New on Desk #80 — To Eat a Mocking Bird

So, best keep writing; my plan is to write two newsletters per week until I get back to “pace”, defined by the arbitrary notion of writing one newsletter each week. Because I skipped the first three weeks of July, and wrote an extra newsletter this week, I’m behind two issues right now.

What I’ve been doing instead of writing

I suppose you could call it a summer vacation of sorts: the heat here in inner Finland spiked, which didn’t help my productivity any, and concurrently my daily schedules got reworked in support of my brother’s physical therapy program; we’ve been going on lengthy walks and swims every day, and that apparently fucks with my writing motivation. Frail as ever, that motivation.

I’ll share a bit of slice of life with you, then. This is what life’s been like in heat wave Savo.

Automation Enters the Garden of Eden

Imagine this, but with a far sketchier greenhouse attached to the pump.

I’m not much of a green thumb (for my community, that is; still more of a gardener than the average urbanista), so the idea of an “automatic vent opener” for a greenhouse window came as news to me. The manual window opening hinge in my mother’s rickety greenhouse had broken years ago, so it was inevitable that my postal-order savvy brother would stumble on the idea sooner or later.

The automatic vent opener is a pretty clever thing: it’s basically a pressurized stick full of gas that expands with heat, a bit like a thermometer. The gas pressure drives a piston that works against gravity to push the window or vent open when the gas heats; gravity closes the window when the gas cools. In other words, it’s a gizmo that opens the window when it’s hot, and closes it when the weather’s cold, all without electronics. Sometimes people invent the most clever things.

So how does this technology then ruin a human life? Glad you asked: the greenhouse isn’t the most sturdy to begin with, and at this point in its life cycle nobody knows if it’s even supposed to be standing the way it is. Certainly nobody knows whether the window-pane element is supposed to, you know, attach to something on its hinge side. You can sort of raise and lower that window carefully, and the hinge’ll stay in place at the ridge of the roof. Sort of, particularly if there’s no wind.

So one lovely part of my summer routine is going out every morning to reset that fallen window pane. At least the opener thingy keeps it from falling to the ground, so instead it hangs at odd angles inside or outside the greenhouse. At least a grown man can just about reach the thing from the ground and reset it. I suppose in an infinitely resourced organization I’d figure out a way to tape the pane from its hinge side to the greenhouse, but that’s not what we’re working with here.

Birds in a Lake

I’ve seen a lot more of our local swimming hole, the Barrens Pond (Kangaslampi), this summer than ever before; the physical therapy regimen has involved long daily swimming trips, so we’ve swum around the entire pond pretty regularly this month.

This thing, Cygnus Cygnus.

One of the basic conclusions I’ve made is one that I’d suspected earlier in the summer already: we’ve lost our pond swans. The Pond has generally had a pair of swans nesting there in recent years (one pair; the Pond might not be big enough for two), but this year we saw some migrating swans earlier, but no swan activity after mid-summer. If they were there, it’s pretty much a given that we’d have spotted them on one of those hour-long swims (and gotten accosted and drowned by them, presumably, for swimming close to their nest).

Recently there’s been occasional swan sightings, which I take to mean that a pair of swans in the region has failed in their nesting and are now living a care-free summer lifestyle. They seem to come to the Pond to hang out for a time before continuing to what I assume is some of the other numerous ponds and lakes in the area.

The current theory on the “ducks” is that they’re loons.

Without the usual territorial tug-of-war between the human swimming lagoon and the Cygnians, we’re left to observe lesser birds. Some duck-type things have hung out at the Pond persistently enough that I’ll call it nesting until proven otherwise. Smaller things, I’d give myself even odds in a fistfight (wing-fight?) if these attacked me in the middle of the pond. The working theory is that they’re loons; a fairly civil bird, inclined to dive into the water when it notices an approaching human swimmer. They’ll swim a hundred meters or more underwater before bobbing up again.

This is the best picture of our diving tower out there?

Aside from the loons, the Pond’s been dominated by flying gull-type birds. Their modus vivendi seems to involve sitting in a tree until fish is spotted, at which point the bird takes to the wing and dives for the fish. These can often be spotted sitting vigil at the diving tower, when the humans aren’t using it.

Over the last few days, when we’ve gone swimming in the morning, there’s been small gulliform birds hanging out on the beach. The theory is that these are the next generation. They seem to prefer standing around in the water-line, not doing much. I have no idea if it’s normal behavior for these birds. The adults stick around, so maybe this is how they’re supposed to behave.

Man vs Robot in the Garden of Eden

The stakes in my struggles with machinery suddenly jumped up when the opportunity to purchase a cheap robot lawn mower came up. I end up doing a fair amount of lawn mowing every summer, so getting either a sheep or a robot mower has been under consideration for a few years. The sheep has encountered some push-back, and a local store was selling a cheap robot mower for well under 300 €, so robot it is.

This same, presumably Chinese thing is sold under various names around the world.

After a few days of owning this beast it seems like there’s little reason to not go robotic at these prices. The cheap robot mower is a bit of a toy, but it seems like it basically gets the job done in its own way, and it’s no more expensive than a conventional mower. The low power and generally lightweight stature of the thing is offset by the fact that it doesn’t have to mow the entire yard in an hour, like the man-operated machine needs to; it can spend 50 hours working it, no problem. The cutting blades in this thing are literally just three razor blades attached to a spinning plate, so it really needs to work ground over early and often to not choke on the grass. Not too noisy either, so it could work nights as well if it needs to.

The main argument against the robot is that setting up the control lines that you need to establish around the yard takes a fair bit of time, like ~20 hours. As it is, we’re still in the process of laying the line; the robot is spending the weekend working over a 100 meter diameter test area. If all goes well, we’ll sink the lines around the yard over the next few days and release the relentless grass-shaver to wander far and wide.

The Thrush in a Bush

I just learned that the saskatoon is native to the New World.
The fieldfare is a thrush. A thrush is a bird.

The saskatoon (marjatuomipihlaja, saska) is a bit less common berry bush in these parts. We have a large one, sufficiently so that it’s difficult to cover it effectively with bird netting. The local fieldfare (räkättirastas) population rather favours the berry of the saskatoon, so it’s paramount to keep them away while the berry ripens and before it is collected.

Fieldfares are noisy birds, they like to chatter. Very distinctive in rural Finland. They like to sit around in nearby trees, conspiring towards the various red and blue berries of the world.

The circumstances of not having large enough nets and having an over-size saskatoon bush have caused me to re-invent net-hunting of birds, which I imagine is a time-honored tradition in southern Europe, but isn’t really familiar a pastime to me. The fieldfares are cunning and persistent, but not wise. They make their way inside the nets every morning. At first 1–2, later up to half a dozen at once. Over the July weeks, waking up to go for that morning swim, after putting the window pane of the greenhouse back into place, I’ve gotten into the habit of letting the birds out of the nets. They seem to be smart enough to get in, but not smart enough to get out, so it can take a while to make a large enough hole and then convince the birds to leave. And they’re not smart enough to learn from the traumatic experience that it might be wiser to not go into the trap every morning.

Considering how the birds like to chatter behind my window, and the sheer repetition of the task, it’s no surprise that this is the sort of thing that drives man to murder. Investigating the prospect of fieldfare cuisine, I learned that I’m not the first one to wonder about its similarity to chicken.

So one morning last week, we released half a dozen birds from the nets, went swimming, then came back to find a couple of them had again snuck in despite my attempts at tying the nets shut. I took a shovel and knocked one of them out, which allowed my brother to pick it up and break its neck. Or rather, pull its head off; apparently they’re surprisingly loose.

(We’re not natural born killers here. This isn’t a tale of practiced hunting.)

Having slain a bird and lost another, we moved on to the culinary arts. The doctrine was that, being unaccustomed to butchering a bird, we’d limit ourselves to the breast, the part which is rumoured to be the only one sizable enough to practically separate and prepare from a small bird such as this. This proved to be the case, even the breast was just a finger’s worth of meat all told.

We fried the breast-meats on the pan, in butter, and seasoned them with salt and pepper. Fieldfare proved a tasty treat! Internet sources had claimed that the early summer fieldfare tastes of worms, because it eats worms, while the late summer fieldfare tastes of berries, because it eats berries. Maybe this was late summer, then, for the meat was sort of like if chicken had some muscle tone; a bit like a cross between beef and chicken. Texture was particularly nice. It’s just that there was barely enough for a bite.

Wikipedia tells me, by the way, that “fieldfare” gets its name from its habit of faring — traveling — the fields. So it’s not that it’s a particularly good fare for a field-worker or anything like that. Much too puny. They apparently spend the winter in the British Isles, so it’s a bird known to the English language, for all that they choose to come here to mock me in the summers.

Unfortunately the general consensus was that there’s far too little meat in a single fieldfare to really make a habit out of eating them. Fortunately — and I don’t know why — the fieldfare stopped getting caught in the nets after this morning! I have difficulty believing that the birds realized that I’d started eating them; surely our past encounters at the nets had been traumatic enough to convince them that I’m bad news. But whatever the case, the birds did not come back until after the saskatoon got picked to satisfaction, after which the nets were taken down and the high up branches of the tree were left for the fieldfares’ feast.

Coup de Main proceedings

I’m a bit behind on Coup play reports; the latest session in the Monday Coup at this writing was #55, while the last session I told you about was #51. I’ll help myself catch up by summarizing two sessions at once! This arrangement helps me conclude the Barbican Adventures adventure arc that we’ve been grinding since session… #44, so for a dozen sessions by now.

Coup de Main #52

The Barbican Adventures concern a party of adventurers stuck manning a fort right next to an evil castle. They visit the castle dungeons in an effort to… get rich, I suppose, but it would play even better in Hollywood if they had a noble cause. Like if there was a Mad Archmage in the Castle, and the Barbican Bandits were bravely opposing the wizard’s ploys.

This session started promisingly for my screenwriting plans, as the party finally got a cute mascot: Tommi’s character had perished in the session before the last, so he decided to play a Badger. (I forget who it was, but I got this idea from somebody at the Story Games forums a few years back!) The Badger was surely an useful party member, with the considerable advantages of being able to join the party in the middle of the dungeon, of being able to eat almost anything, and of being surprisingly adept at going up and down ladders.

Last session ended with a cliffhanger: the party had just won a tough battle with the Old Guard Kobolds, scattering the survivors to deeper parts of the Castle accessible from their nest, when they learned that a party of rival adventurers had been attracted by the sounds of battle. With our adventurers exhausted by combat and scattered in the dungeon corridor by Sven’s anger management issues, a hostile party could potentially spell our doom.

Fortunately the encounter proved rather more boring than that. The adventurers were a crew of mercenaries led by one Kimchell, a Greyhawkian merchant factor and probable spy of the Wizard’s Guild. They were mainly curious, and willing to exchange information and otherwise have the parties stay out of each other’s way. The Barbican Bandits learned from Kimchell about reputably rich dwarves in the north-eastern parts of the dungeon.

With that out of the way, the rest of the session was actually pretty routine: the party had vanquished the kobolds, the only active denizens of this part of the dungeon, so there wasn’t necessarily much addition danger to be had here. There should be some treasure, though! The pickings were fairly sparse for the amount of effort the Old Guard Kobolds had presented. The party was keen to search for their chief’s quarters, say, or other such place with the actual treasure.

Alas, despite attempts at treasure-sniffing, we failed to find anything particularly attractive. This is in line with the general experiences of the Barbican Bandits: this place simply doesn’t have much in the way of treasure. Savids, badly injured in the fight with the kobolds, went moody, the way barbarians do, muttering to himself.

We ended the session by moving more supplies from the undercastle to the barbican, as one does. The party also did some basic testing on a few choice pieces of gear they’d liberated from the dead kobold captain: magical loot! Savids was particularly happy to gain a ring that would prove to be a Ring of Protection. Finally something good!

Also, an important strategic event: the players had speculated earlier about a way to end the “siege” the barbican was under. The way things stand, the adventurers don’t want to abandon the barbican, as it’s too valuable, but they can’t stay there forever either. They have prior knowledge of some rangers ostensibly camping somewhere in the region. If they could just get in touch with the rangers, they could probably arrange to transfer lien on the fort to them, leaving the party free to come and go. But the woods around here are pretty scary.

The brilliant move — and I mean this — the players came up with was using smoke signals to contact the rangers. They had a ranger of their own, so Waylost the Ranger could surely organize a signal stack. The party had gathered the necessary firewood for it earlier, so now it was just a matter of letting Waylost set up the fire, and blankets, and smoke. A successful task resolution combined with a bit of luck in the receiving end, and the party might just have worked their way out of trouble here!

Coup de Main #53

The dungeon-delving had by this point become a satisfyingly routine thing, so we didn’t waste any time getting back into the dungeons at the beginning of the new session. There was some talk of this being the last session of the Barbican Bandits arc, so the focus was on “wrap-up”, putting the dungeon into a neat shape for later.

The first target the party engaged was a “stairway” that their acquaintance Stone Battlecreek (an adventurer they’d released from kobold jail a couple sessions back) told them about. What was discovered was a large, mysterious spiral staircase that seemed to lead up to the surface. (As well as down, but the downwards path was covered in thick, foreboding mists…)

Up the stairs the party discovered a rather thoroughly incinerated library. We spent like four hours exploring the remains, but nothing much was found except for three huge bronze doors, twisted and stuck from the heat. Interesting, but we weren’t here to seek new adventures, so that could wait for later.

Next we went mapping further away from the territory of the Old Guard Kobolds. Fairly eventless until the party stumbled on the lair of the Magublek goblin clan! The goblins tried to wave the party to keep moving, but the bloodthirsty bandits didn’t hesitate to start an utterly deadly fight. We got perilously close to a party wipe, too, as the goblins were absolutely armed to the teeth with dungeon napalm. Some pretty showy grenade throws with disconcertingly potent burning fluids.

The Barbican Bandits, also known as the Seven Stars Squad for how all of their members for the longest time had 7 hit points each, are actually a fearsome fighting force for a low level dungeon like this. With Stone Battlecreek aiding Sven, they had two 3rd level Fighters spearheading charges, with high-grade 1st-leveler combat experts bringing up the rear. The Magublek didn’t exactly go down like chumps, but the party won against them. The scariest part of the quick and furious battle was when one of the remaining goblins sheltered behind a statue of their devil god, and clearly touching it isn’t a good idea, because we had to roll saving throws for doing that…

Some minor loot was achieved (really, this place doesn’t give up its treasures easily), and afterwards it was time to start wrapping up. The party stumbled upon some giant ticks (delightful creatures) on the way back to the barbican, but nothing more dangerous than that.

What really sealed the deal on this being the last session was that later that same day, the rangers actually showed up! I’d rolled lucky for them earlier, so Nils the Forest Ranger spotted the smoke signals yesterday and showed up to check out the situation with his own eyes. Some successful social maneuvering later, and the Barbican Bandits could finally go home! It was sort of surprising how easy that was, in the end. The rangers would need just a couple of days to move a few men in, and Nils himself would return to civilization to bring up some kind of muster of men to permanently occupy the barbican. It was, after all, valuable real estate right next to the dangerously unpredictable Castle Greyhawk.

I suppose that’d be the season finale of the Barbican Bandits cartoon series. A ranger lord riding to the rescue.

The Gnarley Summer of Love

I discussed the real-life ref relief plans in newsletter #75: I need to do something to get my writing roadmap under control, and taking some time off from running Coup seems like the thing to do. Back then it seemed like it’d be pretty straightforward to get a replacement ref for the Tuesday game, while Monday was more uncertain (mainly because I hadn’t talked it over with the guys yet). Now it seems like I don’t have a Tuesday replacement, but certainly do for Mondays!

Tuomas has been wanting to run a snappy hexcrawl, so he took over Gnarley Forest, west of Selintan Valley, and populated the place with a bunch of adventure modules. (I understand that the selection criteria was to see what Tenfoot Pole, the well-known OSR adventure critic, recommends, and procure and prep that. Works for me!) It’s looking quite lovely, I’d make a character and play myself if the entire point wasn’t for me to spend less time Couping and more time writing. (Sure is working well for me, this plan.) The first adventure is the veritable opposite of Castle Greyhawk: compact and lots of treasure! Also a ghost and whatnot, but, treasure! Finally!

At this writing we’re two sessions in on the Gnarley Summer of Love, with a third coming up tomorrow. I’ve procured play reports of the events, so I’ll be discussing these most recent campaign developments in later newsletters.

State of the Productive Facilities

Well, I’ve barely started to catch up on writing these newsletters, so not too productive otherwise this week. I’ve kept up with the Coup campaign at least, and it’s constantly productive, so we at least have more good gaming stuff than you can shake a stick at. Now just to find the time to write it up and clean it down…

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