RPG combat as a carrot

About to have serious fun getting mutilated by a tyrannosaur.

This is a follow-on to the last post, about RPG rulesets. Here I’m pondering why some rulesets are better for some kinds of games than others.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the argument that “the game is about what the games has rules about”. On one hand, it’s been explained why that’s not always true, and counterexamples abound. As Zak Smith pointed out about Call of Cthulhu: “the insanities (the defining feature of the game) are on a barely-described chart that take up a quarter-page” in a 200-page book.

But on the other hand, a game can guide play in the direction of what it has rules about simply by giving players more toys to interact with, with combat being the obvious focus of a lot of rules crunch. Here are three examples of games that do or don’t pull players toward combat:

(1) In the one Trail of Cthulhu game I have run to date, we spent a lot of time roleplaying and big chunks of the afternoon went by with no dice rolling at all. ToC is fairly rules-light, especially my slightly hacked version, and the skills cover a wide range of interactions so there’s no pull in any given direction. And since it’s a Cthulhu game, players go into it expecting their characters to go insane or die eventually, so advancement is not much of a motivation. The sense that time is running out for the PCs means that life itself is a limited resource to be carefully managed and strategically deployed. If anything, this will push players away from combat.

(2) In WEG Star Wars there typically is a fair amount of combat, but also a fair amount of running around being sneaky and trying to con people, just as in the movies. Combat isn’t privileged mechanically – the game has a universal resolution mechanic and you can roll just as many dice trying to get what you want during a social interaction as you can during a shootout. And XP is usually tied to goals accomplished rather than to enemies killed. Now, most Star Wars sessions are combat heavy, but that’s part and parcel of the setting, not because combat gives the players more to do with their characters. In three-fold model terms, combat in a Star Wars is a simulationist expectation, not a gamist this-is-how-you-get-ahead mechanism.

So in my experience, Trail of Cthulhu and WEG Star Wars are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of dice-rolly-ness. In ToC you can get a lot of mileage out of description, interactions with NPCs that aren’t antagonistic and either don’t require opposed rolls, or require only an occasional investigative skill roll, and giving the players room to scare themselves by seeing threats around every corner. In Star Wars, players are usually going to be rolling dice all the time, but a lot of those may be knowledge and physical ability checks or social interaction rolls. In my experience, neither system mechanically pulls players toward combat, and ToC may actively dissuade players from it depending on how they’ve allocated their points during character creation.

(3) In contrast to those two systems, D&D is split: for combat the rules are pretty well-developed, and the rules for everything else are less specified. You can do knowledge checks, opposed rolls for social interaction, and so on, but mechanically those things are set apart from combat in terms of the level of detail, number of potential modifiers, and so on. And XP is usually tied to killing things.

Now, I have to immediately point out three things:

  • Some DMs tie XP to treasure, whether obtained by killing things and taking their stuff or by more sneaky means, or to accomplishing goals, and either path can provide significant non-combat enticements to players.
  • Some DMs, especially in old-school play, run very unforgiving combats, which forces players to either be more clever in how they screw adversaries, or to roll up new characters a lot because they die a lot. This can dissuade players from “straight fights”, both with the carrot of “you can get more XP faster if you figure out some more clever way to kill the monster than simply hitting it repeatedly” and the stick of “if you don’t think of something more clever than repeatedly hitting on the monster, it’s going to kill you first”.
  • I like combat in D&D, even when it’s horribly asymmetric, like a bunch of low-level schmucks versus a tyrannosaur. Sometimes a straight fight where the party simply fights a war of hit point attrition against some baddies is satisfying, in much the same way that a brutal slugfest in BattleTech can be satisfying. I don’t think the combat rules in D&D are bad – subjectively, I personally enjoy them, and objectively, plenty of other people do as well – and I don’t think D&D is a bad game because it encourages combat, because that is a perfectly fun and satisfying mode of play (again, both for myself and for lots of other folks).

BUT I do think that D&D encourages combat, in that if I play D&D for a while and don’t get to hit anything, I get antsy. Even if the XP reward has been tinkered with to make it possible to advance my character without murdering things, I can’t stop thinking about how most of the stuff on my character sheet is fighting-relevant, and eventually I feel like I’m missing out by not using it. I’m like a dog with a treat balanced on its nose – I may do non-combat stuff because I’m supposed to (the scenario calls for it, it may even be the best way to for my character to get what they want), but what I really want to do is eat that yummy treat (hit stuff until it dies), because the game gives me more fun bits to interact with during combat.

That’s pretty interesting, because it means that what’s fun for me as a player (getting into fights) may be different from what’s best for my character (avoiding fights, at least in some scenarios or circumstances). And that can potentially be an engine for in-game drama – often in RPGs it would be a smart move on the character’s part to just go away or call the cops, but it’s usually a more fun decision on the part of the player to grab a sword or a gun and march into the jaws of hell.

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Why do I have so many RPGs?

Copied verbatim, and with permission, from an email exchange with Mike Taylor, with some relevant links added in post. Mike and I have been talking a lot lately about how seemingly random the hit counts are for our posts at SV-POW! A post we really like and think is important and interesting may sink without a trace, while something seemingly unexceptional can rack up tens of thousands of hits in no time.

Me: We’re not the only ones that get them:

Iiiincidentally, while you are over there you might find this interesting:

Mike: “The thing about games based on licences is that they really need to capture the atmosphere of the work they are based on.”

Nailed it.

Me: Man, I need to get to bed, but I got sucked into reading that guy’s posts. I’m a hardcore system nerd – there’s a crate 1.2 meters from me right now with books for, let’s see, 9 different game systems, only 3 of which I have actually played, and only 1 of which I play regularly. And this is my ‘active’ RPG crate! So his style of taking a game and really breaking down its mechanical guts is like crack for me.

I tend to be much more laissez faire about what happens in play – I’m definitely in the “play to find out what happens” camp, and I expect themes and complexities to arise organically just because it’s humans rather than robots making the decisions and rolling the dice. So I was very taken by this bit:

Whilst I can concede that addressing theme is often what distinguishes a highbrow story from a lowbrow story – the key ingredient necessary to any storytelling effort which wants to consist of more than a series of flashy crowd-pleasing set pieces – where is the Creative Agenda for participants who want to go into a game with the intention of making a trashy story full of stunts and violence without any elevated moral or theme?

from this post: https://refereeingandreflection.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/remembering-the-forge/

“A trashy story full of stunts and violence” sounds like a damn fine RPG session to me – in fact, it sounds like all of the most memorable ones I’ve ever played. And those decidedly lowbrow elements are certainly not incompatible with tough ethical decisions and moments of noble self-sacrifice (see, e.g., Star Wars).

Mike: I don’t get your obsession with rules, especially when they don’t seem to have much influence over your actual gaming. To me, the WHOLE point of D&D is that it’s human-moderated with all the creativity and flexibility that implies, which means that you only need pretty minimal rules to give you a framework to improvise on. Otherwise, you may as well play Skyrim and get all the gorgeous graphics and explorability.

Me: Ah, that was an excellent question, because it made me stop and think.

You are correct, I am no respecter of rules. I have run a lot of systems and although different rulesets have distinctly different flavors and some do some things better than others, basically they all solve the same problem.

But that’s an oversimplification. It’s sort of like saying that every telescope solves the same problem of gathering light and enlarging the image. That’s true, and for a lot of people one scope might be enough. But if you’re a hardcore observer, you’re probably going to want a range of tools to fit different observing settings and different targets. And you may want to try out loads of scopes, on the chance that the next one will surprise you with something different, or land a little closer to your unrealized ideal.

The analogy goes further. I may spend a lot of time reading reviews of scopes and otherwise obsessing about them, but I also firmly believe that what one sees in the night sky is much more dependent on determination than on equipment, in the same way that fun around the game table depends much more on the creativity and sociability of the people present than on the particular ruleset they roll with. I still hack on RPG rulesets and tinker with them in the same way that I hack on my scopes.

To sum up this part, https://refereeingandreflection.wordpress.com/ is to RPGs what http://scopereviews.com/ is to telescopes.

That’s only part of it, though.

The other part is that RPG rulesets usually come hitched to settings, and a fair amount of my rulebook collecting is really setting reconnaissance, and looking for bits from other settings that I can port over to whatever I’m playing at the moment (mostly Star Wars and D&D) or thinking about playing. Of the books in the aforementioned crate, only 4 or so are full rulebooks; the rest are sourcebooks, setting guides, or published adventures. I’m pretty omnivorous, and if I’m a ruleset tinkerer, I’m like a cross between Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau when it comes to adventures. In the one Trail of Cthulhu adventure I’ve run so far, the monster’s MO was swiped from a third-party D&D adventure that I’ve never actually run using D&D, and it worked out wonderfully.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

That’s as far as we’ve gotten. It’s given me a lot to think about. In particular my assertion that, “although different rulesets have distinctly different flavors and some do some things better than others, basically they all solve the same problem”. That’s true to a point, but only so far. Some rulesets do some things so much better than others that they’re a better fit for certain types of stories or scenarios. That will be the subject of the next post.


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Fiction: Lying Low

Let’s start with mountain lions. Maybe that will make the next part easier.

Here’s the thing: there are more mountain lions around than most folks know about. People see them, from time to time. But usually not a good look. Just a flash of grey-brown fur and a long tail flying across the road and vanishing into the brush. By the time it’s even registered in your brain, it’s gone—you’re slamming on the brakes, but for no good reason. It’s over. I remember seeing their tracks down at the creek when I was a kid. Big cat-prints the size of my hand. My cousins didn’t believe me, said the tracks belonged to the neighbors’ Great Dane. But they were wrong. I knew the difference. And I knew they were too big to be bobcat, although we have those around here, too.

So about once a year someone in the area—”the area” here meaning the roughly 10-mile diameter circle around Bison Creek, population 441—someone sees a mountain lion. Usually a farmer, because that’s who lives around here, and farmers are outdoors a lot. Usually at dusk, at a distance, and not for long. Just a streak of movement, a breath on the wind, and then it’s gone.

The mountain lions have learned, see? A century of human-driven extermination has had a powerful selective effect. The dumb ones, the incautious ones, the ones that turned from venison and pheasant to beef, they all got shot. The only ones left are the definition of stealth and cunning. We made them what they are now, as surely as we made Holsteins and St. Bernards.

I think the county fish and game guys know. If you ask them, they deny that there are any mountain lions at all in Jackson County, or the rest of the state for that matter. But that’s clearly bull, too many people have seen them. So I think it’s a cover. As long as the official policy is that there aren’t any mountain lions, the county guys don’t have to do anything about them. “No, sir, must’ve been coyotes killed your calf. No mountain lions around here for a hundred miles.” I don’t know if that’s an off-the-books policy to protect the mountain lions, or for the county guys to protect themselves. The mountain lions pop up for about one sighting a year at best—how the hell are you going to track and kill that?

* * *

I started thinking hard about mountain lions after I found what I found in that coyote den.

Have you ever been all alone out in a big pasture in the middle of the afternoon? Not a soul around for miles. It’s better on windy days, then there’s some noise. On the still days, it’s really still. I mean, nearly silent. The only sounds at all are your feet pushing through the grass and the almost subliminal drone of cicadas in the trees. And the sun is out, but somehow that just makes it worse. It’s the horizon, it’s too low, and the sky is too big, and there you are in the middle of a sea of grass, with the sun pinning you down like a bug.

Part of me hated it. But part of me loved it, getting away from everything. Chores. Responsibilities. People. It was better when I went out in the morning, when there was still a trace of dew and you might catch a turtle out sunning itself. Or in the evening. Then I would go climb this bluff where the creek bends west, and watch the sun set. From up there you were high enough to see a few of the neighboring farms and the grain elevators in town. You could watch the sun go down and people’s lights come on and it seemed like the world closed down to a little bowl holding the town and the farms and the happy people inside of both.

Afternoons were worse, when I was down in the grass and couldn’t see any farms, couldn’t see any sign of humans at all besides the distant fences and the wheat. That’s when all that emptiness would weigh on me. But I went out anyway. Like I said, sometimes I just needed to get away. And I had a perverse streak, too, when I was a teenager: if something was difficult or uncomfortable I’d do it, just to personally extend a middle finger at the universe.

So there was this coyote den. Abandoned several years—I remembered when the coyote hunters had come through when I was kid. They didn’t get all the coyotes, not nearly, for coyotes have gotten to be almost as careful as mountain lions. But they cleaned out that den, and for some reason no other coyotes had come back to take it over. And I got to wondering if there were any bones down in there. Back then I was always picking up bones wherever I went, still had ambitions of being a paleontologist someday.

I’d better explain about this pasture. It was only a little over half a mile across, east to west, with wheat fields on either side. But north-south it went all the way from one section road to the next, the full mile, with the creek winding through it. Belonged to the Tanners, good friends of my folks, and they never minded if we boys went down there to play around, as long we didn’t bother the cattle. Not that there were cattle all the time, sometimes they had the cattle out on the wheat fields and sometimes in other pastures.

There was an old barb wire fence about halfway down that cut the pasture in two across its narrow point. That fence was not in great shape but some brush had grown up around it and the cattle wouldn’t usually go through. So it was two pastures, really, one on the north and one on the south, but the Tanners pretty nearly always ran the cattle on the south side, because that’s where the old loading chute was, and the gate for getting trucks in and out.

The north side was better for stomping around. Cattle play merry hell with a creek, coming down as a herd and churning the creekbed to mud and crapping everywhere. A few years of that and a nice sandy creek with fish and turtles and birds turns into a muddy little piss-stream with just a few bullfrogs holding out. So the north side, upstream, was nicer, and I preferred to go to there on my rambles. And that’s where the coyote den was.

The funny thing is, the den is just not that remote. You can see it from the high point on the county line road, if you look south from the bridge over the creek. It’s a good way off, nearly half a mile south of the road, but clearly visible. It’s in one of the little hillocks—I hesitate to call anything so modest a bluff or a butte—at the edge of the creek’s miniature floodplain. Just a hump of sandy earth about eight feet tall, twelve or fifteen feet across, with four or five good-sized holes scattered around on the sides. But the north side of the pasture wasn’t used hardly at all and the coyote den was on the side of the creek opposite the truck gate, so nobody with a vehicle had been over there in probably 50 years or more. I know the coyote hunters just parked and walked in, because I had seen their trucks by the side of the road from my upstairs window. Mom was pretty unhappy that day—she didn’t like alcoholics with guns wandering around shooting things within rifle range of the house, so she kept us all inside until they were gone. We were little, then, and the idea of hunters coming from somewhere else to ‘our’ pasture was rather exciting. As if they were famous big-game hunters instead of poor folks from two towns over.

So anyway, despite being in the middle of long-settled farming country, and despite being in a pasture where it was at least theoretically visible from the road, this coyote den didn’t get much traffic. I might well have been the first person to visit since the coyote hunters, and that had been almost a decade back.

It was one of those hot, still afternoons that I halfway hated but put up with anyway. Usually in the north pasture I could find something worth the hike. A scissortail flycatcher flitting across my path, or maybe a box turtle or fence lizard. But not that day. Too damn hot, everything with a lick of sense was holed up somewhere waiting out the heat. Everything except me, I guess. And I remembered about that coyote den and wondered if there were any bones left inside.

The previous month my brother had found some owl pellets on the ground under the big nest in the tree by the road, and we’d picked them apart and found teeth and bones from field mice and voles, and one tiny jaw I thought came from a shrew. And I figured the coyotes had probably brought prey back to the den, and maybe there were some bones in there I could identify and add to my collection. So I walked around the den to see if one of the holes was big enough for me to fit through.

The first thing that struck me as off was the smell. First, that there was a smell at all. There hadn’t been any coyotes in that den in years. I knew that much because at dusk you could hear the next pack over howling, but they were northeast of the house. This den was southwest, and we hadn’t heard any coyotes from this direction since the hunters came through.

Then there was the smell itself. There’s a different smell when an animal rots in a confined space, than when it goes off in the open. Something to do with airflow and what insects get it at it and when. Once this opossum got up into the attic and died, and even after Dad had cleared out the carcass, the stench was so thick that I had to sleep downstairs for a couple of nights. The upstairs had been permeated by this sickly sweet funk that seemed to crowd out all other sensations, like the high point of an invisible tide going over your head, leaving you underneath it. That same smell was coming out of the den.

At first I wondered if maybe a badger had set up shop. But that didn’t ring true. I’d seen badger holes and they’re small. I couldn’t see a badger living anywhere with so many big open doors. And, more importantly, badger holes don’t stink. I don’t know if they eat their prey outside or bury the indigestible bits or what, but their holes don’t have a noticeable smell. And this coyote den did.

But, hell, I was young and I thought I knew all of the local fauna and the sun was out, so I was more curious than anything. I figured something had crawled into the old coyote den and died – a raccoon, maybe even an armadillo. I was hoping for an armadillo. It’s almost impossible to get one with the shell intact, since all the dead armadillos I’d found had either been splattered on the road or killed at close range with a shotgun. So I got down on my hands and knees and wiggled up to the biggest hole.

Well, right away I could see it was going to be uncomfortable to get far enough in there to see anything, because the hole was so small. I’d have to stick my arms in first, to make my shoulders smaller, and push in on my chest. But discomfort is relative, and I was already hot and sweaty and dirty, and by now I was getting excited. I had been afraid that I might not be able to get into that coyote den at all, and now it looked like I could, and as bad as the smell was, it suggested that there was something worth crawling in there to see.

The particular hole I was crawling into stayed pretty narrow for a little over two feet, just far enough that I had to do some serious chest-sliding and got a good handful of dust and dirt down my t-shirt. But after that it widened out some, and I could get my hands out on either side and sort of pull myself in. I might not have, if I could have seen what was ahead, but that damned hole was so tight I had my face smashed down between my arms, eyes closed against the dust, and for those few minutes all I could smell was earth and sweat.

Eventually I did get far enough in there to raise my head a little. It was pretty dark inside. I mean, there was some light coming in through the other holes, but they were all smaller and more twisting than the one I’d crawled through, and they didn’t let in much light. But my eyes had been shut against the dirt while I was pushing in, so they were already partly dark-adapted.

At first I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. I mean, there were bones, clearly, lots of bones, in a pile in the center of the open space, a sort of communal room in the center of the den. But there wasn’t anything I could identify at first. No armadillo shell, that was for sure. Just lots of little bones. And that dead-animal-in-the-attic stench, so strong it made my eyes water.

You ever have one of those moments when it takes your brain a second to catch up with your eyes? And you’re thinking, “What the hell!?” until you get a second glance and realize that the giant spider in the corner is a just crumpled-up dress sock? This was something like that. After a few seconds my brain reoriented and I realized that I wasn’t looking at a pile of little bones, I was looking at a pile of big bones that had been smashed. Some of them were clearly deer. I saw the end of one of the cannon bones—the long skinny bones just above the feet—sticking out on the edge of the pile, and some fragments of vertebrae, and something that might have been a scapula.

Understand, I was just at the basic level of trying to work out what I was looking at. I was just taking it in. I hadn’t even started to think about how those bones got in there, or how they’d gotten into the condition they were in. If I had, I would have backed out of that hole a lot sooner, and you wouldn’t be reading this.

So there I was, wedged halfway through this little hole in the wall of an abandoned coyote den, looking at this big pile of smashed bones. Deer, I thought, and I was mostly right about that. But not entirely.

Damn science magazines. All the time back then they were running stories on fossil hominids from Africa. I’d read enough of those articles that the profile of an australopithecine skull was fixed in my memory. Especially the brow ridge, the way it flared around the eye sockets and then dipped back down behind, with a big trough before the avocado-like swelling of the braincase.

Well, that’s what I saw. Or, that’s what I thought I saw, sticking out of the edge of that pile of bones. “No way,” I thought after a moment, “I wonder what it really is.” So—God forgive me—I scooted in there just a little further, until I could reach that piece of bone between my first and second fingers and fetch it back.

I almost dropped it, it was so greasy. I wish like hell I had. Because it was what I thought it was, after all: a good chunk of brow ridge, going from maybe mid-forehead around to the side, with a potato-chip-sized piece of the braincase still attached behind. I wasn’t really sure until I turned it over and saw the blood vessel tracks on the inside. I’d seen those before, on the human skull in the science lab at school, with the top of the head on a hinge so you could open it up and look inside. Inside our skulls the blood vessels run in channels in the bone, like rivers, with deltas and tributaries and everything. And that’s what I had in my hand, a little arterial meander inscribed into a bone that should not – could not – be there.

I don’t know if I yelled or not. But I started backing out of that hole as fast as I could. Or trying to, anyway. You ever have to back out of a narrow hole when your hands don’t have much of anything to push on and your legs are flat in the dirt? I must have gotten a good start nevertheless, because I forgot about the face-in-the-dirt thing and banged the back of my head on the inside of the hole. So for a few frantic seconds I was seeing stars, breathing dirt, and using most of my muscles in ways that they weren’t meant to be used.

Well, I got out of that hole. And I still had that chunk of brow ridge in my hand. I didn’t mean to, really, just sort of made a fist around it when I started trying to back out.

My first thought was to get the hell away from there. And my second thought was to tell someone. Anyone. I mean, maybe I was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t a piece of skull from…something that had no right to be there. I had the distinct gut-punched feeling that I was not wrong, though. And whoever I did tell, I wanted them to believe me. So I held onto that piece of bone, for all the good it did me.

That was a long walk home, through the pasture, all alone under that horrible empty sky. For the first time in my life I got acquainted with the reality of putting something out of my mind. That expression had never made sense to me before—how do you just decide not to think about something? But I didn’t think about a lot of things on the way home. Didn’t think about all the times I’d been out on a ramble and I’d felt like something was watching me. Especially didn’t think about how many times I’d caught a fleeting glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye and had written it off as a bobcat or raccoon disappearing behind some bushes.

What I thought about instead was how best to proceed. I wasn’t going to show the bone to my folks. They didn’t believe in evolution, thought all the fossils from Olduvai were forgeries or over-interpreted chimp bones. My science teacher, though, he might be sympathetic. Mr. Gibson was something of an amateur paleontologist himself—had gotten his picture in the paper a couple of times for finding mammoth tusks on the edges of wheat fields. I decided I’d take the bone to him, and start there. Maybe if it was what I thought it was, he could get it to someone at a college or museum, like he had with the mammoth tusks.

But it was Saturday and school wasn’t for two days, and I certainly wasn’t going to call Mr. Gibson and say anything about it. Not a word until he could hold the bone in his hands and tell me for sure whether it was just a weird bit of deer pelvis or turtle shell. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring the bone into the house. For one thing, it stunk. For another, it might have raised questions.

I started feeling safer once I crossed the road and got onto our property. The propane tank, the clawfoot tub Mom had turned into a flower planter, the old tractor rusting by the fence—these were blessed touchstones of normalcy. Instead of going to the house, I went on down the long driveway to the barn. We used it as a garage, had ever since Dad got a job in town and we got rid of the last of our livestock. The hayloft hadn’t been used in years. There was a shelf up there with some old coffee cans and such, full of spare bolts and used oil filters and all of the mechanical odds and ends one finds on a farm. I wrapped the bone in a red shop rag and stuffed it into one of the coffee cans—and not one on the top row, either.

By that time it was getting on toward dinner so I went into the house, washed up, and got on with my evening. I couldn’t stop thinking about the bone, and I was probably pretty poor company. But I was a teenager, and I reckon I was distracted often enough that my folks thought nothing of it. And my brothers thought I was a moody jerk anyway.

The next day we had church and then a fellowship lunch at the community center, and after that I went over to Chad’s place to play video games and sneak a couple of beers out of his dad’s fridge. By the time I got home, the sun had just set, but it was still plenty light out. The gloaming, they call it, but I think that’s an awfully ugly word for such a beautiful time of day. I went out to the barn to check on the bone, so I could grab it the next morning before I went to school.

Everything looked fine at first. The cans were all stacked just as I’d left them. I took a couple off the top until I could get down to the one where I’d stashed the bone. I pulled out the shop rag and it felt wrong even before I’d opened it. The chunk of bone I’d taken from the coyote den had been broad and sort of Y-shaped, with the side of the brow ridge curving away from the braincase fragment. But whatever was in the rag now was longer and narrower.

I’m reconstructing a bit here, you understand. I didn’t stop and think about all of that at the time, I was going too fast. But sure enough, when I finished unrolling the rag there was something different inside. At first I thought it was a stick, but when I got it uncovered I could see that it was a cannon bone from a deer. A fragment of one, anyway. Cannon bones are strong, you could beat someone to death with one if you had to. But this one was shattered just a few inches from the end. And not just shattered—the end had clearly been gnawed on by something strong.

At first I thought one of my brothers had done it, playing a prank. But the bite marks did not match those of a dog or coyote or mountain lion. I had studied those. And although the dust was pretty thick up in the hayloft, the only prints on the floorboards matched my tennis shoes. That’s when I looked up, and saw how the rafters came down to the wall right over that shelf.

I found the print on the top shelf. It was a hand print, and it was facing the wrong way: fingers pointed out away from the wall, opposite the direction a person’s hand would fall if they were standing in front of the shelf. Like something had crawled down the rafters from above, so as not to leave any prints on the floor. So careful. And the print was the wrong shape—too small, palm too long, too heavily creased. I knew it had been left by no person, as sure as I knew the mountain lion tracks down at the creek weren’t made by any dog.

There was only the one print, and when my heart had settled down enough I grabbed a rag and wiped it away. It was getting late for a Sunday evening and I don’t remember what excuse I told my folks, but I borrowed the truck. I drove down to where the bridge goes over the creek as it flows into the north pasture, and I flung that chunk of cannon bone as far as I could. It fell into the water and I never saw it again.

* * *

I never went to that pasture again, either. Stopped going on rambles. Spent more time indoors, watching games with Dad or helping Mom with her little projects. The next year I went off to college. Didn’t care for bones anymore, so I went into computers. Moved halfway across the country. Like seemingly everyone from my generation, now I’m a sysadmin living in Baltimore. I like amusement parks and movie theaters. I drive places. I don’t even own a pair of hiking boots.

But I can’t stop thinking about mountain lions. How they’re there, but we never see them. I grew up in mountain lion country, 18 years there, and never heard of anyone finding any mountain lion remains. They’re careful, you see. They have to be, to live alongside us. Most people don’t even know that they’re around. They’re denied by the authorities. In Jackson County, mountain lions are essentially cryptozoological phenomena.

I think about what a mountain lion might do if it was even smarter. Like live in abandoned coyote dens where no-one ever went. Eat deer and pheasants that no-one would ever miss. Go down to the creek right where the cattle do, so they’ll trample out its footprints the next morning. Use rocks to smash the bones of its kind after they died, so no one would ever be able to identify them. And most of all, watch. Watch us. Learn what it needed to do to survive the temporary plague of Homo sapiens.

And if someone did find something, a bone from one of its kind, and took it away, maybe go and retrieve it, and leave a warning behind. No footprints, nothing too overt. Maybe just one handprint, where it might not be found but could not be misinterpreted if noticed. A very specific kind of warning, from something older and stronger and more agile than…well, than we are. I think that strategy might work. I think it might work very well indeed.

So I’m like one of the county guys now. No mountain lions around here, no sirree. Must have been coyotes. Sorry about that calf.

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10 simple rules for a healthy aquarium


Clockwise from top: Chad, Wagatha, Pearl (trailing a truly impressive string of poop), and Miss Chanandler Bong. Spot was enjoying some alone time down at the bottom of the tank.

In a comment on my first aquarium post, Mike wrote,

I just skimmed the page about cycling an aquarium. This was a healthy reminder of why I don’t attempt to keep fish — the whole process seems terrifyingly complex.

I commented that fishkeeping only seems terrifyingly complex – it actually runs on a handful of guidelines that almost always work. I started writing them out in the comment, and when I got them all down, I cut them out and pasted them here. Without further ado:

Matt’s 10 Rules for a Happy Aquarium

  1. Be patient. Start small, with many fewer fish than the tank will ultimately support, until the nitrogen cycle is up and running (I guess knowing about the nitrogen cycle is step 0).
  2. Start with hardy, inexpensive fish, that can withstand some swings in temperature and water chemistry. In practice this often means fish that evolved in crappy environments, and fish that are good at establishing new populations. Ancestral platies are from shallow streams in Mexico, and there are introduced platy populations in Florida (expected), Singapore, Hong Kong, and Montana (whut), so they’re pretty tough. Get a fish book and learn the basics about some prospective boarders.
  3. Make sure the temperature of the tank suits the fish. Goldfish do best in the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit, tropicals in the 70s to low 80s. Some fish are picky and have narrower ranges – those fish are usually picky in other ways and are not good starter fish. See the fish book.
  4. Give some thought to how fish get along with others, or fail to. For schooling fish, get small groups rather than individuals. Don’t keep fin-nippers like tiger barbs with long-finned fish like angelfish and bettas. How will you know which are which? See the fish book.
  5. Realize that almost all pet-store fish are young juveniles and they will grow, so plan for the adult size, not the size-at-time-of-purchase. For the adult sizes – see the fish book.
  6. Don’t overcrowd – one inch of fish per gallon of water is a good target once the tank is fully up and running. If you want 15 to 20 fish, get a 15-to-30 gallon tank, start with 5 fish, and build up patiently. See the fish book.
  7. Don’t overfeed – give only as much food as the fish will entirely consume within 5 minutes. See the fish book.
  8. Do filter heavily. IME it’s hard to over-filter. I started out running big-ass filters because I was keeping aquatic turtles that generated a lot of waste, but those big filters kept the tank looking good even when I had no turtles. The more biological filtration – letting the water run over or through filter media with crud growing on it – the better. See the fish book.
  9. Keep live plants, the more the better. First because they’ll outcompete the algae and you’ll spend much less time scraping the tank. If you have live plants and a snail or plec, your scraping time may be zero. I’ve never scraped algae in my life, and I never will. I’d rather buy a cheap bundle of anacharis and a snail and never worry about it again. Second, because the more complex and diverse the tank ecosystem is, the better it will be buffered against all kinds of maladies, from chemical imbalances to bacterial blooms to parasites. Not all fish books push readers to keep live plants, but most do.
  10. Accept that even if you do all of that stuff, you’ll still lose the occasional fish, especially when you’re first starting out. Those hardy fish from crappy environments are strongly R-selected so although they are tough they are also evolutionarily disposable and they die at odd times, often for no detectable reason. Accept it and move on. In the same way that one builds a body of work by publishing one thing after another, one remains a fishkeeper by not quitting when fish die.

I rather snarkily added “See the fish book” to as many entries as possible because all of this stuff is covered in any intro fishkeeping book. There are zillions of these on the market, and any of them are probably good enough for someone starting out. I prefer older, more comprehensive works. A printing of Exotic Aquarium Fishes by William T. Innes from the 1960s or 70s can usually be had for a buck or two (example), and it will have a LOT more useful biological data than the newer, flashier titles.

Now, compare all that to what far too many aspiring fishkeepers actually do: get some crappy little 1- or 2-gallon nano tank or betta bowl, put in a couple of goldfish – which would maximally stress an established, cycling 5-gallon tank, let alone a brand new nano tank – and no live plants, with probably inadequate filtration and no temperature control, and then be shocked and disappointed when the fish get sick, get parasites, and die. When 5 minutes of online investigation would have led them to any of a zillion advice pages like this one.

It’s just like stargazing or most other hobbies – you can avoid most of the frustration for a trivial outlay of research time.

Posted in aquarium | 4 Comments

Aquarium update 2: the personalities of the platies

Four days on and all five platies are still alive. I spent about an hour yesterday trying to photograph them. It’s a HUGE pain in the rear. Both the iPhone and the Coolpix have 0.5-1.0 second delays while they autofocus, which is necessary because the fish are always moving through the depth of field, but it also means that I can only get a clean shot when (1) a fish decides to stay put for a whole second, which is rare, or (2) I just get lucky and one of the fish happens to pause when the camera fires. I did get a few keepers, but man, it took throwing out a lot of duds. The ones you see here are radically cropped and otherwise tweaked.

London and I gave them names today.


The green one is a wag – a platy with darker fins than body – so we named her Wagatha. She is so far the smartest. She is always the first to figure out when we’ve put food in the tank, for example, and the other fish tend to follow her lead. But she is much less gregarious than the others – they seek out her company, but not vice versa.


The orange ones are two males and two females, each with one larger and one smaller example. The big male is a bully – he chases off the smaller male, shamelessly courts the big gold female, and staunchly ignores the green female and the small orange female. We named him Chad in honor of his frat-boy antics.

The big orange female is very gravid – we’ll have fry soon, I reckon a week at most – and just wants to be left in peace. She tries to get off on her own, but she’s not as well camouflaged as the green female, and both males are constantly seeking her company, so it’s a challenge. Sometimes she gets five minutes’ peace hiding behind a root or plant. We named her Spot, because of the single black scale in front of her tail on either side.


The small male is kind of pathetic. He just wants to hang out with either of the two larger females, but neither of them will tolerate his company. And because they’re bigger, they can out-swim him or chase him off. His name is Miss Chanandler Bong.

You can see in this photo the gonopodium that lets us recognize the males – it’s the backwards-pointing tube behind the pelvic fins, where females have a broad anal fin. The gonopodium is in fact the anal fin, modified into a sperm-delivery device. I’ve been intrigued to see that the males still use their gonopodia when changing directions, flipping them out sideways to help make turns. It’s really cool that the gonopodium has acquired a new function delivering sperm, without completely losing its old function of helping the fish maneuver.


The small orange female has shown the least inclination for anything in particular. She seems to be content to school with the others, without trying to intrude on anyone or get away by herself. Sometimes she ends up alone when everyone else is off doing other things, and she seems fine with that. She’s the smallest of the lot and probably the youngest, so this may be juvenile behavior. We named her Pearl.


The mystery snail is Butterball. Not much to say about it – it roams, it eats. It was gone all day yesterday. Apparently it got lost inside the big artificial root decoration in the center of the tank, which is hollow. But it was back today.

Watching all of these behaviors is for me about 90% of the fun of keeping fish. And every time new fish go in the tank, the social order gets stirred and new behavior patterns emerge. We won’t add any more for a few weeks, to let the nitrogen cycle settle down, but I’m already curious about the new behaviors we’ll see.

Posted in aquarium | 5 Comments

Starting a new aquarium


I asked for money for Christmas, and used my haul to set up a 15-gallon tank in our living room. It’s good to be back to this – I’d missed it.

I had a series of small tanks right after Vicki and I got married, which rapidly culminated in a 44-gallon room-corner tank that I ran from 1997 to 2001 in Norman, Oklahoma, from 2001-2006 in Santa Cruz, California, and from 2006 to 2007 in Berkeley. I didn’t try to set it up during our one year in Merced, and made only one brief, abortive stab at it after we moved to Claremont in 2008. That tank sat in our garage until I sold it last year.

This time I wanted to go for something a little more modest. Plus, we have a pretty full house already so whatever tank I got had to fit into existing space. This one sits on a (very sturdy) living room table that was otherwise only holding whatever laptops and tablets no-one was using at the moment.

I bought the tank and set it up on Monday, with gravel I’d saved from my old setup and some new aquarium decorations and a few strands of anacharis (Egeria densa). I’ll add more plants in the future, but I wanted to stick with something cheap and hardy during the run-in period. On Wednesday London and I went back to the store to get some fish. We settled on five platies (Xiphophorus sp.) and one little plec (Hypostomus plecostomus).

The plec died today. Not super surprising, since the tank will still be cycling for the next few weeks and it’s natural to lose a few fish, even of the very hardy varieties, until things settle down. The plec had been behaving oddly from the first minute – it spend most of its time lying on the bottom positively panting, despite being in a well-oxygenated tank. And I never saw it eat at all, which is in my experience extremely odd for a plec. Fortunately the store reimbursed us and we got a little gold mystery snail (Pomacea bridgesii) to munch algae and the odd bit of missed food.

The platies are all doing great. They’re all very active, have immense appetites – that we are careful not to indulge – and show lots of interesting behaviors. More on them next time.

Posted in aquarium | 3 Comments

LEGO Star Wars – Project 30279


London and I like LEGO, Star Wars, and LEGO Star Wars, but we’re especially fond of the little polybag sets that pop up in department store checkout lanes. And our favorite thing to do with them, once we’ve built the models as intended, is to hack them. The goal is to come up with alternative builds that use only the pieces from the polybag set, but still look like they might plausibly be vehicles from Star Wars. Our latest round of builds is based on LEGO set 30279, a miniature version of Kylo Ren’s Command Shuttle.

Before I get into our alternative builds, I should say one thing about the Command Shuttle when built as intended: it sucks. It looks pretty much like the one from the movie, but the wings are fixed in the vertical position, which is not how the one from the movie flies around. This is like having a Lambda shuttle with wings that don’t swing or a B-wing with S-foils that don’t open. It was an embarrassing oversight when it happened on the big Command Shuttle set, and it’s simply inexcusable here. It would have been an easy fix, too, with a pair of hinges. Mediocre!

MOC 1 – Matt’s fighter

Here was my first attempt at an alternative build:


If I’m super-picky, it looks more like something from Wing Commander or Renegade Legion than Star Wars, but I dig it anyway. Here are some instructions:


MOC 2 – Matt’s cruiser


Next I tried a Star Destroyer-type capital ship, with a powerful axial laser. The bridge tower is elevated to get the sensors and comm gear up away from the weapons. This one’s a mixed bag, probably a little more obviously Star Wars-y than the fighter, but a less elegant and unified design. Instructions:


MOC 3 – London’s gunship


While I was building my fighter and cruiser, London was steadily working away on something I couldn’t see clearly. When he showed me the finished product, I was blown away. I love this thing. Using the grey wedge pieces to make a double-tier cockpit would not have occurred to me in a million years, and the outriggers give it a rounded, Millennium Falcon-esque aspect ratio. It looks very swooshable, and I think it would make a killer gunship for Rebel special forces or a well-heeled smuggler.

This instruction set is actually interesting, because it shows some clever bits of building, like having the grey ridged bricks at the back only snapped in at the top (they’re just balanced on the smooth parts of the wing pieces in step 3, below), and hiding all of the little colored plates inside as structural elements.


So, I think London wins this round. If anyone out there wants to play, leave a comment, and you can have space to show off your creation in a future post.

Posted in homebrew, Lego, MOC, sequels, Star Wars, toys | 2 Comments