Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Stuff I’m Actually Playing

Space Rumsfeld threw down the gauntlet today with this:

Sorry, Rummie. That’s not how we do things around here! I mean… who has the time or even the shelf space for stuff they’re never even going to play?!

Here are five games that I’ve worn out this year, in order of total time at the tabletop!

1. Illuminati with the Y2K expansion set from Steve Jackson Games — My son and I play this one to death. It’s not even designed to work well with two players, but we don’t care. Playing an Illuminati organization using guile and subterfuge to take over group after group? It never gets old! Pushing piles of cash along the pipelines of your tentacles of power? Pure bliss! Action that comes straight from the pages of The Weekly World News? Still hilarious even thirty years later. Those rare occasions that we do get a third or fourth player into the mix…? There’s always some first-rate backstabbing involved. (“Hey, if you do this thing that looks like it would benefit you more than me, I’d totally help you do it!”) Steve Jackson calls this one of their “evergreen” titles because it has never dropped from the top seller lists. Fifteen years ago it would have been on the higher end of the complexity scale, but with the advent of heavy Euros and Living Card Games, it’s now dropped down to being relatively straightforward in comparison. Finally, the inclusion of blank cards allow you to keep the game up to date by adding in Gamergate, Sad Puppies, File 770, and DiGRA to the gameplay. A classic.

2. Wizard Kings with two Heroes & Treasures expansions — Columbia Games is known for the exquisitely well-crafted block wargames. This is not one of their designs that pulls down rave reviews while soaking up tournament slots at the big game conventions. If you’re looking for a quick playing fantasy-themed battle game, though, this is the one you want! The Stratego-style fog of war means you have to make gutsy moves to win. The geo-morphic maps and the seven factions means no two games ever have to be alike. And the game design mojo of the Columbia crew means that there are paths to victory that require you to be very, very evil. Yep, this game is insane for applying “collectibility” to an old school wargame. And you won’t get a substantial amount of play out of this one unless you go ahead and buy a couple of expansions. But I think you’ll find that the excitement involved in planning out how to dole out the stickers to each faction is exactly the sort of insane fun that’s been missing from your life. (Note that I have more notes along with a complete scenario here, here, and here.)

3. 7 Ages — This is the monster game to end all monster games. I played this one with six other people for seven sessions straight and let me tell you… it was epic. Each player typically plays two empires at once. They spring up all over the world and grow and fight and collapse and break apart. All sorts of technology is in play at once. There are special leaders, special units– and the cards are all used for a half dozen things. Players build the seven wonders of the world, trigger acts of god, raid, pillage, burn, usurp, and invent. It’s insane. This game is more like a role-playing game in some ways because players end up coming up with their own personal objectives rather than simply playing for a straight ahead win. Some people do things just because they might be incredibly awesome. Other people spend the game punishing anyone that crosses them. The complexity level is high and it will be a rare group that decides to actually bust this one out, but those that do are in for an unparalleled gaming experience. (Note you can find extensive documentation of my 7 Ages game over on the Castalia House photo stream.)

4. Adventurer Conqueror King System and The Sinister Stone of Sakkara — A lot of people ask me what version of D&D I recommend, and yeah… I feel pretty strongly about the classic Moldvay Basic sets with the Erol Otus covers. ACKS takes those D&D rules that are the arguably most played of all time and develops them further. Here you’ll find extensive rules for the domain game that was only given cursory treatment in AD&D. You’ll also find a diverse range of character classes that accommodate modern sensibilities without sacrificing the old school aesthetic. And with the Sakkara adventure module, the line now has something to fill the niche that Gary Gygax’s Keep on the Borderlands established. The variety of beasties populating this dungeon makes sense and there is a wild situation brewing that has some awesome weird horror angles. Finally, there are a couple of encounters here that don’t tend to end up in most peoples’ introductory modules but that really ought to be done. There is the potential for true gaming glory within these pages. (For more in this see my posts here, here, and here.)

5. Sea Kings by Lewis Pulsipher — This one is a light board game that’s easy to teach, easy to set up, and quick to play. I had no problem getting my son (age 13) and his friends to play it. I even got a six player game together with some kids that were even younger. Unlike a lot of euros, there is an element of direct conflict in the advanced rules. The inclusion of rules that allow players to settle without using a card in order to take over over players settlements makes the gameplay much more dynamic. There’s also just enough history baked into the game to inspire young people to do some further reading about the world the Viking raiders lived in.

And there you have it! There are some lovely games that have come out this year, but none of them quite had the staying power of these five. Check ’em out! (And if you pick up a copy of your own, please purchase them through the links on this post in order to support my blogging efforts.)

The Pulp Revolution Spinner Rack

The latest issue of Cirsova is out, and yep… it’s got my name on the cover. Let me tell you, I am very very excited about this. And not just because my contributor copy is on the way, either!

I don’t know what’s inside, but if it’s all as good as my piece on C. L. Moore in there, well… I think you’re going to get your money’s worth!!

Now… any time the subject of fantasy and science fiction short stories comes up, it’s seems like there’s always an independent author that steps up to say that they tried doing short works, but it just doesn’t work for them financially. Seriously, I wince every time I hear that. See, it’s just not normal. Before 1980, short stories and novellas were the bread and butter of science fiction and fantasy. The mind bending variety is just plain astounding…!

I want that energetic spirit of creativity to make a comeback. And I’m not alone! Guy’s like Schuyler Hernstrom are making it happen right now. Seriously, if you’ve ever looked back on the pulps and thought, “nobody’s ever gonna write like that again,” you need to check out the title story from Thune’s Vision. It is everything that the establishment creators can’t imagine… and it’s awesome!

And you know, sometimes I think the pulp revolution was just itching to happen well before anyone thought to coin the term. What gets me is the number of people involved that were hanging around these parts even when 90% of the posts were about Car Wars…! Karl K. Gallagher is one of those people, and if you want to hear more about him, check out this review and this interview, not to mention this post about him receiving the Planetary Award for his first novel!

Yes, Karl has returned with a sequel now. If you want old school science fiction in the tradition of Traveller and Starfire, this is it!

On the back cover of the latest issue of Cirsova, you’ll find an ad for Brian Niemeier’s stuff. Who is he and why is he here…? Well, let me tell you. Brian is one of those independent author types that isn’t necessarily in all this for the revolution. (And I mean this in the most swaggeringly Han Soloish way possible.) No, he’s not looking to make some kind of Weird Tales or Planet Stories revival along the lines of what P. Alexander is doing.

But freed from the constraints of the big box book store… and working on the basis of whatever seems awesome from the standpoint of stuff like tabletop gaming and anime, there is in fact a bit of parallel evolution going on here. Brian’s stuff blurs the lines between genres in way that could have been taken for granted more before 1940 or so….!

I try to pin down precisely what he’s doing here, but the main thing is… this guy’s causing a stir. He pulled down a Dragon Award with his sequel and is even now closing in on completing a third installment to this series.

Last but not least here, I have to put in a word for John C. Wright. Many times in the past year I have lamented the fact that nobody seems to write like Lord Dunsany, C. L. Moore, and Poul Anderson anymore. Looking at the wasteland that is the modern day mass market book store, it was all too easy to despair.

I’ve got news for you, though. The man that is arguably the best living fantasy and science fiction author…? He writes as if the Appendix N days never stopped. It’s awesome… and he is getting better all the time!

If you are looking for a novel written on the premise of old style elfs– elfs without the overwhelming sameness of today’s watered down Tolkien pastiche– then you have to see Swan Knight’s Son. I’ve heard people say that it’s the best book they’ve read this year… and now that I’ve read it myself, I have to agree with them!

I’ve never been more excited about fantasy and science fiction than right now. It really does feel like we are at the start of a new golden age. I’m telling you, I can’t wait to see what these guys come up with next.

Note: I am thick as thieves with these guys, no doubt. I want to see more fiction like this and I want these guys to be able to make money doing it. When you buy these guys’ books, you are helping make the pulp revolution continue to grow at an astonishing rate. If you buy through the links on the book images here, then you also help by getting Amazon to throw me a kickback for getting the word out. To everyone that does so… thank you for your support!

Random Thoughts: Nothing to See, Everything to Lose, “Real Writer” Culture, and Following Your Hate

Talked to an old friend today. The guy is not a serious fan of sff beyond watching Firefly and so forth. I tried to explain to him what all was going on… the way that basically no one would would even be seen talking to me online last January… to things changing in a number of surprising ways in the past few months. My friend wrote it all off as just a consequence of a steadily growing readership. And you know I’d buy that, too, if the coverage in NPR, Wired, and Popular Science had not been so over the top. I guess out in Normie land the press completely losing its shit over something utterly insignificant is not something that raises eyebrows. When I talk about the implications of the old paths to publication and legitimacy being increasingly irrelevant, he sees nothing unusual. Oh, he’d read somewhere that Amazon was putting Barnes and Noble out of business. Nothing to see there. It was a good reminder the extent to which I must sound like a mad man to normal people. And I may well be blowing a couple of things out of proportion lately. (Ahem.) BUT… I gotta say…. I still have to say…. This passive, “eh, times change” mentality is freaking retarded. I absolutely despise it. Maybe I’m wrong about a few things, fine. But there’s something about their thinking that conceives of the world as being a positively mundane place were ordinary rednecks like me can’f stumble into odd adventures and surprisingly bizarre opportunities. The implications of 40 years of science fiction being systematically memory holed…? Nothing to see here. The most influential author of the 20th century lapsed into obscurity…? Nothing to see here. Publishers no longer in the business of selling books and readers on the verge of outright revolt? Nothing to see here. Maybe if people had actually read some old science fiction they could imagine that there are ideas out there that have to be suppressed simply because they are inherently and fundamentally dangerous. We live in a time when a cartoon frog can change the course of an election and people still can’t imagine it. Assuming such ideas did actually exist, don’t you think strange things would necessarily happen to the guy that broke the story…? No…? Okay. A steadily growing readership and the influence that goes with it, that’s all it can be. Just another normal year on the internet here. Nothing to see. Move along.

Me for two years straight: “Man, this is going to be huge when this story breaks!”
People in real life: “Yeah, right. Whatever, man.”
<story breaks>
Me right now: “Good gosh. I really think something is happening.”
People in real life: “Of course it would; duh!”

At some point you have to take the hive mind at face value. What would it have cost them to treat me like a legitimate voice in science fiction…? Answer: everything. People talk about how weird it was, how over the top. “Dude, he’s just some rpg blogger, seriously!?” You know what I mean? I think the most reasonable explanation is that they grasped that their relevance really was at stake. If anyone could get through and challenge the narrative, it would be the end of them. We were sitting there thinking all that time, “what in the devil is wrong with these people?!” But if you understand what was happening, it really does make sense. We crashed a party because it seemed like a fun thing to do, but they were fighting for their existence.

The thing that bugs me the most about all of this is that it took a handful of game bloggers to really go out and do something. But culture is everything. And “real writer” culture is utterly, irredeemably whipped. You go back and read the most cranky pants stuff out there that’s by people that have a foothold in the system and doggone, the number of hoops they are running themselves through to please people that hate them blows my mind. I’ve read their stuff for years and it’s just dumbfounding. Why are these people so insular? Why is it that they don’t seem to grasp how blogging even works? Hell, who are these people writing for?! It is nothing like the game blogging scene. With book bloggers, it’s like pulling teeth to get any of these people to talk about the sort of things we’re all supposed to be fans of in the first place. And god help you if you ever want them to link back to you and continue a conversation on their own blog. It’s like they’ve lost the plot… of reality! I don’t get. I never got it. I hope I don’t ever get it.

If I could give just one piece of advice to aspiring creators, it would be to follow your rage. Really, anything of value… anything smacking of truth or glory or vision, it was all being shabbily destroyed well before you were born. If it doesn’t make you angry, if it doesn’t cause you to be consumed with hate, then I can’t imagine that you have anything significant to contribute and should probably look into acquiring a different hobby.

So I should be happy that the pulp revolution is making some surprising gains over the past several months. I mean… just as one example, this conversation was freaking dead last year. I would find maybe two or four stale blog posts when I’d compare my stuff to what was already on the web. It felt like maybe five people were even talking to me– not counting the people throwing punches. Fast forward to today… you have something vaguely resembling what happened with the OSR going on in the book blogging scene.

It makes me angry, though. What I want people to realize is that this should be normal. Lovecraft had it. The Inklings had it. Gygax had it. But it was snuffed out somehow. Just how this was accomplished is absolutely critical for people to understand. And even my closest allies will struggle to accept that it happened.

These things don’t just happen, though– not anymore than that ideological diversity just magically evaporates overnight. There is a recipe people can implement to orchestrate these things. It doesn’t take very many people, really. It takes a whole lot of chumps and suckers, though.

And that boils my blood more than anything else. Not that someone would do this. But that so many people would let it happen. Because here is the dumbest thing that I’ve been told over the years:

“Derp. Conservatives just do not get involved in the arts or journalism or education. Guess all they care about is making money! Derpity derp derp!”

You hear this from actual conservatives, of course. This is how freaking stupid they are. I mean really. They’ll sit there and observe that there are practically no non-leftists in the culture business… and they act like it’s freaking inevitable. Talk about hook, line, and sinker!

Then there the people that are doing pretty good. They kept their head down until they could make it. Only then did they come out as perpetrators of mild WrongThink. But these sorts of people said nothing as the most critical culture wars of the decade went down. Oh, but they did come to the key players and let them know privately how important what they were doing was.

Thank you for your service, asshole. Man, what a big help!

And now that things are moving, people have the gall to tell me that I’m crazy for thinking that a handful of game bloggers could have made a difference in precipitating a significant shift in the culture.

Yes they did. Pulp revolution has moved the Overton window as well as just about anything going out there right now. It’s obvious that that would be the case in retrospect, but nobody saw this coming.

And now people are asking me why it is that I’m concerned when I hear more of the whole “eh, what’s it to us if someone wants to write bad fantasy…?” Well it is something if they take up our bandwidth. It is something if they are drowning out the good stuff. It is something if they are denouncing the classics and systematically attacking everything we like with the same tired criticism.

It’s a lack of fight that got everything this far gone to begin with. It’s a fighting spirit that changed the conversation. And we are not done fighting now.

As I put the finishing touches on my Appendix N project, I want to reiterate how surprised I am that the OSR has pretty well repudiated the subject matter. Given that I came out of game blogging, that I wanted to bring more people into game blogging, and that I would not even know about the topic without the OSR to begin with, I have to say that it especially surprises me. And yes, I am disappointed that the loudest voice within the OSR thought it a good idea to hammer me with the exact same bullshit that the apologists for the fantasy and science fiction establishment were trotting out at the time. I don’t remember anyone not already closely associated with me speaking up for me at the time, either. Not that I really expected some sort of “I am Spartacus” moment or anything. Even now that it doesn’t really matter anymore, I have to say that I still find it rather disappointing. I really did think better of the people writing and creating within that movement.

Yes there’s been a seachange. And yes, it is very recent. There was no book blogging culture remotely like this last year. It’s like that moment in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where the ice starts to melt. The “times change” people are going to be out in force to dismiss the significance of this, but I want to point out that there is a reason why this did not happen spontaneously alongside the much earlier proliferation of rpg blogs. What you’re seeing is facilitated by technology, but it is not a product of it.

Kitchen Sink Gaming is “The Best Gaming Evar!” Gaming

A reader writes in:

One of the best games I ever ran was deliberately crazy; I literally made up most of the setting itself on the fly, and I did whatever sounded fun and ridiculous and crazy. There were airships flying over seas of mist that were inhabited by daemons to get to cities on plateaus and tepuis that poked up out the mist. There were wars between sentient gorillas and Amazon warriors from Opar (La even made a brief appearance.) There was a gun that could kill almost anything (ripped straight from the first season of Supernatural.) There was an extended riff on Freaky Friday where two characters got their bodies swapped with nearby dead NPCs—the groups misogynistic Don Juan was stuck in the body of Fast Times era Phoebe Cates and the slimy used car salesman slash pirate hobgoblin was stuck in the body of a gorilla with a hook for one hand. There was a caper involving a noblewoman that was not terribly unlike the issue the Three Musketeers had to resolve between Queen Anne and the Duke of Buckingham. Later, I borrowed the basic plot of The Hangover and had them realize that they’d somehow “lost” a few days from their memory, during which all kinds of crazy things happened, including the hobgoblin getting married to a half fiend spy.

You know… this guy is making the point that the stuff that makes for great gaming is not what you’d want for great fiction. But I think a whole lot of people would actually want to read something this awesome.

Culture is Downstream of Criticism

As far as I can tell, critics are pretty well anathema to the average author.

That’s not my experience, though:

Seriously, Jeffro just opened my eyes to a core theme of the Soul Cycle that I’d missed for years. To paraphrase Adrian Veidt, only the very best reviewers can accomplish that! — Brian Neimeier

Rarely, very rarely, in the life of a writer, does he come across a book review by a critic who actually “gets” the point of the book he wrote. — John C. Wright

Keep in mind, I am a complete amateur. I have no formal training in what I do. I just read books and then write about what ever struck me about them.

And I get feed back like that. When practically everywhere else, literary critics are reviled.


Well I think it’s pretty obvious what’s happened. Even a modest survey of they past hundred years of science fiction and fantasy will flush it out. Literary criticism was corrupted. It was then used as a weapon to fairly well destroy an entire field. I’m not exaggerating. The two most influential authors of the twentieth century after J. R. R. Tolkien and Edgar Rice Burroughs…? That would be H. P. Lovecraft and Joanna Russ. The former used literary criticism to push the state of the art of science fiction and fantasy forward. The latter used literary criticism to decimate it.

I think people sense this even if they can’t quite articulate it. Certainly, people that love classic science fiction and fantasy hold critics in contempt. I don’t blame them. But I think badmouthing critics wholesale is short-sighted– and not just because I am one. See, not only is politics downstream of culture, but culture is downstream of criticism. The fact the authors routinely denounce critics is a sign not only that literary criticism has been perverted to the point where it no longer serves its intended purpose; it is a sign that we have ceded valuable ground to an enemy that is very efficient in using it against us.

I think it’s time to take it back.