Category: Making

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

Imposter Syndrome

You have this?

You probably do. I mean you’re reading my blog, you’re probably not particularly endowed with tons of confidence, I imagine. Or maybe that’s just me imagining that my audience is mostly composed of fragile queers, because I don’t have a lot of confidence in my own work and hey look at that, here’s a segue to our subject!

Imposter Syndrome is the term for the psychological pattern of being unsure that one’s praise or accomplishments are legitimate. There’s a lot of reasons for it, some tied to things like self-assessment, and how difficult it can be to subjectively grade your own performance, and also, an awareness of how your own process and outcomes are related to things like good luck.

Speaking just from experience, the games I’ve made the most money selling are the games that still surprise me, given the type of games they want to be. I know that when I stand in front of a stranger at a table, I can tell them things and they, largely, are going to have to believe me, because why wouldn’t they.

For me, this means it’s really easy to believe it’s not that I have skill in making games, it’s that I have skill in convincing people to buy games.

I’ve taken a strategy to fight this.

The thing is, an imposter is a term we use to refer to a type of con artist. It’s a trick. And the second part of that term is the important one: It’s artistry.

It is not an act of being an imposter. I am, like a cool and stylish thief, using words and ideas and presentation to convince people to pay attention to me, and that even if I don’t deserve it, the fact I can command it, the fact I can lift it, is a cool and clever con. You can make people pay attention to you, you can make people respect your work, and they never get to see the five or ten or fifty drafts to see how good the version you made finally came out. They don’t get to know you’re the kind of person who had to double check for the ‘mentiond’ typo a dozen times.

You aren’t an imposter.

You’re an artist.

You’re taking attention and you’re making use of it, and then you are dancing on.

What you’re doing isn’t fraud.

Rather, what I am doing is an attention heist.

When does a Trick Start?

Are you watching closely?

Magic is the art of manipulating attention. Any time a magician says okay, so here’s the trick, or now here’s where the trick starts, they are straight-up just lying. Any time a magician says now watch closely, there is nothing for you to see. It’s one of the tools of the magician, to simply direct your attention to something, because it’s something that doesn’t matter any more when they tell you to do that.

That’s it.

That’s the lesson.

Magicians want to control your attention and any time you think they’re showing you something, they’re trying to make sure you see nothing.

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Slugs and Loads

I make fun of Harbomb Resguy for his play conditioning term which, to my deep regret, people are using, which is, you know, whatever, but part of why I dislike the term is it’s doing the job of a word that we already had written down in books (and have had for fifty years), suggesting that you’d invent the term if you didn’t understand or know the first word. To this end, I want to be clear about these terms I use in game design, where I do not think I got these terms from game design. I learned these terms from magic – magic tricks, or as they’re known, illusions Michael.

In this case, these terms are slugs and loads.

Since these ideas come from card tricks, you might not want to know what they are, to preserve the illusion when your extremely cool and sexy friend does card tricks, and I should give you a spoiler break.

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July Shirt: Absolute Cdestiny ApocalyBse!

Sooo, hey.

Police eh.

They’re not great.

Anyway, here’s some unrelated t-shirt or sticker designs that play with that joke I like making, about that time a webcomic was bad!

Here’re the designs:


These designs have been added to the Loss Collection I maintain on Redbubble, and you can get them on pins and stickers and masks, which is still super weird to me.

Here’s the 2×2 ACAB design, and here’s the 2×2 1312 design!

Reaper Space

don’t go there

it’s reaper space.

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

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

Which they did, for a little bit.

For demonstration purposes.

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


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

There are pirates, of course.

After all, uninsured space is unpatrolled space.

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

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Hey, Kid, Wanna Do A Podcast?

Do you wanna make a pod-caaaast?
Do you wanna notice ums

The ways you hold your breath
And silence like death

And making reference to bums?

We’ve had a lot of time on mics lately, haven’t we? Maybe you’ve learned a little bit about crosstalk, maybe you’ve even lashed out and got yourself a nice new mic, for work purposes? And you might have been binging content because everyone is doing that right now?

Well, you should try and make a podcast!

About what? Well, that’s going to be up to you. What this post is about is giving you tools and techniques and resources.

First up, tools!

Zencastr is a recording program that runs in your browser window and runs a call that it then records. This is really useful if you’re doing a podcast with your girlfriend who lives a thousand miles away in Canada (and that’s not a joke), because you can just hand her the URL to the page, press the record button and Zencaster will record all the audio for both of you. It’ll be synced up, you can bring in up to three people on one call in the free version. It’s a solid resource! What’s more, it can put all those files automatically into your…

Dropbox! This is a good way to keep large, shared audio in a controlled space when you’re collaborating over distance. You may not need this if you’re just recording yourself (though we’ll talk to this). OneDrive can do something similar, but I don’t have direct experience with that, so I wouldn’t say.

Audacity! This is the bread and butter of audio recording. This is a very rudimentary audio editing program, and if what you want to do is cut audio up, delete some passages, clean up background noise and maybe filter out mouse clicking, this is going to do the task just fine. You will need an encoder to record mp3s, which you can learn about here, on this Lifewire page.

If you want to distribute your podcast, I’d recommend you set up a WordPress blog and use the Podlove add-on. These will step-by-step you through the process that lets you make an RSS feed that people can search up using their existing podcast recording software.

That’s it! That’s all you need, really!

I recommend for your first podcast, you either talk to a friend for about half an hour, or you recite or explain something you care about for about five minutes. The former you have room to react to one another and come to understand how hard it can be to use the time you have, and the latter shows you how much effort goes in to making those five minutes meaningful and clear. If you have plans for fiction and storytelling, try reading someone else’s story for a little bit – not releasing the episodes, just reading them – to get an idea for how quickly you can go through a story.

Finally, Freesound and Kevin Macleod’s Incomptech are excellent resources for sound effects and music.

Hope this is helpful!

A List of Things I Don’t Really Know Much About

Time to time I’ll have someone ask me questions or suggest topics and while I’ll give everything a go, sometimes I have to use complex topics I don’t understand to launch off into spaces I do. That’s why Fullmetal Alchemist is a great place for me to talk about Paratext, but not so much a place for me to talk about guns.

Here then is a short, non-comprehensive list of things I don’t know much about

  • Cars. Pretty much all cars. I know the basics of how a car works, in that there’s an air-and-fuel engine that makes tiny explosions that drive some pistons and then the rest is just controlling that and making it work well, but that’s all I got.
  • On that front, competitive car racing. Grew up surrounded by it, met some very important people in it, no clue how it really works. I have a tiny bit of knowledge about one thing in NASCAR and that’s it.
  • Firearms. I’ve never handled one. I think I may have handled pieces of one at some point but I genuinely think I’ve never been closer than five feet away from a gun, and that was probably on a police constable’s hip. Any conversations I have about guns are going to focus on culture around them rather than the devices themselves.
  • Modern military operations or aesthetics. There’s a real space for people like me who know their asses from their elbows talking about ‘real soldiers’ and whatnot, but that ain’t me and if you see me commenting on it, odds are good it’s because I’ve read something someone who knows about it is saying.
  • Makeup. I have applied it once or twice to other people and experimented with using it to hide injury. I do not know anything meaningful about it.
  • Recent anime. I’ll check out some stuff that gets recommended, but only once it’s all done and nothing that needs a hundred damn episodes. I want enough familiarity to talk to people at cons, not enough to go all Mothers Basement on things.
  • Driving. See also cars: I don’t drive, don’t know how to drive.
  • Code. I have opinions about how people should talk about code but I don’t know how to do anything more complicated than Twine or Wiki coding.
  • Ways to divert the flow of history by killing, meeting or changing single events. I just don’t know this stuff. I know there are some people with firm opinions on it, and I think it’s a good idea to consider the ways that individuals have diverted history through accident, but I am by no means an expert.
  • Islam! I have some broad, general criticisms of religious institutions as institutions, but if you asked me to provide specific criticisms of Islam, I wouldn’t know where to begin, and it wouldn’t, I imagine, be interesting at all.
  • Oh and while we’re at it, Judaism! Everything I know about Judaism is filtered through a fundamentalist Christian background. I may know more than you expect, but I don’t know anything about Judaism as she is lived today. I may know some things that are meant to evoke jewish-ish-ness, but you can fill a barn with what I don’t know here.
  • Stand up Comedians! Lots of these guys blur together, for me! And I do mean guys!
  • Music. I can tell you how music and lyrics make me feel, but I am clueless about how to make music. I don’t know how to sing well, I just know how Choir drilled me.
  • Game Theory. This is a wing of mathematics, and I don’t know much about it. I do Game Studies, which looks at games as cultural entities. There is some interesting stuff with ‘Game Theory’ but it’s mostly about the idea of rational actors responding to incentives, like much of economics, rather than anything to do about how political agents move.
  • Carpentry. Not a clue. There’s this thing that Ian Bogost has talked about, with using the term to refer to doing philosophy through making stuff, but actual joinery and stuff? Not a clue.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh. It looks like a game that has nothing meaningful in common with the games I play, but looks like it does if you don’t know either game that well.

Why this?

Because I think it’s worth taking stock and thinking about what you’ve been asked. I want to be able to hold on to the ability to say I don’t know and not have that be a wound against me. It’s nice to feel like an expert, it really is – and I try to limit that to when I’m dealing with students, who I actually have an authority over and where my expertise is what they’re literally paying for.

Everywhere else, it’s important to hold on to your own capacity to be a dumbass.

Pride Shirt 4: Gay Wrath Month 2020

As with previous shirts in this, the month of Jesus Christ What Next 2020, these are decorative, fun items that are ways for you to spend your disposable income in ways that amuse you and I do not think that you should view them as making moral statements or supporting me for its own sake.

That said, I’ve been having some pretty complicated feelings about Pride Month of ltae, because Pride isn’t an emotion I ever really feel at the best of times. There are other feelings I’m a little more tuned to.

Here’s this week’s design:

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

Pride Shirt 3: Pronoun Stamps

As with previous shirts in this, the month of Jesus Christ What Next 2020, these are decorative, fun items that are ways for you to spend your disposable income in ways that amuse you and I do not think that you should view them as making moral statements or supporting me for its own sake.

Still! This here’s a set of shirt designs for showing off pronouns of choice and making a bit of funny text along with them.

Here’s an example.


You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

Pride Shirt 2: This Shirt Says Trans Rights

Ho boy, this month is a great time for me to be advertising products eh.

Well, look, these shirts are, as always, made to be fun and decorative. You are not making a political statement by buying my shirts. In fact, if you have Politicking Money floating around, hey, why not uh, hey, why not spend that on people’s bail funds, rather than on my silly shirts.

If you have money that will help you feel less constantly anxious, or you want to buy this shirt because, I don’t know, it’s a work expense or something, hey, cool, go for it.

Here’s this week’s design:

No stickers of this one, because, uh, the sticker would say trans rights, and then I’d need to redo the design. I can do that if you want.

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.


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

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

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Game Making Friction

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am, once again, thinking about friction.

May Shirt: Splat the Rich!

A thing I should know better than to do is make something because someone on Twitter says ‘oh, I need this on a shirt.’ I did it this time and did they buy a shirt? Did they flipptertegibbets. But that’s life.

This was an exercise in playing with masks and layers with a nice set of new paintbrushes that look like spatters, rotation and randomisation, as well as lookaliking fonts and styles! Aslo there’s nothing wrong with using childish axes of engagement to solidify meaningful ideas like ‘gender is chosen’ and ‘the uber-wealthy will kill the planet if they are not removed from their unearned position of privilege.’

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. Particularly, strangely right now, Redbubble are offering it on two-inch badges and on masks.

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

Designing Names

You know what’s really hard?

Naming things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hands And Bags

Been thinking about bag builders lately.

If you’re not familiar, a bag builder is a type of game where you have a bag – an actual, physical bag – that you can’t look into very easily. You put things into the bag, ideally things that are hard to tell apart from one another by touch, and then players draw things out of the bag and check the results that indicates.

In its simplest form the bag builder is a slower, more elaborate form of dice. You have a random distribution of potential outcomes, and players choose one. It’s slower because a dice roll is stunningly quick and you can roll four or five dice at once. Really, dice deserve a special mention here because when you’re rolling dice it’s faster to resolve the four or five dice than it is for the player to process the result.

Bag builders swerve wildly away from dice when you start to think about what kinds of control you have. Now, you can make dice do weird things with probability but generally speaking if the game starts with 1d6, you have a hard time making that dice mathematically behave like 1d8. you can usually go down – odds and evens lets the dice behave like a 1d2 – but you can’t readily go up without getting into bell curves and distribution matrices.

For a bag, though, if you want something to be 1d7 you can just put in 7 options in a bag. That’s a pretty basic use for a bag, just to make a sort of softer dice. It puts the cognition on the ‘roll’ earlier, too – players retrieve the object from the bag, and look at it – the action has stopped, and the result is literally in their hand.

The bag builder being a more ornate and elaborate thing means that it won’t be as good for simple turns and simple actions. I think that a good bag builder wants to draw from the bag, say, once a turn, make it the centerpiece of a turn. Rerolls (putting tokens back and drawing again) are valid, but generally, if a player does something with the bag, that should be the turn, and then the choices come from what to do with what you draw.

Here are a few things I think about doing with bag building mechanics.

  • A game with one common bag, everyone is adding to. The bag contains a signifier token for each player, and a number of other tokens. At the start of the turn, you pull tokens from the bag until you pull one with a signifier for each player, and the remaining non-signifiers are used to trigger game events. This could be used to represent something disastrous – each token claimed from the bag is a monster they have to fight – or it could be somehing good. Maybe the tokens represent customers coming to your shop.
  • A game where each player has a bag, and players contribute tokens to other people’s bags. Maybe this represents cooperation or hindrance – you can put good numbers in other players’ bags to hopefully improve their performance.
  • A game where enemies are stacks of tokens, and damaging them results in dice being put into the enemy bag – which indicates each enemy is having a sudden surge of power as they’re damaged.

Some themes I think I can do with Bag Building:

  • Collaborative creative processes. These are naturally messy. Putting ideas into someone else’s bag so they can gestate on them and then when they come out, it’s not something you can force.
  • Cooking and potion brewing! Throw recipe ingredients into the pot and then pull them out when they surface! This is a place explored by Quacks of Quedlingburg.
  • Space trading! I like this one because travelling from planet to planet gives markets lots of time to react weirdly. It can be that each planet has a standard set of ‘needs’ and the tokens from the bag can introduce new needs, or diminish the demand of old needs, so you have some demands that are consistent and some that aren’t. 
  • Ecological behaviour. Imagine if tokens represent types of animals, say, a food source C, predators that eat them B and predators that eat them A. You pull a handful from the bag, and then see how many A B and C that handful can support.

Try out bags for designs that:

  • Want randomisation but don’t want to keep looking up tables
  • Wants something tactile to take out and put down
  • Wants to customise dize conveniently
  • Wants a building and randomisation system, but doesn’t want tons of shuffling


April Shirt: Timely FF7 Reference!

One piece of content I’ve been enjoying having on in the background while I work this month, inasmuch as I ever can, is Graeme Stark doing a long play of Final Fantasy 7 – the original one. It’s great, he loves the game so it helps to temper my disdain for it. Anyway, one thing that’s been echoing in my head ever since I mis-heard it over my shoulder while he plays is the phrase on this design.

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.

MTG: Mel Candy

I’ve spoken in the past about Magic The Gathering‘s player psychographics, characterisations that the game developers use to describe and discuss the types of players that engage with their game. These archetypes are Tammy, Jenny and Spike, and they also kinda line up with other, similar efforts to categorise gameplay choices from the work of Roger Caillois, immense racist and clown-hater.

In the conversation about player psychographics, one Matt Cavotta introduced the idea of the Vorthos, a type of player who cared about and engaged with the game because of its lore, someone for whom the fiction of the play took paramount presence. In Magic’s case, it kind of needed this distinction because there’s a whole collection of people who engage with the game for reasons that treat the game as a secondary element of the game.

And then, with Vorthos, there was one more name that Mark Rosewater introduced, bringing their player nicknames up to five: Mel.

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March Shirt: Big Mood

What do we have this month? Well, it wasn’t made to be any kind of trend chasing, I just felt like playing with a classic videogame logo, and now we have:

Here it is on a different supposedly unisex model over on Redbubble:

And here it is on the Teepublic ghost.

Like the shirt? Well, you would, wouldn’t you. You can go get it on Redbubble or Teepublic.

Unicorn Co-op

I’ve had this card game in progress now for far too long.

The idea is a game where you’re constructing unicorns with interesting names from two halves. Half the cards are unicorn forequarters, the other half are… well there’s no proper term for them (that I’m going to bother looking up) so we just have to call them what they are. They’re unicorn butts.

Once upon a time, this game started out as a simple, competitive game with two decks; you would play the cards, two at a time, either adding them to your herd of unicorns, or to an opponent’s herd of unicorns. The original idea was that they were just going to be math functions – so some unicorns would add some numbers, some would subtract some numbers. So you could put together a butt with a – and a head with a 4, and give it to your opponent, to give them -4. Honestly, that game is pretty doable and pretty easy – I might even hammer it out as a sort of pattern-puzzle matchy game for under-sixes sometime.

I wanted though to make this game cooperative, though, and since part of the reason to build a unicorn was to give it a funny/silly/goofy name, and if there were some cards with negative effects, that meant there’d be some unicorn name components that were always bad. Had to kick that one in the neck right away.

I’d also started by setting out 26 cards as butts and 26 cards as forequarters, and I know there’s a horse expert reading this and she’s so mad at my terminology. Anyway, in my attempts to redesign this game, I’ve tried to find a way to minimise that number, or maybe expand my options… and with that came a new idea.

The idea is that each unicorn card has a head, and a butt, on either side. At the start of the game, you put all the cards so the same face is up (say the butt, because butts are funny. You split that deck evenly in half, then flip it over, and shuffle them together. Now you have an even number of heads, and butts. This means that suddenly, my 26 head and 26 butt cards are 26 cards, meaning that the deck now has room for more unicorns (yay) and some other cards (which give me room to make a cooperative AI for the game).

This is a simple little mechanistic change of the game’s design, and now I’ve put it down somewhere I hopefully won’t fricking forget it.

Working Out Loud

Recently I was contacted by a blog reader – hi there! – who asked about how I got started, and what it entailed. How I built my following, that kind of stuff. What I told them at the time was that a lot of what I did was spend a large chunk of time trying things and watching as nothing happened.

It’s a real awkward thing to think about but as much as this blog readership isn’t large, it’s still much larger than it started. The economies of scale of blogging I learned about in university and examining Youtube suggest that attention needs to be in the order of thousands of people to be sustainable.

Back when Matt Lees started on Patreon, the Pivot To Video era was happening for gamer media, and that was when EuroGamer was doing videos in a lot of experimental ways. He said that the nature of that model relied on the idea that a video that got ten thousand positive reactions wasn’t good enough, wasn’t sustainable. That was always a thing that nagged at me, because that number was terrifying. I never had a problem with the thing I was making per se, as much as I had a problem with realising that even the best versions of the things I was making was simply never going to be interesting to ten thousand people.

As of right now, the most popular article I’ve ever written is Why Death Note Is Bad, which thanks to some people referencing it on forums, is high up on the list Google Hits for the phrase ‘is death note bad.’ Over six years, it has reached 8,000 views. My next most popular article is No Colour Is Transphobic, and then Amerimanga Covers. Those articles are much more recent, but they’re both sitting around 4,000 and 3,000 views. Now, one trend that’s promising there is that the more recent work is still capable of having high numbers of views!

What this means to me is that that number of ten thousand is simply not something I reach, or maybe ever can reach and that’s kind of okay? I’m alright with that (in part because I have to be). I’m also not saying that there aren’t ten thousand people interested in my kind of writing! I’m saying that my ability to find those people is pretty much just limited to randomly mentioning all the stuff I do.

This also queues into some predictable response things. Look, fact is, if you follow @FreyjaErlings, you’re more likely to click links she shares. That’s something about her audience that I just can’t replicate.

A few years ago I tried doing some Google Drive game development on a public document, where I sat down, and just wrote about things with complete strangers having the ability to comment on the doc as I worked on it. This scared the hell out of me because I was putting a google drive link on the open internet and was afraid that it was going to go weird or I’d wind up disclosing something that would go badly for me. Instead when I launched it, I worked on the doc for four hours and literally nobody ever looked at the document.

Similarly, my Long Live The Queen review scared me because I knew I was being exaggerated and silly (in a way I don’t really do well), and thought maybe it would become a meme and I’d feel humiliated by it. Instead I found that it’d been listened to twice – and by the way, in the intervening six years, it’s been listened to nineteen times.

This is a byproduct of how I try to think about working in public. There’s this idea that as an internet content creator, you’re looking for things you do that you can monetise. Alex Steacy has written about this – where for a lot of content creators, what they’re doing is trying to provide stuff they want to do that you can connect to and enjoy. That means that they play videogames as a job, and it changes the relationship to what they’re doing and that can sometimes mean that they’re left seeing game play as a very challenging task to get into emotionally.

I’m not sure I’m coming at this from the same place. In part because I don’t feel like what I do is in this same kind of attention driven, long engagement space – after all those beautiful people who are paying me to blog and make movies are doing it with no idea on what I’m going to do. Sometimes they get nine thousand words about how Magic The Gathering isn’t like Gacha and sometimes they get a shirt with a Shrek joke on it.

What I do, and what I think of myself as doing is working in public. I am doing things, making things, looking at things for my own benefit as a game designer and media critic, and trying to break down those elements to be workable and useful for me and for others. Oh sure, you might tune in for movie reviews (really? cool?), but largely what I’m doing here is thinking, and working out loud. I’m explaining to you things I’ve learned, and I’m trying to show you the process of how I develop things.

This is something that was important, to me, about working with this blogging space.

I want you to be able to learn from this, even if you are enjoying it.

That’s what works for me.

This isn’t to say that anyone else should be doing it! It’s just there’s this narrative that content creation is about turning love into work. It doesn’t have to be. Some of us, it’s a habit we keep up on as personal practice. Sometimes it’s journaling in private, sometimes it’s yeah, doing things for a sweet dopamine hit of approval!

There are lots of reasons to work out loud.

Two Player RPG Idea

Over on Reddit in February, someone asked about the idea of two player RPGs – the notion of a RPG system where players take turns in the Gamemaster role. That’s all I got – just the basic question of is this a thing?

And well, that was interesting. I thought about it.

The absolute first thought though, was that in the right pair of players, you don’t need anything new or different. Lots of games can be easily adjusted so the challenges can handle a solo character, players can play multiple characters, all those typical ways of dealing with absent players works fine. Barring for games that require voting (and those aren’t that common), there’s nothing that doesn’t already work.

This is a solved problem for players who want to just play D&D and can swap things back and forth with no problem. You could do it super episodic, too! Imagine a Scum & Villainy game that essentially worked like Star Trek: The Next Generation, where each week you swap storyteller to deal with a new thing.

Still, I do see a problem with this: Maintaining suspense and surprise. How do I make sure there are plot elements and narrative beats that handle the give and take of storytelling, and make for a long-term narrative where I can be surprised by things I put into the story without necessarily having stories I laid the groundwork for changed out from underneath me?

While I don’t have a system, I have an idea for a mechanic that can give the game some sinew.

And it involves playing cards.

Wait, wait, don’t go!

Okay, the idea is you start out with a deck of ordinary playing cards. This is important because you want something that’s reasonably replicable where it doesn’t matter if the object goes away. It can be destroyed, it can be damaged, and it can be written on.

This deck of cards is going to be the interaction of elements that each player can use in their section of the story they’re DMing. When you introduce something you want to make important, or when a player indicates in a session that they want to come back to something, the players take an unwritten-on card, write that on a card and put it back into the deck. Then, when the time comes to exchange control of the DMing role, the new DM draws a few cards and sees what stuff in the story is available to them.

This gives you a way to be surprised when things come back, and it takes some of the long term structure away from the players in a way that makes both players uncertain in an interesting way.

You can write more on each card as things happen; you can use this when a plot changes or transforms something, you can edit its card, and shuffle it back in. You can even do ‘trades’ – where a DM may want to ‘save’ something for later.

The cards can be used as action points too to smooth things over – take a few cards off the top of the deck, and the player can use that card to make rerolls, or abrogate special abilities, or survive things they wouldn’t – and then adding those cards to the DM’s pool of plot tools. So you might want to avoid letting a baddy get away so you spend a card to tackle them – but now that card gives another plot point to your DM for later.

Reproducing Pictionary

If you’ve played Pictionary in the past ten years, hold on, just, you know, hold on.

Okay, so I played Pictionary when I was a little kid visiting friends a thousand miles from our house. It was not a great game – I never was that into it, I wasn’t very good at it, and it had a board that you had to roll and move around, which meant there were often long periods where you were watching people do five or ten minute long ‘turns’ while they bickered and argued about the drawings and so on.

Similarly, one thing I try to do now as an adult is think about old games I played, and if I can improve on them. It’s very basic, methodical kind of work: What did or didn’t work about this game? What failed, what succeeded, what needs more attention, what was just always going to be bad? Can these mechanics represent something else? Crucially, when looking at older board games, I ask myself: What can be taken away?

With Pictionary, the idea I had was that the first thing to take away is the board.


You have a deck of cards, they give you secret information, that’s heaps, that’s all you need. You can even use the cards to do something random, but, you don’t even have to. You can make the game about rolling a dice and looking at a card, and right there, you’ve got a rudimentary design.

The idea I belted out was as follows:

  • The game is played with drawing paper and tools, a deck of cards, and a dice.
  • On your turn, you roll a dice, look at a card, and then that card presents you with a number of options, with your number roll giving you a priority.

Each card has seven options on it; one in each of the categories – let’s say they’re like:

  • Person
  • Place
  • Animal
  • Object
  • Action
  • Internet

With another category that says Bail.

You roll the dice, you pick one of the things to draw, and if you draw the thing that the number rolled, the card’s worth bonus points. This way you’re pushed towards an option but not screwed. There’s also the ‘bail’ option where if none of the options are good, you can offer this card to the whole table so everyone can try and draw the ‘bail’ option.

Just like that, I have the outlines for a card game. The timer becomes a problem! But a physical timer, a dice, and a bunch of cards takes up way less space than a big board would and you could fit the whole game in a tiny space, almost Oink Games style! Or you could make the game print-and-play, or even give out a template for people. And if you’re a teacher, you can just use a big ole list of random flash card words where they have to draw the thing, then write the name to show they get what it is! Teaching supplies probably feature whiteboards and markers, so you can repeatedly use the same drawing space over and over instead of paper and pencils!

Would I make this game? No, probably not. It’s not a terrible idea, and it certainly seems doable very easily, and may even sell a few copies, but the nature of it is that it’s just making a shelf filler.


The punchline.

Turns out the copy of Pictionary I played in the 1990s was from… 1985 or so. The great big box, the board, the roll and move? That stuff’s not really part of the game any more. In fact, if I’d looked at a copy of Pictionary from the last ten years, I’d find a game which is just cards, dice, timer, and whiteboards and whiteboard markers.

I choose to think of this as convergent evolution, of sorts, and that’s kind of good. It’s definitely for the best – it’s a way to show that Pictionary with a board can handle losing the board. What’s more, it also shows what I was considering and experimenting with: I wanted to deal with chokepoints and friction. That’s great, I can deal with that.

It doesn’t fix one of the biggest problems with Pictionary, even as it reduces the game design I’d made to a super-simple, tight version that I could probably sell for $15 with hundreds of possible game states (Which seems fair to me). What it doesn’t fix is that if you can’t draw, this game sucks.

Fortunately, Pictomania, by Vlaad Cvhatil, does solve that, by making the drawing and solving concurrent; you draw until you’re as good as you’re going to get, then you do your guessing – and guessing correctly first is more valuable than getting all your work guessed perfectly. This creates a tension for drawing ‘as well as you can’ but being okay when you stop.

Dicebuilder Diary and notes

Custom dice are cool! They’re also expensive to manufacture. They also let you do weird things like have uneven roll pools? That’s neat. If you’ve ever seen the dice in Betrayal At House On The Hill you might know it’s got dice that are numbered 0, 0, 0, 1, 1 and 2 – that’s really mean!

You can do a lot with dice rollers! There’s the town builder Machi Koro, for a famous one, and there’s the set collector Yahtzee, a familiar roll-and-write. You could look at our own Cafe Romantica, where you build a collection of cards that react to the dice you roll. The thing with those games is that even though ‘these cards react to these numbers,’ and it actually works a lot like just flipping cards, by using a dice you can have multiple things respond to the same cause. There’s stuff you can do, it’s all interconnected, all fractal.

I’ve been thinking about this mechanic. Making custom dice is a bit expensive, but exploring an alternate way to do it resulted in me making a thing that I like as a possible space:

In this case, you play the game with a starting d6, maybe one for each player. They roll dice, and, then the numbers rolled result in the cards in those slots firing. It can be set up so that lots of cards are piled up on each number, so you can get lots of effects on single rolls and so on.

I want the building element of the game to take priority over the rolling though. That means whatever the design is, I probably want it so winning and losing isn’t about what the numbers rolled do, but is much more that dice limit your opportunities. We want winning and losing to be about choices you make in the last few turns, not about whether or not you rolled the Dead Dice.

I’m looking at this design and thinking of different flavours and different game sizes.

  • if the game is very small, you probably will wind up with all the cards set up. This might make ‘victory’ about possibly picking a loser  you’re trying to make sure that whatever you roll, you’re not in trouble, and someone else might be. Each card is probably unique.
  • If the game is mid-sized there’s room for more permutations of cards. This might mean that you’re trying to roll combinations of things, possibly to build something else?
  • if the game is big, there’s room for things like faction decks, where each number rolled represents improvements on types of things, or progress or success for groups of enemies or gangs. This could be seen as a sort of economy or electoral game where players are responding to the random actions of an entity like a population or a city.

What I’m thining, looking at this prototype is that I want every player to roll dice at the same time, and then players select a number of dice – so you can ‘leave’ someone with dice that may or may not be appropriate to what they want.

I think there are two games in this engine – a smaller one and a larger one. The smallest one is probably a game that wants to focus on the potential viciousness of rolled dice, a meanspirited thing like You Can’t Win. The larger one wants to have more of a solid theme.

Just some notes and thoughts.

Iron Angel

I tried, hard as I could, to not talk about this this month.

Media is very often, these days, replicable. If I liked Voltron I can tell you to go watch it and usually you’ll find the same show and be able to reference the same text even if you had wildly different responses to it. If I talk to you about D&D or tabletop games, I can talk to you about types of experiences the game makes possible. I’ll sometimes show you characters I built in those spaces, because I can provide you insight into how I did that and what that means.

Once, when writing about Saints Row 3, I remarked that whatever I thought of the game was hard to tease out when I’d had so much fun playing it with my friend Casey. I rated Casey five stars, and the game was just a way to connect there. You can’t download my friend Casey, though, though I’m sure she’d be happy to charge you $15 for the download code.

In this case, in smooch month, I kept circling around how fantastically hard it was to get good, interesting, engaging romantic media in games to talk about, because games do it badly. But if they do it so badly, why is my context seemingly aware of ‘good’ romance that these games aren’t hitting? What’s forming the foundation of my vision of good?

And well, that’s where we get to non-replicable media, and my friends. Specifically, the romance stories I’ve had in RP spaces, especiallythe stories in City of Heroes have been absolutely excellent, and one example of this I want to bring forward is the incredible character Zex, aka Iron Angel.

Zex is a character I’ve mentioned on the blog in the past; she was a neuroatypical character who told other characters she was a sociopath, which led to them assuming that was her neuroatypicality, including me. The last day the game was alive, the player stated that she wasn’t a sociopath – she was just neuroatypical in a different way, and impersonating sociopathy was a way to make other people respect her neuroatypicality rather than having to explain it every time.

Zex has been in a relationship with a character of mine, Cearmaid, pretty much since late 2011. They met, they flirted, they dated, they engaged, they had a breakup, they got back together again, they moved in together, they got married, and they took up careers as superheroes working together and apart to make the city they lived in a better place. Literally all those details are however, plot points worth explaining and expanding on their own, because for example, the breakup happened when a rogue AI created by Zex’s own paranoid internalised dissasociation turned into a global-threatening supervillain that used Cearmaid’s trust in Zex to launch him into space where he crashed into the moon, and that’s one of many plot points.

Zex is interesting. Zex is thoughtful. Zex is fantastically difficult to communicate with. Cearmaid carries around his phone so he can draw diagrams of his ideas. Zex, noticing that he responded to a pretty girl wearing a baseball cap just recently attempted to seduce her husband by wearing multiple hats, because hey, more is better, right? And all this is while she’s also doing her job as a former villain turned superhero in powered armour who flies around punching baddies, saving the day and rescuing people because she has deduced that doing good is the logical thing for her to want to do.

Zex is neuroatypical, has physical disabilities (she has no feet, amongst other problems), is full of anxiety, afraid of dogs and needs comfort, communication and reassurance on a regular basis and yet the relationship between her and Lock has always felt like a meeting of equals, engaging in different ways with a complicated world in which they live.

I love this character, and I am kinda sad that I can’t help you, random strangers, enjoy or appreciate romances – yes, even a het romance! – where the characters involved are interesting, and good, and fun and learning about them is interesting and every day they interact, they get to enjoy one another and engage with one another a little more.

I am blessed to have some truly fantastic RP partners around me, and in this smooch month, I wanted to just share with you an example of how great romance in games can be, when the game lets players create in shared, respectful, engaged spaces.

Smoochy Cardgame Thoughts

I want to play more games about smooches. I however, am not powerless to the whims of a games industry in this regard – I can just make my own, and therefore, I think I should. Through this month, I’ve just been jotting down some notes here about possible ideas in that space. Consider this a peek at process.

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How To Be: Ranma Saotome from Ranma 1/2 (In 4E D&D)

In How To Be we’re going to look at a variety of characters from Not D&D and conceptualise how you might go about making a version of that character in the form of D&D that matters on this blog, D&D 4th Edition. Our guidelines for this kind of project are as follows:

  • This is going to be a brief rundown of ways to make a character that ‘feels’ like the source character
  • This isn’t meant to be comprehensive or authoritive but as a creative exercise
  • While not every character can work immediately out of the box, the aim is to make sure they have a character ‘feel’ as soon as possible
  • The character has to have the ‘feeling’ of the character by at least midway through Heroic

When building characters in 4th Edition it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of different ways to do the same basic thing. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, or even particularly fleshed out, and instead give you some places to start when you want to make something.

Another thing to remember is that 4e characters tend to be more about collected interactions of groups of things – it’s not that you get a build with specific rules about what you have to take, and when, and why, like you’re lockpicking your way through a design in the hopes of getting an overlap eventually. Character building is about packages, not programs, and we’ll talk about some packages and reference them going forwards.

This time, we’re going to try and capture the feeling of gender-flipping Martial Arts Death Machine Ranma Saotome from Ranma 1/2.

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