Sharing: June 17, 2018

More stuff I like:

Book: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
This made me laugh a lot: wry and honest cartoons about being an well-meaning misfit.
App: Feedly
Feedly is an RSS subscription reader…and if you don’t know what that is, you should. RSS is method of summarizing and syndicating blog posts. Almost every site you care about creates its own RSS information; software like Feedly can look up that information and tell you about any articles posted since the last time you checked. In other words, RSS readers let you follow blogs and quickly find out what’s new. I use Feedly as a fast way of checking many different web sites, so that I’m always up to date. (And by the way, you can use Feedly to follow this web site too, i.e. jamesalangardner.com. Never miss a posting!
Web Site: Reductress
Reductress is The Onion but with articles slanted toward women. Some of the articles are only titles…but the titles are so great, adding content would only spoil them. So yes, I just read Reductress for the headlines; it is a wonderful use of my time.

RPG Setting: Divergent Hogwarts

I run role-playing games for various groups, and I thought it might be of interest if I shared some of the settings that I’ve “invented” (which often means “egregiously stolen”).

So let’s start with one I came up with for a group that included several teenagers. I knew they were interested in YA books, particularly the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth and the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling. So I invented a setting which combined the two in a way that I hoped would appeal to them.

As is only right for a YA-based campaign, the background is post-apocalyptic. The apocalypse was caused by an outbreak of magic in our modern world. (I was thinking of something like the Conjunction of Spheres from the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski, but it doesn’t really matter.) Things went to hell in a handbasket, thanks to the abrupt appearance of magical creatures and uncontrolled sorcerous outbursts.

Numerous enclaves and cultures arose out of civilization’s ashes. One such enclave was established by people who were fans of Divergent and Harry Potter. They created a school to train troubleshooters who could help other communities deal with problems. As you might expect from the school’s two inspirations, “Divergent Hogwarts” taught both magic and other useful skills as in the Divergent books.

Many role-playing games describe characters using an “X-axis” and a “Y-axis”. If you’re familiar with Dungeons & Dragons the X-axis is race (human, elf, dwarf, etc.) and the Y-axis is class/profession (wizard, fighter, rogue, etc.). Each axis choice gives you a set of abilities. By mixing and matching (elf wizard, human rogue, dwarf fighter, etc.), you get a wide variety of character possibilities that can be further developed in other ways.

In Divergent Hogwarts, the X-axis was Divergent faction (Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite) and the Y-axis was Hogwarts house (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin). Players would choose their character’s faction and house; each choice conveyed certain skills and attributes, giving the character a useful operating base.

For the game system, I chose Mage, the Awakening (Second Edition) from Onyx Path Publishing. Mage is well-suited for both magic and ass-kicking (as well as investigation and social life, which the teens were interested in too). Mage subdivides magical powers into ten arcana: Death, Fate, Forces, Life, and so on. Every mage has two primary arcana that they’re most adept with. In Divergent Hogwarts, one of your primary arcana was determined by your faction while the other was determined by your house. For example, a Dauntless Gryffindor would be good at Forces and Spirit, while an Erudite Slytherin would be good at Mind and Death.

With five factions and four houses, they almost covered the ten arcana. I decided that nobody would be good at “Prime” (which is essentially magic dealing with magic itself). Everyone would have to struggle with that.

The lovely thing about this set-up is that the teens didn’t have to read the rule book much to get started. They were, after all, just beginning students at the school. They’d know what types of magic they were good at (thanks to a version of the Sorting Hat which helped them determine their faction and house), but beyond that, they’d pick up the niceties as they went along.

Whenever they wanted to cast a spell, I just asked them what they wanted to do and what kind of magic mumbo-jumbo they’d do to improve their chances of success. Of course, shouting magic words and waving “wands” are basic (although lots of objects could be used in place of wands…guns and knives, for example). But the players soon started using other familiar tricks from fantasy books. For example, if they were trying to find someone who was missing, they knew it would be useful to get an article of the missing person’s clothing or perhaps some hairs off their comb. The players had a lot of fun figuring out cool ways to improve their chances of successfully casting spells.

Early adventures were restricted to the Divergent Hogwarts enclave…and I admit I stole some scenarios straight from the books. When the group got more comfortable with the game system and with working together, they started being sent on outside missions: helping other enclaves with various types of problems.

All in all, it was a really fun setting. We spent about a year there, until they discovered a big secret which propelled them into something completely different. But I offer this up as inspiration for anyone who wants to game with YA readers and is looking for something they’ll connect with.

[Rabbit picture from “Easter Bunny Rabbit The Magic Hats Clip art – Hat Bunny @kisspng”]

A Regular Day

Someone recently asked me what a regular writing day looked like for me. So…here you go (or at least the highlights):

  1. Get up & eat breakfast, during which I read email and Twitter. I usually don’t answer any email immediately unless it can be done in less than 3 lines. Also I do the NY Times mini-crossword puzzle and review my to-do list.(NOTE: I keep a daily to-do list in a straight-up text file. The file contains stuff for at least a week in advance. I also use my iPad’s calendar program to keep track of dates, but I copy any appointments from the calendar into the text to-do list. The to-do list is inspired by bullet journals but more informal.)
  2. Write a few morning pages longhand, mostly reviewing things I saw or heard the previous day. I try to record tangible experiences, rather than just chatting about ideas.
  3. Transcribe any longhand writing from the day before. Basically, when I’m writing something new, I write longhand first (yes, pen on paper). The next day, I start my writing session by transcribing the longhand stuff into Scrivener. This helps remind me where I was, and also gives me a chance to do quickie rewrites on what I produced the previous day.
  4. Use the Pomodoro technique to write longhand for two hours. That means 25 minutes of nothing but writing, then five minutes of break-time (bathroom, having a snack, etc.). Repeat the 25-on/5-off for a total of four sessions, giving about two hours of new writing.
  5. Take a longer break: half an hour. I’ll do my daily Duolingo (currently learning Japanese, and keeping up on Spanish) and have a small lunch
  6. Back to another four Pomodoro sessions: either writing or editing (if I have an editing job…and by the way, if you ever need editing services, feel free to inquire).
  7. Another longer break. Usually, this is when I go for a walk to my local library. I almost always have something I want to pick up at the library, or something I have to take back. Even if I don’t have anything to get or return, going to the library is a nice break.
  8. Back for another two hours of work. This is either editing work, or business stuff. Here is when I answer email, deal with business paperwork, etc. If I’m working on a definite project (e.g. editing), I’ll do it Pomodoro style again, but often it’s just little bits and pieces that don’t fit the work-in-depth system.
  9. Thus ends my writing/editing day. Now into other stuff. Half an hour for hobby-like activity.
  10. Walk or drive for errands (shopping, etc.) in the late afternoon.
  11. Most nights, I either do kung fu or role-playing games.
  12. Read for at least 15 minutes before going to bed.

Auxiliary reading:

For bathroom reading, I (very slowly) work through something “classic”. Recently, I worked my way through Christopher Logue’s poetry version of the Iliad. Now I’m working through Ishmael Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo”.

For kitchen reading (when I’m eating snacks or drinking coffee), I do idle research. In preparation for writing Miranda in NOBODY TOLD ME YOU COULD BREAK THE MOON, I worked through a first-year physics textbook. Now, I’m reading BLACK EDGE by Sheelah Kolhatkar, so I’ll know about sleazy financiers. (This is preparation for something secret I think I’ll call Project 3H.)

And for times when I want a break from reading, I do cryptic crossword puzzles. Right now I’m working through a book of New Statesman crosswords from the 1980s.

So there: if there is such a thing as a typical day, that’s how it goes. Any questions?

Half an Hour a Day

Many moons ago, I read an article by the writer Tom Robbins (or maybe just about Tom Robbins) in which he talked about keeping his brain alive. If I remember correctly, he said that he had a strict regimen:

  • Half an hour a day of reading poetry, since that would improve his feel for language
  • Half an hour a day of being outside, because he needed fresh air, plus the sights and sounds of nature
  • Half an hour a day of exercise, because a healthy mind needs a healthy body to sustain it
  • Half an hour of pornography…and we’ll just leave that one where it is.

I don’t have an urge to adopt that program exactly, but recently I started thinking about cultivating my brain a little more intentionally. So I decided to put in half an hour a day on activities that would expand my horizons and keep me sharp. I came up with a four-day cycle that I’ve been following for several weeks now:

  • Day One: Music. I’ve played the piano since I was a kid, and I even used to perform in coffee houses. In recent years, I’ve let that slip…but I decided to get back to playing and singing—half an hour a day, every fourth day.
  • Day Two: Math. I’ve loved math almost as long as I’ve been playing the piano. I adore working problems and finding answers. However, it’s been years since I tried to learn new stuff, or even reviewed old fields I ought to know cold. So I’ve begun swotting up on linear algebra, in preparation for bigger and better things. (I have several advanced books out from the University of Waterloo library, but haven’t decided which I’ll dive into once I’m back up to speed. Differential topology? Category theory? We’ll see.)
  • Day Three: Embroidery. I used to do a lot of embroidery while sitting in front of the television. I don’t watch TV anymore, so I’ve gotten out of the habit…but I still have plenty of cross-stitch patterns I’d love to work on, so why not start again? Embroidery is good for the brain and eye-hand coordination. I do it for half an hour every fourth day, and instead of watching TV as I stitch, I listen to podcasts. (Current faves: Writing Excuses, The Sisterhood, Hardcore History, and Revolutions.)
  • Day Four: Sculpture with Modeling Clay. I really wanted to do something involving visual art, but I’ve gradually come to realize that I’m not drawn to drawing, no matter how much I think I ought to be. So instead of picking up a pencil, I bought some modeling clay, took out some books from the library, and began messing around. The picture at the top of this post is one of the first things I made. I’ve ordered some simple tools, but they’re literally on a slow boat from China. When they arrive, I’ll start messing around in earnest.

There: my daily half-hour program of attempting more than the same-old same-old. So far it’s been fun. It gives me things to do away from the keyboard and computer screen. Of course, I still train in Kung Fu and go for walks every day…but moving in new directions and reviving old amusements has been invigorating.