Category: Making

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

Shirt Highlight: No It’s Not Caffeine

Hi there! Did you know I did shirt designs on Redbubble? I wanted to show some of them off, because these are designs I’m proud of!

No It’s Not Caffeine Estradiol T-shirt

 

No It’s Not Caffeine Testosterone T-shirt

This time, I wanted to show off these two t-shirts titled No It’s Not Caffeine, made for my trans friends to wear on their bodies. To explain, these two designs show the chemical symbols for Estradiol and Testosterone respectively.

We in the geek community like showing off chemicals that mean something to us, and with that in mind, I thought it’d be interesting to put some more advanced chemistry lessons out there. I mean, it’s not like I’d have any means to read it myself, because I didn’t do chemistry at school –

like at all.

These shirts are available for you to purchase if you like the art I generate and want to put it on your body! It’s also available as a sticker or a notebook cover, too!

What Do I Think Of Visual Novels?

I’m a big fan of the Visual Novel. I don’t just mean that I have a fondness for the form borne out of a period of my life where they were a way to both get anime and smut at the same time when those were two things I very much needed in my life to feel connected to the world around me, I’m actually a fan of the structure.

There’s a lot to talk about here so let’s just dive in.

Accessible Moviemaking

I know a lot of people who want to make movies. For some of them, the cinematography of a videogame camera gave them that option, and you saw early demo-editing Quake levels and replays being made to play with those same ideas of echoing subtitled cinema.

I see the Visual Novel as a less kinetic, but more framing-based example of this same basic idea. Good cinematography, an appreciation of good cinematography, makes visual novels a good avenue to construct scenes as if one is thinking in terms of movies, in terms of what keeps people compelled.

So first of all, they’re a way you can do a movie-sized story on a very, very small budget.

The Point-And-Clicker

When it comes to the game elements of the Visual novel, I feel that as a game type, it inherits well the basic structures of the point-and-click adventure, those low-impact, low-action kind of games that wanted to give you the time to quietly and patiently sort your way through problems that are presented to you. Things like Monkey Island and Beneath A Steel Sky, where the point was not some focus on exciting action setpieces but rather a much more slow, wandering kind of puzzle hunting.

Now, there are four basic puzzles in point-and-clickers you can deal with, and there are two that Visual novels can do just fine, and two they do Not So Fine.

Good: Use Key On Door

Something impedes you from a path ahead. For good conveyance, you want that path to be in some way visible to the player. You need an object that you can carry to the impediment, and then that will get it to go away. Ie, it’s a key and door situation. There’s a door, you unlock it, you can continue on your way. This type of design is incredibly common. Sometimes you’re obscuring the keys, sometimes you’re obscuring the doors, sometimes behind the door there’s just another key, sometimes you’re just collecting completely obtuse keys – but that’s the basic thing. Take an object to an impediment.

Bad: Put Apple In Box

So there’s this thing that’s really tricky to do in Twine, and Visual novels as well, where you have containers. Containers are something some games can handle just fine – I’m told Inform can easily handle it when you put an apple in a box, then pick up and move the box around and then set it down wherever you like – the apple will still be in the box. In visual novel coding… this is trickier.

What this tends to mean is that visual novel games often feature a bit less of characters interacting with the world as a place with a lot of material objects. This is also reflected in the genre – note that most games are not about carrying around tools, as much as they are about inner experiences.

Good: The Language Maze

This one’s a little more common for older games, back before we were voice acting everything. A language maze is – very simply – a series of conversation choices where you need to choose a particular sequence in order to find a point in the conversation that an opponent does something that the conversation would not normally do. Some mazes are really simple – you just ask a character a thing, and you’re given an object. Sometimes, you ask a character a thing, and that gives you some knowledge you’re now able to use later. Sometimes you ask a character a thing, and that gives your character some knowledge you’re now able to use later – like teaching your character to pick locks or something.

Bad: Freedom Of Movement

And now here’s where the point-and-clickers of the past are a little different. The typical form of the Visual Novel is a linear flow of time from A to B. You’re very much moving along a line of time, rather than necessarily having the means to travel between locations.  This isn’t to say that’s how things have to be, but it’s not uncommon for people writing visual novels to present them as a single long line of time with you moving along it.

This isn’t to say that visual novels are bad at this – you can definitely set them up to do it. But the default code structure of something like RenPy reflect the genre, where it is very, very easy for the game to just see each play as a series of sequences that check variables, rather than necessarily going to places and letting you move around them more freely.

Scaling Up

Then there’s the things Visual novels can do well that you can lean into and build on in your own projects.

Codeces

Hey, you know how you have all that writing about your game world, or your characters and you want to give people a place to go look for it and read it if they want to? But if you dumped that in the main space for people to read it’d slow everything down and be super boring?

Well, the Visual Novel is a game form where reading a ton of stuff is a thing. In Hate Plus, there’s a reference codex for any character. You find yourself confused by a name? Click on it and it’ll take you to a place where you can look at that character and look at what they’ve done and what you know about them so far.

The Inner Life

It’s almost a stereotype that visual novels have a first-person narrator, often a narrator who is ‘you.’ Doing things this way gives you an almost unprecedented level of access to a character’s inside thoughts, meaning you can see how they think before they act, how their inner dialogue contradicts their behaviour, their anxiety, their stress.

It can also be a fine opportunity to learn that a character is a total butthead, which is a problem that Roommates has.

Day To Day Life

You know that thing about how going to a place is something that VNs don’t tend to do? Weirdly, they do handle schedules well. Because that’s how you use your time, and you can even trigger or chain events based on what you’re doing with your time, today. These can get super complicated, too!

The Wrapup

I really like Visual Novels. If I was better at designing interfaces or had the knowledge of where to start designing interfaces, I’d probably have made some of them by now (Sorry, senp.AI). They let artists do small numbers of works they like, they allow for clean use of arts and assets, and they don’t require a lot of technical knowledge to get started on. They do need you to be somewhat clued in on structure and planning, which is pretty frustrating stuff if you’re not familiar with it – but you can find your plan in the making, too, and restart.

Look into Visual Novels, they’re a great little genre, and lots of fun to think about making.

Telling A Story Through A Game Pt. 1

Gunna have to go to the tank for this one. It’s more than one answer.

First of all I have to unpack that  me because my model of games and stories is intertwined. To me, games all tell stories, the question is just whether or not those stories are memorable or interesting or cool. Basically, everything can tell a story, the issue is up to the interpreter as to what makes that story interesting or good. I have a model of the universe that has room for crap stories, something that’s apparently resisted.

Another thing that’s strange is that we’re heavily informed by videogames these days which have lately taken to making it so that storytelling is done primarily in the form of unsolicited interruptions. The typical way to handle videogame storytelling is to segregate story elements in safer spaces, away from places that players can mess them up by interacting with them.

Unsolicited Interruptions. Yes, I’m talking about you.

This isn’t to say that removing control from a player to tell them a story is a thing per se – I mean, look at games like Undertale (spit), which deliberately tracks a lot of things you do or don’t do and is willing to trust you to represent how and what you do. This sort of storytelling is a little bit like  getting a report card at the end of the semester, but that isn’t to say it’s fundamentally bad. It’s a little primitive, but that’s okay.

Let’s say you’re making a storytelling kind of game – those are sort of inherently biased towards it. Some games, like FunemployedDear Leader or Once Upon A Time make it the job of the players to tell story in an effort to get from where they are to where they’re going (and hi, check out The Suits while we’re at it). Let’s set those aside, because in those cases, the mechanism of storytelling is what the players are induced to do by the mechanics. The game is presenting you wit hstory beats to move between and telling a story to other players is literally all the players are there to do. Those games create inspiration and sort of dose players with it, hard.

These delightful little surprises

There’s also games that use ‘story’ as their framework, games like Dead of Winter where your storytelling is literally mechanised: Where in amongst the mechanically-generated story, there’s a chunk of systems designed to pull players sideways into a story that’s sort of structured and framed and bolts itself into the story.

This can sound like a criticism, but please, trust me it’s not. It’s just that this kind of system is easier with bigger games, where you can dedicate a component of the systems of the game towards Telling Stories. This system is wonderful, but to keep it from being boring, it needs a game of a particular scope. You can’t make a game that’s just a crossroad deck (well, you can) without players running it out with only a certain number of plays. You want some sort of mystery for people when these story elements jump out at them.

There’s narrative created by interplay of objects. Even abstract games do this – look at how people talk about the story of matches of Chess and Go, the narrative of how a game unfolds. Like I said, it’s not necessarily an interesting story to anyone in particular, but it’s still a story.

That’s our framework: There are lots of ways to tell stories with games, in games and around games, and there are some sort of ‘easy’ places to design. We’re going to talk a little bit more about methods for designing mechanics that tell stories next time and using mechanics to make players think of stories.


This blog post and subject was suggested, as above, by @Fugiman on Twitter. If you’d like to suggest stuff you’d like to see me write about, please, do contact me!

Notes: Secrets

  • Hidden identity small-box game
  • The materiality. Tokens can’t be mistaken for cards can’t be mistaken for the mat for the arrows.
  • Observing it seems too much of the game is invisible
  • Ways to keep people engaged in the off-turn
  • The draw-and-share cards mechanic is appealing based on games like Secret Hitler too, I like that
  • Can the game be handled with a low-material tool for agreeing/refusing?
  • Think about this in light of HMS Dolores
    • Oh they made Dolores
      • Well then
  • Aesthetic is super important, lots of cool, vibrant art, minimal background work
  • Giving people positive/negative score cards/trying to force busts/breaks
  • Alternate mechanism ideas?
  • I expect I’ll try doing something with this – the secret identities/common pool of cards thing is very desireable, but it needs to have some extra way to get some teeth

Designing A Puzzle

Some games are designed to be about setting up a play space, where you can sort of simulate a thing interacting with another thing. Games like Wobbegong-12 are about that very pure experience of a thing, in a place, doing stuff. Other games, though, are much more about a puzzle.

Recently I designed a game called You Can’t Win. The game got its start as originally, a conception of a bunch of villains siting around playing Russian Roulette, flipping cards from a small deck of 6 cards and shooting themselves. My efforts to refine this, to make the rest of the game engaging, required a more and more elaborate game, until finally, I realised, I had a puzzle that didn’t need the Russian Roulette mechanism.

What I was left with was a trick-taking game, and I found, my original idea to play it was breathtakingly hard to win. That sort of played into the idea of You Can’t Win and eventually gave the game its name.

The nature of You Can’t Win is one where, the first time you play it, nobody wins. Probably. It’s very, very easy to knock out all the playable numbers the first time you play. The tactical choices aren’t obvious – and in a game of say, four people, you only ever get to make four or five choices of what to play, which means your options are very limited.

Most players play a round or two of You Can’t Win and decide they think they know how hard it is, how difficult it is to play, then decide they’re not interested. That’s fine. It’s a cheap little game, it’s meant to be something niche. But, but.

For a particular type of player.

I’ve watched it happen. It’s that special character of that one person at church youth group, the teacher, the guy who remembers all the tiles in Carcassonne. It’s the mindset that you look at your card, you look at your hand, and you start trying to map the puzzle in advance. As the game gets played, more components of the puzzle play out. You know what’s in your hand. You know what’s not in your hand. You know you’re less likely to see a concentration of numbers, you’re more likely to see them spread out, but you might not. You know there are guns in the pool, too, making wild cards.

And for that kind of player, it is wonderful to sit there and chew on the puzzle. To grind it in their head. To try and properly solve the game… and watching as those players fight against one another and adjust the puzzle is fascinating fun.

It’s okay if what you’ve crafted is a nasty little knot of a game, basically.

New Shirts! Paragon City College Shirts!

Hey there friends! Do you remember City Of Heroes, and its many different university campuses, where you could go to craft inventions in a relatively peaceful environment, without fear of being shot at? Well, we have some cool t-shirts designs you can wear to signify your affiliation with one of those places!

Founders Falls University t-shirt

Founders Falls was the oldest suburb in Paragon, and apparently, one of the snootiest. It had canals and bridges and arches, and was proud in the esteemed age of the area. It also had snipers in suits on the rooftops, which was a thing.

Steel Canyon University t-shirt

Steel Canyon was your lowest-level University you could access, heroside. It was a region full of skyscrapers and powerful businesses, with a self-image about being forward-thinking and recovering after the Rikti War.

Croatoa OSA University t-shirt

Did you know that City of Heroes had a Creepy New England Town? And that town had a whole university in it? Check it out!

Cap Au Diable University shirt

Blueside didn’t have the only Universities in-setting. Also, redside, Cap Au Diable, the personal domain of an evil super-scientist named Doc Aeon, had a university too!

Kings Row Community College t-shirt

And finally, here’s a little special one for the Kings Row diehards. Sure, we didn’t have a university, but we had spirit, damnit!

These designs are available as shirts, mugs and stickers on my Redbubble store. Please, do go and check ’em out!

Let’s Dismantle Bohnanza

Every game you play is a toolbox of mechanisms that you can use. When you play a game, you learn how that game works, and you learn how things like that can work. You build a repertoire of mechanics, a library, a toolbox. With that in mind, let’s look at a game and take it apart, to see what systems it has in place we have to work with.

Continue reading

Storytelling in Non-RPG Games

This is a bit of a tease of a subject, because if you’ve ever heard me explaining games in general, there’s this phrase I’m fond of using: A Game is a Machine to Make Stories. Not tell stories, to make stories. Every game you play gives you a story, and you may not think it’s a great story or not, but you will always walk away from a game with a story. Since stories are one of the fundamental things that change how people think, it seems to me that this is a pretty powerful tool to put out there!

Plus, there’s the question of What’s a non-RPG game? Consider if you will Assassins Creed II – a game that exists in the Ubisfot mould of A Big Open Thing You Just Do Stuff In. In this game you’re explicitly rewarded for behaving the ways the game tells you Ezio Auditore does; when you match with his memories of an event, for example. You are, simply put, trying to be as much like Ezio as you can. Is that a RPG?

Most folk will say no, and I’ll happily concede that, because ‘RPG’ is a bit of a nebulous term. So for the purpose of this conversation, what I’m going to do is try to define what people might mean – generally – by the term ‘RPG.’

An RPG for this purpose is a table-top game where the game primarily gives you the tools to create characters and scenarios for a human to mediate. That’s a rough outline, but it’ll do; because we know what we really mean is stuff like Dungeons & Dragons or Blades in the Dark or Breakfast Cult.

With that in mind, let’s talk real quick about three simple, small examples of Storytelling Techniques in non-RPG Tabletop Games.

The Missing Parent

If you’ve heard me talk about Betrayal At The House On The Hill, you know I’ve had this metaphor well-prepared; in a lot of ways, Betrayal is like an absentee parent. For a portion of the game, it sits around silently, letting you entertain yourself – and then someone trips some meter, some amazing thing happens and suddenly, the game presents you with this bounty of mechanics and storytelling and two different books you need to check through, and look in the box, this one scenario has special cat counters look!

I have problems with how it’s executed and how it makes the first part of the game dull, but this tool system is really good, if hard to implement. In the case of Betrayal, it gives you a set of possible semi-random dials that determine what a thing might do, and then the game makes sure that every thing the game might do is cool, and interesting, and stands apart.

This is a great device, a good mechanic, and you should steal it except, here’s the problem: This is hugely effort intensive and it will eat you alive if you don’t keep it contained. Simple fact: Storytelling like this gives you dozens of slots to fill and you can’t make any of them too similar. In this way that opening dull half of a game is a big value for this game; it gives you enough time to forget the exact way the other versions of the game are, and it slows you down enough that you won’t rush to find two identical or similar game modes easily.

The mechanism in summary is randomised set of variables determine a huge number of tailored possible scenarios. The problem with it is it takes a huge amount of effort to make interesting.

The Obtuse Expander

Next up we have the Dead of Winter Crossroads system. Here the system is in summary: At the start of your turn, another player draws a card from a deck, and that card has on it a trigger condition for the event to happen. Could be as simple as ‘visited the Mall’ and can be much more sophisticated.

The Crossroads system is really nice: particularly because a human interpreter, in secret, keeps track of the info, and the fact the system is being deliberately obscure means you can have it do weird things – like it can actually ask you to search for cards in the deck to set up secondary events, or it can lead to you referencing another deck altogether, or it might even do nothing, leaving a player sometimes eerily afraid of a thing that doesn’t do anything. Plus, because each other player looks at a Crossroad card from time to time, they each learn the kinds of things that can happen but never be sure of what will happen.

Dig this system. It is also effort intense, but not nearly as effort-intense as the brutal weight of the Betrayal book.

The Golden Child

Inevitably, this was going to come up; The Legacy model of games. Legacy games are great, because they let the game have a story arc by dint of adding mechanisms or removing them, transforming the experience of how you play this game. You can’t access that city any more because it is Lost, for example.

Problem with Legacy games? Well there are lots, but it combines problems from the Crossroads games’ level of effort and production values, but it also runs the risk of being unrepeatable. Oh, I suppose if you wanted to combine the Betrayal model you could also make your board game incorporate dozens of permutations of this, so every time someone buys it they might not get the same model of the game’s legacy as the first one but good gracious what the heck are you thinking about.

Applying It For Yourself

With that in mind, here are my three pieces of advice if you want to do this as an indie developer:

  • If you make a Legacy game, make it Print-And-Play. Let the pieces be destructable.
  • If you make a Crossroads game, hire an Editor. You will need to make this bulletproof.
  • If you make a Betrayal game, understand the need for the first arc of the game to be interesting.

Now that said, what about what I’ve done in this vein? Well, the closest I can think to a novel storytelling tool is the game Jiāngjú, which is meant to represent the close of a Hong Kong action movie, where everyone has a pair of finger-guns pointing at one another.

In Jiāngjú‘s largest mode, each player has a hidden role that gives them different values to other players. On the other hand, they know this gives them value to enemy teammates, too. In this case, players have to use their very limited time trying to express a vague idea about who they are to one another in a way that other players can get – while still not giving too much away to their enemies.

In essence, the way to play this form of the game is as if you’re recapping the plot of a long movie, yes-anding your friends as you try to avoid giving away too much of the wrong kind of information. This can mean arguing about who was truly someone’s best friend, trying to find out the edges of who you are, find the edges of what you can give away and not – within three moves of a gun.


This blog post and subject was suggested, as above, by @PracticalPeng on Twitter. If you’d like to suggest stuff you’d like to see me write about, please, do contact me!

The Impossible Spectre of Balance in 3.5 D&D

I recently went back to some old content I made for 3.5 D&D and found myself considering that the flavour, the tone, the purpose were all sound –

A quick aside.

When I say the flavour, I mean the way the game objects are designed to represent things in the universe; a ranged attack that deals a decent chunk of damage and requires an action to refresh could be easily flavoured as a gun;

when I say the tone, I mean the kind of other things in the universe that are necessary for the thing to exist; guns don’t work in a setting without advanced metallurgy, for example, but they also don’t work in a setting where you want fights to be back-and-forth exchanges of force;

When I say purpose, I mean what mechanical end I want this object to fulfill in the world; this gun may work as a way to give players with less physical stats a meaningful ranged attack and to show this region as being more focused on distributable technology than on magical advancement

– but that without a lot of refamiliarising myself with the rules I could not say for sure how balanced they were, or were not, in a D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder game. I went back to read the Tome of Battle and Tome of Magic, two books I love but which have

Let’s say problems.

3.5 D&D was a game with a fantasy of balance. It had a lot of systems for creating ballparks, and if you bothered to explore all those ballparks you could wind up finding one where all your players could play together. You had to avoid the situation where one player was playing a totally different sport in a different field, but it wasn’t like you were being fundamentally reasonably by limiting sources. The whole problem of the CoDZilla (“Cleric Or Druid”) of 3.5 was that in the core book alone they were still totally broken and other sources only made them moreso.

There were other systems totally weirded up; like the Sunder mechanic was either useless or amazing, and its side effect of destroying treasure was either dreadful or meaningless. The trip and grapple systems could be pushed to breaking, the summoning system had its narrow holes, and every single expansion or splatbook you can find only adds either new options that are too weak to make any difference, or totally new broken things.

This is the conundrum of 3.5: Nothing is balanced, but things have gravity. Things suck together, and you can find a balancing point acreted around one general family of busted stuff. This is something I really found comforting about it in hindsight, but is also a trap: If players were not in a position, skill-wise, to pull towards those same common spots, if they were drawn towards other thematic thing, that player was set up to have a miserable time.

So what’s the solution?

My gut is to make it so the broken options are easy to get. To allow for elegant, simple power. Make the four-prestige class stack-em-ups a bother to get. Make small rules tweaks that keep those kind of complicated builds being total upgrades, but don’t try and push players away from the powerful toys that are cool.

Towards the last of my 3.5 days, the builds I looked for to make were, as an ideal, as few classes and prestige classes as possible; as a designer, if someone brought me a character splashing a single level of four or five classes on the way to a prestige class, I was left considering that the jankiness was a problem. When your build was full of different stuff that you picked up because there was no investment to do so, it meant your play experience slowed down (hang on, do I have a thing to do with that?), and it also meant the costs for joining a prestige class or taking a level in another class were too low.

Overall this is heartening though: I don’t think I can make anything that’s too overpowered, especially ‘overpowered’ is a moving target.

Notes: Bad Games By Great Designers

Today, a healthy chunk of video watching people talk about their experiences playing games, found via Youtube random suggestion:

Notes

  • Most of these complaints about games are about what this player experiences and how they prefer to experience games.
  • Sam Healy’s complaints about Codenames point to one of Codenames’ strengths as a weakness: The game is largely intense, engaging, and quiet. It’s a communication game.
  • The complaints about Citadels suggest that games can have truly terrible failure states, failure states so deep players can be left without any way to play at all.
  • Even if the overreaction is comical, the frustration these things speak to is very real.
  • Consider that Zee complains about Bloodborne having a very grim theme.
  • Reiner Knizier’s huge library makes it possible he can have his weaknesses shown up. Iterate more you’ll see the problems you have as a designer.
  • Seafall is such an elaborate experience people are really resistant to call it bad first-up, but with enough time to percolate, all the good memories of the game fade away.
  • Mathy games are hard to love.
  • Werewolf as a game requires everyone to be bought into it, to work; yet the game sells itself as inclusive to large groups with a player count sometimes into the sixties.
    • This suggests there’s a base assumption the game has that lots of people want to play a game where they inherently can’t trust
    • It also suggests an assumption that lots of people want to play a game with knockouts as solutions
  • Almost all these complaints are exaggerated and gently so, but can be sorted into individual subjective preferences (such as the Bloodborne theme) and exacerbations of the game (such as Citadels being capable of leaving a player without a turn).