Charity 2018

Continuing the tradition from last year, a mention of organizations to which I contributed in 2018, as a way to a) encourage donations to those places and b) to make myself accountable for donating each year. I more than doubled my total contribution amount this year. My employer matches some of my contributions, all of which is made easier (particularly at tax time) by using Fidelity Charitable.

Charities this year follow, with additions since last year in bold:

Firsts 2018

Based on an idea from a G+ post, tracking the first times I did certain things in 2018. I’ll be updating it as the year goes on:

  • First Food: Kefalotyri cheese, a household standard my father-in-law picks up in Astoria (1 Jan)
  • First Liquid: some crazy blue tea (ginger) my wife got for Christmas (1 Jan)
  • First Drink: mimosa made with Lamarca prosecco (1 Jan)
  • First Meal: New Year’s brunch, mostly smoked salmon, shrimp and so on (1 Jan)
  • First Meal Cooked: albondigas soup, in new Instant Pot (17 Jan)
  • First Meal With Non-Family:
  • First Restaurant:
  • First High Five: My son, after a little spontaneous room cleaning (4 Jan)
  • First Low Five: My son, for trying electronic piano lessons for the first time. (1 Jan)
  • First Hug: My wife, who was sick. (1 Jan)
  • First Use of “Dad Voice”: To my son, who left the freezer door open for three hours. (3 Jan)
  • First Public Transport Taken:
  • First Aircraft Taken:
  • First Bike Ride:
  • First Boat Taken:
  • First Drone Flight:
  • First Visit to Someone Else’s House:
  • First Bare Feet in Body of Water:
  • First Security Update Applied: Patch to this web server for “Spectre” and “Meltdown” (18 Jan)
  • First Programming Language Used: Java (2 Jan)
  • First Programming Language Used Outside Work:
  • First Robot Task:
  • First Electronics Recycled:
  • First Lego Set Purchased:
  • First Lego Set Built: 70612-1: Green Ninja Mech Dragon, mostly watching my son build it
  • First Scavenger Hunt:
  • First Plant Harvested:
  • First Bill Payed: Water bill (3 Jan)
  • First Item Bought Online: Heavily discounted Monsterpocalypse game bundle (2 Jan)
  • First Item Bought in Store: cough medicine (2 Jan)
  • First Item Made With Own Hands:
  • First Kickstarter Backed: John Carter of Mars RPG (13 Jan)/li>
  • First Charitable Contribution:
  • First Regretted Purchase:
  • First Doctor’s Appointment: Flu shot for son (19 Jan)
  • First Injury:
  • First Illness:
  • First Movie: The Greatest Showman (2 Jan)
  • First TV Show: Star Trek, “The Naked Time” (1 Jan)
  • First Song: Something terrible on a New Year’s Eva show (1 Jan)
  • First Live Performance:
  • First Book to Read:
  • First Book to Finish:
  • First Roleplaying Game Played:
  • First Roleplaying Game Worked On: The Mortice System
  • First Board Game:
  • First Console Videogame: Lego Jurassic World, Wii U, with son (1 Jan)
  • First Mobile Videogame: Civilization VI, iOS (1 Jan)
  • First Computer Videogame:
  • First Software Downloaded: Lego Boost on son’s iPad, iOS (1 Jan)
  • First Software Purchased: The Dicenomicon +1 (23 Jan)

Charity 2017

Back in 2012, I intended to start an annual post during “giving season” about where I was donating as a way to a) encourage donations to those places and b) to make myself accountable for donating each year. While I have been donating each year, posting about it hasn’t been done anywhere near annually.

Figuring out how much to donate is tricky, and I mostly go with my gut. I tend to be more generous with money than with time, which maybe isn’t great. I’ve also had the strange problem over the past two years that some of my donation checks have never been cashed, causing me to drop some charities. As a percentage of pre-tax income, I’ve done a bit better this year, maybe around 4%. My list of targeted charities continues to expand as well:

RPG-a-Day 2017

For each of the past few years, David F. Chapman has published a list of 31 role-playing game related questions in August, coordinated under the moniker “RPG a Day”. This year is no exception. I have not participated in this before because, while I like the idea, I dislike the way my social media feed explodes with answers to each day’s question, tending to drown out other stuff. So, rather than make a separate post for each question, I’m just going to answer them all on a single page, and only post the link to social media at the beginning and the end. This year’s questions are:

RPGaDay 2017 questions

1st) What published RPG do you wish you were playing right now?

There are a ton of games on this list, but I really want to be playing something with my six year old son right now, something like No Thank You, Evil! by Monte Cook Games, built on a kid-friendly iteration of the Cypher System. I backed both of the Kickstarter’s for this game, so have a full complement of gear for it. The game scales to age by simplifying the “I’m a {adjective} {noun} who {verbs}” pattern for a character’s concept based on age (e.g. the youngest kids have characters defined just by “I’m a {noun}”. I’ll be interested to see how much complexity my son can handle. I’m guessing this could lead into playing the Cypher System game Predation, which he would really dig.

2nd) What is an RPG you would like to see published?

The teased and hinted at Danger Patrol Gamma. While the current “Pocket Edition” of Danger Patrol by John Harper’s design studio has been the last word in the game, this edition gave up some of the things I liked about the beta version. The author has hinted at a “gamma” version, which looked like it was going to be card based. Using cards (or the half-pages of the beta version), you guarantee that no two people are making use of the same option in their character, which can’t be said of the pocket edition. Yet, the pocket edition has some clear improvements over the beta version, so I’m looking forward to something that does both.

3rd) How do you find out about new RPGs?

Mostly by reading my G+ feed. If you’ve been thinking G+ is a ghost town, you’re wrong, particularly when it comes to RPGs.

Some other sources are worth mentioning, though. One of the best things to happen to RPGs in the last year or two has been the culture of play fostered by the Gauntlet and its associated podcasts, particularly its main community podcast. It’s common for a given episode to call my attention to a game I’d never heard of, or known only marginally.

I also kickstart a lot of games. Unfortunately, Kickstarter’s search is still terrible and its support for RSS is non-existent. Recently, Leo Zovic built a bunch of Atom feeds for Kickstarter. These can be customized, so I built one that provides a custom RSS feed for RPG projects on Kickstarter. One drawback is that it also shows computer games marked as “rpgs”, but that’s as good as Kickstarter’s search can manage.

4th) Which RPG have you played the most since August 2016?

This is, sadly, an easy question to answer, because I haven’t played much in the past year. What I have played has been mostly Dungeon World, by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel.

Specifically, we’ve been playing in Monte Cook’s Ptolus setting, using a few custom rules to tune the system to the setting, which is a bit more cosmopolitan and magic item heavy than straight Dungeon World.

5th) Which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game?

Shadowrun cover

6th) You can game every day for a week. Describe what you’d do!

clay-that-wokeI’m assuming this means all day, every day, so I’d go somewhere with great scenery and minimal hustle and bustle, like Zion National Park or a yacht anchored off Kleftiko or something. The games would depend on the players, but I’ll guess a bit. This would probably be a trip without the kids. We’d divide each day into three four hour sessions, with meals in between.

Each morning session would be a different game, run as a one-shot. In these games, we’d try to enforce the tone, whatever that might be. We’d probably run, in no particular order:

Each afternoon session would be one installment of a seven session mini-campaign of something. It would probably one of these:

Evening sessions would be games that play well while drinking, and would likely not be serious at all. Most would be one-shots, but maybe a few could go a couple sessions.

7th) What was your most impactful RPG session?

exalted1It wasn’t a bad session. In fact, I barely remember most of it, which was a lot of the problem. I do remember that we didn’t get as far along as I’d hoped, and thinking about why, a blunt question popped into my head: “why are you investing so much time and effort into a game with such shit mechanics? Again?” I still don’t have a justifiable answer to this question, but after that session I gave up on deep diving into irredeemable rulesets just because I loved the setting to which they were attached.

I’d done this before. For years prior, I’d spent a ton of free time building crap for another game with mechanics almost as bad, maintaining a big gear list, even managing the FAQ. It, too, had a world that I loved then and still love now. I gave up on that game, but for kinda the wrong reason. That was more of a feeling that I just wasn’t getting enough back from the game as I was putting into it. (It didn’t help that I burned a bridge with the game’s creators entirely by accident.)

Don’t get me wrong, I still love the worlds of Exalted and Shadowrun, and I will play again in those worlds in a heartbeat, but only using totally different rules. After that session, I’m never going to devote myself to shit systems ever again.

8th) What is a good RPG to play for sessions of 2hrs or less?

diesel-micePretty much any game for kids better fit into sessions two hours or less. From what I’ve heard of people running games with really little kids, their attention spans don’t stick with the game for more than a half-hour or so. Turns out you are spoiled for choice in the “games targeted at kids” arena, these days, with games like:

9th) What is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions?

I tend not to play campaigns in this duration much, usually either shorter or much longer. Any game that can handle more than ten sessions can certainly handle just ten, but there are some games which contain a bit more meat than you can reach in a one shot where you might not want to devote a year of play to it. That seems like it depends more on your curiosity level than it does on the game.

I’d be interested in playing ten sessions of Legacy: Life Among the Ruins, to give its multi-generational and family mechanics a good stretch. Maybe I will do that when the second edition (currently being kickstarted) is ready.

10th) Where do you go for RPG reviews?

I almost never seek out RPG reviews. I almost never read “customer reviews” of RPG products at places like One Book Shelf. I no longer frequent role-playing forums.

The only place I even encounter reviews of games are the stray mentions on social media and the play reports on the Gauntlet podcast. I’ve also enjoyed when Rob Donoghue deep dives into one system or another over multiple blog long blog posts (here’s the first one for 13th Age, for example).

11th) Which ‘dead game’ would you like to see reborn?

primalThe Primal Order isn’t really dead. No game really is, particularly with all the resurrections being done on Kickstarter lately. TPO was more dead than most for years, until 2013, when Peter Adkison republished the PDF of the game. Given the lack of support since, though, it seems likely that this republishing was more of a way to retain certain legal rights to the property than any firm desire to resurrect the game.

Also, TPO wasn’t exactly a game, but rather a “capsystem” that allowed you to add gods to any game in a way that made them more than just “NPCs with really good stats”. It also opened an interesting way for playing gods as PCs, in its own early-1990’s fashion. It’s not quite right, but there is a lot of meat there that more modern game design could extract.

The game has been a bit of a legal mess, largely because it implemented its notion of being a “capsystem” (a rules set that sits on top of other rules systems) backwards. At the end of TPO were a set of appendices, each one of which detailed how to use TPO with an existing system (e.g. AD&D, Ars Magica, Shadowrun, etc.). Game rules can’t be copyrighted and the book properly sighted copyrights and trademarks, so legally wansn’t infringing. People brought lawsuits against it anyway. That was part of what killed the game. The other was that its small-time publisher soon had its hands full turning another game it produced a year later, Magic: The Gathering, into a globe-spanning juggernaut.

At any rate, now days, making a “capsystem” would more likely succeed the other way around: being issued as an open license. Publishers (or fans) could then build the conversions themselves, if they needed to. (In the present environment, I’m not sure anyone would really find converting something into whatever system they used that unusual or burdensome enough to need a special document for it anyway.)

I have toyed with the idea of buying the IP for TPO for the sole purpose of releasing it under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. In fact, I’ve wondered allowed about setting up something like a charity that exists to secure permission to do this with other dormant games. This is probably a pipe dream though, as most publishers appear to be content sitting on games that earn nothing and would cost too much to put back into print, assuming some alchemy will suddenly make them worthwhile again (I guess) rather than find out what cool stuff an unfettered world with do with it.

12th) Which RPG has the most inspiring interior art?

Numenera wins awards for interior art for a reason. The whole product line just looks phenomenal and makes me want to explore the place. It also has the advantage of being slightly strange without being grimdark body-horror stuff.

13th) Describe a game experience that changed how you play.

After playing a lot from grade school through a number of years after college, I entered a long stretch where I was moving around and couldn’t really get into a gaming groove. Eventually, I got back on the horse but, in the interim, things like the Forge happened and I missed most of it. So, when I happened across a copy of Wushu, a wuxia action game, I was, appropriately, punched in the face by its introduction:

Action movies have always been at odds with realism. Fortunately for us, their conflict is easily resolved with a series of savage kicks to realism’s face! Impossible leaps, insane acrobatics, and victory against overwhelming odds are all staples of the genre… and the essential elements of action role-playing games.

Sadly, traditional RPGs have long been in league with realism. They penalize players who want to, say, kick seven mooks with one spin kick by piling negative modifiers onto their roll, which makes them less likely to succeed. The inevitable result is that smart players stick to simple, boring actions and take a tactical approach to combat. Wushu breaks up this insidious alliance with a core mechanic that rewards players for vivid descriptions and over-the-top stunts by making them more likely to succeed, each and every time.

For anyone who’d been paying attention to what was happening in gaming up to then, this sentiment would be totally unsurprising and obvious but, for me, it was a satori moment, combining both a sense that I’d been doing it wrong for decades with a clear illumination about how to proceed. (Then, I wandered from the path immediately by starting to play Exalted.)

14th) Which RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?

monsters-magic13th-ageI’m answering this one with what game I would pick if I wanted to start a new open-ended campaign. Such campaigns tend to feature long player power curves, where characters “improve” over a long time scale, and more traditional games tend to focus on this more. Apart from some of the other games I’ve mentioned in previous questions, it’d be a toss up between two different takes on fantasy.

One choice would be 13th Age. When Wizards of the Coast went off to ruminate on building the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the lead designers of third and fourth editions teamed up to create an alternative, released about a year before “D&D Next” was. The result impresses me as more than just an extension/evolution of 3E and 4E, but a more cohesive game entirely. Running an open ended campaign in this system, I would definitely throw their unique take on the megadungeon, Eyes of the Stone Thief, into the mix.

Another choice would be Monsters & Magic by Sarah Newton. Unlike some OSR stuff which merely apes early D&D editions (all of which also still exist), M&M is framed to allow use of all those old school adventures you have (particularly the old Judges Guild stuff) right out of the box, but still embraces the idea that game design has usefully advanced in 40 years. (If, for some reason, you want to know if this makes it a “legitimately OSR game”, there are no shortage of self-appointed OSR gatekeepers eager for followers they can shepherd to the answer; my interest in that question is zero.)

There are so many other games, I’m not sure I’ll ever get either of these to the table, but each sounds fun for its own reasons.

15th) Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?

anima-primeI’ve had a ton of fun hacking on Anima Prime, a game by Christian Griffen that bills itself as a “fast-paced, spontaneous roleplaying game inspired by the Final Fantasy series of video games as well as Avatar: The Last Airbender and other animated shows and movies”. (Note: because of the name, this game is sometimes confused with the heartbreaker Anima: Beyond Fantasy. There is no relation.)

My immediate thought when first reading Anima Prime was “oooo…I could hack this to play Exalted” and I’ve spent quite a bit of effort doing just that. I posted my first tinkerings on the unofficial Exalted wiki in 2011. Since then I’ve gone a bit overboard with it. I built a big document just for my group called Exaltation Prime, which turned into a full layout project, using inspiring “borrowed” art and lots of changes and iterations (on version 1.5 at the moment). I wound up with something of manageable size that would allow you to play any type of the exalted (each of which required 250 page “splatbooks” in their original system) plus a number of character types that you can’t really play in the original game. (Want to play as a manse? No problem.) Exalted is a “kitchen sink” game, and my hack can also manage most of its more involved systems (e.g. sorcery, shapeshifting, shaping, crafting, astrology, warstriders, etc.).

One of the things I love about Anima Prime is that it is a little bit crunchy, but not massively so. This hits a sweet spot for me. Another thing I like is that with just some simple ideas, there is quite a bit to hang hacks onto. In the time that I’ve been hacking on it, its author has done some hacking of his own, usually aimed at making the game more simple or GM-less or the like. My hacks tend to go the other way, making it a slightly more complicated.

Unfortunately, I can’t really release what I’ve done in its current form, mostly due to the borrowed art, but also because Exalted is a closed system. Fortunately, Anima Prime itself is released under a Creative Commons license. I’ve been toying with the idea of sanitizing the hacks I’ve made to it of references to Exalted and releasing more of a “hacking guide” to the game, called Prime Spiral. I should really get cracking on that.

16th) Which RPG do you enjoy using as is?

Every game. At least the first time I play it. There is a tendency to want to drift games as you read them, thinking “that probably won’t work unless I tweak it like this”. Resist! The designer probably thought about whatever it is longer, harder and deeper than you have. You owe it to both yourself and the designer to try the game as written at least once. It may turn out that you were right, but sometimes you discover surprises during play.

17th) Which RPG have you owned the longest but not played?

vampire-masqueradeThe phrasing of this question results in, to me, a surprising answer: the original Vampire: The Masquerade. While I certainly bought some games before this that I never played, I do not still own them, and haven’t for a while. V:tM is still on my bookshelf, though.

I almost played once, even going so far as to conceive a character, but that game never actually hit the table. After that, whatever motivation I might have had to play was stymied by lack of interested compatriots. I didn’t really look very hard, I suppose.

This game features an example of something that happens to me when I read games from time to time. Occasionally, while reading, I’ll get fixated on a sentence in the text and that leads somewhere for play. I remember reading a sentence in the V:tM that mentioned vampires of a particular clan tend to get “stuck” in the fashions of the time they first became vampires and thinking “man, what if you got turned when fashion sucked?” This, naturally, led to the character I conceived: a young Ventrue stuck in the pastels and stubble of Miami Vice-era fashion.

I still want to play that guy.

18th) Which RPG have you played the most in your life?

universal-brotherhood-flyerThis question was asked on G+ a while back and figuring out my answer surprised me. By hours played:

  1. Shadowrun (second edition)
  2. Exalted (first edition)
  3. Star Frontiers
  4. Top Secret
  5. D&D (second edition)

AD&D misses the list, but only barely. If you combine D&D editions/Pathfinder, it might push into third position, maybe second.

19th) Which RPG features the best writing?

gamma-world-6-gmgEveryone is going to answer this question with Paul Czege’s The Clay That Woke, which is the right answer, but I already mentioned that game above, so I’m going to take a different angle.

A whole bunch of roleplaying games have a “what is a roleplaying” section. Many also have a “what is being a game master all about” section. The vast majority of these are terrible. One, however, was not. The sixth edition Gamma World Game Master’s Guide opens with a chapter called “Some Assembly Required” that might be the best “what is being a game master all about” advice of all time. The book is otherwise fairly unremarkable, but that opening is gold.

That chapter was written by Greg Stolze in 2004, about three years before he wrote Reign (a game that, among other things, lacks both a “what is roleplaying” and a “how to GM” section). Since then, he has made two short PDFs with introductory advice available for free on his download page, called “How to Play Roleplaying Games” and “How to Run Roleplaying Games”. At this point, no game needs to ever add sections addressing these two topics, because these two PDFs already exist.

20th) What is the best source for out-of-print RPGs?

joruneI don’t really want to answer this one, because it means competition for when I want to find something out of print. But, the answer is pretty obvious to anyone who has gone looking for out-of-print RPGs: Wayne’s Books.

The store’s interface leaves a little to be desired, but functions well enough. Most of the listings are also posted on Amazon as well, so searching there may lead you to his listings as well.

When a history of roleplaying games was published (the four-volume Designers & Dragons), it really put a dent in my wallet as I was reminded of games I’d had and lost, games I’d always wanted but had forgotten, and games I never knew existed. I found a great deal of what I was after at Wayne’s Books and the experience was flawless each time, particularly in the accuracy of how the book’s condition was described.

21st) Which RPG does the most with the least words?

mechanical-oryxI’ve seen a lot of RPG contests come and go but, honestly, very few entries of any of them really grab me. But I wanted to play Mechanical Oryx instantly. As the winner of this year’s 200 Word RPG Challenge, author Grant Howitt managed to turn just 200 words into something profound. The game might be thought of as playing as the robots in the world of Horizon Zero Dawn, if the robots’ were intended to be benevolent caretakers of the humans.

Seriously, just go read the thing and marvel at the emergent complexity of how the goals of the players will mix with the mechanics they have available to reach them. All in a couple of sentences.

After the winner of the contest was announced, one of the judges interviewed the author, which is worth a listen not only for talking about this particular game, but also about The Spire, which just completed a successful Kickstarter.

22nd) Which RPGs are the easiest for you to run?

fiascoThe ones that don’t require a game master. Duh.

Of these, Fiasco is probably easiest to run, because you can bust it out on people who don’t know anything about roleplaying games, and they can “get it” quickly enough. Wil Wheaton, Alison Haislip, Bonnie Burton, and John Rogers demonstrate playing on episode eight of Tabletop.

Some other GM-less games may work better for what you are after though, like:

23rd) Which RPG has the most jaw-dropping layout?

nobilisThe use of “jaw-dropping” confuses this question. I mean, the layout for HōL: Human Occupied Landfill probably qualifies as “jaw-dropping”, but only because you couldn’t believe anyone would release a book looking that shitty. Similarly, the distractingly bad indenting in the otherwise intriguing Continuum makes me slack-jawed.

Neither of those are a good thing.

But if the question is meant to mean jaw-dropping in a good way, you probably don’t need to look further than the second edition of Nobilis. Known as the “Great White Book”, this work was designed like a coffee table museum book, and elevated the humble game manual to a hight that has rarely been matched.

One game that came close recently was the archival quality production of two-volume Guide to Glorantha. What makes your jaw drop about these books, though, is less the layout (which is quite good), but more the weight, using high quality glossy paper similar to a really highbrow classical art book. It wasn’t that I really needed to buy these books, it’s just that I couldn’t escape their gravitational pull.

24th) Share a PWYW publisher who should be charging more.

sufficiently-advanced(Unlike of lot of people who responded negatively to this question, I’m interpreting it as “tell us about a cool PWYW publisher”.) A lot of publishers have released occasional pay-what-you-want products, but I’m limiting my consideration for this question to publishers who make predominant or sole use of PWYW publishing. (I’m also discounting publishers who make things funded in some other way that then get released as PWYW, such as Evil Hat’s amazingly good Patreon which creates “world books” for their patrons, but also releases them as PWYW.)

For my answer, I’m going with Valent Games, which is “mostly Colin Fredericks, with occasional help from other folks”. Everything in his DriveThruRPG catalog is either free or PWYW and is usually Creative Commons to boot. He is unafraid to experiment, and all of it reaches further than your typical “100 Thingys From Random Tables” PWYW content, particularly Sufficiently Advanced, a diceless, far-future, transhumanism game.

(Fredericks also had the gall to release a game named Valence over a decade before I released my crappy, unfinished Game Chef entry of the same name, but I forgive him.)

I also have a couple of honorable mentions for this question:

25th) What is the best way to thank your GM?

Running a game yourself so they can be a player.

Or, y’know, a Prophecy gaming table.

Either way.

26th) Which RPG provides the most useful resources?

Usually, is not the RPG that provides the resources, its the RPG’s fans. Back in the day, fans of Shadowrun always brought it. This is even true with games that have been dead for years (maybe especially true with them). Take a look at what’s out there for Star Frontiers, for example.

fate-coreBut, if you have to pick resources provided by the publishers themselves, I’ve been really impressed with what Evil Hat is doing with Fate Core.

First, they have no qualms offering and supporting a slimmed-down version of the game that seems even more fun to me: Fate Accelerated. Not many publishers have the guts to do this simultaneously, and back up both as “first tier” products in their line. It helps that they can write products usable by both games without too much effort.

Second, they also have released what amount to hacking manuals for the game. These books function at a slightly different level than, say, GURPS books do. The latter tend to be collections of new rules and options you can splice into a setting, while the Fate toolkit line is aimed more at teaching you how to invent rules and alter the game to match a setting. In the same ballpark, but not really the same thing.

Third, I mentioned Evil Hat’s Patreon up above, which creates some really compelling setting hacks for the game. But this Patreon came after they published a series of “world books”, like Worlds on Fire and Worlds in Shadow, each of which contains six different settings.

It’s also worth calling out what they don’t do. A lot of larger gaming companies try to build mini-ecosystems out of a single product idea. These are sometimes really great, like the adventures, miniatures, maps, and wide variety of stuff surrounding the Pathfinder adventure path Rise of the Runelords. But its like the difference between a depth-first versus breadth-first searching. Where much game support dives deep into a single concept, Fate support casts a wider (but more shallow) net, knowing half the fun is filling in the blanks as you play.

Lastly, they’re not afraid to drink their own Kool-Aid and hack and drift their core rule set into distinct games merged to a distinct setting, like Dresden Files Accelerated and the Atomic Robo RPG. Even you you don’t play in those settings, you can still learn a lot about how they changed the game to fit them.

I’m also giving Honorable Mention here to Eclipse Phase. The first big game to really embrace the crap out of the potential of the Creative Commons license, the game goes a step beyond in offering their hack packs which include art assets you are encouraged to use (also under the CC license).

27th) What are your essential tools for good gaming?

Good players.

And Post-Its® in various colors.

28th) What film or series is the most-frequent source of quotes in your group?

tickMy current group doesn’t do a lot of movie quoting, surprisingly. One reason may be that they are steeped in anime lore while I am not at all. We all, however, have kids, so we get a surprising amount of milage out of The Lego Movie.

The last group I really remember quoting stuff tended to be at the time and place where we pulled lots of quote from The Tick animated series. “‘You are here.’ Uh-huh…uh-huh…being here is a lot like being lost, Arthur.” Every line the Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs at Midnight said probably showed up in that campaign at one time or another.

(Odd aside, I wrote most of the responses to these questions well ahead of time. I hadn’t heard any Tick quotes for some time, but about an hour after originally writing this, Dyson Logos posted a Tick reference. Really weird, Jungian crap, man.)

29th) What has been the best-run RPG Kickstarter you have backed?

13truewaysI back a lot of kickstarters, most of them RPG kickstarters. And I don’t really know how to answer this question. Most would assume that a well-run kickstarter is on that communicates well, delivers what it promises and does so exactly on time. And, to be sure, there a number of RPG kickstarters that have done all three (pretty much anything by Monte Cook Games, Goodman Games, or Bully Pulpit Games, for example). But, I’m not so sure that “well-run” means “best-run”.

I have even more respect for projects where things go to hell but, eventually, the creator makes good anyway. You don’t have to look far for people who gave up when things went bad. The best example I’ve seen of someone sticking with it and ultimately doing right by his backers as been Jack Dire’s Superfight! campaign, but that was a card game, not an RPG.

But, I have a hard time singling out one RPG kickstarter as “best-run”. So, I’m going to go with two creators for atypical reasons.

First, the packaging used by the 13 True Ways project went above and beyond every other kickstarter I’ve backed. No corners squished during shipping for those books.

Second, the projects from Reaper Miniatures have always been extremely complicated, yet easy to follow, and I always got my correct order. It a logistical feat unrivaled in the kickstarters I’ve backed. (Even if they do sometimes fixate on insipid “tits & ass” promo figures.)

30th) What is an RPG genre-mashup you would most like to see?

god-engines“Hard(ish) science-fiction” mashed up with “gods among us”. I want to know how Thor and Loki are sneaking around the year 2555 AD. I want to play as demigods wandering worlds where some mortals don’t believe gods actually exist but control technologies that can give them immortality, heightened physical and mental abilities. I want to be involved in inter- and intra-pantheon politics in a galaxy where new religions rise and fall with the speed of social networking and various mortal factions vie for control over sections of not only known space, but over the hearts and minds of sentient beings. I want to play artificial minds that have faith in what they cannot explain and explore what that looks like. I want to play in a world where demons have to be whipped to provide faster-than-light travel.

But I do not want that world to have anything to do with Lovecraftian bullshit.

And, yeah, maybe I already wrote about an eighth of such a game, but I’m looking for something else.

31st) What do you anticipate most for gaming in 2018?

faithI tend to be surprised when new games come out, so I’m not in a great position to answer this one. What I do know comes mostly from Kickstarters that promise delivery in 2018. I’ve mentioned some of these already, above. Things I’m looking forward to include:

An iMac in Every Kitchen, Revisited

A small discussion about my kitchen iMac on G+ a few months ago revealed that it has been over ten years since I first talked about putting a computer in the kitchen. A decade later, I can’t imagine not having a computer in the kitchen, but there have been some upgrades to the setup we use. For those who want to try something like this, hopefully you can avoid some of the trial and error we went through.


Kitchen iMacWe continue to use an iMac, though we’ve gone through a couple iterations since the previous post. The iMac design has refined down to now being a flat panel screen with a computer hidden inside, which works great for a kitchen, when you don’t want stray hardware and cables all over the place. Our current model is several years old (late 2013, 21.5-inch, 3.1GHz i7). With this particular model, however, we wanted to mount it on a wall mounted swinging arm. We have remodeled the kitchen, and the machine is no longer in a corner. Instead, part of the counter extends into something like a table/island. A swinging arm allows the iMac to be reoriented depending on use in various ways, and always keeps the computer floating off the table. The remodel also allowed us to run CAT-6 ethernet cable into the kitchen, freeing the kitchen machine from the vagaries of wifi.

Apple doesn’t make them easy to find, but they sell a variant iMac with a built in VESA Mount instead of a stand. Pretty much any wall mount, desk mount, articulating arm, etc. follows the VESA standard, so you can tailor your mounting choice to your kitchen. Note that iMacs keep getting bigger and bigger screens, so it’s not clear how long Apple will continue to sell models that fit under cabinets.

We went wireless for the keyboard (the only computer in the house to do so). In a kitchen environment, typical mouse solutions get gummed up quickly, so the Magic Trackpad turned out to be a really good fit. One thing that helped way more than we expected was Henge Docks Clique, a simple plastic mount that holds the keyboard and trackpad together as a single unit. It also has the advantage of shielding them both from spills on the counter. It also lets you easily use it on your lap, if you want to. (Note that there is a new version for dealing with Apple’s latest keyboard/trackpad, which we do not have.)

We get brownouts fairly often, so we still use an uninterruptible power supply, but with a machine floating on a swing arm, finding one that doesn’t take up the whole counter presented a challenge. We tried a couple of things, but I eventually found the Powercom E-Book EBK-500S, a battery backup system that can be mounted under a kitchen cabinet. This has worked great but is presently hard to find, listed as out of stock in most places. The batteries in my unit needed replacing once, but fortunately are pretty standard and easily swapped.

Drive behind the iMacWe keep some hard-to-replace stuff on this machine, so it has a dedicated backup drive. We futzed with this a lot, but have recently settled on a Seagate Backup Plus Slim 2TB USB-powered drive. With a case on it, it fits snugly into a gap in the VESA mount behind the iMac, hiding the cabling. We dedicate the whole drive to be a Time Machine disk.

Software & Use

Somewhere along the way, we gave up on the “kiosk” features mentioned in the decade old post, but still care about the other use cases it mentions. The machine’s primary job is to be a central place for family photos and music, and where iPods and such get synced.


Over the last few years, nearly all of Apple’s Mac applications have suffered a transition to a more iOS-like user experience. This is nowhere more evident and painful than in the transition from iPhoto to Photos, wherein a number of features we counted were either eliminated or altered to require using iCloud. We very much want the kitchen machine to be the central place to store all the family photos, but refuse to put our pictures in the cloud.

Though we looked around for alternatives, we continue to use Photos, but only because it has matured a little since its original release and we found some additional software that makes it work for us: PhotoSync. Versions of this application are made for macOS, iOS, Android and Windows and they all allow the device that is running them to sync (in various ways) to other devices running the app. The iOS version makes good use of geofencing features, and can be set up to automatically sync pictures from a phone or other device each time the phone enters the house.

PhotoSync can duplicate photos, especially if you do manual re-imports, though it has gotten better about this recently. Still, removing duplicates is something that Photos will not do for you. PhotoSweeper will, though. In the tradeoff between usability and power, it leans more toward power, but definitely gets the job done. Totally worth the money. It can also deal with Aperture and Lightroom.


Music has faded in importance to us over the years. Some of this is because we now can count the minutes in our commutes to work on one hand, and tend not to listen to it once at work. A number of years ago, we paid Ripstyles to digitize our several hundred CDs, and our collection hasn’t grown that much since. The kitchen machine provides a great place to manage our merged musical tastes, rather than managing separate libraries on laptops or something.

Plain old iTunes has been sufficient for handling all this, without the need for anything else (or Apple Music). When we remodeled the kitchen, I wish I’d thought ahead enough to install some speakers into the ceiling. Instead we use a USB speaker bar, mounted under the cabinets. Not the best, but works well enough.

More often, we use AirPlay to pipe music to other rooms, particularly nighttime music into our son’s room. During parties, the kitchen machine streams to multiple Apple TVs in the house, usually controllable by phone with (the somewhat twitchy) Remote app.


You could use a kitchen machine as a video hub, but we don’t. The main limitation is that the iMac drives tend to be small (especially a few years back, when SSDs were just getting going). If you have one more more Apple TVs (we have collected a handful), you can use their “Computers” app to stream video from shared iTunes libraries on the local network. So, the idea would be to load up iTunes with your movies, set up sharing, and then stream to any Apple TV or iTunes instance in the house.

We actually follow this model, we just don’t use the kitchen machine as the hub. (The video hub is in a rack in the attic, connected to a multi-terabyte RAID, but that’s probably a different post.) What we do use the kitchen machine for is to stream video to watch. You can also stream Netflix and so on. I have toyed with installing stuff like Plex, but haven’t really caught the fever for it.


A large source of frustration, trial and error over the last ten years has been syncing information to and from the kitchen machine. We’ve tried various syncing applications, rsync jobs, Dropbox hacks and so on, but it never really worked all that well. Then BitTorrent Sync came out (now renamed to Resilio). It works exactly the way we want it to, works seamlessly and has given us no real problems. It even syncs Mac file metadata, such as tags. (One caveat: do not share the root of a Mac drive, as this really confuses the software.)

On the kitchen machine, we share both the Photos archive and iTunes library as read-only shares, allowing them to be backed up in multiple places (including the aforementioned machine in the attic). We also share some directories for specific purposes (such as a common wallpaper directory).

Calendars and contact information have also been troublesome over the years, but this is one area where Apple’s family sharing is finally useful. We have a family id (used by the kitchen machine) and individual ids for each family member. This lets each person have both private and shared calendars. Lots of planning discussion now happens around the kitchen machine, as it displays all the shared calendars.


One thing a machine in the kitchen helps with is going paperless. Any time we get something with a manual (an appliance, device, tool, toy, etc.) we download a copy of the manual to a “Manuals” directory (shared by Resilio) and recycle the paper manual. So, the kitchen becomes the goto place for instructions. And, since there is an iOS client for Resilio, you can do things like easily find the manual for your camera while on vacation.

A cooking database also fits on a kitchen machine naturally. We had the best luck with SousChef, right up until it collapsed, moved to other developers, then vanished off the face of the earth. So, we’ve gone back to MacGourmet Deluxe, which has improved over the last decade (but still isn’t as good as SousChef was).

Naturally, the web browser gets quite a bit of use on the kitchen machine for looking up various stuff, checking the weather, and so on.

It occurs to me writing this that I really should move my Calibre and Delicious Library data to the kitchen machine as well.


Managing the grocery list comes naturally to a kitchen machine, but it gets complicated with getting the list to people’s phones and so on. Fortunately, there has been a lot of development in this area over the last few years. We experimented with a lot of it, but made the change to OneNote a while back, and haven’t seen any reason to stop yet. (Tangentially, I’ll also mention that Microsoft’s Mac software, after falling far from the glory that was Word 5.1a and Outlook Express, is now quite nice again.)

The Future

Given that we planned a computer into our kitchen remodel, it should come as no surprise that as long as I have a kitchen, I’ll have a computer it in. It remains to be seen how much longer Apple will make iMacs that still fit under kitchen cabinets (screens seem to get larger with every iteration). As my son gets older, it will also be interesting to see if/how the demands on the machine change. What would you use a kitchen machine for that we missed?

Deadbeat Kickstarters

Kickstarter has now added a feature where you can mark delivery of projects you have backed, so I’m going through my list and verifying delivery. Since I’ve backed 400+ projects, this will take a while, and I’ll update this post as I go. Along the way, I discovered some projects with…oh…let’s call them “unreasonable delays”. I thought I’d mention them here for posterity.

I should start by mentioning that, at its core, Kickstarter is a risk transfer machine. The financial uncertainty of a project traditionally borne by the creator (or, perhaps, a publisher) is moved to the backers. This works because a) the meet-your-goal-or-get-nothing approach protects the backer from projects that can’t gather enough interest to be viable and b) because most of the time the creator delivers. (Given the number of projects I’ve backed, it should be obvious that I like this system quite a bit.)

The flip side is that, should the creator not deliver, the backers are left holding the bag and, realistically, there isn’t much they can do about it. Oh, you might entertain fantasies of some sort of legal suit, or punching the guy in the face or something, but neither is really viable. You know this going in. That’s why it’s called “risk”. I’ve not come across any cases of genuine fraud; usually a failed creator had the best of intentions, but couldn’t see them through. But the creator runs a risk as well, not financial, but of reputation. No one backs a failed creator twice.

Which brings us to the following projects (note: the “prognosis” section are my own opinions, not official project statements):

e20 System Evolved

Creator Gary M. Sarli
Funded 16 Mar 2010
Category Role-playing game
History Based on the strength of Star Wars Saga Edition, I backed this heavily. I even lobbied for it on my blog, which I almost never do. The project’s last update is from 27 Dec 2011. The creator’s last update to his own forum was 4 Dec 2011.
Prognosis This project will never be delivered. The creator had some sort of a financial/mental breakdown and has more or less vanished.


Creator Ben Gerber
Funded 23 Aug 2010
Category Role-playing game
History Last update made on 10 May 2012, releasing a supplement to the product not yet completed. Prior updates mention problems, including shoulder reconstruction.
Prognosis This may still deliver, but I’m not holding my breath. The same creator has since run another Kickstarter which already delivered.


Creator Phil Brucato
Funded 1 Oct 2010
Category Role-playing game
History While updates have been constant (and overly abundant), they haven’t consisted of much other than mentions of endless tinkering with the text.
Prognosis This project has become the poster child for flaky role-playing projects (and has led to a good rule of thumb for such projects: only back projects that have already been written). It may ship eventually, but I’m past the point of caring.

PeriodicTable of Elements Dice

Creator Andrew Inaba
Funded 28 Mar 2011
Category Dice
History According to updates, the dice were produced, but most were destroyed during shipping. Refunds were promised, but never delivered. The creator’s web site no longer exists.
Prognosis It’s possible this was just all bad luck, but it smells more like fraud. Either way, no dice.

Wreck Age

Creator Hyacinth Games
Funded 28 Dec 2011
Category Role-playing game
History Last update on 28 Feb 2013, still talking about completing a few chapters.
Prognosis This smells like it will probably ship eventually, but not in a hurry.

Quantum Roleplaying Game

Creator Joshua Frost
Funded 30 Dec 2011
Category Role-playing game
History Last update on 6 May 2014, calling the project “dead”.
Prognosis Creator used the project funds as venture capital or his roleplaying company (and, possibly, to pay rent and such). The text of the project may see the light of day, as it was largely completed.

Warren C. Norwood’s Double Spiral War RPG (Savage Worlds)

Creator Battlefield Press, Inc.
Funded 31 Jan 2012
Category Role-playing game
History Though it ran into a number of delays, this book was apparently done by the end of 2012. Then it looks like the licensor hated it and went all prima donna. It has been revised for her approval, but none has been forthcoming. In the meantime, the creator has run six other Kickstarters, including this same setting for a different system (Traveller).
Prognosis Since it appears that the licensor doesn’t really know what she is doing, I’ll be stunned if this ever gets released, even though the creators seem good.

RISUS Free Adventure Project 2012

Creator S. John Ross
Funded 1 Apr 2012
Category Role-playing game
History What started as a pitch for a single adventure for RISUS has been basically sabotaged by feature creep. First by stretch goals that turned one adventure into five. Then by the creator using the adventures as a springboard for creating a new edition of the entire game, plus supplements, and insisting on finishing them prior to finishing the adventures.
Prognosis Since all this looks like it will be released for free fairly soon, its hard to get hugely bent out of shape about it, and, it probably really will be awesome whenever it is done. Still, probably good object lessons in here someplace.


Creator Autarch
Funded 14 Apr 2012
Category Role-playing game
History Update from 13 Mar 2013: “Dwimmermount’s creator James Maliszewski signed a contract with Autarch that transferred the money we raised on Kickstarter and the responsibility for delivering the promised rewards to him. We understand that James is grieving for his father, but we have to confront the fact that he is currently not living up to this responsibility”. Since then others have taken over, with updates coming progressively less frequent.
Prognosis I’m guessing this will eventually deliver, but not until the very end of 2014, at least.

Nystul’s Infinite Dungeon

Creator Mike Nystul
Funded 3 Jun 2012
Category Role-playing game
History About a year after funding, the creator handed over the responsibility to produce this product to someone else. They seem in no hurry to release it.
Prognosis This will likely ship eventually, but not by any predictably time.

Auror’s Tale

Creator Leo Kei Angelos
Funded 6 Jul 2012
Category Web video series
History One episode of this three-episode series was produced, then all updating stops. Given the creator moved and the series may possibly (reading between the lines) have had some legal trouble with Warner Brothers…
Prognosis This reads very much like the creator just didn’t know what he was doing, mostly in terms of fulfillment. The rest of these episodes will never be created.

Wordman’s Recommended OS X Software

To save time the next time someone asks me, I put together this list of Mac OS X software. It is intended for people who have just started using a Mac. Most of these recommendations are based on my own use of the software. Some entries might be more obscure “best of breed” solutions for problems that you might have (even if I might not). Other recommendations are targeted at “switchers” from Windows who might be looking for replacements for specific software on that platform. I’ve attempted to avoid listing the more standard stuff, like iTunes or commercial software like Photoshop (or many games). If you need such things, you likely already know about them. This list focusses on the Mac, rather than iOS (I have another page of iOS recommendations, if that’s your thing).

Previous incarnations of this list seem to have been useful, but are not aging well. For one thing, the iPhone was just getting started at that point and much of the Mac ecosystem has changed in sympathy to it since then, as have the needs of a typical Mac user. Apple’s app store has also made finding the software you need much easier, at least for apps listed on it.

If you’re looking for a type of software that isn’t listed here, try I Use This, Free Mac Ware, Open Source Mac and VersionTracker.

Often, software listed here can be purchased for far less than the prices listed, through bundles offered periodically by places like MacHeist or MacUpdate. Also, if you have found this page because you are merely thinking about switching to the Mac, make sure you visit the MacRumors buyer’s guide before you buy something.


Freeware may be downloaded and used for no cost at all. Some of these titles are “donationware”, software that the author makes available for free, but asks for donations to fund his efforts. Since the coming of Apple’s App Store, freeware is getting a bit harder to find. Prior to the store, a software developer needed some sort of e-commerce setup to charge for software, but the App Store has removed this barrier (at least to those who don’t mind giving 30% to Apple). Also, the iOS ecosystem got both developers and consumers used to the idea of the 99¢ or $5 app, which previously was fairly rare in the shareware app world.

Adium X

Free. An instant messaging client which can talk to just about every service out there (Jabber, Aim, Google Talk, Facebook Chat, Twitter, etc.). It is also extremely customizable.

Alternatives: Apple’s Messages (previously iChat) has evolved to the point that it can give Adium a run for its money, especially if you need phone-based text messaging thrown into the mix.

Air Video Server

Air Video Server

Free. This unobtrusive server allows you to stream video from your Mac to an iOS device on the same network. It supports a number of formats, converting them while streaming if necessary. To watch the video, your iOS device needs a specific client application (a free, limited version, or a $3 full version).



Free. Once you use an application like Alfred to launch applications, open files and search, you have a hard time using machines that don’t offer something similar. Its description as a “productivity application” doesn’t do much to tell you what it does, which is a bit hard to explain. The basic idea is that you use a hot key combination (option-space, by default) to pop up a window, then type a few characters to do all sorts of stuff. It is best examined by installing it and trying it out. Alfred has a £15 PowerPack that extends its functionality, but it is perfectly usable without it.

Alternatives: When it looked like Quicksilver was dead, I spent some time looking at Quicksilver alternatives.



Free. You may never actually need AppleJack, but when you do, it will save your ass. AppleJack is a boot-time, command-line tool that can do things like disk repair and so on, without needing a second startup disk. It’s also much easier to use than similar tools I’ve seen. It operates in single user mode (which, as I continually forget, is accessed by holding down command and s while booting).

Battery Health

Battery Health

Free. If you have a laptop, keeping this app running in the background gives you a decent picture of what your battery is up to, and how well it is aging.



Donationware. Bricksmith allows you to create virtual instructions for your Lego® creations. The app is based on the LDraw library, a collection of 3D models of Lego building blocks created by enthusiasts from around the world. My recommendation of this software should be considered biased, since I contribute code to it every once in a while. If you use this software to build models, you might also be interested in LDView, LPub and POV-Ray.



Free. It is rare that you actually need to be able to read a Microsoft help archive file (a *.chm file) on a Mac, but occasionally you find some good reference material in that format. This reader can open and display such files, all in a Mac-like way. Simple, but effective.



Free. Viruses have never been that big of a problem on the Mac. Up through Mac OS 9, there were only a handful of known virii, only a couple of which were dangerous. So far, even fewer have targeted Mac OS X. Still, Macs can hold files that contain virii from other platforms (such as the tens of thousands of them that can affect Office documents on Win32 machines) and pass them on. Your Win32 friends will thank you not to send them any, and this program can find and kill them. Watching this scan your junk mail folder is educational.



Free. Depending on how often you work with .pdf files, you may need a utility to compare the contents of two different versions. While not perfect, this does a fairly decent job of graphically displaying what has changed between two versions. This is really a Linux utility, but if you dig through the page linked to above, you should find a link to a Mac version.



Free. OS X has a built-in feature for searching files called Spotlight. This feature has come a long way since it was first introduced. If you view all results on Mountain Lion, for example, you can click the + button at that top to add all sorts of filtering to the results, a big improvement over its initial incarnation. Still, sometimes you need even more power, which this app can provide.

Alternatives: Both DataLore and HoudahSpot are more powerful than EasyFind, for a price.



Free. Widely regarded as just a Java IDE (a task at which it is unrivaled, in my opinion), Eclipse is really more of a platform into which functionality can be plugged. The Java plugins happen to be bundled with the download, but there are others that extend Eclipse to be much more, such as the ability to write and debug Perl and all sorts of other stuff.

File Merge

File Merge

Free. A gem hidden among the Mac OS X development tools, this is a slick text file comparison application. Almost as good as the one built into CodeWarrior once upon a time, but free. Downloading the dev tools requires a free registration with Apple.



Free. Provides downloading, installation and management of nearly 5000 open source Unix programs, compiled and tested under Mac OS X. If you are a Linux or Unix user looking to get your favorite tool onto your new Mac, check out Fink first. Most likely, someone has already gone through the pain of porting it for you.

Alternatives: Several other projects aim to do the same thing that Fink does, including Homebrew, Rudix and MacPorts.



Free. Fluid allows you to wrap a particular web page up as a distinct application. For example, if you use GMail (or Facebook, Campfire, Pandora, etc.), you can build a GMail app that is nothing but a dedicated browser containing just the GMail experience, but is treated as a first class application by the OS. Fluid uses WebKit, so provides the same experience that Safari would. There is also a $5 version that gives you a few other bells and whistles (e.g. full screen application).

Solitaire XL

Full Deck Solitaire

Free. The most used Windows application is Solitare, and switchers might go into withdrawal, since no solitaire application ships with OS X. In the broader ecosystem, however, you have quite a few to choose from on the OS X side of things, but this seems to be the best.



Free. A strange little application, GeekTool allows you to display various kinds of information (mostly output of unix scripts) on your desktop. This doesn’t sound like much, but you can do some clever things with it.



Free. This app integrates into the Finder (by dragging the app into the Finder’s toolbar…yes, you can do that). Once so installed, any time you click it in the toolbar, a terminal will be opened, with the working directory set to the directory currently displayed in the Finder window.



Free. The only DVD ripper you’ll ever need. Though it has every tweakable setting you’d ever want, it hides this power under a simple interface, with presets for iPods, AppleTVs and so on. It can also handle multiple audio tracks, subtitles and so on. If you happen to have a Blu-Rray drive, however, HandBrake cannot read it directly.



Donationware. This IPSec client allows your Mac to connect to virtual private networks (VPNs). Though not the most intuitive interface on Earth, it gets the job done. If you have a home router capable of creating a VPN, you can use this client to access your home network while you are at work or on the road.



Donationware. While the Mac comes with a serviceable command line application called Terminal, this replacement for it goes a bit farther, adding support for split panes, better searching, full screen support, and so on. I wish it supported integration with a password manager, but no such luck (yet).

Light Table

Light Table

Free. Development of this experimental integrated development environment (IDE) is funded by a Kickstarter project and seeks to provide a “work surface” for real-time programming, rather than windows and nested frames of most IDEs. The tool is still in the alpha stages, but supports Python, Javascript, CSS, HTML and Clojure at present. Play around with it.



Free. Allows you to edit the metadata (title, episode id, cover art, etc.) of video files. It offers much more advanced controls and option than similar tools in iTunes, and writes them permanently into the video file (which iTunes does not do), so if you move the file to another computer, the metadata goes with it. Under the hood, it uses the Atomic Parsley command-line tool, and it can make use of services like tagChimp to download metadata for millions of titles.



Free. While the OS X version of Microsoft’s Office for Mac finally contains first class Mac applications again (for a while, the Mac versions were terrible), the suite remains pricy. NeoOfficeJ offers a version of OpenOffice, but built with a native Mac look and feel. While not quite as polished as Office for Mac, this app is file compatible with it, and infinitely cheaper. Note that, like OpenOffice, NeoOfficeJ is a Java application.

Alternatives: Apple’s iWork suite is reasonably priced, offers iPad versions of the apps, and has the advantage of offering its applications separately, but the experience is a bit different than Office for Mac. Keynote is flat-out better than PowerPoint. Pages is a bit more of a page layout program and a bit less of a word processor than Word. Numbers is a curious beast that is sort of spreadsheet like, but not really the same thing as Excel.



Free. A general purpose utility for setting various (otherwise hidden) options in Max OS X, such as dock “pinning” and drop shadows, permission repairing, logs, etc.



Free. Both software and a service, installing Prey allows you to track your Mac if it gets stolen. When you install it, you register on Prey’s web site, which is used to mark a machine as “missing” and do other setup. When so marked, your machine will send reports to Prey about the machine’s location, even pictures from its webcam, to the web site. The software is free and the service allows tracking of three devices for free. You can also install prey on smartphones, so, if you have a lot of devices, you might need to pay for more advanced service.

Alternatives: Apple’s Find My Device is bundled into most of their devices now.

QuickLook CSV

QuickLook CSV plugin

Free. This quick look plugin not only displays a popup preview of data in comma-separated value (csv) and tab delimited files, but also changes their icon into a rough rendering of what the document looks like.



Free. If you rip your DVDs or record from television, you may find you have a need for some lightweight editing of the results, such as trimming out commercials, eliminating the same annoying opening credits from every episode of a TV series, concatenation of several videos in a row, adding/removing/renaming chapters, and so on. SimpleMovieX is built for this kind of quick video work.



Free. Sometimes you just need to download an entire web site at once. This software provides a fairly intuitive way of doing so, with a handful of options to tune for a particular site..

Alternatives: The previously recommended WebDevil provides a bit more power, but is expensive. The command line app wget can also do some types of whole site downloading.



Free. A slim-but-powerful PDF reader. Unlike Acrobat Reader, it supports the new Retina displays. Unlike Preview (which comes free with OS X), it allows you to control if the first page is single or double when in two-page display mode, and its full page mode is less flickery. It also has note-taking capabilities, so you can add annotations to PDFs.



Free. If you need a dedicated graphical client for distributed revision control systems (DVCS) like Git or Mercurial, SourceTree is the weapon of choice. While Git plugins are available for Eclipse (see above), the dedicated nature of this app makes using these services a bit easier.

Suspicious Package

Suspicious Package

Free. While most software downloads no longer require installers (just dragging an app to a folder), sometimes files need to go in particular places, so you get an installer package. You can never really tell what is in such packages, unless you have this quick look extension installed. Click once on the package, hit space, and get a popup window listing everything inside the package.



Free. With the large number of BitTorrent clients available on the Mac, with different release schedules, something as subjective as which is one is “best” tends to ebb and flow. Last I looked, this was the client that worked for me, with a clear interface that did what I asked it to. Since I keep an old machine under my desk that is more or less dedicated to things like BitTorrent, I also appreciate that this app publishes a browser-based interface so other machines on my LAN can control it.

Alternatives: The µTorrent client now runs on the Mac and has a number of users who converted from Transmission. Xtorrent seems more feature rich, but isn’t free.

Video Monkey

Video Monkey

Free. Once there was an application called VisualHub, which rose above the sea of batch video conversion applications on the Mac to become both powerful and (very) easy to use. (Plus, it’s icon, an amalgam of a film strip and the Rosetta Stone was totally brilliant.) Then, its creator gave up. What followed was a long chain of forks, clones, bizarre patches and dead ends, with names like iSquint, Transcoder Redux (at several different places) and FilmRedux. Video Monkey is the only free app to emerge from the ashes that captures the essence of VisualHub. It also adds the ability to add metadata as part of the conversion.

Alternatives: A more direct ancestor to VisualHub is ReduxEncoder, which looks to be similar to Video Monkey, but costs £2. Even more expensive, but perhaps a bit more polished is Permute. Some of the other applications in this list (e.g. HandBrake, VLC) can also convert video, but don’t handle batches well. RoadMovie is also worth a look (even though it is $30), as it combines metadata editing with batch video conversion.



Free. Prior to the rise of social networks, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) was all the rage. Now it seems like many have never even heard of it, and Google is killing the service that many RSS readers use for syncing. It still works the way I do, though, (and social networking mostly doesn’t) so I’m still an RSS junky. This open source reader is simple, and does just enough for me. Recently, they added Google Reader syncing (oops), so if anyone builds a decent replacement for the API, chances are it will get updated to use it.

Alternatives: I’ll like continue to use Google Reader until it dies on July 1, 2013. It looks like Feedly might be able to replace it. These are both browser-based. For Mac app solutions, Reeder has a lot of fans, but is also leveraged heavily into the Google Reader API.



Free. A video player that can play more formats than the default QuickTime installation provides (including AVI, MKV and divx). There are some iOS apps which can act as a remote control for playback in VLC as well.

Vue Pioneer

Vue Pioneer

Free. Vue creates 3D scenery using fractal terrain and can add trees as well, with photorealistic rendering of the whole scene. It is part of a cross-platform suite of products that get more powerful as they get more expensive.

Alternatives: Terrain rendering apps seem to leapfrog each other regularly and target different markets. You might find that Bryce (which would get my recommendation instead of Vue Pioneer if it were able to run on Lion or beyond), TerraRay, Terragen, one of Vue’s more expensive brethren or Daz Studio work better for you.



Free. Wireshark is a cross-platform network packet analyzer, with pretty good visualization, decent documentation and a legion of users.


Commercial software must be paid for before being downloaded (though, in many cases, trial versions may be available). This model was quite rare in the Mac world prior to the advent of the App Store, limited to major applications like Office or Photoshop, or high profile games. This type of software also used to be much more geared to physical delivery in shrink-wrapped boxes, but that is now the exception, to the point that the line between “shareware” and “commercial” software no longer exists.


$30. Since the authors of 1Password removed WiFi syncing with iOS, I have a hard time recommending this as unequivocally as I did before (even if they do eventually offer some USB based sync). [Update: they listened to customers like me and put Wi-Fi syncing back in iPassword 4. So, back to an unequivocal thumbs up.] Still, this application will change the way you use the web. Since it seamlessly integrates into major browsers, any time you create an account on a web site, you use 1Password to generate and store a completely random and unique password for that site. When you go back to the site, 1Password remembers that password for you. So, you get to be secure, without the hassle of remembering huge numbers of passwords yourself. The application also can track serial numbers for software, credit card numbers and so on, all stored strongly encrypted. It does support Dropbox syncing; however, even with encryption it strikes me that transmitting all of your passwords in the cloud is a really bad idea, so I don’t use that feature.

Alternatives: A number of other password managers exist, many which do have wifi syncing. Few offer browser integration (yet), which is the feature that makes 1Password useful. The most promising of these is STRIP, which was found to be more secure than 1Password. The cross-platform mSecure is also a contender.



$15. More and more apps these days clutter up your menu bar with status icons. Most of these icons can be turned off, but some can’t, and some are still useful. Bartender allows you to collect all these menu bar items into a submenu of sorts, with full control over which items go where. It offers a four week free trial.



$20. While OS X comes with a number of ways to work with zip files, BetterZip is, well, better at more complex work, particularly for exploring contents of an archive without decompressing it. BetterZip can also decompress other compression formats, such as .tar and .rar, including most traditionally Mac types like .sit. As a separate download, it also supplies a quick look extension that shows the contents of a zip archive.

Cheetah 3d

Cheetah 3d

$99. While quite a few 3d editors exist on the Mac, Cheetah is one of the few designed specifically for it. It’s UI is powerful, but more intuitive that other 3d packages I’ve tried (user interface in 3d packages tends toward the bizarre). The latest version (6.x) also seems to be collecting a bunch of 5-out-of-5 ratings from all over the place.

Alternatives: Some free 3d suites are popular but not as easy to use, particularly Blender and DAZ Studio. Prices get nuts on the higher end with Maya.



$79. Until Coda, there were two basic methods of creating web sites. One way was to use a WYSIWYG tool like Sandvox or RapidWeaver. The other was to do hand coding using a mix of various tools, like text editors, file transfer programs, CSS editors and various browsers. Coda attempts to change this (and succeeds pretty well), providing a tool for the “hand markup” set that vastly streamlines workflow, and essentially obsoletes about a half-dozen other tools. Panic Software allows a 30-day trial before requiring payment, with a small discount if you own other Panic titles.

Alternatives: Coda has spawned some imitators, mostly developers of the aforementioned “various tools”, who are trying to turn their tool into a more widely encompassing platform, such as the way CSSEdit 3 has mutated into Espresso. The cross-platform Aptana isn’t as slick looking, but seems plenty powerful and is free.

Daisy Disk

Daisy Disk

$10. The evolution of graphically investigating what is taking up your hard drive space, using a “sunburst” style of display which seems more natural than the “heat map” style of some of the alternatives. This software also handles the little details very well, making it very intuitive.

Alternatives: Applications like Disk Inventory X do a similar job for free, but with less polish. DiskWave provides even less polish, but is also free.

Delicious Library

Delicious Library

$40. For the anal-retentive in you, this tracks collections of books, DVDs, CDs and games. Integrates with a bar-code scanner, if you happen to have one (such as a hacked CueCat). Also allows you to use a video camera to scan barcodes. Can enter ISBN or USP numbers and will lookup information on item on the net. Library allows only 25 items to be entered unless you pay for it.

Alternatives: Inventory managers can be found all over the place. Most of them are terrible. One free offering that seems to, at least, have rough feature parity with Delicious Library is Data Crow.



$5. It turns out to be fairly easy to wind up with duplicate copies of files, particularly if you collect certain types of data (say, comic book files or role-playing pdfs). This application will hunt for duplicate files and let you delete extras; however, pay careful attention to what it finds. If you are not sure what it is doing, you can get burned.

Alternatives: Gemini, DupeZap Plus (basically DupeZap 2, but more expensive); TidyUp (even more features and cost).


Escape Velocity: Nova

$30. A role-playing/space combat game that is sort of hard to explain until you play it. The makers of this game, Ambrosia, completely rule. If this genre is not your cup of tea, I guarantee that they have another game (some of which, alas, only run in Classic mode) that will have you addicted within minutes. If you like this game, you might also try Vendetta, which is very similar in concept, but uses 3D first-person combat and requires on-line play with thousands of other players.

GraphicConverter X

GraphicConverter X

$30. Capable of reading and writing nearly any graphic format, this program also has slide show capability and a great directory-based image browser. A suite of batch processing tools also make altering multiple files the same way mostly painless. (For example, take a huge directory of images, scale them all to be the same height, then crop them to be the same width, then save them as a different format.)


Growl (app store)

$4. Growl is a notification system used by a lot of the other apps on this list to breifly popup a message in the corner of your screen to alert you to an event (such as e-mail arriving, a job completing, and so on). Though previously free, the developer has now fully embraced the App Store model.

Alternatives: Mountain Lion’s new Notification Center is aimed squarely at out-growling Growl. For the moment, more apps support Growl.

Icon Creator

Icon Creator

$4. Once upon a time, the Mac developer tools came with Icon Composer, a simple application for editing application icons. In the early days of OS X development, Apple had to build quick and dirty tools like this, since they were the only show in town. Now that third parties build much better icon editors than Apple could, they have discontinued Icon Composer. This is probably the best of its replacements, mainly for its exporting capabilities. (Also, when I asked the author to add change the open dialog to allow browsing inside application packages, he released a new version that did so within days. This made creating this post much easier.)

Alternatives: Iconographer (free, but abandoned); IconBuilder (Photoshop integrated filter).



$60. Even back before the OS X era, Mac’s had a surprisingly large number of finance managing applications, with Quicken eventually emerging as the dominating force. Quicken screwed up, though keeping its code mired in technology known to be dying. When this technology was jettisoned on the release of Lion, Quicken stopped working on modern Macs. Fortunately, Quicken had enough haters prior to this that mature alternatives exist. For my needs, iBank was the best replacement.

Alternatives: I explored many replacements for Quicken when I moved to Lion. You might find others I examined fit your needs better.



$13. A very sexy Risk game, somehow more addictive than the hordes of other Risk clones. It allows network play, but only 10 games before you have to pay for it. For the ambitious, developer tools are available to make custom maps and AI players.



$25. Shortly after the dawn of the Mac came MacDraw, a program for editing vector graphics (where images are made up of editible primitive lines and shapes). I prefer using vector graphics when possible (as opposed to raster graphic tools like Photoshop, which edit a grid of colored pixels), as they scale better and are easier to change. I don’t know if iDraw was intended to be a ultra-modern evolution of MacDraw, but it feels like it in a lot of ways. It has a companion iPad app which feels even more so, with cloud syncing between them. One strike against it (in addition to the dumb name) is that you can’t try before you buy.

Alternatives: Not long ago, few options existed in this space other than the very expensive Adobe Illustrator, but now quite a few compete. Others include VectorDesigner (previously recommended, but now too expensive compared to iDraw), Artboard (a simpler user interface, not as powerful) and Inkscape (free, but clunky). Note also that some traditionally raster editors are starting to get very simple vector drawing features (such as Pixelmator, mentioned below).

iPhoto Library Manager

iPhoto Library Manager

$20. If you ever need to merge two different iPhoto libraries into one or switch back and forth between multiple libraries, don’t even bother trying to do it yourself. It should be easy to do but, inexplicably, isn’t. Just pony up the cash for this program. You might also want to grab iPhoto Diet to remove some of the bloat iPhoto creates.



€80. Some switchers need a replacement for Microsoft Project, and for some time they didn’t have many choices. Now, however, dozens of possibilities exist. Since my previous recommendation in this space, Project X seems to have been abandoned, it appears that iTaskX is the current choice, as it matches Project’s feature set well and can even read Project files.

Alternatives: Some other possibilities in this space are OmniPlan, Merlin or, for something slightly different, Curio. A number of on-line only tools also exist now, such as Teamweek.



$26. Leap provides an alternate way of accessing, organizing and finding your files, making use of the OpenMeta standard to add tags to file metadata. Using any tags you care to add to a file, as well as other file metadata such as file type, modification date and so on, you can perform complex searches, either ignoring the rigid hierarchy of folders, or using it to augment the search. The “All My Files” view in the Finder (since Lion) implements a terrible and weak version of this concept, but Leap is a whole different level. Leap really shines if you have a lot of a certain kind of file (such as PDFs or video) and want to search for a specific one.


Life Balance

$40. A unique, cross-platform to-do manager with iOS synchronization (though still no iPad app). Their web site explains it better than I can. Takes a little getting used to, but is the best to-do system I’ve ever used. After a 30-day trial, save stops working unless you pay for it. There is also a Win32 version, if you’re into that sort of thing. Expensive, but unique.

Alternatives: LifeBalance is not constructed or intended as a GTD tool, though could probably be shoehorned for that purpose. Within the GTD space, Firetask seems to be the current darling, but Things and OmniFocus are mainstays. There are also a ton of “in the cloud checklist apps”, like Producteev, Wunderlist or even Evernote.

Little Snitch

Little Snitch

$25. Brings up an alert any time your computer attempts to make a network connection to the outside world, allowing you to accept or deny the attempt. It can be trained to ignore things (like your web browser, chat client, etc.). It will only run for three hours at a time unless you pay for it. This is good enough for me, as I tend to run it only when installing new software. (Some software “phones home” to its creating company, transmitting who knows what.)



$60. A bit pricy, but the best family tree software I’ve seen for the Mac, or any other platform. It’s charting and reporting is excellent, but the 3D “flythrough” options to the UI are more gimmicky than useful. Nothing can be saved until paid for. Data is easily imported (GEDCOM, with all the bells and whistles) and synced to the equally nice iOS version.



$20. If you have a burning desire to view the media on your Mac (video, pictures, music) on your Playstation 3, this is the easiest way to do so. Totally seamless and easy to use.

Name Mangler

Name Mangler

$19. Allows you to do search and replace on filenames, including support for regular expressions. Sure, you could do similar things with the command line, but this is easier. Also shows you the results of changes before they are made.



$100-$200. Switchers itching for something like Visio should look no further than the professional version of this app. It does some things a bit differently than Visio would, but generally “differently” here means “better”. Visio, notable as one of the few products whose interface radically improved once bought by Microsoft, could steal quite a few lessons from the guys at Omni. Current versions also sync with an iPad version, and contain a bunch of the layout code from Graphviz. A limit is placed on the number of nodes you can have in a file until this software is paid for.

Alternatives: The Omni Group tends to build really great products and charge way too much for them, but chooses products that no one else is building for the Mac. What usually winds up happening is that someone comes along to undercut them with a slightly-less-good version, for much, much less money. For example: Shapes (though it can’t use Visio files or export to SVG, and OmniGraffle Pro can). The Mac Graphviz port isn’t really the same kind of product (it is more about mathematical graphs), but can be used to create similar output more programatically.



$50. You know that shoebox or file cabinet you have filled with old bank statements, bills, receipts, statements and so on? Would you like to replace that with an encrypted database of PDFs? How about if details were optically scanned from the PDF and populated into searchable database fields? Paperless can do all that. Most banks and credit card companies now offer digital statements these days, so you don’t even need to do any scanning (though the app supports that as well).



$15. If Adobe Photoshop breaks your bank, this image editor is a strong choice, delivering most of what the average user will need out of a raster editor in an elegant interface and much lower price.

Alternatives: There are tons of image editors out there. Some not as powerful, such as Seashore, Paintbrush, Acorn or ImageWell. Others are harder to use, such as GIMP. Still others are more specialized, such as Pixen.



$10. Postbox is a powerful e-mail client which works a lot better for me than the Mail app that ships with OS X. Searching, for example, is more powerful, as are its filing rules. It also integrates with GMail, if desired, as well as with third party services like Dropbox or Evernote. You can download a 30-day free trial of this application.

Alternatives: E-mail clients tend to be a personal choice. Some other possibilities are Apple’s Mail; Mozilla Thunderbird, Mailplane and MailMate.



$45. I don’t use this writing tool much, but I know people who bought a Mac specifically to use it (it has a Windows version now, though). It is a word-processor type application targeted specifically at writers of novels, screenplays, research papers and the like, with a number of organizational tools.

Snapz Pro X

Snapz Pro X

$69. The king daddy of Mac screen capture programs, with a long lineage. Capture full screens, windows, selections to multiple formats. Capture video. Basically flawless, with a well-deserved five mice rating. Snapz Pro X can be used for a limited time before requiring payment.

Sound Studio

Sound Studio

$30. While there are number of sound editors available on the Mac, most of them were pretty bad last time I looked at them. Not this one, though. Sound Studio does more of what I need it to, particularly with some features specifically to ease the importing of audio tapes.

Alternatives: Other applications in this space are Audacity, Fission and Wavepad.



$20. The Mac is known for true plug and play support of all sorts of mice and other input devices, but sometimes the default support isn’t enough, particularly with unusual peripherals. This driver supports a wide variety of devices, and allows much more customization than mortal man was meant to use. It can be used for 30 days before requiring payment.



$30. If you happen to have an iMac in your kitchen, you might as well keep a recipe database on it, particularly one that can search multiple internet recipe sources by ingredient or other characteristics. Includes a “ten foot” mode, so you can read the recipe from across the room if you need to, and control the display with speech. Other apps could also learn a bit from how it handles importing via copy/paste of arbitrary blobs of recipe text into the various fields of the database. This app sometimes makes its way into various sale bundles.



€39. In a world with dozens of text editors for the Mac, this app left them all in the dust a long time ago. Highly customizable, this app supports a huge number of computer languaes, supports macros, can be used as an external editor for FTP programs (like Transmit, below) and even makes building custom syntax hilighters fairly painless.

Alternatives: Text editors tend to be more of a personal choice than other software, so BBEdit (or its more limited lightweight version), Smultron, SubEthaEdit, skEdit, jEdit, xPad or even Emacs compiled as a native app or a Mac-style Emacs may be more your speed.



$15. The file-transfer protocol (FTP) client for the Mac (also supporting other protocols, like SFTP, Amazon S3, WebDAV, etc.). Let’s you right click on files in a remote server, and edit them with external editors, such as TextMate (see above). Pretty much perfect. Until paid for, sessions can only last for 10 minutes and “favorites” cannot be saved.



$29. Before the world wide web, there was Usenet, a vast collection of newsgroups. Though web forums have stolen most of their thunder, newsgroups are still useful. Unison is one of the best newsreaders I’ve ever seen. To access Usenet, you need a provider. In many cases, the company providing you with internet access quietly offers a Usenet feed (usually a web search for your provider’s name and “Usenet” will lead you to instructions). Fully featured for 15 days, after which favorites are disabled and it can only be used for 10 minutes at a time.



$14. OS X has a built-in feature (cmd-tab) to cycle between application, similar to alt-tabbing on Win32. This preference panel adds a more sophisticated version (wired to opt-tab by default) that lists active windows as well as applications.