Category: Games

I write about games! I write a LOT about games! Everything I do about games is here, in this tab, in some way.

Structure, Hierarchy, Winning and Losing

I’m going to be trying something new here for a little bit. I have to read, every day, for my study. It’s just a rule. I also want to take notes on that reading, to connect what I’m doing and make a history of that work easier to track. As I work on my PhD, expect more of these posts to show up, as I put my work in a broader academic context, and hopefully, make game-writing academia a bit more approachable.

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The Misbegotten Design of Trivia

If you don’t know, I teach a class on game making. I do it at a University and it’s great fun and I like it, and I offhandedly joke that every class features two types of games that students are always going to suggest making. The first is a drinking game, and the second is a trivia game with the word ‘bullshit’ in the title. There’s a third type of game, which is a roll-and-move about being a university student, which always makes me a little bit sad, but anyway.

Now, I don’t think I need to point out why Drinking Games are a hard sell to me and I tend to judge them very harshly, but trivia games are their own special thing to me because while it’s a genre of game that clearly exists, it’s not ever one I’m excited to see someone try and design, for three reasons:

1. Trivia is mostly about your personal framing

When you make a trivia game, you are the person making it, and that frame influences what counts as trivia. For me, talking about Shamgar, Son of Anath isn’t really trivia, and neither is Bendan, Delilah’s Alter Ego, but neither of those things are good trivia questions because who else is going to get that. The trivia questions for a copy of Trivial Pursuit that are even 10 years old are sometimes gaggingly weird, because the people who made them frame them. What about trivia that cares about ‘history’? Who tells that story? Your culture moves and your framing moves and writing trivia questions is mostly done by the kind of person who wants to feel they’re the smartest person in the room, which in turn means those questions tend to be more annoying than interesting.

2. Trivia is high-variance in a boring way

You either know an answer or you don’t. When a game presents you with a trivia question, you’re either aware of the answer, or you aren’t, and there isn’t really a space to be ‘close’ and being ‘close’ is more frustrating than anything else. How do you balance that? How many answers in a row do you expect a player to get right? Half? Two thirds? How do you design a catch-up mechanic? Do you make easy questions for that? How do those easy questions represent anything other than not failing? And what’s more, what do you do when you play against an expert, or play against someone with wildly different levels of information? Is it hopeless for a child to play this game? Who does this game let you have fun with?

3. Trivia is really only good at being Trivia

Now, I’ve seen a few games that try and use Trivia as part of a non-abstract game design, like where you cross a bridge and one of the enemies challenges you by asking you trivia questions, but that particular variety of game jerks the whole thing to a halt. Answering a trivia question can’t be a metaphor for fighting a battle or climbing a wall or engaging a plane because the trivia is so actually itself. You’re always answering a trivia question because what else can your trivia question be? It’s like those old Christian videogames, where being able to provide chapter-and-verse memorisation of a Bible verse was a ‘skill’ you were using to ‘do battle’ but the action was so far removed from metaphor your mechanics don’t reinforce them at all.

This isn’t to say there are no good trivia games – I don’t like them but I can at least recognise some basic, interesting game mechanics that work around trivia as their abstract core? But while I can see ideas for using roll-and-move, trivia as a core game experience just seems fundamentally bad to me.

Game Pile: Yooka-Laylee

Yooka-Laylee is a collect-em-up game, in the vein of Psychonauts or a bunch of other games I haven’t played. It has a particular aesthetic, that singular form of storybook cartoon character, where people you meet are almost always some variety of pun. You travel around the world, you get the powerups, you collect the things, you solve the puzzles, and you win the game, at some point, I assume, concluding with a sort of tedious inevitability.

I’ve started writing this article about twelve times now, but I just stop, like I’m sliding off a waist-high invisible fence.

It’s not even that Yooka-Laylee is a bad game, I wouldn’t call it that. I really liked just randomly hopping around on Yooka with their charming little roll mechanic, bouncing and crashing onto things. I liked scrabbling around buildings and I liked the way you could just find odd things around the place. Then the game did something like hold up the game to give me an explanation for something and I alt-tabbed to check my email.

My work email.

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Weekend Games: Tips

This past January we had a long weekend with some wonderful friends we love. The weekend was tons of fun, where we played a game of fighting our way out of a tomb we’d been stuck in for thousands and thousands of year. A dungeon crawl of sorts.

I’d run a similar game of this type earlier, where I used the dungeon crawl structure to create an action movie pastiche, and in the process I just want to offer five short tips:

  • You can probably get through N combat encounters, where N is the number of players minus one.
  • The players are learning their characters and that means first encounter will be completely rough, the second will even out and the third will be when they’re confident enough to use their abilities cleanly and consistantly.
  • The higher level a game you conduct the more complex the game is. The more complex the game is, the more everyone’s turn has to be spent double checking every other player’s behaviour. Lower level games will run smoother and faster.
  • There are some game elements that are going to stop a story dead in its tracks while it’s solved. These arrests are often around puzzles or mysteries. Think like an action film – you don’t want to structure your story so the puzzles are silly or easy, so instead focus on the puzzles as a way to get characters to express who they are in a dramatic way.
  • Double back! If you make maps for 2-3 encounters, have players fight their way in, then have pursuers block their exit so you can use those same maps for the players fighting their way out!


MTG: Pet Cards VI, Time Spiral Block

Why, what fortuitous timing, that we’re talking about the first Return To Dominaria, just in time for the new set, Return To Dominaria 2.

I have very unhappy memories of this block. First time I had work impinge on my writing at Starcity Games, and also the time I stopped writing for them. My departure article was seen as too bitter to publish which I honestly don’t remember clearly enough but I’ll assume was pretty justified. I had to choose between paying money for Magic, which was making me unhappy, or paying money for City of Heroes, which was making me happy. It wasn’t a hard choice, really.

Yet, I never really left. I just slowed down a lot, and stopped trying to position myself on the cusp of FNM casual. That space – of designing standard decks that were interesting and affordable and fun to play, but recognised the expense of a bigger and wider standard – was something I felt fairly underserved as more and more writers in that space moved on to either become proper grinders or burned out trying to go rogue. And Time Spiral, as I’ve mentioned, was a throwback set to a period of Magic I thought it was best we get away from.

Still, there’s always new cards. There’s always pets.

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Game Pile: Far Cry 4

At what point do you let a story end? I’ve ruminated on being done with games well before their end points – games that fail to keep me entertained and engaged, games that want to be treated with veneration as whole works but don’t even themselves know what in their work counts as part of the text.

I’m going to avoid specific spoilers for Far Cry 4, but for those who are curious, I played up to the ending credits and stopped. There is More after that if you go looking for it, but the game themselves describes such extra information as ‘secret.’ I personally don’t feel they’re necessary or meaningful to the text of the game where you have agency.

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Bad Balance: Incarnum And Cognitive Load

One of D&D 3.5’s biggest problems was its magical system, which was by default bonkers and broken. Despite that, though, there was an almost constant attempt to expand the magic system, to fulfill every specific small variant visions of magic. The Expanded Psionics Handbook, the Tome of Magic, the Artificer and the Archivist, wings of spells in The Book of Vile Darkness and The Book of Exalted Deeds – there was a near-constant effort to expand the magic systems to do different things in different ways.

You can approach design from either a strong mechanical position, or a strong theme and Incarnum was a power idea that came hard out of a mechanical interaction. Magic of Incarnum brought its own system, called the Incarnum system.

The Incarnum system, as simple as I can explain it, is that you could create virtual items in your item slots, and then invest a small pool of points into these items to make them better. This could give you special abilities that got better, from turn to turn, and you could rearrange all these points every turn. When you needed lots of defence, you could sink those points into defenses. When you needed to kill something fast, you could put those points into offense. This system was pretty interesting and cool! You could really customise a character in a lot of ways, and there was this balancing act of choosing where your points were by default.

Incarnum however, was a really bad system, not because it was bad, but because as a player, you had to spend the bulk of your time juggling a small list of points for a small advantage. None of the Incarnum values were particularly large, and the niche utility of some of the shifting was as much a matter of pooling skill bonuses into your armour at the right moment at the right time, rather than really changing what you did. The system was designed to be careful enough as to not get out of hand like the existing spell system (which was broken), but still be an alternative worth playing (which was pretty hard, when the spell system was broken).

The real thing though that kills Incarnum is cognitive load.

Cognitive load is the concept in psychology that describes the amount of active memory you have to track to keep a task executed. It’s how you concentrate on something, it’s the work required in your brain to manage the information presented to you organised. Incarnum was a system that started with cognitive load problems, and it got worse as you levelled up.

You might sometimes hear a player describe a game as ‘smooth’ or hear a designer say something is ‘frictionless.’ Mostly, that feeling is attained by making sure your design does little to demand cognitive load without a reason. It’s one thing to concentrate on a complicated turn or a crucial strategy, but you don’t want the everyday operations of play to require you to make a lot of complex planning and contend with juggling information.

There’s a reason designers preach the idea of simplicity. It’s not for its own sake, it’s because you want to make it as easy as possible for the players to make decisions about what they want to do in your game, rather than have to do math on working out how what they want to do can work.

MTG: Brawl

I don’t think of Brawl as being necessary, at all.

I don’t want to be a jerk about it, I mean, you know, any question of ‘is this necessary’ can always be met in response by a smug ‘well how necessary is any game.’ It’s Standard Commander, which feels like it would have been a simpler way to describe it, but there is the rule that Planeswalkers are valid commanders too, I guess, and that rule in big-pants Commander would have made a lot more Tezzeret-does-something-busted games.

Honestly, I feel really bad about how much of the past year of Magic has been full of me going ‘well I guess it’s okay, fine,’ since I really like the top-down decision making going on. I’m proud of what Magic is doing, I advocate for it as a teacher and a writer, I just, as a player, haven’t been excited by the cards I get to play with.

Still! Far be it from me to turn the whole thing down. I like Commander, I sometimes like Standard, and we have a whole new set full of Legendary creatures who probably can’t swim in the dank water of 1v1 Commander, so why not do something more interesting?

I design Commander decks usually seeing an interaction I want that hinges around something the format makes available (like Heartless Hidetsugu + Grafted Exoskeleton). I like playing a game of Magic where you can always rely on drawing a particular card, especially in an otherwise high-variance game. What then, would I make in standard, with Brawl?

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I don’t know if anyone else is using this term to talk about this, so here we go, my best effort to try and coin this term so I can talk about it easily.

The Procedurality of a game is the degree to which game pieces imply the existence of one another. That is, when you’re confronted with a game pieces, you can probably extrapolate what the other pieces mean. As a player this determines how you learn and study the strategy, while as a designer, procedurality shows you the extent of a design space.

Here are some examples:In this pretty ordinary poker hand, you can look at the cards and glean some information. First, there are cards that number up to ten, and cards that number down to four. There are numbers on most cards, and there are some different symbols – a heart, a diamond, a club and so on.

Based on just this information, if you’d never seen the deck before, you could probably extrapolate what forty of the cards are, maybe forty-four based on the Jack probably not being totally unique. The design of a deck of cards works with this – there are two jokers, but aside from that, the whole design is contained pretty tightly within the two variables of each card: Value and Suit.

These are cards from a packet of Dark Signs. One of them is very much unlike the others, the area pieces that you’ll play to win. But two of the cards kind of imply the values of other cards, while the third shows that there’s at least some cards in the deck that don’t fit that pattern. The basic runes in Dark Signs represent the lowest sort of procedurality – they show some value that the players will have to deal with, but they aren’t the whole of the game. The procedural cards in Dark Signs show a sort of design space, but they aren’t super obvious. Also, and it’s a small thing, in Dark Signs, the basic runes all have prime number values, which makes them just a little bit trickier to make score ties.

Finally we have the most procedural game I’ve ever made:

There are 26 cards in You Can’t Win and 24 of them are immediately obvious the second you look at any given card. The other two are Wild cards. Each card shows a value, and a rule that relates to cards with that value.

Procedural games are a good place to get started. It helps you get your mind in the space of working out how many cards you need, and if you do it right it can help you explore spaces, defining boundaries by how many different permutations you need of an effect.

4ed Problems: Splintering, Part 2

Yesterday, we talked about how long the lifespan of 4ed D&D was, and we talked about how, it was good, actually. Our framework was, basically, that players had expectations of classes, and we named the problem of splintering.

When you built a character in 4ed D&D, you might be startled by how many feats you got. Every even level you got a new feat, and you started with one as well – meaning a character wound up with sixteen feats. This meant that the game had a reason to make up lots of feats, and that was where the game offloaded a lot of mechanical responsibility – rather than making tons of variant rules for how your classes changed as you levelled up, most of them gave you a starting package, and you could use feats to unlock the bits of it you wanted.

This was true of races as well, by the way – in the Monster Manual there were a handful of extra races just starting out, but none of those races had any feat support, unlike the Players Handbook races, and that meant those races were always permanently underpowered. Making a race or a class was not just making powers – it was also making feat support.

There were other places feats did the heavy lifting the system needed done, like the ‘feat tax’ feats like Expertises and Defence feats. The game math was curved, so as you got to higher and higher levels, the enemies assumed your ability to hit them wasn’t just improving linearly, and the same for their ability to hit you. This meant there were two feat families you just kinda assumed you’d get.

This meant that for any given class or race there was a need for feats. They’d be the things that brought that race up to par with other races – just small incentives that hopefully pulled them up to the level of (for example, almost always) the Dragonborn or Dwarf. These two races came up early, and people had a clear idea what they were like, so they almost always got some feat support in every product for every new idea, and they were pretty good to start with.

Classes suffered this same problem; feat support was where a lot of class options were offloaded, and Wizards only published so many feats at a time, and sometimes, they’d low-ball feats. If they made an overpowered feat, they’d fix it, but when they made an underpowered feat, they let it be. This means any class or race introduced after other classes or races had to do catch-up and hope their feat support was good enough in the smaller window of time. And then Essentials came along.

Now, I am not against Essentials. I’m really not. The books are nice, and they’re pretty, but they brought with them mechanical directions for existing characters that have problems.

Specifically,they took some classes and gave them entirely new purposes and mechanical needs, which meant all the feat support for those classes became about their new variant. Which in turn meant that races and classes released after the Player’s Handbook, but before Essentials often had a truncated window of support compared to most, which also meant that what support existed was being split up between different types. Anyone building a PHB2 druid was left confused why they’d be getting feats for supporting healing in the compendium, for example.

There’s a lesson here: Ensure you support your design, and be willing to make adjustments up and down if things are too weak. The policy of 4ed seems to have been one of nerfing downwards and replacing upwards – which means that now, looking back, most classes have a host of slightly weak feats lying around.

4ed Problems: Splintering, Part 1

Before I can talk about this problem I need to outline to you just what problems were going on in D&D 4ed.

4th Edition D&D was a long-running game, and it was successful. It grew the game during its run and it tried, tested, and improved on a bunch of stuff, like online sales. Remember, when 3rd edition hit the shelves, WOTC had their own retail outlets, the Wizards Stores – and they were still going until 3.5. The needs of 3.0 and 4ed were very, very different beasts.

4ed was, based on release dates, about as long-running as 3rd edition. I personally consider 3.0 and 3.5 incompatible games – 3.0’s balance formulae were all hecked up, you couldn’t port anything, really, not even feats, and 3.0 characters couldn’t hang out with 3.5 characters. The monsters, feats, and character options weren’t compatible, so they were as different, in my opinion, as 2ed and 3ed. That is to say, 3ed lasted 3 years, 3.5 lasted 5 years, and 4ed lasted about six, better than both of them.

Now, you might point to the Essentials books as the ‘3.5 of 4ed,’ but that’s rude, don’t point, and also you’re wrong. Essentials characters and rules were 100% compatible with 4ed. A character built in Essentials could adventure alongside a character build out of the PHB and be, largely, as functional. The whole common spellbook wasn’t rewritten with different versions of everything. Cavaliers and Paladins are the same class, by the letter of the rules, and can even borrow powers from one another. Essentials wasn’t a new game, it was the same game, repackaged and reprocessed to try and make it more approachable.

Our problem here starts with one of expectations.

Back in 3.5 D&D classes weren’t balanced against one another, and they didn’t have clear, defined roles for how they interacted with one another. You knew clerics healed (more conveniently than druids) and that druids and bards could heal too. You knew rogues could sneak and do damage just like rangers, and fighters did damage, either with one big weapon, two medium weapons, a weapon and a shield or sometimes one small weapon depending on the Flynn-ness of your Erroll. And Wizards could do everything, pretty much.

These assumptions were great for getting players who never played the game in and I don’t begrudge them but the game doesn’t really back them up. For example, the rogue is explosively high-damage compared to its compatriots in melee, the druid and cleric were such juggernauts healing was best done out of combat by stick magic, and the fighter should go home for a nice nap. When 4ed D&D introduced party roles, it assigned each character a role which was meant to make the game easier to start. No more parties with two fighters, a paladin and a barbarian that all folded to a single mind flayer.

Immediately fights started.

Some people didn’t like the idea that fighters were defenders, and they didn’t like that rangers were damage and ‘controller’ was nonsense and boy howdy did a lot of people coincidentally seem to dislike the idea that the ‘healers’ (ie, support characters) of the last edition were now the ‘leaders.’ In fact, I have a whole hypothesis that one of the unspoken points of resistance for a lot of players to the terminology was the idea that support characters were actually important enough to warrant being called something other than ‘support.’ Fighters should be damage! Paladins should be damage! Everything I like should work the way I want it to, and what’s even going on with the druid?!

Lots of people were real mad.

Now, I’m a big fan of the role system and I also like that essentials is cross compatible – but these two things combined did bring about one of the biggest problems 4ed D&D has: Splintering, which we’ll talk about more specifically next time.

Bad Balance: The Problem With The Tome Of Battle (Which Isn’t What You Think)

Right at the tail end of 3.5 D&D, there was a book released that ruled.

There’s a lot of critical talk about the Book of Nine Swords. There were comparisons to Anime, as if that was inherently a dismissal point, as if Anime wasn’t regularly cribbing from D&D in the first place.

The Tome of Battle presented a solution to the problem of melee combatants in 3.5. As you levelled up, melee combat just didn’t keep pace with the kind of things spells could do. Spellcasters even in the early game had an edge on the melee characters, and increasingly, the game became about countering spellcasters rather than countering melee characters. You can view late-game combat as about trying to shut down the Wizard long enough that the Paladin could get some licks in.

But in Tome of Battle, melee weapon-wielders and armour-wearers got to stab things in the face real good. They touched on the core idea of 4ed, which is time spent in a turn is actually more valuable than hypothetical infinite options. It was a great book, created great characters, had a wonderfully varied lore you could use a little or a lot from, and mostly didn’t have total turkey prestige classes (as most books did).

Yet at the same time I am comfortable and confident declaring that Tome Of Battle is, as it stands, a mistake. Not because of anything the game did intrinsically, but because the book was released into a world with poor Tordek here. 

The Fighter in 3.0 D&D was a really rough sell. The fighter at level 1 was already comparable to another class’ class features, and their design scaled up very linearly. The best levels of Fighter were 1 and 2, because the class was frontloaded enough to let you rush up to some sort of mid-tier trick slightly early (like Whirlwind Attack, the game’s idea of an ‘End Game’ Fighter Feat). The next best one was level 4, because at that point you had unlocked access to everything the Fighter could get access to and you only had to take one level that Didn’t Really Do Anything to get there.

There were a lot of things wrong with how they updated it for 3.5, one of which is the removal of the ‘Fighter’ subtype from the way they presented feats in the Players’ Handbook. Back in 3.0, feats that the Fighter could take with their bonus feats had the subtype [Fighter]. In 3.5, this was removed in favour of the new line

Special: A fighter may select [this feat name] as one of his fighter bonus feats.

This was in my mind a blatant mistake. They could have made it so that Fighter feats had riders or bonuses if they could check the number of Fighter feats you had, but only if Fighter feats had a subtype.

Anyway, the thing is, the fighter was pretty weak and attempts to fix the fighter had almost all missed, usually because they approached the problem in the totally wrong way – Fighters got better on a linear, additive scale, while spellcasters and things balanced against spellcasters got better on a quadratic scale. A level 20 fighter could do a decent bit of damage to a dragon in one full round of combat, assuming he could close – but the wizard could disintegrate the dragon or take over its will entirely.

But if you wanted to play a character in armour, with a weapon, whose primary interaction with enemies was hitting them with the weapon in increasingly skillful ways, though, the obvious look for most players was that the Fighter was your jam. And the fighter, as a character class, was made totally unnecessary by the Tome of Battle’s inclusion. In some cases laughably so – the Warblade got some bonus feats, got Weapon Specialisation (formerly a Fighter-only benefit) and got all those maneuvers that let the Warblade hang at the level of the Wizard.

The Tome of Battle classes didn’t wholesale replace all the fighter-style classes. Paladins and Crusaders compared to one another. The Sword Sage could do a lot of interesting tricks, but the Monk could still do other things the Sword Sage couldn’t.

But the poor Fighter?

The closest thing the Fighter could do is spend their bonus feats to buy Maneuvers. Once you had Warblades there really was no reason to play Fighters beyond their simplicity. They didn’t quite measure up to threats the game thought of as reasonable, but you could cover that with your party. They didn’t give you the kind of options they thought they did, but you might never notice that either.

But when the Warblade sat down next to you, did most of what you did, and a host of exciting, additional extremely extra things as well, it was hard to not notice.

Painful Paladin Problems

It’s hard not to see trends in conversations about tabletop RPGs, and one enduring trend, for decades now, has been some form of The Paladin In Our Party Is Being A Butt, or its companion I’m Playing A Paladin And I Feel The Rest Of The Party Are Being Unreasonable.

I’m going to assume here I’m dealing with people who don’t need the basic idea of the Paladin explained to them. You probably don’t need a rundown on history that features Charlemagne and Roland and stuff. There is a sort of idea of Paladin-ness amongst players, but there doesn’t seem to be a single, easily-reached, agreed-upon example of what a Paladin is.

Paladins seem to almost be more of a D&D convention than an actual conceptual thing. A divinely empowered warrior, someone who’s turned the dial of ‘swords at people’ a little higher and the ‘casts spells’ a little lower, the Paladin is nonetheless a very D&D part of D&D. And they seem to be split, culturally, between two pretty hard binaries, one end of which is A bossy frictious dick, and the other is Inoffensively not that. Part and parcel of the idea of the Paladin is this sort of moral imperiousness. In 3.5 D&D it was pretty stringent – Paladins couldn’t associate with people who did certain things, which meant a Paladin in the party created a tension where the other players might be limited from certain actions.

Making this more complicated was the 3.5 D&D morality system that worked as a sort of omniscient snitch. In a narrative sense, there’s an interesting tension to a Paladin’s friend secretly doing things they know the Paladin won’t approve of, and the ways you keep that secret. When the moral fabric of the universe can shift you to an evil alignment for losing an argument, it simply dobs you in and you lose that potential complexity.

Now, I love Paladins. I love them since I first learned the word from Rakeesh.

Rakeesh is a Paladin from the Quest for Glory Games, games that were definitely informed by their designers’ D&D campaigns, or campaigns that derived from them. But he wasn’t a western sword-and-sorcery type, nor was his Paladin status informed by such. Rasha Rakeesh Sah Tarna was a man of African mythos, from an Egyptian culture. He may have used the word Paladin (which is kinda French) to describe himself, but he did not learn that way from anyone French or otherwise fancy. He learned it from within.

Rakeesh spoke of the Paladin as someone who conducted themself with honour, and whose moral framing was powerful enough to enact their will on the universe. They could heal wounds – both their own and others, light their sword aflame, damage dreadful foes and even cast some magic thanks to being a Paladin, and being a Paladin made the universe itself recognise your righteousness.

I also learned of the Paladin from Oriental Adventures. Which, yes. I know.

Oriental Adventures sought to write about the D&D system in the context of the Legend of the Five Rings setting, using the existing sets of clans and their families. The books said that if Paladins existed, they would be much more like the Akodo and Matsu family champions, individuals focused intensely on Honour as their strength. These families, when you look them up, are full of stories of people doing the right thing when it brought them low, holding to principle when it meant doing what they did not want to do, and also, expressing their values in the face of opposition with face-wrecking violence.

The principle these books outlaid for the Matsu, particularly, who are members of the Lion Clan

Which is the best clan, by the way,

Are the ones who describe the idea that honour is not imposed, given, or taken. It comes from within.

These two voices helped shape my conception of the Paladin in 3.5 D&D. The Paladin was not an expression of armour and rules – it was about an entity of principles, a warrior whose ideology informed their methodology. It’s really been bedrock to how I play my Paladins and why it never seemed to me to be interesting or worthwhile to treat the Paladin ruleset as if it was somehow a perfect template.

In 3rd Edition D&D, there were Chaotic Paladins (sometimes using the Holy Liberator prestige class, sometimes using the alternate path). There were evil ones and even Neutral ones – and sure, while Lawful Neutral paladins were boring, it was still able to present that shell of an idea; an ideology as expressed through a character. The alignment rules were so wobbly it wasn’t like being Lawful actually meant anything. Lawful was not the same thing as Law-Abiding. After all, ants are lawful – they behave in strict adherence to rules of their society. It makes sense that ants and ant-creatures are lawful. But do they know the rules of the city in which they live? Why would they follow them? Does not following those rules make you less lawful?

In the end, the Paladin doesn’t need to be the party Load or the party Conscience. They need, instead, to be a character for whom ideals and morality are much more tightly wound, fixed precepts of their worldview. A fighter may fight for money or love or rage or all three from day to day – but the Paladin always knows what they fight for.

The Paladin’s honour comes from within.

Game Pile: Watch_Dogs

You don’t need, really, to hear anything about Watch_Dogs. You can make the case there’s no reason for me to be going over something that’s so well-explored and well-covered as this game. Perhaps another writer who finds the game a deep and personal love may come back to it with an eye towards the games’ inner life and maybe find something to love. I don’t think I’m going to be that guy, though. I’m the guy who inspects the game, experiences the game, and mainly tries to see if I have anything new to complain about.

Fortunately, I kind of do.
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MTG: Return To Return To Dominaria

Dominaria is a Magic: The Gathering set about Magic: The Gathering’s history, and as someone who has been – in a small way – part of shaping that history – I have been wondering about it.

Long Ago

Back when I started playing Magic: The Gathering, Magic was standing on a pair of thresholds. First, we were in the conclusion of the first major Magic storyline that had nothing to do with The Weatherlight in years – Odyssey and Onslaught. Second, we were just about to begin the long journey from Onslaught into the undiscovered wilds of Mirrodin.

Since at the time, the Magic story was new to me, I went out and looked for it. What I found was, honestly, pretty bad. The older Weatherlight story presented Gerrard as the most generically dull Good Guy. The Weatherlight crew were, mostly, pretty boring and simple cutouts. I can’t remember a meaningful quote from any of them. Nothing about them impressed upon me, except that the story was very, very eager to present that Gerrard was important and mattered.

There is one moment in that history, in the story before Apocalypse that means anything to me:

The thing about this card that always made it echo to me, of the past of Dominaria, is that I knew Barrin because of cards like Rewind or Relearn or Catalog – cards that were blue, and thoughtful and often fairly cost effective. To see that name, a name I associated with care and consideration associated with this – and with the death of one of the most powerful-seeming places in all of Magic? It was astonishing.

But then we had the story of Chainer and Kamahl, which is a story told in the wake of the end of the Weatherlight, now far removed from the Weatherlight’s problems, and is mostly a story of boys who can’t communicate meaningfully and the women that suffer because of them. It was learning about legends and a war and the world collapsing and all of it was done in pursuit of a powerful object that tore up the world, and then… at the end, with the disappointment that was Karona and her story, we left.

The Recent Pasts

We left for Mirrodin.

Which was messed up because of Karn, a member of the Weatherlight, about whom I did not care. But it wasn’t so bad. The novels weren’t that good and I didn’t care, but at least, I reflected, we were moving away from the years-long saga of Gerrard Capashen, About Whom I Still Don’t Care.

Kamigawa happened, then Ravnica happened, and they were interesting and new and took the story in directions I wanted to see more of.

And then, finally, after years away, we finally had a Triumphant RETURN TO DOMINARIA in the form of Time Spiral block, a block of Magic so bad that it was about then I decided to stop writing about it. Up to that point I had seldom found a Magic set that was so intensely interested in smelling its own farts as Time Spiral. Nostalgia, it crowed, Nostalgia it purred, after 8th edition had made a show of being The Set That Drew From All Of Magic’s History, and the fuss of Power 9th (which was a hoax). We got Time Spiral, which wanted to bring us back to a simpler time when you could open a booster you spent money on and get a Squire, or blue got burn and –

I didn’t like Time Spiral much. I said as much at the time.

When the announcement was made that we were returning to Dominaria FOR THE SECOND TIME I wasn’t awash with the nostalgia that everyone else seemed to be. I think part of that is that the older period, the actual Weatherlight era of the Weatherlight story, was never something that resonated with me.

The Now

First things first, I know I have an emotional hype deficiency. I’m not That Guy. I don’t get frothingly eager about new sets.

I thought Ixalan looked cool going in to the spoiler season but didn’t find it interesting enough to play much of after one deeply depressing prerelease (0-3-bye). Dinosaurs are cool, Merfolk are cool, but the urge to get involved and play Standard at the time just wasn’t there. My interest in Kaladesh and Aether Revolt standard was pretty strong, as a casual player, and a Commander player, as with Innistrad – but it seems to me that I just don’t see the kind of things I like doing in sets. I hope Deeproot Champion gets a home, for example.

But Dominaria comes out tomorrow. It is burgeoning and it is fullsome and by now – when it goes up, not when I’m writing it – the whole spoiler will have come out. It will be full of references to the history of Magic, and mechanics that remind you what Magic used to be like in the era of Armageddons and Counterspell, and it will try to mulligan on many bad decisions made in the past and introduce a host of Kamigawa-level uncommon legends and it will strive to be a set to love.

I am afraid, however, at the moment, as someone who does not like Dominaria, who does not see it as his home, who does not see the urge to go back as exciting, that this set, so far, is not thrilling me. I am not excited. I am not hopeful. This set has done nothing, so far, to convince me, someone who was glad to leave, that it’s good to be back. Which is fine – it’s not meant to. And as a person with my life, I am always going to have a different view of nostalgia for its own sake.

I watch my friends point at cards and excitedly turn over their meanings or their applications. I watch people crow about new printings as if it validates their position on old cards. I see old names attached to new characters who have a chance to be interesting, I see new stories being told with old pieces that maybe, maybe this time, I will find something to care about, even through my doubts. I see the work of people I respect to reinvigorate and restore something that was always broken and never whole. I see people explaining and re-explaining those old stories to one another, so happy, so happy to be able to point to those things that mean something to them, and see them made real anew. And that makes me happy.

I still find myself, ever yearning, to reach for whatever till there is, and look to the next horizon. Because Magic always changes, and Magic is always going somewhere. To me, that is exciting.

Oh And

Hey, Modern you now have the entire Onslaught Goblins deck in you, choke on it. 😞

Game Pile: Planescape:Torment

Odds are good, unless you’ve known me for a while, you don’t really know or can’t chart the history of the Game Pile. Originally, the focus of Game Pile was a review series that’s designed to be entertainingly useful in promoting the sales of games I like and the discouragement of games I don’t, with the notion that seeing me do that would get the attention of gaming editors, and maybe get paid for this work. Then I moved on to trying out a new model of how reviews should be, with my view of a standardised release schedule and form, which sought to tell you reasons you might want to play a game, rather than whether or not a game was, itself, fundamentally good or bad.

Then, in the most recent iteration, Game Pile has taken on a shape I really appreciate, which is to use the game as an avenue to discuss what the game made me think about or care about. It is the treatment of games as art objects. Sure, I try to give you an idea of what the game is like, but I do that by trying to only focus on games I like, and the games I like I tend to like because they make me feel and think something. It’s a nice occlusion.

With that in mind, then, I don’t want to tell you you should buy Planescape Torment. It’s a good game, I like it. If you like slow, talky-ready RPGs, it’s really good. Telling you that is almost the definition of old news and you can probably find someone to wax more rhapsodic about it with a cursory glance around.

Instead, I want to tell you about four stories from this game, and what they mean to me.

Spoilers ahead for, y’know, Planescape: Torment. Continue reading

Beast Mastery Masterminds

So back in City of Heroes there was this type of character you could make called a Mastermind.

Masterminds were a pet class – you could get three tiers of pets, which were constant; you didn’t have to manage their upkeep, and you could buff them like they’re players. They also had some mechanics about directing damage around passively, so you didn’t play like an RTS, but you instead were a superhero villain ordering your goons to beat people up. It was a great archetype, and everyone I knew with one was proud of what they could do with it.

Right at the end of City’s life, we got a brand new power set for the Mastermind: The Beast Mastery Mastermind. Instead of soldiers or ninjas or robots, you got to command a horde of animals, like you were something people misunderstood about Kraven. Point is, you got to be cool and have a big pile of animals around you.

The thing with the engine in City of Heroes is that it was a little bit, kinda mediocre about some things. The only way to stop the existence of a game entity was to give it a kill order – so pets you summoned, little robot pets, would die when they timed out, and they’d explode. When the Mastermind was originally conceived, on City of Villains, if you ran into a door, your pets would run in the same door. But if you disappeared, they’d get a kill order. No big deal, that’s part of why the City of Villains, the big transport network which used the ‘disappear’ command instead of ‘go into a door, then disappear’ command, was a ferry, so you’d run into the ferry, and your crew would all collapse dead inside it and fall through boxes and stuff.

But when you went to Paragon (as you could by this stage) and ran around with a Mastermind, any time you used a train, your pets would get that kill command. You’d hop on a train and move on and all blissfully unaware, as you arrived, that the pets you had now were newly summoned for your new region of map. No big deal, right?

Thing is, if you weren’t the mastermind player, what do you see?

You can guess, right?

And making it worse, the release of a new set provoked a huge influx of new people trying out this new Mastermind set, and often whole teams of them. So you could walk into a train station and see dozens upon dozens of dead animals.

Cities And Towns

Let’s talk about a game idea, and what I want to be sure I’m saying with it.

This game idea is known tenatively as cities and towns. It actually started as a colour matching/multiplier game, a math game for my nephews but I liked the metaphor of it being about things rather than stuff, and so it slowly took its shape as a town builder.

The notional mechanic is that there’s a common pool of cards, the city, that determine the value of the cards in each player’s personal pool, their town. At the start of the game, you deal each player a starting card that’s not worth anything, but gives you a place to start from, and put three cards into the city, to give people a standard view of how things are valued. This means that putting cards into the city can represent an explosion of value for you, but it’s something other players can piggyback on – if you have two of type A, and there are two more A in the city, you get four points, but any player who builds an A gets two, too.

I like this mechanic for representing things like trade dependencies and culture growth. A university on its own isn’t worth as much as a university surrounded by other smaller towns with universities, and a market thrives when there are other, connected markets. Players are simultaneously building the scoring mechanism for the game as they are building their own little spaces in the game.

Then came the time to make the game pieces, and I hit an interesting conundrum. See, one thing I could do is go with a pastoral, adventure-game vibe, you know, the not-necessarily-fantasy, but-probably of kingdoms with farms and quarries and woodcutters, as you see in games like Settlers or whatever.

The next option, however, is to build assets using something like these Kenney assets, isometric city representation.

Now this choice opens up an interesting question. I think that a modern urban city and smaller town thing presents an interesting set of different mechanics – after all, you have faster communication, and maybe there are some buildings that can’t go anywhere but in the city, and some things that can’t go anywhere but the town, because of infrastructural needs. Is there a need for variety the same way in buildings when they look modern, when they could show similar buildings on different blocks with ‘zoning’ rules?

But then we hit an additional question: What about redlining? What about the history of deprivation? If these are buildings that look like cities, but outside of cities and minus the skyscrapers, am I just building suburbs? And if I am, do I really want to present a scenario to players where they want to build more schools in the city, because it makes their schools out in the suburbs more desireable?

Now, I’ve made my decision – the game’s underway. But these are decisions you gotta be prepared to consider and confront. When you make a game, you are responsible for the things you choose to put into it, and the assumptions you make about what the game should have in it.

MTG: Pet Cards IV, Ravnica Block

Ravnica is an incredible block because it’s full of casual deckbuilding staples, and it’s the time I was actively writing for Starcity Games. When I look back on Ravnica, there’s a ton of stuff I think of as ‘great cards,’ even though they’re niche enough to need the whole deck built around them.

With that in mind, I will say the Ravnica bouncelands and signets are all-purpose good cards that casual decks can run and should always bear in mind for building. Whatever colour combination you’re in, you can make use of those ten cards, or can at least consider why not to use them. There’s also a bunch of robust utility effects at common and uncommon, with cards like Mortify, Putrefy, Watchwolf, Faith’s Fetters, Pure//Simple – just a whole lot of handy things that you can slot into decks. Not the kind of ‘pet’ cards I find myself making excuses for. So like, that kind of stuff? They’re not going on the list.

This list was hard to cut down and that’s after I set aside this special clause.

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Game Pile: Baldur’s Gate 2 Mods

There is however, one truth to all these Baldur’s Gate 2 memories. The truth is, I haven’t played Baldur’s Gate 2 as she is coded, for much more than one or two years. What kept me coming back, what kept me playing this game over and over again was the modding community – which saw the vast scale of the game, and still looked at places where it was incomplete, where the sheer scope of the project had failed, and looked into adding to the game what had been begun and not finished, what had been tried and not done, and what was needed but never realised.

Baldur’s Gate 2 is a pretty decent game. But to make it a great game took people who loved it. Continue reading

MTG: Canadian Highlander And Combo

First things first, I do not play Canadian Highlander. I do follow the North 100 podcast, and I do have a ‘team’ I root for in the 30-player strong metagame of the area: Allison, Queen Of The Rock. She’s playing green-black value control, every time, every event, and I will back that all the way.

Nonetheless, I am a Magic Player, and with that in mind, I want to talk about a thing that successful, well-established and well-known Magic Players could be doing better.

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MTG: Pet Cards III, Kamigawa Block

Here’s a set for your pet cards, dangit. Kamigawa was rich with flavour, but it was also spending a much smaller budget of power cards, which meant that even the cards that were powerful or good were doing it in ways orthogonal to one another – you either got overdosed on unnecessary virtue (like Snakes) or effects that never really had a home (like Dosan). It’s also cycle happy which means even the cards in it that are kinda Just Okay tend to be seen as part of a cycle, so they’re less forgotten, less pet.

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Game Pile: Baldur’s Gate 2

I love this game. As with Fallout 3 before it, even if I didn’t think of the game fondly in itself, I’d still have to admit anything I spent a hundred hours doing voluntarily couldn’t be something I hated. I can’t talk about Baldur’s Gate 2, a game I marinated in, a game that I played over and over for days at a time, without making it clear, from the outset, that I love this game. It’s just such a basic, absolute background radiation to the conversation about Baldur’s Gate 2 that it seems impossible to describe, seems meaningless to describe. I can’t tell you how air tastes. I can’t describe to you what left is.

What that means is that when I talk about the game, and I tell you oh that’s nonsense, or I complain about the wonky balance or the plot or the voice acting or the bits that drag it’s the complaints of someone who has played every single moment of a game over a dozen times, someone who has played the game in various challenge modes and mods and been part of the conversation about its future.

I need you to understand this because when I talk to you about Baldur’s Gate 2 it’s mostly a festival of complaints about the ways the game is hilariously, completely, incompetently busted.

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4ed Problems: Poison

I love me some 4th Edition D&D and it’s a well known fact I love complaining about things, so one might wonder why I didn’t do both at once. Well, for a start, I find that most complaints about 4ed D&D are pretty wrongheaded, usually building around nebulous ideas of ‘feel’ or ‘style’ and acting as if it was bad that a game did what the game was trying to do. That isn’t to say, though, that I think 4ed D&D is a flawless system by any means, and as if to prove it, let’s talk about a really stupid decision it has going on.

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MTG: The Pack Rat Problem

Wizards employees, please do not read any further. This will discuss custom card designs and while it should only feature some abstract examples, I understand you are not allowed to look at unsolicited card designs.

Custom card designs feature a host of oddball problems, weird habits that we get into and things we don’t consider because well, mostly, custom designers are lone creators without the force of design and development behind us. Hey, we’re only human and all. But we have these problems and sometimes I think it’s worthwhile considering them.

Here then, let’s consider: Does your card create a Pack Rat Problem?

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