A Penny For This Editor’s Thoughts

I was heavily involved in Paul Tevis’ recently-published book, A Penny For My Thoughts — as the books editor and (as he puts it) developer. While I’ve been damned proud of the work he — hell, we — put in to make the book what it is, I’ve been hesitant to talk about it online. He has very much earned every bit of praise people are giving him, and I was worried about sounding like I was stealing Paul’s thunder or crap like that.

Last weekend, Paul asked me why I haven’t blogged about Penny, and called bullshit on my reason for not doing so. Thus, this belated post to correct my foolishness.

I want to tell you about this book, and the best way for me to talk about it is to tell you how I became the book’s editor & developer. If what Paul wrote in the Afterword was “designer notes,” these are my “editor notes.”

I was in the very first outside playtest for Penny, at Go Play Northwest 2007. I was the first Traveler. Mike Sugarbaker was my first Guide (which used to be called Psychopomp). The very first question of the session:

“Were you working late that night?”

My response:

“Yes…and I hadn’t had a day off in three hundred years.”

Suddenly, it wasn’t about normal people. It went gonzo. I went gonzo. (And, for those vague in the know, yes, it’s that play that turned my last name into a term for gonzoing out.) Paul had this “huh, I wonder if Penny will survive Ryan” moment. Turns out it did.

The fascinating bit was how the second playtest Paul ran was about normal people in normally-bad situations. There was some compare/contrast there, but we didn’t talk about it much then — I was just this friend of his who tried his Game Chef entry.

At GenCon, we swapped ashcans, and I took Penny home. My home group tried it, and I noticed some interesting things that happened the second time I played Penny — I felt better equipped to play out a normal story. Maybe it was some “get the gonzo out of my system” vibe or experience helping me understand the conceit without resorting to the crutch that is the absurd and extreme — but for whatever reason, that session rocked for me.

(If I remember right, I was a drug dealer who was in love with his priest. It did get just a little absurd, as the other players were new, and one of them in particular makes my gonzo play look boring and middle-of-the-road.)

I dumped all my thoughts hastily into a doc and sent it to Paul, knowing that trying to be more formal in my writing would cause me to forget something, and knowing that Paul could just ask me to clarify something. I fired that off the morning after we played, excited that I got to help with my friend’s awesome game about amnesia that I wish I had written.

Seriously, Paul’s game blew my fuckin’ mind. The means by which it was so utterly procedural was something that half-got from games like The Shab-al-Hiri Roach, whose overarching narrative procedural elements blew my mind while simultaneously confusing me. With The Roach, I felt like I had some habits I needed to unlearn. With Penny, I felt like I was given more tools with which to unlearn them. (As you’ll learn in Master Plan #50 when it comes out next week, certainly not all of the tools.)

But, back to my story. I sent this document off to Paul. Predictably, he & I started talking about those notes, partly to clarify, partly to bounce ideas off of me. It was also around this time that Paul became enamored with the photography work Jeremy Tidwell did for Finis: A Book of Endings, and asked me to introduce each other so Paul could hire him to do work on Penny. By then, Fred Hicks was on board as Paul’s art director & layout guy — over a year before Paul & Fred agreed to turn it into an Evil Hat game and move Fred from that role to being the publisher.

(Another side note: I’m partly responsible for that. I mean, they did the work, I just planted the idea in Paul’s head. You’re welcome, world.)

I was included in their various emails between Paul, Fred & Jeremy — and was frankly bewildered as to why — but other than being a playtester and being the guy who knew the photographer, I wasn’t involved in the project.

Oh, except that in a not-quite-daily basis for a couple weeks, Paul & I would talk about some idea regarding Penny. Those familiar with how I became the officially involved on the Dresden Files RPG will see a pattern here.

One morning, I get an email or IM — I can’t quite recall, I think email — from Paul that said: “I would like to make your involvement official. How much for your editing services?”

I was not expecting that. My only “real” editing experience was from Finis — my own damned anthology — and I didn’t really feel like I had the chops to edit professionally for someone else. I almost turned Paul down due to my own insecure crap.

He & I are both glad I didn’t.

That was in, I think, September of 2007. Over the next twenty months, he & I would go on a journey that we thought would only take few short months. And while my initial story of how I came to be Paul’s cohort is at a close, I will share with you one further anecdote:

I recall stilling silently in our hotel room at Dreamation 2008 (in January) while Rob Bohl of the Independent Insurgency podcast was interviewing him. Paul & I were fairly convinced by then that the game was nearly done. I put a couple games of Penny on the schedule, to get some further outside play in — not because I was the book’s editor (because “leader playtester” isn’t implicit in that), but because I fuckin’ love playing this game and seeing others play it.

Those two playtests would, in fact, cause us to almost completely rewrite the game.  Previously, Paul has been strong about having no “net” for Penny, no sense of baseline expectations. He still prefers to play like that, but the first game I facilitated at Dreamation (which was full of players, so I just read the rules and noted thoughts) crashed and burned because one player disregarded the implicit baselines the other three players had.

This was the infamous “time zepplins and psychic vampires” game.

The second game was the one talked about in the afterword, where rather than summarize the game’s procedures, I just read them straight from the book, inserting my pauses. That game was a massive success.

End result: in our meeting at OrcCon the next month — five months after I came on the project, when we were sure before the Dreamation playtests that the game was near finished — we talked about massively rewriting the book. Making the Facts & Reassurances document (which opened the door to explcitly offering alternate settings), providing an introduction to help deal with player resistance (which was an issue in the one player in the first Dreamation game — don’t get me started), creating the explicit procedural elements to play, all that jazz.

In the process, we pretty much invalidated the interview Rob did with Paul in the hotel room. I recall vaguely making some smart-ass comment about him having to interview Paul again, and there might have been some smart-ass response back. It would not surprise me.

…and that is what I remember.

A penny for my thoughts.

– Ryan


2 Responses to A Penny For This Editor’s Thoughts

  1. Tristan says:

    For what it’s worth, on a totally “not-quite-gaming” thought process, I have decided that, if I ever do pound out a book, or short story, or anything written that I think is decent enough to shop out, I will be asking you much the same question.

    I have been edited by teachers, friends, spouses and strangers.

    You have been, far and away, the best. Don’t forget that.

  2. Cool, Ryan. I was half-guessing why you weren’t talking more about Penny too.
    My compliments on the quality of the book, btw, your input as editor/developer probably helped Paul put it in that clear (and awesome) way. Is this the first game (rpg-more-or-less) written as ingame artifact that can be played on the very first read?
    (maybe on-par with Serial Homicide Unit on this)

    Oh, and I was *sure* you were responsible for some of the “genre estabilishing/breaking” talk and procedures in the book :)
    Glad to read I was correct.

    I kinda remembered Paul saying that the game survived being “maclkined”.

    Now I’m jonesing to try this game… I’ll have to convince my gf and bro/sis-in-law. :)