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.

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Another eulogy for a gaming friend

Lowell Kempf
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I wrote an elegy for a gaming buddy last month. I was not expecting to write another one so soon.

On the same day as I’m writing this, I’ve learned that a gaming buddy from college passed away suddenly.

College was very formative for me as a gamer, particularly as far as RPGs were concerned. It wasn’t where I discovered or played them but it was the first place where I really found a community for them.

There were three campaigns in college that, quite frankly, affected the rest of my life. The friendships from those games (Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu and Marvel Superheroes) have continued to this day.

Jen was in the Dungeons and Dragons campaign and she was the DM’s girlfriend. The DM had/has an interesting way of treating her and the woman he eventually married in his games. He would let them play major roles in the stories but that meant all the bad stuff happened to them.

They didn’t get powerful magic items or such. But if there was a cursed item, it would end up in their hands. And major plot conflicts would get built up around them. In other words, Frodo stuck with the one ring was clearly played by someone dating Tolkien.

And Jen ran with it. She grabbed onto every crazy story twist that was thrown her way and ran with it. The group didn’t ‘win’ a lot but we had fun and created what I’m pretty sure was a great story.

College was when I personally really knew Jen but I also stayed enough in touch to see how, like the rest of us, she grew up. She got married to a real sweet guy and had two kids. So she leaves behind a lot of friends and family and a lot of living that she should have had a chance to live.

I’m glad I got to play D&D with her and am so sad for her husband and children.
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Wed Jul 6, 2022 9:13 pm
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Farewell to a friend

Lowell Kempf
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Well, it’s time for me write one of these blogs.

Yesterday, as of my writing this, I got a phone call that Erik, one of my gaming buddies, passed on.

We met at the 1999 GenCon, which was also my first GenCon. It was at one of the last scheduled games on Saturday, one that I got in by going through the catalog of games until I found one with an opening.

Erik was one of three people at that table who belonged to the same Dungeons and Dragon campaign. I somehow found out that they were close to me in Chicago and got an invite to come over and play. That led to me playing at least once a week with them for the rest of my time in Chicago.

Most of my gaming experiences with Erik involved Dungeons and Dragons, although he did play a mean game of Puerto Rico. Both as a player and a dungeon master, Erik inevitably went Lawful Evil, no matter what was written on the sheet.

In real life, though, Erik was a big sweetie. He liked to act like the token adult, rolling his eyes at everyone else’s shenanigans but he could caught up in the silly just like the rest of us. He’d call you out on your hypocrisy but always own up to his own.

I hadn’t seen him in person since I moved away from Chicago and now I know I’m not going to. I miss Erik and I’m really glad I got to know him.
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Tue Jun 14, 2022 4:49 pm
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My May Gaming

Lowell Kempf
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Okay, what interesting gaming things happened to me during May?

I continued my effort at learning at least new one Roll and Write a month with Mini Town from Dark Imp. It belongs to the draw-stuff-on-a-grid school of R&W. The number of Roll and Writes I’ve played like it is in the double digits and that’s just counting published games. Throw in design contest entries and it gets silly.

And, honestly, while I like how the symbols interact, it doesn’t do anything special from a gamer standpoint. However, one of the design goals was to work in the classroom or a similar environment and I think it checks several boxes there. So, mission statement accomplished.

I also learned ROVE, a solitaire game about rearranging cards in a pattern. I haven’t made up my mind about it. I’ve done horribly in my plays so far But a solitaire has to be tough to be worth replaying. So I think ROVE will end up being a good experience.

However, the most interesting thing that happened to me gamewise was mentoring a group of fifth graders playing D&D as part of my job as a substitute teacher.

I went in afraid that it would be a ‘I cast magic missile at the darkness’ but honestly, the kids did a lot better than that. The kids needed a couple nudges to stay on track and to keep it clean but it went well. (And, no, I wasn’t the dungeon master)

It went a lot differently than my experiences playing Dungeons and Dragons when I was in fifth grade. I think video games and other media have given kids a better sense of how RPGs work. More than that, I think that fifth edition is both more user friendly and more balanced than first edition.

It reinforced my opinion that both players and publishers have really changed over the last forty years. And that’s a good thing.

So, May was pretty good.
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Fri Jun 3, 2022 7:57 pm
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Okay, Mario and Dungeons and Dragons don’t mix

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One of the dangers of years of playing D&D (or probably a bunch of other games) is the urge to figure out what the class and level of a fictional character would be. I remember watching Brotherhood of the Wolf with gaming buddies and we were constantly adjusting our stats of Fronsac as we watched.

Of course, TSR was as bad as any of us. An early column of Dragon Magazine called Giants in the Earth was literally just statting out whatever fictional characters they thought they could get away with. (No Lord of the Rings because the Tolkien estate was known to be litigious but I did find out about Karl Wagner’s Kane because of it)

For the most part, I’ve grown out of this tendency. But I’ve found myself thinking about how D&D would interpret Mario.

Since he jumps around and kills his enemies by landing on them unarmed, he’s clearly a monk. End of story. That’s not why the Shaolin plumber fascinates me as a D&D concept.

No, it’s the fact that Mario has been in literally hundreds of games. The guy has to have crazy experience points and shot past epic levels long ago. That’s the only explanation for why a plumber monk has taken the time to devote skill points to go kart piloting.

Obviously a first edition Mario just has to walk into the same room as the Grand Master of Flowers and he’d automatically get the title. Mario is the Perry Rhodan of video game heroes. (Yes, that means I’m telling you all I know about Perry Rhodan is that he’s been in over 400 books)

And yes, this whole train of thought is nonsense. Mario has no relationship to Dungeons and Dragons and makes no sense in the context of it. His abilities and limitations are defined by the technology used to implement him and the challenges the designers have him overcome. He can wrestle a turtle dragon into submission but an armless mushroom goblin can kill him with one touch. No edition of Dungeons and Dragons can justify that.

What this entire exercise actually shows is one more example of human natures desperate tendency to explain things and explain them in a format we can claim expertise in.
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Fri Apr 15, 2022 3:26 pm
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Rock Opera ‘79 is a cool flavor of crazy

Lowell Kempf
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In Rock Opera ‘79, you play a rebel rock band out to stop The Man and his soul crushing disco. Which sounds like a crazy idea but the actual game exceeded my expectations in its craziness.

A friend of mine recommended it many months ago and I finally picked up the free version. Which is _almost_ enough to play the game but lacks some character creation rules. But was enough to fill in the setting!

(Mechanically, the game is built around draw decks BUT has this fun little rule: the players can play rock anthems or the GM, excuse me, The Man, can play Get Mellow anthems. They give bonuses for their respective sides. BUT you have to play the actual song on a device and the bonuses only last as long as the song. Cue every player adding In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida to their play list)

I went in expecting a slightly Gonzo version of the 1970s in the United States. Instead, it’s a dystopia that is sliding right into a post-apocalypse.

Man, where do I start? After a major nuclear war, western civilization was run by a computer named SIBIL who would be right at home in a game of Paranoia. SIBIL apparently broke down, the divide between the haves and the have-nots got even bigger and organized crime has become the closest thing to government lef by The Man.

However, an astronaut had discovered that going into space makes you one with the cosmos. And Rock and Roll can do the same thing. The ability to expand the mind and soul and give people a level of untouchable freedom and happiness is a threat to the powers that be. So they created the Discontent Suppression Field, Disco, which is addictive and suppresses will power.

So we have literal outlaw rockers trying to bring freedom and happiness to the oppressed masses while The Man is trying to suppress free will and creativity, while civilization is collapsing.

Oh and there is a literal iron curtain bisecting the world and the Martians really are out there.

In other words, this is well realized crazy with a lot of options for the game master/The Man to take things in different directions.

Because of the setting, I will actually remember Rock Opera ‘79 and would play it given the chance.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Dec 10, 2021 3:31 pm
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Railroads and Dungeon Crawls

Lowell Kempf
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Now, I don’t mean a dungeon crawl set on a train, although what limited knowledge I have of the cartoon Infinity Train makes me think that might be what that is.

Railroading is when a game master has the game set up so that there’s a preordained set of events with predetermined outcomes. The players effectively become actors in a script that’s already been written, without any acutal agency.

Dungeon Crawls, of course, are adventures that are set in some sort of spatially limited set of areas. Dungeons, castles, temples, caves, ruins, they come in different flavors but they are all a defined set of areas.

Part of me wondered if they were variations on the same idea. After all, there usually is some kind of order in how you go through a dungeon. Then I realized that they weren’t really the same at all.

You see, railroading controls what you can affect, sometimes even what you do. A dungeon crawl just controls where you can go. Maybe. I was once in a party where the party leader specialized in divination. Once he also got access to teleportation spells, he would crack open dungeons like Danny Ocean. (Fortunately, that amused the dungeon master)

The long and short of it is that I don’t like railroading. It turns the game into a movie that the game master is trying to force into existence. It turns the players into being an audience, not participants.

On the other hand, I have both a fondness and appreciation for a dungeon crawl. Yes, it is a controlled and limited environment which leads to controlled and limited choices but everyone knew what they signed up for. It’s transparent and doesn’t have a predetermined outcome.

I have also known plenty of game masters who have suffered from Bruno. Being able to get away from complex politics and elaborate schemes and villages where everyone has detail personalities and just run a dungeon? I am beyond fine with someone needing to just handle some orcs coping with home invaders.

And if someone says why don’t you just play a game like Descent in campaign mode with funny voices, I would say why not?

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Aug 27, 2021 4:45 pm
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Boy, was Grimtooth’s Traps its own thing

Lowell Kempf
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I decided to take a virtual trip back to an earlier age in RPGs and look at the original Grimtooth’s Traps from 1981. It is certainly a look back at a time when RPG philosophy was very different.

Grimtooth’s Traps was the first in a series of game supplements that consisted to literally page after page of traps. There weren’t any game stats for any of them (at least in the original versions of the book) Just diagrams, descriptions and snarky commentary. Lots and lots of snarky commentary.

The most entertaining part of the books and probably a big reason why there ended up being so many volumes is that the narrator is a sarcastic troll named Grimtooth who feels that the deadlier the trap, the better. Since so many RPG books from this time period read like engineering text books, the Grimtooth books have a lot of character.

And as a general rule, the traps involve either a crazy amount of engineering or magic. They are wildly over the top , not even remotely cost effective and often ridiculously deadly.

Honestly, I’m hard-pressed to believe a lot of dungeon masters actually used these traps. Not only would they be potential total party killers, they would slow the game down to a crawl, even if you had a party of nothing but thieves.

That said, I can see making some of the larger traps into the centerpiece of a tomb or ruined temple or a mad wizard’s proving grounds. They don’t necessarily have to violate the part of the Hickman manifesto that says architecture should make sense.

I can’t say that Grimtooth’s Traps and the books that followed it are examples of an era old enough that most Grognards aren’t old enough to remember since they are so atypical. And I think it would take some work to make traps actually useful. But Grimtooth is a fun read.
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Wed Aug 25, 2021 8:00 pm
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Pokethulhu is a cute idea wrapped in a meta package

Lowell Kempf
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After I learned that Pokethulhu was actually a thing, I had to find it and read it. Neither one of those things was that hard once I actually knew it existed.

Anyway, it is an RPG that I _think_ was created as a gag and never intended to be played, although it does have a perfectly functional dice pool system attached to it. Yes, we have reached the point where it’s easy enough to throw in functional mechanics into a joke game.

As the name makes blatantly clear, the game is a mash up of Pokémon and the Cthulhu Mythos. The older you are , the weaker your sanity is, so that’s why it’s kids who go out to become cultists and catch abominations. Which is FAR from the strangest thing I’ve seen done it either franchise.

To be honest, Pokethulhu would be a one-note joke that would be immediately forgettable if it wasn’t for one over-arcing conceit. The idea that the game is based on an existing IP and makes constant references to it. It’s like Norman Sprinrad’s Iron Dream only not nearly as disturbing. It’s a step beyond being based on a fake product. It’s like you are playing a game where you are playing a game in that setting.

And it even plays into the mechanics. Players can play chaos cards, causing bizarre effects, but only if another player makes specific quotes from the Pokethulhu cartoon. Which, of course, doesn’t exist.

Having to come up with lines from a cartoon that is non-existent is the most compelling reason to play the game in my opinion.

The single funniest thing in the tiny RPG was a listing for a pokethulhu named Skoobai-Thulhu. In the cartoon, a cultist named Shagai has one and has to use Skoobai-snacks to get it to do anything.

I have seen a lot of RPGs that I have looked and said ‘Man, I want to play that.’ Pokethulhu isn’t one of them. BUT man, was it a fun read!

Originally posted over at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Aug 20, 2021 5:22 pm
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Dante reimagined as a R&W

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I recently tried out Nine Circles, which is apparently the first in a trilogy of little Roll and Writes since the second game has also come out. As the title implies, you are going through Dante’s journey through the first part of the Divine Comedy.

Nine Circles is a solitaire from the fifth Roll and Write contest. (I honestly have trouble keeping track of all the Roll and Write contests) It’s one those where you just print off the player sheet, add dice and away you go.

While the game is themes around the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno (which, to be fair, has informed every version of Hell since) and uses some nice woodcut style art (trying to imitate Gustave Dore would be a bit much and make the board too busy), it’s really nine dice challenges ranging between from having a one or three sixes or no fives.

You have nine dice and a checklist of rolls. You get six changes to roll one die and five chances to roll two, three or four dice. And that’s all the rolls you get in the game. You can freeze dice and you can use rolls to reroll dice or add more dice. You also get nine ‘Virgils’ which you can use to flip a die or add/subtract one.

But here’s the bit that makes the game interesting: every die you roll that’s not used to complete a challenge goes away.

So you have to manage your dice and your rolls. Run out of either and you lose.

I have a weak spot for light R&Ws like Nine Circles. They are the opposite end of the spectrum from what got me really into Roll and Write as a medium but they work as a guilty pleasure (Fitting for a game about Hell) Even when you’re exhausted and can’t think straight, they are still easy to learn and play.

In all honesty, I’d call Nine Circles a B game. It is mechanically solid and has good decisions. However, it doesn’t have that elusive sparkle that makes me immediately play it again. I also wonder if each challenge will become formulaic but, so far, the game keeps thwarting my designs to solve it.

And I have played _lots_ of worse R&W games. Nine Circles passes the dreaded Yahtzee test. I’d play it over Yahtzee. Losing dice you don’t use is a good mechanic. You don’t get enough slack to make the game easy.

It’s sequel, Seven Steps, is now on my try next list.

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2495658/nine-circles


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon May 17, 2021 8:02 pm
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Someone has made a Gideon the Ninth RPG

Lowell Kempf
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After reading Gideon the Ninth, I knew someone had to have made an RPG based on it and I was right. Mandy Szewczuk and Linda H. Coders have given the world The Emperor is Undead. I found it on itch.io

And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a game structure like it.

The basic idea of the game is that you are playing out the situation of Gideon the Ninth, playing necromancers and cavaliers who are trying to achieve Lictorhood in Canaan House, which is like Gormanghast in size and architectural complexity.

Gameplay consists of players taking turns picking one of eleven mini-games and playing them out. There is one that will end the game but you can play the other games I’m any order and (for the most part) as many times as you as want.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like to play test the Emperor is Undead.

I have played enough games, indie and old school and whatever is in between, that I usually have a sense of how a game flows and works. I don’t have that for the Emperor is Undead because of its structure. That isn’t a good or bad thing. It’s just how it is.

The Emperor is Undead isn’t the strangest or most experimental RPG design I’ve ever seen but it is very experimental. On the one hand, it is very much an open improv game. On the other hand, it is also a card game you are playing to win.

That said, creating a story is the most important part. You can still tell a great story while losing while focusing on card play to win would be boring.

Romance is the emotional heart of Gideon the Ninth and I have to note that the Emperor is Undead does give that an option but not a requirement. I feel that it’s a good choice for it to be included but Breaking the Ice is still the best romance RPG I’ve seen.

My biggest nit to pick with The Emperor is Undead is that the tone is very gothic horror but doesn’t touch the snarky tone that was important to the book. In the book, Gideon is a punk rock girl in a gothic horror world and that a big part of what makes the book fantastic.

We are going to have to wait until Tamsyn Muir finishes the Locked Tomb trilogy to have an RPG that really explores the setting. However, I feel it’s a testament to her work that the Emperor is Undead exists and it’s an interesting existence.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri May 14, 2021 8:17 pm
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