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.

CoX: Shaping Moonheart

A few months ago I mentioned Moonheart, my Resurgence Magical Boy, and how I figured I’d go in on him when I had the chance.

Well?

I have the chance.

Okay, first up, we’re talking about a character I roleplay on the game City of Heroes. This is a fakey-madey-uppy superhero I pretend to be in my free time. If you’re looking at this and missed this introduction, you might be going ‘hang on, what story is this from?’ and ha ha, you fool, I’ve got you to read about a thing I made up.

Gotcha!

Moonheart is a young man from that category of legacy heroes; not directly, as neither parent was Moonheart before him, but as someone who inherited powers from each parent. If you meet him on the street, chances are you might read him as a woman, because of his hips and hair and his not exactly packing the masculine codifiers voice. He’s what might get referred to as a femboy – he’s cis, but his presentation is pretty girly.

(And that’s it, mind you.)

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Game Pile: Fat Bear Week

Fat Bear Week is a three-level long game about playing a big, lumbery, hard-to-control bear that wants to get enough food to winter, in a time limit. You maneuver around with WASD and the mouse and try to contend with momentum and want to hit as many targets as you can, which can be static or mobile. You’re eating a bunch of things, which may be mushrooms or berries or whatever, or they may be birds or bunnies that try to get away, and at some point in your exploration, after you get enough food, your bear transforms into a Big Chonky Boy, and now you’re not chasing things, you’re rolling around and trying to manage what is essentially, a big spherical ball that wants to eat things.

It’s pretty fun and its control mechanism is just bad enough that wrestling your bear around is satisfyingly fun, in the same way that you’re kind of bowling your bear around. There are some unlockable bears, there are stars for doing a good job, and there’s a ‘complete’ stat with getting stars.

I like this game just fine, and it’s free, and it will take you less time to download it and play all of it than it took me to write this article and put the pictures together.

I found this game because I was browsing the games I bought in the Racial Equality Bundle on itch.io a few weeks ago. I did so by jumping to the end of the list of games, then worked backwards, page by page. I showed this one to Fox, and she played it, then I played it, we had a giggle, and that was pretty much it.

The bundle in question is so big that this game could have escaped my notice, and that’s a little sad and a little weird when I think about it. I even wonder if it’s worth doing a Game Pile about the game itself – it’s basically a tweet fodder.

There was also some idea, kind of kicking around in my head, that it was worth doing a Game Pile and going in on body normativity for this game, where it’s okay to be a fat player character, a big chonker, in a comedy game, but the conversation about fatness in a game seems best to be brought to bear on something that does a terrible job of it, something with multiple characters, and something that’s being made by people with large quantities of power and a clear means and obligation to do better like Capcom or Ubisoft, rather than an itch.io free game.

The thing is, this game is just… good fun? I like it? I wish there was more of it? And as much as I have a platform, as much as I can offer attention to it, I feel like it’s worth drawing attention to this kind of small project, something that could, hypothetically, be better, if the people making it knew that people wanted more of it. It’s part of an enormous bundle, and even outside of that bundle, it’s free.

I like to make a point that games of all varieties are worth talking about, worth consideration. My definition of games in an academic space is explicitly extremely inclusive, but I tend to not talk about games from this middle space. I’ll talk about a game my dog plays, but this game, which was made by people and I played and I found lots of fun, and may even yield more content if enough people are interested in it, somehow lives in a space where it’s too small to go off on but too big to be treated as one of those small games I promote and pick apart. A game I spent half an hour on is doing me a service, and my desire for more of it isn’t really a reason that the game should be discarded.

Anyway, check this one out, it’s free and it’s fun. And tell the people who made it what you think of it!

How To Be: Chandra Nalaar (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 month, we’re going to talk about the hottest of Pansexual Messes, Chandra Nalaar and you may be asking me ‘well why didn’t you do that during Pride Month?’ and the answer is because Wizards have not been exactly well behaved on this issue and I’m not about to do their marketing work for them just this moment thank you bloody much. Instead we’re going to talk about Chandra on her own time, thank you very much.

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4e: The Dragonborn

You may remember a while ago I talked about how, typically, in fantasy stories, dragons are used to represent governments. This idea isn’t like, hard codified facts or anything, it’s just a way to look at dragons and it can make some sense of how they behave when they’re used in stories. The thing is, that’s a sort of high-up view of what dragons are used for, and the ways we treat dragons because it’s the way we learned to treat dragons; they are, essentially, governments that you can interact with on an individual, personal level, which means that they can be petty and cruel and vain in ways that only involve changing one mind to fix or they can be benevolent and kind in the ways that an individual making reasonable judgments can.

But what if dragons were not only expressed in these forms, what if the role of the dragon in a story being a person means it is something that people can observe, can admire, can disconnect from its duties and the scope of its powers, and consider as a person that can be swayed, can be hungry, can have material needs, can-

Look, I’m circling around the question of whether or not Dragons Doink.

Now of course Dragons doink. In almost every single modern D&D style story, Dragons are not byproducts of ethereal reproduction, or spiritual cell splitting, or even magical summoning but in our modern conception, instead, absolutely and clearly about dragons that frick, and who wouldn’t want that, as a way to get baby dragons? They follow eggs, then that makes sense, and the fact it feels like it makes sense is more important than whether or not it makes sense.

And if dragons can doink…

Dragons can doink people.

And dragons can have kids with people.

Look, I’m not saying that 100% of all expressions of the Dragonborn through their history in D&D, stems from dragonfrickers, and people who associate with dragonfrickers, but it’s a pretty simple and fundamental thought: What if a dragon, but a badass or cool or pretty looking person who isn’t so powerful they shake the world? Is that a reasonable want to be?

The Dragonborn were not a new creation for 4th edition; I suspect they existed in 2nd edition as a few scattered NPCs, or maybe something from Parliament of Wyrms but damned if I’m going back that far to research them. They were given prominent showing and referred to as ‘new’ in 3.5’s Races of the Dragon, a stunningly unnecessary book about many varieties of Dragonfrickers; particularly, in this case, the kobold and the dragonborn, who at the time looked really strong, overpowered even. There were also… another… one, but this isn’t me going in on that book (and I will, don’t worry), it’s going in on the 4e race. Essential backgrounder, you know, as far as one can be essential when discussing the significance and importance of a completely fictional race of dragon-furries (scalies, I’m sure you’re correcting me in your head) for Dungeons And Dragons.

The dragonborn, that book said, were members of different cultures that were just the bestest friends of Bahamut, who, upon testing their moral character and deciding on their significance as servants, proceeded to wrap them in an egg that they then broke out of in a big sprawling mess of goo.

Not joking.

Dragonification (Giving).

This idea was used to get the Dragonborn into D&D settings that didn’t have it at that stage, and even let players openly turn their existing, established, high-level mid-campaign characters into these cool scaly bastards, because D&D is like a really weird, badly maintained MMO with a need for backdoor explanations for why things even are, but it wasn’t necessary for 4th Edition D&D that launched from the jump with Dragonborn in it.

The explanation for the Dragonborn provided there was that they were a race that was related to some ancient Dragon and… they had an empire that was almost a worldwide dominion, but didn’t wind up that way. This you may recognise as echoing the story of the Tieflings, who had a global empire, that they then wrecked in their hubris. Personally, I don’t like reusing this story beat, but the default canon explanation for the origin of the Dragonborn is that they’re basically either Tieflings Two Point Oh (and I have a great fondness for Tieflings as they currently are), or they’re stuck with being Bahamut or Io’s Special Favourite Mousketeers, and well, at least in default D&D settings, AGAB, and Bahamut in particular is a narc’s narc.

There’s also the option that they were made by some other, mysterious force, that they are a created people, possible for purposes of war, but there’s also the Warforged, who exist in the same space, and present a lot of interesting questions, meaning that Dragonborn run the risk of being a Less Interesting Warforged.

What then for the poor Dragonborn?

The thing with these fangaling wingalings is that they’re absolutely something you work backwards to get. It isn’t that the setting has this great big empty space where you need to pour some sort of excitingly interesting dragon-like culture, we have that already, it’s called dragons. It’s not like dragons even necessarily imply the existence of dragonborn – dragons are big, slow, ancient and they still get whole cities built to their glory. But if you want a person who looks like a dragon and still wants to run around doin’ an adventure, then dragonborns fill that spot, and you have to then back-fill what they’re for.

In 4th Edition, we add an extra wrinkle to this exchange because the Dragonborn is also extremely strong and extremely well-supported, meaning that it’s very likely that players who don’t necessarily feel interested in being a Totally Hot Dragon Person are nonetheless going to find themselves drawn into that space as well.

The biggest challenge for me is finding something for Dragonborn to be about that isn’t just duplicating another useful cultural space. You can go with them as being inheritors of an empire, frustrated by their nearly-attained but never-quite global domination, but empires are assholes and when you’re dealing with dragons you already have the uphill struggle of dealing with a person who behaves like an empire.

What, the question is, do I want Dragonborn to be for?

Because right now?

They’re for furries.

That’s it.

That’s a good enough reason, no lies – but I’d like to be able to show the friends who are looking for that, that in my setting, my vision of Dragonborn lets them be the kind of characters they want to be; that they are not saddled with trauma and tragedy, nor does my world see them as inherently conquering jerkholes.

Now, the solution for Cobrin’Seil, my setting, is still something I’m working on. I’m thinking about where to go with it, but I also think it’s important to recognise the parameters of the question. If there’s a problem, it’s worth trying to get my arms around.

 

MTG: Reimagining The Nephilim

Warning: hey, WotC employees, this will feature custom designs!

In February 2006, Magic: The Gathering released the set Guildpact, and with it the first four-colour magic cards that had ever been printed. With no prior precedent to work from, these four cards were exciting and they had the intriuging and hitherto unused title Nephilim. They were the Yore-Tiller Nephilim, Glint-Eye Nephilim, Dune-Brood Nephilim, Ink-Treader Nephilim, and Witch-Maw Nephilim.

Nephilim are a reference to a sort of – you know, I’m going to pull the bandaid off and just say that Nephilim are one of those pre-Bible Bible stories that gets trotted out and recycled by various people building RPG Sourcebooks ore Religious texts (but I repeat myself). There’s a chance your actual religion actually respects them as actual things that actually exist, but that’s sure not what they’re being used for these days.

Also, if you read the lore you’d know that these Nephilim aren’t the real Nephilim, they’re just magically crafted Nephilimmy things, and they’re sort of pre-god gods of Ravnica, creatures that are so transcendentally powerful and important, that they don’t even need worshippers or sacrifices – their cult calls upon them to be seen not because of their actions, but because of their existence being so fundamentally powerful and dangerous that their presence humbles people.

They also suck ass.

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Purpling Out A Warshade

I swear to god, my last fucking brain cell.

In City of Heroes, the game was – and is – pretty easy. The game was made to have a broad appeal to an audience that mostly liked playing with the costume creator, and at shutdown, over 50% of all characters made never reached level 10 of 50.

There was a gear system introduced after the game was live, a system designed to be optional to let players push their characters to a higher level. It was called the Invention system and it relied on interconnected sets of things in limited sockets. I’ve spoken about it in the past and it is not an easy system to grapple with.

This was, I repeat, optional. Then when that system appealed to players, the developers released another group of inventions that could only be used by characters at the level cap, at 50. This is content for a minority of players, mind you, and they found it worked well getting players engaged with the game, and it seemed to do well. They were known as ultra-rares in the game text, and ‘purples’ to the players. For some players, doing normal late-game content, a single purple drop could be sold on the market for enough money to satisfy your needs for good.

Another thing in the game was the presence of epic archetypes. If you had a level 50 hero, you could make one of two more types of hero characters – a Peacebringer or a Warshade. Of the two, the Warshade was the weaker and less popular. There were a lot of reasons why they were less popular, and you should totally explain to me why you think that is I promise I won’t ignore it because I don’t care and it doesn’t matter, but okay, this is the framing you need.

One day on the forums, a typical thread got kicked off; someone talked about how the game market was broken and it was too hard to meet basic needs and it was too expensive to function, a position that largely, I and other market people didn’t regard as very serious, because the market was very easy to make money off if you were patient and so on. It was a libertarian paradise – all goods were luxury goods and everyone had equal access to the means of generating capital.

Then Chris Bruce, aka Back Alley Brawler, responded to this thread, and pulled the vital quote from the start of the thread that we’d all missed:

I’m sorry, did you say it was too expensive to purple out your warshade?

This quote haunts me.

This quote is the kind of rhetorical bodying that I’m honestly afraid of earning. It is a statement from a position of such flawed base assumptions that even a reasonable sounding conversation can be formed around it, but to anyone who bothers to pay attention, it is completely farcical on its face. The most entrenched of entrenched players bemoaning the difficulty doing one of the hardest things that casual players were never expected to want to do, showing their populist position was just selfishness in disguise.

 

I worry a lot about when I explain things or share things or call for change that I’m not complaining about purpling out my warshade.

Reaper Space

don’t go there

it’s reaper space.

Everyone warns you when you move through the ports and bases and outposts. It’s the big zone where ships don’t travel; trade routes route around it; no corporate rig will travel into Reaper space at all. Not any of the big ones, at least, not one of the superheavies. Reaper space is uninsured space. Nobody’s dragging you back out of that.

You haven’t seen a Reaper, of course. Nobdoy has, or if they have, they don’t know it. Nobody’s that sure about the way the Reapers look, though there are a few of their artifacts. You’ve seen one – hanging once in the foyer of a citadel, dangled from the roof, this immense machine that looked like a tank, with an entire assortment of blades on the front and an enormous engine out the back, seemingly made to do nothing but plow forwards; the blades were attached to a wheel, which was itself screwthreaded – so each blade flicked and clacked and dug into the air when they ran the machine –

Which they did, for a little bit.

For demonstration purposes.

Watching it turn an entire shuttlecraft into pieces with all that sound, the shredding and breaking.

Brr.

It’s not like you need to worry about Reaper space. Reaper space has barely any planets in it, and there’s only one outpost out near the dead zone that serves as a border to Reaper space. Maybe a few planets, sure, probably with some cultures on them that are probably not spacefaring, or if they spacefare it’s to do minor, small trades – the trades of a culture that doesn’t have an empire or corp yet – and when the talk of reapers happens they just shut down their satellites and pretend nobody’s home.

There are pirates, of course.

After all, uninsured space is unpatrolled space.

Gotta be careful out there. It’s Reaper space, but it’s full of scum and villains too.

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Game Pile: Planet Lunch

Sorry, this isn’t going to be about a game you can play. But maybe you can. I wouldn’t advise it.

In Homo Ludens, the work that is often seen as base camp for clambering up the entire horrible mountain of games scholarship, a peak that is dotted about with just a stunning amount of racist, sexist, and ableist bullshit, Johan Huizinga begins, in the introduction by talking about how game playing is not a human activity, it is a cultural activity. Generous readings of Huizinga even go so far as to extrapolate from his position that games are important to culture because culture is made up of play.

It is not so much that cultures need games, but that without games, cultures wouldn’t exist; the capacity to give and take, to test and tease, is part of how cultural entities react to one another, and that, Huizinga-interpreters suggest, is one of the building blocks that means you transcend from existing as groups and packs, and begin the communication interchange that forms a culture.

I’m by the way coddling this because I read Huizinga a few years ago, and I read a translation so I’m always nervous of telling people what was in the text if I can’t provide chapter and verse quote. There’s a lot of stuff in Huizinga that isn’t really as prominent as you’d think it would be considering you have the phrase The Magic Circle bandied around everywhere but which Huizinga kinda only mentions once, and not in much depth.

Anyway, the thing is, any human reading the book is a byproduct of a culture and that culture has play already in it. If you want to talk about universal traits of cultural projects one of the easiest ways to prove you’re not just supposing things out of the air is to look around and find places where we can find the rule holding that aren’t necessarily obvious and which reinforce your point Where Clown-Hater and Skulldick Cultist Roger Caillois favoured pointing to ants getting high as his proof that there’s a fundamental desire for what he called ilinx, an idea that exposes a lot about how what he thought about how ant brains work, Huizinga’s introduction examines something a little more relatable as far as humanlike minds go:

He draws the comparison to the fact that wolves, without human interface, will play and invent games.

This is a point that I can remember because it shows up in the introduction and I was deathly afraid of mentioning it in my essays for fear that I would be asked about something much later in the book that I hadn’t gotten to yet. It’s also not a thought I think about too much, because I don’t tend to think about Huizinga much at all.

Then we got the Kong Gyro Ball.

We have a dog. His name is Elli. He is a good dog, and his name is a great litmus test for who can pay attention to being corrected on pronouns. Elli is a whippet, and Elli has anxiety. Elli doesn’t like other dogs much – he’s intimidated by them, and his reaction to them is to try and run at them very fast and bowl them over, or while making a lot of noise. This is non-ideal behaviour. Elli is also extremely energetic when he’s active – he wants to run really fast for about… a minute then come home and flop down for a few hours.

Lockdown has not been kind to Elli. First, due to the cold air and existing respiratory problems, Fox has been unable to walk him very regularly. That means I’ve been doing it mostly, and when the weather is rough, it’s not doable. Plus, because of his anxiety, we want to walk him when nobody else is – which has made for midnight walks, in the extremely cold weather, which isn’t great.

Fox has done something for him, though; of late, we’ve been feeding him out of the Kong Gyro.

This isn’t sponsored, by the way! This really is just a product we use in our house, and just because Fox or I play a game doesn’t mean we’re the only people who can or do play games.

It’s a pretty simple little toy; you put his food in the ball, and then he chases it around the house trying to get the food out of it. Thanks to a sense of smell and a sense of disappointment, when the ball stops paying out food, he’s pretty able to extrapolate that it’s empty (thought not always). It extends meal time, it adds interest and it gives him something to do in just about the right unit of time. Elli is not a dog given to enormous expenditures of stamina after all.

I didn’t think that much of it – it’s a thing we did, because it gave him exercise. We were making his dinner and breakfast difficult, and we were doing that because it needed doing in the circumstances of the world right now.

One night, we couldn’t find it.

We went to feed Elli, in his normal bowl, and – like, it’s hard to say for sure how to explain this to people, but he seemed profoundly disappointed when Fox went for his normal bowl. Oh, excited – because biscuits are biscuits and chicken is chicken – but still, he looked around for the Kong. And then, in response to that, I resolved to go looking, to try and find it, even moreso because because damnit, he wanted his lunch planet.

When I found it, it was in his bedding curled up, and under a blanket.

He had emptied it, eaten out of it, then carried it with him, empty, to be near him while he slept.

Now, the next big lift here is the question: are dogs non-human?

3.0 D&D : The Spelldancer

In my mind, I see D&D editions as a map of the same general world, scarred about with the history it lives; because no edition is really gone, and the game rules still exist and are still played (yes, even right now), it isn’t correct to see them in terms of a linear flow of time as much as regions of related space. Some are earlier, were founded before, but they are all here.

When I think of them this way, though, they take on their own character. Basic D&D seems more bucolic, smaller and older, and a space made up of its own adventures. Characters are all reasonably similar to one another, and perhaps the entirety of what Basic D&D is can fit in one valley somewhere. The First Edition is a place of broken empires, and old world lore, a place where the reality itself doesn’t quite make sense, and people must exist and coexist with the strange storybookness of how buildings stand and fall. Second edition is vast, an enormous sprawling empire of nation states scattered about, with whole nations and planes built out underneath it, subjugated and commanded even as they utter their strange national shibboleth of don’t ask about thaco.

I do not know these places, I do not know these people. I have but passed through their lands.

Then there come the spaces I know.

Fourth Edition is a nation of stout borders; bigger than it should be, perhaps, but still reasonable. It did not overstretch its means, there are no strange, raggedy places where it tried to build where it could not. What lives there makes some sense; even the most powerful and terrible of its people are still recognisable as people. They do not stand apart from one another as strange and alien. There are the Essentials places, where the rules are smaller and simpler, the buildings boxier, but broadly, it is a kingdom where the roads all run the right way and there’s no eldritch horrors lurking under the bed.

But 3.5 is right next door, and it spills out and around like a sinuous, corrupted beast. The lines of where it ends and begins are fuzzy. There’s a little extradimensional space there, between it and 3.0, where there’s a book called Ultramodern Firearms that would be disturbing if it wasn’t just really bad. There are monsters in these spaces, creatures that wreck the world just by their breathing, things where the alchemy of character construction come together and the water runs black after them. If you know them, you know them, nonsense like Punpun and the pile of Warforged cultists. Things that could hypothetically be done. Power that needed arcane rituals to make happen.

But there’s worse.

What I need you to understand is what I’m going to tell you about now is a 3.0 character option that’s probably about as broken as you can get and you can get it accidentally.

Oh yes.

We’re going to talk about the Spelldancer.

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The Complicated Explication of Danielle Bunton Berry

Hey, CW here, folks. This is about a trans woman, who did some cool things, and died, but it’s also about how bad and limited my means are to communicate about her. You won’t miss much if you skip it, and if you want to know a more traditional approach to Berry’s legacy, you can check it out here on this eight year old GamaSutra link that I am not going to vouch for, but which presents a number of the quotes I sourced before realising I was in trouble.

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How To Be: A Squid Maid (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.

And now, it’s Pride Month! Since I haven’t done one of these on a single straight character yet (if you believe my fanfics), I had to do something a bit special and out of the ordinary, and so, let’s do something that’s extremely culturally important.

That’s right. It’s Squid Maids time.

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The Speed of Crowds

Okay, this isn’t a pridey thing, but given the number of queer speedrunners, let’s just say it’s queer adjacent. Also, at the time I write this, there’s a very real chance there’s not going to be a Summer Games Done Quick Event, the thing that I, originally was timing this article to go up alongside. So be it all.

Anyway, speedrunning. It’s great, it’s a cool thing, you should check it out because it’s as big as the ocean and you’ll find your own particular little slab of coral reef with weirdo little orangey fish that do that bloop thing with their mouths that you find yourself immensely invested in and wanting to hang around there to see which of the orange fishes are the best at, I guess, getting little grubblins out of the reef and the comparison of observing competitive sport to ecosystem observation isn’t perfect but it’s also more apt than you think it is because this entire thing is so much about where you choose to be. I’m not going to explain speedrunning myself, because a nameless bloodstained rival of mine has already penned that text, and I’m sure we can talk it over when we next meet atop a cathedral with blood staining my fingers and duel not so much for the honour we say it’s about but as much just for the sting and the pain of it all, but anyway, the point is, go click that link it’s going to cover stuff I don’t have time for or the methodical mindset to cover.

Part of my job is putting what we call text into a position where you can see the lines that connect it to the things that may have been responsible for its creation or things that may help you understand the way that that text in ways it may or may not be intended. The way I describe it to students who are dismissive of the difficulty of the degree is that media studies is merely the study of how literally every human being interacts with every other thing that exists or doesn’t exist. This can be deeply confusing for people who want experts to give them meaningful answers, to be consulted directly and spit out a useful or usable answer, which we kind of just don’t tend to do in media studies, because so much of what we’re dealing with is examining culture which runs on a level that is simultaneously saturating through and yet also the surface that everything else runs on and beholden to their forces in a sort of whole general mish mosh of stuff.

It’s complicated.

Point is that you come to this blog to hear someone who’s got a lot of practice writing this blog, and by ‘hear’ I mean ‘read’ and by ‘read’ I mean what Marshall McLuahn referred to as making an ear of an eye, which is some body horror shit right there but the point is that that thing I did there where I dropped someone you never heard of but you could look them up on google and be told they wrote a bunch of books and they have a wikipedia page and were probably a skeevy sexist or racist and you don’t wanna necessarily go digging into their books yourself so you’re happy to let me serve as an interpreter because the odds I’m that bad aren’t so bad, that sort of intercessionary media is kind of what I do and when it comes to speedrunning, I need to pull off some impressive bullshit to try and relate this work to a greater academic space in a way that’s funny or engaging.

I’m not about to write a piece like Speedrunning Science, nor my nameless foe’s beautiful introductory and expanded primer, and there are funnily enough not a lot of people who had opinions on how this kind of thing worked, though I think with some minor contortions I could get you to ‘Roger Caillois thinks that speedrunning isn’t a game, but speedrunning with twitch chat live is.’

What I do want to talk about though is how speedruns are an interesting form of collaborative art, which may seem a little weird to those of you who watch these events where you get to see a runner executing a run a sort of gamer tribute when we refer to people as the best or world leader or the fastest or next level or whatever wording you favour when you hear these people described as the people who try over and over and over again, missed the first split, break, try again, missed the first split, try again, bad first level spawns, reset, try again, even if maybe you notice the way that every single one of those runners will espouse that their community is literally the best and they’re all so great and this trick, this Greg Egg Trick, all of that, all of that can be seen as a sort of breathless, collaborative communal composition.

DwangoAC, the spokesperson for TASBot, has drawn a direct parallel between TAS (or tool assisted speedruns okay I guess I’ll do a bit of nomenclature), and the historical device of a player piano. The player piano is a machine that’s designed to be played – it’s a piano, after all – but it contains within it a device that lets you feed into it someone else’s composition and let the machine play itself. The composition, the paper you feed into the player piano, is itself a sort of coding for the machinery, and that composition is made by the work of multiple people, coming together to form a rendition that you can replay in your home.

This vision of a machine that plays itself being a form of play is extremely interesting to me, especially as a games studies… person… where the question of what new and weird forms of gameplay even are, with my massively permissive vision of game definition. I’ve argued that players watching a game on twitch and contributing via chat are playing a game (though not the same game as the person they’re watching), it’s just the control mechanism is extremely obtuse, and that they’re playing a game with the person playing the game.

When you’re watching a speedrun, the metaphor of music is applicable once again, because every speedrun is not just the execution of the one runner in front of you but the combined and contributed effort of an orchestra of people who have played alongside that person, encouraging them and showing them techniques, helping them practice, driving them to succeed, filling out leaderboards and showing them what can be done, what can work as the communal effort shaves the techniques and design down, and down, and down, as if you have a composition of a single whole piece, where the orchestra perform it in isolation but each composer is working on nailing down sometimes sections as small and as refined as a single

note.

Speedrunning is cool, and the best speedruns can, for all that it’s a meme, be the product of an amazing community.

Shame about all the gross fuckin’ transphobes though. Don’t let those people be welcome.

Game Pile: Timespinner

There’s chances are you’ve seen this game on Steam. You may have seen it show up in Pride lists. You may have seen screenshots out of context. And what you see is a pixel art metroidvania with upgrade paths and a female protagonist and she has a little buddy dragon and you may be asking yourself hey, is this too good to be true?

Turns out no.

It’s just good enough to be true.

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When D&D Got Horny

Hey friends, have you seen Discourse on D&D lately, that imply that the blessed and sainted arrival of Gay People into D&D’s player space has brought with it this blissful enlightened period where player characters want to try seducing everything in sight, and how hilariously, entire encounters with major boss monsters are interrupted by bards rolling to seduce. The Monster Manual is Basically Tinder, the joke runs, which

Look, I’m old, I guess? In D&D terms, I’m old. I played some 2nd edition online, I played 3rd edition and 3.5, I played 4th edition, and then the transition from 4th to 5th revolted me and I instead opted to stay happily in my older generation of an edition I personally think of as ‘superior,’ just like the old beardie dude who only played Basic while I was looking for people to talk about 3rd edition with. And that means that for me, it feels like there are these people who have recently got into D&D because they started being alive after I started playing D&D, and they want to talk authoritatively about the way the game works in general, and they say these

things.

Things that I want to holler at them about because you darn kids.

I’m not getting off to a good start.

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Burnwillow

Science fiction, fantasy, and the hyper-reality of genre media lets us explore things that aren’t real, or true, but make sense to humans who are used to things that are.  We can set rules for the way a world is, and the audience is just going to go for it while you get around to explaining it.

Burnwillow is a superhero who I’ve had around for a while; first created back in the original City of Heroes, then expanded in the Generation 4 roleplaying space, and then remade in the new City of Heroes Homecoming, she’s had a lot of time to have her backstory revised. The person who made her story to start with and the person I am now are two very different people and know very different kinds of things about the kind of person she is. Tracing her origin, I think she may have been created as early as 2007, when the term ‘Burnwillow’ came up from the Magic: The Gathering set Future Sight.

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MTG: Says Trans Rights

You know, it’s pretty rare to be able to mention tabletop games these days that overlap well with my expertise. The history of D&D and queer themes are kinda mutedly embarrassing, videogames so commonly fuck it up, and even in the wild west of board and card games, most high-production value games are struggling with the idea of including women.

In that context it can be downright surprising to look at how Magic: The Gathering, a big budget high production value game that dedicated time and resources on its primary, important platform, to promote and spotlight an important and meaningful trans character and then didn’t colossally heck that character up.

In 2015, to go with the release of the set Fate Reforged, Wizards released a story called The Truth Of Names, by James Wyatt. Completely unironically, I think this is a great story, it’s tight, it’s short, it does world building, you don’t need to know what a Mardu is, but it communicates what they are. It focuses on our protagonist of this story, Alesha, a trans woman warrior who is also the kind of person who can shank a dragon.

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Game Pile: Final Fantasy 5

I’m reluctant to talk about Final Fantasy. Five in particular. On the topic of Pride Month especially.

One of the people I respect and admire in my field is something of an expert in Final Fantasy, particularly in the way that literally nobody is right about it. Two of my friends are experts at the game, and they’ll both go ‘oh, no, I’m not an expert’ but they’re both fucking liars, they are experts. Neither of them, bonus, are cis boys, which means that suddenly opening the genders door puts me at the intersection of a lot of spotlights.

Nonetheless, this is Pride Month, and there are not a lot of games that land in this space, accidentally or deliberately, so le’s go.

One of the strangest things to do is to describe a Final Fantasy game without treating it as if knowledge of the game is a foregone conclusion, because sometimes doing so makes the game sound very different to how it plays. For example, Final Fantasy 5 is the story of three lost princesses and the men in their lives as they work to prevent an evil tree from smashing two planets together like clacker balls. And this sounds like nonsense, but also, it could be described as a long, wandering epic story from a random wandering to rescuing an old man to befriending women and pirates and becoming empowered by the nature of reality itself to eventually deal with the reawakening of old gods and new deaths all in the hands of a dude named Buttz. It’s a story that’s somehow epic but only really expresses that in being long, vast but happening to mostly six people.

It is a land of contrasts, and also, a society.

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Game Making Friction

I’ve talked about friction in the past. The idea is that in any given action, some energy is lost. When I brought it up, I was talking about the energy lost on interfaces – paying attention to the way the game works, or how you’re going to make the game work in a particular way. It’s one of the reasons why a lot of great games get designed within genres once someone establishes a really good control scheme – check out how many classic platformers use B to run and A to jump (or the other way around, I’m not a NES dude, c’mon).

I’ve also talked about how genre is a library of tools. When you know what a genre is and what a genre does, you can use that genre to do things. Draft lets you have players make competing choices at the same time, it lets you hide information. Deck builders let you take game actions that result in something growing, and that thing is itself unreliable, so once you know the mechanisms of thata, when you understand the genre, you can use that to do things like the fog of war or the unreliability of galactic economies or even things like unreliable children or confused storytelling. These are all options once you understand what a Deck Builder is, or how it works.

What I’ve been thinking about – a lot, lately – is the friction not in game play, but in making.

My computer was in a pretty sorry state last week. Thanks to a failure of hardware, I’d had to replace one part of it, and that had meant a bunch of hardware had been standing around going hey, things are different now. One of the big tricky parts was that my hard drives were all convinced they’d been made by some other Talen Lee. This meant I had to transfer files around, format the hard drive, and then, go through my various files and update and reinstall things. I had to reinstall all my editing software. Had to set up a bunch of interface and system tools, had to get my shortcuts all set up, had to make sure file associations were working, and this also meant that there were whole directories of stuff that I wasn’t using any more that I hadn’t cleaned up.

It was pretty pleasant as an experience, but something it made me realise was how much of what I was doing prior to the shakeup was spending time and effort maintaining a lot of unorganised stuff. I didn’t need to have a correct filing system, because, as long as I was always working on it, I was pretty sure I knew which files were important to what I was doing. In some cases, this cleanup was like archaeology.

This isn’t some paean about the importance of cleaning up. Right now, I think there are a lot of us who are Cleaning Up Everything. But it did put me in mind of how much time we spend putting up with poor tools rather than getting proper ones, how many times we create something new rather than build a template, and how much time we spend reinventing things in our creative process.

I am, once again, thinking about friction.

Game Pile: Hyper Light Drifter (But Not Really)

Oh hey, this game, this atmospheric and thoughtful and meaningful game that’s really good and looks really good and it’s full of execution-based skillful exploration and look we’re talking about Dark Souls and then we’re talking about the statements the author made about the game being about living with a terminal condition and it’s ten dollars and here have a review score, pick the one you like, 7/10, 90% and 5 stars.

Oh and hey here’s the image for the thumbnail, that’ll make people intrigued enough to click.

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How To Be: Gardevoir (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.

And now this time, because you on the Twitters voted for it (whether or not you realised you were voting for it specifically), this month’s choice is the elegant mind dancer Pokemon, Gardevoir.

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Game Pile: Purrlock Holmes

I got this game from a Ding-And-Dent at Cancon2020, with an initial idea that it would make a good pickup for my mum, who’d enjoy it, because it was about detectives and cats, and you know, so on. Then when I got it home, I considered that I needed to make sure it was a good gift for her (since, you know, when does my mum get to play games like this), and if it was kid-valid, so I decided instead of making a gift of it, I’d play it with the family a bit, and see what she thought before handing it over, rather than just impose it on her and assume everything would be fine.

Then we played it.

And we played it again because the first thing someone said after we finished it was let’s play again.

And anyway now I’m keeping it.

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Designing Names

You know what’s really hard?

Naming things.

Oh, there’s the challenge in naming people, that stuff’s probably always there. Maybe if you’re the author of a book or you like naming OCs or the like, you’ve seen the difficulty involved in giving your characters names that work well for who they are, that maybe convey a bit of meaning, that don’t tend to recur in particular ways. I know DMing D&D gave me insight into the ways that I reuse certain name components; in one game, I had NPCs, in unrelated spaces, named Buto, Bruno, and Brutus, and what those NPCs did has long been lost to my players’ memories, but I am still periodically teased about choosing such similar names. Those were to me, useful workhorse names that stood apart from one another just enough to be easily grasped, but I didn’t consider that players were going to have conversations with them, in the same session. Players see patterns, and they saw the pattern in those names, assumed they were connected, and were deeply annoyed to find that they weren’t. In that, I messed up – there was a chance for a link and I wasted it.

People names are hard, even fake people names, of course. All the names in One Stone, for example, came after much agonising over different texts, trying to find things that could obliquely reference where they came from or had some linking purpose that made the story space of the world make sense, or stuff like that. I understand there’s some fuss right now about an asshole naming a baby, which I’m kind of not inclined to give any air to, because one, they’re an asshole, but two, it necessarily involves bringing up the baby, and look, that baby didn’t do anything to deserve being tweeted about. Twitter is a bad enough website, let’s leave babies out of it.

Naming places is also hard. I did a whole thing about how for ten years in my D&D setting, I had a kingdom called Kyngdom, and resisted every effort to deal with how obviously stupid that was. Many names were first drafts that I just never addressed because I was too embarrassed to admit they’d literally been pulled out of the air, and my worldbuilding was as much about grab-bagging things on the fly and pretending I had a plan than it was in any way about foresight and a meaningful narrative underpinning the world.

What else is hard is naming game mechanics. Game mechanics need to be named in a way that’s easy and coherent and referential. Words want to be long enough to convey what they do – ideally in a way that you never need to explain them beyond naming them – and short enough that players can talk about them twice in one sentence. They need to change tenses for clarity – imagine if you had a game mechanic named ‘sheep,’ the hassle in dealing with whether this sheep sheeps your sheeps or sheep. There’s also an urge to name some mechanics for the setting, like how Exalted tries to rename ‘player group’ for every different type of Exalt, as if bands and circles and leagues and coracles are all terms that people are going to use properly like the collective nouns for types of vole.

Then there’s the challenge in naming games at all. Our best game names seem to be things that we came up with as a pun, or where stand-in names that never got replaced. Fabricators was just a name for the file I was using to make the cards. Murder Most Fowl was made as a pun name while killing time at a convention. Good Cop, Bear Cop was mishearing someone. Many of our worst game names tend to be the ones that I spent some serious time on – like the Domains of Meh was iterated on multiple times. The Roads to Springdell is a name I like a lot because it conveys the idea that players are on the way to something but not there yet, but it has done absolutely nothing to move the game itself, in all of its tight and charming glory.

I think about this a lot as I try to name some game mechanics, as I look at work of other people asking for my input and I read rulebooks, trying hard to grapple with the difficulty we have in just giving the components we’re talking about names.