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Thoughts On Picking a Title

Tracy Barnett is working on this project called Sand and Steam, a fantasy setting that’ll be triple-stated for Fate, Savage Worlds & Pathfinder in an interesting way. He’s taking a campaign setting, and sees three different sorts of games in there. So instead of just “here are my monsters three times,” each system is highlighting a different sort of game in that world.

We met and talked at Gen Con, as one does, and I was intrigued by his idea enough to, as the kids used to say, subscribe to his newsletter. But the title feels very off to me, and he wanted me to talk about why.

The Job of a Title

The job of a title is to excite and inspire — to get people interested in your idea just by the a few words, enough to sell the book to someone looking at the spine, or for someone to sell their friends on hearing about a game they just picked up. And I have seen a lot of sad titles — titles that inspire the creator, but do little to inspire those outside of him or her. Here are some strong titles:

If a title doesn’t inspire, then it can at least be iconic. Some word or two-word bit that strikes a chord in the minds of those who begin to get contact with the book or game. Like:

(Some of these iconic ones inspire after the fact. And that’s fucking awesome. Because that means it’s actually iconic — words that, once context surronds them, inspire by mere mention.)

Sometimes, you get a sense of curiosity or mystery in a title that draws you in, like Dogs in the Vineyard. What exactly is going on under the hood there?

Titles start doing the trick when people keep talking about them, in person or on the Internet. Thus, you want a title that strongly relates to your idea while also being something that feels hard to ignore.

The Rule

Your title should be about one of two things: who you are playing or where you are playing. These are signposts for readers, hangers where people can put context, and ways in which people relate and compare ideas. It worked very well for TSR and White Wolf.

Once you understand how titles work in the minds of people, treat this like any other rule — break it when you understand how to break it well. Tracy’s “Sand and Steam” doesn’t do it for me because it’s bland. Passionless. It doesn’t make me feel like I should play his game. Which is unfortunate, because after talking with him, I totally want to play this game. His ideas excite me.

Now, at this point, it could be considered a lost cause, because he’s now got strong SEO for “Sand and Steam“. But what I see as a bad title is something I see as a good subtitle. So it’s still usable. It’s nothing to throw away. To him I say: Where are you playing? What’s the name of this setting? Let that name be something that sounds inspiring, and call your game “THAT NAME: Sand and Steam.” Because then when people refer to your game, the main title will be something the listened remembers.

Incidentally, his city’s name is Kage. I might go with “City of Kage” for a title rather than just “Kage” — it’s a little Mortal Kombat-y on its own.

The Danger of Generic Titles

The problem with a title that’s just something like “Sand and Steam” is that the title might inspire something before context is discovered that is far different than what you’re going to get. Granted, that can (and will) happen with any title, but I have a gut sense that it happens more often with titles like these.

I had seen mention of Tracy’s game before, which made me think not of a fantasy setting with bound gods and mages and dangerous undercities, etc. What hit my mind could be titled “The Caliphate: Sand and Steam” — a setting where, say, the Umayyad Caliphate expanded far and discovered the power of steam early, thus creating an Islamic steampunk empire in the desert…thus, Sand and Steam.[1]

Titles that inspire ideas contrary to yours can create awkward contexts when reading you book. So be wary of them. Again, it’s going to happen, so there’s not much you can do about it (especially with the more generic the title you use), but it’s something to be aware of.

You can get over this hump once you get plenty of people talking about your idea, thus peppering mentions of your title with your context.

A Single Experiment

I asked a dear friend of mine about the title. Here’s the transcription:

Me: So, here’s a title. What do you think: “Sand and Steam”
Her: Pretty sexy.
Me: Okay. So…what’s it about?
Her: Um. Uh. Steampunk in the desert. Like, Lawrence of Arabia. Oh! Steampunk genies!
Me: I need to write all that down.
Her: Oh. I’m about to be disappointed, aren’t I?

Unfortunately she was, because her thoughts & contexts around her expression of “steampunk genies” excited her, and this idea wasn’t it. Her further comments are…unfit for publication. Even for me.

Granted, this is just one person. But it’s an interesting test to make on generic titles. Not so much what idea they come up with, but more of the “how do they react when they discover your context.” Do they react with “fuck yeah!” or  “that sounds cool, too” or with something negative?

Obscure Titles

Sometimes writers fall in love with obscure words. I know I’m in love with “apotheosis” and “deicide.” (I’m moving to Washington because I can’t marry them in California.) I tend to expect people know what these mean, though I often find I have to explain them. Thus, if I were to name a game something like “Apotheosis” as something iconic, I’m making a title that some, but not all, of my audience will get.

Again, subtitles are good. “Apotheosis: Endless Power. Endless Corruption” or whatever. That’ll get over the hump of “what the fuck does that word mean?”

I’m thinking about two books in particular here. The first is Amaranthine. Amaranthine is the title of a game by David Hill & Filamena Young. And on its own, it’s not a good title. I’m sure some of my readers know what an amaranth is and what the word “amaranthine” means in the real world, but those words didn’t call out to me when I heard of this title. I thought it was just made up, and it had no traction for me. The ideas they talked about did, but the title was a blank.

Over Twitter a few months ago, there was a discussion about subtitling it so that it’d better communicated to people what the game was about to folks who didn’t get the title. Now, you see Amaranthine: Romance * Vendetta * Eternity. That’s some jazz. The title gets to stay iconic, while the subtitle carries more context.

The other book I get to mention doesn’t exist yet, but it’s my own Mythender. Now Mythender is a totally made-up word. Sometimes people don’t parse it right, and instead of seeing “Myth” and “ender” they see something else. (There’ll be a joke in the book of a monster called a Thender, because one French-speaking woman read it as “My Thender” initially.)

Beyond that, what the hell does “Mythender” mean? Well, I know, but that’s useless to a casual browser or reader. I know that I’m using “Myth” to mean “gods and monsters”[2]. More than one reader has been confused by the “Myth” => “gods & monsters” language choice, which is something I need to deal with in the text. Still, that leaves a giant question mark over my chosen title. So I need a subtitle. Right now, I’m going with “Gods Need Killing”, and I’m going to have it above the title, like so:

Final Word

Creators, I know you’ve got some working title you’ve fallen in love with. And you might think you’re trapped in because you get search results on something. But you’re really not. The Internet is malleable, and you will do yourself a favor in the long run by publishing with a strong title than the one you happened to have come up with first.

This applies to “Mythender”. Don’t think I have treated that name as a sacred cow. It might be ditched before publication, even though I have five years of people knowing of the game by that name. I will do what’s right for my game. Sure, it’s a cool title. But “cool title” doesn’t inherently mean “right title.”

– Ryan

[1] Which would be a COOL setting. One I couldn’t do justice writing. But Craig Neumeier did a fantastic job some time ago, with the Rightly Guided Stellar Caliphate. (Thank you, Ken, for the correction.)

[2] Original end of that paragraph: because, uh, fuck it, the game was “secretly” about the culture-destruction in Scandinavia by Catholic crusaders & missionaries, as well as exploring weaponized Existentialism & Nihilism. (It still is if you want it to be, but I’m far less gung-ho about focusing that part of the game these days. It really can just be about kicking Thor’s ass.)

 

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28 Responses to Thoughts On Picking a Title

  1. An interesting read with some things I certainly hadn’t thought about. Thanks for once again being thought-provoking.

    Let us (the interwebs) know if you want help with the whole title / subtitle thing.

  2. Clark Valentine says:

    Deliberately choosing a good title is one reason that for the game in my head I’m using an unpublishable working title. Doesn’t matter if I fall in love with it, I must change it if I ever go ahead and publish.

  3. Matthew D. Gandy says:

    I think “Sand & Steam” would be a good board game title. I distinguish between board/card games and RPGs in that board games are often simulations of the same thing over and over again (“Who shall become Pharaoh?”), while RPGs are often stories in a setting.

    Title should tell me what the game is about, by which I mean who I play, where I am, and/or with whom I interact:
    – I fight dragons and explore dungeons.
    – I am a member of the Century Club, which embodies the spirit of the (20th) century.
    – I live in an apocalypse world.
    – I’m involved in a fiasco.
    – I find paths.
    – I work for Delta Green.
    – I’m part of an unknown army.
    – I am a dog in the vineyards of the Lord, protecting his flock.

    What do I have to do with sand and steam? Sure, maybe there’s a desert, and maybe stuff is powered by steam, but who am I and what do I do? Even “Age of Sand and Steam” or “Land of Sand and Steam” would be better, although I agree they’re better as subtitles.

  4. I am really thankful to Ryan for his thoughts on branding/naming using Sand & Steam as the example. I’ve given a lot of thought to the name since he told me that he had thoughts on how it could improve. After reading his thoughts, I’m of the following mindset…

    His friend’s first reaction to the name was “sexy.” Is good, ya? I like that reaction. As well, I think that Sand & Steam might well be of the second, iconic group (or I hope so, anyway). I do have SEO wrapped up in the name, and am on the verge of registering a domain, so there is more than a small part of me that just wants to keep the name *because*.

    Finally, given that I am splitting the setting up based on system, I am currently thinking of going the subtitling route, but in reverse of what Ryan suggested. Thus, Sand & Steam: The Undercity for the Pathfinder book, Sand & Steam: Getter’s Tales for the Savage Worlds book, and Sand & Steam: Enter the Collegium for the Fate book. As of now, I think those titles have legs.

    However, I have been wrong before. I am going to continue to explore the possibilities, and it may end being that Sand & Steam gets dumped or changed. As Ryan said about Mythender, whatever is best for the game(s).

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Tracy,

      so there is more than a small part of me that just wants to keep the name *because*.

      That is the worse reason to ever keep something. I see that over and over and over with creators. And, truth be told, when I see someone submit to that sort of defeat, I think less of them.

      and am on the verge of registering a domain,

      You should still register the domain name, even if you end up changing your title. Hell, you should register it NOW, because, you know, you’ve just stated publicly that you’re thinking about registering it.

      I have a lot of domain names for products you’ve never seen. That’s cool. Some will redirect if I end up changing the title.

      – Ryan

    • Matthew D. Gandy says:

      I’m afraid I read Ryan’s conversation with his dear friend with an immensely skeptical eye:

      Her: Sounds sexy.

      I read that as “I have no context, so what am I basing my answer on? Is this something Ryan cooked up, or is he running something past me, hoping I pick up on the same flaws he has?” or the like. Then comes the whammy:

      Me: Okay. So…what’s it about?
      Her: Um. Uh. Steampunk in the desert. Like, Lawrence of Arabia. Oh! Steampunk genies!

      “Um.” “Uh.” Read “I still don’t know why he’s asking, but I’m going to try to spin this. How can I *make* Sand and Steam sound awesome? I know!…”

      Me: I need to write all that down.
      Her: Oh. I’m about to be disappointed, aren’t I?

      I read this as either “Oh, you’re about to tell me what it *really* is, and it’s not as awesome as what I described” or “Oh, you just used me to come up with some awesome there was none before, because you just had the title and no real *idea* behind it.”

      Context is everything.

    • Wanted to reply to Ryan’s reply to me, so hopefully this works.

      Yeah, that reason is a horrible reason, I know. I feel like Sand & Steam has something going for it, but I can’t, for the life of me, clearly voice why I like it so much. I know it’s evocative, but I’m not sure exactly how. I think where I am is in a place where I’ve not heard or come up with an alternative that sounds better, or feels as evocative. I’ll be in a holding pattern until that happens, I think.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Matthew,

      It’s fair to read it with a skeptical eye. Like I said, it’s just one person. It was the best way I could create the “what do you think when you see this title while browsing a shelf of games” test that I could do. Inherently flawed? Yes.

      I did preface in the test that it wasn’t my title, to remove the “me” context. I didn’t think to add that to the post, but I totally should have.

      – Ryan

  5. Daniel Solis says:

    Any thoughts on using a name as a brand/franchise?

  6. Burrowowl says:

    I’ve always had a problem with “Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple” in the context of social media. I nearly always start to misread it for a moment. “Do Pilgrims Fly?” is the first thing that registers as my eye crosses that title. “No, pilgrims don’t fly,” some part of me responds slightly faster than I register that “do” is being used as a Japanese word. This leaves me slightly annoyed with the product before I’ve even finished looking at the cover.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Burrowowl,

      Daniel and I have had several conversations about that title over the years. The trick is that even if Daniel were to suddenly say “you know, I don’t think it’s a good title” (which I don’t expect him to, and I know his reasoning behind it), he actually is stuck. The game’s published. :)

      That said, there are people who feel like they’re stuck pre-publication. And that’s sad.

      – Ryan

  7. Kit says:

    So, I’m glad to read this, but I still have no idea what Becoming Heroes should be called. That title, the one we went to print with, was the third, after an irrelevant working title and another we used for a while: In a Dragon-Guarded Land, which is an obscure Yeats quote and also irrelevant to the game in many ways, without the context of the poem.

    I think that this is a variant case of falling in love with obscure words: falling in love with obscure literary references. If you read “The Realists” (the poem that the line is from), you get a good picture of a lot of the inspiration for our game. But who’s read it? No one.

    • Matthew D. Gandy says:

      Off the cuff, looking at your webpage for it, Arguing with Gods: Great Powers and Greater Destinies.

    • Kit says:

      Matthew. Where have you been all my life.

      I would alter it to be “the Gods”, but it would end up sounding a lot like an academic book on a folklorist’s shelf. Well, everything I do looks and sounds like that, so…

    • Matthew D. Gandy says:

      Kit, where I’ve always been: here.

      Looking at the Transneptune Games website, y’all are too in love with esoteric titles. I’ve been there. It’s a hard habit to break. Write the game you want to play, but when you get ready to sell it, market it for an audience other than yourself. Title is the first and arguably most important part of that marketing. Good examples of this are the stuff that Kenneth Hite writes (high weirdness) and their titles (catchy and comprehensible).

    • Kit says:

      Yeah, it’s a hard thing to break. For us, those titles are truly evocative, though, and I’m not sure where to draw the line between flat and useful. I think Becoming Heroes is much more flat than I’d like.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Kit,

      It is a pretty flat title. The trick is to find people who seem to be good at titles, and talk your idea out with them.

      And then find people to tend to sell books, and test your title with them. Which takes a bit to find & create those sort of relationships.

      – Ryan

  8. This might just be a lame +1, but I really agree with everything you wrote there, Ryan. I’ll be blunt, Sand and Steam is a terrible title. It’s just way too generic.

    I’m struggling with Tokyo Rain (and not just finishing it). Eisler has a great quote in one of the books that really is the premise of the whole game: “Killing is the easy part.” But I want to get Rain in the title because, well it is a licensed John Rain game. So I’ve toyed with “Tokyo Rain: Killing is the Easy Part” vs. “The Easy Part: A John Rain Story Game”.

    • Matthew D. Gandy says:

      Justin, I think Ryan’s Mythender solution is viable for you here: subtitle *before* title. IOW

      killing is the easy part
      TOKYO RAIN

  9. Chad Underkoffler says:

    My Thender has a first name, it’s O-S-C-A-R…

    All good points on name-selection. (Made me look back on the ASMP catalog and re-examine the titles there.)

    • Matthew D. Gandy says:

      Dude, you have awesome titles!

      Dead Inside – that’s what you are, and what you’re trying to overcome
      Truth & Justice – the two most important principles of the superhero credo
      Zorcerer of Zo – obviously, there are some typos here…
      Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies – what I do and where I do it

      Except Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot. I still don’t understand what that one’s about. But at least it’s alphabetical!

  10. Kenneth Hite says:

    Credit where credit is due: Craig Neumeier was lead writer and designer on Reality Caliph, a.k.a., the Rightly Guided Stellar Caliphate, in GURPS Alternate Earths 2.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ken,

      Thanks! I have updated the post to reflect that. Apologies to you & Craig on that.

      – Ryan

  11. Alan says:

    I appreciate that it’s probably just a mockup, but your example Mythender logo/title might trigger associations you might not want.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Huh. First time that’s ever been said.

      That isn’t the font I’ll stick with, but I’m utterly confident that the branding will not suggest Munchkin.

      -Ryan

  12. Vikki says:

    Hi! Ryan, excellent article and your timing on posting it couldn’t have been any more relavant for us as I am very close to submitting our little RPG game to Savage Worlds for licensing. I liked everything you had to say here. Brilliant insights. Thank you for making me re-think my title and consider it in a totally different light.