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...

Underdark Terrain...Circling Back

Way back in August of last year, I did a post on the beginnings of some Underdark terrain, with an eye towards replicating the type of terrain seen in the Bridge of Khazad-Dum scene of the Lord of the Rings movies. At least in terms of epic scale and sense of height.

I never showed any pictures of the end result, but I can rectify that now.
Finished Product - Massive scale bridge works

The pieces were finished (probably within days of the August post) and were used in one of our first Underdark game sessions (they were too cool not to...). Our group came down the high stairs and saw a troop of goblins moving parallel to them, but on another level well below them, and oblivious to the presence of the party.
Side view

There was ensuing arrow fire and the raining of much fiery (spell) death upon the goblins, who quite literally never knew what hit them.
A few of our characters on the causeway

The terrain pieces were actually quite simple to carve and paint, but this was one of the first "ooh and ah" moments we had in our game from a miniatures perspective, in terms of feedback from the players, and thus in a sense is partly responsible for all that came after. As is typical of human nature and the desire to replicate an ego/adrenaline boost, "that was awesome" quickly turns into "ok, how can I invoke that response again?"

And so is born the basement full of extruded polystyrene insulation board. But more on that soon. Probably in a few minutes actually...

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Fantasy Maps

Back in a January post, I wrote about a couple of cool books that Brother Dave gave me for Christmas, one of which was on drawing fantasy maps. I showed a poor quality, badly lit picture or two of a map in process (something from our D&D campaign). I never showed the finished product(s).

The first is a map of a portion of the world; the portion that our campaign has taken place in thus far (a small portion of this map, actually). This is not a fine piece of art by any means, but was nice to be able to give to our players and say "this is your map of the world." It has enough of an old-ish style feel to it to seem like something that a band of adventurers could have in hand.
Our campaign area - larger scale (~400 x 300 miles)

The second is a smaller scale map of the immediate area that has been the base of operations for our group during pretty much all of the campaign to date. Again, simple but hopefully evocative.
The Shearingvale (~30 x 25 miles)

Lastly, here is a picture of a map of the largest city within easy traveling distance of the Shearingvale, Turil, about 50 miles west of Linden. The city center (the walled section) is a photocopy of the first version of the city that I sketched out while half watching a Flyer's hockey game on TV. Realizing that this area wouldn't be large enough to be a city of 5-6,000 people, I added the other two sheets of map on which the citadel has been placed (probably during another hockey game or two). These are simple black ink line drawings with some colored pencil shading on streets, marketplaces, corrals and stockyards. Even less of an attempt at "art" was made here, but the overall effect is pretty cool, I think. In a geeky sort of way...
The Free City of Turil

I must say that there are limits to my insanity, so no, I don't have a key that details each of these hundreds of buildings. But yes, I do have a simple key that names 4 or 5 locations in each of the 8 or 9 areas of the city. No detail to speak of, but some inns, taverns, and special locations. The players have been to the city once, interacted with maybe a half dozen of the locations, and the simple storyline prep for these was adequate.

I have always had a fascination with maps of any and all kinds, and I find it therapeutic to sketch out things like this. Whether we ever have use of them in a game is almost irrelevant. Almost.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Junior Prom

While I'm catching up on stuff I should have blogged about, I did mention proms, right?

Julia attended her junior prom on April 22, in a group with a bunch of her friends from the Drama Club.
All of my girls and Julia's best friend and guardian angel

One senior friend, Emily, came over just to do her hair and makeup.
Julia and her senior buddies

Another senior friend, Carly, drove her and went with her.
Some of the Drama Club gang

Of all places, her junior prom was at Springfield Country Club, in the town where I grew up. Go figure...
And again...

She had an absolute blast, and I will be forever grateful to the seniors who took the time to participate in her special day, and make it one that she will always remember.

Time goes by much too fast.

Skater Girl

It's been too long. Anyway...

Things have been busy, which is great, and I have done a lot of writing. Unfortunately from a blog perspective, most of my writing has either been related to our D&D campaign or some fiction I have been dabbling with, and nothing to speak of here in a dog's age. I hope to rectify that, as I do enjoy the blog, and have neglected it over the past bunch of months.

More on D&D, crafting, prom season, end of school concerts, etc, to follow. The topic of the day is skateboards. Specifically, a new board from the Girl Skateboard Company. Several of the older girls in the neighborhood have been into skateboarding for a while now, and Grace has been trying to keep up on a hand-me-down junker of a starter board and a penny board picked up recently.
New Board - Bottom

However, when you make distinguished honor roll for your first year in middle school, good things happen (at least from dads who like to spoil their little girls). So I took Grace to Kinetic Skateboards in north Wilmington this afternoon "just to look". The guy there was extremely helpful in addressing what we were looking for: a standard board, outfitted for cruising and not trick riding. Because of Grace's small size and the intended use, he suggested softer wheels, moderately fast bearings and softer bushings. After listening to him explain everything, all that made sense.
Top (with clear grip tape)

So we came home and had dinner. After dinner, I suggested we go back and get her a board. I got no objections, so off we all went. An hour or so later, we had a brand new completely custom-built board, outfitted for just what Grace needs. She picked the board, the trucks, the wheels, the bearings (all based on recommendations) and they put everything together while we waited. She even got a proper helmet (in purple of course, to match her newly re-dyed purple hair).

Fortunately, there was some daylight left when we got home, and she was able to try out the board.
It works!

She pronounced it "perfect". And that's a good day.