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Going Old School

I recently started a D&D group at my local library. I am the Dungeon Master for a collection of individuals who have either never played D&D before or were only briefly exposed to it. One played “back in the day” (early 1980s) and has just a smattering of recent experience. Only two of these players know each other, otherwise they are all strangers.

Many of these players responded to printed flyers I posted around town on corkboard bulletin boards in local coffee shops and grocery stores. One responded to a free ad I posted on craigslist.

What’s really cool about this group, however, is that we’re going old school. We’ll be playing Old-School Essentials Advanced Fantasy, published by Necrotic Gnome. This is essentially a mashup of the late 1970s 1st edition AD&D and early 1980s Basic/Expert rules published by TSR.

We’ve held our first Session 0. The format of the evening was in three parts.

First, we discussed how D&D works and how it’s played. We covered some broad level rules and debated between following the Basic rules, which are based on the early 1980s Basic boxed set (“Moldvay Basic” as it’s commonly called), or the Advanced rules. The group voted to go with the Advanced rules, primarily so they had access to a broader range of classes and races.

We did decide, however, not to follow “race as class” — you’re a dwarven fighter or elven magic-user, rather than just a “dwarf” or just an “elf.”

Furthermore, the group decided to follow the rules as written (RAW) as much as possible, with only a few minor exceptions.

Here are the table rules we’ve decided on so far:

  • Natural 20’s cause double damage; natural 1’s cause a deleterious effect. This applies to monsters as well as characters.
  • No race-as-class (mentioned above).
  • No drow player-characters.
  • No multi-class characters.

Second, we spent some time rolling up characters. This took the bulk of the evening because the process was brand new to the players and we had only one copy of the Old-School Essentials Player’s Tome (Advanced).

Stats were generated by each player rolling 3d6 six times, then arranging those numbers in the desired order based on the class they preferred. (I ruled that if the average of their six stats was less than 12, they could re-roll all six stats again.) Point buys were then implemented to raise prime requisites. Finally, we went around the table setting secondary stats like bonuses and then bought some basic equipment, etc.

Last, we spent a half hour going through a mini-combat where the party encountered three hobgoblins in a room. Only one character took damage before all three monsters were dispatched.

The players quickly picked up on the need to balance risk and reward and even started to think about combat tactics, playing to their characters’ strengths and weaknesses.

Session 1, the first day of actual game play, will take place a week later, with the ongoing play schedule set to every-other week.

So far the group has been enthused and excited about the process and prospects of some great old-school roll-playing action. I am, too.

I began playing D&D back in 1980 with the purchase of the Moldvay “purple box” Basic Set, and subsequent purchases of the original three 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons core rule books (Dungeon Masters Guide, Players Handbook, and Monster Manual). I’ve been a Dungeon Master 95% of the time since then.

It is great to not only get back to playing AD&D-slash-Basic/Expert rules, but to have the opportunity to teach a group of people the joys of Dungeons & Dragons essentially from scratch.

Thoughts on D&D Play Mechanics

Dungeons & Dragons

I’ve been a D&D Dungeon Master since 1980. In that time, my play style and table rules have evolved. Here are my thoughts on some of the more contentious ones.

Initiative (side, individual, roll every round)

Rules for how to handle initiative have evolved since the first editions of D&D back in the 1970s. The Basic rules (Moldvay) stated that each side in a combat encounter rolled for initiative and that order held for the rest of the combat.

Some folks roll initiative for each monster and each character, holding that order throughout the encounter.

Yet another variation is to re-roll for initiative, either for each side or for each individual, every round.

This presents four variations, and there are situations where each makes the most sense. I don’t subscribe to the idea that one variation is so superior to the other three that it must be used at all times and at all tables.

Just like every rule in the books, whichever edition you choose to play, the group can choose which they like best.

My previous preference was to use individual initiative so that the strengths and weaknesses of each monster or character can play a part. I kept that order throughout the combat. I’m now a fan of side initiative as it keeps things simpler and goes faster.

Morale

Historically I have never used morale checks in my games as a DM, nor have any of the DM’s I’ve played under. On rare occasions, the DM would make a judgement call and say something like, “The rest of the kobolds, after seeing the majority of their group slaughtered before their eyes, drop their weapons and surrender, throwing themselves at the party’s mercy.”

After reading over old-school rules, specifically the Basic and 1st edition AD&D rules, I think that checking for morale makes a lot of sense based on the typical morale scores of monsters as specified in the various texts, and at prescribed moments in the combat such as when a group of monsters lose their leader or more than half of their number have been slain.

Encumbrance

As with morale, I have never used encumbrance rules when DMing in the past. It’s one of those things that makes a lot of sense from a plausibility and realism standpoint, but I’ve felt that tracking encumbrance is a tedious pain in the arse.

I’m still on the fence about whether or not I’ll use it at my table.

Death

Historically, I have ruled that a character becomes unconscious at 0 hit points, and loses 1 hit point her round until they receive healing (not just first aid as specified in 5th edition rules), and dies if they reach -10. Of course, if a player has a few hit points above zero and receives damage that takes them below -10 all at once, they’re dead.

5th edition, in my opinion, makes it far too easy to stay alive. The concept of death saves feels a bit gratuitous in favor of keeping characters kicking. I don’t subscribe to that model nor have I ever used it when DMing 5th edition games.

Conversely, the original Basic rules specified that when a character reaches 0 hit points, they’re dead. Period. I’m okay with that as long as the table is okay with it. It makes players more cautious in their actions, and I think that serves the game. I think it gives more emotional weight to the stakes.

One additional note I have about death is that when resurrected, a character loses 1 point from their Constitution score, and cannot be resurrected any more times than their original CON score.

Critical Hits and Misses

I have always ruled that a natural 1 on a d20 attack roll meant automatic failure regardless of bonuses. Along with that natural 1, I’ve typically specified that something awkward or unfortunate occurred, such as tripping or dropping their weapon. I have also ruled that a natural 20 on an attack roll always hits and does double damage; this is calculated by rolling the damage dice twice, adding them up, and then adding any bonuses to that sum.

I haven’t always handled natural 1’s or monster attack rolls in the same manner, however. They were an automatic miss but didn’t have any deleterious effect. Natural 20s were automatic hits and did double damage, of course.

Some tables I’ve played at, however, didn’t consider natural 1s or natural 20s as anything special. They were a result from a d20 roll just like any other.

On further reflection, I think a solid table rule should be that if the player characters suffer negative effects on natural 1’s and get double damage on natural 20’s, monsters and NPCs should, too.

Identifying magic items

Thinking back to all the games I’ve DM’d in the past, I realize that I have been a bit too generous to players when they discovered magic items. I’d simply say something like, “The chest contains 500 electrum pieces, 800 silver pieces, a +1 dagger, and a Wand of Fireballs.”

As previously stated about encumbrance, I never worried about how the party could carry their loot, either.

I never made the characters go through hoops to identify the magic items or their properties, unless the weapon was cursed, at which point I’d inform them that what they thought was a +1 sword was actually a -1 Backstabber. Oops.

After careful thought, I have changed my ways. Potions must be sipped to get hints about their purpose. Other magic items or weapons must be used to determine their purpose and function, otherwise the players must hire expert help at high cost to get the skinny on what that wand really does.

I’m also of the mind that the player would have no way of knowing how many charges a Wand of Fireballs has until it runs out. I’d keep track in my own notes.

Fudging rolls

I have fudged many rolls as a DM, especially in recent years. Because I have historically been a “story” dungeon master, focusing on a great story that fit a cohesive theme, bad dice rolls could detour a party in a direction I didn’t want them to go.

This DMing style is also called “railroading” and I’ve since given that up to being an almost 100% sandbox-type dungeon master. This has enabled me to make other changes, too, specifically allowing the fates of the dice rolls to fall where they may.

There are still rolls I don’t let the party see, such as Hearing Noise or Move Silently checks, but I no longer fudge rolls.

Player activity reflects character activity

One of the new rules my groups and I have agreed to implement is the mandate that if a group of players are arguing loudly about something, their characters are, too. Wandering monsters become much more likely to show up under those conditions. (I’ll often warn the players that their real-world argument will soon bleed into the game if they don’t resolve it and move on.)

Also in recent years I have banned the consultation of Monster Manuals during game play. I may look up a monster’s stat as part of my DM duties, but the players don’t get to.

Consulting the Player’s Handbook during play is a bit different, though. Spell casters need to be able to have full understanding of their spells to make good choices for their characters, but having the PHB handy during play can lead to min-maxing (making choices to optimize rolls, stats, and results that don’t necessarily coincide with sound role-playing).

So, I have come up with the table rule that if the player wants to consult a book during play (other than the Monster Manual), their character is setting down their pack or Bag of Holding, rummaging around inside to find it, and spending time thumbing through pages to find what they’re looking for. This wastes the party’s time and obviously can’t be done while on the move or during combat, else there will be consequences in-game.

Monster reaction rolls

As with morale, I never used monster reaction rolls until recently. I like letting the dice make some more decisions for me as I’ve already got enough on my plate. Letting the dice decide a monster’s reaction at the start of an encounter also lends itself to the sandbox style of play. The dice can take the party in whole new directions and rolling for monster reactions is one way that can happen. I even let the party see the dice roll.

I also use reaction rolls for NPC encounters, too, although I still role-play NPCs as I think a good DM should.

Tracking resources

Like encumbrance, tracking rations, water, rest, and consumables like torches, lantern oil and arrows is a realistic thing to do but is a bit of a pain. There are many DMs on YouTube and social media who have shared their methods and tools (checklists, basically) to make tracking these consumable resources easier.

On the one hand, tracking consumables seems like a tedious mechanic. But, I have found — and my players have, too — that this adds to the atmosphere and even the strategy of the game’s role-playing aspects (up to a point). If the party wants to explore deeper in the dungeon but won’t have enough torches to see their way back to the surface, they must leave now and return another day better prepared. The same goes for healing and spell availability, so tracking consumables like torches and food isn’t really any different if you think about it.

An additional tip is to assign these tracking duties to an honorable and honest player in the party. Delegate it for the win.

Disclosing monster stats

I’ve disclosed monster hit points and armor class in the past, but no more. Now, “the manticore isn’t even bloodied” when it’s above 50% of it’s hit points, and “the beast has blood on its limbs and is showing signs of fatigue” when it gets down to around 25% of remaining damage. When it’s nearly dead, I’ll say something like, “The manticore has many visible wounds, is breathing hard, and seems to be close to death.”

A monster’s armor class is never disclosed but the party can often do the math to glean the target number after several hits or misses in their attack rolls.

Sometimes a successful hit according to the d20 still doesn’t hit or doesn’t do the full damage due to the monster having some kind of immunity or resistance. The party figures this out over time, but unless they are already familiar with the monster’s characteristics, it’s not immediately obvious.

This brings up another point about monsters. I used to say, “You walk into the room and see a manticore…” Now, I describe the way the monster looks and let the party figure out what it is. Unless it’s a group of orcs or kobolds, something everyone already knows and could easily identify; in that case I just say, “You see a group of around a dozen orcs staring at you from across the room.”

Sandbox: Multiple players

I’ve really come to enjoy the sandbox style of DMing. I’ve always been a story-driven “railroad” kind of DM in the past and it’s still my nature to design campaigns in the story-centric way. I’ll leave it to you to research on your own the difference between sandbox and railroad styles of D&D gaming.

[NOTE: I prefer the term “story-driven” play style over “railroad”; I’m using the latter term here as it seems to be the currently fashionable way of describing that campaign style.]

One aspect of traditional sandbox D&D games that fascinates me is the idea of one or two DMs running a campaign with a collection of up to 50 different players participating — yes, 50! A play session is scheduled and the players that show up get to play, regardless of the make-up of the party from previous sessions.

The DM must keep track of what happens in their sandbox milieu, which monsters are slain and treasure recovered, etc. The players go about their business and if today’s group happens to wander into a dungeon that was cleared out by another group of players the week before, they find bodies of slain monsters (or characters!) being eaten by rats and opened chests devoid of treasure.

I think this method of play has a lot of advantages but it puts a bit of a burden on the DM (or DM’s) to accurately and thoroughly track what transpires during each session.

Railroading: aka The Story-Driven Campaign Style

As mentioned previously, I’ve historically been a railroad or ‘story-driven’ DM. I would create detailed settings with elaborate notes about what is were, what’s happening behind the scenes, and carefully choreographed encounters designed to ensure my plot unfolds like a brilliantly written story.

This has been fun and well-appreciated throughout my DM career, but one particular event in a particular campaign a few years ago made me realize the potential pitfalls with running a railroad campaign.

I had things carefully and thoughtfully planned out, but the party made a choice — with full knowledge of the consequences — that completely derailed the campaign’s planned trajectory. It ended the entire campaign halfway through and some players even left the game entirely.

I was not only frustrated, I was furious. This took place roughly halfway through a rather long and thoroughly planned campaign, which meant that 50% of my hard work just got flushed down the drain — and the party did it by choice, knowing this would be the result.

They didn’t do this specifically in rebellion to my play style. They explained their rationale, and it had nothing to do with whether it was a sandbox or railroad type of campaign.

Ultimately, they wanted to maintain their sense of agency even though it ended the campaign’s plot. I’ve since learned to value player agency far more than I ever used to.

But, if this had been a sandbox style game, it wouldn’t have mattered. The party’s choice would have been handled just like any other and play would have continued, just in a new and equally valid direction.

When this happened, I had never heard of the sandbox style of game play. I’ve since grown to love and embrace sandboxed games and, thinking back, recognize just how powerful and useful it would have been in that situation.

I still could have had my “grand plan” in place, ready for the players to discover. But it would have been designed in a way where that discovery wasn’t a requirement. It was simply there, ready to be found. I have also learned I don’t need to prepare things to nearly the same degree of detail as before.

I have calculated that in my story-style DMing days, I spent an average of 15-20 hours of preparation for every hour of actual game play. I loved every minute of it, but that’s not sustainable. Sandboxing still allows me an adequate amount of creative time to come up with settings and the beasts and traps and tricks and other fun things that inhabit it — something I enjoy doing — but I spend less than half the amount of time doing it. And the players are having a great time with all the sense of agency they could ever want.

World War II Espionage RPG: Ashes of Isar

Ashes of Isar, cover

In November, 2019, I began work on a new role-playing game based on World War II espionage. I had read Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton and was inspired to create a game based on the Allies effort to sabotage Nazi Germany’s war machine in general, and England’s Special Operations Executive specifically.

I’ve played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons in my day, first with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons created by Gary Gygax and sold by TSR, Inc. in the late 70s, and more recently with the 5th Edition rules by Wizards of the Coast, LLC. Other RPG’s I’ve played have included G.U.R.P.S. by Steve Jackson and several others. I wanted something that wasn’t as rules-heavy as D&D, yet still allowed players to take on characters of their choosing and fight bad guys.

I figured the genre and milieu of espionage during World War II, located in western Europe in particular, was a rich environment for role-playing action. The stakes were very high for spies during that time, with capture and execution a likely result of their brave actions. The rewards for successful missions, however, had an outsized positive impact on the war effort against the Axis powers.

I came up with a skills-based experience system that rewards agents with improved abilities based on experience and training, just like in real life. This is in contrast to games like D&D where the entire character rises in level based on overall experience earned. I added an element of luck to the game as well to represent the way real life can sometimes go your way without any apparent cause, and can sometimes go the wrong way despite your best efforts.

After working on the game throughout the year, it has reached a point where I felt it was ready for release to the public. Players can create their own missions, too. I may create a marketplace down the road where players can sell their missions for a small commission.

Details about the game and various downloads can be found at my Ashes of Isar page.

I encourage you to check it out as well as a beginner’s mission, Operation Virgin Snow, and try out the game with your friends. Let me know what you think. I hope you enjoy it.

By the way, if you’re curious about the name, Germany’s River Isar is a special location in post-World War II history. When Nazi war criminals were caught, convicted and executed, they cremated several of them and spread their ashes in the River Isar to keep their followers from having a grave site or memorial to commemorate their evil. You can learn more here.

Fantasy Adventure Ideas and Inspiration

Fantasy adventurers

Sometimes Dungeon Masters need a little inspiration when creating one-shot sessions, or even multi-session campaigns. There are classic tropes and their variations that can be relied upon for ideas, they just need a new twist to make them interesting.

Other times you want something truly unique. Taking ideas from other sources and spinning them on their heads can help.

Here are some ideas to help spark your creativity. You can use these directly, modify them slightly to suit your tastes and the party’s situation, or make a 90 degree turn and go somewhere entirely new. It’s up to you!

Rescue! One of the most common and old-school themes in fantasy adventuring is the rescue. The king’s daughter has been captured by foul enemies. The party is hired to infiltrate the baddie’s lair, find the princess, and get her out alive.

Twist: One of the party’s own has been captured and their comrades must rescue them.

Exploration. Some ruins have been discovered and the party explores it, either for their own effort to seek treasure, or because they’ve been hired by a powerful NPC to survey and map the situation. The location is where your creativity can really shine; make it someplace unusual, such as a mysterious keep or monastery that appears overnight, or a large abandoned ship that has washed ashore.

Twist: The party must explore a location with a time limit, because a prophecy or some other clue indicates it will disappear at a particular time in the near future.

Escape. One of the most exciting, challenging — and common — adventure ideas entails the party finding themselves held captive without weapons or armor deep inside an unknown dungeon. They must escape their bounds, find their gear, and escape. The reason for their capture can be any number of things: they passed out at an inn and woke up in shackles (perhaps they were shanghaied and found themselves bound on board a pirate ship); they were infiltrating a Big Bad Evil Guy’s lair and were captured, etc.

Twist: An NPC in their party betrayed them and handed them over to the party’s enemy. Not only must they escape capture, but they also seek revenge against their betrayer.

Destruction of Evil. This may be the most common adventure trope yet, the destruction of an evil altar or temple. Don’t sell the idea short; it is used so often because of its versatility and applicability to the fantasy genre. The source of evil can have any number of variations, such as a competing religious sect or a group of monsters that must be destroyed or driven out of an area. If it’s a place to be destroyed, it can be a variety of things, such as an altar, an entire temple, or a single artifact. The thing to be destroyed can, of course, be a person or particular monster.

Twist: For a longer, more challenging campaign, the evil can be a Thieves or Assassins guild that must be infiltrated from within. To put a spin on the more classic idea, the party must identify the source or location of evil first before they attempt to destroy it — or the source of evil keeps moving (a temple that magically changes location every week, etc.)

There be Dragons! Dragons are arguably the most iconic monster in fantasy adventure games. Ridding a village of a marauding dragon is a tried and true adventure hook. But don’t be afraid to throw some new angle on it. Perhaps the dragon is actually of good ilk but has been possessed by a demon. Does the party kill the dragon outright, or try to exorcise its evil host thus saving the dragon’s life (who doesn’t want a grateful dragon on their side)? Sometimes the party must subdue or capture a dragon, but what if their intent is to retrieve dragon eggs or younglings without engaging the parent in combat (who would most likely wipe them out if confronted directly)?

Twist: In one campaign, my party emerged from a short adventure inside an evil temple to discover a green dragon and a black dragon of relatively equal strength fighting each other in the air above them. I allowed the party to take on the two dragons and role-play the battle. Once that dragon duel was resolved and only one dragon remained, the party then had to fight the wounded and weakened beast that remained (as their main characters). Another idea is for the party to discover a dragon in a compromising position, such as a wyrm in chains or weakened because of a prior battle. Another variation is for the party to meet an intelligent, speaking dragon and convince it to do something against its nature.

Gather Ye Weapons. Like the Marvel Universe story line, the party must gather a particular set of artifacts, each with its own set of challenges, to create a new weapon that is used to counter some Big Bad Evil. A complication you can add to this is some evil person or group is also seeking the artifacts, motivating the party to act quickly to get them first. The classic AD&D module, White Plume Mountain, is a great example of this adventure type.

Twist: The party must replace a heavily guarded item or weapon with a fake without being detected. Or, the party is hired by a powerful NPC to retrieve an item, but along the way they discover their benefactor intends to use the item for evil, so they find a way to thwart the NPC instead.

Out There Ideas

These ideas deviate dramatically from the common tropes and themes listed above. One of the best things about fantasy table-top role-playing games — or any genre, really — is the fun is limited only by your imagination. Sometimes it’s fun to let your imagination run wild.

Some of these ideas are straightforward, while others are truly ‘out there.’

Infection. The party has been infected by a curse that will turn them into vampires within a fixed number of days. They must retrieve a magic item or reagent used for a potion to effect a cure.

Post-Death. The party has been slain and they find themselves in the land of the dead. Magic works very differently, or not at all, and many other things are turned on their heads. They must achieve some goal in order to return themselves to the living.

The Circus. The party has been captured by a low-level demon and placed in a zoo or circus on one of the planes of the Abyss. They must escape and return to the prime material plane.

Run Away! By chance, the party finds themselves face to face with a group of monsters in the wilderness that is substantially more powerful than themselves. They must flee enemy territory and survive long enough to cross a border or land feature such as a river or mountain range without being killed or captured.

Another Body. Because of a freak magical accident, the party finds themselves inhabiting the bodies of hobgoblin soldiers in a war party’s camp preparing to attack a nearby keep. The party learns a powerful human cleric inside the keep has the ability to exorcise them and restore them to their original bodies. They must reach the cleric, explain their true identities, and convince the priest to help them before they all get killed in the attack.

What type of D&D gamer are you?

1st Edition Players Handbook
1st Edition Players Handbook

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons has been around since the late 1970s (with previous forerunning versions dating back to the early 70s). I began playing in the spring of 1980. In fact, the very first game I ever played was on a camping trip in May 1980, right as Mt. St. Helens was erupting just 60 miles to the north. I was playing a dwarven fighter with an axe, and there was an orc standing in my way.

Thinking back to the decades I’ve been playing the game, I’ve met a lot of wonderful people with whom I’ve had the joy of sharing a gaming table. Over time, I’ve recognized there can be certain characteristics common among some players, so I am making a lighthearted and humorous attempt at describing them.

What type of D&D gamer are you?

The Highlander

“There can be only one!” Stuck on a particular version of D&D (1e, 2nd edition, 5e, etc.) and absolutely refuses to play any other edition. Probably more common with earlier editions than newer ones.

The Grognard

It’s gotta be old school 1st edition or nothing at all. A variation of The Highlander in that they are particular to just one edition, but that edition must be old. There’s a 99% chance the Grognard is a middle-aged white guy with a beard who first played D&D in middle school somewhere between 1978 and 1981.

The Collector

They’re more about the stuff than the game, and have rows and rows of sagging bookshelves to prove it. If it exists, it is their quest to possess it. They’ll own three different copies of The Village of Hommlet, at least two of which are in plastic, but have never actually run the module as a DM or played it as a player.

The Pan-gamer

They’ll play any RPG regardless of brand, genre, or style. They approach The Collector status in that they’ll be the first to purchase core rule books for every game that comes out the day it hits the market, but unlike a Collector, for them it’s more about the acquisition than the possession (once they get it, they move onto the next squirrel, I mean game, that comes out).

The Poser

They talk about gaming and are quick to refer to themselves as a gamer in their copious posts to social media. They wear all the coolest branded t-shirts and hoodies and have lots of pristine-looking D&D merch stylishly placed and overtly visible on the LED-lit shelving behind them in their numerous YouTube videos. But could they tell you the difference between a 1st edition and 5th edition dragon? Not if their life depended on it.

The Funkmaster

They love the game, every book and folio they own is legitimately and genuinely dog-eared and worn down, their dice have been rolled more times than Jenna Jameson, and they can quote rules and stats and game errata like a walking encyclopedia, but the one thing they possess more than anything else is body odor that would give a starving gnoll the dry heaves.

There are no doubt other gamer types, and some folks are blends of several. Over all, despite these tongue-in-cheek and well-meaning classifications, D&D gamers can be some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, some of whom can become life-long friends.

The Traveling Muse

Solo motorcycle travel has been a part of my life since 2007. I began writing my first fantasy novel in 2011-ish and published it in 2013. (I’ve been writing fiction since I was in junior high school.) The overlap of these two activities is not coincidental. Travel, especially solo, has always been an inspirational activity to me, even as a kid.

Seeing new scenery, from the topography and way the land flows up and down and along rivers and shorelines, to the flora of an area be it sparse and blanched or lush and green, to even the weather as it changes as you crest a hill or as the sun rises or sets, has been a constant source of creative thoughts and ideas.

I can look at a wooded hillside and imagine a troupe of orcs living in a cave amidst the trees, or I can see in my mind’s eye a dragon perched atop a rocky vista surveying its hunting grounds. Hiking trails inspire thoughts of a fierce battle to the death between a man and the beast that pounced upon him from behind a tree.

If you read my books, you may notice that weather and terrain get a little extra descriptive boost amidst the text. The lay of the land and the foliage as well as the skies above are almost another character unto themselves, playing out their impact on the activities — or even survival — of my characters.

It’s surprising that when I travel and meet new people, they have a minimal impact on my creative muse. Sometimes I’ll hear a line of dialogue between people sitting near me in a small town cafe, or I’ll catch a glimpse of someone’s face as they struggle through a personal trial or endeavor. Or occasionally a stranger-that-becomes-a-friend lends inspiration in the unusual spelling of their name.

People rarely inspire me, though, but the places I go and see when I travel never fail to juice my muse to new heights.

Take a look at this photo of an abandoned church I took during a recent road trip. What does it inspire in you? Who utilizes that structure in your creative mind? What role does it play in your story’s possible evolution?

Motorcycle Trip Journals

Motorcycle trip journals
Motorcycle trip journals

There’s a saying that if you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen. I think that maxim was created by astronomers, but it’s likely someone came up with the idea long before scientists started looking at the stars.

In my case, I began carrying a journal on my first motorcycle trip back in February 2007. I took it along on a solo weekend trip to visit my sister. The inspiration for journaling my motorcycle adventures came from reading Neil Peart’s autobiography, Ghost Rider.

It’s amazing how much comes back to me when reading over my old journal entries. I can recall the scenery, people I met, places I ate, things I saw, even smells. Sometimes I can even recall the song I was listening to in my earphones as I went around a particular curve on a specific trip.

I no longer own a motorcycle and have stopped riding as a result. Although I don’t regret getting out of motorcycling, I still miss it. I get a lot of enjoyment thinking of the memories of the many roads I’ve traveled and adventures I survived.

Motorcycling isn’t for everyone, but many people enjoy various forms of travel, whether it be on foot along a local hiking trail, or via jet plane or sailing vessel to distant lands across continents or oceans. I suggest to those who do like to travel to get into the habit of journaling their adventures. A handwritten notebook is subjectively ideal. Don’t rely on just the photos you take with a cell phone. Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but a few hundred — or even a few dozen — words can convey far more than a photo viewed out of context at a later date ever could.

Zwift and Indoor Cycling

Zwifting with Wahoo KICKR Core
Zwifting with Wahoo KICKR Core, Domane AL 5 (attached); Domane AL 4 (wall rack)

During the winter months, it’s unpleasant to ride my bicycle outdoors. 38 degrees and raining is non-fun, despite having outdoor cycling gear. To maintain the fitness gains I’ve made over the summer, I recently set up a Wahoo KICKR Core smart trainer and a Zwift account. This allows me to ride my own bike (Trek Domane AL 5), which has been custom fitted to me, in the comfort of my own home and out of the weather.

I used to have a spin bike but sold that on craigslist. It worked, but wasn’t fitted, wasn’t very adjustable, and was just an unpleasant experience.

This new system is very slick and seems to efficiently mimic the workout I get riding outside with some added benefits. It is more intense than the Springwater Trail (an old railroad grade converted into a paved walking and cycling path) but not quite as intense as the local hills (everywhere you go in my town is uphill both ways).

The system works like this:

  1. Remove your back wheel and place the frame on the Wahoo KICKR Core, draping the chain over the sprocket cassette (sold separately).
  2. Load the Zwift app on a laptop and connect it to a TV for larger viewing.
  3. Turn on a fan, select a route, and start pedaling.

The Wahoo dynamically changes the resistance based on the simulated riding conditions in Zwift. If I’m climbing up a hill in Zwift’s virtual world, the Wahoo is harder to pedal. Going downhill, it gets easier … you get the point. Since I’m using my own bike, the ergonomics is 100% fitted to my body and parameters.

When starting Zwift, you can choose which route you want to ride. These give you a huge variety of challenge levels, based on distance and elevation change. Once the ride starts, you can dynamically choose to take different routes as you pedal along. It’s very slick.

Many other people from around the world are pedaling in your virtual Zwift world (called ‘Watopia’) with you. I have found that I am pedaling harder because of a weird sense of competition and of being watched. If someone is pedaling behind me, Zwift tells me how many meters and seconds they are trailing behind. I can see that gap close, and it makes me want to ride faster — I don’t want someone passing me.

Apparently you can organize group rides with friends and ride together within Watopia.

I like this competitive aspect of Zwift and feel that I am getting a better cycling workout because of it. I also like the route variety, as it sends me up and down hills that I don’t experience when riding the trail. That variety keeps it from getting boring, too.

The hills near my home are somewhat brutal. They aren’t overly long but they are very steep, some well above 10% grade, and there is no shoulder. In Zwift, I’m not going to get sent to the ICU by a soccer mom checking her Facebook status on her smart phone as she plows into me at 45 mph. That’s a huge benefit.

The downside?

None, if you own one bike or all your bikes use the same speed rear cassette. But, my wife has a bike, too (Domane AL 4), and unfortunately the rear cassette on her bike (10 speed) is different than mine (11 speed). This means every time one of us wants to ride on Zwift, we have to change sprocket cassettes on the Wahoo. This is not a quick process. It takes about 8-10 minutes to do a full swap out (remove one cassette and install another). Once the correct cassette is on the Wahoo, it only takes about 60 seconds to mount the bike and cinch it down (we already have the back wheels removed and set aside).

Granted, this takes less time than to put the rack on the back of our car, mount the bikes to the rack, and drive to the trailhead for an outdoor ride.

When we asked the bike shop people what they recommended to overcome this hassle, they all said, “Get a second Wahoo.”

We were able to purchase our Wahoo KICKR Core at our local Trek bike shop ($899) and the two sprocket cassettes, one for each bike. Those kind of components are in short supply right now, however, so you may have to shop around and get one on the internet. Zwift costs $14.99 per month per person.

And, of course, you need a decent laptop. I tried to run Zwift on a 2015 Macbook Air with an i5 processor and 4 GB of RAM. Nope. I had to use my 2016 Macbook Pro with an i7 and 16 GB of RAM (you can use Windows if that’s your thing). Oh, and you need a stand of some kind for the laptop to put it within reach as you pedal. I got one that looks similar to a music stand from Amazon for about $35.

Oh, and don’t forget a powerful fan. You’ll sweat. A lot.

Time Keeps On Slippin’ Slippin’

Writing in a notebook
Writing in a notebook

Do you have Steve Miller stuck in your head now? Sorry.

I look at the calendar and see that it’s October 14th and feel blown away by how quickly the last two months have gone by. I think September only had 17 days in it.

Since August I have spent most afternoons practicing guitar, keyboard, bass and drums. I’m learning all four instruments with the goal of writing music inspired by my first novel, Ohlen’s Arrow. That is going well but except for savants, learning to play and compose music is not an overnight endeavor. I’ve played all these instruments in the past, so fortunately I’m not starting from ground zero, but I still have a long way to go.

I’ve also been thinking about continuing my Taesia series of novels. The next step would be to write book 5. I already have the bulk of the plot figured out, but haven’t formally nailed down the outline. An avid reader of mine recently shared their view that I really need to keep writing and continue the story. We’ll see.

Currently I’m reading Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy. Although it’s a real page turner, I’m struck by how expository Clancy is. The old maxim, “Show me, don’t tell me” is one Clancy apparently never heard. Unlike popular belief, rules are not made to be broken but you certainly can if you know about them and have a good reason. In Clancy’s case, this book wouldn’t work without all the ‘tell me’ expository text.

In the cycling part of my life, I recently purchased a Wahoo KICKR Core smart trainer. I previously had a traditional spin bike but sold it as it was uncomfortable and had very poor ergonomics. The smart trainer will be hooked up to Zwift for a virtual riding experience. I may write a review after I’ve used it a bit. It will be nice to train on my own bike (Trek Domane AL5) rather than a rigid and poor substitution like a spin bike.

The Sound of Music

Alesis Strike Pro SE
Alesis Strike Pro SE electronic drum kit

Ever since I was a little kid and saw Animal on The Muppet Show, I’ve wanted to play drums. I tried to get a slot as a drummer in school band when I was in grade school and middle school, but we already had two drummers on the squad and the band teacher insisted I play trombone instead.

Jump ahead to my late 20s and early 30s. I bought an inexpensive electronic kit (Roland TD-7) and messed around with recording a few songs on my PC. I even played drums in a Creed cover band in 2001. It was fun to experiment with the drums as well as electric guitar, another instrument I’ve dabbled in since my 20s. For a while I had an Alesis QS6 synthesizer and used that in my recording.

I eventually sold the TD-7 and upgraded to an acoustic drum set — I’d use that to wake up the neighbors every afternoon. For personal reasons (divorce), I got rid of all my music gear in 2014.

Jump ahead to today (August 2021). The music bug is back in my brain (it never left, it’s just been suppressed) so I sold my motorcycle and used the money to get a new suite of gear. I’ve reconfigured my home office to be a combination work area and music studio.

So far my gear includes:

  • Alesis Strike Pro SE electronic drum set
  • Epiphone Les Paul Vintage Edition electric guitar
  • Ibanez Gio GSR200PW bass guitar
  • Luna Henna Oasis acoustic-electric guitar
  • M-Audio Oxygen 61 MKV MIDI keyboard controller

All of this is connected to a Macbook Pro running GarageBand via a Presonus Audiobox 2×2 USB96 audio interface. I use a Mackie 1202 VLZ3 mixer to connect the instruments in one place (the guitars are connected to Digitech multi-effects pedals).

Although I’ve played guitar, drums and keyboards in the past, I’m very rusty so I’m spending the next few months building up my basic skills and competencies. I also intend to study music theory and may even learn to read music.

My long-term goal is to compose a series of songs that are inspired by my first novel, Ohlen’s Arrow. The finished works would function like a soundtrack to my book. We’ll see how that goes.