Archive for January, 2011
Say you’re going to post something up on the internet — a tweet or FaceBook status, a video, a blog post, whatever. Here’s something key to keep in mind when dealing with people checking that out: you don’t actually own your message.
Simple statement, complex idea. To break it down some, hopefully, we’re dealing in an age of rampant asynchronous communication and content-on-demand. (To be fair, synchronous communication over long distances is by and large a relatively new concept to humankind, and we’re still struggling with institutions that have business models set up around content-on-scheduled-broadcast. So, these are partly societal growing pains. At least, I utterly hope it’s just that.)
Parenthetical disgression aside, the point is that because we’re talking about content that is consumed at the viewer’s choosing and lacking an immediate feedback cycle, we’re actually kinda fucked as content creators. Here’s why: we have no idea what mental state our reader/viewer/listener is in.
One, we have no control over the immediate past. Living in a constant fire hose of subscription-centric information, with Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds, all that, whoever reads what you’ve written will do so with the last thing their read still imprinted on their mind. Here’s an example:
- Jeff is reading this very blog post on his iPad’s RSS reader while waiting for food delivery. He’s a bit grouchy from being hungry. Right before that, he got an email from his boss who is pissed off because their client is pissed off and it’s trickling down to Jeff. So, Jeff’s in a crap mood and that’s coloring how he’s reading this post.
- Will is reading this in the morning, after waking up all natural-like on his day off. He’s got his iPad RSS reader and reading in the bathroom, right after checking his email. He got a sweet love-letter from his girlfriend that he read a few minutes prior, so he’s going into everything super-charitibly.
Those are extreme examples, but even positive or negative tweets you read prior to a new, unrelated one will color your read of that tweet.
Two, we have no reasonable expectations for when our readers will end up reading this. This gets into talks about circadian rhythm and all that jazz, but the time of day we read something does have a great impact on how we read things. (That said, this feels like utter common sense that someone’s done an actual study on. So if anyone knows of one, please comment with a link? Thanks!)
Three, in an age of retweets and likes and other social media propogators, you may well be impacted by someone’s commentary before reading what they’re talking about, thus coloring any follower’s perception of that blog. Now, people will still form their own opinions, but coloring is pretty influencial.
- Jeff sees a tweet to this post with the hashtag #smartpeopletalking, and clicks on the link. His viewing is likely now colored with a sense that he’ll get something out of it. Maybe I’ll fulfill that expectation, maybe disappoint, but regardless that’s what he’s coming in with.
- Will sees a tweet to this post with the comment “Macklin’s got it wrong again, that fuck.” He’s probably viewing this now with hostility or at least negative interest. So, hey, I have a reader that has a very differently-colored agenda with my post.
(That said, the latter can also work to your advantage. If you hear that someone that routinely hates things you like rants against something, you’ll probably go in with a more open mind thanks to the magic of association. Couple years back, used to be that RPG Pundit fulfilled this role for fans of indie games, which is why people sent him review copies. Negative reviews sell games.)
Four, people have long-term baggage and innocuous elements of a post will set people off in random directions, positive and negative. For instance, when I see someone add a smilie to charged language, like:
You’re wrong :)
…I get extra-pissed off at the passive-aggressiveness of it. Now, person might be trying to inject levity, but man instead I have years of interactions where that’s been used in order to get away with being a cockbite. So, I can’t read that uncharged. Similarly, I had a friend recently tell me about how he sees the footnotes that Paul Tevis, Rob Donoghue and I do as being “cliquish.” I wanted to say, rather dismissively, “eh, that’s just your baggage,” but then I realized he had a point — and one of the reasons I’m making this post. I don’t control his reaction to using footnotes, or anyone else’s. And I have to remember that.
Granted, that doesn’t mean I’m going to sterilize my blog. If I did, I wouldn’t have a giant cockbite in my tag cloud. But I have to understand the cost of using these techniques of information presentation, if I’m going to be effective.
Now, not all of these problems are new (nor is this list exhaustive), but the ways in which we consume media today worsen their effects. And they ways in which we can be very publicly reactionary, which then further worsens it. While I like to add “and here’s stuff to do” to these sorts of ideas, I don’t have one right now. “Be mindful” is crap advice, but it’s all I have at the moment. Be mindful as a content creator and as a content consumer.
Because, again, you don’t own the moment your post will be read. You don’t own the headspace of your reader. And as much as you wish you did, you don’t own your message…because you don’t have control over the messenger: the Internet.
 And since negative reviews sell games, I never negatively review. If I hate something that much, the worst thing I can do for it is to give it no traffic.
 Which, for personal reasons, has been a touch harder for me to put a lid on lately.
This post is pretty visual, because I think we as indie publishers need to understand what our books look like on various shelves. Here are some snaps I’ve taken over the last year, taken from: Endgame in Oakland, CA; Games of Berkeley in Berkeley, CA; and The Source Comics and Games near Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN.
What I’ve learned from all this:
- Retailers use whatever shelving they have, not what we might consider ideal for our books. Before you get indignant about it, consider that replacing shelving is not cheap. You’d have to sell a lot of our tribe’s books before that new shelf pays for itself.
- Titles at the top. Don’t Rest Your Head is a good example of a great cover whose title you can’t see when stacked behind another book.
- Speaking of titles, have a clearly visible title that your audience can read. I’m looking at Mist-Robed Gate here (which only those well acquainted with the book can pick out up there.)
- If you’re planning for your cover art to wow people, prepare to be disappointed when it’s sitting behind a comic stand’s particle board front.
- Landspace books are neat. but often they’ll be stored sideways, which doesn’t really help you or the would-be buyer when the book is weirdly bent from that. I’ve seen quite a few Agon books suffer this fate, which saddens me because I love the form factor so much. So, so much.
- Contrast in your title is a good thing. Especially on your spine.
- Have a spine. I constantly forgot that I own the $20 Blood & Bronze set, because there’s no spine or box. Same with all my staple- & spiral-bound games. (I suppose it can’t be avoided, though, for some super-small games like Gun Thief, which are styled like a single-issue comic.)
- Weird sizes will be put wherever there’s room — on the retail shelf, on the customer’s shelf.
And finally, something I learned from analyzing the covers of best-selling novels: having a quote or line above the title is a good thing. Right now, I’m planning on going with something like:
(Yes, with a different font.)
 Though, I also hear the cover’s being redesigned, and that excites me because the game’s really interesting.
 While I mean “your book should have a spine,” I suppose this applies to you as a creative person as well.
I’ve run Leverage RPG a couple times since PDF release, and I’ve run into a bit of slowness when it comes to people deciding what to do next. So I made this framing device for the game I ran last Sunday, and it worked well. But I’m looking to flesh it out a bit more.
A Tool for Leverage Masterminds
So you’re planning for things to happen during the job, Mastermind? After all, that’s what you do. But you got to think on your feet and come up with loose, flexible plans — you never know what Assets will come into play, what Complications will arise, or what Opportunities will present themselves. And you don’t want to bog down play by coming up with a detailed plan that’ll go to hell in 30 seconds. So when you’re not sure what to do next, here’s a formula:
“Let’s go [Action] [Action or Condition] [Condition]!”
- Steal _____________
- Pose as _____________
- Convince ______________
- Access ______________
- Get ______________
- Plant _____________
- Gather ______________
- Track ______________
- At ____________
- Before ___________
- While __________
- Without Alerting ___________
Combine two Actions and a Condition or an Action and two Conditions. That’s it. Then go. With that, you have all you need to move onto the next part of your Job. You’ll do this a few times during the game, as you gain more intel and see the results of your labors. This may seem over-simplistic, but it’s not — it’s TV logic, and while people in real-life heists need to meticulously plan, watching the plan unfold is far more interesting for playing and watching.
What I need from you
So, this list is woefully incomplete. If you have more ideas for Actions or Conditions, I would love to hear them! Or other thoughts as well, but I’m really keen to flesh this out, because it’s working as a pretty useful framing device.
 Disclosure: I was on the design team for Leverage RPG, and am on the editing team for the supplements. Which is to say, I’m disclosing being involved in something totally awesome.
[Edit: Thanks to the power of my accidental SEO fu, if you're looking for the panels & seminars at DunDraCon, go here.]
I’m pretty damned excited to announce some stuff I’ll be doing at DunDraCon 2011, February 18th-21st in San Ramon, CA. I’ll be hanging out with the redoubtable Jennifer Brozek, drinking at the hotel bar, or, well, both. For the events that don’t involve a bar tab, here’s what I’m doing:
How GMs can Bring their ‘A’ Game to the Table
Saturday 9:00 AM-10:00 AM, room 156
Having problems with your GMing? Or maybe it’s perfect…except for that one kink? Ryan Macklin and Jennifer Brozek have the solution for you! They’ll roll up their sleeves and show you how to use various techniques they’ve learned over the years to help you find your ‘A’ game. Get and keep your players hooked on your game while making your GMing easier.
Stealing From Indie Games: Borrowing systems, themes, and settings to enhance your RPG campaign
Saturday 10:00 AM-11:00 AM, room 156
There’s a lot of very interesting “gaming technology” out there for role-playing games. Systems such as FATE are really opening up story telling and leading to some very interesting gaming experiences. This seminar will talk about some of the cool stuff that’s out there and how to use it in more traditional RPGs such as D&D or CHAMPIONS.
[Note: This is a late addition, and my name’s not on the schedule. But I’m totally going to be there, rocking with Bruce Harlick & the rest of the crew.)
Learn From Our Mistakes
Sunday 5:00 PM-6:00 PM, room 156
Jennifer Brozek and Ryan Macklin, award winning veterans of the RPG industry talk about what it is like to write RPGs and for each other. Combined, these two Swiss Army Knives of publishing have authored, edited, and managed more than 30 RPG products. Learn from our mistakes. Reap the benefit of our experience and discover some of the secrets of what really goes on in the back halls of the RPG industry.
Random Pick-Up Gaming
I’m otherwise a free agent at the con. @ me on the Twitters if you’re at the con, and we could meet up! I’m happy to drink with folks and play games. I can run a crapton, and will probably have some secret and not-so-secret playtests on me. Look forward to seeing you there!
One thing I see often from writers is that they’ll start talking about something that they’re passionate about…by talking about what it isn’t.
Let’s not call out anyone I’ve worked with, and instead take some old Mythender text (pulled out of my head):
Mythender is not a game about going from zero to hero, or a mystery about finding the gods to End. It’s a game about thunder and lightning across the landscape, striking fear into myth and mortals alike.
This is Bad Text. Why? Hey, I’m glad you asked!
- It wastes the reader’s time.
- It’s insulting to the reader. Remember this mantra: assume your reader is smart.
- If your reader happens to like what you’re negating, you’re distancing yourself from your reader, even if he or she would also like what you actually mean to talk about.
If you do this, don’t be surprised if some readers stop after that first sentence and don’t get to the second, where the actual meat of your idea lives.
Now, I see this happen because people find their old explanations run up against the misconceptions of people playtesting, and the designers have to say “no, it’s not like X.” So, the gut reaction to lead with that is there. I totally see that, and if I hadn’t edited it out of many manuscripts, I would probably still do it.
When that happens, resist the urge. Go with describing your idea in the positive. Maybe people will still get the wrong idea initially, but that’s what more text is for, to refine and to inspire someone down the same path you’re thinking. And if not, if people still get misconceptions, ask yourself: is that really so bad that your game’s text inspires ideas in someone else?
(Sometimes it is, if the idea really does entirely clash. People who want to turn Mythender into the zero-to-hero game will Fuck It Up, period. That game just won’t be fun, and will completely miss the point. On the other hand, for at least a year, people asked me if they could play mythic creatures as Mythenders. I kept saying “no,” until one day I said “fuck it, the idea really doesn’t break anything” and did some mental judo to make that idea instead flow. So, know where your breaking points really are, and loosen up elsewise.)
Here’s what my text above should have said:
Mythender is a game about thunder and lightning across the landscape, striking fear into myth and mortals alike.
Notice how I didn’t try to work in “not a game about going from zero to hero, or a mystery about finding the gods to End”? Yeah, that goes to one of the many things I’ve learned from journalism, “show, don’t tell.” (I’d show you how I do it, but that’d involve showing off a barely-written GM chapter.)
Don’t define with the Negative. The Positive is a stronger ally.
 Want to be a better writer? Be a hard-ass editor, and watch for the things you do that you call out in others. Oh, also, fucking write. Butt-in-chair, people.
 Of course, what I say today is much, much better.
 I read on Paul Tevis’ blog a commenter asking for him to stop doing footnotes, and referencing having to stop reading Rob Donoghue’s blog because of that. Point of note: footnotes are where I get to be a bit tongue-in-cheek and, frankly, are one of the little joys I get writing these posts. So they’ll stay here. :)