Thursday, September 29, 2016

Eddie Mendoza Rides Into the Sunset

Wow. What started out as a provisional, possibly very temporary character in what was meant to be a brief, transitional RPG campaign has finally reached his appointed ending over two years later.

I've written before (here, here, and here) about Eddie Mendoza, Freelance Reporter, Seeker of the Strange. And while I don't want to rehash everything I wrote in those three posts, I do want to go briefly back over the entire evolution, just to get it summarized in words in one place and get my feelings down now that it's over.

As I said before, Eddie was supposed to be temporary, a placeholder. I have been meeting at least once a week with the same gaming group for, fuck, over eight years now. Two years ago, our previous game campaign had kind of blown up over some personal drama at about the same time that I had been getting very burned out with my character and the campaign. So I had enjoyed having those evenings free during the several week hiatus that followed the ending of that campaign.When Sargon mentioned that he was going to start a new, kind of temporary campaign about monster hunters with a piece of the former gaming group, I was reluctant to commit to it.

But I decided to create a provisional character anyway. Sargon mentioned that the game would be taking place in Wraithport, a haunted city in Washington State (like Seattle, but not). Thinking of Seattle and monster hunters reminded me of a TV movie from the 1970's called The Night Strangler. A sequel to the previous The Night Stalker, the movie was about newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak on the trail of a mysterious monster that was strangling women and draining some of their blood. The two TV movies inspired a follow-up TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker (like The Thin Man or The Pink Panther, somehow the original title referring to something else entirely had grafted itself onto the main character), that leaned a little too hard on the Monster of the Week formula and turned silly by the end, but is still fondly remembered by fans, including me.

So I decided to create a Kolchak-type character, which got a dubious look from Sargon, who said that everyone else would be playing high-powered spell casters. A reporter would not really be able to hold his own in that group. But I argued, a) I can give him some wicked weapon skills and a couple of magical artifacts he'd collected on his earlier adventures, and b) I don't know how long I'll be playing him anyway, so who cares? If he's too weak to be fun, we can just write him out and I get my evenings free again.

And so came Eddie Mendoza to Wraithport, where he hooked up with a group of people (ish) that he didn't particularly like or trust, but he stuck with them to get a really big scoop of a story. But especially in those early days, he made sure to remind everyone as often as possible that he was just there temporarily and might be leaving at any time.

And something weird happened. Eddie started to like this group of weirdos that he had hooked up with, and even more, he started to feel needed. In those earliest days, because of his news gathering skills, he assumed a kind of leadership role in the group, pointing them in the ways they needed to go to get this puzzle solved. And also, very improbably, thanks to some smart use of the special combat perks that had been introduced for this game, Eddie got a reputation as the badass in the group.

And I started to get really invested in the character, taking him to heart as perhaps the most personal character I had ever played. Eddie dealt with crises of conscience (working with demons and giving up his journalism career once he realized he had gone from reporting the truth to serving as a spin doctor covering up the group's adventures). Eddie dealt with crises of faith (working with demons and pledging to serve not one, but two different magical beings not named Jesus).  Eddie dealt with PTSD from fighting some incredibly powerful and scary beings. And Eddie began to develop a belief in destiny, thanks to some prophetic dreams and a trip to a storybook land where things worked by storybook rules.

Eddie found himself trapped between two conflicting certainties: that he had met the woman he was destined to fall in love with, and that he was going to die in the very near future, making a relationship with that woman impossible in his eyes, or at the very least, unacceptably cruel. So Eddie the Loner, who had suddenly found what seemed to be a new family, forced himself to remain Eddie the Loner as much as possible, to spare everyone's feelings. There are people who think that the whole unrequited love thing is a ridiculous trope, that no one would willingly put themselves through that. But Eddie and I are romantics with immense esteem issues, and we did exactly that, and I kind of loved it. Eddie Mendoza, the Tragically Romantic Monster-Head Blower-Offer.

By the end of the game, of course, Sargon's predictions of Eddie's inferiority proved true enough, but it wasn't too bad, and it was a blast getting there. And even though Eddie the Loner kind of disappeared into the background of the game for long stretches, he did get his big final moment, riding off into the sunset for a new destiny with the promise of a fresh start with his new family when he finally returned. A clean fate slate.

And now we're looking to begin a new game next week, in a milieu that I originally wasn't very keen on (pirates), but I am excited about my new character, Shem the Mouse (which is repetitive - Shem means "mouse" in the game tongue--I was originally going to have it mean "rat" but I think that's a little too aggressive for my character's personality), and about the many ways I plan to abuse the new rules system we're trying out (I have over a page of notes of strategies I want to try).

But I'm finding it hard to leave Eddie completely behind. Like Dougal Smeaton, I have played Eddie for so long that he has become a part of me, and I can't just give him up cold turkey. And I don't really have to. I still have his journal unfinished that I plan to get back into at some point. I've even thought about writing a separate story, maybe a novella, but it feels weird, like some kind of super esoteric fanfic for an audience of me.

Oh well, it's time to give Eddie some well-deserved rest and start a new adventure. Onward.

Friday, July 29, 2016

A New Video Series

So I've taken a couple of stabs at video in the past, but I'm giving another shot, and I think my best so far. I have a co-worker who has a Youtube channel that he is constantly hyping, and he has been encouraging me to get back into it. Also, I have been wanting to develop my video editing skills as a way of expanding my skillset at work, so this seemed like a good opportunity.

The new series launched today on Youtube, with the umbrella title, "Hero Go Home Presents..." The first video, about symbolism in Spider-Man 2, is here: Hero Go Home Presents Spider-Man 2: Roses & Reflections

I had tried several different editing programs in the past, but had never really gotten very good results. I had an old copy of Sony Vegas that I had barely started to learn, but the learning curve was really steep. Movie Maker just always felt like a slog.  The basic version of Cyberlink PowerDirector that came installed on my laptop was okay, but very basic. So I looked around for something new.

I edited this first video and the second in the series using a piece of freeware called VSDC Video Editor. I really liked the program in a lot of ways: it was easy to learn and easy to use, so that I was able to do a lot of advanced techniques that I wouldn't have thought to try before.

The big problem with VSDC, though, was that it was very crash-prone. So for my third video, I thought I would look for something else. And I hit on something called DaVinci Resolve. Resolve got its start as professional color-grading software and has developed into a full-featured professional editing program that is free as long as basically only one person is using it. The Studio version, which allows sharing of projects among several people, costs $995. Blackmagic Design, the company that makes Resolve, also sells control devices for use with the software that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Upgrading to Resolve was a big step up. In some ways, it felt like I was starting from scratch again, but I really like working with Resolve. The big hurdle to making the switch was that Resolve can't read the clips I capture, so I had to buy a video conversion program. Both the converted clips and the output are much bigger files. But the video I made this week, the third in the series, is in HD and looks a lot better than the previous ones I did on VSDC. Also, only one crash while making it, as opposed to 10-20 for the other videos.

So as of right now, I'm very happy with Resolve, and I hope that this new series of videos clicks with people in away that my previous efforts have not.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Powers Be Creepin'

I've talked a couple of times (here and here) about the table-top RPG I'm currently playing, where I play a reporter-turned-demon-hunter named Eddie Mendoza. And I mentioned my abuse of some experimental new rules that turned Eddie into a terror with a pistol, but I didn't go very far into the odd effect that has had on the game.

First, some history: the game is loosely based on the Chaosium Basic Rules, with lots of modifications thrown in from not only specific Chaosium games like Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer, but also other role-playing games like D&D and Champions,

Sargon the GM had played one-on-one with Naamah for years before inviting other people (including me) to join the game. During that time, they had evolved a complicated and very high-powered magic system for the game. My first exposure to the magic system was in the second campaign I was in, our Atlantis game (which I've written about several times on this blog, more than I care to list ATM).

 At that time, an issue revealed itself in regard to the magic system: it was way overpowered compared to the rest of the game. This had never been a problem for Sargon and Naamah. As long as the game only had one player; there was no party balance to disrupt. But as events progressed in Atlantis, combats often became a matter of trying not to die while waiting for the mage to have her turn and wipe out the opposition. The enemies kept getting more and more ridiculously overpowered to challenge the mages while us humans progressed more slowly, occasionally running across magic items to give us a little more oomph.

The next two campaigns avoided magic altogether in favor of a new psionic power system and superpowers. But then along came the Wraithport game, which would obviously involve magic. How to solve the game imbalance issues, then?

Well, as it turned out, in a couple of ways. Number one, by having everybody in the party (with one exception named Mendoza) be magic-users (one character was part-demon who, while not knowing spells per se, had many spell-like powers that behaved pretty much like de facto magic spells). If all of the players are using magic, it doesn't matter how powerful magic is compared to other weapons and skills.

Sargon also adopted a new, slower advancement system for learning new (and higher-powered) spells to keep players from getting the really ridiculous high-level spells too soon.

And third, by adopting a set of optional combat talents to allow weapons combat to be more potent and flexible. It was by clever use of this third option that I was able to make Eddie Mendoza, who at first glance seemed destined to be totally outclassed and useless in combat, to be a useful contributing member of the party (thanks in large part to a magic pistol with some truly potent bonuses that the combat talents were able to amplify to ludicrous levels).

And somewhere along the way, something strange happened. Eddie Mendoza, the mundane character who was supposed to have been the weakest of the group, came to be seen as the "big gun" (pun intended). The same magic system that had seemed so overpowered in Atlantis now seemed strangely underpowered. That slowed-down magic advancement system now seemed too slow.

So new systems were introduced to make magic more potent. Magic talents were introduced to give magic some of the extra flexibility and impact that Eddie had enjoyed with the combat talents. And a new magic casting system was introduced to let magic do the same kind of absurd damage that Eddie could do when the dice smiled on him.

That shifted the balance back to magic again. Eddie in the last few game sessions has been relatively useless compared to the mages, and in the next session will be starting without the array of magic items that make him even marginally useful compared to them. But his skills and talents continue to develop, so at some point, he may pass a crucial break point that will make him bad-ass again. We'll see.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Those AIG Tweets, an Identity So Far Hopefully Unstolen, and Unknowns Known and Unknown

So Sunday night, in the middle of a completely unrelated personal drama, I opened an envelope that I expected would be junk mail. The return address said "American General Life Insurance," and since I don't have a policy with American General, I figured it was an offer to sell me insurance. But it also had the no-frills look of some of those financial come-ons from no-name companies, the ones that have a check inside for thousands of dollars that constitutes an instant loan for godawful interest.

So I decided  to open it to see if it was something I needed to destroy. But instead of an ad or a check, it was a bill, asking me for a payment of $25 against a loan of $3160, made against my life insurance policy.

Two problems:

1. I never took out a loan against my life insurance because...

2. I had never bought a life insurance policy from American General.

My first thought was that someone actually had stolen one of those "checks" from my mailbox and cashed it, leaving me on the hook to repay their loan. But thinking more about the way it was worded, that I owed for a loan against my policy, I thought maybe my identity had been stolen.

The notice included an 800 number to call as well as a website. So I decided to check out the website and see if it was at all legitimate. And it was weird. The website was for AIG, which is a huge insurance company. But when I checked the phone numbers and addresses on the website, nothing quite matched the notice I'd gotten in the mail.  The 800 number didn't match any of the numbers I found on different pages of the website, and although both the website and the mailed notice had P.O. Boxes in Nashville TN, they were different numbers.

This was not definitive proof of anything either way, though. Big companies have lots of phone numbers and boxes. But there was nothing that confirmed this was a legitimate notice, either. Even the second page, giving some further information about the company, listed the abbreviation for the company as AGL rather than AIG. So was this a legitimate notice or a clever hoax designed to look like it was from the big company?

I ended up getting very frustrated and sending out an angry tweet worded thus:

Received a notice from a fraud factory called American General Life Insurance, which may be @AIGInsurance. Interesting business plan.

A follow-up tweet went on to mention that they had gone straight to the billing phase, without ever doing the provide-goods-and-services part, but it doesn't look like that tweet actually went out.

I sat around stewing all the next day, because it was Presidents' Day, and AIG wasn't open. But I did receive a reply to my tweet early Tuesday morning, asking me to call a particular number. I called the number and went to the voicemail of someone named Stacy Golden, who was out of the office, but if this was urgent, I could call another number and talk to a different representative. So I called the different number, which took me back to the same voicemail. Which started me wondering again if this was all part of some really elaborate hoax.

I finally called the number from the AIG website, stayed on hold forever, and talked to a rep who finally confirmed that yes, a policy did exist under the policy number listed on my notice. And when I protested that I had never taken out a policy, she told me a detail that made some pieces fall into place.

The policy had been taken out in 1965. I was two years old at the time.

So this was a policy that my parents had taken out on me that I had no knowledge of. But it still didn't explain the loan. She had to transfer me to a specialist to deal with the loan part, though. After another ten minutes on hold, I got more of the story.

There had been no premiums paid on the policy since 2002. And since it was a whole life policy, it didn't lapse if the premium wasn't paid. Instead, the premium would be paid out of a "loan" taken out against the cash value of the policy. And so the amount had grown for 14 years, from unpaid premiums and accumulated interest on that unrepaid amount every year, until I owed over $3000 against a $5000 policy.

I called my dad and he said, yeah, there was a policy, but he thought they had been taking the premium payments out of his bank account automatically.

So now I'm faced with a few possible courses of action, none of them very satisfactory. I can do nothing, have the debt continue to pile up until it exceeds the value of the policy, at which point they sic collectors on me maybe? I can pay the debt and continue to pay premiums and receive a $5000 payment once it matures when I'm 65. I can just pay the premium and annual interest (about $200 a year) until it matures and receive an $1800 payout. Or I can cash out the policy now, before it has matured. I don't get as much money, only about $175, but I don't have to worry about any of this crap again.

That last one is the option I'm leaning toward.

But what disturbs me is how I just accidentally discovered the situation, and how close I came to having this problem continue to grow. It reminds me of that famous Donald Rumsfeld press conference about Iraq, mocked by liberals, when he talked about "known  unknowns" and "unknown unknowns." This is a perfect illustration of that principle.

There are several things I don't know. How the premiums stopped being paid. How my parents never noticed. How AIG somehow tracked me down, and how long they might have been sending me notices that I threw away unopened because I thought they were junk mail.

The difference between now and say, Saturday, though, is that Saturday I didn't know any of these things were issues. Now those are things I am aware that I don't know, while before, I didn't know an entire category of things I didn't know.

Now I wonder how many more of these kinds of things are out there, secret bombs from my past that I have no idea exist until they suddenly explode into my life.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Long, Dark Night of Eddie Mendoza

So I mentioned over a year ago that I was playing a "new" character in our current tabletop game, a journalist named Eddie Mendoza. And I'm having a tremendous blast playing him, although it apparently doesn't look that way from the perspective of some of the other players in the game. Which sounds like something interesting to explore in a post.

As I mentioned in that previous post, Eddie started out as a provisional character. I wasn't sure if I was really ready to commit to another long-term game, but the premise sounded intriguing, so I came up with the concept for Eddie. The game master Sargon was dubious about Eddie, because everyone else was playing high-powered magic-using characters of one stripe or another, while Eddie was a mundane human journalist.

But with a strategically discovered magic pistol and a set of experimental new rules I was encouraged to break abuse use to my advantage, Eddie is able to hold his own in combat, and his nose for news has proven the launching point for many adventures. So I'm really happy with how Eddie has developed.

But here's the thing: Eddie's not happy. In fact, I don't think Eddie's capable of being happy, at least not yet. Eddie doesn't trust happiness, because happiness is what you feel before the rug is yanked out from under you. Eddie has spent years feeling guilty for something that happened over a decade earlier, although not in a mopey emo way. In a very-careful-to-guard-his-feelings-and-not-get-close-to-other-people way. And even though recent events in the game have shown him that the events he feels guilty about were more complicated than he thought, so that some of his guilt is misplaced, it's not something he can just give up.

The worst kind of character you can play in a tabletop RPG (and yet one that you encounter so often) is the Loner, because by nature, the game is about teamwork, and a Loner doesn't work well on a team. Eddie is a loner who doesn't necessarily want to be a loner, but learning how to change is not always easy.

I've been keeping a journal in Eddie's voice that the other players have access to on a cloud drive. Part of it is to say, "This is what happened." But Naamah, another player in the game, also keeps a similar in-character journal that is better at detailing events (I totally copied/stole her idea-not even going to lie).

But there was another reason. Because Naamah's journal tells events from her character's point-of-view, events are often characterized in a certain way that lines up with her character's attitudes. Eddie perceives things in a different way, and I wanted to represent that point-of-view. Also because Eddie's actions were often baffling to the game master and other players and I wanted to give a little insight into his thought process.

Sometimes even that isn't enough, because I think we sometimes approach gaming from completely different perspectives. It's like the difference between literary genres. Superhero and romance stories are largely about wish fulfillment. Horror stories are about confronting and working through fears and anxieties. I think the other players approached this game more as a superhero/romance, while I've approached it more like horror.

One of the players is an anime fan/devoted reader whose character is a magical girl fairy princess who is also a librarian. One of the players facing job anxiety has a character who is super-rich with a magical house that can travel anywhere at a moment's notice and also provides unlimited food and clothing. Literally any material possession she wants is available with a snap of the fingers. One of the players with RL family issues has a character with a close, loving, happy family.

And although some of the characters have tragedy in their pasts, none of them were at fault (or feel as if they were at fault) in any of them. Their characters are generally happy with themselves, happy with the way their lives were going before the game started, and not looking to change in any fundamental way. And they have had no problems falling into friendships (and beds) with each other.

Eddie was and is different. Eddie is not some wish-fulfillment fantasy. Eddie is much more a horror story character, a guy who may appear smart and cool and brave on the outside, but who is broken inside, and whose struggles mirror some of my own issues.

Eddie is more me than probably any other character I've played in my life. He's got my old job (journalist). He's got a lot of my attitudes. He's got a secret that he has never confessed to anyone in his life, and I have the exact same secret, something that absolutely no one knows about me, not family, not friends (and it's not evil or shameful, just sort of lame and embarrassing).

He has few friends, and what friends he has, he feels like an outsider among. He keeps his distance and has unrequited crushes (there was this one preacher's daughter; everybody knew how I felt, but I never copped to it, so we never actually dated). He tries to keep his head up, but he feels the guilt of a lifetime of bad choices that seemed right at the time. He even has my name, the name my parents originally meant for me to have before life laughed at their plans.

So Eddie is maybe a way for me to work though some of my own anxieties. He's also sort of opposite to everyone else in the game. But I think it works well for the game dynamic. A little sour to go with the sweet. That little hint of salt in the chocolate-covered pretzels.

It doesn't hurt that he is also an absolute terror with a pistol. And he is slowly trying to change his ways. Sometimes he has to do some logical contortions to find an excuse to change, but he is changing.

He's not happy, and he may never be truly happy, but I'm having a great time.