Thursday, March 31, 2011

[D&D] Alchemy

I mentioned in Tuesday's article that I thought I probably had the Non-Weapon Proficiency description for Alchemy laying around somewhere. Well, I did and holy cow. The bloody thing is 6 pages long! Why didn't I ever try to publish this stuff? Perhaps I still should!

Here's one of my long-time criticisms about D&D - it really discouraged players from crafting the magic items that were so prevalent in the game, both by making them prevalent (so why bother - you find them just lying around) and by making it so challenging to do. A mage could write scrolls easily enough (though it didn't always work and could be expensive), but to craft anything of worth was so much trouble you were left wondering "Who the hell made all of these +1 daggers?? And then lost them!!"

I didn't ever come up with a good resolution to this. Granted, you didn't want your players finding lots of magical items lying around and THEN make their own, too. That was asking for trouble, since they'd certainly craft those items that would best work to their advantage and make them much more powerful than their level would indicate. But it always seemed like a conundrum to me - a way in which the world just didn't seem properly believable.

One way I did find to try to rectify it was through Alchemy. Potions are usually of limited usefulness in that they don't last very long, their effects usually aren't that potent, they're a hassle to carry around, they're susceptible to various types of combat damage, and of course they're single-use only. They struck me as an amazing opportunity to give the players some control over magic-item creation without knocking the game out of whack.

I didn't get to fully test my theory. I'm pretty sure I used alchemy in two different campaigns, but both were fairly short-lived so I didn't get to really see their effects, more's the pity. The proficiency, however, is a thing of beauty if I say so myself. (You may have noticed that I'm often very impressed with my own work. Yeah, you'll get no argument from me.)

It took me a bit to find time to read the whole thing, and it's not perfect. It's incomplete, for starters - I only detailed about a quarter of the potions I'd designed. But those potions are one of the coolest parts - I designed nineteen different concoctions - all of them new - and included sixteen different poisons (Type A, Type B, etc.). There are detailed descriptions for nine of the potions, a few basic numbers for another half-dozen, and brief comments for all of them that include their effects. So it's entirely playable, just not complete.

Why is Alchemy six pages long, you wonder? Six typwritten pages, single-spaced, in a 10-point font? Well, it takes two pages just for the chart of potions and the tables that I'll describe below. Two pages are taken up by the one-paragraph descriptions I wrote of each potion, such as:

Everwake – this bitter-tasting stimulant is often candied over a small fruit. It must be both boiled and melted during concoction, and burns are likely. It takes thirty minutes to mix, cook, form, and cool a batch, which can make up to 8 doses. When consumed, this mixture fends off sleep, allowing someone to continue to travel, work, guard, or perform other activities without the danger of falling asleep. Each dose lasts for 1d4 + 7 hours. When a dose wears off, the user must make a con check each hour (with a cumulative –1 penalty each hour after the first) or immediately fall asleep. If awakened, a second con check (with penalties) may be made to stay awake for that hour, but the next hour will again require a check. Any dose taken before full rest (8hrs) is obtained is considered a consecutive dose. For each consecutive dose after the second, a system shock roll is required or the user has suffered damage from the lack of sleep and the effects of the mixture. Each failure results in a loss of 1-2 points in all ability scores (with any resulting impact on hit point bonuses, available spells, etc.), plus an additional reduction in maximum HP of 10%. These effects are cumulative with each subsequent consecutive dose if the system shock roll is failed, and the effects last until a full 8 hours of unbroken sleep are received.
Again, I didn't finish descriptions for all the potions, only some of them, but you get the idea. Lastly, there are two pages describing how the proficiency actually works. It's a bit cumbersome, but given the power of the proficiency - the ability to actually create magic items (albeit ones of very limited purpose) - I needed to be sure the craft wasn't to be taken lightly. The process is fairly and deliberately cumbersome. Hence those tables I mentioned above. Besides the large one that breaks all the different potions down by level and other factors, there are two primary tables: Scarcity and Danger.

The Scarcity table is used to establish how rare the materials are for a given potion. Assuming a "standard" temperate-clime with access to woods, fields, hills, and streams, the DM uses the table to check the difficulty the player will experience in finding the necessary ingredients. He'll first determine whether or not the necessary components actually exist in the area where the Alchemist is searching, then he'll consult the table to calculate how long the character must search to find them. Eventually, there's a mechanism for the Alchemist to make a roll to figure out whether or not the necessary ingredient even exists where he's looking, so he can choose to abandon the search if appropriate.

The Danger table makes the use of this - again, quite powerful - proficiency a bit of a challenge. There is a chance - based on the level of the player and the complexity of the alchemical formula he's attempting to brew - that the character will suffer harm in the making of the concoction. The simplest potions can cause at most 1d4 damage, but the most powerful one - Witch's Salve, which allows the user to fly - is highly volatile during preparation, and can explode for as much as 6d6 damage! In fact, at 11th Level, the chance of that happening is 40%! It goes down by 5% with each subsequent level. Given that this is a proficiency used primarily by mages, who aren't known for being physically robust, the chances of death are actually quite high with some of these formulas.

Now that I've opened up the creaking tome that holds these 10-15 year-old word documents, I'm inclined to finish off the Alchemy proficiency, fleshing out the remaining potions and possibly adding a few new ones (not that they're needed, really). I still think it's a terrific idea and it seems like it would be worth the effort of finishing. Maybe I'll try to get it published, maybe I'll post it here, or maybe I'll see something shiny and wander off to do other things. You never know. You're welcome to comment here, though, if it's something you'd have an interest in seeing in some form or other.

If I get enough response to Alchemy, I might even have to go back and dig up my non-weapon proficiency for Torture. The last two campaigns I ran were, after all, evil.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

[D&D] The Candlemir Campaign

I've run a handful of campaigns as a Dungeon Master, and a few games that were really just single adventures. I can clearly remember running four campaigns in particular. My first real one was EPIC - high-powered characters battling to save the world. There was a "winged folk" fighter/mage (sort of like an elf with huge angel wings, a centaur who charged into battle with a lance, a paladin with artifact-level armor, and, I kid you not, a faerie dragon druid. It ran for a couple of years and was truly world-spanning in scope.

My third campaign was short-lived - a group of humanoids like goblins, orcs, etc., all trying to make their way in the world as adventurers. I don't remember why it fizzled out, it just did. My last campaign was also based around a group of evil player-characters, but it was an entirely new group of players who just didn't mesh. It fell apart within a handful of sessions (which sucks, because I had some really amazing stuff planned for that group).

In looking through my old word documents recently, I realized just how incredible my second campaign was. It was called the Candlemir campaign, because it was centered in the city of Candlemir (which I had drawn on a poster-sized sheet of paper in exacting detail). Candlemir was, unbeknownst to the players, lorded over by a silver dragon disguised as a human.  As they rose in power they became trusted agents of his and, when he disappeared, it became their duty to find him. Two of the players became local lords, the third was a powerful servant of his god, highly respected within his church and by all who knew him. The players loved that campaign, and with good reason - I can say with no false modesty that I did a hell of a job on that game.

One of my goals with the Candlemir campaign was to give the players as much useful knowledge as possible so that THEY, not a random roll of the dice, could be responsible for figuring out puzzles and bringing key information to bear when needed. The challenge is often that when it comes to the right time, a player simply makes a roll against a non-weapon proficiency or a skill (like intelligence) and, if they're successful, the DM tells them precisely what they need to know. I kind of hate that. The player always knows the information is relevant and correct and they know they need to use it right then and there.

With the Candlemir campaign, I instead pre-positioned information with the PCs right at the beginning of the campaign. Huge, huge volumes of information, all based on what their character could actually know about. Some of it I knew would be useful, because I'd already mapped out a fair number of adventures (mostly from Dungeon Magazine) that I knew I was going to use sooner or later. The rest was a combination of deliberately useless data and details that I could work off of if I ever needed an adventure hook, or which might never come into play. Either way, it served to conceal the really important, useful information, hiding it in plain sight, if you will.

At the start of the game, each player received a binder containing their character sheet, any information about their special abilities, info about the world's deities and other common knowledge, and then as many as a dozen printed pages of "stuff you know." It was up to them to read, digest, and remember that "stuff," because weeks or months later, it would suddenly become relevant in the middle of a dungeon or other adventure. Then the player would suddenly shout, "Wait! I've got something about this in my notes!" followed by frantic flipping through their binder of character history and knowledge.

Sometimes I'd get really clever and split the information across two players, so they had to put their heads together. That was pretty cool. The combination of real data pulled from upcoming adventures, plus character histories (some of which contained even more useful knowledge), plus data interwoven between players, plus ersatz information wrapped like choking vines around those bits of key knowledge, all resulted in an enormous body of work. Hell, I could probably publish it if I ever put the effort into putting it together (and updated it from AD&D Second Edition to D20 or some other, modern ruleset). It was an impressive body of work if I say so myself. And I'd nearly forgotten about it until I stumbled upon it all this week.

But wait, there's more! You see, I still needed a way to add in new details when the players got to higher levels or started traveling down paths I hadn't predicted. I rectified this with the "Magic Missive" - the newsletter of the Academy of Wizardry at Utrecht, where the party's mage, Sarkhan Killoumanges, had trained. I would periodically send him this newsletter (it magically arrived in his study), and it would contain information about world events (culled from alumni of the university all over the continent), interviews, articles, and sometimes even new spells. I crafted three or four of these, and each was a significant amount of work, but hidden within them was fresh information to help my players in their adventures.

So I tip my DM hat to Candlemir - to the Reaper of Tempus, Lord Sarkhan Killoumanges, The Blue Bard, Chariah Solinahr, and Oculos the Cyclops. The campaign is fifteen years in the past, but its legacy lives on. I'll always remember it as my DM masterpiece. Perhaps someday I'll try to craft its equal for my children to play. Perhaps someday my kids will do the same, we'll see. For now, it holds a hallowed place in my heart.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

[D&D] The Mystery of the Missing Mage (part 4)

The kids have been doing pretty well up to this point. They've managed to all stay conscious despite having mostly single-digit hit points and THACO scores at or close to 20. They've started to get the hang of some of their abilities - the mage has burned off all of his spells, the thief checks every door before they go through, and the warrior chops things into quivering bloody sushi as soon as it steps within reach. They've cleared the entire top level of the dungeon and, thanks to an orc stumbling on them, they've discovered the secret door to level 2. They've even managed to kill off half the guards in the first room of level 2, since those were the orcs who came up to investigate. The thief has found an "especially nice" dagger, but has no idea whether it's magical, cursed, or just well-crafted. They're all at full health thanks to their fortuitous find of minor healing potions (see previous article for the recipe!) and they're ready to move on (though the mage could really use some sleep to get his spells back).

Their foray into level 2 begins with the orc guard room. They dispatch the inhabitants, one of whom is already injured since he's the one who ran away from their fight upstairs. At long last, they've found a reasonably safe place where they can sleep. By the time they wake up, they're at full health, the mage is able to re-learn his spells, and the rest of the dungeon beckons. Can they save poor Heather before the dungeon's inhabitants decide to eat her... or worse?

The very next room is a torture chamber, where they release poor Ableforth, a merchant, from his bondage and heal his wounds. He's been delirious with pain for days, but he dimly recalls seeing a human female somewhat recently, a prisoner of the horrible orcs who've been abusing him. The kindly adventurers escort Ableforth safely out of the dungeon complex and send him on his way. He assures them that should they find themselves in the port of Scarsdale, he and his family will treat them very generously at their shop.

Back down to level 2, the party bursts into two different goblin guard quarters. They manage to defeat both groups (separately), however their attack rolls are pitiful. I've rarely seen a 20-sided die produce more single-digit numbers than I did during that session. They managed to roll 1s several times, nearly maiming each other worse than their enemies. Of course the mage did manage to roll a natural 20 - when he was making a wisdom check to heal the warrior. That's at least the second time he's blown his wisdom check with a natural 20, which I've ruled results in 0-3 points of additional damage done. They ended up blowing the rest of their healing potions, PLUS I put a full healing potion on the orc sub-leader in the second room since the warrior was hovering at 1 health and was nearly knocked unconscious by the mage's inexpert medical care.

Despite their bad rolls, they fought fairly well. I'm especially impressed with my youngest - he has a natural affinity for numbers and a logical mind, and he's the only one of the three who consistently remembers to modify his initiative rolls with his dexterity bonus without having to be told to do it. The mage actually managed to bring down the sub-leader nearly by himself, starting with a magic missile in the eye and following up with a well-swung quarterstaff.

So they're still in the dungeon, victorious and healthy, but they still have not found the source of their quest - the poor, missing farmgirl. Plus, there's been no sign of the "missing mage" who's named so prominently in the adventure's title. So much still to come!

Meanwhile, I've found two other adventures that are suitable for 1st-level characters, both of which take place in a city and/or its sewer system. I'm starting to get those ready for when this adventure is complete. Luckily, I found a place online where all of the old Dungeon magazines are available in .pdf format. It's probably illegal for the site to have those there, however since I actually OWN copies of all those issues, I'm comfortable that I'm morally in the clear. Having the materials electronically beats the hell out of digging out my old boxes of magazines and thumbing through them, that's for sure!

Monday, March 28, 2011

[D&D] The Mystery of the Missing Mage (part 3)

You could easily argue that I took it easy on the kids. I prefer to say that I role-played the orcs who were bright enough but not experienced with intruders in their lair, nor terribly efficient. They "deduced" that the door to the room where the players were sleeping had been locked from the outside, and didn't search it carefully. Since the room's occupants' bodies were already out in the hall, they were more concerned with searching the rest of the complex than exploring a seemingly-empty room. They made a cursory search, but the players had hidden themselves inside footlockers and under rubble and were not discovered.

Shortly after, they snuck out into the hall, led by the thief. She made a successful move silently roll, followed by a backstab for double-damage against the orc leader who had dispatched his men to investigate. They had to fight a couple other orcs who were nearby, but then escaped into an unused side-cavern.

Here's where I was especially nice. They were just getting creamed without a cleric to heal them, and I refuse to run an NPC if I can possibly avoid it. It's just too much of a hassle and it slows the game down whenever they get into a dynamic situation. And if I'm not careful, he ends up just becoming a walking magic item who does a little damage and can fire off a few heals every day.

So instead I added a half-dozen "minor healing potions" to the corpse beneath the yellow mold. I'd used these potions in the past (I think I'd developed a recipe that let the party's mage and, again primary healer in one of my major campaigns, create these potions from scratch using his healing and herbalism abilities. What I cannot remember is how much damage they healed - It was something like 1d4+1 or 2d3, I think) and they were just the ticket for low-level characters. They're even kind of nice for high-level characters who want to top-off or just be able to absorb one extra hit before they drop. This fortuitous discovery let them heal up and get ready to continue.

The remaining 3-4 orcs finished exploring their lair's top level and it was pretty clear to them that the enemy must still be inside. The dog whose chain leash controlled the main entry trapdoor was dead and unmoved, yet the trapdoor was securely closed. They returned to find their commander dead and a trio of intruders lined up at the far end of the hallway, bows, daggers, and darts ready to let fly. The party managed to kill two of the orcs in their free round of missile fire before the remaining two closed on them. About the same time, one last orc came up through the secret door to the lower level, placing him directly behind the party. Luckily the mage spotted him and was able to raise a warning. The warrior quickly cut down two of the three orcs and the rogue dispatched the other. A secret door beckoned to the dark depths below - the second level of the humanoids' filthy den!

Addendum: Hey - check it out, I dug around in my old files (from the Candlemir campaign, should any of my old players stumble across this) and I tracked down the Minor Healing Potion recipe. I made a few little modifications and here it is. I plan to add this as a scroll in an upcoming wizard's workshop where the players can find it. Since some were found in the current adventure, it would make sense for them to find it in the wizard's lair, assuming they find it.

Potion of Minor Healing

The following formula will allow you to concoct a simple, herbal healing potion from fairly common herbs:

Begin with 8 drams of distilled water
Add the juice of 14 comfrey berries
Boil - the steam must be collected and condensed, preferably in an alembic
Stir for 10 minutes, adding crushed root of woundwort
Pour in the condensed steam
Add 1/2 dram of mint juice
Allow to set for 3 days, stirring 4 times per day

The potion will heal 1d3+2 hp or bring a person to 0 hp if unconscious. However, every time (after the first) that a creature is brought conscious with this concoction within one day's time, a system shock roll must be made or they die. If used on a conscious individual, the only side effect is a slight dizziness (-1 to attack rolls) which persists for about 10 minutes (1 turn). It is impossible to consume more than 4 of these potions in a day's time. The body will vomit up any more than that.

Note1: to craft these potions, roll a blind herbalism check at a +2 bonus and consult the chart below:

Roll Result     Effect
Succeeds      2d3+2 vials of the potion are crafted.
Fails             1d3+1 vials of the potion are crafted.
Natural 20    2d3+2 vials of the potion are crafted. They appear to be fine, but are actually spoiled and are
                    poisonous. The drinker will take 1d3+1 damage, save vs. poison for 0 damage. The drinker will
                   cough up a foamy, bloody sputum that’s easily identifiable.

Note2: if a character is poisoned, a healer and herbalist who is familiar with the recipe for this potion, if tending to the victim, will add a +4 bonus to the saving throw. If they are not familiar with the recipe, the roll is at the standard +2.

Note 3: a character with both Herbalism and Alchemy makes their crafting check at +4, always produces the maximum number of units possible (no roll needed), and can make an Alchemy check to detect tainted results. (I'm pretty sure that Alchemy was a non-weapon proficiency I made up for my game. If I find it, I'll post it here sometime.)

Edit: Yep, I did find it and I wrote about it here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Social Marketing - The Real Thing?

"Social Marketing" is the relatively young term for driving customers to your business using the "social" tools of the Internet - Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and all of the other, similar applications that people use to feel connected to one another electronically. Social media is all about sharing every aspect of your life, and businesses hope that through social marketing you'll opt to share their products and services in such a way that members of your network are inspired to buy them as well.

I wouldn't say that I doubted it was possible for social marketing to work - some products and services would seem like great fits, and any really well-developed marketing campaign can succeed if it's thought through carefully enough. But these days, the "buzz" is that you have to do social marketing, sometimes to the exclusion of virtually every other form of product advertising. I was pretty skeptical.

Martial arts schools are one area where I know this thinking is very prevalent. I attended a couple of webinars hoping to learn a bit more about using Facebook, not realizing that they were really just sales pitches by a firm that sells consulting services and software in the martial arts industry. So I got an earful about how dojos need to jettison door hangers, yellow pages ads, and flyers and get with the social media program. Really? I wondered. Can that really work? I mean, they're talking to a guy who gets very few facebook responses to the stuff I post, and who couldn't even get 25 people to "like" the page I administer for the Syracuse Writer's Roundtable (once you have 25 or 30 likes, you get more info about site traffic and can assign it a unique site name. I haven't been able to do either of those things for the Roundtable - there's just not enough traffic, despite my efforts to make it relevant and interesting to people).

Something happened last week to change my mind. Well, I should say that it opened my mind to the possibility that social marketing could possibly work. I'm not sold yet, but I'm not too far away, either.

You see, the karate school my family goes to, Five Star Martial Arts, has put out some terrific deals through more "traditional' media - print ads and through the TV show "Bridge Street." The Bridge Street deal was actually available through their website, but that still doesn't really count as social media. Anyhow, these two "traditional media" offers were pretty similar, and they didn't sell worth a damn. Practically zero interest.

Then they put out virtually the same offer again, this time through Groupon. Groupon is a service that people sign up for, and they send out a "deal of the day" every... well, every day. It might be a deal on a restaurant, a spa treatment, dog grooming, photography services, movie tickets - anything. And it's always at least 50% off the regular price. You have 48 hours to buy the deal, and it's common for people to share it with each other on Facebook or through email. That's the "social networking" part. In fact, the deal doesn't become "active" until a minimum number of people have bought in, so buyers are encouraged in that way to share the deal - so it will activate.

The deal went live on Thursday morning. At 8:33 AM, they hit the minimum purchase quantity of 10, and the deal went live. The dojo's owners were delighted. Based on their previous offers, getting 10 sales was outstanding. They continued to watch the numbers sold: 20, then 35, then 50... All day long, the counter continued to rise. And rise. By the time the deal was up Friday night, they'd sold 220 of the deals. Go ahead, read that again, because it's an amazing number. 220. The same deal that sold not a single offer on Bridge Street had sold beyond anyone's wildest expectations. The people at Groupon were floored - it was the single biggest fitness-related offer they'd ever sold in Syracuse. Turns out, when they did a little research, it was one of the biggest responses they'd had anywhere. It was on par with the kinds of numbers they'd see in places like Miami, which could hold Syracuse's entire population in a couple of neighborhoods.

And at the same time, all of these new customers were banging on their Facebook page (which, granted, is currently their entire web presence. They're working on that). They were "liking" it. They were asking questions (and getting immediate responses, or nearly so). It was exactly how social media is supposed to work.

I still think social marketing works best when you somehow get your numbers up high enough for the buzz you generate just going about your regular business can be self-sustaining and "viral," but I no longer totally doubt that it can work. I've seen it work. Wow. I'm prepared to be a believer.

Monday, March 21, 2011

[Karate] Iaido at Last!

This weekend was insane, and this morning totally snuck up on me. Let me tell you a bit about my weekend.

The core of it was my trip to Ottawa on Saturday. I went with Dave Oddy of Syracuse Jundokan, and we drove up to Mike Sywyk's East Wind Budo Life Center. It was a bit of a hike - almost three hours each way - but it was totally worth it. I was going to a martial arts seminar. At long last, I was actually going to learn Iaido.

Granted, I wasn't going to learn MUCH Iaido - it was only a 3-hour seminar, after all. But it was absolutely jam-packed. We did Iaido the entire time, with no breaks. It was glorious!

Regular readers may remember when I wrote about not being able to find an Iaido teacher in or near Syracuse. So when Dave saw that there was a seminar on the style being held at one of his sister dojos (East Wind also connects up to the main Jundokan dojo in Okinawa, home to Goju-Ryu karate), he made sure to give me a shout.

The seminar was taught by Robert Davis of the IaidoEast dojo. His knowledge of Musō Jikiden Eishin-ryū Iaido, and his thirty years of experience practicing and teaching this ancient art, were extremely evident. Granted, I wouldn't know good Iaido from bad (I mean, I would probably intuitively recognize really incompetent Iaido, but any shades of grey would surely be lost on me), but Sensei Davis's quiet competence was really inspiring and just incredible to watch.

For three solid hours, we drew the sword (in my case a wooden bokken practice sword), cut down our imagined enemies, shook our blades clean, and returned them to the sheath. We did it standing. We did it walking. We did it kneeling (in four different directions). Oh, it was glorious!

I paid for it on Sunday. My quadriceps have never been very flexible, which means three hours of kneeling left me in extreme discomfort and nearly unable to walk, but I don't care. It was totally worth it. I'm deeply grateful to Sensei Oddy, Sensei Sywyk, and Sensei Davis for exposing me at long last to this 500+ - year-old martial art. It was every bit as precise, as focused, as meditative, and as graceful as I'd anticipated. Now I just have to find a way to become a regular student of Sensei Davis.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh!

That's Gaelic for "The blessings of St. Patrick's Day be upon you!" Or so I'm told. I don't really speak Gaelic, more's the pity. I sure did like the Irish guy in Braveheart, though!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I'm Not Interested in Your Convenience

This is currently on my nerves because I've run into its mis-use twice in the last day: the term "at my earliest convenience." It doesn't mean what you (well, not YOU necessarily, but some people) think it means.

In polite conversation, the term is used when you are requesting that someone help you who isn't really obligated to do so. You're requesting something from them, and you're being nice about it. They are well within their rights to say no, but you really hope they don't. For instance, "I believe I am qualified for this job and have enclosed my resume' for your review. Please contact me at your earliest convenience so we can further discuss how my skills would be an asset to your business." That is a correct usage of the phrase.

However recently, I have seen it used by people to refer to themselves. As in, "One of our representatives will get back to you at their earliest convenience." This is from a company I'm paying for a service, so let me be perfectly clear: I don't give a crap about their 'convenience.' I want them to call me as soon as they possibly can, whether it's 'convenient' for them or not.

See, what's happening is that the word "convenience" is, for some reason I cannot fathom, being substituted for the word "opportunity." They are not synonymous, however. The phrase "at your earliest convenience" has a wealth of implied meaning, including, "if it's not too much trouble; at such a time that it pleases you; I recognize that I am not the most important person you need to deal with, and that you have other work that takes precedence, but I am humbly requesting that you contact me if you can possibly find the time and the benevolence to do so; etc." The correct phrase, "at your earliest opportunity" infers none of that. It simply means, "As soon as you possibly can." It is admittedly more polite than "IMMEDIATELY," which obviously signifies either that the situation is an emergency, that you're extremely angry with the level of service you're receiving, or that you feel you're entitled to a response right away. That's an order of magnitude higher, though.

The problem really is that it's arrogant and presumptuous and, frankly, rude to use the phrase "at my earliest convenience" to refer to oneself. Because of the connotations, it's reversing the level of politeness that the phrase infers when used to deal with someone else from whom you are asking a boon. Instead, it makes it clear that whomever you're speaking with is unimportant, not worthy of a quick response, and that you'll contact them when and if you feel like it. In both of the situations where I encountered it (a customer service web page and a voicemail), I'm pretty confident that the speaker didn't mean to say, "You're just a customer, so screw you," but maybe they did.

But assuming that's not what YOU mean, dear reader, please cease the use of this phrase to refer to yourself... at your earliest convenience.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

[D&D] The Mystery of the Missing Mage (part 2)

Since I started writing about getting the kids going on their new Dungeons & Dragons adventure (in both senses of the word - their "adventure" of playing a new game and the adventure titled "The Mystery of the Missing Mage"), I figure I may as well continue on and talk a bit about the playing.

The players:

My daughter, the thief, is a coward. She's fairly loathe to put herself in harm's way, and will gleefully let her brothers' characters die if she must. I have to point out to her from time to time that "they're the only thing keeping you alive. One of them is the only healer in your party (a mage with healing proficiency is literally all they have) and the other guy both takes and deals all the damage. If they die, what's going to happen to you?" at which time she usually bucks up and goes on the offensive in the least hazardous way she can manage. It's really very funny to watch her play.

One of my sons, the mage, alternates between reckless abandon and sheer terror. He feels especially vulnerable and worthless once he runs out of spells - just like every other player who's ever run a first-level mage. Sometimes he's ready to charge in with his figurative guns a'blazin, but then yesterday he was feeling so worthless and fearful that he literally had his character run to the far end of a hallway and watch the battle from there. Granted, he couldn't resist throwing some darts and ended up being fully engaged, but his initial reaction was to grab some popcorn and enjoy the fight from a safe distance. When he finally gets to recharge his spells, I fully expect him to be filled with piss and vinegar once more.

My other son, the warrior, is, well, a warrior. He knows no fear unless his siblings instill some in him. He can't wait to wage into battle, his gleaming sword covered in gore. His solution to whatever problem they're having is to attack, smash, or ignore it. It's not too unlike his actual personality, truth be told. Of course, he's utterly malleable to the wishes of his siblings - whatever they suggest, he immediately and enthusiastically parrots.

I began the game with an introduction explaining where they had come from and how they'd gotten where they currently were. Since the mage and the thief are both elves, I made them cousins and explained that they'd been sent from their forest village to live with a mutual uncle. The ex-adventurer runs an academy for fighters, and had taken them in hoping to train them. They were both pretty hopeless, the thief being incompetent with anything other than her shortsword and daggers, and the mage barely managing to swing a large stick (quarterstaff, actually) without clubbing himself of a cohort. Ultimately, the thief was allowed to go learn from the master thieves in another town, and the mage was sent to train under an arch-wizard friend of the uncle. The final player, the human warrior, was a natural fighter. He was sent to serve as a cadet in the guard of a nearby lord to complete his warrior training.

The three friends met at a tavern in a town near to their uncle's home. They had planned to catch up on their adventures, spend the night at the inn, then travel back home the following morning. Instead, they were deluged with the hand-wringing fears and concerns of the locals. Livestock had disappeared, things were heard moving in the forest at night, and finally a young girl had disappeared from her father's farm only the night before. Something had to be done!

So off they went. They hadn't asked any directions, hadn't really inquired where they needed to go, they'd simply bargained for their reward and then charged off... where are we going?? Okay, back to the inn to ask directions.

Somehow they managed to find the cave where the adventure was to take place. The thief scouted inside, creeping up the dark hallway with only her infravision to light the way. She heard movement up ahead, followed by a rumbling from behind, so she hid in the shadows.

The rumbling, it turns out, was a heavy wall of solid rock that was closing down across the entrance to the cave, sealing it completely. The warrior and the mage quickly ran inside before it closed, then made their way in the dark, hand in hand (since the warrior could see nothing in the utter blackness). They walked right past the thief, who had forgotten she was hiding in the shadows and scared the pants off her own party. But there was still the sound from up ahead in the darkness.

It turned out to be a giant, two-headed dog-bear (or bear-dog. I dunno - the module just called it a "guard beast". You figure it out. Regardless, at 1 HD, it wasn't worth the massive XP specified in the adventure). It advanced menacingly on the party, clearly preparing to attack. True to his nature, the warrior charged ahead, rolling a natural 20 (a guaranteed hit, plus double-damage!) followed by maximum damage! He clove the creature into puppy chow, and the party continued merrily on their way.

Up ahead, the atypically-brave thief for whatever reason decides to lead the charge, kicking in a door. Which leaves her at the mercy of the orc guard who was coming to check on the noise from the next room. She's quickly reduced to 2 HP and beats a hasty retreat, hiding behind the big warrior (played by her little brother) who handily destroys the guard.

The next two rooms are both filled with orc families - adults, women, and children - which the party engage one room at a time and cheerfully slaughter. In the process, the mage uses the last of his spells, the warrior loses a third of his health, and the poor thief is still at 2 HP (the mage blew his healing rolls on both the fighter and the thief). They're determined to catch some sleep, however none of the rooms they've found have doors on them, and they're rightfully concerned (because I suggested it) that they might be attacked by the friends of the orcs they just slew if they decide to spend the night in their home. Besides, they can see another door just a few feet up the hall, and this one has an actual door with a lock and everything.

So once more into the fray they charge. I make some strategic suggestions which they eagerly adopt. This time, they open the door and let whomever's inside come charging out to them. It sort of works, and allows the thief to execute her first backstab, perched above the door jamb. There are four orc guards in this room, and they handily slay three of them. The fourth runs away, however, and they make no move to chase him or even determine where he went. In fact, the thief is so desperate to get her health back - and the mage is so intensely focused on getting his spells back - that they barely remember to lock the door before flinging themselves onto the beds inside the room and going to sleep.

So, naturally, they're awakened a short time later by the friends of the one who got away...

To be continued.

Monday, March 14, 2011

First Adventure - The Mystery of the Missing Mage

Over the last few days, I really cranked up the Dungeons & Dragons amplitude at my house. About a week ago I started pulling out my old rulebooks and reading through my materials. Over the course of the last week, I installed antique software (the AD&D Core Rules 2.0 with Expansion, the Forgotten Realms Interactive Atlas, and the Dragon Magazine Archive of the first 250 issues (nearly all of which issues I own in hardcopy, too.)), I downloaded outdated and archived updates for them, and I hunted down whatever materials I could find online.

None of it was easy, either. In terms of both my own materials and the stuff I could find online, I'm overwhelmed by the volume of stuff, and the need to comb through it and decide what's usable and what isn't. At the same time, there's likely some specific stuff that, if I knew it existed, how to search for it and/or where to find it, it would make my life much easier, but I don't. The version of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons that I've decided to play is the old 2nd Edition rules, which came out around 1989, and were replaced with the 3.0 ruleset in the late 1990s. So most of the people who were "into" D&D enough to want to put stuff on the Internet had mostly moved on to the 3.x rules by the time the Internet became truly ubiquitous and commonplace. If there's a treasure-trove of 2nd Ed. material on the intertubes, I'm not finding it.

Luckily, I did find "The Mystery of the Missing Mage," by Bruce Silverstein. He apparently wrote it back in 1987, and then updated it with 2nd Edition rules. And it's still kicking around in various places online. We've just gotten into it, and I have to say that he really did a terrific job with it. The adventure is a bit stingy in some places with treasure and then piles it on in others, and it looks to me as if the experience numbers he's using with some of the monsters are awfully high, but I can fix that stuff easily enough. Mostly, it's a logical, well-thought-out, well-written adventure designed explicitly for first-level characters (in fact, it seems to be tailored for as few as three first level characters, which fits my group perfectly!). So thanks, Bruce! You made our weekend!

I kind of knew I was making a mistake Saturday when I invited the kids to roll up some characters. My intention was several-fold. I wanted to see if they had any aptitude for the concepts behind the game. I wanted to gauge their interest level. I wanted to know what sorts of characters interested them, so that I could tailor the adventures I'd be writing accordingly. I also needed to test the AD&D Core Rules software to see if I wanted to use it, because as far as I could recall I never really had used it full-bore as a DM before. By the time it came out, I wasn't really a very active DM.

Well, I got to do all of that, but at a price. The kids LOVED creating characters, and while none of them were actually willing to sit down and read the boring old Player's Handbook (those are their words, not mine - I used to love reading through the hardcover manuals, modules, magazines, accessories, and any other rulebooks or materials I could find), they desperately wanted to start playing the game. So I had no choice - if I wanted to strike while the iron was hot, while their interest level was still high, I had to come up with an adventure in less than a day and be ready to run it on Sunday afternoon. And, like I said above, It was Bruce Silverstein to the rescue.

So thanks, Bruce. I'm assuming your old "geocities" email address is defunct, but if you should stumble across this, know that your 24-year-old adventure is still getting the job done. Great work!

Now if I could just wrangle all of the "Ruins of Undermountain" stuff under control and pull some adventures out of my old Dungeon magazines. Mercifully, I've found a place where I can get my old Dungeons (which I still have in a box - hundreds of them) in .pdf format, which saves me having to scan them in myself. Doesn't make it any faster to figure out which modules go together easily to make a worthwhile campaign. Plus there's all the Forgotten realms books, accessories, modules, and downloads I have. Ugh. Sometimes it almost seems like it would be faster to just create my own world. But I've done that before, too. It's not.

Griping aside, though, I'm really, sincerely enjoying watching my kids discover the game that's given me so much entertainment over the years. My youngest decided to play a Fighter, and managed to roll an 18/51 strength, so he's no slouch. With longsword specialization and a shield, he's blissfully cleaving his way through anything that stands before him. My middle kid was a shoe-in for the Mage from the get-go, and he's struggling with the age-old issue of, "Hey, I cast all my spells, and I can't hit the broad side of a barn with these weapons, what am I supposed to do??" My answer, as I'm sure many DMs before me have offered, is simple: "Do your best. When you get a few more levels under your beard, it's all worthwhile." Surprisingly, my daughter - who I'd had pegged for a druid, a priest, or possibly a warrior - opted for a thief. She's in there flinging daggers around and trying to set herself up for the backstab (I need to help her with that) like a pro.

I honestly can't say if I'll wrestle everything that I've got at my disposal into some kind of order. There's just so much of it, and I have so little time these days. But I'm confident that I can keep my kids entertained with the game for quite some time, and maybe when they're a bit older one of them will say, "Hey Dad, I'd like to DM. Got any materials I can use." I'll let them dig out from under that mountain - maybe they'll find some treasure in there.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

[D&D] The AD&D Treasure Trove

No, the Treasure Trove isn't a booklet of wealth and magical items. Well, it might be, but that's not what I'm talking about. No, I actually own a treasure trove of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons materials. So many, in fact, that I'm a bit baffled about where to start with them. I don't even really know what all I have. It's somewhat daunting.

I've begun to dig into it, however. For years, I've been wanting to introduce my kids to Fantasy Role-Playing Games, but I've been putting it off until the youngest could read more-or less unassisted. Well, he finally can, so I suppose it's time to buckle down and whip up a game. It's going to be tough, though. When I was a teenager, I literally could (and often did) spend 10-20 hours in a given week working on that week's adventure. I'd create non-player characters. I'd create detailed maps, room descriptions, and locations. I'd describe in detail what the characters saw, what they experienced, what the other characters in the game did and what they had to say. I wrote new spells, new abilities, and wove everything together into a story replete with unexpected twists and turns, logical behaviour that the players could actually predict if they worked it out, and often complex puzzles, quests, histories, songs, poems, and prophecies. If the players found a book, I told them what it looked like, what it was made of, how heavy it was, the color of the ink, and anything else they might possibly want to know. That was important to the game, not only because it gave tremendous depth and flavor to the experience of playing, but it also challenged the players in a unique way - they couldn't know what was important or what wasn't simply based on how much detail I used to describe it. EVERYTHING was incredibly detailed, so they had to think like their characters, analyze all the information they had, and then role-play their chosen solution.

Now, bear in mind that in addition to all of that work, the game sessions themselves lasted anywhere from eight to fourteen hours. We'd start playing around six in the evening, and it wasn't unheard-of for us to finally stagger out into the morning sun at eight the next day. Monsters were slain, puzzles were solved, dice were rolled, and a great deal of food was eaten in those sessions. And then I had to calculate experience, figure out treasure, provide details on magical items acquired, and then write the adventure for the next week.

Plus, my campaign was always very open-ended. I tried to accommodate whatever the players would reasonably ask for their characters to do. If they wanted to skip the main quest I'd anticipated and hop on a boat to faraway lands instead, I didn't stop them. As such, I couldn't get all that far ahead in designing my campaign, even assuming I had the time to get far ahead, which I really didn't.

It got so crazy trying to keep up with everything that it actually caused me to create the most detailed magic item ever made. The Warband was actually a huge amount of work, but it was a reaction to my desire to avoid having to make up the knowledge of "sentient" magical items on the spot - which was really hard, and often resulted in my players writing out page after page after page of "questions I ask my magic item when we're sitting around the campfire at night." Just once, I wanted to hand somebody an item and say "here's everything it could possibly know. Don't ask me any more questions." It sorta worked. But I digress.

Anyway, I'm poring through my old AD&D materials, with the goal of creating an intro campaign for my kids, and then moving on to more intermediate stuff once they get the hang of it. All in the least work-intensive way possible, since I just don't have the time.

One of my ideas is to use technology. Luckily, I have some - I own the AD&D Core Rules 2.0 software, which has a whole bunch of features including RTF versions of most of the manuals, some map-making software (two of them - one of which is overly basic and the other of which is overly complex, but I have yet to find anything better), and some tools for typing up character sheets for players and NPCs alike. I also own the first 250 issues of Dragon Magazine as PDF files, which should yield some adventures, magic items, and other useful stuff in an easily-accessible format. Plus, I have the Forgotten Realms Interactive Atlas, which should make it easy to produce maps I can use as I need them.

But what I mostly need are pre-written adventures, preferably set in the Forgotten Realms, for low-level characters, using the 2nd Edition AD&D ruleset. Turns out, that's not so easy to find online, and I don't have Dungeon Magazine as PDFs. I really wish I did.

At some point, I may post an inventory of all the AD&D stuff I have - or perhaps just the Forgotten Realms stuff, as I'm pretty sure I've paid for at least one of Ed Greenwood's cars. Right now, though, I'm struggling with the joys of installing software intended for Windows 98 on a Windows 7 computer. Ugh. I think I failed my save vs. old software.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dropbox! (yeah, again)

Monday night, I was extolling the virtues of the Dropbox tool to my Writer's Roundtable. They asked me to share the details with them, so last night I sent out an email to the group, and got a great question in return. I thought it would make a fine article to share them both.

Hello Writers,

Per requests from last evening’s meeting, I’m posting this info regarding the Dropbox software that I use and absolutely love. Dropbox is a FREE utility that installs on any computer (well, maybe not Jeff’s), as well as on most mobile devices like Smartphones and (I believe) iPads. It leverages “Cloud” technology, which is a fancy way of saying that it stores data on servers that are off in a datacenter somewhere and you never physically see them, but they’re accessible from anywhere through the Internet. Dropbox has two key features that make it super-useful to me and many other writers, and I suspect it might be great for some of you as well. They are:

1.    Accessibility – by storing your key files in your computer’s Dropbox folder and connecting to the Internet, those files become accessible from anywhere. Access them from a Library or a friend’s computer via any web browser. Access them from a smartphone or other mobile device. Access them from any  other computer you own, and always be sure that you’re getting the current version.
a.    As a sub-feature of item 1, the files are always synchronized as long as you’re connected to the internet, so you never have to worry that you have different versions of your files on different computers. Your Dropbox folders are always up to date!
2.    Remote, secure storage – by putting your files up “in the cloud,” you ensure that they’re safe, even if something awful happens to your computer (right Eric?!). And the files are transmitted and stored using military-grade encryption, so you don’t have to worry about security (assuming you use a good password and keep it secret, keep it safe).
a.    Again, as a sub-feature of item 2, Dropbox maintains a log of all the files you’ve added, changed, or deleted, and using that log you can undelete files, even if they’re completely erased from your Dropbox folder and all the computers it’s installed on. I’ve never needed to use this feature, but it’s awesome to know that it’s there if I ever mistakenly delete or overwrite an irreplaceable document.

There are also a handful of other features – including the ability to “share” a particular folder with specific individuals so they can access it from anywhere, but the ones above are the biggies.

Personally, I have ALL of my novel, short story, research, and notes files stored on my Dropbox, ensuring that I can access them from any of my computers and making certain that they’re safely backed up in the event of a disaster of less than biblical proportions. I keep lots of other documents there, too. It’s become my one-stop repository for anything I consider important.

So why am I sharing this info with all of you? Well, certainly because I was asked to after I raved about it at the meeting last night. Also because I think it’s a terrific tool and I’d feel better knowing that the files you all work so hard to create are safely stored away where you can get to them, but where harm cannot. And, in the interests of full disclosure, I get a bonus amount of free space in my Dropbox every time somebody I refer to the service downloads and installs Dropbox using my link. But fear not – it’s totally fair, because each of those people ALSO get free space by using my link. So it’s win-win!

Anyway, here’s the link:

You don’t have to use my link, but you’ll get 256 MB of free space if you do, so you probably should. Once you’ve downloaded and installed the software, note that you can also get bonus free space by completing the “tour” on the website and various other simple tasks. Be sure to check it out at after you’ve created your account and installed the software.

Any questions about Dropbox, don’t hesitate to ask. I wouldn’t recommend it so highly if I didn’t believe it was an absolutely outstanding tool that I think  you’ll all love as much as I do.


One of my group's member responded with this question:

Hi Mike,

I appreciate the information you have passed on and I am very interested in some type of 'cloud' filing/saving. I do have a concern though - I listened to a fairly lengthy discussion on this type of data saving on NPR last week and they basically said that when you save all of your stuff on a free database there are risks involved. When downloading free software, the company providing that service usually has no contract or liability when it comes to protecting your stuff. Whereas, if you pay for a service - there is a contractual relationship established, therefore more of an incentive to protect.

I really know very little about this except what I heard on that program and some subsequent Google searches after, but is the military-grade encrypted safety the same as brought to us by WikiLeaks? (Okay, too dramatic, but you get my drift.) I'm just wondering how you are convinced of the safety of anything that is a free service?

Further thoughts and knowledge on this subject welcome....
Here's my reply:

“Military grade” encryption refers to how data is deliberately scrambled in such a way that somebody trying to catch it as it flits around the internet or somebody trying to hack it from the computer where it’s stored cannot unscramble it. Well, technically they could, but they’d need the world’s most powerful computer running for about a hundred years to do it, so it’s considered unbreakable. The standard is 128-bit, and it’s the same stuff banks use for online banking. It’s generally considered completely secure.

Nothing was “decrypted” as far as Wikileaks is concerned. Wikileaks is just a storehouse – think of it as a public repository where anybody who wants to can take information that’s supposed to be private and toss it out for the world to see. They don’t hack into private data – it’s provided by people who legitimately have access to it. In the most infamous Wikileaks case, a soldier with top-secret-level clearance simply used his access to Defense Department computer systems to copy the files he wanted onto a CD that was labeled “Lady Gaga” and then walk out of the building with it.

None of which has anything at all to do with Dropbox. They could as easily have said “Banking-grade encryption” because it’s the same thing.

As to the point made on NPR – in a properly-developed “Cloud-based” system, even the people running the “cloud” shouldn’t be able to access your data. Dropbox has a pretty good reputation on the web, so I’m comfortable that nobody there is sifting through my files (or is even able to if they wanted to). Now, the other question might be, “What if Dropbox suddenly goes out of business tomorrow. Do I lose all of my files?” Luckily, the answer is “no,” because in addition to being stored on Dropbox’s servers, all of your files are also stored locally on your computer.

In my opinion, the risk that my files would get lost because my computer suffers catastrophic hardware failure is MUCH higher than the risk that Dropbox is going to lose my data. And the value of having my data not only protected off-site, but also available and synchronized no matter which of my computing devices I’m using, more than outweighs any theoretical (and at this point entirely unsubstantiated) risks.

And bear in mind, Dropbox is only Free at its most basic level. They offer a relatively modest amount of space for nothing. But if you want to back up your entire iTunes or MP3 collection, it probably won’t fit within the free service. If you want to back up large photography files or videos, that probably won’t fit. If you need off-site synchronization and storage to run a business that uses large files or a lot of data, it’s not going to fit in the amount of space you get for free. Dropbox’s bread and butter is in their PAID services, and they’re not going to risk putting themselves out of business by screwing their free users. Their free service is the loss-leader designed to generate positive buzz, interest, and word-of-mouth so they can sell their premium service to the people who need it. So yes, I trust them as much as I would if I were one of their paying customers, because it’s still in their interest to treat me well, and counter to their interests to treat me poorly.

Great question!
So there you have it - Dropbox is awesome. And if you're going to get it anyway (and I can't think of really anyone who wouldn't get some value out of it), be sure to use my link and enjoy the extra space you'll get.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

America: The Slovening

There was a time when personal grooming and fashion were considered absolutely vital in America. Formality was the norm. If you were going to church on Sunday, men wore a suit and a hat, women a dress and bonnet (or hat). The same for everyday tasks, like going to work or the grocery store. Nearly everything was more formal, from face-to-face greetings and salutations to written correspondence. In fact, someone could expect to spend a significant amount of time grooming and dressing, writing a letter, or doing most other things. What's fascinating to me is that as chores like cooking, cleaning, and traveling have been made faster and easier by modern conveniences, we've at the same time simply abandoned formalities that, in theory, we now could spend more time on.

Scott Adams pokes fun at this a bit on the cover of his book "Casual Day has Gone Too Far." In it, we see Dilbert and his co-workers in various attire, from a tutu to completely nude. It's funny, but it's actually not all that far off. Have you looked into a classroom lately? Dilbert in his bathrobe is humorous, but students in their pajamas are just slovenly. What started to become commonplace in colleges a decade ago has now, as often happens, filtered down into the primary schools. It wouldn't surprise me to see it make its way into the workplace shortly thereafter. Certainly the suit and tie has gone out of fashion at most businesses.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to lament the passing of the necktie per se. But I wonder how much more casual our society can really get. Long, carefully-handwritten letters have given way to emails (which, incredibly, are also falling out of fashion already), twitter posts, and text messages. Business attire has given way to business casual, to casual, and (at least in schools) ultimately to scruffy, unkempt sleepware.

I suspect that this is the natural progression of modern society - as we're challenged less, we challenge ourselves less. As things get easier to do, we expect less of ourselves. Food and nutrition are, I think, another fine example of this behaviour. Since the 1980s, or even as far back as the invention of the TV Dinner in the 1950s, meals have been changing from formal affairs of carefully-selected foods and family togetherness to a continuous daily grazing interspersed by periods of greater caloric intake, but with very little non-processed food involved. The meal is no longer, replaced by the "eating occasions" that pop up all through the day. And formal food - found on the outside walls of the supermarket, for the most part - has been replaced with the quicker, more casual "food product" which is barely recognizable as food at all, either in appearance or based in its list of ingredients. I mean, really, who'd chose "high fructose corn syrup" as an ingredient if they were going to sit down and decide what to feed their family? And if you did decide you needed it as an ingredient, where would you use it - in the dessert? Or in every single item you prepared?

I don't miss formality for formality's sake. Suits and ties, let alone the powdered wigs of our founding fathers, were uncomfortable to wear, expensive to maintain, and added a lot of extra time to the simple process of getting dressed. I'm happy with a T-shirt and jeans for the most part. But I do lament the loss of some of the attitudes that went along with the formality. The idea of taking personal pride on one's appearance was part of an overall code of behavior that I think made society more genteel. The quest for "faster and easier" threatens to make us a weak, fat, slovenly people. I've certainly seen it in myself. It's something I'd like to change. It's something I'd like very much to help my children avoid completely. But that won't make much of a dent in our overall culture, and I'm profoundly troubled that it's going to get worse for us before it gets better - that our casual attitude toward personal grooming, toward health and nutrition, toward our studies (I mean, don't even get me started on kids attitudes toward doing their homework today, or the lax expectations of college professors toward their students' quality of work), toward work, and toward social interactions will leave us poorly prepared to deal with the challenges of the next fifty years.

If, as I suspect, our formality gave us a buffer - if slowing things down and being deliberate about our choices, our interactions, our communications, made us more thoughtful and considerate - then abandoning that formality may not just leave us as casual, but as casualties.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Quest for Iaido

It shouldn't be this hard. I live in a pretty good-sized city. It's not huge, but neither is it small. That's one of the things I've always liked about Syracuse - it's small enough that it doesn't have issues like traffic jams and the like, but it's big enough to (usually) have most of the services, entertainment, and businesses I want. Certain martial arts are a notable exception, however.

In Syracuse, you can train in a few different flavors of Goju-Ryu karate, from the traditional flavor of Syracuse Jundokan to the more Americanized version you'd find at Greg Tearney's. You can train in Kenpo at FiveStar Martial Arts, but it's pretty different from what you'd find at an Ed Parker-logo'd school. There's also Duncan's Chinese Kenpo, which is also its own animal (no pun intended). Sun Chong teaches Tae Kwon Do. There are at least two kung-fu schools - Syracuse Kung Fu and White Crane - both on the East side of town. Likewise, Aikido of CNY is over in that area, too. There's Tai Kai if you want Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And there's more MMA than you can shake a stick at, from LaVallee's to Carlos Tearney's Champions MMA to Curtis Tillman's and many, many others.

But that's pretty much it. If you're interested in other styles of martial arts, you're out of luck. There's no Shotokan Karate here. No Israeli Krav Maga. No Russian Systema. No Filipino Arnis or Escrima. And no Kendo or Iaido (much less the rarer Kenjutsu or Iaijutsu). In fact, the closest that you can find any of these is Rochester or Utica, and the latter city is a fraction the size of Syracuse.

I'm not going to try to guess why the Syracuse martial arts community isn't more diverse. It seems that a few schools in particular have been extraordinarily successful here - Tearney's and LaVallee's in particular - and it may be that that has something to do with it. I don't really know. I do know that I want to learn Iaido, and I'm having a hell of a time finding a local teacher. I followed a couple of local leads, but they dead-ended. That leaves me with a really solid teacher in Utica who isn't accepting new students at the moment, and another in Rochester about whom I don't really know much.

That's a shame, because I think Iaido is an absolutely beautiful, elegant art. It's the closest martial art to the practices of the Japanese Samurai, who were a unique and fascinating warrior class noted for the graceful strength of their swords.Iaido has no person-to-person combat, no sparring. From what I've seen, it's not much of a workout. Instead, it focuses intensely on the precise control and movements of the katana sword - drawing, striking, and resheathing the blade according to prescribed sets of movements. It takes the weapons of war and makes them beautiful. It takes the legacy of the Samurai, which was at times brutal, even monstrous (just as European knights weren't all chivalric protectors of the downtrodden) and makes it pure and clean. If I ever have the money, I'd love to own a high-quality katana someday, but if I were to do so, I'd also want to know how to hold it and use it properly (just as I wouldn't want to own a Ferrari if I didn't know how to drive). I want to embrace this ancient weapon of war and the movements that go with it. I want to feel the power of battle transformed into a quiet, meditative, even artistic act. I want to, and perhaps I will. But I probably won't be learning it in Syracuse.

Friday, March 4, 2011

[Karate] Halfway to the Beginning

Last night, my family and I earned our blue belts at karate. As Sensei Oddy says, we all look like "karate smurfs" now with our blue gis and blue belts.

So that means we're halfway to earning our black belts - at least in terms of the number of belts between white and black. Chronologically, we're probably more like a third of the way there at best. "There" being the storied "black belt" that so many people, in the U.S. anyway, associate with mastery of a martial art. It's really a beginning, though. Just as you have to "master" the elementary concepts of gradeschool before going on to high school and college to really learn useful skills like critical thinking, you have to know your basics in karate before you can fully understand the underlying concepts.

Which doesn't make us any less thrilled to have earned our blue belts. As awkward as I often still feel, I've definitely improved in balance, strength, power, and endurance in the last year. My stances are still sloppy, but less sloppy than they used to be. I'm working hard to be sure I generate power from my hips, not just my shoulders, and I think I've made progress there as well.

Better still, I get to watch my kids in action, which is awesome. My boys tend to be kind of half-assed unless they're really motivated, but even with them I've seen progress. My daughter, though, has grown tremendously in coordination and self-confidence, and it's great to share her enthusiasm and excitement.

There's an awful lot left to learn, and a lot of work remaining to forge our bodies into the kind of tools we want them to be. But forging takes heat and hammering, and there's a lot of that left to do. Progress is good though, and it feels great to have met another milestone in our lifelong journey.

Next stop - green belt! The expectations get higher, the techniques and kata get tougher, and hopefully the kicks get higher and stronger. Woo hoo!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

[Game Review] Metroplexity

If you go to Metroplexity's website, you'll find a game that's in early beta, but is still very playable. It's a neat idea - an entirely web-based game that's a mix of text, simplistic artwork, and a combat system that's simple and yet extensive. It's incomplete - there's a point at which you can finish most or all of the game's content and there's nothing more to do even though the story remains incomplete. Still, you can easily play for several weeks before you reach that point.

The game doesn't put a lot of effort into helping players along. This is good because it challenges you to figure out what's going on, but it's also annoying if you don't really understand what the heck you're supposed to be doing. Still, it reminded me of the old 80s text-based adventures, where you were told almost nothing about how to play the game, and had to stumble along trying to figure out what to do. Those games really put hair on your chest, so to speak, and today's gamers are spoiled by comparison.

One thing that took me quite a while to figure out was the combat system. It's evidently based on card games like Magic: The Gathering or somesuch, where you build "decks" of combat techniques and then have to play them in sequence to build combinations. Moreover, certain techniques or combinations will work better in some situations or others, so you need to account for that. Finally, there are three types of attacks - melee, ranged and the sort-of magical "etheric," and you really ought to choose your attacks based on the sort of weapon you're using. I eventually figured out that I could build separate decks, and I split my cards into "melee" and "ranged" decks so that I could match them up to my chosen weapons.

The ability to move your character around in the game and take action is based on energy points. You get a certain number of points each day, and you can recover some of them by using food or drugs. Once you've exhausted all of your energy, your hunger and your "body" (which is consumed by using the special drugs and drug-like substances, like coffee), you're done for the day. This definitely limits how much time you can put into the game. Again, this is good if you're inclined to get sucked in and spend too much time playing the game, but managing your energy can be a bit of a nuisance and sometimes seemed like it got in the way of playing the game.

But gameplay aside, the game is fun to play, presents an interesting storyline, and challenges the player to figure out what's going on and then solve it. That's what's really important after all. Granted, Metroplexity is still in "early beta," so it's not perfect and it's not done. But it's also completely free - which it might or might not be when it's finished (I haven't seen anything one way or the other). As free games go, its unique and entertaining enough to be a great way to spend some time. I liked it enough to give it a B, and when it's finished it could easily rise higher than that.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

[Game Review] Assassin's Creed 2

I played the first Assassin's Creed a year ago, and I enjoyed it very much. (Click the link to read my review of the first game). It had some flaws, but overall it was a solid game, especially since I paid almost nothing for it. In many things - games, books, and movies especially - we hope that sequels will manage to capture what we liked about the original and then improve upon it. All too often, they fail to achieve either or both of those goals. Assassin's Creed 2 is the happy exception.

Assassin's Creed 2 managed to maintain much of the feel of the original game, from the historic settings to the combat moves and the relatively open nature of the gameplay. It downplayed the need to perform a wide variety of side missions in each city, concentrating instead on the main storyline. But it made up for that by making the main storyline extremely compelling.

Sadly, some of the original's flaws carried over as well. For instance, it's often incredibly frustrating to get your character to move precisely where and how you want, even when you use the controls precisely as designed. The ONLY time I found myself cursing this game was when I would follow a pickpocket all over town, finally catch up to him, and then somehow swing my fist at empty air instead of clouting him soundly like I should have. Or when the game would cause my character to jump off in some random direction that had nothing to do with the keystrokes I entered, for no apparent reason, and usually get me killed. Man I hated that. It was especially frustrating because, much of the time, the game is really, really smooth about figuring out where you wanted your guy to go, so he could effortlessly swing and jump from one precarious perch to the next. So when that capability failed - when the game not only didn't figure out what you were trying to do, but actually did something fatally contrary to what you were explicitly telling it to do - it was doubly frustrating.

This game actually involves the same "character," in the sense that you're playing a modern-era man who is descended from the "assassins" in the game. He is able to use these high-tech machines to enter a virtual world with his mind, where adventures from his ancestors are recreated. This allows him to explore where they lived, learn what they knew, and investigate people, places, and hidden clues that offer up information he and his cohorts can use in present day. The first time, he lived life in the body of an assassin in the Middle East during the time of the crusades. In the sequel, he takes on the identity of a Florentine nobleman who must avenge his family and continue to fight against the evil Templars, who continue to plot world domination right up through the present day.

Other changes include a wide array of different weapons, a home base that you can enter pretty much whenever you like, and money that's used to procure your new weapons and armor, as well as to make improvements to your home town. The weapons give you steadily increasing combat effectiveness throughout the game. The introduction of money, however, was somewhat clumsy. By midway through the game, I had such a ridiculous amount of money that it ceased to have any meaning for me. Only in the very earliest stages of the game did I ever make any real decisions based on what I could afford.

Lastly, the sequel introduced a series of puzzle-style mini-games, where you had to unravel the pieces of a mystery by finding and then decoding them one at a time. I found these mini-games extremely tedious, and most of them I only managed to solve by randomly clicking stuff until something positive happened.

Overall, though, Assassin's Creed 2 was a worthy successor to the original, and just as much fun to play. Better still, it didn't shoehorn you into a single fighting style at the very end, which really affected my ability to fully enjoy the first game. The game didn't feel quite as open as the first one - I was encouraged more to follow a prescribed series of quests in order - and I'm not sure there was quite as much strategy involved as in the first game. Still, it kept me cheerfully occupied for a couple of weeks, and that's really what I ask my games to do for me. I look forward to the forthcoming Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood to be released for the PC, and then a year later I can buy it when it's suitably discounted.

I rate Assassin's Creed 2 an A- and recommend it highly!