Monthly Archives: August 2019

August 2019 Wrapup!

With August over, it’s also the end of Magic Month and it’s time to look at how that worked out.

I am pretty unhappy with the way Magic Month played out, because while I was able to find a bunch of youtube resources on the subject that I enjoyed, a number of them went away over time, meaning I had to pull articles that were originally going to point to wonderful tutorials. I also just couldn’t find that many games that related to magic, the kind of magic I wanted to, and that meant the game pile games kind just wound up being about how hard it is to do magic in the first place. In games, it’s much easier to just fake stuff.

I don’t think Magic Month was a total bust, though: I still loved getting to talk about Ace Attorney: Apollo Justice, and my article on Thimble Riggers and the challenges of dealing with people who believe in actual, real ghosts. Also, I did some writing about a character from City of Heroes,  which was unexpectedly popular. The world building is the main reason I shared it.

Every attempt I had to make a video this month kinda fell through. I have one more trick up my sleeve, but at least for now, enjoy this last half of my previous video – playing out a very conservative The Swindle.

But then, at the last minute, I finally concocted a solution! It was pretty intimidating, but it also taught me a tool I can use and hey, that’s part of why I’m so dedicated to using this video software. Process, right? Anyway, that means I made a second video this month, about the card game Solitaire:

This month’s shirt was born out of the most basic spite – I told my class I’d get this shirt, and so, I made it.

If the subject outline is unclear, tell me how, tell me where. I want to make good subject outlines! I want them to have the information in them that you need that we don’t have to change!

Game work? Well, that’s been subsumed into the PhD this month, despite having a prototype game idea I’m working on. Keep an eye out for a thread on that.

This August has been also part of a major process for me in the PhD. There’s a part of the process known as the Research Progress Report, which is due for presentation in September, which means it needs to be done by August. This was a real work, because it was both building up enough words and then going back from too many words. There was a lot of reading and revising and struggling with a task and managing that task around the time I had to send it.

This is also a month where my backlog of written articles really dwindled – fact is, the RPR took a lot of my effort. Just straight up, it was more important than this blog. I was able to meet both demands, I didn’t miss anything – but I know that throughout these weeks, I have been focusing more on one thing than the other.

This may mean you get some more lists and popcorn style articles. Strangely, though, I’ve noticed a positive response to some of those! I know I’ve said in the past that listicles are a good structure to use, especially when learning how to do things, but I don’t do them very often. I think part of it is that I just don’t have many things I have lists of. I’m more inclined to do single deep dives on things.

Also, a key on my keyboard is failing. Can you guess which one?

Thimble Riggers

As you can tell, this month, I’ve been thinking about magicians.

I’ve been thinking about magic, a thing that’s still happening and living and still being part of shows and performed in goofy tricks in lunch rooms and a thing that’s part of a long tradition that reaches back oh so far. What we call magicians these days we sort of generally recognise as stage magicians, and there’s a well accepted folk wisdom that anything they do isn’t supernatural it’s just often doing things you’d never consider. It’s a trick, right. We call them magicians, and leave the magic undefined. Sleight of hand is magic, mind tricks are magic, communication tricks are magic, prop effects are magic and optical illusions are magic.

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Three Games I’d Like To See

I believe you can make games about everything. That’s not to say you should, necessarily, because I think, for example, we have way too many games that treat ‘the Nazis’ as a side in a fight, and I think my game idea Worse Than Hitler is maybe interestingly good as an educational anticolonialist tool but maybe not something I should be putting on a shelf for general purpose.

Still, there are some game topics I’d like to see made into games, and maybe I even have the edge of an idea, but what I’d really want is for someone else to make them.

1. Roanoke

Roanoke Island colony is an interesting ‘unsolved mystery’ story, but it’s one of those ones where the fantastical explanations (zombie plagues, alien abduction, witchcraft) are way less interesting than the really mundane narratives where either a Native American force responded to colonisers properly, or the colonists integrated into a different culture and ‘went native.’

The thing is, there’s an interesting system idea here where there’s competing resources and the development cycle of the local indigenous tribes, but I’d want it to be framed from the perspective of the indigenous peoples.

I’d want this to be made by indigenous folk, then, and I don’t know who there would find it interesting to play a kind of cooperative game about just living your life, extending charity to some, rebuffing others, and depleting the Roanoke colony as a kind of tumor on your ecosystem, with the ‘victory’ being the colony closing and the people there coming to live in your community.

2. Theatre

I have friends in theatre, and what interests me about theatre has almost nothing to do with the actual productions and instead the making of those productions. Lots of games have ‘theatre’ as a thing that happens and even uses theatre as a framing device for a story game, but I would be really interested to see a game about actually putting the show together, the way that sets need to get made in time, the way that things being made change the way other things get made, and how if you don’t have a tool you can’t practice with it, which will affect the way the show gets put on.

What’s more, shows are made and they’re performed and nothing in it is perfect each night to night, and that creates this interesting resource management element as well, where practice can get weighted against exhaustion and that all seems really interesting. I wouldn’t know how to do a good job of it, myself.

3. Solo Mystery Card Games

I have this engine in mind for a solo mystery game? And I like how it works and it fits together, and when you’re done reassembling all these clues you get a really cool little narrative as told through multiple lines of storytelling, and you can play with themes of like, shattered memory or time travel or that kind of stuff.

The problem is this requires a lot of writing and narrative and revealing partial information and I am not good at that. I’ve tried writing short stories, I’ve tried doing larger reveals, and while mystery is something I can build into games with a connecting tissue like violence, you know, a D&D game, but… without that? With potential mixes like murder mystery or unreliable narrators or time travel, things that I don’t handle well (and don’t like when I see other people handle them badly!), I’m left with an engine that drives nowhere.

 

Counting Cards

Gosh it’s been disappointing month for me and video.

See, one of the things I wanted to talk about this month of magic was the way in which magical tricks and routines are often extremely elaborate sequences of small, familiar, repeatable techniques. This is the root of the show Fool Us! by Penn and Teller, because when you get down to it, magicians who have been practicing magic for a century or more between them are going to have a lot of experience with the building blocks of magic, and magicians are going to work with those pieces. There really are only so many ways you can mess with perception, after all, and it is hypothetically possible to know most of them.

Imagine then, what it is that you get to be one of the people known for the inventing of one of these techniques.

This unassumingly seemingly-British fellow is one Alex Elmsley, who was so good at magic, he’s actually Scottish. Elmsley was a computer programmer, mathematician and in his opinion ‘amateur’ card trick magician, which is a hell of a thing to call yourself when you’re also known as inventing a technique that gets used almost everywhere now.

The technique involves manipulating a small number of cards in a way that leaves people assuming they know the position or number of them. This technique can make a hand of three cards look like a hand of four cards, or a hand of four cards look like three – and it scales up and down. It’s a fantastically clever effect, and you can use it in a dizzying number of tricks – sometimes it’s the whole of an effect, sometimes it’s just a moment.

Elmsley called it the ‘ghost shuffle’ but nowadays, it’s known as the Elmsley Count, which is one of those examples of massive significance attached to a name.

Anyway, what I wanted to do was share a link here to a video of Elmsley’s work on Youtube, the Tahoe sessions, which is a two hour sequence of him doing tricks, but then demonstrating them, and it’s great and educational and fun. I watched it one night a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. When I went to get the link to share here, though, turns out I’d been watching a pirated version, and it was unavailable on Youtube any more, even for money!

He’s charming, he’s funny, and he was exceptional at simple, subtle, clever magic tricks that nonetheless looked brain-meltingly difficult.

Story Pile: Shade

Fact is, poker wasn’t always legal.

It’s weird, really, when you talk about Poker as this modern sport with this enormous culture and giant piles of money associated with it, where there are books and histories and luminaries and a hall of fame. It’s weird because poker not only wasn’t legal for a long time but it’s kind of still not really ‘properly’ legal, not everywhere. There’s a lot of stuff in the history of the game that means that if you’re interested in the way cards can be manipulated, if you’re interested in card magic, there’s a very small group of people who are interested enough to pay you, and there’s a whole world of people interested in paying you if they don’t know you’re doing magic.

There is a rich intersection of the criminal, the gambler, the drifter, and the completely fake wizard, and it shows in the stories we have about these people. It shows because when you find out that guys like Dai Vernon and Ricky Jay were involved in the production of a movie.

The movie, which I didn’t know about until just this year, is a 2003 neo-noir con movie called Shade, which stars Jamie Foxx, Melanie Griffith, Sylvester Stallone (wait, really?), Gabriel Byrne and Stuart Townsend. If you are a fan of the 1990s crime comedy Shooting Fish, which also starred Townsend, and you’re reading this, I guess I’d say, hi, my sister, I’m not sorry I never returned your VHS copy, but I am sorry I lost it.

Anyway, Shade.

We are going to have a bit of a weirdness, though. See, this movie has both a very generic name and a very low profile. It’s not a ‘great’ movie, it’s not a beloved classic, it’s not one of those movies that someone has helpfully ripped into thousands of high quality images on the internet, that I can easily grab and put in my blog article as a way of breaking up the flow of the text and making it clear when I move on to a new point.

So…

Sorry!

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Present Framing

Cards are frames and what you put on the card is framed by that card. Card faces are therefore, a frame within a frame, and what you can do with them changes based on how you present them. Confused? Let’s get to an example.

Here are a pair of cards I mocked up using a picture of Ivy, from Carmen Sandiego, a show that rules, and a character that rules. Seriously, I love this cartoon, it’s great. There’s some temporary text on it to show how much text can fit on this card, or places you can put stuff that fit within the gutters for printing purposes.

Card One

Card Two

Card One makes Ivy and her surroundings into the ‘whole’ of the card. It puts mechanical information on a background (for ease of contrast in printing, and to highlight it and make it easier for the player to recognise it). Card two, rather, puts a larger frame around the same picture, one that covers the whole of the image and limits the underlying picture to a much smaller field.

Card two has the effect of making this picture of Ivy into a picture of Ivy – like, an actual object, a physical thing that’s laying amongst other objects on the card’s face. One of these is trying to make something about Ivy diegetic (the pictures), and the other something non-diegetic (the frame devices hovering around her like a news chyron).

These are both exercises in framing – for example, on Card One, Ivy is present. On Card Two, Ivy is past.

These can be used for different things. The former is probably best for a game where Ivy is assigned to do things, the latter, remote tasks or investigation. Card Two makes Ivy into a subject to be considered; Card One suggests she’s an agent, capable of doing things. If the character is present, they can make more personal, immediate decisions, take immediate actions; if they’re past, they can be considered more in terms of what they’re interested in or useful for.

Hypothetically, you could also do something to make a character impending – maybe a wireframe, or a fade on the image, or their shadow on a wall – make it look like a character is not here yet, to use their card to represent anticipation, or a future.

August Shirt: Subject Outline Shippendon

I didn’t have a magic themed shirt design for this month.  What I did have was a new class, and with it, a joke, and that joke got made into a shirt.

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.

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

Game Pile: Enclosure

Enclosure is an indie adventure game, made by the stunningly under-documented Femo Duo entertainment, who based on their website’s domain I think are from the Netherlands. Thanks to their website being the way it is, I’m not sure when Enclosure came out, but one source said 2004, so we’ll go with that.

Enclosure is an AGI game – the engine Sierra used for their first wave of narrative adventure games, games like Space Quest 1 and 2, Kings Quests 1, 2, and 3, and the first Leisure Suit Larry game. It’s the one with the weird wide pixels, and the text parser that doesn’t pause when you type. The last AGI game released by Sierra proper was in 1989, which means this game came out fifteen years after the AGI was done with.

And it’s a corker.

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CoX: To Be of the Stars

Yeah, I’m sorry friends, but the fact is, I am back on my bullshit.

I did get back into City of Heroes. I was worried for a time there that it would be too much of a drain on my creative energy, because when I was playing The Secret World and World of Warcraft, the time I was normally spending writing, I spent pouring into those games’ tedious maws. When City of Heroes came back, though, of all things, my workplace asked me if I had any insight into it.

Seriously!

I’m playing City of Heroes for work! Honest!

Anyway, City of Heroes is back (for now) and it’s staying (for now) and it’s fun (for now), and I’ve been making characters in it. One thing I’ve been avoiding doing, though, is remaking characters I had elsewhere, or characters from the first iteration of the story that had moved on. I have a bunch of rules for my own creativity, which I’m enjoying sticking to.

Still, I am making characters, and that means playing with character ideas, and that means thinking about wonderful superhero nonsense that I love so much.

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D&D Memories: Adon

If people keep reading these I guess I’m gunna keep posting them.

Okay, so one night we sat down to play D&D and I had to admit that I was kinda tapped out and didn’t have a campaign to start up straight after one I finished. That’s how it went, I think – this detail isn’t super important because I’m not trying to gladhand myself over how much I run, I’m just wanting to make it clear that this was not a big planning moment.

A friend said he had an idea for a campaign, gave us a level, and asked us to make characters. This being 4ed, we had characters made within a few minutes, and we started out. That character creation being so swift though meant that we didn’t come at this with a lot of definition. One player stated boldly that he was playing a Dragonborn, named Maldracus, which,

it means ‘bad dragon,’

and no the player didn’t know.

That set the tone, though – quickly, the idea of a party of monstrous people came up. I wasn’t playing tank or leader this time, which I tended to do – instead, I was given free reign to play one of my long-time wants in the game.

I got to play a druid.

The 4ed druid is one of my favourite things. It has shapeshifting, melee damage, ranged control, a smattering of healing, and a lot of different ways you can focus your build just based on which of these things most excites you. You can even be a quitter and take a build that is a leader, giving up on sweet, sweet beast form, if you want. The book doesn’t specify what ‘beast form’ is, by the way, and you can choose what it looks like whenever you shapeshift, just that it is a natural beast (an animal) or a fey beast (an animal, but funky).

When I was asked to describe my beast form the first time, in an attempt to be impressive and thinking on the fly, I described a black jaguar, but made of vines. It’s 4ed, that sounds fey beasty, that’s great, we went with it. And what ensued then, as I fell into this character, was discovering my wonderful tentacle catboy.

See, once I had this idea of a kind of horrifying feyness to him, the character quickly took shape as clearly not actually an elf. Oh he looked like an elf and he had stats like an elf, but there was all this stuff that was wrong. His hair had tendrils in amongst it, that could move and shift about. He had prominent catlike ears, when administering medical aid he asked where another player character had their hearts, he acted surprised when he took out something’s blood, he just was off. And powers like Firehawk were reflavoured to be strange, bitingly cold holes in the world to another realm.

Basically, I played this druid as if the natural world he was connected to was a bit more Arthur Machen than Beatrix Potter.

Eventually, though we were asked to introduce ourselves by name to an NPC, and this tentacle catboy had to introduce himself. With no name springing to mind, I leapt for the name of the Nameless One’s fake (?) identity from Planescape: Torment: I called him Adon.

Adon got played for about half a year, I think. During that time we learned that druids can go where they want, that you can get a lot done with tentacles, we saw several opportunities to unload the toad and the character got steadily weirder and weirder, in ways I can only describe as chaste-horny. That is, Adon didn’t really have any horniness to him, but everyone could tell how upsettingly sexual things like ‘tentacle catboy’ was, even while Adon was mostly using his shapeshifting and nature powers to turn into a tangle of thorns and kick the crud out of people.

I really properly loved this character, partly as a sort of random grab-bag of parts all happening at once, but also because I’m a sucker for things that transform, and the nobility of his monstrousness all came together in a perfect way.

So hey, invite me to play your 4ed D&D game sometime, I might play an upsettingly sexy tentacle catboy.

The Double Nickel

If you google the term ‘the double nickel,’ you’ll usually find something about trucker slang, from the CB radio days. It refers to 55 miles an hour, two fives next to each other. More obscurely, however, is it’s a term from Magic: The Gathering tournament scenes, based out of New York.

If you like Mike Flores’ writing, this ten year old article from Flores explains the whole thing – but it is a bit of a ‘crystal in time’ moment. It’s from back when there was really one Magic web show, called The Magic Show, back when I argued against Youtube as a platform for Magic content because it simply wasn’t a viable format for me, in Australia with cheap, poor internet. It’s also a bit rambling and full of Flores’ personal affect, which I of all people would be an asshole to complain about, but if you’re only here because of game design, and not here because you’re a massive magic nerd who cares about history of the game, let alone the specifics of the game that were history ten years ago.

The basic idea is the double nickel is you do two iterations of a five-pile shuffle, which, when dealing with a number of cards divisible by five (forty or sixty, as in Magic), you will get back to where you started. This shuffling method is a pretty reliable cheat – used by one Mike Long in a famous cheating incident involving a card called [mtg_card]Howling Wolf[/mtg_card]. And now I’m getting bogged down in the specifics of that game.

Anyway, the thing to know about this is one of the reasons why a lot of my games use these deliberately inconvenient numbers. If you’ve ever played LFG, you might notice there are 23 character cards, so a card always winds up in the graveyard when the cards are dealt out to the players. This is also true in Senpai Notice Me, where part of the setup is to make sure that there’s a card discarded from the game, and so there’s not perfect information about what’s in it.

The double nickel also is something you can use in the setup of a game deliberately. In Pandemic there’s a set of outbreak cards that get shuffled into sub-decks, and so to in Goodcritters, to make sure that there’s an end to the game coming but you can’t be sure of how it arrives. We used this tech in Foxtail, too, to make sure that the end game could be set up without necessarily making it guaranteed.

Story Pile: The Prestige

The Prestige was a 2006 thriller film that’s pretty much successful enough and attached to enough big names in the mainstream movie space that it kind of sits in that space of oh, I’ve heard of that. It’s also a movie built around a twist, and it’s a movie with – well, with prestige.

It’s got Michael Caine! It’s got Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale and Jacko Wolverine and Scarlett Johannsen, and David Bowie! This is a movie with some cred, and that means that it’s a little more seen than most of the ‘magic’ movies I thought about talking about.

It’s also kind of one of those movies that movie makers seem to like making and movie nerds tend to like talking about, so I feel a bit like I’m treading old ground here. You know, it’s got it all, it’s got a nonlinear framing device, it’s got mysteries, it’s got extremely difficult performances to pull off and some technical tricks and CG that makes it look like you weren’t using CG and it’s a period piece so you get to put everyone in funny outfits and top hats. The only thing it really lacks is singing, which Hugh Jackman would have gotten in there if it was up to him, you know it.

Anyway, I’m going to talk about the movie, which is kind of built around twists, and just mentioning that there are twists is going to be a twist so yeah sorry, I spoiled you that there’s a twist (and I don’t actually care) and there will be more, after the cut. Also I’m going to mention other things he did, like Inception and maybe make fun of people who claim those movies are super complex.

However, in deference to the fact that this movie does Go Places, I have selected my screengrabs for this article entirely at random from a website that has way too many of them. There is literally no way for me to be sure what exact context I’m giving these things, but trust me, it’s not intentional.

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Making Magic (In Games)

Now, I’ve talked about magic and cards this month and I’ve even talked about how hard it is to find games that are properly about magic as much as they’re about single-attempt tricks, conning the rules of magic like in Simon the Sorcerer and the like. What I haven’t really been able to grapple with – and don’t hate me for my lack of time to dedicate to random exploratory design right now – is how hard it is to represent doing magic in one of my games?

I’m torn on it! Because I’ve certainly played with similar principles. One example is Hook, Line, & Sinker, a game I made earlier this year. It even references specific card tricks and confidence tricks, things from that same mangled tangle of lies and facts and half-histories.

Now, something Hook Line & Sinker does that I do like is that it represents a con as a three-stage act where knowing the pieces and executing on it properly is the challenge. It’s not a matter of getting lucky, it’s a matter of proper execution of a plan of related pieces. Great. Easy!

It doesn’t necessarily work as a magic game, though, because part of what’s going on in this game is you don’t really know what parts you have to work with. It’s impromptu planning, but that’s con artists and fast-talking criminals, not the work of the magician, who has to work over and over and over again.

Normally when I think about a theme, I tend to think about mechanics I know, like a library of things I can do, and I keep coming up empty for good mechanics that ‘feel’ like magic. I’ve tried a bunch of options, and here’s what I got so far:

  • Probably no dice. Dice give you a good random generator, but part of the point of what I like about magic is how it’s about practice and execution.
  • It might be a duel game or co-op game, because I can’t quite work out how to make magicians compete with one another except in the creation of tricks and showing off
  • Magic is a matter of using classic parts and imagining new props or designs so it needs to be a game with some degree of creativity
  • But part of that creativity needs to be exciting or interesting, so the parts can integrate cleverly or the players can ‘show off’ what they did.

This is hard stuff! The one thing I keep coming back to is this might be a solo game about learning a routine and eventually perfecting it, building on Friedemann Friese’s fun little card-rotatey deck-builder game Friday.

For now, I don’t have a great idea. I haven’t made a lot of solo games yet.

Still, we get better at things and we come up with solutions by spending time with them, and thinking about them. Maybe you’ll see me come back to this. Part of what you come here for is to watch me make games, and this is one of the things that sometimes happens. I hit a wall.

The Eevolutions, Ranked

In Pokemon, a game series I have regularly praised, there’s a PokeMon by the name of eevee. Eevee is renowned for its evolving into a variety of different forms, of which literally all are the best form. However, in a collection of eight alternative forms after the first – which is also perfect and the best – there’s going to be some sort of personal sorting algorithm of the best.

Here, then, is eevee, and here are eevee’s evolutions in order of Least My Favourite to My Favourite.

Ready?

Here we go!
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Game Pile: Apollo Justice

Is it boring now to hear that I love the Ace Attorney games? Is it? I don’t know, I don’t know if you tune in for everything here. I don’t know if it’s getting tedious to hear that I find these visual novels extremely charming or like tracking their evolution through interface technology or their constant desire to try new and interesting things or their charming characters, or their laugh-out-loud out-of-context comedy. I hope it’s not boring because I’m about to bang on about it for god-knows-how-long.

Apollo Justice is the fourth game (kinda??) in the Ace Attorney series, which are made in Japan with Japanese sensibilities, about a stylised version of the Japanese justice system, and localised in one of the more comically ham-fisted ways. These games are great and inventive and funny and charming and all that good stuff, and this one is, well, it’s one of them.

There’s going to be some mild spoilers, because some characters are surprises introduced after, like, the first case.

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The Ebb and Flow of Privilege

There’s this term that we use a lot these days and the way it’s used makes it easier to conflate what it means, and that conflation can make it seem like the term itself is incorrect. This is true for a lot of terms but for now let’s just go in on privilege.

Okay, the way we describe this is ‘thanks to white privilege, thing thing thing,‘ or ‘well, he has white privilege,‘ and I’m only using those simplest versions of these things, because there’s a lot of complicated conversation about what things we do and don’t translate the idea of privilege to. The original idea of white privilege was developed to refer to specific structures about the perception of race and the enforcement of white supremacy, but now it’s used as a kind of useful applicable label for any time when sometimes a demographic group has benefits over another.

Now, this gets into some weird places when the language gets appropraited by TERFs and other dickhead groups – where they will sometimes claim trans women (and it is always trans women) have ‘male privilege’ because they were able to advance themselves ‘as men’ then deploy womanhood after attaining all the advantages that manhood could get them, like a kind of MCV from Command & Conquer.

This idea is preposterous, but it’s also indicative of a way that the speaker thinks of privilege. It suggests that male privilege is something you turn off and on again – as if maybe a trans woman talking in coded-masc ways on the phone is able to benefit from her ‘male privilege.’ There’s also ‘straight-passing’ privilege I see some people suggest hovers around ace and bi people, with the idea that ace and bi people can be perceived as straight, and therefore, benefit from straight privilege.

This is pish and silly, but I think the reason it needs addressing is not just to win a rhetorical argument but to try and help the people making these arguments (or more reasonably, the people around those arguments who aren’t sure why those arguments shouldn’t be compelling) come to a better understanding of what privilege is.

See, it’s not inherent. Privilege isn’t something you have in you. It’s something you benefit from. It’s a system external to yourself. It’s why people with white seeming names are treated as white when they’re on the phone, and it’s something that society around us enforces through systems but also through our own behaviours.

There’s a form of straight privilege in my experience, where it’s not just a matter of being passively perceived as straight, not just compliant with straightness, but so compliant you’re against the alternative. In that situation, you can watch as the privileges extended to straightness are withdrawn in a heartbeat when you simply position yourself as say, tolerante of nonstraight people.

There. Basic idea. Privilege is an external system you benefit from as long as you are tangibly interfacing with the system in the ways it wants to encourage. Sometimes that’s a lot, and it asks a lot, and returns a lot. Sometimes it’s withdrawn, and you may seem to think it’s not there at all.

But like the tide, it keeps coming, back, and forth, back and forth. The only way you escape it is to remove yourself from it – or, I suppose, blow up the ocean. This metaphor got away from me.

Give It Time To Cook

You might imagine during my period of blistering game release, with a game a month (and more) for a period of about two years, I was holding to near-constant productivity. Fact is, I wasn’t – what was happening were short bursts of mechanical exercise, some games being made in pretty much a weekend, once I had the initial idea. It’s kind of interesting, I spent a year attending game jams.

What was happening during all that time though was that I was doing a lot of procrastination. In the development of one game, I’d make something – a card face, an asset, a template or even just a bit of math on a page – and then rather than bull through into implementing it in the game I had, I focused on the game I had and put the other idea on the sidelines.

Sometimes this meant that an original idea for a game just sat in a drawer and never got made. I have a game I want to make which I can basically describe as ‘Mysterium meets The Littlest Hobo,’ and it’s still sitting there, waiting for me to find the thing that needs to make it happen. That’s why I write about game concepts on the blog now, putting the notes some where I can easily search them, to jog my memory, and to give you, the reader, a chance to comment on how much you want the game, or encourage me in some other way.

Time to cook, though, it’s so vital. It’s so wanted. Some of my games really suffered from not taking that time. Hook, Line & Sinker was designed over a weekend and I put the print-and-play out when I got home, and that was enough to playtest. But once I did that, I put it in a drawer for two months and let my feelings about it stew.

This means a lot of game design time is spent playing other games and looking like you’re not doing any game design. I walk the dog, I take showers, I play other videogames, I watch Youtube channels that talk about math classes or reactors or math puzzles. It’s all time to think about the problem. It’s all time to let the game cook.

When you commit to get into this hobby, of making games, you might find yourself burning with a need to get it finished. That’s a good way to make sure your project is rushed, even if it takes you a long time. Periods of relaxation and reconsideration will improve your product.

Your mind is surprisingly good at knowing what you want, after all. Put some faith in it and give it some time.

Levels of Expertise

I’ve found that this past year, the average length of blog posts have, according to WordPress’ stats, gone up. It used to be my blog posts were around 300 words per day, now they hover around 900. A modern professional blog can usually maintain that pace per author, and usually employs a rotating staff to make sure that hopper is always full.

Now, this is something I thought about, and wondered if I was saying more stuff, but I think the main thing that’s changed over time is not so much that I’ve been saying more stuff, but that I’ve been providing more context. Back when I started out, I had this feature I used quite a bit – ‘if I were Peter Molyneux’ based around writing fantastic game concepts to relate to puns. The idea was that if I had Peter Molyneux’s industry clout and could get nonsense games made on the strength of seeming visionary, I’d make a bunch of silly things that I could imagine being fun or cool.

That was fine, but you had to know who Peter Molyneux was, and why I titled the post that. You had to know what I thought of Peter Molyneux, and all that.

Now there’s a power to that, a freedom and a flexibility. It’s pretty cool – it expresses my voice. Maybe if I was using the blog to tell jokey jokes, it’s a good idea, but I tend to use twitter for that sort of short form. What I want this blog to do is to give meaningful context and process to people who don’t have access to that, and that means sometimes, the posts have to get big and sprawling to explain three or four related ideas.

At the same time, I don’t actually think it’s a good idea to keep going for a thousand words a day on this blog. Chris Franklin gave some useful advice about how anything that takes too long is either best reserved for a format that encourages deep readings (like books), or split up so the ideas are given their own foundational space. Three hours or fifteen minutes, I know what I’d rather use of your time.

Story Pile: Now You See Me

This month’s Story Pile is definitely picked with a positive bent. It’s pretty well known that magicians are kinda hokey and the idea of stage magic as a central theme to build a narrative around is going to have to struggle uphill against conventions that magic is a practice embraced by dorks who don’t mind practicing in front of a mirror. Sometimes this is done by involving crime in the story, or star power in the production of the movie.

And sometimes what you get out of that is dreadful.

I’ve struggled a bit trying to write about Now You See Me for a bit over a year now, because every attempt to talk about the movie runs into struggling to describe what happens in it, without getting bogged down in how rubbish it is at it. My typical structure fails me here, and so, I’m not going to do that this time. I’m just going to complain about this movie, which is badly put together doofus garbage.

Oh and spoilers for this movie you shouldn’t bother watch.

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The Author Is Suspended

One thing that you deal with when you read a lot of academic books and texts is you get an impression of the writer. It’s not just that you read the book, it’s that you read the book over and over again, and you read certain passages over and over and when you do that, you need to be able to contextualise those passages in the greater work, and that means you’re encouraged to form a framework of the opinions and beliefs of the person you’re reading about.

Sometimes this is very useful; it’s illuminating to remember that Heidegger was a Nazi (and people can um-and-ah about that point) or that Caillois a misogynist (amongst other things). These people write about things where those perspectives are implied but not stated, and being able to put their behaviour in their own contexts is not a bad thing.

Still, there’s a risk you run when you do this kind of close reading, especially when dealing with academics who are still alive.

One idea I use a lot in my discussion of games and plays is that the play of a game is paratextual; that you play the game to experience its text, and that represents a boundary between ‘definitely the text’ and ‘definitely not the text.’ Play is not something the author put there, but they definitely put something there that the play happens with. But the idea of paratext was not made for games – it was developed by Gerard Geanette to talk about books, specifically books as objects, with ideas like dust jackets. The idea that play is paratextual seems to be from me, and it’s not widespread. That means I’m taking an idea someone else had and using it to explain something else.

That’s how academic reading and studying works, but here’s the problem: I have no idea if Gerard Geanette would agree with me. I don’t know if he thinks this is a good application of his idea or, even if he didn’t like it, that that matters. I’ve never gotten the impression Geanette particularly likes board and videogames. I’ve always had the impression that he loved books, a bibliophile who found reason to discourse about the weight of paper and its influence on text.

Moreso than that, in Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost relates an incident where he, generating a little web tool that created random banners, was reprimanded (sort of?) for putting a label of ‘WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A THING’ over a picture of some women. It wasn’t done specifically – it wasn’t something crafted to his ideological position, it was just something a bit of code he made did.

I have read this anecdote a dozen times or more as I grapple with explaining and justifying the philosophical conception of things existing, and seeing it over and over makes it easier to remember. Easier to put a sense to. Easier to imagine having a tone of irritation.

Thing is, I think odds are good that Bogost is not only over the mild discouragement he got for this web applet doohickey, but that all the irritation in his tone that I read in his piece is entirely in my head.  This passage doesn’t have emphasis or sarcasm notes or colour coding. It’s very stark text in the same voice as the rest of the book. Yet I keep coming back to this passage, to this moment of an author’s mindset, and find something there, something I don’t think I found the first time I read it. And the author, frozen in time, has nothing to tell me but what they already told me. Hanging, suspended, for my interpretation of invisible ink.

Be vigilant about the assumptions you find in work, but also be vigilant about the assumptions you build to make telling the story to yourself easier.

Hunter’s Dreams – The Nexus’ Needs

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.

One of the funny things about this game design process so far is that one of the biggest ‘new’ systems the game includes is going to be building hutns, where players get to interact with some more board-gamey elements. And as with almost all big things, it’s easier to instead peck around the outside, to work with the smaller things, until you get to the bigger thing. There’s value to that, though, especially because when you’re aware of what your small systems can do, you can use them to adjust the bigger, more complicated ones.

With that in mind, let’s talk about a thing that gives the games a rules patch: The Nexus.

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Keys And Switches

Okay, game design question: Why does Doom give you both keys and switches? Yeah that’s right, we’re talking about Doom again because that’s basically inevitable at this point. When I’m in doubt, I will probably always reach back into lessons from Doom, because like all people who get reputations for being smart, I mostly just overthink one tiny window of my life.

It was this, or I become a priest, okay?

Anyway, what’s the functional difference between keys and switches in DOOM?

First things first, on the technical level, there isn’t a lot of room between them. Keys are something you need to have to trigger certain ‘things’ (I’m not going to explain linedefs here, operating on the maxim that I shouldn’t blog about anything where I can’t handle a followup question), and those things just won’t work at all if you don’t have the key. It’s pretty binary – if you have a key, you can open the door, and if you don’t, the door does nothing.

You can do the same thing, mostly, with a switch: since the way the game handles keys in levels is ‘a thing you have to do first’ you could make it so all the doors you want to open are ‘locked’ until a switch is flipped. That’s not everything to it – locking and unlocking doors with switches is a little untidy and it can rely on doing things like layering a whole thin door over the space the other door is meant to go.

Still, while keys are ‘just’ inflexible switches, that’s not to say they’re limited in their application like that. Keys do other things, but they’re things they do to the player. First of all, keys signal a reminder of their purpose. Doom typically adorns locked doors with familiar colour bands to show off the colour key they use (though it’s not necessary they do that!).  You have a red key, you might remember that there’s a red door and know where to go to find it.

Secondly, keys are carryable. If you flip the switch that unlocks the red doors, then wander back to find the doors, you might not remember if the switch you flipped was the red one or the blue one or the yellow one. Since you’re carrying this one around, you can just check the interface for that.

Also, it might be hard to remember, but sometimes people stop playing Doom mid-level? Having the keys in your inventory means that if you haven’t played for a few days, you’ll be able to see clearly which keys you have, rather than re-hunting. Same as the carryable thing.

They also create a feeling of progress? If you have three keys, it’s very easy to feel like you’re ‘nearly done’ with the level.

Bearing that in mind then, why do both? Is there a difference? Yes and at the same time no. Mechanistically speaking, from the game’s perspective, there really is no meaningful difference. A key is a switch you flip by going to the key’s location and then that unlocks a bunch of other switches. You could colour code switches, too, so it’s not even that. Yet at the same time, keys are things. Keys are objects, even if they don’t exist, and that makes us treat them in our mind like objects, an idea that changes how we treat them.

Starting Making, Concept 2: Penny Something

Reiner Knizier said – well he didn’t say it, and whatever he said was probably in German, but I summarise it as – that you start making a game from a component, a mechanic or a concept. A component means some game piece, some object to work with, a mechanic is a rules interaction, and a concept is a theme or a fictional idea to build a game around. These articles are ones where I try to take a game idea and flesh it out a little, starting from one of those three parts. Last time I went with a concept – the theme of Hallmark Movies.

This time, we’re going to start with a component.

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Pokemon Changes

With the recent news that Pokemon: Sword and Sheep won’t feature any Mega Evolutions, and megas will no longer be available, and therefore all competitive pokemon is ruined forever, Pokemon fans have been up in arms about having this important thing ‘taken’ from them.

Now, for a moment let’s set aside the way that pokemon generations are definitionally games that cycle through seasons and each iteration is designed to play like a new game, with changes designed to alter the competitive formats, and that no matter what happened in the next generation, what used to be good won’t be good any more, but let’s just consider that maybe there’s some special reason to particularly expect Megas to stick around.

Actually, you know what, let’s not set that aside. Because while this started out as a listicle, that wanted to remind you of poffins and single special stats and secret bases and competitions, it eventually just became a long form complaint about the two demands Pokemon has to serve that annoy the piss out of me.

  • Every new Pokemon generation needs new Pokemon, or the players will be mad. This is expected and assumed.
  • Every new Pokemon generation needs to look ‘better’ than the last Pokemon, or the press will be dipshits about it. This is expected and assumed.

These two demands are basically at odds with one another. Now, I don’t want to go over what Dan did over at New Frames Plus with Pokemon’s graphical evolution, but here is your summary: Early Pokemon cleverly used a small number of action animations over a large number of non animating Pokemon to make a lot of content, and ever since then people who I think should be ignored have been harping on about how no matter how great the game is, it needs to look better. Sure, make the game look better if it can be done conveniently, if it yields a better outcome than not, but as Dan explains, the eventual load increase from this means that adding one new frame to the animation of each Pokemon means seven hundred new frames of work.

Then you have to remember that those two forces aren’t truly it: there’s a third thing.

  • And now, the third thing, the secret invisible gripping hand thing: Every new Pokemon generation needs to not wreck your favourite thing.

Megas are just another thing, just the latest thing. They were tried out, explored for a generation, and then moved on. They give an interesting development, a way to force variey into Pokemon choice, a way to make a new potent force out of classics, without necessarily making a lot of arbitary choices.

Megas were an interesting mechanic! GameFreak don’t typically make big changes to pokemon, as if to create a feeling of continuity between these creatures. If the Pokemon you played with last generation had wildly different stats, or if they played in a different way, it’d make you feel that change, they’d feel like something happened to them. That’s weird. It also used to impact backwards compatibility: Pokemon Red Blue Yellow could accept Pokemon from Pokemon Gold Silver Crystal, which meant that suddenly Pokemon like Alakazam could do all the elemental punches. That’s not itself a problem per se – I don’t know how the competitive formats handle that, but I’m sure they have an opinion on it.

Megas let them make big changes, let them infuse a Pokemon with a big burst of power, add an ability, and gave other fun interactions like the relationship between Intimidate, or inflated stats and Wishes, or the power of effects like Knock Off or swapping items off people.

Thing is there are some folk out there who love Poffins. Some folk who have the mechanical skill for Poffin blending burnt into their brain, who think about it when they do some other similar rhythm-based endurance challenge and think wistfully about time they spent seventeen years ago on the train, Poffin blending with their buds.

Megas are like Poffins. Things that Game Freak tried out, experimented with, then let go of, because they just aren’t that fun, or don’t have a particularly useful application or the technology to build with them isn’t important any more.

And hey, Megas had their time. Charizard had its time. Mewtwo had its time.

Let’s stop demanding things that don’t work together.

Story Pile: Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants

Last year I learned that Ricky Jay had passed away. Someone retweeted someone else who retweeted someone else and they showed me a short video of Ricky Jay at his craft, and I realised… I know this guy. I know this guy because I’d seen him in movies, seen him on Mythbusters, and seen yes, a few of his tricks in old, VHS videos about how to do magic. I’d seen him on the cover of his book in an old second hand store, and read as much of it as I could, knowing that cards were powerful, in a strange, surreal way.

Then someone helpfully linked to Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants show, a VHS production available on Youtube, and otherwise relatively hard to get. This is a video recording of a show he performed off-Broadway back in the 1990s, where he basically got up in front of a room and was ridiculously good with cards for almost two hours. Like, it’s all held together by his patter and his narrative, but it isn’t like the show’s about something that Ricky doesn’t just outright state.

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3.5 Memories – The Dragon Girlfriend

Time to time I’ll talk about things in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 about the fairness or brokenness of various things like I’m some kind of specialist scientist with a really niche interest and people around me are reasonably familiar with what I’m talking about but don’t actually understand the magnitude of what I’m talking about. It is, I imagine, the kind of blank look that civic engineers get when they start describing ‘tolerances’ to city planners, or a nuclear physicist trying to explain control rods to a Wendy’s drive-through, just with stakes that are infinitely lower.

Here’s a thing, then, that’s just there, in the rules, and it’s really powerful and it’s silly and it’s invisible. It’s invisible because it relies on a dice roll and the game rules work at it, and the rules as written just seem to stop, like someone didn’t consider that anyone might actually use this ability.

Clerics could get domains. These were things that’d make your character feel more different, more distinct from anyone else. Hypothetically, this meant that a cleric of Time and Elf would look different to a cleric of Fire and Law, except what usually that meant is you got a lot of clerics of Luck and Time and Elf and Glory, and if the player was just a well-meaning scrub attracted to some good looking keywords, maybe even Strength.

Anyway, mixed in amongst this there were the innocuous-seeming Fire, Water, Earth and Air domaints, which gave you the ability to, as in th example of the Water Domain: Turn or destroy fire creatures as a good cleric turns undead. Rebuke, command, or bolster water creatures as an evil cleric rebukes undead. And that sentence sat in the player’s handbook like a god damn rat trap.

Because what does that mean? What does a ‘water’ creature mean. Well, a water creature is any creature with the water subtype. Which obviously means things like a water elemental, and that’s not such a big deal, right? Those creatures tended to be kinda basic; single special ability, a bunch of immunities that won’t protect them from much, but they would come along and maybe a cleric could have a fun time with their new pet. No problem, right?

Here’s the thing: The rules don’t put a duration on controlling undead. Controlled undead, in all the situations you see them, operate at the order of their controller, but act on their own initiatives. And that’s something you have to dig for: A player character with controlled undead will generally be allowed to boss them around freely because 3.5 was not a place that had a good handle on what we call ‘an action economy.’ Okay, so a Commanded elemental creature is great because it’s free actions, right? That’s a problem right there.

The other thing is, though, ‘water’ type creatures aren’t just ‘things made of water.’ It’s a whole galaxy of critters that have the Water subtype. And that means that suddenly the entire Monster manual opens up, and it doesn’t specify nonintelligent water creatures and that takes, if you start from the top down, into the home of the dragons.

Yes.

Two dragons – Black and Bronze – are ‘water’ creatures.

You get a lot of bang for your buck out of a dragon. A level 5 cleric can command, with a reasonably good roll, 9 hit dice of Dragon, or a Medium Bronze dragon, which has six attacks at +11, an AC of 18, 76 hit points and a breath weapon. A level 8 cleric with a pair of baby bronze dragons flapping around them would be a cute thing to see, and in terms of sheer bulk you can put on the battlefield, it’s pretty stunning – a level 8 cleric is looking at having something like 45 HP, and those dragons would have the same, so this one class feature with a good roll can triple the amount of meat you put on the table.

What’s more, this is without any weird stuff. This isn’t pushing the limits on what your domain can do. This isn’t using magical items to improve your turning (and you absolutely can) or feats to improve your turning (and you absolutely can) and this is without involving the other types of elemental domain (and red dragons have the fire subtype), or even taking both and getting to command your hit dice + 4 of water creatures and your hit dice +4 of fire creatures!

Did I ever see anyone do this? No.

Nobody bothered. I mean, clerics were broken enough without it.

You could ignore a class feature that let you control dragons because… eh.

You had better stuff to do with your time.

I always wanted to give it a shot, and make a character who used it to have a water dragon girlfriend that followed them around? But any DM would look at it, despite the way the rules said it worked, assume it didn’t really do that, and then the whole idea got vetoed. Which really, it should.

And this is just one feature of one domain from one class that’s so broken it can ignore this.

Game Pile: Simon The Sorcerer

Simon the Sorcerer is a Narrative Adventure game made by Adventure Soft in 1993, and it’s weird. It’s weird in the way that a lot of British-made games were weird, weird in the way that British pop of the era was weird, weird because it was simultaneously very much its own thing made by people who were very confident you knew what they were talking about like a swaggering cultural coloniser but at the same time strangely desperate to follow a leader it definitely didn’t quite get.

Now, I’ve talked about Simon the Sorcerer in the past, and I want to set aside the sequels (there were five of these things?!) because they became their own thing as well, their own slightly worse thing. Instead, I want to focus on the first game, when Simon is something of a generically quippy British arse, maybe as young as twelve years old voiced by Chris Barrie, as opposed to the character who was desperately trying to crawl into Chris Barrie’s voice and take on some of his power.

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August Is… Magic Month!

No, not Magic: The Gathering. And honestly that would be harder. And kind of terrible?

This August, the theme is Magic, but not magic the way it normally works. I want to talk to you about stage magic, about attainable magic, about performers that play with expectation and with conception.

Now, here’s a thing to think about: Just how much stuff do I have to be paying attention to in the space of ‘stage magic nonsense’ that when confronted with things I want to spend a month talking about in bits and pieces, how much of a complete dork am I that I thought ‘oh hey! Stage magic! I notice a lot of things about stage magic!’

I mean when it comes to writing about magic, magic is in so many things I write about or care about, because magic – sorcery, wizardry, that nonsense, is all about the direct manipulation of the human body and the mind and things like ‘expressing wants as powers.’ That’s all nonsense, though, that’s magic, which is interesting in its own way, but it’s nothing compared to the challenges of stage magic, which is magic that has to simultaneously be human executable while also being seemingly not.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to start talking about how-to guides and breakdowns of things that I am absolutely not qualified to talk about. Instead, I want to talk to you about the real and the magical and the ways we tell stories around things that you perceive as real, and the ways that we are fooled. There’s a long history of the seemingly impossible, and how it has been a useful, important thing in my life.

And hey, I need to make sure you don’t ever think I’m not a massive dork.

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