Category: Making

Articles in this category are about tools and ideas about making things, and my belief that you can make things.

Bad Balance: Paralysing Potential

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons for designers to take on board when making your own RPG content.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Paralysing Potential

Did you play a spellcaster back in 3.5? Did you play a Cleric? A Druid? A Wizard? God help you, did you play an Archivist?

The 3.5 spell list is an absolute swamp of bullshit, a completely festering mire of options that include procedurally generated X damage over Y area with Z range math-up messes that really form the basis for what you can probably handle, balance wise,  to spells which are unimpressive with one basic form, and totally busted if you think about them innovatively, spells designed to be worse versions of the former, multiple spells designed to fill the same space by designers working on different books, grandfathered together, spells designed to duplicate other spells just with a different flavour to try and keep the spell schools reasonably balanced, then some complete out-of-context nonsense that didn’t have any combat-or-existing mechanical application but suddenly changed the context of how combat even happened. Feel tired at the end of that sentence? Good, because it’s worse than that.

Spellcasters 3.5 were broken and it was easy to get a modest amount of broken just by paying attention to a few exploitable spells, but if you wanted to go deep, if you were the kind of player who was willing to marinate deep in the dank shit of supplemental sourcebooks or even just read through the ramifications of everything in the player’s handbook, if you were the person who bothered to use Scribe Scroll and stockpile every level 1 spell you didn’t wind up using in any given day until you had literally a library of the dang things, then you knew how broad, how busted, and how blinding your potential was.

There’s no surprise that players – despite the weakness – really appreciated Sorcerers. All sorcerers needed to know was a small handful of useful spells, rather than try to learn all of the spells present in the entire danging game.

The way I coped with it, myself, was to opt away from the full-bore spellcasters. My few times playing Cleric or Druid were times that DMs quickly started nerfing things on the fly. If you instead limited yourself to doing a smaller handful of things really well, you might be less powerful, but you’ll at least be able to make a choice on your turn without ever being stymied by the thousands of things you could do. Levelling up and building your character was still a long, agonising process, but at least that concentrated the wait.

These older editions would sometimes present you with complicated puzzles in the form of a combat arena and expect you to answer that question with a spell template; a line, a point, a single target, a circular template or maybe a chain. But then, the Wizard didn’t have to do that, they could answer it by teleporting away, by charming something, by becoming invisible, by summoning thirty tons of stone directly above the enemy, by becoming something else, by making someone else into something else, and all of these options were presented to you.

Now it’s your turn.

Pick something.

Go go go.

Rules Glue!

This started out as at first, a treatment of the evolution of the rules of Psionics in dungeons and dragons from its inception through to its incarnation in 4th edition, with an eye towards showing how you can respond to mechanical restructures, but it quickly became clear to me that that was both too huge an undertaking and also one I wasn’t all that qualified for. See, I can tell you about 3.5 and 3.0 D&D psionics, and I can tell you about 4ed Psionics, because I was there, I played with them, and I enjoyed and loved them at the time.

I can talk about how 2ed psionics were broken (sort of) because the mechanics of 2ed were broken (sort of). Thing is, that will be always the dissection of an outsider, someone who misses rules as written or worse, misses rules as experienced. Nobody is under any illusion that tabletop games aren’t done with some sort of rules fiddling around.

Thing is, as broken as some things are in a roleplaying game, you don’t actually test large groups of characters against one another. You test small parties against those same small parties, and against the challenges presented to them. It’s easy for me, a player, to recognise shortcomings between two spells, but fixing the weak spells might not be as high a priority as making sure the overall structure of a game is okay. D&D is a rare example in that we have a lot – a lot – of it to work from and that huge volume means we can hold up a lot of examples to be tested against one another.

What happens to make this stuff work though is, at the table, a person communicates the rules to another person. Then, people trust one another to make their rules work out reasonably okay. And that’s why it’s important to make your rules human interpretable. If you have rules that a human can feel comfortable explaining to another human, even if they explain them a bit wrong, things can still work because a human is involved.

Still gunna do a bit on 4e Psionics, mind you.

MTG: Examining A Possible UB Keyword

Hey, WOTC employees! As much as I want you to read my stuff, in the hopes you wind up hiring me to write for your sites like the Mothership and whatnot I have to ask you to not read this one because I’m talking about amateur designs and new mechanics. After the fold, we’re going to discuss The Empty Space For A Blue-Black Combat Keyword.

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Bad Balance: Accidentally Overpowered

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

The Accidentally Overpowered

If you played D&D3.5 and you were into it, you knew you could spend hours working on a character, combing through dozens of races and classes and prestige classes, and even if you weren’t going to scrape through everything to milk every single possible advantage, it was still not uncommon to see builds like Wizard 5/Really Strong Wizard Prestige Class 10/Archmage 5.

That, however, is something you work for, something that comes at the result of a lot of system mastery, and, speaking as someone who had a lot of that mastery and really loved it, it was nice. It was good. I liked that. I don’t even feel that that was, itself a problem (though we’ll get to that).

The problem that cropped up in 3.5, and you could see it happen in people’s stories of their games and problems adjudicating how characters work, in that some characters could, completely accidentally, be utterly honking busted, and those characters could be wildly out of whack with their friends and party members without ever trying to be. If your party featured a composition of a fairly boring Fighter, Cleric, Rogue and Sorcerer, one of those four characters is absolutely in a league of their own compared to the others, and as players play, it’s going to come out and get noticed.

Or what about an arrangement like Ranger, Druid, Barbarian and Wizard? The barbarian is better than Ranger, the wizard is better than both and the Druid has a single class feature that’s better than the Ranger.

The issue isn’t that a player could work to be broken, the issue is that players could accidentally be so good that other people would completely replace another character in the party, and if anyone noticed, it was just straight up feels-bad territory. It was really obvious – and it got worse as people levelled up and you had more room, more opportunities to make mistakes! What makes it even worse still is if players went and did stuff that was redundant! Fighter, Ranger and Barbarian were all the most easily grasped, handleable classes, and if a party has two of them, one of them was going to notice the gap!

Well, if they looked.

So you had to hope they didn’t look.

That’s not a good solution to the problem.

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What Is: Skulk!?

Do you find at times, when the burdens of a normal day-to-day job have got you down, when you’re after a change of pace, that what you really need in your life is to go to a Dragon’s den, and plunder the dragon’s gold coins? And don’t you know, like, isn’t it just such a thing that when you do it, there’s other thieves who are here to get your haul out of your dragon that you did all the hard work of not actually earning?

Sucks, right?

Well, now you can share that experience with those friends of yours too frightened to actually go spelunking in a dragon’s domain! Skulk is a board game of moving fast and dying rich as, you know, as the box cover indicates!

Each turn, you’ll play a card that indicates three things – how much you’re doing, how quickly you do it, and when the dragon stirs from its slumber and starts acting! You can act carefully, a little at a time, and try to make sure you and the dragon are always away from one another – or you can dive for a big handful of gold and what are the odds the dragon comes after you?

Oh wait, it’s pretty good because when it’s not your turn, the dragon is controlled by the other players!

With art and visuals by Talen Lee and Alex Zandra, Skulk handles 2-6 players of age 8+, for roughly 30 minutes of play time, it’s fast to set up, easy to learn, and incredibly portable, shipping in an itty bitty box that’s the size of two playing cards side to side (and like, deeper than that) so you can just huck it into your bag and go go go, a good shelf-filler, a great small gift for, I dunno, Thanksgiving or Halloween, and as far as I know is one of the few games where a granny can gleefully trip over a whippersnapper so that they’re eaten by a dragon that leaves behind gigantic swampy gas clouds when it moves!

You can buy Skulk at TheGameCrafter for $28.99, which is less than you’d pay for an actual dragon, and it’s much easier to home!

Notes: Daniel Solis on Tuckboxes

Disclosure is that Daniel Solis is a designer who also publishes on DriveThruCards and his work has heavily informed some of my own work.

  • The damage tucks get over time is a real thing and I don’t have a good solution for it
  • Top-and-bottom tucks are actually harder to get into and can have the bottom fall out; I really don’t like those for larger, heavier games
  • DTC Tuckboxes are easier to put cards away into and get out of too:
  • UGH that backwards design is so much smarter than what I do, ugh, dangit

Bullet Journal Module: Game Dev

I’m trying out a Bullet Journal, and by trying out, I’m using it pretty much constantly for two months, which is a good sign that I like it, and with Bullet Journals, one of the things you do is make tools that are useful for you.

Well, one of the tools I need is a way to track the progress of a game in development, which is a task that sometimes needs some specific notes about people to contact, problems to overcome, things to emphasise, and a way to remind myself in a basic way what a game’s about.

With that in mind, I made this module:

Super simple rundown, the top is a synopsis/summary of the game’s concept. The left hand column is a series of bulleted tasks that the game needs before it’s ready to go, and then that gives me space in the right to either point to things holding up specific events in the timeline.

If you don’t know what a Bullet Journal is, or don’t use it, and this looks like gibbering nonsense? Well, yeah don’t worry about it. Still, this is one of those tools I use.

A List of Tools I Use

I’ve been asked by students about the tools I use to make my games, and I figure it’s a reasonable thing to put together a short list. I’m doing this to make sure that you’re not left convinced that the problem you’re facing is a tool limitation, the idea that you need some sort of special tool to achieve things.

Here’s a quick list of the programs I use to make the games I make.

  • Cards, Boards and Token Images: GIMP
  • PDF Creation for Cards: Scribus
  • Documentation, Rulebook Creation: Microsoft Word – I use an older version which can save PDFs; you can almost certainly get the same effect from something like Libre. You can even use Google Drive for most of this (though not all of it).
  • PDF Reader/Convertor: Foxit Reader
  • Stitching PDFs together: Online service PDFMerge

Also, don’t let anyone give you shiz about what you choose to use. The main problem with the tools you use is whether or not they can be shared with other developers. Tools are tools, and if you’re comfortable or skilled with a particular tool, then you can refine that. You may eventually run into the barriers of what your tool can let you do, but that’s for you to hit, not for other people to shame you into.

Let’s Dismantle: Hocus

Hocus is a small-box card game made by Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek, with art by John Arios, Adam P. McIver and Tiffany Turrill, published by Hyperbole games, available here. As of the last reading of this, the game is out of print – it’s possibly changed, but right now it seems that the last copies of Hocus are being sold. If you live outside of America it can be hard to get because, I don’t know, we’re not worth the time. So far, So BoardgameGeek Summary.

Something I need to make clear: I have not yet been able to play Hocus. I really want to, it’s a lovely little game, but getting the people together to play something small is really tricky.

Also, this isn’t a review of a game, but rather breakdown study, taking the game’s components and examining them as a designer, to see what ideas they present, what lessons I can learn, and maybe you can use them too. Every game you play or examine becomes part of your library of possible things you can do with your own games, after all! This is not an analysis of play but an examination of the components of Hocus and, in part, a study of what you can do in similarly sized design spaces.

I’m going to have to say this up front because otherwise I’ll repeat myself throughout this: The components and art of Hocus are lovely quality. The box is robust, thick and stout, the cards fit in it snugly but not so snugly they’re a pain to get in, and the art is vibrant, beautiful and pops. The font choice is clear, everything has good margins, and there’s clear gutters on things. Simply put, Hocus is one of the best-looking card games I own, and I’m including my Magic: The Gathering cards in that.

Also in this, you might observe art-resource wise, there’s actually a bit less art than you’d think: there are four full-card art faces, about twenty different icons, and about five card faces and three card backs. Compare this to, say, a 100 card Magic: The Gatherin set which can have something like 12 faces, each with individualised art and one single card back.

What we have here is the total content of the box. Two decks of cards, a handful of guide cards,and some score tracker cards.

The game comes with a pair of joker cards. These jokers are non-game components, not really, but they do signal something this game treats as very important: Modules. If you check through the rules, there’s a note about how many parts of this game are technically optional, and these jokers are included to allow for other, additional rulesets.

This is really daring. I honestly don’t think I have the courage to release a game with components in it that don’t do anything yet, with the idea that I will eventually fix that, and that it’ll be worth people’s time. Of course, this game owes a lot to Poker, so it’s not like there’s a shortage of possible rules variant sets to work from.

Next up, we havethe spell cards. These are individualised to a player; if you’re the Storm mage, you have all the storm cards. I like this as a flavour idea, and I like it as well as a set of only 3 cards, meaning choices aren’t necessarily very confusing. I do have something of a problem with them in that these cards being cards gives you possible uses for them – like how Enchantment cards can be removed from your spell reserve and placed in places in the game to confuse/set rules and be reminders – but that’s not used in things like the Storm spells or whatnot.

This means they take up a lot of space, which again, is bold: This game is willing to use a lot of space for reminders to make the game handleable.

What’s the purpose of these cards? Why have them? Well, they can make the game more exciting with more players. They give players directly different play experiences that they only look at themselves – it doesn’t matter what you can do from turn to turn, what matters to me is what I can do.

Again, as with the jokers, these components aren’t necessary to play: If they’re too confusing or you’re introducing players to Hocus, these aren’t essential. They also are a major way to lend flavour to the game. Few games are good at conveying the way we often talk about mages in fantasy narratives – a storm mage, an enchantment mage, a time mage – because they often systemise spells a lot. Hocus leans into this.

Also, the typing means the themes of each spell set explain the mechanics, intuitively. The mechanics of how an Alchemy Mage’s cards work are informed by the fact they are Alchemy Mage cards.

Score tracker cards, lovely elegant mechanic. They, as with everything else, look really nice. I’ve made this kind of design and I honestly think this is one of the better examples. Here, they’re depicted showing 2 points and 28 points.

I think the thing about this design that beats my Middleware design is the game is made so its scope only goes from 0 to 39 and that means you only need to turn the card over once or twice – you don’t need to scope all the way up to 80 by rotating cards. It’s tidier.

The rules here have been blurred out not because they’re sensitive but just because I don’t want to make that focal. This rules page is a single page, and shows that good use of margins. Clear font, readable, and shows a step-by-step play sequence, with illustrations. This is a really nicely done one!

Another thing to notice is to look at how the How To Win section of the rules comes before the How To Play. This prioritises the way players think of the things they’re learning, lets them know what they want in the game rather than just the sequence of how play unfolds.

Finally we get to these, the simplest cards. There are four suits of cards – now here’s a weird thing. Despite my efforts, I can’t find the names of these three suits. I mean, I go by Cups, Swords and Pointy Hats, but the green naturey tone of the Pointy Hats make me wonder if it shouldn’t be something like Druids or Staves or something.

Except the symbol of the stave shows up on the next type of card:

Owls! Owls are like if one of the sets of cards happens to have a bunch of special powers on them, ranging from card to card. Again, this is an optional rule-set, but it is published on the cards as is. You could make a simpler version of Hocus without these, but if you wanted to ramp that version up and make it more complicated, you’d be left needing to print new material or a reference sheet of some sort.

A dissection of the most complex card type, an Owl. The four components are really easy to signal. From top to bottom, the components of the card are:

  • Value: The value of the card. Easy to make a set of these, numbering them zero through fourteen.
  • Suit: Again, this is easy to make a variety of. Suits are so uniform a game concept it’s not hard to explain this.
  • Reward: The value this card gives you if it’s in a Pot and you win it. These are tracked on the tracker so the cards don’t become removed from the game for a lasting period. If you do things that way, that’s another mechanic to bear in mind. Maybe good mechanics you want to reuse may have a spicy pot total so you might want to choose between getting rid of the card or not.
  • Rules: The details that separate Owl cards from others. Rules let the Owl cards do something distinct or different when played. This is a good example of how little space needs to be dedicated to good, well-explained rules.

Hocus’ components signal to me a game that’s done a lot of thorough, very specific examination of a game that was refined over and over. Which stands to reason – it’s a poker variant, and it’s flat-out honest about that.

The main things I see myself wanting to take away from Hocus are good ideas regarding the rules structure (pots, communities and pockets), but also its very strong, very clear idea of one of those procedural games I talked about, a game that’s composed of mathematically explicable pieces. Then, the designers layered atop the clear procedural components spicy, variant rules structures.

Booth’s Unstructure

Here’s a term that game developers should know about from academic spaces:


Unstructure is an idea from Paul Booth’s Game Play: Paratextuality in Contemporary Board Games. In this book Booth needs some way to describe the concept space that games create that is both concordant with human-manageable rules, and yet not immediately procedurally compatible with human interpreters.

Big mouthful there, so let’s try rephrasing it. Unstructure is the way a game uses systems that a person can manage to create scenarios that people can’t immediately predict. Some games don’t really have unstructure – Blackjack, for example, or Bridge, or Backgammon, for example. Games that do, however, are those games that are usually trying to represent a world with many people acting in it, some of whom aren’t really ‘in’ the game at all – the movement of traders, or the behaviour of monsters, or the whims of traders and people. Even a game like Monopoly has unstructure, where it uses chance and community chest cards to represent the goings-on in the players’ lives that have nothing to do with their surveying and buying property.

Unstructure is a thing for games that are trying to create a metaphor or a hypothetical space. The example of Unstructure that Booth uses in the book is Arkham Horror, a game that spreads systems broadly across a board, across different subsystems – people you deal with, events that happen, monsters that act – and in so doing creates a scenario that is both generated by things you can look at, read, and explain to toher players, and understand, that is still complicated enough that you can’t necessarily solve it.

A game Booth doesn’t cite in the book but which serves this really well is Betrayal at the House on the Hill, where the systems of the game are extremely well suited to hide from you just what haunt will happen, how it will happen, and who is going to be the traitor. This works really well in that game because it keeps you from being able to predict who will be the traitor, putting a spicy edge on the cooperative exploration part of the game.

The reason I think you want to know about – and have access to – unstructure is a concept is because it lets you know what you need, how much of it you need, and ways to build with it or build away from it. What Unstructure gives you is a way to describe just how much stuff you need going on in your game that players have no control over, and whether or not those players can manage to keep straight what’s going on. Some games may make it too easy to deduce the behaviour of the game, meaning the unstructure collapses and becomes something predictable or procedural. Some games may make it too hard to perceive random events as being about this world space, and make the game feel fundamentally random (hi, Monopoly).

Unstructure’s just another tool to describe ways you want the game to work, and it’s worth having.