New on Desk #101 — Fast Male Action

Working on Muster still, and will be for the rest of the month. More on that at the end of the newsletter. For a feature, I could just settle for the legend of the clown posse from our Monday Coup game (read that bit, it’s pretty funny), but my mania produced something even weirder, so why not.

Hemanning it up

As is the case with many xennial generation hobbyists, I’m a secret He-Man fanboy. Mattel got to me when I was young and dumb, cannot be helped. At least I’m so anticonsumerist that He-Man can’t convince me to buy anything as an adult. Collecting all those toys can get fairly expensive from what I’ve seen of toy-geek behavior.

The MotU pestilence is fairly common in my circles, too; many peeps prove to be very conversant, such that we end up spending stupid amounts of good development time writing casual MotU fanfics instead. One fellow apparently started building a home shrine to He-Man this week after realizing that He is the God Made Flesh or something of the sort.

Part of the charm is absolutely nostalgia, but it’s really not all: MotU is also a fairly potent cultural franchise, there’s some art to it in the same way that e.g. early Superman comics and other such pop art manage to capture a zeitgeist. I think one of the big edges that He-Man has over more sophisticated properties for our kind of hobbyist is how creatively wide open and aesthetics first it is. Even if you insist on being boring and worship at the feet of the Filmation canon, all you’re actually achieving is that your headcanon is more insane and insipid than the little stories and “understandings” that start popping up when you’ve stared at the smirking face of Battlecat long enough. The entire MotU franchise is like a black hole that demands you to explain it.

Foremost, it just looks super cool while not having much in the way of fundamental canon for what it means. What little there is contradicts itself constantly. So feel free to develop your own world of imagination with these toys and whatnot as the sparse network of focal points. Seems to work for quite many hobbyists, even guys who don’t necessarily engage in much creative storytelling otherwise. The bricolage is real, and his name is He-Man.

Design concept for a MotU boardgame

So anyway, we had a bout of the Hemancitis on the agora (our Finnish geek cultural saloon) again this week, and aside from that one guy actually buying a He-Man toy to start up his home shrine (got to explain to his wife how this isn’t actually some ironic theater piece, he really wants to have a He-Man to paw over), I also got inspired by reviewing recent toys. Inspired to design a boardgame, specifically. I’ll write some quick notes about it here so I can set it aside and pay full attention to Muster.

The MotU Fast Male Action (working title) is a quick two-player game for ages 8+, with playtime of 10 minutes. Each play depicts the fight between two “Masters” from Masters of the Universe. The game involves a dash of skill, a dash of luck and a fair bit of enjoying the imagery and ideas involved with the toys. Think of it as the boardgame equivalent of the way Pokemon interact, in quick battles for supremacy. Some core product design precepts:

Card Art Boards: The central play equipment is a modestly sized (a4) gameboard decorated to evoke the MotU toy packaging. The boards are character-specific, so He-Man has his own, Skeletor his own, etc. The two players choosing their boards define one of many variant scenarios.

Toyetic interactivity: My utterly dumb (and therefore apparently appropriate) basic idea is that when you play, you set your chosen Master (the doll itself) to stand on the board such that the two combatants face each other. This might or might not have some fairly symbolic play action aspect, like you get to knock the loser over to indicate end of bout, but mostly it’s just to encourage toy sales. Similarly, toy accessories might have some remote use as playing pieces in the game itself, on which more down below; might or might not be a good idea. In any case, the cultural assumption MotU Fast Male action presents is totally that you can only play a given board if you have the toy for it. Makes as much sense as only being able to play Warhammer if you have the miniatures for it, right?

Big Packaging Card: The psychological secret sauce that makes MotU fans fall for MotU Fast Male Action is that the gameboards are like oversized versions of the packaging cards that the toys themselves come with. (For those who don’t know: the cards are a moderately big aspect of the MotU toy experience, particularly when you’re still at the toy store browsing the toys.) One side of the board/card is functional, while the backside contains an illustrated bio of the character. There’s probably some clever way to take this further, like get transparent clamshell packaging so you can store the gameboard and the toy itself together in a display formation when not in use. Basically, the game board serves double task as a fancier version of the traditional packaging card.

Pretty game board: I think that board game boards have the potential to be intriguing visual art for their own sake, even if somewhat specialized. So that has to be part of the MotU Fast Male Action charm, using the visual heritage of the franchise to best effect. While the toys have their moments, much of the most striking MotU art is print matter, perfect for decorating game boards. You want the board to be so pretty that collectors will want to get them all. As one does as a corporate snake person (Snake Man is the technical term, I think).

Sparse components, simple gameplay: The actual MUFMA (let’s not keep writing it out) game, on which I do in fact have some thoughts as well, falls into the category of cheap, unboxed boardgames. This wasn’t that unusual in my youth, you’d get just the board from wherever and have to scrape the play components together from somewhere. Maybe there could also be some kind of game box (however that relates to the toy storage/presentation aesthetics discussed above), but it could also be the case that the play tools are just kept wherever. The game specifically forswears the modern eurogame design tack of having lots of specialized components; more like a 20th century Ameritrash game in that regard. Just some tokens and a couple of dice cubes.

Let’s talk actual gameplay

Yes, I am in fact a game designer and not a toy developer. Here’s the core gameplay:

Play components consist of the respective game boards and token bags for each player. Your token color depends on the allegiance of your Master: gold for Good Warriors, blue/violet for Evil Warriors, green for Snake Men, red for Horde, etc. There’s a bunch of dice, d6, probably two, or two per player. And of course the respective toys of your chosen Masters, can’t intimidate the opponent without the 3D element.

The players push their gameboards together and pick their starting tokens; each Master can have a variable number, but for the sake of the argument let’s say it’s five tokens. The setup phase of play is simple because the rule is that you can place your starter tokens in any positions on your own gameboard. Some positions are no doubt better than others, and there might be some strategy to this over who you’re fighting or whatnot. (NB: I like this rule as a designer, as it implies a strict hygiene principle in actually designing the boards.)

The initial placement is probably blind, or gentleman-blind, which should work well enough for a quick casual game where both players actually do their setup simultaneously. CEO Hiss might decide that it’s a good idea to add a blinding screen to the game, though, which might make for some interesting variations on what’s possible for the actual maneuvering in the game.

Speaking of the maneuvering, I guess I’ll need to draw a schematic of a basic game board… so here, see attached. The conceit is that the player manages their “tokens”, which are perhaps best understood as their Master’s willpower and life energy, directing the tokens into different maneuver option fields on the game board. When a given option is filled with tokens, it activates to whatever outcome indicated. So to e.g. “Master Brawl” (a default action I’m thinking that every muscle-bound oaf — almost all Masters — has), you need to amassa three tokens into the respective part of the game board, and when you do, you get to perform the instructed action described by “Master Brawl” on the board. These actions are mechanically simple things, at their most basic “roll a die and win the game if you rolled X or better”. This is a quick game, getting any attack off might well conclude the match!

As I mentioned, a player would start with like five tokens, and they can put them anywhere on their board, so they can start with some initiative or a combat option already loaded up, or whatever. The tokens get moved between the parts of the board during play by a mix of choices and dice rolls. Fairly quickly, hopefully; the biggest missing piece for me here is how to pace the players as they cycle their tokens.

As you can see from the board diagram, there’s a bit of an underlying alchemical simile here. The entire point of the game’s structure is that these boards can be varied, though; the conceit of moving tokens across the structure of the board remains the same, but the specific organs a given Master has, an with what kinds of connections, could differ a fair bit. Gameboards are like that, they’re good at visually depicting complex structures that players can explore to their heart’s content. So that could be a good match.

We want to have an example of what these boards are like and what they do, though, so let’s look at some of the specialized “organs” that I gave the example board. Think of this as maybe a rudimentary version of how He-Man himself might play.

Master Heart: The deep core of the Master, where their power swells. Any tokens here have the chance to replicate themselves, like 3/6 per token per unit of time or whatever. The replicated tokens are pushed up into the fractionating column, both of them. To get more tokens into the Heart the Master has to push them down from the column.

Fractionating Column: A simile for the Master’s sinews and circulation, perhaps. Whatever it is, it has three spaces in which tokens can float. The player can move tokens from the middle column to the Will to Power, up off the top of the column to the Power Light, or down into the Heart. I believe that the token movement in the column is fairly slow and random, like you choose whether the column is going up or down, and then it’s 3/6 for each token whether it actually moves a step. This is a key currency bottleneck for this character: getting tokens from the Heart to the Light takes a while.

Will to Power: A sort of hit points or passive defense scheme. Normally when the opponent succeeds on a “hit” you lose the game, but this Master can recover by expending their Will. This probably involves like a dice roll against the number of tokens in Will, after which it empties. Something like that. Nothing like a perfect defense, but has the potential to take a blow and keep going.

Power Light: The central power pool the Master uses to actually do things. The tokens here get distributed into the Combat Options (and perhaps the Sideboard) in a pseudorandom manner. They cannot go back down into the Fractionating Column. The Power Light also serves as a sort of initiative feature, so maybe you get to move first or whatever if you have more tokens here than the opponent has in their initiative organ (another Power Light or I don’t know, some damn snake man thing).

Combat Options: These are a handful of different actual maneuvers that the Master can take to fight their opponent. Very color-based, the Master does what they do. A default example option would be “Master Wrestling”, which might require for three tokens to be present in it to be activated, at which point the Master can charge the other to wrestle, and have [my wrestling tokens]/[their wrestling tokens] odds of defeating them. The Combat Options by default cannot be overcharged, and they might or might not automatically trigger when full. They will empty when used, so that drains tokens from your economy Some obvious room for play options here.

So that’s the board. I don’t have any particularly superb ideas about turn structure or such yet, I just know what the feel of it should be: a frantic few minutes managing the balance of token creation vs energizing the attack options (with perhaps a sideways glance at defensive options in case the opponent is trying a quick takedown), then activating a killer combo that lets you win. This would all be easier to make work in a computer game, that could just be “real time” and have the tokens bounce like pachinko balls on their own while the player turns toggles and gauges to herd them in the right places.

I’m pretty sure that the way the Light distributes tokens into the Combat Options is just a dice roll, so for each token that you’re assigning you roll and the board tells you that if you rolled a ‘1’ then the token goes into “Master Wrestling” and if you rolled a ‘2’ it goes to “Use the Power Sword”, or whatever. This could involve rolling two dice, with the active player using one themself and giving the other to the opponent to use for the same. Usual boardgame trickery, basically.

Some further notes

That’s the basics, but I’ll write up a few floating ideas as well in case I come back to this idea next year. Using the newsletter as a memo.

You might be able to send your own tokens onto the opposing board via a channel on your own board. If that’s a thing, then your faction allegiance might determine how those tokens act on that side, but basically it’d be a way to decrease opponent effectiveness and make it more difficult for them to manage their tokens. Like maybe your token ends up sitting on a combat option of theirs or whatever.

One neat thing you might be able to do (perhaps with only some Masters) is “breaking off” the struggle. This would allow both combatants to redistribute their tokens (remember, you got to freely place them at the start) before resuming the fight. Could be fairly useful if you find that you’ve left too many tokens sitting uselessly in the Will to Power, or whatever.

This is a secondary design goal, but assuming that the basic one-on-one works well, there could be potential for multiplayer, and more importantly, for a “Scenario Board”. This would be a third gameboard added next to the two player boards, representing a specific MotU story (I was thinking of just creating boards for individual Filmation cartoon episodes). Each Master would have their own means of getting their tokens on the scenario board, which would in turn have specific effects and powers that could turn the tide of the struggle. Also, you could have a different victory condition there: instead of beating the opponent directly, fill the scenario pattern to win the game.

One way to make use of toy accoutrements (those small plastic things that come with the toys, like armor and weapons) in the game would be to let them be special tokens in the token management. The board could include special conditions for what happens if the special token gets to some place, or maybe the token has its own rules card. I’m far from convinced that this is an useful thing to add to an otherwise fairly neat and streamlined thing, but the game is of a nature that lives on variety, so who knows.

Monday: Coup de Main #68

This was an action session! So much so that I actually already wrote an explanation of the events for the sake of the players who weren’t there. I’ll just copy that here, not like I don’t have other things to be doing besides this silly very special episode of He-Man product development.

But first, I gotta tell you the funny story of crazy concurrence in context:

The Clown Rodeo Theory of D&D

As is our wont, we chatted before the game about the participation roster and the plans for the night. Found out that the player of Frida the Teenage Witch wasn’t coming. No problem, we had enough players… just, Frida had been sort of acting as the party leader over the last couple of sessions of the Elfquest, so exciting times now that she wasn’t there. In fact, one might come to wonder how the party’ll fare when the boss is away.

Of course the party has Thinko, a famously socially incompetent geek elf — wait sorry, a grey elf — who is absolutely going to lead the party in the most logical manner possible. As an elf, he’s surely wiser and more sensible than any human could possibly be. Besides, Frida’s basically worse than Stephen King’s Carrie when it comes to responsible use of drugs and witchcraft, so if anything, the party will surely be in better hands with Thinko running the show.

This state of affairs, with the boss going on a business trip and leaving the servants to run the manor house (the traditional Italian renaissance comedy set-up, that), inspired me to author a very important piece of rpg theory that states, in summary, that D&D murderhobos are basically a traditional circus clown act. With the ring master party leader away, we may therefore expect the rest of the party to fall into their natural patterns of mayhem and stupidity in short order.

In case the reader is not familiar with traditional clown typology, here, I’ll quote myself from the chat:

So here’s the clownshow sociology in full, in case you need support for figuring out how to get by without Frida the Teenage Witch:

Blanc: The serious, nominal leader of the troupe. Dumb as fuck, but serious about it, and has too much social authority to be challenged.

Auguste: The anarchic primus motor that makes things happen. Fails constantly, and is also dumb as fuck.

Contra-Auguste: A midway sort of character who respects Blanc enormously and generally emulates them as a twisted mirror. Also dumb as fuck, and importantly, easy for the Auguste to mislead and drag along.

Thinko is obviously the white clown, Blanc: middle management, eager to prove his worth. It’s gonna go great. There was some uncertainty among the three stooges as to who’s the Auguste (arguably the key to the terrible events to come); well, read on and see for yourself.

Back to the scheduled program

So this clowning theory of the game couldn’t possibly have anything to do with what happened later that night at the game. The report on the events has been compiled by Frida the Teenage Witch, the party leader who wasn’t there this time around.

Here’s how Frida understood the events afterwards:

The scouting party left for the Castle as per usual. They decided to explore the northern side of the Castle bluff, at this point committed to checking all the Mouths of Madness before exploring any of them in more depth.

When studying the entrance to one of the caves, Jean, one of the human allies, got it into his damn fool human head to explore deeper. Jean got captured by Hobgoblins residing in the Castle!

Frida has heard about Hobgoblins. The wood elves consider them one of the “evil humanoid races” that dot the landscape in Flanaess. The grey elves tell a different story, deeper: the hobgoblins of today are a remnant, a memory of the great Unseelie Courts that once contested faerie realms with the Seelie Courts. The Seelie emerged triumphant, but many Unseelie escaped and still exist in the dark corners of the world. Dungeons are good places for powerful Unseelie like Hobgoblin legions, Hags and whatnot. Dark elves, if any remained.

Hobgoblins specifically were faeries of great military strength, as Lawful Evil as Unseelie can be. Imagine them as dark knights loyal to their court in life and death, willing to fulfill their duty no matter what. They’re apparently rooted in goblinhood in some way, so not elves, but the grey elves speak of them with something akin to fear: once they were the match of us, the masters of creation.

Heikki helpfully found us an illustrative image of what these “hobgoblins” would have looked like in this faerie past the grey elves obsess over. I did mention that we’re suffering of a bout of Hemanitis this week, right? (I’m saying that’s a Masters of the Universe fellow right there, and he looks just like a hobgoblin of hobgoblins were bad-ass. This would be hilarious if you knew what this “MotU” I keep babbling about is.)

So, what happened next:

The party found that Jean had been captured by hobgoblins who attempted to parlay. Thinko and the other elves decided to take the sudden appearance of hobgoblins fairly seriously, so they contacted the prince over the river (using the Message spell, a common grey elf capability) and asked for aid.

It took several hours for prince Viusdul to gather the forces and cross over. The party heard and saw suspicious signs of goblin activity in the Castle in the meantime. Prince Viusdul tried and failed to get the wood elves and their leader Ember Raventree to join them, but found that the wood elves don’t hold to the goblin threat to be that serious; they hate the goblins and slay them ruthlessly, yes, but it’s not “immediate crusade, alert the HQ to prime the air force!” level of alarm for them the way it seems to be for the grey elves.

(Frida probably figures out the difference in perspective here: the grey elves are often ancient, they remember this past personally. The wood elves are a fair bit younger in general, and they don’t know the hobgoblins in the form they took in the space opera past that the grey elves are often so obsessed with.)

So prince Viusdul and his boon companions went into the cave to see what was going on. The idea was apparently to force the hobgoblins to swear fealty to the prince as the legitimate (Seelie) faerie authority around here; this has been the standard approach ever since the Seelie conflict concluded, the elves tell you. Become Seelie or die, I guess, although the details elude Frida at this time.

Prince and his companions had a short parlay with the hobgoblins, but them being the creatures of darkness they are, the talks floundered quickly when the hobs slew Jean-the-human and threw his tortured body at the prince’s feet. The prince responded in the only way his valiant spirit would allow, and charged the hobgoblins.

(In truth Jean had died hours earlier while trying to escape from the hobgoblins after being taken as a prisoner of war, with the body being mutilated afterwards. But Frida wasn’t there, so she gets to hear what the expedition thought had happened.)

And then:

The fight itself was a confusing dungeon warfare affair, as the hobs had ordered themselves well, with tactical sensibility reminiscent of what they were able in the elflands long ago. Our forces were the more valiant, though, and we overran the hob lines, at first suffering only minor casualties. The prince himself slew Hob-Gob the Bloody, the chief of this hobgoblin remnant, although the battle was hard-fought.

Where it all went wrong was when the prince found out that one of his boon companions, elf knight Dirwengor, had been slewn in the chaos of combat. The prince was tired from his own fight, and then this.

The terrible betrayal became clear when one of the human allies, an old soldier called Medir, confessed to having allowed Dirwengor to fight in his stead, and fall in his stead; this Medir had hidden like a coward, pretending to be dead, while the elves fought valiantly.

The prince, unable to constrain his valiant spirit, went into the chivalrous rage of a prince, intent on slaying Medir where he stood. His greater wisdom apparently won the day at the last moment, though, as he broke his blade upon the cavern wall and wept.

And then, turned to Thinko, his councillor, and set him the task of finishing the quest in lieu of his liege, for whom this world had just now revealed its true face.

The prince then touched the shards of his blade upon himself and faded, dispersing into his aura, fading in the darkness of the shadow that is the Mad Archmage’s Castle.

These events occurred due to one of those crazy unlikely dice roll sequences that sometimes crop up in D&D. For one, Medir is apparently a damn pro in feigning death, you don’t see PCs surviving fights by that measure every day.

Prince Viusdul himself would never have succumbed to elven grief without having exhausted himself so thoroughly in the fight with the hobgoblin chief. He was at like 3 hit points when Medir managed to fumble his explanation of the passing of Dirwengor. While normally the prince could surely have held his peace until proper funeral (and grief counseling) could be had, here he took 2d8 stress damage to the face and went deep in the red.

Descending into a “Rage of Roland” type mind-set, the prince was going to slay either the hobgoblin prisoners or this nefarious human, this Medir-the-betrayer. Dice indicated Medir, so bye bye, except that’s when Viusdul fumbles his attack roll. His fumble: decides to kill himself instead. Coolest combat fumble ever, usually they’re just “drops a weapon” or “falls down”.

Prince Viusdul asked Thinko, the one player character elf in the party (or campaign for that matter) to finish his commitment to the rescue of fair elf princess Sarana, wherever she might be. But let’s see what happened next, because the clown posse is just warming up here.

And then:

Thinko was quick to admit that he was no leader, which we all agree with heartily. He instead suggested that Shiborn-the-healer take up the mantle of leadership for the moment. She did, and we finished the expedition without the prince.

The remaining hobgoblin civilians were gathered. These hobgoblins have apparently become so much flesh and blood that they not only bleed, but also breed; there are children among the wives, who do not fight, as has always been the hobgoblin way. These captives are now held by the wood elves, we’ll process them soon.

The humans, overseen by Thinko, found the treasure of the hobgoblins as well. It was in an iron chest; ever a strength of the hobgoblins, to not mind the cold touch of iron.

We don’t seem to know what exactly happened after that, but we now find that Thinko, the treasure chest, one of the tomte, and the nefarious human Medir Ochre, are not among us. They disappeared some time in the process of boating across the river during our retreat.

So what happened there at the end was that Teemu, playing Medir the picaresque clown (now you know who was the Auguste here), got to thinking: what would the elves do to Medir when they got back to camp and settled down to properly grieve for their prince? They might not look upon him kindly, what with his cowardice leading to the death of an elf knight, and then his foot in the mouth disease caused the prince to kill himself in despair. Some penalty points there.

As with murderhoboes ever, the other players proved very responsive to the idea of grabbing the treasure chest (perhaps not considered as important by the elves as it was by Medir himself, the greedy bastard that he is) and taking off. Even Thinko, a highly respected ancient elf, found it “most logical” to help Medir escape with the loot.

The PC party, now divested of extraneous elves and other NPCs who could speak any sense to them, looked for sanctuary with the Rangers who are currently settling in place at the Castle barbican, basically on the other side of the castle from where the elves have been operating. We’ll find out next time what the Rangers will do with the killer of an elf prince who pops up with a stolen chest of treasure. Initial indications are surprisingly positive.

Thinko, though: he broke with the elven ranks so severely that his Alignment shifted, and he turned into an adventurer (not normal for demihumans in this campaign). He’s going to either become a legend of elvery, or die a quick death as an adventurer.

Session #69 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 6.12., starting around 16:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

State of the Productive Facilities

I’ve written a fair bit of newsletter already, but quickly about Muster: I now have finished a fairly unified ~50 pages of primer material that I call the “Basic section” of the book. The “Advanced section”, also about that size in scope, is also mostly written, I just need to organize it and fill in the bits that don’t exist quite yet.

The good news is that Sipi seems to have things well in hand for art. I’ve been telling him what to draw as the manuscript coalesces, and I don’t really expect any troubles on that end. The layout is also pretty much done. (As I do my own layouts, I can have the layout finished before the manuscript is.)

All in all, doing well. But also going to take the entire rest of the month to put together. My current scheduling dream is that I’ll be able to get the book to the backers in PDF around New Year, after which we can look into printing and such.

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