Category: Making

Articles in this category are about tools and ideas about making things, and my belief that you can make things.

Reviewing My Own Loss Shirts

This year, as with last year, I got to teach a class at my Uni about making media, a class we define in part by being a class where part of your week to week homework is about making memes. It is a class about being Extremely Online, and I resolved, after last year’s completion, to make a plan out of managing my presence in this class this year.

This year, I wore a different shirt every day, and each shirt was a reference to the meme ‘Loss.’

Now, the class is only eleven tutorials, over thirteen weeks. I overdid it a little bit, so there are more than just eleven shirts, and let’s go over them.

Content Warning: If you haven’t worked it out yet, I am absolutely going to show you lots of variants on the meme Loss. Like you have to know that’s what this is.

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“It was as wide as it was long,”

Fanfiction is weird, and I don’t just mean fanfiction as the actual stories. Beating down on fanfiction is one of the easiest things in the world to do, because as a wide-open platform with lots of communal reference points means you’re going to get a lot of people creating fanfiction who aren’t familiar with what we consider to be the standard tools for storytelling. It’s fine, we’ve all been there, churning out two hundred word stories that don’t have a plot or a resolution but which are designed to let the character we like say or do a thing we think we’d like to see.

That’s not what about it is weird that I want to talk about for now.

What I want to talk about is the way that fanfiction is weird as cultural practice. Specifically, that fanfiction is a place where people are aware (or hopeful) that they are being read by other people. I have memories of extremely lengthy author’s notes, things that sought to put the story in a greater context, not by showing things in the story, but in the way the author wanted the story approached. It’s interesting, it’s the kind of thing that these days I’d see serious authors, authors writing books as saying, instead that the text should present for itself –

Hey, did you know in one of my first books my first idea for framing the monsters was to just use the Weird Al song your horoscope for today? Sure did.

– but there’s an enduring practice, often connected to tagging culture and content warning culture that suggests that fanfiction spaces are overwhelmingly full of people who don’t just want to create, but want you to know how they create, and want to make sure you approach their creation ‘the right way.’ That’s really interesting, and it also brings with it a sort of interesting exercise in brand building, of identity presentation.  It’s not just that fanfiction authors want to present their work to an audience, it’s that they also want to present themselves to the audience, and that means even if their fanfiction presents a narrative abotu X, they still feel some reasonable respect for the culture they’re part of. Much of the time this is because these authors came up in the same space, were affected by the presentations of other authors, and it helped to shape them and they’re aware of it.

Okay okay okay, but what brought this on?

Well, people whining about fanfiction authors including sex ed information at the end or middle of their stories about characters fuckin’. It’s pretty popular if you’re, say, a person who has comparatively got their shit together, to dunk on this, and by all means, whatever you want to do, but something I always want to remember is that there’s a lot of things about just the way sex worked that I learned from dirty fanfiction. Like basic mechanisms. It got me thinking about how many ideas I got that were really silly at that time, and how incredibly lucky I am that I never had a reason to act on them until after I had used that grounding to build outwards and overcome my ignorance.

It’s interesting, because in a lot of ways, it’s people while creating fanfiction about anime boys doin’ a butt-fuck still trying to be responsible community members. Which is pretty interesting and I don’t really have it in me to make fun of them for trying.

The title quote by the way, was a line I read in a gay fanfic when I was much younger, which made me realise I was reading fanfiction about dudes doing it that had been written by someone who probably didn’t have a penis to check on periodically for reference.

Half-Elves (But really Elves)

My earlier treatment of Orcs in Cobrin’Seil was intended, at first, to be a comprehensive examination of the half races. Elves and orcs and humans, the big three that show up in most of the editions of D&D’s player handbooks and most of the settings for them. As I did this though I realised that for all they may work just fine as different versions of the same thing for your setting, I don’t like them feeling so similar and especially not when I laid out my idea that Orcs are made of meat.

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Making Draft Complicated To Simplify Draft

You know drafting games? I like drafting games. Magic: The Gathering is a drafting game, and it’s really good at it. You draft a deck, then spend some time playing that deck, and that’s fun. We made LFG, a single box card game where you draft a group of heroes to go on an adventure, adventure pending.

Draft is very appealing to me as a designer because it has some virtues like simultaneous turns, and it inherently presents players with choices. Drafting is often used as a component in games, but the drafting itself can be really exciting. Drafting does have problems though, like you need a number of cards and players to make those choices interesting. If you’re drafting, say, four cards between two people, thoes choices need to be extremely difficult to make that interesting, and when you do that, you have a really small number of cards and therefore the game has only so many ways it can be replayed, and that’s risky. I have made games that don’t replay well on purpose, or games with incredibly hard choices that can feel dreadfully unfair (hi, You Can’t Win), but those are hard, thorny games for people who like challenges, and they’re also really small.

There’s also a mastery depth problem when it comes to draft. If you know the most cards, if you remember the cards that are going to be in the pool and potential application with other cards, you’re going to make the player with the largest amount of possible information and the best understanding of ways the game can fork be the player who has the most chance to win, and that’s not great for getting new players involved.

With that in mind for a small card game I’m working on at the moment (one of our $15 range), which is going to be about recruiting your own group of superheroes, I’ve come up with a new drafting technique I want to share.

  1. Deal out all the cards to each player not as a hand, but as a deck. So the player gets their cards, and they don’t look at them and don’t know what they’re going to do.
  2. Set these decks between each player – I’m right handed so when I do this test I intuitively put it to my left, so the player on my left can reach it.
  3. The drafting begins. Each player draws two cards from their deck, chooses to keep one of them, and puts the other card on the top of the next player’s deck.
  4. Repeat step 3 until the decks are only one card.

This means that players still have some specific choices; you know what you’re handing to the next player, but you don’t know all the choices they have. You have to choose between two cards each time, rather than have to manage seven then six then five and so on. Also, you don’t have the chance to determine, at the first draw, everything that you’re going to do, other people’s strategies based on what you’re passing. You’re presented with much more limited information. The draft unfolds a little more, without being all presented up front.

Making For

There’s a lot of motivational writing about making things. I know I’ve done a bunch of it, with an exhortation that you should try making things. There’s an idea that you’re a writer, because you write, so you should write. Sometimes, it’s framed as writing for yourself, or sometimes it’s framed as writing the things you want to see in the world.

If you can respond to that, that’s a powerful drive.

It’s not the reason I write, I don’t think. Not really.

I write in this blog daily (when I am writing daily) because it’s practice. Because I feel good when I have achieved the difficult task of doing it. But it’s not why I write any individual piece. I write because I think about the things my audience cares about. I think about what you, the people around me, have responded to, what you share, what you care about. That’s part of what encourages me to write. I ask you what I should write, it’s a common thing you’ve probably seen me do.

That urge is very common and it works for me.

I don’t really write fanfiction or fanart. These are ways you can take the work of others, and show how it matters to you, through the medium you favour. I don’t write that kind of fiction or compose music or draw, so the form my creative energies to express take is making games. Thinking of mechanics and related game objects, and thinking about ways I can invite people into that space, to be there in a way the fiction doesn’t necessarily allow. This means that for some people I know, I see their art or their stories and I think I want to make a game for that.

These game ideas get written up and they sit around, because it seems intrusive to me to present someone with that. For artists especially, it screams of I’m trying to monetise your work. For some the problem’s even worse: I have a card game designed to explore the world of a friend, and that friend hates card games.

I think about this because I think how many things people would be doing, if they could find an audience of just one. How little encouragement you need to keep trying, to keep going. Commentary from one or two people got me to finish three books. Feedback from two people kept a podcast going in its fledgeling days. Some of my games are made just waiting on a response from one person. This week, I was told that we don’t have a game for a particular niche, and now I’m thinking about a game I can make for a kid and a family, just because of that niche.

Some people can ‘just do it.’ But some of us need an audience. Some of us need to know that what we’re doing matters to anyone else in the world, and that there’s a value to putting it out there.

Hunter’s Dreams – Defining the Hunt

This is more work on Hunter’s Dream, a 4th Edition D&D-compatible mod made to enable a Bloodborne style of game, where players take on the role of hunters, who have to first research their prey before going out to the tactical combat stage of things where players get to have cool fights with werewolves and whatnot.

Something I really like from Blades in the Dark, something that I am shamelessly trying to bring to Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition in Hunter’s Dream, is the degree to which players have a sense of agency over the game they’re engaging with.

There’s an existing mindset for D&D that games are basically one of two different kinds of play space. The first is often known as narrativist, where you treat every session, every encounter, as a sequence in a narrative, and so the whole game can be seen as a string of beads. This vision can be sometimes presented as a weakness, where the players are always confined by ‘the story’ that wraps around them like a tunnel. I’m not really here to criticise that, because hey, even the most railroaded game campaign can still be an interesting ghost train.

Then there’s a position, often called ‘simulationist’ which presents the idea that the players are just operating in a world, there’s stuff for them to do, and they can go do stuff at that world, and if it does all relate or connect to things, that’s just because the DM’s job is ‘running the world,’ and any narrative that ensues is emergent. I don’t think this is true either, but some people are fond of talking about it like that.

Neither of these perspectives suit well Blades in the Dark‘s style of player-driven fiction roleplay, and they don’t quite do the job of what I want for Hunter’s Dream. What I want for this is a hybrid model, with a Narrative running as a timer on a simulation, and a large part of that is formalising a system whereby players have direct agency over the tasks in front of them, and the order they handle them.

Now, 4ed is good for this because 4ed D&D is designed to handle a lot of small tactical encounters that are reasonably well-balanced with one another, where the alchemy between monster interactions are less likely to result in catastrophic failures. You’re not likely to find a lot of total dealbreaker combos if you throw enemies together semi-randomly, which means one of the things that it handles really well is generating sequences of small quantities of conflict without necessarily a lot of elaborate construction.

This asks for a robust system for constructing incidents quickly, giving DMs good sources of inspiration, and a clear vision of how they can execute on these encounters interestingly. Now I’m a sucker for this: In 4e, I’m a fan of using the same monster configurations from fight to fight and just changing the terrain around them and watching as players have to formulate different strategies to deal with them.

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October Shirt II: Inside Eyes

A thousand eyes
Open inside
To grant me sight to see the end
A thousand eyes
The curse of the wise
Into the madness I descend

Here’s the design:

And here the design is on our friendly gormless supposedly unisex Redbubble model:

And here’s the design being modelled by the Teepublic ghost:

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

The Wandering Want

You procrastinate much?

I understand there’s a body of people around me who have problems with attention deficit, and the connected problem of hyperfocus. This post is going to talk about how I experience procrastination, which is going to use terms that may sound like I’m trying to talk to you, or talk to your experience, and I want to be clear that I’m not and I don’t think I’m in a position to do so. Okay? If this is useful or whatever, great, but don’t presume I’m applying universal truths to people who already have reasons to interrogate their own focus behaviours.

Anyway, if you procrastinate, there’s probably a really good reason.

If you find yourself with your project, engaging with one part of it, then not wanting to do the rest of it, it’s possible to frame this in your mind as a kind of procrastination, to think of it in terms of an incompleted project because you hvaen’t ‘gotten around to’ finishing up a roster or completing a component of it. You might find yourself setting aside time to work on a project, but instead find yourself working on other things, doing housework, cleaning up your laundry, and at some point, you may find yourself, arms in the sink, doing washing up and asking yourself:

Wait.

Why is washing up more fun than what I was meant to be doing?

This is something I talk to my students about. The type of work they do is a single big project, something they spend the whole semester exploring, then defining, then making, and it’s about building skills for the specific things they want to do, and show they can follow a project through. There’s a focus on responding to feedback, and part of that feedback that they seem to keep missing (until I tell them to look for it) is their own emotional responses to their work.

If you keep putting a project off, if you keep shifting focus away from it, is it possible it’s not something you actually want to do?

If you find yourself not wanting to do the project, why do you not just stop? What’s stopping you? Do you instead want to do less of it? Do you want to not have to do some part of it?

I am a big advocate for finishing things, especially creative things. It is a big deal to me that I encourage people to get around to finishing those things they want to work on, because it’s very rewarding, and also because if you’ve never done it before, you don’t know if you can find it addictive. But a part of finishing a project is starting a project that you can finish, and it’s entirely possible that you’ve started something you don’t want to work on right now, and that’s entirely okay.

There’s a host of psychological studies about the value of procrastination and the ability to manage your hind brain and that’s all interesting, but more than that, for now, what I want you to bear in mind when you find yourself procrasting is you don’t want to work on that thing right now, and that’s okay.

October Shirt I: Hunter’s Mark

This month, our shirt design is a little bloody

Dangling, upside-down rune etched in one’s mind. Symbol of a hunter. By focusing one’s thoughts on this rune, a hunter loses all Blood Echoes, but awakens afresh, as if it were all just a bad dream.

Here we are
in the dark
Knocking on the hunter’s mark

Here’s the design:

And here the design is on our friendly gormless supposedly unisex Redbubble model:

And here’s the design being modelled by the Teepublic ghost:

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

September Shirt: Byleth Ribbons

Well, a new Fire Emblem happened! I’m not into it, but all my friends are, and I like my friends. Also, I love looking at iconography in games, things that evoke things without actually being things.

I was originally conceiving of a set of silhouettes of characters with text evoking who they were or what mattered to them, which would be fun, but my attempt to gather suggestions for that resulted in pretty much nothing but jokes, because, well, aren’t you a sweet and helpful audience of friends?

Anyway, so I did some Byleth shirt designs. Here they are:

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MGP: Time To Grow

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 talked about the Monthly Game Project, but there’s a point I really need to hammer in that I didn’t get to appreciate when I was doing it.

Things take time.

I am not going to lie, I get jealous when I see fandoms. I get jealous when I see fandoms for incomplete ongoing works. I get jealous when I watch as the games and things I make have sunk beneath the waves. The idea goes that if you make something and put it out there, with sincerity and positivity, you will get attention and people will connect to it and it’ll be great. You can look to the example of certain darling games, or darling devs, people with support and fanbases and people who are eager and enthusiastic to see the result of their work, even after months or years.

This is reasonable, I feel, as jealousy, and anyone who wants to tell me my feelings are illegitimate or unreasonable can eat a dick. But as with all of these feelings, I want to use that sensation and consider what I can do around it. What I’m doing to make it harder to have that fandom. I do think I have a fandom (and it’s very small, and I love you so much). And I think part of the problem is that I have people who genuinely have no idea that some of my games even came out.

I didn’t have a handle on releasing a game each month. I wasn’t having to rely on user bases, I wasn’t doing something like Button Shy do – I made a game a month on public print on demand, and that game production didn’t have a consistant approach for building hype, consistent outlets or rollouts, or planned times for release. I didn’t do hype – I just dropped a game out of nowhere.

Also, I tended to route around the things that make for good ‘pops’ – I sent some of my games to reviewers, and literally none of them ever came through. My response to that was to stop trying to get reviewers to look at my games; I simply gave up. That sucks for me, because I know for a fact that a bulk of the early sales of Dog Bear, and the reasons why it’s one of my most successful games, is because there was one Redditor who kept mentioning it for about a year. Not a proactive thing – it was just one game they mentioned in a discussion of RPGs.

There’s this idea we have in digital marketing, of the idea of the long tail. Notionally, it’s the idea of building up a big library of things that don’t have wide appeal – a few sales from a larger, browsed library will slowly, over time get attention and that’ll get people interested. It’s a model that works, go wide instead of focusing on a few hits. But my library of games is honestly so big that as one person, it’s kinda just… intimidating to look through, and even at a convention it’s hard to convince people to check them out. I do public threads, exploring and explaining games as I make them, and those can be cool, but I feel like they need to be timed to be events.

Fact is, not everyone is checking twitter actively.

I made Fabricators in a weekend. I don’t regret that – I love that game, it’s sweet and tight and it uses a good engine I observed other games using, and I was able to make a game that’s very much its own distinctive kind of thing, a hard euro game that builds itself around a cooperative tenor. And that’s great, but the entire window of time when you saw me working on that game, then talking about the game, then releasing the game was four days.

The hype cycle for games, even small games, is long. It is long and slow and players can only buy games so quickly. Even if the game is made, I feel like the best course of action, the plan I have going forwards, is to sit on the game, to share it with a few people, on patreon, and the like, and spend the remaining time and effort on polishing and refining the game. Build some hype, maybe. Find the people who respond to it well, and maybe get back to trying to get people to review it.

Time to make things is one thing, but time to make interest is another.

Carthage

I have a strange love for losers.

I mean, I make fun of the Confederate flag waving assholes, and it’s worth remembering that that’s good, because they’re losers, and they should always be forced to confront that they’re losers, and they lost because they were bad at winning, and this is just a long aside to dunk on the Confederacy. But not all losers are that kind of loser. Sometimes you lose not because you were wrong, or because you were on the wrong side, or because you’re bad, but you lose because the bad people had more stuff. They had more money and more people and they didn’t even realise they were the bad people, because they were removed from the bad things they did.

I think about the people that lose against empires.

I think about Carthage.

I think about Carthage, and the story of Hannibal, a general who tried audacious things and succeeded. I think about bloody battles in the desert by mercenary armies. I think about the strangeness of a country whose big sin was not really doing enough for military infrastructure and how it was the victim of an empire next door that was. I think about how you can win a dozen fights in a row, but if your enemy can handle losing, and you can’t, then it doesn’t matter.

Carthage is on my mind because while history tells us that Carthage lost, there were a lot of times and places in Hannibal’s campaign that he won. There’s a lot of people who were living their lives and having what they thought of as important conversations about the future of Rome and their campaigns for political office and governorship or whatever, and then Hannibal happened to their territory, and they’re just gone.

Just forgotten.

This is what I’m thinking about, when I’m thinking about this card game I’m making. The different things nobles can do, these little festivals and parties and politics and territorial disputes and fights over who has the best land or best marketplaces, all while quietly aware that you can’t change the future.

That Hannibal is going to happen.

The idea for this game, the idea that I’m working with, is that of a stacked deck. At the start of the game, players get their cards, then the deck gets loaded; you shuffle up and deal out stacks of cards. Into each stack, you shuffle one of a number of cards, then you put those stacks on top of each other. Now you have a deck of events that everyone draws from, to play their cards and live their lives, and then one point, near the end…

Hannibal happens.

Three Games I’d Like To See

I believe you can make games about everything. That’s not to say you should, necessarily, because I think, for example, we have way too many games that treat ‘the Nazis’ as a side in a fight, and I think my game idea Worse Than Hitler is maybe interestingly good as an educational anticolonialist tool but maybe not something I should be putting on a shelf for general purpose.

Still, there are some game topics I’d like to see made into games, and maybe I even have the edge of an idea, but what I’d really want is for someone else to make them.

1. Roanoke

Roanoke Island colony is an interesting ‘unsolved mystery’ story, but it’s one of those ones where the fantastical explanations (zombie plagues, alien abduction, witchcraft) are way less interesting than the really mundane narratives where either a Native American force responded to colonisers properly, or the colonists integrated into a different culture and ‘went native.’

The thing is, there’s an interesting system idea here where there’s competing resources and the development cycle of the local indigenous tribes, but I’d want it to be framed from the perspective of the indigenous peoples.

I’d want this to be made by indigenous folk, then, and I don’t know who there would find it interesting to play a kind of cooperative game about just living your life, extending charity to some, rebuffing others, and depleting the Roanoke colony as a kind of tumor on your ecosystem, with the ‘victory’ being the colony closing and the people there coming to live in your community.

2. Theatre

I have friends in theatre, and what interests me about theatre has almost nothing to do with the actual productions and instead the making of those productions. Lots of games have ‘theatre’ as a thing that happens and even uses theatre as a framing device for a story game, but I would be really interested to see a game about actually putting the show together, the way that sets need to get made in time, the way that things being made change the way other things get made, and how if you don’t have a tool you can’t practice with it, which will affect the way the show gets put on.

What’s more, shows are made and they’re performed and nothing in it is perfect each night to night, and that creates this interesting resource management element as well, where practice can get weighted against exhaustion and that all seems really interesting. I wouldn’t know how to do a good job of it, myself.

3. Solo Mystery Card Games

I have this engine in mind for a solo mystery game? And I like how it works and it fits together, and when you’re done reassembling all these clues you get a really cool little narrative as told through multiple lines of storytelling, and you can play with themes of like, shattered memory or time travel or that kind of stuff.

The problem is this requires a lot of writing and narrative and revealing partial information and I am not good at that. I’ve tried writing short stories, I’ve tried doing larger reveals, and while mystery is something I can build into games with a connecting tissue like violence, you know, a D&D game, but… without that? With potential mixes like murder mystery or unreliable narrators or time travel, things that I don’t handle well (and don’t like when I see other people handle them badly!), I’m left with an engine that drives nowhere.

 

Present Framing

Cards are frames and what you put on the card is framed by that card. Card faces are therefore, a frame within a frame, and what you can do with them changes based on how you present them. Confused? Let’s get to an example.

Here are a pair of cards I mocked up using a picture of Ivy, from Carmen Sandiego, a show that rules, and a character that rules. Seriously, I love this cartoon, it’s great. There’s some temporary text on it to show how much text can fit on this card, or places you can put stuff that fit within the gutters for printing purposes.

Card One

Card Two

Card One makes Ivy and her surroundings into the ‘whole’ of the card. It puts mechanical information on a background (for ease of contrast in printing, and to highlight it and make it easier for the player to recognise it). Card two, rather, puts a larger frame around the same picture, one that covers the whole of the image and limits the underlying picture to a much smaller field.

Card two has the effect of making this picture of Ivy into a picture of Ivy – like, an actual object, a physical thing that’s laying amongst other objects on the card’s face. One of these is trying to make something about Ivy diegetic (the pictures), and the other something non-diegetic (the frame devices hovering around her like a news chyron).

These are both exercises in framing – for example, on Card One, Ivy is present. On Card Two, Ivy is past.

These can be used for different things. The former is probably best for a game where Ivy is assigned to do things, the latter, remote tasks or investigation. Card Two makes Ivy into a subject to be considered; Card One suggests she’s an agent, capable of doing things. If the character is present, they can make more personal, immediate decisions, take immediate actions; if they’re past, they can be considered more in terms of what they’re interested in or useful for.

Hypothetically, you could also do something to make a character impending – maybe a wireframe, or a fade on the image, or their shadow on a wall – make it look like a character is not here yet, to use their card to represent anticipation, or a future.

August Shirt: Subject Outline Shippendon

I didn’t have a magic themed shirt design for this month.  What I did have was a new class, and with it, a joke, and that joke got made into a shirt.

Here’s the design:

And here the design is on our friendly gormless supposedly unisex Redbubble model:

 And here’s the design being modelled by the Teepublic ghost:

This design is available on a host of shirts and styles.

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

Making Magic (In Games)

Now, I’ve talked about magic and cards this month and I’ve even talked about how hard it is to find games that are properly about magic as much as they’re about single-attempt tricks, conning the rules of magic like in Simon the Sorcerer and the like. What I haven’t really been able to grapple with – and don’t hate me for my lack of time to dedicate to random exploratory design right now – is how hard it is to represent doing magic in one of my games?

I’m torn on it! Because I’ve certainly played with similar principles. One example is Hook, Line, & Sinker, a game I made earlier this year. It even references specific card tricks and confidence tricks, things from that same mangled tangle of lies and facts and half-histories.

Now, something Hook Line & Sinker does that I do like is that it represents a con as a three-stage act where knowing the pieces and executing on it properly is the challenge. It’s not a matter of getting lucky, it’s a matter of proper execution of a plan of related pieces. Great. Easy!

It doesn’t necessarily work as a magic game, though, because part of what’s going on in this game is you don’t really know what parts you have to work with. It’s impromptu planning, but that’s con artists and fast-talking criminals, not the work of the magician, who has to work over and over and over again.

Normally when I think about a theme, I tend to think about mechanics I know, like a library of things I can do, and I keep coming up empty for good mechanics that ‘feel’ like magic. I’ve tried a bunch of options, and here’s what I got so far:

  • Probably no dice. Dice give you a good random generator, but part of the point of what I like about magic is how it’s about practice and execution.
  • It might be a duel game or co-op game, because I can’t quite work out how to make magicians compete with one another except in the creation of tricks and showing off
  • Magic is a matter of using classic parts and imagining new props or designs so it needs to be a game with some degree of creativity
  • But part of that creativity needs to be exciting or interesting, so the parts can integrate cleverly or the players can ‘show off’ what they did.

This is hard stuff! The one thing I keep coming back to is this might be a solo game about learning a routine and eventually perfecting it, building on Friedemann Friese’s fun little card-rotatey deck-builder game Friday.

For now, I don’t have a great idea. I haven’t made a lot of solo games yet.

Still, we get better at things and we come up with solutions by spending time with them, and thinking about them. Maybe you’ll see me come back to this. Part of what you come here for is to watch me make games, and this is one of the things that sometimes happens. I hit a wall.

Give It Time To Cook

You might imagine during my period of blistering game release, with a game a month (and more) for a period of about two years, I was holding to near-constant productivity. Fact is, I wasn’t – what was happening were short bursts of mechanical exercise, some games being made in pretty much a weekend, once I had the initial idea. It’s kind of interesting, I spent a year attending game jams.

What was happening during all that time though was that I was doing a lot of procrastination. In the development of one game, I’d make something – a card face, an asset, a template or even just a bit of math on a page – and then rather than bull through into implementing it in the game I had, I focused on the game I had and put the other idea on the sidelines.

Sometimes this meant that an original idea for a game just sat in a drawer and never got made. I have a game I want to make which I can basically describe as ‘Mysterium meets The Littlest Hobo,’ and it’s still sitting there, waiting for me to find the thing that needs to make it happen. That’s why I write about game concepts on the blog now, putting the notes some where I can easily search them, to jog my memory, and to give you, the reader, a chance to comment on how much you want the game, or encourage me in some other way.

Time to cook, though, it’s so vital. It’s so wanted. Some of my games really suffered from not taking that time. Hook, Line & Sinker was designed over a weekend and I put the print-and-play out when I got home, and that was enough to playtest. But once I did that, I put it in a drawer for two months and let my feelings about it stew.

This means a lot of game design time is spent playing other games and looking like you’re not doing any game design. I walk the dog, I take showers, I play other videogames, I watch Youtube channels that talk about math classes or reactors or math puzzles. It’s all time to think about the problem. It’s all time to let the game cook.

When you commit to get into this hobby, of making games, you might find yourself burning with a need to get it finished. That’s a good way to make sure your project is rushed, even if it takes you a long time. Periods of relaxation and reconsideration will improve your product.

Your mind is surprisingly good at knowing what you want, after all. Put some faith in it and give it some time.

Hunter’s Dreams – The Nexus’ Needs

This is more work on Hunter’s Dream, a 4th Edition D&D-compatible mod made to enable a Bloodborne style of game, where players take on the role of hunters, who have to first research their prey before going out to the tactical combat stage of things where players get to have cool fights with werewolves and whatnot.

One of the funny things about this game design process so far is that one of the biggest ‘new’ systems the game includes is going to be building hutns, where players get to interact with some more board-gamey elements. And as with almost all big things, it’s easier to instead peck around the outside, to work with the smaller things, until you get to the bigger thing. There’s value to that, though, especially because when you’re aware of what your small systems can do, you can use them to adjust the bigger, more complicated ones.

With that in mind, let’s talk about a thing that gives the games a rules patch: The Nexus.

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Starting Making, Concept 2: Penny Something

Reiner Knizier said – well he didn’t say it, and whatever he said was probably in German, but I summarise it as – that you start making a game from a component, a mechanic or a concept. A component means some game piece, some object to work with, a mechanic is a rules interaction, and a concept is a theme or a fictional idea to build a game around. These articles are ones where I try to take a game idea and flesh it out a little, starting from one of those three parts. Last time I went with a concept – the theme of Hallmark Movies.

This time, we’re going to start with a component.

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July Shirt: UwUnionise!

Don’t let it be said I don’t listen to my twitter followers. I tweeted this, someone wanted it on a shirt, and here we are.

Here’s the design:

And here the design is on our friendly gormless supposedly unisex Redbubble model:

And here’s the design being modelled by the Teepublic ghost:

This design is available on a host of shirts and styles. If you like the look, I can see about making the individual badges into stickers.

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

The Game Pitch

Everyone has their own silly loves. Everyone has things they like doing that don’t make sense to anyone else, right? You know there’s someone who likes refining or commenting their code or someone who enjoys doing reference citations or someone who likes sorting a library of books. All that stuff. Right?

Well, something I love, a lot, is pitching games.

Not the big, stand-in-front-of-investors, white-board and flop-sweat pitching. That doesn’t bother me but I rarely find it fun. That’s actually really challenging because you’re in a live-fire exercise trying to find the frame of reference for your audience and want to construct a kind of language gear that you can use to connect to them and turn the wheel of their mind. That’s hard, that’s really hard, and the fun that you get out of it is a very different beast.

No no no – what I mean is pitching a game to my players.

When you’re to start a campaign of a roleplaying game, it helps to have an idea of where you’re going, how the plot might work out, the kind of things – in a general sense! – you’re going to be dealing with. You don’t want to plan it to death, dear god, no – but you want to have an idea of your tone. You want your style. Do a little conversation with your players, feel out what they’re into, feel out what you’re into, and commit something onto paper to be the groundwork for them to make their characters, and what you have there is the basics of your game pitch.

Game pitches are really fun because they’re high concept views on stories but also they leave one of the most important parts of a story completely blank: you have no idea who the protagonists are. This means you get to shape the kind of characters someone might want to make, but you also don’t know what you’re going to get. At the same time, because you get to lay down rules, you also get to tell people the kinds of characters they should bring, without necessarily defining anything too clearly. It’s great! It’s this wonderful little potential bubble of stuff.

And then you get to wrap that up in some mood writing, something to give people an idea of how you want them to feel going in. You might lead with some fatalistic poetry or a quote from a scholar, or an excerpt of relevant history, or maybe you share an account from some character the story meets. Maybe you’ll show a scene of something, an actual snippet of history. Or maybe, you’ll lead with a short, bitter phrase, something the characters may already know, may already repeat to one another, bitterly.

I keep around a bunch of these pitches in my books and archives. The house rules, written down, the character creation rules, the guide to things like ‘we want characters who are heroic’ or ‘we want characters who are connected to this organisation,’ or ‘one member of the group has this royaly title.’ One came I ran, Border Guard, the brief opened with the phrase:

We’re not the best
We’re not the brightest
We’re not all we can be
We’re just here.

One of the players who played in that game turned to me once, about the sleep he had lost taking care of one of his parents through a medical rough patch. About how he hadn’t signed up for that difficult task. And he said it back to me, and then added, he couldn’t remember where he heard it.

I love creating game briefs.

They’re so much fun~.

Starting Making, Concept 1: Halls In The Mark

Okay, okay, I’ve talked about making games, and I’ve tried to talk about getting started, but I know that just because I’ve mentioned something once doesn’t mean it’s always there for people to find. There is a river of content, and restating things in different ways is worth doing, because it means you are more likely to potentially get a hook

I’ve talked about how to view those things, but I haven’t done a lot as far as showing the process, so today I’m going to show you how I approach this process, by taking an idea I have and showing you how I arrive at decisions of what to do after I have the idea. Continue reading

What Can Hide In Your World?

Watching Hannibal – which is bad, by the way – I was reminded of an old conversation about hiding things in your setting. The same idea is root to the narrative of Brightburn, and in turn tangled around the root of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, it’s a question that’s important to the world building in your games, because it shows what your world has room for.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, superheroes can ‘lay low,’ and be more or less well hidden, but once they start ‘doing stuff’ of any scale it’s pretty likely they get found. This is because that world has a organisation that makes a positive showing of constantly looking for these people (‘in some way’) and the narrative kind of doesn’t ask any questions about what that means. Now, in this world, the point of this is to bring superheroes into attention and get past the boring bits of an origin story – just have the Shield folk turn up a new hero, and get involved in the story at an interesting bit after all the tedious bits are over. This is to say that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s literally a heroic surveillance state that not only does things you want them to do (speed up superhero stories) but makes monitoring everything in the world seem cool and doable.

In Hannibal, there’s somehow enough means for multiple serial killers with lurid, vividly horrible modus operandi to spring up in one area over the course of a few weeks, with their activities overlapping, and the department of the FBI that was set to the task of dealing with them was like, five people. Now, that seems weird to me, but that’s what this setting needs – and I mean, if Hannibal Lecter is a wealthy millionaire then it’s kind of fine, I guess, that he can just murder people with impunity, but if that was the case why would he bother being so careful about his identity? The story already has a monster – Mason Verger – whose money makes him immune to punishment, so like, what does it matter that these things are hidden? How are these bodies being moved around, these elaborate tableaus being only discussed by one sleazy blog?

In Brightburn, the question is ‘how likely is a meteorite landing to be noticed in the year of our lord 2010,’ which I guess leans on the wall of what’s believable, but also then builds a story about ‘how creepy and invasive can a single kid be without anyone noticing it, and how likely is that to be de-escalated.’ That’s interesting.

(Brightburn doesn’t do anything interesting with it).

The thing is, in each of these cases, these are worlds that are meant to be like ours – some even give a specific date! In our world, it’s hard to maintain fictions about big events, because we have recording devices everywhere, a sort of sousveillance state.

In a fantasy setting, we don’t tend to have rapid communication, but we do tend to have a reasonably modern vision of trade. It’s one of the funnier things I’ve noticed in most fantasy RPG settings – there’s a vision of commercial trade that’s generally a lot further along than the technology and societies imply. I actually really like Erik’s term of Castlepunk for this – you’re not gunning to represent a real pre-rennaisance world, you’re just jamming the cool looking bits of it together and asserting that it would make sense, so relax. The point is, people are moving, and goods are moving, and people are buying and selling things in a meaningful way. That means they’re talking.

Something to consider for your D&D settings, then, to think about in terms of how well they know the places next door. Every place you go probably knows two or three things about the place one town over, and they probably know the biggest place in the region. Think about it as an exercise; three individual ideas about each adjacent place, and three ideas about the capital. You can even treat these lists as traits of the place.

For your town, jot down say, five traits. People in the town know five of them, people one town away maybe know three, and people another town over know one. This is a really simple, dirty trick for starting out your worldbuilding, but it does the job of representing the way information moves around from place to place.

Hunter’s Dreams – Handling ‘Race,’ Part 2

This is more work on Hunter’s Dream, a 4th Edition D&D-compatible mod made to enable a Bloodborne style of game, where players take on the role of hunters, who have to first research their prey before going out to the tactical combat stage of things where players get to have cool fights with werewolves and whatnot.

Last time I outlined some of the problems with ‘race’ as she is treated in the game of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, the challenges of making settings through the ‘race’ option, and the potential, unconnected legal concerns with how to treat races so as to not invalidate the rules of making 4th edition D&D content.

Those are our parameters, the problems we need to consider. Now let’s talk about what I’m going to choose to overcome this.

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Hunter’s Dreams – Handling ‘Race,’ Part 1

This is more work on Hunter’s Dream, a 4th Edition D&D-compatible mod made to enable a Bloodborne style of game, where players take on the role of hunters, who have to first research their prey before going out to the tactical combat stage of things where players get to have cool fights with werewolves and whatnot.

This time, he said, in the tone of voice of a breathless white boy who has just completed his first college course on the topic, I want to talk to you about race.

Race in D&D is a fraught topic, so going ahead, we’re going to talk about some things that are racist, and we’re going to talk about trope space and fantasy novels, and how those things are going to be racist too. Just be braced. This is before we talk about the choices I’m making in Hunter’s Dream as much as it is about me thinking my way through the problem and whether or not it’s good to address it in this.

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Defining Mastery Depth

Hey, let’s talk about things for talking about games! And sure, it’s old hat to me, but if I use it and you don’t know what I mean, I look like a stupid asshole talking over your head, and it’s important to remember everyone learns a concept somewhere!

I want to talk about Mastery Depth, a term I used when talking about Century: Golem, then realised I may have never mentioned it anywhere before. I mentioned it offhandedly, but never really sat down and wrote out what I mean when I describe it in games, or what it’s good for or what it’s not.

Here’s the concept, then: Mastery. The ‘put it in a single sentence’ version of Mastery looks like this: Mastery is the way the game is affected by having already come to understand the game.

That’s a small sentence, it’s reasonably simple words, and it’s also a little confusing. I’ll try to explain it better. For pretty much every game, previous experience playing the game makes the game easier to play. Sometimes that’s just a matter of learning the rules more thoroughly, so you don’t need to look things up. Sometimes it’s about knowing what you should prioritise in the game, after the rules present them to you as a big wave of equal stuff.

Mastery depth is a way to look at a game in terms of how much of what a game does that rewards players with more or less mastery. Is there a game you can think of where there’s a particular dangerous situation that can come up and you need to know how to recognise it? What about the way we see Chess, a game with a variety of ‘openings’ that require learning a new language to understand? Mastery is how you recognise those things. A game that rewards mastery often rewards playing with mastery – games like Dungeons and Dragons are mind-blowingly complex, but as you master them you learn how to stop caring about unimportant details, and learn ways to build the game to get the outcomes you want.

A lot of games get called ‘bad’ because they lack mastery depth, and some are ‘bad’ because their mastery depth has a hard limit. Connect Four and Tic-Tac-Toe are games that once you understand them enough are solved, and the person with sufficient mastery knows the way the game will go and wins it. By comparison, though, there are some games where it’s hard to tell different levels of mastery – you can look to the intricate and complex development of Magic: The Gathering, where asking a computer to calculate ‘best plays’ in any given situation is brain-explodingly difficult.

I think about this because one type of game I’m trying to avoid creating and sharing with my niblings is games where I, a grown adult with time to focus and a better constructed memory and a lot of experience, am just always going to beat them because they are kids. This has meant I’ve been delighted by some games I normally used to think of poorly – I bought King of Tokyo and have found it an exceptional game in its class, for example.

Bear in mind what players need to know, how much they have to play, and if your game needs mastery or rewards mastery, and if you’re okay with that. Mastery is fun! I love games with a lot of mastery depth… but I’m also learning to love the games that are a bit less likely to reward you for a long-term plan.

City of Heroes and the Clamps!

In case you weren’t aware, City of Heroes is (as I write this) back (kinda?), and with it comes the return of forums. These are not places I’ve been going, because these forums are full of people whose opinions I do not much respect, and what’s more, now they don’t have an actually gatekept developer space, so instead we have a group of very entitled people wanting to talk about making development changes to a game they’re very confident they know how to ‘fix.’

Most of the time, these people don’t know what they’re doing or talking about, and don’t know how hard or easy what they’re suggesting would be to implement that. One suggestion I’ve heard is about something someone sees as contentious, is getting rid of the CLAMP.

For those not aware of very old development lingo, the Clamp is a term used in City of Heroes development for the to-hit formula. The basic idea was that any time you tried to attack something, the game would do some math and you’d see whether or not you successfully hit your opponent. No matter what you did to your chance to hit, you’d always have a 5% chance to miss, and that’s the ‘Clamp’ of the discussion.

It’s a pretty silly thing to get angry about because you might be familiar with this as a basic critical miss mechanic. This mechanic is common to a lot of tabletop games, and really, common to a lot of videogames that are just so gauche as to not tell you they’re doing math when they try and shoot you.

I’m not going to get into an argument with this person about why the Clamp should be around, or why their suggestion to get rid of it in a game that otherwise works fine is nonsense, but it did make me think about addressing why you even want a critical failure system in a game at all.

 

The thing this Clamp did for City of Heroes in combat is what it does in all other games that use this system for combat: It stops combat from ever reaching a place of being potentially identical. When you throw a fireball into a group that it will probably kill, the fact you can’t be sure who will survive is important to make sure that your turn has some variance in it. In City of Heroes, where you’re making hundreds of attack rolls over sequences of seconds-long combats in minutes-long missions, these little bumps of the unreliability mean that you’re still making decisions and choices while you play, because you can’t be sure who will run and when.

Now, that’s not to say critical misses or absolute failures are a good thing in all games. One of my favourite designs in Blades in the Dark is because in that game, ‘success’ seems very attainable – it’s usually something like a 1/2,  with some complications, and any extra dice make it more likely you’ll get something like a success. The pool of dice you roll is never very big, and that means you’re likely to get hit with random variance and then that failure becomes a thing.

Similarly, you can check how the kinds of times you want to make those checks. In City of Heroes, these rolls to see if you succeed or not are made when you want to attack something, but not when you’re seeing whether or not you successfully craft and object you want for your build. It’s not that this is a game where you can always fail, it’s a game where you want to represent combat as being about an interesting experience, whereas crafting is more about just getting what you want when you pay for it.

These systems are not used without a reason, and the reason to use them is challenging to explain to players. Players may think they want the game to never let them miss, but if you give them that game, they may find it more boring, less interesting but never know exactly why. It’s a really dark art, tuning player experience, and there’s going to be things they don’t like that they don’t know why they don’t like.

The Dwarves Wrote The Histories

An idea I’ve never been able to shake is the D&D racial animus between dwarves and orcs-and-goblins 3.5 D&D presented.

This is an idea that stems basically from your Tolkein source material, but it has a weird side effect when you interrogate it, because of time.

Dwarves are so good and so used to fighting orcs and goblins that they have all got an advantage at it. Like, this is stuff baked into their culture so deep their pastry cooks and their ponces all know how to lay into an orc a bit.

Look at this chart (obtained from d20srd.org):

Table: Aging Effects
RaceMiddle Age1Old2Venerable3Maximum Age
Human35 years53 years70 years+2d20 years
Dwarf125 years188 years250 years+2d% years
Elf175 years263 years350 years+4d% years
Gnome100 years150 years200 years+3d% years
Half-elf62 years93 years125 years+3d20 years
Half-orc30 years45 years60 years+2d10 years
Halfling50 years75 years100 years+5d20 years

 

Ignore the halflings and elves and all that, we’re focusing now on the Half-Orcs and Dwarves. Goblins in the Monster Manuals are said to live a variety of years, depending on which one you read, but they tend to hover around 30 to 40. Orcs and Hobgoblins have a similar range, and Races of Destiny presents a Half-Orc’s lifespan as capping out at an absolute max of 80. By comparison, a dwarf’s maximum age is 450.

A dwarf, by middle age, has seen the rise of nine orc or goblin generations.

Consider what that means to humans. If I fought the man that killed my grandfather when they were both young, that man would be old, now. In this case, an orc facing the dwarf that killed his grandfather is facing someone who time has not weathered at all.

What’s more, the reasons, the motivations for doing so – they’re not around. When you look at how these books present orcs, goblins and dwarves don’t have cities or civilisations; they have things called warrens and camps. They’re presented as being kind of what we’d normally consider ‘pre-civilisational’ and that means they don’t do things like agriculture or writing books that tend to be how we, as people who do agriculture and writing books consider a hallmark of being ‘real’ cultures. Let’s set aside the obvious bias here, and just look at the effect. It’s going to be very hard for these Orc and Goblin cultures to have clear records of what happens when they have wars with the Dwarves.

They don’t have maps or border or maybe even the concept of a country. They’re typically represented as illiterate and use a script that’s not even their own native tongue to write in when they do. They don’t get to know why the dwarves rolled in, but the dwarves do. It’s one of the most obvious things about the dwarf culture as it’s represented: They are old, and they are stubborn, and they remember old grudges.

From the perspective of the orc, the dwarf is an implacable unstoppable juggernaut that emerges from the mountains to kill a generation for reasons that are never truly scrutable. Their armour and weapons are older than your civilisation. They are like cataclysmic storms.

And the dwarves have been doing this for so long that everyone knows how to fight an orc.

Everyone.

And the orcs and goblins and hobgoblins don’t get a bonus against the dwarves.

Consider who’s telling us these stories; the people with their forts and their steel and their axes and their maps and their records who teach their members to murder goblins and orcs and hobgoblins that they never have met and never have any reason to meet. A clockmaker isn’t going out of their way out of the fortress to go forage around in dangerous hobgoblin areas for gear parts. But he knows how to stove an orc’s head in.

Here’s your lesson, game-design wise. These decisions were all made to reinforce flavour from a fiction: In Tolkein’s books, dwarves and orcs were at war, and dwarves were player characters and orcs weren’t, so dwarves got a bonus to help players who play dwarves be excited to fight orcs. The ages follow through from Tolkein too – created monsters like the orcs don’t need a culture, they’re just there to be fought, so it doesn’t matter if they’re short-lived. They’re a byproduct of someone else’s war machine. Dwarves are meant to have long kingdoms and take a long view, so they have to last longer than humans. It all makes sense.

But the mechanical choices made here to represent this flavour create an eerie kind of genocide-capable culture that seems to exist to punish a nearby stone age culture for crimes that culture may not even understand as crimes.

These dwarves seem like they’re really bad, to me.


The dwarf-goblin header art is from Jeffry Lai on deviantart

The bumper image is the cover art for Battle of Skull Pass, which best as I could find was by John Blanche

June Shirt IV: Arcadia Bay

For Pride month, I felt I could have a little Wrath.

I’ve said that Life Is Strange is ‘a really good fanfiction attached to a garbage-ass canon made by tools.

Here’s the design:

And here the design is on our friendly gormless supposedly unisex Redbubble model:

And here’s the design being modelled by the Teepublic ghost:

This design is available on a host of shirts and styles. This design won’t go well on stickers, because the faux-distress is part of it. I recommend if you get it, you make sure your colour choice is high-contrast with the yellow, so a green or a red.

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

June Shirt III: Everyone Plays

The last set of shirts was a bit of a heavy lift, wasn’t it? But it was also very much a trans shirt design for trans people, and I wanted to make a few shirt designs that were clearly trans-inclusive without necessarily being self-declarative. I mean, I’m not trans, but I’d still want to wear a shirt that makes my trans friends feel comforted in a gaming space if they see it.

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