Geela

I first met Geela Naiman in the early 1980s. There was an SF fan gathering at my house. Sherry Nehmer, an editor at Analog, was the featured speaker. Near the end of Nehmer’s talk, a friend of hers arrived to drive her home. That friend was Geela, though I didn’t hear her name at the time.

After he rose to fan prominence, I joked about Geela’s name: We had to keep Geela Naiman from ever meeting her anti-matter duplicate, Neil Gaiman. According to a Star Trek episode, if they ever met the universe would be destroyed. Since the universe still exists, I guess we dodged a bullet.

A few years later, in 1987, I was working on my thesis experiment at Fermilab near Chicago. One of my fellow grad students was Walter. After I moved to Nyack to perform the data analysis of my experiments, I met more of Walter’s friends and became a part of that circle: Geela, John, Deborah, and Jon. Typically we played D&D together and visited Ren Faires.

John and Geela got married. They held two wedding ceremonies, one for their family and friends in the NY/NJ area, and another for those in the Chicago area. I was one of the few who attended both ceremonies.

As an outgrowth of our D&D games, I suggested that we join a LARP. Here we are:

bronze-rose
This is the Bronze Rose adventuring group at what was then NERO-NJ, circa 1991-1992. (NERO-NJ later became LAIRE, the Live-Action Interactive Role-playing Explorers.) Clockwise from the left, here are Janet, Jon, Paul, Bill, Geela, and John.

Geela played a Halfling Rogue, Periwinkle Pipe. For her role, Geela wore a gray hooded cloak and sneakers that she covered with fur. The fun thing about adventuring with Geela is that she didn’t need any special “rogue skills” for the game. When she walked through the woods dressed in her costume, you really couldn’t see her, even when she was part of our party and we knew where she was!

After a few years, the Bronze Rose group faded and they stopped coming to LAIRE.

Geela entered a more difficult time in her life. She’d had bouts of mental illness before, and they finally reached a point where she had to go on full disability. She occasionally stayed in hospitals during that time. John stood by her and did what he could.

Eventually Geela and John got divorced. It was not only mutual, it was better for both of them. In the years afterward, they’d describe themselves as “happily divorced” and say they were a much better couple now than they had been when they were married.

I hosted my 40th birthday party in 1999. It was a LARP party. Geela came dressed as her character from LAIRE, but in a more colorful outfit suitable for celebration. Here she is, dancing during a Bardic Circle we held:

dancing5

A couple of weeks after that party, Geela invited me over to her place. John was there, but he left early and I was a bit surprised. Later, I achieved understanding when Geela made a pass at me. I joyfully intercepted.

We dated for a year or so. During that time she attended some Wiccan events with me. She liked the people and the mood, but there were elements of the rituals that bothered her; for example, everyone saluting the Quarters in unison. I accepted that Wicca was not for her. It surprised me in 2002 when she attended Free Spirit Gathering, but in short rations: she stayed with Sherry Nehmer (who lived nearby) overnight, and only attended the bonfire once. For her, the wild moment of the event was when Vann painted a few simple vines her arm.

She was the one who ended our relationship. She was growing closer to her family and community, and they were Orthodox Jews. They’d never accept her dating a Wiccan. Even if I’d been willing (and I was not) to pretend to be Orthodox in their presence, for years she’d told them stories about her friend Bill the Wiccan. A switch on my part would simply not be believable.

We remained friends, though.

With her LARP experience, I thought Geela would enjoy attending Mystic Realms. She attended an event and enjoyed it, though not enough to come back. What I remember most about her visit is her leaving early and getting into difficulty. She was in the parking lot and getting her car out, when she suddenly felt weak and disoriented. I went to her, and we raided the kitchen to get her something to eat. Presently she felt better and was able to drive home.

At a later visit to my place, she commented that what she experienced at MR was one of the symptoms of her mental illness. She said it most often occurred when she was in a supermarket. She’d be a food aisle and trying to make choices, and then gray out or feel disassociated.

I commented, “To a diabetic everything seems like diabetes, but what happened at MR and at the supermarket sounds an awful lot like low blood sugar. May I use my kit to measure it?” She consented, and I got a reading of 50. For comparison, 80 is normal for most people who haven’t eaten, and we had eaten a little while before. I strongly advised her to see a doctor.

She did. The doctor took her blood sugar, saw the reading, then immediately walked out of the office. He came back with a muffin and told her “Eat this now!” She was diagnosed with hypoglycemia and was given medication for it.

I was glad I was able to help her, but I was also furious. Geela had real mental problems, and I don’t mean to diminish them. But she was also being treated as if her physical problem of low blood sugar was a psychological disorder. She was in a hospital and being treated by doctors. Why didn’t they recognize the symptoms when Geela described them? Were they so focused on mental illness that they couldn’t recognize the obvious?

Let’s shift the focus back to Geela and her love of Judaism.

I’d invite Geela every year to my Passover seder. She came to my first one in 1994, but since then she attended the one given by her family. For some reason, she was available just once in the early 2000s. She came, and my seders forever changed.

My seders are based on the practices of my family that I learned in the 60s. Geela brought ideas with her that I’d never learned: Miriam’s Cup (an acknowledgement of women in Judaism), the orange on the seder tray (an acknowledgement of gays and lesbians in Judaism). But what made the greatest impression is what we later called the “Rocky Horror Plagues.” My family had solemnly listed the ten plagues and left it at that. Geela brought with her a “ten plagues kit” with props for us to play with and scripts for us to read.

Since then, I’ve had my own kit that I bring to each Passover. For a while the hosts of my seders could look forward to cleaning up plastic locusts for a few days after each ceremony. I’ve since graduated to ten-plagues finger puppets. None of that would have happened without Geela.

Going into the 2010s, I saw Geela less frequently. We’d make plans to visit, but most of the time she had to cancel due to illness, mental or physical. I got the impression that life was getting harder for her. The last time I saw her was when she and John paid me a visit during my medical convalescence.

Last Sunday, John wrote me to let me know that Geela passed away on the evening of Saturday, September 14, 2019. She will be buried in Israel on Tuesday, September 17.

So it goes.

Postscript:

One of my students learned a few years ago that they were technically Jewish through matrilineal descent, even though none of their family in that line practiced Judaism. That student had become more interested in their Jewish heritage.

On the night Geela passed away, there was a Wiccan gathering at my place. The discussion had turned to hamsas. I had a hamsa sitting on a cabinet. It had been a gift from my mother. It was pretty, with a ying-yang symbol in the palm and several pieces of colored glass around the base of the palm. It had a Hebrew inscription, which I did not know how to read. On the back was printed “Made in Israel.”

I picked it up. I told the student, “I’ve had this for years, and I’ve never used it or carried it. If you’d like to have it, to connect you with Judaism or for any other reason, please take it.” They did.

I think Geela would have been pleased. I am saddened that my student will never get a chance to meet Geela and share their heritage with each other.

References

Warning: This post contains self-indulgent meanderings on the passage of time. If you young’uns can’t handle that, skip this post and get off of my lawn.

A few weeks ago I was in the lunch room of Nevis Labs. I was the oldest one there. The rest were summer students about 20 years old. The topic had shifted to assigning everyone there an alignment according to the D&D system. I was assigned “Chaotic/Good”, which I accepted.

I’ve had problems with the D&D system that were older than the students there, and its alignment system is one of those problems. In an attempt to be satirical, I said, “Okay, now we can figure out which of us is Samantha, or Carrie, or Miranda, or…”

Dead silence. They looked at me blankly. They had no idea what I was talking about.

I muttered something about Sex and the City and retreated into my private thoughts. Three feelings washed over me:

  1. I felt the usual disappointment of a geek who made a reference that no one else got.
  2. I felt old. I’m almost three times the age of the summer students this year. In a couple more years, I will be more than three times the age of summer students at Nevis. Will I even be able to understand what those kids are saying as time goes on?

    After all, it’s normal for most culture to be ephemeral. A couple of personal examples come to mind:

    • Back at Cornell in 1978, I had a friend named Adams Douglas; his mother wanted to remind him that he was a great-to-the-nth descendant of John Quincy Adams. You can try to do a web search on Adams Douglas, but he’s hard to find because you’ll get thousands of results about some other guy.

      Adams was the son of the actors Jan Sterling and Paul Douglas. They were household names in the early 50s. But by the time I knew Adams, they were already forgotten, footnotes in cinematic history.

      Adams himself has become a footnote. He passed away in 2003, a year before his mother did.

    • Also in 1978, I happened to read a play called Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. It was written in 1901, and assumed that the audience would be familiar with a song of the same title that was written in 1868.

      The song had been popular for 33 years at that point. It probably felt reasonable to assume that it would stand the test of time. It didn’t. When I read the play 77 years later, I had no idea that the song existed. It’s now 41 years after that, and despite an opera written in 1975, I’m probably one of the few people left who still remembers that the song/play/opera ever existed.

  3. Triumph! The geeks had won after all!

    Let’s look at some dates. Sex and the City was broadcast from 1998 to 2004. It’s only 15 years later, and it’s beginning to fall off the “cliff of relevance”. If you consider the Nevis summer students as a representative sample (and there are many arguments that would suggest they are not), then if you’re 20 years old or less you will never have heard of it.

    Dungeons & Dragons was first published in 1974. It’s 45 years later, so it’s three times older than Sex in the City. (Note the similar age ratio of me to the summer students.) Some of the students took the superior-intellectual stance and claimed they had never played D&D, but they all knew what it was and knew about the alignment system.

    I got my copy of D&D in 1975. (I still have it; it’s probably worth some money.) I remember parental disapproval, the claims that D&D caused teenagers to commit suicide, the claims that it was Satanic (BADD). All of that has pretty much fallen off the cliff of relevance (though my father still doesn’t “get it”).

    What’s survived? The D&D alignment system, obviously. So have half-Orc Barbarians, Lawful/Good Paladins, dual-class Sorceror/Rogues, Dwarven warriors, Elvish wizards, Mages’ towers, Lich pits, Demogorgons, Beholders, platinum pieces, Bags of Holding, armor classes, experience points… and of course, dungeons filled with treasure and dragons filled with menace.

    They’ve not only survived, but thrived. Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha are fading. The geek dream lives on!

Obviously, I’m glossing over a lot of cultural complexity in order to make a mildly amusing point. Sex in the City appealed to thirty-something women looking for relationships; that’s not likely to have much appeal to 20-year-old science students. For my part, I may have seen no more than three episodes out of the 94 made, though I do know about SitC‘s four-fold path.

Also, the “cultural competition” associated with SitC is different than that of D&D. There are lots of relationship comedies out there, and the genre is continually reinventing itself as new issues come to light. For example, did SitC ever explore the difficulties of the transgendered to find relationships? (I have no idea.) I know such series exist… but they’re not SitC.

On the other hand, D&D is a tabletop role-playing game fixed in a general fantasy setting. The existence of other media in the same setting (the Lord of the Rings movies, the Game of Thrones TV series) tends to increase interest in D&D, not push it off the cliff of relevance. Even the existence of competing fantasy role-playing games such as Pathfinder and Rolemaster tends to reinforce the ideas and memes associated with D&D even if their players have never read the D&D rules.

Does this mean D&D will pass the “test of time”? By my own arbitrary definition, we won’t know until everyone who was alive in 1974 has passed away. If they’re still talking about hit points and character stats by then, then the geeks can score permanent victory. By that definition, I will never live long enough to be certain.

In the meantime, I can stave off some of the pang of aging into cultural irrelevance by shouting out with glee: “Stuff it, Carrie! And suck it, Captain Jinks!”

Farewell to Azeroth

I’m leaving World of Warcraft.

I played the game from before the beginning, during its beta test prior to the game’s formal release in November 2004. After putting time and energy and money into the game for 15 years, I feel like some nostalgia and introspection; hence this blog post.

World of Warcraft (WoW) is part of a thread of my life that started in the 70s, when I began to play tabletop role-playing games. I played D&D at first, then expanded to my own system (Argothald, of course). I enjoyed these and similar games until about 1990, when the increasing distance between myself and my fellow players made the face-to-face tabletop experience no longer practical.

I missed the social interaction and shared storytelling of role-playing games. I found a substitute through a recruitment drive at a science-fiction convention: LARPing (live-action role-playing). I played in LAIRE from 1991 to 1996, and Mystic Realms from 1997 to 2003. That ended for a variety of reasons, but to discuss them all would require another series of posts similar to the ones I wrote about why I stopped working at the Ren Faire.

Once again, I felt the loss of the friendships and joy of role-playing. And again, I found a substitute: At the tail end of my experience with Mystic Realms, a group of those players got together to play World of Warcraft. We picked the role-playing server Earthen Ring; our guild was the Explorers of Evermoore.

In those early days, role-playing was as important as playing the game content. Our little community of friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, and acquaintances of acquaintances grouped together as informal group called the Toadpunchers. We once crashed the Earthen Ring server when we held a virtual clambake by shores of Auberdine; the designers of World of Warcraft never anticipated that so many characters would be in one place at the same time.

A brief explanation in case you’re not familiar with MMOs (Massive Multiplayer Online games): What I describe in the previous paragraph is “player-created content” and not meant to be the focus of the game. In WoW, characters advance in the game by killing monsters, fulfilling quests, and visiting locations. There are different aspects to this: PvE (player vs environment), which you can play on your own; dungeons, in which five players group together to face tougher challenges; raids, in which up to 40 players group to face the toughest environments; PvP, in which players advance by battling each other.

Raiding is considered the ultimate goal by most MMO players; you get to have the fun of playing the game in the company of other people. However, you can’t just create a character and start raiding. You have to advance your character to a certain point before first dungeon and later raiding opportunities become available. In the early days of WoW, this took many weeks even if you dedicated yourself 24/7 to the task.

Back in 2005, I enjoyed playing many different charactersin WoW. Each race had a different starting locations and there are characters classes with their own abilities. I created as many characters as the game permitted on the Earthen Ring server: Winston the Warlock, Theadora the Druid, Vasili the Priest, Pellinore the Paladin, Grotar the Warrior, Swiftslice the Rogue, Diddleswythe the Mage, Durumi the Shaman, Usda the Hunter. I explored the different areas of the game and learned each classes’ abilities.

All fine and good. But my fellow Explorers of Evermoore focused on perhaps one or two characters, instead of distributing their time across eight. As a result, they got to the point where they could begin raiding while I still had months to go. After a year, I finally got there and could start raiding with them, but I was way behind in knowledge and experience in raiding. I made novice mistakes in the raid encounters and violated what I later learned was basic etiquette in claiming the valuable magic items left behind when powerful monsters were defeated. This did not make me a welcome presence on their raids.

About two years later, World of Warcraft had its first major expansion: The Burning Legion. I enjoyed exploring the new territories and watching a new story unfold, but I’m going to continue to focus on the social aspect of the game.

In those two years some things had changed in my WoW community. Members of the Explorers of Evermoore were gradually leaving the game. People I knew by name and face were replaced by players I only knew through their on-line IDs. The Toadpunchers, instead of being an organizing force behind social events and raids, became folded into a different broad coalition of guilds, the Wildly Inept Raiders.

(My memory is a bit fuzzy here and I may be getting things wrong; the message boards that were used to organize all of this no longer exist.)

The role-playing aspect of WoW was fading away. Earthen Ring was designated by Blizzard to be a role-playing server. This means that players on the server were expected to contribute to an immersive story environment. In the early days of WoW, a character name like “Horneeduudx” might be cause for a formal complaint to one of the Blizzard’s gamesmasters on an RP server, while on other types of servers no one would care. Over time, as the general WoW player base became more focused on raiding and other game mechanics, less attention was paid to RP events. I saw no more invitations to clambakes. Blizzard gradually stopped enforcing the RP standards, and Earthen Ring began to fill up with Horneeduudxs.

In the absence of role-playing opportunities in WoW, I concentrated on leveling up a single character: Winston. I was still further behind in advancing my character than most of the folks I knew, but I got to the point where I could participate in raids in only months instead of a year.

But the raids had changed as well. Above, I said that up to 40 people could participate in a raid. That was true when WoW was first released, but in The Burning Legion that limit was reduced to 20. This revealed a problem: in the 40-person raids, my poor raid performance wasn’t an issue; I was one among many. In a 20-person raid, my character was putting out low enough damage that it was noticeable.

I did what I could. It was roughly around that time that the first tools became available for players to monitor their character’s performance. I stood on a hilltop where a powerful monster couldn’t reach me and practiced casting Winston’s spells to get my damage output to an acceptable range. I wish I could say it was time well-spent.

There was also the time factor: The raid encounters are difficult. All 20 people have learn the “beats” and transitions of each one. It’s typical for a party of 20 try to defeat a monster, fail, get wiped out, resurrect, and try the encounter again, repeatedly, for weeks, divided into hours-long gaming sessions. This is called “glasschewing,” because of what it feels like as you strain for that feeling of accomplishment.

The high-end raiding guilds might do this 5-7 nights a week. The Wildly Inept Raiders did this three times a week. I was comfortable with glasschewing once a week. WIR reorganized its raiding structure to separate those who attend 2-3 times a week from those who could attend less frequently; the latter could run once every two weeks.

I had problems learning the encounters when I only saw them once every two to four weeks. The other raiders weren’t enthusiastic about a clumsy and underperforming raider.

To make it clear: There were other things to do in WoW apart from raiding. For example, the Burning Legion introduced flying mounts. There were a wide variety of mounts available. Many of them cost large amounts of in-game currency or required weeks of earning reputation with in-game factions to purchase. I also worked on leveling up other characters after I got Winston to raiding level, just to see what it was like to play those characters. But collecting and leveling are typically solo activities.

Two years later, the Wrath of the Lich King expansion was released. I didn’t bother to ask to join any raiding groups. If I participated in a raid, it was a pick-up: “We need one more to go into Ulduar. Anyone wanna join?”

By this time, Wildly Inept Raiders had become Deadly Cupcakes. You can infer from this that at least my WoW community doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Wrath of the Lich King was the last WoW expansion whose story I enjoyed. It was the culmination of a tale that began before WoW did, in the Blizzard game Warcraft 3. It was in this expansion that I discovered the joys of mount collecting.

A word of explanation:

From the beginning, WoW characters have had the option of companion pets. They do nothing significant. They show up on players’ screens, perhaps with cute animations. You look at them. That’s it.

Characters can also gain mounts that speed up their travel and, with the second expansion, allow them to fly. One mount is as good as another; in terms of travel time you can get there just as fast on a simple brown horse as you can on a tiger. (This wasn’t always true, but has been for the past several years.) The difference between mounts is purely cosmetic.

Collecting pets and mounts serves no game purpose. It’s a self-imposed task to collect digital items that have no intrinsic value.

In this expansion, I noticed that, among WoW’s many game achievements, you could earn an extra mount if you acquired 150 of them. I already had 100 or so from previous expansions, so I worked on getting 50 more. After all, by that point in the game I didn’t have much else to do. I collected the quota, saw that there was another award if I collected 250 mounts… and stopped. (I must have casually picked up more mounts as I continued to play game through now, because at present my character has 260 mounts.)

Then the unexpected: I was invited by someone I only know as Snique to accompany his guild, Friends and Lovers, as they glasschewed on the Icecrown Citadel raid. This was the final raid of the Lich King expansion, the end of the story I mentioned above. I wanted to see it, and I accepted his offer.

I knew he wasn’t looking for high raid performance (to be sure, he got none from me!). He was looking to fill a slot in his roster. Nevertheless, I cooperated as best I could. I regeared, respecced, rehearsed. Finally, after some weeks of effort, we saw Arthas fall. Thanks, Snique!

The next World of Warcraft expansion was called Cataclysm. For me, it was meh. Snique offered to have me continue to raid with the Friends and Lovers guild, but though I was grateful to him I just wasn’t motivated to go raiding in expansion 4; the story didn’t interest me, and while I carved out time to raid in this special case, I couldn’t keep it up indefinitely.

I didn’t go into any dungeons or raids at all in Cataclysm. I leveled up characters, explored new or updated regions, and so on. Nothing really stands out in my memory of the expansion.

In 2012 WoW released Mists of Pandaria. The story was a bit more interesting, and there was enough that seemed new and fresh to engage my interest. The expansion included a new race and I started a new character, Yungi.

Still no dungeons or raids, until…

With this expansion, World of Warcraft introduced pet battles. Those cosmetic pets still didn’t help you defeat monsters or accomplish quests, but you could collect them and have them fight each other. It’s Pokemon.

Part-way into the expansion, Blizzard introduced the Celestial Tournament, an epic-level pet-battle challenge that required players to have a wide collection of powerful pets to succeed. By that point in the expansion, I had run out of things to do so I decided to collect more pets and go for the epic achievement.

In three weeks I had built up a collection from a bunch of level 1 do-nothings to enough level 25 specialty pets to defeat the Celestial Tournament.

I had been bitten by the bug. I wanted to collect more pets, I wanted to level them all to maximum, and I wanted all of them to be of Rare quality. The chief motivator was the ranking on warcraftpets.com, a web site that tracks the relative quality of WoW players’ pet collections. As I improved my collection, I gradually moved up in the ranks.

It turned out that there other members of Deadly Cupcakes who were into collecting pets. In particular, I was aided, abetted, and possibly enabled by Andius, whose skill as a WoW player and collector is far greater than mine. Thanks!

I finally raided again, using LFR (“Looking for Raid”), an organizational tool that Blizzard introduced for folks like me who were not part of organized glasschewing raid groups. Both the game challenges and rewards from these raids were less than normal; they existed solely so that people could see what they looked like. I raided for just one reason: there were some pets that could only be acquired by accomplishing tasks on raids. It was not always pleasant; the players had a random assortment of gaming and social skills, and I experienced some antisemitism.

By the end of the fifth expansion, my pet collection was in the top 10 on warcraft pets.

The sixth expansion was Warlords of Draenor… but I didn’t care much. The expansion was almost a background to me. What mattered was that a year after its release, I was the number one pet collector on Earthen Ring.

It was the worst thing that could have happened (provided you think that playing WoW is of some importance).

By now you’ve seen the problem: There was only one reason I was playing WoW, to get and keep that rating. Was it an addiction? I don’t think so. It wasn’t progressive, I wasn’t hurting myself or others, any money I spent was well within my limits of disposable income (I could have spent $1000 to get another pet or two, but resisted the mild temptation).

The seventh expansion was the Burning Legion. There I met a serious pet-collecting challenge, namely challengers. I was the number one pet collector on Earthen Ring, but there are plenty of other WoW servers out there, with even more dedicated pet collectors than I am. A couple of people, with an even stronger desire to be #1 than mine, transferred their characters to Earthen Ring to be #1 in the rankings on a server; they could be a big fish in a small pond. Or so I suspected, since I never spoke with either of them.

I had to grind hard to keep up. In particular, I had to spend months in PvP, which I hate, in order to get the last couple of pets to finally be #1 in the last few weeks of Burning Legion.

Then I looked at what it would take to stay at #1 for the eighth expansion, Battle for Azeroth.

It would mean more grinding at stuff I hated to do. In particular, there’s a pet I’d need to get by going into many Timewalking dungeons. Translated into English, that means visiting dungeons that I’d never been into before, over and over again.

Shouldn’t that be fun? Remember that there’d be four other people with me, total strangers. They became familiar and then bored with those old dungeons years ago. They want to zip through the place and get out. They’d have very little patience for someone who didn’t know the encounters, or even whether to turn left or right at crossroads.

Settle for not being #1 anymore? You’re joking, right?

I quit pet collecting cold turkey. I hadn’t even looked at warcraftpets until just now, when I copied the link to include in this blog post.

The Battle for Azeroth arrived and I started playing normally. I decided to switch characters and play one of my older ones, Theadora. There were interesting things to do, like visiting Drustvar. After I leveled her to the maximum allowed by the expansion, I started a new character in a new race from scratch, Winstonia, to experience the beginnings of the game again. And then…

I had a health problem. It’s caused me to be homebound for the past three months. During that time, as I try to find ways to occupy my time, I’ve felt no urge to play WoW. None.

Without pet collecting, the last vestige of thrill from Blizzard’s “Welcome to World of Warcraft” in 2004 is gone.

Storytelling? Blizzard hasn’t told an interesting story in years. Roleplaying? In WoW, it’s been gone more than a decade. Social environment? The Deadly Cupcakes have been nice to me and have been endlessly helpful with advice on how to play the game, but I don’t know any of them; I don’t even know their real names. (It could be reasonably pointed out that I never asked.)

The guild Explorers of Evermoore? For years I’ve stuck with it out of a sense of loyalty and memories of clambakes from 14 years ago. There’s only one other player who regularly signs on, and he’s another old hold-out from Mystic Realms as I am. (At least I know his real name!)

The central plotline of WoW is the Alliance versus the Horde. The Explorers of Evermoore is in the Alliance. On the Horde side, the guild The Onyx Crown once held the Horde characters of everyone in the Explorers of Evermoore. They had their own role-playing events… again, 14 years ago. Now, my two remaining Horde characters Grotar and Swiftslice are the only members of the Onyx Crown in years who’ve logged in.

After 15 years, World of Warcraft feels empty.

I realized I’ve felt this way for a while, but I wanted to wait a month or two to make sure. My feelings haven’t changed.

Lest you think I’m now bereft of all hope and joy, I’ll go back to the thread of events I began at the start of this post. In 2012 I walked into a game store and started playing board games with a bunch of people. Over the past few years that’s grown to regular visits to each other’s homes and playing D&D and other role-playing games via videoconferences. During my convalescence, they’ve visited me to play games in my home and given me lifts to play games in theirs.

And I know their faces and their real names. (Or so they tell me.)

I’ve come full circle, from eagerly anticipating my copy of TSR Hobbies’ Dungeons and Dragons in the mail back in 1976 to dealing with D&D5e on Roll20. It’s the people I’ve known along the way that have made the journey worthwhile.

So who needs World of Warcraft?

Santa came this year

In the holiday season for the past several years, I’ve experienced a moment: The moment when I know that Santa came.

I know that may seem a silly thing for someone of Jewish heritage and Wiccan practice to say. And to make it clear: I’m not talking about the tendency for Santa to show up at Yule parties or Wiccan rituals that I attend (though somehow he and I are never in the same room at the same time). I feel it nonetheless: a moment when I feel that people have been generous and kind towards me.

It has nothing to do with gifts. People keep giving me gifts, despite my protests and my general tendency not to give gifts at this time of year. I appreciate what I receive, but I keep telling people: Don’t give me “stuff.” If you’ve been to my place, you know I’ve got enough “stuff.” I value people and company and laughter and companionship more than I value “stuff.”

When Santa comes, it’s a feeling of warmth and togetherness and satisfaction.

Normally, that moment comes when I’m spending time with the family of a friend of mine. For over a decade, this friend has invited me to join her family on both Christmas Eve and for Christmas dinner. I listen to their conversations, which of course are pretty much the same every year, and the mood hits me: Santa is here.

This year was different. If you’re reading this blog post, you probably know that I’ve been sidelined by a medical problem. It kept me in the hospital for a week; it’s likely to keep me home-bound for several more weeks. I can’t travel. Even going up one flight of stairs to check my mail is a challenge.

This year, I didn’t have to go anywhere to find Santa. Santa came to me. Friends visited me in the hospital, even arranging a small Yule feast. Friends continue to visit me at home, to play games, help with household chores that are now difficult for me, or just to hang out.

All I can say is that it felt like Santa. I’m grateful to each and every one of you for the support you’ve given me.

I also have to acknowledge that the holiday season will pass. My recovery will stretch on. I’m not going to get this kind of special treatment indefinitely. Still, the memory of this time and this season and the feeling of Santa will linger and, I hope, see me through the weeks to come.

Again, thank you all.

Theadora’s epic journey

Through a World of Warcraft discussion message board, I heard of a research study being conducted by West Virginia University on the relationships between videogame players and their avatars. In a “what the hell” mood, I responded to the survey with a story about one of my WoW characters.

I thought the story was minor, but to my surprise I was contacted by one of the researchers. I was asked by them to expand the story for “a curated collection of multimedia stories to be displayed in print in the WVU Library as part of its Art in the Libraries program, as well as a more complete collection to be curated and hosted through the WVU Library’s digital collections, indefinitely.”

What follows is the longer version of that story that I plan to submit for the collection.

I’ve played World of Warcraft (WoW) since before the game formally began in November 2004. In the first few days after the game’s release, I created a group of avatars based on characters I once played in a live-action role-playing game. One of those LARP characters was Theodorus Ursus, a wood elf Druid.

At this time, many WoW players were influenced in their choice of characters by an animated ad Blizzard released to promote the game. One of the the characters in the ad was a female Night Elf Druid. I personally am neither female, nor an elf, nor a Druid, but I decided to lean into the stereotype that the ad presented. I feminized “Theodorus” into Theadora and created that avatar in World of Warcraft.

In WoW, one of the unique characteristics of a Druid is their ability to assume different forms; e.g., bear, cat, seal. Druid characters gain the ability to shapeshift into these forms as they go up in level, and in the early days of WoW they could only gain those forms by going on quests.

The Druid quest for Aquatic form (the shape of a seal) was given when the character was level 10, but (as I’ll describe) it was a stiff challenge to complete the quest at that level. The responsible thing to do would be to continue to gain levels until your character was ready to complete the quest. Of course, in video gaming you don’t want to wait; you want it NOW! Also the Druid Aquatic form was useful; it allowed the avatar to breath underwater, and it increased underwater movement speed.

I received the quest from the Druid Trainer in the Night Elf city of Darnassus. As I was trying to figure out how to travel to get to the quest’s site, I met two other Night Elf characters. One was another Druid, Etherealmoon. The other was her friend, Longarms, a Warrior. Etherealmoon had also just received the Aquatic form quest. They were slightly newer to WoW than I was, and did not know how to get to the site.

I’d played a human and a dwarf character already, so I had some idea of the geography. I offered to ask as guide, and together we set off on the trip around the planet of Azeroth.

The first step in the journey was easy: travel to the nearby town of Auberdine. From there we took a boat to Menethil Harbor on another continent. That when the most difficult part of the overall journey began: Menethil is located in the Wetlands, a zone with monsters from level 20 to 30, and we were level 10.

There was nothing for it but to run as fast as we could. We stuck to the road, which monsters generally avoid. Even so it wasn’t easy. In WoW, monsters are attracted to you at a distance that increases by how much the monster’s level is greater than yours. At at least 10 levels difference, we were pulling in monsters all over the place. All of them could run faster than us. We could do almost no damage to them, so each monster attack would wipe us out. There would be no other option than to run back in spirit form to where our corpses lay, resurrect, and start running again.

Fortunately, a couple of times some higher-level players would help us out. The rest of the time, it was running, spirit-running, and hope.

Finally, we got to the other side of the Wetlands and passed through a tunnel into Loch Modan. That zone had monsters from level 10 to 20. By sticking to the road, we were only attacked a couple of times, and this time we could do some significant damage to the monsters. I don’t recall any corpse runs in Loch Modan.

After Loch Modan, we passed through another tunnel into Dun Morogh. This is a starter zone, with all the monsters below our level. It was smooth travel until we reached the Dwarven city of Ironforge. From there we took the underground train to the Human capital of Stormwind. Then we ran through Elwynn Forest, another safe starter zone, and entered the final zone of Westfall.

Here my knowledge as a guide petered out. The quest-giver had given us a clue about where to go, but it was not specific. Fortunately, a passing higher level player had already been on the quest and told us where to look on our game maps: “It’s just to the west of the unnamed island near the middle of the coast, not far from the ‘T’ in “THE GREAT SEA” on the map.” It took us across Westfall, to a spot where there were no roads, and the monsters could be of level 10 to 20.

After a couple of real-time hours of travel, we got to the spot. We were on the other side of the world from where we’d started.

There was a new difficulty: at the time, the completion of the Druid aquatic-form quest was in the water, a short ways into the “fatigue” region: If you stayed more than a minute in that area, your character would die. If you died and went into spirit form and tried to get back to your corpse, your spirit would experience fatigue as well.

It was a race against time: Get as close to the spot as we could, then swim as fast as possible to the interior of a sunken ship deep undersea in the fatigue zone.

Etherealmoon did it on her first try. I was nowhere near as swift. I made several tries, with my avatar dying deep under the sea. A couple of times I couldn’t even get to Theadora’s corpse before fatigue overtook my spirit form. Both Etherealmoon and Longarms were rooting for me, but there was no way they could aid me.

I gave up for the day. I tried a couple of days later, and just barely managed to succeed.

As I write this, it’s fourteen years later. All three of us diverged in our gameplay and how often we logged in, and I never adventured with Etherealmoon or Longarms again. I still see them from time to time. When I’m playing Theadora, I give them a wave.

That journey can’t be repeated anymore in the same way. Blizzard changed the game to make it easier to travel to that location; only the newest players would not have access to a mount that can travel faster than the monsters can. The site for completing the aquatic quest is no longer in the fatigue zone. Monsters now scale with a character’s level, so it’s no longer a challenge to cross those zones. There are many web sites that offer guides to completing quests in WoW; these did not exist in 2004. Even getting advice about the location is easier, since there’s now a coordinate system the players can use to share map locations.

Of all the stories I could have told, why do I remember this one? From the perspective of most World of Warcraft players, it’s a fairly minor event. I’m pretty sure both Longarms and Etherealmoon have forgotten it. I’ve adventured with many other players since then. It’s not even the most difficult challenge I’ve faced in World of Warcraft, much less other video games.

It’s because, for me, that journey had an epic quality for that time and with those strangers who were willing to share it with me. I think it took place less than a month after World of Warcraft started. Everything was fresh and new, and the game challenges had greater impact. There was something around walking around the world that gave the journey an extra spice.

I don’t have any pictures of Theadora from that time, and any picture of her now would show her in fancy armor that did not exist back then. Instead, I present how Theadora looks in her seal form, the goal of that long-ago adventure:

Theadora Aquatic Form

Wizard’s Staff

Like many folks, I have that box in my closet filled with cables that I keep “just in case.” Today I decided to go through that box and toss out the stuff that I knew was obsolete or that I’d never use again.

Sure, there was the usual batch of BNC cables and excess power cords. But at the bottom of the box was something I’d forgotten: The electronics parts I purchased when I was building my Wizard’s staff.

bill-1990

Here I am holding staff back in 1990, when I came in costume to work at Halloween in 1990.

The staff is made from segments from Torchiere lamps; the metal rings are from scrap aluminum tubing. The bottom segment contains batteries (four D cells) and electronics. The remaining segments contain wiring running the length of the staff. At the top, just below the quartz crystal, is a Maglite bulb.

The way the circuit worked is that if you touched any adjacent pair of rings, the lamp under the crystal would turn on. It was an amazingly bright effect, especially indoors or at night.

The circuit was always finicky. The main problem was keeping electrical connectivity between those aluminum rings and copper wires. Soldering copper to aluminum is hard, because the aluminum conducts the heat away so rapidly. I’ve only seen it done by an experienced welder with a very hot torch.

I never found a way to keep that connection stable. I tried different kinds of tape and glues, including conducting epoxy. The copper wires would always come loose.

When I first built the staff, it was fairly reliable. A few years later I pulled it out to try to resurrect it, but even with fresh batteries it was hard to get it work again. A few times through the years I tried to get working again, usually for some costume party, but never fully succeeded.

Now that I’m wrapping up my first Maker project (I’ll continue the A/C saga soon), I might try to make the staff work again. It’s been almost 30 years, and there have been considerable advances in electronics and materials. I still have resistors, transistors, capacitors, and other miscellaneous parts from the bottom of that box.

I don’t have any particular events to bring the staff to, since LARPs and Ren Faires are in my past for now. But it would be nice if I could pick it up at a moment’s notice and use a crystal to light my way.