Dispelling Myth about Dictation / Speech Recognition

When I first started writing this I had just finished listening to episode 156 of The Bestseller Experiment; as a patron supporter I get early access to episodes, as well as being a member of the wonderful BXP Team. The marvellous episode focused on interviewing the author Julian Barr about his new book The Way Home. Julian is also a long time listener and member of the BXP Team. I highly recommend Julian’s book, a gripping tale that was well paced, characters with connections and motivations. His book has also now earned an Amazon bestseller tag! I’m very much looking forward to the next book in the series.

Important paranoid associated thought: like many writers I feel like a fraud that just needs to write more and thus I feel awkward about asking for advice, after all I’ve already answered my own request for advice “Write more!” Anyway, later in the episode the two Marks discuss writing using Speech Recognition (SR) and gave a call-to-action regarding listeners experiences with writing via dictation. I was surprised to find that I felt empowered and not a fraud, since this is a topic I know quite well.

As someone with long-term chronic Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) in both of my wrists I have a lot of experience with speech recognition, going back nearly twenty years to the horrendous days of massively inaccurate software; the frustration and stress of trying to use the software often made me feel even worse! Fortunately the various programs have improved so dramatically in the last ten years that I find dictating to be dramatically faster, easier and shockingly more efficient. The vast improvements have come about because of the following factors:

  1. Understanding of what is involved in analysing language (technical).
  2. Improved code efficiency (technical).
  3. Substantially increased computer processing power (brute force).

This also means that modern speech recognition is better are recognising accent and voice differences. With training, software should adapt to work near perfect for most users; I appreciate that is quite a bold claim.

As someone that used to be able to maintain a decent enough typing speed of between 70 to 80 words per minute (WPM), having that ability taken away from me was devastating; I was unable to work or partake of most of my hobbies. Having struggled through the horrid early years of dictation I can appreciate why people are loathe to give speech recognition a try, however just about every problem has gone away these days.

In general many people are not up to date with the latest information when it comes to cutting-edge technology; after all there is so much to do/learn. This is in part because the various non-specialist media outlets are often years behind when reporting non sensational things, there is so much to talk about and typically they repeat the same core points. In this ever-accelerating technologically era I suspect anyone that has not used modern speech recognition has heard opinions that are about software from 10+ years ago. My title was not an attempt at clickbait, when I discuss or read things about speech recognition there is an understandable fixation on accuracy, but with modern software claiming accuracy of 90%+ for most people with little to no training, and 95%+ with some training, I wonder why accuracy is still considered a barrier to entry. It seems like my system is 99% accurate, but I appreciate it has been used a lot over many years. My point is that typically most people will type errors anyway, even with grammar and spell checkers mistakes slip through. Even for those that manage a rare 100% accuracy the first time they type something the result should still be double-checked. Mistakes are still made, accuracy is a concern whether typing or spoken, so why not do the vast majority of the work via speech?

When I was working in adult social services I had severe RSI flare-up, in fact my worst ever that caused a domino of problems. When I returned to work for a while I was able to cope due to using speech recognition, despite being in a large busy office. I was surprised at how accurate it was even with all the background conversations. Additionally instead of using a mouse to navigate the screen I found using commands to finally be efficient. How things had changed!

During long bouts of sleep deprivation I can somewhat rest my eyes whilst dictating. Thankfully I rarely get headaches, but dictation has also proved helpful when I have; I find it’s better to do something than nothing, since I’ll be suffering either way.

I’d like to highlight that a hybrid approach can be used. Especially if you can still type and you want to, then do so. Can be quite easy with today’s smartphones maybe you can use speech recognition whilst away from your normal work area. For the following reasons I’d recommend at least experimenting.

Speech Recognition Pros & Cons

Pro 1: Health

When dictating we don’t need to be sat down or stood still, we are not tied to a keyboard. Since we can move about I often do so. Over the years I have done all manner of things whilst dictating: physiotherapy, light exercise/stretching, to things like cleaning or ironing, etc. When I am having a particularly painful wrist episode my arms, shoulder and back all become problematic, resulting in difficulties sitting or standing for any length of time, so on a particularly bad days I’ve even dictated whilst resting in bed.

Con 1: Training Time Investment

Like any new skill there can be a learning curve, which can vary dramatically from person to person. Although these days even without any training on a modern device and software, dictation can start out at 90%+ accuracy.

I appreciate that getting out of comfort zones and allocating time to learn something, can be challenging. Saying embrace the challenge is all well and good, but people and their situations can vary wildly. It is sensible to decide during an epically busy time that doing something new is too much of a risk, but because life is strange maybe the change will quickly be beneficial, even in regards to time, which links to Pro 2 …

Pro 2: Speed

Personally, I think the health reason is reason enough but just in case here is another reason. Just because a person is good at typing does not mean they should stick with that method, since dictating can allow them to be faster. I often find it easy to dictate over a 100WPM, sometimes as high as 150WPM; granted a few typists with specialist keyboards can beat that, but for the vast majority of people dictation is twice as fast typing.

Following on from Con 1, it is worth learning the extra functions like how to navigate via dictation, as well as the various advanced commands. Going from quick dictation to struggling to carry out navigation commands can make you feel like a writing session was ruined; writers typically have enough reasons to procrastinate without imagining new ones 😉

Speed is a major factor for writing events like #NaNoWriMo, thus the speed advantage of dictation can really pay off.

Con 2: Initial Costs

Not everyone has a computer (desktop/laptop/tablet) or smartphone (I’m only differentiating because so many people typically do, as it is really just a computer with a phone function). Free speech recognition exists but I do find Dragon NaturallySpeaking to be better overall, but it isn’t cheap.

Then there is the topic of what microphone to use. Whilst you can use a laptop’s built in microphone it is better to have a decent microphone, although I’ve found that a £25 microphone works just as well as my more expensive Yeti, so you don’t have to buy crazy equipment.

Other extras: I’ve also invested in a microphone stand, pop-filter, USB cable extension and a high quality wireless headset. The extension and wireless the reason I can exercise or tidy my room whilst dictating.

One of the problems I found using my fantastic quality Yeti microphone was there were a few delays/problems with the software, but this was because I had leaned back in my chair and thus wasn’t close enough to the microphone. So before you rush off to buy an expensive microphone consider how your setup can be altered to get improvements.

Pro 3: Speaking is Natural + Rhythm of Speaking

Based off this subtitle you can see why Nuance called their software NaturallySpeaking 😉 Particularly when dictating dialogue I find I can write a better scene; I think this down to being able to somewhat act the scene out, I feel more in character as I switch back and forth between character perspectives. I’ve even experimented with literally acting a scene out, although that led to some comedy moments of frantically changing my position to be the correct character, like a stand-up performance.

Sometimes we can spend a lot of time thinking about a subject only to find that when we speak we change what we had intended to say. There is something about speaking out loud; maybe it is because we engage more of a body, thus more of our brain. I also think this is probably a knock-on effect of evolution in regards to us being such a social species, we need to be careful of what we say to others.

One of the best tips for writers is: “Read your writing out loud.” Dictating can be a big help, you get used to speaking out loud, thus when it comes time to edit your work you are more likely to give it a try. This also links to one of the key tips from Bestseller Experiment, “Make a public declaration.”

There is another advantage to dictating. If you think of a sentence and then struggle to dictate it, then that is a sign there is a problem. Typically you’ll easily find a rhythm, indicating were commas and full stops best fit; granted you have to say “comma”, but I think that is no different to having to press the comma key. Maybe somebody who struggles with grammar could benefit from dictation?

Con 3: Editing

As I mentioned above I think this is a con that gets too much attention, since work should be double-checked anyway. Still it can be particularly irksome during the training period, when correcting (editing) as you go is highly recommended. I think a valid point about the accuracy aspect is that they are typically errors that we are aware of, unlike when most people type and things slip through.

Crucially this is a problem that fades over time, I rarely need to correct things. Since I write fantasy fiction and role-playing games I also have lots of additions for my fantasy proper nouns, my system mostly recognises these new words after the initial correction or two. Just like with typing it is more important to get something written first, then you have something to edit.

Pro 4: Flow

Due to the pain from my disability, I lost my ability to enter a flow state whilst writing/typing. It was 2009 when this this feeling briefly appeared during dictation. My comfort level with dictating slowly grow over the years, by 2009 I found talking to my computer to be more than only comfortable but also empowering.

Con 4: Habits

Initially when first learning to use speech recognition a user can feel they are wasting their time. Why bother stressing yourself out, fighting your habits? I’ve separated this point from Con 1: Training, because I think habits/traditions are such a powerful part of our psychology.

Habits are typically difficult to break; various people can react differently to the same thing. Decades ago I had the regular association of being denied the use of my wrists to type a decent work session, the threat of pain from typing as well as sitting too long, plus stress and sleep deprivation. Since back then speech recognition was lacking, I quickly developed justifications about putting things off. In the light of pain-paranoia and frustration it became easy to justify thoughts like “I need to minimise computer usage even using dictation, so I need to work out as much as possible upfront.” Once I developed this habit I found it hard to break it, even as the ability of speech recognition improved.

Pro 5: Focus

I find I do not get distracted as much when I am dictating. Maybe because I am typically away from my desk, so I cannot easily check emails or browse. It can seem like our hands have a mind of their own when within a split second of thinking about a website we’ve switched to that. This is why so many writers use blocking software that restricts their access to the Internet. Following on from Pro 3, I find that if I do start giving my computer commands to browse non-important things I quickly stop myself.

Con 5: Stream of Consciousness

Dictating does not dictate quality. The fact we can dictate more WPM means we can also have more to edit. This is a minor Con, yes I’m being nit-picky, but over the years I have dictated a lot of garbage. I think I have solved this by writing more, showing others my work, learning more about writing; not just practice, but learning to carry out skilled practice. If you feel that when you start dictating you are writing garbage, don’t worry I think you’ll quickly adapt.

Bonus Pro: Moving is Thinking

Linking back to Pro 3: Speaking is Natural, there is something about moving and thinking, dictation means you don’t have to be sat still at a keyboard. When we move we are activating different brain regions, plus getting the blood flowing, etc. Physical intelligence is one of the many types of intelligence being researched, plus whilst kinaesthetic leaners are typically separated from other learning types, the majority of people can learn in all manners of ways including kinaesthetic. Quick interesting point, animals have a more developed brain than plants because they need to navigate; the sea squirt is a fascinating creature that once it finds a permanent spot for its next stage of life eats its own brain. It is also worth looking into the tools of memory specialists and how they utilise virtual spaces to associate memories for better recall.

Some speech recognition software allows for the transcribing of previously recorded speech. You can even transcribe a recording of another person, although I’ve never done this and I am not sure of the efficiency of the process.

I’ll be making a video version of the blog in the New Year, but before I finish here are so extra points. Dictating role-playing mechanics is not a big deal, I’ve even used speech recognition to dictate computer code years ago; I am contemplating giving it another go with the vastly improved software and machine power of today.

Whether walking outside or in bed trying to sleep (chronic pain is hell), I’ve dictated notes via my smartphone’s built in software. Granted it is not as powerful as Dragon, but it is easy to do and I don’t have to get out of bed. I’ve also made use of a Dictaphone with a headset whilst walking, that I’ve later dictated at home, this counted as a first draft. Dragon Anywhere allows for dictating on the go, but I cannot afford it and I am rarely out and I have Dragon 15.

In conclusion if you are still not sure if speech recognition is for you, I highly recommend giving it a go, at least go hybrid, mix things up. The future is already happening!

Links

I’ve written about The Bestseller Experiment before.

The Bestseller Experiment Podcast

Julian Barr

NaNoWriMo

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Positivity & Quality, the Mikey Neumann Way

For me this week has been marvellous, two projects that I’ve been anticipating for a while were released, and both delivered. The first was by Max Landis which I wrote about in The Passion of Landis, the second is Mikey Neumann’s video on John Wick 2. I appreciate this somewhat abandons my normal anti-hype stance, but there are both in that rare category of constantly delivering.

After I watched Mikey’s video on John Wick 2, I know I wanted to write something about Mikey and why I think his work and positivity is of such a high quality. I was introduced to the amazing Movies with Mikey via this statement:

 “Mikey is a wonderful human being, so it kind of adds up that he would make one of the most celebratory film review shows on the Internet.”

Extra Credits. 22 Dec 2016.

After such a good recommendation I checked out Movies with Mikey, which is on the Chainsawsuit Original channel, and I was not disappointed. I believe that Mikey Neumann wonderfully highlights the many things that can make a film great, even if the film has some substantial flaws.

For example: the film Sunshine received a lot of criticism, and Mikey doesn’t ignore how the second half was a problem for some viewers. Crucially Mikey also talks about the film’s incredible music (it truly is!), the cinematography, the gravitas of the plot, the human drama. Even though I have seen the film and thought it was a good but flawed, after watching Mikey’s video I now have a much better appreciation for Sunshine.

When I discover a new YouTube channel that impresses me I prefer to go to the channel’s beginning and watch everything. I appreciate that normally earlier videos tend to lack the production quality, but even his old videos like Ninja Turtles have the quality and voice of his later work.

One of the fun things that Mikey does with his videos is quirky segues. Granted there is nothing too unusual with that …

But Did You Know? Previously Mikey Neumann was an actor and writer for the games Brothers in Arms and Borderlands.

Mikey’s video on The Force Awakens is a great example of digging into a film that many people have intense opinions about. I loved the Star Wars setting as a kid, as well as the numerous games (computer, tabletop role-playing, etc.) I still like the setting now, but I am somewhat guilty of being sick of the hype Star Wars gets, in particular by those that claim it is on the only thing; these days I restrain myself at least. Personally I thought the film was okay, there are bits in it that I found annoying and things that I enjoyed, nothing special there. After watching Mikey’s video I found myself reassessing the film, and I came away from the summary with some extra appreciation for The Force Awakens.

I had a similar experience with Mikey’s overview of Interstellar, a film which I had really enjoyed, albeit with a few niggles. Mikey presented a wonderful rationale about the power of love and how it relates to events in the plot, which cut through my complaints. Whilst I consider myself open to persuasion, like most people it takes a lot to persuade me, and that’s a power that Mikey has.

Now when I see a film, I have the added pleasure of looking forward to the hope that Mikey Neumann will make an overview of it. I am intrigued as to what Mikey will say about it, what redeeming things will he highlight?

I adored the film Arrival, and Mikey’s analysis was a second helping of film love. Mikey’s overview of John Wick helped me overcome a creative barrier with a role-playing game that I have been working on; I will blog about this after playtesting the ideas some more. Thus I was heavily invested in Mikey’s analysis of John Wick 2.

It’s Going Down For Real!

And here’s the thing, I think appropriate positivity is important, as is being fair, but these concepts are so vague that we all have different opinions about them. So I think it’s valuable highlighting that some of the fun and quirky things he puts in his videos might be off-putting to a few, and like all good art there are differences of opinion. Give one of his videos a full viewing, I think for the majority of people that time will be well spent. Mikey’s introduction to John Wick 2 is a case in point, I wasn’t a fan, yet I was pretty much smiling the entire time. Oddly I was in no rush to get to the detailed analysis that I had been looking forward to for months, I simply enjoyed the moment, his creativity and fun. I later decided to look at the comments section, and I was amused by a few people being negative about Mikey’s rapping. Certainly any regular viewers should appreciate his style, and stay positive themselves. I found the rest of the video to be amazing, with some very interesting points made.

But did u knnnooow?

Mikey has Multiple sclerosis (MS), and his ongoing battle with health is quite the tale. This is part of the reason I felt compelled to write about someone I only know through their art. Some time ago I wrote a blog about Wallowing in Positivity, and given my own ongoing health problems I can somewhat appreciate Mikey’s much more severe condition. Managing any work whilst ill is impressive, never mind high quality work; this is not about implying perfection, I am sure Mikey has many varying emotional responses to things. I originally wrote a lot about how being ill typically makes everything not just physically by psychologically more difficult, partly because I’ve met people who dismiss this as untrue. My point is better served by stating that I think it’s inspiring that Mikey is able to radiate such positivity; to read more about Mikey’s health check out “The Road to Here…”

Like most people I have a bunch of things that I criticise, and whilst I always strive to be constructive, I can often feel like I’ve been too negative when discussing something. My own bed rest provided me a lot of thinking time, this led me to re-examine how sometimes it is more constructive to be positive, to focus on the good, instead of starting from a negative point. In a world filled with critics offering typically negative heavy analysis, it is great to have people like Mikey offering something different. Discovering Mikey’s work has brought great joy to my life, and emphasised a life style approach that I aspire to embrace more myself. Check out more of his work at http://chainsawsuit.com/

Review Code & Dagger

Recently I reviewed Cryptomancer, and I’d recommend reading that first if you are not familiar with this great game.

This supplement adds a lot more detail to the world of Cryptomancer, as well as providing more great add-ons for use with other settings. I have had several ideas for ways to add Cryptomancy to D&D or Warhammer games, as well as the steamjack heavy setting of Iron Kingdoms. Code & Dagger is free to anyone that has purchased Cryptomancer, what a bargain!

I think the front cover nicely encapsulates the title: Code & Dagger.  Sadly there is no extra artwork inside, but this is free book so that is understandable. The layout used in this supplement continues the approach used in the main Cryptomancer sourcebook; I am sure any programmer will appreciate this consistency.

Crypto-gear Prosthesis

The rules for crypto-gear provide an interesting way of adding cybernetics to any fantasy game. Of course this being Cryptomancer means the idea doesn’t end there, the implications of hacking crypto-gear are presented. In real life the issue of biotech and security is a big one, so the inclusion of these ideas into Cryptomancer is brilliant.

This addition also further emphasises Cryptomancer’s cyberpunk theme for me. Not simply because a virtual network and metal arms are common tropes in the cyberpunk genre, but also because the explanation of crypto-gear highlights their rarity. This means it is likely that the player characters (PC) are going to be indebted to a powerful organisation, which gives them literal power over a PC’s body, a situation that has been the root idea of many cyberpunk stories.

The inclusion of a crypto-gear summary table is a great help regarding rules and description. Shopping lists are typically fan favourites.

Hacks and Exploits

This section provides more detailed information about implications of Cryptomancy, such as Proof of Life which further explores the issue of what happens to echoes on the Shardscape that had been encrypted using a true name. The section goes on to introduce other fun things: Goblin Switches, Message Drones and Mail Bombs, Shadow Terror, Credit Shards and the EchoChain Ledger, Teller Gears, and Cryptovault Hardening. The section also includes three new spells: Kill Arc, Kill Zone, and Shard Balm. I found all of these ideas to be useful, expanding the setting and providing adventure seeds.

Cryptomancer Shards

Threat Intel

There are two new tough threats introduced in this section: Vampires and Juggernauts.

Given how many different versions of vampires there are across the multitude of myths, the word Vampire is not exactly informative. This type is a bit similar to Nosferatu, but it has the wonderful ability to steal a victim’s soul key. This intriguing power means that a victim will effectively have had their identity stolen. This will not only lead to great in game drama, but also ties in with Cryptomancer’s aim of teaching cyber security to the players. The means of tracking a vampire is also given a real life emphasis, being more like hunting a cybercriminal, thus in game auditing of bank accounts and EchoChain transactions are likely the best approach.

Juggernauts are enormous orcs who have been enhanced with crypto-gear, making them more like a cyberpsycho, Ork Warboss (40K), or even a Terminator. With such a dangerous opponent, direct fighting is generally too big a risk, but this game provides interesting ways to tackle such a creature.

Endgame

A few reviews highlighted how the player was not keen on the idea of the Risk Eaters being unassailable and inevitable. The section introduces factions, so the party are not alone in their fight. Whilst the mechanics of gaining risk have not been altered, this social change has massive ramifications in regards to survival, and maybe even victory. I’m not going to summarise any of the factions listed, in case a player is reading this, so they can discover the information in game. Given the multitude of fictional or real life examples of politics, spies, and secret organisations, there is nothing stopping a games master from further complicating the conspiratorial web.

Given that this supplement included the potential for vast networks ruled by vampires, I started envisioning networks on the scale of Vampire: The Masquerade, with regards to the Camarilla, the Sabbat competing with each other, whilst the Inconnu and Tal’Mahe’Ra (True Black Hand) remain in the shadows.

It Still Comes

The supplement ends with a short story. I’ll not spoil it, but summarise that the tale foreshadows the coming of a titanic enemy, with possible genocidal plans!

Summary

I highly recommend checking out this supplement, as it’s a collection of great ideas that are well presented and include ideas on how to utilise them; I’d have happily paid money for it. To quote the end of my Cryptomancer review:

Additionally there is a free expansion book: Code & Dagger, and with Code & Dagger Vol. 2 on the way, this game’s value keeps increasing.

Code & Dagger Volume 2 is set for release August 2017. I’ll hopefully review Vol 2. in a few weeks.

Cryptomancer – RPG Review

Do RPG mechanics sometimes get in the way of game flow, or even box-in peoples’ creativity? I’ve come across this line of questions on many occasions. The typical debate comes down to agreeing that rules abstraction is required, which I don’t fully agree with. Just look at how most games leave character psychology to the players with no rules needed to track character mood or stress. For example, I am not a fan of the cyberspace/hacking design used in many RPGs. I’ve been working on a game for years in which I am using computer language structure as a part of my vast magic system, so I decided to do a search on RPG + hacking, to see if anyone had recently made some interesting mechanics. I was pleased to quickly find something new: Cryptomancer.

“A tabletop role-playing game made for hackers, by hackers.”

After a few minutes of reading about Cryptomancer I genuinely paused to absorb what I considered to be a genius approach to handling hacking in an RPG; to focus on the reality of hacking, not to reduce the idea down to a few simple dice rolls, or worse. Within moments I had a multitude of ideas racing through my mind, plus the bonus that old designs were being influenced.

I quickly contacted various friends to discuss the game, and to find out whether they knew anything else about it. Whilst waiting for replies I read a review, checked out some Reddit posts, and then decided to buy the PDF.

The PDF is a whopping 430 detailed filled pages, so it is very great value at $10. The layout fits the theme of the game, as does the artwork, which I think helps to drive the theme home by keeping drawings stark, and utilises grey-scale to help with the mood. The same art style is used throughout, helping with the book’s consistency.

I love the front cover, besides it being beautiful, it really helps to highlight one of the special things about this game: Shards. Shards allow a user to connect to other shards that originate from the same original larger shard, this collection forms a Shardnet:

“a private network where each mortal holding one of these shards can communicate with each other silently and instantly, regardless of the distance between them.”

There is also a vast network called the Shardscape, which is akin to the Internet. I think these concepts are well explained, and are novice friendly. All throughout the book more details are continuously added, allowing a reader to build-up layers of understanding about how the Shards influence everything, from a few individuals interacting to the international scale.

Cryptomancer Shards

The game does not use an encryption skill, or a Shard skill. Some people may be concerned that this would affect game flow, or be too confusing for new players, but the book introduces the shard concepts carefully, with some great examples about different types of encryption. I think this is a wonderful example of proving that RPG mechanics are not always needed. Just present ideas for players and let them explore them.

System & Setting

These days there are so many different RPG systems and settings that I’d be quite surprised if a game could be called unique, but I do believe that there are still ways to stand out, and niches to explore. Cryptomancer’s focus on data security, encryption, social engineering, along with some different spells and items, brings this game close to being called unique. Interestingly the game setting is introduced as Tolkienesque:

“Cryptomancer takes place in a fantasy setting very similar to most fantasy settings you are accustomed to. This was by design. We kept things simple so gamers both seasoned and new can jump right in and start hacking things. We have made some subtle tweaks to fantasy norms, based on what we think fantasy races would look like in a connected fantasy world.”

I think this was a good design decision. For people that don’t play RPGs, they are likely to have heard of Tolkien’s work, and maybe even Dungeons & Dragons. Given how much new information the game presents, reducing the products overall learning curve makes sense. I think this decision also adds another benefit, allowing experienced gamers to understand how this approach to hacking fits in settings they are familiar with. The setting is not a direct copy of Middle Earth or the Forgotten Realms, and the differences are due to the shift in the Elf, Dwarf, and Human cultures in response to Shards and the magic of Cryptomancy. Thus there is something new, even if the foundation is familiar.

“Kill all the Orcs, Hack all the Things”

I adore R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk RPG, despite the brutal skill system. The cyberpunk genre in general has dominated a big chunk of my life. I also like Shadowrun; I’m not one of those people that cannot like both. Some of the games of Mage: the Ascension I’ve ran have had the player characters (PCs) being members of the Technocracy, including some fun sessions of just playing Hit Marks. I was asked by one player whether Cryptomancer’s Internet-like Shardscape is just the Matrix/Cyberspace with a twist? I explained that both in setting, but crucially mechanically, Cryptomancer is doing things quite differently, that it is about the players learning how to exploit systems, and how to protect their own. So although Shadowrun already exists, with its fantasy races and cyberpunk themes, that Cryptomancer’s differences translate to changing how a player approaches the game, as well as them possibly learning something new.

The book highlights the idea of adding the Shards and Cryptomancy to other settings, which is the main reason I was interested in the book. I did read the setting information, because I felt it would help my understanding of the ramifications of Shards and Cryptomancy, and from this I could determine how best to implement the ideas in to my own setting. I also liked what I read of the setting, and I am planning on running some sessions in the game’s setting.

Cryptomancer Golem

Risk & Mechanics

The game is focused on the PCs being on the run from the settings main adversaries, the Risk Eaters. These powerful mages monitor the world using Dwarven decisions engines to predict dangers to the world, and in particular to the social systems in place, so they can dispatch agents to deal with problems before they get out of hand. The party has a Risk rating, which goes up as the party do things that affect the world, especially if the PCs are not careful in covering their tracks. Whilst the Risk Eaters are an inevitable enemy, with a combination of luck and care a party could keep the threat at bay for a long-time.

At this point I think I should mention the system mechanics, I’m only introducing skill checks since they tie in to the Risk rating, a percentage score. In Cryptomancer any skill check always uses a pool of 5 dice. When a character makes a skill check, their skill rating is used as the basis of the dice pool, adding a d10 for each skill point. If they have less than 5, then they add the remaining dice with d6s to take the dice pool to 5; the d6s are known as Fate Dice.

For example: a character making an Acrobatics check has an Agility of 5, then they roll 5d10, but if their Agility was 3, then roll would be 3d10+2d6.

For a trivial action the target on the dice is 4+, for challenging a 6+ and a tough check is an 8+. Add up each dice that successfully hits the target, but deduct a success for any botch. A botch on a d10 is a roll of 1, and on a d6 (fate dice) any roll of a 1 or a 2; fate is dangerous to rely upon!

For example: continuing on from the Agility of 3 with a challenging target of 6, the player rolls 3d10+2d6. For this example the dice result is d10(6, 1, 3) + d6(2, 6), meaning d10(successes of 1, -1, 0) + d6(-1, 1) for a total of 0 successes.

With 1 success an action is successful, whilst 3 successes means it is a dramatic success. Likewise if the pool total is -1 then it is a clear failure, whilst -2 means a dramatic failure. A player can choose to Defy Fate, which will raise the party’s Risk rating by 1 for each botch removed from a dice result, so a buying off a result of -2 will raise the Risk rating by 2. I particularly like this part of the system, and how it all fits together. I think it does several interconnected things:

  1. Keeps things simple, which is particularly good for inexperienced players
  2. I’ve met many veteran gamers who dislike having large dice pools.
  3. It results in an interesting bell curve. I am not keen on systems that have no bell curve due to rolling a single dice, ‘they have unnatural fate’. I’ll expand on this semi-joke, but important point, another time 😉 I do play and enjoy D20, Cyberpunk, etc., it’s just I prefer using several dice since they give reliable averages.
  4. Players have a choice, often they are about deciding between short-term vs long-term issues. There are other games that use fate systems like Warhammer, or Deadlands chit system, etc. This system’s Fate linked to Risk is like a Doomsday Clock.
  5. The mechanics help to keep the game’s theme, the gravitas of long-term risk to the party, which just builds, and builds. Our world has become increasingly obsessed with risk over the last few decades, now more than ever, people strive to manage risk, which is an understandable thing, but when obsessed over …

Hacking systems is a common part of RPGs, so there is nothing stopping a group from tweaking the Risk Eaters from being a bit like Cthulhu crossed with 1984, to a lesser threat. Be careful to avoid turning the Risk Eaters from a Cthulhu like threat to something more akin to Hello Kitty.

Downtime

I love a good Downtime system. As a Play-By-Mail fan, I typically see downtime as something major, and equal to everything else in a tabletop game. Downtime is a great chance for strategising, as well as a good place to highlight whether the PCs have things to discuss; I’ve had downtime lead to whole sessions of PCs discussing things that have been bugging them, and working out major plot points. Downtime can be thought of as a break in the weather, the calm before the next storm. There are plenty of things in the Cryptomancer Downtime system to think about, and for people like me that love this this often ignored part of role-playing, I am sure you will enjoy the options, and maybe you’ll hack your own.

Cryptomancer Downtime

Writing & Design

Overall I really like the writing style. I think it does a wonderful job of introducing concepts and overall the book has clear explanations. As there is so much being covered, not just the classic tabletop RPG aspects, but also encryption/security explanations, the book could be accused of being a bit much for some. I think it is fair to say that the book is not perfect (what is?), so I don’t want to give the impression I think Cryptomancy is the exception. I think a valid criticism could be a lack of rules being repeated, or some more rules summaries, and maybe more things could be in the index. I suspect this was an intentional decision mostly down to the issue of preventing an already large book becoming even bigger.

Many design reasons are explained, which I appreciate, and I think this also helps with explaining a topic, by providing extra context. I don’t believe that these design explanations were defensive in nature, or so numerous that they distract from the game explanation, so I am sure most readers will appreciate their inclusion.

Sheets

Whilst reading comments on the game I was intrigued that the character sheet had been highlighted as being something that was a bit different, complex even. For me, the character sheet is well designed, having a distinctive attribute & skill section, it also has sections for core character points of interest and utilises white space well.

Cryptomancer also has a system for Safehouses, a good place for the party to carry out downtime. Safehouses have their own sheets to help keep track of things, and given the likely lifestyle of the PCs, it is a rare place of safety for them, and something else for them to care about. The sheet is quite detailed, but has been laid out well, utilising space and boxes well to help differentiate information.

Summary

I think the game succeeds in its goal of spreading understanding of encryption and cybersecurity to the RPG community, and maybe vice versa. Whether a player is new or an experienced role-player, there is definitely something in this game for everyone; that is a rare thing, and thus Cryptomancer is something I highly recommend. Additionally there is a free expansion book: Code & Dagger, and with Code & Dagger vol. 2 on the way, this game’s value keeps increasing.

http://cryptorpg.com/

You can buy the game at http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/186678/Cryptomancer

Review The Amiga Years

I previously wrote a blog about my review on NoobGrind for From Bedroom to Billions, I would recommend checking that out before reading my new review. Although I suppose you can watch them in either order, but the first documentary does provide an overview of the Amiga, and its place in the overall history of computing.

The Amiga Years, what a great documentary, well I guess that spoils my opinion, but I have written a lot more than this. Before watching the film I decided that I would delay writing a review, this way I would have time to reflect on the documentary; I didn’t want to come across as fanatical. Whilst I expected to be rewarded with another great product, I know it is not uncommon to be disappointed when armed with such passionate expectations. Thankfully I was not disappointed.

My own experiences with the Amiga are mostly focussed around the Amiga 500, although I have had a lot of access to other models. It was also great that by the end of the 80s more people I knew had also started getting access to home computers. My high school days were filled with all sorts of chats and a chance to play games at other peoples’ houses.

By the start of the 90s my dad was running a computer shop. This gave my more exposure to all aspects of computing, but particularly more games. The Amiga packs were a big part of the culture then, and it was a shame when the Amiga sales started getting increasing replaced by the IBM compatible PC machines. The capabilities of the PCs at the time still seemed terrible when compared to the range of Amigas, especially considering how cheap the Amiga 500 had become.

By the time I ran the shop in the mid-90s the Amiga was no longer selling, but thankfully the PC finally seemed to have caught up. It’s odd to recall what a difference there was in specifications and cost.

Given the tribal nature of our species it is no surprise that we form clans around a particular brand. I have been accused of being a PC fanatic, having had the luxury of access to them via our family’s computer business, but the reality is, as I mentioned in the last blog, I have had a lot of different computer brands. Although I’ve had a PC since 1995, if I had to pick a brand to be fanatic about it would be Commodore, and if I had to pick one machine in some sort of deathmatch, were era, cost and capability were weighted correctly, then I would pick the Amiga 500!

Please check out my new NoobGrind review The Amiga Years.