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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Was Erik Frank Russell deconstructing the space opera in the 1940s?

Lowell Kempf
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Men, Martians and Machines by Erik Frank Russell becomes an odder read the more you look at it. A collection of interlocking stories, it was published in 1955 but most of the book was originally published in the early 40s.

On the surface, it’s the rollicking adventures of the solar system’s first interstellar spaceship as they explore one death world after another. A machine world, a plant world, a brain control world. It’s all very by the numbers, even back when it was written.

The next level, at least for me, is that Men, Martians and Machines is a definitive period piece. It felt that way back when I first picked it up back in the late 80s and it really feels that way now. Some critics say that every science fiction novel is about the time it was written, not the future. Russell was definitely writing about the navy and merchant marines of the 40s. (The lack of exterior weapons so they have to open the airlock to shoot back is so bizarre to me)

But it was when we dig even deeper that Men, Martians and Machines becomes really interesting. I thought the book was multicultural when I thought it had been written in 1955. But when I learned that part of it had been written over a decade before that, I was really impressed. I thought Voyage of the Space Beagle was the prototype of Star Trek but Men, Martians and Machines feels like Star Trek the prototype. The black surgeon is the most competent and mature human on the ship. Not only are the octopod Martians and the token robot treated as buddies by the humans, they are clearly more with it than the humans.

In every single story, the Martians and/or the robot have to save the humans. The humans would be dead every time if it wasn’t for the non-humans. The fact that Russell has this happen in every story turns the book into a deconstruction of the genre at a time when the standard trope was having humans always win, at least if John Campbell was editing. On top of that, the constant stream to death planets is clearly wearing the humans down by the end of the book. The book went from a yarn and period piece to something that made me think.

The other highlight of the book is the Martians. Not their cephalopod forms or limited telepathy but their laconic, easy going personalities. They never get worried or stop obsessing about chess even while dealing with fantastic threats. At one point, we learn that they can think in two threads at the same time so they are always playing mental chess.

They never have to stop playing board games? I’m jealous!

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri May 29, 2020 3:29 pm
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Comfort food in the form of books and games

Lowell Kempf
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I find comfort food is a good analogy for both my reading and solitaire gaming habits during lockdown. Covid 19 is adding enough stress and complications to life that I don’t feel like adding challenging to my decompression.

Both L. Sprague de Camp and Rex Stout have featured in my casual reading during this time, which goes to show that comfort reading doesn’t have to mean garbage reading. I will say that it’s fascinating to read about Nero Wolfe, who practices extreme social distancing by choice, when the real world has to do that. Of course, his life style does require the rest of the world to be in good working order.

Gaming-wise, particularly since life usually gives me about five minutes for a solitaire session, my recent interest in Roll and Write has come in handy. Set up consisting of grabbing dice and a dry erase marker is nice. They make for very nice ‘comfort food’ since they can hold a lot in a small amount of components.

And there are some really good Roll and Write games out there. I have gotten a lot of mileage out of That’s Pretty Clever during this time. While I have said Qwixx is the game that fires Yahtzee for non-gamers, That’s Pretty Clever is the game that fires Yahtzee for gamers.

But there’s a lot more Roll and Writes out there, including tons of free PnP games. Now, I will fully admit that the Roll and Writes I’ve actually paid for are better most of the time than the free ones, the variety is really nice. Right now, they are perfect when we’re limited in where we can go and what we can get. And when comfort foods can be essential.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon May 4, 2020 5:41 pm
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James Ernest writes a fun memoir

Lowell Kempf
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I finally read Cheapass in Black and White by James Ernest. It’s a retrospective on the history of Cheapass Games by the founder and guy who designed almost all the games. It’s about one third commentary and two thirds reprints of ads, rules, packaging and components.

Man, I am both the target audience and the worst audience for this book. On the one hand, I really like Cheapass Games and I have a large collection of their games (that, wonderfully, doesn’t take up much space) On the other hand, that means I have the originals for almost all the images so two thirds of the book is unnecessary for me

(Incidentally, you can’t try and make an PnP project out of the book. You do get complete rules but you don’t get complete scans of the components. Which is fine because a hefty chunk of those components are available for download on the Cheapass website.)

Seriously. There are literally about three games discussed in the book that I don’t own. And one of them was reprinted in Chief Herman (I didn’t even know Tishai had been independently printed.) Swag was a convention only game that was turned into Captain Treasure Boots, which I do own. And I just never bought Veritas.

The memoir section are a lot of fun. James Ernest has a very conversational style, which makes him enjoyable to read. He invites us on a journey, talking about his work and life and his philosophy of about game design. Which could be dryer than a desert but he makes it sparkle.

It has been said (I’ve said it but I am far from the first) that James Ernest most legitimately punk of game designers. He isn’t defiant or out to hate parents (his or otherwise) He is simply out to do his own thing, regardless of what anyone else thinks. He is an iconoclast not for the sake of being an iconoclast but because that’s how he can get what he wants done.

Getting some insight into that and a lot of anecdotes about that is fun. The book isn’t a how to guide to game design or game publishing but you will still learn a lot, possibly while not even noticing.

Cheapass in Black and White is a good read. If you have the slightest interest in Cheapass Games or game design or game, you will do yourself a favor reading it.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Apr 14, 2020 7:24 pm
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Did Lauren Faust read the Firebringer trilogy?

Lowell Kempf
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Warning: not about gaming this time


That’s actually not a very fair question. Meredith Ann Pierce’s unicorn culture is very different than the world of Friendship Is Magic. For one thing, the Firebringer Unicorns are basically Stone Age tribes while the fourth generation of My Little Pony is modified modern day. Still, both works are set around an equine-based culture in a world with many intelligent species. So, it did come to mind when reading the trilogy.

While fantasy and science fiction often deals with non-human cultures, non-humanoid is still a big next step. Still, it happens often enough. Pierce’s world is nicely realized but what makes it memorable is how much she demystifies unicorns of all things. Their mystics can have prophetic dreams and they are very athletic but by making them the baseline ordinary people, they are less fantastic, more mundane.

Which by no means is a bad thing. It’s just interesting.

I don’t know how to discuss these books without major spoilers. At the same time, I don’t know how much really counts as a spoiler. Jan, the protagonist of the first book (and duagonist of the second two books ) turns out to be the fire bringer of prophecy? Wow, that’s going to be pretty obvious to every reader.

At the start of the series, the unicorns have been in diaspora for forty generations. Their homeland was taken over by the venomous wyverns. They are also have bad relations with the neighboring gryphon and pan (faun) tribes. Over the course of the three books, Jan the prince of the unicorns both learns the secrets of fire and unites pretty much all the disparate peoples through diplomacy. Meanwhile, in her own story arc, his mate Tek kicks butt and takes names.

Plot wise, the books are very formulaic. Without exaggeration, Jan goes through Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in _every_ _single_ book. There aren’t a lot of surprises about what happens. Will the unicorns regain their last homelands from the wyverns? Would I spoil anything telling you?

Instead, the setting, the use of language and the character development are reason to read these books and those are three very good reasons. As I already mentioned, the world building is great and Pierce has a wonderful, lyrical voice that carries through the series.

And the character development is very strong. Jan doesn’t just go through dramatic experiences. He also goes through dramatic changes. The Jan at the start of third book is a far cry from the Jan at the start of the first book and we got to see how he got there.

And the other main character, Tek, might not change as much as Jan but is still a fully realized character. And she has to overcome more dire obstacles than Jan does once she gets to be a POV character. In the second book, her plot about surviving the unicorn king going insane is the strongest part of the whole series.

From what I have read, this series has spent a lot of time out of print. Which is a shame because it should be a classic.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Mar 31, 2020 5:23 am
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Cosmicomics takes unique to new levels

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This isn’t about gaming but I’d be curious to see how someone would use this book for gaming. If there’s an RPG based on Cosmicomics, I want to see it.


The best description of that I’ve read of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics is ‘You really just got to read them yourself’

But that’s not helpful for discussing them so here goes. Cosmicomics is a series of short stories that start with a scientific theory and then build a domestic story around it. They take giant concepts and make them small and personal. It doesn’t necessarily make them easier to understand but it just might make them easier to relate.

Qfwfq is the narrator of most of the stories. He may be the ultimate example of the ‘been everywhere man’ in literature, having been there for the Big Bang and observed the development of the universe since then. He can also be petty, small minded, and jealous. He helps make the universe small

Some of the different theories that are used completely contradict each other. Qfwfq’s personal time line contradicts itself to the point of making absolutely no sense whatsoever. The stories are also filled with ludicrous anachronisms. And, yet, the stories aren’t slapdash or sloppy. They finely balance the cosmic with the human with gentle absurdity with a constant tone. There is some definite brilliance going on here

I first came across the book sometime in either middle school or high school. Read the first few stories and couldn’t make heads or tails of then. They stuck with me but I just didn’t know what to make of them. But after reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities, I knew I had to revisit the book. I’m glad that I did, even though I’m still not sure what Calvino is trying to do.

And I found out in rereading Cosmicomics that Calvino kept writing this stuff and someone kindly published the lot in The Complete Cosmicomics. I am definitely reading that, probably bemused the whole time.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Feb 26, 2020 11:48 pm
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Mythos don’t need no continuity

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I decided to read Ubbo-Sathla by Clark Ashton Smith, whose one of those authors I feel like always need to read more of. I know the story has been co-opted into the Cthulhu Mythos because Smith was part of the Lovecraft circle and why not? The short story certainly deals with cosmic horror and nightmarish secrets man will always regret poking at.

So I then decided to look at how Ubbo-Sathla, the primordial slime that spawned all life and guards the tablets of dark gods, has been jury-rigged into the greater Mythos. The phrase proto-shoggoth came up more than once, with the idea of the Elder Things harvesting samples of Ubbo-Sathla to create those teddy bears of the Mythos, the shoggoth.

That seemed a little odd with Smith’s story having Ubbo-Sathla kick off life on this fragile globe in a more wild and natural fashion. (Not that I think Smith had any desire to have the story fit neatly into a carefully organized cosmology)

That’s when I realized that I was going about the whole matter all wrong. A key element of Lovecraft’s flavor of cosmic horror is that the universe, in addition to being 100% uncaring, is inexplicable, beyond the comprehension of the soft, squishy human mind. Trying to categorize and organize it just isn’t playing the game, by Jeeves.

(No offense to you, Mr. August Derleth. You know I still love you. Okay, mostly for Solar Pons but you did keep the Mythos alive)

Yes, there is value and justification in having some kind of cosmology and taxonomy for the Mythos if you’re going to have a game like Call of Cthulhu. A game like that does get a lot of help from a system and I do love me some Call of Cthulhu.

However, that madman Clark Ashton Smith has reminded me that you can’t cling to that structure too much. Sometimes, you have to remember that the continuity of the Mythos has a lot in common with the continuity of Red Dwarf. It doesn’t make sense and that’s just fine.

Originally posted on www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Feb 20, 2020 2:38 am
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Italo Calvino makes me want to play impossible games

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Reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, I have a craving to design a game about creating cities in a few paragraphs, developing a map of urban worlds. Which means I’m completely missing the point of the book

The book has Marco Polo describing fifty-five cities to a bemused Kublai Kahn. He breaks the cities down into eleven categories and they all have women’s names. Beneath this poetic atlas structure is a deconstruction of language and geography.

Or so reviews and analysis of Invisible Cities tells me. I don’t grok that yet. In fact, I feel like I should be rereading the book again in six months and see how much it’s changed for me over that time.

So my desire to make a game out of it is based on the most superficial reading of it. But it’s still there.

I picture a set of tables. On your turn, roll to see what category the city is. Roll to see what name it is. Roll to see what details you are allowed to describe, like architecture or trade goods or monuments or such. From those rolls, you create a city in a few words.

Perhaps there might be two tables of categories and you must find where the city you are dreaming up fits on the matrix, turning a spreadsheet grid into a map of imagination.

Or perhaps the city that you dream of must fit onto a postcard. And after you have written your city into existence on your postcard, you must put a stamp on it and send it to the next player, letting them know it is their turn to bring a city to life on a postcard. And at the end, everyone has a physical artifact of a city that has only come to be due to the game.

Aaaaand I’ve just crossed the line from game to performance art. Probably the kind of performance art that would end up annoying everyone involved.

I’m actually not even halfway through Invisible Cities and I know it’s not a book about world building but more of world unbuilding. My feeble understanding makes it feel more about how you describe a place says more about you than the place.

But it still makes me want to build dreamy worlds.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Nov 7, 2019 11:15 pm
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Three Men in a classic about nothing

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Nothing about games here. You can stop reading now if you’d like.


Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome is one of those books that I think everyone should read. It’s a classic that somehow doesn’t really say anything at all but it’s such a charming nothing.

Allegedly, Jerome was planning on writing a travelogue that described a boating trip on the Thames that he and two of his friends made. However, the humor element took over and a fictional dog got added to the mix and that led to the book we have today.

The book is still kind of about that boating trip. Indeed, the trip is described well enough that you can recreate the trip today, which many people do. But most of the book is the characters, particularly the narrater going on long, rambling asides that are often hysterical. Jerome describing his Uncle Podger trying to hang a picture is one of the most perfect slapstick bits imaginable.

There are some odd shifts in tone. The bit where the narrater begins imagining King John signing the Magna Carta comes out of left field and always makes me wonder if I missed something. And the description of a suicide victim they come across is a drastic shift in tone unlike anything else in the book.

However, for the most part, the book is a leisurely journey that basically goes nowhere but its a relaxing, fun trip. The tone is so conversational that it feels less like a book and much more like a monologue and not in an annoying way

I was shocked after reading the book for the first time to learn that it was written in 1889. That’s at least thirty years older than I expected. The book is so candid and witty that it feels more modern. Indeed, while I have absolutely nothing to back this thought up, I think of it as one of the first modern British comedies.
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Thu Aug 29, 2019 8:32 pm
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Lord Dunsany gets in your head

Lowell Kempf
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At least once a year, I find myself reading the early works of Lord Dunsany. (Because those are the ones that are public domain and I can’t seem to find any version of his later stuff online or even affordably in print. Seriously, who is sitting on the rights to the Jorkens stories!?)

One of the side effects of reading early Dunsany is the urge to write like he did. Ursula K. Le Guin even referred him as “the First Terrible Fate That Befalleth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy" and boy was she right. It even happened to Tolkien and Lovecraft. Neil Gaiman may have never recovered

(Just joking, Mr Gaiman, sir. You mastered Lord Dunsany’s tropes to tell your own stories)

And it happens to me every time.

‘In the black halls of the Fortress Inconsolable walks the almost forgotten god T’rtl Wx. All know that he is truly a god but none can recall him what nature of godhood was given to him. Even in the moldering library of Bubblbth, which lies on the far end of the catacombs of the decadent city of Rhode Hows, the oldest and most faded of scrolls mention his name but not his nature.

‘Of all the wizened sages and plucky nimble-fingers who dare to enter the Fortress Inconsolable to seek out T’rtl Wx and discover the truth of his nature, none have yet to return. For the dark halls were built without a floor plan and every bathroom is undiscoverable.

‘And eternally does T’rtl Wx walks, forever waiting for an honestly good cup of tea for Oolong will never suffice for him.’

Seriously, Dunsany rewires your brain.

https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Edward_John_Moreton_Drax_Plunkett


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Aug 19, 2019 8:55 pm
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