647 – White Smoke Mountain • 16

The Friday Blog

When the power company send electricity out of it’s plant through all those lines and to your home, it must end out enough juice to overcome the resistance of miles and miles of cable. The greater the current, the greater the resistance. In order to get around this obstacle, the power company sends out electricity in a low current, but extremely high voltage way. This reduces the “drag” from the power lines and allows you to get more of the sent electricity. (The utility still typically loses 3/4 of it’s electricity due to cable resistance.)

However, homes are run on low voltage, high current electricity, so what your utility send you must be converted before it goes into your house. Thus the transformer. Typically located in a box or canister on a pole at the street, transformer convert the electricity to a form you can use. (The process is actually quite simple… but not really critical to where we’re going.)

Transformer can explode when they get a massive spike in current, like from a lightning strike. There is a shut-off switch intended to protect the mechanism which is almost entirely superfluous, as it cannot possibly shut off fast enough to stop the internals from critically overheating… plus, it does nothing to stop the rest of the device from building up pressure and heat  which will end in exactly the same result. (Transformer design and production were deregulated and modern products are notoriously cheap, unreliable, and failure-prone.) But the best bit is that transformers use a highly refined and flammable mineral oil as a coolant for the heat-producing conversion mechanism, providing the accelerant for the bomb when things go awry. It is this pressurized oil that makes the beautiful explosion and terrifying boom when a transformer blows up.

Recently lightning has been taking a back seat to squirrels as the number one cause of catastrophic failure among transformers as oak trees have been producing more acorns, and thus more squirrels. (Climate change maybe? I don’t really know.) Squirrels chew through insulation, run along connections, use their furry little bodies to complete circuits that ought not be completed. Individual utilities spend millions of dollars annually on squirrel-related incidents, and in the wrong spot, one rodent can wipe out the grid for as many as 60,000 people.

Yesterday morning a suicide terrorist squirrel threw herself on the electrical connections of the transformer outside my home and took out a total of three of the things. The repair crew came out and said the whole thing was fried and left to go get replacements. It took most of the day to get everything back up and running.

Sadly, we have no idea what the squirrel’s agenda was, or what point she was trying to make, beyond the sowing of terror. Though I wish her people no ill will, I’m giving a wide berth to the oak trees.

44 Responses to 647 – White Smoke Mountain • 16

  1. I have a question. Do all longtime DM’s have a bald spot? I can just imagine all the hair pulling in response to player randomness. As a DM, how often do you meticulously plan a campaign only to discover that your players get completely off track and totally miss the point? I think that I would personally be fascinated by the random things that players fixate on, but only up to a point. I could see developing a personal mantra that went something like this…”It’s only a game and we’re here to have fun…it’s only a game and we’re here to have fun…” 🙄

    • As a former longtime GM what I can say is that this really depends on the individual GM/DM and their methods of preparation. My understanding is that preparations are rarely wasted unless you lack sufficient flexibility in your plan; make sure to have a set of NPCs ready for whatever reasonable-percentage scenario happens, a few maps of various different things, charts of relevant politics at the official and unofficial levels (local nobility, or criminal gangs, or corporations, or city council, or whatnot) and keep adding to the pile of general stuff of the sort. Keep making more whenever inspiration strikes, stick them in subdivided binders to keep it organized (pocket folders are particularly good for this if you’re working in dead tree). Try to read relevant history books for ideas, they’re generally at least a bit less fictional and improbable than fiction on the same topics and really good ones are at least as readable and interesting.
      Reading the dialogue and commentary for the comic Darths and Droids can be illuminative of how a GM can handle gaming with even less preparation than that, and may be driven to it by players who may have difficulty even finding the railroad tracks of a linear plot. Their inspiration, DM of the Rings, is a great illustration of how to have a crappy game.

    • I try to keep things as straightforward as possible in regards to what I am expecting from my players, so they’re (usually) not left guessing which directions I have prepared for. Also, I try to always have at least a rough idea of what is around the players in about a hundred mile radius, as well as a few ad hoc adventures that they might stumble across out in the wilderness.

      That said, it will happen. The players will take off on a tangent keyed by some random statement you made that someone decided was vitally important and will end up a continent away someplace that you spent about a paragraph on in your campaign notes. Sometimes you can wing it, and sometimes you simply have to say see ya next week, after I’ve had some time to think about it.

      But it’s nothing to get exercised about. Most of the time it’s even funny.

  2. I’ve also been meaning to ask, is Zoddy going to make an appearance anytime soon? Or has she become some kind of obsessive/compulsive, self loving furry of some type? It’s beginning to look that way 😉

  3. I just want to say that I dislike it when DMs tailor encounters to the players. It seems nice at first, perhaps it seems like it should be the ideal. But it fall apart harder than the Roman Empire within roughly 3 seconds.

      • I thought you knew already, based on the comic. Sure, maybe this is an extreme example. But it can still get fairly nonsensical even in less extreme examples. I remember one comic where the DM said something like “I only send flying creatures at you because so-and-so can fly.” Then the players reply “And then the rest of us are screwed. So we’ll actually be more effective if we make sure none of us can fly.” And so on. At the very least it gets annoying when suddenly all the monsters apparently predicted this one particular fight 10 years ago and are trained around negating your tactic. Then players start thinking about the metagame and ways around it instead of being immersed in the story. At the worst the player is built around a tactic that cannot be retrained, and they either must start from scratch or they’re unable to do anything for the rest of the campaign. Etc.

        • There’s lots of better ways to make things difficult for characters who insist on using flying or other unique skills to bypass things or make themselves less likely to be the target of ground based monsters – Any flying character immediately becomes target number one for any archers in that pack of orcs, for example…Most intelligent monsters dislike flying characters on general principle, considering they’re most often spellcasters (and even a fighter with some kind of “ring of flying” or something is more of a threat)

          Also, until and unless the character spends a LOT of time practicing in the air, using any kind of weapon (either meele or ranged) while airborne should suffer penalties due to the lack of correct footing, and some rather…shall we say, amusing side effects can result from Newton’s laws of motion:

          “OK, you fire an arrow at the orc…since your bow is above your center of gravity, you are now spinning rapidly until you can regain your equilibrium…”

          • Normal laws of nature do not apply in D&D… trust me, as a scientist myself I kept arguing, until one day a very definite discussion with arguments I couldn’t ignore shut me down. D&D worlds merely appear as if our natural laws exist but they don’t. They mimic Earth, but behind the curtain they don’t work that way. There may be volcanoes, but there are no plate tectonics, there is no earth core or molten mantle or crust. It doesn’t get hotter the deeper you go. Otherwise the Underdark would be impossible. Lava spills out from portals to the plane of magma (where the planes of fire and earth intersect). You can fly to the moon and the air doesn’t get thinner the higher you go. A figher with high enough stats can bullrush a dragon; body mass doesn’t feature into it (although size penalties do).

            There is no Newton’s law of motion… it’s a spell. You control your direction of flight. You are NOT floating in the air because you’re weightless due to lack of gravity. End of problem. Trust me I’ve seen what happens when a bunch of engineers, programmers and poeple with various academic scientific backgorunds had fun nitpicking and abusing the effects of D&D spells as written in one of their gaming sessions, until the GM put a stop to it… roughly around the time when they had found a way to use a 1st level spell to create gamma rays and nuclear detonations.

            That’s why Pathfinder d20 introduced the Fly skill, class-skill for druids, wizards, clerics, sorcerers, and all races that have a natural flying speed.

            • AH, I remember the “Feather Fall Cannon” some guy made up…

              Basically it was a tube about 10 feet long that had a constant push-spell inside that pushed items from the “back end” of the tube twoards the front end, and a constant “Feather fall” spell that affected anything inside the tube. Sounds harmless fo far, right? Not so.

              The Feather fall spell description says that it reduces the MASS of the object very low (To, say, 1 gram per cubic foot – per the spell description “like a feathery piece of down”) – and the “push” spell actually lists the foot-lbs of thrust it applies And it is a factor of the feather fall spell’s magic that instead of conserving momentum, VELOCITY is conserved instead. With those two numbers in hand, our physics student computed the length of the tube with the accelleration in mind so that any object inserted in the “back end” of the tube would come out the other end at nearly mach 1. Thus, you could toss a handful of gravel in one end and get a very nasty “Scattergun” effect coming out the other end, etc.

              As for the Underdark, how do you know exactly how deep it really is? It may only be a couple miles down, in which case the temperature wouldn’t be all that bad…maybe the AD&D world has a thicker crust as well, so it’s cooler deeper than Earth, except where actual vulcanism is occurring.

                • Well back when I was actually doing tabletop RPGs (It’s been nearly 15 years since I did though) My campaigns followed two basic rules:

                  1) The Laws of physics DO exist and apply,
                  2) Unless overridden by magic in the particular situation.

                  In other words, Sir Issac Newton rules the basics, but when magic comes into play, Aristotle takes over.

                  • I like to have things pretty logical in Prime (with the occasional option for re-do’s if we hit something that players thought obvious and characters would know but the GM was using a different principles*)
                    Outside Prime things get more weirder, but then the characters aren’t “at home” and so the players can expect surprises.

                    But at the end of the day, in D&D, God _does_ play dice with the universe.

                    * Sci/Fi based game, we were on a stealth raid so we took lasers (rather than projectile or blasters). Party figured that like in our world lasers were invisible along their beam since several of us had worked with lasers during ‘varsity. DM was basing his lasers on Star Wars/Star Trek where they make a large flash, travel visibly to outside parties (rather than keeping the energy coherent) and also make a loud distinctive noise. We argued after have one of the guards was alerted by the “noise and flashes” that our characters would have fully known about those effects and thus picked a different tool for the job. GM conceded the point and let us do a straight swap mid game for blasters (which apparantly were quiet and near-invisible waves) just messy.

              • The Underdark supplement for 3.5 details how far down the three layers of the Underdark … Upperdark, Middledark and Lowerdark I think they are called… approximately are and what lives down there there. The best layer to live in was the middle one, because the natural underdark magic is strong enough there to support a thriving ecosystem and it is full of portals and nodes, while the Uppperdark is closer to the surface but has less resources, few portals and thus people there have to raid the surface world to survive. Exiled drow often flee up there. The Lowerdark was pitchblack, filled with truly alien abberations like aboleth, and few lifegiving magics.

                But even the Upperdark level was several miles under the surface.

              • I would invite anyone whose treatment of the D&D magic system gets this interesting to investigate Ars Magica myself. It explicitly treats the question of physics by invoking it as a game question in an interesting and relatively consistent manner. Of course it has its other positive and negatives: Amongst these is the fact that it has an amazing and overly-interesting rules set that will have every player struggling with the question of munchkinism.

        • As a player one GM gave us the choice of “toned to your level/ability” or “immersed in the world”. We chose the later knowing the GM had a great imagination and loved having NPC’s really doing interesting stuff. On that side it worked.
          But on the playability side it was almost impossible, as beginners and new folk (read low level) into the world we simply got kicked from corner to corner in the local equivalent of a friendly bar fight, and when it came to politics our lack of allies and contacts made us less useful than even the lowest older pawns. In the end the GM had to fate us some good stuff and gift us some breaks before we could dig out the info we needed. We got very close to the answers we were supposed to find but we couldn’t get evidence against individuals who could personally vanish our whole party (and who had game years of time to setup the ability to hide such vanishings).

          I personally like to throw the odd Dragon, or Manticore against low level parties (lvl 5 or 3 respectively). Except the encounter is aimed at taste rather than consumption. In the case of the Manticore, it ripped a few characters up a bit, but when it got hit a couple of times by crossbow bolts or couldn’t find the party in the trees it lost interest. A few levels later it became an excellent setup for a Manticore nest. XP was given depending on how well the encounter was played… survival was rated highly, clever very well and stupid not at all (eg a full frontal charge at a Manticore might, once, get the surprised being flying away or it might just not feel like playing and leave (no XP! explain that to rest of party).

          • Encounter balance is also very important. One possible way to handle this with a mote of realism may be to have hooks that attract PCs of the appropriate level: Guy is only hiring those skilled enough for the right job, one challenge contains hooks for a related and thus slightly stronger challenge, etc.

            I don’t like making up major rules for any reason, much less to screw up a clever tactic. Too error prone without heavy testing & etc. As smart as you may be and as imperfect as the game designers may seem to be, they’ve still given the matter 100 times more thought than you have. Generally if you dig deep enough you can find an existing answer. Using flight as an example the 3e spell that lasts all day has limited maneuverability and won’t target allies preventing it from being much use in 90% of combats. The one with good maneuverability consumes a round to cast in a system where an average combat is 5 rounds and the first 2-3 is the most critical. And you spent one… preparing to do something later. In 4e I think they expect both monsters and PCs to fly starting at a certain level, so if so things are even there.

            • My 3.5 wizard would cast fly on his fighter minion who used it pretty much exclusively in combat as a speed boost. Tactically it was devastating.

              As a DM I like to let the players run with an idea if they come up with something super-clever. It may not always work twice, but they should only be rewarded for out of the box thinking.

  4. As for the blog: Suicide squirrels are familiar to me. Not to the extent that the one you spoke of was, I’ve never had one attack a power transformer and blow itself to smithereens. I did have three of them run out in front of my car one after the next. Slowed down and missed the first one, swerved a bit and missed the second…and the third wasn’t quite so lucky. I think it’s a game that squirrels play. “Lets see if we can die today!” We had a transformer blow out front of one of the stores I work at last week. I just missed the fun I guess, when I got there everyone was telling me how there was a boom from outside and all the power went out. The whole time I was there the lights kept flickering, so I guess they got it up and running but not quite fixed. I’ve never seen one go boom before, but I’d like to. Explosions are fun, so long as you’re at a safe distance. Up close…uh not so much.

    • When this one went I was inside behind a double thickness of white curtains, during full daylight, and there was a magnolia tree in the yard between it and I. I still winced from the glare and saw spots for the next ten minutes.

      I thought it was fun!

      • Many years ago a squirrel attacked a power-line and killed itself before it caused a lot of damage to anything else: Specifically it exploded into chunks. A number of those chunks were still twitching on the lawn they landed on, and a neighbour boy asked the question, “Is it still alive?” because they were… prompting a lot of incredulous looks.
        I was the only person there I think who understood why he really asked that question (“Is it still partially alive, is that why it’s twitching?”) but I didn’t speak up. I’m not sure if the feeling there is regret, guilt, or what.

        • I read a story while researching the blog about a squirrel that had blown up a transformer, and the flaming corpse had flown through the air and into a nearby automobile’s engine compartment, then blowing up the car.

          They’re just terrors.

    • There is weirdly an apparent squirrels-as-villains sub theme that runs through a LOT of web comics out there. It strikes me as notable primarily because I am fairly certain that many of them are entirely unaware of each other. I didn’t find out about it until at least a year after I has planted the squirrel-demon seed in my own comic. Really it’s kinda creepy, if you think that this is something we’re all carrying around in our unconscious.

      • Don’t over-think it:They’re tiny, cute critters that get into things at the suburban level sufficiently to be in the minds of most house-owners near an adequate level of true, arborial greenspace. Since this is so, and we’ve all seen and spoken to those people who have a critically low save-against-cute throw that get entranced by the little rodents, it’s really not that much of a stretch for many people to humorously or bitterly talk about how evil squirrels must really be in response.

        • Fortunately don’t have them vermin in this country from what I can tell from the photo’s they like Rats with high Com/Cha and about as trustworthy…

      • I’ve had a grey squirrel hand puppet for the last 23 years named Grendel who has a reputation within the house as an evil mastermind. I’m not sure where this idea came from, but he is kept away from the other soft toys in case he gives them bad ideas…

  5. Well I for one say we grab a bunch of random unrelated squirrels from the same general area and then do weird gay squirrel stuff to ’em secret military prisons. That oughta get some answers. Kudos on the pickaxe ref Kevin, that’s some old school DM’s worst nightmare kind of stuff. Remember a pickaxe and skill slot is better than a Thief for getting by those pesky magic doors. Best of all, remember you can always dig DOWN.

    • I don’t remember what dungeon it was, but it was in high school and the (TSR) module had room with a 12 foot tall adamantine door. The dungeon itself was immediately forgotten, as we instead computed how many magic swords and suits of armor we could forge with that much adamantite, and bent all of our efforts to taking it home. I don’t think we ever DID finish that dungeon.

  6. If your DM was thinking on his feet, though, this is a perfectly good retort (not that I’d ever accuse the DM of HOLE of thinking on his feet) :

    “The outer layer of stone was made of a different kind of stone that prevents scrying and teleportation magics from getting in.”

    Then you don’t have to say that paint-proof rock is expensive!
    Then no economy-bustin’ stuff goes on!

    Related tangeant: a friend of mine’s roommate once told me about how his party cleared out a dungeon… and then suddenly realised the value of the property. Claimed squatter’s rights, bought the deed and everything. Another guy who took leadership but hadn’t selected his followers went full-tilt for masons. Furnished the place right up nicely, and then promptly sold it to the highest bidder.

    A few more dungeon runs like this, and they had completely and utterly destroyed the WBL economy. They had CR19 encounters regularly showing up on their doorstep to make business deals, like liches or illithids or dwarves who’d had their clanhome overrun and ransacked. One of them even went into a business deal with some of the illithids for the voidmind prestige class – stipulating and warning that if the illithids were to try to screw with his own goals, his friends would mention to their very powerful allies (oh look a mature red dragon, some liches, etc.) that they were having “difficulties” because of their meddling.

    Yeah. They managed to get themselves all killed off doing stupid things, though. Karma didn’t bite their hineys, they just forgot some of the adventuring golden rules (like “look up” or “don’t pull every lever”).

    • The wizard I mentioned above would restock ransacked dungeons with lower-level monsters and treasure and send groups of NPC adventurers out to get them, as his way of raising his own little “army” of loyal operatives. He would then use those NPC parties for all the adventures the DM had hinted at throughout the game that we had missed because we had chosen to go do some other thing.

      I miss that wizard.

    • One game that I was in that someone was developing, much of it was good, but some of the magic needed work.
      Part of the magic system was elemental based, and there was no duration limit on a couple of the very low level basic summon/mould spells because most of the elements naturally dispersed. …. except for stone.

      The wonders that can done with created stone, a few decent masons/sculptors, and the startings of a magic school (ever wondered how Hogwarts could get so big…) . A few shallow underdark missions and a few kobold/goblin surface nests and we have our own Disney tourist attraction and a growing town of support skills/accomodation. And when he changed it from stone to earth at low level we got a top notch farming started… about which time he refused to GM for us.

      Why he never took it on as “vulnerable dependant” and throw all sorts of threats/possibilities at it I don’t know (lack of imagination I think). It was custom built valuable target for various intrigues, political banananas and monster/army raids. And having a city (and growing magic guild) is the perfect lure for all those must have expensive extras (as any home or car owner will look at their empty wallet and agree!) which of course are only available at a dungeon (or palace/temple) far far away.

    • If I ever used a dungeon with lots of glyph-type traps on the walls, simple paint wouldn’t be enough to change the effect. A glyph is imbued with magic at the time of creation, and involves the use of reagents that a typical dungeon adventurer wouldn’t be walking around with unless he was a Cleric and had his OWN glyph spells…

      O course, for comic effect, turning a stunning trap into a pants one serves the comic’s purpose….heh.

    • The guy who GM’s our Buffy game has a tale from his D&D days when they were playing a written adventure full of fluff about how great the tapestries were and the big bronze doors etc. The party had access to a portal spell and decided to put one end in a warehouse, the other end in the dungeon and promptly cleared out the lot, every bit of metal, marble, every ornate tapestry and deep shag carpet. It completely eclipsed the monetary value of everything else in the dungeon and from there on in he got very careful about flowery descriptions about dungeons…