Category: Making

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

Flowers Can’t Bloom All Year

At this point, according to my very vague stats on the matter, I have been releasing a daily blog post for some time; in 2015, I blogged every day all year, it dropped off at some point in 2016, and I think from 2017 onwards, I just blogged daily and didn’t stop. I have remarked in the past about how I do things on this blog; I have backlogs and themes that help me keep producing. I’m one of those people who likes working on lists, so if I have a bunch of things that need to fit a theme, working on that theme can be very satisfying, and when I don’t find that engaging, I can work on another space afterwards. Part of just maintaining this blog well involves maintaining my engagement with the process.

But if I decide, tomorrow, that I don’t want to write, that’s okay and that needs to be okay.

A turn of phrase I’ve been using with friends who have achieved something then immediately found themselves lacking in satisfaction is – well, okay one thing I say is try gratitude journalling, which none of them have, but after that is flowers can’t bloom all year. Now, one of my friends, a botanist, helpfully pointed out that there are in fact some flowers that bloom all year, mostly in equatorial spaces, but then they went on to point out that one of them technically isn’t a flower, because flower has a fairly specific range of qualities.

We talk about creativity in a lot of numinous, wonderful ways. We describe it in terms of it being enriching and engaging and helping us grow and handle and process and develop and practice. What we sometimes avoid talking about with creativity is the urge, the need to stop.

You don’t need to be constantly creating. I seem to feel, right now, in my life, like I always want to be – I have dozens of creative projects ongoing and I find the task of organising them is lots of fun, and that means I keep wanting to keep cycling from one thing to another thing. But for some of my friends, they try out a creative effort, they make something…

And that’s it.

They’re done.

One day I’ll be done.

One day, I’ll not want to do anything more, and maybe I’ll take a break or maybe I’ll stop.

I don’t like bringing this up often because I think that our general condition is one where people are encouraged to never start, to never try, and to hate themselves for never completing. I hate hate hate it when I make some actionable, tangible advice about overcoming the mental roadblocks of making and realising your projects, some asshole comes along and says ‘or maybe I could repeat the advice everyone is already parrotting.’

Instaed what I want to make clear is it’s okay to stop. It’s okay to stop for a time and it’s okay to just stop.

You’re not bad because you’re not creating.

How To Be: Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist (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 Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist: A Lot Of Different Things.

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Building A Character in City of Heroes

I love building characters in City of Heroes.

This is going to be mechanical, by the way, not narrative – I have lots of views about how to build a character in a shared roleplaying space. This is about how I prioritise stats when I’m building characters in this game.

For those not familiar, City of Heroes characters get a number of abilities that let you do things, and then they get ways to improve those things. This is typically divided into ‘powers’ and ‘slots.’ Slots can hold things that improve things the power do – accuracy, damage, the time it takes to recharge, the duration of effects like stuns or holds – and so powers you want to do lots of things, you’ll give them lots of slots. You can’t just fill them with the same effect because there’s diminishing returns after the first two, which means powers tend to get a little bit of one thing, a little bit of another.

Now, that’s probably all that you’re going to get out of this unless you’ve played the game, because this is a big, complex system. If you really have no idea about it, the rest of what’s coming is going to be gibberish, so I’ve put the useful conclusion to all that here up front:


What we can see then is that – perhaps accidentally – this great big confusing mess of a game, that when you have a lot of systems at work, even if you have a fairly simple, linear method of progression (defeating baddies), there’s still a lot you can do to make the individual choices of a player expressive. Players can build towards their priorities.

Now, you might not be making an MMO, but you might be making a tabletop RPG. If you’re building in the modded space of games like Pathfinder or 13th Age, you’re in a similar space, and that’s when the time comes to look at your own creative efforts rather than necessary in terms of perfect balance, as instead about competing balance. See if you’re presenting players with enough choices that character building is full of interesting choices.

Also, if there’s something players should just have, then just… give it to them.


Now, if you want to keep going, here we go:

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Practicing Making

I’ve talked about how everything you make is  a step towards making the next thing, which is a nice sounding aphorism but recently I’ve found a lot of people with big, ambitious projects. Big ambitious projects are fine if you’re the kind of person who likes doing it, but I find they tend to work against what I think of as good creative practices.

I’m going to use an example here and I know you’re reading this and I don’t want you to be called out, but let’s say your project is a three book series. It’s going to be big and epic and you have visions of these multiple titles and again I am not calling out you, person who is reading this. I am just using this as an example.

The point is, if your project is three books, then it gets really hard to practice. The three books need to be done before you can look at them as a ‘complete’ project, and the sheer time investment in that kind of thing is immense. This is true if your project is a Fire Emblem game or a plane simulator or a video series on the history of the circus. These are not bad things to want to make, but they are all big, and as a direct necessity it’s hard to practice them.

It’s especially hard to practice them if you only want to try doing them.

This is something we sometimes call ‘scope.’ It’s a term used somewhat generically to refer to how big a project is, a sort of idea for how far back you have to be from the project, metaphorically speaking, to get a look at all of it. A short story has a different scope to a short story compilation and a short story compilation a different scope to a novella and so on and so forth.

I recommend the first thing you try to do is make something small. And sometimes, when I recommend this on twitter, someone will try and step up and speak in defense of big projects, which is well-intentioned ‘both sidesing’ but I think it’s actively harmful, bad advice. If you want to work on a giant project and only a giant project, you’re setting yourself a task that’s very hard, possibly impossible, and that means any progress at all feels like no progress. That’s something that depression loves to encourage, a sort of deliberate pursuit of nihilistic failure. It’s numbing.

Sometimes you pursue the giant project because you believe in yourself that much. That’s cool, but it can also be hiding a fear of failure. After all, if you write a short story instead of a book, what if that short story isn’t good? What do you do if you write a short story and you don’t like what you wrote? Or worse, someone else doesn’t like what you wrote? To that I say, hey, were you in a gifted program in school?

Another reason for the giant project is because sometimes you don’t appreciate what’s involved. I can give some numbers out there but people with scope problems often don’t appreciate how to examine or understand scope. If your dream is to write an animated series, you should start by getting involved in animation.

“But I can’t draw!”

So what? Get involved in learning how animation works. Study the topic, look at how animation goes together, learn about things like frame rate and cells and the kind of work scope required for a large project like an animated series. Learn about what a script looks like. Look at storyboarding. Every big complicated project owes some of its origin to a smaller, less complicated version of itself; animation comes from storyboards that come from scripts that come from treatments.

Make the smallest things you can, because the smaller it is, the easier it is to do it again. To practice. To practice again. To keep practicing, because the process of making something big is to make many small parts and to make something good is to practice until you know what good is.

My method, the method I recommend, the method I teach, is to make the smallest possible thing you can consider ‘a thing.’ Then when you’ve made it, you’ll have insight into what you don’t want to do, or why you don’t want to do it that way. And then you make the next thing.

With that in mind, make the first thing something you can make easily enough to get to the next thing.

Blogging Tool – A Schedule!

Hey, do you want to write more?

I write a lot, and you may notice that if you frequent this blog and notice that for the past thousand days or more it’s pretty much always been updated with something new, that hovers around the 200-500 word mark, depending on how well I keep focused on my point aardvark. Well, part of how I keep a schedule of my blog going is having a chart for if I’ve got a post set up for the next day.

I also have ‘events’ each week; two posts that fit a schedule, Game Pile and Story Pile, and they happen on specific week days. I made something for that, which I used to do on my bullet journal, which was great, except for two things I learned the hard way:

  • Tracking one full year in a paper book can get pretty tatty.
  • Any time I misplace my bullet journal, I kind of get paralysed about what to work on next.

With that in mind, for my blog tracking, I decided it was time to set something up that I could access as conveniently as my blog itself, and so, I made a google sheets spreadsheet for this. And since it’s a handy tool, and you can just copy them if you use google sheets: Here!

It’s pretty simple. By giving each month a theme or notes, I can make sure that any articles that don’t necessarily fit a current month may go in a later one that fits it better. By having these trackers on hand I can make sure I don’t do four or five articles on a theme in a month and risk boring audiences that don’t like them. This lets me look at my work overall, for a whole year, and plan ahead.

Just a little tool! Hope it’s useful!

Decemberween – My Patrons!

I launched my Patreon early in 2018, after arguing myself around on it over and over again. There were some ideas I had for it, which did not pan out well, and this year I committed to a much simpler schedule: Micropodcasts for people who paid for them, my blog schedule as normal, one video every month, a major game each year, and as many minor games as I could make.

Largely, it’s seen as polite to keep Patreon stuff ‘in Patreon’ and behind the scenes, and I think I fall into that because it involves money. Also, I don’t ever want to be the kind of person who monitors who is and isn’t my patrons, and just accept at the most base level that anyone who is my patron on patreon is doing it because they like what I’m doing and they’re not doing it as part of a benefits package, and maybe because they want to be part of conversations about my commercial production and being included in the games I’m making as I make them.

That’s it, though, and I think this is important to mention: My patreon patrons are extremely, extremely hands off. I have never had anyone contact me to tell me they’re upset with the money they paid, I have never had anyone tell me ‘as a patreon supporter, I-‘ and I’ve never had the conversation space of my patreon turn into a serious fight over anything, ever.

Largely, the people who are supporting me on patreon, it seems, are doing it because they want to, and their doing so has allowed me to do some things this year I would not have been able to bring myself to do.

What kind of things?

Well, being able to purchase a large number of my own shirts for a gimmick at work where I wore a different Loss Shirt every day, which I’ve already covered. It’s not that I couldn’t afford that, but that I could not bring myself to spend ‘important’ money for what was basically a goofy joke only the internet could appreciate.

I spent over two hundred USD on other people’s creative efforts this year, and some of that did not result in anything getting made. I basically sent some people some stuff, and because my patreon patrons were supporting me, that was able to promote the creativity of others with a safety pad. Some vulnerable people who are shy and did not have a lot money were able to try out creative endeavours without the ability to fail, because my supporters were willing to trust me to distribute some money for that purpose.

Also I got to speak to a lot more artists with the confidence that I could drop some money right there on them, so the conversation didn’t feel like I was wasting their time. That was all really valuable.

My patrons have given me freedom and comfort, even if this project isn’t paying all my bills and I appreciate the way they aren’t making the things I do into this sort of tense, ‘monetise everything I do’ kind of heckscape.

Decemberween: Custom Card Making

I participate on the Custom Magic Subreddit, a place where amateur designers come together to make cards for Magic: The Gathering, and it is a place where, overall, people get the colour pie wrong. But that’s okay, because we’re all amateurs and we’re all having fun.

Now, if you look through my history you’ll see that largely, I am pretty negative, but I have seen cards that I liked and wanted people to see, and so, that’s what this post is about. I thought I’d get all the cards I liked in a year and put them in one master post, but uhhh, so that was a bad idea for a number of reasons. First, Reddit doesn’t archive your personal upvoting history that far (it only shows the most recent 1,000, it seems), and second, I have liked way more than ten or twenty cards this year, and third, some of the people who made those cards have deleted their accounts, which makes it really hard to properly credit them.

Hey, Wizards employees! Stop reading! This is going to start showing custom magic cards, as unsolicited designs! Thank you! I don’t want you or me getting in trouble!

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Decemberween: Amber!

As the year concludes, I thought hey, I should check out my friends’ stuff and show it off because it’s a perfect time for people to look for small weird specific things that they might not realise they wanted until hey, now, time to see it. Anyway, this has meant going to all my friends that I made this year or people I reconnected with (as say might happen thanks to City of Heroes coming back?) and being surprised by the cool things I wouldn’t have known or expected because hey, everyone keeps their business to themselves more or less.

Sometimes this means finding out that a friend is working on a tactical RPG they don’t want to talk too much about in public, and some are making microfiction and some of them are successful prop makers and cosplayers with over ten thousand instagram followers.

Yeah.

That was

That was a surprise.

It’s weird but in my little creative space I’m kind of used to being a microscopic fish surrounded by even smaller fish. Now, I still approached my friend with an attitude of ‘hey, I want to promote your work because I like you and is that okay’ and then found out that the reach I was extending to my friend is pretty much meaningless to her by the kind of numbers she can do just waking up of a morning.

Anyway, I met Amber this year, and we got to hang out and play superhero games and talk about our pets and her work schedule lines up well with mine and so, in a very natural, comfortable way, we just wound up hanging out a lot, and turns out, I think she’s super neat and she sure tolerates me. And if you want you can go check out her cosplay instagram and prop store, which I normally would then go on to tell you is great or cool because something or other, but uh, nope, turns out that I am way out of my depth here and she’s doing this as her main source of income.

So that’s cool! I made a cool friend! She’s helped me find my feet in some social spaces I’d normally withdraw from, we’ve punched Nazis together, and helped each other consider various logistical challenges of our workloads. Go check her stuff out!

Decemberween: Microfiction Experiments!

Okay, so what’s Microfiction? Microfiction is fiction, but smol, and oh hey we’re done. But seriously, Microfiction is fiction made using some inherently limited medium, stories that want to be able to fit in a tiny space, or in a medium that forces a smallness.

It’s something that you may not realise if you don’t spend your time examining mediums instead of media, but the size of a page changes the way stories on that page feel, and readers and twine games and webpages have got us re-examinign this whole space all over again. The format I’m focused on for here is twitter microfiction, where your natural unit of story is a single tweet. You can thread them together, like pages, but the breaks between tweets is part of the form that you use. There’s this whole thing here where if I was a better read narratologist I’d be able to say something like the narrative morpheme but hell with that.

Two of my friends are big into making Microfiction, with my friend Cae even compiling a book of Microfiction this year, while still releasing a bunch on twitter. My other friend Jade, and by other friend I mean she’s the other friend I brought up at first, not that I only have two friends, but if I did only have two friends, these two would be pretty good choices, point is, Jade also makes microfiction.

Microfiction is basically this whole way of telling a story that we normally reserve for something the size of a joke. It’s interesting and it’s challenging and it’s a really good way to get into the habit of telling small evocative stories that cut away every part of what they’re trying to do in as few words as possible.

Decemberween: Brinkwood

Okay, so around this time each year I and my friends sit around and discuss a weekend game of D&D that we’ll play when they come around. It’s a highlight of my year, even if it lands – typically – smack dab during GDQ, meaning I miss a bunch of the celebration at the end of that event. But that’s not what’s important.

A few years ago, I proposed for this event, to my friends, a game with the short pitch of Robin Hood vs Vampires. The idea got a bit of meat on it, and I served it to my friends, and we wound up playing something else.

But it got a name.

The name it got was Brinkwood: Blood of Tyrants.

 

 

I threw this name out there on the internet at one point because I was happy with the logo I made for the game even though nobody was actually super interested in it. And then Leastwise saw it.

My friend Leastwise, aka Erik the Bearik (and he’ll come up again later this month), saw this pitch, and straight up asked if he could have it. Or more specifically, he had his own idea inspired by this idea, and he asked if he could use my logo.  What resulted is a game that’s been streamed, played by multiple groups, run at cons and may even get to be a major project from the San Janero Co-Op. It is amazing work, and it has all these great, thoughtful pieces at the root of it, like addressing the philosophical vision of what trauma means in Blades in the Dark. The game seems to have coined the term Castlepunk, the idea of ‘hey, that kind of mish-mash of medieval-seeming things we all associate with general fantasy without getting into a long argument about what really counts as medieval.’ It’s great and it’s cool, and you get to adorn these twisted wooden masks with fae blessings on them as you go out on missions to drink the rich.

Time to time when talking about the game, he’ll mention me, as it relates to this idea because I mean it kind of works as an origin story, it’s as good a place to get started. But I need to stamp a stake in the ground right here: This is Erik’s idea. It’s 100% his idea and all of this beautiful, thoughtful, engaging, exciting and creative writing about this idea is his. All I did was make a logo and a name and he went ‘oh, I would do X with it.’ Part of what excites me about this is it’s a kind of fanart? I had an idea, I put it out there and someone else who was inspired by it was able to create with it and make their own thing, and I get to see my little logo become something amazing.

You can go check out the playtest kit over here, on itch.io, and please, I recommend you do.

November Shirt: Do Not @ Me

Look, sometimes the most important thing you can offer, with your clothes, is clear messaging about what you feel and what you think about people messaging you. I made this shirt inspired by Dr Laevantine’s seminal pinned tweet of philosophy:

Welcome to my book of philosophy, “Maybe Don’t;” it has one doctrine, where you fucking don’t (Laevantine, Twitter, 2017)

Here’s the design: 

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How To Be Hilda From Fire Emblem Three Houses (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.

The rules for these posts are going to be standard and yes I am writing something that’s going to be the boilerplate that becomes the core of how all these posts are going to get made going forwards, but here we go anyway:

  • 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, to give you a place to start.

Another thing to remember is that 4e characters tend to be more about collected interactions of groups of things – it’s less 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.

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Reviewing My Own Loss Shirts

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

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

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

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

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“It was as wide as it was long,”

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

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

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

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

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

Okay okay okay, but what brought this on?

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

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

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

Half-Elves (But really Elves)

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

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Making Draft Complicated To Simplify Draft

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making For

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

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

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

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

That urge is very common and it works for me.

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

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

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

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

Hunter’s Dreams – Defining the Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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October Shirt II: Inside Eyes

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

Here’s the design:

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

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

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

The Wandering Want

You procrastinate much?

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

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

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

Wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

October Shirt I: Hunter’s Mark

This month, our shirt design is a little bloody

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

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

Here’s the design:

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

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

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

September Shirt: Byleth Ribbons

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

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

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

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MGP: Time To Grow

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

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

Things take time.

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

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

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

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

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

Fact is, not everyone is checking twitter actively.

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

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

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

Carthage

I have a strange love for losers.

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

I think about the people that lose against empires.

I think about Carthage.

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

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

Just forgotten.

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

That Hannibal is going to happen.

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

Hannibal happens.

Three Games I’d Like To See

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

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

1. Roanoke

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

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

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

2. Theatre

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

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

3. Solo Mystery Card Games

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

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

 

Present Framing

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

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

Card One

Card Two

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

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

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

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

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

August Shirt: Subject Outline Shippendon

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

Here’s the design:

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

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

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

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

Making Magic (In Games)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give It Time To Cook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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