Story Pile: Odds & Ends

Header image source: pixiv, by @maguro8989

Today, in Australia, as this article goes up, it is March 9. In Japanese, you can pronounce three ‘mi’ and you can pronounce nine ‘ku’ – meaning that the name ‘Miku’ can be seen as 3-9 – or the 9th of March. Inasmuch as Hatsune Miku, the cybernetic girl, the meme, the idea, the artistic influence and movement of artwork unto herself could be said to have a day, this is the one that people have chosen and so, it is the day we’re doing this.

Now, one might point out, somewhat accurately, that as someone who does not listen to Vocaloid music or play Vocaloid games, it’s a bit odd for me to talk about Hatsune Miku, and you would be right, but after my Touhou project article last year, it seems that that y’all don’t need me to be on the inside.

Miku is a busy lady. She’s a creative tour de force, having authored the Harry Potter books in the 1990s but not the last one, having created the game Minecraft before selling it to Microsoft. She’s also responsible for the hit manga Rurouni Kenshin, and her influence on classic rock from the 70s through the 80s is absolutely unparalleled. When you look back at the groundbreaking work of literature throughout the early 20th century and a number of philosophy texts, Miku is there, and so on and so forth all the way down until you reach the earliest texts showing Miku saying 光よあれ。” It seems that almost anywhere you look, Hatsune Miku is there, just a few steps away, being the person responsible for something you love.

There’s two very big things expressed in this very tight little meme, though. The first is that the question of authorship of a lot of these things involves a sort of painful maneuvering around part of our culture. These are important works, and once you participate in culture, questions of ‘where did this come from’ tend to follow along quickly. Miku’s work is important because it lets us talk about the origin of these things without needing to engage with the worst elements of related people. It signals to the person who asked how the topic is fraught, a sort of all-purpose social guardian. We’re not going to talk about where this came from, it says, because you don’t need to know about why Hatsune Miku made this.

The second is that crediting Miku with the creation of some work is a deliberate effort to decouple an artist from their work in a way that deprives them of the work’s glory. It’s actually really interesting because we live in a society of ownerships, with ideas and expressions being seen as ‘belonging’ to people even if they don’t necessarily have any way to represent that ownership. It’s a system of prioritised ownerships too – Emma Watson is not seen as owning Hermione, despite the fact that she had to actualise and formalise the mannerisms and tone of voice of the character, had to be capable of not only saying her lines but of occupying her identity for ten years. The words coming out her mouth were the result of Emma’s work and a director’s work and a acting coach’s work and a voice coach’s work and a room full of scriptwriters’ work and a story editor’s work and a language editor’s work and eventually, Hatsune Miku’s work, which itself was incarnating the work of other stories, of other conversations, of other people’s stories and affect. Yet despite all the work those people do on the project, it’s seen as inappropriate for any one of them to claim any ownership of the work, as if those who do the work are vessels for the work.

This vision of the conception as ownership and the creation as meaningless is really interesting when you remember just how many assistants even ‘lone’ creatives tend to have. When you look at how we prioritise ideas of singular creative vision to render an artwork as legitimate (which is kind of the root of auteur theory, in which a bunch of privileged narrow dorks believe that the product of privileged narrow dorks is better than anyone else).

It’s kind of like a big lever, wedging away creative media in a mass production culture away from the idea of sole arbiters, the ownership of Disney and the control of individuals.

What makes this all suitably ironic and weird then is that Miku is a corporate-designed character made by a company to sell a product that is at its heart about letting you make mass-produced media through their lens of what she should be able to do. That’s weird, and what makes it extra weird is the way that this blatant example of extremely cynical corporate product engineering has become a symbol for rejecting bad people’s right to be forgiven their badness by their involvement in an important work. The question sort of follows upon that didn’t Hatsune Miku start pre-cancelled? Isn’t she, by dint of being a corporate product for control and ownership of art, already a milkshake duck?

I mean sure.

I don’t care though.

Hatsune Miku is a character and a brand; she’s an image and she’s trademarked. Hatsune Miku is a character owned by a company, and they can license her appearance and use it in advertisements and she’s really popular, and she has a devoted fanbase that love her for reasons that aren’t necessarily related to that brand. That can make all the things that Miku does feel a bit… weirdly… bootlickery, where she’s this AI Girl that The Company is letting you fall in love with. It would be completely legitimate to point out that Crypton Future Studios made and sell the image of a cute anime girl that they know you like, and that’s why she hocks pizza and pocky and bowling and whatever else. She’s an icon, a marketing image.

Right?

But that’s not what Vocaloid is, not really – it was made by a Barcelonan research program in association with Yamaha back in 2004. What Miku is, in a sort of general legal sense, is an instrument. It isn’t that you’re using Vocaloid programs to make her music, it’s that the Vocaloid itself is an invention and the programs are ways of accessing that invention. The technology was originally developed to sell to professional musicians as a way to compose consistent vocals, demonstrate performances and generally streamline production for music. It wasn’t meant, in development, to be the thing it became.

What has ensued is phenomenal, in the literal way. The release of this tool into the wider world has resulted in people who may have a song to sing, an idea for words to have some way to say it that they didn’t before. Maybe they’re shy. Maybe they hate their voice. Maybe they’re unvoiced. Maybe the voice they have isn’t the voice they want. Maybe they’re too afraid to say what they need to say themselves. Whatever the reason, Miku’s voice is there, willing to hold your words, and to bear the criticism for them.

With that in mind, then, I just want you to listen to this song, Odds and Ends, about how Miku knows that people don’t have to like her voice, but she is willing to sing the words you give her.

So please let me sing
With your own,
your very own words

I love this song, I think it is beautiful, and I like the way it makes me feel. I like the way it sings about growing courage through making things, and I like the way the performers hide themselves, to focus the story of the clip around Miku and the little robot friend. I like the notion of the helpful voice that’s willing to help you create art by shielding you from one of those powerful barriers of embarrassment.

Yes, she’s a thing you can buy. Yes, she sells pizza. But Hatsune Miku made Hatsune Miku and everyone who lends their words to Hatsune Miku makes Hatsune Miku. That it’s 3-9, or Miku day, you can pronounce three ‘san’ and nine ‘kyuu’, which means that this is both Miku day, and a day for Sankyuu (‘thank you’).

And thanks, Hatsune Miku.

I really like all those books on Magic tricks you wrote.


Incidentally, all the references for this come in part from research inspired by RedBard’s The Advertising Of Hatsune Miku. Whenever she mentioned something I didn’t understand, I googled it, and that’s how I have this motley collection of what the fuckery.

 

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.

Right?

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.


Now.

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.

Game Pile: Sushi Go

Sushi Go is a Gamewright card game defined by a charming visual aesthetic of cartoon sushi pieces going around the table as a sushi train. Each turn, you take a piece from the sushi in front of you (your hand), and pass the rest of your cards to the next player, representing a rolling line of sushi that you can pick and choose from to cultivate a plate of complementary flavours. There’ll be some things you don’t quite want as much, some things you enjoy, and in the end, the stakes for winning or losing are all very low.

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Just How Bad Is The US State Flag Problem?

I time to time do flag threads on twitter, which are great for the format of twitter, which is fantastic for the framing of ‘here is a picture, now I will be mean to that picture, and as you scroll, I will do it again.’ Blog posts about flags tend to be a bit more laborious, because I feel the need to provide contextual explanation, which, you know, that’s not a bad thing, but it does change the tone.

If you’ve paid attention to me talk about flags, yeah, a bunch of this is going to sound familiar, but I feel the need to make a primer.

When you start to talk about a problem in a group, it’s very easy to start making concessions for that group. In the context of the US State Flags, there are fifty of these suckers, and fifty of anything means it’s just naturally, intuitively easy to think ‘oh hey, surely this isn’t better or worse than that.’ The problem that arises is that when it comes to flag design principles, there are three very simple rules that you can follow.

  1. No text
  2. No fine detail
  3. Limited colour palette – three to five colours

And for Americans, we can add a new extra rule:

  1. No confederate flag stuff

Now, is South Carolina’s floppy mop better than Washington’s woodcut? yeah, probably, but it’s still a fine detailed flag. Having fewer mistakes than the other doesn’t mean it doesn’t have mistakes. And these mistakes are the kind of mistakes that simply gets a design a failure. Go back, start again.

A lot of these flags weren’t designed with these things in mind – in fact if you dig into the history of a lot of them they weren’t designed by people who make flags at all, mostly being the result of state lawmakers who wanted to try and leave a mark on the state, or graduate some existing element of the state’s iconography into the big leagues. Very few of them have been seriously reviewed and a number of them are influenced more by Chamber of Commerce members in the state than anything else, which if you don’t know them, they’re kind of like social clubs for local corporations. Not great.

If you take this list of sins, and remove every single flag that breaks one of the rules, this is what you get:

Out of 50 state flags, there are seven that don’t break one of those major rules, by featuring either confederate imagery, text, fine detail or a too-deep colour palette.

This is a problem that gets worse. When I did my flag thread by city flags in America, I had to invent a new category for flags that weren’t just bad because they broke one of those rules, but because in addition to the rule breaking, they broke those rules to create something awful. There were a whole category of flags in the US like Belen’s old flag:

This thing looks like it was made in Corel Draw. It’s not just fine detail but it’s fine detail you need a clipart library to replicate.

This is what I mean when I talk about American state and city flags being bad: So many of them are so bad they need multiple categorical levels of types of failure to make sure I can convey that I’m not just being randomly mean to things that don’t meet my personal aesthetics, but that they are doing things that push them into the realm of inventing new mistakes.

Meanwhile if you’re curious, hey, Belen updated their flag, to this:

This flag is better, but it still breaks the rules.

Bonus: It’s being protested because it’s promoting religious iconography.

cool flag work, Belen.

The Epic Level Handbook (3E)

When it comes to D&D books, you’re talking about what amounts to academic reference material. That’s not a slam on the game, of course – I’m not objecting to the games or the playability of the game, as if they’re now these dusty tomes that are only meaningful in a sort of hypothetical framework. It’s more that the books are literally designed to be reference material for a specialty field. These books are dense. That can present a challenge in giving someone who isn’t already versed in the game a way to understand that book. Do we talk about specific chapters? A point by point analysis? Do we look at just an excerpt?

I think in this case, at least for now, what we want to talk about here is an overview of the Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition Epic Level Handbook.

This book is a punchline.

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Recognising Your Limits Of Knowing

This one’s going to feature some chatter from me as someone in a privileged position talking about people who lack that privilege. Just a heads up.

Recently I did a video article, where I mentioned that the idea that the main character of Fire Emblem 3 Houses could be read as autistic. At the time, I mentioned this was something I’d absorbed off other autistic friends and even mentioned one of them by name.

In the same week I recorded that audio, I introduced a early-transition trans girl friend to the idea of doortitting, where early on in transition, many trans girls misjudge the weight of doors and whack themselves in their extremely sensitive chests in a way that can be super painful and rough.

In neither case are these my experiences; all I’m doing is giving voice to things I’ve learned and heard from multiple other sources, and I try to make sure when I do these things I’m making it clear that I’m speaking of things I learned. There’s a gap between knowing and learning, after all.

Dara O’Briain in one of his comedy sets once related a story where an incensed Christian got mad at him for making jokes about Catholics, but that he didn’t have the courage to make jokes about Muslims. Dara’s response was that he wouldn’t tell jokes about Muslims because he didn’t know anything about them, and neither did his audience – there was literally no way to make a meaningful or funny joke from that position of complete ignorance, and admitting that ignorance was important and powerful, and it highlighted to me at the time the idea of how people are sure they know things when they don’t really. He then related a string of nonsense that may or may not be related to actual, obscure Muslim traditions and the point of the bit is I don’t know what he’s talking about.

There’s stuff I don’t talk about because I don’t know about it. I don’t talk to a lot of black women, for example. I can read black women’s work and I have indeed done so, learning amazing things about what Robin Boylorn calls blackgirlness, but that’s reading from an academic source. That’s not ‘my friend talks to me and I absorb culture through them.’ This means I’m typically resistant to commenting on black women’s issues except in the broadest way that hey, we treat black women real bad, that sucks, let’s stop doing that. When it comes to trans dudes, I talk to fewer of them than I do to trans women. Ace and autistic people are more common in my sphere, and that means I often think about the concerns they raise.

I think it’s important, and very healthy, to work out what it is you don’t know much about, even if not to fix that because you don’t want to approach friendships with an air of ‘You are my research assignment who will make me less ignorant of say, Southeast Asians,’ but just so you can be comfortable and confident admitting two crucial and important things:

I learned this from…

And

I don’t know.

These are invaluable tools for keeping your mind working well. Connect what you know to the people who did the work, and admit when your knowledge fails you.

The other thing is, and this is very important, even if in single direction relationships like where you’re reading a twitter feed of someone who doesn’t talk to you (like a big name activist or the like), is try to ensure you have a plurality of voices of types around you. When you listen to one black person, one gay person, when you’re not listening to marginalised voices but a marginalised individual, you’re making it harder for you to get interesting, meaningful, nuanced perspectives on these groups.

And when your media feed is one trans woman, you’re going to get that one trans woman’s take, and that, as we’re seeing, has led to some really rough stuff when people who listen to one trans women ignore all the other trans women who disagree.

Story Pile: In the Shadow of the Moon

Okay, so we have to establish up front, and this is important, that talking about what’s going on in this movie is going to involve spoilers. And just by telling you there are spoilery topics at work in this movie, you’re immediately going to have reason to go ‘oh what about X or Y’ and you may fear, in some way, that your enjoyment of this movie is spoiled, because there’s something really thoughtful, and clever, and cool in this story that you’re going to have to now feel is somewhat tainted, somewhat weaker and I may have, as it were, spoiled that for you.

Good news: You don’t have to worry about it, because this movie suuuucks.

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Round Friends!

Mid February, I ran a set of polls attempting to consider exactly what Pokemon could be considered to be round. The premise was pretty simple: if you were limited to a gym leader whose theme was round pokemon, what were your options, really? And if you could do that, would what you got have a chance of being competitive? By what standard? Is there a power trend connected to roundness?

I had some hypothesis ahead of time. First, I thought that a round Pokemon team would have a lot of slow, tough pokemon, and probably would be biased towards water. But that’s not scientific, that’s not a science. That’s just umming and ahhing! That’s guessing!

The problem is that roundness is really subjective, and while I could make the judgment calls, it’s probably easier to have a lot of self-styled experts vote. That way, no roundness is my opinion, it’s all a collective take from a larger group. There are eight hundred Pokemon, though, so asking for all of them was just too much work and people would lose stamina quickly. That meant making a general selection, and letting votes sort out which things did or didn’t belong in the group.

I’d need to make sure to present as many options as I could, to make sure that I wasn’t excluding something I consider an edge case, and let the voting do the elimination for me. Also, this would eliminate things from the group that didn’t belong, but it couldn’t bring things into the group I hadn’t mentioned.

The original list and votes is available here, in this twitter thread, and once I had that done, I made an excel spreadsheet to put together that information in a usable form. Specifically, I wanted to make sure I dropped all the ‘neutral’ votes in case there were some votes that were swayed by that one way or another, and I wanted to know which Pokemon got the most yes votes, even if they didn’t necessarily have the largest percentage of yes votes.

Twitter polls degrade over the course of a thread; I expect that the earliest pokemon to vote on would get the most votes, and therefore probably the most contentious opinions. For comparison, in this thread, the Poke that got the most votes (Ditto) got 275 and the Poke that got the least (Phione) got 108, meaning more than half people didn’t reach the bottom of the thread.

Finally, I had to have some kind of a cutoff. My notion is that if a Pokemon got more than 50% ‘yes’ votes on its roundness, it was round. I didn’t want to define roundness, but would rather let roundness be extrapolated from the vote. This limit then presented a barrier between ’round’ and ‘not round,’ a roundary if you will.

What did we end up with?

Well, we got a graph.

In our list of 56 pokemon, 28 were considered below roundness, and mostly the Pokemon that are round are very much considered round. The grouping that hang around the middle are Pokemon with what looks like a reasonable degree of contention; after all, Donphan is considered round, and Magnezone isn’t. Corsola is comfortably Very Round (72%) while Cloyster is much more contentious (55%), but the two have very similar silhouettes. Aegislash’s primary defining visual element is a circle, while Donphan is an elephant, yet the former is ‘not round,’ and the latter is. Donphan does roll up in a ball, but neither Miltank nor Scolipede crossed the roundary, and Donphan did.

Similarly, Jumpluff is almost the roundest pokemon voted on (99.2%!) and Weezing is similarly heavily round (91%) despite the fact that neither of them are even vaguely spheres – they’re made up of spheres stuck together.

Some traits of roundness then, by observation:

  • Smiling! Pokemon with visible faces that smile seem to be Round
  • Face-as-body! If your whole body is occupied by your face (Corsola, Glalie, Cloyster style), you seem to be seen as round
  • Limbs are either/or. Primeape and Snorlax have limbs, and are round, but Miltank has limbs and it’s not.
  • A round feature isn’t enough. Wailord, Magnezone and Aegislash are all ‘not round’ despite having that absolutely being the dominant shape of their bodies

Now, you might wonder to yourself, where’d this idea even come from? Well, I went and did some personal archaeology wondering about where I got the question of ‘what would a team of roundybois look like,’ and it turns out it was this tweet from one Sav Wolfe, from back in 2018. Yes, I apparently keep thinking about tweets a long time after they pass.

February 2020 Wrapup!

Smooch month draws to a close, and you know, while I found it very hard to produce content this month, the last few days rounding out content for it was a lot of fun, especially when I got the video made and uploaded (which is typically the last thing I do each month, to give myself as much time as possible to react).

Articles this month have been lots of fun, too! I really like my piece on Poison Ivy, which it turns out was super timely because shortly before it went up, DC Comics tried to No Homo the statue of Harley and Ivy they made and sold, so, you know, weird, cowards. I did an article about ways you can be a high-Charisma character in 4e D&D without necessarily just being a sorcerer, and that was fun to write too. Also, the article I did about how clingy Planeswalkers could be made me laugh and I think the targeted audience thought it was funny. Also, finally, I did a serious piece on the roll to seduce that’s a thing in D&D and discourse around same. It’s a really interesting topic!

This month’s shirt is dedicated to Karen. And Casey. And a demon who knows who she is. Really a lot of my friends seem to be happier with the idea of biting or punching me. Weird.

Annnnnd then there was this month’s video! Which was a really, really big one and the size of it made it hard to mix up techniques. Still, I was very happy with the kind of content, the fact it was asked for by friends on twitter, and that I had fun talking about a lot of different and interesting things while just approaching the idea of hey is this Fire Emblem character hot?

And personal life stuff? I got to spend a lot of time with my family, who I love heaps; I got to spend time with Fox, who I love heaps; and this month, the summer rains have hit and that means the oppressive heat is sometimes mixed with gentle, sprinkling rain.

I’m doing okay. And okay yes part of that is punching through this month’s difficult workload elements (Smoochy games are so hard y’all), but now I’m looking at two months ahead of me and they’re pretty exciting.

Onward!

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.

Story Pile: Havana Daydreamin’

I haven’t tried to hammer these Jimmy Buffett albums around the themes of the months as they come up. They’re just going to happen as they happen and things can move and adjust around them, whatever.

Still, this is an album with a bit of a theme that fits the mangled, strange ways I wound up approaching romance, and thankfully, I like to think it did some good, following on the heels of Come Monday from earlier.

When I first found Havana Daydreamin’ it was a busted, tan coloured tape that had been living in dad’s car, a place I didn’t spend any time hanging around until later in my life when I wanted to hide from the evening of loneliness that was church. I was cleaning dad’s car for a dollar, and I found this, in his tape collection. For that reason it’s always felt older to me, like this is somehow primal Jimmy, that this is Jimmy Buffett from before all the other, ‘better’ songs I knew.

The elephant in the room of this album is The Captain and the Kid, a song Jimmy Buffett ostensibly wrote about his grandfather, a sea captain who talked to him and helped him grow up and taught him things and then, as people are want to do, died. Remember that at this point I’m a cultist, I think that people who die are going to hell if they’re not going to basically our church, and so the mourning sadness of this man missing his grandfather stabbed me.

The song is great. It’s sad and it’s serious and it’s that Jimmy Buffet nostalgia turned to a deeper kind of sadness than just ‘hey, things from when I was a kid are gone.’ It’s beautiful and it made me reflect on how my grandfathers both died before I was born. I remembered actually resenting my life for that – that maybe if there were other men in my life than my father maybe I could learn useful things, maybe I could feel less afraid all the time.

There’s some real tour music, too – Kick it in Second Wind is an absolute coke binge of a song, This Motel Room and Big Rig are all just life-on-the-road story songs, and they’re fine. I actually ran a motel for a while and I remember always hearing This Motel Room as I went about my job, that and Vacancy by Harry Chapin. Which, uh, that song is also great, in a different way.

There are a few more story songs here than I normally expect out of Jimmy Buffett albums. You have songs like Woman Goin’ Crazy on Caroline Street, Havana Daydreamin’, Cliches, and Something So Feminine About A Mandolin and they’re all pretty good, salted with varying degrees of the Jimmy Buffett template of lots of alcohol and or drugs. Of them, I do prefer Cliches, which tells the story of two people who are definitely a pair of kombi-van hippies and how they’re happy and having fun with their lives anyway. What I love about this song I think, these days, is how it’s so incredibly of its time. The couple in this song are now absolutely a pair of stoner grandparents who never officially got married and still live in that trailer.

That’s the thing that I think stuck with me the most about this. There are some people here who aren’t very original. They’re not very remarkable. But they’re together and they like one another and they didn’t need their love to be agonising or astounding. They’re just happy.

Is there anything on this album to compare to He Went to Paris or West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown? No. But it’s a fun album full of low-key crime and a lot more drugs and fun than A-1-A and it’s got a lot more energy when it bothers to wake up.

Karmic Twin

Okay, I said I’d only do a few 3.5 posts a month, so this one’s going to be a quickie. Back in that day, there was a special crop of feats you could get that you could take at level 1, which were made to try and give a character a feeling of their ‘background.’ These feats were first trialled in Dragon magazine, then a few were tested in the Player’s Guide To Faerun (that horny setting I talked about earlier in the month), and one source that really went hard on them was the Oriental Adventures and Rokugan sourcebooks.


Now wait, hold up, let’s just mention something here because if I don’t bring it up, someone will huff their cheeks and go ahah, gottim. Look, Oriental Adventures is the label on a door behind which you can find yikes, yes, of course, obviously. Doesn’t have to be, we have room for potential here, I really like this setting and stuff, there’s lots to like, but let’s not get caught up there.

Because the really funny thing here is a player behaviour, based around a single ‘Background’ feat.


In Rokugan, a General Mish Mosh Of Asian Cultures setting, you had Ancestor feats instead of Background feats, and they tied to historical lore characters and that was kinda cool as a way to encourage players who wanted access to mechanics to be aware of the lore of the setting. Good idea, good move, do that in your settings.

Anyway, one of the Ancestor feats was a Scorpion clan background feat, Karmic Twin.

Karmic Twin is a feat that is pretty gonzo on the face of it; you get effectively 4 extra points of Charisma for most non-spellcaster purposes, you get the ability to track or find a single person without any help and oh yeah, if nobody else in the party is your karmic twin the party gets an NPC whose story is tied with yours.

Leadership was one of the most powerful feats you could get, because it’d give you an NPC that was basically 2 levels below you and that’s an enormous amount of utility. Power, maybe, but just having someone who could synergise with you under your control was really strong. Karmic Twin gave you the same thing at level 1. Sure, some DMs might use it to inflict a lifelong enemy on you (and if they did, the charisma boosts were probably reasonable as a trade!), but here’s the thing.

My players used Karmic Twin and its cousin feat Sons of Thunder a lot. And every time, what they used it for was not for power reasons – the players overwhelmingly didn’t care about the mechanics of the other character.

But they all used them to get hot boyfriends.

Let your players have hot boyfriends if they want ’em. It doesn’t hurt things and the stories are more fun with players getting things they like in them.

Poison Ivy

Recently I glibly stated on twitter that it’s interesting how DC Comics’ enviromentally-minded supervillain Poison Ivy has largely remained unchanged over time and yet in the process has become less and less of a villain. This is interesting in the same way that the Planeteers have remained exactly as embarrassing as they were but somehow the idea of getting kids to care about the environment seems a lot more worthwhile than my cynical parents regarded it.

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Game Pile: Cute Demon Crashers

Porn gets a bad rap.

It’s weird for a term we wield so freely. We talk about pornography, the porn industry, we use ‘pornographic’ as an adjective for something fundamentally unsettling, and there’s the way we use porn as a term for all-purpose ‘kind of disgusting’ term, like a positively pornographic sum of money.

I’ve used that phrasing, I know I have.

Porn also gets appended to describe things like photography of nice landscapes or photos of good food or bubble wrap, and as I discussed in my examination of Tickled last year, there’s also a bunch of stuff that we file as definitely not porn that absolutely is porn (for the right people) and that complicated relationship creates a space where all those systems for controlling pornography can be leveraged against people who didn’t expect it.

Infamously, we don’t even have a description of porn, really. You know, ‘I don’t know what it is but I know it when I see it.’ I’ve even referred to stuff this month – The Knight Before Christmas – as ‘comfort pornography.’

Personally, when I talk about pornography what I mean is media that seeks to maximise an indulgent element of the media experience, and is willing to sacrifice all other elements to do so. And Cute Demon Crashers is a porn game.

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4E: Harnessing Hotness

Alright we’re going to talk about some base assumptions about character building in Dungeons & Dragons and they’re going to relate to hotness. I’m deliberately leaving this super ambiguous, because hotness is always relative and you get to decide the ways in which you’re hot, but it’s a common, reasonably accepted shorthand that in D&D, if you have high charisma, you’re appealing. Stats are flexible, your flavour is your own, everyone’s character can devise their own explanation for their abilities, but if you want to play a character who’s really hot, and want that hotness to be mechanically obvious, one of the easiest and most commonly accepted ones is high charisma. This is the place we’re starting from.

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AceMR

As a person who participates in and enjoys ASMR, I have one hobby that involves throwing my potential free time into Youtube’s algorithm. ASMR is an interconnected web of media space where Youtube has managed to put together an actual reasonably robust recommendation model. If I stumble into a Korean ASMRtist’s videos, and watch all the way through, I’ll wind up with three or four other Korean videos recommended to me. If I trend towards games or relaxing play video ASMR content, I will get more of that.

This can mean that like a cake, you can cut into ASMR and see a broad cross sections of types, and one type I find I really enjoy are ASMR with some degree of narrative or unreality to the fiction. I don’t know why exactly, maybe it’s just the sheer novelty of it, but I’ve watched a plague doctor mall cop compliment me in my taste on Slayer albums multiple times.

The nature of ASMR tends to be viewer focused; typically if you want to do ASMR narrative, given that part of the effect is personal and can be the result of particularly specific engagements, your best options for a narrative is to do something second person.

Oh and uh, yeah, second person narratives violate the NAP I guess.

Anyway, moving on from that, second person narratives being common in ASMR, and ASMR being usually comfort, intimacy, or care oriented means that there is a world of ASMR content that’s designed as boyfriend or girlfriend roleplay. I haven’t yet found any enby ASMRtists (and hey, if you are an enby ASMRtist, please, hit me up, I’d like to promote your work as best I can!), but I assume that kind of thing is out there too, built around the idea that the narrator/performer is your partner, and they’re helping you sleep, or helping you relax, or just chilling out with you on a rough day.

These videos, being on Youtube, don’t mention sexual content, want you to hang around for an hour or more of audio recording, want to build and maintain intimacy with a hypothetical you, and do so all while having the intimacy to touch you (stroking your hair, shoulders, hands are all very common) and even sometimes put you to bed or share bed with you.

This is not to say that all ASMR is sexless – there are absolutely a number of sex workers who are very good at their jobs who also make ASMR content, and share it, and that’s cool  and there’s a protracted campaign to treat those people badly. It sucks, and that’s difficult, especially because while ASMR is for some people sexual doesn’t mean ASMR is a sexual thing. There’s one of those divisions within the community that’s a challenge to even talk about, because it’s common that accuasations of inappropriate sexuality meet defensive denial, which is then used to foster more criticism, and so on, all while negatively impacting unrelated sex-havers and sex-enjoyers.

That conversation aside, though, this means that Youtube has this large, deep spread of extremely ace content; romantic relationships that dwell not on sexual interaction, but on intimacy and long, slow periods of comfort and sharing each other’s presence. I’ve often wondered what asexual pornography would look like; content made with minimal context to simply deliver as positive a desireable reaction as possible, without using sex as an axis of engagement, and I kind of think that ASMR as a community has kind of lucked into doing it.

Check this stuff out. Even if you don’t like it, if you’re looking to make Ace Smooch content, it might be your kind of thing, and it might give you ideas. If nothing else, it might show you the kinds of comforting content that people are already making and enjoying!

Of course, here’s a kicker for me. The most important ace person in my life hates ASMR, so this isn’t content they can enjoy.

Oh well!

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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Story Pile: Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians is a 2018 romantic comedy movie about an ordinary everygirl who finds that the boy she’s been dating has all along been one of the richest people in the world and part of a community of super rich people and what follows is a reasonably but not completely predictable story about finding acceptance and the struggles and demands of family pressure and all that stuff you expect to see in a rom-com about a fish out of water dealing with a class difference.

I guess one of the other details is to mention that this movie is about and involves almost entirely Asian people. I would have thought that was a detail that didn’t need mentioning, until this movie brought to my attention that, in fact, this might be the second prominent romantic comedy ever made primarily by, about, and starring Asians that came out of western movie studios. That is to say, in the history of cinema, this might be the second movie like this that western media’s made. That’s effed up!

That’s your lot, that’s your movie, and now you get to watch as I, magic-trick like, pull another eight hundred words out of my hat.

I guess as a first point, I should admit that there’s a reason I watched this movie that has nothing to do with Smooch Month or the like. You may remember in a previous Decemberween, I mentioned Calvin and Dee, and how they were people in the board game space I listened to and liked. Well, Calvin’s in this movie, as the extremely awkward PT. Calvin suggested I watch this movie, and I did. There’s your disclosure.

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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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Romance and the Smooch

I’ve been using the word Smooch a lot on this blog this month and part of why I do that is because I figure if I keep using it, you’ll at least be able to extrapolate what I mean by it. Conventionally, the category of stuff I file as ‘smooch media’ is ‘romantic’ media, at least if you pay attention to Netflix categories. I resist that description, though, and it’s partly because Romantic is a term that means something else, in my mind.

This is a problem when it comes to talking about it in general, because a word’s usage is determined not just by the person saying it but also by the people hearing it. If you say ‘romantic media’ I don’t tend to think you mean it the way I mean it, but I tend to use it to try and introduce this idea.

What I mean, typically, when I say romantic media is the idea of media where the logic of the universe is predominantly related to the feelings of people. I like this term, I need a term like this, because I want to be able to draw a circle around the kinds of stories that are often easier to write when you’re focusing on feelings. It’s not to say feelings-first writing needs to lack verisimillitude, but a lot of romantic storytelling is at its strongest when it can recognise what matters to its type of story.

It’s not uncommon to hear criticism of Hamlet and Romeo And Juliet where people are snared into stupid situations and the tragedy so unfolds where if they communicated better or more meaningfully, or if people took notes, or if the government behaved like a government might, you’d be left with a situation that, more realistically, would result in a story that doesn’t end with piles of bodies on the floor. This criticism is something that I myself levelled at these plays when I was a child (in part, because I was a child).

It’s kind of a categorical failure of examination. The reason these stories don’t take the most logical path, or a path that can be ‘proven’ in some way is because the important things in these stories are human feelings and the failings of those feelings. Hamlet doesn’t confide in his mother in a way that solves the problems tidily, because his inability to communicate with her is one of the things the story is about. Those feelings drive the way the story works, not vice versa.

It’s also useful for talking about media that isn’t just about people kissing – smooch media, as it were. My friend Caelyn Sandel writes regularly what I’d consider romantic urban fantasy, not necessarily because it’s always about characters kissing (though there’s plenty of that), but because the urban fantasy (and superhero and classic fantasy) she works on, the magic or superpowers or supertech or mutation or whatever is a way of examining feelings. Feelings about bodies, feelings about systems, feelings about power – but the feelings are there foremost, and feelings hold a lot of ideas together.

In a lot of ways, Caelyn is a sort of romantic radical, where she uses the model of romantic narrative (ie, stories about feelings) to drive other stories.

So, when I want to talk about stories where the important thing is the characters smooch, or don’t smooch… I’ll say it’s smooch media.

I hope it’s not too annoying. ♥

Game Pile: OSU! TATAKAE! OUENDAN!

Do you have any idea how hard it is to write about games and smooches.

The theme of smooch month in movies gets me watching stuff I’d never touch otherwise, and occasionally finding gems (honest, there’s positive reviews coming). But for games, it’s a desert. Oh, there’s a whole genre of games which are ‘about’ smooching – you have lots of romantic phone games, lots of gacha romance games, and a wealth of romantic novels, but finding any given one of them to write about is needle-in-a-stack-of-needles hard, not to mention often extremely thin for a critical surface. I know I don’t like most of these games, finding ones that differentiate themselves is hard enough and then sometimes, when I find one that sets itself apart somehow, it still upsets me.

I took it a step down and tried to write about games of a different genre where romance is important and you know what, that’s super hard too! Lots of games have a romantic element where you’re seeking to rescue or satisfy some lover or romantic partner, but that is almost all it seems being written by dudes with issues! I went back to look into adventure games from the 90s in the hopes of finding something with even an engaging romance subplot, and boy howdy,  I was reminded that Space Quest was not an exception.

There is something to be said about Kings Quest, but even those romances are fairytale style, and therefore kiiinda spring up out of nowhere once you get the two destined characters in the same room.

Then when I went looking for games that detailed the course of a romance through the game play and wow those are thin on the ground in my space, too! I could find more games about rescuing a dog than I could find about working with a partner!

And that’s why I came back to this classic rhythm game, OSU! TATAKAE! OUENDAN!

Ouendan is a game whose name you don’t have to shout but come on, you should want to, you should be shouting in your heart, that was the original progenitor of a game you might have heard of called Elite Beat Agents. It’s a rhythm game on the NDS and 3DS, where you tap the screen in time and place to correspond with the flow and movemen tof the music, and that’s kind of it. If you know what a rhythm game is, you probably can work out how to play Ouendan in just a few minutes, even across the language barrier for non-Japanese speakrs.

In fact, it was that accessibility in part that led to the game being picked up in the west, and enjoyed so much we got a American localised version of the same game, Elite Beat Agents. This was in fact so much of a thing that at the end of the credits for Ouendan 2, there’s a thank you note in English.

That approachability is only part of the reason why you can play Ouendan without literacy, though; another element is that the NDS doesn’t have region locking, so you can just buy a Japanese copy, jam it in your Belgian NDS (I assume you have one of those) and it’s going to work, rather than requiring you to pay distributors in your country. And then, the thing that pushed this game from a good, solid game to an absolutely amazing game is the framing device of the narrative.

In Ouendan, you play a squad of cheerleaders roaming around town (and history) finding people who need help, then cheering them on to do their best, and what you get in this is a collection of tropetastic preposterousness that scales from ‘helping a kid with their college entrance exams’ and ‘getting a noodle shop guy to get over his problem with a stray cat,’ to ‘helping cleopatra build the pyramids’ or ‘bringing back the dead,’ finally culminating in ‘saving the world from a asteroid strike through the power of rock and roll.’

What’s important about this, though, is that in each of these stories, you aren’t playing the people who the story is about.

You’re playing cheerleaders.

One of the stories that you help out with is a story in a festival, where a dude is being blocked from dating a girl he likes by her crappy dad. The dad is willing to let him ask his daughter to marry him, if the dude can win a race against him during the festival. If you win the level, he succeeds, and they get to get married. Not only do they get married, their kid shows up in the sequel game.

Now I pulled deep to find this game because I think this successfully breaks a lot of my problems with videogame romances. First, you don’t control the agents in the romance; you’re not the boy or the girl, and your relationship to the other has nothing to do with how well you play the game. These two characters are into each other, and their reactions to how well you play is how well you get them towards a goal they both want (where they want to get married). You want to do well, because you want them to have their chance to get married (and you get a rewarding tish sound).

It’s a sweet story, it’s about something nice, and in amongst all these games I’ve been digging through to find just a romance that didn’t make me clutch my insides, the worst thing about this one is that the story written fifteen years ago still does the ‘dad won’t let couple marry because he has some sense of ownership over the daughter,’ which is a total asshole thing, but he’s presented as being a dick for it.

Incidentally, I did consider doing this with Elite Beat Agents instead, because, you know, it’s slightly more available and didn’t get a sequel. Thing is, it’s uh, it’s not got a story like this one in it. The closest we get to this song is Queen’s I Was Born To Love You, which shows us Leonardo Da Vinci harrassing Mona Lisa until she agrees to pose for him as a model, which is so much worse as a story.

Ouendan! It’s great, go check it out, oh my god videogames are bad at love.

What If We Kissed (Mechanically) In The Squared Circle

Man, it’s hard writing about games in Smooch Month. A boy who was a bit less weird than me would just belt his way through four visual novels and talk about how the girls were hot, the boys were present and the Renpy engine was, once more, there, but I’m not that boy, and I can’t do it. Visual novels are a real trouble for me, and we’ll get into more, why, later, but until then, I’m looking at a lot of card, board, and videogames that are ostensibly about romance that really aren’t.

And I think that part of why is the same reason wrestling games suck.

Bear with me on this one it’s a bit of a lift.

Wrestling videogames treat wrestling, as a fiction, as if it is real. That is, a wrestling match is ostensibly about two dudes (usually) who have been scheduled to fight each other and then the player makes the two dudes punch each other until they’re done punching each other and one of them falls down. That is to say, the fictional narrative of the fight that the two actual performers are enacting is treated as the fiction you play.

This has been on my mind as super boring because the far more interesting thing about a wrestling match is that it’s not competitive, but it is rather cooperative, and there’s a lot of communication and interplay and practice going on, with lots of different styles. Essentially you’re watching performance art between two people, A and B, and they need to understand each other and know how to work together in a way that’s engaging and gets different things out of a match they both want, while responding to a live stimulus in the form of the crowd.

I think about this specifically in the vein of romance games. Romance is a thing that games sometimes represent as a background element (Mario games for example), or as a maze (like I said in my review of The Blind Griffin), and sometimes it’s represented as use-keys-on-door style puzzles (Leisure Suit Larry, I guess)? And then it’s sometimes part of a greater narrative (the inexplicable ‘romance’ in Police Quest for example). Very rarely, though, is romance treated as the connected interaction of two mutual characters, sharing in an experience.

I think what I’m saying is, if we can clock this kind of videogame mechanic, of two characters sharing common actions and trying to reach a common ends, we won’t just have made a new kind of rhythmic pattern of play for both real-time and turn based romantic games, we’ll have made the mechanics for a rad wrestling game too,

and then, the wrestlers can kiss,

MTG: Friendly Planeswalkers

There’s a lot of Magic: The Gathering that uses mechanics to express theme. Theme is really important, since being able to see card entities as creatures that relate to one another, enchantments that relate to greater rules, artifacts that have a material existence and lands that can be used or expended is a big part of how you manage the mental load of all the game parts happening at once. This is going to be a quick introduction, then we’re going to do a list, so buckle up.

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3.5 Memories: Soo-Nee

I’m trying to limit my writing about 3.5 D&D and 4e D&D to maybe once a month, because while I do love doing deep dives into subjects there, they’re time consuming and I’ve found a variety of different articles is the best thing I can do to keep my audience engaged. Plus, it’s a great kind of ‘content well’ where you can grab a book from the game in question, leaf through it, and find something to talk about – inevitably.

In this, Smooch Month, though, what content is there in 3.5 D&D to talk about that I haven’t gone over with a discussion of ‘roll to seduce?’ Lords knows we don’t want to talk about the way sex and romance are normally represented in D&D, because they’re mostly only ever brought up transgressively. We did the Book of Vile Darkness already!

Still, it’s smooch month and that means that while we may be talking about romance and relationships, there’s always with that aftertinge of ‘horny, maybe?‘ that I circle around and avoid, and when the time comes to talk about horny, maybe and D&D, there’s really no place to go but the Forgotten Realms.

If you’re not already aware, Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms setting is a place full of lots of different interesting countries (I’m trying to be nice) which are perhaps known for a pattern of having an elderly, cranky wizard in an important place that’s secretly guiding important political events and enabling adventurers. You might know it as a setting which has a large number of prominent women in positions of authority in some important, adventurer-centric places, meaning you may have a fond memory of being sent on an early quest by Aribeth.

It’s also perhaps a little less well known for being a setting where under the hood Ed Greenwood was fantastically horny and has definitely, definitely dedicated lots of time to thinking about the sex lives of those characters. Once you know about it, it just kind of lurks there like a fog at ankle-height, clinging to everything.

Now, something else about the Forgotten Realms is that Ed Greenwood started writing it in 1967 and pretty much has never stopped, filling the world with ever increasing levels of detail, conspiracies, political introgue, cities, townships, lodges, orders, empires, dragons, really racist drow stuff, and of course, gods. That brings us to the book I flipped open this month, Faiths & Pantheons.

If we’re talking about a love domain (and boy there’s a lot bound up in that conversation which I largely want to leave alone, but suffice to say fucking sigh) then why not look at the Forgotten Realms’ goddess of love, Sune?

 

Sune as a goddess is a bit standard. She’s a beautiful feminine woman, her descrpition includes how her lips are plump, how she dresses in ‘near transparent clothes,’ all that standard stuff. She’s a redhead, which I mean, you can make a case for any of those typical looks and what they encode, but the real basics is that Sune is a Hot Goddess of Hotness.

The descriptors of her goals, aims and dogma are all extremely in this vein, with a drop of how thanks to recent reforms in her church, women only outnumber men four to one. Her temples are described as public salons and bathhouses, with diaphanous robes and beautiful clergy and mirrors all over the place. Sune even communicates with you via mirrors, where you look into them, she changes your appearance, and then talks to you through your own, now hotter face.

Now, one thing in favour of this setting, and this character, is that Ed Greenwood has gone on record that Sune (and everyone good in the Forgotten Realms) says Trans Rights, so that’s something and that’s all we need to talk about there.

Sune’s a goddess of love, lust, pleasure and protection and it’s so weird that as represented, her faithful mostly seem to hang around taking care of people and not doing adventure stuff. They even talk about how commonly the Heartwarders are pacifists, and how this means that enemies often are reluctant to attack them, which let me tell you, that’s not how that tends to work.

What else has Sune got going for her? If you’re not getting sent on quests by the Goddess of Love to do things like smash tyrannical families that are keeping star-crossed lovers apart or destroying churches that are trying to control people’s expressions of love or pleasure, or even just building safe spaces and standing in the doorway with a sword, what else has she got going on, why worship Sune?

Girl Hot counts for a lot, right?

When you get a Player’s Handbook you may see the five or ten gods presented there and think that the power of a setting is built around gods of punching, fierceness, and maybe evil punching, and that’s certainly a place to start. As the pantheon of the Forgotten Realms built out, Ed expanded into things like racial pantheons, where elves have a bunch of their own gods, and maybe other races have whole bunches of other gods, and with that came the need for more things for gods to be about, represented by more domains.

Sune, therefore, required (?) the creation of the Lust Domain.

It’s not great.

I’m trying to avoid talking about the way you may frame enchantment spells or diplomacy checks in your game, but the good news is that you don’t need to worry about what the Lust domain does in any given 3.5 game, because it’s really bad and the Protection and Pride domains are right there. Okay, so she’s not setting the world on fire mechanically. What else is Sune bringing to the table?

Art by kiikii-sempai

Another mechanical space that these gods open up is the idea of prestige classes. This was a really good idea, because it served two possible purposes for player characters. If you liked Sune, you could look at her prestige class and get a feeling for the kind of mechanics she liked; if you liked the mechanics of that class, you could look at Sune and see if you liked that direction for your character’s personality.

Sune’s pretige class is the Heartwarders, which is a basket of yikes. This class increases your charisma (very rare to get like this, but not hard to get at all), gives you a ally buff power by kissing them (which also is so amazing a kiss it dazes them, meaning you can actually make them worse off), and lets you create holy water love potions by, um, crying. There’s a lot bound up right there in what a person sees as being beautiful or aesthetically resonant. The class is pretty broken, because it still lets your cleric be a cleric, but as far as stuff you can bolt onto an already-broken class goes, this one’s not worth what it gives you!

It’s a shame, because a rose-coloured knight of love and rage seems like a great character concept to defend the worshippers of a god of love. Someone should make a much better version of this idea.

And that’s Sune! A Goddess of love and lust in a subtly horny world. And if you’re like me, you were today years old when you learned this name is instead pronounced ‘Soo-nee.’

Story Pile: The Knight Before Christmas

I know over this past year I have definitely become something of a fan of not the Hallmark media itself, but rather the serious critical space that surrounds Hallmark media in the form of Dave & Jeb Aren’t Mean and their various commentators looking at Hallmark as a brand. Now, I don’t have Hallmark movies of my own to watch, but what I do have access to is Netflix, and Netflix are happy to make and present their own knock-off derivatives of Hallmark’s design space, and maybe even afford it something that could be seen as a ‘bigger budget’ version of same. Thus, for our next Smooch Month movie, we’re going to look at The Knight Before Christmas.

Notionally, you might want to know what happens in this movie, so to give you the most basic rundown of the plot, a knight in the 14th century England meets a witch, who hucks him forward in time with a cryptic message to 2019 Ohio, where he meets Vanessa Hudgens. They hang out and do no-impact Christmas stuff, he finishes a quest, goes back in time, then asks the witch to send him back, so he can kiss her again and become a cop. I’m not joking.

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Cassunzel

This is a bit of a weird one. Normally I like to save talking about queer content for Pride Month, but I also like using Pride Month to talk about actual queer content, and this is very firmly in the space of ‘fanon.’ On the other hand, there’s a term I want to talk about in Pride Month which is germaine and then you don’t need to know what the Germans have got to do with anything!

And so here, in Smooch Month, a ship.

In case you weren’t aware, there’s a TV series of the Disney movie Tangled. The premise of the series is very much one of your Disney spinoffs; if you saw Aladdin or Hercules when you were much younger, or the more recent Big Hero 6 the basic idea is to use the marketable branding of an existing, successful movie, then use the world and setting to durdle around and do stuff that wouldn’t matter for the plot of the movie but still works fine in the genre. Big Hero 6 has a great series, and so, to my surprise, does Tangled.

These series however, often have to run in place with some continuity point, like how Hercules couldn’t exactly have Hercules come into his full power or confront Hades in too ultimate a fashion (given the movie happened after the series), and Aladdin had to keep Aladdin as a street rat rather than focus on the whole ‘prince’ thing, and kept the genie as a bit of a wuss, because otherwise, you know, ridiculous power. Tangled is set right after the movie ended but before the epilogue Eugene describes where eventually, he marries Rapunzel.

Now, it’s best not to think about how the series weaves its way back into the narrative, just accept that this is really well produced fanfiction using the generic adventure world of Tangled, building on the kind of ridiculous side characters we see in the movie. Then, into that mix, you throw Cass, Rapunzel’s handmaiden and daughter of the captain of the guard.

Now.

Tangled is a fine movie. I like it a lot. When I first saw it, I remarked that it was ‘the best Disney movie since Hunchback,’ and for me, that’ pretty high praise. I thought Flynn Rider/Eugene was a pretty great character. And that same character, when you have the time to hang around him in a comic TV series, where he’s anchored to Rapunzel’s section of the world and can’t just run from everything, that dashing charm slowly morphs into mawkish dorkitude.

Then, in Tangled, because they couldn’t make Eugene a different person, they throw Cass, who basically gets to be the other half to Raps’ story. They have a fun dynamic, their skills complement each other, and Eugene, being wallpaper for the first two seasons while they develop this friendship, as Rapunzel’s Designated Eventual Romance makes Cass and Raps look really gay for each other.

It’s a fun ship! Tough jock with a sword and her ethereal magic girlfriend? Hardworking defender and actual literal princess? Road trip adventures? Magic mirrors? Trying to sacrifice one another to save the other? Tying one another up sometimes? You get a lot of that stuff here!

Does it work out? Nah, but this series was always going to live in a cul-de-sac and it doesn’t end well. But watch the first two seasons, and the episode where they re-do the movie Tangled with Cass in the place of Eugene, and ask yourself what he’s even doing here.

Love And D20s

This was meant to come up later in the month but since it seems someone at Wizards has made a ‘love’ domain or something like that, we’re going to do it now, I guess.

Now first of all I have no interest in defending or even talking about the 5th Edition Love domain. Lots of reasons, not the least of which being I don’t know the game, and I don’t care. The internet has enough semi-experts shooting from the hip about their personal opinions of the thing I already don’t like is bad, so instead I’m going to swerve around that and use the opportunity to talk about the idea of roll to seduce.

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