Category: Making

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

Helping You Write When You Can’t Write

Hey friends. If you’re anything like most of you, you have times when you struggle with getting anything done more complicated than getting out of bed and starting a Netflix queue. It is okay. Life is hard and emotional energy makes it harder. This can make planning long-term projects, like writing lite novels or comics or game development really hard. I wanted to share a technique here that I hope will be useful for people who struggle with writing big things and making big plans.

Disclaimer, of course; I’m not an expert in ADD or ADHD, the two major areas where we examine Executive Function. I’m not a medical professional or even a published writer. My expertise is mostly in practiced ways to get things done.

First things first, get some Index cards. They do not need to be numbered or lined. Having them be handleable is good. Too big is unnecessary. You want them small enough that you can easily handle them, not so big you need to write a lot of detail.

Take one card, and write on it something you want in the story. You can write a character’s name. You can draw a picture. You can do a map of a location. You can do some math to work out how long something might be or how much time it might take. The point is, nothing on a card has to be anything in particular. Some examples you might want to write down.

  • What’s a cool line your heroine says?
  • How does your heroine look?
  • Your heroine fighting a villain
  • Your villain doing something wicked

And that’s it. You write an idea down, and you put the card away and you’re done. You don’t need to do more than that.

The idea is that when you can’t think of much to do, when you’re struggling, you can take these cards, and identify what order you feel they should be in. You can make a story out of little scenes, out of single ideas, lined up. Then when you line all the cards up, and build up from one card to a dozen cards, to twenty cards, all with very little effort, you can look at your cards and see the outline, the structure, of a story. Looking at the cards will give you ideas of other things you want. You might decide you don’t want some cards, or get rid of others, or want to turn some cards into other, new ideas. That’s okay too!

And you never had to start out a plan. You just had to think of something you want, in the story, that’s cool.

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!

 

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.

Procedurality

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.

The Model: Abstraction, Confrontation, and Materiality

Let’s call this a first draft.

I’m working, in my PhD, on the – oh you’ve fallen asleep.

Anyway, I’m working on constructing a model for looking at games (in general) that focuses on board games (in specific). Existing models of classifying games are kind of grassroots, disorganised, and unfortunately, structured primarily by nerds, some of the worst kind of humans for providing comprehensive, forgiving models of classification. There are people who will shout in your face that 4th Ed D&D is a tactical miniatures Wargame, you Chad, because it’s not about communicating relationships between types of games as much as it is about defending territory they’ve staked out, and somehow being able to transform their preferences into rules.

This is something nerds do everywhere, and we are bad, and the worst, and should be ashamed.

This model of game analysis is meant not to give hard defined boundaries for the games – don’t think this is about saying this game scores a 7.4 on thinginess. This is about instead presenting games as expressions of multiple axes, and lets you think about games in terms of how their designs are similar.

What we have is a model on three axes. It started out as a spectrum – a line in a row – then two lines in a row – then lines in opposition, but where we are now, the model considers each game has having a range of Abstraction, Confrontation and Materiality. Each of these values goes from ‘not very much at all’ to ‘lots and lots’ – we’re not talking hard numeric values. It’s possible a game to have very little abstraction, almost none, and it’s very possible for a game to have very little materiality, just as it’s possible for a game to have lots and lots of materiality or abstraction.

Abstraction, in layperson’s terms, is how much a game presents of a theme. All games are abstractions – they’re human-mind representations of importance, assigned to indicators. Soccer is an abstraction, even if the thing it’s abstracting is soccer mattering. Soccer is fake, actually. Some board games are very, very heavily abstracted for what they represent – look at games like Chess or Checkers – even those that are trying to represent something like a battle are still pretending battles work on extremely arbitary, careful rules with oddly specific dynamics. Some games are instead very low on abstraction and do whatever they can to present to you, the player, as much of their theme and game world every time you play them. Games like Magic: The Gathering are, again, still abstract representations of a war between wizards, but they’re still absolutely soaking with things that want to give you the feeling of existing in their world.

Low-abstraction games can look really different, though. Dungeons and Dragons runs low on abstraction because you’re trying to make absolutely sure that the world feels real, and players engaging with that world can interact with it in as many ways as they can conceive and explain to the player coordinating the game. Games like Gipf are really abstracted because they want to make the math puzzle of how you engage with them more present than caring about the theme or the motivations of actions.

Confrontation is the degree to which the game presents players with opposition. The easiest models of confrontation are players in competition with one another, trying to ‘beat’ one another in some way. Race games like Snakes and Ladders have a lot of very obvious confrontation. You want to get to the goal before your opponents do. When they win, you do not win, and the very simple binary of ‘win or lose’ is the only thing the game is about. Confrontation and how the game presents it is a fascinating axis with so many different options. Games can be opaque about it, like Tigris and Euphrates, or they can be direct, like Formula D. They can make engaging with your confrontation indirect, like Monopoly, or they can make it direct, like Garou: Mark of the Wolves. Sometimes the game itself confronts all players, and then those players compare how they handle that opposition, and that becomes another level of confrontation, like Imperial Settlers.

Then, our third axis is materiality. Board games get to do a lot with materiality, moreso than videogames – because board games are built around actual objects. Some tabletop games can have almost no materiality, word games and gambling puzzles. Some games play with huge materiality, like crowd-friendly games like Two Rooms And A Boom where just having a big space is part of the game. To bring up Dungeons and Dragons again, that’s a game that turns dungeons and palaces and dragons into (potentially) entirely conceptual entities, both as non-material entities, but also imbues those entities with the idea they should have mass and weight and force, and therefore, they have a virtual materiality.

One special note is that videogames don’t have no materiality. Instead, because games have a very limited way to express materiality, all videogame materiality has to be represented within a sort of limited range of how the game handles things that are meant to be material objects. Most videogame materiality is about how the game makes objects seem real. So platform games, which create a 2d slice world, have a different kind of materiality to games like Stair Fall. Games like Shift or Snipperclips play with the very conception of materiality in their game spaces, as do games like Framed. Basically, even within the spectrum of ‘almost no material object is a component of the game,’ videogames have a vast spread of materiality.

This is a first draft of this concept space. It’s going to get prettied up for my thesis. But I realised that being able to explain this idea to you is a good way to get started in being able to explain it to a hypothetical anyone, as the thesis will wind up doing.

Anzac Biscuits!

Hey, everyone! It’s Anzac Day! That means it’s a time to celebrate our culture and our Anzacs, which we do with games of 2-up in pubs, singing three songs, and deep repression of our thoughts about how the impact of our complicity and promotion of white supremacy leads to the radicalisation of our own citizens and the disenfranchisement of our marginalised people pushes them towards criminality that we then use as pretense to further disenfranchise them in ways that result to our perception of ‘the other’ and the deeper entanglement in international imperialism that sends our soldiers to places that have nothing to do with us in order to die, and of course, making Anzac Biscuits!

I got this recipe off the Australian War Memorial website, and only made some small alterations. It’s really good, you’ll like ’em!

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup each of rolled oats, sugar and coconut
  • 1 tablespoon syrup
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (dissolved in 2 tablespoons boiling water)

Method

  • Melt the butter, as a symbol of the way we viewed our culture as a melting pot where a variety of different cultures could come together and form a very yellow homogenous whole, much like the Simpsons where we try to keep a minimal number of brown people who we routinely mock and divorce from proper job opportunities that respect them and their cultural backgrounds.
  • Add syrup to dissolved soda and water. Combine with melted butter. This will form the wet ingredients into one larger body that should smooth out and homogenise in the same way that we treat all our population as acceptable if we already have them and they don’t do anything to stand our or remind us that they are not, in fact, lily-white.
  • Mix dry ingredients and stir in liquid, with forceful, strong motions like running a death camp on another country’s territory that both that country and the UN have decreed an illegal human rights violation. The ingredients will present some resistance, just like how the people in those camps do things like hunger strikes, appeals to the press, explicit references to sexual abuse by guards and overseers, and at least one man setting himself on fire, but just as we can dismiss those actions as ‘wanting attention’ you can ignore the resistance of the ingredients. Just smooth them out and ignore the way you feel.
  • Place small balls on to buttered tray and bake in moderate oven. It doesn’t matter how they’re composed, if they’re a decent mix, or their size, or really anything at all, because making a bad Anzac biscuit is pretty hard if you get the mix right, because they’re made out of components designed to be durable and last long over the transport from Australia to Gallipolli, a war we were entangled in because an Empire wanted to spend our blood to earn themselves a minor convenience, and we lined up to ensure that we wouldn’t let it happen again, again, again, again again again.
  • Lift out carefully with a knife as they are soft till cold. Don’t bite them too early or they’ll break!

I hope you enjoy this Anzac Biscuit recipe. They’re really good!

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.

Shirt Highlight: House Logos!

Ever have a day where you had some things you needed to get done, but you were so sick with anxiety and rage you couldn’t, so instead you threw yourself into something in the hopes of making one person maybe crack a smile?

No?

Hey, good, good for you, I am so glad you’ve never had to be here.

Anyway, today I fancied up these shirt designs I’d sketched out:

If you want to get these shirts representing your favourite Houses for the School Cup based on whether you feel you’re Basic, Extra, Boring or Evil, you can check them out on my Redbubble. There’s even one shirt that holds all four designs to show people all at once!

If, by the way, you like these designs but don’t want to buy a shirt, don’t forget you can always get stickers of what I make, and stickers are often very cheap, especially if you buy in lots of 10 or more!

Story Pile: The Zombie Apocalypse Of The Author

I’ve written about the idea of ‘the death of the author,’ but to crash course it: The concept of death of the author is the idea that the interpretation of a story is about the person doing the interpretation, not about the person who made it. That is, there is no ‘author’ who can be said to truly represent what the story means in any and all circumstances. There’s a lot more to it, but it’s mostly cigarettes and sadness. That’s your basics:

The Death of the Author is the idea that the Author does not have exclusive rights to define interpretations of their work

This is a great idea and its most obvious modern application is fanfic and fan media. The story says Snape is an ugly snooty jerk, but that doesn’t matter, because you read the book and your interpretation involves no such thing, and the image of these characters interacting in your mind is perfectly valid. You don’t get marks for how the story works in your head, nobody’s grading you. If other people can grasp what you’re expressing when you share it, then that’s all that matters.

The thing is, thanks to Twitter and the Web 2.0 era of produsage, one of the groups of people getting involved in further creating fanfiction for these works and they are most annoyingly, the original authors.

Thanks to the unprecedented access we have to authors these days, we have a whole host of authors who are actively and aggressively attempting to insert into their own texts things they didn’t bother to try and put there the first time around. I’ll always kick at the Harry Potter franchises for any reason, but specific way that Rowling has claimed that Dumbledore is gay will always bother me. This has recently come to a head – again – with the upcoming Fantastic Beasts 2 movie that wants to have Young Dumbledore but also is ensuring to absolutely not show any of that icky gayness that the story isn’t about at all.

What this means is that any given reading of the text, these days, is not taken as a reading, with people willing to examine it, but as with all things in nerd cultures, we bury it under the toxic intention to prove it. Work must be tested or verified to be acceptable, interpretations must be justified to our satisfaction, and thanks to the availablility of certain authors, and their willingness to pontificate on what their work really means, we are now facing Zombie Authorship.

The author lies not still in their grave but shifts and moves, ever tumultuous in their position, expanding the work a tweet at a time – Werewolves are AIDS, the nudity is justified, you will e’re love the story for its manifold purpose. Tarantino, Martin, Rowling, Kojima, they each inflate their work not for its art but to remain alive a word more, to continue, to consume.And so the zombie slough flows over us all, and we do not engage with or interpret or study art, but we see it all as grey slurry that washes over us. The nerd cries out, be canonised, be purified, be true, and our eyes grow dull and dull and dull.

As for the Death of the Author, the sad thing is it contains within its own explanation; we bring out experiences to bear interpreting work.

The act of creating the work is one of those experiences.