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.

Fabula Nova Crystallis

Once upon a time, this was a Game Pile about Final Fantasy XIII-2. Then it became an examination of Final Fantasy XIII, as the grounding work for XIII-2. And then, like an archaeologist probing at the edges of a shape, tenatively touching and nudging, I learned the secret. I learned that beneath the shape of Final Fantasy XIII and all the way through to Final Fantasy XV, there was something.

There was a brand.

I started this examination with the best of intentions, the absolute kindest of intentions, I really did. I just wanted to talk about a big JRPG, maybe play through it most of the way, talk about how modern JRPGs have changed, and compare them to my early experiences. It was gunna be fun. I had a few hundred words on menu-based combat and references to Final Fantasies 5 and 6, the ones I like the best. I was going to lead to this sort of ‘change is good’ conclusion that accepted that just because things weren’t the way they were in 1995 doesn’t mean they’re actually bad. I had a trajectory! I had an arc!

It was meant to be basic!

But as you can tell, thanks to the subject, I didn’t get there.

Instead, we’re going to talk about Final Fantasy XIII-2‘s underlying vision, and the Accidentally Lesbians.

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Game Pile: Diary of a Spaceport Janitor

I picked up this game on the recommendation of my friend Caelyn, and the game’s own descriptor refers to it as an anti-adventure game. The game advertises itself with about as much story as you’re going to get: You play as the Janitor, an Alaensee girlbeast with a municipally-subsidized trash incineration job, who dreams of leaving Xabran’s Rock far behind her. In case you were wondering about whether or not she does, she does not, and the game instead focuses on the narrative of that being.

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The Skin You’re Virtually In

It’s been a weird few months, and there’s been a big issue I hadn’t spared time to talk about because I didn’t know much about what was really going on and didn’t know what would change. I write in advance, so for all I know, what’s stable is going to be overthrown by the time the article goes up.

City of Heroes is back.

Kind of.

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Maybe for good.

It’s on my mind, though, and one thing that’s on my mind is watching friends get back into it, and build their characters, but to build their characters now as the people they are now, and that means for some of these players, it involves confronting a big change in their life.

For some people, we’re talking about a big shift.

See, a lot of the guys I used to play City of Heroes with aren’t guys any more (or never were, really, depending on how they want to talk about their gender). And for a lot of people, the character builder in that game, where you could tailor details about your character, where you could make your girl, and you were expected to make something that was yours was subversive and freeing.

We know that people use performative spaces to perform. We also know that a part of what people do when given anonmity and performance is to play with identity; to play with expressing who they are and what they are.

I talk at times, to students and to friends, about why games matter. One example I give is that games let us practice feelings we’re not ready to deal with yet. We practice grief in losing and we practice joy in winning. We practice being kind and we practice being decisive. Games are the place we make a section of the world where we can deal with enormous, dangerous, powerful ideas that we can be told don’t have a place in our life, that are not to be played with.

Sometimes, games can let you be a cute girl with superpowers.

And you realise that that’s what you wanted, with or without the superpowers.

Games don’t need me to fight for them, not really. Games are well established, they’re financially successful, they have a history of cultural writing and academic consideration centuries long. Some elements of games – the transitory and the seemingly low topics, and yes, the raunchy and the exploratory and the embarassing, the things that maybe make us cringe a little when we say them, like I discovered my queerness by making out with a snake girl in Pocket D?

Those are things I want to fight for, and I want to fight for them because my friends matter and what makes them happy is important.

MGP: Making Queer Games With Queer Mechanics

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 looked for some board games to talk about this month. One thing I was told a few times was there were games around, but they didn’t have ‘queer mechanics.’ This put me in bit of a quandrary, because I have no idea what that could mean.

One of our most popular games, Senpai Notice Me! is a small card game with art, editing, and design by Fox Lee, and colouring and design by me, Talen Lee. This card game was originally conceived for YuriJam2016, where the aim was to make a game that was about the relationships between women. It didn’t have to be erotic, it didn’t have to be romantic, it just wanted to be primarily about the relationships of women to women.

When thinking about queerness in tabletop games, there are a few problems with what that queerness means and how it can be represented. In games like Eldritch Horror, there are gay characters, but players don’t necessarily ever do anything mechanically that relates to that gayness. In Fog of Love, despite being entirely about relationships, there’s no inherent need for gender to come up with the way the game plays, meaning the game is about as queer as the players think to make it.

In Senpai Notice Me! the fundamental frame is a queer relationship, and the main play experience is about becoming the person Senpai notices, or being the kind of Senpai who can notice everyone. It’s also, regularly, played by boys who are not necessarily queer in any way, building cute outfits that show off the personal style of a character mostly represented to them by a random assortment of cards.

I also made, for GaymerXAus, the super-obviously queer game Queer Coding, which was a communication and con game. This game was not made to be super complex or intricate; I wanted to make a game that screamed queerness as loud as I could. It was a tiny project, too, made quickly and with only art assets I was able to make myself.

While both of these games are absolutely trying to be queer games, if you take away the themes and graphics chosen for them… they’re not. They’re just mechanics. There is nothing fundamentally more mechanically meaningful about arranging the letters of the word ‘queer’ than there is any other word with a repeated letter. Senpai Notice Me! could be about collecting weapons to slay a dragon, or just assembling the best gun collection to impress the real veteran, or an anime collection, or all sorts of things.

I think about this any time someone talks about a game ‘not having queer mechanics.’ That’s always kinda weird to me, because what does that even mean? My mechanics aren’t queer, but the games I make are games that reflect me, so it seems they’d likely have some queerness in them. What about Lesbian Chess, where the two queens can’t take one another because they’re dating?

In the end, I tend to give up on this conversation because there isn’t really a way to do ‘queer mechanics’ as much as there is a way to generate queer or unqueer fictions with your games.

Also, and this is a tiny but somewhat sour point: Playing games with queer fictions don’t magically make someone who is a jerk about queer people into a nice person. We can’t transform people with singular queer works. Maybe for some people, the media we create can be a catalyst, but you’re asking to make lightning in a bottle, there. It’s instead better, safer, and nicer, to make sure you create fictions where queer people (and all forms of marginalised people, but hey, one thing at a time in this post) don’t have to feel like they’re an afterthought.

Excerpt: The Nyarr

This is an excerpt from the Nyarr, a race expansion I’m making based on my 3.5 D&D work. This is an abridged excerpt of some details about the Nyarr – their general physical look, their interaction with that thing called ‘gender,’ and some writing about what it’s like to be a Nyarr.

The Nyarr are meant to be a culture you can jam into a game that players can easily pick up if they want to play someone without the same Genders Stuff as a conventional setting’s conventional cultures have. In the same way that people sometimes are drawn to things like the Girdle of Gender Change, the Nyarr are a nonbinary race of cool-looking nice monster people.


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Game Pile: Billionaire Banshee

Videogames do a lot of work automatically, which means that there’s a lot of ways that two very similar games can be meaningfully different, and so exploring them is challenging. What’s more, communicating that difference can be challenging, too; I could tell you that Titanfall 2 and Dishonored 2 are both followups to successful games with alternative movement schemes and a buddy that becomes part of your mission flow, with a setpiece level including alternate timelines, but if you know videogames, you know those points of similarity are way less obvious than the points of difference. After all, in one of those games, you’re running around with a gigantic mecha and the other is a steampunk stealth game.

This is because there are layers of systems and hardware that sit between you, the player, and the game you’re playing, layers that are not only not under your control but are very specifically developed and defined by someone who isn’t in the room with you. This means that videogames get to be very complex in a way tabletop games aren’t when it comes to the immutable, consistant set rules of the game. Tabletop games get to be way more sophisticated on all the levels of players playing them, though, because the rules are dynamic, and under the control of the players all agreeing to play the game the right way, together.

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I Like: Benjamin Wheeler

I have a really sour love of Canadian Highlander. It’s a really interesting format whose first impressions in the online space were presented in a way that I felt was really dickish and condescending. Yet, thanks to the neverending presence of a bunch of very entertaining professional comedians playing the game, I’ve come to really enjoy the format (though not enough to investigate playing it myself).

One thing that’s made me really appreciate the game is one of the North 100 podcast’s hosts, or rather, the newest host, Benjamin Wheeler.

Canadian Highlander is a format where duals and fetches run rampant and that makes it economically unfeasible. Ben has talked about budget in the paper format, but also shows ways to make it accessible on MTGO. It’s cheaper, and also, because we get a one-sided take on very thoughtful engagement with the game, Ben digs deep into complex combo lines.

I like these streams; they’re long, Ben’s taste in music amuses me, and occasionally you get Keifer Content, where his husband like, vapes the screen full of fog. It’s fun, it’s funny, and technically, queer MTG Media, so hey, it counts this month.

Making Settings Queer

You think because I’m doing Pride Month I’m going to shut up about Dungeons & Dragons and my own setting? Of course not. Let’s talk about putting queerness in a setting, some ways to do it and some ways I don’t want to do it.

Specifically, one thing I don’t want to do in my setting is make queerness something’s property. I’ve talked about how sometimes players make Tieflings into queer metaphors and why I don’t like that, but understand in this case I’m not talking about this as a player. If your tieflings or orcs are The Gays to you, then you go on with your bad self, I ain’t here to tell you nothing. But as a world builder, as someone constructing this setting that will be handed to maybe people who are one of the less cool types of queer, or maybe even not very queer.

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Game Pile: Dixit

Been a while since I just straight-up gushed about a good game I liked, hasn’t it?

Dixit is a 2008 card game where players take turns trying to connect a chosen word by the active player (the storyteller) to one of a number of cards with dreamlike images on them. Complicating things is that the storyteller starts by picking their card in secret, then announces the word, then each player contributes a card of their own in secret. The cards are shuffled, then revealed, and the players have to choose which of these cards they think is the storyteller’s chosen card to represent the chosen word. If you’re the storyteller and everyone picks your card, they all get points and you don’t; if you’re the storyteller and some but not all the players pick your card, you get points and they do too.

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Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 4: The Everywhere Else

Back in 3rd edition, I created my own D&D setting. It wasn’t very good, but I’m still very attached to it, and want to use it as an object lesson in improving. I also want to show people that everything comes from somewhere, and your old work can help become foundational to your new work.

Content Warning: Some of the old text is going to feature some unconscious cissexism and sexism, and I know there are a few unknowingly racist terms that I used.


Alright, so previous bandaids were about my decisions that were thoughtless and badly thought out, like ‘Kyngdom’ as a name, or barely scrubbing the name of Cimmura. The thing is, Dal Raeda, the Eresh Protectorate, and Amenti represent what are some of the best designed pieces of the setting, the places where I had good, fundamentally usable ideas.

The rest of things is where it all gets a bit soft, and also where I did some things that are uncomfortable, and now with the benefit of experience, I realise are pretty damn racist.

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Making Normal

I’ve been thinking a lot about normal.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about normalcy, intersectionality, representation, mediocrity, names, branding, a Games Studies academic book, and what it’s like to leave a cult.

The usual, really.

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Game Pile: A Swindle Apology!

Hey friends! I’m really sorry about this! There was going to be a video here, but thanks to Audacity being Audacity, I lost two and a half hours of audio that was going to be the foundation of our video. That’s a super bummer, and maybe we’ll get it next month.

For now, here’s a video. It’s not much, but it is an apology, an explanation, and a game!

(The game is the Swindle)

Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 3: Framing Spaces

Back in 3rd edition, I created my own D&D setting. It wasn’t very good, but I’m still very attached to it, and want to use it as an object lesson in improving. I also want to show people that everything comes from somewhere, and your old work can help become foundational to your new work.

Content Warning: Some of the old text is going to feature some unconscious cissexism and sexism, and I know there are a few unknowingly racist terms that I used.


The standard D&D place write-up is bad.

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Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 2: Knightly Orders

Back in 3rd edition, I created my own D&D setting. It wasn’t very good, but I’m still very attached to it, and want to use it as an object lesson in improving. I also want to show people that everything comes from somewhere, and your old work can help become foundational to your new work.

Content Warning: Some of the old text is going to feature some unconscious cissexism and sexism, and I know there are a few unknowingly racist terms that I used.


I mentioned last time that I like giving players handles. In the country now known as Dal Raeda, this took the form of different provinces, with different cultures, but since a game set in Dal Raeda meant I’d be dealing with the lead-in to a potential civil war or players subverting or delaying that civil war (and that seems a big setting piece to deal with in my first game or two), I immediately relocated my focus to the nation next door.

I have said this before to new DMs, and I want to repeat it here: Steal things. The first campaign I ran took the plot from Quest For Glory 1 and as my playgroup matured and adjusted and I learned, I was able to build in the space that structure gave me. Some things from the games happened as-is, some things happened in very different ways, and some things never happened, but I always knew where I could look for the ‘now what’ thanks to having that game history on hand. And the next nation over, where I went for the next game, I stole the plot of David Eddings’ Elenium and Tamuli books, as best I could just-barely remember them.

The thing that appealed to me about these books and that I wanted to use is Eddings’ idea of having knightly orders with different styles and characterisation. In his setting, they were the Pandions, Alcione, Genidian and Cyrinic orders, and they were differentiated from one another mostly by dint of having different names. You got to meet these Knightly Orders in the characters of Sparhawk, and Sparhawk’s Five Interchangeable Friends, who were all different kind of knights and if you haven’t read the books this month you probably can’t remember who was in what order and what makes those orders different.

Now, I enjoyed these books when I first read them, but I first read them when they were almost all the fantasy novels I’d ever read. They were not good books, they’re kind of creepy and misogynist in Eddings’ way where all women are kind of interchangeable nags. D&D also had this handy way to divide up approaches to the world, with the alignment system, so I cut these four orders down to three, and then in an attempt to seem less like I was just stealing names, I renamed some of them a little bit. This gave me three orders, the Pandions (Lawful Good), the Lethinites (Neutral Good), and the Cyrinists (Chaotic Good).

Armed with that basic characterisation I filled in a bunch of other details and they’ve since grown and built around the way the players play and a fourth, hidden order sprang up as well, the Chardunists.

These knightly orders belong in a country known in my world as Symeira, which attentive readers will probably guess I derived from Cimmura, from the Sparhawk books, but also Conan’s Cimmeria. I thought merging two extremely similar looking words would create something wildly different.

I like this country and these orders, and I like who they’ve become to fit with the three campaigns (each of which ran for a year-plus) I’ve run using them. They are a good narrative tool, and they give players an organisation to belong to that’s also free enough that they can stake out their own space in it. They can be a good knight or a bad knight or they have a story of how they came to be a knight. This is good stuff, and players tend to like it.

Now, there are three reasons to want to rename these orders, or to at least make the names a little different. First of all, there’s just basic reference reasons. I don’t want players who know the Eddings novels to think I mean those Pandions, I mean my Pandions. My Pandions aren’t going to have creepy marriages to beautiful princesses they raised and did I mention those books are bad?

Ownership over the terms is another thing; it’s one thing to use terms from another source, and I could easily argue ‘Pandion’ is not a term that Eddings owns exclusively. There were a bunch of Greek kings with that name, and the term is in the Osprey’s species name. Still, why have the argument? The word isn’t so incredibly great I want to keep using it.

The third reason is identity within the culture. See, remember, this stuff comes from a country that’s next to the country now known as Dal Raeda – but if you heard those names were for things within Dal Raeda, would they fit alongside words like ‘Glotharen’ and ‘Delan’? Would they feel different?

The culture currently-and-soon-formerly known as Symeira fills a large space in my setting. It’s a nation made entirely of city-states and small protectorates, spread across the spaces occupied by other countries, with a highway system connecting them. These cities are old, and mostly known for their infrastructure, and don’t have an adversarial relationship with the nations they’re in.

Now, sometimes this is because the nation whose space the city is in doesn’t really have a conventional ‘government’ as we consider it (like the vast, disconnected non-human cultures of the Corrindale woods), the nation’s government arrived after the city was built (think a bit like London), or the land the city is on was purchased or separated for political reasons (like Vatican City). To maintain trade between these cities, the central city financed the construction of a highway system, which stretches across most non-Dal Raedan nations, and other countries accept the presence because the highways are useful, and the cities are great for trade (and also getting rid of them would be hard).

Now, because these cities are jutted all over the place, they can have names and language that relates more to the country they’re in rather than ‘Symeira.’ The history of what-will-not-be-named-Symeira-much-longer is loose at this point, but I see it as being a nation that came together once the cities were established, rather than necessarily the result of a conventional nation-formation mechanism like a revolution.

For the culture of this nation there’s only one other existing meaningful name, and that’s the name of the Holy City, Olifar. I like Olifar as a name, because it’s both got some air in it, which makes it feel ‘uppity,’ and it’s also lacking in hard edges, suggesting the place isn’t tough. It has an ethereal kind of quality to it, which I like for a city that is primarily the home of a church. Olifar doesn’t have a lot of industry – it’s where the church’s largest and most politically important cathedrals rest, and where the church politics all happen.

Before I go on, I’d like to talk about why I want this kind of culture in my game world.

This society lets me have something reasonably similar to a typical European Fantasy, where characters are sent from some central location by someone with a generally positive disposition (you know, a decent, if not perfect leader), then travel away from their central location, have their smaller adventure, then return to their source and report on what happened. Travel time gives you a lot of good stuff for conflict and adventure design, and the delay it imposes is also really valuable. It means players spend time moving, dealing with potential ‘wandering’ encounters, having meals, breaking camp, learning how they do the basics of living without the purposelessness of just giving them time to idle around one another.

Now, one of the easy ways to do this is to mimic the British Empire and have people meet the Queen, then get sent to the colonies to deal with things, but that, perhaps to the surprise of a typical gamer, is super colonialist and that’s not good. I don’t want to tell my players to have adventures in this game space, they’re going to have to be complicit in colonialism in the most obvious way.

(Oh, and yes, I know there are some well-actuallying people who’d argue that any game that represents a hierarchy is inherently anti-leftist and therefore capitalist, yes, I’m very impressed, the exits are there, there, and there.)

This nation gives players a generally neutral, not-pointedly-awful place to exist. There are some state-wide institutions, there’s a watch service that isn’t directly comparable to the police, there’s knightly orders doing things like preserving knowledge, copying books and maintaining libraries and creating jobs. There’s still some trappings of feudalism but it’s all Not-Actually-Feudalism, where you have ‘lords’ but they’re appointed and mostly the bad ones exist so players have someone to righteously stab in the face and the reasonable organisation around them can respond to that.

Originally, I learned the idea for this kind of coalition of city-states connected by highways exists, and it’s known as a confederacy, but we’re not going to use that term because I don’t want players to associate this flexible setting piece with, you know, slave-keeping assholes.

I did a lot of testing of these names, and eventually I went to a randomiser and punched in some syllables, then sorted through the results for a bit. The main thing I did here was exclude names; the names of the original settings, the names of the orders I couldn’t use, and also syllables that felt like they belong to Dal Raeda (so less focus on ‘B’ and ‘Nd’ sounds).  I also rejected a lot of names that felt strongly like they belonged to a specific culture in the real world – a number of names that turns out were common-ish Iraqi names, for example.

First of all, we’re going to rename ‘Symeira’ and ‘Symeiran.’ They’re now Ereshan and the city is Eresh. The group of cities is called the Eresh Protectorate, which I like because it both implies the origin of the coalition, and makes it clear that there’s some degree of protection offered from the center. Eresh also stands apart from Dal Raeda, and they have some similar sound to them (the R and E) but they don’t necessarily feel like they’re just variants on the same basic language. Ironically, these two nations share a language now (because trade), but that’s not how they started.

Eresh the city, by the way, is right next door to the province of Danube

That’s the place they come from, now let’s talk about the Knightly Orders and how they differ from one another.

First, our Lawful Good cavalry knights, the former Pandions are now the Tzarumite order. I like how this name has a hesitation at the start; you pause slightly to say it, because the Tz sound isn’t very quick or natural in English. You know there’s going to be people in-universe who call them Zarumites, and it’s probably seen as kinda dickish.

The Tzarumites are our regimented, well-off order; the ones who have the most inherited property and land, the most overseers, and the one with a deliberate integration with the Watch in Eresh cities. They’re also the order known for cavalry troops and an infamous shocking charge. If you pay a Tzarumite, you probably have access to some money, or grew up working around people who had money, and were being sponsored, adopted, or somehow helped along by people who wanted you in the order.

The Tzarumite colours are black and purple, and their common weapons are longsword and lance.

Since I made the Lethinite order pretty much up out of whole cloth, they just stay as they are. They’re the academics, and they’re the ones who interface the most with Church laws and libraries. They’re basically your nerd knights, doing things like transporting valuable books to places so they can be restored, or sealing away dangerous tomes that have powerful spells in them. Lethinites are also known for information-based warfare – they scout, they make tactical decisions or strategic plans, and they’re the ones who make the best impromptu fortifications.

The Lethinite colours are silver and rose, and their common weapons are the longbow and longspear.

The rowdy Cyrinist order are almost completely unchanged, they’re just now called the Raguzans. Raguzan knights are the least likely to have landed titles; they’re often ‘knights of convenience,’ or people who distinguished themselves in battle heroically or in a militia situation, given a knighthood that they can’t pass on to their children and given just enough authority to run around as dangerous free agents on the battlefield. Raguzan knights tend to have other jobs, they tend to be working class, and the Raguzans are known for their skill in animal-keeping. If you see a warhound, battle boars, or war dire ferrets on the battlefield, they’re with the Raguzans. Raguzans make decisions quickly and decisively. They’re also the experts in demolitions and breaking sieges , which naturally is a point of tension with Lethinites.

The Raguzan colours are blue and gold, and their common weapons are two-handed axes, hammers, and swords.

Chardunists are the final order, and since I made up this name myself years ago, I don’t feel it needs to change. I like it as a sort of semi-Babylonian feel, which fits their origin. Chardunists started as the Olifar Inquisition, whose duty was to root out psychics in the church territories. Psionics was regarded as a ‘soul sickness’ and the Chardunists became students of it, then experts on it, until eventually, Chardunists who were psychic became influential enough to change the direction of the order. Chardunists have over time slipped into the shadows and become a lesser-known fourth order of knights, who mostly do covert operations, which they use to scoop up psychic individuals and hide them from the remaining inquisition arms of the church.

The Chardunist colours are grey and jade, and their common weapons are daggers, brass knuckles, bottles and someone else’s fists.

This was a long walk! But there was a lot of thought put into making these setting elements engaging and fun while also having distinct names that don’t directly overlap with one another. If you say any of these names aloud, you’re not likely to mix up which of them you’re saying, which is a good test of a decent name.

Also, hopefully, players are thinking of how they’d want to fit into these knightly orders, or not.


All these images are from the VGA Remake of Quest For Glory I, a game that heavily influenced the creation of this setting, even if I let almost none of the Cole’s taste for Whacky Humour infiltrate my game.

 

Unit Operations By The Rulebook

Therre’s this idea in chemistry called unit operations.

First introduced to me by the work of one Ian ‘Videogames Are Better When They Don’t Have Stories’ Bogost, who I absolutely have to respect as a peer in the field even if I want to squirt him with a water gun when he says stuff like that, in his book helpfully titled Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, Unit Operations are the idea of, well, the smallest possible unit of thing-ness in a thing.

That’s not a helpful definition, but hey, he wrote a whole book explaining what he meant. Wikipedia tells me the term in chemistry got its popularity around the period after he wrote the book, but without getting my hands on actual chemistry expertise and pedagogical books I don’t know who came up with the term first, or if there’s a lineage between them, so I’m just going to chart the process of how I came to terms with them. First read the term from Ian Bogost, then while looking up a citation back in April, I found it was used in Chemistry.

As Bogost uses them, Unit Operations work within the idea that every single component of an entity you can consider in a critical way can be broken down, as it were, to particles of meaning, intention, limitation, all that – that you can metaphorically grind a videogame (and indeed any artwork) down into discrete, interlocking components of distinct separate meaning and purpose. In chemistry, the idea is that a unit operation is a basic step in a process; processes can be all sorts of things, like let’s say you put the blue crystal in the green water, then they both turn red and then the crystal dissolves, then you’re expected to pour it out. From the user’s perspective, they added something, then poured it out; but in terms of process, there were at least four unit operations:

  • The crystal was added to the green water
  • The crystal and water reacted so they changed colour
  • The crystal reacted so it dissolved
  • The mixture was poured out

Chemist friends, please understand I am simplifying. Where I find this idea useful is rules. And this rulebook is what’s giving me problems right now.

In the game Freight Expectations, the rulebook flummoxed me for weeks. I had the document open, I had revised and rewritten the same section over and over again, and each time I found myself frustrated. Sometimes it was doubt – would that be fun? – and sometimes it was confusion – what am I even saying? – and more often than not, it was paralysis – if I want to change this mechanic, I’d have to change some cards to go with it.

Struggling with that, I decided to break it down into a list of unit operations. Unit operations can be when the players do something, or when the game does something. What this looks like is a bit like this:

  • Player 1 starts the turn
  • Player 1 chooses to do option A, B or C
    • If they choose option A, here’s the sequence
      • Sequence X of option A
      • Sequence Y of option A
      • Sequence Z of option A
    • If they choose option B, here’s the sequence…

And so on.

It’s not a pretty ruleset, but it can be a useful technique for breaking down what you need players to do, and quite frankly I think I’d rather a well structured ruleset that you can do with a bullet list than beautifully structured narrative that is confusingly put together.

Btw, do I have progress? Not necessarily. I’m writing down my changes, and hopefully they’ll be good in the morning.

We’ll see how it goes.

Third Times A Charm

Time to time, you may have seen me say something to the effect of playtesters are always honest about what they feel, they don’t necessarily know what’s right. It’s good advice, generally speaking. Here’s a similar one.

If three people point out something weird in your interface, listen to them.

Hey, do you remember the game Hook, Line and Sinker I’m working on? Back here in April I’m waiting on printer runs for it, and it’s frustrating because it’s just big enough that it won’t go in a standard envelope so it takes seven weeks to get to me in Australia, so I’m working through remote people, anyway.

Thing is, this game has symbols for three card types, three suits. Here is what they were, this morning:

Hook, line, sinker.

Then my friend helping me with the prints looked at the sinker and said ‘huh, isn’t that a bobber?’

Now imagine me falling back into a conversation like a sudden memory moment in a movie, to one of my playtesters saying ‘huh, that’s a bobber.’

Then imagine in that moment, me falling back into another sudden memory, of Fox, looking at the art as I first devised it, and said to me, isn’t that bobber?

And then imagine me, sourly, today, doing this:

Does this look like a few hours of work? Because this was a few hours of work. Getting the sinker to look like a model of a sinker I could find on the internet. Trying my own style of the cable, trying to make sure it can fit in the same spaces as the others on all the cards, redoing the cards that need the art adjusted to accommodate the new bit – because hey, check this example card, where the white line vanishes.

Anyway, here are those gems, once more, now with the new ‘sinkery’ sinker. It would be easy to ignore it, but I knew I was on a track to hear ‘isn’t that a bobber’ one more time, and every time, any explanation (“I don’t much care,“) was going to start to annoy me.

So yeah. Game interface is important. Even if something is annoying to do, it’s worth doing if it stops you getting more annoyed later.

The DM is Removed

This is sort of but not actually a response to something said in Chris Franklin’s latest Errant Signal video. Chris makes good videos, I like his work and I think I’ve even commented on them in the past. Here’s the video I’m talking about:

This video is a good video, and when I talk about the ideas in it, I want you to understand that I’m not saying that Chris did something wrong or incorrect or that his analysis could have been better if he’d done it my way.What’s more, Chris’ video is about video games and has to mostly focus on roleplaying in videogames, but also mostly as focused on by the commercial industry. You know, the kind of games you can get your hands on at a game stop or on Steam, and some on itch.

I’m in the tabletop space, so for me it’s a little bit different, and I don’t see there as being a hard division between videogames and my spaces that many people (including my own wings of academia) do. This aids me well when I get to talk about things that are definitely done with computers but need a more traditional tabletop or roleplaying setup, with games like Starship Artemis and Spaceteam, or the app-driven modes of games like Mansions of Madness or One Night Ultimate Werewolf.

What Chris suggests in his video is that, as he says, these games don’t have a storyteller or dungeonmaster. The game, he argues, has to present you possible options. But the thing is, someone made those options. Those options were still created for you by a storyteller, it’s just that storyteller isn’t in a position to readily get feedback from you. You’re being confined by a storyteller’s imagination, and that storyteller’s imagination is in turn not receiving any feedback from yours.

But in a tabletop roleplaying games, the storyteller is in many ways confined by their own preparation; it’s actually something of a hllmark of good systems how well they handle a storyteller’s need for some new mechanical content. Dungeons and Dragons may not be a reliable system on every front, but one thing that those monster manuals and dungeon books let the game do is provide you with game content that you don’t have to imagine up on the spot.

Rather than a vision of the videogame RPG as a thing that lacks a storyteller and the tabletop one as one that has one, I prefer to instead suggest that in this case, the question is not the presence or absence of a social connection, but rather the distance in it. After all, the fully remote DM of Fallout has had a lot of time to make sure all the mechanical stuff is absolutely robust (which of course, it doesn’t have to be).

Another idea in Chris’ take is the idea of consequence. There’s an example in the video of Geralt saying thing A vs thing B and then suggests there’s no change in the game between these two choices. Except there is: Geralt says thing A in one, and thing B in the other. The rest of the game doesn’t necessarily react to that, but that doesn’t miraculously make those things the same thing. This presents something of an unconscious videogaming question as it relates to play: just how much impact does a choice have to have to make it meaningful, and following from that, is a meaningful choice the same thing as memorable choice?

Videogames are absolutely smothered in choice, and lots of the times it doesn’t make that much of a difference to the narrative people walk away with. For most people who beat Super Mario it’s not important that you beat it in twenty minutes or beat it in thirty minutes; the backsteps, double checks, general reconsideration, bathroom breaks and double checks are all things that get smothered away in the general narrative of ‘I beat the level.’

You can see there’s a subtle trend towards this in Chris’ piece; he views that it’s not enough for a choice to be a choice, but a choice must be validated. He even refers to these not-good-enough-choices as warping the game; the idea that being the kind of person who cares about tradition or moralityis not important enough to express if you’re not doing it with some consequence. What I find most interesting about this is consequence works against actually playing a character. In Bioshock there’s the infamous moral question of do-or-don’t eat a baby, and eating a baby gives you  reward now and not-eating a baby gives you about as much reward later. This was regarded as a bad choice, because people wouldn’t eat babies just for the rewards unless they were better than the rewards for not eating babies and good god, videogames are morally confused place.

Finally, I think of playing with a game, any game, as a creative act. The game has all its pieces and its interface, but how you choose to interact with it, wht you do with it, is creating your play experience in that space. I’ve talked about this before, and it involves using the word paratext, which I understand gets me weird looks. With that, it means that your individual experience of a game isn’t just a thing that happens to you, it’s a thing you create, and you are part of that creative act. This is important to my vision of games, too, because even if the game limits your ability to be choosey (like, say, a corridor shooter with a lot of cut scenes), the choice of when and how to engage with it, and you as a person become part of the individual experience of that game. Making play experiences paratextual is, in my mind, a valuable tool for enmeshing the player in the game, and centres what players choose to do without making the game’s ‘text’ somehow beholden to every individual player.

It’s a good video! I recommend it! I just don’t agree with it 100%!

Game Pile: Steamworld Heist

I talk about games a lot. Sometimes, I use games to talk about books. Sometimes, I use books to talk about games. Sometimes I use games to talk about culture and about art and about poetry and about history. Games, in essence, get to be a lens through which I can talk about all sorts of other things, even as I talk about the games.

Make no mistake, though. Just because I find games interesting as lenses for other ideas doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes play games because they rock socks. And you know what rocks socks? Steamworld Heist rocks socks.

Steamworld Heist is a squad-based turn-based tactical shooter game. You know your high-profile X-Com style games? Well, take that basic idea, and make it in a 2d platformer game. You’re commanding a rag-tag group of thieves – though ‘thieves’ is kind of the wrong term. You’re more like bandits and rebels, opposing an oppressive state but also your heists are less about stealth and avoidance and much more about boarding an enemy vessel and shooting them in the hat.

I think Steamworld Heist is a really good game, and it’s definitely a videogame videogame – this isn’t something that could be implemented better in some other way. It’s available on Steam (haha), the Switch, iOS, and PS4, and it’s priced very reasonably for the amount of game you get for it.

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When Scrabble Ends

The games we mostly play in the public eye these days are games with a lot of calcified rules. Established stuff – you know, there are books about Chess and the cover all sorts of openings and closings and strategy. The game is itself a metaphor for how we tell stories, it’s all very rudimentary stuff. It’s foundational.

Ask yourself then, when exactly is a game lost.

I don’t just mean strategically – you’ll see people saying ponderous things like ‘the game was lost at this point,’ and so on, but that’s a different metaphorical space. That’s something else. What I’m thinking about is how many games are lost several moves before they end – and how we approach people seeing that end happen.

In Vintage Magic: the Gathering, it’s not uncommon to see people concede the second a hoser hits the table. In some formats that’s considered quitter behaviour, that you can always play around or get out or you might miracle into something, but the decks in Vintage are so tightly refined to a razor’s edge that if the Leyline sticks, okay, you lose, that’s how it goes.

In Chess, check is sometimes enough to earn a concession – check gives way to checkmate deterministically. In games like Gin Rummy, you can have one player win the game with a single hand of perfect coincidence, so you might think the game is happening, and then bam the game is over. That can be a bummer, but don’t think of it as a bummer but more about how many games you see end that way.

The thing that got me thinking about it, though is Scrabble.

Scrabble is a pretty neat game. It’s a game with layers and levels, and it changes a lot as your skill level changes. At high skill levels, it stops being about successfully using your vocabulary and starts being about controlling areas of the board. Each move you make creates opportunities, but the turn order means that any given action means your opponent gets to use that option first. That means you actually spend your time huddling in spaces that are safe, waiting for your opponent to run out of choices that force them to strike out into the open areas of the board.

That then means that if you do strike out, you have to try and do it in a way that maximises your return and punishes your opponent as much as possible – so you want to strike out with weird words and complicated arrangements that get close but not quite reach bonus squares.

Scrabble is a game where, between players who are roughly matched, it’s very common for the game to be undecided until the last move. In Scrabble games, at the competitive level, you’ll see that it’s very rare for players to not need the last points on the last turn.

When you design your game, ask yourself at what point players stop making decisions. Scrabble, note, doesn’t even ‘end’ after the last tile is placed – you have to do some math, to see who won the game. That’s something in a number of Euro games, and also games like Sheriff of Nottingham.

Making a game interesting up until it’s done and then making that ending quick. There’s a little thing to chew on. How do you close out your game design gracefully?

Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 1: Names in the Kingdom

Back in 3rd edition, I created my own D&D setting. It wasn’t very good, but I’m still very attached to it, and want to use it as an object lesson in improving. I also want to show people that everything comes from somewhere, and your old work can help become foundational to your new work.

Content Warning: Some of the old text is going to feature some unconscious cissexism and sexism, and I know there are a few unknowingly racist terms that I used.


First of all, let’s talk about just some basic work of names.

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Game Pile: Majora’s Mask

Released in the year 2000, on April 27, Majora’s Mask is a Legend of Zelda game. Preceeded by Link’s Awakening DX, it’s generally seen as a followup, or maybe-sequel or sort-of-related game to The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. This is already a sentence that other types of games writers would navigate a lot faster but here I am, being deliberately picky to avoid saying something that’s generally accepted as true, but I don’t want to be part of reinforcing.

One reason to be careful about the wording is to just try and avoid someone nitpicking. After all, I don’t know anyone who’s likely to point out well actually, the DX release of the gameboy Zelda game came out between Ocarina and Majora’s, but somehow, going that extra mile keeps me extra safe, right?

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MTG: Custom Rarity

Hey, why do we put rarity on custom cards?

Seriously.

Do you build your game to think it’s draft? Do you make cards for cube? Why do you try and position your cards as some rarity or another? It’s interesting that often, rarity is presented as a reason for a card to justify power – cards that are probably too good are excused with ‘it’s meant to be a rare’ or ‘it’s meant to be pushed,’ and that’s always funny to me when you consider how few people are actually making things based on rarity.

Not nobody mind you.

Now, my answer to this personally is that rarity is another form of proper design of magic cards. They have constraints, and they’re reflective. If you make a card that should be a common, you should have the design sense to do that. And that can mean sometimes, a card that’s a weird oddball that only works in niche spaces winds up being rare.

As a pragmatic matter, rarity ‘only matters’ for draft. But we can, as amateur designers, get a good handle on rarity as it matters for draft. If a card could bust a draft environment open like Vengevine, it needs to be Mythic Rare to ensure it doesn’t ruin every pod. If a card is just the intersection of keywords and creature types, French Vanilla and nicely costed, it can live at common.

Yet, we often talk about Rarity as if it’s a list of four when that’s a sneaky lie. There are four Rarity expresions (well, there’s more, but bear with me); the symbol will show common, uncommon, rare or mythic. That’s not even all the basic categories of rarity, though.

There are seven basic rarities you can give cards:

  • Common. Commons are often good cards that do one thing, in a few words. Common cards can still be exciting and fun to design, because being common doesn’t mean you’re bad. Commons are also some of the best places to show off keyword mechanics, because there’s nowhere for a mechanic to hide on a common. One reason I beef about amateur-designed keyword mechanics is that many times, the common of them gains nothing from just having the keyword.
  • Uncommon. Uncommons are the siren of the casual designer because that’s where we tend to feel it’s okay to push something we like a lot, as long as we can justify it as being a bit bad in some way. I think Eternal Witness is my all purpose comparison card – casual developers would often print Very Strong Effect on a 2/1 and suggest it was okay because it wasn’t giving you a very good creature.
  • Rare. Rares can have a lot of words on them – something like 50 words, for a comparison. Rares can have multiple mechanics that interact on them. Rares are also a place where you can show off what a keyword mechanic can do, pushed.
  • Mythic Rare. Rares, but which are even more distorting to limited environments.
  • Special Inclusive rarity, like Timeshifted cards, where the rules of this expansion give a reason for a Bonus Rarity. These are a fun thing to think about – it’s also the place that Innistrad’s Double-Faced cards kinda lurked.
  • Special Exclusive rarity, like the starter deck cards or Commander cards; ie, it’s never meant to show up in a booster draft, but players can jam it in cubes or constructed formats. These are also odd because their rarity is literally only meant to represent specialness and complexity.
  • Basic, cards that are extremely common and yet also extremely available.

This is what I sometimes call invisible ink. Players sometimes don’t even realise there are more rarities – I’ve seen players say there are only ‘really’ three rarities, and Mythic rares are a subtype of rare.

Anyway, just a thing to think about.

Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil

When I was nineteen, I started running Dungeons and Dragons. The history of my time with this game isn’t important, but what is important is that when I started, I had access to the setting books of the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk settings, and seeing this veritable library of game rules and information about mechanical identity and culture, I immediately said No, I don’t want that.

I wanted to tell stories with this game, but there were two reasons I wanted to avoid an established setting:

  1. I was brand new to the game, and didn’t want people to feel they could ‘beat me’ about the world by bringing up a book
  2. I didn’t want to have to read a dozen books to get started

Instead, I invented a world in a weekend and then spent years bolting on new things, editing, re-editing, retconning and then, around the time 4th Edition became a thing, I quietly put the world away and worked on other stuff. I still ran the occasional D&D game in this world, but the world wasn’t important to the games.

This is a huge trove of lore and game mechanical information. I made classes and races and feats and just a ton of stuff, some of which I recently dusted off and looked at, and you know, some of it was bad, but some of it surprised me. Particularly, a thing that surprised me was how many of the basic ideas in it I liked, and wanted another chance to do better.

Plus, I know there’s an interest in worldbuilding as a skill, and I’m friends with some people who are really good at it, and they’ve had some really interesting stuff to say about it. But I don’t just want to make good things and show you the final product; instead, I want you to see that every good thing you like was worked on and refined and changed, and for that reason I figured I’d put down these setting revision notes here, in a series.

This is going to introduce you to the setting, both how I’d explain it to a player, and how I’d put it into a book. I’m going to examine my ideas, and then examine how I think players might engage with them as play spaces.

Going back over old writing is going to reveal some ugly stuff, and some really basic stuff. I imagine there’s going to be some implicit racism and cissexism, some unconscious misogyny and I know at least once I use a slur as a game term, which isn’t good. A content warning then, going forward.


The image is from the VGA Remake of Quest For Glory I, a game that heavily influenced the creation of this setting, even if I let almost none of the Cole’s taste for Whacky Humour infiltrate my game.

Hunter’s Dreams – Trick Weapons, Part 3

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 how 4th Edition D&D’s weapon system works, and today, I’m going to lay out some basic ideas of actual mechanics for use in Hunter’s Dream.

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Game Pile: Yoshi’s Island

Released in 1995, Yoshi’s Island is a classic Nintendo platform game on the SNES and subsequently released on almost every online platform they made. It’s really good and I like it, so here’s half an hour of me playing it, and talking about games, empathy, and fluttering.

D&D Memories: Genshiken

I like looking back at character creation for RPGs. It’s creative, and expressive, and it has mechanical fine-tuning, I like that stuff. Mechanics give you things you must do, then concept and flavour give you things you can choose to do within that space, and that then means you get to pick what you express.

In a friend’s game, Genshiken was mostly expressing that I was watching a lot of Bleach back in the day.

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Remembering The Zandalari

Normally I bring up Zul’Gurub and Zul’Aman as dungeon raids mostly to beat up on more recent World of Warcraft experiences. It’s a little bit ridiculous of me to say that kind of thing, though, because WoW is not a discrete experience you have, it’s a pasttime you indulge. I’ve said in the past that if we replace WoW with tennis a lot of conversations seem extremely normal and less in need of some sort of personal justification.

Sometimes I’ll remark that people who want Vanilla WoW back don’t want Vanilla Wow, they want to feel like it’s 2004 again and they’re not worrying about mortgage payments. That’s a bit curt, though – hell, it’s downright insulting, really, because how different is my distaste for Modern WoW different, when I’m still complaining about an inability to recapture the way I felt in 2011 when World of Warcraft grinding kept me from despair during a period of long-term unemployment.

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