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

  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.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

An ImagiNation...with Scope Creep

Scope Creep: When a project of modest proportions (or any planned proportions, for that matter) takes on a life of its own and becomes bigger than planned...and bigger...and bigger.

But I am jumping ahead.

Most of my wargaming is a solo endeavor, but to keep things interesting, and to make for a better story when blogging about my solo games, I often try to frame those games in the context of some manufactured "campaign". These generally peter out after a few games because I lose interest in trying to fit what I am playing into a historical context, with proper map references, time lines, etc. I probably shouldn't get hung up over this stuff, but I do.

One of the things that has always intrigued me, and seems much more prevalent amongst our English wargaming brethren, is the idea of an ImagiNation; a fictional place, maybe or maybe not linked to reality in some way, but set in a specific time period from a technological standpoint. From browsing the web, ImagiNations set in "Europe-ish" during the Seven Years War period seem especially abundant. Seven Years War figures and rules are used, but the places and people are made up. Sometimes they are "near" Austria or Prussia, sometimes not. This gives great leeway in letting your creativity run as rampant as you want. So that's the intriguing part. I suppose liking this kind of idea is the same thing that made me always want to be the dungeon master when playing D&D back in the late 1970's and early '80's. Drawing maps. Imagining worlds. Writing history instead of reading it.

I have considered doing something along these lines for a while now, but finally decided that I would scribble down a few ideas on setting up a modest little imaginary world in which I could use my medieval armies from time to time.

Things began harmlessly enough. I would need a small kingdom, or part of a kingdom, which would need some neighboring areas to interact (and fight) with. My first sketch map of such a realm, on the back of a piece of scrap paper, was simple enough. A semicircle represented the edge of our new "home" kingdom. Adjacent to that border were a few different adjoining areas, exact content to be decided later. A few bits of terrain were sketched in. A basis of an initial storyline was imagined.

Having made a few simple sketches, I began to wonder what kind of mapping software (free if possible) might be out there for creating simple hex-based maps. Within moments of a first Google search, I was looking at a website for a product called Hexographer. It has a free version and a pay version, and the free version seemed to have all the functionality I was looking for, and the samples shown were nice looking "retro" style maps that would fit the bill perfectly.

Within minutes I had downloaded the free version, and in less than an hour, I had created the core of the little map below; a border area of two neighboring realms.
A small border area with two antagonists

But Hexographer was so easy to use, and so fun to play with, that over the course of another couple hours I had expanded a good bit beyond my original border area. After all, I couldn't help but wonder what the rest of those two kingdoms looked like, and who their other neighbors were. After all, they had to fit into the larger world somehow, right? So the map started to expand. And more of the world began to take very loose shape in my mind.
Two kingdoms take shape...

And that area had to fit into an even bigger picture, right? Where were their borders, and who could other antagonists be? Oceans needed to be somewhere. Which makes for coast lines. You need water. And some crude attempt at realistic geography should be attempted. And the geography in turn would dictate where rivers would run. And rivers and mountains and other terrain determine where the trade routes would be, and where cities would grow, and where borders might reasonably end up. Along with thoughts on who were enemies of who, and where the historical allies might be. And what the current situation might be on day one of this new land. Yikes.
...and the world grows some more

Which brings us back to scope creep. In maybe a half a dozen hours in little bits and pieces over the past week and a half, I have gone from a very simple pencil sketch doodle on the back of a sheet of scrap paper to a sketch outline of a much much larger world, one quarter (the northeast quadrant) of which is shown in the final map above. All because I found Hexographer, and had fun playing around with it. Once the creating started, it became very hard to stop. Not that I tried all that hard to stop.

What comes next? I don't know. Maybe I'll figure that out when I am done drawing more maps and writing more history in my head.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Book Review - A Land More Kind Than Home

Wednesday night, before heading back up to the in laws' house for the holiday weekend, I finished Wiley Cash's first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home (William Morrow, 2012, 306 pages). I read this on the strength of having read his second book earlier this year and having really liked it (This Dark Road to Mercy).

This is described as a literary thriller, and is the story of two brothers living in the North Carolina mountains. One brother is handicapped, and ends up dead following mysterious events at a secretive fundamentalist church, some of which are seen by Jess, the other brother. Events take their course as the sheriff tries to determine what happened, the pastor tries to hide it, and the family of the dead boy tries to understand and come to grips with the loss of their son.

Saying more than that little blurb would give away more than I would want to, and this is a book well worth reading. If anything, I found it to be perhaps slightly less polished than his second book, but it was still very good. And while the events unfold in a somewhat predictable manner, there was an inevitability to the way things built to their conclusion that made a lot of sense.

A solid 4 stars out of 5. I will definitely be on the lookout for whatever else Cash comes out with in the future.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Geocaching recap - 1st half of 2014

Every now and then I like to take a snapshot of where I am with some geocaching numbers, and now that I am actually doing a little of this again, it makes sense to take a status check ending the first half of 2014.
Geocaching vampire graves...

My modest achievements year to date:
  • I started the year with 1045 finds and have added 72 to get to 1117. This would put me on a similar pace to last year, when I had 120 finds.
  • 1 new state (West Virginia) to get to 23.
  • 6 new calendar dates to get to 285 out of 366.
  • 9 new counties to get to 87 different ones (5 PA, 2 VA and 2 WV). I like the new states and the new counties; in a way it means I am getting out and about and seeing new things.
  • 5 new counties in my home state of Pennsylvania, to get to a total of 26. Many more to go, but all in the central and western (farther) parts of the state.
  • My total cache-to-cache distance is nearing 28,000 miles, which is approximately 1.12 times the circumference of the Earth. So that's kind of cool. And those business trips to far off states help immensely.
...and geocaching tanks

As I have said before, I have no specific goals, but do want to make sure that as I go to new places and see different things, that I take the time to find a few caches here and there. Quality over quantity. From that perspective, so far so good in 2014.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Memory Lane - REO Speedwagon

Old vinyl
I was catching up on some of my blog reading earlier this evening and something that Brother Dave had mentioned in one of his posts sent me careening down memory lane. His fretboard blog had a link to a guitar lesson on how to play Time for Me to Fly, a terrific 1978 song (from the best-named album ever - You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish). The link to the guitar lesson for the song had links to all sorts of REO Speedwagon videos and concert footage. And so it began. Down the rathole I went. Thanks Dave (sort of...)!

I loved these guys back in the day. They had a burst of popularity in the early days of MTV, with concert footage of their late '70s and early '80s material along with the MTV-made-to-order music videos of their then-current early '80s stuff getting heavy play rotation. Take It on the Run. Time for Me to Fly. Roll with the Changes. Ridin' the Storm Out. Don't Let Him Go. Keep on Lovin' You. And then the rapid descent into the pop ballad days of Can't Fight This Feeling and One Lonely Night. Although I like melodic sappy music and have a high tolerance for schlock as long as it has a good melody and decent lyrics, they got to the point where they even lost me, but that's a different story... Between about 1976 and 1982, they made a lot of good music, much of which (to me) was centered on Gary Richrath's guitar playing.

To this day, when I think of Gibson Les Paul players, along with Jimmy Page and a host of more accomplished guitarists, Gary Richrath of REO Speedwagon always comes to mind for me. I wouldn't say that Richrath was a great guitar player, but his lyrical solos, fills, and crunchy power chords, were a trademark of the REO Speedwagon sound.

My understanding is that Richrath left the band sometime in the late 1980's over disagreements with lead singer Kevin Cronin as to the direction of the band. Wikipedia would indicate that this is substantially correct.

The band is currently cashing in on the ability of geezer bands to get people like me to pay good money to see them in concert and attempt to recapture, or at least re-live, a small portion of our youth. Apparently, at one benefit concert in 2013, Richrath even joined the band on stage for a song or two. In 2014 they are touring with Chicago (but not Richrath).

A few tidbits courtesy of YouTube:
  • Take It On the Run - Back near the height of their MTV-induced popularity (1980).
  • Time for Me to Fly - Denver CO in 1981.
  • Roll With the Changes - At Live Aid in Philadelphia (1985). I was in Budapest, Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain on this date... Check out members of the Beach Boys, Paul Shaffer from David Letterman's band, and the background shots of the long-gone Veteran's Memorial Stadium in this video.
  • Ridin' the Storm Out - Back in the day (again in Denver CO, 1981). Or even earlier (late '70s)....
  • Ridin' the Storm Out - Recent (December 2013), with Gary Richrath reunited to play with the band. Yikes. I think I wish I had never seen this... Or this... To be fair, my initial reaction to this may have been, watch the way Richrath works the left hand between about 2:00 and 2:30 on the first link, and then around the 3:30 minute mark...he can still play. Sometimes it's about tone and not about speed. Or how you look.
OK. Now memory lane is making me sad.

But...all of this does make me yearn for something on which to play those old vinyl LP's that were salvaged from Ridge Lane...