Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cats and the Christmas tree

It's not like I've never had cats, even young cats, around a Christmas tree before. Until Brynna died a year and a half ago, there've been cats in my house pretty much every day of my life, so that includes every day with a Christmas tree. We've long since had a policy of lining the bottom of the tree with the unbreakable ornaments, and the ones we wouldn't mind losing, while saving the more important ones for higher up.

But this year, the new cats we got a few months ago are proving far, far more difficult than any other cat I've ever had in my house. This has been true in pretty much every regard: they're more naughty, more blasé about being squirted or chastised, more rambunctious, and made getting used to the dog a far more difficult and time-consuming process than any I've experienced before. So I'm not wholly surprised that they're a lot worse at the Christmas tree than in past years.

I prepared for it in a few ways. First, I put some strings that harness the tree to the wall at four points, so it's highly unlikely that the whole tree can get knocked down even if it's pounced onto or climbed into. We also made even more of a point to give them sacrificial ornaments to play with on the bottom in hopes that'd keep them from going to higher ones. We've been trying to make a point of catching them any time they're anywhere even near the tree to spray them, and when we catch them at it, they don't get away with a little spraying; I'll pursue and spray until they have no question about how bad it is.

I've also been trying to emotionally prepare us for losing ornaments. The fact is, our "special ornament every year" tradition just exacerbates the already-present concern that, if you invest any sentimental, emotional importance to things that are innate fragile, you're bound to eventually have to deal with losing one. In addition to the ornaments we've bought to commemorate the years, we've got several that are sentimentally connected to Siobhan's family in various ways, some of which are even more fragile. I always try to warn Siobhan that we are going to lose ornaments eventually and we should be prepared for that. They're just things, and while it's nice how they mark moments in our lives, if we lost one, the moment would still be marked, not be forgotten. I tried to crank up the intensity of these emotionally-preparing warnings this year since it seemed we were switching from "it's inevitable it'll happen some year" to "it's inevitable it'll happen at least once this year" but there's only so much you can push this kind of idea.

Nevertheless, the morning after the first day the tree was up, the cats not only knocked down several ornaments, they broke two. One was a pretty purple globe that had no particular sentimental importance, but the other was one of three antique glass blown balls that Siobhan got from her grandmother. Later in the day they knocked down the 2006 ornament and broke one leg off it, but I was able to glue it back on and it looks good as new. It seems there are no precautions which can prevent this entirely.

So for now, we've taken down all the ornaments that are particularly breakable. We'll buy some inexpensive, rugged, throwaway ornaments to decorate with in their stead. We hope this will be a temporary solution, but we're not sure what the permanent one will be. One possibility: some kind of spray that repels cats, sprayed liberally on the tree. If something like that works, and doesn't smell so awful that it's worse than the problem it solves, we might just douse the tree in it. Another option: maybe they will only be like this a year or two, so we can just go without the fragile ornaments a few years and then go back to normal. I also keep trying to think of some way to screen the tree so they can't climb up into it or get to the ornaments, but given how good they are at leaping, I'm afraid screening the bottom risks just making things even worse. Some days, I'm tempted to just lock them in the basement (though they'd probably blow up the house by playing with the water heater or something).

Monday, November 29, 2010

Money management

As I wrote yesterday, money management on the phone is an important must-have for me. I think I have to explain how I manage money to even explain why, and that makes me wonder, what do other people do?

Why does there have to be a part on my phone? Because maybe half of the time I'm spending money, it's in places where my computer isn't. Gas stations, supermarkets, restaurants, etc. In the bad old days I collected receipts and then entered them into my PC software (Microsoft Money) when I got home, a process that was tedious and prone to error. Nowadays, I enter them into my phone, and then they synchronize into Money when I get home.

Once the data is in Money, it knows both my past transactions and, more importantly, my forecasted future ones (and those are fairly robust at being repeating, with exceptions, so I can easily keep up with having an accurate forecast). It can thus make me a graph showing me my future balance of any account for any future time period. I can scan it for low points, especially those that drop below zero, and then figure out ways to fix those by delaying purchases, decreasing spending, moving money between accounts, deferring things via the one-month credit card no-cost float technique (pay balance in full within the month and there's no interest, if your card offers that, and I make sure mine do), or other techniques.

Right now, using Ultrasoft Money on the Windows Mobile phone gets most of the work done. But there are a few annoying limitations. The first is that the Windows Mobile version of Ultrasoft Money lacks any support for the "Bills and Deposits" function in Money -- which is what Money calls all future transactions. In the old Palm version, you could bring up your list of future transactions, and "Enter" one -- that is, turn it from a future transaction into a real one, changing the amount if necessary, and thus removing it from the future transactions list if it was one-time, or advancing it to its next iteration if it was repeating. That's just what you do in Money, too.

But the Windows Mobile version doesn't know about future transactions. So if I have a future transaction for grocery shopping, when I enter the actual amount in Ultrasoft Money and then sync, I have to later go into Money on the PC and manually skip the future transaction that already happened. Which is not just a pain, but kind of defeats the purpose of capturing the transaction on the phone at the moment it happens. Since Ultrasoft already implemented support for future transactions on the Palm many years ago, we all hoped they'd get it into the Windows Mobile version too, and they hinted it was coming, and then cut off support for the product entirely.

The other problem is that Money on the PC is a very feature-rich program that does everything I need it to, but it is amazingly slow. Mind-numbingly stupidly slow. It takes about 2-3 minutes just to open it, and then for the first 20 minutes or so, it pegs my CPU and takes upwards of a minute just to repaint the screen with a list of deposits. Later versions are actually worse about this, and Microsoft has deprecated the product line in favor of their cloud approach, so that'll never be fixed. There's no viable way to archive old transactions to make one's database smaller, also stupidly, but even if one does archive stuff it doesn't seem to help.

I can live with these problems, and have for a few years, but I wouldn't mind a chance to break out of them. And if I move away from Windows Mobile, I might have to; I don't know if there's an iPhone app that does what Ultrasoft Money does. Maybe there's a better one, but more likely there's less, since compatability with little-used Microsoft software is hardly the strong suit of Apple products.

What I wonder is, what does everyone else do? The cynic in me worries the answer is that many people don't even balance checkbooks but just check their balance once in a while, and even those who do, most of them don't forecast future balances at all, let alone as rigorously and effortlessly (apart from that inexplicable slowness) as I do in Money. So maybe I won't find an answer because even managing your money like this is too oddball to attract developers. Or are people doing something in the cloud and don't need software on their phones? They must be doing something somewhere, at least some of them. I suppose I'll have to either figure out before moving to a new phone, or just go back to having to record things on paper or in a note and then manually process them in Money when I get home.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Could I ever move to an iPhone?

Now that someone finally did what I've been saying someone should do for months, and made an iPhone case with a keyboard built in, the idea of getting an iPhone is suddenly feasible to me. Some people actually can work on those soft keyboards; and some convince themselves they can, and ignore the frustration. I'm neither of those. I have been using soft keyboards since the Palm Pilot II, and not one of them has been transparent as a means to enter ideas as fast as they come to me like even the cheesiest thumbboard is. Every one has been a source of frustration. So the release of this keyboard is a sea change for the iPhone and it's a wonder to me it took this long. (Part of that is Apple deciding not to support Bluetooth keyboards until the very latest model, though.)

If this had happened a month earlier, I wonder if I would still have gotten the phone I got. I'm happy with it, but I will probably have to move away from Windows Mobile eventually (especially since 6.5 is the last version; Windows Phone 7 is as different a system as the iPhone is, with as little backwards compatability, and a lot of problems). The moment when a phone needs replacing is an opportunity; this one will probably last a few years, and by then, who knows if that keyboard will even still be available?

Of course I couldn't've just switched over in no time. I have a number of things I expect my phone to be able to do, and I'd need to find substitutes for them all. The one program I use the most is ListPro, and I know there's a ListPro for the iPhone now, though I think it lags a bit in features. But I would also need something for my money management (that question deserves a whole other blog post, to come).

In addition, I don't know how good the Outlook synchronization is. Email is probably just fine. Contacts probably are good enough, though I don't know if it's two-way and supports all the fields as I use them. Calendar gets even more unsure, when you get into things like repeating multiday appointments, private appointments, free/busy/tentative/out-of-office, and meetings, all of which I use on my phone. Tasks is the one most likely to be either unsupported or inadequately supported; even Windows Mobile leaves out the crucial ability to see tasks in their correct order, and other platforms often omit support entirely. Many people don't use, or underutilize, Tasks, so they don't mind, but they're my bread and butter.

Can I safely assume a current iPhone supports A2DP Bluetooth stereo headphones with its MP3 playing, along with AVRCP? Probably, but I wouldn't, I'd check first. I use that every day.

It'd probably take a few hours to confirm that for all my needs, there really is an app for that, before I could decide to make the jump. Then of course I'd have to buy them all afresh, so that would have to be included in the cost. There's also the fact that I would be forced to download and install iTunes, which in turn means QuickTime. The thing about QT is once it's on your computer, if it causes any problems or conflicts (and every previous time I've installed it, there were; admittely I haven't in several years), you have no options to go back other than fully reformatting and reinstalling everything. You can never really remove QuickTime enough to get rid of the problems it brings. Still, I can probably get past that nowadays. Current Windows versions of QuickTime might finally have fixed the instability and conflicts that plagued it for so many, many years.

So what would be the point? Mostly the assurance that I would be able to tap into that insanely huge supported base and the wide availability of compatible accessories, relevant information, etc. I've seen iPhones enough to know that I wouldn't actually gain any functionality that would actually matter to me. But as long as I wouldn't lose any, it'd be nice to be on the inside for once.

The fear that that keyboard won't be available indefinitely makes me twitchy. What if by the time my current phone dies that's not on the market anymore and the opportunity has passed? Then again... keyboards don't last forever. If these keyboards fail and two years from now they're not on the market, I'll have dodged a bullet; I won't be married to a phone platform that is no longer available with a keyboard. So maybe it's for the best.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hexagonal pixels

The history of computers derives from the history of the textile crafts, coming as it does from the amazingly complicated mechanical looms that were developed to make simpler and more reliable the process of weaving. Weaving is a highly mechanical and repetitive process in which each particular pattern is essentially formed by executing a program. The weaver, or the loom operated by the weaver, reads a series of instructions, which can contain loops and repetitions, and which is encoded in a particular language designed to accurately and efficiently encode those instructions; and executes them in sequence. Different programs produce different patterns and thus different images.

The programs encoded on the cards in a Jacquard loom, or in the diagrams by which knitters make patterns in their knitting, also have an unrelated relationship to computer technology: they depict images in the form of a rectilinear grid of what we call "pixels" (picture elements) which are square in shape. In the case of weaving and knitting, this is a simple consequence of how weaving is done with threads at right angles (the "warp and weft"), and in the case of computer imagery, because it's a simple and logical way of arranging the visual elements in a cathode ray tube, and later, an even simpler way of arranging them in such technology of LCDs.

I wonder what computer graphics and video might have looked like if it had inherited a hexagonal grid instead of rectilinear grid. In a sense, a hexagonal grid is equivalent to a rectilinear one, but with every alternate row's pixels offset by half the width of a pixel from the previous row. I wonder if that would make better images, though. I think the "jagged" quality at the edges and lines would differ in ways that would be better in some types of images and worse in others. Dithering and anti-aliasing techniques would still be used but would differ somewhat. Being anything but an expert, I have the vague idea that it might make more "natural" images perhaps a little more smooth, since it would provide a closer analogue to lines at angles other than right angles, but I could be very wrong. I wonder if anyone's tried it?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

One of the storytelling games that my group has been considering dabbling in, that might be suitable as an introduction to the style, is Fiasco. This game simulates a very particular genre of movie, a kind that the Coen Brothers are particularly fond of: the kind where everything goes from bad to worse to terrible, and everyone in the movie is doomed. Or so it was described to me: it's not a genre with which I am very familiar, and the nearest thing to a movie in the category that I know is Fargo (and I don't even know that one very well). So I set out to watch a movie that was suggested as a representative example, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, so I could prepare for playing Fiasco and confirm I wanted to.

In the interest of having time to watch it, I used my Archos and headphones to watch in 15-minute blocks while doing my exercise. Because of the timing of other things interrupting, it took almost two weeks. I imagine that might have dulled the impact of the movie a bit, but I don't think it was as big an impact as it might be on some movies.

The acting seemed solid, but it's not like any of the actors were really being challenged particularly. I found the soundtrack to be very effective in setting the tone, though in a few spots it was a tiny bit overdone, and sometimes it made it hard to make out the words through the thick accents. (Still, you could generally tell what was going on, and if you couldn't make out a word, odds were good it was just an expletive anyway.) I liked the cinematography a lot, particularly the way the camera moved sometimes (though again, Guy Ritchie sometimes overdoes it with the camera effects).

As for the story... the idea that it's like watching a train wreck in slow motion is quite apt. The thing is, only once in a while did I find myself feeling like I particularly cared about the dooms that were slowly hurtling towards the various characters. That's because I didn't care about them. The nearest anyone in the film gets to being likeable is being hapless and comically inept in their antisocial behavior. The most likeable characters are a Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern pair who are totally bumbling, and who get virtually no screen time. Close behind are the four "main characters" who are sympathetic only to the extent that they feel like more-flawed versions of ourselves, doing the wrong things in the wrong ways but for reasons that aren't totally wrong, unlike most everyone else who does things for the worst reasons.

Even so, the sense of impending doom over them added to only a small amount of suspense. Part of that is that it was clear where things were going, but in any regular action movie you know how that's going to end, too, and there's still suspense, because you want to know how they're going to get there. In this case, I didn't wonder even that, first because it seemed pretty obvious how (though in some cases the obvious answer wasn't the right answer), and second because it didn't seem important how they got there, it wasn't something I really cared that much about. Near the end when the chips (and bodies) began to fall, some of the disasters seemed as improbable as the escapes in action movies, which I suppose lends a certain karmic balance to the world, but which somehow feels more contrived at times. Or maybe I'm just not as inured to it. Some of the lack of suspense comes from not caring about the characters -- even the ones I was supposed to want to see get their comeuppance, I didn't care that much about it when they got it.

But there's also the fact that, in an action movie, you know that even if the hero ultimately triumphs it may be at some cost; there may be consequences he or she will have to live with. In a debacle movie, the symmetry is broken because, even if you know what the outcome is going to be, one reason not to care so much how they get there is there's not much room for costs and consequences. Once doom falls upon you in a movie like this, nothing else really matters.

All in all, the movie feels like something I wouldn't've resented having watched while on a plane or something, but I wouldn't pick it as something to spend a few hours on if I had something else to choose. I'll probably watch one or two more movies in the genre to get a better idea of what was unique to this movie and what was more general to the genre.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The stress cycle

Sometimes it feels like I'm some kind of weird biorhythm thing with stress because every time I get my stress levels down it's about two months before they're back up. But it's always something new. Admittedly, part of it is that, once one big stressor comes along, other things that I could normally brush off -- like jerkish behavior in Lusternia, or the cats waking me up at 5am every morning -- start to become part of the accumulation. In fact, while Carnage was a destressor on balance, some things about finding suitable food options there were stressors to the extent that more than a week later I found myself having stress-expressing dreams about it.

My current biggest stressor is something about which I can't say anything for various reasons, but it's a work thing. Actually right now there's two, one big and one not so big, and neither are really suitable subjects for blogging. Suffice to say that I'm not even missing coding; right now I'd be happy to be able to be writing an RFP.

Of the things I know of that'd help me burn off stress, many are unavailable or out of my control, but those that remain are usually simply inaccessible due to lack of time. There are too many things I need to spend time doing, because if I don't do them, they won't get done. In some cases, the destressors require work or preparation which itself is a time-limiting factor preventing me from doing other destressor activities. I wish I could just set things aside or dump them on someone else, but usually if I got it in the first place it's because no one else would do it.

The current stress-storm is mostly because of a situation that will probably resolve itself within a few weeks, so this time, maybe I just have to outwait it. Once that happens, one way or the other, the other work thing might not be too bad. On the other hand, this is the worst time of year for this. Shortage of sunlight, tightness of budget, extra pet energy from lack of exercise causing more strain, company over for holidays, and everything at work being cranked up due to the pressures of supporting retail, add to a difficult period to come into already having problems and stresses.

It's also not good for my blog, whose buffer has shrunk to under a week lately. I have fewer fun things to write about, and don't want to bore you with posts like this too often. And too much of what's going on in my life right now is stuff I shouldn't or can't write about anyway.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Slow onset kidney stone, maybe

I woke up about 4am this morning with a combination of the back pain I've been feeling for a couple of days, only more acute and localized, and the sense of pressure that makes me feel like I need to go to the bathroom, which has also been haunting me for a day or so. It was enough pain and discomfort to keep me awake, so I started running through my symptoms to figure out how I'd describe them to Siobhan. We do this occasionally under the rubric of "In case you should have to describe things to Doctor House..."

In the process of analyzing them more closely so I could describe them, and as the back pain tightened, it occurred to me that they were familiar. Nagging back pain that feels like I strained something or slept wrong, but which doesn't seem helped by twisting, stretching, or heat. A vague sense of pressure that feels like I need to go to the bathroom more than I actually do. And briefly, a faint hint of nausea, though that tends to go with the sense of pressure.

These are similar to what happened with my two previous kidney stones, but while those came on in a few hours and less than an hour, respectively, this has been going on for a few days, and has come on so gradually that I didn't even associate the different symptoms together until this morning. One possible explanation is that a 5mm stone tends to have a much more gradual onset than smaller ones (my first stone was 2mm, and we never found the second one, but it was probably the same or smaller). Another is that I'm just looking too hard for symptoms.

As I write this, I'm feeling almost perfectly normal. Which in a way is a shame, because if this is going to happen, I'd rather get it over with, ideally in time to still get to enjoy some of Thanksgiving. Either that or for it to stop entirely until at least Friday. At this point, I'm not even sure what I'm hoping for.

I'm regretting letting my urologist push back talking about getting it dealt with preemptively -- we had decided on that months ago, but he wanted to wait for my urine test, then for another urine test after my calcium intake had been bumped up, then again while we wait for my long-delayed nephrologist appointment (which happens in a couple of weeks). Most of the point of it was to make it so it happened on my schedule, not at a time inconvenient either to me or to the doctors, nurses, and other staff. Thankgiving is an ideal example of a time that's not convenient to be passing a 5mm kidney stone.

Still, given that right now I feel mostly normal, maybe I won't have to worry about this for a few days, long enough to be able to enjoy Thanksgiving. Then again it could always come on fast. I'm waiting to hear back from the urologist's office.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

CMUD, one more time

I keep going back and forth about whether to give CMUD a try as the place for my "good enough for now" curing system for Lusternia, which is intended to keep me going at least until either MUSHclient or Mudlet get a mapper I can live with (or someone else beats them both to the punch). Keep in mind that the choice here is between zMUD and CMUD; no one else has a mapper that'll do right now, so those are the options.

I keep dismissing CMUD because of instability problems, and each time I try to do some testing, I get the same reaction. The very latest version seems prone to locking up when I do nothing more than importing a set of super-simple triggers from zMUD. If I import an entire zMUD profile, it locks up in the Compatability Report, and when I go back in, they're imported, but munged up. If I paste a long string of #TRIGGER commands in (a tip recommended on the CMUD forum), it freezes up. Strangely, if I manually convert the zMUD .txt export of a folder into XML using some simple search-and-replace techniques, then import that, this seems to work just fine. Which means I can work around the inability to import, but that's beside the point. The point is, how promising can CMUD be at handling the complexities of a combat system when it locks up doing something as simple as processing 20 #TRIGGER commands in a row when it's not even connected to the MUD? How much progress can Zugg really have made in "we've worked really hard on stability" in v3 when I get code-blocked on the second step?

On the other hand, I wonder if I'm overreacting to doing the wrong tests. Instead of worrying about importing old zMUD code into CMUD without even learning how it handles packages and scoping first, maybe I should be just trying to code something in CMUD from scratch. Will it be as stable as MUSHclient? No. But is that what I need? No, I just need it to be no more unstable than zMUD.

If it were precisely as stable as zMUD, and precisely as scaleable and had precisely as good performance, I think it'd be worth the $20 to buy it just for other features: support for Windows later than XP, the chance to use GMCP, and the hope of future improvements in ATCP, the mapper, and other areas, as well as improvements in the scripting system. If it were just a little better, that'd clinch it. But if it's just a little less stable than zMUD, that kills it. I am figuring I can make a "good enough" system in zMUD despite its bugs and instability simply because I am limiting the scope of what it intends to achieve, and I intend to prevent many of the problems from getting me by building the system from the ground up with zMUD's limitations firmly in mind. But it'll be a near thing; even a bit too much zMUD problems will kill it, or leave it little better than the hodgepodge of stuff I have on my Lendren account already. So if CMUD's a little less stable, I can't afford the loss.

Thus, despite putting the CMUD possibility to bed twice already, I think I'm going to make one last try to take a useful-but-limited subset of what I've done so far for Rainbow -- probably the Queue subsystem -- and recode it into a fresh Lusternia profile in CMUD. Not import, but recode it from scratch, taking the time to learn how CMUD suggests such things can best be done, using its new scoping and script packaging, temporary variables, etc. Trying to avoid being limited by a zMUD-like approach.

If I can make that work robustly, quickly, and well, I can certainly expand the test from there to start replicating other bits of Rainbow, probably the Skills system next, then the Defenses system that's almost done in my zMUD version. If I can get through all that, and get the mapper working, I might go with CMUD after all. On the other hand, if I can't get through a CMUD-native implementation of Queue without hitting more problems that aren't explicable as just me not being familiar with CMUD, but are actually problems in CMUD, then I will bury CMUD again -- only for real, for good, this time.

A year from now I will probably think back on all the time I've put into this as being a silly waste of time. All this work put into something that's built on an unstable foundation? But I've been waiting for MUSHclient or Mudlet to become usable to me for more than a year now, and it feels like my characters in Lusternia are partially stalled while I wait, and there's no sign of anything happening. Maybe wasting all this time will invoke Murphy's Law and force someone to take more seriously those things I say about why the mapper needs a few improvements and render all of that effort wasted sooner. Which would be just peachy.

If not... who knows, maybe building something for CMUD or zMUD from the ground up with the limitations built into the design will achieve the stability that people think is impossible. Certainly the CMUD forum is full of people who think it's possible, and while few if any of them are Lusternia players, and Lusternia's complexity far exceeds any other MUD, nevertheless every problem Lusternia coders need to solve is a problem someone else also deals with -- they just don't have to do them all at once. So maybe it's possible. Maybe one day I'll be sharing copies of Rainbow (with selected people -- I'll take the advice of Treant's author and not throw it out to the general public, much as I'd like to be able to, for the good of Lusternia).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Homonym songs

I remember when my nascent and still tiny MP3 collection, at around a hundred tracks, first had (or at least I first noticed that it had) two songs by the same name. The name was "The Entertainer" with one version by Scott Joplin and one by Billy Joel. These aren't two versions of the same song; covers and remixes don't count. They're distinct songs with the same title.

Now that my entire CD collection has been ripped and I've been buying songs in MP3 format for years, my collection is up to 8102 songs as of this writing, and of course I have a lot of titles repeating in my collection, and even when you remove those which are variations on the same song, there's quite a few left. A lot more than I expected, in fact. As I started going through my song collection, just getting through the songs with titles starting with A, B, and C, I found 29 titles that were used more than once. The same kept happening throughout the rest of the list, so much that I stopped counting.

However, pretty much all of those were titles that are really not surprising to have occur more than once. They're all things that, if you didn't know there wasa song with that name and someone suggested it, you'd say, sure, there has to be a song with that name out there. Sometimes it was mildly surprising that one title only repeated twice ("Life") while another less obvious one repeated four times ("Let It Go"), but very few titles surprised me that they had repeated at all. Quite a few titles had four songs, but none had five.

So I ended up wondering what really unusual ones I might find, where the title wasn't something you'd expect to see repeat. These are my best:
  • Spam, by "Weird" Al Yankovic, and Save Ferris. Not an object you'd expect to inspire a musical paean, let alone two.
  • Utopia, by Goldfrapp, and Alanis Morissette. This would be better if Utopia's song were named "Utopia" instead of "Road To Utopia" of course.
  • Sealion, by Feist, and Jethro Tull. And yet no songs named "Sea Lion."
What are yours?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Reality should be negotiable

I'm sure people who think a lot more about roleplaying game design have spend millions of bytes on defining what a "storytelling game" is and concluded it's like pornography, you can't define it to everyone's satisfaction, but you know it when you see it. But I'm sure one thing that comes up a lot in these discussions is "narrative control."

In conventional roleplaying games there is a very clear divide between players and GM. Players control only their characters, while GMs make all the decisions about what the world around them is, how it works, what's in it, what everyone in it is doing. Players can make suggestions about these things in many ways, but ultimately the GM decides. Even when a game allows a brief and scope-limited incursion of player into the GM's "narrative control" territory, such as with plot points, the GM has veto rights over it.

Storytelling games require the players to step outside that limitation and the mindset that goes along with it, and start thinking of the world around their characters as part of their area of influence. They can decide, usually by consensus with other players, what's going on in the world around them. They can posit NPCs, frame scenes, describe the results of actions (both theirs and others), and offer ideas about what they find around them. Sometimes this is also something their characters can do (as in the case of Solipsist) but even when it's not it's something the players do. In many cases there is no GM, and everyone at the table is both player and GM.

I played a lot of these, back to back, at Carnage this year, and without any interruptions by the more conventional player-GM divide. The only thing I did that wasn't like this was Pandemic, which fails to contradict it, since it's still a group deciding things by consensus. And it seems the shift in the way of thinking wormed its way into my brain.

Monday morning the day after Carnage, on the way to work, I saw a mailbox with the name Gingras on it in those stick-on letters, and for a split second I wondered if that was the name "Gingras", or the name "Gingra" in plural (the way you see "Smiths" on the mailbox of the Smith family). All this is perfectly normal. Then for a moment I thought, "It'd be more interesting if it's the plural of Gingra, so let's say it is" and then found myself wondering why I was thinking of it as if it were up to me. As if reality itself were negotiable. And I flashed back to the games I'd been playing intensively for the previous three days, where it was, where thinking "no, this would be cooler, let's have it be that" is part of the process.

I wonder if someone who played a week straight of storytelling games might have a small dissociative break. Maybe after two weeks, you'd start getting frustrated that the world refused to become the cooler things it could be if only your ideas were able to shape it. Maybe after a month, you'd find yourself actually able to retune reality. And after two months, you'd probably end up creating a storytelling game about that.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries, Expedition Log, Part 1

Last night was our first session playing The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries (and I still think it should be a society, not a committee), and I think things went fairly well. I was somewhat clumsy with the rules. Several of the players are still feeling quite hesitant about speaking with the grandiose tone appropriate to the setting and genre. Almost everyone's having trouble speaking in first person past tense, or remembering to take as much narrative control as they should. But everyone is warming up to these things quite well, and after only a single round of scenes, people seem a lot more comfortable with it than I expected this early in, and are enjoying themselves.

To keep the game simple, I've omitted all the rules related to beverages, as well as the timer, and we chose not to end on a cliffhanger. We've not yet decided on one or two scenes per location; we've done one scene in the first location, and there are quite a few dangling threads that I think we'll want to resolve before moving to the next location (as well as some which will carry on into the next location), so I think we'll probably decide for two. If we don't finish in the next session, we might end that one on a cliffhanger.

On an expedition bound for the fabled city of Shangrila, located high in the Himalayan mountains, six stalwart members of the Committee faced unforeseen perils with bravery and cunning. Amongst our number were an aviatrix born into one of the wealthiest families in New York high society, a humble librarian around whom mysterious disappearances and violent deaths were prone to happen, a rich playboy investor looking for adventure, a swarthy Arab who bought and sold nearly everything, and a young boy who'd been raised by a pack of wolves. For my part, I'm just a mechanic from New Jersey, they call me Wrench, and maybe I don't much belong among such rich and fanciful folk, but there's things what I can do enough they keep me along.

We're riding on the Orient Express bound for China, where we'll hire guides to take us overland to the foothills of Nepal, thence the climb into the snowy peaks of the Himalayas where our information suggests the legendary city of Shangrila might be found, there to find the secrets of that mysterious place. Only we're not even halfway there and already we've had some archaeologist trying to steal our identification papers, a Chinese spy attempting to mislead us to disembarking at the wrong stop, and a bomb set amongst the machinery of the steam engine. What greater perils must we no doubt face before the train arrives in the exotic Orient? Harrowing, indeed, but that is a tale for another day.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A different way to time travel

Siobhan and I have done a little brainstorming work for a new roleplaying campaign we might be starting up. The idea is one of those that's been on my ideas pile for a while, but she will probably end up GMing it.

The central premise is a different approach to time travel. We first assume that everyone is reincarnated over and over, life after life. Then some people come up with a technique, not to travel back in time, but to transfer their consciousnesses into their previous lives. This lets us have adventures in many periods with a different twist from most time travel, and without some of the pitfalls and paradoxes of time travel. For instance, if things go wrong, you can't just go back to a few days earlier and fix them.

If you only had a single player character, this would be almost all you needed, but to run this with a group of players you need another element. If in a previous life I was an astrologer in the court of Charlemagne but at the same time you were a farmer in the Scottish highlands, it'd be awfully hard for us to share an adventure. So we further posit that we all travel in circles of "kindred souls": the people who are around us now were, in previous lives, also around us, because souls form a connection and find each other. This gives us some interesting conclusions. Anyone who's always felt like they didn't fit in probably felt that way because they weren't near their kindred souls yet and still needed to find them. Sometimes when we meet someone we immediately like or hate them without any reason: that's because of souls being kindred (or not). It even makes it possible to set up a recurring nemesis if desired.

Displacing your past self also gives players a chance to have some interesting character creation fun, though at the cost of forcing us to use a very simple system where character creation is simple and quick, since an abbreviated version of it will have to be done each adventure. In essence, every adventure, you get to make a new variation on your character. First, figure out what your life was in the time and place specified; second, figure out what results from the combination of your current self and past self, when the consciousness of one occupies the other. You'll remember enough of both lives to be able to navigate the time period and life you're in and still remember why you're there. If the player wants to be very consistent, they can be the kind of soul that ends up in a very similar body, with a very similar demeanor, every time, and even avoid the character retooling almost completely. But they can also be the kind of soul that changes a lot; the body can change size, race, and gender, the personality and skills can change completely. Either end or anything in between is completely justifiable. Personally, I'd likely go the latter, as I like the idea of a new variation on my character every adventure.

Most time travel campaigns are based on the idea that the characters have at least some control over the time travel process, but this gets you into all kinds of trouble: why not just go back to a few days earlier and fix whatever went wrong, for instance. It also means everyone wants to go kill Hitler, save JFK, talk to Jesus, slap a tracker on Amelia Earhart's airplane, watch the world premiere of Romeo and Juliet, etc. These are all situations prone to being tricky to GM and many of them are kind of worn out. Then there's all the "save the world" things, where you're trying to stop aliens or people trying to change the timestream, which also are overdone and invite some problems.

Instead of doing that, we're going with an archaeology/academic approach. The characters will be trying to retrieve interesting artifacts (but not in the Warehouse 13 sense -- not superpowered artifacts, just historically interesting ones). This gives the GM a good pretext to get the characters to go on the adventure she's prepared ("Your research has revealed that the long-lost Sceptre of Queen Neferhotep was seen in Barcelona in the late 1580s, and your past lives at that time were not far away, in Basque country.") rather than deciding to wander off on their own tangents. However, it does mean that every adventure either has to be a heist or dungeon crawl (since its objective is to get an item), or we have to use the Scooby Doo approach, where going after whatever we're going after always happens, by amazing coincidence, to involve us in whatever interesting thing is happening in that time). We are still seeing if we can retool this to avoid the coincidence but still give us a reason to participate in interesting historical incidents.

Of course if only your consciousness goes to the past you can't bring an object back to the future with you. If we change the pretext to where the characters are trying to gather information instead of objects, that issue disappears. But if we stick with objects, it leads to another interesting element to each adventure. Having secured the item, what next? Maybe you bury it in a cave that you're fairly sure no one will find in the ensuing centuries, then when you wake back up in the present, you go dig it up and hope it wasn't found. Maybe you rent a safe deposit box. Maybe you use your extensive knowledge of archaeology to identify a tomb in the past that no one has discovered by the present, discover it, break into it, and hide the item there, then go find it in the present. In fact, getting into the safe enough place to hide the item might be more of an adventure than getting the item.

In addition to working out the mechanical details about how characters are created and merged, what happens if they die, what limitations there are on time travel, etc., we still need to decide if time is elastic. Can you change the past, or do your activities there end up explaining the record as it's already known? Consider this in the case of that sceptre I mentioned before. If time is inelastic, and whatever happened, happened, then they can simply check before they leave to see if that Sceptre was ever seen at a later date. If so, they won't bother to go to Barcelona since it's clear they won't succeed in getting it. This means the only trips they'll take are to the last moment the item was seen (or after that), which requires more coincidences -- now the last moment has to be one where the characters have a previous life nearby.

Or is it a coincidence? Perhaps the reason it's the last sighting is because that past life allows the characters to get it from then and hide it, thus ensuring it won't be spotted thereafter. In some ways, inelastic time fixes some problems with time travel and makes for a far more interesting story, but it has some problems for the GM: the characters can try to research their past lives enough to find out what happened, and once they know, that has to end up happening, which can be tricky for the GM to arrange without railroading. Cooperative players can greatly minimize the difficulty here; they just have to try not to contradict the known timeline, perhaps because if they control the situation which leads to a known outcome, they can control what it really means. ("It only seemed like Feliz died, but we faked his death and arranged a new life for him." Trying to avoid his death would have failed, so why bother? Instead, own it and take it over.) The GM can also get a lot of mileage out of the fact that the details of the lives of unimportant individuals are generally not recorded at all in the past.

An elastic past is probably easier to start with, but it also tends to create the big problem that you have to figure out what effect the changes in the past will have on the present. The "course correcting universe" thing feels like a cop-out to me (where most changes you make in the past get cancelled out and everything happens to turn out status quo), but anything else can cause campaign explosion by butterfly effect, or forces the characters in the past to have to tread on eggs everywhere they go (this challenge is interesting once in a while but having to sustain it tends to eliminate a lot of interesting storylines and lead to a lot of intentionally dull stuff). Usually if you have an elastic past, no matter what you try to make the game about, it ends up being about changing history, or avoiding doing so.

Once those issues are addressed, the premise has the opportunity to let us play around in a lot of history visiting interesting times and places, without running into the paradoxes and pitfalls of most time travel stories, or the overdone themes. Now we just need a good catchy name.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Reading your own writing

Usually when I have finished writing something, I find myself unable to read it, not because it's painful or awkward or difficult but just because it's too familiar and my mind glides over it. It's the same reason why I can't easily proofread my own work past a certain point.

But when there's become enough distance between me and the writing for that familiarity to fade back to a level more like "a story you've read before" I then find I can read it again. Many of my works are not especially entertaining to me at this point, because it's still familiar the way a story you've read many times can be familiar enough that there's very little enjoyment left in it.

But once in a while, usually on my more light-hearted stories or plays, particularly shorter ones, one of my own stories is enjoyable enough to me to keep reading. I feel very narcissistic and foolish to enjoy my own writing; feels like I'm bragging. But sometimes I want to read something over and over.

My most recent Lusternian writing, a comical short story in a style that falls into a category of styles that would also include the writings of Douglas Adams (not that I'm comparing my writing to his in terms of quality! just that I'm using similar writing literary techniques and tones), has become like that more quickly than other stories, and more compellingly. (A few others are a short prose poem and a very lengthy romantic-comedy play.) I laugh out loud at it each time, even though it makes me feel self-conscious to be laughing at my own jokes or amused at my own bits of wordplay. Is this common for writers?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Physicalized anxiety

Sometimes when I'm feeling anxious, I feel some physical symptoms in my chest which seem to correspond to metaphors people use, making me think that these symptoms are universal. For instance, people speak of one's "heart sinking," which is quite easily taken as allegorical -- sinking being a downward motion, and the heart seen as the seat of the self or of the feelings. But sometimes I feel something that can really only be described as a physical feeling in the chest which moves downward, which corresponds to the situation in which people speak of a sinking heart. Is that really where the expression comes from, suggesting that other people feel the same seemingly-abstract physical sensation?

Sometimes when I feel these things I don't always know why and I might have to stop and ask myself why I am feeling this particular sensation. I might feel a sort of "fluttery" sensation, which goes with the feeling of being nervous or unsettled, and which I experience as something similar to low blood sugar; in fact, when I experience it, I have to ask myself, am I having low blood sugar, do I just need to eat something, or am I nervous about something, and if so, what?

Sometimes when I feel very down, it feels like a sort of hollowness in my chest, which might be described as being "heart-sick." It feels literally like an emptiness, something missing, a gap.

Other times when I'm that kind of nervous that borders on scared (stupid as it seems, I sometimes get this in combat in Lusternia) I get a sense like a pressure in my chest, located right beneath the sternum, highly localized (I can put a fingertip on the spot), as if it were pressing outwards; this feeling can last for hours or days, long after whatever prompted it has stopped or at least been set aside, though sometimes going back to whatever it was that set it off and resolving it can make it end (other times it just fades with time). As I type this, I'm having that feeling and have been since the previous night, which started with a stupid little conflict in Lusternia that didn't even lead to combat, and I'm not sure why it affected me more than others do.

Then again, maybe it's just that I physically strained my chest muscles during some of the work I did in the game room recently. There is a feedback loop in our physical expressions of emotion: just making yourself smile, even if you don't have a reason to, tends to lift your mood slightly. Maybe a physical strain or ache can cause me to feel the emotional state that might otherwise have caused a sensation similar to that pain.

These are bigger than just the adrenaline rush effects that one gets from exciting or scary things -- I know what those feelings are like but they are short-term, and I'm speaking of things that last hours or days. (I also get the hand-shakes and similar symptoms during those short-term rushes of adrenaline, but that's perfectly understandable.)

I can't begin to guess whether these things, as repeatable as they are, are real physical things or solely perceptual, and whether they are common to other people. Or if they're where some of the phrases we use for them come from. Mostly I just wish I could make them stop.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tablets as roleplaying tools

My experimentation with an Android-based tablet as a reader for PDFs was intriguing. But I wonder if it could be the primary source for a roleplaying game or other book that is used as much for reference as for reading.

I need to try loading a more lightweight PDF onto it than the behemoth Dresden Files I tried it out on first. Dresden Files is probably as demanding as any PDF can be. First, the files are huge, since they're hundreds and hundreds of pages. Second, every single page is heavily graphical, with an incredibly overproduced and glossy layout, a fancy background that makes it look very slick (but not so readable), and tons of extras all over. These both make it take a lot of processing power which my cheapo Android Pad doesn't have, so page turns are slow, searching is awkward, and the experience is rife with the realization that one could do better with a physical book.

These things could be fixed, even for so challenging a PDF, by simply having a tablet with more processing power, if I felt like investing the money. However, the real issue with the PDF is that it's formatted for an 8½" × 11" page. Even an iPad or one of the high-end tablets coming out from other companies would render something like that in a less than ideal fashion. Sure, it could work, and it might even cross that vital "better than a physical book" threshold, but it'd still be a matter of compromises and I'm not ready to pour $600+ into a compromise.

I've seen some reviews for new tablets that hail the 7" and 8" models as an improvement because of greater portability, and I'm sure that's true for many applications. But as long as my primary application will be PDFs of roleplaying books, and as long as so much of the RPG market insists on making overproduced 8½" × 11" PDFs, what I really want to wait for is something like an iPad but bigger: I want one that is that size, so I'm seeing the full image, no scaling, same size. If I could do that, and get one that'd be fast enough at handling it, I'd be happy to pour some serious funds into it. But not if there are any compromises.

Once you get all that, I really don't need it to have 3G and a million apps. It just needs rock-solid PDF viewing, fast and with full support for everything, and then maybe a few other simple apps -- a note-taker, a dice-roller, stuff like that. I wouldn't need it to also try to be my Internet portal and a billion other things (and the lack of a keyboard would be too limiting for me on that, though at least there are solutions to that, unlike with the crippled iPhone). About the only completely unrelated application that I can think of where it would really make sense to put it on there is GPS, because the same factors (lightweight, huge, touchscreen) that make it a great PDF viewer would make it ideal for mapping.

Watching people at Carnage using iPads for this purpose has made me think about this again. I wish I had an opportunity to actually use an iPad for a solid half hour; watching other people use it is at most tantalizing, but never convincing. (And your typical iPad user won't let it out of his hands for more than five seconds at a time, so short of renting one, I don't know how that'll ever happen.) So I threw an iPad up on my Amazon wish list, but it's not like anyone's going to buy me one, not at those prices or at the priority I set it at (unless I win one of Amazon's wish list sweepstakes, I suppose). But I would really prefer to wait for a full-page one.

Of course, what would be far, far better is if we could dispense with the misbegotten notion that a PDF is an eBook in the first place. PDFs are by design terrible for eBooks because their entire purpose, their raison d'etre, is a format that doesn't adapt to a screen but only to paper. The sole reason that publishers are pushing PDFs on us as eBooks is because they don't want to invest time and money in making actual eBooks; they want to take something they already have and make more money without adding any investment. But we're stuck with it for a long time yet, even though it might kill eBooks (countless people are trying PDF-on-an-iPad and concluding from it that real-eBook-on-a-Kindle must also fail to live up to the convenience and nostalgia of a paperback).

So the next best thing to hope is that the 8½" × 11" format will start to fade away, and the overproduced, super-glossy books will start to shift back towards content-first, substance-over-style. But that's also probably not going to happen for a while yet. Though PDF pseudo-eBooks are taking off like crazy, they're still too small a market for anyone to prioritize. As long as the market values glitz, they'll make glitz, and its unsuitability for PDFs-as-eBook-substitutes is even less important than its unsuitability for ink-and-paper.

So clearly I just need to hope for a bigger form-factor tablet with enough processing power to handle Dresden, and pony up the dough. I wonder if Steve Jobs thinks a 12" iPad is a good idea or not.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries

The most recent episode in the ongoing scenario in my Uncreated campaign finished at the end of the evening's session last night. I love it when an adventure's conclusion gets timed that well. But it's not all perfect.

I thought at the end of an adventure would be a perfect time to switch to something else for a bit, to make the little dabbling in storytelling games I've been wanting to try out. Plus if I have to spend some time preparing an adventure, and it'll take some time to prepare this, I can't be doing both at once. However, our next session is only five days away, and I'm not sure I can be fully prepared in time.

What's worse is the session is only a few hours long. I was hoping to have a good five, six hours for the first time, so we can do one full story, without being rushed since we'll all be figuring out our way (I've only played the game once).

Despite these limitations, I think I'm going to go ahead with it. If I try to prepare the next adventure for Uncreated I am committing to running it for a while; I'd rather not interrupt it once it's underway. So if we try this and then take a while to get going, then we'll only do part of a story and end on a cliffhanger, then finish it in a second session.

I think the Committee for Exploration of Mysteries will be a good choice for a first try at a storytelling game. First, unlike some storytelling games, it doesn't depend on the players being assertive all the time, but gives them nudges about the times to speak up, the questions to answer, the decisions to make. That'll make it a gentler transition than something like Ribbon Drive, which really demands the players to be confident, comfortable, and eager to throw ideas out all the time, and offers comparatively little in moments of prodding them into it.

And second, it's a genre that is not only intimately familiar but also comfortable and engaging to all of my group. Some of the games I had recommended when I asked for a good "first" storytelling game were in genres that one or another of my group find less familiar or less appealing, like horror or cyberpunk. When I'm concerned about encouraging them to be assertive with their ideas, it's likely to be easier if they're comfortable with a genre and all its tropes.

On reviewing the rules I am tempted to drop the same elements that Charlton dropped when he ran us through the game at Carnage 12: the rules about beverages (and how they're used to time certain game elements), and the timer you have to count down scenes with. The former is an unnecessary complication, and the latter is unneeded pressure. We might try again with them at some later date if things go well.

Now I just need to make sure I have all the stuff I need, the time to read the book thoroughly and make notes, and a sense of confidence about all of it enough to guide my group through our first session. And if I decide that I won't be ready in time, I'll have lost time I need to prepare the other game I could be running. Maybe I should have found a way to pad out the previous adventure one more week?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

An update to Project: Mass Hysteria

It's been a month and a half since Simon and River joined the family, and we've made a lot of progress towards reaching some kind of peaceful coexistence between them and Socks. There are no more gates up separating parts of the house, and the cats are out and amongst us feeling like part of the family (at least to the extent sociopaths can). The cats regularly use their ramps (though River almost never goes to the top). But we're not quite done, and probably have a few more weeks to go, at least.

The cats and dog can sit around near each other for hours, but there is also a regular incident where they squabble. Sometimes a cat (usually but not only Simon) comes over to Socks and hisses at her, riling her up, or even attacking her. Socks also goes towards one of the cats trying to get them to play sometimes, and they do not react well, but they don't usually back off, they usually get aggressive instead. Most of the time Socks backs off quickly, looking afraid, but once in a while she fights back; it's fairly clear she's not trying to hurt them but is just tired of being picked on and trying to establish a better place in the pack hierarchy. It does make things tense. I think the end of Socks's daily exercise bikerides won't help, either.

What's worse is it means we can't leave the doors open when we're out of the house. We can't trust the gates to keep Socks and the cats apart all day; they can be knocked down by accident too easily. So we still need to lock the cats away from the dog during the day, which means we still can't get our game room back. I can't guess how long it'll take; it could be days or another couple of months.

There is also the matter of the cat litter pan and Socks's desire to root around in it and eat things. We've been handling this with closed doors or gates, but we've just started Operation Cayenne Cat Litter, which means I'm sprinkling cayenne pepper over anything I find in the pans. The idea is a few times trying to eat those and getting spicy agony will make her stop. I'm dubious: if anyone could tell a cayenned cat-poo from an un-cayenned one at a distance by smell, it's a dog. I have realized I will need to keep up the cayenne treatment more often since the cats keep digging in there and scattering or burying it.

I don't know if we'll always have the bedroom door closed at night. The cats are not hesitant to make noise and jump on us at night which makes sleeping hard. Winter will be hard if we can't let heat from the woodstove into the bedroom though.

One day all this will seem like a minor interval we had to get through, but right now, I'm so eager for it to be done.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

MUD client offense tracking

While I've been trying to figure out what curing system I need to move to in Lusternia, one thing that's become clear to me is that I don't need a dashboard of my own status nearly as much as I need a dashboard view of the status of my targets. This, however, would have to be completely tailored to different classes and skillsets.

As a bard using Glamours, it's vital to keep track of whether my target is blind or deaf, whether she has any of the spikes afflictions (and if so which ones she still needs), haunting level, whether she's blacked out, and what if any conditions she has that are holding her in place (perfect fifth, pinleg, webbing, swamp smudge, etc.) and thus might set the stage for a death song. Most people use echoes for this and keep it in their heads, but I always have trouble with that in the spam of group combat. This is even more so since I usually have several targets and have to cycle quickly between them because any given one of them is probably running away from the fight, so if all that information were to show on several rows of a dashboard display, one per target, with a key to quickly switch targets, that'd be perfect. I'd like this to be a floating window that I can open only when I need it (but zMUD has always been slow at handling those).

My Researcher character doesn't care much if the target is blind or deaf, but certainly has other things to track, most obviously timewarp and rubies. So while the underlying idea is the same (multiple targets are probably also necessary, though less vital since her city's opponents are less likely to constantly be fleeing battle and returning to it) the specific things being tracked are completely different.

A warrior needs to track rebounding, stances, and wound status as well as selected afflictions in the same way. I'm sure a similar set of things could be identified for each class. Probably if one were carefully selective one could fit all the most vital things for a target onto a single row of indicators which showed you opportunities at a glance (or without even glancing, just by perceptual osmosis). I don't know if that would help everyone as much as it would help me, but it seems clear it would help anyone, and I wonder why no one's done it, so far as I've ever seen.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Buying tools from Amazon

I really like shopping at Amazon. So many things are so much easier to buy there because I can get them all at once, at reasonable prices, with free shipping. I don't think I'm creating more environmental costs buying the things I buy from them -- it's not like food, in that none of this is produced locally anyway. And for most things, I'm getting better customer service than I would at the stores near me. That's true whether I go to a big chain store like Walmart or a smaller individual shop; in my experience, the main difference between those options is not how good the service is but how reliable (a big store will have consistent service that's neither great nor awful; a small store will bend over backwards for me one time, and completely shaft me another).

However, I've concluded that when it comes to tools, this reasoning doesn't apply. Several times I have purchased a tool of some sort via Amazon and happened to have something turn out to be wrong with it, and not been able to get any satisfaction on my warranty. Maybe the reason why tools give me this problem more than other things is that tools don't get taken out of the box and then used vigorously; they get taken out, used once or twice, and then set aside for weeks or months before they'll need to be used again. That's why tools often have warranties measured in years, not months. Which would be fine, if I didn't keep finding myself unable to act on my warranty.

Today's incident is the clearest case of me getting shafted. In early September I bought a Black & Decker ASI300 AC/DC tire inflator. It arrived around the 14th. I got to use it three times; once on the car tires, once on my bike, and once on an air mattress, and in each case, it worked wonderfully (though it took a lot longer to do that mattress than I expected). About a month and a half later, on November 1st, it immediately died on my fourth attempt to use it.

On some examination I found that many people had this problem; there's a fuse in it which fails even on clean, steady power (such as the power in my garage). Worse yet, it can't be replaced without soldering. From what I've read online, this happens a lot, and many people replace this fuse over and over. I confirmed it was the fuse with a multimeter (infinite resistance) but decided, given how tight it is in there with all those other wires, I wasn't going to try to replace it -- particularly as that would void the warranty. It's a full replacement two year warranty and I was only at a month and a half.

Caveat emptor. Black & Decker says I have two ways to act on my warranty. Option 1: bring the unit, in person, to a certified Black & Decker service center, and then after an unspecified amount of time, it'll be replaced or repaired at the same place. Trouble with that: there's not a single service center within a hundred miles of my house. (I suppose for most people that's not a limitation, but I live out in the middle of nowhere, relatively.) Option 2: go through the business from which I bought it.

Often that's my first way to go since Amazon's customer service on faulty merchandise has always been great when I needed it. Except on tools -- or maybe it's gone from great to awful over the years and I'm only seeing it on tools, but for whatever reason, they're not helping me at all here. It's less than two months since purchase and a month and a half since delivery, but somehow, I'm more than a week past the October 21st deadline to return the product -- and how could you really know that a power tool was bad that quick?

I was in a similar situation a year or two ago when a chainsaw I bought from TruValue through Amazon turned out bad, the manufacturer was out of business, and TruValue refused to honor the warranty or offer even the merest of recompense, even so much as a discount on another purchase. Amazon wouldn't even let me change my seller feedback; they encouraged me to submit a "violation of policy" complaint but told me I would not likely hear anything as a result, which I didn't. So in all, I was out $100. I was disappointed by Amazon, but I blamed TruValue far more.

But the real problem I had was that I couldn't go back to the buyer. If I'd bought that same chainsaw at a TruValue near me (there are some, but they don't carry such things around here) I would have been able to go back to where I bought it and probably gotten my money back.

I'm giving Amazon a chance to make this right, by sending the unit back with a letter. They say I'm eligible for "up to 50%" of the price, not including shipping either way, which will come to a net of about 25% after we consider my shipping costs. I don't expect them to find a way to do better than that, but I am going to give them the chance to surprise me. As the reseller, it's their job to make Black & Decker honor their warranty, and I want to see if they will.

I'm sure everyone who says you should always buy local will crow over this and overgeneralize from it. I don't think this proves I should buy everything local. But it might mean that tools are one of those cases where buying local is better, and that I was wrong about it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A zMUD system for Lusternia, maybe

It seems that development on the mapping in MUSHclient has effectively ended, which pretty much kiboshes any chance I will end up moving over to it. It's a shame. Nick got us 90% of the way there, then he made 5% more possible for us to do ourselves, but as long as he won't do the other 5%, any investment in that map is too limited by the fact that every new map update is going to break every one of the things you had to do to make the map work.

What about Mudlet? They're not at 90% yet, and I can't even tell if that's where they're heading, or if the other 5% they need to do is something that they're considering. So it's still a possibility, but I don't know how hopeful to be. In any case, it's not going to happen very soon.

My main Lusternia character has a mediocre curing system that I've built up over the years, but it is not designed to be possible to pull it out and drop it in another character; too much of it has things hardcoded to that particular character. So no chance to use it for my alt, who has been delaying her advancement for too long in hopes of becoming passable at combat while I waited for a system to become available that I could live with.

So it looks like I'm going to have to bite the bullet and build a zMUD or CMUD system as a stopgap. I don't intend it to be the permanent solution, so I won't put a lot of effort into making it perfect, or implementing the challenging things like illusion protection or weighted damage curing. Maybe I'll try to put a stancing and parrying system in and maybe I won't. But if I take the stuff I already have and cherry-pick from it, while building a new system from scratch, I can probably make a modestly effective system that's free from most of the slowdown and scaling problems I've had to struggle with in zMUD, without investing a huge amount of effort. I'd also be trading on my familiarity with zMUD.

First, I need to evaluate whether CMUD is a better platform to build on, and if so, the current version (which I'd need to buy at an upgrade discount) or the last version to which I have a license. CMUD should preserve much of my familiarity and the entire functionality of the mapper, but might be more stable. In fact, if recent versions really have addressed the stability issues, it's possible this could eventually become a long-term solution.

It sure seemed like a nice thing to be able to just buy a system and not have to do my own coding on it, but I guess that's not going to happen after all. I wish I could force one of the other system developers to use my map for a week. Then they'd get religion and start pushing MUSHclient or Mudlet to implement the necessary functions because they'd realize how important they really are.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

More thoughts about GMing at Carnage

After my game at Carnage failed to go off, my previously discussed concerns about GMing at cons have taken a slightly different shape.

Previous times I tried to run things at cons, I got zero sign-ups, or just one. This time, my game "filled up" and it's entirely possible people got turned away, but it still didn't go off for several reasons, some my fault and some not.
  • When filling out my registration, I listed myself in my own game because, 1, that's where I would be during that session, and 2, if it didn't go off I wanted to have a second choice I could fall back into. However, the Carnage organizers had me take up one of the player slots in my own game. This is not wholly ridiculous since in some games the GM is also a player (for instance, pretty much any board game, and many storytelling games); but you would think that the GM would account for that and not include his own slot in the number of players. It's ambiguous; I don't think that either way would be immediately evident to everyone, so there's probably no solution that doesn't involve them having to explain the question.
  • When Siobhan and I talked about the game, we put her with another game as her first choice, but we put my game as her second choice. When it came to it, she didn't want to play even if that was the only way to make the game happen. So we should not have listed it even as her second choice. That ate up another one of my six slots.
  • Of the four remaining players, one never showed, and another one showed up, then left, saying that he'd been asked to GM another game, leaving only two. I could make it work with three, but it'd be tough; two is just not enough.
How many players, if any, got turned away? No way to tell. Most of the other games I saw were overfull; despite there being a lot more RPGs than last year, there were also a lot more players. Carnage seems to be growing considerably and maybe even threatening to outgrow its venue (their conference rooms are up to the amount of activity, but their hotel rooms were sold out on the first day of the con). So maybe there were a bunch of players who tried to sign up and got bumped, or who couldn't get added in during "on the day" registration because it was listed as full. No way to tell. If only they would do an online registration system so you could see where the slots were in advance...

I'd also agonized about whether to run the game using my RTC rules, which are very lightweight and (to my mind) ideally suited to a con game, or the published Serenity roleplaying game. The reactions of the two players I did get makes me think I might have gotten more interest if I'd gone the latter way; one of them even managed to convince himself that since the C in RTC stands for "Core" that therefore I was running the Serenity rules since they are historically derived from a system that is called "Core" (though this doesn't actually appear in the rulebook itself).

So will I try to run a game next year? At this point I am inclined to say no, but it's a long way off and I have plenty of time to change my mind. I think there's one thing I can say with near certainty: no more trying to run homebrew rules. That's something to do only after I have proven myself (if even then).

So the question then is, what would I run? GMing is always a challenge; you need to be firing on all cylinders, simultaneously considering the rules and all the players and the world and all the story elements. At a con, you're doing all this plus dealing with people you don't know and who have wildly different backgrounds, you probably are teaching them the rules as you go, and you're watching the clock to use the available time to ensure a satisfactory conclusion right as the session runs out, not before and not after. This is not a situation in which you want to playing with rules with which you are not so very thoroughly familiar that you can resolve them in your sleep. So you can't bring a game to a con to GM unless you've played it in your normal group not just a few times but a lot, really testing it, gathering and refining your expertise in it. So it's not enough to say, maybe my group wouldn't mind dabbling a little in this-or-that game, they'd need to be willing to play a game for a while and give me a thorough workout in it, test its boundaries.

On the one hand, I could try taking a fairly mainstream game off the shelf and run it as written. My hesitation there is I can barely get enough sessions and participation with the game I already have to try to throw in something entirely other, and I don't know how much time I could spare working something else up that would interest them. On the other, I could try a storytelling game where less is demanded of the GM in terms of preparing a campaign, and less commitment on the part of the players, since it's something you'd only play for a session or two now and then. But these are also, in some ways, more challenging for the GM since they're a little more nebulous and harder to grasp. (Certainly that was my reaction to Solipsist, though I speculate that's in part a flaw in the game itself.)

I'm not sure how my group would feel about them, though. One of the group is what Robin Laws calls a "casual gamer" who, as often as not, just wants to be there while we play but doesn't really stretch to involve herself, and seems happy with that (nor do I try to force her to participate more; if she's enjoying herself, that's fine). I'm not sure if a storytelling game, where players have a lot of narrative control and provide much of the drive to make the game happen, would draw her out more, or just make her feel pressured. Two other players are fairly new to roleplaying and still going through that stage many new roleplayers go through of treating it like a sport where you might not be "good enough" at it, and while I have no doubt they have the imagination needed to do a storytelling game if they put their minds to it, I'm concerned they would be way too hesitant. So I'm looking at the question of whether there's a storytelling game more suited to luring people like that out without making them feel threatened or too lacking in confidence.

If such a game exists, I might try that, and see how it works. It could be fun, and if it works, it might also help those two players come out of the shell a bit and feel more confident and thus more assertive in our regular games. Whether that'll lead to me GMing at Carnage I don't know; I'd have to feel very confident in whatever game or games we ended up trying. Even with a whole year, with us meeting on average once a month, I doubt I will get enough sessions in by next November.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Carnage 13 Day 3

There are many bad things you can say about the timing of Carnage -- in that grey, rainy, cold season where it's not quite winter but it's sure not anything nicer, in the heart of cold and flu season, at a time when money's growing tight due to winter costs and the holidays, at a time when the darkness is making it hard to feel rested, etc. -- but there's one glorious thing about the first weekend in November: daylight savings time. There's no weekend you could use an extra hour of sleep more than the middle of a con. Thanks to that, we were able to get checked out and get breakfast before the first game without being rushed and without coming into it missing sleep.

Our morning session was in the board game room where we had a game of Pandemic. The joke this year is that last year we had a real pandemic (swine flu ran rampant at the con), but this year, we only have the game. Pandemic is a cooperative game: you all work together and either you all win or you all lose. Acting as agents of the CDC, you travel the world trying to contain outbreaks of various diseases and gather the information necessary to develop cures. The diseases insist on spreading, both in slow gradual progress and in massive outbursts. If you can find all the cures before a certain number of outbreaks (or several other conditions) you win, and the diseases are eventually eradicated; if you can't, you lose, and the diseases sweep the world.

We've played Pandemic once before and actually own a copy we've never played (we need to lure some of our friends over to play some of these games) but it had been a while so we were rusty. Fortunately the session was geared towards people who'd never played, so giving us a refresher was no big deal. The game went very badly for us: there were several Epidemic cards played very early, which is usually the kiss of death, and we kept having the worst luck with outbreaks, and used up most of our allowance of outbreaks quite early into the game while we still had massive spread of disease and almost no cures. We were a hair's breadth from doom for quite a while, but miraculously, we pulled out a victory.

Sometimes at these sessions the game's winner is given another game as a prize, often a store demo or something of the like, and we were offered two games to distribute amongst ourselves as we saw fit. Siobhan and I got Batt'l Kha'os, a two-player tile-playing strategy game. Since there was still plenty of time in the session we played a couple of games of it (I won both times, though the first time doesn't count since we were figuring out the rules and the win depended on one rule that hadn't been made clear to Siobhan) before heading out to lunch ahead of the crowds.

Yes, the game is really named Batt'l Kha'os. Would I kid?

The final session was yet another Charlton storytelling game, and yes, we joked about how it seemed like we'd been stalking Charlton since we'd been at the same table as him pretty much the entire weekend. (The only exceptions were Pandemic, though I saw him one table over, and the session where my game failed to attract enough players.) I certainly intended to be in a lot of Charlton games, but I also tried not to be a Charlton-stalker or Charlton-groupie. But all those cancelled sessions left me with essentially no non-Charlton games, except one that he was a fellow player in. Actually, this session I'd been bumped from Charlton's game, but the last session of the con tends to have a lot of people dropping out and shifting around; the game I actually got bumped into was quite full, and Charlton's game had a little free space, so about half of the people at the table weren't actually signed up for it.

The game itself was In A Wicked Age, a decidedly non-cooperative storytelling game set in a world like that of the Conan books, and geared heavily towards playing characters who range from Machiavellian to scheming to downright evil. Of our six players, two were vengeful ghosts, one was a sapient, enchanted armband who filled its wearers with bloodlust, one was a retired, penitent torturer, one was the foreman of a team of miners (who'd been responsible for the death of one of those ghosts and wanted to cover it up), and one was one of that team who was scheming to assassinate (or otherwise depose) the foreman to steal his job. The one NPC who got almost all the NPC screen time was the torturer's apprentice, now the head torturer, and as vicious a woman as ever you'd want not to meet. (Charlton somehow, don't ask me how, resisted the temptation of having this vicious, bloodthirsty, violent, and extremely sexy NPC wear a tight leather dominatrix catsuit, but we still managed to throw in some extremely corny sexual tension here and there.)

By chance I suppose I was the least evil of the lot, not because I set out to be, but because my role as the foreman of a team of miners didn't really lend me a lot of ideas for how to be malevolent in ways that targetted the other characters, and I was trying to avoid having everything about my character focused on the duplicitous rival who was trying to go for my job, so as to avoid the two of us ending up in one story separate from everyone else's. The brutal and gruesome death of the exorcist (the other NPC, he didn't last that long) dead-ended my attempts to pursue the "that ghost drowned because of faulty work me and my team did on building a dam" thread, and when another moment came up to pursue it later, we were out of time so I left it lying.

As someone who is a passionate advocate for the idea that neither "rules rich" nor "rules light" is a panacea, and sometimes you want a lot of mechanics and they can be a good thing, I find it difficult to note that this was a storytelling game with a lot of mechanics (relatively speaking) but where they didn't seem to help a lot. As often as not they felt like they limited us from doing things we all felt would be good to do. This may not be a fault of the rules so much as a combination of us pushing their envelope with lots of complex multi-player conflicts, and Charlton being not entirely sure if we were interpreting the rules correctly about how those are handled. Even so, I feel that the dice resolution mechanic could have been replaced with something a fair bit simpler without losing any effectiveness, and in fact, probably helping to make it more flexible. This is an impression from a single four-hour session, though, so I take it with a grain of salt.

While playing dastardly characters bent on the ruination of the other players' characters is not something I'd want to do often, in the context of a single con session it was fun. I wish I'd happened to choose a character, or develop my character, in ways that got to explore more of that viciousness.

All in all, despite the mix-ups of getting registered for the wrong games, and despite the (almost-expected) failure of my game, Carnage was fun. We're already booked in the hotel for next year in a room right near an entrance and the rooms where roleplaying games are held. I probably won't make an attempt at GMing next year (I'll blog more about that some time soon) and I might try to branch out more from storytelling games a bit next year, but not because I didn't have tons of fun playing such games -- I did, and they're why this was one of the most fun times I've had at a con -- but just to broaden my experiences. Or maybe not. Maybe next year I'll just find Charlton and walk around five feet behind him for the entire con, until he files a restraining order. It could go either way.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Carnage 13 Day 2

The middle day of Carnage has three slots, but we still ended up playing only two games. That's because the middle slot was the one I was supposed to spend GMing my adventure set in the world of Joss Whedon's Firefly. I'd listed the game as needing 3-6 players, because you can't really crew a ship with less than 3 (even 3 is pushing it), but more than 6 gets too much to handle (and I'd only made 6 pregens). However, when filling out my own registration, I listed myself in that slot in the game -- because of course that's what I would be doing in that slot -- and the con organizers thus listed me as a player and took up one of the six slots, perhaps assuming I'd done that intentionally. Siobhan has already played this adventure so we only made it her second choice, which was a mistake -- she didn't want to play either way -- and since she got bumped from her first choice, she ended up taking another one of the slots. The other four filled up, but of them, one was a no-show and another one got up and left in the first couple of minutes because he'd been asked at the last minute to take over GMing something else, leaving us with only two.

Could we have had a full house, or at least enough to play? Probably, if the con organizers hadn't blocked off one slot with me, if we hadn't left Siobhan with it as her second choice, if she hadn't been bumped, and most tellingly, if the con embraced some kind of registration system that was less manual and allowed us to see the results of registration before the day of the con. I wonder how may potential players got turned away because "it's full" and if this might have, at last, been a chance to actually pull off a game. Oh well, we'll never know.

The morning slot was supposed to be Tyler's GURPS Ghostbusters game, a sequel to the game we played in last year, but I was bumped from it, and Siobhan was ready to play but we never saw Tyler and we never found out what was going on. Fortunately she was able to slip into Charlton's game of Last Train Out Of Warsaw.

This had been my second choice for two reasons. First, while I love Charlton's storytelling games, I thought it a good idea to pick something other than a diet of 100% Charlton, and Tyler's game was fun last year and it seemed like a good place to veer back to more familiar styles of roleplaying. Second, this game was set in World War Two, which is a period of history in which I have little knowledge and not a lot of interest.

In 1944, as the Germans conquered Warsaw, a single train is getting out just before the end, loaded up with far too many passengers eager to escape to Romania, and secretly, almost 9000 five-pound ingots of gold, essentially the whole treasury of Poland being brought to safety both to prevent the Nazis from getting it and to ensure a hope for the rebuilding of Poland. We played selected crew and passengers on this train, each with our own secrets and agendas (many of which we were making up as we went).

The game never flagged, and while there were a few moments where my unfamiliarity with the period or that part of the world made me feel a little out of my depth, they were small, brief, and quickly gotten past. The game includes a mechanic where you can interrupt a scene someone else is narrating with any of a number of phrases to throw extra complications or considerations into it, and I never quite got into the habit of using the phrases, though I think I can safely say that I did throw some of the things into the game the phrases were meant to accomplish, I just didn't do it in the structure the game provides. I think I could have done more, and would have, if I played the game again (and thus felt more comfortable with it), were better rested, or it were a more comfortable setting.

I'm particularly pleased with how my character's story resolved. He was the conductor, and struggled to be a voice of order and a calming force on the panicking passengers, coming time and again to the idea that if we all just buck up and sit quietly, this will all work out. He played a lot on the meager authority that his crisply pressed uniform gave him. But he was also, for reasons unknown, working as an informant for the Soviets. I kept despairing of chances to develop this or have it even come up in play, and when, right near the end of the game, the train blew right through the city in which his handler could be found without stopping, I thought I would have no chance to resolve his story at all.

Then we got stopped by some Russian soldiers who'd set up a small camp and a machine gun emplacement that was more than adequate to stopping the train. Having learned of the secret gold long before, the conductor made sure he was the one to talk to the Russians and, rather than keeping it secret, spilled it all eagerly, revealing that he was serving as an informant to ensure the safety of his family (who had, I never quite got to say, been spirited to somewhere safe in exchange for his spying). Having thus discharged his duty, standing in the office of the ranking Russian officer and hearing the train beginning to start up without him (apparently hoping against hope to try their luck with the machine gun, to avoid having the gold found), he grabbed the officer's revolver and unloaded it into the machine gun nest, killing the soldier manning it and allowing the train its escape. He then threw the gun down, saying, "as long as my family is safe" while clutching his wife's locket, and waited to be mowed down by the Russians in whose camp he'd been left behind as he betrayed them. It was a perfect ending to his story and fulfilled the provided resolution that he would, in the end, rise above his flaws and become a hero.

The evening slot was another Charlton session with another storytelling game, Don't Rest Your Head, a surrealistic game in which extended insomnia causes hallucinations that become, apparently, the real truth over which what we thought to be reality was just a paper-thin illusion. The premise put me slightly in mind of Solipsist, but I went in not necessarily expecting play to be anything like Solipsist, which I had found not quite ready to play. There are some things similar, but none of those that caused me difficulties with Solipsist; how much of that comes from the GM being comfortable with the system, versus from the system itself and its setting, I can't guess.

Beforehand I sat down to make a few sentences of notes about a character idea who had a reason to be insomniac, and that turned into a whole page. Almost everything on that page came out during play, which is surprising, since only a few bits came out on my character sheet. My character had lost her parents in a car crash, her father to a long painful death, her mother to crippling injuries and a dissociative disorder, and then lost her husband to the effort required to care for her mother, and was doing 24-hour care alone and with no support and barely any money. What started her on her adventure was her father visiting to tell her that her mother was still alive and simply being held, and if she could be gotten back, all would be well.

With seven other players with similarly odd starting points, it took a long time and a lot of use of the coincidence-crowbar to get us working together and to tie several of the stories into one whole. Several of the characters didn't get much resolution to their storylines, but everyone got to participate. In the end, we had a lawyer draw up a contract with the soon-to-become King of the Cats by which my character's mother agreed to become his Queen, and also to give up the thumbs of her body she'd no longer be using, as long as she'd be able to (in cat form) visit her family. This also got another character his dog (and thumbs) back, and fulfilled the lawyer's ambition to do something important (and thus justify her own decisions). Along the way, we robbed a Walmart, drove to Seattle by folding space, got attacked by clockwork automata auditors, watched ER nurses and investment bankers drain the lives out of hapless victims, burned down an apartment building that ate its inhabitants, and discovered the hidden history (not that well hidden, there's a whole wing about it in the Seattle Aviation Museum) of how demonology is the secret of making jet engines work. (But we stopped short of getting the demons unionized so they could demand better terms for their work carrying airplanes around.)

In some ways we only glanced on the game because that many people in that short a time made everyone have to share their spotlight time a lot. I never used most of the mechanics and most of my character sheet, for instance. But what we did use certainly helped facilitate a delightfully surreal, funny, occasionally creepy, and highly imaginative game.