The Double Nickel

If you google the term ‘the double nickel,’ you’ll usually find something about trucker slang, from the CB radio days. It refers to 55 miles an hour, two fives next to each other. More obscurely, however, is it’s a term from Magic: The Gathering tournament scenes, based out of New York.

If you like Mike Flores’ writing, this ten year old article from Flores explains the whole thing – but it is a bit of a ‘crystal in time’ moment. It’s from back when there was really one Magic web show, called The Magic Show, back when I argued against Youtube as a platform for Magic content because it simply wasn’t a viable format for me, in Australia with cheap, poor internet. It’s also a bit rambling and full of Flores’ personal affect, which I of all people would be an asshole to complain about, but if you’re only here because of game design, and not here because you’re a massive magic nerd who cares about history of the game, let alone the specifics of the game that were history ten years ago.

The basic idea is the double nickel is you do two iterations of a five-pile shuffle, which, when dealing with a number of cards divisible by five (forty or sixty, as in Magic), you will get back to where you started. This shuffling method is a pretty reliable cheat – used by one Mike Long in a famous cheating incident involving a card called Howling Wolf. And now I’m getting bogged down in the specifics of that game.

Anyway, the thing to know about this is one of the reasons why a lot of my games use these deliberately inconvenient numbers. If you’ve ever played LFG, you might notice there are 23 character cards, so a card always winds up in the graveyard when the cards are dealt out to the players. This is also true in Senpai Notice Me, where part of the setup is to make sure that there’s a card discarded from the game, and so there’s not perfect information about what’s in it.

The double nickel also is something you can use in the setup of a game deliberately. In Pandemic there’s a set of outbreak cards that get shuffled into sub-decks, and so to in Goodcritters, to make sure that there’s an end to the game coming but you can’t be sure of how it arrives. We used this tech in Foxtail, too, to make sure that the end game could be set up without necessarily making it guaranteed.

Story Pile: The Prestige

The Prestige was a 2006 thriller film that’s pretty much successful enough and attached to enough big names in the mainstream movie space that it kind of sits in that space of oh, I’ve heard of that. It’s also a movie built around a twist, and it’s a movie with – well, with prestige.

It’s got Michael Caine! It’s got Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale and Jacko Wolverine and Scarlett Johannsen, and David Bowie! This is a movie with some cred, and that means that it’s a little more seen than most of the ‘magic’ movies I thought about talking about.

It’s also kind of one of those movies that movie makers seem to like making and movie nerds tend to like talking about, so I feel a bit like I’m treading old ground here. You know, it’s got it all, it’s got a nonlinear framing device, it’s got mysteries, it’s got extremely difficult performances to pull off and some technical tricks and CG that makes it look like you weren’t using CG and it’s a period piece so you get to put everyone in funny outfits and top hats. The only thing it really lacks is singing, which Hugh Jackman would have gotten in there if it was up to him, you know it.

Anyway, I’m going to talk about the movie, which is kind of built around twists, and just mentioning that there are twists is going to be a twist so yeah sorry, I spoiled you that there’s a twist (and I don’t actually care) and there will be more, after the cut. Also I’m going to mention other things he did, like Inception and maybe make fun of people who claim those movies are super complex.

However, in deference to the fact that this movie does Go Places, I have selected my screengrabs for this article entirely at random from a website that has way too many of them. There is literally no way for me to be sure what exact context I’m giving these things, but trust me, it’s not intentional.

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Making Magic (In Games)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eevolutions, Ranked

In Pokemon, a game series I have regularly praised, there’s a PokeMon by the name of eevee. Eevee is renowned for its evolving into a variety of different forms, of which literally all are the best form. However, in a collection of eight alternative forms after the first – which is also perfect and the best – there’s going to be some sort of personal sorting algorithm of the best.

Here, then, is eevee, and here are eevee’s evolutions in order of Least My Favourite to My Favourite.

Ready?

Here we go!
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Game Pile: Apollo Justice

Is it boring now to hear that I love the Ace Attorney games? Is it? I don’t know, I don’t know if you tune in for everything here. I don’t know if it’s getting tedious to hear that I find these visual novels extremely charming or like tracking their evolution through interface technology or their constant desire to try new and interesting things or their charming characters, or their laugh-out-loud out-of-context comedy. I hope it’s not boring because I’m about to bang on about it for god-knows-how-long.

Apollo Justice is the fourth game (kinda??) in the Ace Attorney series, which are made in Japan with Japanese sensibilities, about a stylised version of the Japanese justice system, and localised in one of the more comically ham-fisted ways. These games are great and inventive and funny and charming and all that good stuff, and this one is, well, it’s one of them.

There’s going to be some mild spoilers, because some characters are surprises introduced after, like, the first case.

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The Ebb and Flow of Privilege

There’s this term that we use a lot these days and the way it’s used makes it easier to conflate what it means, and that conflation can make it seem like the term itself is incorrect. This is true for a lot of terms but for now let’s just go in on privilege.

Okay, the way we describe this is ‘thanks to white privilege, thing thing thing,‘ or ‘well, he has white privilege,‘ and I’m only using those simplest versions of these things, because there’s a lot of complicated conversation about what things we do and don’t translate the idea of privilege to. The original idea of white privilege was developed to refer to specific structures about the perception of race and the enforcement of white supremacy, but now it’s used as a kind of useful applicable label for any time when sometimes a demographic group has benefits over another.

Now, this gets into some weird places when the language gets appropraited by TERFs and other dickhead groups – where they will sometimes claim trans women (and it is always trans women) have ‘male privilege’ because they were able to advance themselves ‘as men’ then deploy womanhood after attaining all the advantages that manhood could get them, like a kind of MCV from Command & Conquer.

This idea is preposterous, but it’s also indicative of a way that the speaker thinks of privilege. It suggests that male privilege is something you turn off and on again – as if maybe a trans woman talking in coded-masc ways on the phone is able to benefit from her ‘male privilege.’ There’s also ‘straight-passing’ privilege I see some people suggest hovers around ace and bi people, with the idea that ace and bi people can be perceived as straight, and therefore, benefit from straight privilege.

This is pish and silly, but I think the reason it needs addressing is not jus to win a rhetorical argument but to try and help the people making these arguments (or more reasonably, the people around those arguments who aren’t sure why those arguments shouldn’t be compelling) come to a better understanding of what privilege is.

See, it’s not inherent. Privilege isn’t something you have in you. It’s something you benefit from. It’s a system external to yourself. It’s why people with white seeming names are treated as white when they’re on the phone, and it’s something that society around us enforces through systems but also through our own behaviours.

There’s a form of straight privilege in my experience, where it’s not just a matter of being passively perceived as straight, not just compliant with straightness, but so compliant you’re against the alternative. In that situation, you can watch as the privileges extended to straightness are withdrawn in a heartbeat when you simply position yourself as say, tolerante of nonstraight people.

There. Basic idea. Privilege is an external system you benefit from as long as you are tangibly interfacing with the system in the ways it wants to encourage. Sometimes that’s a lot, and it asks a lot, and returns a lot. Sometimes it’s withdrawn, and you may seem to think it’s not there at all.

But like the tide, it keeps coming, back, and forth, back and forth. The only way you escape it is to remove yourself from it – or, I suppose, blow up the ocean. This metaphor got away from me.

Give It Time To Cook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Levels of Expertise

I’ve found that this past year, the average length of blog posts have, according to WordPress’ stats, gone up. It used to be my blog posts were around 300 words per day, now they hover around 900. A modern professional blog can usually maintain that pace per author, and usually employs a rotating staff to make sure that hopper is always full.

Now, this is something I thought about, and wondered if I was saying more stuff, but I think the main thing that’s changed over time is not so much that I’ve been saying more stuff, but that I’ve been providing more context. Back when I started out, I had this feature I used quite a bit – ‘if I were Peter Molyneux’ based around writing fantastic game concepts to relate to puns. The idea was that if I had Peter Molyneux’s industry clout and could get nonsense games made on the strength of seeming visionary, I’d make a bunch of silly things that I could imagine being fun or cool.

That was fine, but you had to know who Peter Molyneux was, and why I titled the post that. You had to know what I thought of Peter Molyneux, and all that.

Now there’s a power to that, a freedom and a flexibility. It’s pretty cool – it expresses my voice. Maybe if I was using the blog to tell jokey jokes, it’s a good idea, but I tend to use twitter for that sort of short form. What I want this blog to do is to give meaningful context and process to people who don’t have access to that, and that means sometimes, the posts have to get big and sprawling to explain three or four related ideas.

At the same time, I don’t actually think it’s a good idea to keep going for a thousand words a day on this blog. Chris Franklin gave some useful advice about how anything that takes too long is either best reserved for a format that encourages deep readings (like books), or split up so the ideas are given their own foundational space. Three hours or fifteen minutes, I know what I’d rather use of your time.

Story Pile: Now You See Me

This month’s Story Pile is definitely picked with a positive bent. It’s pretty well known that magicians are kinda hokey and the idea of stage magic as a central theme to build a narrative around is going to have to struggle uphill against conventions that magic is a practice embraced by dorks who don’t mind practicing in front of a mirror. Sometimes this is done by involving crime in the story, or star power in the production of the movie.

And sometimes what you get out of that is dreadful.

I’ve struggled a bit trying to write about Now You See Me for a bit over a year now, because every attempt to talk about the movie runs into struggling to describe what happens in it, without getting bogged down in how rubbish it is at it. My typical structure fails me here, and so, I’m not going to do that this time. I’m just going to complain about this movie, which is badly put together doofus garbage.

Oh and spoilers for this movie you shouldn’t bother watch.

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The Author Is Suspended

One thing that you deal with when you read a lot of academic books and texts is you get an impression of the writer. It’s not just that you read the book, it’s that you read the book over and over again, and you read certain passages over and over and when you do that, you need to be able to contextualise those passages in the greater work, and that means you’re encouraged to form a framework of the opinions and beliefs of the person you’re reading about.

Sometimes this is very useful; it’s illuminating to remember that Heidegger was a Nazi (and people can um-and-ah about that point) or that Caillois a misogynist (amongst other things). These people write about things where those perspectives are implied but not stated, and being able to put their behaviour in their own contexts is not a bad thing.

Still, there’s a risk you run when you do this kind of close reading, especially when dealing with academics who are still alive.

One idea I use a lot in my discussion of games and plays is that the play of a game is paratextual; that you play the game to experience its text, and that represents a boundary between ‘definitely the text’ and ‘definitely not the text.’ Play is not something the author put there, but they definitely put something there that the play happens with. But the idea of paratext was not made for games – it was developed by Gerard Geanette to talk about books, specifically books as objects, with ideas like dust jackets. The idea that play is paratextual seems to be from me, and it’s not widespread. That means I’m taking an idea someone else had and using it to explain something else.

That’s how academic reading and studying works, but here’s the problem: I have no idea if Gerard Geanette would agree with me. I don’t know if he thinks this is a good application of his idea or, even if he didn’t like it, that that matters. I’ve never gotten the impression Geanette particularly likes board and videogames. I’ve always had the impression that he loved books, a bibliophile who found reason to discourse about the weight of paper and its influence on text.

Moreso than that, in Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost relates an incident where he, generating a little web tool that created random banners, was reprimanded (sort of?) for putting a label of ‘WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A THING’ over a picture of some women. It wasn’t done specifically – it wasn’t something crafted to his ideological position, it was just something a bit of code he made did.

I have read this anecdote a dozen times or more as I grapple with explaining and justifying the philosophical conception of things existing, and seeing it over and over makes it easier to remember. Easier to put a sense to. Easier to imagine having a tone of irritation.

Thing is, I think odds are good that Bogost is not only over the mild discouragement he got for this web applet doohickey, but that all the irritation in his tone that I read in his piece is entirely in my head.  This passage doesn’t have emphasis or sarcasm notes or colour coding. It’s very stark text in the same voice as the rest of the book. Yet I keep coming back to this passage, to this moment of an author’s mindset, and find something there, something I don’t think I found the first time I read it. And the author, frozen in time, has nothing to tell me but what they already told me. Hanging, suspended, for my interpretation of invisible ink.

Be vigilant about the assumptions you find in work, but also be vigilant about the assumptions you build to make telling the story to yourself easier.

Hunter’s Dreams – The Nexus’ Needs

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

One of the funny things about this game design process so far is that one of the biggest ‘new’ systems the game includes is going to be building hutns, where players get to interact with some more board-gamey elements. And as with almost all big things, it’s easier to instead peck around the outside, to work with the smaller things, until you get to the bigger thing. There’s value to that, though, especially because when you’re aware of what your small systems can do, you can use them to adjust the bigger, more complicated ones.

With that in mind, let’s talk about a thing that gives the games a rules patch: The Nexus.

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Keys And Switches

Okay, game design question: Why does Doom give you both keys and switches? Yeah that’s right, we’re talking about Doom again because that’s basically inevitable at this point. When I’m in doubt, I will probably always reach back into lessons from Doom, because like all people who get reputations for being smart, I mostly just overthink one tiny window of my life.

It was this, or I become a priest, okay?

Anyway, what’s the functional difference between keys and switches in DOOM?

First things first, on the technical level, there isn’t a lot of room between them. Keys are something you need to have to trigger certain ‘things’ (I’m not going to explain linedefs here, operating on the maxim that I shouldn’t blog about anything where I can’t handle a followup question), and those things just won’t work at all if you don’t have the key. It’s pretty binary – if you have a key, you can open the door, and if you don’t, the door does nothing.

You can do the same thing, mostly, with a switch: since the way the game handles keys in levels is ‘a thing you have to do first’ you could make it so all the doors you want to open are ‘locked’ until a switch is flipped. That’s not everything to it – locking and unlocking doors with switches is a little untidy and it can rely on doing things like layering a whole thin door over the space the other door is meant to go.

Still, while keys are ‘just’ inflexible switches, that’s not to say they’re limited in their application like that. Keys do other things, but they’re things they do to the player. First of all, keys signal a reminder of their purpose. Doom typically adorns locked doors with familiar colour bands to show off the colour key they use (though it’s not necessary they do that!).  You have a red key, you might remember that there’s a red door and know where to go to find it.

Secondly, keys are carryable. If you flip the switch that unlocks the red doors, then wander back to find the doors, you might not remember if the switch you flipped was the red one or the blue one or the yellow one. Since you’re carrying this one around, you can just check the interface for that.

Also, it might be hard to remember, but sometimes people stop playing Doom mid-level? Having the keys in your inventory means that if you haven’t played for a few days, you’ll be able to see clearly which keys you have, rather than re-hunting. Same as the carryable thing.

They also create a feeling of progress? If you have three keys, it’s very easy to feel like you’re ‘nearly done’ with the level.

Bearing that in mind then, why do both? Is there a difference? Yes and at the same time no. Mechanistically speaking, from the game’s perspective, there really is no meaningful difference. A key is a switch you flip by going to the key’s location and then that unlocks a bunch of other switches. You could colour code switches, too, so it’s not even that. Yet at the same time, keys are things. Keys are objects, even if they don’t exist, and that makes us treat them in our mind like objects, an idea that changes how we treat them.

Starting Making, Concept 2: Penny Something

Reiner Knizier said – well he didn’t say it, and whatever he said was probably in German, but I summarise it as – that you start making a game from a component, a mechanic or a concept. A component means some game piece, some object to work with, a mechanic is a rules interaction, and a concept is a theme or a fictional idea to build a game around. These articles are ones where I try to take a game idea and flesh it out a little, starting from one of those three parts. Last time I went with a concept – the theme of Hallmark Movies.

This time, we’re going to start with a component.

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Pokemon Changes

With the recent news that Pokemon: Sword and Sheep won’t feature any Mega Evolutions, and megas will no longer be available, and therefore all competitive pokemon is ruined forever, Pokemon fans have been up in arms about having this important thing ‘taken’ from them.

Now, for a moment let’s set aside the way that pokemon generations are definitionally games that cycle through seasons and each iteration is designed to play like a new game, with changes designed to alter the competitive formats, and that no matter what happened in the next generation, what used to be good won’t be good any more, but let’s just consider that maybe there’s some special reason to particularly expect Megas to stick around.

Actually, you know what, let’s not set that aside. Because while this started out as a listicle, that wanted to remind you of poffins and single special stats and secret bases and competitions, it eventually just became a long form complaint about the two demands Pokemon has to serve that annoy the piss out of me.

  • Every new Pokemon generation needs new Pokemon, or the players will be mad. This is expected and assumed.
  • Every new Pokemon generation needs to look ‘better’ than the last Pokemon, or the press will be dipshits about it. This is expected and assumed.

These two demands are basically at odds with one another. Now, I don’t want to go over what Dan did over at New Frames Plus with Pokemon’s graphical evolution, but here is your summary: Early Pokemon cleverly used a small number of action animations over a large number of non animating Pokemon to make a lot of content, and ever since then people who I think should be ignored have been harping on about how no matter how great the game is, it needs to look better. Sure, make the game look better if it can be done conveniently, if it yields a better outcome than not, but as Dan explains, the eventual load increase from this means that adding one new frame to the animation of each Pokemon means seven hundred new frames of work.

Then you have to remember that those two forces aren’t truly it: there’s a third thing.

  • And now, the third thing, the secret invisible gripping hand thing: Every new Pokemon generation needs to not wreck your favourite thing.

Megas are just another thing, just the latest thing. They were tried out, explored for a generation, and then moved on. They give an interesting development, a way to force variey into Pokemon choice, a way to make a new potent force out of classics, without necessarily making a lot of arbitary choices.

Megas were an interesting mechanic! GameFreak don’t typically make big changes to pokemon, as if to create a feeling of continuity between these creatures. If the Pokemon you played with last generation had wildly different stats, or if they played in a different way, it’d make you feel that change, they’d feel like something happened to them. That’s weird. It also used to impact backwards compatibility: Pokemon Red Blue Yellow could accept Pokemon from Pokemon Gold Silver Crystal, which meant that suddenly Pokemon like Alakazam could do all the elemental punches. That’s not itself a problem per se – I don’t know how the competitive formats handle that, but I’m sure they have an opinion on it.

Megas let them make big changes, let them infuse a Pokemon with a big burst of power, add an ability, and gave other fun interactions like the relationship between Intimidate, or inflated stats and Wishes, or the power of effects like Knock Off or swapping items off people.

Thing is there are some folk out there who love Poffins. Some folk who have the mechanical skill for Poffin blending burnt into their brain, who think about it when they do some other similar rhythm-based endurance challenge and think wistfully about time they spent seventeen years ago on the train, Poffin blending with their buds.

Megas are like Poffins. Things that Game Freak tried out, experimented with, then let go of, because they just aren’t that fun, or don’t have a particularly useful application or the technology to build with them isn’t important any more.

And hey, Megas had their time. Charizard had its time. Mewtwo had its time.

Let’s stop demanding things that don’t work together.

Story Pile: Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants

Last year I learned that Ricky Jay had passed away. Someone retweeted someone else who retweeted someone else and they showed me a short video of Ricky Jay at his craft, and I realised… I know this guy. I know this guy because I’d seen him in movies, seen him on Mythbusters, and seen yes, a few of his tricks in old, VHS videos about how to do magic. I’d seen him on the cover of his book in an old second hand store, and read as much of it as I could, knowing that cards were powerful, in a strange, surreal way.

Then someone helpfully linked to Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants show, a VHS production available on Youtube, and otherwise relatively hard to get. This is a video recording of a show he performed off-Broadway back in the 1990s, where he basically got up in front of a room and was ridiculously good with cards for almost two hours. Like, it’s all held together by his patter and his narrative, but it isn’t like the show’s about something that Ricky doesn’t just outright state.

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3.5 Memories – The Dragon Girlfriend

Time to time I’ll talk about things in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 about the fairness or brokenness of various things like I’m some kind of specialist scientist with a really niche interest and people around me are reasonably familiar with what I’m talking about but don’t actually understand the magnitude of what I’m talking about. It is, I imagine, the kind of blank look that civic engineers get when they start describing ‘tolerances’ to city planners, or a nuclear physicist trying to explain control rods to a Wendy’s drive-through, just with stakes that are infinitely lower.

Here’s a thing, then, that’s just there, in the rules, and it’s really powerful and it’s silly and it’s invisible. It’s invisible because it relies on a dice roll and the game rules work at it, and the rules as written just seem to stop, like someone didn’t consider that anyone might actually use this ability.

Clerics could get domains. These were things that’d make your character feel more different, more distinct from anyone else. Hypothetically, this meant that a cleric of Time and Elf would look different to a cleric of Fire and Law, except what usually that meant is you got a lot of clerics of Luck and Time and Elf and Glory, and if the player was just a well-meaning scrub attracted to some good looking keywords, maybe even Strength.

Anyway, mixed in amongst this there were the innocuous-seeming Fire, Water, Earth and Air domaints, which gave you the ability to, as in th example of the Water Domain: Turn or destroy fire creatures as a good cleric turns undead. Rebuke, command, or bolster water creatures as an evil cleric rebukes undead. And that sentence sat in the player’s handbook like a god damn rat trap.

Because what does that mean? What does a ‘water’ creature mean. Well, a water creature is any creature with the water subtype. Which obviously means things like a water elemental, and that’s not such a big deal, right? Those creatures tended to be kinda basic; single special ability, a bunch of immunities that won’t protect them from much, but they would come along and maybe a cleric could have a fun time with their new pet. No problem, right?

Here’s the thing: The rules don’t put a duration on controlling undead. Controlled undead, in all the situations you see them, operate at the order of their controller, but act on their own initiatives. And that’s something you have to dig for: A player character with controlled undead will generally be allowed to boss them around freely because 3.5 was not a place that had a good handle on what we call ‘an action economy.’ Okay, so a Commanded elemental creature is great because it’s free actions, right? That’s a problem right there.

The other thing is, though, ‘water’ type creatures aren’t just ‘things made of water.’ It’s a whole galaxy of critters that have the Water subtype. And that means that suddenly the entire Monster manual opens up, and it doesn’t specify nonintelligent water creatures and that takes, if you start from the top down, into the home of the dragons.

Yes.

Two dragons – Black and Bronze – are ‘water’ creatures.

You get a lot of bang for your buck out of a dragon. A level 5 cleric can command, with a reasonably good roll, 9 hit dice of Dragon, or a Medium Bronze dragon, which has six attacks at +11, an AC of 18, 76 hit points and a breath weapon. A level 8 cleric with a pair of baby bronze dragons flapping around them would be a cute thing to see, and in terms of sheer bulk you can put on the battlefield, it’s pretty stunning – a level 8 cleric is looking at having something like 45 HP, and those dragons would have the same, so this one class feature with a good roll can triple the amount of meat you put on the table.

What’s more, this is without any weird stuff. This isn’t pushing the limits on what your domain can do. This isn’t using magical items to improve your turning (and you absolutely can) or feats to improve your turning (and you absolutely can) and this is without involving the other types of elemental domain (and red dragons have the fire subtype), or even taking both and getting to command your hit dice + 4 of water creatures and your hit dice +4 of fire creatures!

Did I ever see anyone do this? No.

Nobody bothered. I mean, clerics were broken enough without it.

You could ignore a class feature that let you control dragons because… eh.

You had better stuff to do with your time.

I always wanted to give it a shot, and make a character who used it to have a water dragon girlfriend that followed them around? But any DM would look at it, despite the way the rules said it worked, assume it didn’t really do that, and then the whole idea got vetoed. Which really, it should.

And this is just one feature of one domain from one class that’s so broken it can ignore this.

Game Pile: Simon The Sorcerer

Simon the Sorcerer is a Narrative Adventure game made by Adventure Soft in 1993, and it’s weird. It’s weird in the way that a lot of British-made games were weird, weird in the way that British pop of the era was weird, weird because it was simultaneously very much its own thing made by people who were very confident you knew what they were talking about like a swaggering cultural coloniser but at the same time strangely desperate to follow a leader it definitely didn’t quite get.

Now, I’ve talked about Simon the Sorcerer in the past, and I want to set aside the sequels (there were five of these things?!) because they became their own thing as well, their own slightly worse thing. Instead, I want to focus on the first game, when Simon is something of a generically quippy British arse, maybe as young as twelve years old voiced by Chris Barrie, as opposed to the character who was desperately trying to crawl into Chris Barrie’s voice and take on some of his power.

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August Is… Magic Month!

No, not Magic: The Gathering. And honestly that would be harder. And kind of terrible?

This August, the theme is Magic, but not magic the way it normally works. I want to talk to you about stage magic, about attainable magic, about performers that play with expectation and with conception.

Now, here’s a thing to think about: Just how much stuff do I have to be paying attention to in the space of ‘stage magic nonsense’ that when confronted with things I want to spend a month talking about in bits and pieces, how much of a complete dork am I that I thought ‘oh hey! Stage magic! I notice a lot of things about stage magic!’

I mean when it comes to writing about magic, magic is in so many things I write about or care about, because magic – sorcery, wizardry, that nonsense, is all about the direct manipulation of the human body and the mind and things like ‘expressing wants as powers.’ That’s all nonsense, though, that’s magic, which is interesting in its own way, but it’s nothing compared to the challenges of stage magic, which is magic that has to simultaneously be human executable while also being seemingly not.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to start talking about how-to guides and breakdowns of things that I am absolutely not qualified to talk about. Instead, I want to talk to you about the real and the magical and the ways we tell stories around things that you perceive as real, and the ways that we are fooled. There’s a long history of the seemingly impossible, and how it has been a useful, important thing in my life.

And hey, I need to make sure you don’t ever think I’m not a massive dork.

July 2019 Wrapup!

July’s over! Yay!

This month’s had quite a lot of that good Tabletop Gaming Content, with posts about The 3.5 Book Of Vile Darkness, about the process of making a game like Halls In the Mark, the way that D&D gatekept through complexity in Owlbear Traps, the view of violence in Vampire: The Masquerade. Far and away, though, the most popular article of this month has been The Dwarves Wrote The Histories, where I talk about the way that dwarf mechanics in 3.0 and 3.5 D&D paint an unspoken one-sided history. Also popular was The Dragon As State, where I talk about how dragons represent things and we can use that in stories.

This month’s video is half of a two-parter; I plan on uploading the other half next month, because even if it’s not in-theme, it’s still a thing I started, so I want to finish it. One of the problems with this kind of content is that I know it’s not very high demand compared to things like the Meatpunk and Heterotopia essays, but it’s much, much easier to make by comparison, and it’s good practice for free speaking, instead of scripted stuff.

Now, part of this is a function of how much of my writing time is dedicated to the big job of my uni work these past two months. That’s going to change a bit but not as much as you might think.

This month’s shirt, UWUNIONISE is a tribute in part to my friend who is very squishy and lovely but also extremely good and tough, and the plight of the tech worker striving to unionise

This was the month of SMASHcon, which is an Australian anime convention that has nothing to do (inherently) with Super Smash Bros, but that didn’t stop all the questions I got being about that other con that’s a different time and in a different country. Great SEO from our parties, I guess.

That meant we got Con Prep into Con Crud. This month also saw writing on my PhD intensifying, and meetings about the next semester. It’s all been a bit of a blur, and my general mood has been pretty down. There’s been a lot of people who need someone, if only for a few minutes, and it’s been extremely wearying. Also, despite the fact I normally sleep better in winter, I just haven’t been getting to bed at good times this month.

Sorry, sometimes it just sucks.

Making A Big Flag Thread

If you don’t follow me on twitter, and in that case, I’m genuinely surprised you’re here at all, though, thank you, hi, you might be unaware that in May and June I did a long exercise in posting critique of every city flag in America I could find, doing – generally – one state a day for a whole month.The intention was to archive it, on this blog, like I wound up doing for the state flag thread. This is good for me, because it means the work isn’t as ephemeral as it is on twitter, and I get some easy blog posts already made, and it’s good for you, because it means you can actually find the things by searching this central repository of my writing. Win win.

The problem now is scope. See, the state flags were broken up over a week – fifty flags, five days, that more or less worked out. The twitter thread though was an hour a day – more or less – every day for a month. And the number of city flags vary wildly between states – Wyoming only had two or three worth mention, while Massachussetts had three hundred and thirteen. What this meant is that every day I was writing maybe two thousand words plus research plus images of the flags in this thread, and over a month, that’s – well, that’s a book. If you read the whole flag thread, you read a very twittery book.

It’s also big enough that there really isn’t a convenient way to copy it into a document or translate to a webpage. I host the images I put on this blog on this blog – I don’t like the idea that another service going down will make the images fail, or that someone – hypothetically – can change what my blog is showing without my control over it. That means gathering my own versions of all of those flags – and there were almost eighteen hundred flags. Each blog post about them would be quite large, and a lot of those flag comments were just jokes based on a tiny number of extremely basic failings.

I’m not sure I’ve solved this problem yet. One possible solution is to just make the flag thread into an ebook, but that gets into a really fascinating complicated space.

See,  anything posted on twitter is effectively transitory and there’s no expectation of financial remuneration. There’s a certain amount of leeway I get when I post a photo unsourced. I’m not sure, however, about the possible legal ramifications of the use of art owned by cities and states in a different country, especially when if I put the effort into making a good, well-formatted book, I’d be wanting to charge for it.

I mean I could, hypothetically crowdfund a book: Maybe just a book called Your Flags Are All Garbage, and pay an editor or legal department to work things out for me.

Still, for now, that’s an idea, rather than a plan. It’s a funny old thing, really. Creating things is hard, but then translating what we create to useful forms is hard, too.

Story Pile: The Saint (2017)

Aaaaah, they can’t all be hidden gems.

The Saint (2017) is certainly set up to be a hidden gem. I mean, hey, okay, c’mon, check out this breathless spiel. The Saint (2017) is a modern re-adaption of a long-running TV serial about a super cool super thief who flits around the world doing daring heists against extremely powerful evil people, and while he plays with lots of cool toys doing it, he still gives the money away to organisations like Doctors Without Borders and oh he has rad cute friends including a super-stylish lady on the wire who hacks things for him remotely and beats people up and she’s played by Eliza Dushku and there’s a gay black lady who’s on the trail of the villains and there’s a good conspiracy that our hero is the last member of and an evil conspiracy that he’s prepared to fight and it’s all slickly shot and it’s not like the 1990s movie that was bad, this one leans in hard to the stylish super-spy style, and Roger Moore has a guest spot in it,

and

it’s

almost good?

And then it’s very definitely not.

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3.5 Memories – Vileness

You know it’d be pretty easy to draw the conclusion, based on the way I talk about it, that I didn’t like 3.5 D&D. This couldn’t be further from the truth – I haven’t played the game in ten years and yet I still have all my books, still have character sheets and build articles and all sorts of interesting work I did. I wouldn’t write these articles about 3rd edition books and mechanics where I reminisce about how the things I did – silly as they were – were still cool. I liked 3.5.

But gosh did it make it hard.

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The Dragon As State

It seems only fitting that with Game of Thrones finally spilled out and bleeding its guts on the floor of the greater media community, that I trot this take out that is simultaneously extremely uncomfortable and also right.

Dragons, in most fantasy fiction, are governments.

I’ve talked in the past about how fantasy isn’t about some actual historical place (indeed, no media is) but rather is about how we exist in our world, today and now. Werewolves are things like fear of the stranger, the owlbear is the threat of the unknown in the dark of the woods, witches are a fear of women, selkies are a fear of women, the gorgon is a fear of women and you know it’s possible a lot of our myths that have survived haven’t been very cool about women now I say it out loud. Still, with the idea of these monsters representing things that we can then create and ensoul as entitites that we can interact with, that we can talk to and maybe fight, that is, in most narrative, the job of the monster.

The Dragons in Love of Varna, Bulgaria

And the Dragon, as a monster, is big. Dragons aren’t just materially big, but they affect the world around them in a really big way. They change the way food is made where people give up some of their herds to the dragon. They change where people go and move, they make them move in groups or stick together, they make people set up highways and guards and build castles and keeps, and try to live their lives in the hope of avoiding the attention of the dragon. People don’t forget it’s there, and they are aware of its influence, and they know they do things just in case of it.

Sometimes, the dragon is good, and thanks to that, there are things like cures to terrible disease, and safety from dangerous armies and the people just accept a few missing cows as the nature of their life, and it’s okay. Sometimes, the dragon is bad, and there are times when it comes out to destroy things for no good reason.

We even call them tyrants.

There are even things like kobold cults and draconic servants around some – people who exist to handle the management of things for the dragon’s whims! There are people who live in service of the dragon like beaurocrats and police and seneschals and they too, are referred to like creatures in a government.

Then you should look at the dragon in terms of who kills them. What your story can see as a way that a dragon dies. Does a dragon ever get beaten to death by all the oppressed peasants? No. It’s too big, too powerful. The actions of one ordinary person are too little. There is nothing one person can do, and a thousand nothings add up to nothing.

But a dragon can be felled, by a knight, or a cleric, or a barbarian or a priest. A dragon can be swayed by a lone hero. A dragon can be defeated by a lone individual or small group of those individuals, who represent, to the reader, a right way to kill a dragon. There are even small dragons, individual dragons, who don’t want that power and that scale and that scope, and who define themselves by being one creature, not a dragon like those, a thing of the same stuff but not the same type.

It’s interesting, almost like little anarchist cells, really. When I talked about the Tiefling as an avatar for the beneficiary of historical colonialism, there is a cousin to that idea; the notion of the dragonkin, the person-dragon, the dragon that cannot rule – and that be the individual who can look at the power concentrated in bad governments and say, they know, they know that whatever this is, it can end, and needs to end, and are willing to destroy the ways they are priviliged to do it.

A dragon is a government you can fight, or kill, or fuck, in the right way. The dragonborn and dragonkin? Antifa.

And maybe there need to be more stories of dragons torn to pieces with scythes and thresher’s sticks.

Playing the Monster

I’m not going to buy a Vampire book to find out what their dumb explanation is for this, okay?


Every now and again, someone playing a White Wolf RPG gets some attention on internet because of some bad decision of a player, usually, or a storyteller, just as usually, and the question is always ‘here’s some really supremely fucked up thing that I and my friends sat around doing in our pretendy-fun-time game, and someone thought it was fucked up, am I good?’

There’s a lot of different conversations that spin off this, like the shrapnel of a thrown firecracker, and some of those conversations are good, like ‘how do I communicate better with my group,’ or ‘how do we relate to the media that we create in play,’ but there are also a lot of really silly conversations, including ‘why do these people play that bad game, they should play my much better game,’ or ‘doesn’t this show how everyone who likes that game is a bad person.’

One big roadblock to the conversation that comes up, often, is the all-purpose tried-and-true, worked-on-the-Satanic-Panic why-doesn’t-it-work-now response is that in Vampire (and it’s so often Vampire, but hey, sometimes it’s Werewolf, but, these days, certainly lately, it’s Vampire), you are playing the monsters, and that’s that, they say, folding their arms and smugly sitting back.

The correct response to that is ‘so?’

Playing a monster isn’t hard. It’s not even that interesting. What these games want to do, usually, in their best forms, is try to get you, the player into a mental space where you can appreciate the framework of a monstrous creature. Recently, though, that seems to be biased towards the idea that a vampire is a thing that by necessity must always be evil – that there is no way for a vampire to be a valid member of human society. This is a pretty novel idea, though, because it asks the question, why? 

Now, one thing here is that the World of Darkness is a universe which has a sort of fundamental moral footing, so if the story wants to say ‘this thing is evil,’ then okay, it’s evil, just there you go, all Divinely Decreed. But these aren’t games that want to try and express that, they kinda balk at the idea of having their morality be as basic as Dungeons & Dragons (even though it pretty much is). Instead they start talking about moral justifications for power in their universe, or what makes Vampires ‘bad,’ and what ‘evil’ is in this universe.

Essentially, these arguments about what makes the Vampires monstrous is ‘they hurt people.’ Not just ‘the vampires that are like, Nazis, hurt people’ but just being a vampire hurts people. Your vampire can only exist as a parasite and that means they literally can never morally exist in the universe. This puts the Vampire world’s moral framework as kinda hilariously puritanical: There can be no moral application of violence, even in the opposition of the violent. Intention is not just corrupt, but your intentions can be corrupted by your nature. This extends throughout the universe – Vampire hunters are seen as corrupted by their pursuit of stopping Vampires. It’s a world where the Abyss doesn’t just look into you, but the only moral action that doesn’t lead to corruption is to lay down and just fucking die.

It is afraid of violence, in the most pearl-clutching way, and tries to enforce its fears with its rules about the world, then enforces those rules with lore about feeding a cosmic abyss.

You may be ‘playing the monsters’ but you’re playing monsters in a world so profoundly backassward that being a monster is meaningless.

Seems That Game of Thrones Is Bad, Huh?

That Game of Thrones, eh?

Now it might be that someone in the past, once, said that by definition The Game of Thrones was doomed to have an unsatisfying ending, and that someone may have said that the whole story was something like, you know, a narrative lootbox and then Game of Thrones ended and its ending was bad, and the ending being bad resulted in a giant pile of people suddenly going ‘hey, has this… sucked for years?’ and suddenly everyone is arguing about when the whole affair went sour, when this prestige TV show worth millions of dollars they’d sunk their life and fandom into might be bad and they should have known it ahead of time.

The really interesting thing to come out of it, though, is the understanding that part of what made the ending of Game of Thrones bad was not, as I once asserted, that they had no idea where they were going, but that they had an absolute, clear, definite ending, and that meant that accomplishing events in the final season was a matter of ticking things off a list, in order to force the time they had to fit the sequence of events they had to show.

And you know what, that’s fair. Maybe it wasn’t a lack of a plan, the problem was too much of a plan. Or maybe it was an inability to contain what they were making along the lines of that plan. Or maybe it was people’s fault, for being too into it, and it got too popular, forcing those poor creators to ruin it. Or maybe there was a conspiracy. I honestly don’t know, or really care. I don’t think there are lessons from Game of Thrones that are specifically really applicable to you and your creative work, beyond maybe, that if you put a lot of sexual assault in your work, people are going to ask exactly what the fuck is wrong with you, and getting defensive just makes everyone start to draw conclusions about that answer.

That’s the thing. It’s too big a work. And based on watching video of the actors preparing for the show, and the special effects crew and the prop makers and the armour fitters and all that stuff, I think it’s reasonable to say that on average everyone who showed up to make that series did a great job. But not everyone’s effort has an equal impact on the outcome.

I look forward to this future where Game of Thrones dissection becomes our personal rite, where everyone has their opinion about what in this series failed, why it failed, how the real problem the series had was this, or that, or the other. It’s great. It’s wonderful to see this practice turned widely mainstream. Hi, everyone else, this is what anime nerds have been doing since forever.

Turns out the real Iron Throne was the friends we made along the way!

July Shirt: UwUnionise!

Don’t let it be said I don’t listen to my twitter followers. I tweeted this, someone wanted it on a shirt, and here we are.

Here’s the design:

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

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

This design is available on a host of shirts and styles. If you like the look, I can see about making the individual badges into stickers.

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

Story Pile: Geobreeders

I’ve been talking about anime a lot this year. And because I’m an older anime fan, a fan boy, as it were,it’s easy to reach back into a history that’s older than some of you and point to these old classic works, things that are important and influential and you should feel ashamed you don’t know about them, I guess, if my expectation of generalised anxiety and imposter syndrome is usefully applicable.

Partly, this is because I’m a believer in the idea that remembering art is enough to make it meaningful, and there isn’t really a bottom threshold on ‘worth talking about.’ I watched a lot of garbage back then, some of which I found it fun to ridicule but some of which wasn’t good in a very boring, tedious way.

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The Game Pitch

Everyone has their own silly loves. Everyone has things they like doing that don’t make sense to anyone else, right? You know there’s someone who likes refining or commenting their code or someone who enjoys doing reference citations or someone who likes sorting a library of books. All that stuff. Right?

Well, something I love, a lot, is pitching games.

Not the big, stand-in-front-of-investors, white-board and flop-sweat pitching. That doesn’t bother me but I rarely find it fun. That’s actually really challenging because you’re in a live-fire exercise trying to find the frame of reference for your audience and want to construct a kind of language gear that you can use to connect to them and turn the wheel of their mind. That’s hard, that’s really hard, and the fun that you get out of it is a very different beast.

No no no – what I mean is pitching a game to my players.

When you’re to start a campaign of a roleplaying game, it helps to have an idea of where you’re going, how the plot might work out, the kind of things – in a general sense! – you’re going to be dealing with. You don’t want to plan it to death, dear god, no – but you want to have an idea of your tone. You want your style. Do a little conversation with your players, feel out what they’re into, feel out what you’re into, and commit something onto paper to be the groundwork for them to make their characters, and what you have there is the basics of your game pitch.

Game pitches are really fun because they’re high concept views on stories but also they leave one of the most important parts of a story completely blank: you have no idea who the protagonists are. This means you get to shape the kind of characters someone might want to make, but you also don’t know what you’re going to get. At the same time, because you get to lay down rules, you also get to tell people the kinds of characters they should bring, without necessarily defining anything too clearly. It’s great! It’s this wonderful little potential bubble of stuff.

And then you get to wrap that up in some mood writing, something to give people an idea of how you want them to feel going in. You might lead with some fatalistic poetry or a quote from a scholar, or an excerpt of relevant history, or maybe you share an account from some character the story meets. Maybe you’ll show a scene of something, an actual snippet of history. Or maybe, you’ll lead with a short, bitter phrase, something the characters may already know, may already repeat to one another, bitterly.

I keep around a bunch of these pitches in my books and archives. The house rules, written down, the character creation rules, the guide to things like ‘we want characters who are heroic’ or ‘we want characters who are connected to this organisation,’ or ‘one member of the group has this royaly title.’ One came I ran, Border Guard, the brief opened with the phrase:

We’re not the best
We’re not the brightest
We’re not all we can be
We’re just here.

One of the players who played in that game turned to me once, about the sleep he had lost taking care of one of his parents through a medical rough patch. About how he hadn’t signed up for that difficult task. And he said it back to me, and then added, he couldn’t remember where he heard it.

I love creating game briefs.

They’re so much fun~.