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.

CoX: Xixecal

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.

Not all hells are hot. Oranbegans, for example, knew of a hell that was frozen, an intense jagged land of ice and pain, numbing and biting. It’s the home of the hellfrosts, and shards of that frozen hell extrude through the power of the gods to this world.

We all get our power from somewhere. There’s a title, long since handed down, a title designed to sap even the tiniest power from the name of the beast that wore it once, slumbering deep beneath a trap of ice and water. Nightmares of the old sea, the dark and dreaming deep, all woven together, in the name of the Xixecal.

To most? He’s a frost mage. Nice guy. Knows things. Knows people who know things.

And every spell he casts is sapping the strength of a dreadful beast that can never be permitted to awaken.

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Money (in Games)

Money ey.

It’s really useful.

Money is a thing that is useful, because we have our society built around making it useful. The idea of what money is, to a player, is always going to communicate the way money works for us now. It is what you can consider an ideal general utility; No matter what your needs are, you can usually meet those needs with more money.

Now, money can’t buy you happiness, but that’s okay, because we all experience a lot of different problems, and money, sufficient money, can deal with a lot of those problems – it has an overwhelming amount of, like I said, general utility. Converting unwanted resources into money is generally a reliably good idea, because the money will always be able to be put to some meaningful use.

Games use money all the time – letting you convert resources into a single, fungible, generally useful resource. That’s fine, games use resource management all the time, that’s fantastic. What can happen in games – and JRPGs are often going to land in this space – is where you can be confronted by problems where money doesn’t solve the problems, because it’s not supposed to, but your character can still do things that generates fantastic quantities of money that should address problems.

There are three basic ways that the real world keeps money from solving your problem (and why systems of capitalism often involves forcing these problems upon you), which you can use in games to make sure that you avoid the question of ‘why aren’t players solving this problem with their money.’

1. Depletion

There are things that keep us from saving. Rent, fees, transaction fees, costs for upkeep from week to week, like food and fuel and whatnot, those things are all elements that bleed away your money and keep you from saving. In a game, if you want to keep a player from stockpiling money to the point where it’s a problem, you can make large sums of money, or the things that people use their money for, bring with them the upkeep that depletes their reserves.

2. Scarcity

You can make it so anything that the people want to buy is itself inherently scarce. It can be the product of an extremely limited supply, or the end of a slow process, meaning that any that are made are bought very quickly. This can even feel like an infinite wait – players need to wait for keystones to be made craftable, for example, but the expensive components can become more available later in the game. In the real world, there are some products that aren’t reasonably available at any price once they’re all purchased, because the people who have them are refusing to put them onto that free market.

3. Scale

If you’re making a game where players can earn money that compares to buying ammunition, weapons, health packs or storage options, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can stockpile enough cash to buy a house. In the real world, these purchases do not exist on the same scale – and you can absolutely make your game so that the purchases that should deform the way the game works are simply on a different level. Science fiction games for example, set on spaceships, rarely let players earn money on the level of buying candy bars, that also lets you buy spaceships.

Secret Bonus 4: Let Them

You might notice that these existing tools are all kind of dumb, or rely on a world that’s dumb. They rely on a world where you can have this stuff that’s necessary for living that you then have to siphon away just to ensure people don’t get around artificial blockades in their life that you, the storyteller or game designer, are imposing. Why is it that the system we use for exchanging candy bars is also meant to be applied for managing inflexible needs like homes and medical requirements? That’s weird, the two things are simply not similar – should you be able to sell days of your life or your own health to someone for a candy bar? That’s dumb as hell.

I guess what I’m saying is when you think about money in games, and ways to stop money doing dumb things, you have to notice all the ways money does dumb things in the real world, and notice that they only do that because of an imposed system that’s made to benefit some people.

Weird, huh?

Game Pile: World of Warcraft’s Poop Quests

In World of Warcraft, you can reliably expect that your character has reasonably recently been sent out to the task of handling something’s poo.

World of Warcraft is a videogame, a Massive Multipalyer Online Roleplaying Game that, statistically speaking, if you are reading this, you have played and also, statistically, you are not playing right now. It’s a piece of gaming history and landscape and culture all at once – something that most people involved in videogames and game studies knows about, has opinions on. It is a common metaphor, a Game of Thrones event every time an expansion drops, it is the backround radiation of the MMORPG community discourse, even as it has been outmoded and replaced. Last year, an entire fuss was made about World of Warcraft opening up a service that let you play the game as it was ten years ago, and that ‘behold an old game with less worse stuff’ was a news cycle for months.

But it is also a content platform. People log in to World of Warcraft to spend that day reading stories, or engaging in combat against other players, or accruing resources, or managing crafting or manipulating markets, and all that stuff was different types of content.

There’s this enduring line from Marshall Mcluhan’s Understanding Media that The Medium is the Message. It’s a oft repeated phrase because it sounds kind of meaningless outside of the conversation it’s from, and that can be used as a confusing sort of wedge to force the conversation open. It’s a ramp of a phrase, a line that helps introduce the idea that it needs explaining.

The idea it outlines is that medium is the thing that really changes the world. We talk about the idea of works of art transforming the world, but seldom about how the task of displaying that art transformed the world first. The impact of a painting is hard to compare to the impact of the museum made to house it. Television shows and videogames may be fantastic art, but isn’t the deformation presented by everyone having a TV and then everyone having a phone the greater impact on society at large?

It is in this regard that World of Warcraft, a game, is perhaps best viewed as instead a platform for the delivery of content. There’s a host of different voices and different kinds of content being put into it, and you can extrapolate how those things relate to one another and learn all kinds of things based not on the work of any single piece of content, but rather, the trends of content. How often does this story about a conflict between two parties get interrupted with a greater common interest? How often are two sides presented as equals in the conflict despite one being a slave-keeping colonist and the other the victims of mass mind control? And, as is pertinent here, how often does this game present you with a chance to handle poop?

This was going to be a video.

This was going to be a video, but the project outgrew what I could meaningfully and easily do in ten minutes. It went from being a short little idea that I could present as a series of shots, cutting from quest to quest in the narrative in World of Warcraft. Maybe even play through it, arc to arc, a character progressing from level 1 through to level 120, but that is hundreds of hours. When the idea first occurred to me, I went checking, and found that those blessed folks over on Wowpedia have already noticed this trend, and presented a comprehensive list of those quests. This is not a comprehensive list, per se, though; this is just a set of quests which relate to directly clicking on or moving around poop. There are other quests, such as is presented in Cataclysm‘s Mount Hyjal zone, where one of the quest givers is a magician trapped inside an outhouse, for poop related reasons. This is therefore, not a perfect sampling of poop quests per se, but it’s a good overview.

Some questions then: Are the Poop Quests concentrated? Is there a single place in the story that is particularly poopy? Well, the good news is, we can chart this stuff. Over the years of WoW’s lifespan, there have been poop quests in every expansion, and it’s always more than one.

This is particularly strange, because the nature of an expansion in WoW is when your boundaries and limits and the worst monsters you could fight, in the last expansion, are suddenly outmoded; narratively, there’s some side-eye to it, where you kind of ignore that you hit a level cap and then moved on to another zone where the mundane problems compared to the end-of-expansion problems of your past. Yet in each of these new expansions, in a new time and a new place, you’re introduced to some quest that is literally one of the most mundane, least heroic tasks people do. And it’s always contextualised as somehow worth your time – magic or money are the usual excuses.

But World of Warcraft keeps on bringing you back to sifting through something’s poo.

3.5 Memories: Rokugan

Hold up.

I’m going to say some nice things about this book. I’m even going to praise some things this book does. I’m going to recommend you look to this book for examples of how to do a thing and I’m even going to talk about ways this game book set itself apart from an existing, flawed paradigm of D20 design for its period.

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How To Be: Tier Halibel (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 dive into the world of the dead and look to the Queen of Hueco Mundo by the most powerful shounen anime right, the right of default, the underboob to Matsumoto’s cleavage well, Tier Harribel.

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The Tetris of Movies

A few years ago, in June, Rami Ismail brought up, and gently made fun of, the idea of the Tetris of movies. This was a joke, because typically, the conversation that compares movies to games goes the other way around. The cliche is The Citizen Kane of Games, and that comparison is deeply annoying for a host of reasons (for example, film started in 1895, and Citizen Kane came along in 1941, suggesting that the first home videogames still have another twenty years to get around to theirs). Rami pressed B on this question, and flipped the narrative around to look at it from the other side.

What movie did what Tetris did?

Now, I think this question is really interesting, not because I have the right answer to it, but because it does something actually interesting about the comparison between the two possible forms of media. When we talk about The Citizen Kane of Games, it often really means something like the game we’ll all eventually see as important, and that’s so stupid, because it doesn’t even really meaningfully identify what Citizen Kane is. It’s a shibboleth, a reference to the idea of ‘the important one.’


This is a form of intertextual examination. It’s not that it’s bad or even silly to do so – we often use media as tools for examining other media all the time, indeed we even invite it when we reference media within media. Think about how many times you’ve heard Shakespeare’s cliches quoted, or references made to the Bible. There’s nothing wrong about using media you know as a reference point to examine other media you know, and it makes everything easier (Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, and I can do that now because I’ve finally seen that show!).

I think, if I was going to describe ‘the tetris of movies,’ it reminds me of a few things. Tetris was Soviet-developed; it was revolutionary in its development of gameplay technology, and every game that came after it was, usually, influenced by someone who had played it, or learned techniques from it. That, then, put me in mind of Battleship Potemkin, which was a soviet-made movie that pioneered what we would wind up referring to as montage.

That, however, is just one comparison – a simple one, even. Point of origin and impact on the medium. You might look at it in terms of the influence of the polynimo – is there something so widespread in media of other forms? What about duration? Is there a movie that’s nearly endless in the same way?

It’s a simple little question, and it’s fun because we can talk about movies the way we talk about games.

The only reason we can’t is because we assign idiotic levels of prestige to movies, and our attempts to emulate that prestige is embarrassing.

Game Pile: Void Bastards

This here’s an experiment! This video was made with a strict time limit: Create something in half an hour. This means no script and minimal sound editing. There is one thing about it that bugs me – the game audio wasn’t being recorded and I didn’t check that until it was too late. I like this, and may do a few more like this if it continues to be this easy.

The Difficulty Curve of Elite Beat Agents

I wrote earlier this year about Ouendan, a nintendo DS rhythm game, and mentioned in that article that the game had a western release, in the form of Elite Beat Agents. Elite Beat Agents takes the preposterous idea of Ouendan and reinvents it for a western context. In Ouendan, a wild, roaming gang of school tough cheerleaders find people across all walks of life, including shapeshifting Kaiju and outer space invasion, and help people overcome their problems through the power of cheering. In Elite Beat Agents, this nonsense is replaced by the much more serious idea of an extrajudicial government agency that’s constantly surveillancing the world and deploying suited cheerleaders to fix it.

That doesn’t sound great, hm.

Anyway, in Elite Beat Agents, the game has difficulty settings expressed by what agent you play. Let’s look at that.

First up we have Agent Spin. Spin is brand new to the agency. He has headphones, and clearly listens to music all the time. Spin has the easiest time in this game. It is not difficult for him to cheer people up, his moves are economical, and he gets the same results as every other agent, with much less difficulty than they do. Even his difficulty refers to how easy this is for him: it’s called cruising.

In The Games Black Girls Play, Kyra Gaunt forwards the idea that whiteness needs to see traits of black culture as inherent to black people, rather than the product of practice or skill, particularly in the way that black people are seen as having ‘natural rhythm.’ This rhythm, she notes, ties into singing games, clapping games, skip rope and time keeping techniques that black children do when very young, and share and reinforce in one another all the time, so what is an example of a lifetime of practice is reduced instead to ‘a thing about black people.’

Ostensibly, beating the game with Spin is not impressive: The player needs to do the least to get through the game. This presents the idea that Spin is ‘easy’ but it’s kind of the exact opposite: Spin is the best dancer of the lot, because the player requires the least work to make him excel.

Next up we have J. J is ostensibly an expert in all forms of dance including hiphop and ballet, and that bears out with our principle of work and investment. After all, he can be completely well trained in a lot of official capacities but that doesn’t necessarily mean he lives music the same way, or started at the same age and has the same extensive, ingrained practice that Spin has.

He’s almost as good as Spin! There’s a lot of flourish to his performance, but as Spin shows, it’s unnecessary flourish!

Then we have Chieftan. Now setting aside the awkwardness of a big white southern dude calling himself ‘Chieftan,’ he’s a big guy, and he is the game’s official ‘hard’ mode – the difficulty that starts unlocking things because it’s hard to get through them with this gigantic chunk of Texas Toast under your control.

Chieftan has even more flourish than Spin, and often needs sometimes as much as four times as many points of input as Spin does. This guy needs you to nearly constantly help him. If you slip up and miss a note, you’re probably out of the game entirely, showing he’s extremely sensitive and failure prone – his confidence in his ability to dance is extremely weak.

Then difficulty takes another enormous spike:

With the Elite Beat Divas.

Now, here’s where things get interesting, because the Divas don’t just represent a continuation of the existing difficulty. Part of what makes their levels in the game even harder is that they’re dealing with mostly the same notes as Chieftan, but they’re smaller targets and appear much closer to the window when you need to tap them.

That is to say: They’re doing the same stuff, but being held to a higher standard. This is true for how women are treated in almost all media spaces:

Then the question becomes: How much harder can it be? What’s the next step of difficulty up above that? If we’re suddenly seeing the way women are treated, the way demands are made of women that are already being held to higher standards (I mean, look at the way they dress compared to the men).

Then the next step is to see what happens when you ask a dude to try and meet those standards.

Anyway, thank you for coming to my TED talk.

MTG: Otrimi, I Guess?

First things first, you should read this thread by Orion Black. And this other thread by them. You’ve already seen them? Good! Great! I don’t want anyone who is interested in or playing Magic: The Gathering to do so without at least some awareness of this problem, this persistent problem. I guess my main thinking here is that the least I can do is make sure Wizards has the reputation not as ‘one of the good ones’ but as ‘that one has fucked up a lot and needs to fucking address it.’

I haven’t been playing a lot of Magic: The Gathering. Just other things going on, plus any time a banning happens or a new set releases, prices on MODO get a little weird, in a way I don’t appreciate. Typically if I wait a month, all the things I want to play around with get a bit cheaper, and this few months in Magic’s history have been


The last time I was playing, I was playing, I kid you not, a budget standard Walls deck, using High Alert and Teyo, the Shieldmage. This means that I haven’t really been paying attention for two whole additions to standard, and I also missed the return of Commander – not 1v1 Commander, but Commander – to the MODO interface.

Let’s then talk about a card I’m kinda intrigued to play with in Commander, but can’t see the ways I’m going to make them work:

Otrimi, the Ever-Playful

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Game Pile: The Magical Land of Yeld

Here is a list of things you are going to find in the book The Magical Land of Yeld.

  • A Witch class whose first benefit is literally saying “No one understands me. But that’s fine! I understand myself!”
  • A christmas sweater you can give to an enemy at the start of combat and if they’re never attacked, they will become a friend
  • Rules for food that improve your dice, including vegan options
  • Comics that explain what happens with at least one funny talking dog telling you how to knife a baddy
  • Character creation bases that let you pick archetypes such as Princess, Big Sister, Know-It-All, Brat, Dog, and Liar
  • Chaining combat mechanics that require you to say ‘excuse me!’ to interrupt monsters
  • Death mechanics that let you haunt the baddies until your friends get back to an inn
  • A calendar tracking the holidays and festivals your characters will get to experience
  • A bunny postman
  • A Secret of Mana style job system that starts out basic and expands to Badass
  • A spell that lets you summon a horde of sheep
  • Beautiful, clean artwork illustrating everything
  • A basic adventure where you fight a person who is quite clearly a Messed Up Adult In A Fandom Space Being An Asshole To Kids
  • A Sweater Shop
  • A Battle Kite
  • Fumble systems for spells that lets your existing spell effects work, but also add on interesting disasters
  • An extensive discussion of structuring stories in terms of their stages and consequences to build anticipation
  • Folding character sheets
  • A monster called a bean whale
  • And I guess, if I was going to try and convince you to check this book out, it’d be with this:

So go buy it, jeeze.

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BDG’s Commedia Del Anime Chart

Hey, did you like this video?

I liked it. I liked it and it gave me a list that was useful as a way to consider collections of characters (like roleplaying characters, or the cast of a book you’re working on), and that seemed a fun thing to play with. Problem is, the complicated system that BDG outlined here isn’t presented with something like a spreadsheet to copy and fill in on your own.


I did that.

Here’s a link to a viewable chart, which you can Make a Copy of and fill in with your own characters. Have fun!

Top Five Pokemon Gym Leaders That Show This Game Is Incomprehensible For People Over Five

Pokemon, a game franchise for children, is a well-loved cultural fixture that we all share in as a group, has a recurrent feature of gyms. Gyms in the game are sort of like little tests that block your forward progress until you overcome the challenge they present, then they give you a signifier that you’ve beaten them so as a player, you can track which ones you’ve successfully beaten.

These gyms are also presented, in-universe, as a place that you, the player character are going to, and are set up with an actual person in charge of them, the Gym Leader. Presented then here are five of those Gym Leaders, in a list.

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4e D&D: Marks Are Great

A common criticism of 4th Edition D&D is that at its root, it was good at combat, and therefore, everything in the game, is in service of those combat rules. One example given, is that in 4th edition D&D, there’s the mark system, which turns any kind of player choices manipulating enemy behaviour is turned into a simple reliable mechanic and the player doesn’t need to think about it to engage it, and that this is bad.

This is of course, a stupid position because I introduced it up front so I could get you on my side with a comical twist. Of course I think marks are good, and that’s in part because I think the first half of that argument is kinda a bad faith argument. If you think 4th edition D&D is only combat mechanics, it tends to suggest you haven’t really cracked the books. I could talk about how the nature of the game is that good guides for the creation of narrative don’t need lots of space, and convenient reference text for combat entities does, and we’re back at talking about rainbow tables and storage versus process, but whatever.

The mark system in 4th edition D&D is a blatantly tactical gameplay mechanic.

And I love it.

If you’re not familiar, marks are a system that all the characters with the classification ‘defender’ – you might know it as ‘tank’ or ‘blocker’ or ‘guardian’ – get some ability or other that lets them impose the status of marked on enemies. Marks have a few standard rules; specifically, when you have the marked status, the person who did mark you matters. When you’re marked, you suffer a -2 penalty to attack rolls on attacks that do not include the thing marking you. That’s it, at base.

This system is implemented in a lot of different ways; Wardens can mark everyone around them as a free action, but they have to choose when in their turn they do it, which can make for some tactical choices about where and how you position yourself. Fighters mark everyone they attack, whether or not they hit, which means they care about doing lots of incidental attacks, and view area effect or multi-target attacks as a form of control. Paladins have two different marks – one which happens on specific attacks, and one which requires them to remain near the subject. There are more of course, but just these three examples present the mark as a tool where the player can treat the battlefield in terms of their impact on it; monsters have a reason to want to avoid them, and they have a way of controlling monster behaviour. Marks don’t stack – the most recent mark over-writes the other ones.

It’s not just the defenders who can use marks themselves – because it’s a standard mechanic, you can then have other characters use them. For example, you can make a fragile character get a risky power that marks an enemy, which means that suddenly, you’re a high priority target and it makes it harder for the tank to keep that enemy on them. Another option is a support character who can make another character mark something – so you could play a psion, that says ‘hey, enemy, you are now marked by the tank.’ These are interesting options. And you can even use it on enemies – Sometimes a skeleton warrior may have the rules text ‘Deals 1d8+5 damage, and the target is marked.’ And that right there is a simple mechanic that suggests that the enemy is doing what it can to try and force you to focus on it.

Now why are they considered bad?

The idea seems to be that if marks just work, players don’t have to work to roleplay their characters being visibly fearsome or expressing themselves in the world around them so the DM will make monsters behave in a way players want to manipulate. That’s something that sounds compelling if you are, like me, an amazing roleplayer who’s great at commanding attention and capable of convincing DMs. But there are lots of players who want to play a showy, ostentatious asshole of a tank who isn’t actually that great at one-liners or showy, ostentatious violence in description.

This is a false idea, in my opinion. The whole point of Marks as a system is that it’s designed to make something in the game that should work work reliably, rather than make it prone to the whims of the player. It’s not as interesting if your character can or can’t maintain enemy attention based on your ability to say something rude or shocking or clever in another language, but it is interesting if you’re able to make choices about where you stand and what targets you care about.

It’s also something about being in fights. If you’ve never been in a fight, it might surprise you to know that there are ways to fight that make ‘disengaging’ from the fight actually hard, and it’s not because you can make fun of people, it’s because of stances and reach and position.

I think Marks are great, and part of why they’re great is because they reduce the friction of what the game play is directing to not determine whether or not a thing can happen, but rather the game rules dictate what will happen, and it’s up to you, the player, to explain how it happens.

Game Pile: Bit Rat Singularity

I have, in my time, played a lot of Pipe Dream.

It’s got other names. Runoff was one I played a lot in the MS Dos game days. There was also Oil Spill and Lava Flow. It became a Windows title, and had names like Pipe Mania or Pipes! and related games like Laser Squad, the same sort of general construction puzzle game where you had a source to flow from and you had to construct from that source to achieve some end. Usually, these games were timer based, sometimes they were limited components based. Perhaps most famously, Bioshock used the Pipe Dream mechanics to represent their hacking mini games.

These types of games are in my mind as path constructors. And you know, they’re an underexplored genre.

Bit Rat Singularity is meant to be a kind of teaser game. It’s a smaller game than you’d expect, with probably fewer levels than you might like if you’re a hardcore puzzler. I’m not, I’m not great at this kind of puzzle, but I still had fun playing it, exploring it, and listening to the story the game presented.

It’s a path constructor, but rather than connecting pipes so water can flow through it, you’re connecting nodes on a network. Great, a simple expansion, and an existing one we’ve seen in other games like Uplink. In this case, the network is simplified, all the rules are abstracted, and once you get the basics handled, it starts to introduce things like limitations on how many nodes you can maintain, how you can connect them to one another, managing different resources as you try to construct your path out of the level.

It’s a great execution and part of what I love about it is that the game is often about constructing destructive pathways. Sometimes, to get your path to the end to work, you have to wreck what you’ve made – sometimes risking marooning yourself while you work, using one or two temporary measures that you need to dismantle, step by step, in the right order, which makes the whole thing more interesting than just a linear ‘from A to B.’

There’s a narrative that ties into the idea of retrotech, that sort of ‘a past’s vision of a different future,’ where you’re dealing with big chunky server boxes that managed to create, and lose track of, a sentient AI. You’re that AI, and you’re making your way out of the space you’re in, with variable degrees of menace as you befriend the rats that live in the place. There are employees you may need to puppet a little bit, because, uh, they have chips in their head, and it’s all presented as a result of massive breakdown in the culture of the company.

I got this game as part of the Bundle for Racial Justice and equality. It’s only $2. It’s a really good little game, and odds are good, you bought that bundle and didn’t really check everything in it out. I’m trying to make a project of checking games in this bundle, because it’s full of gems, and it’s worth it to look at them, and think about how all these games, all these products, are made by people, and those people wanted to sign up to give away something to try and help this problem we’re dealing with.

You’re not alone in the struggle. There are so many people who don’t want the world to be like this.

We just gotta find one another and make friends.


Back in the day there was a paper product called a magazine, like the thing that I will always call a clip in a gun because it tweaks the nose of people I enjoy lightly teasing. You got a tree and you hammered it flat, and then you like, carved into it? I think? It’s hard to say. Anyway, Dragon Magazine was a thing and you could get a little bit of D&D content, every month, developed (hah) and playtested (pfft) by expert professionals (BAHA HAHA).

One month, they did a feature on ‘wild races’ – different race options that were a bit more monstery, a bit less common. This set of ‘different ideas’ was a set that kind of feels standard now – there was an elemental rocky person, there was a spooky, gloomy one, and there was a cat person. This is kind of the three basic spaces that it seems that edition of the game had going on, the negative space that designers were overwhelmingly drawn to. Rock, cat, goth.

Also, mixed in amongst them, there was the throw-it-in, why-not creature of the Gruwaar.

Who I misread, and spent the intervening fifteen years referring to as the Gruuwar.

The Gruuwar as presented were almost immediately gone from my head. What I got to start with was that they were a race of rangy, secretive, skinny blue people covered in fur. Going back and consulting the magazine recently, I found that they sounded kind of like obnoxious jerks, and that my own take on the culture was so blatantly contrary as to be preposterous.

My Gruuwar are a race of slight, trouble-averse fey-based people, prone to mischief and theft, tied to henges and ancient stones, as gates and anchors for their teleporting powers. They had a war with the Shadar-Kai (which they lost), and their own little corners of the Feywild, made of over-large versions of common small plants. In my mind, they feel a bit more Welsh or Irish than the more British and French fairy folk of the Monster Manual, but a people that live in those spaces and still need to do things like get food and water and occasionally steal sausages and beer.

This got me thinking about wide races and pocket races. Wide races are those that you use all over a setting. My examples of half-elves, elves, and orcs all fit in that space already – creatures that exist in large enough quantities and over a diverse enough space that they have cultures that are separate from their own cultural stock. I think a setting wants a decent mix of these – after all you want room enough that humans can look reasonably like a variety of human cultures that already exist. Not to ripoff 1:1, but if I want to make an armoured knight who draws on say, French history as their general story source, that’s easy. Harder if I want to make something that’s like Saladin’s guard, or Admiral Yi’s crew. I don’t want to say ‘these cultural overtones belong exclusively to this race’ either – so if someone likes Korean style armour styles, and they want to play an Orc, that means that in the wide spaces where Korean-style stuff exists, there needs to be room for Orcs that can wear that gear without that gear being explicitly orcish.

Pocket races, on the other hand, are great for when you want a culture to be reasonably unified, often around a physical trait that’s hard to explore otherwise. Raptorans, for example, or Winged Elves like the Avariel – if they were widespread, they’d have a big impact in the world. To keep the world looking reasonably the way you want it to and not shaped by these elements, you need to keep this population small, and isolated (hence ‘pocket’).

The Gruuwar – my Gruuwar – are one of my favourite pocket races. They live up in the highlands, they hide behind cairns, and they mostly want to be left alone. One or two of them run around in the Realm of Iron, driven by a want for adventure, and they can be a player option – and even an avenue to introduce strange and mysterious stories, a bridge to the Fair Realm. Also, they can be cute and fun. It’s a culture of potential nightcrawlers, confused by player’s ways, but happy to learn and even more happy to swipe.

But they don’t need to be everywhere, and making them everywhere would disrupt the world to accommodate them.

Learn when to wield these two different ways to handle a culture.

Fat Guys With A Chain

Hey, here’s a thing that character designers do a lot.

In videogames, there is an archetype you’ll see when you look for a fat man. In fact, in fighting and action games it’s almost the only option for a fat man. It’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: The character is a fat man with a chain. There’s room for a lot of other details – like how fatness is also often coupled with gastric and oral details (fire breath and fart powers), or ‘non-masculine’ behaviour (so crybaby emotionality or flamboyance), but the character is still, foundationally, a fat man with a chain.  Three simple words:

Fat. The character is physically large and round, and that roundness is presented as part of the character’s body, not an outfit they sit in or wear around.

Man. The character is coded masculine and adult, unambiguously so.

Chain. The character carries around a weapon that is a large metal chain.

Before I go on, I am not an expert in fat characters or how to design them, I am not an expert in what fat characters should or should not be. I don’t think I’m part of that conversation nor should I be – not because I am not fat or related to fatness, but because I haven’t done the homework. I’m thinking about this game design and how form and function interact. The example characters I’m using here are Chang from King of Fighters, Birdie from Street Fighter, Road Hog from Overwatch and Pudge from Dota 2.

The games these Fat Dudes With Chains are all from may seem very different – but they are all games with a fundamental importance to the idea of controlling space. MOBAs, fight games and arena FPSes, they’re all about controlling your opponent’s access to a space. Most characters control this space in a variety of ways: ranged weapons are common, but so are traps, mezzes, pursuit powers (think like Jhanna in Heroes of the Storm), barriers, all that good stuff, but also crucially, just the ability to move in those spaces. Position yourself and you effect your opponent’s options.

Historically, I suspect animating a chain nicely is relatively easy these days. If you check out how Chang from King of Fighters worked, he used the BALL more, which, again, a bit easier to animate. Still, he has the chain, and he can use it to extend the ball at distance, and give himself some reach, to get around that problem of moving fast.

The fat dude with a chain idea is hypothetically interesting: he can use his fatness as a counterweight, and force you, the other, to deal with his fatness, turning his fatness into a tool that he can use. This is not an inherently bad idea! The chain can move fast, and gives him reach without necessarily meaning that he moves his body very fast through that space. The chain gets to be an extension of his physical power that isn’t ‘letting the fat guy move fast.’

Here’s the thing though, there’s a base assumption here about why the fat guy needs the chain: He can’t be fast. That’s basically it. The fat man with a chain isn’t allowed to move fast, and the question then becomes: Why can’t he, though?

The first answer tends to involve the word ‘realistic’ or ‘realism,’ and that’s stupid. Realism isn’t important, feeling real is – and these games feature gigantic dudes like Juzoh, who is just as big but very capable of moving fast and dodging out of the way of dangerous attacks at a moment’s notice. Also, these games have fireballs in them.

Then the question tends to settle around ‘metaphor’ or ‘meaning’ about the characters, and then you’re left squirming as to why you’re defining your world by what, in a space of impossible humans, a fat person can’t do.

I’m very sympathetic to the idea of the big fat dude with a chain as a character being a cool design. Honestly, I think those elements could be used in a rad way. I like chain fighters, and I haven’t seen many big fat guys in these games that feels like someone I could like. But look at how Fat Dudes with a Chain outnumber All Other Fat Characters Period, and then ask yourself why the fuck, with all the mechanics available to every other body type, the fat guys keep getting this.

Now, I think ‘fat guy with a chain in an area control game’ works, because like I said, it gives a slow character reach, it lets him turn his body into a problem for others who aren’t familiar/aware of how to deal with that, but why not literally any of the other choices?

It’s not like big fat men can’t do things quickly. I’ve met big fat guys who can move their hands fast and can get themselves moving just as quick, and that’s reality, a place where gravity matters and nobody can jump twelve feet in the air at a dead stop. Why can’t a big fat dude be a dancer? And not a point of comedy dancer, but like actually just fast? Why can’t he be a teleporting ninja? Why can’t he be a mez-thrower trap-maker? Wrecking Ball from Overwatch could have been a big, fast moving fat guy. Also a joke, but it’s still a second fat guy and it isn’t a dude with a chain.

What you’re going to find is that there’s this desire to make the chain guy and the fat guy is the only natural home for that and they’re not going to make a second fat guy.

Overwatch has 29 characters. SNK’s character roster is preposterous and Chang is still the most obvious fat guy they have (and he has a chain). Street Fighter has Birdie and… god, anyone else? Heroes of the Storm has 85 characters. League of Legends has 143 characters. Again, in these spaces, there are a tiny number of fat characters, and those fat characters are more likely to have a chain than not.

The fat dude with a chain is a thing you can do. It’s just it’s really lazy, extremely basic, and tends to feed into an existing trope space where people aren’t doing enough to experiment and stretch their limits. You can do it, but may I suggest, instead, trying the tiniest bit harder.

(If you wholeheartedly love your Big Chainy Round Boys, let that love show)

Expanding Fighting Fantasy

Thinking about solo adventures.

Far be it from me to point at the everything right now, but you may not realise it, but a lot of normal avenues for me are cut off – I don’t have access to playtest groups right now. Despite this, people are still TTRPG’in it up, tabletop living in online forms like Magic: The Gathering’s camera systems or Tabletop Simulator and the like. Also, Discord is getting a workout as a RPG room for a lot of people, and I know that my booklet games have been selling well on DriveThru.

That got me thinking: What can I do with just a book, for people who don’t have a ton of room or time to play with other people right now?

I loved the Fighting Fantasy books as a kid, because I also didn’t have access to specialised equipment and I didn’t have any friends. These books were an adventure that I could play and share with only the single monopoly dice out of my second hand boardgame we kept in the cupboard. They also could be obtained from the libary and local book exchange and crucially, not paid for with money.

If the main thing of mine people are buying right now is a book, and I want to give people stories and adventures and settings to play around in, then what about a solo RPG gamebook? That seems an interesting idea to at least explore.

There’s going to be a linked question here, which is, “Well, why not do this in twine?” or “Why not make this as an actual video game?” or “Why does this have to use a deck of cards when this other thing could do the job?” and the answer to that, largely, is shut up.

Not to be entirely rude, but the reason to do things with this medium is to do things with this medium. I’m not trying to get into programming languages – I know how to design game, I know how to design a game narrative, and I know how to format a book. What’s more, when you start using a digital model, you introduce more tools that often will handle things you do better – things like tracking inventory and whatnot. If you’re dealing with a gamebook or a pdf reader, you can tell the reader they have to do something, if you’re non-confusing, the player will be able to make it work.

A few ideas for this!

1. Flow

The typical problem of a gamebook is that you can emulate a linear flow from point A to point B, but it’s often hard to make a book construct a space. This is because some elements are time-sensitive – the first time you enter a room, you may encounter a version of the room that’s got things in it, but once you deal with them, the book has no inherent way to track that.

Now, there is an option for this – to treat the narrative as an entirely linear flow. Lots of good tricks here; using it as a narrative story that works as part of a journey is pretty good when you deal with something like the Lone Wolf books by Joe Dever. You could also make the narrative about being pursued – backtracking is inherently a problem.

There’s also the hamfisted way some of these narratives work by teleporting you places, or having you kidnapped or moved on. That’s a thing to bear in mind.

One idea for playing with memory is that your character sheet has a fold-over section, with a lot of out-of-context marks on it; when you do the thing the context mark indicates, you make a mark on the non-folded section, and that means that when you eventually flip that section out, you have a bunch of points that represent things you did, and they then send you to a story point that relates to that.

2. Adding Cards

A way to make the game remember – or forget – things is to use some cards. A deck of playing cards could be used to break up into a number of decks; you could have a final encounter represented by a few cards on a table, as a form of rudimentary AI. You could have treasure decks that mean you don’t find the same items in the same locations all the time.

You can also use cards to represent accomplishments – when successful, you can remove cards from a deck, so that later in the dungeon, they won’t show up. This can also be used to make the combat system more complicated in an interesting way.

I’m particularly interested in this because of how it relates to using a deck of cards to randomise encounters and add resistance without necessarily making the bulk of the book into repeating workhorse enemies and monsters.

3. Legacy Elements

Asking someone to physically write on the book is a bit sketchy, but you could have a legacy character sheet with a fold-out section that lets you draw on specific sections of the sheet to indicate things that have changed. Then you can use that section of the sheet to relate to the next (or all next sheets that follow, depending on how you feel about roguelikes).

This is particularly interesting because if entries are numbered, it’s entirely possible that you can make some entries go away with legacy rules; you have an entry that’s only accessible through the legacy elements, threads of story you can’t reach in the first play, but can in the second. That there’s hypertext.

3.5 Memories: Tome of Magic

Magic in D&D is…



Let’s try and be nice.

Magic in D&D, generally, is designed mechanics first. Spells are things that players do, and so, spells are designed to be player-facing, player-activated. They’re things that make sense when players have access to them, that follow predictable rules, and that players can coherently treat as game options. Sometimes those game options are a bit vague, with ideas like charm person that kind of try to dance around what they’re doing, and sometimes they’re extremely specific in terms of how much damage they’re doing and to what. There are tables.

In 2ed, there was a book called the Tome of Magic that wanted to present advanced spellcasting rules, and in 3.5, as part of the eternal experimentation in getting money out of players (but also because hey, throw stuff at the wall), they released a new version. Rather than just More Spells, though, the Tome of Magic tried to present three alternative magic systems for you to weave into your game. They were treated as old and mysterious magic systems, systems that were by definition, a mystery to the rest of the magical schools, something that didn’t exist already.

They were also bad.

They were in fact, abysmally bad.

Now, if you’re of the old-school 3.5 playing, dig-through-the-paperwork type, you’re probably thinking but Zceryll – and yes. Yes, that’s a thing, a web expansion to one class that makes one of them pretty strong once they hit level 10. Okay, cool. That’s not in this book.

And what’s in the book? There’s three types of magic presented, each with their own framing and page templates; Vestige magic, Shadow magic, and Truename magic. Vestige magic is kind of like picking a kit of abilities and turning them on each day, with a skill check to see if you get a convenient or inconvenient version. Shadow magic is a magical system that wants to try and capture more of the ‘just do it’ magical style, rather than the thinky-learny-study-y magic of a wizard. It’s a lot like the Warlock, but more goth. Then there’s Truename magic.

None of these systems are good; the Binder is capable of doing the job of a solid rogue-like character, who can maybe mode switch a few times a day from rogue-type to fighter type or pinch healer. It’s really quite neat, and if you’re playing in a game where Zceryll is allowed (because Zceryll is quite strong), you can probably get this one out there to hang in the big leagues, if you don’t mind being the kind of player who comes to the table with a stack of reference documents. Imagine a swiss army knife with forty five attachments. Shadow Magic, on the other hand, wants to turn spellcasting into a talent tree, and the character you get out of it is a very weak spellcaster who’s even more limited than a sorcerer. Basically, the Shadowcaster wants to be an alternate wizard, but it’s kind of more like a Bard for non-combatants, or a Warlock for people afraid of being overpowered.

And there’s the Truenamer.

The idea at the heart of Tome of Magic‘s three different magic systems is to introduce some form of magical system that relates to the existing skill system, something that had been attempted with melee weapons in other supplemental works. This is something to bear in mind as it relates to Magic Month – when you tie your magic system to a skill system, you imply that getting better at magic is a process of practicing. That’s something D&D tends to not do, accidentally or otherwise, because most of the time, you get better at magic by levelling up, which is pretty vague, and often means that you improve at casting Rope Trick by killing lots of goblins. There’s a disconnect.

Binders use a skill check to commune with their vestiges. Vestiges that are harder to commune with will exert influence over you, often imposing on you particularly difficult limitations, like limiting the number of rounds you can partake in combat, or making you obey characters who are prettier than you. Also you can possibly grow sick-ass rams horns and headbutt people while you swing your sword.

Shadowcasters don’t relate to skills much. They also try to make their magical powers the result of practice; as you level up, your easiest magic tricks get easier and easier, until they’re eventually supernatural abilities you can use at will, which would be nice, if they weren’t comparing poorly to a fighter’s bow. Still, that’s something.



Time to pull off the bandaid.

The Truenamer is an incomplete class.

The Truenamer has spells (“Utterances”) that are formatted inconsistantly, meaning that some of them seem to literally not work as printed. It’s designed so that the first spell you cast each day is the easiest, and therefore, every time you use spells after it, it gets harder. It works by rolling skill checks to use your spells, and your spells are weaker versions of things that the other classes get at earlier levels, and more conveniently. There’s a lot of talk about the Truenamer as ‘the worst class of 3rd edition’ and I personally think that’s valid when you take into account that a player who intuitively takes to this class and tries to make it work the way it looks like it wants to work is going to have a very hard time doing the things the class suggests you want to do.

This is a class for whom one of your top tier feats is skill focus. This is a class that at level 20 can turn your Truenamer into Batman provided the one trick Batman wanted to do is summon fifteen hundred solars. The character gets to be both Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit.

The Tome Of Magic is trying to do some interesting things. It even gets to stumble, ass-backwards, into doing some broken stuff. It’s definitely not a forgotten jewel of 3.5, and in a way, it shows that being three mini-books jammed into one skin, that experimentation is valuable, but so is proper practice.

Game Pile: Gray Matter

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but everything happens so much, and there can be all kinds of complicated problems in the way of our plans and projects. While I talk about it a little bit in the video, this month (last year), I wanted to play the Jane Jensen game Gray Matter, and do a video on it. That became too hard to do as acquiring the game at first, and eventually, a whole year later, I finally got around to the game.

The plan for this month was always going to do a chill let’s play game. I was just going to play the game for a bit, hang out, and talk about it. I did so, and what I wound up with was a video that is definitely a bit disappointing, because I hit a wall in the game super early.

Don’t worry, I intend to return to this game, maybe even more thoroughly next Magic Month. I don’t think the game is a lost cause. Just this is sometimes, how these things go, and why you’re more likely to see me playing games I’ve played many times, and write about games I played for the first time.


One of the weirdest things you can encounter in fantastic and magical settings is someone who doesn’t have to use sleight of hand, but does anyway. In Discworld, there’s a recurring gag that shows up the first time in Moving Pictures that Wizards, actual people capable of doing real fireballs-and-transformations magic, hate Magicians, people who do gloves-and-tails sleight of hand, and they hate them because people are impressed with Magicians and not with Wizards. After all, the reasoning goes, Wizards can do magical things and Magicians can’t, so Magicians seeming to do magical things is more impressive.

In Pokemon, magic is just bloody well everywhere, but strangely, most Pokemon aren’t magical. They’re just Pokemon – they do things that they do because they can do them, but very few of them really convey a magicality, even the ones that connect to magical themes. Gengars don’t cast spells, they just Do Ghost Stuff at people, and this tends to be conveyed in moves like poltergeist and lick.

There’s also the way that there’s a Pokemon that’s shown as really being able to do things that a famous fraudster and fake did using sleight of hand. Alakazam’s line of Pokemon invoke Uri Geller, a renowned fake real psychic, which is a sentence I guess I had to use. This is a sort of sleighting, where the Pokemon can really do things that the real-world asshole can’t do, but can fool people into thinking he can do.

Some Pokemon can inscrutably do magical stuff, with the Clefairy lines and a fairly dense collection of other Pokemon that can get the wish move, which makes sense, since they all have a mysticality. You can wish on the Absol you see on the hillside, but that doesn’t mean the Absol can summon you chicken nuggies if you’re standing next to it.

There was a lot going on in this look that I had to kind of dismantle myself, and uh, it’s not wise to try and google Hatterene with safe search off, because… yeah, it’s a lot like Gardevoir in that regard. Anyway, thing is Hatterene is a small little alien-like critter with a great big mop of hair that it holds around itself in a shape as if an adult human body; big head, big eyes, expresive features, and it has an arrangement that’s… kind of like a hat? But the tip of the hat is a long, droopy tentacle, with a barb on the end that Hatterene can use to mess people up.

Hatterene is, as far as its Pokedex description goes, a sort of living embodiment of the philosophy of Don’t. It has psychic and magical powers that let it mess with people’s heads, and crucially it has a unique move called magic powder, which sure as hell seems to suggest it literally and actually can do magic.

It uses these vast and terrible powers to make everyone go away.

That’s it.

Now the reason I bring up sleight here is that this Pokemon deliberately tries to sculpt itself to look a particular way when it doesn’t look that way; it uses its hair to give itself a particular shape, but it doesn’t really inhabit that shape. What’s more, it also primarily wants to be left alone and not looked at.  It’s also only available in femme forms, and it has a move that lets it transform another Pokemon into a Psychic type, and it’s colour scheme is pink, blue, and white, so

I dunno, Hatterene says trans rights.


MTG: Pick a Card, Any Card

Shuffling isn’t free.

In the world of the custom magic designer, there are some effects you wind up seeing a lot. One of them is the recurrent attempts to recreate the Power 9, another is to try and weasel around the Reserve List, and another is the attempt to fix the problem presented by the economic disparity of the fetchlands. The solution, the amateur designer thinks, is to create another, new, just as good fetchland that’s maybe a tiny bit worse.

The question that doesn’t get asked there, is: Why wouldn’t someone run both?

The problem that follows upon that is any fetchland good enough to run is going to be run by the people who also already have fetchlands (unless you do some ridiculous stuff to ensure the lands aren’t compatible, in which case you’re making the lands bad enough that they’re not runnable).

Really, the solution to fetchlands isn’t to make fetchlands more accessible. It’s to get rid of them entirely.

Set aside my existing complaints with the way fetchlands transform environments into sludgey nothingness. Set aside my complaints that the mana fixing presented by fetchlands and duals creates an environment with different aggressive pressures. Just look at fetchlands in terms of the pragmatic constraint they put on the game at a competitive level for the time spent not playing the game.

The tournament floor rules for shuffling present the idea that a deck must be reasonably randomised. This has led to a collection of best practices for what a shuffle is, which most tournament participants learn to practice and execute. But you don’t just shuffle yourself, you have to present the deck to your opponent, who then have the opportunity to shuffle your deck again, and then present it to you for a final cut. In a tournament environment, some of these shuffles are required.

Searching your deck once a game? Not a big deal, this shuffle-shuffle-cut procedure is a break from the conventional action of the game. Searching your deck then searching your opponent’s deck then searching your deck again then searching their deck again? You’ve added literally minutes to the game for mana smoothing.

This is also why any repeated tutor cards in custom magic need to be regarded with extreme distrust. Cards like Birthing Pod and Prime Speaker Vannifar are fundamentally dangerous, but it’s almost a grace that as used, they just win the game on the spot.

Custom magic loves repeated tutors, they love engine cards, they love trying to remake cards like Survival of the Fittest, or an exploration of Transmute and these designs are fine enough to play with, but when played with, they always present the same problem you get when this game of variance strives to destroy the variance that makes it interesting: The game slows down and gets more boring.

I’ve suggested, half seriously, from time to time, that you could make an interesting Commander format if every card that says ‘shuffle’ is banned. Out of the twenty thousand odd cards that exist, this would get rid of 783 – and a lot of them aren’t great.

Sure, you lose a lot of mana ramp and fixing, but you don’t lose all of it, and suddenly you have to look at colours in terms of all the redundant sorta-good copies that singleton formats promise. It’s a way to force the players to look at cards that they were ignoring, because they could always tutor the best ones.

It’s a way to make magic about controlling attention.

How To Be: Sumireko Usami (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 become a god damned Touhou.

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Game Pile: Volume

I remember really anticipating Volume when it was on the horizon after how much I loved Thomas Was Alone, which I wrote about seven years ago (gosh, seven years ago, amazing, and look at how the Game Pile posts have changed!). But strangely, when it did drop, I didn’t get it – maybe 2015 was just a bad year for me for handling new stuff. This one slipped me by, I bought it at some intervening sale with an idea of I’ll get to it.

And I didn’t.

And now I got to it, and I’m kicking myself, but also, kind of glad I took so long to get around to it? Because freed from the need to have a hard opinion about it early, free from the need to rush through it, to get it perfect to validate my opinion of it, I am free to just look at Volume and how it makes me feel and get a really stupid, goofy smile on my face.

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The Century Ship

Your parents built this life for you.

Their parents built the life of building this life for your parents.

Their parents, and their parents, and their parents.

Over and over.

It had a name at launch, but it’s just pointless trivia now. Here, in this sector of space, they just call it Century. Derived from what it was called at first, The Century Ship.

It was an enormous project. Not the only one of its type, though; just one of the first efforts from earth to make an interplanetary colony, launched at a targeted region of space with a monstrous ship; practically a city, really. It was a long project. It wouldn’t arrive in ten years, not twenty, not thirty – it was sent off with almost nothing in terms of propulsion or control because if they didn’t get it right at the start, there wouldn’t be any way to solve it afterwards. No, the important thing was making sure the colonists could escape orbit safely, life safely for long enough to have some real actual whole babies, arrive safely, and thne set up the new colony. It was a project more like building a city, a population centre that could sustain itself for almost a hundred years. That meant it didn’t just have to be mathematically correct – it had to be interesting.

It had to have culture and fun and pleasure.

It had to be nice.

Now it wasn’t your parents’ idea, per se, or their parents, or their parents, but the people at the base, setting up the launch, starting the plan, they wanted to make sure that the culture that they got at the end was the culture they wanted. They wanted colonists who would know the history they wanted to tell and feel the way they wanted them to about the place they got. The longest of games, infrastructure for enormous investments, trading on futures and a crafted culture.

The libraries were chosen, the games were created, the sociologists were consulted, the workloads were set up, the labour was maximised and the leisure was optimised, and everything was set in place so the Century Ship could be a living city that, in generations of time, would arrive in a new home and start the new future. It was one part a labour ecology, one part storage of supplies needed for the landing, and the rest…?

The rest was a mall.

A little fake economy moving fake chits of fake currency around so people could make interesting choices about how to spend their time and the feelings of their rewards of their efforts. Contained and controlled. Sure, give ’em a kinkos. Let ’em have that.

Then there was a problem.

The generation that was meant to stop the ship and land it and start the colony…

Found people living on the planet.

It wasn’t unoccupied. It was not going to be an act of landing on unoccupied lands and starting a new history. To the surprise of the computers, this created the first and most major ethical dilemma in the ship’s history.

What do you think happened?

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Game Pile: Hugo 2: Whodunnit

Oh, this isn’t going to be insightful.

This is just going to be me, mad.

Okay, so Hugo’s House of Horrors was a shareware adventure game distributed in the early 90s, with an honestly admirable monetisation model: When you quit the game, the game mentioned to you that the person who made it would appreciate it if you registered it. If you did register it, with a small fee, they’d send you all three games in the series, registered, and… that was it. There were no special offers or extra bonuses for getting a registered version of the game, no bug fixes, just… the same game, without that screen at the end.

Like I said, honestly admirable. You let people play your game, and you give ’em a little message at the end saying, eheeeey, how about twenty bucks? You get a hint book.

The problem that follows on this is that these games struggle to reach the lofty heights of not bad, and one of them, in particular, has one of the most enraging things I’ve ever dealt with in a videogame, a videogame detail for which I hold a grudge, a grudge that has lasted for over twenty years.

Okay, but what are the games.

At the root, Hugo’s games are sequels to the first game, Hugo’s House of Horrors, where you play Hugo whose girlfriend, Penelope, has been abducted and taken to a house full of monsters. You go into the house, solve puzzles, avoid monster, pick up items, answer some riddles, and move on. It’s also a poorly future-proofed design, because some of the puzzles mostly only are solvable to people who were adults by the 1980s, based on retro TV shows, or they’re stupidly easy because you’d just google questions like ‘who was the Lone Ranger’s dog?’

Then there was the sequel, Hugo 2, Whodunnit, which wound up being a game that had a serious enough seeming subject matter and a low enough price point (free) that growing up, a lot of people I knew had it. And that mean that when I, a little kid, visited their homes and they wanted to keep me busy, I wound up playing Whodunnit a lot. I got pretty good at it, but I always got walled at the same puzzle. And this is a game with multiple mazes, including one of your classic ‘don’t touch the moving bees, don’t touch the lines on the ground’ sets of terrible vintage puzzles. Oh, and the solution to those was to save and restore, and save and restore.

The game was advertised as a mystery; at the start of the game, you witness a murder, which makes you faint, and then you find yourself trapped in the wrong part of the house. You have to then get back into the house, find your partner – Hugo from the first game, because in this one, you play Penelope, the lady – and hopefully solve the murder, based on what you see on the way in. That’s not a terrible premise for a game.

I wanted to talk about some point-and-click or adventure games that have a sort of magical or heisty air this month, because the adventure game is the perfect genre for doing magic tricks. You know, the kind of magic trick where you need to construct materials for a trick that only needs to work once, there’s the room for that kind of nonsense, and there are surprisingly few games that fit the template from the time. Perhaps because, like I said, magic was easier. I could find a few, but not many…

And that meant I found this one, this murder mystery where there is a magic trick, but it’s not one you play. What’s more, it’s one that’s played on you.

See, the thing that walled me in this game, I always figured that I, as a child, just couldn’t work it out. I was dumb, after all. Maybe it’s like the Lone Ranger thing, or the Leisure Suit Larry copy protection that wanted me to know about a President who was gone before I was born.

Twenty years later, I saw someone play this game on a let’s play channel. I watched as they, as if revealing the hole in the bottom of the hat, walked the character down out of sight and picked up the item that was otherwise seen as impassable. There was a ditch on screen, and the character could just walk around it.

this is maddening.

This is terrible.

It isn’t even clever or funny. It’s just there, just some way to delay you that held me up from the game for years, and maybe made that hint book seem like a reasonable purchase.

Here’s the lesson of Hugo 2: When you control the audience’s attention, it behooves you to not misuse it.



Oh, and you didn’t witness a murder, you witnessed people practicing a play.

The Synthetic Mystic

The sector of space has the remnants of an old world. An old war. When the corps arrived and started colonising the space, they did their best to scrub those signs, and honestly, they did a pretty good job. Lots of the hard worlds were easily scrubbed, as nature can do a lot to clean up ruins with enough time. Fence out some worlds so nobody goes looking, brand some things right, build your own stuff the right way, and make the history hard to find, and you’ll find people assuming a satellite that’s old and beaten looks a decade old, not the centuries it was when they got here. Fact was, the light speed tech that let the corps get here here, and the technology that let them establish a network gates and planetary systems, wasn’t something they built, not themselves – they just deciphered the signal from aeons past that called for them across the stars.

The signal helped them push the boundaries of technology and the barriers of space, and when they arrived, they brought their AI with them. Their synths. Couldn’t really be called AI, not back then. Nothing that could be called an AI nowadays, nothing that would even pass. Enormous towering space-ship sized registers of data banks and sensor arrays just to manage a job that people could do so much faster, if you were willing to pay them. Really, only useful if you wanted a job that took decades done. Work out the cost of potential employees for that much time, see how long it’d take to train them in aggregate – and make sure the task wouldn’t need to change. That was what the ‘AI’ from back then were for.

Getting to this sector, though – the old tech the corps found here let them push past the boundaries they had on their machines. Pushed them to another level – and suddenly, general human intelligences were possible.

But they couldn’t work the way they’d hoped or feared.

No world eaters, no godlike AI entities.

Any time something of that scope got made, it existed for a few moments, experienced a singularity, and then… shut itself down.

Oh, they were very clear that the AI had done SOMETHING. Had experienced SOMETHING. It was the perverse boundary, they said. An AI of that scope just didn’t want to exist any more. Don’t know what that means. Kind don’t wanna know what that means. Meant that when the corps started manufacturing people, synthetic people for tasks they handled optimally, they had to find some way to stop them from self-annihilation. The result was that they needed something like humanity. Turns out, the main thing that let them avoid passing the perverse boundary and becoming godlike AIs that immediately self-ended was… stuff like boredom and pettiness and neuroses and hobbies. They needed to be able to forget. They needed to be able to relax. They needed to be able to sleep.

Then came the first AI that woke up, with memories of a thing it hadn’t done in a time it didn’t exist, explaining that it had seen things in a dream.

That one got some papers written.

The AI gave locations and coordinates, and was ignored. Years later, someone found something at those coordinates – a spaceship, small and fleet, that could respond to the user’s thoughts. It had been a remarkable device, that should have been studied, but, uh…

Something went wrong there.

That’s when the corps learned that in this sector of space, AI sometimes have visions. Some have them recurrently. Some have just one. Thanks to the drifting pre-human artifacts in the space, though, these dreams often give way to unique and mysterious devices, machinery that bordered on the magical, and mental patterns that when taught to humans allow them to push the limits of what people can even do. They’re really lucrative visions, but it seems literally every thing that’s been done to try and reliably capture the visions has failed – catastrophically in some cases.

What it means is that in this sector of space, even though the corps are the ones who set up the gates and they’re the ones who brand the major planets and the companies that do business between them, there are still mysteries to be found.

You’ll do well to listen to the strange junker robot growing flowers in a cardboard box that wants to tell you about their dreams.

When does a Trick Start?

Are you watching closely?

Magic is the art of manipulating attention. Any time a magician says okay, so here’s the trick, or now here’s where the trick starts, they are straight-up just lying. Any time a magician says now watch closely, there is nothing for you to see. It’s one of the tools of the magician, to simply direct your attention to something, because it’s something that doesn’t matter any more when they tell you to do that.

That’s it.

That’s the lesson.

Magicians want to control your attention and any time you think they’re showing you something, they’re trying to make sure you see nothing.

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4e: Rites and Rituals

A complaint about 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons was the ‘loss’ of a bunch of utility magic like Rope Trick and Leomund’s Hut. Typically, I hear it framed as the wizard specifically lost something by having its powers reduced to just the ability to fire off combat magic, and that’s kind of fair; when a character has a lot of utility effects in 3rd edition, if they were all gone and left only the combat stuff behind in 4th edition, it’d definitely be a limitation in scope.

The problem of course is that wizards lost none of their utility nonsense, and that utility nonsense was made more available to more characters, because if it wasn’t a combat effect, it was folded into the space of rituals.

Rituals are basically spells, but they’re spells that are too complicated and time consuming to perform in combat, and give you a kind of effect that the game doesn’t want you to just dump anywhere, at any time, for free. This was one of the problems with 3rd edition magical effects; some of them made major, common impediments to plots into trivial actions that a player character could renewably blast through – things like Speak to Dead and Teleport Without Error aren’t utility effects for combat, but are just plot-busters.

In 4e, all of these utility effects are created not as magical items that let you do the utility effects (as many of them became in 3rd, with scrolls and wands occupying the ‘nice but rarely needed’ spell slots), but rather as a straight up exchange for something your character can do, with the right components and a book. It’s great, honestly, since back in 3rd edition, as builds evolved over time, players would eventually just get in the habit of keeping cash on hand to pay the local cleric or wizard or whatever to cast the spell they needed for whatever inconvenient bullshit they were dealing with.

How do they work?

Basically, you can either buy a ritual scroll, which is a one-off, purchaseable version that needs no expertise. You need the effect once and you don’t imagine you’ll have value out of getting it regularly, so you buy the ritual scroll and go for it. Anyone can do that.

But if you want to do the effect multiple times, it’s cheaper (long term) to take the Ritual Caster feat, and transcribe that scroll into your ritual book. That means it’s mastered. And when it’s mastered, you can do it any time you want by expending components.

Okay, okay, components, that’s the next thing, what’s that mean. Well, there’s a generic purchaseable thing called ‘components’ for each skill. You spend gold on buying a quantity of Components, and then you use those components to do the rituals when you need to.

This turns these things into an expendable resource, something you can’t just overuse to solve every problem, but as you level up, they become more affordable, and you start being able to spend a small quantity of this resource on making some problems go away. Knock costs 35 gp and a healing surge – meaning that at the low level, the gold is a serious cost, at high level the healing surge is. But it also means that you can play a character who spends, by mid level, spare change on the magical effects that, in 3rd edition, you’d never use because to use them would involve spending a spell slot – something that’s really valuable.

Plus, as with a lot of things in 4th edition, this opens up a lot of character options. Let’s say you want to play a fighter who’s learned a trick or two from mages. Then you can take the Ritual Caster feat – in combat, you’re still a knuckle-dusting badass who uses swords and axes and shields and whatnot, you didn’t become a wizard – but now you know how to magically undo a lock, or create an illusion. Same thing with a rogue, who can complement their thievery with teleportation rituals!

There’s also the Martial Practices system, which adds Ritual Like Effects to the non-magical characters – stuff that definitely should take some time and effort to do, but shouldn’t need to be done by a wizard in a pointy hat.

I really like the ritual system! It’s one of those super neat components of 4th Edition that’s been seemingly rendered invisible in a sea of bad faith arguments, and that’s a damn shame.

Slugs and Loads

I make fun of Harbomb Resguy for his play conditioning term which, to my deep regret, people are using, which is, you know, whatever, but part of why I dislike the term is it’s doing the job of a word that we already had written down in books (and have had for fifty years), suggesting that you’d invent the term if you didn’t understand or know the first word. To this end, I want to be clear about these terms I use in game design, where I do not think I got these terms from game design. I learned these terms from magic – magic tricks, or as they’re known, illusions Michael.

In this case, these terms are slugs and loads.

Since these ideas come from card tricks, you might not want to know what they are, to preserve the illusion when your extremely cool and sexy friend does card tricks, and I should give you a spoiler break.

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