should have voted "no" on both 20 and 27. It's too late for me but it's not too late for you!
Yes on Prop 21: Increase car registration fee by $18, use the money to pay for keeping state parks open.
I voted yes for entirely selfish reasons: I love state parks and nature preserves, and I don't own a car. But if I did, I'd be happy to pay $18 to keep protecting awesome California nature spots like Muir Woods and the Big Sur. I think our state parks do important work for species conservation, for allowing scientists to study what unspoiled west-coast ecosystems were like, etc. And I don't see how we're going to keep them open without this funding.
On the other hand I do feel pretty selfish for voting in favor of a tax I'm not likely to have to pay myself. Hmm.
No on Prop. 22: Make it so the state can't raid money raised at the local level
I was waffling on this one, since I can see both sides, but Boriss gave me a link to this San Francisco Chronicle article, arguing for a No vote, which I found convincing enough. It's much the same logic as Yes on 25 - we're in a state budget crisis, we want our legislature to be able to pass balanced budgets on time, so we shouldn't be putting arbitrary restrictions on them, certainly not at a constitutional level, anyway.
No on Prop. 23: Suspends enforcement of air pollution law until unemployment decreases to a certain target
Specifically, Prop. 23 would suspend AB 32 (passed in 2006, set to take effect in 2012) until unemployment is down to 5.5% for four consecutive quarters.
OK, so I understand what supporters of prop 23 are trying to say -- "let's get jobs back before passing any environmental laws that might prevent factories from opening" -- but I don't agree with it and I don't like the implementation.
Tying it to a specific unemployment number is really arbitrary. (If we go down this road, what else are we going to make laws contingent on? Dow Jones? Sunspots? Superbowl scores?) And the target they chose is wildly optimistic. There have only been 3 times since 1976 that unemployment was down to 5.5% for an entire year. So it's not like prop 23's trigger is some kind of return-to-the-baseline-condition. It's an "only when the stars align" kind of condition.
Laws against air pollution are important. Air pollution kills! More people - over 3,800 - died from respiratory illness caused by particulate pollution in southern California in 2006 than died from car crashes.
I don't see pollution controls as some kind of odious governmental overreach nor do I see them as a "bonus law" that we should get to have only when "all the basics are taken care of". Pollution controls are an essential part of having a civilized society. We wouldn't be a civilized society if random people were allowed to steal my property, kick me in the face, or put poison in my breakfast cereal with impunity. Why should they be allowed to degrade the air I'm breathing?
In other words, I'm saying that unlike adult marijuana prohibition, I believe the state does in fact have a legitimate interest in preventing people from polluting each others' air. Let me say it again: Air pollution kills!
To let polluters go free essentially means that society is subsidizing the dirtiest possible business models, by letting the business reap all the benefits while spreading the cost across all the people who breathe air. I see it as a more level playing field for competition if the polluter has to pay for the effects of their pollution - with the pollution properly priced into the cost of running any industrial process, less polluting business models have a chance to compete and the market can determine the optimal balance.
Yes on Prop. 24: Close tax loopholes
Specifically, prop 24 closes a loophole that allows companies to use a loss in one year to write down their profits in a following year or a preceding year in order to pay less taxes. That's right, companies in California are allowed to retroactively reduce their taxes by making past years less profitable on paper than they really were.
That sounded really, really fishy to me. So I voted Yes on 24.
I'm starting to vaguely regret this vote, because it's another example of ballot-box budgeting, which I'm generally against. And because I don't have a lot of confidence in my own ability to evaluate corporate tax policy at more than a knee-jerk level. I keep imagining that some fairy accountant will appear and explain to me the reasons why retroactively writing down your profits is actually a completely legit and necessary part of doing business and that I've screwed us out of job creation for no reason.
Argh, too late, I voted Yes already.
Yes on 25 and No on 26 - the legislative majority propositions
The California legislature currently requires a 2/3 majority to pass a budget or to raise taxes. (The only state in the country to require such a large supermajority for both of these things.)
California may be a "blue" state, but it has enough conservative rural areas that neither party is realistically able to achieve a 2/3 majority in the legislature.
That explains why, since 1980, the Legislature has met its June 15 constitutional deadline for sending a budget to the Governor five times. Five times out of 30, did you know that? The other 25 times it's been late because of gridlock.
Prop. 25 would make it a simple majority requirement, instead of a 2/3 supermajority, to pass a budget (but still a 2/3 supermajority to raise taxes).
Prop. 26, a near opposite, would impose a 2/3 supermajority requirement for the legislature to do even more things, namely to impose environmental regulations and fees.
I'm for 25 and against 26 because I think the 2/3 requirement for CA to pass a budget is a pretty silly state of affairs. I mean, why 2/3? A simple majority is the default way of doing things in democratic systems. As far as I'm concerned, the burden of proof is on supporters of the 2/3 majority requirement to explain why it's a good thing. And the last 30 years of budget deadlock pretty clearly refutes the idea that it's working.
CA's budget situation is a huge mess, and we're asking our elected representatives to fix it with one hand tied behind their backs.
Basically I just don't think the supermajority requirement leads to better legislation in the US Senate and I especially don't think it leads to better budgets in California. It just leads to gridlock and forces the state to operate without a legally approved budget for months at a time. It means that the budget we end up with has a wider base of support in some sense, but in practice that probably means more counterproductive compromises and special interest giveaways had to be made to get those last few votes that were needed for 2/3. I mean, it's not like we're talking about votes to go to war here, or to take rights away from people, or other drastic decisions that I could see putting a higher threshold on. We're talking about budgets that have to be passed every year, one way or another. So it's hard to see the 2/3 requirement helps anybody.
I understand the purpose, of course - they're trying to force the legislature to cut spending instead of raising taxes. How's that worked out for us so far? Not very well, I think.
The typical arguments against going to simple majority voting, as made by the piles of propaganda pamphlets that have been showing up in my mailbox, are that it would make it easier to raise taxes and spending.
But, um, wouldn't simple majority voting also make it easier to lower taxes and spending? It would make it easier to do anything, good or bad. If you want lower taxes and spending, shouldn't you, um, elect politicians who are for lower taxes and spending, rather than hobbling the legislature or holding the budget process hostage or trying to run the budget from the ballot box?
I mean we all love to hate on politicians but we live in a system where we elect people (and pay them) to do a certain job, in this case passing budgets. Why not let them do their job? (And then vote them out if we don't like how they do it?)
Heck, imagine if prop 25 passed AND the redistricting thing turns out to be effective. A simple majority voting requirement combined with competitive districts? That would be almost like representative democracy or something.
Why I support marijuana legalization, and why you should vote Yes on Proposition 19
California has a proposition on the ballot this year, Proposition 19, to legalize marijuana.
I voted Yes. Hell, yes!
Not because I smoke the stuff, understand, or have ever had or ever will have any desire to smoke it. In fact, if it is legalized, as I hope it will be, I will be the first to encourage people not to smoke it. It's no worse for you than tobacco or alcohol, but those are still bad for you and so is marijuana. Don't toke up, kids.
So let me explain. I support legalization because I don't think everything that's bad for you needs to be illegal.
Alcohol is bad for you. Back in the 1920s, we tried a "noble experiment" of prohibiting it. What happened? People kept drinking it, of course, but it went underground. This led to consumption of unsafe bathtub gin containing poisonous wood alcohol; the domination of entire cities by gangsters funded by illicit alcohol sales; violent shootouts between said gangs; corruption of the police; mistrust between the police and the people who were otherwise law-abiding citizens but just wanted a drink now and then; etc. Prohibition was such a clear failure as policy that we passed a constitutional amendment to repeal it. The parallels to current drug policy are pretty clear.
Some people want to do drugs; they'll do drugs even if they're illegal; treating this consensual, if unhealthy, activity as a "crime" means empowering the police to be ever more invasive into our lives in order to search for the dreaded plants. The absurdity of the government, in a free country, telling adults what chemicals they are and are not allowed to put in their own bodies, and then throwing them in jail for consuming the wrong chemicals (as opposed to, say, sending them to a hospital to get treatment for addiction, that might actually help them) has led to a disturbingly high incidence of armed SWAT teams bursting in on people without search warrants. Whenever the USA declares war on an abstract concept - drugs, terrorism, DVD piracy -- our civil liberties lose out.
Aside from the civil liberties argument, there's the budget argument. California is broke; enforcing prohibition and keeping all those pot-smokers in jail is expensive. We'll save a ton of money, and go a long way to fixing prison overcrowding, by simply ending prohibition. If we manage to start taxing a newly above-ground marijuana industry, that's even better.
But even if we don't make any tax money off of it, it would still be a good idea to end prohibition. We'd free up police resources to go after real crimes - violent crimes, crimes with victims, rather than "crimes" that are merely voluntary vices.
Another good reason is to make it harder for teenagers to buy marijuana. Yes, that's right, harder. Sounds paradoxical? The thing is, it's already really really easy for teenagers to buy marijuana. Studies like this teen survey from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University have shown that it's easier for teenagers to buy marijuana than beer!
Nearly one-quarter of teens (5.7 million) say they can get marijuana in an hour; four out of ten teens (10 million) can get marijuana within a day.
Legalization could actually make it harder for these teenagers to get drugs. Think of it this way - sellers of alcohol and tobacco card hard, i.e. they require photo ID with proof of age, because they can get into all sorts of serious legal trouble for selling to minors. Drug dealers are already in serious legal trouble for selling drugs at all, so what incentive do they have for carding people? They'll sell to anybody with money. But if marijuana was sold at legitimate, legal businesses, with reputations and operating licenses to protect, then those businesses would operate similar to how alcohol and tobacco sellers do today. Teenagers will still find ways to sneak it, of course; but if you think the current laws are preventing teenagers from sneaking it, you're in denial.
When teenagers can buy marijuana more easily than beer, it's time to admit that prohibition has failed. We fought the drug war; we lost. It's time to bring our laws into alignment with reality. Prop. 19 is the best chance I've seen so far in my lifetime to start doing that.
I should address that there's this weird thing going on with the Obama administration. Apparently Attorney General Eric Holder has said that he will "vigorously enforce" federal marijuana laws even if Prop. 19 passes. People are trying to figure out what he means by this. Is he saying that Californians do not have the right to decide what their own laws should be? Is he saying that he will send federal agents into California to round up pot smokers and try them - where, exactly? Under what constitutional authority? Alcohol prohibition required a national constitutional amendment; why does anyone think the feds could override California's state laws without a similar amendment?
Yes, there's the commerce clause - Congress shall have the power to regulate commerce... among the several States. Which by any sane reading should not apply to somebody growing herbs in California and selling them to other people in California. But apparently the Supreme Court has been interpreting that clause to mean whatever the hell it feels like, lately.
So who knows what will happen between CA and the feds if 19 passes. I think the administration's position on this is wrong, counterproductive, and nonsensical, but will they act on it? Somehow I suspect they're just posturing, and they'll have way more important things to focus on after Nov. 2 than provoking a big ugly showdown with California. The LA Times considered the possibility of said big ugly showdown a reason to vote against Prop 19, but personally I would kind of welcome it if we could actually have this argument and hash out these issues publically.
Aside from the whole Attorney General thing, the counterarguments to prop 19 keep shifting. Shifting the way they do when people are invested in the idea of the status quo and are flailing about looking for logical reasons to keep supporting it. The latest one I've heard is "Oh no, people will be driving stoned and cause traffic accidents". (You may have seen this as a banner ad on the web.) I'm glad to see that they are turning to more somewhat more reality-based arguments instead of "Reefer madness!" type arguments, which seem to have lost their power to scare. However, the "Oh no stoned drivers' argument, like most arguments for continuing the drug war, it ignores two very obvious facts:
- Pretty much anybody who wants to smoke weed is already smoking it. It's not like we're suddenly introducing a new intoxicant out of nowhere.
- Legalization doesn't mean "legalizing in every imaginable context". We have eminently reasonable laws against driving drunk, and against selling alcohol to kids; the common-sense thing to do is apply those same laws to marijuana: it should still be illegal to drive stoned and it should still be illegal to sell to minors.
Notably, the language of Prop. 19 allows for both of these exceptions, as it should.
Maintains existing laws against selling drugs to a minor and driving under the influence.
Maintains an employer's right to address consumption of cannabis that affects an employee's job performance.
So arguing that Prop. 19 is going to lead to a rash of stoned drivers is just disingenuous. So is the argument that it's going to lead to people being stoned on the street -- the proposition specifically allows use of "cannabis in a non-public place such as a residence or a public establishment licensed for on site marijuana consumption".
There are also strict penalties for selling marijuana to anyone under 21. And the proposition allows individual counties to opt in or opt out of allowing commercial sale within their borders, the same way that there are "dry" (i.e. no-alcohol) counties in various states.
In other words, Prop. 19 treats marijuana the same way we already treat alcohol, which is the only reasonable thing to do because the effects of marijuana are very similar to those of alcohol. Except that stoned people start fewer fistfights than drunk people.
Support Prop. 19 not just because it's a legalization measure, but because it's a really well thought-out and written legalization measure.
Finding your GM-ing style: A flowchart
This is the flowchart I wish somebody had shown me when I was getting into role-playing all those years ago.
I was inspired to make this by re-reading the Forge threads on Bangs, Illusionism, Force, and Murk. If somebody is brand-new to role-playing theory I think these topics are a lot more helpful, in terms of actually finding a style of play that you enjoy, than the whole Creative Agenda G/N/S thing. And yet Bangs/Illusionsim/Force/Murk is buried, hidden away in Forge archive threads and old discussions from 2001/2002, while newbies invariably get sucked into arguing about G/N/S, which half the time turns them away from theory entirely.
Multitouch drawing webapp experiment
I was trying to work on my comic, but I got really frustrated with all the tools available to me - both software and physical tools.
I have an idea, though, for a drawing app based on a multitouch interface interface design that will work exactly the way I want it to, and make a fully-digital comic creation process easy and non-frustrating. The best part is that web standards have advanced enough that I can actually implement it as a web-app. Since it'll be running on my webserver, I'll be able to "publish" the finished comics by saving them directly to the comic directory, saving more steps.
So the past couple weeks I've been feverishly working on that in all my time off. It's coming along very quickly; I've already got layers, infinite undo/redo history, multitouch zoom and pan, and a speech balloon tool that automatically resizes the balloon to fit the amount of text inside. I still need to add image import/export, selections, translucent colors, and a panel tool, and then I'll have all the basics. Everything else (filters, gradients, etc.) is optional.
It should be ready to start using seriously in a couple more weeks (of course, that's probably what Knuth said when he started writing LaTeX...)
I realize that I still haven't finished my music-composing webapp OR my board-game-testing webapp. I haven't forgotten them, though. All of these webapps actually share a lot of code and server features, so the work I do on any one of them is eventually going to impact the rest. (That reminds me, I need to set up a public bug-tracker and SVN repository... or should I put the code on GitHub? Hmm...)
I'm looking for catchy names for all three (drawing comics, making music, and playtesting board games); bonus points if the three of them fit together somehow, with a collective name for the whole "creative suite". Any suggestions?
The point of game criticism. Also: Dissociated mechanics
In a comment on a previous post, Satyreyes wrote:
"Not fun," "unusable," "D&D is dead." (Quoting from your post, Jono, and from the site you link to.) I'm mystified by how much effort intelligent people are putting into proving that 4e is, *objectively,* a bad game -- and how implicitly insulting their tone is towards players who enjoy 4e. The Alexandrian attributes 4e's success entirely to "the Dungeons & Dragons trademark, tons of marketing muscle, and plenty of people who were either dissatisfied with 3rd Edition or just like anything shiny and new." I understand the value of analyzing the aspects of 4e that make it not fun *for you* in order to build a game that will be more fun *for you,* but it's somewhat baffling when people spend time trying to prove that a game enjoyed by millions is objectively unfun. It's rather like trying to prove that asparagus tastes terrible. :\
I had a couple things I wanted to say to that.
1. When I criticize a game, I don't mean to insult anyone who likes it. It's just a game; even if it was objectively the worst game in the world, it's up to you what you do with your hobby time and that doesn't make you a bad person. If I ever implied otherwise, I didn't mean it. Please consider everything I say on this site to come with a standard disclaimer: "No offense meant to people who like this game".
2. On the subject of game design, I think there's two kinds of criticisms you can make of a game. One is useful, the other isn't.
The non-useful one is criticizing a game based on it not being the kind of game you like. E.g. I can't stand trivia games. Whether it's a well-designed or a poorly designed trivia game, I ain't gonna enjoy it. But it doesn't make sense for me to say "Why did you design a trivia game? Trivia games suck." It's an entirely subjective judgment and it doesn't help anyone be a better game designer.
A lot of criticisms of D&D4 have fallen into this category. Any complaints about characters being "too strong" at 1st level, about "not being D&D enough" or being "too combat-centric" or "too much like an MMORPG", etc. It's a different game. If it's not the game you want, you've got lots of other choices (including continuing to use your D&D 3 books, or Pathfinder, or using one of the old-school retro-clones, etc.)
3. The useful way of criticizing a game is when you point out elements of the design that work against the game's own design goals.
For example, if a trivia game has questions worded in an ambiguous or confusing way, or listed answers that are incorrect, or whatever, then that works against its own design goals of being a good trivia game. There's still some element of subjectivity here, but because you're judging the game by its own standards this is a far more useful criticism. It's something that people who like trivia games ought to care about, and points the way to designing better trivia games.
I would sum up D&D 4's design goals like this: to be an exciting game of tactical skirmish combat between small groups of heroes and monsters with fun special abilities; to provide variety in encounters and deep customizability of characters; to challenge players and to reward teamwork, planning, and sound tactics; to give every class something interesting to do every round; to be balanced at every level; and to create a feeling of fantasy action heroes kicking butt in a dangerous world.
Criticizing aspects of the design that work against those goals is constructive; criticizing the goals themselves is constructive only in as much as it helps you clarify where your own design goals are different. Criticizing it just for having different design goals from your favorite RPG isn't constructive.
Given that, I believe that the slowness of combat is something that works against the design goals. Specifically it works against the feeling of kicking butt, it works against challenging players, and it works against variety of encounters (because longer encounters means fewer encounters). Part of the slowness of combat is a direct result of "give every class something interesting to do every round" and "be balanced" - it means people spend a lot of time pondering closely-balanced choices. But combat also feels grindy just because it goes on for too many rounds, because things have too many hit points. Cut down everybody's hit points (easy to do as a house rule) and you get closer to the goals of challenge, variety, and kicking butt.
The dissociated mechanics thing, which is the reason I linked to the Alexandrian article, is also something I think works against the design goals, specifically the goal of feeling like a fantasy hero. Many of the abilities are very abstract, numbers-only abilities, designed to fit a mechanical niche rather than a fictional one. I know that I have the option once per encounter to activate this ability which will manipulate the numbers in a certain way; but I don't know what my character is doing, fictionally, to make that happen. That makes it hard to imagine the scene and even harder to reason about what, if anything, I could do with this power in a non-combat situation.
Examples: The fighter can put a mark on enemies. What am I doing there, exactly? It's not that I'm taunting them, because it works on unintelligent baddies or ones that don't speak my language. Am I just good at exploiting an opening when a bad guy lets their guard down around me to attack someone else? That fits better, but then how come another player marking the same enemy dispels my mark? That doesn't make sense if we interpret it as exploiting an opening. What's the difference between an opportunity attack, which anybody can do, and marking, which only fighters can do? What does it look like when I mark somebody? Is the enemy aware of who's marking them? All these are things that you need to know to negotiate a shared imagined space. But because the ability has no foundation in fictional actions, only in mechanics, I have no idea.
It gets sillier. There's some class, I think it was the paladin, who can teleport next to an ally being attacked in order to take the blow for them. Taking a blow for your ally is wonderfully flavorful, but teleporting? Does that mean I literally disappear from the normal space-time continuum at one point and reappear at another point? Or are they just using the word "teleport" as a piece of rules jargon with a concrete meaning (passing through enemy-occupied squares, not triggering attacks of opportunity) to clear up tactical positioning questions that the ability would otherwise raise? In which case, maybe I should imagine that I'm just diving in front of the guy to take the blow, and I don't actually have the power to teleport around like Nightcrawler. But if it really is teleportation, then that just raises so many questions. Can I teleport at will or only when my friends are threatened? Can I, like, have a prophetic dream that my friend is in mortal danger in the next room, teleport to him through the wall, and then find out he wasn't really in danger? Could I always do this or did it take training? Did my mutant power manifest at puberty? Do I ever teleport involuntarily? Do people in this world who see a paladin walking down the street know that he's a teleporter? Do they think it's unnatural and scary or do they think it's proof of a divine miracle? Can I teleport silently or does it make a loud "BAMF" noise?
The teleporting paladin is not exactly a common archetype in fantasy literature, so we can't even refer to a common genre understanding to interpret how this ought to work.
Meanwhile, the cleric has an attack which damages an enemy and heals an ally. Makes sense tactically/mechanically for an ability like that to exist, but what's happening here exactly? Especially given the fact that there's an explicit rule saying no, I can't just carry a bag of rats and wallop one anytime my friends need free healing? There's no fantasy literature archetype to refer to here, either.
Yes, you can make up your own answers to all these questions, and with a lot of work a group might even be able to agree on interpretations of all the common powers which make sense and avoid contradicting each other. But the path of least resistance, when confronted with abilities that don't make fictional sense, is to simply stop trying to imagine them fictionally and just treat them as what they are - a card with numbers on it that I manipulate to gain advantages for my game token. This pulls me out of the imaginary world and makes me feel more like an accountant than a fantasy hero kicking butt.
And the thing that get my goat is, it wouldn't have been that hard to avoid this problem completely. Wizards of the Coast knows a lot about tying flavor to mechanics; they've gotten pretty good at doing it on Magic cards even. All they would have had to do is design the powers to have a fictional effect first, and then a mechanical effect. It's the difference between "the Moobly-Groobly spell does X damage to enemies in the target area" (mechanics only) vs. "the Moobly-Groobly spell creates a fiery explosion of size X somewhere within distance Y (fictional effect) which does Z damage to creatures in that area (mechanical effect)." The latter gives us a fictional fact (there's a fiery explosion!) to work with: we can reason that it knocks stuff over, lights things on fire, could potentially blow open doors, etc. etc.
They could have made a game which was every bit as tactical but which, by not sacrificing the fictional justifications of the powers in order to do so, did a better job at attaining the feeling of fantasy heroes kicking butt. And that would have been a game that better achieved their own design goals.
Things I bet you didn't know about The BAT-MAN
I've been reading the Batman Archives, Volume 1. It's a very pretty, color, hard-cover reprint of the first 24 Batman comics from 1939 and 1940. It's pretty... uh... what's the word... it's pretty different.
For instance, you might have known that he is called "The BAT-MAN", but did you know...
...Instead of a Batmobile, The BAT-MAN drives around in a cherry red Ford?
...The BAT-MAN's batplane has helicopter blades and a zoologically realistic bat face modeled onto the front of it?
...The BAT-MAN just loves his trusty guns?
...The BAT-MAN has absolutely no problem with killing people? As long as they're evil, of course. They deserve it!
...The BAT-MAN can swing from ropes that are obviously not attached to anything! (Seriously, what's holding that rope up? The scrollwork on the caption box?)
...In the first issue or two, The BAT-MAN's has these weird wiggly elf-ears?
...The BAT-MAN doesn't know the difference between a vampire and a werewolf?
We don't get The BAT-MAN's origin story until issue six; and when we do, it's a measly page-and-a-half. Until then he's a total cipher.
(If you're wondering, no, the details of his origin story haven't changed at all. They're remarkably immune to retconning.)
...In the middle of an otherwise grittily realistic story, The BAT-MAN will suddently veer into a trippy, surrealistic scene like this one? (And no, this is never explained. It's not handwaved as magic, or a hallucination; it's just there. And later, the flowers start talking to him.)
So much of The BAT-MAN's story is told in caption boxes that at times it's more like an illustrated picture book than a comic. Look at these pages - there's only one panel without narration in it!
The BAT-MAN is really more of a detective than a superhero. (That's why he appears in Detective Comics, after all). The conventions of the superhero genre hadn't really been established yet, so most of the tropes and plot cues come from detective stories.
That's why The BAT-MAN finishes most of his stories by pulling masks off bad guys and explaining in detail how their evil plans worked.
And he doesn't fight super-villains; his iconic foes not having been invented yet, The BAT-MAN mostly fights generic 1930s mobsters with fedoras and zoot suits.
(And the city he's protecting? It's not Gotham. It's just some nameless city. Except when he goes to Paris and fights French criminals for a while.)
Speaking of 1930s mobsters, Robin's origin story involves his parents getting killed because the circus refused to pay off the protection racket.
A lot of the comic is like that. It's quite dark, gritty, and realistic. Especially compared to the Silver Age batman who had to obey the Comics Code, or compared to the Adam West Batman.
No goofy "Pow!" "Biff!" sound effects here. Barely any sound effects of any kind, in fact.
Of course The BAT-MAN can't just fight mobsters and death-ray-weilding mad scientists all the time. When the artist got tired of drawing fedoras and lab coats, he turns to pulp fiction's other favorite source of disposable antagonists:
That's right, hideously xenophobic ethnic stereotypes!
I love how in these old comics, they never bother showing actual Chinese writing -- I mean looking up some real Chinese characters might require going to the library or something! We'll just put random squiggles, it's not like our audience will know the difference!
The BAT-MAN deduces that the "Horde of the Green Dragon" is behind these crimes because they kill their enemies with hatchets. And only Chinese people do that. Chinese Hatchet-Men. You've heard of The Dreaded Chinese Hatchet-Men, right?
Don't worry, The BAT-MAN will kill all these guys by crushing them under their ugly green statue. What, you thought they were going to have trials and be sent to jail? Don't be silly, they're foreigners. They deserve to die.
Because they no speak good English!
Oh my god, they made the curvy triangle font into a plot point.
(The Bat-Signal hadn't been invented yet, so people who need help contact The BAT-MAN via random classified ads in the newspaper. Really.)
The Indians aren't treated any better than the Chinese. They track down and murder anybody who steals their favorite idol:
Now, I don't claim to be an expert on all of India's thousands of local dieties, but wouldn't the Hindu god of destruction be either Shiva or Kali? And I'm pretty sure it wouldn't look like a red devil. Oh well; Hinduism, Satan-worship: pretty much the same, right?
And as for the treatment of women, well, they're all pretty much hysterical dames. Especially Bruce Wayne's fiancee Julie, who we see in maybe one or two panels every five or six issues. It's like the writers kept forgetting she existed. And, well...
I'll just let that panel speak for itself.
Make a skill check to find the clue!
This is a conversation me and Googleshng were having in the car the other day.
If you're playing a traditional, GM-preps-a-scenario type of RPG, then one of the absolute worst things you can do to your players is the ol' "Make a skill check to find the clue" situation. As in, "A successful Aquarium Lore check is required to deduce that the killer hid the bodies behind the sea cucumber tank".
A failed roll brings the game to a screeching halt, and then you all have to muddle around guessing randomly, the GM secretly wishing he fudged the roll, until he figures out a different way of giving you the same information.
Man, I hate this stuff so much.
(In case you think this problem is mythical, consider for example published Call of Cthulhu adventures, which were made of this stuff.)
So there's a bunch of mistakes going on here. One is plotting out a story that has to go a certain way. You're always better prepping situations, not plotlines. The second mistake is rolling dice for situations where failure is uninteresting. Dice are there for randomization; If only a successful skill check will allow the game to proceed, then what's the randomization for, exactly?
Both of those problems have been analyzed plenty already. Something I haven't seen discussed much, though, is the role of skill system and chargen system design in encouraging this particular kind of crappy play.
Think about it. There's a certain Simulationist design impulse that says your game needs skills for everything. Of course we need an Astronomy skill and a Baking skill and a Weapon Proficiency: Wet Macaroni and an Ancient Babylonian Mathematics skill and a skill for piloting hydrofoils.
With all those skills on your character sheet, of course the game needs opportunities to use them, right? Especially if you're like "I wanna be a good GM, I don't want this to just be a series of fights, gotta put in some intellectual challenges" and you're making the mistake of confusing a skill roll with an intellectual challenge.
You see what's going on here? The character generation system is driving the experience of play. Chargen produces this number, therefore play needs to use it somewhere. This is backwards. It should be the other way around! If you're designing a game, you need to think about the experience you want play to focus on, and then design the most minimal chargen system needed to support that.
Finally, remember that a skill roll is a resolution mechanic: its function is to resolve a situation by producing a binary outcome: success or failure. Consider, O designer, that deciding between success or failure is not the only thing a mechanic can do. It might not actually be what you want. Especially if your goal is mainly to express something about a character!
Maybe it's important to your fiction that a character is, say, an astronomer. Instead of expressing that as a boosted percentage chance of success on astronomy-related tasks (something that's really hard to bring into play without "skill check to find clue"), you could bring it into play as:
- A generator of situations: "OK, you're at an international cosmological conference in Europe, and your archenemy Dr. Cagliari is there, getting ready to publicly ridicule your paper on dark matter..."
- Something that gives the player authority over certain situations: whenever something astronomy-related comes up, you get to decide what it means and describe your character's brilliant deductions, and nobody can contradict you.
- Something entirely different...
You can do either of those things informally, layering them on top of a task-resolution skill system if you like, but also think about what it would mean to actually design formal game mechanics around such a concept.