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Letter-Writing as Draft-Writing

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’re making a game. And let’s call this game oh, I don’t know, something totally out of the air…Mythender. You’ve run this game at least 50 times at conventions and a bunch at home, and you’ve made characters over and over and over again.

So you should know how to write the character creation chapter, right? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! You’d think so, but suddenly you’re overwhelmed by all the times people have had problems, and as you’re writing a procedure you’ve outlined, you’re constantly doing dumb crap like writing sidebars of advice and getting distracted and feeling like you’re making little progress. And then you feel really dumb, because you can explain these ideas really, really well…vocally.

See, I’m an orator[1]. Podcasting is natural to me. Being mouthy at Barcon is natural to me. And a friend recently helped me understand why: in those moments, I have a specific audience. When I’m writing, I’m, to borrow a phrase from the redoubtable Chuck Wendig, painting with shotguns. And that’s fucking my process all manner of up.

I have come up with an experiment to help me, and people like me, get through this roadblock. It’s about writing a letter that will teach them how to do something. This trick is mainly for procedural texts, but the crafty among you (which I’m going to charitably assume is all of you) will stumble across other uses of this trick, I’m sure.

Writing a Letter to Two Friends

In this exercise, you’re going to pick a single piece of your game you’re struggling with, and two people whose intellect you respect and who come from different backgrounds. And you’re going to write one letter addressed to both of them. This is not just some hypothetical exercise. You are going to write a letter to two people and email it to them.

Pick friends who are:

  • People whose intellect you respect. That way you aren’t second-guessing your audience and what they know or can easily figure out. You have time in the future to fill in “I’m going to second-guess you” text, if you absolutely have to.[2]
  • People who come from different backgrounds. This will mean their assumptions will be a bit mismatched, so you’ll have to over-explain yourself just a little. And a little goes a long way, because — and here’s the rub — if you only write it to one person, you’re going to assume what they’re assuming. That’s like playing a game of Telephone with your draft. Avoid that.
  • People who will take the time to give you feedback. Unless you’re the sort of self-deprecating sadsack that assumes your book won’t be read, the point of writing a book or game is to communicate ideas with people. So test if your communication is any good.
  • People who know how to give feedback & critiques. Not everyone knows how to do this. I recall in high school showing people my poetry[3], and most people would say “that’s cool” or whatever. You know the people in your life who will give you good feedback and know how either to not be a cockbite about it or how to be the right cockbite about it.

If you can’t find people with all four, pick three out of four of those ideals. Whatever it takes.

Living this Exercise: Mythender

Let’s take that “hypothetical” from earlier. I’m struggling with Mythender’s character creation, because there are parts that are difficult. And I’ve designed a lot of small influencing bits around them to make them easier. Now the trick is to codifying that into text. Which is fuck-all hard for me, for some reason I don’t understand. Probably the fact that there’s all this built-up expectation and I’m the only one who knows all the pieces, so I can’t rely on other people to help me riff-write.

So I’m writing the character creation chapter. I’m picking two friends or this exercise: Josh Roby and my friend Lily.

  • Why Josh? If you have to ask that, you are in a cave. Man designed Smallville, the greatest game that should have been on MTV Geeks Top 10 RPGs of 2010 list. He’s a frequent cohort of mine (and working together on a new project we’re calling Vicious Crucible, and we can critique each other.
  • Why Lily? She has a different background — she’s a Mage: the Ascension LARP Storyteller, runs and plays games like Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, and Rogue Trader. She’s starting to play the “dirty hippie games” like Don’t Rest Your Head (and recently talked about it on Hell Yeah, Gamemasters!) And, oh, this is important: she’s excited about Mythender. So, hey, awesome.

Now, you might be wondering why these two and not other people. Read on, friends. Read on.

Oh, and so you know, I’m on day fucking three of writing this letter, partly because it’s difficult, partly because I have like a thousand other things I have to do, and no one is paying me right now to write Mythender. (Sorry Josh & Lily, you’re not getting this until the new year.)

Dos and Don’ts

You will write in your natural voice, as you would speak. It doesn’t matter if the end product will have a different voice. That’s for a future draft. Get this letter done by writing as you’d talk. Trying to make it in another voice is one path of fucking up. A short example from the letter I’m working on:

Overview of Making a Mythender

This should take, like half a hour, 40 minutes.

Don’t get hung up on uneven descriptions. If you have a list of stuff, and one item takes three sentences to describe, one takes just one, and a third is “this should be obvious” that’s okay. Obsessing at this point is toxic to the process. This is not your final text. Another example:

A Mythender is:

…A walking slayer of gods. He is walking destruction He leaves in his wake the broken bodies and spirits of Norden’s nightmares.

…A force of nature. He is a living blizzard of chaos and doom.

…An incarnation of independence. No one owns or is master over a Mythender. The only equals a Mythender knows is another of his kind, and even then no Mythender is more powerful than another. They go where they choose, they do what they will for reasons all their own.

…A cursed soul. Mythenders are damned by Fate to become they thing they hate most: a monster, a myth. Either this or death await, and there is no third option, no matter how much one might hope.

…A lonely mortal, still capable of feeling. Mythender seem inhuman from the outside, but they still feel as mortals do. And if they ever lose that ability to feel, they will fall and become a myth. Mythenders have feeling. They have empathy. They have everything to lose.

My writer instinct tells me that “force of nature” looks wrong. But that’s to fix later. And “lonely mortal” is probably too long. Whatever. I’ll fix later, when I know what actually needs fixing.

If you have a laundry list of configurations, like Feats in D&D, list just a few. And list them when that decision will be made, even if you later intend to put that in another chapter for reference. I don’t have an example of this yet, as I’m still working on my letter.

Don’t get hung up on imperfect language. If you don’t have a good term for a concept, fuck up aggressively and call it out. Example:

First Choices: Am & Was

To start making a Mythender, you start with two choices. On the character sheet that needs to be totally reworked, you’d see “I am a ________” and “I was a _______” You can choose these in either order. [I don’t have a good name for this, so I’m calling them Am and Was for now.]

It turns out that two hours after writing this, I actually came up with terms I liked. I had old terms, “Archetype” and “Identity,” which sucked. Meaningless terms just to have terms. In writing this last time, it was natural to call one History and the other Heart — for reasons I won’t get into. Still, the lesson holds. I was able to move on by just writing a shitty name and flagging it.

If you have decisions that require more mastery than you can reasonably devote space to in the email (and if it takes more the 500 words to frontload an idea, it’s too much for this exercise), give a short, imperfect version and call that out. In Mythender, your Weapons have some mechanic fiddly bits. But instead of going into that, I wrote:

Second: Coming up with your three Weapons

Weapons are the things you use in battle to completely annihilate the forces of Norden. You aren’t just killing, you’re utterly destroying and unmaking. Because of the power behind these Weapons, they’re all things of meaning and import to your Mythender. They can be skills, raw emotions, special artifacts or relic, or allies and companions.

Weapons come in three types: Intrinsic, Relic and Companion. Intrinsic Weapons are skills, talents, emotions, beliefs — anything that’s a strength of him from within. Relics are items of power that have personal meaning to your Mythender — not just any sword, but your father’s sword, or the sword of the one who killed your village, or the sword from your first Ending. Companions are those who travel with you, be they mortal, animal, or even mythic.

When writing out your Weapon, write it out as if you were filling in the phrase “_____________ is my Weapon.” You’ll see that the character sheet as “…is my Weapon” on each Weapon slot. Often they’re start with “My…” or “The…” and that’s okay.

Restrict yourself to only one level of headings. Some of you, if you’re like me, are practically felicitating whoever invented to concept of sub-headers. Don’t do that here. One level of header — maybe a second, but that second is only for individual choices in a step, not advice or whatever. I don’t have a good example that doesn’t just involve pasting the entire email, which is 2300 words so far, and I’m expecting it to hit around 6000-7000.

What You Do When You’re Done Writing

First of all, sit on the letter for at least one day. 24 hours, not just overnight. Close it, don’t just leave it open to tinker with. Ignoring this step means you hate freedom and puppies.

Then open it up and read it aloud. Aloud. Where your mouth is doing the noise-making thing that you’re good at (assuming, again, that you’re a strong orator like me). If you can, read it to someone — but not one of the two people you wrote it to. Use that to catch problems in your email — any time you have a drop in confidence while you’re speaking, flag that bit of the text and come back to it once you’re done with this part of the exercise.

After that, you’re going to edit.[4] You’re going to go through your text and find where you flubbed.

When you’re done, you’re emailing this to your two friends. I recommend it as two different emails rather than one, that way if they reply to you, they aren’t also replying to the other person, thus possibly annoying them or contaminating them as an experiment vector with more data than you intended to send.

Ask them to record themselves reading and trying your text. Ask for specific feedback.

Then rewrite the letter, incorporating the feedback, for two more people & repeat.

Congrats. You have a “zeroth draft” that likely works. Now you can go through the work of turning that into the text you want in your book. Fuckton easier to rewrite that text than one in a vacuum, yeah?

– Ryan

[1] This is not uncommon in our hobby. I think some of brilliant folks are better orators than writers. Listen to John Wick explain Houses of the Blooded. Then read it. It’s not that John’s a shitty writer (though I know some will argue that he is — take that argument to RPG.net please!), but that he’s such a goddamned great orator that his writing looks lessened in comparison.

[2] Or you could, you know, assume your readers have a higher base intelligence than that. Something I often remark when I’m editing: “Assume your reader is smart enough to get this.” (Or when I’m feisty and with the right author, “Do you seriously think I’m a fucking moron?”)

[3] Yeah, I was that fuck. But I won some award and got a standing ovation in my senior year of high school, so hey, it worked for me. And, honestly, the reason you’re reading this now is because of my high school creative writing teacher fostering me as a writer. I owe you a debt I can never repay, Ms. Starr-Joyal.

[4] As a point of note, it’s a pet peeve of mine that we call doing your own editing “editing.” It’s really “rewriting.” But that’s because too many cockbites thing self-editing is good enough to have a story or book considered edited. And that makes baby pandas cry.

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6 Responses to Letter-Writing as Draft-Writing

  1. Mike Olson says:

    Perfect timing for me, sir — thanks for the insight.

  2. Doug H says:

    My day-job involves at least weekly public speaking, but it’s to a set audience. Starting out, though, I just tended to think of myself as the audience for what I was preparing to say. Where game texts are concerned, I’ve carried this habit over. It seems to work pretty well, actually. As long as I can keep from making assumptions – that is, explain the game to myself-as-audience without assuming any prior knowledge. Maybe it’s a little wonky for someone who doesn’t do this regularly, but it seems to have worked.

    I had a similar problem – I teach really well in person, working from cues the person or group give me, but in writing I could never figure out who to pretend my audience was.

    I haven’t made extensive use of sidebars or other textual tricks thus far, being a beginner, but I could imagine having sidebars which would be asides to a very diffeent possible audience. So, for example, the main text is to me (someone who has read gaming books before) and the side-bars could be to someone who has never read a gaming book before, or is coming from a very different style of game, etc.

    Anyway, clearly this got me thinking. I’ll be curious to see whether the experiment is helpful in your final goal, which is writing the character creation chapter.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Doug,

      It is so far, but it’s partly because I have a concrete mid-point goal. That’s very helpful.

      – Ryan

  3. Dave Bozarth says:

    **Don’t get hung up on imperfect language. If you don’t have a good term for a concept, fuck up aggressively and call it out.**

    Wow… I think that this is one of my biggest hang-ups. I have killed nearly… strike that… EVERY rpg project I have started has ultimately ended for this reason. There is something so special about finding that one word, one word that fits the mood and conveys all the meanings that I NEED it to. It’s like making love to the essence of the game; I mean would Mage be the same game with different names for Spheres?? I have always figured that if the word **THAT ONE WORD** was not there for me, then the concept was not fully explored. I suppose that I have this nagging voice that says if I send out an imperfect RPG, then I am marked forever by it and I won’t have another shot at getting my first impression so it’s better not to.

    Which is just total bullshit, I know.

    I sit here and as I type this, I think of the dozens of papers and hundreds of reports that I have written. Any one of them would have benefited from that level of commitment to the concept and need for insight and in the end I have just hammered through those walls to finish it. I mean there is always revision documents right? So why don’t we have that feeling for RPGs? I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Dave,

      I’ll tell you a dirty truth: no concept or game is fully explored, ever. Not even after publication. I’m still tinkering with idea about how to mess with City Creation in Dresden.

      The hopeful goal of publication is to make something fruitfully complete-enough. And drafts & playtests aren’t at that point of publication. You won’t get to figure out the right language until after you’ve had a lot of contact with it. Mythender has this thing called “Weapons”…which was called “Traits” for a year and a half before I finally got the right word for it. But it took a lot of contact — and language experimenting (which I cannot stress enough) — to get to that point.

      – Ryan