Monday 30 April 2018

A Message for a Young Game Writer

This was originally posted 28th May 2017, the day after the Swansea Comics and Gaming Convention last year. This year's is happening this coming Saturday (5th May), where I'm going to be giving the panel on Finding Your Identity in RPGs. I never found out if this message reached its recipient. 

Yesterday I was once again fortunate enough to be present at the Swansea Comics and Gaming Convention. It was a lovely, friendly event, and Simon, Adam and Ricky ran a supportive, active and helpful team. Well done, guys. As I had last year, I gave a panel (inasmuch as it counts as a panel when you're the only one doing it) about first principles of rpg design. It was well attended and full of people who wanted to engage and participate. Afterwards, I got to have a lot of conversations with people who had really exciting ideas and got to sell a bunch of books too, which was nice.

Some time afterwards, though, as the event wound down, a young man approached me and handed me a note. He explained that his friend was at my panel and had wanted to ask some questions, but lacked the confidence to ask me face to face, and he asked me if I would write some answers for his friend. It was a lovely note and the questions were thoughtful, so I briefly dashed off a reply, but of course you never answer the way you want to, and some of the questions my anonymous audience member asked deserved better, fuller answers. I was moved by the note I received, and if you read on, you might understand why.

So. If you're out there, Anon, of course I'm curious, I'd love to talk with you some time, but really, don't feel you have to come forward if you don't want to. Thank you again for coming to see me talk, and for engaging and reaching out. It means a lot. This post is for you. I'm working on this from memory so I might have misremembered some of the questions. If I'm not 100% there, please forgive me.

One question asked how long you should take take to gather together enough lore for a working setting.

I think I said something about how long my own games took me, which, OK, isn't a terrible answer, but it's not very informative either.

I think the fact is, you take as long as you need to create a world that works for the game, so the answer is more correctly: that's as long as a piece of string is. Some settings have volumes and volumes of deep background, but the fact is, they didn't start like that; my copy of Vampire: The Masquerade Revised has about 300 pages, and 100 pages of that is setting material. On the other hand my copy of the 2011 edition of Gamma World more or less has a couple of pages that say, "here's a postapocalyptic world with aliens and mutants and ray guns and stuff – have at it" and any other background comes up in the monsters section and the adventure in the back of the book. Dogs in the Vineyard has a beautiful, poetic chapter called "A Land of Balm and Virtue" that's not terribly long; it trusts you to figure out some of it yourself, and work out the rest in play. The near-forgotten French RPG Cadwallon on the other hand spends well over 100 pages of very, very small type detailing every district of one fantasy city, one by one.

Put enough lore in to get people playing. You can expand it any time you want. But if you hand your core book to people who don't know (which is a terrifying thing to do!) and they can go, "OK, I get this, we play aliens posing as humans in McCarthy era America/detectives in a futuristic city full of anthropomorphic dinosaurs/prophets of change in Ancient Rome/colonists on a far off planet struggling for survival" and they get an idea of the tone of your setting and the sort of thing they're supposed to do in a game session, you are fine.

The book about the deep history of the Squirrel People, which gives their special powers and details their Ancient Nut Stores is going to be amazing (hell, I'd buy that book) but can probably wait, because all you need in your core book is a few pages on what Squirrel People are like and why they're important to your setting and why someone might want to play one.

A setting based on a world you know or a genre that everyone is familiar with is going to need different sorts of setting lore to one based in the present day or a well-known historical period. So Green Vampire doesn't need to explain what New York is or where it came from, just how vampires navigate the city and how they get on with each other (or not). Most fantasy settings assume you know what a broadsword is.

So the answer is, as long as it takes to write enough for someone you don't know to be able to run a game. How long that is really depends on your game.

Another question, and this one perhaps a little deeper, a little harder to answer, raised the issue of when I had enough confidence to know my stuff was worth getting out there. How do you know when you're good enough?

And, well. That's a hell of a question, Anon, and my reply, although encouraging, has weighed on me a bit.

OK, so part of it is that I didn't start as an indie. In fact, I started in games because my markets as a writer had dried up, and I sent a letter to White Wolf with 1500 words about a guy who factory farms refugees for blood and sells it bottled to vampires, and I ended up having my work appear in 46 publications for them.

And it was a good three or four years before I got to making my own game, and another seven before I tried again.

And the big secret is this: I don't have confidence in my work. I don't have any confidence in what I write, or my art, or my poetry, or my ability to hold the attention of an audience. You might find this hard to believe, Anon, but the doubt I have in my powers to write a game, or a poem, or a critical essay on a film, is absolute.

And that seems ridiculous, but there it is. I mean, I've had a job writing poetry for a university. I got asked back by the same games company 45 times. But if I appear confident, Anon, it's a bluff.

Do not take this as a cause for despair, my friend. Recognise that success in writing is not absolute: payday is a lottery with less relationship to quality than you might think, and while I might have had a few four-number tickets, it still gives me no actual clue as to how good my work is. I literally have no idea.

But that's not an obstacle. I'm going to get my stuff written and out there anyway and if people like it, that's a bonus. Nothing I do for myself is destined to be popular. I write things that are strange and awkward and unfashionable. It's only in the last twelve months that I've hit a point where I no longer know the name of everyone who buys a book from me or reads my blog. 

A friend observed a while back that I don't self-deprecate. I don't need to. I have the whole rest of the world for that.

The first three comments I had on Chariot when I started crowdfunding it were from randoms who all said that the art was the worst art they'd ever seen.

I've been wished dead twice for things I wrote in RPG books. I once appeared on a list posted by another RPG writer (a guy I didn't know from Adam) of the People Who Are Ruining Role-Playing Games. These things are weird and they are unpleasant, and they do not quite slide off me like water off the back of a duck called Howard.

The internet can be horrendous. Still. Never apologise, and never explain. Just write it.

I think I said in my original scribbled answer that showing it to a few people whose judgement you trust is essential, and I stand by that, especially when you're starting out. Find people who are going to encourage and support you, but who will look at something and point out what you need to change or tighten up or improve. Eventually, you can get it out there. There's no way of knowing if you'll find a wider audience, but you'll never find out if you don't try.

I mean, look, as I said in my talk yesterday, the chances of hitting Scrooge McDuck paydirt are infinitesimally small, but they are there, and even if you don't, you might get a little bit of supplementary cash, and you will definitely have created something you're proud of.

And the second thing you create will be better. I guarantee it.

If you're a millennial, Anon, and I rather think you are, you'll already know that the conventional avenues of employment that your parents and grandparents survived with are not there for young people now. If you're young, it's essential that you develop as many skills as you can. Writing and publishing your own games will help you to develop skills in communication, design, and a million other things, and skills are like birds: they flock together and attract other skills. Writing games might not make you money, but it might help you to develop skills that can supplement an income and maybe even take you somewhere you never expected to go.

You don't have to have confidence in your work to get by. In fact, some of the worst writers and artists are often, contrary to received wisdom, the ones with the rock-solid self-belief. One advantage of low confidence is that you always recognise that there's room for improvement: the trick is to make sure that you act on that and improve. Selling thousands of books and getting good reviews is not a substitute for confidence, anyway – relying on external validation doesn't actually help you in the long run.

Just get out there and write. Take advice, and practice. Share the thing you make with the people you trust, and make the best thing you can. Take the help that's offered, and most of all make a thing that you love, and a game that you want to play. One day, maybe I'll be at a Swansea con and you'll be the guest of honour. You never know.