Sunday, December 30, 2012

Adventures in Adventureland

If I haven't mentioned it previously, I play various tabletop roleplaying games, especially Dungeons & Dragons, and have done so regularly for the past 19 years.  Recently our gaming group has become very partial to the Pathfinder system, which is an offshoot of D&D.  We've had several Pathfinder campaigns running concurrently over the past couple of years.

I used to document our gaming sessions as a sort of blog on another site, usually writing up the session summaries as journal entries or letters told from the perspective of my player-character.  Gradually I found that my hand-written notes were not enough detail to inform these stories, and if I spent enough time taking notes to make it easier to write the stories, I was paying more attention to my note-taking than to participating in the game.  I even tried recording the sessions on a small voice recorder, but found that playing back the recordings to turn them into a coherent narrative was even more work than transcribing my notes.  These days my notes consist of very basic details about what happened during the session:  important names, documentation of any loot my PC received, and any spells cast or wounds received if the in-game day laps over into more than one gaming session.

I decided that since we've started a brand-new campaign in the past 2 weeks, I'll document our adventures here.  Like my note-taking, I don't plan to go into a massive amount of detail, or try to turn the events of our sessions into a basis for fiction.  It will just be a basic description of the high points of what happened in the latest session.

Our gamemaster is running a published adventure module, so be warned that this blog may contain spoilers.

Two weeks ago (Dec. 16, 2012), the campaign began.  The party is made up of five characters: Landon, a dwarf alchemist/ranger; Silverleaf, an elf cleric (me); elf fighter SanKari (my husband), a halfling ranger/rogue named Thim, and a human inquisitor/monk, Garrick.  We started at 2nd level with maximum hit points, using the epic-level point buy system of character creation.  I must say that I don't think 25 character creation points constitutes "epic", since it's nearly impossible to get even one ability score above a 16.  My character ended up with no Strength modifier, which isn't my favorite way to play. 

The premise of the adventure is that the rulers of territory bordering on some disputed wilderness have decided to take a stab at incorporating this wilderness into their lands.  To accomplish this they've given some adventurous folks charters that grant them some law-enforcement powers, and encouraged them to go out and start running off (or killing) any bandits or monsters inhabiting the area.

Our PCs have all signed such charters, and were told to visit a trading post in the disputed area to get more information about their duties as charter-holders.  On arriving they were introduced to each other, and then the owner of the trading post told them about some trouble he'd been having with a local gang of bandits led by someone known as the Stag Lord.  The bandits had been returning once a month to steal supplies from the trader, and had also been plaguing various local landowners and fur trappers.  As it happened, the following day was when the trader expected the bandits to return for their monthly "tax collection".  The adventurers decided to inaugurate their relationship by getting rid of the bandits who came to take the trader's goods, and possibly get some further information about the rest of the gang.

The trader usually saw about a dozen bandits, so the adventurers' first plan was to gain the aid of some dwarves who happened to be spending some time at the trading post/tavern/inn while searching for a lost dwarven mine.  The dwarves were amenable to going along with the venture.  The next day, the party members took up positions around the trading post property to avoid arousing the bandits' suspicions.  The dwarves hid themselves under some furs in a storage outbuilding, while Thim climbed up to the hayloft of the stable to snipe at the bandits with his bow.  Landon waited in his tent in the inn yard, and SanKari lounged around the base of one of the stockade towers (the stockade had been burned down recently so it wasn't possible to fortify it against the bandits).  Meanwhile Garrick and Silverleaf waited inside the tavern.

When the bandits arrived with their wagon, SanKari and Landon in the yard started taking out some of the "mook" bandits, assisted by Thim's archery skill.  Indoors, the NPC dwarves attacked one of the bandit leaders when he made the mistake of going into the storeroom.  The other two leaders went into the inn and found themselves in a fight with Garrick and Silverleaf.  It was a little difficult for Silverleaf to stand up to his opponent, although that was in part because I'd miscalculated his armor class and this was making it too easy for his opponent to hit him.  I did manage to enjoy using one of his special cleric powers, the ability to place an invisible rune on the ground that would explode when stepped on.  That gave his foe a little trouble.  In the meantime Garrick trounced his opponent using a hefty dwarven drinking mug and his ability to improvise a weapon out of almost anything.

Once the battle was over, only the two bandit leaders who'd gone into the inn and one mook survived.  We took them prisoner, and after treating their wounds just enough to keep them from dying, we threw them in the midden pits behind the stable to consider their deeds while our intrepid adventurers discussed how to persuade them to divulge the location of their encampment.

Today we took up the story again.  That same evening, we decided to set out for the bandit camp before our captives could be missed.  Garrick and SanKari convinced one of our prisoners to act as guide in exchange for his freedom.  We took the bandits' wagon, and the dwarves who had helped us agreed to come along for the assault on the camp.  Our guide told us that there would probably be at least a dozen people in the permanent camp, including a drow mage and a dual sword wielder whom he considered pretty skilled.  On the way there the rest of the group discussed whether to try sneaking into the camp or going in disguised as the gang we'd eliminated, while Silverleaf meditated in the back of the wagon to prep for recovering his spells in the morning.

It took us all night to get to the bandits' lair, which meant that Silverleaf was fully loaded with spells the next morning.  On the way we came across some fey denizens of the area, who were convinced by Garrick (the only sylvan speaker in the party) to give us some assistance.  The fey distracted/restrained some sentries outside the camp.  When we arrived we were initially mistaken for the returning group from the trading post visit.  It wasn't until SanKari accused one fellow of having killed his brother (a ruse) and then chopped the bandit in twain with one blow of his mighty great-axe that they realized they were under attack. 

That led to a pretty intense combat (at least, intense for 2nd-level characters).  The drow mage cast mirror image on herself, making it hard to injure her, and the dual sword wielder was also pretty challenging.  A swarm of lesser flunkies prevented most of the PCs from getting into melee with those two NPCs.  SanKari took some very serious wounds (thank goodness for the Diehard feat), and both Landon and Garrick were badly hurt as well.  Silverleaf couldn't use his ability to channel positive energy to heal them, because there were too many bandits who would also have benefited from his aid since he can't pick and choose who is affected by the energy.  At least Thim was free of injury; he had been befriended by a fairy dragon that kept him invisible while he fired arrows at the bandits from outside the camp.

Eventually, with the help of the dwarven NPCs who had come with our party, we managed to get rid of most of the lesser bandits and focus our attention on the two female "level bosses".  Silverleaf got rid of one of the mirror images using his other granted domain power, which allows him to shoot a bolt of fire.  But that wasn't until after he had to resort to using his mundane bow because he had already cast his only offensive spell.  It's a good thing SanKari is a combat monster, because some of the other characters are not.

Finally after a lot of hacking, blasting, chopping and shooting, the swordswoman was dead and the mage was sorely wounded and taken captive.  Our adventurers hope to interrogate her to learn more about the ultimate bandit leader, the Stag Lord.  They're also encouraged by the discovery that she had what seems to be a magical potion storage box, which appears to replenish its contents whenever a bottle is removed. 

And best of all, we leveled!  Third level here we come!  Woohoo!


Update 1-31-2013
And already I"m falling behind on this.  We've had a couple of sessions since the one described above. Sadly I missed one due to chemo (stoopid chemo), but that didn't prevent my character from getting an ability score boost by drinking from a magic spring - yay for +2 Intelligence! - or from getting his share of the loot from the bandit camp.

Our characters have been tasked with mapping the area we're in, since it has long been forgotten and no reliable maps exist.  We've also been asked to look out for a temple of Erastil that was lost long ago, though it is known that it was recently protected by a mad bear (not sure how that was known if the location wasn't).  We had additionally discovered that some bugbears were causing trouble in the area, and we also wanted to find the stronghold of the mysterious Stag Lord who runs the bandit gangs.  A full plate of potential adventure hooks.

We started off by trying to locate the bugbears.  That led us to a cave, which turned out to contain some kind of mage who could raise dead, tougher undead than we really had resources to fight.  After killing a hoard of them and depleting most of my PC's magic, we decided the undead creator was probably over our heads and made up our minds to come back later when we felt better able to combat him/it. 

Eventually we found another nest of bugbears, with another cave, but fortunately no undead.  These bugbears just had some nasty worgs, gnolls, and an ogre hanging around.  We had a tough but thoroughly enjoyable fight with them, which again depleted all my cleric's spells and clerical special abilities.  Clerics rock in Pathfinder, but they don't get a lot of spells at 3rd level. 

After magnanimously telling the female bugbears we found in the cave to leave and never come back, we had a rest to let us recover and let my cleric pray for more spells, then decided to look around for the lost temple.  It turned out not to be too difficult to locate, but not until we first had a nasty fight with some giant spiders in a creepy thicket full of moving, malevolent trees.  I thought we were doomed when Mama Spider showed up with a vast swarm of new spiderlings, but our dwarf alchemist/ranger thought we could take her, and to my surprise he was right.  It wasn't easy, but we did it.  My cleric blasted the spiderlings with his fiery domain power to keep them off everyone else while the other PCs tackled the mama spider. 

The nastiest fight of all turned out to be when we finally did reach the temple.  The rumor of a mad bear was right - only it was two mad bears.  Whatever made them mad also made them tremendously hard to hurt.  We fought until we could barely fight anymore.  Our human inquisitor/monk went down right at the feet of the bigger and tougher of the two bears, and my cleric had to use a stabilize spell to revive him. But once the human was conscious, he didn't bother getting up - he did a 'flurry of blows' from the ground, rolled natural 20s on both attacks and confirmed the critical on one, then basically kicked the bear's legs off.  It nearly fell on one of the other PCs when it toppled.  We discovered the bears were both wearing medallions with the emblem of the Stag Lord, which we suspect is probably the cause of their unnatural behaviour, though we don't know why the Stag Lord would want to keep people away from the ruined temple.  Guess we'll have to find him and ask him.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


Clever and artistic arachnid.  This spider even knows how many legs it has.

Mistletoe's not just for kissing.  As usual, when we investigate, we find that even things we think are bad are really necessary.

Christmas sweaters - ironic or sincere?  To me it doesn't matter - I still won't wear them. 

Saruman sings metal.  I love it that Christopher Lee is still going strong at 90, but I draw the line at listening to him sing metal versions of Christmas favorites.

It's fun time in Krampus town. Seriously, why don't we have parades like this in the US?

What to do when the world doesn't end.  The world didn't come to an end on December 21st.  What will the doomsday prophesiers do now? 

Where have all the trees gone.  Yet more worries for the environment.  When will we get our priorities straight?  What's happening to the trees is far more important than legislating who can marry whom.

The story in the bones.  Our ancient ancestors can be shown to have cared for those who couldn't care for themselves, even if it required them to give up precious resources to individuals who could do little to benefit their societies.  Maybe not always, but often enough that we have hard evidence of it.

But as a contrast to that, this:  Amazing photos of incredibly well preserved Inca mummy.  Yet even this shows that all lives were valued.  What better to sacrifice than your most precious resources?

What shaped the evolution of the human hand?  It might have been violence. But the need to fight, for territory or for mating rights, has shaped many animals.  Why should we be ashamed that it may have shaped us, too?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Links, anyone?

Tesla buses charge as they go.  This is just cool. From Discover's 80Beats blog.

North Korean 'archaeologists' discover unicorn lair. "Archaeologists"?  I don't think so.  From the UK Telegraph.

Robot socks. Tweeted by Wil Wheaton @wilw, who has a pair.

Racial stereotyping much? Maybe Disney should monitor manufacturers who put their name on products a little better.  Shared by my husband.

50 Best Cosplay Ever.  Okay, that's probably debatable, but they are pretty awesome.

From the BBC:

Star Wars fans begin joint project to build full-size Millenium Falcon replica.  See, Star Wars fandom isn't just about whether Han shot first.  This is a cool project.  I wish them success. 

New Contender for World's Oldest Known Dinosaur.  

How Companies Test Skyscraper Elevators (video).  Ever since I saw the episode on elevators of The Secret Life of Machines, I've found them interesting.

Ancient Raindrops.  I love science.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

If I Ruled the World

When I become Master of the World, lording over all from my massive control center aboard a zeppelin, I will institute these requirements and restrictions.  Violators will be subject to suitable torture and/or execution.

Bus passengers must have their fare ready before boarding.  Anyone who does not must disembark immediately and wait for the next bus.

If there are empty seats on the bus, sit down.  Standing is only permitted when all seats are occupied.

No eating, sleeping, cell phone conversations, doing homework, or making yourself comfortable on the bus.  Keep your coat on and your personal possessions in your lap or under your seat.

Passengers who put their stuff - or their feet - in a seat must buy a second ticket.  And if you put your feet in the aisle you're going to lose them.

 Also no opening the windows.  You're only on the bus a short time.  You won't die if you're a little warm. 

No children under age six in movie theaters.  Ever. 

Movie theaters will also be required to have showings of animated films during which no children under 18 are allowed, so the grown-ups who like Pixar and Dreamworks movies can enjoy them without being distracted by little kids squirming or teenagers talking.

If you turn your cell phone on after the theater lights go down, your fellow moviegoers are permitted to stone you. Stones will be provided.

Handicapped parking spaces will be equipped with explosives rigged to go off and cripple the vehicle if the vehicle doesn't have a handicapped parking permit.

Medical certification will be required before you can purchase a scooter or power chair, and you'll have to take a driving test.

Bicycles must be equipped with headlights, taillights, and reflectors to make them visible in profile.  Automobile drivers who hit cyclists who aren't wearing proper visibility gear are not liable for any damage or injuries.

Every kid must learn a second language.

Schools will not teach Creationism.  If you want your kids to learn about religious beliefs, send them to religion classes.

Home schooling will not be permitted.  People who teach kids must be trained and certified and use an approved curriculum - which will be nationalized, so Louisiana can't say that Creationism is science.

Teachers will earn as much or more than professional basketball players. 

There will be a national healthcare system.  Everyone will have access to the same level of healthcare.

Employers will be required to pay you at least part of your usual income while you're on FMLA. 

No political action committees.  And corporations will not be considered people.

Everything will be recycled, except for medical waste.  Garbage bins will be rare and recycling bins will be provided on every street corner.  Over-packaging will be strongly discouraged - with pointy things if necessary.

People will be allowed to marry whomever they choose, so long as both partners are consenting adults and not too closely related.  The government will have no involvement in it except to prevent creeps from marrying their own children or their dogs.

I'm sure there will be further decrees from the future Master of the World, but for now the Master is tired. 


Copy of lost Da Vinci masterpiece recovered.

Pythons sued over Spamalot royalties.  Some people will do anything for money.

Skyfall fails tech test.  (Warning:  Spoilers)  I notice stuff like that, too.  But it's a movie.  Movies aren't realistic.

UK stand on teaching Creationism.  Can we do this too?

Australia bans cigarette branding.  Wish we could do this, too.  It seems Big Tobacco doesn't have the Australian government in its pocket as it does in the US.

Scientists detect 12 billion year old supernova.  We already have time travel.  It's called astronomy.

Easter Island statue walks

What we can learn from poop

Bendamustine as a treatment for indolent lymphomas.  This is pretty technical, but I still found it of interest since I'm receiving Bendamustine as part of my treatment.

More info about Bendamustine.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


More links.

I didn't realize anyone thought so, but it seems chemobrain isn't just in your mind.  Thanks to
Jay Lake for the link.

Bizarrely big black hole baffles.  Don't blame me for the title.  From the BBC.

More from the Beeb:
Bendy phones the next big thing?  Do I need to be able to roll my phone up like a burrito?
Where's the beef?  Growing up in Texas, when the wind blew a certain way we could smell the feedlot.  They're stinky and disgusting.  I think skinnier cows is a good thing.  And cattle ranchers may just have to consider a different income producer.  Cattle ranches are huge contributors to deforestation and global warming. 
Shrinking America.  Time to rethink the tax base.
Candlelight theatre.  Sigh.  I wish I could go.
Is this the end of planned obsolence?  What happens to our throw-away culture when we run out of resources to make new stuff instead of fixing the stuff we already have.
You can't buy happiness.  Believe me, I've tried.  And now putting the garbage out depresses me.  I can't help wondering why we can't recycle everything.
Welcome to Hinglish.  No wonder we can't understand the tech support folks from India, and they can't understand us.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What's It Worth?

I've been a fan for years of the program Antiques Roadshow, primarily the original UK version.  More recently I've come to enjoy some of the "reality" shows on cable that feature pawn shops.  It's amazing to me how many people who go into a pawn shop with something to sell either have no idea what they've got, or more often have a ridiculously inflated price in mind.  So here's some advice for anyone who's trying to sell an item they think might be a valuable antique or collectable.  Most of my friends already know this, but perhaps some random stranger might find it useful.

Say, for example, that you've got an old sword handed down through several generations of your family.  You believe it to be a Civil War cavalry saber.  Your grandfather told you that his grandfather told him it was given to Great-Great-Grandpa by none other than General Robert E. Lee.  It's valuable, right?

Not so fast.  Just because Grandpa said so doesn't make it true.  Family stories aren't necessarily accurate.  People make mistakes.  Memories are faulty.  Sometimes they even lie.  Suppose Great-Great-Grandpa actually told your grandfather that the sword was given to him by someone named Rodney Lee, but he told that story when your grandfather was eight years old.  By the time Grandpa was 78 years old and told you the story, somehow "Rodney" had metamorphosed into "Robert E".  Perhaps Great-Great-Grandpa really did say Robert E. Lee, but it was a joke to impress your grandfather.  Or possibly Great-Great-Grandpa told a tall tale to make himself sound more important.  Perhaps Great-Great-Grandpa didn't ever own the sword, and some other family member bought it in an antique shop and made up the whole story because "I bought it in an antique store" wasn't interesting enough.

Now you, believing it really is a Civil War saber, see a similar saber for sale on an online auction site for $20,000.  You're excited.  Great-Great-Grandpa's sword might be really valuable.  Hold on there.  Just because a similar sword is for sale for $20,000 doesn't mean you can get that much money for your sword, even if you can prove Robert E. Lee once owned it.  People can put any price they want on their merchandise on online auction sites.  Those prices don't have to be based in reality.  There are no pricing police on those websites.  Even if someone actually pays that price, it doesn't mean your sword is worth that much.  People who frequent online auction sites often pay exorbitant prices for things, just to prevent someone else from buying it.  People who aren't knowledgeable about what they're buying frequently overpay.  The fact that someone paid that price is no guarantee that you'll get the same amount for your item.  Even if  your item is a great collectable or antique, if there's no one interested in buying it at the time you put it up for sale, you're not going to make a lot of money.  High prices for items are a matter of supply and demand, and sometimes of luck.

Now let's suppose you have good reason to believe it really was General Lee's sword.  Great-Great-Grandpa wrote Great-Great-Grandma a letter telling her all about how he got it, and the letter has been preserved.  That's proof, right?  Not necessarily.  It's a lot better than a story told to you by your grandfather, but if you're hoping for big bucks for the sword, you'd do better to try to find even more provenance for the sword.  Get some documentation about where your great-great-grandfather served during the Civil War and how he might have come into contact with Lee.  Check Lee's biographies for corroboration.  Have facts, not stories.  No one's really going to believe Grandad's story but you. 

You've got provenance, you've got documents.  You've seen similar swords going for substantial prices.  What should your next step be?  Don't take it to a pawn shop!  Pawnbrokers won't give you anything like the retail price.  They're not antique dealers or auctioneers.  They're in it for a quick turnaround.  You're not going to get top dollar from a pawn shop.  If you really want top dollar, you need to find an antique dealer or collector specializing in Civil War items.  You can also take your item to a reputable auction house, but be sure it's an auction house that handles such items, not an auction house that just does estate sales.  And be aware that auction houses take a cut of the proceeds.  They're not doing this for free.  All of the other options are going to try to give you a lot less than the potential best price, because they have to resell the item. Unless you sell it directly to a collector who wants it for his personal collection, and he wants it so badly he's prepared to pay almost anything, you're probably not going to get the best price from anyone.

So what have we learned?  1) Know what you've got.  If you're not sure, find out.  2) Memory is fallible.  Don't rely on it. Get evidence.  3) Be reasonable.  Don't expect your item to make you a millionaire, even if it actually happened to someone else.   4) Take it to the right place to sell it, and be prepared for a lowball offer.

See, you can learn something from watching tv.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Linky Things

I've decided to start putting links and comments about them in my blog rather than on my Facebook page, as they tend to just get lost on FB's news feed.

#1 today is this link from the BBC about a Texas school district that is planning to give all students radio tracking ID badges so they can find out how many students are on campus daily and keep track of them, and what happened when one student refused to wear the badge. 

The above article provokes so many thoughts from me.  First is that the student's religious objection to the badge seems specious.  Why not just make a human rights objection?  Second is the ridiculous assertions by the representative of the civil rights organization.  Who seriously believes our government has the resources to constantly monitor every email, text and tweet of its citizens, in addition to keeping constant track of their whereabouts?  Even much more restrictive Communist countries aren't able to do that.  Contrary to popular opinion (and propaganda), China isn't able to monitor its citizens at that level of detail.

I'm also amused by the idea that we have any privacy now.  The only privacy anyone has currently is the privacy to be in your own home without anyone looking in the windows at you.  The idea that we can keep our electronic communications and personal activities private from government agencies or commercial interests is a fantasy.  My employer uses ID badges that can track when we use them, and also records keystrokes on our computers.  Why should a public school student have more privacy than me?

Next: The last ninja. , underground art in Paris - literally, and Not the Da Vinci Code.  The modern art of cryptography used on an 18th-century secret society's documents. Way more fun to read than a Dan Brown novel.

In other news, Jackie Chan announces that apparently he wasn't retired yet and is now retiring from acting.  We'll see how long that lasts.  Maybe he can do better at retirement than Jet Li did - Li's retirement lased for, what, a week?

My friend Anthony Pryor writes a very entertaining review of The Beastmaster on his Pit of Swords and Sorcery blog.

More links to come...

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Food Frenzy (rant)

I'm not sure what led me to read a review of a restaurant I'll never visit, but I followed a link from Twitter and read this scathing review of Guy Fieri's American Kitchen & Bar.  It got me thinking about some of my pet peeves about dining out.

My husband and I eat out a lot.  Almost every day, in fact.  Without going into how expensive and potentially unhealthy that can be, it has exposed me to a lot of different types of restaurants.  We like trying out new places and generally prefer locally-owned businesses to chain restaurants, though we're not restaurant snobs and are just as likely to eat at Denny's as at a local ethnic food bistro.  We also like watching cooking shows on Food Network, including Restaurant: Impossible, which features chef Robert Irvine giving failing restaurants a makeover. 

One of the changes commonly seen on Restaurant: Impossible is putting the menu on a weight-loss program.  I don't mean reducing the fat or calories of the food, but slimming down the number of items on the menu.  A lot of restaurants, especially chains, try to be everything to every potential customer.  By trying to satisfy too many different food preferences, these restaurants end up doing a lot of mediocre dishes instead of doing a smaller number really well.  I've noticed that lately restaurants in general seem to be buying into the menu-reduction philosophy; an old-school family restaurant near our home that used to specialize in a combo of traditional American dishes and Greek food recently gave their menu a big reduction.  They still feature Greek food, but it no longer gets lost in pages of burgers, steaks, pasta and seafood.  Even Denny's seems to have caught on to that idea; their menu is no longer made up of pages and pages of breakfast items. I heartily approve of this trend.  It makes it much easier for me to figure out what I'm going to eat, and I feel more confident that the food will be good when the chefs don't have to know how to make hundreds of different styles of dishes.

But there are other trends that seem to be spreading that I'm not too fond of.  One of the big ones is the proliferation of "sports restaurants", with televisions bombarding diners with sports events in the dining area.  The family diner I mentioned above has jumped on this bandwagon.  Not all of their TVs show sports, but if I want to watch tv while I eat, I'll get takeaway and eat at home on my sofa.  Last night we went to BJ's, a chain of "sports bar" style restaurants, and were subjected to our neighbor at the next table shouting at the tv overhead as he watched a football game, interrupting his conversation with his companion and annoying us (we're not sports fans).  If you want to watch the game, especially if you're going to yell directions at the players (they can't hear you, by the way), why don't you stay home? 

Even more irritating than the sports tv is the random unnecessary television in the restaurant.  Why do you need a tv in a Thai restaurant?  A neighborhood Thai restaurant in our area has a tv in the waiting area.  Fortunately they keep the sound off, but other than entertaining guests waiting for a table, there doesn't seem to be any reason for the presence of the television.  At least if you're going to put a tv in a Thai restaurant, show video of Thailand, not Judge Judy.

Noise is another peeve of mine in restaurants, especially in some of the chains like Applebee's or Red Robin.  Evidently restaurant designers don't believe in any kind of noise reduction.  Red Robin is the worst; it's often so noisy in their locations that we can hardly have a conversation.  I like their food, so it's frustrating to have to cope with the noise to enjoy something I like. Of course it would help if customers wouldn't all talk so loudly, but really the designers should take noise into account when they choose materials and floor plans of these places.

So many restaurants seem to be designed entirely for looks, not for any kind of patron comfort or server convenience.  Don't put a table right in front of the kitchen entrance. Don't make customers have to dodge servers when they want to get to the restrooms.  Make the booths big enough that adults can sit in them, but don't set the seats so far from the tables that customers can't sit back comfortably.  Choose chairs that won't squeal when people move them around on hard surfaces. Don't put carpet on the floor (ick!). Don't try to cram three restroom stalls into a space that will really only hold two - customers' bums should not touch the stall divider (I experienced that just a few days ago).  Don't put so many informational placards and condiments on the tables that there's no room for the food.  Maybe I should become a commercial space designer.  These things just seem obvious to me. Is anyone in the restaurant business listening?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

We Did It!

I got married a week ago.  That's right, we did it.  We managed to organize a wedding in a week, from acquiring the license to setting the time and place, finding an officiant and inviting all our friends.  It was a very happy day.  The only thing missing was more time to spend with our family and friends after the ceremony. 

We were very, very lucky.  When I approached the convention organizers to ask if they could spare us a room at the end of the convention, the response could have been a flat No.  But it wasn't.  The response was a cheerful willingness to accommodate us.  They let us have a big room, too, which turned out to have a lovely little courtyard outside.  It didn't rain that day, and we could look outside and admire the turning leaves on the trees - though I have to confess I didn't even notice the presence of the courtyard until after the ceremony was over.  It turned out to be a nice place for photos with our wedding party.  Almost everyone we invited was able to attend, so we had quite a crowd of guests.  I wish we could have taken more photos with all of them. 

I had planned to wear a pretty skirt and blouse from my regular wardrobe, but while browsing the Dealers Room at the convention, I had an idea.  I'd been admiring some Irish-style dresses at Celtic Moonlighting for several years, but they never had the right combination of size, color and price.  This time everything worked out perfectly for me.  They had a purple dress (my favorite color) with an ivory chemise for an excellent combo deal, and the dress even matched the purple Converse All-Stars I'd brought with me. I accessorized with a purple butterfly hair ornament that I picked up at the shopping mall across the street from the convention hotel, and with a silver chain loaned to me by my new mother-in-law.

My husband-to-be let me choose which of his Hawaiian shirts he would wear to be married in, so I selected one decorated with Chinese dragons on a ground that contained a complimentary shade of purple to match my dress.  Just to show his love for me, he cut his fingernails, which he usually allows to grow until they break off of their own accord.  I know he really loves me if he took the time to trim them to make me happy.

We wrote our vows separately, at the last minute.  He actually wrote his in the middle of the night.  I scribbled mine out a few hours before the ceremony.  His were better than mine, I think  In the midst of the vows he called on one of his groomsmen to hold a dice tray for him while he rolled a d20 and declared it a critical success.  I didn't know he was going to do that.  It was a nice bit of humor to break up the seriousness of the moment, which was good because by that point both of our voices were starting to break.

It's funny how serious it all became once it was actually happening.  We've been a couple for more than two decades.  Why should a brief ceremony be such a big deal?  But it was.  It was a very big deal for both of us.  We were excited and happy and nervous.  My knees went shaky during the vows, and once we were done I had to sit down.  It wasn't the absolute perfect day - I still wish we could have had a gathering of some kind afterward to spend more time with our friends - but we were so fortunate that everything worked out so well for us in such a short time.  I owe thanks to many, many people for making it possible:  The convention organizers who let us have the space, our friends who rearranged their schedules to attend, our officiant for volunteering to perform the ceremony on such short notice.  Everyone was awesome.  If you're reading this blog and you were at the wedding, I love you all.  I'm so lucky to have you in my life.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Wedding Blues

When I was a girl, I didn't daydream about my wedding.  I didn't play dress-up with my mother' wedding veil (she didn't have one).  I suppose most young girls dream about what kind of wedding ceremony they'll have, what sort of gown they'll wear, but I never did.  I dreamed about marriage and what kind of man I would marry, but never about the actual wedding.  I find traditional weddings ridiculously expensive, boring and rather gauche.  Wedding gowns are ugly.  I've never yet seen one that I found even mildly attractive.  I don't see the point in buying a dress that costs thousands of dollars and will only be worn once.  A party is nice, too, but how can anyone afford to spend $10,000 for a one-day party?  Not to mention the expense of the honeymoon. 

My first wedding wasn't much.  My husband and I eloped to a town neither of us knew well.  We found a church near the apartment we had just rented and persuaded the pastor to marry us, even though we weren't members of his congregation and had never attended his church (and never would). I wore the only dress I owned at the time.  My husband wore his only suit (a polyester leisure number).  We had no friends or family present.  No one took any pictures.  Only the pastor and the church secretary were there to witness.  We didn't have a honeymoon.  We couldn't even afford to go out to a restaurant for dinner afterward.

My Special Someone and I have been a couple for 21 years, but we're not married.  I love him dearly, but I'm divorced, and for many years my attitude toward marriage was "Been there, done that".  He wanted marriage, I didn't.  I felt we were happy enough as a couple.  If the state we live in had a common law statute, we would be considered married already.  Marriage was a formality we didn't need.  But in 2003-2004 when I went through cancer treatment for the first time, my guy took care of me and made tremendous sacrifices for me.  And the best thing I could think of to do to show him my love and appreciation was to tell him that I wanted to marry him.  It made him happy.   It made me happy, too.  We wanted a ceremony, a special event where we could celebrate with our friends.  But as I started thinking about the process of organizing such a celebration, I started to run into problems.

As I said earlier, I don't like traditional weddings.  I don't want flowers everywhere or a poofy white gown or dancing or an open bar.  But I couldn't decide what I did want.  I did want to dress up and look pretty.  But did I want to be an elven princess or a pirate wench?  Where should we hold the ceremony - in a church, a garden, a public venue or a private home?  Did we want a catered reception?  What kind of rings would we exchange to act as tokens of our union?  And most importantly, how were we going to pay for any of this once we made up our minds?  My parents are long gone.  If I want a wedding I have to pay for it out of my own pocket.

It wasn't long before indecision, procrastination (at which I am a master) and budget woes brought all the wedding planning to a halt.  We basically just gave up on it.  We still wanted to get married, but we just couldn't decide what to do.  We can't even make up our minds what kind of rings we'd like, just that we don't want traditional gold and diamonds - I don't like either the metal or the gem.  Things got more complicated for us, with our complete inability to plan anything, when the county changed its process for acquiring marriage licenses and required both partners to appear at the county office to complete the application.  We couldn't rearrange our work schedules to meet there and get the license. Gradually the plan went from a ceremony and a party with our friends to a civil ceremony with an unfamiliar judge officiating, but we couldn't manage to organize even that.  It didn't sound like fun, so although I really do want to marry, I didn't have much enthusiasm for it.

It was cancer that brought marriage back to the forefront of importance in my mind.  What happens if I become incapable of making decisions about my care?  If he isn't my husband, legally, he won't be able to make decisions for me unless I give him power of attorney.  And the same is true if anything happens to him.  Marriage has tax advantages too, and allows us to pool our funds to increase our buying power.  And even if all that wasn't true, I want to marry him now.  I want to say that he's my husband, not my boyfriend/fiancee/Significant Other/Spousal Equivalent.  I want him to call me his wife.  I want to have a ring that tells people I have a life partner.

This weekend we'll be attending a science fiction and fantasy convention, Orycon, which we've both been attending for many years.  In fact, the only time I've missed the convention since 1990 was in 2003 when I was going through chemo and was too ill to attend.  I'm delighted that I'll be able to attend in spite of my current illness.  It's also my birthday this weekend, so I can enjoy celebrating my birthday at the convention as well.  And this gave me an idea:  What if we added another special event to the weekend?  Our friends have been threatening to drag us off to be married at a convention for several years.  Why not just do it?  Stop worrying about all the details that we can't afford anyway and just have a small civil ceremony during an event that is meaningful to both of us.   

There's a tv ad for some product, I think perhaps for a smartphone, that features a whole group of friends spontaneously organizing a wedding for a couple using some social networking app.   They arrange for a venue, a band, decorations and a potluck reception dinner.  It's all very sweet and romantic and unrealistic.  It would be great if life was like that, but real people have jobs and budgets and children.  Real people can't be that spontaneous.  Pity.  It would be fun to just show up someplace and have someone throw a surprise wedding for us. We've got a marriage license now; we just need somewhere to use it.  I hope that place will be the convention this weekend, if we can manage it.  It won't be the kind of ceremony we hoped for, but maybe we'll be able to do that later.  Or maybe it will be better than anything we could imagine. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Why I Hate Chemo

Okay, I admit it, I'm tired and bitchy today. 

Why I hate chemo:
1.  Fatigue
2.  Constipation
3.  Fatigue
4.  Not being able to eat my favorite foods
5.  Worrying about exposure to bacteria and viruses
6.  Fatigue
7.  Not having the energy to enjoy my usual social activities
8.  Not getting to see my friends as often as I'd like
9.  Fatigue
10. Fatigue

Thursday, October 18, 2012

There Is A Fungus Among Us

I'm happy to say that I'm not experiencing some of the most unpleasant potential side effects of chemotherapy.  For those who aren't aware of this, chemo can have a lot of unpleasant side effects:  Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, loss of appetite, hair loss, fatigue, sleep disturbances, peripheral neuropathy, infections, skin disorders... The list is nearly endless, and almost all chemo drugs have these same potential effects. Last time I went through chemo, I had most of them.  I still have neuropathy in my toes as a result of chemo, and my digestive system's behavior never returned to its pre-chemo state.  I get nauseous easily, and have more lower GI issues than I did before I went through chemo.

My recollection of my previous chemo experience focuses mainly on diarrhea; it seems to me that I had one continuous eight-month stretch of it, though I think in reality I had a few periods of diarrhea-free time.  All the antibiotics I was taking to prevent infections killed off my beneficial gut bacteria and allowed my mortal enemy Clostridium Difficile to overpopulate, turning my GI tract into an express tunnel.  It was miserable.  So diarrhea was my biggest fear this time around.  But I haven't had any.  Instead I seem to be having just the opposite.  Food goes in the pie hole and nothing comes out the other end.

On top of that, since my immune system isn't at peak efficiency right now, my asthma inhaler has caused me to develop an oral fungal infestation, commonly known as thrush.  It doesn't hurt, but it is uncomfortable and annoying.  I have to take Nystatin, an antifungal mouthwash essentially.  It comes in banana yellow, and oddly tastes a little like banana, too.  Not the most offensive liquid medication I've ever taken, but not my favorite taste sensation.  Good thing I like bananas. My oncologist has indicated that I should expect to be taking a lot of Nystatin during chemo. 

But at least I'm not on the regimen of antibiotics, antifungals, and steroids that I had to take last time. I just have to get used to making Nystatin part of my daily beverage choices, and find what method works best to keep the train running smoothly in the intestinal tract.  And deal with the fatigue.  The fatigue should improve as I get farther away from my most recent chemo treatment.  But this week I am feeling pretty worn out.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Cancer Saga, part 2

I've finished my first chemo treatment for this round.  Only two days at the infusion center, and the second day was just a couple of hours.  I didn't get nauseous, and the Dexamethasone didn't give me the jitters or keep me awake like it did last time. The dose is much less this time.  I haven't had any "Shedding" yet, either, as Jay Lake likes to refer to one of the other lovely side effects of chemo.  I'm just really fatigued, achy, and feeling a little down.  It's harder to keep the morale up when the fatigue sets in.

Diet is fun during chemo.  I love fresh fruits and vegetables, and sushi is one of my favorite foods - nigiri sushi, with raw fish.  But I shouldn't have those things while my immune system is vulnerable.  And then there are the people.  I have to avoid people.  They have germs.  When I go to work on the bus I'll be wearing a mask and gloves to protect me from other people's germs.  If my co-workers have colds, I'll probably work from home.

But all of the above is still better than being in the hospital a week out of every month, and having to take injections to increase my white blood count.  I can work.  I can watch television.  I can drive, at least some of the time.  I spent a lot of my first day of chemo studying my Chinese textbook.  I wouldn't have been able to do that the first time through treatment.

That doesn't mean this is going to be super-easy.  Just about the time I start to feel pretty good and back to normal, I'll have to have another treatment.  But this time I won't miss OryCon.  I've attended OryCon every year since 1990, except for 2003, when I missed it due to chemo.  This time my next chemo session isn't until after the convention, so I should be able to attend.  That makes me happy.  It's a tradition, and this year my honey is a program participant so I want to be there to support him.  I'll just have to support him while wearing a mask to avoid the germs.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Me Versus the C Word

I have cancer.  It's not the first time.

Yes, that's right, I have cancer right now, and it's not my first entry in the cancer rodeo.  That sounds pretty scary, doesn't it?  It is scary.  Cancer is scary.  Cancer treatment is scary, too.

Nearly 10 years ago, I went in for surgery to have an ovarian fibroid removed.  I had no thought of cancer, really.  My doctor didn't think the fibroid was cancerous.  It wasn't.  But while the surgeon was looking at my innards, she noticed that I had some enlarged lymph nodes.  She removed one and sent it for a biopsy.

I remember when I was told that I had cancer, I thought the doctor meant that I had ovarian cancer.  I guess I was a little muddled after the surgery.  What I had was Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.  Not just any old lymphoma, but an uncommon variety, Mantle Cell Lymphoma, that more typically affects people 20 years older than I was at the time.  If you're interested in reading more about it, try here

They sent me home to recover from the surgery.  I'd waited too long to have surgery and they couldn't do it laparoscopically,  which in hindsight was a good thing.  If they had done it as a laparascopy they probably wouldn't have found the cancer.  My cancer history is a story of fortuitous coincidences like that, as I'll explain later.

I spent eight weeks healing from the surgery.  Once I had recuperated, I started chemo treatments.  They put me on a regimen called Hyper-CVAD-MTX/AraC supplemented by Rituxan.  I think the Hyper stands for Hyper-intense. I had to have my treatments in the hospital, a week each month for eight months.  I usually spent a couple of additional days in the hospital after the treatment was done, while they gave me blood or plasma transfusions and tried to get my white cell count back up.

I didn't throw up a lot, after they spent a lot of time finding the right anti-nausea medication.  One medication they tried was Haldol, an anti-psychotic.  Cancer treatment involves a lot of using medications for purposes for which they weren't originally intended.  Haldol gave me weird muscle spasms in my neck.  I couldn't stop turning my head to the left.

I also completely lost my appetite and stopped eating.  My doctor had to prescribe an appetite-enhancing medication.  I hated taking it, but it worked.  Along with the anti-nausea meds and the appetite enhancer, I had to take a whole fleet of antibiotics, anti-fungals, steroids, drugs to counteract the side effects of the steroids, drugs to protect my kidneys from other drugs, drugs to prevent allergic reactions to the chemo drugs.  My beneficial intestinal flora died and the less beneficial ones overpopulated, so that as Jay Lake put it, it was "like winning the toilet paper lottery".  Every hair on my entire body fell out, not just my scalp hair but my eyebrows and lashes and even my nostril hair.

I was off work for a year.  By the time I finished treatment, I could barely walk.  I lost 40 or 50 pounds.  I couldn't concentrate enough to read a book or watch an entire movie.  I had become very isolated, seeing no one but the nurses and my doctor, and my Significant Other.  My immune system was too weak to allow me to go out in public much, and I was too weak to visit with my friends, even on the phone.

During that time I learned a lot of things about cancer treatment I'd never known, despite the fact that both of my parents died of cancer.  I didn't know that chemo can cause so many effects on the brain when it's not even being given for brain cancer.  Chemo patients learn about something called "chemo brain", which describes how thick-headed you get on chemo.  I don't remember some things that happened just before my treatment began, and my memories of that time period are foggy.  That's chemo brain.

A month ago I went in for a routine mammogram.  I'd recently been having a lot of health problems, which don't have any relevancy to the mammogram, but it's important to the overall story.  My primary care had ordered a CT scan for me earlier, to look at my lungs, but I'd had to cancel because I didn't feel well that day.  I hadn't got round to rescheduling.  The mammogram found enlarged lymph nodes.  I called my oncologist.  I already had a routine followup scheduled with him, the first one in quite a while, but it wasn't for another month and a half.  I wondered if I should see him sooner.

I got a call from the Imaging center to schedule a CT scan, which I thought was to reschedule the one I'd canceled.  Then they told me it had been ordered by my oncologist.  That worried me.  I got more worried when he left me a voicemail message to tell me he suspected the lymphoma was back.  I spent a weekend feeling pretty anxious as I worried about what my treatment would be this time and whether I'd be able to work during chemo.  The oncologist told me this time I won't have to do inpatient treatment; I can go to the chemo infusion center once a month for my treatments.  The treatment shouldn't be as hard on me this time.  If this had happened three years ago, the treatment I'll be having wouldn't have existed.  This time I'll get Rituxan again, combined with a new drug called Bendamustine.

When I read the potential side effects of both drugs, they're the same: nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, fatigue, loss of appetite.  The same stuff I went through last time.  Chemo is largely composed of giving you poisons to kill the cancer cells.  Unfortunately, that means killing some good stuff as well.

I have a biopsy tomorrow to confirm that it's really lymphoma.  I start chemo on October 10th.

I'm still scared, but I'm not as scared as I was.  I have a good doctor, and a great team of other medical professionals looking after me.  My doctor thinks my prognosis is good for another full remission, though it probably won't last as long this time.

Everyone knows there is no cure for cancer.  But until I had cancer myself, I didn't really understand what that meant.  The variety of lymphoma I have almost always reoccurs.  It's just a waiting game to see when it will come back yet again.  And each time it will get harder to treat, harder to force into remission. 

When I found out that I had cancer, I thought about my parents.  Neither of them lived past age 60.  My father was only 53.  I'll be 52 in a month.  I've often wondered if I will live past 60, either.  I'll just have to wait and see. I feel optimistic.  Not only will I be less isolated this time, I know someone else who's going through a similar situation and somehow that makes me feel less alone.  And I have someone who loves me and will look after me, and great friends, and coworkers who are kind and caring.  There's a lot to be said for a good support system.

Deep breaths. I got through it last time, I can do it again.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Movie Review: The Four

The Four (Chinese, 2012)

Imagine that the X-Men lived in ancient China, that they were working for the imperial Secret Service, and that they were fighting zombies.

That is a rough description of the plot of this new film, which features Deng Chao (Judge Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame), Liu Yifei (Forbidden Kingdom), Collin Chou (Forbidden Kingdom, The Matrix) and Anthony Wong (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), among others.  The story is inspired by a wuxia novel by Wen Ruian. But other than the setting and a few standard wuxia movie tropes, it doesn't bear much resemblance to wuxia films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Hero.

Though Wen's novel The Four Great Constables follows the tales of several constables serving the imperial justice system, this movie puts its protagonists in two organizations: Department Six, which is the more typical organization serving the emperor; and the Divine Constables, a group of pardoned criminals led by a former imperial bodyguard, who work among the common people to uphold justice and solve crimes.  Complicating this is the presence of a group female constables from the mythical land of Penglai, who've been sent to assist Department Six.  All three of these groups are trying to solve a counterfeiting plot, but there are plenty of hidden motives and political intrigues to complicate matters.

Nearly everyone in this film has a superpower, not limited to the usual wuxia abilities like qinggong (superleap), qigong (internal energy), running up walls, and performing incredible feats of swordplay. These people can transform into monsters, exhibit telepathy and telekinesis, summon fire and ice, and other powers.  There's nothing that is too obviously an imitation of Western comic book superheroes, with the possible exception of Liu Yifei's character, whose need for a wheelchair is awfully reminiscent of a certain X-Men character (though the filmmakers gave the baldness to Collin Chou).

In addition to the detective story and the superpowers, there are a couple of romantic subplots.  Despite spending most of the movie looking sullen and never smiling, Deng Chao is the object of affection for two of the female characters.  He's an indecisive sort: he can't make up his mind which girl to pursue, and he can't make up his mind whether to join the Divine Constables or return to Department Six.  He's not the most compelling character, and his ability to serve as lead is compromised by the large cast and convoluted plot.

With so much going on, this movie is a bit confusing, especially at the beginning, where it follows the tradition of many Asian films by throwing the viewer in at the deep end and letting you tread water until you figure out who all these people are and what's going on. But once you get past that, it becomes interesting. The interaction between the characters, especially the members of the Divine Constables, is a lot of fun, and it's nice to see Collin Chou doing something besides showing off his martial arts skills. Anthony Wong also makes more than a cameo appearance, putting in an enjoyable turn as the gentlemanly leader of the Divine Constables Zhang Zhengwo. The superpowers aren't overused or overpowering, the villain doesn't do too much maniacal laughing, and the acting is uniformly good.

Oh, yeah, there are zombies, too. It's not a zombie movie, and they're not Western-style gore-coated, brain-eating zombies. But there are zombies, and they're kinda cool.

The Four is supposed to be part one of a trilogy.  If the sequels are produced, I'll take a look.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Why I Love the Doctor

I've been a fan of Doctor Who for more than 20 years now.  I've enjoyed the series as he regenerated from his 6th incarnation to the 7th, from the 7th to the sadly brief 8th, and during the long hiatus until Auntie Beeb brought him back to the small screen a few years ago in his 9th version.  I made the effort to see everything I could of his earlier incarnations as well, and grew, like many fans, to have a special fondness for his 4th self.

Like many long-time fans, I was a bit apprehensive when he returned in 2005 with an entirely new production team and actor.  What would the new creative team do with him?  Would he start having romances?  Spend all his time on Earth because the new show had an even more limited budget than the old series?  Would all his prior history be treated as if it never happened?  Would he stop being a Time Lord?  Would he stop being so innately British?

I was immensely relieved when it turned out that the new series runners wanted to behave much as if that hiatus between 1989 and 2005 had never happened.  The new Doctor was the 9th.  They even acknowledged that the American-made 8th Doctor story was part of Doctor Who canon.  The Doctor was still a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. He still traveled through time and space in his TARDIS, which still looked externally like a 1960s British police public call box.  I gave a sigh of relief that the BBC hadn't tried to completely re-imagine the concept - just bring it into the 21st century television world.

Suddenly my beloved series had a real special-effects budget.  The aliens weren't just people in ill-fitting rubber masks.  We could see thousands of Cybermen or Daleks instead of 6, because the effects were no longer limited by how many extras and props were available.  But more importantly, and this is why I love Doctor Who more than ever:  The series has a heart.

The old series made me laugh, it made me excited and joyful and occasionally a little irritated.  But to a large extent, despite the history of the Doctor, everything seemed to happen in a vacuum.  There were times when a story would make reference to past events, when you felt there was something the Doctor was feeling, but in some ways it seemed that the Doctor had an even stiffer upper lip than a real Brit.  He didn't often show his heart.  He didn't seem to miss his companions when they left, or even remember that they'd ever been.  He didn't mention his 'granddaughter' Susan.  His human companions were the ones who did much of the emoting.  The Doctor was usually just benevolent or indignant, like a distant relative you don't often see. 

And except for bringing back recurring villains, the series didn't have much sense of its own history.  There were a few plotlines that connected the events of more than one story, such as the Key to Time saga.  But most of the time, once a story was complete, whether it had taken an hour or three hours to tell it, it was never mentioned again.  The companions didn't have conversations about how scary it was to be chased across time by the Daleks, or demand to know why the Doctor had apparently abandoned them at some point in a previous adventure, or make the Doctor explain more about his race and where he came from.  Each story was basically the same basic concept:  The Doctor and his companions arrived somewhere (usually not where they intended to go), there was a monster menacing the local residents or a sinister plot brewing that would result in something awful happening, the Doctor and his companion(s) became separated from each other and from the TARDIS, and the Doctor finally saved the day. 

The new series does many of the same things.  There are still monsters and sinister plots, the TARDIS still doesn't always take the Doctor where he intends to go, he and his traveling companions often get separated, and the companions still frequently serve as the "heart" of the series.  But now the Doctor has a heart, too.  He has towering rages and grief and regret and loneliness.  He sheds tears.  And he loves his companions.  They are not just audience-identification devices to allow him to explain plot elements.  They are real people who are meaningful to him . He misses them when they're gone. We know why he needs them.  He's lonely, he needs company, and he needs someone to keep him humble.  Without them, he might transform into something more horrible than any enemy he has ever faced.

The companions have changed, too. They're not just people who ended up with him out of curiosity, or even by accident.  They want to be there, because they feel a connection to the Doctor. Sometimes they get angry with him, or doubt him, or are even afraid of him. And they're genuinely useful to him as something other than a glorified puppy.  They can do things on their own that will help his plans, and they can make their own plans. 

Some of them have loved him, too, or wanted to love and be loved by him.  Sexuality has entered the Doctor Who universe.  Fortunately the producers haven't let that progress into showing all the details.  The Doctor is, after all, a non-Terrestrial being.  He is somewhat asexual. The producers seem to realize that a 900+-year-old Time Lord having a romance with a human may be the worst kind of May-December romance - though if they have a story that calls for the Doctor to have a romance, they aren't afraid to proceed with it.  They are willing to explore every facet of human experience, not just fleeing from monsters.

Another facet of the series that the new series has eagerly explored is time travel.  Yes, that's in large part what the show has always been about.  But more recently the producers and screenwriters have really played with that concept.  The Doctor doesn't just use time travel to go to the past or the future, he uses it to affect events in ways he couldn't otherwise do.  In the new series we have seen characters grow from childhood to adulthood knowing the Doctor, while he from their perspective never changed. We have seen the Doctor run in and out of his own timeline.  We have seen time bent back on itself until every moment in history was occurring simultaneously.  We have even seen the Doctor and one of his companions living their lives in parallel but in chronologically reverse order. Time travel has become an important element of the series, not just a sort of conveyance, and the writers aren't afraid to make the audiences' brains hurt a bit when we are posed with a temporal paradox.

There are some things that make me less happy about the new series, but I won't go into those here.  Overall I love the new show.  I love everything they've done with it.  I won't lose any affection for the original series, but I'm glad to say that as I've matured and changed, so has Doctor Who. I hope we can continue to grow up together.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Making Magic Magical

Roleplaying is a challenge.  It's always difficult to balance the rules with player choice, to keep the story flowing, to give each player sufficient 'screen time'.  Sometimes it seems that just following the rules takes up so much time that there isn't room for, well, the roleplaying part of a tabletop RPG. 

There are lots of areas of roleplaying that I could go on about, but in this post I'm talking about roleplaying magic.  Magic has a lot of rules controlling it, as I mentioned in my previous posts.  Consequently it often gets short shrift in the roleplaying department.  Years ago, when I took my first stab at playing a spellcaster in a D&D game, I thought I'd try to make it more interesting by coming up with a 'trigger' word for each spell, that could act as a code word between myself and the other players so they would know which spell I meant to cast without my having to state openly, "I cast magic missile". 

Most magic spells in D&D require a verbal component, the equivalent of characters in Harry Potter shouting out "Petrificus totalus!" when they paralyze someone.  But the descriptions of the spells in the manuals don't tell the player what the verbal component of each spell is, they just indicate whether or not a verbal component is required.  I thought it would be fun to come up with my own verbal components, personal to me.  But it quickly became too much trouble to maintain.  Whenever I added new spells to my character's spell list, I had to invent new verbal components.  It didn't do the GM or the other players any good, either, because they couldn't remember what my invented command words were; they were too preoccupied with managing their own characters.  And it interrupted the flow of play because in addition to looking up how the spell worked I also had to find out what my command word was. I was disappointed that I couldn't use that idea to enhance my roleplaying.

How spells look when cast is another item that I wish could receive more attention during actual play, yet it seldom does.  Spells typically include a description of the spell's appearance or effect, but in my experience no one ever uses them to enhance the verisimilitude of roleplaying.  We just say "I cast fireball" and leave it at that, going on to roll the dice for damage and move on as quickly as possible to the next player's combat action.  There's no cinematic description of what happens to the victims of the fireball from the GM, either, because that would take too much time, and the GM's already juggling too many other tasks. 

I understand the reasons behind this lack of description, but I can't help feeling just a bit sad that our roleplaying sessions often tend to be just a lot of in-game terminology instead of something more flavorful.  We don't stab enemies viciously in the gut, we do a power attack for 26 points of damage.  The fireball doesn't send the orcs screaming into the distance with their hair on fire; it does 16 points of fire damage.  One could argue that good players and a good GM could add lots of descriptive color to the game, but when the game already has so many detailed rules to keep track of and the players only have a limited amount of time to play each week, adding 'flavor text' requires extra time and energy that no one can spare.

The origins of magic and its workings within the setting of the game often don't get much attention, either.  Nearly every setting for D&D includes the concept of wizards guilds or colleges, and supplementary books may contain the names of a few, but it never makes any difference in actual game play.  I've seldom seen a player get a discount on magic items by purchasing from an old schoolmate, or be required to pay annual dues to her guild, or wear a particular insignia to represent where she was trained.  Magic items also tend to become commonplace in most high-magic settings.  Ordinary non-player character citizens are very seldom impressed by magic.  It seems old hat, like something you see every day.  Someday I'd like to take my wizard character into a small rural village and cast a light spell, and have the locals respond with awe, or even fear, rather than looking at my character as if she's just yawned. I'd like to be required to present my magical credentials to the local authorities when I enter a city, or get into rivalries with other schools, or be very secretive and refuse to tell anyone about my magical training if they ask.  Actually I could do that last one, but usually no one asks. 

I suppose I may be asking too much to add all this cinematic description to a roleplaying game.  If I want cinematic, perhaps I should just watch a movie, or play a console RPG like Skyrim that has exciting cut scenes, or read a book.  But I can't help it; the writer and movie watcher in me wants my roleplaying experience to be a little more like a book or movie, and a little less like playing Monopoly.  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Magic Without Limits, part 2

As I write I'm sitting here watching my Significant Other play Skyrim.  There are a lot of things to like about the magic system in Skyrim: All spells can grow more powerful with the character's level; there are no forbidden schools so you can be good at every kind of spell if you desire; magic is fueled by magicka that regenerates automatically or can be replenished with potions; you can summon magical creatures to your aid freely as long as you have enough magicka; you don't have to spend any time preparing spells or sleep a certain amount before you prep them; and you can wield magic and weapons at the same time.  That's not to say that magic is unlimited in the game; you still need magicka, you have to learn spells, and you have to learn special abilities to create magic items.  Naturally since Skyrim is a single-player game and your in-game companions can only do so much, character abilities don't have to be as balanced as they would be in a multiplayer game such as a tabletop RPG.  In Skyrim your character is the star of the show and doesn't have to share the limelight with anyone.  But I still wouldn't mind if tabletop RPG designers would take a page or two from the Skyrim book of magic.

In addition to just the general magic rules, another area where I'd like to see some change is the concept of familiars.  In D&D, a wizard can have a familiar that grants the PC some bonuses and advantages.  But familiars must be chosen from a limited list of creatures.  Most of those creatures are ordinary animals.  You have a cat, a rat, or if you're  Harry Potter fan, an owl.  Sure, familiars are handy, but they're also a bit of a liability.  In previous iterations of D&D, if your familiar died, you lost a character level and couldn't summon another familiar for a year.  To me that always seemed like rather a harsh punishment when a familiar just gave you a bonus to perception and a conduit through which to cast spells.  In general I found few players who were willing to use their familiars to deliver spells for them, since that risked possible injury or death of the familiar and harm to the spellcaster.  It just wasn't worth it.  The game designers also made odd rulings, such as that bonuses provided by the presence of a familiar were only available if the familiar was within a limited distance of the PC, meaning that if you sent your familiar off to do something you lost your bonus.  Having to recalculate bonuses just so my familiar could serve as a messenger never seemed worthwhile, either.  I found that when I did have a familiar, I never really made use of it.  I was too worried about losing it.

Not only was I frustrated by the liabilities of having a familiar, I was also frustrated by the sheer banality of the familiar choices.  I've always felt magic should be mysterious, and at least somewhat unique to the individual.  Yes, my mage learned the same spells as every other mage, but why couldn't her spells look different when they took effect, without having to take a special feat to achieve that?  And why couldn't her familiar be unique to her, a representation of her personality, not just another cat or rat or bird?  I'd like to see a system in which the mage crafts her own familiar, a kind of homonculus, as part of a sort of graduation ceremony.  Let the player choose from among a menu of options for the familiar's abilities.  And make the familiar a little tougher, so the mage won't have to expend so much energy being concerned about the familiar's safety.  Let protective spells cast on the familiar keep it safe even when it is far from the mage character.  Perhaps even let it learn to cast a few spells of its own.  It should never be as powerful as the PC, but let it do a little more than just add a couple of points to perception rolls.  Make familiars unique and interesting and useful. 

One can argue that the rules of D&D, at least the 3.5 edition (I know nothing about 4th edition) do allow for a number of the above alterations to familiars.  A player can select feats to strengthen and enhance a familiar, to select something other than the standard familiar types, and to allow the familiar and PC to get more benefits out of the relationship.  But all of those things are character options that have to be chosen instead of something else.  You have to sacrifice being able to do something cool with your own spells in order to do something cool with your familiar.  I honestly don't see how allowing familiars to be a little more exciting would seriously unbalance gameplay.  

Paizo's Pathfinder RPG has offered a substitution of a bonded magic item in place of a familiar, but that too has limits, and doesn't address the inherent dullness of familiars that I perceive.  I just don't want a cat; I want a weird creature that didn't exist until my mage created it.  I want something that is inherently mine, something special to me.  Pathfinder also offers an alternate character class that can summon a strange creature to serve, but I don't want to have to take a different class (and learn different rules) just to get a weird critter as companion for my character.  The closest I've ever come to satisfying my desire for such a creature was having a druid character create a bogun.  It wasn't a terribly useful creature, and I had to wait a ridiculously long time to be able to cast the spell, but it did so much toward satisfying my desire for a cool little buddy that was all my own.  I never understood why there wasn't an equivalent spells available to wizards.

As another observation, I don't think there should be multiple arcane spellcasting classes anyway.  There should just be mages, or wizards, or whatever you choose to call them, and all the different flavors of how spellcasting works should be variations on that base class.  If you want to play a wizard who draws magic inherently from within instead of learning spells by rote, you should be able to do that with a minimum of alterations to the core class.  I find that in practice the sorcerer class and the wizard class don't really differ that much, particularly since both draw from the same spell list.  I've always thought that if you're going to have a class that functions differently, it should do so right down to the basic spells list, no overlaps.  If players had more control over the look and feel of their spells, it would make these overlaps less obvious, and less irritating to players like me who want to be unique.

While I'm on a roll, why not let mages use weapons?  The argument has always been that wizards spend so much time studying magic they don't have time to learn any combat skills.  I don't contend that a wizard should be as good a fighter as, well, a fighter.  But at least let my wizard pick up a sword without incurring a penalty.  And let me have two attacks per round, like everyone else.  Let me attack and then turn invisible, or summon a light and detect magic.  Is that really going to ruin it for everyone else?  I doubt it.  I can concede the argument for not letting spellcasters have increasing iterative attacks like some other classes, but I don't really see the point for keeping them eternally at a single attack per round.  I've seen plenty of games where the fighter goes through the battlefield like a whirlwind at higher levels, when fighters can have many attacks per round, while the mage is still stuck in "cast then move" mode. Wizards do have some very powerful high-level spells available to them, but the assumption that the wizard is like a guy with a rocket launcher at a knife fight is exaggerated in my experience.  I find that I seldom have the right spell prepared at the right time, or if I have the ultimate spell ready I can't get a clear shot to use it without risking harm to the other player-characters.   And most well-prepared GMs will make sure that there's plenty of magical opposition to keep a high-level wizard busy in a boss fight. 

Well, that's enough harping about magic rules for now.  Perhaps my next entry will be on some issues around the roleplaying of spellcasters that have been on my mind.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Magic Without Limits

Since my last post about roleplaying, I sadly haven't done a lot of it.  One of my GMs has been busy with other hobbies and hasn't been available.  But recently another friend decided to run a few one-shots for us, and that, combined with this blog, got me thinking about how magic is handled in roleplaying games.  

Roleplaying games are all about trying to apply fairly rigid rules to things that don't necessarily fit within those rigid confines.  Player-characters can usually only move a certain distance each turn, for example, disregarding that people don't all move at the same rate of speed.  Game systems that use character classes, like D&D, usually define those classes within a certain limited set of abilities that don't really approximate how real live people function or behave.  Why can't a wizard use a sword?  Why doesn't a fighter have the ability to play a musical instrument?

Magic is one of the areas that has many, many rules applied to it in every RPG I've played.  There's good reason for this; without some limits, the magic-user characters have the potential to overshadow the abilities of all the other player-characters.  But sometimes, as the author of the blog I mentioned above contends, the rules are just too restrictive.  

One of the irritants of playing D&D is the limitation on how many times per day a magic-user can cast a certain type of spell.  If the GM should happen to put the party in danger more than once during a session, the mage character's arsenal of spells may run dry.  A magic-user can carry around magical implements to supplement the arsenal of memorized spells, but those are expensive to buy, difficult to make, and they too can eventually run out of magic.  

Recently the game designers have tried to lift some of this restriction by allowing magic-users to cast certain spells at will, without any per-day limit.  But that allowance is only applied to low-level spells, spells that typically are either "utility" spells or that don't do much in the firepower department.  And let's face it, a lot of D&D is about fighting.  A player of a magic-user has to do a lot of prep work or risk being unprepared for the situations she may encounter.  In my experience, that often means that when I'm playing a magic-user I haven't chosen to prepare the right spells for the situation, unless I know in advance what we'll be facing.  And the limitation that prevents my mage from using a sword with any facility means that in some combats my character is just a bystander.  My only option becomes the decision to prepare the same set of offensive spells every session. I never have an opportunity to use any of the other interesting spells the game designers have created because the situations where those spells would be effective are too rare and too unexpected.  Casting the same spells every time gets a bit boring.

I've mentioned before that I tend to be indecisive, and this adds to the challenge of playing a mage.  That's another reason I tend to stick with the same spells every game session.  I wish for a system where I could have more flexibility in what I do with my mage's abilities, and do it on the fly.  Why can't I swap one prepared spell for another if I discover that what I've prepped isn't the best for the situation I'm facing?  I also with I could swap energy types - if we're fighting a creature that isn't vulnerable to fire, and I prepped a fire spell, I'd like to be able to switch the fire for ice or electricity.  Current rules demand that I take a special character option in order to do that, one that means I have to forgo some other character option in order to do the energy-swapping.  I realize the game designer are trying to maintain balance between the different character classes, but it sometimes feels to me that they're overdoing it. 

The game designers have tried to give magic-users lots of spell choices, which is both appealing and frustrating to me.  I can only have so many prepared each day, which means that there are dozens of interesting spells that never get used.  There's also a tendency to produce more and more new supplemental books with more spells, and eventually some of those spells become just different flavors of the same old thing.  I wonder why you need three different versions of an invisibility spells to get from "invisible until I attack something" to "invisible all the time"?  Why not just make the spell's power increase with the character's class level?  Some spells do that, but why aren't they all written that way?  Why should an 18th-level wizard's ray of frost spell do exactly the same damage as a 1st-level wizard's ray of frost?

D&D also includes a mechanic called Difficulty Class (DC), which helps to determine how effective a spell is.  This is a figure based on a combination of several other character statistics.  But DC increases on the basis of spell level, not character class level.  As a result the DC of a 1st-level spell stays the same, no matter what the character's class level is.  The 18th-level wizard's 1st-level spells are no more difficult for an opponent to resist than the 1st-level wizard's 1st-level spells.  Doesn't it seem reasonable that a very powerful mage could put a whole group of ordinary people to sleep with a snap of his fingers?  Yet by the rules of D&D, it isn't any easier for that powerful mage to put a group of people to sleep than it is for a mage fresh out of mage school to do it.  There are a few ways that can be changed, but those methods are very limited. The most common one is by increasing the character's base ability score that controls spellcasting, usually intelligence.  But what if I want my mage to be stronger or faster instead of smarter?  Do I sacrifice improving the DC of her spells so she can be a little better at other things?  Or do I risk that as she encounters more powerful foes her ability to overcome them with magic won't be sufficient?  The practical result of the DC dilemma is that as magic-user characters increase in level, they rarely use their lower-level spells.  What use is ray of frost that does only a tiny amount of damage against a huge dragon with hundreds of hit points, even if you can cast ray of frost as often as you want?

Of course, "as often as you want" is a bit of a lie.  Magic-users in D&D are limited to one spell per combat round.  It's true that in the current version of D&D a combat round lasts only 6 seconds, so you can in practical terms cast 10 spells a minute.  But when your fellow players can have their characters stab something with a sword two or more times per combat round as they increase in level, it becomes frustrating that your mage can still only cast one spell per round.  You can't use a magic wand and cast a spell, either.  In the D&D universe, casting spells take up a lot of time and hand-waving.  The designers offer some options to allow you to expand beyond those limitations, but as with other methods of stretching the rules, you have to sacrifice something else, sometimes several somethings, to gain that ability.  I know I'm not the only player who daydreams about being able to, say, zap an enemy and immediately turn invisible.  But without a lot of tinkering with character options, that's just not possible.   

All this whingeing about D&D rules takes me back to the complaint of the the author of the blog I mentioned in the first paragraph.  You can use plot elements to keep the magic from getting out of control when you're a writer, because you're in control of everything.  I realize that in a game you need some limits, something to give the players some direction and keep things balanced and equal.  But I really do think the designers of some games have gone a bit overboard with setting limits on magic.  It would be interesting to see what would happen if someone took away some of the restrictions.  Would magic-users really become the spotlight-hogging unstoppable powerhouses the game designers fear?  In the hands of some players, the answer is probably yes.  But I think most players would set their own limits in the interest of keeping it fun for their friends. 

I like playing magic-users, but I don't think anyone needs to fear me becoming too powerful.  I'm not interested in being the most important player in the game.  I just want to have more fun.  So here's a call to the game designers:  Come up with a magic system that doesn't have so many limits!