Brendan's Personal Blog

Sometimes I write something down.

Stream of Consciousness on Mass Effect 2 (spoilers)

[Originally posted on FB on July 11, 2012]

This is not very relevant now, but I like having it somewhere that isn’t a Facebook status.


This is going to be kind of piecemeal and all over, as I’m still playing through ME2 with my ME1 character. I actually have managed to not know very much about ME until I started playing through the whole series this way. I’m going to try and use [G, B, N] in front of each point to note whether the comment is something good, bad, or neutral in my opinion.


1.[B] Cerberus- So I’m a paragon hero of the galaxy from the last game, who spent most of his free time destroying Cerberus terror cells, and now I wake up working for Mengele and I’m just supposed to be okay with it? To be fair, now and then I can say things like ‘I toootally don’t work for Cerberus’ while still seeing the Illusive Man after every mission and flying a ship with an AI that has unknown Cerberus programming. I don’t think I’m too far off with the Mengele reference, either- most of the ‘experiments’ I interrupted last game involved “Let’s see what happens when we put unarmed humans and Rachni in the same cage.”

2. [G] Romance- All of the personalities of possible romance options (at least for MaleShep) are more interesting than the last game.

3. [B] Romance- Can I be nice to a woman in this game without her wanting to sleep with me? Like, just because I care about someone on my crew, maybe help them with some important life event or take them on their spirit journey, maybe we could just be really good friends. This might not be true for all of the women on the crew, but so far my only positive interactions with females have led to ‘hey baby’ or ‘this is a business relationship we should never talk’.

3b. [BBB] Several hours later, I’ve confirmed what I was worried about in 3: it’s actually impossible to continue to help Jack through her psychological issues if you don’t have romantic feelings for her. I mean, I’m sure I could do a whole note on helping her work through psychological damage as an integrated part of a romance, but that issue aside, it’s pretty terrible that I can’t actually be real, true friends with Jack if I don’t want to sleep with her.

4. [G] Scanning- This minigame is pretty terrible. Luckily it replaced something worse. There is something bad about this that I’ll touch on in a later point.

5. [G] Barrier/Shield HUD- Just some UI praise; seeing a barrier/shield on top of armor on top of health is a cool touch.

6. [G] Upgrades- I still don’t entirely understand the upgrade system; luckily, I do understand that it’s about 1000 times less work than the last game’s for similar effect, so good on it. The weapon-slot system from last game almost caused me to quit a few hours before the end.

7. [B] Scale- Everything feels smaller in this game. The game puts a lot of work into telling you that things are vast, but not so much showing you. Ex: The ship is ‘bigger’ but you have to loading screen to a bunch of smaller areas, there are tons of planets but you only drop down to small interior sections of them. This problem is exacerbated by the loss of the buggy. There so far hasn’t even been something like the Presidium from the first game, a moderately open inside area; just cramped interiors separated by loading screens.

8. [G] Garrus- I actually never talked to Garrus in the first game, and didn’t know anything about ME2, so I was genuinely surprised at the Archangel reveal. Cool.

9. [B] Unity/Team Health- I could probably read what it all means, but I have no idea when to use Unity/how my team is doing until my HUD says ‘heal your team, idiot’ to me.

10. [G] Hack Minigames- Glad they’re different from last game, and they’re a little more interesting. Glad they’re still really easy.

11. [G, N] Galaxy Map- I actually like the little detail of having to move your ship around each system manually, instead of toggling through planets. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever manually flown to another in-nebula system not for a mission, and didn’t realize I even could for many hours.


Overall, having a good time with the second game, especially because most of my big interface gripes from the last were fixed.


Breaking It: The “Alarm” Spell in D&D

[Originally posted on FB on May 16, 2017]

How does the D&D spell ‘Alarm’ work?

Based on the answers to these questions, you can use Alarm to do a lot more powerful things than warn of an approaching enemy. My intuition is that a ton of D&D spells are like this.

1. How does this spell determine the exceptions I put on it?
2. Can I say, “Dave doesn’t set the alarm off”?
2a. If so, what happens when Dave uses a disguise kit before going through the area?
2b. What if he uses the spell Alter Self?
2c. What if someone does either of the above to disguise themselves as Dave?
2d. What if someone makes a Minor/Major Image of Dave in the area?
3. Can I say, “Red dragonborn don’t set the alarm off”?
3a. Is the effectiveness of this alarm altered if my character is blind or colorblind?
3bi. If yes, given this spell can explicitly detect Tiny creatures, is that not actually true if my character could not on his own detect Tiny creatures?
4. If no to 3a, the spell is clearly using sensory information or knowledge my character does not have access to. What else can it learn/exclude?
4a. Does “The alarm isn’t set off by coral snakes” get confused by milk snakes if my character doesn’t know a clever rhyme to tell them apart?
4ai. If so, what happens if someone teaches my character the rhyme after he has already cast the alarm but before a milk snake goes through the alarm area?
4aii. If not, how much knowledge does the alarm have? If I don’t know how to tell coral snakes and milk snakes apart, does the fact that N% of the population of the world can tell them apart change the efficacy of Alarm as N% changes?
4aiii. If no to 4aii, can I give it criteria that only a few people in the world know, and I’m not one of those people?

A few more concrete examples of exceptions whose efficacy I question:
5. “Creatures with less than 10 hp do not set off the alarm”?
6. “Creatures whose home plane is the Prime Material do not set off the alarm”?
7. “Creatures with no ill intent do not set off the alarm”?
8. “Creatures with abjurations cast on them do not set off the alarm”?
9. “Creatures wearing the livery or insignia of King Atondas do not set off the alarm”?
10. “Creatures wearing true mathematical statements do not set off the alarm?”

Ableism and Lego: Marvel Super Heroes

[Originally posted on FB on January 14, 2014]

I’ve been playing LMSH a bunch recently, and it has really solidified the idea of ableism in my mind. Between missions, there is time to help the citizens of New York in a free-roaming, GTA-style sandbox. I’m no stranger to fetch quests, but there are a few details of LMSH that I think help foster a seething contempt for the populace of NYC and “non-super” humanity at large:

It’s really fun to go around the city. Whether in a vehicle or at Mach 1 with a flying character, it’s awesome to just zoom around the landscape. However, the city isn’t built for you to joy-ride/fly. Unlike GTA’s indulgence, most high-speed collisions in LMSH stop your forward movement entirely, whether clipping a building or bumping a fender. Some of the most satisfying running is being a large character (like the Hulk), mostly because they auto-destroy obstacles/cars they charge through without breaking speed. When zooming from objective to objective, indestructible infrastructure critical to citizens (train platforms, stairs, etc.) act only as annoyances.

The NPC populace has no understanding of your movement capabilities. While Iron Man might suffer finding a wayward tot back to a worried parent, it certainly begins to grate when you have to trudge along at a snail’s pace to return them. Not only is flying around (super fun, never want to stop) likely to cause the child to get re-lost, your default running speed is faster than the NPC running speed, so too brisk a jog will also lose them.

In an effort to make the several dozen quips relevant no matter what character you are, the NYC citizens almost never refer to your character specifically- “Look dear, that superhero you like” etc. Plus, many of them attempt humor through derision (“He doesn’t look as tall in real life!”). This means that as your incredible cast of characters travels the city helping the populace, the only feedback you get is that no one knows who you are or cares.

Your cast of characters is huge, but the only thing that matters mechanically is what special abilities each character has. Many sandbox quests require combinations of super powers for completion. Those with multiple useful abilities (hello, Iron Man!) end up in your roster more frequently, and nothing is more annoying than accidentally switching to a normal human mid-puzzle. (Look out, Gwen Stacy can punch _and_ kick!) After hours of playing, most of the 100+ characters are just lists of their powers.

The game expects and encourages massive collateral damage. This is typified in the “heat ray” super power. The heat ray is used to destroy golden bricks, and is suggested in a loading screen hint as a way of destroying the environment quickly. A new addition LMSH brings to the Lego series of games is cool, individual kill animations for each character. However, many of these kill animations take 10 times as long as actually punching an enemy twice (which is usually sufficient to bring any mook down) and the animation is triggered at random when a hit would kill an enemy. When defeating a large number of enemies, by far a more efficient strategy is to stand still and heat ray the enemies. and the nearby cafe. and the person who asked for your help in the first place. If this wasn’t explicit enough, NPCs constantly talk about your destruction, even when it doesn’t occur (after a mission helping an old lady cross a busy street, she comments on whether you had to destroy so many cars, even if you only stand in front of them to stop traffic).

After playing LMSH for an extended period, I come away hating myself, but perhaps understanding how easy it is to develop disdain for those not as able as myself. In a world of super heroes, anyone who’s not a super hero is disabled.

For Posterity

I’ve decided to take several old essays that I had on FB, and move them to here, so I can actually find them later if I want to reference or do anything with them. These essays will have an original post date, and mention FB for clarity.

G. K. Chesterton and Game Design

[Epistemic Status: That’s just, like, your opinion, man.]


I’ve been thinking about game design a lot recently, especially asymmetry and specialization.

When playtesting an asymmetric game, in my experience a lot of small fixes are more likely to return sides to some mean game, destroying what makes each side ‘special’.

The trick I’ve taken to using when I notice myself doing this I’d like to credit to GK Chesterton. Chesterton many times would argue that something was bad not because it was too much of an obvious bad thing, but because it wasn’t obviously bad enough! For example:

“The modern city is ugly not because it is a city but because it is not enough of a city, because it is a jungle, because it is confused and anarchic, and surging with selfish and materialistic energies.” – The Way to the Stars, Lunacy and Letters

It certainly is an interesting design exercise to try and solve problems by ostensibly making them much worse. For example, in one game I was working on, one side took few but powerful actions, while another side took many weak ones. The few-action side was not actually powerful enough, and I initially fixed this by giving them more actions. This made the two sides too similar, and my current design solved the problem by taking away all but one of the actions of that side.

When something looks like an unsolvable problem, lean into it! It’s a novel strategy. We’ll see if it makes a better game.

Steven Universe, Season 1

This show is pretty good. I figured I’d write down my thoughts on important/favorite episodes somewhere. This is basically a slightly delayed liveblog, so don’t expect too many deep thoughts for any individual episode.


Episode 5, Frybo

This was the first episode with a big hint that this show was going to be more than a lighthearted kids show. Frybo is truly terrifying.

Episode 6, Cat Fingers

This episode one-ups the previous ones horror with the Steven-cat amalgam. For readers of Worm ( this reminded me of Echidna to a frightening degree.

Episode 12, Giant Woman

The first fusion, and the first really catchy goofy song (no slights to Cookie Cat lovers). After watching this episode I wanted to see alll the possible fusions!

Episode 13, So Many Birthdays

A meditation on old age and death. Sure, that’s a reasonable premise for a kid’s show.

Episode 15, Onion Trade

I don’t know what Onion’s deal is. He seems like a monster. Another nightmare episode when Onion uses a Gem tool exactly how I thought of using it.

Episode 16, Steven the Sword Fighter

Noooooo Bird Mom! Shocking, completely shocking, and the show really sold this moment as bad as Steven felt, despite it being temporary.

Episode 17, Lion 2: The Movie

I just want to point out under an episode that is relevant how many episodes involve going to ancient Gem ruins and making no mention of them.

Episode 18, Beach Party

Gem clothing transformations!

Episode 19, Rose’s Room


Episode 20, Coach Steven

Blah blah blah SUGILITE. More fusions plzzz.

Episode 22, Steven and the Stevens

Existential nightmare of an episode perfectly capped off by a bouncy, catchy song about it. Pearl’s worried face during the song is the best.

Episode 25, Mirror Gem

The first introduction to an intelligent Gem, and the beginning of learning about how the Crystal Gems on earth relate to the Gem society as a whole. Did the Crystal Gems know they had a sentient being bound in basically a Gem television? Also learning that every gem they recover on missions used to be a Gem at one point = …

Episode 26, Ocean Gem

Lapis is so. powerful.

Episode 29, Secret Team

Embodied gem shards are scary.

Episode 30, Island Adventure

The main characters of this show lie to each other ALL THE TIME. Not sure how I feel about that.

Episode 31, Keep Beach City Weird

This was a scary episode for me, because it was very clear that Ronaldo was meant to be ‘ranting’ about the truth at the end. What did the Gems want with Earth, originally??

Episode 32, Fusion Cuisine


Episode 33, Garnet’s Universe

This is a cute idea for an episode. I’m a little unclear about when in time this show is supposed to be set– Steven has a Gamecube (rendered with very high fidelity) in his room, and all of the sound/action in this episode evokes a SNES/N64 era video game structure.

Episode 34, Watermelon Steven

More existential nightmares, capped off with the perfect ending of Steven absentmindedly eating a corpse he was just lamenting over.

Episode 37, Alone Together


Episode 39, Future Vision

This is one of the reasons that Garnet is so powerful. Being able to see possible futures in incredibly high fidelity is…very useful.

Episode 40, On the Run

The return of the information from Ronaldo in Episode 31. Nothing is mentioned by the characters themselves (has the word Kindergarten ever been scarier?) but adults and well-read kids will immediately recognize the bacteriophage design of the machines. That together with Ronaldo’s ranting and Amethyst’s past point to the Gems original terrifying plans for Earth.

Episode 43, Maximum Capacity

This one got weird. What is the past relationship of Amethyst and Greg? Especially because Amethyst has shapeshifted into Rose before? This is all very disturbing.

Episode 45, Rose’s Scabbard

Oh poor Pearl. It’s very affecting to see how much Pearl idolizes Rose and misses her. Feels, yo.

Episode 46, Open Book

DON’T GO INTO ROSE’S ROOM. More sentient beings created and cavalierly destroyed. More nightmare fuel.

Episode 49, The Message

It’s nice to see Greg as more than a sad sack. Also, shit, meet fan.

Episodes 51/52, The Return/Jail Break

Holy crap this show got so real so fast. Ruby/Sapphire are great, especially Ruby’s frustration that she “Can’t see” alluding to her lack of future vision when unfused. Garnet’s song was very moving, the ship design (with escape pod) was awesome. Lapis is again shown to be an insanely powerful Gem who can remain fused with someone she is actively taking prisoner, while Pearl/Amethyst can barely keep fused when a disagreement breaks out.

Final Thoughts

This show had a slow start on the trail from lighthearted kids show to engaging narrative. The pace is actually fine for a show that exists in 10 minute chunks, and it deals with complicated issues (especially related to my jam, existential dread) in heavy, emotional ways. For example, contrast the death of alternate timeline Stevens to anything time-travel-related in Rick and Morty. Being able to mix that with the overall ‘fun’ness of the show is very impressive. I’m looking forward to Season 2.

Using Your Superpowers Effectively

One of my favorite stories is Worm, which is what I would call a deconstructionist superhero story. The people who end up in charge in Wormverse are sometimes those who can punch the hardest, but also often whose powers make them better administrators, leaders, and planners. My favorite thing about Worm is how everyone uses their powers to intelligently bring about their goals- superheroes rarely doing this is what leads this comic to be so funny. A lot of the humor from early sections of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality comes too from the main character seeing ways of ‘abusing’ his muggle knowledge in the wizarding world.

In my own life, I’m the guy that ruins hypotheticals. Before I answer “where I would place the ends of a permanent portal” or “what I would do with a lunchbox that always had a sandwich when opened” I have to make sure there’s not an easy way to make infinite energy, since that leads to a whole bunch of other positive outcomes. As a friend once said, this makes me “the worst”. But I recently realized that there’s something I’m not doing. I’m not applying my desire to ruin hypotheticals to my actual life. And I don’t think I’m alone.

What things am I currently great at? Am I using those powers in a thoughtful way, or just the way everyone else uses those abilities? How can I use my abilities in a way that would make a dungeon master cry ‘foul’? What about you?

Neverwhere Confusion [Spoilers]

I’m listening to Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman on audiobook, and a quote by the main character (the hapless Richard Mayhew) I found very confusing. For reference, Richard has fallen through the cracks into London Below, and no one from his old life notices or recognizes him anymore:

“The Marquis says we might be able to get me back [to London Above], but I don’t see how that’s possible.”

Now, I understand the role of ‘hapless protagonist out of his depth’, and I even understand Richard boldly pronouncing that something can’t be possible, hundreds of pages into a topsy-turvy adventure. But I don’t understand how he comes to the conclusion above. When Richard says there’s no door in a wall so they can’t get through it, he’s appealing to his understanding of London Above. Even though his expectations for Below are consistently surprised, at least he’s doggedly applying what he thinks are The Way Things Work to this new place. In regards to returning to London Above, however, he has nothing to appeal to. As far as he can tell, he became a member of Below instantly and with no notice, through some unknown mechanism. This basically the only thing he knows at this point about the transition between Above and Below. Now, he could be applying the Above reasoning of ‘fundamental changes to your person require extraordinary action’, but why apply this general principle when he has specific evidence about this very effect?

Positive Reinforcement

I went to the dentist recently, and I noticed a behavior of the hygienist that I really approved of.  I hadn’t been in a long while, and was joking about finally getting around to it. No matter how jokingly I approached the idea, the hygienist calmly and firmly stressed the importance of me actually being there. I was already glad that I was there, but I appreciate her desire (unconscious or not) to make me glad for showing up.

Wheel of Cards


How big would a wheel have to be if you could spin it and land on the name of any Magic card in Modern?

-Eric Klug



Pretty big.


For this question, I assumed that the Magic card names would be written at their actual size, as if you cut each name off of an actual card. Luckily, I have a few samples to take measurements on.


This part of a Magic card is roughly 63mm wide and 9mm tall. And every slice of the wheel is 2 radians divided by the number of cards in the format (according to Gatherer, Modern currently has 8140). After that, it’s just simple geometry to end up with this:

mathdrawing 2014-04-30_14-33-53_73


As you can possibly see from my whiteboard scrawling, a wheel of Modern card names has a radius of 11.72 meters, or about 40 feet- making the wheel about nine stories tall (or if you prefer, four double-decker buses end-to end).

rm 6

 However, the drawing above isn’t actually the smallest wheel possible- just the easiest to do math on. The actual optimal circle is a little bit tricky to calculate, but what we can do is find another easy wheel to calculate that’s smaller than the actual allowed size, to see how much error we’re introducing by not calculating the actual wheel size. Most of the wheel itself is empty- each wedge is very thin. A piece of a smaller circle (made illegal by some overlapping) would look something like this:



and have a radius of 11.66 meters. 6 centimeters of radius doesn’t sound like a difference to get very worried about.


We can go bigger. What if we wanted to be able to land on any card ever printed? With over 14,000 cards, our new wheel would have to be 40.4 meters in diameter, or blue-whale-sized.

 diving blue whale

 What about even bigger? The length and width of each card name are just parameters, so why don’t we slap a full copy of every Magic card ever printed on each wedge of the wheel? A little math later…

141 meter radius. That’s a diameter larger than the Hindenburg, or the Great Pyramid of Giza as a spoke in the wheel:

hinden Kheops-Pyramid


If anyone in the Magic community wants to play an analog version of the Conley Woods Game*, this is your chance to give it a spin.


* The Conley Woods Game is being randomly given 3 cards and having to build a deck around them.

{Something something Magic card symbols, something something copyright Wizards of the Coast.}