Starting Making, Concept 1: Halls In The Mark

Okay, okay, I’ve talked about making games, and I’ve tried to talk about getting started, but I know that just because I’ve mentioned something once doesn’t mean it’s always there for people to find. There is a river of content, and restating things in different ways is worth doing, because it means you are more likely to potentially get a hook

I’ve talked about how to view those things, but I haven’t done a lot as far as showing the process, so today I’m going to show you how I approach this process, by taking an idea I have and showing you how I arrive at decisions of what to do after I have the idea. Continue reading

Game Pile: Handsome

I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not to talk about this game, because I feel that it’s almost like a big tweet.

Handsome is a Button Shy wallet game. Sometimes we get these game terms where you might be a bit lost by what we mean, like a hidden identity or bluffing or secret identity or whatever, but this one’s about how big the game is. A wallet game is a game you can stick in your wallet. It’s tiny, it’s so small you can carry it around with you everywhere. This is something Button Shy do really well, with regular kickstarters for very small games.

I keep a copy of Sprawlopolis in my bag all the time now – it just lives in the little section of things I never have to check because odds are I’ll always want one, and it’s proven to be a wonderful tool for introducing people to my particular genre of game.

Anyway, Handsome is the next game by them and it’s almost a kind of roll-and write, a game that scales up deftly to any number of players.

Handsome is a card game where there are community cards, your own cards, and you’re trying to build words out of them. It’s elegant in its scoring and its system – you get as many vowels as you want, but then you have to make as long a words as you can, involving as many of the different suits of letter on the table, and that’s it. That’s the whole cycle. You see who gets the most points, then you can play to more letters or not.

There’s no intense tension about the word play here. You don’t need to do a lot of interconnected play, there’s no board, it’s this tiny little thing, and there’s not a lot of rules to learn. It’s very pure little game, and that’s why I feel like praising it is almost just… y’know. A tweet.

Hey, it’s another Button Shy game. I bought it, because I thought it looked good, and I played it, and it’s great. There, tweet sized greatness.

I think a real measure of a game’s quality is how quickly after playing with you, someone goes and gets their own copy. I don’t know about you but I’ve always had a tense relationship with games, with my friends, because even when I’m having fun and enjoying the experience, there’s a part of my brain that’s still the damaged little church kid knowing that they’re putting up with my weird little interest as an act of kindness and the second I’m out of sight, they’ll breathe a long sigh of relief.

I showed this game to my sister on a Saturday.

That monday, she bought the Print-And-Play and was playing it with her class.

I Like: Dave And Jeb Aren’t Mean

I grew up in a bubble of what I refer to as ‘Christian Replacement Media,’ which is this space full of movies and tv shows where the budgets are low, the talent pool is shallow, and there’s a host of very natural and normal things that the shows can’t depict, because it’s a moral evil to have a character swear. It’s not enough that the work shows people who swear as bad, or that swearing be rare, it’s that swearing at all is bad.

These are stories that try to do moral panic and endangerment and horror of the other by such things as ‘someone grabbed my wrist’ or ‘a black person said hey unprompted, with an accent,’ and the romances in them appear at the last instant, as the boy we’re followed meets a girl and she smiles at him and the music swells, implying they are absolutely going to be together forever.

Christian Replacement Media is a lot of things. Mostly it’s surreal, a sort of heightened reality where the story winks at you and says You know how this is meant to work, meaning they don’t have to show you the things they’re hinting at. It’s media by summary.

Anyway, what that means is that when I discovered Dave and Jeb Aren’t Mean, a podcast about two normal humans with normal frames of reference reviewing the movies of the Hallmark network, I was hooked.

Hallmark make movies that are not Christian Replacement Media, but are designed to form part of that space, the spackle of the entertainment media. You know, you don’t necessarily want to appeal only to those consumers, but if your work fits in their landscape, there’s a large market of the no-swears no-offensive-content as-few-black-people-as-possible media.

These stories are weird and unnatural, and this podcast makes them a hilarious part of the landscape that I heartily recommend you check it the heck out.

What Can Hide In Your World?

Watching Hannibal – which is bad, by the way – I was reminded of an old conversation about hiding things in your setting. The same idea is root to the narrative of Brightburn, and in turn tangled around the root of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, it’s a question that’s important to the world building in your games, because it shows what your world has room for.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, superheroes can ‘lay low,’ and be more or less well hidden, but once they start ‘doing stuff’ of any scale it’s pretty likely they get found. This is because that world has a organisation that makes a positive showing of constantly looking for these people (‘in some way’) and the narrative kind of doesn’t ask any questions about what that means. Now, in this world, the point of this is to bring superheroes into attention and get past the boring bits of an origin story – just have the Shield folk turn up a new hero, and get involved in the story at an interesting bit after all the tedious bits are over. This is to say that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s literally a heroic surveillance state that not only does things you want them to do (speed up superhero stories) but makes monitoring everything in the world seem cool and doable.

In Hannibal, there’s somehow enough means for multiple serial killers with lurid, vividly horrible modus operandi to spring up in one area over the course of a few weeks, with their activities overlapping, and the department of the FBI that was set to the task of dealing with them was like, five people. Now, that seems weird to me, but that’s what this setting needs – and I mean, if Hannibal Lecter is a wealthy millionaire then it’s kind of fine, I guess, that he can just murder people with impunity, but if that was the case why would he bother being so careful about his identity? The story already has a monster – Mason Verger – whose money makes him immune to punishment, so like, what does it matter that these things are hidden? How are these bodies being moved around, these elaborate tableaus being only discussed by one sleazy blog?

In Brightburn, the question is ‘how likely is a meteorite landing to be noticed in the year of our lord 2010,’ which I guess leans on the wall of what’s believable, but also then builds a story about ‘how creepy and invasive can a single kid be without anyone noticing it, and how likely is that to be de-escalated.’ That’s interesting.

(Brightburn doesn’t do anything interesting with it).

The thing is, in each of these cases, these are worlds that are meant to be like ours – some even give a specific date! In our world, it’s hard to maintain fictions about big events, because we have recording devices everywhere, a sort of sousveillance state.

In a fantasy setting, we don’t tend to have rapid communication, but we do tend to have a reasonably modern vision of trade. It’s one of the funnier things I’ve noticed in most fantasy RPG settings – there’s a vision of commercial trade that’s generally a lot further along than the technology and societies imply. I actually really like Erik’s term of Castlepunk for this – you’re not gunning to represent a real pre-rennaisance world, you’re just jamming the cool looking bits of it together and asserting that it would make sense, so relax. The point is, people are moving, and goods are moving, and people are buying and selling things in a meaningful way. That means they’re talking.

Something to consider for your D&D settings, then, to think about in terms of how well they know the places next door. Every place you go probably knows two or three things about the place one town over, and they probably know the biggest place in the region. Think about it as an exercise; three individual ideas about each adjacent place, and three ideas about the capital. You can even treat these lists as traits of the place.

For your town, jot down say, five traits. People in the town know five of them, people one town away maybe know three, and people another town over know one. This is a really simple, dirty trick for starting out your worldbuilding, but it does the job of representing the way information moves around from place to place.

Turning The Gear Of Surprise Mechanics

The play of an actor, the play of a gear. When you hear a phrase enough it can dull out, lose its meaning, and in academia, some sentences are constructed so that they convey a host of ideas in a small space and allow for branching discussions. The medium is the message, and the many ways you can expand that sentence, to show different things that McLuahn said in other places, in other times, because they were all built off that idea.

Hold onto that, we’ll need it later.

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Story Pile: Snow White and the Huntsman

Back in February, you may remember – because you read everything I write, right? – that I tried to make a bunch of articles about smooch media, and one of my choices was to try and focus on romantic movies that were doing something interesting and cool and not just another Two Extremely Hot Movie Stars Awkwardly Bump Into Each Other In A Predictable Way.

At first I found there was this seam of ‘romance’ movies that were clearly made for men – my iconic example is This Is War, a movie about two super-spies that compete for a hot girl and an action movie breaks out while they’re doing super creepy abuse of surveillance state technology in order to get emotional upskirts of this girl. Now, I felt in my heart that I’d really like an action movie romance if the romance was just between two people of comparative levels of attractiveness.

That’s another thing. Dudes in romance stories are either tremendous people with the emotional capacity of a grape, or they’re potatoes that get girls because they’re in a designated story slot. There are a lot of movies about ugly dudes getting beautiful women to fall in love with them – things in the mould of Knocked Up or, well, any where the central male actor is known primarily as a comedian and not as a ‘leading man.’

I was honestly really hopeful then, when I popped open Snow White And the Huntsman.

And what I got was an amazing sequence of failures.

Spoilers ahead.

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A Dead Week

I simplify talking about this blog as “I write something every day.” And I do that, generally speaking, but it’s not like what I write, every day, goes into this blog. For example, in May and June, I did a flag thread on twitter, which was a huge amount of research and work, and a lot of that work was writing work. That all got put onto twitter, and that work didn’t show up on the blog here.

Now, there was something that went up every day, because I made a backlog on my blog. I’m happy with that. This week – which is back in June – I have been sick. And like, surprisingly sick. One part of that has been difficulty sleeping, and difficulty composing complex thoughts. Bonus: This is the time I’m revising a most important part of my next stage of my PhD, which means if I have 12 points of brain-think each day, those 12 points are going to get used on my PhD, sorry, and that means nothing much else happens.

I’ve been trying to prioritise and one thing that that prioritising means is that at the end of the day, if I need an extra six hours of sleep, those extra six hours are going to happen before another blog post. Which does mean that now, as I start to feel better (he says, hoping), I need to climb back in to the backlog.

It’s easy to get the impression from me that I’m this endlessly productive super-beast, which I’m just not. I have my setbacks too. I’ve just set things up to make these things less obvious.

I know some of you are just starting out working on writing. It can be really scary to look at what other people are doing, and think they’ve always got on top of it, they’re always fine. I’m not fine right now. I’m not producing as much or as easily as I want to be. And now I am recovering.

Hunter’s Dreams – Handling ‘Race,’ Part 2

This is more work on Hunter’s Dream, a 4th Edition D&D-compatible mod made to enable a Bloodborne style of game, where players take on the role of hunters, who have to first research their prey before going out to the tactical combat stage of things where players get to have cool fights with werewolves and whatnot.

Last time I outlined some of the problems with ‘race’ as she is treated in the game of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, the challenges of making settings through the ‘race’ option, and the potential, unconnected legal concerns with how to treat races so as to not invalidate the rules of making 4th edition D&D content.

Those are our parameters, the problems we need to consider. Now let’s talk about what I’m going to choose to overcome this.

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Game Pile: Yoshi’s Crafted World

Yoshi’s Crafted World is, well, it’s a Yoshi game. It’s a Yoshi game, made by Nintendo, and that means that there’s a part of my brain with a groove worn into it where this game locks a strange mechanism that means that I’m constantly in mind Yoshi’s Island, one of the best console games I’ve ever played. As I write this, I’m hearing the music from the game – but not Crafted World, the music from Yoshi’s Island. It’s part of me.

I’ve talked in the past about how much impact Yoshi’s Island had on me as a player, but I also know that being A Yoshi’s Island isn’t enough to pollute my common sense and leave me unable to rationally examine a game, because the game Yoshi’s Island DS annoyed me a great deal for Not Being As Good as Yoshi’s Island.

Any given Yoshi’s Island game is going to be judged then in terms of how well it delivers on the platonic ideal of the first Yoshi’s Island game that I love the most. Yoshi’s Story gave more visual depth and less fluid flow. Yoshi’s Island DS offered larger levels but they weren’t as good.

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Hunter’s Dreams – Handling ‘Race,’ Part 1

This is more work on Hunter’s Dream, a 4th Edition D&D-compatible mod made to enable a Bloodborne style of game, where players take on the role of hunters, who have to first research their prey before going out to the tactical combat stage of things where players get to have cool fights with werewolves and whatnot.

This time, he said, in the tone of voice of a breathless white boy who has just completed his first college course on the topic, I want to talk to you about race.

Race in D&D is a fraught topic, so going ahead, we’re going to talk about some things that are racist, and we’re going to talk about trope space and fantasy novels, and how those things are going to be racist too. Just be braced. This is before we talk about the choices I’m making in Hunter’s Dream as much as it is about me thinking my way through the problem and whether or not it’s good to address it in this.

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Defining Mastery Depth

Hey, let’s talk about things for talking about games! And sure, it’s old hat to me, but if I use it and you don’t know what I mean, I look like a stupid asshole talking over your head, and it’s important to remember everyone learns a concept somewhere!

I want to talk about Mastery Depth, a term I used when talking about Century: Golem, then realised I may have never mentioned it anywhere before. I mentioned it offhandedly, but never really sat down and wrote out what I mean when I describe it in games, or what it’s good for or what it’s not.

Here’s the concept, then: Mastery. The ‘put it in a single sentence’ version of Mastery looks like this: Mastery is the way the game is affected by having already come to understand the game.

That’s a small sentence, it’s reasonably simple words, and it’s also a little confusing. I’ll try to explain it better. For pretty much every game, previous experience playing the game makes the game easier to play. Sometimes that’s just a matter of learning the rules more thoroughly, so you don’t need to look things up. Sometimes it’s about knowing what you should prioritise in the game, after the rules present them to you as a big wave of equal stuff.

Mastery depth is a way to look at a game in terms of how much of what a game does that rewards players with more or less mastery. Is there a game you can think of where there’s a particular dangerous situation that can come up and you need to know how to recognise it? What about the way we see Chess, a game with a variety of ‘openings’ that require learning a new language to understand? Mastery is how you recognise those things. A game that rewards mastery often rewards playing with mastery – games like Dungeons and Dragons are mind-blowingly complex, but as you master them you learn how to stop caring about unimportant details, and learn ways to build the game to get the outcomes you want.

A lot of games get called ‘bad’ because they lack mastery depth, and some are ‘bad’ because their mastery depth has a hard limit. Connect Four and Tic-Tac-Toe are games that once you understand them enough are solved, and the person with sufficient mastery knows the way the game will go and wins it. By comparison, though, there are some games where it’s hard to tell different levels of mastery – you can look to the intricate and complex development of Magic: The Gathering, where asking a computer to calculate ‘best plays’ in any given situation is brain-explodingly difficult.

I think about this because one type of game I’m trying to avoid creating and sharing with my niblings is games where I, a grown adult with time to focus and a better constructed memory and a lot of experience, am just always going to beat them because they are kids. This has meant I’ve been delighted by some games I normally used to think of poorly – I bought King of Tokyo and have found it an exceptional game in its class, for example.

Bear in mind what players need to know, how much they have to play, and if your game needs mastery or rewards mastery, and if you’re okay with that. Mastery is fun! I love games with a lot of mastery depth… but I’m also learning to love the games that are a bit less likely to reward you for a long-term plan.

City of Heroes and the Clamps!

In case you weren’t aware, City of Heroes is (as I write this) back (kinda?), and with it comes the return of forums. These are not places I’ve been going, because these forums are full of people whose opinions I do not much respect, and what’s more, now they don’t have an actually gatekept developer space, so instead we have a group of very entitled people wanting to talk about making development changes to a game they’re very confident they know how to ‘fix.’

Most of the time, these people don’t know what they’re doing or talking about, and don’t know how hard or easy what they’re suggesting would be to implement that. One suggestion I’ve heard is about something someone sees as contentious, is getting rid of the CLAMP.

For those not aware of very old development lingo, the Clamp is a term used in City of Heroes development for the to-hit formula. The basic idea was that any time you tried to attack something, the game would do some math and you’d see whether or not you successfully hit your opponent. No matter what you did to your chance to hit, you’d always have a 5% chance to miss, and that’s the ‘Clamp’ of the discussion.

It’s a pretty silly thing to get angry about because you might be familiar with this as a basic critical miss mechanic. This mechanic is common to a lot of tabletop games, and really, common to a lot of videogames that are just so gauche as to not tell you they’re doing math when they try and shoot you.

I’m not going to get into an argument with this person about why the Clamp should be around, or why their suggestion to get rid of it in a game that otherwise works fine is nonsense, but it did make me think about addressing why you even want a critical failure system in a game at all.

 

The thing this Clamp did for City of Heroes in combat is what it does in all other games that use this system for combat: It stops combat from ever reaching a place of being potentially identical. When you throw a fireball into a group that it will probably kill, the fact you can’t be sure who will survive is important to make sure that your turn has some variance in it. In City of Heroes, where you’re making hundreds of attack rolls over sequences of seconds-long combats in minutes-long missions, these little bumps of the unreliability mean that you’re still making decisions and choices while you play, because you can’t be sure who will run and when.

Now, that’s not to say critical misses or absolute failures are a good thing in all games. One of my favourite designs in Blades in the Dark is because in that game, ‘success’ seems very attainable – it’s usually something like a 1/2,  with some complications, and any extra dice make it more likely you’ll get something like a success. The pool of dice you roll is never very big, and that means you’re likely to get hit with random variance and then that failure becomes a thing.

Similarly, you can check how the kinds of times you want to make those checks. In City of Heroes, these rolls to see if you succeed or not are made when you want to attack something, but not when you’re seeing whether or not you successfully craft and object you want for your build. It’s not that this is a game where you can always fail, it’s a game where you want to represent combat as being about an interesting experience, whereas crafting is more about just getting what you want when you pay for it.

These systems are not used without a reason, and the reason to use them is challenging to explain to players. Players may think they want the game to never let them miss, but if you give them that game, they may find it more boring, less interesting but never know exactly why. It’s a really dark art, tuning player experience, and there’s going to be things they don’t like that they don’t know why they don’t like.

Story Pile: Solo

Disclosure: Someone I know worked for one of the companies that got Solo made. I don’t know the precise details and I don’t want to pry, but there you go. I don’t imagine they care that much if I think the movie is good or bad, and they haven’t spoken to me about the movie’s quality.


With that in mind, some bonafides up front: I am the Doesn’t Really Think That Much Of Star Wars guy. Not a ‘they were better when I was a kid’ guy or the ‘well this stuff lacks the depth of cinema veritate’ guy, but just someone who has for some reason or another never had that much of a high opinion of Star Wars as a franchise. I have had my fair share of Star Wars media – mostly in the form of videogames, books and my fill of watching the movies – so I am not ignorant of it, I just don’t really think it’s very interesting. It’s a bit like Monopoly – I understand that it has a deep cultural impact and lots of people are very familiar with it but I just don’t think it’s particularly good.

I guess the easiest way to explain what kind of Star Wars fan I am is that I think 90% of the movies are boring and the remaining 10% is all full of Ewoks.

Anyway, Solo is a movie seen as ‘controversial’ because Star Wars fans are just the worst kind of joke. There’s just the silliest kind of swirl of ridiculousness around this movie’s box office sales, conspiracy theories that are one step removed from saying ‘the Jews don’t want a movie about a strong white man to succeed!’ and there’s a lot of noise. Since it seemed Star Wars fans didn’t like it, I thought hey, maybe I should check it out. Maybe I’d like it, if it wasn’t something that appealed to the kind of people who thought Star Wars was good. Right? There’s a logic there, surely?

Anyway, I kind of love this awful movie, but I also kind of hate this great movie.

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Goldshire Inn Ethnography

Before there was photography, there was heliography. It was from around the 1820s, and to make a picture with heliography you needed to get a big funnel-shaped distorted mirror to capture sunlight and direct it through a glass lens and onto a plate of chemicals and it created an image. Things had to hold very still while the sunlight ‘etched’ onto the chemicals, and it was pretty quickly outmoded by photography.

The heliograph was used in its narrow window of time in the – haha – sun, to take pictures of naked ladies, who came in and held poses long enough to get shadowy silhouettes made.

In Game Research Methods, Lankoski and Bjork explain a bunch of different methods for studying games academically. It addresses techniques that are unique to games, ways that games fit in with existing research tools, and challenges that games have that people unfamiliar with them won’t necessarily consider. This is where I first got the idea of Stimulated Recall, where recording yourself playing a game, then watching that playback is a chance to talk about and experience your mental state and give a more accurate accounting of the play experience.

This book also includes a really interesting chapter about understanding the ramifications of ethical disclosure in digital spaces as it relates to subjects (people) and their ability to share information. That’s a big sentence but it’s basically a finding from a researcher who was studying people ERPing in WoW.

Now I’m not going to infantalise you and pretend you have no idea what those acronyms are. For the sake of completion, though, ‘WoW’ refers to World of Warcraft, and ERP refers to ‘Erotic Roleplay.’ It’s got a lot of possible terms but the basic idea is using text roleplay in a game’s shared space to roleplay out sex.

Now, some people react to this discovery with incredulity, which I find kinda tiresome, but yeah, if you have literally never heard of this: People do this. In fact, people doing this is as old as the internet itself. In fact, back in the day, before the internet, people used to write dirty letters to one another, to make up a sexy narrative. Like, written with hand. There even used to be a whole range of clever acronyms for those dirty letters, a hidden language that was designed to convey information to the insiders and keep the communication fast and fluid.

A lot of those letters you see people reading in World War 1 re-enactment dramas, a tearful moment as the music swells and you, the audience, reflect on this humanising moment as this soldier is connected to their home country and given a reason to feel just for this moment not here in this filthy trench?

Those letters were really dirty.

Anyway the chapter is interesting and includes a lot of self-examination from the researcher, who realised that their work was not just about examining the interactions of objects in a space, it was the behaviour of people, and reading logs of people boning meant getting insights not just into the practice academically, but also the way people feel about themselves, and one another. About the meaning of our virtual bodies, the bodies we use to express ourselves, and it’s all very good reading and it’s very interesting about designing your data capture so it takes into account the ethical needs of intimate places that players create. It’s really interesting.

It’s also four years old, and built on existing research into ERP. Which is why I know those things about those filthy letters, and about the heliography of naked ladies. People make stories with one another, and people use technology, and one of the most common things people use that technology for, and make those stories about, is, well, sex. Sometimes weird sex, sometimes chaste sex, sometimes circling around not wanting to call it sex.

I guess I bring this up because I still see people using ‘people ERP on the internet’ as a punchline. Sometimes a website like Polygon or Waypoint will talk about it and in a very hamfisted way I get to watch as other people slap at the topic with a lack of nuance that speaks of embarassment.

People do this. It’s not weird. Try and have some chill about other people’s fun.

Owlbear Traps

In the past I have remarked upon the idea of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition’s quality as it being a game that lacked ‘bear traps.’ This is just a basic metaphor, you know, comparisons between a thing that could hurt you hiding in an undergrowth, that you might never realise was there until after it hurt you? It wasn’t ever meant to be a genuine game design term, not something I’d use in serious discussions.

Yeah except now I’m using it and I need to nail down that to make sure people might know what I mean, and I’m going to be very specific here. I’m talking about Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition as examples of game design, and I’m talking about the overall philosophy of the game.

Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition did not mind or care if you had a bad time that was the game’s fault.

I’ve spoken in the past about the sorcerer and the wizard; the tension that lay between two classes that were very similar, with one just being markedly worse than the other, and the competitive design mindset between them. I’ve also spoken in the past about how there’s this class, the Druid, where they have a class feature that’s about 80% of everything that a Fighter is, and how over time, that class feature improves faster than the fighter, resulting in overtaking in the mid-game.

The big issue of 3.5 class balance is that melee combat was, just in general, not as good as magic. Ranged combat wasn’t that good either, but it could be made to compete with magic, mostly through the use of magic. The best archers in the game were inevitably spellcasters using magic to compensate for what the fighters and rangers were given, and still had their spellcasting besides.

This is something of the philosophy of this game, where it wants it to be possible to mess up building or playing your character. It’s a way to represent ‘being good’ at Dungeons and Dragons. Which is an interesting idea, and one that I kind of want to support, on one level. I think games are better when they’re made as sequences of interesting decisions; deck-building in Magic: The Gathering is an interesting decision, and that doesn’t make the game play experience of it that different. Heck, you could view a draft, then a deck build, then the matches of Magic: The Gathering as multiple different games, with all sorts of interesting decisions along the way.

 

The problem is that an evening of drafting for Magic: The Gathering is maybe four hours and you’re done while building a Dungeons and Dragons character in 3.5 required an enormous investment in time because you could only level them up as the game progressed.

It’s also gatekeeping: The game wants to give you the means to screw up at it, because the idea is that doing well or making smart choices is more satisfying and rewarding. Except your character, their feats and their powers are not a small choice; they grow over time based on your experience playing a game and may take months or years to come to fruition. You might need to read dozens of books to get a handle on how a character really works – the full breadth of a character may be dozens of books, some of which are totally unrelated.

This game presented you with choices of varying difficulty, but you needed enormous context to know how those choices worked. And you had to master the system to ever appreciate how bad some of the choices were.

And thus we have an owlbear trap: A way in which Dungeons and Dragons 3.5’s design philosophy prioritised servicing an enfranchised, qualified group of players in order to make it tangibly more desireable to do the things those players liked. Or to simplify: An owlbear trap is when you make it possible for new players to fail, just because they’re new.

Game Pile: Century Golem

First up, if you like light economic euro-style games, where nobody is actually trying to attack one another, and where the goal you’re building towards is just something nice and wholesome, I wholeheartedly recommend Century: Golem Edition.

It’s a great game, particularly because it doesn’t have tons of mastery depth to it; you’re not going to have an advantage over the player who plays it three times when you’ve played it twenty times. Everything you can do in this game, you learn how to do in the first turn, and after that, it’s just a matter of reacting well to what’s happening in front of you.

Players getting ahead put themselves behind, and even the last card flipped can change the fate of the game without feeling unearned. It is a game so quick that you’re rarely left waiting for your turn, but it’s still a game where it’s worth having a think about what you want to do.

Century: Golem Edition is an excellent economic trading game, and if you want this kind of game, this is a fantastic example of it. It is a fantastic example of the kinds of things this hobby can do.

It is also beautiful for its mechanics, and its base assumptions.

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Gnome Names

Hey, you know Gnome names? Popwhistle, Grindgear, Bombfuse, Fizzlewist.

Why are they like that, you think?

 

In almost any setting I’ve seen with Gnomes, they tend to follow this kind of rule. Sometimes the setting is a little more Tolkeiny and the Gnomes are sometimes Halflings or Hobbits or (god help me) Kender, but there’s this race of small people who are inventive, tinkery, and have these strangely modern compound names.

Now, names that are modern words isn’t unreasonable, in my culture. I know a number of people who have names like Cloud, South, West, Green or so on. But those names are all old and they’re rarely compound like that. What’s really interesting about the Gnome names is that Gnome names are words in whatever non-Gnome language they’re presented with.

It’s a well-accepted piece of modern lore that people’s names have meanings, phrases or terms that they owe their derivation to. Even basic and boring ones like James and John and Peter have some connection to an earlier iteration of the name, some thing you can translate them to. Gnome names, however, come translated already – Cogwhistle Buzzthump is two compound words in the language of the reader (in this case, English).

From this I can derive two things:

  1. Gnome names are some kind of agglutinative language, made up of bits you can jam together
  2. Gnomes think humans are total assholes who will translate their names into English rather than try and get them right

This is, incidentally, a problem that a lot of recorded history of Native Americans in the United States have to deal with. Peoples names get translated like they’re not names, but are rather titles. So instead of referring to when Mo’ohtavetoo’o was betrayed by The Strong And Steady Digger, we refer to Black Kettle being betrayed by George Custer.

I dunno, Gnome names are racist or something (they’re probably not).

The One Good Bit Of Punisher Season 2

I thought, for a while, about doing a Story Pile about Netflix’s The Punisher second season. I mean I watched the whole thing, how bad could it be, I mean, if I spent that time, surely I could divine something to talk about in it. Then I kept finding it was easier to come up with other things to talk about than it, and with the news that Netflix’s MCU is ending, it seemed somewhat pointless.

I mean the most interesting thing to say about The Punisher season 2 was that it was impressive the way it maintained the badness of the first season. Like, normally media this bad is bad because nobody in charge could tell how a thing was meant to work, and the result is unfocused and sluices down to a worst point. The Punisher instead manages to be bad in a way that’s consistent and reinforces the failures of the previous season, and that’s impressive, in a way.

And that’s the problem with an article about it. Because an article about this series would mostly be me telling you how it sucks just like the last one.

Instead, I want to talk about one scene, one snippet of a scene, even, and it’s the best thing in the whole show. You don’t even need to know any of the characters or much context. It’s spoilery, though, so if for some reason you wanted to take the series seriously and avoid spoilers, now is your chance to get out.

(Why, though.)

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Dwarves Write The Histories Where Orcs Had It Coming

An idea I’ve never been able to shake is the D&D racial animus between dwarves and orcs-and-goblins 3.5 D&D presented.

This is an idea that stems basically from your Tolkein source material, but it has a weird side effect when you interrogate it, because of time.

Dwarves are so good and so used to fighting orcs and goblins that they have all got an advantage at it. Like, this is stuff baked into their culture so deep their pastry cooks and their ponces all know how to lay into an orc a bit.

Look at this chart (obtained from d20srd.org):

Table: Aging Effects
RaceMiddle Age1Old2Venerable3Maximum Age
Human35 years53 years70 years+2d20 years
Dwarf125 years188 years250 years+2d% years
Elf175 years263 years350 years+4d% years
Gnome100 years150 years200 years+3d% years
Half-elf62 years93 years125 years+3d20 years
Half-orc30 years45 years60 years+2d10 years
Halfling50 years75 years100 years+5d20 years

 

Ignore the halflings and elves and all that, we’re focusing now on the Half-Orcs and Dwarves. Goblins in the Monster Manuals are said to live a variety of years, depending on which one you read, but they tend to hover around 30 to 40. Orcs and Hobgoblins have a similar range, and Races of Destiny presents a Half-Orc’s lifespan as capping out at an absolute max of 80. By comparison, a dwarf’s maximum age is 450.

A dwarf, by middle age, has seen the rise of nine orc or goblin generations.

Consider what that means to humans. If I fought the man that killed my grandfather when they were both young, that man would be old, now. In this case, an orc facing the dwarf that killed his grandfather is facing someone who time has not weathered at all.

What’s more, the reasons, the motivations for doing so – they’re not around. When you look at how these books present orcs, goblins and dwarves don’t have cities or civilisations; they have things called warrens and camps. They’re presented as being kind of what we’d normally consider ‘pre-civilisational’ and that means they don’t do things like agriculture or writing books that tend to be how we, as people who do agriculture and writing books consider a hallmark of being ‘real’ cultures. Let’s set aside the obvious bias here, and just look at the effect. It’s going to be very hard for these Orc and Goblin cultures to have clear records of what happens when they have wars with the Dwarves.

They don’t have maps or border or maybe even the concept of a country. They’re typically represented as illiterate and use a script that’s not even their own native tongue to write in when they do. They don’t get to know why the dwarves rolled in, but the dwarves do. It’s one of the most obvious things about the dwarf culture as it’s represented: They are old, and they are stubborn, and they remember old grudges.

From the perspective of the orc, the dwarf is an implacable unstoppable juggernaut that emerges from the mountains to kill a generation for reasons that are never truly scrutable. Their armour and weapons are older than your civilisation. They are like cataclysmic storms.

And the dwarves have been doing this for so long that everyone knows how to fight an orc.

Everyone.

And the orcs and goblins and hobgoblins don’t get a bonus against the dwarves.

Consider who’s telling us these stories; the people with their forts and their steel and their axes and their maps and their records who teach their members to murder goblins and orcs and hobgoblins that they never have met and never have any reason to meet. A clockmaker isn’t going out of their way out of the fortress to go forage around in dangerous hobgoblin areas for gear parts. But he knows how to stove an orc’s head in.

Here’s your lesson, game-design wise. These decisions were all made to reinforce flavour from a fiction: In Tolkein’s books, dwarves and orcs were at war, and dwarves were player characters and orcs weren’t, so dwarves got a bonus to help players who play dwarves be excited to fight orcs. The ages follow through from Tolkein too – created monsters like the orcs don’t need a culture, they’re just there to be fought, so it doesn’t matter if they’re short-lived. They’re a byproduct of someone else’s war machine. Dwarves are meant to have long kingdoms and take a long view, so they have to last longer than humans. It all makes sense.

But the mechanical choices made here to represent this flavour create an eerie kind of genocide-capable culture that seems to exist to punish a nearby stone age culture for crimes that culture may not even understand as crimes.

These dwarves seem like they’re really bad, to me.


The dwarf-goblin header art is from Jeffry Lai on deviantart

The bumper image is the cover art for Battle of Skull Pass, which best as I could find was by John Blanche

Story Pile: Neon Genesis Evangelion

DISCOURSE CONTAINMENT

Neon Genesis Evangelion is twenty-five years old. It is not a new series. It is not a series lacking in exposition or consideration or study. It is an important text but it is also vitally an old text. There is a degree to which the conversations around Evangelion are not just uninteresting, but are now completely tedious.

You might have seen it the first time, ever, this week. You might be planning on watching it. You might be wavering on whether or not you do. After all, it’s a Big Deal, why not?

There will be no meaningful spoilers for Evangelion. I’m barely going to talk about anything that’s in the show at all. But I am going to talk about this series and some of the reasons it matters, and the most important fact, that this series means a lot less than it matters.

DISCOURSE CONTAINMENT

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June 2019 Wrapup!

The theme months are proving to be really challenging – so far the only month that’s felt easier for having a theme is April, where I got to voice basically whatever I wanted and gave myself license to be a bit mean or spiteful. This time around, Pride month has been a challenging time of finding things to talk about that weren’t The Same Thing over and over.

Blog Posts!

Still, there were some articles I was proud of; I liked my piece on the Stunticons, I liked musing about queer mechanics, and I spent a bunch of time considering just what I meant by ‘queer media,’ too. I liked my review of Billionaire Banshee, and so did its creator! My feelings are still up in the air about the huge post about Final Fantasy Crysal Favela Nibilis, but I’ll give it this: I had to do a lot of research to make it happen.

Video!

The video this month was a lot of fun to do. I didn’t want to make it so simply, but thanks to coordinating time and audio needs, here’s what we got: Fox and Talen talking about character design and the dateability of various Planeswalkers in War of the Spark based on their Japanese art!

Shirts

Shirts, well it was a big month for shirts. Without filling this post up with a bunch of pictures, I’m just going to link to the many different shirts I made this month. Something I did this month that I’m pretty proud of is a giveaway contest; I gave stickers and shirts away this month, for each of the shirt designs I released.

What effect did this have? I have no idea. Hopefully it’s good, but I don’t really know. I like these designs, and I kind of wish they were being bought more, but I also recognise that not many people have a lot of money to spend on Redbubble shirts.

Games?

Game work this month has been bored in with a laser-like focus on my PhD work. Sorry, folks. It’s been getting some partial inference – I’ve been playing this little Carthage game idea. There are also some more pieces on Hunter’s Dream going up in the next month, which are a bit more long-form and detailed about problems and solutions.

Personal Life!

In my personal life? This month has been really weirdly difficult. Not difficult because I’ve been experiencing pain or trauma, or anything in particular has been really impacting me? But I haven’t been getting sleep, and I haven’t been productive. My backlog this month has dipped down to as few as 24 articles ahead. There were numerous days when my PhD readings were all I could manage to do, and I don’t know why.

I think I might just be really sad in a weirdly generic way. I don’t know what to do about it.

One thing that I did this month was mark my students’ final dossiers, and you know what? Students are really good. I keep saying it, but it is still something that makes me smile. I’m lucky, my students are in a position where mostly they don’t have to try and fool me into thinking they did or get something they didn’t. We don’t do exams or quizzes the way that other subjects have to; the project they make is about demonstrating to me in a clearly communicated way what they did and what they’ve learned. Every time I do this, I find it so rare to find a student who was blowing it off. I even had one student who tried to blow it off, but they got caught up in their project, they focused on what it meant, and suddenly they’re producing this insightful study! It’s great!

Also, this month – and May – I did a flag thread that took most of my nights, and it wasn’t that fun to do. It was a lot of work and a lot of the content was very generic, so I felt like I wasn’t doing a good job.

I don’t have any smart or clever addition here? I’m just… really tired. And I want to be honest about it.

June Shirt IV: Arcadia Bay

For Pride month, I felt I could have a little Wrath.

I’ve said that Life Is Strange is ‘a really good fanfiction attached to a garbage-ass canon made by tools.

Here’s the design:

And here the design is on our friendly gormless supposedly unisex Redbubble model:

And here’s the design being modelled by the Teepublic ghost:

This design is available on a host of shirts and styles. This design won’t go well on stickers, because the faux-distress is part of it. I recommend if you get it, you make sure your colour choice is high-contrast with the yellow, so a green or a red.

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

Fabula Nova Crystallis

Once upon a time, this was a Game Pile about Final Fantasy XIII-2. Then it became an examination of Final Fantasy XIII, as the grounding work for XIII-2. And then, like an archaeologist probing at the edges of a shape, tenatively touching and nudging, I learned the secret. I learned that beneath the shape of Final Fantasy XIII and all the way through to Final Fantasy XV, there was something.

There was a brand.

I started this examination with the best of intentions, the absolute kindest of intentions, I really did. I just wanted to talk about a big JRPG, maybe play through it most of the way, talk about how modern JRPGs have changed, and compare them to my early experiences. It was gunna be fun. I had a few hundred words on menu-based combat and references to Final Fantasies 5 and 6, the ones I like the best. I was going to lead to this sort of ‘change is good’ conclusion that accepted that just because things weren’t the way they were in 1995 doesn’t mean they’re actually bad. I had a trajectory! I had an arc!

It was meant to be basic!

But as you can tell, thanks to the subject, I didn’t get there.

Instead, we’re going to talk about Final Fantasy XIII-2‘s underlying vision, and the Accidentally Lesbians.

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Background Gaydiation

Content Warning: This is an article mostly about extending trust to corporate media and that means I’m going to mention a crap transphobic joke from a movie that’s pretty well liked. There’ll also be mild spoilers for Deadpool, the movie, and Wynona Earp, the series.

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Unserious Queeriness

My first draft for everything this month has been a series of articles that are mostly me yelling angrily about various fan theories about how queer series aren’t queer, or how easily you could queer a series and improve it (Blacklist), but one thing I’ve been avoiding doing too much is talking about work that you might think of as serious queer media.

I have a couple of reasons for this. One is that I tend to find this stuff really super alienating. I’ve been looking for options of Queer Media to cover that I think I can cover in a way that’s useful or meaningful. It has involved interrogating what I even talk about, or why.

Let’s really quickly mark out three types of Queer Media that I don’t want to talk about here: There’s the two spaces of Horny Queer Media which I hope is just pretty obvious, and what I’m going to shorthand as Painful Queer Media, which is where you get your tragic personal memoirs and personal accountings of abuse or transphobia or lesbiphobia or so on, or how hard it was to get your first gay experience, or that sort of thing. Singular, personal vignettes.

The third type, which I’ve talked about already, is Subtextual Queer Media, where the queerness isn’t there so much as it’s easy to see queerness if you know about it. You know, stuff where it’s Queer, and the Fanbase are very sure it’s Queer, but if you can watch it as someone who doesn’t know what queerness is, or who believes that same-sex people can just be friends, then it doesn’t make you ask questions.

Now, I feel ill-suited to talk about Horny media. I had an explanation, but… nah.

Just nah.

And when it comes to the Painful Queer media, I just don’t feel like I’m qualified or that I can offer a meaningful insight. What’s more, showcasing this kind of work feels like the wrong fit for me. Not that it’s not valuable or meaningful, or that I think you shouldn’t make it if it’s the kind of art you want to make.

The idea that Queer media is confined to this space where the art has to be tragic, has to be painful, or it has to be completely facile reminds me of Hannah Gadsby, in Nanette, talking about how for the people who aren’t beneficiaries of the privilege system of our world, to stand on a stage and lay bare your soul is not an act of humility, it is an act of humiliation. I don’t think that I have a meaningful lens to offer on that.

I want to write about adventure. I want to write about heroics. I don’t want to try and make some way to connect my damaged soul to the writings of say, an enby making a game about the challenges of American medical health care. I’m damaged in different ways, so I can’t really offer my meaningful lense to the matter, and I don’t want to hold up these traumatic experiences of other people as if I’m somehow good for showing you this thing you totally would never have checked out if I hadn’t shown it to you.

That’s not what I want to write about either! I don’t see the value. My damage and my situation aren’t, I feel, taken seriously in queer spaces, so it’s not like me saying ‘here’s how this intersects with my pain’ is meaningful to anyone. Tragic manpain, I’m sure. And if I can’t meaningfully contribute to the conversation, I don’t want to be seen as performatively looking at things that don’t speak to me. It was bad enough to deal with a month of romance games that made me feel gross, after all.

Nah, what I want to talk about is fighting and reasons. Characters and motivations, people who do stuff and why they do that stuff. Slow boiling coffeeshop AUs are for other people. Instead, I want to show you queer adventures and stories about fighting baddies and punching dragons and slaying or being cool monsters, but like actually being a cool monster and not a monster being a metaphor for atypical body types and therefore you just want to play videogames and sleep in. That means that I lose some space for complexity, which I guess I’m okay with, because what I lose is stuff I wouldn’t do a good or meaningful job dealing with. Let’s instead spend our time finding queer media that isn’t About Queerness but is instead about Doing Things where Queerness is an assumed standard. I can do fun and goofy and non-intense.

In the words of Griffin McElroy, This is a ding-dong podcast.

Story Pile: Ranma ½

Ranma ½ is a Japanese manga series in the ‘whacky martial artists doing whacky stuff’ genre starting in 1987 and concluding in 1996. It’s a big work – over those ten years of weekly releases it made almost 38 volumes of stories, which range between classical kung-fu duels, adventure stories, harem anime hijinks, school test drama, pg-rated sex romp and magical-realism short stories. It’s probably one of the most important anime of its time, with an influence that stretched well over two decades, and one of the queerest really straight things in the world.

And if you know me, you had to know that me talking about this series is more of a when than an if.

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George Washington’s Gay Best Friend

Hey, you ever heard of this guy? Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben?

You might have seen some stuff with his name on it, around the right area of America. Dude was considered pretty important, because of his contribution to the Revolutionary War. Part of it was his commanding particular units in this sortie or whatever, but the big thing he brought to bear was some ideas for the whole military to use. These ideas included ‘training’ and ‘a field manual’ and ‘being sure people knew what orders meant.’ In a lot of ways, Steuben was responsible for bringing George Washington the basic modern technology of military hierarchy and a command structure, and essentially founded the very template of the American Military.

He was also gay as hell.

Steuben being gay is not a point of ambiguous historical interpretation, by the way. One of the things with looking into the history of the time is that often people who were gay or queer in some way or doing non-conventional gender things were all sort of put into a bucket of ‘well, maybe.’ Were these two historical dudes kissing? Was this woman who dressed and lived in men’s suits their whole life a trans man? What can we know for sure without knowing their inner lives?

Well, Steuben wrote about being gay and he made sure to not sugar-coat his sexual interest in men. His expulsion from the Prussian military was a little ambiguous, but it was clear it was definitely about a sexual relationship with another man. Either he was indiscrete about it, or the breakup went badly, or he cheated on someone, the possible reasons are ambiguous, but in his letters later in life, he was pretty clear that it was something of that nature.

Steuben was an interesting fellow; he also brought an elite guard with him from Prussia, who were all quite well-experienced soldiers from what was, at the time, the world’s elite military force. The other thing he brought to Valley Forge when he began the training was his sleigh, his italian greyhounds, and his ‘beautiful boyfriends.’ People were, in this valley, hungry enough to be eating their shoes, and Steuben rocks up on a sleigh, with dogs and boyfriends, flips off his fur coat and starts the I’ll Make A Man Out Of You bit from Mu Lan.

This is a small bit of history, and I am no fan of the US Military, but gosh it’s funny how a country that was paralysed only a few years ago about the conversation of ‘gays in the military’ forgot that it was founded in one of the gayest ways by one of the gayest generals, who was also one of their undeniable best.

Here’s to you, you massive prancing queer, and your boyfriends, too. Shame how it’s all shaken out.

June Shirt III: Everyone Plays

The last set of shirts was a bit of a heavy lift, wasn’t it? But it was also very much a trans shirt design for trans people, and I wanted to make a few shirt designs that were clearly trans-inclusive without necessarily being self-declarative. I mean, I’m not trans, but I’d still want to wear a shirt that makes my trans friends feel comforted in a gaming space if they see it.

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Game Pile: Diary of a Spaceport Janitor

I picked up this game on the recommendation of my friend Caelyn, and the game’s own descriptor refers to it as an anti-adventure game. The game advertises itself with about as much story as you’re going to get: You play as the Janitor, an Alaensee girlbeast with a municipally-subsidized trash incineration job, who dreams of leaving Xabran’s Rock far behind her. In case you were wondering about whether or not she does, she does not, and the game instead focuses on the narrative of that being.

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CISFORMERS: The Stunticons

You know what let’s trot out a silly personal fan theory based on a tiny window of time. In this TED talk, I will explain to you that the Generation 1 Transformers known as the ‘Stunticons’ are four trans girls dealing with an abusive father figure who wants to keep them closeted.

Content warning, I’m going to talk in a general way about how much Motormaster sucks and about some queer stereotypes, but everything is done in the name of fun and I’m not trying to get you to consider Something Very Serious.

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