Sunday, July 25, 2021

This Google Doodle is freaking awesome

 So I'm starting to write this post on Friday evening, and the week at work was a bit stressful this time around, so you could probably put one of those apps designed to entertain cats in front of me, and it would do the trick in helping my mind drift away for a while.  But...I'm pretty sure there's something special about the current Google Doodle.  It's an entire mini-retro-RPG themed around a series of sporting events on Doodle Champion Island (celebrating the Tokyo Olympics, of course).  There's exploration, quests, teams, cute anthro characters, music in a classic style, anime interludes, and (perhaps most entertaining of it all) minigames like synchronized swimming (a rhythm game) and rugby (vs. ogres on Oni Island).  All with a 16-bit look.

Heading toward the recruitment site...

As of late into Saturday night, I have probably accomplished less than I meant to at this point in the weekend thanks to this game.  But...it actually feels like time pretty well spent.  Not that my stamp of approval means much to the tech monolith, but nicely done, Google.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Agents of the CROwN

This is an article that originally ran in the OSR fanzine Fight On! back in 2014.  As my mind has lately been meandering around a campaign set up like this -- and I've learned I'm not the only one interested in this style of adventure -- I wanted to post it here to get it out in the wild again.  Thanks to the inimitable Kelvin Green for the artwork!  Be sure to check out Fight On!'s stuff for sale HERE and especially Kelvin's still-rocking blog HERE.


The CROwN

On September 23, 1999, NASA lost the Mars Climate Orbiter. In a calculation error that has since become known as the “metric mixup,” the craft approached the red planet from a dangerous angle and disintegrated in seconds.

That's the story we heard, anyway. In fact, that's the story that NASA believed. Until a few months later...on Christmas morning, when technicians lucky enough to work the holiday at Cape Canaveral arrived to find a rather unexpected gift in Hangar AC – the orbiter, in pristine condition. Pristine except for one major alteration: The craft had been gutted of most of its scientific instruments. In their place stood what appeared to be a large, golden music box. The orbiter was carefully transferred to an underground lab, and its reappearance was wiped from NASA records.

It took many months of serious examination before scientists felt it was safe to wind the box. They started the music on the morning of August 21, 2001. Its ethereal harmonies resonated through the hallways of the laboratory as the massive golden cylinder turned...and turned...and turned. It soon became clear that the music box was powered by more than our usual physical laws. What's more, each time the cylinder completed a revolution, when the tune should have repeated itself, new patterns appeared to take the music into entirely new realms.

On May 28, 2006, researchers finally had a breakthrough. The songs were more than music; they were a code. And they told stories. Stories of magical lands filled with creatures from myths, from faery tales, and from nightmares. There were tales of knights and dragons, of war and exploration, of death and treasure. And most importantly, there were stories of outsiders venturing to these lands, and descriptions of how they did this. A few officials immediately organized the Commission for Research on Otherworldly Narratives (the CROwN) and began to recruit their team in secret. Early in the morning on February 19, 2011, the world's very first extraplanar traveler – half-jokingly referred to by CROwN leaders as the world's first “dungeonaut” – prepared to set foot in the realm of the fantastic...


CROwN Agents

Those who adventure for the CROwN perform a variety of jobs on their journeys. While some agents are skilled in multiple areas, there are four key roles that many agents fill: CROwN Soldiers are the combat masters of each group. This is no trivial task, as the use of modern technologies is largely forbidden on missions (in order to avoid unnecessary attention). Soldiers, therefore, must be trained in the use of weapons common in the lands they visit: swords, axes, and the like, along with the occasional black powder firearms. CROwN Spies are experts at subterfuge, helping the adventuring party in tasks such as disabling traps and picking locks and pockets. Spies are typically agile and sneaky, and other members of their teams often debate the level of trust they should be granted.

Many stories told by the music box include characters with the ability to manipulate reality in ways that researchers can only refer to as “magic.” The means of wielding this force is gradually being unraveled by the CROwN, and some agents are trained in these mysterious arts. CROwN Scientists spend hours studying arcane texts and practicing spellcraft in secret labs. As a result, they gain the ability to alter the world around them in a wide variety of ways. CROwN Medics, meanwhile, do not gain the wider perspective of the scientists, but their magic is seen by many as much more practical in nature. Medics often learn spells of healing and of fighting undead nuisances encountered on missions.


Adventuring for the CROwN

Most CROwN missions involve a very specific objective that will add to human knowledge of wonders, advancements, and threats from outside our world. The ease of sticking to the objective varies greatly by mission. Some recent adventures undertaken by CROwN agents include:

  • Exploring a dungeon to retrieve a sample of “living metal,” an alloy reported to grow organically and behave much like a plant or colonial animal. Naturally, such a dungeon attracted a sizable population of rust monsters...

  • Investigating the twisted grove of a mad druid to search for clues to the origin of the fearsome owlbear.

  • Collecting tomes from libraries on various worlds in order to conduct an analysis of multiversal linguistics.

Missions are often quite deadly, especially for new agents.


Standard Issue

Besides the standard and mission-specific adventuring equipment carried by agents, CROwN scientists have developed some items that are now considered standard issue for all adventures:

  • Orb of Vision – All agents are issued one of these small crystal globes, which can be carried or worn attached to the uniform. The orb of vision magically illuminates a 30' radius around its wearer. It also records all that the agent encounters, so that adventures can be easily reviewed by CROwN officials upon the return of the orb.

  • Planar Scroll – Each agent also receives one of these scrolls, which provides transport back to our world. By reading the scroll's inscription, an agent is quickly warped into our reality. However, the agent must read the scroll while in the exact location where he or she arrived in the fantastic realm. For each 10' in any direction that the agent is located away from this spot when reading from the scroll, there is a 5% chance that the adventurer will be transported to a random world or plane, rather than back to CROwN headquarters.

  • Good Green – Agency botanists have managed to cultivate, in limited amounts, a rather remarkable herb encountered on an early mission. Every agent begins travel with one dose of this plant, which has received the simple nickname “good green” for its ability to cure all diseases and curses encountered thus far on adventures, as well as providing 1d6 of healing when eaten.


Infinite Worlds of Wonder Await!

Now is the time to show your loyalty to the CROwN! 

Monday, July 12, 2021

5e, Iconicon, and Bo Burnham -- thoughts from the weekend

 So I did finally play Fifth Edition D&D this weekend, and I'd say that my thoughts upon finally giving it a read with the fresh eyes of a would-be player have mostly held up.  I mean, I'd enjoy playing just about anything with this group, and Watson (in what was, I believe, his first crack at DMing) led us into the realm of the Moon Warrior in style.  We didn't have a chance to work our way through the whole thing due to some technical issues during the game, and I'm definitely looking forward to getting back to it.

One thing I learned about 5e that really stuck out to me -- and that I don't think is just a holdover from previous editions (at least not before Fourth) -- is that the only bonus that comes from taking Two-Weapon Fighting is that you get to add your Strength bonus to damage from the second attack.  Everyone else can still function as a dual wielder, just without that bonus.  Which seems...unnecessarily liberal in what it allows any old combatant to do.  Not a huge deal, but wow.  Have I missed this in previous editions?

While I only had to be concerned with player-facing issues during the game this weekend, in related news, I also got my PDF of The Folio #27 yesterday.  It's written for First and Fifth Editions, and the 5e monster stat blocks look like they make use of a great method for keeping the blocks short and sweet.  I'm definitely going to pay attention to this approach as I move forward in exploring the current edition of D&D!


Also, yesterday was Watson's birthday.  Another happy birthday to you, man!

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I also realized that the online convention Iconicon -- focusing on pop culture of the 1980s -- was going on this weekend and managed to watch some of it.  I definitely enjoyed what I saw of the panels on iconic 80s vehicles, on comic shops during the decade, and on what they termed the "big three" toylines of the era -- G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Masters of the Universe (that's terminology I can definitely get behind).  I am all about enjoying some 80s nostalgia, and if you are, as well, you might want to click HERE to peruse the collected content.  There are a lot of great creators involved and a lot of interesting topics to go through.  I've only hit the tip of the iceberg so far.

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Finally...Laura and I finally watched the Bo Burnham special Inside on Netflix.  We had started watching it on an evening when we knew we weren't going to be awake long, and while I thought it really looked like something special (ahem), it wasn't until we watched the whole thing yesterday that I got the full effect.

Holy shit.  I was blown away by it.

I knew very little about Bo Burnham going into it...and had no idea this is the sort of thing he could produce.  It was funny at times, and he's a comedian, but calling it a "comedy special" would do it a disservice.  It gets dark.  Like...by the end of it, if I found out it was actually a Joker origin story in disguise, that wouldn't have felt out of place.  It's overall very human, and while watching, I got the same feeling of having a brush with genius that I got the first time I watched Hamilton, or the Buffy episode "Once More, with Feeling," or...to include something other than musicals here, I guess a game-changing movie like The Matrix.

Even it doesn't seem like it's your bag, I'd recommend watching it to see if maybe it actually is your bag.  It is really, really good.

Here's a bit from it.  I hesitate to use this one because it's one of the least self-reflective pieces in the special, and some people might even think it's a little mean.  It's such a good song, though...

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Oh, and in other, much more boring news, I finally have Jersey license plates, and I'm proud of myself for being able to just screw the damn thing onto the front of my car, which had nothing set up to hold a tag.  (Side note:  I've also recently learned that calling a license plate a "tag" may be slang from my upbringing that isn't even widely understood around here.)  So...pat on the back for old Jonathan...

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Uh, I think I'm really starting to like this Fifth Edition thing...

 I'm not really sure why I've been so slow to embrace D&D Fifth Edition.  I mean...I've paid a fair amount of attention to it and tried to learn a bit about its ins and outs.  Long, long ago, I had this idea that I wanted to hack it for superhero gaming, so I started to learn the core of it (relative to the versions of D&D I had played).  I even put together a little microlite version of it that I think is both very flawed and very much playable with the right DM.

But I still didn't play 5e.  That 5e supers idea was ultimately replaced by Light City, a superhero hack using Swords & Wizardry Light as the base.  And while, like so many of my projects, I eventually let Light City wither (although I'd still love to revive it!), I did make some stuff that I found to be fun, using a system that I was simply more comfortable with and excited about.

I picked up the 5e Starter Set at one point, still with the thought of immersing myself in the mechanics for an entirely different minigame-type project that may one day see the light of day.  I enjoyed what I read of it (especially with its inclusion of Lost Mine of Phandelver), but never really did much with it.  I just didn't need it.  I have old D&D, OSR games, and all sorts of non-D&D games I can play.  Why bother with this new one?

It was with the publication of the Ravnica sourcebook that the tide started to turn.  After working on Light City stuff, I've still been pretty attached to that WhiteBox/Light take on Swords & Wizardry.  I like the low HP, the d6-only damage, the single saving throw.  And it's really just the bones of a game...very much one that you can make your own in many different ways.  But with these Ravnica species at my fingertips...well, that's when I started thinking about taking 5e races and tacking them onto S&W Light-style classes.  It's an approach that works for me, and I've recently been settling into that mindset in tinkering with my own take on a Fantasy Heartbreaker.

But now, I'm about to play in a full-on 5e game.  First game I've played in that is absolutely, officially, wholly Fifth Edition.  I had recently picked up a Player's Handbook (once again, to familiarize myself more with the rules but without necessarily having the intention to ever play it as-is) and finally started looking through it with the eyes of someone about to use the book as it's meant to be used.

And I'll be damned...5e is a good game.

I was way too willing to dismiss 5e characters as too complicated for quick generation before jumping into an adventure.  I think the formalization of character backgrounds seemed unnecessarily sprawling to me...when in reality, it's probably the best part of 5e for creating the sort of game I want to play in.  Not to mention that I'm sure there are some easy ways to approach those a little differently, giving players more freedom in telling their characters' stories while ensuring there's no sacrifice in power.

Sure, some of the classes are certainly more complicated than the ones you get in a game like Swords & Wizardry, but the old D&D standbys...well, they really don't seem much more cluttered than a typical class from most OSR games.  Heck, Vancian spellcasting isn't even totally Vancian anymore; this is a detail that had completely escaped me...because I guess I always skipped over spellcasting rules, assuming I already knew how they worked!

Kinda crazy that this is such a revelation for me this late in the game.  While the old school will certainly keep a prominent place in my heart (I'm still in the midst of an AD&D game and loving it), I expect to start thinking about and looking for chances to play 5e a lot more.  Maybe it turns out that my Fantasy Heartbreaker is actually just something along the lines of the Starter Set.  Meaning...no heartbreak actually needed...

Man.  How did I miss this?

Monday, June 28, 2021

A Monstrous Heartbreaker, Part III...keepin' it classy...

Fair warning:  There's a lot of thinking out loud in this post as I muddle through the details of putting together my own fantasy heartbreaker.  Please read on only if that's your bag...!

 First things first for this post:  It's time I decide what classes to include in this fantasy RPG that's all been done before that I'm putting together.  I'm definitely going with the "big four," as seen in games like Swords & Wizardry Light by one name or another - Wizard, Cleric, Warrior, Rogue.  (Side note:  I'm pretty sure I'm especially drawn to that nomenclature because those are the classes used in Magic: The Gathering's "party" mechanic...)  So...what else?

I mean...this is MY heartbreaker, so I can put in whatever ridiculous niche class I want to just because it makes me happy to think about having it at the core of the game.  At the same time, this whole exercise has grown out of a desire to have a very basic fantasy RPG structure to build my other projects around.  I do want to keep things simple.

The problem is that once I take the simple step in my mind of "allowing" one class or another to creep into the lineup, it becomes too easy to think, "Well, if I include a Warlock, surely a Shaman fits.  And then it would be ridiculous to not include the even more iconic Druid, and if there are Druids, why not Rangers, and then of course Paladins, and then...and then...and then..."

Back in 2017, my humble offering to the gaming world on Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day was a set of alternate classes for Swords & Wizardry Light (which you can download HERE if you're so inclined).  They were streamlined a bit (yeah, even more than the usual!) in order to fit the Dungeonstack card game project that was the focus of my attempt at the A to Z Blogging Challenge that year; I'm noting them now because I picked out five basic roles, going with the names Warrior, Mage, Priest, Rogue, and Scout to differentiate them from the standard classes.  Scout was the "nature class," intended to make sure some bits of Druid and Ranger found their way into the game, as I've always been drawn to classes of that type...although the Scout is really just a Ranger stand-in without any real hint of Druid.

Lately, some form of Scout has seemed appealing as a single addition to the "big four" noted above.  An additional bonus is that Scout is the label that has long been given to Rangers in MTG, satisfying my inclination to defer to the naming conventions found on the magical cards.  However, with the coming Adventures in the Forgotten Realms expansion for MTG, Magic is making the Ranger creature type an official part of the game, SO...

Well, I'm dancing around it while thinking out loud, but I think my choice is becoming obvious:  The five classes of the Monstrous Heartbreaker shall be Warrior, Wizard, Cleric, Rogue, and Ranger.

Now...to nail down the specifics.  I covered the Warrior in my last post on the Heartbreaker and think I'll keep the ball rolling with the non-spellcasting classes.  Because the Ranger, while essentially a variant Warrior, can also fill the roll of "skill gal/guy" in a party, I think I should look at the Rogue first to get a baseline of what skillful characters look like in the game.  So, let's try statting up this guy...

He was the first (and only, so far, although maybe I'll get back to it at some point...?) Dungeonstack Rogue.  Because the mechanics for the Heartbreaker differ a bit from what I was planning with the 'Stack, I can't quite use him verbatim, but I bet I can get something very close that can also be a model for writing up the Rogue class as a whole...

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Xenos the Wanderer

Human Rogue 4

AC 13 (leather armor)    HD 3d6 (11 HP)
Saving throw: 12
Move 30 ft.
Languages:  Common, Goblin, Thieves' Cant

STR 11    DEX 16(+1)    CON 14    INT 2    WIS 7    CHA 10

Attack:  Dagger +2, 1d6-1 damage (thrown +3, range 20 ft., 1d6-1 damage)
Sneak Attack: Xenos gets an additional +4 attack bonus on and deals double damage to a surprised enemy.

Skill/tool proficiencies:  Climb (expert), sleight of hand (expert), traps (expert), cooking

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I think I may be doing the math properly in my head, but now I need to work backwards and make sure this fits the Heartbreaker as a whole...!

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Brood X is pretty darn cool (plus...Cicadafolk for 5e)

 I think "delighted" is a fair description of how I felt when I realized a few weeks ago that the trees around the office park where I work are a hotbed for a phenomenon that's gotten a bit of talk in the news (presumably in areas distant from such hotbeds as well...?) - the emergence of Brood X, the periodical cicadas that are making an appearance above ground for the first time in 17 years.  Their presence is already waning and probably won't last all that much longer; then, they'll disappear until 2038...so I feel pretty lucky to have a chance to take in this fairly rare occurrence.  (Quick note: I'm pretty sure "Brood Ten" is actually the proper way to refer to these insects, but I don't hold it against anyone - myself included - for using the letter "X" when referring to them, since it makes them sound even more awesome.  Honestly, Marvel might have missed an opportunity by not running a "Brood X" miniseries right now...!)

These bugs are pretty loud, fun to watch in somewhat clumsy flight, and pretty striking visually.  Here's one I met that first day I saw them:


As a kid in south Georgia, the song of annual cicadas was part of my regular summer soundtrack.  Like lots of youngsters, I enjoyed finding (and often attaching to my clothing) the exoskeletons left over from their molts into adulthood.  I think I would have had a field day if I could have been around one of these periodical appearances.


I realize there's a fairly small chunk of the world that's getting to see this right now, but if you're in that chunk, I hope you're enjoying the chance to see a very interesting rarity.  Next up, from what I can tell, will be two groups (Broods XIII and XIX) coming back around in 2024.  Interestingly, Brood XIII (the Northern Illinois brood, which will be making an appearance in the American midwest) also sounds to me like the focus of a work of pop speculative fiction, with the awesome appellation "Brood Thirteen"...and since Brood XIX is the Great Southern Brood, I should be able to time a visit to my family back down south to see their emergence.

Finally, they of course made me want to create a species for a fantasy RPG...

Cicadafolk (for 5e)


Snagged this piece by MRGunn-Art from DeviantArt -
you should definitely check out their stuff!

Cicadafolk, also known as Undergroundlings, are an insectoid species known for their remarkable life cycle, unseen in any of the other sapient races of the world. They spend the majority of their lives as part of a subterranean community but emerge in a regular cycle to rear their young, then pass away just as the next generation is ready to return underground.

For millennia, Cicadafolk have come to the surface every 37 years. Most quickly find a mate and produce offspring, then spend the next six years preparing the children to carry on the legacy of their people. This subsequent generation will soon take their turn underground, making their “coming of age” descent just as their parents reach the end of their lifespan. For the next 25 years, the Cicadafolk community will be largely unseen by surface dwellers; and then, like clockwork, the now-31-year-old brood will emerge to continue the cycle on the surface.

While unorthodox, this lifestyle has not prevented Cicadafolk from developing a vibrant culture. Their unique language is conveyed by stridulation and is often thought by outsiders to be music rather than mere communication. Indeed, it’s difficult to tell where the line is drawn between the two for Cicadafolk, and this approach has made many of them highly admired as musicians. The Cicadafolk language does have a written form, but it isn’t used often, as youngsters heading underground do not take written works with them, and there is rarely a system in place for the recovery of the previous generation’s artifacts upon reemergence from their subterranean phase.

Cicadafolk are also known to be formidable in battle. While they aren’t known for being especially adept with weapons and aren’t especially good flyers, their movements often come across as clumsy to those of other species, which makes fighting them an awkward and unpredictable task.

Regions can vary widely in how they feel about the cyclical reappearance of the Cicadafolk. To some, they are a nuisance to be endured until they make their way back underground. Others welcome the unique cultural contributions they bring with them and celebrate their arrival. History also shows a number of instances in which more conniving humanoid species seek to quickly ally themselves with a newly emerged brood in order to win their assistance in a quick takeover of neighboring kingdoms. If left to their own devices, however, Cicadafolk typically avoid physical altercations altogether.

Cicadafolk Names

Cicadafolk’s insectoid mouthparts and frequent inclusion of stridulation in their communication make their names nearly impossible to pronounce correctly for most other species, but close approximations are possible. Their names often include syllables that are repeated twice or more. Some common names are Egkegkegkegkin, Artodtodtod, and Gisuasuasuatodt. Or something like that.

Cicadafolk Traits

Your cicadafolk character has unique traits based upon its origins and adaptations to its unique lifestyle.

Ability Score Increase: Your Wisdom score increases by 2. Choose one additional ability score to increase by 1.

Age: Cicadafolk who are operating above ground are inevitably 01-6 or (more likely) 31-37 years old.

Alignment: The cicadafolks’ understanding of and commitment to their regimented life cycle leads to a tendency toward a lawful alignment.

Size: Adult cicadafolk are usually 5-6 feet tall but can be a bit shorter or taller. They have slender insectoid builds and usually weigh a bit less than other species of similar height.

Speed: Your base walking speed is 25 feet.

Flight: As an adult cicadafolk, you have a flying speed of 40 feet. You can’t travel at this full velocity while wearing heavy armor. You are a somewhat clumsy flier and have disadvantage on checks made to avoid obstacles. In addition, you must succeed at a medium Dexterity check when landing, or you’ll tumble, taking 1d3 damage.

Exoskeleton: Your hard outer shell provides +2 natural armor. This bonus does not stack with any armor worn.

Unsettling Song: Cicadafolk stridulation can be quite beautiful and musical, but can also be unleashed as part of a distracting cacophony. Once per combat, you can use an action to distract opponents with your noise. Opposing combatants each lose one action during their next turn.

Languages: You can speak, read, and write Common and Cicadan, although your ability to speak languages other than Cicadan is somewhat limited by your vocal range. Similarly, other species are only able to produce an approximation of Cicadan. This is usually enough to convey basic ideas, but more complex messages are often lost in such communication.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Just have to say...Fantastic Voyage has held up...

After thinking about the shrunken adventurer genre a bit, I decided to give 1966's Fantastic Voyage another watch last weekend, and I thought it'd be worth noting here that the movie has really held up to the passage of time.  It is, in some ways, a seminal work in this sub-sub-subgenre - to the extent that the TV Tropes wiki simply calls this style of adventure the "Fantastic Voyage" plot - and in my mind, it's quite deserving.

The film is, without a doubt, quite dated.  It really feels like 60s sci-fi...and I love that aspect of it.  The (Oscar-winning!) special effects are trippy and somewhat mesmerizing.  It also took home the statue for Art Direction that year, and I can certainly see why as the movie overall just looks cool.  And that's not just the special effects...the sterile look of the facility where the CMDF (Combined Miniature Deterrent Forces) operates sets a nice tone for the more grounded aspects of the film.

One thing that could probably be a drawback for many viewers is that the process of getting the crew shrunk down and into the human body takes forever.  I'd actually have to watch it again to note the specifics of this, but much of the early movie also runs with no music, so there's a very calm and methodical feel to it that I think extends to this scene.  Personally, I love it, as it emphasizes the danger and fragility of the process, rather than just shrinking, injecting, and moving on to the action.  BUT...I do work in a lab, so I may be drawn to that part of the storyline more than most.

Overall, if you enjoy retro SF, or even just solid SF in general, you should give this film a go at least once!


Now...how about a character?

As portrayed by William Redfield

Capt. Bill Owens
Level 4 Watercraft Pilot

AC 6[13]    HD 3d6+1 (12 HP)
Saving throw: 12
Move 12 ft.
Languages:  English, Russian

STR 11    DEX 17(+1)    CON 10    INT 14    WIS 9    CHA 9

Attack:  By weapon (+1 BHB)
Skill/tool proficiencies:  Pilot watercraft (expert), watercraft repair, perception, history

+2 to Saving Throws vs. explosions and environmental hazards

Stick Jockey (+2 to initiative in aquatic combat); Ocean Ace (may add +1 to two of a watercraft's stats each round); Jury-Rig 1x/day, 4d6 temporary HP to a watercraft

(I drew a lot of this from the Pilot class from White Star...) 


And finally...I suppose Fantastic Voyage is close enough to "military science fiction" to make this a reasonable post to tack on a wish for a happy Memorial Day to my fellow Yanks.  (I hope everyone has a happy day, of course...just calling out Americans since we're enjoying a holiday today...)  I also hope you'll take a moment to reflect on its meaning.  There are a lot of folks who sacrificed everything to help give us this world where I can spend time writing silly stuff on the interwebs.  Our country is in a weird spot, where one side of the political spectrum has attempted to stake a claim to patriotism, to the point that aspects of it have started to seem especially toxic to many who oppose them.  I'd like to think that something like Memorial Day is a great time for us all to find common ground in appreciation for those who truly have helped to maintain our freedom by giving their lives.

Friday, May 21, 2021

On LARPing my way through life and very tiny adventures

 I am 43 years old, and I still play make believe.

If you're reading this blog (which I kind of assume you are), there's a good chance you do too.

I wonder sometimes how common it is for others who enjoy the RPG hobby to apply that love for entering fantastic worlds to daily life.  Maybe I just never quite grew up...?  (Whatever that really means...)

See, I'm not really one to get bored easily.  I can escape into my own head in just about any situation.  Sometimes, though, the task at hand doesn't really allow for drifting off into wholly unrelated thought.  So while I may not get bored, I do sometimes find myself (as I assume most of us do) in the position of needing to focus on things that - due to tedium, or repetition, or just plain old sleepiness - I simply don't "feel like" doing at the time.  And when I do, I like to pretend.

I can remember, as a kid, imagining that I was a member of the G.I. Joe team, mowing the lawn at our headquarters.  Because having to cut the grass is kinda lame.  Getting the opportunity to be a Real American Hero and doing the stuff that has to be done for that team to operate?  Well, that's just fun.

Considering the sort of fictional worlds I enjoy, I have a job now that lends itself to entering a more exciting reality fairly easily.  I work in a lab and get to spend a lot of time doing really interesting science(!) stuff.  When that stuff involves lengthy, repetitive tasks, though - which actually comes up pretty often - I definitely enjoy some impromptu LARPing.  I've worked with Hank McCoy, investigating a mutant "cure."  I've examined the physiology of creatures originating from another realm.  The most fun adventures I've had, though, have probably been as a researcher for the Combined Miniature Defense Force, helping the team prepare for future missions into the wild landscape of human anatomy.

I enjoy this so much, in fact, that lately I've been thinking it's a game setting I should explore more.  (After all, what I really need right now is another setting/adventure seed to distract me from ever accomplishing anything worthwhile in my nerdy pursuits.)  It's actually something I mentioned way back when I was very new to blogging...the idea of adventuring in the tradition of stuff like Fantastic Voyage and Innerspace...

I've never really followed up on it, and I think that's at least partially because I never let my imagination really go on the possibilities of a campaign for very tiny adventurers.  It's easy to think about such a game just becoming a slog through battles with "characters" that don't actually have much character...lymphocytes and antibodies and whatnot.  While there's certainly a place in RPG adventures for faceless foes like gelatinous cubes, I don't think many players want that to be the only sort of menace they face.

In the case of Fantastic Voyage, though, they did manage to make 17 animated episodes' worth of challenges by expanding the scope to include all sorts of missions that can only be accomplished by shrinking.  Maybe that would be the example to follow...?

At any rate, my interest in tabletop Fantastic Voyaging has hit a new high in the past couple of days.  A video made by my coworker Megan just went a bit viral on LinkedIn.  It shows T-cells destroying a tiny tumor and is pretty damn cool.  I could (and do) watch it over and over.


While this is a time lapse video, its sense of action just draws me into the world of the battles that go on within each of us.

Is it the sort of action that's worth springing on a gaming group?  Hmm.  I'm starting to think it is...

Saturday, May 15, 2021

A Monstrous Heartbreaker, Part II: The Warrior

 Now that I've started pondering the goals and structure of my own highly derivative "core" rules for fantasy roleplaying, it's time to start getting the details down.  (Yep, this is just my way of taking notes...)

The first class I'm set on is the Warrior.  I'm keeping this one simple...just using the one I presented for Glaciers & Glyptodons, extended upward a couple of levels.  It's a pretty noncontroversial take, I'd think, and should serve me well across genres and time periods.


Warrior

You are skilled in combat and tough enough to withstand the hardships of battle.

You can use any weapons or shields and wear any sort of clothing or armor.

If you drop a foe with a melee attack, you may immediately make another melee attack.  (EDIT: I'm gonna have to make this scale with the Warrior's level, I think...)

Level    HD    Attack    Save

   1       1+1      +1         16

   2         2        +2         15

   3         3        +3         14

   4         4        +4         13

   5         5        +5         12


And just like that, I have a working document!

As for an example Warrior...those are probably pretty obvious, but I think I'll simply stat out a miniature I'm hoping to work into some tabletop playtime (not even a fantasy-based one)...

Dewey Shaw, Checkmate Knight

Level 2 Warrior
Checkmate's first appearance:  Action Comics #598 (1988)

STR 15(+1)     DEX 17(+1)     CON 16(+1)     INT 13     WIS 9     CHA 11
2+2 HD (9 HP)     Saving Throw 15
AC 14 (Checkmate armor)

Attack:  Checkmate lance (telescoping) +3, 1d6+1 damage; bodysuit strike +3, 1d6 damage

If Shaw drops a foe with a melee attack, he may immediately make another melee attack.

EDIT:  I realized there may be some WTF reactions to the "bodysuit strike" attack...it's from this scene (from Checkmate #1) really registering with me as a kid for whatever reason...



(I thought the knights of the DC Comics intelligence agency Checkmate looked pretty freakin awesome from the first time I saw them in comic book ads, which must have been back in 1987.  While I didn't keep up with the comic very well, I do remember picking up a couple of issues and definitely enjoyed seeing their introduction in Action Comics, which I did follow at the time.  The look of the Checkmate knight definitely invokes a certain nostalgia for me, which means I was also happy to see that the "retro" appearance made its way to HeroClix years later - Dewey up there is actually a Checkmate Medic figure.  Oh!  And his name came from the great generators over at Masterpiece Generator...I think that's what it's called, anyway...)


And I guess because the universe loves a little chuckle, here's a song that just came on my YouTube mix while I'm writing this post...

I do really like this song.

Next up:  I figure out which, if any, classes to include beyond the "big four"...and maybe go ahead and steal 'em/write 'em up...

Sunday, May 9, 2021

A Monstrous Heartbreaker! Part I

 Alright...I think it's time to start constructing my own little fantasy heartbreaker.

I suppose I could be a bit kinder to the effort and think of it more like my friend Tim's "Frankengame," the goal of his long quest to piece together his ultimate fantasy RPG system, and which he has seemingly chiseled into a thing of beauty with his own big personal stamp on it.  (It looks like the Frankengame is politely stepping aside to give Tim room to dive into his superhero universe with the rules of the new Amazing Heroes, but I'm betting all of the effort to shape his perfect fantasy game is going to keep giving fruit as time goes on...)

I'm not sure that I have that sort of focus and discernment in me, though.  So I'm just gonna call it what it'll probably turn out to be:  A big ol' fantasy heartbreaker.  A monstrous one, in fact.  The goals?  I'd like this game to:

1.  Be a little more proof of concept for an RPG built upon classes that fit OSR games derived from Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, along with races built for fifth edition D&D.

2.  Serve as the "core" system upon which I can base a variety of gaming projects I'd like to one day bring to a state of public presentability.

3.  Comfortably represent the set of mechanics, assumptions, and quirks that I could call my own personal baseline for a fantasy RPG.

4.  Give me an excuse to explore an original fantasy setting in some amount of detail.  (I'm not completely sure what that setting will be, nor if this is actually the route I should take vs. keeping everything within the framework of a generic fantasy world...but I do think I'd like to have a specific setting to accompany the ruleset.)

Snagged this image from HERE...


So here's step one.  I ask myself the question:  What classes should my fantasy heartbreaker include?  And then I answer...that clearly the place to start here is with the four classic roles of a D&D adventuring party: the Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Cleric.  This is pretty convenient, as it's basically the four we get (using a slightly different naming scheme) in the excellent Swords & Wizardry Light.  So...cut, paste, done!

Eh...not quite done.  I'll have to make a few changes.  The Fighter shall become a Warrior, taking care to ensure that there are no rules that tie it to a fantasy setting.  I know this seems like a ridiculous move considering the premise of the project, but I have a real affection for the idea of a time- and place-less Warrior archetype that can cover everything from dungeoneering fighters, to Paleolithic scrappers, to battle-minded folks of the modern day and beyond.  I guess it's mostly just a name change.

Now, for the Rogue.  I'd say that much of the exact same sentiment applies here, so if I take that last paragraph and make just a few edits...

The Thief shall become a Rogue, taking care to ensure that there are no rules that tie it to a fantasy setting.  I know this seems like a ridiculous move considering the premise of the project, but I have a real affection for the idea of a time- and place-less Rogue archetype that can cover everything from dungeoneering thieves, to Paleolithic sneaks, to subterfuge-minded folks of the modern day and beyond.  I guess it's mostly just a name change (and really not even that except relative to old school games that still call this character a thief).

And so we move on to the spellcasters.  It would be very tempting to fold these two into a single class that can cover any variety of magic, whether arcane, divine, or of whatever other origin a setting allows.  I definitely see the elegant beauty in the triangular approach to character abilities seen in games like True20 or Warrior, Rogue & Mage.  Related to this...in Magic: The Gathering, we have recently seen a slight shift in the designation of creature types such that each of the game's five colors has a spellcasting class most closely associated with it:  Clerics in white, Wizards in blue, Warlocks in black, Shamans in red, and Druids in green.  I really like the symmetry of this arrangement, and it has a lot of value in the game's newest set, Strixhaven: School of Mages, which features tons of magic-users from all around the color wheel.  A bit ironically, this division points to the unity of all of these creature types under the title of mage (as we see in the name of the set).  And wasn't that maybe even the point of wizards in Original D&D getting the generic appellation of "Magic-User"?  To give players the freedom to imagine their mages with whatever sort of background they wanted, while still tying them all together with the same set of spell rules?

Ultimately, though, I'm just not sure I can have my own core of a D&D-type ruleset without giving the religious spellcasters at least one class of their own.  It's a trope that's just so strongly bound to the heart of the game at this point that I think the whole thing would feel incomplete without having archetypes for both divine and arcane (or at least other) magic.  I'm not completely sold yet; the implication that all magic comes from the same source, whether it's prayed for or learned from books, is still tempting to strive for.  I'll see where it goes from here, but for now, I'll work on the assumption that the Monstrous Heartbreaker will separate Wizards and Clerics...perhaps even with those class names.

Alright...any more classes to add?  A nature type, perhaps, to work in some Druid and Ranger tropes?  Surely I'll want animal companions, right?  Do I want a Monk, or can Warriors and Clerics cover everything I'd really like to see in it?  I do love music...should I go ahead and codify a Bard?  And why does some sort of Artificer keep popping into my head as a potentially strong choice as a base class?  (Seriously, I don't know that I've ever even played in an adventuring party that included an Artificer, let alone played one myself.)

I have a feeling this decision could be influenced by whether or not I include a specific fantasy setting in this little work...so there's a bit more thinking to do on this.  More to come in Part II...

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

May the Fourth...!

A very happy holiday to all!

I'm going to celebrate by pointing out a very nice set of OSR rules for Star Wars gaming that I'm going to guess a lot of folks have overlooked.  Before my group's trip to the Stone Age, my good friend Josh ran a great adventure for us using RPGPundit's space opera ruleset, Star Adventurer.

While I'm not familiar enough with the game to give it a thorough review (and not that I typically do those anyway), from what I've seen, it's pretty awesome.  They're very solid rules in the general "modern take on B/X" tradition with enough detail to give a good feel for the genre.  And I guess it's almost obligatory to include some sort of "however you may feel about his politics" clause when discussing the Pundit's work, so...well, however you feel, it's hard to deny that the man knows how to put together a good game.

I went into character creation with the intention of making someone I could represent in miniature form with one of the figures from the classic Galaxy Laser Team...

This sealed bag is actually up on eBay right now...

I ended up with a human that matches pretty nicely with this guy:

His name is Garm Tharend.  He's a Human Warrior.  And not that you asked, but here's his backtory:

Garm Tharend comes from a multispecies spacer community with no home planet, many of whom have joined the extended family as a way of avoiding the crippling overreach of the Hegemony. This background often brings additional scrutiny from Galactic authorities during Garm’s interactions with citizens who live more traditional lifestyles, referred to by his community as “Worlders.”

This history has led a majority of Garm’s relatives (most of whom are more beholden to their own moral compass than he is) to side heavily with the Resistance, with many of them actively involved in rebel operations. Garm has been slower to back the movement, seeing a possible Resistance victory as little more than moving on to the next tyrant in line. However, he appreciates that the growing conflict has given him additional freedom to live on the outskirts of Galactic civilization.

Being pretty good with a blaster, he’s managed to put together a comfortable lifestyle by taking on a few lucrative hit jobs and living a low-key life in between. After being hired to take out an old droid running illegal schemes in the spacelanes, Garm was actually convinced by Glossig to give up the mission and join his crew instead. (There were probably some psychic mind tricks involved.)


If you actually took the time to read through that (thank you!), it's probably pretty obvious that Star Adventurer can be used easily enough to run adventures in George Lucas's sandbox.  While I've only ever run an actual Star Wars game using the old West End Games D6 rules...and if I were to run one now, I'd probably try out the 5E/LightBox blend I'm so enamored with at the moment...Star Adventurer is a strong game and could be exactly what you're looking for someday to play in a galaxy far, far away.

So...uh...utini!

Sunday, May 2, 2021

One more trip to the Paleolithic...

 Last weekend, the gaming group I have recently infiltrated finished up our first little trek through fantastical Stone Age Earth (Glaciers & Glyptodons).  I'm obv biased because I GM'ed the adventure, but I really do like some of the details I'm left to think about with the game.

Before that, though, let me note some of my own shortcomings as a GM and adventure designer that became obvious during play...

As someone who feels like I take a fairly combat-centric approach in understanding what RPG rules (especially old school rules) are meant to provide for us, I think I might just not be very good at combat!  There was at least once in running a skirmish that I was ready to jump right back to the PCs' acting a second time in a row, without even giving the enemies a chance to move, attack, etc.  Possibly related to this:  I think I tend to load up combat encounters with way too much same-yness, so that they just amount to slogging through attack rolls until we see how the numbers allow things to play out.  I say it's possibly related because I also think that part of my issue with running combat is realizing how monotonous they have a chance of becoming and immediately trying to compensate for that by speeding things along as quickly as possible - even if it means I lose control of the order of battle in the process.

Ah, well, lots to reflect on in that rambling...

The game had some huge positives for me, though!  First, as a setting I'd been wanting to tackle for a while, the Paleolithic holds a lot of promise for further adventures.  The PCs were set up as inhabitants of a region known simply as The Valley, which I intro'ed with this image...

Stolen from HERE...

...and which hardly got any attention except as the background for the adventure's setup.  The Valley has a lot left for exploration...and coupling this notion with another area I need to improve on as a GM (the balance between sandbox play and railroading), I would really like to work out some hex crawl guidelines for Glaciers & Glyptodons that go beyond the few wilderness encounters I prepared for this first adventure and provide players with more of a chance to feel like they're interacting with a truly open and dangerous world.

With that said, I do like the high points of the story that was told with this adventure, as the PCs were summoned by the Hidden One (read: Denisovan and/or Elf) Drelon to go on a quest to investigate and possibly destroy a metal(!) ring found near the coast to the west of The Valley.  Here's Drelon...


I definitely went as LotR-esque as possible with this setup to emphasize the Stone Age Earth/classic fantasy connection I wanted to see in G&G (heck, "Drelon" is just a barely-rearranged Elrond...­čśÉ).  However, I was also able to work in another trope I've kind of obsessed over for years at this point...Atlantis!  In this adventure, the players were ultimately led (read: railroaded) to the nation of Atlantis, named as the "Island Home" of a dying race of Saurians who possess magic and metallurgy beyond that of the mammalian humanoids that existed during the era.

The end result was a small party of Hidden and Sturdy Ones (Elves and Orcs) helping to defend Atlantis from an invading band of Humans, which nicely set up an invitation from the Saurians to the adventurers to bring more of their kind to the ancient city.  This fits into a little mythology I've worked into my headcanon in which explorers/escapees from a multispecies, magical Atlantis serve as an origin for other fantasy realms.  It's all stretching, I know, but I don't get a chance to run this kind of stuff very often, so I pulled out as many stops as I could in satisfying the stories I've been telling myself for years...!

Finally, my biggest takeaway from G&G is probably how happy I am that I tried the combo of races in the style of 5E and classes at a LightBox power level.  I can't quite put my finger on why I like it so much.  Maybe it's that extra bit of flair that 5E races give a character, compared to the...ahem, lighter treatments they're given in Swords & Wizardry Light.  Or maybe it's because it lets me look at all of those 5E race options out there in a new light...or even just because it makes Ravnica easier for me to visualize running.  Whatever it is, I'm excited to explore it more moving forward, and it seems like an approach that could unite a number of the mini-projects that I've thought about and then ignored on this blog over the years, from running Ravnica, to Light City, to Underground Elemental Beastfighting, to Project 5.5.  I'm even tempted to cobble together my own little Fantasy Heartbreaker to ground the other projects.  Hopefully more to come on this...!



Monday, April 12, 2021

Glaciers & Glyptodons

 One of the very first things I blogged about (more than five years ago...geez...) finally got its shot on the videoconferenced tabletop last night.  The awesome online gaming group I've fallen in with took on the setting I've wanted to try for quite a while now...fantasy reskinned and shifted around a little to resemble our own prehistoric world...

I've had a blast putting this together and hope the crew are truly enjoying it, as well.  They SEEM to be, but they're all really kind people who would probably never let on if they hated it. ;)

At the very least, the group really seemed to embrace the mashup of classic fantasy tropes and prehistoric humanity.  When the Neanderthals in the party (called Sturdy Ones in the game) are named Smashpunch and Blork! (with exclamation point), I figure the Orc-ness is coming across decently.  (Of course, they really are just reskinned Orcs...)

If you think you'd enjoy seeing what I provided to the group for character creation and the tiniest core of the setting, you can check out the doc HERE.  It's pretty basic and could use a lot of editing, adding, and testing, but I'm glad to have something to work from.

It also makes use of the 5E race + Old School class approach that I mused about HERE...and it actually worked pretty well so far.  I'll have more on that at some point soon.  Well...hopefully...

Sunday, February 28, 2021

My favorite comic book scientists

 It's becoming clear to me that my posting here will slow a bit now that I've finally started a new job here in Jersey.  But first, to celebrate the fact that I'm back in a lab doing SCIENCE! again, I was thinking of statting out Reed Richards for Light City, to fill out the FF a little more and focus on a pillar of comic book scientific grandeur.

And that got me thinking...is Mr. Fantastic actually my favorite comic book scientist?  Hmm...he actually might be...!  Obviously, comics are filled with folks who do literally fantastic things with their hypotheses and experiments.  I've almost always been more of a DC guy in general, but I realized that if I start to list out my favorite four color science nerds in my head, the DC reps, while probably outnumbering those from elsewhere, fit into some specific niches.  Reed, though...well, I'm not sure I can think of another character who has the ability to carry the weight of ridiculous comic book superscience quite like him.  I guess Ray Palmer would probably come the closest...

For the record...kind of off the top of my head and in no particular order...I'd list my top 10 comic book scientists something like...

1.  Reed Richards
2.  Ray Palmer
3.  Kirk Langstrom
4.  Bruce Banner
5.  Barry Allen
6.  Tina McGee
7.  Hank McCoy
8.  Leo Quintum
9.  Lex Luthor
10.  Jon Osterman

If TV universes held the most weight, I'd put Cisco Ramon in there somewhere.  I guess it's a decent list overall, although the publishers and I should both probably look into expanding representation in the character type a bit.  Lots of nerdy white guys there.  Of course, I'm a nerdy white guy myself, so that aspect of the character type's common form really hasn't been so obvious to me until right now.

Also...I know, I know...Bruce Wayne should probably be there.  He's just also too much of everything else to fit the bill for some reason...

Oh yeah!  And here's Reed for Light City:


Huh.  Okay, here's Reed for Light City using a class that hasn't been built yet, but which will maybe support a Mr. Fantastic that looks something like this...

Mr. Fantastic
Real name:  Reed Richards
Level 4 Rubber Band

AC 6[13]    HD 3d6 (10 HP)
Saving throw: 13, +2 to rolls to dodge objects
Move 12 ft.

STR 12    DEX 19(+1)   CON 12    INT 20(+2)    WIS 14    CHA 12

Attack:  Punch with a bigass fist (1d6 damage, reach 96 ft.)
Flexi-powers:  Gliding, Absorb Explosion (2d6 damage)

Thursday, February 11, 2021

"I'm here live...I'm not a cat." Okay, yeah, this is funny...

 If you've been on the internet in the past day, you probably haven't been able to avoid seeing this video.  But really...why would you want to avoid it?

It could be an innocent mistake from a Texas attorney.  Or it COULD be an early sign of the cats' upcoming cultural infiltration.  I'll see if my contacts know anything.

If it is a feline Secret Invasion, I'll bet this cat is something like this...

Whiskers, Attorney Undercover

Level 3 Super-Pet

STR 4     DEX 16 (+1)    CON 8     INT 12     WIS 10     CHA 15(+1)

2+1 HD (8 HP)     Saving Throw 12    Move 12 ft. (climb 12 ft.)

AC 8[11]

Attack:  Bite or Claws, +2 to hit, 1d6 damage

Super-Pet Tricks:
Speech (obv)
Too Cute (Charm 1x/day)
Climb
Tool Use (+2 to saving throws to use human technology)

(I used Justin Isaac's Super-Pet class once again for Whiskers...)

Friday, February 5, 2021

This is Tulip

Tulip came from a hoarding situation in which around 80 dogs were living together trapped in a barn.  Laura and I worked with a number of these kids in a program to rehabilitate highly fearful dogs, and they are some of the most amazing beings you could ever hope to meet.

We adopted Tulip in 2019.  For the last year and a half, she's been my unofficial emotional support animal.  She deserves everything good that comes to her in life.  She has unicorns on her collar and tag because she is our barnicorn.

Like her sister Celery, Tulip deserves to be made into an RPG character.  Here she is using Justin Isaac's awesome Super-Pet class for Light City.  (I'm not sure that I've noted it on the blog, but as I've looked back over this class, I've come to love it even more than when I first read it.  It's solid and modular, and the "Tricks" are such a nice approach!)

Level 5 Super-Pet
First appearance:  Tales From the Barn (limited series) #1
STR 8     DEX 11     CON 15(+1)     INT 8     WIS 6     CHA 14
4+4 HD (18 HP)     Saving Throw 10    Move 12 ft. (flight 24 ft.)
AC 9[10]

Attack:  Bite or Horn, +3 to hit, 1d6 damage

Super-Pet Tricks:
Speech (yeah, why not, we seem to assume that all of our pets have this...)
Those Eyes (Too Cute) (Charm 1x/day)
Hero Support x2 (Cure Wounds I 2x/day)
Flight (again...why not?  she's got the horn for it...)
Getting the Hang of This (Tool Use) (+2 to saving throws to use human technology)

With one magic canine word, Tulip is transformed into even more of a Wonder Dog.  She has a horn.

(A note:  I realize that playing up the "barn" thing with Tulip may seem like a weird celebration of something terrible in her past, but with all of the precious kids we worked with from her case, "barn dog" has practically become a synonym for an amazing dog for some of us.  It is almost a badge of perfection.)


So, why am I just rambling about Tulip?  Well, besides the fact that she absolutely deserves to be rambled about, she's especially on my mind these days because of this girl:


This is Helen.  Laura and I fostered her around the end of 2018.  She is from the same fearful dog program as Tulip, and is another survivor of a hoarding situation.

One thing that has become clear over our time connected to these exceptional pups is that when they are separated from their families, they often don't react like you might expect a typical "lost dog" to react.  The fear kicks into overdrive at times.  Heck, we saw it with Tulip during our move, when we walked her at a rest area.  The interstate traffic was in her head, and she tugged on her leash with a look in her eyes that made me worry that if she were to get free, she might run for a while before even taking stock of where her loved ones were.

We found out about two weeks ago that Helen went missing from her home due to an unfortunate but understandably human mistake on the part of her family.  After at least one initial sighting, things went quiet for over a week before she was finally spotted again, more than once, and hope picked up.  Then...right when a major breakthrough seemed almost inevitable...we got this insane winter storm, and the effort has become more difficult.

I'm not the sort that questions the seemingly absurd unfairness of reality, but for some reason, this just doesn't fit the way I need the world to work.

If you are the sort that goes in for any sort of thoughts, prayers, or positive vibes for others...or even if you're not, actually...I would ask that you keep Helen in mind.  I know that we live in a world that's filled with pain, cruelty, and injustice, and it might be offensive that I ignore so much of that but take the time to fret over a lost dog.  If you feel that's the case, I'm sorry.

I just think Helen deserves a happy ending to her story, and I wanted to share it.  Thank you for reading.