A Gnome's Ponderings

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

Archive for Lowell Kempf

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Alone in the end with only your fears

Lowell Kempf
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It is after the end. Civilization has collapsed. Everything has fallen apart. Your fears are all around you, threatening to destroy you and everything you hold dear. Yet, somehow, you keep clinging to hope and keep on trying to keep on moving forward.

The Last One is a post apocalyptic horror RPG designed for two players, one who will play the last one and one who will play the other, the cruel world that will to its uncaring best to snuff out the last one and their hope.

In addition to being designed for only two players, the Last One is also a short form, designed to be played out in seven scenes. It is also almost entirely narratively driven but has a fairly tight structure for that narrative.

The player begins by coming up with three fears, a hope, and a safe house that is the end goal for the last one. The other will use these things to come up with the world after the end.

An important idea is that the fears shouldn't be the fears of the character. They should be the fears of the player. Personally, I find that a big, bold idea. It's pretty obvious that the guy who designed The Last One wanted to make sure that it was an emotional gut punch to the player.

There are two kinds of scenes in The Last One, After Scenes and Before Scenes. As the names suggest, they are either set before or after the apocalyptic event that ended the world as we know it.

In the seven scenes that will make up a game of The Last One, the After Scenes are the odd-numbered scenes. They are also the ones that have crucial choices that will impact the last one on their journey.

You see, both the player and the other are dealt seven cards at the start of each after After Scene. When the player wants to make a critical action, the player and the other lay one to two cards face down and simultaneously reveal. High card wins and that person gets their way.

It will always be the decision of the player to make a choice. The other cannot force them to make a choice but if the player chooses not to make a choice, then the other determines the consequences of not making a choice. If you decide to not do anything when someone starts shooting at you, the consequences can be pretty extreme.

After three choices have been made, the other will resolve the scene and bring it to an end. The other isn't allowed to kill the last one or destroy their hope until the seventh and last scene. Every horrible thing short of killing them is fair game, though.

The even-numbered scenes are flashbacks that explore who the last one is, how they handled the end of the world and why their hope is important to them. There are no choices or other card play but the other gets to ask three tough, probing questions.

While the flashback scenes might not allow the other to do any harm to the last one or their hope, they definitely help with the whole character development and role-playing part of the game.

There are a number of things that I like about the Last One. In particular, I like how there is a lot of freedom while there is still a tight structure. The end of the world could be through disease or nuclear bombs or zombies or something else. The player's hope could be their child or lover or dream of freedom or their pet cat. And, of course, the fears can be anything.

At the same time, all of that will be explored in seven scenes that use the choices and questions to pace the scenes. Sometimes you need a framework to get the job done.

At the same time, making the game all about the player's fears might be a bit much. That might cross the line between fun and engaging and go into disturbing.

I will admit that my absolute first choice for a short form or game for two players is Baker's Murderous Ghosts. It has a very interesting structure that definitely keeps the tension circling in upon itself, one way or another. The card play in Murderous Ghosts feels like it's much more tightly connected to the narrative. Plus, the danger and the horror are more immediate and visceral.

The Last One explores horror in a completely different genre and fashion. With the flashback scenes, it becomes a more thoughtful and reflective way to deal with horror. Still, it is nice to have options and different views.

I do have to make one more note about The Last One. Each page was thematically decorated with splatters the blood over the black lettering. Maybe it's because I'm colorblind but it was really hard for me to read.

http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/131888/The-Last-One-engl...

Originally posted at http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Apr 18, 2016 5:25 pm
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The Divine Move in emergent play

Lowell Kempf
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A concept that is central to my fascination with games, both boardgames and role-playing games, is emergent gameplay.

The core concept behind that is when simple systems come together to create complex decisions. In other words, the rules aren't that hard but they allow for tough choices. You know, a minute to learn but a lifetime to master.

Go is the poster child for this. The rules to go are very simple. I once heard someone summarize them in about six sentences, with two of the sentences being there is a 19 x 19 board and the players use black and white stones. However, Go creates amazingly complex situations. A 19 x 19 board is actually a huge playing area and allows for elaborate patterns to form.

However, there is another side to emerging gameplay. That is when the interaction of the players with the rules creates unusual or even unexpected results. This is something that video game community has become fascinated by. Heck, I would even go so far as to say invested in.

But this aspect of the emergent gameplay is also very important to role-playing games and even board games. Honestly, the sandbox nature that is intrinsic to role-playing games actually makes this pretty much what role-playing games are about. They also play an important part in boardgames, although the tighter framework of boardgames makes this kind of a emergent play a little more restricted.

But it's still definitely exists. Back to my example of Go above. Over the many centuries that Go has been around, a lot of formula has been developed. There is a term called Joseki, which means an established pattern of play that that would work well for both players. As a sidenote, even though I did Go for a few years pretty heavily, I was never anywhere near understanding Joseki.

But there is another concept called the Divine Move. That is when a single move, one that is inspired and anything but obvious, can turn the game around. They are said to be so rare that a professional Go player may play one only once in her or his life.

But they exist. Or, a lot of Go authorities say they exist and they know a lot more than I do.

And when games allow for more flexible interactions between the players, this kind of emergent gameplay becomes more possible.

Both of these aspects of emergent gameplay fascinate me. They define the depth and the surprise of playing games.


https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_(game)
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergent_gameplay
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Tue Apr 12, 2016 5:09 pm
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Martian Chess was my gateway game to Looney Pyramids

Lowell Kempf
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Martian Chess was the first game that really got me into the Looney Pyramid system.

At the time, a lot of my experience with Looney Labs have been through Fluxx and Aquarius. Which are still games that I do enjoy but the pyramids and Martian Chess definitely opened up a different side of the company to me.

Fluxx is, of course, a very random game and Aquarius, while it is solid, is still very light. Martian Chess, on the other hand, is an abstract with no random elements whatsoever. It has some definite depth and strategy.

I did a fairly detailed review of the game about eleven years ago (https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/82875/game-changing-pieces-...) but here's a general overview. You have three different pieces with different movements, up to the Queen who moves like a chess queen. Captured pieces go in your score pile with the most points winning.

Ah, but there's a clever bit and it's a good one. No one owns any particular pieces per se. Instead, you own part of the board and every piece on your part is under your control. (And, no, you can't capture your own pieces. Thanks for trying) So every piece you use to capture then belongs to an opponent.

Oh and there are a wide variety of board layouts to accommodate different numbers of players. Personally, I prefer a simple four by eight two-player game but it's cool how many options there are. The boards made out of rhombuses are neat.

All that said, the sparkle has worn off Martian Chess for me since I wrote that review in 2005. It became too easy for games to descend into almost null moves, making stalemates. (I have read suggestions on how to deal with that, including the first player to eighteen points winning, since they have the majority of the possible points and will win anyway)

I also got into Go which changed my tastes in abstracts. I came to like stones on the board with the flow of the game always mov my forward more than moving pieces.

I also went on to learn other pyramid games that are, quite frankly, better. Volcano, as a clear example, is another pure abstract that is a better game and makes better use of the unique nature of the pyramids.

Still, Martian Chess is an interesting game. Players owning the board, not the pieces is a very neat idea. And it did help me get into the pyramids, which has never stopped being rewarding.


Originally posted at http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Apr 11, 2016 11:37 pm
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Looney Pyramids keep trucking along

Lowell Kempf
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Looney Labs has just started a Kickstarter project called Pyramid Arcade, which is the largest tool kit they've offered for their Looney Pyramids.

I've been playing with their pyramids for so long that Looney Pyramids is the third name that they've had for the system. I first started playing with them back when they were called Icehouse Pyramids. Then, they were Treehouse Pyramids. I have a feeling Looney Pyramids will stick since they finally named them after the company.

Looney Pyramids aren't a game. Instead, they're a game system. Think of them as a tool box, a collection of pieces you can use in different ways to play a wide variety of different games. Just like a deck of cards, only more pointy.

I am a big fan of game systems. Not just because they are a lot of game packed into a small space but because they really let you look at the nuts and bolts of mechanics. When you take away the chrome, you get to see all the moving parts.

Although, having just said that, the colorful stacking pyramids are awfully pretty chrome.

There's a lot of different games you can play with the pyramids, ranging from abstracts to dexterity to deduction to area control to resource management to war games. Okay, light war games. I'm pretty sure that Homeworlds qualifies as a 4X game.

There are a number of reasons I think that the pyramids have become a really good game system.

First of all, the actual pyramids themselves are very versatile. Pyramids that are stackable, come in three sizes and come in a wide variety of colors can be used in a variety of ways. And they make nice eye candy.

Second, the pyramids are really just the jumping off point. A lot of these games use boards, dice, cards or tokens. Alien City uses a whole other game system, the Piece Pack. That does kind of spoil the whole game system standing in its own (Hey, take this handful of pyramids. It's all you'll ever need) but the end result is a lot of fun, different games.

Finally, the pyramids have been supported and nurtured by both a game company and design community. One way or another, it has been supported since 1989. The pyramids are a living system that is constantly being developed by professionals and not-quite-as-professionals.

I've played about half of the twenty-two of the games that will come in the Pyramid Arcade and eight of them I'm pretty sure are original to this set. Just from what I've played alone, I know it's a good collection.

The one glaring omission to the set is Zendo, which is my favorite pyramid game. Unfortunately, Zendo would require a different distribution of colors. On the other hand, you can still use the set to play Zendo, just not using colors. Really, you can use a handful coins to play Zendo if you felt like it.

And one of the stretch goals is to work on a sequel project that would allow people to play Zendo and other older games that used the older color distribution.

Looney Labs has already reached their funding goal. I think they might've done it on the first day. The pyramids have been around for decades and they have really proven themselves as a gaming system.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/looneylabs/pyramid-arca...

http://www.icehousegames.org/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page

Originally posted at http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Apr 11, 2016 5:42 pm
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Alone with just the shogoths

Lowell Kempf
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Monophobia is a collection of three Call of Cthulhu adventures that are specifically designed for just one player. After I already wrote about two player games and Lovecraftian ones in particular, I knew I had to read it.

Since these are adventures, I'm going to try not to give too many spoilers away. After all, there may be folks out there who want to play these adventures.

There are three things I judge RPG adventures these days: Did I enjoy reading it? Do I think it would be fun to run or play? Can they be mined for ideas for homebrew adventures?

Vengeance from Beyond is an adventure about the investigator being haunted by an angry ghost who will drive them to insanity if not stopped. Frankly, it is my least favorite of the three adventures and I think it's the weakest.

That's because it really has the narrowest range of options for the player. There's only one way to deal with the ghost. If the player doesn't figure that one way out, that's it for the investigator. It's a bit like a railroad where you have to find the track.

Frankly, that can be a real problem with Call of Cthulhu adventures in general. Sometimes, they read more like a script than an adventure and this is far from the worst case I've read.

Of Grave Concern has the investigator dealing with a zombie wizard who keeps swapping bodies with them with the long term goal of taking over their body forever.

This is my favorite adventure of the lot. The player has a lot of avenues to explore and ways to go about their investigation. It has much more of a sandbox feel. And, while there's only one way to put the zombie down, it's a lot more reasonable than Vengeance from Beyond.

Robinson Gruesome has the investigator become a castaway on a desert island where they have to resonantly Mythos cultists and the horror they worship. It's actually a very simple adventure with a fairly tight timeline for what all the evil types are doing. However, the investigator has a lot of leeway in what they can do.

But what I really like about this adventure is that it can be mined for more ideas for adventures. While the Cthulhu genre is no stranger to Robinsonades (Dagon by Lovecraft for instance), I haven't seen a lot of adventures that use it. You could build a whole campaign around being a stranded island.

All through out all three adventures, there's advice how to handle only having one player and how to make sure that bad dice rolls don't kill them. After all, poor planning and bad decisions on the part of the player can take care of that just that fine.good advice goes a long way towards making this a good supplement.

Monophobia isn't perfect but it does a good job tackling the idea of running one-on-one Call of Cthulhu in three different ways. It's pretty much a must read for anyone interested in that.

http://www.unboundbook.org/?p=82

Originally posted at http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Apr 8, 2016 10:07 pm
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Exploring different kinds of distance

Lowell Kempf
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One Missed Call is a short form role playing game for two people trust explores physical and emotional distance. Seriously, some of these short form games are one researcher short of a psychological experiment.

(My wife pointed out to me that there is a movie called One Missed Call, which is an adaptation of the Japanese horror movie, with the distinguished rating on Rotten Tomatoes of 0%. Which means taping two people playing this game would probably garner better ratings.)

In One Missed Call, the players play two people are are far from each other and are either drifting apart or coming together. You sit back to back so you can't see each other and play out phone calls.

At the start of the game, you decide how physically apart you are and each person secretly decides if you are coming together or falling apart.

You then will phone each other. Note I don't say take turns. Let's be painfully honest, life doesn't act so fairly either. The non-calling player has a choice of answering or not. If they don't, then the other player has a choice of leaving a voicemail or not.

Each player has a list of phrases. Comes with the game, you don't pick them out yourself. They include things like I love you and I'm sorry I couldn't make it. When you say them, you check them off your list. After you have checked all of them off, you can't make any more calls or answer any calls.

After you have three minutes of silence, probably awkward silence, the game ends.

One Missed Call strikes me as the kind of game that I don't really want to play but I think does a good job doing what it sets out to do. On paper, it is about physical distance and physical separation. Of course and obviously, it's about exploring emotional separation.

As with any game like this, the players are going to get as much as they put in the game. The rules freely admit that you might be very casual and flippant with your phrases. And that works too because that's another way of coping with emotional separation.

There are even rules for playing via email or real phones or even the post office. Frankly, I think that might be a good way to make the game real. Perhaps too real.

One Missed Call really reminds me of Slower Than Light from Twenty Four Game Poems by Marc Majcher, which is a collection of very short forms. In Slower Than Light, you were communicating with the other players by passing notes. However, with every turn, everyone grows farther apart. You have to wait more and more turns in order to read a note until, at the end of the game, you leave with one note unread.

While I am not a fan of every game in Twenty Four Game Poems, I do think that Slower Than Light is pretty brilliant. With a very simple mechanic, it does a wonderful job of demonstrating growing distances.

Physical distance and, more importantly, emotional distance are very powerful things. Both One Missed Call and Slower Than Light create a way for people to discuss them.

http://lessthanthreegames.com/onemissedcall/

Orginally posted at http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Apr 7, 2016 2:53 pm
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Role playing for just two

Lowell Kempf
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Role playing games that are designed for two people has always seemed like an odd design space for me. Since my earliest experiences with games like Dungeons and Dragons, role playing has always been a group activity. Even mechanics light, narrative driven games likes Fiasco or Microscope benefit from having more voices and imaginations thrown in.

But the idea of two player games have been around for a while. One of the earliest examples that I remember running across was Paper Chase, an adventure for Call of Cthulhu who specifically designed for one keeper and one player. Heck, that one was in the third edition basic rule book.

I have heard it argued, quite convincingly, that horror games are best played with only one player. After all, everything is scarier when you are all alone. There is an entire Lovecraftian system called Macabre Tales designed for two-players and a noted collection of Call of Cthulhu adventures called Monophoboa.

And, over the last few years, I have found some interesting two player systems. Beast Hunters, Martian Colony, and Murderous Ghosts to name three very strong examples. Incidentally, all three of them have fairly tight structures for play.

Beast Hunters has the players swap the role of GM back and forth with a budget for threats. Murderous Ghosts actually uses a paired set of Choose Your Own Adventure style books for the mechanics, although you fill in all of the narrative details with your own imagination. Martian Colony's mechanical structure resembles a resource management, push your luck board game!

While there are some obvious benefits to only having two people involved in a game (like only having two schedules to worry about), there's a lot of issues as well. For instance, a lot of systems are designed to have a variety of abilities to tackle problems. (I cast magic missile/swing my sword/backstab the kobold! You kill it! And the other eight kobolds swarm you.)

Also, and this can definitely be the case in a Call of Cthulhu adventure, is that having only one brain working on a problem means the lone player can miss clues or other plot points. (Monophobia actually recommends using idea rolls to let the keeper flat out give clues player)

Two-player games also can have a stronger level of intimacy than group games. I've read more than a few which are actually about romance, with Emily Care Boss's Breaking the Ice being the one I'm the most interested in reading and researching. Whether or not this is a good or a bad thing depends on whose playing, I guess.

Two player games don't interest me as much as GM-free systems do. However, there's no denying there's a wide variety of them out there, both from a mechanical angle and thematic angle. It's a sub-genre of role playing games with some interesting ideas.


Originally posted at http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Apr 7, 2016 2:50 pm
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The Final Girl - having fun with slashers but no GM

Lowell Kempf
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While I have yet to play The Final Girl, it's been a game that has been discussed in my circles for years. And, while its focus isn't something I am deeply interested or invested in, rereading it has made me appreciate it more.

You see, The Final Girl is another GM-free system, something I spend a lot of time writing about. I promise that I'm going to write about games that actually involve using a game master one of these days. Since I've been looking at so many systems based around that idea and The Final Girl makes some very smart voices for making it work.

First off, The Final Girl is an RPG about creating a B horror movie. While the title implies that you will be pulling out a slasher of some sort, the system will work with zombie apocalypses or alien invasions or even giant radioactive dinosaurs from under the sea.

It uses a Troupe System, which is honestly how most GM-free systems work. In a lot of Troupe Systems, the players take turn being the focus of the scene while everyone else acts as a collective game master. In The Final Girl, players take turns playing the slasher (or monstrous killing force of some kind or another) and directing the scene. So you take turns being the game master for everyone else.

And no one actually owns character. Characters are just names down on index cards and put in the middle of the table as a pool for everyone to draw from. Characters will develop relationships with each other, which can be friendship or rivalry or screwing, which counts as both friendship and rivalry. (Horror movie, remember?)

These relationships can influence a character's chance of surviving an encounter with the slasher, one way or the other. When the slasher decides to kill someone or everyone, you basically play War with a deck of cards to see who dies.

Of course, you reach endgame when you're down to X number of characters, which depends on the number of players. You can only have so many characters in the final showdown, after all. Which could result in everyone dying, by the way.

There are a number of things that I like about the design of The Final Girl. I like the variation on Troupe Play. The player playing the slasher could end up being game master entirely for that scene or the group could come together to create the scene with the slasher just picking who to kill.

I also like the fact that it has a playing time of under two hours. Part of the reason why I even started looking into games like this is because I don't have time to play in a campaign.

While I do enjoy the occasional horror movie, it isn't a genre that I'm really focused on. Really, I tend to go in more for cosmic horror, like good old Lovecraft. So that's something I'm pretty indifferent about when it comes to the system. I do realize that, with the right group of people, it can really inspire.

The fact that the system is designed to create your own horror movie without a lot of flexibility beyond that doesn't bother me. Seriously, a lot of these games are tightly focused and I'm not going to knock an intentional design choice like that. Not every game can be a sandbox.

Truth to tell, the focus of The Final Girl is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, you're using a genre that most people understand. It won't be too hard to get a game going. On the other hand, between the horror genre and that no characters belonging to anyone, you're not going to get a lot of serious depth.

In comparison, while Fiasco also embraces movie genres, it's a lot more set up for character development. And other GM-free systems like Polaris or Ribbon Drive really make character development the primary focus.

That isn't necessarily a weakness of The Final Girl. It's just something that you have to know going in.

The Final Girl isn't a deep game that will change your life or redefine how you see role playing games. It should be good for a couple hours of silly fun with horror movies, though.

Originally posted on http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Mar 31, 2016 3:03 am
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Exploring and defining your very own cold and uncaring universe

Lowell Kempf
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Imagine, if you will, that you are an escaped convict from an intergalactic prison. You and your fellow escaped convicts have managed to take control of a spaceship of mysterious origins. You are now wandering alone in the vast universe with no one but with other conflicts you might not trust, searching for a place where you can be safe, a place you can call home.

That is the basic premise of Vast and Starlit, a role-playing game that basically takes up four large business cards if you include all the expansions. No game master is required to play, which is something of a theme for the games that I have been looking at lately, but you will need plenty of imagination and the ability to collaborate.

Vast and Starlit uses a Troupe System, which was first described in Ars Magica. It means players take turns being the focal character in a scene while everyone else handles the setting and all the other characters. So, you could call in GM by committee. It still means that one of the biggest reasons to use a GM-free system still applies, no one has to spend hours outside of the game setting everything up.

Like Astrorobbers by the same designer and The Name of God which Vast and Starlit helped influence, a scene ends when there's some kind of tough decision that needs to be made, particularly when someone could get hurt. One of the players sets up the consequences of that choice and you move on to a new focal player and a new scene.

Which isn't a bad core mechanic. It keeps everyone involved and encourages creativity. It also, interestingly enough, doesn't involve any random elements, like rolling a die or drawing a card. I've gotten to the point in looking at quirky RPGs where I take that in stride.

But that's not what makes Vast and Starlit interesting. Oh, no. The system has a whole bunch of smaller systems to help you develop alien races and worlds and technology, as well as handling long term conflict and relationships.

Which is kind of impressive, considering how short the whole thing is.

The various world building mechanics are really what is interesting for me about the game. It takes a very round robin approach. For instance, when creating aliens, players will take turns choosing animals and cultures while other players choose aspects of other players' choices. Not design by committee but refinement by assembly line. It's a system that shouldn't get bogged down and should come up with something interesting.

I really like the idea of world building like that. There is a definite process, so you're not just all sitting around, hoping to start brainstorming. It gets everyone involved but no one gets to veto anyone else. That last bit is big. Ideas keep getting built up, not torn down.

Vast and Starlit definitely has some potential. I can even picture being able to play it as a campaign rather than as a one shot, even though I'm not looking for campaign play right now. The theme reminds me of the start of Blake's 7 or the first couple seasons of Farscape but there's a lot you can do within it. When the universe is your cold and uncaring playground, the stars are the limit.

That said, I'm more interested in trying out The Name of God. I think it has a tighter structure and more tightly interlocking systems. When so much of a game is free for, what structures you do have are very important. But that's just me.

Vast and Starlit opens up a lot of creative doors in just a few pages.

https://dig1000holes.wordpress.com/vast-starlit/

Originally posted on http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Mar 25, 2016 11:38 pm
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Is Print and Play regional?

Lowell Kempf
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I've been interested in print and play for years. For me, it's been a niche in my personal hobby. It's become more of a focus over the last couple years but I don't think it will be ever central to my gaming life.

However, I also live in the US. That's not quite the center of the gaming universe but it's pretty darn close. We have a lot of homegrown companies and a good chunk of the European releases make it over here within a year via local distributors.

But over the years, I've read about how expensive if it is to get games in some regions. (Yes, Australia, I'm looking at you)

if I lived in Australia, which is not going to happen, even though I do have family there and I think the Wiggles are some of the greatest children's entertainers in the world, would print and play be a much bigger part of my hobby?

Originally posted on http://www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Mar 25, 2016 3:09 pm
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