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.

Game Pile: Pokemon Go

Pokemon is a rich vein of hashtag content for hashtag content hashtag creators, who are trying to hashtag drive hashtag engagement. For that reason I’ve largely left the subject alone except when the tumult has grown so tempestuous I find myself driven to shout about it. I think most of my reviews of Pokemon main games would be a little tedious – I’ve talked about the difficulty of talking about them in the past, where these games are largely just really good, and critically engaging with them in any way is a matter of picking over a game that’s 99% positive finding the 1% that’s got something interesting enough to talk about.

Not so Pokemon Go, though, which is probably the most successful and widespread alternate reality game that exists in the world right now, at least as far as I, someone who speaks only English, am aware. Remember, there are more mobile phones in China than there are people in America – if it turns out there’s some amazing thing happening on the other side of the Great Firewall, I wouldn’t know about it. Anyway, point is, Pokemon Go is a big deal, and it’s not a sequel in a meaningful way and it’s not a refinement of a nearly perfected formula.

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Gen 5, Part One, PoGo

I’ve mentioned in the past, or maybe in the future, I don’t know how the scheduling works out, that the presence of Garchomp in Pokemon Go was my personal ‘there goes the neighbourhood’ metric. I’m a bitter, bitter boy and Garchomp was one of the things that drove me away from online Pokemon battling back in Generation 4. Comical then is that that drive also led to me missing out on a generation I think I would have loved until I was sick of it, Generation 5, of the infamous Weather Wars.

I’m just going to assume, if you’re going to keep reading that you either know enough about Pokemon that explaining Weather Wars would be old news to you, or so new that you don’t care to learn the four or five different interconnected systems to learn why weather was so goddamn important. We’re just going to skip over and if you want me to explain it in my plain-languagey explainy way, you can ask me to explain the Weather Wars later.

Anyway.

Still, Generation 5 was great, because it was Pokemon game, and they’re all great, because that’s the way Pokemon games work, something to do with them all being really great. A thing I loved about Gen 5 though was that this was a time when the Pokedex – the collection of Pokemon you’d encounter – was pretty much completely new, so you saw almost nothing but new Pokemon, and you wouldn’t see your old favourites until after you got to the end of the game. Bit of a bummer if you carried the same Pikachu from two generations back, but if you were the kind of person who was seeking new experiences, like me, Gen 5 was so full of brand new friends to make it was great.

And since the internet loves lists, here’s a list of Some Pokemons from Generation V, and why I like them, to give my Pokemon Goer friends some context!

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MGP: Time To Grow

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.

I’ve talked about the Monthly Game Project, but there’s a point I really need to hammer in that I didn’t get to appreciate when I was doing it.

Things take time.

I am not going to lie, I get jealous when I see fandoms. I get jealous when I see fandoms for incomplete ongoing works. I get jealous when I watch as the games and things I make have sunk beneath the waves. The idea goes that if you make something and put it out there, with sincerity and positivity, you will get attention and people will connect to it and it’ll be great. You can look to the example of certain darling games, or darling devs, people with support and fanbases and people who are eager and enthusiastic to see the result of their work, even after months or years.

This is reasonable, I feel, as jealousy, and anyone who wants to tell me my feelings are illegitimate or unreasonable can eat a dick. But as with all of these feelings, I want to use that sensation and consider what I can do around it. What I’m doing to make it harder to have that fandom. I do think I have a fandom (and it’s very small, and I love you so much). And I think part of the problem is that I have people who genuinely have no idea that some of my games even came out.

I didn’t have a handle on releasing a game each month. I wasn’t having to rely on user bases, I wasn’t doing something like Button Shy do – I made a game a month on public print on demand, and that game production didn’t have a consistant approach for building hype, consistent outlets or rollouts, or planned times for release. I didn’t do hype – I just dropped a game out of nowhere.

Also, I tended to route around the things that make for good ‘pops’ – I sent some of my games to reviewers, and literally none of them ever came through. My response to that was to stop trying to get reviewers to look at my games; I simply gave up. That sucks for me, because I know for a fact that a bulk of the early sales of Dog Bear, and the reasons why it’s one of my most successful games, is because there was one Redditor who kept mentioning it for about a year. Not a proactive thing – it was just one game they mentioned in a discussion of RPGs.

There’s this idea we have in digital marketing, of the idea of the long tail. Notionally, it’s the idea of building up a big library of things that don’t have wide appeal – a few sales from a larger, browsed library will slowly, over time get attention and that’ll get people interested. It’s a model that works, go wide instead of focusing on a few hits. But my library of games is honestly so big that as one person, it’s kinda just… intimidating to look through, and even at a convention it’s hard to convince people to check them out. I do public threads, exploring and explaining games as I make them, and those can be cool, but I feel like they need to be timed to be events.

Fact is, not everyone is checking twitter actively.

I made Fabricators in a weekend. I don’t regret that – I love that game, it’s sweet and tight and it uses a good engine I observed other games using, and I was able to make a game that’s very much its own distinctive kind of thing, a hard euro game that builds itself around a cooperative tenor. And that’s great, but the entire window of time when you saw me working on that game, then talking about the game, then releasing the game was four days.

The hype cycle for games, even small games, is long. It is long and slow and players can only buy games so quickly. Even if the game is made, I feel like the best course of action, the plan I have going forwards, is to sit on the game, to share it with a few people, on patreon, and the like, and spend the remaining time and effort on polishing and refining the game. Build some hype, maybe. Find the people who respond to it well, and maybe get back to trying to get people to review it.

Time to make things is one thing, but time to make interest is another.

Game Pile: WitchWay

There’s a model for how the Game Pile works. When it started, it was almost a sort of penitence diary, a way for me to talk about the games in my Steam Library as I committed to play through them, with the idea that it would be a long process where I could eventually ‘finish’ my Steam Library. It was almost done as a sort of deliberate demonstration of engagement – hey, people who bought me these gifts, here I am, playing them, please have your money and time and belief in me respected.

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Work In Progress: Combo Shirts

Okay, first things first, here’s a design.

Do you know what this is? Magic: the Gathering fans, people who play in eternal formats, may recognise it. It’s a two-word reference to a combo of two cards that work together to let you take infinite turns, and therefore, most of the time, just automatically win the game in some way or another. It’s a powerful combo, and in the formats it’s in, it’s kinda a ‘good’ combo. It can be a total blowout – you can literally just start the game and in those formats, draw the right combination of cards that mean your opponent never ever gets a turn.

Anyway, this design is part of an idea I had where I thought about making a set of shirt or sticker logos that represent prominent two-card combos from Magic: The Gathering. What I did was ask the public if they had any ideas, and I got some… and they were pretty cool!

I hadn’t really framed the question clearly, though! I got a lot of cool combos people used in their decks, things they loved to do. There’s a neat combo with Basalt Monolith and Wake Thrasher, for example!

I didn’t get advice or suggestions for what I wanted – but it’s okay. Instead, I got to listen to my friends, who were cool and neat.

 

Ripperology

You know what, I don’t say this kind of stuff very often, so here.

Ripperology is some of the worst kind of awful nerd garbage that exists.

Ripperology, or the ‘study’ of the murders of ‘Jack the Ripper,’ a dude who is about as historically verifiable as Jesus Christ, is the modern day pursuit of some kind of useful lasting information present in our modern day and available in any meaningful way about how in a city of three million people, one particular murderer was able to avoid capture from police. This is all done by breathlessly poring over various historical sources, which are of varying importance and impact, but also, crucially, reading a lot of people writing about those same sources, and building their own cases.

It also, when it crosses my path, seems to heavily relate to yelling at women on twitter, which I’m sure is just coincidence.

This isn’t me saying that ripperologists can’t have their fun, I mean, if they were dressing up as an elf or a Touhou I’d be defending them, but Ripperology exists in this weird space of somehow treating itself with a kind of seriousness and importance as if it’s a kind of forensic science. It’s the kind of people who will breathlessly butt heads about the possible meaning of journals whose authors admit they falsified them, delving deep into complex and elaborate webs of ‘scholarship’ about a subject with precious little actual information to it, but also in order to try and make it somehow hard to explain something that has a really simple explanation.

You don’t need some master of intrigue to get away with five crimes against marginalised people in a city of millions in a part of town already renowned for its criminal behaviour. You don’t need him to be an outcast prince or a secret surgeon or a dude with an exotic foreign-acquired brain disease or a vampire.

Do I have any special disdain for Ripperologists, too? Not really. I bet I know someone who has a pet theory about it, and as far as pet theories and conspiracies go, it’s pretty harmless to have one. It’s probably as goofy as Velikovsky believing that Jupiter farted out Venus at some point. It’s just this particular one, the idea of being captivated by this one.

It’s, like Pineapple on a Pizza, a game, essentially. People are playing their theories against one another, back-and-forth and joust and juke. It’s just, as someone who cares about games, a seemingly really awful one, a game is basically the most morbid and tedious kind of storytelling game, a sort of Dungeons and Dragons campaign where there’s no dungeon master nor rulebook but everyone is still going to be as obnoxious a rules lawyer as possible.

Digital Archaeology at Paragonwiki

I mentioned that I’ve been looking at the rehabilitated City of Heroes, and that it’s for work. This is ostensibly true. I’m obviously also playing a videogame I love to bits and finding people to pretend to be a superhero with. I have a spreadsheet set up, and boy, that’s the kind of thing that leads to silly behaviour.

How silly?

What I’ve done to start with is a big sheet that starts with a bunch of fields, then as I need to track things about characters that aren’t unique, I just add a column and put stuff in it. That means sometimes I get charts as a result like this, sensible chart that shows my current distribution of character origin. Think of it as a kind of character genre:

That’s sensible! That makes some sense.

Then there’s this:

A chart mapping how many of my characters have secret identities versus how many have public identities. Or there’s this chart:

Which of my characters are men (dudes) who use the StanceVillain2 emote as a default standing position around people. That’s this emote, here, which I was able to obtain from the Paragon Wiki really conveniently, because that was archived.

When I started working on this new version of the game, I made a choice to not just replicate my old characters. I wanted to make sure I made new characters, or ‘corrected’ the powerset choices of older characters. A character who was built and levelled as a Dominator once might become a Brute this time. A character who was a Brute became a Tanker. Still, I wanted to play with the old looks I had, and update them, and play some of my old characters again – oh hey, another chart –

And then I realised just how what I was doing, and more than that, I realised the resources I had at hand. Because to check the emotes, I looked up Paragonwiki. To check out my old characters, I looked up a community wiki. To set up my characters ahead of time, I looked at old binds I’d had saved in a text file for five years.

Five years is not a long time, not really, in terms of data storage. There are people with computer data from twenty years ago, thirty, fifty years ago. When this game disappeared, there were all sorts of people making the conscious choice to spend money and time and storage to keep things saved, to keep things available, in the name of… what? Hope? I don’t imagine we were expecting the game to come back.

Keeping these things around was itself a form of cultural practice. A feeling of comfort, a sort of wistful joy that came from knowing what had been lost and wanting to make sure whatever of it we had was not gone. We grieved this game, and in many ways, we grieved it through memorialising it. Not with maudlin pledges, but with the careful sorting of documents and notes and historical preservation.

And now we don’t have to.

For a little while.

Game Pile: Wonder Girl!

Years ago now, I, on a whim, wrote an article talking about a little-known Master System exploration platformer (what you may call a metroidvania), called Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap. I wrote about it because it was a rare gem, it connected to my childhood and in all my time of watching a SNES-dominated game landscape, I never saw anyone bring it up, even in conversations about the entire genre of exploration platformer. It was a curiosity, and I tied it into a conversation about transformation and becoming, and how the different dragons, perhaps coincidentally, mapped to interesting themes of the world we live in and the way dragons represent power.

Then, about a week? A month? It feels like almost no time at all, but very much after I released that, a teaser dropped from Lizardcube showing that not only were they remaking this game, but they were doing so with a level of aesthetic devotion and purity that seemed too good to be true.

And then it came out, and it wasn’t too good to be true.

This was purely a coincidence, a completely unintentional and unexpected alignment between my random whims and the intentions of a group of other people who very clearly had not forgotten this delightful gem of a game. I wish it’d come from some place of insider knowledge, that I’d been able to guide this along or build hype, but it really was nothing but a coincidence.

It launched in 2017 and I haven’t goten around to talking about the remake.

First, I just waited; it didn’t launch on the PC at first, starting on the Switch. I was waiting to buy it on the PC, but it turns out Fox had gotten it on the Switch, in the hopes of luring me to play it (a thing I don’t really do much). Then as I got my life in order to get around ot playing games on the Switch, I finally got into playing it, and then something interrupted me. Then I went back. Then I hit a wall. Then I went back. It has been nearly two years of stop-and-start work getting to the finish of this game that was, once, a lofty ambition for me, a game I so wanted to say I had finished that its incompleteness haunted me for decades.

I still haven’t finished it.

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Three Games I’d Like To See

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

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

1. Roanoke

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

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

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

2. Theatre

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

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

3. Solo Mystery Card Games

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

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

 

Present Framing

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

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

Card One

Card Two

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

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

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

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

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

Game Pile: Enclosure

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

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

And it’s a corker.

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To Be of the Stars

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

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

Seriously!

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

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

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

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D&D Memories: Adon

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

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

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

it means ‘bad dragon,’

and no the player didn’t know.

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

I got to play a druid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Double Nickel

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

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

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

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

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

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~.