Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Lunar Lady.

The Lunar Lady.

It has been often said throughout the ages that a woman shares much in common with the moon. It is both a poetic metaphor as much as it is a fundamental truth, in my opinion. They both can shine brightly even in the darkest of settings – seemingly reflecting illumination we might not otherwise know was there. Likewise they are also capable of mysterious beauty; a force powerful enough to drive us towards exploration, inspiring passion, poetry and so much more.

The moon has always held a special place in my heart for me. There is a subtle magic that resonates through it as it undoubtedly has been doing so since first any eyes were ever laid on it. However, even as wondrous as it is to behold the moon isn’t always around. It waxes and wanes, disappearing in cycles only to return in time.

That final aspect is one that now my youngest daughter has in common with said celestial body. At any given time in a day she may be as pleasant and beautiful as a bright full moon in the fall. And yet, just as the moon changes it’s phase so will she – removing her radiant personality from us.

My daughter is only five years old.

She was recently diagnosed with affective bipolar disorder.

I’m still struggling to come to terms with it, I think we all are. But as we look back, the pieces were all there, fitting together little by little. The only catch was that there was no way to see the bigger picture of what was happening back then. It took time for everything to become clear.

At first there were little outbursts; temperamental fits, defiance and the like that a parent expects to see in a young child. Those incidents gradually grew to become the kinds of things a concerned teacher or frustrated bus driver calls you about. Everything reached a climax recently that culminated in a series of calls home from the principal, required isolation and even restraint.

Terror now grips my chest at the thought that every time she steps out our door that I have no way of knowing what the world will hold for her that day. Will someone take advantage of her? Will it be a good day? Will she hurt someone or herself? As a father I fear even more for her now knowing not only can I not always protect her but that she may not always be able to protect herself.

In time I know that things will change. That is, after all the nature of things; to be ever changing. We have already started her on some medications to help her and therapy as well. I will always be her father. I’ll always love her and be there to support her no matter what. But, to me, she will forever be my little lunar lady. Every time she fades from view a piece of me will fade with her, eager for her return.

The road ahead will be rocky and not without challenges to be faced, of that I am certain. However, I am also certain that with love and support we’ll make it. Perhaps with such early treatment it’ll help her in the long run. Either way she will never have to face it alone.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Peekin' Underneath The Hood - A Look At The 5th Edition D&D Players Handbook.

"Well, I ain't never bought somethin' without first takin' a peek under the hood." - An often heard expression from my neck of the woods.

As of August of 2014 Wizards of the Coast published the fundamental first book for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons; The Players' Handbook. For many of us who have been following along the twists and turns of the playtest, this was an exciting time. It was something I can say I was quite eager to examine post haste, and now have. After having done so I feel I can provide some degree of input for others who might be curious themselves.

First of all, there is some spit and polish here coming from the playtest material. Everything is fleshed out and with more options. For example the Warlock has been included as a playable class - complete with 3 different types of otherworldly patrons. There really is a strong foundation that has been built here, one that covers a wide ranging gambit of areas for play.

Everything begins with a wonderful forward by Mike Mearls, followed by some examples of play along with the standard how to play introductory stuff. Afterward we ease into things and are given our first real glimpse at the cornerstone of understanding any edition or game system; character creation. I don't care who you are or how many games you have ever played but one irrefutable truth is paramount; one of the best ways to get a feel for any game is to build a character for it. It may sound counter intuitive but its true. So, for me, with the first real chapter being a step by step character creation walk-through with examples is a fitting beginning.

A shinning high point among the 5th edition approach to things is clearly evident in the Players' Handbook and that is a depth of emphasis on fleshed out characters. By the second chapter we get into the races themselves and let me tell you even at the earliest of steps the detail encouraging design is already noticeable. Every race begins with a thematic flavor text quoted from various D&D novels to give you some feel for the race. There are entries on various aspects of each race's culture, physical characteristics, known customs, personality traits, outlook, etc. Really; they do a admirable job distilling the core essence of these playable peoples down into a concise digestible format that does precisely what it needs to.

Allow me to elaborate a little further here, because I don't want to do this any disservice. One of the many things I really loved about this first release of what is historically the core three essential books of any D&D edition is the fact that there is enough variety to keep things interesting without overwhelming you with an endless buffet of spiced up flavors. If you don't typically like playing a single cliched type of race like let's say an elf fresh from the treetop woodland wilds you have other options. You can instead choose the High Elf or Drow subraces.  Virtually every race has at least two or three different bloodlines or sub-groups to pick from and they all bring something else into the mix to be enjoyed.

While the often over-done ideal of an elf (using my previous example to continue the point) is one of a bow and sword clad figure draped in greenery stalking defilers of nature can be entertaining to some it isn't everyone's cup of tea. But then again, not everyone may want to play an aloof, self-entitled elf who was raised around an intimate arcane education that they, by all accounts, probably take for granted. Whichever brand of elf they prefer it is presented for them to use to build the adventurer they want to explore untold tales with. And, as I also already mentioned, they can do so with their own obvious differences.

Your standard racial traits will always apply to whatever character you choose to make. In the case of an elf they all share a common thread of being blessed with speed, hand-eye coordination and reflexes as reflected in their racial modifier to a player's dexterity attribute. However, where a High Elf receives an additional bonus to intelligence, Wood Elves instead get one for their wisdom. It may not seem like much of a difference but even subtle touches like this both have an affect as well as provide a tangible element for players to customize their concept with. Couple this with other traits like how a High Elf receives a cantrip (level 0 spell that can be cast at will) from the wizard spell list, how a Wood Elf can move faster or hide even when only obscured slightly by natural phenomenon and you can build two very different elven heroes.

All in all there are four common races described in the book and five uncommon ones for players to pick from (with the uncommon ones being... well; not quite as commonly found among most populations or only suitable in some settings). The common four are all core classics with subraces to offer plenty of options. They include; Dwarves, Elves, Halflings and Humans. The uncommon races are some familiar staples as well but arguably might be out of place in some campaigns if only less so than say some of the more bizarre/monstrous options out there. Their lineup includes the likes of Dragonborn, Gnomes, Half-Elves, Half-Orcs and Tieflings. [I should point out that I still find it completely questionable that Tieflings are once more presented in a core book while their counterpart the Aasimar are not. This makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever but I suppose there may be some argument somewhere that can make a case for it's inclusion that I am not aware of.]

After races comes classes, which happens to be another area with plenty to choose from. A player is presented with a grand total of no less than a dozen classes that include: Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Wizard and Warlock. Each fully detailed from levels 1-20 and with some interesting options arrayed. Every class really does have it's own strengths and identity that you can get a good feel for. Want a warlock that is more than just a ' I made a deal with something infernal for power' trope? Easy, you can go with an Archfey or Great Elder One patron and not just the flavor of your character changes but some of their abilities do as well. Everything is not just set in stone - a fighter isn't just a walking tank that takes damage and say's 'I attack it' every turn. There is some real potential here that I can see for some fascinating characters that either embody the ideal of a classic version on that class or steps outside the box to show us something new and exciting. [I still confess I, personally see no real reason why Monk is a class in a core supplement for a fantasy game like D&D but that is just my own opinion. Your mileage may vary.]

Without nitpicking every single section and detail I'll highlight some of the other various things the 5th edition Players' Handbook has to offer.
  • Backgrounds - We are provided with a built in mechanic that allows us to breath an actual background for a character into that isn't just empty pipe smoke. Your background plays a role in what additional skills, traits and things your adventurer brings with them. Say you used to be (or still are) a criminal; you might have training with thieves tools, know someone who knows someone, even have appropriate gear to add to any quick-build setup you need to throw together. It all adds a wonderful ability to add character to your character while making it a functioning part of who they are.
  • Monsters/Creatures - One thing you can't do when wanting to play a game is not have something for the players to fight. Seeing as how the Monster Manual was next up for release but not out when the Players' Handbook was published it is a welcome bit of forethought to include some stat blocks for an assortment of creatures druids might transform into, wizards might summon or simply someone might need to forcibly remove. You don't get anything near to what is sure to be included in the Monster Manual but there is enough useful information for some adventures or handy reference for player's to access for various class features.
  • Personality/Details - This might tie in with Backgrounds but I figure it deserves a separate mention. Your character is not just defined by a simple alignment - of which there is much more than just 'I am the Law,' whimsical but good-natured and indifferent but not evil. Languages with example scripts are included for players to pick from but the gem in this section is the personality traits. In here you are presented options to shape your character like bonds that tie them to things, people or places, ideals they aspire to and flaws as well. It might not be as detailed as say the chapters on spells or equipment but it is a great thing to include in my opinion.
Overall, I have to say I am proud of the new edition, I'm eager to play it and especially to see more of what it has to offer. The only faults I can find is in some small elements that could do with better explanation. One such instance is in Warlocks and their spellcasting - it is implied that they do not require a spellbook for their spells yet, at the same time it is also implied that they are granted this knowledge via their patron. Nowhere does it ever clearly state that they do or do not need a spellbook. It is a minor thing to find fault in but it was something that stuck out at me. Another was skills - there is no chapter organized to explain them or what each does. Instead they are grouped into the section on ability scores and listed with the attributes they are associated with. Again, a minor thing but one I think could cause problems down the road when someone isn't sure or needs to reference what options/actions are available to them regarding their skills.

When you get right down to it, this new edition is shaping up to be a major game changer and a welcome return all rolled into one. I cannot see it as anything but a win, a success and a triumph for players of all types. It promises to breath new life into the game and really polish up things into something fun. I don't own a copy yet but after a lot of peeking about under the hood, beneath the chassis and even in the trunk it is a sure fire bet that I will be buying one in the future.

Is there any higher rating you can give something that, for you, would be a major investment as opposed to a casual expense? I can't think of one. If you can, pick up a copy as soon as possible. If not, you can snag the basic rules and other goodies at Wizards of the Coast website. Every shred of this just screams D&D to me; Gygax would be proud of it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Lying Little Signs.

I was recently passing through a nearby city where we drove by a business I used to work at. It isn't something that was unusual, far from it; we've gone by the place countless times. I haven't even worked there in years, furthermore this wasn't the first time I have seen the message posted on their sign. What it was though, was the point where I could take it no more.

The sign was a liar.

Let me start at the beginning; I was the top of my class in college and enrolled in a program that had already ceased being offered - in effect the last of a breed. I had just graduated and as part of a requirement had to sit down with the school's director of career services beforehand which inevitably started several wheels into motion. Prior to my graduation I had worked for the school in a variety of capacities as well as being hired by some fellow students and staff for odd jobs on the side. All this added up to a point where a local computer repair place not far from the school received my resume on behalf of the career services director they found I came both highly recommended and perfectly suited to their needs.

I was contacted for an interview, one I agreed to gratefully and attended. The details were fairly straightforward and exciting for me. They needed someone to take several dozen towers bought in bulk, identify what worked/didn't and then systematically bring them back to life to be resold. It was right up my alley as the kind of thing I was particularly talented at as well as what I had gone to school for. I loved hardware, I hated to see someone who couldn't say 'this is where the problem is,' and instead shrugged before swapping everything out with new parts without any appreciation.

The pay itself wasn't great but I hadn't expected anything major just out of school. I had graduated with various degrees, certificates etc. including an A+ accreditation but had not had the money to pay to take my A+ certification exam itself. One of the agreements of my accepting the job was that they would pay for me to get that very certification along with a variety of other certifications.

When I showed up for my interview I did so by being early, politely and dressed respectfully. Now, I will admit for the record that I did at the time have long hair and a goatee. However (and I must stress this) I kept that hair clean, well groomed and typically worn in a tight braid that ended about the middle of my backside. My goatee itself was likewise maintained, trimmed and neat. Both I was assured would be permissible for my job although I would have to purchase a wardrobe of dress shirts, ties and pants.

I did exactly that, even buying tools and things to use on the job. I even agreed to leave my current job at the time, one that I had held all through school along with my work for the school with less notice than I preferred but more than they had initially wanted me to give them. All in all I made a lot of concessions to take what seemed to be my first real job in what looked to be the beginning of my career. I even conceded to the awkward notion of being hired through a temp agency as a trial basis before becoming officially part of the staff.

The first day of showing up for work I was blindsided by the demand to shave and cut all my hair off. Something I didn't prefer having to do but as I responded at the time; "you can tell me what style you would like and that is how I'll cut it if that is what it takes for this job." My wife didn't enjoy the news herself either but we bowed to it and moved forward.

In short order I was cackling like Victor Frankenstein in a back corner with an army of revived machines cleaned and purring to life eager to be put into use. They struggled to keep me fed with new corpses to reanimate, autopsy or salvage. Before long I was pressed into service riding along to do service calls and then eventually sent out on my own. I was traveling across not just adjacent states but sometime 2 or 3 states away to do warranty work - even showing up quite to my surprise to be asked why I wasn't in the infamous little geek squad car. Little did I know that Best-Buy's Geek Squad didn't actually come out and fix things; that was what people like us were paid by them to do.

Things weren't perfect but they were going forward. The problem was I had already been witness to too many things that left me feeling dirty some of which I had to refuse to take part in. When a customer brings a machine in to get fixed there was a bench fee for them to even look at it. It was a mandatory requirement that you bring your restore discs, documentation etc. with it when you did. And, if it turned out repairs were more than you wanted to spend you could waive paying the bench fee and instead surrender your machine for parts. It would be given new life by me or parted out - any number of things.

This is where things started to get dark for me. If we didn't have the restore disc for a unit in the boss's collection then we were told to call the manufacturer and tell them we were the original owner of the unit to request a replacement. We were blatantly asked to commit fraud. Then came the infamous Microsoft Product Key. I was painstakingly instructed how to carefully remove a product key's serial number sticker and replace it on another machine. After which I was required to call Microsoft and claim that our machine's key wouldn't work because we had had to replace a hard drive or some such. [Side note/fun fact - You can only replace so many components on your PC before the operating system stops recognizing that it is the same system. Microsoft can authorize your key to work on your machine or issue a new one but stripping a valid key off one machine to reuse on another, especially for resale is a massive violation. Any vendor can purchase a license/keys to use instead, even at a discount.] The worst part of it all was that at the end of each day at work I was the one with my hand and name on those units. If anything ever happened once they ended up in a customer's hands it would all come back to me.

I started carrying a memo pad in my pocket recording every serial number, every product key, every detail, dates etc. on everything I touched. I wanted to keep the job and make it work. I wanted to get my certification and become exactly what I had hoped to be; a computer technician. But I refused to tell anyone that I was the consumer who owned the device. I refused to lie to customers or withhold my advice when they asked me. I did every job asked of me in the way it was worth doing; the right way.

One day after being gone all day (I was typically handed a pile of parts and service orders, shoved out the door into a car and told not to return unless the boxes were all empty. This was generally coupled with no map to where I was going or itinerary so I had to get very good at improvising my plan of attack.) I returned to receive the news that things had been slowing down. One of the two co-owners and the professional face who handled all the high end side of things was going to be having surgery so other technicians were being shuffled about. Unfortunately that also meant that since I was the last one to be hired I was the first one to be asked to leave. And, since I had been brought in via a temp agency there was no need for anything more than being told that and that was it.

Suddenly it all just stopped. I then discovered that since I hadn't officially been an employee there I couldn't even claim it for resumes etc. Next I saw the lot next to the shop get cleared and replaces with an improved parking lot, a new fleet of cars - even a small storage building transformed into a little business for one of the owner's friends. While I looked for work at the unemployment office a case worker even informed me with glee that a local computer repair place was looking for someone just like me!

Imagine my surprise. I had been hired to do a job just long enough to squeeze every benefit they could from me using false promises and then let go. Then I find things weren't so bad after all; quite the opposite. Now they were looking for a fresh young student hot off the assembly line to toss into the meat grinder. I smiled and politely waived the offer aside. "Something tells me that they wouldn't be interested in me," I explained.

But the biggest problem I cannot get over, like I mentioned at the beginning was their sign. It reads, in rather sloppy placement; We Fix Computers Here. Which, I can attest is a bare faced lie. The entire time I worked there I witnessed (even personally ordered at times) virtually no machine to ever be fixed as per the definition. I saw people lied to in order acquire their property. Customers were convinced to purchase new computers. There was even machines that were made of entirely new components and returned to the customer with a hefty bill. But almost nothing actually repaired. The only exception being the work I did in a small corner in the back. However even that I cannot call the entirety of the work being repair.

If someone brings me a problem and they ask me to fix it; I want to be able to hand them back what they brought me with the problem solved or an explanation as to what went wrong. That is why people bring you something to work on; they expect it to be fixed. Every time I see that sign I can't help but shake my head and ask how they can lie to people in such a manner.

I won't name them, nor do I generally go out of my way to bad mouth the business in question. But if anyone asks me I discourage them from using their services. You can make money without abandoning ethical, moral or legal behavior. You can also be a computer technician by just being the person people can trust to call when they need a problem solved. I'd rather keep that trust myself, I guess for others the feeling isn't necessarily mutual.