Tag Archives: writing

To Serif or Not to Serif

The debate of whether or not to use serifs in fonts has raged almost since Gutenberg invented the printing press back in 1440. What are serifs, you may ask? Serifs are the little decorative marks on letters, like the bars on the top and bottom of the capital “I”. Sans-serif literally means “without serifs”.

Since I write both fiction and rulebooks, I looked through an assortment of our roleplaying books and novels, and also some boardgame rules.

In our roleplaying books serifs are very dominant. I checked a sampling of our GURPS 3/4e, D&D 4e, OVA, and HackMaster 4/5e books, and they were exclusively serif fonts other than tables and sidebars in HM; sidebars, examples, and sample characters in OVA; and monster blocks in D&D. In other words, they use serifs unless the text is small enough that the serifs might make it harder to read.

Possibly the oldest novel in our collection is my much-loved and rather battered 1978 edition of Heinlein’s Space Cadet. It uses sans-serif for chapter headings and page headers, but serifs otherwise. My wife’s 2013 library book is the same – and some people say that’s the problem, but I’ll go into that shortly.

Boardgame rules are less cohesive simply because they come in a number of formats: sheet or two of paper, pamphlet, booklet, the box or similar material (Ultimate Stratego’s rules are written on the card used to divide the board while players set up). From what I have seen, those that print on card- or pasteboard tend to use serifs, while those on simple paper don’t. Munchkin uses fonts that fit the game’s mood, resulting in a mixture of serif and sans fonts in booklets. Pyramid Arcade includes a 75-page rulebook, entirely in sans serif.


The serif debate is as nuanced as any, but most people seem to fall into one of two groups:
* In long lines of uninterrupted text serif fonts are easier to read because the serifs help guide the eye.
* Sans-serif fonts are “cleaner”, and therefore easier to read. Serif fonts only seem easier to read because they are what we are used to.

I fall into that first group, but also agree that sans-serif fonts look “cleaner”, but in mixed case sans serifs can be confusing. Think of how the word Illinois looks without its serifs. In all caps or or all lowercase it doesn’t matter, but in mixed case capital “I” and lowercase “l” look exactly the same.

As a compromise I have developed the habit of using sans-serif (Arial for screen or Verdana for print) for headings, especially if they are all caps, and serif (Times New Roman) for text. Purely out of curiosity, I mocked up a fake page from my roleplaying game’s rulebook with one written completely in Times New Roman (right), and the other with Verdana headings (left).

Font Test with mock up of rpg rulebook page

So which do you prefer?

What Is a Poem?

Before the crash I wrote poetry fairly often, and even got an award for one I wrote in middle school, but after the crash I suddenly stopped. The soul exception was the free verse I wrote after Columbine. That poem is notable for two reasons: I wrote it while staying awake for more than 24 hours while watching news coverage of the event (and skipping all of my classes), and it’s the only free verse I have have ever written, and likely ever will.

Ask five people what a poem is, and you’ll get at least six different answers. My favorite poetry always has defined meter (but sometimes break from it for effect), as do all but one of the poems I’ve written, but free verse strays far from that. I won’t do more than mention “prose poetry” here because I don’t want to sidetrack myself, but that’s another case where one person’s poem is another’s paragraph with randomly-inserted line breaks.

Then Twitter and texting came onto the scene, and the English language will never be the same. Merriam-Webster has probably been busier adding new words than they have ever been since Noah Webster wrote the original nearly two centuries ago.

Over the past year I have become more active on Twitter despite my deep Depression, so it was only relatively recently that I discovered Twitter poetry, and with it came a renewed interest in poetry. In the two decades since the crash I have often written poetically (mostly to my wife Lura), but no actual poems aside from a brief one for her every once in a while (usually shared publicly via Twitter or facebook, if you’d like to read them). Last year I even signed up for an online course called “How Writer’s Write Poetry“, but only managed to stick with it through three lessons before Depression and busyness distracted me from it.

I have tried repeatedly to write poetry over the past several years, including making a roleplaying character that only spoke in haiku, but can never seem to stick with it. That’s why I was so intrigued when I learned about Twitter poems. Reading many of them over the days following my discovery is what got me thinking about what constitutes a poem.

The essence of haiku is to show just enough to let the reader’s imagination take over, making the reader an integral component of the art. As Matsuo Bashō famously said: “The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent, we never tire of.” As a result I’ve seen some wonderful three-word haiku, and even wrote one I may share someday, but that got me thinking about how short a poem could be and still be a poem, leading to this:

scream
catharsis

Only two words, but to me it is quite evocative because it is something I have experienced so often. Others who have felt the blessed relief that can result from a good cry or scream may feel something in reading that, but does simply being evocative make it a poem?

I have been writing Twitter poems for Lura more and more often over the past year, even one a month for a while. The forced brevity of the format means I can’t be my usual flowery self (a bad habit English teachers spent more than a decade trying to curb), and that has helped my writing in general. The character limit also means that the resulting poems are so short that I can’t agonize over them for months or years until I think they’re perfect, as I have done with several short stories for years now. In fact, I must instead treat every tweet as if it was a haiku, making sure I get my whole message through without any extra words.

As an example of what I mean, and because it’s Valentine’s day, here is the Twitter haiku I wrote for her last year to celebrate the 17th anniversary of our first date:

Seventeen years gone
Love lies sleeping beside me
Still watching her breathe

How did you read that poem? Was it sweet, or mildly erotic? Did you imagine me lying there watching her sleep and just being happy that she was in bed beside me? Or did you think I was just ogling her boobs as they went up and down? Could I have meant both? Was I saying that I was happy that she was still in my life after 17 years and that I still find her to be the most desirable woman who ever lived? The only thing you can be certain of is that I am still very much in love with her after 17 years together – the rest is up to your imagination and how you see the world.

That simultaneous clarity and ambiguity of meaning is why before the crash I wrote poetry almost exclusively (aside from the occasional essay, which is why blogging appeals to me so much). But since the crash, and especially since our wedding, I’ve written more prose than anything else, much of it inspired by things we have done together (even today we both tend to use tabletop roleplaying games to flesh out characters and settings).

Now that I realize how much I was telling the world when I sent that Tweet back in November, I have decided that I will end this by sharing with you my three-word haiku I referenced earlier. It is the most personal thing I have ever written, but I am sharing it despite my innate extreme shyness because it succinctly tells the source of the Depression that keeps me from blogging or doing anything else for months at a time. And even though I cry every time I re-read it or revise this post, maybe making it public will prove even more cathartic, and hopefully provide some comfort to others in my situation by letting them know that they are not alone.

longing
fatherhood
despair

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.

Dvorakémon

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.

Rebirth of a Monster

Here, at long last, is the flash fiction version of the origin of probably the most beloved of all of my recurring NPCs, Manny the ogre chef. In the present day he’s a pacifistic tavern-keeper who is well-renowned for his kitchen prowess. But he wasn’t always so friendly…


As the sun rises over the Mountains of Ayel, the remains of the village of Woodston continue to smolder. Among the ruins, five ogres feast upon the villagers they roasted in the flames of their own homes. As one of them raises a leg to his slathering jaws, liquid fat dripping from the leg to the ground and tusks ready to tear off a mouthful, he is suddenly overcome with revulsion and nausea.

Lowering the now revolting hunk of meat from his mouth, Manny looks around, confused, yet clear-headed for the first time in his life. “Why you not eat?” asks one of his warband, using his tusks to rip a large chunk of meat from a child’s charred torso. Then he adds, spraying bits of manflesh through the intervening space, “this meat good.”

After taking a moment to spit out some errant bits of flesh that were caught in his teeth, Manny finally replies: “The smell makes me sick.”

His companions’ faces cycle through expressions of confusion, shock, disbelief, and finally horror. “We help!” one yells as he pounces. They grab Manny, pin his arms and legs to the ground, and attempt to beat out of him whatever evil spirit has possessed him. Since nothing like this has ever happened in all of ogre history, their simple minds cannot fathom any other possible explanation for Manny’s behavior.

As blow after blow rains down upon him, Manny revels in the pain as a respite from the nauseating smell of roast villager that permeates the air. Finally, just before he surrenders to welcome oblivion, the blows stop as one of the ogres picks up the discarded leg and offers it to Manny with a grunt. He turns up his generous nose at the proffered morsel, and with a final punch to the nose, embraces blessed unconsciousness.

When he finally regains consciousness, night has fallen, the embers are cold, and he is all alone – except for the squad of rangers stealthily emerging from the woods on southern edge of town, their bows drawn, and their steps silent. As he sits up, head spinning and stomach churning, Manny’s brain is so rattled that he doesn’t notice the silent approach of impending death. His nose eventually draws his attention downward, where he sees the fateful roast leg of hapless villager. Sneering at it in disgust, he flings it away, then lumbers to his feet. Seeing this, the astonished rangers melt back into the woods and vanish.

Creative Commons License
Rebirth of a Monster by Frank Wilcox, Jr (fewilcox) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Bring Reading Rainbow Back for Every Child, Everywhere

I helped Reading Rainbow on Kickstarter, you can too!

Some of you may not be old enough to have the fond memories of Reading Rainbow my wife and I share, but it fostered my love the written word more than anything else. We now have the opportunity to give Reading Rainbow to children everywhere – for free! Not only will every episode be available from their app and elsewhere, it will be made available at no cost to thousands of classrooms.

Naturally, those worthy goals all cost money, and that money has to come from somewhere. Some of it is coming from us. Won’t you join us?

If you need more incentive, among the rewards are sit-downs with the cast of Next Generation. And some lucky Trekker with really deep pockets can have dinner with LeVar Burton and even try on the actual visor he wore in the show!

Hurry. The deadline is July 2nd.

Campaign Wikis

After checking out at least a dozen free wiki sites, I made my first campaign wiki five years ago for my HackMaster campaign, but that site was far from ideal. Despite its flaws, I made do for several years, and even prepped it for my steampunkish Warehouse 23/13-inspired GURPS campaign, but never actually used it due to how annoying it was adding things to the site.

Two years ago, after again checking into every free wiki site I could find, I finally found a better one (by which time we had converted it to 5e), but my Depression kept me from actually setting it up until last week. Now all that’s left is to get it updated (which, naturally, I’ll leave mostly to the players).

This whole thing has gotten me thinking about what I really need from a campaign wiki:

  • Easy to set up – getting the first wiki’s files arranged, including parent/child arrangements, took me at least a week; wikidot let me create parent/child connections as I went along, streamlining the process greatly.
  • Easy to make templates – While learning the process on wikidot I knocked out a fairly simple one for character pages in a couple of hours. I never did get the template to automate on PBworks.
  • Tightly controlled access – Thus no wikia. PBW went so far as to let me control who can edit a specific page, meaning the players can’t edit each other’s character pages. So far my players haven’t had time to join the new one, so I’m not sure exactly how much control I have, but I do get to manually approve all uninvited applicants (and I’m the only one who can send invites).
  • Easy for my non-wiki-geek players to edit – PBW uses standard HTML instead of wiki code, but has a WYSIWYG, so it’s great for less techie players (even though my job of setting up the documents in the first place was a major pain). Wikidot, on the other hand, \uses a mix of standard wiki and HTML markup that isn’t terribly intuitive. Thankfully, it too has a WYSIWYG of sorts, but doesn’t give non-coders you the option to hide the code, so they might still get confused.
  • Customizability – PBW is aimed primarily at classrooms, so the only customization it offers is color scheme. Wikidot, on the other hand, wants people to upgrade to their premium service, so they offer all sorts of bells and whistles. In some ways I actually have more control over my wiki’s appearance than I do this blog (although upgrading on both sites lets me write my own CSS, giving me complete control over their appearance).

Over the years I have looked into just about every free wiki site out there (all of them unless I overlooked one), and at the moment wikidot fits the bill best, but its wonky markup and lack of a proper WYSIWYG for non-programmers is a big problem. If all of your players speak HTML and Wikipedia then wikidot may be perfect for you.

One especially exciting feature wikidot has but that I haven’t tried yet is the ability to post comments on pages. I’m hoping that will let the characters talk to each other during down time, adding to party cohesion. It looks like those comments are even threaded, making it easy to track conversations. I’ll edit this as soon as I know one way or the other.

Naturally, I tried Obsidian Portal, but many of the features that where free on every other wiki site were premium upgrades there, and none of its actual premium services were anything I need (it’s been a couple of years so I don’t remember any specifics). Now if I were running a play by wiki instead of just using a wiki to organize a table game, then OP may well be worth the upgrade.

So the question is, do you use a campaign wiki? Why? Would you recommend your host? Why? If you don’t use one, are you considering it, indifferent, or think it’s totally pointless?

Assuming I don’t change wikis again, my next step is adding my GURPS game, and the Pokémon game I run as a pick-up when we can’t run the scheduled game for whatever reason. After that I’ll add campaigns I’m planning so those wikis will be filled out and ready to go as soon as we need them.

Not a wiki, per se, but another campaign management tool I employ is Lino, a virtual corkboard. As an example I made a now very dated public copy of the board for my first HM5e mini-campaign (we put my 4e campaign on hold long enough to try out the new edition to see if we wanted to convert). Simply looking at that will explain Lino far better than I can, but I’ll give it a go.

Lino is, as I said, a virtual corkboard. Each board’s creator can set it as private, public, or limited to certain people; you can even create groups, as we did, and everything posted in it is automatically accessible by everyone in the group. We have found it mostly useful for campaign planning, but it can remain useful during the game as well.

In my example above, I describe the world and starting location, and sort of the concept, but it was known by all the players so i didn’t explicitly state it. Since it was primarily to learn the new edition, we took inspiration from the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games and started the PCs as members of an adventuring company. People with problems that need solving submit their requests to the AC, along with contact info and the reward offered. Since those requests are then pinned on a bulletin board in the AC, a virtual corkboard seemed obvious.

If you scroll to the right of the setting info, you will see the actual AC job board. Blue jobs are completed, and have notes on the results. Red jobs are in progress. I used another color for available jobs, but I don’t remember which since it was years ago.

Where it becomes really useful is demonstrated by my wife’s sticky on one of the in-progress jobs. As the job progresses, players can stick on their own notes about clues, relevant NPCs, their characters’ reactions, and anything else that seems relevant to the job. More general info can be posted on the left side.

Since my current campaign is partly an experiment in cooperative world-building, we could devote one entire board to the world, so players can brainstorm ideas together. The wiki can do the same thing, but the benefit of Lino is that the whole thing is visible at a glance. Another board can be used for various rumors, threats, and clues they find along the way.

So far they have found:

  • a summoner hiding in the sewers of the starting city, who groused about having to report to his boss before teleporting away. As yet nothing is known about his boss.
  • that the country a few hours west of that city is beginning to amass troops near the border thanks to the presence of the adolescent dragon the PCs rescued and befriended.
  • the steampunky city in the middle of the nearby desert was invaded by Silurians, but the PCs brokered a peace. What’s not known is who woke them up, and why. Also promising to be interesting is what will come of the combination of the city’s technomancy and the technology of the Silurians.
  • and so on.

Shortly all of that will be listed on the wiki, but it will be much easier to see the big picture on Lino, even if it’s just covered with short notes that link to fuller details on the wiki. Trying to keep all those separate threads together with just a wiki could well be impossible if the game ends up running for years, but even known it’s getting a bit tricky.

(Note to fellow writers: Lino is also excellent for world-building, and keeping track of plot threads, threats, solutions, and minor characters.)

So that’s both of the online tools I use for campaign management. What about you?