Last Saturday evening a closed a big cycle. I sat down to DM a game of Dungeons and Dragons for the first time in about 20 years. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to this childhood hobby again all this time. Perhaps because it was in a different country and a different life. Perhaps because it represented my dorky adolescence, which I fought against growing up. Perhaps because I was too busy moving around and survive in New York. I tried to play as a character in someone else’s word already recently, but DMing has always been my place.
My game setting was also different than what I’m used to. This time, I was an adult. The character playing in my world, Gedd, was hill dwarf paladin, played by a 10 year old. Dirk, a human cleric, was played by his 40 year old father. For about two hours, I took the two on a journey into a fantasy world I created in bits and pieces for months. I learned a couple of things.
First, Kids have no problem sinking into the game. Hell, I was 3 years Gedd’s senior when I started playing. While Gedd’s host was somewhat shy, I was surprised to see good teamwork and enthusiasm. Even when he missed a blow or got hit by an enemy, he enjoyed the description and took in the atmosphere. I found common ground with the kid. This doesn’t happen often: I usually stay away from anyone who isn’t allowed to drink coffee or beer. There’s something natural to me when I communicate as a DM and not as the “adult,” he as a player, not as a “kid.” I was his DM, and he was my player.
The second thing I learned: man, do I have to get my shit together. It was a mess.
I figured I’d jump right to the game with a general idea. I had the campaign planned out with some background, monsters and NPCs. As far as the game mechanics though, chaos was everywhere.
The worse thing was that I knew very little about my PCs. They didn’t even choose names yet. The spells, skills, equipment – it was all a mess of “do you remember…” “What was that thing that…” and “I’m a healer, don’t I have this thing that…”.
Then there was the issue of NPCs and monsters. I knew what NPCs I want in general, but I didn’t prepare them well. With no cards for stats, I had to search on my laptop during the game for basic things like AC classes and weapons. I didn’t even think of names beforehand. Back when I played as a kid and there was no Internet (yes, yes…) I would improvise so much our heads would spin. Maybe I should have done this here, too.
Third, there was storytelling, or lack of. As much as I don’t have issues coming up with details, I had problems with delivery. I’m naturally quiet, and it was hard for me to get into the DM boots. The story felt flat and boring coming out of my mouth. I realized I have to roleplay as much as my players do, coming to think of it, even more so. I didn’t come prepared for that. I underestimated the importance of being a DM, not just acting as one.
Finally, the biggest issue of them all: When to play. This has been my biggest problem for the last two years (ever since I bought the 5e books as an adult). Finding friends to play with is not always easy, even though it seems DnD folks are definitely around. While I could always try role20 or go to a local store to find people, I rather not. There’s something about being with people I know and those they bring with them. To me, part of the magic has always been about what’s going on around the table. The break in the middle to order pizza. the chats between meetings. Comparing real life situations to ability rolls and saving throws at work. As a person who seldom socialize in groups bigger than two, this game was always a natural social outlet — and I miss it. As an adult, I need to find time between friends with families and a demanding job that requires I go to bed at little-kid times.
My General Writing Process:
Before I get to the beef of it, it goes without saying everyone got their own way of writing. Mine, at least for time being, involves three major phases:
- Outline: this is where I write down the general points I want to discuss. I use Dynalist for it, which is a tool that makes it easy to make bullet-point lists
Write the thing: I start writing from a fresh start, using the bullet points as reference. after I said what I wanted to say, I usually take a break. The break can take a few hours to a few days, but usually, if I don’t get back to the post within a week, I don’t at all. If I force myself, I find that what I’m working on is starting to sound artificial and forced. When I get back to a post after a break, I usually discover two things. First, the best introduction is two or three paragraph deep in the post. Second, many times the whole thing reads more like a long rant and I could cut it in a half to have more of a point.
Edit and post: I actually learned to have fun with this part. I use two tools that force me to re-think my post: Hemingway and Grammarly. Hemingway forces me to chop down my sentences as if I was making one of my aggressive salads for lunch. It takes out the “well, you know, actually, what I wanted to say…” voice from my posts. Then comes Grammarly. It saves me from terrible singular/plural verb confusion, there vs their, and a bunch of other horrors. Still, I find several more embarrassing typos after I publish the post. I end up making minor edits several times more after posting and reading my damn post so many times I’m sick of it.
Now, with that in mind, let’s dive into some of the writing tools I’ve been experimenting with in the last two months. Wait. Actually no. There’s another short introduction I have to include here:
Markdown has been a big transition in my writing. I used to think of markdown as a tool for “writing snobs” who need “minimalistic tools” to can fart away words of wisdom. But, times change, and now I’m myself one of those annoying farts. That, and the fact that almost all good writing apps these days support Markdown one way or another.
I found that even though I never needed markdown, I grew to like it. Back when I used to use Google Docs for everything. It was easy and simple. I have always logged into my Google account anyway through Gmail and Chrome, so Google Docs was just a click away. As I drifted away toward blog-format friendly apps, I started enjoying markdown despite myself. As it turned out, seeing something in italics or bold, or having a blue underlined texts, was actually distracting. What do you know, I guess I became a writing snob despite really writing anything. Sounds about right.
The Apps I Tried
Typora: Out of all the apps I tried, Typora gave me the smoothest experience. It is a stand-alone app that makes you feel good using it. For starters, it’s Open Source and Free. It’s also minimal and fast to load, but it works with Pandoc, which is a swiss-army of sorts for parsing text. What this means is that you can write in Markdown and export the document in HTML, PDF, RTF, DOC and many more formats. It supports Markdown-on-steroids syntax, which can create tables and even simple diagrams. Typora is available for Linux and Windows but also has a working beta for MacOS.
While Typora is a great writing experience, as a stand-alone app it’s up to you to find a way to sync it. Typora doesn’t come with any organizational tools like tags, which means you need to sort your files manually. This became a hassle when I needed to copy-paste into Grammarly and Hemingway and still worry about file versions.
Simplenote: Simplenote needs no introduction. It’s been around for years and is loved by minimalists worldwide. Simplenote is very reliable. In its most basic form, you can fire up a browser, log into your account and start typing away. Simplenote has stand-alone apps for MacOS, Windows, and Linux. Because of its open API, famed writing apps like Notational Velocity and nvAlt (both for Mac only) sync with Simplenote’s servers. Indeed, many writers swear by these two excellent tools and those like them.
There aren’t many bad to things about Simplenote, except one that has to be mentioned. From all the applications mentioned here, Simplenote is the least private one. Notes in Simplenote are uploaded to Automatic‘s (the company behind WordPress) servers. Their disclaimer clearly states: “We may disclose any information about you to government or law enforcement officials or private parties,” so if this a concern for you, Simplenote might be a problem.
Standard Notes: Standard note’s biggest feature is exactly what Simplenote lack: privacy. The app encrypts all notes. The people behind Standard Note’s cannot read your stuff even if they wanted to. or have your information. From all apps I tried, this is the one I’d trust personal journal notes the most. Standard Note has a premium plan which comes with “extensions.” These give you useful features like different themes, editors (including markdown editor), and attaching files through Google Drive or Dropbox.
Standard Notes also lacks Simplenote’s best feature: smoothness. While the Android app is well polished, I found the way the application handles extension (through the website) to be messy. The notion that I have to pay for something as basic as markdown was somewhat of a setback. I do like the idea of privacy behind the app. But, the basic free version needs to come with a few more features, and the platform as a whole could use fine-tuning. Still, the people behind this app are passionate and hard-working, and I hope they keep it up.
JotterPad: This one is Android only. It is one of the best writing experiences I ever had on the phone. It comes with themes, markdown and sync ability with Dropbox and Google Drive right off the box. It is a good in combination with Typora: one app for your laptop, the other for your phone. JotterPad comes with premium options such as extra themes and fonts, but the basic package here stands well alone.
When I started writing this post, I had a list of apps I wanted to talk about. Looking back at that list though, I realized something. Much of the “why” I use a certain app over another has to do with my writing process, not the other way around. That is, over time the apps shaped how I write as much as I shaped what apps I use.
Back when I used Google Documents, my writing process was simple and less procedural. I was also way less critical of what I had to say. Now, I realize, it’s not just the quality of what I write, or the length, or even what I try to convey. There’s a certain theme to my writing. Definitely, a lot of good stuff to think about here.
“The most important thing that got me back to TiddlyWiki is that it was completely mine. Eventually, the search for privacy in a world full of cloud apps became the core, the soil on which my wiki blossomed. I have never kept such a detailed, rich, and satisfying journal in my entire life.”
When I wanted to try OneNote instead of my private wiki, I was hesitant. I didn’t want to give up such an important chunk of my privacy. When the itch to switch back started poking at me, I told myself the same story. Privacy. After all, no one in Microsoft has business seeing my most personal notes. As it turned out, there was more to it than the sheer unease of the cloud. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the most important thing that got me back to TiddlyWiki is that it was completely mine.
“The Pixel 2 is meant to be useful, not pretty. It’s everything Google: from Google’s strategy in doing things to the marketing to how Google services work and how customers use Google. Instead of imitating Apple yet again, Google could have triumphed in its own game: usability and price.”
Despite all of that, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. The Pixel 2 is definitely good enough to keep me happy for a long time, but there’s this “it’s almost perfect!” thorn at my side. I have two “but why, Google?” questions that I can’t put to rest, and even though both topics were discussed to death, I still don’t buy it. Here you go: