They was funky Chinamen in funky Chinatown!
My lease is up in a month and a half, and I can't wait to say good-bye to K&G Building Management and their poor insulation and their expensive gas heat and their broken faucets and their broken doorknobs and their inconvenient floorplans and their lack of kitchen counter space and their creaky floors and their grungy bathroom tile and their mice colonies and their electrical outlet boxes that come right out of the wall if you pull on the cord too hard. Snarl! Yesterday after work, I went to check out a potential apartment near Chinatown. It was really nice. 1700 square feet, wall-to-wall carpeting, 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, dishwasher, air conditioning, balcony... and the walk-in closet of the master bedroom is bigger than the room I currently sleep in. I asked the landlady about whether the streets around there are safe at night. She said "It's OK, we Chinese are not troublemakers.". I'm still chuckling about this cute yet racist statement.
Anyway, I looked up the neighborhood on the very cool website ChicagoCrime.org and it appears that the area near Chinatown is significantly safer than my current neighborhood. (The types of crime reported in Chinatown appear to be mostly vandalism and theft as opposed to the assault and battery and mugging which appear disturbingly often on the Hyde Park map... yikes!)
I really like the idea of living near Chinatown. Study Chinese! Shop at a grocery store that sells dried jellyfish, chicken feet, and Pocky! Bicycle three miles to the Loop! Hop on the Red Line to go north to work or south to visit the U of C campus! Go to Joy Yee's by myself and order the Durian freeze any time I want without making my friends puke!
The one thing I don't like about the potential new apartment is its location next to the highway. Besides the noise, there's the slight problem of access to the Red Line, my main form of transportation. I would be closer to the Red Line than I am now -- I could walk there instead of taking a bus, shaving at least half an hour off my commute each way -- the walk to the Red Line goes underneath this sort of parking-lot-for-freight-trains which is clearly visible in Google's satellite map. The tunnel underneath the parking-lot-for-freight-trains is extremely scary. It's like a cave of monsters or something. I would not be surprised to find dead bodies or skeletons in a place like that. I don't like the idea of walking through there at night -- or in the day for that matter.
Stab to the neck!
Anime Central is the weekend after next, so my friends and I are racing to finish our costumes, skit choreography, and soundtracks. I'll take some cool pictures when I get a chance and post them here. We're once again doing two skits this year; though we have abandoned the "Transformers the Movie in Two Minutes" idea as being infeasable, we have a replacement which might be even cooler. One of my tasks has been to build a gigantic character head that one actress is going to wear. To build the infrastructure for it, I used the trick I discovered when making the Katamari last year: aluminum tubing! It's cheap, lightweight, strong, and flexible. Pieces of aluminum tubing can be bent into curved shapes and lashed tightly to each other with cable ties (works even better than duct tape!). I'm also using Audacity and iMovie to edit together a soundtrack for one of the skits. The coolness of the skit depends on the soundtrack syncing up perfectly with the movement, so it's going to be very demanding on the skit actors.
I tried to help with swordfight choreography, but I soon realized that my Aikido-derived knowledge of actual samurai swordfighting is a hindrance, not an asset. Stage fighting is like the exact opposite of Aiki swordplay. Stage fighting involves all these big, slow, sweeping movements, wide blocks, unneccessary spins, etc. All I can think of is "Man, you're wide open! Why should I follow your sword and block you way out there when I could just stab you in the neck and end this right now?"
I also have a non-skit cosplay costume I'm working on. I'll show it to you soon enough, but I just want to say that this is the first time I've made a costume which is more comfortable than my regular clothes. I'm tempted to make several and wear them all the time!
Exercise and hair!
Now is that fleeting season when it's actually pleasant to be outside in Chicago! The brief few weeks between DEADLY FRIGID BITING WIND SCOURING THE FLESH OFF YOUR BONES and GIANT DOG BREATHING HOT WET SUFFOCATING DOG BREATH ALL OVER YOUR BODY DAY AND NIGHT which together make up the vast majority of the year. Pleasant to be outside! Trees and flowers and chirping birds, ha-ha! Except for Tuesday, when the temperature suddenly plunged 30 degrees overnight. It was like a parting bitch-slap from Old Man Winter. Like, "Here's something to remember me by, suckers!".
Since the sun has been coming up earlier, and it's been sunny and warm in the mornings, I've been going out and getting exercise before work. Most days I jog, sometimes with Satomi ( who has way more endurance than me! ). Saturday and Sunday we jogged all the way down to the lake shore and around The Point. It was exhausting but lots of fun. I gotta get into good enough shape that I can do that without getting winded. Satomi sometimes jogs all the way to the Loop and back. Now that's endurance!
At the point, I noticed this really good climbing tree, so Satomi and I climbed up there and talked about the geological factors that determine the salinity of a body of water. Which led to talking about the Great Salt Lake, which led to talking about Mormons. In a knot in the tree I noticed a wadded-up piece of paper. I unfolded it and discovered a child's drawing of a tree and, scrawled underneath, "THANK YOU TREE YOU ARE A NICE TREE!" or something to that effect. I put it back in the knot and smiled the rest of the day.
On Sunday, another friend of Satomi's joined us. He took a look at my hairstyle and asked me if I do Sumo. Ha! I was amused. Oh, for you readers who haven't seen me in person for a while: I finally grew my hair long enough to make into a proper samurai topknot, chopped off the rest, and regrew my terrifying Wolverine sideburns to go with it. I should post a recent picture here. I think it's a style that works for me. I get lots of compliments on it. Like in Walgreens on Sunday, when I was shopping for a lightbulb (now I need to get a stepladder to install it, for I am too short to reach the lamp) this guy who worked there stopped me and he was all like "Check it ou! You're totally like a samurai man!" and I said "Yeah thanks, that's what I'm going for" but this guy wouldn't let me go. He wanted to keep talking about it and talk about how he himself was aiming for the Jim Kelley from Enter the Dragon look. His afro was indeed mighty. He had the afro pick and everything.
Today I took my samurai hairdo to an early-morning Aikido class. Did lots of sword practice. We were supposed to have an early-morning Aikido class last Thursday but Don-sensei had to fly off to Ethiopia suddenly to "prevent a civil war". I don't know what exactly Don does over there but he obviously has Powers Beyond Mortal Ken.
GM Theory: Wilderness Adventures
I break down adventures into three categories: city adventures,
wilderness adventures, and dungeon adventures. (This applies to any genre, not just fantasy -- rescuing Leia from the Death Star in
"A New Hope" is clearly a dungeon adventure, although you wouldn't exactly use the word "dungeon".)
City adventures are about intrigue, diplomacy, mystery-solving,
bargaining, trying to get NPCs to do what you want. (Though a city
can also be a great backdrop for fights and chase scenes...) Dungeon
adventures are about exploring a dangerous, restrictive,
precisely-delinated area, defeating or sneaking past enemies, avoiding
traps, and trying to find an objective and get out alive. That leaves
wilderness adventures: the neglected middle child.
(Yes, it's another RPG article. Don't worry, after this I'll have some more about science and/or politics and/or anime cosplay.)
Wilderness adventures are, almost by definition, about trying to get
somewhere. (The somewhere is probably a dungeon or city.) Since the
focus of the story is on the place you're trying to get to, the
wilderness travel is often treated as filler. In most games I've run
or played in, wilderness travel is usually perfunctory: some vague
descriptions of scenery, maybe a random fight or two, maybe a
half-hearted attempt to keep track of food and water supply, an
unspecified period of time passes, and then you're at the cave or the
tower or whatever.
Just about every RPG, except for the really rules-light ones, has a
chapter somewhere in the book detailing stuff like how much weight a
character of strength X can carry, how long it takes to go X miles,
what you have to roll to forage for food in the wilderness or avoid
getting lost, etc. In my experience, this is always the most ignored
chapter in the book. It doesn't involve cool high-tech or magical
stuff, it doesn't help you kill things, and it doesn't give your
character bonuses. It seems so... mundane, like a bunch of extra
bookkeeping just for the thrill of simulating a boring camping trip.
And there's so many other rules to remember already! If you want to
go rules-light, the "encumbrance and movement" chapter seems
like a prime target for cutting.
And that's fine. Rules-light role-playing is great. You can skip
over the wilderness entirely, with just a sentence or two describing
what you've traveled across, and bang! start the next action scene.
If something isn't interesting or important to the story, it's better
to skim over it with a plain description than to drag bored players
through acting it out. This idea has such powerful implications that
it should probably be on the short list of Most Important Role-Playing
Meta-Rules: Play out the scenes where players have interesting
choices to make; reduce everything in-between to a short piece of
BUT, neglecting the wilderness has always left me unsatisfied. Good
fantasy is so deeply invested in the natural world that the land feels
like a character in its own right. This is a big part of what made
Lord of the Rings good. And sometimes what distinguishes a good LotR
knockoff from a bad LotR knockoff is whether it succeeds in making you
care about the land that the people are trekking across. Also, the
mundane details conserving food and water and finding good places to
camp and not getting lost serve the purpose of adding a little bit of
reality to the fantasy, so it's anchored in people's real-world
experiences and it feels less like an arbitrary and free-floating
fairy tale. So for both these reasons, I've always wanted to run a
fantasy RPG that makes wilderness travel both important and
Adventure Report: The Thirsty Land
One of the player characters in my current campaign is a human ranger
named Daniel Dravit. He's amed after a character from a Rudyard
Kipling novel, so picture him as an archetypal British explorer, armed
with a rudimentary black-powder pistol, and temporarily living among a
primitive tribe of jungle gnomes far from home. The first adventure
of the campaign was a solo adventure for Dravit, in order to get him
to the place where he can meet the other characters. So not only is
he traveling the wilderness, he's also a ranger. Rangers are
all about the wilderness. So, this seemed like a logical time to try
out a new approach to making wilderness adventures interesting.
So, the goal of the first adventure was to save an area from a
drought. This was my humble idea to make the landscape important to
the plot. Drought is pretty mundane, and it's been done lots of times
before (e.g. Fallout), but I like it for several reasons. Drought,
famine, pestilence: all of these are real-world dangers which can
easily threaten an RPG town. Because they happen in real life, they
make the setting a little more believable -- not every problem is the
fault of evil dragons and necromancers.
Second, you can't solve a drought just by killing monsters. This
immediately moves the adventure one step further away from being a
video-gamish slugfest. The GM can offer clues to a possible magical
solution (I took this route), or he can encourage the players to use
their own ingenueity to come up with a solution to the drought.
Third, drought (and famine and pestilence) make life miserable and
short for ordinary townsfolk. It's a built-in motivator. The DM can
portray the suffering and any PC with a shred of goodness will want to
save the people. This lets them feel more heroic than if they were
just looking for treasure. Also, when resources dwindle, NPCs become
suspicious and turn on each other to protect their own share. This is
a good setup for moral dilemmas, or scenes where they players try to
stop a fight between two groups of good guys.
The fourth reason I like drought as a plot hook is that it puts a
built-in time limit on the adventure. Later on I'll address what's so
great about time limits. And the final point about drought is that it
makes the natural environment a major character in the story.
So, the first part of the adventure was a journey across the
drought-ravaged landscape. I threw in lots of scenery like dried-up
streambeds, abandoned farm buildings, stands of tall grass gone brown
( tall brown grass is a good place to hide from bandits, but also
very, very flammable. That's one Evil DM idea I didn't get a chance
to use. Another time...) The idea is that the scenery is a constant
reminder of the mission, it gives hints at its former glory, and when
the drought is ended, the players can travel through here again and
see how the place has changed. We haven't gotten that far yet, but
I'm going to try to create a sense that the landscape is not static.
It changes in response to the actions of players and their
adversaries. (This means I'll have to reuse adventure locations,
instead of sending the PCs somewhere new every time; I like this idea,
since I can develop towns and such in greater detail.)
GM Theory: Limited Resources and Strategic Thinking
Now, what I have described so far is just the background and the
scenery. Where are the choices for the players to make?
I shouldn't have to explain why player choices are the very
essence of any RPG. But in my early days I didn't understand this
point myself, so my games would fail and I didn't understand why; it
was because the players either had too many choices, or too few. An
example of too many choices is when you put the players on a map and
say "OK, you can go anywhere you want". This lead to the
dreaded problem of Players Going To Places You Haven't Designed Yet.
Even worse, when everywhere is available, nowhere is interesting. The
players need at least a clue of where they're trying to get to, and
then the DM needs to put obstacles in the way. This is the absolutely
most basic no-duh rule of designing an adventure, but it's
surprisingly easy for a DM to lose track of it when he gets all caught
up in world-building or in game mechanics. (Guilty!)
Goals and obstacles are neccessary, but not sufficient. If you just
put down a goal and then put, say, a big pit between it and the
players, they will say, "We walk around the pit. Now what?" If
there's a single no-cost solution, there's no choice. The wilderness
travel situation has the default solution of "We just keep walking
until we get there." To the players, that's a no-cost solution. If
they really had to walk all that way and endure all the heat and cold
and mosquitoes and whatever, they probably wouldn't see it as no-cost,
but the players don't do that, the characters do. The players feel no
cost, with no real choices to make.
The most elementary example of a choice is a fork in the road, or,
equivalently, a tunnel junction in a dungeon. This is a choice, but
it's not an interesting choice. If there's nothing to indicate how
one path differs from the other, the players might as well flip a coin!
If the paths are different but there's no cost for exploring the wrong
one, then the players can just explore and backtrack and waste lots of
real time without anything interesting happening. No strategic thinking
You notice I keep using the words "cost" and "no-cost". That's because
I've got a theory I'm working on which says that Strategic choices
become neccessary when resources are limited.
If the choice to go left or right has some meaning in terms of limited
resources, then the decision becomes a cost-benefit analysis, not a coin-flip.
Technically, these limited resources could be some abstract game-mechanical
numbers and we would still achieve the goal of forcing players to be strategic.
But it's so much better if they correspond to things that the characters
would care about in the game world. Things that are thematically tied to
the adventure setting. What we're getting at here is that the decisions the
players make interacting with the rules should mirror the decisions
the characters make interacting with the world. We want
the players put themselves back into the characters' shoes instead of just
thinking of them as game pieces.
GM Theory: Limited Resources In The Wild
Thinking about wilderness travel gives us three limited resources
which are obvious and thematically appropriate: Food, Water, and Time.
A fourth resource, which is a little more abstract, is Knowledge of
Time is the ultimate limited resource. Given unlimited time, you can
get anything else you need. Putting a time limit on an adventure --
such as "The villiage will run out of water and die in a fortnight,
unless you find a solution before then" -- adds tension and forces
players to make tough choices. I designed the map of my adventure
area to offer an obvious choice: You can take the direct route,
striking out overland, or you can follow this dried-up riverbed, which
goes far out of your way. The advantage of following the riverbed is
that it removes any possibility of getting lost. You can think of
this as an offer to trade resources: Time for Knowledge of Location.
Once you start thinking in terms of trading resources, it's easy to
think up choices, and then to work those choices into the adventure.
I asked the player what he was bringing on the trip, and to calculate
the weight. Too much weight slows you down (it costs Time). But you
need to carry a certain amount of Food and Water (your other key
resources), and you don't want to get stuck without rope, torches,
camping gear, etc. when you really need them. So a player may choose
to trade some Time for contingency tools. If the player gets worried
about time running low, I tell him that he can travel faster if he leaves
behind some of his junk. Not an easy choice. The player can also choose
to stop traveling and hunt for food / search for water, which is another
trade of Time for other resources. (Since it's a drought, obviously I raised
the difficulty of the roll to find water.)
I remind the players that they have options in the way they travel,
too. they can do a Forced March and go fater (gain Time) but wear
themselves out (will be weakened in a fight, possibly lose Time
later). Or they can choose to travel slower (lose Time) in order to
attempt to follow tracks (knowledge of location) or attempt to
scrounge up edible plants along the way (gain Food).
Horses. I put in an encounter with mounted bandits, thinking that if
the player defeated them, he would have the option of taking their
horses. Horses are a staple of any medieval tech-level society, but
they tend to get forgotten in fantasy games. (Except World of
Warcraft, where they're more a status symbol than anything). Leaving
aside for a moment the combat advantages and role-playing
opportunities that horses provide, they can be thought of as another
trade of resources: they gain you Time, but they cost Water. In the
drought-ravaged land, there's nowhere for the horses to drink from, so
you need to share your own water supply with them, and I ruled that a
horse drinks twice as much in a day as a human. (I have no idea if
this is realistic or not, but it works.)
The bandits offered to ride away without a fight if the player handed
over all his food and water to them. That's another offer of a trade
in resources; it was a tense situation, as the player had to weigh the
risk of dying in a fight vs. the risk of dying of thirst vs. the risk
that the bandits might take his stuff and then kill him anyway. Choices.
And the thing is, if I hadn't been strictly keeping track of the time
and the food and water supplies, these choices would not have been as
serious as they were. So here's where all those rules from the neglected
chapter on Movement And Encumbrance And Stuff become useful. They're
not there to force you to do extra bookkeeping. They're there as tools
the GM can use to force the players to make strategic choices.
As I said before, wilderness adventures aren't just for fantasy games. The setting
will largely determine what kinds of limited resources are appropriate. You could
have a sci-fi game where they players are crash-landed on an alien planet. Besides
food and water, they also have fuel and oxygen supply to worry about.
By the way: GMs, don't start fudging food/water/time/encumbrance partway through an
adventure! It's easy to fall into this trap, but as soon as you do, you
are basically making a mockery of all the bookkeeping effort and strategic
thinking that the players have done up to this point. It's as if you were
halfway through a combat and you suddenly stopped keeping track of hit
points and damage. Either food/water/time/encumbrance matter to the adventure, in
which case you should keep track all the way through, or else they
should be unimportant, in which case you should ignore them all the way through.
So decide this at the beginning: would it enhance the fun of this
adventure to treat food/water/time/encumbrance as important limited
resources? Or would it be more fun to assume that food and water are
taken care of and that you can carry all your stuff without penalty,
because there are other limited resources which are more
interesting and more relevant to the adventure and you want to focus
on those? Decide it at the beginning, make it clear to the
players, and stick to it!
You may have noticed that even though I've gone on for many paragraphs
about wilderness adventure, I have yet to talk about wilderness
encounters. I've been talking about walk-around mode. When
you're not in "encounter mode" you are either in "GM
Narration Mode" or you're in "walk-around mode".
Choices about which path to take, whether to do a forced march, when
to stop and hunt for food, and all the other stuff I mentioned above,
are all choices that players make during walk-around mode. But
really, walk-around mode just exists to take you from one encounter to
the next. Encounters are the meat of the game. An adventure is a
linked series of encounters the way a campaign is a linked series of
adventures. So a big part of your wilderness adventure is going to
be good encounters, encounters that are fun and memorable and contribute
to the story and to the feel of the setting. That's going to be the
subject of my next column.
Tools for Gaming: the Whiteboard Grid
This is another RPG article. Skip if you're not interested.
My whiteboard grid is a huge 4-foot-by-2.5-foot piece of whiteboard
into which I carved a 1-inch grid with an exacto-knife. Combined with
a set of cheap plastic miniatures from eBay and a full-color set of
dry-erase markers, it can become anything I need it to be. I can just
draw on forests, rivers, etc. or walls, doors, etc. as they come into
view, and erase them when something changes.
For tactical movement, one square is five feet; for overland movement,
one square is four miles. This way, the number of squares a character
can move in one round of combat on the tactical map is the same nuber
of squares as he can move in one day of travel on the overland map.
This way a player can just remember one number for his movement speed.
For non D&D games, the scale can be adjusted appropriately.
There are other advantages to having a whiteboard grid, too. During
a fight, the edges of the board can be used to keep track of rapidly
changing data like hit points, ammunition, initiative, and the
durations of spells. Sometimes I draw a colored circle around
a miniature to show that the character is under the effect of some
At the end of the game session, we leave the map on the board, mark
Xs for the locations of the players, and stash the board behind the
couch. The whiteboard grid works great and everybody loves it.
In past games, such as the infamous Road-Trip Campaign, I ran
fights without miniatures or a grid at all. I was surprised to discover
that there are plenty of D&D players who would hear this and say
"What? No miniatures or grid? How?". But it's easy. You
just describe the situation, describe qualitatively where enemies are,
players describe what they're doing, and you roll dice. If there's
a question about whether somebody is within range, or whether the player
can run fast enough to reach something this round, then the GM just
makes a judgement call. Attacks of opportunity, flanking, cover from
corners of walls, and tactical stuff like that either don't exist
(an appropriate choice when going for fast, rules-light combat) or else
the GM makes another judgement call about when they are allowed.
There's less emphasis on battlefield tactics, obviously,
but instead you can emphasize exciting verbal descriptions of what monsters
look like, how they move, how they attack, what magic spells look and sound like, and
good stuff like that. You can encourage players to describe their
dodges and feints and parries in similar detail and get creative with their
characters' fighting styles. It's more about the storytelling and less about
the board game.
I enjoy both styles -- heavily tactical board-game combat and faster-paced
rules-light storytelling combat. I'm not going to say one is better than the
other; it all depends on what style of game you're running. (And, um, if you're
in the car on a road trip, the board-game style is not really feasible.)
But I do get a certain tactile enjoyment out of drawing stuff on the board and
moving miniatures around on it. And man, do I have a weakness for cool miniatures.
The problem with miniatures is that, once you start using them, you
suddenly need to have miniatures for everything that can move; or at
least random small objects to substitute for them. I had appropriate
miniatures for everything in this adventure except for two horses, so
I cut out two paper rectangles and wrote "HORSE" on them.
Dungeons and Dragons: Three Challenges
In Dungeons and Dragons last night, I did another solo-first-adventure
for another player. He's Ehon The Skinny, a Bariaur bard. (Bariaur
is a Planescape race which is like if you made a centaur using a goat
instead of a horse for the non-human part. Yes, it's weird, I know.)
Ehon hasn't met the other players yet. I decided that he's from the
plane of Ysgard (supposed to be home plane of the Bariaur, and
besides, it's a plane I've been itching to use for a while.) Ehon has
just come of age in his herd and needs to prove himself in a series of
three challenges to gain the status of manhood.
This is a very long post about D&D, so if you're not interested in geeking out,
you might as well skip reading this whole entry.
I came up with the three-challenges idea because it seemed to fit the flavor of the
setting. Ysgard is based on Norse mythology. Tests of manhood,
things that come in threes -- fits right in, right? I see Ysgard as a
plane where pretty much everything is infused with Mythological
Significance. Petty stuff like haggling over the price of rations does not
belong here. Politics and courty intrigue do not belong here. It's
gotta be all about the Heroic Deeds!
(These are the things I love about Planescape -- the fact that each
plane has a personality of its own means that I can experiment with
different campaign tones from week to week. That, and the fact that
the mythology of every culture in history is my playground. Their
gods and monsters are clay in my hands. Tonight we gather around a
bonfire to tell the story of how Tyr lost his hand to the jaws of the
Fenris Wolf. Last time, a geometrical construct escapes from a realm
of mindless conformity, with a detour to Dante's Inferno for contract
negotiations. Before that, a journey to an abandoned temple to beg
Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, to bring rain to the parched
jungle. Fantasy straight from its ancient wellsprings, not diluted
by passage through multiple layers of Tolkien imitators. That's what
I'm striving for, anyway.)
GM Theory: Writing Adventures Around Your Characters
On a more game-designy note, the other reason for having a series of
three tests is that it gives an easy-to-understand formal structure to
the adventure. More importantly, it's something the character already has a stake
in, by definition. Published adventures are always written for a generic
group of characters -- they have to be -- so they they always have these
generic, contrived hooks in them: the players are hired to do something,
or they hear that there's a treasure to be found, or they hear that there's
a dire threat to the world and they're the only ones who can stop it.
Not only is it cliche, it assumes that the heroes are motivated either
by pure greed or pure altruism.
I can do better than that. There's no reason I have to plan adventures
in a vacuum. Once the campaign is moving, every NPC the players encounter
and every choice they make becomes a potential hook for another adventure.
Once the players have gotten into their characters, I can plan adventures
designed to appeal to those characters' particular motivations and long-term goals.
But what to do when starting out? I sent out a questionaire before I
started this campaign to get a clue about what style of adventures my
players might enjoy, what kind of characters they wanted to play, and
what would motivate them. I had them pick race and class long before
we played the first adventure, and tried (with mixed success) to get
them to decide some things about their characters' personality and
For this player, I knew he wanted to be a bariaur bard and a member
of the Sensate faction. I didn't know anything else, but that's
enough to go on for now. I knew I wanted a solo adventure which would
take him from his home plane to Sigil, have him meet some friends and
enemies, exercise his character's abilities, and let him figure out
how to role-play his character.
Adventure Report: The Three Tests
So, three tests. First is the test of strength: one-on-one,
bare-knuckle, non-lethal combat against the herd's most distinguished warrior (
who is getting a little stiff in the joints these days, but is not a
force to be trifled with ). The arena is the top of a sheer mountain
crag; the fight goes until one is knocked out or cries "uncle".
It gave us a chance to exercise rules for grappling and bull-rushing and
moving on difficult terrain. Also, role-playing the champion was fun:
"Nobody expects you to beat me, lad! It's not really fair after all,
I'm a veteran warrior and you're a scrawny bard. But it's tradition,
you know? The people are expecting a fight, so let's put on a good
show for them!" (Punch!)
(I totally expected Ehon to lose, since he had like half the strength
and hit points of his opponent. The outcome wasn't really going to be
important to the adventure. But thanks to somme skilled tactical use
of the terrain and a few lucky rolls, Ehon won fair & square!)
Second is the test of wits: at the feast that night, the herd's
well-liked but insufferably arrogant bard challenges the hero to a
riddle contest in the tradition of the Norse sagas: the first one to
fail to answer the other's riddle is the loser. Now, I love stuff
like riddles because they are a mental challenge which has absolutely
no connection to the game mechanics, but plenty of connection to the
theme and setting. I want to include lots of this sort of thing in
this campaign. It does require lots of preparation, though, since
nobody I know can invent riddles on the spot. To be fair, I warned
the player several days ahead of time that his character was going to
have to propose some riddles, so he had better think of some!
What flies through the air,
with feathers on its tail,
and bites with its beak,
but is not a bird?
The riddle contest was followed up with a tale-telling contest. It
was decided by opposed Perform checks, but of course I made the player
actually tell a tale (again, I gave him advance warning), and I told
one for the NPC. My philosophy is that if the player is a bard, then
he should actually do bard stuff (within reasonable limits --
I'm not going to make him sing or anything.) I wonder if I can apply
the same idea to other character classes? Not actually make a fighter
swing a sword around, obviously; this is not LARP. But encourage the
fighter to at least read something about fencing or martial arts and
describe his stance and his fighting style.
Ehon did a stirring rendition of the story of Orpheus and Euridyce. (Brian, am I spelling those right?) He ended it with, "The moral of this story is that ORPHEUS WAS A BERK! If the Lord of the freakin Underworld gives you your dead wife back and tells you not to look behind you, you DON'T LOOK BEHIND YOU! I mean come on!" I LOL'ed.
The third test is the test of courage, and it's the big one: he has to
pluck a scale from the back of the serpent Nidhogg and return alive.
Now Nidhogg is a dragon that dwells in Niflheim, the Norse underworld,
and gnaws on the root of the World Ash Tree Yggdrassil. She is fated
to eventually kill the tree when the time of Ragnarok comes. (But you
already knew that, right?) This is the main part of the adventure,
which the player is working on now, and of course I'm going to have
him discover stuff along the way which leads into future adventures.
GM Theory: Don't Let A Failed Skill Check End The Game
I was designing another part of the adventure in which the player is
going to need to make several Climb and Jump and Balance checks in
rapid succession to avoid... well, we haven't gotten to this part yet,
so let's just say that what he's avoiding is pretty much fatal.
I was figuring out the DCs for all the skill checks and then I said:
wait a minute. This isn't going to work. I can't let him fail these
skill checks, or else the adventure is over.
I think I've stumbled upon another prime rule of adventure design:
Never include a skill check (or other die roll) that the player
has to pass. Except possibly at the climax of the
Corrolary: ...but it's good if the player thinks he has
to pass it.
This rule sounds obvious but it has some pretty subtle implications if
you think it through. Skill checks are pretty much the main, in some
games the only, game mechanic that matters outside of combat, and I
like to have lots of non-combat challenges. Besides, my players spent
all that time picking out skills for their characters! The least I
can do is give them some opportunities to use those skills so they
don't feel like they're wasting their time. Plus, I love coming up
with uses for obscure skills like Handle Animal or Decipher Script or
Knowledge: Stonemasonry. So I make it a point that pretty much every
skill in the book is going to come up at some point in the campaign.
And I want the skill checks to actually make a difference in the
outcome of the adventure, because otherwise they feel superfluous.
But if a skill is needed to get past an obstacle, or to avoid DOOM,
and the players fail the skill roll, then... what? They're stuck,
game over, everybody go home? No good. I'd probably just fake a roll
behind the screen and let them succeed. Pretty soon they'd figure out
that they couldn't really always be that lucky, and that I must be
fudging, and then all the excitement is gone.
Some skills logically allow retries: they failed to climb the wall
this time, so let them keep trying until they make it? Unless there's
a time limit or a penalty for each failure, might as well skip the
skill rolling and just let them automatically succeed. (This is exactly
why D&D3e has the Take 10 and Take 20 rules.)
OK, so I know what not to do; what's a good way to work skill checks into
an adventure? How do we avoid skill-checks-that-must-be-passed?
Success on the skill roll gets past an obstacle. Obstacle could
mean a door, wall, pit, river, mountain range, etc. or it could mean
an unhelpful NPC who can be convinced or tricked into helping you with
the right skill roll. The important thing is that whatever the skill
is and whatever the obstacle is, there has to be more than one way
past it. Or there has to be another way through the adventure without
getting past the obstacle. Otherwise you have set up a skill-check-that-must-be-passed.
Non-linear adventure design is a major subject of its own, but here's
a rule-of-thumb: when I put an obstacle in an adventure, I think of
two methods a player could use to bypass it. Then for each one
of those methods, I make sure that the required prerequisites,
such as materials, are present somewhere in the adventure, and I make
sure that I have a plan for the consequences of the course of
action, including relevant skill rolls, what happens if you fail on
them, and what happens if you succeed on them. I never tell the
player what the two methods are that I invented. It's up to the
player to figure this stuff out. But when I prepare in this way at
least it gives me some confidence that the problem can be
solved, the players have a choice about it, and I have Stuff prepared
for a couple of the most likely paths.
...And then, of course, the players will come up with a third way that
I didn't even think of, because players are smart like that.
Success on the skill roll is needed to avoid some non-lethal
penalty. Basically, you don't want to kill players casually, but you want to be
as creative as possible in coming up with horrible things to do to
them short of killing them. Ideas for penalties: losing health, items, magic,
or money; being noticed by the bad guys so they come after you; losing
time, in a time-critical scenario; being transported away from the
area you want to be in; getting put into some kind of predicament,
from which escape is an adventure in itself, like capture by the
enemy; getting some kind of long-term problem like a curse or
something; or the death, capture, etc. of an important NPC good guy.
The inverse of this is a situation where success on the skill roll gives
a character a benefit; not one which is neccessary to finish
the adventure, but something which is nice and useful. To get some ideas,
take the above list and reverse everything...
Success on the skill roll gives the players information. Lots
of the skills on the standard skill list (and I'm talking about any
RPG, not just D&D) can be classified as information-gathering skills.
Basically, a success makes the GM give you a clue. The clue could tip
you off to an enemy's weakness, or it could be part of solving a
mystery or puzzle, or it could help you figure out what to do next in
the adventure. I want to make my players think hard about what they
should do, and not just follow an obvious path.
The problem is situations where missing a clue (by failing a skill
roll or otherwise) can cause players to get stuck. If there's a
mystery or puzzle with only one solution, there must be multiple clues
pointing to the solution, and it must be soluble with any one clue
If a clue is needed to get the players to understand what they're
supposed to be doing next, there's an even bigger danger. The
adventure can stall out because the players missed a clue, didn't
understand the significance of the clue, or just didn't care to follow
up on the clue. This has happened to me plenty of times and it sucks.
It can happen even if you're giving the clues out for free, so it becomes
that much worse if you make important clues, "bottleneck" clues, depend
on skill rolls. The solution I recommend is not to have "bottlenecks"
in your adventure at all, but that goes way beyond skill checks and into
the fundamentals of adventure planning, so I'll devote another post to it
This has been the first entry in what I hope will be a continuing series
of adventure reports and GM theory articles. I've decided that RPGs are
something I want to take seriously, and so I want to make a prolonged effort
to improve my GM skills. I invite everyone with RPG experience to add
your comments and to suggest more topics for future GM theory articles. Maybe
I'll compile them all into a book someday, or something.
Talking to strangers
Crazy marching guy
I ran into that crazy guy again, the one who marches around Hyde Park on Saturday mornings chanting and stabbing the air with his umbrella and holding a piece of cardboard in front of his face and randomly insulting people.
Last time he called me a "grinning mason whore". This time he said to me "Where's your puppy? You coward! You piece of filth!" and then went off to randomly insult more people.Ahh, his mental illness entertains me. I wonder if there is something interesting on his side of that piece of cardboard. Like maybe he has drawn the face of his archenemy there, and he's holding it up between himself and other people so that he can pretend that other people are whoever-it-is that he wants to insult so much. Who knows? If I tried to talk back to him, would he respond in some other insane way or just ignore me and continue with what he was already doing?
I lost my house keys recently. For all the years that I've been using keys I have never lost one (unlike, say, hats or umbrellas, which I lose constantly). The keys are either in my pocket, in my hand, or in the keyhole, so it's hard to lose them. But they were just gone one day. I don't know where or how. So I was inconvenienced for a couple days until I could hit the Ace Hardware and get new copies made.
I visit the Ace Hardware quite often to get prop and costume materials, or tools, or stuff to patch up the horrible apartment. The employees there have always been friendly and helpful, which is a rarity these days, and extra-nice considering that retail jobs at chain stores pretty much suck eggs (I would know!) so resisting the impulse to become irritable is something of an achievement. Anyway... where was I going with this paragraph again? Oh yeah, there's this one elderly, serious black guy at Ace, who I've met a few times before, and he was grinding new keys for me. (They have this cool key-copying machine. I am curious about it. I want to go behind the counter and play with it sometime.) Anyway he had a hat that said "WWII Veteran" so I asked him where he served, if he didn't mind my asking. "South pacific", he said. "Wowww", I said, kind of at a loss for words. "Well, God bless!" He just smiled.
"God bless" sounds weird coming out of my heathen mouth, but sometimes I just can't think of anything else appropriate. Does anybody know a secular benediction with that kind of seriousness? Something to use when "You the man!" just doesn't cut it?
This little exchange also represents something of a turnaround in my attitudes, since I used to be of the opinion that anybody who joins the army must be a bad person, since he is willing to kill, but now... well, it's more complicated than that. The topic deserves a whole long rant of its own, later on.
Last Thursday when I got off the Red Line, there were two guys waiting with clipboards in the station. "Would you like to sign a petition against gay marriage?" they asked as I walked by. I turned and said "I'd like to sign a petition FOR gay marriage.". They didn't say anything. I kept walking. I noticed I was trembling slightly. I've always been the type to avoid confrontation, and it doesn't get much confrontational than looking somebody in the eye and saying "I disagree completely with this thing that you obviously feel very strongly about".
Actually, let me clarify my position. ( I don't have links handy to the statistics backing up my statements, so I am just shooting my mouth off here; maybe I'll go in later and add the links. )
For purely pragmatic reasons, I think we ought to abandon the word "marriage" and focus on "civil unions" or "domestic partnerships".
The M-word is such an inherently religious concept, and is so wrapped up with emotions and tradition for most people, that trying to redefine it generates a lot of ill will, and an uphill poltical battle. Polls show that a majority of Americans support civil union rights for gays as long as the word "marriage" is not used.
My preferred solution would be to do a search-and-replace on all laws, replacing "marriage" with "civil union". There is no reason that the religious institution of marriage should have any legal status. A civil union would legally be regarded as a contract between two people for the purposes of establishing a household as an economic unit, with tax breaks for their dependents. The law should not demand that participants in the contract be of specific sexes, any more than the IRS demands that dependents listed on a 1040 must be biological children of the taxpayer.
This solution enforces separation of church and state by removing the government from any involvement in the definition of marriage. In fact, we should present this as a reason for religious people to support the idea -- emphasize how the proposal means their church, not the government, gets to define marriage! Religious people would do whatever ceremony they desired to become married in the eyes of their church, then sign a civil union contract for legal recognition.
Gay couples get the same rights, and can have whatever ceremony or lack of ceremony they want. This way, gay couples get everything except for the word "marriage". This would be a smart compromise: the cultural conservatives can have the purely symbolic victory, while our side would get the real, substantial victory.
I'm in favor of letting each state decide. (Federalism is a good idea. It decentralizes power and lets each state act as a sort of public-policy laboratory that lets us see what works and what doesn't.) I'll vociferously support civil union rights in my own state, but if Kansas and South Dakota want to remain behind the times, let 'em. Maybe someday the Red States will figure out that the more stupid laws they pass, the more they are crippling their own economies by encouraging their smart people and companies and jobs to flee to bluer pastures.
(Also, if you look at people under 40, a majority support gay marriage. A generation from now, gay civil unions will be such a normal and widely accepted fact of life that most people will probably end up calling them "marriages" anyway.)
Gosh, this weblog is turning into "Daily links to science news" isn't it. Well, I'm happy to keep going that direction, because as Bill Nye says, Science Rules!!
Anyway, today's links are paleontology instead of astronomy. First, a team lead by Neil Shubin from University of Chicago (YEAH GO U OF C WE ARE AWESOME) went to the frozen north-end of Canada and dug up a missing link between fish and amphibians named Tiktaalik Roseae. Pharyngula has a chart showing where Tiktaalik fits in with all the previous missing links. The coolest thing about this discovery is that they used evolutionary theory to make a prediction that they would find a fossil of such an unknown species in a rock layer of a certain age. They went where they could find rocks of that age, they dug, and they found it. Testable predictions yo. That's wicked cool.
I know humans aren't as exciting as fish-amphibians, but we've also got a new human ancestor fossil which fits in the gap between Ardipithecus ramidus and Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy).
Oh, that reminds me, this was months ago, but read about Homo Floresiensis, the Indonesian fossil that people are calling a "Hobbit".
Bad anime no cookie
In stark contrast to Honey and Clover, there is a horrible anime called Gunslinger Girl which we have also been watching. It's about pre-adolescent girls brainwashed by the Italian government into perfect emotionless little killing machines. They have big guns (rendered in loving realistic detail) and go on missions to, like assassinate Mafia dudes and stuff. Also there are bars on the top and bottom of the screen the whole time. They're not just black like letterboxing, they have frilly scrollwork in them for no reason. So let's see, we've got:
- Anime cliches and more anime cliches
- Lolicon fetishism
- Blood, blood, and more blood!
- Hey look how cool we are, all our characters are jaded and emotionless and care about nothing, and gun people down in cold blood with no facial expression, that makes our show cool right
- Wow, Europe, an exotic Western land full of intrigue and deadly assassins and frilly scrollwork and beautiful white people and badly mispronounced Italian words turned into katakana! (Kind of like how western movies portray Japan)
- Really boring scenes where some girl takes her gun apart and puts it back together repeatedly, or practices the violin, because boring scenes = character depth (right?)
- Pointless artsy pretentiousness (WTF is with those frilly bars on the screen?)
Bad anime no cookie! Gunslinger Girl reminds me of Battle Royale, or maybe Fight Club -- all part of a trend of completely amoral and nihilistic films that revel in showing cruelty and violence for its own sake. Maybe there's some kind of artistic point or social commentary buried in there, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.
My friends web pages are more interesting
My friends' web pages are more interesting than mine! Go read them!
Eric has a thought-provoking post about the philosophical problems of pacifism. There are some really good comments there too. Mine is at the bottom.
Stephen has a thread about the Best Five Albums of the 90s. This thread also has some good discussion. I have a lot of trouble thinking of any albums from the 90s. Except for Weird Al, They Might Be Giants, Bjork, and Ani DiFranco, my music collection basically has a gaping hole between 1989 and 2000. I never liked any of the genres that were popular then. I'm sure there was plenty of non-mainstream stuff that was good, I just don't know how to find it. Now, if the topic was best five or ten or twenty albums of the 80s or, praise be to the God of Rock the 70s, that I could talk about all day.
At anime club we just recently finsihed watching a show called "Honey and Clover" I didn't like it so much at first but it really grew on me, and by the end I was hooked. It's hard to describe why it's good, because any description I can give will make it sound really boring. It's about art students. It's about the everyday lives of five students in Japanese art school. There's a little bit of romance and a little bit of comedy but mostly it's about them trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their lives. Yeah. Sounds boring doesn't it? But it's interesting because it's real life. It feels very honest and uncontrived, almost autobiographical. Characters have problems and relationships that don't wrap up neatly, they just keep going up and down, cuz in real life nothing ever really resolves. And the comedic incidents stay away from the typical anime cliches and are more like the bizzare and random hilarious things that happen in real life. Man also the backgrounds are really pretty watercolors that make me nostalgic for Japan.
Sushu wrote a rave about why it's so good and she does a better job of explaining it than I could.
More than science?
One time a few weeks ago I went with Aleksa to the house of her friends Mayahuel (named after the Aztec goddes of alcohol!) and Gordo (a nickname, his real name is Atzin). I kept the kids entertained while the grownups did stuff. They all wanted rides. They said I was their favorite toy. Anyway, Kreshaune, mother of Mayahuel and Gordo, asked if I wanted horchatas. I said "Yes please! I love horchatas more than anything!". Aleksa said to me, "More than science?". I was temporarily speechless. "That's kind of a weird comparison", I said carefully, "but no, I guess I like science better."
So here's some more science for you: Pictures from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter! (NASA converted to metric correctly this time!) When the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has adjusted to its final orbit, its cameras will be able to resolve features on the surface just one meter across. That's wicked cool!
I will date the girl from Venus
Flowers die and so will I
Yes I will kiss the girl from Venus
My Friends Are So Smart
This post is just a general shout-out for my U of C friends, who have been working their butts off lately. Many of them are graduating this quarter and heading off to graduate school.
Sushu just finished her BA of Doom on Friday (40+ pages of Korean and Chinese history that has been destroying her soul for half a year). She's graduating, and then going to Stanford, where she got into STEP (the Stanford Teacher Education Program). Huzzah!
Eric got into the study-abroad-in-Japan program he applied to. He's going to Hakkodate, Hokkaido, this summer! Rock rock on!
Jeremy has been accepted to UC Santa Cruz and Rutgers for computational linguistics. He went to visit both recently, and decided on Santa Cruz. He says the campus is surrounded by redwood trees! Banzai!
Satomi has another year to go. She's probably going to study medical physics and radiology-type stuff in grad school. She just came back from a conference at Columbia ( the one in New York City, not to be confused with the art school Columbia here in Chicago. Or the country). The conference was called the Low-Dose Workshop, and basically the world's experts in the field got together to talk about how they calculate the maximum dose of radiation they can safely zap a cell with. That's so cool. They ought to call the proceedings of this conference "Record of Low-Dose War". Heh heh heh.
Aza is going to Caltech this fall (so we're trying to finish the software before we lose him!) He's going to work on some insanely cool science project or other. There is apparently a professor at Caltech who grows rat neurons attatched to computer chips so he can feed fake experiences into the neurons and observe how they learn. It's The Matrix for rats. Duuuuude.
One thing I'm selfishly happy about is that Aza, Sushu, and Jeremy will all be in roughly the Northern California region, which means that in the future I may be able to go out there and visit them all at the same time. <grin>
Good Bye, Harriet
My grandmother Harriet died the week before last. (If you want to be technical, she was my stepfather's mother, and her real name was Jadvyga, but everybody knew her as Harriet.) I never knew her very well, and we were never very close, so this didn't hit me very hard, but it certainly hit my stepfather Al. He is holding up stoically.
Most of my stories about Harriet revolve around her unorthodox use of the English language and her bizzare sayings. For one thing, she always called me "Justin"... we kept telling her that's not my name; finally she switched to calling me "Donald". Like I said, I never knew her very well. But I give her some slack because English was not her first language. It was like her sixth language, after Lithuanian, Russian, German, French, and Spanish. She might have spoken more, too, I don't know. That's way impressive.
She was the kind of person who would be rude to you in words -- she never hesitated to tell you exactly what she thought -- but make up for it in actions. Every time we went to visit her she would give us fresh-squeezed orange juice and french toast. This was no ordinary french toast; it was deep fried to near blackness and then smothered in canned strawberry pie filling and whipped cream. It was heart-attack on a plate.
Harriet spent most of her life working at the Holy Cross Catholic church on the south side of Chicago. So the funeral was a Catholic affair with all the clergy in attendance. It was a strange and exotic cultural experience for this atheist. There were mutliple priests dressed in full-blown priesty regalia, flinging holy water and incense all over the place. These guys were hardcore. They looked like they probably turn the undead on a regular basis.
Alright, enough of my joking. I know that I can't do justice to Harriet's memory myself, so with my mom's permission, I'm posting two emails that she sent me about Harriet's life and times. You think you've had it rough? Just wait till you read what Harriet went through.
First Email: Ancient History
I have been going through all the old papers and
photos that I inherited along with Harriet. Some of
them are very cool and I'm sure the answers to many of
my questions are staring right at me, but many of the
letters and photo captions are written in Lithuanian
and I lack a translator.
Here is what I have learned so far...
-Harriet was born Jadvyga Ana Silinis (or possibly a
different spelling of the last name) near Palanga,
Lithuania, on May 26, in or around 1920 (some papers
say 1918, but Harriet told me 1920).
-She fled her country during WWII, after witnessing
one or more of her siblings (and parents?) being shot
down by soldiers who were taking over her village.
-Jadvyga made her way to Germany, where she ended up
in a Displaced Person's camp with other Lithuanians.
She claims to have worked as a nurse in the camp.
-Algimantas was born in the DP camp on 11/20/49.
-Jadvyga and little Al crossed the ocean from Germany
into NY in 02/51 with their few possessions and
limited English. They were made "Permanent US
Residents" under a new act signed by Truman.
-J & A headed for Chicago, where they heard other
Lithuanians could be found. Jadvyga got a job working
for the church, scrubbing floors and cleaning with
little Al beside her.
-At some point, people began calling Jadvyga
-She met a Lithuanian man named Antanas ("Tony")
Garliauskas and married him in 04/53 "to give Al a
-Vytautas "Vyto" Garliauskas was born to Tony and
Harriet in 07/53.
-Harriet told me that Tony was a good-for-nothing
womanizer and drunk who stole her things, but Al
remembers him as hard-working (50 years at the Cracker
Jack factory). He died in 03/91.
-Harriet blames Tony for Vyto's problems with drugs
and alcohol, which contributed to his death in 07/84
(age 30) after a motorcycle accident. Al remembers
Vyto as an excellent guitarist and car mechanic.
-Vyto was married for about two years before he died
to Debbie, a rumored drug addict who bullied Harriet
into supporting her and paying her bills until I cut
off her support in 2003. If Debbie shows up at the
funeral, she may cause trouble since she lost her
house last year.
-Harriet was officially employed by the Archdiocese of
Chicago as Sacristian from 06/62 to 09/03, but she
really worked for them for 10 years before that. She
cleaned the entire church, set up for weddings and
funerals and masses, did the priest's laundry,
polished candles, and did a million other jobs
including taking communion to neighbors who were too
sick to come to church. In exchange, they gave her
family a rent-free place to live and a paycheck.
-As far as we know, the only other living blood
relatives are Harriet's niece, Dalya, and her children
who live somewhere in the Ukraine. I recieved a letter
from Dalya a couple of years ago, then lost contact.
Second Email: Recent History
My friend, Kreshaune, said recently that even though
Al and his Mom were not very close, this will still be
hard on Al. To that, I replied...
(caution... a long one!)
Actually, Al and Harriet were VERY close before she
went into the nursing home. He lived with her until we
got married, when he was 47. Yes, technically they had
separate front doors and keys to their "apartments",
but it was really one house, smaller than mine, which
had been turned into 4 units. Harriet and Al lived on
the first floor, a(n illegal) Mexican family lived
upstairs, and another lived in the basement.
Al's "apartment" had no kitchen because the kitchen
was on Harriet's side, so he went over there for
breakfast every morning, which she prepared. She
couldn't cook to save her life, but she loved to
squeeze fresh orange juice every morning, to which she
added aloe to make his hair grow. (ha!)
Harriet would go into Al's apartment every day when he
was at work and tidy up, change the towels and sheets,
remove the dirty clothes (which she brought to the
church laundry), snoop, etc. That is why, for the 48
years before I married him, Al never once had to cook
or clean and he still doesn't. Before Al's brother,
Vyto, got married, he shared Al's apartment and also
had maid service.
When we got married, Harriet was not so happy. She had
lost her first and only surviving son after all those
years of being together. That was in July, 1998. She
went around crying to everyone about how I had taken
away her son. Every Saturday after that, with few
exceptions, we would drive over to go to church with
Harriet. Even when Aleksa was a baby, we would go to
the 8am Sat Mass (there were never more than 10 people
at that one), just to please Harriet.
When she was learning to walk, Aleksa would toddle
around in the church and help Gramma set up the
altar or whatever she was doing. Then we would have a
meal with Harriet, usually at Bobak's or Old Country
Buffet or one of her other favorite restaurants
(gag!). In addition, I would drive out there with
Aleksa 3-4 times a month to take Harriet to
appointments or shopping because she never learned to
In the fall of 2003, when she got sick with the "flu"
(I actually believe it was a combination of CO2
poisoning from her old, leaky gas stove and heater
plus an overdose of self-prescribed "natural" products
added to the heart meds her Back-of-the-Yards doctor
had her on for 10 years despite her healthy heart!), I
brought Harriet over to
stay with us so I wouldn't have to run out there every
day (and to get her into some fresher air). It was
supposed to be a temporary stay, as in about 2 weeks
tops. But then we got a call from the church asking if
we could keep her. They wanted to tear down her
building and felt it was a good time to retire her.
Now she was totally devastated! Being forced out of
her home and church was too much to bear! At least she
would be reunited with her son, but Harriet had every
intention of working until her last breath at that
church, as she had done for over 40 years.
So I spent September, 2003, single-handedly moving
Harriet's stuff to our house with a 3-year old in a
little tiny car (we still had the Saturn then).
Usually, I left Harriet at my house and took Aleksa
over to the apartment with me, in a city I still
barely knew and was afraid of. The building really did
need to be torn down. It was full of cockroaches and
really gross. There was no hot water, the old sink was
constantly dripping, the place reeked of gas. I
wouldn't even go into the teeny, disgusting bathroom.
I left everything that was in that room behind along
with all of the furniture. The strangers who peeked
into the door while I was cleaning up spoke little
English and seemed to want stuff, so I gave them
whatever they wanted.
Al was busy at work on an important project so he was
no help. Aleksa was still nursing and didn't sleep
much at night and I was beginning to get really run
down, frustrated and anemic. I made a room for
Harriet where our office used to be. We had 6 people
in our house with only one bathroom... ahh!!!
I had to take Harriet to Mass every morning after she
came here (I took her to St. Francis over on Ogden),
Aleksa to Children's Memorial every week for speech
therapy and Harriet to her new doctor at Loyola every
week, too. She hated the little car and insisted we
buy a van (after the moving was done!), which we did
in time for her retirement party, though she was
disappointed that it was not a green one.
That winter was a tough one on all of us. Harriet was
a lot of extra work for me and Al was not much help.
I was really sick that winter and Harriet's
arthritis got worse by the day so I had to do more and
more for her, including bathing her, wiping her,
dressing her. It was too much for me, but my big break
finally came in April.
Harriet had a really bad reaction to the Vioxx her
doctor put her on and 8 days into it, I had to rush
her to the emergency room at Loyola. I spent 12 hours
there with her while Al stayed home with Aleksa.
Harriet spent a week in the hospital and had a lot of
tests done, but other than arthritis, there was
nothing wrong with her. Yet she was never able to walk
again. Why? No one knows. Maybe she just gave up.
When I was with her in the hospital that week, I made
the decision to move her to the nursing home, which
was not what Al and Harriet had in mind. Although Al
has never said anything about it, I know that he was
deeply disappointed that I could not take care of his
mother any longer, but I also don't think he has any
idea of how much I have done for her in the 7 years we
have been married.
Before the nursing home, I had to be in charge of all
of her medical and financial issues, and getting that
paperwork straightened out was a major task,
especially since she is not a citizen and lacks the
proper paperwork for just about everything she needed
it for. I even had to deal with all the BS about
Vyto's widow and her crack-shack, which I finally gave
up on and ignored, but not until I had severed
Debbie's financial dependency on Harriet. (Debbie and
her gang will probably shoot me at the funeral!)
Meanwhile, I was trying to get my little Cling-On
Aleksa weaned, potty-trained and settled into a
preschool she liked. Creative World was our 3rd try at
preschool and she started in February, 2004. She had
started the school year at a morning preschool in the
building where the Science Center is located and I
used to drive her over there with Harriet in the car,
then take Harriet to church. (Sounds easy, but that
car had 2 doors and bucket seats and it took me 10
minutes to get Harriet in or out of the car!) That
school was a nightmare and Aleksa and I both hated it.
I finally broke down and forked out the money for
Creative World, which was wonderful. We met you and
Mayahuel on our very first day there, when we came to
April was full of running back and forth to Lemont as
Harriet got settled into her new room upstairs with
the Loonies. It was the only room they had at first
and her roommate kept trying to kill herself between
May brought a 4th birthday for Aleksa (with no party)
and Harriet's first birthday in the nursing home. She
was very depressed because she finally began to
realize that she wasn't going to be coming back home
I guess the point of this rambling email
is this... Al and his Mom were very close. They were
together for 47 years before I came along and ruined
everything. From the time he was born in the
concentration camp in Germany during the war that
killed Harriet's entire family, many in front of her,
to the time I stepped out of Al's computer and took
him away, they were together every single day of their
lives. And since Harriet went into the nursing home in
April, 2004, well... Al has not felt good about it.
I think Harriet felt good knowing that I was there to
take care of her son. She bragged about her two
instant grandchildren, "Justin" (Jono) and "Crystal
Beauty" (Kristin... crystals were her favorite!), and
when Aleksa came along, after the initial shock, her
grandchildren were all she talked about to everyone
They are beginning Hospice care because the doctor
feels she has less than 6 months to live. So now we
begin the task of writing the obituary and
getting the funeral arrangements set. Harriet will
join her late husband and their son Vyto, who died in
1984, in the 3rd of 4 connected plots under one large
headstone in the St Casimir cemetery. The 4th plot is
meant for Al because she didn't count on him getting
married. Maybe they can stick me under a tree nearby
or something. Actually, the thought of my ashes being
thrown out to sea sounds good, but then the kids won't
have a place to visit me.
"Excuse me, is this the right bus to go to the University?", a man asked me. He was a small guy with a European accent, burdened with at least four luggage units. It was the 55th street bus which I always take from the Red Line to get home. "Yes it is", I said. The bus was delayed for several minutes while he fumbled with luggage and coinage. "This guy looks like he could use some help", I thought. "Where on campus are you trying to go?" I asked.
"International House. Do you know where that is?"
"Yes, actually, I used to live there. I can show you."
I felt like doing a random good deed, so I took one of the luggage pieces and walked with the guy to I-House. He was from Belgium, and in town for a biotechnology conference. I told him about where to catch the train, and not to go south of 60th street or west of Cottage Grove, etc etc. We talked a little bit about Chicago and about the recent riots in France.
I felt pretty good after that, like I got some much-needed good karma. I ought to do this help-out-random-stranger thing more often.