Wednesday, March 31, 2021

So The Catcher in the Rye helped create a genre?

 I became interested in the idea of Young Adult books as a concept when I was 2.3 books through a series when I realized it was Young Adult. And honestly, the only difference that I could tell was no swearing.

From what I can tell, the technical definition of Young Adult literature is whatever a publisher feels will sell better if they slap the label on it. Honestly, that’s about what I was expecting.

One thing that did stand out to me was that many folks feel that the two books that helped create the genre are The Catcher in the Rye and The Outsiders, the latter being the first ‘official’ Young Adult book. And The Outsiders made perfect sense to me but the Catcher in the Rye was a surprise.

It shouldn’t be. Young protagonist? Check. Real life problems? Check. Coming of age? Well, some kind of milestone towards adulthood. Frankly, I am just thankful The Sorrows of Young Werther isn’t considered the proto-Young Adult novel. 

I don’t know if I’m brave enough to reread The Catcher in the Rye. Every time I have read it, it’s been like reading a different book. Is Holden Caufield a brave, struggling youth or a jerk or sensitive kid who just doesn’t have coping skills? Depends on where you are when you read it.

I do remember in college arguing it was the great American novel but there was partially a rebellion against Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I also remember being surprised by how many girls I knew in middle school who loved the book until I realized that they identified with Phoebe, Holden’s sister.

If Wikipedia is anything to go by, a full half of the readers of Young Adult books are adults. Since I’m one of them, I’ll buy that. The Catcher in the Rye being a book that ended up bridging those two  audiences (but I’m pretty sure those two audiences get very different things from the book) but apparently it was The Outsiders that made authors and publishers say ‘Hey, there’s something there! There’s product and profit to be made!”

Monday, March 29, 2021

Yeah, this is an unpaid ad for a Kickstarter. Not going to lie about it

 It has been a while since I actually backed a Kickstarter project. However, Radow Ignatow’s A Lot of Games bundle managed to win me over.

And yes, it’s a Print and Play bundle. I’ve had enough issues with getting physical product actually shipped to me that I have resolved to only back Print and Plays. I figure I’m more likely to get the end product if the creators just need to send me an email.

And it’s a collection of one page Roll and Writes. Which admittedly means that it’s less physical content then a lot of Print and Play stuff I’ve backed. However, it does mean that it will be beyond easy to make and easier to convince other people to play since it’ll look close to what a published copy would look like. (I don’t make the prettiest PnP stuff)

In addition to being something that I’m into and the kind of stuff I’m already making (and playing), I’m encouraged by the fact that Ignatow already successfully ran this project in Polish. So both they and the project have a track record.

However, what was the real selling point for me was that each game is offered in   full color, low color and black and white, as well as full page and half page. That says to me that Ignatow understands their audience.

Of course, the real real I’m blogging about this is because I’m hoping more people will get interested and the project will make more stretch goals :D

Friday, March 26, 2021

Beverly Cleary. She wrote some good books.

 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.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Neuromancer: the book that became a genre

 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.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Foothold Enterprises is a hidden diamond in the rough

 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 :D)

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.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Clockmaster makes drawing a clock face fun

 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.

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 :P) 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 :D

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!’

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Sometimes great authors write mediocre kids books

 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.






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.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Is GM-lite a thing?

 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.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Yard Builder - nothing new but also nothing stressful

 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. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Reckoners Trilogy is the end of world by super powers

 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.

Monday, March 8, 2021

We ask a lot of our GMs

 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.

Friday, March 5, 2021

No Spoilers about the end of WandaVision


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.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Cyberpunk had to start somewhere

 I revisited William Gibson’s anthology Burning Chrome for the first time in at least twenty years. 

It’s quite a different read for me than it was back then :D

From what I can tell, it’s some of his earliest writing before he got into novels and once he started long form, he never went back to short stories. That worked out well for him. They were mostly written before Neuromancer, which was a bomb that hit both Science Fiction and Pop Culture and whose reverberations  are still being felt today. (Cyberpunk 2077, anyone?)

Gibson is interesting. He coined the term cyberspace but he didn’t invent the idea. The Muller-Fokker Effect by Jon Sladek explored the idea of minds in computers with a lot more satire and bitterness and hatred in 1970, for instance. (I don’t know if I’m brave enough to revisit that book!) I think what he did that had such impact was add the punk to cyberpunk. And don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking him. Gibson made it work by being a really good writer.

There were two stories that really stood out for me:  Dogfight and Burning Chrome. Which were also the last two stories in the book although not the last two written.

At least at this stage of his writing, most of Gibson’s protagonists may be flawed loners on the fringes of society but they are still talented people. You have to be good to break the internet. There is a certain element of glamor to them. Deke of Dogfight, on the other hand, is a Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman figure. Which makes his self-destruction even more poignant.

On the other hand, Burning Chrome is the story where Gibson introduced many of the imagery and ideas that would become cyberpunk. The heroes are tarnished cowboys who pull off their impossible heist, even if it turns out to not make them fulfilled or happy. They are larger than life, flawed archetypes. In Burning Chrome, you can see the shape of what was to come.

And now I want to reread Neuromancer :D

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

My February R&W

 Every solitaire game I taught myself how to play in February was a Roll and Write. It’s definitely not the first time I’ve done that but I feel like unpacking my thoughts about the experience this time.

Santa’s Sourhern Cross is a variation on tracing a pattern without lifting your pencil. The twist is that you randomly create the pattern on dots on a map of New Zealand. It ultimately is an exercise in creating a puzzle that doesn’t have a solution and it was very unsatisfying.

I am willing to try oddball experimental PnP games because that’s the best place to see concepts and ideas that you won’t see anywhere else. Its the legit punk world of gaming. But sometimes, that means playing something that doesn’t work on a fundamental level.

On the other hand, that’s kind of what I expected when I tried out Clockmaster from the fifth Roll and Write contest. You use four dice to draw a clock face before you fill in the timer. Which sounds super dull but I found myself playing it four times in a row.  There are some design choices I question but the game went from forgettable to justifying more discussion at a latter blog.

On the third hand, I went into Bargain Basement Bathysphere with high expectations and it hasn’t disappointed yet. I am going to get a lot of blogs out of it. I have looked ahead to chapter one but I’m trying not to spoil the game by reading through it. 

One conclusion I’ve come to is that I need to stop trying to go to the end of the track every time since that kills me every time. I need to prioritize staying alive, particularly with the long game in mind. 

I also want to mention my further play of Handful o Hazards. I had predicted that the second set of cards, which turn the game from random scenarios to a campaign game would dramatically improve it and I was right. It boosts the game from a cute little dice game (which is nice but easy to find) to something more interesting.

So much of my gaming time are tiny bits of free time as opposed to sitting down for a longer, more formal playing time. Hence all that little Roll and Writes. Print and Play is my hobby focus right now but I’m pretty sure it won’t always be. However, I have a feeling PnP R&Ws will remain a mainstay for me.

Monday, March 1, 2021

My February PnP

February is a short month to begin with and it ended up being a busy month as well. Which isn’t a bad thing but it meant that most of my crafting was just laminating Roll and Writes I wanted to try. 

This is what I made:

Paper Pinball: Sherwood 2146 second edition
Paper Pinball: Chromastadon
Paper Pinball: Championship Boogerball
Paper Pinball: Wave Wizard 
Santa’s Sourhern Cross
Rolling Realms v9
Foothold Enterprises 

The only ‘big’ project was Foothold Enterprises. Although, as basically a full deck of cards, it’s definitely a step up from a micro game. And, as an in-hand solitaire, it should be easy to try out.

When I first started seriously crafting, I’d mark Roll and Writes that just involved laminating a sheet with an asterisk in my notes. They didn’t seem as ‘real’ to me. However, I’ve come to view the fun I get from a game as the final measure, not the crafting effort.

March looks to be busy as well, which is fine. If I only get an hour or so of crafting in, I’ll make it count.