Survivor: Island of the Idols, week ten

I see now why Survivor used to skip Thanksgiving week. Yesterday was the first chance I had to sit down and watch the episode! Sorry about the delay.

This week was a Karishma episode, and it highlights probably the thing that frustrates me most about Karishma as a player. When she’s up, she’s 100% certified Grade-A hot shit. She brags and preens, and puts down other players, and snaps her fingers, and cocks her neck back and forth. When she’s down, she’s depressed and mopey, always on the verge of quitting, crying and whining and blaming everyone else for her lot in life.

Spun another way, Karishma takes all the credit for her successes and none of the blame for her failures. This is noteworthy because in one of her darker moments she even admits to knowing she’s a “goat”; she knows she’s being dragged along to the end by better players who want an easy doubleyoo in the finals.

I generally hold the opinion that, by definition, the best player of Survivor is the player that wins. Losing the game means there’s some aspect of it you didn’t play well, and at the end of the day the only metric that matters is jurty votes for. In Survivor parlance, “deserve” is a dirty word.

On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of players get absolutely jacked by game twists they couldn’t have possibly forseen or planned for. Jamal is in that boat, for sure; his game came to an end because he touched a thing in a tree. Elizabeth probably counts too, and oh yeah by the way, spoilers.

I recall watching a man named Matt on Survivor: Redemption Island. In that season, the big twist was being voted out didn’t mean being voted off. You instead were sent to Redemption Island, where your fate in the game was linked to your ability to win challenges. Matt was sent there early, something like Day 3, and blitzed every challenge they threw at him. At the merge (so, Day 17 or so) Matt re-entered the game and was voted out immediately. He continued to blitz Redemption Island until the very last challenge (circa Day 38, maybe), where he lost unceremoniously.

Matt’s story was unique because, if he had won the one and only challenge he lost, and re-entered the game right at the finish line, and then managed to also win that final immunity challenge… he would have won the game without ever having played Survivor. At the time I was mostly bemused by Matt’s antics, but looking back I think I would have been a little upset. It turns out I-the-viewer don’t like the idea of someone who wins without playing.

(I’m still on Survivor social media blackout, but during one early sojourn through the subreddit I learned that the winner of season 38, Edge of Extinction, was a sort of Matt-lite. And yes, people were upset.)

This brings us to the conundrum of Karishma. Let me first give her some legit kudos: she’s on Survivor and she’s toughing it out, which is more than you could say about me or any other Armchair Warrior out there. However her story ends, by the end of it she’ll forever be a piece of Survivor lore and I’ll just be a guy with a blog nobody reads. But from what I can tell, this woman is a terrible player by any metric I know. I’m not upset that it honestly looks like she might make final three, and sit in the final Tribal Council. I’m upset that, if and when that happens, she will smugly think it was all her doing.

Let’s look at two boneheaded Karishma moments that had her feeling like Queen Big Shit. You’ll recall last episode, where Noura yelled at her for lazing around camp, and Karishma was CRUELLY AND UNJUSTLY BULLIED to go do the chore of picking up coconuts. Instead, she found a hidden Immunity Idol. She praised her resourcefulness without taking a moment to reflect that, holy crap, if she had continued to lounge around in the hammock all day, and Noura had gone to do the chore herself, that it’s Noura with a necklace, and not poor put-upon Karishma.

I guess when you luck into finding an idol you weren’t motivated to go look for in the first place, you don’t think too hard about how you’re going to use it. Once the Lumuwaku tribe, spearheaded by Dean and his distaste for the “Goat Army” he sees on the hirozone, decides Karishma is next to go, she resolves to play the idol and save herself.

The actual votes get a little complicated, but they strongly support my thesis that Karishma is a terrible player, and I want to give another player props before getting into the whole sordid story.

A boat arrives and tells Lumuwaku they have to send one player to the Island of the Idols. Lauren immediately speaks up. At this point in the game, enough players have gone there and come back with advantages that much of the exile stigma has been washed away. (Karishma pouts that she didn’t get to go, and blames Lauren for being loud and pushy, and thinks the reason she didn’t get picked is because her tribemates hate her. In reality, her tribemates won’t even know she wanted to go until they see this episode’s confessionals.)

Rob and Sandra describe the next Immunity Challenge to Lauren in some detail. It’s another endurance weight-balancing challenge, but this time, there’s a sit-out clause. If you’re confident in your place in the game, you can sit out and eat instead. If Lauren correctly identifies the winner of the challenge, she wins an Immunity Necklace.

Lauren wisely doesn’t bite right away, so Rob sweetens the deal by letting her pick two players. This is enough of a window for Lauren to work through the problem.

There are nine players, Lauren has to pick two. Blind chance, that’s nearly 1-in-4 odds. She knows she can sit out, and she knows her closest ally Tommy will sit out also. That’s nearly 1-in-3.

She knows Dan is complacent and comfortable, and that he’ll want to eat. And she knows Noura is a vegan, and isn’t down on some bacon and pancakes. So she’ll play. She also knows Elizabeth is worst off, from a gamestate perspective, and so will play no matter what. Her plan: peg Noura or Elizabeth to win, let Tommy in on the plan, and then work hard on getting as many other tribemates to sit out as possible.

This is already a great plan, but Lauren delivers a masterstroke: she tells the rest of the tribe that she decided the challenge would be eat-or-play. By framing the eat-or-play decision as her reward from the Island of the Idols, she makes the situation seem rarer than it actually is. And by going into details about all the yummy vittles on offer, she gets practically the whole tribe salivating.

Karishma, Elizabeth and Noura all decide to play, and Karishma couldn’t beat flabby sarcastic me in a challenge, let alone a yoga-obsessed health nut and an Olympic athlete. I took great delight in her dropping out first and having to sit the bench watching everyone else eat pancakes. I took even more delight in her little woe-is-me speech, and then even more when Probst didn’t ignore the still ongoing challenge to throw a little pity party for her.

Noura won the challenge and then displayed some actual growth as a person by trying to stay in as long as possible to give her tribemates more time to eat. (You’ll recall she stupidly stepped down from the previous endurance challenge, when further rewards were on the line.) I haven’t been Noura’s biggest cheerleader this season, but this does in fact show her eyes are open and generally pointed in the right direction.

The Karishma Vote.

Tommy wants Elizabeth gone next, because she’s a threat to sweep immunity and because she was gunning for him back when her allies were still in the game. Dean wants Karishma gone instead, because of his aversion to goats. After some hemming and hawing, and some reading of lips, the tribe settles on Karishma.

Dan tells (read: lies to) Karishma, saying the plan is to split the vote between Elizabeth and Janet. Karishma correctly intuits this isn’t true, and resolves to play her idol to protect herself. She is, in fact, one of three players to drop an idol tonight. First Dean plays a fake version of the fake legacy advantage given to him by Jamal (he’s hoping the other players will see it’s fake and assume he doesn’t still have the “real” one, then blindside them with it later, and god I hope that happens). Then Karishma plays her idol, much to everyone’s amazement. This shocks Lauren into playing her own necklace, since she knows whomever Karishma voted for is now leaving, and doesn’t want to risk it being her.

Seven votes Karishma, all thrown away. One vote Janet. One vote Elizabeth. Probst calls a re-vote, with Janet and Elizabeth sitting out, and Elizabeth goes home unanimously. (At least, I presume unanimously, as no Janet votes were shown. Usually, they show as many votes as possible to preserve tension as long as they can.)

Karishma loves that she’s still in the game, and thinks she played it beautifully. But I think she’s a bonehead, and here’s why.

First off, I wasn’t sure where where the Janet vote had come from. I usually skip the tail end of each episode, where the freshly-ejected player gives their exit interview while all the votes are shown on camera, but this week they only showed us the results of the anti-Elizabeth re-vote, so that wasn’t much help. Sometimes we get to see a vote or two against as they’re being cast, but that didn’t happen this episode. Not wanting to break my blackout oath, I checked Wikipedia, which sometimes have voting breakdowns. This revealed that the Janet vote came from Karishma.

(The only Elizabeth vote in the first draft came from Dan, which is itself interesting, but I don’t know what to make of it yet.)

So I’m working under the assumption Karishma thought it was going to be a landslide, and didn’t purposely force a tie. Here’s her position right now: she’s still in the game, she’s patting herself on the back, she’s on Cloud 9. But that’s going to come crashing back down when she gets back to camp, everyone likes her even less now, and she doesn’t have her idol anymore.

Playing an idol to squeak past one super important vote is fine — that’s sort of what Lauren did this episode. Playing an idol to squeak past one vote with no plan to follow up afterwards doesn’t actually accomplish anything. If I could ask Karishma a question, it’d be something like… what next?

If Karishma were an actually good player, she would have done a lot of legwork before Tribal Council. Just off the top of my head, she should immediately know Elizabeth and Janet are in danger, because that’s what Dan told her. Appraoch Elizabeth and Janet individually, show them the idol, and tell them, “Get on board with me, or one of you goes home tonight, and I don’t care which one.”

A really good player would go on to then slap together a makeshift alliance of four or maybe five, perhaps by swaying Dan or Noura, perhaps by selling “we need to break up Lauren and Tommy”. But we’re taking baby steps here.

In this hypothetical, Janet and Elizabeth need to start scrambling. They let the goose out about Karishma’s supposed idol. Does she have one? Who knows? Several players searched her bag but didn’t find it earlier. Maybe she doesn’t? Do we risk it? Are Elizabeth and Janet just trying to save themselves? Karishma could confirm or deny as much of this as she wants, in whatever direction she wants.

Maybe Lauren and Tommy see a united Karishma/Elizabeth/Janet vote. They still have six, but that’s not enough to split against an opposing alliance of three. They know Karishma will play an idol if she has one (or do they know that?). If they hit Karishma as planned, they lose one of their own instead — probably Noura. (Which makes Noura prime to flip! And Noura is prone to flipping! So maybe it’s 5-4 instead of 6-3?) If they hit Elizabeth instead (which Tommy wants to do, so it’s not much of a stretch), Karishma (maybe?) skates by with an idol still in her armpit.

The point is there’s lots of ways this could have gone. Karishma, when that guy whose name you can’t spell on that HBO show based on those books you didn’t read said “chaos is a ladder”, this is what he meant. You could have used your idol to punch some serious holes in the anti-you alliance. Instead, you quietly bought yourself three more days.

Which, I guess, brings us back around to that dirty word: “deserve”. Does Karishma deserve to win this season, if she wins? In this same season when stronger players were eliminated by unfair post-merge twists, or mis-application of #MeToo? I want to say yes. I have to say yes. Because saying no means this game is broken beyond recognition, and coming back to watch it again has been a mistake.

Who’s gonna win?
For all my bellyaching, I honestly think Karishma has no shot at the prize. Lasting long enough to get to the final three is just Step One; you then have to sit against the jury. And I simply don’t see this jury giving Karishma any votes. Jurors traditionally vote either based on strategy (e.g., they look at who played the best game and vote accordingly) or on spite (e.g., they vote for whichever finalist they hated the least). I think Karishma loses both of those votes against any of the seven people still in the game with her.

I’m sticking with Tommy, with a side-order of Lauren. I think Lauren might catch a little blowback from the jury regarding The Dan Situation, and everyone just watched her “waste” an idol. Also, I think an important future move for both these players is to try and make it look like the other one orchestrated an Elaine vote… which brings me to Elaine.

I’m also going to be watching Elaine very, very intensely going forward. She’s still the person everyone loves, and the time is fast approaching when all of those players need to be out of the game if you hope to win. I think Elaine wins against any of the remaining players… but I don’t think they’ll let her live that long. If I were Tommy or Lauren, I’d be having a hell of a talk with my ally about how much we’re willing to risk our long gameplan on that final four Immunity Challenge.

Survivor: Island of the Idols, week nine

First thing’s first: I’ve decided to stop checking up on the various online Survivor communities and social media for this season. I usually enjoy doing this for shows I’m watching, but since last week’s double episode I’ve seen too many toxic and nasty comments about this season’s cast. I don’t think it’s fair to try and assess someone’s value as a person based on an edited version of their behavior on a TV show. I realize some readers might think that’s rich coming from me, so let me draw this distinction: in these blog posts, I choose to write about the contestants on Survivor as though they were characters that CBS has invented for me. I realize there are real people behind those characters, and many of them may not even be people I particularly care for, or who would not care for me. But all I get to see about them is the little bit CBS has edited together for the television program they each, individually, chose to be on. I think it’s fair to criticize their gameplay and their social behavior in the context of the game.

I do not think it’s fair to fantasize about killing them in disgusting ways.

A tiny bit of toxic seasoning is all it takes to ruin the usually-frothy soup of social media integration, so I’m checking out of it for the remainder of this season. I don’t think you’ll even notice a difference, but I have had some very sad moments this week where I wept for our shared social contract, and it was on my mind the whole time I watched this week’s episode. I feel some of the comments I read this past week have been far, far worse than anything any of the contestants have been shown to do on-screen this season, or any season. It’s not fun to be part of (even as a lowly lurker) so I’m going to stop. Thanks for understanding!

The first thing that happens is a rat jumps on Karishma’s face and she freaks out. Heh heh heh!

Noura and others on the newly-merged Lumuwaku tribe are complaining — 27 days in — that Karishma does no work around camp. They continue to do this despite the fact they are the ones who keep not voting her out. Listen up, dopes: the time to vote someone out for not being a hard worker is back in the tribal game, during the first ten or twelve days. After that you just need to lump it.

Noura does not lump it. She wakes Karishma up and demands she go look for coconuts. Karishma cries a bit about how nobody understands her, but then she stumbles on a hidden immunity idol and instantly about-faces to her usual “look how strong and capable I am!” spiel. Then she rolls back up at camp an hour later holding two goddamn coconuts. When challenged on this, Karishma concocts a story about how she’s been feeling sick. When her tribe offers to summon medical, she accuses them of trying to get her medevac’d out of the game. She takes two sips of water and insists she’s feeling better now.

I understand the other contestents have decided to bring Karishma along to the end, and I-the-viewer am just going to have to accept that. But man, for my own sanity, I wish this floopy woman would decide what kind of terrible player she wants to be. Also I hope more rats jump on her every night for the rest of the time she’s out there, heh heh heh.

The Immunity Challenge comes early this episode, and it’s another endurance-y kind of thing. Today everyone has to stand on a balance beam and keep a ball rolling around the inside of a vertical wooden hoop. It’s revealed it’s a double immunity, and buckle in kids, because it’s another twist! Lumuwaku is divided into two groups, each group will supply one immune player, and both groups will separately vote someone out of the game. The last person standing wins sandwiches for their group, and the right to go to the second council. (So they get to see who the first group voted out.)

I very doubly do not like this. Day 27 is far, far past the point where we should be seeing game twists thrown around. (Jamal’s case last week was a sort of grey area, but since you’re asking, no, I didn’t like that twist either.) These poor players! How is anyone supposed to put a game plan together or form a reliable voting bloc if the game keeps arbitrarily twisting and turning? This isn’t even a particularly interesting twist. It’s just… hey, do you have an alliance? Well it doesn’t matter tonight, lol!

I suspect this might be indicative of the current Survivor metagame. My journeys through social media — before swearing off of it — revealed that the fanbase has had a few recent seasons where they haven’t been happy about some juke or jive some showrunner cooked up in an effort to be clever. If so, maybe it wasn’t the right time to come back to this show just now.

And look, I really don’t want to belabor this point, because I realize some of the game twists have been a really good thing for the game. Early tribal shuffles, hidden immunity idols, getting exiled to some far-off island out of the tribe… these were all weird gimmicks once, and now they’re cherished elements of the game. But the merge should really be the end of this kind of thing. Stir the pot eary on to make sure all the flavors are mixing, but then let it simmer. Sometimes this is going to give us boring, foregone conclusions, yes. I understand that is not desirable from the standpoint of making interesting television. But you know what’s worse? Getting to the very end of a seasons of Survivor and feeling like the person who won only did so because of some unforeseen change in the rules.

Well, okay. Noura and Elaine are immune. Noura was the last woman standing for her group, and she jumped immediately off her platform to celebrate even though she could have stayed on and won everyone sandwiches. Whoops!

The Purple Group — Noura, Aaron, Janet, Dan, Dean, and Lauren — are sent to old, decrepit Lairo beach to think about what they’ve done. The foregone conclusion here is Janet, but it is noted that this may well be the only time Aaron sits a Tribal Council with no immunity necklace around his neck.

To hear Janet put it, “This group is done with the meat shield.”

The Orange Group — Missy, Karishma, Elizabeth, Elaine, and Tommy — return to the main camp and eat sandwiches. For some reason this twist hit at a time where two equal groups coudln’t be made, and it doesn’t look like any effort was made to respect existing alliances (nor should there have been; if we’ve already decided to do this stupid twist a month into the game, might as well go whole hog). This means Tommy and Lauren are split up and vulnerable, while Missy and Elizabeth are tight and together.

No one knows about Karishma’s idol, but she’s still not in any danger tonight. Everyone wants to take her to the end because she sucks and nobody will let her win. So that’s settled. This sets Missy and Tommy against each other, and therein lies a story.

Missy’s situation here was very bad, because of Karishma’s idol. If she stayed the “obvious” course and voted out Karishma next, and Karishma plays her idol (for purposes of this thought experiment, we’ll assume Karishma is slightly smarter than a sack of potatoes), the person Karishma voted for leaves with one vote against. That’s Missy. Missy doesn’t know any of this, though, unless she’s sussed out the idol. Which she hasn’t. In that context her move against Tommy makes perfect sense, but again, she doesn’t know the context. She starts gunning for Tommy anyway.

Her reasoning here is sound enough: take the opportunity to get rid of the person everyone likes most. Oh wait, Elaine’s immune. Well then, take the opportunity to get rid of the person everyone likes second</i most. That’s Tommy. She needs three votes to do this, and she knows Tommy’s closest ally is stuck on some other beach somewhere. But she still has Karishma, this should be a slam dunk. This part isn’t the misstep.

The misstep is she goes to Karishma first.

In Missy’s mind, Karishma is going to fall over gushing about how glad she is it’s not her tonight, and kiss her feet and hang a branch of grapes over her head. Which, okay, Karishma may have done if she were idol-less. Instead, Karishma gives her some static and storms off. (And explains in a confessional that acting like an immature little brat is her right because she’s older than Missy, or something.) So now Karishma knows about the Tommy plot but not the wheres or whys, and goes to sulk on Elaine’s shoulder.

Elaine doesn’t want Tommy gone. I don’t have a good handle on Elaine’s alliances or loyalties in this game. She doesn’t feel particularly “buddy strong” with anyone, but she’s aware the tribe sees her and Tommy as social threats. It’s understandable that Missy didn’t go to Elaine first. However, in Karishma’s self-congratulatory victory lap about how ain’t nobody gonna manipulate her she totally lets Elaine manipulate her. Elaine explains to us how this works in her own confessional: Missy comes at you like the boss, telling you what’s what and how’s it gonna be. Elaine comes at you with a big smile and friendly understanding. The end result is, Karishma is going to do what Elaine wants because she made Karishma feel like she was heard.

It’s still manipulation. It’s still devious. And it’s why I think Elaine is a good player. She’s leveraging her social game to get what she wants, and what she wants right now is 1) Karishma to stay in the game, and 2) to break up the Missy/Elizabeth bloc.

When Karishma cools of and deigns to speak with Missy once again, Missy offers an apology for acting like a bully. She doesn’t mean her apology, of course, but she thinks she needs to give a fake one. And it’s so obvious it’s a fake one! I’m actually very turned off by the current trend in our culture where everyone is felt they’re owed an apology for slights great and small. My strong feeling is you should only offer an apology if you really feel like you’ve done something wrong and really intend to change your behavior. Even if you’re wrong, and it’s clear to everyone else you’re wrong, it only makes things more wrong to fart out an empty apology out of social obligation.

But goodness, Missy, if you’re in a situation where you do need to fake-apologize, like, say, you’re on a game show and you need the person you’re apologizing at to like you, make it believable. Every muscle in her face was screaming “DO NOT ROLL EYES, DO NOT ROLL EYES”.

I don’t know what Missy’s play should have been here. I would say the smart thing to do was sacrifice Karishma now and then regroup with your allies on the other side after the dust settles. That would be the safe play. She’s snaked by Karishma’s idol if she does this, but since she doesn’t know that, I’m forced to conclucde she just wanted to play hard at a spot in the game where playing hard was not appropriate.

The Purple Group goes first, and it’s what you’d expect: the only reason Aaron isn’t voted out unanimously is the poor man can’t vote for himself. Probst sends him immediately to the jury box.

The Orange Group’s Tribal Council is a little more vibrant. Missy makes another misstep here, when Karishma doesn’t say the things she “agreed” to, and she tries to call a time out. This is at a point where she ostensibly thinks Karishma is voting with her, so now is not the time to argue. An arguement ensues nonetheless, and of course Elaine comes out on the top of it with some down-home folksy charm. (See, Karishma? This is what “chaos is a ladder” means!”)

Missy tells Probst when it’s time to vite, then stops things in their tracks to have an awkward moment where she calls out the host of the show because he didn’t celebrate the first time in Survivor history where two black contestants have been immune at once. She’s referring to two Immunity Challenges ago, when she and Jamal were immune. Jamal was voted out at the previous Tribal Council, and the Tribal Council before that was the super emotional one where Kellee was ejected… which makes me think she was sitting there that entire time, and everyone’s talking about Kellee and Dan and Janet and the whole deal, and she’s just stewing and seething and waiting for the right time to bring it up and score her points on Probst. And then she couldn’t do it the following Council, of course, because she was gunning for Jamal at the time.

I’m going to reveal my gross un-woke-ness by commenting on this, but eyes up people: this is an appropriate use of the often-maligned accusation of “playing the race card”. Taking a shot at a white man for doing something you percieve as racially or sexually insensitive, and then backing the shot up with factually inaccurate information. Missy’s claim is that women are voted out of Survivor first, and minorities are voted out second, and so when a woman or a minority accomplish something in the game that should be celebrated.

Lots of women have won this game. Lots of minorities, too. The first winner was a gay man. The second was an older woman. The winner of the first comebacks season was a woman, and so was the second. One of my favorite seasons ever had an all-black final three. One of my favorite winners ever was Asian (and he’s coming back next season, hooray!). One of the most storied winners ever is a Hispanic woman and is currently watching from a secret bungalow. I think it’s very unfair to suggest that Survivor, its host, or its producers haven’t done right by people of all shapes and colors. And it’s just wrong to state that these types of people are “always” voted out.

And not to veer off too hard into spoilsport territory, but the previous two people Missy voted off were an Asian woman who was vocal about inappropriate touching that she lied about supporting, followed immediately by one of two remaining black players in the game. I do not fault Missy for this. They were the correct moves to make, at the correct times. I’m glad she showed up to play.

But she’s not the Peoples’ Champion, over here. I didn’t like her dragging out the soapbox.

Probst defused the situation by pointing out the reason he didn’t say anything was because he didn’t want people to think he was surprised that two black people could win immunity. Which is correct, a lot of people would have taken it that way. He thanked Missy for speaking her mind, which she took as a victory.

After her tribe voted her off, Missy spent as long as she could hanging around the Tribal Council hugging people, whispering things in Elizabeth’s ear, and generally being a nuisance. I was starting to see Karishma’s point about her. I think Missy viewed Survivor as her singular adventure, and all these other pesky contestants were just bit players in it. The other players all left immediately upon having their torch snuffed, but Missy was a special player so there are special rules that apply only to her. Not very woke of her, really. Kind of selfish. Glad she’s gone now.

Who’s gonna win?
I’m honestly expecting another game twist before it’s all said and done, so it’s not really possible to make predictions based on the current game state. I also think a lot of what happens is going to end up at the whims of Karishma and Noura, who have the combined tactical acumen of a bowl of Cheerios. I get why people want to take them to the end, but it’s also very dangerous for players like that to still be around at key places like 7-left and 5-left.

That said, Tommy still has his closest ally Lauren, and Elaine just stuck his neck out for him a little, and Karishma will probably follow Elaine along for another vote or so. If all this happens, Tommy can let the rest of the tribe take Elaine out for him, let Laura take a bullet later, then maybe have his pick of the unpopular kids (Noura, Karishma, Dan) for the end.

Survivor: Island of the Idols, week eight

Wow. Wild ride. This week was a double episode, and for once I don’t want to give a play-by-play. Instead I’m going to summarize the actual gameplay and then move onto a big post about The Dan Situation.

In the first half of the two-part episode Kellee finds an idol on her beach, then finds a SECOND idol on her new beach after the tribes merge. So she’s on Survivor with two idols. She says she doesn’t want to be the person who walks away from Survivor with two idols. Then some… stuff happens and she and her two idols get voted out.

In the second half of the two-part episode Jamal goes to the Island of the Idols, where he immediately loses his vote. (He picked up a note dangling from a tree, Boston Rob told him “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” and in this case it was.) He was given a blank piece of paper to write a fake game advantage on, which he gave to Dean. Then some… more stuff happens and he gets voted off.

Kellee and Jamal were two of my favorite players this season and I think a lot of people are going to be upset at how they were ejected. I only dipped my toes into the Survivor social media universe for a couple minutes this afternoon, and the fireworks are really going off.

The real story across this big double episode is The Dan Situation.

I am a person who detests being touched. If I want you to touch me, I will initiate the contact, and you have my solemn assurance that will not happen until we know each other very well. Three words I abhor hearing are, “I’m a hugger!” There are people on this Earth I consider great friends — some perhaps who are reading this blog post — who have never had more than a handshake from me.

When I was a kid, the problem was my hair. I had long blonde hair that girls always, always, always wanted to touch. (If you’re watching this season, it was kind of similar to Jack’s hair.) I have had some very awkward conversations with women throughout my teens and early twenties about how I didn’t want them touching my hair, and I know along the road I hurt some feelings. I also learned the importance of not overreacting when someone touches me in certain situations. Like if I meet your Great Aunt Bertha for the first time and she wants to wrap me up in a big ol’ bear hug, that isn’t the time for me to address the problem, no matter how much Aunt Bertha needs to learn a lesson about personal space.

I am also hyper-aware that right now some people can be reading this and rolling their eyes, because I’m not a woman and because (to my knowledge) none of these unwanted touches over the years have been overtly sexual. All I know for sure is I hate it when people touch me, that’s my life experience. I’ve always considered it to be a personal problem because most people don’t seem to mind. Even my own wife and mother know to take a “hands off” approach with me; that’s not normal. I realize I’m not normal.

When I say I empathized with Kellee about Touchy Uncle Dan, that’s the context. Part of me understood where she was coming from, and another part of me understood that it’s more socially acceptable to just tough it out and not make it a big deal. And there’s a layer of “the editors are showing the story they want to tell” on top of all that. Part of that story, this episode, was some of the female players discussing how creepy Dan’s touches are, but also saying it’s totally okay when Aaron does it. (Aaron, for contrast, is a hot young dude.)

Let’s pass judgment on Dan first, using the incomplete and imperfect information we have to hand, plus some side speculation which may or may not be accurate. (Sorry, but that’s the best I’ve got.) I don’t think Dan is a sexual predator. I think Janet was spot-on with her assessment: he’s a man from an older generation where it was more socially acceptable to touch people. I think he has rationalized the social shift away from that behavior with something like, “This is serious, but it’s okay when I do it because I’m not a sexual predator.” I also think a lot of what he said at this week’s soon-to-be-legendary Tribal Council is accurate: this is a game where people are shoved into close quarters, where you have to move and slide and crawl all around each other, where sometimes your only source of warmth at night are the people sleeping next to you.

I also think that if Dan were actually guilty of molesting young women, we would not be seeing this season of Survivor. Speculation: there is some sort of filtering process that Survivor applicants have to go through. If Dan had a history of shitty behavior I don’t think he would have been picked. There are also rules about what players can and cannot do on the show, and one of those rules is you have to follow US law, no matter where shooting is taking place. Somewhere in a CBS vault there is ten thousand hours of footage showing what actually happened in Fiji this season. And we know CBS is willing to play up the woke-ness for positive public perception. If, at any point, Dan had ever done something truly inappropriate he would be pulled from the show.

For all these reasons, I think Dan is innocent of the things he’s accused of. But for all the reasons I outlined previously, I also think Kellee is innocent of falsly accusing him. It’s basically a nightmare situation: both people are right, and both points of view are equally valid. Dan shouldn’t be touching people, but then nobody wants to actually ask him to stop. The girls are justified in not wanting Dan to touch them, but then they’re fine with Aaron doing it. Kellee should speak up if she doesn’t want to be touched, but then that’s a hard thing for a woman to do, especially in a game where perception is everything. Kellee is maybe overreacting (like I do) but then her feelings aren’t any less important than Dan’s, or anyone else’s.

So I was mulling all this over and thinking there is a legitimate problem that 1) isn’t cut-and-dry enough to be cleanly resolved and 2) is 100% going to be manipulated by other players in this game.

But then something happened that I have not seen in all my years watching this show. During Kellee’s confessional, where she is talking about how much she hates Dan’s unwanted touches, we hear a producer’s voice. The producer says, in no uncertain terms, if this is a real issue we are going to step in and stop it. Just say the word. Kellee immediately backs off from the accusation, but the producers step in anyway. A few text cards appear onscreen telling us-the-viewer that the producers met with everyone individually, and as a tribe, to emphasize the importance of personal boundaries. We’re also told that Dan was taken aside and given a warning.

This was a little like hitting a brick wall. It had such a powerful sense of finality to it: the Voice of God had descened and told this tribe, “This is how it be. Stop touching people and respect personal boundaries.” This was a terrible solution but it was probably the only possible solution. It also tells me that the issue was so enormous out there on the island that world-class editors with 19 years’ experience crafting Survivor stories couldn’t edit around it.

What happens next is pretty unfair to basically everyone involved, both on a gameplay level and on a social level. At Tribal Council Janet says that sexual abuse and false accusations can both ruins lives. She’s right. And I have the sinking feeling that some of these Survivor players are going to be crucified and ostracized by the fanbase for their behavior.

Kellee wants to send Dan home, for obvious reasons, and a few of the other girls tell her (read: lie to her) that they agree he’s inappropriate. TO BE PERFECTLY CLEAR ON THIS POINT: Kellee seems to be the only player with an earnest, personal objection to Dan. (And she’s allowed to be, for the same reason I would be, in her situation.) A few of the other women have noticed His Emminent Touchiness but only refer to it jokingly. And the other women — Missy, Elizabeth, and Elaine specifically — have no issue with Dan whatsoever. They don’t mind that he’s Old Uncle Touchy.

And here’s where the manipulation comes in. All the women approach Janet, who is something like the tribe’s den mother, and tell her “Hey, we need to get rid of Dan.” Kellee is doing this legitimately, because she thinks Janet will really listen to her. Which Janet does. And even though Janet loves Dan, and even though she isn’t bothered by Uncle Touchy, she shows sincere concern for Kellee and the other women on her tribe. They all decide to vote out Dan.

Of couse, most of these women are lying. And I want to stress 100% that it is exactly what they should do in the game of Survivor. That they were able to blindside Kellee and flush out two idols while making Janet take the fall is astonishing gameplay.

Janet falls all over herself explaining to her tribe, her alliance, Jeff Probst, and her confessionals that she stepped outside of the game to make a move she felt was morally right: she though the girls on her tribe had a problem, and she decided to help them solve it, even to her own detriment. As it turns out, most of the girls were just using her, and it was indeed to her own detriment. And so she’s understandably upset.

Dan is understandably upset too. It’s clear he feels these accusations are coming from nowhere, but he can’t discount them because he doesn’t think Janet would lie to him. The remaining women on the tribe all tell him, point blank, that they’re cool with him and that Janet’s a liar. What a completely sideways situation! Dan’s not lying, Janet’s not lying, the person with the most cause to remove Dan is now gone herself, and the women who are lying are justified in doing so because it’s Survivor! Zow!

During the second Tribal Council, Dan made a very hollow apology. He is being raked across the coals for this non-apology, but I think he was in an impossible situation. I don’t know what folks want from people in Dan’s situation, who haven’t actually done anything wrong but who have nonetheless caused someone else harm. If he says “I am a sexual deviant and I sexually assaulted Kellee” he’s admitting to something he didn’t do, and probably gets kicked off the show and faces criminal charges. If he says “It was never my intention to hurt anyone and I am torn up that I’ve apparently done that,” (which is closer to what he said) he loses points anyway because it’s a non-apology. There doesn’t seem to be a third option. Someone who is accused of sexual misconduct has already lost, whether they did it or not.

The apology he actually gave, however, was too self-aggrandizing. I checked out as soon as he said something about his profession being at the forefront of listening to women’s storis about harrassment and misconduct. Dan runs a talent agency. He is Hollywood. I mean, yeah, he’s right when he says his field is “leading the charge” in this movement, much in the same way that Osama bin Laden “led the charge” in getting airport security reforms passed. It was so incredibly tone deaf. From a gameplay perspective it wasn’t even helpful to his cause; his main enemy had already been voted out, and he’s already in the top alliance.

He kept saying to Probst, over and over, “I guess we’re not going to drop this.” To Probst’s credit, no, he said he never would. Good. As a host of a top-rated TV program with millions of viewers, Probst should be using his platform to spotlight difficult social movements. I think Dan doth protest too much. He acted too much like a man who was guilty of sexual misconduct, here.

So everyone in the Survivor fandom hates Dan. One commentor I saw said he should have his kids taken away. (I should have stopped checking out the Survivor social media there, but I didn’t.) That’s all fair enough.

The people at the real bottom of the situation, at least from a “crucified on Twitter” standpoint, are Missy and Elizabeth. These women have no problem with Dan’s behavior, and then lied and said they did in order to sway Kellee and Janet’s votes towards Dan, so they could blindside Kellee instead. Make no mistake, this is on Janet and Kellee. They took their heads out of the game and tried to play “real world” for a moment. They should have and did get the rug pulled out from under them.

But when I saw someone attacking the two of them as “gender traitors” this afternoon, I had to go on Survivor social media blackout. Whether Dan is a rapist or Kellee is a crybaby victim or whatever ridiculous extreme you want to fall on this issue, it’s still Survivor and I won’t fault a player for playing. They did the “right thing” by taking advantage of the situation and advancing their position, even though Janet and Kellee and ten million woke Survivor fans will hate them forever. They did the “wrong thing” by betraying Kellee and Janet’s trust on an incredibly serious and complicated real-world social issue.

As of now, Dan is still in the game. I don’t know what the editors are going to do here. In a typical season I would expect them to ham up his “Dan the villain” role, but doing that here could have serious, actual consequences for Dan in real post-game life. You can edit someone to look like an asshole when they aren’t, that’s fine, that’s just TV. (Two such people sit in a secret little bungalow every Tribal Council!) You can’t edit someone to look like a sex offender when they aren’t. And Dan isn’t, according to everyone left on his tribe.

If Missy or Elizabeth win this season, they are going to be the most hated Survivor winner in history.

Wow, what an uncomfortable situation all around. I can’t deny it’s compelling TV, though.

Who’s gonna win?
The Dan Situation casts a shadow over the whole rest of the season. I don’t think anyone comes out of it unscathed. I think Janet is gone soon; she found an idol and played it, and it didn’t matter, but she’s still the last holdout on a pro-Dan tribe. Once she’s on the jury, alongside Jamal (who has given some very woke speeches at these emotional Tribal Councils), and Kellee (who felt legitimately harrassed), and Jack (who is good friends with Jamal)… this is starting to look like a real tough win for Dan, Missy, or Elizabeth.

That said, Tommy and Lauren are still here, still playing together, and have kind of been in the background for most of The Dan Situation. They were crucial swing votes immediately after the merge and, though the waters are tumultuous and the immunity idols are flowing, I think they might be able to keep afloat. The question to my mind is whether Missy and Elizabeth are going to try and bus Lauren as one of the girls who lied to Janet re: Dan’s touchiness. If so, she’ll have a tough time with the jury for the same reason the two of them will. For that slight edge, I’m going with Tommy, and after all that’s happened in this crazy game, it feels good to bold his name again.

Survivor: Island of the Idols, week seven

Lairo has a cranky morning filled with people arguing about nothing. I took a lot of notes about the back-and-forth that starts out this episode but in the end I deleted all of them and wrote them off as unimportant filler. Sometimes people be cranky, the end.

There was a brief exchange between Noura and Janet about when they should start playing “their own game”. Noura is a bundle of unfocused energy that wants to play! play! play! without really having a strategy or end goal in mind. My chihuahua is like that, too. Sometimes when I’m working she’ll try to get my attention by bringing me a toy, and sometimes when that doesn’t work on the first or fifth try I’ll find myself glancing down at the floor to see her perched on a whole pile of toys. When I pick up all the toys and throw them back across the house she gleefully runs out there only to hit a wall of decision paralysis. She can’t carry all the toys at once, see. She wants to run in a dozen directions at once, if only her curséd chihuahua body had enough legs.

It didn’t surprise me that Noura was hit with some restless, non-specific idea that she should be “playing more” without knowing what that means or what it would look like. It also didn’t surprise me when Janet responded, clearly and concisely: “When we get to the merge.” This has been Janet’s whole game to this point: do the work, don’t piss anyone off, give short answers. It’s not enough to be a big player that makes big moves; you have to know when those moves are necessary. Sometimes when you rock the boat all that happens is you fall out of the boat.

Janet displays that same sense of stoicism upon arriving at the Island of the Idols. Rob and Sandra give her a lesson in calculated risk. They want to award you with something called a “safety without power advantage”. She can use this to leave any Tribal Council before the vote is cast, guaranteeing she’s safe but also denying her the chance to vote. We didn’t get to hear what sort of game the Idols had in mind for Janet to win this advantage, because she decided not to play. And her reasoning her was sound: if she’s in a situation where she might be in danger at Tribal Council, that means her alliance is in danger. If she leaves and someone else in her alliance is voted off instead, it doesn’t advance he position at all.

So Janet leaves the island emptyhanded, having already learned the lesson the Idols were primed to teach. Upon arriving back at the beach, Lairo shouts at her to “show us the idol!” and she shows them her boobs instead. And this is why we love Janet.

Over on Vokai, Tommy and Lauren try to do some damage control in the shape of selling Dan up the river. Tommy was my pick to win the whole game for a few weeks in a row, but he’s in a real terrible position now. He needs to convince the rest of Vokai to vote out Dan before they vote out himself or Lauren, or he risks not even making it to the merge. Starved for openings, he tries to sell Missy on the idea that Dan wants to vote out Aaron, which… doesn’t work. The good news for Tommy and Lauren seems to be that Vokai isn’t in a position where they want to throw an Immunity Challenge, so at least they have that going for them.

Said challenge turns out to be another basketball/jigsaw puzzle affair, which Vokai wins. The whole Tommy/Lauren/Dan ploy gets put on ice, and Kellee has a little think: her immunity idol is only good for one more Tribal Council, and she doesn’t want it to go to waste.

Lairo’s plan is this: Old Vokai still has the numbers advantage, so they’re going to target Dean. They tell Dean it’s Noura, because she’s the most obvious and vocal vote, and because Dean is strong in challenges. So everyone votes for Dean and Dean gets blindsided. What Kellee wants to do, though, is break up the solid core of Jack/Jamal. She thinks it’s safe to do this because pretty much everyone expects a merge after this vote. Her plan: give Dean her idol, tell Dean to vote for Jack or Jamal, then tell Noura she knows Dean has an idol, so Noura thinks she is the one going home. The only way for Noura to save herself, in this story, is to also write down Jack or Jamal.

This isn’t what happens.

A million things shook out at Tribal Council. First up, big stupid Noura opens her big stupid mouth, attacking Dean and revealing that she actually hates Jamal. This is just another example of Noura letting her stream of consciousness take over without actually thinking about what she’s saying. The reactions on her tribemates’ faces let us know that this Noura-hates-Jamal thing is new information, while her own demeanor is that of someone who doesn’t know why what they’re saying is wrong. It’s not worth even asking why Noura thinks this confession advances her game because it’s clear she hasn’t thought that far ahead.

It’s hardest on Jamal, for reasons we’ll get into in a moment. To say he looked hurt and sad is an understatement. Yeah, Noura is goofy and flighty and it’s hard to take her seriously… but she just used the hate word. He tells Probst, “I’m not confident I’ll be here tomorrow.”

There was some talk about whether or not Lairo has a women’s alliance. Kellee fires back against the idea by saying what I always say: the fear of a women’s alliance on Survivor far outpaces the number of times ther ehas actually been a women’s alliance on Survivor. She’s right about this, of course, and it’s smart for her to say this here, because there isn’t actually a women’s alliance to protect. And I think we see a smidge of “actual Kellee” here when she says it’s a little insulting that so many male players seem to assume all the women are going to band together. The other women on the tribe nod in quiet agreement as Kellee explains her position, including Noura. And that’s where Jamal sees his opening: he tells Probst to ask Noura if she has ever considered a women’s alliance this season.

And of course she has. We have video evidence of it in previous episodes, and every woman on her tribe has been approached. And two seconds after agreeing with Kellee’s point about how assuming a women’s alliance is a little insulting, Noura immediately about-faces and gives the same old tired rah-rah-girl-power speech about strong independent yadda yadda every women’s alliance on this show has ever been built on. And thus do we get a smidge of “actual Noura”: someone so flighty that she can support two diametrically opposed points within one minute of each other and not even realize she’s doing it.

If Karishma had done this, instead of Noura, I might be ranting here about how she’s a fair-weather friend, how she’ll say whatever she thinks so-and-so wants to hear to get into someone’s good graces. Players like that always get caught in lies. But this was Noura, not Karishma, and I don’t think that’s what happened. I think Noura’s head is so far in the clouds she legitimately believes she can support Position X one moment and then Position Not-X the next, without even having to rationalize it to herself. She wasn’t lying when she said she wanted a women’s alliance, and she wasn’t lying when she agreed it could be considered insulting. The concept of “lying” probably doesn’t have any meaning in her little world. New Age-y something something personal truth.

I feel bad for her, in a way. On some level she offended everyone at this council — Jamal and Kellee especially, two fairly good players who will likely decide when Noura’s time in the game ends — and she has no idea she did it. I don’t want to get too far into the weeds psychoanalyzing Noura in this post, but she didn’t do her game any favors in this episode. I won’t say she’s burned any bridges yet, but she sure doesn’t seem to mind that she’s sloshing gasoline everywhere.

When asked directly, Janet sticks to her guns on the women’s alliance issue: she says it’s very negative to assume women will bond based on gender. This is a roundabout way of saying “it’s very negative for women to try to bond based on gender” (which is how every would-be women’s alliance forms on this show). I think Janet very carefully chose this distinction.

After a very woke and almost exhaustingly emotional Tribal Council, Lairo still has to vote someone out. All the Real Talk flying back and forth, all the harsh words coming out, all the talk about changing American values and the capabilities of women and so on… and Karishma takes a real nasty jab at Dean with her vote. I realize none of the other players can hear what she says while writing her vote down, but for me-the-viewer it was tonal whiplash. It makes me feel like she spent the entire Tribal Council thinking about how awesome and clever her little jab was going to be as she delivered it. Instead it made me not like her even more than I already didn’t like her.

After the vote Dean plays his (read: Kellee’s) idol, and Karishma’s face melts off her head, and now she is a woman with a skeleton head. And here’s where we get to why Jamal is having such a bad night. Jamal also has an idol, and it’s one he came by honestly, without winning some silly Island of the Idols game. He came to Council expecting to see a whole lot of Dean, but Dean is now immune. He has to run through his mind what the rest of the votes must say, and if Dean orchestrated this blindside (which, from Jamal’s perspective, is likely what happened) the rest of the votes must target the weakest person from Old Vokai: namely Noura.

To save Noura, and therefore his numbers, Jamal has to play his idol to save her. He has to do this even though she just admitted she hates him. Even though she has been trying to build a women’s alliance against him. This is a bad move, but Jamal can’t know that with his imperfect information. He can’t know Dean’s idol was originally Kellee’s, and he can’t know that Kellee and Dean secretly went against everyone.

At the end of the day, Kellee must have decided having a loose-cannon Jamal around was better for her game than a likable Jack. All of the Dean votes got flushed, and Jack becomes the first juror. And absolutely nobody in the Lairo tribe looked happy with how it played out.

Who’s gonna win?
I’m confident in saying Kellee has the chops to take this game all the way, if she’s careful. She’s Old-Vokai-strong if the merge happens soon, and she seems very good at taking advantage chaotic social situations that arise when players like Noura or Karishma misstep. The one kink in her plan seems to be Dean’s idol: as long as nobody finds out where he got it, she can just be one bewildered face in the crowd. Two possible problem areas: 1) will Dean keep the secret? If he doesn’t, will people believe him? And 2) Janet has been to the Island of the Idols and knows what’s up over there, now. If she puts two and two together and figures out Kellee must have screwed up the Dean vote, what’s her reaction?

I like this season of Survivor so far and I hope you like my blog posts about it!

Survivor: Island of the Idols, week six

This week’s episode opens with various Lairo folks yammering to their confessionals and to their tribemates about who they’d like to eliminate next. I think their brain cycles may be better spent talking about how they’re going to start not losing challenges, but nobody asked me.

The Reward Challenge this week wasn’t as entertaining to watch as last week’s, but it did have some in-game reprecussions: when Vokai chooses to sit Elaine out of the challenge, Elaine is immediately whisked off to the Island of the Idols. Vokai wins some chickens to take back to their beach and, for the nonce, things look pretty bad for Elaine. Vokai is split 4/4 after the tribal shuffle, and thoughts on what to do about it were just as evenly split. The old Vokai members agreed they were all fine drawing rocks after a tie vote, while the old Lairo members begain talking about who they might like to flip on.

This is an interesting game state. Going to rocks is bad in this situation, because there is a 50/50 chance your alliance is disadvantaged from here on out. On the other hand, flipping on your own tribe is bad in this situation too, because you either end up 4/3 in a losing position (if your group decides to eat one of their own) or you trade your position at the bottom of a 4-player alliance to be at the bottom of the opposing 5-player aliance (if you’re a lone wolf who decices to betray your allies). I don’t see another way through it, though. Either someone flips or everyone goes to rocks. Or, well, maybe some third thing happens.

Elaine arrives at the Island of the Idols and she’s given what I see as the easiest mission so far: during the next Immunity Challenge, she has to find a hidden advantage somewhere on the challenge track. She’ll only have a few moments to grab it. If she does, she can block someone’s vote at her next Tribal Council. If she doesn’t, she loses her own vote. And to sweeten the pot, she gets to learn basically everything about the challenge before she even shows up. The Idols tell her the stakes are pretty high, and Elaine’s response is “I like stakes, nom nom nom”, and that’s why we love Elaine.

Back at Lairo Jack engages in a bit of mild racism towards Jamal, and there’s a big awkward discussion about it. To their credit they both handled the situation maturely and end up bros by the end, which I like to see. I still didn’t like it eating up screentime, though, and it took me re-watching the scene to really get why. To be clear, Jack’s joke was really insensitive and Jamal’s response was really understandable. Jack’s apology felt sincere and Jamal accepted it just as sincerely. I also don’t think Jack really understood that the joke was racist when he said it. It was a mistake, he owned up to it, Jamal forgave him. The social interaction was fine.

What I didn’t like was this thought: is this going to affect the game at all? If not, then the editors just showed us all a little lesson in woke-ness with a feel-good ending, and no harm done. But it might. Imagine a point down the line where Jack and Jamal have to vote against each other. Can Jack do that and not be villified? What about in the other direction? Do we get a scene four episodes from now where Jamal feels justified in voting out Jack because of what he said? Will some unscrupulous Vokai come in post-merge and stoke the flames back up?

None of those sitautions are fun, none of them are interesting gameplay, and they would all make me feel weird and bad. Like I said, I think both men handled it in a pretty mature way. But there’s a lot of game left. This has potential to end up being a wart on the season, if it goes somewhere nasty. I said last week I don’t like nasty in my Survivor and I still mean it.

Over on Vokai we get our first conversation between players about what happens at the Island of the Idols. Elaine (correctly) susses out that she’ll need a little help to pick up the thing during the Immunity Challenge, so she brings in Elizabeth, who visited the Island in the first episode. Elizabeth (correctly) sees this as a perfect solution to the 4/4 split, so agrees to help Elaine out. The actual challenge involves all the players carrying a big cage across a course. At a few points they have to stop, put the cage down, and spend a few moments untying ropes or digging up puzzle pieces or whatever. Elaine really did only have a couple seconds to grab her advantage before the Vokai cage moved on, dragging her with. But she does grab it, and it turns out to be vitally important, as Lairo finally decides to show up at a challenge for once. Lairo is immune, and Vokai heads off to Tribal Council.

At Tribal, it all comes out again: all of Old Vokai is fine drawing rocks, even though that is the worst thing you could possibly do with your game. Elaine uses her shiny new game piece to block Jason’s vote, and that brings the numbers down to 4/3. What followed was a huge amount of whispering and secret-passing between Old Vokai and Aaron, who had previously given signs of flipping.

All I could think was, why is this legal? I watched Survivor for twenty seasons and never saw cover whispering in Tribal Council. It always struck me as a situation where if you have something to say, you say it in front of everyone. There’s actually a big book of Survivor rules that players have to follow which aren’t obvious to us-at-home. For example, if you find a hidden idol, it belongs to you, and nobody else is allowed to steal it. I suppose I just assumed that hijacking Tribal Council away from the game’s host was against some bylaw somewhere. I wish it were, because it was pretty aggravating.

And it was for nothing, anyway. Aaron didn’t flip, and Jason got sent home after the four Old Lairo voted for him. On the way out he tells his tribemates “Hey, don’t trust Aaron”, which, yeah, duh. Aaron was only going to flip because he didn’t want to draw rocks, and then Elaine came to him with a better solution. Don’t trust someone in another alliance who isn’t forced to make a move against his own self-interest.

I do have to wonder if this will change the perception of the Island of the Idols. Until now players have viewed it as a punishment; it was a place you did not want to go and where you did not want your tribemates to be sent. Now, though, the secret is out: there are game pieces to be had, and those game pieces can ravage the game state. For the Old Vokai still on Vokai, at least, I suspect going to the Island is now a goal to aspire to.

Who’s gonna win?
There was no Karishma this episode, so a winner is me.

My serious pick so far as been Tommy, but he just had his legs cut out by a game token. Of the people who chopped him down I think Elaine is in trouble both because she’s seen as difficult to win against, and because Old Vokay can now gang up on her post merge because she’s the one who flushed Jason. Aaron is in trouble because Old Vokai knows he isn’t reliable and Old Lairo knows (because of Jason’s exit) that he apparently was keen to flip at some point.

So I think Old Vokai over on Lairo are in the best position overall. If they can keep winning challenges they might be in a good position to supply us a winner. Both Kellee and Jamal are over there with Immunity Idols and, of the two of them, I have to go with Jamal. He’s likely a good contender to win individual immunity post-merge, I think it’s fair to say Jack will do whatever he wants as far as voting, and he’s an all-around good dude who isn’t giving off any “but he’s hard to win against!” vibes. I think Jamal got his hard Survivor lesson out of the way early, even without having to be sent to the Island of the Idols.

Survivor: Island of the Idols, week five

I smiled a lot when “Detective Dean” went on the warpath at the start of the episode. I wasn’t at all convinced this was going to help further his game at all, but it made me smile to see he genuinely did seem to be in good spirits. Actually, as a whole, this season’s cast does seem to be having fun out there and have the ability to treat the game as a game rather than an extension of real life. Too many seasons with too many players that fed on pointless drama and took everything personally caused me to give up on this show a decade ago, so it’s important I acknowledge just how much I appreicate this. Good cast = good season. Big ups to (most of) these players.

Anyway, drop your buffs! Time to do the Tribal Shuffle. Feh. I don’t like the Tribal Shuffle. I understand why it’s in the game and I understand the problems it’s meant to help solve. It’s just… well, I think I’d rather have those problems in the season, you know? I think it’s kind of a design flaw that you can go into the game on Day 1 with a winning strategy, stay the course for 14 days while making no mistakes, then get snaked and sent home because a die roll dropped you on the “other” tribe.

The numbers as of the shuffle were Vokai 9, Lairo 7. So, advantage Vokai, but not a huge advantage. Going into the mid-game merge with those numbers is not insurmountable, and can often be advantageous, as swing votes are very valuable in situations where a bloated tribe might be looking to shed some weight. The opposite story can also be true, though, where one tribe sweeps Immunity all the way to the merge and the other tribe just sort of ceases to exist.

(The one season I’ve seen that happen began their two tribes with a schoolyard pick. One group focused on having all the young cool kids, the other tribe focused on picking people that looked like strong competitors. Guess which one swept the game!)

In general, I think there’s a knack to be learned for playing the tribal game, and I think a tribe which doesn’t grok that knack probably shouldn’t supply the winner to the entire season. In other words, I don’t think the “problems” the tribal shuffle is designed to solve should actually be solved. To me they’re just “playing Survivor”.

This season, Vokai really has it together, while Lairo doesn’t. The way the actual shuffle shook out, though, may end up not mattering. Here’s what it looks like:

New Vokai = Dan, Jason, Tommy, Lauren (from Vokai); Aaron, Missy, Elizabeth, Elaine (from Lairo)
New Lairo = Noura, Kellee, Jamal, Jack, Janet (from Vokai); Tom, Dean, Karishma (from Lairo)

If you’re Old Vokai, you’re in a good position here. Old Vokai has strong and smart players on New Vokai, while they have a straight-up numbers advantage on New Lairo. The 4/4 split on New Vokai might end up causing some friction if they ever have to go to Tribal Council, but SPOILER WARNING Lairo still sucks as of this episode, so we don’t get to see that happen yet.

That leaves Tom, Karishma, and Detective Dean in the worst positions right now. I think Dean gets a solid +1 here, since he was on the outs at Old Lairo but now has new people to work with, while Tom gets a solid -1 because his tribe evaporated in front of him. And Karishma… well. Let’s just see.

I also don’t care much for Reward Challenges in Survivor. These are challenges where tribes can win some practical or comfortable rewards, but don’t (usually) end up impacting the game. They’re also a chance for some good ol’ scummy Late Stage Capitalism to sneak into my game show about almost-naked people yelling on the beach. This episode the reward was Applebee’s, and everyone lost their minds. Karishma, in testimonial, claimed that Applebee’s was her favorite sit-down restaurant. That might be the saddest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. I mean, Applebee’s is fine, you know? You can get a quesadilla or maybe a club sandwich or something. If you have 12 people who all need to eat before a movie, you could do worse. And if you’ve been on a desert island for 14 days eating burnt rice and greasy fish, I’m sure it looks like manna from heaven.

But “favorite sit-down restaurant”? Oh child. If only this was the dumbest thing Karishma said this episode.

Rewards can be worthwhile if the challenge itself is entertaining, though, and this one certainly was. Two members of a tribe are lashed
together and thrown face-down in the sand, and they have to worm themselves to the finish line, where a puzzle awaited them. My two
favorite players, Noura and Karishma, now on the same tribe, inspired me to snap this hilarious .gif:

Pictured: lol

That’s a four second loop, but I could watch it for hours and hours. Anyway, Vokai wins the challenge so Noura ends up eating six pounds of sand for no reason.

Vokai is whisked off to their six-minute-long Applebee’s commercial, and nothing else substantial happens on their beach except Jason and Tommy deciding they have to work together to each make the merge.

At Lairo, Karishma again demonstrates her lack of understanding for how this game works by deciding to immediately flip on Old Lairo. This almost makes sense until you remember that Old Vokai has a 5/3 advantage on this tribe, so… I guess her strategy is to be at the very bottom of a six-man alliance. Later in the episode Karishma offers a lukewarm defense of arranged marriage then launches into a sob story about how her own arranged marriage isn’t very good. Apparently part of why she’s out here on Survivor is to decide what the “next chapter of her life” will be. Writing this post now I’m having this amusing image in my head of Mr. Karishma learning his wife wants a divorce by watching her on this episode of Survivor, but at the time of my first viewing I was too fuming mad to really appreciate the gag. I apologize for the digression, but I must indeed digress.

I don’t have a lot of hot button issues but forced marriage is one of them. There are horror stories of American daughters being whisked away by their family back to the old country to be sold off to some man she doesn’t know. Some of these stories involve families taking routine trips to India (or elsewhere, I’m sure, but it does seem to be a bigger problem with India, and anyway that’s where Karishma’s family is from) in order to groom their daughters into believing the trips are no big deal, right up until the moment they are. The thought of a 19- or 20-something year old woman being trapped in a foreign country with no passport and no legal recourse horrifies me. It horrifies a lot of people. There are institutions in the US and EU to protect their citizens against this kind of thing.

So I want to give Karishma the benefit of the doubt on this. I want to believe there was a lot more nuance to her story which the editors had to mangle down for time. In fact, I think it’s probably for the best that we chalk this one up to “sensitive subject, poorly handled” and move on. But just in case the Survivor editing team is reading, maybe in the future let’s stay away from subjects like kidnapping women into forced marriage situations, yeah? Also maybe let’s stay away from rape, religious brainwashing, anti-vaccination propaganda, white supremecy, and climate change denial. Sound good? Just have a show about people eating sand instead? Okay.

Oh, it turns out Dean once dated a girl Kellee went to school with. The Survivor casting folks tend to pull their contestents from about a four-square-block radius in Hollywood, so this makes sense.

Immunity involved climbing a ladder, which at one point prompted Probst to say, “Karishma takin’ a lot of time on that ladder!”, and Karishma to snap back, “No I’m not, Jeff!” even though she was totally taking way too much time on that ladder. Lairo loses immunity, and the scrambling begins anew.

It’s an easy vote for Lairo. On the block are Tom, Karishma, an Dean, all the members of Old Lairo. Old Vokai has no incentive to switch up, here. Other than nobody knowing Noura doesn’t have a vote (because of last week’s Island of the Idols shenanigans), the only question seems to be whether or not Lairo wants to ever win a challenge. If yes, dump Karishma now. If no, keep her around.

There was a bit of bickering about who was leaving, and in the end it happened to be Tom. Karishma somehow squeaks by one more. My understanding is that Old Vokai either wants Karishma there at the merge, where she’ll be an easy first vote once the split-up Vokai people are together again, or, individually, players are looking ahead to final three where Karishma is a useful butt to have in the seat next to you. Either of these ideas seems short-sighted to me, considering it’s still a tribal game. It seemed short-sided to Rob, too, up in his bungalow, where he remarked “They’re not going to win any challenges now.”

Who’s gonna win?
Karishma is in a good game position, if it’s true other people want to drag her forward just to have a warm body to point at when it’s time to win against the Jury. Dean is probably in the worst position, being the last Old Lairo still on Lairo that people don’t seem to want on hand. I think the four players who remained on Vokai after the split — Dan, Jason, Tommy, and Lauren — are in the best position over all. A lot can happen between now and merge. Maybe the new Vokai will be a united tribe that sweeps the challenges, then feels no loyalty to the five members who left. Or maybe the tribe remains split and some number of them re-form after the merge. Or maybe some combination of these things happens. Tommy is still my pick for now, but I must again emphasize his tribe is so good at winning challenges that his actual gameplay has not yet been seriously tested.

Jafar is the Worst Disney Villain

…in Disney Villainous, anyway.

Me and the hipster bronies on my Discord server have played probably 100 games of Villainous at this point. Admittedly a lot of that time has been spent playtesting and refining the custom decks I’m working on for a Final Fantasy variant of the game, but that’s another blog post.

Villainous: Final Fantasy playlist on YouTube

Villainous is an asymmetric game. What that means is, when you play it, you pick one of a handful of famous Disney villains, and your win condition is different from everyone else’s. Each Villain has their own unique deck and their own unique challenges. It’s easier to win with some decks than others. Luck plays a bigger role in some decks than others. In some decks it’s possible to screw yourself out of the double-yoo if you don’t know what you’re doing. This has led to a few Reddit critics croaking about “lack of balance”, but the asymmetry is actually a design goal of the game. The idea is that players of different skill levels — say, parents and their children — can both play the game together “for real”. Give the kids one of the easier Villains, like Prince John or Maleficent, whie the grown-ups play the tougher ones, like Ursula or Dr. Facilier.

The game being asymmetrical means, inevitably, some villains are better than others. I don’t think this game is played in competition anywhere, so I don’t expect anyone to have detailed matchup statistics, but from my own experience and observations the tier list looks something like this:

Thanks to

There’s a mechanic in the game called Fate that lets you attack other players and push them away from their win condition, and this works pretty well as a balancing feature. The “easier” characters tend to get Fated more often than the “hard” ones. Prince John has an easy win condition that doesn’t take much planning or trickery to achieve, but all the other players know that, so they can work to block a Prince John win by sending a lot of Fate this way.

You know who never gets Fated, though? Jafar. Because everyone knows Jafar isn’t going to win. Jafar is the worst player in Villainous and it isn’t even close. There really needs to be another empty tier between him and the tier above, to demonstrate just how far away he is from the rest of the pack. Being the hardest villain to win with isn’t his biggest problem though. The problem is the things that make him hard to win with also make him very not fun to play as, which is a real damn shame.

We’re going to have to wade through a bunch of game jargon so I can make my case, so if you’re not familiar with Disney Villainous hopefully you’re able to follow along.

In a nutshell, what makes Jafar so tough to win with is this: he needs a specific card from his 30-card deck to fulfill the first step of his win condition. Only once he draws this card and gets it on the board is he able to “start playing”. He isn’t the only villain with this feature. About half the villains have to dig for something specific. (Ursula, who I rank very highly, has to dig for two somethings!) These other villains, though, are able to “start playing” sooner than Jafar is, because the design of their boards and their decks give them other things to do and to focus on while they’re digging. And also gives other players incentive to Fate them early.

So what’s Jafar’s malfunction? Let’s take a look at his Realm, and I’ll explain some game mechanics.

Jafar’s Realm

All of these are levels in the Sega Genesis version.

A villain’s Realm has four locations, and each location has four Action Symbols. Think of the Action Symbols like little buttons. On your turn you move to a location, push as many of the buttons there as you want, then draw some cards and end your turn. Each button has its own function and performing these functions is how you accomplish anything in the game. Look carefully at the Cave of Wonders space on Jafar’s board, and note the little lock icon in the corner. This means the Cave of Wonders starts out LOCKED. At the start of the game Jafar is not able to move there and its little buttons are not available to him. Also note the two top buttons in each location are in a kind of rounded box. When you Fate someone, you can play a Hero to their Realm. Heroes sit in these rounded boxes and cover up any action buttons in the top row.

Now let’s talk about what the little buttons do.

The numbers are Gain Power actions. You spend Power to play cards, and taking these actions is how you gain it. Most villains have a 1, 2, and 3 Power spot in their Realm. Note that Jafar’s Power: 2 is in a location he can’t reach at the start, and his Power: 1 can be covered by Heroes. A good anti-Jafar strategy is to stick a Hero in the Streets of Agrabah and cut his ability to gain power down by 25%.

The card with a triangle in it is the Play a Card action. This lets you play a card out of your hand by spending Power. Most villains have one space with no Play action, but Jafar has this button everywhere. At the Oasis he has two of these buttons, so at that location he’s allowed to play two cards. We call locations like the Oasis a “double play” space. The ability to play two cards early on is exceedingly important for Jafar, so another good anti-Jafar strategy is to stick a Hero there and remove his double play.

The card with the shinies coming off it is the Activate action. Some of the cards you play stay in your Realm and have features that need to be activated. You do that by moving to this location and pushing this button. Jafar has a few of these cards, and one in particular is very important for his endgame, but note that both of his Activate buttons are open from the start (e.g., neither are at Cave of Wonders) and both are in the top row (e.g., Heroes can take them away).

The card with the lightning bolt in it is the Move Hero action. You use this action to move Heroes around in your Realm, especially if they’re covering something you don’t like. Note that Jafar cannot do this, as he has no Move Hero buttons anywhere in his Realm. (He does have a card in his deck that moves Heroes for him.)

The spikey gear is the Vanquish action. To kill a Hero you need to play a special card called an Ally to that Hero’s location, then perform a Vanquish action. If the Ally has a higher number on it than the Hero, you can discard both. As an example, Jafar has some Palace Guards in his deck that he can play to his Realm and keep the Hero population low. Because Jafar can’t usually move Heroes, defeating them with Allies is the only way Jafar can deal with them. (Most other villains have both options.)

The thundercloud is the Fate action. This allows Jafar to attack other players. Possibly Jafar’s only saving grace is that he has a Fate button on the best space in his Realm, and he’ll be moving there often, letting him go offensive early. (Some villains have Fate buttons in more-or-less dead locations, meaning if you want to Fate someone you kind of have to waste a turn. Jafar has a lot of drawbacks but this isn’t one of them.)

The card with arrows on both sides is the Move an Ally or Item action, and it’s how you move cards you’ve played to your Realm from one location to another. This action is pretty central to Jafar’s win condition, which involves playing a specific card to the Cave of Wonders and then moving it one space at a time to the Sultan’s Palace. This takes three Move Item actions, which Jafar can only take once every two turns. (He has an Ally with an Activate feature that can help move the Item faster.)

The card with the X through it is the Discard action, and this is the most important button on Jafar’s board by far. When you take this action you can throw away as many cards as you want from your hand. Because Jafar’s entire game plan hinges on him finding one specific card, throwing away unwanted cards is his top priority. And this is the crux of the problem.

The Crux of the Problem

Jafar isn’t the only villain who wants to throw away a bunch of garbage while looking for one specific card. One of my favorite villains, Ursula, also has to do this. I’m not going to cram Ursula’s Realm into this post, so you’ll have to take my word that she’s much better at doing this than Jafar for a very simple reason: she has access to two Discard buttons from the beginning of the game. (She has a locked location in her Realm, like Jafar does, but there isn’t a Discard button there.) Having two Discard buttons — one on the bottom that’s always open to you, and one on the top that can be covered by Heroes — is the default setting for Villainous boards. The only exception other than Jafar is the Evil Queen (from Snow White), whose second Discard button is also in a locked location at the start. But Evil Queen doesn’t need to jackhammer her deck the way Jafar does, so in her case, it’s not a drawback. It’s only ever a problem for Jafar.

(Evil Queen, by the way, is the easiest deck to win with and maybe I’ll write another post about her. I suspect the reason one of her Discard buttons is locked up is because it’s not immediately obvious to young or new players that throwing away cards is a good move, so limiting it as an option and designing the deck so it’s not essential is a way of removing one layer of complexity from the game.)

Jafar’s only other recourse as far as getting rid of cards is to play them, by using the double play location in his realm. This isn’t a feature of Jafar’s board, by the way, every villain has a double play space. Jafar’s is crucial, though, because it’s a way to get rid of two cards from his hand without having to discard them. Of course, this consumes Power, which might be in short supply depending on what you drew. Also, one of the rules of Villainous is you aren’t allowed to play a card unless you can actually perform the card’s function. The language on the cards is pretty specific; there is a clear line between “you do this thing” and “you may do this thing”. If the card doesn’t have the magic word “may” you can’t play it unless you can do everything the card says. Even if you have enough Power to play a card that says “attach to an Ally”, you’re not allowed to actually play it unless there’s already an Ally on the board to attach it to.

The wording on this card was changed in later printings specifically because, in its original form, Jafar could almost never play it.

Putting all this together, we see a kind of “Jafar formula” emerge. On your first turn you move to the Streets of Agrabah, gain 1 Power, and throw away your whole hand (and then probably Fate someone). You draw new cards and, hopefully, next turn you have the ability and enough Power to move to the Oasis and play two of them. Then you alternate these two turns until you see the specific card you need to actually “start playing”.

This already looks really bad for Jafar who, at best, is able to churn through three cards per turn on average. (It works out to less than that in practice, because there are a lot of cases where playing two cards at the Oasis just isn’t possible.) But it starts to look even worse when you begin comparing him to other villains that need one specific card. The most even comparison is Captain Hook.

Jafar’s Objective

Hook’s cards are better because they are purple.

Though these two cards have different verbiage, they do basically the same thing: Jafar needs to play the Scarab to unlock the Cave of Wonders, and Captain Hook needs to play the Map to unlock the Hangman’s Tree. Neither villain can win while the locked space in their Realm remains locked. This is Step One of their win condition. We already know why Hook has the advantage here: he can discard every turn, rather than every other turn. He gets to look at a lot more cards a lot faster than Jafar does.

Once they get the card they need and get their fourth space unlocked, each villain needs to play a second card to further their objective, and this is where we really start to see why Hook is great and Jafar is pants. Hook needs a specific Hero on the board, and he has eight cards in his deck that help him to find that Hero. That’s almost a full third of his deck devoted to getting this done. Jafar has only five such cards, many of which have probably already been discarded or used in search of the Scarab. (One of these cards is also really bad. So bad, in fact, I’m devoting an entire section of this post to it.)

Even after both villains get their second needed card, they have work to do. Jafar’s second card is the Magic Lamp, which brings the Genie into his Realm. He needs to Hypnotize the Genie (which means there’s a third specific card he needs to win, but it’s generally not a problem finding one if you make it this late in the game), then move the Lamp to the Sultan’s Palace. Even after doing all of this, he still doesn’t win. To actually secure victory, Jafar needs to be in that state — Genie hypnotized, Lamp at the Palace — at the start of his turn. Once he sets it all up, every other player at the table has a chance to Fate him, and there are several Fate cards that push his Objective back.

This is also pretty common. “Win at the start of your turn” is the default state for Villainous decks. It’s where Captain Hook stands out, though: he can win on his own turn by killing a specific Hero in a specific place. Once he has his Map, he needs to pull Peter Pan from his own Fate deck, play him, move him across his Realm, then murder him with pirates. Once he does this and puts his board into a “win state” he wins immediately. The table doesn’t get a round of actions to try and push him back.

And it gets even worse for Jafar. Since Hook can discard every single turn while digging around for his Map, he has the luxury of holding onto specific other cards if he thinks he’ll need them later. Other villains who are digging for specific cards, like Ursula and Yzma, can do this too. They have a little breathing room. Instead of dumping four cards every turn, they can instead dump three cards every turn and keep one in their pocket. Hook and Ursula and Yzma all have cards they want to play later, so this is a good trade. It’s also an interesting decision point, a thing that is severely lacking in Jafar’s deck. Do you dig hard by throwing away potentially useful cards? Or do you dig a little slower but keep something useful in reserve you’ll need once your Step One is behind you? There are reasons Hook, Ursula, or Yzma players might do it one way or the other, but Jafar doesn’t have that luxury of choice. He has to dig hard, and the only way he can do that is to throw everything away, every chance he gets.

Another thing Hook can do is what we call “building infrastructure”. He knows that eventually Pan will be on the board, and he knows he needs enough pirates in play at key locations to get the little green boy moving and eventually plant him. If he has a card he wants to place into that infrastructure, but can’t play it this turn (because he doesn’t have the Power, or because it’s not a legal play yet), he can use the breathing room he has to hold the card and play it later. In a typical Hook game this means you start to see the pieces he needs to kill Pan are at least partially in place by the time he finds and plays his Map.

But let’s look at Jafar in the same situation. Say he has Gazeem in his hand at the Streets of Agrabah. Gazeem costs 2 Power and has an ability that helps Jafar get Items on the board he’s already discarded. This ability can’t help him find the Scarab, but it can help him with the Lamp or other Items that might be useful late game. If Jafar started this turn with no Power, though, he can’t play Gazeem. He gets 1 Power from the Agrabah button (provided it isn’t covered), and now he’s stuck. He doesn’t want to junk Gazeem, because he’ll need him later. But he doesn’t want to keep Gazeem, because this is one of his precious discard turns, and discarding one fewer card means that Scarab is going to take longer to surface.

This isn’t an interesting decision point as far as I’m concerned. The Scarab is too precious, Gazeem has got to go. This means Jafar can’t build infrastructure in his Realm the way Hook can, while he’s digging. He has to dig single-mindedly, endlessly, painfully and then hope he can whip something up later, once the Cave of Wonders is open.

Scry Me a River

Jafar has one trick up his sleeve when searching for the Scarab so he can “start playing”: Scrying.

Original card title: “Umbrella Lip”.

At first glance this looks like a pretty good deal. You shout excitedly, “Item! Item! I want an item!” and then you throw cards away from the top of your deck until you hit an Item. This is Jafar’s best tool for finding the Scarab. Other villains that need specific cards out of their deck have similar cards.

And right there is the first problem: they have these similar “dig through your deck” cards in addition to the ability to discard every turn. In actual practice, Scrying isn’t something special Jafar can do, it’s just a concession to the style of deck he has. (Notably, Hook does not have cards that help him dig for his Map. This is because he can discard constantly and has lots of cheap, helpful cards to play as it is. Hook doesn’t need any help in this regard.)

Even as far as “dig through your deck” cards go, though, Scrying is really bad. I mean, it’s fine if the Scarab happens to be near the top, but then you were going to draw it next turn anyway. Doesn’t that sound weird? If the Scarab is in a spot in your deck such that Scrying can help you get to it, you probably don’t need Scrying to help you get to it. And if it’s any lower in your deck than that, well…

There are eight Item cards in Jafar’s deck, one of which is the Scarab. One is the Magic Lamp, which he doesn’t need yet, but can safely discard. (He can grab it out of his discard pile later.) The rest of his Items only seem to exist to be land mines that foil Scrying. They’d be useful if Jafar were able to concentrate on building infrastructure, but he’s not. They’re just junk.

Let’s deploy math. Eight cards in a thirty card deck means, on average, there’s an Item card every 3.75 cards. With slightly better-than-average luck, you’ll use Scrying to discard three cards from your deck, then the fourth will be an Item. If that Item is your Scarab, great, but more often it will be something like one of Jafar’s three useless Scimitars. These Scimitars are the land mines I mentioned. When you hit one, it royally sucks, because you’ve used one of the most valuable cards in your deck to pull a sword you don’t want and maybe discard the same amount of cards you could have if you’d just had a goddamn Discard button in your space.

In absolute terms, Scrying is no better or worse than other such cards. You get to throw away a few cards you don’t want, and you maybe put the thing you do want in your hand. I bet a lot of playtesting was done to make sure the chances are about even across lots of Scrying plays. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and pull five or six or more cards before hitting a land mine; other times your life sucks and there was a Scimitar waiting right on top of your deck. Psychologically, though, on top of all the other drawbacks Jafar has, this card feels mean and gimped.

You have three Scrying cards, and some limited ability to pull them out of your discard pile after you’ve used them. These five-ish chances
are all you have to try and reach the Scarab on turns you can’t discard. It always pushes you forward, even if only an inch, but it generally feels bad to play because of its potential to hit a land mine.

This is Dumb

I want you to scroll back up and read the effect of the Scarab card. Note that playing it increases Jafar’s hand size, and mull that over a second. Doesn’t that sound like it would be super helpful in finding the Scarab? Printed on the Scarab card itself? D’oh!

Now look at Jafar’s second discard button, sitting there on the Cave of Wonders, where he can’t use it until after he plays the Scarab. Except, once he’s played the Scarab, he’s probably already seen half of his deck (on average) and doesn’t need to discard so hard anymore; once every two turns is probably enough for the rest of the game. Double d’oh!

Most Villainous decks have an elegant design sense to them. Cards that synergize well, cards that combine to create specific effects or action sequences that reward skilled players. Hades has one of my favorite turns in the game where, if he knows what he’s doing and has it all set up, can go from 10% to 100% of his win condition in a single turn, while all the other players watch in horror, mouths agape, tongues lolling, curses flying. It’s a great moment if you can pull it off. Other villains can do similar things.

By comparison, Jafar’s design looks like a train wreck. The two things that would be most helpful in completing his Step One are things he can’t do until after completing his Step One, at which point he kind of doesn’t need them anymore. Are there trombone players in Agrabah? Because I think we need a womp womp.


When fixing problems like this, I think a light touch is best. Remember, we already don’t mind that some villains are “harder” than others. Asymmetry is one of the design goals of the game, and there’s a built-in mechanic to correct for overpowered decks. A simple tweak that makes him fun to play is absolutely fine, even if it leaves him the worst villain overall. Here’s the tweak:

“Know this: only one may discard here.”

Swap the Activate button at the Oasis with the Discard button at the Cave of Wonders.

Activate is an important button for Jafar, but not until after he finds the Scarab. A skilled player with two Activate buttons and the proper infrastructure can win very quickly once the Scarab is out. In order to give Jafar the space he needs to build that infrastructure, though, he needs to be able to discard heavily on his first couple turns. Both buttons are useful at the proper point in the game

Also, both buttons are on the top row, which means they can be covered. Other players have a reason to Fate him, now. In his current state Jafar almost never gets Fated because there’s really no point in doing so until he has his Scarab. In a version of his board with two Discard buttons, though, Fating him early and taking that power away is a more attractive strategy. Since Jafar’s Realm is more attractive to Heroes, he’ll have to spend a few turns cleaning them up. This puts more decision points into his game and breaks up the “Jafar formula” I mentioned earlier.

There are other changes you could make, if you really wanted to make his deck more powerful, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Remove the monotony of his early game, make him a bigger Fate target, make the Cave of Wonders a more dangerous space in the late game, and suddenly his board becomes both viable and fun. This one simple change accomplishes all these goals.

There’s still a problem with Jafar’s deck, though, that no simple gameplay tweak can address…

A Whole New Herp

A whole new flurp to herp and durrrr.

I give you… Aladerp and Jersmine.

Most of the artwork in Villainous is tremendous, but these two cards are… special. I mean, they look like they smelled a fart.

Thank you for reading this long post about why Jafar sucks!

Survivor: Island of the Idols, week four

Checking over my notes for this episode, the first one says “aaron callin’ the shots, lol ok bud”. So he must have said something very, very dumb in the first couple minutes of the show.

We’re having the Power Couple Problem again. Most of Lairo is worried because Dean and Chelsea are spooning at night, and there’s some talk about how they’re going to break them apart. The Power Couple Problem crops up from time to time, but I’m skeptical it’s as big a deal in the actual game as it’s always made out to be. Like, even if Dean and Chelsea turn out to be soulmates and lovers and they get married and have ten kids who all go on to win Survivor someday, they still only get two votes in the game. Those are the same two votes Missy and Aaron get. There’s no in-game advantage to the Power of Love.

Let me attack this from another way. Dean and Chelsea are a dangerous power couple; Missy and Aaron are just typical Survivor allies. Surely any argument about why we “need” to break up Dean/Chelsea also applies to Missy/Aaron. Right? If I’m on Lairo and this is the pitch, what rationalization do I have to make that causes me to break up one couple and not immediately turn around to break up the other?

That being said, breaking up Dean and Chelsea is a good idea. This is absolutely something Missy and Aaron should be talking about. I just hope they’re smart enough to see that to an outside player their “power couple” rationale applies to them as well.

Over on Vokai Jamal mopes a bit, refuses to join the tribe for some reindeer games, and uses the alone time to track down an immunity idol. Jamal hasn’t exactly been knocking my socks off but I think this was a fair trade. The tribe sees him as more of an outsider, sure, but now at least he’s got a necklace. The important thing for Jamal to remember is that he did trade something: he sold some amount of his goodwill with the tribe to buy himself a chance to go idol-hunting. Finding the idol was not the end of his job; he now needs to figure out a way to earn back some of that goodwill he sold off. I like it when players take their lumps and then pick themselves up, and this season in particular seems to be designed to allow that to happen, so I will continue watching Jamal with great interest.

(Side note: is it just me, or are immunity idols a lot… skimpier than they used to be? The ones this season are tiny sharktooth necklaces.
Maybe they make them that way so they’re easier for lucky bikini girls to hide.)

The boat appears at Vokai and tells them they have to decided unanimously who is going to the Island of the Idols. Nobody wants to go, because everyone rightly assumes that leaving the tribe for a few hours can be dangerous (though part of me expected Kellee to contrive some reason to go back), but then Noura excitedly volunteers. And the tribe, who understands leaving is a bad idea but also doesn’t like Noura much, obviously agrees to send her.

The Idols’ lesson this week is about the art of persuasion. The fun part here for me was the bevy of flashbacks to prior seasons where a player was convinced to act against his own self interest. They showed Parvati and Cirie convincing Erik to give up his idol at the end of Fans vs. Favorites, and Yul persauding Penner to betray his alliance in Cook Islands, and Sandra winding up the Russel-go-Kill Bot in Heroes vs. Villains. This made me smile because these were all great moments orchestrated by great players and, oh, lookie here, I just so happen to observe that Parvati and Yul and Sandra are all coming back next season (season 40) for the Survivor: Oops All Winners.

I know this was a commercial for next season and not emphasis for Noura’s lesson because Noura can’t learn lessons.

Noura’s task — which she excepts with so much enthusiasm the Idols prod her multiple times with “are you sure” and “do you want to maybe think about this” — is to tell her tribe about the upcoming Immunity Challenge and get them to agree to let her be an important player in that challenge. It’s one of my favorites, the good ol’ “blindfolded and bumpin’ into shit” challenge, and one member of the Vokai tribe needs to remain un-blindfolded and call out instructions to her tribemates. This person cannot be Noura, because she would be terrible at it and tank the challenge, and the Idols both know this. Unlike with Kellee and Vince, there’s not even any pretense here that maybe she’s up to this task. I believe Rob’s exact words in his confessional were “she can’t coherently communicate anything to anyone”.

I can’t resist a bit of Monday morning quarterbacking here. Noura’s reward if she pulls this scheme off are individual, but it’s still a tribal game. If I’m in this situation I go back to camp and say, “Hey guys, here’s what the next challenge is and here’s what we can do to practice it. Oh and if you don’t pick me for caller I don’t get to vote at the next council, but that’s fine, because we’re not going to council because I’m using my knowledge to help the tribe win immunity.”

That’s… kind of what Noura did. A little, if you squint. Her pitch was more like “I know exactly what the next challenge is but I’m not allowed to tell you guys until you agree to let me be the most important person in the challenge.” This might have worked in a situation not involving Noura, but her tribe was skeptical. Equally bad is the idea that placing Noura as caller in this challenge is the functional equivalent of just deciding to lose the challenge. So Vokai does get some insider info and they do practice for the challenge, but it’s a real horrorshow.

Vokai tries in vain to help train Noura to be the caller, but something something obvious thing, as soon as they arrive at the obstacle course and Probst doesn’t force them to stick to their guns, they sit her out and appoint Jason instead. Which is a great decision because Jason is an absolutely excellent caller. Kellee then beast modes the puzzle at the end, securing immunity for Vokai again. So Noura’s having a bad day, but at least she’s not going home right away.

I can’t effectively summarize all the scrambling that went on back at Lairo. The teal deer is something like “nobody really knows what’s going to happen”. The three schools of thought seemed to be:

  • let’s vote out Karishma, that’s super easy
  • let’s break up the power couple by voting out Dean
  • ok you don’t want Dean, that’s fine let’s vote out Chelsea.

Tribal wasn’t any less chaotic. Elizabeth spoke surprisingly candidly about how many plans were floating around, and everyone seems at least a little worried about a situation where they were left out of some last-minute agreement. Karishma revels in the chaos, even going so far as to say “chaos is a ladder”, which —

Okay, no, I can’t let that slide. This offends me as a Survivor fan and as a Game of Thrones fan. Karishma, the character you’re quoting, whose name you probably think is spelled “Peter”, made that observation because he knew how to climb a ladder. He did not just smile and point to a ladder and say, “That is a ladder.” The quote doesn’t mean “chaos favors the underdog”, it means “chaos potentially opens an opportunity for an underdog to get ahead”. If you want the chaos on Lairo to work for you, you have to actually step up and play, and so far there’s just no sign you’re willing or able to do that.

Ugh. The fanboy took over for a second there. Anyway.

Chelsea admits blindsides are fun, and then immediately gets blindsided. The Lairo power couple is broken up, and Chelsea is the second person to walk away from this tribe with an idol in her pocket.

Who’s gonna win? I think Tommy is a good player in a good position on a good tribe. It’s hard to speculate about upcoming pitfalls for him (and probably pointless too, unless I can anticipate some game twist), but from what I can tell he has two things to watch out for: 1) Noura swinging the tribe against him when she rails against the “easy vote” next time they have to go to Council, and 2) Jamal’s immunity idol. These are things smart players can absolutely deal with and we’re just not going to know whether Tommy is that sort of player until we get a better look at Vokai’s inner workings.

Survivor: Island of the Idols, week three

Jack seemed almost happy to have been blindsided. Maybe he sees it as a Survivor rite of passage? Maybe he’s just starstruck? Jamal doesn’t share his whimsy in any event. The two are on the outs, and they know it, but there’s still a lightning rod in camp named Noura that is constantly hounding everyone to do chores. There’s some discussion about how this is still an easy vote, but Jamal tries to shake things up by pitching a Dan vote to Janet. I’m not sure his case made a lot of sense to me, but Janet dutifully took it to Tommy, and Tommy mulled it over. I don’t think it made much sense to Tommy either. He wondered about it in a confessional, saying that even if the move did make sense, he doesn’t want to make Jamal’s power moves for him. Which is pretty much what a Jamal-orchestrated lobby against Dan would be doing.

I think Jamal just wants to be in control of the game. He knows he’s relatively safe in the short term and he knows his tribe has at least one really easy vote should they lose again, but he’s not in control of that scenario and he doesn’t like it. Here’s the deal, Jamal. You’re on a good tribe that shook you out of your Day One aliance. You’re one of the big strong dudes on that tribe. Why not just coast for a while? You seemed weirdly proud of “playing in first gear” last episode, why not just leave it there? Focus on getting to the merge with numbers and then start the left field power plays, yeah?

Over at Lairo, the editors whipped up a few rapid-fire moments that set me against Karishma. Karishma complains in a confessional about being an outsider in her tribe because she’s an old Indian lady, but she’s not actually that old (30-something, I think she said?) and there’s no indication anyone actually cares she’s Indian. She complains that she’s not being true to her culture by romping around a paradise island in her underwear, and oh boy won’t her conservative Indian community back home be shocked to see her. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this sort of argument, and I never find it endearing. Listen up folks, on Survivor people are going to see your boobs. You are going to prance around in your underwear, not because you’re a sultry tart, but because it’s a hundred degrees out there and everything is wet all the time. You are going to lie to people. You are going to be mean sometimes. You are going to tolerate dispicable behavior you never would at your home or your work or your school. You are going to poop in a hole and you are going to celebrate when you get a tarp and the nine people on the other tribe have to sit shivering in misery.

Getting good with all of that is a prerequisite to playing this game, as far as I’m concerned. At this point, 39 seasons in, I don’t buy that anyone is shocked to come onto the island and learn that, hey, maybe Mother and Father wouldn’t approve of my choices. So I was already kind of feeling like Karishma decided to be a mopey victim before stepping off the boat, and then she cut herself.

Nobody likes to cut themselves. And I’m not saying Karishma did it in purpose. And it did look like a serious cut. Serious enough to call the medical team over and bind up her hand. What upset her is that while she was bleeding out on the ground, none of her tribemates fawned over her injury. Nobody rocked her in their lap and stroked her hair and told her everything was going to be okay. Her response to this callousness was along the lines of “everyone on this tribe is dead to me”.

I wonder how many times medical has to be called over in a typical Survivor season. I expect probably several times per tribe, and I suspect most of these injuries are of the bumps-n-bruises variety that don’t merit screentime. Karishma’s cut was a little gross, but medical bound it up and she wasn’t airlifted out. She got the attention she needed, but it wasn’t the attention she wanted, which to her just confirms this fantasy she’s concocted that her tribe hates old Indian ladies.

The boat shows up to whisk Vince off to the Island of the Idols, leaving the remaining eight Lairo members standing there marveling at his exit. Dean immediately — as in, the split second Vince is out of earshot — talks about a plan to flush a possible Vince immunity idol by splitting the vote. This was really funny, because all of his tribemates were standing right there, so who was he planning to split a Vince vote with? He realized his error almost immediately, but the camera still did a zoom in on Karishma, so it turned into a fun little moment after all.

Vince immediately breaks down and starts crying when he realizes he’s sitting on a beach with Sandra and Rob. Once he composes himself they lay on the challenge: they want him to sneak into Vokai’s camp at night and steal fire. The lesson is something about staying calm under pressure, but I immediately saw an ulterior motive here: would there have been any benefit to Vince getting caught on purpose for a chance to pow-wow with Vokai this far away from a merge situation? We see a few moments where Vokai members are twisting and turning in the night, and the rain has put out their fire in any event, so Vince fills his canteen up with ash from their fire pit and calls it a win. Vince goes home with an idol.

I did note that Rob didn’t have Vince pull a Vokai name out of a bag before he went home. I wonder if that means Idol Island is going to twist next week. Perhaps there will be a grand reveal about the true nature of the island to all the players? Perhaps the reward challenge will be the idols visiting a camp and giving a group lesson this time? Or maybe the editors just figured we know how the bag o’ names works at this point and didn’t feel like showing it again?

I noted also that there was no confrontation between Vince and Elizabeth. Remember, Elizabeth came back from Idol Island with a kooky story about broken urns. Vince knows she lied. Elizabeth knows Vince knows she lied. This is an interaction that could land anywhere from conflict to cooperation, but just… nothing. Hmm.

The Immunity Challenge was another obstacle course ending with a puzzle. Once again, Lairo gets a big lead over Vokai, but once again, Vokai makes it up by blasting through their puzzle. Karishma was the butt monkey here, and the way she approached this puzzle made me wonder if she knew what a puzzle was or whether it was good to eat. This was not a level 10 brainteaser here, this was a ten-piece jigsaw with huge wooden blocks for pieces. Vokai takes their prizes home, and Lairo resumes scrabbling.

I had a lot of trouble following Lairo’s scheming from this point. There’s apparently still a women’s alliance (that Karishma is part of? or not?), and still a plot to split to vote to flush Vince’s (possible?) idol, even though it would hurt his allies (?) if he didn’t have one. Vince wants to join the girl’s alliance to get rid of Tom, Chelsea wants to bring Vince along with them… it was all a bit of a cluster and it left me with the impression that Lairo doesn’t have a better grasp on their alliances and loyalties that I do.

The crowning moment was Vince berating Karishma about giving him a name. He knows that she knows she’s on the chopping block, but she remains steadfast and won’t say anyone in particular. I don’t think this interaction makes sense for either player, but I think I see where they’re coming from. Vince wants Karishma to do some grown-up Survivor playing, and Karishma wants to not cause a scene the very night she’s in danger.

Or maybe not. If Karishma really didn’t want a big Mean Girl spotlight shined on her, she really should have kept her mouth shut at Tribal Council. Tom accused her of being terrible at puzzles (which, yeah, let’s be fair). Her response is that she’s the mightiest person to every play this game, that her strength and fortitude have untold depths, and she’s just about to break away and show everyone what Old Indian Superwoman can do… if only they’d give her the chance. She spent no small amount of time throwing shade on the other Lairo women for no clear reason I can figure. These are her allies, right? What’s the point of all this?

Probst closes Tribal Council out by asking a few people if what had been said tonight has influenced their decision. Everyone wants to just get on with it. Karishma then says “one sec Jeff” and whispers something into Elizabeth’s ear. Tom insists this is just an act, we never get to hear what it was Karishma said (I will be watching the opening Lairo confessionals very closely next week), and Vince sits on his idol.

There wasn’t a split vote and Karishma wasn’t in danger. It was a landslide for Vince. For the second time this episode, Vince goes home with an idol.

Probst gives the team props: “You may suck at puzzles, but you’re great at blindsides!”

That gave me an idea. Maybe while Vince was waterboarding Karishma for a name, her smart move would be something like “As soon as you left Dean came up with a plan to split the vote. It’s between you and me. Let’s work to get some numbers and vote off Dean.” That’d have been a good move, at least.

I’m hoping this whole Karishma-as-victim plotline is just something the editors have cobbled together, and she’s not actually like that. Either way, though, I already grow weary of it. If Karishma squeaks through the merge and doesn’t change her behavior at all, I think we’re in for a long season.

Who’s gonna win?
Vokai seems solid and I still think Tommy is the most solid player on the purple tribe.

Spellcrafting in Flumph of the Wild

I recently wrapped up my third online D&D 5e campaign, Flumph of the Wild. The campaign ran for 70 sessions over the course of about one-and-a-half years. It was loosely based on material in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, which was the first major expansion to D&D 5e’s Monster Manual. The entire campaign took place in a vast monster-infested wilderness that existed to the far north of human and demihuman civilization. In this world, the standard D&D races had long since banded together and pushed out the various orcs, goblinoids and other nasties and then built a huge wall between them.

Wait, isn’t the big wall supposed to be in the north?

My players were under some pretty harsh restrictions for this campaign. First, I limited them to only “monstrous” player character races, like those found in Volo’s. No elves or dwarves allowed. And second, any class with a spellcasting feature was off-limits. Magic in this setting had been sewn up tight by some kind of cataclysm in the long-long-ago, and is not something mortal creatures were able to weild any longer. From a mechanical standpoint this meant no healing magic, and gave the whole campaign a very brutal feel. The party makeup ending up being:

• Adrex, a dragonborn fighter,
• Windy, an aarakocra monk,
• Red, a yuan-ti pureblood rogue,
• Birdie, a kobold rogue, and
• Raazu, a hobgoblin paladin*.

*(I did end up allowing a paladin with the understanding that the character would not have access to any spellcasting. Instead, paladins have the ability to use their spell charges on special attacks that do extra damage. I find this is how most paladins use their spell charges anyway, so it all worked out.)

It was never my intention to run a no-magic campaign, though. In fact, during character creation I let each player pick out one of the common magic items from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. These are low-impact items that tend to be more thematic than actually useful, although clever players can certainly find uses for them. The dragonborn took a wand that shoots harmless sparks and fireworks, for example, and a the hobgoblin took a pair of dice that always rolled 6s.

Then, in the second or third session, I revealed how spellcasting would actually work.

Early on, the heroes came across a killing field where several kobolds had been hanged from a tree. A bizarre rune had been burned into the earth nearby, the shape of which seemed significant enough that my players saved it for posterity. While chasing down leads as to what had killed the kobolds and why, they joined up with some lizardfolk to explore a ancient ruin nearby, where they all fell into a hidden magical chamber and became marked by the world.

The story is, the world in this setting is alive, and has its own kind of magic. (If you’re familiar with the Lifestream in Final Fantasy VII, that’s pretty close.) A second great cataclysm was coming, and the various warring sources of magic were vying for control. Various mortals were being marked with ancient runes that granted low-level casting ability, and the magic of the world, called quintessence, reached out and touched the PCs. Thus did each of them gain a cantrip based around the magic item they had selected. The hobgoblin’s magic dice, for example, granted the true strike cantrip, which enabled her to alter luck in her favor in order to better land attacks. To represent just how low mortal magic had fallen in this world, these cantrips were not usable at-will. Instead, players had to spend blips to use them.

(Oh yeah, here’s an old blog post about blips: Blips: D&D 5e Rules Variant (XP for Roleplaying))

Now that the players had some access to spells, I revealed how spellcasting would actually work. Anyone could craft any spell they wanted at any time, provided they accurately drew the spell’s rune and then passed an INT Arcana 20 check. This was a steep ask, considering that they’d only seen a couple of runes and had no other leads.

Magic tattoos!

Three other snags: anyone could in theory use any spell, but the spellcasting stat for all spells was Intelligence. This is typically a dump stat for 5e players who aren’t wizards, and there were of course no wizards in this campaign. I knew going in most of the characters wouldn’t have much aptitude for spellcasting in this system, but I was fine with that, because I don’t believe in dump stats. Also, to cast spells, you had to spend blips. One blip per level of spell you wanted to cast. Blips were also useful in this campaign for re-rolling checks or turning into XP, so the choice to cast a spell was never made lightly. A player could also only have a maximum of six blips, effectively cutting off spells of 7th level or higher. And finally, because these were purely martial characters and the world had not seen mortal spellcasters for a thousand years, there was a limit to how many spells you could learn: half your level plus your INT modifier, minimum of one. Since the starting cantrips counted against this total, most players had to level up a few times before they could even attempt to learn any more magic.

Nonetheless, they set out trying to decode the runes and figure things out. They started with the rune they’d transcribed from the site of the hanged kobolds, which turned out to be the hunger of Hadar spell:

The rune for hunger of Hadar.

Spellcrafting could be done as a downtime action. You first had to tell me what spell you were aiming for. You then had to draw out what you figured the rune looked like. Then you had to pass an INT Arcana 20 check. This could be done as a downtime action during a long rest, and there was no penalty for failure. In fact, it was possible to fail in ways that were enlightening. If you fail the check but draw the right rune, you can make future checks to learn this spell at advantage. If you pass the check but draw the wrong rune, your check is grandfathered in and you can tweak your rune’s design on subsequent rests.

For this system to work, I needed a way to generate spell runes on the fly. The way I did this was to find four ways to categorize spells in general, draw a handful of different symbols for each category, then build a general runic shape with those pieces. I saved everything as a Photoshop file so making a new rune (or checking to see if a player had gotten one right) was as easy as turning certain layers on or off.

Spell level. Higher level = more marks.

In D&D 5e, spells are already categorized by their general power level. The higher power the spell, the higher its spell level. Spells are arranged from cantrips (“Level 0”) up to Level 9. In my system, this is represented in the shape in the center of a spell’s rune, one mark per level of the spell. (Cantrips counted as Level 1 in my system, since they did require a resource to cast.) My players figured this out pretty quickly, and looking up a spell’s level is already trivial. I did require, however, that the marks appear in their proper order; it wasn’t enough to just draw four marks in the center if you wanted a Level 4 spell, they had to be the proper marks in the proper configuration. I don’t think a player ever got this part wrong while spellcrafting.

Reading order: necromancy, illusion, transmutation, evocation, enchantment, divination, conjuration, abjuration.

The other easy part was the spell’s school. This is another immutable property every spell has, it must fall into one of eight schools of magic. As the players discovered more runes in the world and noted what the effects were of each of them, they were able to piece together which symbol went with which school. And this is also something very easy to look up, once you know what spell you want to try and craft. I did want to have a pool of symbols that couldn’t be looked up, though, but could still be reasonably deciphered.

Reading order: aether, fire, earth, water, air.

The base of each spell represented its element. This isn’t something that’s spelled out in the rulebook, it’s something that had to be intuited (even on my part). Obviously not every spell is a literal manifestation of one of the classical elements; not everything is as clean-cut as fireball. So I had a few guidelines to follow for each spell. In general, if a spell dealt damage and wasn’t obviously another element, it was fire. Spells that created something solid, even if only temporarily, were earth. Spells that changed or moved things were air. And spells that didn’t do anything physical at all, but only dealt with the force of magic itself (such as detect magic or identify) landed in the catch-call aether element.

This also meant some individual spells were split up into multiple different runes. At one point they correctly sussed the rune for elemental weapon, which usually allows the caster to choose from one of several damage types. Because they had drawn a version of the rune with the aether element, though, what they actually did was make a version of the spell that could only be utilized for force damage.

My players never twigged to what these symbols represented, beyond a general “flavor” or “theme” of each spell, which was correct enough I suppose. There were a few times when a player had gotten most of a rune correct, but the element wrong, and so spent future downtime actions cycling through the various rune bases looking for one that worked. Which is exactly how I imagine a group of adventurers with no formal magic training but a basic grasp on what runes meant would actually do in the field. Hey, we know these five symbols, we know there has to be a base, let’s just try them all until it’s right.

But there was an important storyline reason I needed to keep track of where each spell was coming from, in terms of what was generating the magic.

Reading order: quintessence, divinity, blood, shadow, fey.

Where magic comes from was a pretty important theme throughout the campaign, and my players figured out very early that the “hat” part of each rune must hint at this source. Their biggest clue was the five cantrips they were given all had the same rune, despite being wildly different spells. An important note here is that the source of a spell doesn’t have an effect on what the spell can be or do, it just has to match the source of magic you already have. For the PCs in my campaign this was quintessence, so each spell they wanted to learn had to have the starburst-looking symbol on top. The five sources were:

• Quintessence, magic from the world itself. Notably this doesn’t mean nature magic or druidic magic; rather, it’s a natural magical field generated by the world as a function of its own existence. (I believe Forgotten Realms calls this concept “the Weave”.)
• Divinity, magic from the greater Powers. Powers had little influence in this campaign world, and most religions favored “living gods” like dragons, krakens, fey spirits, and suchlike. Divine magic was as a result very, very rare.
• Blood, magic generated by a creature’s own physical being. This is the source of a lot of magic in the campaign because it encompassed most of the magic used and granted by the living gods. Basically, if you’re flipping through the Monster Manual and a creature has the Innate Spellcasting trait, they’re using blood magic.
• Fey and Shadow, magic that seeps in from the Feywild and Shadowfell, respectively. These are other planes of existence that sit very close to the Prime Material, cosmologically speaking. They’re also physical places the players can travel to, under certain conditions.

After putting all this together, I had a system where I could whip up a spell rune for any spell I needed in less than a minute, and also had a campaign-wide puzzle for the players to work on. I also introduced a new spell called extract rune that would allow the players to take a spell’s run from a consumable potion or scroll they had, at the expense of the potion or scroll.

And that’s the Flumph of the Wild spellcrafting system in a nutshell. Thank you for reading about how I drew weird lines and then demanded my players figure out what they meant!