Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Seven Years for Seven Stars

Forty years ago, I came up with what I thought would be a great concept for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, an epic quest for an emperor's lost 7 years. The idea was inspired by a fairy tale by Henry Beston, titled "The Lost Half-Hour." In the fairy tale, the final boss is defeated by a man's Lost Patience, which takes the form of a magical grenade. I intended to simplify it to a Lost Temper, which would still be explosive, but would be easier for a modern audience to understand. I tried to run the campaign, and got through about 6 or 7 sessions, but the party kept running away from all the plot hooks I tried to dangle in front of them, and I eventually gave up on it. The idea stuck with me over the years, and I kept thinking I ought to do something with it, but I couldn't find a good hook to write it as a novel, and my experience had taught me that I couldn't maintain a long campaign as a Game Master. But then, a little over two years ago, I got in the mood to try an old-school dungeon crawl, and since our gaming group was between campaigns, we agreed to let me start a provisional fantasy campaign. I decided to try the old idea again, vastly modified since I had learned many things over the intervening 40 years. I titled the campaign "Seven Years for Seven Stars" and we began playing in July of 2021. We continued playing for the last two years, through health scares and monster storms and a system change and my own inexperience at running a long campaign, and finally, on October 2, 2023, we finished the final battle. I have spent the last 40 years thinking I would never get to tell this story, but I finally have. I am very thankful to the people in my group who let me finally get this out of my system.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Test-Tube Meat

This is so cool, I think. Because I just love meat, and yet I recognize the ecological cost of cultivating animals for slaughter in a world of 6 billion-ish. And by the way, even though I know it's a small start, I still find this pretty thrilling. (EDIT: Changed link from discontinued publisher's website to Amazon listing of book)

New T-Shirt, Maybe?

So I've got Conestoga coming up, and I'm thinking it's time for new Digger T-shirts. I've got two more Digger stories set for publication later this year, so I figure I'll do one of each. Professor Pierce for one, maybe. For the other, I'm not sure. Either something from "Out of His League" (the story that's been set to publish in the Daikaiju follow-up for over two years now), or maybe something with the Digger Family Super Power Hour. (EDIT: Changed link from discontinued publisher's website to Amazon listing of book)

Monday, February 18, 2019

Of Treasures Lost and Treasures Found

When I was a kid, my friends and I used to jump onto and off of fads fairly often. I remember going through phases of collecting George Barris trading cards and Wacky Packages stickers, and during one point in middle school, I went through a brief bout of coin collecting. One of our classmates seemed to be a serious-type collector--had the price guide and everything--so I started trying to put together my own collection.

It never went very far, just a handful of coins in  a jewelry box that looked like a treasure chest.

There were some special commemorative coins, and some Vietnamese coins that my uncle had brought back from the war, and then I just collected some old pennies and nickels and dimes here and there. My friend Erich, the serious-type collector, I think gave me a rare VDB penny that he probably wishes he still had, and I went to a coin shop and bought an old Mercury dime and a Buffalo nickel that were in horrible condition. I tossed in a couple of Bicentennial quarters, too.

The pride of my collection at that time was a pair of old Indian head pennies, one from 1907 and one from 1898. The 1898 one I was especially proud of, just because it was from a previous century, which made it seem impossibly old.

I've told this story to several people in the past, but the heartbreak of my coin collecting days was when I asked my dad, who owned a jewelry shop, to clean the coins in his ultrasonic jewelry cleaner. After he cleaned them, he decided to polish them up on his buffer.

This is one of the worst things you can do to an old coin. If you've never seen one, a buffer is essentially a motor that spins a cloth wheel at very high RPM's. You put a small amount of polishing compound on the wheel, then hold the items you want to shine against it.

This makes jewelry shiny and beautiful. But for coins, whose value is mostly determined by how close they are to mint condition, undamaged by the friction of countless hands and pockets, this is horrible. You are literally exposing the coins to years of normal wear in an instant.

If my dad had mentioned this idea to me before doing it, I would have explained it to him and asked him not to. But he did not ask, and it just so happened that as he was buffing my 1898 Indian head penny, pride of my collection, the other potential danger of the buffer came to fruition, namely the problem of keeping a secure grip on a small flat piece of metal while pressing it against a rapidly rotating wheel.

The penny went zinging off into the depths of his back room, which was not only crammed with junk, but also in the middle of being remodeled. The coin was gone forever.

I lost what zeal I had for coin collecting then. I did add to it now and then--German and French coins left over from a trip to Europe, Korean coins from when I was deployed overseas, some old Eisenhower silver dollars and Kennedy halves. My ex-wife gave me an old Liberty silver dollar that went in there. Later, I assembled a little booklet with a complete set of state quarters, and started accumulating presidential dollar coins as well. They were never worth very much, but I looked forward to handing them off to my daughter someday. They sat mostly forgotten on top of a tall bookshelf for years.

I moved recently, and because the new house was not quite as big as the old one, I ended up not moving everything at once. And one item that I neglected to move was that big bookshelf, with that small neglected chest of coins sitting atop it. I thought I would spend a few weeks sorting through old stuff, deciding what to keep and what to throw out. And one day, I came back to the old house to find the front door kicked in.

Literally the only thing missing was that chest of coins.

Like I said, the collection was never worth much, but it had sentimental value: the Vietnamese coins from my uncle, along with a piece of U.S. Army scrip that they used to purchase items at the PX, the mementos from my trip to Europe and Korea, the gifts from my childhood friend and my ex-wife. I suspect I may also have had my challenge coins from the various Army units I had served with in the chest.

I padlocked the front door in case they came back. The padlock kept them out on one attempt, but they got in again on their third try and ransacked the place. The only thing of real value they took was my comic collection, which I didn't have room for in the house and hadn't figured out where to store yet.

I finally hired another moving truck and moved out everything else that I really wanted to keep. I resecured the front door and cable-locked the gate to my fence, and with luck, that will keep them out. I haven't been back in a couple of days, though, so for all I know, they've cut their way in again. I'm almost afraid to go look.

Anyway, those things are gone, and I will never get them back. But there is another part to the story.

My dad decided to give me a little bag of old pennies that he had been setting aside for a while. Most of them were basically worthless, but I decided to go through them anyway, just to check. And I found something I never expected to find.

I may be mistaken, but this looks very much like a rare steel penny minted during World War II because of copper shortages. At least, it looks silver in color and the date fits. It's not worth much because it's in horrible condition, but its rarity makes it interesting, at least.

But that's not the biggest twist in the story. Because as I was going through this big bag of hundreds of pennies, sorting the wheat heads from the Lincoln Memorials from the occasional Canadian pennies, I found an even older penny.

An Indian head penny. From 1898.

Dad must have found the penny in his store at some point and just tossed it in a bag. It seems like too big a coincidence for him to have somehow run across another penny from that exact year.

So while some treasures were lost, a new treasure was found and another, once lost, has made its way back.

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.