Sunday, January 31, 2016

For The Birds

While preparing the roast beast for Sunday dinner, I heard Audrey call from the living room: "Girls, come here, quietly. Stephen, you might want to to see this too."

Intrigued, we made our way to the front door, where Audrey stood, looking outside and down at the area beside our front walkways. "He's a brave little fellow," she said, "or deaf, maybe..."

A small bird hopped amongst the pine needles and cones not two feet from where she stood. "I didn't even see him at first," she explained, "I was shaking my dust cloth out right over his head and he just didn't care."

Unperturbed, despite the fact that all four of us were now on the front step observing him, the tiny creature continued his pecking, no doubt looking for food. The scene was made all the more endearing by the fact that the snowfall had picked up, making it look even more wintry than it actually was. Watching him wrest some kind of morsel from one of Goliath's enormous cones, the bane of my eavestroughs, I commented, "Must be pretty hungry to let us stand so close." And that was all the incentive Glory needed, and she quickly but smoothly made her way back indoors.

I watched for a little longer and returned to the kitchen, but before I could get back to work getting our baron of beef ready for the oven, I was distracted by the sight of Glory, clad only in her onesie and an oversized sweatshirt that had once been mine, busily extracting seeds from the bird feeder in the back yard.

Once she had what she felt to be a sufficient amount, she made her way around the house to the front, while I cut through, and was thus able to watch her slowly approach our tiny visitor. She gently scattered some of the seeds about onto the grass, the. crouched down warily about two feet away, and gingerly extended the hand full of food.

The minuscule avian was either completely discombobulated or simply a good judge of character, because Glory was clearly in his sight line, but he continued his feeding unabated and apparently undisturbed, despite her proximity.

He never jumped right into her hand like a Disney princess or anything, and didn't actually take any food from her open hand, but hopped about on either side of it, still feeding from the ground.

I did my best to get a picture of the little fellow, but his coloration blended him into the background very effectively, despite the amount of green and yellow visible in his plumage. Given the lack of variety in the types of birds we tend to see in our neighbourhood, I had initially assumed he was a sparrow, but upon further investigation, it seems more likely that this transient is some type of warbler (which sounds like a type of cricket pitch, but is not).

As I turned and began to make my way back into the house, Audrey urgently whispered "Look..."

I turned and saw that the bird was now right beside Glory's hand, close enough that she could feel the fluttering of his feathers as he rustled by.

Soon enough he had wandered away from her hand, and what with the ever present snowfall and the wind picking up, Glory carefully stood up and went inside.

The warbler is by no means an exotic bird, and his behaviour was not really extraordinary, but this small layover on a frosty day was a wondrous reminder of the world around us, and the mildly wild universe that continues on outside our climate controlled, wi-fi enriched environs.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Groove Thangs: Our First Game of Spirit of 77

Our nerdy little kaffeeklatsch has finally returned to the world of role-playing games after a ten-month hiatus, at long last using the Spirit of 77 ruleset I Kickstarted over a year ago. We met back in November to get everyone's characters set up, a step that is a pleasure in some systems and an onerous chore in others, so it was gratifying to me that simply gathering everyone together to establish the various roles and names was an immensely entertaining night of gaming.

There are lots of ways to generate player characters, ranging from random dice rolls to using a points system to buy attributes, but Spirit of 77 uses neither of these. Players choose their Role (e.g. Sleuth, Tough Guy, Vigilante) with no duplicates allowed within a group, and then their Story (Ex-Con, Former Badge, Humble Beginnings).  Instead of alignment, So77 uses Buzz (i.e. their character's motivation, like Cold Hard Cash, The Truth, or Justice) to guide character behaviour, and then gets each player to write down two Hooks that describe how their character is connected to another.

In terms of stats, there are 5 different attributes that need to have values applied to them, and 5 different ranges for players to chose from, like +1,+1,+1,+1,+1 for an all rounder, or perhaps +2,+2,0,0,-1 for someone a little more advanced in a couple of areas, but to the detriment of another one. Once they have applied these values to determine their relative Might, Hustle, Smooth, Brains and Soul, and selected the Moves or maneuvers associated with their Role and Story, they can choose a 'Thang' such as a Sweet Ride or Signature Weapon, or even an Animal Companion, as well as any mundane equipment they can afford. This all gets noted on their 'Rap Sheets', and after that, you are pretty much ready to roll, despite never having rolled.

Right off the hop, the thing that sets Spirit of 77 apart from just about any other game I've played is the tremendous amount of creative license it gives players, and this is illustrated by frantic player transactions and intense creativity as a disparate group of individuals do the game master's work for him in terms of "why the hell would these people ever be in the same place, let alone working together?" I mean, it is one thing to have a diverse range of archetypes summoned together by a mysterious employer, or to serendipitously convene at a smoky medieval tavern when an adventure breaks out, but take a look at this rogue's gallery here:

Johnny J. "J.J." Columbia: The Good Old Boy with X-Tech who's in it for the Thrills. A former Hollywood stunt driver hired by a shadowy government agency and assigned to test the limits of a prototype computer controlled VW Beetle named OSCAR (Thang = Sweet Ride, X-Tech prototype), Theme Song: Goin' Mobile by The Who.

Evan Harder: The Honeypot who`s got the Glam and is in it for the Fame & Glory. Having made his name in the adult entertainment industry, Evan has moved from performing to producing (Thang = small film studio), where his easygoing charm, mellow confidence and unflappable nature have served him well, but really just give him enough capital to indulge his myriad curiosities... Theme Song: You Sexy Thing by Hot Chocolate.

Chris Knight: The Sleuth who's a Former Badge and in it for Justice. When they brought the first desktop computer into the City P.D., Det. Knight saw right away where the next wave of growth in organized crime would be, but couldn't convince his superiors. (Thang = affinity for computers and tech.) As a private investigator he's now free to ask the questions that might just help clean up The City. Theme song: Theme from S.W.A.T. by THP Orchestra.

The Twins - Sean Aeden Finnegan and Niall Angus Finnegan: The Vigilante Ex-Cons who are in it for Redemption. Most folks don't see the Finnegans as brothers right off, what with one of them being a redhead and the other black, but they call themselves twins anyhow, 'cause Mother Maggie says so. They are almost dangerously codependent, but also intent on going straight after a stint in the big house, and know a discreet doctor who can patch them up when plans go awry (Thang = Skilled Doc on call). Theme song: He Ain't Heavy (He's My Brother) by Neil Diamond.

Harlan E. Jaeger: The Gonzo Journalist who is One Bad Mother looking for the Truth. Jaeger's known the score since Nixon's Saigon Double Cross won him the Vietnam War, but needs proof about exactly what The Man is getting up to. As a wild and wooly reporter for the alternative press, he criss-crosses The City, rattling the cages of his informants (Thangs = press credentials and connections), looking for dirt, keeping his mind limber with substances foreign and domestic, and waiting for trouble to find him. Theme song: Le Freak, by Chic.

Connections-wise, it didn't take too long for Mike to suggest that maybe his Sleuth got Jeff's Honeypot out of a vice frame-up, and for Jeff to note that now Evan feels he owes Chris one. Jaeger has done some write-ups on J.J. and OSCAR, and hopes that their X-Tech can give him an inside track on the strange stuff he's heard about it. By the time everyone had jotted their Hooks down, there was a real network of interconnections explaining how everyone knew everyone, even if it was as a friend of a friend. It required no artifice, no huge leaps in logic, and best of all, no additional work for yours truly, the Gamemaster (or DJ as So77 refers to the role).

We were itching to play immediately, but alas, December was just too hectic a month to get everyone together; last night we finally did.

My original plan had been to cobble together a bare-bones narrative so we could acclimatize ourselves to the new mechanics.  I was having trouble getting used to the idea that unlike every other RPG I've ever played, the DJ is never required to roll dice.

No, seriously; RPGs typically use dice to determine the outcome of events, such as did my shot hit the target, or how much damage did my sword do to the owlbear, or did I spot the hidden door. The GM uses a similar process to determine the outcomes of enemy actions, and there are usually modifiers involved to increase or decrease difficulty, but Spirit of 77 uses none of that.

If a player wants to, say, shoot a gangster off a motorcycle who is threatening his friend, he would Make a Move, specifically, Smoke His Ass (hand to hand combat falls under Deliver a Beatdown). He would roll two dice and add the appropriate attribute, Hustle in this case. If the roll totals 10 or higher, it is a total success. A result of 7-9 is a partial success, with the DJ getting to exact some sort of consequence, such as a counterattack, or running out of ammo. A 6 or less is a failure, and nets the player an experience point, because we learn more from our failures than our successes, Grasshoppa.

Should the player miss and afford the gangster a chance to return fire, the DJ doesn't roll any dice, he just tells the player he is being shot at, and the player can decide if they want to Take the Hit or Get Out of the Way as a response.

With all this to take in, I was hesitant to jump in on one of the pre-created adventures supplied with my pre-order, but when I took a look at the adventure "Beast: Bound and Down", another difference presented itself. Instead of presenting a bunch of maps and numbered cues, or even a timeline of suggested events, the module simply lists the various settings and 'Fronts' (antagonistic characters or situations), as well as suggestions as to what might tie them together. It is incredibly free-form and liberating, as well as a little intimidating to those of us used to something far more proscribed.

Best of all, this adventure has a great device to kick off the gaming session: a provocative question called the "Fuel Injection". After taking a moment to reacquaint ourselves with the characters, I started asking questions about what they were all wearing, and what drink they would order in a bar. Then I popped the Fuel Injection query out to the group; "So, whose bright idea was it to steal the beer truck?"

After their eyes unglazed, the players looked at each other around the table to find a likely suspect, many of them looking at Scott, who rose to the challenge as The Twins, saying, "Look, I promised to bring the refreshments to the orphanage for Mother Maggie's birthday party..." and it took off from there.

The game's mechanics and ethos are both loose enough to support this sort of in media res kickoff, so instead of wasting time on how and when it was stolen, we determined very quickly that The Finnegans were at the wheel of the Aloha Express (well, one drove while the other pouted) with Chris and Harlan riding shotgun, while J.J. and Evan used OSCAR as a blocker car up ahead.

Well, it being the Seventies and all, no one was particularly surprised when the players pulled over to inspect their cargo and discovered a drugged up bigfoot trussed up in logging chains amongst the beer.  And of course this revelation would come in the parking lot of the 225 Roadhouse, just as some of the surliest members of the Road Gators M.C. came staggering out, and immediately prior to The Man showing up, in the form of Marmut County Sheriff Wardell Allen Drutherford.

Caution was thrown to the winds as players mouthed off bikers and The Man, leaned out of Beetles at highway speed and took risks for no better reason than their theme song was playing.

We all had a tremendous time, with less time devoted to tactics and maps and more turned to 'what would be the most fun?' Sure, there was some gunplay, some vehicular chases, and a lot of on-the-fly plan revisioning.  Much of the game had less in common with playing D&D than it did with improv theatre or drama games, but there is just enough structure to keep things focused and moving along.

Despite the inevitably adversarial nature of such games, this was probably the most collaborative role-playing session I have ever experienced as a GM, thanks largely to the tremendous amount of player agency the system provides. The whole thing was satisfactorily wrapped up before 11:30, and we are already looking forward to returning to the groovy and messed up world of Spirit of 77.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Blackout & Blues

Most of the time these days, the only clue I have that the power went out in my house is the telltale blinking of a handful of digital clocks. Often, we aren't even home, and when we are, the power typically comes back on either immediately, or within a half hour or so.

So when it went off tonight while I was making supper, I expected a minor delay.  Thankfully the soup was already heated, and the glasstop stove retains its heat for quite a while, but it soon became clear that the accompanying grilled cheese sandwiches would have to wait indefinitely. 

Fenya was on her way back from seeing The Revenant, but Glory was a big help rounding up candles, and even went so far as to remove the battery powered decorative light string from her room. After Fenya arrived, we ate the soup and a caramel apple crostata for dessert.

The original plan had been to get a game of Ticket To Ride in after supper, but alas, that plan had to join the grilled sandwiches in the 'Not Today' column, as the available candlepower would simply not be sufficient if we wanted to maintain our current levels of eyesight.

Fenya decided to take a shower while the water was still hot, and I perused my iPad for some sort of diversion. When I upgraded last year, I got as much memory as I could so I could load it up with movies and comics and apps for just such an occasion, and as a result, had almost a dozen movies to choose from.

Being a Sunday night with the family, I ended up selecting a vintage film, one that the Vatican newspaper described as "a Catholic classic", and set it to play.  After the Universal pictures logo dissolved to a dreary urban cityscape viewed from above, I asked Audrey and Glory to guess the title, but it wasn't until after the establishing shot outside a maximum security penitentiary, watching a convict being escorted by two guards at a brick pace that Glory twigged to it; "This is The Blues Brothers."

Probably one of my three favourite comedies and immensely rewatchable thanks to being tremendously quotable, a ton of fun, and containing some absolutely amazing musical performances by some legendary musicians. It also remains the all time high-water mark for Saturday Night Live movies, and I am confident it will continue to do so ad infinitum.

We had a great time laughing at the antics, remembering scenes we'd forgotten, enjoying the singing and dancing, unconstrained by the tiny ten-inch screen perched on our kitchen table. Afterwards, I watched the credits, noting with interest that a very young Pee Wee Herman was credited under his real name of Paul Reubens for his brief appearance as a waiter, that none other than Chaka Khan is the soloist in Rev. Cleophus James' (James Brown) church choir, and the first prisoner to jump on a table during the closing performance of Jailhouse Rock is Joe Walsh from the Eagles.

We tried once again to count the police cars, but gave it up in favour of laughing; we did catch all three utterances of aggravated officers exclaiming "They broke my watch!" though. While marveling at the concert scenes, I had to wonder how different they might have been if Paul Shaffer had been able to participate, as had been planned.

About twenty minutes after clerk Steven Spielberg presents Jake and Elwood with their receipt for the back taxes on the orphanage (and the receipt still lists 1060 West Addison as the return address), the power finally came back on, about 3 and a quarter hours of outage. The household thermostat had only dipped two degrees over that time, despite the fact that the window thermometer read a brisk -22. Three hours was long enough to make me nervous, but at least power was restored before bedtime.

Watching a movie on a handheld device during a blackout is hardly roughing it, and sure, we could have busted out the cribbage board or some other candlelight compliant game, but in the final analysis, spending a Sunday night at a darkened kitchen table watching two men on a mission from God with my family felt not only tolerable, but almost a privilege.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Railways and Gunfighters

One of the great pleasures of holiday visitors is introducing people to new games, as well as discovering them yourself. On our way back from Leduc, we stopped at Chapters to use a gift certificate we'd received. All the board games in stock were on sale, and I had to stop myself from buying the X-Wing Miniatures Game at half-price, but that injustice became easier to take once it was confirmed that I was the only one in the house who would actually play it.

I had heard good things about Ticket to Ride, however, from a couple of the G&Geeks, and Island Mike spoke highly of both how easy it was to learn (and teach), as well as the fact that most games finish in about an hour, making it a good candidate for after-supper gaming with the family.

At this point, Mum was already with us, but was happy to learn how to play, and we muddled our way through the brief ruleset and had our first game under our belts in perhaps 80 minutes, with subsequent games going more quickly once we knew what we were doing.

I appreciate games with simple mechanics, which Ticket to Ride has in spades. Mum is not one for complexity, but got into this railway game very easily and had a good time. Audrey's sister Vera, on the other hand, rrrreeaalllyy liked the game, and we got 4 in with her over the next couple of days.

A much lesser known and entirely different game that I was very happy to pick up with the aid of a gift certificate from Mission Fun & Games in St. Albert was Flick 'em Up! I had read about this 'dexterity game' on, and was intrigued by the notion of 'cowboy crokinole'.

Straight up, the game gets full marks for production values, beginning with the slide-top wooden box, complete with compartments for stowing all the pieces. The wooden figures representing the combatants as well as cactuses and hay bales are all smooth, varnished, and stand steadily on the table. The buildings are two-dimensional, but are cleanly die-cut from extremely sturdy and thick cardstock.

It sets up similar to a miniatures game, with players setting up the assorted buildings and obstacles according to one of the ten scenarios provided, then deploying gangs of wooden lawmen and outlaws to shoot it out in the streets.

Movement is accomplished by flicking a movement disc (pretty close to a crokinole checker) from the position the figure started in. If you accidentally hit another piece, however, the move does not count.

Shooting works similarly, with the player placing a bullet besides the figure taking the shot, and flicking it at his target. In movement as well as shooting, the thumb is not allowed to provide resistance to the flicking finger, resulting in a weaker but more controlled flick. If you hit an enemy cowboy and knock him down, he loses one of his three hit points, and remains laying down until his turn comes around again.

On the other hand, if you hit the target but don't knock it over, it is assumed the shot only grazed the varmint, and has no effect. It is also somewhat dramatic and highly frustrating.

I have played both girls now and they enjoy the game's speed and simplicity, as well as the fact that for a game depicting bloody shootouts in the untamed west, it is, in their eyes at least, completely adorable.
For my part, I love the game's integrated approach to record keeping, which uses counters instead of paper records. The cardboard hats are both numbered and reversible, letting you tell the cowboys apart easily, as well as which ones have already gone this turn. The hand on the clock in the town hall serves as both a turn counter and as a reminder as to which colour of hat represents available figures that turn.

The scenarios included range from straightforward shoot-em-ups, to rescuing an outlaw from the gallows, and even includes equipment variations such as a Winchester rifle (a cardboard guide you can use to increase the accuracy of your flick), a second Colt, or even sticks of dynamite.

Best of all, it supports up to 10 players so I am greatly looking forward to perhaps having it at G&G XI!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Turducken Cover

Our household hosted Audrey's sister Betty and her family for Christmas this year, then decamped to Tara and Jerry's house on the 27th for a couple of days, with Mum joining us from B.C.. At thanksgiving, Tara and Jerry had prepared the turkey while we brought the sweet potatoes, but the promo email from Costco introduced a neat variation to the affair: their turducken was on sale.


In case you haven't encountered one before, the turducken is a deboned chicken, stuffed into a deboned duck, stuffed into a deboned turkey. Any remaining space is crammed with stuffing, and then whole affair is roasted up at once. The name is a portmanteau of the three different birds, and the technique is described in Wikipedia as engastration, wherein one animal is cooked inside the gastric cavity of another, which is both technically correct and altogether off putting, so let us speak no more of it.


I'd heard of this mythical fowl before, but was unsure if we would ever get a chance to sample it. Even the modest 4 kilo version I saw advertised was supposedly enough to feed 15 people, but leftovers are a part of the Christmas holiday experience, so Tara and I agreed that this was probably a great idea.


It arrived about a week before dinner on the 28th, which is good, as it is frozen solid, shipped with dry ice, and so dense that it takes 5 days to thaw in the refrigerator. It is extremely compact looking, but since there are no bones, the size is a bit deceiving.


Cooking instructions are provided, and slow, low heat in the oven is recommended, although you can cook it more quickly if needed, or on the grill if wanted, but Tara elected to keep things simple, which seemed wise. It came out of the oven looking absolutely delightful.


Jerry got to work carving it, removing the drumsticks (the only bones in the whole thing) bisecting it down its length initially, then slicing it across its access, ensuring every portion contained a combination of turkey, chicken, duck, and Italian sausage stuffing.

Taste-wise, it is a very neat dish, although I would have a hard time telling you how much was chicken and how much was turkey. The duck was also kind of easy to miss amongst the incredibly rich and spicy stuffing, so to be honest, the turducken wasn't really to everyone's taste. Still, with a little luck, you will have a group on hand that is comfortable sharing, and you can divide things up in a favourable fashion a la Jack Sprat. Turkey purists should probably be given first dibs on the drumsticks.

As promised, there were plenty of leftovers to take away the next day, and yes, you can make a fairly effective sandwich with turducken, provided the additional bread from the stuffing inside the sandwich is not a deal breaker for you.


I would not be in any hurry to purchase a turducken again, but I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to try one, and it added a bit of wonder and anticipation to a family holiday meal; it's hard to ask for more, really.