Secret Writings of the Ash Ock

Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem

Story building for Specific Character Classes
One of the things that's consistent in D&D 3.5e, Pathfinder, and D&D 5e is that wizards pay money to scribe spells in their spell books. It is part of the process by which a wizard PC gets more effective at what he does. What makes this an interesting protruding nail is that in modern editions, there are very few classes that have a built-in money sink as part of the fundamental mechanics. Most other spellcaster classes get all their spells for free, and no class pays for training any more. About the only sink that's left is trying to be choosy about specific items (armor, weapons, stat boosts) and everyone needs some of those. What this means is that in a game where money is expected to be spent by players, a wizard falls behind the curve, because they need to spend thousands of gold on spells. If they don't, their effectiveness drops. And, from my experience, in the various 3.x style games, there's no demonstrable advantage to the wizard; most of other classes got their spell powers boosted in effectivness, with extra armor, hit points, and special abilities. There are some cleric ranged builds that are nearly as powerful as damage wizards, and most of the spell buffs are shared across multiple classes.
Basically, only masochists and story-hounds really play wizards now. ;)
The thread I want to pull on here is to take these lemons and make lemonade. I'm often looking for ways to inject story into characters. So how might wizards solve this problem in a way that doesn't hit their treasure horde?
* Patronage - it is RARE for a wizard to exist without a rich patron. Which means for a player character, the chance of dangling interesting patrons in front of them, with the complications. "going it alone" becomes a bit more of a challenge.
* Allow wizards to make more money in downtime because their spells are simply a more effective way to do things. Meaning, essentially, that money becomes less of a problem if you have useful skills. This is more of an artisan model of magic.

* Wizard allies - someone who shares spells in exchange for services rendered.

* And of course, shortcuts to power. Wizardry is a slow path to learned power. That sort of power, earned without obligations to outsiders and deities, is something that could be a threat to the greater powers. So, those powers like to find ways to hook into a character before they get too powerful. :)
Part of this last idea, if separated from the idea of focusing on players, is to allow for other sorts of magic to be added to an NPC wizard. In other words, a wizard might be powerful because he did make a bargain with something he shouldn't have. Or found some magic or location that grants him power through some other shortcut.
(An aside: warlocks are troubling for me in 4 and 5e. Not because I don't like the concept, but because it feels too orderly, and perhaps lacking enough solid hooks into the character).
Taking the concept and trying to generalize it, the thought in my head is to borrow a concept from FATE and other modern games. EVERY class should not only be an advantage for a PC, but also have drawbacks.
Wizards - finding ways to finance your power without bargaining something away.
Clerics, Warlocks - being committed to your patron's goals and beliefs. I'm not saying that such characters should always be on the edge of losing their powers, because I'm not sure that would fly well. But the pressure to perform should be there.
Fighters, Rogues - What sort of secular powers do you owe fealty to? Or something along those lines.
There's lots I could pull on here, so just listing some of the things coming to mind right now:
* Wizards have a big mechanical drawback that ultimately ties back to progression: wealth being a critical part of most D&D games.
* Turning that drawback into a story might be very cool.
* But at the same time, why should wizards have all the pain. EVERYONE should have a few interesting hooks. And maybe one of those hooks for each character should always/almost always be class based. The player chose that class for a reason.
* How do you threaten someone's class-given powers in a way that makes the story interesting? Meaning: Let's say we're talking about a warlock. You can make the patron a total tool, and threaten the player's powers if they don't agree. That works to a certain point, but really, some of that power dynamic moves away from story and ends up being something frustrating to the player. And if they decide to lose their powers, is that character effectively shut down for life?
Arguably, from a play perspective, losing ones class abilities permanently mostly means a character not worth playing. But make it a good story arc and you might be able to get away with it. Can you, say, run a player through a 2-4 episode arc where their powers are lost, with a promise of interesting story along the way and maybe even an option for something a little different instead.
* Almost all of the story stuff ends up being things I'd have no qualms about playing with in a more story-oriented system like FATE - give someone choices, change their aspects when they make big decisions, compel their aspects until the cows come home. What do you do when some things are more "hard coded" - class abilities?
* What do you do when the realities of a particular class don't match up with the play style of a particular adventure. For example, you can put time or money pressure on players -- good for drama -- but that essentially means that the class that NEEDS time or money is going to suffer, without some sort of out. And it also means if someone is playing such a character, every adventure or campaign you run with said characters can't ignore that problem. (Meaning: I could run a game where I ignored a cleric's deity because when it comes right down to it, those story elements don't affect the mechanics of how a character plays. The same rationale doesn't work for wizards; you either need to add those things to your campaign or make mechanical changes to the game system to adapt.

Per the last post I made, the story behind wizards is always something I jump on (a little) when making campaigns and story. Usually that's because putting pressure on a character can be interesting.

More threads to pull on and think about. And here I started writing this tonight because I wanted to note this down WITHOUT pulling on all the threads this evening. Hopefully I haven't just jinxed myself out of some sleep tonight.

World Building

So, given that I've got my copy of 5e D&D, I can't help but get a little into world and story building mode. At best, I expect to play a bit at work instead of a board game, but still, some creative juices are flowing.

(FWIW, also thinking about a science fiction setting again and how to make it playable, even it is possibly means a full reset of characters)

For me, some of the things that always stick in my head when building a fantasy setting is how to add some interesting mystery and majesty to some of the more fantastic elements of the setting. The problem with most D&D settings is that somewhere in the  gameplay they become too prosaic and bland.

The most common examples that always spring to mind:

* Gods and religion - how to make these beings feel powerful, sometimes accessible, interesting from a story perspective, but not overpowering the story or simply being able to blast the PCs. :)

* Magic - how to keep a mystery in magic but still allow characters to use the spells they have. (This can be more of a challenge when detect spells are at-will).

* Elves - I think because of their long lives, elves can always be an interesting fit into the setting. Near-immortal, they often have to be aloof from the setting or they have too much capacity to know or be involved deeply in its history. Meaning, mostly, that if you want a setting where parts of the background are a mystery because they happened prior to the characters being alive, that's not generally possible with the older races).

Related thought: it always weirds me out a little when you have the multi-hundred year characters around and they aren't knowledgeable and powerful.

What's interesting is I think of the last three fantasy games I ran, elves were disallowed in one of them, and were not chosen by the players in one more, and the third had an elf, but all of the PC were displayed in time and space. So all three settings gave me a lot of space to play with concepts.

Recently, I've been rereading Zelazny's Dilvish stories and one of the things that I really like in those stories is that Dilvish has a history. He's half-elf (often a more interesting space to place in), and his ancestor has an interesting and famous history. Specifically, the idea that stuck in my head was that there were certain idiosyncratic magics that were available to Dilvish because he had a famous elven ancestor.

Arguably, this isn't something that needs to be tied to elves exclusively, but doing so specifically helps add a layer of mystery to them. My thought was that if a player is an half-elf (or I suppose even an elf) to let them pick one odd thing that they can do or know. In an aspect-driven game system it might even spawn an aspect. The goal would to be to tie it heavily to a story, not a direct boost in power. 13th Age's "One unique thing" for a character comes to mind here as playing in the same space.

Some examples:

* I'm the only person who can speak to the ghosts at the Castle in the Mists

* I know a path through the Impassible Forest.

* My ancestor cast one of the Three Mighty Spells that formed the world; she taught me a word of creation. I can use it once.

The last idea also comes from Dilvish; he learned a number of awful sayings that he learned when imprisoned in hell. In power level, these are practically wishes, albeit with a heavily negative slant. I could easily see something like this as a "treasure" you might give a player. Much like a ring of wishes or some other powerful one-shot item, but not tied to an item, and with more story invested in it. And perhaps not so much control.

Anyway, the whole point is to inject more of a sense of wonder into the setting and the characters. While I'm not opposed to trying for "realistic fantasy", I'm definitely in favor of embracing the fantastic elements if you are going to play fantasy. (I've seen people complaining vociferously again about alignments and how it should not be possible for a race in the game to be "evil". My own take is that arguing as if this is some universal truth isn't quite right. Some settings should be able to embrace such absolutes and run with them.

Anyway short version might simply be: Fantasy settings should have the opportunity for fantastic elements. Elements that fit in with the rules, but are not completely bound by them. For something like D&D, I suspect this means having a firm idea of what elements of the magic work with the rules and which elements transcend them and become story elements. For a system more built around story-mechanics, like FATE, I think there's a lot of interesting ground that can be covered with clever uses of aspects.

5th Edition D&D's backgrounds definitely look like a really interesting place to explore new ideas. I kinda want to see "1001 backgrounds"; my only complaint in the main rulebook is that there were simply weren't enough of them.

Collating pronunciation feedback
General feedback on my recording was that I was easy to understand, which matches my "in person" skills at speaking Russian. My accent isn't terrible, and indeed is better than most other Russian learners I've ever talked to. People are generally improved with how far I've come, and understand me unless I get too excited and slur my words together.

Still, room for improvement. I hope I am not so set in my ways that I can't continue to perfect my listening and speaking skills.

Here's the feedback I received:

  • For me you have a Mediterranean accent. Arabic - South of Europe - very soft

  • Vowels should sound a little bit "harder", but this is a problem for almost all foreigners. Maybe this is because you stretch corners of mouth like into in smile.

  • Try to more pronounce endings of the words more clearly. And when you have Я, Е, Ё,Ю letters after a consonant (for example, соВЕтник) try to avoid double sound Y+E. Now it sounds like sovyetnik, but on russian it should be sovetnik.

  • There is a problem with soft consonants: "Far, far away ..." you say as [daleko], we're relaxed, consonant should be converted into ль [л']

  • Very nice pronunciation, everything is understandable. Your intonation seems a bit unusual though, but I'm not sure why exactly. A few advices: In words правдУ,в портУ the vowel sounded too soft (like "ю"), in words длЯ/ лЮди/ импЕратор the vowel sounded too hard, that means it sounded like а / у / э. :)

All of the things on this list are good to think about. The real trick is to figure out a way to systematically improve. Or just assume I'll get better and focus on other things first.

As a first approximation of what I can do to improve pronunciation:

  • Go back and reread descriptions of how words should be pronounced. I have multiple sources

  • Find audio files for all of the various letters and sounds -- again, I have multiple sources already.

  • Look on youtube for videos *showing* people pronouncing the various sounds so that I can visualize it more.

  • Find minimal pair words and perhaps audio files of all of them. (Or just wait til Gabe finishes up the kickstarter)

  • Go back through some of the very early pronunciation stuff in Rosetta Stone. And use their program that lets you compare the sound wave patterns of your own speech to their recorded files.

  • Record more audio of myself, as well as some videos, and use them to compare to native speakers. Video might be interesting if it really is a problem with stretching the corners of my mouth.

  • Devote some very focused time (away from distractions) to listen to slower Russian recordings. I've been trying for "faster faster faster" lately to improve my overall comprehension of real-world speech. But systematical going through some slower recordings might help me pick up a few things.

  • SLOW down the practice. Pick some words and learn to enunciate them clearly, slowly, and precisely. (Based on The Talent Code's principles of practice)


A recording of me speaking Russian.

My Russian practice in the last couple of weeks has been:

* catching up on homework
* catching up on flash cards
* texting with a couple of friends
* some nice dinners out.

This week, one of my homework assignments was to listen to a story in Russian. In class this week, I read about half of it out loud. One of the things I've seen on lang-8 is that sometimes people post recordings of themselves speaking so that they can get feedback. Tonight, I decided to bite the bullet and do the same.

Some of my friends may comment on the fact that I HATE the way my voice sounds when recorded -- I walked out of a chance to participate in a podcast once. But I'm almost okay with this recording. I stumble on just a few words--mostly new ones--but otherwise I think I'm okay. Still some room for improvement, but there's quite a number of sections where I can just read through quickly. I didn't try to touch this up or splice together multiple recordings -- I just recorded it twice and took the better attempt.

Happy to take feedback if you've got suggestions (and speak Russian).


D&D 5e

So, I've had mixed opinions of 5e D&D for a while now. Part of this is feeling pretty burned by 4e. Not for the reasons most people say; my group generally really liked the overall direction 4e took (in terms of powers for characters), just not the specifics. For me running 4e, the main things that didn't work for me were:

  • Almost all effects were too transient. Damage went away quickly, status effects went away quickly, etc..

  • Monster stats were just broken at the mid and high levels. You really needed to rework quite a bit of the content to make the game work.

  • Once the game got into paragon play, characters were far more complicated and yet more powerful. As a GM, just remembering and understanding what the players were capable of was a serious chore. Also, with every character having multiple escapes, it was pretty challenging to pin characters down. (Essentially, fights became trivial or gigantic day-long battles).

  • The big kicker: WOTC just churned books out in large quantities to start, with minimal play testing. My perception of their attitude was that the community would figure out what worked. But really, what it meant was that within a year of coming out, there were multiple books that you didn't need to look at because almost all of the content had been errata-ed in the electronic tools.

As with most things, these were probably fixable problems, but for a GM with less time on his hands, it was no longer the right system for me to run.

Enter 5e. I looked at some of the early play tests, and it definitely wasn't going in the right direction for me. At times, it became too basic, without a lot to differentiate characters. At other times, they introduced a huge number of rules that just felt like they would be clunky to play at the table. And I was pretty concerned that the feedback wasn't going to change that. Well, on that count I was wrong. At least with the 100 page free PDF, it looks playable. It may not be a game I would choose to run a game in the near future, but it is definitely a game I could run or play.

Here's some thoughts on what I saw in the basic rules.

5e appears to my eyes to be a cross between 1st edition/cyclopedia and 3rd edition. Clearly, they've decided that 4e alienated too many people and so the ideas in that edition are mostly gone. Short rests and long rests work similarly to 4e, but I don't see a lot of other concepts in what they shipped. I would say that at least with the basic rules, thev've attempted to streamline things. So the rules are relatively clean (consistent systems, like 3e started out as), but they reduced some of the complexity. It looks like even when feats go into the game (advanced rules), a character will have fewer of them.

The reason I jumped back in when 3rd edition came out is because 3e systematically replaced almost all of the bizarre subsystem rules with a single D20+bonus system. Easier to each, easier to learn. (And usually my single largest gripe about having to play in a basic Cyclopedia game). 5e actually takes this a step further, by consolidating almost all of the rules that determine how your bonuses are calculated. So: weapon proficiency and attacks, saving throws, skills, crafting, and probably one or two other things are all combined together into a single proficiency system. That's pretty good design, I think.

3e and 4e both added stat increases as characters leveled. 5e does the same thing, with a cap on how far you can increase a stat (20). More generally, they've gone out of their way to try to narrow the range of effects and bonuses. So fighters are better at hitting than clerics, but the difference between them doesn't increase as the characters level. Also, when feats are added in, they replace stat boosts. So if you just want to keep things simple, you can. Just take the stat boosts. I'll be curious to see simple and complicated characters will mesh together. Will players playing simple characters feel like the people with complicated characters are eating up all of the time at the table? Will the players playing complicated characters be more effective because they've found some sweet spot of character optimization?

There are five or so tiers of play, and generally bonuses kick in when you change tier levels. I suspect the sweet spot is going to be the 5-10 range, just like every other edition. ;)

Spellcasting has some big changes. Preparing spells is now more distinct than casting them. So on an adventuring day, you decide what spells you want to prepare (and the number is probably a bit more limited than earlier editions, which should make spell memorization go a little faster). Then, at casting time, you expend spell slots to cast the spells you memorized. You only need to memorize a particular spell once. So you don't need to memorize two magic missiles if thats what you want to cast.

Spell slots are differentiated by level, and generally, the more powerful the spell slot, the more powerful the effect. So, for example, a cleric only really needs to memorize "Cure Wounds", and can use it with multiple spell slots. Expend a 4th level slot and you'll heal more than if you used a 1st level slot. Clerics automatically prepare the spells from the domain they chose.

The spell list will be extended in the PHB, but the basic list looked light on buffing spells. I hope the level of buffing doesn't reach the problems of 3e and Pathfinder. Looking through the combat spells, some of the things I noted:

  • All casters have a few cantrips and they can cast these at-will. These are not your grandfather's cantrips. These are more like at-will attacks in 4e and quite potent. So, wizards start out with a couple of decent at-will powers and don't have to resort to throwing daggers.

  • In general, if you cast an actual spell, the effects of combat spells is better than it was in 3e. So, for example, a magic missile starts out with 3 missiles (the effect you'd get at level 5 in 1e/3e). A fireball starts at 8d6. But the don't scale automatically. If you want a more powerful magic missile, you have to expend a higher-level spell slot. At least with my casual read, the scaling seemed rather anemic. Will I use a 3rd level spell slot and get 5 magic missiles, or use it to toss fireball instead. I'm sure there are situations where the magic missile is more useful, but most of the time, I'd save the slot for the fireball.

  • Some spells can be cast as a ritual. It takes time, but doesn't expend spell slots. A nice balance. Wizards can actually do these out of their spell book, which probably makes up for the fact that wizards still end up spending money for basic class abilities when no other class needs to.

A couple more thoughts and I'll wrap this up.

Actions are somewhat of a cross between 3.5 and 4e. Each turn, you get a move and an action. When you need to perform special moment actions (i.e. standing up after being knocked prone)., they are usually just rated in how much of your moment you need to expend. Most of the time, you can include one "item manipulation" as part of your action. So running in, drawing your sword, and attacking is just that simple. Not a lot of rules to track for drawing swords.

There are bonus actions (usually granted by class powers, at least in the rules I've seen), and these are generally limited by what you are allowed to do. And I think I remember that you are limited to one per round, regardless of the effects. There are reaction actions as well, which are interrupts. But fewer of them than in 4e. Attacks of opportunity are still around, but they expend your reaction action, rather than being triggered separately. (That's something that frustrated me in 4e; needless complication having them as separate concepts).

For actual gameplay, they made a couple of simplifying decisions that appear as if they will significantly streamline play. The biggest one is the system of advantage/disadvantage. In 3e and 4e, there were often dozens of small tweaks to apply. +2 to this roll, +2 to that roll. +2 to someone else's next attack. A real pain in the ass to remember all of those bonuses at the table. With a couple of exceptions, 5e does away with all of that. You either have advantage or you don't. You either have disadvantage or you don't. So, once you know someone has advantage, you can stop, and just let them roll! :)

Normal: d20 + bonus
Advantage: roll 2d20 and take the higher roll.
Disadvantage: roll 2d0 and take the lower roll.
Both: Same as normal.

So, to sum up my thoughts of what I've seen.

  • Intrigued enough that I decided to buy a player's handbook. I'm enough of a rules/systems geek that I'm curious to see how it fits together with more options/advanced rules.

  • Not sure when/how I will actually play it. Generally, most of the people I would play it with were burned by 4e and want to try other game systems. Still hoping to accommodate that, actually. ;)

  • I feel like overall, they've tried to simplify some of the experience at the table. Fewer bonuses to track, tighter range of effects and bonuses, simplified terminology, etc..

My Russian studies

My friend David asked about my flash cards, and I realized I had a lot to say. So here's a big brain dump on where I'm at with my studies.

I am still distinctly at the stage where I need flash cards, because I still need to incorporate a lot of words into my vocabulary. I have annoying gaps to work around. I'm getting better at it as I practice more. But I've found a couple of useful insights that I'm still in the process of incorporating into my flash cards. But I'm getting there.

In general, I make two major kinds of cards: vocabulary and grammar cards. Vocabulary cards are to learn a specific word. For a vocabulary word, I make one entry on the database and I get four cards:
- audio of the word, I have to remember what it means.
- the written word, I have to remember what it means.
- audio of the word and the picture, I have to remember how to spell it.
- just the picture, and I have to remember how to spell it and speak it.
The backs of all four cards have the same info: written, spoken, pictures, notes, and example sentences. For example, the notes usually include the gender of nouns. I should include more conjugation information on my cards (like fleeting vowels and things like that) but I do a poor job of that right now.
For verbs specifically, I make entries into my database in pairs:  perfective-imperfective. My notes field for a verb has the conjugations for present tense 1st and 2nd person singular, and then usually one or two forms for past tense. There's no direct link between the two verbs but I list the other verb of the pair in the notes field. I also put more work into finding example sentences for verbs because the conjugated forms can sometimes be very different from the non-conjugated forms.

Grammar cards usually require me to use a word in the context of a sentence or prove that I know a rule in Russian. For grammar cards, I have two templates I use most often.
1. Fill in the blank, word given as hint. This is usually a conjugation test.
Мне понравилось гулять по улицам ______! (Киев)
Мне понравилось гулять по улицам Киева.
2. Fill in the blank, no word given. This is usually a test to know which word goes there.
___ следующем году мне исполнится шесть лет.
В следующем году мне исполнится шесть лет.
For verbs specifically, one of the insights is that if you know the first and second person conjugations, you usually have everything you need to know to get the other four forms (for 99.9% of the verbs anyway). I had heard that before but back in March I found a great description of it in a concise grammar book I was looking at. While that was fresh in my head, I was driving home and a piece of dialogue out of a Rosetta Stone lesson hit me over the head:
Когда ты уезжаешь?
Я уезжаю в одиннадцать утра.
Когда ты вернёшься?
Я вернусь в восемь часов вечера.

This lesson tells a story in four sentences, and it does so in a form that gives both the 1st and 2nd person forms. So the brainstorm I had that day is that i can turn most of the work for learning into the verb into a search for a concise story between two people talking to each other. Then I put those two sentences into grammar cards.

A verb that is easy to follow gets just the normal 4 vocabulary cards. A verb that's harder to learn gets 2-4 more sentences. Double that and you get roughly 16 cards for each verb pair. More for really complicated or difficult verbs.

I just started going through Daphne West's Essential Russian Grammar, and I think it is organized a lot better than many other grammar books. In particular, it has a lot of tests inline with the discussion. So I am methodically going through it right now and turning each section into a set of grammar cards to test.  I made about 40 pairs of card for nouns that test me on the gender rules and the plural nominative rules.  I still use all the other grammar books, but for the moment, I am choosing to focus on making cards just from her book. The grammar cards I'm making that aren't from her book usually come from sentences I've written but had corrected by someone else. If I made a mistake once, it goes into a card and I get tested on it.

There is probably a lot more I *could* do on my vocabulary cards to document some of the rules -- I.e. this is a conjuration 1a verb, and what does that mean. But I haven't done so yet. I'm focusing primarily on practical fixes and not trying to be insanely systematic about everything. For certain conjugations, I do have a more extensive set of cards in the deck, just to force me to use all of the rules. But obviously, I don't need a card for every single conjugation of a verb, because that amounts to 30 cards per verb - not sustainable!
Anyway, assuming 4 cards per word, and 2000-2500 words, that's already 8000-10000 cards. (I don't really have cards for every word though, because I already know a lot of words that aren't in my card deck). Add another 2000-4000 cards for grammar rules and I will end up with a deck about 50% bigger than the one Gabe used to learn Russian. (Gabe being the guy who ran the seminar I went to). Gabe suggested that spelling cards become redundant after a while, but since spelling is a huge problem for me, I'm taking the hit and forcing myself to spell and type all of those words. At least right now, I'd rather have too many cards than too few. The worst case scenario is that my reviews become too easy and the cards start coming up less often.

So I am getting more systematic about making good cards. Verbs are still a sticking point, but for the moment I accept that my cards aren't perfect, but that perfect is the enemy of good. I can't wait 6 months to be better at making cards before adding verbs. :) What I CAN do is replace bad cards with better cards when I am more skilled. There's cost to create and review new cards, but when appropriate I will take that hit. For example, I just deleted 8 vocabulary cards I had created back in January. They weren't made with my vocabulary card templates and had english text on them. I had created them so that I could recognize the 6 grammatical terms (in Russian) as well as the words for singular and plural. They did their job -- I recognized those word when I saw them.  But I still couldn't remember or write them! So I just replaced those cards with vocabulary cards using my normal templates.  No english!! I just had to figure out how to invent cards that told the story with pictures. But now I will be forced to actively recall these words. This is part of a general push on my part to learn the vocabulary for Russian grammar IN RUSSIAN. It makes it easier to read monolingual dictionaries and it also helps if someone who speaks only Russian corrects a mistake. I would love to find a Russian book on writing, similar to my "The Little Brown Handbook" for English.

Anyway, that's a pretty long post. The takeaways are
* Every non-trivial word gets cards for spelling and audio.

* Many words get grammar cards to force me to practice the grammar rules.
* Verbs in Russian are best expressed using short stories.
* Learning the grammatical words for Russian is helpful because it means I leave Russian texts less often.
* Be willing to throw out cards that aren't working well and replace them.

Russian writing practice
Okay, I managed to stay awake enough to write a small essay to post to lang-8. Hoping the commenters are kind to me. But not to kind. If there are corrections, I want to make them and then put them onto cards. I still had to spend a lot of time looking up spelling of words, but importantly, not any of the words I've recently added to flash cards. So, a strong indication that I need to just move everything onto flash cards and force myself to type it.
Я изучаю русскый язык уже двадцать семь месяцев. Я начинался изучать русский язык потому что я познакомился много человеков из Роcсии. Десять лет назад у меня был в моем офисe четыре подруги. Я думал что они были очень интересными и добрыми. Ну, теперь я изучаю русскый язык. :)
Я понимаю, больше чем я говорю или пишу. Но, я уже не понимаю когда люди говорят быстро. :( Хорошая подруга сказала мне что если я хочу говорить и писать лучше, мне нужно говорить и писать больше чем заниматься! Ну, сегодня я пытаюсь писать это документ.
Я занимаюсь русский язык почти каждый день. Часто тридцать минут, иногда час или два часа. Через два часа, у меня болит голова и я только хочу спать. :))
Два года назад, я был в Киев девять дней. Это был отпуск и навещать подругу. Киев очень интересный и красивый город. У Киева есть много соборов, церквей, и музеев! Мне понравился ходить улицы Киева! Я хочу вернуться в Украину, но теперь может быть опасно. Может быть в следующем году или через шесть месяцев.
Я хочу когда-то поехать в Москву.
Когда я не работаю или занимаюсь, Я люблю танцевать. Я обычно танцую два раза в неделю. К сожалению, у меня обычно много работы. :( Раньше я был программистом, сейчас я программист, писатель и менеджер. Ой!
Мне нужно узнать много словов потому что часто трудно разговаривать с друзьями. Я надеюсь что если я занимаюсь русским языком каждый день, я когда-то буду говорить по-русски очень хорошо!

Ukraine crisis
I didn't start learning Russian or learning about Ukraine for any reasons other than personal ones.  I never figured we might end up in a war over Ukraine or that my hobby would end up being useful. I need to be more awake to read the news and digest what is actually happening there now.
I was already sure my Ukraine trip wasn't going to happen - I haven't heard from the friend I intended to visit in almost a month. - no emails, no phone calls.  But now I just hope all my friends in that part of the world (even the ones I've drifted apart from) stay safe and that this crisis gets resolved quickly and without bloodshed.

Ukraine protests
I mostly don't want to weigh in on the protests because I don't think there are any simple answers to this situation. But I do worry about my friends who live there and hope they continue to be safe.

A friend of mine at work pointed me at a blog post, which has photos and maps about the Maidan protests. They give a real scope to just how big this protest is. Looking at that map, and remembering how much auto traffic goes through those streets, my mind is blown by the scope of this.


I told someone that I'd make a short post about Anki, so here goes.

The short version: Anki is an electronic flash card program. You create flash cards, then drill on them every day. Cards that you know well show up less often than newer cards or cards you've missed in the past. Anki tries to space out cards scientifically so that remembering them drills them deeper into your memory.

So why do I use Anki?  It comes down to a few reasons:

1. Rosetta Stone doesn't teach all the concepts I need it to teach. (And in fact, it often teaches things in a non-optimal order.). More generally, I have multiple books and CD audio series that I can use as source material, so I need to find a way to gather it all in one place.
2. Rosetta Stone doesn't provide flash cards. If you get stuck on one or two entries in a lesson, you need to manually navigate back to the whole lesson, find the cards that you missed and redo them. All manual labor.
3. Rosetta Stone's recall exercises (the ones that foster active learning) are somewhat rare.
4. Anki gets a lot of high marks from people who study languages.

So I'll start with the bad parts of Anki first: it is kind of a complex beast to navigate. It doesn't have a particularly friendly user interface, and honestly, if you want to do anything interesting with your deck, you need to at least be somewhat proficient with web pages (html, css). Most of your data ends up being database entries and UI is mostly "let's look up database entries and edit them". So I find I'm spending some of my time every week just designing databases and how they are visually displayed to me.

Now, the cool stuff about Anki.

Anki does a good job of keeping me from needing to reenter data that appears on multiple cards. You design a data type. Each data type has a list of fields and a list of cards that go with it. Then you add one database entry, and fill in all of the fields. Anki then adds all the cards to the deck. Each card can reference different fields in the data entry.

Here is an example I've made for Russian nouns.

Type: Russian Noun
Fields: Word (text), Picture, Audio, Notes.

Card 1 - front audio.  Rear picture & text - teaches recognition of audio
Card 2 - front word.  Rear picture & audio - teaches recognition of written word
Card 3 - front picture, audio, and a text entry field.  Rear - checks what you wrote against the word - teaches proper spelling.
Card 4 - front picture and a text entry field.  Rear - what you wrote against the word spelling - teaches active recall of word.

One of the things I discovered is that Anki starts with one card and buries the others. Once you get the first card right, it starts unburying cards. So it makes sense to design your cards so that the easiest cards are first, and the ones that require the most recall are last. (In the long run, the cards you get wrong will show up more often, but this approach makes it more likely that you'll remember the cards correctly in the first place).

Here are some other types I've been using (to a much lesser extent)

Basic Concept Card

Side 1: some text
Side 2: the translation or answer

I use this one very sparingly, as I try to keep my cards entirely in Russian. Mostly, I used this entry to bootstrap some russian grammar terminology. At some point I'll probably be able to remove these entries.


Fields: Sentence, Base word, conjugated word
Card 1 - shows a sentence with a blank for a word, along with the base word as a hint. Answer: the word properly conjugated for the sentence
Card 2 - same as the first, but no hint. Presumably the entries are good enough that the word is obvious.

The intent of these cards are mostly to test that I know what case goes where in the grammar, but it also reinforces whether i know how to conjugate a word properly. However, cards that force you to know two different concepts are sometimes a little harder to learn so I also added....

Noun Conjugation:
Fields: 12 entries for all of the 6 russian cases in both singular and plural
Cards: 11 cards -- each card shows the nominative singular case and asks you for one of the other entries.

I only have a few words using this pattern, mostly words that follow the standard grammar rules. But there are so many exceptions that I'll probably enter 5-10 other words in here for the most common spelling rules. After that, I'll probably just grumble and add extra grammar cards for the special cases. After all, there's nothing wrong with having the same sentence with the same grammatical rule, but have it teach a special case noun conjugation.

One site suggests that every card should have a picture (or even patterns to the images/words used) but I haven't designed all my cards that way yet. I'm mostly using pictures and audio in my noun cards right now. I think I have optional audio fields on some of my grammar tests. As I get better at this, I can either add or replace card entries.

One nice thing about this design is that you can edit the card styling and all the cards are automatically updated. For example, my noun cards link to a russian-only dictionary where I can try to read a definition for it.

I'll probably add an entry type that just speaks or shows a sentence and asks me if I understand it. Forcing me to retype an entire sentence is something Rosetta Stone tries to do, but I find it to be a real bear.

Anyway, I would say that if you don't mind getting your feet wet with a clunky interface and a little bit of database/web programming, Anki is a great solution.

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