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.

4th Edition’s Space Problem

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

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

Classes take up too much space.

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Accent Bullshit

I’m a bit sore about accents.

One of the problems is that my accent is one of those ones that’s kind of definitively seen as a joke. You don’t hear an Australian accent, and when you do hear it, it is almost never done by an actual Australian. The most famous Australian actor in the world right now puts on an Olde English accent most of the time.

In part this conversation was spurred by Olly of PhilosophyTube, who is a perfectly fine chap and I don’t mean any disrepect by, but he recently did a video that was presented as a riff on ‘How I’d Fix [Franchise]’ videos, during which he did the whole thing in a very artificial American accent.

The purpose behind it was that this voice was both meant to be playing a character, and to help hook people into a way of viewing ‘the housing market’ as a thing that doesn’t actually do what it’s presented as doing. Plus it played within an existing Youtube genre of extremely tired, annoying fanfiction that’s just jam-packed full of extremely ordinary white guys. It was affect, right? That was the point. It wasn’t meant to sound good, so what’s the point?

The point is that the overwhelming thought I had, through the whole video, was not ‘Oh hey, clever use of the genre’ or ‘good point there, Olly me old chum, maybe we should eat the rich,’ but rather the much more constant ‘jesus christ this accent sucks.’

Which isn’t new, he’s done this before. He’s impersonated an Australian accent, For Hilarious Effect, which touches on one of my raw nerves.

I have some sympathy for voice actors on this front. After all, in the United States, the most common form of voice acting is the way that almost all news presenters adopt an identical locational affect – it’s really specific in fact. Numerous voice actors take on roles that aren’t true to their own backgrounds, and voice acting can be much more about projecting an affect that can communicate a lot through a very small amount of experience.

Plus, I don’t want to stand here and talk about this like it’s a form of cultural intrusion. That’s a much more chancy sphere, and the last thing the world needs is a white guy standing here telling other people how they should communicate. That’s super obnoxious (and part of why it angers me when Americans do it to me).

If you want to look at the way this sphere of media is fraught, in Downsizing there’s Hong Chau’s character Ngoc Lan Tran. Tran spoke in that movie with a really heavy Vietnamese accent and broken English – an accent she said she derived from her own family.It was something of a hot topic for people to complain about this accent and even flat-out call it racist, for her to have it. I’m not here to defend the movie or how the movie depicted it, but people were saying that the accent Hong Chau chose that evoked her own Vietnamese heritage was ‘wrong,’ and made her sound like a joke. People criticised the accent, and then they asked her about where she got it from.

That’s part of the problem with this sort of cultural imperialism: You’re made to feel your own voice is inherently non-serious. That you’re not a person, you’re a comedy prop.

You know we were going to get to this.

I hate Junkrat. I hate that Junkrat is meant to be Australian. I hate that he’s voiced by a Californian. I hate that other Australians love him. I hate how Overwatch treats Australia, because, boy howdy, is that some extremely racist stuff. But even if I didn’t hate all that, even if I didn’t hate who Junkrat is meant to be and what Junkrat is meant to be about, his accent would still suck.

And that means whenever I hear Junkrat talk, I don’t hear an Australian accent or a New Zealand accent. I hear an American, projecting to other Americans, an accent that’s meant to be about my part of the world. And all that time means every time I hear Junkrat talk, I’m pulled out of whatever fiction he’s meant to represent and just reminded that, oh yeah, this voice.

I personally feel that an accent is one of those things where we forgive you if you’re good enough. If I can’t tell your accent is fake, then it doesn’t matter that it’s fake. It’s basically diegetic, and that’s pretty interesting and weird.

Also, Olly’s like, on Patreon and Blizzard are one of the highest-paid gaming companies in the world. That’s a factor too.

 

MGP – The Mistake Of Chin Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Pile: DoraKone

DoraKone is a stretch goal kickstarter game that came out in December 2018. When I say it’s a stretch goal, it’s literally a throw-in made for the kickstarter of another, different game, by Apple Cider games. You follow a protagonist named Dulce as she plays an ARG Phone game for exactly one summer, and the people she meets because of it.

This game is an unabashedly self-indulgent, short, easy and breezy little game. There’s no ‘suddenly, you are dead’ in any of the routes I played through, and the game you get is pretty much just Cute Lesbians Start Dating, culminating in a big grand kiss graphic for your trouble. There’s multiple endings and conversation choices, you know, all the classical Visual Novel stuff.

DoraKone is beautiful, just breathtakingly good looking as a visual novel goes. If you’re very familiar with how Renpy works, you know what to expect – the game never busts out a surprising mini game or asks you to do anything I’d consider ‘challenging.’ In the landscape of the modern English Language Visual Novel it’s a very pure, very approachable little nugget of Lesbians.

You can get DoraKone on itch.io for the low low price of No Dollars.

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Battlemind Woes

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

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

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

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Examining Murder Of Crows

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

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

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

Onward!

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Vastaanan, Hero Of The Desert!

It’s D&D weekend! It’s a weekend where we play a single D&D game, with friends who we don’t get to see except once a year! It’s great! It’s fun! It’s 4th edition D&D, and as I write this, it’s still in the future. As you read it, it should be happening, for me, like, right now, The continuity of this potential game is a bit weird, and that’s appropriate, because, in the interest of getting a good, solid hit-the-ground-running game setting, Fox decided to run her weekend-long sword-and-sorcery adventure in The Legend of Zelda.

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Game Pile: Hustle Cat

Hustle Cat is a 2016 Visual Novel by Date Nighto, which might normally get put in the ‘otome’ game category, except it’s kind of deliberately not using that particular trope set. The story follows Avery Grey, a pronouns-of-your-choice (they for this review) human form that, as seems to be a trend so far, interrupts their life of Not Doing Anything at home by getting a job at a cat cafe. This cafe is staffed entirely by painfully cute people, and you wind up smooching one of them (or dead, or worse).

Did I say dead? Don’t worry about it.

As with most games of its type, talking about plot specifics would involve digging into narrative spoilers, which I’m normally happy to do, but in the case of a Visual Novel is pretty much the content you turned up for.

You can get Hustle Cat on itch.io and Steam. It’s a more expensive title here in Australia – $30, and the US price is $20. This puts it in the higher price bracket of visual novels, comparable to a Danganronpa game, which have voice acting, animation and mini-games. Without those other ‘game’ bits to recommend them, Hustle Cat offers itself to you as a very pure experience of here are hot characters, you can smooch them.

Some folk like Visual Novels because being a fan of Visual Novels is cheap. There’s a bunch of good free ones, there’s a few that are good and cheap, and there are some – very few – that actually crest into this space. For me, the VN has always been an entity of the affordable, and that means part of me recoils at paying that much for it. What if I don’t like it? the fear creeps in the back of my mind. Visual Novels, more than other games don’t have much to engage you except characters and story, and that means that this not-small purchase has to live or die on whether or not those are good.

With that in mind, I’d like to tell you why Hustle Cat is really good.

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Project: You All Meet In An Inn

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

Details

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

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

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

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

Needs

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

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

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

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

Smooching In Non-Smoochy Games

I play tabletop RPGs, and I tend to play them with a flavour of a sort of high-impact pulp fantasy. These are stories inspired in no small part by anime, mostly anime that are themselves inspired by the JRPG genre.

Now, JRPGs are character-driven; they tend not to want to represent a sort of agnostic world. Most western RPGs, and most tabletop RPGs that like that feel, are trying to present a world that simply is the way it always was – your characters, your people don’t matter that much to the world until you start engaging with it. This means that it tends to be more common to see games and settings where characters have their own lives that they want to get back to, and that means that it’s not so common to see characters you can romance.

The tabletop games we tend to play then are games which work in the opposite genre; the plot is in some ways structured around our characters; we’re known by important characters, or locations have some reason to resonate with our characters. My Paladin, for example, will almost always go out of his way to free a slave or punish a torturer, which may sound like it’s basic Paladinning, but in his case it’s definitely above and beyond, and it comes from a personal place.

I also really like smooching in plots.

I like that sort of general non-specific characters-romancing-characters. It’s just something I really like in a plot. On the other hand, I am also super shy, so I don’t often actually get to do romances – certainly not anywhere prominent. In some cases, I have elaborate headcanons about my characters and the NPCs they wound up smooching, just, you know, in private and it’s not anything anyone else has to deal with.

Now, it’s not a shock that many other gamers are awkward, and when you hear the phrase romanced an NPC odds are good you have a flashing warning sign in your mind going oh God no please no.

I just wanted to share my general ideas about how to handle this, as a player who wants to romance characters, both player and nonplayer.

  • Read the Room. Lots of people at the table may not be interested in watching your character flirt with another character or an NPC. It may be that they really do like watching the cool or funny or entertaining bits and you can play those out. Remember in these situations, romance is often a thing that makes you the centerpiece of attention, and in those times you’re not just satisfying yourself, you’re entertaining the group. And also be respectful of their time in general, and themes they don’t wanna see happening.
  • Make it Convenient. Don’t interrupt important things for your romantic thing. Ask your DM or the other player if you can work out a conversation later. This ties into the first thing. If you can’t think of the cool line or the perfect moment, then just say ‘I’ll work it out later’ or maybe even ‘I said something cool, let’s move on.’ This may be less satisfying than perfection, but you don’t want to make everyone wait for you to workshop your flirts.
  • Avoid The Rules. Know what kills a romantic conversation real fast? Looking up rules in a book. If you want to try something that would work for a scene, if it’s not going to get you game mechanical advantages, just pitch it to the DM in terms of it works for the scene. Maybe your character does zippo tricks or helps someone walk along a lovely mossy log – ask your DM if you can just skip dice rolls and avoid talking about Acrobatics or Tumble checks at that point.

This isn’t to say this is a system that Gets You The NPC or PC you have your heart set on. These are just the rules I use to make sure that when I play romantic moments in games, I’m doing it in a respectful way that keeps other players from being bored or bothered.

Game Pile: The Blind Griffin

The Blind Griffin is a NanoReNo game from 2015, an otome game set in a fantasic version of 1920s America, made by Asphodel Quartet. The story follows ????, a nameable protagonist as she follows magical signs that pull her towards a convenient job at a speakeasy called The Blind Griffin. There, she gets a job as a bartender, meets a trio of boys as well as some lovely ladies, and gets to spend a few months learning about magic, history, love, and whether or not she wants to smooch someone.

Telling you about deep specifics in this game would be a bit tricky, because it really is quite short. Like, action movie short. Like, an episode of a drama short. You could probably blur through your first playthrough in an hour if you weren’t taking notes like I was and then replay it again doing different things in half that time. With that in mind, you’re not going to get a lot of spoilery stuff in this review – there just isn’t the time.

You can get The Blind Griffin for free on itch.io, and it’s definitely worth the time to play through. There’s no need to be particularly specific about it – this is a good little game.

But now, let’s talk about form.

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Cancon 2019 – Aftermath!

Okay, that’s CanCon over!

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

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A Good F**king Idea

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

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

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I Like: Game Study Study Buddies

I travel around a lot, and that means a lot of my time I can’t read. Bus trips of 40-80 minutes are extremely difficult times because I have to conserve battery power on my phone while trying to not waste that time. If I had physical copies of books it might be a bit easier, but I don’t for most of them.

Enter Game Study Study Buddies, by Cameron Kunzelman and Michael Lutz. This podcast is a long-form treatment of academic game study books, and when I’m travelling it’s one of the things I can do that feels meaningfully productive for both easing me into a text or reconsidering one. They only do an episode a month, which is a bummer but it’s really interesting stuff if you’re interested in academic consideration of game studies.

The books they focus on are definitely biased towards videogame culture, except when they go back and do the Grand Olde Texts like Man, Play, Games. But that’s okay, because that’s what most of the people around me are interested in.

I like this podcast and I even sponsor it on Patreon. You might like it and want to check it out just for interest’s sake.

Project: Hunter’s Dreams

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

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

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

Details

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

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

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

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

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

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

Needs

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

The Anticolonial Tiefling

With the recent rise of Freely Talking About Your D&D Character the internet has seen in what I’m going to assume is probably the fault of some extremely successful podcaster or whatever, I’ve been seeing a lot of talk about tieflings, and I want to present to you a take on tieflings I don’t see widely represented.

First things first: What’s a tiefling? It depends on the setting (as with all things), but the basics are that a tiefling is a type of human with a bit of demon blood. There are some creatures in most settings – most notably the Tannaruk and Fey’Ri in the Forgotten Realms that show that it’s specifically humans with a tinge of demonic blood in them. In some settings, the Tiefling are a bit like a rarity amongst humans – a Tiefling is born in a human line because a bit of the demonic influence in the family comes to the surface.

There’s often, in those settings, a similar type of creature that relates to celestial interference or elementals – the aasimar who bear a bit of the celestial, and the genasi with the elemental. And if you go down this rabbit hole you’ll find the Zenythri and the Chaond and all sorts of fun stuff, but Tieflings are the rockstars of this set. The Tieflings are the ones who you’ll often see alone, without the rest of the planar-cosmology-filling goofiness of the adjacent cultures.The Tiefling is almost obviously exciting, though. I mean, it’s a person with a demonic tinge to them, a little bit of the outsider, a little bit wild. It’s very appealing to an edgelord dork boy demographic, and certainly appealing to the monster-fucker genre of consumer, too. The tiefling, however, is also going to appeal to the fans of Hot Monsters as a voice of queerness, and that means you’re going to see a lot of people who are very happy to make leather-pants-wearing horned, tailed, spicy bisexual hot messes, and make their characters all about being a blatant metaphor for queerness. They’re a child born into a family that immediately recoils from them with horror, hides them away, and ostracizes them for their disruption of ‘the normal.’

This is very basic queer coding, after all.

I personally don’t like it? Partly because the nature of queerness is that you don’t get born with queer horns on your head. Your queerness is a part of your identity that isn’t branded on you from birth and most importantly, being queer isn’t bad. A demon child that has actual special powers as an emblem of queerness really gets on my nerves because it kind of isolates the idea of queerness as both defined by birth (which it’s not) and monstrous (which it isn’t).

Every time I bring this up, though, it’s inevitable that someone will explain to me, helpfully, that queerness and monsters in media are often linked, and often queer people will identify with monstrous characters. This is very helpful because it’s definitely not something I’m already talking about and am already extremely well-aware of.

I’m not trying to take away your fun!

I just have my own preference.

I’d like to lead you to this other idea, though.

Tieflings have special abilities. They have stuff other cultures can’t do. Claws and fangs, and a feeling of fire, a tail, horns, sometimes unique feats, whispers from the beyond, a secret from a demon patron, a whole host of things. The tiefling is, mechanically, set apart from the human culture. As to why, well, there’s no real hard proof of where they came from.

Sometimes there’s stories of wars with planar invaders, sometimes it’s more that tieflings are byproducts of long-gone old sins. I like the 4th Edition D&D idea best, though. It presents the Tieflings as having been once the dominant culture in the world, with a super-powered magical empire that they then messed up so badly they not only cast a culture-wide sudo rm -rf / but also did it in a way that left every other culture very aware of what they did. They were humans who collaborated with demons and it changed them from being humans, and then, mixed in amongst human culture, there are these people, these tieflings, who have some of that ancient demonic heritage and powers just there, in them.

To this story, the Tieflings are the children of an empire that is no more and what defines their place in their current culture is that everyone around them is very aware of their relationship to that culture.

In this case, the Tiefling are both victims of empire, adrift colonists with no culture of their own, and beneficiaries, with all the old power that resides at their fingertips waiting for the tieflings to go get it… but that same power can be measured in terms of the peril it can cause the world. You may be saving the world, by turning these tools of global domination against themselves, but doing so comes at a cost.

This, this to me is interesting. It connects you to something monstrous, something big and something that you have every reason to resent as an individual. It draws the player’s relationship to their own potential power not as the invigorating power of gayness but of a question of how to deconstruct a master’s house.

That’s a question that often requires you to look for the master’s hammers.

TableTop AI: Dark Souls, Part 1

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

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

That out of the way, here’s a puzzle.

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

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MGP – Confronting My Limits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have three suggestions.

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

Game Pile: Portal 2

For anyone who doesn’t already know the vital statistics, Portal 2 is a first-person perspective puzzle game, the sequel to Portal, that was released in 2011, by People Valve Software Pays. Saying Valve Software made it is possibly overstating the role Valve Software, the organisation, has in things Valve does.

The game is centered around a non-speaking protagnist with a special tool that lets you create portals between two locations. It does this at range, so we call it a gun, because our brains and reference pool is pretty weird. These portals let you connect two points in space – and so much of the rest of the game is just built on exploring that idea. Puzzles become about how much freedom of movement you can get by folding two bits of reality together. It’s also fun because the human brain really isn’t built to deal with that kind of perceptual shift – it’s literally something our brains resist doing.

 

Filling in the rest of the space of the game is an evil AI that’s literally running you through the puzzles, as tests of your mental acumen, and the helpful AI that’s trying to keep you alive so you can escape. You’re followed not by bodies but by voices – old audio logs of a long-lost inventer, and the responses of your two AI companions. The game is stark and empty, but uses that emptiness to fill it with a dilapidated ending, and the story you get is made up of two fascinating parts: it tells you what came before the last story, and what comes after.

Taken as its own entity, Portal 2 is an enormous game, with a single-player campaign that’s very good, then a cooperative campaign that’s pretty good, and then an absolute massive amount of DLC and fan-made levels that range from pretty good to oh well. It’s a lot like Little Big Planet, where there’s some tailored content that sets a very high bar, and then a huge swell of player-driven content that tries to meet it.

You can get Portal 2 on Steam, and statistically, if you’re reading this, you probably already have it.

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Rulebook Template

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

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

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The Reunion: Setup Mechanic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Pile: La-Mulana

One of the hackneyed games journalist points these days is to compare things to Dark Souls, which is usually done by people who want to evoke a comparison to a control scheme and fixed animations, and maybe some exploration. Who am I to fight a perfectly good trope, then?

Dark Souls is kind of like La-Mulana.

La-Mulana is a single-screen platformer puzzle adventure game where you explore an enormous ruin with a whip in your hand, using a retro computer and your wits to pick up upgrades, unlock routes, overcome monsters with increasing ease, and die. A lot.

An innovation Dark Souls brought to this formula of exploration and death was relatively convenient reloading, dispensing with a classic limited-slots save-game system. In La-Mulana, as a nod to pre-1990s computer technology, you can only save at specific key points, and this makes the game much less forgiving than the otherwise fluid Dark Souls. There’s also an ‘experience’ mechanic in Dark Souls, where you can spend resources to get better at dealing with the enemies you face, and every time you save the game, it refreshes your resources. Not so for La-Mulana.

For some context, as I go on: I’m not good at La-Mulana. I didn’t finish it. I’ve put a few hours of work – and it was work – into this game, and didn’t feel I was making any headway. Also, the person who gifted me this game is very good at this game.

You can get La-Mulana on Steam and GOG.

Up front, though, despite not liking this game, I want to say that La-Mulana is not a ‘bad game.’ It’s vast and there are people for whom its particular movement and mystery are exciting and interesting. There’s a ton, a ton of stuff going on, bosses are varied in a lot of different wild ways, there’s a deep lore, riddles and NPCs and a True Ultimate Boss that – I assume – rewards thorough exploration and mastery.

Really wasn’t for me, though.

So let’s talk about colonialism.

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Bad Design As A Swear Word

People like to talk about game design.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Design is not a bar you fill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emergence Vs Progression

We talk a lot about games using inexact language. Genre terms are some of the worst – I’ve talked about how awkward our framework is. Sometimes we describe games based on their mechanics, their country of origin, other games they remind us of, the camera position, and even a few games get named based on the creator. It’s not a good system.

That said, let’s put out some Game Studies language that may be useful, maybe.

In half-real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, Jesper Juul, Dutch Games Studies academic and renowned speller-of-videogames-as-two-words describes a whole range of stuff. It’s a good book, it’s got a lot of stuff in it, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t, because that’s how academic books go.

In this book, though, he describes the idea of games of progression and games of emergence. Juul describes games of progression as functionally being about games where a player moves through a sequence of events one after the other. A common metaphor for this kind of game you’ll hear is a route. The simplest version of this could be mapped as something a bit like this:


That’s not to say that they’re strictly linear. You can make a game of progression that has varied sequences of routes that meet up, or even ones that go off in different directions.

The point with a game of progression is that by design they’re structured. Players in games of Progression have every reason to expect predictable responses, and a linear flow. That’s not to say you can’t go backwards in this kind of game’s spaces or anything – it’s that the game has a sequence of expected events the player moves through.

The other kind of game is known as a game of emergence. These games are built instead around rules that react and interrelate. Games of emergence set rules, and then let the play experience put those rules in contrast with one another. A good example of this is Minecraft, where the vastness of the worlds it generates and the things within them that connect to one another are mostly made out of very small sets of rules.

There is a corollary: There’s a common thing called emergent behaviour, where players engaging with a game use things in unexpected ways. This isn’t what games of emergence are about.

A good example of this is how in Quake, levels were designed with large open high areas that you had to reach through circuitous routes, and the explosive force of a rocket was made to let you knock enemies around and to give the weapon impact. Combine the two, and the ability to shoot a rocket at your feet and throw yourself into the air becomes a way to circumvent barriers in the level, to short-cut through parts of the game.

If the Quake levels hadn’t been designed with their bigger areas and overlooks, then rocket jumping wouldn’t be a useful emergent behaviour. If the rocket hadn’t been designed with the knockback it had, it wouldn’t be useful for short-cutting around the level. These are all just parts of the game, that never were planned to work alongside one another, and once players got their hands on them, they found the interaction and created something new.

As with all game models, it’s important to remember that these two things aren’t really as simple as they look. While you can point to (for example) World End Economica and see it as a linear game of progression, and SimCity as a game of emergence, games move between these zones hazily. One might be tempted to call Bloodborne or Dark Souls games of emergence because of their nonlinear structure and extremely flexible semi-random combat system, but one can also consider most games in the Soulsborne mould as a sequence of levels. You may do them in a different order, but the progression through each area is absolutely a path from a beginning to an end.

Juul’s short-cut for identifying the games is to look for a FAQ for the game. If the FAQ describes a sequence of things to do, it’s probably a game of progression; if the FAQ describes a list of strategies, it’s probably a game of emergence.

Gamebooks: An Introduction

This has been sitting in my draft folder, with the subject line “Are Gamebooks Games”, since November 2017, and I haven’t deleted it because I don’t know why not. I’m normally pretty quick about clearing things out of my draft box that I’m not going to get to.

I know that this question came up somewhere – someone, probably on reddit, getting mad about whether or not gamebooks belonged on a game subreddit of some variety. Odds are good, I mean, someone on reddit annoyed me. The question persists, though, I think in part because to me, I feel like gamebooks are really underserved as a type of game design, and I kept wanting to come back and deliver a fullthroated defense of gamebooks.

When you find nobody’s attacking your idea, though, it gets a little harder to defend them because you look like you’re trying to feel more important than you are. I don’t want to be that sillyboots, and so the draft has languished, unchanged, as I try to wonder just who was taking pot-shots at gamebooks?

Then again, did I need an excuse to talk about gamebooks?

For those of you who aren’t familiar, gamebooks are a type of book that’s an adventure game. Of sorts. The technology core to these books is that you number entries of story, and at the end of each entry, it tells you where to go to see the next section. This lets the story go in different directions, right?

If you turn to the left, turn to 83

If you turn to the right, turn to 16

This is a really cool little bit of technology, a sort of basic engine that you see in books like Choose Your Own Adventure, a long-running series that mostly focuses on a simple story where the reader is the protagonist. The more complex Fighting Fantasy gamebook series works on a more classic adventure formula, with dice and dungeons to roll your way through, and the chance to just plain out die.

These Fighting Fantasy games were kind of the standard template that were mostly successful. Lots of people played them and they sort of set the rules for how gamebooks got made. They’re not the whole of it, but they were so much ‘the way these games worked’ that even games that wanted a different style of mechanics, like the Sonic the Hedgehog and Lemmings gamebooks,

One of the things that really surprises me about this is how the gamebook technology went relatively underexplored. There were quite a few Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that added some tools – Creature of Havoc, for example, had a neat thing you could do on entries to translate language, which meant if you learned to speak, you could go through a whole different game. One or two of the games added stats – like the Evil stat in one or two of the games to keep you from overusing magic. Night Dragon had a Dread stat that meant the longer you took to get to the Night Dragon, the stronger it was. I even wrote about the spellbook mechanic in the Sorcery! series.

Despite these innovations, they were still built around the very basic narrative of a single character progressing linearly through an adventure like a rollercoaster ride. Some manage to make some exploration, some mazelike structures, so there was something there.

Now, if you’re experienced with Twine, you know a couple of games like this. And twine games can do things like remember, store variables, do random things, and that’s true. But there are other things a physical book can do that Twine has a hard time doing.

I’m thinking on this puzzle, at the moment. I can see the idea that you can make a gamebook that’s about a story of a place; or a book that produces a diagnosis at the end; or a gamebook which is designed to create based on what you do when you play it, or a book that deliberately obscures information from you in ways you have to decipher yourself.

The other thing is, mostly, these gamebooks aren’t actually really coherent stories? They’re mostly sequences of interruptions; you open a door, you enter a room, you find the thing in that room. Sometimes you decide whether or not to open a chest of treasure. Sometimes you don’t. There are games of dice, but few games of (for example) cards.

Gamebooks are a wonderful little artifact, a niche interest, but with print on demand, and more room for more voices, I wonder what we – not just me, but you too – could do with things like light novel gamebooks.

Game Pile: Risk of Rain

Risk of Rain is a platform game where you play an alien dropped on a planet. It has procedurally generated levels, a huge variety of characters, and a core, highly rewarding gameplay loop. The game modes can be customised with a bunch of unlockable buffs called ‘artifacts’ that reward you exploring each level you get into. Each level has boss monsters of a particularly large scope, and the game’s difficulty ramps up on a timer. Time spent exploring will typically reward you with more stuff, but more stuff makes the eventual waves of enemies that spawn towards the end of the level harder.

The game has playable characters that eat enemies and gain powers, it has rolling and tumbling movement, it has ranged attackers and melee attackers, and despite playing it for a few years now, I haven’t even managed to plumb its full depths. It’s an excellent, responsive, fast game, whose biggest problem is probably a steep difficulty curve and its camera positions you somewhere around low earth orbit, making the delightful chunky pixel art kinda tiny.

Risk of Rain is really good! It’s a good game, and I like it a lot, and I recommend that you check it out. It’s on sale regularly and it’s not expensive when it’s not on sale.  You can get it on Humble or Steam, and the developers are making a sequel, called helpfully, Risk of Rain 2.

And that’s it as a game review. I mean, you don’t need that much space to know this game is pretty damn cool.

There’s more to say, right? There’s always more to say.

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