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.

4e: The Swallowers

There are tales told, in the deep and dark places of the world, about vast, floating multi-eyed magical monsters, their minds full of hate, seeing a world of imperfection and foulness that they refuse to abide, wanting to reshape and destroy it all at once. There are tales told about their variations and mutations, things that they see as vulgar but necessary – smaller versions of themselves, foul mutations and permutations.

But there are other variations, ones they don’t mean to make.

Swallowers are chaotic, anarchic creatures, who look like the famously powerful tyrants of the underdark, but sharing none of their ambition and hate. Instead, what they have is curiosity, bubbling up from within as they bounce and float around the world, exploring the world.

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Divisions of Play

I am, on the record, one of those people who spends their time pointing out that there’s not a hard dividing line between board games and videogames. That the nature of the different platforms is permeable, that there’s flex and give between the two, and just because one of them can do things better or worse than the other doesn’t mean that they’re separate disciplines.

Yet, while they’re both games, I do find myself thinking about them in different ways, certainly when the time comes to talk about them, especially here, on this blog in Game Piles. In broad terms, I tend to care about the point of videogames, and the engagement of board games.

I know that part of this is going to be industrial. There’s an entire set of games that are primarily marketed as linear narrative experiences, and even games that don’t necessarily present themselves primarily that way create the impression they do. Overwatch is a game with very little in the way of coherent, moving, narrative story that you want to follow along with, even though you spend literally every moment of that game as she is played running around in a gameplay loop that explicitly does not want to advance or reward that narrative.

I mean how often do you see me talking about games that are themselves pure play loops, with neither beginning or end? I milked Star Realms for three articles, but it was a board game first.

I think it’s kind of funny, too, because videogames, with their procedural rhetoric, are really good at making a point, but I’m not necessarily always sure I understand the point they’re trying to make. Games like Call of Duty (Pick One) are typically constructed to be in the vein of classic war movies, with the idea that Soldiers Are Good, But Wars Are Bad, but do they do a good job of that? Does that interpretation feel more clear than others? Is it coherent? These are the kinds of questions you can bring to bear on that kind of work.

Board games – which in this case includes things like card games and even narrative games and RPGs – on the other hand, make a lot of small stories. It’s not like they lack the capacity for narrative. I mean D&D is a plot engine with a combat system attached. When I talk about those games, though, you’ll notice I very rarely talk about the stories those games tell – even the ones that want to tell stories!

When I wrote about Imperial Settlers in my honors thesis, I did write about the narrative that game constructs, and the way different mechanical choices and incentives created strange, disrupting visions of what was or wasn’t important in that narrative; you could construct pyramids to house dead emperors as swiftly as you could construct new blacksmiths, for example. That was part of a critical analysis of how that game reinforced its values, and what I would do to address that in a competing design.

It does feel, to me, a lot like a type difference; I talk about board games one way, videogames another way. It even means that some kinds of board games – like Fighting Fantasy gamebooks – get to live in this limbo where I kind of don’t talk about them as themselves, but instead talk about them in this vague, gestural way, talking about the genre rather than the ideas in each version itself.

Now, is this a rule? Not necessarily. After all, there are some games I engage with just for the playing. I have put a lot of time into Picross,  for example. It is however generally worth my time to reflect on what kinds of things I think about when I engage with different types of game. What about single player board games? There, there’s a narrative I constructed – should I share that? What about digital board games? Should I be telling stories about the D&D games I’ve played in?

I sometimes say that my aim is to Use Games To Talk About Anything, and while glib it is important to me to show the way that games both enable conversations and how they connect to all culture (which in turn, connects to everything else). This is mostly, using games to talk about the ways I talk about games.

We Are The Night: Speaking The Notion

I wanna make a Blades in the Dark hack?

This is a little trickier, for me, than you might think. I have a lot of system mastery of some games, but Blades in the Dark is both elegant mechanically and frictionless in action, which means that the normal things I start to tinker with might not work. I find myself trying to respin a spiderweb.

I’d normally look to templates, or look for a series of guidance on that matter. And uh, like, the main video series with insight into it is both pretty old and pretty cumbersome to grapple with and the video is much more ‘two dudes have a conversation’ and one of those dudes is Adam Koebel. Plus, a lot of the advice is more ‘hey, you can use this to do things like this’ without giving much actual concrete information about system purposes and the way things change. It’s just not a fun scene.

Back in 2019 I made some posts as I explored what I’d need to make a 4th edition mod called Hunter’s Dream. In the end, I hit most of my goals for what I’d need in a top down structural way, and the remaining work is just about executing on it – filling tables, and stuff, and 2020 happened and that kind of project wasn’t really pursuable. Still, documenting ideas is kind of my job right now, and the actual process was really interesting. It was writing about the thinking of my process of making and documenting that process.

How did we start huh.

Well, the way I started on Hunter’s Dream was by outlining the thing I wanted the game to be about. The fantasy I wanted to enable. Then I looked at the systems in the game, and the things that the game rules needed to be able to include, like an ovearching theme. I talked about mechanics I knew I wanted to include. And then I looked at that, and took into account what work I’d need to do to realise it.

Well.

Okay.

Here then, is the pitch:

No, wait, here’s the notion.

I like Clay and Corey. I think they are great. I think they have great minds for character design and storytelling and problem solving. I think that playing with them in an RPG would be cool. But I don’t want to make them have to learn a point based bullshit-em-up for a RPG system to make superheroes, because all superhero TTRPG Systems I’ve ever encountered have been shit. But what isn’t shit is Blades in the Dark with its fluid sense of narrative and cinematic willingness to play with time and planning.

And from there we get a plan:

  • I want to make a game that lets you play the Dollars from Durarara!!, Robin from We Are Robin, the Spiders from Into the Spider-Verse and operators from Global Frequency.
  • I want players to feel like a modern-day ‘gang’ that represents a surrogate vigilante government for people whose government has abandoned them.
  • I want characters to wear colours or signs or symbols that say we belong, you don’t.
  • I want to make a game that shows you what you’d fight for.

Blades in the Dark is already a game about a gang, with a unified theme and presence, that controls an area, fighting with factions around them to achieve your ends. In Blades it’s all pre-emptively designed to the conclusion ‘that sucks and you’ll die soon.’ What I want is the idea that players can build their little story about saving their sector, beating some villains, having that taste of victory, all in an environment that feels like stories I enjoy, and that speak to a truth about what All Cops Are.

And now I have mentioned the idea. It’s somewhere. And I have to follow through on it if people respond to the idea well.

Right now, the name I have for this project is We Are The Night. It may change, because that’s also the name of a German Vampire Lesbian Erotic Thriller. But we’ll see.

MTG: June’s Custom Cards: Gruul Turfs!

You know with a whole six months of daily custom cards under my belt there’s the very real chance that I’m going to wind up doing this daily for the rest of the year. Wild.

Anyway, the theme for this month, based on it being Pride Month! is a full month of red-green cards that include the word land. Why? Because there’s no room for Terfs on Gruul Turf.

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How To Be: Daryun (in 4e D&D)

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

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

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

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

We have a bit of a special one this month: Not a character I know, or am familiar with, but who has been in my life and around me for some time. We’re going to look at the character Daryun from The Heroic Legend of Arslan, a novel series some thirty-five years old, which was reimagined and reinvigorated through the heroic work of Hiromu Arakawa. So, imagine a deep, long-running heroic fantasy war epic, which then had one of the greatest living manga-ka come through and give it a bit of a brush up.

We’re going to talk about a hot prince’s best friend, who he loves so much he was buried with him (but, in a not gay way, if you believe the fandom wiki): Daryun.

5 Dual Wielding 4e Characters

You know what’s cool?

Dual Wielding!

No doubt your favourite professional full-time know it alls have told you that dual wielding is unrealistic and bad and sucks and deprives you of a shield, but my counterpoint is shut up nerd. And when I’m thinking about extremely cool things where the realism doesn’t matter, I think about Dungeons & Dragons: 4th Edition

Which is the best edition.

Here then are five different ways you can wield it both ways:

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CoX: Vent

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


 

“So, are they fire, or rock?”
“Oh my god, they can’t be both,”
“Or something else, in between?”
“They’re going to have to make their mind up.”

It’s tough being a lava-powered enby. Humans can handle the ‘my skin turns into lava’ part but they get all weird about the ‘gender’ thing, like that’s somehow the big deal. Elementals don’t know what the gender thing is even about, but they’re also really bad company when you talk about music and fashion.

Vinn’s doing the best they can, with what they got.

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Queerer City

You know that game I talk about, from time to time, that game I play, that game, you know that game, that lets you play a character that you create, made through an immersive character customisation system, then you get to choose how they look, get to pick their graphical representation, get to choose maybe how they relate to the world, some beloved contacts and friends and factions that mean a lot to them, and how there’s a lot of fanart of characters made in that game and how they’re all about getting to express and explore this element of a wonderful world with this really exuberant kind of approach to expressing yourself? That game? You know? Final Fantasy XIV?

I kid, I kid. Final Fantasy XIV is a fascinating game full of interesting stuff, I’m told, and it’s fun, I’m told, and I should give it a shot, I’m told. It’s definitely got all the makings necessary for this particular phenomenon – though I don’t imagine it will cross the final threshold necessary any time soon.

See, what I want to talk about here is how a game dies, and what rises out of it.

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MTG: Pride

Magic: The Gathering, a Wizards of the Coast product, a Hasbro Partner, is doing things for Pride this month. As they do. As they have done. And it’s hard to grapple with Corporate Pride and this game as a material space doing deliberate actions to include more people.

I think it’s important to remember there are three basic layers of ‘Pride’ at work here. And every detail about Wizards of the Coast as it relates to pride, as a deliberately inscrutable internally silent business, is going to have to be filtered through the fact that this is still the company that treated Orion Black Like This.

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Shacking Up: Queer Compatibility Card Game Ideas

Okay, so, basic little card game idea: I’m thinking about a game about hooking up at cons.

Now let’s be clear, this is not a game about salacious details at cons. I am not, and have not been, a casual con sex haver, and queerness is not explicitly tied to queer sex. But queer sex is a thing many queer people do, from time to time, in between getting milk and playing Fallout: New Vegas. And when it comes to queer furry cons, I understand that a lot of people, without people to connect to in their home places, will take the opportunity to have some low-commitment, experimental and experiential up-shacking with people who make them feel connected and related to. And so, a game.

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How To Be: Illidan Stormrage (In 4E D&D)

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

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

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

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

Now, are you prepared?

No.

No, you are not prepared.

We’re going to talk about how you can become Illidan Stormrage.

 

4e: Mind Control

Content Warning: I’m going to discuss some mind control stuff in ways that violates consent. Not any specific outcomes from that, but if you find the whole vibe icky, that’s what this is about.

Also, other, I guess, content warning: This isn’t about the horny topic of mind control, so if that’s the vibe you’re hoping for, sorry?

Rather what I want to talk about here is the way Dungeons & Dragons uses Mind Control across its multiple iterations and how, as tends to happen when I talk about it, 4th Edition did it in the best way.

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CoX: Boss Rush

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


All the power in the world doesn’t matter if your mind can’t bring it to bear. There’s this whole study of the way brains ‘chunk’ information, neuroheuristics, the way the brain sets up tools for learning and managing what it’s learning about.

Rush was able to make the system containing the hardlight point nanites – but she needed a heuristic to manage the information. The result is her immensely powerful, immensely flexible tech rig, a kind of super suit made to be lightweight, transportable, and heavily adaptable, as long as the wearer can manage to explain to the device what she needs.

The gamer nerd and the tech geek collided, and thus, the hero identity Boss Rush was born.

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Game Pile: Hard Wired Island

Disclosure: I backed this book on kickstarter, and contributed art to it. I designed the flag of Grand Cross. I was not paid for this work, and asked for my payment to instead be given to charity. I’m friends with the developers – like, we know what kind of anime one another likes.

You can go get Hard Wired Island on itch.io and DrivethruRPG.

 

Fundamental, Parallel, Synthetic

There is an ongoing struggle in how we want to talk about games when it comes time to talk about their complexity or accessibility. And even there, in that sentence I’ve already kinda fouled up, because there’s an assumption there about what makes games accessible.

There’s this term we use a little bit called gateway games, which tends to get used to describe games that are reasonably approachable, often in a small box, and don’t tend to need a lot of emotional or narrative investment. These games tend to be abstract, though aren’t always – you may see Coup or Resistance referred to this way, as well as other games like Werewolf.

Now, the term ‘gateway’ isn’t honestly very nice: it’s primarily used to evoke the phrase gateway drug, which is itself, a dumb term because it was used to try and demonise Marijuana, and that’s all fraught with the racism of the war on drugs. And games aren’t, despite what you may jokingly say, drugs. Drugs are drugs.

There have been some attempts to get different terminology for this kind of game. Introductory games is one common category, but that creates the impression that the games exist to get you into other, ‘better’ games – there’s an implied progression. I also have heard foundatoinal game, where the games serve as a solid foundation for understanding game mechanics. That’s not a terrible term, but it also has that implication of progression.

What I use now, when I talk about this to students, is the three terms of fundamental game, parallel games, and synthetic games.

A fundamental game is a game where there is, essentially, one system. Again, Codenames and Werewolf fit in this space. There’s a very limited amount of stuff a player can do. It doesn’t have to be simple – after all, games like Crokinole and Bowls are games of a single system, but anyone who plays them will tell you the enormous challenge represented by just getting better at the games. Most sport games are fundamental games: One major mechanic, with everything just in service of that.

Parallel games are where there are numerous systems but they don’t necessarily interact. A Parallel game may let you focus on a single element, like your victory point salad games. A parallel game may also be a game where those different systems are things you can learn and focus on in your own time – consider how in American football, there’s a distinct set of skills for defensive and offensive play. Those are two systems that work in parallel with one another. Still, you can check out a host of games where players can ignore systems to engage with what they like to see parallel games.

Finally, there’s synthetic games. A synthetic game is one where all these mechanical entities are working in synthesis, where it’s impossible to extract one from another – where each system is used to mark or relate to another system. Complex games like this tend to be hard to tease out for separation. Look at Minecraft, where any given system is being made to the demands of another system, or Agricola, where all the systems are constantly tugging against one another to meet needs or create new ones.

There you go. A simple little bit of game language.

The First Queen Controversy

What do you know about Chess?

It’s a well known ruleset, with layers of knowledge. There’s a set of strategies that are often treated as rules by high level players. Then there’s the layer of official ‘rules’ like castling and first pawn movement and how kings can’t check kings, which you find out if you play enough, and the first time you find out about it is embarrassing because the other player has to convince you, that, uh, no, they can totally do that. Then the layer above that is the way the pieces move, then the layer above that is what the pieces are.

And that’s kind of where this anecdote comes from.

I don’t know what Chess piece is, as it were, ‘the best known’ piece. I could run a study, but I don’t care, and neither do you. If I had to guess, I’d assume the leading piece is the Rook, probably the Knight after then (‘the little horsey’ being a joke), and the pawn is probably the one most used.

But famously, the most powerful piece on the board is the Queen.

She’s also one of the newest pieces to behave the way it currently does. Originally, the piece we call the Queen was ‘the vizier,’ and it basically operated as just King 2: Not As Good. The Vizier didn’t give you a lot, and it is generally clear if you run lots of math that it’s basically the worst piece in the game – it starts out locked behind a pawn and your reward for it is a worse piece than an aggressive king. It’s not a good piece. They experimented with giving it the ability to hop over a piece, but broadly speaking it wasn’t that important a piece.

Now, the name of the piece did evolve over time: It went through names like ‘tsarina’ and ‘king’s daughter,’ but its rules didn’t get updated until around the 15th century. That’s when Spanish players introduced a variant rule where the Queen moved as far as she could. This idea became known as, I kid you not ‘Madwoman’s Chess,’ because the sheer remarkable ridiculousness – a woman! Capable of doing that! Amazing!

On the other hand, this variant was really good, and it added strategy, games ended faster and more decisively, and the Queen piece was suddenly worth the effort it took to peel her out from behind a pawn.

And then the complaints started.

Because why was a woman piece being given that kind of power?

There were complaints, in letters and in forums, about this chess variant, about the idea that it was terrible to give a ‘queen’ that kind of command over pieces that were male (they were?), and that this would open the door to abuse and maybe even convince women rulers they were in charge, and then, then, why… why what would we do then?

Anyway, most of these complaints split pretty cleanly: Italian, Spanish and French players liked the rules variant, because it was fun, and most of the complaints were in English. And you’d be surprised but 15th century nobles found it really easy to completely ignore the opinions of people who spoke different languages to them. It wasn’t some enlightened feminist statement, not at all – it’s that the piece was already called the queen, a game could be made better by changing her, and the people who objected could be dismissed as being, you know, English.

Anyway, death to kings.

Game Pile: Usurper

I went on a bit of a rollercoaster with Usurper.

First, I backed the game on kickstarter because it had some very modest targets, and a nice aesthetic, and stated it was using Gamecrafter. I thought it looked like a very good early effort for a game designer, backed it, and forgot about it for a few months.

Then it arrived.

What arrived was, as a game, a really robust little draft-position-play kind of game, with a thematic space I can only describe as ‘excellently obtuse.’ I had a look, I considered how I was going to approach talking about this game, and I put together a little list of thoughts that I laid out in the template for this article. As part of doing that, then, I went to get my due diligance and the links to people’s works, and places where you can buy the game, and found, to my surprise…

You can’t.

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