RPG Lessons From Watching Games

At 16 I spent a lot of time visiting my local gaming shop. Due to this I got to regularly chat with the staff about gaming, often helping boxing up train or tram kits; it was a rite of passage. Being at the shop also gave me access to lots of other role-players, and particularly GMs. Thus I gained exposure to a wide range of opinions, about all sorts of games; in the early 90s it was rare for people to go online, so this was the best local place to go.

Occasionally a group would leave an open invite at the shop for a new player, or an individual seeking a group. So I made use of the invites and tried out several groups. It was a great way to try out different games, as well to hopefully become a regular in yet another great group. One of the groups I joined suggested that I just watch, which I initially thought was odd, since it’s normal to join start playing immediately. Why watch a game when you can play? This particular GM said it was a chance for me to see if would enjoy being in the group, without disrupting the existing game.

Being an observer at a game was surprising. Despite all chats I’d had with different people, playing with different groups, as well as reading articles, I hadn’t considered what watching a game could teach me. Nowadays with some groups filming their gaming sessions, and in particular popular celebrity groups, it has become easy to watch games, but back then it seemed alien. Whilst the celebrity gaming videos are focused on entertainment, not on education, they could still prove useful to someone wanting to analyse them.

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As an observer I had a chance to perceive things in a different way, since the situation was impersonal I was able to strive to be more analytical. One of the first things that struck me was that since I didn’t know any of the group, and thus their anecdotes, I found it extra annoying when a player disrupted the game to mention random things. Doing so is generally referred to as going Out Of Character (OOC), although I think OOC is a misleading way to phrase the issue; my opinion likely requires some clarification, so I’ll write about that another time.

I got to see how the group handled focusing everyone back on the game. It was surprising, to my young perception, how often individual players helped the group to refocus on the game. Even though I knew that my players sometimes helped my games out, I had thought I was predominately the one refocusing the group back to the game.

Confirmation bias is funny like that.

Since I was not invested as either a player or GM, I got to watch a bunch of strangers energetically chatting and unwinding. Because I did not have to think about running a game, or how I’d play my character based upon some new stimuli, this allowed me to track their levels of fun. Even when a player was going OOC for quite a while, the group didn’t complain; likely due to the difference between school kids and adults. Whilst I am sure my presence influenced the players and the GM at least a little bit (Hawthorne Effect), I don’t think it was overall an issue. Mainly because I kept quiet, but also because the GM had done this with their group before. Finding that balance of how to prioritise the game whilst hanging out and relaxing friends was something this group seemed to have found, they were not pretending for my benefit.

During my first few years of GMing, at 11 and 12, I had it often felt that I needed to quickly get the game back on track. The idea was driven by concern that the actions of one or two players would become too disrupting for others, and thus risks annoying the others. A major reason for my thought was due to trying to cram as much role-playing as possible in to my lunch break whist at school; I wrote about those sessions here: Role-Play meets Lord of the Flies. At 14 I was running Warhammer with a different group of players in the school library. Later in 1990 we changed to Cyberpunk, and I started running day long sessions. Whilst we had long periods of keeping IC during the 10+ hour sessions, we did have OOC tangents, but they were uncommon.

This links to another lesson about not being as self-conscious when running games, as well as to stay relaxed when being observed by others. This would prove helpful when later running games, be it tabletop, LARP or PBM, as well as talking to customers. As well for games when I’ve had a player observing.

For the next blog post I’ll write about another lesson I learned whilst at another group I watched. Part 2.

RPG Lessons From Watching Games by Batjutsu

Your RPG is Yours, Not Mine

As I started writing about the two role-playing campaigns that helped me get a job as a Games Master (GM), I realised that some readers might take exception to me claiming I ran a complete, or united, World of Darkness games. The old World of Darkness was not designed to fit neatly together, and for years crossover rules were non-existent. I don’t recall when the first official guide was released, possibly The Chaos Factor in 1993; it could be argued a guide was needed since Samuel Haight had caught the attention of so many different supernatural types. I don’t count the 1993 release of Under a Blood Red Moon, as it was Vampire and Werewolf focused. These guides were quite lacking, being more suggestions of things to think about, but at least it was something. I found my own path in fitting things together, and things worked well enough for me in some complex games.

With Paradox Interactive’s purchase of White Wolf IP, the World of Darkness (WoD) labels have been changed. The old(oWoD) is now called classic (cWoD), and the new(nWoD) from 2004 is now called Chronicles of Darkness (CofD).

My article’s title is to emphasise that I do not claim to represent the ‘only way to play the World of Darkness’, nor how crossover rules have-to-be done.  To some readers it may feel redundant for me to clarify my reasoning, but from personal experience I’ve met enough players that fixate on this, as well as reading numerous posts on the Net, to really impress upon me that a clarification is important for many gamers. Although this issue particularly applies to the cWoD, it also applies to every other RPG when we get past the gaming group level.

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I have had a lot of experience with this topic, whether locally, at game conventions, or Live Action Role-Play(LARP), so I appreciate why it is an important subject for a lot of role-players. In my late teenage years I changed my phrasing to emphasise “I prefer”, or “in my games, I feel”, since I appreciated that it was a subjective topic, never mind that some people want to win the chat. Add to this that it’s all too easy to end up talking at cross-purposes as people fail to mention they are not emphasising an interpretation, but they have ventured in to house-rules, or changes to the setting; it’s understandable if you consider how over time it is easy to forget the list of tweaks carried out. I am reminded of common role-play encounters, which I’ll write about and link here later.

Obviously people having different opinions should not be a surprise, since it happens with practically everything. Crucially the old White Wolf company repeated the point that each game belonged to the players playing the game in each of the core rulebooks, as well as elsewhere. This covered everything, whether it was an opinion about the mechanics to the game’s setting, covering everything from cosmology to theme emphasis. So it could be argued, that between the game lines being designed without a focus on connectedness, and the rules promoted debates because of The Golden Rule:

“This game should be whatever you need it to be…”

I appreciate the Golden Rule is abhorrent to some role-players, but that is too big a topic for this post. I go in to detail on this topic in my role-playing guide.

I do appreciate why standardisation matters, and I am all for it for specific situations, since talking at cross purposes is a time sink and can balloon up in to bad blood. It can be bad enough when a new player joins a group, but this is a much bigger problem when at conventions, or large LARP. Years ago I used to play continuing convention campaigns like the Dungeons & Dragons Living Greyhawk, D&D Sarbrenar (Forgotten Realms) and later Living Force (Star Wars). Roughly: you played the same character at each game, earning XP, being part of loose collection of connected stories with other PCs that over the years you may play with on multiple occasions.  Those games were quite accessible, in large part towards having an emphasis on clear rules interpretations. There were a lot of players that had been playing together for years, and overall I found there were a friendly community; the opposite of the anti-social label role-players are often labelled. Directly related to the point of this blog is that at conventions I found players only really cared about games they are involved in, they are rarely interested (if ever) in the anecdotes of another random player.

There has already been plenty of debate about how the new One World of Darkness could work, as well as how some people think it should work. Since very little is known, it is understandable that people are passionately debating. After all so many players already have invested years in to the official three different versions: old, new, Monte Cook’s WoD. Also we should keep in mind the experience of so many WoD LARPers, they have been a major part of the WoD scene going back to Mind’s Eye Theatre in 1993; an important point when you consider Martin Ericson’s LARP passion and experience.

Returning to the article’s title, no matter what happens with the oWoD make it ‘Your World of Darkness (yWoD)’. Personally I am not worried about the future of the World of Darkness, and whilst I am somewhat impatient to get specific information about the One World of Darkness (WoD), I am not panicking.

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Humanity has been repeating and altering stories since the dawn of civilisation, from simple tales to epic myths. In addition to retelling the ancient classics, consider the countless versions of Shakespeare’s work alone, or the comics-industry’s obsession with reboots and alternate realities. So it is normal human behaviour for role-playing to be receiving the same treatment via new editions, and even complete cosmology redesigns. Since there are already different versions of the World of Darkness, I have no issue with having something new to explore, again. Following on from this is an often cited opinion about the importance of legacy. Personally, I find debating the legacy of things to be odd, more so when the logic involves highlighting different predictions as part of any rationale. I don’t feel that my past experiences are invalidated, and certainly not by alterations to a product after the fact.

Even if you don’t like a version, tweak it, borrow from it, and let your passion guide you to new inspiration. After all creativity is a key aspect of role-playing, welcome the freedom.

Vampire, Batman and the Origin of my Nickname

Vampire, and by extension the World of Darkness, has had a massive effect on my life as well as how I developed my nickname. Given the power of nicknames it is no surprise that Vampire is more than a hobby to me, it lead to work and could even be argued to have become part of my identity; although crucially I do not think I am a literal Vampire.

I was sixteen when I first played Vampire the Masquerade; it had only been out for a few months. I was fortunate enough to have been invited in to a group of much older role players, so I was able to get a lot of experience from more worldly players. This proved helpful when I later started running Vampire for my long running group. At the time there were only a few supplements for the game, and there were none of the other games set in the World of Darkness had been released. Given the limited information and the newness of the game, it all felt very refreshing. This links back to the point about age, since our Storyteller Dale was in his 30s, he brought in all sorts of different cultures, not just USA or European ideas. Over many sessions our characters met all sorts of unusual antagonists; a deranged yogi was my favourite. All in all quite different from my experiences playing games like D&D, Cyberpunk or Warhammer. I quickly knew Vampire was going to be something I was going to play a lot, plus another thing I wanted to collect.

I was fortunate in that I had been brought up loving all sorts of music. I had become obsessed with metal and particularly thrash in 1989, but by 1991 I was broadening back out again. Vampire played a big part in influencing what music to investigate; I am sure it did for many gamers.

In the summer of 1992 I was working at a computer shop, and the boss insisted that everyone had to have a nickname. One of the young staff members couldn’t think of anything, so since he was slightly annoying the boss nicknamed him Snot! The computer shop was next door to the local games shop, and this led to the boss asking me about my visits to that shop during my breaks, and my role-playing obsession, and a brief explanation about Vampire the Masquerade. Since I did a lot of long-distance running, generally late at night, I was very pale skinned and surprisingly strong for my slender frame, which led to the boss deciding that I should be called something vampire related, and this led to me being given the nickname of Bat. When I got to college the new large social group I spent most of my time with had other people called Richard, so my nickname was used instead.

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Unfortunately this Bat nickname has resulted in numerous conversations with new people about where the nickname comes from, and they always guess it’s to do with Batman. I’ve even had to deal with some odd enquiries like whether I can do the Batdance(Batusi), or my opinion on Batman versus Superman, shish. My family have purchased me several Batman t-shirts and jumpers to help rub this in. Eventually I embraced (yep, pun intended) this Batman tie in, after all given the cultural significance and number of Batman stories it is an iconic character. So far I have avoided any Batman cosplay as Vampire-Batman, but I have done an undead-Batman.

The Batjutsu nickname came from wanting a unique handle for using online, as well as email address. Given that my obsession with martial arts matched that of role-playing, I decided on the jutsu addition. This was also a way of differentiating from Batman, although Batman is a black belt in jujitsu, of course.

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All in all, I am quite thankfully that I was given the nickname Bat, especially considering what my old boss could have come up with!

Post DWP Appraisal Hell And What Next

I don’t feel depressed, which is nice, but having received the notification that my DWP appraisal found me fit for work back in December I have had to deal with quite a lot of anger. As I mentioned previously, the person that I saw dismissed sleep deprivation as a key component of health, and the importance it plays in both healing, altering perception of pain, as well as chronic pain causing sleep problems. In hindsight it seems I was tested for paralysis? I make this ridiculous claim since the person asked “can you move without pain?” and then when I yet again explained about constant pain changed to “can you move your arm a bit?” Even a question about wearing clothes, and I explained I had been spending the majority of time resting in bed not wearing any was seemingly dismissed.

Two weeks ago, I started getting some decent sleep, after a week of course that ended, but it was blissful, and really helped me in regards to getting a bit more done via speech recognition whilst doing some physiotherapy. Like most of my design work for the last few years, I have a growing collection of unfinished blog posts about things that interest me, and I hope a few others might like; particular role-playing related. I am reminded of the advice I read about decide what a blog is about, and stick to it, I decided the blog was about me, thus that covers discursive thoughts.

I’ve had a combination of extra health issues this last week, things like flu that normally are annoying, but given the slow overall health progress hit me like a ton weight.  I woke up quite dizzy today, and the feeling hasn’t gone away, and a fog has been added. Slightly lazy, but since I am not writing a science blog, this link will suffice:

I have been advised I can appeal the appraisal, and to consider making a claim for Jobseekers. Given that I still have day-to-day health issues, and doing even very little can cause problems, it’s a bit ridiculous that if I was allegedly fit for work over a month ago, and I’ve had more healing and physiotherapy then why I am still struggling so much still? It’s really hard to consider going to look for work when I cannot even manage basic sleep, and I still have physical limitation and pain. Add to this the fact I am in this mess due to trying to work through problems, getting some healing and then going back and making things worse, on multiple occasions. I know I am far from well, so it would be the definition of insanity: doing the same thing again and expecting a different outcome. Since I can live off my bank account a while longer, I guess I will use my time to research options.

Another depressing blog post, so the next one will be something more upbeat and hopefully interesting to some.

The Gamer Who Cried White Wolf

I have written an article for Noobgrind, but first an explanation about why this matters so much to me, as well setting the stage for forthcoming articles. “White Wolf is coming!” I have been thinking this for over a year, ever since the Paradox Interactive announcement, I’ve been desperate to know what is going to happen. Writing about the subject of White Wolf feels bizarre to me; my head is full of conflicting inner-voices, different narratives competing for the privilege to justify particular opinions. This is in part because I know how important this is to some people, like myself, as well as to defend against the many anti-White Wolf role-players. Back in the 90s I ran some unusual games that helped me get a gaming job; for example a yearlong 16 player play-by-mail style World of Darkness games, which I will write about soon.

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I often find talking about White Wolf games, in particular Vampire, is similar to discussing Dungeons & Dragons, the games mean different things to different people. It’s common to hear RPG generalisations further simplified in to meaningless soundbites like: “D&D is crap”, or “Vampire players are pretentious”. Years ago at conventions I’d meet players who hated White Wolf, but typically they struggled to explain why. I even came across claims that Vampire in particular had usurped D&D, which was a strange statement given the age and sheer size of D&D. Even quirkier since those conventions always had more D&D games being played than anything else, and this was before 3rd Ed came out. Also those people tended to conveniently forget what happened to TSR, it’s not that White Wolf beat D&D it’s more that they filled a void of sales at the local games shop. Maybe this type of chat was a big factor as to why so many players were offended by the idea of White Wolf, never mind the other big speculative factors I’ll not go in to here. Since White Wolf became a big deal in the RPG community, it was no surprise so many opinions were thrown around, since the games certainly sold.

Old World of Darkness, Trinity Universe, Exalted, Street Fighter

 

I have been accused of being a White Wolf fanboy, mainly by strangers; it’s a common enough insult some use when debating. Granted I have played the games a lot, yes for many years I was crazy and purchased all the books, as well as the spin-off games (CRPG, VTES, Rage, Changeling’s: Arcadia The Wyld Hunt, etc.), and even quite a few accessories. Once the old World of Darkness and Trinity Universe stopped I became a lot more selective about what I purchased. However, my regular players have played in a wide variety of role-playing games I’ve run (Cyberpunk, L5R, D&D, Champions, Warhammer, etc.), and as a group we have been critical of specific parts of all systems. I don’t think any rule system can be all things to all people, nor cover every possibility, thus I appreciate that my opinions of their products are very much subjective. I don’t see myself as blindly devoted, but I am definitely invested.

I don’t see myself as biased, just that I am invested.

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In the 90s playing Jyhad (VTES) at The Tache (my regular nightclub)

I have written an article on Noobgrind about the recent Werewolf announcement, which can be read here. This news has helped motivate me to write some more gaming articles, in particular about some of the more unusual games I have ran.

I have previously written about the old White Wolf mostly excellent Street Fighter setting.

DWP Appraisal Hell

I’ve not written (speech recognition of course) a blog for a while, mainly because I feel like I’ve had nothing to say, despite having plenty of things I’d like to write about. I got hit by severe depression in mid-October. Things have become better recently, but first a negative event I experienced.

A few days before Christmas I had a DWP appraisal, even though I’m not getting any money from benefits. The whole event was sickening, I don’t just mean metaphorically but also physically. I don’t think giving a detailed narrative is a worthwhile thing for me to do, and I imagine it would not be for anyone to read, but there are few things that stood out.

The first thing that struck me upon arriving at the site was how much like a prison the setup was, with a massive security fence and guards. The building entrance has a bizarre double door system, at least it had automated doors for those people that are really struggling physically, but the short corridor took up valuable room space, since the waiting area is split into two weird and quite small sections. Upon arrival people are informed that they are likely going to be waiting for over an hour, and given how they were already behind yet it was early morning, they could be waiting up to 2 hours. Given the uncomfortable claustrophobic waiting area that was quite unappealing.

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Upon arrival every person seems to be surprised by this information, and several people had to cancel their appointment due to time constraints. The receptionist repeated the same few statements to each person about how the system is not their fault, and that they appreciate that a person may have to leave and schedule a new appointment. A man in a wheelchair arrived and was even informed that his appointment had been cancelled, although no one had actually contacted him to explain this, and the reasons given were classic examples of bureaucratic mismanagement, along with repeated statements by the receptionist that it is not their fault. It is easy to accept/agree that it is not the receptionist’s fault, but the fact that they are acting like a dismissive robot is their fault. I guess this is a learned behaviour given their job, and I can appreciate they may be used to receiving nasty comments, but they should at least wait for some before being so defensive, and dismissive.

Since I had walked a mile to get there I was already feeling the physical impact, and added to this was the fact that I had not slept for over a day due to the usual severe pain. I suppose I could have asked to reschedule, but I didn’t see how the next time would be much different. Sitting for a length of time escalates my pain, and can result in an inability to even sit due to my nervous system demanding that I stop doing the thing that is causing my pain to spike, it’s a weird retracting pain, the urge to move away becomes overwhelming, but obviously I can’t move away from my own body. Standing up or lying down at least changes things for a while until they become deemed to be the enemy.

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Eventually I was seen by a physiotherapist, which was the first sign of trouble, since a key part of my problems, and long-term domino effects is sleep deprivation and thus the psychological impact of that should be considered, not just the physical. The interview proceeded to become a bizarre movie like style of being interrogated by stupid cop, who repeated the same questions, yet lacked any comprehension of what the answers meant. I was asked about my sleeping pattern, since I had written about it in my overview. I explained that I don’t have one due to the constant ongoing pain, which sometimes becomes unbearable and overrides even exhaustion, which over the last year and a half often resulted in missing huge chunks of sleep over the week so that I became so exhausted I could get a few hours sleep, and then probably not sleep for another day even though technically that means I’m down twelve hours. Then after a few weeks of this I would manage to get more sleep for a short-while, before the erratic sleep returned. I had to explain that I have had sleep deprivation problems continually, yet it still didn’t sink in, they then asked me what time I set my alarm for this day I explained I set it for nine but then highlighted that I hadn’t actually slept so they said “so you pattern is normally what nine then?” I genuinely had to resist the urge to scream at this person, instead I managed to yet again explain the situation using simple clear words. It was odd, instead of acknowledging this answer I was asked a bunch of weird questions about my how I use an alarm, and how I use a mobile phone. This then turned into further strange questions, which indicated the person didn’t believe what I was saying about not phoning people. This went on for quite some time, and towards the end I realised how much time jumping they had done in regards to trying to piece together a timeline, even though they had a detailed explanation written out in front of them from the four I had filled in previously.

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The thing I take away from this interview is that it very much seemed like I was having to prove that I was innocent of committing fraud, that they were trying to trip me up by asking the same thing repeatedly, that they were desperate to find anything to latch onto to prove I was guilty of lying, such as the bizarre mobile phone questions. And then abruptly the interview ended and I was dismissed, at this stage the person had no interest in any further conversation, and was already trying to herd me out the door. Crucially there had been no questions about my psychological state, which given the symptoms should have been a key part of the interview. As I mentioned above, the gravitas of my situation finally hit me in October, the fact it been well over a year, and at this stage I had been suffering from depression for the last two months; it has been pointed out to me that my idea of depression and other people’s has a scale of difference, being fatalistically optimistic and the fact that I’ve had long-term pain of a different type for twenty years, I view depression as an inconvenience, and what I call depression others would categorise as major depression. Having a degree in psychology I am also academically aware of things, including the difficulty of self-diagnosis, and how our beliefs and biases influence our thoughts. I had been given medication to help with the sleep problem, and to help fight off depression, this was an area highlighted by my doctor; in hindsight I should have emphasised it.

If I had ticked the box regarding depression then I am sure I would have been allocated a doctor and not a physiotherapist for the interview, and some of the questions would have been about the psychological impact of my condition. I can at least acknowledge that my involvement is part of the reason why things went the way they did, of course considering I had written about being massively sleep deprived you’d think an assessor would highlight that issue.

Due to how physically demanding the whole event was, and the fact it lasted several hours, my pain levels later that day were a staggering fucking nine for several hours, before dropping back to my normally horrific six or seven. This is on top of the fact that I had not slept for what was approaching two days. Painkillers and alcohol didn’t do anything to the nine rating. I guess my body was flooded with cortisol both from the psychological interrogation as well as the scale of physicality I am not used to.

Miraculously four days later, on Christmas Day, I experienced several hours of a pain level of only one or two! Unfortunately that did not last, and even in to early January I was still probably averaging a six rating.

The shoulder and neck physiotherapy session have ended, I am still carrying out the exercises, and it does seem to have helped a lot. Having started physiotherapy for my stomach, back and hips it seems like the intense pain in my right midsection is starting to reduce a bit.

So once again my thoughts are flooded with daily ponderings about returning to exercise of a more tangible level, and even going back to martial arts in a few weeks, primarily BJJ. Realistically that goal is way off, even if things start improving faster, but it’s nice to have hopeful thoughts and even an anticipation of setting a simple goal. Next time something less depressing.

My Curious Cthulhu Visits

Several weeks ago I was abruptly awoken, but not due to my normal constant pain interrupting my sleep, but due to an abnormal feeling. I was quite surprised to see upon the ceiling a multitude of writhing tentacles. As my brain struggled to comprehend what I was perceiving, and my heart-rate raced, the tentacles slowly retreated back to what I eventually determined to be a porthole. Whilst I motionlessly observed things, I became aware of a single bizarre eye that was staring back at me, comprehending me in an alien way. For a moment I was gripped with terror, surprised by the insanity of the vista before me. I knew I was most clearly awake, but for a split second I wondered if reality had changed, or I was somewhere else. Seconds later I saw a small tumbling gorilla hovering between myself and the now closing porthole. A calming thought reminded me of the psychology experiment of video of the basketball game and the person in the gorilla suit… Focus on the gorilla, not the eldritch horror! My feelings of dread subsided as the last tentacle finally closed the porthole, then the gorilla left.

Over the week I experienced more interrupted sleep. Nothing unusual there, but the regular eldritch visitations certainly were, as were the tumbling gorillas; I even had one night when I saw a 4by4 grid of them.

I attempted to try and write about my experiences, but my words felt inadequate, failing to capture the depth of the visitations. I was struck by how ludicrously clichéd the idea of a sleep deprived writer going crazy was, plus as I analysed my writings/ramblings my normal hypercritical opinion of my work screamed at me that I was writing poor fanfiction.

Although I have been suffering from sleep deprivation for a year, what had recently changed was I had been prescribed Amitriptyline due to its common side effect of causing drowsiness. My doctor thought that using Amitriptyline combined with the Remedeine (opiate) could help over-ride the pain interpreting my sleep. I did initially manage to get a few nights of basic uninterrupted sleep before returning to lacking sleep; this was slightly better than my last year’s pattern. Whilst I might have had a bit more sleep that week, I decided to stop taking the drug, since most of the sleep I was getting resulted in a horrifying moment of anxiety when I woke. With the drug out of my system the hallucinations no long occurred.

All in all a fascinating set of experiences, that one day might result in some interesting fiction, and most certainly aid me running role-playing sessions, but I’d rather not have had to go through the process. Sleep wise I have struggled on, I am currently attempting some new non-pill approaches to improving my sleep, and to continue to try do as little as possible so I can prioritise healing.

One possible positive take away is that it seems during the initial hallucination I was quickly able to appreciate my situation, and crucially calm my freaking out heart-rate and panicking thoughts. The later visions just felt like I had to wait for the visitations to wrap-up. A paranoid thought follows this, that my brain chemistry might have been badly affected by the drug, on top of the long-term sleep issues, somehow sowing the seeds for a future psychotic breakdown, because one never knows. Thankfully I’ve had no hallucinations since, which beats my paranoia back in to a sensible state.