Monday, April 29, 2024

Learning Pathfinder by yourself

I have recently taken a look at Party of One: Kalgor Bloodhammer and the Ghouls Through the Breach, a one-player, GM-free Pathfinder adventure. It’s designed to be an introduction to the system, a narrative and an adventure. Honestly, it does an okay but not amazing job at each of these.

Party of One is basically a Choose Your Own Adventure/ Fighting Fantasy scenario with Pathfinder rules plugged in. It’s quite short; with only 73 sections. Pathfinder rules are boiled in, teaching them as the game book goes on. (To be fair, it really only covers basic combat and skill checks)

What surprised me was there was an actual narrative in Party of One. I didn’t realize that at first and then I had to go back and play it again so I could actually figure out the story. You actually have to explore the area and gather clues to put everything together. That touch means I will probably remember the adventure, as short and slight as it is.

And the narrative is the actual value of the experience. The tutorial element is honestly so simplistic (Roll a d20 and try and roll higher than this number) that I don’t think iit teaches much.  And the small amount of content limits how much adventure you get. I’m not even sure it’s a half hour’s worth of play.

The two adventures that come to mind for me whenever I look at D&D reimagined as Choose Your Own Adventure are The Djinni’s Ring from Dungeon issue 9 and Buffalo Castle. The Djinni’s Ring was the first time I’d seen this sort of thing and Buffalo Castle is quite likely the very first solo adventure ever published. My only memory of the Dungeon magazine adventure was the realization that oh, there’s a story going on here.

Buffalo Castle, on the other hand, I remember as having almost no story. It was a map in the form of a game book and not actually mapping it out as you went made it very confusing. It both feels like something that still works and sometuing that wouldn’t be made today. (I would be amused to be wrong about the second part)

For me, a crucial part of the RPG experience is creating a story. (Which you can still do with Buffalo Castle. It just takes some real input from you) Party of One has enough story to explore that achieves that for me. Enough that I’ll look at the other Party of One adventures.

Friday, April 26, 2024

The war of Dungeons and Dragins versus Time Management

 I recently watched a Mathew Colville video where he advocated for shorter adventures over big campaign books. (And I’m such an OG D&D player that big hard bound campaign books still look weird to me. Back in my day, Against the Giants came in three booklets. And we used THACO.  And we hated it! You kids can stay on my lawn with your new tangled games that you don’t need an engineering degree to understand)

And that parenthetical note went out of control.

Back to the topic I was trying to get to, his basic point was time management. You can finish a shorter module. As I understand it, the big campaign books are literally designed to be a year of weekly play. Life gets in the way a few too many times, it’s too easy for things to fizzle out.

So I totally agree with him. Yeah, in my twenties, multiple gaming sessions a week were a thing. But by the time I moved away from my old gaming groups, that kind of time sink just wasn’t possible.

However, I feel like you can go a step beyond Colville’s point. Dungeons and Dragons is designed for more long term play and there are systems that are intrinsically more friendly for time management.

Some games are essentially designed for one-shot play. Lady Blackbird or The Quiet Year, for instance, are clearly designed for a very finite playtime. And that is the simplest form of balancing time and tabletop RPG-play.

Which is hardly a new idea. I have friends who feel that the ideal format for Call of Cthulhu is a one-shot, preferably with everyone dead except one madman. Hey, I have some friends who believe in tradition.

Puppetland has a interesting approach to time management. The rules literally state that each session should only be a half hour long. I seriously doubt most folks follow that rule. And, indeed, if I had to travel to someone else's house, that would be interesting too much travel time for too little return. Playing it via video conferencing, on the other hand, sounds ideal.

However, the system that I find myself considering as a time management too is Inspectres. It is one of the early examples of a game where the players share the traditional work of a gamemaster. More than that, the game is centered around a branch of the titular paranormal investigators, not necessarily a specific group of characters.

As long as each investigation is self-contained, you don't need to have the same group of characters every single time. If you wanted to, you could rotate gamemasters or even play without one. (If you aren't used to GM-less games, that option might be one to work up to)

Still, the idea that a game doesn't get derailed by missing players or even a missing game master seems like a way of keeping a game going, even when you have adult responsibilities. More than that, having some kind of organization being the main character of a game instead of the actual players can allow for more freedom. I was in a D&D campaign centered around a mercenary company with that in mind.

Whicu actually didn’t work very well. You do need to a consistent group for continuity. 

In the end, Mr Colville is right. Shorter adventures are the best time management tool. But it was fun to consider other options.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Rumis ticks so many boxes

I recently taught my son Rumis, a game he has played with as a set of blocks for at least seven years. He’s much, much more of a video gamer so board gaming is always a win. And, quite frankly, Rumis is a great game in general.

I know that it has been also printed as Blokus 3D but since it isn’t designed by Bernard Tavitian, it’s hard for me to think of it by that name. It’s a different concept. That said, if more people got to experience the game due to the Blokus branding, that makes the world that much better a place.

Rumis is a place where two different but not even remotely conflicting design concepts come together.

On the one hand, you are playing with literal building blocks on a Lazy Susan. The game has toy value because all of the physical elements are literally toys. As I mentioned, long before he ever learned to play the game, my son loved playing with the game.

On the other hand, Rumis is very definitely an abstract strategy game. And a very pure one at that. There are no hidden elements. There are no random elements. There are only the open decisions of the players. More than that, and I realize I might be prejudiced, it is a very good abstract strategy game.

And play value is definitely a thing and can be a powerful thing. It helps make a game engaging, it helps make it easier to learn, it helps make it fun. I remember being told that Connect 4 has been used as a therapy tool because of the sound and act of dropping checkers into the grid. Mind you, I don’t have any actual citation of that and the person who told me that could’ve been totally lying to my face.

But Rumis definitely has play value. a lot of games do. However, what Rumis also has, and is something that you cannot count on finding, is solid game design. The actual mechanics and gameplay have never failed me yet. Everyone I have taught it to gets it and likes it.

Rumis is a game that I think can work for anyone. That’s a rare thing to say.

Monday, April 22, 2024

My unreasonable expectations of Drops of God

Earlier this year, I bought a digital manga bundle that included the complete Drops of God. Indeed, that was a big reason I bought it. I've long been interested in reading Drops of God, which takes wine tasting to soap opera extremes (but not Dragonball Z extremes)

I wrote about the series when I was at the halfway point. Now, I've finished it. Did it live up to the potential of the first half?





Oh so many spoilers



Nothing but spoilers


Okay, I was ultimately disappointed by how Drops of God resolved itself and that was because it didn't resolve itself. I was aware that there was at least one follow-up series, Drops of God: Marriage. Knowing that, I found that many elements in the later part of Drops of God were actually setting up for that. A whole group of characters, the Watkins family, I now see were really being set up to be major players in the next series.

As a comparison, when I was younger, I read Dragonball and its transition to Dragonball Z. While it was clear at the end of Dragonball that Goku's adventures weren't done (because he is a loveable but psychotic manchild who lives for fighting) but all the conflicts were resolved. In Drops of God, barely anything is resolved.

Well, the Twelve Apostles, the wine identification test that determined which son would inherit  Yutaka Kanzaki’s vast wine collection, that gets settled. However, since a more extreme wine identification competition (the titular Drops of God) immediately starts, there's no sense of pause, let alone closure.

One element in particular I wanted to see addressed, if not resolved, is that Issei is actually Shizuku's half-brother, that the Twelve Apostles competition is actually a true family affair. However. while Shizuki does figure it out, no one ever brings it up and takes the matter to at least the next step of talking about it.

More than that, as the series progresses, it becomes clear that Yutaka Kanzaki was a terrible father and husband. Issei in particular was clearly damaged by his negligence. However, that seems to get glossed over since Yutaka Kanzaki was an absolute wine god so that makes it all right. That kind of rubs me the wrong way and I hope it gets addressed in Drops of God: Marriage.

With that said, the fact that the Twelve Apostles were an autobiography in wine form became even more apparent in the second half. That is an interesting and engaging form of storytelling. If the ‘ending’ fell short, the journey was fascinating.

The side stories also reflect the life experience that the wines are expressing. With the final wine being about death and loss, one of the major supporting characters develops pancreatic cancer. It is such a well written gut punch that it helped me get over the lack of closure for the overall series.

It can be argued that my expectations for Drops of God to tell a complete story aren't reasonable since the continuation was clearly intended. And the art and writing of the series is solid. Glad I read it. Good stuff.  Annoyed at having to hunt down another series. 

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Where I praise but try not to spoil Tamora Pierce’s Wild Magic

 Two years ago, I discovered Tamora Pierce through the Protector of the Small series, which I really quite liked.  So I decided to add Pierce to my authors to read list and her Tortall books in particular.

Last year, I read The Song of the Lioness, her first series.  Definitely had some early installment weirdness and didn’t feel as polished as the Protector of the Small books.

This year, I’m reading The Immortals series, the one be in between The Song of the Lioness and Protector of the Small in her Tortall books. (After that, I can just go in publication order)

And I have to admit that I went into Wild Magic not too excited. I had an idea of what the overall series would be like since it does get referenced in Protector of the Small. Daine didn’t sound as interesting or sound like she had as much conflict as the other two protagonists I’d read.

Instead, I found out that the Immortals was where Pierce stepped on the gas and the writing got really good.

Not that the Song of the Lioness is bad. It made Pierce’s reputation for crying out loud. But there are some rough edges (but that’s a different blog) If I had read it in the early 80s, it would have knocked my socks off.

But Wild Magic is a solid improvement, particularly in the actual writing style itself. There is an ease and confidence in the voice of the author. The world building, which took a couple of books to settle in, is very defined. And Diane is more complicated and interesting than I’d feared.

While the Song of the Lioness was never low fantasy, the Immortals steps into higher fantasy with fantastical creatures of myths and legends breaking into the world of humanity. I was worried that would be jarring. And it is jarring, but in the right way. The characters are not responding like Dungeons and Dragons PCs, who expect to see the world fantastic. Instead, they are confused and even terrified. It’s good stuff.

Wild Fire doesn’t rewrite the Tortall of Song of the Lioness. Instead, it expands and deepens it. And it left me eager to read the next book.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

What’s Kraken’s use of familiar forms

What’s Kraken is a Roll and Write that is centered around what I’m starting to think is the single most common mechanic in R&Ws, drawing stuff on grids. That being said, the game keeps it interesting by having you draw on more than one grid, as well as deal with inventory management. Oh, and checking off tracks.

The theme is pretty simple. You are manning a pirate ship that is trying not to lose a fight with a Kraken. Fortunately, these pirates are all about deep sea diving.

The player sheet actually has a fair number of things to keep track of. The biggest part is a grid map for diving for stuff. And trust me, you will need stuff if you want to win. It also has two more grids for the pirate ship, starboard and port sides. Those are for keeping track of the damage the Kraken does. There is also a salvage track and three tracks for doing damage back to the Kraken.

Each turn, you roll four dice. Two for you and two for the Kraken. If I read the rules correctly, they have to be differently colored so you don’t get to mix and match dice. Which, quite frankly would make the game a whole lot easier but also remove the value of one of the special items.

Fundamentally, there are three things that you are going to be doing on your turn. Diving to get resources, repairing damage on the ship, and doing damage to the Kraken.

Diving is probably the most interesting part of the game. You are making a path of shapes and collecting the resources your shapes go over. In fact, it’s quite like Postmark Games’ Aquamarine, except honestly , Aquamarine does it better.

And, as I mentioned before, you are going to need resources if you are not going to lose the game. There are fish to modify dice rolls. There is timber that is required to repair the ship. There is treasure that lets you swap dice with the Kraken. And there are blasts which make it easier to damage the Kraken.

And it is actually kind of annoying to damage the Kraken since you need specific doubles of dice. You are going to need to use these resources if you are going to fill in the Kraken tracks and kill the thing. Luck is not going to do it.

Damage and repair follow the same basic rules. You use two dice to determine which side of the ship you were drawing or erasing a specific shape. If you ever can’t add a shape, you guessed it, you lose.

One of the things that really strikes me about What’s Kraken is how granular it is. Most of the time, you are only going to have two dice to work with each turn. And a lot of the actions require you to use both of them to do that action. 

That said, that economy of actions drives the game. You have to juggle hurting the Kraken, keeping the ship afloat, and diving for stuff. And the Kraken just keep whaling away at you every turn. You have to do the best you can with your rolls and your stuff.

While there is a lot of moving parts (and I haven’t even described all of them), they all work together. More than that, they are thematic, which also helps the game experience. Which ends up being a good one.

What’s Kraken does absolutely nothing that I haven’t seen before. Every mechanic in the game is one that I’m familiar with. Which does make the game easily to learn. It isn’t innovative but it does well with what it uses and it all makes sense.

What’s Kraken isn’t the best R&W I’ve learned this year. Nor is it the most innovative. However, it is a profoundly pleasant game. It won’t fit in a minimalist game collection but it will work. Well for one aimed at variety.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

I discover the Garfield Spider-Man twelves years late

I am definitely a key demographic for superhero movies. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I was an avid reader of comic books. 

But up until a week ago, I never watched The Amazing Spider-Man with Andrew Garfield. At the time when it came out, it was part of a crowded field of superhero movies and word of mouth hated it. 

Now that I’ve seen it, I am absolutely bewildered by the bile that I’ve heard about it. Yeah, it isn’t Spider-Man 2 but it also isn’t Spider-Man 3.

Actually, I do understand why people were upset. The original Spider-Man movie, along with the original X-Men movie and original Blade movie, did a lot to set up the modern superhero movie movement, the idea that a movie about superheroes doesn’t have to be a toy commercial or a joke. (The first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies and the two Michael Keaton Batman movies also treated their subjects like films instead of shames but they were exceptions rather than trendsetters) Spider-Fans were invested in Toby McGuire and interlopers were not to be tolerated.

But I had been told that Andrew Garfield was the jerk Spider-Man, not the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man that everyone could love.

So, what did I find? A Peter Parker who is an orphan and a social outcast with all the damage and baggage that that implies. A Peter Parker who is awkward and uncertain and angry. A Peter Parker who lashes out and struggles to figure out what to do.

After a half hour, I said to myself ‘This is Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man!’

Now, I am not going to say there is a definitive Spider-Man nor that there is a best Spider-Man. Many people have worked with the character in many media and that is part of what makes Spider-Man such a wonderful cultural phenomena. Honestly, Ditko’s Spider-Man isn’t my favorite one. However, there is no denying that he created the most crucial Spider-Man. If he and Stan hadn’t made it work, there’d have been no Spider-Man.

I am not saying that the Amazing Spider-Man is my new favorite Spider-Man movie. Heck, for the reasons I gave, I don’t have one. However, I felt that the Garfield version of Spider-Man was one that was engaging and interesting. I am glad that I have seen it.

(And, yes, Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy was a great interpretation of the character but everyone says that so that wasn’t a surprise)

Monday, April 8, 2024

How Bruce Coville went from Scooby Doo to Spider Robinson

Many moons ago (checks copywrite dates… Whoa, a whole lot of moons ago!), I read a book called My Teacher is an Alien by Bruce Coville. So long ago, in fact, that I was actually the target age group for the book.

Earlier this year, I learned that it was, in fact, only the first book in a series of four books. After My Teacher is an Alien, we got My Teacher Fried My Brain, My Teacher Glows in the Dark and My Teacher Flunked the Planet

And, boy, did the series not go where I was expecting it to go. In fact, if I had kept on reading it, I probably would have been strongly affected by it at that age.







Seriously, I’m going to even talk about the resolution for the whole series




The first book has three kids, discover that one of their teachers is, yeah, you guessed it, an alien from outer space. He is there to abduct a group of children. Fortunately, he has a great sensitivity to music, and the school band is able to drive him away, although one child is so unhappy here on earth that he goes with him.

So we have an alien invasion/abduction theme with a definite Scooby Doo vibe. And honestly, at the time, it didn’t make that big an impression on me. Particularly because the alien teacher didn’t seem that scary. And I assumed that the rest of the series would continue with the whole Scooby-Doo, meddling kids thwart alien invasion theme.

Instead, the series tackles, a different, science-fiction, trope, one that’s actually more interesting. The aliens are actually trying to figure out what to do with us. Because the series taps into two ideas that show up a lot in science-fiction. One, humans are dangerous. Two, humans are special. 

In fact, it pushes both ideas further than a lot of science fictions works. It doesn’t just talk about how the human race commits war. It also talks about environmental abuse and other forms of abuse and negligence. The Ethiopian famine of 1983 - 85 was specifically mentioned and the political elements of it were even alluded to (but not spelled out because this was a series for middle schoolers)

And the series takes up the old (and disproven) saw that we use only 10% of our brains. So the human brain is the most potentially brilliant brain in the universe, which actually kind of annoys the aliens.

So, instead of an alien invasion plot, the kids find out that what is really going on is that the aliens are trying to figure out if they have to wipe out the human race before we get off the planet and really start breaking stuff. Coville actually does a really good job of both showing that the aliens really don’t like the idea of genocide but also how we aren’t giving them much choice.

The explanation for everything turns out to be that the human race is actually a hive mind, but one that fractured because feeling everyone was just too painful. So we do have magical brains, but the fact that we are incomplete makes us unhappy and lash out. (And this was when I checked to make sure Bruce Coville wasn’t a pseudonym for Spider Robinson)

Not going to lie, I found that to be a cop out. Coville actually does a very interesting job discussing human flaws but then comes up with a fantastic solution. He talks about real problems, but then gives us a magical solution that I’m confident isn’t actually real.

I did like how aliens gave us television to make us more stupid. And then were upset because it worked too well.

While I wasn’t pleased with the destination, I did enjoy the journey. The series definitely encourages you to think and it would have made me think pretty hard if I had read it back when I was in middle school or high school.

I also like the character development. In particular, Duncan’s arc is good. A thoughtless bully, he goes through a Flowers for Algernon brain enhancement. However, instead of it being a tragedy because it isn’t permanent, he gets to keep the emotional growth that he got from it.

My Teacher is an Alien series starts off as a juvenile thriller but segue ways into a young adult examination of human nature. And perhaps Coville’s goal wasn’t to tie everything up with a happy ending  but make his readers think about all the problems along the way.

Friday, April 5, 2024

The nature of places that apparently aren’t places

 Our son recently began talking about liminal spaces, a topic that I really didn’t see coming. However, looking into it, I discovered that the definition of liminal spaces has changed. Or, to be more fair, it’s taken on an additional meaning.

The ‘classic’ definition of a liminal space is that it is a transitional space. Arthur Dent’s house is a liminal space compared to the two ends of the bypass that it had to be demolished to make. It’s a very broad category.

The newer definition, which some sources describe as an Internet aesthetic, is more like a place that isn’t really a place. A place that has stopped being a place. Abandoned malls  or hospitals seem to be popular examples.

Let’s be fair. First of all, the classic definition is so broad and vague that there is plenty of overlap between the two. And language changes. And unless you’re a dead language (love ya, Latin!) that nobody actually uses any anymore, languages are living and changing beasts.

Liminal Spaces as an aesthetic appear in art and movies and video games and cartoons and literature. I am going to argue that the House in Piranesi by Susana Clarke is an example of a liminal space. House of Leaves definitely is.

The idea of a place that is not a place is definitely not an idea that the gestalt that we call the Internet came up with. A. A. Milne described it perfectly in 1924 in his poem ‘Halfway Down’ Heck, the Netherworld in the Epic of Gilgamesh fits the new definition of liminal space just fine.

The thing about these places that aren’t places is that they are real. Obviously the media uses liminal spaces are using fictional examples. However, there really are places that feel like they aren’t places or stopped being places.

And not just places like abandoned malls or failed amusement parks. Any place out of context can take on a liminal space feel. I remember waiting in an empty parking lot and having a sense that time had stopped and the world was no longer entirely real. It was actually quite soothing, which is why it’s stayed in my memory.

But the power of this new version of liminal spacer clearly has power because it is so relatable. We have all been there, the nowhere that is. It is a form of the unknown we all know.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

My March Gaming

 While I didn’t learn a lot of new games in March, I did learn a couple of games that I had been planning on learning for a while.

Waypoints, the third but hopefully not final Roll and Write from Postmark Games, was the one game that I wanted to make sure I learned in March. Voyages, Aquamarine and Waypoints are brilliant and accessible. I am going to try out the Battle Card series to make a complete sweet of their catalog but that is a different category of game. (I have played the Market Garden map but that predates the publication)

Honestly, I can see spending more time trying out all the maps of those three games in April than learning new games.

I also _finally_ played Island Alone. I’ve been enjoying Radoslaw Ignatow’s games for years. However, Island Allone js where he took the jump from one page games to game systems. Another game I hope to spend some real time exploring.

I also learned Golem Needs Pie and Blokus Junior. Golem is very flawed but will probably still see more play. Blokus Junior isn’t the best Blokus game but Blokus is a family that is always good.

I do plan on learning a new game or two in April but I may focus more on exploring games I already know.

Monday, April 1, 2024

My March PnP

 March was an interesting month for Print and Play crafting for me. Because everything I made that wasn’t laminating a Roll and Write sheet was something I’d made before lol

Here’s what I made:

Waypoints (maps 1-3)

Aquamarine (map 1, fan map tomb diver)

What’s Kraken

Apropos of Movies


River Mild + expansion

One Card Mazes - Preview

I had already made a copy of Apropos of Movies and I’ve actually made several copies of FlipWord and given most of them away. (In fact, I may have only given away more copies of Elevens for One and FlipWord may have beaten it by now) However, I wanted copies that would live in my teacher bag. Not just for lunch breaks but because they have classroom potential.

And I hadn’t actually realized that River Mild was just a retheme of River Wild when I bought the files. The sad thing is, I use the a black and white printer so the change in colors, particularly to my colorblind eyes, just isn’t there. But I do appreciate the more naturalist re-theme and I do like the game, even though I think Insurmountable is far better.

But the real gem of March for me is Waypoints. Seriously, the three Roll and Writes games that Postmark Games have given to the universe are phenomenal. Waypoints is my least favorite but that’s like saying it’s my least favorite chocolate. It’s still so good!