The Name Game: Real Names versus Character Names in MMOs

I’ve spent eighteen months interacting almost daily with the same group of forty to fifty people, for up to four hours a day on occasion. None of them call me by name.

Oh, they know my character’s name in World of Warcraft (WoW), the massively multi-player online role playing game (MMORPG) where we interact as a guild, confronting the game’s tougher challenges as a team. My guildmates know my catch phrases and my habits, my playing style and my singing ability (or lack thereof), but few of them know the name I was born to. I’m not Chris to them in WoW—I’m Fellstone. And if someone were to use my real name in the game, I probably wouldn’t even respond to it, out of non-recognition rather than petulance. Am I Fellstone to myself in WoW, too?

Gaming in general involves some degree of identification beyond the self. We invest the checker we move with the desire to reach the other side of the board, the video game sprite we maneuver via joystick with the will to thread a maze. Avalon Hill game boxes were festooned with blurbs drawing the would-be gamer into the game world contained within. For instance, Circus Maximus (Avalon Hill, 1980) invites you to identify with the setting on a personal level:

From your vantage point behind the matched grays of the House of Gaiius, you watch as the sultry image is broken by the clatter of late-arriving chariots approaching the starting line…. The Roman is using razor sharp scythe blades—a cruel threat to any wheel or horseflesh which ventures too near. You are all that stands between him and the favorable inside position at the far corner.

The outcomes of games matter because we are involved with them personally to some extent. Role playing games—traditional pen-and paper, computer, and online—rely on the one-to-one identification between the player and the character played for their power and effect. We identify with the character; much of the impetus for playing RPGs stems from the desire to develop the character. RPGs, particularly online and pen-and-paper, tend not to have “winning” conditions, the character’s evolution being the paramount reason for playing at all. At some point, we transition from “Helvetica the Mage died!” to “I died!”

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Game Preview: Birds of Prey

You know, some mornings, you just wake up and say, “Gee, the world needs another jet era air combat game that fits somewhere on the difficulty scale between Air Superiority and Speed of Heat.”

If that was you this morning, then you’re in luck:

Birds of Prey playtest set, taken from

Birds of Prey (Ad Astra Games), which just entered its pre-order stage, is a tactical air combat game focusing on jet dogfights, notable for its use of pitch and altitude markers under “box minis” that actually tilt the plane in its proper attitude—sort of a counter-miniature hybrid game.

Sadly, there’s not much information available on the Birds of Prey website beyond some basic marketing text. Not enough, at least, to justify a pre-order from me as yet—particularly given the strange self-e-mailing PDF pre-order system they’re using that is incompatible with the default Mac OS .pdf reader—but I’m hopeful that they’ll get a proper site with more details online soon.

In particular, I wonder about the “box minis”—will the registration on the die cuts be tight enough, and the construction simple enough, to produce aesthetically pleasing results? The “box minis” look pretty good in the playtest image above, but what about average results? I’m not renowned for my arts and crafts acumen. Board wargamers want to punch and play (or at the very most, punch, trim, and play). Don’t make us glue and fold stuff.

Worth following, though, and they’re shooting for a Summer release at Origins.

Update (March 14, 2008): Phil Markgraf has been in touch with me regarding the pre-order difficulties noted above. He’s put information on how to pre-order via e-mail on the Birds of Prey website. [Link outdated as of 2023, somewhat understandably.]

Movement Points: Standard Combat System

How one moves a unit in a wargame is, to my thinking, integral to how that game plays and, perhaps more importantly, how to understand the game. Game designers give us clues about the best use of units and potential strategies via the movement rules.

Movement allows you to bring your units to (or away from) combat in a manner of your own choosing. You can maneuver to assault the weakest point of your opponent’s line, make spoiling attacks to prevent his or her strongest units from operating at peak efficiency, or waste your forces in ill-advised sallies against well-fortified positions. Conversely, movement allows you to withdraw to better terrain, cut off enemy supply, and occupy vital territory, furthering your aims without attacking.

Combat is only part of a wargame. One of the hobby’s most venerable publications is called Fire & Movement, after all. Without movement, you’re simply rolling dice to see who wins. At that rate, just play Yahtzee.

One of the most succinct expressions of “how to move” can be found in the Standard Combat System (.pdf) (Multi-Man Publishing/The Gamers).

The SCS movement rules are a distillation of years of “best wargaming practice”—someone who has only played Avalon Hill or SPI games from the 1960’s or 1970’s wouldn’t have much trouble picking up an SCS game.

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Roast Pork Perfection

The Holy Trinity, if you will, of Philadelphia food: the cheesesteak, the soft pretzel, and any incarnation of the TastyKake.

But—blasphemy!—I hereby disavow the cheesesteak, for I have tasted of the roast pork sandwich, dripping with pan juices and sauteed greenery.

Roast Pork Sandwich

This salty wonder has long been available, but it failed to appear on my mental menu of Philadelphia foods before I came across a lackluster mention of the sandwich on Frank Bruni’s New York Times food blog:

And the roast pork sandwich, on a round and soggy roll, was disappointing through and through. The meat had so little taste it could have been mistaken for turkey.

Not an auspicious review, but the entry piqued my interest. Where had this sandwich, apparently a Philadelphia classic, been all my life?

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Doctor Who Project: 100,000 BC/An Unearthly Child

It’s still a police box! Why hasn’t it changed? Dear, dear, how very disturbing!

Having voraciously devoured the first three seasons of the new Doctor Who series, and with the fourth season still to come this spring on the BBC, I’ve decided to set my own time machine back to the beginning of all things Whovian and start watching the series from the start in November, 1963. Well, I’m not literally going back to 1963, but you never know when you hang out with the Doctor.

We begin with William Hartnell and the first story of Doctor Who, “100,000 BC.”

Shadow approaching the TARDIS at end of Episode 1, An Unearthly Child

I’ve seen the majority of Doctor Who stories, having lucked into the beginning of the cycle on Maryland Public Television in the mid-1990’s, so for most stories, I’ll be re-watching them, looking at them with a knowledge of what is to come in the series. My boon companion for this perhaps overly-grand project will be David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker’s Doctor Who: The Television Companion, an exhaustive story guide with critical commentary from the authors and from various Doctor Who fanzines.

“100,000 BC” (Story Production Code A, also known as “An Unearthly Child” owing to the first episode of the story) kicks off the central conceit of the series, The Doctor and his companion(s) arriving at an unknown destination.

This time, the First Doctor (though the notion of his regenerative powers were still a few seasons in the future), his granddaughter (!) Susan, and her teachers, Ian and Barbara, hurtle through time and possibly space to a prehistoric setting. A petulant Doctor wishes to teach Ian and Barbara a lesson in humility, because they had the audacity to suggest he couldn’t travel in time. The Doctor has no clue where or when they are, since the TARDIS is busted, and he needs to take a Geiger counter along to calibrate his time sensor as they hop out of the TARDIS into a studio set covered in sand. And then…

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Idiot Rules: The Mighty Endeavor

The tactical situation is dire and the course of action clear—pull back your forces to defensible terrain, shortening your supply lines and providing mutual support for your thinly-stretched units. But you can’t, because there’s an idiot rule in your way.

Wargames use idiot rules to prevent players from taking actions that are otherwise tactically sound and allowed in the rules, justifying the restrictions for historical reasons or to provide some form of play balance. After all, unless forced by the rules, very few sane gamers would throw division after division into Stalingrad or try to hold all of France in the face of a massive Allied invasion. Idiot rules attempt to enforce dictates from above the gamer’s pay grade.

Idiot rules can be subtle, offering rewards for following a particular course of action; games that use Victory Points as a means of determining the outcome of a game, for instance, can allocate a certain number of VP for control of locations that would otherwise be abandoned posthaste. Idiot rules can also be explicit, making certain sections of the map simply off-limits until a certain game turn or until certain criteria have been met.

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