Category: Games

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

Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 3: Framing Spaces

Back in 3rd edition, I created my own D&D setting. It wasn’t very good, but I’m still very attached to it, and want to use it as an object lesson in improving. I also want to show people that everything comes from somewhere, and your old work can help become foundational to your new work.

Content Warning: Some of the old text is going to feature some unconscious cissexism and sexism, and I know there are a few unknowingly racist terms that I used.


The standard D&D place write-up is bad.

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Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 2: Knightly Orders

Back in 3rd edition, I created my own D&D setting. It wasn’t very good, but I’m still very attached to it, and want to use it as an object lesson in improving. I also want to show people that everything comes from somewhere, and your old work can help become foundational to your new work.

Content Warning: Some of the old text is going to feature some unconscious cissexism and sexism, and I know there are a few unknowingly racist terms that I used.


I mentioned last time that I like giving players handles. In the country now known as Dal Raeda, this took the form of different provinces, with different cultures, but since a game set in Dal Raeda meant I’d be dealing with the lead-in to a potential civil war or players subverting or delaying that civil war (and that seems a big setting piece to deal with in my first game or two), I immediately relocated my focus to the nation next door.

I have said this before to new DMs, and I want to repeat it here: Steal things. The first campaign I ran took the plot from Quest For Glory 1 and as my playgroup matured and adjusted and I learned, I was able to build in the space that structure gave me. Some things from the games happened as-is, some things happened in very different ways, and some things never happened, but I always knew where I could look for the ‘now what’ thanks to having that game history on hand. And the next nation over, where I went for the next game, I stole the plot of David Eddings’ Elenium and Tamuli books, as best I could just-barely remember them.

The thing that appealed to me about these books and that I wanted to use is Eddings’ idea of having knightly orders with different styles and characterisation. In his setting, they were the Pandions, Alcione, Genidian and Cyrinic orders, and they were differentiated from one another mostly by dint of having different names. You got to meet these Knightly Orders in the characters of Sparhawk, and Sparhawk’s Five Interchangeable Friends, who were all different kind of knights and if you haven’t read the books this month you probably can’t remember who was in what order and what makes those orders different.

Now, I enjoyed these books when I first read them, but I first read them when they were almost all the fantasy novels I’d ever read. They were not good books, they’re kind of creepy and misogynist in Eddings’ way where all women are kind of interchangeable nags. D&D also had this handy way to divide up approaches to the world, with the alignment system, so I cut these four orders down to three, and then in an attempt to seem less like I was just stealing names, I renamed some of them a little bit. This gave me three orders, the Pandions (Lawful Good), the Lethinites (Neutral Good), and the Cyrinists (Chaotic Good).

Armed with that basic characterisation I filled in a bunch of other details and they’ve since grown and built around the way the players play and a fourth, hidden order sprang up as well, the Chardunists.

These knightly orders belong in a country known in my world as Symeira, which attentive readers will probably guess I derived from Cimmura, from the Sparhawk books, but also Conan’s Cimmeria. I thought merging two extremely similar looking words would create something wildly different.

I like this country and these orders, and I like who they’ve become to fit with the three campaigns (each of which ran for a year-plus) I’ve run using them. They are a good narrative tool, and they give players an organisation to belong to that’s also free enough that they can stake out their own space in it. They can be a good knight or a bad knight or they have a story of how they came to be a knight. This is good stuff, and players tend to like it.

Now, there are three reasons to want to rename these orders, or to at least make the names a little different. First of all, there’s just basic reference reasons. I don’t want players who know the Eddings novels to think I mean those Pandions, I mean my Pandions. My Pandions aren’t going to have creepy marriages to beautiful princesses they raised and did I mention those books are bad?

Ownership over the terms is another thing; it’s one thing to use terms from another source, and I could easily argue ‘Pandion’ is not a term that Eddings owns exclusively. There were a bunch of Greek kings with that name, and the term is in the Osprey’s species name. Still, why have the argument? The word isn’t so incredibly great I want to keep using it.

The third reason is identity within the culture. See, remember, this stuff comes from a country that’s next to the country now known as Dal Raeda – but if you heard those names were for things within Dal Raeda, would they fit alongside words like ‘Glotharen’ and ‘Delan’? Would they feel different?

The culture currently-and-soon-formerly known as Symeira fills a large space in my setting. It’s a nation made entirely of city-states and small protectorates, spread across the spaces occupied by other countries, with a highway system connecting them. These cities are old, and mostly known for their infrastructure, and don’t have an adversarial relationship with the nations they’re in.

Now, sometimes this is because the nation whose space the city is in doesn’t really have a conventional ‘government’ as we consider it (like the vast, disconnected non-human cultures of the Corrindale woods), the nation’s government arrived after the city was built (think a bit like London), or the land the city is on was purchased or separated for political reasons (like Vatican City). To maintain trade between these cities, the central city financed the construction of a highway system, which stretches across most non-Dal Raedan nations, and other countries accept the presence because the highways are useful, and the cities are great for trade (and also getting rid of them would be hard).

Now, because these cities are jutted all over the place, they can have names and language that relates more to the country they’re in rather than ‘Symeira.’ The history of what-will-not-be-named-Symeira-much-longer is loose at this point, but I see it as being a nation that came together once the cities were established, rather than necessarily the result of a conventional nation-formation mechanism like a revolution.

For the culture of this nation there’s only one other existing meaningful name, and that’s the name of the Holy City, Olifar. I like Olifar as a name, because it’s both got some air in it, which makes it feel ‘uppity,’ and it’s also lacking in hard edges, suggesting the place isn’t tough. It has an ethereal kind of quality to it, which I like for a city that is primarily the home of a church. Olifar doesn’t have a lot of industry – it’s where the church’s largest and most politically important cathedrals rest, and where the church politics all happen.

Before I go on, I’d like to talk about why I want this kind of culture in my game world.

This society lets me have something reasonably similar to a typical European Fantasy, where characters are sent from some central location by someone with a generally positive disposition (you know, a decent, if not perfect leader), then travel away from their central location, have their smaller adventure, then return to their source and report on what happened. Travel time gives you a lot of good stuff for conflict and adventure design, and the delay it imposes is also really valuable. It means players spend time moving, dealing with potential ‘wandering’ encounters, having meals, breaking camp, learning how they do the basics of living without the purposelessness of just giving them time to idle around one another.

Now, one of the easy ways to do this is to mimic the British Empire and have people meet the Queen, then get sent to the colonies to deal with things, but that, perhaps to the surprise of a typical gamer, is super colonialist and that’s not good. I don’t want to tell my players to have adventures in this game space, they’re going to have to be complicit in colonialism in the most obvious way.

(Oh, and yes, I know there are some well-actuallying people who’d argue that any game that represents a hierarchy is inherently anti-leftist and therefore capitalist, yes, I’m very impressed, the exits are there, there, and there.)

This nation gives players a generally neutral, not-pointedly-awful place to exist. There are some state-wide institutions, there’s a watch service that isn’t directly comparable to the police, there’s knightly orders doing things like preserving knowledge, copying books and maintaining libraries and creating jobs. There’s still some trappings of feudalism but it’s all Not-Actually-Feudalism, where you have ‘lords’ but they’re appointed and mostly the bad ones exist so players have someone to righteously stab in the face and the reasonable organisation around them can respond to that.

Originally, I learned the idea for this kind of coalition of city-states connected by highways exists, and it’s known as a confederacy, but we’re not going to use that term because I don’t want players to associate this flexible setting piece with, you know, slave-keeping assholes.

I did a lot of testing of these names, and eventually I went to a randomiser and punched in some syllables, then sorted through the results for a bit. The main thing I did here was exclude names; the names of the original settings, the names of the orders I couldn’t use, and also syllables that felt like they belong to Dal Raeda (so less focus on ‘B’ and ‘Nd’ sounds).  I also rejected a lot of names that felt strongly like they belonged to a specific culture in the real world – a number of names that turns out were common-ish Iraqi names, for example.

First of all, we’re going to rename ‘Symeira’ and ‘Symeiran.’ They’re now Ereshan and the city is Eresh. The group of cities is called the Eresh Protectorate, which I like because it both implies the origin of the coalition, and makes it clear that there’s some degree of protection offered from the center. Eresh also stands apart from Dal Raeda, and they have some similar sound to them (the R and E) but they don’t necessarily feel like they’re just variants on the same basic language. Ironically, these two nations share a language now (because trade), but that’s not how they started.

Eresh the city, by the way, is right next door to the province of Danube

That’s the place they come from, now let’s talk about the Knightly Orders and how they differ from one another.

First, our Lawful Good cavalry knights, the former Pandions are now the Tzarumite order. I like how this name has a hesitation at the start; you pause slightly to say it, because the Tz sound isn’t very quick or natural in English. You know there’s going to be people in-universe who call them Zarumites, and it’s probably seen as kinda dickish.

The Tzarumites are our regimented, well-off order; the ones who have the most inherited property and land, the most overseers, and the one with a deliberate integration with the Watch in Eresh cities. They’re also the order known for cavalry troops and an infamous shocking charge. If you pay a Tzarumite, you probably have access to some money, or grew up working around people who had money, and were being sponsored, adopted, or somehow helped along by people who wanted you in the order.

The Tzarumite colours are black and purple, and their common weapons are longsword and lance.

Since I made the Lethinite order pretty much up out of whole cloth, they just stay as they are. They’re the academics, and they’re the ones who interface the most with Church laws and libraries. They’re basically your nerd knights, doing things like transporting valuable books to places so they can be restored, or sealing away dangerous tomes that have powerful spells in them. Lethinites are also known for information-based warfare – they scout, they make tactical decisions or strategic plans, and they’re the ones who make the best impromptu fortifications.

The Lethinite colours are silver and rose, and their common weapons are the longbow and longspear.

The rowdy Cyrinist order are almost completely unchanged, they’re just now called the Raguzans. Raguzan knights are the least likely to have landed titles; they’re often ‘knights of convenience,’ or people who distinguished themselves in battle heroically or in a militia situation, given a knighthood that they can’t pass on to their children and given just enough authority to run around as dangerous free agents on the battlefield. Raguzan knights tend to have other jobs, they tend to be working class, and the Raguzans are known for their skill in animal-keeping. If you see a warhound, battle boars, or war dire ferrets on the battlefield, they’re with the Raguzans. Raguzans make decisions quickly and decisively. They’re also the experts in demolitions and breaking sieges , which naturally is a point of tension with Lethinites.

The Raguzan colours are blue and gold, and their common weapons are two-handed axes, hammers, and swords.

Chardunists are the final order, and since I made up this name myself years ago, I don’t feel it needs to change. I like it as a sort of semi-Babylonian feel, which fits their origin. Chardunists started as the Olifar Inquisition, whose duty was to root out psychics in the church territories. Psionics was regarded as a ‘soul sickness’ and the Chardunists became students of it, then experts on it, until eventually, Chardunists who were psychic became influential enough to change the direction of the order. Chardunists have over time slipped into the shadows and become a lesser-known fourth order of knights, who mostly do covert operations, which they use to scoop up psychic individuals and hide them from the remaining inquisition arms of the church.

The Chardunist colours are grey and jade, and their common weapons are daggers, brass knuckles, bottles and someone else’s fists.

This was a long walk! But there was a lot of thought put into making these setting elements engaging and fun while also having distinct names that don’t directly overlap with one another. If you say any of these names aloud, you’re not likely to mix up which of them you’re saying, which is a good test of a decent name.

Also, hopefully, players are thinking of how they’d want to fit into these knightly orders, or not.


All these images are from the VGA Remake of Quest For Glory I, a game that heavily influenced the creation of this setting, even if I let almost none of the Cole’s taste for Whacky Humour infiltrate my game.

 

Unit Operations By The Rulebook

Therre’s this idea in chemistry called unit operations.

First introduced to me by the work of one Ian ‘Videogames Are Better When They Don’t Have Stories’ Bogost, who I absolutely have to respect as a peer in the field even if I want to squirt him with a water gun when he says stuff like that, in his book helpfully titled Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, Unit Operations are the idea of, well, the smallest possible unit of thing-ness in a thing.

That’s not a helpful definition, but hey, he wrote a whole book explaining what he meant. Wikipedia tells me the term in chemistry got its popularity around the period after he wrote the book, but without getting my hands on actual chemistry expertise and pedagogical books I don’t know who came up with the term first, or if there’s a lineage between them, so I’m just going to chart the process of how I came to terms with them. First read the term from Ian Bogost, then while looking up a citation back in April, I found it was used in Chemistry.

As Bogost uses them, Unit Operations work within the idea that every single component of an entity you can consider in a critical way can be broken down, as it were, to particles of meaning, intention, limitation, all that – that you can metaphorically grind a videogame (and indeed any artwork) down into discrete, interlocking components of distinct separate meaning and purpose. In chemistry, the idea is that a unit operation is a basic step in a process; processes can be all sorts of things, like let’s say you put the blue crystal in the green water, then they both turn red and then the crystal dissolves, then you’re expected to pour it out. From the user’s perspective, they added something, then poured it out; but in terms of process, there were at least four unit operations:

  • The crystal was added to the green water
  • The crystal and water reacted so they changed colour
  • The crystal reacted so it dissolved
  • The mixture was poured out

Chemist friends, please understand I am simplifying. Where I find this idea useful is rules. And this rulebook is what’s giving me problems right now.

In the game Freight Expectations, the rulebook flummoxed me for weeks. I had the document open, I had revised and rewritten the same section over and over again, and each time I found myself frustrated. Sometimes it was doubt – would that be fun? – and sometimes it was confusion – what am I even saying? – and more often than not, it was paralysis – if I want to change this mechanic, I’d have to change some cards to go with it.

Struggling with that, I decided to break it down into a list of unit operations. Unit operations can be when the players do something, or when the game does something. What this looks like is a bit like this:

  • Player 1 starts the turn
  • Player 1 chooses to do option A, B or C
    • If they choose option A, here’s the sequence
      • Sequence X of option A
      • Sequence Y of option A
      • Sequence Z of option A
    • If they choose option B, here’s the sequence…

And so on.

It’s not a pretty ruleset, but it can be a useful technique for breaking down what you need players to do, and quite frankly I think I’d rather a well structured ruleset that you can do with a bullet list than beautifully structured narrative that is confusingly put together.

Btw, do I have progress? Not necessarily. I’m writing down my changes, and hopefully they’ll be good in the morning.

We’ll see how it goes.

Third Times A Charm

Time to time, you may have seen me say something to the effect of playtesters are always honest about what they feel, they don’t necessarily know what’s right. It’s good advice, generally speaking. Here’s a similar one.

If three people point out something weird in your interface, listen to them.

Hey, do you remember the game Hook, Line and Sinker I’m working on? Back here in April I’m waiting on printer runs for it, and it’s frustrating because it’s just big enough that it won’t go in a standard envelope so it takes seven weeks to get to me in Australia, so I’m working through remote people, anyway.

Thing is, this game has symbols for three card types, three suits. Here is what they were, this morning:

Hook, line, sinker.

Then my friend helping me with the prints looked at the sinker and said ‘huh, isn’t that a bobber?’

Now imagine me falling back into a conversation like a sudden memory moment in a movie, to one of my playtesters saying ‘huh, that’s a bobber.’

Then imagine in that moment, me falling back into another sudden memory, of Fox, looking at the art as I first devised it, and said to me, isn’t that bobber?

And then imagine me, sourly, today, doing this:

Does this look like a few hours of work? Because this was a few hours of work. Getting the sinker to look like a model of a sinker I could find on the internet. Trying my own style of the cable, trying to make sure it can fit in the same spaces as the others on all the cards, redoing the cards that need the art adjusted to accommodate the new bit – because hey, check this example card, where the white line vanishes.

Anyway, here are those gems, once more, now with the new ‘sinkery’ sinker. It would be easy to ignore it, but I knew I was on a track to hear ‘isn’t that a bobber’ one more time, and every time, any explanation (“I don’t much care,“) was going to start to annoy me.

So yeah. Game interface is important. Even if something is annoying to do, it’s worth doing if it stops you getting more annoyed later.

The DM is Removed

This is sort of but not actually a response to something said in Chris Franklin’s latest Errant Signal video. Chris makes good videos, I like his work and I think I’ve even commented on them in the past. Here’s the video I’m talking about:

This video is a good video, and when I talk about the ideas in it, I want you to understand that I’m not saying that Chris did something wrong or incorrect or that his analysis could have been better if he’d done it my way.What’s more, Chris’ video is about video games and has to mostly focus on roleplaying in videogames, but also mostly as focused on by the commercial industry. You know, the kind of games you can get your hands on at a game stop or on Steam, and some on itch.

I’m in the tabletop space, so for me it’s a little bit different, and I don’t see there as being a hard division between videogames and my spaces that many people (including my own wings of academia) do. This aids me well when I get to talk about things that are definitely done with computers but need a more traditional tabletop or roleplaying setup, with games like Starship Artemis and Spaceteam, or the app-driven modes of games like Mansions of Madness or One Night Ultimate Werewolf.

What Chris suggests in his video is that, as he says, these games don’t have a storyteller or dungeonmaster. The game, he argues, has to present you possible options. But the thing is, someone made those options. Those options were still created for you by a storyteller, it’s just that storyteller isn’t in a position to readily get feedback from you. You’re being confined by a storyteller’s imagination, and that storyteller’s imagination is in turn not receiving any feedback from yours.

But in a tabletop roleplaying games, the storyteller is in many ways confined by their own preparation; it’s actually something of a hllmark of good systems how well they handle a storyteller’s need for some new mechanical content. Dungeons and Dragons may not be a reliable system on every front, but one thing that those monster manuals and dungeon books let the game do is provide you with game content that you don’t have to imagine up on the spot.

Rather than a vision of the videogame RPG as a thing that lacks a storyteller and the tabletop one as one that has one, I prefer to instead suggest that in this case, the question is not the presence or absence of a social connection, but rather the distance in it. After all, the fully remote DM of Fallout has had a lot of time to make sure all the mechanical stuff is absolutely robust (which of course, it doesn’t have to be).

Another idea in Chris’ take is the idea of consequence. There’s an example in the video of Geralt saying thing A vs thing B and then suggests there’s no change in the game between these two choices. Except there is: Geralt says thing A in one, and thing B in the other. The rest of the game doesn’t necessarily react to that, but that doesn’t miraculously make those things the same thing. This presents something of an unconscious videogaming question as it relates to play: just how much impact does a choice have to have to make it meaningful, and following from that, is a meaningful choice the same thing as memorable choice?

Videogames are absolutely smothered in choice, and lots of the times it doesn’t make that much of a difference to the narrative people walk away with. For most people who beat Super Mario it’s not important that you beat it in twenty minutes or beat it in thirty minutes; the backsteps, double checks, general reconsideration, bathroom breaks and double checks are all things that get smothered away in the general narrative of ‘I beat the level.’

You can see there’s a subtle trend towards this in Chris’ piece; he views that it’s not enough for a choice to be a choice, but a choice must be validated. He even refers to these not-good-enough-choices as warping the game; the idea that being the kind of person who cares about tradition or moralityis not important enough to express if you’re not doing it with some consequence. What I find most interesting about this is consequence works against actually playing a character. In Bioshock there’s the infamous moral question of do-or-don’t eat a baby, and eating a baby gives you  reward now and not-eating a baby gives you about as much reward later. This was regarded as a bad choice, because people wouldn’t eat babies just for the rewards unless they were better than the rewards for not eating babies and good god, videogames are morally confused place.

Finally, I think of playing with a game, any game, as a creative act. The game has all its pieces and its interface, but how you choose to interact with it, wht you do with it, is creating your play experience in that space. I’ve talked about this before, and it involves using the word paratext, which I understand gets me weird looks. With that, it means that your individual experience of a game isn’t just a thing that happens to you, it’s a thing you create, and you are part of that creative act. This is important to my vision of games, too, because even if the game limits your ability to be choosey (like, say, a corridor shooter with a lot of cut scenes), the choice of when and how to engage with it, and you as a person become part of the individual experience of that game. Making play experiences paratextual is, in my mind, a valuable tool for enmeshing the player in the game, and centres what players choose to do without making the game’s ‘text’ somehow beholden to every individual player.

It’s a good video! I recommend it! I just don’t agree with it 100%!

Game Pile: Steamworld Heist

I talk about games a lot. Sometimes, I use games to talk about books. Sometimes, I use books to talk about games. Sometimes I use games to talk about culture and about art and about poetry and about history. Games, in essence, get to be a lens through which I can talk about all sorts of other things, even as I talk about the games.

Make no mistake, though. Just because I find games interesting as lenses for other ideas doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes play games because they rock socks. And you know what rocks socks? Steamworld Heist rocks socks.

Steamworld Heist is a squad-based turn-based tactical shooter game. You know your high-profile X-Com style games? Well, take that basic idea, and make it in a 2d platformer game. You’re commanding a rag-tag group of thieves – though ‘thieves’ is kind of the wrong term. You’re more like bandits and rebels, opposing an oppressive state but also your heists are less about stealth and avoidance and much more about boarding an enemy vessel and shooting them in the hat.

I think Steamworld Heist is a really good game, and it’s definitely a videogame videogame – this isn’t something that could be implemented better in some other way. It’s available on Steam (haha), the Switch, iOS, and PS4, and it’s priced very reasonably for the amount of game you get for it.

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When Scrabble Ends

The games we mostly play in the public eye these days are games with a lot of calcified rules. Established stuff – you know, there are books about Chess and the cover all sorts of openings and closings and strategy. The game is itself a metaphor for how we tell stories, it’s all very rudimentary stuff. It’s foundational.

Ask yourself then, when exactly is a game lost.

I don’t just mean strategically – you’ll see people saying ponderous things like ‘the game was lost at this point,’ and so on, but that’s a different metaphorical space. That’s something else. What I’m thinking about is how many games are lost several moves before they end – and how we approach people seeing that end happen.

In Vintage Magic: the Gathering, it’s not uncommon to see people concede the second a hoser hits the table. In some formats that’s considered quitter behaviour, that you can always play around or get out or you might miracle into something, but the decks in Vintage are so tightly refined to a razor’s edge that if the Leyline sticks, okay, you lose, that’s how it goes.

In Chess, check is sometimes enough to earn a concession – check gives way to checkmate deterministically. In games like Gin Rummy, you can have one player win the game with a single hand of perfect coincidence, so you might think the game is happening, and then bam the game is over. That can be a bummer, but don’t think of it as a bummer but more about how many games you see end that way.

The thing that got me thinking about it, though is Scrabble.

Scrabble is a pretty neat game. It’s a game with layers and levels, and it changes a lot as your skill level changes. At high skill levels, it stops being about successfully using your vocabulary and starts being about controlling areas of the board. Each move you make creates opportunities, but the turn order means that any given action means your opponent gets to use that option first. That means you actually spend your time huddling in spaces that are safe, waiting for your opponent to run out of choices that force them to strike out into the open areas of the board.

That then means that if you do strike out, you have to try and do it in a way that maximises your return and punishes your opponent as much as possible – so you want to strike out with weird words and complicated arrangements that get close but not quite reach bonus squares.

Scrabble is a game where, between players who are roughly matched, it’s very common for the game to be undecided until the last move. In Scrabble games, at the competitive level, you’ll see that it’s very rare for players to not need the last points on the last turn.

When you design your game, ask yourself at what point players stop making decisions. Scrabble, note, doesn’t even ‘end’ after the last tile is placed – you have to do some math, to see who won the game. That’s something in a number of Euro games, and also games like Sheriff of Nottingham.

Making a game interesting up until it’s done and then making that ending quick. There’s a little thing to chew on. How do you close out your game design gracefully?

Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 1: Names in the Kingdom

Back in 3rd edition, I created my own D&D setting. It wasn’t very good, but I’m still very attached to it, and want to use it as an object lesson in improving. I also want to show people that everything comes from somewhere, and your old work can help become foundational to your new work.

Content Warning: Some of the old text is going to feature some unconscious cissexism and sexism, and I know there are a few unknowingly racist terms that I used.


First of all, let’s talk about just some basic work of names.

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Game Pile: Majora’s Mask

Released in the year 2000, on April 27, Majora’s Mask is a Legend of Zelda game. Preceeded by Link’s Awakening DX, it’s generally seen as a followup, or maybe-sequel or sort-of-related game to The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. This is already a sentence that other types of games writers would navigate a lot faster but here I am, being deliberately picky to avoid saying something that’s generally accepted as true, but I don’t want to be part of reinforcing.

One reason to be careful about the wording is to just try and avoid someone nitpicking. After all, I don’t know anyone who’s likely to point out well actually, the DX release of the gameboy Zelda game came out between Ocarina and Majora’s, but somehow, going that extra mile keeps me extra safe, right?

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MTG: Custom Rarity

Hey, why do we put rarity on custom cards?

Seriously.

Do you build your game to think it’s draft? Do you make cards for cube? Why do you try and position your cards as some rarity or another? It’s interesting that often, rarity is presented as a reason for a card to justify power – cards that are probably too good are excused with ‘it’s meant to be a rare’ or ‘it’s meant to be pushed,’ and that’s always funny to me when you consider how few people are actually making things based on rarity.

Not nobody mind you.

Now, my answer to this personally is that rarity is another form of proper design of magic cards. They have constraints, and they’re reflective. If you make a card that should be a common, you should have the design sense to do that. And that can mean sometimes, a card that’s a weird oddball that only works in niche spaces winds up being rare.

As a pragmatic matter, rarity ‘only matters’ for draft. But we can, as amateur designers, get a good handle on rarity as it matters for draft. If a card could bust a draft environment open like Vengevine, it needs to be Mythic Rare to ensure it doesn’t ruin every pod. If a card is just the intersection of keywords and creature types, French Vanilla and nicely costed, it can live at common.

Yet, we often talk about Rarity as if it’s a list of four when that’s a sneaky lie. There are four Rarity expresions (well, there’s more, but bear with me); the symbol will show common, uncommon, rare or mythic. That’s not even all the basic categories of rarity, though.

There are seven basic rarities you can give cards:

  • Common. Commons are often good cards that do one thing, in a few words. Common cards can still be exciting and fun to design, because being common doesn’t mean you’re bad. Commons are also some of the best places to show off keyword mechanics, because there’s nowhere for a mechanic to hide on a common. One reason I beef about amateur-designed keyword mechanics is that many times, the common of them gains nothing from just having the keyword.
  • Uncommon. Uncommons are the siren of the casual designer because that’s where we tend to feel it’s okay to push something we like a lot, as long as we can justify it as being a bit bad in some way. I think Eternal Witness is my all purpose comparison card – casual developers would often print Very Strong Effect on a 2/1 and suggest it was okay because it wasn’t giving you a very good creature.
  • Rare. Rares can have a lot of words on them – something like 50 words, for a comparison. Rares can have multiple mechanics that interact on them. Rares are also a place where you can show off what a keyword mechanic can do, pushed.
  • Mythic Rare. Rares, but which are even more distorting to limited environments.
  • Special Inclusive rarity, like Timeshifted cards, where the rules of this expansion give a reason for a Bonus Rarity. These are a fun thing to think about – it’s also the place that Innistrad’s Double-Faced cards kinda lurked.
  • Special Exclusive rarity, like the starter deck cards or Commander cards; ie, it’s never meant to show up in a booster draft, but players can jam it in cubes or constructed formats. These are also odd because their rarity is literally only meant to represent specialness and complexity.
  • Basic, cards that are extremely common and yet also extremely available.

This is what I sometimes call invisible ink. Players sometimes don’t even realise there are more rarities – I’ve seen players say there are only ‘really’ three rarities, and Mythic rares are a subtype of rare.

Anyway, just a thing to think about.

Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil

When I was nineteen, I started running Dungeons and Dragons. The history of my time with this game isn’t important, but what is important is that when I started, I had access to the setting books of the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk settings, and seeing this veritable library of game rules and information about mechanical identity and culture, I immediately said No, I don’t want that.

I wanted to tell stories with this game, but there were two reasons I wanted to avoid an established setting:

  1. I was brand new to the game, and didn’t want people to feel they could ‘beat me’ about the world by bringing up a book
  2. I didn’t want to have to read a dozen books to get started

Instead, I invented a world in a weekend and then spent years bolting on new things, editing, re-editing, retconning and then, around the time 4th Edition became a thing, I quietly put the world away and worked on other stuff. I still ran the occasional D&D game in this world, but the world wasn’t important to the games.

This is a huge trove of lore and game mechanical information. I made classes and races and feats and just a ton of stuff, some of which I recently dusted off and looked at, and you know, some of it was bad, but some of it surprised me. Particularly, a thing that surprised me was how many of the basic ideas in it I liked, and wanted another chance to do better.

Plus, I know there’s an interest in worldbuilding as a skill, and I’m friends with some people who are really good at it, and they’ve had some really interesting stuff to say about it. But I don’t just want to make good things and show you the final product; instead, I want you to see that every good thing you like was worked on and refined and changed, and for that reason I figured I’d put down these setting revision notes here, in a series.

This is going to introduce you to the setting, both how I’d explain it to a player, and how I’d put it into a book. I’m going to examine my ideas, and then examine how I think players might engage with them as play spaces.

Going back over old writing is going to reveal some ugly stuff, and some really basic stuff. I imagine there’s going to be some implicit racism and cissexism, some unconscious misogyny and I know at least once I use a slur as a game term, which isn’t good. A content warning then, going forward.


The image is from the VGA Remake of Quest For Glory I, a game that heavily influenced the creation of this setting, even if I let almost none of the Cole’s taste for Whacky Humour infiltrate my game.

Hunter’s Dreams – Trick Weapons, Part 3

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 discussed how 4th Edition D&D’s weapon system works, and today, I’m going to lay out some basic ideas of actual mechanics for use in Hunter’s Dream.

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Game Pile: Yoshi’s Island

Released in 1995, Yoshi’s Island is a classic Nintendo platform game on the SNES and subsequently released on almost every online platform they made. It’s really good and I like it, so here’s half an hour of me playing it, and talking about games, empathy, and fluttering.

D&D Memories: Genshiken

I like looking back at character creation for RPGs. It’s creative, and expressive, and it has mechanical fine-tuning, I like that stuff. Mechanics give you things you must do, then concept and flavour give you things you can choose to do within that space, and that then means you get to pick what you express.

In a friend’s game, Genshiken was mostly expressing that I was watching a lot of Bleach back in the day.

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Remembering The Zandalari

Normally I bring up Zul’Gurub and Zul’Aman as dungeon raids mostly to beat up on more recent World of Warcraft experiences. It’s a little bit ridiculous of me to say that kind of thing, though, because WoW is not a discrete experience you have, it’s a pasttime you indulge. I’ve said in the past that if we replace WoW with tennis a lot of conversations seem extremely normal and less in need of some sort of personal justification.

Sometimes I’ll remark that people who want Vanilla WoW back don’t want Vanilla Wow, they want to feel like it’s 2004 again and they’re not worrying about mortgage payments. That’s a bit curt, though – hell, it’s downright insulting, really, because how different is my distaste for Modern WoW different, when I’m still complaining about an inability to recapture the way I felt in 2011 when World of Warcraft grinding kept me from despair during a period of long-term unemployment.

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Hunter’s Dreams – Trick Weapons, 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 discussed the basics of what a Trick Weapon does in Bloodborne, and today, I’m going to talk a bit about how 4th Edition D&D can handle some of those ideas.One of the reasons wanted to do this in 4th edition D&D is because the weapon system in 4e is really good compared to every other edition of D&D. Without delving into why and how other systems were bad (but they definitely were), let’s look at the things the weapon system in 4ed D&D has.

A 4th edition weapon has the following basic stats:

  • a proficiency type (simple, military, exotic)
  • a handedness (one-handed or two-handed)
  • a range (melee or distance)
  • a damage range (one or more dice representing the damage the weapon does)
  • a proficiency bonus (determining any bonus to hit the weapon has)
  • a weight (for encumbrance rules, which I’m no fan of, but this is our life)
  • a group (to represent what other types of weapons it’s like)
  • properties (one of a set of keywords that give the weapon specific abilities)

The weapon properties are as follows:

  • Brutal
  • Defensive
  • Heavy Thrown
  • High Crit
  • Light Thrown
  • Load Free
  • Load Minor
  • Off-Hand
  • Reach
  • Small
  • Stout
  • Versatile

Some of these keywords are very specifically utilitarian – a thrown dart would have Light Thrown, while a throwing axe has Heavy Thrown. A light thrown weapon uses your dexterity, a heavy thrown weapon uses your strength. Some of these, like Load Free and Load Minor relate to the unifying mechanics of the set they’re in (Crossbows and how you load new crossbow bolts).

The main thing about these keywords is that when you’re using the weapon, these keywords are very light on your cognitive load. Consider Defensive. A defensive weapon is as follows:

A defensive weapon grants you a +1 bonus to AC while you wield the defensive weapon in one hand and wield another melee weapon in your other hand…

Now, this has a few things that relate to it – it could be seen as kind of ‘choice intense’. You get an AC bonus with the specific condition presented here, but you need to pair a weapon with the defensive type, and you need another weapon, which must always be wielded in one hand. So hypothetically, any time you put this weapon down, your AC changes, and any time the weapon in your other hand changes, that also has a chance to change your AC. In a videogame with things like disarms or throwing weapons, this could be pretty complex.

In 4e though, a character is not likely to be disarmed; they are likely to configure how their character works, the way they approach combat, and once that decision has been made, this defensive weapon bonus just folds into the way the character works.

Brutal is my favourite. Brutal N means that when you roll a value of N or less on the damage dice, you can reroll it. This is a great mechanic because it can be a small nudge, statistically (a 1d12 weapon with brutal 1, for example, is an increase on average of .5 damage per attack) but it can feel really fantastic to cash in a 1 for even a 4. What’s more, some brutal weapons prevent feel-bad low rolls on ‘big’ weapons like the Executioner’s axe (Brutal 2), or intriguing, exciting experiences with weapons like the Mordenkrad (which rolls 2d6 – but both dice are Brutal 1).

There’s also the weapon group and proficiency type. Proficiency types push characters towards a certain general type of weapon based on their class’ background; rogues and fighters are likely to be familiar with most swords, for example, but clerics and druids aren’t. That means that you can gate access to things mechanically, which you can use to set the tone for some characters. Shamans and druids use clubs and staffs and spears, which aren’t that good as pure weapons, but it’s okay, because they’re not as likely to need them. If a player wants to reach out of their proficiency group, that’s fine too.

Finally, there’s the weapon groups – that is, the kinds of weapons these things are, what they’re like, and what they do. In older D&D editions, there was a trend towards trying to put a weapon in a big group (simple, martial, exotic) and that’s it; special training may refer to a specific weapon, but then you got weird things like how the Bladesinger would refer to a character using a longsword or rapier or elven rapier. Instead, in this case, weapons fit into general groups, and weapon styles or feats can refer to doing attacks with types of weapons. Most interestingly, weapons can have multiple groups – so if you build a character who can do things with polearms and things with axes, a weapon that is a polearm axe represents an intriguing opportunity to do both.

These are good properties because the mean that the experience of using these weapons is qualitatively different than in other systems. You set the weapon up, and then you use it – Notably, there are a lot of things these weapon properties don’t ask you to do.

  • They don’t include a lot of memory issues
  • They don’t ask you to commit within the action economy
  • They can handle choices made during the attack, like versatile
  • They don’t want to be too specific

There aren’t any weapons that have a unique property; none of these weapons have a unique mechanic. That means a weapon property wants to exist on at least two weapons. That’s good – that suggests any weapon property invented needs to be made with a mind to being reused. Anything too specific probably doesn’t want to belong here.

Next time, we’ll talk about how these two idea spaces interact.

Game Pile: Ace Attorney Investigations

Ace Attorney Investigations is a 2011 Nintendo DS game, best described as a Narrative Adventure game. See? I told you I needed it. Building on the success of previous Ace Attorney games, Investigations gives you space to wander around, all floppy-cravat style, and Investigate, as an Attorney would, or as you might imagine one would, if you had a very active and extremely silly imagination.

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Term: Narrative Adventure

I need a term for something, so let’s invent it.

The term is going to use some language to represent a thing, and that language is going to need some history. That history is going to need some context, and some caveats, some asterisks, etcetera. Also, some of what I’m going to talk about can be seen as a polite disagreement with Ian Danskin’s videos on The Death of Guybrush Threepwood, essays from 2015.

Way to strike while the iron is gone.

What I want to talk about today is a particular family of games, or what we might know as a genre of games. Genre’s a beast of a thing to nail down, and I’ve said so in the past – it’s a well-established canard that ‘JRPG’ and ‘FPS’ are both genres even though one is defined by a country of origin and the other by a camera angle. Still, genre’s the term we have, so genre is what we must use, I guess, I’m only trying to invent one thing at a time here.

There is a type of game, and we don’t have a good term for it, right now, or at least, I haven’t seen one. I can’t tell you what I mean by naming the term we use for it, because if I do that you’ll immediately think of those games and only those games that are closest to it, and we want to keep our minds open here. We want to maximise the coverage of this terminology.

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Hunter’s Dreams – Trick Weapons, Part 1

I started work on Hunter’s Dream back in January, with the basic idea being a way to play a Bloodborne style game set using 4th Edition D&D. The reasons are pretty easy to grapple with – starting with ‘I like it’ and moving on to ‘Bloodborne’s play experience is a tactical game of resource expenditure, not a story game of improvisation.’

Still, 4th edition D&D is a game of systems, and that means when you want to put something in the systems, you want to put in some rules. In Bloodborne, the trick weapons are a big part of the tactical experience, and they make the game feel that particular steampunky way. How then, do we bring that feeling into 4th ed D&D.

When looking at implementing these trick weapons in 4E, we want to consider what they do and how they do it. That sounds like basic stuff, but those questions are going to illustrate the difference between the two types of games and how I can make something that feels right in a different game.

Trick weapons in Bloodborne are weapons; you use them to attack opponents, destroy objects, and occasionally interact with environments in surprising ways – think about the times you cut a rope or knock down a hanging treasure. Broadly speaking though, the trick weapons are weapons, which you use to hurt people.

When you use them, you can change them from one form to another. Now here is where we can get a bit McLuahnish, and point out that medium and messages intertwine. See, Bloodborne is a videogame, and you play it with a controller. That controller has a number of buttons, and you, as a player, are expected to track maybe about seven to eight of those buttons at a time in combat. That means any mechanic you introduce, if it’s going to happen in combat, needs a button, and it needs a reliable button, because this combat is pretty high stakes. The game design is also what I call ‘fixed animation’ length – that is, when you commit to an action, you’re often stuck with it, and unlikely to be able to assert control over it along the way.

Following that, then, is that the trick weapons need to be weapons where your ‘trick’ doesn’t take a lot of buttons or fine customising. If you do those things, it’d take more time, and that might make it too inconvenient. With only limited inputs, then, the Bloodborne trick weapons are very binary. They’re either ‘on’ or ‘off’ – and you can swap them between one thing or the other in-combat. There are a few oddballs, of course, but generally, these weapons exist in form A or B, and in combat, shifting from A to B or vice versa results in a special attack.

Most of these weapons change in ways that reflect the technology of the setting. For some, the change is a big physical object shift; for others it’s turning on a special ability for the next hit. The weapons can’t be ‘normal’ weapons, even if they mostly resemble them – swords that become hammers, axes that become polearms, that kind of thing.

These two states want to be qualitatively different, in the context of Bloodborne; you’ll sometimes get different damage types, different speeds of attack, and different reach. In this game, those are very small spaces. Attack speed can be fractions of a second; Reach can be important down to similarly small units of distance.

To summarise:

  • Bloodborne trick weapons are weapons
    • They’re primarily used to hurt people and interact with the environment
  • The trick of Bloodborne trick weapons is simple to use
    • This differentiates them from conventional weapons
    • There’s still room for mastery
  • These weapons vary in how they attack
    • Reach
    • Speed
    • Damage
    • Special effects

This is our outline, the parameters we want to consider. Next time we’ll look at the challenges of setting this up in 4ed D&D.

MTG: Designing Tokens

Here’s a thing I’m working on.

If you play Magic: The Gathering, you’ll know that some cards create tokens – which are kind of cards that aren’t cards. Basically, a token is a thing that a card can create that isn’t represented by a card. If you don’t know Magic, this is probably a bit boring. Feel free to go elsewhere.

Anyway!

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Nintendon’t Come To Europe

It’s an American internet, really. If you talk about videogames of a retro vintage, it’s taken as a given you’re going to talk about videogames made by Nintendo, for Nintendo platforms. I’ve been told it extends so far that you don’t say ‘Playing Videogames,’ if you speak to the 90s – you say ‘Playing Nintendo.’

I didn’t see a Super Nintendo in someone’s house until I was an adult, and it was a collectable. Yet my cousin, and a few people I knew from around school had, or rented, a Sega platform.

In case this is literally your first experience here on the blog: Hi! I’m Australian. This is about my youth in Australia. But it’s also about how the assumptions we use when we talk about media often shows things about who we are as media consumers.

Nintendo dominated North America throughout the 80s and 90s, winning what was at the time considered ‘The Console Wars’ against their rival Sega. Then in the early 00s, there really wasn’t a Sega to oppose, as the Saturn followed by the Dreamcast failed and the company making them started to disassemble its manufacturing base, moving into full-time production of bad Sonic the Hedgehog spin-offs and sequels. Thing is, that narrative is how things were In America.

Here in Australia, Sega was the thing you got. Sega sold better in Europe, too, and distributed widely there. Part of what helped Sega do well was the video rental network they were connected to – this is an ad from almost every VHS I remembered watching, distributed from every Video EZY I checked. Renting a Master System or Mega Drive was surprisingly cheap if you could stump the bond (and I could not and never did). This is why it’s very common for Australians of this age to mispronounce ‘Sega’ – because the ads all pronounce it wrong too!

In Latin America, it’s even weirder. Sega made deals to manufacture Sega equipment in Brazil, and that means that for Brazilians, Master Systems were really cheap. What’s more, that deal didn’t limit itself to the production that Sega was doing – which means that Brazil’s been making Sega Master Systems since – well, since the 80s. As technology has moved on, with the same fundamental architecture, what’s happened is that the Master System (a really good console!) has been instead getting smaller and more convenient.

Mailing and distributing these units from Brazil is apparently ferociously expensive – Brazil’s tariffs on entertainment goods are, I’m told, eyewatering, and piracy in the country is rife on anything that can run Linux. Still, it’s this fascinating little story of a place where not only did Nintendo not win the console war, the company they thought they’d defeated has lived on beyond them.

Is this news to anyone? No, not really. Most Americans I know are aware of these things. But what’s fascinating is that there are a number of Americans who don’t – and they’re always surprised to learn that the history of trade and distribution of videogames just wasn’t universal.

Game Pile: Exalted: The Infernals

First things first, before we go anywhere.

Content Warning

The gamebook I’m going to discuss here is shot through it with a bunch of stuff that’s just going to fall under the category of what I call ‘content-warningy.’ The Infernals is a book marinated in a needless ‘edgy’ nastiness that means a perfectly normal seeming paragraph about negotiating for barley can break out with a random reference to sexual assault.

It’s not even a single enclosed space – no singular concept, no page section. This isn’t like there’s one super horrible character, or one terrible scene. It’s worse than that, it’s that throughout this entire guidebook, there is a non-stop constant and oppressive threat that the book will bring up something unnecessary and gross, mistaking mentioning taboo things as wielding them well.

I have beeves about this book and yet also loves, but I want to warn you against reading it at random, because in its attempts to be horrifying and edgy with its ‘villainous’ content, there’s a lot of this book you kind of have to ignore. Normally, I’ll warn you about a thing, or a type of thing in a work, but in this case, I just want you to know up front I don’t think you should read this book. As a general rule.

I will not be talking about that stuff, except in a broad sense to criticise the thoughtless way this book uses these subject matters. I’m not going to trot out specific examples of things just to criticise them, but I am going to mention:

  • Abuse and Abusers
  • Self-Harm
  • Sexual Assault spoken about callously
  • Mental health and identity issues
  • Anger and revenge
  • Public executions

If you want to go elsewhere today, I am okay with that. Here, go somewhere else, look at something nice.

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MGP: Imbuing Ownership

Starting January 2016, I made a game or more a month for the whole year. I continued this until 2018, creating a corpus of 39 card or board games, including Looking For Group, Senpai Notice Me, and Dog Bear. Starting in 2019, I wanted to write about this experience, and advice I gained from doing it for you. Articles about the MGP are about that experience, the Monthly Game Project.

When I talk about my games there tends to be a split in game types, which tends to – but not always – lie along a price line. There are $10 games, which are made with a tiny number of cards, less art, and often a tight little system to play with. Some examples are Senpai Notice Me! and You Can’t Win, which are both excellent games I’m very happy with for how much they do with how little they’ve got room for. These games are almost like a unicycle, a tiny tight little system, and they’re mostly intermediary games, games that you play between other things. There are exceptions – The Botch, for example, is what I consider a mid-size game for its time and strategic investment, and Chin Music is a $15 game that nonetheless is playable with seven year olds, with almost no strategic depth or world-building.

The point is, that these games, we’ll call them the single wheel games, tend to be kind of easy to make, they tend to be a bit less demanding, and they tend to be faster to make. The games that take more time tend to have fewer mistakes in them that I think of as big. It’s easy for me to point out the problems of D-73C7 but it’s a tiny bit harder to talk about the problems in the games I think of as ‘medium,’ the games where I have stamped my name and a bit of my lore and my friends.

Burning Daylight is a game I love.

It’s a good game.

But I hate, hate, hate, how much better it could be.

If you haven’t seen this game, it’s basically a Hand Management game. You pick a handful of cards that represent your gang, then you send those gang members out to do missions, each one capable of doing something on their own, and then after they go out, they do something, then they come home. You can send them out as a group, and if you do, they can do a mission.

There’s a ton of stuff that’s just a little bit awkward about this game. The way injury works, the way the track progresses – players tend to want to move their characters differently to the way the rules work, which suggests that the rules I designed around were bad, and I should have been willing to pull them back. I still tangle with the feeling myself, if I should revisit the game entirely, strip back the rules, and redo a bunch of the cards? Maybe?

But that’s not the important thing. Those are small things, they are ways to make a better game out of the good game. There’s a fatal flaw in Burning Daylight, or rather, an overwhelming flaw that bothers the hell out of me, and it’s at the start of the game, you have to pick your gang members. You pick five cards and those cards are your gang. They’re yours.

When you first pick the game up, you have no idea what those gang members do, how they interact with one another, if they’re good, or what kind of mix of them you want.

I filled these cards with as much personality as I could, I strived to make it so that you could like this cast of gangsters, and then I created potential pitfalls for players who made bad choices. Which sucks, it’s such a bad decision.

If you pick a good, mixed team, and if you know how some of the characters work together, this game can be fun, but at that point, you’re not creating your gang for this game, you’re picking up a gang. I gave players a way to take ownership of the game in some way, and then I made it so they could do that wrong and that drives me batty every time I think about it.

Burning Daylight took me months to make. I bought stock art I loved, I edited and refined it, like the art I use for Sector 86. I live-tweeted so many stages of the design process; there was a time where it was actually strongly reminsicent of Arctic Scavengers (and … well… maybe), another time it was almost a box game with tokens and a bag buying system. The game that came out is full of lore I like, characters I love and it looks great…

… and I keep gnawing away at the ways I could make it better.

Doom’s Paratext

You know what, I haven’t taken a cheap pop at Doom in a few months, let’s go into the rich well of a game that my dad has never stopped playing since 1994.

Okay, I’ve talked about text and paratext, in the past. The basic idea is that there’s stuff in the work, and that’s text, and then there’s stuff in the work surrounding the work, and that’s paratext. An example would be how the fact that a wizard named Dumbledore exists is text to the Harry Potter books, but that he just went to town on Wizard Hitler’s cock is part of the supplementary text to that from JK Rowling, and that surrounding commentary is a form of paratext.

And let’s make it clear: Your gentle loving grandpa figure Dumbledore absolutely fucked Wizard Hitler.

Anyway, the distinction is between what counts as text versus what counts as paratext is generally centered around a specific way of experiencing a work. A movie that adapts a book can be seen as paratext to that book, but it can also be seen as its own text. The book can be seen as paratext to the movie, too. A book and a movie, though, are somewhat equal in their textual weight (except to extreme cinephiles and bibliophiles, who are both pretty silly).

What though, about a game?

People consider the reading material that comes with games as pretty secondary. Heck, superfluous. Back in the day, they were text file that came with readers, and you could definitionally not read the text file while you were playing the game. It seems pretty easy then to assess the game as the text, and there’s a lot of people who will stand firmly by the idea that the play of a game is the important thing (hullo, ludology-narratology debate).

Thing is, though, there are a lot of games that have well-established, well known ‘stories’ where the story as we understand it appears not in the game, but in a booklet that comes with the game, or a text file or even ordering info that comes with the game. Particularly, to use a high profile example, Doom is a videogame that has almost no description of its story in the game itself. There’s nothing you’d consider establishing – it just drops you into the game in Knee Deep In the Dead and, that’s it. The idea that you’re a Space Marine, that you’re deployed on Mars for killing a superior officer (pfft), that you’re the last person left after a teleporter accident, the integral identity of how Doom‘s story works, that’s all in the manual.

This isn’t atypical though.

Most videogames don’t have the room, not back then, to properly show you their story in play. It just takes too long. Lots of the time, you don’t even know what your goal is until you reach it!

Anyway, Doom’s plot is Paratext and Dumbledore sucks Hitler dick.

Game Pile: Exalted

Exalted is a tabletop roleplaying game of mythic fantasy that positioned itself as the counterpoint to Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition, made first by White Wolf and later by Onyx Path. Onyx Path have faithfully carried on the legacy of White Wolf’s work, and by that, I mean, Exalted started out bad and has maintained being bad.

Bad is a hollow word for media criticism, I know, but it’s good to set a tone. I want you to  bear that in mind, because there’s going to be a lot of things that make this game sound awesome. This game has a faction of communist revolutionary furries who are gay for the moon. See? Right there, that’s something that’s either awful (kinda) or amazing (also, kinda).

This presents part of the problem of discussing Exalted: A list of things in Exalted sounds like praise for it! In a way, that’s amazing! It’s got a sentient stealth bomber that lives in a volcano! See? Just like that, you react with what and want to know more!

Plus, there will be pretty pictures, because Exalted has always employed some excellent artists who sometimes do amazing work, and if Bioshock Infinite has taught us anything, it’s that really excellent aesthetics can make it very easy for people to take you seriously even if your game is actually really bad.

Hold to that truth. No matter what it sounds like I’m saying, I’m also saying that Exalted is bad.

Exalted is amazing.

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MTG: It’s Not Gacha

I try not to shoot from the hip on matters like these.

I try not, generally speaking, to do long-form articles about important topics where the subject matter is high impact and there are well-intentioned people who look uninformed to me. It’s a sure-fire way of wading into a complex situation where I contribute no actual value, just noise.

Plus, this is the intersection of Magic: the Gathering, game development, and human incentive systems, which I’m sorry to say I’m rapidly doing things that make me kind of expert on, even if I shy from being considered an expert. There’s a whole gulf of information between where I sit and where a lot of other voices on the matter sit, which can make me feel like I’m either talking over them (because they don’t know what they’re talking about, and don’t realise that) or that I’m getting into an extremely contentious fight (because they know what they’re talking about, and are presenting falsehoods and do not care).

Still, it’s April, it’s my month, you’re here on my blog so sit down, shut up, and learn why every time people compare Gacha to Magic: the Gathering I roll my eyes so hard it makes my skull ache.

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Game (Barriers, Readings, Reviews)

Sometimes I’m cautious about using the term game review when I talk about games in Game Pile. We’re not usually sure what a review of a game is, in language terms, except when people are talking very specifically about games as consumer product getting consumer guidance.

I don’t do that though – I mean, I do account for the consumer product of the games I talk about. Often I’ll offer reasons why you might like a game, or things about that game that are good guidance for when you buy it. That’s not really the primary way I talk about games, though.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is how when I write about a game’s play experience, it can be viewed as autoethnography, but that’s a really obscure term and it makes me sound like I’m distancing myself from everyday talksy-about-gamesy people. There’s a barrier put in place when you use academic language, and while I want to connect non-academic people to concepts they may understand and be able to use from academia, if I do it by teaching them just plain jargon, I feel like I’m mostly teaching people unuseful things they won’t use. Even if I’m doing autoethnography, that doesn’t mean saying this is an autoethnographic survey of this game is just alienating as hell.

I’ve toyed with calling them readings, the way that that term gets used in both critical media and academia. This is my reading of this game, for example. That’s interesting because it presents my take as a sort of unified set of details that are meant to harmonise together. That would actually ask for me to do things differently, too, though, if I wanted to mimic a reading. Readings are great if you have a particular definitional vision of a work, too, where you want to present a version of events where this is what I think happened, or sometimes to frame it as if this happened, here’s an idea for what that means. I do readings sometimes – my take on Voltron is a reading, for example.

Most of the time, I don’t do readings of games. I tend to look at them in terms of design, or how they’re made, or the plot, or even single beats in the plot. Games tend to be kind of bigger than other media, it means there’s a lot of room to write about a lot of things when you write about a game. Some of my game articles are readings but that’s not to say that’s what I do.

And thus we loop around this thought, again and again, and again. What are they, if not reviews? These are thoughts and writing spurred by the retrospective consideration of the game, too. They are literally my thoughts upon review of the game.

I guess in the end, while this point of language bothers me just a shade, it’s a point I’m trying to get over. The idea that these things aren’t reviews because they’re not consumer examinations or because they’re focused on story or design is to cede the entirety of review to a glorified price guide.

Therefore, my articles about videogames, are game reviews.

Fight me, my own brain.

D&D Memories: Shen Marrowick

We do this these days, right?

We talk about our D&D Characters?

Okay.

I am a firm believer in the idea that when you present a character to the players at the table, they need a handle on the character. They need to be able to grasp the character quickly so it’s often best to start with a basic archetype or story point. You want to occupy the space in the story, you don’t want to have to explain that place you want in the story.

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