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: Homecoming Issue 27

Hey, this December, I’m going to try and make sure that I talk a little bit about games that you don’t necessarily need a lot of money to play. I liked how I did some folk games last year and I thought this year, since social distancing is a thing, that it was worth my while pointing out some ways you can have fun, online, and ideally socially.

This is obviously not the easiest thing in the world, but the good news for me at least is that just in the tail end of November, City of Heroes: Homecoming launched a whole new issue, ‘Issue 27’ and that makes it a great time to talk about that, and how to get involved if you want to.

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Slurpuff

Competitive Pokemon is a wild place. Typically, competitive environments that aren’t made with an oversight body – like Smash and Pokemon wind up developing clouds of house rules. In competitive Pokemon, a common and popular format is to comply with the Smogon University rules and guides.

Smogon has a few top-down rules that tend to apply to all layers of the game – some rules designed to keep the games finished in a timely fashion, some rules designed to ensure there’s a diversity of teams. One idea that they have is the notion of a tier system, where – broadly – Pokemon are divided up into groups that represent how commonly they are played when they’re available. What this means is that there’s one small group of the most powerful pokemon that muscle out all sorts of other options, then a larger group under that of the pokemon that are good when that small group are removed, and so on and so on. The tier system mostly cares about usage, but not entirely.

When Pokemon prove to be so powerful in one tier that they distort the game, but they don’t have a natural space in the tier above them, what results is a ban. This sometimes gets referred to ‘being kicked upstairs,’ because the pokemon is almost always still valid in higher tiers.

There’s a lot of competing effects that make a Pokemon good, and the game is such a complicated set of different, competing systems that it can sometimes seem a little hard to work it out. Particularly, if you look at the ban list of the lower tiers, you see some weird things that show up. First, you’ll see some Pokemon down in low tiers that are treated as very important by the game – Guzzlord, for example, has a lot of high stats and it’s in a special category called a Ultra Beast. Guzzlord’s slow speed and lack of type defense, though, means that in the lowest tiers of play, it’s still not good, and taking it to higher tiers will probably not be successful either.

It is in this space, astonishingly, that Slurpuff lives.

Slurpuff is not an impressive Pokemon. It is a little blob of a thing. It’s 51.9% round, if that statistic matters to you. It is at best a little dessert of a Pokemon, something in the same family as Vanniluxe, a pokemon primarily known for being complained about, because it looks like ice cream.

And in one of the lowest tiers of Smogon competitive, NeverUsed, Slurpuff is banned, for being too powerful.

It’s a combination of factors, but the main interaction is between Belly Drum, a Sitrus Berry, and Unburden. This is a move, a passive ability, and a held item. In sequence:

  • Belly Drum amps your attack stat to the maximum, but cuts your health in half
  • A Sitrus Berry, when your health is half or less, gives you a quarter of your health back, once, then it’s consumed
  • Unburden when you lose your item, doubles your speed.

This means on your first turn with a Slurpuff, you take whatever hit your opponent can deal out (because Slurpuff is pretty slow), Belly Drum, then the berry kicks in and heals you for about a quarter of your life. Often this belly drum will be fired off without losing any health first, because opponents will often have to trade their lead to something that can deal with Slurpuff. Then, with your berry eaten, the Slurpuff’s speed is now twice as high, all for one game action. Now, your Slurpuff can just… smash the living hell out of almost everything down in NeverUsed, because it’s faster than them and can KO them in often a single hit.

That’s pretty much it; there’s more to it, other concerns that Slurpuff’s type and the tier makes it hard to deal with in other ways, but that’s your basic combo.

And it’s kinda neat that Slurpuff of all things is super dangerous and needs to be dealt with.

Here’s the better thing though. In the specialist format Little Cup, where all Pokemon are level 5 and only unevolved Pokemon are allowed, Slurpuff’s prevolved form, Swirlix, which is even sillier looking, and even more of an inoffensive little sweetbun, is also banned.

Because it can do all the same things.


Also, Happy Birthday, Angus. I know, it’s a bit early, but scheduling.

MTG: Norin’s Impromptu Cream (Get Better Title)

Back in the day of Time Spiral-through-Shadowmoor standard, there was a deck I played in the casual room, and almost kinda thought about writing an article about, but I stopped writing for StarCityGames due to work concerns, and it never wound up happening. I think? Probably not. Ben Bleiwess would know better and I doubt he cares any way.

Here, lemme show you the three weird things that go on in this deck.

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CoX: Heartbeep!

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


Dot is a bright, funloving, extremely geeky young lady, who’s prone to odd stutters and occasional lapses in conversation. This is because while she is a geeky young lady with a bright personality, she’s also a superpowered Clockwork drone from Praetoria that was handled through a variety of somewhat dubious projects on her arrival.

It’s not that she’s ‘really’ a robot. It’s not that she’s ‘disguised’ as a girl.

She’s a cute girl.

And she’s a robot.

And Dot has decided the kind of cute girl she wants to be is also a crime-fighting superhero robot.

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How To Be: Wolf Queen Nailah (In 4e D&D)

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

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

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

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

And this month, before we talk about our subject, though I mean she’s in the subject of the blog post that you just clicked on so I mean what are we going to cover, suddenly a swerve and it’s going to be about trotting out pairs of characters that can be Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. But see, this marks our twelfth How To Be, and it also marks the first year of this feature. It’s fun! I’ve enjoyed doing that!

And because variety is important to me, we’re going back to Fire Emblem. And maybe, being you’re one of my friends, you might be thinking that yes! I’m going to bring up ya girl Edelgard, who is… very, very similar to Hilda.

No, we’re talking about Nailah, from Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. And we’re talking about her because she’s cool, and she can do interesting things, and most importantly, because Fox likes her. I started with one of Fox’s favourite franchises, and then with a character she kinda didn’t like one way or the other? Terrible form on my part.

Let’s look at a Wolf Queen.

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Wallet Game Worker Placement

Earlier this year, Perennial Clever Cloggs Button Shy put out a competition to make an 18-card Wallet game that wanted to be a worker placement game. That is, a game where placing a ‘worker’ gives you an effect, and it deprives other players of that effect. So if I put my worker on the 3 Pineapples square, and you wanted 3 Pineapples, you have to find some other place for your Pineapple needs.

Don’t know why Pineapples. Maybe it’s just a funny word. Or maybe lots of worker placement games are colonialist.

Anyway, so I thought about how I might do this without a large, standardised board, and how to do that with a tiny number of cards.  Here’s what I came up with.

The game is divided into four basic parts: your worker card, which can be set to represent four different types of worker, depending on its orientation. Each worker card is split into two halves, and each side is different. So depending on orientation, the card could be A, B, C or D. There’s your four worker choices.

The resources can be shuffled up and arranged however based on each game. Maybe it’s turf or territory, or network nodes, or even a yearbook photo page, meant to represent social connections in, like, I don’t know, Mermaid Prom. Resources can be flipped up or flipped down, to create ways to deplete resources, or transform them. There’s room for them to vary.

Each player gets to place their worker card at one of the two sides of the board, 90 degrees from one another. They get everything in the line they choose, except, the card they have in common.

This gives you resources or opportunities to do special things, which I’m not sure how to track. You can make it so a resource card may have something as potent as ‘win the game’ on it – so you’re trying to jockey things into position where you can force your opponent to pick things you’re not.

What you do with the resources could be like Mana from MTG, where the resources go away at the end of turn, so each turn you’re trying to make a particular combination, to buy a card in the market, or enable something. You add cards from the deck to the marketplace as they go away.

This is the idea. You’re probably aiming to acquire some cards from the Marketplace, and you’re doing it by manipulating the resources with a small number of worker options.

Game idea intrigues me. I may give it a shot if I get a theme I like.

Skub (in Tabletop)

There’s this idea from The Perry Bible Fellowship, which is one of those comics we talk about in the context of ‘one of the good webcomics.’ It is also responsible for the origin point of one of the most widespread neologisms in internet culture today (‘weeb’), but lesser known is the term Skub.

Skub typically is used in gamer circles to refer to something people fight about, often extensively, which does not matter, and does not have serious impact. It’s an idea that clearly picked up in tabletop conversations because we are a ridiculous people who will have extremely heated arguments that attempt to prove our own emotional states as factually correct rather than be willing to openly admit and respect our needs, or to respectfully handle conversations about ideas that aren’t themselves necessarily an attack. It’s tricky stuff, but we make up for it with years on end of extensive, pointless, preposterous fucking fighting over bullshit that doesn’t matter, which we then bikeshed super hard.

Thing is, in tabletop gaming, there’s a lot of stuff that’s player decisions or preference that we tend to try and cook into ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ This can get super complicated, because it’s hard to tease out where some of these arguments have boundaries.

For example, Dungeons & Dragons is the largest corporate driven TTRPG in the world, and has been pretty much forever, and it is as a wing of Hasbro, part of a complex interconnected set of brands and franchises, some of which have been sketchy at best and some of which are having to do a lot of work to try and make good on deeply vile histories, like Monopoly. There’s an entire wing of how Hasbro wants to be a good corporate citizen which is itself, a big conversation that has an assumption in it that such a thing is possible. Then you can go one step above it, like how Dungeons & Dragons is itself an ecosystem all of its own, and whether things like encouraging others to create for it is an act of control or an attempt to address a power imbalance.  There’s a whole conversation there about whether or not it’s possible for Dungeons & Dragons to be capable of good agency given a poisoned root. These are all big and complicated conversations and some of them only work with spherical gamers in a zero-G environment.

But then you keep going down the line and you get into conversations that are definitely definitely skub, but which are being treated with the same tools and academic rigor as if the solution to racism is in the shape of a dice. What can exacerbate this is the work of people who are working hard to create in these spaces, where it’s not hard at all to, thanks to time spent working on critical tools, bring to bear long sentences that translate to what I enjoy is factually correct and what I don’t enjoy is wrong.

Personally, there’s a lot of skubby opinions that I like a lot to talk about, because if I know your flavour of skub, the stuff that matters to you that doesn’t matter in general, I know you better.

Anyway, I don’t like completely unstructured character building. Not my flavour of skub.

Dinosaur Deck Deconstructor

Been thinking about a game that is cooperative, reading-light and kid-approachable.

Okay, so here are some things about games with little kids. Hands are hard to manage. They have hands of a particular size, literally, and that means being able to fan cards can be challenging.

Here’s the idea.

The game is built around a single central deck. This is probably loaded and slugged.

Each turn, you flip some cards off the top of the deck. This represents the natural movement of the dinosaurs in the game. They appear, they move around, they interact with each other. Mixed in with this are cards that represent problems, or dinosaurs separated from their groups, or with groups that are too large. The idea is that the dinosaurs have natural relationships to one another, and you want to make sure the populations are stable for long-term growth before you leave – which means things like ensuring herding animals are close to one another, and hunting animals aren’t sharing too much space.

I’m seeing it as a little bit Tetris-y. The cards as laid out interact with one another – some dinosaurs scare other dinosaurs in their row, some make space for others, some add cards to the space, some problems limit the cards in a space. And they slid up, tetris style, to get a horizontal and veritcale space.

What each player does then, on their turn is either take on one of the problem cards, that now imposes some limit or restriction on them until they solve it, or they pick up a tool or use some ability that lets them manipulate the dinosaur cards. So you may be able to guide some gentle dinosaurs with just your basic abilities like food and water, but you may need like safety equipment to guide a big ole T-rex.

There’s one ‘big’ problem that has multiple cards to it – you need to be able to handle that big problem, and that means that you need players to develop and build up solutions to problems over time. That might be the ‘final’ problem of the game, the thing that you need to beat to win, or the timer that runs the game out. The timer could be a season – when enough cards have been cycled through, you change the season and after a full year you’re out of time.

There’s a challenge when you make cooperative games, because you need to make sure that it’s not possible for one player to make a decision for everyone. You need each player to have information that’s exclusive to them, without it being too difficult a load of information. You need there to be unreliable parts too, so play patterns vary.

And that’s where the problem kicks in.

The easiest way to do this is hidden information. Players getting to make choices based on knowing things other players don’t. And the problem is there, hiding information is harder for little kids.

As far as size goes? Not sure. This game could be a great big indulgent 120 card game, but it could also be a much more modest 54-73 kinda game, like Dark Signs or Burning Daylight.

I’ll think about it.

Empty Pockets

Been looking at a lot of first person shooters from the 90s lately.

One of the defining elements from the FPS genre since its kickoff point has been the arsenal. They’re the thing that you see the most throughout the whole game, and the weapons you deal with are always going to be reflective of the game’s design, and as much as these games have them, the character’s personality.

Since the era of these games becoming cinematic, so usually since Half-Life but not always, there’s usually been a beat where the game takes your weapons away from you and resets your arsenal to nothing. This beat is usually used in the more linear, narrative FPSes (which, really, at times they feel like they’re a different genre to your exporer-based Wolfenstein-heritage Doom-likes but that’s for another time), but it means that in both the beginning and middle of the game, you have a chance to get to know what your character has to fight with when they don’t have anything to fight with.

Here, then are three different options and a paragraph of me overthinking them.

Blake Stone’s Gun

In Blake Stone, a Wolfenstein-engine not-totally-terrible game, you play Blake Stone, a space cop who Blakes Stonely. It’s not a bad game on its own though it does show some ways that transferring game systems from one frame to another don’t necessarily work. In this game, you’re meant to be basically Space James Bond, and I want you to think about how, in the context of a exploration game built on a kind-of-stealth engine, you give sci-fi future boy Blake Stone a no-ammo weapon that he’s going to turn to by default and what you get is a kind of fancy taser with no ammo limit and a sort of momentary recharge?

It’s weird to think of Space James Bond as being so gadget-free, really.

This is a weird one now I think it because surely Blake Stone would be a great throwback to make a Build Engine game out of now because he’s camp and cheesy and could really benefit from being given a Build-Engine style nonsense malarkey arsenal.

By default? He relies on a super-gun, that definitely can’t interrupt the Gun-Ness of the game. No variation in gameplay form, and it builds the point that Blake is just A Dude With Guns.

Quake Guy’s Axe

Uhhh

why do you have that here

The Mighty Boot in Duke Nukem 3D

Alright, Duke Nukem 3d has a lot of problems, and the melee weapon is one that’s absolutely not fun to play around with – like kick-a-lot runs sound like terrible amounts of unfun, with that melee attack feeling so impotent at anything but breaking toilets without wasting ammunition.

But.

But.

I will say that Duke is actually wearing boots that look like they can deliver a decent kicking.

The Knuckledusters from Doom

By default, the Doom guy has a weapon that isn’t the chainsaw, and isn’t the implacable, super-strong terrain-breaker you see him toting in later games like Doom 2016. He’s got a punch, which suggests that when faced with the forces of Hell itself, he would absolutely throw hands, even if that’s the most useless thing in the world to do (and it’s kind of not, there are absolutely punch runs of Doom). The thing that’s kind of charming about this is the knuckledusters you see, which suggests that Staff Sergeant Flynn Taggart, who had already been exiled to Mars for violently assaulting a superior officer, decided to carry with him in his personal effect another weapon for personal combat.

Don’t change, Flynn.

The Crowbar from Half-Life

Okay, this is seen as an ‘iconic’ weapon, in that you can like, buy things with the symbol on it, and it’s taken on a memetic quality as if it’s somehow an impressive demonstration of badassery from Gordon Freeman, which is kind of weird? Because on the one hand, yes, Gordon Freeman has carried that crowbar around through a lot of impressive locations, but he himself has almost always relied on it and other tools to accomplish some violent ends, and almost always relied on manufactured, precision crafted, point-and-use-it-correctly firearms.

What I have learned about guns lately is that when you start using them, the most common mistakes from them is not knowing how to handle the recoil, so the gun bounces backwards and very often breaks your arm or ribs because guns by definition have kick.

Anyway, without the crowbar, Gordon can’t attack people. He can throw some objects (to no real impact), but he’s always reliant on the HEV suit. But without a weapon, Gordon doesn’t even think to, or try to, throw a punch. It’s interesting because it kind of underscores that Gordon Freeman is a person who needs a weapon to hurt anyone.

Lo Wang’s Everything

Look, Shadow Warrior is a game I’d really rather not remember too much. As far as the ‘holy trinity’ of the 1990s Build Engine games go, Shadow Warrior is the one that I don’t want to revisit. But while I hold my breath and dart into the room like an office toilet, it is worth noting that Lo Wang has one of the best claims to personal badassery in this lineup because when he’s down to Not A Gun, he breaks out a sword and has fists that attack fast enough to stunlock some

uh

Some bosses?

That’s weird.

Anyway, point is, Lo Wang as a character is super unpleasant to talk about, but as far as his claims of being an immense fighting force badass goes he can back it up.

 

Game Pile: Krush Kill n’ Destroy Extreme

Videogames are weird as an art form.

When you dig into the history of most art forms, there’s a very clear point where our records go ‘here b dragons.’ When it comes to film, we’re pretty confident that roughly half of all film from the silent era is just lost, and all the record keeping and attribution is deterioated and badly kept and it sucks. That’s film, a medium that’s reasonably new. When it comes to videogames, though, thanks to a combination of existing privilege structures and the inherently replicable nature of internet data, there are parts of the history of videogames that are preserved remarkably well.

This means that there are some times when the spread of videogames can kind of look like a sort of sequence of little popular explosions. First Person games tended towards RPGs until the little lineage shown in Children of Doom by Campster. You can often point to instigatory events that caused specific sequences of triggered events because games actually document their inspirations or technological licensing of engines and whatnot. That creates an interesting, almost cladistic model of game development. You can point to small windows of time when lots of games happened really quickly, and see the ways they’re related to one another.

It’s often seen that the 90s were the day of the FPS, but there were other genres, other unfolding branches of the tree, and one of them happened in strategy games. There was a tend towards war games being slow, turn based, mathy and strategic affairs, until the creation of Dune 2  (1992) and the (comparatively) slow follow-the-leader from Warcraft: Orcs Vs Humans in 1994 and then Command & Conquer in 1995.

That’s right, folks.

We’re going to talk about a strategy game.

We’re going to talk about a real time strategy game.

We’re going to talk about one of the Australian made real time strategy games from the late 90s.

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3.5 Memories: GAY RAINBOW SNAKE

Eff it, sometimes I need one that’s a walk.

The way these posts tend to happen is I go into the garage where my physical D&D books are kept and I reach into the shelf and pull out a book I haven’t read lately, flip it open and see if what I see on the page reminds me of anything and this month we got the Complete Divine and the page I flipped to was the Rainbow Servant.

Good news, this class can do some beautiful bullshit, and it can do it while looking really gay.

What we’re going to deal with her is a lovely overlap of unintended consequence. See, D&D creation was ultimately fractal; when you made a new class or a new race, you could test it against other stuff but as more stuff happened, you would always find combinations of stuff interacting in ways you maybe didn’t intend. Sometimes this meant you could find two different spells in different supplements did identical things, but one was much stronger, and sometimes this meant that a character could take two identical feats for double the effect. The copy editors at Wizards of the Coast could keep on top of this most of the time, but not always.

What mostly happened, then, was things were tested against a core of ‘what was in the player’s handbook’ and the more sources you added, the more wild things could get. That was one of the ways the game got weird, too – the more of the exciting and interesting stuff you started to include, the more weird byproducts you got.

This time around, what we have is the collision between the Complete Divine and The Miniatures Handbook and repeated in the Complete Arcane. The two parts at work here are the Warmage (a class) and the Rainbow Servant (a Prestige Class).

Rainbow Servants are spellcasters that learn from and benefit from a relationship with couatls, a type of sorta-kinda-Aztec-y divine monster creatures that are snakes, that relate to rainbows, and yet, suspiciously, aren’t shown in rainbows in their default art. Must seem gay. Anyway, these couatls grant special gifts to arcane spellcasters, and those casters get to be Rainbow Servants.

As written, the Rainbow Servant is a prestige class for arcane spellcasters that want to add a bit of divine vibe to what they’re doing, in exchange for eating some spellcasting levels. Most of the time, this tradeoff isn’t worth it: spellcasters that give up spellcasting levels need to get something truly immense in exchange. The stuff you get out of the Rainbow Servant is domains (which add spells to your potential repertoire), beautiful rainbow wings, and then, eventually, the entire cleric spell list added to your spell list.

For a sorcerer or wizard, this represents more options, but not more choices. These classes still have to spend resources to know those spells. Wizards adding the entire cleric spell list to their spellbook is a lot of power, but you had to give up four levels of spells to get there, and that’s typically not a worthwhile tradeoff. Sorcerers need to spend their very limited spells known to get those spells, but you already don’t have enough spells.

So, Rainbow Servant is a bit weak, and you might pick it up if you really really wanted the rainbow wings, for example, or you had a strong concept for a divine-arcane mixed up spellcasters.

But then, let’s introduce to the conversation the Warmage.

The Warmage is a class designed for a kind of different form of D&D. It was originally made to be a boomspell platform for the miniatures game, which used D&D combat rules to resolve a tactical miniatures wargame. Noticing that for fast combat, choosing spell preparation is a pain in the ass but choosing the right spell for the job on the spot is hard enough, they created a spellcaster who just always had access to all their spells, and made that spell list limited.

So.

If a warmage adds spells to their spell list – like with a domain – then suddenly, they can cast, spontaneously, every spell on the domain list that’s of a level they have access to. That’s pretty good. Then when they hit level 10, they have all the spells in the cleric list, available to cast spontaneously, and the existing warmage blast spells.

That’s really cool!

This build is also not especially strong, at least, not most of the time. You need to hit around level 16 before this happens, and at that point, you have a character who’s casting lots of different level 6 spells. You’ll never get access to 9th level spells (without some nonsense), but you’ll have enormous flexibility all the way up there – the best cleric spell for the job, all those lower level slots able to turn into useful buffs, and a bunch of handy special abilities to go with it.

Now.

This is clearly unintended consequence. The Rainbow Servant was not made to be a route to ‘late-game megacleric wizard.’ The Warmage was not created to turn into a support machine with the right level choices. These two elements were not created to interact with each other. One can argue that this interaction, being unintended, should be excluded. After all, if it wasn’t tested, it might have unforseen consequences. This is how a lot of MMOs behave: even things that are designed to replicate one another are often designed to not stack or interact, so as to prevent players from having too much of an effect. Check out how for a time, World of Warcraft had a standard list of ‘raid buffs’ (and may still have but I don’t care to check).

However, this is where TTRPGs have a freedom. You can look at how players engage with the game, and make those choices on the fly. You can decide if a player doing this stuff is eating up time. Hypothetically, you can even decide how in your game it’s okay for things to work out unfairly in one player’s favour, because that player may be less strategically minded, or not inclined to take advantage of the power, or bad at managing the information load. You might decide that it’s okay, because you can see other ways other things can be just as powerful that you are okay with. You can even decide to adjust this as the game goes on.

But don’t forget that sometimes, there are cool, odd interactions that some players may pick up just because they like the gay rainbow wings.

Game Pile: Commander Keen 4

Little by little, I’ve been working through the Commander Keen franchise, the PC Platformer that started out with a mathematical space-folding nonsense of a smooth-scrolling EGA platform game, and moved on to just being The Way The Lights Stayed On for many months at id software. 

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Working on Black Jack’s Dungeon

If you follow my twitter, and like looking at me making things, you may remember seeing me work on a card game that looked a bit like this:

This game was called Black Jack’s Dungeon, and it was created and tested and then I made a proper prototype to test it out more extensively. When it comes to really large games, it can be hard to do playtesting and prototyping with just myself and my small group, because it’s harder to make the proxies work well. An engine that works okay when it’s shrunk down may feel really dull when it’s scaled up.

I made the prototype and found that there were some problems that the game was having when it was scaled up to full size.

  1. It was really slow! The original design relied on players flipping cards until they were satisfied and chose to stop, or overdid it, and ‘went bust.’ This is a bit like how Sector 86 works, but there wasn’t a solid way to handle needing to ‘dismiss’ enemies. Originally, players could choose to take monsters other players flipped, which gave it a cooperative element. This design is still something I can do, but it needs simpler enemies.
  2. It was really uninspiring! The heroes all had simple mechanical abilities, meaning that building a party was just a matter of what art you liked. Since there was one character who had a very special ability (turning into a cow when she was hurt), that made her stand out in a weird way alongside the others.
  3. The actual resolution mechanic for the whole game was just a matter of finding one card of many, and that was kinda boring!
  4. With lots of heroes, but you only getting three a game, it was kinda a bummer to never get to play with most of them, especially when a lot were really dull by comparison. The art was nice, I should make these things desireable.
  5. I used pixel art very sloppily. In a pixel art game, all art should use pixels of the same size (I am led to understand), and I didn’t. This made some of the art extremely unsettling to people who are inclined to notice this kind of thing.

I went back to the drawing board. Obviously, it’s not been a high priority, but it has been on my mind more as of late, what with you know, the thoughts about games that are playable without a large group of people. Particularly, this game struck me as an interesting option to make as a strictly solo, big-deck game.

(Huhuh,  big deck).

My current idea is to design a game where cards are adventuring parties – that you will have one card, with one to five heroes on it, and they have goals and types of prizes they will keep for themselves, when you send them into dungeons. Dungeons will be decks, set up around your little town. To send adventurers into a dungeon, you shuffle their card in, then, in another phase, you flip cards from the top of that dungeon until that hero card pops out – then you sort through the revealed cards and see what that means. Sometimes those cards are just smashed by the heroes; sometimes, they rout the heroes and you have to help the heroes recover.

This is the new mechanism in my mind, where you’re the town sending out and supporting the adventurers. It also gives more room for complex party mechanics, without needing to make 20 cards for all the adventurers.

Camp Osum Month Diary

For Asylum Jam 2017, I made a horror game based around that jam’s theme of a zero sum game. My game was very, very quickly made; I documented the process to an extent at the time. Since then I’ve sat it in a drawer and kind of ignored it.

The game at its core is a drafting game, but it’s not a simultaneous drafting game. The game works on a kind of draft I learned as rochester draft; you lay out all the cards on the table, in a grid, and players make choices one at a time, in a circle around the table. These stacks are weighted, so that in each stack, there’s a card that represents the ‘monster’ in this setting. The monster in this story is meant to be a sort of slasher movie monster ala Jason. As players die, they become ghosts, and those ghosts then get to haunt and complicate things for the remaining player, who is trying to escape.

I really like this simple little engine, and I like the way all the pieces work; with three ghosts at the table it can be really hard for the remaining player to pick their way through the stacks of cards that may or may not be boobytrapped by earlier player action. Players want to try and sabotage one another, but they don’t want to make their own potential future as the final player one of immediate defeat, either. The whole idea behind the game is that all victory is a zero sum game: You can only win when either everyone ‘loses’ or when all the other players have lost – and that’s the inspiration for the name, Camp Osum (0-Sum).

I’ve been thinking about revamping this game as a little October release, and I thought I’d give a shot of making the game use pixel art.

  • There are a few asset packs I already own for horror RPGs
  • These assets often focus on backgrounds, a thing I find the most difficult
  • Consistently done pixel art can be really rewarding and nostalgic
  • The game’s mechanics are tense, the game’s art doesn’t have to try and horrify

With that in mind (and I started this back in the first week of October), I’m going to do something a little different here and include a set of pictures from when I worked on this idea each point through the month.

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October Shirt: Ai To Ai

This month and some of last, I played Ai: The Somnium Files. I played it, and I liked it, and I liked it so much I thought about going and buying some merch for it.

There is no official merch for it.

Normally, I’d wait until con season and keep an eye out for Ai: The Somnium Files fanmerch, maybe a print or if I’m really lucky, a keychain of a character like, oh, Aiba’s little teddy bear form would make a great keychain design. I want one of those.

Oh wait, it’s 2020. No con season.

Sigh.

Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.

Here’s the design. It’s an eye, with Aiba, which is part of the general symbolism hammerblowing that is Ai: The Somnium Files. Here, it is, on a shirt, you can use to conceal your body:

But, but, but, what if you don’t want a shirt, but just want a sticker of Aiba to stick on things that matter to you, to mark them as your territory? Well, I made this:

 

Here’s the shirt design, and here’s the Aiba sticker.

How To Be: The Castlevania Gang (In 4e D&D)

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

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

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

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

This month, we’re going to examine overlapping skillsets as we look at not creating a character but creating a group of characters: The trio of monster hunters from the Fang-Em-Up Netflix anime, Castlevania.


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5 Ways To Be Cosmically Horrifying in 4E D&D

It is easy perhaps to forget that TTRPGs are a fundamentally creative space. In some games, especially the more modern indie style of TTRPG, characters are often handed a role that really paints the way they should feel, a characterisation that is in some cases extremely specific, like you’ll see in PBTA games. In D&D, there’s a lot of ways in recent days that flavour has swung towards specificity, which can limit the kinds of creativity you can express.

4e D&D is a game system that deliberately tries to leave a lot of your flavour up to you. Last year I talked about some character options that let you be horrifying heroes. This year, we’re going to do that again, but instead of gothic horror, we’re going to look at ways to do cosmic horror with your character that swings a big axe and saves the day.

Cosmic horror in this case refers to the horror felt at the boundaries between human agency and universal indifference. Cosmic horror can be felt in a very mundane, normal moment of life when you look up at the sky and realise that there is more that exists that you’ll never see, that the universe is old in a scale that you will never understand and will live on longer than you will ever be able to conceive, and that these two details make you a nothing of a blip between nothing blips. When we talk about cosmic horror as she is shown in media, it’s often about trying to show you those points of interface: Of the horror that Lovecraft himself said,

“Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.”

The horror of the Cosmic is not the threat of Gothic horror. It is the immense indifference of an uncaring, infinite emptiness.

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10 SCPs That Talen Actually Likes

Gosh yesterday was full of opinions, wasn’t it? I said some mean things about a website! And maybe even someone who liked that website might have thought: He doesn’t like that thing! But I like that thing! and had a whole moment to reconcile with themselves. Who knows.

But I do say that there’s writing I like on the SCP wiki, so now I’ve had my fun pointing out how entire categories of media on the wiki are tedious as hell or needlessly interested in hurting women, I am now obligated by the Centrist Bullshit Rules Of Not Being Mean To Websites On The Internet to point out things on that website that I like, for fear that me having a preference will be seen as ‘problematic’ or ‘he didn’t really get it’ or ‘I don’t think you’re giving it a fair chance.’

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10 SCPs That Suck Ass

Oh oh ho! Time to get feisty!

The SCP wiki is a big communal creative project. Lots of people have written for it. I have very pointedly gone out of my way to avoid knowing who made these ideas I’m talking about because I want to talk about the product that the SCP wiki exalts communally. I may talk about the intentions of a piece, but please understand they’re not drawn from actual stated words from the creators (except when they are) but rather from a critical reading of what these narratives are trying to be about.

And with that, on to the sacred cows.

Content warning! I’m going to talk about stuff on the SCP wiki that’s pretty bad, and that means in addition to warnings about horror, we’re also going to have to talk about sexual violence and child sexual assault.

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Sandy Peterson’s Wild Ride

If you’re at all familiar with me and my life you might be unsurprised to know that I don’t have a lot of respect for religion, just period. I think it runs straight through atheism (no belief in god) into an antitheism (that the idea of believing in a god is beneath human dignity) and maybe even veering hard into misotheism (the idea that god as ever expressed in the faith systems known to me is our moral inferior and if it were real, it would be our moral duty to find a way to kill it). I feel this most strongly about the faiths I know, mostly notably American Evangelical Christianity, but it folds outwards into all the Jesus-based faiths and cults, where I believe them to be quite wholly grown from poison root, gnarled in tree and branch. Courtesy of my Christian upbringing, I learned a lot about how all those other varieties of Christianity are evil, and even spent some time dedicated to the relative newcomers to the space of Big Name Christian Sects – Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and of course, the Most American Of Christians, the Mormons.

I don’t generally air these complaints in public. How people keep their beliefs lining up in their own head is generally a private matter, and while I may make fun of institutions with literal golden thrones that preach piety and charity, I know there are also people who follow me who are of these faiths who like what I produce, and have reconciled my preferences with my content. Basically, I think that Christian folk can handle me disliking their club, what with all the immense social safety and privilege and whatnot that their organisations with international power afford them.

I bring this up because there were definitely times in my upbringing, where managing these competing ideological thoughts and contradictory ideas (like if the Mormons were new and our church was freshly founded, what were we?) where, the strange thing is, one of the best pieces of advice I got from navigating out of orthodoxy was a quote from a Mormon.

And he wasn’t even talking to me.

I mean kinda.

Sandy Peterson is probably one of the most important people in (White, English Speaking, 90s-to-Now, Existing-Power-Structure Centric) gaming. A tail-end boomer, Peterson has been working in gaming since 1974, when he was 19 years old and he’s pretty much never stopped, just moving laterally into new, interesting spaces to work. He’s worked for Chaosium, producing Call of Cthulhu material and Runequest material, and if you don’t know what that is, ask the older bearded guy at your gaming circle who periodically mentions ‘fumble tables.’ He moved into videogames, where he worked on Sid Meier’s Pirates! and the absolutely terribly underappreciated Hyperspeed and Darklands, games that are of the vintage where Civilisation 1 advertises them in its closing screen. Then he moved into working for id Software, where he worked on Doom and Quake then he helped out Raven Software with level design on Hexen and hey that’s enough vital influence of an entire media form, let’s move across to work on Age of Empires stuff with Ensemble Studios, and while we’re in the neighbourhood, why not make stuff for Halo Wars with all that experience you had stored up? Then he moved laterally into board games, where he kickstarted, successfully, the absolute titan in a box of a game that is Cthulhu Wars, the rare kind of game that wants to step up to the challenge Twilight Imperium leaves and actually fights it.

In summary, Sandy Peterson has been responsible for three of the biggest success stories in three different fields; the longstanding Call of Cthulhu tabletop game, the world-shaking Doom, and the record-setting Cthulhu Wars. That’s just three big impacts in three fields, and the thing is, if you took all three of those away his second tier success stories are still titanic impacts. His work shows up in media where he needs to do a lot of direct work rather than just tell people what to do (Kojima).

This isn’t the whole of his work (he made a movie? Kinda?) but it’s certainly the bulk of it. And I haven’t combed the man’s twitter or nothing, but, amazingly, as far as I can find, he hasn’t said anything to fucking embarrass me for thinking well of him.

Yet.

Like I said, I haven’t combed his twitter.

And far be it from me to say that a Mormon man born in the 1950s might be Wholesome Content Bean Uwuguu, but he did say something, a long time ago, that helped me handle a complicated problem that had been put in my head. The issue was that I was at the time in my childhood, grappling with the ways that media that depicted terrible things might be affecting me; that the nightmares I had and obssessions I got over videogames with dark elements in them were a sign of some dreadful sin inside me. One day, while reading a proto-website known as a ‘magazine,’ I found a quote from Sandy, in an article describing the DOOM team, and how he reconciled his faith (which was much less conservative than mine at the time) and his involvement in the creation of DOOM:

“They’re the bad guys.”

Yes, this is obvious. Yes, this is ridiculous. Yes, this should only really be enlightening to a ten year old.

But in my defense, I was ten.

DOOM creates a universe where demons and hell and lovecraftian unknowable, undecipherable, deliberately inexplicable evil are real. And it is a universe where you can meaningfully destroy it with a shotgun to the face.

Doom is great and part of why it’s great is a Mormon Lovecraft fan.

3.5 Memories: Okay, Fine, Let’s Talk About Zceryll

Back during August, I looked at the Tome of Magic, a 3.5 D&D book, which involved looking at the the Binder. The Binder was one of the classes presented in that book, where the basic idea was that the binder had these things, called Vestiges, that you could sort of cold-swap between to get different abilities based on your different needs; the task of swapping character mode was fast enough that you could do it between encounters, or on the far side of a dungeon door, or hurriedly while the guards are on their way, but it wasn’t something you could hot-plug in between combats. The Binder was a weak character class by default that could, with its variety of options, hot-swap into a form that was usually about as good as a rogue with most of the gear they want.

Note those italics.

When it comes to D&D content, Wizards put things in the books, but they also made a thing of web expansions – pdfs and website content that you could add to your game, stuff that came from the Official Source and was generally made to be safe enough to include in any game, and that is where we got the Vestige that on its own takes the Binder from ‘incredibly fair, even a bit weak’ to the upper tiers of power, brushing in the shadow of the wizard and cleric.

And bonus, that Vestige is spooky.

The actual text of the Vestige of Zceryll, from Wizards’ own web expansion, is pretty simple:

Zceryll was a mortal sorceress who communed with alien powers from the far realm. She became obsessed with immortality, seeking out the alien beings in the hopes of learning their eternal secrets. When she died, she became a hideously twisted vestige, forever seeking to re-enter the Realms via numerous artifacts she dispersed across the world. Zceryll grants you the ability to transform your body and mind into an alien form, granting you telepathy, resistance to effects related to insanity, the ability to summon pseudonatural creatures, and the power to unleash bolts of pure madness.

Okay, how is it broken? What’s it do that’s so good, power-wise? Normally when you talk about character power, you can usually point to something as a general rule – like you can point to the wizards’ spell list and that’ll explain itself. In Zceryll’s case, what you get when you channel this Vestige is:

Summon Alien: You can summon any creature from the summon monster list that a sorcerer of your level could summon. Any creature you summon with this ability gains the pseudonatural template. Thus, at 10th level you could summon any creature from the summon monster I-V list. When you reach 14th level, you can summon any creature from the summon monster I-VII list. You can only summon creatures that can be affected by the pseudonatural template. Once you have used this ability, you cannot do so again for 5 rounds.

Let’s simplify that: You can use Summon Monster (Half Your Level) every five turns at will. DMs may make you spend the action to do it, in out-of-combat ways, but at will summons is incredibly strong, not because you can flood the battlefield, but because summons are combat capable creatures that in many cases can cast spells. So every utility power available to any monster on the summon list is available to you, but in a spooky way. Need something big moved? Summon something big and stronk. Need to get out of a cage? Summon something that can move through walls. Need to wreck shop on the battlefield? Well at every tier, there’s a piece of cannonfodder you can dump on the battlefield and then not have to spend actions commanding. If your summon runs out of healing magic, you can just summon another one and get it to do the healing magic. If your summon is beat up, you can summon another one and get that to replace the other. It is one of the most startlingly effective spell families to have at-will access to, and the only real drawback for the Binder is that it’s a bit slow.

The actual theme of Zceryll is a weird one, and it bums me out a little that the Binder is a class ostensibly built around this variety of flavour choices, when every powerful Binder is going to be hard on Zceryll and the skills required to be good at managing Zceryll. It’s also frustrating because the name Zceryll is a person’s name first; the odd, hard to express mangled language of the name isn’t a language from outside reality – it’s someone’s name, a weird name, but it’s just… a weird name. It speaks of a culture that’s not common to you now, but Zceryll is still just a person, it’s not an extrusion of a reality where they don’t have vowel sounds.

I feel this is a dropped ball with Zceryll. At its root, it wants to be Lovecraftian; the powers are from the far realms, it’s about a refugee of our reality trying hard to get back in, it’s got this sort of lurking threat to it, and it shows you tearing reality open and letting in things that look like stuff you already know but which are definitely not, while you cast literal bolts of madness from your hand... and then disappointingly, it’s just… a wizard, like you, who drank of the outside.

My advice, if you’re going to use Zceryll in your game worlds? Soak in the eerie. Don’t say it was a wizard who started out researching the far realm. Make Zceryll something not someone.

CoX: Offshore

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


 

There’s a lot of old gods in the deep.

Calling Offshore a sharkboy is true, sure; he’d call himself a Deep One if you asked him to, because that’s the English word his people use for what they are. If you asked where he’s from, he’d say Devil’s Reef, which, yes, is a name for one of the dozens of small, treacherous coves up on the New England coast.

It’s not that that story never happened – though it’s not his Devil’s Reef. It’s that it wasn’t his story; it wasn’t the story of his people, who are as different as other surface people. If you ask him who his people worshipped, he’d tell you a name, then tell you the translation:

Poseidon.

Offshore knows the ocean is important, knows Poseidon’s will is important, and he has a reason to believe that in this City of Heroes, where Greek Gods are seen and echoed all over, there’s a reason for him to be here, rather than down, in the old and glimmering libraries.

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An Interview About The Vampires

Brinkwood is live on Kickstarter, now. This is an interview with Erik the Bearik, one of the game’s developers. In this interview, we talk about the game, the things the game is about and the way the game’s values inform its narrative, rather than the typical marketing overview. We mention in this conversation this thread by Orion Black. And this other thread by them, which you should definitely check out.