D&D & Me

So here’s what I did Friday night:

And I had a blast.

We’ve been talking about getting a real-life tabletop D&D game going for about nine months now, ever since we found out 4th Edition was coming out and basically rebooted the whole game. I babbled about it a few months ago and even went public with my search for the perfect dice. (I ultimately went with these.) Meanwhile, I hit the books and got really stoked to reconnect. I was never really hardcore about D&D, but I did play in high school and I figured, knowing what I know now about multiplayer gaming and patience and storytelling and stuff, this could be really great. Playing a lot of WoW certainly helped stoke the flames for a simpler, more straightforward RPG experience.

Turns out Rob Smith used to be really into it and is an experienced DM, but has been away for so long that he was starting over too. Paul Curthoys had a stash of miniatures that he hadn’t touched in 20 years or so and really wanted to play again. Despite her love of fantasy and voracious reading habits, Kat had never played D&D. Neither had Gary Steinman, but he was interested. And Evan Lahti seemed to have some experience, but not with 4th edition. We were a band of newbies and born-again newbies.

So we danced around “when” for months and I finally just picked a date that I hoped everybody could make. (Someone had to roll for initiative.) So armed with books, dice, a laptop, and some very adult beverages — apparently it’s all about various types of scotch — we stayed late at work this past week to roll up some characters.

Kat and I had created ours (using the very, very helpful DDI Character Builder) ahead of time, but we figured the first meeting would be just to get everybody up to speed anyway. We wound up staying for several hours, started the adventure, and had an epic combat session. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Playing with people who are just as clueless as you are really helps. When you can play with people who are all at the same level of experience, it’s far less intimidating — nobody’s afraid to ask questions.
  2. A few of us did our homework, and that was worthwhile, too. Nobody knew everything about the combat rules, but enough of us knew enough to quickly look up the stuff we didn’t understand.
  3. We agreed ahead of time to balance the party and discussed not only who wanted to play what, but who was willing to play what. We wound up with a warlord, a wizard, a rogue, a cleric, and a fighter. When one person claimed rogue, the other wannabes backed off. And the party is much better for it. Plus, we all feel kind of special and necessary.
  4. Everybody took it just seriously enough to actually play a role and talk in character. Nobody felt awkward.
  5. It helps if your DM has a British accent.

I can’t wait for the next session. I have to travel this week but I’m getting back Friday afternoon. Friday night, it’s Magic Missile time.

Spinal Tap is back!

My old pal Greg Mann sent me a news story about Spinal Tap getting back into the studio to record a new album. Seeing Tap live in 1992 is still one of my greatest thrills; I have one of Nigel’s picks. The world has been woefully without Tap, and this album will surely be one of the highlights of my year. With the Ghostbusters game shaping up so nicely and Van Halen also threatening to get back into the studio this fall, it’s a good year for 80s comebacks.

The NME story in turn linked to a recent interview Nigel did with National Geographic, wherein he reveals that Stonehenge was not built by aliens, but by a very strong man named Duncan. He also uses an Ernie Ball Albert Lee model to transmute objects and speaks to a potato. Naturally, you must watch this.

Coraline

Got to see it yesterday; my comments will be spoiler-free. Very good, very creepy, and very happy to have a dark animated film to take the place of the wildly overrated Nightmare Before Christmas. That it’s from the same director is even better; can all the wanna-be goths finally let go of Jack and Sally and all those annoying songs? Sorry, I really like Oingo Boingo, but I am not in the Skellington cult.

I saw Coraline in 3D, or rather, I saw it in spite of 3D. I did not realize I was going to a 3D showing, and my mutant eye condition makes it very difficult for me to see 3D images. Stereograms are impossible, red/blue 3D is tricky at best, and the polarized stuff, like the Kodak theaters at Disney and Coraline‘s True3D, are actually my best bet. But going to the show at the end of the day and being tired did not help. Those without ocular barriers may find it quite pleasurable. Even in 2D, watching out of one eye (which is kind of how I see the world, truth be known), this film was fantastic and unsettling all the way through. And despite excellent orchestral music, I could not get “Creepy Doll” out of my head the whole time.

I admit that what really made me want to see it was that it was based on a Neil Gaiman book. This interview with the director shows what good can come from the adapted work’s original creator is truly on board with the film version. I think Gaiman’s healthy “it’s your thing now” attitude can only result in a better product. I mean, can you imagine a Sin City movie without Frank Miller involved? Good or bad, that was how the Sin City movie had to be done. (I liked it a lot.)

And that makes me weep for Watchmen. What if Alan Moore had really embraced the opportunity? What if he wasn’t being an unreasonable ass about any translations of any of his works? What if he could consider this the way Gaiman did — a retelling that needs to be sculpted for the medium — and not just sit at home, rejecting and condemning everybody who wants to bring his stories and characters to a wider audience? I am hoping Zack Snyder gets it right — I’m really concerned about the casting and character performances, more than anything, because Nite Owl and Ozymandias look too young and too hammy in the trailers — but I would not have to hope so much if I knew Alan was involved. And it’s not like they didn’t want him involved.

I know Alan, Frank, and Neil are all friendly. Wish they’d have lunch over this one. Meanwhile, go see Coraline.

Killzone 2, Edge, and “lies” (with a bit of irony)

This week’s scathing gaming editorial comes from PSXExtreme. Ben Dutka wrote a response to Edge magazine’s Killzone 2 review. Edge is notoriously harsh in its reviews, but many people did not expect a 7 out of 10.

Ben’s rebuttal is really worth reading, because it is so strongly emotional and personal, yet tries to present itself as professional critique. It fails at that completely.  It’s a biased overreaction in the context of being rational and objective, and I think that’s why it got so many people upset. Its main tenet is “but they’re wrong because we all know they’re wrong, and that’s proof enough.” The irony is staggering; he’s accusing Edge of doing all this stuff and in accusing, he does it himself. The wording, the inflexible attitude, the intentional lack of a link to the very story that outraged him…yeah, it’s not exactly what I would defend as professional. 

And yet it was defended! In the follow-up article, the site’s executive editor defends the author as not a teenaged fanboy and, in fact, a 31-year-old who really likes his Xbox 360.  The fact that the author is not the petulant teenager he sounds like in the original post is actually kind of worse. But I do sympathize with the guy’s site being called “a fanboy site” simply people read something on it that they did not like, and called it names because it is focuses on a single platform and has a name that reflects its focus. Oh boy, do I sympathize with that. But then he ruins it by not apologizing for Ben’s rage-fueled choplogic, instead saying, hey, Edge is still wrong, and then he gets back to defending the site with its previous, unbiased articles, presumably so he doesn’t lose readers. It kind of reads like a CYA move, regardless of what his intentions might have been. Guess it’s a no-win, really.

So, in summary, they didn’t like the Edge review because it is “a lie.” And when you say you disagree with their review of that review as irrational itself, they say “no, you’re wrong, because Edge is wrong. And also, read our unbiased content, thanks.” 

This may be good blogging, but it’s really not good journalism, and I hope that people do not confuse one for the other in this case. A blog can be pure opinion, and this one is, but it does not offer compelling or tangible evidence that went into forming that opinion, which Edge’s review does. Nobody trusts a review outlet that simply says “because we say so,” but you do have that luxury when commenting on reviews. A critic of the critics doesn’t have to show their work. 

I think you have to take all blogs and similar editorial columns with the knowledge that they are even more pure personal opinion than a review. And that includes this one.

The Esquire GT Project

A few weeks ago I mentioned that my holiday haul included several cool parts for a Fender Esquire GT I’ve been wanting to modify — improve the looks, mellow out the tone. A reader even contacted me to see how it was going, and I promised I would blog about it when I got it done. It’s a simple design, as you can see — half the wires that come out of the pickup will just be terminated as ground wires. Famous last words on the previous post on this topic: “Hell, it’s only one pickup with one knob — how hard can it be, right?”

Well, I made it difficult.

To begin with, I got all the necessary parts…except for a jack plate. I wanted it to be chrome, not this “smoked”/”black chrome but not really black” thing. Ordered that. Okay, not a perfect fit, but fittable with some bending. I took off one of the tuners to find that the Sperzels did need a different hole to fit in, and the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to drill. So I found some real Fender tuners on eBay for a good deal and I’ll save the Sperzels for another project, or maybe sell them if a project never presents itself.

The Fender tuners didn’t fit either. And it’s a Fender. But those tuners were form the real American guitars, and the tuners used on this Korean-built model were a little cheaper and had very similar mounting pegs — certainly to look at them you wouldn’t know the difference from an eBay posting. But sure enough, they’re taller on the Fenders (left) than they are on the stock smoke ones (right):

I asked friends at RRC and someone suggested the smoke color might just be plating — some metal polish might make that grimy look come right off. And it did, with a minimal effort. Check it out — the left one is what I polished and the right one is the stock color, already starting to tarnish.

Of course, at this point, I’ve already bought all new chrome parts for everything — and twice for the tuners! — but that’s lesson #1: I could have just polished away most of the things I didn’t like. Tuners…done.

Took off the bridge and dropped the new one in, direct replacement, no problem. Studied the position of the saddles before, set the new one to match so I don’t have to mess with the intonation much. And when I looked at the old one, I see that the plating has already started coming off from where I rest my hand. Wish I’d noticed that sooner!

But still, I don’t want to strip this thing unless I have to, and replacing it is fine. Bridge…done.

String trees, knob, and jack plate are all simple enough — unscrew one, screw another on. I have a bit of a custom guitar knob fetish, and the new one was a huge visual improvement.

The trees were upgraded to the nice roller style intstead of the t-claws, which I dislike. And since it still doesn’t fit quite as snugly, I will probably find the old one and polish off the smoke and keep the hardware original. So string trees…done.  Jack plate…almost done.

The pickup and the mounting ring seemed simple but I was nervous. I’m taking out a Seymour Duncan SH-8 and putting in an SH-4 — same wiring diagram and the same manufacturer. Can’t ask for easier, and even though I had the wiring diagram, I could have just looked at what was in there when I opened it up and made sure my new wires looked the same. The only thing I note is how much smaller the new pickup is compared to the monstrously magnetic old one.

Got the mounting ring on with some trial and error and…could not find my soldering iron.

Went to hardware store. Got new, small, cheap battery-powered soldering iron. I suck at it, so let’s not get more power than I need, right? Problem is, it says it is 700 watts or so, but it doesn’t get hot enough to melt the existing solder. I get everything installed up to the point of the guitar actually making noise again — I soldered a weaker connection fine but failed at dislodging the old solder point. Argh. But I did manage to change the guitar’s look from this:

to this:

And I think that’s good.

Kat needed to go to the hardware store the next day so she picked me up another, heavy-duty soldering iron. 950 watts, woof woof. I plug it in, it heats up, and that solder goes SPLAT. Awesome. I stick the new wires on, run upstairs to test it (tapping the pickup, then just one spare string) and…nothing.

Well, something. I get hum. I crank the amp and get a tiny little sound. But something somewhere is not working, not wired correctly. Something is broken or cold or connected wrong. But when I plug in a working guitar, it’s clear that there’s a huge problem. And the volume knob is hot to the touch; did I ground it wrong? No — I just got that thing SO HOT and there is so much solder coating the back of it now that I may have destroyed it. It’s a cheap potentiometer — $2 to $10 depending on how fancy you want to go — but it’s not functional in the meantime. RRC once again advised on how to figure out where the problem is with a multimeter, and if it’s the pot, I’ll need to order a new one.

This is just another example of me not being able to create anything that isn’t made of words. I find it very disheartening. I can build a PC but I can’t wire a simple circuit. Why?

UPDATE: Some friends at RRC advised on how to sniff out the problem. I didn’t ruin the pot, but I did snap one of the wires from the jack. Installed a new jack, now it works…but I still think it might be a little noisy, and I suspect there’s a grounding problem because there’s a small tick sound whenever I touch a metal part.  I feel like it’s 95% of the way there.

UPDATE 2: I took it to Greg and he fixed the grounding problem for me. What can I say? I need help. But the guitar is exactly what I wanted it to be now — it’s epic in all respects. W00t!

More libelous fun online

Here’s a bit of nonsense for you. OXM am evil empire because Ryan has nothing better to do with his time than terrorize kids on Live. Or something.

Obviously, Ryan didn’t do this. Ryan doesn’t pick fights and he doesn’t play against random folks, among other things; he and I both like playing with friends under our main tags and he’s more likely to simply leave an uncomfortable session than speak up about it. Nor do we have the power to get people banned anyway. I looked into Microsoft’s banning system and know from experience that it’s very difficult to get booted. Annoying an OXM editor is hardly a bannable offense, even if it did happen, which it didn’t. And he really doesn’t care what your gamertag is. [UPDATE: If you look at Ryan’s gamertag, he hasn’t even played the game where the supposed confrontation took place.]

But the kid’s story is also devoid of fact. What’s his gamertag? How have you been behaving on Live elsewhere? Clearly, someone said they were Ryan, and the kid believed it. And then he ranted.

That’s not what bugs me. What bugs me is that nobody checked, and even the commenters just piled on with “what a douchebag, I hate OXM.” It’s easy to believe the worst. You know, our harshest critics claim our “biased” reviews are worthless to them, because they do not feel they can trust our opinions, and besides, they can think for themselves thank you very much. But when they get the chance to think for themselves, to look at a situation objectively…they don’t. Why be rational?

This stuff shouldn’t still bother me, but it does.

…in bed

So Kat wakes up one day and says, “Ow, my back hurts.” And I say, “Huh, sorry about that.” And this repeats for two months until she convinces me that the only way I’m ever going to enjoy being in bed with her ever again, on any level, is to replace said bed.

We went to Sleep Train (Your Ticket To A Better Night’s Sleepâ„¢) and were greeted by John. I said, “We were thinking of buying a mattress.” He said dryly, “You’re in the right place.” I looked at the prices of the matresses and wondered if maybe there was something, you know, on last-year’s-model-showroom-floor-sample clearance or something. Kat reminded me about the fun-ever-again thing. And she does the finances anyway; if she says we can afford a bed, we can afford a bed.

We did the completely worthless “let’s lie on our backs like we never do, and keep our shoes on, and make a decision that will last 10 years in the span of 15 seconds” thing. The Sleep Number thing is wild — one side of the bed can be super-squishy, the other side rock solid. And did you know Vera Wang is making mattresses this year? Bed technology is gimmicky.

Kat likes the Tempur-Pedic pillows. If you’re unfamiliar with them, they have funny shapes and funny smells and have the color and consistency of cheesecake. They’re expensive and Swedish. Since the rest of our home is outfitted by some oak and some pine and a handful of Norsemen, I’m not going to question it. I mean, look at how fucking happy that lady is.

So Kat looks around the store for an enormous piece of cheesecake and says we should lie on it and then buy it. We do, but I insist on the firmer Rhapsody rather than the squishy Classic. John cut us a deal on new funny-shaped pillows with raspberry sauce and graham cracker crust.

Sleeping on it is weird. It feels like it’s sucking you down; if you are not a restless sleeper, you wake up in a little pit shaped like yourself. It also smelled toxic for a week, but I wisely planned a business trip during the stink-out time.

So, the new bed looks like this:

…which is more or less what it looked like before. But thanks to the Sexually Adventurous Option Package, it has an adjustable robotic base that twists the mattress into funny shapes. So sometimes it looks like this:

…which is just as comfortable as it appears. It took two burly men an hour to get the whole contraption up the stairs and installed.

The point is, her back and my back feel better now. And now you know I sleep with a picture of a guy’s wang over my face every night.

A Fool and His Money

If you were alive in 1991 and you had a Macintosh, you played The Fool’s Errand. It is, still today, one of the mind-warpiest puzzles games you will ever see, a monochrome, Tarot-themed labor of love from a true puzzle master, Cliff Johnson. With a little emulation wrangling, you can play the original game for free at that link, and I highly recommend that you do. (Don’t do the DOS version; this was envisioned on Mac and is best on Mac). I suspect you will scream and curse and love it like I do.

When it comes to making metapuzzles — that is, puzzles that you solve that add up to reveal the answer to a bigger puzzle — Cliff is on another level entirely. Cliff made several other computer games (details on his site) and got some recognition a few years back for engineering the treasure hunt found within David Blaine’s autobiography, Mysterious Stranger. But the mark left by The Fool’s Errand is indelible, and he is proud of his legacy.

A few years ago Cliff Johnson announced a sequel, A Fool and His Money, with more verbal, visual, and gambling puzzles. I preordered. And waited. It has taken six years for CJ to bring his project to where he wants it to be, and I support him wholeheartedly in the age of “let’s get it out there” software publishing. For everybody who says they support gaming as an art form, here’s an independent creator who knows what he wants, and needs the community to support him as he does it. (Hence my speedy preorder.)

A teaser is now up with some of the puzzles, and this one has been built from the start for both Windows and Macintosh, so you can choose either flavor and not feel like you’re missing anything.

If you’re looking for the real deal in indie development — a guy and a computer and a great idea — this is worth watching, if not worth ordering outright via PayPal. (Preorder now and get your name in the credits alongside mine!)

Few puzzles will give you the solving satisfaction that Cliff’s do. I think that’s because they’re impossible.

No longer a prime number

Today I turned 38. I have to admit, it looks frighteningly close to 40. I had the Monty Python “I’m 37!” joke, and I’ll have Jack Benny’s 39 joke next year, but 38 just looks like “old.”

Didn’t really get much time to myself, as it’s ship week and I’m late on several deadlines. But it was kinda bizarre/cool to have what seemed like most of Facebook wish me a happy birthday — old friends, acquaintances, you name it. It was pleasantly overwhelming. It made it even funnier that people from other departments at Future knew and said nice things, but nobody at OXM was aware. (Fran actually got me a really awesome cupcake 10 days early because she knew she’d forget.)

And whereas I’m still kind of uncomfortable about getting gifts, the ones I got were spot-on. I got several books that remind me that I have to finish the one I’m reading so I can move on, and Kat got me another hard drive enclosure — this time specifically with FireWire so music recording on the Mac will be easier. That seems like a pure piece of utility but damn if it didn’t thrill me, especially after the recent troubles I’ve handled.

Oh well. Going to bed older, but not wiser yet.

Guitar Aficianado

We’re in a recession. You may have heard. So when my parent company Future US announced that it would be launching a new magazine, I was surprised. When I found out it was a guitar magazine, I did a double-take.

It’s called Guitar Aficianado. Think guitars as investment, as art, as a high-end lifestyle. I buy most of my guitars used; this is for the guy who buys his guitars not only new from the factory but custom-made. I have seen these guys in Gryphon Stringed Instruments, which caters to the Google and Silicon Valley crowd in Palo Alto. I bought one of my (used) guitars there. Their table scraps are awesome.

This is a risky time to launch a magazine, of course, but reading the website, they are going with a limited circulation of 100,000 and it’s only publishing quarterly, which makes a lot of sense for something this targeted. That means it won’t be in Guitar Center but it will be be in bookstores and private guitar shops. So those guys that would likely drive up to Gryphon in their Porsches and Lexii would certainly take home a copy of this. There is always going to be an affluent demographic — the wine taster, the world traveler, the executive who likes to indulge a passion hobby. If 401k is what your guitar collection is worth, Guitar Aficianado is for you.

I hope I get to write for it. I totally want to write a story about the Moderne.