Category: Making

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

Print and Play: Adventure Town, Pt 5

Today, I wanted to try and finish a prototype of Adventure Town. One sit down session where I hustle my tuchus off and come out of it with something I can present like a real game designer. I honestly feel bad about how long it’s taken to make Adventure Town because part of the point of it was to make something I could hammer out in less than a month as a side-project and distribute freely to my Patreon sponsors as a purely digital product.

Still, what is experimentation if not for the experiment!

Nonetheless, progress. I sat down and tried to think about what more I needed to finish Adventure Town’s first printing. The systems are all in place, really, for what I consider a ‘basic run’ of the game.


The system of Adventure Town is a little bit like a sort of Machi Koro like game. You buy parts of the town, and then adventurers come to town, spend their money, and the businesses in town react to those adventurers. They’ll give you money, or prestige, or maybe they’ll work on your personal quests.

There’s the common sheet, your personal sheet, and then the game has dice and cards. The idea is that for a print and play game, the cards are easily made and reused for each game, and there aren’t many of them – maybe 25 or so.

These cards are all meant to represent adventurers that come to the town at the end of each turn, and that means the card space is going to feature some visual stuff, a picture of the adventurer so that people can focus on that character and know when they show up. So, ideally, they want to be pretty diverse and distinct from one another.

This means the game is built between three different aesthetic spots: The board, the cards, and the player boards, and now

Now I have a problem.

I don’t want to spend a ton of money or time on Adventure Town. I have some art assets I can use already, and now I’m wondering if I should use existing art assets. With that in mind, I’m going to ask my Patreon subscribers for more specific opinions, but the basics are am I going to use the art of FinalbossBlues, which is pixelly, and make the game more like running a JRPG town, or will I use the ink art of the Terrible Character Portrait Pack?

We’ll see how it goes!

Next Step

We’re in what some people are calling a Golden Year for roll-and-write games, which is nice but I’m trying to not let what those games are doing influence me too much. Some of the things you can do with good production values include booklets that change one another, or sequential pages or rules changes, while I’m trying to make a game you can print out and conveniently.

Still, because I have free distribution and production costs (more or less) I can afford to give players a lot of options if making those options is relatively easy. And thus we come to my next thought – offering multiple town maps. The first thought was using cards to represent the town, but part of the point of this game design is to make it so players can draw on and deface the board itself. I was thinking I might want to allow – if the design allows for it – oddball things like being able to blow up or change rules on some locations.

But I’m getting distracted. The point is: Card based board is not an option. Especially because the point of the board is to be replaceable with a simple printing! We’ll talk more about alternate board stuff once I’ve printed out and played with some more boards!

‘Broken’ Games

With SGDQ under our belts, one thing I keep hearing is ‘broken’ games. “Break the game,” the term, mostly relates to being able to give a game something that shouldn’t work, and then have it work. Rolling out of bounds, jumping atop things you can’t normally, bouncing off surfaces that are meant to stop you, the way we talk about these behaviours is that the runner has broken the game.

I don’t like this expression.

Look, when you break the game, the game *stops*. That’s a break. That’s when the game comes into pieces. If you want a game to break let’s go to boot up some old DOS4GW games under windows and watch them immediately fall apart as they try to allocate into memory that literally does not exist. That’s a broken game, and hey, I got the game to conclude in record time.

No, what happens when you tell Strider or Pokemon or Super Mario World that you’re writing into some godforsaken region and clipping into a wall and swimming up and down a dirt track, is here’s something you weren’t designed to expect, so handle it. And the thing that’s amazing about a lot of these games is they do.

Making levels back in Quake days meant I got really sensitive about how you triggered things. It was entirely possible that you could design a level that was unwinnable because you put the trigger for ‘finish this level” on the subtly wrong side of a button. When you call a game that can be told you’re approaching the end point from Angle Q at a jajillion units per second, and it reacts to that by going okay boss then the game is the absolute opposite of broken.

It might be permissive. It might be forgiving. It might even be a bit dopey. But you didn’t break the game. You asked the game to do something ridiculous and it didn’t break.


Half Life’s Empty Promises

I think about @Campster‘s take on Half-Life 2 a lot.

There’s absolutely a line of conceptual continuity between Half-Life and Half-Life: And The Rest and Portal Babies. The first games were experiments in linear in-game storytelling, where rather than seize control, fix a camera and make you see things by conventional cinematives, the storytelling of Half-Life was being done while you acted in the space, and rather than concern themselves with how to frame the scene, they recognised that you would frame it yourself, naturally, if they just made it something you wanted to look at. This was really bold, and involves giving up a lot of control, which is something as a designer, you’re always loath to do. Letting players come up with their own stuff is very exciting but it can mean you literally waste effort.

Back when videogames were more like puzzle boxes, and you were expected to sit there nagging at one for months at a time instead of ditching it for another distraction, it was not uncommon to put more stuff in the game than you’d see on one natural playthrough. There are people who played Commander Keen who have no idea that they had secret levels. Small teams can do this – especially when they’re confronted with some ideas that don’t work or things that wind up being too hard getting junked and moved to other parts of a game. Some stuff that’s ‘too hard’ can get thrown into the content but made hard to get to, as a way to warn you about what you’re getting into. Hey, this level was hard to find, do you really think it’ll be easy to win?

Anyway, this mindset isn’t how things work when videogames cost as much as they do, and it’s harder to carve out exploratory stuff. When you make a linear sequence of narrative, you don’t have a lot of time to break between the game time and the narrative time. Half-Life always tried to keep those two time scales wedded to one another, even if the wedding was entirely illusory. You can go AFK at almost any point in the ‘time sensitive’ story of Half-Life and the game will pick up as you left off. You will always arrive just in time for the events you’re heading towards.

Do to that kind of thing you need to plan ahead, you need to make sure you have teams working on A, B, C, and D with the right priority of effort and the right control to make sure that D and C don’t fall flat because of something with A. That kind of planning just means that you’re going to have to get rid of all the uncontrolled stuff you can, shave away the ways players can create uncontrolled reactions in that extra space. This uncontrolled reaction space, by the way, is known as play.

So Half-Life is essentially a game that wants to minimise your ability to play it.

Pretty weird when you think about that, isn’t it?

This is honestly why some of the decisions and timing in Half-Life don’t make any sense. They’re always trying to minimise ways you can mess up the plan, and the big thing in the core of those plans is that you will advance. The only thing they let you do to break the plan is to die, and then you can come back for more. In essence, Half-Life creates an experience of a corridor, as per the above video.

The thing with this plan is as you shave bits off it, as you drop piece after piece of ‘play’ options, you wind up making this experience that’s focused more on continuity than on content. Anyone who’s worked on a draining project will tell you, when something is hard to make, you find every reason to ditch on the things that don’t matter, and you ditch on them hard. It’s why Half-Life is a corridor escape from a single room, and Half-Life 2 is a corridor escape from a single room that pretends it’s actually an open world with a destination. Look at Xin – a few drifting islands you explicitly can’t travel around or learn anything about.

I guess what I’m saying here is I don’t think there ever was meaning behind anything in Half-Life.

I have this idea, fuelled in part by the existence of expansions like Blue Shift and Opposing Forces that at no point at all did anyone involved in Half-Life really have a ‘point’ for the story. If you can hand the work over to a stranger, and not care if they introduce an entire new enemy faction to your story, you clearly don’t have a vision for what should be in your story. If there was content worth expanding, you could have given them that.

The story of Half-Life, told in one long sequence, rings of someone who is really, really worried you’re going to get bored before they get to the ‘end,’ and so they keep inventing things that it might be. There’s no real foreshadowing – that you can spot the G-man in the background of early stuff doesn’t mean anything because the G-man doesn’t mean anything. That the G-man offers you a choice is meaningless because the choice itself is meaningless. That the G-man shows up periodically to put you on the right part of the plot screams of a storyteller who keeps painting themselves into corners and wants to try and convince you it was good, actually.

Like a taupe Tardis, Half-Life is a series of increasingly unimportant boxes inside unimportant boxes, ever pulling you onwards with the promise there’s some thing at the end, and there never is.

In the end, total silence is Half-Life 3, and it’s the best Half-Life 3 we could ever get.

King Hits in Poker

I’ve been watching poker videos lately. No good reason. But there’s something that fascinates me about poker as a strategy game.

First of all, poker is a strategy game. Set aside the actual money values, make the betting with markers or tokens or whatever. Treat them like hit points. Whatever. The point is, while playing with and for money makes poker more intense it doesn’t make poker not a game of strategy. While there are books on the topic, veritable libraries full of information about how to play poker, what to do when you’re playing poker, reading people, the particular generational behaviours of poker eras, all that stuff doesn’t work if there’s nothing to the game but the money aspect.

The money does connect it to a super interesting kind of materiality, but that’s for another time.

There are very few times in Poker where you’re compelled to give up money. Next to the dealer there are two players who have a forced minimum bet – known as blinds. Usually you’ll hear of two – the big blind and the small blind, and these are there so players can’t just constantly sit out of hands until they have something they want to play with. Blinds also mean that if you do have a good hand, thanks to your automatic bet, you can ‘hide’ it in the blind bet. After all, other players seeing you bet don’t know if you’d have bet if not for the blind.

What this means is that you do have to defend small bets (your blinds), you never have to defend your entire pool of money unless you choose to.

Back in The West Wing, Vice President and sex lizard John Honyes remarked that in Hockey, nobody knows what’s going on during the play. In Leverage, Elliot says he doesn’t like any game where you can’t score on defence. In poker, both of those things are true: As confident as you are, you can’t be sure of what your opponent is doing, and when you’re being the aggressor, you can lose everything.

It’s fascinating though, precisely because you can’t lose what you don’t risk. Your opponent can’t go after your bankroll, can’t make you bet. That means that most of the game is about back-and-forth cajoling, jousting with your opponent. Behaviour changes as your bankroll changes, and the game has a back-and-forth to it as chips change hands, but at the core, your opponent cannot control you, and you can only lose when you put yourself in a position to lose.

The game handles this by giving you a powerful incentive to make sure that you sometimes want to put yourself in a position to lose.

The Invisible Orient

Board games have an orientalism problem. This is just a given. If you want to try and talk about the ways Asian nations are perceived and treated in board games, that’s just a given. The problems of Orientalism are about ways that Asian nations are reduced to inhuman archetypes, given alien explanations for their behaviour, or treated as fundamentally exotic.

But that is to me a boring bit of background radiation. It’s not that it’s not a problem, it’s that it’s a problem that you have to completely misunderstand to not recognise. Like, seriously, if you claim there’s no Orientalism in board games, you must not understand what Orientalism is. Representation in media is always going to be carrying its colonial baggage and the only way to address that is to acknowledge it, understand it, and fight it. But again, this is boring.

Instead, think about why this problem is the way it is.

Right now if you look for ‘Asian’ games in board games, you find a lot of things. You can find some really beautiful, elegant, fun, good games, games by great designers. The problem is, if you want games that seem Asian, you find games that are French, German, Belgian, British. They’re designed in Europe, produced in Europe, drawn in Europe and playtested in Europe, and then they’re sent to China to get manufactured, and sent back to Europe to be sold in European stores.

But when you talk about the people who get to make games, the names overwhelmingly show you this problem.

I don’t have a problem with non-Asians making games about Asian things that inspire them. If nothing else I’d be a huge hypocrite to do so. I found the symmetrical nesting of the Chinese Zodiac appealing and created a game that spoke of an Asian-inspired culture. But while I was there I bore in mind that I was dealing with a tiny game, with one artist (me!) and with a minimal toolset.

The problem is that these games are being made and produced and made to represent the market, made to be Asian-ness in games, and the games made by Asian people are not.

The sad truth is there are only so many jobs out there with the title of ‘Board Game Designer.’ As big as the market is, there’s only so much room in the current model for how they get made (and yes, Kickstarter defies this model but we’ll get to that). This is why you’ll see the same ten names if you go through any serious boardgame collection – the companies that produce board games of a certain material quality have already got designers on deck, artists they know, and manufacturers they rely on. This is all infrastructure of board game development.

A single meeple will cost me something like 60 cents. If I buy 10 of them, each will be like 42 cents. If I buy a hundred, twenty cents. If I buy a thousand, well, I don’t rightly know. The things you can do at scale are very different. If you’re a company making a dozen games and you can buy all the meeples for all your games at once, you can get really low rates for them. The same with boxes, cards, plastic components. The companies in Europe that make board games are set up to make lots of board games, and that means that Europe produces a lot of our board games.

This is a real problem! The problem is that this means that when you go into a store, it’s actually difficult to find ‘Asian’ games made by Asian people (and yes, the term ‘Asian’ is massive and it’s encapsulating about three billion plus people) because those people live in countries where they don’t have this infrastructure that’s about scooping them up and connecting their work to the work of the markets that we, in the west can observe. There isn’t a meaningful communication between the two.

If you’re like me, you’ve looked at a lot of amateur Japanese art. Amateur Japanese art that is absolutely, absolutely what we consider professional quality here in the west. These artists are often younger than you think, and getting paid less than you think. And they’re almost always terrifyingly good. When I was learning to draw I was stuck by how excellent these Japanese students, younger than me, were, and I for a time there had this idiot idea that ‘Japanese people are better at art.’

Now that’s nonsense.

On the other hand, Japan has a cultural infrastructure for the fostering, examining and creation of art, and that’s something students can get into when they’re young, care about while they’re young, and stay caring about the whole time. My art is just not very good – I’ve been trying for twenty years, but I know it’s still very bad and sloppy, but I know part of that is that I’m not surrounded by people also doing art, I don’t have stores full of specific tools in regular walking distance, there aren’t regular conventions about examining or learning about this stuff.

It’s infrastructure. It’s the stuff we’re set up to care about.

Now there are a ton of great Asian games. The few I’ve seen direct from the source have been excellent and have included A Fake Artist Goes to New York and String Railroad.

The trick is, from the west, finding them.

This is the real invisible ink of this Orientalism problem. We do not have a default view that we should look to Asia about Asia. We do not think, as a natural thought oh, what do the Asian Game Channels know about this, or really, more specifically, What do the Japanese cons think, and the Indian cons and the Malaysian cons and the Singaporean and –

Now there are things breaking this up – Kickstarter is letting people shortcircuit the publisher system. But kickstarter is a way of converting attention and luck into money. And that attention is almost always best refined through cultural groups. You get the people who care about your work to back your kickstarter. You’d think this means you’d widen your audience, but odds show it’s kind of not the case. If you want to make a Kickstarter Friendly game, which is a male-targeting miniatures-driven grim aesthetic game that hovers around the $60-$80 mark, you can tap that audience with a kickstarter that’s already getting some traction. But if you want to do something out of that type, well, your odds are best relying on the people who already liked your work.

Good news, though, there are some solutions to this. A big one is finding what we call media capitals: These used to be spaces, but these days they’re people, who exist in both worlds. People who can connect these non-Western markets to the Western markets. This means listening to Malaysian game nerds, Japanese game nerds, Asian-Americans and Asian-Australians and all these people because they have some awareness of and connection between these spaces.

That’s not to say any given Asian American is going to be an expert on Japanese games, for example. But you’ll find the first place to start with asking people who can see themselves easily in games about people like them.

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In June, I did not ‘release’ a game, as per my usual schedule. I made, and had plans to release, the Nyarr, a supplement for tabletop roleplaying games, which as I write this hopefully is out by now. It should be. This represents the first month where I did not release ‘a’ game in two years.

When I was a child, I found that certain dates and times passing gave me enormous anxiety. At uni, I was dreadfully afraid when assignment dates passed in case I missed one or mis-delivered one. Reporting my income to the government comes with an absolute throat-tightening terror, because I’m afraid of doing it too late. This is naturally a great combination with things where I feel guilty about my lack of productivity so I want to avoid confronting them.

With the Nyarr, though, I don’t feel… bad.

I don’t feel great about it, but I do feel peace.

The first thing is: I know I did the work. I worked on the Nyarr in June and before, I had a plan and a schedule and funds set aside for work and the things that kept the Nyarr from coming out could not be changed without hurting people. If it’s me under pressure, that I can meet; but I cannot force creativity from other people, from other friends. I cannot make people deliver, and the idea that I can shows an ownership of their labour that I simply don’t have.

Second, a game a month is kind of a raw deal if the games are all too similar. If I make two town builder games back to back, they are in direct comparison and it’s unlikely, if you like town builders, you want both. I want to keep making varied and different game types, and so if I put out a game in one month you don’t like, the next game might interest you. That variety means that there will be experiments and unforseen testings.

Third, I have made more than a game a month. Some of them didn’t get released – games like Ruck and Clout got test prints and then got put away. The game Blackjack Dungeon is absolutely a do-over. Then again, in addition to the other games I’ve released as official releases, there were times I released two or three games a month. Games getting time to breathe in development prevents me from making big mistakes and releasing games I’m sad about later.

Alter Access for example, for Middleware, for example, is a small rules patch which was meant to form the first of five expansions for that game that simply haven’t gotten made because I felt bad about them. Maybe tomorrow morning I’ll wake up and hammer those out, who knows, but I do feel that Alter Access as a release unto itself is just a bit weak.

Finally, the Nyarr isn’t just my work. It is an experiment in that kind of RPG content, testing the market and making sure the product is valuable to non-mechanical purchasers – but it’s also huge, some 50 a5 pages long. Since that content includes the flavour writing and artwork of people who aren’t me, I want to make sure it’s good and it shows the care for those people’s work I can.

So in the end, I didn’t release an actual game, officially, in June. It was delayed a little.

And I’m okay with that.

That feels like a big deal.

The Most Casual Autoethnography

I’ve thrown around this term a fair bit recently, in non-academic circles. Part of that is because I want to get familiar with it, and I want to know how to best explain it to other people. As with many concepts, it’s best if you can explain it with a concept.

So let’s talk about one of the most common ways you engage with Autoethnography: Reviews.

You don’t normally get it for things like soup or shoes or teacups but if you’re – like me – the kind of person who engages with the output of Video Essay Youtube or Board Game Review people, you’re dealing with autoethnography. Every games reviewer is an autoethnographer – they play a game, they examine what they played, then they examine that experience, usually, and tell you what they derive from that.

Some models of reviewership want to be dispassionate, remove the reviewer from the review. This is obviously contentious, because some people seem to think they can have a pure, objective, non-biased perception of a game, and also nonsense, because it’s almost always the byproduct of trying to be ‘right’ about a game. Part of why autoethnography wants to ensure the reviewer is a component of the review is because that way, if you understand the reviewer – even generally – you can use that to inform your reviews.

Now, this isn’t strictly speaking true: The model for what they do is autoethnographic, but because they’re not doing it with academic structures and rigor, it’s not really reasonable to call it autoethnography. It’s much more about making this work approachable, converting academic stuff into stuff that you can handle. If I can’t explain it usefully, it’s a sign I either don’t understand how to talk to you, or don’t understand what the thing I’m talking about is.

This was all brought on by doing some old readings and finding responses to Lindsay Ellis’ rather excellent critical series, The Whole Plate. This series uses Transformers, a type of generally shallow trash media, as a base grounding to examine a whole host of film theory concepts, and it’s really good.

One of the ChannelAwesome people, that Doug Walker guy who, apparently, sucks a lot? Put out a video in which he forwarded that there was no point, at all, to ever critically exmaine trash media.

This is, I feel, a good opportunity to put these two positions in contrast. One of these two reviewers uses the experience of watching Transformers as a venue to explain and explore a whole host of film theory, and one of them thinks there’s no value to critical theory at all. And right there, you can use that as a platform to decide which of these two people you should consider when it comes tim to examine media critically.

Project: Voiceless

The Pitch: It’s a hidden identity game where all the players are merfolk princesses, who have surrendered their voices to the Sea Witch. Except one of you is the Sea Witch, and in the midst of the group is a powerful charm that binds all your hexes. If it’s laid upon the Sea Witch, all the curses will be broken and everyone is free, and you each know a little about the women around you.

Except none of you can talk.


Voiceless is made up of cards:

  • Identity cards, of which you get dealt one at the start of the game
  • The Hex card

The identity cards have an identical back. One of them represents the Sea Witch, and the remaining cards represent roles.

The most basic kind of role is just a mermaid princess. These win if the curse is broken. There’s also a Sea Witch, who wins if any of the princesses gets cursed.

Setup: Choose the princesses you want to include in each game. There should be some proportion of princesses to Sea Witch, and some princesses that complicate the game. Shuffle these princesses, deal one to each player face-down. Players can look at their card at the start of the game. Put the Hex card where everyone can reach it.

Play Loop: Players cannot talk throughout the play.

Starting with a first player, a player looks at another card on the table. They can then take the Hex card and either hand it to the next player (showing they are done), or hand it to another player face up. Players can then vote on whether or not they trust that with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down vote.

If the players all vote thumbs-up on one player, that player is Hexed, and the game ends. Cards are revealed and then players determine who won based on their role cards.


I mostly need art for this. The game at its core just needs a handful of pictures of mermaids, including at least one that can be The Sea Witch, so with a clearly different palette and style of the others. The aim would be to have the mermaids, as princesses, represent extremely different styles of personality, such as ‘mean girl’ or ‘innocent’ and I would want to make sure these mermaids didn’t represent just one vision of cool mermaidness. They wouldn’t need action shots or physical prowess or detailed weapons or whatever, just pictures of cool, Disney-Princess style mermaids.

Do you think you have the skills for this? Are you interested in the idea? Feel free to contact me, either via the Twitter DMs or by emailing me!

Work Process – Boat Game!

Today I started work on a prototype for a little boat game idea I’ve had kicking around since basically Friday. I thought I’d share some pictures of how it progressed from nothing to something.

Here’s where we started. There’s the basic idea of a boat made up out of cards, and you can slot cargo onto the cards in the middle. Here’s the very first version of the graphic I made. obviously it looks a little sparse so I wanted to make it a little clearer. It’s a little ugly and boxy – back of the boat and front of the boat don’t match up.

One of the things that makes this less clear is the way the two blues look similar. Highlighting blue sky as differs from blue water. So here’s a second draft – adding shadows and waves to the water, clouds to the background, and trying to make the cabin of the ship look a little more shaped.

This will be our boat, the basic structure of it. We also want to make some container cards, for the cards that will be stacked on top. Jumping ahead a little, but they look like this:

Okay, so that’s the basics. A card will have two containers on it, and you can slot one of them into each of your ship slots.

Next up, we have a handful of iterations on the cabin – adding an antenna and a flag, making sure it’s got some personality to it. And hey, maybe add a line to the boat, to give the whole thing a bit more dimension.

Okay, so how’s it look with that, and some containers:

Whoah holy snoot! If that cabin is two storeys (at least), then those containers are something like four storeys tall each! We gotta make them seem smaller, but we can’t shrink them in any way physically. That means we have to adjust the things you’re using as your frame of reference, which means changing those windows and doors.

That’s a way nicerlook and it also makes the boat seem smaller, more kiddy, less of a ridiculous tower.

Okay, so now we have a tidied up boat:

The next step is that we need a currency for this game. Now, I’m a giant currency nerd, so this is easy enough for me to belt out – something that looks currency-ish:

This is basically made up of two parts. The base is a green colour, and over that there’s a white layer of Soft Light. If you put all the white shapes in a folder, then make that folder soft light, you can keep those white objects from being affected by the lines.

Then we jam onto it some basic ‘money details and a symbol. Because this is a card, we don’t want the card to be asymmetrical in any way. When someone shuffles up the cards, we want to make sure it’s easy for them to get them all oriented in the ‘right’ way, and to avoid giving away information when people shuffle. It’s a good principle to ensure that card backs give away as little information as possible and are as easy as possible to interact with.

And now we have a money card, a card back for the container.

Here’s the revised containers, which I didn’t save as many in-pgoress shots of, but it’s the same thing. Start with a basic shape, adjust it, adjust it, adjust it.

Now here’s all the cards I made today, more or less, arranged together. This is a day’s work, and yes, the aesthetic is simple, but this simple look still took a LOT of iteration.

You can do this. You can make stuff that looks like this. Heck, you can make stuff better than this!

I want you to know that these things get made bit by bit, and looked at and reconsidered. Don’t be afraid of having incomplete, or not-as-good stuff. This all changes step by step.

Project: All Of the Clams

The Pitch: It’s a small deck auction game with currency cards and a failure state. It’s a bunch of pirates or merfolk haggling over who gets what cool junk they found while trying to offload a cursed coin they’re all stuck with.


All of the Clams is made up of two sets of cards:

  • Treasure cards, that you bid for
  • Currency cards, that you bid with

The Treasure cards are all stuff that matters to the players, so the framing device requires them to be people who want something, or have some reason to want things. I don’t want these things to have a grim tone so it probably can’t be something like post-apocalyptic medicine, or evidence for important criminal cases, so I vastly prefer for this to be motivated by greed or self-importance.

The Treasure cards come in three basic forms:

  • Value cards. These just give you points for the end game.
  • Negative Value cards. These take points from you for the end game, and you have to bid in reverse to avoid them.
  • Box Cards. These cards come with other cards from the Treasure deck, and have some inherent value. Players can choose to leave the box closed or not, but opening the box makes the contents public.

The currency cards come in the following forms:

  • 3 Coin cards
  • 2 Coin cards
  • 1 Coin cards
  • Cursed Coin Cards

Setup: Players get identical sets of currency and it always includes 1 cursed coin. They have fewer 3-coin cards than 1-value cards. Probably a sort of 3-2-1 distribution, but make it so that it’s possible to overwhelm 3-value cards with 1-value cards (so 3:1 ratio). Then, remove a treasure card (or more) from the top of the deck, hidden.

Play Loop: Each round, the top card of the treasure deck is revealed. If it’s a box card, put the proper number of cards in that box. Then, players bid in a round on the treasure, not a value but a number of coins. Players can withdraw their bids and drop out of the bidding at any time, reclaiming all their coins. When all players are done putting cards into the centre, all the cards are flipped over, and the bids are compared.

The player who bid the highest value gets the item and the other players get their cards back. Note: Any player who revealed a cursed coin in this phase has to leave it revealed for any future bids. These coins are then taken from the player and lost.

If there’s a Negative value card, the same thing happens in reverse: Players coins in hope of not getting the coin. If one player withdraws or passes, they can keep their money, but have to take the Negative value card.

If one player has run out of coins, the other player can then claim a number of face-down treasures from the top of the deck equal to their remaining coins. These face-down treasures are worth only 1 scoring unit.

The winner of the game is:

  • The player with the most victory points who has no cursed coin, or
  • If all players have their cursed coins, the player with the most victory points


I mostly need art for this. There are three major concepts for the game at the moment – mermaids vying for human junk, pirates distributing treasure from a raid, or cyberpunks swapping chunks of code and virus-infected bitcoins.

Do you think you have the skills for this? Are you interested in the idea? Feel free to contact me, either via the Twitter DMs or by emailing me!

“Not Endorsing Colonialism”

Recently I bashed Colonialism on twitter as a board game theme. This isn’t referencing a specific event but the odds are really good I said it lately because colonialism sucks and we’re really too okay with it. Anyway, one time I did this someone well-intentionedly pointed out that because the game includes colonialism doesn’t mean it’s endorsing it. After all, games include killing and that’s not to say killing is good.

I looked at the comment, rolled my eyes and moved on with my life, but because I know this stuff is important enough to address I came back to it and made it an article well after the fact because I am both petty and want to avoid directly confronting this person.

Point the first: Killing and colonialism aren’t really all that similar because I can absolutely comfortably say there are times when it’s okay to kill someone and I can’t imagine a time it’s right to do a colonialism on someone. Heck, it’s kinder to kill them.

Point the second: Games can include colonialism without endorsing colonialism, and they have, such as Dog Eat Dog or Spirit Island or my own Middleware. It’s entirely possible to represent a colonised space in a way that doesn’t treat the people being colonised as non-agents, and without treating the colonisers as actors approaching empty spaces.

Point the third: Killing in games is used in games as a metaphor for killing. It’s used to represent that particular action (usually, it’s rarely anything else), and we don’t live in a society where ‘killing’ has had its meaning obliterated by a deliberate campaign to pretend killing is actually almost always a net positive (though you know, some people might say).

Point the FOURTH: Colonialism as a theme is super fucking boring.

I’m so sick and tired of games that say go to a new land and do exactly the same old thing. Even these games with interesting, good mechanics like Archipelago or San Juan are all doing it by taking the player and transporting them into the fictive space of the awfullest humans that existed, the player being put in the shoes where they can only console themselves with ‘well I’m probably not sexually assaulting the slaves, so maybe I’m a good one?’

The role of colonialism in board games is pretty simply one of two extremely basic-ass ideas. First, to make the game ‘historyish’ so you get a pre-established aesthetic and a sort of permissive pass on being boring and legitimisation in the eyes of people who don’t want their hobby of playing with cardboard to be seen as childish. Second, to create a space for a reasonably level playing field for economic games of discovery, so when players all arrive in the new place with nothing to their names but an enormous pile of money, people willing to do murder and the uncontested governmental right to commit acts of fgenocide, it’s pre-explained as to where all the resources are coming for.

And this is boring!

There are a lot of other ways to organise ‘people starting at roughly the same time with roughly the same options,’ lots of different fictions. Maybe everyone is related and a relative died and now you all have the same money to start with! Maybe you’re trying to appease investors who have defrayed their options amongst you all! Maybe you all died at the same time and your options are all the same right there.

Colonialism: Bad, evil, deliberately erased, and super fucking boring.

Cities & Towns Revision!

In May, I launched the game The Road to Springdell, which was known in development for a while as Cities And Towns. C&T was one of the slowest projects I worked on considering how quickly I iterated the mechanics. The type of art it needed wasn’t something I could do, nor anyone I knew – and the free art in the vein wasn’t quite right either.

I’ll probably return to the central mechanic of The Road to Springdell, by the way – it’s a robust little game engine and it can be used for more complicated games with more cards and more variance.

The main thing I want to talk about here is the biggest change in the cards – the way I shifted the mechanics wholesale.

In the final printing of The Road to Springdell, each type of building you can build in your town makes each other kind of building in your town better, a bit. Farms make mills more valuable, mills make wells more valuable, wells make farms more valuable – but you’re also balancing the value of each town component against the buildings in the city of Springdell.

Originally, only four buildings had rules on them, and the other four didn’t. Here they are:

The Woodcutter’s Lodge remained as is – but the other cards went through some big changes.

The Tower was just bad – I thought that mechanic might make towers more ‘disposable’ so you’d be more likely to turn them into forests, while also making towers likely to show up in the city. The farm created awkward play moments where players would wind up getting a forest into Springdell, which isn’t supposed to happen. And the Market wound up being super way too good.

The new design is smoother, and less complex to play, but it makes the play more complicated. Every card that’s played is of a different value to you and each other player, even though it has some value. A card may be worth three points in your town, but five points in someone else’s. You have to decide if you’re going to offer that up or try and block it.

These are dials you can choose to turn. Sometimes, giving players more difficult choices yields better gameplay than giving them faster choices. Players spend the most time thinking over the trick portion of the game as it is – might as well make the time spent thinking more interesting!

Winners and Losers

In game design, you can think of your game as about getting to a winner, or discarding all the losers.

Simplest example, Snakes and Ladders. Snakes and Ladders, one player is trying to be separated from the group by being the winner. Their entire plan is advancing themselves.  That winner has nothing to do with the losers – they’re just trying to take more steps ahead on their own.

You can look at a game like Jungle Speed, which is a sorting engine to find the loser – the winner finishes the game (and can step out) and then the next player to win, and so on, the game intact until the players decide to stop playing or until a loser is chosen by the process of the game.

Red Dragon Inn is a game about knocking out as many players as possible, by as many means possible – you can impoverish them, you can inebriate them, you can beat them up, you can even do some stuff outside the rules. In this way, players are trying to make everyone else lose, and resist losing as long as possible.

In Cockroach Poker, a rare example, all the players together pick one of them to lose. It starts out as a test of wits, then slowly becomes a game of trying to find a hole in each others’ defenses, trying to find the player who’s most convenient to get rid of… and making sure, as sure as you can that it’s not yours.

When you’re dealing with a cooperative game it’s the same basic thing: You want to advance the plan of the winners, which is everyone. And deathmatch games, where everyone is trying to survive the longest, are games where you want to lose the least.

Think about this when you design your game. Think about if your game is trying to push people to advance their own plan, primarily, or if they want to inhibit the plans of others.

The Mermay Concept List

This May, I partook in Mermay. I didn’t draw mermaids – I’m not very good at drawing, so who am I kidding – but I was inspired by the variety and lovely artwork to think in terms of the kinds of things I can do, and what I would want to do in the context of just the art produced. I make card games, I make tabletop games – they’re things that exist in a space where still images, often with the game as context, convey game information.

Every day, I wrote a game concept for a tabletop game involving art of mermaids.

Now, I intend to go through some of these game ideas and work on them individually – why, depending on when this goes out, one of them may have already been made – but I wanted to put up some thoughts about examining the thoughts of all the mermaid games at once.

One trend that goes throughout the mermaid games is water – I mean, obviously. Some games care about sinking, about depth, about framing ‘down’ as being dangerous, which is perhaps a view I inherited from Narnia books, of all things. This water theme plays into some of the other ideas; there are games about merfolk views on human trash, how they can cook without fire, the types of currencies they recognise, and also in the time you can hold your breath in some of the games about communication.

Another recurrent theme was royalty and monarchy. There’s perhaps something primitive about the idea of royalty in the context of the merfolk – I don’t like royalty as its own thing, I think it’s pish, but I still was making sympathetic games about mermaid princesses and important noble weddings, and noble houses. That’s possibly just something I like as a setting element, even though I think they’re jerks in reality. Of particular interest was how in Atlantean Guard, the challenge was to cooperatively raise a prince who wasn’t a jerk, as if the assumption was reasonable that they would be otherwise.

I had a bunch of games about theft. Merfolk were often showing up as playful or trickster characters, stealing or hiding treasure. Many of the games were puzzles about locating treasure, treasure that – reasonably speaking – there’s no reason to believe the explorers seeking it are more entitled to than the merfolk.

I didn’t do many games about combat. Of the concepts, Temple, Flooded London, The Dredge, and Conch Of Glory had some kind of combat to them. Of those, Temple, Flooded London and The Dredge were all framed as being against an unjust opponent – imperial London, or polluting capitalists, or invading adventurers, for example.

Finally, most of my ‘merfolk media’ that framed these games were either Aquaman or The Little Mermaid.

Lovecraft’s Failure

Not the racism.

Lovecraft, if you’re not aware, died poor. He died of cancer in his 40s, mostly destitute, and his work was forgotten until a significant period after he died. Even then he was sort of an academic interest that fed into the interests of other writers rather than the force of cultural nature he is now that he’s part of the public domain. One of the things he attributed this to, in his later days, was that he didn’t have the confidence or courage to promote his own work, and when he did, he didn’t do enough. His obscurity, he felt, was not tied to the quality of his work, but his ability to advertise it.

More things change, eh, Howard.

 Lovecraft was born in 1890. Three years before he was born there was the first performance of Ruddigore. Ruddigore is an operetta I like a lot, and one of the two best songs in it is this one:

The lyrics, in case you aren’t versed, as I, feature this chorus:

If you wish in the world to advance,
Your merits you’re bound to enhance,
You must stir it and stump it,
And blow your own trumpet,
Or, trust me, you haven’t a chance!

These words echo to me a lot, in my more horrified moments. One of the problems is that I already feel like I promote myself too much. I feel like I never shut up about my stuff, that I presume I can reference my games to people, and when I’m put on the spot and shown that I can’t, it reminds me that for all I feel I talk about this, I either don’t talk about them enough, or, more damningly…

I do, and nobody cares.

Is it that I’m bad at self promoting, or is it that my promotion isn’t going to endure because what I do isn’t good enough? I worry about this a lot. I wonder about it when I learn that there’s something I have in common with Lovecraft… staring down the barrel of an irrelevant life because I wasn’t able to make myself memorable in the minds of the people around me.

Shame about the racism, though.

Continue reading

Lovecraft, Exploration, and Motivation

The classical Lovecraftian story is set around the time of Lovecraft’s life. Very few of them occur in the deep history, even as they are about the deep history, told through the voice of a person in Lovecraft’s now.

Lovecraft wasn’t a man who saw politics too clearly. I mean, he was a racist, and an anglophile, and he thought World War I was really important because America owed it to England, America’s homeland, but when he looked to the future and around him he was not horrified by the closing entanglements of European politics and the industrialisation of war, nor was he particularly horrified at the coming nuclear age. I mean, from the perspective of a dude born in the 1890s, nuclear power seems pretty out-of-context.

If you look through Lovecraft’s work there’s a strong view towards discovery. There’s the deep sea, there’s the stars, there’s ancient archaeology and there’s the organised cataloguing of unread tomes in old libraries. The protagonists are explorers – they are people who, without needing further motivation, want to learn and discover.

Interestingly, most Lovecraftian stories are kind of one-and-done affairs; someone discovers the edge of the darkness, and then is either consumed and destroyed by it, or they run and escape it, forever scarred by the experience. They are people who start out exploring for the sake of information. Their motivation is intrinsic.

Thing is, that’s not – usually – how Lovecraft stuff works in games. One of the challenges in these play spaces is motivation. Most Lovecraft games want to have multiple encounters, multiple excursions dealing with the unnatural. It’s hard to build a game – especially one about change over time – around singular experiences and that leaves you with a problem of representing a character who has some reason to want to repeatedly expose themselves to this problem.

I think this is a cool idea to work with in character creation. I know Delta Green requires you to build a set of connections that will get worse and fail over the course of the game.  I think that’s a good start because it shows you a think worth losing – but I wonder if there’s also room to build into character building a space for a fatal, consuming drive. A reason to go back.



John Galt’s speech is the famously overindulgent chapter of the book Atlas Shrugged. It’s known, generally speaking, as a long speech, but I don’t know if you appreciate how long it really is unless you’ve read the book all the way through, or at least, read to that section. It’s not an easy read – I haven’t managed it, just select chunks.

Let’s put this in perspective for you, though.

There are a number of printings of Atlas Shrugged, in a variety of sizes, so it’s not really feasible to put the whole thing into a single page count. We don’t have to do that, though, because some kind and well-intentioned soul put the whole thing up on the internet, allowing me to just dump that text into a document and crunch that data.

The total word count of the John Galt Speech, more or less, between revisions, is about 32,000 words.

First things first, let’s put it into perspective as part of the book. Atlas Shrugged is literally one of the longest published English-language novels that exists, and the John Galt speech represents only a fraction of the overall work. It’s about 5.69% of the book (nice). But how many words is that? 32,000 words is a number, it’s not a particularly meaningful number. You can consider the text in terms of the time spent speaking, for a start – and it is meant to be spoken. It’s John Galt, The Ubermensch, churning through his philosophy, on the radio, as a way to transform the minds of the populace of leeches siphoning his perfect grace from the world.

You can read the entire speech in about three and a half hours – and yes, on youtube, people have – but that’s powering through the whole thing, without the pause or rhetorical flourish or pacing of a proper speech delivery. I’m comfortable saying that to do that, you’d wind up at around four hours, which is generous and implies that John Galt is a good speaker. Since the speech is a continous perfect stream of dialogue, without stuttering, double-talk, or any of the naturalistic hallmarks of people actually talking, it’s clearly prepared, too.

Four hours of talking is not a small amount of talking. Filibusters are regarded as feats of political will and endurance, and they’re almost always meant to not be anything in the way of actually meaningful information. Politicians read card rules or recipes or history books. People pee about six times a day, which is about every two and a half hours, so there’s a not insignificant chance that Johnny G had to take a leak during. I’m sure he planned ahead, and delivered the speech from the bathroom.

But what if you consider that text as text? As a word count? Well, it’s comparable to another, smaller book. Quite a few, in fact.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is about 33,000 words. That entire story is only slightly longer than the speech. The Great Gatsby – a snappy novel that nonetheless rockets along its pace – is 50,000 or so, so one and a half the length of the speech. In fact, you can find quite a few works of classic fiction young adult fiction that are shorter than the entire John Galt Speech:

  • The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, by CS Lewis
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl
  • Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson
  • Animorphs 01 The Invasion, by KA Applegate
  • Night of the Living Dummy, by RL Stine
  • Eric, by Terry Pratchett

This comparison to other classic fiction works is pretty robust – you can treat these 32,000 words as a unit of measurement, which we’ll now define as the JGS. If we cast our net wider to see other books that are considered classic, the JGS stops being larger than the whole text but still is quite a large proportion of the work:

  • Genesis, The Bible — 1 JGS
  • Slaughterhouse Five — 1.5 JGS
  • Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone — 2 JGS
  • Brave New World — 2 JGS
  • As I Lay Dying — 2 JGS
  • The Sun Also Rises — 2 JGS
  • Lord of the Flies — 2 JGS
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer — 2 JGS
  • The Gospels — 2 JGS
  • The Hunger Games — 3 JGS
  • The Handmaiden’s Tale — 3 JGS
  • Aspects of the Divinity, Book 1: Glory In The Thunder— 3.5 JGS
  • The Fellowship Of The Ring — 5 JGS

And perhaps as a footnote

  • Atlas Shrugged — 18 JGS

What’s important to consider is that these stories that are comparable to the JGS on its own, or one or two times it, are stories that convey a philosophy and a worldview, that speak of ideology and principle and are even full of clear, well-regarded quotable lines. I mean, the Gospels! They’re entire stories.

In its own text, though, the JGS doesn’t do anything of the sort. The John Galt Speech represents a lengthy, explanatory detour from one character, in one sitting, to stand and simply tell the audience (and the reader) what he thinks and how he thinks it. It’s not actually anything happening in the plot, nothing that needs to be shown. It’s a narrative cul-de-sac, a jerking halt where a character monologues at you.

That time could have dragons and fistfights and a philosophy shown through action rather than harangued at a reader.

Symmetrical Enfolding

The simplest kind of game you can design is a symmetrical, procedural, player-versus-player game. I tell students this; if all the players engage with the game the same way, you have to design one system that can be properly positioned to oppose itself. Any race game is like this. Almost all traditional poker-based games are like this.

I have been designing, in my opinion, too many symmetrical, procedural, player-versus-player games.

At the time of this writing, this year we have released LFG, Winston’s Archive, Downspout, The Roads to Springdell and Burning Daylight. Of those games, only Burning Daylight is non-symmetrical, where you pick your gang at the start of the game.

One element in all this is that I have of late an audience of two kids, kids who can’t really handle social deduction games, but who can grasp spatial games, and who can handle ‘the rules work this way,’ not ‘your rules work this way.’ When designing for kids, I absolutely recommend symmetry and consistency in your rules. Player versus player is weirdly, an area where they can get along better, because cooperative play involves them arguing and creates space for quarterbacking where one or the other refuses to go along with their plan.

I don’t really have anything more to say about this at the moment except, as of the time of this writing, I really want to make more cooperative games, more asymmetrical games, and more non-procedural games.

We’ll see how that goes.

Miss A Turn


‘Miss a turn’ mechanics are one of the most rudimentary game mechanics we encounter in the games-made-because-we-think-kids-are-dumb landscape. Missing a turn is presented sometimes as a punishment for breaking the rules or failing to properly maintain the game – sometimes a huge deal, too!

Yet I routinely see amateur designers, in their first drafts (and somehow even all the way through to the end of the game), get miss a turn in their designs. Missing a turn, as a consequence of your doing a turn, isn’t interesting, it’s just frustrating.

I can see a place for Miss a Turn: Real-time turn-based games, like Nightmare or Atmosfear. In those cases, missing a turn slows you down but you’re trying to finish your turns as quickly as possible, so you can just fly past a turn where you don’t get to do anything. It sucks but it sucks a little because turns are not spent thinking or testing or trying. They’re spent seeing what happens and doing it as quickly as possible. But those games are secretly cooperative, rather than competitive – the games are too tight and players are really best suited to just working together, avoiding hurting one another, in the hopes that anyone can finish the game at all.

Otherwise? Missing a turn is a really miserable thing. Making someone else miss a turn isn’t quite as bad – you can make some strategic leverage out of effectively taking an extra turn – but the time a player has to spend to wait becomes part of the problem. In Magic: The Gathering, there’s Time Walk and its family of effects, which are far nicer because it just means your opponent has one really big turn rather than you having to pointedly sit back and do nothing.

Either way, this mechanic is a plague and it’s far healthier to remember don’t do them than they work in these situations, when you’re just starting out.

Symmetrical Juuls

[rules and fiction] are complementary, but not symmetrical.

When you deal with academic writing you’re sometimes left stymied by word choices. It’s one of the reasons the whole affair can feel super arcane, because people spend a month writing a sentence and then another month justifying that sentence to the people overseeing the writing.

This is something I’m finding. Most days I look at a statement and rewrite it, figuring it might look good tomorrow. So far it hasn’t.

This eight word conception comes from Jesper Juul’s Half-real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds, 2011, and I feel like I could spend a lot of time – like, say, a whole blog post – picking at those word choices. Why not symmetrical? Why not asymmetrical? Why not ‘they are not symmetrical.‘ It’s easy to conceive that the structure of this one little sentence is that simple.

This is from Chapter 4, which is about Fictions. This chapter is – to summarise roughly – about what we sometimes in games refer to as theme or abstraction, not its narrative. Narrative is a story, and it’s how our brains do things – I’ve long since said that a game is a machine for making stories, and we make stories because it’s a really useful way for our brains to store a linear sequence of cause and effect. Fictions is a good way to establish the idea of the world that the game wants that story to occupy – whether an abstracted world where nothing matters but the order and sequence of a play, or a heavily flavoured world of flavours and sounds and spaces and moistures.

The book itself, I learned about, sadly not from my readings – I mean, I’m working through them at my own rate – but from the Game Study Buddies podcast, which is available here. I’m honestly annoyed because it seems that the people involved are both smart and on similar pages to me, processing text and not necessarily agreeing with or disagreeing with it, playing in the spaces of consideration and being able to vocalise good and useful ideas about how academics can consider games, and they don’t fall down into treating all videogames as alien creatures to tabletop games. Heck, they mention that as something Juuls notices, the way tabletop games break a lot of the rules of what ‘is’ a game and therefore ‘game’ has to keep moving as a definition. I’m annoyed because I was pretty happy not following these people on Twitter and now I wonder if I’m going to have to.

But that word choice, that thing up top, it sits on my head, as a friend mentions she’s dealing with internet that is Very Not Good, which I distinctly and clearly understand as different to Not Very Good. That order of emphasis is a coherent conception, and yet if I tried to feather it out for you I might miss the meaning she’s getting at.

Anyway, these ideas, that fiction and rules are complementary is something I have stumped at hard: If your rules fly in the face of your fiction, you weaken them both. The fiction can encode actions in your mind and make game mechanics coherent where they might otherwise not be. I’ll not go into examples here, but maybe I will another time. This is just a given.

But that last point: They are not symmetrical.

To call them asymmetrical would be to say that they are never symmetrical. To call them non-symmetrical would make their symmetry a function of what they are. Much of game studies want to talk about rules without fiction, to break down Plants vs Zombies into specific, tight details that ignore that this is a game about zombies, and how they vs plants, and how that fiction encodes game rules into player’s minds. Juul forwards the idea in Half-Real that you can discuss rules without fiction, but not the fiction without rules.

And that’s what I’m worrying at right now. Because they aren’t symmetrical. Rules can interleave with one another in places that leave the fiction untouched. Shuffling and stacking a deck in a particular way may have an outcome to the fiction, but the rules of the method are there for the outcome, not for the cause. There are ways the fiction can leave the rules untouched, like decals over a chassis. But I’m not sure I agree with Juuls that fiction depends on rules while rules do not depend on fiction.

But we’ll see. This is the problem with readings.

You’re never sure until you’re done and you’re never done.

This blog post represents notes on my PhD reading of Half-real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds, by Jesper Juul (2011), chapter 4.

Print and Play: Adventure Town, Pt 4

Woof, this took a while. I had a post about Adventure Town’s tools and that got caught up because I realised I was hitting a wall for Adventure Town’s scope. So let’s talk about some math.

In Adventure Town, you are all trying to invest in the buildings around your town, building them up to make this town more appealing and generate more money when adventurers pass through. Each turn, there’s a phase of dice rolling, representing economic activity and your own plans as a member of the area’s ruling groups. Then, adventurers pass through the town.

I’m not sure if adventurers pass through the town every turn, or if that’s triggered by dice events, too – and while your town is small, only one adventurer passes per round, growing as your town grows. The adventurers have wants or needs, and that means businesses that relate to those needs get more income, and that income benefits most the people who own those businesses.

Now the question from here is how much of anything does this need?

There are three basic values that will give all the rest of the math in this game shape. How many buildings are there? How many adventurer cards need to be, at minimum? How many types of trigger should there be?

We’re going to assume symmetrical distribution of each, by the way. Unequal distribution is good for games with fewer random elements, as they make the rarer incidents feel more wild; in this case, the dice are going to present a randomness for all players, and we don’t want people to be able to bank on long shots that then fail because the dice didn’t come up from them. I want choices to matter, and in this case that means trying to keep people from getting too far ahead with either lucky long-shots or unlucky crap-outs.

When you’re doing this kind of design, there really is no right or wrong place to start. I want the towns to be printable on an A4 sheet, which gives me a boundary to work within. I drew a few designs for the town as a 3×3 group of buildings, then a 4×4, then a 5×5, and a 6×6. 6×6 got a little small for my tastes as an A4 page, so a 5×5 it is. The central square is the town hall, which nobody owns, meaning we have 24 potential buildings.

With 24 buildings, what do we have that can divide into that equally? Well, one option is 24 adventurers that trigger each building uniquely. That’s a bit dull though – it means that once an adventurer triggers a building, you have to wait until that adventurer loops back around. You can’t have any ‘really good days’ when a building gets triggered once or twice in a turn. Also, do we want adventurers to only have one trigger symbol?

Working on the idea that all adventurers need one or two symbols, that we have 24 buildings, I went to this Combinatorics calculator, and jammed numbers in it for a while. If there are 6 symbols, which can be repeated and where the order doesn’t matter, and you pick 2, there are 21 combinations. 21 is a good number for a deck of cards – it’s not too small to shuffle nor is it too big to handle quickly, and it’s small enough I can add some cards to it if I want to.

That is how it’s done, by the way – how I do it, at least. I jam numbers into things to see how long it takes to work.

This has an additional possible application. If there are 6 symbols, and there are 6 faces on a die, it might be that people can spend a dice to trigger a symbol that corresponds to it. I don’t know if I’ll use that, but it’s an option!

Next time, we’ll talk about tools.

The Process of a Meme

Sometimes, the idea just bursts into place, fully formed. I just arrive with the inspiration and execution all at once.

Sometimes, I need to ask someone how I’d do it. It’s a matter of a back and forth, where I know what I’m trying to get to, but they don’t know that yet.

When we talk, there’s always an understanding, though, that they don’t really know what I’m doing, what I’m planning. They just know I’m going somewhere.

Very occasionally, I’ll ask someone who’s done it before. They’ve had a better version of this idea, they’re an expert in it. Most of the time, they’ll see what I’m doing.

These are the times when I start to doubt myself, where they’ll tell me what what I’m doing is kind of obvious, or worse, where I’ll realise that this is pretty pointless.

Then there’s that point where I’m just kind of sadly standing over what I’ve done, what I’ve finally made, and I brace for the reactions, wondering if it’s good enough…

Delete this
this is the worst
Oh my god
talen, seriously
I don’t get it
oh hang on

What’s Nyarr?

Hey, what have I been up to these past few days? Well, I was writing up the Nyarr.

What’s a Nyarr?

The Nyarr are going to be this June’s tabletop release. They’re not going to be a card game – they’re a new ancestry for your tabletop RPGs, released as my Lost Libram line of content. Lost Libram is my division of my work that’s from my older D&D work, stuff I never released because hey, 4ed came out and my friends are playing that now.

As a designer, I still love this old content, and realising there’s a market for it, I decided I wanted to get it out there. Especially since a lot of writing of this type isn’t mechanical, it’s conceptual, it’s giving flavour and tone for the stuff I’m sharing. RPG writing is in a lot of ways bits that you playtest.

Here’s an excerpt:

Nyarr are humanoids comparable in size to humans, ranging between 150 cm (5 feet) and 195 cm (6-½ feet) tall. Despite their size though they are markedly heavier than humans, ranging from 72 kg (160 lbs) to 118 kg (260 lbs). Nyarr have skin hues that range from a dark brown to a pale green, and some Nyarr are coloured blue or purple. Nyarr have soft plates of chitin on their skin on their shoulders and knees, and their feet are split into two large forks, rather than five small toes. In silhouette, Nyarr are most like humans, though with larger feet and hands.

Nyarr are most easily distinguished from humans by a number of secondary traits; Nyarr have scaled hands with pronounced, thick fingernails that look like claws, scaly plates on their shoulders, horns – typically two, though rarely four, – long, thin tails, sometimes splitting with feet that stretch up into a ‘high’ stance for running. A Nyarr running tends to lean forward a great deal. These traits have been called ‘demonic’ and ‘monstrous’ commonly, though their actual threat is quite minor; the scales protect their hands for fine manipulation in extreme environments, and the horns and tail allow them to steer while running more readily in areas like cliffsides or desert plains.

Nyarr gender differentiation is complex to explain, as Nyarr have at least three major genders. Their words for each gender are translated as generally ‘male’, ‘female’ and ‘onyar’. Physical differences between the genders are hard to determine; roughly half of Nyarr have a shape regarded by some students as ‘feminine’, but commonly-recognised indicators like hips and breasts are not common to the genders. While female Nyarr tend to have shapes other cultures regard as ‘feminine’, and male Nyarr tend to have shapes regarded as ‘masculine,’ these are not hard rules at all. Onyar Nyarr vary the most, with some onyar having prominently powerful arms and legs, with a more petite body trunk. Some Nyarr tribes even send out explorers to learn from other Nyarr other genders, trying to find the best ideas for their people to choose.

The Nyarr then, are a deliberately enby inclusive race of cool monster people for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, who are powerfully social, deliberately cooperative, and inclined towards trying to make friends, even as they are careful about trusting the rest of the world for being hazardous to their culture at large. Visually they’re kind of like big-footed and big-handed Tieflings, and they have culturally, an idea of ‘choosing’ genders from their three major genders, with the understanding that some Nyarr choose other genders if they’ve heard of them.

One detail here, and which I’m putting out there to put on the record even if I fumble how I say it: I am recruiting non-cis artists and writers to contribute small bits to the text of this. My thinking on this is pretty simple: The Nyarr represent a way for a game player, someone who isn’t necessarily heavily connected to the world of nonbinary genders, to be introduced to them, and, as a creature in a game, it gives people a chance to play with, and come to understand that idea. If I’m going to put that kind of thing out there for people to include in their game, I’d want to make sure that people with experiences like the Nyarr interacting with other cultures, are able to put their mark on the work.

Complicating almost all relationships Nyarr have with other cultures is the expansionist trends of almost every non-Nyarr culture. Nyarr have a phrase that translates roughly as Be Wary Of Those People. In the past, Dwarves have hollowed out mountains that Nyarr considered home, collapsing the landscape underneath them. Humans have cleared forests they considered home and turned them to furniture and machinery. Elves have magically tamed jungles and ousted Nyarr from the trees they considered home, in the name of making them more like their own forests. Nyarr tend to view all these cultures as invasive.

Humans and dwarves are very much cultures that judge and compete, and view survival as a personal thing. Nyarr culture rejects these ideas, and sees survival as being a shared responsibility. Also the humourlessness and lack of fun in Dwarf culture is abhorrent to Nyarr outlooks – to survive without an ability to feel joy is to be as good as dead. Dwarves can sometimes appreciate Nyarr because of their survival abilities, while others see Nyarr and their culture of change and cooperation as weak and strange.

The cultures less prone to building empires and starting wars tend to cooperate with Nyarr better – particularly orcs, who rarely want territory that Nyarr alone can hold. Nyarr feel a kinship with the half-humans like the Half-Elf and Half-Orc, seeing them as something a bit like themselves; outsiders in a group.

It’s a little ostentatious, I guess, but I want to be careful about the ethics of it. I don’t want to stomp into gaming with Here Is A Trans Metaphor For You, As Expressed By Me, A Cis.

If you’re at all interested in this, if you’d like to give the Nyarr a read before their release, let me know. I don’t pretend to be an expert, and I can’t really afford a proper high-grade sensitivity reader, but if you’re curious, let me know.

Boundaries of Autoethnography

Hey, here’s some more study reading – specifically, reading a chapter of Doing Autoethnography. It’s a collection of Autoethnographic essays, critically examining works the creators have made that are, themselves, Autoethnography, which is to say it’s kind of an oroborous of moebius or something like that.

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Blog Tips – Queues and Bins

I blog a lot. I blog constantly. I try to make sure, when I can, I write something every day. Whether it’s big or it’s small. The big trick for me is finding a thing to write about, which can sometimes make for a long or short post. It’s you know, the challenge of finding the thing about ‘what gets me started.’

Here are two blog habits that have helped me though:

Queue in Advance

Don’t post your blogs when you write them. Post them a week later. Schedule them. Why the delay? Because it means you’re not going to be fuelled by the now, by an immediate and urgent need to express. You’ll have time to go back an double check what you said. You’ll have the opportunity to revise or expand as events change. The hottest of takes is the worst of takes, because hot take theatre is just the way to rile up hot emotions. Let your takes cool.

Make a Draft Bin

Every time I get an idea for a blog post when I’m near my computer, I try to jot down a phrase or an idea and throw it into a draft post in my blog. That means when I’m scrabbling for ideas, I can come back to these things and see what ideas have been on my mind, and give me a chance to well, sculpt a well-cooled take around an idea, maybe do some research for a thing that needs it.

The Whole Sort Of General Mish Mosh Of Confrontation

If you haven’t worked it out, since I read every day, and I don’t want this blog to just be a nonstop festival of Hey, Here’s Today’s Academic Boring Stuff, I’m doing some of these out of order.

More reading from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop. In this case, this is super useful because it gives me an academic source for just a very simple list, a starting place, for my thesis argument of the idea of confrontation.

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May Shirts!

Hey, here are a the shirts I made this month!

First of all, here’s the Play Rough shirt, which I first conceived as part of a series. If you want a particular move name, let me know and I’ll see about whipping one up for you!

(You won’t)

That design gave way to this one, with a big chunk retro TM disc – and I concocted this moveset as an example of a perfectly good, cool moveset for a person to have.

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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