A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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Beverly Cleary. She wrote some good books.

Lowell Kempf
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Beverly Cleary died on Thursday, March 25, 2021. Which, from the perspective of when I’m writing this was yesterday. She was 104 so the sad aspect is really fighting the impressive aspect.

I’m not sure if I’ve read any of her books since the 1980s. However, I did read a nice chunk of her books back in the day. You know, back when I was the primary audience. And since it’s been decades since I actually read Beverly Cleary, I am not in a position to make any analysis or commentary about her body of work.

However, her Ramona books did leave a lasting impression on me. I remember finding impossible to believe that the same author who had created Henry Huggins, who I found terribly bland, also created Ramona Quimbly who I remember being a much more nuanced and believable character. Ramona was basically a good kid but full of all the flaws and anxieties that are a part of being a kid.

In fact, I remember being convinced that Beverly Cleary was setting up having Beezus and Ramona’s parents getting divorced. Which, according to Wikipedia, never happened. The fact that I believed that could have happened, though, speaks of the emotional weight Beverly Cleary could convey

I’m a little scared of rereading any of her books because it might be disillusioning. I’ve had decades to develop rose colored glasses. However, she wrote works that have stayed with me and made it to 104. That’s awesome.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Mar 27, 2021 3:01 am
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Neuromancer: the book that became a genre

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If William Gibson hadn’t written Neuromancer and basically invented the genre of Cyberpunk on the spot... I’m honestly not convinced someone else would have.

Gibson didn’t invent the idea of a human mind going into a computer. (Heck, Tron is older than Neuromancer) He certainly didn’t invent corporate-run dystopias. He absolutely didn’t invent noire which is the underlining literary genre of Cyberpunk.

But he did blend those elements and more into a singular vision that informed a ridiculous amount of media that followed it. Heck, a lot of the jargon and slang he created has gone into regular use and become regular words.

This was the third or fourth time I’ve read Neuromancer. And each time has been different. Yes, part of it is that the jargon has become more standardized. However, Gibson’s abrupt, even staccato, way of breaking up scenes has become more common and thus easier to follow.

And with the actual writing easier to follow, the actual story is simpler than I remembered. It’s a heist story, dripping with noire anti-heroes. Taking the basic structure and dropping it into Chicago during the Great Depression would be an interesting exercise although some of the Cyberpunk aspects of the heist would be hard to reconfigure.

Two things I came away from this reading with: I think a big part of the iconic nature of street samurai Molly Millions with her Wolverine claws and perpetual sunglasses is her really awesome name. Second, Maelcum, the Rastafarian navy, is the dark horse of the book. The closest thing to a normal person and a functional human being, he’s now the biggest reason I want to see a movie adaptation.

There is something to the accusation of there being more style than substance to Neuromancer BUT I have seen so much Cyberpunk with no substance that I treasure the substance that is there. That said, I remember liking Count Zero more and I’m looking forward to rereading that.
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Thu Mar 25, 2021 1:19 am
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Foothold Enterprises is a hidden diamond in the rough

Lowell Kempf
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I’ve finally gotten around to making and playing a copy of Foothold Enterprises. What I found was a game that was mechanically compelling enough that I want to keep playing but a seriously boring graphic design.

Okay. Here’s the info dump. Foothold Enterprises is a print-and-play, in-hand, solitaire game. That means you make it yourself, only one person can play at a time and you don’t need a table. Which are all things I’ve been exploring for the last couple years.

You are starting to get a startup company off the ground. You need clients, which are what the game calls points. In practice, it’s an auction game where you bid for advertising (special powers), clients (like I said, points) and money (the stuff you use to bid)

Every card has an ad power, a money value, a client number and the number of cards you flip if you want to bid for any of the three elements. If you want to bid on a card, you decide how much you are willing to bid, flip over the right number of cards and see if the cards add up to less than your bid. If they do, then you get the card.

A few clarifications. You track money with a money card and a paper clip. You get two bucks at the end of every turn so passing and getting money is important. And you don’t spend your bid if you bid for money since you’d never bid for money otherwise.

One of my favorite design choices is you use card positions to designate how cards are used. Client cards you win are turned upside down and put face up in the back of the deck. Ad powers are placed sideways. Every other card you use are face up and right side up in the back of the deck. It makes everything easy to track.

When I first played it, I said to myself ‘This is like the Zed Deck’, which was listed as an inspiration. So I got out the Zed Deck and played it again. And, no, it really isn’t like the Zed Deck. Other than being in-hand, they are different experiences. The Zed Deck is very encounter-based while Foothold is auction/money management. (I don’t consider trying not to lose all your health resource management )

I’m not going to lie. I really didn’t know how well Foothold Enterprises would work. It ended up actually being a lot of fun. To be fair, the auction mechanism is less an actual actual mechanic and more a push-your-luck mechanic. (And don’t give me the everything-is-a-push-your-luck-mechanic argument) Regardless, the gameplay has a good flow.

I did find that by being conservative when I went after a card and liberal about how much I bid, hitting the fifty client mark wasn’t hard. However, raising the benchmark made for a much more challenging game. Either way, I had fun.

The biggest ding I have for Foothold Enterprises is the terribly dry presentation. It was great for saving ink and the design wins points for being very functional. But the lack of art makes them dull enough that I have to think that contributes a lot to why no one seems to know the game. The Zed Deck, as a comparison, is much more visually interesting. Maybe a redesign where the cards look like business cards would solve the problem.

While Foothold Enterprises doesn’t knock down Palm Island from its spot as the best In-Hand game I’ve played, it’s still a game I enjoy playing and plan on keep playing.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Mar 22, 2021 8:05 pm
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Clockmaster makes drawing a clock face fun

Lowell Kempf
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Clockmaster is a game about drawing a clock face. As far as elevator pitches go, it leaves me cold (and I couldn’t wait to try Bohnanza sixteen years ago!) And yet, when I actually played the game, it had an immediate ‘let’s do that again’ effect.

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2488929/wip-clockmaster-sol...

The whole thing, rules and all, fits on one sheet of paper, which is why I tried it in the first place. (It’s a PnP, R&W solitaire. No, jargon doesn’t get in the way of communication ) The actual play area consists of a blank clock face, a list of special actions and an hourglass with 24 circles.

You play with a pool of four dice. Roll all of them and then you assign two dice to the clock, one to action (which is different than special actions) and one to sand. An action die of 1-3 means you just use one of the clock dice while 4-6 means you use both.

You use the clock dice to fill in the numbers of the clock. If you’re using just one die, you write one of the numbers down in the right place. With two dice, you can add, subtract, multiply or divide the number. You can also use the turn to draw in the minute or hour hand regardless of what the dice say.

There are also four special actions. You can use each one once and you cross them out when you use them. The include things like rerolling a die or flipping a die.

You use the sand die to fill in that many circles in the hourglass. If you fill in the hour glass before you finish the clock face, you lose.

As I already mentioned, the theme doesn’t do much for me and I like games about bean farming or trading in the Mediterranean. However, there’s a lot of interesting dice manipulation for such a small space.

It’s not perfect. I find the most 1-3 action of just writing in a die’s number seems pretty dull compared to doing arithmetic with two dice. And, while the odds are against it, ‘bad’ die rolls can fill in the hourglass super fast and it takes fourteen turns to complete the clock face. It’s dice so it’s luck but it can still be annoying.

Apparently the designer is with me on the theme since they took the core mechanic and used it for a game about secret agents deactivating a bomb

Clockmaster isn’t my new favorite Roll and Write but it is a solid one-page work with more interesting choices than I expected. It went from ‘meh, it’s one page so I’ll try it’ to ‘oooh!’

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Mar 19, 2021 5:31 pm
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Sometimes great authors write mediocre kids books

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Sometimes when I was reading The Undersea Trilogy by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson it felt like I was reading one of Heinlein’s juveniles. And then I’d read a section that reminded me that I wasn’t.

I actually picked up used copies of the three books ages ago but my recent interest in Pohl made me decide to read them. The three books describe the adventures of Jim Eden, a cadet in the sub-sea academy.

The books are written a very boy’s own adventure style and the plots are very by-the-numbers. I have read much, much worse books in the genre (I’ve read Stratemeyer syndicate books, for crying out loud) but the Undersea Trilogy still only rose to being okay in it’s best moments.

Spoilers

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Spoilers

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Spoilers

Of the three books, the first one, Undersea Quest, was the strongest. Jim gets caught up in a conspiracy to steal one of his uncle’s inventions that gets him kicked out of the academy. He has to save his uncle and keep the bad guys from making a profit. (Okay, they die but it’s not his fault) It all makes sense and the rules of the setting are consistent.

The second book, Undersea Fleet, inexplicably introduces sea serpents and merfolk that don’t work with what I thought was the educational, hard science point of the series. More than that, these world shaking discoveries get one line in the last book. For me, this is where the bottom dropped out of the series.

The last book, Undersea City, wasn’t as bad. However, its plot about a benign conspiracy to mitigate undersea earthquakes only holds together by a perverse lack of communication. One decent conversation could have ended a lot of the conflict.

In short, Pohl and Williamson, both very solid authors, feel like they totally phoned it in. If they had stopped with the first book, it would have been better.

I came out of the experiences with two takeaways:

Robert E. Heinlein really was amazing for his ability to write juveniles.

Juveniles and Young Adult are two different genres and I like Young Adult better.

You can find this also at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Mar 17, 2021 4:34 pm
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Is GM-lite a thing?

Lowell Kempf
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I’ve written about GM-free systems before (and I will again!) And I’ve written about how there is a lot of responsibility placed on a GM, which is one of the reasons I like GM-free systems.

However, there is a middle ground where players provide a lot of narration and overall story structure. I think of them as GM-Lite. If that’s a real term, grams to liters has kept me from finding it via Google.

The idea of breaking up the GM duties is one that can be found in a lot of games these days. The GM controls the story, the setting and all the NPCs is a paradigm that doesn’t have to be a sacred cow that’s never slaughtered.

One of the earliest examples I’ve found is Trollbabe from 2002. I don’t know if it’s the earliest example (I’m actually sure it’s not) but I understand it was a very influential one. I haven’t played Trollbabe but it is very high on my stack of games I want to play someday. There are a lot of interesting design choices in the system.

It definitely takes an improvisational approach, with the idea that you sit down at the table to collectively tell a story without hours of prep time. The mechanics are simple so everyone can focus on the narrative.

One touch that really stuck with me from the design is that the game master narrates player successes but the players narrate their own failures. Some of the core elements of the traditional, old guard game master are blatantly passed out to the players.

Man, I really need to reread that rule book.

As I have mentioned in the past, I have had game masters who spent hours upon hours working on the game. It was practically their second job. And, quite frankly, that’s a kind of time commitment that I don’t want to ask for anyone. Yes, GM-free systems are clearly a way to avoid that. However, I forgot that there was a middle ground as well. For some groups, that might be the ideal solution.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Mar 16, 2021 3:44 am
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Yard Builder - nothing new but also nothing stressful

Lowell Kempf
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Yard Builder is a roll-and-write where everyone draws a yard on their own player sheet from the same die rolls. It’s one of those games where the number of players is limited only by the number of player sheets and everyone’s ability to see the die rolls.

In Yard Builder, you are filling in a five-by-five grid with different landscaping elements. Paths, garden squares, house squares, etc. Someone rolls three twenty-sided dice. Then anyone can pick any of the three dice. There’s a handy table on one side of the player sheet that tells you what yard features the die rolls let you draw in. After the first square, you need to drawn in squares that are touching already drawn in squares (diagonals count) You get points for groups of like things and special unique features that get special scoring.

There is absolutely nothing new in Yard Builder. I’ve seen every element in it literally dozens of times. My files are full of games that use the Take It Easy ‘Bingo with Stategy’ system.

And I’m okay with that.

I tried out this game on a very Monday Monday and it really brightened my mood. Drawing in a yard just felt good. It’s just a very happy little game about landscaping.

The designer stated that the goal for the game was for it to be relaxing. They even included a variation where you ignore the placement restriction to make for an even more casual game. If a casual, no stress game that could by played via video conferencing was the mission statement, they succeeded.

Yard Builder isn’t a game that I’d recommend for a ‘serious’ gaming experience and there are a lot of serious gaming friends I won’t be recommend it to. However, I have already started recommending to non-gaming friends who I think would find it healing.

Originally drawn in at a relaxed pace at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Mar 12, 2021 4:40 pm
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The Reckoners Trilogy is the apocalypse via super powers

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I was about a third of the way through the third book in Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners trilogy when I finally realized that they were young adult books. That was when I noticed that while there was graphic violence and a lot of examinations of ethics and morality, there wasn’t any swearing or sex scenes.

Let me say before anyting else that I won’t be discussing the plots of any of the books because there would just be too many spoilers.

The books in the trilogy are Steelheart, Firefight and Calamity. In theory, they are super hero fiction but (not in a remotely bad way) they didn’t read like super hero fiction but post apocalyptic science fiction.

Ten years before the start of series, a red star appeared in the sky. Some people became epics, gaining eclectic mixes of super powers. And every last one of them became corrupt and destructive murderers. By the time the first book starts, the entire world is a devastated ruin that makes the Mad Max movies seem like a happier place to live.

Our hero is David Charleston, who has become an expert on Epics after one killed his father. He basically forces the Reckoners, the underground resistance dedicated to killing Epics, to recruit him. From there, we follow his journey into becoming an action hero and growing up. It’s actually more subtle than most young adult coming of age stories. Oh and one of his best characteristics is that David is hilariously bad at similes.

Seriously, I read digital copies from the library so I could see how many of his terribly similes other folks had underlined.

While I don’t want to discuss the plot, I do want to discuss the setting. I can’t say it isn’t comic book-like since The Walking Dead and Uber are comic books. But despite having super powers, it does not feel like the superhero genre.

Super powers in this setting are a literal curse. Not a Spider-Man everything goes wrong curse but a curse that drives you insane. And there are quirky elements to them. Oddball weaknesses (they all have them) and mishmashes of powers. It’s a plot point that one epic has ‘conventional’ powers.

More than that, power epics have geographic effects. In addition to the collapse of society, each book features a city that has been warped by Epic powers. Chicago is enshrouded in night and changed to steel, including part of Lake Michigan. New York is flooded with sky skraper top islands with glowing plants. Atlanta is a creeping mass of salt. (That last one is really weird)

Much of my super hero reading has been real world + super heroes. The Reckoners trilogy is its own crazy thing in a pretty realized setting. Which is what made it worth reading.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Mar 10, 2021 9:35 pm
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We ask a lot of our GMs

Lowell Kempf
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I think being a game master needs to be a voluntary choice. In an ideal world, game masters need to know the rules better than anyone else. They need to know the setting better than anyone else. They have to play a cast of potentially thousands. And they should know what big picture story is.

Man, that is a LOT of work. Back when I was in a regular campaign, managing one character while living the rest of my work could be tricky. Sometimes, it felt like the game master was spending all their time awake on the game.

AND they were the one who ended up buying all the books. I recently heard someone estimate that someone starting off in fifth edition for the first time would need to spend $450 in books before they could start being a game master. I would like to think there’s some wiggle room in that but that is still a lot to put down before you know if you really want to keep on doing it.

That’s why, more and more, I have become a fan of GM-free games. Everyone gets to be in the hot seat and the prep often comes down to just come to the table.

There are plenty of downsides GM-free lifestyle. For one thing, most GM-free systems are designed for one-shots or very short campaigns. That’s not universal. I know that Ars Magica has long had a troupe mode that doesn’t use a game master. However, I’ve never heard of anyone I actually know using it. It’s not impossible but a long GM-free campaign has an uphill climb. Everyone involved had better being willing to take lots of notes.

The other issue that GM-free has is that everyone has to be willing to step up. The two keys are improvisation and collaboration. It’s going to be harder for the folks who just want to show up and roll dice.

That said, one of the best GM-free systems I’ve experienced is Fiasco, the game of powerful ambition and poor impulse control. It was billed to me as the Coen Brothers RPG. And the game is very intuitive to the point in which I would say that it is one of the perfect entry points into role-playing games for someone who has never played one before.

So clearly there are ways that a system can help players adjust to the world without a game master. It may be through simple or intuitive mechanics. It may be through using tropes and archetypes so they understand the shape of the stories that they are telling. Maybe everyone has to do more lifting but it’s not on one person’s shoulders.

GM-free systems have been around, one way or another, since the 70s. I’ve been looking at them in the interest of pickup games or life without a group. However, now I’m wonder if they can make at least one member of a group’s life easier.

Originally posted over at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Mar 8, 2021 7:05 pm
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No spoilers about the end of WandaVision

Lowell Kempf
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I have finished watching the last episode of WandaVision. I am going to write absolutely no spoilers. I will say that there were choices that disappointed me but far more than that surprised me and made me happy. The overall experience was very positive for me.

Okay, I will also that that giving that Elizabeth Olson and Paul Bettany room to show off their acting chops was rewarding.

Well, here are some more general thoughts:

This whole malarkey about only releasing an episode a week? I know it’s just to make sure people don’t binge and cancel their subscription on the same day but it really worked for me. Binging TV shows just doesn’t work for my time management to the point where I almost don’t watch TV shows. The obsolete weekly scheduling format? That I can do. (Probably just means that I’m old)

In fact, the weekly format might be why I watch Falcon and the Winter Soldier.


Originally posted over at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Mar 5, 2021 7:39 pm
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