Dvorak & Dragons

Two months in, I’m making great progress in mastering Dvorak, but my memory issues make it a slower process than I had hoped. Nonetheless, I am already nearly as fast as I was with QWERTY, except when I need a character I don’t use very often, or some of my old muscle memory emerges when I type something I typed frequently in the past.

Further slowing progress is the fact that for the past several weeks my Depression has completely taken over, making me highly apathetic, but I’m slowly starting to feel better. Not only am I finally getting around to posting this update, I even started writing a radio play inspired by the 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds after watching an episode of American Experience about the broadcast on PBS last night.

While Dvorak is allowing me to type for longer with less pain, dictation software is even better. Unfortunately, my favorite dictation headset broke, and the Logitech one I bought to replace it is as uncomfortable as the one that came bundled with Dragon Naturally Speaking 12, so I can’t wear either one for more than a few minutes before I get a headache from the way their strange designs squeeze my head. When I was forced to make a new Win7 user after my old one corrupted, I couldn’t use Dragon at all anymore because there was no way to transfer my license from one to the other, so it no longer mattered.

So imagine my joy when I saw a TV ad for Dragon 13 that not only had it for only $50, but mentioned that it now finally worked with both Bluetooth headsets and mics built into laptops. 12 had very spotty support for both, and didn’t work at all with my gear, so I’m really excited about it. I’ll be able to give you a report on it in the near future because my wonderful wife is getting it for me “for Christmas” (meaning she’ll order as soon as her paycheck direct deposits today).

Making things even more interesting is that I finally took the plunge and upgraded my laptop to Windows 10, but that will take up an entire post by itself, so that’s it for now.


I have finally gotten serious about learning Dvorak. More details on that later, but it means that for now it takes me a couple of days longer to write a blog post (I’ve already spent two days working on one about my Dvorak journey. prompting this quick one). Within a month, however, I should be able to type faster for longer, but most importantly, with much less pain.

In the course of re-creating my Pokémon deck list sheet I realized that making it into a form-fillable PDF is more work than I can handle. I therefore decided to simply make the ODT original available via DropBox.

Helping Players Cooperate

Time and time again I have recommended that people sign up for Roleplaying Tips Weekly by Johnn Four, but most especially GMs.  It is full of tips and tricks for GMs, plot hooks, and character inspirations. This particular issue is all about getting players to work together as an actual party of adventurers rather than a bunch of characters that happen to have the same goal or be traveling in the same direction.

One particular section of it especially appeals to me because it’s an adaptation of something I’ve been preaching to other GMs for years: that no non-combat dice roll should ever be boring (attacks never missing would also be boring), and a failed roll doesn’t mean that nothing happened. The article even uses my favorite example: the locked door. If the PCs have to get through the door in order for the campaign to continue, then they will get through the door, thus rolling to see if they can get the door open is pointless. It is far more interesting to use the player’s lockpicking or door smashing roll to determine how things progress (a failed roll could indicate that they’d made too much noise and aroused the guards, for instance), rather than whether the door gets opened.

The spin guest columnist Christopher Sniezak puts on it is using the failed roll as a way to bring another character in to share the spotlight. It’s absolutely brilliant and I’m a bit ashamed of myself for not thinking of it years ago.

Since discovering a free rules-light game called FUrpg (af) (Free, Universal RPG), I’ve started thinking in terms of its success/fail terminology, and it seems Christopher may have been likewise inspired. FUrpg’s core mechanic uses varying numbers of d6s, from which the player chooses the most beneficial (or least if the pool size is negative). The GM then describes what happens based on the result (even is good, odd is bad, higher is better):

6 Yes, and… You succeed and something else good happens.
4 Yes… Basic success.
2 Yes, but… You succeed, but at a cost.
5 No, but… You fail, but it’s not a total loss.
3 No… Basic failure.
1 No, and… You fail, and things get worse.

If I’m ever having trouble deciding how something turns out, or especially how an NPC reacts to something a PC just said or did, I can just roll a d6 or two and go from there. I still haven’t gotten around to actually using FUrpg for a pick-up game, but it has already helped me be a better GM for GURPS, HackMaster 5e, and D&D 4/5e.

Post-2015 Rotation Pokémon Tournament Deck List Sheet

I finally got my Pokémon Tournament Deck List Sheet ready for the 2016 season. It took me ages because I ended up having to completely rebuild it. If you are coming to the Asheville Mossdeep League Challenge on September 12th, we are holding a raffle and giving a second entry to anyone who arrives with an already filled out deck list – but you don’t have to use mine, of course.

OpenOffice Writer sucks at making tables. (Someone once asked me how I managed to make my character sheets in Writer because of that fact, and I pointed him to the wonders of frames, which allow Writer to function like a low-end desktop publishing program.) That’s why I always make tables in Calc and then paste them into frames in Writer. For whatever reason, the set symbol images kept not being copied even though they are anchored to and entirely contained by their respective cells.

After that I decided to try and make the whole document in Calc since the deck list is essentially a bunch of tables anyway, but the varying numbers of columns made it overly complicated, so I went back to Writer and manually copied in the errant images.

That did the trick at the time, and adding new sets was a breeze, but then came rotation. That required moving a bunch of sets from one table to the other, manually moving their set symbols again. I briefly tried to make the thing entirely in Writer, but ran into the Writer sucks at tables problem again.

That left going back and trying to make the whole thing in Calc again. I’m not totally happy with the result, but it’s complete, and that’s good enough for Saturday’s League Challenge. Getting the underlines the right length took a lot of fiddling, but not nearly as much as making the set symbols actually stay in their boxes after PDF exportation. I still don’t know why that kept happening – they looked perfect in Calc, but kept being misaligned enough to partially or fully obscure the lines between them as a PDF. I use Sumatra, Foxit, and PDF-XChange Editor for different purposes*, but the problem showed up in all three, so I knew the error didn’t lie with the rendering engine. By adjusting the positions and sometimes sizes of the images by hundredths of an inch and then re-exporting it, I finally got it, but it took me a couple of hours for just that process.

I don’t like how long the top frame is to the player name field, but fixing it will require another rebuild. If it proves to not be a problem on Saturday then I’ll probably leave it alone. Otherwise I’ll finish a project I started some months back and start with a blank sheet where every row and column is .1″ and then combine them as needed to make the tables and fields, just like I did for my GURPS character creator and library spreadsheets.

So, despite how much harder it can be to position things precisely in Calc (which is the reason I built it in Writer in the first place), I managed to get it done in plenty of time for our next tournament, and set things up so that adapting to next year’s rotation will be a breeze.

Sumatra PDF is my everyday PDF and CB7 reader, but does odd things with margins when printing, and is very limited in features by design.
Foxit Reader was my old go-to reader, but tends to eat a lot of memory, but also allows me to edit bookmarks, unlike Sumatra, and access other advanced features of PDFs.
PDF-XChange Editor is now the last stage of all of my PDFs before I upload them. It allows me to change metadata and all kinds of other advanced editing that I otherwise can’t do with free software, but is overkill most of the time.

Planned Improvisation

In the midst of a moment of chaos on vacation I came up with a new word: planprovise. It’s something I’ve done my whole life, and that Lura has become comfortable with after being with me for nearly 16 years; it’s also my preferred way to GM. In short, it means planning ahead, but only as far as having a rough skeleton outline, and making up the rest as needed, and, most importantly, being flexible enough to tackle whatever surprises turn up.

Since I can easily make monsters on the fly in GURPS, I can generally fit an entire campaign onto a sheet of paper, or even an index card. The exception is my Warehouse 23 / 13-inspired campaign. Before I started steampunk-ifying the setting, I ran it so that the events of the game could have actually happened, but were suppressed from the history books. That required me to do a lot of historical research and refer it to during the session, but it’s not something I’ll ever do again, and even now can only run a single session of that campaign every few months. But even with that level of planning my players have surprised me repeatedly, forcing me to adapt on the fly.

Since HackMaster and D&D are far more complex than GURPS, for them I need to create or look up whatever monsters I want to use ahead of time. I keep them in a spreadsheet that allows me to quickly create encounters on the fly. I first made one for HackMaster Basic years ago, but have now turned it into a full-blown campaign manager for HM 5e, that I will be uploading once I have it tweaked and then remove anything that might get me sued. For D&D I started with a spreadsheet that just allowed me to easily calculate how much experience to give out at D&D Encounters, and kept the monsters in an epub I kept open in my beloved PRS-T1 ereader. Then I slowly started splicing in elements of my HM campaign manager, but at this point it’s not even to beta level – maybe not even pre-alpha.

But that is the only major prep I do for either game unless I’m running an official module, and even then I’m pretty flexible (I ended up throwing out most of a page of the last D&D Expedition I ran because player actions clashed with the author’s assumptions).

My HackMaster 5e campaign is partly an experiment in cooperative world building, in which my players and I are equal partners in creating the world. They come up with the big stuff, like the steampunkish city in the middle of the desert NE of the starting city. I had built nothing whatsoever beyond the city’s walls in that direction, so I just took it and ran with it, creating the details as we went. That campaign is an excellent example of planprovising, because my notes for it consist of a notebook I carry everywhere in which I jot down location, NPC, encounter, or villain ideas I dream up. As of now I have several villains working in the background, but only have the vaguest idea what they’re up to. Every once in a while I’ll have a minion or lieutenant stir up trouble wherever the PCs are and wait for a nibble. When they finally bite down on one then I’ll see about figuring out what he’s really up to.

As an example, a player made up the rumor about the steam-powered city, so while giving them interesting stuff to do and see as they crossed the desert, I was also coming up with ideas for the city, and decided that it was walled in and that the leadership was corrupt, but that’s all I had in mind at that point.

When the party first arrived I made the corruption clear by having the corpulent councilman meet them in his overly-luxurious office. We didn’t get far past that before we ran out of time, and during the following week I came up with a brilliant, but unoriginal idea inspired by the Doctor Who episode “The Hungry Earth“, in which near-future Welsh researchers inadvertently disturb a Silurian city, causing them to awake from stasis and deal with the problem. I found some appropriate monsters in HackMaster Basic and put them in my spreadsheet, expecting to have a large battle with the PCs being one squad among many, but not actually planning anything.

Inevitably, my players, who are the reason why I no longer do any detailed planning for games, came with a plan Q: set up a champions vs champions fight with their leader. If the PCs lost, then the Silurians could have the city the “invaders” had unknowingly built upon their home, but if they won the Silurians had to make peace with the residents and figure out how to share the city. I hadn’t foreseen that in any way, but just ran with it and it turned out to be great fun, especially when the spell-chucker stopped controlling his Skipping Betty Fireball and it circled around the city square, and table, and very nearly ended up hitting the wizard’s player before it finally fizzled (SBF moves a random number of feet in a random direction when not controlled).

That is the power of planprovising. I was well-prepared, but flexible, as I try to always be because it helps keep me, and by extension those around me, from panicking.

Old Family + New Friends + New Games = Great Vacation

Because my family is shotgunned all over the southeastern US, my parents rent a vacation home for a week every summer so we can all get together. This year was at Carolina Beach a couple of weeks ago. Overall it was great, and I especially enjoyed getting acquainted with the new boyfriend of one of my nieces, even more especially because he’s a gamer, too. He introduced us to an amazing Czech boardgame called Dungeon Petz.

Sadly, my wife Lura got sick on Tuesday (our “not-quite vegetarian” diet doesn’t work at all with my family’s standard American diet, which we inevitably end up eating on vacation) and didn’t recover until after we got home, so she didn’t get to play. Before that, however, we finally got to play Mr. Card Game with more than just the two of us for only the second time, so that was cool, even though my niece got bored and her boyfriend won, just like the last person we taught to play the game (who also happens to be the best board game player we’ve ever met). I am also happy to report that our FLGS can special order Dungeon Petz for us just as soon as Lura’s new job makes it possible – the first job she’s had in two years, I should add. We’re really praising God for that one!

It also would have been more fun if I hadn’t fallen up the stairs and twisted my foot the first morning, forcing me to miss out on the aquarium trip, but an Ace bandage got me up and moving again, so it wasn’t too bad.

One advantage of needing to keep my foot propped up while Lura was too sick to do anything and the rest of the family was at the beach is that I got a little bit of work done on my various game aids. I may even have finally finished my D&D character library spreadsheet, but I want to use it myself a bit longer to be sure since I keep finding things I need to add to it (most recently an XP box). I am nearly done with my GURPS character creator as well, but just learned that Steve Jackson has very strict rules about how they want to be cited in fan projects, so I’ve got to go back and change that section in my two GURPS spreadsheets, and figure out how to unobtrusively add it to my character sheet. I also need to find out if Wizards of the Coast has a similar policy.

Now that I’m back from vacation and mostly recovered from it I can get back to work writing and finishing up game aids. I decided to add boxes around the various sections of the top matter on my modular D&D character sheet, and am also experimenting with edge-to-edge printing of some of the pages in order to maximize how much space players have to work with, but so far my test prints have failed because our printer is behaving oddly.  I assume it’s due to needing a new color cartridge even though what I’m printing is black and white. I suspect it’s trying to use blue for the faint grey lines and text, and that’s why they aren’t showing up. Once I get that tackled I should have what I hope will be the final version of my character sheet unless Wizards releases another class with a unique mechanic that would benefit from having a custom sheet.

On a related note: would a sheet with a dedicated section for a pet/familiar be useful? On the front or back? If I don’t put it on the front I will have to either make multiple backs again, which I won’t since it defeats the purpose of my adaptable sheet, or simply make a back that includes the animal with the inventory. It would be easy enough to free up sufficient space above the right-hand column on the two-column inventory sheet (page 4).

Updated Pokémon Deck List Sheet

I have updated my tournament deck list sheet for the 2016 Play! Pokémon season. I am only about halfway done making a form-fillable version since I’m learning how as I go along. Since no sets will be rotating out of Expanded, I’ll have to do a major rebuild of that section of the sheet since I’m still having trouble getting OpenOffice to properly attach set symbols to cells so they aren’t left behind when I copy the table into Writer. That said, I hope to have the post-rotation form-fillable version available for our Mossdeep League Challenge.

Speaking of the Mossdeep LC, we are giving out door prizes at this event. Each registered player will get one entry, and anyone who arrives at the store with a pre-filled out deck sheet gets a bonus entry. Details can be found on the tournament’s facebook event. The overhaul to the Professor program is leaving us with fewer prizes than we had hoped, so we’re happy to accept donations if you have anything suitable lying around.