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.

Game Pile: Dungeon Drop

Sometimes you might see me crow about how board games and tabletop RPG space is a place where you don’t need to do the same old stories and the same old games about a heroic adventuring party going into a dungeon and you can make games about anything? Well here’s a game about the same old story about a heroic adventuring party going into a dungeon but wait.

This one’s weird.

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MTG: April Custom Commander Cards (Part One)

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

April is meant to be a month where I’m self-indulgent, and it seems one of the things I wanted to be self-indulgent about was wanting to make custom Magic: The Gathering cards to share on reddit, because what I really needed each morning was to open a post and go ‘pah, these fools don’t appreciate my genius.

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In Praise Of ‘You Meet At An Inn’

You know, I see a lot of people complaining about the trope of starting a traditional tabletop adventure, one of your Dungeon and/or Dragonry escapades, in an inn. It’s literally now an anti-trope, where people bring up the idea of you meet at an inn as an example of how not to handle storytelling or kicking off an adventure.

Well, pish on this I say, and pish I say again! Yes, harsh language like that, terrifying and mighty, must be deployed in defense of this workhorse story beat. Presented then are five wait no it’s late so four – reasons why you should show some respect to kicking off your adventures where all the players meet in an inn.

Inns Are Centralised Locations

In any given fantasy nonsense town, the inn is a place lots of people are going to go for a variety of different reasons. There are people who are there because they’re heading one way, there are people who are there because they’re heading the opposite way, there are people who are there because they’re going nowhere and have nothing better to do, there are people who are there because they want to have something that they can call fun.

Inns are therefore usually positioned to give you a big ole slice of central casting for your setting, just a slathery bit of worldbuilding. Is the inn built along a highway? is it nestled in the middle of the town, where people drift after doing something important when they arrive? Is it just outside the town, where the more distributed farmers can get to it? Is it an inn where people expect to sleep or is it just a pub with a room or two? Any given inn is going to reflect the place it’s from, so if you start in an inn, you can go bam and give players a solid see of the place they’re at.

Inns Are Transitional Spaces

And in this way, all D&D games say #TransRights, but also the transitional nature of an inn means that any given person who’s there has a reason to have a story. If you throw the party there without any on-ramping (which we’ll get to later), the fact that they’re at an inn asks a question, of why are you here. It’s like if you find someone at an airport, that’s not a space a person just goes to hang about, there’s a ticket that says from and to in their pocket, so you have to have a reason to have that ticket, and now you have the start of a story.

You could be coming to an inn to find someone who’s already there. You could be at the inn because you just arrived in town and need things explained. You could be at the inn because you are about to beat cheeks out of town and need to stop for a last meal before you hit the road. You could be looking for work from people in those two situations. Think of an inn as a chance to show what you’re about, and players will use the common space of an inn properly. Hide in a corner, look for someone in particular, bother a type of class of people there like merchants or bards, eat, or drink or check for work, it’s just a good, solid gathering space for a lot of options.

Inns Give You Waiters

A common moral test of a person is how they treat someone over whom they have power who is obligated to be nice to them. In an inn, you have service staff, and that gives you a fast track way to demonstrate the kind of person your character is. You show character in what you do, so if you have an NPC in the group or someone you want them to know about, you can show them being kind to the waiter, or reasonable, or unreasonable, or even just agitated and then apologising. The fact that there’s a common person that everyone in the room has a reason to pay attention to is super useful.

Plus, I just find it’s a very easy way to demonstrate that say, someone who may later in the adventure wind up being a dithery dimbulb wizard who annoys players or a shouty angry politico who demands excellence, all that stuff can be neatly contrasted with the reminder that this person respects the waiter.

And finally:

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How To Be: Corvo Attano (In 4E D&D)

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

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

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

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

This time, we’re going to try and capture the feeling of the Knight Protector of the Empress of Dunwall woops oh no it’s all gone wrong, Corvo Attano.

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Game Pile: System Shock

System Shock is a 1994 first-person action adventure roleplaying shooter game with dialogue puzzles and a hacking minigame that pretty much stands as one of the many points we can say the Immersive Sim as a genre was born. In this game, you get one of the coldest opens you can get – you awake in a cryogenic chamber with your memory in tatters, in a strangely quiet space station, looking for weapons, medication, cybernetic upgrades and mind-altering drugs that you need to piece together what happened, what’s going on, and whether or not you’re going to get out of here alive.

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The Church Knights of the Eresh Protectorates

Once again I’m returning to run games in my Cobrin’Seil D&D setting. It’s just a setting, there’s no high romance to it, I don’t have an elevator pitch to it that’ll let you go ‘oh yeah, dang, I want to be here.’ It’s just a place with a bunch of stuff I like in it, monsters for friends to fight, Trade Cartels to attack, bandits to retaliate against, at least one or two churches to have corrupt villains come out of, all that stuff.

In this setting, though, there are Church Knights, and I’ve found more than anything else in a tabletop game book, I get excited about factions. Factions are something that you can belong to, an organisation with a perspective and an idea to them, and it can come with competing needs and ways to shape yourself in response to an identity.

So I’m going to share a bit of my setting. I’m going to share with you the Church Knights of the Eresh Protectorates.

concept art from Dark Souls

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Sabacc Sucks

I’ve been watching a lot of Deep Space 9 lately, and central to that is the location of Quark’s, a bar and gambling den, written by people who clearly haven’t the faintest fucking clue how to play any kind of gambling game. There are two games shown in this place, Tongo and Dabo, which are Stupid Poker and Stupid Roulette respectively.

Now, while I would love to tear into Deep Space 9 for its terrible depiction of game on the stage, we have one Edo Baraf to thank for getting my attention back onto one of the worst games designed by one of the largest and most successful multimedia empires in history:

Sabacc.

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MTG: Mel Candy

I’ve spoken in the past about Magic The Gathering‘s player psychographics, characterisations that the game developers use to describe and discuss the types of players that engage with their game. These archetypes are Tammy, Jenny and Spike, and they also kinda line up with other, similar efforts to categorise gameplay choices from the work of Roger Caillois, immense racist and clown-hater.

In the conversation about player psychographics, one Matt Cavotta introduced the idea of the Vorthos, a type of player who cared about and engaged with the game because of its lore, someone for whom the fiction of the play took paramount presence. In Magic’s case, it kind of needed this distinction because there’s a whole collection of people who engage with the game for reasons that treat the game as a secondary element of the game.

And then, with Vorthos, there was one more name that Mark Rosewater introduced, bringing their player nicknames up to five: Mel.

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Game Pile: The Ur-Quan Heresies (Star Control 2)

Surely I’ve done this already.

Surely.

Digging back through my history on this blog, I’m stunned to find that I never did an article espousing the classic MS-DOS era space exploration game, Star Control 2. In fact, if you go back looking for it, the closest you get to me commenting on it is that I once said Mass Effect 2 is a worthy second Star Control 2, a point that doesn’t feel like hyperbole in hindsight. It only took eighteen years for them to catch up.

Star Control 2 was a 1992 PC Game, which was released on a handful of platforms, including the 3D0. In the past few years, it’s been subject to a mess of copyright nonsense, and I’m mostly disinterested in talking about that, except to mention that Stardock is a bad company run by a raging asshole who a reasonable industry would have driven out.

Anyway.

Star Control 2 is a game that’s hard for me to talk about because it is both so old that it’s really quite annoying to play and yet so important you’ve played thousands of games that do all the game and infrastructure bits better. Star Control 2 is a game from 1992 that might as well have been an MMO for the scope of its lore and its attempted breadth of interactions; you explore, you map planets, you collect information, you do space battles, you manage resources, you connect story tidbits between people, you negotiate treaties and you can even manage multiple routes towards races collaborating on the way to the end of the game, which is about destroying an important military resources of an empire that would otherwise be the doom of all freedom in the galaxy.

It is a lot and it was distributed on two 3.5 inch floppies.

I never got to the end of this game as a kid because the game was really quite vast. You can make mistakes in the game that mean some tasks take ages, and you need to sometimes compensate for weaknesses in one area with strengths in another – like being really good at ship-to-ship combat to make up for being terrible at fuel management (damn Slylandro probes).

I don’t really want to talk to you about Star Control 2, the game though. You can go download the Ur-Quan Masters and play the game for yourself. Instead I want to talk to you about specific lore from this game universe, to talk about one of the things that this game world is about.

I want to talk to you about the Ur-Quan.

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Replacement Levels in D&D 3.5

Ever heard of this?

This mechanic, introduced in one of the Races Of books in 3.5, presented the idea that while the class structure worked in general for most of the game, there were more specific versions of classes for races that had a particular, peculiar affinity for that class. This meant that while halfling fighters and gnome fighters and dwarf fighters were generally all the same, a half-orc fighter might be different because of the way half-orcs did the job of ‘fighter.’

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Finding Needle (Games) In A Haystack (Which Is Society)

It can be hard to talk about a trend in games without it being seen as talking about all games that represent that trend. Especially in this case when the game that started me thinking about the conversation is a game that’s not just an indie darling, but it’s an indie darling which has a lot of queer and neuroatypical cred. There are lots of people who really care about the game that started me thinking about it, and unlike other Indie Darlings that Talen Doesn’t Like, I don’t actually dislike this game!

But it is where the thought started, and in the interest of honestly addressing the idea, let’s go on discussing an idea brought to my attention by cultural phenomenon, accessibility example, and Filthy SJW Propoganda needle game Celeste.

Let’s first define a ‘needle game.’ Needle games are a particular variety of usually platform game with a fantastically difficult path through the game, usually in a room-by-room basis, most commonly associated with the game I Wanna Be The Guy. There are a lot of indie games in this genre, they’re pretty popular, and if IWBTG was the dawn of the current framework for these deliberately-very-difficult videogames, then they were kind of ‘perfected’ in Celeste.

Needle games have a bunch of common traits, but a basic idea is that each room usually has a single navigable path through it, that path is usually non-obvious until you’ve played your way through the game a lot, rooms are usually made to look impossible, but to have an idea of how you start. A lot of these games are built around the idea that you will fail over and over again until you correctly execute and pass through the room.

Note that Hotline Miami is not a needle game, because a big part of that game is deliberate randomness. In needle games, the rooms are almost always completely identical from one attempt to another. The point of these games, generally speaking, is to get as close as is possible to actually perfectly executing on the way the game is meant to be played.

Needle games are quitely very different to most other forms of videogames, just because they reduce the degree to which play can be playful.

There’s this phrase I use a lot when discussing ‘play’ that’s from Roger Caillois, renowned racist and clown-hater, where he describes play as being a meaningful idea that is expressed in the play of an actor or the play of a gear. One of those two agents can be extremely free, can execute on its intention individually, and indeed, often cannot execute on its intention in the same way twice. Even the most practiced actor has faint variance from performance to performance, the way the hair settles on your arms all being possibly different. The other is incapable of executing its intention in any ways it was not predetermined to do.

Needle games are games that are overwhelmingly games about the play of a gear.

There’s a criticism of the Narrative Adventure game where they’re basically about finding a variety of keys to use on a variety of doors, and just finding the right sequence of items that slot into their holes like a kid’s toy where blocks go through holes. The thing is, that’s what a needle game is, too, a type of game where if you are not here to try to do the thing a dozen times and do it perfectly, how much are you aware of what the game really is? How genuine are your feelings, how serious is your triumph? What if you don’t like the kind of game it is, even if it has accessibility options that would let you finish it? What if it can’t hold your attention because you find the kind of game it’s being boring?

Is it still play? Well, yeah, you’re not being required to do it. But it does mean that in this space, this game, by its genre is going to be alienating to a lot of people, who simply do not or can’t respond to the way this game wants to be played. The way the game wants to entangle you in its rules.

And the reason Celeste makes me think of this is because this is a game that comes up in conversations as a metaphor for queerness, plurality, and depression, and as an example of a game having accessibility, and it’s also a game that because of how it is, a large number of people who may indeed want to be part of that conversation, won’t ever really be able to connect with it.

This isn’t a problem per se, but it is an example of how our limited attention for indie games, especially games about or for the marginalised kind of poisons and limits our ability to talk about these things. That as long as we keep our conversation about these games limited to a small number of titles as our reference pool, we’re going to be making our conversations about these ideas in games expressed by people who like the kind of games that we choose to elevate. It’s why we have Borderlands 3 as an example of a GLAAD game of the year.

And that sucks.

Because games are a great way to play with ideas.

Game Pile: Traffic Department 2192

You used to get a lot of game for nothing.

I think it’s hard to convey to people just how fantastically ridiculous the CD-Rom was to PC gaming when it first occured – games that were originally designed to be distributed in increments of four to six were suddenly being given over to increments of six hundred. Doom, in its original incarnation, lived on six floppy disks, and could be transported in the amount of data it takes to load the webpage of a single tweet. There were two ecosystems of technology at the time, and it wasn’t as simple as ‘more space means more big games.’

For a few years there, games were being made to try and exist in both technological spaces: the disk distributions, and the CD Rom distributions, with bulletin boards and early internet being more geared towards the former than the latter. You’d see illegal download websites proudly touting that they had ‘stripped’ versions of CD rom games, with all the audio and video removed, making the ‘game’ that remained something like twenty megabytes.

In the early days of the CD Rom, then, there were companies that – a little unscrupulously, really – collecting as many shareware or widely distributed titles as they possibly could, compiling them into 600 meg collections of games originally designed to fill 1 or 2 megabytes, sometimes with nothing but a text menu to show you hundreds of completely indistinguishable games from one another, and sell them to you. You could spend $15 and get a CD of shareware that, really, was ostensibly free to copy from someone, but then you’d have to find it.

That was part of the trick when it came to shareware CDs. They gave you a few hundred things to ‘play,’ but be honest, if it was on the third page of possible directories when you typed ‘dir /p’ then you probably weren’t going to go looking in that directory. They were garbage, the AOL Free Trial CD of the PC gamer set, with everyone having one or two of them and the task of looking through them being genuinely difficult.

Sometimes a bloodstained demon asks me why I seem to know all the DOS shareware garbage from this period, and I tell her, please, sheathe your blade when you ask questions like that, but also it’s because I had the free time as a church boy. That’s how I found all these shareware games, these free games, and the rare gem of a whole game that was somehow just being randomly pirated. Crystal Caves. Sam the Secret Agent.

One of those games – one of the good ones – was Traffic Department 2192, a project who had a 12 year old working as a composer and which presented as its shareware ‘chapter’ a range of about twenty levels and thousands upon thousands of words.

I learned from the best.

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Falling Out Of Exploration Games

Hollow Knight’s a pretty cool game.

Don’t think I’ll finish it.

When I sat down to play Hollow Knight it was a really comforting experience, something I did because I knew  I wanted to make a video, and I didn’t have the energy or mental effort to do a lot of editing. I played a bunch of Hollow Knight for that video, checked out how it looked, then went off to CanCon. When I got back, I played a little bit more Hollow Knight, then I took a little bit of a break. There was work that needed doing, so I didn’t play any videogames for a week or so.

Then when I came back, and I want to make it clear, I was not far into Hollow Knight, I didn’t know what I was doing. Oh, the skills for combat were all there after a few moments of poking buttons. But the interface obscurity, the difficulty of working out what the map was doing, trying to find the path onwards, losing resources in trying to recover what happened

I just stopped.

Exploration games are really popular amongst people who talk about games, stories, and storytelling via games. They’re kind of a beloved genre, and they do all these things that can make them feel more serious and more cinematic, or, you know, just that vague ‘better-er’ than games that don’t do those things. The experience melts into itself, so the sequence of the narrative needs to be reconstructed, and so many of these exploration games get to make you feel clever as you explore the game more, as you understand more. They also tend to be cryptic, without a specifically stated, clearly outlined narrative – it’s really easy to make things ambiguous when the play experience pulls you along, after all.

Time to time a new game will come out that does this. It’s a little understructured, it’s engaging in a way that keeps you going, without any chapter breaks or typical, clear direction. Horizon Zero Dawn and Dark Souls were both held up as examples of this type, where reviewers rhapsodied about how great it was that these games didn’t ‘hold your hand.’

These are people whose jobs involve being able to play the same game for sixteen hours and needing to stay engaged for the whole process. I, on the other hand, need to sometimes break from games sharply and immediately. Sometimes I need to take four or five day breaks from games to complete work tasks. Sometimes, I need to re-engage with a game because another project requires my attention, or I need something I can share or collaborate on.

The secret sauce that makes exploration games engaging curdles over time.

MTG: Big Gulps

WOTC Employees: This article talks about unsolicited game designs, though it does not show any specific example cards.

When it comes to custom magic card design, I’m something of a pain in the ass. I don’t find myself particularly adventuresome in design, and will generally look at things in terms of what space they’re opening up. The effect this has in the community is that I’m the one who’s generally going ‘maybe not this,’ and that can be a real bummer for people. Apparently, I’ve got a reputation for being unpleasable.

One of the topics that we’re – still – hammering on is White. The argument –

no, hang on, it’s a whine.

– is that white is weak and that we in the heroic custom magic mines know better than Wizards, and will produce the cards that ‘fix’ White that they’re too cowardly to print. I’m pretty regularly there to tell people why I don’t think their solutions are good (in my opinion), but I know I don’t often put my ideas out there.

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Game Pile: Star Realms Frontiers

Oh hey, Star Realms again! Didn’t I already wax lyrical about how much I liked this game?

Well, yes, I did! And the thing with this tiny little tight box of a game that lived on your phone (if you wanted it to) is that in addition to having a great core game, the people over at White Wizard kept making it. Over on BoardgameGeek, the interconnected wikipedia of people brave enough to ask ‘but who’s to say racism is bad per se?’ the nonetheless fantastically detailed database lists Star Realms as a game with 51 expansions.

Today, then, we’re going to look at at an expansion that doesn’t need the base game, otherwise known commonly as an expandalone, called Star Realms Frontiers.

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Unicorn Co-op

I’ve had this card game in progress now for far too long.

The idea is a game where you’re constructing unicorns with interesting names from two halves. Half the cards are unicorn forequarters, the other half are… well there’s no proper term for them (that I’m going to bother looking up) so we just have to call them what they are. They’re unicorn butts.

Once upon a time, this game started out as a simple, competitive game with two decks; you would play the cards, two at a time, either adding them to your herd of unicorns, or to an opponent’s herd of unicorns. The original idea was that they were just going to be math functions – so some unicorns would add some numbers, some would subtract some numbers. So you could put together a butt with a – and a head with a 4, and give it to your opponent, to give them -4. Honestly, that game is pretty doable and pretty easy – I might even hammer it out as a sort of pattern-puzzle matchy game for under-sixes sometime.

I wanted though to make this game cooperative, though, and since part of the reason to build a unicorn was to give it a funny/silly/goofy name, and if there were some cards with negative effects, that meant there’d be some unicorn name components that were always bad. Had to kick that one in the neck right away.

I’d also started by setting out 26 cards as butts and 26 cards as forequarters, and I know there’s a horse expert reading this and she’s so mad at my terminology. Anyway, in my attempts to redesign this game, I’ve tried to find a way to minimise that number, or maybe expand my options… and with that came a new idea.

The idea is that each unicorn card has a head, and a butt, on either side. At the start of the game, you put all the cards so the same face is up (say the butt, because butts are funny. You split that deck evenly in half, then flip it over, and shuffle them together. Now you have an even number of heads, and butts. This means that suddenly, my 26 head and 26 butt cards are 26 cards, meaning that the deck now has room for more unicorns (yay) and some other cards (which give me room to make a cooperative AI for the game).

This is a simple little mechanistic change of the game’s design, and now I’ve put it down somewhere I hopefully won’t fricking forget it.

How To Be: Thor, from Marvel Comics (In 4E D&D)

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

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

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

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

This time, we’re going to try and capture the feeling of THE GOD OF THUNDER Thor from Marvel Comics.

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4e: Claw Gloves

4th Edition D&D is, like all editions of D&D, very much invested in the physical stuff your character carries around. I’ve talked about this in the past,where D&D finds it easier to use material objects to give you preposterous abilities, even though it’s ostensibly a game about wizards with preposterous abilities. In 4th edition, there was a formal, searchable databse for equipment that meant if you were the kind of player who wanted to find a specific, passive, always-on effect to put on your character, you could always find something to get your hands on – or in this case, in.

 

There’s a bunch of items that are designed to be Heroic tier prizes, items that are pretty cheap and have a really nice effect, but don’t scale up at all, usually in a slot that is either hotly competitive (arms) or tends not to matter much (boots). These items in Heroic tier are really nice – often things like Rushing Cleats or Badge of the Berserker will serve you really well and help you shape your character as you level up.

Claw Gloves are designed for druids, which is why they reference a specific keyword that druids get, ‘beast form.’ If you have claw gloves on, and you’re in beast form, and you have combat advantage against an enemy, your melee attacks are improved by 1d10. Combat advantage, something you already want, becomes extremely desireable when you’re dealing chunks of extra damage, and this is a passive property, meaning it’s not a sometimes food. Any time you can make those things happen, you have the extra damage.

For druids, that’s great, making their beast form – already a control monster – into a really strong damage dealer in Heroic. Claw gloves are great.

Thing is, Druids aren’t the only ones who can get access to Beast Form, and thanks to the Werebear, Wererat and Werewolf themes, every other class can have a ‘beast form’ mode to their melee attacks. Once you get out of Heroic, into Paragon, the lycanthropes can just ‘always’ be in beast form, meaning there’s no reason to drop out of it, allowing for full time furry character interpretation (and it lets you define yourself how that looks). This means that suddenly, Claw gloves work just fine for Fighters, Rogues, Rangers and Battleminds. Anyone who does melee attacks and multiattacks gets a lot scarier when this one very cheap item in an underused slot is pumping extra d10s into their attacks.

What’s more, once you commit to going ‘well, claw gloves look cool, can I use them?’ you wind up at beast form, and then all those beast form feats stack up, and you’re suddenly presented with, say, a Werebear Grappling Fighter who tucks enemies under her arms as she wades across the battlefield, and when they try to escape she crushes them then throws them across the battlefield.

Claw Gloves are great, numerically, but the thing is that they serve as a thread you can search through for building your character, and that’s exciting. What’s more, if you don’t want to do that nonsense, you can just get handed the item, go ‘oh, that’s not for me’ and move on.

In conclusion, fear the furries.


The original art for the claw gloves I used is from a store called Stronghold Leather that appears to have since shut down and the only remnants of their work remains as pinterest boards.

Two Player RPG Idea

Over on Reddit in February, someone asked about the idea of two player RPGs – the notion of a RPG system where players take turns in the Gamemaster role. That’s all I got – just the basic question of is this a thing?

And well, that was interesting. I thought about it.

The absolute first thought though, was that in the right pair of players, you don’t need anything new or different. Lots of games can be easily adjusted so the challenges can handle a solo character, players can play multiple characters, all those typical ways of dealing with absent players works fine. Barring for games that require voting (and those aren’t that common), there’s nothing that doesn’t already work.

This is a solved problem for players who want to just play D&D and can swap things back and forth with no problem. You could do it super episodic, too! Imagine a Scum & Villainy game that essentially worked like Star Trek: The Next Generation, where each week you swap storyteller to deal with a new thing.

Still, I do see a problem with this: Maintaining suspense and surprise. How do I make sure there are plot elements and narrative beats that handle the give and take of storytelling, and make for a long-term narrative where I can be surprised by things I put into the story without necessarily having stories I laid the groundwork for changed out from underneath me?

While I don’t have a system, I have an idea for a mechanic that can give the game some sinew.

And it involves playing cards.

Wait, wait, don’t go!

Okay, the idea is you start out with a deck of ordinary playing cards. This is important because you want something that’s reasonably replicable where it doesn’t matter if the object goes away. It can be destroyed, it can be damaged, and it can be written on.

This deck of cards is going to be the interaction of elements that each player can use in their section of the story they’re DMing. When you introduce something you want to make important, or when a player indicates in a session that they want to come back to something, the players take an unwritten-on card, write that on a card and put it back into the deck. Then, when the time comes to exchange control of the DMing role, the new DM draws a few cards and sees what stuff in the story is available to them.

This gives you a way to be surprised when things come back, and it takes some of the long term structure away from the players in a way that makes both players uncertain in an interesting way.

You can write more on each card as things happen; you can use this when a plot changes or transforms something, you can edit its card, and shuffle it back in. You can even do ‘trades’ – where a DM may want to ‘save’ something for later.

The cards can be used as action points too to smooth things over – take a few cards off the top of the deck, and the player can use that card to make rerolls, or abrogate special abilities, or survive things they wouldn’t – and then adding those cards to the DM’s pool of plot tools. So you might want to avoid letting a baddy get away so you spend a card to tackle them – but now that card gives another plot point to your DM for later.

Reproducing Pictionary

If you’ve played Pictionary in the past ten years, hold on, just, you know, hold on.


Okay, so I played Pictionary when I was a little kid visiting friends a thousand miles from our house. It was not a great game – I never was that into it, I wasn’t very good at it, and it had a board that you had to roll and move around, which meant there were often long periods where you were watching people do five or ten minute long ‘turns’ while they bickered and argued about the drawings and so on.

Similarly, one thing I try to do now as an adult is think about old games I played, and if I can improve on them. It’s very basic, methodical kind of work: What did or didn’t work about this game? What failed, what succeeded, what needs more attention, what was just always going to be bad? Can these mechanics represent something else? Crucially, when looking at older board games, I ask myself: What can be taken away?

With Pictionary, the idea I had was that the first thing to take away is the board.

Right?

You have a deck of cards, they give you secret information, that’s heaps, that’s all you need. You can even use the cards to do something random, but, you don’t even have to. You can make the game about rolling a dice and looking at a card, and right there, you’ve got a rudimentary design.

The idea I belted out was as follows:

  • The game is played with drawing paper and tools, a deck of cards, and a dice.
  • On your turn, you roll a dice, look at a card, and then that card presents you with a number of options, with your number roll giving you a priority.

Each card has seven options on it; one in each of the categories – let’s say they’re like:

  • Person
  • Place
  • Animal
  • Object
  • Action
  • Internet

With another category that says Bail.

You roll the dice, you pick one of the things to draw, and if you draw the thing that the number rolled, the card’s worth bonus points. This way you’re pushed towards an option but not screwed. There’s also the ‘bail’ option where if none of the options are good, you can offer this card to the whole table so everyone can try and draw the ‘bail’ option.

Just like that, I have the outlines for a card game. The timer becomes a problem! But a physical timer, a dice, and a bunch of cards takes up way less space than a big board would and you could fit the whole game in a tiny space, almost Oink Games style! Or you could make the game print-and-play, or even give out a template for people. And if you’re a teacher, you can just use a big ole list of random flash card words where they have to draw the thing, then write the name to show they get what it is! Teaching supplies probably feature whiteboards and markers, so you can repeatedly use the same drawing space over and over instead of paper and pencils!

Would I make this game? No, probably not. It’s not a terrible idea, and it certainly seems doable very easily, and may even sell a few copies, but the nature of it is that it’s just making a shelf filler.


Now.

The punchline.

Turns out the copy of Pictionary I played in the 1990s was from… 1985 or so. The great big box, the board, the roll and move? That stuff’s not really part of the game any more. In fact, if I’d looked at a copy of Pictionary from the last ten years, I’d find a game which is just cards, dice, timer, and whiteboards and whiteboard markers.

I choose to think of this as convergent evolution, of sorts, and that’s kind of good. It’s definitely for the best – it’s a way to show that Pictionary with a board can handle losing the board. What’s more, it also shows what I was considering and experimenting with: I wanted to deal with chokepoints and friction. That’s great, I can deal with that.

It doesn’t fix one of the biggest problems with Pictionary, even as it reduces the game design I’d made to a super-simple, tight version that I could probably sell for $15 with hundreds of possible game states (Which seems fair to me). What it doesn’t fix is that if you can’t draw, this game sucks.

Fortunately, Pictomania, by Vlaad Cvhatil, does solve that, by making the drawing and solving concurrent; you draw until you’re as good as you’re going to get, then you do your guessing – and guessing correctly first is more valuable than getting all your work guessed perfectly. This creates a tension for drawing ‘as well as you can’ but being okay when you stop.

Dicebuilder Diary and notes

Custom dice are cool! They’re also expensive to manufacture. They also let you do weird things like have uneven roll pools? That’s neat. If you’ve ever seen the dice in Betrayal At House On The Hill you might know it’s got dice that are numbered 0, 0, 0, 1, 1 and 2 – that’s really mean!

You can do a lot with dice rollers! There’s the town builder Machi Koro, for a famous one, and there’s the set collector Yahtzee, a familiar roll-and-write. You could look at our own Cafe Romantica, where you build a collection of cards that react to the dice you roll. The thing with those games is that even though ‘these cards react to these numbers,’ and it actually works a lot like just flipping cards, by using a dice you can have multiple things respond to the same cause. There’s stuff you can do, it’s all interconnected, all fractal.

I’ve been thinking about this mechanic. Making custom dice is a bit expensive, but exploring an alternate way to do it resulted in me making a thing that I like as a possible space:

In this case, you play the game with a starting d6, maybe one for each player. They roll dice, and, then the numbers rolled result in the cards in those slots firing. It can be set up so that lots of cards are piled up on each number, so you can get lots of effects on single rolls and so on.

I want the building element of the game to take priority over the rolling though. That means whatever the design is, I probably want it so winning and losing isn’t about what the numbers rolled do, but is much more that dice limit your opportunities. We want winning and losing to be about choices you make in the last few turns, not about whether or not you rolled the Dead Dice.

I’m looking at this design and thinking of different flavours and different game sizes.

  • if the game is very small, you probably will wind up with all the cards set up. This might make ‘victory’ about possibly picking a loser  you’re trying to make sure that whatever you roll, you’re not in trouble, and someone else might be. Each card is probably unique.
  • If the game is mid-sized there’s room for more permutations of cards. This might mean that you’re trying to roll combinations of things, possibly to build something else?
  • if the game is big, there’s room for things like faction decks, where each number rolled represents improvements on types of things, or progress or success for groups of enemies or gangs. This could be seen as a sort of economy or electoral game where players are responding to the random actions of an entity like a population or a city.

What I’m thining, looking at this prototype is that I want every player to roll dice at the same time, and then players select a number of dice – so you can ‘leave’ someone with dice that may or may not be appropriate to what they want.

I think there are two games in this engine – a smaller one and a larger one. The smallest one is probably a game that wants to focus on the potential viciousness of rolled dice, a meanspirited thing like You Can’t Win. The larger one wants to have more of a solid theme.

Just some notes and thoughts.

Game Pile: Sushi Go

Sushi Go is a Gamewright card game defined by a charming visual aesthetic of cartoon sushi pieces going around the table as a sushi train. Each turn, you take a piece from the sushi in front of you (your hand), and pass the rest of your cards to the next player, representing a rolling line of sushi that you can pick and choose from to cultivate a plate of complementary flavours. There’ll be some things you don’t quite want as much, some things you enjoy, and in the end, the stakes for winning or losing are all very low.

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The Epic Level Handbook (3E)

When it comes to D&D books, you’re talking about what amounts to academic reference material. That’s not a slam on the game, of course – I’m not objecting to the games or the playability of the game, as if they’re now these dusty tomes that are only meaningful in a sort of hypothetical framework. It’s more that the books are literally designed to be reference material for a specialty field. These books are dense. That can present a challenge in giving someone who isn’t already versed in the game a way to understand that book. Do we talk about specific chapters? A point by point analysis? Do we look at just an excerpt?

I think in this case, at least for now, what we want to talk about here is an overview of the Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition Epic Level Handbook.

This book is a punchline.

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Round Friends!

Mid February, I ran a set of polls attempting to consider exactly what Pokemon could be considered to be round. The premise was pretty simple: if you were limited to a gym leader whose theme was round pokemon, what were your options, really? And if you could do that, would what you got have a chance of being competitive? By what standard? Is there a power trend connected to roundness?

I had some hypothesis ahead of time. First, I thought that a round Pokemon team would have a lot of slow, tough pokemon, and probably would be biased towards water. But that’s not scientific, that’s not a science. That’s just umming and ahhing! That’s guessing!

The problem is that roundness is really subjective, and while I could make the judgment calls, it’s probably easier to have a lot of self-styled experts vote. That way, no roundness is my opinion, it’s all a collective take from a larger group. There are eight hundred Pokemon, though, so asking for all of them was just too much work and people would lose stamina quickly. That meant making a general selection, and letting votes sort out which things did or didn’t belong in the group.

I’d need to make sure to present as many options as I could, to make sure that I wasn’t excluding something I consider an edge case, and let the voting do the elimination for me. Also, this would eliminate things from the group that didn’t belong, but it couldn’t bring things into the group I hadn’t mentioned.

The original list and votes is available here, in this twitter thread, and once I had that done, I made an excel spreadsheet to put together that information in a usable form. Specifically, I wanted to make sure I dropped all the ‘neutral’ votes in case there were some votes that were swayed by that one way or another, and I wanted to know which Pokemon got the most yes votes, even if they didn’t necessarily have the largest percentage of yes votes.

Twitter polls degrade over the course of a thread; I expect that the earliest pokemon to vote on would get the most votes, and therefore probably the most contentious opinions. For comparison, in this thread, the Poke that got the most votes (Ditto) got 275 and the Poke that got the least (Phione) got 108, meaning more than half people didn’t reach the bottom of the thread.

Finally, I had to have some kind of a cutoff. My notion is that if a Pokemon got more than 50% ‘yes’ votes on its roundness, it was round. I didn’t want to define roundness, but would rather let roundness be extrapolated from the vote. This limit then presented a barrier between ’round’ and ‘not round,’ a roundary if you will.

What did we end up with?

Well, we got a graph.

In our list of 56 pokemon, 28 were considered below roundness, and mostly the Pokemon that are round are very much considered round. The grouping that hang around the middle are Pokemon with what looks like a reasonable degree of contention; after all, Donphan is considered round, and Magnezone isn’t. Corsola is comfortably Very Round (72%) while Cloyster is much more contentious (55%), but the two have very similar silhouettes. Aegislash’s primary defining visual element is a circle, while Donphan is an elephant, yet the former is ‘not round,’ and the latter is. Donphan does roll up in a ball, but neither Miltank nor Scolipede crossed the roundary, and Donphan did.

Similarly, Jumpluff is almost the roundest pokemon voted on (99.2%!) and Weezing is similarly heavily round (91%) despite the fact that neither of them are even vaguely spheres – they’re made up of spheres stuck together.

Some traits of roundness then, by observation:

  • Smiling! Pokemon with visible faces that smile seem to be Round
  • Face-as-body! If your whole body is occupied by your face (Corsola, Glalie, Cloyster style), you seem to be seen as round
  • Limbs are either/or. Primeape and Snorlax have limbs, and are round, but Miltank has limbs and it’s not.
  • A round feature isn’t enough. Wailord, Magnezone and Aegislash are all ‘not round’ despite having that absolutely being the dominant shape of their bodies

Now, you might wonder to yourself, where’d this idea even come from? Well, I went and did some personal archaeology wondering about where I got the question of ‘what would a team of roundybois look like,’ and it turns out it was this tweet from one Sav Wolfe, from back in 2018. Yes, I apparently keep thinking about tweets a long time after they pass.