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.

The Complicated Explication of Danielle Bunton Berry

Hey, CW here, folks. This is about a trans woman, who did some cool things, and died, but it’s also about how bad and limited my means are to communicate about her. You won’t miss much if you skip it, and if you want to know a more traditional approach to Berry’s legacy, you can check it out here on this eight year old GamaSutra link that I am not going to vouch for, but which presents a number of the quotes I sourced before realising I was in trouble.

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How To Be: A Squid Maid (In 4E D&D)

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

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

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

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

And now, it’s Pride Month! Since I haven’t done one of these on a single straight character yet (if you believe my fanfics), I had to do something a bit special and out of the ordinary, and so, let’s do something that’s extremely culturally important.

That’s right. It’s Squid Maids time.

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The Speed of Crowds

Okay, this isn’t a pridey thing, but given the number of queer speedrunners, let’s just say it’s queer adjacent. Also, at the time I write this, there’s a very real chance there’s not going to be a Summer Games Done Quick Event, the thing that I, originally was timing this article to go up alongside. So be it all.

Anyway, speedrunning. It’s great, it’s a cool thing, you should check it out because it’s as big as the ocean and you’ll find your own particular little slab of coral reef with weirdo little orangey fish that do that bloop thing with their mouths that you find yourself immensely invested in and wanting to hang around there to see which of the orange fishes are the best at, I guess, getting little grubblins out of the reef and the comparison of observing competitive sport to ecosystem observation isn’t perfect but it’s also more apt than you think it is because this entire thing is so much about where you choose to be. I’m not going to explain speedrunning myself, because a nameless bloodstained rival of mine has already penned that text, and I’m sure we can talk it over when we next meet atop a cathedral with blood staining my fingers and duel not so much for the honour we say it’s about but as much just for the sting and the pain of it all, but anyway, the point is, go click that link it’s going to cover stuff I don’t have time for or the methodical mindset to cover.

Part of my job is putting what we call text into a position where you can see the lines that connect it to the things that may have been responsible for its creation or things that may help you understand the way that that text in ways it may or may not be intended. The way I describe it to students who are dismissive of the difficulty of the degree is that media studies is merely the study of how literally every human being interacts with every other thing that exists or doesn’t exist. This can be deeply confusing for people who want experts to give them meaningful answers, to be consulted directly and spit out a useful or usable answer, which we kind of just don’t tend to do in media studies, because so much of what we’re dealing with is examining culture which runs on a level that is simultaneously saturating through and yet also the surface that everything else runs on and beholden to their forces in a sort of whole general mish mosh of stuff.

It’s complicated.

Point is that you come to this blog to hear someone who’s got a lot of practice writing this blog, and by ‘hear’ I mean ‘read’ and by ‘read’ I mean what Marshall McLuahn referred to as making an ear of an eye, which is some body horror shit right there but the point is that that thing I did there where I dropped someone you never heard of but you could look them up on google and be told they wrote a bunch of books and they have a wikipedia page and were probably a skeevy sexist or racist and you don’t wanna necessarily go digging into their books yourself so you’re happy to let me serve as an interpreter because the odds I’m that bad aren’t so bad, that sort of intercessionary media is kind of what I do and when it comes to speedrunning, I need to pull off some impressive bullshit to try and relate this work to a greater academic space in a way that’s funny or engaging.

I’m not about to write a piece like Speedrunning Science, nor my nameless foe’s beautiful introductory and expanded primer, and there are funnily enough not a lot of people who had opinions on how this kind of thing worked, though I think with some minor contortions I could get you to ‘Roger Caillois thinks that speedrunning isn’t a game, but speedrunning with twitch chat live is.’

What I do want to talk about though is how speedruns are an interesting form of collaborative art, which may seem a little weird to those of you who watch these events where you get to see a runner executing a run a sort of gamer tribute when we refer to people as the best or world leader or the fastest or next level or whatever wording you favour when you hear these people described as the people who try over and over and over again, missed the first split, break, try again, missed the first split, try again, bad first level spawns, reset, try again, even if maybe you notice the way that every single one of those runners will espouse that their community is literally the best and they’re all so great and this trick, this Greg Egg Trick, all of that, all of that can be seen as a sort of breathless, collaborative communal composition.

DwangoAC, the spokesperson for TASBot, has drawn a direct parallel between TAS (or tool assisted speedruns okay I guess I’ll do a bit of nomenclature), and the historical device of a player piano. The player piano is a machine that’s designed to be played – it’s a piano, after all – but it contains within it a device that lets you feed into it someone else’s composition and let the machine play itself. The composition, the paper you feed into the player piano, is itself a sort of coding for the machinery, and that composition is made by the work of multiple people, coming together to form a rendition that you can replay in your home.

This vision of a machine that plays itself being a form of play is extremely interesting to me, especially as a games studies… person… where the question of what new and weird forms of gameplay even are, with my massively permissive vision of game definition. I’ve argued that players watching a game on twitch and contributing via chat are playing a game (though not the same game as the person they’re watching), it’s just the control mechanism is extremely obtuse, and that they’re playing a game with the person playing the game.

When you’re watching a speedrun, the metaphor of music is applicable once again, because every speedrun is not just the execution of the one runner in front of you but the combined and contributed effort of an orchestra of people who have played alongside that person, encouraging them and showing them techniques, helping them practice, driving them to succeed, filling out leaderboards and showing them what can be done, what can work as the communal effort shaves the techniques and design down, and down, and down, as if you have a composition of a single whole piece, where the orchestra perform it in isolation but each composer is working on nailing down sometimes sections as small and as refined as a single

note.

Speedrunning is cool, and the best speedruns can, for all that it’s a meme, be the product of an amazing community.

Shame about all the gross fuckin’ transphobes though. Don’t let those people be welcome.

Game Pile: Timespinner

There’s chances are you’ve seen this game on Steam. You may have seen it show up in Pride lists. You may have seen screenshots out of context. And what you see is a pixel art metroidvania with upgrade paths and a female protagonist and she has a little buddy dragon and you may be asking yourself hey, is this too good to be true?

Turns out no.

It’s just good enough to be true.

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When D&D Got Horny

Hey friends, have you seen Discourse on D&D lately, that imply that the blessed and sainted arrival of Gay People into D&D’s player space has brought with it this blissful enlightened period where player characters want to try seducing everything in sight, and how hilariously, entire encounters with major boss monsters are interrupted by bards rolling to seduce. The Monster Manual is Basically Tinder, the joke runs, which

Look, I’m old, I guess? In D&D terms, I’m old. I played some 2nd edition online, I played 3rd edition and 3.5, I played 4th edition, and then the transition from 4th to 5th revolted me and I instead opted to stay happily in my older generation of an edition I personally think of as ‘superior,’ just like the old beardie dude who only played Basic while I was looking for people to talk about 3rd edition with. And that means that for me, it feels like there are these people who have recently got into D&D because they started being alive after I started playing D&D, and they want to talk authoritatively about the way the game works in general, and they say these

things.

Things that I want to holler at them about because you darn kids.

I’m not getting off to a good start.

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Burnwillow

Science fiction, fantasy, and the hyper-reality of genre media lets us explore things that aren’t real, or true, but make sense to humans who are used to things that are.  We can set rules for the way a world is, and the audience is just going to go for it while you get around to explaining it.

Burnwillow is a superhero who I’ve had around for a while; first created back in the original City of Heroes, then expanded in the Generation 4 roleplaying space, and then remade in the new City of Heroes Homecoming, she’s had a lot of time to have her backstory revised. The person who made her story to start with and the person I am now are two very different people and know very different kinds of things about the kind of person she is. Tracing her origin, I think she may have been created as early as 2007, when the term ‘Burnwillow’ came up from the Magic: The Gathering set Future Sight.

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MTG: Says Trans Rights

You know, it’s pretty rare to be able to mention tabletop games these days that overlap well with my expertise. The history of D&D and queer themes are kinda mutedly embarrassing, videogames so commonly fuck it up, and even in the wild west of board and card games, most high-production value games are struggling with the idea of including women.

In that context it can be downright surprising to look at how Magic: The Gathering, a big budget high production value game that dedicated time and resources on its primary, important platform, to promote and spotlight an important and meaningful trans character and then didn’t colossally heck that character up.

In 2015, to go with the release of the set Fate Reforged, Wizards released a story called The Truth Of Names, by James Wyatt. Completely unironically, I think this is a great story, it’s tight, it’s short, it does world building, you don’t need to know what a Mardu is, but it communicates what they are. It focuses on our protagonist of this story, Alesha, a trans woman warrior who is also the kind of person who can shank a dragon.

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Game Pile: Final Fantasy 5

I’m reluctant to talk about Final Fantasy. Five in particular. On the topic of Pride Month especially.

One of the people I respect and admire in my field is something of an expert in Final Fantasy, particularly in the way that literally nobody is right about it. Two of my friends are experts at the game, and they’ll both go ‘oh, no, I’m not an expert’ but they’re both fucking liars, they are experts. Neither of them, bonus, are cis boys, which means that suddenly opening the genders door puts me at the intersection of a lot of spotlights.

Nonetheless, this is Pride Month, and there are not a lot of games that land in this space, accidentally or deliberately, so le’s go.

One of the strangest things to do is to describe a Final Fantasy game without treating it as if knowledge of the game is a foregone conclusion, because sometimes doing so makes the game sound very different to how it plays. For example, Final Fantasy 5 is the story of three lost princesses and the men in their lives as they work to prevent an evil tree from smashing two planets together like clacker balls. And this sounds like nonsense, but also, it could be described as a long, wandering epic story from a random wandering to rescuing an old man to befriending women and pirates and becoming empowered by the nature of reality itself to eventually deal with the reawakening of old gods and new deaths all in the hands of a dude named Buttz. It’s a story that’s somehow epic but only really expresses that in being long, vast but happening to mostly six people.

It is a land of contrasts, and also, a society.

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Game Making Friction

I’ve talked about friction in the past. The idea is that in any given action, some energy is lost. When I brought it up, I was talking about the energy lost on interfaces – paying attention to the way the game works, or how you’re going to make the game work in a particular way. It’s one of the reasons why a lot of great games get designed within genres once someone establishes a really good control scheme – check out how many classic platformers use B to run and A to jump (or the other way around, I’m not a NES dude, c’mon).

I’ve also talked about how genre is a library of tools. When you know what a genre is and what a genre does, you can use that genre to do things. Draft lets you have players make competing choices at the same time, it lets you hide information. Deck builders let you take game actions that result in something growing, and that thing is itself unreliable, so once you know the mechanisms of thata, when you understand the genre, you can use that to do things like the fog of war or the unreliability of galactic economies or even things like unreliable children or confused storytelling. These are all options once you understand what a Deck Builder is, or how it works.

What I’ve been thinking about – a lot, lately – is the friction not in game play, but in making.

My computer was in a pretty sorry state last week. Thanks to a failure of hardware, I’d had to replace one part of it, and that had meant a bunch of hardware had been standing around going hey, things are different now. One of the big tricky parts was that my hard drives were all convinced they’d been made by some other Talen Lee. This meant I had to transfer files around, format the hard drive, and then, go through my various files and update and reinstall things. I had to reinstall all my editing software. Had to set up a bunch of interface and system tools, had to get my shortcuts all set up, had to make sure file associations were working, and this also meant that there were whole directories of stuff that I wasn’t using any more that I hadn’t cleaned up.

It was pretty pleasant as an experience, but something it made me realise was how much of what I was doing prior to the shakeup was spending time and effort maintaining a lot of unorganised stuff. I didn’t need to have a correct filing system, because, as long as I was always working on it, I was pretty sure I knew which files were important to what I was doing. In some cases, this cleanup was like archaeology.

This isn’t some paean about the importance of cleaning up. Right now, I think there are a lot of us who are Cleaning Up Everything. But it did put me in mind of how much time we spend putting up with poor tools rather than getting proper ones, how many times we create something new rather than build a template, and how much time we spend reinventing things in our creative process.

I am, once again, thinking about friction.

Game Pile: Hyper Light Drifter (But Not Really)

Oh hey, this game, this atmospheric and thoughtful and meaningful game that’s really good and looks really good and it’s full of execution-based skillful exploration and look we’re talking about Dark Souls and then we’re talking about the statements the author made about the game being about living with a terminal condition and it’s ten dollars and here have a review score, pick the one you like, 7/10, 90% and 5 stars.

Oh and hey here’s the image for the thumbnail, that’ll make people intrigued enough to click.

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How To Be: Gardevoir (In 4E D&D)

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

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

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

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

And now this time, because you on the Twitters voted for it (whether or not you realised you were voting for it specifically), this month’s choice is the elegant mind dancer Pokemon, Gardevoir.

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Game Pile: Purrlock Holmes

I got this game from a Ding-And-Dent at Cancon2020, with an initial idea that it would make a good pickup for my mum, who’d enjoy it, because it was about detectives and cats, and you know, so on. Then when I got it home, I considered that I needed to make sure it was a good gift for her (since, you know, when does my mum get to play games like this), and if it was kid-valid, so I decided instead of making a gift of it, I’d play it with the family a bit, and see what she thought before handing it over, rather than just impose it on her and assume everything would be fine.

Then we played it.

And we played it again because the first thing someone said after we finished it was let’s play again.

And anyway now I’m keeping it.

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Designing Names

You know what’s really hard?

Naming things.

Oh, there’s the challenge in naming people, that stuff’s probably always there. Maybe if you’re the author of a book or you like naming OCs or the like, you’ve seen the difficulty involved in giving your characters names that work well for who they are, that maybe convey a bit of meaning, that don’t tend to recur in particular ways. I know DMing D&D gave me insight into the ways that I reuse certain name components; in one game, I had NPCs, in unrelated spaces, named Buto, Bruno, and Brutus, and what those NPCs did has long been lost to my players’ memories, but I am still periodically teased about choosing such similar names. Those were to me, useful workhorse names that stood apart from one another just enough to be easily grasped, but I didn’t consider that players were going to have conversations with them, in the same session. Players see patterns, and they saw the pattern in those names, assumed they were connected, and were deeply annoyed to find that they weren’t. In that, I messed up – there was a chance for a link and I wasted it.

People names are hard, even fake people names, of course. All the names in One Stone, for example, came after much agonising over different texts, trying to find things that could obliquely reference where they came from or had some linking purpose that made the story space of the world make sense, or stuff like that. I understand there’s some fuss right now about an asshole naming a baby, which I’m kind of not inclined to give any air to, because one, they’re an asshole, but two, it necessarily involves bringing up the baby, and look, that baby didn’t do anything to deserve being tweeted about. Twitter is a bad enough website, let’s leave babies out of it.

Naming places is also hard. I did a whole thing about how for ten years in my D&D setting, I had a kingdom called Kyngdom, and resisted every effort to deal with how obviously stupid that was. Many names were first drafts that I just never addressed because I was too embarrassed to admit they’d literally been pulled out of the air, and my worldbuilding was as much about grab-bagging things on the fly and pretending I had a plan than it was in any way about foresight and a meaningful narrative underpinning the world.

What else is hard is naming game mechanics. Game mechanics need to be named in a way that’s easy and coherent and referential. Words want to be long enough to convey what they do – ideally in a way that you never need to explain them beyond naming them – and short enough that players can talk about them twice in one sentence. They need to change tenses for clarity – imagine if you had a game mechanic named ‘sheep,’ the hassle in dealing with whether this sheep sheeps your sheeps or sheep. There’s also an urge to name some mechanics for the setting, like how Exalted tries to rename ‘player group’ for every different type of Exalt, as if bands and circles and leagues and coracles are all terms that people are going to use properly like the collective nouns for types of vole.

Then there’s the challenge in naming games at all. Our best game names seem to be things that we came up with as a pun, or where stand-in names that never got replaced. Fabricators was just a name for the file I was using to make the cards. Murder Most Fowl was made as a pun name while killing time at a convention. Good Cop, Bear Cop was mishearing someone. Many of our worst game names tend to be the ones that I spent some serious time on – like the Domains of Meh was iterated on multiple times. The Roads to Springdell is a name I like a lot because it conveys the idea that players are on the way to something but not there yet, but it has done absolutely nothing to move the game itself, in all of its tight and charming glory.

I think about this a lot as I try to name some game mechanics, as I look at work of other people asking for my input and I read rulebooks, trying hard to grapple with the difficulty we have in just giving the components we’re talking about names.

Tracer’s Bum

There’s this story about Tracer, from Overwatch.

The story runs that once upon atime, Tracer had a butt pose, and there was a huge outcry, and then Blizzard, the SJW cucktopians that they are, bowed to massive public pressure, and got rid of the Butt Pose, because people were offended. If you go looking for Tracer pictures for research purposes, literally this time, you’ll find people drawing her, showing off her butt, with a catch cry ‘sorry luv, you offended?’ like the problem was Tracer having a butt.

This dialogue about what happened is one of those stories I see being vaguely mentioned as if it was true and it’s interesting to me because it’s not only not true, but the story as framed puts the oppressed people in the wrong box and gives Blizzard a kind of credit it doesn’t deserve while focusing on something else, entirely, which is almost weirder.

No pictures for butt poses here, c’mon, what do you think this blog is.

Anyway, the butt pose was criticised not for being offensive at first; a small number of players noticed the butt pose victory pose, and focused on how out of character it seemed to be for Tracer. Not that Tracer doesn’t have a butt, or indeed, like having a butt. I don’t imagine she’d wear leggings like that if she wasn’t at least okay with having a butt. The issue was that the pose wasn’t really ‘her,’ and this was during the beta development phase of the game where players’ input on expressions of the characters was being taken on board pretty well.

The butt pose was pretty simple; she turned around, then turned to look over her shoulder. With the way she stood and her default outfit structure, it did pretty much centre her butt in the middle of the pose. It wasn’t as dynamic or movement-driven as Tracer’s other poses. It felt, the audience said, out of character, which checks out, because character in these spaces is being defined as much by the limited way people feel out these characters as they learn about them. Overwatch doesn’t have much character, it’s just got a lot of character in potentia, characterisation that’s kind of hovering in an indefinite space, waiting for people to collapse it, but trying very hard to not say no to anyone.

The pose that replaced it was a nosecone pinup; for anyone not familiar, these are the poses you’d see of girly posters on the nosecones of planes during World War 2, and now sometimes done as a reference to World War 2. Mostly, people don’t get to paint big paintings on their planes any more, for some reason. This tracked, of course – Tracer’s a pilot, she likes planes, those poses are pretty common association between that kind of femme and planes, it tracks easily.

The thing about this narrative, and the reason I’m putting this down here is to underscore that Blizzard weren’t responding to a moral outrage, but to one of those things they actually care about: They were trying to express the character design better. If it was a moral outrage issue, we wouldn’t have been teased for a year to learn that Tracer was gay like ‘surprise, we included a lesbian’ was some kind of gacha prize event, or we wouldn’t be… what, how many years before a playable black woman?

The events happen, but how we remember the events really matters.

And hey, I got to title a post ‘Tracer’s bum.’

Minecraft: Building A Punctuated Clock

I try to avoid making item elevators in builds, because I find them extremely easy to mess up. Sometimes they can jam up if the thing they’re meant to pass through produces too quickly, for example.

I also don’t like designs that take up lots of space, because it limits what they can be used for, and I don’t like designs that rely on clocks that are meant to keep running. Servers can handle that, but I run Minecraft on my home computer, and sometimes you can get this thing where an ongoing clock, if you log out while it’s doing its thing, can just forget what it’s meant to be doing, and be left ‘turned off.’ Not great. Clocks can just also consume a lot of computer time.

I’ve done some item elevators that rely on a sticky piston pulse to dump goods, into fires, but they have a problem when they’re fed a hopper full of stuff – they tend to flick on and off, meaning you can get some loud piston chunking when really, they should just turn on, empty the vessel they’re meant to be emptying, then turn off.

This design is something I finally put together that has managed to do that.

It’s an item clock that waits until it has a ‘full load’ as you define it, then, when it has that full load, it turns on the clock, dispenses items until it’s empty, and then, when it is empty, it turns off again, waiting to fill up once more.

If you want an itemised list of what goes into it, you need:

  • The thing you want the clock to affect (dropper or dispenser)
  • two redstone repeaters
  • three redstone comparators
  • four observers
  • two non-sticky pistons
  • one barrel

There’s no need to manage overlapping redstone wiring, and it doesn’t radiate signal much so it’s not likely to turn off hoppers around it (though be careful of the two sides).

 

Game Pile: Spaceshipped

Button Shy card game good imaginative clever bright fun engaging eighteen cards stylish wallet kickstarter pleasant customer service thoughtful high quality available at pnparcade funny hard challenging stay safe was hands.

Boy, hasn’t it been a recent time for board game talk? because suddenly, this year, people have spent a lot of time hanging around the same people, and getting lots of stuff delivered to their homes and I’m trying to circle around mentioning the andemic-pay, but basically, we’ve had a lot of people talking about board games that you can play solo, and board games that you can get access to without going to a store and board games that you can maybe even try out cheaply because right now people are a bit pinched for money because andemic-pay.

Perfect time, then, for me to put up a piece on Spaceshipped, which is another Button Shy game, a cheap game, a game that jams on 18 cards, that’s a solo game, and, it’s available for $10 from Button Shy, and $3 at PNP Arcade. I know it’s a bit weird to lead like that? But it feels like I should get all that basic stuff out of the way first, because, as with Sprawlopolis and Tussie Mussie and Handsome before them, I just freaking love Button Shy games and there’s a sort of inherently dull status to being so consistently excellent. The article follows a pattern, a sort of sloughed out, well damnit it’s amazing and what am I going to do around that?

What Space Shipped is is a space trader game. In eighteen cards. And if you’re like me, and a game designer, you might have an immediate moment of hang on, wait, what? It’s eighteen cards, print and playable, no specialised equipment or dice, and there’s a full space trader game about travelling from planet to planet trying to buy goods low, sell them high and deal with the random events that make that particular kind of job hard. Your aim is to buy two Xeno Crystals, rare and expensive properties, before space pirates steal two, and lose you the contract to acquire the crystals. So far so boilerplate.

This kind of game is something I’ve tried to capture on cards in the past because I like these games and space ships are cool and all, but it’s often very difficult to emulate a market and space – like, an actual movable zone where you transition from point to point, not outerspace specifically – when you have limited resources like card design. Videogames handle this really well because if there’s one thing videogames can generate really easily, it’s spreadsheets and vast distance between doing your accountancy homework. My go-to work for this kind of game is always Lavamind’s Gazillionaire, a game that I wouldn’t go so far as to describe as good but definitely a game that was influential, in that it influenced me, with its ugly Windows 3.1 ass interface and resolute, unfailing, absolute demand that we continue doing things exactly the same way, forever, and ever, which is why even though that game is on Steam right now, despite being thirty years old, it’s still expecting you to pay like, forty bucks.

Anyway, what happens in this genre of game is you load up your pockets with stuff you can afford to buy, go somewhere you think you can sell it for a profit, and something along the way either gives you a candy or kicks you in the teeth. The gameplay loop of buy low sell high is mastered pretty quickly especially in games where you can learn things like supply and demand in other neighbouring places, but you play them because there’s this pachinko-ass effect where if you were just making sensible economic deicions, you’d be fine but the game mixes that up by periodically punching you in the face.

Spaceshipped doesn’t have a great sense of space to it, but it does do a great job of jamming that same feeling where you load your ship up anticipating the demand for your supply next turn, or two turns later, and then hope like hell it’s not going to go terribly for you on the way. The way it does this is through the kind of card face design that makes me disgustedly happy.

 

A single card in Spaceshipped is used in three different zones. You’re looking here at one card, both sides. The first face, with the encounters and market on it, is one of three cards that represent the travel from market to market. Each card shows you what happens when you arrive in the orbit, then on the planet, then the market – but crucially, the three cards together show this combined. That is, you get the orbital effect of card 1, the planetary of card 2, and then the marketplace of card 3 is what you have to care about. This means you can anticipate some things going to happen in your future, and you can compare the marketplaces of your current card and future cards. But sometimes orbital encounters will transform the effect of the planet encounter.

What you then get to do is make purchasing decisions based on what’s available in the market, what prices you can get them for, what future prices you can get for those goods, and upgrades and all that. You don’t have a sense of freedom – not really – you don’t get to pick the planet you go to, so the part of the space-faring trader fantasy the game exchanges is a the freedom of going where you want to try what you want. Instead, you’re given a sort of ghost train experience, where you ride in the cart as the game flings things at you, and that’s okay.

I mean you’re fitting a space trader wallet game on something that fits in your pocket and costs a tenner. It’s easily more playable while you wait for things than Solitaire, and I’ve talked about how that game is pretty good, too.

If you want to check out the rules and play through, here’s a helpful video they shared on the PNParcade page for it:

I think one of the most damning things about my mind as a developer is that my reaction to playing with Spaceshipped was realising how much I wanted to use the card face template for something else. It’s not like the game is perfect; there are some wrinkles about it I wish were a bit better. I rarely ever bother buying upgrades or ships – I just find myself too financially desperate for that. The upgrades and ship changes are too visually indistinct to stick in the memory, and the fact the game is more like a ghost train than an explorer makes it feel like the game narrative could use a little more room to flex in the rules (but how are you going to do that!?).

Still, once again, this game’s excellent, you can have it for cheap and it’s good enough that as with many Button Shy games, I’m kind of mad I didn’t think of how to do something like this myself.

4e Power Sources

Back in the olden days of Fourth Edition, we would cast our minds back to the even oldener days of Third Edition and the slightly less oldener days of Third Point Fifth Edition, all of which predates Fifth Edition, about which, I want to underscore, and reiterate, because I keep having to do this, I know nothing and do not care to know anything. Anyway, back in third edition, there were these terms for magic – arcane and divine. The rules around these mechanics were the kind of thing you’d look up once, then never need to remember again because they only mattered for setting some basic rules. The basic rules being that divine spells didn’t incur ‘arcane spell failure’ and arcane spells did. You had to know whether you did arcane spells or divine spells, but you didn’t really need to know much more about it than that.

There were some splats, some supplemental rules that sought to make the ‘martial’ type a thing, there was some vague wuffling about shadow powers and even once, an entire splatbook about introducing different types of magic to the game that were all, in their own way, terrible, and even involved just being arcane and divine in places, as the code that the game ran on really, really wanted a reference point for that information.

Fourth edition, though, looked at this sort of ‘power source’ idea and asked the question: what if we actually used this game flag for something?

So we got, in the first book, the power sources Arcane, Martial, and Divine. Later books introduced Psionic and Primal, and I guess Shadow exists, somewhere, over there. We don’t talk about Shadow, not here, and not in the Sonic fandom.

Now, hand to my heart, if you go looking in 4th edition for a power or ability that says something like ‘when an opponent attacks you with an arcane spell, do a thing,’ I don’t think you’ll find anything but I’m not entirely sure. They did try some experimental stuff in places in that game. But broadly speaking, you do not find things that reference power sources in the way that they were referenced back in 3.5 D&D! There was no armour attribute that only mattered to arcane characters (and which almost every arcane character class had some way around god damnit 3.5).

Instead, power sources in 4th edition were used in two ways:

  • To give the different classes with the same power source a linked mechanical feel
  • To give characters with a specific style multiple different mechanical opportunities

This may sound like not much, but it’s a hugely useful part of the game and it isn’t something you need to care about. As a designer, being able to say ‘primal characters tend to get these special effects’ is handy set of tools. As a DM, knowing that you have (for example), a group with Primal and Martial characters suggests to you that you’re not likely to have big spread AOEs or super-flexible powers like if you were dealing with Arcane characters. Martial characters care a lot about weapons and combat advantage, Arcane characters tend to have flexible special abilities, Divine characters tend to have heavier armour options, Primal characters tend to have more hit points and Psionic characters get power points.

And nobody cares about Shadow.

You may want to build your character, knowing you want a Ranger and that’s it, oh kay, so much, no problem at all. But if you don’t approach the class system that way, 4th edition’s power sources are here for you. Let’s say you conceive of a character who’s a bit rough around the edges, lives in the woods, tracks their own food and knows how to win a fight, and maybe has a pet. In 3rd edition, you have two options: the Ranger and the Druid. The ranger is a melee damage dealer (or you can try range if you want to be bad) and the druid is … ostensibly, a full spellcaster, and in actuality, brokenly powerful all singing all dancing shitting god-king of numbers mountain. But that’s it, that’s your options; a heavy caster, and a light caster who stabs things. Fox has said that I should add the Barbarian and I am even though I definitely wouldn’t if she didn’t.

But in 4th edition, if you wanted to play that same character, the woodsy outdoor type, you could play a melee damage dealer (ranger), a ranged controller (hunter), a shapeshifting monster person controller (druid), a shapeshifting monster person with a weapon tank (warden), a summoner with healer ghosts (shaman), an angry person with a weapon who hits people real hard (barbarian) and even another, different kind of ranged controller (the seeker, which we don’t talk about). They’ll have unified feels – they’ll all be nature-y, they’ll have nature-skills, they’ll work well for the story space you want to put them, but they’ll all be different mechanical choices with the same thematic space. This matters a lot, because suddenly, players can make choices that are about what they want a character to feel like without needing a super-refined grasp on a thousand rule options to make a build work (like back in 3.5).

See also, the divine. If you wanted to be a religiously chosen holy crusader type in 3.5, your options were Paladin and Cleric (which was also broken). That is, a pair of melee, heavily armoured combatants, who usually wore a shield and cast spells at the direct behest of a god, with some smiteyness thrown in. In terms of differences in style, the cleric didn’t have a horse and the paladin didn’t get to be strong enough to piss in god’s ear. But in 4th edition, if you want to play that same divine, holy crusader type, you have clerics, paladins, avengers, invokers, runepriests and blackguards (who can join the Seeker and Shadow).

These options are all kind of just washing over you at this point, I know, but this is a really important bit of design technology. Unifying thematic space gives players more room to make their own thematic choices. If there’s one way to be something in your world, any player who wants to be that thing can only be that thing.

Power Sources are one of many things in 4th edition D&D that made the game better, and part of what makes them exceptional design technology is that if you didn’t care you never had to notice the bloody things at all.

Two Lanes, All Waiting

Sometimes if you read older papers or articles about videogame storytelling, or if you spend time on Tvtropes, you might encounter the phrase gameplay and story segregation. With Final Fantsy 7 the current hotness, there’s a sort of ongoing riff that’s been used for twenty-five years about how a videogame with a mechanical device for reversing death is mostly known for how the story pivots around a death that you can’t undo, even if you have those items.

Now, setting aside for a time the interesting way in which you can chart stages of grief to players reacting to that moment in Final Fantasy 7, and how you can almost chart something about who they are as a person depending on whether they’re still bargaining (‘you should be able to save her with-‘) or at anger (‘it’s a stupid manipulative game’), the point is one of the enduring seeds at the root of basically all gamer webcomics. “Why is game not like real life?”

I mean it’s a bit. I get it. It’s a really, really tired bit. It’s the videogame culture version of ‘what’s the deal with airline food,’ which is itself a trope because comedians of the time were the ones most likely to be doing a lot of air travel, and therefore, the people most likely to be bothered by what airlines are doing. People who play lots and lots of videogames and look at them critically are going to be the ones who most often see the ways the stories of videogames and the gameplay of videogames don’t line up. It’s kinda that infamous thing of ludonarrative dissonance, which is… a sort of more specific idea, with a more over-arcing, academic kind of consideration.

Setting aside the ‘games are good when they stand out from my slurry of similar games’ problem, though, the idea runs that there are a lot of videogames that keep the narrative and the mechanical storytelling pretty much isolated. The idea runs that gameplay actualises the story, you while the story drives the narrative, and in a number of games these two elements are not driving into one another like an engine, but are instead driving two separate vehicles, often in unrelated directions.

This is typically seen as a videogame problem, but I’ve been recently considering something said by Erik The Bearik over on twitter. Erik’s take was about how Dungeons & Dragons is two systems that don’t quite relate to each other. The notion was that a barbarian can get angrier and angrier out of combat, but in the context of combat all they can do is turn rage ‘on’ or ‘off.’ The consequences of rage as a combat ability has a meaningful, mechanical impact, which responds to particular rules structures. Players are conditioned to see their combat abilities in the simplest terms of working and with enemies only being able to make a check to resist the effect, or having to make a check to determine if they make the check well enough.

On the other hand, there is this space of not combat, and that not combat space is a place of ambiguities and possibilities and maybes and sortas, which has long been a complex knot to unweave for people discussing the idea of the story and mechanics folding together. See, if these two things existed independently, with a game having this layer of – let’s say hacking? – where the physical real world combat and ramifications thereof wasn’t present? You could have these two systems be so isolated that they didn’t relate. But they do relate in Dungeons & Dragons because combat isn’t a separated system like you see in a Final Fantasy game where the interface transforms when combat happens.

It’s an interesting quandrary, and one of those ways in which games of all stripes share a lot of common details. The problem of ‘why do the rules apply here and not there’ is interesting particularly to me, because it feels like the break in immersion isn’t the actual problem: the problem is that the players are not being carried along by the enjoyment of the game enough that these concerns don’t bother them.

Game Pile: Lanterns

Sometimes I feel a tiny bit bad talking about board games that are just really good here. There’s always some sort of impulse to make an examination into a story, for there to be perhaps a certain degree of turnaround or some surprising element to the whole experience of reading it. I know when I talk about Pokemon games, and Button Shy games (usually, though not always), I have a certain, hands-in-the-air ‘well it’s excellent and worth your time, I guess,’

Still.

Chris Chung’s Lanterns.

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Hands And Bags

Been thinking about bag builders lately.

If you’re not familiar, a bag builder is a type of game where you have a bag – an actual, physical bag – that you can’t look into very easily. You put things into the bag, ideally things that are hard to tell apart from one another by touch, and then players draw things out of the bag and check the results that indicates.

In its simplest form the bag builder is a slower, more elaborate form of dice. You have a random distribution of potential outcomes, and players choose one. It’s slower because a dice roll is stunningly quick and you can roll four or five dice at once. Really, dice deserve a special mention here because when you’re rolling dice it’s faster to resolve the four or five dice than it is for the player to process the result.

Bag builders swerve wildly away from dice when you start to think about what kinds of control you have. Now, you can make dice do weird things with probability but generally speaking if the game starts with 1d6, you have a hard time making that dice mathematically behave like 1d8. you can usually go down – odds and evens lets the dice behave like a 1d2 – but you can’t readily go up without getting into bell curves and distribution matrices.

For a bag, though, if you want something to be 1d7 you can just put in 7 options in a bag. That’s a pretty basic use for a bag, just to make a sort of softer dice. It puts the cognition on the ‘roll’ earlier, too – players retrieve the object from the bag, and look at it – the action has stopped, and the result is literally in their hand.

The bag builder being a more ornate and elaborate thing means that it won’t be as good for simple turns and simple actions. I think that a good bag builder wants to draw from the bag, say, once a turn, make it the centerpiece of a turn. Rerolls (putting tokens back and drawing again) are valid, but generally, if a player does something with the bag, that should be the turn, and then the choices come from what to do with what you draw.

Here are a few things I think about doing with bag building mechanics.

  • A game with one common bag, everyone is adding to. The bag contains a signifier token for each player, and a number of other tokens. At the start of the turn, you pull tokens from the bag until you pull one with a signifier for each player, and the remaining non-signifiers are used to trigger game events. This could be used to represent something disastrous – each token claimed from the bag is a monster they have to fight – or it could be somehing good. Maybe the tokens represent customers coming to your shop.
  • A game where each player has a bag, and players contribute tokens to other people’s bags. Maybe this represents cooperation or hindrance – you can put good numbers in other players’ bags to hopefully improve their performance.
  • A game where enemies are stacks of tokens, and damaging them results in dice being put into the enemy bag – which indicates each enemy is having a sudden surge of power as they’re damaged.

Some themes I think I can do with Bag Building:

  • Collaborative creative processes. These are naturally messy. Putting ideas into someone else’s bag so they can gestate on them and then when they come out, it’s not something you can force.
  • Cooking and potion brewing! Throw recipe ingredients into the pot and then pull them out when they surface! This is a place explored by Quacks of Quedlingburg.
  • Space trading! I like this one because travelling from planet to planet gives markets lots of time to react weirdly. It can be that each planet has a standard set of ‘needs’ and the tokens from the bag can introduce new needs, or diminish the demand of old needs, so you have some demands that are consistent and some that aren’t. 
  • Ecological behaviour. Imagine if tokens represent types of animals, say, a food source C, predators that eat them B and predators that eat them A. You pull a handful from the bag, and then see how many A B and C that handful can support.

Try out bags for designs that:

  • Want randomisation but don’t want to keep looking up tables
  • Wants something tactile to take out and put down
  • Wants to customise dize conveniently
  • Wants a building and randomisation system, but doesn’t want tons of shuffling

 

Power Word: Kill

Okay, okay, hold up, this one might be a walk of an intro.

Do you know the story of Ananias and Saphira? It’s a Biblical story, a story that gets loved by grifting preachers and people who want to scare the shit out of kids. During the early days of the church in the book of Acts, when the church was going full communist, there’s this little cautionary story about Ananias and Saphira, a couple that sold everything they had, gave most of the money to Peter to build the church, and held some of it back.

When they brought the money to Peter, he looked at them, asked them if this was all the money, they said yes, and Peter said ‘no it’s not,’ and they died.

Now, I’m simplifying the story (it’s done in two incidents, there’s talk about whether it’s about lying or it’s about greed, but whatever, it’s Christian myth, it sucks ass and none of these people existed), but this is a story that sometimes gets brought up with a giggle pointing out that this would make Peter a level 17 wizard, minimum, or a cleric with the war domain, because this was a Biblical appearance of the spell Power Word: Kill.

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MTG: April Custom Commander Cards (Part Two)

WOTC Employees: This article is entirely about about unsolicited game designs, with example cards.

And now, the second half of the cards I made for my own edification and fun during the month of April! These cards have had a little bit of feedback and some rewording since their original sharing on Reddit.

Who Wants It: A big mana white deck that can afford to clear the board and wants some flexible removal for mopup, or creature decks that want to punish mana rock hungry opponents for blowing up the world a lot.

Some commenters were hung up on this card being a cast trigger. Personally, I quite like it – it’s both cleaner to template, and it’s okay for white, the colour with the least stack interaction, to have some effects that get to force their way through countermagic, with tools like hexproof or bounce still perfectly valid to protect them.

As it is, Tareq is a removal spell that you want to cast as soon as there’s a good target – if two opponents have one-drops, Tareq can ick them. Tareq can score some Sol Rings, in Commander.

Is Tareq particularly potent as an aggressive threat? No, not at all. But you’re going to be able to use them to nuke things, turn after turn whenever people make the environment too hostile for a 2/1. And maybe you can make it work in a really creature-heavy strategy that wants to blow up a one-drop permanent for each opponent and then maybe hit two or three more the next time around.

Who Wants It: Valuetown creatures, again.

White doesn’t have the best selection of etb-abusing creatures but it does have a lot of small creatures, and being able to turn your small etb-y creatures into bigger etb-y creatures seems a cool deal to me. The second ability was originally going to be an Anoited Procession effect, because again, the world of commander is so commonly a place where wraths run free, but it seemed that what I really wanted was to play in white’s ability to double up on effects.

I’ve been thinking for a long time now that white should be the tertiary colour for copying, and only able to copy its own stuff. That colour at the moment is kinda green, but it seems to me that if one colour has the ability to industrialise and multiply the production of useful things, it’d be the colour that believes in interdependent hierarchy.

Who Wants It: A kind of modern tallowispy-ass deck that is its own creation.

There aren’t a lot of good ways for white to dump enchantments in the bin but if you do go out of your way to do it, you can have a lot of fun with this rakshasa-ass cat fae. You could run a deck with Faiths Fetters style effects and sacrifice the enchantments that were locking down creatures in response to effects like pyroclasm, and get this critter on to the battlefield, cheap, and then suit it up with some fat aura that you binned earlier.

I think what I like the most about this card is its place as a commander paints a different version of its place in the 99. If it’s your commander, you’re very limited in what kind of cards you can have them bouncing and bringing back, and you may have to turn to artifact sources like Urza’s Tome or Smuggler’s Copter to start doing weird things with it like Eldrazi Conscription.

Offering is weird, but it’s not mine – there’s a cycle of five Offering cards in Betrayers of Kamigawa, weird set that it was.

Who Wants It: Lifegain pillowfort decks

There are seven cantrip instants (and more when you start involving cycling) that gain you life. There are a number of cheap sources that gain you a little life. I would love, love, love to see someone force an evasion ability onto Rahab and then attack, cast three cantrip lifegain spells and kill an opponent by dealing 24 commander combat damage.

She protects herself (when you gain life) but she’s expensive so you need to extend the game to get to her. I like this card a lot.

Who Wants It: People who wished they could play infect but don’t like the aesthetic.

One of the Into the North podcasters, I want to say Linden, said that Infect wouldn’t work in CEDH even if all your enemies shared a poison counter total. I liked that idea and tried to make a commander who could give you that play pattern. I used Awe instead of Experience counters because Experience counters can be obtained in a variety of ways and I wanted this to only care about its self-contained mechanic of getting ten creatures through at least once.

The only sad part about her is that she doesn’t actually have any particular synergy or use with existing Renown creatures, since she gives it out, and Renown only can work once for each creature. Beep boop sad toot.

Who Wants It: People who are, again, nostalgic for Kamigawa and Tallowisp.

It’s a simple, straightforward engine that asks you to make an interesting choice in building your deck. In mono-white, you only have so many aura cards that are great, and they mostly do different things. Similarly, you only have so many creatures that benefit from having a lot of auras around, and they give you a clear direction to go in.

Who Wants It: Me.

I don’t know, I really like Astral Slide and I wish it was good. This version of Joei came flavour first, with the two artworks of these two similar but not the same characters that I perceived as a kind of seasonally-affected half-fae femboy. The idea of him in my mind was someone who came and brought winter with him (representing the difficulty supporting large numbers of creatures) and then when enough time and seasons happened he became aware of what he was, and began his planeswalking.

I am this close to making Joei a fanwalker and going and frothing about him on tumblr.

Joei’s meant to also allow for a white deck whose commander both gets you to the late game and then supports you once you’re there. I like the transformational element of the card and I like how it can turn into a sort of astral slide for value or sort of pseudo-ugin.

Who Wants It: Equipment voltron decks.

This scared the redditors more than it did me. Personally, I see commander as a world of boardwipes, where equipment lay on the battlefield after wrath after wrath after wrath, so the idea that this sets up your first creature to equip to cheaply making her more of a hopeful Sigarda’s Aid than anything else.

Do people just leave your commander alone over there? I’d expect this to eat bolt the second I cast an equipment, and I would expect my opponents to not cast equipment while she’s on the table.

Who Wants It: White spellslingers.

Again, I think that ‘let’s do the same thing, again, but more efficiently this time’ is a very white ability. Much in the same way I think white should get a good share of flashback spells and graveyard casting, with the idea that white can ritualise their spells.

This design also predated Lurrus’ spoiling, so don’t I look like a stupid asshole.

Who Wants It: Honestly I don’t know, someone who loves Lammasu?

This card is supposedly good at protecting your stuff. But you’d need to protect it. It turns the first wrath into a terror, which is cool, and I can’t find a lot of 6 mana even harder to destroy permanents aside from Jareth.

And Jareth is cool.

The idea started out as a card that wanted the board to be hierarchal; only the most expensive permanent you controlled each time could be destroyed or venerated – only this critter gets to pick up equipment.

It does make Razor Golem into a cheap insurance though, which is cute.

Who Wants It: White commander decks that are hurting for card advantage.

Manifest is white. Making large volumes of mid-size dorks is white. Paying for your stuff is white. Mara can’t stick around super long and she is quite fragile on her own, but when you go to pay her upkeep cost, you will have the best chance to protect her.

I note that you can attack with manifests, then when they’re blocked or risk dying, you can just huck ’em into the exile zone.

Flavour wise what I wanted to represent was these caravans of traders moving along a desert path, nomads bringing stuff to trade, under the cover of desert disguise.

Who Wants It: Non-creature hate and staxy decks.

This was a lot more appealing two weeks ago before the banning of Flash.

The point of this card was to focus your deck on whether or not your deck worked without your commander. There was a conversation about this over on Into The North, where the question was about how if your deck didn’t care about your commander then why play a commander deck at all? Why not just play a Canlander deck?

This stuck with me because in the era of Flash Hulk and then Sushi Hulk, the only thing that mattered was whether or not your deck could cast one of four core win conditions, four of which were blue (and one which required you to have green in your deck). Decks weren’t being Zur decks and Inalla decks, they were all being Flash Hulk or Sushi Hulk decks. That sucks!

So here.

This hates every creature combo component that isn’t a commander.

Who Wants It: Lesbians.

Okay okay joking aside, Sephene is not meant to be a Sappho reference despite her aura of helpless incapacitation for the love of a woman: she’s meant to be a Persephone reference, someone who shows up for seasons and then has to leave for some reason.

What can you use her for, though? What’s she good for? Well, she’s a recurrent anthem-enabling army maker that’s based on Saproling Burst. Which was a pretty good card, and she’s a lot cheaper to go for the base.

Who Wants It: Reddit

This was the most popular card in this entire set. There were people mad when she didn’t say ‘white’ because their opinion was she only would be used then for artifacts and eldrazi, which is… stupid, because people will care about different big dumb spells. But whatever.

Who Wants It: People who wish Intruder Alarm Combo was good, and it’s still not that good.

I can’t believe I had two flip card ideas. Here, have a Serra Angel that turns into Intruder Alarm. Combo outlet and solid defender that can also just be a threat on its own.

And again: if you have any ideas or inspiration based on these, let me know! I hope you find these cards fun and have some thoughts based on seeing the flavour and mechanics I had in mind for ’em.