Running a D&D Murder Mystery

This last week, I ran my first murder mystery adventure for my weekly Dungeons & Dragons group. I have designed many adventures, written a handful of mystery stories, and critiqued many mystery book, but I had never quite combined those into writing a mystery adventure.

When I started planning for the session, I didn’t intend to write a mystery. The adventure idea started with the party traveling to Elturel, a city where a magical orb shines brightly above the city and wards away undead. The party had other business on the main storyline, but I wanted a side quest in town related to this magical orb. The direct effect of the orb was obvious (no zombie hordes), but in a real world, it would have other, surprising effects as well. What is an unintentional consequence of the magical orb that could seed an interesting adventure?

Amongst the ideas I worked through, the Cleric spell “Speak with Dead” wouldn’t work if spirits were also affected by the orb. Typically, player use “Speak with Dead” to discover how someone died, and city guards would do something similar. Without “Speak with Dead” available, Elturel guards might know that it was harder than usual to track down serial killers. Therefore, I had a guard become a serial killer.

For the guard’s motivation, refugees were trickling into Elturel from the surrounding area to escape raiders, who were the main focus of the players. Elturel locals might not like the influx of foreigners. A xenophobic guard begins murdering refugees to scare them away.

I had my core mystery done and worked out the adventure from there. During the session, my players enjoyed the game and successfully solved the mystery. However, I learned several things from the experience. Continue reading Running a D&D Murder Mystery

Is Time Estimation in Software Engineering a System 1 or 2 Task?

Software engineers are notoriously bad at time estimation. When they receive a new bug report or product feature to work on, engineers are often asked by their project manager to guess how long it will take. It’s a very reasonable request. For example, if your website goes down, public relations needs to know how long it will take to put together a response. If you’re working on the next version of your app, product management needs to know what features are possible before the ship date.

Unfortunately, engineers are bad at time estimation. A “one line fix” can become a rabbit hole when that one little change has massive implications across the rest of the code. A big project might be very simple to complete if a lot of the pieces were already lying around. This mismatch between apparent and actual complexity makes estimation. However, engineers often don’t even know what they will find until they are deep in the code. And by then, they will have already committed to a bad estimate.

Engineers have plenty of tricks to avoid blame. They make a real estimate then immediately double it, just in case. “Under-promise, over-deliver” is a popular strategy. However, both of those hide  the original problem of making a good estimate. These tweaks only work if you’re original estimate within an order of magnitude. If your estimate is wildly off, then your fluffed estimate will still be wildly off.

If you’re looking for a solution, I don’t have it. However, I realize that there’s tension in how have been explaining and using time estimation on my team. That tension is rooted in the difference between Daniel Kahneman’s “System 1” and “System 2” in how humans think. Continue reading Is Time Estimation in Software Engineering a System 1 or 2 Task?

My Life on a News Diet

Like many liberals, the last presidential election really forced me to think about my own role as an American citizen. In the month or two afterwards, I ended up writing a list of over 50 things that I could do to make this a better country. Of that, I ended up actually doing somewhere around 10 or 15 of them. I’m more engaged with my community in various groups and have met and engaged with people more different from myself. Julie and I have regular donations to community organizations that we think are providing valuable services. Of those changes, I am proud of most of them. However, one that really backfired was trying to become more informed.

Continue reading My Life on a News Diet

The Policy Bubble

For the 4 years, I have been out of town for the 4th of July, and each time was for completely different reasons. In 2014, I spent the 4th in Indianapolis for a college friend’s wedding. In 2015, I spent the 4th at a friend’s cabin in Minnesota. In 2016, I spent the 4th in Ireland for my honeymoon. And in 2017, I spent the week around the 4th in Washington DC visiting my sister.

In true American fashion, we saw fireworks 3 times during the week. Surprisingly, the fireworks over the National Mall on the 4th weren’t my favorite, though it might have been because we watched it from across the Potomac. I preferred the fireworks in Alexandria for Alexandria’s birthday the following Saturday, which included live music from the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra and real cannons firing for the “1812 Overture”.

This picture does not convey the sounds of explosions going on

Other than watching lights in the sky, we saw the big monuments and museums all around the National Mall. With all of our stories about what we saw and did, however, the most common question I got from my friends after the vacation was, “Did you see Trump?”

I definitely didn’t see Trump. In fact, even on our visit to the US Capitol, we didn’t see any notable politicians since most congressmen take the long weekend to go back to their home districts. Despite their absences, I don’t think you mistake being anywhere else in the world because it was a bubble where everything was about politics.

Continue reading The Policy Bubble

How to Avoid or Save Unintentionally Flat Bread

Behind many great works are stories of vision and foresight. Others are credited to incredible hard work and deliberate effort. And yet other creations, both great and and maybe just slightly pleasing, come out of desperation from abject failure. Like this coffee cake.

And they were none the wiser

The week prior to this creation, I had excitedly baked up a strawberry bread recipe using some of the first strawberries of the season and real buttermilk. After being convinced that my milk and lemon juice substitute was a bum deal, I ponied up for real buttermilk from the grocery store and was excited for it to change my baking forever. And it might have if not for one small mistake.

Continue reading How to Avoid or Save Unintentionally Flat Bread

5 Foods I Don’t Like

I consider myself an adventurous and unpretentious eater. I don’t eat at my favorite restaurants more than once or twice a year because I would rather go somewhere new. I eat Dominos, and I eat fancy Neapolitan pizzas. When presented with an array of desserts or pastries, I will find a knife and take a bite-sized piece to try everything, within the boundaries of courtesy but usually beyond the boundaries of my appetite. As important as it was to get a Cronut on my trip to New York, I also like Oreos and deep-fried Oreos. And even though I don’t quite understand picky eaters, it usually don’t bother me since I’ll find a way to like whatever they like.

However, I do have preferences, and although my threshold is low, there are a few foods that fall below the line, which I will avoid if possible.  Continue reading 5 Foods I Don’t Like

Catching up on Instagram

About a week ago, my coworkers were talking about signing up for Instagram over all-you-can-eat sushi. While mentally preparing ourselves for an onslaught of rice and raw fish, they explained the humor in picking a username, the mechanics of gathering followers, the importance of too many hash tags, and anything else that one asks when comparing social media services used in different amounts. It came up again with my college friends over dinner, so 4 years after acquiring a smart phone, I registered for Instagram.

Onboarding was rough. I tried to login using my Facebook account, but it ran into an error after setting my (unique) username, and when I tried to redo those steps, it told me that the name was taken (by me). After quitting the app, it let me login, but I still wonder if I missed a fun and relevant part of the onboarding experience.

Within a minute of registering, I was surprised to find that I already had followers. Inquiring later, apparently by logging in via Facebook, my friends had been notified that I had joined Instagram. Shortly after, I posted my first picture.

S'mores brownies! #baking

A post shared by Kevin Leung (@stoicloofah) on

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A Visit to the Houston Rodeo

A few weeks ago, Julie and I went back to Houston for a friend’s wedding. Despite having spent a third of my life there, I don’t identify much with Texas in conversation, and I warn against making vacation plans to anywhere except Austin. However, it’s always nice to spend time with family, and that Sunday, we decided to visit the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. That would sound like a very Texan thing to do, but my family never went while I was growing up, so it was worth trying. Continue reading A Visit to the Houston Rodeo

Surviving the Bane of Road Trips

I grew up on the family road trip. Every summer, my family would pile into the minivan and travel across the United States to national parks, amusement parks, and swimming pools at Fairfield Inns. I would pack a bagful of toys to occupy myself in the car, and over the years, those toys turned to library books, then copies of the USA Today. Some of my best reading was in the car on a random interstate because I had nothing more interesting to take my attention.

My family abided by a strong, tacit principle of keeping yourself entertained. My sisters and I spoke only to change the temperature or get a snack from the trunk filled with cereal, granola bars, and fruit taken from continental breakfasts. Altogether, it was an undemanding experience that we were all well-prepared for and very comfortable with.

Despite my extensive experience on interstate highways, road trips these days make me nervous. I mostly travel via plane since road trips only make sense for a few California destinations. However, my habit of road solemnity is apparently the anomaly. On my first Los Angeles road trip, I was shocked when a friend took shotgun with only a water bottle in hand. He wasn’t planning on sleeping: he was planning on talking for 6 hours.

I often ramble just to avoid awkward silences, and over the course of several hours, that is a lot of space to fill. I consider myself a decently interesting person, but I can only babble for 2 or 3 hours before running out of things to say. And if we’re doing the road trip to LA, that leaves us somewhere between remote and nowhere with only uncomfortable silence to keep us company.

Despite my inadequacy for the task, I too have embraced this chattering mindset. In fact, I now consider it my job as a road trip passenger to talk and keep the driver occupied. It’s only fair for all of us to share the load, and an engaged driver is a better driver.

Still, I had hoped there was a better way to road trip together, and I think I might have it. On the drive back from LA this past month, my cousin Adam introduced Julie and me to what I see as the future of non-awkward driving: Dungeons & Dragons (or just about any role-playing game). Specifically, I’m referring to the style of D&D that plays like improv theater using dice to resolve situations with chance. It is brilliant in several ways.

First, it’s not just a way to kill time: it is legitimately fun. Games like Contact and I Spy aren’t fun. If they were, people would play these games in regular life or at dinner parties, too. On the other hand, D&D is fun enough that there are conventions and businesses built around it. It is still somewhat niche, but this game has something for everyone.

Second, it is totally flexible with the number of people participating. It works for pairs. It works for 7 people stuff in a minivan. It works when someone falls asleep. It works when you’re skeptical friend realizes it is awesome and joins half-way through the game.

Second, you can play by only talking. Most board games require boards or cards to look at or share information. And if you were playing D&D as a tactical combat game, you would need a big grid map, miniatures, and a table for your players to surround. However, if you’re just focused on the storytelling, you can play the entire game in words and not worry about setting something up in a car. Also, it doesn’t require much packing or preparation. It’s nice if you can have character sheets printed ahead of time, but these days, you can find everything you need on the internet and use a dice rolling app.

 

Third, the driver can participate as well. Reading is a great way to pass the time in the backseat, but that doesn’t keep the driver entertained or engaged. Sleeping is also great but highly discouraged for drivers. Other than needing someone else to click the dice roller on their phone, drivers can participate fully.

Fourth, road trips fix the worst part of D&D: the time commitment. As much as I love D&D, it does take a very long time to play. Combat is slow as you go turn-by-turn, and even out-of-combat interactions are filled with long decisions and scene descriptions. Although it is engaging, an evening of D&D can fly by without much progress. On a road trip, however, that’s not a bug. That’s a feature.

So the next time you are packing for a road trip and dread how you’re going to get through the car ride, remember D&D. Or if that sounds too intense, check out Fiasco, an amazing storytelling game. Or try out improv theater games or group storytelling. All it takes is a little imagination.

Discovering My Web Design Mistakes

Although it is already February, I have just started my 2017 goal of learning web design. Since I prefer to learn through doing, I decided to start with my primary side project, Spawning Tool, to develop my skills. On Spawning Tool, StarCraft players can browse replays and guides submitted by other players to find strategies to try out in their own games. I have had a lingering concern about the home page content but couldn’t figure out what needed to change. Since that is the landing page for most visitors, it was a good place to start my design journey.

I asked my coworker Alex, a designer, how to learn web design, and he recommended that I look at other websites and pick out what design elements I like and don’t like. Following his advice, I picked out three sites similar to Spawning Tool in some way and compared their home pages.

Continue reading Discovering My Web Design Mistakes