Perry’s Lock

Hey, I can use this blog for any old bullheck I like, why not use it for this.

I ran this D&D campaign called All The King’s Men, when I was a younger man with different pets and worse hair. The premise of the game was that in the great City-State Coalition of the Symeiran Empire, there were three orders of church knights, each compliant with one of the three law-chaos alignment axes. Lawful knights, neutral knights, chaotic knights. In this party of six, three players were knights, and three of the other players were the direct contact and friend of one of the knights. Three adventuring pairs.

The lawful knight of this group, Kyrie, had her offsider, a luvable cawkney thief called Perry, short for Peregrine. Perry was chipper and playful and had a luverly accent and Perry was great. I loved Perry to bits. Great dynamic with the other players, and also, the player is a great min-maxer. Now this is 3.5 D&D with a lot of homebrew content, alongside people who love to optimise buuuut aren’t as good at it as Perry’s player was. Perry, rather than be a dick about it, therefore dedicated himself to find the things nobody in the party did and do it excellently.

In the first major arc of the campaign, a door was locked before them, and the party were losing time chasing the person who’d locked it behind them. Perry then popped his knuckles and said hold my beer, before sitting down and cracking that lock with a truly grotesque skill check in the fifties. Bear in mind this was at level six or so! He pops this DC 15 lock with a skill check enough to do it as a free action, stepped through, and once the party were in, locked it behind him to keep others from pursuing.

Okay.

Fast forward a year and change and eleven levels, and the party have returned to this same site, to find it taken over by vampire nobility. The familiar zone they ran through at a dead run, chasing someone was now a sieged path they had to work through, a dungeon crawl, full of decadence and dangerous vampires. The party stopped at a door, and Perry, who by now is basically a Time Ninja or something, looked at it and said ‘well, I’ll check it.’

‘It’s locked.’

‘Oh, okay, like a magical lock?’

‘Not far as you can tell.’

‘Okay, I’ll just Open Locks on it-‘

‘Roll.’

‘I have a huge bonus, seriously?’

‘Yeah, there’s a chance you can fail.’

Perry’s player gives me a look, as he picks up his d20 and rolls poorly. A fairly low roll – a 4 or so. But he’s been so good at things so far that he’s convinced there’s no mundane lock that can actually impede him. A moment, – ‘Forty eight.’ I check the notes and…

‘Nope.’

‘What?!’

‘I said nope.’

Who the fuck locked this door?

YOU DID.

(He took ten and got the lock just fine, if you were worried.)

Game Pile: Sam & Max Hit The Road

Okay, so straight up, Sam and Max Hit The Road is one of my favourite games. It’s a point-and-click adventure game with some frustratingly obtuse puzzles. I don’t know if I can even recommend it as a game per se because the times I struggled with the solutions to its ridiculously obtuse view of the world are all so far in the past that I can’t imagine how anyone would solve them. Some of the puzzle solutions are positively arcane.

When you boil down a lot of point-and-click adventure games, they have one problem: Use key on door. In fact, sometimes games that tried to do something different (like Future War and Full Throttle) were criticised for the involvement of those other elements. In Sam and Max Hit The Road, there’s a handful of, y’know, bits and stuff designed to introduce other puzzles and problems, but none of the game is too hard once you grasp the thread of the game’s weird poke-it-and-see methodology.

So, right, as a game: It’s good, but it’s of its time. The GOG release brings automatic saves and windowed play and those are nice modern conveniences. Okay? Play it with a walkthrough nearby but don’t follow the walkthrough directly. Just use it when you’ve poked everything to laugh at the responses you find, but not to remain stranded in a narrative point for a while. I like it, I think it’s good, it’s cheap and it’s really funny.

And hey.

Now.

Let’s do the heck out of talking about Sam and Max Hit The Road.

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Bad Balance: Free Power

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

Free Power!

A thing you’ll find in most games is there’s an opportunity cost to adding things to your character. Magic items occupy this space in D&D where there are slots, clearly recognising that there’s a good reason to limit the number of belts you wear, especially when those belts do magical things. Thing is, the item system isn’t the only place that came up.

In most games there’s an opportunity cost. Every choice you make is an option. In 3.5 D&D there were a surprising number of times when there were no such choices. If you were aiming for a prestige class at level 6 onwards, your first five levels could sometimes look like utter nonsense – fighter 2, barbarian 2, ranger 1, for example, would give you a grotesque fort save, a handful of benefits and lose you a single point of reflex and will, which was just not a reasonable trade. If you were building a wizard, prestige classes themselves could look ridiculous, as you cherry-picked the opening benefits of four or five of them because none of them had a meaningful late game reward.

When you give players an option for something, you need to make it so that they’re giving something up if they take it. Not that every option is punishing – that’s its own bad idea – but that every option is a choice, and choices should be meaningful.

Making Notes: Who Makes My Tokens?

I have this game idea: It’s a worker placement game where you’re overseeing a heist on a casino while other gangs are trying to do the same thing. There are a few ideas I like here, where the board is made up of a set of cards, which means it changes from game to game, and where and how you get to the locations for placement are in turn influenced by the movement of security guards between the cards.

What this game wants is a small number of cards: Right now it’s as few as fourteen possible cards to make a 9-card grid. It wants to have space between them, the cards have suits and behave a bit like poker hands, whatever. The point is, that it’s a small number of cards, but it needs ways to mark where you, the player, have put your workers.

Also, the workers have hidden information.

Now normally if you have something with hidden information, you use something with two faces: A card, duh, right? The problem is that putting a card on a card obscures a lot of that card’s information – and you need that information to make decisions about where things are. Moving other players’ cards might accidentally reveal things and it’d be a lot easier to put/move smaller tokens around.

Simply: This game wants tokens. Heck, this right here is nonsense, really: I should be in a position to say this design uses tokens without having to justify it!

I do most of my printing of card games through DriveThruCards. They are not a perfect printer service. I don’t know what a perfect service would look like – though I guess they’d be much more local and I wouldn’t have to pay international shipping and wait three weeks for my product to arrive for when I wanted to sell it face-to-face. That sucks (for me).

Still, I like DriveThruCards. The staff are nice and they’ve been very helpful with problems we have. I’m familiar with the tools and they have all my games on catalogue (with one exception).  They work. There are, however, things th  at they don’t do. In this case, what I’m thinking about is tokens.

The place I normally use for tokens is GameCrafter, where we made Skulk. It’s a good place for its kind of work, but if I put it there I need to do bulk orders of hundreds of games, and with only one game at a time there, I simply can’t afford it. The best sales I get are in person, where I can show a person my game and watch them buy it.

That means the sites are not worthwhile as markets, but rather as production fronts. It’s ridiculous. On the other hand, their tokens are really good: I like them a lot. One idea is to make the whole game there, and instead of buying a box, putting the game in a single nice bag like this:

This bag is about 5 by 4 inches; it’s light, it’s soft. It also, crucially, does not sit on a bookshelf neatly, and that’s something that Fox doesn’t like, and I also am sympathetic to that position. Still, there’s a definite appeal to a bag with some tokens and some cards that unpacks into a bigger, complicated game with a euro-game style thinking-building play style. It’d be affordable too – somewhere around $15-$20, which puts it around the level of our mid-cost card games.

I like our tuck boxes, which are standardised sizes, all cardboard, recycleable and give me room to put more designs and information. I like our tucks. The problem with the tucks is that they’re made at DriveThru. DriveThru gives me tuckboxes and bulk ordering and … no tokens. Now, I’ve done some testing! I can fit this game and all its tokens into the box quite easily, though then we meet a new problem: DriveThru doesn’t offer tokens.

There is a solution, one I’ve used for Wobbegong-12: That game comes with a card you cut into pieces to make tokens, and they live in the box you keep the game in. That would work, except there we have two new problems! First, the pieces would be cut up by end users, which mean that keeping tokens the exact same size and therefore, avoid giving away information to other players is hard, and second, there are some players resistant to the idea of cutting up cards. Bonus, I don’t know if those players are people who buy or want to buy our stuff, so… that’s hard to know how to judge.

This is a real pickle for me. This is also really frustrating because I like this game idea and I’d like to keep working on it. What complicates this further is that I can’t really get a good, useful response on how to approach this problem. Part of this is because there are people who would never buy this game who would still have opinions on how it ‘should’ work, and people who don’t know what the game is trying to do with equally firm opinions!

This is a really tricky place to be. It might just get the idea put on the shelf again, which would bum me out because I really like the idea. If Gamecrafter had a vibrant community, or wasn’t so expensive to ship around, I might try it out; if DriveThru did simple cut tokens, that would be perfect. Yet, neither are true, and so here I am, stuck with my tuck and my tokens.

This is the kind of thing you need to take into account when looking into your making process. How do you get your stock? Do you want stock? Do you just want to get access to tangible copies of what you’ve made? Can you split your sources? Can you afford to split your sources?

Marvel’s The Defenders

The Defenders is an adequate average of the sum of its parts. At its best it is Luke Cage’s snappy dialogue and Daredevil’s fight choreography in tight, threatening situations with an appreciation of highlight moments, and at its worst, it has Jessica Jones and Danny Rand in it.

Kind-of-spoilers below the fold.

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Telling A Story Through A Game Pt. 2

Here’s a link to the first part. I said I had to go to the tank for this one, and boy didn’t I.

When you want to design a game that conveys a narrative without writing that narrative, and when you accept that all games tell stories, you’re left with a need to construct your game’s components so that they’re made up of potential events, or perhaps better expressed, you’re made up of story components.

One of the things that games tend to have that works well for them is the start of the game, the engagement of the player, is a singular instigatory action; the players’ presence change the status quo of the game’s universe before the player arrived. Now, most of the time the game’s narrative doesn’t incorporate that – most games tend to start from a place where nobody has done anything yet, and the game follows that.

That’s sort of all you need: You need the game’s mechanics to represent the movements, actions or reactions of people. People is a nebulous term, by the way: humans will see people in everything around them. It’s actually really hard to keep people from attaching humanity to the things in the games they play – how often do you see people treat the dice like they have motivation?

The trick then comes in making sure that players can all see the same things as having some degree of personality, of agency to them, something that forms the story around them. And to show the example of how this works, we’re going to look at two great games, with similar mechanics and a complete disconnect between the nature of how they tell story.

First we have Dominion, the game I tease as being themeless, and A Few Acres of Snow, a game about the invasion of Canada by America in that war they don’t like to talk about. Both games are deck builders, and both games have some pretty simple mechanics that they then expand outwards.

In Dominion

In Dominion cards are bought from a grid, and there’s a sort of variance in what the cards are, with a very vague idea that you are a ruler, or maybe you are the territory itself, with your deck representing things that exist on your territory.

In Dominion, you add cards to your deck, which then take some time to cycle around into hand. There are cards that represent territory, which is how you achieve victory, there are cards that represent money, which is how you buy cards, and then there are all the other cards that lend some character to your deck.

The thing with totally abstract currency in your deck is that they represent … something. Something maybe. Sometimes, it represents people who work in the territory – silversmiths and blacksmiths. Sometimes it represents objects in your territory – like a moat (even a moat!). Sometimes it represents an object (the throne).

None of these are bad game entities, but when you lay them out, there’s no clear idea for what they all are. Are you building a throne? What do you mean when you have two thrones? Does a blacksmith turning a metal coin into a different metal coin represent something like an actual act of alchemy? There’s no clear explanation, no solid or robust theming. The game has a theme alright, an overtone – it’s one of a sort-of-medieval sort-of-fantasy kingdom, with something like a government, but that’s all.

In A Few Acres Of Snow…

In Acres, the cards represent the actions you as a ruler of the war can take, the actions you can engage with and the ways you can direct troops with a limited range of options – sometimes supplies just don’t show up when you need them, sometimes you have the chance to communicate with three or four cities and don’t have the supplies to direct to them. The mechanisms of that game put the player in the narrative position of a leader dealing with the constraints of a military movement during a time before instant-speed communication.

What this means is that the mechanics of the game become part of the story the game tells you: You’re a leader, you’re making choices, they are all based on communication, and the cards that represent people are people dealing with you and talking to you, people available to you within your limited sphere of communication. One of the best cards in the game for this is the governor – a character that when you buy it, comes into your deck, gets rid of two cards you don’t need any more… and then remains there until you get rid of them with another governor – meaning that over time you can have a deck full of governors, managing beaurocracy, meaning your personal communication is now clogged with fewer bad options but with more dealing with beaurocracy.

Soooo?

The difference between these two games telling stories is that the games’ mechanics require you to change your mental position on what the card entities are pulling your focus to. In Acres, the cards represent opportunities presented to the player, to you. In Dominion, the cards represent things within the player’s space. That’s what keeps Dominion from telling its story; the character cannot be the player, the centerpiece cannot be a thing on the cards.

So, when you want to tell a story through mechanics alone, you need to give the player a through-line they can observe. You need to give them something that can hold the story.


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!

MTG: The Anti-Legions

Hello, Wizards employees! I understand that you’re not supposed to see unsolicited card designs or conversations about same, and with that in mind I’m going to ask you to head elsewhere. Like to this rad interview with Alison Lurhs about Tumblr and MTG. As for the rest of you, let’s talk about making an Anti-Legions.

Man, that’s frustrating. I can’t help but feel this kind of article – if it’s good – would be great to show as a portfolio of design work. Ah well.
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Arresting Godzilla

King of Tokyo is a great little game. I like seeing an existing simple mechanic used as a structure. I love mechanics as metaphor. I really like the metaphor it uses, the big smashy monster genre of movies. I like how silly it is, how it uses the tropes of that genre. I really like how the game makes for fast turns. Don’t think for a minute this is a complaint that makes King of Tokyo a bad game.

But.

It does have one awkward design thing, a little bit, a tiny thing that bugs me. It’s a thing that I feel like you can design around, but I’m not sure what the fix, what the solution would look like.

When you play King of Tokyo, enemy turns don’t have any inherent value to you. You do things on your turn, but unless an enemy attacks you (in specific circumstance) or they buy a card you wanted (which can happen), you and your opponents aren’t acting and reacting in ways that necessarily mean a lot to you. That means turns that aren’t yours are spent not paying too much attention. Normally, this kind of time lets a player make a plan, prepare for their turn to act quickly.

Except in King of Tokyo, you don’t know what you can do until your turn. No plan survives their interface with the dice. Which means you’re waiting, maybe planning, maybe even daydreaming, before you suddenly have the dice in your hand and bam, and suddenly you have to make a plan out of that.

I wish that the game either meant there was less time waiting for those dice, or there was more you could do while you waited. As it is there’s a sort of mental arrest moment.

Me, I don’t know the solution.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

I’ve commented on Dishonored, both entries of its DLC, and its Sequel in the past. It’s a franchise I’m comfortable calling one of my favourites. Now, here we are, at the final entry for this place, a final journey to the Kaldwin Era of Dunwall, and it is with joy and sadness, I return once more, to get to the root cause of all this chaos anew…

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Donald Duck, The Dork Deputy Dad

What follows here mentions some themes in the 2017 Ducktales reboot. Not an actual spoiler of details in the series, just a mention of some of the themes that come out in the first two episodes. If you think you need to go in cold to the first episodes of a tv series about talking ducks, well, okay. Just so you know.

Donald Duck’s a dork.

Really, Donald Duck is an older generation of media, the same generational space as Mickey Mouse. I’m sure animation historians will be able to point to the specific gaps in between first appearances, or the evolution of a character over time, but the experience I’ve always had of Donald Duck is that he’s something old. There’s something of an older time, a time when cartoons were about… something else. It wasn’t like he really belonged in Ducktales either, which as a kid, still felt old to me – perhaps because I didn’t see it until it’d already existed for quite a few years, perhaps because it still centered Donald as important. Somewhat. Sort of.

In the new Ducktales reboot, though, they’ve done something magical by leaning in to this dorkiness. Donald Duck is boring, and unimpressive, and not cool. Who else is boring, and unimpressive, and not-cool, to most kids the age of the triplets?

Your parents.

Ducktales touches on a really weird space, a space between the places I’m at: The children are at a point where they don’t like their parent figures, and don’t see them as people. The parents are at a point where they can’t really see the kids as people, either.

Now, Donald isn’t a parent. It’s worse than that. He’s not the kids’ parents: he’s a person those kids have to respect, because their parent told them to, but he doesn’t have the authority despite the hard work he does to provide for and care for the kids. What’s more, Donald has a hard time communicating in the most pure way with the kids. They don’t have to like him – they like each other, they have one another as friends, they can conspire and confide with one another.

I didn’t like Donald Duck. Yet here, as the series seems to set up the idea of these kids discovering that their uncle is a person, a person like themselves, a person who’s done things, tried things, a person who has achieved and adventured and still has plenty of fun left to have in him?

I really am cheering for the guy.