Reading The Gaean Reach RPG

I’m somewhat familiar with the Gumshoe RPG system: I’ve played a short campaign of Trail of Cthulhu, and skimmed several core rulebooks using the system—Trail of Cthulhu, Nights Black Agents, Ashen Stars, and Cthulhu Confidential, all of which I own copies—but I haven’t had a chance to read any of those rulebooks in full or run a Gumshoe system game.

In fact, until recently the only Gumshoe gamebook I’d actually read in full was Gareth Ryder Hanrahan’s Lorefinder book, which essentially is an extended Gumshoe hack designed to be bolted onto Pathfinder (and other D&D-styled traditional RPGs), in order to enable running investigative scenarios.

But not long ago, a couple of friends and I agreed to try start up an informal gaming testlab sort of group, dedicated to trying out systems that we’re interested in, and own, but haven’t had a chance to play. One of the suggestions made by a few of us was that we try a Gumshoe system, and we both, specifically, suggested The Gaean Reach. I was wager to try it since it’s a shorter and more concise ruleset, has a few unusual innovations (like the tagline system from Skullduggery/The Dying Earth Revivification Folio and the randomized, card-based character generation system), and because it looks like fun. 

So I decided to read The Gaean Reach, along with The Gaean Reach Gazetteer supplement—which together total fewer than 200 pages—and see what I think of them. And, further, I figured that I’d take some notes along the way so that I would remember those thoughts when it eventually comes time to prepare for running this game. 

The Gaean Reach (Core Rules) by Robin D. Laws

This is a small book. It’s rare one sees core rulebooks for RPGs in this size, both in terms of length and the format, which is roughly trade paper back dimensions. It’s nicely laid out, though I will comment that the font is a little small… small enough that I occasionally ran across a footnote at the bottom of a page and, glancing back up to see where the footnote marking was, had to squint hard to find it. (The asterisk footnotes especially!)1

Beyond that, there’s serviceable art: it’s not amazing, but it’s not bad, it’s just sort of there. The cover art is much more evocative than what’s inside the book, though, with a few exceptions, but I think that even if it doesn’t evoke what I gather is the crumbling, insanely decadent squalor of Vance’s setting, the black line-art style actually is a good fit with the game design—stripped down, condensed, and relatively non-frills, a sort of Brief Gumshoe Handbook if there ever was one.  

Except, of course, that The Gaean Reach is actually pretty different from plain-vanilla Gumshoe, as was even when it was first published in 2014. For example, one of the first things one learns, starting out with this rulebook, is that the game’s central activity, premise, and endgame are related to a specific character, Quandos Vorn, who wronged each of them somehow: the player characters’ investigations serve to bring them closer to this villain for the purposes of serving up revenge. I mean, you can invent a different character, or if you want the character to have a female gender, Laws suggests you call her Quanda Vorn. (One assumes the GM can figure out a name for some other-gendered villain.)

When I first read this, it struck me as odd: a lot of RPGs seem determined to be the kind of system you can do anything with, with worlds where anything from espionage to romance to warfare can be gamed out satisfyingly. But is that really true? A GM might aspire to such things, but often the resolution system suggests a focus on a specific kind of activity, and the rules and published material heavily scaffold for that activity. (Anyone who doubts this is invited of do a tally of how many spells in any edition of D&D are combat spells, and how much of the text is devoted to social conflict resolution as opposed to combat or combat-recovery stuff.)

One thing Fiasco has taught me is that sometimes, if you want a different kind of story in your game, a different system can make that kind of story much, much more effortless for everyone involved… and that endgames suggest this. In Fiasco, the endgame is laughing at the horrible fates bad, not-so-bright people bring down on themselves. That’s a pretty defined endgame, but it works. So maybe this Quandos Vorn business might just work, too. 

The book starts out with a very brief introduction that skips the “What’s a Roleplaying Game?” section (intelligently advising the rare individual who gets the book but doesn’t know the answer to seek out those who can teach them at the table), and skips to what this game is about. And what it’s about is emulating the stories from a certain set of Jack Vance’s novels, specifically vengeance stories set in a world known as the Gaean Reach, and more specifically like the early Demon Princes novel series. If you’re like most gamers—especially those who grew up on some flavor of D&D—chances are you’re at least familiar with Jack Vance’s name (either from the term “Vancian magic” or “Vancian spellcasting,” or from the author’s oft-cited and influential The Dying Earth series), but haven’t read these novels. (I haven’t, though I have a copy of a later Gaean Reach book, Maske: Thaery, signed out from the library where I work, and found some Tor reprints of the Demon Princes books in a two-volume reprint that I was able buy for a pretty reasonable price, too.)

The section that follows outline how to build characters—and includes a cool randomized system for doing so by drawing three cards (representing the character’s Knowledge, Persona, and Life)—which also ensures a good spread of skills between players (and thus ensures the ability to deal with the kinds of clue-hunting they’re going to have to do). The rest of the first section explains the various skills, knowledges, and abilities defined in the rules, as well as providing guidelines on how to get players to come up with hook-filled backstories about what Vorn did to them, and providing players with taglines. 

The taglines system is interesting: again, this seems to be present because The Gaean Reach aims at emulating a Vancian narrative, and one of the signal things about such narratives is the way characters speak: they’re simultaneously clever, verbose, and snarkily piquant in their manners of speech. Giving players taglines to use is an interesting idea, though I wonder whether it might not end up feeling a bit… I don’t know, forced, in the end? Laws comments at one point that the purpose of the system is to “train players to speak in a Vancian manner” (and has said more about it when asked about whether it makes all the PCs sound the same: yes, they do, he replied, and that “is replicating the style of Jack Vance’s source material perfectly”: in other words, that this is an intended feature rather than a flaw), which… yeah, that’s something they’re not going to do spontaneously, not most players anyway, so maybe it’s just a shortcut for the unlikely alternative of asking your players to just go and read a bunch of Jack Vance’s SF novels and emulate the dialog style themselves: Laws seems to have faith that GMs will do it, but not players.

Granted, most of the time players don’t dig when a GM gives them “assigned reading” in preparation for the upcoming mini-campaign, but this raises the question of how much fun players are going to have if they’re playing a game that emulates literature they’ve never read, much less learning to speak the way characters do in books they haven’t read… and having the token economy run off their ability to do so, because yes, tokens are specifically a reward for amusingly or cleverly deployed taglines.

The thing is, in The Gaean Reach, tokens are pretty important: you can use them to avoid certain death (called a Fortunate Avoidance), to increase the chances of a roll succeeding, to advance your character’s abilties or buy new ones, and even to avoid certain death. This means that one-liners are the paving stones for advancement, survival, and success in the game, which means that players need to master the tagline system, or suffer in-game penalties for failing to do so!  I think the idea suggested in the post linked immediately above—that taglines be categorized and players be allowed to choose ones that suit their character, one or more from each category, is a potentially good one, especially for groups that haven’t read Vance’s work.

That said, I don’t know that familiarity with Vance’s SF books is absolutely necessary prior to play. Tons of people seem to have come first to games, and thereafter to the fiction that inspired it (whether it’s Call of Cthulhu players reading first Lovecraft’s work and then that of his coterie, or D&D players who’ve returned to Gygax’s “Appendix N”), so who am I to say? (Indeed, I haven’t read much Vance myself: the only full book I can name is The Gray Prince, which I read back in 2014 (as I mention in passing here) but didn’t really love.2 Yes, yes, I plan on rectifying my under-reading of Vance’s work, but I don’t know if it’s necessary for running this game.) 

In any case, the next section of the book gives a quick rundown, with examples, of how the rules work in this iteration of the Gumshoe system. Having played a short campaign of Trail of Cthulhu, as well as having listened all the way through the (surprisingly excellent) Nights Black Agents actual play “Tribes of Tokyo,” most of this was familiar to me already, though I did trip on a few specific rules.

What tripped me up specifically were a few of the rules about specific tests and contests, such as the following:

  • Success… at a Price (page 32): GMs can rule that a failure is still a success, but a success with a complication added. Not so radical, but it does suggest that there are instances where “failure” can actually  be a dead end. Is this true? (The answer, I suspect, depends on the creativity of the GM and players, and the flexibility of one’s scenario design.)
  • Obstacle Costs (page 34): If players succeed with a roll for a task that would be unsatisfactory for the narrative, you can put up a surprise barrier against success after the roll. The explanation is that in Jack Vance’s novels, protagonists often encounter their antagonist early on, but fail (because of narrative constraints) to bag the baddie at that point, and that this is basically a player-facing equivalent of the Fortunate Avoidance mechanic. Which, okay, in movies and books that works, but the example given is that a player sees Quandos Vorn, shoots at him and (as she’s a firearms specialist, and the player spends a lot of points) hits him dead on… but, after the roll, surprise, the GM levies a 9 point Obstacle Cost for the shot! The player then needs to spend (and thus to have) sufficient tokens to beat the obstacle cost, or the shot fails… because the storyline needs it to. Granted, a player in this situation gets refunded the points she spent, but… is this satisfying? On the page it reads as very abstract and obnoxious at once, though maybe in play it wouldn’t be. Still: I’d likelier improvise an explanation in the narrative.
  • Zero Sum Contests (page 36): This is mostly okay: it’s just that sometimes, something good or bad is going to happen to one of the characters, so the GM announces a Zero-Sum contest to figure out who gets the benefit or suffers the bad event. The example is that characters are fleeing a dangerous machine, and the GM decides that, for the purposes of the story, someone needs to get caught by it. Everyone makes Athletics checks/spends, and the loser gets caught… and, here’s the bit that caught my eye, in the case of ties across the board, the GM should choose the winner or loser “based on story considerations.”  Again, I feel like the player of the character chosen this way is likely to feel this is unfair… or am I not giving players enough credit?

The commonality for all three was that I suspect that if I were a player and a GM did the things being advised in any sort of overt way, I’d feel pretty annoyed.

  • If I shot a bad guy dead on and my GM said, “Cool, but you need to spend nine tokens, and you only have four, so you automatically fail… but here are your spent points back!” I’d be annoyed. I wouldn’t, though, if the GM instead let me hit what I thought was the bad guy, but finally turned out to be a cheapo decoy droid or hologram… and then refunded most of my spent points back instead… or even if the GM simply declared that the villain had spent several tokens for a Fortunate Avoidance of his own.
  • Likewise, I think Success… at a Price might be based on a mistaken assumption that there’s such a thing as a narrative dead end: if characters are piloting a vehicle across a desert and it breaks down because they don’t have (and thus can’t spend) the engineering or vehicle points needed to repair it, lots of things can happen next: they can stumble upon a hidden bunker under the sand, or be “rescued” by people who’re similarly hostile to (or who, conversely, are working for) Quandos Vorn.
  • And, finally, choosing a winner or loser “based on story considerations” in a zero-sum game seems odd when a GM could simply tell the tied players to each roll a d6 to determine who the machine catches in the end, or who gets a benefit when it’s unclear who ought to be the beneficiary. 

It’s not that GM fiat doesn’t exist in other systems: I mean, some people eschew it as much as possible, but arguably it’s present even there, in what a GM chooses to do in the moment. I guess on some level, it’s a sense that this encourages a kind of, er, “metagaming” on the part of the GM, when we’re so often working to train players out of doing it. Sure, this is a different flavor of metagaming, and the GM’s concerns are different.

Which is, I suppose, only to say (in the terms RPG theorizers use) that The Gaean Reach isn’t a simulationist or gamist type of game, but is instead is a narrativist game, so that it’s not “metagaming” to shape and prune the story, it’s just running a story game. But, and I think this is the decisive point, the way it’s explained in the rules is unnecessarily lacking in deftness. I wish the rules at least encouraged GMs to do some of this stuff without advertising it, and meanwhile not to loudly declaim, “Pay no attention to the GM behind the curtain” as they do so. 

But maybe this is also down to the fact that, as I suspect, Gumshoe games are a little harder to improvise than traditional RPGs, because of the point-economy for a given adventure. I haven’t yet seen a breakdown as to how a GM ought to budget points for a single adventure, in terms of how it ought to sit as a ratio to the maximum number of points that PCs can spend. (Should there be sufficient points equal to about 150% of what players could spend without a refresh? Should it be 200%? Surely it can’t be 100% of the PCs total points, or there would be no decisions to make: players could just spend every chance they get.)

The section on combat is basic and relatively simple, and from experience with Trail of Cthulhu I’ll say that it works, though I can understand some people’s disappointment: basically, your character’s usefulness in combat depends on weapons or fighting skills, and your characters’s ability to avoid attacks depends on Athletics. Of course, combat’s not supposed to be the primary activity in the game, so that’s not a huge issue to me… but I can see people whose favorite part of RPGs is complex, strategic combat seeing this and saying, “Okay, maybe this isn’t the game for me.”

It also privileges a certain kind of skill mastery: Gumshoe is much kinder to the weapons expert who kills on the first shot than the guy toting the machine gun who looses volley after volley of bullets for minutes on end. (That is, more like The Professional than like Rambo: First Blood or The A-Team.) This section ends with a reasonable explanation of how other life-threatening hazards (like fire, poison, and exposure to vacuum) work in the game. Then again, your tank character is less likely have as many of the skills needed to track down Quandos Vorn, hack through his security, rig his transport craft to blow up, and so on, so maybe the spotlighting issue works itself out naturally?  

The following section, A Mordant Future, is a quick overview of the world of The Gaean Reach, with a discussion of the books in Vance’s meta-series, some general points on the universe, and then seven pages of writeups on prominent locales within the Gaean Reach. They’re brief but colorful, and at least in some of them there’s nice details one could use to inspire adventure elements on the planets in question, like, say, the “white-skinned, black-robed house-ghouls” who inhabit the basements of the mansions of the planet Fader (page 57). I wish there were a little more in the writeups of each planet, since not all of them have details as tantalizing at that one, but I suppose anyone who’s curious could go back to the Vance novels for a more complete picture of a given planet, and it may be that this stuff is served up in the Gazetteer… but in the end, a GM ought to get comfortable with cooking up such things for oneself, I suppose, and from a brief skim of Ashen Stars, I think the insight that planets aren’t places but scenarios—that they’re adventure locales and “worldbuilding” outside of that context isn’t necessary for a compelling game—is very much relevant to The Gaean Reach as well. 

There’s a section of GM Tips which is mostly pretty good: Laws lays out the general structure of an adventure scenario, and there’s material on how (and whether) to stat up NPCs and creatures. (Weirdly, though, the concept of Attack Pattern—the typical spending pattern for pool points in combat for a given antagonist—is introduced with a human NPC as an example… but then the NPC writeups don’t include suggested Attack Patterns, while the Creature statblocks do. It seems like a weird omission, but maybe I’m missing something.) There’s material on alternate series frames, for those who’re not into the idea of running amoral vengeance-seekers, including Effectuators (basically troubleshooters working for the government of Alastor and solving problems among the Alastor-ruled worlds), Locators (who hunt out habitable worlds), and Space Traders (a frame that Laws suggests matches not only Vance’s last few Gaean Reach novels, but also the classic Traveler RPG). All of these prospects are fine, and I can see some groups preferring them, even. 

The last major section of the book is an adventure scenario, The Cerulean Duke. It’s… well, it’s tightly organized, is one thing I’ll say. I’m curious as to how it compares with other published Gumshoe scenarios, because it feels at once very dense with information, but also very tightly planned… in a way that makes me wonder how the player experience would be if I were running it. I confess that I did occasionally feel the presence of rails—and maybe a little gentle railroading—during my experience playing Trail of Cthulhu, though whether that was a function of GM style or the particular scenario we were playing, I can’t be totally sure. 

In some ways, The Cerulean Duke is kind of a non-linear pointcrawl type of adventure structure: there are a number of sites of interest, and characters have a certain degree of freedom as to how to proceed between those points, but ultimately the idea is that they’re inexorably led to a specific locale for a specific confrontation. However, reading through it, I felt a bit overwhelmed by what was present, as well as what isn’t: what happens when characters stray from the lines linking one locale in the pointcrawl to another? In a traditional fantasy adventure RPG, combat’s the central activity, so when characters stray off the outlined path, it’s easy to throw a wandering monster at ’em; in Gumshoe, the primary activity is investigation, so a GM needs to be ready to throw clues at the players even when they investigate things in a way the scenario outline didn’t account for. 

The funny thing is that there are such resources in the writeup: movable encounters that could just as easily take place in some non-prepped locale as in a prepped one: individuals, situations, and antagonistic groups who could easily pop up no matter where the PCs go, and who will furnish either clues of some sort, or opposition to be overcome. It’s just that the writeup style of the scenario doesn’t quite make this overtly apparent, or at least it didn’t for me.

I suppose this may come down to something that teachers end up worrying about more than game designers: the question of how different best learners internalize information through different modes of information-presentation: Laws clearly tags each “scene” in the writeup (they’re actually situations, individuals, and/or locales) with a type categorization, but I found myself longing for a kind of pointcrawl-styled diagram showing which encounters potentially lead to which next ones, as well as which encounters were movable or not fixed to a given locale. I also thought a little about whether it’d work to reformulate the adventure in HTML, where one could click on the lead-outs of on scene to arrive at any of the naturally following ones, with a sidebar containing “floating” scenarios offered in a popup window, and a clue-tracker tool built into the page to help GMs figure out which available clues could be worked into an improvised scene that’s outside of the range of prepped ones.

I think this is the kind of reformulation I’d need to do myself in order to run “The Cerulean Duke” effectively, or to design my own adventure, at least until I got used to running a Gumshoe game in this way. The worksheets in the appendix probably would help a little with this, but I would still want to make a visual representation of how clues interrelate for my own use, and using a computer to organize the information and help me improvise a scenario would be a huge aid as well. That may be something I’m unusual in wanting, though. I suppose I could do worse than make it a project for the future. 

The last thing is that The Cerulean Duke unspokenly presumes a certain degree of competence in improvisation, which I suppose shouldn’t surprise us in a book that assumes the reader is an experienced RPGer. (That’s something Laws is up-front about from the start, as I noted when discussing the book’s brief introduction.) That said, I think a little guidance in terms of grab-and-run ideas would be good for GMs who’re experienced at running games in general, but still grappling with internalizing Gumshoe: for example, at the end of the scenario, we’re instructed to give the PCs some clue that leads them into the next adventure scenario, but there are no examples given. I think a few sample hooks would be useful here, even if only to suggest flavor and style or to furnish the GM with a few fun ideas.  

And that brings us to the end of the book, where there’s an appendix filled with taglines, scenario and antagonist worksheets, character sheet and random-chargen cards, and a brief lexicon of game terminology.

The Gaean Reach Gazetteer (Supplement) by Peter Freeman & Jim Webster

This is a system-agnostic sourcebook for The Gaean Reach RPG, though it’s not hard to imagine someone running pretty much any space adventure RPG could use it to put a little Vance into their game. That said, the writeups are pretty basic: when you ignore the title, copyright, and table of contents pages, you’re left with under 70 pages of content, of which the last ten pages comprise a Miscellany for the setting—stuff on currency, technologies, weapons, and so on.

That means we’re dealing with just under 60 pages of Gazetteer, so nobody should be surprised that the writeups for a lot of planets are quite basic. I was, however, surprised at how many of the writeups are tiny, little more than a quippy sentence noting that someplace exists, or that this or that famous product (usually a beer or ale, or a food or luxury item) originates from that planet. 

It’s amusing to flip through, and it’s designed mostly as an in-world document (though it includes references to Jack Vance’s novels, in part because what the Gazetteer does is explicitly reference every locale mentioned in those books). That said, there’s far fewer plot hooks or adventure-able features among the Gazetteer’s entries than the brief write-ups in the core rulebook, and I think the book might be of more use as a reference for Vance scholars, fans of the novels, or a GM who wants to pick a world at random. Of course, because it’s a system-neutral (or as they say, system-agnostic) guide to the Gaean Reach—and since it replicates the world writeups included in the core rulebook—all these uses are equally possible. (It’s no harder to read this as a fan, or a GM running Traveler, than as someone prepping a campaign of The Gaean Reach.) 

Oh, and I was surprised that there wasn’t even at attempt at a map within the Gazetteer’s pages. In some ways, I can’t help but wonder whether Michael Andre-Driussi’s Handbook of Vance Space might not be even more useful as a GM’s guide to Vancian worlds? Yes, it integrates worlds that were in Vance’s non-Gaean Reach books but… it seems to come with a lot more information, including maps, on many of the individual worlds. Then again, some GMs might find that less enticing; I ran across a short, long-ago piece by Gary Gygax on Vance’s work, and here was the comment of his I found pertinent (emphasis mine):

There is a truly great advantage offered to the Game Master when devising a campaign set on the Dying Earth. It is not highly detailed. There is no strict timeline laid down. All that has happened before is not “recorded”, nor is there an accurate gazetteer of for the world. What magic operates? Nobody can say or guess, because in the long eons of the Dying Earth’s history, likely every form possible was discovered, used, and then forgotten…almost. That means that all that’s necessary is to have the game in hand, the books that Jack Vance wrote about the world, to create a really compelling campaign environment. Using the creative base of the author, the GM’s own imagination cannot fail but to rise to the occasion.

Anyway, back to the book in question, because there’s a little more after the gazetteer proper. What follows that is a short section describing currencies, types of spacecraft, and weaponry of the Gaean Reach, and this stuff I found to be much more crucial material for a GM running The Gaean Reach, to the point where I feel as if it really should have been part of the core rules. That said, it’s definitely useable in game prep or planning, and since the game only has a single supplement, it’s not a huge deal. The non-firearms weapons especially are suggestive of the kinds of things a GM can throw in, with a lot of nasty gadgets feeling roughly like the space-adventure equivalent of Bond gadgets. 

Conclusions, Hastily Drawn?

No, I have no conclusions: I don’t want to really make any assumptions, and the proof is in the pudding: I’ll know how I feel about the things I’ve mentioned above—those I like, and those I’m not sure about—after I’ve run a few sessions of the game. My experience with Gumshoe has been generally pretty good: as I mentioned, I occasionally felt what I thought was the presence of rails in the scenario I played, but I never exactly felt railroaded, and it may be that if I’d known less about the system (and the things its detractors tend to say about it) I might not have felt that at all, so I’m going to leave off on any judgments until after I’ve managed to run a scenario, possibly The Cerulean Duke… though I’m more tempted to read through The Armitage Files supplement for Trail of Cthulhu to see whether a more improvised approach might be easier than I imagine, because really, I think half the beauty of a game in this setting would come about from the brainstorming sessions players come up with, and following the crazy tangents players follow, but which ultimately, somehow, do lead them precisely where they need to go. 

(Which is to say, I think I’d want to freeform it a bit like Kids on Bikes, with a certain amount of material drawn from player input, and a certain amount set up so that I could riff it into place wherever the players decide to send their characters… except I’m at a loss for how to do that while still furnishing players with the clues they need. I think strategic prep—characters and locales that can be placed anywhere on a given world, and clue-sets that are designed to accommodate different methods of collection in wildly varying locales, is probably the ticket. That and really being on one’s toes, in the role of GM.)

I can say that when I started reading the core rulebook, I thought that the slimness of the rulebook might suggest The Gaean Reach would be an appropriate entry point into Gumshoe for the uninitiated. Now, though, I’m not so sure. It’s not that the ruleset isn’t solid—I think it probably is as solid as any Gumshoe system was in 2014, when it was published, and its quirks are not necessarily a problem (I’ll see how it works out in play before I decide what I think of them)—but the book is designed to be short… and that means sometimes things are assumed or elided here which get a little more thoroughly explained in the less-compressed, thicker Gumshoe rulebooks.  

Well, and then there’s the Vance angle. I get the feeling Vance’s space novels will be a lot of fun to read, but I think a lot of players will be intimidated by the expectation that they’re going to be “trained” to speak in clever, snarky taglines of the sort Vance wrote, and there are some ways in which the space opera of the 1960s and 1970s rather confound what we know about technology today. (There’s some suggestion that pocket computers—i.e. smart phones—and wireless networking and telecommunications have been consciously suppressed within the Oikumene for some reason, and I can think of a few possible ones… but it’s hard to imagine an intergalactic culture with FTL travel and deadly weaponry somehow doing without vastly powerful computers in their ships… and if they’re in the ships, why aren’t they eventually making their way into people’s pockets? But if you can get players on board with the fact that the game emulates space opera written before the digital revolution, I guess that won’t matter. 

In any case, I think this game shows promise, especially for a GM who has a group interested in playing a loquacious, clever, snarky space-adventures, and especially if you dig revenge stories and interstellar shenanigans. I’ll withhold any other opinions I might have until after I’ve had a chance to run or play The Gaean Reach, though… for now, I’ll just line up that copy of Maske: Thaery and the Demon Princes reprints I have on the way, and make sketch up a supplementary diagram for The Cerulean Duke.  


  1. I suppose we can file that under “Getting Old Sucks” but… I suspect most Vance-fans who’re interested in RPGing are of a certain age, so it might be pertinent.

  2. As someone commented, the novel is sort of Rhodesian/South African history reset onto a distant alien world, and, yeah, it goes wrong in enough ways to be very uncomfortable.

Recent Books (Icelandic Edition)

So this is going to be short: it’s just three books. The first is Powers of Darkness, which, yes, is that “Icelandic Dracula” translation that was in the media last year—and yeah, it’s very different from our Dracula—and the others are old Penguin editions of a Icelandic texts titled Eyrbyggja Saga, and an Icelandic murder-mystery titled Snowblind: A Thriller by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates). The Icelandic Dracula and the murder mystery are from the library, while the two sagas are books I’ve had on the shelf for literally decades and never read, but finally decided to check out. 

Continue reading

The Middle Passage

A word of warning: though this post is titled “The Middle Passage,” it’s not about African slave transportation routes. It’s titled after the book it discusses, which is a psychologist’s account of midlife crisis. Just in case someone thought it would be something else. 


When the Incomparable Mrs. Jiwaku talked about James Hollis’ The Middle Passage—she’d been reading a Korean translation of the book—she was quite passionate about it, but I found myself skeptical: a self-help book about the midlife crisis, by a Jungian psychologist?

Three sets of alarm sirens went off in my head, which you can guess from the emphases above. I’m not going through that, I thought to myself. No desire to buy a sports car, or run off with someone younger, or get enmeshed in some kind of affair. I’m not that sort of person…

Besides, the author’s Jungian focus… well, artists love Jung, but the man did believe in some kooky things. Where one ought to stand on the more extravagant criticisms of Jung, like those of Richard Noll, I’m not sure: some accuse Noll of sensationalism, others of merely wanting to get out facts that Jungians seem eager to keep quiet. Still, I know more than enough about Jung to be uncomfortable with some of the more parapsychological and occult nonsense he embraced, literally as well as—supposedly—metaphorically; sure, people didn’t know it was clearly nonsense at the time, but we don’t take Paracelsus’ theories all that seriously today, just the same.) 

Plus, you know… it’s a self-help book, right? I tend to avoid those generally, even though a few have been useful to me along the way, because the vast majority of such books are about as useful as the latest diet book.  

Still, what she said about the book made it sound like it was possibly worth looking into, so when I found that it was easy to get a copy, I did so. It’s a month later, give or take a few days, and I’ve just finished the book, and… well, it was fascinating. Hollis was a working therapist when he wrote the book, and he (pseudonymously) talks about some of the cases of people who came to him in the throes of midlife crisis.

And what do you know? I think I found in it some useful insights, in the style of “reminders of things we all know, but often forget.”  Continue reading

Recent Readings: Fiction

Here are some of the books I’ve read recently. (That is, the fiction: nonfiction books got their own post, and  RPG books will getting their own too; I’ve read a lot of those, but I don’t want to mix them all together.) For those who’re wondering what this post includes, have a look at the tags: the authors and book titles are listed among them. 

Beyond that, I’ll note two things:

First, some of these books were loaners from my buddy Justin Howe, who sent me a box of great books to check out. I’m still working my way through them, and more will be showing up in the next post of readings, to be sure. I’m noting that here so that I don’t need to keep mentioning him throughout this post. A couple of others were from the local library (the Sejong National Library in South Korea), which is pretty surprising: I was amazed there was a collection of English books at all, let alone English books I’d want to read. 

Second, I’ve been on an Edgar Rice Burroughs kick, but I gave the three books I recently read from his Pellucidar series their own post, since I’m thinking about organizing the Burroughs readings into a kind of series here on the blog.

Third, this post contains pretty much everything else I’ve read all the way through (outside RPG  books) in 2018 since my last update, early in the year. If it seems like a short list, well… I also finished drafting two books (and a somewhat involved freelance RPG-writing project) on top of a full time job and having a kid to take care of. Time’s been kind of short this year, in other words, but I am reading somewhat more than I did last year!

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Reading Edgar Rice Burroughs: Pellucidar (Books 1-3)

So… this post was originally part of a different post, rounding up fiction books I’ve read in 2018, but for a couple of reasons—length, viability as a post series—I figured I’d instead do one post rounding up general reading, and another specifically tracking my readings of Edgar Rice Burroughs. 

Because the thing is, I’ve been on an Edgar Rice Burroughs kick. It’s not nostalgia at work, note: though I know of Tarzan and Barsoom because I grew up in Western culture in the 1970s and 1980s, and yes, I saw the Disney film John Carter of Mars (and didn’t hate it), I’d never actually read a single book by Burroughs until a month ago. 

I might not have done so, either, except I started researching a creative project—let’s simplify and call it a planetary romance thing. I figured, hey, Burroughs was a big deal in this area, maybe I should check out his stuff, just to get a grounding. That morphed into sort of a diversion, and then a thing-in-itself, and now I’m on a Burroughs kick. Planetary Romance (and the “Hollow Earth” variant of the genre) is bigger than just that one author, of course, and I’ll likely branch out beyond that, but it’s been interesting going back to Burroughs’ work and digging in.

After plowing through a couple of public-domain audiobooks, I took the plunge and bought myself a stack of old Ballantine and Ace paperbacks, including a few of the Pellucidar books (notably the first three), most of the Venus series (except the last volume), both of the two volumes that collect Burroughs’ three-part novel (or series?) The Moon Maid, and the full Mars/Barsoom series, along with a few scattered stand-alone novels. 

Will I get through them all? Time will tell, but I can say that I started with the first three books of the hollow-earth Pellucidar series, and that’s what I’m discussing today. 

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