Monday, May 14, 2012

Paizo Pathfinder Lite PDFs

Paizo has regularly released inexpensive PDFs of the Pathfinder rule books as a convenient addition to their hardcopy versions. Of the various major game companies, Paizo has my favorite pricing policy on PDFs. They're cheap. Which makes it a lot easier to do what I like, which is have both the hard copy and the PDF. (Even better is the practice of some smaller publishers, like Jon Brazer Enterprises, where you get both hardcopy and PDF in one package deal!)

Pathfinder, the Vorpal d20 Rulebook

The PDFs for the Pathfinder books from Paizo had a problem that limited their utility, though. They have multiple layers with lots of vector art. This is great for getting the best image on any display or from any printer. It's a huge load of computation, though, if you just want to read the rule book on an e-reader or a laptop.

I originally bought the PDF of the Core Rulebook to be able to cut and paste items into my own adventures--little reminders for rules that I may not use often that would crop up, and other such things. The PDF did that job great. But when I went to put it on my Sony PRS-950 e-reader, so as to have a small, light copy of the rules where ever I went, it buried the poor e-reader's processor. Page turns took forever. It was nothing but frustration.

Halfling to fighter under huge stone: Get up, you big sissy!

Even the version of the rule book that has the chapters as separate files didn't help. The files are smaller, but the computational overhead was still just too much for my e-reader. Even when I threw it on my Eee PC (a "netbook" style laptop computer), it was just too slow to use. I was reduced to extracting the text from the PDF to rather ugly text files.

Lite PDFs

Fortunately, Paizo has now released Lite PDFs of the Pathfinder books.

I downloaded them this weekend, then tried them out on my e-reader and Eee PCs this morning. What a difference! They read smoothly and well, even on the Sony PRS-950's little processor (little by current standards--it's got far more power than my primary software development workstation from the '90s!)

I'm not the only one loving these new streamlined PDFs. Have a look:

The Iron Tavern Mini Review: Pathfinder Lite PDFs
The Earthen Ring comments on Pathfinder Lite PDFs
Paizo Messageboards: PFRPG Lite PDFs

Gaming with Death, fighter says to Death: If you say, Do you have any more twos one more time, I'm going to KILL you!

Monday, May 7, 2012

ZBrush: Finding the Hidden Spotlight

As I've commented recently, I'm working on learning ZBrush and running into landmines and frustrations regularly. The program is incredibly powerful, so I'm hoping all the time and frustration will be worth it in the end. Though I'm less than convinced it'll be so at this point. Presently I'm a bit over two weeks in, with about 60-70 hours using it and a lot of additional time reading docs and watching training videos.


Among the tools I set for myself to try out today is Spotlight, a very powerful-looking tool featured in this impressive video. After getting the "sizzle" on Spotlight from that and some other videos, I tracked down some more pedestrian stuff that I hoped would let me see how to actually do a little of that.

For example, this great video, which takes things step by step and at a pace where you can actually see what is being done. Unfortunately, when I tried to follow along on my own, there was a missing step.

Getting the texture into Spotlight.

Which opened another can of worms...

Where is the Spotlight?

I opened my Lightbox, selected my texture, and Spotlight was nowhere to be seen. So I took a look at the Pixologic site to find some written documentation. I found what seemed to be just the thing. I read carefully through the instructions, particularly noting:

You first need to load your textures using the Texture palette or Light Box.

then, later the detailed instructions:

3. In the Texture palette, load or import a source texture with which you will paint on the model.
4. Also in the Texture palette, click on the Add to SpotLight button. Your texture will be displayed as an overlay on the document and the SpotLight widget will appear. An alternative is to double click on a texture of your choice in Light Box.
Um, no.

First, double-clicking on the texture in Lightbox did not bring up the Spotlight widget. Then, looking in the Texture Palette, and in the Texture tool on the side of the screen--in case I misunderstood--revealed no "Add to Spotlight" button.

The Hidden Spotlight Button

Well, I spent a fair bit of time reading FAQs and other information trying to find out why there were no visible parts of Spotlight in my ZBrush. Finally, I found an answer well down in this thread. The "Add to Spotlight" button is there, it's just not labelled, looks like it is inactive, and the icon makes no sense:

The icon for

To be fair, it does say "Add to Spotlight" off to the side if you hover over it. But then, what's to induce me to hover over everything in the 90 square hectares of ZBrush's menus just to see if I can find a button by spelunking? Especially when it's greyed out so as to look dead, inactive, unavailable, and, in subtle grey-on-grey, almost invisible?

Clicking on this added the texture to Spotlight, brought up the Spotlight wheel, and let me get on with walking into a new set of frustrations. But it was progress.

Endemic Problems

This relates to several of the endemic problems with ZBrush, particularly its user interface. There's a mix of text and image icons. The image icons are seldom intuitive. The color scheme makes icons look inactive when they're not.

At a larger level ZBrush has the problem of being a huge tool box with no organization to it. There are multiple ways of doing things, with no clear way of choosing which will get the desired results, or do so in the most time-effective fashion. Likewise, the only way to determine what something will do is to experiment, experiment, experiment. And with the number of options and settings (spread through several different "palettes" or menus) there's no guarantee that you can recreate something you've seen someone else do, or even recreate your own work later if you happen to have changed a setting three menu levels down earlier then forgotten about it.

There's also the keyboard interface. It's tricky and timing-dependent. For example, if you're drawing with short strokes, say, putting a mask on in an area while zoomed in close on the geometry, it'll go along putting down short light strokes of mask then suddenly, while you're doing something that feels exactly like every other stroke, make your entire mask go *poof*! Fortunately, a Ctrl-Z (Undo) will fix that one. But when you're working with short, fast strokes you'll hit this repeatedly (like every third or fourth stroke.)

What's worse is when you are trying to do strokes across an object. It appears that if you start a stroke off of your subject (even if by a single nearly-invisible pixel) you'll end up moving and spinning it. And if you're doing something like texturing from Spotlight, the position and scale of the object is critical. You can't use Undo to fix this, because you can't Undo changes of viewpoint (which are "really" moves of the object relative to the Canvas in ZBrush, but still.) So you're hosed with one touch of the mouse (or tablet.) Go back and start over.

Overall, there are a lot of frustrations and a lack of clear structure in the program. But it is capable of some cool things. Just save your work often (saving both Projects and Tools!)

Can I recommend ZBrush? Not yet. Besides, I'm not at all conversant of what the available options are on the market right now.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Trying to Learn ZBrush, Hitting Lots of Land Mines

After having a lot of fun with the free Sculptris program, and with the need for a more fully-featured 3D modeling program, I decided to buy ZBrush a couple of weeks ago.

Unfortunately, it been a tough road trying to learn it.

I was running into a problem early on where I'd get out of Edit mode (3D editing) and couldn't get back into it. Going from 3D mode to 2D mode is strictly one-way. There are any of a number of ways to do it by accident, and once you do, there's no Undo. After about a week, it stopped happening to me, and now it's not so much of a problem. At first, though, I had no clue what was happening. And the "getting started" information was no help, nor was a search on the terms I could think of on the web site. There were dire warnings on Pixologic's site about saving a 3D object as a 2D image, then not being able to reload and re-edit the object even when you believed you saved it. I hadn't encountered that particular problem yet, but that wasn't my problem.

Finally I found an old video tutorial that's not featured in their "online classroom" any more that explained what is happening, and since I've seen that I've been able to mostly avoid running into the problem, and recovering when I do. Before that, I'd already developed some techniques on my own to tiptoe past that particular land mine.

New Land Mines

Since then I've had my work go *poof* on me in several different other ways. It's not exactly inviting you to explore its features when this keeps happening. My most recent (about ten minutes ago) was trying to add a new subtool to a project.

When I got started, I was mostly just sculpting shapes out of one object, or "subtool" in ZBrush parlance (a single mesh.) I learned how to add additional objects to a scene, but it was awkward enough for me with what all else I was trying to master that I was just avoiding it until later.

Now I've gotten to where not having separate pieces is more of a problem than dealing with adding, aligning, etc. the additional objects.

So I was working with a sort of cartoonish fox head. I had the basic head pretty well sculpted. I added a pair of eyeballs as separate spheres (which is a lot cleaner is Sculptris--there you can add a pair of objects simultaneously and move them fluidly around your reflection plane. In ZBrush you add one, position it, then, so far as I know now, create a duplicate and position it by guess and by golly to a position that matches the first one on the opposite side of the object you want it in. All very clunky.) I decided to do the teeth as separate objects as well. So I appended a new subtool, picked a Cone3D object, used the clunky sliders in the Deformation menu to move it (isn't that a Transformation, not a deformation?) Then I scaled it down to about the right size and slid it more or less in place.

Then I wanted to sculpt its form a bit. I wasn't entirely sure whether it was a primitive or a mesh, and I wanted to subdivide it to create more detail (rule: NEVER be ignorant about ANYTHING in ZBrush. You must understand absolutely everything, it would appear, in its entirety to avoid ending up with nothing to show for your time.) Well, I clicked the "Make PolyMesh3D" button in the Tools menu.

And the complex sculpt I'd gotten to a good state over the prior hour went *poof*. No warnings, no undoes, no saving throw. The head and eye subtools are gone. They don't appear in the available tools when I click "Append" in the subtool directory. I've found things that I thought went poof there a couple of times. Should I mention the times I did a save and had things disappear from view? In those cases they reappear when I click back in the work area. They just disappear to startle me, is the best I can figure.

But my fox head is gone and unrecoverable.

Yeah, I know I should save more often. As it is, I do save very often. I'm filling my hard disk with minor deltas of my fooling around and hoping this starts to be productive projects. I'm disinclined to save every time I click a button. I could wish that when I'm going to click a button that deletes subtools with no means of recovering them I'd get a nice warning, like I do on so many other things that aren't recoverable. I do get warnings on lots of other things, many of which I don't understand what it's asking me or the consequences of my choices, but at least I get a wake-up that lets me save before I start spelunking through my possible answers.

Not All Bad, But Jury's Still Out

The program has a lot of cool capabilities. But the question is whether I'll be able to get through all the trouble to really be able to take advantage of them. I'm two weeks into working with it, and I've got less to show than I had with one afternoon with Sculptris, or for that matter, one day with Sculpt-Animate 3D or Lightwave on my old Amiga over 20 years ago. There are a lot of places where I just don't feel like I've got much control, I'm just hoping for the best, or trying to jigger things with hand and eye.

A lot of sculpting tools behave in odd fashions--at times. If they were like that all the time I'd be able to at least avoid trouble. But they cause geometry problems that are difficult or time consuming to solve. There are other times where you're trying to do something just the way you have been all along, and nothing, or almost nothing happens. Then, suddenly, on another attempt, it shoots off, out of control.

I'm really hoping to make this work, because there's a lot I'd like to get out of this program in producing models for my CNC milling machine. But, if I don't start getting more out of it pretty soon, well, $700 is just too much for me to not ask for my money back. Especially after all the time I've put into watching training videos, reading documentation, and just working with the tool trying to get somewhere that I can reasonably predict the results I'm going to get--without even starting to talk about how much time it'll take me to get those results, yet.

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