Korra: The Darkest Shadow

How do you follow up success?

How do you follow up runaway successes?

How do you follow up literally the greatest example of its genre of all time?

Avatar: The Last Airbender is, broadly speaking, the greatest piece of long-form western animated storytelling  that exists. When you take into account its competitors, they’re usually storytelling forms that have different demands, but when viewed in terms of just itself – continuity-driven human drama stories told using animation – there just isn’t anything that touches it. I say that as someone who really dislikes some elements of Avatar and its coding, who thinks there’s waste in that otherwise dense series. I like Avatar less than I recognise its overall quality and its excellence as a story.

It sort of follows sadly then that Korra, a story I like better, is much worse made.

The problem that comes up is when you talk about Korra in any public space, you may hear the series called garbage or bad. And almost every time, I find myself pointing out just because it’s not as good as the first series, doesn’t make it awful. I know garbage long-form series. Hell, I like – love! – Robotech, and Robotech, if you go back and watch it again, is piss.

At a convention recently, someone looked at our merchandise, and expressed surprise joy they were seeing Korra merchandise – then they immediately corrected themselves saying it’s a shame she’s in a show that’s garbage. When I rebuffed that – saying that I thought the show was pretty good, they then recorrected – that the show wasn’t garbage, it’s just that it wasn’t as good as Avatar: The Last Airbender.

And well, yeah.

It’s not.

It probably could never be.

There are a lot of problems with Korra. I want to talk some more about them. I want to talk about Korra in general – because it’s a series I love and there’s a lot there. But here’s the basic problem: Korra is a series that will be forever seen in light of not being Avatar.

I think the things that make Korra fail are mostly extrinsic to the story – that the story had to be condensed or decisions had to be made based on demands or changes in the production schedule, but the things that the story did that I really liked were typically intrinsic – meaning the story’s failures feel like someone else’s fault, while the things that I think are excellent within the story are exactly what the story’s trying to do.

This is the core of Korra (hah) for me. Korra is a series that I will go into bat for because the storytelling machinery, the ideas within the story and the mechanisms of the story show you what a thing could have been if it hadn’t been constrained, hadn’t been curtailed by the structures around it. One of those things that curtailed it, however, was the people paying for the show’s existence also paid for Spongebob Squarepants, a series that is known for being a marketing and merchandising juggernaut.

That means that whatever Korra did, it was going to have to live up to an impossible standard to its paymasters, and then, an impossible standard to its potential fans.

Thinking In Two Directions

Some notes about writing and notebooking in the
body of a book as it pertains to fluid thinking
once you get into the habit of thinking of ‘who
told me that,’ you’ll start verifying ideas, of ‘to
me, this makes sense,’ becoming less common.
The problem with much of us these days, with the
world, is a feeling of emotional certainty about what
is not necessarily true or even scrutinised. I’m
gunna admit my own habit of accepting ideas that
roll with how I already think, ideas that tell
me, ‘you are doing okay’ and to be honest
I don’t think that’s necessarily an evil. You
ain’t going to stop your brain doing it, so
the next best thing is to refine your responses to the
sharpest point possible to look at reflection as a
tool for critical self-engagement to make it
in an otherwise unexamind and uncritical world.
The next thing to do is examine the first word on each
shed.


this was originally written at MOAB, hand on paper

Contraptions: Then and Now

This is an article written by two men; one from 2007, one in 2017. I was there when Steamflogger Boss was printed, a card that I had a personal complaint with. It arrived at a period where Magic: The Gathering was growing in cost for me; when shipping costs for singles became a bulk of the cost of buying them, because there was no local store selling them; a period when I felt keenly that boosters needed to be fun to open, and where I was heavily focused on the feel-bad moment of opening not a niche rare but a rare that I felt was ‘too bad.’

This was a period when Wizards were communicating about their work – and one of the things they did, was to share with us Multiverse quotes, from the internal database. I took these comments very personally, trying to read into them a tea-leaves situation that painted Wizards employees as thoughtless and removed from concerns like mine. Which, to be fair, they probably were but they weren’t responsible for international delivery and my being scrape-behind-the-couches-for-coins poor.

What I wrote back in 2007 for The Money That Was That Week’s Magic: The Gathering Budget, is presented here, redacted to get rid of any really gross language and for brevity. If you want to go read the whole text… don’t. Continue reading

Project: Strange Days

The Pitch: It’s an asymmetrical multiplayer game where one player is an evil entity organising a plan while the other players are low-tech hackers trying to avert the end of the world.

Details

This is one of the more elaborate board-card games, where you get a fairly large number of cards in a number of sets:

  • Player cards, indicating what the players can do
  • Player action cards, indicating a loadout of skills each individual player can have
  • Scar cards, which are status effects that can be imposed on the players
  • The threat deck, which is full of cards that build out and form the encounter players deal with
  • Resource cards, indicating things you earn for success
  • The threat identity cards, which when revealed give the threat some sort of drawback or weakness

In this game, there are a handful of deck sets; the monster has a deck of cards they get to rearrange every turn to construct a type of challenge they want people to fight through. There’s a deck of cards, known as Scar cards that represent the way players are affected by the experiences of being a hunter of this terrible force.

The game has a very VHS Fuzz Aesthetic:

This is an example of a Threat card face, showing a card that gives you 2 cultists and 1 reinforcement. Players need to bust through reinforcements, while cultists are swarming them.

This is an identity set showing what the player action cards are like.

Needs

Interest! Right now while I like Strange Days, it’s an idea that’s overlapping elements of horror and cyberpunk, it’s also a game that needs tokens and cards, which means it’s going to live, like Skulk on Gamecrafter – a format I haven’t yet tested and proven as a possible avenue for selling games. Basically, this game is interesting to work on but I’d need to know people cared a lot more than I know they do.

Also, I cannot currently afford to actively comission this game project! I do not know if my state of money will change or how your relationship to the potential payment would work out! Do you think you have the skills for this? Are you interested in the idea? Feel free to contact me, either via the Twitter DMs or by emailing me!

Game Pile: Sproggiwood

Well this is a bit lovely, innit?

Sproggiwood is a turn based roguelike* explorer game, where you play characters from a tiny little forest civilisation of adorable Clogheads, delving into little demense of Finnish mythical creatures. You follow on the behest of – well, at first it’s a condescending sheep, but the story unfolds a little weirdly from there. Really, a little weird is a good little thematic mantra to use for the endlessly smiling, effortlessly charming Sproggiwood.

Now I should feel bad that I don’t really know any of these myths, despite having Finnish relatives, but I’m not fooling anyone if I tell you that my Finnish culture is much more about the baked things that you can stick in your mouth when smeared with butter. Continue reading

Project: Bunny Field!

The Pitch: It’s a build-out game like our game C-QNS, but instead of abstract numbers and shapes, you’re building a meadow of lovely flowers.

Details

Each player is drawing cards off a single deck of cards to add to their own hand of cards. Then, each turn you can place a card in the grid around the deck that represent the growing spread of flowers in the field. Each card sets rules about what cards can be placed around it – flowers grow in patches that decrease and increase in density.

You’ll also have cards in the mix that let you flip cards face down, or layer cards atop others, with cards like bees (that help flip cards face up) or butterflies (that improve the value of cards they’re atop) or bunnies (that flip cards face down).

Cards would be mostly, representing a simple standard back of a grassy meadow, with the other face showing flowers in a number, with some mechanical signifiers. Cards would not explain what they do on them, so as to make the art very prominent.

The game would not need to be particularly large, and probably only about 52-70 cards, with a single deck that grows outwards. Players might start with a card that indicates the type of flower they want to play, or their last card in hand might indicate the flower type they score off.

Needs

Right now I have no art to start with with this idea. This project needs a fairly holistic artistic vision of showing a location and things in that location; it needs images of flowers, of bees, of butterflies, and of a nice, pastoral background as well.

Also, I cannot currently afford to actively comission this game project! I do not know if my state of money will change or how your relationship to the potential payment would work out! Do you think you have the skills for this? Are you interested in the idea? Feel free to contact me, either via the Twitter DMs or by emailing me!

Amerimanga Covers II

My Guild Leader Is A Demon

First up, some disclosure: This series, My Guild Leader Is A Demon is made by a friend of mine, 0xabad1dea. While I know I’m in the dedication of one of her books, I don’t think I’ve had any influence or involvement in this project, and I’ve not been paid for this piece.

There is potential that she might implement/reject some ideas I mention here, as the series is ongoing, but as far as I know, no such thing is expected to happen. Basically, if I say something here and it winds up being true in this series, assume 0xabad1dea was going to do it anyway.


My Guild Leader Is A Demon is a web-series/kinetic novel. There’s some consideration on my part as to whether to treat kinetic novels – storytelling which has no major interaction beyond ‘keep going’ – as a series or a videogame. In this case, 0xabad1dea has taken a full play of the game and put it up on Youtube, where you can watch it as a single video. Continue reading

Making Fun, Episode 2 – Defining Games Journalism

This episode of Making Fun went a direction I wasn’t super wild about at first. I want to talk more about making games and things and ideas you can get from doing that – but well, I also wanted to see how quickly and easily I could belt one of these out.

This entire video took 4 hours to make, script to done. Pretty happy with that!

Planar Chaos Sucks (But It Doesn’t (But We Learned Nothing From It))

Back when Planar Chaos came out I mostly said at the time that it was a fine opportunity for Wizards of the Coast to address its failings, and start setting a new hard precedent in what the game should be, citing the examples of Damnation and Prodigal Pyromancer as signs of what the game’s colours should feature. This perspective, broadly speaking is wrong because Planar Chaos wasn’t meant to be that. I was the one in the wrong, with my sensible-seeming but incorrect assumption.

As it turns out, I was not alone

It’d be pretty easy to just call Planar Chaos a series of mistakes, but it’s a mistake of a different kind to the sort that filter out of R&D. The mistakes of Urza’s Saga are failures of development and refinement, the ‘mistake’ of Fires of Yavimaya/Saproling Burst as a combo was a failure of pre-loading time, and so on. Most of the time, the failures are also pretty ludic: Players are presented with a system, and engage with that system in a way that selects for optimal play experiences. Environments become saturated with ‘best decks’ or draft formats grow stale as optimal strategies surface or combos speed up the game in general.

These are, broadly speaking, problems and mistakes that come up in the conventional tournament play of the game. But Planar Chaos is a mistake of the culture of the players, and a culture that was only going to come to head as social media and real, immediate interaction with the game developers became more of A Thing. As development of the game became more connected to the play environment and made more – reasonable! – concessions to the wider variety of players, there was a more centralised community of people who were interested in the game for its design sake. They even got an archetype name – Mel!

These are the players who, as a community, care about not what Magic will do, or does do, but about what it can do. What the rules permit, what the design space of the game could allow for, within the limitations of still being the game. Now there’s a sad illusion in the Mel group that because they care about rules, Mel players are largely dealing with objective information. This can mean Mel conversations wind up being rather about designing within parameters that R&D actually build within (which tend to be player-focused systems and rely on a lot of playtesting and human activity), they try to basically reduce human engagement with the game into math. These Mels, the ones who fall into this trap, are the lovers and fans of precedent.

Precedent in Magic: The Gathering is a dangerous thing, because we already know that it doesn’t work. We know that Alpha had bad balance. We know that Mercadian Masques wasn’t a great set. We know that Mirrodin-era standard had Problems. But yet, when you extract a card from its greater context, it’s often easy to forget that. Hey, Wizards printed Storm spells twice, we can revisit that mechanic without fear, right1.?

In this game of semi-objective reference-sniping, in the climbing of Mount Cleverest, there is one set that stands head and shoulders above all others as an example of Precedent That Is Definitely Not Precedent.

Planar Chaos was printed in 2007 as part of the insular2. Time Spiral Block. Amongst its cards was a smaller subset of cards that were ‘Planeshifted,’ cards from an alternate present of Magic: The Gathering, where cards that were once printed in one colour were re-flavoured to be printed in a different colour, if the flavour of the colour pie had been interpreted differently. This was a chance for Wizards to do some really big, splashy, impressive things, like-

yeah, that.

Now I’m not going to argue much about whether or not Damnation was right at the time. I personally see it now as a relic of when Wrath of God was the lynchpin of white power (whoah is that a phrase that feels bad) back in the day and when Day of Judgement took over and things opened up and became very different,  and therefore, Damnation is just part of Modern and it sucks that Black has this in terms of how The Game Should Go, but hey, we’ve been moving away from Regeneration and anyway. Point is, Damnation isn’t a card that led to black getting global Destroy All since then.

Planeshifted cards also included Prodigal Pyromancer, a card that was then reprinted in a core set. I personally view that now in that Prodigal Pyromancer is from an alternate past where Wizards never made the mistake of Prodigal Sorcerer. That’s not how it works, but this is the problem: Planeshifted cards didn’t have a single, fixed, sensible and coherent interpretation for what they were. What’s more, Planar Chaos also featured cards that weren’t Planeshifted, but were also meant to be from this ‘alternative present’ – like Needlepeak Spider.

Now, mostly these cards vanished under the waves because for all that Planar Chaos was full of weird cards, most of them weren’t very good. Standard at this time was having a hard time dealing with very straightforward problem represented by Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, a control card so ferociously strong that players were cutting counterspells they didn’t need any more, and a blue-base prison combo was standard legal in the form of ‘Pickles’ a deck that ran on Vesuvan Shapeshifter and Brine Elemental. Aeon Chronicler jumped into these decks and there was a land destruction deck running around, but broadly speaking, Planar Chaos didn’t do much that anyone cared about. The enduring Planar Chaos cards have been reprinted, like Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth.

These cards were not going to be lasting influences on constructed formats – very few sets really are. Mostly it’s individual cards that have an impact, and in Planar Chaos, most of those weird cards don’t provide that impact. For the players who care about precedent in design, though? Planar Chaos is a hand grenade, it blows apart all sorts of assumptions about what Wizards would or wouldn’t do. It’s full of too-complex cards, cards that could be printed in a colour but shouldn’t be because they don’t provide useful tools or interesting play experiences compared to the cards that already exist in that set. There are not really any breaks, but there are some bends. I mean, it’s not like Pyrohemia is as potent an effect as Pestilence in a colour that lacks lifegain, card draw and mana expansion like Cabal Coffers.

Really, the fact is we should be ignoring Planar Chaos in its entirety. Any card that’s printed only in Planar Chaos isn’t a useful example for field of reference and should instead be evaluated not as a card Wizards made but as a card Wizards might make.


1. This was such a recurrent problem in the social media space around Wizards that the name of Mark Rosewater’s scale of not coming back to the game is literally The Storm Scale.

2. Insular in this case refers not to the mechanics but the motifs and themes of the set. More than any set before it or after it, the theme of Time Spiral block is Magic: The Gathering. It’s a set so full of references to other places it’s quite dizzying to dig into them – and often they’re not actually particularly clever, they just exist.