30 June 2015

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 7 - Favorite Edition.

Ooooh, boy.  This is a can of worms.  Yes, I'm a veteran of the Edition Wars.  The experience has left me with some insights into what makes for great games, and what gets in the way.  Oddly, I'm a bit contradictory myself about a lot of my own conclusions- so I don't find it too hard to believe that there are zealots out there who champion one edition or another to the exclusion of all else. "Your favorite game sucks" has become something of an in-joke, since it seems that no matter how universally appealing an RPG seems, someone out there hates it with the fiery passion of a dying sun.  No game seems immune, and no edition of D&D seems to be immune either.

Let me start by saying that there is no edition of D&D currently in existence that I will refuse to play.  Yes, even 4e.  I find that each edition has strong points in favor of its use.  I do have a favorite, and I'll get to that, but I want to talk about other editions first to express my appreciation for D&D in all its incarnations.

0e, or the original 1974 D&D, has only recently become something I can say I've played.  Thanks to reprints, PDFs and Swords & Wizardry, I got introduced to the original D&D game more than three decades after it made its debut.  I expected to find clunky- and to a degree, there was a fair amount of clunk to the rules.  Some classes were missing from what you'd expect.  All weapons did d6 damage.  High ability scores got you a +1, low a -1, end of story.  What this, and Scott McKinlay's excellent Dungeon Mastery showed me, was that 0e D&D could be an incredible game because of the primitive and incomplete nature of the rules.  Go for it- rules don't cover something?  Roll a die.  Any die.  I don't care.  Decent roll?  OK, you succeed.  We played a campaign that was every bit as much fun as any game with more "complete" rules.

B/X Moldvay/Cook D&D Basic deserves a shout-out here.  It's recently been the basis of many retro clone projects from Labyrinth Lord to Stars Without Number.  It's a complete, self-contained RPG in two volumes covering 1st level to 14th level.  B/X has no more levels.  B/X needs no more levels.  If you want D&D in a medium-range campaign, this is all you need in 128 pages.

AD&D 1e was the first AD&D I played, as 2e wasn't out yet.  I still love AD&D, and would readily jump into a campaign.  Yes, some of the subsystems were almost random in their rules- no such thing as a "universal mechanic" back then.  Thing is, it opened up a LOT of options, and with things like Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures, there were a lot of classes and races that could be played.  Nothing wrong with 1e AD&D if one considers it a product of its time- it was the first multi-hardcover RPG.

AD&D 2e was the game I spent most of high school playing.  It launched my Freshman year, and we jumped to it almost immediately.  I loved the art, trade dress and layout of the 2e books.  I loved the brown leatherette cover splatbooks.  The 3-ring binder Monstrous Compendium.  It was a streamlined AD&D, and maintained everything we loved about AD&D.  We didn't miss the things that were left out, because we just grafted them in from our 1e books.  Again, I'd play this in a microsecond if the opportunity arose.

3.0 and 3.5...  Well, I liked them well enough.  Feats were a neat idea that quickly became open to bloat and abuse, but a lot of things we'd house ruled for years became standard.  Full HD for 1st level?  Yep.  Skills as a standard thing?  Yep.  Mages getting bonus spells for high INT the way Clerics got them for high WIS?  Yep.  I did not like the increasing complexity of PC, NPC and Monster design that the feat system wove into D&D, but all in all the system was robust enough to spin off lots of D20 System games I still like.  Spycraft and D20 Modern stand out in my mind.  Yeah, I'd do 3.5 again if a group wanted to - but I'd probably choose AD&D over 3.x if given my druthers.

4e isn't D&D to me.  Randomness seems to break 4e, it's math is built tightly to do a certain kind of game and do it well.  Old school campaigns I found difficult because of the whole formula for encounter difficulty versus encounters between levels plus it was assumed everyone in the party was the same level...  Yeah.  Now, ask me why I love it?  I love 4e, not for being D&D, but for being a tabletop RPG that rewards tactical thinking and teamwork on the part of the players.  If I wanted to run a campaign based on a traveling gladiator team, or something like Final Fantasy Tactics, this would be my go-to game.  And yes, I'd love to run that game.

5e is amazing.  I couldn't have asked for a better improvement on what has come before.  5e manages to scratch my Old School itch at the same time it scratches my New Shiny itch.  Things are simplified, streamlined, and clarified.  The game just... works.  The Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic is sheer genius.  The revamped Feats are what Feats should have been to begin with.  I love that it mixes OS with NS.  I like spellcasters having "At-Will" cantrips, it means the mage is always a mage, even when his big spells are blown.  I mean... it's just what I wanted.  But it's still not my absolute favorite.

OK, who called it?

Yes, BECMI D&D is my favorite version of D&D ever.  I know 5e is cleaner and tighter, but I LOVE this version of D&D.  It was my first D&D, and it continues to be the one I want to play above others.  I like race-as-class.  I like level titles, and "name" level, and the Mystara setting, and I find that the Rules Cyclopedia is the best single-volume RPG I own, bar none.

Is it just nostalgia?  Is it just Elmore art?  No, not really.  It has just the right balance of crunch for me.  The rules are there, but I have room to play with ability checks, or saves, or just saying "toss a die."  It has optional rules for skills, weapon proficiencies, mass combat and domain rulership.  What's not to love?

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 6 - Favorite Deity.

I had to think hard about this one.  I have played a LOT of Clerics over the years.  In 3e, with the Greyhawk-inspired list of deities, I always leaned toward St. Cuthbert for the healing angle.  In 4e, I really dug the Raven Queen for style and a sort of "valar morghulis" attitude.  But I guess when I get right down to it, thanks to Mystara being my favorite game world, and Karameikos being my favorite realm within that game world, I have to go with the classic Traladaran Immortals - Halav, Petrov and Zirchev.

BECMI D&D does not have actual deities as such, they have Immortals, mortals who through deed and merit ascended to become a higher being.  They are somewhere along the power level of the Greek or Roman pantheon in that they regularly meddle in mortal affairs and are themselves mortal after a fashion.  Halav was a King, and he adventured along with his companions Petrov and Zirchev.  All three rose to Immortal status, with Halav saving Traladara from invastion by "beastmen" by killing their leader.  This leads to the three becoming the patron Immortals of the Traladaran people, and sparking the Cult of Halav later when some followers of Halav believe Stefan Karameikos to be the reincarnation of their beloved King.

  See THIS article from the Vaults of Pandius for a bit more info.

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 5 - Favorite Die or Dice

Well, you never forget your first.  My favorite dice would have to be the ones I purchased with my own money back in 1987 to supplement the dice that came with the various games I played.  To this day, I maintain a cigar box full of dice of the same pedigree and color, although the surviving dice of my original set are in a special dice bag with many of my vintage dice.  I have a lot of the old hard  plastic dice that needed to be crayoned or inked- but like many vintage dice quite a few of them are worn and rounded.  Those dice got retired to a keepsake dice bag along with my first purchase.  You can click here and see the Koplow dice set, or its modern equivalent, that I purchased back in 1987 at King's Hobby Shop in Austin, Texas.  It was the 10-piece tube (though I remember it being 9, one less d6) that included 1d4, 4d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1 tens 10, 1d12 and 1d20.  They were transparent red dice with white ink.  And they were my first color-matched set, used to run my very first Robotech games as they were purchased the same day I got Robotech Book 1: Macross from the same shopping trip.  I use my modern clones of these original dice in the 5e D&D game I play once or twice a month, but let me tell ya- they don't roll like those first ones did.  Natural 1s all the dang time.

Honorable mention goes to the 20-sided d10s I got in my FASA Star Trek boxed set purchased for me by Mammaw and Pappaw Webb when I was in the 7th Grade, and the almost completely rounded d20 I used to play Lone Wolf game novels in algebra class my Freshman year.  I still have all three of these dice, and they are in the same keepsake bag as my first set.                                                                                                                   

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 4 - Favorite Game World

OK, so this one made me think for a bit.  I have a lot of experience as a DM but have played in relatively few published game worlds.  For example, I own several Greyhawk products, but have only run games there in a coincidental fashion- some modules are set in Greyhawk so you could arguably say I've run Greyhawk games.  I've wanted to run in Kara Tur, but never been given the opportunity due to my player base being less interested in Asian-inspired game worlds.  I also loved Al Qadim, thought I've never run there for the same reason.  My Al Qadim book sits on the shelf next to my bed, and I read it from time to time just for story inspiration.  Forgotten Realms?  I own every core set for the Realms since the original gray box, but have never actually run there aside, again, from the occasional module.  Why?  Because when FR first came out, I was already running in the Known World, and then FR exploded into so much canon I really didn't have the inclination to keep up.  I was happy with the game worlds I had come to love.

  My runner-up is Dragonlance.  I love Krynn for many reasons, but I'll hit the big ones and move on.  First, Solamnic Knights.  The whole story of a once glorious but now faded knighthood that has grown inflexible and ossified- hey, wait... isn't this what happened to the Jedi?  I love the ideals of what the Solamnic Knights were supposed to have been, and the opporunity for a PC to make them uphold those ideas once more.  Something else I love about Dragonlance are the mages.  The Order of High Sorcery with the White, Black and Red-robed mages.  I really, REALLY dig that idea, as well as the idea that the phases of Krynn's three moons - Lunitari, Solonari and Nuitari - have an effect on the spellcasting abilities of the mages.  Everything about the Dragonlance world (during the War of the Lance, anyway) rocks... except, perhaps, Kender.

  So that brings me to my favorite game world.  Well, I'm going to cheat a bit.  One, it's a tie.  And two, it's a tie-in.  Hows that, you ask?  Well, there are two game worlds I invariably use for my D&D and AD&D games.  The first and oldest is Mystara, also known as The Known World.  It dates back to the Moldvay/Cook Expert Set circa 1980.  It was expanded on in modules, the 1983 BECMI sets, and the stellar Gazetteer series throughout the 80s, and became part of the AD&D line in the 90s.  Loved it.  The second setting is Ravenloft, the realm of Gothic horror inspired by the module of the same name, I6, written by Tracy and Laura Hickman in 1983.  I say it's a tie-in because in my D&D cosmology, the first of the realms in the Demiplane of Ravenloft was Barovia, which was itself an area of the Altan Tepes mountains in the Mystaran area of Traldar.  So here we go.

  My love affair with Mystara is nearly as old as my love of D&D.  The world we traveled in Daniel Varner's campaign was pretty much The Known World as presented in the Blue Book.  We started in Threshold, part of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos.  Threshold was suggested as a starting point both in the Moldvay/Cook and Mentzer Expert books.  It's a small settlement on the threshold of civilized lands, hence the name.  The Duchy of Karameikos is where a huge percentage of my D&D campaigns start.  It's just such an evocative place to adventure.  The land was known of old as Traladara, and its indigenous peoples are reminiscent of Balkan or Slavic peoples.  Then Stefan Karameikos, an young noble from the Empire of Thyatis, traded his ancestral lands for the Emperor's blessing to take over the Traladara.  You immediately get the clash of cultures as the old Traladaran nobles attempt to presever their power against the Thyatian upstart.  There's even a rebellion fought against the Duke by the Marilenev family.  This gives players a lot of options- are they Thyatian expats looking, as their Duke is, to expand their own wealth and influence by taming a barbaric land?  Are they Traladaran natives who either embrace or reject the Thyatian meddling in their affairs?

  Mystara isn't just Karameikos, though.  Within a reasonable traveling distance are many lands, the
Arabian-inspired Ylauram, the Northern Reaches with its Norse-like inhabitants, the Mageocracy of the Empire of Alphatia, the Italian merchants of Darokin and a lot more.  I love Mystara for its depth and diversity, and for the wonderful Gazetteer series inaugurated by the Karameikos book penned by the late, great Aaron Allston. 

  My tie/tie-in game world is Ravenloft.  As I mentioned, this was a spin-off of the Gothic horror module Ravenloft written for AD&D.  It was one of the first modules that wasn't a simple dungeon crawl, dripping with theme and containing some replayability, since the Tarot-like Tarokka reading given by the Vistani woman at the beginning of the module sets variables in the module that change the goal, the treasure locations, even the location of Strahd, the vampire himself.  This module was wildly successful, thus being fleshed out into an entire "Demiplane of Dread."  Castle Ravenloft became the seat of a domain, one of many, that were lifted from other AD&D worlds and deposited into a demiplane full of evil and terror.  Each lord of each domain was imprisoned there for eternity to stew in their own transgressions.  Strahd, for example, had to relive losing his Tatyana again and again, for his sin was killing his own brother to gain her hand.  There is a lot of inspiration from classic horror literature here- Adam stands in for Frankentien's monster, for example.  There's also evil from entirely different campaign settings.  Lord Soth, the fallen Solamnic Knight, appears here from Krynn.

  Ravenloft presents different ways to do horror with D&D.  The rules in the original boxed set are pretty punishing, with Clerics and Paladins getting hit particularly hard.  Communication with deities are disrupted, and some spells are perverted by the demiplane itself.  Some spells work differently, and some do not work at all.  Any evil act will potentially draw the attention of the dark powers that created the realm, who will offer power in exchange for corruption.  TONS of story fodder here.

  I tied Ravenloft into Mystara by having the people of Barovia and the Vistani gypsy-analogues be transplanted Traladarans, and I retconned the Vistani into the Duchy of Karameikos in that role.  Barovia was in the Altan Tepes mountains northwest of Korizegy Keep, and the Vampire Korizegy was a betrayed ally of Strahd's, and has a bone to pick with him.  It all worked out rather well in an epic campaign I ran about ten years ago.  Twas amazing.

  See you in the next post!

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 3 - Favorite PC Class

Well, there isn't much internal debate on this one.  I *know* what my favorite PC class is without even thinking about it very hard.

Before I get to that, though, I'm going to discuss my runners-up.  My very first D&D PC was a Cleric, but he didn't last very long.  My first D&D PC with any sort of lifespan was a Magic-User who, as I noted before, lived into the late 20s level-wise.  That's as far as I've ever gotten a character since- in fact I've not gotten a PC out of the teens in level since then.  So I do have a very, very soft spot for spellslingers.

 I love Magic-Users, or Mages, Wizards, whatever.   Since I cut my teeth on BECMI D&D, I tend to revert to that nomenclature.  I wasn't a very athletic kid, so the idea of a bookworm who could potentially become incredibly powerful and wield unearthly forces was very attractive to me.  It was also what drove me to learn as much as I could about computers and electronics as a kid, because that's the closest to magic we're going to get in the mundane world.  I loved tossing magic missile spells (they never miss!) and phantasmal force and yes, the old favorite, fireball.  Magic-User was where it was at, and remains among my first choices when I create a new character for a fantasy game.  I'll throw Elf in here, too, as Elves in BECMI D&D are basically multiclass Fighter/Magic-Users.  The Elf, as described in Day 2's post, can wear full armor, use any weapon, and still toss spells.  This, of course, is limited by slow level advancement- but still.  Of course, Elves topped out at 12th level, so they'd never have access to the really powerful magic available to human Magic-Users as they climbed the level ladder.  That sort of power took a long time in-game and IRL to amass, but woe to the foe who crosses the mage that wields it.  Think fireball is bad?  Wait'll you get a load of meteor swarm.

Also in the runner-up category is a class that appears in BECMI only after a Fighter earns name level, a term lost on more recent D&D players that refers generally to 9th level and specifically to the level where a class gains the title by which the PC is considered to have matured in power and standing.  At 9th level, a Fighter could opt to become a Paladin, which was a separate class in AD&D.  Paladins were warrior knights with a holy devotion to an immortal- like the Crusader knights, but with a bit of clerical magic.  Folks that know me generally describe me as having "Lawful Good" ideals, always wanting to do what's right, to help those in need, etc.  My friend Scott has referred to it as a "White Knight Complex."  Perhaps that's why Paladins appeal to me.  This extends even moreso to the Cavalier of AD&D's Unearthed Arcana and especially to the Solamnic Knight of Dragonlance Adventures.  The story of Sturm Brightblade, who sought all his life to uphold the honor and ideals of a knighthood that was tarnished and dismissed by society, who succeeded in his actions and in his own death in surpassing those same knights in honor and valor- WOW.  What a tale.  If Don Quixote de la Mancha had been a younger man, sound of wind and limb, he and Sturm would certainly have had a similar career.  The ideals contained in the song "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha sum up what I love about Paladins.  And the world will be better for this- that one man, scorned and covered with scars still strove with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable star!


So... this brings me to my absolute favorite PC class.  CLERIC.  Why Cleric?  Well, because of the Elmore artwork in the Expert Set book, initially.  MAN those Clerics rocked.  Also, Aleena, the Cleric from your first adventure in the D&D Basic Set.  But seriously, take a look at the Cleric.  Wear any armor.  Use any blunt weapon- warhammers and maces rule.  Now, gain the ability to make undead creatures run from your holy rebuke.  Now, on top of that, add the ability to cast spells that heal and protect, and even a few with offensive capabilities.  WOW!  That makes for a powerhouse class that amazingly fun to play.  You can play the character like the Paladin, just minus the sword.  You can play a jolly, Friar Tuck-style Cleric.  You can play a vengeful Cleric of an immortal of War, there's so many ways to play a Cleric.  All of them, however, are able to mix it up in melee *and* use clerical abilities to defeat undead and heal their allies.  Most D&D parties would never leave town without a Cleric.  Sure, the Elf can fight and cast- but he can't heal.  The only source of magical healing beneath 9th level in BECMI is the Cleric, and it was and remains my favorite D&D character class.

26 June 2015

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 2 - Favorite PC Race

Favorite PC Race.  Well, I'm afraid my answer for this one is going to be fairly boring - Human.  That said, I've played all the classic PC races from the BECMI Dungeons & Dragons game, as well as a few from AD&D or newer editions that weren't canonical or playable back in the old days.  I guess I should elaborate a bit, since just the bare answer wouldn't make for very interesting reading.

So, when I got into D&D, there were really only four PC races to choose from, and in that case race as class was a thing.  For those who don't remember this time long ago, what that means is that Humans could choose a class- Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User or Thief.  Demi-Humans, that is Dwarves, Elves and Haflings treated their race as their class.  There were no Dwarven Clerics or Halfling Thieves in the BECMI rulebooks.  Now, such things would be added later by the Gazetteer series and already existed in Advanced D&D, but we're talking about the game I played when I started playing D&D - and that's the Mentzer BECMI rules.  BECMI stands for Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, Immortal.  These were the five boxed sets that made up the whole of the rules for this "edition" of Dungeons and Dragons.

So... as a Human, you could play the four classes.  If you chose Demi-Human, you were what the rest of the adventurers of your race were.  Demi-Human classes were kind of paragons of what it was to be that particular race.

Dwarves were fighters with much better Saving Throws and some pretty neat abilities.  Dwarves could see in the dark.  It was called Infravision in those days, and I still call it that now out of stubborn grognard habit.  So, Dwarves saw heat out to 60', allowing them to function in the dark.  They also spoke dwarf, gnome, goblin and kobold in addition to Common and their alignment language.  They could detect stone traps, slopes, new construction and other details about stonework.  You know, Dwarf stuff.  Back in the 80s we did not yet have the Scottish Dwarf stereotype, but the rest of the Dwarf stereotype was already alive and well.  I enjoy playing Dwarves, they are hardy and their abilities give some good RP fodder, though they tend to be very Tolkien Dwarf- which is a feature, not a bug, if you grew up playing like I did.  Lots of fun, but not my favorite.

Elves were basically Fighter/Magic-Users.  The orignal Elf in the 1974 rules had to choose whether to function as a Fighting Man or a Magic-User each day, and could only use the abilities of one or the other during that day.  The Elf of BECMI D&D did both of them at once!  Your Elf could wear plate armor and cast Magic Missiles!  Elves had less hit points than Fighters, and required more experience points than any other class to make levels, but they were amazingly versatile.  On top of being able to use any weapon or armor and cast Magic-User spells, elves also had Infravision, extra languages, and could detect secret or hidden doors of any type 1/3 of the time.  Oh, and they were immune to being paralyzed by ghouls.  Lots of fun, Elves.  A very do-everything class, but the XP toll was heavy.  Enjoyable, but again, not my favorite.

Halflings.  I feel like the BECMI Halfling is overlooked a lot.  Oh, and I have it from Frank Mentzer himself that they're HOBBITS, damnit.  Anyway, these little guys have the most incredible Saving Throw progression in the game, they have an AC bonus versus large creatures, the natural ability to hide nearly perfectly out of doors and fairly well indoors.  They also get a bonus on individual initiative and on missile attacks.  There's a lot of great abilities here, and a lot of play value in creating a Half- er, Hobbit PC.  A very, very entertaining choice and a surprisingly hardy little character- but not my favorite.

I have to go with plain old boring Humans.  Why?  Well, most of my PCs are human because I identify most readily with humans and, as my current PC Linhardt of Quasqueton proves, I like an underdog.  Humans (in most game worlds) are forging their own way in a world populated by races that can see in the dark, or are naturally magical, or have skills Humans lack, and still the Humans prevail on sheer will and Chutzpah.  As a Human I can play my favorite character class- to be revealed in the next post.  Humans tend to get along with all the other PC races, where some of the PC races don't always like each other in many game worlds.  I enjoy the familiarity, yet versatility of the bog-standard Human.  May not have Infravision, or an AC bonus, or know jack about stonework- but my favorite PC race.

25 June 2015

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 1 - How you got started.

So, I see this thing on Facebook about the Dungeons and Dragons 30 Day Challenge. Looks kind of interesting.

I've been a gamer since the summer of 1986.  That's 75% of my mortal existence at the time of this writing.  It's the hobby and interest that defines me, right down to things I love to do with my kids and the subject matter of the Masters Thesis I am currently writing for my MA in Military History.  Maybe it would be an interesting exercise to go through the D&D Thirty-Day Challenge for my own reminisces as well as the enjoyment of anyone out there in Internet Land who would find it of interest.

In 1985 I was 10 years old and had just relocated from Round Rock, Texas to Temple Terrace, Florida.  My mother was looking for a fresh start, and we pulled up stakes and and went to Florida where her sister Carrie and her husband and their newborn were living.  My uncle Gerry was a programmer at IBM and a audiophile with a taste for the Beatles, and my cousin Kenny a tiny spud of a baby who was vaguely amusing to me.  I was terribly put off by the move- all my friends were being left behind, I didn't know anyone, it wasn't even my state.  My sole consolation upon arriving was to find that my favorite cartoon that I'd only seen aired in my grandparent's market in Lake Charles, LA also aired here - Tranzor Z.  Our first day in Florida, I tuned in.  As Tranzor Z ended I was fascinated by this other show I had never heard of - Robotech.  The episode I saw first was one of the final "New Generation" storylines of the 85-episode series, in which Scott Bernard and his Freedom Fighters find the city of Denver preserved beneath ice.  I couldn't take my eyes off it. 

The year we spent in Florida reinforced some things I already loved - GI Joe, Transformers, Voltron - and introduced me to some new things - Robotech, MASK, and my first glimpse of Advenced Dungeons & Dragons.  Although I cut my teeth on Mentzer D&D Basic, the first books I ever paged through belonged to the older brother of a school friend named Eric who lived across the apartment complex from us.  He had the AD&D core books in his room, and I was immediately fascinated by them.  I had heard of D&D of course, most kids my age had.  We watched the D&D cartoon, and some even had a few of the LJN D&D action figures like Strongheart, Warduke or Peralay.  There were a couple of D&D carts for the Intellivision... but books?  What could they be for?  Sadly, Eric's brother and his friends were about as enthusiastic about showing us as Elliot's brother Michael's friends in E.T.  You can't just join any universe in the middle.  I had to content myself with my other interests, like my Vectrex and Transformers, until we moved back to Round Rock the following summer.

Returning to Round Rock was something of a sort-of victory for me.  I was home, back in the town I considered my hometown- it was where my mom's parents lived with some of my aunts and uncles, and the town where I had the most memories and roots.  Mom and I had moved there the first time in 1982 after I completed the first grade in Humble, TX.  I made a lot of good friends at Robertson Elementary from '82-'85, and I was looking very forward to picking those friendships back up when we got back to Round Rock... only we moved to the other side of IH-35 and I ended up at Chisholm Trail Middle School instead of C.D. Fulkes, where everyone I knew went.  I was back to being the new kid with no friends.  This kinda sucked.

Almost immediately, I met Daniel Varner.  Daniel was a fellow science fiction nerd, and had to wear a brace that kept his knees apart by about a foot, making his locomotion a Cowboy-like gait where one leg swung forward followed by the other.  In Boy Scouts he picked up the nickname "Jock Itch" for this particular factor.  Daniel and I became fast friends, and he invited me over to his home to hang out after we met at the park just off Chisholm Valley Drive that would later become the second incarnation of Drakenroc, my Amtgard LARP park.  Along with Jim "Cookie" Cook and a few others, we delved into the realm of Dungeons and Dragons for the first time during the summer of 1986.  Daniel had the Mentzer Basic and Expert rule sets, and he started all of us with our first characters at 4th or 5th level.  I remember opening the D&D Expert Rulebook, the blue one with the mounted fighter charging the dragon, for the first time.  The illustrations are what pulled me in immediately.
I will always owe a debt of deep gratitude to Larry Elmore, who I had the chance to meet recently, for the art that set the hook, and to Frank Mentzer, who I also got to game with earlier this month, for penning the version of D&D that remains my favorite to this day.  Two illustrations in particular remain so vivid in my mind that I can close my eyes and recall them in detail even today.  The first was of a Cleric casting what I assume was the Speak With Dead spell, the second was the class illustration for the Cleric class itself a few pages earlier.  I guess the book must have opened to the spell descriptions.  This book had me enthralled in a way only possible before by books on things like UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster.  I loved reading about the strange and the paranormal.  I loved reading The Hobbit.  This was somehow a book you could... play?  And thus my first, short-lived character, a Cleric, was rolled up.  With the toss of that first 3d6 (in order) a journey began that has not yet ended and God willing won't for many years to come.  It is a journey that has been shared with countless friends along the way as well as my wife and my son- and soon, my daughter, when she's a bit older.  The collaborative storytelling that is the Roleplaying Game soon captured my imagination like nothing before had, and I found myself turning to reading even more as a favored pastime.  I devoured books from the CTMS library and Round Rock Public Library on everything from mythology to the middle ages to ghosts to spacecraft.  I discovered that Conan was more than an Arnold Schwarzenegger film.  D&D soon led me to Marvel Superheroes, Star Frontiers, and Gamma World.  My mom's co-workers at Eaton found out I was gaming, and gifted me with Traveller, Cyberpunk 2013 (brand new!) and 2300 AD books.  I scraped together my own money and purchased the first RPG I ever bought for myself just after my birthday in 1987- Palladium's Robotech RPG and a set of red Koplow dice in the extended tube that came with 3d6 and 2d10.  Then came Palladium Fantasy, GURPs, Paranoia, Star Wars D6, FASA Star Trek, Call of Cthulhu, Elfquest and Pendragon- all before I was a High School Freshman.

Gaming became such an important part of our lives that it was the bulk of our scouting weekends.  Much to our scoutmasters dismay, we'd rush to set  up camp and get dinner on the fire so we could break out the D&D or Traveller books and have adventures.  We even played a mini-campaign at Lost Pines Scout Camp, and somewhere out there my second Cleric, Brother Maynard, is still running...  Daniel's group played every day after school for all of middle school when we could, and most Saturdays.  We were kids, with munchkin tendencies, and I got my second character, a Magic-User, into the high 20s level-wise before he was killed by the black dragon we had managed to subdue...  while strapping on its feed-bag.  What do you want, we were 13?

Dungeons and Dragons and other RPGs gave us misfits a place to fit.  When we weren't athletes or popular folks we could always sit down at a kitchen table with others of our kind and toss dice, creating stories together that were just as good as any book or movie.  We could cease to be middle school students and be great warriors, mages, clerics or thieves.  Movers and shakers in the Known World, delving dungeons from which lesser mortals never returned.  And that made for a childhood that was completely badass.

I can honestly say thanks to this hobby I read more, I learned more math - any Traveller player who wanted to calculate interplanetary journey time had to know how to square root things - I devoured knowledge in all its forms and learned creativity and problem-solving.  I learned people skills, how to improvise dialogue and voices, how to plan for contingencies...  I wouldn't trade it for any other childhood.  I grew up in the 80s, we had D&D, great cartoons, great video games and the best music ever.

My mug is raised to Gary and Dave for giving us the game, Frank and Larry for making it something that immediately grabbed me and pulled me in, and especially to Daniel Varner, wherever you are, for handing me my first D20.  Cheers, guys.  And as I have done so much in the past, I will continue to spread the game and hopefully the love of the game as long as I'm able.

23 June 2015

Classic TSR: Star Frontiers

Welcome to the Frontier.
Star Frontiers.  This was not the first science fiction RPG, nor was it TSR's first sci-fi RPG - that honor belongs to Metamorphosis Alpha, which I will cover in another post.  Star Frontiers wasn't even *my* first sci-fi RPG, that was Traveller.  SF came second, just before West End Star Wars and Robotech.  So instead of talking about what SF wasn't, let's talk about what it WAS.

Star Frontiers came out in that wonderful era of proliferation that I consider my personal Golden Age of RPGs.  The 70s set the stage, and the 80s took the show to a whole new level.  The first half of the Al Franken Decade saw TSR release so many games that are seminal to my own experience.  During this time, there  were advertisements for TSR games in comic books and even on television.  Included here are Star Frontiers ads from a comic, and from broadcast TV.

This was the time that gave us Gangbusters, Marvel Superheroes, the BECMI revision of D&D, and revisions of Boot Hill, Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha.

Star Frontiers is graced with a beautiful cover painting by Larry Elmore.  In this painting one can see the promise of the Star Frontiers game brought to fiery life.  Two human adventurers, one male and one female are joined by a Yazirian adventurer escaping the remains of a crashed craft under a bright sky included large, colorful moons (or is the world they're on the moon?) and a star-filled sky.  One can imagine these survivors clambering down the escarpment they are standing on in an attempt to find shelter.  The Yazirian's open-mouthed expression and leveled weapon indicate he may have spotted something threatening off to the group's left.

  In other words- the painting makes me wanna play.  The game itself came in a box, the original box was blue, the reprint maroon.  Both games had the same rules and contents, with slightly altered trade dress.  The boxes contained the standard saddle-stitched books.  The Basic Rules book was a thin 16 pages, the Expanded Rules 64 pages, plus the Crash on Volturnus module.  Also included were a pair of maps and some cardstock counters for use in adjudicating combat encounters.  Oh, and a pair of 10-sided dice and (depending on printing) a crayon.  Even though the first set of dice I bought for myself were inked (Koplow tube, red crystal with white ink, with a tens ten and 3d6, King's Hobby Shop,1986) I had received some older dice with hand-me-down sets from friends and the crayon, once I figured out what it was for, represents nostalgia to me.  Hell, I still have the twenty-sided d10s from my FASA Star Trek sets, although they're pretty much round now.

  The Basic Rules books shows that Star Frontiers is a d100-based system.  TSR was really all over the place in game systems, as this d100 system was nothing like the d100 system Jeff Grubb created for Marvel Superheroes (although Zebulon's Guide would later make them very similar) and was not similar to D&D as Metamorphosis Alpha had been.  Ability scores were expressed as numbers that could be rolled against on d100.  The races of Star Frontiers are in here- Humans, Yazirians, Dralasites and Vrusk.  A basic system of combat and RP is presented.  I'll be honest, I never used the basic rules, we always used the expanded rules- they weren't that complex.  64-page rulebooks being "expanded" seems pretty quaint these days.  There was one idea here that later inspired me to create campaign ideas - the standard equipment pack.  Much like the Fast Packs from B4: The Lost City, here was a way to eliminate start-of-campaign shopping trips.  Every player got this basic kit, plus 10 credits.  Note, no weapons were included except a single tangler grenade.  So, why did this simple addition inspire me to write?  It's right there in the game title.  The Frontier.  The Frontier of what?  What if the Frontier was so far from the homeworlds of the major races that it was nearly a one-way trip.  Folks down on their luck or just looking to strike it rich head out to the Frontier to seek their fortunes.  Some can barely afford their passage, and upon arrival after a trip of (weeks?  months?) in cold sleep to be given a standard issue pack of gear and released into a massive receiving station where PanGalactic and other Megacorps have hawkers trying to recruit new blood into their organizations.  With 10 credits to their name plus the pack on their back, the PCs must make their own way in a newly established corner of space.  Welcome to the Frontier.

  The Basic Game Rules booklet has a different piece of cover art, the same three adventurers (I think) with a vehicle called an Explorer.  Explorers are really large vans, apparently painted with racing stripes in 70s color schemes designed to rove across unexplored worlds.  These vehicles also give me great imagination sparks - think of living in one with your contacts for weeks at a time, rolling across lands no sentient has seen, searching for adventure in any form.  That's what adventure gaming is about, folks.

  The Expanded Game Rules book is the version of SF I played.  Now, I've said how inspiring the Larry Elmore cover art is - but the interior art by Jim Holloway is every bit as evocative as well.  There is a particular illustration of a man fighting with a sonic sword in one hand and a shock glove in the other.  My mind parsed this as a swordsmanship style in the Renaissance fashion, where some schools might teach the use of the cloak as a weapon, the cloak or parrying dagger is here replaced by the electrifying shock glove.  One illustration, hours of inspiration.  Not only did this end up being the primary fighting style of some space pirates in my SF games, it survived into the 2010s as the swordsmanship style of the House of Dencourt in my MechWarrior campaign.

The expanded rules include "classes" in the form of PSAs, or Primary Skill Areas.  These are Military, Technological and Biosocial.  Each allows a player to choose one skill from within their PSA, and then a second skill from any PSA.  The skills in Star Frontiers are a bit of all-over-the-place.  Weapon skills apply to a single class of weapons, like Beam Weapons.  Other skills, like Computer, have multiple subskills with different mechanics and success chances.  Conspicuously absent from the skill lists are any sort of starship skills.  One of the often-cited criticisms of Star Frontiers was that there were no ship rules in the original set, these came along in the Knight Hawks box later.  There was a short bestiary of monsters, many of which can be found on Volturnus, the planet introduced in the included module and fleshed out in a following module series.  This was perhaps part of why space combat and space ships weren't covered- it seems the concept of Star Frontiers was that the characters would reach new planets by "starliner" and do their exploring groundside.  I did get a bit annoyed with the term "starliner."  Calling a ship a "liner" implies established routes, and the PCs being on their way to Volturnus, mysterious unexplored world.  Why would a shipping line go to an uninhabited planet?  Well, I have really given it some thought and realized that when they say "starliner" they really mean any ship chartered or otherwise since the PCs who, by the design of the game, can't own or operate a ship under these rules.  Now, this might seem a bit counter-intuitive for a sci-fi game, but Metamorphosis Alpha didn't have such rules, either.  In fact, those PCs didn't usually know they were on a ship.  Contemporary games like Traveller and Space Opera had spaceship rules, so... it's your call wether you think TSR was criminally negligent in leaving out spacecraft rules or not.

  I won't give up any plot points on the first module, Crash on Volturnus, other than what the title itself gives away.  The PCs are involved in a crash on the titular unexplored world, and must make their way with only the things they could scavenge.  It's a lot of fun, and includes many old school concepts like random encounters and overworld map hex-crawling.  A good introduction to Star Frontiers, and a great example of how a sci-fi game can function without ship rules.

  The rest of the box, maps and counters, shouldn't be discounted.  A lot of TSR games came with similar things- the map of Lakefront City in Gangbusters, of New York in Marvel Superheroes- all these were props that could help visualize the action.  The maps included in Star Frontiers have a spaceport city and a spaceship interior, perfect for many adventures.  Pirate attack on a "liner"?  Check.  Chasing a thief who just stole your parabattery through the streets of a port city?  Check.

  I see that I've written a lot, and said not nearly enough about the game.  Wow.  The system is definitely a product of the 80s, but it's fast and serviceable.  The alien races are truly alien, and not just humans with bumpy foreheads.  Yes, you kind of need the Knight Hawks boxed set for a "complete" game in the sense that the PCs could own and crew a ship, but there's plenty of adventure just within the Star Frontiers boxed set, or the Alpha Dawn reprint.  The Star Frontiers rules can be gotten from HERE.  Check them out.  You won't be sorry.  Grab some d10s, jump in your 70s-painted Explorer, and boldly go into an Elmore space landscape with your trusty Dralasite sidekick.

11 June 2015


  So most folks that know me know that in addition to a player and a GM/DM, I consider myself a student of RPG history.  I've read Designers & Dragons, I've read Playing at The World, I've read Of Dice and Men, I've read The Fantasy Role-Playing Gamer's Bible and I look forward to the new Gary Gygax Bio Empire of Imagination.  It is from this passion for RPG history that led me to resolve to make a pilgrimage of sorts to Gary Con.  I'd read about the turnout at Gary Con, and the guest list, and thought that I'd want to attend in the next couple of years and rub elbows with the authors and illustrators of my lifelong hobby.  Then I found out Gary Con was coming to me... sort of.

  Thanks to my new friend Dennis Sustare, now 1st Lieutenant in Her Majesty's Home Guard, I found out about North Texas RPG Con.  Dennis is a D&D luminary himself, having created the Druid class and penned not only his own games but supplements for many others.  He's also credited with quite a few amazing ColecoVision games along with other TSR alumni like Lawrence Schick, Jannell Jaquays and others.  Dennis told us of NTRPGCon, and I talked Mary into letting me go.  I took some days off work, and rolled to the con with Bobby, Ed and Scott.  Dennis had gone up a day before us, and we were joined in Dallas by Aaron and my old HS friend Shawn, who had introduced me to Dragonlance about 24 years previous.

  Walking into the hotel, we immediately saw two large NTRPG logos, one for this year and one for 2014.  We were in the right place, all right.  The logo is designed by Jennell Jaquays, and depicts a dragon with a Texas-flagged shield.  We knew we were in the right place.  Everywhere one looked, one saw gamers and game tables.

  The long and the short of it is this: This was the single greatest con I have ever attended, bar none.  Unlike ComicCons and Fan Days and other endeavors, I was not spending hours and hours standing in lines waiting to pay $50 for autographs.  This was a GAME con, and I spend my time gaming.  Too much time, if there is such a thing, but more on that later.  The guest to attendee ratio was nothing short of incredible.  I told a friend on Facebook that you couldn't throw a kobold and not hit at least two artists or authors.  It was like walking through a TSR Reunion.  Lawrence Schick was over here, Jeff Grubb was over there, Jeff Dee was casually chatting with Larry Elmore and DARLENE.  Name a name in early gaming, and if they were still drawing breath, they might just be in the building.  Steve Perrin, Steve Marsh, Steve Winter... lots of Jeffs and Steves... but everywhere you looked was a yellow badge or a custom NTRPGCON shirt with the name of a luminary from the golden age on it.

   So... what happened?  Glad you asked.  I got to meet some of the folks who made my early years of gaming awesome.  The Red Box from the BECMI set was what I cut my teeth on in 1986, and I got to meet, talk to and game with Frank Mentzer who gave me some great DM advice.  I got great coversations, autographs and photos from both Frank Mentzer and Larry Elmore who were together very much responsible for my lifelong passion for gaming.

  This trip was my gift from Mary to celebrate my 40th Birthday, which occurs later this month.  She got a cruise, I got NTRPGCON.  Now, as much as I love cruising... I think I got the better of the deal.  I invited a group of folks, and those that could make it showed up.  Bobby and I were beaten to the con by Dennis, and we were joined there on Thursday by Aaron, who lives in DFW.  We jumped into our first game- my first AD&D Tournament.  From there it was wall-to-wall gaming for four days.  Here's an overview of the games I played, and I'm not going into too much plot detail so as to avoid spoiling the scenarios that the DMs might want to run later.

1. AD&D Tournament with DM Bill Barsh.

  Bill Barsh of Pacecsetter Games was our host, and I knew we were in trouble when he placed a tablet facing us in front of his DM screen that read "DEATH BY BARSH 3:30" and started counting down.  This was no home D&D game, this was a tournament, and that meant we were on the clock, on our guard, and in deep, deep kimchi.  There was a lot of bickering as players unfamiliar with one another had completely varying ideas of how to pursue the goal.  There was a refreshing amount of problem solving rather than straight hack-and-slash.  THIS was what old D&D was as far as puzzles and traps that so often fall by the wayside in modern gaming.  That said, there was very little roleplay since it was a tournament, and the point was to live long enough to gain the goal with as many party members alive as posisble.
  Yeah... about that...  it was a TPK.  Total.  Party.  Kill.  We died a lot.  Thing is... we had A BLAST.  We also came in second overall.  Not too shabby for a pickup team on their first tournament.

HIGHLIGHT:  Getting to see the Thief who spend the whole damn game invisible be the last PC standing and trying in vain to avoid inevitable death.  I almost cheered.  I know that's mean, but sitting out of every combat to preserve invisibility kinda boned the party in a few places.  Clever, but it's a team tournament...

2. Frank Mentzer's Ad-Lib Dungeon.

  OK, this was just awesome.  Frank asked us each to contribute two items from any gaming experience or book we've had, and he'd turn them into a D&D adventure.  We ended up starting a quest to find a Heartstone for the King, being waylaid by Venger who told us he would allow us to pass (and live) if we brought him three extraordinarily large eggs.  That's when we went on OPERATION: SIDEQUEST and came across carnivorous apes riding ostriches that were playing some sort of polo/soccer game while Eric the Cavalier hung, unresponsive, from a tree.  We managed to pilfer an egg from the ostrich pens, but were forces to watch a masterful Magic-User PC absue the magic system in wonderful ways to sneak his way into the nests of chained velociraptors to steal the remaining eggs we needed to appease Venger...  Yeah, this was pretty damn cool.  Cool indeed.

HIGHLIGHT: After the game Bobby ran into Frank Mentzer, who was bragging on his roleplaying ability to Bill Webb and Tim Kask.  Bobby will be insufferably pleased with himself for the rest of his life.

3. TOP SECRET with Merle Rasmussen.

  Another chance to game with an author.  Merle Rasmussen turned out to be a total hoot, and his adventure had a great twist we never expected in a spy game.  There were a couple of cute anachronisms due to adapting a Cold War module to modern day, but we had a great time.  The group gelled well, and we even managed to figure out the premier trade good for the third world area of the globe in which we were operating.  Toilet paper.  Everyone loves toilet paper.  $50 worth of TP in the right part of the world can get you a few AK-47s and some dynamite.  Important life lesson.

HIGHLIGHT: Being reminded we were on a recon operation by our sole female agent while we were gearing up with assault rifles, explosives, and handguns...

4. RECON! with Dennis Pipes.

  I played a lot of Revised Recon! in high school.  I'd not played since 1993.  Little did I know this was the original Recon! game that predated my experience with the Pallaium revision.  This one is pretty hard to talk about at all due to the plot twists, but it was a ton of fun.  We were operating in Laos, and... well... damnit.  I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you.  Thanks to good experience on the part of the players and some familiarity with infantry tactics and COIN, we did OK... at least some of us made it out...  I would eagerly play this earlier version again.  In fact, I'm hoping to score a slot in Dennis Pipes' The Morrow Project event if he runs it next year.  I miss crunchy military post-apoc roleplay from the 80s.

HIGHLIGHT:  Aaron Murphy's heroic death.  Both of them.

5. Battletech with Gary Oliver

  This event was pitched as MechWarrior 1e/Battletech 2e.  My sweet spot.  Well, it turned out to be straight Battletech, but it was OK.  I got to play a Russian brother in a Hunchback, whose brother also played a Hunchback.  We hit all the Battletech high points - there was a Death From Above, there were missiles flying, overheating, annoying hovertanks, the whole schmear.  The best part was for a change I was just playing my 'Mech, not the entire OPFOR.

HIGHLIGHT:  The game master's son, Gavin, was gifted with a Royal Dragoon Guards unit patch to welcome him to the MechWarrior community.  He said he was going to put it on his school uniform...


6. Traveller with Mike Kelly

  I can only describe this game as high-powered.  We were all SOC A knights and dames, and we were wealthy and at ease at our hunting resort as the game opened.  It got awsome from there.  Mike Kelly managed to take a huge chunk of Traveller metaplot and make it into a morning's gaming session.  It was pretty damn awesome to be honest.  I've always loved Traveller, and the GM definitely highlighted the versatility of the Traveller system for us.

HIGHLIGHT: Mike telling us at the end of the game what he'd done with the plot, and my mind being blown.

7. Star Trek with Corbett Kirkley

  OK, aside from Corbett Kirkley sounding like the name of an inventor of self-aware probes that will later return and mistake CAPT James T. Kirk for their daddy... this game kicked a whole lot of ass.  See, what the GM did was innovative and so amazing we're all planning to do something similar when we get home.  The table was strewn with Star Trek props.  There were action figures.  The character sheets were foamcore squares with photos of the characters on the front, and the stats on the back with backgrounds color-coded to the uniform color of the character.  We all got to choose a character- but not for long.  Every so often we'd have a "commercial break" where we re-selected characters and the first player to choose had to do a commercial for a 1960s product.  This idea prevented anyone from bogarting Kirk/Spock/McCoy or being stuck on the ship all night as Ensign Ricky.  It was a thing of beauty.  We all hammed it up and did our best impersonations of the original enterprise crew facing off against a classic foil and a classic villain.  It was GREAT.

 HIGHLIGHT: The whole damn thing.


8. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Oriental Adventures with David "Zeb" Cook

  My final game of the weekend was with an author again.  Zeb Cook took us into Kara-Tur, where we got to play mid-level functionaries of the Emperor's court in search of our quest goal.  We got to see the differences between Western-style AD&D and OA-style AD&D.  The young player to my left had no idea why the "fighter" was able to pick pockets.  There was some incredible terrain and miniatures supplied by some of my fellow players, including a Japanese castle and inn.  This was a great way to end the weekend as I had never played an OA game before.  I'd had individual OA classes in Western games, but this was my first actual venture into Kara-Tur and I got to take the trip with Zeb Cook at the helm.  It was bitchin'.

  So, that's an overview of the gaming that doesn't do ANY of it justice.  I have a few pointers, though, for those of you who might have read this and are considering going to NTRPGCON next year.

  • Register Early.
  • Look a the game schedule.  Pick the things you want to do.  Be ready at midnight on the night game registrations open, and go quickly to get into the games you want.  They go FAST.
  • Don't overschedule.  That was my mistake.  Hell, on Friday we didn't even have a meal break written into the schedule.
  • Check out the guest list.  I had so many moments where I had wished I'd brought this book or that to get autographed...  
  • The Dealer Room.  It is glorious.  Spend only what you can afford, but do try to bring a bit of extra money for those gems you find (like $5 copies of OA) that you must stake home.  Lots of old product, and lots of new product for OSR games.
  • The Wenches.  They are beautiful.  They will get you drinks and snacks.  If you're not a special guest, you'll have to pay for them.  Bring cash to pay and tip if you are going to take advantage of their services.
  I came back from this event with my ganas back and a lot of excitement about gaming, game authoring and life in general.  It was in many ways what my therapist has been telling me to do for four years.  Plus- I got to meet so many legendary game authors and illustrators...  GO.  Seriously.


09 June 2015

It's Been A While...

  Good day, eh?

  Why has it been months since I've posted?  Glad you asked.  I am now 91.7% complete on my MA program.  All that's left is my thesis, and I'm now in week 2 of my 16-week thesis seminar.  Life has been interesting in the Chinese since in the last few months, and I'll recap some of that here before I go into a separate post about gaming.  If all things work out the way I want, this will be the beginning of much more regular posting from me, but I've learned not to make promises on that front.  If you're mostly here for the gaming commentary, this post is mostly personal stuff.  Skip ahead.

  School - well, I pretty much covered that.  The long road to my MA is almost at an end, and I have a 3.94 GPA to show for it.  Damn A- scores.  Anyway, the more I study Military History for my MA in that subject, the more I'm convinced I'd rather be teaching and studying the history of my twin hobbies- tabletop gaming and classic console gaming.  The interesting thing is that both these subjects have been getting scholarly attention of late to include some very good books on the subject.  I hope to speak to our video game development program at work and see if they would be interested in a course on the history of the game industry.

  Family - Kaylee has turned 4.  Zane is about to turn 6.  I am continually amazed by both of them.  Kaylee and Zane are incredible kids.  Kaylee's speech has become much more clear, and her vocabulary has grown immensely.  I had to laugh yesterday when we were driving to Grandma's house and Kaylee said "Come on, light!" as we sat at a red light.  She has developed a love of my movies to the point that she asks to watch some of them repeatedly.  She's still a fan of Frozen and E.T., but she's added Ghostbusters, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Big Trouble in Little China to her list.  Zane's down with those films, too, and both kids are fans of the excellent Star Wars Rebels.  Kaylee is a fan of Sabine Wren, the Mandalorian graffiti artist.  Zane loves Kanan Jarrus and Ezra Bridger.  Oh, he's also a huge fan of The Avengers, and asked for a Captain America costume for his birthday.  Cosplay FTW!  Zane's also been asking to watch Star Trek with Daddy, so we have been sampling TOS and TNG together.  I love being a geek dad.

  Zane's behavior issues are improving by leaps and bounds.  As he graduated Kindergarten, he hadn't been in serious trouble more than once in the past month.  He takes great pride in bringing home perfect behavioral report cards.  He's a very caring, and conscientious young man.  He looks out for his sister and his mom.  Heck, he was even telling me to sit down and get a drink when I was sick a few months ago and having balance issues.  Whatever trauma triggered his issues last year, I think we're working through it.  He has an incredible support team, from school and from Dell Circle of Care.  I am incredibly thankful.

  Mental State - Well...  I've come to terms with the fact that my mental issues are ones I wouldn't admit to myself.  It's not that I don't think I have issues - I know I do - it's just that the issues I have are uncomfortably similar to those brought back by combat vets, so I tend to accuse my psyche of stolen valor.  I always said to myself that I can't be having issues with X, because X is something only combat personnel get, and I am not entitled to that sort of issue.

  Turns out you don't have to be shot at to have issues with hypervigilance or stress/anxiety.  The more we dig into my issues, the more I'm learning about myself and how I deal with my past and with adversity.  As near as we've figured out so far, I have a form of hypervigilance caused not by combat stress, but by placing nearly all the responsibility for everything on myself in an effort to take care of Mary and later the kids, and adding school and for a time Guard and weight loss stress - all of it combined to make something in my head snap.  Probably about the time we had the water leak issues that drove us out of our home during the holidays just a month after becoming parents.  A perfect storm of stress, and my own stubborn unwillingness to let anyone else help with the load.  In my head, it was enough that Mary took care of the house and her own day job- I could handle everything else.  Finances, home issues, kid issues, diet frustration, Kaylee's heath issues, term papers...  I pushed myself to make it all work.  I didn't want to burden Mary or anyone else with the things I could have gotten help with, and the things that were my own to bear I berated myself for not doing well enough.

  The result is that I am functional, but not in a complete way.  I'm constantly looking for the next problem to occur - which is where the hypervigilance comes in - it's not looking for snipers and IEDs, it's looking for the next catastrophic vehicle failure and knowing we can't cover it with what we've got in the bank.  It's waiting for the minor flooding we had in the garage do beget mold and rot that probably won't happen- but at 2AM my brain assures me it's going on RIGHT NOW INSIDE THE WALLS.  It's contemplating the nature of mortality at the wee hours of the morning, and fretting over everything from paying down the Carnival card to avoiding bombing my thesis (or the classes I was taking at the time.)  I cannot stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I am convinced the next disaster is just around the corner, and therefore I don't sleep well, and I have trouble relaxing.

  With this comes depression, and a desire to "turtle."  I spend a lot of my time wanting to hide in a dark room that's about 66 degrees with a stack of books and a locked door.  I am not that person, yet it's the person I feel I am more and more as stress pushes me farther and farther toward isolationism.  I keep wanting to hide. 

  My kids help bring me out of this funk, as does gaming- but both are the fun part of a roller coaster ride.  The highs are fleeting and the lows fill in the vast majority of my days.  The really frustrating part is that I know, intellectually, that we're doing OK.  So we're not rich, our bills are paid.  We didn't take nearly the flood damage other families did - in fact, two weeks on and there seem to be no long-term problems since the water got into the converted garage.  The concrete construction of the floors and baseboards might just have saved us some headache.  I'm doing fine in school, and Zane is doing well, and Kaylee is learning and growing and Mary isn't miserable with her job and life is basically good... so why do I always feel impending doom?  It's illogical, but then, I'm not a Vulcan...

  To use gamer terms, imagine my stress and depression as the heat level of a BattleMech.  My life is proceeding as if I have lost most of my heat sinks and my heat level is riding high.  Periods of happy and calm lower the heat level, but only slowly.  Any low-heat activity that would be negligible to a fully functional 'Mech push me right back into that zone where I'm rolling for ammo explosions and shutdowns.  Heck, maybe I've lost a few heat sinks AND taken an Engine crit or two.

  So there we go.  The State of the Union.  That's where I'm at.  Now... to write a post about awesome shit to remind myself that I just came back from the most incredible weekend ever.