Friday, February 15, 2013

Look! More Natalie Portman's Navel!

So I see by the old clock on the wall that I now have 18 followers. At this rate, we won't be able to take over a 7-Eleven, much less the world. However, we're the perfect size to survive a zombie apocalypse. I've been away for a few days, doing what game designers do. Which is watching a lot of old, bad TV shows and playing games on Facebook. Those things are addictive. 

I promised to continue my journal on the work going on with Torn: Armor, and using it as a teaching tool for you aspiring game designers out there. We're up to the point where I need to discuss the importance of writing an outline. As I said, it's hard to come up with anything more than "it's important." Perhaps I should outline this article... Be right back.

To recap: The folks over at Torn Limited or Torn Publishing or whatever -- Alyssa and Jack -- have sent me what they think are "rules." They want me to get onto reviewing the material, making suggestions, plugging holes, and writing stuff. To which I reply "where are the rules?" Then, Alyssa flips out. 

During this conversation, where I talk Alyssa off the ledge, it comes out that they've actually been playing this game at home. That's a good thing. That means that the information is stuck in someone's head, and they're just having a hard time getting it on the page. Remember, Jack was writing this material with the rulebook to another game sitting next to him. He was trying to make his work "look like" their work. That's always a bad thing, first of all because that material has been edited and developed (which means at least three pairs of eyes have gone over it), and second it's all laid out nice and neat on a page. I can't tell you the number of aspiring designers who send me Word files with the tables all laid out with the shaded lines and whatnot. (Seriously, stop doing that.)

Jack needs an outline. But he's never written one. So I call him up, and talk to him for about two hours about outlines, and why they're important (as well as looking at his work as a finished product that others would have to use). 

I'll be honest, I'm guilty of this, too. I get all excited about the work and I dive right in. I start typing away. And I quickly get lost. I end up writing four pages of history, when only two will do. I repeat myself. I discover that I never did write that section that explains the zombies are actually aliens, or whatever -- that section with the key piece of information that links everything together. I'm just writing. 

That's when an outline comes in handy. 

First of all, you can chart the flow of information. Is your setting chapter going to start off with history, then geography, then countries? Are you going to discuss religion? Maybe that chapter on character creation would be better as chapter three instead of chapter two. With an outline, you have a sense of how the information is going to flow in your document. 

Second, you can fill in your outline at your leisure. Word has something called "outline view" and I find it invaluable. I've tried other programs, and they just don't have this functionality. Admittedly, I was being cheap, and downloaded Open Office. So there may be other programs out there that do this, but I don't know about them. If there are, you should use it. One of the great things about it is that as you fill in the information that goes under the heading, Word shows you which headings have text under it and which do not. So you can fill in your history section (because you're feeling historical that day), and write the material on economics some other time. You can see what you've done, and what's left to be done. 

I could teach a class about how to use outline view in Word. 

Third, even if you're not using Word, even if you're using old-fashioned pen-and-paper, the outline tells you what you need to write. It's like a giant "to do" list. For example, you might need to write all the skills for your game. You have a list of skills you want to include. You know you still have to do that. You have that coming up, so you can start thinking about it. Moreover, you know what goes where. That skill you're writing might actually be a spell description, for example. Or you might right a great paragraph in the rules section that goes better in the setting's history. 

And it doesn't even have to be that detailed. You could just outline the high points -- the level one headings. If your history section needs to be broken down into periods or particular events, you can always add those level two headings while you write. 

There is one pitfall I've found with outlines. I tend to end up filling in the information -- actually writing the game -- when I should be outlining. Under those headings, you're going to be putting some notes. What kind of information are you going to add later? The kind of information that you'd put in bullet points; that's all you should be doing now. You're going to come back later, once the outline is done, and fill in that material. This is especially true if you're going to be handing this outline to someone else. You want to give them an idea of what goes under the heading; you don't want to write it for them. I made this mistake recently. I sent an "outline" to a writer only to discover I'd written half the chapter in the outline

Thus, the outline tells you how the information is going to flow, what you've done and what needs to be written, where that information should go, and what you should be working on. It's an invaluable tool. Especially since the thing you're writing is long and complicated, and it's easy to get lost. 

I totally lied about Natalie Portman's navel, by the way. I knew the only way to get you people to read this thing was to trick you. So you can stop looking. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Product Concepts

I'm not quite ready yet to discuss the importance of an outline yet. Mostly because I can't think of anything else to write besides "an outline is important." And a phone conversation with Alyssa Faden made me think of another important topic I really should discuss -- product specifications and concepts. This is all about the importance of defining what your product looks like, not only in terms of trade dress, but also the types of products you release. I was going to write about my deep and abiding enjoyment of a Facebook game called "Social Empires" -- I even took screen grabs -- but now that I think about it, maybe I should write about product concepts. 

One of the first things we did at Last Unicorn Games was develop all the stuff you'd need to define a product line. I'd never done this before, never even heard of it before, but a lot of thought goes into this kind of thing. Or at least it should. Presumably you're not interested in putting out only one game. You really want to put out a game line. You want supplements, a back stock of titles, evergreen titles -- you want lots of books. Because putting out only one RPG means a) no one will really buy your game; you don't have "shelf presence." And b) gamers will eventually want more information about your game, and you're not ready for it. 

For example, what's an "evergreen" product? Good question, Scott from Oklahoma. An evergreen product is one that always sells. One that you must always keep in print. A core rulebook or player's handbook is an evergreen product. For the Star Trek: TNG line, the Vulcan book was considered an evergreen product (because people will always want to play Vulcans), even though it was a supplement. A book of adventures is not an evergreen product. Eventually, you can let that go out of print, and no one will miss it. Now certainly, the whole pdf and POD revolution changes these definitions a bit. You still want to define vital, core products -- evergreen -- versus fire-and-forget products. The latter mean you can put less time and resources into them. 

Most importantly, you don't want to stack your production schedule with several evergreen products back-to-back, because your fan base isn't going to be able to spend a lot of money on your game every month, and evergreens take a lot more work. I would never want to have to develop a core book, companion, and setting book back-to-back. Because each of those books are rules heavy. If you screw them up, you've screwed up your game. You want to stick something small and useful in between those more-important products. 

That's just one consideration. (Oh, and you should be at least thinking about your schedule ahead of time. Plan for a year's worth of products ahead of time. Someone ask me why, so I can write an article about production schedules.)

So. At LUG, we define what a product line looks like. I'm not going to talk about trade dress, because I'm not a graphic designer. There's a reason a Pinnacle book looks the way it does, and you can instantly identify a Pinnacle book on the shelf before you even pick it up. That's good trade dress design. Instead, I'm talking about what the physical product will look like. 

For example, every rulebook was 256-pages, glossy magazine stock, hardcover. That was defined before the first word was written. Why 256-pages? That was a price point consideration. Why glossy paper stock? Because we were going to use screen grabs from the movies and TV shows, so that has to be on glossy paper. We even decided on the paper weight, so the pages wouldn't tear when you flipped through the book. Why hardcover? To keep all that weight between two covers. With a soft cover, you have to use glue for the binding, and the pages might fall out. 

All supplements were 128-pages, rag paper stock, black-and-white. Boxed sets would always have three books and a map. I think there was another tier of book -- maybe the Federation book? It was something full-color, hard-cover, but not 256-pages. Whatever. The company is out of business... But these were all defined at the start. Every mid- to upper-tier company makes these decisions early. Or they should. 

Why? First of all, for production schedule purposes. Again, I don't want to have to assemble three full-color, hardcover books back-to-back. That would break me. It would also break the graphic design department. And it would break the bank. Moreover, I can't expect you, the consumer, to buy a $35 book each month. I'm going to have a backlog of unsold product, and production costs to pay. 

Second, and this is even more important, when someone eventually came into the office with a great idea for something, the first question we could ask is "where does it fit in with our product identity?" This would happen all the time. Someone would come in with an idea for a 256-page mega-campaign involving the Tholians. Usually me. Is it full-color? No. Is it a rulebook? No. Then it's not a 256-page book. ONLY rulebooks are 256-pages. We do not do 256-page, black-and-white books. Period. Make it a boxed set. Make it a supplement. 

We don't want to confuse our customers with non-standard products. 

Flash forward to last night's conversation with Alyssa Faden. She was torqued off about something I'd said or done, and was giving me a piece of her mind. Admittedly, a small piece. (It's a cheap joke, I know). So I talk her out of her wine-induced rage (because I'm charming that way), and we get on the subject of how impressed I was that she'd already thought of her trade dress. Because now I'm trying to placate her. Because she holds the checkbook, and a gun (did I mention the gun?). And I get to the subject of product identity. 

For example, if you buy a miniature from Torn Torn of Torn, Inc. there is one mini in the blister, and that's a hero character. If there is more than one mini in the blister, then you are buying a squad. At no time, ever, would you find a blister of the same hero outfitted with different arms and equipment (tracking, say, the hero's evolution from minor hero to great hero). Because that would confuse your audience. You've trained them to expect "one miniature = hero" and "several minis = squad." So if you put three minis of the same hero in a blister, someone might confuse them for a squad. You've broken your product identity. You've befuddled your audience. 

Now, I don't know if Alyssa will take that advice. And I just know someone out there is itching to explain to me that what I just described is not necessarily the case; it's entirely possible to train your audience to expect three minis to equal "hero with different weapons." You know who you are. That's not the point. The point here is that once you define what your product identity is, you have to stick with it. That's why you're defining a product identity. 

This way, you know what to expect with your production schedule. You can effectively come up with a schedule that matches your time and resources. And you know how to place new product ideas into your existing framework. Because now you have a framework. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Facebook Edition

Today finds your intrepid writer and game designer sitting in a Starbucks for the free WiFi. I hear they also sell coffee. For the past few days, Natalie Portman's navel notwithstanding, I've been blogging about Torn Armor. In an effort to provide some variety, I want to shift gears and write about something called "facebook." You may have heard of it. It's a social media website where you can connect with friends and colleagues, and I think it's going to be pretty popular. You might consider investing in it. 

Not to brag (well, I'm bragging a little), but my friends list makes gamers drool. Because I'm friends with almost everyone in the hobby games industry. So I get to find out what Shane Hensley is having for dinner, and what Fred Hicks thinks about The Walking Dead. I get to hear Jim Pinto's opinions on the concept of "steampunk" as a genre, or what Jesse Heinig thinks about Mass Effect's game play. So there's a component of keeping abreast of the intellectual evolution going on in game design. I also get pictures of kittens from Steven S. Long. Lots and lots of kitty pics from Steven S. Long. 

One of the things that's happened over the last few months is that Facebook has become a design tool. Not a networking tool. That's something different (and I've networked with quite a few people with whom I was previously unfamiliar). I'm talking about Facebook as a place where things get done. 

For example, I can have a meeting with Jeff Laubenstein and Mike Nystul about Cairn using Facebook's messenger system. Big deal, you say, people have been using online chat systems for a long time. And you'd be right. 

During that online meeting, Jeff can upload a picture of a something -- a page of layout, a table of scales, a picture of something he's drawn -- and we can comment on it. Because Facebook messenger allows you to upload files and pictures while chatting. Then we can all discuss it. It's like we're all in the same room with each other. Or, I can send files to both Mike and Jeff. In fact, I transferred some files to Jeff for layout just yesterday using Facebook. 

Back in the day, you had to switch between your chat program and your email program. Maybe a phone also had to be involved, too. It was inefficient, to say the least. That's the point I'm trying to get across here. Facebook allows you to do everything all in one place. I don't need to check my email, then go to Dropbox, then go to AIM. I just need to log into Facebook. Not only has the company centralized all the functions I need to hold an online meeting in one place, the sheer volume of people on my friends list makes this even more vital. If I have an idea, I can just messenger someone on Facebook, and design happens. 

Even better, I know that even if they're not logged in when I send the message, I know they'll eventually get it. Because everyone logs in to Facebook. That annoying red number in the upper left-hand corner will glare at them until they check their messages. I don't have to worry about people checking their email. In fact, I sent a file to someone via email, and they hadn't gotten it. So I resent through Facebook messenger, and they got it immediately. 

In the past few weeks, I've had random people start conversations with me, to ask me my opinion on something they'd written or ask my advice. I had an idea at 2am, and sent it off to Jim Pinto, who was awake, and started sending me cover treatments. At any point in the day, I can end up talking to anyone in the business about something game related. 

There are two problems with this system, however. First, because it's Facebook, it's fairly informal. So you can also end up swapping Monty Python quotes or talking about how the person's cat is doing after surgery. Social, yes. Polite, definitely. Useful in the context of a meeting? Not so much, because of the second problem. If you need a vital piece of information, you have to scroll through 10,000 messages to find it. Facebook doesn't organize information the way email does. With email, if I need to know what Alyssa Faden said about Sisk hoplites, I can sort of home in on the date and eventually find it. With Facebook, I have to scroll through 5,000 messages about her co-dependency issues. What really irks me is when I ask Mike Nystul "what did you say about hedgehogs spines again?" and he replies with "it's in messages." Yes, I know that. I'm trying to avoid having to read four months worth of chit chat to get the information. Just resend it. 

So Facebook is great for brainstorming, holding meetings, and swapping files. It's not so great for organizing information. It amazes me, however, when I realize just what a vital tool Facebook has become to my work. It's not just a place where you can play FarmVille and swap pictures of your lunch. It can be a great professional tool, if used wisely. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Rules Process -- Torn Armor

Enough about point sizes and Natalie Portman. I promised you guys that I'd talk about the next step in the Torn Armor process. One of the things Alyssa Faden promised was that I could talk about her process, warts and all. There are enough glowing articles out there that are really all about marketing. Monte Cook does a great job blogging about his process on Numenera, but that's from a creative point of view; he's also a pro, so I recommend you go over to his site if you want to see how one of the very best does this (it's here:

Alyssa Faden and Jack Cull, the people behind Torn Armor, are inexperienced newcomers feeling their way through the process of publishing a game. And it's not an easy kind of game either. They're making a board game. That means boxes, components, fulfillment, warehousing. It's an order of magnitude different from typing up a roleplaying game. This makes them a perfect example for other newcomers who have dreams of half-million dollar Kickstarters in their heads. So it's kind of the them to allow me to discuss their process, and perhaps help others out.

Alyssa works a day job, doing something software related for some computer thing. Which is to say I really didn't pay attention to what she said, because she'd said "computers" and "software" and I tune out when I hear those words. I just want the magical typing machine to work when I turn it on. I don't care how it manages to funnel pirated movies to my screen. (Wait, what?) The key thing here is that she's also a manager, so she knows about profit and loss statements, budgeting, and employing rats as HR directors. You don't necessarily need to know this stuff, but one of the key skill sets Alyssa brings to the table is that she knows the importance of scheduling and managing a process.

Her partner, Jack Cull? I don't know what he does, aside from eat her food and drink her drink. I think works for a hospital, or something. I paid no attention. (Oh, and when I say "partner" I mean it. Miss Faden is taken, so you can stop fantasizing about dating a geeky woman who draws game maps professionally and likes Godzilla movies. Also, she has a gun.)

So they cheerfully send me what is supposed to be a work-in-progress on the rules for Torn Armor. They want me to look at it with an eye toward three things: 1) organization and information; 2) grammar and style; and 3) focus. In layman's terms, they want me to make sure all the rules are there, and that they're clear. They want me to read over the language and fix it (and dress it up). And they want me to make sure the product does what it's supposed to do. In short, they want me to keep an eye on the process, both as a game and a product. They want me to do what I typically do as a line editor and production manager.

I opened the document and read. It quickly became apparent that they'd done a few things wrong.

First, Jack wrote the rules while looking at another miniatures game. Now first, before I get 20 messages on Facebook telling me how important this could be, how useful it is to know what other miniature games had done, and how they'd done it -- and you know who you are -- I agree with all of that. I'm not talking about that. I don't know a game designer out there who doesn't have a firm grasp of what other games do and how they do it. I keep a friend, Mark Carroll (Hi, Mark!) close at hand because he's like a walking encyclopedia of games. He's like Rain Man. "1d6. 1d6. Definitely falling damage is 1d6." Nor am I talking about plagiarism. Jack organized his thoughts while looking at another game. In short, that means there were key pieces missing from his rules, and the organization was wonky.

What may work for another game may not work for yours. Don't assume. Maybe discussing turn order is just the trick for one game, but makes no sense in your game. Sure, the other game started with turn order. However, your game uses a lot of hinky rules that have to be defined first. Next, you may forget to include something, because if the other game doesn't use armor, for example, you might a) forget to include your armor rules or b) have no idea where you should put your armor rules (because you're mimicking someone else's organization).

Second, the document had over a dozen special abilities detailed. I knew how to handle a phalanx in the game. I read about pouncing attacks for the monkey-thing army. I understood how barrage attacks worked. Only problem was, I had no idea how the game worked. There was no central mechanic. I knew there were dice, because the text mentioned dice. I knew I had to take armor into account, because the Phalanx special ability told me so. But I had no idea how one mini attacks another mini, and how to resolve that attack. I had no idea how I purchased my army in the game. I didn't even know what stats the armies used. That's kind of a problem.

I knew those rules existed, because they'd told me they'd been working on this for 18 months. Whatever information, whatever rules, were in their heads hadn't made it to the page. This is a danger all of us face -- we just sort of assume that people know about which we speak. I see it all the time. Writers assume that gamers are gamers and know what a saving throw is. But if you don't tell them there are saving throws in the game, and how they work, they'll never know it.

And now we get to Alyssa's freak out.

See, having managerial experience, she had a sense that something wasn't quite right. And even if everything was peachy-keen, she knows enough to double-check and provide a backstop. We exchange a few messages (through Facebook messaging, have you heard of Facebook?) and it becomes clear something is wrong. She wants to know what I'm doing, and why I'm not working. Why am I pushing Jack to write? What's up with the urgency in my tone? We end up talking past each other. The tone of the conversation became.... tense. Like the smart woman she is, she called to clear things up.

I told her I'd start working when I get a game on which to work. I can't work with just cover rules and special abilities. "You have no game here" is what I said. What do you want me to do? I can't write the game for you. Trooper that she is, she said she thought that's what the problem was. She took a look herself. Saw what I was talking about. A solution was found.

That solution turned out to be pretty easy. Create an outline for the game. I talked to Jack for two hours, and explained the importance of having an outline, and how to create one. Great guy that he is, I had an outline in my inbox the next day. Since then, I've had another version of the outline. The rules look great. Once he had a blueprint for the game, he could easily see what he'd written and what needed to be written.

And that's what I'm going to write about next. The outline.

Friday, February 8, 2013

State of the Blog

Just a quick note, as I ruminate on my next entry (the one in which I promised to tell you about Alyssa's freak out). 

First, I now have 16 subscribers. Definitely gonna have to move the annual "Goose and Fish Social" to someplace bigger than a phone booth. Do they still have those? Anyway. 

Second, I just checked my stats for this site. For all time. From it's inception to today. The second-most popular article is still "Freelancer Best Practices," followed by "Words Make the World Go 'Round." That gives me a sense of what you guys want to read. 

The number one, most popular article of all time? That damned picture of Natalie Portman's navel. By far. 

Seriously, guys? 

That's why you come here? 

When you Google "Natalie Portman's navel," I'm not even in the first five pages of results. That means you guys have to scroll through God knows how many pages to find my site. For a pic of Natalie Portman's navel. Are you people so starved for the awesome, hypnotic power of Natalie Portman's taught... delicious.... I'm sorry, was I saying something? 

(I'd walk barefoot across a field of flaming scorpions while carrying a sack full of rabid wolverines just to Spackle holes in her drywall.)

Let's be clear here. This site is where I talk about games and game design. There are about a million other sites where you can view Ms. Portman's navel...

Oh, who am I kidding? Here, this is what you want. 

Font Choices

I forgot one critical piece of information when I posted last about Torn Armor. It's a minor thing -- niggling really -- but it's actually important. It's about your choice of fonts. And really, heeding my advice will save your life. 

Because if I open one more document and find it's been written in a sans-serif font, I will find you and force you to listen to Jim Nabor's albums until your ears bleed. Because that's the same effect your sans-serif font choice has on my eyes. 

Can I globally select all the text and simply change the font? Sure. Then again, I have no idea if that changes something important someplace in the document. And I suspect it does, because most of you don't know how to tag your headings, and come up with all kinds of ways to do it. Usually by changing the font. In the end, however, I shouldn't have to do this. You shouldn't be using a sans-serif font for anything. Other than signing your own deathwish. 

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, this is a serif font:


See the little feet at the bottom of the "A"? See how the right side of the letter is a little thicker than the left? This is what we mean by a "serif." The letter is thicker in some places, and thinner in others. It's also more readable. Especially when you're plowing through 50 pages of single-spaced text. In fact, publishing companies spend a lot of time selecting the right font. They'll even go so far as to tell you the font they used on the indicia page. This stuff is important. 

It means the difference between someone reading your work, and tossing it across the room in frustration. You don't want people doing the latter. It defeats the purpose of writing. 

This is a sans-serif font: 


See how the letter is uniform? No little feet? No area thicker than the other? Everything is the same. Sterile. Boring. That's why it's called a "sans-serif" font, because it lacks a serif (from the French sans, or without). Yes, I know it's sleek and futuristic-looking. It also sucks. Don't use it. 

A serif font mimics handwriting. It breaks things up a bit for the eye. It's more natural. A sans-serif makes reading difficult and a chore. 

One final word about font choices. Word automatically defaults to New Times Roman. Don't use it. The kerning is compressed on that thing, which squishes the letters and words really close together. It makes it harder to read, because Word also defaults to 12-point type. You've got to take it up to 14-points to make it comfortable to read. It's just better if you ignore New Times Roman altogether. 

Ok. I lied. This is really the final word about fonts in your magnum opus. Unless you hate your reader, do not set your point size to an odd number, like 11-point or 13-point type. Ditto for 10-point type. I want to be able to comfortably read your work. Odd or tiny type makes that difficult. Jesus weeps every time you do it. And Buddha loses his composure and wants to flying jump kick you into a bodhi tree. 

So do it for Jesus and Buddha. 

Defining the Work

First of all, we have some housekeeping to which I should attend. This site has added two more regular readers in the last few days. I'm not sure where you come from, but welcome. That means this site is up to 14 subscribers. If this keeps up, we'll have to move our annual meeting to something larger than an elevator.

Second, some of you may notice that I'm shilling for Torn Armor. I'm not doing it because I'm involved in the process (though I am), but because Alyssa Faden has been kind enough to agree to be used as a practical example for my advice to you, warts and all. That's pretty brave of her, considering my tendency to be brutally honest and swear a lot. Also, she's all about being used.

Wait, what?

Anyway, as I said in the previous blog, Alyssa sent me her product brief for Torn Armor. She wrote it to hand out to contributors, so everyone would be on the same page. She calls it a "production brief," but the rest of us call it a "production bible." Just like the real bible, this document tells you what's allowed and what's not. It defines every element, so that guy in Topeka doesn't send you the sexual habits of monkey-things for a miniatures game. You gotta watch those guys in Topeka. And yes, the game has monkey-things.

The production bible for Torn Armor was fifty pages long. Single spaced. There was all kinds of information in that thing. Months of the year. Lunar cycles. A bullet point list of every major event in the history of the world. There was a demon lord, and a lich king, and warring gods. It was really cool. I could've played that production bible as a roleplaying game. No joke.

And that's not a bad idea, either. It was clear that Alyssa and Jack Cull (Hi, Jack!) had put a lot of thought and work into their setting. Unfortunately, it's not what was needed.

You've got to remember the product's purpose. Alyssa fell down on that in three ways. First, this was an internal document for production people; it didn't need to be this detailed. Second, unless we're going to get to play with the lich king and his army, it didn't need to be in the document. He's not going to be in the box, so he doesn't need to be in the production bible. Don't get me wrong, it's good to know he's there, waiting, and that Alyssa and Jack put some thought into fitting him into the setting. We're not doing a roleplaying game, though. We're doing a miniatures game, with two forces in the box.

Let's put that last point differently. Unless the phases of the moon have some impact on game play, it doesn't belong in a miniatures game.

The third thing Alyssa fell down on was that she lost sight of what her setting was about. There was all this stuff, all competing for attention, but there wasn't a sense of the central conflict. Why are all these kingdoms fighting? What do they want? In other words, she was focusing on the trees, not the forest. it was like kudzu had grown up around the core idea (to continue the horticultural metaphor).

Buried deep in the document was the idea that her world had gone through several ages, from Golden Age to Iron Age. That the previous ages were more magically advanced, and they'd left ruins all over the place. Now that's a cool idea. A sort of post-apocalyptic fantasy world, where everyone was fighting over the rubble for cool magical stuff. It was shades of Empire of the Petal Throne or Gene Wolfe's New Sun series. Not, strictly speaking, an original idea, but one that hadn't really been done in this way.

Then again, I love pretty much all post-apocalyptic settings.

Getting back to the point. Her production bible had too much for the product she was making, too much information for creatives to absorb, and too much to let her core idea shine through. She didn't whine about it when I told her. She didn't try to justify her decisions. She didn't defend herself. She took it like a champ. And Alyssa is all about taking it like a champ.

Wait, what?

She rolled up her sleeves and started hacking. She cut that bad boy down to a tight 20-something pages.  She focused on what she was supposed to.

This is a good example of focus. What is this product supposed to be? What is it doing? How much is too much, and how much is enough? Alyssa had the good sense to know she was in over her head, and lost focus. So when it's time for you to start writing your game, I hope you start with a design bible. Define not only what the product is, but what the game is about. Those are really two separate things. This way, you'll know when you've gone far afield.

Next up, I'll discuss the next step in the Torn Armor process -- Alyssa sends me a rough draft of the rules, and has a small panic attack.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Torn Armor

One of the real benefits of being involved in the hobby games industry is the people you meet. There are a bunch of witty, creative people in this business. At worst, you have a few interesting conversations. At best, they become your friends, and you get to impress gamers by telling them about the time jim pinto was so drunk he threw up on my cat. ("Oooh, pinto vomit" is the usual response. Like it's special... you should read his games some time.)

Believe it or not, hanging out and being friends with game designers is just what you think it's like -- you end up creating some really terrific stuff, or at least hearing about it long before others do. Torn Armor is one of those things.

It's no secret that I've been out of this business for a long time, and I only just started coming back. A lot has changed over the last ten years, and one of those things is a person called "Alyssa Faden." I became involved with her through my involvement with Castle Nystul. She did the maps for two of his projects. Turns out she's become the go-to person when it comes to maps, and her work is stunning. Friend requests were swapped, because that's what you kids do these days and I'm nothing if not "hip." Then, one day, she asked me to look at her game -- Torn Armor.

I get a lot of these requests, but this time it was from a friend so I took a look.

Now, let me say right off the bat, not thrilled with the title. Torn Armor sounds just like you'd think -- ruined armor. I wouldn't wear torn armor, would you? Turns out the name of the world is Torn, too. Same with the company name. So it's Torn Armor, in the world of Torn, brought to you by Torn. Seriously. Find another word.

Turns out that was one of the few things I didn't like about this game. I received from Alyssa a detailed product concept document. That's what told me she had an idea about what she was doing. Alyssa comes out of software design, which means she works for Corporate America. Corporate America doesn't do anything -- not even buy paperclips -- without a document.

That's something I learned working for WotC. Believe it or not, most game companies (well, successful, top-earning game companies) don't design anything without a product concept document. This tells you what the product is, what it looks like. It covers everything from the product's specifications (page count, cover type, paper stock, etc.) to what's inside the product.

This becomes your blueprint for the product. And if you're not thinking about your game as a product, please stop writing and designing right now. Go back to playing Pathfinder. This blueprint defines what the game is, and what it isn't. If you're designing a miniatures game set in a fantasy Europe, for example, then you know you need dudes with swords, and not space marines with pulse rifles.

But, moreover, that product concept document also tells you what era of European history (Medieval? Restoration? Renaissance?), and how all the elements fit together (are there dragons? Trolls? Undead? If so, how?). It was clear from Alyssa's product concept document that she'd put a lot of thought into her setting. She knew what was in her world, how it fit together, and what some of the central conflicts were.

She and Jack Cull may have no idea what a signature is, or paper stock, or fulfillment. But that's all stuff you can learn. And she's learning it. At least she has a firm grasp of what her product -- Torn Armor -- looks like.

The document wasn't perfect. Far from it. She's the first to admit that. In my next blog, I'll tell you what she sent me, and break it down for you.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


It's been a long time since I added anything here, mostly because I was discouraged. You all seemed to come here for one article, and one article only ("Freelancer Best Practices"). Hey, I'm glad you liked that one, but there's a lot more here that you should be reading. I can tell you how to deal with your stressed-out, demanding editor, but if you write crap you're never going to get to the point of having to deal with an editor.

Case in point. I've been contacted several times through Facebook by aspiring game designers asking me to look over their game, or give them advice on how to self-publish. First of all, this kind of information ain't free. I got bills to pay. I'll gladly review any game sent to me, but it's going to cost you money. Because spending a few days looking over your work, and then writing a design document takes time. Time is money.

Second, when I'm asked by a fresh-faced, eager game designer to look over their game, I ask them "have you seen my blog?" Now, these are friends. They know about this blog, because I promote it on Facebook. They're not reading it. Or, they went to "Freelancer Best Practices" and stopped there. Don't know what a signature is? It's here on the blog. Along with why you should care, before you launch your Kickstarter. Don't know what a heading level is? It's here on the blog.

Seriously, people. There's thousands of dollars of free advice here on the website. You really should read it.

Anyway, today I want to talk about focus. Or "writing what you need to write."

I have a friend who is running a Kickstarter for their game supplement, and, as is standard, he included contributor levels. That's great. You get to see your name in print. You maybe even get noticed. They get good material they can use. And maybe find a good, steady freelancer. So it's a good idea to write well. 

The first way to do this is to stay focused. If you've paid for the privilege of adding a character, then you should, first of all, contribute a character. Don't include a paragraph about the kingdom from which he comes, because this likely won't fit in with the rest of the book and get cut. If you're going to contribute a kingdom, don't send in 500 words about the king. That's a character. 

Sure, you may think it's vital that we know everything about the king (after all, he's the king), but not really. You only need to include the information as it applies to the kingdom. Is he a despot? Fine. That applies to how the kingdom is run. We don't need to know he's a despot because he was beaten by his father as a child. We don't need to know his entire life's story. We need that information as it applies to the kingdom

The phrase here is "Write Tight." Know the subject of the sentence you're writing, and write that. Know how that sentence fits in with the overall subject of the paragraph. Know what the subject of the paragraph is. Ask yourself "why is this here?" and "what am I trying to say?" If you can't answer that, or if the answer doesn't fit, then you're wasting time and energy. Writing tight is about organization, knowing what each element is supposed to do, and keeping extraneous information to a minimum. 

For example: From village to hamlet, they go, the Swift Ones, carrying letters and packages all over the land. No place is too far for them, and nothing too large to deliver. They’re the fastest things on land or in the air. Hares and bats make up most of their membership, though there are more than a few kestrel-riding mice and geckos. If you need a message to get someplace, the Swift Ones can carry it for you. And you can be sure they’ll deliver it, too.

First, this is from my own work. It's for a game of furry animals, which explains the hares and geckos. But let's break it down:

* First, it's written in a conversational style, because someone is talking to you and telling you about the Swift Ones. 

* Second, the first sentence, the thesis sentence, tells you the subject. We're reading about the Swift Ones. Who are they? Letter carriers. Where do they go? From village to hamlet. 

* The next sentence builds on this idea. They'll deliver anything, anywhere. 

* They're the fastest. They're like the FedEx of this world. This builds on the reason why you'd want to use them to carry your letter. 

* Who are they? Hares and bats, and bird-riding smaller animals. 

* The last two sentences are a summary. The second-to-last one spins the paragraph to the resolution -- you can count on them. The final sentence wraps up the paragraph neatly, and suggests that they'd do anything to deliver your package. 

So, I can tell you why each sentence is in that paragraph, which is a summary of the Swift Ones. I don't talk about the leader, or their methods, or their history. This is an introductory paragraph. It gives the broad overview. The next paragraph, in fact, describes the leader. This paragraph does its job. It's focused, and it doesn't provide a bunch of extraneous information. 

It's important to stay focused on your work. Know what each paragraph is supposed to do. Make sure each sentence contributes to that. Most importantly, know what it is you're writing, so those paragraphs cover what we need to know, and not something else. A paragraph can be well-written, but if it's about the king, and doesn't fit in with the rest of the work, then it's a useless paragraph. Write tight.