When Raising your Kids to be Smart and Self-Reliant Backfires

Yesterday, my pre-teen daughter’s friends rescued a bunny.

You can see where this is going.

She started the conversation with, “I just want you to listen…” and laid out a very thorough plan to prove that she can care for it (including cleaning her room and the fish tank — I’ve tried for years to get her to help; and finishing her music theory book ahead of schedule — we had to pull out out the big guns just to get 10 minutes a day); that it’s not expensive (detailed list, including better places to buy things — her friend used to have a bunny, and estimates for vet care); that it’s easy (shorter list of things her friend did, and her friend offered to bunny sit while we travel); and that she really, really wants it.

We both said, No. Repeatedly. She’s still working on her room and theory (alternating each minute — her plan, so I’m staying out of it) and telling her brother where the bunny will live. We tried, “It’s nice to enjoy the fantasy, but remember that’s not reality.” Didn’t work. We tried No again. She says it’s still possible we might change our mind.

Sigh. Her friend’s mom says they need to decide within a month. It’s going to be a long month.

Right now, Daughter is walking to the neighbourhood plaza, which has a new vet office, to find out “how much a visit costs and how often we need to go.” (I suspect a rescue bunny is going to cost more, but cost isn’t the reason we’re refusing. We just aren’t pet people, and bunnies live 10-15 years.)

She’s smart, thorough, focused, self-reliant and dedicated. Sigh.


Theramin in the Wild

Son, age 13, wanted a theremin. My dad is a classical electrical engineer, who grew up pulling apart vacuum tube radios.

I made Son call Dad a month before vacation.

Dad found the schematic for the minimum theremin. He had Son redraw it, replacing logic gates of one type with the type he had on hand. (Yes, Dad has logic gates on hand.) Then he reviewed Son’s soldering skills, helped fine-tune them, and turned him loose with a bunch of parts, including a resistor colour-code chart and a magnifying glass. They used an oscilloscope to track down stray oscillations, removed an unnecessary bit of the circuit, added a filter, and added a diode to save the device in case the user puts the battery in backwards.

Unlike my one-and-only electronics course, they did all this without a single derivative or integral. They used a calculator once, to find the current, V=IR. (Dad could only find his HP, with Reverse Polish Notation. Son learned.)

I’m proud, and a bit jealous.

Daughter, age 10, spent her Grandpa time fishing. She caught more fish than he did. She also arranged a photo-shoot with a 3D puzzle.

Python Programming — Nostalgia First

This series will review several Python programming books, but let me enjoy some nostalgia first.

I’m self-taught, and my programs only have error checking if it’s faster to do that than restart if I make a typo when using them. My husband, with 20 years in the business, laughs at my little programs and, after I work at something for hours, can find the problem in minutes.

My first language was AppleSoft BASIC, from the books that came with the Apple II. I was 13. The graphics mode and game paddle were built into the language, so immediately after counting from one to ten I made a ball cross the screen, in two dimensions, and made the ball move when I moved the paddle. I wrote a program of several hundred lines to keep track of my Pathfinder (Girl Guide) badge progress. My advanced math class learned matrices as an extra, and the teacher asked me to teach the class about multiplying matrices with a computer program.

Dad thought I was getting cocky, so he introduced me to FORTH. Its lack of a GOTO floored me, even though I’d avoided spaghetti code. I still miss FORTH’s BEGIN-WHILE-REPEAT loop, which exits in the middle. (Modern languages’ ‘while True’ still distracts me.) Stack arithmetic was an eye-opener. (Yes, I later bought an HP calculator.)

I learned more from the AppleSoft BASIC book and the second chapter of a Pascal book from the library than I did in two high school courses in the 80s, which were supposed to teach me BASIC, FORTRAN and Pascal. Well, I did learn another operating system (CP/M) and how to debug classmates’ code. The final assignment of analyzing a paragraph in several ways was a nice challenge. I was the only student to complete the assignment. The teacher was temporarily confused by a variable that said whether to print to the printer (for the final submission) or a file (for debugging) and the option to run through each analysis method in order rather than sit at the computer and enter each choice one at a time.

My first university work-term was to write a FORTRAN program to analyze Xray crystallography data. I learned FORTRAN from DEC manuals. Next term had a required programming course. A classmate reached the end of the course without learning that a FORTRAN math program needs four sections: housekeeping, data input, data manipulation, and data output. The only things I learned in that course were the differences between work’s computer and the school’s, five ways to find root-finding algorithms, and two sorting methods.

When I got a Mac in my sophomore year, I also got LightSpeed Pascal, which included a tutorial on Pascal and event-loop programming, and some advanced Mac programming books. I confused the Process Control TA (who later sat down and learned) by using an event loop in my BASIC program to monitor and control the unit’s feedback loop.

The guy I liked was a programmer, so I asked to borrow a Pascal book. He finally married me to get it back. He’s amused at my pitiful attempts, especially when I spend hours searching for a bug he finds in seconds.

I almost had a cribbage program in Pascal working on the Mac. I did a few reports on VGA Planets data sets in C++ (part of my husband’s program to help him make turn files). A few years later I learned a bit of PHP to configure my website. (I use PmWiki.)

But none of the later languages had the simple joy of AppleSoft BASIC.

My husband likes Python for quick utilities and wrote some for me, but I got frustrated with asking him for every “small change”. So, with the help of the online documentation and a working program to start from, I learned Python (for a small value of “learned”). (If anyone wants to insert ssml delay tags in txt files so a speech-to-text reader will read at a specific, slow wpm for shorthand practise, including calibration, let me know.)

Python has almost all the features I missed from AppleSoft. It has a command-line interpreter so you can do something neat before using a program file. There’s no compile / link cycle. PyGame gives it a simple graphics interface. It runs quickly and has a decent debugger (though not as nice as C++). There’s a bit more housekeeping than with AppleSoft, but it’s only a few lines.

All this had me thinking about my 12-year-old son. It’s time he learned. (Yes, I messed up by being enthusiastic, sigh. I used to catch Dad’s enthusiasm, but my son isn’t like me.)

For all the kids’ books, you should be in the next room. Sometimes an extra eye when debugging can be the difference between frustration and accomplishment. Also, you should quietly work through the first chapter or two yourself to catch differences in your installation.

My plan is to review the following books: Invent Your Own Games with Python, Livewires, Snake Wrangling for Kids, Dive Into Python, Introduction to Programming at Pasteur.fr, and the tutorial that comes with the language.

Twelve Days of Christmas

Yes, it took three months for the scrap of paper to surface again. Not too bad, really, considering the age of some of the papers in the big box.

For posterity:

12 dire rats
11 litches leaping
10 iron golems
9 necromancers
8 hydras hiding
7 giant scorpions
6 eyes a’floating

5 golden dragons
4 raging orcs
3 cursed swords
2 partial maps
And a single healing potion.

Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition, 1st Impressions

We took the plunge earlier this month. We bought Daddy the 4e Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Vault.

After our first play session, I like the system but think the early learning curve is steeper than other editions.

A list of acronyms is at the end.

Family History

Husband has played every edition so far, except 3.5. He played 1st and 2nd when they were current. In the late 80s he was in a group that played almost weekly for several years. That was when I met him. The group faded after graduation, despite their best efforts to accommodate irregular schedules and distant cities. Those of us who stayed in town tried 3e. That worked for several years playing monthly, until schedules changed again and Son was old enough to interfere. (Dice look yummy and character sheets make nice crumply noises.)

This summer Son memorized the 3e books and we played a short adventure. However, in the interest of playing with future groups (and at a loss for a birthday present) we decided to move to 4e.

Son has now memorized the 4e rules, but needs practice applying them.

Husband spent Saturday afternoon at the local game shop playing Living Forgotten Realms and came home ready to DM for us.

I chose a pre-built Half-Elf Cleric and Halfling Rogue from the Quick Start Guide. Later that night I recreated them from the PH to learn the system and better understand why I had +5 to my attack rolls. (Years ago when immobilized I had to recreate how much of my AC was due to Dex based bonuses. I don’t like having to do that on-the-fly.)

Character Creation

The first volume of the PH includes all you need to create and play a character. It omits some of the races and classes and adds new ones. If you want to play a Monk, it’s probably in a later volume. Later volumes also include new powers such as psionics.

Character creation is between 2e and 3e in time required. Every race and class requires choices; there is no simple character. They suggest two builds for each class — sets of skills and powers that work well together. I’ll use them until I’m more familiar with the entire system. The builds are very different, for example a healing cleric and a warrior cleric.

Fewer pages deal with alignment, and they left out some combinations. I miss the 3e descriptions of each combination, each one ending with, “This is the best alignment because…”

4e uses the same 6 stats and ability modifier system as 3e. These are used for skill checks and to modify attack and damage rolls.

The Combat Chapter should be Chapter 2, rather than Chapter 9. Most of the choices you make while creating a character affect combat, so you don’t really understand them until you’ve read that chapter. Also, the blank character sheet has spaces near the top for numbers that aren’t described until the Combat Chapter. I can see a new player wondering if he missed something.

I had to flip between the race and class chapters several times to catch all the “Pick an extra…from…”, but there wasn’t the agonizing assignment of 17 points across 30 skills from 3e. Nor was there the repetition. 3e copied, word-for-word, several paragraphs many times rather than cross-referencing. 4e organizes things so there’s less need for that, and it assumes you’ll remember that a choice you made three chapters ago affects the concept described in this chapter.

4e introduces the concept of Power. Each attack is a Power. (They even describe Basic Melee and Basic Range Attacks as Powers.) So is each spell. So is each spell that is also an attack.

Powers are described in detail in the chapter which gave you the power. Race powers are under your race. Class powers are under your class. This works well for simple race and class, but there are no simple races or classes. Most races allow a power or feat from another class.

A master index of all powers, cross-referenced by page number, race and class would help. It would allow you to quickly review your choices and, when a question comes up in play, find the description of the power if it’s not from your own class.

4e keeps the concept of Skill Checks and Difficulty Class. Several of the skills were combined. 17 rather than the entire page in 3e. Training is either yes (+5 bonus) or no (no bonus), rather than assigning points one-by-one. Faster to create and easier to use.


4e continues the trend started in 3e of positioning. In earlier editions we rarely needed a clear map. It’s worth getting a grid for the new system. A pad of 1″ graph-paper (the huge sheets used on easels) works. We saved the trip to the store by drawing a grid on bristol board and covering it with pexiglass we had lying around. It works well with dry erase markers. One of the players at the store apparently had a nice reusable roll-up grid, but we went cheap.

It also keeps the standard/move/minor/free action system. Our first combat was in a tavern, so movement was important. This slowed down the action.

In earlier editions, fighters were easy to play, but also boring. 4e complicates them with powers. Our fighter usually chose one of the at will powers rather than Basic Attack. I had to read the character sheets for my Rogue and Cleric every turn.

It takes time to add up all the modifiers. All attack rolls are modified by 1/2 your level, an ability (Dex or Str), and the Power you use. Plus any race or class bonus and feats. Plus weapon proficiency. Plus position (such as flanking or combat advantage). Plus environment (such as standing on a table, cover, range, and concealment). AC is modified by armour, sometimes Dex, environment, powers, and feats). Damage depends on the weapon, Dex or Str, and any powers.

For example, as a 1st Level Halfling Rogue, I often used Deft Strike which let me move an extra 2 squares before attacking, but I can only use it with some weapons. To attack I got +0 for my level, +1 for Rogue Weapon Talent (only for dagger), +4 for Dex. and +3 for proficiency with dagger, total attack bonus of +8. This did 1d4 for dagger, +4 for Dex, total damage of 1d4+4. Plus any bonuses for positioning or a friendly “increase accuracy” spell.

The same weapon used for Basic Attack would be +0 for level, +1 for Rogue Weapon Talent (only for dagger), +1 for Str, +3 for proficiency with dagger, total +5. Damage of 1d4 for dagger +1 for Str, total damage 1d4+1.

The pre-created sheet showed just the totals — useless if I dropped the dagger and picked up a heavy mace.

I could also choose Sly Flourish (distract), Positioning Strike (move opponent), or Trick Strike (more powerful version of Positioning Strike).

For defense, I had to remember that I gained +5 against attacks of opportunity but not against regular attacks.

Some attacks are against AC, others against Reflexes.

This will get easier the more we play. We’ll know which type of attack works most often and know the others well enough that we don’t have to read them each time. However, it makes it confusing for new players. At times, Husband just said, “Use this one.” It kept the game moving, but took control away from the player. I’ll also have more confidence in the totals for often-used powers and be more comfortable building other attacks.

Under the old system, we would have given our 9-year-old Daughter a fighter, but even they are complicated. She watched for a bit, then wandered away bored.

Role Playing

Critics of 4e say there’s not as much role playing. I don’t see that. Yes, you can’t fine-tune your thief to be better at picking locks than picking pockets, but that has little effect during the game.

The early chapters of the PH discuss characterization in details and even give questions to think about. Do you try to make friends with PCs or intimidate them? What do you do when cornered? Why are you adventuring? Each race has a personality and history (which you don’t have to follow — just because most dwarves like ale doesn’t mean you have to). They give different builds for each class, such as brawny rogue or trickster. There is a variety of gods.

Roll playing is about enjoying your character. In our group, the fighter could have chased the escaping mercenary into the woods or pressed the victim for an explanation, but Husband chose to have him sit back with his interrupted ale at the far side of the room. The half-elf cleric chose to give the victim space while asking for an explanation rather than press in and reassure him that we were good and would help him. Either choice would fit with the half-elf diplomacy feature.

A good strategy is to think of three different things your character might do before choosing. This breaks you out of stereotypes. Also consider what famous characters from fiction might do. Aragorn and Malcolm Reynolds are both Warlords. Or maybe Mal is a Thief, in which case compare him to Short-Round.

4e gives the same scope for role-playing as 3e, but balances it between play and character creation better. It asks more questions and gives more ideas than 1e and 2e, but doesn’t lock you to early decisions the way 3e does.

Do You Need the Dungeon Masters Guide?

You don’t need it at all for the official modules.

You can create a basic adventure without it, if you limit yourself to opponents created from the PH. Make frequent use of the standard DC table and base the AC of inanimate objects like doors to be broken on suits of armour. You will need it to assign experience points and treasure and to balance encounters with monster opponents.

We have the Dungeon Masters Vault, which includes a paperback DMs book as well as tokens and maps and an adventure. We were told this was the full DMG just bound differently, but the different title concerns me. Still, it looks like it has what we need. We’re going to work through the Keep on the Shadowfell campaign, so won’t know for a while.

Some Differences from Earlier Editions

Wizards and Clerics are more involved in combat. Wizards can use Magic Missile every turn. Clerics can hit and heal at the same time.

Multiclass is reduced. I only read it quickly, but it looks to be much harder for the characters. I’m still getting used to playing a single class low-level character with the new rules, so won’t look at this for quite a while.

There is no easy-to-play class. Sometimes it’s nice to ease a new player in gently. Every turn they swing and roll with the same bonuses. Once they get into the rhythm and watch others play, they become more comfortable with more choices.


I mentioned earlier that I’d like a list of all the powers, cross-referenced by race, class and page number. Looking up details of powers from the pre-built character was sometimes frustrating. (The sheet had totals, but those would change if I changed weapons.) Even a more-detailed index in the back of the book would help.

There are two Rules Compendiums. One is a book published in September, the other is an online reference that’s part of a subscription to the online group. That would make the list unnecessary.

The combat chapter should be moved earlier. As it is, when you create your character you choose powers that affect your AC, but don’t know how AC works.

I’d like to see a training story for Level 0 characters that shows sample rolls.

Lesson 0 – General descriptions. Overview of races and classes.
Lesson 1 – Basic ranged and melee attacks, armour class. Include wizard and warlock basic attack powers.
Lesson 2 – Basic healing. Healing surges. Resting.
Lesson 3 – Positioning during combat, including movement and flanking.
Lesson 4 – Powers, including attack, defense and advanced healing.
Lesson 5 – Skills and non-combat encounters.
Lesson 6 – Miscellaneous. How to break down a door. Money and gems. Magic items.
Study Hall – Review the above and create a character.
Graduation – You are now a 1st level character.


We have the PH, DMs Kit and Monster Vault.

The best deal is the 3 book set: PH, DMG, MM for $105. Our store didn’t have that, sigh.

The Starter Set is good if you and your friends have never played before. At $20 for all you need to start, it’s a good deal. It has dice, pre-generated characters and very short manuals. There is a solo adventure and a group one, with maps and tokens. It’s a good investment if your group is starting from scratch but otherwise skip it. It does not replace the Players Handbook.

You will need the Players Handbook if you want to go past 2nd level or try other equipment or create your own characters.

The next two boxes are in series. The adventure in the DMs Kit has hooks from the one in the Starter Set, and the adventure in the Monster Vault has hooks from the one in the DMs Kit. The character levels also go up as you work through the boxes.

(Grumble. Many of the boxes and even the adventure books don’t show the level on the cover. I had to go in a few pages to confirm this.)

The boxes include adventures, tokens and maps (no maps in the Monster Vault). The DMs kit has a shield with useful tables.

I’m not sure if the books in the boxes are the same as the core books.

The book in the DMs Kit is 256 pages compared to the DMG’s 224 and the cover says Dungeon Masters Book. The store said they were the same when I asked, and a quick look doesn’t show any obvious omissions. As we’re happy with Shadowfell and the adventures in the kit, we won’t test the DMBook very soon.

The book in the Monster Vault is titled Monster Vault Book and is 256 pages compared to the Monster Manual’s 288

At this stage, we’re more than happy with the boxes we have. I’d like to compare the books to the core rule books, but it’s not urgent.

We also downloaded the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure, both the 14-page hook and the 72-page adventure. It looks like the adventure is the same as the one sold as a formal module, but you can’t download the large-scale maps and tokens. Not a big problem. We started with the 14-page hook and sketched the combat map onto grid paper.

I expect we’ll continue with the current adventure till we’re 2nd level, then decide whether to do Shadowfell or move to the series in the boxes. DM’s choice. It’s not like we can’t do the other later.

Online Subscription

For about $6 / month, you can subscribe to the online tools. This includes a character generator and searchable rules compendium.

It’s tempting. When running multiple characters, looking up power details by race or class is a pain. I usually type most of them onto the last page of my character sheet, but looking them up would be nice. (I want a tablet computer!)

I’m not a fan of character generator programs. I like to know where all the bits and pieces of my totals come from. Son liked the free one that was available until last month. I hear it’s better than the program that came with 3e.

They’re still adding tools to this, such as a monster generator.


3e: Third Edition.
4e: Fourth Edition.
PH: Players Handbook
Dex: Dexterity
Ref: Reflex
AC: Armour Class
DM: Dungeon Master
DC: Difficulty Check
thac0: To Hit Armour Class Zero

Thank You for the Liver — Part 6

Dear Grandma,

Thank you for the liver. I put it where my Mom would step on it. We all got lots of exercise.

Your Grandson

Thank You for the Liver — Part 5

Dear Grandma,

Thank you for the liver.

You were right. When my sister ate some, her expression was great. She spit it out real fast.

Your Grandson

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