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.

Falling Out Of Exploration Games

Hollow Knight’s a pretty cool game.

Don’t think I’ll finish it.

When I sat down to play Hollow Knight it was a really comforting experience, something I did because I knew  I wanted to make a video, and I didn’t have the energy or mental effort to do a lot of editing. I played a bunch of Hollow Knight for that video, checked out how it looked, then went off to CanCon. When I got back, I played a little bit more Hollow Knight, then I took a little bit of a break. There was work that needed doing, so I didn’t play any videogames for a week or so.

Then when I came back, and I want to make it clear, I was not far into Hollow Knight, I didn’t know what I was doing. Oh, the skills for combat were all there after a few moments of poking buttons. But the interface obscurity, the difficulty of working out what the map was doing, trying to find the path onwards, losing resources in trying to recover what happened

I just stopped.

Exploration games are really popular amongst people who talk about games, stories, and storytelling via games. They’re kind of a beloved genre, and they do all these things that can make them feel more serious and more cinematic, or, you know, just that vague ‘better-er’ than games that don’t do those things. The experience melts into itself, so the sequence of the narrative needs to be reconstructed, and so many of these exploration games get to make you feel clever as you explore the game more, as you understand more. They also tend to be cryptic, without a specifically stated, clearly outlined narrative – it’s really easy to make things ambiguous when the play experience pulls you along, after all.

Time to time a new game will come out that does this. It’s a little understructured, it’s engaging in a way that keeps you going, without any chapter breaks or typical, clear direction. Horizon Zero Dawn and Dark Souls were both held up as examples of this type, where reviewers rhapsodied about how great it was that these games didn’t ‘hold your hand.’

These are people whose jobs involve being able to play the same game for sixteen hours and needing to stay engaged for the whole process. I, on the other hand, need to sometimes break from games sharply and immediately. Sometimes I need to take four or five day breaks from games to complete work tasks. Sometimes, I need to re-engage with a game because another project requires my attention, or I need something I can share or collaborate on.

The secret sauce that makes exploration games engaging curdles over time.

MTG: Big Gulps

WOTC Employees: This article talks about unsolicited game designs, though it does not show any specific example cards.

When it comes to custom magic card design, I’m something of a pain in the ass. I don’t find myself particularly adventuresome in design, and will generally look at things in terms of what space they’re opening up. The effect this has in the community is that I’m the one who’s generally going ‘maybe not this,’ and that can be a real bummer for people. Apparently, I’ve got a reputation for being unpleasable.

One of the topics that we’re – still – hammering on is White. The argument –

no, hang on, it’s a whine.

– is that white is weak and that we in the heroic custom magic mines know better than Wizards, and will produce the cards that ‘fix’ White that they’re too cowardly to print. I’m pretty regularly there to tell people why I don’t think their solutions are good (in my opinion), but I know I don’t often put my ideas out there.

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Game Pile: Star Realms Frontiers

Oh hey, Star Realms again! Didn’t I already wax lyrical about how much I liked this game?

Well, yes, I did! And the thing with this tiny little tight box of a game that lived on your phone (if you wanted it to) is that in addition to having a great core game, the people over at White Wizard kept making it. Over on BoardgameGeek, the interconnected wikipedia of people brave enough to ask ‘but who’s to say racism is bad per se?’ the nonetheless fantastically detailed database lists Star Realms as a game with 51 expansions.

Today, then, we’re going to look at at an expansion that doesn’t need the base game, otherwise known commonly as an expandalone, called Star Realms Frontiers.

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Unicorn Co-op

I’ve had this card game in progress now for far too long.

The idea is a game where you’re constructing unicorns with interesting names from two halves. Half the cards are unicorn forequarters, the other half are… well there’s no proper term for them (that I’m going to bother looking up) so we just have to call them what they are. They’re unicorn butts.

Once upon a time, this game started out as a simple, competitive game with two decks; you would play the cards, two at a time, either adding them to your herd of unicorns, or to an opponent’s herd of unicorns. The original idea was that they were just going to be math functions – so some unicorns would add some numbers, some would subtract some numbers. So you could put together a butt with a – and a head with a 4, and give it to your opponent, to give them -4. Honestly, that game is pretty doable and pretty easy – I might even hammer it out as a sort of pattern-puzzle matchy game for under-sixes sometime.

I wanted though to make this game cooperative, though, and since part of the reason to build a unicorn was to give it a funny/silly/goofy name, and if there were some cards with negative effects, that meant there’d be some unicorn name components that were always bad. Had to kick that one in the neck right away.

I’d also started by setting out 26 cards as butts and 26 cards as forequarters, and I know there’s a horse expert reading this and she’s so mad at my terminology. Anyway, in my attempts to redesign this game, I’ve tried to find a way to minimise that number, or maybe expand my options… and with that came a new idea.

The idea is that each unicorn card has a head, and a butt, on either side. At the start of the game, you put all the cards so the same face is up (say the butt, because butts are funny. You split that deck evenly in half, then flip it over, and shuffle them together. Now you have an even number of heads, and butts. This means that suddenly, my 26 head and 26 butt cards are 26 cards, meaning that the deck now has room for more unicorns (yay) and some other cards (which give me room to make a cooperative AI for the game).

This is a simple little mechanistic change of the game’s design, and now I’ve put it down somewhere I hopefully won’t fricking forget it.

How To Be: Thor, from Marvel Comics (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 time, we’re going to try and capture the feeling of THE GOD OF THUNDER Thor from Marvel Comics.

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4e: Claw Gloves

4th Edition D&D is, like all editions of D&D, very much invested in the physical stuff your character carries around. I’ve talked about this in the past,where D&D finds it easier to use material objects to give you preposterous abilities, even though it’s ostensibly a game about wizards with preposterous abilities. In 4th edition, there was a formal, searchable databse for equipment that meant if you were the kind of player who wanted to find a specific, passive, always-on effect to put on your character, you could always find something to get your hands on – or in this case, in.

 

There’s a bunch of items that are designed to be Heroic tier prizes, items that are pretty cheap and have a really nice effect, but don’t scale up at all, usually in a slot that is either hotly competitive (arms) or tends not to matter much (boots). These items in Heroic tier are really nice – often things like Rushing Cleats or Badge of the Berserker will serve you really well and help you shape your character as you level up.

Claw Gloves are designed for druids, which is why they reference a specific keyword that druids get, ‘beast form.’ If you have claw gloves on, and you’re in beast form, and you have combat advantage against an enemy, your melee attacks are improved by 1d10. Combat advantage, something you already want, becomes extremely desireable when you’re dealing chunks of extra damage, and this is a passive property, meaning it’s not a sometimes food. Any time you can make those things happen, you have the extra damage.

For druids, that’s great, making their beast form – already a control monster – into a really strong damage dealer in Heroic. Claw gloves are great.

Thing is, Druids aren’t the only ones who can get access to Beast Form, and thanks to the Werebear, Wererat and Werewolf themes, every other class can have a ‘beast form’ mode to their melee attacks. Once you get out of Heroic, into Paragon, the lycanthropes can just ‘always’ be in beast form, meaning there’s no reason to drop out of it, allowing for full time furry character interpretation (and it lets you define yourself how that looks). This means that suddenly, Claw gloves work just fine for Fighters, Rogues, Rangers and Battleminds. Anyone who does melee attacks and multiattacks gets a lot scarier when this one very cheap item in an underused slot is pumping extra d10s into their attacks.

What’s more, once you commit to going ‘well, claw gloves look cool, can I use them?’ you wind up at beast form, and then all those beast form feats stack up, and you’re suddenly presented with, say, a Werebear Grappling Fighter who tucks enemies under her arms as she wades across the battlefield, and when they try to escape she crushes them then throws them across the battlefield.

Claw Gloves are great, numerically, but the thing is that they serve as a thread you can search through for building your character, and that’s exciting. What’s more, if you don’t want to do that nonsense, you can just get handed the item, go ‘oh, that’s not for me’ and move on.

In conclusion, fear the furries.


The original art for the claw gloves I used is from a store called Stronghold Leather that appears to have since shut down and the only remnants of their work remains as pinterest boards.

Two Player RPG Idea

Over on Reddit in February, someone asked about the idea of two player RPGs – the notion of a RPG system where players take turns in the Gamemaster role. That’s all I got – just the basic question of is this a thing?

And well, that was interesting. I thought about it.

The absolute first thought though, was that in the right pair of players, you don’t need anything new or different. Lots of games can be easily adjusted so the challenges can handle a solo character, players can play multiple characters, all those typical ways of dealing with absent players works fine. Barring for games that require voting (and those aren’t that common), there’s nothing that doesn’t already work.

This is a solved problem for players who want to just play D&D and can swap things back and forth with no problem. You could do it super episodic, too! Imagine a Scum & Villainy game that essentially worked like Star Trek: The Next Generation, where each week you swap storyteller to deal with a new thing.

Still, I do see a problem with this: Maintaining suspense and surprise. How do I make sure there are plot elements and narrative beats that handle the give and take of storytelling, and make for a long-term narrative where I can be surprised by things I put into the story without necessarily having stories I laid the groundwork for changed out from underneath me?

While I don’t have a system, I have an idea for a mechanic that can give the game some sinew.

And it involves playing cards.

Wait, wait, don’t go!

Okay, the idea is you start out with a deck of ordinary playing cards. This is important because you want something that’s reasonably replicable where it doesn’t matter if the object goes away. It can be destroyed, it can be damaged, and it can be written on.

This deck of cards is going to be the interaction of elements that each player can use in their section of the story they’re DMing. When you introduce something you want to make important, or when a player indicates in a session that they want to come back to something, the players take an unwritten-on card, write that on a card and put it back into the deck. Then, when the time comes to exchange control of the DMing role, the new DM draws a few cards and sees what stuff in the story is available to them.

This gives you a way to be surprised when things come back, and it takes some of the long term structure away from the players in a way that makes both players uncertain in an interesting way.

You can write more on each card as things happen; you can use this when a plot changes or transforms something, you can edit its card, and shuffle it back in. You can even do ‘trades’ – where a DM may want to ‘save’ something for later.

The cards can be used as action points too to smooth things over – take a few cards off the top of the deck, and the player can use that card to make rerolls, or abrogate special abilities, or survive things they wouldn’t – and then adding those cards to the DM’s pool of plot tools. So you might want to avoid letting a baddy get away so you spend a card to tackle them – but now that card gives another plot point to your DM for later.

Reproducing Pictionary

If you’ve played Pictionary in the past ten years, hold on, just, you know, hold on.


Okay, so I played Pictionary when I was a little kid visiting friends a thousand miles from our house. It was not a great game – I never was that into it, I wasn’t very good at it, and it had a board that you had to roll and move around, which meant there were often long periods where you were watching people do five or ten minute long ‘turns’ while they bickered and argued about the drawings and so on.

Similarly, one thing I try to do now as an adult is think about old games I played, and if I can improve on them. It’s very basic, methodical kind of work: What did or didn’t work about this game? What failed, what succeeded, what needs more attention, what was just always going to be bad? Can these mechanics represent something else? Crucially, when looking at older board games, I ask myself: What can be taken away?

With Pictionary, the idea I had was that the first thing to take away is the board.

Right?

You have a deck of cards, they give you secret information, that’s heaps, that’s all you need. You can even use the cards to do something random, but, you don’t even have to. You can make the game about rolling a dice and looking at a card, and right there, you’ve got a rudimentary design.

The idea I belted out was as follows:

  • The game is played with drawing paper and tools, a deck of cards, and a dice.
  • On your turn, you roll a dice, look at a card, and then that card presents you with a number of options, with your number roll giving you a priority.

Each card has seven options on it; one in each of the categories – let’s say they’re like:

  • Person
  • Place
  • Animal
  • Object
  • Action
  • Internet

With another category that says Bail.

You roll the dice, you pick one of the things to draw, and if you draw the thing that the number rolled, the card’s worth bonus points. This way you’re pushed towards an option but not screwed. There’s also the ‘bail’ option where if none of the options are good, you can offer this card to the whole table so everyone can try and draw the ‘bail’ option.

Just like that, I have the outlines for a card game. The timer becomes a problem! But a physical timer, a dice, and a bunch of cards takes up way less space than a big board would and you could fit the whole game in a tiny space, almost Oink Games style! Or you could make the game print-and-play, or even give out a template for people. And if you’re a teacher, you can just use a big ole list of random flash card words where they have to draw the thing, then write the name to show they get what it is! Teaching supplies probably feature whiteboards and markers, so you can repeatedly use the same drawing space over and over instead of paper and pencils!

Would I make this game? No, probably not. It’s not a terrible idea, and it certainly seems doable very easily, and may even sell a few copies, but the nature of it is that it’s just making a shelf filler.


Now.

The punchline.

Turns out the copy of Pictionary I played in the 1990s was from… 1985 or so. The great big box, the board, the roll and move? That stuff’s not really part of the game any more. In fact, if I’d looked at a copy of Pictionary from the last ten years, I’d find a game which is just cards, dice, timer, and whiteboards and whiteboard markers.

I choose to think of this as convergent evolution, of sorts, and that’s kind of good. It’s definitely for the best – it’s a way to show that Pictionary with a board can handle losing the board. What’s more, it also shows what I was considering and experimenting with: I wanted to deal with chokepoints and friction. That’s great, I can deal with that.

It doesn’t fix one of the biggest problems with Pictionary, even as it reduces the game design I’d made to a super-simple, tight version that I could probably sell for $15 with hundreds of possible game states (Which seems fair to me). What it doesn’t fix is that if you can’t draw, this game sucks.

Fortunately, Pictomania, by Vlaad Cvhatil, does solve that, by making the drawing and solving concurrent; you draw until you’re as good as you’re going to get, then you do your guessing – and guessing correctly first is more valuable than getting all your work guessed perfectly. This creates a tension for drawing ‘as well as you can’ but being okay when you stop.

Dicebuilder Diary and notes

Custom dice are cool! They’re also expensive to manufacture. They also let you do weird things like have uneven roll pools? That’s neat. If you’ve ever seen the dice in Betrayal At House On The Hill you might know it’s got dice that are numbered 0, 0, 0, 1, 1 and 2 – that’s really mean!

You can do a lot with dice rollers! There’s the town builder Machi Koro, for a famous one, and there’s the set collector Yahtzee, a familiar roll-and-write. You could look at our own Cafe Romantica, where you build a collection of cards that react to the dice you roll. The thing with those games is that even though ‘these cards react to these numbers,’ and it actually works a lot like just flipping cards, by using a dice you can have multiple things respond to the same cause. There’s stuff you can do, it’s all interconnected, all fractal.

I’ve been thinking about this mechanic. Making custom dice is a bit expensive, but exploring an alternate way to do it resulted in me making a thing that I like as a possible space:

In this case, you play the game with a starting d6, maybe one for each player. They roll dice, and, then the numbers rolled result in the cards in those slots firing. It can be set up so that lots of cards are piled up on each number, so you can get lots of effects on single rolls and so on.

I want the building element of the game to take priority over the rolling though. That means whatever the design is, I probably want it so winning and losing isn’t about what the numbers rolled do, but is much more that dice limit your opportunities. We want winning and losing to be about choices you make in the last few turns, not about whether or not you rolled the Dead Dice.

I’m looking at this design and thinking of different flavours and different game sizes.

  • if the game is very small, you probably will wind up with all the cards set up. This might make ‘victory’ about possibly picking a loser  you’re trying to make sure that whatever you roll, you’re not in trouble, and someone else might be. Each card is probably unique.
  • If the game is mid-sized there’s room for more permutations of cards. This might mean that you’re trying to roll combinations of things, possibly to build something else?
  • if the game is big, there’s room for things like faction decks, where each number rolled represents improvements on types of things, or progress or success for groups of enemies or gangs. This could be seen as a sort of economy or electoral game where players are responding to the random actions of an entity like a population or a city.

What I’m thining, looking at this prototype is that I want every player to roll dice at the same time, and then players select a number of dice – so you can ‘leave’ someone with dice that may or may not be appropriate to what they want.

I think there are two games in this engine – a smaller one and a larger one. The smallest one is probably a game that wants to focus on the potential viciousness of rolled dice, a meanspirited thing like You Can’t Win. The larger one wants to have more of a solid theme.

Just some notes and thoughts.

Game Pile: Sushi Go

Sushi Go is a Gamewright card game defined by a charming visual aesthetic of cartoon sushi pieces going around the table as a sushi train. Each turn, you take a piece from the sushi in front of you (your hand), and pass the rest of your cards to the next player, representing a rolling line of sushi that you can pick and choose from to cultivate a plate of complementary flavours. There’ll be some things you don’t quite want as much, some things you enjoy, and in the end, the stakes for winning or losing are all very low.

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The Epic Level Handbook (3E)

When it comes to D&D books, you’re talking about what amounts to academic reference material. That’s not a slam on the game, of course – I’m not objecting to the games or the playability of the game, as if they’re now these dusty tomes that are only meaningful in a sort of hypothetical framework. It’s more that the books are literally designed to be reference material for a specialty field. These books are dense. That can present a challenge in giving someone who isn’t already versed in the game a way to understand that book. Do we talk about specific chapters? A point by point analysis? Do we look at just an excerpt?

I think in this case, at least for now, what we want to talk about here is an overview of the Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition Epic Level Handbook.

This book is a punchline.

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Round Friends!

Mid February, I ran a set of polls attempting to consider exactly what Pokemon could be considered to be round. The premise was pretty simple: if you were limited to a gym leader whose theme was round pokemon, what were your options, really? And if you could do that, would what you got have a chance of being competitive? By what standard? Is there a power trend connected to roundness?

I had some hypothesis ahead of time. First, I thought that a round Pokemon team would have a lot of slow, tough pokemon, and probably would be biased towards water. But that’s not scientific, that’s not a science. That’s just umming and ahhing! That’s guessing!

The problem is that roundness is really subjective, and while I could make the judgment calls, it’s probably easier to have a lot of self-styled experts vote. That way, no roundness is my opinion, it’s all a collective take from a larger group. There are eight hundred Pokemon, though, so asking for all of them was just too much work and people would lose stamina quickly. That meant making a general selection, and letting votes sort out which things did or didn’t belong in the group.

I’d need to make sure to present as many options as I could, to make sure that I wasn’t excluding something I consider an edge case, and let the voting do the elimination for me. Also, this would eliminate things from the group that didn’t belong, but it couldn’t bring things into the group I hadn’t mentioned.

The original list and votes is available here, in this twitter thread, and once I had that done, I made an excel spreadsheet to put together that information in a usable form. Specifically, I wanted to make sure I dropped all the ‘neutral’ votes in case there were some votes that were swayed by that one way or another, and I wanted to know which Pokemon got the most yes votes, even if they didn’t necessarily have the largest percentage of yes votes.

Twitter polls degrade over the course of a thread; I expect that the earliest pokemon to vote on would get the most votes, and therefore probably the most contentious opinions. For comparison, in this thread, the Poke that got the most votes (Ditto) got 275 and the Poke that got the least (Phione) got 108, meaning more than half people didn’t reach the bottom of the thread.

Finally, I had to have some kind of a cutoff. My notion is that if a Pokemon got more than 50% ‘yes’ votes on its roundness, it was round. I didn’t want to define roundness, but would rather let roundness be extrapolated from the vote. This limit then presented a barrier between ’round’ and ‘not round,’ a roundary if you will.

What did we end up with?

Well, we got a graph.

In our list of 56 pokemon, 28 were considered below roundness, and mostly the Pokemon that are round are very much considered round. The grouping that hang around the middle are Pokemon with what looks like a reasonable degree of contention; after all, Donphan is considered round, and Magnezone isn’t. Corsola is comfortably Very Round (72%) while Cloyster is much more contentious (55%), but the two have very similar silhouettes. Aegislash’s primary defining visual element is a circle, while Donphan is an elephant, yet the former is ‘not round,’ and the latter is. Donphan does roll up in a ball, but neither Miltank nor Scolipede crossed the roundary, and Donphan did.

Similarly, Jumpluff is almost the roundest pokemon voted on (99.2%!) and Weezing is similarly heavily round (91%) despite the fact that neither of them are even vaguely spheres – they’re made up of spheres stuck together.

Some traits of roundness then, by observation:

  • Smiling! Pokemon with visible faces that smile seem to be Round
  • Face-as-body! If your whole body is occupied by your face (Corsola, Glalie, Cloyster style), you seem to be seen as round
  • Limbs are either/or. Primeape and Snorlax have limbs, and are round, but Miltank has limbs and it’s not.
  • A round feature isn’t enough. Wailord, Magnezone and Aegislash are all ‘not round’ despite having that absolutely being the dominant shape of their bodies

Now, you might wonder to yourself, where’d this idea even come from? Well, I went and did some personal archaeology wondering about where I got the question of ‘what would a team of roundybois look like,’ and it turns out it was this tweet from one Sav Wolfe, from back in 2018. Yes, I apparently keep thinking about tweets a long time after they pass.

Iron Angel

I tried, hard as I could, to not talk about this this month.

Media is very often, these days, replicable. If I liked Voltron I can tell you to go watch it and usually you’ll find the same show and be able to reference the same text even if you had wildly different responses to it. If I talk to you about D&D or tabletop games, I can talk to you about types of experiences the game makes possible. I’ll sometimes show you characters I built in those spaces, because I can provide you insight into how I did that and what that means.

Once, when writing about Saints Row 3, I remarked that whatever I thought of the game was hard to tease out when I’d had so much fun playing it with my friend Casey. I rated Casey five stars, and the game was just a way to connect there. You can’t download my friend Casey, though, though I’m sure she’d be happy to charge you $15 for the download code.

In this case, in smooch month, I kept circling around how fantastically hard it was to get good, interesting, engaging romantic media in games to talk about, because games do it badly. But if they do it so badly, why is my context seemingly aware of ‘good’ romance that these games aren’t hitting? What’s forming the foundation of my vision of good?

And well, that’s where we get to non-replicable media, and my friends. Specifically, the romance stories I’ve had in RP spaces, especiallythe stories in City of Heroes have been absolutely excellent, and one example of this I want to bring forward is the incredible character Zex, aka Iron Angel.

Zex is a character I’ve mentioned on the blog in the past; she was a neuroatypical character who told other characters she was a sociopath, which led to them assuming that was her neuroatypicality, including me. The last day the game was alive, the player stated that she wasn’t a sociopath – she was just neuroatypical in a different way, and impersonating sociopathy was a way to make other people respect her neuroatypicality rather than having to explain it every time.

Zex has been in a relationship with a character of mine, Cearmaid, pretty much since late 2011. They met, they flirted, they dated, they engaged, they had a breakup, they got back together again, they moved in together, they got married, and they took up careers as superheroes working together and apart to make the city they lived in a better place. Literally all those details are however, plot points worth explaining and expanding on their own, because for example, the breakup happened when a rogue AI created by Zex’s own paranoid internalised dissasociation turned into a global-threatening supervillain that used Cearmaid’s trust in Zex to launch him into space where he crashed into the moon, and that’s one of many plot points.

Zex is interesting. Zex is thoughtful. Zex is fantastically difficult to communicate with. Cearmaid carries around his phone so he can draw diagrams of his ideas. Zex, noticing that he responded to a pretty girl wearing a baseball cap just recently attempted to seduce her husband by wearing multiple hats, because hey, more is better, right? And all this is while she’s also doing her job as a former villain turned superhero in powered armour who flies around punching baddies, saving the day and rescuing people because she has deduced that doing good is the logical thing for her to want to do.

Zex is neuroatypical, has physical disabilities (she has no feet, amongst other problems), is full of anxiety, afraid of dogs and needs comfort, communication and reassurance on a regular basis and yet the relationship between her and Lock has always felt like a meeting of equals, engaging in different ways with a complicated world in which they live.

I love this character, and I am kinda sad that I can’t help you, random strangers, enjoy or appreciate romances – yes, even a het romance! – where the characters involved are interesting, and good, and fun and learning about them is interesting and every day they interact, they get to enjoy one another and engage with one another a little more.

I am blessed to have some truly fantastic RP partners around me, and in this smooch month, I wanted to just share with you an example of how great romance in games can be, when the game lets players create in shared, respectful, engaged spaces.

Karmic Twin

Okay, I said I’d only do a few 3.5 posts a month, so this one’s going to be a quickie. Back in that day, there was a special crop of feats you could get that you could take at level 1, which were made to try and give a character a feeling of their ‘background.’ These feats were first trialled in Dragon magazine, then a few were tested in the Player’s Guide To Faerun (that horny setting I talked about earlier in the month), and one source that really went hard on them was the Oriental Adventures and Rokugan sourcebooks.


Now wait, hold up, let’s just mention something here because if I don’t bring it up, someone will huff their cheeks and go ahah, gottim. Look, Oriental Adventures is the label on a door behind which you can find yikes, yes, of course, obviously. Doesn’t have to be, we have room for potential here, I really like this setting and stuff, there’s lots to like, but let’s not get caught up there.

Because the really funny thing here is a player behaviour, based around a single ‘Background’ feat.


In Rokugan, a General Mish Mosh Of Asian Cultures setting, you had Ancestor feats instead of Background feats, and they tied to historical lore characters and that was kinda cool as a way to encourage players who wanted access to mechanics to be aware of the lore of the setting. Good idea, good move, do that in your settings.

Anyway, one of the Ancestor feats was a Scorpion clan background feat, Karmic Twin.

Karmic Twin is a feat that is pretty gonzo on the face of it; you get effectively 4 extra points of Charisma for most non-spellcaster purposes, you get the ability to track or find a single person without any help and oh yeah, if nobody else in the party is your karmic twin the party gets an NPC whose story is tied with yours.

Leadership was one of the most powerful feats you could get, because it’d give you an NPC that was basically 2 levels below you and that’s an enormous amount of utility. Power, maybe, but just having someone who could synergise with you under your control was really strong. Karmic Twin gave you the same thing at level 1. Sure, some DMs might use it to inflict a lifelong enemy on you (and if they did, the charisma boosts were probably reasonable as a trade!), but here’s the thing.

My players used Karmic Twin and its cousin feat Sons of Thunder a lot. And every time, what they used it for was not for power reasons – the players overwhelmingly didn’t care about the mechanics of the other character.

But they all used them to get hot boyfriends.

Let your players have hot boyfriends if they want ’em. It doesn’t hurt things and the stories are more fun with players getting things they like in them.

Game Pile: Cute Demon Crashers

Porn gets a bad rap.

It’s weird for a term we wield so freely. We talk about pornography, the porn industry, we use ‘pornographic’ as an adjective for something fundamentally unsettling, and there’s the way we use porn as a term for all-purpose ‘kind of disgusting’ term, like a positively pornographic sum of money.

I’ve used that phrasing, I know I have.

Porn also gets appended to describe things like photography of nice landscapes or photos of good food or bubble wrap, and as I discussed in my examination of Tickled last year, there’s also a bunch of stuff that we file as definitely not porn that absolutely is porn (for the right people) and that complicated relationship creates a space where all those systems for controlling pornography can be leveraged against people who didn’t expect it.

Infamously, we don’t even have a description of porn, really. You know, ‘I don’t know what it is but I know it when I see it.’ I’ve even referred to stuff this month – The Knight Before Christmas – as ‘comfort pornography.’

Personally, when I talk about pornography what I mean is media that seeks to maximise an indulgent element of the media experience, and is willing to sacrifice all other elements to do so. And Cute Demon Crashers is a porn game.

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4E: Harnessing Hotness

Alright we’re going to talk about some base assumptions about character building in Dungeons & Dragons and they’re going to relate to hotness. I’m deliberately leaving this super ambiguous, because hotness is always relative and you get to decide the ways in which you’re hot, but it’s a common, reasonably accepted shorthand that in D&D, if you have high charisma, you’re appealing. Stats are flexible, your flavour is your own, everyone’s character can devise their own explanation for their abilities, but if you want to play a character who’s really hot, and want that hotness to be mechanically obvious, one of the easiest and most commonly accepted ones is high charisma. This is the place we’re starting from.

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Smoochy Cardgame Thoughts

I want to play more games about smooches. I however, am not powerless to the whims of a games industry in this regard – I can just make my own, and therefore, I think I should. Through this month, I’ve just been jotting down some notes here about possible ideas in that space. Consider this a peek at process.

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How To Be: Ranma Saotome from Ranma 1/2 (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 for this kind of project 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 time, we’re going to try and capture the feeling of gender-flipping Martial Arts Death Machine Ranma Saotome from Ranma 1/2.

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Game Pile: OSU! TATAKAE! OUENDAN!

Do you have any idea how hard it is to write about games and smooches.

The theme of smooch month in movies gets me watching stuff I’d never touch otherwise, and occasionally finding gems (honest, there’s positive reviews coming). But for games, it’s a desert. Oh, there’s a whole genre of games which are ‘about’ smooching – you have lots of romantic phone games, lots of gacha romance games, and a wealth of romantic novels, but finding any given one of them to write about is needle-in-a-stack-of-needles hard, not to mention often extremely thin for a critical surface. I know I don’t like most of these games, finding ones that differentiate themselves is hard enough and then sometimes, when I find one that sets itself apart somehow, it still upsets me.

I took it a step down and tried to write about games of a different genre where romance is important and you know what, that’s super hard too! Lots of games have a romantic element where you’re seeking to rescue or satisfy some lover or romantic partner, but that is almost all it seems being written by dudes with issues! I went back to look into adventure games from the 90s in the hopes of finding something with even an engaging romance subplot, and boy howdy,  I was reminded that Space Quest was not an exception.

There is something to be said about Kings Quest, but even those romances are fairytale style, and therefore kiiinda spring up out of nowhere once you get the two destined characters in the same room.

Then when I went looking for games that detailed the course of a romance through the game play and wow those are thin on the ground in my space, too! I could find more games about rescuing a dog than I could find about working with a partner!

And that’s why I came back to this classic rhythm game, OSU! TATAKAE! OUENDAN!

Ouendan is a game whose name you don’t have to shout but come on, you should want to, you should be shouting in your heart, that was the original progenitor of a game you might have heard of called Elite Beat Agents. It’s a rhythm game on the NDS and 3DS, where you tap the screen in time and place to correspond with the flow and movemen tof the music, and that’s kind of it. If you know what a rhythm game is, you probably can work out how to play Ouendan in just a few minutes, even across the language barrier for non-Japanese speakrs.

In fact, it was that accessibility in part that led to the game being picked up in the west, and enjoyed so much we got a American localised version of the same game, Elite Beat Agents. This was in fact so much of a thing that at the end of the credits for Ouendan 2, there’s a thank you note in English.

That approachability is only part of the reason why you can play Ouendan without literacy, though; another element is that the NDS doesn’t have region locking, so you can just buy a Japanese copy, jam it in your Belgian NDS (I assume you have one of those) and it’s going to work, rather than requiring you to pay distributors in your country. And then, the thing that pushed this game from a good, solid game to an absolutely amazing game is the framing device of the narrative.

In Ouendan, you play a squad of cheerleaders roaming around town (and history) finding people who need help, then cheering them on to do their best, and what you get in this is a collection of tropetastic preposterousness that scales from ‘helping a kid with their college entrance exams’ and ‘getting a noodle shop guy to get over his problem with a stray cat,’ to ‘helping cleopatra build the pyramids’ or ‘bringing back the dead,’ finally culminating in ‘saving the world from a asteroid strike through the power of rock and roll.’

What’s important about this, though, is that in each of these stories, you aren’t playing the people who the story is about.

You’re playing cheerleaders.

One of the stories that you help out with is a story in a festival, where a dude is being blocked from dating a girl he likes by her crappy dad. The dad is willing to let him ask his daughter to marry him, if the dude can win a race against him during the festival. If you win the level, he succeeds, and they get to get married. Not only do they get married, their kid shows up in the sequel game.

Now I pulled deep to find this game because I think this successfully breaks a lot of my problems with videogame romances. First, you don’t control the agents in the romance; you’re not the boy or the girl, and your relationship to the other has nothing to do with how well you play the game. These two characters are into each other, and their reactions to how well you play is how well you get them towards a goal they both want (where they want to get married). You want to do well, because you want them to have their chance to get married (and you get a rewarding tish sound).

It’s a sweet story, it’s about something nice, and in amongst all these games I’ve been digging through to find just a romance that didn’t make me clutch my insides, the worst thing about this one is that the story written fifteen years ago still does the ‘dad won’t let couple marry because he has some sense of ownership over the daughter,’ which is a total asshole thing, but he’s presented as being a dick for it.

Incidentally, I did consider doing this with Elite Beat Agents instead, because, you know, it’s slightly more available and didn’t get a sequel. Thing is, it’s uh, it’s not got a story like this one in it. The closest we get to this song is Queen’s I Was Born To Love You, which shows us Leonardo Da Vinci harrassing Mona Lisa until she agrees to pose for him as a model, which is so much worse as a story.

Ouendan! It’s great, go check it out, oh my god videogames are bad at love.

What If We Kissed (Mechanically) In The Squared Circle

Man, it’s hard writing about games in Smooch Month. A boy who was a bit less weird than me would just belt his way through four visual novels and talk about how the girls were hot, the boys were present and the Renpy engine was, once more, there, but I’m not that boy, and I can’t do it. Visual novels are a real trouble for me, and we’ll get into more, why, later, but until then, I’m looking at a lot of card, board, and videogames that are ostensibly about romance that really aren’t.

And I think that part of why is the same reason wrestling games suck.

Bear with me on this one it’s a bit of a lift.

Wrestling videogames treat wrestling, as a fiction, as if it is real. That is, a wrestling match is ostensibly about two dudes (usually) who have been scheduled to fight each other and then the player makes the two dudes punch each other until they’re done punching each other and one of them falls down. That is to say, the fictional narrative of the fight that the two actual performers are enacting is treated as the fiction you play.

This has been on my mind as super boring because the far more interesting thing about a wrestling match is that it’s not competitive, but it is rather cooperative, and there’s a lot of communication and interplay and practice going on, with lots of different styles. Essentially you’re watching performance art between two people, A and B, and they need to understand each other and know how to work together in a way that’s engaging and gets different things out of a match they both want, while responding to a live stimulus in the form of the crowd.

I think about this specifically in the vein of romance games. Romance is a thing that games sometimes represent as a background element (Mario games for example), or as a maze (like I said in my review of The Blind Griffin), and sometimes it’s represented as use-keys-on-door style puzzles (Leisure Suit Larry, I guess)? And then it’s sometimes part of a greater narrative (the inexplicable ‘romance’ in Police Quest for example). Very rarely, though, is romance treated as the connected interaction of two mutual characters, sharing in an experience.

I think what I’m saying is, if we can clock this kind of videogame mechanic, of two characters sharing common actions and trying to reach a common ends, we won’t just have made a new kind of rhythmic pattern of play for both real-time and turn based romantic games, we’ll have made the mechanics for a rad wrestling game too,

and then, the wrestlers can kiss,

MTG: Friendly Planeswalkers

There’s a lot of Magic: The Gathering that uses mechanics to express theme. Theme is really important, since being able to see card entities as creatures that relate to one another, enchantments that relate to greater rules, artifacts that have a material existence and lands that can be used or expended is a big part of how you manage the mental load of all the game parts happening at once. This is going to be a quick introduction, then we’re going to do a list, so buckle up.

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3.5 Memories: Soo-Nee

I’m trying to limit my writing about 3.5 D&D and 4e D&D to maybe once a month, because while I do love doing deep dives into subjects there, they’re time consuming and I’ve found a variety of different articles is the best thing I can do to keep my audience engaged. Plus, it’s a great kind of ‘content well’ where you can grab a book from the game in question, leaf through it, and find something to talk about – inevitably.

In this, Smooch Month, though, what content is there in 3.5 D&D to talk about that I haven’t gone over with a discussion of ‘roll to seduce?’ Lords knows we don’t want to talk about the way sex and romance are normally represented in D&D, because they’re mostly only ever brought up transgressively. We did the Book of Vile Darkness already!

Still, it’s smooch month and that means that while we may be talking about romance and relationships, there’s always with that aftertinge of ‘horny, maybe?‘ that I circle around and avoid, and when the time comes to talk about horny, maybe and D&D, there’s really no place to go but the Forgotten Realms.

If you’re not already aware, Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms setting is a place full of lots of different interesting countries (I’m trying to be nice) which are perhaps known for a pattern of having an elderly, cranky wizard in an important place that’s secretly guiding important political events and enabling adventurers. You might know it as a setting which has a large number of prominent women in positions of authority in some important, adventurer-centric places, meaning you may have a fond memory of being sent on an early quest by Aribeth.

It’s also perhaps a little less well known for being a setting where under the hood Ed Greenwood was fantastically horny and has definitely, definitely dedicated lots of time to thinking about the sex lives of those characters. Once you know about it, it just kind of lurks there like a fog at ankle-height, clinging to everything.

Now, something else about the Forgotten Realms is that Ed Greenwood started writing it in 1967 and pretty much has never stopped, filling the world with ever increasing levels of detail, conspiracies, political introgue, cities, townships, lodges, orders, empires, dragons, really racist drow stuff, and of course, gods. That brings us to the book I flipped open this month, Faiths & Pantheons.

If we’re talking about a love domain (and boy there’s a lot bound up in that conversation which I largely want to leave alone, but suffice to say fucking sigh) then why not look at the Forgotten Realms’ goddess of love, Sune?

 

Sune as a goddess is a bit standard. She’s a beautiful feminine woman, her descrpition includes how her lips are plump, how she dresses in ‘near transparent clothes,’ all that standard stuff. She’s a redhead, which I mean, you can make a case for any of those typical looks and what they encode, but the real basics is that Sune is a Hot Goddess of Hotness.

The descriptors of her goals, aims and dogma are all extremely in this vein, with a drop of how thanks to recent reforms in her church, women only outnumber men four to one. Her temples are described as public salons and bathhouses, with diaphanous robes and beautiful clergy and mirrors all over the place. Sune even communicates with you via mirrors, where you look into them, she changes your appearance, and then talks to you through your own, now hotter face.

Now, one thing in favour of this setting, and this character, is that Ed Greenwood has gone on record that Sune (and everyone good in the Forgotten Realms) says Trans Rights, so that’s something and that’s all we need to talk about there.

Sune’s a goddess of love, lust, pleasure and protection and it’s so weird that as represented, her faithful mostly seem to hang around taking care of people and not doing adventure stuff. They even talk about how commonly the Heartwarders are pacifists, and how this means that enemies often are reluctant to attack them, which let me tell you, that’s not how that tends to work.

What else has Sune got going for her? If you’re not getting sent on quests by the Goddess of Love to do things like smash tyrannical families that are keeping star-crossed lovers apart or destroying churches that are trying to control people’s expressions of love or pleasure, or even just building safe spaces and standing in the doorway with a sword, what else has she got going on, why worship Sune?

Girl Hot counts for a lot, right?

When you get a Player’s Handbook you may see the five or ten gods presented there and think that the power of a setting is built around gods of punching, fierceness, and maybe evil punching, and that’s certainly a place to start. As the pantheon of the Forgotten Realms built out, Ed expanded into things like racial pantheons, where elves have a bunch of their own gods, and maybe other races have whole bunches of other gods, and with that came the need for more things for gods to be about, represented by more domains.

Sune, therefore, required (?) the creation of the Lust Domain.

It’s not great.

I’m trying to avoid talking about the way you may frame enchantment spells or diplomacy checks in your game, but the good news is that you don’t need to worry about what the Lust domain does in any given 3.5 game, because it’s really bad and the Protection and Pride domains are right there. Okay, so she’s not setting the world on fire mechanically. What else is Sune bringing to the table?

Art by kiikii-sempai

Another mechanical space that these gods open up is the idea of prestige classes. This was a really good idea, because it served two possible purposes for player characters. If you liked Sune, you could look at her prestige class and get a feeling for the kind of mechanics she liked; if you liked the mechanics of that class, you could look at Sune and see if you liked that direction for your character’s personality.

Sune’s pretige class is the Heartwarders, which is a basket of yikes. This class increases your charisma (very rare to get like this, but not hard to get at all), gives you a ally buff power by kissing them (which also is so amazing a kiss it dazes them, meaning you can actually make them worse off), and lets you create holy water love potions by, um, crying. There’s a lot bound up right there in what a person sees as being beautiful or aesthetically resonant. The class is pretty broken, because it still lets your cleric be a cleric, but as far as stuff you can bolt onto an already-broken class goes, this one’s not worth what it gives you!

It’s a shame, because a rose-coloured knight of love and rage seems like a great character concept to defend the worshippers of a god of love. Someone should make a much better version of this idea.

And that’s Sune! A Goddess of love and lust in a subtly horny world. And if you’re like me, you were today years old when you learned this name is instead pronounced ‘Soo-nee.’

Love And D20s

This was meant to come up later in the month but since it seems someone at Wizards has made a ‘love’ domain or something like that, we’re going to do it now, I guess.

Now first of all I have no interest in defending or even talking about the 5th Edition Love domain. Lots of reasons, not the least of which being I don’t know the game, and I don’t care. The internet has enough semi-experts shooting from the hip about their personal opinions of the thing I already don’t like is bad, so instead I’m going to swerve around that and use the opportunity to talk about the idea of roll to seduce.

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Game Pile: Tussie Mussie

Once again, I’m going to talk about a Button Shy game, which I’m beginning to feel I need to construct some kind of template for. Let’s see about hitting the notes! Button Shy make wallet games (roughly 20 cards or fewer) in nice aesthetically pleasant wallets, focus on non-dexterity games from a variety of designers, and it’s smart, funny, clever, designed for fast iterations on play, rewards replay, and is absolutely perfect to keep in your everyday bag. The base floor on these games is quite high, and any criticisms I make of this thing is also made in the context of the game you get under the hood as already being really good and definitely worth having, especially at the very modest rates Button Shy charge.

We got that?

Good, okay, moving on.

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Simple & Clean’s origin story weirdness

Hey, I’m going to talk about something in Kingdom Hearts, so like, brace yourself because I’m going to run the risk of being mean to a videogame and I know that can be super upsetting. If you’d like to go somewhere else, here’s a link. If you stick around, I promise that this one is, I think, extremely gentle and doesn’t do anything like talk about plots or characters. Promise.

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PaleBlood Moon Debrief

Okay, now with all that scheduling weirdness hopefully past us, what the heck happened with that weekend game? Well, logitistically, we turned up at a rented room, and we spent three days playing D&D. It was heaps of fun, and the thing is, three solid days of D&D gives you a certain kinetics.

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