Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

I am on the Sad Puppies slate for “Best Fan Writer”!

Well, it was quite a surprise to see my name turn up on the infamous Sad Puppies slate and on Brad Torgersen’s, Larry Correia’sVox Day’s, and John C. Wright’s blogs.

Of course, I only just found out what a “best fan writer” is. I was writing mostly about games and game design early last year. I covered Lewis Pulsipher’s game design materials in depth and broke a relatively big story on Volko Rhunke’s and Mark Herman’s new Vietnam themed COIN series game. It wasn’t until I started reviewing Hugo nominated authors one after another that I got the idea to start writing for Castalia House.

You see… I noticed that there is not really a serious, in depth survey of Appendix N literature, so I decided to do one. Given that it inspired the now-ubiquitous Dungeons & Dragons game, I figured it would give me plenty of time to delve into gaming and game design topics. The more I got into it, the more surprised I got not only by what is in some of these old books, but also just how obscure they are now in spite of their influence. (One thing that worked out rather nicely in my opinion was how the books raised several issues regarding classic games and gaming in general, and I could then review some games that not only applied the material in the old novels in innovative ways, but that also provided unexpected solutions to longstanding game design issues.)

This has been really fun. Hopefully it’s been a good read for those that have been following along. The really wild thing is ending up being the guy that is getting a modest number of people hooked on quintessential books like ones by Jack Vance, Robert E. Howard, A. Merritt, and more. Their works really shouldn’t be as esoteric as they are, but I really get a charge out of hearing how much people enjoy reading them. And even after all of these retrospectives, I’ve only scratched the surface….

Here’s a list of all of my Castalia House posts:

1. [Traveller Book Review] Fate of the Kinunir by Robert E. Vardeman
2. [Traveller Book Review] Shadow of the Storm by Martin J. Dougherty
3. [Appendix N] The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
4. [Appendix N] Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson
5. [Traveller’s “Appendix N”] The Winds of Gath by E. C. Tubb
6. [Traveller’s “Appendix N”] Derai by E. C. Tubb
7. [Appendix N] The High Crusade by Poul Anderson
8. [Appendix N] The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance
9. [Appendix N] A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
10. [Appendix N] Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny
11. [Games] Warriors of Mars by Gary Gygax and Brian Blume
12. [Games] Domains at War by Alexander Macris
13. [Appendix N] At the Earth’s Core by Edgar Rice Burroughs
14. [Appendix N] The Pirates of Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs
15. [Appendix N] Nine Princes in Amver by Roger Zelazny
16. [Appendix N] Conan of Cimmeria by Robert E. Howard
17. [Appendix N] Creep, Shadow! by A. Merritt
18. [Appendix N] The Moon Pool by A. Merritt
19. [Appendix N] Kothar– Barbarian Swordsman by Gardner Fox
20. [Appendix N] Changeling Earth by Fred Saberhagen
21. [Appendix N] The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs
22. [Games] Space Empires: 4X by Jim Krohn
23. [Games] Adventurer Conqueror King System by Alexander Macris
24. [Games] Space Empires: Close Encounters
25. [Rants] “So are you the author of this article?”
26. [Games] Dwimmermount by James Maliszewki, Alexander Macris, and Tavis Allison

These next few posts are from this year, and I presume are out of consideration… but don’t let that stop you from reading them!

27. [Games] Sorcerer by Ron Edwards
28. [Games] Car Wars, fourth edition, second printing
29. [Interviews] A Conversation with Ron Edwards
30. [Appendix N] Dwellers in the Mirage by A. Merritt
31. [Games] On the Table: Car Wars Fourth Edition, 2nd Printing
32. [Appendix N] Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp
33. [Appendix N] The Blue Star by Fletcher Pratt
34. [Appendix N] Kyrik: Warlock Warrior by Gardener F. Fox

You can also catch me talking games on Google+. Over on Recommend you can find me reviewing classic Star Trek episodes and whatever else I get into.

The Appendix N Series Returns…

After a too-long hiatus, I am back with the next installment of my Appendix N series:

RETROSPECTIVE: Dwellers in the Mirage by Abraham Merritt

Outside of a post at Grognardia, there really isn’t a lot of information out there on this book. This comment was pretty intriguing to me, though: “I suspect the point James is hinting at is that Gygax (and maybe other early RPGers) was engaging in a metaphorical journey similar to the fictional travels of those ‘lost worlds’ characters. This the focus is on exploring the world; the character is mainly a vehicle for doing so and doesn’t need much of an inner life let alone exploration of internal conflicts.”

Also based on this post over at Zenopus Archives it seems that people back in the seventies would routinely mention Merritt in the same breath as Howard or Lovecraft… as if he were coequal to them. So why is Merritt so obscure now…? Well, my theory is that with something like the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, you can see that publishers were scrambling to get as much fantasy as they could to meet a sudden new demand for it. But in the eighties, they had enough people producing so much stuff that they didn’t need to scrape the bottom of the barrel any more. This partly explains whythe early rpg designers knew all about A. Merritt while the average child of the eighties would have no clue about the guy.

But the thing is… Merritt is not the bottom of the barrell at all. He is, in fact, the crème de la crème. He really does not deserve his obscurity. Now… maybe you’re skeptical and that’s fine. I will say that the comments and reviews on this particular work are almost uniformly positive. People just like Dwellers in the Mirage. So if you’ve put off checking out this particular Appendix N author, this is probably the book to pick up if you want to give the guy a shot. Enjoy…!

One of the reasons I keep doing these posts is that they seem like they deserve to be done, there’s nothing really like them out there, and they’re something that I can actually do. In my post, I compare Merritt to Egar Rice Burroughs and H. P. Lovecraft and explain why I think he can hold his own against those giants. I also contrast Merritt to how things tend to be done nowadays. Instead of glossing over the “problematic” aspects of Merritt’s writing, I deal with them head on. In fact… far from having to hold my nose to review his stuff, I am blown away by this sort of thing. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, of course… but I have to say, this stuff seems so obvious to me when I read these old books, I’m surprised that no one else is saying it.

I dunno, maybe I’m in left field or something… but it really is weird to me that nobody else is really doing anything like this. I don’t get it.

Check Your Rhetoric, Bro: Charlie Hebdo, Islam, and… Gamergate?

Okay, check this out:

 

Switch Gamergate in for Islam and what do we get?

Whether you agree or not, Islam has become associated with violence against cartoonists, novelists, filmmakers, women, gays, and people of other faiths. The fact that some Muslims don’t agree with terrorist acts done in the name of their religion is interesting, but doesn’t change the fact that it has been linked with a range of violent and barbaric behaviors.

Here’s another one:

 

Switch Gamergate in for Islam and what do we get?

Even if 90% of Muslims are good and 10% are bad, the bad are poisoning the message for everyone…. I know that may pain you to hear. You thought you were taking part in a religion of peace that is open to all and pleasing to God. But Islam has been permanently tarnished and hijacked by a handful of people who are not what you would hope.

There it is.

If someone treated Islam the way Gamergate is handled, the person doing it would be overwhelmed with accusations of bigotry and hate-mongering. There are two reasons for this. One, Gamergate is treated extremely unfairly, both in the press and in social media. Two, Islam is something of a scared cow… even in places that aren’t under Sharia law. Now, the internet has lit up with commentary on why that is the case. I won’t go into it here. My point is… Jimmy Wales and most journalists are bigoted towards Gamergate. It’s a fact. And I know people reading this are thinking, “dude… those cartoonists are shot dead in cold blood and you’re talking about ethics in video games journalism!” And y’all have a point. But if we can’t trust the media to handle video games responsibly, how can we expect them to cover something like Islam with any sort of reasonable standard?

Well we can’t. This is typified by the way that The New York Times removed this particularly damning sentence from their coverage:

I’m not going to kill you because you’re a woman, we don’t kill women, but you must convert to Islam, read the Quran and cover yourself.

Just quoting that in a discussion will get you tarred with the label of “bigot” just like saying anything positive about Gamergate will get you labeled as a misogynist. The extent of this chilling effect really is astounding. It’s almost like people are being programmed or something… and they are!

There are two things going on here. The first is… that R. Crumb was basically right when he said that, “you don’t have journalists over there anymore, what they have is public relations people. That’s what they have over in America now. Two-hundred and fifty thousand people in public relations. And a dwindling number of actual reporters and journalists.” Gamergate exposes this. The coverage of Islam in the news illustrates this. And this sort of thing didn’t just happen, either. All of this was predicted by C. S. Lewis way back in The Abolition of Man. And you can’t talk about this stuff anywhere without facing slander and social sanction.

What you’re witnessing is the breakdown of the West as it is hollowed out from within by cowards and traitors. As Robert E. Howard said, “when a nation forgets her skill in war, when her religion becomes a mockery, when the whole nation becomes a nation of money-grabbers, then the wild tribes, the barbarians drive in… Who will our invaders be? From whence will they come?” Our invader is indeed from East. The barbarian is in fact screaming “Allahu Akbar” and murdering cartoonists. And though my outrage has not particularly cooled in the intervening days since the shooting, I nevertheless come to realize that it is not Islam that is the problem here. It will be what it will be, and to some extent it can’t really help what it is. No, my anger is at the enemy within: the one that wages a non-stop war against the sort of values that make Western Civilization what it is. They are the ones that made us into a soft target. They’ve done all that they can to invite this sort of thing. They are the ones that hate not just free expression but due process and even “innocent until proven guilty.”

I’ve had it with them. I’ve had it. And it really ticks me off to think of what we’ve been missing after all these years of tiptoeing around the sensibilities of these sorts of cretins. Stuff like this:

More and more to me, it seems that practicing free expression “responsibly” is a really dumb idea. Never before has it been clearer that yes, protecting unpopular speech is kind of where you have to draw the line if you are really serious about a free society. All those newspapers are unable to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons right now because they’re too scared to do it. Yeah, I’d be scared some barbarian would want to cut my head off, too. But I’d like to think that I’m not the sort of person that would betray my own people just so I could come off as being morally superior to the rednecks in Deliverance and Duck Dynasty.

Maybe it’s not enough to go read a banned book, play a banned game, and set the First Amendment right next to mom and apple pie and all those other things we pretend to revere. (To which the average knucklehead will reply that that the First Amendment protects us from government censorship, not from brutal Islamic jihaddis. Thank you, cretin, for clearing that up.) Maybe it’s time to give these bastards so many targets that they can’t hope to get us all.

After all, as gaming journalist Leigh Alexander would put it:

Islam is over. It’s just a dated demographic, a relic of the dark ages. These obtuse misogynists, these murderous barbarians, these thinskined bufoons that can’t take a joke — they are not my audience. They don’t have to be yours. There is no ‘side’ to be on, there is no ‘debate’ to be had. There is what’s past and there is what’s now. There is the role you choose to play in what’s ahead.

Je suis Charlie.

 

Car Wars Review Roundup

My latest monster post is up at Castalia House:

REVIEW: Car Wars Fourth Edition, 2nd Printing

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything on this one. Oh, and I should probably go ahead and mention that I’ve done capsule reviews of the original ten expansion sets over on Recommend:

Short descriptions of classic Car Wars products and how they fit into the overall evolution of the game.

(If you haven’t looked around that site, I think it’s worth a try. They are working addressing the problem of getting people in touch reviews that are more in tune with your actual tastes. At the moment though it makes for a snazzy looking list of games and supplements. I also write the sort of reviews I don’t tend to bother with on sites like Netflix and so forth.)

I have been unable to find any “real” reviews of the the new set, just this promotional bit from Game Trade Magazine, which has the iconic Car Wars art emblazoned all over the cover of the issue that recently went on sale. This part sticks out to me:

And if your local store has an open gaming area, your very best way to learn Car Wars is to post a notice looking for players. I guarantee you that someone who visits your favorite local game store is familiar with Car Wars…and who knows, your posting on the store’s bulletin board could uncover a local Car Wars group that’s operating underground. With hundreds of thousands of Car Wars fans over the years, it’s not at all unrealistic to think that there’s an active group near you right now.

Eh… no. That is a bit unrealistic. Maybe city slickers have a better time of it, but I have never gotten that much mileage out of the game store bulletin board. And the “Friendly Local Game Store” is generally not interested in creating a game playing scene– they just want to sell stuff unless they happen to be run by a hard core hobbyist. Leave the fourth edition set out with a few ADQ’s and Uncle Albert’s catalogs and there are few twelve-year-old boys that will make their saving throw against it. But don’t count on a heretofore unknown AADA chapter to still be going in your neck of the woods. (The AADA was disbanded back with the release of 5th edition years ago, so… BLUD is all you’ve got right now if you want to get technical.)

There really is not a lot information about this set out there. I’m surprised, really. There is a smattering of reviews up on Amazon, a but of early buzz over on Board Game Geek threads, and then that Scott Haring unboxing over on youtube. I did stumble across this one post by a guy with a serious case of Board Gamer Component Quality Obsession Disorder:

By ‘Classic,’ I guess they mean that the quality is as crumby as it was in the 80’s. I can understand making a classic version of the game, not doing a rewrite of the rules with new, color artwork, but this is on printer paper. At least print the rulebook on gloss. Print the maps on cardstock that pieces together, puzzle style, rather than a big piece of folded-up paper. And those lousy 12mm dice… nobody wants the dice in this box.

Seriously… there is not one word spent on discussion actual gameplay there. That is very typical of the board game scene today. Sort of like how a “component drop” sequence is a major part of a major board game review show on youtube. I don’t get it, really I don’t. Look back in the old issues of Space Gamer and it’s evident that it just wasn’t like that back then. Hobbyists were far more concerned with game design value than just about anything else. Bah!

When looking for information on the game, I stumbled across this piece which I had forgotten I’d written:

Car Wars in 1984: Characters and Role Playing

Some food for thought there.

Keep on duellin’!

Dwimmermount Review Roundup

I gotta say it’s really weird reading other peoples’ reviews of Dwimmermount. I mean beyond the obvious difference that everyone else was writing directly to other game masters… it’s just strange seeing what ended up meriting comment and what didn’t. In effect, it’s like I’m gaslighting myself. Did I really see what I thought I saw…?

So what did I see…? For starters, a fitting tribute to A. Merritt. More than half a dozen solid chances to do-over the sort of faction oriented play that novice DM’s failed to grasp when they ran B2. More than a few puzzle objects that are worthy of the likes of Infocom. Fully statted domains with complete ACKS data for miniatures battles. And a cogent, playable synthesis of pre-eighties fantasy integrated with the tropes of classic D&D.

Anyway, here’s a rundown of what everyone else saw.

Dungeon of Signs: “Dwimmermount’s sensibilities are very classic dungeons and dragons and it aims to evoke a swords and sorcery world rather than the watered down Tolkien pastiche known as vanilla fantasy.”

OSR News and Reviews: “Many megadungeons are content to have a line or so of description for each room, or perhaps even leave dozens of rooms blank, even whole levels. But Dwimmermount doesn’t cheap out, each room is described in at least a paragraph. Oh sure, a few rooms are empty, which only takes a sentence or two, but even those get a description beyond ‘Empty room’.”

Paul’s Blog: “The fact is, you can’t package the magic of the shared history among DM and players. You can package up all the output of this communal creative process, but expecting an outsider to be able to pick that up and have the same experiences you did is laughable. And yet, it seems that’s exactly what is being attempted here.”

tenfootpole.org:”Most levels have suck-ass wandering tables. Just a list of wanderers on the level. Kobolds, rats, orcs, spiders, centipedes, fire beetles, slime, and … NPC Party! This is mostly a lost opportunity to add flavor. I like my wanderers to be doing something rather than just be random sword fodder. I’m happy to see an NPC party on the table; those always add a lot of fun to a big dungeon. Basically I want something to add some flavor and not just be another generic monster fight.”

GENE SHALIT’S CRAZY MOUSTACHE WEEKEND GAMING REVIEW!:”When first JaMal conceived of Dwimmermount as a means to re-imagine and explore the way games were played during the early days of D&D, he looked to Gary Gygax and his Lake Geneva campaign, better known as Castle Greyhawk for inspiration. But unlike Gary who made his megadungeon out of a practical need, Jimmy would craft his Dwimmermount as a way to play in a specific style. His style assumed a very sterile environment that was not based around such a practical need but placed a strong emphasis on looking backwards that had little basis in fact that soon became a liability, as the early peeks into Dwimmermount produced little substance or enthusiasm. It’s probably why after he got the Kickstarter campaign funded that the whole project got away from him and proved so elusive to put on paper. There just isn’t much to Dwimmermount and most of that early style of gaming can be done by just rolling some percentile dice while consulting the random dungeon generator in the back of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide over a long weekend….”

The Drunk Umberhulk: “If you have an itch for an epic mega-adventure, Dwimmermount will not steer you wrong.  It’s a lot of material and is a steal at $10 on RPGnow.com for the .pdf. Five beer steins out of five!”

Your Dungeon is Suck: “Go ahead, explore, tell me if you like what you find in there. Ooooh spiders hiding in webs in the ceiling, that’s original! Kobolds, awesome. Magic water that doesn’t do anything. Skeletons. Doors that don’t open. And empty room after empty room.”

Crowbar And Brick: “It is a font of ideas – not only setting ideas, but presentation and preparatory ideas, not only for someone who would want to create their own dungeon, but for someone just setting up a sandbox environment, and wanting some structure to hang hexes up on.”

Bonus!

Tavis Allison answers criticism about the dungeon being hard wired to a setting people may not want to play in:

“The reason the setting details revealed on the lower levels of the dungeon are important is that, as some reviews have pointed out, the original Dwimmermount campaign was focused on exploration and discovery. This sense of amassing knowledge and uncovering secrets is key to maintaining interest over the long term in megadungeon play. Simply mastering the layout of the dungeon provides some of this fuel – it gave my Thracia players great pleasure when they figured out how to reach an area they had observed through an upper shaft – but Dwimmermount goes further by establishing deep questions about the setting that players can discover through exploration, like ‘where do gods come from?’

“To get the benefit of this conceptual exploration, it’s not necessary to use the specific details the book provides. The key design feature is the way the dungeon is structured to make unraveling secrets a central activity of play. If a mystery like the origin of demihuman species doesn’t make sense for your setting, you could swap it out for another that does. Using the dungeon’s system for rewarding characters for discovering pieces of the mystery would make it easy to see where you’d want to place your own pieces of the puzzle.”

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