Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Something Wicked This Way Comes keeps on being a classic

I decided to wrap up my October reading with Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. That’s about as Halloween as a book is going to be.

A year or so back, I reread Bradbury’s Halloween Tree and found it disappointing, lacking. However, Something Wicked lives up to its reputation as a classic.

As pretty much everyone knows, Something Wicked is the evil supernatural carnival comes to town. It isn’t the first example of creepy carnivals or circuses but it certainly is one of the most definitive visions of it.

A lot of that has to do with Bradbury’s use of language and imagery. The man clearly had a deep and abiding love with the English language. I don’t feel he crosses over into actual purple prose but he definitely embellishes.  Radbury had one foot in pulp fiction and the other foot in poetry.

Bradbury definitely paints a nostalgic picture of America, a Norman Rockwell image of mischief and innocence. (To be fair, Norman Rockwell is more complex than his reputation, with works like The Four Freedoms and The Problem We All Live With showing a depth I feel gets ignored) I find the nostalgia angle easier to take from Bradbury than other sources because there is a melancholy and whimsy to his work that makes me question the legitimacy of the nostalgia. As if he knows it was never that simple.

The book that I found myself thinking about during this read was The Golden Age by Kenneth Grahame, another book about childhood memories that is steeped in melancholy. However, a key difference for me is the character of Charles Halloway. He is an adult looking back at childhood, not just the book doing it.

Indeed, while I feel everyone references the two boys, Will and Jim, Charles is as much a protagonist as they are. His journey ends up being perhaps the most important one in the book. Charles Halloway is an Obi-Wan Kenobi who not only lives but saves the day.

Indeed, without giving away too much, the book definitely becomes more dreamlike and fantastic by the end. Because it is less about corruption and evil and more about how people relate to time.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is remembered for being dark and horrifying, of a Halloween that came early. But it is also about finding the dawn that comes after.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Lost in Alone Among the Stars

 I have described Alone Among the Stars as the journaling game you have to try to figure out if you want to play any others. That’s because it is both very flexible and accessible and can be as king or as short as you want it to be.

Here’s the elevator pitch. You are a lone space explorer. You use dice and a deck of cards to determine individual encounters/ discoveries/ scenes. You write down a journal entry for each and you can stop any time. Whenever you stop, the rules explicitly have you decide to either keep the journal or get rid of it. 

There’s also an online application for Alone Among the Stars, making it even easier for causally play. It has also inspired a ton of hacks. Heck, I made one myself so I could use the system for a Castaway story.

Alone Among the Stars isn’t the deepest or the most intricate journaling game I’ve seen, not a long shot. I also wouldn’t say it’s the best or my favorite. But the ease of play and the flexibility to play long form or short form make it a good, reliable game.

I’m warming up to try out some journaling games for November since it’s NaMoWriMo month. I’d already played The Swamp You Die In but I knew I wanted to play some Alone Among The Stars as well.

During the course of my game, I kept on rolling planets that had only one discovery on them. And so I kept on going through five or six planets. 

Then the site had a hiccup and erased everything I had written. 

I’ve made it a point to save all my journaling games but destroying your records is an option in the Alone Among the Stars. So I decided that this was my time to do that.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Good bye, my little gray cat

On Monday, October 23, 2023, our little gray cat Slater passed away.

She was seventeen and a half years old and she had spent fifteen and a half of those years with me. She was a bridge from my bachelor days to my becoming a husband and a father. She had lived in three different cities with us, traveling across the country twice as we moved.

She was definitely a part of our family. And she was a good kitty.
Slater was a relentlessly affectionate cat. She was a cuddler and a snugglier whether you wanted her to be or not. She would regularly try to steal people food off our plates. She would wrestle the other cats. She would jump at sudden noises with her tail fluffed out but then had to go and find out what if was.

Three years ago, she was diagnosed with kidney disease. She had to take blood pressure medicine. The muscles in her eyes had degenerated to the point where her eyes didn’t dialafe anymore. And yet, her blood tests kept coming back with good numbers. She would run and jump and climb like a car a third her age. She had such a zest for life.

And it was a heart attack that took her. It almost felt like that, since all of her other health issues weren’t slowing her down, nature had to try something else. I was there when it happened and I was able to get her to the vet to ease her passing. 

She was a good cat who had a good run and who relished life. I’m glad she was a part of our family.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Returning to the Swamp You Die In

Last November, I didn’t want to prioritize my time to participate in NaNoWriMo. (You know, National Novel Writing Month) However, I did observe it by learning and playing journaling RPGs. There’s a surprising number of ways to play RPGs solitaire but I do find that journaling feels very natural.

I wanted to revisit some of the journaling games I played to warm up for this November. While I thought about starting with Alone Among the Stars (a really strong game that I feel you should try to figure out if journaling games will work for you), I went with The Swamp You Die In for Halloween’s sake.

(Don’t worry. I’m sure Alone Among the Stars will get played more than once in the coming weeks)

That said, The Swamp You Die In is a very gentle way to ease back into journaling games. It consists of six tables of very directed writing prompts. In the course of six die rolls, you are guided on a nightmare journey through a swamp you will never escape.

Presentation and quality do a lot to make The Swamp You Die In work. Going back into it with fresh eyes helped me appreciate that. It is formatted at a comic book, which is more engaging than just a set of tables. And the prompts are very focused, helping push a horror narrative along. 

Of course, there’s a real limit to the replay value. It’s honestly a game I can’t see myself playing more than once or twice a year (while Alone Among the Stars is easy to go back to over and over again)

However, in revisiting it, I’m more impressed than ever how well The Swamp You Die In does with its razor focused goal. It gives you just enough freedom to be creative while holding your hand the rest of the way into the heart of the swamp.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Tumbling back into One Piece

Since the Netflix One Piece got me back in a One Piece of mind, I let myself get drawn back into reading the manga.

The thought of starting from the start again horrified me so I picked up where I left off. It’s been more than ten years but I was able to figure that out without much trouble. (It also helped that I can get volumes digitally from the library, saving both money AND space. Seriously, I had multiple shelves devoted to One Piece)

And so I have now read the Water Seven Arc.






I amazed at how easily I found myself back into Oda’s madcap world. I’ve wondered what the best single word to describe Oda as an artist and I think it might be enthusiasm. And that enthusiasm pulls you through the world in a way that makes you amazed at how much you actually ended up reading.

Back when I was regularly reading One Piece (and I honestly read only a tiny fraction of the series), I also read about the series. In a general way, I knew some of what was to come. And a lot of what I knew was to come happened in Water Seven lol

I knew Luffy and Usopp would have a major fight that resulted in Usopp leaving the group, only to come back in a mask. I knew that the Strawhats would declare war on the world government to save Robin. I knew that the Going Merry would sink and be replaced by the Thousand Sunny. I knew the Strawhats would get a shipwright who was a cyborg named Franky.

That all happened in Water Seven.

I will note that, in a series with lots of feels, the death of the Going Merry was the most powerful gut punch Oda has given me.

And I had low expectations for Franky, feeling naming him after Frankenstein was pretty low hanging fruit. When he turned out to be a cross between the Six Million Dollar Man, a fifties greaser and Popeye, I was won over. Truly, he is super.

One Piece is a beautiful, sprawling mess that I thought I was finished with. It was fun being wrong.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

A simple game of fantasy mining that still works

As I’ve mentioned before, Alexander Shen has a gift for making neat coffee break-sized games and puzzles. Making five-minute games might not be as impressive as making six hour epics that break dining room tables but damn if it still isn’t a cool gift.

Take What You Mine is a game where you fill a pack with gems and treasure chests and slime that you dig out of the ground. It has just enough theme to have some quirky charm.

Mechanically, it’s one of those Roll and Writes where you’re filling a grid with symbols. You have a five-by-five grid where you out the stuff you want to get points for. You also have a five square grid (a square with one extra space sticking out) for putting stuff you don’t want in your backpack but those will be worth negative points.

The basic idea is simple. Roll one die, consult the chart and draw the item in. Each item has a different sent of scoring rules (gems have to be in a set, stone has to be an even number) but it’s the slime and the treasure chests that make the game tick.

Slime, excuse me, _pure_ slime is worth a respectable four points. BUT it can’t be placed next to another slime and it renders anything it’s next to worthless. 

Treasure chests take up four squares and their value is determined at the end of the game with a die roll for each chest.  And treasure chests are the worst. They take up a lot of space and the best return you can get is 1.5 points per square. 

The game ends either when you choose to end it after a placement or when you make a roll you either can’t or refuse to make. If the game ends the second way, you lose as many points as that final die roll.

Take What You Mine has some definite limitations. Any Roll and Write that uses only one die limits both what the dice can do and your ability to play with the odds. And Take What You Mine doesn’t have any dice manipulation so you have to cope with what you get.

That said, between the fairly generous placement rules and the discard pack, you do have more control than I was honestly expecting. The game is an interesting balance of being just big enough to offer actual choices while being small enough that the limitations don’t get annoying.

Take What You Mine does a very good job of making an interesting five minutes. If it was even just twice as long, it would need more. However, it’s excellent with a cup of coffee.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Experiments in Roll and Move

I try and learn at least one or two games a month but October has been a month where finding the time and focus to do that just hasn’t been there. Then I realized that a good place to look would be Alexander Shen’s catalog.

Now, that might sound like a slam on Shen’s design skills but it’s the opposite. Their short and deceptively simple games and puzzles serve a very real purpose and need. And the way Shen keeps on creating games that fit so neatly the coffee break niche means it’s not an accident.

Quests Over Coffee: Danger Room is a game I have periodically looked at, in no small part because I feel that Quests Over Coffee is Shen’s strongest game. 

Spoiler: Danger Room has nothing to do with Quests Over Coffee.

The board, score/time track and rules for Danger Room take up just one page. You just print off that page, add some tokens and dice and you’re done.

The board is a seven by seven grid. There are four three-square L-shapes that divide the board into bottlenecks and paths. There are also eighteen scoring spaces on the board, each with a dice pip on if.

You put a token in the middle of the board to serve as your pawn. The scoring token goes at the start of the track and the time goes on the end. Each turn, you roll three dice and assign one to movement, own to scoring and one to time.

Move is obvious. Move your pawn that many spaces with no backtracking. The time die moves that many spaces down the track. Scoring is a little weirder because the pip symbol doesn’t mean that that actual pip. You actually check a chart to see if the die you assigned earns one to three points. 

The game ends when the score token and the fine token either meet or pass each other. At that point, your score is your score.

Wow. A lot of Shen’s games and puzzles are minimal but Danger Room really pushes it. Both in flavor and in content, it just felt like there wasn’t anything there. As a contrast, Shen’s Blankout is just as minimal but has some pattern recognition and development that I enjoy. 

There are some nice touches. Lower numbers tend to score better so you have a choice to slow the time token down or try to get points. If I was told that Danger Room had been created as mental exercise, I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s a solitaire Roll and Move with very few moving parts.

I found the idea interesting enough to play Danger Room a few times but it feels more like an experiment than a game. That said, I also tried another Shen solitaire at the same time, Take What You Mine, and I enjoyed that one a lot more.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

October is Three Investigators month

 October is Halloween month. Which is the perfect time for Lovecraftian horror but also a good time for more harmless Scooby Doo


And one of my major sources for Scooby Doo Scares has been The Three Investigators, a series of juvenile mysteries that actually started a few years before the first Scooby Doo cartoon.

(I was well aware that the idea of faking a supernatural occurrence long predates Scooby Doo. Wilkie Collins, an influence on Charles Dickens, used it for crying out south. However, allegedly the Chateaux Vauvert in France was the subject of one in real life in the 13th century. And that’s just the first one I found)

I am slowly making my way through the series and the Mystery of the Invisible Dog made me decide that it was time to write about the Three Investigators again. Because it is buck wild.

You see, on a whole, the Three Investigators are relatively grounded. Yes, they do things like debunk haunted houses and go on treasure hunts that were designed by Professor Layton and they have an elaborate junkyard hideout. However, all of the crazy mysteries do get explained in a rational manner and the guardians of one of the members owns that junkyard. On top of that, the three of them have fairly well developed personalities for characters in juvenile literature from over 50 years ago.





The actual story is about a stolen crystal statue of a dog but that’s not why I found it so interesting.

Near the end of the book, over the course of twenty-four hours, someone gets poisoned, a car gets bombed and someone’s place gets set on fire. That’s a whole lot of action for one of these books.

On top of that, a major plot point involves astral projection. And there’s a ghost who never gets disproven but also doesn’t have anything to do with the actual case.

This isn’t the first time the Three Investigators have drawn outside the lines. The Silver Spider had them go to another country for the CIA. Monster Mountain had them run into Bigfoot. But both of those felt like more of a strain than the Invisible Dog. 

And that because Invisible Dog didn’t hold back. The baby flew past on a hang glider when the bath water went out. It’s willingness to just go crazy won me over.

That said, I hope the next book steers back to the usual tone.

Monday, October 9, 2023

Holding your breath and doing math - RPG or party game?

 As I mentioned in my last blog, I decided to read a couple micro RPGs. The first one, Holy Mountain, was just what I expected. Wreckdivers.. was not.

Wreckdivers, from what I can tell, was originally published in Table Top Magazine, as was Holy Mountain. I’ve never actually seen the magazine but I am now under the assumption that one-page games were a regular feature.

It’s a game of doing math with dice rolls while you hold your breath.

The theme is diving down to wrecked ships to salvage gold. The active player rolls two dice to see how long they need hold their breath. During that time, they roll two red dice and and two white dice. If the sum of the white dice is greater than the sum of red dice, you get the difference in gold. Keep on rolling and keep doing the math in your head while you hold your breath.

You can surface any time during your dive but if you breathe or run out of time, you lose any gold you got. Other players can talk during your turn and if they make you laugh, that counts as breathing.

Okay, I stand corrected. It’s a game of doing math while holding your breath while the jerks you hang out with try and make you laugh.

I have to admit, I think that Wreckdivers is kind of genius in its silly, slaphappy fun. Most micro RPGs invoke fear or anger or sadness. Because those are easy. (I once tried to get a manuscript of micro games published and I know I leaned heavily on those emotions. Because I knew I could get them to work) A game designed to make people laugh? That’s harder and I respect Wreckdivers for going for that.

It’s no Sea Dracula but that’s a high standard. Wreckdivers isn’t a game I’d play with folks who are looking for bleed in their RPGs but I would play it with the bastards who I’d have played with Diplomacy with.

There is one tweak I’d add to Wreckdivers. Have the non-active players take on the personas of folks sitting on the dock or in the boat. THEN it becomes an actual RPG.

Friday, October 6, 2023

A page of RPG bleed

I went through a period of reading a lot of micro RPGs. That’s kind of given way to reading and playing journaling RPGs but it’s still fun to do it every once in a while.

Holy Mountain, at least the one I stumbled across, was originally published im Table Top Magazine. In it, players are a group of pilgrims climbing a mountain, stopping at different shrines.

Micro RPGs, to steal an analogy from Isaac Asimov, are the blowgun of RPGs. They just have room to do one thing and only one chance to do it.

The key idea of Holy Mountain is that the pilgrims have vowed to not speak of the outside world, their ancestors, the trail ahead or expose their faces. And they must break each of these vows at the shrines.

One concept that comes up a lot when it comes to looking at indie RPGs is bleed, the idea of real emotions bleeding into the game. (Obviously, this exists in non-indie games as well) Creating bleed is pretty much the only point of Holy Mountain.

Which is beyond reasonable. That’s not a bad goal. I was in a short-lived group that focused on indie games, mostly because we wanted a break from D&D. And we would have enjoyed Holy Mountain.

With that said, Holy Mountain has two hurdles to overcome. One, a group has to be serious about playing it (which is an issue any game can have) Two, it doesn’t stand out in a world where there are a lot of little games about bleed.

Holy Mountain reminded me why I started hunting down journaling RPGs instead. At the same time, I like living in a world where people write games like it.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

In Hydra, Kuttner achieved cosmic horror

It’s been about a year since I last wrote about the late Henry Kuttner, author of wonderfully pulpy works in the thirties through fifties. While I had read some of his stuff as soon as I was old enough to find it in library anthologies, I hadn’t realized he was part of the Lovecraft Circle. (To be fair, the internet really wasn’t around when I was doing most of my Kuttner reading)

And, when I did read some of his Mythos work, I felt it fell short of both cosmic horror standards and the  standards of some of the other stuff that Kuttner wrote. However, when I came across a reference to a Mythos being called Hydra that was different than Mother Hydra of the Deep Ones, I went down the rabbit hole to read his short story ‘Hydra’

And in doing so, I found what is the most Lovecraftian thing I’ve read so far by Henry Kuttner.




Foolish person learns why messing with unearthly abominations is a bad idea



The plot isn’t really a surprise



Two foolish students stumble upon an occult ritual that ends horribly for everyone involved. The basic plot is pretty standard. The good stuff is in rhe details and the complete and utter despair.

The title entity is an ocean of gray goo that has a multitude of heads floating on  it. The heads aren’t Hydra’s own heads but those of its victims, who it drains of intelligence while keeping them alive in eternal agony.

Yeah, that’s some solid nightmare fuel.

The ritual that lets it take its victims is fascinatingly convoluted. Its followers published a pamphlet on astral projection. However, Hydra can open a portal whereever your projection goes and take innocent heads.

Soooo… other than getting in touch with a cosmic horror, the person who performs the ritual gets off Scott free? Not going to lie, other than the inevitable insanity, that’s a pretty sweet deal by Mythos standards.

The story also doesn’t explain why the cultists published the pamphlet for innocent people to accidentally use _rather than perform the ritual themselves_

The actual conflict of the story ends up the protagonists being haunted and harried by the severed head of their mentor who they accidentally sacrificed to Hydra. Don’t worry. It ends up working out badly for everyone involved.

Hydra is the most successful Mythos work I’ve read so far by Kuttner due to the visceral horror and existential concept of an eternity as a severed head being tortured in a vast, god-like sea of gray slime. That’s some cosmic horror world building.

Monday, October 2, 2023

My September Gaming

During September, most of my gaming was playing Roll and Writes. They just fit well into limited time and space needs while still giving me a full gaming experience.

I learned the following games:

Trek 12
Super Slopes

Not a big month for learning games but there are some good experiences there.

Knaster is really a revision of Wurfel Bingo and one that does improve on the design. That said, it doesn’t really bring a new experience to the table. It does its job but it doesn’t sparkle.

On the other hand, Trek 12 did sparkle for me. It took the act of writing numbers on the board, which I may well have done in a hundred different games at this point, and made it feel new again. A number of ways to manipulate the numbers and reasons to consider connections. And the different boards really did feel different.

I printed off boards from the publisher’s website so I could play the basic game. And their clever plan worked because I am now seriously thinking about buying the game.

Super Slopes is an 18-card game from Button Shy which isn’t a Roll and Write. It’s a tile-laying game about building ski slopes. I need to play it more to get a real opinion on it but I do think it has promise and I like the solitaire option. It’s biggest ‘flaw’ for me is that you’re building a map brick style and other Button Shy games like Insurmountable and Wild River have covered that ground. That made it harder for me to judge Super Slopes on its own merits.

I also revisited Tanuki Matsuri, a game that I played during lockdown back in 2020. At that time, I quite liked it. And, going back to this simple game of cascading effects, I still find it engaging and it’s back on my regular playlist.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

My September PnP

My main goal in September Print and Play crafting turned out to be mostly building up my R&W folder but I got a ‘big’ project in as well.

I made:



Mini Town

Dice Spray (12th R&W contest)

13 Sheep 

Super Slopes

Here’s why I made what I made. I have a half-size clip board that I use for smaller Roll and Writes, like Criss Cross or Wurfel Bingo. I don’t know if it’s a sign of laziness or addiction but I like having such a minimalist way to play some Roll and Writes. It takes up the same space as a tablet but I am actually playing analog style.

(And I have made copies of Dice Spray and 13 Sheep before but I was making alternate boards to make more variety for me. Sadly, I don’t think the site that created random 13 Sheep boards is still working but I saved a number of sheets when it was)

My ‘big’ build was Super Slopes, a Button Shy game I hadn’t even heard any buzz about but is a decent little game.

Honestly, I figure October will be more of the same.