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.

Iron Angel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karmic Twin

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

But they all used them to get hot boyfriends.

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

Game Pile: Cute Demon Crashers

Porn gets a bad rap.

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

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

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

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

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

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4E: Harnessing Hotness

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

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Smoochy Cardgame Thoughts

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

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How To Be: Ranma Saotome from Ranma 1/2 (In 4E D&D)

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

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

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

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

This time, we’re going to try and capture the feeling of gender-flipping Martial Arts Death Machine Ranma Saotome from Ranma 1/2.

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Game Pile: OSU! TATAKAE! OUENDAN!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re playing cheerleaders.

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

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

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

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

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

What If We Kissed (Mechanically) In The Squared Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and then, the wrestlers can kiss,

MTG: Friendly Planeswalkers

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

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3.5 Memories: Soo-Nee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Girl Hot counts for a lot, right?

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

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

It’s not great.

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

Art by kiikii-sempai

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

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

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

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

Love And D20s

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

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

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Game Pile: Tussie Mussie

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

We got that?

Good, okay, moving on.

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Simple & Clean’s origin story weirdness

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

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PaleBlood Moon Debrief

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

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Game Brief Example: PaleBlood Moon

Thanks to some scheduling mistakes in an automated system, this went up and down a few times when it shouldn’t. Thanks for your patience.


Every year, some of our friends visit from Melbourne to come play D&D. Every year, Fox and I pitch games, and we decide which one people want to do the most. This year, this is my pitch, which I wrote all the way back in December.

Now, I’m making this blog post now, but it’s a bit of a hedge. See, there’s a really good chance this pitch won’t get used at all, in which case, I’ll just brush it up a little bit and add an explantion for any twists in this three-day campaign that were coming. But for now, here, check out the Bloodborne inspired game pitch for a game I’m probably not running next weekend.


The Pale Moon Rises

The lamps are lit, the doors are barred, and the hunt begins. The hunters of Cainwicht have been training and hunting, listening at the doors and windows, and as the night of the hunt begins, stepped out onto the streets to take to the grim and bloody task of slaying the predators upon humanity.

People are not to be about on the night of the Pale Moon.

But in the Cathedral Of The Ministration in Finhbrigg, something has gone awry. Finhbrigg’s hunters have gone out – but the clocktower light that signals the Hunt has begun is out. Thick fog clings to the ground, and without the light, Hunters from Cainwicht are not going to come – leaving Finhbrigg to fend for itself.

But the Cathedral is not without defenses – and you, whether hunters in training, older veterans of the hunt, or travellers in the wrong place at the wrong time, have a chance to fix it.

Character Creation

  • This game is designed to be run in Heroic level, currently at level 7. This can be negotiated upwards, but I want the game to run smooth and quick.
  • Everything official is fair game, plus Escarnum material. (Now online at https://escarnum.invincible.ink). Knock yourselves out.
  • There is a contingency in-setting for players who die and you’ll probably die once
  • Aesthetically, think Bloodborne or similar Gothic Horror settings.

House Rules

  • One free expertise feat
  • Revised immunity rules (poison immunity doesn’t make you immune to secondary effects of power sthat do poison damage)
  • The Blackguard is replaced by the Vindicator

UPDATE: Holy shit, my players went for it.

Tune in Tuesday to find out the twist.

MTG: Dinobots (Not The Transformers) Commanders!

Hello, Wizards of the Coast employees. This blog post is going to feature custom cards and I know you’re not allowed to look at those. So, please, go elsewhere, sorry!

Magic The Gathering? In Smooch month? is this going to be about shipping? Is this going to be about Nissa and Chandra, and the War Of the Spark: Forsaken?

No.

Because I don’t really care about that.

I mean I don’t have the book; I don’t plan on buying the book; the book was handled so badly that Wizards of the Coast apologised for it, and there are rundowns on how the writing is bad (even setting aside the subject matter) and ways that the Nissa/Chandra romance was specifically handled, and really, you don’t need someone who hasn’t got the book, and has no interest in reading it, to go over it.

Instead, I want to talk about a shipping pair I learned about from Twitter, and has basically no basis in actual canon but I don’t care.

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Game Pile: The Cleanup!

With the cleansing ritual of excusing a number of physical games from my Game Pile, I decided it was also time to make a ritual of making it clear a number of 2019 digital games that had definitely, definitely left my Game Pile. Presented here is a lightning round of Games that I tried in 2019 and didn’t feel I had anything to say about them. These games largely went unfinished, unless something provokes me to give ’em a second look – which can include you specifically asking me about it!

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Leaving The Game Pile

I talk about games a lot.

The origin of the game pile, which I’ve explained a few times lately, was to be a sort of documentation as I worked through a large pile of games I’d gotten in part because of the generosity of a kind friend, and my own rarer purchases. It also focused heavily on my digital game collection at first, and way back when I even had the idea of starting a subseries of game pile, called cheap thrills which was about finding games that had twenty or more hours of reasonable playtime for only $5, and was going to feature a lot of older DOS and Abandonware games that still had their charms.

The original purpose behind Game Pile was, to an extent, a sort of documentation of the process of working my way through my presents. There’s guilt and all sorts of other feelings there, and ambitions for a life writing for some source like Polygon or Waypoint that has since dissolved in a mist since August 2014. Not only has its original purpose changed, though, It has since grown to incorporate board games, and board games are different to my steam library because board games are physical objects.

The physicality of these games means that when I’m done with a game there’s something I can do with them – it means that I can package that game up, and, assuming I haven’t broken it, I can let it go. I am not bound to the game, nor is it bound to me. A steam game is a little string of numbers next to my name in a directory that I access with a password that let me put a copy of a program on a computer. From the people who made it’s perspective, there’s no reasonable value to letting me treat that code like a physical object, but with a tabletop game… they can’t stop me. That’s kind of the default of how most products worked, up until we got used to this other normal.

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13 Games I’m Hoping To Get Cheap At CanCon, Unless I Don’t

It’s CanCon this weekend! I’m going to be running a stall down there, selling the latest and greatest of Invincible Ink indie card games, art and bricabrac. It’s the hottest weekend of the year, traditionally, and I’m going to be in a city that has air quality comparable to Beijing, because the country is probably still on fire as I write this.

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About: Rift Girl

I’m a superhero fan, which is to say I’m someone with a lot of very firm opinions the way the superhero media industry is just ruining everything, and completely messing up. This is a natural part of the progression as you get older, but I at least am at the point where I can bring myself to acknowledge it’s much more I don’t like this rather than this is good or bad storytelling.

Comics love weirdo aliens that are human-mindset compatible (like M’gann M’orzz). Comics love alternate dimension characters that come from a different universe that’s somehow meaningfully mostly like ours (like Power Girl). And despite loving M’gann and Peej, I really dislike these two ideas. In a shared roleplaying space like City of Heroes, you don’t get the leeway to just tell people hey stop making characters I don’t like, though, and I’ve come to terms with that.

When presented with a problem like this, though, a good impulse is to work out why things are different, work out what you’d do to make the thing you don’t like work in a way you do. Which is why I wondered how I could make a Suspiciously Human Alien or Extradimensional Person in a way that didn’t make my brain flip sumersaults at the math involved.

What I got out of it is Rift Girl.

First up, here’s her in-game bio:

“But what are we doing here, at home, to fight the dreadful menace of The German Imperialism? Why, there’s some, like the top-secret RIFT project, storing away examples of the finest cities of the 20th century, in alternate dimensions where the people can grow and thrive, and become brilliant bosch-bashers! And as long as there’s funding, there’s no way to lose track of them, or see them fall to the work of the Hun! Stay tuned, for partial excitement!”
– Project RIFT explained, unreleased educational film, 1939

Madison Max came from a place that’s a bit retro, a bit far away, and plenty, plenty weird. But that doesn’t matter – what matters more, to her, is that she’s here, in Paragon, to be a hero, and contribute to the fight against fascism!

Alternate dimensions and alien cultures are great if you want to give a character a kind of contained metaphysics. You don’t have to explain how they relate to the things in our world or why they may have missed something or other, you can just say that those things don’t exist where they’re from. These are societies you have complete control over, and it means if you want a character to come from a place where things work differently and people just have to accept it, you can. Consider a lot of our societal ideas we have that can be just different in a different society. Ideas like marriage, gender, violence, heroics, education or capitalism can be wildly different if you control a different space.

Alternate dimensions bug me though when they’re just one of a million options because it opens up too many questions for me. After all, why this and not that. Why are these changes able to have such wild transformations? Alternate dimension are written in between the space where they’re not realistically similar (in this world, one flower evolved to be peach instead of purple, and everything else is the same) or realistically different (if the mass of earth’s trajectory was off by a meter a billion years ago, literally none of anything would be ‘there’ when you went to reach into the other dimension). How do I get an alternate dimension that’s meaningfully like what we have here?

My idea was to make the alternate dimension a dimension built out of this one, and that gave me the idea I wanted: Nonsense Wartime Propoganda Super Science!

Rift Girl’s world is a pocket dimension made in the 1940s as part of the War Effort against the Super Science Nazis of the superhero universe. We blame so much stuff on this era of science (just look up the weird stuff people believe about the Philadelphia Experiment), and that gave me an aesthetic to start from. Bonus, it let me talk about the natural followup to a good thing (fighting Nazis) and the way our cultures managed that project (not preventing more Nazis later).

Rift Girl is from a city that was built as a self-sustaining environment in the desert in the United States, then super-science blinked into its own little parallel dimension where they could set the rules enough to make sure that entropy wasn’t going to be a big problem. The idea was that these cities would work as both safeguards against Nazi invasions of countries, and places to recruit and train the best possible Nazi-fighters ever. Then, because of funding cuts, these entire cities were lost to paperwork and time, and the Rift Cities fell out of contact with the Primal Earth. Some were decommissioned properly after only a few years, and one, Maddie’s home, was forgotten, lost in the shuffle, or deemed ‘too hard’ to recover.

Fast forward Some Years, and Rift City contacts Primal Earth, opening a portal they developed on their own with their limited materials, and send through messages and an Emissary – Madison Max. Thanks to a delay on broadcasts arriving in Rift City, she thinks it’s Prime Material Year 1999, and party for the millenium, even made herself some of those party glasses, and oh yes, to beat the shit out of Nazis.

Rift Girl punching hitler in the face
edited panel from America #1

Madison was chosen for her task because she was basically a super over-achiever student, someone who was both obsessed with the Primal Earth broadcasts they were able to decipher and well-trained and disciplined. Smart, educated, extremely strong in a super-sciencey way, and given special, strange, rift-warping powers by having broken the ‘seal’ on the Rift City tunnel to Prime Earth, she’s ready to be a full blown superhero, punching Nazis and Saving the Day, just like all the TV shows she’s been bootlegging from Primal Earth have shown her.

Also, thanks to the way light worked in Rift City, she – and the rest of the Rift City people – have no idea that the time spent in the Rift has made them all green, or rather, that anyone is any colour other than green. She thought everyone she was on TV was green, just like her, and now she’s having to adjust to that. Also the twenty year time gap. Also discovering that contrary to how she was raised, Americans think Communists are bad, even though they fought Nazis so well. That’s weird.

Mechanically, Maddie is a Radiation Armour/Street Justice Tanker. In a way, she’s a pastiche together of Superboy and Miss Martian from Young Justice, a super-strong but visibly strange person from another world. The City of Heroes universe has four clear examples of actual honest-to-god fascists to fight and you know, that’s on my mind lately.

Game Pile: The Settlers

Oh hey, look at this! You’ve noticed the pictures to start with, because humans are visual learners, and you’ve probably heard this name before, and it doesn’t have a number after it so that suggests it’s either a 2020 reboot (and do you see me doing that?) or a super old DOS game (and hey, guess what). You may have put it all together and thought: Hey, Talen’s about to talk about an old DOS game, that started a famous franchise, and we’re going to get all sorts of talk about how videogames back in the day were so good and the pixel is the natural storage unit of fun, because he’s old and that means he’s going to speak to the value of retro games right?

Wrong!

I wanted to do that, because I have fond memories of, when I was a child, playing the demo of this game, a 1993 DOS strategy game by Blue Byte entertainment, a game company that has since been acquired by and made part of the Ubisoft coalition. It was for the time, technically impressive, and commerically, wildly successful.

And going back to play it again, this game is wildly unapproachable.

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The Immaterial Material: D&D’s Stuff

You know for all that D&D is seen as a story of heroic fantasy it’s awfully bitsy. I don’t just mean the way that D&D is a game that encourages a truly remarkable amount of special acquisition of items for play – how many people do you know who have a miniature for their characters? – I mean that the story that plays out in the game winds up being about stuff. Lots and lots of stuff.

I’ve been writing about ‘stuff’ in games lately, reading about how we treat material objects, and while there’s definitely a different kind of materiality when you talk about a playing card, a dice and a meeple versus the text on a page that reads +3 longsword, there’s still something to be said about the way that D&D, 3.5 and 4e especially (because those are the editions I know) focus characters over an inevitable wardrobe full of stuff.

Now, there’s a reason for this, and it gets at one of the basic assumptions of the game that D&D wants to be. D&D ostensibly is a game about heroic fantasy, but connected to the idea of this heroic fantasy is a need for adventurers to be mostly, heroically empowered but still fundamentally scaled heroes that can be compared to normal people. It’s not the X-Men, it’s a place where your hero who swings a sword can’t be expected to cut through the bars of a prison, but if that sword was magical, then they could.

Now, this isn’t a bad thing per se, but it does tell you something of the basic assumptions of a world like Dungeons & Dragons and it’s a basic assumption that I’m used to seeing in a lot of, of all things, first person shooters. Yes, I’m probably going to talk about DOOM again, maybe.

When you start to talk about what stuff is used for in D&D, it’s pretty easy to see that stuff can do a lot more than people can do. People are limited, they’re made of meat, and they’re not capable of long-lasting, permanent effects. Even the wizard has to spend spell slots to fly, but a pair of winged boots will take you into the air as long as you like. The boots are expensive, and that’s another element (the relentless roll of capitalism).

One other thing is that items can be systematised, because objects, we believe, behave consistently and repeatedly. Despite the fact that the D&D world is typically represented as pre-industrial (except the good ones), these items are made and represented as if they are in their own ways kind of mass-produced; a jagged fullblade from one continent will work the same as a jagged fullblade from another.

This is another funny detail about this worldview: The items you’re building and examining are being treated as if they’re just making a thing that can exist; it’s not a matter of someone choosing to create something to overcome a task or have an effect (and indeed, if you approach a DM with a specific request for an item function that isn’t from the existing ruleset, that can be seen as asking for something ‘too specific’). It’s not that you made a weapon that does more damage when it hits an opponent in a vulnerable moment – it’s that you made a jagged or vorpal weapon, and those existing elements have math to them.

Stuff gets to be consistent! Stuff gets to work, and keep on working! We live in a world full of machines that work consistently until broken, and it seems that that plays into how we want magical devices to work in D&D. We don’t find that unrealistic, that a character can wander around in a small town’s economy’s worth of super-specialised consumer goods that literally nobody non-Adventurey could afford to meaningfully buy, we don’t find it unrealistic that these objects can be somehow mass produced and we don’t find it odd that these things can do much more than a person can do, because we accept that it’s okay for objects to do these things…

… and that it’s not acceptable for people.

This plays into the way that the worlds of D&D are made, by the way. Not only are places like the Realms and Eberron full of underground caches full of fantastically expensive and yet still practically useful antique hardware, they’re also places that mysteriously have investors and traders who can be bothered making these goods and trying to sell them on despite their fantastically obvious market problems.

This relationship to stuff is one of the things that breaks easily when you start trying to use D&D for other stuff. Infamously, the game D20 Modern tries to dispense with the relationship to stuff, making mose equipment mundane and focusing the game instead around the ‘wealth check’ that gave you a general idea of what you were capable of buying. The result was that your stuff suddenly didn’t feel like it mattered, but your character never mattered as much as their stuff – so you mostly spent your time piloting around a pair of guns and a skill list.

How To Be: Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist (In 4E D&D)

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

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

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

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

This time, we’re going to try and capture the feeling of Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist: A Lot Of Different Things.

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Game Pile: Overwhelm

Overwhelm is a 2018 action-horror exploration platform game that uses a palette that feels gameboyish except instead of green and dark green its palette ranges between white and oh dear red. It’s not a specific hardware style I recognise – you wouldn’t call it ‘1-bit’ or ‘4-bit’ graphics as if that answers questions easily, but it does have that same crisp few- colours-deployed-sparingly of other indie classics like Downwell and Minit.

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MTG: Stop Designing White Counterspells

Seriously. That’s it. Those four words.

Alright, fine.

White in the Throne of Eldraine standard period, isn’t great! It’s not very strong and uh, also in Commander, white’s not very strong, and so the Content Creation mill has kicked in and presented the brilliant idea of White Bad. The Magic community, being the reasonable well-rounded and thoughtful group of people they are have immediately leapt face-first into a wall.

We’re not good with handling conversations that need words.

One of the places that people have decided this needs addressing is by saying that white (which is the WORST COLOUR and ALWAYS SUCKS) needs to have CARD DRAW and RAMP and COUNTERSPELLS. Now, I’ve some sympathy to the problems presented before (and I’ve written about it), but the last one bothers me, because it’s the same, simple, looping argument. It’s very catastrophised and gets to involve things like ‘Maro doesn’t know what he’s talking about’ and ‘Maro hates white,’ which… yeah. Do I bust out the statistics and the historical context to address these arguments? Sometimes – it’s just it’s work, and because it’s social media, that argument drifts away and I have to go re-make it an hour later. I want it all centralised and convenient.

Here, then is my thoughts on why we should stop designing custom white counterspells. If you’re a Wizards employee, current or former, rejoice, because I’m not going to show any custom designs here or even talk about them in depth. I’m just going to go over the idea of white getting counterspells at all.

And first, some context!

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Building A Character in City of Heroes

I love building characters in City of Heroes.

This is going to be mechanical, by the way, not narrative – I have lots of views about how to build a character in a shared roleplaying space. This is about how I prioritise stats when I’m building characters in this game.

For those not familiar, City of Heroes characters get a number of abilities that let you do things, and then they get ways to improve those things. This is typically divided into ‘powers’ and ‘slots.’ Slots can hold things that improve things the power do – accuracy, damage, the time it takes to recharge, the duration of effects like stuns or holds – and so powers you want to do lots of things, you’ll give them lots of slots. You can’t just fill them with the same effect because there’s diminishing returns after the first two, which means powers tend to get a little bit of one thing, a little bit of another.

Now, that’s probably all that you’re going to get out of this unless you’ve played the game, because this is a big, complex system. If you really have no idea about it, the rest of what’s coming is going to be gibberish, so I’ve put the useful conclusion to all that here up front:


What we can see then is that – perhaps accidentally – this great big confusing mess of a game, that when you have a lot of systems at work, even if you have a fairly simple, linear method of progression (defeating baddies), there’s still a lot you can do to make the individual choices of a player expressive. Players can build towards their priorities.

Now, you might not be making an MMO, but you might be making a tabletop RPG. If you’re building in the modded space of games like Pathfinder or 13th Age, you’re in a similar space, and that’s when the time comes to look at your own creative efforts rather than necessary in terms of perfect balance, as instead about competing balance. See if you’re presenting players with enough choices that character building is full of interesting choices.

Also, if there’s something players should just have, then just… give it to them.


Now, if you want to keep going, here we go:

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MTG: Crumby Engine

Throne of Eldraine really has a mark on its name as being a set that led to one of the shortened banning spans. It’s really rough, because as bad as Oko is as both a character presence and the impact he had on standard, there are some cards in Throne of Eldraine I didn’t expect to like, and even missed wholesale that have crept up to be some of my favourite kinds of card.

I do like playing around with uncommon engine cards, and one of the sadder things to me about small sets or sets that do poorly is how uncommon engines often have to make do with only the cards in their set and that’s it. This isn’t engines like you see in Innistrad where we’re absolutely going to see more werewolves if we go back there, it’s the sets that failed to catch an audience. Sometimes an engine gets support outside of its block and still isn’t good enough (hi there, Earthshaker), and sometimes the engine card is great but there isn’t adequate support for it in the format (hi there, Sylvan Echoes).

And yes, I have tried making all of these work.

It’s a long path we’ve walked to get here, but well, you don’t come to my blog if you’re not willing to follow a trail of crumbs.

I don’t doubt we’ll see Eldraine again, but I suspect it’ll be a while and I suspect that while means that for now, Trail of Crumbs has to do all the work it can with what it’s got. Jund and Golgari Food has been tearing up standard for a while now, and it’s also a deck where you can make a meaningfully cheap version and don’t lose out on how the deck works. I even lashed out and bought myself some Lilianas and Vraskas and have a neat little standard two-coloured version of this deck (thank you Patrons).

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