So it is that time of year once again. The annoying time when people pledge their current baby-steps to self-realization. A part of me doesn't really believe in resolutions because a part of me doesn't believe that the stroke of midnight tonight is anything other than the changing of another arbitrarily measured day.
However, a part of me really does believe in resolutions, or at least the practice of it if not the timing. After all, I do believe in setting yourself a code to live by. As a clergy person there are whole books about expectations concerning my behavior. More generally, my job has a lot to do with finding ways to apply scripture to daily life. It is also not just my job, is it? It is life for human beings trying to walk a path of faith and/or of hope.
Also, ever since I was a little kid, I experimented with personal oaths and codes. Back then a lot of them sounded like they came from the Paladin section of the D&D Players Handbook. Now? Well...they still kinda probably do...
Anyway, I am updating (or applying) that code--I guess--as I always try to do at New Years and Lent. Do I fall short? Yep. Every. Single. Time. But I do believe that being a good person in God's Creation necessitates mindfulness. So--contextually couched in four decades of the study of scripture and the PHB--here is my resolution work-in-progress for the year. There will be a Lenten tune-up as implied...
A Cloud O' Resolutions 2019
If I am blessed to see another year after this, I want to be able look back at the time between then and now and say:
I have learned more Spanish
I was almost always at 10,000 steps
I have eaten less and enjoyed it more
I drank less alcohol but more water and Moxie
I gamed all the games I wanted to game
I preached the sermons that needed preaching
I did my best
I played the music and enjoyed it even when I messed it up
I have edited so much video...
...and am now a YouTube celebrity to 12 people
I have practiced love
I have practiced forgiveness at least when I have failed to practice love
So, not very deep, huh? What did you expect? That is the point. It is a practice and practices are like that. Depth comes with repetition. Anyway, that is my nerdy work-list for the year. Good luck on yours!
I realized that I had made an awkward mistake in my Advent calendar planning. I was so busy updating the “Ukulele Buyer’s Guide” that I forgot to answer the holiday-gift questions I am most asked these days, “What do I get for the D&D player?.” Well...that is a good question, my friend.
As many of you already know, I am a big fan of roleplaying games (RPG’s) as a tool for recreation and self-discovery. When I started playing in my pre-teens it was the only real “team” I was on that didn’t see me as a burden. So I learned about cooperation and teamwork. Later (once I was firmly ensconced as a theater kid and member of the “Worst Cross-Country Team in Maine”) it still served as an outlet for creativity. My theater skills came in handy at the table. So did math but I prefer to think about the theater skills. In short, it was part of being social and learning about other people. It was also fun.
However, what was most important throughout that whole time (and up to today when I am able to get some sort of game going) was the ability to imagine another world. I have written and preached about this. Frequently the way we grow as a society and as individuals is to try on different ways of being. In the game you can be evil or good or just out for your own gain. You can see what it is like to be the sort of person you would never want to be. Alternately, you can practice being the person you want to become. All of this is done in the context of shared storytelling and myth-making. It is actually a pretty spiritual experience whether you are playing a divine caster or not.
Anyway, that is my way of being supportive of the RPG players in your life. Back in the bad old ‘80’s even calm, rational parents-who-should-know-better would worry a bit that their kids were turning to Satan by rolling those dice and there is still a lingering whiff of societal condemnation. I mean, now it is more likely to be considered vaguely nerdy more than threatening. I think that probably has to do simply with the fact that it is hard to make an adult controlled youth program out of it like you can with soccer or baseball.
The game is good and fine. It does all the things that other youth activities to do. Also, it is not just a youth activity! You can play it as an adult with other adults. Trust me. The most active game I am currently playing is entirely made up of clergy. Everyone needs to get out of their own crap every once in a while and imagine being somewhere else.
Definition of Terms:
Okay, let's get back to the purpose of this magnum opus, namely answering those questions you might have about what to get for the tabletop gamer in your life. The first thing that you need to know is that when we say “Dungeons & Dragons” to non-gamers we are using it as shorthand. The fact is, we may not actually be playing Dungeons and Dragons at all!
For example, if someone asks me where I grew up, I will frequently answer “Maine”. However, I do that because most people haven't been to Maine and certainly haven't been to the part I am from. If they turn out to have a connection there, I will start to narrow it down. I will say “the Lewiston area, but I went to college at the University of Maine in Orono.” If they still seem to know what I am talking about, I tell them I grew up in Lisbon Falls.
What usually happens, though, is that I get a blank stare and the person starts to rattle on about Bar Harbor, Freeport, or the Sunday River ski resort. So here is the first and perhaps most important thing to know about buying things for a tabletop gamer: Dungeons & Dragons is the Bar Harbor and Sunday River ski resort of tabletop games. It is the one everybody knows and if they have visited RPGs just once in their lives, this is the one they have played.
However, the situation is much more complicated than that. while people might make a different count, there are at least seven distinct rulesets for Dungeons & Dragons alone. Also, D&D is just one company (owned by Hasbro through their subsidiary Wizards of the Coast who make the Magic the Gathering card game)! Many people play other games, like Warhammer, Pathfinder, or Starfinder, or even things you can't find at the Barnes & Noble. That clergy game I mentioned uses a set of rules called ”RISUS” that takes up four pages of paper and is free. All of this is to say that it is a complicated market and that if you don't know what you are doing, it is best to stick with some generalities. I am talking about gift certificates here.
So, What I am going to do is suggest a few items that are universally appealing and then a couple of web pages for the purpose of safe gift certificate giving so they can order from the system they actually use. Also, gift certificates at any of these web pages might the way to go if your gamer is particularly finicky.
Here are some things that are of general use for the most part. Everyone needs a good set of dragon dice. They usually come in sets of seven and consist of one 20-sided die, one 12-sided die, two ten-sided dice, one 8-sided die, a six-sided die (“the normal kind”) and a 4-sided die. They probably already have a set if they play and certain systems don't use these dice. However no one minds nice dice in the RPG world so I might suggest something special.
The best basic purveyor of dice is Chessex. I have POUNDS of their dice as dice have a tendency to roll into corners and run away. They are also good for the basic extras like dice mats (to keep your dice from escaping) and dice towers (for fun rolling).
If you want to go in big, there are metal dice. I do NOT recommend stone dice for anyone who is going to actually use them to play. Metal is better and they are Metal if you catch my drift. They look cool and they feel great. I have a metal D20 (runs around $7-$9) and I actually feel a bit strange when rolling something else now. The easiest way to get them is through Easy Roller Dice. For other fancy kinds you can check out some of the more general pages I will list in the next section.
Top of the line for those accessories you can get cheaper (but way less cool) at Chessex is Wyrmwood Gaming. They have all the stuff you need in rare woods and gemstones (see above about the stone dice, I always fear chipping)
Dice bags are also good gifts. There are basic ones that come with the standard set but cool ones are cooler than basic ones. Google searches will reveal an Etsy empire of dice bags. Chainmail bags are a current thing as are bags made to look like cute versions of iconic monsters.
Also, if your gamer is identifying as such in public, then there may be some fun clothing options as well. However it's good to check how they feel about that sort of thing. These can be obtained at the publisher web pages and third party sites. Finally, A little bit of conversation might indicate whether they enjoy watching live stream tabletop games on Twitch or YouTube. Channels such as Geek and Sundry, Critical Role, Penny Arcade, and Web DM (there's seem to be Patreon only) all sell funky products--including t-shirts--that contain the usual in-jokes that form the social capital of we nerdy types.
Also worthy of note: Penny Arcade runs PAX, which is a gaming convention that features both video and tabletop games. They come to Boston--"PAX East"--so tix might be appreciated by some.
Easily the two most dominant games are Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder/Starfinder. I love them both. If you know that one of these is what they play (and that they play the current edition), Then perhaps a gift certificate directly from the publisher would be your best bet. They can then pick the thing that they are looking for.
These pages are also useful for miniatures. I am not qualified to discuss them since the last time I used miniatures seriously they were made of lead. That was a long time ago...
If your gamer is more adventurous however, then I have one recommendation. You should get them a gift certificate to DriveThruRPG. This is the page used by most third party and smaller designers. If you are into things like RISUS or the new “old school” games based on clunkier but endearing RPG rule sets, this is the place to go. It is what I use for fun stuff It contains things like modules and one-shots made by semi-pros and very specific scenarios that a game master might just find themselves in need of an hour or two before a session. Much of their stuff is in PDF form but there are hard copies of many things and you can always wear out your printer if you are old like me.
One note, there is always the risk that the thing at Drive Thru isn't as good as you wished it was. That is the risk. The reward is making it better.
The Gift of Tabletop online:
If you are old like me, then you remember the bad old days when it was hard to get a game going because people thought we would all get lost in the sewers after failing to raise a demon. It is still hard. As I alluded earlier. This is not a hobby that responds well to "leagues". The groups are usually best kept around 4-6 people and it is still not something that lots of people are into in a public way.
In addition, people are super-busy! So even if they think gaming is cool and fun it is hard to get a group together. Fortunately technology has helped with that. Easily the most active groups I am in play online on a web page called Roll20. To set up a membership is free (if you are a player and not the Game Master) but a membership for that GM might be appreciated. There are also virtual books and adventure paths that work only on the platform that cost money.
It may not be ideal to meet virtually but it really beats not playing. I am thinking about cracking open this option for my church group. We have met only once this year and even though we live just a few miles apart, it is hard to get together in person. Sitting down at the computer after work and homework are done may make a lot of sense. For adult groups it is almost a necessity these days. It cuts down travel and chitchat so people can get in and out of the game and then on to whatever else they are up to with no fuss.
Incidentally, I am on Roll20 and would love to get a game going if anyone is interested.....just let me know!
Long ago, back when Burbania Posts was on blogspot, I wrote a series guiding the reader through the process of finding and purchasing a ukulele for someone they love during the Christmas season. Back then, they were all the rage. Wherever two or more hipsters gathered, you could find three ukes. I had learned how to play right before the “big boom” and had started a ukulele orchestra at the church. The band grew and expanded into other instruments. Today its former members are in other bands but still play in church when they (we) can.
In fact, this is the season of the Carol Sing. This past Sunday our ukes accompanied a hymn in church and no doubt will be pulled out for other events as well.
That said, things have calmed down a bit for the most part. The market has moved on to other things. The people in the ukulele band that weren't in their 40s are mostly in college now. However, ukuleles are still fun and still worth checking out if you have a folk musician--or a budding folk musician-- in the family. Unlike many instruments, they do not feel intimidating. They are also portable in a way that many are not. If you can still find a good one that is relatively inexpensive, you can still feel comfortable bringing it wherever you go, just like a real Folkie.
Therefore, I will link once again to those original columns but there are some updates I would like to add...
Unfortunately, they cost more than they used to. The flip side is that quality has improved substantially. This is true for certain accessories as well. That said, they are still cheaper than a guitar and much less expensive than many other stringed instruments. The brands in the original posts are for the most part still going strong. Kala, in particular, has a solid entry-level collection. However, I still firmly believe that the biggest bang for your buck comes from the Magic Fluke Company. My go-to ukulele has been a concert size Fluke for years. If you are comfortable with non-traditional materials and appearance, I highly recommend them.
Actually, my opinion on strings has not changed. A good set of strings is the most important thing you can do to improve the sound of your ukulele. One thing that has changed, however, is the proliferation of varieties. They fall basically into two separate groups; the mellow ones and the jangly ones. For mellow, almost "classical" sounding strings, it is worth checking out Aquila Nylguts that are sized for your particular ukulele (ukulele sizes are covered in the original posts). These days you can find them frequently already on the model. Still, it may be worth getting new ones. There are other Nylgut makers and those are also fine.
Fluorocarbon strings are the jangly kind. if you are looking for the classic ukulele sound, these are the ones to get. I would recommend Martin strings ( again, sized for your Uke). There is actually a great deal of variation. Right now, for example, I am using fluorocarbons on my smaller wooden ukuleles and Martin Premium "polygut" strings on my Fluke. Martin actually developed these in consultation with Aquila as an attempt to combine the best qualities of the mellow and the jangle. I find the Premiums to be a bit brighter than nylguts, Each note in a chord feels a trifle more distinct and single notes cut through in a group more easily. They also have a different feel They are less slick to the touch.
Of course, my experience may be subjective...like a shamrock shake tasting like mint. If you buy your first set of strings from either Martin or Aquila, you will be more than fine. Then you can try others to get the sound you want.
When I first posted I wasn't that keen on ordering online. I am still not. However, if you're looking for something more than the standard, online it will have to be. Do your research. A simple Google search usually will suffice. Then order from the company if possible or a reputable distributor. Here are links to the company's I have mentioned in this article.
Here is my fave uke company's web page: Magic Fluke USA
Also, Fluke-guy's brother-in-law is a ukulele deity (Jumpin' Jim Beloff). His page is probably the best place for ukulele-themed stocking stuffers, books (he writes them), straps, strings, etc... Flea Market Music.
Both of the above companies are based in Massachusetts so buy local when you can! :-)
If you want a more traditional looking uke that won't crush your wallet, check out these guys: Kala Brand Music
And the Martin Page...because it is pretty
Finally, the two articles that will make this one make more sense:
So You Want to Buy An Ukulele for XMas Part 1
So You Want to Buy an Ukulele for XMas Part 2
Well that is it for me! Happy Advent and happy uking!
FYI, this is a Makala "Dolphin" ukulele ($50 new) with basic Martin flourocarbon strings ($5). It may not be all you want but it is all you need for a good ukulele time. :-)