Lacking Natural Simplicity

Random musings on books, code, and tabletop games.


One of the things I need to do before I'm ready to build a house is simplify. I've got a lot of accumulated junk — physical and mental, real and virtual — that I need to sort through, decide what is important, and get rid of the rest.

As far as the virtual goes, I need to simplify the tools I use: the software I use to maintain my web site and blog, the tools I use to process e-mail, and so forth.

As far as real goes, I need to get rid of actual physical objects: things I don't use, things I don't need to need to use.

The mental is much harder, but probably more necessary.

Why am I blogging more?

I suppose in part it is because I simply reached the maximum level of frustration with my previous set of tools that I could stand, and have had to start looking at alternatives. (Unfortunately, this happened with a number of things all at once, so I'm looking for replacements for several of the tools I use constantly.)

In part it is simply because I need more practice writing. At one point in my life I did a lot of writing, and fairly easily. Of late, it's been harder and has happened much less. I need to get back into practice.

Blogging Software: Static Rendering

I'm slowly figuring out more about pyBlosxom, and will eventually end up with a reasonable set of blog tools. This evening I've been figuring out more about statically rendering my blog, which ought to overcome the noticable lags when accessing my blog. I haven't switched the actual blog over to static rendering yet, but I'm getting closer. So far the incremental part doesn't seem to be working.

I considered moving to awb, an AsciiDoc-based Website Builder, but I still find the reStructuredText markup slightly nicer. If only there was a good reStructuredText to DocBook path I'd have no qualms at all.


Recently I've decided that I want to build a house. I've been reading various books about different construction techniques, and this weekend I wandered over the family farm, once with my Dad and once with my friend H.H. looking at various possible building sites. The most picturesque sites, unfortunately, are rather remote, and would involve long, long driveways and long runs of new electric lines. There are several locations closer to electricity and the road that would be nice building spots, but some are closer to neighbors than I'd prefer, and another is someplace already in use by the farm, so there's not anything that immediately jumps to mind as perfect. I plan to spend a lot of time over the next year observing condiations at each of the better sites.

I'd like to use a many materials as I can from the family farm in the construction of the building. I'm considering building a cob house, which has a number of very attractive features, but which depends heavily on the local soil for construction material. Cob houses need a clay-sand mix. Almost all of the local soils have plenty of clay, according to the soil survey, but rather than sand the rest of the soil is mostly silt, which seems like it would be a problem for Cob. I can probably obtain sand relatively economically to add to the mix, but will the existing silt make the mix too weak? That's what I have to find out.

E-mail Crisis

I've been having a personal e-mail crisis for the past couple of months. (If you've noticed that my e-mail has been even slower and more erratic than usual, that's why.) I've been trying to figure out a better mail setup and due to my complicated use patterns it has been tricky.

I have dialup Internet access at home, at speeds that are moderately slow even for dialup. I have a personal server elsewhere that does have good internet access, and that's were my e-mail is delivered. My main work computer is a Windows XP laptop. I often work at client sites, and sometimes work at places that have no Internet access, or very limited access with strict controls. I need to read, or at least refer to my e-mail at all those places.

For years I've used Emacs and ViewMail (aka VM) to read my personal e-mail, syncing my e-mail directories between my Internet server, my home machine, and my work laptop with Unison, and primarily reading e-mail on my Internet server. This has worked reasonably well.

I live in Emacs anyway (the Control key is the most worn key on my keyboard for some reason…) and am thoroughly happy with it for editing (and probably dependent on it), and VM has been very comfortable as well. However, development of VM went into hibernation after the release of version 7.19, and so hadn't kept pace with later e-mail developments. Recently the original author of VM, Kyle Jones, handed over development to Robert Widhopf-Fenk and development has picked up again, but it's still lacking some features that I need, and unfortunately I don't have time to devote to adding them myself.

I can't imagine giving up Emacs for reading e-mail, since it integrates so well with the rest of what I do and I enjoy using Emacs and Emacs Lisp, so I'm looking for a new Emacs-based mail reader. So far I haven't been happy with any of my choices.

Back when I read USENET news regularly I used Gnus and loved it. It is distributed with Emacs and seems to have regular development and maintenance. In theory, Gnus can also be used to read e-mail, but because of its news reader design it takes a very unconventional approach to reading e-mail. I'm not entirely comfortable with it, and I haven't figured out the best way to integrate my huge archive of old mail. Moreover, the documentation is quirky and difficult and the programming interfaces are quirky and complicated.

There are other Emacs mail readers. I used RMAIL for a while before I moved to VM, but I can't see moving back. Wanderlust seems moribund. I've used the RAND MH Message Handling System (MH) in the past, outside of Emacs, and there are a couple of modern versions of that (nmh, Mailutils). It turns out there are actually a couple of extensive Emacs interfaces to it: Mew and MH-E. I've looked a little at both, and have had some luck with each. I'll have to see how they compare over time.

I'd be interested in learning about any other Emacs-based e-mail clients. The EmacsWiki doesn't seem to have any other likely prospects, though.

Anyway, I've finally come up with a way to switch back and forth between Gnus, Mew, and MH-E while keeping up with my current e-mail, so I can search for better ways to deal with my old e-mail and compare new email. I should be back to dealing with e-mail quickly and effectively.

A really impressive and unlikely success would be to find a new way of reading mail that lets me access my work e-mail, which is in our corporate Notes e-mail system, from Emacs.

My Gaming Career

This post is unfinished, alas.

Part I: Origins

The first D&D game I owned was the Holmes blue-box edition of Basic D&D; the first D&D game I played was AD&D 1E. I was in junior high when I got the Holmes box set for Christmas from my parents. (If I am remembering correctly.) That summer I started playing AD&D with a group of my brother's friends from high school, and I played with them until that group gradually dispersed, some when they left the state for college, and some when they left the state after college for jobs elsewhere. I had long been DMing by then.

I remember seeing OD&D's Eldritch Wizardry in the local hobby store when I first started playing, but I never saw the original OD&D boxed set.

I don't think I ever looked at the later Moldvay/Cook or Mentzer Basic D&D lines, other than buying Isle of Dread, thinking like many that if I was already playing Advanced D&D that Basic D&D wouldn't have much to offer. 1

My younger brother joined the group at some point. He got Tunnels & Trolls as a Christmas present one year, from my uncle Chuckie, if I remember correctly. We played it several times, but it was a simpler game than AD&D and at the time seemed to offer less, though in an entertaining way. 2

Gamma World, 1st edition, was probably the first RPG I bought, other than AD&D. (How did we buy the AD&D books?) We never played Gamma World, for some reason. Probably because I wasn't able to figure out the rules, or because it was too gonzo.

While still in junior high, or perhaps my first year in high school, I ran across DragonQuest. Although it was written in a “numbered rules” style that I was unfamiliar with (having never played wargames) that required me to read it closely several times through before I understood any of it, I was fascinated by it from the very first read. DQ's skills gave all characters interesting distinguishing abilities, where as in AD&D only thieves had similar such abilities (other classes depending on selection of spells to distinguish the magic using classes and magic items to distinguish the others.) The D100 based unified mechanic used by DQ was also very attractive, as was the more detailed combat system. The professional skills seemed less restrictive and therefore less of a mere game construct than the equivalent AD&D classes. The fact that every character could learn magic also seemed freeing.

The fact that the only DQ adventure that I was able to find at the time was Paul Jaquays' The Enchanted Wood was also a plus, because I found it to be head and shoulders above any other adventure I had seen at the time.

I can seen now that most of these things I liked about DQ were the things that added to greater detail in distinguishing characters, as well as what I called realism them, but today might more accurately call verisimilitude. I think a good part of it was that by this time AD&D had become its own genre and I wanted something less tied to those particular tropes. DQ seemed to simulate a wider variety of fantasy than AD&D.

I think it is safe to say that I was suffering from an anti-D&D backlash at this point.

At some point I bought a copy of Avalon Hill's Powers & Perils. (If my memory of buying this from the hobby store in downtown Clarksburg is correct, I must have bought this fairly early on in my gaming career.) At some other point I bought Iron Crown's Rolemaster. Both of these blew my mind with complexity. P&P's setting, however, was another glimpse at a non-AD&D fantasy universe.

A friend of mine bought Traveller early in our gaming careers. We tried making characters a couple of times, but were never able to figure out what we should do with them afterwards — I think we could never bridge the gap between dungeon crawling and monsters killing characters in AD&D and 40– and 50– year old ex military characters in Traveller. I don't think we had any Traveller adventures to help us along.

I ran a very successful DragonQuest campaign in my first year at college with three of the original group and a couple of other players, using Paul Jaquays' wonderful Enchanted Wood adventure setting.

Later in college I started a long-running campaign set in SPI's minimal Frontiers of Alusia setting using DragonQuest at the beginning.

My leaning to greater detail and verisimilitude lead me in time to GURPS, with a small detour along the way for 3rd edition RuneQuest.

I bought RuneQuest, 3rd edition (RQ3, the Deluxe Boxed Set) and Griffin Island (also a boxed set) in stores, somewhere. (I think this must have been near the time they were released.) Like DragonQuest, I found them fascinating. Unlike DQ I never got my group to successfully play RQ. The players found RQ3 character generation to be too complicated, alas. RQ3 and Griffin Island were a glimpse into a style of culture-based gaming that I had never encountered in my AD&D experience, but were complicated enough that my players hated character generation, and we never got much beyond that. I never saw any of the Glorantha materials until much, much later, post Internet. Griffin Island, though, even with the occasional incoherence in its Glorantha-less state, resonated with more depth than anything I had yet seen. (I never realized, until years later, that the Paul Jaquays whose DQ adventure The Enchanted Wood had so opened my eyes was also one of the authors of Griffin Island! I guess at the time I didn't pay much attention to the authors/designers of games.)

GURPS for me was about even more finely grained definition of characters. Learning from problems my players had with RuneQuest character generation, I created GURPS versions of all their DragonQuest characters. Since, in the process of simulating all their DQ abilities with GURPS, I'd along the way upgraded their characters somewhat in power, everybody had fun and it all worked out. Already accustomed to a hex-based tactical combat system and role-under skills from DQ, it was an easy adjustment to GURPS, and the campaign continued successfully for many more sessions.

I think, however, that later I moved away from GURPS because making/updating characters was such a pain, even with the assistance of Bill Seuer's GURPS MAKECHAR program. (Let us just say that the main villain of the campaign, and evil wizard, ended up a 1000 point character, and all the PCs were 300 point characters.)

Chaosium: Call of Cthulhu, Elric!, Stormbringer, Prince Valiant, Pendragon, Universal Supplements.

I ran a short Elric campaign after my Frontiers of Alusia campaign. This worked better for my players than RQ3, as it used simpler implementation of Chaosium's house system, BRP. Despite the brevity of this campaign I have fond memories of Elric.

Part II: Hiatus

After that there was a hiatus in my gaming. I continued to buy and read RPG material, but didn't have a regular group.


The rest of this is rambling and desperately needs rewritten.

WFRP — First encounted in WD? Then bought main rulebook. At first dismissive of the rules, but again fascinated by the picture of the old world and the high quality of some of the adventures. The one time I tried running WFRP things didn't work out with my gaming group.

Most of my buying WFRP was during my hiatus?

I really only came to understand RuneQuest during my hiatus from gaming, in the 90s, when I started seriously to track down the RQ3 material I'd never know about, including the post RQ3 fanzines. I even found a copy of RQ2 in a game store in Austin, Texas, while there on travel for work.

RQ found … earlier than GURPS, later? but only understood much later in 90s during my serious RQ buying days after I ran a long GURPS campaign (Call of Cthulhu/Elric helped understand/like RQ?) and bought RQ2. Early GURPS gaming at college BAMF? Compare to dates of Alusia becoming GURPS?

Tékumel. Call of Cthulhu. Jorune.

Part III: Gaming Again!

Hiatus ends. Fudge Bunnies & Burrows, BESM, Buggin, Toon, Savage Worlds with kids.

Reading John Eric Holmes's Fantasy Role Playing Games - Dungeons, Dragons and Adventures in Fantasy Gaming (ISBN 0-88254-514-0) at work leads to other gamers, and some D&D 3.5e and Star Wars D20 gaming, and eventually to Savage Worlds.

After my hiatus from gaming, I was looking for simpler games. Fudge, BESM, and finally Savage Worlds.

Retro-gaming: interest in early classic AD&D modules we missed (which lead to Wilderlands and Tegel Manor then Badabaskor, Caverns of Thracia, etc. then 3e/3.5e reprints) which lead to buying lots of PDF games including classic BD&D module B10 (superb!) leading to RC purchases, then other BD&D modules and AD&D modules, pondering running BD&D for B20, then buying Thunder Rift, Mystara interest online maps, retro clones to original D&D interest, buy PDFs from rpgnow, pondering running OD&D, Swords & Wizardry, download retro modules for OD&D, philotomy, other current OD&D player/gm sites/campaigns/blogs, more JG and understanding which JG were OD&D, more pondering BD&D for B10 and other B/X modules, and finding the OD&D Caverns of Thracia, by Paul Jaquays!

Road building costs in JG Ready-Ref sheets! (PDF just as confusing as I remember printouts! Did Ray end up with them?) [2019-11-10: I ended up buying a new copy of the Ready-Ref sheets over the internet several years later!]

parallel thread: tactile pleasures: card, bennies, status chips,

custom poker chips for wounds, shaken


Boy, was I wrong! After the retro-clones started to appear, especially Labyrinth Lord, I bought the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert rules, and was pleasantly impressed.


We completely missing out on the flexibility of the T&T saving roll system — not surprising, since we never saw any of the T&T solos that used it so extensively — and how that gave T&T gamist tactical play without complicated rules, unlike D&D 3e and 3.5e. I think we'd have played T&T more if we'd understood that, but I only really understood after reading some of comments Ron Edwards made about T&T in 2003, first in the thread Sell me Tunnels & Trolls! (his post), and then in a series of followup threads at the Forge: 1, 2, 3, 4).

Last edited: 2021-08-09 11:47:21 EDT

The Tactile Fun of RPGs

I've found that, for an abstract game that can take place just in your head, there can be a lot of tactile fun to RPGs. Rolling dice and moving miniatures are the obvious ones, but there are others. Gaming tokens (glass “stones” ) are used by many games and gamers, either as a component of the system or informally by the gamers for marking various things. Some games, like Savage Worlds, use cards. Miniatures terrain, whether three-dimensional, printed tiles, or simply drawn or a battlemat, adds a lot, and not just to the visual aspects of the game. Cards that represent character states, like buff and condition cards for D&D, or the effects of spells, or cards that have monster or spell stats, are also neat and passing them around adds to the fun of the game. Drawing maps for the games, drawing a scene out on a battle map, and making handouts can all be tactile fun, and then handing out the maps and other handouts to players so they have the fun at looking at them and passing them around and pulling them out when they suddenly realize what they're really showing them.

All of these things can add a great deal of fun to RPGs.