Game Pile: Bloodborne

 What is there to say about this, the longest night?

Bloodborne, for those unfamiliar with it, is a 2015 PS4 exclusive videogame by From software, the makers of Demon and Dark Souls, and joins those games as part of the genre we hamfistedly call ‘Soulsborne’ games, because videogames are a space where it’s very important to constantly reinforce brand loyalty, I guess.

The game starts with you as a hapless person dropped context-free into some space or other whereupon a game kills you repeatedly and gives you infinite chances to avoid dying again. It is largely considered to be one of the greatest videogames ever made, which doesn’t seem to be wrong per se but as I played it, seemed more and more to be an insult to videogames in general as a medium.

I took notes as I played the game, which is a transformative thing with a From software game. The experience of these games often melts away so you don’t really know – you don’t know – how many times you try things, how difficult a game experience is until you really look at it in a numerical context. I did, so I have a very reasonable measure of how much of my life I was spending on this game, and whether or not the progress I was making made me feel good enough to merit that exchange. It’s very easy when you don’t quantify these experiences to think a game is ‘hard’ and just let that one word cover all your sins, as opposed to having clear information about how many days of effort it took you to deal with boss monsters that, amongst other things, do behave semi-randomly.

I also haven’t finished this game at this point. I got the game in January of 2017, and haven’t finished it as of October 2019. I don’t think this colours my opinion of the game at all, and I think it’s actually very important to look at the game from this position, rather than from the perspective of someone who having finished the game, is able to dismiss all the time spent as being ‘worth it’ in the end.

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FOYMO

Let me tell you about one of my little fears.

It’s a little fear, not because it’s small to me. It can be all consuming, to me. But it’s a little fear because it’s a sin that can be measured in dollars and cents.

I sell games. I sell my writing, too, on this blog, here, on patreon and still don’t know why you pay for it but I’m so grateful. But I sell games, and those games are typically made out of cards that are printed and I hand them to people and they give me some money and they go away. Overwhelmingly, our sales are face to face, in conventions, and to people who talk to me and buy the games based on talking to me.

I am scared, so scared, that one day someone is going to come to me, having bought the game, and say ‘Yeah, you know what, this game is really bad, and you wasted my time and money.

Everyone’s so nice. Even the responses we’ve gotten about some of our games that don’t work is it’s too easy for me, or we didn’t use that rule, or he outgrew the game quickly. These are the little cuts, the little things that make me wince because I feel like I did someone wrong. Like I guided them into a bad purchase. And I fear that everyone who bought a game, or who I sent a free copy of the game, is just quietly being polite.

It paralyses me in improving and upgrading our games, too. I want to revise LFG and Burning Daylight and even Middleware, but I feel like doing anything to make the games that are already purchased ‘wrong’ would be a sort of act of violence against those people who trusted me with their money and time. I am ultimately afraid of making my game better so the people who bought the game before hand are left with a version of the game that is missing something.

I have a Fear Of You Missing Out.

The Cult Of The Decapitated

This year, I had reason to go deep on the book Man, Play And Games by Roger Caillois, and I have made my notes about it very public including exasperation at the kind of person who’d write such things. Wanting to know more about Caillois however pulled me into reading about his circle of friends, including the philosopher Georges Bataille and strange woman-behind-the-culture Colette Peignot, aka Laure.

Time to time I’ve mentioned their ‘cult of skulldicks,’ which is funny, but I think it’s worth giving at least a briefest overview of this quietly chilling group of extremely serious people who at one point, were going to walk out into the woods and kill themselves.

Let’s talk about Acéphale.

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Being The Monster: 5 Horrible 4e Heroes

Everyone I know has some hypothetical interest at the very least in playing a hot monster in their local tabletop game. I am willing to recognise that this is a selection bias, possibly due to the overwhelming presence of the queer monsterfuckers in my social circle, but the long and short of it is that I know people who regard the Monster Manual as less like a threat and more like Tinder.

The problem with making monstrous characters in most D&D games is that all the monsters you might want to be are gated behind a lot of rules baggage, like the hellscape of imbalanced garbage that is Savage Species back in 3rd edition. But what if in this season of spook, you want to make a monstrous character and just get rolling in my edition of choice? Here then are five spooky characters you can play from level 1 that let you get in the spirit of the season without needing to jump through a dozen hoops.

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Story Pile: Expectable Dreads

I watched a bunch of different horror stuff this year, in part because I actually think I kind of like the genre, but also because it’s a place that does a bunch of interesting weird stuff. Horror Youtube is really bad, Horror Critical Youtube is pretty good (or maybe I just mean Nyxfears). Watching this media can be, at times, a guide, a sort of mental sabot, that encourages you to think and present your thoughts in a similar format, to make everything a five minute mention.

This impulse left me spending words on things I didn’t really care about enough to talk too long about. Particularly, though, what I found was a common thread of introducing the wrong horrors into these stories, a point at which I checked out, and knew that effectively, a content warning would just be the overwhelming character of whatever I had to say. It wasn’t that seeing worms implanted in someone’s body or the tearing of a man’s face off that bothered me, no, I was signed up for that.

Here then, four horror movies and series that I kind of wanted to talk about but which introduced something that made them suck.

Content warning for mentions of sexual assault, transphobia, incest, and pedophilia, and spoilers for American Horror Story, Don’t Breathe, Rings, and A Cure For Wellness.

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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.

Game Pile: Tides of Madness

Tides of Madness is a drafting game for two players by Portal Games that retails around $15. In the interest of not just being mean to this game, it’s made of very pretty parts. Each card is fully illustrated in postcard orientation with a full-art depiction of some generic Lovecraftian thing. Additionally, each card has a set it’s from, and a mechanic that says what set it rewards. This is a basic kind of set collection mechanic, where you get X, but it rewards Y. This divides your incentives, and you’re limited you to five choices each round, presenting the game’s tension.

I am personally pretty pleased by the challenge of making a game with such deliberately narrow constraints. I’ve made other games with eighteen cards, including drafting games, and conceptually, it’s an exciting design challenge. It’s not like ‘X feeds Y’ is a bad game mechanic, asking you to track the pieces. The puzzle then is what to pick, to force your opponent’s hand and deny them potential points. Of course, a problem that follows there is how obviously separated or clearly presented those pieces are. The set symbols are ambiguous and small, making it hard to keep tracking them during the game.

The first time I played this game, my opponent and I immediately complained about its generic feeling. Not just the Lovecraftian monsters theme – though you can bet I’ve got views on how that’s handled. We felt that all but three cards were very obviously just permutations of cards in other sets. When the art is so indulgent and the cards so large, this lack of depth stands out. This game retails for very little so it can seem reasonable to be charitable about its failings. I’m not feeling charitable, though, and you should buy my cheap drafting games instead, like Winston’s Archive.

3.5 Psionics

Maaan, this system was cool.

Okay, so it’s twenty years old or something so I’m assuming you don’t really know what this was or how it worked. Psionics was one of those things that D&D 3.5 seemed to pick up because it was in 3rd edition and there was something similarly back in 2ed and then going back. It was never something the rules prominently featured, and was always meant to be its own little contained system that ‘couldn’t work the way that spells worked. The older systems, back in 2ed used ‘power points’ instead of ‘spell slots,’ you know, one of your rudimentary mana systems.

These required rules, coupled with the way they were sequestered meant that the Psionics systems got handed off into a small number of books, which were focus work by a small number of developers who not only really cared about them, but weren’t competing with anyone about it, like the core rules’ Druid, Cleric, Wizard and Sorcerer problems were.

The result is that the Psionics system is made up of a smaller number of powers that have to be flexible, because they just weren’t going to get a lot of different psionic powers the way that every different version of a fireball got to have its own fancy special effect.

It also meant the psionic powers had to be designed to scale much better than the spell system; rather than the tight restrictions of spell slots that force you to wind up collecting a large number of choices, and be aware of all of them as the best least tool for any job, you instead had the powers that you could do, and the choices were made at use. You could spend points to make your powers scale, and you could even choose the way they scaled.

That meant that yes, you still had fiddly spells, but you chose how fiddly they were, how fiddly they could get. You could pick your powers to get a wide variety of oddball stuff, or you could focus on a consistent theme, using your power choices to make one power you were absolutely great at, and small utility powers to go along with it.

There was something to the aesthetic of it, too. Rather than your typical wizards and robes and swirling lights, Psionics played in a realm that was more purple and crystals, with a sort of Cthuluhoid Lovecraftian horror to the enemies. Rather than drawing on the idea of old lore and ancient history, of things written in books, the storytelling of the psionic character was more tied into really primal knowledge, things that were born out by doing rather than learning.

This still put the books in some odd places, of course; mechanically, there still needed to be wands and scrolls, because those were considered essential parts of balancing the needs of a flexible spellcaster, so there are Dorjes and Power Stones (or ‘sticks and stones’ as they were known). There were psionic dragons, because of course you need dragons, and their gimmick was, well, they’re dragons, but they’re psychic.

Yet when I think back on this system, a thing that really sticks with me is how in 3.5, there were just so many builds you could make for psionic characters that weren’t constrained the way that wizards and clerics were. You could afford to lose a caster level or two, you could pick up other effects to build on what you had. You could share spellcasting skills between different psionic classes, and there were interesting, oddball prestige classes that gave you a niche, interesting way to craft your character.

Normally when I think back on 3.5, there’s a pretty clear hierarchy system that kicks in. Fighters form a sort of basement where everything that’s worse than it is seen as really hosed. Then there’s the crew of weird classes that aren’t bad for any specific reason, but because they have a niche that usually can be replaced by a spell from a wizard. Then there’s the really good renewable resource types, the powerful melee hitters, the prestige class complex builds, and then there’s the spellcasters, and then just at the bottom end of the spellcasters there’s the rogue and some gish, I guess. It’s a complex space and most of them, the best thing you can do is one thing.

But when it came to psionics – classes that mostly sacrificed variety of effects for flexibility of application – there were just so many different ways to build, just based on the powers you took.

Kinda preceded the Book of Nine Swords, too, and formed the foundation for the way 4ed worked.

Huh.

Funny that.

MTG: Jeskai Catgirls

Okay, Modern is a silly place. This is not going to be about a cutting edge deck. This is the kind of deck I like to write about and play, because it’s not trying to be about playing in a specific metagame environment, about being in a tournament space. It’s a combo deck, but it looks a bit like a control deck, and it uses an interaction that’s probably too slow for standard, but also gets to do stuff I tend to enjoy – flickering permanents and making memes.

Anyway, here’s the basic gimmick.

There’s this card, Felidar Guardian. There’s this other card, Saheeli Rai. Together they form a combo that generates an infinite number of hasty artifact cats, or rather, an arbitary large number of hasty artifact cats, so you can stop when you want. It differs from a lot of combos in that the cards are actually good on their own, with Saheeli being a planeswalker that scries through your deck to find things, and the Felidar Guardian resetting a lot of possible permanents.

Now, I like Felidar Guardian decks, because I like flickering things. I like when my value creatures give me more value, and I’ve liked that since Astral Slide, a deck that isn’t actually good anywhere any more, but let’s not get bogged down in that. The thing with this combo, known as Cat Lady for a while, was that it was pretty powerful in Standard (so much so it got a sort-of emergency ban?), and my love of durdling and flickering creatures is kind of weak when compared to ‘just winning the god damn game out of nowhere.’

Also, flickering creatures with the Felidar Guardian is fine, but also not particularly impressive these days. You want stuff that’s already on the field with the Guardian around, and flickering wants to be cheap, and so it’s not good for recurring on the battlefield, and so on. Still, War of the Spark gave us a bunch of planeswalkers that tick down and you can use the Guardian to flicker a bunch of them. Funnily enough, in these colours, there are a few really good Planeswalkers for this, and they seem to all be girls.

And thus, from Cat Lady, we now have:

Modern Jeskai Catgirls, October 2019

Creatures (8)
Felidar Guardian
Wall of Omens

Planeswalkers (9)
Chandra, Acolyte of Flame
Saheeli Rai
Narset, Parter of Veils
The Wanderer

Spells (24)
Lightning Helix
Lightning Bolt
Remand
Sleight of Hand
Hallowed Fountain
Serum Visions
Lands (19)
Sacred Foundry
Glacial Fortress
Clifftop Retreat
Steam Vents
Plains
Island
Mountain
Sulfur Falls

This deck could be improved massively with the addition of Snapcaster Mage, because at its root it is a 1-2 mana spell based control deck that wants to dig through a deck and win reasonably quickly. Chandra, Acolyte of Flame is a pretty decent kinda-Snapcaster who has supplied some games with an extra few points of damage, but it’s very clear to me the difference between 3 mana and 2.

You make lands and planeswalkers, protect yourself, slow your opponent down, dig for cards, kill threats, then find Saheeli or a Guardian or whichever you don’t already have, then win the game immediately.

It’s not great, but it is fun!

Story Pile: Goosebumps

The existence of this movie is in a lot of ways a pre-built punchline. I mean, Goosebumps is one of those book series that people in their adult life seem to go back to to complain about them being dumb or basic or whatever, and this movie, which is aimed as being Big Spookums for the I’m Old Enough For M Movies scene of twelve year olds, is a Jack Black movie. Jack Black has made a lot of movies that are bad, he has made a lot of songs that are bad, he has almost made a varnished kind of badness his business, and he even specialises in representing himself as someone you really hope leaves soon.

Everything about this movie is lined up to tell you that this movie is going to suck ass

and it doesn’t.

Some mild spoilers for the movie as follows.

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Five Reasons You Should Try Running 4e

Typically when these edition conversations come up, I come at it with a certain kind of defensiveness. This is in part conciliatory – after all, I don’t think the conversation is useful if it’s about whether or not you should play 5e or 4e (or 3e, or Pathfinder, or whatever). It’s not useful, because I have a straightforward answer that I think 4e is better than all of those other games, and I don’t care about hearing about those other games at all.

I know, it’s so unreasonable of me. I just don’t care.

Nonetheless, I often get asked afterwards, ‘hey, would you suggest I try 4e?’ and I usually say something to the effect of ‘hey, I don’t know, why not.’ This is in part because organising a tabletop game is a big pain in the ass. If I’m suggesting you branch out, is it really best to suggest you start by trying 4e, when there’s other, less difficult games to get rolling on, that will broaden your palate and give you a better appreciation for more games, and maybe even give some money to a deserving soul. Is it better to suggest you try 4e D&D than try Dog Bear or Brinkwood or Monster of the Week?

But let’s set that aside for now. Let’s assume you’re curious about a D&D game and are deciding between your options. Alright then, quick and dirty, here’s five reasons why you should try 4ed:

5. It’s Cheap

Perhaps thanks to its reputation and perhaps thanks to being a ‘dead’ game, 4th Edition D&D’s core rulebooks can be had for $10 each in pdf form, giving you a total of $30 to get started. The 5th edition Player’s Handbook is $50, and isn’t even all the resources you’ll need. You could buy the 3.5 PHB for the same $10, but I will point out, that game is really bad and falls apart when you look at it too hard. 4e, on the other hand, works, and that’s what we’re talking about here, geeze.

4. It’s Convenient

Hey, do you like homework? I don’t like homework. Other editions of D&D are set in settings with really specific tones and rules about how the world works, so if you make a character thinking about their flavour first, you have to double check rules to see if that’s true. This can be a real pain in the ass if you want to play something like a cleric or a druid and need to know how magic and your powers interact with your worldview.

4ed D&D doesn’t do that! There’s no pre-established setting you have to learn about while you’re just finding your feet. The world could be dense and rich in lore, it could be an existing story space you like, you could just use it to jam in another setting if you want, because it’s mainly concerned with making sure things work and not being too fussed about how.

3. It Works Great Online!

The 4ed resource set is one where the biggest complaint people have about its primary mechanical axis (the miniatures and tabletop space) is stuff that a lot of online tabletop spaces already cover. If you use Roll20 or Tabletop Simulator to run your game, you won’t need to do anything fancy to get the resources required to set up or play, because all those assets are easily googled and slapped on the tabletop  conveniently.

This means that if you have a problem with getting players to the table, like people have commitments at home and the like, maybe you have a slot in your normal gaming group for a 4e game that lives in those downtime weeks.

2. It’s Fast

Combat in Dungeons and Dragons games is pretty slow, no matter what; there’s always some friction lost to checking initiative and turns and the round of the combat it’s in, and people considering their options and that’s just there. 4ed D&D combat is still about as slow as the editions around it, but 4ed does what it can to push that friction down.

When you’re making characters, roles let players stay out of each other’s ways and when you’re playing, roles let you get a clear idea of what your allies might need. What’s more, it’s pretty easy to make a character who, at level 1 works pretty much fine, and all your standard stuff you need to do your character’s job is guaranteed.

1. It’s Amazingly Easy To Run

The 4ed encounter builder is so robust that you can literally pick monsters at random, and there are even online resources to do that for you, and you will have your encounters pretty much put together. You can even use this to give you an explanation for the session – these four random monsters are in this level 1 encounter? Okay, why are they working together?

The back end of 4e D&D is really, really solid. If you’ve never run a game and want to try it out, 4e D&D is one of the systems that I hold out as a system that knows it has to explain things to you when you get started, and it puts good, useful tools in your hand.

So there!

Serial Killer Stories

This year I tried out watching Dexter, Hannibal and Mindhunters, different series focused on media about serial killers. I didn’t find anything that interesting to talk about in them. Maybe if I was a much better resource, more aware than I am, about the topic of autism, I might be able to draw something out of how all three series are built around characters that are either subtly or explicitly autistic, and then how both series completely fuck that upMindhunters was mostly just boring, contrasting interviews with tedious office humdrum and the academic difficulty of getting a real historical book written. Whatever.

The others, the more fictionalised serial killer stuff, and various other movies I’ve tried this year, those are different beasts. Why these kind of stories happen, like why are there series that last for years about these very short-fuse ideas. Why are they appealing, what they do to lure people in, what connects people to the diegesis. I wonder sometimes about it, if the reason I can sort of watch these series without really feeling anything about them. I think the main feeling these shows left me with, as I sat there with a fingertip on the fast forward button, is boredom.

Sometimes it’s a matter of scale. Like, Dexter is a series where literally a new serial killer’s activity kicks around basically every week, and the people involved are trying to avoid the involvement of federal authorities to try and deal with it, while simultaneously complaining that they don’t have the time or resources to take care of these problems which, again, include weekly serial killers. Sometimes it’s a matter of the conception of the things, the self-seriousness of them, the idea that the FBI employs ‘profilers,’ specialists who walk into a crime scene and it’s their job to draw together all the information in a sort of psychic trance. That that’s not everyone’s job, and there aren’t whiteboards of information where people put together whole slabs of possible provable things about motivation and agency.

I think my favourite ridiculous thing about Hannibal is that there are numerous cases where there’s nothing in the case that gets solved that is in any way helped by Will Graham’s supposed prowess. It’s just a dude who shows up at a scene, gets traumatised, and then the serial killers get themselves caught on their own. In Dexter it’s the same  deal, where the fact that the police station is basically an overworked office with four people in it. In each case, we’re meant to be watching these impressive interplays of the master inhuman, Lecter in one and Dexter in the other, but it’s just all stagecraft.

There’s a sort of twee titillation about both of them, a sort of almost hum-drum tedious shockingness. Like there’s a really good special effects department pumping out bulk props and able to make fake blood by the gallon, and people are tunining in for these things that are long on mood built around the ‘complex’ idea of What If People Around You Were Bad? How do you build tension around these questions of being surrounded by people who do bad things, who might be quite bad, but are capable of functioning as normal people?

There’s this funny kind of alienation in the horror of it. This conception of ‘what if your every day reality had something horrifying and bad in it!’ which kind of hilariously…  banal. It’s a lot like the idea behind The Walking Dead, where these scenarios that are meant to be horrifying have to come at that horror from a frame of total safety. Like there needs to be a sort of middle class, mid-thirties yawning wannabe prepper-ness to it.

These stories want evil to be something that’s both incarnate and alien, human forms given to the fears for their safety. I mean I still watch this stupid shit, but it’s all a sort of suspense porn. It’s about feeling tense and then shocked, even when there’s just nothing surprising about ‘oh, then this other major character will die.’  They’re ghost trains for adults with really high production values, and the things they can say are spooky are things like people who struggle with dissociation and lost time. You tune in to see if someone you like is going to get out alive.

They’re also, almost uniformly, disappointing in the end.

I’m sure there’s some reason for that.

Game Pile: Time Fcuk

You’re walking down the street, when a cardboard box opens, and you step out. You immediately impress upon yourself that you are, yes, you, and they need you to get into the box because that’s how the time travel that brought them here works, that you will appreciate it, that you will enjoy it, that you will understand such amazing things when you get in the box.

Get in the box.

GET IN THE GODDAMN BOX.

Time Fcuk is a game about time travel and being in a box.

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But First…

There is a joy in horror.

There’s a truth to it that horror is a space that draws the marginalised. There are a variety of reasons for it, many socioeconomic, many infrastructural, and almost none that actually have anything to do with demonic forces or actual witches, no matter what Alex Jones types want you to think. There’s a not-insubstantial body of people for whom horror in fiction and media directly relates to and catalogues horror in their own lives.

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3.5 D&D Heroes of Horror

When you sit down to play a game with your friends, you are ultimately looking to have an experience. That experience can be built around so many feelings, so many ideas, and it is just as valid an experience to seek out the tension and catharsis of a horror scenario as any other. The horror campaign, the macabre fantasy, the tangle of feelings you get when you find yourself pressed in the thorns and consider how much you’d give to just escape, even if it means leaving behind a little of your soul – this is absolutely something you can do in tabletop games.

It’s not even at odds with Dungeons & Dragons’ vision of heroic fantasy, which we can argue about, or wait, no, we can’t argue about it, because I find having to define the narrative parameters of a heroic fantasy or really deal with people who want to try and define the ‘genre’ of a game that’s as broad and flexible as D&D to be a task more akin to pulling teeth than having fun. Accept then that it is entirely possible to run a horror game using Dungeons & Dragons, because even if it’s not to your standards of horror doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to wear the genre label.

And Wizards of The Coast recognised it too, releasing the 2005 supplement for D&D3.5, Heroes Of Horror.

This book is, let’s say it reaches the lofty purchase of fine, I guess. I’m not wild about the content it offers (in no small part because my players have been horrified by things I made without any such guidance), but I’m also not against what it’s doing for the most part. Particularly nice is that the book contains an attempt to discuss player boundaries and emotional needs, even if it’s a very surface, a very 2005 discussion of those boundaries. I was going to give this book a treatment, only to find I already did a thread on it, and then saw how that thread kind of cooked away into just making fun of one thing in the book.

Even while the book is a thorough examination of a theme space, it’s not all one way of looking at it. There’s talk about player options, about how to handle ideas of tainted powers, kind of a Moorecocky thing. There’s some monsters meant to be more horrifying, there’s some discussion about the use of the inexorable, about the notion of the destruction or opposition of hope itself as component of horror. There’s also some horror scenarios, which I’ll admit I don’t find very engaging because they start at ‘murder clown mind-controlling orphans,’ and I don’t really need any kind of special rules to treat clowns as kill-on-sight targets in games. They’re up there with viziers.

Nonetheless, this is a 3.5 book and what that means is at least somewhere, you’re going to find a big list. In this, the list is a gigantic, 100 entry list of what it calls Creepy Effects. These are meant to be things you can dot into the game to give players a feeling of something unsettling being afoot.

There are three problems with this list. The first is the kinda fucked-up time issue; some of the list’s things can be singular moments, abrupt and dramatic arrests in the vision they have of normal – all the wildlife in an area falling silent to no effect, for example. Some of them are long-term problems, like fiding a persistent object you were sure you disposed of. These events aren’t really comparable – one is best when it comes out of nowhere, the other requires regular poking and prodding to make a repeated effect.

The second problem with the list is how many of these ‘creepy’ things are in fact very ordinary. One creepy happening is meeting a person who has a voice like an adult, but are as tall as a child. That is to say, meeting somone short. Another is a player hears something that none of the other players hear, which is a really common real-world experience, not to mention hearing voices or smelling smells nobody else notices. I get it, it’s horrifying to experience those things if you’ve never had to deal with doubting your own perceptions, but for people who have experienced that, it’s just kinda a reminder of how precious the writer must be. There’s also a bonus point here: in a world where there are Sending spells and Psionics, how is it weird to hear a voice? The real trick is trying to work out who sent the messages.

Finally, the third problem is this table ends on the entry: One Word: Fog, which made me laugh so hard it broke all chance this game had to ever act like it was going to lead to spooky games ever again.

October Is… Dread Month!

For the month of October, my Story Pile, Game Pile and general posting will be wound around the theme of dread month. And why dread? Because I needed a word that didn’t exclude things.

It’s not a horror month; criminal history and real world cult stuff isn’t really horror. It’s not a death month, because, well, death isn’t actually a universal element to the things that creep us out. And sometimes, there are things that are the aesthetic of ghosts and ghouls and scary things but isn’t actually very scary, because it’s being used to some other end.

This isn’t really about Halloween per se, though I’m going to ues it as an excuse. Halloween isn’t a thing here, not really – people trick or treat in the hopes of finding anyone who might have treats and the one or two kids that turn up at our place who actually are trick or treating, we give them all the candy. But Halloween does mean that y’all have been rocking haunted twitter avatars since early September, and who am I to waste an opportunity?

And so this month, we’re going to have creepy stuff, horrible stuff, threatening stuff and critical self-examination of my relationship to fear and, you know, maybe some of that cult stuff. And I’ll probably mention Hitler!

Story Pile: The Dragon Prince

The Dragon Prince is a netflix television show about an elf, a prince, a dragon, and all the complex challenges they have thanks to some mishandled jam tarts. If you just wonder about my general perspective, or if I’d recommend it, this show is great, bursting with personality, with good comic timing for its comic relief, wonderful action sequences, excellent voice acting (it really grew on me), and a number of characters who don’t overcorrect away from their archetypes while not sliding into being banal or overfamiliar. It’s great. Check it out. Easily worth paying for a month of Netflix and binging it all over a few weeks.

Now, if you want more, that’s after the fold. What is going to follow is pretty spoiler-free, but I want you I will say mean things about the Voltron fandom and criticise the ending of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

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September 2019 Wrapup!

I knew, ahead of time, this month would not be full of bangers. It’s been a busy month, with time spent on marking student work and time spent on a major component of my PhD. That means that the month of September was just not a time for writing to be done, certainly not writing I wanted to do. I still met my goals and made sure that every day something got added to the queue, but in a month of intense, terrifying writing when dealing with confrontational unreceptive audiences, I still put out some articles I liked: My three pieces on Pokemon Go and my fondness for Gen 5 Pokemon, for example, my rip on Titans for being bad (it is bad, boom gottem), and the Pop Stars article that was necessary to set up making fun of an album cover.

Technically, this is a two-video month. I put up a video of me showing off a Minecraft base I made, but only one person saw that, so it’s a bit of an unrelated non-factor. The other video this month is a bit of a voice-overy one that wants to connect Speed Running, Algorithms, Big Data and Neoliberalism, so what better to do than talk over Mirror’s Edge?

This month is also my first time dealing with my new upload speeds from my new ISP, which has meant that suddenly I get a few extra days of time to work with video. This time around, thanks to these improved speeds, I was able to download another person’s video (and used it with permission, don’t worry), to make making this video a shitload easier. Rather than needing to capture the video myself, I can use games I’ve already played and didn’t record (like Mirror’s Edge, which I at first played almost ten years ago) and instead focus on the writing, knowing that there’s video on hand that can be available if I ask for it.

So hey, my infrastructure has improved and my videomaking has been able to improve with it.

I’ve also taken on some advice from Chris Franklin, aka Campster, who noted that an hour or two of video essay is pretty wasteful and self-indulgent, and I realised that I don’t need to make a video an hour long to convey some very important, interesting points. That gives us ten minutes to run over the idea of Platform Capitalism and Speedrunning, as told by Mirror’s Edge.

Anyway, this month’s shirt is this Byleth inspired pair of designs:

I’m not a Fire Emblem person, but I did watch as for a chunk of August and September just kinda seeing my friend network dissolve under the presence of a Fire Emblem game releasing. I made these shirts for no greater reason than I think the iconography on the chest of Byleth is kinda interesting, but after extracting them I gotta say it’s kind of a rip how boring the dude set is.

Game work, not much has happened, but it’s been a big month (see below), but it is now the time when I start working on some games for University. Which is going to be interesting because I don’t honestly know how this projects outwards going on. I have a plan but is it going to work? Who knows.

In my personal life, this has been a very demanding month in terms of my University time (where I have had to meet the needs of my PhD) and my family time. The backlog of articles this month got as low as twelve at one point, but it did get brought back up, and we should be good to go into October, a month with a theme.

I Like: Mumbo Jumbo and Grian

Hey, I have niblings! And they love Minecraft! And the most well known Minecraft celebrity in the world keeps having to make excuses for why he keeps doing nazi things! Which is not behaviour you really want to see in content that is aimed at literal actual children and good god what a piece of human garbage.

Nonetheless, I have gone looking for Minecraft youtubers who make approachable, kid friendly content that isn’t full of occasional horrifying racism and othersuch garbage, and I’ve found a pair of exciteable British boys who, at least in the content I’ve found, aren’t likely to teach my niblings slurs.

First, there’s Mumbo:

And next there’s Grian:

Grian and Mumbo are two Youtubers with different channels; Grian is fussy about the aesthetics of buildings and architecture, and Mumbo is a redstone nerd. They make short videos on a regular basis, they work together from time to time, and they do a lot of Minecraft content that looks at the game as an aesthetic pursuit (making things that look good), and a technical one (making things that serve a purpose).

Now, that’s not to say these two are perfect, for all I know in the thousands of hours of content they’re making there’s some awful stuff and I’m going to learn about it and be sad about it, but at least at the moment they appear to know they’re basically making Art Attack with Pixels.

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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ˢᵉˡˡᶦⁿᵍ ᵗᶦⁿʸ ᵇᵒᵒᵏˢ

One of the weirdest things about the kind of things I make is that at a convention it’s very hard (read: impossible) to get people to engage with the bulk of what I do. I write! I write a lot! But people don’t buy words unless they’re stuck to a bit of a tree, hammered flat, a system that seems dreadfully inefficient.

I’ve been experimenting then with ways that I can make small, printable, books, something I can pump a few out before a con and sell or give away as promotional devices for my games, or maybe some microfiction (do I do that?).  This first idea is one that I saw first on Twitter as a kind of suggestion for making tiny comic zines, and that idea is pretty cool.

I don’t make comics, though, I make game rules and words and I found this design really neat. However, it’s sometimes hard to find – I search for ‘gay robot kiss’ and dig through my retweets, for example – so I made a template and a place to show it where it can be easily accessed.

Another thing to bear in mind is you wind up with 6 faces the size of a card, more or less, and that means you want a font size around 9~ish. It depends on the individual font, of course, and how much text you’re putting in. So far I haven’t experimented much beyond finding limits – the amount of text I can jam in, which hovers around 550 words or so. That’s pretty sensible – it’s about what you can fit on a single page, too.

Some things I’m considering putting in this format

  • catalogue of card games I’ve made
  • popular blog posts
  • a single short prestige class or paragon path
  • a spellbook for a D&D character
  • a micro RPG
  • an RPG seed or scenario
  • a character background guide

We’ll see what comes of these ideas!

After the fold is just my template for this, to make it easy to find by searching for ‘small booklet’ or ‘personal zine’ or ‘a4 booklet.’

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MTG: Dancing In The Cinders

Is it something about Aristocrats decks that get me to come out and play? Is that what pulls me into Standard? I feel dirty, like somehow it’s just the interaction between some junk drawer creature and a junk lord and suddenly I’m just an easy get for a standard environment.

Anyway, I’ve been playing Magic: The Gathering a little more, and rather than hanging around in the silly waters of Commander 1v1 (a format where I mostly goldfish), I’ve been playing Standard and Modern (and we’ll get to that), based on throwing together a reasonably cheap deck. Right now is one of the best times to get a standard deck with a good mana base together, because there’s a standard-legal Ravnica set, pulling the cost on Ravnica duals down to nearly a buck each on MTGO.

Mardu Aristocrats, September 2019

Creatures (32)
Hunted Witness
Grim Initiate
Tithe Taker
Priest of Forgotten Gods
Cruel Celebrant
Mayhem Devil
Imperious Oligarch
Judith, The Scourge Diva
Midnight Reaper
Ministrant of Obligation
Demon of Catastrophes

Spells (4)
Spark Harvest
Lands (24)
Blood Crypt
Dragonskull Summit
Godless Shrine
Isolated Chapel
Sacred Foundry
Clifftop Retreat

The basic anatomy of this kind of deck, known colloquially as an Aristocrats deck is threefold; you want cards that don’t mind being sacrificed (‘food’), you want things that can sacrifice cards for benefit (‘feeders’), and things that react to the interactions between the first two (‘zookeepers’). It’s a neat little ecosystem of a deck and part of what I like about it is how it makes a lot of creatures that are, at best, kinda cheap and durdly, into something your opponent has to spend their cards on, and even then, they’re not guaranteed to get ahead when that happens.

This deck is by no means what you’d call ‘good’ – the last time I did this I had Zulaport Cutthroat, and let me tell you, Cruel Celebrant is no Cutthroat. Or maybe I’m just sour about mana in general. There’s also the way that Mayhem Devil works, dealing damage wherever you like but also crucially making that damage require sacrifice. There are draws however where you get some mix like a Hunted Witness into a Priest of Forgotten Gods into Cruel Celebrant and Grim Initiate, and you blow your opponent’s board up, draw some cards and then drop another Priest of the Forgotten Gods, and then they cheer and people pick you up and lead you around the room and you’re just the best.

And those games are pretty fun, especially in the low-stakes casual standard room where you are going to face things like Treefolk Tribal and Ladies Facing Left. Still, there are plenty of times you draw a hand and you’re looking at a fistful of 1/1s and a land, or 4 mayhem devils and three lands and know you’re probably not winning with that. It doesn’t mulligan great either – you kind of need a mix of your pieces, and every card you start down loses you a piece, and a chance at a better piece.

Nonetheless, I really enjoy this deck and it’s pretty rotation proof at the moment. I don’t know what’s going to add to it in the upcoming sets, but for now, it’s a fun little unit. I need to develop it a sideboard, though, so I can play it casually in the Tournament room, rather than hang in the much more variable space of the casual room.

Story Pile: Highcumberland Jubilee

I love Jimmy Buffett.

I know, I’m not cool.

I’ve mentioned that I grew up in a media bubble. This space was one where I couldn’t really buy new albums, and my exposure to pop music was little snippets of music from – I kid you not – television ads for compilation albums of ‘the hottest songs of the’ etcetera. When I started engaging with pop music, it wasn’t the pop music aimed at me, it was the pop music that’d been aimed at my dad, because in our secret cupboard, we had hidden away, vinyl records of satanic, dangerous, wild music, like The Eagles and The Moody Blues.

Dad also owned every Jimmy Buffett album, in some form or another, from High Cumberland Jubilee through to Coconut Telegraph, mostly on old vinyl, and once, he tasked me to record all his vinyl onto tape so he could listen to it in the car. I took to this task, and while I was at it, I made recordings for myself, to listen to in my room. They anchored to my soul, singable music that I listened to over and over again, and became my bedrock for learning such ridiculous ideas as fictional narrative in music.

I’ll restate that: Jimmy Buffett is the place I realised that stories in songs can be fake.

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Is Elmo Black?

I brought this up a little while ago and I thought at the time it’d be a simple enough question. I wanted to make sure before I went in on it, though, that I knew whether or not I was dealing with something obvious to people who weren’t as far as I am as outside of American Blackness.

It reads a bit like a trick question, I think. Elmo after all, is not a black person, he is a muppet. Not only is he not human, he’s not an African-American, and if nothing else, he’s red.

Why then, would I ask if Elmo is black?

First, Elmo is a character who is performed. Elmo is not someone you inherently perform when you get the Elmo puppet; look at all the many lovable scamps making hilarious jokes about Muppets saying dirty words when they get their hands on an elmo toy. There’s a style guide to Elmo; he has a vocabulary and a characterisation, and those things are built on what the character’s already done, the image he projects to the audience. Those details are made up of a history of Elmo performances, which are themselves informed by the people who have creative control over what Elmo ‘should’ have and do, starting with Elmo’s creator, the first person to make an Elmo, and  define the character as he should work.

That creator, Kevin Clash (who is it seems probably a bad dude, alas, but this is not the venue for that conversation), is a black man. He defined Elmo’s voice, and vocabulary, and mannerism, and also puppeteered him for decades, too – which means that Elmo’s manner and behaviour was all being defined by someone who lived and experienced blackness. Even though right now, Ryan Dillon is Elmo’s primary puppeteer, and Ryan Dillon isn’t a black man, the upshot is that Ryan  Dillon, performing Elmo is going to perform some of what Kevin Clash performed.

In this way, the question becomes: Does Elmo inherit blackness from Kevin Clash? Does he do or relate to the world the way that a black kid might, especially in the context of a life that isn’t tainted by the way our world oppresses black kids? To what extent does the blackness Kevin Clash put into Elmo’s performance still persist as Ryan Dillon attempts to continue playing that character faithfully?

Elmo is a performance; Elmo is a character defined and created by a black man; does that black man’s performance bring with it blackness?

This is why I asked the question.

I don’t have an answer, by the way. The answer as best can be understood is if black people, other people who know how it is and what it means, to perform blackness, can look at Elmo and intuitively grasp that he’s ‘meant’ to be black, or that he’s a participant in their experience.

Popstars Was Weird

Australia has a really unpleasantly comfortable relationship with reality TV.

I understand that just because I dislike reality TV doesn’t mean it’s an inherently unworthy media form, but I think that Reality TV’s relationship to Australian culture can be seen as a symptom, because its a kind of illness. There’s a lot of shows we could be making that we’re definitely, definitely not making, because it’s cheaper to make reality TV shows, and that means our entire TV model is biased towards making these cheap shows and trying hard as possible to drive engagement with them, and seemingly because of our national character perhaps, we drive these engagements with the most awful, antisocial kind of stuff. The reality TV show is something that we’ve been doing for my whole life, more or less, in the controlled space of the lifestyle and vet program, leading around the prolonged misery dare of The Block and House From Hell, or the pseudovoyeuristic ‘game show’ of observing assholes with Big Brother or the ‘documentary’ of rich people problems like Sylvania Waters, and, of course, the utterly empty promises of reality TV in the form of the talent show.

There’s an industry pumping these things out; for a brief time there I thought it was worth my time to keep some framing in my mind to tell which ones came from England and America and Canada and also the ones from Australia, because these shows were made by a business that then outsources them, then the resultant products are merchandised across all the countries that speak the language and for some reason we here in Australia have a remarkably deep desire for these shows.

And I remember a first one.

It wasn’t necessarily the first. I don’t know. I don’t care. We’re getting to a very specific place, just bear with me. See, Australia had this reality TV show back in the 90s, called Popstars. An idea that started in New Zealand, proving that not everything they did is better than we do, Popstars is your basic formula talent show. Information about it in hindsight is scarce: I seem to remember that it was about building a pop group out of a variety of participants, rather than any one person winning.

Popstars was participated in by a bunch of people nobody remembers, and it was staffed by a bunch of other people nobody remembers. I literally only have had this show held in my memory by TISM making fun of it, referring to a choreographer as ‘that bloke from Popstars that looks likes the Paddlepop Lion and who you could tell was so enjoying his chance to bully a bunch of twenty year olds,’ and if that song, BFW, didn’t have its own timelessness to it, I would have absolutely forgotten Popstars.

Well, except for one thing.

Popstars had a ‘winner,’ of a sort, there was something that came out the other end of its extrusion, a bubblegum pop girl band called Bardot. Bardot had one album, also called Bardot. They are eminently forgettable; I cannot tell you how their song sounded, nor how well their album did. I thought at first they were a complete stone dropped off a cliff, a complete nothing of a band, but no, it turns out they had a ‘successful’ album and a ‘successful’ follow-up album. They dissolved in 2002, to pursue solo careers, which based on subsequent releases, they immediately caught, then went home. Popstars continued for a few more years, tried to make a few more bands (like ‘Scandal’us‘), and was eventually outmoded and displaced by Idol, which it directly inspired.

Now, there are two reasons to remember Bardot.

The first reason to know about Bardot is that Bardot had two number one hits in Australia, that not even Australians of age at the time remember, was nominated for ARIA awards, and lost to Savage Garden (because we live in a society). Despite this, you can’t get them on Spotify. You can’t find them on any online streaming service, at all. You can’t buy them on iTunes. And this is because the licenser responsible for owning all their music has declared that it wouldn’t make enough money to make it worth doing.

They own the music.

They don’t need to pay anyone royalties.

They are saying that it wouldn’t make them enough money to do the paperwork required to stream these songs.

That’s kinda devastating.

Anyway, here’s the other thing about Bardot that’s worth remembering. You might imagine so far that this being a bubblegum pop band created in a public television program to manufacture a band there’d be some criticism of the band as being ‘fake’ in some way. Artificial. Also, the selection of performers was a range of Photogenically Attractive Skinny White Girls, which furthers the comparison to mannequins or dolls.

The people making the album took this criticism on board, then and what we got was this album cover.

It’s clear the aim is to riff on the criticism – ha ha, let’s present them as mannequins, as plastic dolls in plastic clothes, suggesting we can tell that people think of this as a ‘fake’ band!  That’s you know, so far so what, and hey, look, they’re people who make media involving women that treats them as objects, this isn’t news or meaningful. That’s not really the thing about this cover that’s bugged me. Though I guess at the same time, boy, I bet there are a lot of people who had their bimbofication or dollification kinks awakened here.

No, what’s haunted me about this album cover for decades is that this is a professionally made album cover, made by people who were ostensibly professionals, and they didn’t think to look at the transparent plastic ‘lead’ they gave the model in the front right to hold to connect her to her ‘dog’ that is, yes, ha ha, artificial. Because the way it’s positioned, the way it’s plastic, the way her hand isn’t tangibly holding anything – it absolutely looks like she’s peeing on it.

Game Pile: Pokemon Go

Pokemon is a rich vein of hashtag content for hashtag content hashtag creators, who are trying to hashtag drive hashtag engagement. For that reason I’ve largely left the subject alone except when the tumult has grown so tempestuous I find myself driven to shout about it. I think most of my reviews of Pokemon main games would be a little tedious – I’ve talked about the difficulty of talking about them in the past, where these games are largely just really good, and critically engaging with them in any way is a matter of picking over a game that’s 99% positive finding the 1% that’s got something interesting enough to talk about.

Not so Pokemon Go, though, which is probably the most successful and widespread alternate reality game that exists in the world right now, at least as far as I, someone who speaks only English, am aware. Remember, there are more mobile phones in China than there are people in America – if it turns out there’s some amazing thing happening on the other side of the Great Firewall, I wouldn’t know about it. Anyway, point is, Pokemon Go is a big deal, and it’s not a sequel in a meaningful way and it’s not a refinement of a nearly perfected formula.

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Gen 5, Part One, PoGo

I’ve mentioned in the past, or maybe in the future, I don’t know how the scheduling works out, that the presence of Garchomp in Pokemon Go was my personal ‘there goes the neighbourhood’ metric. I’m a bitter, bitter boy and Garchomp was one of the things that drove me away from online Pokemon battling back in Generation 4. Comical then is that that drive also led to me missing out on a generation I think I would have loved until I was sick of it, Generation 5, of the infamous Weather Wars.

I’m just going to assume, if you’re going to keep reading that you either know enough about Pokemon that explaining Weather Wars would be old news to you, or so new that you don’t care to learn the four or five different interconnected systems to learn why weather was so goddamn important. We’re just going to skip over and if you want me to explain it in my plain-languagey explainy way, you can ask me to explain the Weather Wars later.

Anyway.

Still, Generation 5 was great, because it was Pokemon game, and they’re all great, because that’s the way Pokemon games work, something to do with them all being really great. A thing I loved about Gen 5 though was that this was a time when the Pokedex – the collection of Pokemon you’d encounter – was pretty much completely new, so you saw almost nothing but new Pokemon, and you wouldn’t see your old favourites until after you got to the end of the game. Bit of a bummer if you carried the same Pikachu from two generations back, but if you were the kind of person who was seeking new experiences, like me, Gen 5 was so full of brand new friends to make it was great.

And since the internet loves lists, here’s a list of Some Pokemons from Generation V, and why I like them, to give my Pokemon Goer friends some context!

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