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.

Making Magic (In Games)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eevolutions, Ranked

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

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

Ready?

Here we go!
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Game Pile: Apollo Justice

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

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

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

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Hunter’s Dreams – The Nexus’ Needs

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

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

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

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Keys And Switches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting Making, Concept 2: Penny Something

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

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

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Pokemon Changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 Memories – The Dragon Girlfriend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

Did I ever see anyone do this? No.

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

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

You had better stuff to do with your time.

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

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

Game Pile: Simon The Sorcerer

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

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

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3.5 Memories – Vileness

You know it’d be pretty easy to draw the conclusion, based on the way I talk about it, that I didn’t like 3.5 D&D. This couldn’t be further from the truth – I haven’t played the game in ten years and yet I still have all my books, still have character sheets and build articles and all sorts of interesting work I did. I wouldn’t write these articles about 3rd edition books and mechanics where I reminisce about how the things I did – silly as they were – were still cool. I liked 3.5.

But gosh did it make it hard.

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Playing the Monster

I’m not going to buy a Vampire book to find out what their dumb explanation is for this, okay?


Every now and again, someone playing a White Wolf RPG gets some attention on internet because of some bad decision of a player, usually, or a storyteller, just as usually, and the question is always ‘here’s some really supremely fucked up thing that I and my friends sat around doing in our pretendy-fun-time game, and someone thought it was fucked up, am I good?’

There’s a lot of different conversations that spin off this, like the shrapnel of a thrown firecracker, and some of those conversations are good, like ‘how do I communicate better with my group,’ or ‘how do we relate to the media that we create in play,’ but there are also a lot of really silly conversations, including ‘why do these people play that bad game, they should play my much better game,’ or ‘doesn’t this show how everyone who likes that game is a bad person.’

One big roadblock to the conversation that comes up, often, is the all-purpose tried-and-true, worked-on-the-Satanic-Panic why-doesn’t-it-work-now response is that in Vampire (and it’s so often Vampire, but hey, sometimes it’s Werewolf, but, these days, certainly lately, it’s Vampire), you are playing the monsters, and that’s that, they say, folding their arms and smugly sitting back.

The correct response to that is ‘so?’

Playing a monster isn’t hard. It’s not even that interesting. What these games want to do, usually, in their best forms, is try to get you, the player into a mental space where you can appreciate the framework of a monstrous creature. Recently, though, that seems to be biased towards the idea that a vampire is a thing that by necessity must always be evil – that there is no way for a vampire to be a valid member of human society. This is a pretty novel idea, though, because it asks the question, why? 

Now, one thing here is that the World of Darkness is a universe which has a sort of fundamental moral footing, so if the story wants to say ‘this thing is evil,’ then okay, it’s evil, just there you go, all Divinely Decreed. But these aren’t games that want to try and express that, they kinda balk at the idea of having their morality be as basic as Dungeons & Dragons (even though it pretty much is). Instead they start talking about moral justifications for power in their universe, or what makes Vampires ‘bad,’ and what ‘evil’ is in this universe.

Essentially, these arguments about what makes the Vampires monstrous is ‘they hurt people.’ Not just ‘the vampires that are like, Nazis, hurt people’ but just being a vampire hurts people. Your vampire can only exist as a parasite and that means they literally can never morally exist in the universe. This puts the Vampire world’s moral framework as kinda hilariously puritanical: There can be no moral application of violence, even in the opposition of the violent. Intention is not just corrupt, but your intentions can be corrupted by your nature. This extends throughout the universe – Vampire hunters are seen as corrupted by their pursuit of stopping Vampires. It’s a world where the Abyss doesn’t just look into you, but the only moral action that doesn’t lead to corruption is to lay down and just fucking die.

It is afraid of violence, in the most pearl-clutching way, and tries to enforce its fears with its rules about the world, then enforces those rules with lore about feeding a cosmic abyss.

You may be ‘playing the monsters’ but you’re playing monsters in a world so profoundly backassward that being a monster is meaningless.

The Game Pitch

Everyone has their own silly loves. Everyone has things they like doing that don’t make sense to anyone else, right? You know there’s someone who likes refining or commenting their code or someone who enjoys doing reference citations or someone who likes sorting a library of books. All that stuff. Right?

Well, something I love, a lot, is pitching games.

Not the big, stand-in-front-of-investors, white-board and flop-sweat pitching. That doesn’t bother me but I rarely find it fun. That’s actually really challenging because you’re in a live-fire exercise trying to find the frame of reference for your audience and want to construct a kind of language gear that you can use to connect to them and turn the wheel of their mind. That’s hard, that’s really hard, and the fun that you get out of it is a very different beast.

No no no – what I mean is pitching a game to my players.

When you’re to start a campaign of a roleplaying game, it helps to have an idea of where you’re going, how the plot might work out, the kind of things – in a general sense! – you’re going to be dealing with. You don’t want to plan it to death, dear god, no – but you want to have an idea of your tone. You want your style. Do a little conversation with your players, feel out what they’re into, feel out what you’re into, and commit something onto paper to be the groundwork for them to make their characters, and what you have there is the basics of your game pitch.

Game pitches are really fun because they’re high concept views on stories but also they leave one of the most important parts of a story completely blank: you have no idea who the protagonists are. This means you get to shape the kind of characters someone might want to make, but you also don’t know what you’re going to get. At the same time, because you get to lay down rules, you also get to tell people the kinds of characters they should bring, without necessarily defining anything too clearly. It’s great! It’s this wonderful little potential bubble of stuff.

And then you get to wrap that up in some mood writing, something to give people an idea of how you want them to feel going in. You might lead with some fatalistic poetry or a quote from a scholar, or an excerpt of relevant history, or maybe you share an account from some character the story meets. Maybe you’ll show a scene of something, an actual snippet of history. Or maybe, you’ll lead with a short, bitter phrase, something the characters may already know, may already repeat to one another, bitterly.

I keep around a bunch of these pitches in my books and archives. The house rules, written down, the character creation rules, the guide to things like ‘we want characters who are heroic’ or ‘we want characters who are connected to this organisation,’ or ‘one member of the group has this royaly title.’ One came I ran, Border Guard, the brief opened with the phrase:

We’re not the best
We’re not the brightest
We’re not all we can be
We’re just here.

One of the players who played in that game turned to me once, about the sleep he had lost taking care of one of his parents through a medical rough patch. About how he hadn’t signed up for that difficult task. And he said it back to me, and then added, he couldn’t remember where he heard it.

I love creating game briefs.

They’re so much fun~.

Starting Making, Concept 1: Halls In The Mark

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

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

Game Pile: Handsome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I showed this game to my sister on a Saturday.

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

What Can Hide In Your World?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning The Gear Of Surprise Mechanics

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

Hold onto that, we’ll need it later.

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

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

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

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

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Game Pile: Yoshi’s Crafted World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Defining Mastery Depth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of Heroes and the Clamps!

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Goldshire Inn Ethnography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those letters were really dirty.

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

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

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

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

Owlbear Traps

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Game Pile: Century Golem

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

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

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

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

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

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Gnome Names

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

Why are they like that, you think?

 

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

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

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

From this I can derive two things:

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

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

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

The Dwarves Wrote The Histories

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Fabula Nova Crystallis

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

There was a brand.

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

It was meant to be basic!

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

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

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