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Fantasy League Round 5: Fashion Failure

2012/10/30 8 comments

Sometimes, the clothes of the characters on the silver screen are awesome.  And sometimes they’re just ridiculous.

Straight to the Heart

This is one of my pet peeves, as it seems to ignore the reason why armor was invented.

To illustrate — which of these two characters is going to have more issues with projectile weapons and pointy objects aimed at their chest?

That’s what I thought.  The reasons for this from a media point of view are rather obvious: showing off a woman’s skin apparently attracts viewers’ and players’ attention.  Nonetheless, it’s obvious why armor like that was never used back in the real world.  The reasons for its use in media are, perhaps, just as obvious. Everybody knows that all gamers are straight males, and no women ever deign to touch a keyboard </sarcasm>.

Though it’s usually the women in the minimalist armor (consider Xena, Warrior Princess, or any number of other shows), they’re hardly the only ones.  Barbarian types especially are also subject to this.  (That’s even when you exclude things like Captain Kirk strategically ripping his shirt.)

Even if that’s their non-fighting gear, wouldn’t they get cold eventually?

Some of the Wheel of Time books by Robert Jordan include some bodyguards with precisely this kind of armor to make people think they’re less skilled than they actually are.  It seems to me that you’d rather give off that aura of ineffectiveness by means other than making it easier to be injured.  At least when this shows up in the Belgariad books by David Eddings, the queen’s armor is deliberately ornamental — the better to look awesome while giving orders to the army.

Footwear

Similarly, it’s best to have appropriate shoes for the task at hand.

I don’t think I’ve seen anybody in film wearing shoes this bad. On the other hand, these shoes may actually be real…

As an example, in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, our intrepid reporter spends the entire movie, except for a brief stint in the mountains, wearing high heels.  This is manifestly not a good idea.  At least in that movie, they make a point of mentioning (and demonstrating) how the high heels are a bad idea.  Given the number of times the lady characters end up having trouble running, or tripping over their own three-inch-heels…

In other cases?  Many of the women in Star Trek are only ever seen wearing high heels — most egregiously in the original series and Seven of Nine in Voyager.  Then again, maybe they’re trying to make a statement.  “She’s so awesome, she can outrun and outgun you despite the high heels”.

Of course, there are also alternative uses for high heels.  In most cases, I suspect using high heels as a weapon wouldn’t work especially well — they’re not made for handling that kind of stress, and given that most of them aren’t knife-sharp, it would take quite a bit of effort to impale somebody with them.  That said, stomping on somebody’s toes with them would work pretty well.

No Capes!

This is Stratogale, briefly mentioned in The Incredibles. Moments after this image was taken, the drag from her cape caused her to be sucked into the plane’s jet engine.

Capes are also on the list of fashion no-nos.  The Incredibles has a whole sequence of unfortunate superheroes who meet their doom via cape-related issues, courtesy of Edna Mode.  The fundamental problem with capes is that they get stuck in stuff, caught in stuff, grabbed by your nemesis and used to fling you across the room, and so on.

It’s not just superheroes, either.  The sorcerer and evil overlord types also frequently sport capes or long fancy robes, which film and novel even occasionally have be a demonstrable problem.  But most of the time, they manage to get away with it somehow.  Consider all the fighting in long, flowing robes that the Jedi do in Star Wars.  Darth Vader has a cape, too.  And, when Industrial Light and Magic was animating Yoda showing his stuff in the prequel films, the animators found handling his robes tricky — making sure they looked cool and like they weren’t going to get tangled and trip him.

Edna Mode knows her fashion.

I still think a detachable cape could be handy, though, given the utility of using clothing to avoid getting caught.

Helmets

To quote the first item on the Evil Overlord List:  “My Legions of Terror will have helmets with clear plexiglass visors, not face-concealing ones.”

This is commonly done to the mooks in movies and so forth for the simple reason that, when we can’t see their faces, we can’t sympathize.  These are the faceless Legions of Terror, and thus morally acceptable targets, not people with a family who’re just doing their job as a guard.  It also helps in that you don’t need as many extras to portray your legions.

In practice, this means that the guards can’t recognize each other on sight.  A common heroic tactic is to knock out or kill an unlucky guard, steal his clothes, and bluff to get into the fortress of doom.

Nazgûl. Face-concealment is perhaps less relevant, since it’s not clear they have faces. On the other hand, since they can’t really see, it’s not clear why they have the big opening for their nonexistent faces. Smelling out his quarry, perhaps.  Regardless, that comes back to bite this guy later.

The other side of the coin is that, oftentimes, the hero doesn’t wear a helmet.

Avatar (with the blue aliens) actually manages to get this somewhat right.  The humans are always wearing helmets so they can breathe — with nice clear faceplates so we can identify them.  (The Na’vi don’t bother with them, though.  Or much armor, for that matter.)

Otherwise, our heroic SWAT team member is the only one without a helmet.  Real SWAT teams?  Everybody has a helmet, armor, and all the other appropriate gear.  Detectives without helmets try to stay back and out of the way when the situation goes south.  After all, dealing with the dangerous parts is what SWAT teams are for.

On the other hand, the best example of helmet fail is Star Wars.  The Jedi?  No helmets.  (Also no armor, but it seems that armor isn’t much help against lightsabers.  Personal force fields, on the other hand, would be nice.)  Stormtrooper helmets also fail badly on this front.  They’re face-concealing and, according to one character who… borrows… a helmet, it’s actually pretty hard to see, too.

Of course, they’re not terribly effective anyway.

And if you’re confused, you need to watch Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.

Fantasy League Round 4: Economics and Fantasy Role-Playing Games

I keep talking about the importance of considering what technologies (in the broadest sense of the word ‘technique’) can do to a society when writing a story.  In many stories, the technology itself isn’t the purpose of the story that was being written.  Inception is a heist film – in some sense, the dreaming technology is less relevant than the interactions between Cobb and his memories of his wife, and his quest to return to his children and home even if that means assaulting Fischer.  This is the second of Asimov’s three kinds of science fiction: the technology is incidental to the adventure.
But what about role-playing and strategy games, where the techniques concerned are the main way that the players’ characters interact with the game world?  Here it is essential to consider how the technologies interact with one another, in the form of possible combinations of the rules.  Otherwise the game may end up essentially unplayable.  Most good games don’t have that severe of a problem, but considering all of the possible combinations of rules becomes very difficult for complicated games where the full description of the rules may be hundreds of pages long.  In particular, economics is very hard to do right.

Game Breaking

If the game developers and beta testers haven’t found and fixed all possible problematic combinations of rules, there will be exploits to take advantage of.  And given a large enough base of players, they will be found.  There are very long lists of such game-breaking techniques, but here I’ll focus on economic ones.

The economics of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5. Notice that a 10-foot ladder costs 5 copper pieces and a 10-foot pole costs 2 silver pieces = 20 copper pieces. So, buy ladders, take them apart, and quadruple your money. That works until the demand for ladders and poles changes and the prices adjust; but price elasticity isn’t included in the rules for the game.

In all of the versions of Dungeons and Dragons, there are exploits that allow relatively low-level characters to defeat any opponent.  The most notorious example is Pun-Pun, a level-1 starting character in DnD 3.5 that has arbitrarily high power.  But the exploits in DnD are easier than that.  The purchase price of a ten-foot ladder is less than the sale price of the two ten-foot poles and shorter rungs that it is made of.  A player can in theory drain all of the cash out of the local economy.

In the Dresden Files RPG, there is another simple exploit.  A lot of the competitive balancing in the game relies on high-powered magical characters being unable to use complicated technology, particularly computers and other electronics.  This is justified by the characters ‘magical energy’ damaging the electronics.  They are walking techbane.  But moving water is also established to block magical energy.  You can still use a cell phone, a GPS, a computer terminal, and all of the fancy gadgets in a modern hospital as long as either they or you are encased in a thin layer of circulating water.  Time to go shopping at a fire-fighter uniform supplier.

In Mage: The Ascension, some characters can magic the laws of probability and win the lottery.  That may get a certain amount of unwanted attention, but you only need to do it once.  To deal with this sort of thing, all of these games have one basic rule: the moderator is always right.

Competitive Balance

Things get a bit more problematic in games without a moderator constantly adjusting the rules to avoid or limit game-breaking.  It doesn’t even have to require a large player base – AI programs can do the same thing.  In 1981 and 1982, a challenge using the rules from the sci-fi RPG Traveller was twice won by an early learning program.  It found that thousands of kamikaze ships would defeat any other solution.
A more recent example:  Starcraft is very close to competitive balance, but in scenarios with nearly-infinite resources and equally-skilled players, the Protoss game race has a slight advantage over the others.  They can assimilate enemy units and potentially have three times the army of anyone else (if the game lasts that long).

Game software can be updated.  This is easier for online games.  In World of Warcraft, there have been both positive and negative game-breaks.  On the positive side, there was a bug that could be exploited to allow a single paladin character to do death by a thousand cuts to the hardest-to-defeat enemies in the game in one move (as opposed to the usual method of two dozen characters taking several minutes to bring it down).  On the negative side, a programming bug caused the Corrupted Blood debuff to turn into a pandemic inside the game, killing off or wounding almost all characters.  Those were all fixed by obvious rule patches in short order.

The Limits of Rule Patching

But rule patching can only go so far.  The most complicated game breaks arise from interactions between many player characters, in effect a large synthetic economy.  The World Of Warcraft internal auction markets are nowhere close to equilibrium, and arbitrageurs can make lots of in-game money.  In some cases, trading bot programs have accumulated up to several times the total amount of money in circulation on any one game server.  Blizzard deals with that by shutting down bot accounts whenever they are detected.  But  Matt Fisher at Stanford tells me that bot programs can be programmed to appear almost identical to a human player who obsessively trades on the market, so there is no way to fix that.

Perhaps the limits of rule patching can be excused.  When game systems are so complicated that no-one can predict their outcomes, and when they involve the interactions of thousands of separate agents, fixing problems with them is as hard as fixing problems with the real-life economy.  Doing significantly better than random chance would be impressive.