Introduction to Part 2
This post – or maybe it was the last one – marks Campaign Mastery’s 5th Birthday (I don’t really count the articles that were posted before the public could read them). CM is the culmination of all my experience and expertise both as a GM and in life; I try to apply everything that I have ever learned about the art to every article.
So I thought it appropriate to commemorate that Birthday with a look back at my personal history, and at my Gaming History, and how it – in retrospect – made something like Campaign Mastery inevitable.
And along the way, I’m hopeful that some of the experience and some of the wisdom that it has engendered, will be passed on, sneaking into the prose, to benefit other GMs out there.
The two parts were supposed to be of equal size, but my PC problems put the kibosh on that. So it’s been a case of playing catch-up to get it finished in time – and even up to last night, I didn’t think I’d get there. Anyway…
My story is one that encapsulates two principles: determination in the face of adversity, and taking every experience that comes your way and folding it back into your gaming expertise.
So far, I have described a very turbulent early period in which I changed residence, on average, every 6 months, and in which I was continually at the mercy of events rather than in control of them. While I can say that I seized my opportunities when they came, I had not done very much in the way of creating those opportunities for myself. With my return to Sydney in Late 1985, that changed…
The Wiley Park Years
My new apartment was located in Sydney’s inner west, in a suburb named Wiley Park. I was to live there for more than 18 months.
The NRMA Counter
I spent three months in training as an counter clerk for one of the largest insurance companies in Australia, learning the products offered by the company, how to use the decidedly user-unfriendly computer systems that linked every branch, learning how to sell and how to deal with unhappy, disgruntled, or hostile customers, and so on. I then entered a standard three-month phase as a relief Counter Clerk, moving from Branch to Branch as a substitute for staff members who were ill or on vacation, and supplementing my training with real-world experience.
At the same time, this enabled the managers of the Branches where I worked to take a look at my growth and capabilities, and essentially scout me as a prospect for a permanent position amongst their staff. While not every posting ‘clicked’, there were some where I knew that I had made an impression because they asked for me, specifically, to return the next time they needed relief staff. In particular, the Manager of the Bondi Junction branch seemed impressed, calling me in on two or three occasions, and telling me outright that if he’d had a permanent vacancy to fill, I would be at the top of his list.
It was on his recommendation, and an accumulated track record of satisfaction, that another Branch Manager offered a permanent placement even though I had never actually relieved for him. This took me to a part of Sydney that I had never visited before, but I fitted right in with the people, and the personalities.
They must have been happy with my efforts, too, because over the next 15 months or so they kept adding to my training and expertise. Vehicle valuations, the Accommodation Booking Service, the Stock Room, Life Insurance products…
At the same time, my Campaigns had picked up right where they had left off. In addition to the Project:Vanguard campaign and the Champions (parent team) campaign, two more were added in the same game universe: Project:Vigilant, to train and protect the Generation after the Next Generation of hero, and Team:Neon Phi, a group of Super-Agents in the James Bond mould.
Running four simultaneous campaigns in the same universe, each once a month, was a whole new challenge, but one that also brought new storytelling opportunities. I could hint at a coming situation in one campaign, thread that through to the situation becoming significant in another, resolve it in a third, and show the aftermath and consequences in the fourth. Only one of these would be the central element of an adventure; in the other campaigns, it was a subplot at most. Events in one campaign could transform the circumstances in another, without warning. Unexpected guest starts could drop into a campaign at any point.
Nor were these the only campaigns I was running at that time and in that game universe; one of the original players had dropped out after a disagreement with the others, but wanted to continue in solo-play mode. This was fine with me; the Nebula Campaign that resulted was completely different from every campaign I had run before. Everything was cinematic, there was almost zero interaction with the game mechanics; it was a dialogue of ideas and responses that placed a premium of the ability to think quickly and clearly, and it was a lot of fun.
These campaigns continually attracted players. There was a waiting list 14-names long to join! I have to admit that I didn’t realize at the time just how special that was. But they also brought three people into my immediate orbit who would be significant to my future, though I didn’t know it yet – in chronological order, Dennis Ashelford, Andrew Johnson, and Graeme McDonald.
What only one or two people knew was that in the course of those 21 months I fell head-over-heels in love with one of my Co-workers – the first real romantic feelings I had felt for anyone in five years. In one of those soap-opera twists that you never think occur in real life, though, she had no feelings for me beyond those of a co-worker and casual acquaintance, and had her own boyfriend outside of the workplace.
That didn’t matter to me at all – while I never ruled out the possibility of a miracle, it was enough to me that she was happy. If it was with me, so much the better, but her smile meant everything to me. (You may be able to tell that I still have a very soft spot for her in my heart).
It was only with the aid and advice of a mutual friend and co-worker that I avoided putting my life and new career into a terminal tailspin. To this day, more than 25 years later, I don’t think that JH knows how I felt about her. I hope she’s had a good life :)
I.T. At Last
In September 1987, the chance to finally achieve my dreams was held out before me. As part of a co-venture with the State and Federal Governments of Australia, the Internal Audit & Security department of the Insurance Company began to search for two staff members to participate in a new IT recruitment and training program.
The qualifications required were brutal and unsympathetic. Participants had to be in the top 10% of the population in IQ, to be in the top 5% in clerical aptitude, and likewise in numeric aptitude. I scored in the 95%, 98%, and 97% brackets, and to this day I’m not sure how I managed it – I am quite sure that I’ve never even approached those standards since.
The reason for the severity of qualification was that the course was even more brutal.
Take a four-year bachelor’s degree. Squeeze it into 16 weeks. Then deduct four weeks for the final exam – the design and construction of a real-life computer system. If your part of the system worked, you passed – further compressing the scholastic part of the training into the time remaining. Then deduct another day each fortnight for real-world real-life on-the-job experience in the employ of the company that was sponsoring you to the course.
Now allocate half of every day to practical exercises. Half of the resulting deficit would be accommodated by further intensifying the study component, and the rest, the student had to make up on his or her own. There were also intermediate exams every four weeks – with a 90% pass-or-fail mark – which were to be conducted in the “practical” periods.
In effect, you had to earn a cutting-edge degree in the equivalent of eleven weeks of full-time study – achieving a 90% minimum standard, which alone would mark you as a front-runner in any field. My technique was to try and incorporate whatever we had not been able to cover in class into the day’s practical exercises, so that if I got stuck, I could consult the supervisor/tutor looking after the class that day, killing two birds with one stone.
Afterwards, you were to be treated exactly the same as any other new graduate coming to work for your employer. They guaranteed employment for a year, but beyond that no special favors would be shown – you had to earn your employment beyond that on merit, in the real world, working on real world computer systems.
Even with the harsh qualifying standards, only 60% of the class of thirty-two graduates were still working in the industry two years later, unable to cope with the stresses, or thinking they could ease off once they had made it through the initial trial period, not realizing that the unusual path they had taken to reach their current position meant that they would always be under close scrutiny from management, earmarked as a potential high-flyer – or potential threat, depending on how the manager in question perceived the admittedly experimental program.
In some ways, I was even more handicapped, because achieving this dream came with a huge price-tag – I had to leave JH behind. In hindsight, though, perhaps this was the best way for that to happen – not only was I going to be too busy to become depressed and maudlin, but the knowledge of how much I had sacrificed in order to realize this opportunity made me all the more determined to succeed. It wasn’t until the post-graduation Christmas party that I had time to reflect and become depressed.
Almost immediately, I was caught up in the investigation of a significant breach of security rules that could have been disastrous, but hadn’t been, and that had seemed necessary at the time, which had occurred while I had been a counter clerk. The details aren’t important now, suffice it to say that the working day after my graduation, my entire career was under threat. In the end, because I had been a minor participant, I was let off with a warning – but the incident cost me the confidence of my direct supervisor and a couple of key managers in the I.T. department. For the next five years, I was going to have to prove myself, over and over, again and again.
As a result, I was transferred out of the I.T. Audit department, where people had to be seen to be beyond reproach, and transferred into the Systems Development department proper.
I joined a small sub-department that looked after a number of PC-based systems that were written in a computer language named FOCUS. At the time, there were something like 22 people in this department. Over the next few years, these people left, one-by-one, or transferred out, until I was the only person left looking after these computer systems.
Eventually, I was promoted from Trainee Programmer to Programmer and then to Analyst Programmer. It was only with the latter promotion that I was to learn the real impact of the Security Scandal on my career – It came a year after it should have done, and didn’t bring with it the full increase in Salary that it should have. But that’s getting a little ahead of the story.
The Burwood Years
In late 1990, a friend struck difficulties; his rent was being increased catastrophically, and he could no longer afford to maintain his residence in Wollstonecroft, one of the cheaper suburbs located in the inner city, but still quite expensive. Dennis was an Engineer, a Hardware guy in the same way that I was a software person, and had become a close friend over the last couple of years. I immediately offered the use of my spare bedroom until he found somewhere else, even though it was smaller than some closets that I had seen, but he had a more permanent solution in mind.
If we went in together, he pointed out, we could afford to rent a full house close to Gaming – close enough, in fact, that we could have additional game sessions after the venue in which we were now ensconced closed its doors for the night (or, more accurately, after we had closed and locked them). While the rents would be higher than we were already paying, his share would be smaller than the outrageous sum demanded by his existing landlord, and shared utility costs would compensate. We had been friends for long enough to have some idea of each other’s habits, and was sure that we would be able to get along.
The advantages seemed clear, especially since I was confident that I would soon get either my full title or at the very least, the full wage that my current title entitled me to receive – at minimum, an extra $400 per week. I was Secretary of the National FOCUS User group, respected by my peers, and was coming up on my fourth anniversary of employment as a systems development professional. I agreed to the proposal, and with the help of a rented truck and a mutual friend to drive it, we made the move.
What I didn’t know was that the real reason Dennis couldn’t afford the rent increase was that he had lost his job, and was living on his savings. While they lasted, things worked just fine; but when they began to run out, it became increasingly frequent for the bills to be paid at the thirteenth hour. He had some casual work at a game store to supplement his income, but not nearly enough to cover his share of the costs, and slowly this began to erode the relationship.
My existing superhero campaigns had splintered during this period; the graduation of the characters in the Project:Vigilant campaign was imminent, and the need for them to undergo some sort of graduation exercise prompted changes. At the same time, I decided to close up the Project:Vigilant campaign, in which I had never managed to find the right balance of “letting the kids be kids” and traditional early-teen/childhood super-heroics, and the Team Neon Phi campaign, which simply wasn’t the same after the trouble between Dennis & Myself (his character being central to both of those campaigns). What I had decided to do, inspired by “Big Events” in the comics, was a series of “mini-series”, one for each of the major characters, which would overlap and stretch over just a few short months of game time. The implication was going to be that these side-adventures had been going on all along without coming to prominence, and would continue to do so in the future. These would also serve as the introduction to the big game event that I had been edging toward for some time in the Campaign, Ragnerok.
This was also the time when I commenced the most substantial rules update for my Superhero game that there had been to date. The basic rules that we had been using were approaching a decade old, and the source rules had been completely revised with the arrival of Hero System 4th Edition; the time seemed ripe. I was using a Commodore-128 at the time, and had found some Word Processing software for it, that (unfortunately) required a Dongle to make the documents and file architecture system-readable – and the`dongle had a habit of failing. I had bought myself a printer, and had even written my own custom device-driver with a number of hard-coded font extensions built in.
I had been doing the work of an Analyst Programmer for 18 months before the promotion was made official. For the last two years of my employment, I was doing the work of a full Systems Analyst, as was acknowledged in my annual reviews time after time, with neither the title nor the rewards, nor the recognition. I still have the annual reviews which showed that someone in position, according to the Department’s own regulations, should have been paid a minimum of $49K a year (rising to $63K p.a. if the job title reflected the duties that I was performing) when I was on $43,000. (I find it amusing that the average wage has now risen to something close to that pay-scale; back then, the average was about $12,000).
Every time there was an interdepartmental shuffle, my sub-department of one would come under the supervision of a new manager, and most of them had been biased by the past, and would have to be won over. I succeeded somewhat with some, and was able to convert others into enthusiastic supporters.
In addition, there were corporate-political turf wars going on all over the place, and what had once been viewed as the future was being slowly sidelined and marginalized – something I’m sure played a part in the slow erosion of the FOCUS sub-department. Ironically, I’m also sure (in hindsight) that the cost-efficiency that I represented, being under-payed, also helped keep my specialty alive within the IT Department.
But eventually, management were seduced by one of the buzzwords of the early 90s – outsourcing – and became convinced that they could save money with outside contractors, called in as required. That meant that the FOCUS department (me) was to be wound up. In recognition of my years of service, I was offered a transfer to another position within the department – but this coincided with another departmental shuffle, and the appointment as the manager within my section of probably my most strident opposition. Completely ignoring the occasional task that I had performed in the computer language that the rest of the department employed, COBOL, the offer that was made was insulting both personally and professionally – I could start all over again as a trainee, on a trainee’s wages, or I could leave.
This was a choice that was easy to make under the circumstances. I walked, and expected to have no trouble at all finding another job – one with a much better pay scale. I was astonished to discover that the pay scales at the NRMA were in fact substantially lower than the going industry rate – within the week, my name was under consideration for 10 positions, the smallest of which paid $85K, most $100-$120K, and two paying $535K and $1.125M, respectively. They all represented promotions, which bothered me – I knew that I didn’t have the expertise in staff supervision to qualify for the positions; what I wanted was the title to which I felt entitled. Technically, that would have been a promotion, too.
One week after I was forced out of my position by corporate politics, one of the four biggest banks released their entire FOCUS programming division, crowding 100-plus people into a small niche market. To say that it was over-saturated was an understatement. Nevertheless, I managed to reach final three in six of these positions, but in all six cases the final result was the same, and under the circumstances I saw the writing on the wall. After another three weeks in which I didn’t even get that far, I reentered the general employment market. (About six months later, the NRMA tried to persuade me to return; the contractors were insisting that the hardware be kept state-of-the-art, were taking eight times as long as expected, in part because they could only work one day a week, were making noises about increasing their fees in the next contract when it came up for renewal in a few weeks, and were already costing ten times as much as budgeted – or about 4 times what the corporation had been paying me. Their end-customers were up in arms, What would it take to get me back?
I have a streak of stubborn pride that manifests only rarely, but this was one such occasion. I demanded everything that I wanted – salary, title, office space – and a two year contract, with retraining options for a future management position. I had been caught out once, and if I took their offer, I wanted to be sure it was not a dead-end. These were impossible conditions, far beyond those they gave to any other employee in the department, and I knew it; part of me wanted to punish them in such a way that they would be reminded of their mistake with every six-monthly budget. While I would have been prepared to negotiate on some of these terms, we were miles apart, and both knew it; in effect, I was refusing their offer, to the relief of both; it would have been awkward returning to work in the same department, and they knew it. To this day, I still can’t decide whether or not I made a mistake, but either way I have long-since learned to live with the decision.
But that was some distance into the future. Before I reached that point in time, there was another crisis to resolve. Dennis had been robbing Peter to pay Paul for some time without telling me; when I would ask about the bills, he would simply state that they were taken care of. I had no idea that the rent was now four weeks overdue and would soon be six. On top of that, he had personal problems of a Romantic nature about which I knew nothing at the time – he had fallen for the wife of another mutual friend and had not handled the situation well at all, making a public announcement of his feelings, She had shot him down in acute anger and embarrassment, humiliating him, and sending him into a state of depression. At the time I knew about none of this; I simply knew that it had been two, going on three, months, and that my savings and termination pay were starting to run out, and that the lease of the house was just about up.
The first warning I had of the true situation was when he announced that he was going to be moving into another house which would be shared with two other people, and that we had been given two weeks notice to depart the premises, and that our bond was forfeit for the back rent owed. I would have to rebuild my life, starting from scratch, all over again.
Things were going well in the Game hemisphere of my life, at least.
The solo mini-campaigns were doing well, and at the same time, I had kicked off a new campaign using the TORG system. This drew lessons and inspiration from my past successes, commencing a full year before the “Possibility Wars” and would initially tell that story from the point of view of just one realm, the Fantasy world of Aysle. I took the Realm Background and expanded all the precursor events – the alliances and the betrayals, the trials and tribulations, the final victory over the forces of evil – into a one-year-long campaign, which would lead into a larger plot-line weaving between all the other realms and touching on the relationships and the struggles for superiority amongst them. These worlds had all been isolated and independent, and now were forced to coexist in the one multiverse. Some sought to take advantage of that, others sought to isolate themselves. I was particularly fascinated by the way one realm could combine its ethos and concepts with those of another – how the Cyberpapacy might seek to involve itself in the world of Kanawa, how the Pulp Superhero universe would respond to the fantasy heroes of Aysle, and so on. Dinosaurs with Cybertech Implants! Creatures Of Horror finding themselves “Tainted” with the Ayslish sense of Honor! How the Theology of the Cyberpapacy would integrate with those Horrors, and so on.
By taking that step back into the historical precursor, I was able to present the Possibility Wars from the perspective of “ordinary” heroes who had no idea of what was really going on, or why it was happening. There was a bigger picture driving the villains than the Heroes had any conception of. This campaign was never completed – it would get about half-way before my players persuaded me to set it aside – but we had an awful lot of fun along the way. The players never got to discover that the Gaunt Man, who was believed to have been overthrown and destroyed by one of his Subordinates, had actually survived and reinstated his original plan from behind the scenes to drain all the other realms of their Possibility Energy through the point of intersection, Earth, not into his realm but into himself, an act that would have made him – in theory – all powerful – except for that plucky band of PCs who had learned, bit by bit, the applied science that over-arched and unified all the realities, and who would realize that in the process, the Gaunt Man had become subject to ALL the rules that governed all the other Realms – and that they could take advantage of this to undo him at the 13th hour and ending the Possibility Wars – at least for now. (It was Orrorsh, the Horror Realm, that really did the players in – I had decided that the existing rules did not do an adequate job of conveying the fear that the horror should engender. It felt superficial and insubstantial and not scary at all. So I had rewritten the entire sourcebook, and my players were frankly terrified of the result. They never got the chance to discover the flaws and vulnerabilities that the rules of that reality now encompassed, and which could be used to fight back against the Horror. Anyway, once again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
This was also the period of the failed Asteroid Mining game (where the PCs solved the alien invasion by blowing up their own ship), which I described in my New Year’s article of 2009, Lessons From Yesterday.
The Petersham Years
I had visited Mike M – who had put a roof over my head following the Robbie/Trish shared household collapse – a couple of times over the preceding months. I described, when writing about that situation, about how generous he could be; he was the type of person who could be a great friend or an enemy for life. This intransigence had cost him both personally and professionally, because he was constitutionally incapable of admitting to a mistake unless he was the person to discover it. Wed that to a growing paranoid streak and you had as complicated a person as you will ever find.
His current location was a room in a two-or-three story house, or maybe it was a split-level apartment block. Other residents included a comic artist, the artist’s wife (girlfriend?), who was a singer in a covers band, another female (also a singer), and another guy. [I’m afraid I no longer remember all their names, and rather than insult anyone by remembering all except them, I’ll name none.] Some of these were modern-day hippies – there’s no other terms that really applies, while others were simply innately generous. Mike’s idea was to turn the place into an unofficial artist colony/commune, I think; certainly he had no trouble persuading the others to take me in, to occupy one of the spare rooms. I do know that he felt I had been seduced by “the rat race”, been chewed up and spat out by it – but was being given a second chance to discover my artistic “inner soul”, free from commercial ambitions or constraints.
I connected with virtually everyone in the house on one level or another – I could talk about my interests in art or sci-fi or music or spirituality or comics, depending on who I was talking to at the time. The block was located directly across the road from Petersham railway station, within a two-block walking distance of Mike’s old place – and was situated over the top of a bakery. Quite often, we would slip down at 2 AM or 3 AM and buy fresh bread hot out of the oven, or fresh-baked custard pies.
While the place could work with as few as five of the rooms occupied, it was at it’s most affordable with all seven rooms occupied; I made everything a six-way split instead of a five-way split, so everyone was happy with the arrangement – it put money into everyone’s pocket. The big issue was always making sure that the personalities were compatible, and for the most part, we were.
Much to Mike’s disappointment, I didn’t drop everything to become an artist 24/7. Instead, readopted my second career strand as a clerk/bookkeeper, and began looking for work. Government obligations, and my own diligence, consumed one day each week, usually Wednesdays, that being the big day for job placements in the paper at that time. Fridays I spent preparing for gaming on Saturday. The rest of the time, I occupied myself not with art, but with becoming a writer.
Each morning, I would write a short story. Each afternoon, I would edit the story written the previous day. Each evening, I would revise and re-edit the story written the week before. I had discovered a short story competition that promised a substantial payment for good stories – something along the lines of US$2500, which would have been the equivalent of about 20 week’s income at my then-current bare-bones expenditure levels. I had hopes of being able to get a literary grant from the Government, which was on a promote-local-talent kick at the time, which would have given me another two years income. I was quite certain that if I could get support for even half that time, I would be able to locate an agent and start making professional sales.
I still have those stories tucked away in a manila folder somewhere. Actually, I know exactly where they are – on the 5.25-inch floppy diskettes they were saved to with the C128-word-processing software I was using, but I don’t think the dongle works any more; I was referring to the hard copies I made when I was finished working on a story.
After four weeks of this routine, I had twelve stories that I thought were of publishable standard, and was beginning to put the final polish on the one I considered best for entry into the writing competition, when the kaleidescope shifted again…
Jack Of Many Bookkeepings
I had applied for a casual job at a Newsagency in Balmain, then, as now, one of the arty, trendy suburbs of Sydney. For the benefit of my American Readers – and perhaps those in other countries – I should explain what a newsagency is. Take a large newsstand, selling newspapers and magazines, and move it indoors. Increase the variety of magazines three or four-fold to take advantage of the additional room. Add greeting/Christmas/birthday cards (etc), and lottery tickets, and sidelines in stationery and sweets and soft drinks, and a limited range of mass-market paperbacks, and then make them the local distributors to newspaper subscribers. These days, you can add bus tickets and photocopying services to the product lines of many newsagencies. It’s a melange of many specialty stores that I consider unique to Australia.
I knew the region only because at one point I had done a one-week training course in graphic design – back in ’82, I think that was, though I didn’t talk about it in part one of this article because I wasn’t sure. I knew the newsagency in question, right beside the bus stop. I didn’t get the job, because they really wanted someone local or who had their own car, but the manager, Roy Snr, told me that if he had let me walk out of the office without a job, he would never have forgiven himself. And so I found myself in a job that was going to change my life forever.
This was a complex combination of three family businesses all owned by the same family and with the same senior manager. One branch unloaded fruit and vegetable trucks arriving at Flemington Markets, the fresh-food hub of Sydney; another part of the operation was freight-forwarding, having the contract for handling Queensland Bananas (amongst other produce); and the third, and most Independent of the operations, was the newsagency.
The offices were located in the basement of the Newsagency, down a double-flight of wooden stairs, which led to the back room of the newsagency, where the newspaper subscriptions were prepared for daily delivery. Beyond this back room, another staircase led up to the rooms where the five family members lived – father and four sons.
Roy Snr’s biggest failing was that he expected employees to work as hard as family members, each of whom had a stake in the businesses. So long as you did all the work that he put on your plate, and did it reliably and within the time frame that he dictated, and put up with his bursts of incandescent anger, he was quite a generous boss. Several times, I attended family parties, and I was a guest at his son’s Wedding, and it was not at all uncommon to share in the family meal when working late. When I slipped on a stair running one of his errands and sprained an ankle, he insisted that I take a week off, with pay, to recover. But he was also a whimsical and merciless slave-driver who demanded everyone (including himself, to be fair) work themselves into the ground.
Anger & Recriminations
It was the arrival of a musician to occupy the seventh room in the shared residence that ultimately brought about its collapse. Mike M and this person did not get along. He very much desired peace and quiet, while the musician was a thrash metal guitarist, who set about transforming the downstairs room across from Mike’s into a jam studio. Previously, this space had been used as storage by the other members of the household and`sometimes as an art studio. Despite efforts to soundproof the room with egg cartons and thick shag carpet on the walls, and ceiling and floors, it was never going to be enough to satisfy Mike.
He began to complain to the landlord, and became explosively short-tempered. He interpreted every attempt to make peace between the two of them as people conspiring against him. With Mike, you were always in total agreement with his position or you were an enemy. Eventually, it reached the point where other members of the household started leaving, the atmosphere had become so poisonous. Then Mike made the mistake of issuing an ultimatum to the landlord, claiming to speak for the rest of the household. Predictably, the landlord – who had repeatedly stated that this was a private matter for the residents to sort out, and something he didn’t want to have to deal with – was not impressed. When he came around to look into the situation, it was with the view that one of the two had to go, possibly both. After speaking with both of them, and with the other members of the Household – who felt that Mike was being unreasonable and were angry at him for going behind their backs and claiming to speak in their names, he came to speak to me. Despite repeated requests, Mike could not bear to have people speaking about him behind his back, and had insisted on angrily interrupting every conversation. I started to say something along the lines of “While it’s true that Mike and [name] have reached the point of being irrational, petty, and childishly stubborn toward each other, I think that they can sort it out if they are just a little more considerate of each other”; I already knew what the Landlord’s position was going to be, and my sympathies were (mostly) on Mike’s side, and I felt that I owed him my loyalty. Unfortunately, Mike was listening from behind the door, despite being asked to leave us alone for a private conversation, and only let me get as far as ‘childishly stubborn’ before charging into the room screaming all sorts of accusations of betrayal. At that point, the situation became unsalvageable, and the Landlord evicted Mike on the spot.
Mike, of course, blamed me, and since that time never let an opportunity to badmouth me pass him by. Despite repeated attempts to explain myself to him, he didn’t want to know. I had joined his list of enemies for life. It was all we could manage to ignore each other whenever we crossed each other’s trails in the future, such as at the funeral of a mutual acquaintance.
It poisoned what had been a harmonious atmosphere. I began making plans to move out myself – I could afford to, now that I was working – and resolved never to live in shared accommodation again. Two weeks after Mike was forced to leave – and having angrily refused all offers of help from me with his packing or moving – the landlord gave us all four week’s notice. He had decided to refurbish the entire building and turn it into accommodations for a large family.
The Lakemba Era
To be honest, if Mike had held off for just a couple more weeks, until I had the finances to get my own place, under the circumstances I would have felt honor-bound to offer to let him share, at least until he found somewhere of his own, no matter how volatile the atmosphere might have been. But he could not contain himself that long; if he could have done so, I have no doubt that a peaceful compromise could have been found between the two antagonists. Several neutral parties within the household were working to try and achieve just that. So there was a sort of horrible inevitability to the course of events. From the time the two began sharing a household, catastrophic meltdown was inevitable.
While my average residency in any given location had gone up slightly over recent years from the 6-month average that I had initially set, I had no idea of what lay ahead of me. It wasn’t as though I had taken a huge amount of time to find a new residence; on the contrary, I had worked out a budget, and I stuck to it. I had learned from my past experience, though – this was not a budget based on what I could afford while working, it was based on what I could afford if I lost my job and was forced back onto government support. I’d more than had my fill of being caught in emergency situations. Coping with a loss of employment was stressful enough without throwing economic catastrophe and forced relocation into the mix. Problems are easier to solve when they come at you one at a time.
As a result, I would end up residing in this location for a solid twenty years, outlasting not one but two owners. I actually became a selling point for agents leasing the other apartments, proof that management would not be intrusive and that the basic property was sound. It’s not without good reason that I describe this as an “era” – think about the changes that I saw in that twenty-year period. Heck, some of my players hadn’t been born when I moved into the ground-floor unit in mid-1990. I went from being one of the most unstably-resident to one of the most settled members of my family – and, considering the challenges that still lay before me, that was definitely a good thing.
After the bosses son was married, he moved out with his wife, prompting a reshuffle amongst the residents at work. I arrived for work one Monday to find that Roy Snr had decided, overnight, to relocate the office from the basement to one of the vacant upstairs rooms.
There weren’t enough of us to do the job. At one point I had to manhandle a large photocopier – one of those ones with built-in cabinets underneath, about 4′ wide and about the same high – and, of course, about 18 inches deep – up those two flights of wooden stairs. I can never prove it, but I believe that this was the cause of my later back problems, which I will detail in due course.
I was becoming increasingly run down, the result of the excessive demands placed by Roy Snr on all his employees. In one especially difficult period, I clocked unpaid overtime of 80 hrs, 107 hours, and 120 hours in successive weeks – all while working for the minimum award wage. Over the course of the previous 18 months, most of the rest of the office staff had left, and their duties – because the work had to be done – kept landing on my desk, and Roy kept adding to the workload. I was doing the work of three or four people, and was continually exhausted. I demanded a pay raise and that some additional staff be recruited, or exhaustion would lead to mistakes. In response, Roy outlined a plan to computerize the operation, something he claimed to have been considering since I had started working for him. He wanted me to assist`an outside consultant to select and customize the hardware and software to automate my manual bookkeeping. As for the pay rise, he would see what he could do – but the business had been on a razor’s edge for a year, robbing Peter to pay Paul, struggling at times just to pay the staff; I knew that there was not a lot of wriggle room. I would have actually foregone the pay increase in return for a ban on unpaid overtime, or even a reasonable limit. That didn’t happen.
He did give me a 10% pay rise, but did not reduce my workload, and from that time on, relations between us were a little strained. Nor did these plans work out exactly as he had described them. The next week, it transpired that the hardware had already been bought (fortunately, it was suitable) and the software had already been chosen – attache 5.0. Given the likelihood of Roy wanting numerous ad-hoc and custom reports, I personally thought FOCUS would have been a far more suitable, but was never given the chance to make my case. In short order, it also transpired that the data entry was not to be a replacement for the manual methods that took up so much time, but to be in addition to them. As a result, the work began falling further and further behind, as whatever task took precedence on the day crowded out everything else, despite my continuing to work ridiculous hours. Still, an additional clerk was hired, and that plus the computerization enabled us to at least start making headway – but not quickly enough.
Inevitably, and exactly as I had forecast, something slipped through the cracks, and a carload of Queensland Bananas worth on the order of $100K was not unloaded. Of course, so far as the boss was concerned, it was all my fault. I was sent home to rest on two weeks paid leave – Christmas was about to happen in any event – but was assured that I still had a job, and to call back once the two weeks was up. When I did so, I was informed that I had been replaced with two 17-year-old girls, whose combined salary was less than mine had been – and that I no longer worked there. I subsequently learned that to mollify the other party to the Banana contract, Roy had blamed it all on me, and insisted that I had been fired as a result. He kept the contract, but I knew that this choice spelt the end for the business; there was no way that these young girls would do anything like the overtime that I had been putting in. Within six months, unable to pay its annual and mandatory worker’s compensation insurance, the business had folded.
It might have proven that sacking me was the worst mistake that they had ever made, but that was of little comfort. My sympathies were firmly on the side of his sons, who had been caught in the middle of an impossible situation. I understand that they managed to salvage the situation by working out a deal in which their father was kept at arms’ length from the day-to-day running of the business, and I hope that this was actually the case. They were all firm but fair, at least reasonable in demands and expectations, and I neither had nor have anything against them, and hope that they can say the same.
But, in the meantime, I was out of work again, and now it was that my careful budget calculations saved my bacon. If I had left the job voluntarily, I would have faced eight or maybe ten weeks without income while waiting for government support; because I had been retrenched, I could skip that waiting period, and the government support was enough to pay the bills.
My gaming had suffered enormously during that two-year period, as overtime completely consumed any prep time I might have wanted. I often had to go in on a Saturday morning and put in extra hours before going to gaming, or to work until 2 or 3 AM at night. Those who know me well might recognize these as the hours that I work to, even today, but there’s a big difference between doing so and being able to sleep in, and doing so knowing that you have to be up at 7AM to go back to work – day in and day out.
The superhero campaign was somewhat floundering as a result, and while it picked back up after I was let go, it was too late; the players lost interest and I put it on hold. My plan was to restart the campaign post-Ragnerok, telling the story of what had happened in the intervening period as a fictional background to the relaunched campaign. Writing this campaign background took a lot longer than I had anticipated. The TORG campaign was still going strong, and persisted for another year before it began to flounder with the PCs first visit to the Horror Realm of Orrorsh looming on the horizon.
Rather than start another campaign right away, I decided to go back to being a player for a while (except for the TORG campaign), enabling me to devote the time that a new campaign would have consumed in Prep to working on a new revision of the rules, and writing the Campaign Background I described previously.
I joined a GURPS Superheroes Campaign, but it didn’t last very long. I joined Ian Mackinder’s new Traveller Campaign, this time playing a Hyver – a psionic paranoid starfish, basically – and rewrote the Hyver supplement to fill in a lot of missing details about their society and life cycle. (Within 6 months, it joined the list of alien species which Ian swore to never, ever, let me play again. A young guy who wanted to start his own campaign and wanted experienced players to teach him the ropes had a go, but it didn’t last very long. I’m fairly certain this was also when I had my Directionally-challenged Orcish Tracker in Phil McGregor’s Roman Campaign.
Meanwhile, I set about looking for work as a casual bookkeeper, but I soon found that I lacked one fundamental skill for most jobs – I had zero experience at Payroll, and that was THE number-one requirement of a casual bookkeeper. It was easy for a business to pay the bills that were due and take care of the paperwork later, but working out the amount people had to be paid was not something that could wait from one week to the next.
It was at this time that I went to work for Andrew Johnson. If you recognize the name, it’s because he is one of the gamers that I mentioned a little while back – a former player in the Champions Campaign. It wasn’t actually the first time that I had worked for Andrew; some years previously, I had been part of a project involving fonts and a universal character block idea that he wanted to develop. In essence, this was all about drawing individual characters in high resolution. I don’t think that project ended up going anywhere.
Andrew had his own business, Affordable Solutions. He also had a few bad habits when it came to keeping his records straight – once a bill was paid, it would dissapear into a pile of no-longer-relevant documents. Pages would become separated or lost. He needed someone to get his accounts in order so that his accountant could work out his tax situation.
I describe what ensued as “Forensic Bookkeeping” because a large part of the process was identifying and re-creating missing papers. Most regular invoices, for example, will show an opening balance and any payments received since the issuing of the preceding invoice – which permits the reconstruction of the amount of an invoice if you have the ones to either side of it. There was also a lot of reconstruction of cheque butts that had not been adequately completed – some had amounts but no date or payee, some had payees but no dates or amounts, and a few had dates but nothing else. Some, remarkably enough, were complete.
Complicating this situation was that multiple chequebooks were in use simultaneously at various times – when one had been misplaced, for example, or left in the car, or was at the accountants. Once the “forensics” was complete, the information had to be entered into an accounting package. The Accountants had provided a list of three that were compatible with their systems, which we considered to be an important selection criteria, since it meant that we could provide more than just the printouts, we could provide a copy of the data itself. From memory, it took about 6 weeks. Towards the end of that period, a new hiding place was uncovered, revealing a new bunch of invoices, which we were able to use to validate my reconstruction. It was very pleasing when every item checked out!
This was helpful not only in the immediate sense that I was paid for it, but also that it gave me another entry on my resume, which would hopefully help me find work in the future. It didn’t, in that it did nothing to redress the glaring hole in my expertise, but it kept it current and growing, which was better than nothing.
It also introduced me, for the first time, to the internet. One of the perqs of the deal was that I was able to buy from Andrew a second-hand PC running Windows and a 56K modem. This was actually to enable me to enter the accounts information from home, which was essential if we were going to meet the legal deadline for getting the accounts information in at the accountants. But, when it wasn’t being used for work, it was all mine.
And this led to my next step towards Campaign Mastery, through a Magazine named Australian Internet Directory.
A.I.D. was basically a magazine which reviewed websites of interest, publishing the URLs. It started with my writing a couple of letters to the editor, which got published and resulted in some correspondence between the two of us. That was followed by my writing a couple of articles for the magazine – the first about compression artifacts in the jpegs used to illustrate the magazine, and a second about Microsoft and its attitude towards freeware. There may have been one or two others as well, but those are the two that I remember.
All were published. In fact the editor, himself a professional journalist, described them as ‘of sufficient quality to be published in the Sydney Morning Herald as feature articles’ in one of his emails – and as a former editor of that newspaper, he was in a position to judge. This was quite a caveat for me, which is why I still remember it, even though the email itself vanished long ago. He actually began to encourage me to consider a full-time career in journalism, but I was fairly certain that in the modern world, a degree would have been necessary to even get my foot in the door.
Nevertheless, his comments certainly encouraged me along the literary path.
The other thing that I was increasingly getting into at that time was composing music using the MIDI system (Either a letter to A.I.D. or another feature article was on the subject). For a long time, these were for my own entertainment and enjoyment only; but I eventually submitted one to a website specializing in such things, and was awarded their MIDI-Of-The-Day, which meant that it was the best music he had received that day, and was therefore shared with a hundred or more other enthusiasts. Over the next few years, I went on to win that award a grand total of 103 times. (I still compose music, when my PC is working. I recently completed work on my 500th idea. One day, I’ll put a CD out – or several).
Between these various endeavors and activities, and the ongoing search for work, a year or so slipped past. Before I knew it, the date was September of 1995.
That was when a door that I had presumed closed forever swung back open. With every passing year, my qualifications in IT had become more dated, and the early 1990s were a period of especially-explosive growth in computers and software. My problem-solving and analytic skills were still functional, and always would be, but the computer languages being used, like Visual Basic, were completely alien to me. What I did have going for me was knowledge of accountancy and bookkeeping software, and how to get it to do things that the designers had never thought of. Little did I know that this combination would be enough to land me a contract as an independent systems development contractor.
The job was actually offered to Andrew Johnson first, but it was neither up his alley nor something he was interested in pursuing. Instead, he put forward my name as someone with the right skills and attitude to get the job done right.
The position was computerizing the invoicing and inventory record-keeping for a manufacturer of roofing materials and other building components like balustrades. The problems they faced were two-fold; first, they had a number of different prices for every item, and consequently mistakes were being made in invoicing; and second, they had a large inventory of very similar items, and this also permitted errors to be made. In a nutshell, they had no idea exactly what inventory they had on hand at any given moment.
The system requirements, hardware, and operating system, were all being looked after by another guy, but he had neither the time nor the bookkeeping expertise to be able to handle integration of business practices and software, and the training of the staff. For that he needed a software guy, and I got the gig.
The notion was that hand-held scanners would read bar codes and automatically add the items to an incomplete invoice, which would subsequently be completed by the office staff. At the same time, inventory would be automatically adjusted to reflect the fact that the product was no longer on the premises for sale. I know, every supermarket chain has something similar these days, but this was in the mid-90s, and it was all cutting-edge at the time.
It turned out to be a much bigger job than anyone expected. At the end of the day, it turned out that the “few thousand” inventory lines that the business kept was actually in excess of 100,000 product lines – which astonished everyone involved, including the General Manager. I had to completely reinvent and rationalize their product classification system and simplify it before the software would be up to the job. What was initially estimated to be three month’s work ballooned into an estimate of about a year. Partial implementation – a functioning inventory system and the ability to create manual invoices and track payments into the bookkeeping software – was achieved after three months, enough to get a full handle on the real scope of the project. During this time, the manager who had persuaded the other partners to go down this road of automation left the company, and the General Manager decided that the manual system was good enough. After a couple of months dotting I’s and crossing T’s, mostly in the form of documentation (which always takes longer to write than expected), my part in the project was wound up.
The General Manager in question, Mike Hume, and the direct contractor, Gary, gave me some great references which acknowledged that the project was not wound up because of any dissatisfaction about my work, but because of a change in management policy and direction – something that can befall any project.
But it gave me the confidence that my abilities were not so dated as to be unusable, expanding my parameters when searching for future employment to things like Help Desk and Y2K preparations – and I continued to get onto shortlists in those roles, which surprised me and gave me further hopes for the future.
Data Entry Revolution
My next employment was with the Australian Bureau Of Statistics, processing the Census of 1996. I’ve written about my experience there in a past article, All The World’s A Suggestion Box, because it has lessons and relevance to gaming, too. The math of the situation speaks for itself: each week saved times hundreds of staff times hundreds of dollars per week paid to each staff member adds up to a lot of dough – between $10,000 and $100,000. In the course of this period of employment, I made suggestions that were later credited with savings approaching two months work – and that will undoubtedly continued to save the government money in each subsequent census – 2006 and 2011, so far. Even at a reasonably conservative estimate, I get a number of at least half a million dollars, and possibly quite a lot more. It certainly made me memorable to the supervisors and managers, and resulted in a number of glowing references.
It also added government employment as a serious prospect for future consideration.
But there was a downside, as I soon began to hear a word that no job-seeker should ever hear: “Overqualified”. It was a word that I was to become very familiar with in the months that followed.
My next employment was once again working for Andrew Johnson, who would never consider “overqualified” to be a relevant factor, this time on the Ausworld project. I’ve told this story in detail before, in a lengthy sidebar within Value For Money and the Pricing of RPG materials part 2 of 2. In a nutshell, we were bringing broadband to the masses in an era of 56K dial-up modems – with costs so low that potential customers were sure there was a catch, and profit margins so obscene that 100 customers would have made the company a viable operation.
This ended up being a project that drew on every skill that I had acquired (except musical composition) and pushed me to expand on them in every direction. I was involved in everything from Logo design to Website design, construction, and content, to network structure. Andrew and I were very much learning as we went, of necessity.
During this period, I had a number of gaming articles published here and there – there was a thing or two at Barrock’s Tower, and another at… well, I forget exactly where, and can’t access my emails to check. Burning Void? Twilight Time? Not sure.
It was also around this period that I started getting serious about finishing the superhero “campaign background” for a rebooting of the campaign. New players were arriving at the Gaming Group and they wanted to play it. At times, the anticipation was growing faster than the word count!
In contrast, the TORG campaign was definitely on its last legs at this point, despite a last-minute reprieve when a couple of new players joined it, but there was also growing interest in a new D&D campaign. Things were about to get busy again…
My experiences with A.I.D. and Ausworld had convinced me that the internet was going to be a game-changer for business in more ways than people could possibly forecast, and I was in a position, skills-wise, to get myself in on the ground floor, or so I hoped. I decided to have a go at starting my own business as a Web Designer. With little-to-no money to launch the business, I started a door-knocking campaign at the nearest major shopping district, and managed to uncover a few operations who could be convinced to at least consider it. All I really needed, I felt, was one satisfied customer whose site I could point others toward, and I would be off and running. Three potential customers had second thoughts after seeing a written estimate of the development costs, even at the cut-price rate that I was charging ($5 an hour) to try and make a start of the business, and the fourth didn’t like the design that I submitted.
The Government of the time permitted little leeway in what they defined as “job searching”, and trying to line up customers for a new web-design business didn’t qualify under their guidelines. Despite attempts to obtain an exemption, they insisted that I put this ambition on hold until I could pursue it on my time, not theirs.
Data Entry Evolution
So my only choice was to go back to doing all the things that had been failing prior to the Ausworld Project, knowing that under the status quo, I would not be in gainful employment for a while.
It turned out to be about three months. That was when I received a letter from the Bureau of Statistics advising that they were again in need of staff to process the Census, and inviting me, as an experienced member from the previous one, to apply for a position. This proved to be one of the easiest interviews I had ever done; many of the managers and supervisors that I had known five years earlier were back on board and recognized me immediately. It was as much a reunion with old friends as it was a formal interview.
That was when I learned about the impact that my suggestions on that previous occasion had made to the expected duration of the processing of the Census this time around. My previous section manager was the I.T. Manager this time around, which is how the discussion of online processing that I described in All The World’s A Suggestion Box came about.
It’s really gratifying when you can see that you’ve made a difference in the world, and even more gratifying when others recognize it too.
One of the persistent rumors during this project was that the Melbourne City Government was trying to lure the ABS into processing the next Census there instead of in Sydney with promises of a CBD location and subsidies that would cut costs dramatically. Consider the economic impact of a multi-million dollar project every 5 years on the local economy, and you can see why they would be interested. Nevertheless, no decision would be made for at least another two years, when they began to plan for the 2006 Census.
Towards the end of the project, a junior management vacancy arose, and I was persuaded to put my name forward. Truth to tell, I didn’t need a lot of convincing; a lack of supervisory experience had shown up more than once in job application notices. Once again, I got to the short list, in fact I was told it came down to a coin-toss, or close to it. The project managers felt that I was a marginally bigger risk in that role, whereas I was superb in the position I already held, while the person who got the position was a safer bet as a team supervisor, and only “satisfactory” in their current role.
On such small margins can fate hang, sometimes. With my skillset, experience, and the addition of supervisory experience, I would have been a dead certainty for a number of different jobs in the future, and my life would inevitably have been different from that point onward. Needless to say, it didn’t happen.
It was sometime in the next twelve months, while I continued to look for employment, that I picked up the 100th award for composition against increasingly stiff competition; the site behind them was beginning to acquire a reputation in the field (small as it might have been), and so was I. It was a rare month that one of my pieces wasn’t the most downloaded track, and also usually the highest-rated. In fact, you can still find some of my work floating around the internet, especially “In Remembrance Of The Fallen”, composed in the hours immediately after the attack to capture my feelings and reactions to the 9/11 attacks – for example at this page run by long-time supporter Jack Snead. I treasure the emails I got from the families of some of the victims who told me that my piece had enabled them to start to put their own feelings into perspective, and begin the healing process.
It was also somewhere around this time that the Zenith-3 campaign started, and that I first sent an idea to Roleplaying Tips, introducing me to Johnn Four. More reader tips followed, and then some full articles. A few got poor reviews but most were very well received, and I even got a few pieces of fan mail. (A quick Google search, limited to the Pre-CM time-frame, finds 31 distinct references – and at least one from the early days was mis-attributed, as I recall).
The Trouble Begins
I’d been experiencing growing back pain for a while, but x-rays didn’t seem to show anything wrong. I had started using a walking stick for additional stability and support, but even with this assistance, my mobility was increasingly impaired. At first, all the talk was about pulled muscles and the like.
…and worsens: The Crippled Year
My back pain slowly became crippling; whereas I could previously walk to and from the shops in Lakemba in ten minutes or so, I was now reduced to a very slow shuffle; it was three hours hard work to walk to the shopping center, an hour of rest before I could do the shopping and another afterwards, then another four hours or so to shuffle the 1.25 kilometers (a little less than a mile, or about 5 city blocks) back home – and spend the next 24 hours flat on my back, recovering.
When there’s a problem and your doctor can’t identify the cause, you tend to look for a second opinion, especially when the treatment doesn’t produce any improvement. One doctor consulted compared my mobility with that of the typical 101-year-old – unfavorably.
Finally, in January 2004, I was sent for a CT scan of my lower back, which showed pronounced compression between two vertebrae and what I can only describe as a “flange” on the vertebrae above this unusually-narrowed gap. It looked for all the world like a garden stake that had been pounded into the ground which was subsequently exhumed and turned upside down. (I’d provide a picture but my scanner is connected to the PC and won’t plug into the laptop, which doesn’t have the software to interface with it in any event).
The diagnosis was that at some point in the past, I had carried a load that was more than my spine could support, squeezing one of the lumbar disks out between two vertebrae – a “slipped disk” – and crushing the bottom of the upper vertebrae against the top of the lower one. This was resulting in pinched nerves, which in turn led my core back muscles to try and do the spine’s work for it as a reflex response to the pain; the more I walked, or stood up, the more these would ache.
In nine cases out of ten, or more, this problem will fix itself with a mixture of core-strength exercises and physiotherapy, plus a little anti-inflammatory medication. That, then, was the prescription in my case – and a lot of rest. For the next 6 months, maybe longer, I was relieved of my job-search obligations. Although I was crippled by pain, my application for a disabled status was not approved because the doctors anticipated an eventual recovery.
I seemed to make a full recovery, though I was still prone to occasional bouts of back pain, especially if I walked too much or stood up for too long, or bent over the wrong way, or used public transport for too long; this was explained as my back muscles having learned “bad habits” that would eventually subside if I avoided re-injury.
Eventually, I was deemed well enough to work part-time, and hence was back on the job-search trail, though some allowances were made for physical impairment, which qualified me for additional support. By this time, the government that had earlier decided trying to start your own business as`a webmaster was not an ‘appropriate use of time’ had instituted a program that forced those who had been out of work long enough into retraining. Since the tools had changed since my initial foray in that direction – dreamweaver and photoshop were now the industry standards – I managed to persuade the job placement service with whom I was registered that undertaking the class that they ran in those software packages would be useful training.
It took only one afternoon of my playing around with these pieces of software and asking detailed technical questions for the tutor to realize that I wasn’t the complete novice that he usually had to deal with, and after scrutinizing my resume, he recommended me for a work-for-the-dole position acting as Webmaster for an organization called CLAN.
C.L.A.N. is the Care Leavers Australia Network, a support, advocacy, research, and training group for people who grew up in Orphanages, Children’s Homes, and in Foster Care. To quote from their website,
Close to half a million children in Australia in the 20th century were brought up in ‘care’: as state wards, foster children or Home children raised in orphanages, Children’s Homes, and other institutions, and in foster care. Many of these people are now middle-aged or older but still carry the burden of unresolved issues from this past.
Many are afraid to tell their friends, even their children, that they were in the care system because of the stigma it carried. Many were cut off from all contact with family members, and are still looking for them.
Most left the care system without any preparation or assistance for adulthood or for parenthood. Many are left with the scars of emotional deprivation and neglect, and of physical, sexual and psychological abuse.
[They] are the forgotten survivors of a past child welfare system which deprived [them] of a sense of identity, of self-worth, and of a rightful place in our society.
My initial duties were all about organizing the Library of books on the subject that the organization had collected over the years (plus many self-help books, etc.) Most of these were not entered in the register of books available for members to borrow, and most of those which were listed did not have an image of the cover, always useful for people to recognize the books that they had already read. In addition, many members had made photographs of the institutions within which they had been raised available to the organization, which had to be put online; many of those institutions were not listed in CLAN’s database, although they had information on them. So they needed a combination of data entry, graphics scanning and editing/restoration, and administration of their website, which held barely a passing resemblance to its current appearance.
Eventually, the subsidized period of employment ran out, with the task nowhere near complete. With still another notch in my professional belt – I returned to the search for permanent employment. The date was December 2008.
About two months later, I was offered a part-time position at CLAN, doing exactly the same things as I had been doing previously, as well as updating other aspects of the web site – posting news bulletins and the like. I gradually became aware that bugs in the website implementation, and especially within the customized Web CMS, were a growing issue. Discussions with the programmer who had done the customization revealed that it made the website incompatible with an upgrade to the CMS but eventually the decision was made to revise that customization and upgrade the software. This made a huge difference not only to the efficiency and functionality of the site, but to it’s overall look and feel. Some repetitive functions were reduced from substantial fractions of an hour to mere minutes, and some were reduced from minutes to seconds.
This was an exciting time for the organization, as they slowly began to achieve official recognition of the problems its members faced – culminating in the November 2009 National Apology to the Forgotten Australians. I believe they would have achieved this without me, as it was the culmination of superhuman efforts by a lot of people over many years, but I am proud of whatever contributions I made towards the event and anything I was able to do to make the burden easier for the victims of the situation in the meantime.
CLAN operates through a combination of membership subscriptions and donations, so funding is always in short supply and has to be carefully allocated to immediate priorities. It was not an entirely unexpected development when, in December 2008, after a grand total of 23 months work for the organization, it was decided that they had to let my position go. More than half the task for which I had been employed remained incomplete, as the more responsive CMS enabled more and more of my time to be consumed in home page updates and other dynamic content; if not for that, it would probably have been nearing completion by that point. Nevertheless, something on the order of 5000 updates to the databases had been achieved, and more than 1000 images – many of poor quality due to age – uploaded.
It’s important not to underestimate the value to the Care Leaver of having recognition of their institution in the form of an image. It validates their experience, and offers recognition that it really did happen to them; it showed that while they may have been Forgotten by mainstream Australia, there were those who did remember them. Of course, similar social practices existed throughout the western world during the era in question; children’s Homes and orphanages were hardly a uniquely Australian solution. It’s a sure bet that if there was ever such an institution in your part of the world, there are people who suffered because of it, and who continue to suffer, even if it is through second-, third-, or even fourth-generation ramifications. (This is the reason why the issues of compensation are so complex and difficult, and one of the reasons it was an uphill struggle to get anyone to commit to an apology that would have opened the door to such compensation).
Be that as it may, I knew from early November that my time with CLAN was coming to an end. But this time there was going to be no interval of any substance between this job and my next; on November 28, Johnn and I began rolling out Campaign Mastery, and one month later, on December 28, the site went public.
The Road to Campaign Mastery
Johnn and I had started corresponding about two years earlier concerning a plan to update and reorganize old issues of Roleplaying Tips. No content remains evergreen forever, and some of it was looking very dated. None of it was cross-indexed by subject. At the same time, we began talking about doing some collaborative e-books and articles together. Over time, a 5-year plan was crafted – at least, that’s how long it would have taken by my estimates – to turn Roleplaying Tips into the centerpiece of an RPG publishing mini-empire. Johnn, on the other hand, was very much feeling the press of time, and needed to see substantial income flows long before that endpoint or he would have to look elsewhere for his financial independence.
Lest he be judged too harshly, I should hasten to point out that Roleplaying Tips and related endeavors were very much a second job for Johnn, and even workaholics doing something they love burn out eventually.
We spent almost a year working on the Taxonomy and internal structure of the planned websites (yes sites – there were to be five of them, including the rebuilt Roleplaying Tips. We even got as far as purchasing the domain names). We valued the business plan that we came up with at US$100,000, we were so confident of success. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail, as parts of that plan – however delayed – are still in place, both here and at Roleplaying Tips.
Part of that plan was a blog to focus on presenting new material from the two of us – and that part became Campaign Mastery. But the real world is full of surprises and twists and turns, just like a good campaign.
My back pain had never gone away, and in Mid-2010, it was again becoming severe. It had not yet reached the point of being crippling, but the trend was unmistakable. In addition, for the preceding decade I had been suffering from pain in my knees when climbing or descending stairs and slopes, which had never been successfully diagnosed, and which was increasing in frequency and severity. Finally, my Doctor located an Orthopedic Specialist who bulk-billed through the government Medicare Scheme, and referred me for examination.
Dr Habib ordered MRI scans of the spine and both knees, having verified the symptomology that I reported to him.
From these scans, the knee problems were diagnosed as Chondromalacia Patellae, a condition in which the cartilage between the knee joints has softened or become inflamed, or, in may case, been forced out from between the joint, pushing the kneecaps up and away from where they are supposed to be. Whenever they receive a jolt or other stress, the bones of the leg impact with each other, and pinching the nerves in between.
The scans revealed that my back problem years earlier had not been merely a slipped disc, but a disk that had burst completely, releasing the cushioning material within, and that the disc had somehow managed to turn itself inside out in the process. Part of the inner lining of the disk – which has a texture not unlike sandpaper – was rubbing against the spinal column, while part was abrading the muscle wall of the back. This is a rare outcome from a herniated disc.
It meant that every time I walked far enough, or stood long enough, or bent incorrectly, or experienced unusual motion, I would suffer short-term, long-term, and permanent consequences. Severe back pain would be the short-term outcome, severely limiting my mobility for a period of minutes, hours, or days, depending on how far over the line I had gone. Not all that lost mobility would be or could be recovered; some of it would be lost for periods of months or years. And some of it would never return. Eventually, significant spinal cord damage would accumulate, potentially resulting in eventual lower limb paralysis. In addition, sudden jolts would cause pinched nerves, which would inflict pain anywhere from the hips down.
Surgery was possible, but not recommended; part of the damaged disc was entwined amongst the spinal nerves, and there was at least an 80% likelihood of permanent paralysis if it was attempted.
The condition is chronic, which means that it is untreatable and lingering, but can be managed. With due diligence and care, I might be able to avoid a wheelchair for twenty years or more – from the date of diagnosis. The two problems operate in combination to form an especially difficult problem. Most people can avoid back injury by bending from the knees; this option is not available to me. I have to bend and lift in exactly the wrong way.
Every step that the Government had forced me to make since my initial back trouble had caused permanent damage. Although unhappy about that, I did not resent the government regulations for it. What I resented was that they still did not qualify me as disabled. My condition – and quality-of-life for the rest of my life would have to worsen before I would qualify – and that I do resent.
I am in near-constant pain, but it is usually at a relatively “tolerable” level. I can count on one hand the number of days that I have been completely without pain in the last two years.
Compromising With Reality
Over time, I have learned to manage the problem, at least most of the time. I avoid bending and lifting. I can’t cook as much as I used to, because I can’t continually stand and stir, nor can I keep getting up and down, so my diet is impaired. I have trouble cleaning, and have even more trouble feeding the washing machine. I have learned to stop and rest as soon as I feel pain from excessive walking. I do most of my banking online, because I can’t stand up in the queue at the bank. I use online shopping and home delivery options as much as possible. I can tolerate about ten minutes bus travel, or about 30 minutes train travel – longer if I can get better seating with more leg room. I avoid rush hour travel, because I can’t stand up in a bus or train at all. I now run most of my games from home; once a month, the Pulp Campaign still happens at the old location (about 20 minutes bus travel), but I usually get a lift home with a friend in his car – and have to stay in bed most of the following day. I can’t do a full day’s work, I can’t sit for that long – but I can manage about three or four hours a day from home, most of which goes into Campaign Mastery, or a fuller day – followed by a day of bed-rest.
Two years ago, I could walk roughly four-to-six blocks before feeling acute back pain. Then my brother and his fiancée came to Sydney to visit – she had never been to a city of this size before – and the family took her on a tour of the place. I can now walk just three blocks before the acute pain sets in – the sign that I am nearing the point of permanent damage. For most of the last two years, that range has been just two blocks.
That one day cost me half of my mobility. Will I recover the rest? Maybe.
I relate these details not to engender sympathy, but to point out a simple fact: Self-employment from home is the only work that I am physically capable of performing. Campaign Mastery fits that prescription to a “t”.
With A Little Help from My Friends
Throughout my years, I’ve been helped by friends many times, and I have done my best to help them, when they needed it. Most of those friends have been made through gaming. It has shaped my professional life, my employment history, and me as a person. And, in many ways, that professional and personal life has all come together to give me the skills and qualities that I employ every week in producing Campaign Mastery. Whether it be the analytic abilities that were honed by my time in I.T., or the communication skills that I have learned, or the ability to function as a webmaster, or the graphic design and illustrative capacities that I employ from time to time – it all funnels into this particular occupation.
In a great many ways, Campaign Mastery is the culmination of my entire life. Gaming has given me the life that I’ve had – warts and all – and this is my way of returning the favor. And that’s what makes this two-part article an appropriate way to commemorate the 5th Anniversary of the website.
It’s become traditional for me to share some vital stats with the readers on landmark occasions like this, so here goes: in its 5 years, CM has racked up:
- 444,000 visits
- 283,000 unique visitors
- 800,000 pageviews, and
- 37% returning visitors.
It’s impossible to condense a life of 50 years – going on 51, now – into one or two essays. I’ve done my best to hit the high spots along the way, but of necessity, things had to get left out, either for reasons of brevity, of relevance, or of privacy – and most of them are the accomplishments that I am most proud of. I don’t know about anyone else, but I keep a list of those personal achievements; they cheer me up anytime I’m feeling down. No-one knows the circumstances of all of these; in some cases, promises made will prevent me from ever divulging the details.
I thought it fitting to end this article by reciting that list. These are the things that I can look back on with pride when the final judgment comes – and since Gaming has shaped my life, these are the true rewards that gaming has produced. In no particular order, then:
- Prevented 3 suicides
- Saved 1 person from homelessness
- Saved 1 marriage
- Got 1 person off heroin
- Reunited 1 family
- Helped at least 1 person recover after 9/11
- Gave up one romance for a friend
- Was a good Samaritan to a stranger at personal cost at least once
- Helped the police identify and prosecute a home invader
- Helped those in need as much and as often as I could
That’s a track record that I, and Gaming, can be proud of. And oh yes, one more item:
- Gave the gift of gaming to others.
Thank you and best wishes to every reader and contributor, past and present. Campaign Mastery is as much your achievement as it is mine. Have a Happy New Year, and may 2014 bring brighter days to us all!