Posts from May 2012.

Tweets of Horror

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Rob Daviau ran an epic game of Tomb of Horrors.

Lest the names ring no bells: “Rob Daviau” was previously mentioned on this blog as designer of the excellent Risk: Legacy, while “Tomb of Horrors” is the legendary (and notoriously lethal) 1978 adventure for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the playing of which was de rigueur for anyone who dabbled in the 1st edition of AD&D.

Throughout the month of May, Daviau sent a number of tweets about his preparations for the big game. Finally, over the Memorial Day weekend, he inflicted the dungeon on his friends, and kept his Twitter followers appraised of the carnage.

Here are his tweets, reprinted with permission:

Prologue

 
 
Day One

 
 
Day Two

 
 
Day Three

 
 
Epilogue

 
 
A Point of Clarification

Says Daviau:

The victory condition was “steal the demi-lich’s treasure and leave,” not “kill the demi-lich”. The first is possible; the second is not. Careful reading of the text shows that you can rob him blind in the final room as long as you don’t touch his skull. If you do that, you die. Once my players figured out “don’t touch the skull”, they won.

The things you need to do to kill the demi-lich are so obscure, non-intuitive, and bizarre that no one would think to do them. And the adventure doesn’t give any clues to it so you’d have to work it in to the campaign ahead of time.

 
 
Q&A

Matthew: Do you play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons?
Rob Daviau: I did as a middle school kid, then off and on since then. I play when I can, but finding a regular campaign has eluded me since about 1999. Either I don’t the time, or a group is too far away, or, as often is the case, the group just doesn’t feel right. Being in a D&D group is like being in a band. If the vibe is slightly off, it’s just not the same.

M: Why 1st edition Tomb of Horrors?
RD: I’m 42, so 1e is the way I’ve played 85%+ of my D&D experiences. As I got older, I didn’t have the time I did when I was 11-15. So there’s a certain fondness for it. I’ve also been playtesting the D&DNext rules for Wizards of the Coast since November and I wanted to go back and see how 1e rules felt as an adult–how much was nostalgia and how much still held together.

Playing Tomb of Horrors came after reading Ready Player One, where the 1e Tomb has a prominent role. After finishing the book I went back and read the module for the first time in 30 years. It seemed unfair, biased, and kind of crazy. My guess is that future editions make it more “fair”, so I wanted to go back to Gygax’s original vision.

I have to say that the experience, both the system and the module, were far better than I expected from the prep work. I scared the hell out of the players and they really did take their time to think things through, resulting in a far lower death rate than anticipated, and hoped for. Also 1e, for all its useless parts, really puts things in the hands of the DM. You only use about 5% of the rules since the rest don’t really make sense. What I discovered is that a lack of rules results a lack of rules lawyers. Its as simple as that.

M: I’ve never played Tomb of Horrors, but isn’t 20 PCs an insane number of players?
RD: It would be if that were a player count, but it was a character count. I was at a friend’s home convention, where there was going to be over 30 people, with perhaps 15 or so D&D players. But I didn’t want people to have to commit to the whole adventure (it took about 8-10 hours), nor be disappointed if they died in the first minute, so I recast the adventure as a sort of puzzle. Five players would play at once, using characters from the pre-gen pool; when a character died, a new one could be brought in. This way players could come and go, and also not feel bad if they character they were playing died suddenly.

M: At one point you mention Dwarven Forge. What is that?
RD: The company that makes the incredible 3D dungeon walls, floors, etc., that you see throughout my pictures. My friend has just enough money and just too little willpower, and ended up buying a tremendous amount of it about 10 years ago. We had a lot of fun building these rooms. Grown nerds just look for opportunities like this.

M: May I post your Jim Carroll “People Who Died” rewrite?
RD: Please do. I wrote it because there were people still at the convention who had spent the weekend actually jamming in the garage. I threw it at them as a challenge to learn and record it. The results are below.
 
 
All the PCs Who Died

Fodder the Fighter, he was 8 levels high
Gargoyle hit him, ripped out his spine
Aryk was next up on the gargoyle’s list
Threw him in a pit but Aryk can’t fly
Davin entered an arch of smoke and mist
Sprung out naked and started to cry
He was a friend of mine

Those are PCs who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

Karl was astonishing, a gnome of some reknown
Touched a lightning altar so they put him in the ground
Dravin got the shakes from a gas of fear and dread
Fled the tomb of horrors, with our gold but he’s not dead
They were two more friends of mine
Two more friends that died

Those are PCs who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

The Mincer ran in fear and took a bad left turn
Slid down a polished slope and started to burn
No-name 12 was a wizard who the group agreed to kill
To find a secret door that was invisible
And No-name 12, I miss you more than all the others
And I salute you brother

Those are PCs who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

Howard Hughes the cleric had just found his groove
Ended up some jelly on the demi-lich roof
Cringar of West had been there longest
But someone knocked the skull and Acererak kills the strongest
But Cringar didn’t cry, Cringar died

Those are PCs who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

The rest grabbed the loot from the last little room
Made their way out of this filthy little tomb
They got some bitchin potions, a rod, and some gems
So the others didn’t die in vain,
And No-Name 12, I miss you more than all the others
And I salute you brother

Those are PC who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

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How to Not Kill a Cyclist

In observance of National Bike to Work Day, I have compiled a list of tips for motorists on co-existence with cyclists: How to Not Kill a Cyclist.

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E-Sheep

I’ve been entering CAPTCHAs on a website and receiving nothing but errors.

My assumption, after the third failure, was that the CAPTCHA system was screwy. But now, after 10, I’m in the midst of a full-blown existential crisis. Like, maybe I can’t read CAPTCHAs. Maybe this is a Rachael-in-Blade-Runner scenario.

Hahaha, but that’s ridiculous. I mean, some of you have memories of me as a child. Right? Memories of me as a child? Anyone?

Also, have you ever listened to an mp3 CAPTCHA? It sounds like The Ring: The Novelization: The Audiobook.

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An Impromptu Friday Afternoon Playlist

Also available on Spotify and MOG.

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Going On A Bender

My yoga card for the local gym has four punches left on it, and expires in as many days. And thus the stage is set for a showdown between my frugality and inflexibility.

This card, which I bought a little under a year ago, was my second. The first was purchased after a consultation with a weight trainer who, after evaluating my physical capabilities, told me not to darken his dumbells until I returned a little more limber. That came as no surprise, honestly, as inflexibility runs on the maternal side of my family. Even as a beanpole of a child I spent the “touch your toes” portion of gym class getting reacquainted with my kneecaps at best.

So, yoga. My gym has a “Happy Hour” session every weekday at 4:30 (so named because “Agony Hour” went over poorly with the focus group, I presume), each with a different teacher. I tried a few different days before finding an instructor with the perfect mix of patience, mercy, and amazing playlist.

The first thing I learned about yoga is that it has a profoundly screwed up incentive system. When you do something wrong, a lovely and/or handsome instructor comes over and places a hand on you and murmurs words of encouragement. If, on the other hand, you accidentally improve, you are able to more closely approximate the ideal pose, and wake up the following morning feeling like you were on the wrong end of a grapeshot cannon. The ideal strategy, I have found, is to just sort of flounder around aimlessly. In this regard I am a master strategist.

Prior to this I had only done Wii Fit yoga, which is to actual yoga what playing with a Hotwheels car is to piloting the space shuttle. The Wii Fit yoga instructor tells you to hold your pose for a mere 60 seconds, and only comments if you seem “shaky”. This is because the sole input device used by Wii Fit yoga is the balance board. Real life yoga instructors, on the other hand, can evaluate a multitude of other factors, such as whether or not you are audibly sobbing. And they make you do yoga for a full hour instead of for just 10 minutes. And “taking a breather” in the middle to drink beer and play Wii Lego Star Wars is frowned upon. It’s pretty draconian.

On the up side, “gym” yoga is not like “yoga studio” yoga, in that many of the participants are just dabblers. Even so, I have rarely seen another as inflexible as myself. In one class I was behind a woman who seemed to be struggling as much as I during the initial, limbering up exercises, and it was only when we began the routine proper, and she turned to the side, that I discovered that she was in her third or possibly fourth trimester.

Still, for all that, I eventually grew to enjoy my sessions, and got in the habit of attending every Thursday afternoon. I even used up my punchcard and purchased another. But, alas, about halfway through the second, my Thursday afternoon instructor introduced us to the “Knife In the Back” pose, by resigning from the gym and moving to California to open her own studio. BOOO TO YOU PRETTY YOGA TRAITOR LADY!

I tried a few other instructors thereafter. Some were mean (“If you’re going to make faces you may as well smile” one told me), and others employed Bad Music (one just played Sufjan Stevens’s “Illnoise” album during our session, which was fine until the phrase “cancer of the bone” rang out during the downward facing dog). Eventually I fell off the yogatic wagon altogether.

Until earlier this week, that is, when I dug out my card and found it set to expire with five boxes unpunched. And so yesterday, after six months of absenteeism, I returned to Happy Hour Yoga … only to discover that Tuesdays are now the “core workout” session. As I have the core strength of a bundt cake, and will sooner become the Secretary of the Agriculture before planking for longer than a handful of seconds, it Did Not Go Well.

At least the instructor constantly urged us to “tighten your stomach muscles”. This is the functional equivalent of “sucking in your gut”, something I habitually do in yoga class unbidden, so I was pleased to discover that there is one maneuver I can perform flawlessly.

One down, four punches to go. Hopefully they won’t all feel like they were delivered to my midsection.

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Tradition

This morning at Starbucks I ordered a latte grande with a shot of vanilla. I was pleased that I remembered to say “grande”; I usually say “big” and then receive an impromptu lecture on Starbucks sizing nomenclature.

I did not, however, remember to specify the potency, and so hastily added, “a double”. The achingly young barista smiled and chirpily replied, “duh!”

I was little irritated, of course. But I was also filled with pride, that my generation’s method of mocking the elderly is still employed by the youth of today.

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Tumblr?

This is a test to see if I have successfully linked my blog with the corresponding Tumblr account.

Update: Well I’ll be pickled. I have.

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Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets

A few years ago I joined a book club. Not one of those new-fangled Internet discussions groups, but a real-life, old-school book club, where participants gather monthly, eat pita chips, and grudgingly confess to not finishing the novel.

Occasionally the other members are even so foolish as to let me pick the book. Such was the case with this month’s selection, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which I chose for three reason: (a) Neven Mrgan recommended it as part of my 2011 Booklist Project, (b) it is written by David Simon, creator of The Wire, and (c) we desperately needed a non-fiction book as a counterweight to the “contemporary fiction” we have gnawed through thus far in 2012.

The “Year in the Killing Streets” subtitle is literal (well, the “year” part is; no one is killed by a street), with David Simon joining the Baltimore homicide division on January first of 1988 and chronicling their actions for 12 months straight. In this respect Homicide presages the “do a crazy thing for a year” genre so popular as of late, although shadowing a bunch of cops came natural to Simon: he had served as a crime reporter for the The Baltimore Sun for a number of year prior to the project. And Simon is not the focus of the book. Indeed, he fades effortlessly into the background, never once referring to himself while reporting on the force. He does so (as explained in the afterword) by dressing like the detectives, behaving like the detectives, and essentially doing everything short of explicitly identifying himself as a member of the homicide department. As a result, the book is a true “fly on the wall” account, with the reader cast as disembodied spirit, hovering on the edge of the crime scene and eavesdropping on everyone.

If you’ve seen The Wire or NBC’s 90s-era police procedural Homicide (for which this served as the source material), you are already familiar with the tone and cadence of the book. Simon classifies Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets as “narrative non-fiction”, which is to say that it reads more like a novel than a criminology textbook. This is accomplished by including copious amounts of dialogue, using narrative arcs as framing devices, and focusing heavily on the “characters”. And, of course, the very premise of the book–a “year in the life”–lends itself to the format, as the passage of days propels the story forward.

Simon picks a few cases upon which to focus, updating readers as to their status over the course of the year; interspersed are shorter vignettes: of “dunkers” (crimes that are solved almost as soon as the cops arrive on the scene), of “stone whodunits” (cases that lack even a trace of usable evidence), and of the officers when they are simply lounging around the office, killing time during an overnight shift. Occasionally shoehorned into the calendar are essays on a variety of tangential subjects. One sidebar discusses the wide-spread fear amongst police departments that interrogations would become useless after Miranda warnings became required, and Simon recounts the many psychological ploys officers subsequently adopted to coax suspects into waiving their rights. Simon documents a criminal trial during another lengthy aside, to show us what happens to these cases when they leave the homicide department and enter the courthouse.

Homicide was not our book club’s most popular selection. The host quit 150 pages in, decrying the repetitiveness of the crime scene descriptions. Another member was unable to attend our meeting, but sent her summary of the book via email:

The topic and characters were interesting enough for an hour or two in front of the TV, but I really did not need to spend countless hours reading a 600 page book. On the other hand, if I ever get pegged for homicide, it will be nice to be prepared for some of the interrogation techniques.

And yet, for all that, we had one of our most interesting and engaging discussions. We talked about the discrepancies between the cinematic portrayal of homicide detectives and those found in the book; we discussed our experiences on jury duty, and how they informed our opinions of the legal system; and we wondered what the two books I have thus far selected for book club said about me. (The first was Columbine by Dave Cullen, another work of narrative non-fiction in which a lot of people got shot. Hm.)

Personally, I found Homicide rivetting, every bit as engrossing as The Wire. It kept me up late on many a night, both the reading of it and the mulling of it over. Fans of David Simon or police procedurals will find plenty to like here, as will anyone interested in a fascinating, exhaustive, and often unsettling portrait of how murders are truly investigated … and sometimes solved.

P.S. Next Monday we’ll we’ll be discussing our next book, The Sisters Brothers, which I read in three days. I liked it quite a bit, and not only because people got shot.

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