Posts Tagged ‘thoughts on’
Many years ago, I played Spycraft. I loved the first edition, and when Spycraft 2.0 came out, I snapped it up. And promptly never played Spycraft again, and not because I stopped loving the idea.
See, there were somewhere around a hundred little dials the GM could tweak for any given campaign, and many of them sounded awesome. I was paralyzed by choice — I suddenly wanted to run five different games, and consequently I ran none. Similarly, whenever I see a game boast something like “over twenty classes!” in a core book, I shake my head at it.
Here’s the issue: as a designer, you know the optimal choices, the impacts of various choices, and the interactions of compound choices. But that’s you; people new to your game have none of that. Reading all of those options can be overwhelming to some people, because now they’re playing the game of “make optimal decisions.” Others can get inspired with a host of ideas, that can be incompatible with the host of ideas that other players come up with — too many options and choices leads to an inconsistent world.
So, if you end up piling more and more into some part of your game, slow your roll. Strip some of it back. That will help your game get traction as you don’t have such a hurdle of overwhelming information. Pick your favorite half or two-thirds of that content, and hand to the reader what you really love about your game. Play with that — there’s certainly no science to this.
Now, nothing says what you strip away needs to be deleted. If your game takes off, you have more content to hand out, and as people gain mastery of your game, the new sets of choices are not as overwhelming as giving them all at once.
A bit ago, Daniel Solis posted this image on his blog, about an observation on RPG design from intent to play, which Luke Crane titled the Starvo Principle (after the guy who came up with this, John Stavropoulos):
I’m having a complex reaction to John Stavropoulos’ model, because I agree with the base ideas, but see it differently.
User Interface, not Tools
What John calls tools I see as the user interface, the things that the players directly contact with. But it’s not just character sheets, dice, etc. It’s also the text, post-layout. Not only because pages can be printed out in order to to be ad hoc cheat sheets, but also because layout is the tool by which a book cements certain key ideas into the minds of readers.
Which is to say that if rules are the (or an) implementation of intent, and text is the implementation of rules, then user interface is the implementation of text. Although that’s someone strange, because much of user interface is developed in concert with rules, and text is a product of merging the two.
Intent and Play Culture
Here’s where I have a really weird reaction. Intent is treated as a separate thing, and to me, intent is all over that chart, like jam on toast. What I would put in its place is play culture, or reaction to play culture. And our interface axioms start from there.
I’ve been big about discussing play culture over the years. The indie scene in its early days (and sometimes still today) was pretty bad at creating books that required an understanding of the designer’s play culture in order to successfully execute. Or, as my good friend Paul Tevis said about one indie game back in 2007, “The game isn’t in the book. It’s an oral tradition that happens to also have a book.”
Minimalism makes the assumption that the reader either is in or understands the play culture intended by the designer. That understanding is a context channel. It’s easy to unintentionally be deficient in explaining how your game works beyond it’s mechanics if you’re not used to explaining your play culture.
However, when your game is the result of your reactions to a play culture — usually when there’s something you really don’t like or doesn’t work for you in a certain mode — it becomes prudent to go beyond minimalism and explain said play culture. Which, to go back to John’s model, carry your intent all the way through the rules, text, and tools. I’ve had this experience working on Mythender, because the way the GM is suppose to act is a reaction to what people have called “epic” games in my play experience.
This is why I see intent not as the bottom rung but as a separate input to rules & text. Intent as expressed by mechanics & rules isn’t the same as intent as expressed by advice, which is in the realm of text. Which leads us to…
A Place for Advice
There is no clear place where advice or best practices hooks it. It doesn’t really hook directly into text, because it’s parallel to rules. It’s developed along the same time as rules, even if not yet clearly explained until a first draft is written. Some instances of advice live in the intent/play culture layer, yes, but not all of it. And because of the language used in the chart, rules are prioritized far over the idea of advice & best practices.
Unless you consider advice to be “rules” along with mechanics. Then cool. But many people don’t see that definition of rules. (I do, but I tend to have to explain such things assuming that a good portion of my audience doesn’t, thus this entire section.)
To phrase another way: the when & why of rules is as important to the interface as the how.
John Is In No Way Wrong
It may sound like I’m criticizing John, but that isn’t my intent (hah). John has gotten me to think about my own model, and in blogging about it, made some of those thoughts concrete. I invite you to do the same — I know some folks have around the internet.
John Stavropoulos is one of the sharpest guys I have ever had the pleasure of chatting and dining with. He could write papers on RPG scholarship, GM practices, group dynamics, all sorts of things. he’s achieved something pretty cool here (which Daniel has then turned into something somewhat larger, by applying a visual tool to John’s text).
So, what has it made you think about?
 Remember, I never talk about a product publicly unless I think there’s some merit to it, however flawed.
 Tomorrow’s blog post (which was actually written before this one was).
 Which is a great illustration of the top tiers of John’s model.
Success is unpredictable. Enough said.
Wait, you need more? Heh. I did as well years ago, before I crossed into the Fog of Achievement.
I saw some stuff lately that’s caused me to write about this. First, the image to the left, reading “i do not fail, i succeed in finding out what does not work.” Now, sure, that’s funny and gets a snort. But here’s the thing: if you actually do that last part, you’re on the path to success.
Back in January, I wrote this when I wrote about Luck and Wisdom:
If I am at all wise, it is because I neither ignore nor obsess over the mountain of failure I have created in my years.
Since then, I’ve had some more failures that I’ve learned from — professional, creative, personal. Nothing that’s disheartening, because the point of experimenting it to see what works, what doesn’t, and to move on. Because you can’t really predict success in the creative landscape, experimenting is what you gotta do. Each failure is just more concrete in your creative foundation. (Also, a good place to hide the corpses of past projects.)
Now, I’ve become a fan of Nice Peter and his Epic Rap Battles of History. He does some other weekly shows that are neat (though he lives up to his moniker of “Nice Peter”, so if you’re expecting disses like the raps, you’ll be disappointed. I am not). One from earlier this October, he crossed the threshold of having one million YouTube subscribers. He talked about that a bit on this video:
He starts talking about how it took him twelve years to get to this point, and he didn’t expect to get to this point by being an Internet rapper. Start at 1:02, for around 30 seconds. Or watch the whole 6:41 of it, because he’s upbeat, chill, nice. And if you’re looking at the Internet, chances are you need a dose of that. :)
If there’s one thing I learned from this experience [of getting one million subscribers on YouTube and being an Internet hit], it’s don’t ever give up on what you’re doing! But, remember it’s not going to end up exactly how you thought it was.
- Nice Peter
I totally understand that. When I started as a RPG design podcaster, I didn’t expect I would be a multiple award-winning game editor/developer. I didn’t know that was in me.
And when I think of unexpected successes, I think about one of the people that I…fuck, I hate saying “look up to” because honestly uncomfortable when people say that to me. It implies some sort of distance between a creator and the person saying it that isn’t there, some sort of status bullshit. But it’s a useful phrase, so sure…look up to, Wil Wheaton. Did he expect to become the cornerstone of geek culture that he is today? Not really. But that’s the thing about success — if you keep at something, examine your successes and failures, adapt, and be patient, it’ll happen. Just not how you expect. Wil adapted and became the dude he is today.
Now, when I say “be patient” I don’t at all mean “be still,” which is how I used to hear it when people said that to me. Success is like baking a cake. The cake is constantly becoming the thing you want it to be, not just sitting around unchanging. But if you rush it or open the oven too early, you’re going to fuck it up. Patience is constantly acting knowing the big payoff is years away, and not letting that deter you.
But patience isn’t never throwing in the towel, saying “fuck it” and going off to drink or play video games. That happens to all of us. We all need breaks. We’re not emotionless, tireless robots.
Patience is knowing you’re going to pick the damned towel back up in a moment and keep pushing. Patience is when that towel never leaves you for long.
Success is the long game. It’s unpredictable, it takes time, and it’s fucking exciting. Go grab some.
After hearing about the ending of Qwikster before it even began, and watching my Twitter feed on it, I had some thoughts. Gareth-Michael Skarka said it first, in a tweet:
“Clever” cynics snarking about Netflix/Qwikster — Ability to change direction to course-correct quickly is an ASSET in a company, dumbass.
He’s totally right. Being a publisher in a fast-moving world (thank you, Internet, for that) means having to experiment and adapt. Business models that worked ten years ago suffer today, due to shifting prices, consumer habits, changing technology, and a thousand little things. Prices from ten years ago don’t hold up today, not if you want to keep the same margin to help your growth. So we have to play around with ideas, experiment with new models and methods.
I’m sure you know the story, but if you don’t, you can google for the news. In short:
- Netflix increased its prices, causing a backlash as they rarely do this and the hike was felt as a considerable amount.
- Along with that, Netflix changed its billing scheme, causing confusion.
- People were loud about their displeasure and many vocally considered canceling the service.
- Reed Hastings offered a (rather awkward) apology, and introduced Qwikster.
- Then in response to customers, they killed Qwikster before it even started.
Which is to say, by introducing Qwikster, Netflix decided to experiment rather than accept the situation. That is, in general, a good thing. Companies that don’t experiment & try to adapt will be overtaken by those that do. To bring this back around to RPG Publishing land, we can look at some examples of experimenting:
- Wizards of the Coast doing the Open Gaming License for D&D 3/e & d20.
- Posthuman Studios releasing Eclipse Phase as Creative Commons and supporting torrenting their books.
- The early indie publishers doing things purely digitally, notably Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer (back before PDFs were even a thing).
- Fred Hicks’ dedication to transparency with what Evil Hat Productions is doing.
- Greg Stolze‘s Ransom model, the godfather of microfunding in RPGland.
- Folks that put out free versions of their games, from Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS Lite to John Harper’s Lady Blackbird.
- The Bits & Mortar initiative, where publishers offer their PDFs alongside their physical books, and allow participating retailers to provide those PDFs when they sell the physical books.
- And on and on…
Sometimes these experiments work. Sometimes they don’t. Some experiments will work for certain people or companies and fail for others. Many have shorter lifespans than initially hoped. Here’s the thing: when you see that an experiment isn’t working, you need to pull out. The Sunk Cost Fallacy will fuck you. And that’s what happened with Netflix. It got so much backlash from the Qwikster thing that it responded by killing the experiment.
The market is the ultimate Darwinian model. If you don’t adapt, you don’t survive. That’s what Netflix is trying. Will they succeed? I don’t know; there are many doomsayers who talk about Netflix because it’s so visible. But you can’t succeed if you don’t try, and you can’t succeed if you hold on to bad business ideas.
The other thing we can learn from this debacle? How not to do PR. Adapting to survive only works if you can convince people that you should survive. It helps if you can bring people into the conversation than just make seemingly arbitrary decisions. But that’s easier to do on our small scale than it is with a large company like Netflix.
 Which is a topic for design at some point.
 This isn’t to say you’ll entirely die off, but you’ll only be supported by diehards. I see this from the publishers who do extremely shitty jobs of self-fulfillment and generate enmity against them by customers they keep disservicing. If that’s “success” to you, well, meh. (And something else that can be learned from Netflix: how to promptly fucking ship.)
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.)