Sunday, December 27, 2015

Gaming in 2015

Gaming, in all its forms, is alive and well going into 2016. The increasing popularity and sales of games of all sorts, but particularly boardgames, is a continuing phenomenon defying traditional models. The last three times boards did really well were during recessions. Hasbro is running ads that entice families to play a game together. This is wonderful; we have known the social value of gaming for decades.

Goodman Games continues to kick butt with their “…Crawl Classic” titles; they have a new Kickstarter kicking off any day now for a post-apocalyptic beauty called Mutant Crawl Classic; I have seen early manuscripts and it is a gem.

Asmodee and Fantasy Flight have combined, which I view to be a good thing as it will strengthen them both. Maybe we will see reprints on what would appear to be orphan titles. ‘15 saw several smaller companies fold their tents and steal away into the night, while other merged, combined or worked out co-op deals to streamline costs.

In 2015 the gaming hobby called out a serial offender on Kickstarter who has now changed his name and is again soliciting money to fulfill things he already got the money for. What a bozo; we’re not that gullible, Ken.

Iron Wind Metals, the spiritual successor of Ral Partha, had a successful KS and revived an entire line once RP’s called Chaos Wars; minis, rules for using them and an RPG adventure I wrote as a stretch goal for them that has bad-guy PC’s.

As 2015 winds down, there are three movies dealing with RPG’s in work, although two are locked in legal wrangling that has been going on seemingly forever. The whole situation stinks; movies do not belong in court suing each other. What bullshit…

Speaking of bullshit, the end of the year saw some very pointed questions being voiced concerning the long-awaited and long overdue Gygax Memorial to which so very many of us contributed. The answers I have seen have been most unsatisfactory; vague, dismissive and illusionary. Questions concerning why the website has been virtually dead since Spring, why there has been no effort to keep the public informed as to any progress or plans—none were fully or openly answered. Other questions have been raised about the legality of actions not taken by the 501-c-3; it would appear that is has been illegally run, not according to the laws and regulations of Wisconsin concerning the transparency of not-for-profits charted in that state.

One reason for the lack of action might be that Gary’s 2nd wife spent months and 10’s of thousands of dollars to steal Luke’s, Ernie’s and Alex’s surname from them, or at least the free use of their name in anything whatsoever remotely connected to games and gaming; there are dozens of areas; I saw the legal filings. This led to a fracas with Gygax Magazine, where apparently she “graciously allowed” the magazine published by two sons named Gygax. As part of a settlement with the mag and TSR Games, the parent company, she demanded that all parties to the mag and all shareholders in the company sign a thing saying we would never talk nasty about her. As I was the Contributing Editor for the mag, and a tiny stockholder in the company, I was told I had to sign. I essentially told them “that’ll be a cold day in Hell.” My name was removed; Luke and Ernie left the company.

I am baffled at the lack of perspicacity by her, thinking that I would sign away any future journalistic endeavors or rights to speak out whenever I choose about what I choose. But when I think about it a moment, it becomes less of a surprise when I consider that this is the person that pulled every one of Gary’s products off the market upon his death, as well as tried to go around and commandeer anything he had collaborated on with anyone. Speaking impersonally and objectively, anyone with the slightest hint of familiarity with history knows that upon the death of an artist or author the demand for their creations is immediately spiked. For someone seemingly out to milk every nickel out of her dead husband’s name, you’d think she would have milked that cow dry, too. Now she owns the trademark on a brand that has decreasing recognition value with each year. Right now I would speculate that a full 30% of gamers have no recognition of the name; that number increases every year. She killed his final system, the system he was proudest of.  There is a lasting tribute…

Saturday, December 26, 2015

2015 Year End Blog

As I have become older I have begun to pay more attention to those end-of-the-year lists of   “…famous or important people that died last year…” that all the magazines and news shows love to compile. I also find myself occasionally looking at the obits in the paper.
A shrink might tell me that I am learning to face up to my own mortality; maybe it is just morbid curiosity. It is an undeniable fact that each year I recognize more names and faces on the lists.
In no particular order, this is a compilation of those departed that had an influence of one kind or another on my life:
Spock—No offense intended to the incredible Leonard Nimoy, but does anyone my age see his picture (with or w/o pointy ears) and think anything else? Yes, he became a skilled director and producer; no, he sucked at singing.
Donna Douglas  --Never again will Elly May Clampett take her critters to the “ see-ment pond”.
Maureen O’Hara – Even when her movies were in B&W, you just knew she was a ginger. Bold, brassy and sure of herself, she bested Errol Flynn and John Wayne, not once but several times.
Anita Ekberg—Just when the hormones began to kick in, I saw a semi-nude, B&W photo of her. She was my second really hardcore crush/puppy-lust actress. (My first was Sophia Loren.) Anita inspired thoughts in my fevered young mind that the nuns would have had to beat out of me had they but known.
Yogi—When I was growing up a White Sox and Cubs fan, I hated the Yankees with a deep and visceral loathing. Every damned year the damned Yankees were in the Series, or so it seemed to the rest of the baseball world, but nobody hated Yogi Berra. His “Yogi-isms” are legion, and many attributed to him not his, but he was always smiling. He was a fierce competitor who really turned it up two notches in the Series, but I still loved it when the Pirates beat them in ’60.
Frank Gifford – I remember the first Monday Night Football broadcast. My wife and I were entertaining another couple, playing cards, when it came on; I don’t think the cardgame was ever finished. Counterpoint to the often-bloviating Howard Cosell and the loopy folksiness of Dandy Don Meredith, Gifford told us what was going on in clear and concise words; that he also had the bona fides of a stellar career in the NFL made what he had to say important.
Rowdy Roddy Piper—Piper aspired to be an actor, not in the ring but on the screen. He was a very popular pro wrassler’, mostly a bad guy but sometimes good, headlining some of the biggest pay-per-view cards. He changed the face of pro wrestling when he got into the feud with Hulk Hogan, involved Cyndi Lauper and ushered in the age of Rock’n’Wrestling. He also appeared in a bunch of movies, mostly forgettable, and several TV shows
Omar Sharif—What a consummate actor, and one hell of a bridge player. When he rides up on that camel from the haze of the desert, who can forget Sherif Ali of Lawrence of Arabia? When he marvels at the crystalline sculpture of the ice on the windows in that frigid winter in Dr. Zhivago, who can forget that intensity? The fact that he was once one of the top bridge players in the world and spoke six languages fluently only added to his cosmopolitan appeal.
Geoffrey Lewis— His was a face you kept seeing in films and on TV; he was a masterful character actor, usually playing a bad guy but not always. He seemed to pop up regularly in Westerns and he worked with Clint Eastwood a lot. I admired the way he slipped in and out of the skins of those characters
James Best—It is a crying shame that Best will most likely only be known to later generations as Rosco P. Coltrane of Hazzard. He was a very good character actor in the movies, appeared nearly 300 times on TV and taught in college after he semi-retired, as well as becoming a respectable painter. Once asked on a talkshow I saw but do not remember the name of, why he had “stooped” to The Dukes, he was refreshingly honest; he said the money was too good to pass up.
Percy Sledge  --I just loved this man’s voice—pure liquid gold.
Rod Taylor We traveled through time and fled the Morloks with him, and we ducked indoors to flee The Birds. He made lots of movies, some good, some not. Taylor was interesting, no matter the film; sort of the old “mans man”.
Leslie Gore—She cried at her party because she wanted to. I don’t know why but that song left a deep impression on me.
Grace Lee Whitney—Yeoman Rand- She only played in 8 of the first 13 episodes of Star Trek, but she left a leggy, blonde impression on us all.
Fred D Thompson—This guy led one hell of a life, and I mean that in the best possible way. He was an eyewitness to history as a staffer in the Watergate Hearings who later became a State Senator for Tennessee for two terms, a presidential contender/candidate and later a TV star on Law & Order. That must have been one hell of a ride.
Robert Loggia—Even though he had 231 TV and screen credits, his was another “face” that you recognized from other stuff. He was in TV in the ‘60’s, nominated for an Oscar in the ‘80’s and continued working until his Alzheimer's manifested. He had a very distinctive, gravelly voice.
Louis Jordan—When he started appearing in American films, suddenly smooth and sophisticated became cool. Clever, good-looking types could win the girl easier than the big “beat ‘em up” dudes could. Manners and charm became important
Gary Owens—I laughed (or at least chuckled) every time I heard his voice, a sort of stereotypical “this is important stuff” spoof. He epitomized, as well as satirized the role of the Studio Announcer on Laugh In. A lot of us wanted to sound just like him.
B.B. King—The man could play blues guitar like no other. His influence runs so deep it is nearly impossible to encompass it all; there are damned few guitarists playing today that have not known his influence, whether they knew it or not. He was legendary for giving new talent a chance to shine; he had Joe Bonamassa opening for him before Joe was old enough to drive. I leave it to future generations of musicologists to measure the depth of his influence I just know that it is HUGE.
Christopher Lee---Where do you start to lost his creds? WWII vet, singer, actor, producer and director, Sir Christopher did it all. He was a consummate bad guy in dozens of roles. He was nearly a stock player for Hammer Horror for years. He made two heavy metal albums and was awarded a "Spirit of Metal" award at the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden God awards ceremony.. While never an avid fan of horror movies myself, his work in the Tolkien movies as Saruman was superb.

Well, hell, that was pretty depressing. But I think it is increasingly important to note not just the passing of time but also the passing of those that helped fill that time with sorrow and joy, delight and anguish, amusement and entertainment. My one consolation? I won’t see my name on any lists like this because when it happens, I’ll be dead.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tales from The Red Road--Gamehole 2015

I did not go to this con last year with the rest of my partners from Eldritch Enterprises; I was not going to spend 8 hours in a vehicle going to Wisconsin in Nov.; it just seemed counter-intuitive, ya’ know? Wisconsin, November, Winter—not necessarily ingredients for a happy recipe. And I have had to face the fact that I am just too damned old to do these trips alone anymore; too much danger of nodding off on the way home and such.

This year, I had my favorite accomplice in mischief and mayhem for my boon travelling companion, The Mad Mage, a.k.a. Jim Wampler. Jim and I have now made several con treks together but have not yet strangled one another, run out of BS stories or otherwise grown to loathe and despise each other. In other words, good travelling companions not married to each other; a rare distinction, in my mind.

In terms of route, this trip was a no-brainer; I-74 W through Indy and on to Bloomington, IL; from there I-39 N to Madison. None of the crap associated with having to go anywhere near Chicago. (Alas, no Chicago dog at Corky’s, either.) With the construction on the bridges on I-65 being the incredibly horrid situation that it is (poor Lafayette is damned near embargoed) we were not going through that again.

Eight lo-o-o-o-ng hours after departure, we arrived in Madison. (I spent the trip in an elastic, wrap-around  back-brace. I’m not too sure but what it would have been less painful without it.) Good old Dennis got us to the Clarion with no trouble (I have the voice of Dennis Hopper downloaded to my GPS). Jim went off to his solo room upon check-in a couple of floors above where I was rooming with Frank Mentzer in a nice little suite with kitchen amenities. So far, so good.

Now comes the only gripe of this tale. It is true that there was a covered passageway from the hotel to the Exhibit Hall. It is also true that it was one damned long walk. When I go back, which I most certainly will probably do if asked, I am going to look into one of the little motorized scooters like Tom Wham and Jim Ward had; we can have races and pari-mutuel betting.

On Thursday night, the Con had organized a bus for a bunch of us Special Guests (their distinction, not mine) to go out to see the warehouses of ACD, one of the larger game distributors. It was a bit overwhelming as the place is huge; wall-to-wall, nearly floor-to-ceiling games and game stuff. And, we got anything we wanted wholesale. I picked up a promising six-player (Provincia Romana) and an odd little card game about who’s the better person based on the gifts you give at Christmas. (There are six of us in my twice-monthly boardgame group; I am always on the scout for good games for 6.)
When we had sated our gaming appetites, it was back on the bus to satisfy another appetite. We were whisked off to a reception at the Free House Pub where we were treated. Thanks, Alex. There was a time when I could have punished you for that, but those days are long past; I no longer drink like a fish, nor eat like once I did. Alas and alack…

The con had a very respectable Dealer Area, and I saw independent designers with a table all over the place, showcasing their games. The hall seemed to do a good business; every time I could get by it held a respectable crowd. I found another 5-player eeuro-game based on trading in the Med that was marked down 75%. At that markdown, if it is a stinker I am not out so much.

My first game was Friday at high noon. Somewhat out of character I had entered this simple minis game into the schedule rather late in the process, so it did not get much face time and had a scanty sign-up. Too bad, because the few that did sign up seemed to have a good time.

A few years back, WizKids came out with their sailing CSG Pirates (of every body of water we can think of)…. The hook to this CSG (Collectible Strategy Game) was/still is the pretty ships, hundreds of them. The rules were awfully simple (some might argue to reverse those two words), about what you would expect from something this entry-level. In Gygax Magazine #3 I published my upgraded rule set called Master Mariner. [1] The rules could be favorably compared to Chainmail in complexity. The game went well; the two sides swanned about a bit trying to get position, closed and ended it in about a four turn bloodbath. Most satisfying. I have plans to run this game at any con I drive to, and already have plans on how to make it bigger and bloodier.

RPG’ers continue to surprise me in the ingenious ways they can come up with that get them wiped out. I ran three RPG’s: two TPK’s and one survived through my magnanimity. In one of them which I had run at least eight or nine times they found a whole new, never-before-tried way to get slaughtered. Seeing this, all new waus to die, is part of what keeps me coming back to the table, as well as writing.

The con seemed to me to very well run; the organizers seemed to have a really good handle on things. They had a special little refuge for us Guests that was quite nice and very welcome. I saw lots of minis games of various stripes, lots of boardgames, a plethora of RPG’s (some a bit too many too tightly crammed into too small an area), Chris Clark had his Starship Bridge thingy that seemed to be quite popular, there was a special painting area and Dan “the Bard” Marcotte had a Bard Camp set up. (For those that don’t know any better, he’s not some dude wandering around trying to look like a Ren Faire luterist. He writes hilarious songs about RPG’ing that only a player could pen. Check him out online.) The Fight in the Skies Society was very visible (they have a killer banner) and many, many biplanes were riddled with bullets. There was a huge DCC tournament that featured much bloodshed and was enjoyed by all the combatants; one-on=one mayhem reigned.
There were a bunch of seminars and panels going on that had quite a few interesting topics and many, many game authors were present answering questions about their games and talking about new stuff coming.

The consortium that puts together Gamehole Con should all spend a small amount of time patting themselves and each other on the back for a job well done. OK, that’s enough. It was hard to credit that this was only their third convention, so smooth was the operation I saw. I had a hell of a good time, saw old friends and made new ones; can anyone reasonably ask for more from a con?

[1] Several years ago I had submitted them to Wizards, where they supposedly sat un-looked-at in two different persons’ file cabinets. When I finally tracked them down, through three different employees (two had left), I was told WotC was not interested. Oddly enough, their last releases and expansions were about 80% of what I had submitted. As far as I am concerned they were lifted from my submission and the Hasborg can try and sue me over them. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What we really meant—Pt. 1--AC

In recent weeks I have found myself, as part of an exciting new project I have embarked upon, doing a lot of synopsizing what some have come to see as complex or confusing concepts. One example that springs to mind is the old stat known as Armor or Armor Class (AC). In OD&D it was a really simple system that ranked plain old street clothes as AC9, while at the other end of the non-magical spectrum was plate mail and a shield at AC2

If Hit Points (HP) are considered to be your ability to avoid/evade a mortal blow (which they were in OD&D), then AC was how hard you were “to hit” (in this case threaten your well-being to some degree).

“To Hit” is another term that does not exactly mean what it seems to mean based on just the words. Confused yet? Consider “the Mountain” from Game of Thrones on HBO. This is one HUGE dude encased in metal. If three or four puny (normal-sized) guys attack him, chances are that their weapons will actually make physical contact with The Mountain lots of times; this is not what is referenced in “To Hit”. Of those several physical contacts, only a small proportion of them will actually strike with a potential to do actual damage; i.e. pierce the armor at a weak point or joint, or slice or pierce some flesh. Those are what are winnowed out of the combat to be represented by the To Hit number.
Back t0 AC; something as small and ephemeral as a pixie or sprite, or small and quick like a stirge would be somewhat difficult to simply swat out of the air like an over-sized wasp. To simulate that facet of their being I make them hard “to hit” by giving them a very good AC.

(OD&D had a descending AC system starting at 9 and going down; other systems use an ascending system, where 1 is street togs and 7 or 8 is really buff. Readjust this in your head to match your system; the concepts remain constant. Something slow and ponderous, such as a pachyderm, would be easier to strike, but the thickness of the skin somewhat mitigates this as well as the high number of HP an elephant or mammoth might have.)

AC does not always indicate what is being worn. AC is a combination of several concepts, not only the weight of the metal being worn.

To maintain perspective remember this: we were trying to bring miniatures to the table top. Several of the seemingly complex considerations and calculations were second nature to miniatures gamers. We tried to abstract a lot of what was second nature in minis to a whole new milieu—Table-top Role-playing (and this before it was even called role-playing).

Once this concept is grasped in the abstract, it then becomes more clear why extraordinary attributes can affect AC, or otherwise make the PC harder “To Hit”. These same attributes also can grant the PC more HP, all in recognition of how that last, fatal blow is just that, fatal. I have never counted anything more than “dead”; hit 0 HP and you died. Whether or not your PC can be Raised or Resurrected is another matter entirely. We had PC’s brought back from dead several times, although not always with absolute best results.

But anyway, that’s what we meant.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Gamers & Their Toys: Of Dice & Men*

The cliché of the frustrated golfer chucking his putter into a water hazard after a missed “gimme” or wrapping his wedge around a sapling after yet another shanked chip-shot is fairly well known. Archers discard “arrows that miss” (as though they maliciously acted), and anglers will leave an expensive lure hanging in a tree “… cuz it wasn’t catchin’ nothin’ anyhow”.

There is a very old saying that goes something like “It is a poor workman that blames his tools.”
But we gamers do it a lot. Gamers want to feel a mystical connection to their dice; that their dice are “with them” and provide good numbers when needed.

Gary Gygax was quoted several times about dice and our connection to them. The gist of his comments had to do with DM’s rolling dice more for the sound they make than anything else. In OD&D, that can certainly be true. I have often picked up a couple and ostentatiously rolled them to get a quibbling party of adventures re-focused.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I wrote a completely tongue-in-cheek article about dice lice. The wee, tiny critters live in the spots or numbers of dice. They live on dead skin cells and dust, with the occasional comfit of felt or velvet lint. Too much direct sunlight could be deleterious to their continued well-being, so games were better played at night or in the basement. If you were “feelin’ the same vibe”, they would give you the number you need. If you had angered or neglected them, well, whatever happened, you had it coming for the callous treatment of your platonic solids.
While I am not saying it has never happened, I will say that I have never known a bowler that named his ball or an angler that named a lure, nor a carpenter that named a hammer. Hold that thought.
We might have a favorite hammer or driver, or have confidence in a given lure type or color, but that is a preference usually arrived at over time in most cases.

Fishing lures and dice have a lot in common. For one thing, they rely on eye-catching colors. There is a saying amongst us fisherman that new lures first have to catch the fishermen; it requires testing to see if they actually catch fish. The manufacturer only cares that it is purchased. Fair enough. The same is true today about dice; they come in a zillion colors and combinations and are made to various standards. I myself own only one set of dice that I absolutely trust to be accurate; a trio of icosahedrons certified to be accurate by the Japanese Standards Association and manufactured in the ‘70’s.

Lest you think that these weird fetishes are the purview of RPG’ers alone, let me assure you they are not. I used to play Fight in the Skies (now re-titled Dawn Patrol) a lot, and only flew if I had my three FITS dice: two black with white spots and one orange with black spots d6’s. I still favor black dice with white spots and numbers; pouring all those sinister dice out on the table at the beginning of the game is a big psych-out sometimes (along with my thoroughly deserved reputation for TPK’s at cons; it’s like letting the condemned see the axe beforehand).

In Jolly Blackburn’s delightful comic, The Knights of the Dinner Table, the protagonists are sometimes slaves to their own dice and dice superstitions. They name some of them; certain dice types (colors, speckles, streaks, etc.) are considered to be intrinsically classier or better or more reliable, which we all know is bunkum. Don’t we?

What happens when a given die, usually the overworked and oft-maligned d20 (icosahedron), goes “sour” and starts delivering horrid results? I have heard of some rather interesting rituals designed to get back the die’s mojo or punish it.

Sometimes at cons you will see a single die, more often than not the d20, sitting forlornly in the center of an empty table. This is a severe form of “dice-shaming”, as though being exposed to all the con for providing poor numbers on crucial rolls will somehow rectify this behavior. Alternately, they could have been purposely abandoned so as not to infect/curse the rest of the dice in the bag.
Then there are those that resort to capital punishment by drowning, being smashed to smithereens with a hammer and death by microwave radar. The first is pretty much self-explanatory; chuck the offending die into a large body of water. Insofar as drowning, how exactly do you drown something anaerobic? Just askin’…
I have met several gamers that claim to have done variations on the second; some refer to it as decimation, a not-quite-correct usage of the word. The tales go generally that all the dice are lined up/taken out of the bag, the miscreant is isolated and subsequently smashed with a mallet or hammer. One guy claimed to put a few shards back in the bag to “serve as a reminder”.

Not solely limited to SF gamers is death by microwave, wherein the die is bombarded with energy waves until it forms a puddle. Make sure that speckley die contains no metal flakes; they can arc-out the magnetron (according to one tale I heard).

Oddly enough, I ran across a third method to enact dice reform that does not involve any dice losing their existences. The big question for you to answer is: Do you believe bad dice can be rehabilitated? A company called Etched It has presented us with a more humane option; their Despicable Dice Dungeon.

Disclaimer: I have not met these folks and have no financial interest in their operation. But if you want to tell them you heard about it here, I'm cool with that.

What a clever idea. Perhaps a few days in Dice Jail will bring them round. For serious failures I could see where two weeks in solitary in the bottom of the bag might just do  the trick. Would it not be better for “Ole Rosey” to get a second chance after a stint in the cubical hoosegow than be melted to a puddle of goo? It would certainly be cheaper, because as we all know, if you have a set of “matched” dice, e.g., a 4-, 6-, 8-, 12- and 20-siders all of matching material, the remainder of the set becomes sort of superfluous once it is incomplete.

With all of our harsh reactions when the dice let us down, this offers a more temperate response. Come on, it’s not as though our  dice are inanimate, unthinking platonic solids of various material and compositions incapable of any actions on their own, is it?

*I salute all the ladies that play; you weren’t in the book title I am parodying

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Undervalued and Often Overlooked Art of Editing

One of the overriding tenets of playing OD&D back in the very earliest days of the game (mid to late 70’s), particularly if you were the DM, was that anything is fodder for the campaign. Let me clarify that; good campaigns were a pastiche of every neat idea someone else had back then. As we were groping our way through the dark tunnels of ignorance then, we cobbled together every good idea we had read, seen or heard into our campaign’s framework.

I “borrowed” from Tolkien, Leiber, Anderson, Carter, deCamp, Burroughs, Howard, the Grimms and any other writer that had an idea I liked. We did not consider ourselves thieves as what we were doing benefitted no one but ourselves and harmed no one.

There were no pre-packaged adventures (or modules) until Judge’s Guild started publishing; we did not value them very highly at TSR and we were content to let them do so under our license. We did not even approach the idea at TSR for some two years, give or take, and then it was for a different reason, but also the same underlying reason: money.

We did not see the money-making potential at first. We only did the G Series so we could continue to make money with our huge convention tournaments.

I take a little flak now and then for being something of a fly trapped in amber; I play OD&D as I played it in the 70’s. Even though I mid-wifed AD&D, I stuck to my “little brown books” (the digest-sized original three and the four supplements) and have seen no reason to change.

In the two decades I was out of the industry, I was not reading any of the RPG stuff coming out. I stuck to boardgaming and minis, refusing even to run an RPG here in Cincy for my friends. I did a Rip VanWinkle; I missed out on all that transpired during that time. I missed all the “Edition War” crap. I missed scads of bad “next-best-great game” hopefuls. I also did not read anybody else’s ideas. (When I wrote Curse of the Weaver Queen, my partners were leery because of previous Lolth modules which I had never seen, let alone read. I did it anyway.)

Recently, I briefly relented and thought to see “what the other guys are doing”. I can tell you something they aren’t doing: they aren’t using skilled editors. It has recently been my displeasure to look at a couple items by a couple of respected authors/designers who have had wide success in the past, as well as a handful of efforts by newcomers that looked promising based on the settings. Where is the editing? For that matter, where are the proofreaders or copy editors?

I will not make the claim that either I, or my companies Eldritch Enterprises or Celtic Studios, are perfect in this regard. I am sure that someone has found a typo or two by now that we missed. We peer-review every EE release; that means that all three of the other partners vet every manuscript, proof every galley and scrutinize every layout.
Some of the recent products I have tried to read look like they evaded SpellCheck; the idea that anyone that knew what they were doing edited them is risible.
Yes, as most reading this know, I am/was an “Editor”. I hold the skill in high regard. The first job of an editor is to understand what the writer is trying to express; if he or she can’t “get” something, chances are scores more won’t either. This is not ego or hubris; this is what editors do first. They seek the germ of the idea and then ensure that it is understandable. If, or when, they find a rough (or missing) patch, their second-most important skill is to be able to smooth out the rough patches and create new ones to knit them all together, in the author’s voice.

Some of the articles I published in my various magazines (Dragon, Little Wars and Adventure Gaming) are as little as 30% author and 70% editor. Some of those early authors learned from what we had done and later became really good writers; others never noticed. In all cases, we strove to keep the articles in the author’s voice.

(Secret: Some of us writers don’t always write well on any given day. We might think it was good, but not that day.)

I see this appalling trend as bringing down the level of the whole FRPG field; the crap is outweighing the good stuff and threatening to suffocate us all in mediocrity and banality. I haven’t seen stuff this sloppy (some, certainly not all) since the heyday of the over-enthusiastic, sloppily edited and self-proofed fanzines.

This is THE DARK SIDE of self-publishing. Any tool with a printer can call himself a writer. Any tool that can work InDesign can now call himself a designer or layout specialist.

What they lack is well-written, easy-to-understand-and-play content. Just chucking a handful of ideas, some thoughtful and some not thought out at all, and a garbled setting into a manuscript won’t cut it.

The purpose, or usefulness, of good editing is to provide or ensure clarity and understanding. You simply cannot hope to have the latter without the former. The biggest pearl in the world can remain hidden in ordure if you can’t see it. For myself, I prefer not to rake my fingers through it to find the pearls.

Friday, September 25, 2015

I went to Gatlinburg and got a rock

Disclaimer: While I do not hate country music, there is only a little that I like. I really hate overly-commercialized tourist-y areas. I would rather vacation on Edisto Island, SC, than Myrtle Beach. (MB is pretty, but ohmygod, the crowds.) So where did Cheryl plan a little mid-week vacation for us? Gatlinburg TN.

For those reading this unfamiliar with that locale, it is in the Smokies and is really three small towns strung out along Rte 441, also known as The Parkway: Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and the aforementioned Gatlinburg. Pigeon Forge is the home of Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s version of CW Disneyland.

From what I know of the area and its history, Dolly coming in and doing what she did (bought up an old park that was on its last gasps and heavily revamped it) breathed new life into the area and revived all three towns. That’s cool; I have always liked Dolly, ever since she did the movie 9 to 5. I begrudge her nothing.

That said, I must admit that the whole area is really strange, like it is caught in some sort of incongruity-loop. The attractions vary from the ridiculous to the unexplainable to the just plain weird. In between there are almost as many go-kart tracks as there are fudge shops (a goodly number of both), interesting crafts-men and –women, and a bizarre fondness for making fun of all the stereotypes of mountain folk; everywhere you turn there is “hillbilly this” and “hillbilly that”.

We had a few great meals at recommended restaurants; the Apple Barn blew me away when they brought warm apple fritters with a cup of fresh-made apple butter as soon as we were seated. That beat the heck out of a bowl of salsa and corn chips, let me tell you. Their chicken and dumplings were superb. Then there was the Old Mill; I ordered the meatloaf, figuring on a couple of hefty slices; I got what looked to be an individual  meatloaf that had to weigh a pound! We made killer sandwiches the next day for lunch.

I’ll take you on cruise down 441…(not necessarily in the correct order) The coming weekend was the Rat Rod Rally, an annual gathering in Pigeon Forge of hundreds, if not thousands, of old cars, pick-ups, hotrods and other strange wheeled vehicles. They were parked facing 441 up and down both sides facing the Pkwy. There were some incredible rides; the trade-off was that the speed limit seemed to have been reduced to 17 MPH as everyone gawked at the cars. There were folks tailgating and just sitting in camp chairs facing the street watching the traffic, a good deal of which were old and interesting.

Some of the various theme restaurants seem pretty bizarre; even more bizarre than the Ripley’s attraction with the upside-down front façade. The Titanic does not, in my mind, bring to mind fine dining renown. In my mind, it brings to mind images of screaming and panic, people behaving badly and heroically at the same time. It does not make me yearn for a chicken-fried steak. Maybe I have a quirky stomach, but an atmosphere of impending doom does not make my mouth water.

Then there was the Stampede. I like watching trick riders and rodeo. I like eating. Somehow I missed the gene that thinks eating a meal at a table that is on the edge of the “arena’ is a good idea. No matter how much or how little you try, that fine dirt does nothing for mashed potatoes.

There were jousting eateries (more of that fine dirt seasoning), Arthurian/fantasy eateries and name brand restaurant chains were all represented, but one stood out as the oddest, at least to my mind. It was called Biblical Times; I couldn’t help but wonder if you ate fried pita, mashed chickpeas and yogurt off of wooden platters. Nahh, probably not. Loaves and fishes?

That part of the mountains is beautiful country; we were too early for any fall color. We took a ski-lift up Mt Harrison and listened to a three-man bluegrass band, took a cable car up the side of a different mountain. Ober Gatlinburg has two rides down the mountain; one a little sled in a cement quarter-pipe and the other fastened to a steel track/pipe. I thought it looked like a cool ride, but I couldn’t get Cheryl to do it with me.

If you like driving go-karts, this is a great place with lots of venues and every kind of track. NASCAR has a big driving attraction there that looked really interesting. It is probably a good thing that my son and his family were not with us; we would have spent a fortune on those karts trying to kill, err, beat each other. Hell, I probably would have had a stroke.

The only attractions rivaling the karts for numbers were the miniature golf venues. Monsters, farms, one up a mountain that you had to ride an incline to get to, every climate-theme except Arctic, it was there. We played three rounds over three days at the same venue that had three different courses and a great multiple-rate.

You could not force me back there in-season at gunpoint; off-season it was a nice drive and we had some good times.

Oh, the rock? Well, when you live in the mountains, rocks are something you can expect to have a lot of, virtually lying around everywhere you look. We walked into a place called The Sandman in the Old Mill area. They dealt in rocks, primarily flat-sided rocks, and they have a sand-etching machine. They have combined perhaps the oldest communications format—drawing on a wall, with the newest—a computer-controlled etcher. They photo the rock you are considering, then allow you to see whatever you want etched on it on the screen, and they have bunches of different fonts, dingbats and icons. We found an unusually colored stone and had it engraved, already knowing exactly where it was going in our back yard. When we got it home, it was perfect. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Gettin’ Legal in the Mile-high city

I recently had occasion to do a couple of novel things; well, sort of novel. We’ll just call them cool …
First, I flew 1st Class for the first time since ‘Nam. Getting boarded first means you get to sit in your bigger, wider, more comfortable seats and watch everyone shuffle in line to their tiny, cramped seats. Until the other day when I did it, I used to shuffle by those same folks in the front of the plane and wonder what the big deal was. Well, the big deal is you get a more comfortable seat at the price of now being the one stared at. I hope I never looked that resentful, ever. The food is much too “healthy” for my tastes; if you don’t eat yogurt or cereal with skim milk, you are out of luck. Coming back the lunch was some sort of pasta all mixed into a bunch of vegetables that were all disguised with some sort of opaque dressing, topped by some strips of chicken with grill marks so perfect you suspect they have been stenciled or branded on. The tomato juice was good, nice and tomato-ey. I resisted the urge to get hammered in flight; who drinks that early in the morning, or in the case of the return flight, mid-day, except lushes? Even if the booze is free? (Coming home on leave during the war was different; then, you drank anything they were willing to give you, and thanked them most profusely.)

Another thing I did was the reason I was in Denver. A producer sent me tickets to come there to be interviewed for a film/story/documentary-thing they are making. I will keep their confidences, as they have asked me to and so say only that it involves games and gaming. (Well, duh!)

It can be both intriguing and painful, dredging up memories from 40 years ago, but worth it in the end. The funny thing about rooting around in memories that old is that they have a habit of dislodging odd memories that then come back several hours after the question was asked. Let me state the obvious: it really, truly sucks to be the last guy alive from the original crew. (On the other hand, the distinction does mean that I still breathe, not a bad thing at all.) I realize too that I have an obligation to answer questions about that time as fairly and honestly as I can. The historian in me demands that I do it, even though I realize that I could, if I was wired that way, take credit for stuff with nobody to gainsay me. Howsoever, those danged nuns instilled in me a set of values that prohibits my doing that.

And now to that “other” new thing I did, that I am sure some of you have been wondering when I would get to. I went to my first legal pot dispensary. Talk about a dream come true… I thought I was dreaming. Walking into it reminded me of Amsterdam, except way better. They scan your ID and then give you a number, like at the deli. When your number is called you are allowed into one of the showrooms to so your browsing. We stopped at LivWell-Enlightened on S Broadway; I have no way of knowing how big or small they are compared to other retailers and I did not get an extra bud for this plug. Ask for Amber, she’s a sweetie. After asking her for a recommendation or two, I selected a gram of Zeta Sage #1, a most satisfying sativa strain, and an equal portion of El Diablo #1, a very wonderful indica strain. The potencies were purported to be 18 and 21%, respectively. They were both just tasty as hell. The privately-owned building we did the filming in and hung out around the whole time had a very nice little balcony on the third floor that was about the same height as the canopies of the trees in the surrounding neighborhood. I spent a good deal of time on that balcony those two days. Here in Ohio, we have a ballot initiative on the next election that would allow personal use. I dearly hope it passes because the lack of furtiveness in CO is really relaxing. They are hard as hell on driving stoned, as well they should be, but just chillin’ at home? It’s all good in The Mile High City.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

How big is too big? Gaming Cons today

I am fortunate in that I get to go to seven cons every year. I start in Feb. at TotalCon, then CincyCon followed by GaryCon followed by Nexus, then NorTex then GenCon and wrap up with Gamehole Con in Nov in Madison WI. Every one of these cons has a certain vibe to it and is special in its own way.

The biggest, by a very wide margin, is GenCon with 61K attendees this year. The smallest con I go to is NorTex—the North Texas Role Playing Game Convention,aka NTRPGCon, with an attendance of about 350. (Full disclosure: They all put me up and some either reimburse for gas or send me plane tickets while some even give me meal money. I would not know how to go about appearance fees; I would be too embarrassed.)

NTRPGCon has about 10 attendees for every industry guest; Doug Rhea, the mastermind behind it, likes it that way. It is far and away the most laidback con of all the ones I attend, enabling wonderful conversations and interactions between all sorts of people, famous or not. It has an intense vibe of fraternity.

GaryCon has The Old Guard, a loosely defined group of former TSR staffers, that gets together each year at the con. As senior member, I am assembling them all at once for a group photo next con, before our ranks have too much more time to shrink. GaryCon is in Lake Geneva, birthplace of FRPG’s and has a sort of “pilgrimage to the source” aura surrounding it. Once there, it has a distinctively old school vibe of just a bunch of us gamers getting together to game. If you left your backpack out on The Virtual Porch in the morning, it would still be there, untouched, many hours later. It has that feel from the old days of “we’re all in this together”.

Nexus is struggling to find its niche; it is changing dates again for a better fit but seems to show some promise. I hope it gets past its teething pains.

CincyCon is my local con; 30 years ago we drew thousands, but not nearly so many nowadays. I want to see it get better and am trying out different things with them.

This will be my first time at Gamehole. Everything I have heard about it augurs well for its continued growth; being in early Nov. gives them an edge in that not much in the way of gaming goes on in Nov.

TotalCon is unique in that it has a long history, has had more than its fair share of ups and downs and takes over a very large Holiday Inn complex completely. Further, they have had a program embracing the children for longer than any other con I know of.

GenCon is just too damned big. Admittedly, I don’t game at GenCon-I work the Auction. But lots of my friends do game there and it seems that theirs’ is a mixed reaction this year. With venues scattered about downtown, and events such as True Dungeon having meticulous time requirements, I think a bit of dashing here and there is required a bit too often. GenCon is beginning to feel like that first week at college where you dash about like a headless chicken.

Then there is the commercial side of cons. All of the cons I attend have vendor areas; vendor table rentals and booth rentals constitute a meaningful portion of revenues. TotalCon and GaryCon have relatively small vendor rooms, although GaryCon’s may expand with the new venue. CincyCon has a smallish area and NorTex restricts their booths to the perimeter of a large open area. The point is, the smaller cons see the vendor area as an adjunct to the total experience of the con.

It seems to me that the driving purpose, the raison d’être of GenCon seems to be the Dealer Hall and the vendors. I have already complained bitterly elsewhere about the abusive way the floor-plan was derived--solely for the benefit of the vendors and to the detriment of the gamers, in my opinion.
GenCon used to be, and to a lesser extent Origins, the date we at which we aimed for new releases; it was the single largest confluence of that many gamers. There was but a fraction of the companies back in the 70’s and 80’s that there are now. I cannot imagine the pressure to succeed, to make or break your company, if it all depends upon the splash you make at GenCon. It is extremely likely that several great games or products get lost in the blizzard of releases every year because they did not spend a lot on the box or were overshadowed in their booth area by one of the mega-booths or any number of other good reasons. How can Joe Figamo, who has his entire life savings wrapped up in the best new game idea in decades, hope to compete with the smoke and mirrors of one of the big companies in his modest little booth with modest graphics and just a couple of products? He will be lost in the tumult. The next great “strange” game (just as D&D was certainly strange in ’74) may die at birth.

As for myself, I will continue to work the Auction as long as they will have me. If not for my involvement in the Auction, I would not attend any more. In no way, shape or form do I recognize today the first con I attended in ’74. In itself, that is neither good nor bad; I just don’t like what it has become, and I have all the other cons I go to that can feed my gaming need.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Tales from The Red Road--GenCon 48

61,243 people paid to go to GenCon 48, 2015. Sixty-one Thousand!?! Are you sh****ng me? I remember 600 being a milestone…
GenCon is so big that it seems to have outgrown the convention center.

Next to CincyCon, GenCon is the easiest con for me to get to each year; a little over two hours drive time with good traffic and no construction. I got to the Westin with no problems; in fact, this was the first year I managed to drive straight to it with no circling the block. Checked in, dumped my junk in the room and set out to see what I could see.

I followed out three gamers; two in jeans and T’s. The third fellow was so heavily inked, both arms and legs, that I thought he had patterned tights on. Then I saw the hideous Pink Flamingo-style bright pink-framed sunglasses. What completed the ensemble was the lace and silk, full-sized tutu he was wearing. Yup! I’m at GenCon.

GenCon is a working con for me, centered around my stints on the auction stage. What follows is a series of recollections, some gleaned from multiple sources, some from my treks through the sadistically laid out dealer area. They come in no particular chronological order, they are sort of bobbing about in the back of my head like so many apples in the washtub waiting for the Halloween party to begin.

Saw some great costumes again this year, including a few surprises. There were several ladies rocking the “Kaleesi” look of the long white flowing gown. Sadly, none were looking for that moment when she emerged unscathed from the fire with her babies. There were a couple of ladies wearing outfits that would probably get them arrested in Indy if they were dancing in a club; to be fair, they both pulled it off quite well. There was a guy on Sat. in some sort of power-armor outfit that was awesome to behold but had to have been just hotter than hell to wear. I am guessing he had some sort of cooling system; I saw him out in the sun posing for pics and not even sweating. Then there was the little goblin baby. He was a cute infant carried by his costumed Mom, wearing a hat that was supposed to make him look like Yoda. His tiny little head did not fill the hat so the ears drooped to the side and down in a most appealing fashion; I got a picture of him. Sat. was a delight and the Grand Parade (or whatever they call it) was great. There were lots of kids in costume this year, some in strollers.

Until you have had a Sucking Chest Wound, you won’t know donut nirvana. For the last couple of years GenCon and Indy have arranged for the city’s food trucks to be available, an arrangement I heartily applaud. Not to be outdone by the brick-and-mortar eateries that replace mundane menu names with themed named, they too have joined into the fun.
After walking the length of both lines of trucks on Fri and not seeing anything I wished to risk my digestion on (the trucks rotate every 5 or 6 hours so the menu varies by shift), I elected to try the most unprepossessing looking of all the trucks. It was old-aluminum silver and simply said “Coffee and Donuts”, parked at the very end. While waiting in the modest line, I saw what I knew, deep in my gut, that I had to have, a Sucking Chest Wound. It was the best $3 donut I ever ate; a cooked-to-a-turn Berliner filled with pureed raspberries and glazed with lime icing. It was a near-religious experience, and the sugar-buzz was notable.

Whoever laid out the Dealer Area should be publicly flogged or be subject to a lobotomy or possibly both. This year’s Dealer Hall was the worst laid out I could imagine. Which brings me to dealers’ booths, their size and their placement. This might be the next “mine’s bigger than yours” battlefield in the game industry. There were so many frustrations I hardly know where to begin.
Who is supposed to be impressed by the size of these mega-booths? Most of them seem to be a great waste of space. There is a “come into my parlor” vibe to some of these huge booths, but they waste floor space.

Dealer halls used to be laid out like a cornfield-nice neat rows with oversized or odd-shaped areas at the back or on the sides. Not any more, sad to say. If you throw enough money at the con, you can have a booth that effectively blocks two or three aisles perpendicularly. This forces gamers to either squeeze their way through a booth they have no interest in, or, worse still, find a detour around it and try to pick up where you left off so as not to miss any vendors. There were about three dozen vendors this year that have a legitimate gripe about being in these “lost aisles”. I was studiously trying to miss nothing on Friday (I do the Hall in two days, half each day) and still missed two small aisle fragments.

I do not have any magic solutions; there are, however, people that specialize in this kind of stuff and should be working for the Convention Ctr. The aisles now are so narrow that you take your life in hand dodging the deadly “Gauntlet of Backpacks”. Geez! What is it with gamers and their damned packs? Nothing beats having an already-large guy with a huge pack turn into you with no warning. It sort of like fighting with pugil sticks, except you don’t get one.

This was my tenth GenCon since I got back into gaming (2006). The con has grown more than 60% in that time, but it feels less and less like a game convention and more like a big commercial get-together to buy the new great stuff. Events and venues are spread all over downtown Indy; too many satellite sites. (When I finish thinking this through, big con vs. small con will be another installment.)
It is always great to see old friends. I got to spend some time with Duke Siefried whom I hadn’t seen face to face in some years. My good friend Diesel (the artist Dave LaForce) was there and had a new piece of art which I promptly snatched up-a Celtic-themed card box. I got taken to dinner twice at The Palomino, which I highly recommend. “The Pal” is seldom crowded (they don’t buy into the GenCon promo gig) and the food is excellent. Thanks again, Dave and The Acaeum.

The Auction, the biggest game auction in North America, went pretty well. Frank and I did an extra stint when we did Thursday night, but the buyers were eager. This year did not see any really choice or special items up for bids. There were three “White box” D&D’s but none very choice. A mint copy of the original Titan was probably the choicest item. From what I heard, the Charity Auction did pretty well this year as well.

There is talk of taking over the stadium in 2017 for the 50th GenCon. If it truly gets that big, I am going to have to give serious thought about continuing after that.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Going a'viking-with a twist of lemon

This version repeats some of what I shared earlier.

The whole trip experience is becoming a bit surreal; I know we did it, my wife Cheryl, and I, but the warm fog of remembering is already stealing in…

After days of packing and weighing suitcases and deciding on clothes (the weather had been frightful, for Europe, in the days previous), The Day arrived. It was a 1st Class experience from the beginning when the limo pulled up out front to take us to the airport. Check in was relatively smooth and off we went for our requisite dehumanization by the friendly folks at TSA. Even that was not awful, but then came the pat-down. It seems that something about me set off the something-or-other and I got a bit-too-familiar pat down. Nothing discovered, off we went to await our departure to Philly..

Then we landed at the most awful airport on the East Coast, in my experience—PHL. What is the story with this place? Every single time I have had to fly into Philly’s airport, whether stopping or connecting, there have been delays. We sat in that plane for almost 90 minutes waiting to take off! I pity anyone trying to make a connection in Amsterdam, our destination and the embarkation point of our Viking River Cruise to Basel, Switzerland.

In Tim’s World™, children over 15 months and less than 10 years old would not be allowed on flights lasting more than 3 hours. Imagine sitting in one of those super-expensive massage chairs that run up and down your spine. Now imagine sitting in that chair while it experiences electrical shorts at irregular intervals in random spots up and down your spine. Got the picture? Doze..JOLT!...doze…doze…JOLT! That was the kid behind me kicking my seat. And this a trans-Atlantic flight lasting forever. If the seat-kicker behind me was not enough, we had a drunken bimbo. I had noticed when we first took off that she seemed to be sort of high-maintenance with her imperious demand/requests. She got so drunk that she caused an incident back in the plane not once but several times near the restrooms. At one point two attendants, one male, escorted her back to her seat and forbade her to have contact whatsoever with any other passenger, on pain of arrest upon landing. I honestly think that if we had been over land, and not the Atlantic, that they would have put down and had her carted off. Needless to say, it was not a restful night.

At last, we land in Amsterdam, breeze through the airport and are met by a Viking person and whisked off to a bus and thence to the boat, Cheryl somewhat fresh, having grabbed few hours sleep, and me feeling like I have been dragged behind a bus for 6 or 7 blocks.

The boat is really nice and we are in luck as our stateroom is ready. The word “stateroom” is somewhat misleading, unless you think of Rhode Island every time you hear the word “state”. Still and all, it was very nice and no bigger than it needed to be. Believe me, it was far finer digs than ever I had in the good old USN. For one thing, we had a really nice shower and all the hot water we could want. If only, back then…

We crashed for a nap of a few hours and then found out we had 3 or 4 more hours before Departure, so we walked into Amsterdam; we were there three years ago and feeling confident. What a city! We wandered here and there, never once feeling anything but safe, no matter the width of the alley. I discovered a lovely little establishment, a coffee house, by the name of The Jolly Joker. I found it following my nose. It is both disconcerting and amazing in Amsterdam for the lovely odors wafting on the breeze. When I glanced at the menu, I got no farther than the eponymously-named Jack Herer. It did not disappoint. Not a teeny bit. Back to the boat for dinner.

The first dinner was a harbinger of good times to come; three courses, side dishes, cheese plates, fruit plates and all the beer, wine or soft drinks you could hold. (Sidebar: Cheryl and I are not heavy, or even frequent drinkers, so we got the regular deal which consists of unlimited “house wine”, “house beer” and Coke products, not to mention lemonade and tea or coffee during all meal times. The beer was Bitburger—a mighty tasty brew. There were various wines, both red and white and they kept giving you more if you weren’t attentive, along with fresh glasses of beer every time you looked away. There was a premium perk called the “Silver Package”; that cost $65 per person and was unlimited booze all over the boat. I met not a few that were punishing Viking on that deal. We had interesting table mates every night, some more interesting than others, one obnoxious, but more about him later. Next day was the first stop on our tour, to look at working windmills at a place called Kinderdijk.

Weather-watching in Europe

Europe was experiencing some abnormally hot weather in the weeks leading up to our departure. One day one of the places on our itinerary was 88° F, then two days later 73°, so guessing how to pack was chancy, at best. The one constant was Amsterdam; never really hot, but always raining. Our guide for the windmills told us (as we were huddled like forlorn ducks under umbrellas that did nothing to stop the horizontal rain), that The Netherlands gets 200+ days per year when it rains.

That sort of explains why they are so good at managing water, not to mention that over 40% of The Netherlands is below sea level. The place we visited, Kinderdijk, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a designation shared by dozens of other sites around the world that represent in a meaningful way important aspects of a culture or society. Without windmills and they water-engineering they embody, there would be no “Low Countries” as we know them. Entire families live inside a great many of these windmills, some of which are more than 200 years old and still fully functional. One rather grand specimen had housed a family containing 13 kids! The “Old Woman” of nursery-rhyme fame didn’t live in a shoe, she lived in a windmill.

Sadly, the weather was miserable the whole time: no sun, cool temperatures and rain. Cheryl schlepped out to climb up into the mill; I chose to dry off and warm up. The ingenuity of the cog, or gear, assemblies that transfer the wind power to the pumps is quite fascinating.

Later that afternoon, as we resumed our cruise upriver, I got a chance to visit the pilothouse. Samuel Clemens (he rode the Rhine when he visited in the late 1870’s) would think he was on board a spaceship, and his first question would probably be “What happened to the wheel?”

About the boat

My ancestors never had it so good on their longships. We sailed on Viking Kara, a one year-old engineering marvel. The bridge is a mechanical marvel in itself; it sits on a giant scissors jack so it can be lowered to get under low bridges. It is so long that it has a video camera aft so that the fantail is visible to the skipper at all times. It has four propulsion units, each with two smallish props, that can rotate 360° as well as two thrusters. There is no sense of getting underway, so smooth and vibration-free are the props. No rowing in fierce winds, bailing all the while for this crew.

I jokingly remarked that we were in steerage, the lowest deck. There was virtually no difference in cabin sizes that I could detect; same number of cabin doors on both lowest and middle deck; there might have been a couple bigger ones on the top deck. The top two decks had tiny balconies outside their cabins, but they were virtually worthless on this trip, as several that had them stated.

The whole boat shined and sparkled. The crew was magnificent and the service was almost eerie; every time you turned around someone was asking if there was anything they could get you. If you did not cover your wine or beer glass, they were bringing another before you could ask. The food was absolutely first rate. Each morning there was a continental breakfast in the lounge and a full breakfast in the dining room with eggs, waffles and omelet’s to order, five kinds of juice, gallons of coffee, fresh fruit in abundance. Lunch was served on board every day for those that came back for it; many opted to eat wherever we were that day. Every night was a three course dinner and featured an a la carte menu if you did not care for any of the choices (there were always three entrees offered) that included steak.

Two members of the crew stood out, in my opinion. The first is Ria (I have forgotten her last name), who was the Program Director. Where she gets all of her energy must be a closely held secret. She was funny, knowledgeable and tireless. The other is Peter Burkhard, the Hotel Manager. When I asked about going through locks he took me into his cabin/office and provided me with a complete list of all the locks we would traverse and the approximate time we would go through; there were quite a lot. (More about Rhine locks later.) He really blew me away when, on the last night aboard, they got him to sit down at the baby grand and play. Boy, could he play! He was exceedingly gracious and a great asset to Viking.

There was music for every dinner; usually local musicians or music students and it never failed to shine. It was quite a boat.

The Itinerary

The plan called for us to visit a different city each day; on one day we stopped at two. I’ll be brutally honest and admit that they sort of blurred together after a bit, but I’ll do my best to sort them out for you.

Amsterdam-I have already commented on our brief stay here, not much to add.

Day 2: Kinderdijk- I talked about this earlier; nothing to add here.

Day 3: Cologne- We have all seen the iconic pictures of the great Gothic cathedral of Cologne that somehow survived the Allied bombings. Hit by eight bombs of various size, it stood at war’s end, damaged but resolute. The cathedral, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is awe-inspiring up close. To stand in front of it, neck craned to see the spires so far overhead, and to think that it is over 750 years old was a profound experience for this retired history teacher. The inside of the cathedral is equally impressive, as it was meant to be when built, proclaiming and testifying to God’s greatness and intimidating the flock into being good sheep. (As a historical backdrop and background, every place we would be visiting in Germany and France was originally a Roman outpost on the edge of their civilization.)

No trip to Cologne (Köln in German) would be complete without a trip to the 4711 company, home to THE “scent of Cologne. This perfume lent its name to all good-smelling things with “eau de cologne” being lifted from their name. My Mom loved the stuff and one of her first gifts to my then-fiancé was some 4711 soap.

Just as the city of Pilsener, in Czechoslovakia, lent its name to a type and style of beer, so has Köln, as we learned on our Brauhaus tour that night. They are justly proud of their local brew “kölsch”. We visited 4 different brauhauses that night and I can report that they were all quite good and two were excellent. I also learned that a one-inch head on a beer is a good thing for two reasons: it insulates the beer from the air and it also keeps it colder, longer. Who am I to argue with some of the best beer brewers on the planet? German beer is a far cry from the pale, watery stuff that often poses as beer here in the States.

Cheryl and I just had to visit the Schokoladenmuseum Köln, now owned by Lindt Chocolates. It was not just exhibits of old wrappers from around the world, but also all the areas it is grown now and many historic tools and molds. They explained how hollow bunnies are made and we got to watch machines making little chocolate squares from molding to wrapping. The very interesting afternoon ended in the Chocolate shop, where chocolates from dozens of European makers were on sale.

One strange, but most pleasant, sight was the four young German men busking on the edge of the Dom square; they were playing Mozart, and playing it very well for a very appreciative audience gathered to watch.

Cologne also has a very moving tribute to the victims of “the brown time” (what several of the guides called the Third Reich). Besides a piece of rather abstract sculpture dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust and commissioned by the city from an Israeli artist, there are over a thousand small brass inscribed squares scattered around the city. The first we saw of these “Stumbling Stones” (the name our guide gave them) was one dedicated to 200 Romany who were rounded up and sent to the death camps. The rest are placed in the cobblestones in front of every house that held a Jewish family that was rounded up and sent to the ovens.

Day 4: Köblenz, Scenic Cruising, and Rudesheim- Marksburpg Castle lay upon the crest of a mighty hill under which we had moored. To get there we had to take a gondola/cable car across the Rhine and up the hill. The sky was shining blue and the river busy, which made just this little jaunt exotic and entertaining. Of all the forts and fortresses I have seen in various places around the world, this was by far the most imposing and impressive. Built in 1836, it was so formidable that no one ever tried to attack it, a fact that potentially thousands of foes no doubt endorsed. I could see no way that an army of that time could have possibly taken that fort with the weaponry in use then. Our tour guide was dressed in period costume and assumed the persona of a gentleman officer of the Royal Engineers sent in mufti to spy it out. He was very, very good. One need only walk to the edge of the parade grounds overlooking the Rhine to note its strategic importance as it broods on the hill overlooking the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers.

We boarded a bus to rejoin the boat which had moved on to Braubach, and then set sail for lunch on the Rhine as we made for Rudesheim. We’ve all heard of Irish Coffee, right? How many have heard of Rudesheim Kaffe? Even I, who do not normally drink coffee, could grow to like it the way they make it. Probably something to do with the brandy in it, I would guess.

In the interim, we sailed the part of the Rhine known for the castles. It was a gloriously clear and pleasant day and some of the castles are quite impressive. We sailed around the fabled Lorelei Rock at the Rhine’s narrowest point, less than 100 yards wide.

A Note on the Rhine River: While I fully understand the importance of the Rhine to all the countries through which it flows, it does not impress this boy, born in a Mississippi River town in Illinois and having lived along the Ohio for over 30 years now in SW Ohio. Naively, growing up I thought when someone referenced an important or mighty river, the Muddy Miss was my point of reference and I thought all really important rivers must be that big and wide. When I read in the war histories what a formidable defense line the Rhine would be, I envisioned trying to cross the Mississippi somewhere along where I lived and shuddered, little knowing that the widest spot I would later see was about the width of the Rock River where it emptied into the Mississippi.

Make no mistake, the Rhine is busy with all sorts of commercial barge traffic. The barges on the Rhine are nothing like those on our major rivers. For one thing, they are considerably smaller and shorter, owing to the confines of the river. For another, whole families live aboard what we would call “the tug” or “the tow”, that part of the barge that provides the motive power. They have the family car parked on the aft deck, or their motorcycle or fishing boat or jet-ski. One even had a swingset on the bow for the kids. I wonder what they do for school?

Day 5: Heidelberg and Speyer-Heidelberg was spared bombing in WWII. There was no industry and old, moneyed American families had an interest in the University. For whatever the reason, the city maintains its medieval charm and dimensions. We had the most amazing bus driver I have ever seen. How he managed to navigate some of those cobblestoned streets was nothing less than magical. The locals were coming out to watch and would often give him a hand when he did it.

Perhaps the most disconcerting sight of our trip happened in Heidelberg. As we were walking towards the famed ruins of Heidelberg Castle, setting of the opera The Student Prince, we walked along a familiar-looking street of bookstores full of texts, bookbags, T-shirts and the like. What I did not expect to see was Mark Twain’s visage gracing T-shirts, book bags and posters. It seem that Heidelberg is mad for Samuel Clemens who famously resided there for some months in the late 1870’s and then went on to write a much-beloved, and totally fictional, account of his summer in Germany.

Heidelberg Castle still enchants as it did 150 years ago. Even in ruins it is still magnificent. It seems that Louis XIV of France was not comfortable with all the castles along the Rhine. Being the grandiose frog that he was, he proceeded to destroy every one during the War of Palatine Succession, between 1594 and 1603. Thanks, Louis.

Speyer is a sleepy little town with the largest Romanesque cathedral, the Kaiserdom, in Europe. It’s a huge church, and imposing. Speyer was once a cultural center for Jews and has the oldest existing example of a ritual underground Jewish bath house in all of Europe.

Day 6: Strasbourg, France- Welcome to the Alsace. The first you see are the street signs; every street has three names, one in French, one in German and one in Alsatian. Makes for some big signs. Strasbourg is mad for storks. Every chimney has a nest, or so it seems. Storks on your chimneys are considered good luck. The slate roofs look like they have been iced (frosted) in stork droppings stretching six and eight feet down the roof. I’m not sure where that part figures into the luck bit; must be an Alsace thing.

The streets in Strasbourg are a most delightful jumble of architecture; an obviously German building nestled cheek-by-jowl with a patently French building, one side of the block French, the other German. The Strasbourg Cathedral is one of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals in all of Europe. Sadly, it was a Sunday and most of the shops were closed, although we did score some outstanding macaroons.

Day 7; Breisach and the Black Forest- All my life I have heard of The Black Forest of Germany, home to cuckoo clock makers and woodcarvers carving wondrous things. We decided to take the bus tour to the Kaiserschtule in the Black Forest.

The countryside was gorgeous as we wound our way up in elevation in our Mercedes tour buses. Along the way we were lucky enough to see some really rare (like only a couple of hundred left rare) horses native to the area. They were some plug-ugly horses but had a certain so-ugly-your-heart-goes-out quality to them. We also passed enormous farmhouse that were centuries old; one magnificent structure was 1000 years old and still being lived in. The thatch roofs were unique.

Another of the great ironies presented itself with this tour. Dressed in traditional Black Forest garb, our lady guide was a Guatemalan-American who’d come to Germany 8 years ago to study the language and had found a husband and stayed; charming lady who knew her stuff.

We drove up into the mountains and stopped at an inn that had been there since Marie Antoinette made her Grand Procession to France to become Queen. The main commercial building was shaped like a giant clock but we did not wait to strike the hour and see what happened. Instead of watching the clock/building, we were watching an incredible young male chef make Black Forest Cake. Oh my god, I gained half a pound just watching him drench it in schnapps and ladle layer after layer of whipped, unsweetened cream, then showering it with chocolate shavings and topping each piece with a rosette containing a cherry. It was a profound gustatory experience without any calories.

When we came back from the Forest, we walked into Breisach, a very pretty city with a most impressive Basilika, and about a dozen ice cream (Eis) stores. The Germans are heavily into what they call ice cream but we would call gelato. Every city we visited had Eis stores; the range of flavors staggers the imagination. Liking ice cream myself, and married to a ice cream junkie, we had several tasty treats. I had a lime gelato that was sublime before we returned to the boat for the night.

That last night was the Farewell Dinner and it was grand.

Day 7: Basel, Switzerland and the endless trip home- We departed the boat at 4:30 AM for the airport in Basel, I have no idea what Basel looks like outside of what we could see in the bus headlights. The airport was very busy and there came an end to our up-to-now idyllic trip. We could not get boarding passes because our tickets were in the system twice. I give kudos to the gentleman at the British Airways who took such extraordinary measures to get it cleared up. It took him 20 minutes, but when he finished he handed me boarding passes for the whole flight, including each connection. Then through Customs, which was mercifully perfunctory.

Next came Heathrow, where it seemed we went through twice as many lines and got questioned by twice as many guys at desks. At least the European versions of TSA are a hell of a lot more civil and sensible; no removing belts and stripping off your shoes.

The flight from Heathrow to Philly seemed to take two lifetimes. By then my circadian rhythms were so screwed up that my body felt like I needed to be awake. Cheryl was blissfully sleeping while I watched two whole movies: The Agony and The Ecstasy (an old, familiar favorite) and Chappie, which I highly recommend to all fans of mild science fiction. I thought it was a very thoughtful film while still very entertaining. Then I read some.

Customs at Philly was surprisingly easy and efficient, but that was just another tease, and Philly would preserve its perfect record of never, not even once, allowing me to make a connection on time. This time, it was not the airports fault, but rather, the result of asinine rules instituted by the FAA and the Secret Service. Air Force One was landing at Philly, so the entire side of the massive airport that AF One taxied across was frozen in place; all boarding stopped cold, all planes were halted and forbidden to taxi or take off for 40 minutes, until the motorcade took off. Thanks, Prez. Sort of smacks of the imperial, doesn’t it?

It was a grand excursion and far exceeded our wildest expectations, and provided more memories than one mind can possibly hold for long. Luckily for us, Cheryl has made up an enormous loose-leaf binder for the 150+ photos we printed that will serve as a memory-jogger for years to come.

Rhine locks
All of the locks I am familiar with on US rivers operate pretty much the same way as locks have worked since the days of the Erie Canal; two large gates/doors that swing open and closed from the sides. The bottom is usually the river bottom. Germany did it a different way when they had to replace all the bombed out locks and dams. Their locks are like a concrete trough with one-piece gates that raise and lower. Tow boats/barges fit side by side with about one foot clearance on both sides. Some had as much as a 20’ difference; they filled quite quickly due to the fast flow of the Rhine.

Rhineland vineyards
German vintners grow vines along the Rhine on hills so steep goats avoid them. Seriously though, the hillsides they cultivate are too steep for any machinery; all the growing, tending and harvesting is done by hand. Virtually every scrap of land that will hold a vine has one all along the wine area. I had some great Reislings on the Kara.

130 Strangers on a boat for a week

(I promised several people that I told I would be writing this that no real names would be used.)

Sailing on a small-ish boat like this means no escaping people you’d rather not choose to spend time with, as well as providing opportunities to meet really nice people. As the Kara was a non-smoking vessel, including my e-cig; so, as is often the case nowadays, we social pariahs who gathered “at the ashtrays” each evening soon got to know each other. (At one point I overheard someone referring to us as “the Knitting Club”; I corrected her and told her we preferred to refer to ourselves as “the cool kids”.) I met a mother and daughter, from Arkansas and Texas, respectively, that were very fine ladies to chat with. Mom did very specialized educational testing and daughter flew all over selling medical instruments; we each had areas of common interests.

One night, we cool kids were sharing pot stories, most of which centered on recent experiences in Amsterdam. One couple related a hilarious tale of going into one of the coffee houses and getting a couple of joints. It seems that they had both dabbled with pot 15 or 20 years ago and were interested in doing it again somewhere where they would not be hassled for it, sort of a brief trip down Memory Lane. They told how they sat down on a bench together and smoked one joint. Upon finishing they confided to one another that they were suddenly too stoned to stand up and walk back a few blocks to the ship, so they sat there for half an hour until they felt up to the task. They had us all in stitches.

Another night when we were all sitting topside admiring the late sunset and the myriad stars soon visible in the clear skies, I caught a whiff of a lovely odor and thought I was imagining it. Nope, such was not the case. I was sitting next to “the couple” when she reached over and asked if I would care for a toke. I did, and we did, and we sailed up the Rhine digging the moon and stars with a most righteous buzz on. It does NOT get any better than that.

We met a couple a few years older than us from England that we hope to stay in touch with. We exchanged addresses and ate dinner together several nights. She is six and a half stone of grit and spunk; he is an artist if considerable skill. His sketching on the day we were traversing castle country led to introductions and the rest. They are truly lovely people and our having met them and possibly formed a friendship is one of the very high points of the whole trip.

The low point, in regard to becoming acquainted with our fellow passengers, has to be The Aussie. If I believed that he adequately represented the people of Australia, I would kiss off the whole damned continent and let the Chinese have it some day in the future. My first meeting came when we were unfortunate enough to sit down at the same table for dinner one night. The gist of his lecture that night, delivered in a booming voice (yeah, me calling someone else booming, I know) was that anyone that did not understand all the nuances of two versions of cricket were poor, benighted fools; football(soccer) was a boring, sissy game and anyone and anything not Australian was somehow lacking. I figured that he had had a snoot-full and was just an obnoxious tippler. Unfortunately, I was wrong on that score.

The next night, having escaped dining at the same table again, I was more than a little dismayed to find that he had taken up residence in our smoking area, and he did not even smoke. By now, we cool kids knew some about each other. The Aussie started off expounding about the metric system vs. Imperial/American. In his ranting, he asked something about why we had not adopted it, historically. Someone there identified me as a History teacher, so he directed his question somewhat smugly at me. When I got about half way into the historical reasons Americans were never going to adopt anything proposed by Napoleon, he most rudely cut me off and said we were all “SHTEW-PUD” (hard to nuance his pronunciation is print). Twice more he asked me questions as a History teacher and twice more he cut me off mid-answer and declared we were all SHTEW-PUD! I got up and walked away, thinking to myself that yes, it was easy to tell that he was an engineer—he thought he knew everything. Too bad he doesn’t know what an ass-hat he is, and the disservice he does his country.

The people we interacted with in Germany were very friendly, as were the people in Strasbourg. Virtually everywhere we went we ran into a persistent annoyance. Every time I tried to get a picture, there were oblivious Asians ruining the shot. I have no idea how they got there or what tour groups they were with; we had no Asians on our boat. Some were Japanese, some Chinese and some Korean; lots I have no idea. It simply seemed that every time you tried to shoot a castle, there was an Asian with a camera on the damned balcony! How the hell did they get up there in the first place? Nice shot along a canal? Forget it as there are half a dozen girls striking poses, or else an enormous cluster gathered under a selfie-stick. I really hate to say this, but it seemed they just did not give a damn for anyone around them. It was really frustrating, but the only even slightly negative thing to happen. More of an observation, really; is it a cultural thing?

What a trip it was; even after waiting 15 months to take it our expectations were exceeded. I wish we could afford to do something like it every year, but unless I buy a winning lottery ticket that is not likely to happen. If ever you get the chance, the Rhine is well worth seeing.

I am off to GenCon in two days. I will have another Tales of the Red Road about mid-August.