September 18th, 2004



Whole lotta rain yesterday. Earlier in September, when the remnants of Hurricane Frances came through, we got 3.60 inches of rain, breaking a record for most rain in 24 hours that had stood since 1888. Yesterday, we got SIX inches. (I haven't been able to find an exact figure. It was 5.94" at the airport when we stopped watching the news, I've seen a web site that reported more than seven inches in some parts of Pittsburgh.

There was flooding in low-lying parts of Pittsburgh, and quite a few roads were blocked by mudslides or landslides. Our GURPS game was canceled because even though Kevin's house is on high ground in Shaler, many of the routes to his house went through flooded Etna and Millvale.

It wasn't too bad for us personally, though. It took me an hour to get home because of snarled traffic and blocked streets, but I didn't personally meet any threatening water. (I did learn that I have little intuition for what streets are prone to flooding; I have much better intuition for streets to follow when it has snowed.) Lori had the same experience. The power was out at our house when I got home, which delayed our making contact. But we went over to Lori's parents' house without great incident, and eventually called our house and learned that the power was on by hearing the answering machine.

And we had better news: the contractor who's been working on our storm drains had nearly finished. (He's got the drains out to the sidewalk, but for winter, we need the water to go under the sidewalk instead of forming an ice slick on top.) We did get some water in our basement--but aside from one room, it was nowhere deeper than a fraction of an inch. This is much less flooding than we got from the residue of Frances, when the contractor had just started. Yay for his excellent timing!

As I've been hearing about Ivan approaching the coast, the thought has occurred to me that Pittsburgh is really rather low on indigenous disasters. And even though the local news media is in a tizzy about this flood, I think it proves my point. There were some rescues needed, but almost no casualties from this flood; a lot of people have had their homes flooded, but very few have had their homes blown away. If given a choice between this or the destruction caused by Hurricane Ivan in Alabama or the Caribbean, this is the clearly preferred choice. And similarly, we're rarely hit by wildfires, earthquakes, or extreme blizzards.

Ralph's Gaijin Fried Rice

On Saturday, September 11th, I made fried rice for one of our contributions to Eric and Jodie's bachelor/bachelorette party. But I ran into one paralyzing problem: I read too many recipes beforehand. So I ended up following some sort of Grand Unified Recipe that went something like this:

Start with cold cooked rice.
Fry it in a wok for a while with some chopped scallions and a bit of ginger. No, wait, maybe you should add the scallions and seasoning later.
You should definitely have some scrambled eggs; you should use something between half an egg and an egg and a half for each cup of rice, and you should definitely either scramble the eggs in the wok before cooking the rice and keep them hot before adding them at the end; scramble the eggs, cool them, and cut them into thin strips; or scramble the eggs in the wok with the rice once the rice is done.1
Add other stuff near the end, once the rice is mostly done. You could add chicken, pork, bok choy, peas, whatever. (Diced Spam is apparently traditional for the Hawaiian luau we were emulating.)
Turn left where the church used to be, and go until two blocks before the second light. You can't miss it.

1 This is is probably the sort of issue that provokes knife fights among fried rice purists.

But the fried rice was spoken well of by the people who ate it, and people asked me for the recipe. So I'll try to describe what I actually did, with annotations:

4+ cups cold cooked rice 2
3 green onions, chopped 3
2 tablespoons oil
1 package fried rice seasoning mix4
2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 eggs, beaten
4 ounces diced ham5
8 ounces frozen peas and carrots, cooked in microwave according to package directions.

1. Heat a large wok6 over medium heat until very hot. Add the oil and let it heat up.
2. Stir-fry the rice and the green onions. (It wasn't clear how long to do this. I thought the rice might change color, but it did not. The guidelines I ended up setting for myself were to fry it until the green onions were wilted and smelled done, and the rice was no longer in big chunks.)
3. Stir in the fried rice seasoning and the soy sauce. (This, I learned, is what makes it turn brown.) Stir-fry for another 3 minutes.
4. Push all the rice to one side of the pan. Add the beaten eggs. Let them cook until there's a layer of cooked egg on the bottom, then push that cooked egg out of the way to let more liquid egg reach the bottom. Repeat until the eggs are fluffy and fully cooked. Break them up with the wok tool, and stir them into the rice.
5. Stir in the ham and the peas and carrots; cook until heated through.

2All the recipes I read were very firm on the need for cold cooked rice. We made it the night before in a steamer we bought at an estate sale which had never been taken out of the box. It worked great. I love our new steamer.
3I actually used one bundle of 7 large green onions for two recipes.
4I used Sun-Bird brand.
5You can buy diced ham in the grocery store, and it's terribly convenient.
6I used our six-quart Calphalon Professional non-stick pan, and it was a nigh-rapturous delight.

D&D: Brainburner

So my PCs are going through the Gorge of Fire. Scorching heat, river of lava, frequent violent encounters. And it happens that fiery monsters tend to run to direct violence. They roar, they slam, they set things on fire. So I felt a need to have something that turned things around a bit with a will save. When I voiced this desire, someone mentioned "Brainburner". I like the idea, but there are still questions of implementation; what does a brainburner do?

I've decided on the general characteristics: the brainburner is a mostly sessile monster that a) cloaks itself in an attractive illusion, b) lures its victims closer even if they see through the illusion, c) drains their minds when they are near. Unfortunately, I'm having problems with all three of these aspects. I invite and request commentary on each of these.

The Attractive Illusion
The most attractive illusion might be a pool of water, and that would fit the fact that this is fundamentally a mirage. On the other hand, my players are canny, and will regard this with the suspicion of J. Edgar Hoover regarding... well, anything. And rightfully so. They might have the PCs fall for it if the rules said so, because they're obliging players, but they would be suspicious. But I think it would be better if I had an attractive illusion that actually was attractive to the players.

The Compulsion to Approach
My difficulties with this one are mostly a question of mechanics. I could certainly say "Will save, DC X, or approach the brainburner," but I enjoy using mechanics that resemble the mechanics of other parts of the system, so I'm trying to use other mechanics to model this.

I considered a gaze attack with the effects of a command spell. I like the effect of the "approach" command, since it includes both "approach" and "do nothing else". But that has several discrepancies with what I have in mind:
- Gaze attacks have a range of 30 feet by default. In fact, all of the gaze attacks in the monster manual have a range of 30 feet. I have in mind a longer range.
- It's not clear to me that a gaze attack would work when the monster is concealed by an illusion.
- The command spell is marked as language-dependent.
This might still be a good approach, but it's got enough discrepancies that I find myself looking for another approach.

Another approach might be the "fascinated" state caused by the hypnotic pattern spell and similar spells. My quibbles there are these:
- most fascination effects don't make the subject move closer
- fascination is pretty easy to shake someone out of, so I want an effect that people risk succumbing to again and again. (This is why I considered a gaze attack earlier.)

The spell rainbow pattern does let you lead subjects around. I could consider giving that as a spell-like ability. But with the hit dice limit as written for rainbow pattern, it couldn't include all the PCs. And I have the same problem of wanting repeated risk of submission that I wanted with the previous choice.

Draining Minds
Ability damage to one of the mental stats is an obvious choice, but I'm waffling about which mental stat it should be. I'm reminded of the mindfire disease, which drains Int. But at the moment, there is no PC in the party who is very attached to Int. Damaging Wis could be worse--particularly if Liandra takes enough Wis damage that she can't cast restoration or a variant thereof. On the other hand, she has very good Will saves, so she's probably not at too much risk. Draining Cha would hinder Larissa more, and be more recoverable.
On the whole, though, I'm leaning more towards Wis--it seems more like what would be damaged by the sense of your brain being on fire.

Comments? Feedback? Suggestions?

D&D:More partially-effective spells

D&D has a great number of all-or-nothing spell effects; make the saving throw and take no penalty, or fail the saving through and suffer big problems. This is especially true of effects that involve Will saves. For example, confusion has no effect on a successful saving throw, but on an unsuccessful saving throw, the target is confused for 1 round per caster level. So one failed save can render a combatant almost useless (or even an active hazard to his allies) for roughly the whole duration of a combat.

Consider an alternative version of confusion: it lasts for 1 round per caster level, no matter what. On each round, the target must make a Will save; if he fails the save, he's confused for that round.

It's clear that my alternative has the same expected number of rounds of confusion as the original. It's also clear that the variance in the expected number of rounds of confusion is a lot lower. (I actually have to handwave to make that argument, but I think that the variance of the original is proportional to the caster level, and the variance of the alternative is proportional to the square root of the caster level.)

But it's not clear to me how that would change the strategy or play of the game.
It'd requre a lot more saving throw rolls, certainly. By reducing the variance, it would make the character's saving throw modifiers have more of an impact compared to luck than they do currently. This would probably favor PCs, because PCs tend to have better bonuses than their opposition.
I solicit comment from those more experienced with D&D on other ways this might change things.

Another style of spell would be like that for hold person or greater command, which give saving throws every turn. Under this style, confusion might operate as "make a saving throw every turn; once you succeed on a saving throw, you are no longer confused." This clearly has a much lower expected number of rounds of confusion. (You could fiddle with the save DCs, or even have a decreasing save DC, to adjust the expected number of rounds--but that would involve more work.) This would clearly favor characters with better modifiers quite a lot.

Much to ponder here.