Justice Playthrough #190: Blitz Breaker

There are some interesting ideas here. I’m not 100% sold on the execution, but it’s got a great old-school look and feel to it. If you love Nintendo-era platformers and would like to try something a bit different, this one might be worth your time.

Page 11, Game 18: Blitz Breaker by Boncho Games

You are a robot — according to the game’s page, you’re the titular Blitz. You wanna GTF outta that lab for some reason. (Look, mad science is clearly going on. Whatever it is, it can’t be healthy for you.)

We’re just gonna ignore the fact that you look a hell of a lot like GIR from Invader Zim

There’s a problem: you can’t run. But you can jump. But more importantly, you can fuckin’ FLY!

Move in a direction. You will go screaming across the screen in that direction until you hit something. At that point, you’ll be free to move in a completely new direction — assuming whatever you hit didn’t kill you.

Wheeeeeee!

When I found a groove in this game, it was a fun kinetic puzzle solver … once I got the basic rules figured out. One of the big problems with Blitz Breaker is that it’s very sloppy about teaching you its core conceits. For instance, it took me a hot minute to realize that once I chose a direction, I was locked in until I hit something. Basically, if you’re a ball (like the above screenshot), your gonna go until you hit something, and all the wild flailing on your controller attempting to execute a mid-air direction switch won’t do a damn thing.

Now, once you hit a non-fatal thing and turn back into a robot? THEN you may choose a new direction to go.

Ready to find adventure face-first!

There are also coins and other extras you can collect. What are they? Why do you collect them? I eventually figured out that the coins will add to your countdown timer, which is occasionally quite merciless. But there’s other stuff that I only figured out I could grab because the game hid them somewhere hard to reach. WHY do I need to collect some of those other items? No idea.

Naturally, as the game progresses, the environment gets deadlier and deadlier, until there are spikes and sawblades and other such bullshit waiting for you to impale yourself on them.

OSHA would like a word

This game is all about figuring out how to get where you need to be, and then executing the split-second timing necessary to make it happen. Despite placing some very strange limitations on the player’s mobility, this game is absolutely a member of the Brutal Precision Platformer brotherhood.

That’s not my genre. A game has to truly excel to get me to enjoy all those fiddly jumps and death after death after death. Blitz Breaker, sadly, didn’t make the cut for me.

I definitely had stretches where I enjoyed playing this game; it’s hardly a complete waste. But there were too many frustrating stretches where I didn’t QUIIIIIITE time that jump properly and exploded on contact against some spikes. Bah.

What’s more, the game’s go-until-you-hit-something mechanic meant there were often moments where I did the wrong thing, KNEW I’d done the wrong thing, was utterly helpless to correct it, and just had to watch my avatar die yet again. Granted, I wasn’t waiting long; I can’t accuse the game of being slow to get me back into the action. And to a degree, that’s true of other platformers; botch a jump, and you’re falling into that pit and there’s nothing you can do about it.

But for some reason, that split second of “And now I need to go down FALL down FALL GOD DAMMIT WHY DID I THROW MYSELF AT THOSE SPIKES” felt unusually irksome. Make the wrong split second move and you’re just fucked, beyond the reach of any quick double-jump to get you back to safety.

Looks great, though. I wish the game did more to tell me its own background story, but it looks and sounds like a very solid 80’s platformer. Kudos for the artistry on display here.

This is another game that’s not for me, but if somebody told me they thought it was the bundle’s biggest hidden gem, I’d be pretty sure I know why they love it so much. If it sounds like your jam, absolutely give it a play.

Is this next game gonna leverage my Pavlovian response to coins in a video game by assuming I’m gonna go grab those fuckers even if I have no idea why I’m doing it?

Page 10, Game 21: Octodad: Dadliest Catch by Young Horses

“Loving Father. Caring Husband. Secret Octopus.”

With a description that weird, coins are a definite possibility. As is … everything, basically.

please don’t be hentai please don’t be hentai please don’t be hentai please don’t be hentai….

Reviews Without Gimmicks: Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e

I put up this blog so I’d have somewhere to put all the reviews I was doing for Itch.io’s Bundle for Racial Justice. It’s been fun, and I think I’ll keep doing it sporadically, because why not. But there’s no reason to JUST review that occasionally infuriating sporadically beautiful collection of oddities. If a game I purchased the normal way strikes my eye, my readers might like knowing about that, too!

Well, reader. Just the one. Hi, Jasmine.

Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e by Eugene Marshall

I stumbled across this one a while ago, likely when somebody on Facebook linked to it. I remember reading an article about how this was someone’s attempt to make the concept of “race” in Dungeons and Dragons less #problematic while still preserving the tropes of elves and dwarves and orcs and shit, and I was like “Huh, that sounds worth doing” and then probably clicked on a video with cats or otters or something.

But it DID stick around in the back of my mind, and my most recent Justice Review brought it to the fore. My random number generator sent me to One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk, a perfectly serviceable set of ideas for putting some fresh spins on the old favorites. It made me think of Ancestry & Culture because the short description that serves as my first introduction to these games made explicit mention that it was a racism-free product.

And it was, I suppose, but that really wasn’t the focus of the project; it was more interested in establishing races that had heads where their torsos ought to have been, or dwarves literally carved out of magic rocks, or cold-blooded elves, or other such things. Fair enough, but that left me kinda disappointed. There’s a lot of shit from D&D’s early days that’s pretty damn uncomfortable in a modern setting. I explore that thought in more detail in my One Page Lore writeup, but seriously, a race of elves who have black skin because the gods cursed them for their irredeemable evil? Even the Mormons had to back down from that bullshit.

There’s a lot to say on the topic. So I figured, why not take a look at a product that was expressly designed to de-yikesify Dungeons and Dragons?

tl;dr: it’s good. Falls short of greatness, I think. But I think it achieves what it’s trying to do. If I ever get a D&D campaign going again, I think I’ll use these rules.

As implied by the title, the rules simply bifurcate the normal process of selecting a character’s race: your ancestry determines what kinda body you’re born into, your culture determines how you were raised. Nothing revolutionary there, just plain nature versus nurture. If you’re an elf raised by elves, the end result is pretty much indistinguishable from just writing “Elf” in the race slot. But if you’re, say, an elf raised by orcs, things start to get a little different than what you expect.

For starters, you get fuckin’ SWOLE, bro.

Basically, every race gets its traits split between the “culture” and “ancestry” buckets. Some of this is what you’d expect, but some of it isn’t. For instance, our elf girl whose family moved to East Orklandia when she was a toddler is going to have the size, slender features, keen senses, disregard for sleep, etc etc you’d associate with elves. But because she grew up in a culture that put a premium on physical strength and conditioning — orc PE classes are fucking INTENSE, dude — she gets a +2 to her Strength and +1 to her Constitution. She’s also proficient in Intimidation, and gets a bonus damage die to her critical hits; Self Defense was NOT an elective, and her instructors taught her to go right for the nutshot.

Basing stat boosts off of culture instead of ancestry is, I suspect, the most counter-intuitive decision in Culture & Ancestry, but having sat with it for a while, I’m on board. As the author explains in a sidebar, “This choice allows us to move away from the problematic notion certain ethnic groups have higher strength or intelligence, as those notions are often at the heart of racist attitudes in the real world.” And … yeah, I think he’s right. You CAN argue that in a fantasy world with ogres and trolls and dragons and shit running around that it’s perfectly reasonable for some races to be inherently stronger or smarter or whever-er than others. But most playable races map so tightly to humans that going that way brings with it some baggage that has been used to promote some profoundly horrible shit in the real world. The notion that some races are inherently better than others has been used to justify full-bore genocide. Sure, you can claim that orcs are habitually stronger than other races as a consequence of the Dark Lord breeding them for war, but it’s honestly just as plausible that it’s because “One who skips leg day” is a pretty sick burn in orcish society.

When you come to a fork in the trail with two equally viable paths, I say take the one that doesn’t have fuckin’ Nazis on it.

You can take it a step further and just mix and match within the categories. With ancestry, you’re limited to two; you’ve got darkvision because Mom is a full-blooded wood-elf but you’ve also got stupid-good luck because Dad’s a halfling. Or whatever. It’s all good. You also have a ton of freedom in defining whatever culture it is you grew up in, largely decoupling it from the notion of race entirely and getting very flexible grab-bag of options.

“But doesn’t that make the whole think pointless and lend itself to min-maxing the shit out of everything?” Yeah. Yeah, it kinda does.

And I’m fine with that.

Minmaxers gonna minmax. Some people play fantasy RPGs to immerse themselves in a made-up world that reminds them of stories they’ve loved, others go into it treating their character as a series of numbers defining an engine for slaying monsters. As long as you’re not stepping on anybody’s toes, there are tons of valid ways to play the game. If you’ve got a player who honestly doesn’t give a flying fuck about all that “PC crap” and just wants to loot the shit out of some undead-infested tomb, then their reward for going along with your efforts to scrub some of the racism out of your game is that they have an easier time creating the treasure-harvesting machine they want to play.

The players who care don’t have to squirm at the icky implications of elves being inherently smarter than everyone else, the players who don’t care get to kick more ass and loot more treasure. Everybody wins.

The book only covers the “basic” races, but they give guidelines for converting other races using these mechanics. For any race not covered here, it’ll take a DM all of five minutes to sort out which bucket to toss each trait into.

The ideas here are so simple and so easy to put into practice that the book winds up having a bit of trouble justifying its own existence as a book. The core rules only take up 25 pages or so. More than half of the book is padded-out with some diversity-themed adventures that explore some of the ideas presented in the crunchy sections without getting too obnoxiously heavy-handed.

Of the two, I’m more intrigued by Helping Hands, where the party is given the opportunity to help a town deal with a forest fire. It winds up feeling aggressively kid-friendly; if the party fails to rescue a guy trapped in a burning building, for instance, he doesn’t die, he’s just seen recovering from smoke inhalation the next day. I’m not sure I want my adventures to be THAT rigorously low-stakes, but if you’re running a game for your kids, I definitely see the appeal.

I do wish that the adventure setting wasn’t so woke right out of the gate, though. The PCs need to go to other nearby settlements to request aid and supplies, and even though each village is predominantly settled by one race, they already get along fabulously. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if there were some simmering tensions there? Like, they’re reluctant to suggest the PCs go to the orc village because, you know, orcs? Wouldn’t it be more fulfilling if the players had the opportunity to help bridge some divides rather than just walk into a setting where everybody’s already got their shit figured out?

Eh, I’m being nit-picky. Bottom line, it’s a damned solid product, even if the content is a tad thin for my liking. As of this writing, it’s available on Drive-Thru RPG for $5. If it sounds like the sorta thing you and your group would be into, I can definitely recommend it as being worth your time.

Justice Playthrough #189: One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk

Huh. Not bad, but not what I though it was gonna be, either. I don’t say this often, but I wish it had been a little more overtly woke than it actually was.

Page 27, Game 18: One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk by Jesse Galena – RexiconJesse

I like using the short description of my next play to, for comedy purposes, make some wild-ass guesses about what’s waiting for me next. But this one worked against me:

“The details that make folk in fantasy TTRPGs unique & fun to play without racist undertones condensed into one page each”

The “without racist undertones” clause is what threw me. I’ve been a gamer nerd for a whole lotta years, and yeah, there are some Issues with races that are “inherently evil.” I mean, it all goes back to the source. I’m having trouble finding it (so perhaps I’m misremembering it), but I definitely remember hearing a quote from Tolkien that orcs were based on the “less desirable” aspects of Asian cultures. And even before him, there’s a long line of creatures in folklore that were simply irredeemably evil, alien, other.

The heroes have to slay SOMETHING, you know.

I’m not gonna sit here and wail on The Old Ways just to try and earn some cheap Internet wokeness points; fuck that noise. Popular culture is a mirror, reflecting both the best and worst a particular time has to offer. A thing does not have to be perfect to be worthy of love, particularly when its flaws are so clearly rooted in simple human failings. Lord of the Rings is awesome, and enriched my life immensely. Dungeons and Dragons and the myriad of games that followed in its footsteps have brought me more joy, more connection with friends and loved ones, than I can possibly recount. They are also, in presenting imaginary races that are inherently evil beyond redemption and exist primarily for the forces of Good to remorselessly slaughter, a bit fucked up. The former does not excuse the latter — but the latter does not negate the former.

We’re all just doing the best we can with the world as we understand it. If our understanding grows in a way that tells us that hey, maybe some shit we embraced yesterday without a second thought actually has elements that are not so cool, that’s called “growth.” Feeling like you understand the world a little better today than you did yesterday is nothing to be ashamed of, even if it makes you see some things you love a bit differently. Quite the opposite. It’s an opportunity to embrace the good bits, and figure out how to move past the bad. It’s a chance to do better.

So based on that simple-ass three-word clause — “without racist undertones” — I was actually looking forward to a bit of a deeper dive into what drives said racist undertones, an exploration of how they can sneak into our fantasy worlds without our knowledge or consent. Hell, I’m taking a stab at writing a fantasy RPG right now, at least when Covid-depression isn’t kicking my ass (which it is more often than not, unfortunately). This sounds super relevant to my interests! In fact, didn’t I see something about a supplement like that a while ago?

Yup, it’s called “Ancestry & Culture“, and I’mma buy that sumbitch as soon as I’m done writing this up.

Because with those three words, “One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk” wrote a check it didn’t really cash.

Look, it’s the Year of Our Lord 2021, and this is an indie RPG supplement I downloaded from a site that ISN’T trying to indulge racist chuds. Twenty years ago, ten years ago, a D&D supplement that dealt with races in a consciously even-handed way would have been notable. But in context, a supplement that is “not racist” is about as meaningful to me as a movie that’s “in color” or is a “talkie.” It’s just what my entitled ass expects nowadays; I’d really only notice if it WASN’T there.

Anyway. This is a perfectly serviceable fantasy RPG supplement — yup, after all that ranting, I’m going straight middle of the road in terms of how much I actually liked this — offering up system-agnostic ideas for how to give fantasy races a little more flair without going into gonzo bugfuck territory a la Troika! or Penicillin. (And as promised, it is in color features talking actors not appreciably racist, so, yay.)

We’ve got everything from twists on old faves (Elves are cold-blooded! Dwarves are literally carved from stone! Halflings are totes narcoleptic!) to Kirkland-brand versions of ents and furries to straight up weird shit I don’t think I’ve seen before, like fungus people or people whose torsos ARE their heads. There are even a few classic monsters like liches and skeletons in there, because fuck it, why not?

Each race comes with a two-page description — which means you can print it on a single sheet of paper, hence the name of the book — describing what their deal is. Translating their deal into stats for your game is your problem, but hey, that’s what I’d expect.

There are some weird assumptions baked into the book, like the fact that pretty much everything can interbreed with everything else. Okay, fine, half-elves and such are totally a genre staple, but if you’re gonna go this far to make everything race so unique, I’m not sure that works particularly well. Like the Formless (Kirkland dopplegangers), whose flesh is a kind of non-Newtonian fluid. The description indicates their transformations are into other creatures are no more than skin-deep, but their reproductive systems are somehow compatible?

Does this weird universal interbreeding extend to, like, EVERYTHING in this implied universe? Is a turducken the result of a regrettable barnyard orgy? Does the threat of human-faced lambs keep lonely perverted shepherds from doing anything nasty?

Eh, whatevs. It’s all perfectly fine. The copyediting is a little sloppy in places and there are examples of “This is clearly an X but with the serial numbers filed off” than I would consider ideal, but what the hell, it’s a perfectly cromulent indie RPG product. It didn’t dazzle me, but if you’re looking for some ideas for how to give some tropes in your RPG a little more weird kick, it’s very likely to be worth your time.

And it’s totes not racist. Even though it lists reasons why Gnomes are an innately apathetic people. Which, given that it’s telling me why a personality trait is actually an inherent part of a sentient race’s physiology, is just a teensy bit yellow-flaggy to me. But there are no monoculture races devoted to the destruction of all that is Right and Good, so I’m pretty sure it cleared the bar it was setting for itself.

Up next: Ancestry & Culture. Just downloaded it. Boom! Totally gonna give that a good read-through.

But I gotta have a justice game to check-out next, too. Will this next one invent a word like “craniothorax” and then use it so often it actually becomes a weird distraction?

Page 11, Game 18: Blitz Breaker by Boncho Games

“A fast paced platformer without…running?”

Ooh. Somebody wants to break one of the core rules of their genre. I’m intrigued.

Justice Playthrough #188: I Signed Up To Be The Substitute Familiar Of A Struggling Witch To Pay My Bills And I’m Just Now Realizing What I Got Myself Into

That was quite thoroughly pleasant. Which is way, way more than I feel I have any right to expect of a self-published novella. (Complete with perfectly competent anime-esque illustrations from the author!)

Page 27, Game 3: I Signed Up To Be The Substitute Familiar Of A Struggling Witch To Pay My Bills And I’m Just Now Realizing What I Got Myself Into by Alex Zandra Van Chestein

This is the story of M, a young adult largely adrift in life who stumbles upon a strange opportunity: let a witch transform them into a demon, and then spend three months living with a different witch. See, in this world, witches and magic are totally a thing and it’s no big deal. M tried magic a while back and really sucked at it, but they’re not torn up about it or anything. Witches often have demon (think made-of-magic demons, not hellfire demons) familiars who are a BIG help in doing magic stuff, particularly when it comes to artificing work.

Penelope is a witch who really knows her shit, and her kid sister Amanda is getting her magic feet under her. Problem is, Amanda kinda sucks at magic too, and can’t hack even a simple familiar-binding spell. (Why? I don’t think the story really explains that; she seems perfectly capable-ish. Maybe demons just think she has lousy taste in footwear and get all snobbish about that stuff?) So, Penelope’s solution: demonic ringer. Pay-off a regular ol’ mortal human to get transformed into a demon critter, and let Amanda summon a beastie that is getting paid to do whatever it takes to help her out. What could possibly go wrong?

Answer: nothing.

Whatever complications you think might arise from that scenario, you probably don’t need to worry about it, because it’s not an issue. Yes, even that one. And that one.

I’ve mentioned it before, but since I have no reason to believe anyone other than me reads these in chronological order (or, like, at all), I’ll mention it again: I’ve read a LOT of unpublished/self-published fiction. Writing stories of any length that don’t suck is HARD, much harder than than anyone who’s never dipped their toes in those waters would believe. Most of the un-/self-published fiction in the world is hidden behind impenetrable gates for a very, very good reason.

So, yeah, when I say that this novella doesn’t suck, no bullshit: I mean that as praise. When I say it was actually pleasant and enjoyable to read, please recognize that as very, VERY high praise indeed.

It’s enjoyable. The prose flows smoothly, the characters are sympathetic and engaging. It’s all very pleasant.

Relentlessly pleasant.

Overbearingly, suffocatingly pleasant.

Ruthlessly stripped of conflict to the point where the characters occasionally don’t even register as recognizably human pleasant.

Yeah. When I call this motherfucker “pleasant,” that is actually far and away my biggest beef with the whole thing.

The story’s big hook is that it’s actually trans allegory. Our protagonist M is … is there a word for someone who really needs to dump their current gender identity but has yet to truly grapple with that reality so is just grudgingly going by their assigned-at-birth gender as an awkward default? What pronouns are appropriate for that person? Whatever. M is male-ish, neither happy about it nor willing to confront it; but when they find themselves in the body of a female demon-mouse (who gets named Emilynn by pure coincidence), it’s liberating in a way they — she — has never experienced before. This is a story about discovering and creating a new identity for yourself, about cannonballing into a completely new world and finding love and acceptance within it. Those are the parts of the story that work. Those are the parts that charmed me.

The problem is, as mentioned, that this process of discovery feels shockingly devoid of any sort of risk or stakes, and it’s taking place within a world that’s only barely sketched with the broadest of outlines. I mean, there’s some really hefty ethical shit going down here, but most of it barely gets mentioned let alone explored. Setting your sister up with a faux-demon familiar without her consent? That feels like one hell of a violation of trust! To say nothing of learning that your adorable new familiar is actually a male-bodied human in demon-mouse drag!

And all of that is, from a storytelling standpoint, good. VERY good! This feels like the sort of thing someone with big-time magic power might do, overstepping boundaries to act in (what they perceive as) the best interests of someone they love. That’s interesting. That’s a rich vein of drama just waiting to be mined.

But, no. Conflict of any sort just doesn’t fit the novella’s oppressively wholesome tone. So everything that might be worrisome, that might make someone question their actions or choices, will at best be mentioned and glossed over. It’s fine. Everything is fine. Very, very, very fine. So fine.

And that’s honestly a damned shame.

The novella is also very, very light on the sort of details it needs to truly come alive. For instance, in one scene, Amanda is preparing breakfast. What kind of breakfast? Can Emilynn smell sausage cooking in a pan? Is Amanda chopping up veggies for an omelet? Is she a Cap’n Crunch kinda witch? No idea. It’s Breakfast. Just some perfectly ordinary Breakfast. Don’t worry about it.

This lack of detail permeates the novella, to its detriment. More problematically: Amanda wants to be an artificer, to craft magic objects. WHY is she so intent on being an artificer, even though prior to Emilynn’s help she was quite rubbish at it? No idea. WHAT sort of magic devices does she want to create? Well, erm, bolts that glow, I guess. Oh! And a hairbrush that can make your hair different colors! That’s one’s really dope, actually! That was a really compelling, interesting detail!

As far as I know, Amanda’s goal is to open a magic shop that exclusively sells light-up hardware and brushes that make your hair different colors. I’m really feeling like she needs to stay on Magic Etsy until she diversifies her stock a bit. But that’s just a detail, and this novella doesn’t really bother with nearly as many of those as it needs to. (Yes, it’s possible to go way too far the other direction and get bogged in superfluous details. At this stage in the author’s career, that is emphatically not a worry.)

If I were in a critique group with this author, this is someone whose work I’d genuinely look forward to reading while completely understanding why she keeps getting form rejections from all but the semi-est of semi-pro markets. There’s a lot to like here; reading this novella is not a chore, and “Not A Chore” is a mountain all too few amateur writers ever manage to conquer. But to be really compelling, to write stories that I’d want to seek out, this author has some growing of her own she yet needs to do.

I hope she manages it. The best version of Alex Zandra Van Chestein is absolutely an author I’d want to read.

And, hey, it’s self-illustrated! I’m not an Art Guy, but the anime-inspired illustrations all helped to solidify and ground the world in a way that the prose sometimes struggled to accomplish, and were a welcome addition. This lady has some chops.

Will this next entry in the list feature a surprise subplot with a polyamorous demon-cat?

Page 27, Game 18: One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk by Jesse Galena – RexiconJesse

“The details that make folk in fantasy TTRPGs unique & fun to play without racist undertones condensed into one page each”

Hmm. Fantasy races stripped of racism? As a middle-aged nerd who now holds some small degree of embarrassment at having been attracted to chicks cosplaying in Drow-face (oh, yes, sacrifice me to your dark spider god, baby), you may consider my interest piqued.