gridlore: A Roman 20 sided die, made from green stone (Gaming - Roman d20)
Before I do all the finishing touches on my new character, like equipment, a fleshed out background, and of, I don't know, a freaking name, I'm going to look at the Warlock character class. Because along with all the magical goodies I detailed last time, being a Warlock has some built-in advantages. The base concept is pretty simple, you get power in return for serving an immensely powerful otherworldly patron. I think there are five canonical patrons now; the Archfey, the Fiend, the Great Old One, the Celestial, and the Hexblade. Each of these patrons offers different unique spells and powers as you advance.

One part of the 5th edition that I've come to adore is the specialization classes get at 3rd level. This allows customization without devolving into the mess of Feats that sank D&D 3rd Edition. As an example, in the base rules, a fighter can choose to be a powerful Champion, using brute strength and fury to defeat foes; a cunning Battle Master, able to use maneuvers and tricks to increase the accuracy of his blows and avoid attacks; or an Eldritch Knight, a powerful fighter with some ability at magic.

I like how these pathways allow further definition of the character and supports that choice with increased abilities. For the Warlock, there are three Pacts available at 3rd level:

Pact of the Chain - you gain a familiar and are able to use unique invocations to increase its power.

Pact of the Blade - you can summon a pact weapon into your hand. You are proficient with this weapon, and it counts as a magic weapon.

Pact of the Tome - you receive a Book of Shadows. In it, you can add three cantrips from any spell list, not just the Warlock list. So long as your book is on your person, you can cast these cantrips at will.

I chose Pact of the Blade, mainly to continue my plan of being both competent in melee and in ranged magic. I note that if I get a powerful magic weapon, I can make that my Pact weapon. But being bound to the Valley of Shadows has other fun effects.

Once a day, assuming I get a long rest, I can cast the Hexblade's Curse on a foe. The target is cursed for one minute. During that time, I gain my proficiency bonus as an addition to damage rolls against the cursed target. My critical hit roll is 19-20, as opposed to just a natural 20. Finally, if my foe dies, I immediately regain lost hit points equal to my warlock level plus my Charisma bonus.

I'm also a trained warrior, proficient in simple and martial weapons, light and medium armor, and shields. I can also use my chosen weapon with my Charisma bonus for attack and damage rolls. Then, at 6th level, I gain the Accursed Specter ability. If I slay a humanoid target, I can curse the soul and force it to appear as a specter under my control. Which will be nice to have in big fights.

More fun with the Hexblade's Curse. If the target of my curse hits me with an attack, I can roll a d6. One a 4-6 the attack misses me. The nice thing this is explicitly a reaction roll, so if I've been hit by multiple attacks from a cursed monster, I can choose which one to try to avoid.

This is obviously a man who has wandered far and seen a great deal. I've decided that his Patron contacts him in dreams, which are rarely clear, but offer glimpses of where to go and what to do, although he has a persistent vision of a castle perched high on a ridge, mostly cloaked in twilight but with on shining tower of gold visible. Yes, I'm stealing from an old Genesis song, sue me. He knows that he has to get there, but doesn't know where the castle is or why he needs to reach it.

Alright then, I am almost ready! I've done the hard number-crunching bits, and all that's left is equipping him, which will include a few magic items, working my way around his low carry capacity, writing his back story, which will involve a long read of the Sword Coast Adventure's Guide, and coming up with a suitably unpronounceable name.

I'm really having fun sharing this with all y'all, and I hope you are enjoying it as well. Please, feel free to comment and make suggestions. For example, is there any city in Toril that would have an institution like the medieval University of Paris? Preferably one some distance from the Sword Coast?
gridlore: Doug looking off camera with a grin (Default)
I'm getting out of bed this morning after not getting called at 0630 to work a post, and my legs are quite sore. I am complaining about this

"Another day as Creaky-Leg Joe." pause "Creaky-Leg Joe, Legend of the Bayou!" (really bad Cajun accent) "You boys headin' in thems swamps? Gotta warn ya, Creaky-Leg Joe will git youins!"

(Regular voice) "Why do they call him Creaky-Leg Joe?"

(Cajun) "Because he has a bad leg! Man can't but hobble around!"

(Regular) "Well, then we could just run away from him, right?"

(Cajun) "You city boys and your logic, g'wan then, have a good time!"

All that before I got dressed. Kirsten was mildly amused.
gridlore: A Roman 20 sided die, made from green stone (Gaming - Roman d20)
Into the homestretch on my yet-unnamed Hexblade! We've taken care of his physical aspects, now let's look at his magical prowess. As a reminder, he's a 12th level Heblade Warlock being built under the standard 5th edition ruleset, no modifications or house rules.

The first thing I need to do is figure two important factors: His Spell Attack Bonus, and his Spell Save DC. The first is my spellcasting ability modifier + my proficiency bonus. The latter is a general bonus that goes up as you gain levels. As Charisma is my ability modifier and my proficiency bonus is +4, I get a +8 here. The second is just the previous result plus eight. So the roll to resist my magic is 16 or more on a 20-sided die. Of course, monsters and other enemies have their own bonuses. No sure things!

Now, I get magic in several ways. First is cantrips, simple low-powered spells I can cast at will. I get four of those. Second, I have 11 spells memorized and can cast three spells a day. My maximum spell level if 5th, and all my slots fire at 5th level. This means some potent magic! Lastly, and this is unique to Warlocks, I have six Invocations. These are mystical powers granted to me by my patron and are always active.
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gridlore: A Roman 20 sided die, made from green stone (Gaming - Roman d20)
OK, let's build my character! Last time, as you may recall, I had decided to go with a "Hexblade Warlock" as my next character class. I wanted something versatile, able to both engage in melee and use magic. There was another consideration I didn't mention. Digenis, despite being a powerful barbarian wielding a magical ax, really lagged in terms of damage inflicted per turn. So my design process has to include that as a factor as I go along.

Before getting to the meat of characteristics, I want to nail down a couple of things that will help shape who this character is. To begin with, I've decided to play as a human. Digenis was a half-elf, and I never really did anything with it. D&D5 has a nice system of backgrounds, what it is you were before you took up the life of a wandering hero. Identifying who I was helps to define my motivations. I look over all the available backgrounds. Far Wanderer from the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide seems promising. But the more I think about it, the more I see my character as someone whose quest for knowledge led him down the path to his patron. This means that Sage is the best background for me.

I'm seeing my guy as a former clerk at a university, jealous of those attending due to their family connections. He sees knowledge as the path to power, and his patron has offered him both knowledge and power to take revenge. This is also helping me define my alignment - where I stand morally - as being Lawful Evil. I care about myself first and crave power and recognition. But I understand that power is best when in a structure that I can come to dominate.

Now I'm getting a picture of who I am. So let's get started on this! We are using a point-build system for this campaign. The six basic characteristics; strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma, all start at 8. The range for these characteristics is 1-25, with 3-18 being the most common range, and 9-11 being average. The point buys are more expensive for higher values, and cannot exceed 15. You get 27 points to play with. After allocating my points, I have:

STR 8 (0 points)
DEX 11 (3 points)
CON 13 (5 points)
INT 13 (5 points)
WIS 13 (5 points)
CHA 15 (9 points)

Charisma and Constitution are vital for Warlocks. Now, because I'm human, I get a one-point boost to each characteristic. This is where I'm going to add another concept, the Modifier. This is the bonus or penalty you get for having a characteristic value at a certain level. After adding my human bonus, we have:

STR 9 (-1)
DEX 12 (+1)
CON 14 (+2)
INT 14 (+2)
WIS 14 (+2)
CHA 16 (+3)

Knowing that I had this human bonus was why I bought everything up to odd numbers. The next Modifier lever starts at the even number. I'm beginning to see who I am now, a slight, hardy man. Physically unimposing but extremely charming.

Since we are starting at 12th level, I have three characteristic bonuses to apply at 4th, 8th, and 12th level. At each of these, I can add +2 to one characteristic, +1 to two, or take a Feat. After looking through the feats I don't see anything I really like. Keeping in mind that modifiers increase on even numbers, I add +2 to Constitution at 4th level, +2 to Charisma at 8th level, and +2 to Intelligence at 12th level.

STR 9 (-1)
DEX 12 (+1)
CON 16 (+3)
INT 16 (+3)
WIS 14 (+2)
CHA 18 (+4)

The order of those increases is important, as your constitution modifier affects your hit points, which is the next thing. Per directions, we're using the set number advancement for each level as opposed to rolling for hit points.

At 1st level, I get (8+2) 10hp. At 2nd and 3rd, I add (5+2) 7hp each. From 4th through 12th level I add (5+3) 8hp. 10+(7x2)+(8x9)= 96 hit points, a respectable total. You can see why the order of characteristic boosts was important. Boosting my constitution earlier, even though it isn't my primary characteristic, added an extra nine hit points, which can be the difference between life and really needed the bloody cleric to get off his ass start healing me now!

I'm liking this guy so far. Next up, we do the magic side of things! Cantrips, spells, those lovely Warlock invocations and special abilities. Which in turn will help write more of the persona. I'm having fun doing this.

Please feel free to check my math and/or understanding of the rules.
gridlore: One of the penguins from "Madagascar," captioned "It's all some kind of whacked-out conspiracy." (Penguin - Conspiracy)
Parking here on Main Street sucks rocks through a bendy straw. The problem was this street was laid out in a time where families had one car, and the apartment buildings at the end of the block were single-family homes. The result is overflowing driveways and crowded street parking.

In our three-apartment building, we have a carport with three spaces and a generous patch of concrete for further parking. Since we're on good terms with our neighbors, we've agreed that Kirsten and I get two slots in the carport while the folks in apartments 1 and 3 get the remaining space and park in the slab in the back.

So we have a solution, but every single day we witness the war for street parking. It's really bad on Monday evenings, as everyone has taken out their trash and recycling bins for Tuesday pick-up. I honestly have no idea where the cars go then. Over the near-decade we've lived here we've had to deal with all sorts of creative parking solutions. The most common of these are the people who park and partially block the driveway.

Most of the time, I'll let it slide if the car is a few inches over the line. If it's far enough to make pulling in or out chancy, I'll call the police and ask for an officer to come take a look. My calls have led to several tickets being issued. But yesterday took the freaking cake.

I've been out the door by 0650 these past few weeks to get to the school I've been working. Yesterday, I come out to find a red Hyundai SUV blocking close to a third of the driveway. I was in a hurry and figured that whoever had parked it would be leaving soon anyway, so I had to roll over the curb as I left and headed out.

Two hours later, I return home and the care is still there. meaning Kirsten and our neighbors had to roll their non-trucks out the way I did. Thoroughly annoyed, I called the police non-emergency line and gave a detailed report. As an aside, when I did my dispatch sit-along for the Citizen Police Academy, the dispatcher called up my number and there were all my other complaints.

Twenty minutes pass before my phone buzzes. the Community Service Officer is outside. I got to speak to him, and it turns out to someone I know. He says the car is far enough over the line that it can be towed. Not knowing when or if the owner will return (it's not uncommon to see cars on our street that have been tagged as abandoned) I give the go-ahead.

Sadly, the Facebook crash kept me from sharing the moment on a Livestream.

Now it's 1230, and I'm about to head back over for the afternoon shift at the school. There's a knock on my door. It's a frantic young woman with a baby stroller asking if I know what happened to her car.

Uh-oh.

I tell her the truth. It was towed for blocking the driveway. Suddenly, her actions become my fault. I'm supposed to tell her where to park. I was supposed to find her (I've never seen her before in my life) and ask her to move. It's my fault she left her kid's medication in the car. I keep offering to give her the non-emergency number for the SCPD so she can find out where her car is, but all I get is a sob story about how she's on benefits and can't afford a ticket.

Lady, look at where I live. My side of the street ain't exactly Bel Air. We live in the same "challenged" neighborhood.

Next comes the race card. I had her towed because she's black. I had no clue who the car belonged to, and honestly, African-Americans are not a common sight on this street. We lean more towards Latino and South Asian populations. I tell her this, and my reward having my wife called a bitch and my the same.

Getting tickets and having your car towed sucks. I get this. But she was the one who made the decision to park where she did. She gets to own this.

But I am worried about how worked up she got and the fact that she was blaming me. I told Kirsten we need to get a Ring camera and floodlight installed ASAP.

As much as I love the Bay Area, I really wish we had the means to move to Reno.
gridlore: Doug looking off camera with a grin (Default)
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th CenturyA Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


An utterly fascinating history of Western Europe in the 14th century, loosely following the life of Enguerrand VII, the Sire de Coucy, a formidable castle in Northern France. Not a strict biography, but rather a history of the times that uses the Sire de Coucy as an anchor point.

It's a good choice. Enguerrand was an accomplished knight, counselor, diplomat, and since he was married to a daughter of Edward III, he had holdings in England. He was present at or had a hand in many of the important events the shook France in the latter half of the century.

We see the effects of the Black Death and the social upheaval it brought. We follow the Great Schism with two rival popes in Avignon and Rome and the various plans to reunite the papacy. And, of course, the constant wars with England, with the Italian city-states, and the encroaching Berbers and Turks.

The book can bog down, but overall it's a fun read, filled with nuggets of information that really fill out your view of the era. We see time and again how the French commitment to the ideals of chivalry and personal glory in battle costs them in fights they should have won. We see the politics at work across Europe as noble families work to advance their lines above all others.

I highly recommend this book to history lovers. You will come away with a far better understanding of the world in the Late Medieval era and if you are a writer of any sort, endless ideas to plunder.



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gridlore: A Roman 20 sided die, made from green stone (Gaming - Roman d20)
Last Saturday we reached a milestone. The Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition campaign that's been going on for at least two, probably more like three, years wound up. It was mostly a dungeon crawl; to be honest, I think we all forgot who had hired us to clear these ruins and why.

But a good time was had by all, and after some discussion, we've decided to keep playing D&D. But as several of us expressed interest in playing different characters, we're going to move into a different campaign in the same setting, the Forgotten Realms. It's a good setting, having been updated regularly and having a very different feel from other standards like Greyhawk or Dragonlance. Tolkein with a hint of Leiber and Howard.

As this was my first time actually gaming in literally decades, and obviously my first go with D&D's 5th edition, I decided to play an easy character class, one with minimal bookkeeping. There had been an aborted run at a campaign set in Ravenloft which ended in a Total Party Kill (TPK) where I had played a Fighter. Looking at my options for a good character to play while learning the ropes, I settled on the noble Barbarian. Barbarians really have one mode: go nuts and kill things. Just what I wanted!

Thus was born Digenis Fiendsbane, the noble if pantless warrior of the Great Worm Uthgardti. He was a hell of a lot of fun to play, learning how to use the combat system and my class special abilities. I had to reign back at times, because while I might be fairly smart, Digenis was of average intelligence and wisdom. Along with the running joke about my lack of trousers, I had fun coming up with "battle cries" that always seemed to reflect the out of game conversations we'd have. My last cry was "AC/DX has become a travesty and they should hang it up! RARRR!"

As an aside, the entire campaign was played on roll20.net, an online virtual tabletop that is really nifty. The game master lives in Michigan, we have one player from Norway, and of course me out here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Being able to connect, usually seamlessly, with players literally on the other side of the planet is just astounding to me. If you are looking to game and lack a local group, I highly recommend Roll20.

Digenis has gone back to his people, resplendent in his new pants. I think that makes him chief or something, the books don't touch on that subject. I'll miss the raging lunatic, and I'm sure Al, our GM, will pull him out if we wander near Uthgadt lands. But now comes the time to design a new character. A daunting process as it was agreed that we'd start where we left off in terms of experience. So we'll all be writing up 12th level characters. There's one player who said she might keep her current Wizard, but everything else is in the blender.

So I've decided to share the process. I'll be posting daily updates on the design process, and soliciting comments. Sounds fun, right?

Please clap.

OK, start at the beginning. Having played a half-elf barbarian, I want something versatile. Combat and magic. Something with an interesting story behind it. This gives me a couple of options . . . Bard, Cleric, Druid, Paladin, Ranger (although if I wanted to play a Ranger, I'd use the magic-free variant published in Unearthed Arcana), and Warlock.

Looking at my options, I find myself drawn to the Warlock. These are people who have made a pact with a being of immense power. In return for their service, the warlock gets impressive arcane abilities. These bonds or with otherworldly figures like a powerful Sidhe, an Archdemon, or a Lovecraftian monstrosity. I like that there is an obligation to serve, even if the call only comes rarely. It's a good motive for an adventuring life, as you sent here and there to do often inexplicable things for an impenetrable intelligence.

Digging further, I see there is an Otherworldly Patron known as the Hexblade. A being from the Shadowfell, possibly the Raven Queen herself, has marked you for service. This works for my concept because a Hexblade is also a warrior along with being an arcane spellcaster of some power. So I can both cast spells and swing a sword. Nice. Included in the Hexblade write up is the tidbit that Hexblades can use their Charisma modifier instead of Strength when making attack and damage rolls. Since Charisma should be a Warlock's best stat, this fits in perfectly.

Off to a good start! Tomorrow I'll build my characteristics and do more work on my background.
gridlore: Old manual typewriter with a blank sheet of paper inserted. (Writing)
So, before I was rudely interrupted by a massive cold, work (and isn't it nice to be able to use that excuse again!) and general life, I was expounding on the joys of using the plague-riddled, collapsing society, war-plagued 14th century as an idea mine for gaming. Let's get back to that, shall we?

Now, as you may recall, France in the latter half of the 14th century sucked. Upwards of half the population was dead, the economy had been thrown off kilter, peasants were seizing control of the means of production and demanding more freedoms, and there was this war with England. See, despite having the curb appeal of a rusted out Edesl, Edward III of England (and controller of large areas of France) decided that he wanted it all.

This led to a series of underfunded English invasions of France, which seemingly always led to a decimated English Army being cornered by a much larger French force, and then triumphing because the English had learned battlefield discipline while the French nobility's tactics boiled down to "me first, and make sure the heralds are watching."

At this point, I have to point out that at this time we had a situation that was so cliched that any editor would trash a story using it. At the time of the Battle of Poitiers, 1356, France was led by King John the Good. Lurking in the shadows was the King of Navarre, Charles the Bad. I wish I was kidding. Charles II of Navarre owned large portions of Normandy and also wanted to claim the French crown, or at least be on the winning side. Charles changed sides every other week, plotted with the English while demanding respect from John II, ordered the murder of nobles who opposed him and basically was a cartoon caricature of an epic villain. Serious, John the Good and his evil opponent Charles the Bad?

But onwards. One of the side effects of the Hundred Years War, along with providing Shakespeare with loads of material, was that France and England ended up with unemployed knights and mercenaries that had been supporting themselves for years by looting. One guess as to what happened. Yup, these Free Companies began wandering around, looting and pillaging as they went. Sure, some went to fight the endless war between the Italian city-states and the Italian Pope (we had two popes at this point, Urban VI in Rome and Clement VII in Avignon. It's a long story.) Or they could sign up with the Teutonic Knights for their annual crusade against the Lithuanians, the last pagans in Europe. But looting French cities was so much easier!

Now, tell me if random bands of lawless warriors making their wat by skill and cunning across a dangerous landscape sounds at all familiar. This is a natural for establishing an adventuring party! The standard organization unit of the times was a "lance," defined as a knight and two men-at-arms. No reason one of those men-at-arms couldn't be a cleric or barbarian. Historically, most lances attracted followers and hangers-on. In a magical environment, having a journeyman spellcaster along makes sense in war, as does having a man that can act as a scout (Rogue or Ranger) and of course, a Bard to write songs about how wonderful the leader is!

Just invent a battle like Poitiers as a starting point. It doesn't matter if the characters were on the winning or losing side. They've been cut loose, are strangers in a strange land, and broke. Begin adventure! Of course, a game of terrorizing villagers and killing defenseless monks isn't quite what most people are going for, so up the fantasy element. If the plague left undead in its wake, as I suggested previously, town burghers might be happy to part with gold and favors for a company that can clear the zombies out, and along the way learn that a more powerful creature has been spawned . . .

You see where this is going. The real plague left cities emptied, monasteries abandoned, and vast areas left to the encroaching wilderness. The acts of the English and Franch nobles only made things worse. Your characters can make it better!

Now I'm going to complain about something that was in D&D 3rd edition and Pathfinder but is missing here: the Leadership feat. At 7th level, you could take a feat that allowed you to gather a company of followers included skilled lieutenants and a mob of common soldiers. The number was based on Charisma and Level and added a bit of growth to the game. A Lord Paladin, whose adventures have become a legend, should have a loyal company. Same can be said for most classes. Having a body of troops adds to the game as you both have to deal with their needs (guess it's time to invest in a castle, Fred) and allow the followers to be of use (half of you guard the camp, the rest, go with Charlie to rescue Fineous.)

Oh, Charles II of Navarre? He never got close to the French crown and he died a fitting death:

"Charles the Bad, having fallen into such a state of decay that he could not make use of his limbs, consulted his physician, who ordered him to be wrapped up from head to foot, in a linen cloth impregnated with brandy, so that he might be inclosed [sic] in it to the very neck as in a sack. It was night when this remedy was administered. One of the female attendants of the palace, charged to sew up the cloth that contained the patient, having come to the neck, the fixed point where she was to finish her seam, made a knot according to custom; but as there was still remaining an end of thread, instead of cutting it as usual with scissors, she had recourse to the candle, which immediately set fire to the whole cloth. Being terrified, she ran away, and abandoned the king, who was thus burnt alive in his own palace."

Serves him right! Burning Man, 1387 style!
gridlore: Old manual typewriter with a blank sheet of paper inserted. (Writing)
I have been experiencing terrible writer's block for the past few weeks. I sit down, distraction-free, empty screen in front of me, and nothing happens. It's so frustrating that I have literally screamed at the walls after trying and failing to come up with a single coherent sentence. I look at the row of empty boxes on 750words.com and feel like an utter failure. Which is not good for my general mental state.

There are mitigating factors. I've been getting a lot of work recently, as regular crossing guards take vacations and use their sick days. In fact, I have three straight weeks coming up as a guard visits family in the Philippines. Work does tire me, and working in the recent waves of storms hitting the Bay Area has made things much worse. I also picked up a nasty-ass cold that transitioned right into allergy season. Hard to write when you're coughing up the shattered remnants of your lungs every fifteen minutes.

It's not like I've lacked ideas for my writing. I've got reviews for two Dungeons & Dragons books to write, my fanzine-publishing friend is always looking for articles on any number of subjects, and I'm always thinking of scenes and essays that I really need to get down just so that they are there for later review. But while the ideas are happily bouncing around my brain they fade when I sit down to even sketch out barebones frameworks of what I'm thinking.

As an example, there's a scene for my next NaNoWriMo project that keeps coming up. A scene where my hero attempts to start a coup by suborning fleet units to rally to his banner and advance to Earth. It's based on a similar attempt by Louis Napoleon. I can see the cramped bridge of the old destroyer that is the hero's "flagship." I can feel his emotions and know exactly how to write his lines as he first makes his brazen announcement to the Terran Navy ships in orbit around this colony world. I can hear the entire discussion among ships, with an early sense of triumph as ship after ship begins declaring for the hero, followed by the quick collapse as the commanding admiral quickly brings order back to his squadron.

The scene ends with his own crew turning, and allowing the ship to be boarded and the hero taken out under arrest. It's a major plot point in the book, as the hero is first imprisoned and then escapes into exile. It sets up the final act of the novel, where through political manipulation he manages to seize power through a mandate of the citizens. It's vital, I can see it in my head, and I can't bloody write it!

Oh, I've done all the exercises experts recommend to deal with writer's block. I've meditated, changed my writing medium, did basic typing exercises just to get in the habit of writing words. I've even gone back over older pieces and attempted to edit them and rewrite some sections. Nothing.

In fact, this piece today is the first significant writing I've done in four weeks. Writing this is like pulling teeth, a subject I have extensive experience with, sad to say. I'm looking at my word count, seeing that I've written 548 words of my 750-word goal. I'm at a loss as to what else I can say on the subject of my inability to wrote two sentences on "My day at the farm" or whatever.

But I will make that goal. I'm am going to try all the tricks again. Tomorrow I may write my 750 words right after I get up before I do anything else. I might just use my voice transcription software to see if I can get my stream of consciousness out a little better if I speak rather than type. Because let's face it, I am king of the two-finger typists. It might be best to combine the two.

I'm also committing to getting out of the apartment more. Yes, I've been sick, but getting out stimulates my mind and invigorates my creative juices. I honestly believe I'm able to do this today because I took the recycling over to the recycling place earlier. So even if it's just a walk around the block, go out and get some sensory input. This will become easier as spring approaches.

So, yeah. Writer's block sucks. What I've found is you really just need to ride it out, keep chipping away at it, and be patient. The words will come back.
gridlore: Hand-held Stop sign raised against the sky (Stop Sign)
I got a very nice compliment this morning. The school where I've been working all this week is on a small residential street, with my station at a crosswalk right in front of the school.

The issue here is I'm trying to cross over 200 kids at the point when that street is choked with Suburban Assault Vehicles. The school itself has an army of volunteers trying to get these cars in and out quickly.

It's pretty amazing to watch this quiet street go from empty and serene to Times Square on New Year's Eve crowded and back. My job in all of this is to get all these kids across the street.

But I also have to watch traffic flow. I've been hopping trying to group kids to cross and then allowing cars to thin out. This morning the teacher in charge of the circus told me I was doing a great job of traffic management.

I also might have destroyed a 5th grader's chance of ever getting a prom date. Busy day.
gridlore: Doug looking off camera with a grin (Default)
Saw my hemo-oncologist today. Can I say how thrilled I was to have a copay when I signed in? Yes, I was thrilled to fork over $35, because it was a sign that I am inching closer to being a more regular member of society. Leaving MediCal for a Medicare Advantage plan was a huge step for me.

I really like Dr. Agrawal. He's one of those doctors who takes time to know you, not just your charts. We always have a good chat. But today he opened with the fact that I was responsible for him being wakened by the blood lab at 0600 with frantic news about me.

See, your immune system has many working parts, one of them being a type of white blood cell called a neutrophil. In a normal human, the absolute neutrophil count is between 1500-7800 cells/uL. That's normal.

My count was 139 cells/uL. Hence the panic at the lab.

But Dr. Agrawal knows me and has looked at my lab work going back all the way to my cancer treatment. I've always had low neutrophil counts. Looking at my total white blood cell count (in range) and the counts of the specific types of white blood cells (all high except for the neutrophils) Agrawal understands that this is just how my body works post-chemotherapy. I just never regained the ability to produce neutrophils properly, and my body compensated with other disease fighters.

This is only an issue if I get multiple infections requiring antibiotics or hospitalization. Then I get booster shots. I'll pass, if possible.

Just more proof that our bodies may all be built on the same basic plan, but there are infinite variations.
gridlore: A pile of a dozen hardback books (Books)
Infinite Stars: Definitive Space Opera and Military Science FictionInfinite Stars: Definitive Space Opera and Military Science Fiction by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


An excellent collection of grand space opera. Of course, any collection that includes The Game of Rat and Dragon by Cordwainer Smith is automatically good.



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gridlore: A Roman 20 sided die, made from green stone (Gaming - Roman d20)
So in our last thrilling installment, I started looking at the Black Death, and how a good plague can create an interesting environment for role-playing games. A mass-casualty event like the plague creates an Edge, that wonderful place and time where adventures can happen with little worry about society and law coming down on the good times. So, let us explore the wonderful world of a post magical plague apocalypse.

For ease of reference, I'm going to be using examples based in 14th century Europe rather than a game setting. Simply because everyone has a vague idea of where Paris is, whereas many of you might not even have heard of Greyhawk. These examples can, of course, be used where your fancy wishes.

Let's start by assuming that the last vestiges of the plage burned out several years ago. What does the world look like? Well, for one thing, there's a lot more elbow room. given that anywhere between a third and half of all people living in Europe in 1347 were dead by 1352, huge holes have been ripped in every part of the civilized world. There are far fewer peasants to till the fields. The cities are emptied from both death and people fleeing. The Feudal order has been shattered, as entire lines of fealty no longer exist.

What does this mean for your game? Opportunity. Abandoned castles will be taken over by brigands or monsters in short order, and need clearing. If you want, you can leave an entire city empty, waiting for bold explorers to find out why everyone left, and no one has returned. Assuming that the dwarf holdings were equally hard hit you have emptied dwarvish mines and cities to explore. Same goes for elf-forests. They might be left to the wild, or maybe some elves still lurk, determined that no one shall ever enter again.

But there's another opportunity here, and that's the social one. Medieval society wasn't big on social advancement. If you were born a villein, you stayed a villein in death, and the laws of God and man decreed how you could dress, what meals you ate and when, and even what you could own. These sumptuary laws were designed to keep the mass of peasants in their place and prevent the increasingly rich bourgeoisie of the towns from putting on too many airs by dressing better than the local knight.

However, despite frantic efforts by the authorities in the late 14th century, these laws were unenforceable. Those peasants may have taken over a wine press and acres of vineyards from an abandoned monastery and are now a profitable collective. That low-born brawler fell in with a band of sell-swords and wears knightly gear that he earned in battle. The local town burghers freed briefly from taxation, make themselves equal to the now-departed barons by fiat and the power of gold and silver. It is a time when the bold can take what they can, and try to hold on.

Which is something I find lacking in many games, the sense of permanence. We like to build for the future, find security, and be able to say "Behold Swamp Castle, my home!" I like options that let characters gain titles and honors, obtain land grants, and transition into a different sort of game.

Digression over, back to miserable Europe.

Humans being humans, (and elves being elves, etc.) the window for this Edge is small. Local order will so expand to regional order to national order. But given the scope of most RPGs, this presents no real stumbling block. Player-characters can rise from obscurity to the toast of Paris and champions of His Majesty Roi Jean le Bon in short order. The careful DM should have a schedule of events so that when the characters return from the ruin dwarf mines of Mt. White they can learn of the news at the first inn.

One final thing. In the last post, I alluded to the gods no longer answering prayers or sending divine magic. This could be a major plot point in the bigger campaign. I'd keep divine ritual and the power of holy relics, but wherever the plague went, the gods themselves fled. Once again you have a great point for societal breakdown. If the gods don't answer, maybe the devils will! You could have an entire campaign of rooting out evil cults and witches. Perhaps the players' paladins and cleric are the first since the plague to find a new mandate from the Gods.

It's your game world. Blow it up every so often and see what happens!
gridlore: Old manual typewriter with a blank sheet of paper inserted. (Writing)
Back to this after I had my perfect January ruined by the AT&T outage. Harrumph. But still, I made a promise to 750words.com (a site anyone looking to make writing a habit should look into) and when I next get paid I shall be donating ten bucks for the cause of keeping things going.

But while not being able to write on the site, not to mention watch every single episode of Can't Pay? We'll Take It Away on YouTube (seriously, that show is addictive, and has led me to learn a great deal about how British courts and local governments work) I did dive into my reading, which includes "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century" by Barbara W. Tuchman, a marvelous history of the 1300s that loosely looks at the era through the life experiences of one noble, Enguerrand VII, Lord of Coucy (1340 – 18 February 1397.)

One of those events, of course, was the Black Death. Running at its height from 1347 to 1351, the plague devastated Europe, killing an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia and wiping out huge swaths of population and civilization. This interests me from a fantasy world-building perspective on two points.

First of all, during the plague blame fell on the Jews of Europe. Despite the fact they were dying just as fast as everyone else, their otherness and visibility caused mass outbreaks of violence against them. The Church, while at first trying to hold society together by tamping down such mass hysteria, eventually gave in and quietly allowed pogroms to occur. The result was mass expulsions of Jews - the ones who survived that long, that is - and as always, Chruch confiscation of their goods.

Now picture a magical plague of some sort. Perhaps one victim in time rises as a zombie. Or the plague is spread at first by an unprecedented set of orc swarms spreading disease and waste over huge areas. Whatever, the gods aren't answering prayers and kingdoms are falling to sickness and ruin all around. How is going to get blamed? Who, in a fantastic medieval society is separated by their very existence? Who speaks in a mysterious language and is regularly accused of consorting with demons? Who is vastly outnumbered, but envied for their perceived wealth?

Arcane spellcasters. Given the mechanics of Vancian magics as used by D&D, low and mid-level mages aren't going to survive the mob. Oh, sure, they might blow holes in it, and perhaps set Munich on fire. Again. But mages will find themselves dead or ordered to leave at the point of the entire Unearthed Arcana polearm table. After which, those now abandoned wizardly laboratories and caves will be merrily looted by idiots who don't realize that Fritz the Wizard cursed everything before he left.

Which will result in a fine distribution of magical goodies all over Europe (or your preferred setting.) Because a nice curse would be to force the holder of any stolen goods to also wander far and wide; much like the classic Roma curse, "never cross the same river twice in one year, never sleep in the same place two nights in a row" forces the cursed individual to keep moving.

Another option is to have Fritz, assuming he has time, curse his items in a way that creates a compulsion to bring the stolen goods to a "safe house" that Fritz knew about in advance. A crumbling old watchtower, an abandoned dwarf mine, or his sister's place in Bremen. Which unfortunately is overrun with plague zombies. Oops.

The idea is of course to create opportunities. Have the party find Fritz's body. I will wait for all of you to stop quoting Wizards before moving on. On him are the clues to where he had his compelled victims take his things. Bingo, instant campaign goal. Especially if Fritz was a careful record keeper and had a drool-inducing list of what he cursed.

In Fritz's case, the curse in a Compulsion-style spell that forces the victim to take the object to a point, drop it, and return home. Lots of ways to play with that, like the spell failing on the "return home" part and the players battling across Europe to find an empty cave or worse, an extremely annoyed zombie Hausfrau.

Tomorrow I'll explore the fun times to be had in this post-apocalyptic setting. One thing the plague was very good at was upsetting to social applecart and creating opportunities. But I'll leave you with this thought. When Jews began returning to Central Europe after the plague burned out, suspicious authorities ordered them to obey restrictive laws, including a requirement to wear an identifying badge or garment. In most places, it was a yellow circle of cloth pinned to the tunic or vest. But some cities required something more prominent.

A tall, conical hat.
gridlore: Old manual typewriter with a blank sheet of paper inserted. (Writing)
“Come on, Lukas, they’ve almost boxed us in!” I paused under the low ceiling of a canal bridge to let my older brother catch up. I tried to control his panting, dredging up what my old martial arts instructor had taught me because I knew that the circling drones of the Garda would zero in on the warmth of my escaping breath.
It gets better, but not for our hero. )
gridlore: Doug looking off camera with a grin (Default)
Neither Kirsten nor I are hoarders. You can walk into our apartment and it will be a little cluttered, sure, but you can navigate the space without resorting to tunnels, having to clamber over furniture, or dodging unstable towers of junk. But there is clutter, and I've been in a years-long battle with it.

The problem stems from our hobbies. We are both avid readers, so books pile up and we are torn by the thought of getting rid of them. We are both passionate about music, so we have stacks and stacks of CDs. Same goes for the DVDs of our "must-have" movies and TV shows. Kirsten knits and crochets so there is yarn everywhere and she also makes candles, requires another set of supplies that need to be stored.

Me? I play role-playing games. I've been playing, running, and writing for games since 1977 when my brother Craig bout the science-fiction RPG Traveller home from a convention. His gaming group didn't want to play it, so I became his test subject and was hooked from the start. I started collecting materials for RPGs and playing at every opportunity.

But here's the thing about gaming. Unlike a traditional board game like Monopoly, where you buy a set and are done, the money in RPGs comes from selling more and more books, adventures and accessories to the customer. Traveller, as an example, came in a black box with three little black books, each measuring 5½ x 8¾ inches and each having 48 pages. That was enough to get a game going, but the players wanted more and Game Designers Workshop, the publisher - wanted our money. So a stream of books followed that over time established an official setting. Licesened third-party designers added to the mix.

By the time I was sixteen I had three cardboard bank boxes filled with nothing but Traveller material. That wasn't counting my other games. That stuff followed me through my life until I took a look around my apartment one day in late 2009 and realized that we had far too much for our living space. I bought a book titled "It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff" by Peter Walsh, and began studying.

One of the most important things I learned is holding onto things because "I have good memories attached to the item" or "Someday I might use it again" were toxic. I looked at my RPG collection - which at that point filled about ten feet of bookshelves - and decided that if I was going to get serious about reducing the clutter in my life, I had to cut where it would hurt the most: my game collection.

But how to do it? Trying to sell everything on eBay would be long and involved, and could end up being more hassle than it was worth. Renting a table at the local game store for one of their flea market days might work, but I've been to those and see that most stuff doesn't move. I sat down to think through the problem logically. What was my goal here? Remove most of my collection. Not making a tone of money. After that, it was clear.

In January 2010 I announced The Great Sale on my social media and on several RPG mailing lists. The rules were simple. I posted a list of everything that was for sale, and interested parties were to mail me with a list of what they wanted and an offer. I set no prices and made it clear that I wanted this stuff gone, so no even slightly reasonable offer would be refused. Name your price plus shipping. Then I sat back and waited.

Before I knew it I was getting inundated with offers. Som,e were quite reasonable, offering close to the expected price of the items. Some were bold, claiming a dozen things or more for a very low price. A few were amazing, offering $70 or more for a single copy of an old gaming book or magazine. In the end, I accepted every offer with a smile. Because along with achieving my goal of decluttering, I was helping others fill in their collections at their own price.

There were a couple of people who couldn't handle the concept of telling me what they wanted to pay, and one guy who got angry that I wasn't selling this stuff on eBay where he could "bid on it honestly" which gave me a few laughs, but in a few short weeks, I reduced the pile of stuff drastically, made a few hundred bucks, and felt ready to tackle the rest of the problem.

Be decluttering is an on-going process. Since 2010 I've held two more Great Sales, further winnowing the RPG collection down to size. Today, I keep games I play, run, wrote for, and anything I have credit in or I feel is an exemplary bit of writing that I can use in my own work.

The apartment is still cluttered, but the clutter is under control.
gridlore: Hand-held Stop sign raised against the sky (Stop Sign)
Ah, the human factor. It gets into everything. This morning I was supposed to be covering a corner at Eisenhower School, morning and afternoon. I show up, get into my gear and set up my chair, just in time to see another guard pull up. The regular guard for this spot.

Turns out he asked for next Friday off. Called the boss and after checking, admitted the screw-up was on his end. So now I'm getting paid for the three hours I should have worked today (payroll went in yesterday, and it would be a huge headache to get the hours taken off) and have work next Friday already set up.

Nice to have a mistake work in my favor for once.
gridlore: One of the "Madagascar" penguins with a checklist: [x] cute [x] cuddly [x] psychotic (Penguin - Checklist)
Today I worked a corner that was quite the physical challenge. Right in front of the school with two uncontrolled crosswalks to cover. Uncontrolled means there is no traffic light or pedestrian signal. It's all on me to gauge breaks in traffic and groups of kids to make crossings.

Since I was covering two streets, this also meant I was hopping to keep up with parents who couldn't wait ten seconds for me to clear one road before moving to another. As a result, I had to move as fast as I could, whistle in mouth, to make sure that I was at least trying to cover everyone. Crazy corner, to be sure. But fun, as the kids and parents were great. I'm covering this same corner Monday afternoon.

But all this rushing made me think about how far I've come in my stroke recovery. Right after the stroke back in the summer of 2013, I could walk, but not very well. I suffered from balance issues as well as some fairly severe proprioception problems that had to be addressed before I could be trusted to safely walk around unsupervised.

Proprioception, in case you didn't know, is your real sixth sense. It is your brain's ability to know the position of your various limbs without seeing them. If you want an example of how this works, find something near you that you can pick up. Close your eyes, and do just that. Your brain has mapped where the object is and knows where your hand and are during the entire exercise. Losing proprioception means your mental perception of limb positioning can be off by pretty significant factors. My right foot, for example, could feel several inches from its actual location. Which can be deadly if you are walking down a flight of stairs.

This was a big part of my physical rehabilitation, both in- and out-patient. Just walking; first with a walker, then a cane, and finally with no support. Eyes closed, eyes open, forwards, backward, up stairs and down . . . I was making my brain build new pathways to monitor body position and balance. There was also the tile box, a fiendish contraption that put me - well secured by a safety harness - on a tilting platform while watching a scene that was moving in a different way. This really challenges even people with no brain damage.

But it all worked. I was able to walk, with a cane for the first few years, and gradually became more and more active. I now only use the cane when I am feeling poorly. Because the issues I dealt with are still there, and they do come out when I'm tired or stressed. One of the reasons I've come to love my bright orange shoes (other than the Giants reference) is that I can see them at the edge of my field of vision as I walk, and just that glimpse of orange is enough to snap my perception of where my foot is back in line with reality.

So I've been walking more and more. To be honest, my legs have always been my best feature and as a former Infantryman, walking is in my blood. Walking, whether in the park or at the gym or at the mall, also helps slow the progress of my peripheral neuropathy. So I get out whenever I can, and is one of the reasons I love my current job.

I've even signed up to do two 5Ks this year. Kirsten started doing them and has a blast, so why not? Another milestone, no pun intended, to show that I am healing. I might even train to walk a 10K at some point. Keep getting better is my motto, and of course, I have Drill Sergeants living rent-free in my brain that keep pushing me to go a little bit farther every day.

You will notice that throughout this piece I have specified walking. There is a really good reason for that. During my physical therapy, we learned that I simply am no longer built for running. My brain can't handle the coordination required to get that kind of motion, and I quickly lose my balance or lose track of where my right foot is. The best I can manage is a slow jog or a brisk walk.

But I'm in no real hurry to get anywhere, to be honest. My days of needing to be first in line or the first to get something are long behind me. I'm just happy that I'm still able to get there on foot.
gridlore: A Roman 20 sided die, made from green stone (Gaming - Roman d20)
I've been immersing myself in the D&D rulebooks because I really don't want to be the DM who is constantly stopping play to look something up. I like my games to be organized and to have options ready for when the players gleefully run in the opposite direction of my well-crafted adventure.

I think this is why dungeon crawls are such a standard. There's really little more to do than move along to the next encounter on the map. Those kinds of adventures have their place, but not as a steady diet. I like to mix in other things, like political thrillers where the characters get caught up in the machinations of a noble's court and have to find solutions that don't involve slaying. Or pulling out the Man v. Nature trope, where simply surviving the elements is the challenge. This is where having a shelf filled books on plots and characters comes in handy.

I'm also a great fan of using in medias res as a campaign tool. No "you all happen to be at the same inn, a wizard approaches you" bullshit. Get to the action! One of my favorites is starting the characters in a shipwreck or on the losing side of a battle. Being in a besieged city that is about to fall to a monstrous horde can forge quick bonds as the characters struggle to escape. Get things moving right from the start, even if the action is only a prologue to the actual campaign.

When planning out a campaign, I love to use scenes and flow charts. I can write a specific set of scenes covering major events in, say, the City-State of the Invincible Overlord (a module I only ever got to admire from afar, alas,) that allow me to move things to where I want them while still accounting for the players' actions and decisions. I can look at the list and mark some scenes as vital, others are transitions, and so on.

This gives me better in-game control of the flow. If the players don't pursue the thief in the marketplace or fail to catch him, I can seamlessly move to another scene that will establish the same basic goals of the missed opportunity, which might be a hint that the city sewers are hiding a terrible secret. Or something.

The goal is to have a tool in front of me that aids my mechanical running of the game so I can focus on the fun of role-playing the entire world. Having this planned plot also shows me points where I may have to improvise, so I can make notes. To take the market scene, I need to think about what I'll do if the party's rogue decides to use the confusion of the hue and cry of the thief escaping for some petty larceny of her own.

Another tool I use is a chart of pre-generated die rolls. In D&D, this can be a list of d20 rolls, as that is the most common type of roll called for. This really speeds up the game because it speeds up the actions of my NPCs and monsters. Rather than having to roll each time, I just check the next number on my list and use that. Admittedly, online platforms like roll20.net make die rolling for initiative, attacks, and other rolls extremely easy, I still like my cheat sheet to save time.

I've also found that combat trackers, even when playing online, are a great tool to speed play along. Having all the encounter information in one place right in front of your eyes makes combat, which really can be a time drag in a game, fly by. Again, there are great online resources for this, and I am exploring them.

But probably the best tool I have as a game master is preparation. I always try to have several "stock" encounters planned for when a session needs some excitement. I can even build encounter stacks, the same basic encounter with increasing levels of difficulty. Chewed through my squad or orcs? Try three squads with a leader type and a war shaman. Having the stats and details ready to do when needed keeps the game moving.

Back in the Army, we had a very alliterative saying: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. I know for a fact, from both my military days and my career as a commercial driver, that this is as true as it gets. So I apply this to my gaming. Oh, sure, sometimes it's fun to fly off the handle and roll on improv mode, but I am happiest when I have players who are into the game and not so concerned with the mechanics of the system, and that's what my tricks do.
gridlore: A Roman 20 sided die, made from green stone (Gaming - Roman d20)
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes, a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king. - J.R.R. Tolkien

Treasure has been a staple of fantasy RPGs since the beginning, used as a tactile reward for slaying monsters and looting their hoards. The concept of a monster guarding a great treasure is a very old concept going back to the oldest recorded myths. But, having studied how medieval economies actually worked, the amazing amount of cash in most fantasy settings boggles the mind.

Remember that in Western Europe monies was fixed to the value of a pound of silver. In England, the Pound was divided into 20 shillings. Each Shilling was worth 12 pence. It should be noted that for most of the period pence were the only coins actually minted, with pounds and shillings being accounting units or measurements of silver bars. The penny was 1.5 grams of mostly-pure silver. If you managed to accumulate 320p you'd have a bag of coins weighing pretty close to one pound.

That's how coins worked. England and France used silver because they had access to silver mines. Gold becomes more common as you head east. Constantine introduced the Solidus, a nearly pure gold coin weighing a hefty 4.5 grams, in the early 4th century. After endless debasement by later emperors, it was replaced by the Hyperpyron in the 11th century. This coin was the same weight as the older coin but made with a lower gold content. It too could be divided into smaller coins, the number and value of these lesser coins changed over time.

The point of all this history is that generic gold pieces, and huge piles of them, simply aren't that good a reflection of history. In reality, if you showed up in Paris with 20 solidi in your pouch, the money changer would measure your coins by weight, and pay you in silver deniers. The actual value of your coins is dependant on the whims of the moneychangers.

So spice up those treasure hordes! An ancient tomb is likely to have ancient coins, which the moneychangers will happily weight and take their commission on. But trying to spend it? It's not real money to the innkeeper. He might take it in trade, but you'll get skinned. Historically, when large payments were made by nobles bars of precious metals were used. Far more likely that the dragon is sleeping on a pile of one-pound gold bars and silver plate than endless coins.

Which brings up another thing. No matter how it got there, a treasure is going to be a lot of things as opposed to money. Think of King Tut's burial site. Tons of gold things, some quite heavy, much of it covered in jewels you can pry off. But if the orc raiders have stolen a 7-foot marble and gold statue of a goddess, good luck getting it home! (This is where portable holes come in handy.)

Tapestries, art objects, amber panels, ivory thrones . . . in the medieval world wealth was generally tied up in things. Read the Nibelungenlied and you'll see that the wealth of various characters is shown through the ownership of rich clothing, and having more than one good shirt! A noble's good court tunic could be worth a king's ransom. Think about your treasures, and things will be more interesting than just accounting sheets filled with various generic coins.

Now we must consider magical treasures. I for one prefer low magic games. I like magic to be mysterious and dangerous. One standard trope for RPG settings is there was a distant magical golden age where all these amazing items were made, and then the age ended in some sort of cataclysm that left the items scattered to the four winds.

I'm good with this but make magic hard. In my view, and potent magic item required one hell of a lot of effort from the enchanter making it. So powerful magical items will be imbued with a cause or desire. As an example, in my world there is but one Vorpal Blade. It was forged long ago to deal with an ancient black dragon who could only be killed by decapitation. Assuming someone is lucky enough to find this legendary blade, it will work for him. But the blade will be drawn to combat black dragons. No matter what the risk.

To quote Gandalf, "There are many magic rings in this world, Bilbo Baggins, and none of them should be used lightly." Finding a magical item should raise not elation but caution among your players. I tend to be a bit restrictive on divination magic, so just understand what this ring/staff/helmet is could require a side quest to an ancient monastery to search their records. Of course, you get there to learn that something has been killing the monks one by one, and can the characters please help?

I'm an advocate of making the game fascinating at every turn. Going through the treasure list should be a part of the game that inspires the imagination as much as any other aspect. Oh, and when coming out of the tomb of King Arglebargle IV loaded down with loot? Be careful of the King's taxmen. They'll be waiting for you.

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gridlore: Doug looking off camera with a grin (Default)
Douglas Berry

March 2019

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