Sunday, October 15, 2017

NHSD 2017: Quick Results

As expected, there’s still no time for a proper post this week.  However, I can comment just a bit on our National Heroscape Day tournament.  As per last year, let’s start with a few refreshers:


Last year I brought 6 participants to make a total turnout of 11, plus one person who arrived late; this year I brought 7 for a turnout of 13, but one person had to leave early.  Which is fairly promising, all in all—we’re increasing or at least remaining steady, for a game that has been out of print for 7 years.  Not too shoddy.  We’re keeping the dream alive.

Anyhow, this year I lost all my games, which was even more crushing on account of they were all against people I brought to the tourney.  First the demonspawn beat me, then the Smaller Animal beat me, then the Smaller Animal’s best friend beat me, thus leading to this conversation between me and my oldest:

“You got beat by a nine year old!”

“Hey!  He’s ten!”

But I don’t mind.  I don’t go to the tourneys to win; I go to have fun, and I think we all had a great time.  The Smaller Animal was a bit disappointed in his performance, but I say he did pretty damn well: in his first game, he managed to take out half the army of the person who ended up winning the entire thing, and he only lost the last game because his opponent had a bit of a run of good luck.  Not really all that bad for an 11 year old.  This year he played an army consisting primarily of Quahon, the big blue dragon who breathes lightning bolts; Sujoah, the giant dragonfly with a poison stinger; and a few squads of giant spiders.  It’s a pretty solid army overall, and I’m sorry to see him get down on it.

The demonspawn did better, winning two games with an army composed of Morgoloth (the demon darklord), mezzodemons, and wolves.  But the day went to our old friend “hivelord” (his forum name), who won every game, beating out his own dad in the final round.

After the tournament, we went on to play a quite cutthroat game of Exploding Kittens, which the Smaller Animal and his best friend won: they deicded to work together after the best friend killed the SA by accident while trying to knock off his brother.  All in all, a long day, but totally worth it.  Hopefully we can manage to get together sometime before next year’s tournament.


* If you do read that, remember that “Xotli” is my codename there.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Busy busy month

This week, instead of giving you a proper post, I’m going to tell you why I don’t have time to give you a proper post.

As it turns out, this month is turning into quite the crazy one.  There are many factors contributing to that; obviously the biggest one is the Smaller Animal’s upcoming surgery, which is right at the beginning of November.  So a lot of crap has to get taken care of prior to that.  For instance, the surgery is the day after my birthday.  So obviously that weekend is not a particularly good one for a birthday weekend celebration.  As a result, we’ll be celebrating my birthday the weekend before, which is actually before Hallowe’en, even.  Hallowe’en, by the way, is another thing that we have to spend some time preparing for: our eldest was never candy-motivated the way the younger two are, so this level of dedication to dressing up and begging strangers for food is a bit more recent for us.  So there are costumes to buy, routes to plan, etc.

October is also the month for National Heroscape Day.  Due to a convergence of a few factors, we’re getting a pretty late start on prep for that annual tournament.  And it’s not a “preparation light” sort of event.  As small as it’s been getting lately, there’s still quite a bit of work to be done, and I haven’t really started yet.  And I’m down to a week and a half to get it all done (as I write this; even less by the time you read it).  It’s going to be tight this year.

I also got an invite from the moderator of our local Perl group to speak this month.  Well, it serves me right for writing a Perl blog post a few weeks ago and then posting on Facebook about it.  But, it’s been a long time since I did a talk there and I can probably handle this one with mininmal prep time.  Which is a good thing, because minimal prep time is all I’ve got.

Right now, though, I don’t have time to do any of that prep, because I’ve got to finish my online traffic school course before the court-appointed deadline, or else I won’t be able to afford my car insurance any more.  Yeah, I got another ticket.  First one in a while ... my incidence of traffic tickets went way down after I bought that radar detector.  Best investment I ever made.  But, you know, every once in a while, your reflexes just aren’t quick enough to hit the brakes before the cop tags you.  Still, one ticket in 5 years: that’s a definite improvement.  For me.

Still, the big ticket item is getting ready for that upcoming surgery.  We’re hoping to get one last trip to Disneyland out of our season tickets before the date, and pretty much anything else the kid wants, he gets.  We’ve also got one mental health appointment scheduled, and I’m hoping to get another.  I’m not really sure there can be really be too much mental preparation for this sort of event.  But there’s also more mundane aspects to worry about: The Mother just recently reminded me that we need to start compiling a list of all the people we need to update once the surgery is done.  Lots of folks to call or email, posts to social media to make, etc etc etc.  So surgery prep is pretty overwhelming all on its own, never minding all the other prep I’ve been pondering.  And of course it’s not like life in general stopped: there’s still dishes to be done and bills to be paid and children (furry, scaly, and smooth-skinned alike) to be fed and work hours to be worked and clothes to be washed and groceries to be bought and ...

I suppose I could bow out of at least some of those things.  But, no: that’s what I’ve decided to do with this month.  I rather think that keeping as busy as I can physically manage is the only way I’m going to remain sane.  If I give myself too much time to ponder what’s coming up, I may not make it through.  So it’s a busy month, and the downside of that is that you’re not likely to see too many proper blog posts this month ... maybe even none at all.  But I will try to put up something every week, even if it’s only a few sentences.  But, honestly, I’m not even promising that much.  We’ll just have to see how it all plays out.  In the meantime, wish me luck.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Wisty Mysteria I

"Silent Sunset Orange Cloud"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

You may remember back when we talked about Rose-Coloured Brainpanover 2 years ago, now—that I mentioned Depression, the first of the “proto-mixes.”  One of the biggest reasons I refer to anything from that period as “proto” is because those mixes were just random collections of songs.  There was some small amount of thought as to theme, but no real coherent throughline, nothing that would tie the songs together to form something like an album.  By the time I got to college1 I understood that a mix tape needed to be more than a loosely related collection of randomly ordered tracks.  I started to make mixes that were much closer to an album: tracks that fit together to form a picture, and were laid out in an order that told a story.  Now, I still hadn’t learned what the inimitable Hearts of Space was to teach me a few years later—all the stuff about transitions and thematics that I’ve discussed many times beforebut I was making progress.  These were what I call the “pre-modern” mixes, and the very first one I made was an attempt to create a refinement of Depression.

So, as I’ve said before, the biggest problem with Depression is that its picks were all over the place.  The songs from that proto-mix are now scattered across several modern mixes, such as Rose-Coloured Brainpan, Tenderhearted Nightshade, and Darkling Embrace.  Each of these captures a much narrower slice of the range that Depression was trying to examine.  But before any of those mixes, I started with something that would be a little sad, but not too much—sort of wistful, so to speak.  Something where many songs would have a bit of a creepy or mysterious vibe, but again not too much so.  So it would be a little bit wistful and a little bit mysterious, and the first thing I came up with was “Misty Wisteria”: the mist provides the mystery factor, and the wisteria provides the association with sadness via scenarios like doomed gothic romances.  But eventually I just swapped the initial consonants and ended up with far more direct analogs of “wistful” and “mysterious,” but the fact that neither is an actual word encourages the listener’s ear to do the transposition and end up with the original phrase anyway.  Wisty Mysteria was not only the first of the pre-modern mixes, it was also the first to use my weird naming convention.2

The pre-modern mixes were developed in the early 90s, so, just as we saw on HipHop Bottlerocket (whose songs all lived in the very narrow timeband of 1988 – 1990, except for 2 throwbacks to the late 70s), we have a similar situation here.  This time we widen the band somewhat: 1986 – 1991, with a single mid-70s throwback.3  But you still need to be feeling nostalgic for that period from the late 80s to the early 90s to properly enjoy this volume to its fullest.  We even have several crossover artists from HHB, such as Fishbone, Dramarama, Concrete Blonde, and Jane’s Addiction.  Which is pretty strange if you think about it ... Wisty Mysteria is nearly diametrically opposed to HipHop Bottlerocket, thematically.  But that just shows what range some of these bands have.

I think this is a fairly faithful recreation of the original Wisty Mysteria, though theoretically the original should have had more tracks.4  Plus I threw in an extra track at the end: “The Last Resort,” by the Eagles.  I just felt like the mix needed a stronger closer, and “Last Resort” is a melancholy, slow tune that makes good use of Don Henley’s voice to make some stinging commentary on commercialism and religion.  And it’s just a good closer.

So, on the “wisty” side, the saddest song on here is perhaps “Walking in the Woods,” by the Pursuit of Happiness, a Canadian band who are best known for their insanely catchy 1989 hit “I’m an Adult Now.”  Musically, the song is not as downbeat as you might expect, but listen to the words at your own risk: they’ve been known to bring an actual tear to my eye on occasion.  Second must well be a-ha’s “Manhattan Skyline,” where Morten Harket sings “I don’t want to race this pain.”  I also tend to find “Heart of Stone” (by the highly underappreciated Dreams So Real) a bit tear-jerking; certainly the lyrics “she’s gone away ... I’m so alone, and all I own is a heart of stone” is a big clue.  And yet there’s something that’s also not-sad about this tune: its power chords are cathartic, somehow.  And that tends to be where a lot of the choices here land.

“You’re Still Beautiful” by the Church, for instance, with its ode to fading beauty, or “Little Conversations” by Concrete Blonde, which I’ve always felt is a perfect recollection of late-night chats with a member of the opposite sex who isn’t really attracted to you and is too oblivious to notice your feelings for them.  Or perhaps “Part of Me Now” by the Lucy Show, which seems to warn “please don’t break my heart,” or “How Could You Want Him (When You Know You Could Have Me)?” by the Spin Doctors, which expresss all the puzzlement that its title implies.  Even “The Ballad of Jenny Rae” by the BoDeans, which is clearly a story of abandonment (“Jenny Rae left me late last fall; didn’t say much, she just left, that’s all”), is somehow not particularly sad about it.5

On the “mysteria” side, some of the songs here are more obscure; it’s not always clear what they are about.  Is “Blue Green” (by local-to-my-college-town band Hearsay) about drowning?  Does “The Woods” by the Call symbolize a tangled forest inside one’s heart?  Is the echoey, repeated call of “home” in “Up the Beach” by Jane’s Addiction supposed to be welcoming or ominous?

“Obsession” might be about sitting alone with someone you care about in a candlelit room ... but then why does it sound so gothy and dark?  (Probably because it’s from goth-master Ronny Moorings, during his Xymox phase.6)  “Fireplace, Pool & Air Conditioning” by Dramarama is ostensibly a song about seduction (“I’ll take you home ...”), but its surreal lyrics (one of which provides our volume title) hint at something more.

Note that most of these bands are more noted for upbeat songs (or at least mid-tempo), but these tunes showcase their softer sides.  Just as the band that sings “Manhattan Skyline” is the same one that brought you the ultra-pop 80s hit “Take On Me,” so do many of the tracks above share bands and even albums with much more upbeat songs: “The Last Resort” is from the same album as “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Little Conversations” shares a disc with “God Is a Bullet,” “How Could You Want Him?” accompanies the so-poppy-it’s-almost-silly “Two Princes” ... hell, even Dramarama, not necessarily known for hard rockin’, was last seen in this series belting out “Last Cigarette” on HipHop Bottlerocket.  Also on that mix was “Bonin’ in the Boneyard,” by the amazing (and eclectic) Fishbone.  Here they provide our opener: “Pouring Rain.”  This is not really a sad song, but it sure ain’t a happy one.  A taste of the lyrics:

He had one foot in the gutter,
Another on dry land.
His ship had sailed without him.
Across life’s burning sands,
He cried out in the distance.
And no one, no one heard a word
For a prophet’s not respected
in his own world.

Even Walter Kibby’s trumpet has a lonely feel to it ... hell, even Norwood’s bass sounds like it’s echoing in a vast, empty space.  I always thought it was the perfect opener here.

Wisty Mysteria I
    [Silent Sunset Orange Cloud]

        “Pouring Rain” by Fishbone, off Truth and Soul
        “Obsession” by Xymox, off Twist of Shadows
        “Velveteen” by Transvision Vamp, off Velveteen
        “Part of Me Now” by The Lucy Show, off Mania
        “Manhattan Skyline” by a-ha, off Scoundrel Days
        “You're Still Beautiful” by The Church, off Gold Afternoon Fix
        “How Could You Want Him (When You Know You Could Have Me?)” by Spin Doctors, off Pocket Full of Kryptonite
        “Little Conversations” by Concrete Blonde, off Free
        “Blue Green” by Hearsay, off Triggerfish
        “Heart of Stone” by Dreams So Real, off Rough Night in Jericho
        “Fireplace, Pool, & Air Conditioning” by Dramarama, off Stuck in Wonderamaland
        “Walking in the Woods” by The Pursuit of Happiness, off Love Junk
        “Up the Beach” by Jane's Addiction, off Nothing's Shocking
        “The Ballad of Jenny Rae” by BoDeans, off Outside Looking In
        “The Woods” by The Call, off Into the Woods
        “The Last Resort” by Eagles, off Hotel California
Total:  16 tracks,  79:33

In closing, I’ll tell you two more things.  First is a bit of background on one of the bands I only briefly mentioned above.  Hearsay definitely qualifies for my definition of “very obscure band”: AllMusic’s “entry” is so impoverished that it doesn’t even have an overview (because there’s literally no info to overview), and Wikipedia has nothing.  They were in fact a small, local band from a suburb of the town I went to college in ... which is itself just a glorified suburb of Washington D.C.  I scoured the Internet for a digital copy of their magnificent album Triggerfish, but found nothing; the link above will take you to an Amazon page, but you’ll actually be buying a copy from private sellers, and paying anywhere from $15 to $60.  Not saying it’s not worth it; just opining that it’s unlikely too many of you are going to bite on that type of deal.  Perhaps one day I’ll get industrious and upload some of their music to YouTube myself.  In the meantime, you’re mostly going to have to take my word for it that they exist at all; about all I could find other than the Amazon page was an old article from the Washington Post.7  So just trust me when I tell you that lead singer Jeny Nicholson’s vocals are angelic, and Doug Kallmeyer’s bass work is phenomenal.

And, finally, we have “Velveteen” by Transvision Vamp.  Velveteen the album is the lackluster follow-up to the far superior Pop Art; it’s an inconsistent affair whose highlight is a song carried over from its much better predecessor.  “Velveteen” the song is a long, overblown bit of melodrama that drips with cheese ... but I find it irresistable, for some unfathomable reason.  If I were assigning it to a mix today, I would no doubt slot it for something a bit more operatic,8 but at this point it’s become integral to my mental model of what Wisty Mysteria actually is.  It’s not sad, per se, although there’s a sense of yearning at its core.  It’s got way too much in-your-face sexual innuendo, but that’s pretty standard for this band (which after all has “vamp” right there in the name, so you knew what you were getting into).  It can’t really decide what style it wants to be, and its sense of what seduction means is about what you’d expect from a Twilight novel.  And yet ... and yet there’s something about it which captures my imagination, in between the cheesy lyrics and the bombastic strings, something perhaps in the interplay of Wendy James sultry bark and what I assume is Nick Sayer’s throaty whisper.  Let’s call it a guilty pleasure and leave it at that.

Next time, we’ll head out on a world tour.


1 For the second time.  I had a weird college career where I attended for 2 years, dropped out for 3, then went back for 3 and finished up.

2 And, yes, I realize I’m being very generous in calling it a “convention.”

3 Again, count on future volume expanding on that.

4 All the original pre-modern mixes were on 90-minute cassettes, so modern mix volumes are generally about 10 minutes shorter.

5 In fact, this is probably the most country-ish song the BoDeans have ever done that I can still stand to listen to.  And yet, despite that, I’ve always really liked this particular track.

6 That would be after his Clan of Xymox phase, but just before his Clan of Xymox phase.

7 Fun fact: see how the final paragraph of that article says: “if you miss them at the Bayou, they’ll be at Fat Tuesday’s in Fairfax Thursday”?  I was actually at that show.

8 A mix which we shall come to in, as always, in the fullness of time.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Perl blog post #56

This week I decided to pop over to my Other Blog to write about some interesting code I ran across at $work the other day.  It’s been a while and I didn’t want my Perl homies to feel neglected.  This one’s pretty code-heavy, so, if you’re not a fellow Perl geek, you’d probably want to give it a pass.  But, hey: there’s always next week.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Multiclassing, Part 2: History of the Multiclasses (3rd edition)

Last time, I diverged briefly from my discussion of D&D multiclassing through the editions to mention that my group and I gave up on D&D for a while in between the Player’s Option series (which some called 2.5e) and 3e.  To be honest, I completely undersold that.  We had whole-heartedly abandoned D&D.  It was a moribund system, weighed down by the accumulation of mismatched, overly complex subsystems over the course of 20 years.  There was no consistency anywhere: sometimes you wanted to roll high, sometimes you wanted to roll low; sometimes a higher score on your sheet was good, sometimes it was bad; thief skills and non-weapon proficiencies did pretty much the same thing but had no relation to each other whatsoever; one ability score was clearly better than all the others (Strength) and one was clearly worse (Charisma); you were never sure which dice to use for weapons; and, if you were able to figure out whether anyone was surprised when your party, which contained both a ranger and an elf, met a drow, an elven cat, and a giant eagle, at night, then you were a certifiable genius.

So we tossed out all our old books (figuratively, of course) and brushed off our hands and said “well, that’s that!” and assumed we would never play “real” D&D again.  And then ... third edition.

D&D 3e fixed a lot of problems: it positively dripped consistency, and all the abilities were useful again, and you always wanted to roll high.  But, honestly, for me, what truly drew me back into the fold, what definitively made me put on my best Pacino and proclaim that just when I thought I was out, they had pulled me back in, was the multiclassing.  It was a thing of beauty.  It was simple to understand, simple to do, you didn’t have to plan out your entire adventuring career before you ever threw the first die and you never locked yourself into dead-end paths, and you could combine almost anything with almost anything else, in a great profusion of choices.1  Not only could I be a figher-wizard if I wanted to, I could be a fighter with just a little touch of wizard (or sorcerer, perhaps), or a wizard with just a little touch of fighter, or a mostly-wizard-rogue with 2 levels of ranger, because I was an outdoorsy sneaky magic-slinger.  That “nightblade” character my fevered imagination had been trying to put together for so long was now not only possible, it was trivial.

To be clear, we’re talking about multiclassing with base classes here, not prestige classes, which are entirely different and shouldn’t be considered at all in discussions of multiclassing, in my opinion.  Prestige classes used the multiclassing rules, but discussions of whether multiclassing worked in 3e or not that focus on the eventual mess that prestige classes led to are completely missing the point.  Take prestige classes out of it entirely: saying multiclassing in 3e didn’t work because prestige classes didn’t work—whether you agree with that statement or not—is pretty much the equivalent of saying that classes in D&D don’t work because the ranger is a hot mess.2  As a simple example, prestige classes have many of the problems that multiclassing in general doesn’t: you do have to plan out your entire career, and build traps and dead ends are common.  So let’s ignore prestige classes for purposes of this discussion.

The amazing thing about 3e multiclassing—and we may as well throw in 3.5e for that matter, because the multiclassing rules were just about the only thing that didn’t change from 3.0 to 3.5—was its flexibility.  You certainly could plan out your entire 20-level career if you wanted to (such templates are usually called “builds”), but you could also just keep taking fighter levels until you got bored and then take a random level of whatever.  You could take two classes, or three, or fifteen (if your GM allowed enough splat books), and you could take them in whatever proportions you liked.  If you wanted to be half cleric and half barbarian, you could take 10 levels of one and then 10 levels of the other, or you could alternate back and forth for your entire career, or you could take 3 levels of barbarian and then 8 levels of cleric and then 4 more levels of barbarian and then two more levels of cleric and so on.  For nearly every combination of classes you can imagine, a quick Internet search will almost always get you people railing about it being completely overpowered, and also people sneering about how useless it is.  The truth is, flexibility breeds complexity, and complexity can be a good thing ... for instance, complexity is what makes it not always clear whether a certain choice is good or bad.  And that makes it an interesting choice.  Because a choice where the answer is crystal clear—where it’s always A, or always B—is a boring choice.  In many ways, it’s a non-choice.  The only reason for picking the suboptimal choice is to be different, and being different only for the sake of being different is not the best strategy.3  So, in this way, the complexity is a positive.

But complexity has a negative side, of course.  Complexity often confuses people, and leads them to making poor choices.  Let me be clear that I consider this different from being a “trap,” as that term is often used when talking about character building.  To me, a trap is a feature that seems good on paper but in practice turns out deliver way less than advertised.  That’s different—subtly different, perhaps, but distinctly different—from a case where the user has so many options that they just can’t process them all, and end up picking the wrong one, or overlooking the right one.  If it’s obvious from reading the feature that it was the right choice (or the wrong one), that’s not a trap.  It’s just that there’s so much to read that it’s easy to skim over something and not pay close enough attention to realize you’re heading down the wrong path.  Multiclassing in 3e was certainly guilty of that.  There were 11 classes in the PHB, and Wikipedia lists 42 others across 14 other books, not even counting NPC classes, core class variants, or setting-specific classes.  That’s a metric shit-ton of material, and if you were really faced with choosing one class among 50+ every level for 20 levels, that’s over 9½ million billion billion billion different possible character builds.4  Most of them are silly, sure, but the point is that it’s easy to miss things amongst that much material.

But really complexity wasn’t the problem, in the end.  Flexibility leads to complexity, sure, but the thornier issue is that flexibility leads to abuse.  I’m not going to get too deep into the actual issue of using multiclassing for powergaming—that’s a broader topic that deserves its own post (which it will get, later in the series)—but, regardless of the reality, the perception that multiclassing acquired at this stage of its history has dogged it forevermore.  The practice known as “single-dipping” (or, more rarely, “double-dipping”), which is taking one (or two) levels of a class just to get its early features, explicitly began after the release of 3.0.  It forced class designers to change the way they laid out their class features—if you put too many interesting or desireable features at low levels, people would “dip” your class, but nobody would play it straight up.  This came to be known as a “front-loaded” class, and please be sure to curl your lip in your best Billy Idol imitation when you say that, because it’s meant as a terrible insult.  3.5e fixed a lot of the worst examples of this, and Pathfinder fixed even more, but it continues to be a concern for class designers everywhere.  Now, overall I think this is a positive thing—forcing designers to spread out class features has lots of other benefits as well, such as keeping high-level play interesting—but there’s no denying that practices such as dipping gave multiclassing a bad name that it’s still trying to shake to this day.

Moving from the big picture to the smaller one, 3e multiclassing did have a number of minor problem.  Happily, Pathfinder fixed nearly all of them.  The biggest minor problem with 3e/3.5e multiclassing, in my opinion, was the XP penalty.  This was a little nose-tweak to discourage everyone from multiclassing all the time, and it could be offset somewhat via a race’s favored class, which restored a tiny bit of 2e’s racial multiclassing preferences by making an elven fighter mage progress normally, while a human one lagged behind (but only by a little).  The problem with this was that it didn’t really work.  XP penalties are always a giant pain in the ass to keep track of, so the vast majority of gaming groups just threw them out, and it was a multiclasing free-for-all.  Pathfinder wisely determined that this problem required a carrot, not a stick: in other words, don’t discourage multiclassing, but rather favor single-classing.  To that end, they added “capstones,” which are extremely cool features5 that you can only get by sticking with one class all the way to 20th level.  Of course, that only works if you actually play to 20th level, which no one ever does.  But Pathfinder foresaw that niggling problem as well, and retooled “favored classes” to be decoupled from races and just reward all characters for taking levels in their original class.

Pathfinder also removed the last few class-combination restrictions.  And the last thing they “fixed” was to make a lot more things depend on your class level as opposed to your character level.  I put “fixed” in quotes there, though, because while that curbs a lot of abuse, it also severely nerfs multiclassed characters in some situations.  The big thing that Patfhinder didn’t fix was the saving throw problem.  If you took 3 different classes that all had the same “good” save, you suddenly had a +6 at level 3, which was insane.  Contrariwise, if they all had the same “bad” save, you were stuck at +0 at 3rd level, which was just as silly, except in the other direction.  There were various schemes for fixing this,6 but really we just had to wait for 5e for it to be fixed properly.

Overall, the 3e rules for multiclassing, especially as refined by Pathfinder, continue to offer the best, most flexible roleplaying experience.  Unfortunately, “most flexible” is not always considered a compliment, and the reputation of multiclassing as “for munchkins only” is directly traceable to this version, so we can’t claim perfection.  Next time, we take a look at what went wrong in 4th edition.


1 The only classes you couldn’t combine were those with conflicting alignment restrictions, such as monk and bard, or paladin and druid.

2 And nearly always has been: note how it was annoying in 2e, broken in 3e, barely tolerable in 3.5e, weirdly off-kilter in 4e, and downright wimpy in 5e.  But I digress.

3 As opposed to being unafraid to be different for other, more valid reasons, which is often a great way to go.

4 Or about 9.5 thousand decillion, in American mathspeak.  If you happen to be British, you would say 9,500 quintilion.  I believe.

5 Theoretically.  Obviously some classes hit that target more accurately than others.

6 E.g. the “fractional saves” rule in the 3.5e version of Unearthed Arcana.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Of All My Monkey Memories ...

I don’t really have time for a full post this week, as we’re in the midst of another Virgo birthday season—my eldest is now 19, which is always a bit of a brainfuck.  Realizing you have a kid old enough to go to college when you were just in college yourself, like, yesterday, can feel surreal in a very fundamental way.  But, as Twain once said: “It is sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it.”

But I feel like I need to leave you with something to read this week.1  So let me tell you a story, then I’ll drop you a link.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a technogeek, and you’ve probably been able to work out that I’m a bit, shall we say, older.  And while I haven’t had the most interesting technogeek career or anything, I’ve had my fair share of interesting jobs throughout the roughly three decades I’ve been at this.  And one of my favorites was working for ThnkGeek.

Now, I don’t want to get into whether ThinkGeek is still as cool these days as it used to be.2  But I don’t think there can be much argument that it was the height of cool back in the day.  And, just to be clear, I’m not trying to take any credit for that: it was already plenty cool when I got there, and that’s primarily thanks to the four founders,3 who put in the mental effort and sweat equity to make it so.  It was as a wonderful a place to work as it was a wonderful place to shop, and I loved almost all of my time there.  And, while I’m not making any claim that I made any major contributions to the great and storied history of ThinkGeek, there are a couple of things I could brag about.  You know, if I were so inclined.

You probably already know that the creature most in charge of ThinkGeek is a monkey named Timmy.  And you may know (or at least suspect) that a geek-centered company like TG gets all sorts of wacky emails from customers.  And I bet you can easily guess that wacky customer emails often get forwarded around so that all the employees can share in the wackiness.  At some point, I started “responding” to some of these emails (internally only, of course!) as Timmy.  This was strictly to entertain my fellow employees, and, at that time, there were few enough of those that I knew them all personally and knew what they would find amusing.4  After a few rounds of that, somebody came up with the bright idea to turn this into something we could put on the website.5  I always referred to it as “Ask Timmy”—still do, whenever I talk about it—but I guess it was technically called “Dear Timmy” on the site.6  It didn’t last long: I did 7 installments of the column over the course of perhaps a year.  Somebody else picked the questions, and I answered them, using the “voice” of Timmy.  Timmy was wise and knew just about everything, and he was always right, even when he was wrong.  Since it was pretty much a marketing tool, I did take a few opportunities in there to do some product placement, but mainly I was just having fun.  Let me give you a taste:

Dear Timmy,

I was watching Star Wars the other night, and began to wonder something. Stormtroopers are clones of Jango Fett. Boba Fett is also a clone of him. Given that, why is it that stormtroopers can’t manage to hit anything when they shoot, but Boba can?

Woodend, Victoria, Australia, Earth

Dear Mat,

This is simply a case of good-guy-physics vs. bad-guy-physics. Good guys always hit what they aim at, often with a minimum number of shots, and bad guys can’t hit the broad side of a barn (particularly if the barn contains good guys). To demonstrate the truth of this, take a look at Attack of the Clones. In this movie, the stormtroopers are good guys, and they hit large quantities of Count Dooku’s allies. Once they have been co-opted by Sidious and Vader, however, they immediately begin to suck, and by the time they get around to chasing Luke and Han down the corridors of the Deathstar, they regularly have difficulty hitting the walls.

Now, Boba Fett is a different case, which requires the application of an entirely separate branch of bad-guy-physics. This branch is roughly equivalent to fluid dynamics in that chaos theory is a factor. Bad guys who have proper names can sometimes hit what they aim at, depending on complex laws governed by butterfly wings in China, which side of a paleobotanist’s hand a drop of water will roll down, and most importantly, the desired plot outcome. Just as apparently random events can be mapped to form beautiful patterns known as fractals, the hit ratio of bad guys with proper names will, when viewed from far enough away, form a pattern (in this case, George Lucas’ scripts, which may or may not be considered a beautiful thing, depending on your age at the time Episode IV was released and how you feel about Jar Jar Binks).

As an interesting side note, the Star Wars movies demonstrate several other principles of bad-guy-physics, including the Law of Conservation of Evil (which is why one Sith Lord always has to die before you can get another one), and temporal anomalies (cf. Han Shot First).

Hope that clears it up!

    — Timmy

So, it was a lot of fun, and I probably would have kept on doing it for a while if I hadn’t left the company.  Of all the geeky things I’ve done, this may be the one I’m proudest of.

The column archive is no longer on the ThinkGeek site, but, since the Internet is forever, you can find all the old Ask Timmy installments on the Wayback Machine.  So hop on over and read the rest of the columns ... hopefully you’ll enjoy reading them as much as I did writing them.


1 Honestly, I’m not sure why.  Normally I don’t care that much.  But I’m feeling generous today.  Or something.

2 Although I have a definite opinion about that.

3 That would be Willie, Jen, Scott, and Jon.

4 Which I suppose is my way of saying, don’t try this at home kids, especially if your company has more than a couple dozen employees.  Nobody likes that guy who hits reply-all on the company emails and spams a few hundred people, no matter how funny they think they are.

5 Probably Willie.  He was TG’s primary idea machine at the time.

6 Again, I blame Willie.  But then again I blame Willie like Matt Stone and Trey Parker blame Canada.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Salsatic Vibrato VI

"Dinner at Seven, Martinis at Five"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.  You may also want to check out the first volume in this multi-volume mix for more info on its theme.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

When I wrote about Salsatic Vibrato I, I wrote that it was my number two mix in terms of number of tracks, although it was only 4 songs shy of the leader (Smokelit Flashback).  Since that time, the two mixes have been neck-and-neck, one pulling slightly ahead for a while, only to fall slightly behind for a while after that.  But lately Salsatic Vibrato has surged into the lead, beating the original by 50-some-odd tracks, with 6 volumes more or less completed and a 7th perhaps 75% done, while Somkelit Flashback’s 6th is only around half done, and its “7th” is just a disconnected collection of randomly jumbled songs.  And so it is that Salsatic Vibrato is the first of my mixes to achieve a 6th blog post.  And here you are to read it.

This outing is a pretty solid offering, if I do say so myself, with no repeated artists at all,1 and, among the 22 tracks, 5 are from from old standards, 10 are returning artists that are slighly less heard-from, and 7 are brand new.  That’s a decent ratio for a volume VI.

Only one band has appeared on every preceding volume: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and of course they’re back now.  “I Like It” is a happy little tune, typical of BBVD.  There are also 3 bands who have shown up on 4 of the 5 previous volumes, and 2 of them are back after being missing in action last volume.  Squirrel Nut Zippers tell us that what was “Good Enough for Granddad” is good enough for us, and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies tell us about their “Uncle Ray,” a song with a honky-tonk vibe which skirts dangerously to country, but never quite crosses the line.2

The third artist to solidify a 5-out-of-6 score is our old friend Lou Bega.  Now, Bega is often accused of having all his songs sound alike, and I will freely admit that the selection here is awfully similar to his mega-hit “Mambo No. 5.”3  But there are a few things worth noting here.  Firstly, the man is a self-styled mambo king, and there’s only so much variation you can achieve and still be singing mambo.  Secondly, even given all that, the album does have more diversity than Bega is generally given credit for: sure, several of the songs sound alike, but many of them show a lot more variety (as previous volumes have shown, I think).  Thirdly, I find it odd to accuse a man of too much sameness when he’s one of the two artists I think of as a one-person diversity committee:4 he’s a half-Italian, half-Ugandan performer of Latin music who first achieved fame in Germany singing in English.  But, finally, the most important point of all is that, if your one song is as good as Lou Bega’s is, you can sing it as many different ways as you damned well please.  And, in the end, “1+1=2” is just as awesome as “Mambo No. 5” regardless of how similar they sound.

Our final track from an artist who’s been with us from the beginning is from the Brian Setzer Orchestra, who did miss two of the previous volumes,5 but they still should be considered standards here.  “Gimme Some Rhythm Daddy” is from the BSO’s 8th studio album, which is the first not to include any covers at all.  I wish I could say that was a good thing, but I’m not sure it is ... “Gimme Some Rhythm Daddy” is probably the least silly song on the album, and even it has a few cringe-worthy moments.  But it’s a lovely, upbeat duet between Setzer and his wife, Julie Reiten, so I forgive it its trespasses.

The Atomic Fireballs have only been on 2 previous volumes, starting with volume III, and providing two songs for volume IV, including the closer.  They’re doing that for us again, with lead singer John Bunkley advising that we wash our “Caviar & Chitlins” down with scotch in his appropriately whiskey-soaked voice, which seems like good advice, if one were so inclined to mix the two.6  Likewise our old pals Reel Big Fish were only on two earlier volumes, but they haven’t been seen since volume II.  They return here with “Beer,” which is about as downbeat as RBF ever get (which is to say: not very).  Although the lyrics are a bit moreso than the music, but still it’s a workable tune for this mix.

Making their third appearances are Royal Crown Revue—still not my favorite, but “Beware” is a pretty snappy tune—and Lisa Stansfield, once again off the Swing soundtrack.  This one—“Watch the Birdie”—is another cover,7 the original being sung by Martha Raye for the film version of Hellzapoppin’ in 1941, but probably more famously covered by Gene Krupa that same year.  Still a fairly obscure track, but Stansfield does it very well, giving it a sultriness that none of the earlier versions had.8  It sets the tone admirably as our volume opener.

In the “where have those guys been?” category, we get the long-awaited return of Seatbelts from volume I, with another instrumental off the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack; whereas in the “didn’t we just meet them?” category, both Brass Action and Mocean Worker are back from their debuts last volume.  The too-little-known ska greats from Vancouver give us “The Handyman,” who can fix anything, and the DJ-and-remixer spins us another instrumental track that tells us to “Do Like Ya Like.”  And, filling out the “hey, I remember those guys!” category, Caro Emerald and Kid Creole and the Coconuts are back from their single appearances on volume III.  The latter give us our primary jolt of salsa-inflected pop9 with a song that’s not quite as good as “The Lifeboat Party,” but is a fun little ride nonetheless.  (For instance, it surely must be the only song to feature “onomatopoeia” as a musical refrain.10)  Likewise, it’s tough to beat Emerald’s “That Man,” but “Riviera Life” gives it a damn good run for its money.  Seriously: if this track doesn’t have you bobbing your head and snapping your fingers along with it by the end of your second listen-through at the latest, then I would go get your joy-meter checked, because it’s probably malfunctioning.

Our centerpiece this time out is an electro-swing combo of returning artist Caravan Palace and fresh face F.M. Einheit, who give us the deliciously sublime “Princess Crocodile.”  Utilizing Danish vocalist (singing in English) Gry Bagøien, this former member of proto-industrial greats Einstürzende Neubauten has moved into various forms of electronica, including, apparently, electro-swing, where he’s doing quite well, at least judging from this track.  That segues neatly into the decidedly not-electro low baritone of Leon Redbone, which I remember fondly from my misspent youth watching Saturday Night Live.  Most of Redbone’s œuvre is too old-fashioned for my tastes, but I’ve always had a soft spot for “Te Na Na,” so I dug it out and threw it in here.  For some reason it seems to flow beautifully off of Einheit, although they couldn’t be more different musically speaking.

After Redbone we hit a couple of the more obscure retro-swing bands: the Mighty Blue Kings,11 and Indigo Swing.12  Neither are anything to write home about in my opinion, but nearly every band is going to have one or two great songs, and these two are no exception.  “In the Night” is a slinky tune that celebrates night life in a way that I particularly appreciate, and “Drinkin’ It Up” is a smooth glass of something shaken, not stirred, and it also provides our volume title this time around.

Salsatic Vibrato VI
    [Dinner at Seven, Martinis at Five]

        “Watch the Birdie” by Lisa Stansfield, off Swing [Soundtrack]
        “Too Good Too Bad” by The Seatbelts, off Cowboy Bebop [Soundtrack]
        “I Like It” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off Save My Soul
        “Good Enough for Granddad” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off The Inevitable
        “1+1=2” by Lou Bega, off A Little Bit of Mambo
        “Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy” by Kid Creole and the Coconuts [Single]
        “Riviera Life” by Caro Emerald, off Deleted Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor
        “The Handyman” by The Brass Action, off Making Waves
        “Dramophone” by Caravan Palace, off Panic
        “Princess Crocodile” by F.M. Einheit [Single]
        “(Mama's Got a Baby Named) Te Na Na” by Leon Redbone [Single]
        “In the Night” by Mighty Blue Kings, off Meet Me in Uptown
        “Drinkin' It Up” by Indigo Swing, off All Aboard!
        “Beware” by Royal Crown Revue, off Walk on Fire
        “Subway Hustler” by Smokey Bandits, off Debut
        “Eat You” by Caravan of Thieves, off The Funhouse
        “Beer” by Reel Big Fish, off Turn the Radio Off
        “Everything Went Numb” by Streetlight Manifesto, off Everything Goes Numb
        “Gimme Some Rhythm Daddy” by The Brian Setzer Orchestra, off Songs from Lonely Avenue
        “Uncle Ray” by Cherry Poppin' Daddies, off Soul Caddy
        “Do Like Ya Like” by Mocean Worker, off Candygram for Mowo!
        “Caviar & Chitlins” by The Atomic Fireballs, off Torch This Place
Total:  22 tracks,  73:43

Making their debut here are Smokey Bandits, whom we so far have seen only on Shadowfall Equinox.13  “Subway Hustler” showcases their more upbeat side: this instrumental starts out slow, but then settles into a groove with a complex drum rhythm underlying an interesting point-counterpoint between xylophone and trumpet.

And, finally, in the category of never-before-seen-here-or-anywhere-else (at least as far as my mixes go), we have two new bands.  The first is Streetlight Manifesto, which I discovered when I went looking to see if there were any really good ska bands that I’d missed.  I do this sometimes with various subgenres;14 it is in fact how I discovered the Might Blue Kings and Indigo Swing up above.  Like those bands for retro-swing, Streetlight Manifesto is not going to become my new favorite ska band or anything, but they’re quite well respected in hardcore ska circles, and they do have an occasional gem, such as “Everything Went Numb,” the almost-title-track off of their first album Everything Goes Numb.  The more interesting find, though, is Caravan of Thieves, the core of which is the husband-and-wife duo of Fuzz and Carrie Sangiovanni.  They describe their style as “gypsy-swing,” which, if it’s supposed to mean gypsy-jazz punched up with the slightly higher energy of swing, is a pretty apropos description.  I think this may well be the first song allowed on this mix without trumpet, saxopohne, trombone or clarinet (unless Caravan Palace snuck something in on me when I wasn’t looking), but listen to it and I think you’ll agree it fits right in here.

Next time around, it’s finally time to take a look at the first ever pre-modern mix.

Salsatic Vibrato VII


1 Only the second time I’ve managed that for this mix—the last time was Salsatic Vibrato III.

2 At least for me.  Your mileage may vary, of course.

3 A co-worker remarked on hearing this track that he supposed it wasn’t really ripping it off if you were only copying yourself.

4 The other is Azam Ali, who we shall meet properly in the fullness of time.

5 Specifically, volumes II and V.

6 I think what I love most about this song is Bunkley’s absolute commitment to the scotch.  He first rhymes it with lunch, which is a bit of a stretch, but then even when he needs a rhyme for things that sound absolutely nothing like “scotch”—like, “all day”—he’s still washing it down with scotch.  That’s dedication for you.

7 Although we’ve seen a Stansfield original off that soundtrack as well, over on Slithy Toves.

8 Raye’s original was solidly comedic, and Anita O’Day, singing with Krupa, didn’t stray far from that template (likely because Raye was admittedly her primary vocal influence, at last according to Wikipedia).

9 See, I told you we’d bring that back.

10 Note that the “misheard lyrics” site swears this line is actually “I don’t want to be your.”  I’m afraid I must call shenanigans on that.

11 Whom I’m pretty sure I discovered via the same retro-swing fan whose page introduced me to Swingerhead, as discussed back on volume II.

12 Whom I have no clue whatsoever how I discovered.

13 Specifically, on volumes II and IV.

14 As we’ll see in our next installment with electro-swing.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Heart Breaking

In our last heart condition update, I said that the pediatric cardiologist for our middle child, now 11 and still occasionally known as the Smaller Animal despite the arrival of his little sister,1 had told us it was time to start talking to cardiac surgeons.  And we have done that.  We interviewed the top cardiac catheterization guy in our area (and possibly the entire country), who told us that the state of cardiac catheterization today wasn’t sufficient to help us now,2 and we attempted to interview one of the top cardiac surgeons in our area who works on both adults and children, who didn’t tell us much because the scheduling was handled so poorly that we barely had 5 minutes to speak to him, and we interviewed the top expert on the Ross procedure in our area (and possibly the country—he famously performed this operation on Arnold Schwarzenegger, in fact), who told us that our Smaller Animal will be having surgery on November 6th of this year.

He told us a lot of other stuff too.  He said that the surgery would take around 4 hours and that the Smaller Animal would probably only spend a single night in the ICU.  He would spend another 3 – 4 nights in the hospital and hopefully be home by the weekend.  He said there would be minimal restrictions on our son’s behavior after that point: stairs would be fine, just no fighting with his siblings.3  The doctor assured us that his sternum would heal quickly ... you know, after they split it open to expose his heart.  He told us that the chance of serious complication from the surgery was around 1%, and the chance of brain damage from being on the cardiopulmonary bypass pump (a.k.a. the “heart-lung machine”) was less than that.  He didn’t mention the chance of getting HIV from the blood transfusion, or developing hemolytic transfusion reaction—that’s when your body rejects the alien blood—but we were thoughtfully provided with a nice scary contract to sign outlining all those latter possibilities.  Oh, and let’s not forget the chance of contracting hepatitis, which, quite frankly, is not sounding so bad in all that company.

There was more discussion, of course.  We talked about cadaveric valve vs pig valve vs mechanical valve (cadaveric is the right answer, apparently: pig valves don’t come with sufficient conduit, making them harder to attach, and mechanical valves are out because no one wants to put an 11-year-old on blood thinners for the rest of his life), and we talked about eventual re-replacement of the pulmonary valve replacement, because it can’t last forever (hopefully that’s when the catheterization guy comes into it, to avoid any future surgeries), and we probably talked about more stuff that I can’t really remember right now.  Because, you know, they’re going to cut open my boy.  They’re going slice open his skin, and break his breastbone, and suck out all his blood into a machine, and then cut open his heart and root around in there, swapping bits and pieces and eventually sticking in a stray bit from a dead person.  As I said last time, I often try to focus on the medical minutiæ, the mechanics of it, the technical terms, which I mostly understand and am comfortable with.  But, in the end, that’s what it really comes down to—they’re going to disassemble my child, and there’s a very good chance that they’ll be able to put him back together again, but there are no guarantees.  And I tell myself there are no guarantees in life for anything ... that he might be struck by a drunk driver while walking to 7-11 to get slurpees with his siblings, or he might get sucked out by a wave when at the beach one day, or he might contract a random virus that his body just can’t fight off, especially given that he’s starting from a cardiac deficit.  But none of that makes this any less terrifying, as it turns out.

I find myself getting caught unawares by it at odd times.  I was very successful at saying “I refuse to worry about this until we know for sure it’s going to happen,” and I don’t regret doing that at all.  But now it’s time to worry about it.  And of course worrying is useless: it doesn’t do any good and it ratchets up the stress level, which is actively doing harm.  But I used up all my ability to postpone the worry, and now it just sneaks up on me and pounces, apropos of nothing.  I’ll be thinking about something else entirely—financial stuff, or work stuff, or dealing with pets, or everyday chores—and I suddenly gasp, and I can’t breathe.  Just for a second, mind you.  Just for a second, my chest is tight, and I have that sense of unbounded panic, that “oh fuck” feeling that you get when you car starts to drift off the road or your boss sits you down and begins the “we have to let you go” talk or some family member starts telling you that one of your grandparents has died or the vet comes back to the waiting room and says there’s nothing to be done.  Then it’s gone, as quickly as it came, and I can breathe again, and it’s fine, I can deal with this, I just have to focus on one day at a time and one foot in front of the other and taking it as it comes, but that sneaky little fuck is still off in the shadows and it’s snickering at me softly, because it knows it’s just going to wait until I’ve forgotten all about it and then it will pounce again ...

I had to call my mother, of course, to tell her what the doctor said.4  I called her from the car on the way home.  This is my mother the nurse, so I had to regurgitate all the medical details for her.  When I got to the part about the 1% chance of serious complications or whatever it was, I said something along the lines of “so that’s pretty good, I guess.”  From the back seat, the Smaller Animal corrected me.

“That’s amazing!” he pointed out.  “That means only one chance in a hundred.”

That’s what he got out the whole conversation.  It’s often hard to tell what he’s thinking; he has a very “still waters run deep” personality.  We’ve never tried to “shield” him from information about his condition, never tried to send him out of the room when it came time to discuss what the doctors want to do to him.  After all, he has more right to know what’s going on than anyone else—it’s his body.  We’ll need to talk more, obviously (and the CHLA5 team has “child life specialists” that will help us find the right words to use), but so far I’m hopeful that he’s actually dealing with it well and not just suppressing it.  I could be wrong.  You never know what’s going on in the mind of another person, even one that you know as well as your own child.  But the way he jumped in and corrected me—not merely “good,” but “amazing”—gives me some hope.

And I guess it is amazing.  Only one chance in a hundred that literally ripping someone’s heart open and rearranging its insides goes horribly wrong ... think of what that chance would have been a hundred years ago.  Or even fifty.  It’s pretty miraculous, if you think about it.  In terms of raw numbers.  But, see, here’s the thing: my boy is not a number.  He’s ... my boy.  I’d really prefer the odds to be closer to one chance in a thousand, and even then I’d wish for better odds if I could get ’em.

But I can’t get ’em.  These are the best odds I’m gonna get.  And, really, we’re damned lucky to be getting one of the top guys in the country to operate on my son.  I’m nobody, you know.  And yet my kid is getting the same doctor that Arnold Schwarzenegger got.  Can’t really complain about that.

And I’m not complaining.  I’m just ... nervous.  And I suppose I will continue to be for about 10 more weeks.  And then ... then we’ll see.


1 Which is over 5 years ago, by this point.

2 Although he will very likely be the fellow who does any follow-up valve replacement after the inital Ross procedure.  See the last update for what a Ross procedure is, or just ask Wikipedia.

3 To which our replies were “yeah, right.”  The nurse practitioner assured us they could still argue.

4 The Mother is lucky; she just sent out a family-wide text and notified everyone on her side in one fell swoop.  My family is, shall we say, technologically challenged.  So I had to actually speak to my mother in person.

5 That’s Children’s Hopsital of Los Angeles.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

If I Were Talking with Chris Hardwick

I used to hate “talk shows” when I was younger.  I still do hate most of them.  But more and more I find that I enjoy watching certain people ask questions of people that I know the work of (be that musical, cinematic, or what-have-you).  I have some vague thoughts on why that is, which will perhaps become its own blog post one day.  Today, though, I wanted to chat briefly about one such certain person, mainly to use that as a springboard for a whole ‘nother topic.

This certain person is Chris Hardwick.  So far I’ve watched every episode of his new show, titled simply Talking with Chris Hardwick.  I didn’t actually expect to enjoy it, but I figured, I loved @midnight, and I enjoyed Talking Dead (and the far more occasional Talking Preacher), so why not give it a try?  And I’ve actually liked it quite a lot.

This has a huge amount to do with the fact that it’s Chris Hardwick asking questions.  I enjoyed Jon Stewart interviewing people, and I continue to enjoy Stephen Colbert doing the same.  Once upon a time I was really into Inside the Actor’s Studio with James Lipton, and I’ve even listened to quite a few episodes of Fresh Air with Terry Gross.  What all these people have in common is the ability to ask interesting questions, the sort of questions that you wish you’d asked.  Often the sort of questions that you didn’t even know you wanted to know the answer to before it was spoken aloud, but now that it has been you’re really desperate to hear the response.  And they’re all interesting people themselves, people who can interject their own stories without taking over the conversation, which is a tricky thing to manage.  An interviewer who talks about themself too much instead of letting the guest talk is annoying, but an interviewer who just asks question after question without throwing in their own 2¢ every now and again is boring.  It’s a delicate balance, and these are the folks who get it right, at least for me.

One thing that Hardwick does that reminds me (fondly) of Lipton is that he ends each interview with the same format.  In Lipton’s case, it was the long-form Proust Questionnaire.  Hardwick takes a simpler approach, and just asks a single question: what’s one piece of advice that has always inspired or helped you, that you might want to pass on to other people?  He rearranges the wording every show, but that’s the gist of the question, and I think it’s a good one.  His guests have had some interesting answers.

And, to once again quote Bill Cosby,1 I told you that story so I could tell you this one.

Sometimes when I watch or listen to one of these shows, I imagine how I might answer the interviewer’s questions.  I’ve come up with answers to Lipton’s whole list, at various times.2  So, the other day, after watching eleven episodes of Talking, I started to wonder what my answer to this question would be.

Of course, I couldn’t have a simple one-line answer.  Like everything I write, or say, or think, the full answer is more complex.  But, if I had to boil it down to a one-liner, it would be this:

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.

Now, this is generally attributed to Confucius, but that’s mainly because all quotes in the history of man were either spoken by Confucius, Voltaire, or Mark Twain, and which one your quote was spoken by only depends on how old you’d like to pretend it is.3  But it doesn’t really matter who said it; it’s a pretty little nugget of wisdom regardless.

It reminds me of something I read on Bruce Campbell’s website.  Now, if you visit his site today,4 it’s all slick and commercial and bleaugh.  But once upon a time it was all dorky and stripped down and black and white and blue, mostly consisting of big walls of text and looking like he slapped it together himself.  (Which I suspect he did.  For the record, Mr. Campbell, I liked it better before.)  But it had some cool shit on it.  Like this quote, which I immediately stole for my quote file:

I just love acting.  I can never understand why more people don’t make their hobby into a career.  Sure, it’s unpredictable, but no job is 100% secure these days anyway.

    — Bruce Campbell

Ain’t that the truth.  And it perfecty dovetails with my personal experience: I ran my own company for years, and it was not always fun, and it was never easy, but I loved it.  I loved what I did, and I loved all the people I did it with,5 and I loved being able to set my own schedule, and I loved being able to say “no” to work if it offended my sensibilities, or if the customer skeeved me out, or whatever.  I loved being the conduit for other people coming to work every day and loving it.  I loved being in charge when I wanted to be and making other people be in charge when I didn’t.  And, even after I stopped running my own company and went to work for someone else, I still loved it.  I’ve had pretty decent luck picking great companies who respected me and trusted me and gave me freedom,6 and I tell computers what to do for a living, which I find to be creative and satisfying.  I love my job, and I think I’ve had success and happiness because of it.

But it also occurred to me to contrast the Bruce Campbell quote with another quote from another screen star—in this case, Mike Rowe, famously of Dirty Jobs.  And here’s what he had to say on this topic:

The idea that there’s a perfect job is really comforting ... but dangerous, in the same way that there’s a perfect soulmate. The guys I met on Dirty Jobs, and the women, by and large, were living proof that the first thing to do is to look around and see where everybody else is headed, and then go in the other direction. The second thing to do is embrace the thing that scares you, frightens you, or otherwise makes you blanch. The third thing to do is to become really really good at that thing. And then the final thing, the thing that makes really happy people happy, is to figure out a way to love it.

    — Mike Rowe, Ask Me Another, 5/20/2016

Now, I have to tell you that, at first, I hated this quote.  It seems to be saying the exact opposite of what the Bruce Campbell quote was saying.  Instead of “follow your passion and turn that into your career,” it says “find a career that nobody else wants and then learn to love it.”  That didn’t feel right to me ... at first.  But then I realized: it really is the same thing.  Either way you get there, you arrive at loving what you do.  In the end, does it really matter which route you took?

So I think this is the heart of the advice: love what you do.  Whether that means to take what you love and do it for a living, or whether it means to throw yourself into what you do so hard and so thoroughly that you come to love it, the point is that, when you love going to work every day, you’re a happier person.  When you dread it, it’s hard to be happy with everything else you have in life.  If your work makes you miserable, you’re going to be miserable, and also you’re going to make everyone around you miserable.  That’s no way to live.

But when you love what you do, every day is like a gift.  Oh, sure: you don’t always love every dayyou don’t always love every gift you get either.  There will be bad days among the good, sure.  Days when you come home and you’re just tired, and you don’t want to think about anything.  But those are the exceptions.  Most days, you get to work and you see a bunch of people that you like (or at least ones that you don’t mind tolerating for the bulk of your day), and you sit down at your desk (or whatever workstation your job demands), and you do something fun.  And even when it’s frustrating, or it pisses you off, or it makes your brain hurt, it’s still fun anyway.  And one day you wake up and realize it’s been years, and that you’re still happy, and then you think about what it might have been like if you’d just done a job all those years for nothing but a paycheck, and you’re glad you didn’t have to find that out.

So, Chris Hardwick: that’s my piece of advice, the thing that inspires me, that I think would be useful for other people.  Love what you do.  It’s always worked for me.


1 Who has become a much more controversial figure since the last time I used this quote.  To the point where some may say I should not continue to use it.  Obviously I’ve decided to do so anyway.  Not because I’m a Cosby apologist—on the contrary, I’m quite disgusted by the whole situation—but rather because I don’t believe that the bad that people do erases the good.

2 For the record: I’ve decided my favorite curse word is “fucksticks.”  But it’s a tough choice.

3 For an excellent breakdown of the possible origin and certain popularization of this quote, the excellent site Quote Investigator will hook you right up.

4 No, I won’t link you to it, as I didn’t the last time I mentioned his website in a footnote: see my open letter to Wil Wheaton.

5 I mean, of course I did: I hired ’em all.

6 Which you may recall is, according to me, the 3 things that employees want.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Multiclassing, Part 1: History of the Multiclasses (2nd edition)

I think it’s about high time I address a topic which is near and dear to my gaming heart: multiclassing.  There are many different angles to approach this topic from, and, as always, I choose all of them.  But we have to start somewehere, and I think it makes the most sense to start with the history of multiclassing in D&D.1

The early editions of D&D were fairly adamant about every player having exactly one class.  Because fighters always fight, and magic users always use magic, and nobody ever does both, in any fantasy story ever.  Yeah, early D&D players didn’t buy that either.  So the concept of having more than one class—multiclassing—was born.

We could start with 1st edition, but from what the Internet tells me, it’s not significantly different from 2nd ed; I personally have very limited experience with 1st edition—I’m sure nearly everything I did was wrong, and I certainly never got as far as trying any multiclassing anyway.  So let’s just jump directly into 2nd edition.

2e proper actually had 2 forms of multiclassing: one was actually called “multiclassing,” while the other was called “dual-classing.”  From the names, you might imagine that dual-classing was when you chose 2 classes, and multiclassing was when you chose more than 2; not so: multiclassing most commonly involved 2 classes (though it could involve more, in rare cases), and dual-classing involved as many damn classes as you liked (although admittedly it was more often 2 than any other number).  So what was the difference?  Well, we could talk about the distinction that one was only for humans and the other was only for non-humans, but I don’t think that’s particularly productive.  Now, I don’t want to get into whether or not limiting things to humans or non-humans is a good idea or not—we’ll talk about whether and to what extent applying limits on multiclassing is a good idea in a future installment.  For now, I’m interested in the mechanics of how muliticlassing worked when it was allowed and not so much why and when it wasn’t.

So the more interesting distinction is that multiclassing was something you picked at the beginning of your career.  If you wanted to be a fighter/thief, for instance, you chose to be a fighter/thief at level 1, and you were a fighter/thief forever.  Which, if you think about it, is a strangely inflexible way of providing more flexibility than you could get with a single-classed character.  Dual-classing was a bit better, but also somewhat inflexible.  You could change your mind about your class after level 1, but you did so by abandoning your original class entirely and choosing a new class.  So still not really ideal.

The nice thing about multiclassing was that the way experience progressions worked made it so multiclassed characters were never too far behind their single-classed brethren.  So a figher/thief had to divide all their experience in half, true—with half going to advance their fighter class and the other half going to the thief class—while a fighter got to put all their experience into the one class.  So the fighter gets to level 2 first, well before the fighter/thief gets to 1/2, much less 2/2.2  But the fighter/thief would get to 2/2 just before the fighter hit 3, because of the exponential increase of XP required per level.3  So the multiclassed character with 2 classes was only ever a level behind his single-classed compatriots.  If you were crazy enough to try a triple multiclassed character (such as fighter/mage/thief), then you might end up 2 levels behind part of the time.  But still, that wasn’t so bad.

Dual-classed was way more complicated.  Once you switched from one class to another, you kept all your old hit points, but you weren’t allowed to use any of the other class features, either at all (early versions), or you could use a feature, but then you lost all your experience points for that session (later versions).  This went on until your new class level exceeded your old class level, at which point you could start using the features of both classes.  But of course remember that those first few levels require much fewer XP to level up.  So, to take another example, let’s say you started out as a fighter and got to level 4, at which point you decided you were going to switch over to being a thief.  To get to level 5 of fighter, you’d need 8,000 more XP (on top of the 8,000 you already had).  But those 8,000 XP is also enough to get you 4+ levels of thief, so while the rest of your party is hitting 5th level, you, once again, are 4/4, only 1 level behind everyone else.  And, once you get just 2,000 XP ahead of everyone else, you hit 4/5 and now you can do all the fighter things and all the thief things, and then you’re really set.

So the good is that you can multiclass, and that your multiclass character stays fairly viable throughout all of its career (if multiclassing) or most of its career (if dual-classing).  In fact, as far as effectiveness goes, multiclassing is pretty solid, regardless of what combo you use.  Dual-classing is more limited, in that not only are certain combination sub-par, but it depends on what order you do them in.  Starting out as a fighter and switching to mage, for instance, is a pretty workable plan.  But starting out as a mage and switching to fighter is just terrible.  Plus, since you can never go back and gain levels in the original class, you have to be very precise in the level you achieve before you switch over.  Adding a third (or more) class just complicates things, no matter which method you’re using.  And there’s the bad: multiclassing is hard.  It’s complicated, and difficult to predict whether it’ll work out, and may involve temporary stretches of suckiness.  But at least it’s possible.

Now, this history is primarily intended to be a history of the mechanics of multiclassing, but I want to diverge just a bit to talk about my personal history with multiclassing.  See, I was never too much into the 4 base classes: fighter, mage, cleric, thief.4  My earliest D&D PCs were druids and bards.5  So, in a sense, I was reaching for multiclassing even while I was single-classing.  And then Skills & Powers came out, which opened up your class options considerably.  For a while I became obsessed with creating the perfect blend of wizard and rogue;6  S&P gave me the opportunity to try it both as a wizard with some rogue skills and as a rogue with some wizard features.  It never quite jelled either way, but it was an interesting experiment.

S&P took nearly every possible class feature and assigned a point value to it.  It didn’t really turn D&D into a classless system ... but it could come close, if you were willing to house rule a little.  You could pick and choose your features from a smorgasbord of class choices, so you could effectively “multiclass” by just allowing one class to pick a few options off another class’s menu.7  The biggest problem with this was that the points you got for different classes weren’t particularly balanced against each other.  For instance, fighters got 15 points, while mages got 40.  Now, you could make an argument that fighters got a lot of non-class-feature bonuses—combat stats, saves, weapons and armor, hit points, etc.  However, that breaks down when you then throw thieves into the mix, because thieves received a whopping 80 points, even though they had better combat stats, weapon selection, and HP than mages for sure.8  The truth was that thieves just had an insane number of skills they needed to spend points on, and all features were a multiple of 5 points, and, if the designers had just assigned 5 points to all skills, then they wouldn’t have any way to make the statement that certain skills (e.g. pick pockets) were just plain better than other skills (e.g. detect noise).  So thieves needed a whole lot of points just to recreate the PHB class, while mages just needed 5 points per school they had access to, which, in the PHB was all eight of them, therefore 40 points.  You could somewhat work around this (as I gleefully did) by taking “disadvantages,” which traded (typically) roleplaying downsides for (nearly always) mechanical upsides.  This led to two of my favorite all-time D&D characters—Shan, the spell-dabbling thief who could only speak in a barely audible whisper, and a Vistani mage whose demon-blooded ancestry had left her with blue skin, red eyes, and an actual pointy tail,9 and therefore became really good at being stealthy—but obviously it had the potential for terrible abuse.

Directly after a few aborted attempts at campaigns using the Player’s Option books,10 which many folks called (in retrospect, at least) 2.5e, we strayed from D&D for a while.  I invented my own, completely classless system, using the character points from S&P as a jumping-off point, and both I and another member of our group ran campaigns using those rules.11  We had just about come to the conclusion that, while having a classless system sounded good on paper, in practice it left you with a paralyzing amount of choice and no structure to help you resolve it, when along came 3rd edition.

Next time, we’ll look at how 3e revolutionized the concept of multiclassing ... for better, and for worse.


1 Note: For this installment, I was obviously inspired by Brandes Stoddard’s excellent History of the Classes series, which you should absolutely read.

2 Remember that each class leveled up at different rates.  Thieves leveled up the fastest.

3 Specifically, a fighter needs 2,000 XP for 2nd level, and a thief needs 1,250.  So a fighter/thief hits 2/2 at 3,250, whereas fighter 3 takes 4,000.

4 Yes, yes, I know: “magic-user.”  I refuse.

5 Not the original bard, where you had to dual-class for aeons before you eventually got to be cool.  Rather the bard based on the Dragon Magazine article “A different bard, not quite so hard.”

6 No, not a bard!  This would be a totally different thing, which I have a tendency to refer to as a “nightblade.”  Since 2e, I’ve tried the nightblade as a 3e class and a Pathfinder class, and I’m thinking about trying it out as a 5e subclass, probably a rogue archetype, but possibly as a warlock ... something.  Warlocks are somewhat frustrating to design for, as they have a huge amount of fun design space to play in, but patrons are somewhat thematically limited and pact boons are extremely mechanically limited.  But I’m pretty sure I could get something to work in that space.

7 Again, I must stress that this was a house rule.  I don’t wish to accuse the writers of S&P of any more insanity than they actually perpetrated, which was already quite a bit.

8 You could debate saves.  Saves in 2e were super-funky, so they were nearly always debatable.

9 She was sort of an extreme version of a tiefling well before we had tieflings as a racial option.

10 In addition to Skills & Powers, there was Combat & Tactics and Spells & Magic, and we used ’em all.  We were starved for character-building options back in those days.

11 Obviously he tweaked some of my rules for his own purposes.  But I expected no less.