2014 - My Year in Review
Roads go ever ever on,2014 was a very light year for this blog. The mood to write for public consumption wasn't particularly high. In fall of 2013 the charter school where my wife taught went out business, leaving the teachers unemployed and spreading the kids out into a variety of public and private schools. This made for some very stressful times at home, with my wife taking a variety of jobs to stretch out unemployment, at one point working two jobs. Life on the home front was stressful to say the least.
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea
- The Hobbit
I'm hoping 2015 is better. In August my wife accepted an offer for a full-time teaching position. It's a pretty rough commute for her, having us both up at 5 in the morning, leading to the interesting situation where on occasion we are asleep before the kiddies… However, the return of stability has been a good thing for our family, allowing for planning for the future. My writing has been inching upwards again, which I view as a good thing - your mileage may vary.
Consider this my 2014 year in review. It'll mainly be about my own life, both from a techie and a gaming perspective, with some personal life thrown in.
One thing I've greatly enjoyed is my younger daughter's continued entry into the world of geekhood. Jasmine and I often watch Doctor Who together and we go on various Minecraft adventures in multiplayer Minecraft sessions. She's becoming quite the expert in redstone. Some day I need to write a blog post about Minecraft - it is an awesome example of a "sandbox" setting.
Fancy TechLet's start with tech. My gaming nowadays is primarily done online. I miss having an in-person group but real life has made that quite the challenge. On the other hand I've had the opportunity to meet some awesome people from all over the country, people I'd never have the opportunity to game with or talk to without tools like Google hangouts and communities like Yog-Sothoth or Google+. I know Google+ is often considered a distant-second to Facebook, but when it comes to meeting people of similar interests, I much prefer Google+. What I find is that Facebook is handy for getting back in touch with friends from childhood and college whereas Google+ is great for meeting new people.
When my wife started working again we took the opportunity to upgrade our family computers. I'm writing this post on a Microsoft Surface 3. Microsoft gets a ton of criticism, and several years ago you'd have heard much of it from me, but I think competition has been good for Microsoft. I find the Surface to be an awesome machine for me. It's not a powerhouse machine, but it has enough horsepower for me to play the various Civilization games and Minecraft which for me is really all I need. Windows 8.1 on a touch screen machine is a great experience and the pen interface, especially when using OneNote, is awesome for my creativity and gaming - and it makes a great tool at work during meetings. I'm the type of person who really prefers taking notes by hand and then moving to more advanced tools. During gaming sessions I pull character sheets into OneNote and make adjustments as the game goes on, tracking lost hit points, fate points, sanity, etc. Jotting things down is far preferable to trying to type them, at least for me, and a digital copy is preserved after the game session ends. I'd been trying to use two computers during game sessions, with my Chromebook dedicated to Google Hangouts and Roll20. However I've been finding the Chromebook just doesn't have enough horsepower - in my most recent Call of Cthulhu session I got booted as I was uploading a handout. Grr.
In the fall I also upgraded my phone, getting a Galaxy Note 4. My wife makes fun of the giant screen but I really like the form factor. I'm able to watch videos on it, play games, and jot notes down. When I do pen and paper notes I can use the camera to pull in an image of it for input into OneNote.
On the tablet front, I do use my Surface quite a bit but when I want something smaller I make use of the Kindle Fire. I tried a Nexus 9 but wasn't happy with it, returning it and replacing it with a Fire HDX 8.9. I do miss having access to the Google Play store and the whole Google infrastructure - I use my phone for email, calendars, etc. - but as a media consumption device, I find the HDX to be the best tool for my purposes. I'm pretty deep into the Amazon infrastructure as far as media consumption goes so it's a good device for me.
(And thanks to all the people on eBay who bought my older but immaculately cared for older gadgets, enabling me to support my gadget habit.)
Cutting Down on the DistractionsI've also learned the value in cutting back on distractions. When I'm reading an ebook I'm finding I prefer to use a Kinde eInk reader. Nothing disrupts the flow of reading more than a chime indicating a new email or Facebook post. Yeah I can shut notifications off but I also like the nice, non-backlit screen when I'm in a long reading session.
When it comes to producing content, I've discovered Markdown and distraction-free editors. Markdown is a non-wysiwyg format for producing content, basically a shortcut to producing basic HTML. My new method of blogging involves writing my post in Markdown first and then pulling it into blogspot. I'm also using the WriteMonkey editor - I'm on my Surface and all I see is an entire screen dominated by text. For good measure I've got a funky typewrite sound-effect going on as I type away. It shouldn't make me any more productive but man it does.
The Year in GamingI'm sure I'll be talking more about my gaming on this blog in individual posts, but I'll at least give a basic summary.
I've played two main games this year - Call of Cthulhu (6th and 7th editions) and Fate (mainly as Atomic Robo).
This isn't to say we didn't enjoy ourselves. Atomic Robo is an absolutely awesome and fun setting and we enjoyed it greatly. We tried doing a Dresden Files game using Fate Accelerated and that's where it became clear to me this wasn't quite the right tool for us.
I'd like to do Fate or a similar game again but I'd need to give some thought as to how I'd do it. The biggest thing I'd want to achieve is more player buy-in - all the players knowing the rules and actively involved in creating the setting. Not just creating a city like is done in Dresden Files but in the entire campaign, answering big questions like "what's the premise", "what's the setting", "is there magic", "what's the technology"?
Call of CthulhuThe year began and ended with Call of Cthulhu. When it became clear Fate wasn't working and we began running into scheduling hiccups we switched games and I went on a recruitment drive. I'd say I'm pleased with the results. For the first time in ages my group has played multipe times in December - in my experience December is murder on gaming schedules. This December we got three Call of Cthulhu sessions in.
I've come to learn the BRP system is one of the great unappreciated gems in the gaming world. Those people who love it love it with a passion. And I'm one of them. It's so simple that it gets underestimated. How do you resole a task? Roll percentile dice, try to get under a target number based on your skill.
The 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu tidies up the game but I've found it plays very much like older versions of the game. I'm eyeing an old 2nd edition adventure from Chaosium for our next game and the work I'm doing is fine-tuning the story of the adventure, not the stats. I'm just going to be using the stats within it as-is, making the few needed conversions on the fly.
I'm not saying BRP is the "one-true-only-system" but I truly appreciate what it can do. I'm sure I'll be going another D&D-like game at some point in the future. I've grealy enjoyed Dungeon Crawl Classics and Adventurer Conqueror King and 5th edition D&D looks to take what I liked about both the older and newer editions of the game. I've not given up on Fate and games like The One Ring, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Doctor Who often call to me. But I'm also mulling around ways to use BRP/Call of Cthulhu. I'd love to see Chaosium revise BRP with changes from the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu (not that doing it on the fly would be difficult). The Laundry Files RPG from Cubicle 7 is an odd twist on your normal Call of Cthulhu setting, based on Charlie Stross' novels. I'd love to give an American version of the setting a try - not the creepy Black Chamber of the novels, but given America's reliance on contractors, I could easily see some sort of private organization in the US doing much of the work of the Laundry while also trying to stay clear of the Black Chamber. Note - if you've never read Stross' works, I recommend them unconditionally - one minute you're reading something that feels like Office Space, the next you are reading a dark tale of horror. Just like my typical Call of Cthulhu session.
MediaOne thing about lower incomes (the gadget bonanza occurred when we returned to two incomes) - Netflix is a good friend. As far as new stuff goes, one of our discoveries was House of Cards. Kevin Spacey is an absolute joy to watch as he turns to the camera and addresses the viewer. I've also been working my way through "Arrow" and have been watching "Gotham" and "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.". For the most part, it wasn't a superb year in the movie theaters. I took my youngest daughter to multiple viewings of "Frozen". "Guardians of the Galaxy" was a pleasant surprise, proving greatly enjoyable and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" was also an enjoyable popcorn film. I had low expectations of "X-Men: Days of Future Past" after seeing the Phoenix Saga handled so poorly. However, X-Men was a surprisingly fine movie (and also undid much of the damage done to the Phoenix Saga). However, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" was a bit of disappointment, trying to cram far too much into one film. The final Hobbit movie was enjoyable but like the rest of the series, stretched far too long. "Interstellar" is on my list of films to see on video.
I did some Cthulhu Mythos reading over the past year. I've yet to read all of Lovecraft's works (sorry, please don't hate me) - one area I'm especially lacking is his more fantasy Dreamlands works. In addition to some rereads, I did read some of his collaborations/ghost writing, most notably The Mound. I've also been diving into Clark Ashton Smith - in my newest Call of Cthulhu campaign I've tried to get away from the "Nyarlathotep is behind everything" and have been making use of much Clark Ashton Smith's Mythos contributions. Right now the gaming group is a bit larger than I've had in some time - if it stays intact I have in the back of my mind a trip to Hyperborea. We'll see. At the very least a trip to modern (1919) day Greenland is in order.
As just mentioned, my Call of Cthulhu campaign is currently a bit earlier in time than I normally begin. With a World War I prequel, it seemed to make sense to start a little earlier, especially as I began researching 1920s Boston, only to find a ton of interesting stuff in the 1910s, as I've mentioned in some of my more recent blog posts. I've also made a trip or two to the Boston Museum of Fine Art, both for "research" and because it's cool. I'm not a huge appreciator of art, but I do love the slices of life from Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Nubia, etc. It's hard not to be moved by art crafted thousands of years ago that is still viewable. That in itself is a form of immortality.
On the comic book front, this is the year I discovered Atomic Robo. Even with our RPG campaign wound down, I'm eagerly awaiting the next volume of Atomic Robo. (And bonus points for HP Lovecraft making an appearance in one volume.)
I first discovered Charles Stross towards the end of 2013 and managed to read a lot more of his work in 2014. Stross has a good sense of how to mix humor and horror - it's very easy to get the balance wrong. I love a work that can provoke a chuckle and a feeling of dread at the same time.
I've long been a Stephen King fan, going back to my sophomore year of high school. King had two releases in 2014. The first, Mr. Mercedes, was a non-horror detective story about a serial killer engaging in a game with a retired, overweight, somewhat suicidal, police detective. Though not my favorite work by King, it still earns praise as a work I was not able to put down. The same can be said of his more recent novel, Revival, which is the most Lovecraftian work he's written that I can think of.