So, I’m very nearly done with the first draft/playtest document of a hack of Joe McDaldno’s Monster Hearts, which is itself a hack of Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World. I’m also finishing up the first real draft of The Novel, which is terrifying in and of itself. But what I’d really like to talk about here is writing games. Or my process for writing games, prior to this game, and now.
So, the Geek Husband What Rules and myself have both been writing various role-playing games for several years. From the Bridge System, which he and our friends Chris and Jordan came up with as a rules light solution to one-off games and not wanting to spend the first 45 minutes of a session doing character creation for something you’d never play again (I’m looking at you, GURPS). He’s also working on a game about war and camaraderie called “Combat Diaries” which he needs to get off his butt and finish.
In the past, I’ve written a tarot based story-telling game called “Casanova,” which playtests well with people who are already into and proficient with story games, but not so much on people new to the concept. A Roaring 20s game for 3 or more people which I honestly haven’t looked at in so long I can’t begin to describe the mechanics to you, but they worked ok in the one playtest it’s had. And now this hack.
I’m going to let you in on a secret: I am not a fan of revising, which is one of the two big reasons I rarely send my stuff out for publication. Revising, unless I’m in the “zone” feels a lot like scrubbing the bathroom or doing laundry to me. BUT it is necessary, because while ideas may be awesome initially, the delivery of those ideas rarely is. Everyone revises. All writers, game designers, artists, poets, tech writers. Everyone revises, everyone needs to revise. At one point E.B. White said that he was not a great writer, but a great re-writer.
So in the past, my process has been: Write game, playtest game, abandon game because “Revision?Yuck!”
However, this time I have someone external to whom I am responsible. My friend Andy stated at the beginning of this project, “It is my intention to poke you until a game falls out.” And it’s working. This is why I have a writing critique group again for The Novel. Because I owe them a chapter a month, they make suggestions, fired up with their suggestions, I make necessary revisions because revising is far less painful if you have an idea of what needs fixing, and next month we start the process over again with the next chapter.
So, two suggestions for those of you working on game design prior to playtest. I’ll do a separate post on playtesting in a bit.
1. Tech Writing. At the very least read a book on tech writing and how to do it, because when you’re writing the rules that is exactly what you are doing. You are telling people how to play your game. I’ve done tech writing in the past, I’ve written manuals for various jobs. I DO know how to do tech writing. But explaining how to handle tech support calls, the procedures for purchasing hardware and software and handling the roll-out of an office are very different beasts from telling people how to be fairies, elves and things that go bump in the night. But basic tech writing knowledge is a huge help. Or it has been for me.
2. Have an external person to whom you are responsible for this game/novel/etc… Seriously. I will write because I want to write. I will create games I want to play, and I will continue to abandon them as I come up with other ideas. But having someone else tell me, “NO! Finish thing X THEN you can go on to thing Y” has been a tremendous help. I rarely have writer’s block. What I more frequently have is Idea ADD, where I keep coming up with awesome things, before I’ve finished the last awesome thing. Having someone else help hold you responsible for the first thing, really, really, really does help. Or at least it helps me.
Other things that will help:
A dedicated work space, whether this is a desk, the dining room table, or at the local coffee shop. Having a space that when you’re in it the plan is “Write!” helps to get you in the mindset. I tend toward my desk/chaise/writing nook or the dining room table. If I’m having a really hard time focusing I’ll go to a Starbucks because I refuse to pay for their internet, so I cannot be distracted by tumblr while I’m there. But it must be a comfortable space because if all goes well, you’re going to be there for a while.
Solitude. This can take the form of kicking everyone out of your room, your house, or using headphones so you cannot interact with conversations or television shows going on in the other part of the room. I use a combination of these things.
Break what you’re doing into manageable chunks. This is what used to really get me. I’d be all: “OMG! 65,000 words! That’s so much!!!!” Until I realized that 65,000 words is ten chapters of 6500 words each. 6500 words is a far more attainable goal. On good nights I can do that easy. Usually I set a 1000-2000 word nightly goal. For the game I did the intro chapter, then I did character creation, then I did GM tips… Breaking it up makes the whole thing seem far less like an unbreachable monolith.
Rewards. Many people will say that “Working hard is its own reward.” Those people are sick and need to be stopped. Most brains respond well to positive feedback. Figure out what reward scheme works best for you. I tend to do best if I reward myself for each nightly milestone. “Ok, I’ve done my 2k words, I get to surf tumblr for half an hour.” Or “I finished a chapter, I can sit down and watch Supernatural for the rest of the night.” The reward can be anything from strictly playtime on the web, to a latte, to $5 stashed in the tattoo fund, or $5 you get to spend on Facebook games. It’s important for the reward to be consistent and YOURS. I had to abandon the tattoo fund idea because we’d get broke and I’d wind up dipping into it for grocery or gas money, and because of that it became a less desireable reward because I wasn’t actually getting it, and I knew it.
Everyone’s approach to game design or writing is going to be different. For some people approaching it as a job that they have to do works best. That doesn’t work so well for me, because I already have a job. I do not need another one right now. I enjoy writing and I always will, but in order to stick with one project to the end and make myself revise these things, I do need to set up some sort of positive feedback loop. Many people do. And that’s ok. It doesn’t make you any less of a writer than anyone else. I mean, I have the days where the inspiration hits hard and I’ll spend upwards of 9 hours a day two days running sitting at my computer writing in a white hot heat. That’s how the current game writing project started. I sat down over 4th of July weekend and I wrote 17,000 words in two days.
Not everyone can do that. Which is probably healthier for you, trust me.
A lot of the advice for writing and making time to write isn’t really practical for anyone who has a job, or doesn’t have a maid, or a spouse who does all the housework. The GHWR does most of the housework but I still have chores around the house, I have a day job that requires me to be there 9 hours a day with a one hour commute on each end. And while I’ve cut my social life to the bone to try to get things done, I find (and I’ve heard from other authors) that your writing can start to suffer from lack of contact, particularly if you’re trying to write realistic and believable dialog. If you aren’t hearing/having dialog, you can easily lose your ear for it.
Look, you will find ways to make things work for you. The things I’ve listed above work best for me. But some people have other writing styles. Some people have the luxury and do best with writing as their 8-5 job. I would like to find out if I’m one of them some day, but right now it’s not feasible for me. Because you have to balance your writing with your life as it is, not as you would like it to be, or as it could ideally be. I keep notebooks with me 24/7 so I can jot down ideas. I maintain the bus as my tweeting/reading time so I get some socialization and reading done and so that those things don’t interfere with writing time at home. I come home and I go into my room while the GHWR games with our roomies and friends. I come out and eat dinner, then I go back in and back to writing.
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