Friday, February 26, 2021

Secret Wars Toys As A Parable of Design, Detail and Giving People What They Want

This is a design-is-not-engineering parable:

It should've worked perfectly.

Mattel--fresh off the success of He-Man--decided to make some superhero toys with Marvel. 

You know Marvel, right? The company that currently dominates the entire entertainment market with a gloved fist?

So they gathered ten-year old boys together in a focus group. They said to them "Listen, ten-year-old-boys, what is it that you desire?"

The ten year old boys spoke:


2-Vehicles and bases

3-The word "secret"

4-The word "war"

That's what tested well.

So they went to Marvel Comics and said "Listen, Marvel, you make the comics, we'll make the toys. Just make sure it has that stuff." Thus was born a comic book called Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars, (over in the UK, a little earlier, the comic anthology 2000AD polled its readers about the themes they liked and they voted for "future war" and thus the comic Rogue Trooper was born). Marvel head Jim Shooter wrote a 12-issue battle royale in another dimension featuring all of the company's most popular heroes: the Avengers, the X-Men, Spider-Man, the Hulk, etc. Mattel made toys in the now-mandatory Star-Wars-like scale. Sales reps went to comic shops and toy stores and hyped them all up and down.

And... didn't work. Well, the comic worked: the first issue sold 800,000 copies. Which is a lot. But the toys, they were not that popular. Again: they should've been. Marvel Comics at the literal height of their popularity with kids (they had recently turned down an offer to buy DC) plus toys, in the middle of The Original Toy Tie-In Decade. It didn't take.

First off you'll notice or remember--the toys sucked:

But it's important to remember what they sucked compared to--it was 1984--two of the most toyetic properties of the late 20th century had just arrived:

Marvel had vehicles! And weapons! And twenty years of good will! Plus a best-selling comic and yet the Marvel toy line wasn't a patch on these newcomers. Why?

Well Transformers and GI Joe had their own cartoons, but the toys were also cooler--and more detailed. And it's important to recognize what that detail meant. Marvel put very little effort into the design of the vehicles and weapons and stuff:                                      's like a...War of the Worlds walker thing that two guys can sit in? With...rays? There is no love in that war walker. But maybe more important it doesn't mean anything. And here's what I mean by that:

Look at GI Joe and Transformers: Roadblock has a fully-automatic machine gun, because he's a big guy and the only one strong enough to carry it, Snake-Eyes has an uzi, because Snake-Eyes is the mysterious cool guy and uzis were cool back then, Soundwave turns into a tape-player and he has tiny other robots that come out of the tape-player, Megatron has a giant cannon on his arm because when he transforms hsi whole body into a gun it's the scope on the gun. And the robots turn into these mundane things because they're hiding on Earth in disguise. Every visual detail builds the world and also has a clue to the narrative (a narrative echoed in the cartoons, comics and the little data-files on the back of the toy box). That gun platform in Secret Wars? It just tells you they're in space. And would like to shoot you.

Of course Marvel had visual world-building: Captain America has that stars-and-stripes shield because he was created as a patriotic propaganda tool in WW2, the Hulk's pants are ripped because he transforms unwillingly from human into monster, etc. but the foundational mistake of Secret Wars--from a toy-selling perspective--was to have the story take place on another planet, light-years away from the world Marvel had already built. The characters were all Marvel, but the focus-grouped selling-point--those vehicles and weapons and bases--didn't have anything to do with the ongoing Marvel story that dozens of creators had already put decades of work into.

If the toys had come with the X-Mansion, Avengers Mansion, the Fantasticar, and Doom's Castle, the line might've done better, but I think the real nail in the coffin might've been the shields.

Every Marvel character came with a shield and this was a terrible idea. Somewhere a toy exec is going "But we're giving these kids more stuff? Who doesn't want more?". But, to a kid, nothing marks this toy line as some off-brand ignorable just-a-cut-above-Hulk-shampoo tat as these shields--they announce immediately that this toy line is detached from the story of Marvel. Why would the fucking Hulk have a shield? With his secret identity head on it? The shields don't even appear in the Secret Wars comic--but even if they did, they would just point to these toys being part of this inessential, skippable, temporary pocket-universe. The shields:

    -tell you nothing about the Marvel world and its story, and

    -tell you that the toy line is going to be characterized by stuff like this instead of things which do tell you the details of the world and its story

With GI Joe and Transformers you had to look at the toys because every inch of them told you something about the character. Where does Grimlock's T-rex head go when he transforms into a robot? Go to a friends' house and look at him. The Marvel toys tell you less than the art you've already seen.

Marvel trading-cards--something with way less genuine play value than these toys--did way better. Because they promised some contribution to the story--one series had each heroes win-loss percentage ont he back, f'rinstance.

The broader point is no ten-year-old boy is going to go "I want toys with distinctive details that feed my sense of exploring an alternate world as large and imperfectly-knowable as our own". They're going to go "I like detachable weapons" and end up with Iron Man holding a fucking lenticular shield with Tony Stark's head on it.

Most people who saw all these toys as a kid could probably tell you now that they weren't going to trip over themselves to get the Marvel toys (even if they couldn't tell you why)--but the toy execs couldn't. And this was even though the design principles they were using ("toy guns good") were solid. You can't really design from the outside-in. You have to have ideas about why what you want people to love should be lovable.

Moral of the story: beware of "design principles". Love what you're doing and build out from there.




Wednesday, February 24, 2021


A place of great waterfalls, green-blue jungle and wide, bloodstained savannah.

The Gods in Cesaire

All gods have visited Cesaire, but when they visit, they must walk on two legs. When in Cesaire the gods may only be the size of their worshippers. For this reason, many have died there. In death, they grow again, and mingle with the stone which makes up the Cube.

Currently the most widely-worshipped are:

  • Vorn, god of iron, rust and rain, who is known locally as Vorgun, and, when in Cesaire, is female.
  • The Leopard God.
  • Tiamat, The Glistening One.
  • Rangda, Queen of All Spiders.



As the gods walk among their worshippers, it is common for those on sacred business (the businesses of ritual, treasure-hunting, murder, great questing or war) to go about masked or in strange disguises, so that the gods may not know them. Conversely, sometimes costumes are worn to attract or enlist the aid of particular gods.

The Hour of Knives

Despite this, human lives may only be taken between the hours of 3 and 4 am, lest the dreaded Hybrid Curse of All Gods be summoned on the murderer. This prevents a great deal of open warfare.

Events and Calendar

Death’s Parade—Death, the Second God, visits Cesaire once per year, and takes a tour throughout the entire continent. His skull-face luridly painted, he walks in a tattered blue robe and carries a staff made from the bone of an unknown animal. The dead rise from their graves and follow, then follow. As the parade approaches their homes, the living paint their own faces white so as to be mistaken for the dead.

The Gleam Tide—Each summer, the tides bring in the cargo from sunken ships. Coastal villages and port cities open the Gleaming Season with a childrens’ festival dedicated luck and beach-scavenging.

Feast of All Heroes—Once per year, all civilized cities of Cesaire throw a feast, to which all the heroes who have rendered great service to the city-state or the nation are fed and feted.

Night of the Vampire—On the last day of the harvest, all cities and villages are visited by one vampire each. Lines of sacred salt are drawn around the perimeters of civilized areas, of every home, and around the cribs of all children. Bold boys and girls dare each other to challenge the vampire, though, tragically, more fail than succeed.

Days of Testing—Most human societies within Cesaire have Days of Testing, where those youths who wish to embark on dangerous life-paths are challenged. Those who succeed act as waitstaff at the Feast of All Heroes

  • The First Test of the Priest and Shaman: Typically involves taking something of value to a distant temple of the same faith.
  • The Second Test of the Priest and Shaman: Typically involves finding a god somewhere and asking them a question of importance to the local priesthood.
  • The First Test of All Thieves: Typically involves stealing something of great value from another nation.
  • The Second Test of All Thieves: Typically involves stealing something of great value from the gnolls, vervets or chameleon women.
  • The First Test of All Warriors: Typically involves hunting down an dangerous animal that has been plaguing the village or city.
  • The Second Test of All Warriors: Typically involves rescuing a prisoner of another faction.
  • The First Test of Wizards: Typically involves entering the Dream Jungle and surviving three sleep-cycles or a fixed number of hours of sleep (usually 24).
  • The Second Test of Wizards: Typically involves bringing back a rare item from the Dream Jungle or from a rival wizard.
  • The First Test of Warlords: Given to older warriors just before they are given troops to command, this test involves defeating defeating at least ten gnolls out on the open plains of The Place of Screaming with a force no larger than half their size.
  • The Second Test of Warlords: This test involves defeating at least ten chameleon women in the Dream Jungle with a force no larger than half their size.

Typical Adventures, Quests, and Assignments for Adventurers, Native and Local

  • Gnolls have enslaved an entire village and have them building a stronghold high in cliffs. Free the slaves and take vengeance.
  • A star has allegedly fallen deep within the Dream Jungle: investigate.
  • Find and defeat a platoon of enemies somewhere in the Dream Jungle during the Hour of Knives.
  • Enlist a distant group of rebels to aid a local faction against their enemies.
  • Find the leaders of an opposing faction and negotiate a temporary alliance with them against a horde of gnolls or foreigners.
  • Find an obscure god in the Dream Jungle and enlist their aid against another faction.
  • Something is making the animals around the Lake of Translucent Mist hostile—investigate.

*For foreigners only: A faction enlists you to pretend to make “first contact” with another faction, acting as merchants from another land. You will be asked to sabotage the target faction’s war efforts or liberate a prisoner or artifact.

Note on sourcing/appropriation/complaining etc:

You can have one of two opinions on African-inspired game stuff--

1-Nobody who isn't black or African should make it ever

2-Well, they can but only if they did their research.

On the first criteria, I obviously fail. On the second: if you insist I name-drop who I read and talked to before writing my game stuff I can, but it would be hard to name a hurdle I didn't jump. I am 100% sure I talked to more contemporary African artists than you think I did. And at least know where Cesaire got its name before asking.

This plus all the rest of a 17-page Cesaire module is available now in The Store for 20$ (25$ if you use Onlyfans).

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

To Shanna Malcolm (re: muppet tits)

I saw the news that you're going to be in a D&D show--congratulations! I hear there will be muppets.

I'm also scared for you because you're about to be extremely harassed a lot by assholes online. These are assholes I know. The reason is because you wanted your D&D muppet to have big tits:

So, first: I'm sorry. I tried for a long time to point out these folks were a problem, it didn't work. These folks aren't random 4chan trash--Orion Black is a former WOTC freelancer with one of the largest twitter followings because, in addition to participating in all the usual clout-building-via-harassment-exercises, they got hired by- and then yelled extensively at-, official D&D, Hans Cumming was a big deal in organizing RPG awards and has actual pull in the industry, etc. These people are actually taken seriously. 

Since I have extensive experience with running a D&D-themed show with women who wanted their characters to have big tits and then being attacked by them about it, here's what to expect:

1. You will be harassed. This goes without saying: you're a woman of color on the internet and you've made a choice about tits that a very nerdy group of mostly-men don't like. However, this harassment might be different than what you've experienced before...

2.  You will be erased. Michael Phillips up there is a good example--your decision about what to do with your character has been reduced to a "half-assed attempt to justify" something your Evil Corporate Overlords want to do. This is because it is morally inconvenient for this white nerd to acknowledge that marginalized people they allegedly want to defend don't care about all their dumb nerd shit.

3. Your friends and allies will be harassed. You'll notice some of them up there do acknowledge you exist. Some of the harassers will be self-aware enough to do that, which means they will default to simply pretending you don't exist and attacking the first not-obviously-marginalized people connected to you and pretending your muppets' tits was there idea. The puppeteer, the DM, but probably mostly the people at D&D.

Ah, it's starting already:

4. Your muppets tits will be considered an important datapoint. Since all indie RPG people are pathologically worried about what the Coca-Cola of the ttrpg industry is up to, your muppet's tits will be used to raise the stakes in any conversation about representation. Your muppet boobs will be used as evidence in arguments about D&D being bad that you will never see. 

5. Lots of these harassers' friends will be fine with your muppet's tits, but they'll stay quiet. Basically tabletop RPG people have to pretend that women don't have varied and nuanced ideas about how they want to be represented because sacred crackpot Ash Kreider says boob armor is bad and other people in the indie scene can't be seen to public disagree with them. The internet dynamics where the people with the most reasonable take participate least in the discussion unfortunately apply here as well. You will have customers, fans and supporters. They will not help you.

6. These raised stakes will result in a conversation, from which you will be excluded: This is the saddest, stupidest, and most self-defeating part. Your decisions will be fought over, but no-one will talk to you.

Since there is:

A) Tremendous subcultural pressure on respected RPG commentators to agree that boobs are bad or else be quiet and lose work, and

B) Tremendous subcultural pressure not to admit they're disagreeing with the black woman whose choice they are attacking, and

C) You're dealing with online nerds who conflicting needs to always complain and always avoid confrontation with whoever they're complaining about even when it's not someone from a marginalized group they want to speak for and over...

...there will be a raging discussion of the meaning of your muppet's tits and you will be ignored during it. The idea that you are a person who might have had reasons for your decision or might even have already thought about its socio-cultural implications and come to your own conclusions before they did will be ignored. The nerds casually assume they are smarter than you--so much smarter that it does not even occur to them to consult you when complaining about your decision.

The idea that you are even a human who can be consulted when discussing your decision will be quietly swept under the rug so that the idea that you should be consulted as part of any discussion about your decision isn't even on the table.

Despite the mob's insistence that "debate" is an icky masculine-coded strategy for discussing issues, the idea of employing some alternate soft-coded strategy like inviting you in to have a conversation about their ideas will not so much be dismissed as literally never considered. Repeat: It does not occur to them to treat you as a person.

Seriously--why would this white genius not simply talk to you if they had a problem with your decision?

Hopefully none of this will matter. With luck, your show will be popular enough that these nerds will see the fight they're picking isn't worth it and will just ignore you altogether and this can be treated as the unbelievably terrible internet trash that it is. If not, it will suck and you will continue to be discussed and ignored unless you eventually stop working on the show and start saying things the scoldy mob already agrees with.

Although you probably will never see this, I am genuinely sorry we haven't been able to fix this problem for creators down the line. I tried, but not hard enough. I hope your show does well.