Gone Fishin’

Gone Fishin' SignAs of a few days ago, I have retired from the career that I started (*mumble* *mumble*) 32 years ago, roughly a dozen of those years as a software developer and another twenty as a manager of software developers.  It is time for me to make room so that other folks can come in and shine while I take my focus and move it to things which I want to be passionate about.

It is not lost on me that I am ridiculously fortunate to be in a position to do this, now with all the upheaval and unknowns in the world, so I take this leap knowing full well that the future is unknowable.  But, what I could no longer do is continue to work just to work, realizing that what energy and passion I have was benefit my employer, leaving me what felt like a small handful of hours to work on things that I cared about or to learn thing that I’m curious about.  I don’t (and can’t) know whether I have five years or 30 of useful time, but I’d rather take the chance and be wrong than not take the chance and work until I can’t any more or don’t have the means or opportunity or capacity to work on things I care about.

So, I’m going to pivot.  I’m pivoting in to spending my time doing things that I choose. Things that I care about.  Things that will, almost certainly, not make me any money at all.  And that’s okay! 

I also want to learn a lot of things and that means I will suck at many of those things as I learn them and I want to learn to be okay with that as well!  (Note the recurrent theme: Learning!)

I’ve spent my career getting better at my craft, but I’m at a place where the amount of improvement I can make is getting smaller and smaller and taking more and more time to accomplish that, so the payoff in terms of improvement is low for the relatively long time spent.  I’m at a place where I’d rather improve more and more quickly on a number of fronts than just get marginally better at one thing.

I’m hoping that means that I’ll be making more things, learning more things, talking about more things and sharing more things as I go!

Here’s to taking chances, to learning, to being passionate and curious and trying to do what we love!

Make: RPG Mini Display Shelves

As I’ve been playing Role Playing Games for a while now, I’ve started to build up a collection of minis that I’ve used through various campaigns.  Since I’ve spent the time to make them and paint them and invested them with the time and fun from playing various campaigns with them, it would be nice to display them.  But, I’ve never quite figured out how I wanted to do that.  So, as a result, my “RPG Mini Cubby” looked like this:

Not that bad, but nothing very exciting.  I thought about building some shelves from wood, but I couldn’t come up with anything that I really liked. I looked around the internet for a few ideas and there are some fun solutions.  I liked this one from Game Terrain Engineering.  And that got me thinking about adapting my idea for four stepped shelves from wood and doing it a different way.

After a bit of measuring and sketching to make sure I understood the space I was working with, I launched in to making the basic shelves from foam-core board and hot glue.  This was mostly to shake out the dimensions and get me rolling.

Then I started thinking about how I wanted to make it more interesting and thought that a castle seemed fitting for most of my minis.  The next think I started thinking about was how the minis could move from one level to another.  That’s when I started sketching out doors, windows and a couple stair variations.  After another evening of noodling and cutting and building with my XPS (eXpanded PolyStyrene) foam board and some more foam core, I had those structures sketched out.

One point worth noting, a very common thing that’s pointed by people smarter than me when creating things like this is the value of asymmetry.  In this video by Adam Savage of MythBusters fame, he talks about building something from scratch and the importance of everything not being bi-laterally symmetric.  And I get it.  I agree.  There are, of course, counter-examples, but his point is valid.  I thought about whether is made sense for this to be asymmetric and, in the end, obviously opted to make it symmetrical left to right.  C’est la vie.  It felt right.

The next step for me was to build the bricks that would form that wall facings of my display.  Using some ideas from Jeremy at Black Magic Craft, I built several rods representing the width and height of the bricks.  Then, as I was cutting them, I varied the face depth every so often, resulting in bricks that were not the same depth which I hoped would make them more visually interesting.  I also decided at this stage that the back wall had a couple windows, so I added those and the appropriate framing.  I also used a rolled ball of aluminum foil to apply some texturing to all the bricked surfaces.  Tedious and difficult in place, but necessary for the texturing.  In the end this worked well, I thought.

For the floors, I didn’t want to just use the same approach because it seemed like it would look boring and less interesting, so for the floors, I opted for square tiles set on a diagonal.  Because imagined these as slate or the like, I decided they would be the same height, so I made a long rod of foam and then just cut many, many tiles for the flooring.  All of this was secured with hot glue.  I tried PVA (Elmers), but because it stayed wet for a while, tiles would shift about and that was irritating.  There was also lots of custom cuts in this round to fit around the various steps.

It was at this point that I reached peak “Barbie’s Dream Castle”.

The next step involved painting the entire thing in a mix of Mod Podge and black paint to provide a base coat, but also a bit more structural integrity and toughness.  Then I painted the flat colors.  I used a gray for the main castle, brown for the wooden doors and a cream for the front edge of the floors.  The latter really only served to separate the floors visually.  I also painted some of the bricks in the walls slightly different colors because, again, it shouldn’t look all the same because nature is seldom all the same, so the stones probably wouldn’t be either.  If you look closely, you’ll also note that I did some distressing of the front edges of the floors, the framing around the doors, the steps, some bricks, the frames for the back windows.  All of this was to start the aging of the castle so it didn’t look like it had been built last week.

Painting the flat colors starts to get things looking better, but the next step is where things start to pop as you add some dry-brushing to start bringing out the texture and highlights.  This part is fun.  I’m getting better at it, I think.

The next step is sort of the contrast to the dry brushing for highlights.  It involves using a wash of colored paint (usually black or black and some brown) to fill in some of the depressions and give it more definition.  This dark wash is kind of the balance to the highlighting.  I knocks down the brightness and represents the dirt and dust and crust that accretes with age.  I even threw in some green wash to represent the moss that would build up around things over time.  

I wrapped this project with a couple of coats with a spray-on polyurethane to protect it.  After letting that dry it was time to move it in and populate it.  I might need to add some sort of light because the upper levels get a bit more shadowed than I’d like.  Maybe something with some LEDs.  We’ll see.

I’m happy with this project, in part because it’s unique and one-of-a-kind.  While I stole (borrowed!) from lots of sources, it’s clearly a product of my brain and hands and I had a great deal of fun making it!

RPG: Earth Elementals

Some time back I was watching Jeremy on Black Magic Craft [Youtube] and in one episode he built his own epic scale Earth Elemental or Rock Golem.  If that doesn’t mean much, think Rock Monster or go watch the video.

His was a very large scale build and I don’t have that much room to either store something that size or probably much opportunity to use something that big, so I decided to build something more roughly sized to the games we play where it was, maybe, twice as big as a typical player.  Maybe 8′-10′ scale feet tall.

For my version, I thought I might benefit from adding a bit more skeletal support, so I wanted to build an armature out of some aluminum wire I had, so I twisted something up, applied copious amounts of hot glue and got the basic armature and did a big of basic positioning of the torso, arms and legs.  Once I was generally happy with the results, I glued these go some chip board to secure it and allow me to build on it.


After I had that, I decided to take a very loose and non-judgemental approach to how I built up the creatures, starting with the feet, building out the front of the legs then the back, moving up to the torso and then down the arms and eventually up to the neck and head.  You’ll note that I built a couple at the same time.  This was in hopes I’d end up with at least one I was happy with and if I ended up with two, bonus!

As it turned out, I really liked the one on the right in the pictures because I thought it looked a bit like the Bigfoot pose in the Patterson-Gimlin film.



The other guy, well, I wasn’t quite as happy.  Despite my best intentions, he ended looking, for lack of a better word, “muppet-y”.  Like a stone, cold Grover.  Sigh.  I even cut off the first version of his head and tried again and he still looked Grover-y in version 2, so I decided that that was how he was supposed to look.  Sigh.

Next, I added some sand and small rocks to the base because, well, Earth Elementals and I hoped it’d add some visual interest and make them a bit less smooth.  After that dried, I did a base coat of black ModPodge to stiffen and seal, followed by a medium gray and then some dry brushing with lighter tones.  I used a wash to tone that down and then hit some of the sand and highlights again with a very light and bright dry brush to make it pop a bit more.  Then I added some green moss because that felt about right.  Finally, I hit it with some satin polyurethane to seal and I was done!

Last, but not least, some class pics with some foolish adventurers for scale.

I was pretty happy with the results for what was a pretty quick build.  Stone Grover aside.






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RPG: One-Shot Crazy

Years ago now, when I first started trying to explain my Role Playing Group to my wife, it was clear that she didn’t see what I saw.  Didn’t see the epic battles, the intense negotiations, the realization that discretion really is the better part of valor and retreat is always an option.

Rather, she imagined foam swords and bad accents.

Since then I’ve imagined convincing her to take part in at least an RPG one-off night where I could show her what it was really like.

She wasn’t interested in playing with a group more experienced than her, so decided I’d have a newbie one-shot night an invite some other friends who I thought I could arm-twist in to playing with me, even for an evening.

I decided it would be D&D 5e because even though I hadn’t GM’d 5e before, I felt I was familiar enough to guide a bunch of starter players through a night.  I also wanted them to have enough cool things to do that it would feel epic, so I also decided their characters would be fourth level as, from my reading, it seemed as though the first couple levels might not be all that much fun for a starter players.

At first, I thought I’d simply download a free one-shot and play that and that’s pretty much what I did.  I found The Secrets of Skyhorn Lighthouse on the very cool site The DMs Guild.  It felt about right, it was very well written and made it easy for me to run as a first-time D&D 5e module. Also, I knew I could get pre-generated characters for the players so I wouldn’t have to make them go through all the cruft of generating characters from scratch.  A few emails asking what they want to be and I’d be ready to go!

So, ready to roll, right?  Just invite folks over and make it happen.

Would that my brain would let it be that easy…

The rational part of my brain thought I was in pretty good shape.  The obsessive part of my brain said, “Oh!  This’ll be fun.  How about if we…”  and then started bombing my brain with ideas to try and make this a special night.

I did email the players and discuss what kind of characters they would be and thus was born the Party:

  • Sister Camille, the human Paladin, devoted to Bahamut, god of law and order
  • Rinin, the shifty half-elf Rogue, what is he hiding and whose pocket has he picked?
  • Kwai Chang Caine, halfling Monk, in search of peace and tranquility, but seemingly doomed to find neither.
  • Zoas Ulaxim, epic Elven Sorcerer, searcher of knowledge and power (and he has a crow familiar because the player thought would be cool!)

Me: “Now we’re ready to go, right?”

Brain:Nah, wouldn’t it be cool if, in addition to their pre-gen character, they got a custom mini and dice?

Me: “Sigh…”

The dice were easy, I found that was selling dice reasonably.  The minis, well there went a week of free time, but I liked the results:

One-Shot Party!

And it went on like that.Me: “Ready?”

Brain: “Nearly, but you know that cool scene near the beginning where they’re negotiating passage and they have their first fight encounter?  I know you were going to just draw that out, but wouldn’t it be even cooler if there were an actual boat for them to fight on and around?

Me: “Seriously?  Geez…”

And there went another week of free time, but again, the results were kind of cool.

Note: The ship is constructed from XPS Foam insulation, cut, glued and carved, 3d printed elements added and then paint.

Pink foam floats
Da Boat.

Me: “We good?”

Brain: “That was fun.  So … the boat is at a dock.  You going to just draw that?  They’ll be at different heights.  Doesn’t seem quite as cool.  Needs a dock.  Don’t you think it needs a dock?”

Me: “Crud.”

So, I had to build some docks.

The docks use jute twine for the ropes around the pilings and use XPS foam for the pilings, tongue depressors for the boards, paint and hot glue.

Me: “Now, we’re done.  Shut up brain.”

Brain: “Yeah, no, you’re doing great.  Looks good.  You know how that GM screen you were going to use is alright, but not awesome?  Isn’t it about time you built your own GM screen that is 3.6x times more awesome?”

Me: “No, I don’t think it is.”

Brain: “You are wrong.  Try to sleep now.  Can’t do it, can you?  My job is done.”

Me the next morning: “Brainzzz…  Shut up Brain.”

So, I had to do that because clearly I’m just along for the ride at this point.

The screen is made from a sheet of 1/8″ hardwood plywood, some cool brass bits for the corners and hinges and some cool Chicago screws to hold it all together.

I painted the decorations on the front after tracing them on to the wood.  Then sanding gently to go for a weathered look (not entirely successful).  The brass parts were “aged” using a mild acid to remove the shiny.  All of this is a combination of what my dumb brain came up with and some ideas I stole from various other projects.  Oh, and I used a dremel to inset small magnets on the inside of the screen so I can attach my own content on the inside or outside as needed.  Finally, before application of the hardware, there were  three coats of polyurethane with sanding between layers.  Four pieces, two sides, three times.  24 times applying polyurethane.

This went on for a while with me waaaaay overdoing it and putting far more time in to prep than I would use in that one five hour one-shot.  Like 10x.  Yeah, I’ve got issues.

And, in the end, not only did we not get through the one-shot which I really knew wouldn’t be a one-shot, we really only got through about a quarter of it.  But we did use the boat and dock.  And I got to use my GM screen.

I think the Party had a good time and my wife and friends got an introduction to playing role-playing games.

Me: “So, brain, we’re done now, right?”

Brain: “When’s the next session?!  I’ve got ideas.”

Me: Stabs brain with sharp pencil.


RPG: Dungeon Stuff

This is a short post about a few different small projects I did just to build something

Two things converge in this:

  1. I like making stuff.  My entire career is creating things that are based in software.  You can’t hold it, you can’t feel it, you can’t point at it (typically) and say “I made that.”
  2. It’s fun for me to build dungeon stuff, even if it’s not entirely clear when I’ll use them.  Yet.

All three of these projects, the rocks, the columns and the barricades are based on projects I saw either on Black Magic Craft or Game Terrain Engineering.  The former is a creative channel, mostly focused on creative table elements for RPG games, the latter is some of that, but he also throws in some cool uses of 3d printing.  Both are enthusiastic and are clearly having fun and I get good ideas of things to try, techniques to work on or just cool projects to watch being built – which serves as fodder for my own imagination.

The first are some large rocks used as terrain scatter for outdoor or subterranean encounters.  They are intentionally flat on top.  These turned out okay, but aren’t natural enough looking.  Might do again.

The second are a set of columns in a couple different styles.

The last are a set of barricades to throw down to impede direct progress or just for visual interest or cover.





RPG: Hero Forge Miniatures

We were starting a new campaign and gaming system in our RPG group and I couldn’t find a mini I liked.  I enjoy the process of creating the backstory for my character and that means a certain look and feel to the mini would be ideal, something that matches the version in my head.  I couldn’t find anything for this guy, either between the box of Bones minis I have from their Kickstarter or online.

I decided it might be time to try Hero Forge an online service that allows you to create a completely unique mini and then have it 3d printed and sent to you.

The user interface is all web-based and you get to build your mini on some templates for race, gender and then you can customize to your hearts  content.

This guy, my new character, saw himself as a self-made man, a bit cocky, certainly self-assured.  A bit of a swashbuckler and trying to live above his class.  His main weapons would be a pistol and an assassin’s blade.  With that vision in mind, I went to town on the user interface to try and create my character.

This is what I ended up with:

It took a couple weeks to receive the printed miniature as it gets outsourced to another service for printing but eventually I received a small and very light package containing my one-off miniature.

I painted him up and the paint job is just okay.  I botched the face, going a little nuts on dirtying him up and then not knowing how to clean him back up after it dried.  But, on the whole, it was a close fit to my vision.  I did add my own 3d-printed base custom fit to have the other base atop it.  Additionally, I have space underneath to insert/glue a washer which gives him a good heft and reduces the odds that he topples accidentally.


On the whole, I was very satisfied with the experience.  I got a mini that looked just like what I wanted and looked just like the 3d render that I used to create him.  It’s worth noting that I would not do this regularly.  The cost for the service is just too high for me to justify unless I either felt in dire need of a mini that I figured I’d use for a long period of time, maybe for a year or longer or, as was the case here, I was willing to front the additional cost for the experiment and I plan on using it for a year.

Make: Crate and Barrel!

I’ve had a 3d printer for a while now and, for the most part, I’ve been printing other people’s designs and models.  I’ve learned a bit about how to print a model (it’s still a bit of a roll of the dice, frankly) and I’ve printed some things to use at our Game Night, but one of the main reasons I wanted a 3d printer (in addition to simply learning about a new thing and thinking they’re cool) is that I wanted to create my own models.  I’ve toyed with it a bit, but I still have a lot to learn.

Part of it is the software.  I’m using a free piece of software called Blender and, it does rock, especially for the price, but the learning curve is … impressive.  I have spent a great deal of time trolling through YouTube to find tutorials by people demonstrating how to use the software.  I’ve been more than a little chagrined how often when that video starts, it’s being taught by what sounds like a 14 year old boy whose voice has yet to change.  Sigh.  They are the teacher, I am the student.  Acceptance…

In any case, between persistence, stubbornness and some better resources, I’m finally making some progress.  My goal on this front, I kid you not, was simply to make a barrel.  Just something that looked like a barrel.  This sounds trivial, but it’s not.  I could list the lessons I learned about modeling and using deformation cages/lattices, the rigor that has to be applied to a model so that it is printable (learned a new use of the word manifold).  I had to rebuild this barrel no fewer than three times, from scratch, before I was ready to let it go and saved a dozen versions.  Even with that, I am also discovering the limitations of (my) consumer grade 3d printer which is demonstrated by the loss of detail at this small scale.  That barrel on the left is about 2cm tall, roughly 2/3rds the height of a mini and appropriately sized for a game.  But it also means the wood grain I lovingly sculpted in to the staves is largely lost and you can see the individual strands that make up the plastic which is melted to form the top.  Granted, by the time I paint it, it’ll less obvious, but it was a lesson.

Oh!  The Crate, you ask?

Well, two things:

  1. If you are in a game where barrels exist, odds are you’re going to need some crates to hide behind or block hallways or stack or generally fill space.  And,
  2. I thought titling this Crate and Barrel was funny.  You know, like the store.  Ha!  See, it’s even funnier when I point it out.

Make: Ancient Obelisks!

Original Inspiration

I was perusing images on Google looking for something that I might make which wasn’t too large.  The idea is it should be something I might use when next I GM our role playing group.  I wanted something that you might put on a table, might advance/enhance a story, might have more than one use.  And, I saw this image and thought it was kind of cool.  Looked like it was something ancient, something that had seen the passage of time.  Best of all, I thought it was simple enough that I might do my own version.

The material of choice for something like this (according to what I’ve learned) is XPS foam or eXpanded PolyStyrene.  It’s found in big box hardware stores and is usually either Pink or Blue and comes in various thicknesses and usually in very large sheets.  I’ve been learning how to make with this stuff and I’m getting better.  It does have its limits.  For example, in the original image you’ll note the very detailed runes on the two surfaces.  I think this is just a rendering because I’ve not clue how to get that much detail, but the detail isn’t the most important part.

Basic construction (of mine) involved a couple of thin squares scribed with fake bricks topped with a thinner, smaller piece to form the base.  Then I cut a roughly 1″ square piece that was longer and cut eight pieces a few inches long.  I cut the tops by hand and the angles on the top of mine are a bit closer to 45 degrees than the original pic.

I glued the bases together and inserted a toothpick vertically to provide some additional support and then inserted the vertical pieces on the toothpick and added some glue.  That’s the basic construction.  From there, it’s making them look old.  I did multiple things: I sanded down some edges to simulate smoothing over time, I nipped out pieces with a small needle-nose pliers, I cut cracks.  Basically I attempted to abuse them till they didn’t look new any more.  Oh, and I made some big, old runes in them because it looked good.

Then comes the painting.  After an initial coat of a primer/strengthener (called Mod Podge), I gave my obelisks a medium coat of a brownish color.  Then I added some lighter accents via dry brushing.  Finally, I put on a dark wash to provide some additional aging and put some darker tones in cracks and crevices.  Finally, I tried some flocking for the first time to simulate the moss.  They still need a final coat of a satin polyurethane to seal and strengthen them, but I’ll have to wait for warmer weather to do that.  I will probably also put them on a 3d printed base with a washer underneath for additional ballast as they are very light on their own.

I like how they turned out.  This wasn’t a big project, but as I only have spare time to work on them, it still took a while to complete.  And, the next time I’m in need of an obelisk or eight, I’m ready!


New Coat of Paint!

So, that was a year, wasn’t it?

I’m not going to make any excuses, but 2017 was quite a year on many fronts.  Folks far more able to describe it clearly talked about how everything going on with our country and our politics and in the world made it nigh impossible for them to focus on, well, much of anything.  And so it was for me.  Updating here or writing or much of anything else besides just getting by got pushed to the background.  I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

But, it’s a new year and time to start looking forward and pulling myself out of the hole I’ve been living in for much of the last year (and occasionally wanting a blanket and a great deal of comfort), brushing myself off and getting moving forward again.

I suspect the new year will be better, at least in some ways.

Personally, there are changes for me as I’ve started a new job which is much closer to where I live.  Alone, this frees up more than an hour a day of additional time.  I don’t loathe climbing in to a car to drive 2-2.5 hours per day.  You can only listen to so many podcasts and I have listened to many.

I have found time to do some Making of stuff, and I’ll post at least the results of some of those.

I updated the front page of the site from something arguably artisanal (in the non-mechanized sense) and bespoke (in the made to order sense) while at the same time being of questionable quality and definitely showing it’s age to something that at least looks like it was made in the last few years.  That gave me a chance to look in to some more modern libraries like Bootstrap, so that’s good.


Goals 2017: April Update

This update takes place at least in the first week of April, so I’ll give myself a small pat on the back for that.

Goal 1: Health

March continues the theme of challenging on the health front.  I continue to fight wanting to stick 100% to the eating plan and, as a result, more carbs sneak in and before I know it, five pounds have climbed back on.  I’m hopeful that the return of better weather will provide me more opportunities to get out and walk and that will help because staying active has to be a part of this, so fingers crossed.

Grade: C (Little improvement month-over-month)

Goal 2: Tech Refresh
I’m going to cut myself a bit of a break here and acknowledge two small things:

1. I worked on a cool, little Arduino project which required some wiring and some programming of a NeoPixel LED strip.  I got it working and programmed a couple of patterns (starting, of course, with a sweeping, red Cylon eye pattern which you can watch here.

I hope to add more scenarios, make it controllable remotely (it’s a tiny microcontroller that actually has a web interface) and possibly wire in a light sensor and/or a motion sensor.
2. I also did some woodworking, electronics wiring and general Making.

Grade: B

Goal 3: Read some non-Fiction
I’m going to coast on being ahead of my goal and knowing that I’ve got a book on Mindfulness that I’m reading next called “Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace)

Grade: A

Goal 4: Document some Projects
I’ve got one on some lamps I’ve been working on for a while ready to go today or tomorrow.  On track for the goal.  (Still need to do some level of writeup on the leather working).

Grade: A

Goal 5: Volunteer
I was asked by a friend if I would mentor his Senior through his Senior Project because he wants to manage projects and do software.  I’ll have my final meeting with him this week to review the results, but that was a fun little side project that I enjoyed.

Extra Credit: A

The aggregate score gives me a 3.4 or a B/B+ with the extra credit.  I think I should have weighted the grades a bit as my primary goal’s reasonably low grade it being pulled up by the other goals.  Not sure I’m okay with that or not.  Oh, well, moving on.

Note: Image courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Darts_in_a_dartboard.jpg and is a Public Domain photo.