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.

October Shirt: Ai To Ai

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

There is no official merch for it.

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

Oh wait, it’s 2020. No con season.

Sigh.

Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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10 SCPs That Talen Actually Likes

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

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

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10 SCPs That Suck Ass

Oh oh ho! Time to get feisty!

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

And with that, on to the sacred cows.

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

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Sandy Peterson’s Wild Ride

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

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

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

And he wasn’t even talking to me.

I mean kinda.

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

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

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

Yet.

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

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

“They’re the bad guys.”

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

But in my defense, I was ten.

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

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

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

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

Note those italics.

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

And bonus, that Vestige is spooky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CoX: Offshore

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


 

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

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

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

Poseidon.

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

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An Interview About The Vampires

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

CoX: Xixecal

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


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

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

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

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

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Money (in Games)

Money ey.

It’s really useful.

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

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

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

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

1. Depletion

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

2. Scarcity

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

3. Scale

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

Secret Bonus 4: Let Them

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

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

Weird, huh?

Game Pile: World of Warcraft’s Poop Quests

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was going to be a video.

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

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

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

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

3.5 Memories: Rokugan

Hold up.

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

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How To Be: Tier Halibel (In 4e D&D)

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

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

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

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

This month, we’re going to dive into the world of the dead and look to the Queen of Hueco Mundo by the most powerful shounen anime right, the right of default, the underboob to Matsumoto’s cleavage well, Tier Harribel.


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The Tetris of Movies

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

What movie did what Tetris did?

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

Dumb!

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

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

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

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

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

Game Pile: Void Bastards

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

The Difficulty Curve of Elite Beat Agents

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

That doesn’t sound great, hm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then difficulty takes another enormous spike:

With the Elite Beat Divas.

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

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

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

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

Anyway, thank you for coming to my TED talk.

MTG: Otrimi, I Guess?

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

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

weird.

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

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

Otrimi, the Ever-Playful

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Game Pile: The Magical Land of Yeld

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

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

So go buy it, jeeze.

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BDG’s Commedia Del Anime Chart

Hey, did you like this video?

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

Sooo

I did that.

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

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

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

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

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4e D&D: Marks Are Great

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

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

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

And I love it.

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

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

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

Now why are they considered bad?

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

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

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

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

Game Pile: Bit Rat Singularity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We just gotta find one another and make friends.

Gruuwar!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fat Guys With A Chain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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