Archive for the ‘Navel Gazing’ Category


On a recent long car ride Jenn and I were discussing the fact that demand for physical toys have been in decline recently.  It would seem that in this digital age all the kids want is an iPad stocked full of video games, which as a video game developer is good news for me, but overall makes me kind of sad.  Many articles on this focus on the interactivity of video games over the static experience of re-enacting movie scenes with a licensed action figure.  Personally, I’d like to point out the problem of forcing everything to spawn from proven licensed material.  You’ll never really engage a child’s imagination with such a restrictive point of view.  Case in point, from my own childhood, consider the MUSCLE Men:


When I was a kid there were plenty of licensed action figure toys out there: GI Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, He-Man, Mad Balls, etc. But I very vividly remember the day my mom set me loose at a local flea market and I discovered a huge gallon zip-lock bag of MUSCLE Men for just a couple dollars. I’m sure the awesome value of getting hundreds of little guys for such a cheap price was a big part of why I bought them – I was never good at saving and thus rarely had much money to spend on bigger ticket items. But when I brought those little pink guys home I played with them quite a bit, imagining all kinds of crazy stories and backgrounds for them.

The thing with this toy is, you had to invent your own story, because there just wasn’t a pre-pacakge one supplied. Maybe if I dug I might find one, but at least Wikipedia tells me that only 2 of the original 236 figures even had names. And of course I didn’t even have the original packaging, I just had that one gallon ziplock bag.

With GI Joe or He-Man it was pretty well laid out who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. The TV shows, which were little more than toy commercials, gave all kinds of characteristics and stories for the figures. But these little pink men were just all over the map. One guy had a shark head, another had six arms, many vaguely resembled wrestlers, but many were just completely bizarre, and all of them were the same shade of eraser pink.

I wanted them grouped into teams, so I had to invent the teams. I wanted the teams to fight, so I had to invent why they didn’t like each other. There were so many of them I couldn’t just make two factions, there were easily a dozen factions. And when I put them away they all went back into that one big bag so the sorting and deciding “does the six armed guy with a helmet go in the weird limbs group or the wearing armor group” re-occurred over and over again.

Maybe I’m just showing myself as the crotetchedy old man I’ve become, but it seems to me that toys are in the decline because toys today suck. Kids have crazy inventive and bizarre imaginations, and their toys should engage that and let them exercise it. Sure, making an exact replica of the latest cartoon movie character will sell plenty of units, but will the kids play with it over and over again, or will they forget all about it once the next animated blockbuster comes out? I say, give them some weird little men with too many limbs and bombs for hands, and they’ll be entertained for weeks.


I have a strange love/hate relationship with kickstarter.  I love the creativity of the projects it produces, many of which I know would never have come to light without this kind of funding.  On the other hand, I continue to wait for the day when a huge kickstarter based scam is revealed — it seems only a matter of time.

The first project I ever funded on kickstarter was a set of geomorph dice.  It seemed a neat idea, fairly niche, and exactly the sort of thing kickstarter is well suited for.  I have in the past tried to produce things that are economical on a larger scale, but for the individual are impossible.  I’m looking at things like music tapes/CDs, t-shirts, etc.  The price for one custom piece is usually astronomical compared to how cheap they can be bought by the gross.  So it seemed very natural to use kickstarter to distribute the cost across a large group, and it worked just as planned.  Within a few weeks I had some pretty cool dice, which I still haven’t actually used for a game to this day.  But still, it did give me some confidence in kickstarter.

Next I backed two much more ambitious projects — Ogre and Dwimmermount, in May and April of 2012 respectively.  Both became these crazy drawn out projects.   Ogre trundled on, and gave regular updates, in fact, I just got update #147.  The good news is though, a week ago I actually got the end product.  I had long forgotten about why I even backed this crazy thing, but now I have this monstrous board game in my closet.  Hopefully some day I’ll play it.  Despite being a slow process, Ogre seems to be a real example of kickstarter success.

Dwimmermount, on the other hand, continues to struggle on.  Mired by the dramatic disappearance of its creator and quazi-celebrity blogger James Maliszewski, it is under new control and I get regular updates often indicating some small progress.  Will this thing every come to light?  Maybe.  Will I demand a refund?  No.  I didn’t really sink that much money into this thing, and I’m willing to gamble on maybe it’s being released some day.  Also I have fond memories of James’ old blog, and to some degree feel like my investing in his nebulous project is perhaps in some way a karmic pay-off for all the enjoyment I got out of his previous unpaid efforts.

Since then, I’ve been a bit more hesitant in using kickstarter.  I did invest in my friend Bob’s project, but perhaps there’s less risk when you feel like you could go bang on the guy’s door and demand to know where your book is.  Or maybe that’s a mean-spirited way of saying that good friendships are based on trust.  And then there was this kind of interesting looking WWI board game, which was canned within days of my backing it.  That thing didn’t last long enough for me to get nervous about it, so maybe however risky it seemed is moot since no money ever changed hands.

So there I was, with pretty mixed feelings about Kickstarter, when the HeroQuest 25th Anniversay Edition was announced.  I admit I’m a huge fan-boy when it comes to this game.  I have the original, and the later Warhammer Quest, carefully stowed in my closet.  I’ve written supporting software for the latter.  I will still play it with anyone that wants to play any time.  So yeah, naturally I backed this thing as soon as I heard of it.

Perhaps I should have done a little more research.  You’ll notice the above link doesn’t go to kickstarter, here’s the actual kickstarter link.  Not much there but a scary message saying “Heroquest 25th Anniversary (Canceled) is the subject of an intellectual property dispute and is currently unavailable.”  I suppose that’s not surprising given how jealously GW is known to protect their IP, and I’ve worked on a GW licensed product, I know this all too well.  Oddly though, it appears it’s not GW that’s complaining, it’s some other company I’ve never heard of.

In fact, the producers of the new project (Gamezone Miniatures) are a company I’ve never heard of.  They looked like a pretty solid miniature manufacturer at first, though perhaps not a local one.  The update emails I got about the project regularly had grammatical and spelling mistakes, which I assume is because they’re not native English speakers, but still didn’t fill me with confidence.  They talk about how they’re not an American company and thus don’t need to worry about American copyright issues, and yet they also talk about the injustice of being hit with the C&D on Thanksgiving, a uniquely American holiday.  (OK, yes, I know the Canadians have it too, but they celebrate it in October.)  And their website, now that I look at it, has some unfortunate holes in it — the about us section is especially sparse.

Now it appears they are abandoning kickstarter.  The kickstarter project is officially cancelled, and I’m told I won’t be charged any money.  Meanwhile, Gamzone has said on their website that they will move to another venue for their crowd funding.  Will I follow them?  No, not this time.  I’ll watch the project and if it releases in such a way that I can buy a copy, I will do so.  But I’m not risking money up front on this one.  It just smells a little too fishy for me.  And let’s be honest, do I need yet another clone of a game I love and already own?  Probably not.

And where does that leave me with kickstarter?  Pretty gun shy to be honest.  Granted, I have yet to lose money on anything that’s obviously never going to happen.  Only in one case have I paid money and still not seen any return, and that project does still have every appearance of being actively worked on.  But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.  I hope kickstarter is investing in a strong legal team, because I just can’t imagine that they won’t eventually be used as a vehicle for fraud, if they haven’t already.


A friend pointed me at this article, indicating that yes, it has happened that someone simply took the money and ran.  And the project was a board game no less:

401, k?

Let me start with this disclaimer: I am not an accountant, lawyer, or other financial expert.  Please do not interpret anything that follows as direct financial advice.  When in doubt, please seek professional advice.

So, I have a penchant for working for small or risky companies, which means I’ve had to change jobs fairly regularly.  In the past 13 years I’ve worked for six different companies, three of which collapsed while I was working there and two of which had the decency to remain in business for at least another year or two after I left.  Actually, one of those latter two existed for several more years and then was bought by a larger company, but was basically absorbed to the point of not really existing as an entity any more.

Pretty much every job I’ve had offered a 401k, of which I partook to the advice of my father, and well, pretty much the rest of the world.  In some job changes I thought to roll my old 401k into the new one, in others I did not.  By the time I reached 38 Studios I had a few different accounts trailing along.  I decided this was the time to be responsible and get my financial house in order.  I rolled everything into 38’s 401k.  Perhaps you can see where this horror story is going…

38 Studios went out of business in May.  It is now January, and our accounts are still frozen due to being audited as part of the bankruptcy proceedings.  The good news is that it appears all the money 38 was supposed to put in there is actually there.  The bad news is, I can’t touch it in any way, including all the money from previous jobs I rolled forward.

This has been a hot topic of debate on the Facebook ex-38 group.  And it’s on my mind because we’re actually starting to finally see some motion, though frankly until I can get access to my account I’m not holding my breath.  For me, it’s not too terrible given that I found another job, I don’t need access to that money right this very minute.  I know that for some who are still looking, access to that money would be a real life line.

What have I learned from this?  Well, if future companies offer a 401k with some form of matching, I’ll still partake, but there’s no way I’ll be rolling anything forward ever again.  Once I have access to the old account I’ll be looking into an IRA or other such personal account to move my money into.  Should I find myself switching jobs again the future, I’ll be sure to roll any old 401k into that personal account, not whatever it is the new company offers.

Here’s an amusing addendum.  That one company that lasted the longest and got bought rather than going out of business, which by the way I was sure would be the one to collapse in utter failure, they didn’t offer a 401k.  They had some weird “Simple IRA” thing instead.  When I rolled forward everything into 38 that one was somehow different to the point that it couldn’t be rolled forward.  There wasn’t very much money in it, and it was being charged annual fees, so I basically forgot about it.  I assumed it would eventually cannibalize itself from those fees, or I would bother to sit down and figure out how to cash out and just pay the awful taxes out of what little was left.  It just wasn’t enough money though for me to really give it much thought.  Turns out, it’s been a champ for the past five years, earning enough interest to actually go slightly up in value.  Now it’s my consolation prize — a few hundred dollars I can actually get access to if need be, or perhaps the seed to my future savings.  I’m going to let it sit until the 38 401k unfreezes, and then, well, then I’ll be looking for a financial adviser, because clearly I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.


So, if not thinking about and playing D&D, what am I doing with my free time these days?  Well, for starters, I spend a lot of time in the car.  On a good day, my commute is a little over an hour.  Actually in the middle of the night or a holiday that I don’t have off, it can be done in 50 minutes.  More typically it takes about 1:15, though much of it is on the Massachusetts Turnpike on which there are an alarming number of accidents, which in turn can bump my commute time up to an hour and a half.  Once it took me two hours.

One thing I’ve found that makes it endurable is audio books.  I ended up getting myself a subscription to Audible, despite my anti-DRM tendencies it seems they are the only really good source of audio books.  (Side note: a pretty good free alternative is Librivox, though it does take a bit more time to navigate and research to find stuff there you like.)  I listened to all the Game of Thrones books this way.  I’ve also listened to Tolkien, and several other one-off works of historical fiction.  Recently I’ve been listening to Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles.

The funny thing about listening to books rather than reading them is hearing character names spoken aloud.  I had no idea for a long time that George R. R. Martin used so many y’s and other odd spellings in his names.  In fact, I didn’t find out until in one of the books the reader started pronouncing one of the names differently: Petyr.  In the earlier books the reader pronounced it “Puh-tire”, then later reverted to the more traditional pronunciation of “Peter”.  Actually this highlights a personal pet peeve of mine — why on earth do so many fantasy writers feel the need to be overly clever with their names, and worse still choose names that are visually appealing without bothering to think about how people will say them out loud?  I understand that Robert E. Howard used to speak a lot of his work out loud while writing.  I think more writers could do with a dose of that.

So the same thing happened in the Rothfuss books I’ve been listening to.  A character in the first book named Devi was pronounced “Deh-vee” and in the second book is pronounced “Day-vee”.  Part of me really rebels against the latter due to it sounding like a guy’s name, specifically a common youthful shortening of the name David.  Ultimately though, I think that after listening to name spoken aloud for tens of hours, I simply get attached to it, and changing that just rubs me the wrong way.

I wouldn’t be surprised if in both cases it was a matter of the author not taking the time to review the audio work himself and being told by someone in the know afterwards that one of the names was pronounced incorrectly, and then that author correcting the recording company in future work.  I guess I understand where the author is coming from, but I kind of feel like once the mistake is made it’s better to just push forward and live with it than bull-headedly fix it.  Consider it this way — if you were watching a play or a TV show and one of the actors suddenly started pronouncing his name differently, wouldn’t that totally throw you?

Also, the better audio book readers make up voices and accents for particular characters.  I’ve never encountered a case where that changed.  I assume most authors simply chalk that up to the right of an actor to add interpretation to the part.  Can’t we simply allow that some readers might pronounce a name one way and others another and be OK with that?

Well, that’s what was spinning through my head on the way into work this morning.  Also, despite my best intentions to return to this blog regularly it’s been almost two weeks since my last post.  Hopefully though once I get back into the knack of posting regularly I will find something of more substance to write about.

Happy New Year

New year’s resolution #1 — stop ignoring this blog.

OK, so, it’s been a long while.  Let’s catch up:  Things got pretty bumpy in the wake of the collapse of 38 Studios.  My weekly game limped along for a little while.  Actually, it was fairly strong initially as we were all laid off and had a surplus of free time.  Nobody seemed to mind schlepping on out to my house for our weekly game.  Slowly though jobs were obtained and moves started happening.  Several members were lost to the lure of the west coast, and others simply couldn’t make the drive out to my place happen week after week.

I myself got a new job at Subatomic Studios, which has been great, though the only downside being that it’s a significant commute.  Over an hour on a good day, thank goodness for flexible hours or it would much worse.  Still, some days I stay a bit later than I expect and can face an hour and a half to two hours to get home.  It’s not fun.  The new job is closer to my wife’s job though, so there’s no reason not to move.  We put the house up for sale in early September, and took it back off at the end of November.  We’re waiting now for the spring, hoping a re-listing after the winter will get us out of here.

I’ve run a few games for folks at the new office, which were much better received than I expected.  In fact, I regularly get asked when I’ll do it again.  Unfortunately due to the horrible commute a regular office game just isn’t in the cards for me right now.  Yet another reason to eagerly look forward to a move.  Honestly, it feels like a whole lot of things are on hold until that move happens, which in turn makes it difficult to motivate myself to start up anything new.

I did try a grand experiment of playing online.  For the last campaign I started a google group to organize play time, and as players left and new ones joined, nobody ever left the email list.  I would think if you weren’t playing you’d want to stop getting annoying emails about who is coming or who wants to order pizza, and yet whenever I asked a former member they always claimed to want to remain on the list.  I guess it made them feel like they were still connected in some small way to the game.  As such, when the home campaign finally halted completely, I was left with an online group of almost 20 former players.  This seemed to me like a great potential for forming a west marches style game.  We could play entirely online using G+, which I’ve had success with in the past, and I though the players would have the extra motivation of scheduling games simply to catch up with old friends that moved away if not to also play some D&D.

That game limped along for a few weeks, but it seemed we always had trouble gathering enough players.  There were one or two highly motivated players, but it just never seemed to gather up the required steam.  I think we were missing one major element from Ben’s post, the idea of a shared experience via game summaries and chatter.  Here’s a quote from his original article:

What started off as humble anecdotes evolved into elaborate game summaries, detailed stories written by the players recounting each adventure (or misadventure). Instead of just sharing information and documenting discoveries (“we found ancient standing stones north of the Golden Hills”), game summaries turned into tributes to really great (and some really tragic) game sessions, and eventually became a creative outlet in their own right. Players enjoyed writing them and players enjoyed reading them, which kept players thinking about the game even when they weren’t playing.

Ultimately, I’ve now seen several failed attempts at west marches style play.  I suspect it’s simply a case of requiring the right people at the right time.  I think it’s similar to the experience I had participating in a round-robin GM game back in the day.  It was such a successful game that I tried to reproduce the magic with several other groups, and yet it never managed to catch like that first game.  Again, I suspect our success was just a case of the right group of people at the right time.

Finally, let’s talk about conventions.  My last posts before this one was GenCon.  Unfortunately that trip happened very soon after getting hired by Subatomic, which meant that my vacation time was quickly in the negatives.  So much so that when going over plans on what to do with my vacation time this coming year I realized very quickly I’d have to make a cut, and that cut ended up being TotalCon.  It took a while for me to come to that conclusion, enough such that I missed the deadline for registering any games.  It’s a close enough convention that I could still do a day-trip or even two when it comes around, but I’ve done so little preparing for it that there’s no way it won’t feel like a shadow of the experience from past years.  Still, I expect by the time it comes around I’ll convince myself to drive down at least for the day on Saturday.

HelgaCon, however, I refuse to sacrifice.  January is usually the time I start preparing for that, so I guess I better get on that pretty soon.  January is also the time GenCon badge registration opens, and my darling wife seems pretty adamant that we go again.  Honestly, after that one year we decided not to go and then regretted it horribly come the summer, I think it would be pretty hard to intentionally skip it again.

So what will 2013 hold for me gaming wise?  Honestly, the outlook is a little muddy right now.  A lot may depend on how this whole house selling thing goes.  It’s possible the online game will manage to pull itself back together (I suspect there’s at least one player that won’t let it go down without a fight).  Two former players from 38 actually both work with me here at Subatomic, so I’m pretty sure once the move happens a new weekly game will come together.  It’s just the waiting that’s so painful.

I do have some other upcoming news that’s quazi-game related to share, but this post is getting long so it’ll have to wait.  I know, terrible to tease you like that, but I’m hoping if I leave some threads dangling it’ll force me to remember to come back and post more often.  I suppose with my weekly games in the shambles they are right now you should probably prepare for more posts that aren’t exactly D&D related.  Hopefully we’ll get things back on track soon though, and next year I can look back and say that yes, 2013 really was the come-back year.

My Last Day

As many of you know I worked at 38 Studios.  The dearth of posts to this site can be pretty much directly attributed to the collapse of that company and my having to deal with all fallout.  I won’t go into the details, suffice it to say that I wish job hunting was the only thing I was dealing with right now.  For those who have no clue what I’m talking about, here’s about the most even keeled article I can find.

OK, actually, I will go into one very specific personal detail which is the point of this post: my last day.  On Wednesday, May 23rd, things were looking pretty bad.  We weren’t laid off yet, but we knew that was the direction things were headed.  We were told the next day, Thursday the 24th, would not be a work day and there was no reason to come into the office.  Many did anyway.

Me, I did not.  Actually, I planned on coming in late in the evening to pick up boxes of things I had packed in preparation for the worst.  But I spent the day at home working on a miniature painting project.

You see, a while ago I had bought some centaur miniatures with the idea of eventually building a little diorama for Curt.  He’s a big centaur fan, and their use in our game was something of a running joke.  I really do believe in what that article I linked above has to say about Curt, I don’t blame him personally for any of the crap that went down.  He’s passionate, optimistic, and generally just a really nice guy.  And he looked out for us gamers in the office, more than any boss I’d ever had.

He bought us a huge pile of dwarven forge stuff for our games.  He also bought two beautiful tables from Geek Chic for the game room in the office, one of them a Sultan, both emblazoned with 38 logos.  They were fantatsic.  And no, he did not spend company money on this stuff, all this was right out of his own pocket.

So, on my last day, knowing I wasn’t going to have another chance, I built that diorama.  It wasn’t quite as extravagant as I had originally planned.  If anything, I’d say I’m a little disappointed in how flat it looks.  But what the heck, I only had a day to complete it.  Around 4:00 PM I got the email that said I was laid off.  By 7:00 PM I was in Curt’s office handing over the gift I made him.

I did learn one important lesson about hand-made presents from the books I made for Tim Kask and Frank Mentzer: take photos.  I love giving hand-made stuff as gifts, but it’s disappointing to not have some nice photos to look back at and remember the projects you worked on.  So that’s what I did this time, I took lots of pictures before I brought it down to RI.

I’m posting them here, mostly so I can have a URL to send to former coworkers to check it out.  There are some references in it that probably only ex-38 folks would get.  To those outside, it probably won’t make much sense.  Feel free to speculate if you like, I will not comment on it.

News Worth Reporting

My company has been in the news a lot recently, for all the wrong reasons.  Here’s something worth talking about:

On Themes of Exploration

James M. posted an old ad from Dragon Magazine in a recent post, and in discussing it said:

There were all these ads for games I never saw in the stores … which suggested to me that the hobby really was much bigger and more diverse than the small part of it I knew in suburban Baltimore.

Now, James entered the hobby a good 5 years earlier than I did, and by the time I was really getting into it (late 80’s, into the early 90’s) my only recourse for gaming related material was the couple sad shelves in the back of a comic book shop.  There were plenty such shops, they all had the same couple of shelves, and it was pretty random what you might find there.  I wasn’t very discerning though — if had a D&D logo on it, I bought it.  This led me to owning an odd collection of Dragon Magazine issues myself, and despite their dates being a few years old, I still felt the exact same thing James did.  I was sure there must be some huge group of roleplayers out there somewhere, if only I could find them!  I didn’t, and in fact, at that age I spent more time reading about D&D than actually playing it.  Players were very hard for me to find, at least until 2nd edition hit the shelves, and even then it took a couple years before I had a really solid regular group to play with.

I noticed an odd connection too — that this sense of wonder at the existence of a larger realm that was completely foreign to me, this is basically the theme of D&D itself.  A lot of the old school folks like to point that out as being especially indicative of the old school, a focus on exploration rather than on combat and character advancement.  I agree with this basic sentiment, and I’d say the shift from graph paper mapping to battle-mat and miniatures is the most clear indicator of the move away from this focus.

In my comment on James’ blog, I mentioned that it seemed to me that this sense of wonder at the size of the hobby itself was surely lost for current generations due to the advent of the internet.  I think this applies not just to the gaming hobby, but really any subject matter.  In this day and age complete knowledge of any topic is quickly accessible right at your computer, heck maybe even on the phone you carry around in your pocket.  I think this is a double edged sword.  On the one hand, it connects people interested in more obscure hobbies.  Where they were once a loner with a peculiar interest, now it’s easy for them to connect and discuss their interest with like-minded people.  On the other hand, that sense of wonder that can drive us to new and unusual experiences (like driving halfway across the country to Milwaukee to seek out a gathering of like-minded enthusiasts) is gone.  Is it any surprise that the game has moved away from this theme of exploration when it’s so much rarer to find in the real world?

It’s a different world, I guess.  I’d better walk away from this before I drown in the waves of nostalgia.  Still, I think there’s an interesting lesson in here somewhere.  I think it behooves us to pass this lesson on to anyone that will listen, lest we revert back to where we started: a loner with a peculiar interest.  It’s especially hard when that interest basically requires a group of like-minded folks to share it.  Sometimes I wonder what will happen in another thirty years — will I still be able to find a group to play D&D with when I’m retired?  I hope I will.  And if not, I think I’ll just have to get out there and make new players.


Treasure Hall

Jenn just mentioned as an aside on her blog the existence of a room where she works that is called “Treasure Hall”, and her disappointment that it did not contain a sleeping dragon atop a pile of treasure.  Brilliant!  I’m so excited by this I had to write my own post rather than just replying to hers.

I feel the immediate need to create a room in a dungeon somewhere with a placard on it that says “Treasure Hall”.  I have a million ideas for what might be inside, and none of them are treasure.  The very idea of disingenuous signage in a dungeon I find really thrilling.  Perhaps a series of signs that point in a direction for the “Exit”, that ultimately lead in a circle.  Or perhaps a four-way intersection with a sign post full of labels in every direction but which is loose in its hole and spins easily.  Are any of the labels pointing in the right direction?  Who knows!

There’s a part of Stone Hell where there’s a signpost that points in the direction of a “Dragon” that ultimately only leads to the den of a rather large lizard.  The kobolds who write the sign may simply not know any better, but it’s sure to scare a bunch of first level characters, the level the area is targeted at.  Not my players though, they busted right in and were disappointed to find it was just a large lizard.

Hmm, now I want to make a dungeon that contains a room with a dragon.  Perhaps with a sign on front that says “Treasure Hall”.

Improved Website

A very nice reader discovered recently that the background image on my blog was over 1 MB, and went through the trouble of optimizing it for me down to about 200 KB.  The site is now using the optimized version and should be much faster to load for everyone.  I also find it extremely encouraging to see random uses of the internet for good instead of evil. I figured the least I could do is send my thanks out publicly to Scott for doing this.  You rock sir!