Monday, March 30, 2020

Did Lauren Faust read the Firebringer trilogy?

That’s actually not a very fair question. Meredith Ann Pierce’s unicorn culture is very different than the world of Friendship Is Magic. For one thing, the Firebringer Unicorns are basically Stone Age tribes while the fourth generation of My Little Pony is modified modern day. Still, both works are set around an equine-based culture in a world with many intelligent species. So, it did come to mind when reading the trilogy.

While fantasy and science fiction often deals with non-human cultures, non-humanoid is still a big next step. Still, it happens often enough. Pierce’s world is nicely realized but what makes it memorable is how much she demystifies unicorns of all things. Their mystics can have prophetic dreams and they are very athletic but by making them the baseline ordinary people, they are less fantastic, more mundane.

Which by no means is a bad thing. It’s just interesting.

I don’t know how to discuss these books without major spoilers. At the same time, I don’t know how much really counts as a spoiler. Jan, the protagonist of the first book (and duagonist of the second two books ) turns out to be the fire bringer of prophecy? Wow, that’s going to be pretty obvious to every reader.

At the start of the series, the unicorns have been in diaspora for forty generations. Their homeland was taken over by the venomous wyverns. They are also have bad relations with the neighboring gryphon and pan (faun) tribes. Over the course of the three books, Jan the prince of the unicorns both learns the secrets of fire and unites pretty much all the disparate peoples through diplomacy. Meanwhile, in her own story arc, his mate Tek kicks butt and takes names. 

Plot wise, the books are very formulaic. Without exaggeration, Jan goes through Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in _every_ _single_ book. There aren’t a lot of surprises about what happens. Will the unicorns regain their last homelands from the wyverns? Would I spoil anything telling you?

Instead, the setting, the use of language and the character development are reason to read these books and those are three very good reasons. As I already mentioned, the world building is great and Pierce has a wonderful, lyrical voice that carries through the series.

And the character development is very strong. Jan doesn’t just go through dramatic experiences. He also goes through dramatic changes. The Jan at the start of third book is a far cry from the Jan at the start of the first book and we got to see how he got there.

And the other main character, Tek, might not change as much as Jan but is still a fully realized character. And she has to overcome more dire obstacles than Jan does once she gets to be a POV character. In the second book, her plot about surviving the unicorn king going insane is the strongest part of the whole series.

From what I have read, this series has spent a lot of time out of print. Which is a shame because it should be a classic.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Okay, let’s try again to sneak gaming into education

The dream of all gamer parents is using games as educational tools. Of course, kids being kids, this usually turns out to be a pipe dream but I am still clinging to my copies of 10 Days for dear life :D

With homeschooling currently a part of our daily lives, trying to find educational games that actually work has become more important. Of course, there’s less time for looking for such games since that’s how the world works. 

My next project along those lines is FourSight Word Game. I learned that the publishers were at least temporarily allowing it to be downloaded as a print and play so I downloaded it. The next step is is to actually make it. I’m hoping to do that this weekend. 

It is made up of two types of tiles: tiles with three-letter words and tiles with one letter. The actual game is a speed game where you are trying to make four-letter words as fast as you can. Which sounds so much worse when I actually type it out. 

But I’m not actually planning on playing by the actual rules with our six-year-old. That would just frustrate him to no end, seeing is how he is still learning to read. Instead, I want to have all the single letters out and available and flip over the three-letter words and explore how he can expand them.

I’m still not expecting him to be into it but I think it’s worth trying.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

We are all living in a world turned upside down

I will be honest. I didn’t want to write corona virus. I’m not an expert or an authority on any aspect of it and, quite frankly, one of the reasons I blog is to decompress. But the corona virus is something that’s affecting all of us. And gaming and reading are part of how I get through stress and that’s kind of what this blog is about. 

Interestingly, since online gaming in one form or another has been a party of my gaming life for so long that it hasn’t been a part of my decompression from stress and being insular. That will probably change if more people I know start doing it and it becomes a broader social outlet. Animal Crossing: New Horizons already promises to do that.

Print and Play has been a big part of my decompression. More crafting than playing right now but it definitely helps put me in a zen place. I don’t have a lot of time for crafting or playing with the new world of home schooling but even a little project is good. 

I hope everyone is doing well. The world has turned upside down for all of us.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Intellectual properties work best when I don’t care about the source material

I recently got almost the complete run of IDW’s Star Trek comic books set in the 2009 movie universe, the one by J. I. Abrams. And I’ve been quite enjoying them.

Here’s the thing. I have a great appreciation for Star Trek but it’s not a franchise I’m really into. (I have been told that would change if I binged DS9) That’s particularly true for the Abrams movies, of which I’ve only seen the first one. 

I have also found comic book adaptations of intellectual properties feel ‘off’ to me. I don’t have this problem with book adaptations. I think part of it is that comic book panels create a very specific form of pacing, as discussed by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics. I think the change in pacing just changes the way stories are told enough to feel weird to me, on top of other issues from adaptations.

So why I am enjoying these comic books so much?

Well, I think it’s because I have almost no investment in this version of Star Trek. There isn’t any is ‘the Doctor wouldn’t do that’ or ‘Applejack wouldn’t take off her hat!’ or even ‘that’s not Picard!’ So if these books aren’t true to the movies, I don’t care! For me, it’s fun science fiction comic books with familiar costumes.

So, my theory is the more divorced I am from a source material, the happier I can be with adaptations.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The tiniest things can make tiny games interesting

One of my hobbies is reading indie RPGs. I don’t know how strange that is but I do come across some strange things. Sometimes I find gems that I would like to really play. Other times, I find games that I’m pretty sure will be duds. And sometimes, I just find madness like A Flask Full of Gasoline that has actually drinking gasoline in the rules.

I just read two: Operation: Caveman and King of Slimes. I couldn’t find enough to write about either of them to make for an entertaining blog but I thought I might be fun to compare them just because I had very opposite reactions to them.

Operation: Caveman is about being prehistoric folks who are trying to get a leg up on other tribes. It uses a very simple mechanic of a single die roll with modifiers to resolve stuff. Which I do appreciate. A beer and pretzel RPG should be simple and intuitive.

However, my reaction to Operation: Caveman was ‘Why would I like play this rather than the Land of Og?’ Which is not a question I ever thought I’d ever find myself typing. Not because Og is bad. It’s a hoot. But it’s such a niche product that I thought it remain unique. Og is a touch more complex but much more richly developed. 

King of Slimes has you play a JRPG slime that’s trying to become the biggest slime while avoiding getting squished by newb adventurers who want quick xp. The whole game consists of grabbing colorful candy blindly out of a bowl to determine both an adventurer and the reward for beating the encounter. When the bowl is empty, whoever has the most candy wins and becomes King of Slimes.

Honestly, King of Slimes doesn’t cross my notoriously low threshold of being an RPG. It’s a party game (by its own admission) with a push-your-luck mechanic that looks like a combat mechanic if you squint really hard. (Okay. Every combat mechanic is a push-your-luck mechanic if you want to be honest) If you wanted to, you could add a narrative element but there’s nothing in the rules about that.

But I can see playing it, particularly with kids, and I can see easily house ruling some narrative in so it does have some legitimate RPG elements. King of Slimes isn’t going to change my life but I can see trying it at least once, which more than justifies adding it to my files.

Tiny, short form indie RPGs are odd beasts. I don’t look for my next D&D, just an interesting event. And sometimes it is the smallest details that can make the difference between interesting and not.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

What can you do with one sheet of paper?

My rough measure of, well, how much work a PnP is going to be is the number of pages I print out. But, wow, can that be a wide range in reality. After making a copy of Raging Bulls (printing out and laminating a sheet of paper) and Robots of Creation (forty-two itty bitty cards, plus a couple of tiles) almost back-to-back, I really found myself wondering how useful a measure was :D

That said, I think those two examples represent the two extremes of how much cutting you can expect to do on one page.

I almost don’t count just laminating a sheet of paper. Ironically, I have had a lot of great experiences with Roll and Writes so the return on some of those builds has been great.

The real middle ground for me are sheets of eight or nine cards or boards with a couple columns of counters. Basically, if I can cut it in five minutes with a paper cutter, it is still an easy build.

However, when I have to get out the scissors and fussy cut for an half an hour, that’s when i cross over the threshold to it being ‘work’.

The first time I really experienced a fussy-cut build was Raiders in My Pocket. At first I was thrilled at a Zombie in My Pocket that fit on one page. However, I spent more time making it than I did making Tiny Epic Zombies :P And the bits were so tiny that I actually had real problems physically playing the game.

The last two fussy-cut builds I’ve made have been Robots of Creation and My Little Castle. It helped that I had a good idea what I was getting into, build-wise. I think these small bits will work better than Raiders.

Ironically, the actual intellectual-size of the game isn’t determined by the number of cuts. Utopia Engine, for instance, is fairly deep and cat fit on one page with no cuts.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Zero Kelvin falls short of classic

In what sometimes feels like a never-ending journey through Roll and Writes (Pretty sure I haven’t crossed the line into obsessive compulsion), I have found that some games whole point is to be an alternative to Yahtzee. In fact, I think Gaiko no Saikoro actually has that in its design statement.

Zero Kelvin certainly seems to fit that bill. Despite the name, it’s a themeless collection of dice games. The name only comes into play because you are ‘freezing’ die rolls.

As I mentioned before, it’s a collection of micro dice games. Five of them, in fact. Each one uses six dice and each one involves rolling those dice and freezing at least one of them after each roll. The games are (inhale): HiLo has you roll two sets of three dice and subtract the smaller one from the big one; Threes has you aiming for a low number with threes equaling zero; 1,4 requires you to freeze a one and four to score the other dice; Knockout has you roll each die one at a time but ones knock out the highest die; Odds has you just score odd but if you ever roll all evens you get zero points. (Whew!)

(I have to note that I found the rules annoyingly vague, which is bad such a simple game. They are formatted to fit on the back of the player sheet, which is the size of a two index cards. Still, they really could be better)

I’ve seen most of these ideas before in other games (Cinq-O, Fistful of Penguins, etc) And I’d have e to say that every game that is built around just one or two of these ideas usually does a better job of it. That said, I don’t dislike any of the micro games except Knockout (and that’s because you don’t actually make any decisions) On a whole, Zero Kelvin is a perfectly serviceable dice game.

Would I rather play Zero Kelvin than Yahtzee? Actually, yes.  But a better question is: would I rather play it  than Knizia’s Decathlon? No, I like the Decathlon a lot much more.  Comparing those two games is a much fairer comparison and Knizia’s little gem is the clear winner.

I think that making a game that is basically just bog standard dice is a noble goal and there are some genuinely brilliant games that do just that. I’ve already mentioned Knizia’s Decathlon and I’d also add in Qwixx and That’s Pretty Clever, just off the top of my head. The list can definitely keep going. Zero Kelvin is _far_ from the worst I’ve tried but it doesn’t reach those hights.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Raging Bulls makes simplicity work

Raging Bulls is a game that has been on my radar for a while. It’s gotten decent buzz and making it consists of printing out one page, maybe laminating it. So, seeing as how I’ve been playing lots of Roll and Writes lately, I decided it was time.

Raging Bulls has you drawing lines on a grid to fence in bulls with die rolls determining which points you can draw from. Honestly, that’s a pretty good description of the game in one  sentence.

The simplicity of Raging Bulls is both the best part of it and why you’d probably burn out on it relatively easily. A couple years ago, I tried out another Roll and Write called the Captain’s Curse which also involved carving up an area with straight lines. Raging Bulls is a much simpler design but, at the same time, I felt like I had more legitimate choices in Raging Bulls. It’s simplicity also makes it very intuitive.

At the same time, it’s not flawless. The random placement of bulls could place them on the edge, making them much more difficult to fence in. The difficulty can be way all over the place, depending on the dice. I’ve been having fun with the game but I can see how it won’t be a winner for everyone.

The site Happy Meeple has added Raging Bulls to the list of games you can play online there. And it’s added elements like sheep, ponds and other mechanics. I do intend to explore that. I am curious to see if making Raging Bulls more complicated makes it better or spoils it.

Raging Bulls epitomizes for me the potential of a PnP R&W experience. Not perfect but very accessible on almost every level.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Dunsany Dreams 16

The Architect and the Spider

The architect looked out his window, where a spider was spinning her web. In the distance, the architect could see a great bridge of steel that spanned a mighty river with long cables.

‘And this is why we have inherited the Earth,’ he said.

But the spider whispered to him ‘My people spun out webs lit before there was a human race and we will spin them long after you all are gone.’

Thursday, March 5, 2020

How Theodore Sturgeon created the muck monster

For decades, I always assumed the ur-example of a muck monster a la the Swamp Thing and the Man-Thing was the Heap from Airboy comics. (Which is pretty much all I know about the Heap, by the way)  However, I somehow heard the argument that Theodore Sturgeon created the concept in his early story It.

So, of course, I had to track that story down. Way to give a specific title to a work, Ted!

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers. To an 80-year-old story :P But I will because the last line of the story just took the story to a different level.

The titular It really is an ur-example of beings like the Heap or the original versions of the Swamp Thing or the Man-Thing. Basically an undead monster with swamp plants over a human skeleton. (Yes, I know Alan Moore ditched that idea to beautiful effect but the Swamp Thing started out that way) 

Not that that is spelled out in detail. No, the true nature of It is slowly revealed over the course of the story. It is a mystery to us and everyone in the story, including It itself.

And one of the things that makes Theodore Sturgeon’s work sparkle is the sections written from the It’s point of view. It is not a mindless monster but a will that is driven by insatiable curiosity, flawed logic and absolutely no moral compass. Sturgeon succesfully created an inhuman but comprehensible point of view.

But, as i mentioned earlier, what really sold the story for me, what really gave it that punch, was the very last sentence in the story. “And Babe screams at night and has grown very thin” With that direct little sentence and with no details, Sturgeon sold me on the lasting trauma and horror of It.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Sometimes, the process is the reward of the game

As I’d written earlier, I just discovered that there was a Roll and Write contest in 2018. Fortunately for me, the files for all the entries that wanted to share their files are still around so I’ve been sifting through them. 

Some of the more interesting items don’t have solitaire options so they are on the back burner for me. (For many reasons that i’ve discussed before and will discuss again, it’s always easier to get a solitaire PnP on the table, regardless of its format) I printed off a couple of the quicker and more ink-light of the solitaire options.

As it happened, they had the exact same theme, coloring in autumn leaves. But one of them left me meh and the other one I enjoyed enough that I can see it part of my regular rotation.

Autumn Tree is a game where you are coloring on circles on a stick tree, with restrictions on the order you color in branches and how often you can use each color. You also have to deal with black leaves that worth negative points.

Man, I feel bad slamming someone else’s work. (I haven’t ever tried to design a R&W so I don’t know if I could do better) Autumn Tree is an example of a game that isn’t broken. All the parts work. But it’s sadly boring. (Sorry, sorry!) The decision tree is very simple and kind of obvious. It doesn’t engage me with either its decisions or its use of its theme.

Autumn Leaves is a game where you color in six different leaves, each one divided up into sections. You get points for completing leaves and using the same color. You also have to deal with a decay track, the dreaded color brown and a table of bad things happening to your leaves.

I’m honestly not sure that the decision tree in Autumn Leaves is actually any deeper than Autumn Tree. However, the process is more engaging. Each decision is binary but still involves sacrificing one leaf in the hopes of doing well with another. The decay track and the table of bad stuff helps keep the tension up.

And, while the art is just clip art that looks like it is from a free coloring book you might pick up for your kid at a local park, it does add that extra bit of visual pop. Really, you are pretty much coloring a picture as you go.

I have a theory that short, simple solitaire games can be as much about the process as the actual game. Last year, I made a copy of a game called Mariner from the Nine Card Contest. The game borders on being solved but I like the process of cycling through the deck. Autumn Leaves may not actually be a good game. The dice do control a lot of what goes on. But the procedure is fun.

On the one hand, I think there is value in exploring the PnP games that are out there. You can learn a lot of mechanics and the application of theme. In that sense, every game is worth trying. However, I also like finding a game that is fun.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Another PnP contest I hadn't heard of

I learned near the end of February that there was a Roll-and-Write Global Jam back in 2018, which actually meant a design contest with the theme of Autumn. And, for me, meant there were 40 games that I could freely download. Most of which I hadn’t seen before :D

I think I may actually be burning out on Roll and Writes. Not burned out on playing them but maybe getting burned out on learning new ones and burned out on looking for PnP Roll and Writes. It’s cool that there is so much out there but there is also so much out there.

And Theodore Sturgeon was so right. Love is one of the most essential human conditions but love requires patience and understanding and hard work. Oh, and 90% of anything is crud. (It’s a great quote but I wish Sturgeon was  more remembered for his writing. Ask the next question!)

Although, I have come across a lot more mediocrity than I have train wrecks. I have had more boring experiences than awful ones. Boring seems like a more common sin than broken. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.

And if you view it as a learning experience, PnP R&W is a pretty reasonable way to explore game ideas.  I’ll still probably take a break soon.

Monday, March 2, 2020

No one told me Winnie the Pooh was an owlbear

I don’t know if there had to be a Winnie the Pooh RPG but, if there had to be one, Winnie-the-Owl-Pooh does the job remarkably well.

The game was created waaay back in 2006 as part of a design contest from Bully Pulpit about owlbears. Yup, this is about Winnie the Pooh as an owlbear. A two-foot tall, child friendly owlbear who lives in the d100 Acre Wood with other child friendly version first edition Dungeons and Dragons monsters.

Mechanically, it’s a very rules light, narrative game. Folks take turns playing the titular owlbear and come up with innocent fun that always ends in troubles. The only die rolls in the game (and they favor the player who is playing Winnie the Owl Pooh) are to determine who gets to narrate how each kerfuffle ends up going. 

But what really struck me about Winnie-the-Owl-Pooh was how charming it is. I was expecting a  brutal deconstruction of Winnie the Pooh. Instead, it captures the whimsy and gentle satire of original Milne stories. If anything, it’s a reconstruction of old D&D monsters. I wasn’t quite as charmed by the Batman expansion for the game but even that has a similar feel.

As with any game, particularly a rules light narrative RPG, Winnie-the-Owl-Pooh depends on the group. Everyone has to be on board to tell a charming little children’s story or it will all fall apart like wet cardboard. But if you do want to tell such a story, I think this is a good system to use.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

My February PnP

I pretty much just made Roll and Writes in February:

Pencil Park, including the 2020  year version
Gryphon Delivery Service
Grazing Sheep

The original version of Pencil Park actually qualifies as a larger project by my meager standards. Three pages of cards. Not much but that was more than just laminating a sheet of paper after I printed it out :D

I only realized it when writing this blog that, for once, I actually tried out almost all the games I made this month. (Okay, it doesn’t hurt that the longest one is ten minutes and they all were just rolling dice and writing stuff down) I skipped Grazing Sheep because I want to explore one of the designers’ earlier works, Raging Bulls, first.

Honestly, when you consider that I probably spent an hour tops on print and play crafting in February, the return has been really great.