Monthly Archives: March 2013

An update on the state of current projects

(For those interested in the state of current projects).

My big thing over the past few months has been my novel: Book Binding, a story of academic politics and library management at a college of magic. I “finished” it last year, shortly before a cross country move from Atlanta to Seattle… by finished, I mean that a first draft came into being, and I took a break to focus on moving and gain some fresh eyes to look at the text, which turned into ignoring the text entirely for a few months.

As it does.

Still, I was lucky enough to have a wife willing to prod me beneath the ribs and tell me to finish the editing by April, and there’s a good chance I’ll make it, as the last few gaps and obvious plot holes are almost filled, and I’m ninety percent sure I didn’t change anyone’s name in the middle of the book without warning (this is a bad habit of mine). Take my eyes off it for April, and by May I’ll do the second round of editing with fresh eyes, and, while that’s going on, start sending feelers out to agents and/or publishers. Oh yes. I have a Plan.

Which means my April project, coming up soon, is to play with the other iron on my fire: The Guild of Steamfitters (formerly Steamcraft), an RPG which I wrote and successfully playtested, but which… ground to a halt when it came time to buckle down and edit the first draft into something more polished.

I… uh, I guess I have a bad habit, don’t I?

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GMotW: Summoner Wars and… summoning.

SummonerWars-box-frontSummoner Wars!

Summoner Wars!

Guys, how did I not know about Summoner Wars before? I LOVE summoning things!

Okay, so, I just picked up Summoner Wars of the iPhone (although I think I would like to track down the real-life cards-and-chips edition as well, for convenience of playing with real folks made of meat who live with or near me), and I am excited about it for a number of reasons.

Here’s one, not so much a rule as the title to a rule:

Phase 6: Build Magic

Why’s that important? Because six is the final phase, the one which occurs WELL AFTER the phase in which you need magic.

Building magic is important; you use magic to summon units, and you use the summoned units to, uh, war. You build magic by destroying cards, or by sacrificing your own; the former is more fun, the latter is more reliable, and BOTH happen AFTER the step in which you can actually summon some dudes. And that’s clever.

From a strictly mechanical standpoint, it prevents players from surprising one another too quickly; after all, the units which take a lot of magic to summon will only appear on the board when someone has a lot of magic to burn, so if you see your opponent burning four cards at the end of their turn like it ain’t no thing, you can reliably worry that the one they’re holding on to is a doozy, and take some measures to prevent it from killing you too hard–bring back your more fragile units, throw out some protective pawns, or flip the table in a violent rage, depending on your play style. That’s nice!

But what I really like is the way it supports the simple narrative of the game (and the narrative really isn’t much more than “Hey, a bunch of powerful mage-types are trying to kill one another using the power of Summoning”). Magic, you see, is a resource that must be built… rather than beginning with a level of Magic Points which must be preserved or spent, it must be aquired helter-skelter. There’s a tie to the Magic: The Gathering standard of magic being created by lands which are played and then tapped as need be, but lands in Magic are permanent; planeswalkers grow more and more powerful as their battle goes on, even though they may run out of spells with which to use that power. Summoners, however, have a base “power” level of zero, and have to build that up with concentration and effort. And sacrifice… you can’t rely only on destroying enemy units, you WILL have to axe some of your own.

This makes the process feel damnably slow sometimes, especially if you have units you don’t want to sacrifice; you increase magic by drips and drops while throwing out a few common units to stop the enemy tide, until you can afford to field your giant rampaging whatever. Assassin/mole rat/vampire/fire drake/whatever. Even when you do it fast, it’s slow: you end your turn by building up the magic you’ll need for the NEXT turn.

Maybe slow isn’t the right word… maybe the right word is ponderous. Or even… inevitable.

Summoning is like an advancing iceberg… it’s a thing that will happen, and you can SEE it happening before it occurs, even if you can’t quite see what and where it will occur. And that creates a nice narrative verve: imagine Sneeks, the Summoner of the Cave Goblins. He’s yoinking fighters in to being, and throwing them willy-nilly at Ret-Talus’s forces, and undead hoard which can’t match the goblins in sheer number but have a distressing tendancy to just. Not. Stay. DOWN.

The undead hoard advances… strangely, though Sneeks has kept his eyes on the enemy’s side of the battlefield, no new skinless faces have appeared by Ret-Talus’s walls. The enemy fights, taking down two of Sneeks’s own, and then…

…the sky darkens. In the far corner of the battlefield, Ret-Talus glows with power, seeming to draw energy from the very earth below him, his eyes focused on somewhere at right angles to reality as we know it.

In his little goblin heart, Sneeks knows that something bad is going to happen… something horrible is going to come charging right for him, and he has only a moment to issue the orders to prevent it from taking him out entirely. Run and hide, forge a barrier, or charge the enemy summoner himself, in a desperate bid to slay Ret-Talus before he can pull his monstrosity through? What now, Sneeks? WHAT NOW?

(Answer: Sneeks is a goblin. He’s going to run and hide.)

Summoner wars, a pretty badass presentation of magic as powerful, slow, and terrifying in its inevitability.


The Object, revisited.

Hey, remember The Object? A role-playing thought experiment about a mysterious and inexplicable… uh… object. I wrote it ages ago, and to be honest, I haven’t thought of it much.

And then a nice fellow on the Internet named Tim Dexenius said he played it. And he liked it! Not only did he like it, he liked it enough to plan to play it again, and to work on a useful reference sheet, which he was kind enough to let me share.

Even better, he pointed out that the game’s Profession Cards cards could be fold-over nameplates with the archetype on one side and the character’s description and motivations on the other, rather than mere business cards. This? This is the sort of idea that’s both simple to execute and incredibly clever, especially given how useful AND thematic the nice little nameplates are.

Thanks, Tim!


GMotW: Damsels in Distress.

This week’s game mechanic for discussion:

“[The] female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character.

… well now that doesn’t sound like a very good mechanic at all. What’s that from, anyway? What’s that, “like every video game ever?” Huh.

Actually, I’m using this week’s bit of podium to suggest everyone who hasn’t already seen Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes versus Women in Video Games” make an effort to rectify that with a quickness. Man, woman, avid gamer, hobbyist, it’s a worthwhile watch for all concerned.


GMotW: Dishonored and key bindings.

 

Dishonored Cover - CopyI’ve been playing a lot of Dishonored lately. It’s a pretty boss game, if you don’t mind incredibly outdated slang terms, but it has got me thinking, perhaps unsurprisingly, of game mechanics. Perhaps even a mechanic… OF THE WEEK?

Yes. Yes perhaps. On page 8 of the manual:

“Your sword is always held in your right hand… In your left hand, you can equip any of your available gadgets or powers…”

On the PC, my console of choice, that binds stabbing to the left mouse button, and the use of gadgets and powers to the right. That’s important. That’s interesting. Let’s take a moment to talk about interaction with video games, shall we?

Games require a medium of information exchange with the “real world” and that means controllers. Ignore, for a moment, the Kinect (it’s not hard to do) and focus on chunks of plastic, whether they be paddles for the consoles or the mouse-and-keyboard I prefer. These tools are constructed to fit the human hand, and put the important buttons within easy reach. The more important a button is, the easier it is to press, whether that be because of its convenient location, it’s sheer size, or–most interestingly–its cultural status as “important.” What do I mean by that?

I mean, basically, that it was Playstation convention that the X button be linked to the most-used skill in the game. I mean that there’s no essential benefit to “WASD” as the keys bound to movement, over, say, “ESDF,” except inasmuch as it has become standard. And I mean that when using a mouse, you left click to activate a function, and right click to create a contextual menu. Clicking the left button means “Perform your primary objective” and clicking the right means “Let us consider some alternatives.”

And THAT brings me back to Dishonored. Your sword is bound to the left mouse button, the “Intended action” button. Yes, it can be re-mapped, but that’s beside the point: the creators of the game have privileged the use of the sword (and even if you do re-map the button, fact is the thing will always be drawn). If there is a person in front of you, the default action is to stab them, doing anything else is, by the nature of interaction, an alternative, a non-traditional option which is only ever contectually appropriate.

This exists in many, many games, and is somewhat endemic in first-person shooters, where the left click is generally tied to “shoot”. Of course, that’s the way one interacts with the world. What makes Dishonored an interesting case, to me at least, is the fact that it’s not a game with only one meaningful standard of interaction; it is perfectly feasible to not be murderous. There are other methods of dealing with dudes in front of you, even those who you wish to have a nice lie-down until you’re well and truly done with the level. And yet… that’s not what’s being privileged.

Which struck me at first as a flaw in an otherwise excellent game, until I took some time to really think about what that did on a narrative level. Corvo, the protagonist is, minimal spoilers here, not a straight up assassin, but a fellow who has been pushed into assassination by necessity. He’s broken out of prison, gotten caught up in politics most foul, and visited by an ancient god who granted him magic, before being thrust into the world and told “Here’s a target, go get him, you’re on your own.”

He is understandably nervous, isn’t he?

Why is stabbing tied to the left mouse button? Because it’s easy. It’s not necessarily wise, it’s never necessary, and it invited trouble, but it is the easy way to deal with any problem which comes in front of you. Its placement on the controlling medium reflects not the necessity of the action, but the siren call of it: “Choking this guy is dangerous, blinking away is dangerous, grabbing sleep darts is dangerous, just kill this shmoe and move the frig on!”

That’s what’s going through Corvo’s mind, and that’s what’s going, if not through the player’s mind, through the muscle memory in his fingers. A guard appears and the gut says “LEFT CLICK!” because that is how you meaningfully interact with the world. Fighting that instinct (or giving into it entirely, if you prefer) is something Corvo and the player have to contend with together. And that’s not a flaw at all, that’s using mechanical limitations to powerful effect.