Hunter’s Dreams – Trick Weapons, Part 2

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.

Last time, I discussed the basics of what a Trick Weapon does in Bloodborne, and today, I’m going to talk a bit about how 4th Edition D&D can handle some of those ideas.One of the reasons wanted to do this in 4th edition D&D is because the weapon system in 4e is really good compared to every other edition of D&D. Without delving into why and how other systems were bad (but they definitely were), let’s look at the things the weapon system in 4ed D&D has.

A 4th edition weapon has the following basic stats:

  • a proficiency type (simple, military, exotic)
  • a handedness (one-handed or two-handed)
  • a range (melee or distance)
  • a damage range (one or more dice representing the damage the weapon does)
  • a proficiency bonus (determining any bonus to hit the weapon has)
  • a weight (for encumbrance rules, which I’m no fan of, but this is our life)
  • a group (to represent what other types of weapons it’s like)
  • properties (one of a set of keywords that give the weapon specific abilities)

The weapon properties are as follows:

  • Brutal
  • Defensive
  • Heavy Thrown
  • High Crit
  • Light Thrown
  • Load Free
  • Load Minor
  • Off-Hand
  • Reach
  • Small
  • Stout
  • Versatile

Some of these keywords are very specifically utilitarian – a thrown dart would have Light Thrown, while a throwing axe has Heavy Thrown. A light thrown weapon uses your dexterity, a heavy thrown weapon uses your strength. Some of these, like Load Free and Load Minor relate to the unifying mechanics of the set they’re in (Crossbows and how you load new crossbow bolts).

The main thing about these keywords is that when you’re using the weapon, these keywords are very light on your cognitive load. Consider Defensive. A defensive weapon is as follows:

A defensive weapon grants you a +1 bonus to AC while you wield the defensive weapon in one hand and wield another melee weapon in your other hand…

Now, this has a few things that relate to it – it could be seen as kind of ‘choice intense’. You get an AC bonus with the specific condition presented here, but you need to pair a weapon with the defensive type, and you need another weapon, which must always be wielded in one hand. So hypothetically, any time you put this weapon down, your AC changes, and any time the weapon in your other hand changes, that also has a chance to change your AC. In a videogame with things like disarms or throwing weapons, this could be pretty complex.

In 4e though, a character is not likely to be disarmed; they are likely to configure how their character works, the way they approach combat, and once that decision has been made, this defensive weapon bonus just folds into the way the character works.

Brutal is my favourite. Brutal N means that when you roll a value of N or less on the damage dice, you can reroll it. This is a great mechanic because it can be a small nudge, statistically (a 1d12 weapon with brutal 1, for example, is an increase on average of .5 damage per attack) but it can feel really fantastic to cash in a 1 for even a 4. What’s more, some brutal weapons prevent feel-bad low rolls on ‘big’ weapons like the Executioner’s axe (Brutal 2), or intriguing, exciting experiences with weapons like the Mordenkrad (which rolls 2d6 – but both dice are Brutal 1).

There’s also the weapon group and proficiency type. Proficiency types push characters towards a certain general type of weapon based on their class’ background; rogues and fighters are likely to be familiar with most swords, for example, but clerics and druids aren’t. That means that you can gate access to things mechanically, which you can use to set the tone for some characters. Shamans and druids use clubs and staffs and spears, which aren’t that good as pure weapons, but it’s okay, because they’re not as likely to need them. If a player wants to reach out of their proficiency group, that’s fine too.

Finally, there’s the weapon groups – that is, the kinds of weapons these things are, what they’re like, and what they do. In older D&D editions, there was a trend towards trying to put a weapon in a big group (simple, martial, exotic) and that’s it; special training may refer to a specific weapon, but then you got weird things like how the Bladesinger would refer to a character using a longsword or rapier or elven rapier. Instead, in this case, weapons fit into general groups, and weapon styles or feats can refer to doing attacks with types of weapons. Most interestingly, weapons can have multiple groups – so if you build a character who can do things with polearms and things with axes, a weapon that is a polearm axe represents an intriguing opportunity to do both.

These are good properties because the mean that the experience of using these weapons is qualitatively different than in other systems. You set the weapon up, and then you use it – Notably, there are a lot of things these weapon properties don’t ask you to do.

  • They don’t include a lot of memory issues
  • They don’t ask you to commit within the action economy
  • They can handle choices made during the attack, like versatile
  • They don’t want to be too specific

There aren’t any weapons that have a unique property; none of these weapons have a unique mechanic. That means a weapon property wants to exist on at least two weapons. That’s good – that suggests any weapon property invented needs to be made with a mind to being reused. Anything too specific probably doesn’t want to belong here.

Next time, we’ll talk about how these two idea spaces interact.

Game Pile: Ace Attorney Investigations

Ace Attorney Investigations is a 2011 Nintendo DS game, best described as a Narrative Adventure game. See? I told you I needed it. Building on the success of previous Ace Attorney games, Investigations gives you space to wander around, all floppy-cravat style, and Investigate, as an Attorney would, or as you might imagine one would, if you had a very active and extremely silly imagination.

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Term: Narrative Adventure

I need a term for something, so let’s invent it.

The term is going to use some language to represent a thing, and that language is going to need some history. That history is going to need some context, and some caveats, some asterisks, etcetera. Also, some of what I’m going to talk about can be seen as a polite disagreement with Ian Danskin’s videos on The Death of Guybrush Threepwood, essays from 2015.

Way to strike while the iron is gone.

What I want to talk about today is a particular family of games, or what we might know as a genre of games. Genre’s a beast of a thing to nail down, and I’ve said so in the past – it’s a well-established canard that ‘JRPG’ and ‘FPS’ are both genres even though one is defined by a country of origin and the other by a camera angle. Still, genre’s the term we have, so genre is what we must use, I guess, I’m only trying to invent one thing at a time here.

There is a type of game, and we don’t have a good term for it, right now, or at least, I haven’t seen one. I can’t tell you what I mean by naming the term we use for it, because if I do that you’ll immediately think of those games and only those games that are closest to it, and we want to keep our minds open here. We want to maximise the coverage of this terminology.

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Hunter’s Dreams – Trick Weapons, Part 1

I started work on Hunter’s Dream back in January, with the basic idea being a way to play a Bloodborne style game set using 4th Edition D&D. The reasons are pretty easy to grapple with – starting with ‘I like it’ and moving on to ‘Bloodborne’s play experience is a tactical game of resource expenditure, not a story game of improvisation.’

Still, 4th edition D&D is a game of systems, and that means when you want to put something in the systems, you want to put in some rules. In Bloodborne, the trick weapons are a big part of the tactical experience, and they make the game feel that particular steampunky way. How then, do we bring that feeling into 4th ed D&D.

When looking at implementing these trick weapons in 4E, we want to consider what they do and how they do it. That sounds like basic stuff, but those questions are going to illustrate the difference between the two types of games and how I can make something that feels right in a different game.

Trick weapons in Bloodborne are weapons; you use them to attack opponents, destroy objects, and occasionally interact with environments in surprising ways – think about the times you cut a rope or knock down a hanging treasure. Broadly speaking though, the trick weapons are weapons, which you use to hurt people.

When you use them, you can change them from one form to another. Now here is where we can get a bit McLuahnish, and point out that medium and messages intertwine. See, Bloodborne is a videogame, and you play it with a controller. That controller has a number of buttons, and you, as a player, are expected to track maybe about seven to eight of those buttons at a time in combat. That means any mechanic you introduce, if it’s going to happen in combat, needs a button, and it needs a reliable button, because this combat is pretty high stakes. The game design is also what I call ‘fixed animation’ length – that is, when you commit to an action, you’re often stuck with it, and unlikely to be able to assert control over it along the way.

Following that, then, is that the trick weapons need to be weapons where your ‘trick’ doesn’t take a lot of buttons or fine customising. If you do those things, it’d take more time, and that might make it too inconvenient. With only limited inputs, then, the Bloodborne trick weapons are very binary. They’re either ‘on’ or ‘off’ – and you can swap them between one thing or the other in-combat. There are a few oddballs, of course, but generally, these weapons exist in form A or B, and in combat, shifting from A to B or vice versa results in a special attack.

Most of these weapons change in ways that reflect the technology of the setting. For some, the change is a big physical object shift; for others it’s turning on a special ability for the next hit. The weapons can’t be ‘normal’ weapons, even if they mostly resemble them – swords that become hammers, axes that become polearms, that kind of thing.

These two states want to be qualitatively different, in the context of Bloodborne; you’ll sometimes get different damage types, different speeds of attack, and different reach. In this game, those are very small spaces. Attack speed can be fractions of a second; Reach can be important down to similarly small units of distance.

To summarise:

  • Bloodborne trick weapons are weapons
    • They’re primarily used to hurt people and interact with the environment
  • The trick of Bloodborne trick weapons is simple to use
    • This differentiates them from conventional weapons
    • There’s still room for mastery
  • These weapons vary in how they attack
    • Reach
    • Speed
    • Damage
    • Special effects

This is our outline, the parameters we want to consider. Next time we’ll look at the challenges of setting this up in 4ed D&D.

MTG: Designing Tokens

Here’s a thing I’m working on.

If you play Magic: The Gathering, you’ll know that some cards create tokens – which are kind of cards that aren’t cards. Basically, a token is a thing that a card can create that isn’t represented by a card. If you don’t know Magic, this is probably a bit boring. Feel free to go elsewhere.

Anyway!

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Story Pile: Young Justice (But Really Just ██████)

Young Justice is a 2010 animated TV show made by a collection of animators, artists, storytellers and writers that we tend to front with Brandon Vietti and Greg Weisman, for the Cartoon Network and at this point it seems that it’s something of a meme about just how very, very good it is. Talking to you about it like it’s some forgotten gem that is actually secretly amazing and great and you’d never have heard of it feels a bit silly. This show is on Netflix, it’s widely distributed and available and you, dear reader, almost definitely can check it out.

I’m not going to tell you anything you didn’t already know or couldn’t find out on your own and I get all itchy and awkward when I think that I’m putting on airs of liking something more obscure than it really is. After all, people like me grew up acting like we were the oppressed minority because we didn’t like what ‘the man’ put on radio, and instead listened to the things that were put on another, slightly different radio station, showing that we were, in fact, rebellious and different.

This self-feeding dialogue that there’s something countercultural about buying things from a slightly different multinational corporation always makes me uncomfortable about acting as if talking about a tv show or videogame is in any way illuminating of some obscure classic or enlightening you about some sort of fascinating garbage. I try to be as direct and honest as possible about my personal reactions to these things. With that in mind, I think Young Justice is really great. It’s got one great season and one kind of awkward season; as with almost all 2000s era animation it could have afforded a better budget and more chances to plan. You know, the Korra problem – if it’d been better made it’d be a better show.

Nonetheless, Young Justice is a story set in the DC universe, with its superhero crew, that doesn’t need any other series as context, explains itself directly, gives fresh takes on a bunch of the characters if you already know them, and it’s basically one of the best ways to enjoy something that’s about the DC Superhero Universe without being mired down in ten miles of lore.

But we’re doing something a little different this time. I don’t want to talk about this series as much as I want to talk about something in this series, and I want to talk about the challenges of talking about it.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be heavy, this is just a lot of preamble for a lot of gushing.

But because this is different and because it’s nonstandard, I have a sort of special request. If you’re a woman interested in comics and superheroes, or if you’ve had The Genders, if you’re nonbinary, and if you’ve been on the fence about watching this show, wondering about whether or not there’s anything you want to see in it, I would ask you to check it out and come tell me what you thought about it.

Because there’s something I see in this, and I’ve seen someone else see it, but now I want to see who else sees it.

Okay, good? Good.

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Nintendon’t Come To Europe

It’s an American internet, really. If you talk about videogames of a retro vintage, it’s taken as a given you’re going to talk about videogames made by Nintendo, for Nintendo platforms. I’ve been told it extends so far that you don’t say ‘Playing Videogames,’ if you speak to the 90s – you say ‘Playing Nintendo.’

I didn’t see a Super Nintendo in someone’s house until I was an adult, and it was a collectable. Yet my cousin, and a few people I knew from around school had, or rented, a Sega platform.

In case this is literally your first experience here on the blog: Hi! I’m Australian. This is about my youth in Australia. But it’s also about how the assumptions we use when we talk about media often shows things about who we are as media consumers.

Nintendo dominated North America throughout the 80s and 90s, winning what was at the time considered ‘The Console Wars’ against their rival Sega. Then in the early 00s, there really wasn’t a Sega to oppose, as the Saturn followed by the Dreamcast failed and the company making them started to disassemble its manufacturing base, moving into full-time production of bad Sonic the Hedgehog spin-offs and sequels. Thing is, that narrative is how things were In America.

Here in Australia, Sega was the thing you got. Sega sold better in Europe, too, and distributed widely there. Part of what helped Sega do well was the video rental network they were connected to – this is an ad from almost every VHS I remembered watching, distributed from every Video EZY I checked. Renting a Master System or Mega Drive was surprisingly cheap if you could stump the bond (and I could not and never did). This is why it’s very common for Australians of this age to mispronounce ‘Sega’ – because the ads all pronounce it wrong too!

In Latin America, it’s even weirder. Sega made deals to manufacture Sega equipment in Brazil, and that means that for Brazilians, Master Systems were really cheap. What’s more, that deal didn’t limit itself to the production that Sega was doing – which means that Brazil’s been making Sega Master Systems since – well, since the 80s. As technology has moved on, with the same fundamental architecture, what’s happened is that the Master System (a really good console!) has been instead getting smaller and more convenient.

Mailing and distributing these units from Brazil is apparently ferociously expensive – Brazil’s tariffs on entertainment goods are, I’m told, eyewatering, and piracy in the country is rife on anything that can run Linux. Still, it’s this fascinating little story of a place where not only did Nintendo not win the console war, the company they thought they’d defeated has lived on beyond them.

Is this news to anyone? No, not really. Most Americans I know are aware of these things. But what’s fascinating is that there are a number of Americans who don’t – and they’re always surprised to learn that the history of trade and distribution of videogames just wasn’t universal.

Bujo Module – Year Task Spread

Wow, yesterday was a bit much wasn’t it? Let’s wind it down a touch. Here, let me show you my Bullet Journal.

Hey!

That’s not weird!

Hey, I still use my Bullet Journal to track things. Fox got me a lovely new Bujo for Christmas last year, and I’ve been using the dot-grid system very aggressively to do things it’s harder to do on lined paper.

One module that I’ve seen and wanted to try out was a year long planner. If you had something you want to do every day or every week, or a tracker for a long-term pattern, then this is a great system for it.

The funny thing about Bullet Journal modules like this is I tend to just need to look at them and then they kind of explain what they’re for. This one’s for managing this blog, and since this picture has work done up until April, you might guess this was – well, recently. But it’s not, this was done in the first half of March.

If you want a closer look, click on it, it should open up in a new browser window for ya.

Game Pile: Exalted: The Infernals

First things first, before we go anywhere.

Content Warning

The gamebook I’m going to discuss here is shot through it with a bunch of stuff that’s just going to fall under the category of what I call ‘content-warningy.’ The Infernals is a book marinated in a needless ‘edgy’ nastiness that means a perfectly normal seeming paragraph about negotiating for barley can break out with a random reference to sexual assault.

It’s not even a single enclosed space – no singular concept, no page section. This isn’t like there’s one super horrible character, or one terrible scene. It’s worse than that, it’s that throughout this entire guidebook, there is a non-stop constant and oppressive threat that the book will bring up something unnecessary and gross, mistaking mentioning taboo things as wielding them well.

I have beeves about this book and yet also loves, but I want to warn you against reading it at random, because in its attempts to be horrifying and edgy with its ‘villainous’ content, there’s a lot of this book you kind of have to ignore. Normally, I’ll warn you about a thing, or a type of thing in a work, but in this case, I just want you to know up front I don’t think you should read this book. As a general rule.

I will not be talking about that stuff, except in a broad sense to criticise the thoughtless way this book uses these subject matters. I’m not going to trot out specific examples of things just to criticise them, but I am going to mention:

  • Abuse and Abusers
  • Self-Harm
  • Sexual Assault spoken about callously
  • Mental health and identity issues
  • Anger and revenge
  • Public executions

If you want to go elsewhere today, I am okay with that. Here, go somewhere else, look at something nice.

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MGP: Imbuing Ownership

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

When I talk about my games there tends to be a split in game types, which tends to – but not always – lie along a price line. There are $10 games, which are made with a tiny number of cards, less art, and often a tight little system to play with. Some examples are Senpai Notice Me! and You Can’t Win, which are both excellent games I’m very happy with for how much they do with how little they’ve got room for. These games are almost like a unicycle, a tiny tight little system, and they’re mostly intermediary games, games that you play between other things. There are exceptions – The Botch, for example, is what I consider a mid-size game for its time and strategic investment, and Chin Music is a $15 game that nonetheless is playable with seven year olds, with almost no strategic depth or world-building.

The point is, that these games, we’ll call them the single wheel games, tend to be kind of easy to make, they tend to be a bit less demanding, and they tend to be faster to make. The games that take more time tend to have fewer mistakes in them that I think of as big. It’s easy for me to point out the problems of D-73C7 but it’s a tiny bit harder to talk about the problems in the games I think of as ‘medium,’ the games where I have stamped my name and a bit of my lore and my friends.

Burning Daylight is a game I love.

It’s a good game.

But I hate, hate, hate, how much better it could be.

If you haven’t seen this game, it’s basically a Hand Management game. You pick a handful of cards that represent your gang, then you send those gang members out to do missions, each one capable of doing something on their own, and then after they go out, they do something, then they come home. You can send them out as a group, and if you do, they can do a mission.

There’s a ton of stuff that’s just a little bit awkward about this game. The way injury works, the way the track progresses – players tend to want to move their characters differently to the way the rules work, which suggests that the rules I designed around were bad, and I should have been willing to pull them back. I still tangle with the feeling myself, if I should revisit the game entirely, strip back the rules, and redo a bunch of the cards? Maybe?

But that’s not the important thing. Those are small things, they are ways to make a better game out of the good game. There’s a fatal flaw in Burning Daylight, or rather, an overwhelming flaw that bothers the hell out of me, and it’s at the start of the game, you have to pick your gang members. You pick five cards and those cards are your gang. They’re yours.

When you first pick the game up, you have no idea what those gang members do, how they interact with one another, if they’re good, or what kind of mix of them you want.

I filled these cards with as much personality as I could, I strived to make it so that you could like this cast of gangsters, and then I created potential pitfalls for players who made bad choices. Which sucks, it’s such a bad decision.

If you pick a good, mixed team, and if you know how some of the characters work together, this game can be fun, but at that point, you’re not creating your gang for this game, you’re picking up a gang. I gave players a way to take ownership of the game in some way, and then I made it so they could do that wrong and that drives me batty every time I think about it.

Burning Daylight took me months to make. I bought stock art I loved, I edited and refined it, like the art I use for Sector 86. I live-tweeted so many stages of the design process; there was a time where it was actually strongly reminsicent of Arctic Scavengers (and … well… maybe), another time it was almost a box game with tokens and a bag buying system. The game that came out is full of lore I like, characters I love and it looks great…

… and I keep gnawing away at the ways I could make it better.

Doom’s Paratext

You know what, I haven’t taken a cheap pop at Doom in a few months, let’s go into the rich well of a game that my dad has never stopped playing since 1994.

Okay, I’ve talked about text and paratext, in the past. The basic idea is that there’s stuff in the work, and that’s text, and then there’s stuff in the work surrounding the work, and that’s paratext. An example would be how the fact that a wizard named Dumbledore exists is text to the Harry Potter books, but that he just went to town on Wizard Hitler’s cock is part of the supplementary text to that from JK Rowling, and that surrounding commentary is a form of paratext.

And let’s make it clear: Your gentle loving grandpa figure Dumbledore absolutely fucked Wizard Hitler.

Anyway, the distinction is between what counts as text versus what counts as paratext is generally centered around a specific way of experiencing a work. A movie that adapts a book can be seen as paratext to that book, but it can also be seen as its own text. The book can be seen as paratext to the movie, too. A book and a movie, though, are somewhat equal in their textual weight (except to extreme cinephiles and bibliophiles, who are both pretty silly).

What though, about a game?

People consider the reading material that comes with games as pretty secondary. Heck, superfluous. Back in the day, they were text file that came with readers, and you could definitionally not read the text file while you were playing the game. It seems pretty easy then to assess the game as the text, and there’s a lot of people who will stand firmly by the idea that the play of a game is the important thing (hullo, ludology-narratology debate).

Thing is, though, there are a lot of games that have well-established, well known ‘stories’ where the story as we understand it appears not in the game, but in a booklet that comes with the game, or a text file or even ordering info that comes with the game. Particularly, to use a high profile example, Doom is a videogame that has almost no description of its story in the game itself. There’s nothing you’d consider establishing – it just drops you into the game in Knee Deep In the Dead and, that’s it. The idea that you’re a Space Marine, that you’re deployed on Mars for killing a superior officer (pfft), that you’re the last person left after a teleporter accident, the integral identity of how Doom‘s story works, that’s all in the manual.

This isn’t atypical though.

Most videogames don’t have the room, not back then, to properly show you their story in play. It just takes too long. Lots of the time, you don’t even know what your goal is until you reach it!

Anyway, Doom’s plot is Paratext and Dumbledore sucks Hitler dick.

Making Light Novel Covers

Hey, you know those Light Novel covers I make?

I started making them as a joke, and that joke showed a receptive audience. Since they were so easy joke for me to make, and making them helped to inspire the creation of the kind of Light Novel they suggested, I figured it might not be a bad place for you to start on that kind of thing if you want.

Here’s a breakdown of what goes into the making of this cover:

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Story Pile: Transformers Animated

As a boy of my age I feel it seems only natural that I would be a fan of Transformers, one of the franchises from my youth that somehow managed to be acceptable in a landscape of anti-fun fundamentalism. Perhaps it was something about the fact that they were all robots-that-turned-into-things, or maybe the fact that the toys were honestly really expensive for my childhood experience, but somehow, I was able to get into Transformers, in the fashion of someone who read all the lore he could find in the dollar shops and salvo stores.

The actual TV show was screened at times I missed, and the movie was important to my upbringing, but it wasn’t really until I hit adulthood that I was able to watch the TV series that Transformers had as their extended commercials. This meant that I got to see the best one.

Transformers Animated was the last pre-Bayformers animated series, and there was, at the time, some rumbling that the series got kicked in the neck because it was trying to clear toy shelf space for the movie tie-ins. This is probably nonsense, but it still helped to fuel some resentment towards the (actually also quite bad) live-action movies. And that’s a shame, because my first feeling about Transformers Animated when I bring it to mind should not be, if I had my preferences, any kind of spite or sadness about it.

It should be joy, joy at this wonderful, fun series.

Transformers Animated had a teen sidekick, people of colour, a technofuturist vision of Detroit, shapeshifting superheroes, at least one examination of war crimes and the loss of identity, and the best Grimlock ever put to Transformers media. It’s a punchline for its art style and that’s a damn shame because it’s absolutely excellent.

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Making Big Things Small

It’s easy to make bigger things into smaller things.

Sometimes when I talk about a movie or a book or a tv series I’ll do it in a way that makes the content of that thing pretty insignificant to some other point I want to make. You don’t learn a damn thing about how to play Hyrule Warriors from me, but if you read the book you know some fundamental postmodern theory. In that, a big idea is crunched down into a smaller thing.

This has presented an awesome and dreadful problem for writing about two things I wanted to write about this month. First, the Animorphs series, a set of 64 books published over 7 years, and which mean an awful lot to me. It would be hard, if not impossible, for me to write an article about that series without discarding the enormity of what that series means to me. Animorphs is, to me, a very important series of books, and the importance of them involves a lot of quietly glossing over, let’s say, weaker bits, and the Very Different Time.

But if Animorphs is too big to talk about in one article, there is a vastness to the impact on my life of the work of Terry Pratchett. It is an embarassment perhaps to those of you who believe people shouldn’t be getting valuable life lessons from young readers’ books about gnomes and wizards, but I owe an enormous amount of my actual human character, the metaphors for my own existing to the work of this man. Do I discuss every book, one by one? That’s too much for a month – hell, the task of rereading every Pratchett book over the course of a year asks for a book a week, which is a pretty heavy task.

I could have filled this month with my favourite Pratchett books. With weeks of discussion of the Animorphs. But even then, doing that would feel, in a weird way, like a waste. They deserve more and better. They deserve to be enjoyed and approached without being a way to understand me. These works are, in my mind, a sort of holy writ: Not because they were rendered by the divine, but because they were so clearly not, and they gave me tools I needed to make me.

We’ll talk about some Pratchett stuff this month. I couldn’t not. But narrowing it down to two Pratchett books to talk about would be a hard task, to give you perspective on this.


Funny-odd not funny-haha but maybe funny-snort-through-the-nose-at-the-momentary-irony is that the role of someone who shows you the big things in small things is sort of the purpose of this blog. There are so many huge interesting things out there and so often we hide them from ourselves and think they have no relevance or interest to our lives. It is not even that I am capable of doing this to everything, or that I should be your font for all lineages of the vast, it’s just that I love to do it, love to show the vast in the small like it’s a kind of personal magical trick.

And when I sit down and seriously talk to myself about the excellent, the truly wonderful work that I love so much I cannot help but share it, I find myself lost.

There is simply too much that is too good.

I Like: Mystery Funhouse Tournament

This started with a friend of mine: abadidea. She’s been interested in the speedrunning community for a few years now, and as of this year, after AGDQ, she’s been putting effort into becoming a speedrunning commentator. The place she’s started is with the Mystery Funhouse Tournament channel, which if you’re not familiar, is a place that does blind speedruns of short games.

The Mystery Funhouse does a lot of different kinds of content; there are speed-run races of big games that are too big to fit in spaces like GDQ or normal Hotfix tournaments. There are blind speedruns of indie games, and there are to-a-goal speedruns of extremely difficult-to-speedrun games as well.

Now this is a bit more General Twitch than I normally recommend! But thanks to having a friend on commentary, I can feel a little more reassured that this place isn’t going to drop the occasional Heated Gamer Moment. It’s interesting stuff to watch, open for public submissions, and a good way to get into Speed Running in a position where the community are engaged and the stakes could not be lower.

Check it out!

Game Pile: Exalted

Exalted is a tabletop roleplaying game of mythic fantasy that positioned itself as the counterpoint to Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition, made first by White Wolf and later by Onyx Path. Onyx Path have faithfully carried on the legacy of White Wolf’s work, and by that, I mean, Exalted started out bad and has maintained being bad.

Bad is a hollow word for media criticism, I know, but it’s good to set a tone. I want you to  bear that in mind, because there’s going to be a lot of things that make this game sound awesome. This game has a faction of communist revolutionary furries who are gay for the moon. See? Right there, that’s something that’s either awful (kinda) or amazing (also, kinda).

This presents part of the problem of discussing Exalted: A list of things in Exalted sounds like praise for it! In a way, that’s amazing! It’s got a sentient stealth bomber that lives in a volcano! See? Just like that, you react with what and want to know more!

Plus, there will be pretty pictures, because Exalted has always employed some excellent artists who sometimes do amazing work, and if Bioshock Infinite has taught us anything, it’s that really excellent aesthetics can make it very easy for people to take you seriously even if your game is actually really bad.

Hold to that truth. No matter what it sounds like I’m saying, I’m also saying that Exalted is bad.

Exalted is amazing.

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Invisible Ink

I like this metaphor.

I’ve always liked invisible inks. As a young boy, my culture came through 1950s annuals and second-hand-store copies of adventure stories, where rather than having ‘arts and crafts’ techniques there were things like ‘be an international spy.’ This taught me knots (which I’ve largely forgotten but for a few handy ones) and cryptography (which I’ve largely forgotten but for a few entertaining ones) and because if you’re being a spy, you need some invisible ink.

And there were techniques about writing in lemon juice and writing in water and writing in dissolved metals and things that were, at some point in the 1950s, household items, and inevitably those instructions let me craft messages to put on paper, completely ignoring that as a child, in my tiny closed environment, there was literally nothing I could write on a piece of paper that the people around me would be interested in reading, let alone anything I needed to keep secret. Maybe they’d find one of my pieces of paper with moist lines of probably-dried-fluid on them, and decide it was time to get to the bottom of the kind of secrets a nine year old who literally never went anywhere but church or a small wooden box at school.

A friend did a writing course, just after the end of City of Heroes. There, he read the book Invisible Ink and took notes, sharing them with me, because I didn’t have a copy for the book. Since then, I’ve used the term invisible ink to refer to story elements that the story puts forwards, in ways that the audience can experience, but without ever needing to state.

Sometimes, you’ll see people confused by a story, because the story assumed you’d know something that the story never told you. That can sometimes be a sign of a disjointed story, and it’s worth considering why that happened. Sometimes, though, sometimes, it’s a sign that the audience can’t see the invisible ink. Why does this super queer text read obviously queer to queer people, and not to het people? Why does this Australian character enrage Australian audiences when they seem fine to Americans? What’s the appeal of Kath and Kim and why did it fail?

I think about this, because one, I think that the invisible ink we leave behind is more interesting than our deliberate choices. Two, and perhaps more damningly, is because I remember being without any of the way to see these invisible inks. Imagine getting into culture in the year 2001 without any idea at all about the common metaphors of film.

I’ve had to do a lot to construct myself, and a lot to understand invisible ink.

MTG: It’s Not Gacha

I try not to shoot from the hip on matters like these.

I try not, generally speaking, to do long-form articles about important topics where the subject matter is high impact and there are well-intentioned people who look uninformed to me. It’s a sure-fire way of wading into a complex situation where I contribute no actual value, just noise.

Plus, this is the intersection of Magic: the Gathering, game development, and human incentive systems, which I’m sorry to say I’m rapidly doing things that make me kind of expert on, even if I shy from being considered an expert. There’s a whole gulf of information between where I sit and where a lot of other voices on the matter sit, which can make me feel like I’m either talking over them (because they don’t know what they’re talking about, and don’t realise that) or that I’m getting into an extremely contentious fight (because they know what they’re talking about, and are presenting falsehoods and do not care).

Still, it’s April, it’s my month, you’re here on my blog so sit down, shut up, and learn why every time people compare Gacha to Magic: the Gathering I roll my eyes so hard it makes my skull ache.

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April is… Talen Month!

Since my birthday falls in April, this month’s theme, for our Story Pile and Game Pile is going to be me-centric media. Expect this month to be full of stuff that matters to me, things that I’m talking about because I want to talk about them, and for some reason or another I’ve chosen not to.

How’s that different than normal? Surely everything I put on this blog is out there because I wanted to. Not really: There’s a bunch of stuff I haven’t written about, because I think it’s a bit too niche, a bit too specific, or reveal or relate to something really specific about myself. This isn’t like Decemberween, where I spend a month non-stop listing good things I like and hope you will try. This is going to feature some of the awkward faves or the painful drags, times when I take a game I have a beef with to task, or maybe talk about how a tv series handles fascist cults from the perspective of someone who’s been in one.

Last year, I did an in-depth read of the Infinity Engine games I loved, and in the process talked about modding communities, and the way Planescape Torment informed my development and maturity.

Expect something like that.

And we’re going to look at some stuff that’s ugly. Some stuff that may not uplift you or may not make you happy, and which I would normally leave alone because it exposes too much of me, of who I know I am.

That said, here’s a real quick lightning round. You may be afraid I’m going to go in on any of these topics this month, and you might have to avoid my blog for fear of Dealing With These Topics, I have no intention of talking about Undertale and its associated media, The World Ends With You, or the New She-Ra. Maybe if someone wants to pay me to write about those topics, I will, but for now, I think these topics just aren’t generally interesting enough to warrant the potential emotional harm that my (admittedly sensitive?) readership want.

I will try to CW some stuff this month, but broadly, if you like Ranty Talen or Talen On His Bullshit, this month is going to try and be that. A month to give myself permission to kick things I like down the stairs and not worry too much about anyone being over-sensitive about But What If Talen Says A Mean Thing About A Videogame I Bought.

Story Pile: Lilo & Stitch

A measure, to some extent, of the quality of a work is the degree to which the moments that matter to that story stay with you. This isn’t my observation; it was first brought to my attention by Cracked when they asked a character (and by proxy the audience) if they could name a single line from the 2009 movie Avatar. Most people I’ve asked can’t, and this doesn’t seem to be atypical.

But this month, I’d like to look at some things that matter to me – in some cases, a lot – and rather than run down a bad (garbage, awful, not good, not interesting, waste of money) movie like Avatar for its failings, I instead want to speak to a movie for its virtues, and a movie that has given me a quote that I can bring to mind easily, and love deeply.

Let’s talk about Lilo & Stitch, a Disney family movie – that is, the best Disney family movie. Spoilers ahoy!

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Game (Barriers, Readings, Reviews)

Sometimes I’m cautious about using the term game review when I talk about games in Game Pile. We’re not usually sure what a review of a game is, in language terms, except when people are talking very specifically about games as consumer product getting consumer guidance.

I don’t do that though – I mean, I do account for the consumer product of the games I talk about. Often I’ll offer reasons why you might like a game, or things about that game that are good guidance for when you buy it. That’s not really the primary way I talk about games, though.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is how when I write about a game’s play experience, it can be viewed as autoethnography, but that’s a really obscure term and it makes me sound like I’m distancing myself from everyday talksy-about-gamesy people. There’s a barrier put in place when you use academic language, and while I want to connect non-academic people to concepts they may understand and be able to use from academia, if I do it by teaching them just plain jargon, I feel like I’m mostly teaching people unuseful things they won’t use. Even if I’m doing autoethnography, that doesn’t mean saying this is an autoethnographic survey of this game is just alienating as hell.

I’ve toyed with calling them readings, the way that that term gets used in both critical media and academia. This is my reading of this game, for example. That’s interesting because it presents my take as a sort of unified set of details that are meant to harmonise together. That would actually ask for me to do things differently, too, though, if I wanted to mimic a reading. Readings are great if you have a particular definitional vision of a work, too, where you want to present a version of events where this is what I think happened, or sometimes to frame it as if this happened, here’s an idea for what that means. I do readings sometimes – my take on Voltron is a reading, for example.

Most of the time, I don’t do readings of games. I tend to look at them in terms of design, or how they’re made, or the plot, or even single beats in the plot. Games tend to be kind of bigger than other media, it means there’s a lot of room to write about a lot of things when you write about a game. Some of my game articles are readings but that’s not to say that’s what I do.

And thus we loop around this thought, again and again, and again. What are they, if not reviews? These are thoughts and writing spurred by the retrospective consideration of the game, too. They are literally my thoughts upon review of the game.

I guess in the end, while this point of language bothers me just a shade, it’s a point I’m trying to get over. The idea that these things aren’t reviews because they’re not consumer examinations or because they’re focused on story or design is to cede the entirety of review to a glorified price guide.

Therefore, my articles about videogames, are game reviews.

Fight me, my own brain.

D&D Memories: Shen Marrowick

We do this these days, right?

We talk about our D&D Characters?

Okay.

I am a firm believer in the idea that when you present a character to the players at the table, they need a handle on the character. They need to be able to grasp the character quickly so it’s often best to start with a basic archetype or story point. You want to occupy the space in the story, you don’t want to have to explain that place you want in the story.

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British Currency

Years ago, as one of my research projects, and to show off a bit, I talked about Australian money, because Australian money, unlike most other cultures’ money, is good, or at least, better than yours, or, most importantly, better than America’s, which is really bad. At the time I had the fanciful idea of maybe examining a bunch of different culture’s money, but mostly they all repeat the same basic-ass mistakes as the American money, which I think is possibly because American money is the template a lot of other countries use (why).

Still, there are at least two other countries whose money I think is worth talking about, and we’re doing one of them today: the British currency. Talking about Australian money took a long time, weeks, with stories about every figure involved. Talking about American money took a short dismissal, because all American money is bad.

British money needs a little bit more space, but less than it should.

Let’s go.

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Caillois and Rosewater

This is about Magic: The Gathering, but it’s not.

It’s about Academic reading, but it’s not.

In Roger Caillois’ book Man, Play and Games, he describes a bunch of concepts that make a case for how games are important, what they do, what they mean for culture, all that good stuff that we can use in game studies. In this, he laid out his notion of both a sliding scale between two points for the way games work then he describes four types of ways players engage with games.

Mark Rosewater, the head designer for Magic: The Gathering, has talked about types of players and who they design cards for in terms of a sliding scale between two points for the things that appeal to players, and then describes three types of ways players engage with the game.

The sliding scale in Caillois’ work is between ludic games and paidic games. Ludic games are about clearly defined rules. The more tightly defined rules are, the more likely it’s ludic. Chess is very ludic, for example. Paidic games are about freedom of play, the capacity to create rules or subsystems or discard rules as you play. Improv games, for example, are very paidic.

In Rosewater’s work, he describes the idea of players caring about the feel and lore of the cards they play with (an idea first positioned by Matt Cavotta), and the players who care intensely about the rules of the game state and don’t care about that creative space. These are described as Vorthos and Melvin.

In Caillois’ model, his four types describe games in terms of them having attributes that give people reason to play:

  • agon, games of competition
  • alea, games of chance
  • ilinx, games of vertigo
  • mimicry, games of impersonation

Rosewater’s model describes three types of players, and why they play:

  • Timmy/Tammy, who wants to feel something
  • Johnny/Janey, who wants to express something
  • Spike, who wants to achieve something

Now, these don’t directly map onto one another; it’s hard to see how ilinx connects to the Tammy/Janey/Spike model. I personally feel that it works well as Janey’s thing, where flipping a card and rolling a dice and seeing what your opponent can do about it is a feeling of being disconnected and helpless that you can enjoy. But that’s fine, it’s a narrow tip to a broader pen.

Also, Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck points out there’s a fifth type of play that Caillois doesn’t consider – the player who plays to enjoy the idea of the rules interacting. That rules that nest and set against one another in a satisfying way offer enough of a reason to play.

I’ve asked the crew at Wizards if Caillois informed their vision of the psychographics, and as of this writing I haven’t received an answer. Informed by their history, I think they devised their player psychographics independently, and the Rosewater model is missing some basic components.

These are two very good ways to look at game design; they both fundamentally want to focus on why someone plays, with Caillois framing it in terms of big, cultural ideas and Rosewater framing it as the choices of an individual’s feelings. Caillois (and Murray) take into account another two different ways to play, two more ways you can make games and things you can implement in games that people engage with.

One of the reasons we look at Caillois’ model is because, well, he was a French academic, and he wrote about a topic, and other people wrote about it subsequently. At the same time, though, Caillois’ ideas include a lot of super gross colonialism. His whole vision of cultures that aren’t western European talks about them condescendingly, the notion that their destiny was to be conquered or colonised, because of the games they play. The Rosewater model, on the other hand, is a living games text, expressed not in an academic book written by one person, but algorithmically sorted by a game that’s been non-stop produced for twenty-five years.

It’s not that the Rosewater model is better, I just feel it’s a bit easier to share. I don’t need to assign it one or more Yikes.

Is this some bold position, ‘we should use Rosewater instead of Caillois’? Nah. Is it some brilliant academic insight, ‘MTG R&D bites on Caillois’? God no.

It is still interesting.

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Story Pile: Touhou

Oh, yes really.

We’re doing this.

Touhou Project, Touhou, or Project Shrine Maiden, or whatever you want to call it, is a set of characters coexisting in a somewhat loosely aligned storytelling space first originated from the work of Team Shanghai Alice, which is to say, the entire staff of Team Shanghai Alice, which is to say, one person, ZUN, who has made (at least) 27 Touhou games since 1996. While the conventional vision of these games is bullet hells, and ZUN’s work definitely features that, there are Touhou games that ZUN didn’t make, and these include puzzle platformers, dungeon crawlers, RPGs, even a one-on-one fighting game.

The Guinness Book of Records, as of 2010, has instituted Touhou Project as “the most prolific fan-made shooter series,” which I think is a really stupid description because it suggests that ZUN is somehow a fan and not a creator in their own right, but it’s not wrong because a large body of the work that ‘is Touhou’ is not made by ZUN, and that collected third party stuff includes professional products.

This is extremely weird: It’s weird because conventionally, the vision of how work like this gets made has a certain degree of ownership and permission.

You can’t just make a Touhou game, I assume, you have to ask if you can.

At least, that’s how it works in the places I’m used to working.

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Making Hook Line Sinker

Hey, check this out.

This is what I call the cover card for our game Hook, Line & Sinker. At the time of writing this, I’m still testing this game, but I like this aesthetic for the game, and unless it tests badly for use, it’s probably going to stay this way.

I made this. This is my art. I’m really happy with how it looks, and I figured I’d like to show the process I went through to make this card, this specific card. Below the fold, then, is a step-by-step process of showing how I made this, and this is very close to my first look. This was all done with like, basic tools that you can find in most every graphics program.

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The Tail of Spite

Back in 2018, Dinesh Vatvani, a python programmer, took a set of analytic tools to the BoardgameGeek top 100. I have said some mean things about BoardgameGeek in the past, like how it’s a site that ‘loves lists as much as it hates women’ or ‘looks like an android’s uterus’ or ‘has a community that are shockingly comfortable with being the worst kind of racists,’ but one thing it’s generally regarded as being pretty solid at is presenting to a general audience a lot of data about whether or not a game might be, in some vague way, ‘good.’ It’s got a ranking system, you see, and that ranking system – well, it’s a system. Systems are right, aren’t they? It’s like algorithms.

The hypothetical idea is that BoardgameGeek, by aggregating a large number of opinions, this analysis avoids having a ‘bias’ and is instead presenting a kind of objective data.

Now, obviously, this kind of analysis is going to be as biased as any self-selecting group, and Dinesh’s analysis seeks to tease out a number of different factors. The full article is definitely worth a read, but in this, he introduces something extremely interesting, which he dubs the Tail of Spite.

The Tail of Spite is the way that:

A curious feature of the graph above is the tail of games of low complexity and low ratings at the bottom left of the plot. This “tail of spite” consists of relatively old mass-appeal games. Every single game in the tail of spite was released pre-1980, with many being considerably older than that. The games that form the tail of spite are shown in the table below:

What fascinates me about this tail of spite is that these are games that, with some degree of objectivity, seem to be successful. Some of them aren’t even exploitative like Monopoly – I mean who owns Tic Tac Toe? Who’s getting rich off kids knowing how to make that game on their notepaper. No, these games are games with wide-spread mainstream appeal, that do their jobs, are largely not broken and rarely poorly produced, but they’re extremely well known. They are not so much rated as they are resented.

I think this idea, that of a ‘tail of spite’ is a useful one to have. Your biases won’t just express in over-rating the things you like – you will also be inclined towards being more harsh on things you have personal distaste for.

Anyway, Monopoly sucks.

 

Game Pile: Keen Dreams

Oh hey, a Game Pile about a Commander Keen game! We’ve done that before! Twice!

And right now, it’s amazingly actually timely, kind of, because unlike how I wrote about Wonder Boy 3 just in time for the announcement of the remake, I had this plan lined up just as Keen Dreams dropped on the Switch.

On the Switch.

What the hell?

Who was seeing that coming!?

Released in 1991 under the Softdisk label, Keen Dreams marked a turning point in Commander Keen design. The first Keens were made as an exercise in smooth scrolling video on a PC – an attempt to replicate the movement of Mario Bros kind of games, and which wound up being – you know what, just go read Masters of Doom by David Kushner (no relation to that one) and learn about the arc that takes from Commander Keen and Softdisk to literally the entire modern landscape dominated by team-based multiplayer shooter games. Suffice to say this is legitimately one of the stepping stones on that path.

If I was a fairer writer, I’d tak about Commander Keen 3: Keen Must Die!, and I guess, here, bonus Game Pile: Keen Must Die is an afterthought of a game and makes the moral weirdness I mentioned about Commander Keen 2 both front-and-centre and obvious. Like it’s pretty much impossible to finish Commander Keen 3 without shooting someone’s mum, which is pretty bleak as a story beat to put in a videogame.

Keen Dreams is a… decent game. It’s fine. It’s alright. It’s definitely weaker than Keen 4 and a little bit better than Keen 3. There’s less game here than you’d think, less spectacle, less fun exploration, and there was a point where this game was entirely available for free, but it’s certainly worth more than nothing.

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Making Fun: Years Later

Starting in November 2017, I decided that, with enough attempts made to explore methods of how, that I would start uploading videos to Youtube. I decided to build on my then-recently-finished Honours thesis as an experiment in seeing what I could create that could suit a rapid-fire fast-talking Youtube content form, and as a direct result, my first video series, Making Fun was made.

It’s been a bit over a full year now, and I thought I’d spend some time to look at these videos and see what I thought of them, what lessons I had learned, and what lessons I would recommend.

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