Going Local

It has been almost 6 years since I first attended GenCon with Jenny (my spouse).

We played in Games on Demand; what was then a small operation. Each of the following 4 years, I became more involved. Helping organize and host Games on Demand at both Origins and GenCon. I met several friends, too many of whom live far away (snif, snif Albuquerque snif, snif).

Two years ago, I stepped away from Games on Demand to redirect the vacation time I was spending to instead help grow Jenny’s business.

A blonde haired woma, in a gnome conical hat, smelling flowers.

She is the sole proprietor of The Soapy Gnome, a bath and body care business specializing in bringing cozy to your everyday moments. Since 2015, we’ve had a retail shop in Goshen, a small thriving northern Indiana town.

For the last four years, we have had a booth at our local farmer’s market. More often than not, I am the one selling our handcrafted buttermilk soap at the market. And I love it; Each Saturday I see friends and neighbors, have a delicious breakfast at Anna’s Bread, and catch up with Taproot Tees (my booth neighbor).

Some people stand up a Patreon to support their blogging; I’d like you to instead consider ordering your next bar of soap from the Soapy Gnome. Each sale helps fuel our creative endeavors, one of which is this blog. Another is Goshen Women’s Mastermind, a local network of women entrepreneurs founded by Jenny.


I may get to GenCon or Origins again; I know I will feel them calling. For now, I am content to spend time organizing local public RPG sessions and ensuring that my local gaming scene continues to grow.

Gaming Violence and Children

I grew up the son of a liberal Mennonite pastor. My dad was, and still is, a conscientious objector. Instead of serving in Vietnam, he did mission work in Brazil.

I recall conversations at the dining table about people struggling with the idea of paying taxes that went to the United States military complex. I knew of people who had refused to pay huge chunk of taxes, withholding the amount that would’ve went to the military. They would instead give that withheld money to organizations that promoted peace and justice.

My parents discouraged me from playing with guns. But when your primary toy is Lego, guns are easy to make. My parents discouraged me from watching violent TV, but I would sneak in an episode of the A-Team or later the Dirty Dozen.

The summer before my 6th grade year, a friend introduced me to my first RPG: Star Frontiers. I was immediately hooked. I loved the thought of reenacting Star Wars and Star Trek. To explore. To pilot a ship through a dogfight.

My freshman year in high school, the first Gulf War was beginning, and I recall many brave students standing up in chapel – I attended a private Mennonite high school – and saying they were not going to register for the draft. This meant no federal aid for college.

By this time, I had been playing Rolemaster and Dungeons & Dragons, games that placed a tremendous amount of rules explanation on combat and fighting.  And I maintain that by placing emphasis on combat, combat is more likely to occur.

I also began playing Axis & Allies, Civilization, Diplomacy, Magic the Gathering, and Warhammer. All of these games had abstract combat, but the means to victory is always through conflict.

When it came time to register for the draft, I wrote “Conscientious Objector” all over the draft card. I also wrote a letter, which I assume is still on file at my high school, stating that my conscientious objector status was not something that came about on a whim.

And over the years, I’ve continued to play role-playing games; Some sessions are full of combat, others are very light on combat. And while combat can be memorable and exciting, I have always looked upon it as something somewhat competitive.

Combat rules, more than anything, seem to receive the most scrutiny. It is in this arena, where two or more players engage the rules with little concern for the mechanics. Hit points are abstract, just as the damaging attack is.

But violence, that is a different thing from combat. When I am playing, I am not looking to channel some untapped unpleasant destructive urge through my role-playing games; I am simply looking to engage with the game and seek an escape for me and my friends around the table.

There have been times during a game of Diplomacy, where violent thoughts most certainly crossed my mind. And there have been role-playing games where heated arguments turned somewhat ugly, but even then violence was not part of the equation.

Trying to then frame this all in the context of children, I have to look back with my paternal eyes upon my experience. I have always felt physically and emotionally safe playing role-playing games. I know this is not likely the case for everyone, but I believe that is more a function of who you end up playing with than the system you play.

Role-playing games are ultimately a framework for telling a collaborative story, with a focus on providing a means for conflict resolution. RPGs are simply structured “Cowboys and Indians” or “Cops and Robbers” or “House.”

For myself, in middle school and high school, I gained a tremendous amount of self-confidence through the mastery of the rules systems.

Here was an arena in which my friends and I were in control. We were the strong and athletic, the movers and shakers of the world. There was a comfort in having this control, as my country waged war and my parents divorced.

In my rather intense studying of games and rules, I learned about probability, subsystems, abstraction, mental arithmetic, project management, communication skills, managing meetings, planning, writing, drawing, expanded vocabulary, and likely a whole lot more. A long list of things to learn at the expense of engaging in fantasy violence.

This post is in response to Jeremy Garber’s winning comment in my 202nd Post Competition.

And the Winner Is…

For my 202nd post, I ran a contest. My 203rd post is to announce the winners. There were only a few participants. The winner of my Personal Favorite post is Jeremy Garber. And the winner of the random dice roll – a D4 was used – was Greg Sommers.

Jeremy asked for me to post about my reflections on violence in gaming. I’m not a psychology expert, though I think one of my characters once was, but I’m interested in giving it a crack.

I also think that Jim Crocker’s about games that can be played in public is interesting. I don’t have a lot of experience, but I’m intrigued about thinking about this.

James A, I haven’t used Candle Magic in many of my games. I remember thinking the Candle Mage in Rolemaster was kind of lame. But I have some ideas, and if I make a Take On More Magic Items, I’ll definitely do some research.

And Greg Sommers, alas Dark Tower was a game I’ve only played a few times. It does not haunt my dreams. And regarding Cheap Ass Games, I’ve played a lot of Lightspeed and will be bringing that to Game Day – a fantastic game that balance speed, tactics, and spatial reasoning. I have also seen played Unexploded Cow.

But I’ve decided to award everyone a copy of Take On Magic Items – though I know one of the entrants already has a copy. So he’ll get a copy of whatever I happen to do next.

Thank you for reading my blog. And now it is time to tuck in the kids and get to work on something for National Game Design Month.

Cataloging Performance Art and other Ephemera

I grew up gaming in a pre-Internet era. Knowledge was scarce, and conveyed via oral traditions, tattered rulebooks, and gaming magazines. Then, the Internet came, and TSR clamped down on their property. It could’ve been glorious, but instead it was a frustration.

In fact, I spent several hours every week in college trying to connect to the anointed TSR content server – I forget its name, but it was rumored to house lots of house rules and hacks that TSR had “sanctioned”. Don’t ask how I heard the rumor, I assume I stumbled upon it via gopher.

Then came the OGL, and the floodgates of creativity opened. Discussions happened on numerous fronts. There was explorations of the D20 and OGC…systems clearly derived with permission from all involved (e.g. Pathfinder). There was exploration of self-publishing that went beyond D20 (e.g. the Forge). And archaeological digs into the core of old school began (e.g. OSRIC).

There was a creative fervor that began and continues. It was always there…just ask to see any old school gamers GM notebook of house rules and hacks. But now we are all seeing how the sausage is made.

Collectively we are exploring our hobby in fascinating ways. Take a moment to read Robin D. Laws post on the self-publishing vanguard that has been RPGs. Our collective desire to make our mark on our hobby has advanced more than just personal egos, it has expanded our horizons (e.g. Fiasco) while making our history readily available (e.g. OSR).

There may very well be fatigue on the horizon – I know Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are ever a temptation for me. Truth be told so many people are making awesome fantastic things. And the temptation for me comes in wanting to recapture those sublime moment of gaming…where the walls melt away and everyone at the table is their character.

Clearly, passionate people are pouring their energy into creative works. They are exploring a means of capturing and conveying their moments at the table to a larger audience. And we as the gaming community are hungry. And it is not just Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, it is podcasting, forums, blogs, Google+, Twitter, and others.

And the big one gamification. Our little subculture has been a harbinger of things to come. We are the intersection of learning, community, self-publishing, and entertainment.

Our history is preserved, thanks to Creative Commons and the Open Game License. Our future is open as we are all extremely passionate about the games we play. Geek culture has won, now what will we do with our winnings?

I believe we should share our winnings. Show them. But don’t tell them all the great things.

A Bizarre Ritual of Mine

I wish I was more organized with my note taking, preparation, and storage of character sheets. I don’t believe Matt has forgiven me for losing one of his characters – alas poor Spike X, we barely knew him.

I now have a system for character sheets – it involved purchasing an accordion binder and placing everything in there. But other information…there’s a notebook somewhere.

I never picked up good study habits, because I always felt as though things came naturally for me. Most of my notes from class were often doodles. And now, as I balance the reality of full-time job, remarriage, and teenage children, I wish I were better at my note taking and preparation.

I find that my hand written notes are much easier to remember than anything I type. However, this creates a challenge, because I don’t always write them in a reasonable notebook and they can inevitably get lost in the shuffle.

I would turn to the computer, but for me, it represents my workspace. And as I said earlier, I know that there are better ways to store the information – I could create an ontology and begin mapping the information for storage and retrieval. But would I rather work on a game? Or work on the meta-game?

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been in somewhat of a funk. I started a new job, learning from and helping others. I’ve been mentally drained as I stepped out of the marketing environment of content management and into the library environment of cataloging, archiving, and discoverability – There are similarities, but there are real differences as well. There is a lot to learn.

What I realized today, as I was picking up a birthday present for my daughter, is that I buy a new notebook and pen when I’m ready for a change.

There is some catharsis in choosing a new notebook. A whole new opportunity to record thoughts in a blank book. A book devoted solely to whatever idea is trying to break forth from my skull.

Inevitably, the notebook’s original intent, which was likely not very clear, gets muddled. With its initial purpose sullied, the notebook languishes. For some reason my brain abandons this once promising virginal book to undertake a stygian journey of mindlessness.

For now, the notebook is new and fresh. I know there are ideas to come, so now, it is time to sit with pen and paper and capture those thoughts.

And I’m looking forward to reading “Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep.” I’m certain there will be some helpful advice.

Crippled by Knowledge

My day job is software programming. My passion is games and hacking. I’m not the best hacker, but I find a quiet solace in solving a problem through the various raw tools at my disposal. It is a process of constant learning, which is a requirement for remaining a professional in the software industry.

Unfortunately, there is a tension between my game preparation and my knowledge as a programmer. As I’m working on my games, I see patterns, repetition, and want to create a solution, typically as it relates to content storage.

This quickly spirals into me exploring a technical solution for my hobby. Which in turn leads to the current state of my preparation for GenCon – poor.

I’ve stalled on my Dungeon World conversion for the T1 portion of the Temple of Elemental Evil. I have the monsters in a playable format; Though I still need to run some brave souls through the adventure.

As I was working on the Dungeon World conversion, the programmer side of me, couldn’t help but shudder at the repetition. After all, I was manually applying HTML tags to the chunks of text I was working on.

The programmer in me screamed, “Wait! Make a form for entering the content. Store it without markup! If you do that, then you can easily render the content in any format…so long as you create the view of that content.” After all, other people are interested in the content.

And then my brain was off. It wanted to solve the problem of normalizing the data input so it could be portable. And what was once a hobby venture quickly got mangled into some crazy amalgam of work and hobby.

Fortunately for me, at this time, I rather quickly abandoned the idea of making a simple application. In my personal experience, I have found the most sure fire way to lose interest in my hobby is to start programming ways to be more efficient at it.

There is a part of me that wants and needs well formed information. The 4E powers are quite appealing to me at this level. They were well defined; I could see data structure. There was a harmony in its presentation.

Zak S‘ blog posts, especially the ones with bizarre maps, are a Rorschach test for my gamer brain. His posts do not present information in a uniform fashion. There is instead a creative fury behind his presentations.

I can easily envision his GM notebook; It is a collection of hastily cut out, clippings with mismatched that are stitched together like some kind of bizarre ransom note.

I’m not entirely certain if I can create GM notebooks like Zak, but the other option is for me to mentally juggle half-baked ideas and solutions. So why not hit Cmd+P and find a nice 3-ring binder?

After all, I’m a hobby gamer. If I run a shitty game session, there is always next week.

At the Intersection of Work, Play, and Learning

Cluster with Standard Attributes

Cluster with Standard Attributes

For the most part, I keep my professional blogging separate from my hobby blogging.  During the day, I’m a programmer for the University of Notre Dame, and at night a pen, paper, and cardboard gamer.

I consider myself to be a reasonably competent programmer, but recognize continued room for growth.  This manifests in reading and experimenting in code.  Lately, I’ve thought of myself more as a software doctor than a software engineer.  Doctors practice medicine, and I practice programming.

This past month, I picked up Avdi Grimm‘s “Objects on Rails” [Free legal online version] and Uncle Bob Martin‘s “Clean Code“.  I’m interested in exploring better software design, with a focus on code refactoring…I’m the primary maintainer of a 6+ year old Ruby on Rails based CMS (It started somewhere around Rails 1.1.6 for those keeping score).  And sometimes it feels like I’ve donned the Black and patrol the Wall. But I digress.

I decided that I wanted to apply some of these principles to a problem space that I understood…RPGs.  In particular, I wanted to automate the Diaspora Cluster Creation, not because it is convoluted, but because it is very well defined process.  That is to say I already understood the domain.

Cluster with Arbitrary Attributes

Cluster with Arbitrary Attributes

Over the past week, I’ve worked on creating the Diaspora Cluster Creator command-line utility by striving to apply these recommended constraints and methodology.  The tool I’ve created is an over-engineered solution for what amounts to 5 minutes of dice rolling at a table with a group of friends.

This exercise has proven to be ridiculously rewarding.  I was working on a greenfield project and trying to adhere to the teachings of others.  In some cases, I stumbled, creating code that I should’ve known would be a problem; Hint, if the tests are complicated to setup, then there are issues.  But, through refactoring, I was eventually able to clean things up – I’m still not satisfied with the Node class.

While I typically try to work within these constraints, for this project I was trying extra hard to keep them at the front of my considerations: The Law of Demeter, Single Responsibility Principle, Test-Driven Development, Command/Query Separation, general readability, and fast tests (Corey Haines would be proud).

The result has been a code-base that has been very fun to work with, and has been relatively painless to extend.  The Cluster creator can just as easily create Diaspora clusters with attributes different than the assumed Technology, Environment, and Resources.

The command-line solution is not suitable for the general role-playing populous, so I’ll need to take that into consideration.

For those of you interested in installing it yourself, it’s up on Githuband available as a Ruby gem – `gem install diaspora-cluster-creator`.  You can take a look at the Cucumber feature that defines the command-line behavior of the tool (Hint: there are several options).