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.
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.
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?
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”. 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:
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.”
 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.)
 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.)