World Building: The Feels

“I can’t tell you what it really is, I can only tell you what it feels like” says Eminem at the opening of his duet with Rihanna “Love the Way You Lie”. At a philosophical extreme this is known as solipsism: the idea that the only thing we can ever know, and be sure of, is what our mind senses. It’s also close to experientialism: that the foundation of knowledge is what we experience.

What does all this have to do with world building? It’s about understanding how people think. How people know what they know. How people construct their realities. Which is called epistemology, if you want to look that up. Epistemology is fundamental to game design and to fiction, because it ties into psychology. And everything we do is about psychology: art and games are about how we make people feel. And so one of the ways we can build better worlds – worlds that feel more interesting, more exciting, more evocative, and more real – is by understanding how the real world makes us feel. How we know where we are, and what that means.

The problem goes back to Tolkein. Although he was great at evoking some sense of place, albeit with an over-emphasis on botany, Tolkein wrote his Lord of the Rings books through the lens of being a student and professor of history. The world begins with maps and a timeline, and not the mysterious coded map of The Hobbit, something with a very clear sense of modern cartography. In the other end of the spectrum there is the appeal of Star Trek and other detailed sci-fi: written by and advised by engineers, there is the same pleasure of adding a scientific and engineering perspective to the universe. Hyperspace doesn’t just exist because of space magic, things didn’t just happen once upon a time, but rather there are solid concrete ideas about history and technology.

And these elements are part of the feel, don’t get me wrong. And the feel of the setting to the audience is part of world building. And part of Star Trek’s construction is that the characters WITHIN the world also know these things, they are smart, technologically-savvy people. But that is the heart of what can really make world building, what I’m slowly circling towards: what matters the most is what the characters in the world see, and hear and feel and think.

Too often, we apply the Tolkein approach to everything, at the cost of everything else. Ask someone about their favourite fantasy world and – if they’re a nerd – they’ll often start with the history and geography. And again, the nature of that can inform the feel of the setting – the Great A’Tuin and the four elephants helps suggest the comical, fantastic nature of Discworld – but often these are just talismans to us, signals that we are in the world that work as religious icons: that is to say they have significance only as signals. They aren’t actually part of how the world is communicated by feel. Discworld’s feel comes from its comedy and parody and its sense of what it feels like to be in it. The river Ankh smells and bubbles with pollution and effluent. The streets are filled with people like Cut-My-Own-Throat Dibbler. The Mended Drum was once the Broken Drum. Nobby Nobbs is on patrol, scratching his crotch. These are elements of feel, at a character level. They set the tone, not through a vast lens of geography or history, not through establishing principles of physics and magical rules, but by focusing on the personal, the intimate, and the sensual.

As much as our science-literate world allows us to see our planet as a globe in space we know where we are each morning by the smell that wafts in our windows. Our world is defined by the coffee we grab on the way to work, the crowds of rush hour, the cubicles and the social media we browse when not working. To live where I live, in Sydney, means cool breezes from the eastern sea, the glistening harbour, and the dark cut-throat shadow of money, the life centered around living on or within the view of that harbour. It’s less about how the harbour was settled by white colonialists in 1788 and more about how that inch of history makes Sydney the historical centre of Australia, the place where that founding matters the most, hence museums abound and didactic panels are everywhere you go. Being the site of where that colonialism began its slaughter of the indigenous inhabitants, it is also a centre of where reparations are being made and race issues come to the fore. Aboriginal art and statues are also common, and the tension between the two is a visible reminder of the stain on Australia’s conscience. Yet it is easy to turn away and lose yourself in the corporate world, the shiny towers of capitalism, for Sydney is also Beverly Hills and Hong Kong and the City of London; money is its blood and its oxygen and history, law and culture, will always bend to serve that hungry god.

Again, note that the history, geography and politics aren’t unimportant, but the key part is turning those things into what they feel like. Striking tone, striking feel, and striking the personal. As Dickens said in Hard Times, when describing Coketown, “let us first strike the keynote”. Pratchett’s work is heavily influenced by Dickens; both are excellent examples of how to write cities like they are characters – so familiar, so real, so characterful that you can see them right in front of you. That they feel like an old friend.

This rule is particularly important in settings that aren’t in our modern day. The people of the past didn’t view the world as something that could be mapped in a book or broken down by scientific principles and analysis. They didn’t view creatures as having ecologies or a place in the food chain; what matters is whether the wolves ate the deer because the deer were the food for winter. The same is true even if they’re spacewolves or dragondeer; people understanding things by what they mean in their lives, and the nature of their beliefs and world views. Transport matters in Sydney because in our world we are all slaves to capitalism, rushing to offices and rushing back. It’s not about what the transport IS, it’s about what it feels like.

When I tell you of a city or a community, as I did with Praag in Realm of the Ice Queen, as I did of Magritta and Bilbali in Swords of the South, as I did in Freeholds of Nar and Weight of the Underworld, I do want to tell you how it is, but much more importantly I want to tell you what it feels like. To be there, and walk it, to see it, smell it, and feel it. And most importantly, how you think about it. How you know it. How you can tell you are there. And I’ve won awards and praise for it, so I seem to be doing it well.

Go, then, and do likewise.

 

 

 

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Fair Quick Generous Variable Unpredictable

As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Which is why the more I learn about dog training, the more I transport lessons of dog training into lessons of game design, like the boring old church vicar whose sermon each Sunday can be guaranteed to be about what he saw on TV the night before. On the other hand, I’m a great believer in the world being our sourcebook, in finding the lesson or the inspiration in every single thing we do, that everything can be turned into something. Indeed, this is the best way to learn anything, to take what we are learning and link it to all the other ideas in our brain and see the wonderful universal truths that reinforce the patterns and also highlight the differences. Indeed, that also applies to game design: the best game design is about identifying the pre-existing ideas in players’ heads and making the game spark along those lines so it is so naturally intuitive you cannot help but follow them as if you’ve always known the rules, yet also evoking curiosity when the paths diverge. Yes, even my metaphors in my blog introductions are lessons in game design.

So expect more of this, just as there was before. And not just because I keep learning about dog training but because dog training is about psychology and game design is 100% about psychology. And dog training is 100% about games and game design. The more you make training fun, the more the dog wants to do it. And making it fun is what those five words in the title are about. Those are the five principles of rewarding your dog. If you follow them the dog has the most fun, engages the most, learns fastest and everybody wins. So yes, you want them in your game.

Fair is pretty obvious. We are drawn to games because they are fair. Because in the main, everyone gets equal shots at luck and everyone is on a level playing field. If a dog sits and gets a treat, you can eventually phase out the treat or ask for more complex behaviour to get the treat, but not straight away. If a sit gets a treat today and not tomorrow the dog learns that you aren’t fair – and he doesn’t want to sit quite so much. If you expect him to sit but don’t tell him to in the way you agreed upon, he gets confused and distressed. You’re not being fair. And if another dog gets a reward for the same thing while the first dog does not, the first dog may get very upset. Right down to the insects, animals understand the concept of fair. Throw fairness away and you throw away fun.

Quick is equally important. We play games again because they give us what real life cannot, and probably the most important part of that is feeling like we matter. That our actions have direct, identifiable consequences. The dog brain needs a reward in under three seconds to connect it to what it just did. Players can’t hold much out longer. An action should have return. That doesn’t mean that long term strategy isn’t a thing, but if you want engagement over that long time you want to keep people invested and we invest in what makes us feel powerful. And that sense of power comes from impact – immediate impact. Every action in a game should have a clear, palpable result. Even if it is negative, at least it is a result of what you did. One reason euro games are so successful is very little is negative it’s just less than what your opponent gets: you get a wood and a stone this turn, they got three wood and two stone. But you did an action and got a reward straight away. That is the most motivating thing you can imagine.

Generous is next. I talked about abundance in the linked post above about how dogs play games. Abundance is the sweetness that makes quick even better. Science shows that people learn fastest and adapt quickest when the reward they receive vastly exceeds their expectations. Abundance is difficult to put in games but the games we tend to come back to are the ones that have this. The problem is if you give people everything easily, it’s hard to challenge them or make the game a puzzle to be solved. But the easy solution to this is to make everything like getting blood out of a stone, where every point feels like you had to wring it out with effort. Sometimes hard work is fun, a brain burner is very rewarding but you have to be careful. And often you can get this without sacrificing abundance. A game can be a challenge and be overflowing with rewards. Seek abundance and your game will be better. Be generous to your players, because they – and your dog – deserve it.

Variable is important because animals, just like humans, have very poor tolerance for boredom. Animals will even forgo food rather than eat the same thing every day. The snacks for the dog should change. Change taste, change texture, change their value and change when and where and how they come. Variety really is the spice of life. In games this means you want there to be different kinds of rewards – different ways to win, different advantages to have, different ways to engage, different strategies to play. Even the tiniest arbitrary difference of wood and stone say, is enough to interest the simple human psyche. We don’t like too many variables, of course – we can’t juggle more than about six – but we love variety. Keep it simple is an excellent rule but don’t keep it boring.

Lastly there’s unpredictable. Like Fair, most of us know this one fairly well – it’s well established that games need to be not be solvable or just a matter of iteration. But we often boil this down to just “make it random”. Random dice rolls, random set up, random combinations. Unpredictable is more than just random: unpredictable means surprise. Surprise is the best friend of Generous – people engage more when they encounter what they do not expect. Keep things hidden. Include the unexpected. Let people explore and find things. Hide treats around your house for your dog. Give him a snack when he least expects it. He will feel like you are a wonder and try ever harder to please you. The surprised gamer, likewise, keeps digging, keeps trying. He is hungry. He wants the surprise. And that’s what you want: to not just engage but to keep them engaged, until their souls sing.

And instead of teaching them to sit and stay, you’re teaching them to keep playing your game. A place where things are fair but generous, where rewards come instantly but in ever different ways, and there are still surprises to be found. That’s what makes good games.

Secret of My Success, Part Two

Last week we covered Be Brilliant (impossible), Be Prolific (difficult) and Be Furious (nuanced). Today we’re going to talk about the easy one. The one I was always able to do. And the one that’s stood me in the best stead, and given how much I’ve fucked up the other three, the one that’s kept me in work and made me a success.

And the one that people screw up every damn day. And the moment they do, you lose interest, and you don’t want to work with them now or ever again, because who cares how brilliant they are. It’s the one that matters more than anything else. The shining light that sets you light years beyond your competition.

It’s Be Professional.

What does that mean? It means show some respect to the craft, the business and the people around you. It means show up, have a good attitude and do the work you’re asked to do. Show up, do the work. Do the work. It sounds crazy, but it’s the heart of it all.

It means when you submit stuff, follow your writer’s guidelines and your brief TO THE LETTER. It means hit your word count EVERY TIME. It means hit your deadline EVERY TIME. And if you ever can’t do any of these things because of a problem in your life, you let them know as soon as possible and do everything you can so that your problem does not become their problem.

It means taking your redlines and not complaining. It means accepting, every time, that the editor is always right (and on your side). It means making sure you don’t get so Furious it hurts your work flow. It means being part of a work flow, in a way that keeps the system flowing, and not gumming up the works. The easier you make everyone else’s job, the better, because their job is just as important as yours. That means knowing what their jobs involve so you can help out and appreciate them. If you don’t know, find out.

If you’re being hired, it means knowing what rates you’ll accept and what you won’t (again, if you don’t know, find out) and talking the turkey of money and contracts right from the start. If you’re hiring, you’ll want to do the same. Being vague or talking about hopes and dreams just slows things down. Cut to the chase and get down to business. Nobody is helped by beating around the bush. Be clear and be constantly communicating.

I’m going to be in the position to offer people work soon so here’s some tips of the kind of things I like to see too, that marks you as a professional – even if you’ve never worked professionally before.

  • Be already doing the job you want to do. If you want to write RPGs, start writing them. Or reviewing them or writing up your campaign world or your play-throughs or your rules options. If you want to do it for money, do it for free first. I don’t mean for other people, but for yourself. It helps also if you’re doing stuff for the game you are passionate about. I got my work with Buffy partly because I showed up when called but partly because I was already winning hearts by reviewing every product they put out.
  • Have a web portal. I need to see what you’re writing/have written. I’d like to peruse it. Having a web portal lets you collect your links in one place. It becomes your virtual resume. Of course, your web portal should also include your resume. Don’t have any professional work? List your unprofessional work that we talked about above. Websites are free to get it and come with widgets to make them pretty. Get one. Don’t wait until you have something to put on it, I know, that’s an easy mistake to make. Just one thing is enough. And if it has a blog option OH LOOK YOU CAN WRITE A BLOG, which gives you the first thing.
  • When asked to submit, send a cover letter with a link to your web portal, a copy or link to your resume, and a sample. Now, I’ve been terrible vague and I know that sucks and it’s rare in the RPG industry but some companies are going to be like that. We want to see if you can write. A sample should be at least 200 words, no more than a 1000 words, and it should be polished, and it should be prose, but other than that, if we don’t specify, we don’t care. So don’t ask. Just give it some context in the cover letter – but don’t apologise. Try not to draw attention to what you lack, we’ll find those anyway. You’re worried it’ll look false but focusing on your strengths shows us you want to do the job.
  • Finally, don’t bug people once you’ve done all this. As I said above, part of being professional is respecting other people’s job and making sure you don’t make that job harder. Nobody owes you time and consideration of your vast and powerful writing skills; anyone looking at such skills and evaluating their quality and suitability is doing you a favour. So make sure you try to cut down on their work by providing what they asked for and then going away. You can absolutely ask questions but if they haven’t specified any requirements in an area you can assume they have no preferences in that area. If they haven’t told you anything about said evaluation, assume they haven’t decided anything yet. If they haven’t explained the project, they probably can’t. If they’re asking for general keenness, they’ll understand if you later find out the project is about how much your mom sucks that you decide to back out. Nobody is going to hold it against you if you change your mind or things change when information changes, we assume that will happen.

Or at least, the professional folk won’t hold it against you. Because of course professionalism cuts both ways. As a freelancer, you should be looking at which companies are the most professional: which ones respect you the most, which ones support you doing your job, give you the information you need readily so you can do what needs to be done as easily as possible, and respect the work you do. Find those companies and work for them because they’ll respect the same qualities in you, and those will be the best relationships you’ll have. But don’t work with non-professionals, even on your favourite project. It’s not only that it will suck, but it can reflect poorly on you also: you’re worth more than that, and you should know that. A professional knows his own worth as well as everyone else’s.

Keep writing and keep showing up.

Secret of My Success, Part One

Or, How to Succeed in the RPG Industry while Trying Very Very Hard.

For a variety of reasons I want to look at how to succeed in this industry, as much as I know, and as much as I can pay that knowledge forward, now that I have been something of a success, in my own definition thereof (which is not everyone’s definition).

About eight years ago I was on a panel with Robin Laws and he described the four things you needed to do to become a big name in RPG design. Note it was to become a BIG name, a big success, working full time kind of deal. The less you want to do that, the less this applies. He had four principles: Be Brilliant, Be Prolific, Be Furious, and Be Professional.

Be Brilliant we can dispense with straight away. Because you can’t control it. You can work hard, read widely, push yourself, read Strunk and White but this isn’t up to you. It is a variable which determines how successful you will be but not a variable you can control.

Be Prolific is also a variable which is hard to control. It is 100% true though. RPGs, like most writing fields, is a machine that feeds on volume, and the most successful writers in the industry are always the most prolific. There are ways to modify how prolific you are: you can push things out of your life, reorganize and re-prioritize. Learn patterns and systems that help you get it done. But some people are more prolific than others. Some people WANT to be more prolific than others – it depends on what kind of writer you want to be. But there’s always going to be the Gareth Ryder-Hanranhans  who write three books while raising triplets or the Rob Schwalbs. Which to say, being prolific is not something you can always control, some of it is inborn. Some of it, for me, is medical. I’m a depressive, I can only work a few hours a day before my body packs it in.

So brilliance is up to the ages and prolific is hard to control. That leaves be furious and be professional. We’ll do the former here and the latter next week.

Be furious. What does that mean? By furious, what Robin meant was be constantly working. Go for everything. Get in everyone’s face. Hustle.

Furious was one that scared me. I was not, when I heard that, a very agile writer or adaptive writer. I’m a depressive. I suffer from qualifying anxiety where I don’t do things because I don’t think I deserve to – after all, only clever writer people can write things, so why bother. Meanwhile fighting my demons would drive me crazy if I worked too hard. I had to learn that hustle has two sides, and bad hustle helps nobody. I also, as in the link above, don’t want to work on everything in the world.

Furious is also the monkey on my back, the way the demons get in. I’m a picky kind of person and I actually don’t like most games (or most anything), and that can leave you feeling isolated and a jerk normally, and out of touch when it’s your own industry. Furious is the voice that whispers you’re not good enough when you hear about something but can’t participate, and that you’re not plugged in enough when you don’t hear about it. Furious will make you sign up to write games you hate and then leave you caught between staying even though it’s crushing your soul or leaving and exposing your soul to the harsh truth of failure. Trying to be furious can literally kill you.

What’s important is to find, as with prolific, the level and style of furious that works for you. I’m a slow reader and I’m broke and I’m not interested in most games so for me, being furious is not going to mean me reading all the hot new RPGs. I can’t get out of Australia and travel is usually beyond my means so furious can’t mean getting to every event there is. I was shy as hell so I spend years teaching myself how to schmooze so I can be something like furious when events do happen.

But I have skills already in place. I’m on the net all the time, and I love to tweet. And while I’m not interested in every game, I’m interested in what people are doing, and what people like. So I can be furious by pimping people’s stuff. Linking the product to the people who want it. I can write reviews and commentary which illuminate hidden gems and their subtle strengths. I can write a blog about my gaming and my writing and finding my path in them. I can share about my struggles with mental illness and creativity online. All of these things are ways I can add to the industry and the hobby – and that, people, that’s what being furious is.

It’s also about passion. It’s about giving a damn. Not just about the hobby, but the people in it. So much of hustle is having a good heart. Tell someone you love them. Tell them you like their stuff. Hand them a coffee or give up your seat. That’s not sucking up, it’s buying in. People notice those things, and they pay into the bank. Caring about the hobby also counts. Are you the guy with every single book for a game line? Did you stay up three days straight finishing that one campaign? That’s fury too.

It can also be a clear vision. Lots of people have a game in their head but if you’ve got a game in your head you’re always running, that’s different. Even more so if you’ve written it out and self published it. Or written up a supplement or world for that game you like. One young designer told me he had a plan to be working full time by year X. That’s fury too.

It is passion. Passion, I like to say, is the only virtue that matters. Boldness counts too. Goethe said boldness has power and magic in it, and it does. That doesn’t mean build castles in the air and have unrealistic fantasies. It means coming with an attitude of can-do and will-do. Committing. Buying in. Signing on. Using your entire ass as Ron Swanson says.

As Peter Capaldi said, almost everything in life is showing up and having a good attitude. The second one is really what furious is: living that good attitude, as hard as you can. Fury will kill you if you let it, but if you find your own kind of fury, it will set you free.

But showing up? That’s the other half. That’s be professional. That’s next week.

 

 

 

Wonder Woman Post Credits Scene

There wasn’t one, so I wrote one.

INTERIOR. DAY. We’re back in the clothing store. ETTA waits patiently by the changing rooms.

ETTA:

So the Foreign Office says you’re definitely a foreign dignitary and I should be calling you Your Royal Highness…

DIANA:

(from behind curtain) You will call me Diana, please.

The curtain shoots back. DIANA is a vision again, but with one problem, she’s in a gorgeous svelte white brocade, best for a garden party.

ETTA:

Oh! Oh, no, oh, that’s my fault, I’m sorry Your – Diana –

DIANA:

(Confused)

ETTA:

Black. Black. All over. And – a veil.

DIANA:

Black?

ETTA:

Definitely.

DIANA:

In my country we wear white (going back into the change room). We beat drums, light great bonfires and we sing. You must help me, Etta. We must do everything right. Everything correct. As is due for a soldier and a hero who has fallen.

ETTA:

(Etta looks downcast)

DIANA:

(coming back out in the brown suit) But what is the matter? He is to be glorified amongst your heroes, yes? I know there are too many slain in this war for a statue –

ETTA:

(almost crying) But you see miss, he’s a spy, and it’s different. They don’t count the same as soldiers. They can’t do an official burial.

DIANA:

(takes her hand and sits her down) What do you mean?

ETTA:

It’s Official Secrets, you see. If he’s buried with honours word goes in the paper and there are agents here and in Germany, if they got wind of it –

DIANA:

But the war is over

ETTA:

ALMOST over. And – Steve had contacts. Agents in Germany. If anyone sees his face, and knows he was a spy, everyone he ever worked with would be in danger.

DIANA:

(ruefully) Of course.

ETTA:

We’re getting, well – a small ceremony. Just you and me.

DIANA:

What?

ETTA:

His mother’s, she’s in America, she’s very old, she can’t travel. And the man from the foreign office, and perhaps someone from the American Embassy. Mr Churchill wrote a letter –

DIANA:

Sameer? Charlie? The Chief?

ETTA:

They couldn’t get here even if it were safe. They’ve gone to ground. The Germans don’t want anyone to know about what happened in Veld, they’re killing anyone who – (she trails off into tears. Diana holds her tight. A beat.)

I suppose there’s a lot like this now. Just the women, left alone, when their boys don’t come back.

DIANA:

(kindly) But we are not alone, we are together.

ETTA:

(nods happily) Well. Until you go back to your island, anyway.

DIANA:

(deadly serious) Etta Candy, I swear to you: you will never be alone for the rest of your life.

(She clasps Etta’s hand with great intent, one warrior to another)

SMASH CUT back to credits.

Dragons of the Demon Lord

Another product by me, collaborating with Rob, for the Demon Lord, this time on dragons. And drakes and everything with long snakey bodies and big gnashy teeth. Includes the demon dragon, the death dragon and the SPINY NIGHTMARE.

I wanted to add beasties that lived in the dragon ecology but they were cut for space. So here they are for you, for free. What’s crazy enough to cling to the private parts of a dragon?

Skullshuckers

 

Puppy Dog Tales

20 years ago this week I was first published – in the amazing arcane magazine. I decided then I would give myself ten years to get published in an RPG.

11 years ago this week I got my first freelance job, writing about skaven for WFRP 2nd ed, from Rob Schwalb (which makes it serendipitous that it is coming back again!) Made it with one year to spare!

This week is my 20th anniversary of working in tabletop games. I think I also made my first card game 20 years ago too. 1997 was a good year. It was called Election and people liked it a lot because the cards were funny, but it was a bit wonky in mechanics – it was never worth attacking other people’s platforms when you could just improve your own.

And now, to celebrate all this, and to celebrate me getting 1000 followers on Twitter, I created this amazing one page party game. (EDIT: someone was a bit confused about my wording – the human tells the story, the dogs do the barking when they hear what they like, hope that’s clear now!)PuppyDogTales Enjoy!