Transitioning from player to (dungeon) master…

Recently I got to experience Dungeons and Dragons from the other side, so to speak.

A few friends and I have a group that meets every month or two to play D&D. We started in earnest once 5th edition came out, and our friend George acted as dungeon master,  putting us through the introductory adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver. It was pretty fun, especially since I’ve learned that my best character class is a cleric (namely, the party healer).

As we played, though, I started thinking about maybe running an adventure myself. I was pretty hesitant at first, considering the last time I ran an adventure myself was for the old World of Darkness system, and it was twenty years ago. (Christ, has it been that long?) That adventure turned out to be an out-and-out disaster, as I hadn’t planned it very well and wasn’t willing to let the players make their own decisions. After that negative experience, I wasn’t sure I could do it again. There was also the small issue of not having enough time to create a campaign of my own.

What made me firmly decide to go ahead and give it a try was that Wizards of the Coast announced that they were releasing a new updated version of the classic Ravenloft module called Curse of Strahd. Before I had gotten into D&D in earnest, the Ravenloft campaign setting had interested me the most, and it was also the setting I was most familiar with. So, I went ahead and purchased the three core rule books (Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide) and the Curse of Strahd campaign rulebook. After studying all four as best I could, I felt I was about as ready as I could be.

We started the campaign two weeks ago. I don’t think I was as ready as I could have been.

My biggest issue was that I hadn’t studied the campaign rulebook as well as I thought I had, so there were a few times where I had to request do-overs because I had missed something. Thankfully, everyone was patient with me while I went through those learning curves.

To my credit, I was better about giving my players free rein where needed. I also tried to act out the characters as best I could. As my group is less about “role playing” and more about “hack, slash, get loot”, I had to remind them that Curse of Strahd is a fairly story-intensive campaign and that I would be taking character role playing somewhat seriously (which they all agreed to).

One of my main challenges was that our group’s schedule is rather hectic. While we started at around 2 or so, two of our group didn’t arrive until after 5. In addition, another member had to leave unexpectedly at 4. As a result, I had players who were playing multiple characters and had to adapt to the changing player group. As I don’t handle those kind of changes that well, I felt I kept things under control.

I also realized too late that I didn’t have anything to map out encounters, locations, and combat. To my relief, George lent me his dry-erase grid mat and cardboard tokens. I’ll probably hit Montag’s (the local Pearland game store) for something of my own before the next session.

More than anything else, though, I think Jennifer put it best when she observed that I was probably happier as a player figuring out the challenges than as the person actually running the game. It was pretty difficult for me to keep the player side of me quiet sometimes, and let the players figure out where they needed to go as opposed to me simply telling them. On the other hand, it was nice seeing the players figure out where to go and what to do without me explicitly needing to tell them.

All in all, though, I think it worked out well. Like I said, I need to beef up on the particulars before the game days and I need a mapping system of my own as opposed to borrowing George’s. Still, while I would rather be a player, I think I’ve learned and matured enough to be a capable DM. I’ve even considered running online campaigns for those friends of mine who don’t live in the Houston area.

We’ll see if they survive the Curse of Strahd campaign, but for now, I’m happy that I was up to the challenge of running it.

Fixing a Samsung home theater…

In the previous post, I mentioned that I had repaired my Samsung home theater unit. Seeing as the issue is a common problem for this model, I figured a post detailing what I did would be useful.

(I apologize in advance for a lack of pictures; the unit is assembled and back in the home theater and it would be a pain to disassemble again.)

First, a little bit of background: we purchased a Samsung HT-E6730w back in 2012 to replace my ailing Onkyo home theater unit. It’s an integrated home theater unit, including Dolby 7.1 surround sound, wireless rear speakers, a Blu-Ray 3D player, and vacuum tubes. The purpose of the vacuum tubes was to improve the receiver’s sound quality, and are not uncommon in much higher end units.

It was working great, until several months ago. The unit started developing a fault where it would start lowering the volume on its own. It was as if the volume button was being pressed, as we could hear the beeps that indicated the front panel was being operated. It happened randomly, and we would need to fight with it via the remote. Eventually, it got to the point where it was happening frequently and we would lose the fight, ending up with no sound. I took it to Best Buy’s Geek Squad to get it fixed, but they wanted a few hundred dollars to fix it. It turned out to be a moot point anyway, as they found they couldn’t get replacement parts. So, it was sent back unrepaired.

Frustrated, I decided to do some research, and found the cause of the problem: there was a design flaw involving the aforementioned vacuum tubes. They were located right next to the front panel controls, and the heat from the tubes ended up damaging the volume controls.

Fortunately, if you don’t mind going remote-only (like we do), there IS a fix. Note that these actions WILL void your warranty (if you still have one), and done wrongly can damage your receiver. Proceed at your own risk.

You need to take the top cover off the unit first. In the middle of the mainboard is the cable connecting the front panel to the mainboard; go ahead and remove it. Then, remove the front panel via the tabs at the top, bottom, and sides.

At this point, you can see two interface ribbons that plug into the front panel circuit board. One comes from the main front panel controls, and the other from the volume controls. All you need to do is slide out the interface cable from the volume controls. In my own case, it was easy to see the damage caused to the volume touch controls; the volume down button was almost completely transparent compared to the other button.

The volume controls are fixed at this point, and you can replace the front panel and reconnect its interface cable to the mainboard. However, I seriously recommend that the vacuum tubes be disconnected at this point as well. The daughter board they’re part of is connected to the mainboard via an interface cable with a white plug right by the tubes. Just disconnect them, and the vacuum tubes will stop working as well (as well as the USB microphone port). The reason I recommend disconnecting the vacuum tubes are that they do not affect system sound as much as implied, and more importantly their heat could damage other front panel controls. I kept my vacuum tubes connected, only for the eject button to be damaged by the heat and start malfunctioning as well. To fix that, I disconnected the main front page controls’ interface cable, and then disconnected the vacuum tubes.

Since then, my receiver has worked more or less perfectly. We don’t hear any sound difference, and while the front panel controls don’t work anymore, we never used them anyway. We’re just glad we didn’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on a new unit.

Hopefully if you’re having the same problem, this post is of use to you. :-)

The current state of our media entertainment…

As I noted six months ago, we decided to save some money by getting rid of our cable TV service.

It was a bit of a difficult decision at the time, considering how much we used the TV for background noise and how often we used our Comcast-provided DVR. However, at this point, we don’t regret getting rid of it.

One of the biggest changes we’ve made since to our setup since we got rid of the cable service was to get a Roku Streaming Stick for the living room home theater. We were very impressed with how well the Roku 1 worked on our bedroom TV; on the other hand, the installed apps on our Samsung home theater receiver were terrible. Getting the Streaming Stick solved that problem, and now the streaming services work just as well in the living room as they do in the bedroom.

Of course, apps like Hulu replaced the Comcast DVR. On the other hand, we tended to use channels like Food Network, HGTV, and Travel Channel as background noise, especially on weekends. While the broadcast networks had some similar channels, we really missed having those networks. That was solved the other day, when we learned about Sling TV, which provided all the channels we were missing for $20/month. As we rarely (if ever) DVRed those channels, it was a good deal considering how much we had been paying for cable TV service before. We’re on day three of our seven day trial, and we’ve already decided to continue the service.

If there’s been one problem, it’s been the fact that our home theater receiver has a major design flaw that caused both the volume down and eject buttons on the front panel to malfunction badly. After Geek Squad basically declared it unrepairable, I managed to take it apart and figure out a) what the problem was, and b) how to fix the issue. The receiver is working fine now with no issues. I may do a blog post later detailing what I did.

All in all, we’re pretty happy right now with our TV service. When it comes to movies, though, it’s not been as good.

To be honest, there hasn’t been all that much we’ve wanted to go out and see. It doesn’t help, either, that we have to make arrangements for Lucas if we want to go to see a movie in a theater. The last two movies we’ve seen in theaters have been Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War, and unfortunately, we didn’t like either one. While I wanted to see Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I knew Jennifer didn’t want to see it, so I’m waiting for it to become available to rent via Amazon Instant Video. Star Trek Beyond should be out soon, but I’m not sure yet whether we’ll see that at a theater or whether we’ll wait for it to hit home video.

Of course, considering we have a decent TV and sound system, about the only kind of theater it’s worth going out to see a movie at is a dinner-and-a-movie place, and for us that’s Studio Movie Grill, considering they have locations near our house and near Jennifer’s parents’ house. The food is decent, the ticket prices are reasonable (compared to places like AMC and Cinemark), and they have low tolerance for people acting up during movies.

In the end, we’re pretty happy with how things have ended up, six months down the road. With the addition of Sling TV, the one thing that caused us to miss cable TV has been taken care of. We don’t get to see as many movies as we used to, but we’re adapting there as best we can. I think we’re doing well, and we definitely made the right decision as far as cable TV goes.

An end to using multi-IM clients…

I admit to a little bit of geeky sadness.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that I’m on several different IM services. For the past fifteen years or so, I’ve been accessing them via third-party clients that could support multiple services simultaneously. I started with Pidgin, but then transferred to Trillian some years back, especially when Trillian released an iOS app. However, this past weekend, I uninstalled Trillian from all of my devices.

To be perfectly blunt, there wasn’t a need for it anymore, as it only hosted a single IM service I still used.

The first IM service I removed from it was Skype, as changes Microsoft made to the compatibility layer resulted in Trillian simply being unable to connect to the service. Shortly afterwards, MSN Messenger stopped working in the iOS client; by that point Skype worked for both contacting both Skype and MSN accounts, so I installed the Skype iOS client and deleted MSN Messenger from my Trillian account. (I already had the Skype desktop app for video calls, which Trillian didn’t support.) The next service I removed was Facebook Messenger, as it stopped working properly in Trillian and I would get notifications about messages from the Facebook app anyway.

The final straw came when Yahoo announced that they were retiring their desktop Messenger app, and they noted in their FAQ that third-party clients would no longer be able to connect to the service. At that point everyone I had been talking to via Yahoo had already switched over to Google Hangouts, and I found that the only contact I had online on my AIM account was someone I hadn’t spoken to in several years. The decision was made, Google Hangouts was installed onto my phone and tablet, and Trillian was uninstalled.

On one hand, it’s a shame because it tended to be convenient to talk to people on different services using one program. On the other hand, as Yahoo Messenger was the only IM service I used where you could only be signed on via one device at a time, it was a tad annoying and removing it made using cross-device IM a little easier. Streamlining my IM profile was a good thing, as well, as I didn’t need to be signing into AIM or Yahoo if I no longer used them.

In the end, I may be a bit wistful about the lack of cross-compatibility and using multiple programs instead of one, but there’s not really much I can do about it all things considered. It did give me an excuse to eliminate services I was no longer using; I’m thinking that, in the long run, that consolidation will make this more a positive. :-)

Adjusting to being a gamer geek dad…

(Yes, it’s been several months since I last posted. I can’t guarantee it won’t be several more before I do so again. ;-) )
It’s nearly 8:30 PM on a Wednesday night. It’s quiet in the house, as Lucas has had his last bottle of the day and has crashed out in Jennifer’s arms. Fairly soon, I’ll be putting him in bed.

The newest version of DOOM was released last weekend, and my copy arrived on Monday. One would think that it would be a perfect time for me to get some gaming in while he’s sleeping, especially as I almost always play with a headset.

Nope, not going to happen.

It’s definitely been a major adjustment. Now that Lucas is asleep, it’s time for me to prep his stuff for tomorrow, and then go to bed. I’m honestly too tired to do anything else, especially as my normal wake-up time on a weekday is 5:30 AM.

I think Jennifer put it best yesterday: I have to adjust to being a gamer geek dad, as opposed to being just a gamer geek. I can still play, of course, but I have to do so in accordance to Lucas’s needs and schedule. It’s taken a while to sink in, because I would hear about new games that I want to play, and I get disappointed that I don’t get to play them right off the bat.

My best plan so far is to adapt how I am handling my computing time now to the new gaming schedule. On weeknights, my gaming will most likely be limited to what I can play on my iPad and iPhone. This isn’t a bad thing, as there are plenty of quick casual games I can play on my iDevices. Talisman: The Horus Heresy was just released, for example, and anyone who knows me knows I love to play Talisman. In addition, The Pinball Arcade is always good for some quick fun, as two of my three favorite tables (Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Judge Dredd) are already out for the platform, and the third favorite (Doctor Who) will be out by the end of the year. I’m even considering reinstalling Mortal Kombat X, and not letting myself get too angry at the character Challenge Towers (or avoiding them entirely).

On weekends, once Lucas is asleep or otherwise occupied by Jennifer, I can spend time playing games on my PlayStation 4. As I mentioned earlier, DOOM was released last weekend, so that should take up some of my time. In addition, Blizzard’s new shooter, Overwatch, will be out next week. I’m not usually for multiplayer games (even if I love playing Destiny) but Overwatch impressed the hell out of me.

In any event, it’s taking some getting used to. I may not game like I used to, but I think that with this new schedule, I can strike a happy balance where I can be a dad and still get in my gaming time. :-)

Paying respect to the video gaming roots…

I have some new “art” on my home office wall. :-)

As one might imagine, in the weeks leading up to Lucas’s arrival in the world, Jennifer and I were making space in our house. His nursery was originally our spare bedroom, and we had been using its closet as a storage location. Needless to say, we needed to consolidate our storage, especially as the closet would now be needed for his stuff. Some of the containers from the nursery closet needed to be moved into my office closet.

In order to make space, I decided it was time to get rid of some of my classic video game library. In particular, I chose to get rid of almost all of my old Atari 2600 and ColecoVision cartridges, as I no longer had working hardware to play those games. I kept the NES and SNES cartridges, as not only do I have (presumably) working consoles for them, there are modern consoles available that are able to play those cartridges via emulation. In the end, I took a few bags full of cartridges to Game Over Videogames off the Southwest Freeway, and sold them for a nice bit of store credit.

Of the collection, I ended up keeping two Atari 2600 cartridges. One was my copy of Space Invaders, as it was the very first home video game I had ever owned. The other was Defender, and it was saved because it had somehow managed to escape its bag while I was taking the lot to be sold. :-)

Of course, I didn’t exactly know what I was going to do with the cartridges once I had saved them. It was Jennifer who came up with the idea of putting them in shadowboxes, so that I could display them on the wall of my office. We found decent shadowboxes at Michael’s, and she eventually came up with a good method of mounting the cartridges into them. Once that was done, they ended up sitting on my desk for lack of a place on my wall to hang them. :-)

A few days ago, I ended up moving a print off my office wall to replace a print that had been moved out of our bedroom, which left space on my wall for the shadowboxes. I mounted them last night; I think they ended up looking pretty good.

The displayed Atari 2600 cartridges.
The displayed Atari 2600 cartridges.

Granted, one can’t tell that the Space Invaders cartridge is actually Space Invaders. The cartridge is a Sears Tele-Games rebrand, which my parents had bought for me along with a Sears Tele-Games rebranded Atari 2600 for my seventh birthday. As much as I wish they had the original game artwork like the original Atari cartridges did, they instead looked kind of generic. I briefly considered buying an actual Atari cartridge and displaying that instead, but I decided that I wanted to reflect what I actually started with.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with how things turned out. The cartridges were almost never certainly going to be played again, but now instead of taking up space in a closet, they’re on display where they can be appreciated. It’s nice that they’re getting a new lease on life, and are useful once again. :-)

It would be heresy for me to skip this game.

It’s no secret at all that my favorite board game is Talisman, considering how often I’ve posted about it in the past. I even picked up the Steam and iOS versions of the game. Now it appears that the developer of the video game version, Nomad Games, is releasing a new version called Talisman: The Horus Heresy.

Talisman: The Horus Heresy is a sci-fi game based on Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe. The titular Horus Heresy is an event that takes place ten thousand years before the 41st millennium setting of the game universe, where half of the human Space Marine legions turned traitor and aligned themselves with the evil Chaos Gods, leading to a Imperium-wide civil war. As the title suggests, the game takes place during the Horus Heresy, where players play as either a Loyalist or Traitor Space Marine legion commander, making their way through the regions and gathering forces and equipment, before reaching Terra and facing either the Emperor of Mankind or Horus (warchief of the traitor legions).

Making a Talisman game set in the universe of Warhammer 40,000 might seem a little strange, but the two have been linked previously. While Talisman is currently published by Fantasy Flight Games, the original developer and IP owner is Games Workshop. More, the second edition of the game had an expansion called Talisman Timescape, which included characters and concepts from Warhammer 40,000.

The game is currently scheduled to be released on Steam next month, with pre-orders opening on the 26th. Nomad Games was less specific about the release date of the mobile versions, saying only that they’d be out in spring. Personally, I’ll be waiting for the iOS version before I buy the game; while I have the Steam version of the original game, I almost never play it except to play friends in online multiplayer. Most of the time I play on my iPad.

In any event, if The Horus Heresy is as polished as the original game, I’m sure I’ll have a lot of fun with it. I’m looking forward to when it drops. :-)

Cutting the proverbial cables…

It’s amazing what you can get away with getting rid of these days.

Recently, Jennifer and I discussed discarding services at the house. After some discussion, we decided it was time to get rid of two home “mainstays” that we realized we no longer needed anymore: our land line phone, and our cable TV service.

Getting rid of the land line was a no-brainer. Essentially, we only used the number as a spam trap, and the only people who would call us on that number (other than solicitors) were Jennifer’s parents. It also helped that our cordless phone system had support for two cell phones via Bluetooth, so we could make and answer calls while our cell phones were in their normal charging locations. Since canceling the land line, we almost literally have not noticed a single difference outside of our phones not ringing that often anymore. :-)

Getting rid of our cable TV service, on the other hand, required a little research beforehand. We had to make sure that we could access all of our shows through other methods. Fortunately, most of the shows we watch are available on Hulu. Other than those, the main shows Jennifer and I watch that would not be available on Hulu right away are Doctor Who, Star Wars Rebels, The Big Bang Theory, Elementary, and those shows on the Food Network. We decided that we could wait a season on The Big Bang Theory and Elementary, and catch them when the archives hit Hulu or Netflix. Doctor Who and Star Wars Rebels are both available to purchase on Amazon Instant. Food Network shows appear to be completely unavailable, but for me at least, I can go without them.

In the end, we replaced cable TV service with over-the-air, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant. Fortunately, our home theater receiver in the living room already supports all three apps. The only hardware I ended up purchasing was an HD antenna for the living room to receive over-the-air broadcasts, and a Roku 1 for the bedroom TV in order to watch the streaming services. It’s only been a couple of days, but I honestly can’t say we’re missing the cable TV at all. In fact, the thing I miss most is the clock that was on the front of the DVR. :-)

All in all, we’re happy with our decision. There was no point in paying for a land line that we didn’t need at all, and Hulu and Amazon Instant are much cheaper than cable TV service. That might change later down the road, but for now, I think we made the right choice. :-)

And now, baby’s first vacation.

This past weekend, we had a first with Lucas: we took him on his first vacation. :-)

Jennifer and I decided VERY early on that we wanted to get him used to travel, so that when it came time for us to go on very long trips, he would be ready for it. We wanted to do something easy for the first vacation, though. Normally in the summer, we do a two or three day trip to Corpus Christi with Jennifer’s parents and have some quality beach time. However, we felt it would be easier if we went somewhere close in case Lucas wasn’t ready for it or had problems. Moreover, as a contractor, I don’t get paid if I don’t work, so I can’t afford to take extra days off.

In the end, we all decided to stay at Moody Gardens in Galveston overnight.

Lucas is ready for his vacation.
Lucas is ready for his vacation.
We actually started the weekend at our favorite hole in the wall place in Galveston, Shrimp ‘N Stuff, for lunch. As always, the food was excellent, and Lucas was as good as always. In fact, he was VERY social, smiling and flirting with whoever he happened to make eye contact with. Afterwards, we went straight to the Moody Gardens hotel, where we managed to check in early and get rooms next to one another (we had booked separately). Once we had gotten into our rooms, we unpacked, changed, and made our way down to the pool.

Speaking of unpacking, I’m going to digress for a minute. Several months back, Jennifer and I went to an event at Baby’s 1st Furniture called “Gearapalooza”, where we got to see demos of baby gear from several different manufacturers. While we had wanted to win a stroller or car seat as a door prize, we ended up winning a Nuna SENA mini travel crib and play yard. In retrospect, we’re VERY happy we got it, because it worked perfectly for Lucas while we were in Galveston. He slept very soundly in it, and it was extremely easy to set up and pack up. It’s a keeper for future trips.

The pool at the Moody Gardens hotel was great. It wasn’t crowded, the water was cold and clean, and best of all it had a swim-up bar. Even better, the hotel could have skimped on the drink quality, but they were well made; my frozen margaritas in particular were very refreshing. We spent the afternoon relaxing in the sun and taking turns dipping in the pool while Lucas slept. After a while, we left to go back to our rooms to rest in the air conditioning and decide what to do next. We briefly considered visiting the rainforest pyramid (the aquarium one was closed for renovations), but chose not to as Lucas isn’t old enough to truly appreciate the pyramids. Instead, we decided that seeing as the pool was such a success, we would go back there. This time, it was even nicer as the sun was setting and so it wasn’t as oppressively hot. After a couple of hours at the pool, we went inside to the casual restaurant (with a quick stop to change into regular clothes) to have a nice dinner.

Daddy, I'm ready to try this pool thing!
“Daddy, I’m ready to try this pool thing!”
The next morning, we had breakfast at the casual restaurant, and then decided to make our way to Moody Gardens’s “Palm Beach” area, which was the resort’s official waterpark. That part was the only real disappointment of the trip, because the waterpark is small, doesn’t have that much to do (especially with a baby), and it was crowded as all hell. It also seemed to be a fraction of the size of Schlitterbahn, which was literally right across the street. I personally tried to get on the lazy river, and found that I couldn’t comfortably fit in one of the inner tubes. After a half-hour or so there, we gave up. Frankly, we were glad the room cost covered the price of admission, or else we would have felt ripped off as well as disappointed.

We returned to the hotel’s pool, and spent a couple of hours there having drinks and lunch from the swim-up bar. To us, the hotel pool was far superior to the waterpark, if only because of the fact that it was much less crowded (because only hotel guests could get in). Now we know for future trips…

This time, we decided we wanted to bring Lucas into the pool for his very first pool experience. Admittedly, we didn’t know how he would react to it, but he rather enjoyed it. He didn’t fuss or complain, and even seemed to like the cold water. Of course, it helped that the sun was behind the hotel so it wasn’t as bright and hot as it could have been. After he had been in the water with us for a while, we went ahead and took him back to our table (strategically positioned to have plenty of shade) so he could rest and have his lunch. :-)

Once we were finished with the pool, Jennifer and I decided to take Lucas back home, so that we could get him back into his usual routine. The drive home was uneventful, with Lucas sleeping most of the way.

All in all, it was a great little vacation, with the only bumps being those that would have happened whether or not Lucas was there. We’re now confident he can handle a proper trip, and we’re already looking forward to our next one. :-)

After four years, I’m moving on.

I admit to some nervousness.

After nearly four and a half years at KEMTRON Technologies (now Elgin Separation Solutions), I’ve moved on to new employment. I start work today as a long term contractor for a Fortune 50 company.

This new job is going to be quite a change for me. This will be, by far, the largest company I’ve ever worked for. Up until now, I’ve been either an IT department of one, or part of small group. I’ll be one cog in a big department now. Also, where my focus at KEMTRON/Elgin was on a Windows environment, my OS focus here will be Linux.

The real nice thing about this job, though, is that I will no longer be on-call after hours. Getting calls from security and monitoring vendors during my time off gets really old after a while, though I accepted them as part of my job responsibilities. For the first time in many years, my free time will belong entirely to me and my family.

I’m really looking forward to this opportunity, as in the end it was something I could not pass up. While I was sad to leave KEMTRON/Elgin, I know this was the right move for me.

Let’s see how it goes. :-)