Monthly Archives: October 2008

The Space Beyond the Rules

I just had an annoying conversation with a friend about the relative merits of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition versus the previous version of the game. I’ll spare you the details, as it’s been discussed ad absurdum elsewhere. It did get me thinking, though, about the role rules play in tabletop roleplaying games.

Tabletop roleplaying games, as I’ve mentioned before, can adapt to players’ actions much more easily and completely than digital games. This is due mostly to the GM‘s ability to roll with the punches and make up stuff in response to an unexpected path taken by the party. Since the origin of tabletop roleplaying games, the roleplaying proper, that is, the social interaction, character quirks, and people-focused play, has been largely separate from the rules. Tabletop RPG rules focus on things like combat, non-social conflict resolution, and supernatural powers. All the fluffy social and character-building stuff is allowed to just occur, with the rules keeping out of its way. Sure, there might be a Diplomacy skill or a Charisma statistic, but those are usually reserved for small parts of the roleplaying: deciding if a character’s argument was convincing enough, or just how pretty the elf princess is. Few systems dedicate more than a page or two to rules governing seemingly important things like falling in love or becoming homesick.

And that’s just fine. Combat, magic, disabling booby traps: these are things that most of us will never experience, things which are nice to have codified and defined for easy processing. Social behavior, however, is something that’s familiar to every tabletop gamer. Even the most reclusive, introverted dice-roller has the experience of getting together with people around a table to play. Human beings understand social situations better than just about anything else, so our creativity is broader and deeper in that area. And I think that’s the interesting part of roleplaying.

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The Most Important Games

“The 99th” over at Play This Thing! posted a list of the top ten most important games in history. It includes such things as family, fiat money, and Passage. I’ve got issue with a lot of things about this list.

First, as with most top ten lists, there is an issue of definition. What is a game? The much-lauded Chris Crawford has claimed that a game must be made for money, must have a goal, and must allow you to attack your opponent, among other things. By this definition, The Sims, Tetris, and the original release of Cave Story are not games. Many other definitions of games include “fun,” “play,” or “artificial,” although mathematical game theorists would vehemently argue otherwise. Let’s see if we can come up with a definition in the spirit of The 99th’s list.

For the purposes of this post, a “game” is a goal-oriented activity with artificially-established rules that are shared among multiple participants, called “players.” Players need not play simultaneously or adversarially. By “historically important,” I choose to mean “most significantly contributed to and/or were most necessary for the existence of the sort of games I discuss on this site.” As an initial disclaimer: I am not a historian. Now, for my version of The 99th’s list.

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The Goo Variations and Jill Off Harder

My latest column is up at GameSetWatch. It’s entitled “The Goo Variations” and it describes a game design pattern that I’ve dubbed “Variations on a Theme,” as demonstrated by the incredibly stellar World of Goo.

Additionally, Anna Anthropy released an expanded version of her cruel-in-a-nice-way Mighty Jill Off last week, and it’s now clear that she has a spike fetish. Highlights of the even harder Second Tower: when the level decays as if the cartridge has been loosened in the slot, the (Jesse-Venbrux-inspired?) segment where the player must die and trust the game to take care of her, and the absolutely adorable alternate ending cutscene.

The 1UP Show

Clockwise from top left: Leone, Nguyen, Frechette, and O'Donnell.

The 1UP Show does the best “traditional” digital games journalism around. Their latest episode has a review of Dead Space at around 26:13 that’s a perfect example of why this is.

Several folks who know their way around games sit and actually discuss the game. There’s no mention of a review score, but this is definitely a review, as it’s focused on the questions “how good is this game?” and “should people buy it?” The advantages over print media are obvious: you can see video of the game to illustrate their points, and you can see the reviewers as they say things, so that you can get a feeling for their attitudes and motivations. I had fun figuring out how the different people were approaching the game. This is all speculation, of course, but here are my thoughts. It was a little microcosm of all of digital games fandom.

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Necropolis Updated

I’ve updated Necropolis with some tweaks and bug fixes.


  • The player character now starts with 4 health instead of 3. (suggested by guyblade)
  • Text readability enhanced in some situations. (suggested by Andrew)
  • Disable skill made more useful. (suggested by several folks)
  • Small chest contents probabilities adjusted.
  • Minor stability improvements
  • The Bracer is now properly marked as not plural.
  • Fixed crash when equipment was generated with a suffix but no prefix. (reported by Andrew)


A screenshot from Necropolis

I’ve decided to try my hand at Flash game development. It’s always been a dream of mine to make a living at creating games, and Flash games seem to be a viable way for individual, independent developers to earn a living.

My first game has just been released, thanks in part to a sponsorship from It’s a truly global market when a Spanish-language games site headquartered in Spain can fund an English-language game from one guy in North Carolina.

Necropolis is a game about Ms. Lilian Trevithick, lady adventurer and radical steam technician, who has come to the infamous Necropolis of Ao in search of adventure. She descends through 25 procedurally-generated levels of traps and treasure to achieve her goal.

Please give me any comments, compliments, or criticisms that come to mind playing the game! This is the first game I’ve released in years, so I’m both very nervous and very excited.

Play Necropolis now.

The Neo-Retro Urge

If you play independent digital games, you’re surely familiar with the retro style. Even the scary mainstream publishers have put out titles like Megaman/Rockman 9. This neo-retro approach — I’m not sure if there’s a common name for it — has modern developers make new games that could theoretically run on old hardware. There are quite a few excellent neo-retro games out there, like La-Mulana, a tribute to the MSX, most of the entries in the TIGSource Bootleg Demakes competition, and a work-in-progress game I’ve been playing today, This game is Wizard.

I’m making a distinction here between neo-retro games and games that just use “retro” graphics. Pixel art like in Cave Story or lo-fi art like in Cactus’s games are purely artistic choices, and don’t necessarily represent a deliberate restriction of the game design like the neo-retro approach. That’s what it is, really: a restriction.

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Games As Art

Anna Anthropy, who I’ve been referencing far too much lately, posted about a discussion she attended on indie games. She mentions her irritation at Jason Rohrer, the artsy developer of “Passage” whom everyone loves to flame:

[he] kept steering the discussion back to roger ebert and the discussion of whether games “can be” art. jason rohrer clearly feels as though games need to be somehow legitimized by an outside force – that we need to prove to roger ebert that games are capable of being classified as art.

I find this question annoying. The answer to “can games be art” or “are games art” is yes, by any definition of the word “art.” I can express myself with games. Games can have messages. Great. Let’s move on and discuss games as art. It seems like those who ask if games can be art are actually asking permission from society. “Can you please call games art?” It reflects an essential immaturity and adolescence to the game-discussing community.

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Ludus Novus 015: Curse of Ludus Novus

What do we look for in digital game sequels, and why is it different than in other forms of media? Why don’t we see more sequels that give us more of the same good stuff?


The music for this episode is “Darien Gap” by Josh Woodward and is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

This episode’s topic suggested by Lissa.