Homesteading, Permaculture, and American Houses

Tracy and I are intending to use our garden to start growing some crops sustainably. The long planning is to put some raised beds in there, a nice greenhouse, and a chicken coop. It’s a bit of a permaculture, homesteading, or sustainable living type of idea that we’re going for. Back when we lived in Groningen, we had an allotment garden for two or so years, though that was difficult to maintain given my travel times and the accessibility issues for Tracy. Now that we finally have some garden space to ourselves, we can do it in a convenient way, particularly now that we are more financially stable as well.

The interesting thing when researching this is that, like so much of contemporary culture, Americans are quite dominant voices in the space. This, as you can imagine, brings along some interesting cultural differences. For instance, a book that I saw recommended for small gardens was The Half-Acre Homestead. A half-acre—small! Over here, in one of the cheaper places to buy property in the Netherlands, a half-acre plot (about 2km2 about 2000m2 or a plot of about 44m by 44m) would cost at least half a million Euro up to a million Euro, depending on where you buy (about $580k–$1.16m). You’d be buying up an old farmhouse with farmland, and on the cheaper side of things it’d be a delapidated farmhouse at that. The authors of The Half-Acre Homestead apparently found an acre of unused land and settled on it, building their own house and starting to farm on it. The book claims that they have never paid rent or had a mortgage. In the Netherlands, it’d be almost impossible to find 10cm2 that isn’t owned by somebody somewhere. Let alone, of course, that the premise of the book is that they started this somewhere in the ’70s. Now, potentially, this might be deceptive (really, they never had any trouble over seizing land with a municipal government, a landowner, or the federal government?), but whether it’s true or false, I am convinced that the same could not be done today in the Netherlands.

The main points of it, though, are still usable. There are many updated and modernized variants of the book, and adapted versions for more specific living. However, the most relevant informational source we’ve found on home gardening for food production in our growing zone is Spicy Moustache on YouTube. His videos are really realistic as to what can be done in a small growing space in a European and urban environment, and his garden is something I’d aspire to have as well. For an example, check out his latest video:

I love the focus on practical, realistic, and affordable garden solutions.

Slowly and surely, through these kinds of sources, we are learning new ways of food production in more urban settings than we’ve had with our farmplot before. On a more general note, I can really recommend listening to podcasts like The Poor Prole’s Almanac, Live Like The World is Dying, and It Could Happen Here for good information on how to become more self-sustainable. The first focuses more directly on urban food growing, while the second is more about independent living and anarchist theory, and the third is about the potential realities of life moving forward from here.

Both from an economic, cultural, and environmental perspective, we’ve really been prompted to think more about sustainable ways of living. From something as simple as mending holes in clothing and wearing them longer even though it may look a little weird, Tracy wanting to custom make clothing, I wanting to learn how to repair and maintain electronics, to the two of us farming our own food in our front and back yards, the both of us have started to become more and more convinced we need to be more autonomous in our lifestyles. Aside from all the benefits, it’s also just nice to be able to take pride in the things that we are doing.

Clever Enemies in RPGs

I’m happy to have discovered the blog The Monsters Know What They’re Doing today. The author, Keith Ammann, voices something which I’d been trying to do when running games, which is using common sense in encounters. I’m currently playing the cRPG version of Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, and one thing which is very noticable in PC RPGs is that hardly any NPCs—if any at all—will operate based on common sense rules. Most of the enemies will just move directly towards the players and use whatever features or abilities they have until these bags of hitpoints are depleted. When I just started running tabletop RPGs, I did the same thing with my enemies, because that’s what I’d read. There’s a much better way of handling this, though.

I like the way Ammann phrased it, which is that every creature tries to stay alive as a basic principle. Any creature will try to use its main advantages in conflict situations to get the best possible outcome. Wolves, when in a pack, will try to coordinate and surround prey. While a single bee would sting, if there’s multiple bees, they’ll swarm. Human beings, well, we’re intelligent, so we’ll use tools and tactics to try and get the best of things. I’ve roughly used a similar type of principle as Ammann argues in his blog while running games. Basic animal enemies will use elementary tactics: I’d have a wild boar rush at a player, then disengage to set up another rush. By comparison, while I’d have a common thug try to beat up whoever looked like a threat, I’d have a bandit leader call out commands to take out the wizard first, or to have archers focus on the fighter from afar.

For one, playing like that would give me something to spice up fight scenes a little bit. Instead of the old “it rolls a 5, that’s a miss. Your turn. Okay, you do 7 damage on that hit. Okay, it rolls a 17. It does 4 damage”, now, intelligent enemies shouted out quick commands to each other. Goblins would look around in shock, or kobolds would dive behind rocks before unleashing arrows. On top of that, it turned fights from the standard slog-fest between two bags of hitpoints into something a little more dramatic. Most interestingly, though, it started making combats more threatening. The wizard who always cast fly on himself and bombarded everybody with fireballs suddenly found that if people expected the party to drop by, that they’d prepare their own wizard with dispel magic scrolls. The fighter who’d loaded up on armor and always just wanted to stand in front to tank would suddenly find himself running to and fro as enemies used guerilla tactics to take out the cleric rather than the fighter.

Funnily enough, this didn’t start out of a desire to up the challenge for my players, but rather to make the combats more interesting to play to begin with. Simply by assuming that every enemy has its own world and life behind the bag of hit points would naturally lead to a more dynamic conflict experience. Funnily enough, I never figured to phrase it so eloquently as Amman has done: “The monsters know what they’re doing”. When I’m done with the current books I’m reading, I think I’ll be putting that one on the pile as well.

Burning France: Additional Thoughts

As I’ve been reading more about running different types of Burning Wheel games, I’ve come to some realizations about my Burning France setup that I should have done differently, in retrospect. In particular, reading about Burning Thac0, an attempt to model old-school D&D with Burning Wheel, was quite an eye-opener for me. I think it’s the meta-system discussion that really highlights what is specific about the system itself, and brought some ideas to the fore.

The first thing that I realized I should have done differently, in retrospect, is work more on the specific situation in Session 0. The start as of Burning France as of now is based just after interesting things happened (the burgeouisie has just overthrown the feudal opressors); however, that leaves us with a big open questionmark as to what should happen next. Now, I had an overall idea lying around, where the characters were Dogs in the Vineyard-style justices being sent out to troubleshoot problems in this nascent political structure, but that’s more the context rather than the immediate situation.

My second realization flows directly from the first, in that I should have focused more on what the individual characters are here for. Now, we’ve agreed that they’ve somehow have been involved in the uprising to the degree that they’ve been selected to do this itinerant justice thing but we hadn’t explored much of the why and how. I realize that what I should have done is ask all the players why their characters bothered to join the uprising and what they are intending to get out of it from hereon out. Moreover, the largest problem, I realize, is that we didn’t get to creating our beliefs together as a group at the same time.

That last issue, I realize now, is the largest one that ties the first two together. Making beliefs together at the same time should have been the moment for all four of us to brainstorm what game we were going to play. The players should have written their beliefs, I should have worked with them to see how they intertwine, and together we would have made the initial story out of this. Ideally, we should have played out a single quick scene just after the first creation of beliefs, and then immediately after adjusted beliefs again to create a direction.

It’s funny, we haven’t even played our first session yet, and already I’m learning how to do better.

Nobilis: Session 3

Yesterday evening, we had the third session of Nobilis; and, as usual, I took a night’s sleep to let things settle and gather my thoughts before writing something up.

Setting and Style

The game is getting a little more settled for me now; there’s more grounding as we’re establishing more of the world. The characters themselves are also getting more settled, which is helping me find some handholds to engage with the game. My character, the noble of Fantasy, has taken on an otherworldly, only half-there half the time kind of attitude towards the fiction, which I’m enjoying to play. I’m glad to see that the GM is taken a bit of a Gaiman-esque approach to it as well, and the world he’s establishing is reminding me somewhat of American Gods. We went into the realm of another Noble by virtue of some manner of diner in the regular world, where somehow a 2.5m-tall figure could stride in without a problem. I’m enjoying this unheimlich aspect of the world, where everything is just a bit off somehow. I also appreciate that the GM leaned into what my character has been bringing into the fiction as well, but having the Lady of Mercury also hint at being a little odd. It’s always good when the GM understands where you’re trying to go with a character.

Comparatively, I’ve had some trouble communicating the same to the other players. I’ve been trying in-character to convey setting and narrative in a bit of that odd, fantastical manner, but I’ll need to work how on how to do that, as it hasn’t seem to have given the other players enough to latch on to yet. For example, there was a point where my character had knowledge of an NPC being connected to our murder suspect. While my character had mentioned it to one other character in-game, he didn’t act on that further; the other characters came in later, so they were as of yet unaware in-fiction. Sadly, dropping a hint to another character didn’t work to prompt that onwards. Later, whispering about a familiarity in the NPC to our suspect to a third character was sadly misinterpreted as assuming a familial connection rather than a metaphysical one, so again it fell flat. I just had to resort to outright mentioning it, after the scene had already exploded. I’m not sure yet how to rework my character’s interactions with the others to retain the otherwordly feeling while also offering more clarity for them.

Aside from being otherworldly and odd, I’ve been trying to have my character be nice, caring, and playful. In a sense, at its best, childlike, as some fantasy may be. At its worst, they’ve been playfully mean, teasing the Lord of Anxiety with fears of the unknown, as fantasy can equally show you things you don’t want to have happen. I’m trying to have the character just be very accepting. After all, fantasy comes in many shapes and forms, and the most important thing is to be welcoming of whatever may be presented. I’ve tried to put in small gestures like this here and there, such as sending out a random act of kindness in the second session, or letting an NPC go when they want to in the third.

Game experience

The pace of this session was, sadly, a little frustrating to me, to be honest. We ended the last session at such an interesting point: the characters had just received a formal invitation (with potentially a veiled threat? The GM did point out how in the phrase “cordially invited”, the word “cordially” was emphasized in italics) to a ceremony where the new noble of Coal would be instated, after the last one was murdered on our grounds. I remember the GM previously saying that, since everybody was a near-godlike being, most of the conflict in the game was diplomatic rather than physical. So, great! This emphasis-on-the-cordial invite must be the start of some interesting plot developments, and I was ready to get going. Personally, I would have wanted the session to pretty much start off with “so, you walk through the grand doors to the reception hall of the Chancel of Asphalt, Mercury, and Coal”.

The first forty minutes of the game, though, we’re spent in a long discussion on possible risks and threats. Do we need to wear formal clothing to this event? Can we get out safely if we go in? Would we be aware of the etiquette that we should observe? Should we scout out the place before we head in? To me, these seem like very gamist or adversarial GM concerns—ways to ensure that we don’t get penalized because we didn’t remember to bring a ten-foot pole, as it were. My reasoning, rather, was as follows: what happens if, in going to the ceremony of the new noble of Coal, we leave the murder weapon of the old Lord of Coal behind and it gets stolen? Well, the story clearly has moved in an interesting direction. What happens if, in taking the murder weapon to the ceremony, somebody spots it and makes a scene? Well, more interesting things happen.

Sadly, a similar thing happened soon after. The GM threw in what, to me, seemed like a small and interesting new lead to our mystery. A new character associated with our possible murderer dropped by our domain to give us a gift to smoothe some wrinkles. I initially tried to have my character push her towards the group as a whole, but the NPC desperately needed to get out and refused. My character had already been rude enough, so I saw no problem letting the NPC go. The way I figured it, either the gift that was given would provide us some clues; we also had the character’s name to follow up on; and, if there was more to find out, we could always schmooze at the reception later to try and find some more information. It really seemed like the GM just wanted to introduce a small new lead to help us along. Plus, if we solved the mystery from this one NPC already, that’d be no fun either, right? The rest of the party, though, was intent to latch on to the event and to interrogate this new character. The end result after half an hour was no more information bar the name of the associate, and one highly offended NPC out the door.

Mechanics

I’ve learned that I’ll need to engage with the mechanics more explicitly. As another player mentioned yesterday during the after talk, it’s fine to sit around chatting together but we’re also here to play a game, so that means interacting with the rule system as well. I’ve been unsure of exactly how to engage with it, due to my ignorance and unfamiliarity with the system. So, I’ve been low-key acting on the theme of imagination, fantasy, and the fantastical with my character, but I don’t think that’s led me to where I need to be. In one instance, I was trying to get my character to somewhat daze another character into a dreamlike state, so as to move them towards the rest of the party, but that didn’t work out much.

Another player, later, ran into that same character (quite literally), and showed me an example of what I could have done, as he explicitly stated “I want to create a sense of anxiety in her”. The characters in Nobilis have powers to do miracles, and I see I may need to use some of these more triggering verbs in what I’m doing: “I evoke”, “I create”, “I preserve” and so on. I think that will also help my GM latch on to what I’m doing and guide me around the mechanics of how whatever I’m trying is supposed to work. Later on, I had another moment of dissonance, as we needed to overcome a small challenge (walking a tightrope), which I assumed would be no problem for a near godlike being. However, the GM kindly reminded me that my character’s Aspect statistics was 0, which meant that they would not be able to properly walk that rope—a good lesson on what that stat actually does.

Overall, I’m enjoying that the mechanics are coming into play a little more. I understand that the GM has a difficult task here: one of the players is not a fan of systems at all, feeling that rules only need to be implemented when there’s some conflict, whereas I enjoy seeing systems at work and enjoy how restrictions encourages my creativity. That’s a hard set of extremes to balance! I think the GM did really well in this session, though, to gently introduce some mechanics in there while also keeping it light. A particular point that I appreciated in the system is that there was something of a gamble involved when one player wanted to impose their powers over another NPC: every character has something of a resistance to influence, and the player just had to guess what that NPC’s resistance would be. He’d either guess right and win out, or guess wrong and likely be exposed for what he was doing.

Overall

It’s still been a lot of setup so far, so it’s still too early to come to any conclusions about the game as of yet. I’m eager to get into Act II of this story to see about getting into some conflict points, which is where I’m assuming the system will start showing off its strengths. It does seem like the rest of the group is looking for a different experience than what I’m looking for, though, which is somewhat disheartening.

The characters also seem like five separate characters related purely by chance but little else, so there seems to be something of a lack of cohesion. I wonder if a more explicitly defined hierarchy in character creation could have helped; for instance, we could have had two players play more senior Nobles in the Chancel, with three other characters being newly appointed Nobles subordinate to the two. Alternatively, a more pressing unifying concept might have worked as well. For example, if the murder weapon was discovered, and all five of us were now being investigated as a band of suspects, we would all have a clear motivation to work together to overcome this challenge.

Having said that, as I mentioned before, while the pacing may be slower than I enjoy, the world-building is setting up an interesting cast right now. In particular I’m looking forward to what can happen in the next session, as we start off at the formal reception. Our characters have literally just discovered that they were invited to the ceremony privately, which is already mysterious enough—why them? Why now? Moreover, there’ll now be a whole cadre of Nobles around to interact with. So far, our supposedly noble characters have aggressively harangued everybody who’s dropped by, which seems at odds with surviving in a society hinged on mutual toleration. We may encounter a slew of new enemies or allies at this reception, or build some bridges here or there.

The next session is on the 30th, so we’ll see what the GM has come up with by that time.

Burning Wheel Coming

On the 28th, we’ll finally play out first session of Burning Wheel. We’ve had to move it so many times that I was worried it’d die before we get started. Granted, this last session was moved on my accord, given that I wanted to attend an event on that night (which I didn’t end up attending after all, because I was sick). Either way, I’m pretty excited to get started. I’ve been reading various RPG related blogs, articles, and so on to get back into the mindset of DMing, and the more I’m doing that the more ideas I’ve been getting again.

Nobilis: Session 2

Yesterday, I played in the second session of Nobilis. I had to miss the first session because we had no internet at the new house yet, but fortunately I managed now for this session. That did make it tough, because I had to jump in on a running train but that’s just the way these things go. It was also a pretty rough session for me, because I was pretty exhausted from the past weeks. To be honest, I could have probably just curled up in bed with a book by the time we started and after we stopped I fell asleep almost right away. Sadly, though the GM asked for some feedback at the end, I was too tired to provide some directly.

At the same time, it also feels pretty early game to provide some proper feedback, as we’re still settling in. For one, I really needed to settle in to the game itself; I feel fairly unmoored right now, because I don’t know the system nor do I have a feel for the story or world right now, and we also haven’t established ourselves as a group yet. I feel like my character is meshing with two of the players’ characters, but that’s also because I’ve played with them before and we roughly know what to expect of each other. The other two I’m still getting to know; one seemed fairly quiet all game and the other was relatively dominant throughout but that also moved things forward as well. Overall, the group as a whole still needs to find its core, I’m thinking.

As for the game itself as well, I haven’t particularly seen enough yet either to have an informed opinion. Since I’ve only experienced one session in this game, I haven’t really experienced much of the mechanics, having seen only two or three uses of them so far, which so far have limited themselves to “if what you’re doing has a lower rating than your skill, it succeeds”. That works effectively but I’m also missing a feedback-loop so far. However, I’m sure there’s something like that must be built in on a story-level of the mechanics.

The story we have is some kind of murder mystery right now, where somebody was murdered in an internal struggle of an opposing force but on our turf. While we have found out a motive (the character wanted power and prestige but the others in the group cut him down) and we have found the murder weapon (a severed hand that is more real than anything else), we don’t know the why of it yet. It’s a little tricky for me to relate it to our group, as I don’t really know why we’d care or why we’re working together. At the end of a session, a strongman from the murderous faction came by on a polite call which, to me, seemed like he was pressuring us to drop it or otherwise check to see if we were a risk. Without really know the relationships in the factions, it would make sense to just drop the body and leave it be. For the sake of the game, though, we’re presented with a murder mystery, so it makes sense to investigate that.

The next session is in two weeks, so I’ll post on the progress after that.

House Progress

Step by step, this house is starting to shape up. Today, Tracy and I spent some time organizing the wardrobe. We still can’t find the screws to my wardrobe, so we’ll be sharing hers for the time being. In the long run, we want to replace these broken-down second-hand things, but we’ll have plenty of expenses to go before then. So, today, we’ve spent a lot of time unpacking more boxes, clearing out suitcases, folding, stacking, and generally playing clothing-Tetris. The great outcome is that I no longer have to scrounge through boxes to find things to wear! I ended the whole ordeal by clearing some things from the office and the bedroom, carrying some suitcases and cat carriers to the attic.

I do have to say it’s been a pretty tough set of weeks moving. Every day has been filled with getting some work done, including gettings things done around the house after my job. I’ve been really beat in the evenings, though at the same time it’s really rewarding to settle into the house and making it ours more and more by inches. Still, I’m looking forward to when I can finally get some sleep again tonight, as the tank is pretty empty.

Intercultural Marriages and Language

Today, I was browsing potential tools for our garden, as we never really owned our own. The last garden we tended for a few years was back in our apartment in Groningen, and most of the tools we had had been left to us by the previous owner of that garden (it was an allotment garden), and we didn’t feel right taking the tools with us when we left, so we handed it to the next owners, much as they were left to us. So, we’re starting back from scratch, and working out the investment needed to get our starting toolset.

When researching this, I ran into an odd situation that I’d heard discussed frequently but hadn’t experienced myself yet: actually forgetting parts of my native language. You see, Tracy and I speak English exclusively at home. My workplace is an international environment, so we mainly speak English with each other. Even the last week, I was in a meeting with a group of Dutch native speakers where we suddenly realized we’d been speaking English with each other for the past twenty minutes. Before that, my degrees were on English-language literature taught in English. So, even though I was born and raised in the Netherlands and have lived here all my life, over the past twenty-five years or so I’ve predominantly used English.

As a result of all of this, I know that my Dutch isn’t as good as my English. I have a more limited range of expression, and my grammar and pronunciation is off enough that I am frequently asked where I’m really from. Today, as I was looking for basic gardening tools, it was easy to look for spades and shovels, I had to think a bit about what the Dutch word for “trowel” was, but that didn’t phase me too much (it’s not a word I encounter particularly often), but for the life of me I couldn’t remember what the Dutch for “watering can” was. I literally had to go to a translation website to translate the English and find the Dutch word again.

I think I may need to use Dutch a little more again.