Category: Making

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

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.

Dwarves Write The Histories Where Orcs Had It Coming

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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Gender Distribution In OCs

Did you know that you’re bad at estimating odds? It’s true!

One way you’re bad at estimating odds is that you overestimate uncommon values. I could do fun kinds of goofy tricks with examples like words or dogs on leashes and break out the Dan Gilbert playbook, but for now, trust me when I tell you that your brain is very bad at reasonably estimating odds. That means things like a chance for things to happen or a distribution of things. That’s why there’s an actual puzzle to things like ‘guess how many beans are in the jar.’

Anyway, we’re not here to talk about cognitive biases and functional memory, we’re here to talk about my OCs.

I roleplay a lot! It’s one of my favourite things to do. I have a lot of yearning for story spaces and I love my friends but I and my friends can’t just interrupt our days to go punch a dragon, so instead, we roleplay and we play in our own little fictional worlds with their own rules. I have a huge pile of characters over the years, and since I have so many, I do what any sensible nerd would do and put them in a spreadsheet.

After all, spreadsheets are cool. 😎

With the shutdown of City of Heroes (and that’s a complicated story now), I took a look at this spreadsheet and did a big crunch, realising that one column in my piles of data I had was pretty consistent. I mostly just made males. I had some nongendered characters, who were robots, and they were mostly referred to as males. At the shutdown of City of Heroes back in 2012, I had a cast of characters that numbered over a hundred characters, and that list was 95% male.

I thought about this but it wans’t until a few years later that I considered this spreadsheet and how I wanted to change that stat. I make characters to play in spaces, and I want those spaces to have cool characters in them, and I want there to be cool women characters in those spaces, and so… why not make more women? Why not write women, especially in the low-key low-impact way of roleplay spaces where I’m primarily playing pretend with friends and not creating a greater coherent text that is going to get reviewed by editors. That ensued a period of revamping some characters that were unused as girls, and making more women characters. In some cases, I even rolled a dice to just check ‘hey, is this character cis?’ because it was a question I’d literally never considered when I’d made them.

Then I thought, after two years of this that maybe I’d gone too far. Maybe my population of characters was massively female dominated and now was just an insight into the Horny of my mind, and I was seized with a pre-emptive embarassment. To the spreadsheet I went, to fill in fields and give myself that balm that is data.

Turns out that this fear that I was wiping out my male character population had resulted in a whopping 33% of the characters now being women. I thought I’d gone too far and I hadn’t even gone half way.

One example from a study of women in meetings shows how we handle stats badly. Dudes polled will often believe women have overwhelmed a group when they represent 33% of it; they will believe women talk 20% more than men when they spoke 20% less. And as with me, I thought I’d gone overboard when I hadn’t even finished addressing my massive bias.

We are bad at recognising stats. We are bad at estimating odds. We are ferociously bad at recognising our own biases. It’s worth checking yourself, and considering just what you’re doing.

June Shirt II: Magic: The Gathering Colour Emblems

One of my most popular blog posts is the post, No Magic Colour Is Transphobic, which combines Magic: the Gathering colours and factions with ways those groups can handle and respond positively to trans themes.

A few years ago, someone asked an important flavour developer for the game if there was a bias towards transphobia or trans acceptance in one colour or the other, and the weird thing is I don’t remember the actual answer to that, but it got me thinking about how it’s possible in every permutation or group to make a reasonable, in-character response to the question of gender identity that doesn’t make one colour ‘have’ to be ‘the transphobia colour.’

People have asked me to put those designs on shirts, and I’ve been working on that for a bit over a year. It’s trickier than it looks, and with five colours that can be combined five ways, and designs that can appear on light or dark colours, it means that any given idea for a single colour has fifty permutations which I then have to do across at least two sites, for a hundred uploads.

That’s no fun!

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MGP: Making Queer Games With Queer Mechanics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt: The Nyarr

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

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


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Making Settings Queer

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

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

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May Shirt: SPITE

This month, our shirt design is something I made as a single badge for an article, and thought was so neat, I decided to make it 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:

And here, amazingly, is this shirt being modelled in black by Sasha L H, who bought it because I told her not to, and vol took a picture of it and it’s really cool like holy heck.

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.

Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 4: The Everywhere Else

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

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


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

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

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The Top 5 Reasons You Should Make A List Article

Hey, you notice how much of the internet is lists?  Ever wonder why?

5. They’re Approachable

Lists are really easy to get into reading. People can tell – usually – that a list numbering system clearly indicates a form of escalation, it’ll always be easy to collect things with a common theme that causes people to wonder how you link things together, and it creates natural break points for readers to stop reading.

People intuitively seek sequences, and so if you present them with the knowledge they’re going to experience a sequence, they kind of mentally ‘sign on’ for it and they sort of get locked in to engaging with it. It’s a great way to connect an audience to your work.

B. No unilateral disarmament

As long as Buzzfeed and other major news sources are using this model to get people to pay attention to stuff, and operating with my idea that getting writing is important and it’s worth doing, the listicle is going to be here, and while there may be some case to be made about them simplifying media forms, I don’t see why people with barriers to creativity should be the ones told they need to give up on the most accessible and popular forms as if it’s somehow their job to drive the form of all online journalism forwards with the weight of their very souls.

3. The List Forms Its Own Context

When you make a list, everything in the list is in the list. This means the list forms its own context, and each thing in the list can inform everything else in the list.  Which means that if you present five list items about (say), the best octopuses, you’re knowingly just comparing the octopuses in the list. That means it’s easier for you to organise your thoughts, and you can put the list objects in direct contention with one another.

II. You Can Couch the Bummer

Ordering a list is pretty arbitary. Sometimes you’ll track a number value, like ‘biggest failures’ or ‘largest sheep by volume’ and then you can just order the list by that, but a lot of the rest of the time, you have to order your points in your list. With a lot of these topics, there are some things that are fun and  some things that are interesting, but crucially, there’s going to be something in the list that’s the least good, or the sort of thing that feels like a total bummer.

The list format lets you build to these things, when they are important, but they also let you structure your story in such a way that the whole article doesn’t just fizzle out on a depressing, end note. Then when you move on to the last entry, it gets to be funny, lift the mood, and maybe be the natural crescendo of the article. It even gets to be the easiest part of the article, because at that point you’ve got all that other work laid out!

1. The end gets to be a punchline

Penguin!

Making Normal

I’ve been thinking a lot about normal.

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

The usual, really.

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Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 3: Framing Spaces

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

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


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

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Basic Trick: Writing Structure

I’m doing a lot of writing these days.

Every day I write, every day I take notes, and every day, some of those notes get cut apart and rearranged and they don’t get used. Anyway, one thing I’ve been doing for when I have to write is giving myself a writing template.

I use google docs, wordpress, and Word to do most of my writing. Word is useful for stuff that only needs to live on my computer and which I want to export to PDF with some control – things like rulebooks. Google docs is for anything collaborative where formatting can be handled later. And WordPress – well, back when I was writing a book on this blog, I wrote each chapter in Word and then transplanted it to this blog, with a filter to turn it into html. Since then I’ve learned to use the editor for the blog itself, which is just useful enough that it does most of what I need.

Still have to look up the code to centre Youtube videos.

Anyway, this means a lot of structured writing. Writing where I need to make sure certain things have to show up, or show up in a particular sequence. Writing on my blog tends to be less structured; it’s often more of a flow, where I just start off the top of my head, find a subject, and then it goes. I try to make sure I put something on my blog every day. Some days, I don’t have anything much to say – yesterday, I wrote four articles all at once, and I just don’t want to slip into nothing for today. Something every day, every day. Right?

And so, here’s a basic piece of tech for writing when you write to a structure, and this is good if you want to write an essay but also for writing a story. What I do when I’m writing a story is make a table of two columns. In one column I put the plot beat, the story part, and I put them all in an order I can use. Then, in the table next to it, I flesh that out. Maybe I write prose straight into it. Maybe I write that incident and break it up into new lines of events.

Here’s an example, using lorem ipsum text filled in in the side.

IntroductionProin a volutpat lacus. Mauris semper elit nisl, et venenatis enim malesuada ut. Nunc et tortor erat. Pellentesque euismod nulla accumsan, tincidunt magna quis, fermentum quam.
Meet WizardFusce mollis dolor nec quam tristique, venenatis hendrerit arcu malesuada. Quisque massa lacus, consequat id nibh vel, facilisis pretium metus.
Deal W/HatEtiam nec posuere eros, pharetra imperdiet lorem.
GrapefruitsSuspendisse sodales lectus et ipsum varius ullamcorper.
PunchlineNulla a nibh consectetur, cursus sem id, varius quam. Pellentesque vitae luctus mi, sed venenatis nunc. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.

The thing with this kind of structure tool is it’s useful for me as a simple tool that gets me thinking about what I need. It’s a rudimentary basic, it’s getting into the guts of a story and making sure that I get things in the right order, and then I can refine it, make it flow together better afterwards. But a lot of the time we need to get started on things, and this is a good tool for priming that pump.

Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 2: Knightly Orders

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Unit Operations By The Rulebook

Therre’s this idea in chemistry called unit operations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so on.

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

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

We’ll see how it goes.

Third Times A Charm

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

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

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

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

Hook, line, sinker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Scrabble Ends

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

Ask yourself then, when exactly is a game lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 1: Names in the Kingdom

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

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


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

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The Demands Of A Recipe

There’s this dude. Marco Pierre White.

This dude.

A thing I hate is that now, I feel, by mentioning this guy, someone’s going to think that what I want to do now is get into a conversation about how he’s an asshole or his son is an asshole or how he’s part of meathead chef culture or how he’s a sellout for stock pots or all sorts of things and I hate that. I hate that I don’t just need to know about Marco Pierre White as a little video on youtube that shows some cooking techniques about I need to do a moral colonoscopy on him before I’m capable of just bringing up a quote from him. I don’t want to become the kind of person who researches celebrity chefs like they’re football teams and reads cookbooks to see who has the most legitimate carbonara recipes. I just don’t.

This guy, Marco Pierre White, is one of the youngest people to ever get three Michelin stars, which is to say people who like cooking I don’t care about think very highly of his ability to cook. By any metric, he’s a pretty clever cook, certainly as far as I, owner of zero Michelin stars, think I know.

Anyway, he’s done a bunch of cooking shows, some ads for ingredient companies, and he’s spoken in things that seem like reasonably open interviews about why he supports and encourages the use of pre-made ingredients like instant stock or seasoning mixes. It makes a lot of sense to me – his stance is that he, a professional chef, can make his own stock and do a better job of it, but if you have a 9-5 job and have an hour to cook, you probably don’t have the time to make good stock or develop perfect knife skills, and with that, the store-bought ingredients represent your personal chef assistants. I like this take, it resonates with me.

What he’s said that stirred this though, is when describing ways to make things he’s often prone to saying there’s no recipe.

I think about this phrase a lot because I think that recipes, while useful, are also scary. Because a recipe has hidden information in it. Sometimes they’ll use terms like mix and you might be left wondering wait, mix how? With what? What does mixing look like here? Do I do the wet-into-dry thing? Is this assuming I’ll use a spoon? What if I wanted to use a whisk? What if I don’t have a plastic tool when it’s a non-stick container? There is a wealth of information presented in a recipe that is definitely useful, but it’s possible that a recipe just doesn’t quite cover what it has to do, because you don’t know what to ask.

When Marco says ‘there’s no recipe’ I find that very freeing, because it means there’s nothing I can fail. There’s not a list of steps and if my outcome comes out of it poorly, I’m the one to blame, because the recipe can’t be wrong. It’s a recipe.

I think about this in creative endeavours. I offer people templates and tools but I hate to think that I offer stuff for you to make things like books and games, and those things frustrate you and upset you because they don’t quite work.

It’s reassuring to have a recipe – but if they don’t make you feel good, don’t feel you should have to try and make things into recipes.

MTG: Custom Rarity

Hey, why do we put rarity on custom cards?

Seriously.

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

Not nobody mind you.

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

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

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

There are seven basic rarities you can give cards:

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

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

Anyway, just a thing to think about.

Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Hunter’s Dreams – Trick Weapons, Part 3

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

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

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April Shirt: Etoile League!

I considered doing something special for April on this month of trying to express more of me. At the same time, I just couldn’t think of anything that worked – not really. That stuff doesn’t happen under pressure for me, and for a bunch of my shirts (like Ray of Tsunshine) where I want a copy immediately after making it.

Instead, then, something else. Someone else.

This week would have been the fifteenth anniversary of City of Heroes. I’ve already made shirts that celebrate the universities across Paragon City. If you know that setting, you’ll know that there’s a bias, where four of the Universities were in hero zones, and one in villain zones.

I always found the culture of City of Villains interesting – literally the culture. If you never knew the setting, there was one area, the Etoile, which was known as the ‘City of Villains.’ It was overseen by a corrupt superstate, and had all these different zones with really specific cultural notes. Mercy Island was plagued by poisoned water and a snake cult; Port Oakes organised crime and ghost pirates (seriously). Cap Au was a super-science city with a demon in the reactor powering it up. Sharkhead was a steelworks where the literal ghost of an unjustly slain labor unionist rose up to kill guards. Saint Martial was a casino town, with the wealthiest of jerks in charge.

And, well, based on a conversation with a friend, Jeb Wrench, about the nature of sports in poor communities near America, with limited space, we came to the conclusion that the kids of the Etoile probably play basketball. Where there is play, there is organised play. Where there is organised play, there will, eventually, be branding – even if it’s a bit cheap, a bit weak. And thus… we get this.

There was also Grandville, Nerva, and Bloody Bay but those are tricky and I’m already making five shirts here, dangit.

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