Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Uppercut, Uppercut, Jab, Jab, Jab.

Don't ask me why, I never could explain it. Not even years ago when my older kids were tiny and my wife would give me that look. You may know the one, the one most wives give you that is at once a mix of curiosity at just what degree of insanity your suffering from coupled with an oh so subtle suggestion to not repeat whatever you just did in public anytime soon. Yeah, that look.

I used to get the look for doing, well, any number of things. Over the years it has become a talent I suppose, something I excel at with the expertise of a master. But one of them in particular was when I'd play with the kids like they were tiny little boxers, holding them in my lap and miming their little arms. In a playful little tempo I'd recite that simple little pattern, sometimes I'd even add a little 'one-two-one-two.' It's never been anything I can trace back to any reason, just a little thing I did, and still do. Most of my kids never even seem to remember it.

And then last night happened.

To my youngest son's delight my sister sent home a copy of the movie Real Steel for him to get to watch since she had noticed he adored the commercials for it. Sure enough it was all he talked about until we put it in last night, and still has him fixated. As far as movies go I have to admit it was a awesome film. I lost count the number of times all 4 of my children were leaping up from their seats to shadow box with the film or exclaim their excitement.

Even my daughters were not immune to the movie's appeal. Knowing full well that I would certainly be greeted with 'the look' I have grown accustomed to, I brought to my wife's attention our 3 year old daughter's proclamation that she was a 'robot princess' as she proudly displayed her boxing prowess with a 'uppercut, uppercut, jab, jab, jab.'

If you haven't yet seen the film, I implore you to as soon as you can. There is so much more depth to it than you would expect. The cliche tag on the case claimed that it was "like rocky but with robots." And as silly as some people will undoubtedly find that, it is also just as inspiring and endearing. You can't help but feel and root for the little underdog robot Atom, but more so for stories father and son team.

As many writers have said before; real steel isn't in strength or power, but in the courage and will of the heart to never give up. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Entering E-Reader Land.

You may be familiar with the recent explosion of interest in e-readers and tablets, especially after the holiday shopping season. In fact, according to recent reports as many as one in four Americans own an e-reader/tablet. It has become a rapidly growing market that is being shaped by how we consume media. And as with any new tech trend a good deal of confusion is abounding by people approaching it. With that in mind I thought I might bring up a few points for you to consider if your thinking of getting yourself an e-reader/tablet.

E-Ink vs. LCD - Are you a big reader? Do you spend a lot of your time reading, going through multiple books a week, needing only crisp text and long battery life to satisfy you? If that is the case there are a number of great low-cost options out there that make use of the revolutionary electronic ink display. They're known for minimizing eye strain and being comfortable to read even in direct sunlight. However unlike their alternative they are limited by needing external light sources if your reading in low light or at night.

If your a reader but find yourself desiring a different experience, the option of LCD might be for you. Devices with an LCD display are quite capable of providing you with colorful media like magazines in addition to a bit more flexibility. While many E-Ink based devices are capable of accessing the web and other functions it is here where they are limited. In contrast though, LCD's tend to give you the ability to view web sites in color not to mention other forms of media. 

The simple answer here is that if your looking for a pure reading experience go with an E-Ink device. If your looking for more flexibility and don't mind the shorter battery life then LCD may be for you.

Kindle vs. Nook - One of the biggest questions most consumers have been asking is which of the two biggest names out there is right for them. It isn't any thing to answer to be fair, but it is one you really should spend time considering. Many experts have been relegating simply to which ecosystem your more comfortable with; Barnes & Noble or Amazon. And while that is a factor I must say my own view is a little different.

For me the choice boils down to a few key issues:
1.) Do you value hardware or software? This is a primary concern if your looking at the newer LCD based devices like the Kindle Fire, Nook Color or Nook Tablet. While their specs are similar you should take note that the Nook takes the edge when it comes to hardware. Both Nook's are equipped with external micro sd card slots allowing you to not only expand their storage but also giving you the option to run alternate operating systems.

The Kindle though takes the lead when it comes to Software. By that, I mean that the Kindle has at it's disposal a somewhat larger selection of applications along with the impressive wealth of media Amazon is known for. Currently Nook users can only use third party distributors for streaming movies and video while Amazon has it's own library of streamable content as well as partnerships with other distributors.

2.) Specialization or Adaptability. While both brands have made devices that specialize in media consumption I find that there seems to be a difference between the two. For example the Fire seems to me to excel at multimedia like video, where it clearly seems to specialize itself a bit more than the Nook's. But the flip side is that it doesn't lend itself to being adaptable to the user's needs as well. More specifically, the Nooks instead feel designed to take advantage of flexibility. Don't like the stock version of Android? No problem, pop in a sd card with another version and boom - your booting into whatever flavor that suits your taste. Your device short on storage space or acting like it's got an issue, again you have options via your built in card slot. Even without the card slot you can change something as simple(yet user satisfying) as your back ground, something the Fire can't claim without alterations.

These may be some vague generalizations but I feel they're still valid things to consider. And I can honestly say that I personally prefer the Nook devices, but for me their hardware appeal and customization is a major bonus. I have seen a Fire first hand and can't fault the design, it's a nice little device in it's own right.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Android Adventures.

Fascination has seized upon me. Which, might come as no surprise to many who know me well. The cause, you may ask, is such a simple one that it might even give you pause for a laugh(it's okay if you do, go ahead). My father-in-law came down for a visit this last weekend and he brought with him his newest tech-toy: an amazon kindle fire. And while I only allowed myself to explore it for about five minutes or so to minimize it's absence from his hand it did ignite my curiosity.

I've heard about e-readers and tablets for a long time, even glanced at some of the info about them online in passing. What I hadn't done, until now, was actively explore this particular technology trend. I found myself instantly puzzling over the devices' architecture - what hardware did it make use of, what operating system even? Even the mystery of it's accepted programming languages toyed at the back of my mind.

So, like I have said before: if there is something you want to know - look it up. And you know what? I did just that. In fact, over the last few days I have found myself digesting just about everything I can come across on the subject. Android continues to be a fascinating and strange beast that I can't help but want to understand more as well as the fact it pushes me to admit there is so much more I have to learn.

The appeal of a portable means of reading as well as access to other content has always been a selling point for me. I mean, I own a netbook and have loved the little thing ever since I made the purchase. But the potential of some of these newer devices for tinkering opens a whole new array of options that are quite tantalizing. Plus, I now find myself motivated to expand my programming repertoire from my visual basic.net comfort zone into more established languages like C and Java.

Will I take the plunge? Let's just say not only am I getting well versed at the various leading models available, their hardware configurations but also in their ability to lend themselves towards user customization. That and I've already secured my lovely wife's approval. [If married guys, take my advice and always seek your significant others' counsel first, especially if your dealing with limited resources. It's always a wise move.]

Give me time, and if there is any interest I'll see if I can post some information to help clear the muddy waters out there for anyone else thinking of looking into this fascinating topic.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hack The Planet.

Something monumental(in my meager opinion) has taken place today. And weather or not it will have lasting effect or how it will be remembered will remain to be seen for some time. However it reminds me of a movie from our not so distant past: Hackers. In a somewhat analogous way it focuses on the digital exploits of intelligent individuals banding together to tackle a greater issue using something as simple as technological familiarity itself. Now they also wielded the formidable battle-cry: "Hack The Planet!"

In a similar vein it seems that those who sought to usurp the primal forces of the internet via legal enslavement that seem to cry foul at another group of capable individuals banding together. The venerable Mitch Canter actually puts it a lot more succinctly than I  in his most recent blog post. It was actually his post that reminded me of those immortal words: "Hack The Planet."

It seems that we have perhaps begun to do just that. But we'll have to stay on our toes and keep an eye on things because there are still those out there determined to see laws like SOPA, PIPA and OPEN succeed. One way or another. We have fought for freedom, our nation has bled for others' freedoms as well as our own. Our voices have let them know we will not stay quiet, that we will fight, as our fore fathers before us.

So if you haven't already, let your elected officials know where you stand. Don't ignore these laws or others like them, and don't expect them to fix themselves. We have to stand up and speak. In short we have to "Hack The Planet."

Oh, and forgive the puns, and well, this last one: Keep an eye out for those Cereal Killers; they tend to leave milky outlines of their victims.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Terrible Tower.

I wrote this little adventure as a follow up to two of my kids initial foray into playing the Pathfinder Rpg. While it uses my a fore-mentioned guidelines, it does expand on things a bit. Feel free to use it yourself if you like, just know that it is currently written with children aged approximately 4-6 in mind playing 1st level characters.

The Synopsis: A pretty elven princess has been kidnapped and taken away to a tower. When a group of goblins and hobgoblins demand gold for her release, her family must beg for some brave heroes to save her. Before it's too late!

Rewards: The elf's can't afford to pay the heroes, but they will offer them each a magical elven cloak to protect them from bad magic. (Cloak of resistance +1)

Monsters: 2 sets of 3 Goblins; 6 hp, 16 ac, Short Sword +2(1d4), or Short Bow +4(1d4) [400xp each]
3 sets of 2 Hobgoblins; 17 hp, 16 ac, Long Sword +4(1d8+2), or Long Bow +3(1d8) [400xp each]
1 Sorcerer; 18 hp, 15 ac, Claws +2(1d4+1) Spells - Magic Missile (1d4+1), Hold Portal, Sleep (Dc 12) [600xp] *Only 5 total spells can be cast by the sorcerer, in any combination. However, his first action should be to cast hold portal on the door to lock the would be saviors in. As a last ditch effort he may resort to casting sleep on any hero he finds a pressing threat before attempting to flee.

The Tower's layout: A simple structure, the tower itself is made up of a central room with a pair of hobgoblins guarding outside. Once inside 3 goblins await along with 3 doors. One door leads to 2 more hobgoblins preparing for bed, another 3 more goblins eating, and the last 3 goblins guarding a staircase upwards. Feel free to place each room in any order you like, their primary purpose is to give the players a chance to explore the tower in a fundamental level without being overly complicated. However it is once they rise the stairs they will find the princess along with the sorcerer as he greedily awaits his gold.

I hope you enjoy the adventure of playing with kids, because around every corner is another surprise,

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Kiddie Conundrum.

Alright, so I ran a ultra-light version of Pathfinder last night for my kids, and they fell in love with it. Looking over my notes I've been digesting the events and contemplating what all worked in hopes it'll help me with all the games to come. Other parents out there may have already participated in similar activities with their kids or be considering it, so I thought I'd post my thoughts.  Either way it might help me gather feedback or perhaps even ease the workload of others. Which is always a noble endeavor amongst us DM's, right?

First off, let's just start with the most obvious edict of all; Keep It Simple. A child's attention span as well as their ability to juggle complex concept can vary so wildly between kids that I found it best to forgo a lot of elements of the game. Basically I boiled it down the core essential parts needed for the simplest format I could. Namely, I stuck to simple combat mechanics like armor class, hit points, attack modifier and damage. In this regard we didn't factor in alot of details like range, movement, vision or even critical hits. Upon each child's turn I merely allowed to choose if they wanted to attack and if so how. They could run up and attack the monsters, shoot at them, etc. And don't even bother with initiative. Base your turn sequence on age, let the youngest go first and then go up from there. This way the younger kids will get the thrill of going first and the oldest(most likely you/monsters) will get to go last giving your young heroes the chance to be, well, heroic.

Which leads me to my second issue; Remember this is an introduction, and these are just kids. As I already mentioned we didn't get into alot of traditional aspects of the game. But this was just for the kids to try out and see if they would even like it. With that in mind I generated the characters for them, they were as generic as I could be and as boiled down as you can get. What is simpler than a brutish fighter with a greatsword or a nimble ranger complete with bow and short sword? The fighter allowed my son the ability to dive right into combat and feel like a heroic champion. In contrast the ranger gave my daughter the ability to choose weather or not she wanted to blast out arrows or go toe to toe.

Now this approach also disregarded alot of things some may question; like class features, skills and yes even feats. I didn't feel like the kids needed to worry with anything of the like, at least not yet anyway.  The fighter didn't have any special feats to draw on and we never even got into the ranger tracking or favored enemies. All they had to focus on was thinking about the character they were playing and some basic combat. They got the excitement of rolling the dice and waiting to see the result. It really helped things move quickly and keep their attention. In truth by the end of the adventure I had to wonder if it hadn't worked too well.

The third issue to consider is one you may not even think of; Consider Your Audience. Sure, you probably do just that in any other game but you have to be doubly careful with kids. If your selecting monsters for the adventure, keep in mind their scare factor and how you may describe them. Will they spook the kids? If so, you might want to rethink the choice.  For example; undead and the like might not be the best choice unless the kids are a little older. Also, when you go to describe them make sure you use details they can grasp. Use things like explaining them as angry, or mean so they can easily respond/interpret. On the same note carefully choose your motivation. If the players are kids it is best to give them something they can identify with. Some easy options for any kid are the most obvious: saving or helping the grown ups, especially if they aren't able to is always a good one. Children love to, in my opinion, show that they can do something others can't. It lets them feel good about themselves and establishes some means of identity from other. And if they can save/aid an adult it reinforces that sense of self worth. They depend on us for so much, it is a major thrill when they can feel like we are having to depend on them.

My last real issue is a simple but important one: Guide Them, But Don't Forget To Let Them Guide You.
What I mean by this is, as you play don't hesitate to guide kids as they play. Start off by offering them options like if they want to fight the monsters or run. Give them little cues like reminding them how the monsters ran into that cave, and they still have the medicine your after. The trick, though, is in letting them guide you. Watch them for cues if your description is upsetting them or if they're simply not enjoying things. If they are handling things well and you think they can then by all means feel free to introduce some of the other game elements. This could be as simple as providing them a couple skills or a feat or two. However if you were to decide to incorporate a more complex class like a cleric or wizard I'd recommend keeping them as simple and straight-forward too. Namely let the cleric heal other characters a couple times a day, or a wizard with just a couple of spells at their disposal. You shouldn't even try to bring anything like spell failure or spell preparation into the game for awhile either way. Like I said, let them guide you on how much they can handle and you just help them as they discover how much that is.

I'm fairly sure that if you do that, then everyone will have fun.

Oh, and lest I forget - That is the primary goal here, right? Don't force them to play, and likewise don't feel like you have to run games for your kids just because you enjoy playing yourself. But if they do want to, I'll share with you my most successful strategy: look at everything through their eyes. If you think it'd be funny to them then by all means describe the kobold attacking them when he misses as sticking his 'pointy stick' into the dirt and gesture as if your him and it's stuck.(Grunts and animal sounds can help too). I know we enjoyed it, I only hope if you decide to try it you all will too.  

Friday, January 13, 2012

Mighty Midgets & Monsters.

When everyone in town falls ill and the local merchant's medicine is stolen only some brave kids can save the day.

That was the only plot needed to delight a pair of children and spark their imagination. My middle two children have seen us play D&D and the like before, they've marveled at the dice as if they were precious and magical gems even. But up till now they have never really gotten the chance to take part. As I recently became reminded of how their older brother used to have a similar curiosity and how he came to start playing it really got me thinking. Especially since his earliest teachers marveled at his math skills not to mention his familiarity with problem solving.

Playing something everyone else perceives as complicated and relegated to nerds in a basement actually helped him in ways I had never considered. He quickly grasped adding and subtracting as we handled dice rolls. Honestly, he even shocked his own mother and me with how he could figure some situations out. He even used to out think some adults at the table a few times, much to their dismay. All things considered, he had a blast playing and I enjoyed our little mini-sessions.

Now, let's get something clear right away though; he never played with all the advanced rules. Something that many adults I know have to admit as well! There was no combat maneuvers like trips or bull rush, and we never really forced him to track all his gears weight(at first). Even with lightening the rules load the truth of the matter was he was still playing the actual game.

Fast forward to present day and he sat watching down the table as his siblings started their own journey. Again, I kept it as simple as I could. Here is my notes for the adventure:

For my son(4 yr old), we have the brave and tough little fighter 'Bear-Claw.'
Fighter level 1
Hp - 12 Ac - 17
Weapons - Greatsword (We called it his giant's sword) +3 to hit, 2d6+3 damage, Dagger +3 to hit, 1d4+2 damage.
My daughter(5 yr old), we have the lovely young woodsman's daughter 'Lula-Belle.'
Ranger level 1
Hp - 11 Ac - 18
Weapons - Shortsword +2 to hit, 1d6+1 damage, Long Bow +4 to hit, 1d8 damage.

For monsters we had about 6 naughty little kobolds and a mean white dragon wyrmling. Again, their stats consisted simply of their respective hp, ac, and attacks. The dragon was confined to bites, claws and a 2d4 breath weapon with a short range. Nothing overly complex or too scary, this was to be fun.

To start things off I called the kids to the table and sat down with my notebook, a pencil and my dice bag. I carefully explained, rather told them as simply as I could that we were about to play a little game. I looked to my little boy and told him he would get to be this tough and strong boy named 'Bear-Claw' who had a giant's sword and a knife in his pocket. His sister watched as I told her she was going to be a young lady from the woods who know lots about hunting and animals. Her name was 'Lula-Belle' and she had a short little sword as well as a big bow with a lot of arrows.

For atmosphere I kept my descriptions short and lively, trying to keep their attention and let them really get into things. They listened as I explained how everyone else in town had fallen sick and only they were still well. As I gestured like a wounded man they watched me pretend to be a mugged merchant on the way to deliver medicine. They took the hook right away and declared they would stop those pesky monsters!

Quickly they ran into the direction the merchant pointed and spotted 6 kobolds trying to make off with sacks of medicine towards the mountain. I decided to use age in place of initiative so the youngest could go first to maintain their excitement and too so that the monsters(me) always went last. Bear-Claw charged forward to slam his massive blade upside a kobolds head and knocked it out. Lula-Belle took aim and sent another to the realm of the unconscious(you may notice nothing died, only knocked out - they're kids, I opted to forgo the element of death and physical harm). After the kobold missed, Bear-Claw mopped the third up only to find the other three had ran ahead into a cave with the medicine.

Now, I'll admit I did guide the kids just a bit, even reminded them that caves are dark places. But my son actually(in his own way) knew just what to do and pulled out a torch to light the way. [His actual response was that it was okay he had a magical flash light in his head, so I merely redirected him to look through his backpack and therein he found a 'magical torch' instead.] After the brave little band thoroughly thrashed the other three kobolds they decided to head to the back of the cave to retrieve the medicine.

This was the fun part, I won't lie. Because here was my chance to let them feel triumphant over the kobolds only to find something else lurking in the shadows. A strange sound like the crunching of ice they could hear and the cave felt colder. As they approached they spotted a wyrmling white dragon taking up position by the medicine and growling angry. It was here that my son surprised me, for he wouldn't attack the dragon. Was it the fact it was a small sized baby one that he inherently felt mercy for, I dunno. But his sister saw no such restraint and let an arrow fly. However, it can be said when the dragon strove to unleash it's chilling breath upon her that he saw all hesitation removed.

Between the two of them it only took a handful of rounds to dispatch the beast and reclaim the medicine. To their grinning faces though they found a couple items - the meager horde the young dragon had thus far managed. Upon returning the medicine they were each rewarded with a small sack of gold(about 25g).

The whole of the adventure passed quickly enough, lasting only about 30 to 40 minutes at most. But the result was both of them were excited and begged to play more immediately. Actually, with my son's autism he saw it difficult to control his enthusiasm and launched into a string of stories he started imagining. My wife even remarked when she asked if he had fun how his pupils were literally blown from sheer excitement. I should also note he surprised me further when it came to the dragon when he asked if he had any 'magic sleeping dust."

Already I think I have their interest for sure. Not to mention the knowledge that I need to keep an eye on my son and his creative mind. We will definitely have to do this again. At least as long as the kids enjoy it and want to.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The First Whiff of Pipe Smoke.

What can I say? As any nerd ages he finds himself like many others looking back upon his past through the lens of nostalgia. It goes without saying as well that those nerds who have ever reveled at shared adventures through the imaginary landscapes of Dungeons & Dragons(or countless other Rpg's)  will no doubt cling to those richly rewarding memories. I myself can recall to mind any number of humorous and/or  exhilarating moments of personal triumph. The sad part is the more I look back though, the more I lament the gaps in the details. Little things like the various names of adventure modules I enjoyed, obscure board game titles, even the exact number of games/characters we actually managed to play elude me.

But even with all the things memory and time have conspired to deprive from me, some stay forever etched into my mind. Vividly do I recall the mental image of a grizzled character that was the first persona I ever donned in any game. He was, crafted at the time through second-hand information as a 'Man-at-arms,' a class I was assured existed. Armed with a throwing hatchet, whip, short sword and if I'm not mistaken a trusty chain mail shirt. Was he perfect? Not by any means, but he did manage to make some heroic escapes, namely one from a burning forest as I recall(the fire's cause originating from a ill-considered impulse of my younger brother).

Over the years other figures came to life within our stories to shine amongst so many dimly illuminated members of my cognitive archives. A lumbering brute of a ranger(for those 2nd ed familiar; 18(00) strength, gauntlets of ogre might, and belt of giant strength as well) that my peers spent a great deal of time exaggerating on. Instantly his intelligence became barely high enough to form more than simple grunts and short phrases, his two handed sword becoming the size of a telephone pole and his name(Denais Brightstar) a running source of endless jokes. He was a delight none the less, and spawned many a hearty laugh. There was a dwarf professional soldier, even a self made kit character that slung daggers like a wild west gunslinger. There were so many, and sadly some have faded from memory.

While I may not recall the names or all the details of many of those older modules, I don't think anyone can forget the first time they ran into Elminster, his pipe lit and a ready tale to tell. Ironically I used to struggle with what I perceived were the complexities of wizards as well as the overall feel of Faerun. That is until I read the Elminster trilogy novels. The first thing I did afterwards was beg my cousin(and at the time the default DM of our group) to borrow a players handbook and the Forgotten Realms campaign setting so I could make a wizard and a rogue.

Similarly etched within me is the first time I walked the streets of Sharn. The whole of Eberron exploded with new possibilities, dancing about inside me to tease me with a wealth of plots and stories it promised. And once more the worlds creator penned a trilogy of novels that gave me insight and understanding. But by this point I was experiencing everything from behind the curtain as I watched my players shape new stories.

I can't help but regret not playing more when I was younger, not to mention actively keeping up with our various exploits and persona's more. But I can endeavor to continue creating new memories, and who knows; there is always the chance that one might stumble into those familiar whiffs of a fresh lit pipe.

To the tales we tell and those that await us.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Morning Anything But Easy.

There was nothing easy about this morning. But some tasks, no matter how you feel about them, have to be done. Such was the case with a beloved pet: Prissy the cat. We adopted her about 4-5 years ago, an experience I'll never forget. My oldest two children decided to tag team me in a barrage of pleading and negotiating that resulted in me eventually agreeing. Of all our pet's she has been around the longest since we had the kids and in truth she has proven to be one of the best pets we ever had. She even reminded me of my own childhood pet, who managed to live a long, long life(around 20 years actually).

Unfortunately, poor prissy has not had the best health for a long time. We've struggled with our limited resources to get her seen by the vet and care for her, even buying her special foods. But as time has gone by her behavior has become more and more erratic, and her appearance itself has become an obvious sign of her torment.

So we finally had to accept it and do the merciful thing. Allowing her to live in constant agony wasn't fair to her, nor was it something we wanted to drag out as our children watched. It wasn't a duty I cherished, but this morning I had to take our beloved pet and do the final act of kindness I could for her. Now she rests under a small tree in a much more peaceful place.

No matter how we enter this world or what actions we do in it one truth will always remain: death deserves respect. So, with heavy heart I must bid farewell to a part of our family. Prissy, you were loved and will be missed. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

I Don't Like Egg On My Face, Not A Glop.

For a little over the past 2 decades I have proudly been able to proclaim myself a member of the D&D community. It has been a pleasurable hobby that has lead to some great memories in all that span of time. One I have always hoped would keep on providing me with much more enjoyment to come.

Originally, I had planned to write a post today on a completely separate topic this morning, but an explosion of news swept the notion from my mind. After returning from our weekly store run I was greeted with a surprising development that, in short, has shifted my view of Wizards of the Coast. An informative article can be found here: 5th Edition D&D Announced.

What do I make of this news? Well, to be frank I am both amazed and hopeful. But one warning screams at me from the dark abyss of my mind: Beware the eggs that might seek your face. For many that comment may seem erroneous or one made as an attempt to lure you in with humor. Ironically neither are really accurate assumptions.

To explain, let me set a little scene here. Among my peers I grew long ago to be the default DM when it came to running games, especially with regards to the 3.5 edition of the rules. My players knew the material backwards and forwards, which lead to some fantastic games still spoken of often. Some of them even regarded in hushed tones as if speaking of legendary exploits. All that aside, when 4th edition was announced many of my players became cautious, some outright furious. For a long time I preached caution and restraint in hopes that with patience the new rules might grow on them. I even bought a players handbook and advocated a series of game sessions to give it a fair shot.

As I look back on it now, I feel terrible. I've even apologized to many of my players. Instead of listening to their objections I kept insisting that they had no basis and insisted they give 4th edition a chance. Sadly though as the games came and went I was quickly opening my eyes as well. To be fair, 4th edition is a fine game. Let's just get that bit out of the way, here and now. My issue is one that is based on my own opinion, and that is that it simply isn't D&D to me.

How can that be you may be asking, it says so on the products. It even goes so far as to have the same classes and races, etc. But at the very core of it, it's designed with a different spirit. While some of it's features I can admit are enjoyable - like special attacks/powers classes can employ at will or within set limits. But the sum total of it's parts leads it to be more like a super-power based fantasy board game. Restrictions like limited alignments, focus pushed on flash MMO-style combat, not to mention the removal of simple things like craft/profession skills are just some issues. Let's not even approach the economical matters we had to wrestle with house ruling.

Not every game group plays a heroic fantasy game, and as with my group we often found ourselves struggling to find within the material support for anything else. In reality we found suggestions that we not play such themed games. After 4th edition many of my players drifted and our games slowly dried up. The discovery of Pathfinder by Paizo renewed us and has spurred us to start trying to play again. And now this new news, that a 5th edition is entering development. One that promises to be everything 4th wasn't, and perhaps might prove to redeem WotC. Deciding to go ahead with a new edition this soon can only be, to me at least, a testament to 4th editions short-comings.  

As much as I am trying to remain optimistic, I can still see the look in my players eyes as I spoke similar words before.

Man, do I hate eggs...

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Ambush Wisdom

There are times in our life where pearls of wisdom are presented to us. The catch, however, is that that very wisdom isn't always delivered by a sage-like figure or for that matter immediately recognizable as such. You can never truly predict who it may be that will deliver some valuable insight into your life, often enough it simply ambushes you when you least expect it.

Over the years my own father has proven to be an effective agent of wisdom's attempts to ambush me. Now my father would be the first to deny any allusions to being described as brilliant. Instead he is more likely to site his own deficiencies at spelling and dismiss such claims entirely. But be that as it may, to me, mental prowess is something far more than education or I.Q.

As a child I often find myself(as I still do) gripped with curiosity. Unfortunately for me though I also would find myself struggling through school. I can't recall the precise event with any certainty, but I can recall something my father said to me once that has never failed me. I had approached him about the name of a plane I believe, since I was fanatically obsessed with various military vehicles and aircraft and I was certain he could tell me the answer. Without pause he looked down at me and quipped: "Look it up."

Confused , I am certain I must of sat dumbfounded for several minutes before he repeated his answer. Was it a clever cover up for something he might not have known the answer to? That I can say with some certainty was not the case at the time. As I got older I heard the same answer more and more though, and I am sure some of them were his own way at saving face in front of his children. But, either way, it directed me to a line of thought that hadn't occurred to me. Up to that moment I had always gone to someone else for an answer and then accepted it as fact only to move on.

Soon after my father first said those three little words to me I found myself grabbing one of our Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias and began looking up the answer. Once I had located the answer another subject sprang to mind, driving me to reach for another book. I can easily recall countless times where I would set cross-legged in the floor with most of our encyclopedias laid out before me. Each entry would end with mentions to similar or connected subjects that would spur me on. And let's not even get into when I was introduced to Grolier and Encarta encyclopedia cd's, much less the introduction of the fabled search engine.

I could spend hours simply looking up information, something I often would be found doing. Where once I struggled with class work in a way that left me feeling, well - let's just say mentally inferior to my peers, I was now a master of some areas. In truth, I spent most of my elementary education  split between the learning disability class and a standard one. Until one day I was sent from class to another room at the request of my teacher only to find a mysterious test awaiting me. It asked me questions on areas that I had been pouring over on my own, so it delighted me. The shock was when they informed my that my teachers had suggested me for the schools governor's cup team. A team predominantly consisting of the best of the academic team, and one that now requested I join as an alternate for all subjects. Since it was assured to me that there would be no public speaking or quick recall involved I decided to consent.

Ever since then I have been regarded among my peers as a go-to resource on a number of different subjects. A fact that has never lost a sense of irony with me. And one that  all began when my father ambushed me with such basic wisdom. If there is something you seek to know; look it up. How many times a day do you see someone pondering the name of some actor in a movie, or some other piece of information only to shrug and go on? Our brains are a muscle, a fact many either forgot or take for granted. And as we age it is often a boon that we owe ourselves to keep it sharp.

Consider this: Have you learned anything lately? If not, don't you think it's about time you did? It is literally as simple as thinking of something that your curious about and then: look it up.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Perpetuating A Macho Myth.

Within our culture a singular concept exists that has been reinforced in
countless forms, for as long as we can collectively remember. The simple
unspoken ideal that if it is broken a man can fix it. Anything from a leaky pipe
to a ancient tractor. Chances are if you've seen someone on the side of the rode
and they're male most people will assume that he must have it under control.

This established idea has puzzled me for years now, but not as you might
imagine. You see, growing up my father had a simple mandate - if he could fix it
himself he did so. And whenever he did any such repair we were required to
assist him. Actually, he also insisted as we got older that he would show us how
to perform a set task once, then he might assist us the next time. After that we
were expected to be able to accomplish said task at anytime without requiring
his direct supervision.

It was this very routine that we never questioned. As I became older it became
such a part of my upbringing that it never occurred to me that not everyone
experienced the same. Ironically enough I actually came to stand dumbfounded
when I was told many of my peers as well as other people I met couldn't preform
some simple repairs. I have met young men who had no clue how to change their
oil, replace brake pads, or even change out a section of pvc pipe. These were
the kinds of things I didn't have to go to school for, I learned them before
even entering junior high.

Long before I ever had a degree I could manage to take care of a lot of things
myself, even troubleshoot some issues. And now that I have been to college I have
found with the right reference material there is even more I can tackle with
some degree of faith in myself. Is it rocket science? No. Do I expect the average man
to do a major overhaul of a HVAC system's unit? No. Should the average man
have some idea why his mower won't start or how to change a toilet's float
valve? Yes.

The cultural stereotype that a man can fix anything may be somewhat erroneous,
but it is a notion that many men out there could do with perpetuating. Perhaps I
am biased because of my background, but there is some sense of self-
worth/accomplishment in fixing even the most trivial of issues. So next time you
have a problem do yourself a favor and just ask if it's something you can
handle. You can always read a article or watch a video online if you need some
help. It might surprise you and those around you to discover not everything
requires an expensive repair man.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Howitzer Howard.

I have always held my grandfather to be an exceptional man. Ever since I was a child I would marvel at his noble gait, and the way he would humbly hold his head as he gazed about. As I grew up I came to understand that he had served this nation when asked to without question and did his duty like so many others. A fact that instilled in me from my earliest memories a life-long admiration for that service and a willingness to do the same.

Sadly, I must confess that while I scored highly on the ASVAB, a standard aptitude test given in high school to assess students who might later choose to serve, my health prohibited my desires. Now, my grandfather was not my only family member to ever serve, but out of my two grandfathers he was the only one alive as well as the only one I had ever been able to get to know. For me he was and still is a shinning example.

I have always maintained a fascination with history, ancient cultures, languages, but military history has always held a special place for me. Perhaps it is a burning desire to know all that I can about those who came before us and fought to earn for us the right to stand where we now do. But for whatever the reason I have and still do find a passion within me for knowing all that I can. And for that reason alone something has always puzzled me. All I have ever known about my grandfather was that he had served in the military, he had seen some of Europe including Germany and a handful of humorous anecdotes.

For years I would relish those small moments when I was regaled with jests about comedic events in training or how silly fellow soldiers were when they would trade my grandfather their chocolate for cigarettes. To him the trade was ludicrous since he didn't smoke and chocolate was a precious simple delight. But as I grew up and studied more and more I often found myself driving over to deliver a meal of left overs or some other little task and would set for hours just talking to him. And in all those times he never said anything more about his service. No real mention of his branch, his MOS (basically what he was designated as his duty), or even anything as simple as his station or unit assignment.

I have always heard countless tales about my own paternal grandfather's exploits growing up, but my maternal grandfather was somewhat of a mystery. Even when I would tactfully attempt to broach the subject I was never even met with a simple "I'd rather not talk about." When other relatives were asked, nobody knew, not even my own mother. To her knowledge, not even as a little girl was anything ever said nor did anyone ever ask or speak of it.

But in the last several months my grandfathers health has been declining somewhat prompting him to move in with my parents. Curiosity has been something I have always had a weakness for, so I soon found myself turning back to research. Only this time I was able to locate public records thanks to the internet. Located within the national archives was a singular treasure in the form of  The World War II Army Enlistment Records File and Access to Archival Databases.

Thanks to what some might say was trivial information I was able to see his army serial number, when he enlisted and a handful of other facts. For example, he was only 19 years old and had only a year of high school education at the time. Armed with this info I was able to let my mother know at least something about her own father. Little did I know what something so trivial might unlock.

To my very delight I was asked to mention my findings to my grandfather. I will admit I was more than a little apprehensive. The feeling soon melted away when I was met with the singular quiet unassuming claim of: "You know, I still remember my service number." Instantly a veil was lifted and I was given insight into so much I had never known. Once enlisted my grandfather was placed into a standard infantry unit as a rifleman. However something set him apart, something that for whatever the reason lead him to being reassigned within a few weeks to a separate unit. That unit, as he likes to refer to it, was known as a '105.' For those of us unfamiliar, it was a unit who operated a 105 mm M2A1 (M101A1) howitzer. A standard light field howitzer for the united states in world war 2. A piece of rugged and durable equipment that has seen effective use for many years, even still seeing use today.

My grandfather's was responsible for the weapons angle of elevation and trajectory according to him. A job that no doubt required more than just a point it and pull a trigger approach. Which happens to be a revelation that has helped me to understand something about my grandfather that use to make me think he was somehow magical. You see, he has always been a skilled carpenter, one often sought after. But I have always marveled at how, almost by instinct he could look at something and within a split second comment on it's angle or distance with laser like precision. A feat that now makes perfect sense.

Another thing he said to me has stuck in my mind like finding a old puzzle almost complete but still missing some vital piece. He said to me upon learning of the national archives: "It is good these things are memorialized now. So many have forgotten or their loved ones don't know what was done. I'm glad they are recorded." The remark slowly festered in the back of my mind nagging at me. Until one day my father added a key piece of insight.

While watching t.v. together a history program was on, one that documented the liberation of Dachau a German concentration camp noted for it's horrific and sadistic events. Already thinking back on his life my grandfather said to my father such simple words regarding the documentary: "We were there." The phrase alone slammed home in me the name of a German area he had mentioned only a handful of time. A name that given the classes and personal research should of caught me sooner. My grandfather had taken part in events pertaining to such locations noted for their atrocious activities, had seen some of their nightmarish scenes himself, and I had never known.

He has never complained of his time in service to his country nor has he claimed dubious honors. All he has ever done was nod his admittance that he served and that was that. It has always hurt my heart at how some veterans are treated or how some families take the service of loved ones for granted without knowing the extent to which they have sacrificed for others. And yet some of these noble souls have done all that we asked of them, without question or fail and then simply went on without praise or gratitude.

My grandfather has always told me as he looked up from a fresh cut length of wood that if a job is worth doing at all, it is worth doing right the first time. At his very core has always been this belief that commitment to a job done right is all the validation needed. Many a cabinet or home has benefited from his belief. And never once has anything ill been spoken of his work, nor has he proclaimed with pride at his efforts.

Fred R. Howard, one of the noblest souls I have ever had the honor to know, whose blood runs within my veins. So much gratitude is owed to men like him. We must never forget what they have done. If you have a loved one who has ever served in war time or peace, thank them. Let them know their service is appreciated. Honor their memory, for we walk a road paved by the sacrifices of those who came before us. And if you know nothing of their service, endeavor to learn. You owe it to them and yourself.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

From The Top Shelf - Part 3.

Reading an interesting article this morning  that touched on a simple question: What are your favorite beginning scenes from SF/F?

Now I have read a decent amount of science fiction and fantasy works over the years, some great, some not so much. But I can admit there are some opening scenes that stick with you forever. Of all my favorite works I can think of two that leap to mind. Both of which reside on my top shelf, and both still manage to captivate my imagination.

The first such work, and one I still hold today as one of the greatest pieces of science fiction to date is Neuromancer by William Gibson. The book alone has received far more prestigious acclaim than my humble remarks but for me it's value lies not in a critics remarks or it's sales. Instead it's value lies in the story itself and the masterful telling.

For example, the opening lines alone seize me with a mental image that still speaks to me.

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

Such a simple sentence, one that paints the initial image of the book. How many times have, well some of us, looked at such an image on our t.v. screen? As a child even how much did that single sight often fill us with a sense of loss and sadness. Like the promise of so much had just been dashed away by forces beyond our comprehension or control.

The second opening scene that remains forever etched into my mind is that of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Here it is the opening narrative itself that speaks to me. I can actually picture Rico as he sets in his drop pod waiting to be launched into action. There is a certain appeal in how a trained and experienced soldier can still get the jitters before a mission. The whole description of how they're delivered into battle and everything that is done to prepare them reinforces everything to come. It really lays the foundation.

Well, at least that's my two cents worth. What about you? What are your favorite beginning scenes?

And Then Came The Cheese Sandwich.

Almost a year ago a dear fiend, brother and fellow scribbler found his own inner ink running dry. Like any caring companion I endeavored to lift his spirits and pass on some wisdom shared to me by other writers. The advice was simple, enough so, that you might question it's value. When in doubt, write. If your suffering from writer's block, the solution can be just that simple.

My own twist to this was to add a bit of contextual humor. I simply suggested that one could write about quite literally anything, even a cheese sandwich.  A proposal that has become a stick with which we now poke each other with in times of self doubt and when we need some friendly motivation. It is in that spirit that I have once again received the tossed gauntlet of the cheese sandwich.

Now, in my youth I cannot recall the precise moment I first came across something as simple as a cheese sandwich but I can tell you the most connected thing that it is tied to in my mind. My Father's mother, whom we all affectionately referred to as 'Nanny.' Every mental image of two white pieces of bread encasing a single piece or two of plain American cheese slices cannot form in my mind without it being in her kitchen or with me seeing her.

I cannot say for certain that it was there I first started eating them, but I can say that it was something that used to mystify her. No matter how many times I ate one or asked for one it would boggle her mind and send her reeling with confusion.  "You don't want it grilled," she'd ask. "Nothing else, just cheese," she'd mutter.

Just cheese, I would always have to confirm. Nothing special, nothing complicated. It was just about as simple and un-assuming a meal as you can ever conceive. But it was something I loved, and still do to this day. I can't even begin to count the number of times in college or working my days consisted of the same such meals every day at lunch and dinner. Call me a creature of habit but something so simple never ever bored me. There was some comfort in it's simplicity and the fact I could rely on basic routine.

Could I have eaten something a bit more varied, sure. Perhaps even eaten out some. But economics and time restraints aside I came to enjoy the simplicity. As a writer we often overlook such things as well, just like someone asking themselves what they are going to eat for lunch. We can wrestle with trying to think of what to write or how we seem unable to write, when in truth it can be very simple. All you really have to do is just tell yourself; I'll just have a cheese sandwich.

Have the urge to write; then write. Period. It can be anything.
Hungry? Then eat. Sleepy? Then Sleep. Things may seem overly complicated sometimes when they may be just as simple as the proverbial cheese sandwich.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Morph Then Meets The Optics

Some things captivate us as children. Universally speaking I can think of little else that can seize a young man's imagination like Transformers. Even to this day there is a certain magic to the very legendary sound of a robot changing modes. A fact that still wrestles at my mind often enough to drag me(somewhat willingly) to the land of daydreams.

In recent days, I must confess I've succumbed to a fascination that no boy ever truly outgrows. Finding some older Rpg materials I have been toying with some Transformer-esque characters etc. While my first foray into such a subject was about a year ago and yielded a Autobot based Osprey VTOL aircraft. I tentatively named him "Tilt,"  and set him aside at the time.

With Renewed fervor I decided to try my hand at a small band of both villains and heroes much like the Autobots and Decpticons of our childhood. The rules I used were for Mechamorphosis by Fantasy Flight Games. All in all it is a great system for something like a Transformers based game. It is a system that could still use some refining and expanding, but for what it is I would say it's about the best option out there.

The teams were each 3 man squads, that I thought might prove effective PC support/filler for even a small player or two game no matter the side they might choose. For the 'bot based heroes we have: Priss, Daen, and Carver. And for the 'con based baddies we have: Stryker, Icona, Undermine and his smaller half Discord.

Priss is a grizzled vet of old wars, but one with a conscious. She has served her kind on the battlefield for as long as she can recall, until her orders shifted from protecting her people to conquering others. That alone made the decision for her, leading her to leave the military. Now she champions the defense of her friends and fights against tyranny. In vehicle mode Priss adopts the guise of an an armored bridge layer providing support in the heat of battle. When she transformers her bridge becomes a massive shield she can wield to protect others and slam through opposing forces alike.

Carver has always been fascinated by the extremes of natural environments. His curiosity has lead him into countless rough spots in search of exploration and to rescue his damaged friends when others could not. When it comes to needing repairs and being in a tight spot Carver is the first 'bot many call on and about the only one you can trust to make it. In his vehicle mode he resembles a rugged snow and mountain rescue emergency vehicle much akin to a snowmobile with a little cab. And with his enhanced onboard sensors he can always find someone in need, even in the bleakest blizzard.

Leading the small squad is a loyal and devoted young 'bot called Daen. Hard working and dedicated, Daen has always followed orders to the letter and refuses to give up. Coming from a labor background Daen has seen his fair share of work and in truth would have it no other way. He still insists on getting his hands dirty alongside even the lowest ranks and tolerates no notions of him being above any other 'bot. Holding to his past Daen's vehicle mode is that of a GINAF specialty heavy duty labor truck. When he isn't fighting he can often be found hauling salvage or rebuilding damaged structures. Being idle is an alien concept to this worker.

A stark contrast to Priss, Icona is small, sleek, and anything but a push over. Designated for scout duty Icona excels at espionage and counter intelligence. Instead of front line combat, she prefers to utilize her skills of stealth as well as a cloaking field emitter to sneak herself and sometimes others behind enemy lines to strike where least expected. Coupled with her vehicle mode of a Icon light sport luxury aircraft has made her a deadly and deceptive foe.

Not content to hide in the shadows Stryker instead lives for the thrill of battle. A survivor of the gladiator arenas, Stryker has come to sadistically embrace bringing his superior strength and firepower to bear over weaker opponents. In vehicle mode he resembles his namesake - a Stryker M1128 Mobile Gun System to deliver artillery fire at foes. But is equally capable in close range with his shield and flail at devastating opponents.

Leading the 'con-like squad is a devious figure who loves psychological warfare; Undermine. Taking the vehicle mode of a Douglas A-26 strategic bomber, Undermine delights in tactical assaults where he can deploy his trusty subordinate; Discord. Taking the form of a bomb, Discord is often delivered from the air only to use his own talents to covertly transform and land without raising suspicion. Once unleashed, Discord can perform any number of tasks for his master - be it destroying key equipment, gathering intel, or even using his hysteria inducer to compel foes to perform tasks for his master. However, neither Undermine nor Discord is a slouch from combat. The villainous leader has many times over shown no hesitation to draw his shell launcher or heavy mace against his foes. Just as Discord is never seen without his blaster carbine or short sword.

Well, there are the various characters so far. I may try to revise my character notes on them into a more cohesive stat-block and post their details later. I'm still in the process of forming a playable scenario/plot hook for any interested PC's. Perhaps you'll see something of it in the near future. Especially since I would love nothing more than to put these rules and characters through they're paces to test things out.

Feedback is always welcome and appreciated. Just ask yourself sometime, I am sure when you were a kid you probably had a favorite 'bot or 'con. Perhaps you even daydreamed of if you were a Transformer yourself. What kind would you of been?