writing

Another book published!

My author’s copies finally came in! It’s not an Exalted book, nor even related to gaming. But I wrote it, it’s getting published, so I’m posting about it here. 🙂 So if you know anyone in high school who’s interested in a career in biotechnology, buy ’em a copy once it hits the shelves!

I’d like to thank my editor, Amelie von Zumbusch, for doing an incredible job and being a pleasure to work with. Thanks also to my interviewees — Vanessa Borcherding, Doug Darr, Heather Geiger, Christopher Mason, and Elizabeth Waters — for all their help!

biotechbook

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“Ride the Camel Cock”

This post’s title is a quote from Tony Perrottet’s excellent Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists. (Interestingly, my copy is titled Route 66 A.D.: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists. The title was changed in later printings; I presume this is because “Route 66” is a meaningless referent outside of the United States.)

Embarrassing English-speaking customers since 1926.

Embarrassing English-speaking customers since 1926.

“You like to ride the Camel Cock?”

“Excuse me?” Les almost choked on her rose-hip tea.

The agent pointed to a ticket. Kamel Koç, his preferred bus company.

Names are tricky in role-playing games. A silly-sounding name can break immersion, leading to bad jokes and an ongoing inability to take events surrounding the named subject seriously.

Real-world foreign languages are the best sources of verisimilitudinous names, but they also contain all sorts of words that sound silly to your players’ ears. My most memorable experience in this regard was in a Dungeons & Dragons game I ran several years ago. One of the deities I included in the campaign setting was the Roman war goddess Bellona. Unfortunately, it turns out that her name sounds just like “bologna,” which led to players repeatedly singing the “Oscar Mayer Weiner” jingle. Not coincidentally, the campaign lasted only one session.

Names from one’s own language are safer, but even they can result in embarrassment if they’re not thought through. For instance, my friend D— came up with what he thought was a marvelously Victorian name for his Vampire: The Masquerade character, only to be surprised when everyone he told it to started laughing. It didn’t occur to him at the time that “Lazarus Graves” wasn’t simply an obscure Biblical given name added to a primly British surname. Similarly, my friend A— spent years playing a bard named “Aria” without realizing that the name was a musical reference. She had picked the name purely because she thought it sounded nice.

Still, even that’s less disruptive than deliberately inserting jokes or pop-culture references. An unwelcome example is the goddess Somairot, found in Manual of Exalted Power: Alchemicals. It turns out that this is simply “Tori Amos” spelled backwards. Knowing this makes it significantly more difficult to take the character seriously.

Even when you’ve come up with a good name, it’s important to double-check that you aren’t inadvertently reusing a pre-existing name. I fell into this trap when working on Compass of Terrestrial Directions—The North. I’d named an ancestor-worshiping reaver kingdom Charn, with the intent that it’d play off the associations of “Char” and “Charnel” to give a fire-and-sword vibe. But a quick Google search revealed the name had been used for a dead city in C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. The book’s developer, Dean Shomshak, changed the name to Karn. This turned out to be the name of a golem planeswalker from Magic: The Gathering—arguably a more distracting association.

I’d love to see some more egregious examples of ill-chosen names in published RPG material. Please post your most entertaining examples in the comments below!

Why Session Summaries are Awesome

Scriptorium Monk at WorkLots of players and Storytellers record the events of game sessions. You can read thousands of actual play write-ups online. Indeed, many gaming forums have entire sub-forums dedicated solely to posting session summaries.

Why are session summaries useful? They can seem indulgent, whether because you’re tying down stories to a page when the real fun lies in playing them out, or because you’re seeking acclaim from readers online. But they serve a useful purpose for your play group.

Session summaries help the Storyteller and the players remember what’s happened in the game. After a while, it’s easy to lose track of plot threads and minor characters—What was the name of that random guardsman who’s marrying the Dawn’s daughter? Which parts of the ruined manse did the PCs explore? Where exactly did the Twilight stash the Soulbreaker Orb during Limit Break?

Worse, without a record of events, the Storyteller can misremember key plot points, only to realize that she’s painted herself into a corner once everyone involved pools their recollections, revealing that characters have acted uncharacteristically or progressed with schemes that make no sense once the full context of events is recalled—Why did the Mask of Winters let the Circle pass through Thorns without confiscating the jade casket he’d been hunting for the entire chronicle? Life in Great Forks has seemed normal for the past two sessions; shouldn’t it be full of refugees after the PCs burned Nexus to the ground three sessions ago? The Zenith’s demon hunter retainer finally Exalted as a Lunar a few sessions back; hey, I just remembered that she was actually a Dragon-Blood in disguise! Working your way out of a jam like this can lead to some really cool plot twists and entertaining storytelling, but it risks breaking immersion for Storyteller and players alike.

Aside from all that, summaries provide a shared context for play. It’s kind of like how, once you see the movie version of a book, you tend to visualize the book character as the actor from the movie. But where book readers maintain their own private visions, RPG players share an imaginary space with the rest of the group. If everyone reads the session summaries, the shared imaginary space gains texture and solidity as every player remembers events through the filter of the summaries’ writer.

This last reason is good cause to go the extra mile and elaborate on the story with sensory and cultural detail that wasn’t necessarily spelled out during actual play—What does the architecture look like here? What sort of clothing do people wear; what food do they eat? How do people greet one another? In what regard do they hold their rulers, their cosmopolitan kin in the capital, or foreigners who’ve settled in their lands? If the players are reading the summaries, they’ll soak up setting information there that they might not otherwise be aware of. This will make the setting feel more real and help ensure that everyone’s on the same page in terms of how the setting works and where the PCs fit into it.

Of course, there are limits to the utility of session summaries. Taking notes on what happened in the session shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with involvement in actual play, and a Storyteller with limited leisure time (which is just about every Storyteller!) should prioritize preparation for the next session over writing up the events of the previous one. But beyond these obvious issues, I think the value of session summaries is clear. Share your gaming experiences with your players—and after that, why not with the world?

Game Designers Aren’t Wizards

In my experience, the fans who most acrimoniously disagree with certain game designers are also those who attribute the greatest skills and talents to those designers. How does that work?

It’s an extension of the persistent notion among fans of any media that their favorite creators are magicians. Not literally in the sense that they cast magic spells or pull rabbits out of hats, but rather that they have a preternatural ability to create—that they need only sit down before keyboard or easel and instantly whip out perfection.

There are, admittedly, a rare few who seem to possess the skills and talent to get it right the first time, without deliberation or error. But that sort of mastery takes years—decades!—of constant practice, and even then, I suspect few are truly that expert. For example, we view Mozart as a gifted prodigy for composing his first works at the age of five and gaining employment at the Salzburg court at the age of 17. But his abilities didn’t come from nowhere; he spent his youth in musical tutelage and practice, and he wrote dozens of compositions before his court debut. And his works did not appear fully formed—he outlined each piece through drafts and musical fragments before putting them together in their final form.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

— Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Game designers are, by and large, amateurs working on games in our spare time. Freelancers squeeze in a few hours a week on various projects in between our full time, non-gaming jobs with which we pay the bills, and our other leisure activities—like actually playing the games we love. Despite this, we do our best to revise and refine the material we plan to publish until it’s the best that it can be. But there are limits to this process that readers ought to recognize.

In the most egregious example, I’ve seen people complaining that playtest material for Exalted 3e contains problematic elements—broken rules, overpowered combos, etc. Well, duh? The whole point of playtesting is to find problems in the rules. If they were already perfect, we wouldn’t need to playtest them.

“But I spotted an error just by looking at the rules,” you say. “The designers should also have spotted it even without playtesting, so they’re idiots.” Unfortunately, not all humans think alike or spot the same things. That’s a perfectly normal part of the writing process.

I’m a professional proofreader and copy editor. It’s part of my job to spot mistakes in people’s writing. I’ve edited copy written by professional authors and journalists. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single document longer than a few paragraphs that didn’t have at least one error in it—even from experienced authors who’ve been in the business for decades longer than I have, including some authors who are also copy editors or proofreaders. Similarly, no matter how often I fine-tune my writing, editors always find errors in my work. That doesn’t mean I suck; it means I’m a writer, that’s all.

When a game designer sends out a broken rule or overpowered combo for playtesting, that doesn’t mean the designer sucks. It means that they’re a game designer, that’s all. Look at Steve Jackson’s OGRE, one of the tightest little sci-fi board games of all time. It’s currently viewed as a classic. It also had stat changes between the first and second printing because the “G.E.V.” hovercraft unit proved to be overpowered with its published stats.

There’s also the issue of some designers not being the smoothest intermediaries for their companies. Sadly, the pen-and-paper gaming industry is run on a shoestring budget, which means there’s no cash for dedicated public relations specialists. So it’s either designers untrained in PR interacting with the fans, or dead air. And the Exalted community has certainly dealt with the latter before, when 1e lead developer Geoff Grabowski completely stopped communicating with fans after the vicious reception met by the original Lunars splatbook.

The time we spend talking online about games is time we don’t spend writing those games. We talk to you guys because we really want to share the cool stuff we’re working on. So while it’s cool to politely point out that we’re saying something that comes across as dumb or offensive, please don’t lash out in anger over disagreements; we’re doing the best we can with a very limited time budget.

And then there’s blog posts. If a designer is really excited about a topic, he or she might put a lot of time and energy into brainstorming, researching, writing, and editing a post. But aside from the vanishingly few designers who work on games full-time, we don’t get paid for blogging. So we squeeze in a few paragraphs here and there, and we try to do a good job of making our posts coherent and useful, but hours spent on researching and revising blog posts are hours we’re not spending on the games we’re trying to publish.

Game designers aren’t wizards. We can’t wave our magic wands to turn out perfect material. It takes blood, sweat, and tears to produce quality work, and many of us are already sweated out from our day jobs. Posting online is a third job—essentially a second unpaid job—and it has the lowest priority, as without either of the first two, there’ll be no game to comment on.