Category Archives: Games

I write about games! I write a LOT about games! Everything I do about games is here, in this tab, in some way.

USP-11: November’s Custom Cards

In a world of adventures and conspiracies, with competing factions of shape-shifting identity thieves, there is always a chance that something can go wrong, that even the best and most elaborate plan can be thrown into disarray. There is no magic you can lay out that’s so reliable it won’t have someone finding a way to pick at it, to undo it, to render all your own planning, your own strategy for nothing.

Sometimes it’s for the subtlest of reasons, the positioning of a Masqued knife in the right dinner meeting that means a careful machination simply fails to happen. Sometimes, a goon from another world can show up, and out of sheer pique, decide to punch you in the face.

The logo for the Usurper's Palace, showing the title text overlaid on a six-pointed spiral vortext.

Warning: Wizards employees, this post contains unsolicited designs of custom magic cards.

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Game Pile: Free Stuff!

I talk about games all the time but I am also crucially talking about commercial products. When I talk about TTRPGs or videogames, I’m usually talking about games that you can’t play for free, and that’s a bummer. I don’t like the idea that my writing about games primarily requires some degree of effort or money on your part to check, as it were, my working.

But there are some games I played this year that are free, and I think are interesting and cool and I’d like to make sure you know about them. In the tradition of Decemberween Twenty Twenty Threen, this Game Pile Post is just about a handful of freely available games that I like and want to recommend you try out.

I remember one year I made the Game Pile articles entirely games you could play at parties with friends for no money, like I had some kind of idea of how a Christmas gathering should go. My upcoming Christmas gathering is going to feature someone recovering from COVID though, so like, it’s on my mind how close I don’t want to sit to anyone.

Anyway, free games!

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The Gliscor In A Coal Mine

Gunna talk about Smogon here. Oh, you don’t know Smogon?

Weeeeell, deep breath.

Smogon is a Pokemon fangame played with the basic components of the videogame series Pokemon, which is itself, made by Game Freak and distributed by Nintendo, which you’ll probably recognise as one of the largest privately held companies in the world. Smogon, by contrast, are a forum and some emulators and a surprisingly dense little bubble of Youtube content.

‘Smogon’ in this context refers to a bunch of related games, that form a single fandom game, a folk game. They have, in the terminology I’m fond of using, made a game out of another game, which is a super cool practice I actively encourage. It’s how we get great things like, for example, the entire Legacy subgenre of games, from its dizzying heights of Pandemic Legacy Season 1 to the shocking lows of Pandemic Legacy Any Other Seasons. I like Smogon as a thing to observe through some sort of astrolabe or other technical device. I have no particular interest in engaging with the game itself, as they play it.

I don’t want to get into a play space with these people.

Not because they’re bad or anything, though they are overwhelmingly split between the still-thinks-he’s-on-4chan shithead vs autistic trans girl social binary of internet niches and you’re never sure what side that coin is landing on when you flip it. I don’t want to partake of Smogon because the game they’re playing looks unpleasant to me to play, and because part of Being Into Smogon means looking around at the game Smogon has made and thinking: Yeah, this works. This is a good system.

The current news out of Smogon, such as it is, is that in their OU format (short for ‘overused’), just banned the Pokemon Gliscor. Gliscor is redacted information that doesn’t matter, because you don’t need to know what Gliscor is to come to understand the problem that Gliscor highlights, and the lesson you can learn about making games and control over those games.

Smogon’s banning policy reflects a truth I espouse as a game designer: Players are great at identifying problems and terrible at solving them.

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MtG: How To Un-Who The Rings

I really like Universes Within. Not Universes Beyond, the system whereby Wizards of the Coast make cards using other people’s IPs, I’m very conflicted about that. Like the idea of it doesn’t bother me, I don’t think there’s a ‘purity’ of Magic to defend, Magic is a corporate product and anyone who wants you to think that it somehow is above these things thinks differently of the game than I do. It’s a game about faeries and elves and ripping off fantasy licenses, using licenses for real isn’t that big a deal.

Uh, but Universes Within is when they do that kind of thing and then come back to make a version of the card with their own specific Magic: The Gathering flavour that’s meant to fit on a Magic: The Gathering set world. I think that rules, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.

I also have come to think that I might never see another Universes Within product ever again.

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How To Be: Sothe Pathofradiance (In 4e D&D)

In How To Be we’re going to look at a variety of characters from Not D&D and conceptualise how you might go about making a version of that character in the form of D&D that matters on this blog, D&D 4th Edition. Our guidelines are as follows:

  • This is going to be a brief rundown of ways to make a character that ‘feels’ like the source character
  • This isn’t meant to be comprehensive or authoritative but as a creative exercise
  • While not every character can work immediately out of the box, the aim is to make sure they have a character ‘feel’ as soon as possible
  • The character has to have the ‘feeling’ of the character by at least midway through Heroic

When building characters in 4th Edition it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of different ways to do the same basic thing. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, or even particularly fleshed out, and instead give you some places to start when you want to make something.

Another thing to remember is that 4e characters tend to be more about collected interactions of groups of things – it’s not that you get a build with specific rules about what you have to take, and when, and why, like you’re lockpicking your way through a design in the hopes of getting an overlap eventually. Character building is about packages, not programs, and we’ll talk about some packages and reference them going forwards.

Who are we looking at this month? Well, since this series was started off by Hilda from Three Houses, it seems positively rude on my part to not reach once more to the Fire Emblem well, with its wonderfully varied names and … embarrassingly limited mechanical scope.

Let’s look at a character from a Gamecube game about fighting a dragon, or a god, or the black knight, or something.

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Desert Bus ’23 Game Jam Game: The Coffee Question

Okay here’s a weird, non-standard thing.

See, I made my game jam game. I put it on this site. I hated it and brewed about it for a bit. But i believe in tracking my mistakes as well as my successes, so I figured it was better being done and moving on. But then a few days later, before the jam ended, I got a different idea and wanted to act on that, and so I did. What that means is this article has two distinct parts.

Part 1, here, before the fold, is me just showing you a game and linking to its itch page. After the fold is Part 2, the original version of the article, which is written by a more bummed out version of me.

The game I made is called The Coffee Question, and it’s based on the idea of trying to remember a complicated order for the whole staff when you run down to get people coffee. It’s a small game, only 27 cards, and it’s fully cooperative. You play it in two rounds, and have to try, collectively, to memorise an order of the food you’re there to get. Consider it a lesson about writing things down. It’s also built around a lot of different references to what I think of when I think of Desert Bus and food, though some concessions have been made to make the things hard to remember.

I think it’s fun! I recommend it! I like cooperative games for Desert Bus, feels more charitable. You can go get it over on You can also get it here:

The rest of this article is preserved for archival purposes, and the other game is there for consideration, but really, don’t worry about it. The game is fine I guess, but I was really upset by the whole process. This one also had the same kind of upset but after writing about how you should route around those problems, not doing that in my followup shows how silly I can be.

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Game Pile: Here To Slay

Kickstarter has given rise to a particular genre of game which I think of as ‘crowdfundable.’ When you make games on kickstarter it’s very important to have an appealing hook that is communicated visually very distinctly; you simply need a sense of aesthetics to hold what you’re creating together. This means there’s a bunch of games on the market now, games that are pre-emptively successful, which are most notable for their aesthetics and the presence of important artists or setpiece gimmicks, that set precedent for a greater audience of designers to iterate on, and where the underlying game is maybe a bit deserving of a few more iterations of revision on the rules. Y’know, where just being good looking and being attached to an existing brand is enough to get units out the door so the actual game experience underneath it can be a bit ropy.

Oh hey, Here To Slay, what are you doing here?

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MTG: TransMoremers, Part 1

In my ongoing war on Universes Beyond I Personally Find Tedious, nobody has spoken to me. I have faced no backlash and contend with no enemies of my opinions. I am in no way called upon to defend myself because people, largely, seem to be okay with just, you know, having their own opinions on things and not being particularly bothered if they don’t agree with my opinions. Nonetheless, if I wanted to imagine some kind of straw opposition for this behaviour of mine, this bold and daring take that the huge pile of Dr Who cards make Dr Who look bad, then I might imagine them to say:

Well, what about the Transformers cards? You like those.

It’s true! I do! And I think they also have a real challenge to get made into Universes Within. Not that I don’t really look forward to it – I’m imagining haunted Kaladeshi machinery with a ghost inside them, because wouldn’t they look sick? Or maybe things like ghost trains from Innistrad? I suppose if you were into complete over used hack material, they could be from New Phyrexia, the rebirthing of a new life out of the remnants of a metal world.

The transformers logo

Point is, there’s a lot of interesting ways to make ‘vehicles with personalities that change shape.’ Could be really cool!

Anyway, these cards all excite me and invite me to make things that feel like they’re interesting game entities in the context of Magic: The Gathering and not just evocation of childhood nostalgia. Now part of that is that the cards are complicated and I don’t know if they’re actually good at what they do.  I intended to actually make deck article for each of them that struck me as interesting, but that’s a lot of time spent between articles about each deck. Instead of a full rundown for each one then, I want to provide a sort of first impression for how these cards work and what I think I’d use them for.

There are fifteen of these cards, and I’ve already talked about two – Starscream and Soundwave. Let’s talk about some of the rest, then!

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The Origin Of The Word ‘Orc’

The term for a cultural group, as a name, is its demonym. In Cobrin’Seil, demonyms are words from the culture in question. There are some political contentions there – the Eladrin consider themselves more legitimate Elves than Elves, but Elves are called Elves and Eladrin don’t call themselves Elves because they do not want to be considered the same thing as Elves. This is a long standing beef between the kind of people who own libraries older than most countries. But notably, these words are in the languages of the Elf and the Eladrin. Drow is a word from the same language group, a term that the Drow chose for themselves and use for themselves. The Kai of Shadar-Kai are named after their fortress home, which is, again, an Eladrin word, but they’re all from the same cultural group and choose the term.

The term ‘Beast’ in common comes from ‘Beastfolk,’ which is to say a generic term for a scary thing from the forest. But Beasts are named after Beastfolk, and Beastfolk, again, named themselves. The Beastfolk formed a coalition, made a common language, and then shared that language amongst themselves, developing the term bhehst which evolved over time to Beast, and when they needed a term to describe the coalition, Beastfolk was the result.

Common did not impose this name on them, it learned it from them.

Consider the word ‘Goblin’, a word from the Goblins, is notable because the way the word is used and structured, in language, it’s a possessive. Whose land is this? Goblin. Where are we? Goblin. Who are you? Goblin. What are your people? Goblin. This incredibly flexible term, with its overwhelming ubiquity, also plays into the way goblins are perceived as speaking a strange and confusing language. It’s more that they have multi-purpose words are build their language on trust and social intuition. This is why Goblins will often drop a conversation exactly when they know you’re getting frustrated, because they can tell you don’t actually care and need time to process what they said.

In Cobrin’seil, heritage names are largely entirely self-chosen demonyms. Oh sure, there are names for Orcs that Orcs don’t use, but those words are largely considered slurs, or are often inexact – Bugbears, Hobgoblins, Goblins and Orcs were all for a time treated as the same culture and named interchangeably by outsiders who did not interact with them (which means some of these ideas remain codified by the Eresh Protectorate and Dal Raeda histories). A proper cladistic chart can rejoice in how interesting it is that yes, Bugbears and Hobgoblins are extremely closely related, and yet Hobgoblins and Goblins are so distant as to be functionally alien to one another. Humans are closely related to Hobgoblins, but not to Goblins, and Orcs, while closely related to Humans, are extremely different to Hobgoblins, such that they don’t even recognise one another’s common cause.

And if you think Humans are racist against Orcs, you should hear what Hobgoblins think of them sometime.

But what is an Orc? Not culturally – linguistically, what is an Orc?

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Sonic Rushdown

Gotta go fast!

Sega as a company has what seems to be a pretty prosaic attitude towards fangames. You can use their art and sprites and characters in fan media, even fan media that makes a videogame, and as long as you’re not asking anyone to pay money for it, they seem to be fine with it. It’s not a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as much as it is a “Won’t ask, don’t sell” policy, and it’s a policy I might be stretching to its theoretical limits with this.

I made a Sonic the Hedgehog card game.

They exist already. Sonic the Hedgehog has a host of card games already. They’re almost universally terrible, games that rate somewhere around Snap. Now, the fact that Sonic the Hedgehog has shown up in a bunch of terrible games is unremarkable – both in that tie-in board games are often terrible, and statistically, Sonic the Hedgehog games are just as often terrible.  It’s rolling some loaded dice, is what I’m saying.

Wanna see what I came up with?

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4e: The Unmindful Monk

Normally when I write about 4e, I do so trying to talk about the game in a way that doesn’t involve or introduce any particular changes to the game. It’s not useful for me to advocate for a game in terms of ‘here’s how cool this game is, if you accept my houserules.’ Typically speaking, I try to talk about what’s in the rulebook, even if I’m gleeful about pointing out the ways that we didn’t play 3e by the rules and probably nobody else did.

But it’s a bit of a challenge to advocate for something when you’re actually advocating for a connected idea in your head. Like, at that point I might as well point out that part of why I like 4e D&D so much is I get to play it with my cool friends who are great, and at that point: Who am I fooling, of course that game kicks ass. If I present new content for 4e, it’s discretely new; it’s cultures from my own world, new class feats or whatnot, but it’s not asking you to change anything in the game that exists. That makes this something new, and something I am doing with so much more thought than it really needs.

Anyway, hey, what if the Monk was Martial, not Psionic?

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3e: Prestige Fantasy

In 3rd edition D&D, you started with a class. Then, in the DMG, they introduce the idea that as you level up, you could get access to a ‘prestige’ class, this idea of a special kind of class that let you create a different, interesting permutation of the base class. Based on the prestige classes in the DMG, it was pretty easy to see that these were meant to be interesting forks for the way a character’s life could change, as a way to ‘pick up’ a class in the middle of a game that didn’t lock you into starting something from scratch.

This interesting idea quickly fell by the wayside as instead of alternative classes you could introduce into the game in a later space that players could graduate into when their story became specific, prestige classes became the natural progression a whole bunch of players expected to graduate into, and they were the main reason to buy new splatbooks.

The problem, of course, is capitalism, but let’s look at the problem anyway.

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USP-10: October’s Custom Cards

The Usurper’s Palace’s doors hang open. The gates of death are but another place that determined souls and desperate damned can find their own way out. A soul extracted from its husk can struggle over the threshold. The very nature of death, with the Usurper holding the Palace as they do, leads to the sloshing life and the unnatural growth around the world. The Outcasts’ lands have hydras erupting from the ground, as death itself fails to take hold.

It is a world where death struggles to last.

The logo for the Usurper's Palace, showing the title text overlaid on a six-pointed spiral vortext.

Warning: Wizards employees, this post contains unsolicited designs of custom magic cards.

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What If You Were Better At Scrabble?

Didja know the French Scrabble Champion was, for a time, a guy who can’t speak French?

His name is Nigel Richards. He’s real good at Scrabble. In order to compete in French Scrabble, he memorised the French Scrabble Dictionary over nine weeks. He knows all the words that are valid moves, and doesn’t speak any French at all. And this might seem like a remarkable thing, at first, but I tell you this not to be awed by Nigel Richards — though I mean, you should be impressed, the dude is good at Scrabble — but rather to get you to think about Scrabble.

About what Scrabble’s not, and how to see how being good at Scrabble would change you.

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Game Concept — Bad Advisors

Did you hear what the king’s advisors were talking about? Well, I heard from one of them, that they think that the other advisors are too focused on their wine, or their parties, or their lovers, or enriching themselves. Why, you didn’t hear it from me

This is a concept writeup for a card game. The aim is a single-deck, form factor game which needs no sorting, you just shuffle it up and go. My aim is for a game that fits into our $20 range on Invincible Ink, so think like an ordinary deck of playing cards in terms of size.

As a setup note, this game imagines each player is pretty translatable to one another. You start the game by shuffling up a deck and dealing it out to everyone. The vibe here is something like Cockroach Poker.

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Player Characters Of the Szudetken

Oh yeah, I talked about the Szudetken, right? That peninsula that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and is full of these awful horror-inspired daylight-horror Christian ideas, with a dash of Bloodborne and The Locked Tomb for players to work with. But how do players interact with them? Especially with no mechanical information?

Well, that’s what this lengthy mechanical article is about. Yes, two thousand words of just ‘different perspectives on living in these cursed places.’ It’s not going to have a dramatic conclusion, it’s just character options. Note that these aren’t the backgrounds you get in the Szudetken. You can be an Artisan or a Merchant or a Military background character from all across the Szudetken: those backgrounds still show up just fine. These backgrounds just represent some of the more prominent experiences unique to these specific parts of the Szudetken.

Also, these backgrounds are presented as a way to try and give you, the player, a vision of what life is like when you have this background. Things that are familiar to you and normal to you, and what big, prominent things that are normal to other people aren’t necessarily normal to you.

Where a Background says ‘Associated Skills,’ that means you can choose for those skills to either be added to your class skill list, or you can have a constant +2 bonus to those skills. When it lists a ‘benefit,’ that’s something else.

And now, on with tools for making a Szudetken character, which may be of use to you if you’re just… grabbing these cultures and dumping them into your world!

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3E: The Scariest Thing About The Lich

Welcome once again to a spoooky post about stuff that’s in D&D! That’s right, it’s time to once again look at an older, historical edition of D&D that may just be serving as my excuse to look back to the early 00s and late 1990s and consider what tabletop gaming thought of as normal and cool, and go ‘wow that’s messed uuup’! But this time with a spooooky twist!

We’re going to talk about liches!

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4e: The Vampire Sucks

Across all my writing about 4e D&D I’ve spent a lot of time espousing cool things that you can do as a player without really needing any input from a DM. The game design is robust and reliable enough that you can make things like a werewolf or a ghost-haunted pile of crystals and the game system handles it so the DM doesn’t have to make something specific for you so it worked.

I have mentioned the Vampire from time to time, but always with a drawn-in breath of ‘if you want?’ or something like that. A warning, a gentle one, but a warning nonetheless. The vampire, you see, for all that it is part of this game system I like and does something I like, doesn’t do it very well, and for that, it needs to be presented to players with a warning that hey: This could go wrong, right? You need to be prepared to be okay with that.

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CoX: Z3-R0

Time to time, I write up an explication of characters I’ve played in RPGs or made for my own purpose.  This is an exercise in character building and creative writing.

Across the islands of the Etoile and the remnants of Praetoria, the mercenary known as ZERO has taken on mission after mission, supposedly for the highest bidder. Nobody knows who hires her, but everyone respects what she can do – and the outbreaks of monsters that she’s an expert in dealing with.

Zero’s definitely got that symbiote swag – rippling extensions of her flesh that let her shapeshift, create armour, heal rapidly, and attack from unforseen angles. She looks familiar? Maybe.

Praetoria’s darkest deeds are back with an old threat in a new time!

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Game Pile: Phantom Ink

Let me show you one of my new favourite hidden information party games built around the theme of messing with a ghost. Which is weird in that it’s a genre that’s populated with enough cards that this game went through a period of being known as Ghost Writers before finding that they needed to shift the name to something else.

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The Worst People Unalive

For years now I’ve been holding back on penning this description of one of the worst places in Cobrin’Seil, and only because it’s the worst in a different way to you’d expect. Oh it’s a tightly controlled city with a gaggle of liches trading favours at the top making the whole place a necromantically controlled undead polity, but the real problem the city has is its housing rates and fad technology bubbles.

Welcome to Uxaion.

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