Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review - Two Against One

Having read a fourth Frederick Barthelme novel recently, and with several more of his on the shelf, I kept the momentum going by reading Two Against One (Collier Books, 1988, 264 pages).

I could repeat what I said about the last one with regards to this, as this was like it, only more so. To quote one of the review blurbs on the back cover: "On Edward's fortieth birthday, his estranged wife, Elise, appears unannounced at the door, triggering a series of events that will involve the couple in a bizarre triangle and lay open the workings of a fifteen year marriage."

I guess that's one way of putting it. These people were unsympathetic and often downright bizarre, toiling through a plot that was...I don't even know what it was. I liked this less than the other books of Barthelme's that I have read (obviously). The saving grace was some salvageable commentary on expectations, relationships, love and sexuality. Unfortunately, as I couldn't help but keep thinking as I was working my way through this, the nice bits were buried in way too much not-so-good book. My opinion, anyway.

Only 2.5 stars out of 5. Don't bother with this one, as there are better Barthelme books out there. Like maybe all of them.

This gets me to 14 books and 2 partial story collections on the year, totaling a shade under 4,300 pages. Best book of the year so far is still The Painter.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Of Mermaids and Pirate Ships

Julia is in the high school Fall musical again this year, and they are doing Disney's The Little Mermaid. It should be a fun show, with lots of good songs. Having had a student in one of these, for the second time now, I have developed a ton of respect for the amount of time and effort that goes into a production like this; not just for the students, but also for the teachers and parents.

The students have a lot of singing, music, dancing and staging to learn. The parents have a lot of sewing and set construction to help with. There are over a hundred students involved, and sometimes more than one costume per kid. The basis for some of the costumes come from costume storage, where all the costumes of shows and years past are stored. Even with this head start, there are a lot of changes and alterations that need to be made, every student fitted, and many entirely new costumes that need to be sewn from scratch. Amp helped out for Les Miz, and is even more involved this time around. Spare time for her these days means pattern making, cutting, sewing and planning. I'm sure it will get worse before the end. But it is fun and rewarding work.
Pirate Ship to-be (really!)

As for me, I'm pretty good with tools, so when the call went out for more people to help construct sets, I chipped in for a few hours today, and will probably be spending a bunch of weekend hours lending a hand in the coming weeks. They need a pirate ship big enough to hold a bunch of kids on deck, some beach scenes, King Triton's throne room, Ariel's grotto, Ursula's lair... And more. Lots to be done. A staggering amount, really. As I've said, my level of respect and appreciation of what goes into a show like this is growing every day.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Book Review - There Must be Some Mistake

It's been a while since my last reading binge (fiction reading, that is). However, I was in a bookstore a little while back, and saw a new novel (There Must Be Some Mistake, Little Brown and Co, 2014, 294 pages) by Frederick Barthelme, a writer who I have read before. I picked it up, plowed through it, and finished it a few days ago.

This is the story of Wallace Webster, a semi-retiree living in a condo development in the Gulf Coast area of east Texas. The residents of the condo development begin dying at an alarming rate, to accidents and other circumstances. We follow Webster through this maze of events as he deals with his ex-wife, her boyfriend (who happens to be the ex-husband of a younger female work friend whom he spends a lot of time with and has an...odd...relationship), his daughter and others.

I found the novel similar to the three previous Barthelme books I have read (Waveland, Elroy Nights and Second Marriage); which revolve around a not-overly-sympathetic aging male character thrown into all sorts of odd circumstances. Barthelme's characters can be head-scratching in their thought process and frustrating in the choices they make, but are for the most part interesting to read.

This is a solid if unspectacular read. Maybe 3.5 stars out of 5. The ending was bizarre, even given what had come before...

Next up...I've begun another older Barthelme book I had on hand (Two Against One, 1988).

Monday, September 29, 2014

Disney's Aladdin - 9/27/14

This past Saturday was Julia's big day; a day trip to Broadway in New York City to see Aladdin with the original cast. Her birthday trip last year was to see The Lion King, and she loved it so much that it might be becoming a tradition. If The Lion King was spectacular, then Aladdin was even better.
Aladdin Playbill

We hit a lot of traffic getting into the city. In an ideal world, we would have gotten there and parked with enough time to spare to have a nice lunch before heading to the theater. In the real world, we grabbed a snack at a Starbucks. Not ideal, but not the worst thing ever.
Girls and the Marquee

To say that Julia was excited would be an understatement. To say that she was ready to burst into flames at any moment would be more accurate. Uncontrollable smiles. Excited chatter. Hopping around in place. Good stuff...
5th row balcony (I like the balcony)

We had seats in the fifth row of the balcony, overlooking the stage. These are my preferred kind of seats, whether for a show like this or a concert. I like the perspective of being up and above the action, with a good panoramic view. According to the notes in the Playbill, Disney's first Broadway musical was Beauty and the Beast in 1994, and in the same year the Disney Company signed a 99 year lease to renovate the 1903 Amsterdam Theater to its original glory. All major Disney musicals since then have had their opening run in this theater. Corporate money can do good things, and this is one of them; the New Amsterdam is a spectacular old theater. Just sitting in this restored ornate old gem is like taking a trip back in time.
View from our seats
As for our show itself, Aladdin opened this spring. James Monroe Iglehart won the Tony award for lead performance in a musical (as the Genie), and I can certainly see why. At 6 foot tall and 295 pounds, football fans could imagine Warren Sapp who can sing and dance. Amazing. I could gush for a long time over this show. The music from the film was terrific. The additional music they added to turn this into a full length stage musical was equally good. The performances were great, especially Iglehart and Adam Jacobs as Aladdin. The staging was terrific. In two and a half hours of show there was never a let up. Singing, dancing, jokes, effects. The time flew by. There were so many little jokes and references embedded in the show that you had to pay attention or you would miss things.
New Amsterdam Theater

All of the cast was great. Jonathan Freeman as Jafar. Courtney Reed as Princess Jasmine. Don Darryl Rivera as Iago. All of the secondary characters were fabulous. It is a real treat to have seen the original cast; something that I hope the kids will appreciate later if they don't now. The effects were amazing. I'm still not 100% sure how they did the magic carpet...

Of the dozen or so Broadway shows I have seen over the years, I would rate this behind only Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. There was general agreement that this was better than The Lion King (which was also excellent). I thought it better than Phantom of the Opera (most overrated musical ever...), and it was better than Victor Victoria (even though we did see Julie Andrews, which in and of itself is a Broadway lifetime highlight).

Writing this two days later, Julia is still abuzz with excitement. As a parent, I guess that is the best you can ask of a birthday gift to a daughter. She's probably wondering what she will get to see next year. So am I.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Broadway 2014 - Aladdin

Julia loooooves music and musicals. There aren't many things she likes as much as her musical fixation du jour. Recently, this has been Aladdin.

Last year for her birthday we took her on a day trip to Broadway to see The Lion King. To say that she was over the moon would be an understatement.

When the subject came up of what we should do for Julia's upcoming birthday this year, it really came down to a question of "what musical should we see?" Julia has seen Les Miserables in Philly and The Lion King on Broadway. Aladdin on Broadway seemed like a perfect choice.

In order to have time to get properly excited and fully bask in the anticipation, she got her main birthday present a little early, and we are in full throttle ramp-up mode for a trip to New York in the near future.

Happy girls make the world go 'round. And we have a seriously happy girl in the house these days.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The road goes ever on and on...

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Grace, age 10, is my little reader. Over the course of the summer, between 4th and 5th grades, she devoured a lot of books, not the least of which were all 7 of the Harry Potter books (4,193 pages in total). She reads new books as fast as we can find them for her.

Tonight, when getting ready for bed, she asked me if we had anything else for her to read. A thought occurred to me. We went down to the living room ("library") and I took a sacred book off the shelf. The Hobbit. If she can read all seven books of Harry Potter, she can certainly read this. She may even be disappointed/underwhelmed by The Hobbit. I hope not. It is a book that holds a special place in my heart, and I hope she enjoys it. And after that, I hope she reads and enjoys The Lord of the Rings.

I can't help but to wonder what a kid these days will think of these books, having been exposed to a lot more than I ever was at that age, just in terms of what she will have seen in movies and on TV.

These were magical books to me. I hope they are to her as well.

Far over the Misty Mountains cold,
To dungeons deep and caverns old,
We must away, ere break of day,
To seek our pale enchanted gold.

Out with the Old...

The last quarter of the year would be bringing us to the end of a three year lease on the 2012 Honda Pilot (where does the time go?). This blue Pilot was the successor of a leased red 2009 Pilot, and we loved both vehicles. They were both well-equipped, big, heavy, safe and could haul any amount of people (8, comfortably) or gear (lots and lots and lots).

We have loved our Honda Pilots, and they have treated us well. However, we have been aware that the number of times we have needed to haul three seating rows worth of people or a ton of gear have been relatively few and far between. The flip side of "we have a ton of space and hauling capacity on those few instances when we need it" has been counterbalanced by not very good gas mileage and the fact that these big tanks eat tires for lunch. Needing to buy an expensive set of tires inside of a three year lease kinda stinks...

So with the realization that there are only four of us, and routine gear hauling requirements are minimal, we went to our go-to guy at Scott Honda to pick out a new vehicle (Eric Bausman, highly recommended, tell him I sent you...). We had agreed that the incumbent choice would be another Pilot, but that we would also look at Odyssey minivans and CRV small-SUV's. On the drive to the dealership, Grace asked Amp what color car we were going to get, and Amp said "anything but white."

Three hours later we drove home in a brand new 2014 CRV. White of course. Go figure.
2014 Honda CRV

Leasing isn't the right choice for everyone, but I like the fact that Amp and the girls get a new vehicle every three years. Safe. New. Reliable.

In some ways, I will miss the Pilot. It was big and could haul anything. And it was heavy and solid. Short of having Amp and the girls driving an actual tank, it is hard to imagine something that felt bigger and therefore safer than the Pilot. I have always like the thought of Amp and the girls safe and sound in their big blue tank.

But the CRV's safety ratings are excellent, it gets 50% better gas mileage than the Pilot (yes, 50%, that's not a typo), and the chances of it burning out an $800 set of tires inside of three years is basically non-existent. So... thus begins the era of the CRV.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

GVHS 34, Strath Haven 14

This was a close 7-7 game at the half, but the good guys pulled away in the second half with solid defense, some good running, and a few timely passing plays. Having an interception return for a touchdown called back for defensive holding that would have put us down 21-14 didn't hurt either.
Strath Haven's 400+ marching band

But the most impressive thing of the evening, by far, was the Strath Haven band. Our band is decent sized, and fairly good I think. Strath Haven was a whole different thing altogether. One of the other parents told us that (including color guard) the SH band totals 415 kids (ok, 415 young adults).

We were sitting in the home stands maybe 10 feet from our trumpeters. Every time the two bands did one of those competing battle-of-the-bands things, we could hear their band over ours. Clearly. They filled the opposing bleachers. When they marched onto the field for their halftime show, it looked like Napoleon invading Russia. And they were good. They were tight, loud, and big, filling the field from end zone to end zone, sideline to sideline. No matter how good a small or medium sized band might be, there is just something about the spectacle of a band that size that you can't get from anything other than...well...a band that size.

Hats off to the Strath Haven band.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Football Season

It's getting toward Fall, and that means high school football (at least it does around here these days). Which I find somewhat surprising. My daughters aren't the biggest sports fans in the world, to put it mildly. But they sure do love going to our Garnet Valley football games.

For Grace, It is a chance to wander around and socialize with her friends. I don't think she ever pays the least bit of attention to the actual game. Julia loves going and seeing her friends (everyone seems to know her, and say hi), but she also surprises me by paying attention to the game itself.

I'm glad the kids are enjoying it. As much as I do like going to the games (and actually watching the football...), we wouldn't be going if the kids didn't want to. So I am glad that they have each found something that they like. It's gotten to be a routine over the last couple of years that if there is a home game and we don't have something else specific going on, we'll be there.
Upper Darby at Garnet Valley

The first game of the year was a loss at Unionville (which we didn't go to). Apparently, we scored a TD early, missed the extra point, and then didn't score again for the rest of the game, while Unionville kicked a pair of field goals and registered a safety. Ugh. We have a young team this year, having lost many important graduating seniors, and I'm not sure how good we will be (at least compared to last year's state playoff team).

Last week's game was a 34-20 home win over Upper Darby (which we went to). The game wasn't as close as the score.
Garnet Valley band

Tonight, to my great satisfaction (having watched my hometown Springfield team lose to them every single year growing up), we beat Ridley at home 21-14. We went up 14-0 before giving up a 92 yard kickoff return to make it 14-7. With about 3 minutes to go in the game, we broke off a 33 yard touchdown on 4th and 3 from the 33, making it seem that the game was over. Ridley added a TD in the closing minute to get within 7, but that's as close as it got. Nothing is quite as much fun as beating Ridley.

In addition to the football, the kids enjoy watching the marching band, which includes a few of our neighbors' kids. Last year's theme was Pirates of the Carribean. This year it's Harry Potter. Early on, it looks like a promising show, but they need some work...

Next week...another home game.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Daimler Ferret Scout Car

Having driven past this at least 100 times (on route 309 near Coopersburg), I'm glad I finally stopped and took some pictures. On the side of the road, not 10 feet from a major road, is an armored car of some sort. I've always wondered what it was, but have generally been in the middle of a long drive to or from work or family visits to north Jersey.
Daimler Ferret front/side

A link to a picture closely resembling this vehicle is here, where it is labeled a Daimler Ferret Mk 2/6 Scout Car. According to Wikipedia, there are a ton of minor variants of this vehicle, of which 4,409 were produced between 1952 and 1971. I have no idea what model this is. Nor does it matter...but there it is, and it looks cool.
Daimler Ferret rear

It took a decent bit of Googling to identify it. Given the general appearance, my first impression was that it was some sort of British WW2 light armored car. I was sort of close and sort of not. It is a lot more modern than I would have guessed, and so I spent time looking at WW2 armored cars of all nations to no avail. Eventually I stumbled on something that got me close, and then I found the picture linked above that got me to the right place.

I have no idea why it is sitting there rusting by the side of the road in Coopersburg, but at least I know what it is.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

First Day of School - 2014

Another summer is gone and the kids go back to school, or as parents everywhere put it, "it's the most wonderful time of the year".

The only commentary I could have is the same thing I say every year: another year? Already?

Our high school sophomore.
Grudgingly humoring Dad

And our 5th grade goofball.
Not bothering to humor Mom

Someday soon, maybe she'll grow into her backpack... Or not.
More backpack than student


Goofballs or not, I couldn't be more proud. Now if they would just slow down the whole growing up process just a little bit...

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Last of the Magoos

We were sitting and watching one of the Harry Potter movies with Grace, who plowed through all 4,000+ pages of the seven books in the last month (at age 10), when we noticed that she would only watch the movie sitting close to the TV. We asked why she did that, and the predictable answer was "because I can't see it clearly from back there lying on your bed."

And so after a quick visit to the eye doctor, the last member of the family now has glasses. She is to wear them for TV and blackboard at school - trying not to wear them for computer, reading or anything up close so she doesn't train her eyes to need them more than she already does.

When I had to get glasses for the same reason, somewhere back around 7th grade, I was devastated. She thought it was cool, and couldn't wait to pick out the frames. Good for her.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Late Summer Doldrums

Things have been busy enough. The kids are getting ready to go back to school (5th and 10th grades...I can't believe it), we have been re-doing both of their bedrooms, and there are no shortages of other things going on. But I just haven't felt much like blogging. Call it the summer doldrums I guess.

From a hobby perspective, I haven't touched a paint brush in over a month. Really the only thing I have been doing is reading through some of the new Dungeons & Dragons stuff that is being released (more on that later). And doing some work on getting ready to make an attempt at playing D&D for the first time since about 1990 (best guess).

I've assembled a bunch of IKEA "Hemnes" furniture (in white stain) for Grace's room. No more allen wrenches for a while please...

I've read some short stories out of various collections or out of Amp's New Yorker subscription.

I started a new novel, got about 10 pages in, and decided I didn't feel like reading a novel.

This holiday weekend is the end of summer, and it has been a good one. The kids are happy and healthy. They are bored and looking forward to school, which is good. Julia is already talking about the Fall school musical (Disney's The Little Mermaid) and about going to the football games, and Grace is hoping that her class will be one of the lucky ones that gets to try out the new iPad-based modules that only a few of the classes will get.

Perhaps someday soon a burst of creative energy will hit me. One can hope.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Yellowstone Under Canvas

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum...

My wife pointed out the following tidbit that she had seen somewhere and thought looked interesting: "glamping" in Yellowstone. Yellowstone Under Canvas. Glamping, which I won't bother to look up, is something along the lines of "glamour camping", or luxury pseudo-camping. Or as the website says - "camping as it should be". Which I guess means "camping if you don't really want to be camping but don't want to see Yellowstone from the window of a tour bus."

I have to admit that I find the idea intriguing...in the sense that I've always wondered what I could get away with in terms of trying to get the family into some sort of outdoors camping experience. I suspect that Grace would find it somewhat cool until she realized she had no internet connectivity. I can hear her little voice in my head saying "yes Daddy, this is very cool...can we go now?" But she might surprise me. Julia would be spooked by any and all kinds of night noises. And Amp would probably (certainly) prefer to be in a hotel.

But I would love to see Yellowstone someday, and not from the window of a tour bus. Maybe something like this could make that happen.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Avalon NJ 2014

For the second year in a row, we have spent part of a week at the Windrift Hotel in Avalon. Also once again, the kids have pronounced it "excellent", and have asked that we do more beach time in the future. I guess it is hard to say no to that.

We left Tuesday morning, drove through overcast and showers, and got there in time to spend some time at the pool in the afternoon, check out the beach, and get settled. Like last year, Amp's sister and her family are meeting us at the hotel and staying in a room across the hall. It's nice to spend time with family, and the kids get to spend time with their cousins at the pool and on the beach, which is good.

We love the Windrift. The rooms have been renovated fairly recently, and are pretty nice. The location is perfect - on the beach at 80th street, straddling the border between Avalon (to the north) and Stone Harbor (to the south). There is a nice pool with waitress service for food and drinks (gotta love that!), and it's right on the beach. So you can spend beach time in the morning or afternoon, and then head poolside for lunch or an afternoon snack. And a glass of wine. Or two. It is vacation after all...
Windrift Pool

The forecast wasn't very good for the first couple of days, but we ended up making out pretty well. It rained hard Tuesday night while we were having dinner at the restaurant in the hotel, and the rain continued into the morning, but by late morning on Wednesday we were on the beach enjoying the sunny if cool day.

The days went quickly, with beach, pool, eating, drinking, a Wildwood boardwalk side trip (complete with new fancy hair wrap for Grace at the same tattoo parlor she got it done at last year), and the usual terribly-played mini golf outing. None of us will be showing up on the professional golf tour any time soon.
Mini golf

Salt water taffy. The pancake place. Running into a few different friends while there. It was a very nice few days.

Last years' shore time was three days as a test run. This years' was four days. Knowing how much the kids like it, we'll shoot for a week(ish) next year. We made this years' reservations well in advance, and although I tried to extend us (on either end of the four days), there was no availability. We had intended to leave later on Friday and drive home, but the kids were having so much fun together that we decided to all head to our inlaws house in north Jersey and continue the vacation there through the end of the weekend. That went well too...

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Appreciating Genius - Simon and Garfunkel

Time seems to catch up with some faster than others. And if you close your eyes, maybe some not so much at all.

From the performance at the 25th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert (2009):

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Blue Rocks Baseball - July 25, 2014

The kids have enjoyed going to Wilmington Blue Rocks baseball games, and last night was a beautiful summer evening with fireworks scheduled. We had nothing planned, so we hopped in the car and went down to see the game.
Blue Rocks win!

It was a nice relaxing evening as always, with better than expected fireworks, and one minor surprise. Throwing out the opening pitch, and staying to greet the fans and sign autographs, was old school professional wrestler Ted DiBiase, the "Million Dollar Man." I don't know anything about wrestling, nor do I care to, but there were a great many people at the game who obviously did. Our seats were behind third base, and DiBiase sat at a table on the concourse behind us for almost the entire game. The whole time he was there, a line of fans extended the length of the concourse.
The Million Dollar Man

Unusually for us, the Blue Rocks actually scored some runs and won the game. They aren't typically a bad team, but we tend to have bad luck and usually see losses where they only score a run or two.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Few Thoughts on D&D 5th Edition

I will preface all this by saying that I have no real substantive point of comparison for D&D 5th edition other than my recollections of playing 1st edition AD&D 25-30 years ago. And no current basis other than having read, pretty thoroughly, the Basic rules that are now downloadable from the Wizards of the Coast website. This means that the release of the 5th edition Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual are all out there in the future, being slated for staggered release over the remainder of 2014. So what 5th edition really is in some respects remains to be seen.

A few quick Google searches make it obvious that the web is overflowing with preliminary reviews of the new edition, along with lots and lots of opinions and fallout from the massive worldwide beta playtesting that has occurred since early 2012. Most of these are from D&D veterans who can comprehensively compare it to editions 2, 3, 3.5, 4, and the even earlier versions that many of us still remember. I can't do that. What I can do is give a few first impressions and comments on how this seems to me compared to what I know, or more accurately, what (little) I remember...

[Assume all of this is prefaced with: "compared to 30 years ago..."]

The first thing that strikes me on reading the first few short chapters on the basics and character creation is that there is a tremendous amount more flexibility than there was way back when. In 1st edition (1E), character classes were in many (or most) cases restricted to certain races. Now, any race can be any character class, although there are certain innate benefits to certain races that make them better suited to certain classes than others. 1E said things like "while there are dwarven clerics in the world, you can't be one...". 5E says "sure, you want to be a dwarven cleric, be a dwarven cleric". Dwarves might have racial tendencies toward higher strength and constitution (which are fighter attributes), whereas the primary attribute of clerics is wisdom, but there isn't a restriction. Moreover, while clerics may normally only be proficient in "simple weapons", i.e. the mace of old, the racial trait of dwarves being proficient in axes and warhammers trumps this, and so your dwarven cleric can march to war swinging his trusty battleaxe. I think this is absolutely great for a fantasy roleplaying game; be whatever you want to be.

There is also a ton of flexibility within the main character classes of how you choose to specialize as you advance. Fighters and rogues have "archetypes", clerics have "domains" and wizards have "arcane traditions". These can all be considered sub-classes, and strongly influence the bonuses and benefits you gain as you advance in levels, and allow for many paths of skill/spell specialization and character development. Wizards, for example, now have 7 or 8 different arcane traditions, allowing a focus on illusions, evocation (think "war magic" like fireballs and lightning bolts), conjuring, necromancy and a host of others. Very cool. Assuming that the Basic Rules that I have access to present the "plain vanilla" flavor out of all that will be available (and there are many hooks embedded in it that refer to the "real" books coming later), I am anxious to see what comes next. Whether or not I ever end up playing....

Cantrips and spells. The magic system also seems much more flexible than what I knew. Cantrips are a class of "level 0" spells which spellcasters know that do not count against the limited number of level 1+ spells that they can cast in a day. They are not insignificant spells. Take for example the clerical cantrip "Sacred Flame". This brings down "holy fire" on your enemies, and causes 1d8 damage, with a dexterity saving throw allowed, to one creature within range. It can be cast turn after turn. Wizards have similar. In the old days, once a low level cleric or wizard cast their few spells they were allowed per day, they were basically useless. Now the spells just keep on coming; not any more powerful than being able to keep swinging a sword each round, but better than firing off a couple of magic missiles and then spending the next 20 hours just hoping not to get killed. This is how it should be, I think, and will make playing lower level spellcasters much more appealing.

Damage, death and dying. In the old days, when you got to zero hit points, you died. At low levels, unless the Dungeon Master fudged things a lot (and we did), one good (bad) unlucky sneeze could kill you. Low level characters spent much of their time dying and undying. They have a much more elegant (and logical) way of dealing with this now. In short, unless taking catastrophic damage, when you reach zero hit points you become unconscious and "not stable." As long as you remain in this unconscious/unstable state, you make "death saving throws." If you pass three of these before you fail three of them, you become "stable", otherwise you really do die. There are rules for characters with the wisdom-based "medical" skill to apply first aid in the hope of circumventing the death saving throw process and stabilizing the knocked out character. Once stabilized, if no healing spells/scrolls/potions bring you back sooner, you will wake up with 1 hit point restored after 1-4 hours. I absolutely LOVE this. I have visions of hard fought, nail biting encounters where the outcome hangs in the balance. Characters begin to go down. By the end of the fight, several members of the party (or maybe even most) are down and out, but not dead. The victorious adventurers hold the field of battle, and tend to their wounded friends. You regroup, rest up, heal, and continue on, thankful that a few of you were able to hold on to see the battle through.

Rules for healing and restoring hit points, restoring spells and related things all seem more logical if also more player-friendly.

Levelling up. I saw an entry on a blog somewhere comparing the experience points needed to advance levels in various editions over the years. The end result of this comparison was the undeniable conclusion that the XP thresholds have been adjusted to make the lowest levels of characters advance much more quickly, but then to make the highest levels at the other end harder to attain. In other words, they want to get you into the mid-levels more quickly but then keep you there longer. I actually like this. I texted some of the usual suspects the other day with a simple "anyone wanna play some new edition D&D?" The response was (a little bit surprisingly) "sure, but maybe we don't have to start at level 1..." Given the new rules, I think we could start at level 1 but only be there for a couple of encounters. Perhaps the best of both worlds.

The end result of all this reading and blog surfing? I really want to try playing some D&D for the first time in 25+ years, and it seems like that might actually happen.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Memory Lane - Dungeons & Dragons

or, My Sidetrack gets Sidetracked.

I seem to have strayed pretty far, pretty fast, from my last substantial focus of gaming related activity. Even for me. In May and June, I spent a good amount of time working on WW2 miniatures in preparation for, and after playing, a Fireball Forward! game. That was productive time, having gotten a bunch of vehicles and a whole pack of US infantry painted up. Then I decided that I would spend a little time trying to finish the batch of medieval knights on the corner of my painting table. While doing that, I mulled over the idea of an ImagiNation for my medieval guys (as posted recently).

This ImagiNation idea had me stray down the path of mapping software, Hexographer, and playing around with sketching out the basic parameters of a medieval world. While playing in Hexographer, the abundance of terrain types and icons useful for a fantasy setting brought back a flood of memories of playing many hours of Dungeons and Dragons (primarily first edition ADnD...[blogger doesn't seem to like ampersands...]) back in and around my high school years. Me and several others spent a lot of hours around a card table in the corner of my bedroom at Ridge Lane, creating, imagining, rolling dice, and having a ton of fun. How cool would it have been to have a tool like Hexographer back then? Not coincidently, the first metal miniatures I ever painted were fantasy figures from Grenadier miniatures, a small company at that point which had the license to produce the official DnD miniatures, and which was miraculously located in the Lawrence Park Industrial Center about a 20 minute walk from our neighborhood. I have vague memories of buying some figures, unpackaged, right out the back door of where they were made.

Our DnD playing began with the original set of three tan covered books, first published in 1974. I probably got these in about 1976. I also had the blue and white book from the 1977 boxed set which pulled together all the material to date and cleaned things up. The big deal was the release of ADnD in 1977/1978. This is the version we played. And played. And played.
Adolescence in a Box

Beyond high school, and perhaps a little in college, we got older, moved on, and haven't played the game since, although every now and then in the later 1980's or early 1990's I would buy a book, dungeon adventure boxed set, or something else that might have struck my fancy. Reading these very occasional tidbits did the same thing then that they do now - bring back good memories.

Because of the special place these memories hold for my childhood and adolescence, I have a file box of DnD/ADnD stuff in the basement that I don't see myself ever getting rid of. It has:
  • The original 5 little books (the main three plus Greyhawk and Eldritch Wizardry)
  • The 3 hardbacks of 1st edition ADnD.
  • Surpisingly, the 3 hardbacks and the Monstrous Compendium loose leaf binder of ADnD 2nd edition (this came out in 1989, and although I obviously bought it, I know we never played this version).
  • About 20 or 25 dungeon modules, including such classics as Gygax's Tomb of Horrors, the 3-part Drow series, and the the 3-part Giants series.
  • Five or six boxed Forgotten Realms products plus many related source booklets and expansions (Campaign settings, huge dungeon map sets with guidebooks...). Forgotten Realms, by Ed Greenwood (originally) is one of the original DnD campaigns dating back to almost the very beginning, and became TSR's defacto "main campaign" in terms of supporting the game system with modules, books, novels etc. The depth of detail and creativity in this stuff is mind boggling.
  • A few things from Midkemia Press, a small company that did some nice little products.
  • Several Judges Guild products built around the City-State of the Invincible Overlord.
  • A few other published odds and ends.
  • A few notebooks and folders of things I created way back in the late '70's and early '80's. Bits of worlds. Dungeon levels. Background materials. Drawings of little towns and villages. Sketch maps. Wow. That seems like a lifetime ago!
Anyway, thoughts of maps led to fantasy maps which led to DnD memories which led to pulling out that box of stuff. It is a lot of fun to go back and skim through some of those old dungeon modules and sourcebooks.

I was aware that there were a whole series of editions of both the basic DnD games as well as the more complicated and comprehensive ADnD game, although until reading a history of DnD (here on Wikipedia), I was unaware as to how completely convoluted things had become. Apparently, after a while simpler DnD petered out and what is now called "Dungeons and Dragons" is what we would have called ADnD back in the day. The current version 4th edition, but a 5th edition is in the process of being rolled out between now and the end of this year. Trolling the Wizards of the Coast website (WotC bought out TSR in the late 1990's), a pdf of the 110-page basic 5th ed rulebook is available for free. I have downloaded it and am reading through it. The game has come a long way in 25 years, while seeming to maintain the same core of what we loved back then. There are a lot of things about these rules that seem really cool.

Hmm. You don't suppose anybody would be interested in...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

ImagiNation Speculation

So...If I am going to do this fictional medieval world thing, what are the basic goals and parameters of what I would be trying to accomplish?
Border troubles in the Duchy of Alten

Goals:
  1. Have a place to fight miniatures games in.
  2. Create a little piece of a world that has enough detail that the games seem to be grounded in some sort of (un)reality, in the sense that my fictional people are fighting these battles for a reason, and not in a vacuum. What has come before shapes the here-and-now, and what happens now affects the future.
  3. Have fun creating whatever I end up creating. In most of my hobby endeavors I have come to embrace the fact that for me it is almost entirely about the journey and only very marginally about the destination. There are those who can set a goal to do Project XYZ, and then buy, paint and focus on that project until it is done. I am the antithesis of that person.
  4. Use this as an excuse to paint more miniatures. With the leeway to create national colors, regional heraldry etc...
Considerations and Questions:
  • One of the main points of this is to play games. The structure of the world, first and foremost, must support gaming story lines.
  • The games will be played with the miniatures I have in my collection, or can buy and paint (c. 1350-1425AD). While some "generic" enough miniatures will serve a variety of uses, it is inevitable that some of the more ethnic types of miniatures be associated with certain fictional countries. For example, while I continue to work (slowly) on my historical Ottoman army, it is highly likely that there be a place on my map, called whatever, where my Ottomans will live and fight, but will not be "Ottomans". The very nice range of Old Glory Eastern Europeans from the Balkans, Hungary and Romania could also fill a space, or spaces, on my map. Or even the Mongols as stand-ins for "steppe people". Unless everyone is going to look uniformly vanilla Western European, this is pretty much unavoidable.
  • To differentiate the various areas and countries on the map, it is almost inevitable that I find myself thinking "this country will be France-ish, this area can be German-ish, and this country could be Northern Italy-ish". If nothing else, clustering place names into things that sound like the above helps create a distinction between different areas, which is useful. So there will likely be areas of English sounding names, and Germanic names, and Italian-esque names...
  • I find naming things to be the toughest part of this sort of thing. After all, once you start to build a story around certain names you are sort of stuck with your choices, and if you don't like what you are stuck with...well...
  • As I expect this to be a very off-and-on sort of endeavor, I am thinking I should spin this off to its own blog. That way, even if things progress in fits and starts (as I expect them to), they will all be contained in one place without a lot of family stuff and various other things taking up weeks or months of space in between.
Which brings us to...

The Basic Plan:
  1. Start another blog (linked to here of course).
  2. Work on my original "small border area" in sufficient detail to start playing games when the mood strikes.
  3. Continue fleshing out the larger world in very broad terms.
  4. Have fun with Hexographer.
  5. Add detail to different areas as the mood strikes.
Sounds simple enough I suppose.

Any comments from lurkers who might stumble on this would be welcome.