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.

Starting Making, Concept 1: Halls In The Mark

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

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

Game Pile: Handsome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I showed this game to my sister on a Saturday.

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

What Can Hide In Your World?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning The Gear Of Surprise Mechanics

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

Hold onto that, we’ll need it later.

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

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

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

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

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Game Pile: Yoshi’s Crafted World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Defining Mastery Depth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of Heroes and the Clamps!

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Goldshire Inn Ethnography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those letters were really dirty.

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

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

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

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

Owlbear Traps

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Game Pile: Century Golem

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

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

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

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

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

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Gnome Names

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

Why are they like that, you think?

 

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

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

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

From this I can derive two things:

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

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

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

Dwarves Write The Histories Where Orcs Had It Coming

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Fabula Nova Crystallis

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

There was a brand.

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

It was meant to be basic!

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

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

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Game Pile: Diary of a Spaceport Janitor

I picked up this game on the recommendation of my friend Caelyn, and the game’s own descriptor refers to it as an anti-adventure game. The game advertises itself with about as much story as you’re going to get: You play as the Janitor, an Alaensee girlbeast with a municipally-subsidized trash incineration job, who dreams of leaving Xabran’s Rock far behind her. In case you were wondering about whether or not she does, she does not, and the game instead focuses on the narrative of that being.

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The Skin You’re Virtually In

It’s been a weird few months, and there’s been a big issue I hadn’t spared time to talk about because I didn’t know much about what was really going on and didn’t know what would change. I write in advance, so for all I know, what’s stable is going to be overthrown by the time the article goes up.

City of Heroes is back.

Kind of.

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Maybe for good.

It’s on my mind, though, and one thing that’s on my mind is watching friends get back into it, and build their characters, but to build their characters now as the people they are now, and that means for some of these players, it involves confronting a big change in their life.

For some people, we’re talking about a big shift.

See, a lot of the guys I used to play City of Heroes with aren’t guys any more (or never were, really, depending on how they want to talk about their gender). And for a lot of people, the character builder in that game, where you could tailor details about your character, where you could make your girl, and you were expected to make something that was yours was subversive and freeing.

We know that people use performative spaces to perform. We also know that a part of what people do when given anonmity and performance is to play with identity; to play with expressing who they are and what they are.

I talk at times, to students and to friends, about why games matter. One example I give is that games let us practice feelings we’re not ready to deal with yet. We practice grief in losing and we practice joy in winning. We practice being kind and we practice being decisive. Games are the place we make a section of the world where we can deal with enormous, dangerous, powerful ideas that we can be told don’t have a place in our life, that are not to be played with.

Sometimes, games can let you be a cute girl with superpowers.

And you realise that that’s what you wanted, with or without the superpowers.

Games don’t need me to fight for them, not really. Games are well established, they’re financially successful, they have a history of cultural writing and academic consideration centuries long. Some elements of games – the transitory and the seemingly low topics, and yes, the raunchy and the exploratory and the embarassing, the things that maybe make us cringe a little when we say them, like I discovered my queerness by making out with a snake girl in Pocket D?

Those are things I want to fight for, and I want to fight for them because my friends matter and what makes them happy is important.

MGP: Making Queer Games With Queer Mechanics

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

I looked for some board games to talk about this month. One thing I was told a few times was there were games around, but they didn’t have ‘queer mechanics.’ This put me in bit of a quandrary, because I have no idea what that could mean.

One of our most popular games, Senpai Notice Me! is a small card game with art, editing, and design by Fox Lee, and colouring and design by me, Talen Lee. This card game was originally conceived for YuriJam2016, where the aim was to make a game that was about the relationships between women. It didn’t have to be erotic, it didn’t have to be romantic, it just wanted to be primarily about the relationships of women to women.

When thinking about queerness in tabletop games, there are a few problems with what that queerness means and how it can be represented. In games like Eldritch Horror, there are gay characters, but players don’t necessarily ever do anything mechanically that relates to that gayness. In Fog of Love, despite being entirely about relationships, there’s no inherent need for gender to come up with the way the game plays, meaning the game is about as queer as the players think to make it.

In Senpai Notice Me! the fundamental frame is a queer relationship, and the main play experience is about becoming the person Senpai notices, or being the kind of Senpai who can notice everyone. It’s also, regularly, played by boys who are not necessarily queer in any way, building cute outfits that show off the personal style of a character mostly represented to them by a random assortment of cards.

I also made, for GaymerXAus, the super-obviously queer game Queer Coding, which was a communication and con game. This game was not made to be super complex or intricate; I wanted to make a game that screamed queerness as loud as I could. It was a tiny project, too, made quickly and with only art assets I was able to make myself.

While both of these games are absolutely trying to be queer games, if you take away the themes and graphics chosen for them… they’re not. They’re just mechanics. There is nothing fundamentally more mechanically meaningful about arranging the letters of the word ‘queer’ than there is any other word with a repeated letter. Senpai Notice Me! could be about collecting weapons to slay a dragon, or just assembling the best gun collection to impress the real veteran, or an anime collection, or all sorts of things.

I think about this any time someone talks about a game ‘not having queer mechanics.’ That’s always kinda weird to me, because what does that even mean? My mechanics aren’t queer, but the games I make are games that reflect me, so it seems they’d likely have some queerness in them. What about Lesbian Chess, where the two queens can’t take one another because they’re dating?

In the end, I tend to give up on this conversation because there isn’t really a way to do ‘queer mechanics’ as much as there is a way to generate queer or unqueer fictions with your games.

Also, and this is a tiny but somewhat sour point: Playing games with queer fictions don’t magically make someone who is a jerk about queer people into a nice person. We can’t transform people with singular queer works. Maybe for some people, the media we create can be a catalyst, but you’re asking to make lightning in a bottle, there. It’s instead better, safer, and nicer, to make sure you create fictions where queer people (and all forms of marginalised people, but hey, one thing at a time in this post) don’t have to feel like they’re an afterthought.

Excerpt: The Nyarr

This is an excerpt from the Nyarr, a race expansion I’m making based on my 3.5 D&D work. This is an abridged excerpt of some details about the Nyarr – their general physical look, their interaction with that thing called ‘gender,’ and some writing about what it’s like to be a Nyarr.

The Nyarr are meant to be a culture you can jam into a game that players can easily pick up if they want to play someone without the same Genders Stuff as a conventional setting’s conventional cultures have. In the same way that people sometimes are drawn to things like the Girdle of Gender Change, the Nyarr are a nonbinary race of cool-looking nice monster people.


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Game Pile: Billionaire Banshee

Videogames do a lot of work automatically, which means that there’s a lot of ways that two very similar games can be meaningfully different, and so exploring them is challenging. What’s more, communicating that difference can be challenging, too; I could tell you that Titanfall 2 and Dishonored 2 are both followups to successful games with alternative movement schemes and a buddy that becomes part of your mission flow, with a setpiece level including alternate timelines, but if you know videogames, you know those points of similarity are way less obvious than the points of difference. After all, in one of those games, you’re running around with a gigantic mecha and the other is a steampunk stealth game.

This is because there are layers of systems and hardware that sit between you, the player, and the game you’re playing, layers that are not only not under your control but are very specifically developed and defined by someone who isn’t in the room with you. This means that videogames get to be very complex in a way tabletop games aren’t when it comes to the immutable, consistant set rules of the game. Tabletop games get to be way more sophisticated on all the levels of players playing them, though, because the rules are dynamic, and under the control of the players all agreeing to play the game the right way, together.

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I Like: Benjamin Wheeler

I have a really sour love of Canadian Highlander. It’s a really interesting format whose first impressions in the online space were presented in a way that I felt was really dickish and condescending. Yet, thanks to the neverending presence of a bunch of very entertaining professional comedians playing the game, I’ve come to really enjoy the format (though not enough to investigate playing it myself).

One thing that’s made me really appreciate the game is one of the North 100 podcast’s hosts, or rather, the newest host, Benjamin Wheeler.

Canadian Highlander is a format where duals and fetches run rampant and that makes it economically unfeasible. Ben has talked about budget in the paper format, but also shows ways to make it accessible on MTGO. It’s cheaper, and also, because we get a one-sided take on very thoughtful engagement with the game, Ben digs deep into complex combo lines.

I like these streams; they’re long, Ben’s taste in music amuses me, and occasionally you get Keifer Content, where his husband like, vapes the screen full of fog. It’s fun, it’s funny, and technically, queer MTG Media, so hey, it counts this month.

Making Settings Queer

You think because I’m doing Pride Month I’m going to shut up about Dungeons & Dragons and my own setting? Of course not. Let’s talk about putting queerness in a setting, some ways to do it and some ways I don’t want to do it.

Specifically, one thing I don’t want to do in my setting is make queerness something’s property. I’ve talked about how sometimes players make Tieflings into queer metaphors and why I don’t like that, but understand in this case I’m not talking about this as a player. If your tieflings or orcs are The Gays to you, then you go on with your bad self, I ain’t here to tell you nothing. But as a world builder, as someone constructing this setting that will be handed to maybe people who are one of the less cool types of queer, or maybe even not very queer.

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Game Pile: Dixit

Been a while since I just straight-up gushed about a good game I liked, hasn’t it?

Dixit is a 2008 card game where players take turns trying to connect a chosen word by the active player (the storyteller) to one of a number of cards with dreamlike images on them. Complicating things is that the storyteller starts by picking their card in secret, then announces the word, then each player contributes a card of their own in secret. The cards are shuffled, then revealed, and the players have to choose which of these cards they think is the storyteller’s chosen card to represent the chosen word. If you’re the storyteller and everyone picks your card, they all get points and you don’t; if you’re the storyteller and some but not all the players pick your card, you get points and they do too.

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Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 4: The Everywhere Else

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

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


Alright, so previous bandaids were about my decisions that were thoughtless and badly thought out, like ‘Kyngdom’ as a name, or barely scrubbing the name of Cimmura. The thing is, Dal Raeda, the Eresh Protectorate, and Amenti represent what are some of the best designed pieces of the setting, the places where I had good, fundamentally usable ideas.

The rest of things is where it all gets a bit soft, and also where I did some things that are uncomfortable, and now with the benefit of experience, I realise are pretty damn racist.

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Making Normal

I’ve been thinking a lot about normal.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about normalcy, intersectionality, representation, mediocrity, names, branding, a Games Studies academic book, and what it’s like to leave a cult.

The usual, really.

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Game Pile: A Swindle Apology!

Hey friends! I’m really sorry about this! There was going to be a video here, but thanks to Audacity being Audacity, I lost two and a half hours of audio that was going to be the foundation of our video. That’s a super bummer, and maybe we’ll get it next month.

For now, here’s a video. It’s not much, but it is an apology, an explanation, and a game!

(The game is the Swindle)

Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 3: Framing Spaces

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

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


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

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