City of Lies
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Gamma World GM's Guide
The Process of the Novel
Just as John Tynes approached me and said “I’ve got this game idea that needs mechanics” and we made Unknown Armies, so too did Dennis Detwiller approach me and say the same thing for GODLIKE. Only his concept was “gritty, really gritty, low powered superheroes in World War II. With extra grit.”
So I read what he had and sent many emails and came up with a set of rules I liked. I playtested them a little (with John Tynes, through pure chaos) and realized they just wouldn’t work at all. Those rules turned into Meatbot Massacre, which you may now wish to download for free.
Thinking back, I had another rules-set that never even made it to getting tested… it was, I believe, my way way way old idea for rules for a L5R RPG, back when there was just the card game. Dennis didn’t like those much, either. Were those before or after the ‘semiotomatic’ nascent MBM pitch? I can’t even remember. My memory is not very good.
Third time was the charm. I was working on a lot of World of Darkness stuff at the time, and as this was the old Storyteller engine, I was trying to figure out exactly what the difference was between raising the Target Number and requiring more Successes. “Wouldn’t it be neat,” I asked myself, “if there was a consistent reason for it to be one or the other? That would give you two different types of success from your roll.” That idea was sort of in the back of my head, and floating elsewhere in the broth was a notion about a dice pool system that worked by assembling sets instead of aiming for target numbers. Eventually those two ideas collided. “Hm… if your target number was not an external abstraction from the Game Moderator, but rather produced by all the other numbers that came up in your roll, you’d get two axes of success – one from how many of the dice turned up in the set, and one from how high the number on the dice is. You could unpack a lot more information from just one roll.” It seemed like a good idea, and it wound up working much better than I’d even hoped. I called it the One Roll Engine (or ORE for short) and it was the pleasant surprise of working on GODLIKE.
The unpleasant surprise was the company that published the game.
I just typed up something pretty bitter about them, but I’ve erased it. No real point in raising the bitterness quotient of the internet by one whole billionth. GODLIKE is currently in the hands of ARC DREAM publishing, a penniless itinerant game company with big dreams to release a game called WILD TALENTS some day.
I was not really involved in WILD TALENTS. By that point, money was tight… I don’t remember exactly what was going on, but ‘money was tight’ is always a credible guess about my motivations at various career junctures. Anyhow, I had loads of White Wolf projects in the hopper and, while the ORE was something I loved, I did not have the time to play Rules Rabbi pro bono. Besides, I wasn’t sure it was even a good idea.
WILD TALENTS was pretty much designed by committee through fan input on ARC DREAM’s web site and mailing lists. One big lesson from Unknown Armies is that the game isn’t always what the designer thinks it is. Sometimes it becomes what the fans think it is, and that may even be a good thing. I was very curious to see what the ORE would turn into if Dennis and company could take the best ideas of the loving fans and harmonize them. It’ll either be sublime or a freaking mess. Either way, I’m curious.
At the same time, I started tinkering with the ORE myself. I’d had another ORE project in the fire when my relationship with GODLIKE’s first publisher went so far south it needed a sombrero. I continued refining the system on my own, when I didn’t have other work going on. (Sadly, that’s yielded me something like 100,000 words of ‘dinking around’.) The setting for this next iteration of ORE was a fantasy game called REIGN. Maybe some day it’ll be available and people can see some ORE evolution that is, I have to shamefacedly confess, objectively much better than the version in GODLIKE. One way or another, I’d like to get it out there. Partly, I’ll admit, because I’d like a return on the many naïve hours I’ve sunk into it. But also because REIGN is, in my opinion, my best rules design so far.
This is the first and, to date, only full RPG with me as the primary author… though I’m hesitant to really call this ‘my creation’. I wrote all the words, except for the index of events in the back, but it’s Stan Sakai’s world and I just play there.
The way I got this job was, I’d done an internship for Fantagraphics comics when I was in college. In lieu of pay, I got a slew of books, including some nice Usagi Yojimbo collections. I was simply floored by what Sakai had done – creating something so intense, so dramatic, so pure… with bunnies and kitties. And samurai. Huh.
When I found out Mark Arsenault had the rights to do the game, I told him I wanted to write it. Well, that’s how I remember it anyhow. Mark might use the word ‘begged’ but I won’t quibble. I just had this feeling that being a huge Usagi fan would add some pep and spirit to the game translation. I think it did.
From a design perspective, I approached this game with several goals. One was to make fights work like they did in the comic, but at the same time have it be survivable for characters. The second was to have meaningful combat options. In a game set in feudal Japan, you know deadly force is going to be all over the place, all the time, so the fight mechanics have to work, and be fun, and keep your interest for a long time. In too many games, players optimize their characters for one sort of attack or maneuver, maybe with another as a fallback. If they’re successful, they win a lot… but it gets boring, because they win by doing the same thing over and over. In Usagi, I started with Rock, Paper, Scissors and translated them into combat maneuvers. They became Total Attack, Cautious Attack and Total Defense. Three basic moves is simple (and I also wanted this to be a simple game – an unstated goal was ‘the first game my kids could play’) but their interactions create complex outcomes… and you can’t afford to become predictable, because every move is vulnerable to another.
It worked out pretty well. The desire for meaningful combat choices has carried on throughout all my design work since, too.
If you don’t know the tragic story of EVERWAY, sit a spell and grab a hankie.
Once upon a time, Wizards of the Coast made huge, serious, coke-dealer sums on Magic: the Gathering and decided to hire the coolest, most brilliant, most innovative designer they could find to make an RPG for them. They picked Jonathan Tweet and the game he made was EVERWAY.
People complain that EVERWAY was too politically correct, and speaking as a guy whose published ouvre is perhaps littered with more sodomy jokes than are strictly necessary, they may have a point. But that minor flaw (if it is one) is more than overweighed by EVERWAY’s brilliance of concept, not to mention art that is just gob-smack stunning. No game since has looked this good, full stop.
EVERWAY was aggressively right-brain. Characters were developed by picking out images from a huge collection of the aforementioned gob-smack stunning art. Stats were quite sketchy. Task resolution was a draw from a deck of cards that worked essentially like the Tarot, and their impact was not numerical but pure, grade-a plot and tone. It was an end run around all the simulationist math that characterizes most gaming. (I’ve got nothing against simulationist math, but before EVERWAY, I’d just assumed that was How Gaming Was. Nuh uh.)
To support this game of hot hot plot-on-plot action, Tweet was allowed to hire his goofy camp follower to write the first sourcebook. That was me, and SPHEREWALKER was the first book that was cover-to-cover Stolze.
(Okay, it’s not true. There are entries in it that were written by the WotC staff. But not many.)
I’m not sure how WotC came to eject EVERWAY. I’ve heard stories, but I’m making an effort to keep this site bitterness-free (or at least bitterness-reduced) so I’ll just say that Rubicon Games got the license along with my book and eventually published it. I liked the cover but, in retrospect, there were better options – especially given the breathtaking quantity and quality of art they’d inherited with the game.
The book itself is a stat-free pile of ideas – organizations, monsters, characters, realms, theories, histories, arcane practices. I’d read The Dictionary of the Khazars and been really wowed by its nonlinear but interconnected structure. (That same influence cropped up in City of Lies, too.) I just came to the project with all the energy and unfettered enthusiasm of a newbie writer fanbone getting his first shot at a big publication.
Rubicon games published a few other EVERWAY supplements – an adventure I wrote called Waves of Time was released as a CD-ROM, cheaper than printing it I guess. SPHEREWALKER really impressed the hell out of some people, including Ken Hite, thus indirectly leading to my work for Trinity. I got paid in full at WotC rates, something I appreciate more in retrospect as I’ve come to understand how rare being paid in full at a good rate is.
Still, I can’t help but be a little disappointed. Very little of my work – Godwalker, Usagi Yojimbo, all the editing and new material in the second edition of Unknown Armies – is as much an unalloyed work of love and enthusiasm. I guess I wish the market had loved it as much as I did.
Yet, as I write that, I find myself saying, ‘screw it’.
Would I be happier if it’d sold phenomenally and kept Rubicon
afloat for a few more years, at the price of radical changes to
my vision (and maybe a tit-splayed cover)? I wouldn’t. It
was a work for hire. I was told I’d make X dollars and I did.
The book is good. I’m letting my regrets go… now.
I used to work for AEG but, when the cash squeeze started, they had to choose between doing the L5R miniatures game or keeping me on staff.
Honestly, I would have fired me too.
It’s not that I was a bad employee, but I was out of the office in Illinois and all the other staff writers were there in California. They could fly me in some times, and there were phone calls and many, many emails… but the telecommute just didn’t work. I was spending most of my effort just trying to keep abreast of all the decisions they’d made over lunch and the ideas they bounced at the water cooler.
As firings go, it was plenty amicable and no big surprise. After all, I didn’t really do that much work for them. I felt like I was constantly saying, “What do I do now, huh? Now? Huh?”
They did give me one big huge honkin’ project though, and that was City of Lies. Essentially, it’s sort of like Al Amarja (the setting for Over the Edge) only for Legend of the Five Rings. I had a lot of freedom to design it which means I had a lot of fun writing it.
City of Lies was a big boxed set, several books and a big full color map. The book for players was all in-voice and I did it like SPHEREWALKER – a collection of encyclopedic entries, all from different sources, all interlaced and intertextual. There were old legends, the city’s history written by a cheering civic booster, the city’s history written by a cynic, modern gossip as penned in the journal of an upper-class drug addict, and crime reports from a previous city magistrate.
That was one of the brilliant elements of City of Lies and one for which I can take no credit. The concept I was assigned was that the characters are the Imperial Magistrates sent in to clean up the most corrupt and crime-raddled city around. It was so bad that the last magistrate was burned alive in his own carriage. Yeah.
I don’t know how well City of Lies sold – it was a premium item with a pretty high dollar price. But I have to say I’ve never gotten a single fan complaint about it. Given the Internet, that’s pretty impressive.
Here’s a confession. I’m not much of a Trekkie. I mean, I watched the shows and enjoyed them and everything, I played Star Fleet Battles as a callow young high school nerd, but I was never a big Star Trek fan. When Ken Hite offered me work on the line (partly because he’d been impressed by SPHEREWALKER), I did it for the money.
Boy, I earned every cent.
It’s not that Last Unicorn Games was a bad company to work with – they paid decently and on time – but without the passionate flame of fanboyism to warm me, my work on the line was pretty chill and sterile. I had some ideas I like but, looking back, writing them was like pulling teeth. Ross Isaacs, the developer, felt I was off tone, and he was probably right.
The lesson I should have learned from this is that unless I’m consumed with enthusiasm for a project, I should just leave it on the table and walk away. The lesson I actually learned was that I should budget some extra time and accept the extra effort for those no passion, write-the-words-and-cash-the-check assignments. I find it hard to turn down any work when I’m between jobs – those Pampers don’t pay for themselves. Besides, sometimes a marriage of convenience does turn amorous. It’s not common, but it can. When you’ve got nothing at all, that sounds pretty decent.
The common wisdom says the safest bet, in the volatile world of RPG publishing, is to get a solid license with an installed fan base and D20-fy it to make it accessible to as much of its fan base as games. More gamers play D20 than anything else, and with a license you don’t need to teach people what the game’s about. Sounds simple, right
Gamma World shows the flaws in this plan, I suspect.
The hating started early, when developer Bruce Baugh told the fans that this would be a somewhat more somber Gamma World… that, specifically, they would no longer be able to play characters who were giant, invisible, telepathic carrots.
It was not clear, initially, whether the raging storm of internet fury mirrored a real, broad anger among the carrot fans, or whether the carrot people were just an exceptionally passionate and vocal minority. Or maybe it was just that D20 was cooling just as Gamma World hit shelves. I don’t really know.
What I do know is that I got hired to do some ‘how to be a Game Master’ writing and, if I’m any judge, explained my thoughts on that topic as well as I ever have.
I’d finished my masters’ thesis, The Process of the Novel, in which I tried to nail down exactly what creativity is, if one thing that can be called ‘creativity’ even exists at all. (Short answer: It does, but it’s not what most people think.) My chapter in the GWGMG explains that different people have different creative processes, categorizing them in broad strokes and explaining the strengths and weaknesses each approach has… and how they interact when you’ve got a GM who creates spontaneously, leading a game for people who are slow, deliberate calculating creators. Or vice versa. It matters, because just like in that whole Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus paradigm, people who assume they’re doing the same thing the same way when they’re actually on different conceptual planets are quite likely to be talking past each other and then getting pissed because the other isn’t ‘listening’.
The next time I write some GM boilerplate, I’ll probably just go back to that and try to condense it down some more. I’m pretty flat on ‘how to be a Game Master’ texts right now, though. I’ve written that chapter for Usagi Yojimbo, Unknown Armies, Hunter and probably a few others I’ve forgotten. It’s going to be hard to say anything I haven’t already said somewhere, some time. But the stuff I wrote here was my personal high water mark to date.
This was my Masters’ Thesis for a MALS degree at North Central College. (MALS stands for “Master of Arts and Liberal Studies.”) Basically, I kept a journal while I tried to write a mystery novel, then analyzed the creative process from the inside, as it were.
I finished the novel (which is gathering electro-dust on my hard drive) but not before finishing the thesis. Right in the middle of it, I got contracted to write a trilogy of novels based on Demon: the Fallen (you can read all about ‘em in the Fiction section). Other events covered in the journal include the birth of my first son and the 9/11 attacks. (My son Nick was born on 9/29. There’s a little section in his baby scrapbook for “What Was In The News When Baby Was Born?” but we just left it blank.) Eventful year.
My conclusions, if you’re the type who skips to the end, were that creative processes vary so widely that it’s of questionable utility to say Anne Lamott and Edgar Allen Poe are both doing the same thing. They both wrote fiction, but if we take their own analyses of their methods at face value, about the only thing they have in common is that they have a book when they’re finished.