Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The MOBOs and racism

For anyone who doesn't know, MOBO stands for "Music of Black Origin". The MOBOs are a fairly standard music business awards ceremony, where the various people basically take it in turns to pat each other on the back and celebrate making lots of money for the music companies, with one key difference: all the music must be of "Black Origin" - it must be performed, or composed, or produced, or otherwise constructed by black people. In essence, then, it's a form of positive discrimination.

Now, as I've mentioned before, I'm deeply uneasy about positive discrimination, on two grounds. Firstly, positive discrimination towards one group inherently means discrimination against all other groups. Secondly, by engaging in positive discrimination, you're actually sending the message "this group is not good enough to compete on a level playing field, so we're cheating to give them a chance" - hardly a good advert for the group in question.

That said, I can just about get behind short-term positive discrimination in two special circumstances: if we're dealing with a traditionally -ist group (racist, sexist, whatever-ist) and we're in the process of breaking down that barrier, or if there is a lack of, and pressing need for, proper representation across groups (for example, male teachers, especially at primary level, and perhaps female Muslim doctors).

However, that doesn't apply to the music industry, where many of the top acts are black, many of the up-and-coming acts are black, and where there don't appear to be any actual barriers to black people breaking in to the scene. (Arguably, there is an imbalance at the business level - but that's the one area the MOBOs don't touch.)

So, it's fair to say I don't like the concept of the MOBOs. It would be unacceptable to have awards for "Music of White Origin", so why is the other acceptable?

Experimental Cookery (Monday &) Tuesday #54: Lamb & Red Wine Stew, Kinda Hotpot

The fourth and final stew worked about as well as the pork & cider, which was a relief. It also tasted fine, which was also good. And, what's more, the chopped potato topping actually improved the stew, rather than being rather a waste of time as had been the case with the previous toppings.

So, that's 3-1 for the stews. This concludes the stew chapter; I now move on to family roasts, starting with roast beef. My favourite was the chicken & white wine, with the beef & ale stew being the worst, of course.

(Yes, quite a short review this week - I didn't have too much to say, mostly because the stews are minor variations on a theme.)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Some Random Thoughts

Now in list form:

  • I think that, once I finish Jamie's current book, I shall endeavour to continue with my "Experimental Cookery Tuesday" project. However, rather than religiously working through one book after another, I think I will instead seek out something I've never cooked before and try that. Also, it may not be a Tuesday each week.
  • I need to restock my freezer with pre-cooked foods; over the past several weeks I have reduced my stores down to almost nothing. Basically, there are some eight batches of food I need to put together for later use: four different curries, lasagne, chilli, burgers and bolognese sauce.
  • After four months with almost nothing worth watching on TV, Sky now about to start showing no fewer than five shows I want to keep up with in the next few weeks. I am less than delighted about this - could they not have spread them out a bit better?
  • The fifth and final season of "Stargate: Atlantis" is okay, but less good than the previous seasons. Sadly, it really hasn't been worth the wait for Sky to repeat it. Hopefully, "Stargate: Universe" will be better.
  • I'm currently finding that every minute of my day is scheduled before I even get out of bed in the morning. I call this "The Tyranny of the To-Do List". It's not fun, especially since I'm currently 'taking it easy' while band is taking a break, getting some rest before both the tough new band year starts, and the beginning of my Spanish course.
  • Buying a dining table and chairs is deceptively difficult.
  • Why is it that as soon as I decided to bring my SWSE campaign to a halt because I don't have enough material prepared, I immediately thought up half a dozen great ideas for what should happen next? Also, why is it that as soon as I started preparing my next campaign, I immediately thought of half a dozen other campaigns that I would like to run (but probably won't ever have the time)?
  • I wish I hadn't read "Nineteen Eighty-Four". It has made me even more cynical and depressed than I already was.
  • I've been brainstorming goals for next year, and have come up blank. This either means that I've achieved everything I want, I believe everything I haven't achieved is now forever out of reach, or I just haven't had any good ideas yet.
  • The ideal number of items on a list is nine.


#47: "You Only Live Twice", by Ian Fleming (only 5 more to go!)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday (& Wednesday) #53: Pork and Cider Stew / Sort-of Cottage Pie

The third of the stews was just another variation on the same theme. Fortunately, like the chicken stew, and unlike the beef, this one didn't dry out completely during the cook process, and was therefore actually edible. More than that, it was actually nice.

As with the pastry lid for the chicken stew, I felt that the potato topping that made this sort of a cottage pie was rather a waste of time and effort. It was nice enough, but didn't really add to the whole. It didn't really help that the boil-time given wasn't really long enough, and I rather foolishly didn't check that the potatoes were soft enough to mash before I reached the point of having to mash them. Oops.

Next up is a lamb and red wine stew, which I have to make into a sort-of hot-pot. That's next week. That will also conclude the stews, after which I move on to the roasts. In the meantime, the stews now stand at 2-1 in favour.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why can't all deliveries be like this?

My game was cancelled again this week, so I set out to look into the possibility of getting either a dining table or a tumble drier delivered. In the event, I got a nice new tumble drier.

Some months ago, I had searched out the dining table I wanted, but due to financial pressures I never actually got around to ordering it. Unfortunately, it has now increased in price, but that wasn't the barrier. What was the barrier this time is the conditions of the delivery: they'll arrange a delivery date some time in the next four weeks, on a weekday, and the slot they'll offer is "some time between 8 and 6". In other words, I would have to take a day of work (which I currently can't) just to wait in for a delivery. Yay!

(And, of course, there isn't the option to go to the store to get the table, or even to have the table delivered to the store and collect it from there at a time that suits me. Oh, no. It must be delivered to my apartment, and I must take a day off to get it. It looks very much like I'll be getting another table entirely.)

By contrast, there was the drier. This I got from Comet, which was one of the more expensive options, and I had to pay extra for the delivery, which was also more expensive. But it did work so very well...

They offered a bunch of options. For orders placed before 2, I could have next-day delivery, or I could instead opt to wait longer and get free delivery. I was permitted to choose my delivery date at the time of ordering (and have the delivery made on any day of the week, including both weekend days). If I wanted, I could also choose either a morning or an afternoon delivery (although this did cost more).

Having made my selection, they then arrived when they said they would, on the day they would, phoned to say "it will be in the next half-hour", and delivered the drier with a minimum of fuss.

Basically, it was the way all deliveries should be done.

#46: "The Princess Bride", by William Goldman

Experimental Cookery 'Tuesday' #52: Chicken & White Wine Stew with a Puff Pastry Lid

This proved to be vastly more successful than its predecessor. The key difference was that the cook time was much shorter, which meant that it didn't dry out. Also of note was that the wine was poured first from the bottle to the measuring jug, and then to the dish, rather than from a can direct to the dish - this may have affected how much evaporated immediately on impact.

The puff pastry lid was, frankly, rather a waste of effort. It was nice enough, but I don't think I'll bother in future. However, I certainly expect to revisit the stew itself in the future.

So, that will be 1-1 on stews. Next week I'm doing a pork & cider stew, which will be made into a "sort-of cottage pie".

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The AGM, and the Season Wash-up

After a long and tough season, we finally reached the end yesterday, with our AGM. This will, therefore, be my last post about band for a while.

The AGM went well, but was rather dull. These things often are. I was elected to the position of Chairman (actually Chairperson, but I do so hate being PC...) for a second year. Indeed, the core of the committee remains the same, of the previous committee only one member stepped down and was replaced; we have added several new people to bring the total back up to strength.

So, what about the year just finished?

The Good

  • We qualified for the final at three of the four Majors we attended, at the Scottish and European Championships and at the Cowal Gathering. We also recorded our best result at a Major since I joined the band, coming ninth at Cowal.
  • We won at Callendar, and also collected a fourth place.
  • We ran a highly successful trip to France that vastly exceeded the expectations of everyone who attended.
  • We ran a trip to Ireland that was likewise enjoyable, although the result didn't suit us.
  • The band grew in strength and confidence over the year, such that it's almost an entirely different band, despite being made up of all the same people.
  • We ended the year with a small net loss, leaving us well in the black. This was despite a massive increase in expenditure and the recession. It is also a vast improvement over last year, where our net loss was five times as great.


The Bad

  • We failed to qualify in Ireland. This made for a very long and tiring trip that was ultimately disappointing.
  • We lost our secretary in a manner that generated a certain amount of animosity.
  • There was an issue with money surrounding the trip to France, that proved to be a costly mistake. It also generated yet more animosity.
  • There was the issue with us not doing the parade at Cowal, which angered a lot of the parents and other supporters, caused a problem with the bus driver, and threatened to tear the band apart.
  • We were very, very busy. For me, we were too busy this year; I can't do that again.


Lessons Learned

  • This year, we intend to go back to Ireland, and to do better. However, we can't guarantee that we will. However, it is our intention to spend a second night, after the competition, in Ireland. That way, we will at least not have the disappointment of failure immediately followed by a long and tiring journey home.
  • Everything that happens with regards to money needs to be clearly and explicitly spelled out. Everything. Sure, we might think that a "gentlemen's agreement" will hold us, but it turns out that it really won't.
  • Should we do the trip to France again, I believe we'll work under the assumption that we're not getting any grants, and so that the people who are going will have to pay the full amount. We'll still apply for whatever grants we can, and if we do get them then at that point we can reduce the cost.
  • Now that we know the format of the week in France, we can and should do some research in advance as to possible trips while we're out there. If we can build in two day trips, I think this will go a long way towards making the trip better for all.
  • (For me personally...) Don't go trying to set a cerfew while in France. It was just a bad idea. What were you thinking?
  • Communication is very, very important. In fact, despite us doing a reasonably good job, it remains our biggest area for improvement.


So, next year...

  • We will be competing in all five Major competitions this year, adding the World Championships to our schedule. (The rules for qualifying have been changed next year, so that it's likely we'll only have to qualify at the World Championships and at Cowal. Needless to say, we want to qualify at both of these.) Our goal for next year is to start getting in and amongst the prizes at the Majors.
  • We'll only be doing five Minor competitions next year, as opposed to the twelve of this year. We'll be aiming to place highly at all of them.
  • We'll be running the weekend trip to Ireland again, in July this time, in order to attend the competition there. The intent is to stay there for a second night after the event.
  • We've been invited to return to France. The Festival next year starts just after the World Championships, so we won't need to make a choice about which to attend (as we did this year). We certainly intend to return.
  • We've got a lot of new members intending to join, which will require the purchase of a lot of new uniforms. We also have a lot of existing uniforms that require refreshed. As a result of these two factors, we will need to a similar amount of fundraising to this year in order to break even. Although the net loss for this year was small, we cannot continue making small losses year on year.


And that, I think, is that. I am optimistic about the future of the band, but am also quite glad to be getting a two week break from it now.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Competition Season Ends: Peebles Highland Games

It was the final competition of our season, and Lady Chocolat came with us. It was a nice sunny day. The band came eighth out of seventeen, which was a respectable but not stellar result. We also managed to get through the day without any big fights, which is always a bonus.

All in all, it was a reasonably pleasant way to end the season.

A Paperless Life

I find myself intrigued by the notion of a paperless life. There are three reasons for this: it's easier to be organised if I only have to track a handful of items, rather than endless bits of paper; it's tidier to generate less stuff that must either be stored or thrown away; it's better for the environment. (Even if we recycle every sheet of paper that comes our way, it's not 100% reuse - some is always lost in the process, and anyway the process itself requires energy. Better simply not to generate the paper in the first place.)

Of course, it is not possible to achieve a truly paperless life. Some of the steps required rely on other people, while some require the use of technologies that don't even exist yet. Plus, of course, electronic book readers are a poor substitute for the real thing.

Still, there are some things that can be done. And, to that end, there are two things to consider:

Where something can be done in a paperless manner, should it be done in a paperless manner? Is paperless billing the way to go? Can I track appointments and contact details on my phone and my PC, without having to handle cards to those effects at all?

Where something can't be done in a paperless manner, should it even be done at all? Can I avoid getting those annoying spam* letters, that I have to open, check, shred, and then recycle? Can I opt out of the SkyMag that I never read? And so on.

At this stage, this is very much a thought experiment. I'm still at an early stage of even accepting the use of a mobile phone (I know, I'm some sort of crazy Luddite), never mind using it to run my life. And paperless billing worries me, especially for important things like bank statements.

Still, it is definitely something to consider for the future.

* Actually, I've ranted about these before. Why exactly have they not been banned? I mean, this is one very obvious measure that would make a real difference to the amount of waste we collectively generate, would cause very little pain (and actually improve life for a lot of people, albeit slightly), and yet it doesn't get done.

#45: "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", by Ian Fleming

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Preparing the Campaign 3: Other Secrets and Adventure Outline

Other Secrets

The Journal

Early in the campaign, the PCs will come into possession of the journal outlining a detailed plot to kill a noblewoman. Who wrote it, who is the target, is the plan still going ahead, and what do they do with that information?

The Seeds of Chaos

Thomas Black would appear to have inherited the touch of Chaos from his father, and he is not the only one. It appears someone or something Chaos-touched dwells in the Tunnels, and the asylum is filled the the mad and the touched. What is causing this blight, and can it be stopped? Or is the Black Hand destined to fall to the same madness that is about to consume the town?

The Witch Hunter

Seven years ago, Walkenberg was host to a Witch Hunter who found some twenty cultists and mutants, and burned them all. He left, but word is he's due to return very soon, with more names and more evidence. But how did he come by this evidence, who are his names, and just what are his credentials anyway?

Adventure Outline

As noted in part one, the plan is for the campaign to be built of five adventures, each made up of four sessions. The initial plan for the campaign arc is as follows:

Adventure One

The PCs arrive in the town, and are immediately involved in the search for the graverobbers. Once those graverobbers have been identified, the PCs must return the loot to its rightful owners. It is now that they will come by the journal.

The adventure continues when Thomas goes missing, as do a handful of other locals. The trail leads to the elves of the nearby woods, but what are they doing and should they be stopped? The townspeople think they certainly should - and in fact that the Black Hand should deal with the elves permanently. But just what are the consequences of disturbing the elves?

The adventure concludes with the investigations into the Tunnels. How many Skaven are down there, and why have they been killing townsfolk in greater numbers recently?

The purpose of this adventure is to lay out some seeds for later campaign use, and also to place the PCs into a position of relative trust in the town.

Adventure Two

Now it gets dark. The nearby town of Denberg is beseiged by Orcs and calls for help. Lady Aum dispatches the Black Hand with instructions to destroy the Orcs and break the seige. But her orders are also clear: when the mercenaries liberate the town, they are not to be restrained in their 'celebrations'. At best, this means the looting of the town. At worst...

This has consequences, beyond the obvious ruination of Denberg. The Black Hand becomes harder for the Captain to control, even aside from his own guilty conscience. Walkenberg starts to pay the price, despite the efforts of the Lieutenant, Joffrey Lamb and (hopefully) the PCs to keep a lid on things.

At the same time, Neidart and his thugs step up their actions against The Welcome Embrace. This begins while the Black Hand is away, but when they return the PCs will be forced to act almost at once. Quite what they do will determine some of the direction of the campaign as a whole.

Beyond Adventure Two

I haven't yet planned this far ahead. Part of the issue is not knowing just how the players will direct the action. Part of the problem is that it isn't clear what the best course of action to take is. What I do know is that the demands of the Lady will become more and more terrible as things go, the Captin will slowly go insane, the Black Hand will become a menace on the town, and only the PCs will be able to stop it. Maybe.

Key features:

  • The Witch Hunter will return, probably in adventure three.
  • One faction of the Larstein family will move against the other. I'm not sure who will be on each side, though.
  • The Captain will go insane, the Lieutenant will take over and prove to be a tyrant, and Joffrey Lamb will become obsessed.
  • If the PCs remove Neidart, they will find others quick to take his place. Essentially the only way to stop it is for them to take the place themselves.
  • Somehow, all of this will turn out to be the fault of the PCs, though I'm not sure how yet. Perhaps the elves were actually keeping something in check, and the PCs stopped them? Perhaps they unearthed some artifact best left buried?

Preparing the Campaign 2: Cast of Characters

The second part of preparing the campaign is the development of the main characters who will be present. Now, in a TV series, we typically have a number of main characters and then a larger number of peripheral figures. In Star Trek, for example, the three main characters are Kirk, Spock and McCoy, while we have a second tier of characters in Sulu, Scotty, Uhura and, later, Chekov. Then there is a third tier of recurring characters such as Sarek, Chapel and Rand. (There is also a fourth tier and even a fifth. The fourth tier are those characters who appear once only, but are rather important for their one episode. A good example is Khan. Fifth tier characters aren't even important in their brief appearances - they're the "red shirts" whose primary job is die horribly on some alien planet.)

In a role-playing campaign, the first tier main characters are always the PCs (or, at least, those should always be the stars). The second and third tier characters are Non-Player Characters (NPCs), and can be detailed here. (Fourth and fifth tier characters don't get write-ups until the adventure they appear in, if even then.)

The Second Tier

There are eight characters in the second tier. Actually, this is rather too many to be ideal, but it's also the minimum set I think I can get away with. The second tier characters are as follows:

Berthold "Nooseman" Agers (Protagonist)

Representing the 'everyman' within the Company of the Black Hand, Nooseman was a common thug for hire in Bilbali, who made the mistake of being on the wrong end of a gang war. When the dust settled, he found himself in the hands of the bailiffs, and scheduled for a short walk followed by a sharp drop. However, it seemed that Death didn't want him, because the hanging didn't take, leaving the powers-that-be unsure of what to do with a man they couldn't hang again (pesky legal technicalities) but couldn't set free. Enter the then-Captain of the Black Hand, and a solution. Nooseman has been a mercenary ever since.

Nooseman is a permanently dirty, louse infested commoner with a foul mouth and equally foul breath. He's also a first-class drunk, a terrible gambler, and a really good man to have around in a tight spot. He is of medium height, with dirty locks of black hair, an uneven beard, and the clear mark of a botched hanging around his neck.

Nooseman is intended as a friend for the PCs, someone to show them the pulse of the Black Hand, and also something of comic relief - every time the Black Hand goes into combat, Nooseman is going to find himself on the receiving end of a rather nasty injury.

Secret: At the start of the campaign, there is no great mystery about Nooseman. This is slated to change...

Klaus Cooper (Innkeeper, former Burgher)

Owner and proprietor of The Welcome Embrace tavern and house of ill-repute, Klaus is a giant of a man with a ready laugh and a booming voice. He's also the rather unfortunate victim of a terrible curse: he feels the need to help those less fortunate than himself. As a result, his tavern is doing poorly, he is constantly running into trouble with the powers-that-be, and yet he keeps on digging himself in worse.

Klaus is intended to serve as a grounding point for the campaign. Every campaign really needs a 'home base', and The Welcome Embrace is it. Klaus is not immune to the horrors that are to come, but he will also be one of the few NPCs who seem to remain upbeat despite what is about to happen.

Secret: In fact, The Welcome Embrace doesn't make enough money to break even, but rather is being funded by Lady Aum. Why?

Ulliana (Servant)

The Welcome Embrace has a staff of about twelve, all told, be they serving wench, stable boy, cook, barman, prostitute, or some combination of the above. However, only the owner Klaus and the serving girl Ulliana are of particular interest.

Ulliana had the singularly bad fortune to grow up with a dead mother and a drunk father. As she grew up, she first hated the nights that her father would stagger home drunk (for this left them with no coin), and then come to love them, because those were the nights he wouldn't beat her. Eventually, though, there came a day when her father found himself unable to cover his bill, and so he sold the only thing he had of any value - Ulliana. She was to be the bride of the ugliest man in Walkenberg.

But worse was to come, for no sooner had she married the man than the Witch Hunters came to town. Their inquisition found Chaos Cultists and mutants in the town, and her husband was both. He was burned at the stake, and she was disgraced, disowned by her father, but free. She was doubly disgraced a few months later, when her son was born.

Ulliana managed to avoid a life of prostitution, but only barely, and only through the good graces of Klaus. Unfortunately for her, she is now forced to accept whatever torments the patrons and employees of The Welcome Embrace decide to inflict on her, for she has a son to feed and nowhere else to go.

Ulliana is a girl in her early twenties. She is neither pretty nor ugly, but decidedly plain. She wears old but servicable clothes, and is rather too thin, choosing to feed her son rather than herself. She is seldom in good health.

Ulliana's campaign role is somewhat undetermined. It is usually wise to leave open the option of a 'love interest' in the campaign, although sure an avenue is rarely pursued by PCs. She also is the perpetual 'matron in distress'.

Secret: Ulliana's son, Thomas, is something of a few child. Could be have inherited the taint of Chaos from his father?

The Lieutenant (Duellist, former Sergeant, former Soldier)

If ever there was a man born to be a quartermaster, it is the Lieutenant of the Black Hand. Unfortunately, the very skills that make him an expert at tracking and scheduling the movements of equipment and people en masse also make him a terrible choice for any people-facing role, such as being the immediate superior of the PCs.

The Lieutenant was born and raised in a minor Estalian town, the son of a soldier, and destined for a life of soldiery. However, a mother who insisted he learn to read and count as well as fight put him on the fast track for promotion, and this gave him a taste of ambition. He quickly signed on with the Black Hand, and rose through the ranks.

The Lieutentant is a fussily neat and organised person, who always knows exaclty where everything and everyone should be. He always has the answers, and is decisive to make choices where they must be made. He also, unfortunately, views people as entirely interchangeable. Thus, he never bothers to learn the names of the men under his command, only their skills, and is never satisfied with results. He's also an ambitious man, who believes he should be the Captain of the company, and who chafes at the promotion of the now-Captain instead of him. Not that he would ever show it.

The Lieutenant is intended as a foil for the PCs early in the campaign, and is destined to become a real menace later.

Secret: He has a name, surely?

Neidart (Racketeer, former Thug)

The self-styled crime lord of Walkenberg is actually but one of several gang bosses in the town, but the one who will feature most in the campaign, at least until the PCs take action. A small man with small ideas, small ambitions and small desires, he would be tolerable if it weren't for his need to ensure that nobody else does better than he.

Neidart was a childhood bully who grew up to be a thug, who then became the leader of other thugs when he turned his boss over to the Witch Hunters as a cultist (he wasn't, of course). Neidart grew up around Ulliana, and was galled to find he didn't have anything to offer her father when he was in need of a sale. Still, that problem was soon fixed, and now Neidart has his sights set.

Neidart's current plan of action is to drive The Welcome Embrace out of business. He has a three-fold plan. Firstly, he runs his own prostitutes, undercutting the prices that Klaus requires his girls to charge (so they can eat, you know). Secondly, he plays up Ulliana's bad reputation to try to drive away more business and/or stir up trouble. And thirdly, he's on the lookout for any opportunity to turn Ulliana's protectors in to the law. He'll find a way...

Neidart's campaign role is to force the PCs to act, one way or another. They might join him, rival him, ruin him, or kill him, but they probably can't ignore him for long.

Secret: None, really. Neidart is a straight-up villain, someone to be opposed, or rivalled, or eliminated.

Joffrey Lamb (Watchman, former Jailer)

And on the other side of the equation, we have Joffrey Lamb, the law in these parts. A (mostly) fair-minded man, Joffrey resents the use of mercenaries in the town. As such, he has a promise from the Lady Aum that should the Black Hand cause trouble he is permitted free reign to control them. As such, he has made it his mission to be there should toruble arise.

Joffrey Lamb is a tall man with a beard that refuses to be tamed. He wears the uniform of the town with great pride, and carries a cudgel not a sword. He also knows the law only too well.

Joffrey's campaign role is initially to be another foil for the PCs, and to restrict their actions against Neidart (despite his own hatred for the worm). However, as time goes on, he will become something worse, as his obsession with the Black Hand grows, and he becomes determined to ruin them.

Joffrey and Klaus treat each other with cool reserve, or avoid one another entirely. Why?

Captain Reinholt Aurus (Captain, former Knight, former Squire)

The third captain of the Black Hand in as many years, Reinholt is convinced he won't be in the role long. In truth, his tenure has been something of a disaster, as his morals required him to turn down several commissions in the summer. Now, desperate, he has been forced to sign his men into the service of the Lady, knowing full well that her motives are dubious at best.

Reinholt is a good man, in a world of bad men. He's also a man trapped by his duty to his own men, knowing that the Lady's commission is all that will see them not starve over the winter. He's a son of the Empire, born and trained in Altdorf itself. He was once a knight, but saw a chance to better the morals of a mercenary company, a move he now sees as a mistake.

Reinholt's campaign role is a tragic one. The events of the campaign will not be happy ones, and he will be forced to give some terrible orders fairly soon. That will prey on him terribly, and lead to disillusionment, disgrace, and insanity.

Secret: The Black Hand has a secret purpose beyond simply being a mercenary company, and the Captain is the keeper of that purpose. That is why he took the command, and it is why he has led the men here. But, what is that purpose?

Lady Felicia Aum (Noble)

The matriarch of the Aum family, the guardian of the heir of Larstein, and the undisputed power in Walkenberg, Lady Felicia Aum is a cruel and terrible woman. A whip-thin lady in her mid-sixties, she has fiercely grey hair, grey eyes, and black clothing. Her fingers seem abnormally long.

Felicia Aum watches over Walkenberg with a steely eye, and she has divined that she will be in need to mercenary forces in the days to come. She doesn't quite know why, only that they will be needed. And so, she has summoned the Company of the Black Hand, and how puts them to use for her benefit, and for the betterment of her town.

Felicia Aum has no morals at all. She is quite happy to order the deaths of hundreds, and of men, women and children alike, if doing so will fit her agenda. She is even aware that there may come a day when she has to kill her own grandson and those two cousins, in order to preserve her rule. If necessary, she'll do it herself.

Lady Aum's campaign role is as patron and villain. She will be the one ordering the Black Hand to act, and will take a particular interest in the PCs (but of course). She may seem quite the benefactor, but she most certainly is not.

Secret: Just why does Lady Aum visit the Asylum so often? And why does she help out The Welcome Embrace? And what is her ultimate purpose for the Black Hand?

The Third Tier

The third tier are less important characters who will nonetheless recur throughout the campaign. These characters get a name and a brief description, but not a full assignment of careers, nor a secret. Those characters are as follows:

Claudette Larstein: Larstein cousin, noblewoman, noted beauty
Felix Harvester: Farmer's son. Thinks he's a big, tough guy
Gallina Wheat: Pickpocket and guide
Gustav Harvester: Felix's cousin. Also thinks he's important. Good singer
Humphrey Larstein: Larstein cousin, fancies himself a deadly duellist, pompous ninny
Imhol Pimcher: Drunk of The Welcome Embrace
Nan: Halfling master-chef, friend of Klaus
Thomas Black: Son of Ulliana, waif and stray of Walkenberg
Treaker: Soldier of the Black Hand

And those are the characters, at least as far as they have to be defined at this time.

More to come...

Experimental Cookery 'Tuesday' #51: Beef & Guinness Stew with Dumplings

This is what should have been a very nice meal, utterly destroyed by faulty instructions. I followed the book to the letter, and when the stew went into the over it looked fantastic. Half an hour before it was supposed to be finished, though, I found it had completely dried out, welded itself to the pan, and was almost entierely unrecoverable.

Fundamentally, the problem is that there just wasn't enough liquid for the cook time and temperature. This one either needs some water added, or double the tomatoes and Guinness, or to cook for less time. As it is, it cannot be used.

So, that's a rather emphatic 1-0 against in the Stews chapter. Next week, I'm doing a chicken & white wine stew with a pastry lid. Worryingly, the method is exactly the same. That said, the cook time is only half of today's effort, so that might make all the difference.

Epic Fail.

Preparing the Campaign 1: Preliminaries and Setting

Okay, two warnings: if you have no interest in role-playing games, you'll probably have no interest in this post. Also, this is probably going to be quite a long one. I say probably because I'll be doing quite a lot of the work as I go, so even I don't know yet just what's going to be here...

Right, for anyone who's left who isn't familiar with the concept, a role-playing game is essentially a structured form of improvised storytelling. You have a bunch of players and a single Game Master (GM). The GM will devise situations and challenges and explain them to the players. Each player controls a single character (PC) in the scenario as laid out, and will describe what their character attempts to do. Dice are used to resolve conflicts and provide uncertainty.

In general, a group doesn't sit down for a role-playing game, play for an hour or so, and that's the end. Rather, the game tends to be played in a longer format, of longer sessions (generally 4-6 hours in my case), with any number of sessions being run in sequence to build up an ongoing story, or campaign. A good analogy here is of a TV show - you have a weekly episode (session), with an ongoing storyline that runs across several episodes in a season (campaign).

Preparing an RPG campaign, then, is a process of laying out the framework for the situations and stories that are going to be played out in the campaign. In some ways, it is similar to writing a novel or TV series. However, because of the input of the players, it isn't possible to fix most events, and so only a general framework can be assembled at the outset.

Another analogy: consider the creation of a new soap opera. You probably have a series creator, or perhaps a small team. This person will decide on a setting (Ramsay Street), the characters (Grant and Phil Mitchell) and some of the macro events that will occur (a plane hits the village). However, the creator then turns the series over to a stable of individual script-writers, who will fill in the details of exactly who says what, when and to whom. Even the creator cannot fill these details in at the outset. (But, again, the analogy breaks down somewhat. Imagine if, instead of a scriptwriter doing all the characters for an episode, each scriptwriter has complete control over a single character in every episode. Yes, it would be a mess, which is why they don't do TV like that, but it works rather well for the game.)

So, that rather lengthy introduction done, let us proceed to the preparation of a new Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP) campaign.

The Basics

WFRP is a roleplaying game set in a fantasy world very similar to Europe around a thousand years ago. The setting is dominated by The Empire (much like the Holy Roman Empire of history), which is threatened on all sides by menaces such as Orcs, Skaven (ratmen), heretical Chaos cultists, Undead, and so forth. It is a grim, dark game which on the face of it looks like a cheerful D&D clone of heroic heroes searching for fortune and glory, but is actually the playground of dark antiheroes on a path to insanity and death.

Two things have been said about WFRP: "It's the game where you start of thinking you're playing D&D, but find you're actually playing Call of Cthulhu", and "if your character ends the adventure better off than he started, you're doing something wrong."

So, why play if your character is likely to be maimed, driven insane, and eventually killed? The answer to that is the same reason people watch slasher films: it's fun to see how these things happen.

Some Practicalities

This campaign is intended to run through the winter, starting at the start of October and running to the end of April. It would be nice to say we would gather every week, but that's extremely unlikely. Instead, I'm going to estimate the campaign will run for 20 sessions. (This may well be wishful thinking.) Each session will be split into two parts, each of roughly two and a half hours.

My plan, therefore, is to split the campaign into five adventure 'blocks', each of eight 2.5 hour units of time. Each adventure needs to be scheduled such that it can drop at least one session and still work (mostly).

Ideally, I also want characters to just finish their third career by the end of the campaign. (This is to do with character advancement.) To that end, characters should probably finish their first career after the first adventure, their second after the third adventure, and thus be just finishing up their third career as the campaign ends.

(Unlike the Star Wars game, I have no intention of revisiting this campaign once it is done. It should therefore be mostly self-contained.)

It is also my intent to run this campaign by-the-book with no House Rules. This includes things like the encumberance, scarcity and subsistence rules, which go a long way to aiding play balance in this game. They also go some way to enforcing the 'low fantasy' feel of WFRP, making it distinctly different from D&D.

Theme and Concept

The concept of the campaign is that all of the PCs are members of a down-on-their-luck mercenary company, the Company of the Black Hand, who after a long lean summer have been invited to winter in Walkenberg at the behest of the ruling lady. Unfortunately, large numbers of desperate mercenaries descending on an unprepared town leads to trouble...

The theme of this particular campaign is going to be "abuses of power". The PCs will spend a lot of their time dealing with various people in power - the local Lady, their mercenary captain, the watch captain, and various crime bosses. Along the way, they'll see most of these figures abuse the powers that they have, gradually dragging everyone and everything in the campaign down into horror and Chaos. At least, that is if they aren't stopped.

Mood

The intended mood is one of growing horror. The campaign will start off reasonably cheery, with the party arriving in Walkenberg, settling in and meeting the locals, and perhaps even improving the town somewhat. But things will start to go wrong, as a madness starts to inflict everyone in the band. Gradually, order will break down, and the PCs will find themselves the only sane people in a world gone mad. Or, perhaps, the only insane people in a world that isn't.

On Secrets

When preparing an RPG campaign, it is a good idea to fill the setting with secrets for the PCs to discover and influence. Ideally, every major campaign element (character, location, piece of history...) should have at least one associated secret. Some of these are laid out here, although the resolutions are not present (just in case...).

Setting

The specific setting of this campaign will be the town of Walkenberg, in the Eastern provice of Stirland within the Empire. It is a town of some 1,200 souls, rather too close to the borders of the Empire for comfort. It exists within three days travel of the World's Edge Mountains and the Orc hordes who make their homes there, and a mere day from the province of Sylvania, domain of the Vampire Counts.

Walkenberg is also a day's travel from the next town over, it's great trading rival of Denberg. This will probably become important later in the campaign.

The major areas of Walkenberg are as follows:

The Outlying Regions

Stirland is the breadbasket of the Empire, and Walkenberg is a town therefore built on farming produce. For miles around the town, there are extensive fields of crops. The population of the town swells during market times, and also during the periodic attacks by Orcish hordes. By the same token, the defense of the outlying regions is taken extremely seriously in Walkenberg, which depends on the harvest for its very life.

A mile to the south-east of Walkenberg lies a thick and tangled woodland. This is home to a vicious and secretive band of Wood Elves who turn away any who venture near, and are not afraid to enforce this edict with their bows. The townsfolk hate the elves (truly), but are too scared to do anything about them.

Secret: What are the Elves hiding, and why?
Note: no PCs, even Elf PCs should be from this band of Elves.

The Walls

Despite this, Walkenberg is entirely encircled by a thick curtain wall, sufficient to repel a light horde. In times of crisis, every man of the town is required to take up arms for the defense of his home. In peacetime, however, the walls are generally manned by only a few men - generally those whose injuries prevent them working a farm, but whose eyesight and valour is undiminished.

Secret: If Walkenberg has sufficient defense in the form of the militia and the levy, why has Lady Felicia brought the Band of the Black Hand here?

The Manors

Walkenberg is officially ruled by a diumverate of two noble houses, two great rivals for power, the Larsteins and the Aums. Each of these two families maintains a great manor house in the centre of the town, simultanously looking down over the rest of the townsfolk and glaring angrily at the other.

At present, the Larstein house is almost empty, playing host to the infant heir of that family and also two distant cousins. Due to an arrange marriage and then a set of deaths of varying levels of mystery (one from old age, one in childbirth, and then several in a fire), Lady Felicia Aum is the legal ward of her grandson, the infant Timeon Larstein. This renders the Larstein family entirely impotent, much to the ire of Timeon's cousins.

Secret: Were all those deaths really innocent?

Temples

Walkenberg has two temples of any size. The town has a small but grand cathedral to Sigmar, patron deity of the Empire, run by an old, fat and querulous priest. Other than the need to show willing, there will probably be little need for the PCs to visit the cathedral.

Additionally, the town has a dark, and usually ignored, temple to Morr, god of the dead. This temple is run by two priests who dress only in black, never show their faces, and speak only when they must. Their primary job is in the interment of the dead, and the maintainance of the graveyards. However, they do also know of one really skilled surgeon in the town...

Secret: Why do the priests of Morr never show their faces?

The Graveyard

Large and overcrowded, the graveyard is also regularly patrolled to deter grave-robbers. That said, it seems that the guards have recently been caught drinking on the job, and someone has been looting tombs.

Secret: The question of who is the tomb raider will form the basis of that first adventure.

The Tunnels

What sets Walkenberg apart from most Imperial towns, and every other town in Stirland, is the presence of a number of tunnels under the town. These are a combination of natural and man-made caverns, which have been used by the populace in the past as a refuge against rampaging Orcs. Nobody knows just how extensive these tunnels are, or how deep they go, and nobody really ventures down there except when they must.

Secret: Someone has been killing townsfolk, and dragging them into the tunnels. There is no sign of them ever coming out, alive or dead. Could this be the dread Skaven at work?

Galvan's House for the Dangerously Insane

Finally, Walkenberg plays host to an ayslum for the mad. Here, the children of Dr Galvan, Rudiger and Rangar, treat some dozen patients of various forms of dementia. Of course, few who are committed ever come out, and they are seldom quite the same.

Secret: Rumour has it that there is a lost Larstein heir committed in the asylum. Is this true?

More to come...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

'Nearly' just isn't good enough

Last night, Scotland once again failed to qualify for the finals of a major footballing tournament. This wasn't exactly a surprise, as we've had a rather poor qualifying campaign. Somewhat more galling, this marks a major step back from two years ago, when we narrowly failed to qualify for Euro 2008 from a group containing Italy and France (the two teams who had just played out the previous World Cup final).

So, where do we go from here? Well, let's apply my universal five-step process for dealing with failure.

#1: Stop assigning blame

Yes, if George Burley hadn't alienated Boyd, he might have made a difference. Yes, if Chris Iwelumo hadn't missed that shot against Norway, we'd now be in second place and in the play-offs. Yes, Barry Ferguson and Alan MacGregor disgraced themselves.
But none of this actually helps. The Scotland team is not one, two or five individuals. There were maybe thirty (maybe more, maybe less) people directly involved in the qualifying campaign, and this is a collective failure. Singling out one person to shoulder the blame doesn't actually help the rest. Trying to identify one person may simply lead the team to disintegrate as everyone blames everyone else.

#2: Stop making excuses

This goes hand-in-hand with #1. Saying, "oh, we would have been fine except for this person being injured", or "the ref had it in for us, we never get a break" doesn't help. All it does is disguise the weaknesses of the team. Work needs to be done; let's not shy away from that fact.
A corrolory to this is that it is not acceptable to say, "this isn't so bad - we came within one game, within one goal even, of qualification." Two years ago, we narrowly failed to qualify from a group containing France and Italy. This year, we failed to qualify from a group that did not, and we can't even claim it was particularly narrow - even had we won the match we were still trusting to results in other groups to help us.

#3: Identify the problems

Once step #1 is out of the way, and we've committed to #2, the time comes to calmly analyse just what went wrong. Why was it we failed to qualify.

As I see it, there are three core problems.

  1. Certain of the players, and perhaps the majority, don't respect or trust the manager. This shows itself in Boyd's decision to walk away, and most particularly in the antics of Ferguson and MacGregor. This, actually, has been a problem in the past, where Paul Le Guen was forced out of Rangers by Ferguson's inability to work with him. There may be a pattern there...
  2. A corollary to the above: certain poor decisions on the part of the manager. The selection of Iwelumo over Boyd to play Norway is the best example of this, but not the only one. Burley simply seemed never to have the measure of our opponents the way Walter Smith or Alex McLeish did. And of course, if the manager doesn't project both confidence and competence, it's awfully hard to respect him.
  3. We're weak up-front. Once Boyd ruled himself out, MacFadden got injured, and Iwelumo was ruled out of the running (by a combination of that miss and injuries) there really wasn't anyone for the goals to come from. It shouldn't be like that - in theory we have a number of goalscorers - but it just never seemed to happen.


#4: Work out how to solve the problems

Now, that's the real trick, isn't it? Once you're confident that you have correctly identified the problems, you can start work on fixing them, but that's always easier said than done.

Here's what I think they need to do:

  1. George Burley has to go. He's going to be made the scapegoat anyway, where a lot of the blame lies with others, so that's unfortunate. Nonetheless, he simply never projected the confidence that was needed, he did make some really bad mistakes, and he didn't get the results. So, time to go. What is less clear is who should replace him. (I have heard Gordon Strachan touted as a possible successor. I suspect this would be a mistake - despite his successes at Celtic, he is another manager who never seemed to project the kind of confidence we need. We probably need someone older, someone more experience, and someone widely respected. He also needs to be familiar with the Scottish game, although I don't think he necessarily has to himself be Scottish.) This is probably the most important piece of the whole picture - look at the difference Fabio Capello has made to England, using all the same players.
  2. A clean slate for everyone. This is important because it draws a line under what has gone before. Though, frankly, it's likely Barry Ferguson will never play for Scotland again anyway - he's just not the player he once was.
  3. We need more strikers, or better strikers, or better support for our strikers. I have no idea how to develop that, though - development of players really comes from the clubs, and they aren't bringing through Scottish strikers for whatever reason.
  4. No more friendlies you're going to lose. From now on, every match is a must-win match. Winning and losing are both habits, and we're in the wrong one. (Yes, this is at odds with my "friendlies don't count" mantra. Circumstances have changed.)


#5: Do it

Once you have the list of problems, and you have the plan of action in place, the time has come to act. Start with the manager - get the right man in, then have him announce the clean slate, and set up the new set of friendlies. And make sure to win them. Meanwhile, have the manager look at every single striker who is eligible to play for the country (we can't afford to be too proud about heritage), and make sure everything that can be done is being done.

#44: "Pathfinder: The Final Wish", by Rob McCreary

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Day 249: Update on Goals

Next year, I'm definitely not going to update on my progress towards my goals (whatever they are) every 50 days - the year seems to just be flying past. Still, tomorrow is day 250 of the year, and as I won't have a chance to post an update then, here it is. I've been busy...
  1. Super Secret Goal #1. Complete.
  2. Super Secret Goal #2. Abandoned in April; included here for completeness only.
  3. Books. I have now read 43 out of my 52 books for the year, and have picked out enough books to reach my target. Specifically, I'm going to read the remaining 5 Bond novels (including "Devil May Care"), "The Princess Bride", "Azincourt" (by Bernard Cornwell), "Pathfinder: The Final Wish" and the "Pathfinder Core Rulebook". Once I get to my target I'm going to keep on going, and maintain the ongoing list, but won't be maintaining such a frantic pace.
  4. Weight loss. This one was really frustrating, as I finally managed to smash my plateau at the end of July, and got down to within 2 pounds of my target by the time I went off to France, only to put on half a stone while there (and just after). It's taken a bit of effort since then to restart the weight loss, and I've even felt the need to give up Irn Bru almost completely (!), but I have managed to get down to 5 pounds over the goal. With a lot of luck, I'll shift that over the next few weeks.
  5. New skill. The course is booked, and starts on the 7th of October. Then there are ten weeks of lessons, to complete early in December.
  6. Car fund. Complete.
  7. General finances. It's lucky I was working on this, because the recession has hit us (my work) just the same as everyone else, which means I now have somewhat less money to play with than previously. Ouch. (Don't worry - I remain employed, and there's no immediate danger of that changing. I can't really say any more than that.) In the last few weeks, I have adjusted my charitable donations to make them a bit more manageable (monthly rather than quarterly donations), and also to bring them up to the level I would prefer. I also went to the bank yesterday, and made sure my accounts are nicely streamlined. In the next couple of weeks I need to review my pension arrangements, and then try to get back to saving money regularly starting at the end of this month, and then we're done here.
  8. Band. Complete. I'll be doing a longer wash-up post about the band's season in about two weeks, after we've had out last competition (Peebles next Sunday) and the AGM (a week on Wednesday).
  9. The house move. I managed to find some time to sort through some of the junk in the Purple Room, but there's still quite a lot to do. Once it's sorted, I need to actually get rid of the stuff I'm wanting rid of. There's also a dining table and a tumble drier, both of which I still haven't acquired.
  10. TV. Completed.
  11. RPGs. Yesterday was the third of four scheduled sessions required to complete the current campaign. Ideally, we should finish it off next Saturday. (Although, there's an awful lot to get through, so it may run into a fifth session. But that's fine.) I've re-read through the rulebook for the next campaign, and done some informal prep. The next step is to do some 'real' preparation for the campaign, at which point I'm still intending to post some of it here.
The net result of all of this is that I have completed four goals and abandoned one, leaving six to work on. The next update to goals is scheduled for day 300, which is the 27th of October, by which time I hope to have completed the weight loss (#4) and RPGs (#11) goals, be on the verge of having completed the books (#3), and have started on the skill (#5) goal in earnest. But we shall see.

#43: "Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay", by Green Ronin Publishing

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #50: Classic Mince and Onion Pie

Meals like this are exactly why I'm working my way through this book in order. Quite simply, if I were doing the standard of picking items from the book as and when they appeal, I would never get around to doing this one - there's no way I would spend two hours after work cooking up a pie just for myself, and I'm rarely in to eat at the weekend. And yet, this was probably the best meal in the "Homely Mince" chapter - an impressive feat given the other contents of the chapter!

This was really an easy meal to cook, albeit one that took a long time, and the results were extremely impressive. I'm sure I will be cooking this again at some point, although probably not without company.

So, that concludes the mince chapter, and brings it to a perfect 7-0. There have been some very impressive meals in this chapter. However, despite this, it hasn't really had the same impact as the curry chapter, which I think remains my favourite to date. Mince is good, but the curries were a class apart.

Next up is "Comforting Stews", which consists on four variations on a theme of a single stew, one for each of the main food groups (beef, pork, lamb, chicken). For this one, I am going to have to modify my approach somewhat - I think the plan will have to be to cook the meal on Sunday, and eat it on Tuesday. There's just no way that I am going to spend 3+ hours cooking after work on a Tuesday! (There is one other possibility that I will consider - I generally finish work early on Friday, so that may be the day to go for.) Anyway, that's next week...