Category: Making

Articles in this category are about tools and ideas about making things, and my belief that you can make things.

Hunter’s Dreams – Trick Weapons, Part 2

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

Last time, I discussed the basics of what a Trick Weapon does in Bloodborne, and today, I’m going to talk a bit about how 4th Edition D&D can handle some of those ideas.One of the reasons wanted to do this in 4th edition D&D is because the weapon system in 4e is really good compared to every other edition of D&D. Without delving into why and how other systems were bad (but they definitely were), let’s look at the things the weapon system in 4ed D&D has.

A 4th edition weapon has the following basic stats:

  • a proficiency type (simple, military, exotic)
  • a handedness (one-handed or two-handed)
  • a range (melee or distance)
  • a damage range (one or more dice representing the damage the weapon does)
  • a proficiency bonus (determining any bonus to hit the weapon has)
  • a weight (for encumbrance rules, which I’m no fan of, but this is our life)
  • a group (to represent what other types of weapons it’s like)
  • properties (one of a set of keywords that give the weapon specific abilities)

The weapon properties are as follows:

  • Brutal
  • Defensive
  • Heavy Thrown
  • High Crit
  • Light Thrown
  • Load Free
  • Load Minor
  • Off-Hand
  • Reach
  • Small
  • Stout
  • Versatile

Some of these keywords are very specifically utilitarian – a thrown dart would have Light Thrown, while a throwing axe has Heavy Thrown. A light thrown weapon uses your dexterity, a heavy thrown weapon uses your strength. Some of these, like Load Free and Load Minor relate to the unifying mechanics of the set they’re in (Crossbows and how you load new crossbow bolts).

The main thing about these keywords is that when you’re using the weapon, these keywords are very light on your cognitive load. Consider Defensive. A defensive weapon is as follows:

A defensive weapon grants you a +1 bonus to AC while you wield the defensive weapon in one hand and wield another melee weapon in your other hand…

Now, this has a few things that relate to it – it could be seen as kind of ‘choice intense’. You get an AC bonus with the specific condition presented here, but you need to pair a weapon with the defensive type, and you need another weapon, which must always be wielded in one hand. So hypothetically, any time you put this weapon down, your AC changes, and any time the weapon in your other hand changes, that also has a chance to change your AC. In a videogame with things like disarms or throwing weapons, this could be pretty complex.

In 4e though, a character is not likely to be disarmed; they are likely to configure how their character works, the way they approach combat, and once that decision has been made, this defensive weapon bonus just folds into the way the character works.

Brutal is my favourite. Brutal N means that when you roll a value of N or less on the damage dice, you can reroll it. This is a great mechanic because it can be a small nudge, statistically (a 1d12 weapon with brutal 1, for example, is an increase on average of .5 damage per attack) but it can feel really fantastic to cash in a 1 for even a 4. What’s more, some brutal weapons prevent feel-bad low rolls on ‘big’ weapons like the Executioner’s axe (Brutal 2), or intriguing, exciting experiences with weapons like the Mordenkrad (which rolls 2d6 – but both dice are Brutal 1).

There’s also the weapon group and proficiency type. Proficiency types push characters towards a certain general type of weapon based on their class’ background; rogues and fighters are likely to be familiar with most swords, for example, but clerics and druids aren’t. That means that you can gate access to things mechanically, which you can use to set the tone for some characters. Shamans and druids use clubs and staffs and spears, which aren’t that good as pure weapons, but it’s okay, because they’re not as likely to need them. If a player wants to reach out of their proficiency group, that’s fine too.

Finally, there’s the weapon groups – that is, the kinds of weapons these things are, what they’re like, and what they do. In older D&D editions, there was a trend towards trying to put a weapon in a big group (simple, martial, exotic) and that’s it; special training may refer to a specific weapon, but then you got weird things like how the Bladesinger would refer to a character using a longsword or rapier or elven rapier. Instead, in this case, weapons fit into general groups, and weapon styles or feats can refer to doing attacks with types of weapons. Most interestingly, weapons can have multiple groups – so if you build a character who can do things with polearms and things with axes, a weapon that is a polearm axe represents an intriguing opportunity to do both.

These are good properties because the mean that the experience of using these weapons is qualitatively different than in other systems. You set the weapon up, and then you use it – Notably, there are a lot of things these weapon properties don’t ask you to do.

  • They don’t include a lot of memory issues
  • They don’t ask you to commit within the action economy
  • They can handle choices made during the attack, like versatile
  • They don’t want to be too specific

There aren’t any weapons that have a unique property; none of these weapons have a unique mechanic. That means a weapon property wants to exist on at least two weapons. That’s good – that suggests any weapon property invented needs to be made with a mind to being reused. Anything too specific probably doesn’t want to belong here.

Next time, we’ll talk about how these two idea spaces interact.

Hunter’s Dreams – Trick Weapons, Part 1

I started work on Hunter’s Dream back in January, with the basic idea being a way to play a Bloodborne style game set using 4th Edition D&D. The reasons are pretty easy to grapple with – starting with ‘I like it’ and moving on to ‘Bloodborne’s play experience is a tactical game of resource expenditure, not a story game of improvisation.’

Still, 4th edition D&D is a game of systems, and that means when you want to put something in the systems, you want to put in some rules. In Bloodborne, the trick weapons are a big part of the tactical experience, and they make the game feel that particular steampunky way. How then, do we bring that feeling into 4th ed D&D.

When looking at implementing these trick weapons in 4E, we want to consider what they do and how they do it. That sounds like basic stuff, but those questions are going to illustrate the difference between the two types of games and how I can make something that feels right in a different game.

Trick weapons in Bloodborne are weapons; you use them to attack opponents, destroy objects, and occasionally interact with environments in surprising ways – think about the times you cut a rope or knock down a hanging treasure. Broadly speaking though, the trick weapons are weapons, which you use to hurt people.

When you use them, you can change them from one form to another. Now here is where we can get a bit McLuahnish, and point out that medium and messages intertwine. See, Bloodborne is a videogame, and you play it with a controller. That controller has a number of buttons, and you, as a player, are expected to track maybe about seven to eight of those buttons at a time in combat. That means any mechanic you introduce, if it’s going to happen in combat, needs a button, and it needs a reliable button, because this combat is pretty high stakes. The game design is also what I call ‘fixed animation’ length – that is, when you commit to an action, you’re often stuck with it, and unlikely to be able to assert control over it along the way.

Following that, then, is that the trick weapons need to be weapons where your ‘trick’ doesn’t take a lot of buttons or fine customising. If you do those things, it’d take more time, and that might make it too inconvenient. With only limited inputs, then, the Bloodborne trick weapons are very binary. They’re either ‘on’ or ‘off’ – and you can swap them between one thing or the other in-combat. There are a few oddballs, of course, but generally, these weapons exist in form A or B, and in combat, shifting from A to B or vice versa results in a special attack.

Most of these weapons change in ways that reflect the technology of the setting. For some, the change is a big physical object shift; for others it’s turning on a special ability for the next hit. The weapons can’t be ‘normal’ weapons, even if they mostly resemble them – swords that become hammers, axes that become polearms, that kind of thing.

These two states want to be qualitatively different, in the context of Bloodborne; you’ll sometimes get different damage types, different speeds of attack, and different reach. In this game, those are very small spaces. Attack speed can be fractions of a second; Reach can be important down to similarly small units of distance.

To summarise:

  • Bloodborne trick weapons are weapons
    • They’re primarily used to hurt people and interact with the environment
  • The trick of Bloodborne trick weapons is simple to use
    • This differentiates them from conventional weapons
    • There’s still room for mastery
  • These weapons vary in how they attack
    • Reach
    • Speed
    • Damage
    • Special effects

This is our outline, the parameters we want to consider. Next time we’ll look at the challenges of setting this up in 4ed D&D.

MTG: Designing Tokens

Here’s a thing I’m working on.

If you play Magic: The Gathering, you’ll know that some cards create tokens – which are kind of cards that aren’t cards. Basically, a token is a thing that a card can create that isn’t represented by a card. If you don’t know Magic, this is probably a bit boring. Feel free to go elsewhere.

Anyway!

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Making Light Novel Covers

Hey, you know those Light Novel covers I make?

I started making them as a joke, and that joke showed a receptive audience. Since they were so easy joke for me to make, and making them helped to inspire the creation of the kind of Light Novel they suggested, I figured it might not be a bad place for you to start on that kind of thing if you want.

Here’s a breakdown of what goes into the making of this cover:

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Making Hook Line Sinker

Hey, check this out.

This is what I call the cover card for our game Hook, Line & Sinker. At the time of writing this, I’m still testing this game, but I like this aesthetic for the game, and unless it tests badly for use, it’s probably going to stay this way.

I made this. This is my art. I’m really happy with how it looks, and I figured I’d like to show the process I went through to make this card, this specific card. Below the fold, then, is a step-by-step process of showing how I made this, and this is very close to my first look. This was all done with like, basic tools that you can find in most every graphics program.

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Making Fun: Years Later

Starting in November 2017, I decided that, with enough attempts made to explore methods of how, that I would start uploading videos to Youtube. I decided to build on my then-recently-finished Honours thesis as an experiment in seeing what I could create that could suit a rapid-fire fast-talking Youtube content form, and as a direct result, my first video series, Making Fun was made.

It’s been a bit over a full year now, and I thought I’d spend some time to look at these videos and see what I thought of them, what lessons I had learned, and what lessons I would recommend.

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Top Dog

Games are filled with opportunity for discovery. When you’re exploring a device with low stakes, you are in that time, playing with it – seeing the boundaries of what it allows. It is the play of a gear, more than the play of an actor. Play is how we find the limits of things.

Okay, rewind. A story. A story of a specific thing in a specific place.

Back in the day, in City of Heroes, when you first made a character, you’d complete a short little tutorial, and be dropped in front of the steps of the Atlas Statue in Atlas Park. It looked like this.

It’s a common thing for players to talk about, the first moment the got a flight-related travel power.  It was usually hover, but sometimes it was a jetpack. However you did it, when new players gained the ability to leave the ground, one of the most common things they’d do is use that power to fly up to the top of the Atlas Statue and look at what was there.

What was up there was an exploration badge.

These badges were a bit like achievements. You could put a badge on your character and it’d display under your name. More important than what this badge could do, though, is what this badge did.

When you explore, one of the most disappointing things to find is nothing. I have memories of struggling up mountains in World of Warcraft and New Vegas and finding blank textures and no reaction to my presence, a sign that I hadn’t actually achieved something difficult but just had done something the developers had never expected. That taught me to stop trying those things, to stick to the path, to give up on exploration and excitement. I turned the gear all the way in one direction, and the game didn’t react well to it, suggesting I never do that again.

In City of Heroes, you tried something, and the game found you when you got there, and said hey, yeah. This kind of thing works.

The Top Dog badge encouraged players from the earliest point to always look on top of things, around things, to think in terms of what counts as worth exploring. It was a good idea, and I think that it rewarded players for being playful with the world.

Blocking out a Card

Hey, here’s a thing I was working on in February. You may have seen it on twitter.

Here’s a cut link because this is going to show full images of cards and those things are loooong. Oh and pre-emptively, these cards have been munged by Twitter because I could not be hecked to re-export these progress shots.

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Form Informs Function

I’m looking at this game, Yamatai.

It’s this big, bulky beast of cardboard, a real classic Euro of dear god, there are how many bits? At its root, it’s a game of laying paths and fulfilling economic requirements. In fact, you can almost punctuate Yamatai as a sentence with a lot of asterisks – you place boats* on a map* to fulfill goals* that earn money* to build structures* to earn victory points*. And every single * indicates a place where the game has a specifically designed system meant to make that particular action more complicated.

If you remember me talking about alignment systems as plumbing, then this is the kind of game where you work with a lot of plumbing to make it work. It isn’t a bad idea, most games are simple systems rendered difficult by complications after all, Bernard Suits and the willing overcoming of optional difficulties and what not, but anyway, in this game, there are these tiles that determine special game actions you can take and how fancy your faction is regarded, known as Specialists. They look like this: This is how they actually look. They have these names. The rulebooks specify what they do, but never who they are, and while we can talk for a bit about mechanics informing character, it does feel a bit like a swizz to turn these people into these tiles that represent actions. These people aren’t reduced to what the can do, they’re reduced to one action only, which is good for a big and complicated game that already has too many bits going on.

Why are they people, though?

These could be machines, or flags, or they could be brokered trade details (and maybe even decorated to look like them) or faction histories or – there are lots of things these tiles could be. They’re not. They’re people. They’re named like they’re people.

To spin this around to one of my own designs, I’m working on this small game (at the moment – it’s probably long done by the time this goes up) where there are only eighteen cards, and they each represent parts of a plan. What’s tripping me up at the moment, though, is the challenge of what verb form to put the card names in.

I’m not trying to bag on Yamatai (here) for reducing Asian People To Objects (again, here). I’m thinking about the ways we talk about mechanical objects and their purposes. How we choose them. How to make them consistant.

Janet Murray once expanded Caillois’ model of gameplay with its agon and alea and mimicry and ilinx and described a form that Caillois hadn’t considered, of rhythmos. Her idea was that some forms of rules satisfaction came from making rules that worked cleanly together as rules, and that helped drive gameplay. This is a very real effect, and one that you’ll notice if you miss it.

And so, here I am, up late, worrying away, like a beaver at a twig, thinking about conjugation and the card-tile non-people of Yamatai.

Examining 3 Wishes

If you’re bothered by seeing designers scrutinise other designer’s designs explicitly to change them then you might want to check out now. I personally advocate for this practice very hard, since it’s both important to demistify the lie that games spring out of the aether, but I know that some people are both more precious and more sensitive to the idea of ‘idea theft.’ Since I put a ton of my design work out there on this blog, you can probably guess that I don’t have that same fear.

In the simplest sense, what I’m doing here is play. I am playing with this game, with its design. It is more akin to the play of a gear than to the play of an actor, but it is still play.

This is an examination of how a game can give you ideas for another game, it’s not about things the designers ‘should’ have done, or things that they should have presciently known better about.

Onward!

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MGP: Children’s Games

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

Making games for kids is a challenge.

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March Shirt: GEN 8 STARTERS!

Woop woop let’s back this up!

If you’ve been following the schedule I’m trying to keep to (and why, why would you do that), you’ll notice I’ve been putting out one shirt design, every month, and I post that shirt late in the month. No real reason to post it late, I just thought ‘eh, sure,’ and put it there arbitarily. That’s why I showcased my Lovin’ Smoochin’ Journey Referencin’ shirt about a week ago.

But last night (for me as I write this), Pokemon Direct showed off the next generation of Pokemon, and showed us three starters and look at that, I did fanart reasonably quickly, and – well, dangit, here we go, three shirt designs. Plus, since they reference Pokemon, there’s a non-zero chance they’ll be gone in a few days, so heck it, here, check them out.

Here are the designs:

And here the design is on our friendly gormless supposedly unisex Redbubble model:

And here’s the design being modelled by the Teepublic ghost:

This design is available on a host of shirts and styles, go check them out! You can get these designs on Redbubble or on Teepublic (Grooky, Scorbunny, Sobble)!

Should go back to the normal schedule next month!

February Shirt: Shippin Lovin Smoochin

This month I wanted to celebrate smooching. I didn’t talk much about fandom and shipping, though, and that’s kind of a bummer. I did some other designs about specific ships, a bit of snarky references to things that weren’t very smoochy, and generally got meanspirited. I instead decided to rededicate my design to something that was very pure, very sweet, and very nice looking, and what resulted is a festival of pink and pastel.

And here the design is on our friendly gormless supposedly unisex Redbubble model:

And here’s the design being modelled by the Teepublic ghost:

This design is available on a host of shirts and styles. If you like the look, I can see about making the individual badges into stickers.

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

4th Edition’s Space Problem

Normally you’ll hear me be pretty positive about 4th Edition D&D. I’m a strident defender of the game, which is made easiest by a number of the complaints about the game being entirely fake. It’s easy to be a righteous defender of something against blatant lies.

Still, there are flaws with 4th Edition D&D, which shouldn’t be any kind of surprise and yet here we are. Let’s talk about one of them. Heck, let’s talk about a big problem, and it’s a problem that’s structural. It’s so structural it doesn’t even relate to a specific class, as much as it relates to the way that classes get made.

Classes take up too much space.

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Smooching Boys In Moon Light Moon Knight

There really is no better time than now, here in Smooch Month, to talk about something I made that is meant to be Smooch Media. If I’m going to stand here and talk about smooching and media about smooching, and characters I want to see smooching it seems a bit hypocritical of me to act like I’m outside this space and can make big, sweeping impartial statements.

Because I, dear reader, have made smooch media. Most of it, you don’t know about. But for now, let’s talk about a specific piece of smooch media I co-wrote, and let’s talk about the smoochy part of it I have the most opinion on: the boy.

In 2018, as part of Light Novelber, I wrote, with Caelyn Sandel, a short (50~ pages) light-novel style story called Moon Light, Moon Knight. This short story is about a trans magical girl who heals monsters made up of broken sadness with a shotgun of silver, and her werewolf boyfriend.

We wrote this novel in a very direct way; we blocked out a few story ideas, then just put together a really rudimentary story structure (meet, develop, resolve), and filled in scenes with characters talking to each other. Sometimes we back-and-forthed individual scenes, sometimes we did longer form passages of worldbuilding solo. There were revisions and there were notes. We’re both very experienced storytellers, so none of what we did was, to us, hard. Maybe I’ll tell more about the process of how bits of the book got made some other time.

But.

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MGP – The Mistake Of Chin Music

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

When I made Chin Music, there were three basic things coming together. First, the idea was to try and make a game that wanted to be played quickly, but wasn’t real time. Real time rules can be challenging to make work, but the purpose of real-time play is usually some degree of tension. The idea that came together was of a game that evoked a fight, and which I could produce quickly and easily without calling on an artist.

Now, I want to make it clear if you think I’m rubbishing Chin Music. I love Chin Music. It’s one of my favourite games I’ve made. I like how it looks and I like how it plays. But there are two Chin Musics – a beta model that was printed, and a proper version that you can buy now.

The basic mechanic of Chin Music is a bit like Snap. You lay down cards with sound effects on them, and list the sound effects in a row of the stack so far. Then, when you messed up, players flipped the stack over, checked how powerful the gang of hooligans outside you’d antagonised, and then you won or lost points based on that. Players could see the back of other players’ cards, so you’d know generally how dangerous the gang would be. The real-time aspect of the game is that the longer you take on your turn, the harder it gets to remember the stack of cards. You want to pass the turn as fast as possible just as a function of memory.

Here’s the problem: That second mechanic sucks for a game that wants to move fast, and it jerks the whole game to a halt when you need to check it. The mechanic that replaced it was much simpler: When you mess up, another player can call you out for it, and if you did mess up, you shuffle those cards and put them into your own deck. This meant that there needed to be a few more cards, and that meant the card backs needed to be cleaned up, and then since the deck got a bit bigger, I could put the game into a cardboard tuckbox (technology we didn’t really embrace fully until 2018). Overall, this means that early versions of Chin Music are, while perfectly functional, really not as good as the final versions of it, and that bums me out.

But I still put the first version up for sale, in a rush, because I didn’t want to miss making ‘a game a month.’ This was a bad decision, because if I’d postponed it a week or two, nobody would have really noticed. I’d have gotten the first version, found the problem, been willing to address it then, and just delayed the game.

This is one of the ways the printing time kicked me in the butt. My first prototypes of this game were made with playing cards and I found the awkwardness of the scoring system was – in my mind – tied more to my handwriting and the cheapness of the prototype than the actual problem in the game.

I wanted to release a game a month, and since I was doing it without a plan or a contingency, and doing it without clearly defined boundaries of what did or did not count as a release, or any way to recover from mistakes, I now have stock of a kinda-bad version of a game I really like. Let that be a lesson for you: If you’re going to do a project like mine, give yourself defined limits and boundaries, and ways to recognise and handle failure.

Battlemind Woes

At the time this post goes up, I will have already played this year’s Weekend D&D game. If things went as I expected, I’d have played a Battlemind, modelled on Gilgamesh from Fate: Grand Order, in that he’s a reckless garbage boy, a property-rights-confused wanna-be Hero of the Sands of a half-Gerudo.

This has meant looking at the class the Battlemind at some length, and let me tell ya, it ain’t great.

For those of you not familiar with 4th Edition D&D, here’s the basics: The Battlemind is a defender class, meaning that in combat, it wants to spend its time forcing enemies to prioritise it – it’s a form of control. The defender wants to make enemy actions as fruitless as possible by making those actions directing attacks at someone who can best handle it, and does this by being the toughest person on the field and then making it hard for enemies to attack other people.

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Examining Murder Of Crows

If you’re bothered by seeing designers scrutinise other designer’s designs explicitly to change them then you might want to check out now. I personally advocate for this practice very hard, since it’s both important to demistify the lie that games spring out of the aether, but I know that some people are both more precious and more sensitive to the idea of ‘idea theft.’ Since I put a ton of my design work out there on this blog, you can probably guess that I don’t have that same fear.

In the simplest sense, what I’m doing here is play. I am playing with this game, with its design. It is more akin to the play of a gear than to the play of an actor, but it is still play.

On the other hand, I’ve spoken to one of these designers, Eduardo Baraf, he’s a lovely guy and I don’t want to make him feel bad. This is an examination of how to make a different game idea out of one of his ideas, it’s not about things he ‘should’ have done, or things that he should have presciently known better about.

Onward!

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Project: You All Meet In An Inn

The Pitch: You’re playing a quest-giver at a local tavern, trying to make sure you hand your quests to the idiots most likely to succeed at it. You’re not the only one, though, and all the other players are vying to lure these adventurers on their particular quests, like a sort of ambulatory workboard. You need to pull together adventurers, earn coin to incentivise more parties, and hopefully get your own ends met by the end of the game.

Details

You get a bunch of cards known as Quest Cards. Those Quest cards have some flavour on them, and then a set of symbols indicating what they need to be completed, and maybe have marks on them indicating things they ban (like maybe the quest to seduce the necromancer bans all ‘holy’ characters).

Those quest symbols are also on the Adventurers cards. These cards indicate the kind of thing they can do, and have a card back indicating if that adventurer is amenable to questing alone, in a pair, or as a full party.  They’re arranged in a grid of three rows, like so.

When you use a quest card, the adventurer (or adventurers) head out, and sit on that quest until … some timer. Not sure. Whatever. It’s a turn-based game. When they finish the quest, they return to the bottom of the deck they came from, and you get some fraction of the rewards and quest objectives. You can spend the reward money (hey, you think quest-givers are giving you everything your work earns them) to add to other quests, which means other adventurers are more likely to get them.

This whole game is modelled on Splendour; the grid arrangement, and the sort of economy of opportunities. There may be something like Splendour’s investments, too – maybe some of your quests make all your quests later easier because you have a reputation to uphold.

Needs

This game is going to need art. Since I now have a fund of sorts from Patreon I’ve been considering comissioning a bunch of adventurer art, of characters hanging around in an inn, but there’s an added challenge here: I don’t think I have it in me to design some 100+ characters, let alone give them enough to be meaningfully personable without using things like templates.

This has me considering maybe running a kickstarter with a cheap tier that’s just ‘we make your OC into a card and you get a nice high-quality copy of the art.’ I dunno.

At this point the volume of cards has me wondering if it needs to be a tight small-box 120 card game (as I make on Drivethrucards) or if this wants to graduate to be the next big thing as a small-box game that comes with tokens and markers.

If you think this sounds cool, if you think you’d want to chip in for art of your character, or if you’d back it on kickstarter, encourage me, dangit. I don’t know what I should be doing.

Pokemon Badges

Hey, did you see my On My Way To Victory Road shirt design? That was built around little window views of my renditions of the Indigo league badges. In order to make that design, rather than use anyone else’s art, I remade all those badges myself – these are digital drawings of the original art.

Anyway, you might want bigger versions of those artworks for some reason, and hey, here, you can have them. These badges might make fun designs you can use on forum signatures or whatever.

January Shirt: On My Way to Victory Road!

Here’s this month’s t-shirt design!

Remember that feeling, when you were playing Pokemon Red or Pokemon Blue, when you realised you were collecting a lot of those badges, when you looped back around through Pallet town, when you realised that you had on you symbols, these signs of what you’d done, and now you were someone people could recognise as being achieved?

Here’s the design, on its own:

And here the design is on our friendly gormless supposedly unisex Redbubble model:

And here’s the design being modelled by the Teepublic ghost:

This design is available on a host of shirts and styles. If you like the look, I can see about making the individual badges into stickers.

You can get this design on Redbubble (assuming they don’t think I stole this artwork I drew) or on Teepublic.

Cancon 2019 – Aftermath!

Okay, that’s CanCon over!

The short story is we went to Cancon this weekend, and there, we sold games and bookmarks and postcards and other neat things and we stayed in a nice dorm with our friend, and we all had a Pretty Good Weekend and came home. We ate some pizza, we played some games, we talked to people and we had a bunch of fun. Then we came home.

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A Good F**king Idea

For christmas last year, my sister got me a copy of F**k, the game. On the most surface level, this game isn’t one that interested me – it’s basically a party game, in that particular character of a game where you don’t have to pay much attention and it’s not super important how well you play. Plus, a plain white box with stark san-serif fonts always makes me think of Cards Against Humanity, a game I definitely don’t want. This meant I never really investigated F**k.

When I got the game, I did a quick investigation, and in a game designer way, it wasn’t actually very hard to put it together. The game is a stroop effect engine, and then includes a bit of spice in the form of Snap-like mechanics. You have cards you’re trying to get rid of, and getting rid of them involves not making mistakes – then the cards try to make you make mistakes.

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Project: Hunter’s Dreams

The Pitch: It’s a 4th Edition D&D Setting/Modbook which is about playing Bloodborne and Castlevania style gothic horror hunters. Combat is not about crawling through dungeons and parselling out careful resources, but instead about short tactical fights of 2-3 sequences of fights in a row, known as Hunts, usually with solo-class enemies rather than larger groups.

Between each hunt, the players invest effort into the thing that forms the core of their group, their Nexus, determined by the type of group they are. You can build your own keep or workshop, or network of connected hunters, depending on the type of game you choose to play.

The aim would be to keep the tactical, movement-based miniatures-driven combat of 4th Edition D&D, and giving you a sort of ‘boss rush’ way of playing. DMs don’t need to design larger dungeons, but rather just small connected places for the hunt to find their prey, and thanks to the hunters being hunters, these encounters naturally can take the shape of kill-boxes, or containment points.

Details

This would be a gamebook, first and foremost; a single book that’s designed to work with Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. Hypothetically, if your players are into other systems, it might be designed to handle that kind of cross-compatibility, but the basic point is to be a game system for a game I like. The game would then be made up of a series of modules that you snap together to make your campaign.

One module would be the rules for creating your Nexus. A Nexus sets some ground rules for the style of campaign you play in and also works against the ‘murderhobo’ problem that more free-moving campaigns have. A Nexus is something that roots you back to a space – things and people you can’t leave, and it’d have systems for checking on or recognising the nature of the location the Nexus is in. You’d decide at the start of the game if you want to control one of three options:

  • A Keep. Your hunters are known and important, and they have to manage and marshall the resources of the town. They may rule the town, literally, and they go out and hunt to push back the boundaries of dark around the town. This is for your more basic ‘heroic fantasy’ feeling, and have a system for managing competing needs in the keep. Think of it as being an anti-dracula, or princesses defending their castle. People like princesses right.
  • A Workshop. Your hunters are part of an organisation within a city, and they relate to the people who live and move in that city. They can be trusted or distrusted, liked or disliked, and the central establishment of the workshop means they can benefit from the connected resources of the city. Workshop games are more like your Bloodborne, where people might recognise that you are a hunter, not necessarily that that means they should respect you.
  • A Secret. Your hunters don’t have any physical location that they centrally can meet at. They’re all people aware of a secret of the world, and that means in their city or town, they’re the ones who can understand what the monsters are here for. This is for your Buffyverse kind of hunters, though set in a more gothic horror setting. In this situation, inspecting the monsters and hunting them may be seen as foolish or dangerous. There may be no idea of ‘a hunter’ and part of the challenge of The Hunt is making sure you can gather your friends together in time.

One module would be about dealing with monsters and classifying them based on their grouping. Back in Ravenloft there was the mechanics of Fear, Horror and Madness, which kind of did a similar thing – in this case, the idea is that monsters represent types, and exposure to/interaction with a type can change how you react/treat them. This would be a space for ideas like beasthood or maybe insight from Bloodborne. If players want to contain the powers of the nightmares, this is where I’d put that kind of idea.

Another module would be for handling gear. The 4th ed weapon system is really good for things like transforming/trick weapons, or weapons that evolve naturally over time. Your Nexus might be able to replace a conventional gear system – with gear and abilities levelling up based on a budget/availability. One of the funny things with 4ed is that most gear was just meant to get replaced by level – you were never meant to plow your entire budget into a thing that you could hypothetically pay for, after all. Just making it so ‘downtime can be spent to upgrade gear’ seems an obvious way to streamline gear and reduce the quantity of knick-knacks that are  a bit of a design problem.

Another module would be for ‘Races.’ Particularly, it might be useful to make a system for turning a lot of Races into Ancestries or Heritages, the idea that in this culture, what a Dwarf represents mechanically is just another type of human, and to put the races that are blatantly visually monstrous in a basket that let players play twisted, monstrous hunters. Imagine being a minotaur trying to hide in Yarnham.

Needs

Playtesting, for a start. It’s also a big project. Art for RPG books is always a thing. Fortunately, this is something I’m going to want to exist so I can run it, so that’s going to mean that even if it never gets made/polished and sold as a big project, this guide will still be useful as a reference point if I share development on this blog!

TableTop AI: Dark Souls, Part 1

Okay, no preamble, let’s talk about making Dark Souls monsters in a board game.

I haven’t got the Dark Souls board game and I don’t think that having it would actually be illuminating. I’m not trying to find out how the makers of Dark Souls would do a thing, I want to find out how I would approach a problem of representation.

That out of the way, here’s a puzzle.

How would I make a Dark Souls Monster in a game I can make?

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MGP – Confronting My Limits

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

I’ve remarked, but not made explicitly clear, that the game-a-month plan had some problems. In the past I’ve talked about some general problems, like lead times and the awy the Pacific Ocean imposes itself between me and my goal of Making More Stuff. But rather than present that as my problem, I want to talk to you about your problem, if you want to try this same project.

There’s this idea in media making (and a lot of other places) that gets brought up called agility. Agility is the measure of how quickly or how well you can do… things. It’s often used as  a shorthand for how quickly you can shift from doing one thing to doing another, different thing, or how quickly your thing can implement major changes. You might hear the term pivot get used.

I’ve remarked that making card games has a problem with prototyping. It’s just a mechanical concern; if you want to make a game like Magic: The Gathering, it’s not as simple as making a bunch of proxies; you kind of need some way to bulk create pieces to playtest with. Often that can make prototype printings, and that means that these games require a certain scale.

It’s very hard to get to that scale fast.

There are a bunch of games I’ve made that I couldn’t playtest at the scale, and I couldn’t prototype properly. Then, to hit the convention schedule, those games got rushed, and as a result, the games were… well, a bit weak. Just the truth of it: The games were a little worse than they should have been, which is a thing that I really regret now. Playtesting is hard, scope problems make it harder, and I flew real fast, real hard and sometimes it didn’t work.

That’s the problem: What’s the solution for you?

I have three suggestions.

  1. EMBRACE PRINT-AND-PLAY. Make your games for smaller spaces. Don’t think of bouquet card games, at least not for your first games. You can put a PDF out there in the world, made as simply as possible, which is just meant to give people a way to get the game pices working. You can do a lot with print-and-play – boards, sheets, cards, all that stuff. You might learn that ‘shuffling’ is hard, but you still get the basics of how a game works done. Players who make Print-and-Play are really good at knowing how much work they want to put in.
  2. BOOKLET SUPPLEMENTS. You’re one person, working small and experimenting with mechanics. Use existing systems and make single-page variants. Make booklet mods. Make a game that only needs to work for a little while, or maybe make a booklet mod for a board game – like I’ve joked about doing for Monopoly.
  3. MAKE THEM FREE. One of the games I’ve made that’s most successful in terms of distribution is Simon’s Schism. It’s also one of the games with the most feedback… and it’s also free. There’s a fear to missing out on sales for your free games, but you won’t make a lot of sales, and when you’re not charging people for your time, you don’t have to feel bad about making edits or updates to these games. This is your first period making games: Make a corpus of games that are more about showing people your work than it is about making money off them.

Rulebook Template

Writing rules is very hard. I’ve remarked on this in the past, but a big part of what makes them hard can come in terms of forgetting to mention things. Earliest versions of The Botch didn’t include starting diamonds in the rules, which made the game extremely hard to play.

What I’ve taken to doing in recent designs is start with a Word Document that contains what I consider a solid working template. Anything that doesn’t fit in one of these parts, in this order, needs to be considered carefully:

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The Reunion: Setup Mechanic

Here’s the idea: Players sit down and assume the roles of actors reuniting after years apart, who used to work together on a successful, formulaic sitcom. After the sitcom, one member of the cast had a very successful career while everyone else did not – the ‘Star’ of the game.

The mechanic that sets this game up is that each player gets a card indicating their role and the degree of fame they have. Then, starting with the player with the highest value card, players close their eyes – meaning that the player with the highest value card has no idea about how anyone else’s career went, but everyone else can see the people who had more successful careers than they did.

This one-way information is meant to play into the game, because the sitcom was a mess behind the scenes. And the hopeful aim of the game is to create a short story, told in flashback, about what the sitcom was like, about what’d happened since, and about the kind of people they were, all told by the oblivious Star piecing together the narrative of what happened to a life that had nothing to do with them.

The obvious inspiration for The Reunion was Bojack Horseman, which has a lot to say about the way TV comedy gets made. The thing is, the stories of how TV series were made are all so full of extremely strange stories where so many things go wrong, where you can change or replace any given incident and you’d still have a distinct story.

Now, this central mechanic, where there’s a pyramid of knowledge, excites me because it’s a fun puzzle. One player has to start putting together four or five secrets from the things they can be told, while the other players are trying to tell their parts of a story without breaking character. At the same time, though, this isn’t guided – it’s not like Dog Bear where there’s someone in charge of the game who can be told to steer the game to an actual story point.

The really scary thing to me about this game idea is how do I keep it from getting Content Warningy? The whole point is to give players some reign to create, ideally something ridiculous and hyperbolic, but also with a dark twist as to what things were really like. And when you give people a set of prompts about the failures of a creative process, there’s always this part of me that worries people will take it to a really dark space.

In Dog Bear, there’s not just the Boss guiding the game who I can directly entrust with the authority to keep players from being assholes, but it’s also comically ridiculous, with its cyberetch and nanomachines. Not the same thing here. And now, these are the constraints that the design needs to overcome.

Bad Design As A Swear Word

People like to talk about game design.

More and more these days game design feels a bit like being the kind of people who have strong opinions on coaches in sport. It’s one of those things where there seem to be some sort of generally-agreed upon field of good versus bad decisions, a sort of external commentary option. This is Good Design Because. This is Bad Design Because.

There’s a language we use here, and I’m not sure it’s helpful.

It’s not helpful because the more I hear it, the more and more often people with no clue about games who nonetheless think of themselves as experts, which for now we’ll shorthand as gamer, we hear these gamers talk about game’s design as if there is game design that is good and there is game design that is bad, and the more your work belongs in the first group, the good-er it is.

My favourite example of this is an infamous criticism of Dark Souls 2.

See, back in Dark Souls, there’s this point about how some sections of the world connect to other parts of the world in a way that kind of makes sense. In Dark Souls 2, this is less of a clearly communicated thing. Oh, both Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 make conventionally-disconnected, teleporting-based maps, it’s not like one does and the other doesn’t.

In Dark Souls 2 there’s a windmill that you climb, and at the top of the windmill there’s an elevator. This elevator takes you from the top of that windmill, up into what seems to be an underground cavern full of lava and with another big fortress inside it that you then have to fight your way through, to get up to another boss you fight in a lake of lava.

This is generally brought out as an example of bad design, where these two elements don’t connect in the same way as the first game did. Now there are a bunch of ways to address this, but the best response, in my opinion, is who cares.

Design is not a bar you fill.

Design is not a percentage that you attain, as you complete the level.

Design is a sequence of choices made within the existing constraints of the project to achieve an intended end. That intended end can change, the constraints can change, the whole project can change, but nonetheless, design is not about attainable end goals as it is about choices.

Evoking game like game is making bad design into a swear word.

It also means that you treat good design like an act of emulation. You’ll treat doing good design as a task of making something that’s like something else. It creates this sort of culture of nitpickery, this conception of design as traits, rather than design as choices.

I’ve covered this topic before – about two years ago, now. Same example, too – Dark Souls 2 elevator, even!

But this one has progress bars, and more than that, this one comes up because I think that while the habit is a problem, it belies a bigger problem underneath itself. It is not that it is bad design to do X is a simplistic phrase. It’s that we bring up bad design when we’re trying to attack an entity, when we’re trying to prove something about it. Many, many times, what we’re trying to say is I don’t like this, and masking that want under the cloak of it being bad design.

It’s not an unuseful shorthand. For example, I still think most of the Assassins Creed games are ‘badly designed,’ because their mechanics do not hold together well in a satisfying way, or connect well to the way those games try to tell their story. Yet many times, especially in tabletop games, we will hear those words spoken to try and argue about the inherent quality of a thing – rather than its aims or its outcomes or its consequences.

We need to get better at being honest about what we like and why. And we need to learn to respect it when someone tells us what they like and why.