Saturday, October 09, 2010

Gems and Ugliness in Pathfinder Plots

A couple months ago I was pleased to see that the local library has a few role-playing game campaign books.  I checked out the first two Pathfinder campaigns, each of which was six books long.

I do not have much time for pleasure reading, so it took me months to get through these, and many books I skipped entirely or only skimmed partially.

Two books stood out as adventures that are especially well-written.  Both provided many useful ideas for planning urban stories.

The first notable book is The Hook Mountain Massacre, which is the third part of the campaign entitled Rise of the Runelords.  The highlight of this adventure is when the heroes reclaim a fort captured by a large tribe of ogres: a daunting task made possible in all sorts of clever ways.  Before getting to the fort, the heroes rescue three of its previous inhabitants, who can provide helpful information and draw maps.  The fort includes one ancient watchtower ready to collapse and one badly-designed wooden building that can easily be lit on fire.  The fort's sewer system would be a messy but feasible way for a halfling or gnome hero to sneak in.  The cliff behind the fort has some tunnels and caverns that can allow quiet access into the fort (these are inhabited by a few cave beasts, but killing those monsters is much easier than a frontal assault on the fort).  The ogres belong to an evil religious cult, and an unusually observant group of heroes can even bluff their way to the leader by posing as high-ranking cultists.  The ogres are so noisy and used to fighting among themselves that they normally ignore what other ogres do or shout, and even the sounds of combat unless a watchtower bell is rung.  To spice up the action, one of the three rescued people is of course the traitor who provided the ogres with the information required to capture the fort: whether he continues to hide his guilt or he sabotages the heroes' plan depends upon how the adventure unfolds.  All-in-all, the adventure is a great example of how to challenge the PCs with a task that is too big for them by provided numerous options for seizing and combining small advantages.

The second notable book is Seven Days to the Grave, which is the second part of the campaign entitled Curse of the Crimson Throne.  This adventure was expressly designed to be the textbook example of how a plague spreading across a city would be a source of adventures.  It succeeds, but I won't spoil its surprises with a summary list.

Unfortunately, both campaigns were needlessly filled with the despicable and vile.  The authors openly share that they admire horror films and use these as a source of ideas.  Moreover, making the villains acutely evil helps a combat-centric RPG by freeing the PCs from concerns about whether human enemies should be shown any mercy.  Nevertheless, it makes unpleasant reading.

As one example, a small side-plot within the plague adventure involves the PCs helping the city watch bring back a guard captain who has abandoned his duties.  A wealthy family has decided that gaining the loyalty of some military men would be a wise precaution during increasing civil unrest and thus offered this captain a job.  Each morning they will provide some livestock to an abandoned slaughterhouse to help feed the needy (food prices are increasing rapidly as farmers refuse to enter the plague-infested city) if he and some of his men will run the operation.  That setup is enough for an interesting story: how would this captain be most helpful to the city, does his loyalty as a city guard extend primarily to his superiors or to directly the populace, and what might the wealthy family eventually ask he and his men to do?  But the authors banish these subtle questions by making the captains four flunkies despicably evil men who have been moonlighting as murderous thugs and using their day job in the slaughterhouse to dispose of the bodies, and the captain a depressed drunk who has not emerged from his upstairs office in days.

That the city's poor have been eating "special" meat does nothing for the adventure except minimize storytelling and encouraging combat by allowing the PCs to kill the flunkies without remorse.  And those two Pathfinder campaigns are full of such superfluous depravity, which was one reason it took me months to skim through them to find the useful pearls of exemplary adventure design.  (Although I have heard that latter Pathfinder campaigns stop that trend, and the game's rulebooks certainly give little indication that they are written by fans of horror movies who write combat-heavy adventures.)

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Math 20 Chapter Tests Online

This is cool.

The publisher of the Math 20 textbook I use (Bittinger) has posted video solutions to all of the book's chapter tests on YouTube.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Kinds of Cod

Since mid-Summer Smiley and I have switched our weekly barbecued fish to fresh Albacore Tuna, which is very responsible eating.  But for many months we were eating Black Rockfish, which our favorite fish market mislabels as "Cod" or sometimes "Pacific Snapper".  I became curious about the various fish named "Cod", and here is what I found out.

Pacific Cod, also called True Cod or Grayfish, is very responsible eating if caught in Alaska.  That is nearly always available fresh at the fish market.

Black Rockfish, sometimes called Cod in contrast to "True Cod", and sometimes falsely called Pacific Snapper, is nearly always available fresh and is very responsible eating.

The Sablefish, sometimes called Black Cod, is a delicacy and sold fresh only sometimes.  It is very responsible eating.

The badly misnamed Lingcod, which is of the same order as the Sablefish but not actual Cod, is often always available fresh.  It is responsible eating.

Touch Tanks

You can't really see it in the photograph, but Smiley is petting a fish!

This is at the Hatfield Science Center Visitor Center (as my wife said, "That's a lot of centering").  They have an even nicer touch tank than the nearby Newport Aquarium.  Oddly, their Kelp Greenling is not too averse to petting.  Smiley happened to find it slightly stuck between two rocks with a sea urchin in front of it, and the fish now and then wiggled a bit but never bothered to find an escape route.  This one is yellow, which means it is female (the males are blue).  It made me wonder my more fish owners with children do not have touch tanks instead of aquarium tanks: do most fish eventually become resigned to petting?

The next day, at the Newport Aquarium, he happened to find a very hungry small Green Kelp Crab which did not flee when pet.  Smiley enjoyed feeding bits of seaweed to it and the abalones.  I did not take any photographs, but did record some Flip video which (along with all our other videos from all of September and October 1st/2nd) will hopefully be processed and online soon.

Touring Mileage

Our new Touring has the same saize footprint than the sedan version of the Hyundai Elantra, but it's still a bigger motor and heavier car than we previously owned.  So my wife's biggest concern about buying it was how much our mileage would decrease.

On Saturday we drove from Newport to Eugene, needlessly filling the tank for the first time before leaving Newport to be able to check our mileage on the drive home.

(Arriving in Eugene, we were tired enough that we waited until Sunday to fill up the tank again, so there are also about 12 miles of driving around Eugene.)

The Touring drove 107.1 miles on 2.927 gallons, which is 36.6 miles per gallon.  Nearly identical to how our Saturn SL2 made that drive a few weeks earlier with 37 miles per gallon.

The Saturn SL2 would normally give us 30 to 31 miles per gallon for our normal day-to-day driving.  Next time we buy gas we'll learn the equivalent for the Touring.

Pear Picking, This Year and Last

It is amazing how much Smiley's face changes, without my noticing, as he grows older.

August 27th of this year:

August 27th of last year:

Sunday, October 03, 2010

October Calm

Whew.  September is done!

Our old car was dying rapidly, and now we have a new car.

All Summer long I've had a sinus infection, which is not cured but is much, much better.

In early August my wife's family purchased a home very near to us, and a lot of this Summer was spent helping them get the house set up.  Happy 70th birthday, Grandpa!

Now my wife's parents are back in California until April; her father is not quite retired yet.  But her brother is a new neighbor and looking for a job. Here he is at our Sukkot gathering, when about thirty people were in our back yard.

My brother visited in mid-September, back in the U.S. after spending quite a long time in Thailand.  His visit was delightful even if it was a bit strange for me to be hosting a guest while unable to sleep.  (He was gracious with my medicated oddity of barely sleeping for three days and then crashing.)

In September my family visited Newport twice.  Smiley loves the beach, the Aquarium, and the Hatfield Science Center.  And the hotel pool and hot tub.

(Lots of other photographs in our Picasa album.)

Now it is October.  All those September issues are done.  Fall term has started at LCC, and my math class appears to have interesting students.  Life is getting calm again.  Yay!

New Car - Hyundai Elantra Touring

In early September I wrote about needing a new car.  By the end of the month the noise made by the faulty connecting rod bearing in our Saturn SL2 was increasing so badly we were afraid to drive it unless absolutely necessary.  We traded it in to the dealer, and purchased a new car.

We were looking at the Honda Fit and the Hyundai Elantra Touring, and decided upon the latter.

The deciding factor was actually comparing cargo space side-by-side.  We packed up our Saturn as we normally do for car camping or driving to visit family in California.

Then we drove to the Hyundai dealer, borrowed the Touring, and loaded it up with our stuff. If we put the sleeping bags in the back seat foot well, then everything fit without totally blocking rear visibility and allowing for two car seats in the back seat(since we hope to have another child soon, God willing).

Then we drove the Touring to the Honda dealer, to compare the back storage space side-by-side.  Notice the three round beverage coolers don't fit.

The comparison was decisive, and more visibly apparent if we put in less stuff. The Honda Fit could not fit a large cooler aligned lengthwise with the car. A cooler that size had to be positioned sideways.

But the Touring could do this, with room to spare.

As a family's second car the Fit might be a wise choice.  But we did not think we could comfortably camp or drive to visit family in California with the Fit.

Tangentially, I have no idea how the Honda Fit and Hyundai Elantra Touring were given official ratings with such similar cargo space (20 and 24 cubic feet, respectively).  Looking at the cargo space side-by-side is dramatic.

How much will the larger Elantra cost us?  We cannot say for sure, but the answer seems to be "not much".

Although my wife and I obviously cannot predict gasoline prices for the next decade, nor the expected repair costs for years eight, nine, and ten of owning a Honda Fit, we did our best with a ballpark estimate and found that the smaller car was only about $4,000 less expensive to own for a decade.

Initial Purchase: With the power of Costco pricing and then ruthless bargaining, we negotiated both car dealerships to below invoice price.  The end result was that the Touring cost $750 more than the Fit.

Extended Warranties: The Touring's bumper-to-bumper extended warranty costs $1,800 and brings the coverage to 10 years.  The Fit's costs $1,290 for seven years.

Insurance: With our good driving records, over ten years the Touring would cost $1,800 more than the Fit to insure.

Gasoline: Using 11,000 miles per year and $3.20 per gallon, we estimate that over ten years the Touring would cost $2,730 more than the Fit (23 versus 28 mpg).

Repairs: What would annual repair costs be for years 8, 9, and 10 for the Fit?  A wild guess is about $500 per year, so the Touring saves $1,500 over ten years.
So the Touring costs $400 more per year.  (We ignore depreciation, since we always drive our cars until they die instead of selling them used.)  That's a reasonable cost for having twenty more horsepower, traction control, three more years warranty, spaciously wide seating with a nice arm rests, and another half inch between the front of a forward-facing car seat and the back of the front seats--without even considering how it frees us from needing to purchase airline tickets to visit family each year.

My only remaining question is why so many people in Eugene own a Subaru Outback.  Do that many people really use all-wheel drive and the extra cargo space?  It just doesn't compare to the Touring for mileage, warranty, or reliability.  If you're not really big on camping, why pay more?

The Sinus Infection of Summer 2010

Back in August I wrote about trying a mild drug to help myself sleep better, which did not work.

Sadly, that was not the only recent story of a medication that failed to help me.  This past Summer has been needlessly miserable, with nearly constant sinus congestion and headache.  Six weeks ago I decided it must be a sinus infection, since the allergy season was long gone.  It was, and I should have had it dealt with more promptly.

I spent two weeks apiece taking Cefalexin (Keflex) and then Co-trimoxazole (Septra).  Those are comparatively mild antibiotics with minimal side effects (of which I suffered none), and good choices to start with.  But neither was strong enough.  My left sinus was so inflamed I could barely breathe through it, and must have been an ideal home for bacteria.  With the second antibiotic I also used Flonase spray, but with so little airflow it did not help.

Two weeks ago I moved up to the "big guns".  The antibiotic, Co-amoxiclav (Augmentin), causes me dyspepsia most days, but seems to be working.  I also took Prednisone for a few days, which did succeed in finally reducing the inflammation. Goodness that's a nasty steroid: the first two nights I slept three and then five hours.  Fortunately, I avoided the "become grouchy" side effect, but was really wired for three days and then crashed hard.

All that and my sinuses are still a bit congested and inflamed.  So tomorrow I'll call the doctor yet again.

At least the success of the past two weeks means there is no risk of needing surgery, which I have heard happens in rare cases when the inflammation becomes so established that steroids no longer cure it.  In the meanwhile, I should look at yogurt company stock, since I'm eating so much to keep my stomach pains down.

Skyping Goodnight to Dancing Nathen

Whew.  The past three weeks have been hectic, which is why I have not been blogging.

But something tonight was too cute to not record for posterity.

Smiley and I were ready to start his bedtime routines, and sitting on the love-seat.  I decided to check Skype to see if Grandma Gwyn was at her computer, since it would be nice to say goodnight to her.  She was not, but Dancing Nathen was.  We had not talked to him in several days, because we were vacationing in Newport from Thursday through Saturday.
I asked Smiley, "What do you want to tell Dancing Nathen?  You tell me and I'll type the words."

He replied, "Downtown is by the fire station and the bus station. And the bus stop too."

Not exactly typical goodnight wishes, but I typed that.  Then I asked, "What else do you want to tell him?"

He said, "Downtown is by the library and the fire station and the bus station and the bus stop."

I said, "We already told him about downtown.  Why don't you tell him about Newport?"

He said, and I typed, "Newport has so many things. A kitchen, a shower, and a bathroom! And a sink. And another sink. It has a sink, and another sink, and another sink."

I think the first two sinks were part of the cottage we stayed at, part of the Waves Hotel, which is an affordable way for someone who has to cook all their own meals to visit Newport after Labor Day.  The other three sinks are probably ones at the Aquarium and the Hatfield Science Center.  Hours of playing at the touch tanks meant that Smiley also did a lot of fun hand wash.