Tuesday, January 31, 2017

John Wetton

Brother Dave sent me an email with this news this morning. Ugh.
John Wetton

John Wetton, bassist and singer for King Crimson and (way more importantly for me) Asia died today at the age of 67 after a battle with colon cancer.

Wetton's death announcement on his own website...

For a 70's and 80's music lover in general, and prog rock fan in particular, the body blows just keep coming. Chris Squire of Yes in 2015. Glen Frey, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake in 2016. Gary Richrath of REO Speedwagon in there somewhere. Now Wetton in 2017.

I can't help but to think what Carl Palmer must be thinking. He lost the "E" and "L" in ELP in 2016. Now he loses the singer/bassist from his other band Asia in 2017. Mortality sucks.

A few good things:
  • An Extraordinary Life - My favorite Asia song from the most recent 3 reunion albums. An extraordinary life indeed. A tribute to hope, optimism and the future.
  • Ride Easy - A forgotten "B" side song from the early 80's that is a favorite of mine.
  • Daylight. Another "B" side from the Alpha album that I like very much (and a fun demo version of Daylight from before the song had lyrics beyond the chorus...)
Farewell to yet another.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Charlie Brown Had It Right

This may be the only post of its kind that I will ever write here.

But...

I consider myself a fairly progressive and open-minded person when it comes to social issues. I am brother to a handicapped man. Father to a handicapped daughter. Friend, acquaintance, or distant acquaintance to a variety of LGBT people. Husband to someone not from around here. Father to a pair of mixed-race daughters.

Wonderful people come in every imaginable variety.

My view of the kind of world I want to live in is one of...
  • Understanding
  • Inclusion
  • Open-mindedness
  • Rationality
  • Harmony
  • Peace
  • Fairness
  • Decency
  • Knowledge
  • Facts
  • Truth
Every day now I wake up and can't help but to see the news.

My reaction is pretty much always the same.

Oh Good Grief.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Appendix N

An often referred to thing in old school role playing game discussions is the fabled "Appendix N". This is the list of "inspirational and educational reading" that Gary Gygax included in the back of the Dungeon Masters Guide, the third and final book of the holy trinity of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. The list included most of the sources from which D&D was cobbled together, oftentimes lifting thoughts and ideas wholesale.
My original 1979 DMG, worn and yellowed

My exposure to the books and authors on this list was relatively sparse back in 1979, when the DMG was published (and purchased). I was somewhat of a fantasy geek back in junior high and high school (yes, before junior high became "middle school"), but apparently my geekdom was minor league at best, everything being relative. Of the things on the list, I could (and still can) claim to have read Tolkien, Robert E Howard (Conan the Barbarian), HP Lovecraft (Cthulhu, supernatural horror), Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser) and Michael Moorcock (Elric of Melnibone). Not on the "Appendix N" list, I had read the first several of the Piers Anthony Xanth series books (of which Amazon says there are now 35!!), as well as the first few of Robert Lynn Asprin and Lynn Abbey's Thieves World series. Maybe a few other things. And that was about it.
Appendix N, with the patina of age...

Thirty years or more having passed since I read most of the books noted above (Tolkien being the exception, as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings get a re-read every half dozen years or so), so I have begun taking an extended literary stroll down memory lane and revisiting some of these books. I've gotten through the first book and a half of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser... Very entertaining.
Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser

I'm partway through the first Conan book... Very entertaining as well.
Conan

...and am partway through one of the new ones I want to read; Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson. The idea of Law and Chaos, the foundation of alignment in D&D (a 3 by 3 grid of lawful/neutral/chaotic and good/neutral/evil), is based on this book and its battle between the forces of Law and the forces of Chaos. I'm only a night's reading into this, so it's too early to tell what my final opinion will be, but it is not an easy read - too much phonetically exaggerated "dialect" that detracts from the story. But that being said, I am reading this for the historical perspective with regards to the foundations of D&D and not so much the quality of the read itself (although, of course, I do hope it turns out to be a good book). More to come on this one.
Three Hearts and Three Lions

Lastly, and I haven't picked these up yet, I want to read some of Jack Vance, specifically The Dying Earth. The system of magic user spell-casting in D&D is so directly lifted from Vance that Gary Gygax asked Vance if he could use the concept in his game, and the resulting way of regulating spell use in fantasy role playing games has become known as "Vancian magic". Basically, magic users memorize spells, and after they cast them, they forget them, and have to memorize them all over again before they can use them again. I think this will be another interesting one to read...

Funny the ebbs and flows of things, and how this particular rekindling of an interest has led me back around to a time that seems so distant it is almost like the shadow of a memory of something that happened to someone else entirely. Up the stairs and to the left to my room. Light blue walls. Hardwood floors and light tan carpet. Bookcases on the outside wall. Little student desk under the window overlooking the back yard. Bed tucked into the corner next to the desk. Homework is done and nothing particular to do. Grab a book. Flop on the bed. Take a journey to somewhere else...

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Greg Lake

As I have noted before, these "it was with great sadness that I read that xyz had died..." posts are becoming all too routine. Talking with brother Dave at his house on Christmas day, he mentioned something about Greg Lake dying, joining Keith Emerson's death earlier in the year, to which my reaction, unaware of this was, "whaaa??"
Greg Lake

Emerson Lake and Palmer was one of my favorite prog rock bands in the late 70's and early 80's (I was kinda young and got on the bus a little late). I loved that kind of music then, and still do now. Greg was a terrific singer, guitarist and bass player.

In addition to his work with ELP, I will also remember his short stint with Asia. When John Wetton left the band in 1983 (partway through the Asia in Asia documentary/concert film), Greg stepped in and took over the bass and vocal work on the (at that time rare) full length live concert broadcast on MTV (Asia live at the Budokan), joining ELP band mate Carl Palmer. He did a nice job with only 10 days to prepare (although you can see him reading a teleprompter for the lyrics).

A few morsels:
  • Lucky Man (1974) - Greg at his peak. It's also hilarious to watch him chewing gum all the way through the song. Anytime there is a second to spare, he takes a few chomps. Seems hard enough to play guitar and sing without worrying about choking on your gum, but hey...
  • Lucky Man in 2013 on the Moody Blues Cruise. Voices deepen with age, but not tremendously different...
  • Still You Turn Me On (1974) - Great song. This one has another thing I will always remember about Greg - the need to force a rhyme no matter how dumb. In this case, we get the best/worst of all time - "...sadder...madder...someone get me a ladder." Oh my...
  • Hoedown (1973) - More about Keith Emerson here, but ELP at their best.
  • Welcome Back my Friends (London 2010) - Still OK on their 40th anniversary reunion tour.
  • Welcome Back my Friends (Montreal 1977) - ELP at the peak. Faster and more frantic. And thinner... Greg on guitar this time instead of bass.
Greg Lake may not have been the household name that Prince or David Bowie or others who passed this year might have been, but his death makes me nostalgic, and his passing is far more personal to me. Another piece of childhood gone...

Christmas Goodness

The holidays may well be mainly about spending time with family and friends, but no matter how old you get, you can still appreciate a few nice Christmas gifts, and the family treated me well again this year.

We are fortunate that gifts are about wants and not needs, and the following will certainly bear that out. All nice to have; none particularly necessary.

First is a pair of 25mm European village buildings from Miniature Building Authority. I have as many of these as I realistically need, but adding one or two interesting ones every now and then is a treat. "Postern gate II" is on the left, and "Alleygate #1" is on the right. Both are different enough from the townhouse and castle pieces that I already have to make them very nice additions to the collection.
Miniature Building Authority buildings (25mm)

Next are a trio of books on widely varied subjects: an 1862-63 scenario book for the Regimental Fire and Fury miniatures ruleset, and a pair of classic books on lost treasures of the southwest by J. Frank Dobie, Coronado's Children (1930) and Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver (1939?), covering some of the most famous legends and tales of the region.
Some Fun Reading

Lastly, there is a trio of books on musical subjects from brother Dave and his family: Springsteen's autobiography, a book on Yes, and a book on Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The ELP book is especially timely in that I saw the Carl Palmer Band last summer performing ELP music, in the same year that Keith Emerson died earlier in the year and Greg Lake died at the very end. As has been well documented elsewhere, it is hard to believe the number of musicians we lost in 2016. Included on that list are some very high profile ones that didn't mean all that much to me (David Bowie and Prince), and some other names that did (Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and of course Glenn Frey of the Eagles).
Music books

Thanks to all for the wonderful gifts and the hours of reading enjoyment they will certainly give me.

Monday, January 2, 2017

In Search of Lost Treasure

I've always had a fascination with the strange and mysterious. Tales of lost treasures enthralled me as a boy (and beyond). Perhaps that is why I majored in archaeology in college, and it is no great surprise that a particular show caught my eye.

I've become addicted to The Curse of Oak Island on the History Channel, which is an admittedly overly dramatized docu-drama about a few guys throwing tremendous amounts of money into the search for whatever is hidden on Oak Island (Nova Scotia). I won't attempt to detail the history of this treasure hunt (click the link above), but it began in 1795 and has captivated people ever since. All sorts of odd things have been found on the island, and theories of what is buried there (which assumes that anything is buried there of course) range from the lost Templar treasures including the Holy Grail, Spanish conquistador treasure, pirate booty, and the lost manuscripts of Shakespeare (along with the theory that they were written by Francis Bacon).

Wanting a little more history and background than the show provides, I picked up The Secret Treasure of Oak Island and another related book or two. This is the first one I have gotten through, and it is exactly what I was looking for. It's an easy read, and it is fun to think about all the weirdness related to this island and what it might mean. And maybe it means nothing at all. But it is entertaining. I would heartily recommend both the show and the book.
The Oak Island Mystery

If you are going to read stories about treasure hunting, then one thing will surely lead to another. I know that there are a multitude of tales and legends about lost Spanish mines and native american treasures in the southwestern United States, so I browsed the ratings of some books on the subject and picked up Four Days From Fort Wingate by Richard French.
Lost Treasures of the Southwest

I'm happy to say that this was another very fun read. It is the story of what have become known as the Lost Adams Diggings, located somewhere in eastern Arizona or western New Mexico. This is another treasure hunt that has fascinated a great many people over a very long time (click the link for a good summary). The 259 pages flew by very quickly, and were a nice recounting of the legend, the various interpretations of the clues, and the searches of various individuals over the years. It is rounded out by a summary of the author's own investigations, explorations and conclusions. Like the Oak Island mystery, it may be real, partly real, or completely legend, but it is an entertaining read.

With these two books under my belt and another one or two on the nightstand, there was always Christmas coming soon and people looking for gift ideas, but that is a story for another post.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Days and Nights Before Christmas

Twas the days and nights before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring. Except for 6 guys doing a new roof, 3 guys doing house wrap and new siding, and 2 more installing new windows on three sides of the house. I think there was also something about "a clatter", which would be appropriate. Clatter. Clatter. Clatter all day. Clatter every day. Clatter during every daylight hour. And beyond.
A new roof

This is hopefully the last major project (and by far the largest and most expensive) to remove the Pulte stain from our Pulte house. Piece by piece over the years we have fixed, removed and replaced the multitude of shoddy materials, shortcuts and incompetent workmanship that has been a thorn in the side of our otherwise wonderful family home.
18 new windows

It's been almost twenty years, and we were due for a new roof. Compared to many others in our neighborhood, we have been lucky with ours, but we knew there was at least one bad spot causing issues with leaking into a back bedroom window, and it was time to deal with replacing the roof.
House wrap and siding

Which turned into a larger discussion on the desire to replace windows which were junk from day one. We've grown used to the fact that the windows are all drafty, poorly installed and hard to open, but it shouldn't be that way. And the proper way to replace windows is to do a full flanged replacement which requires the siding to be off the house. And we needed new siding anyway, and we also knew that the house hadn't been house wrapped. Which explains why it is as drafty as it is.
More windows, wrap and siding

So, as is often the case, a few small stones rolling down hill turns into an avalanche, and "we should do something about a new roof" turns into "oh what the hell, let's just replace the entire outside of the house".

Timing has been inconvenient in a way, with things all occurring around the holidays, but in some ways that is better because I am home more to be able to watch what they are doing. It's been an interesting process, and I am very happy with what I am seeing so far. The uncovering of hidden issues and damage has been minimal to this point (there were a few places where I was expecting worse), and things have been going pretty much according to plan.

As is generally the case when we have any kind of contractor in to do work, they are amused (but not surprised) by the things they uncover, and it's been no different this time around. Big gaps between panels. No flashing in spots. An apparent lack of caulking anywhere. Pretty much what I would expect from Pulte.

It will be nice when this is done. I will not dread a heavy rain. The kids will be able to open and close windows without a hydraulic jack. On a windy winter day there shouldn't be a cold breeze coming through every window and out of every electrical switch and socket. It'll be strange... Nice, but strange.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Gettysburg Day 1

Scheduling sessions has been difficult, so there has been a bit of a hiatus in our D&D campaign. In the meantime, I've been anxious to do something, so I figured I could set up a quick Fire and Fury game (American Civil War) and sucker at least a couple people into that.

The original thought was to throw together a generic scenario just to do something simple. Then I decided to use existing stuff to do a passable version of the first day of Gettysburg. Then that turned into a full custom battlefield. Things often go this way for me...

I started by cutting a 6 by 7 foot piece of tan craft felt as a ground cloth, and then sketched out the roads and hill contours using a brown sharpie pen. I love tan craft felt. It comes with color mottling so it is not a solid color, and comes in 6 foot wide bolts which gives it great flexibility. It is only $6.99 per yard at the local Joann's fabric store, and there are always sales or 50% off an item coupons (this piece was cut from a full 10 yard bolt which I got for $30).

I marked the lines of streams and woodlots with rows of beads, and then painted the outlines of the woods green, and the streams a medium-dark blue (cheap craft paints). The battlefield was way too tan at this point, so I took the cloth outside and spray painted it with a combination of medium-light green and light green to give it a mottled green look.
Gettysburg - Day 1, at start, from the West

For additional detail, the roads were painted brown between the sharpie border lines, and the smaller streams were simply drawn in using a wide point blue marker. Then, rather than using drawn in "quickie" contour lines, I decided to carve the elevations out of styrofoam insulation board and cover them with additional tan felt. These were then spray painted like the ground cloth. Seams between the hills and the groundcloth hide very nicely.
Heth's Divison of Hill's corps deploys for battle

The insides of the outlines of the woods were stippled and dry-brushed with a dark green, then a medium green, then a light yellow-green for a little pop.
Woods Detail - Herbst's Woods

Various detailed map references were used to place cosmetic outlines of orchards in the proper locations. Roads were dry-brushed with a lighter tan color, and the wider streams were highlighted with a light turquoise-blue. The major roads then got a heavy dry brush of a light gray to distinguish them.
Road detail, fur fields, simple orchard markers

Lastly, labels were printed for the main terrain features and then glued down.
Buford defends East McPherson's Ridge (Seminary behind)

All buildings, fences, trees and figures are from existing stock, and I already had base labels for F&F Gettysburg from years ago.

I'm very happy with how things turned out. Doing a project this way also has the advantage of being easier to store than a full styrofoam board battlefield (which would be two 6 foot by 4 foot sheets). This is four pieces of hill elevation each no more than about 1 by 4 feet, and a rolled up ground cloth. What started as a "throw something together for a quick game" turned into a full custom battlefield for the northern half of Gettysburg. In total, it took maybe 6 hours over the course of a week's worth of evenings. I got on a roll. And a little obsessed. Oh well, the end result is nice.

Now I guess I have to make the southern half of the field as well...

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Thing 1 Comes of Voting Age

Another hard-to-believe milestone came and went recently. Julia turned 18.

Leading up to the most contentious election in my lifetime, we have another registered voter in the house.
Happy Birthday!

No matter how big she gets, she'll always be my baby.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Walk Along the Brandywine

It's getting toward Fall, and that means getting out and hiking (or walking in this case) whenever able. Amp and Julia had meetings to get ready for the Fall musical for school (Bye Bye Birdy), so Grace and I took the opportunity to get out and spend a couple of hours walking along the Brandywine near home.

It was a perfect day, about 75 degrees with no humidity, and we hiked a well-known trail from the Thompson's Bridge parking lot north along the creek (river) and back again.
Brandywine looking north


Water level over the gravelly bottom was low, and we saw a pair of kayakers attempt to run a shallow riffle and get hung up on the rocks in the few inches of water.
Brandywine looking south


Many others were out, including kayakers, walkers, bikers, and dog walkers. Grace found a nice tree at one point and needed to climb it (I would have if I were her), and she took a bunch of nice pictures with her camera from last Christmas.
Thing 2 up a tree (good place for a geocache...)


The highlight of the day's walk (other than the fact that my daughter suggested going for a hike in the woods with Dad!) was the sighting of a big bird swooping from tree to tree over the creek. The first time I saw it, my thought was "did I just see a bald eagle?". The second and third times, paying close attention, there was no doubt that this was what we saw. From a distance of maybe 60 to 70 yards, it was clearly a smallish bald eagle. I have seen many of these flying over the Sassafras River over the years, but I had never seen one so close to home. Thrilling. And a great highlight to a great day.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

First Day of School - Senior Year

It's hard to believe, but the first day of school at this bus stop this year is for Julia's senior year. It just doesn't seem possible that my little girl is entering her last year of high school. Or for that matter that her little sister is on the same bus halfway through middle school.
First day of school - Julia's senior year

Some of these kids are newer to the neighborhood, but some I have known since they were little kids, and a few since they were born. We moved into the neighborhood when it was newly built 19+ years ago, as did a few other of these families. Time flies.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Julia's Room

I realized in looking back over posts from this year that I never took a picture of Julia's finished room - just the work in progress.

So here it is. Bright and bold accent wall with two of Julia's favorite musical posters.
Julia's Accent Wall

Next comes the master bedroom repaint.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Avalon 2016

For the fourth (I think) year in a row, we have spent the better part of a week at the shore for our summer vacation. We went many years without spending much (if any) time at the beach, but the kids really love it and now ask for it again every year.

Once again, we stayed at the Windrift, right on the beach on the border between Avalon and Stone Harbor. Can't beat the convenience, with ocean and pool within a stone's throw. Having been to the Windrift now several times, we are learning more and more about what is where in terms of places to eat, and things to do, which is helpful.

One of the highlights for the kids is always the trip (or two) to the boardwalk in Wildwood, a ten minute drive away.
Money's Pier, Wildwood, at sunset

The Wildwood boardwalk is a semi-junky money-leech of a tourist trap, but I can certainly see the appeal for kids. After all, I was once, and can (mostly) remember back that far.
Spinning rides...ugh...

Our inlaws took their vacation at the same time as us again this year, and it was great that the kids got to hang out with their cousins.
Henna tattoo for Grace

Grace and Ines especially liked the rides at Morey's Pier, and are getting braver every year with what they choose to go on.
Hair wrap for Julia

Having spent time getting rid of extra stuffed animals out of the house, we of course had to play some carnival games and win more of them. There's nothing quite like spending ten or twenty dollars in tickets to win a stuffed animal you could buy for three dollars (yeah, yeah, I get it).
Ferris wheel at night

We had great weather in general. It stormed one night, but that was after dark when we weren't doing anything outside and it didn't matter. Grace and I were strolling the beach in the dark when the storm rolled in, and it was really cool to watch the lightning over the ocean in the distance.
Rope pull tower

A good time was had by all, and I suspect we will be doing it again next summer. There has been discussion of our two families renting a house for a week, but it's hard to beat the convenience of the Windrift. We shall see.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Australian Pink Floyd

I had an interesting concert experience yesterday. Anthony and I saw Australian Pink Floyd at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby.

This is my second experience with a tribute band (the first being The Musical Box doing a Genesis show), and to be honest, I went into it with modest expectations. I like Pink Floyd music quite a bit, but will admit to not knowing too much of their less famous stuff. I don't own any of their albums, and never have (which I think makes me one of the few rock music fans in the world that never owned Dark Side of the Moon).

All in all, it was a great show. They had drummer and keyboards in the back. Three backing vocalists (some of whom tour with real Pink Floyd). A lead guitarist on each side, a bass player who sang a lot of the David Gilmour parts, and a vocalist who played some guitar and sang a lot of the Roger Waters parts.
Aussie Pink Floyd

These guys are famous for a reason (having been doing this for a long time). Musicianship was fantastic. Vocals were good. Stage show, video screens and lighting were elaborate and terrific. The lead guitarists in specific were unbelievably good.
Aussie Pink Floyd again

A few links from the show I was at:
Thanks to Anthony and a couple of good shows, I think I might be getting over my inherent aversion to tribute bands. I got to see a great concert, hear the Pink Floyd greatest hits catalog performed live, saw a great stage show, and only paid a modest ticket price. Sure, it was't Pink Floyd, but it was a very enjoyable evening in its own right. Take it for what it is.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Repainting Thing 1's Room, part 1...

Time flies. It seems we have been in our house for 19 years (!). Hard to believe. That being said, we have repainted various rooms at various times over the years, but we are at the point where we feel like most of the rooms have been in their current colors for a while now. So...time to go on a painting binge.

Julia's room has had yellowish white walls for a bunch of years. She and mom decided that her room could use crown molding and a repaint. The yellowish walls would be replaced with three walls of a neutral beige color and one accent wall of a bright dark pink (behind her headboard). After I installed crown molding, of course.

Step 1 was to install the crown molding, spackle and sand, and then caulk everything. All moldings and trim were then painted in a bright white semi-gloss (two coats).
Step 1 - Crown molding and trim

Step 2 was lots of cutting in (in two coats). Beige on the walls. Brighter white ceiling paint. And dark hot pink ("Exuberant Pink") on the one wall. This is the tedious and time consuming stage, but the prep work and careful cutting in will make the final steps of rolling out the wall colors (and the end result) much better.
Step 2 - Cutting in everything

Step 3 - Two coats of brighter white ceiling paint. The original was a gray-tinged white (an MAB paint called "Arctic White" if I recall). The new paint is a Behr "ceiling paint". The difference is noticeable.
Step 3 - Painting the ceiling

Step 4 (shorthand version) - Two coats of "Casa Blanca" Sherwin Williams color on three walls, and a first coat of Sherwin Williams "Exuberant Pink" on the one wall. The dark pink is going to take several coats to go over the old light colored wall, as can be seen by the roller marks.
Step 4 - one coat on the walls, one coat on the accent wall

To be continued...

Monday, July 4, 2016

Fourth of July Weekend, Poconos

Amp has made some really good friends in her years on the costume crew for the Performing Arts Association, and two of the families have houses up in the Poconos, one on Crystal Lake and one on Lake Naomi.

With no other particular plans for the holiday weekend, and a pair of invites to stop by and join in on some holiday parties, we decided to book a room at the new Kalahari water park resort hotel nearby and spend the weekend.
Crystal Lake at Sunset

The water park at the Kalahari is already huge, and there are additional sections still under construction. When complete in 2017 it will be double the size it is now, and will be the largest indoor water park in the world. Needless to say, the kids loved that part of the weekend.

Equally enjoyable were the two evenings at the two different lakes for barbecues, in the company of 4 or 5 families from the Drama crew.
Sky on Fire at Crystal Lake

The food was good, as was the company, the conversation and the scenery. There is always something about water...

Having started with a day off on Friday, we left for home at around 10pm on Sunday, and were home and in bed by 12:30am. The Fourth of July holiday itself will be in the comfort of our own home (and there is a large pot of short ribs braising in the oven as I type - barbecuing is the typical meal of the day of course, but we are barbecued out).

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Carl Palmer Band at World Cafe Live

I had the tremendous good fortune to have been gifted with a ticket to see the Carl Palmer Band with a friend last night at the World Cafe Live at the Queen in Wilmington (6/6/16). Carl Palmer (wikipedia entry here) is one of the legendary rock drummers, having been a part of the progressive art rock band Emerson Lake and Palmer, and later the drummer for the supergroup Asia.

This particular show was the third (?, started June 2 in NY) in a 25 show tour called "Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy Tour 2016". The shows would be an entire set of instrumental music, almost entirely of ELP classics.
The Carl Palmer Band (picture by me)

Our seats were in the fourth row, just left of center stage, and the view of Palmer and his two band mates from that close was amazing. Band members were guitarist Paul Bielatowicz and bassist Simon Fitzpatrick, both of who were also terrific. Palmer's energy at age 66 is astounding, and being as close as we were you could clearly see how physically demanding 2 hours of drumming is.
Carl Palmer... (picture by me)

The music was phenomenal, but would admittedly not be everyone's cup of tea. Prog rock/art rock isn't to everyone's taste, and listening to hard rock versions of classical music like Pictures at an Exhibition and Carmina Burana might be more akin to torture to some. But I thought it was great.

This tour is, in part, a tribute to Keith Emerson, the keyboard player from ELP, who committed suicide in March of this year at the age of 71. He suffered from depression, brought on at least in part by nerve damage that affected his ability to play. A very sad story, and a reminder that rich and famous people who would seem to have it all have their burdens as well.

Anyway, Emerson's keyboards were the foundation of much of ELP's music, and upon arriving at the venue, I couldn't understand how they were going to do ELP music without any keyboards (which it was obvious they didn't have). It turns out that the guitarist played pretty much all of what would have been the keyboard parts. I was a bit skeptical at first, and it was different (no question), but it worked.

A few tidbits from YouTube:
  • Hoedown (Aaron Copeland), ELP 1973 and the brilliance that was Keith Emerson.
  • Hoedown played by the Carl Palmer Band (same lineup we saw) in November 2015.
  • The Nutrocker (apologies to Tchaikovsky) - this is the show I saw. My head is probably in this shot somewhere on the left, 4th row, directly in front of the guitarist.

Live music of any kind is terrific, and as I have said many times before, you can't beat a venue this size (capacity is maybe 500-600 if I had to guess).
Autographed promo shot

After the show, the band had tables in the lobby to greet fans and sign things, so I got to fist-bump Carl Palmer and get him to sign a famous (reprinted) ELP promo picture from the early 1970s. Pretty cool.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Reflections on 18 months of Dungeons and Dragons

I can honestly say that I thought my days of this sort of diversion were decades in the past. Happily, that is not the case. We are 18 months or so into what could best be described as a leisurely D&D campaign, and it has been a lot of fun. A few random reflections follow.

When preparing to be the Dungeon Master for a campaign for the first time in oh...25 years or more...I thought it wise to do a little research. With the plethora of YouTube videos and other resources available, this was an easy enough thing to do. The results were both a positive and a negative.

I'm old school. Most of my players are. When younger folks speak of the "OSR" or the "old school revolution" in roleplaying games, this is a return to that which I/we never left. When we played back in the late '70s and early '80s, there was only old school. It was the only school, because we were on the leading edge of a whole new thing. Then we didn't play for 25 years or more. Old school to the newer generations of gamers means maps with every location detailed, "boxed text" to be read to players when they enter a certain room or a certain event takes place. It is a somewhat disparaging term in many circles. It was just D&D (or AD&D) back then. It was how it was done. Period. By Gygax himself, and all the others of the original generation. The pioneers. (Despite the fact that some of those early classic and groundbreaking modules are just awful in many ways...but that is a different post altogether).

The kinds of games we always played back in the day are now called "railroad games" where the DM decided what the group was going to do, and the group was essentially along for the ride. Now it is all about "sandbox games", where some background is laid out for the players and the players then decided what they were going to do, having a huge hand in determining the course of the campaign.

With all this buzzing in my head, we began our new campaign in October of 2014. If I knew then what I know now, I would have done things very differently. I think we have ended up OK, and we are still playing after 18 months, which is a great thing. But I can look back and see a few very basic things that I approached one way and would now approach in another.
Fighting gnolls in the Underdark

#1 - Starting Preparation. On this one, new school perhaps wins out over old school. When building a world for our new campaign, I spent too much time sketching out and detailing things that the players have never (and likely will never have) seen. In some ways, I think the extra work that I did has flavored the world despite the fact that it has no direct bearing on our gaming sessions. And I enjoyed doing it, so there is something to be said for that. But it wasn't necessary by any means. Given the ability to re-do, I would approach prep differently than I did for the first 12 months or so of our campaign.

#2 - Railroad versus Sandbox. The answer to this one will differ depending on the group, but for our particular group, and our particular approach to the game sessions, there is a lot to be said for railroads. If you had a group of die hard players totally immersed in the game and the rules, ready to involve themselves in story creation and the guiding of the direction of the campaign, then a sandbox would be great. We don't have this. It's not a criticism of the players by any means, just a simple reality. We have 4 players roughly my age, all successful businessmen in various pursuits. We have two 20-somethings, and a high school student. Knowledge of the rules varies widely. What people want out of the game varies as well. We play every 2-4 weeks on average, so there is a significant time gap between sessions. The players are all engaged and into the sessions, but if there is a categorization to be made between "I'm here to drive the story" and "I'm here to play whatever you've got for me", then we clearly have a group that is more suited to a railroad than a sandbox. Falling into the trap of "I need to be new school" and thus run a sandbox for my players, I tried to plan for that. I spent a lot of time laying out different plot lines, possible story arcs, and creating a bunch of choices for the players. The result, I think it is fair to say, was just to confuse the players. I put enough choices in front of them that they had no idea what to choose. There absolutely have been moments when I could feel the players looking at me like "ok, what do you want us to do?" So given the fact that we play every 2-4 weeks, and that providing too many choices has been perhaps just confusing, I have begun moving back toward railroading play to a certain degree. Preparation for me has been easier, and I think this will provide for better sessions - detail in the right place at the right time. Ultimately, our gang wants to show up, have some snacks and a drink or two, and spend 3 or 4 hours in the company of friends laughing and having a good time. Old school. Which is great.

#3 - World building. If I had it to do over again, I would start smaller and let the campaign itself shape the direction of how I would build the bigger picture. In the old school Gygaxian desire to know all ahead of time, I saddled myself with a world background that a little experience has shown me to be less optimal than I would want if I had it to do over again. Not a big deal; just an observation. Those of us formed in the primordial ooze of the Gygax days still carry the burden of how we were trained to think. I think a little differently now.

Lastly, a note on 5th edition D&D. For our purposes, this edition of the rules is (sort of) perfect. The subject is more fitting for a longer post by itself, but the short version is this: 5th edition is easy, and it works. There are some things about it that don't make much sense to me, some things I have changed, and some things we ignore. But in general, it works. Again, this might be a reflection of our particular group, but we play the game from my version of the character sheet, spell cards, and monster manual entries. We follow the combat rules and magic rules, and pretty much everything else is done by making d20 rolls against skills and abilities. It's easy and fluid. A different group might want more detail in certain areas, but for our group it is terrific. We are rules-lite. We play a recreational/social game, and a Pathfinder level of detail would kill us and the campaign.

But enough rambling for now. We have a game coming up next weekend, and I need to figure out what the Tombs of the Alberneth actually are...


Dungeons and Dragons Terrain

The first simple "I wonder if I can build something cool" did turn into a good solid 8 or 9 months of building this and that. Unanimous feedback from my players has been that adding the miniatures and terrain dimension to our games has elevated things, and made it easier to immerse in the experience. I'll post more on our game experiences later, but for now I just wanted to lay out some stuff in the basement and take pictures of some of the different terrain sets I have worked on. Some I like more than others...

The first set is what I now call my "negative space" set. A four foot by three foot "rock" base board is used in conjunction with geomorphic cavern and passage wall pieces to allow for the definition of what part of the overall area isn't solid rock. In the picture below, the party comes to a passage junction, but their course of action will soon be determined for them by the encroaching bad guys. There are a couple of mushroom patches thrown in for good measure.
"Negative space" Underdark terrain

The next picture shows the opposite of the "negative space" set, and thus could be termed the "positive space" set. In this setup, a black felt base serves as the background for putting down caverns and passages defining the spaces that aren't the void.
"Positive space" Underdark or cave terrain

The closeup of the central cavern shows a couple of detail pieces (of which there are a great many...). The pools are made by applying nail polish to the bare foam, letting the chemicals in the polish eat away the foam into a nicely textured depression. These have been painted a basic bluish green color and then coated with a few layers of gloss decoupage. The four huge mushrooms and the weird green fungus growth are made from different applications of Great Stuff expanding spray foam. Photos, as always, give a different effect than what we see on the table.
Cavern with pools and fungus growths

The next picture shows the same three foot by four foot "rock" base board as shown earlier covered with a variety of 2-inch foam "big walls" and an abundance of scatter terrain, including a few pieces of rock crystals. This is the setup that I use for big cavern layouts in the Underdark (although I also now have a four foot by five foot "rock" base board...sometimes bigger is better).
Cavern with "big walls" and scatter terrain

The next geomorphic set up my sleeve is a number of 2 foot by 2 foot base boards painted in a number of different patterns. I have water (shown below), lava, rift (black) and swamp. All of the geomorphic pieces layered onto these base boards can be used in any combination. Picture, for example, the scene above (in the prior picture) on a "water" base board. It works.
2 foot by 2 foot "water board"

The geomorphic nature of all these pieces is the beauty of the whole thing. All of the walls, scatter and detail pieces can be used interchangeably, and complement each other very well. I've gotten to the point that if I feel like doing some crafting, I can make a few pieces that I know can be used in any number of different configurations, which is great. Or I can know that I have enough modular stuff to be able to spend some time making a one-off piece that would be cool but has limited utility. Either is fine at this point. I have enough stuff to get by with whatever (and then some).

Beyond the above, I took a few more pictures today that I can't show you yet. Our party has chosen to once again descend into the depths of the Deep Realms, searching for the Tombs of the Alberneth. I can't show you what they will find until they find them...