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Role-playing Games and Me in 2019

One major aspect of my life that I neglected to mention in my round-up for the last year/decade was how much time I now spend playing role-playing games with my friends.

Since my neighbor taught me to play basic Dungeons & Dragons in first grade, I’ve been hooked on RPGs. Here and there in my life, I’ve gone long stretches without playing, and truthfully, I never felt completely myself in those periods. I got a lot of writing done, but writing fiction never quite satisfied me like Dungeon Mastering a great game with great people. It’s like writing, but with immediate feedback! It’s impossible to beat telling thrilling stories with great friends, and recently, I found my way back into the hobby in a big way.

(Quick aside – I’m not mentioning the names of my fifteen players to protect their privacy, but they should all know that I love them very much and enjoy torturing them monthly).

Two years ago, I launched my first online D&D game via the Roll20 service and video conferencing software (we currently use Whereby.com for that and it works mostly well). I recruited fellow fathers who I thought would understand the trials and tribulations of having kids muck up your schedule. I figured scheduling would be difficult, as it’s always been the biggest challenge with in-person tabletop games. As it turns out, if you start your games in the evenings and nobody has to leave their home, scheduling is much easier! Our “Tomb of Dads” group (so called because we started with the Tomb of Annihilation adventure) is well into our second campaign now. This new campaign is based on ideas I developed from our trip to France in 2018, and involves a fallen, forgotten empire in ruins and a new, strong Catholic-like church/empire.

With that group going so well, I thought hey, I want to get another group going, and it’d be a good idea if it wasn’t a total sausage fest. For that one, I pulled together a group of friends from college, including my wife and another female classmate. We recently wrapped up that first campaign about stopping a planes-eating giant machine and have been playing some one-shots in Tales From the Loop while we think about what campaign we want to play next. We’re absolutely adoring Tales as a great 80s-themed “kids on bikes” style game with weird high tech mysteries, all based on and inspired by the fantastic artwork of Simon Stålenhag. Simon is one of my favorite artists working today.

In 2019, I started a third group, with this one made up mostly of friends from the writing community. We decided to play the Dragon Heist module, and it has provided the ongoing framework for an campaign now that we’ve completed it. That crew takes owning the Trollskull Tavern very seriously and so far, all of their adventures seem to revolve around the tavern and tavern-related activities.

Each group is very different from the others in terms of personalities and play styles, so I really get to stretch my planning and plotting skills for them. Some take the “game” part more seriously, and some take the “role-play” part more seriously. I’m always looking forward to each session, and having so many means I can experiment with various ideas about how I can improve my GMing skills.

In between games, I experiment with new characters voices, new narrative techniques, and I’ve started tinkering with the rules to try to get the game more the way I want it to play. One change for me is that I’ve learned to let go of worrying about “game balance” and to feel comfortable in my own ability to work around whatever weird thing the players want to play. If the PCs want powerful characters, they have powerful enemies. No big deal, really. I used to worry about throwing off game balance all the time, but I’ve grown a lot more confident with so many opportunities to play. I used to be a “No” DM, but now I see myself more of a “Yes, and” DM.

Finally, late in the year, this Forever-DM got the opportunity to play in a regular game of Invisible Sun with a bunch of the Monte Cook Games folks in Kansas City. It’s refreshing to get to play again, and I love observing other GMs so I can steal their ideas for how to run a great game. I should probably look for more opportunities to play so I can continue to get more ideas for growth!

As far as feelings of contentment go, I think all this game time has contributed to my feelings of a full, rich life. I look forward to a lot more of it in 2020, and I’ll probably be blogging regularly as I work out my thoughts about how to keep improving my skills in this area. It’s a hobby, but one that I really enjoy being somewhat good at. Later, I will also blog about all my 3D printing efforts aimed at building a really lush tabletop experience.

So what about you? Are you getting to roll those bones regularly? Let’s hear about it in the comments.

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Ending a Decade with Gratitude

I end the 2010s in my early 40s with a newfound gratitude and contentment for my life. Sometimes that gratitude slips, yes. I learned recently that gratitude and contentment isn’t something you feel passively as a result of doing other things; it’s something that you must actively pursue. That was an important lesson for me. I wasn’t going to be satisfied with my life and what I had unless I wanted to be satisfied, and my twenties and thirties, I did not want to be satisfied. I was hungry for recognition, to be seen. By who? For what? Who the hell knows. It was an emptiness that only grew as I achieved some of what I thought I wanted, and found that it wasn’t fulfilling in the way that I had hoped.

Getting what I wanted didn’t bring contentment! What the hell? At first I thought maybe that meant I just didn’t know what I really wanted, so I spent some time trying to figure out what it was that I wanted, changed things up. Still I didn’t feel satisfied.

Feeling truly satisfied only came when I learned to feel a deeper appreciation for that which I already had. Acquiring new possessions and accomplishments weren’t the things that gave me that feeling I was craving; it was just actively practicing appreciation for my friends, family, and place in life. Looking at things with clear eyes, and realizing how wonderfully I had it–that did the trick. I wish I could have come to this realization earlier in my life, because feeling contentment like this would have saved me a lot of anxiety and stress earlier. But I just wasn’t ready.

The other thing that happened in the past decade is that I became a father. For most of my life, it wasn’t ever something I seriously considered. I think that overpopulation is a big threat to the ecosystems of the planet, and so since I was a teenager, I believed I would not have kids so as not to contribute to the problem. It was only through considering how great of a mother Sarah would be that I started to see how much I would miss out on if we didn’t have a child. We talked and talked about it and finally decided that we were likely ready for it, and our whole worlds changed. I honestly can hardly remember what my day-to-day life was like without the kid. And having Matty in my life has brought no small amount of contentment, love, and joy. So much joy, I never even expected!

I think my favorite thing about being a Dad is experiencing his joy through him. Watching him encounter and fall in love with things makes my heart ache with love for him and the world.

All that said, I know I’m not the best Dad. I have too much of a disciplinarian streak that comes from my own upbringing (I hear my own father’s words coming out of my mouth more than I would like), but I try to have patience and provide him everything he needs. I don’t work hard enough to be a role model for him, and I want to do better. I’m confident that I will learn to do better with time. He’s our first kid, and we’re his first parents. Nobody has a road map in this situation, really.

Next, I turn to the appreciation I have in my professional life. I’ve spent a decade building Clockpunk Studios out of thin air, but I didn’t do it alone–not even close. So many friends lended me their work and their recommendations even when I probably didn’t deserve it. My early clients are like extended family to me. When J.A. Pitts passed away unexpectedly this year, it was like losing a sibling. He and Jay Lake were two of the first writers to hire me to build them sites. Over the decade, I’ve welcomed nearly a hundred different clients into the fold at Clockpunk, and I hope to welcome a few hundred more. A decade in, and I feel like I’m just getting started, and finally comfortable in what I do.

I should mention that I don’t think I would have survived the decade at Clockpunk without the assistance of several people who have worked for me or with me in some capacity. Molly Tanzer stuck it out with me even after her writing career started to take off, and put up with my constant fears and anxieties in the early days. Orrin Grey came on board next and did a fantastic job writing some of the best blog content we’ve posted and I hope to get him back soon for that. Now I have Jenn Reese working as a regular designer, and she is saving my life, you guys. Her work is so beautiful and warm and I never get tired of seeing what she’s going to do next for our clients.

These people all mean the world to me, and I’m so grateful that they are my friends. Also, heading into 2020, Sarah will be doing more and more work for Clockpunk as an admin assistant. We are concocting all sorts of interesting ideas on what she can do to help our clients.

In its first decade, Clockpunk has grown so much. I am starting 2020 with projects booked all the way until May, which is the farthest I believe I’ve ever been booked out in a January. Again? Nothing but gratitude for this. I can’t even express how much.

As a writer, well, not to end on a sour note, but the break continues. That said, I started the decade only just beginning to make sales and end it having sold stories to nearly every major market I had set my eyes upon. I will admit that I put a single little writing goal on my goals for 2020. Maybe to write just one little story, just to grease the wheels and see what happens. Who knows! I’m excited to discover what happens in 2020 for me in that regard.

I still have a lot of personal growth to do, but it is very satisfying to look back on a decade’s worth of growth, and yes even a few accomplishments. I don’t feel like I’m done; in fact, I feel like I’ve just about finished stretching and am now ready for the real jogging to begin. The only thing I can be certain of right now is that no matter what happens, I will continue doing my best to practice gratitude for what I have. I am not a religious person, but I stand here, looking out at 2020 stretching ahead, and I feel so very blessed.

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It’s a new year! Time to bring back blogging.

Do you remember what the internet was like before Facebook and Twitter ruined changed it? I’ve been thinking a lot about it; I’ve distilled my thoughts into the following generalizations:

  • Longer form. Blogs and journals were our primary means of sharing our thoughts prior to social media, so people often took more time to develop those thoughts and opinions. Facebook and Twitter are engineered to make you post in shorter length with higher frequency. Blogging has always resembled more like the blank page in the typewriter and less like a tiny texting screen on your phone.
  • Meaningful interactions. Prior to the like button, the only way you could interact with someone else’s ideas was to post a comment. Interactions were more rare, but generally more meaningful and contributed to the discourse. Comments aren’t perfect; anyone who has ever scrolled too far on a YouTube video knows that. But comments are more meaningful than likes and reacts generally speaking.
  • More intimate. This one seems a bit paradoxical to me, but I felt like the era of blogging was more intimate that the era of social media. My thinking goes like this: before we developed a way to “live” performatively online, blogs only had journaling and diaries to draw on for a format, so the writing was more personal and raw. There was less of an emphasis on performing your life and more of an act of interrogating it. It was far riskier, but it’s almost like we didn’t know any better.
  • Less groupthink. Blogs weren’t connected to a vast network that made sharing its content 100x more rapid, so it was easier to find corner thinkers, people who came at ideas a little differently. Social media like Twitter especially moves very fast and outlier ideas very quickly are “corrected” by the mainstream through dragging and canceling. I’m not saying I want to read a bunch of racist bullshit, but the lack of nuance means some interesting ideas get strangled before they have time to be explored.

This is not exhaustive. There are definitely ways in which social media is superior to blogging (immediacy is good sometimes). You won’t see me abandoning my social media platforms despite the incessant bitching about them I’ve been known to engage in. They have their uses! But blogging has its uses too. I want to reconnect with my own ideas and my own words in my own space. I want to slow down. This is where I think I can do that best.

In 2020, I expect to blog often professionally and personally. I have some general ideas about how often that will be, but I don’t want to set up myself up for public failure. “Often” is all I will say. As always, feel free to comment below with your own thoughts. Happy New Year!

May we all get the change we deserve.

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Things I Learned in 2019

Ordinarily, this time of year, I’d be focused primarily on evaluating my goals and how I did on them. I’ll still probably do that, but I thought I’d start my end of year thinking with a positive list of a few of the things I felt I have learned this year.

  1. 50% of what I thought was my “personality” was actually anxiety. Now that I take proper medication for it, I realize that I am not the person I thought I was. I’m still learning how to be without anxiety, but on the whole, it’s a net positive.
  2. The holidays are far more fun when viewed through the eyes of children. We have a tendency as adults to get wrapped up on all the obligations and stress of the holiday. Watching my five year old navigate the holidays of the year and seeing how much joy they bring him has given me tremendous joy as well.
  3. I can be handy with tools or crafty, despite my inherent clumsiness. I just need to be patient with myself when I drop the thing for the twentieth time. In 2019, I took up 3D printing and painting game terrain and figures with gusto, and I’ve slowly improved through the year. The trick with it, as it is in so many things, is patience. I don’t think I could have learned more patience if it hadn’t been for item #1 on this list, though.
  4. I can still be a creative person even if I’m not writing. For years, my creative output has been tied up almost entirely in my writing, and when the writing spigot shut off a few years ago, I was worried about what it meant. I am still not writing but the difference is, I’m not worried about it. I’m making physical objects and running three different Dungeons & Dragons groups. I’m plenty creative. If the urge to write returns, I will write. But I am the same person whether I am writing or not.
  5. How to be confident in what I know. I’ve been a freelance web designer/developer for over ten years now, and I am finally becoming confident in myself and my skills. Maybe it’s the 10,000 hours thing, maybe it’s just old age. Either way, I trust myself to figure things out given enough time and focus.
  6. By default, our concepts of beauty are linked with our concepts of youth, and that’s something we learn to change with time. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself examining my reactions to so-called beauty and often find myself wondering “is that person beautiful, or are they just young?” Physical beauty is such a fleeting thing, and I’m starting to find my eyes opening to deeper beauties than that.
  7. People as a whole aren’t terribly bright, or even well-meaning. This is probably the one thing on the list you might take as a negative, but I think I’ve spent a good part of my life being naive about the intelligence of most people. Also, I assumed most people, given the circumstances, would do the right thing. The last three years politically have demonstrated for me that they will not. I feel a little more realistic about how I expect people as a whole to behave. This is not to say that I think I’m especially smart. I think I’ve learned that we’re all prone to a lot more manipulation than we ever thought.
  8. The new Gutenberg editor in WordPress is pretty great. I resisted the change because of backwards-compatibility issues, but ultimately, I think it’s been a big step forward for the ecosystem, and I’m glad my fears have been proven wrong. I love working with it now.
  9. I may be technically middle class, but I come from working class culture, and this has broad implications for how I relate to people and my comfort levels around others. But I’m also more educated now, and it sometimes leaves me feeling like I don’t have a cultural comfort zone anymore. Not working class. Not middle class. But thanks to a discussion on Facebook, I’ve learned that I am not alone in this feeling at all.
  10. What I do for a living is not fundamentally any different from any contractor who works with plumbing or electricity. The specifics of the technology may be different, but the generalities are shared.
  11. Sometimes it feels better to give things away than it does to keep them. I wasn’t really raised with a spirit of charity – I think it’s a solidly middle class behavior/idea, to donate and volunteer – when you’re poor, you help the other poor folks around you directly as best you can, but the idea of making donations of money isn’t something you really do, at least not to my memory. But in 2019, I spent a lot of time paring down my belongings, often giving away a lot of things to others, and it felt good. When it came time for the holidays and people asked me what I wanted, I told them that I wanted donations made in my name to Heifer International. Instead of me getting some junk I could have bought for myself, a family is getting two new goats. It’s maybe my favorite gift I’ve ever received, to be honest.

How about you? What did you learn in 2019? I focused mostly on personal discovery in this list, mostly because I didn’t have the time today to properly source all the external things I learned. But feel free in the comments to share all sorts of things you learned. Share the learning as we close out the year.

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I Trained a Neural Network With the Titles of 3,500 Horror Movies

It’s funny what kinds of things can spark you into going down a rabbit hole and losing an evening of your time to some creative concept. The following conversation inspired me to finally learn something I’ve been meaning to do for ages.

Steve: First up on my Shudder playlist is Prince of Darkness, Sennentuntschi, The Old Dark House, VIY, The Changeling, The Beyond, Monster Party, Revenge, Phantasm Ravager.

Jeremy: You are just making those names up!

Jeremy: I kind of want to train a neural net to make horror movie titles now.

It turns out that with a little minor programming knowledge and some general technical know-how, you can build a neural network and train it off of text pretty easily. This Lifehacker article got me started. I got textgenrnn installed and up and running pretty easily, but the hardest part was figuring out how I was going to build my database of titles.

Luckily, the hard-working people behind Wikipedia had collated tables of movie titles throughout the decades. Copying and pasting a single column of an HTML table isn’t easily accomplished, except I found a Chrome extension that made it simple. From that, I began the laborous process of going through each year and decade and about an hour later, I had 3,500 horror movie titles to serve as grist for my neural mill. I just used all the titles from the 1940s onward that were in Wikipedia. I imagine there are many missing from my dataset, but it seemed large enough to work from.

I trained it on 10 epochs and played around with a temperature score from .5 to 1.0 (anything higher than 1.0 resulted in complete nonsense, and oddly, the rare actual title). Some of the results were awesome. Some were funny. Anyway, enough about methodology. You want to see some of the titles! Here are some of my favorites out of about 110 that I kept.

Top Ten Cool/Want to Actually See Or Possiblly Write

  • Nervosis
  • Cat Mantis!
  • Primal in the Red Wicks
  • A Vampire’s Dead on Elsion
  • Stigmatary
  • Or, Vampire for the World of Grave
  • The Nine Shelley
  • Eat the Night
  • The Chainsaw Mentor
  • Creep Baseball

Top Ten Funny (Or At Least They Made Me Laugh)

  • The Terror of Part II: The Dead Row
  • Lake Bad Haunted Hunter
  • Serial Sister
  • Stard vs. Piss
  • The Night Babes from Maris
  • Shark 2
  • Hot Ransomer
  • Don’t Comb Your Soul
  • Lips from the Wizard
  • Pirhana 33DD (I spit out my soda when I saw this one)

Some of these, for all I know, may be actual titles, but I tried to check them against my master list.

Which ones are your favorites?

Photo by Pelly Benassi on Unsplash

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Now Available To Boss Around on Patreon

Because Patreon’s deal is about to get much less friendly for creators, I decided to go ahead and pull the trigger on activating my own Patreon page, which I have been toying with for about two years now. I probably don’t have the fanbase necessary to earn pro-rates for writing fiction and releasing it there, but I consider it mostly another tool in the toolbox to building a career, rather than a replacement for that kinds of on-spec writing we SF/F short fiction writers do generally. I’m never going to get rich writing fiction, and that’s great! I can finally focus on writing exactly the off-kilter stuff that I really want.

The tiers are really just a first pass effort, so if you have suggestions, feel free to share them.

I guess this means I’m going to start writing again! If that sounds like a good thing, maybe consider joining up?

You can find my Patreon page here.

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Life Cycle of the Common Parking Lot Sandberg

When I was a boy, I loved the archipelagos that formed in parking lots towards the end of winter and the dawn of spring. Murky, sand-drenched snow-islands accreted around every lamp post, existing in defiance of air temperatures thanks to their composition of half grit, half ice.

They seemed towering, ephemeral Everests that demanded conquering. Often my siblings and I would try to climb them to the chagrin of my parents who only wanted us to get in the damned car so they could get home after a long day.

As spring bounded on each year, the islands wore ever downward, the warming tide against their shores, until nothing remained but a sea of asphalt left pocked by potholes. But for a brief few weeks, there they dwelled in the K-Mart lot, a temporary geography ripe for imagination, calling to be explored and to be dreamed larger than they really were.

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Nature Walk Photos, December 21, 2018

I’m learning so much more about birds lately.

The birds I was most interested in growing up were birds of prey, and that carried into when I took up photography last time. Part of this is that they’re large enough that you don’t need a very long lens to capture them. Thanks to the new camera and lens, I’m able to get much better photos than before. Many of these are cropped to some degree to get a good composition, but still – I’m seeing them much closer than ever before, and so smaller birds are easier to chase.

Because of that, I’ve been looking them up in bird identification guides. Birds with names I recognize, but couldn’t name at sight are suddenly so much more familiar to me now that I’ve had time to photograph them.

Today, I saw house finches, carolina wrens, cedar waxwings, a female downy woodpecker, and a few more things that I didn’t manage to capture quite yet. In particular, blue jays are proving to be real bastards. They make a racket when they see me, scaring off all the other birds, and they don’t like to come out into the open enough for me to get a good shot. I will take great satisfaction from finally capturing a decent photo of a jay.

(more…)

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