The Blog You Must Read Before You Die

“Let me not seem to have lived in vain” – Tycho Brahe, one of history’s greatest scientist, dying words

It’s important to know your mythology, because it reveals what cultures care about.

One of the running themes throughout the Old Testament is patience. This is because it was written for cultures feeling terribly oppressed and abandoned by their god, so their stories are about how patience pays off even when you think it can’t possibly. Samson is promised by God he will destroy his enemies as long as he keeps the faith. He disobeys, then loses his great strength, but at the last moment, has a chance to destroy his enemies. When all is lost to a conquering king that God promised to kill, Judith marries the victorious Holofernes, gets him drunk and cuts his head off. And when Abraham is promised a son, he gets older and older, and even when he and his wife are nine hundred years old, God delivers on his promises, with a son called Isaac.

Now, previously, like Samson, Abraham had disobeyed God and lost the faith, telling his wife to sleep with another man. So God is, as is often the way, wary of Abraham’s faith, so he devises one final test to check Abraham has learnt the lesson that God always fulfills his promises, and orders Abraham to kill Isaac. Spoilers: once it is clear Abraham is on board, God relents at the last second, and presumably Isaac grows up with severe trust issues.

Modern eyes find the story of Isaac difficult to deal with and it leads to discussions about the nature of trust in a deity – but those discussions tend to be grounded in the idea that what Abraham is doing is an abomination because he is killing an innocent. But that’s NOT the point of the story. The point of the story is Abraham is asked to destroy the very thing he wants most, the thing God promised him eight hundred years ago: descendants. Abraham doesn’t care about life, not his own, certainly. He lives in a culture where death is a constant and the only sense of assuredness and constancy is passing your name onto children and grandchildren.

The story of Abraham dates from somewhere between 1500 to 600 BC. Fast forward a thousand years and Jesus has a very different message in his philosophy, where he promises an individual salvation from death. Society in the Middle East is now at a point where death is no longer so certain that nobody cares about it. People want to live forever. Skip forward another 1600 years or so and it’s the 17th century. The Dark Ages are over, the 100 Years War is Over, the religious wars of Europe are ending, and the plague is now so rare its extremely localized appearance is a scary minor event, not a world-ending apocalypse. People now think they really can live forever, because they just don’t see death everywhere they go any more. In many cases this causes people to turn away from religion, meaning it has to be reformed; while others becomes straight-up humanists and atheists. Other parts of culture are horrified by this trend so they invent the memento mori: the inclusion in every work of art of a skull or another symbol of death to remind the viewer they are going to die. It’s considered very important in some cultures to include this, lest the beauty of the art without it seduce you back to thinking you’re immortal. They literally refuse to let you forget you will die, because they think that will kill you and society.

Fast forward another four hundred years to the late 20th century. Modern medicine is unbelievable. We destroy the Third Horseman by eliminating polio and expunging smallpox. Life expectancy shoots through the roof. The implementation of plastics and universal plumbing make hygiene possible at unimaginable levels a century ago. Random death is so uncommon or great fears coalesce into the one disease we seemingly can’t cure – cancer. And some of us are so sure we’ll live forever we stop vaccinating our children. We’ve lost our fear of death even on a population level – and that can be dangerous. But mostly we talk instead of poor health outcomes. For many, a life lived in pain or weakness is far more frightening than death. Euthanasia is on the table because as a culture we believe there is something worse than death: a life of suffering, or fear, or regret.

And those things are bad, but every society has its unthinkable horrors that must be warded against. Abraham feared nothing so much as being childless. 17th century folk did fear their souls going to Hell. And we fear our lives being wasted. And when we have those kind of all-encompassing existential fears, there are those who would turn them into cultural touchstones and cult-like beliefs. We have our own memento-moris of this age. We have a series of books and shows listing hundreds or thousands of things to do BEFORE YOU DIE, lest you live a life of lower value. A life lived in fear is a life half-lived. Begin it now, the self-helpers demand, lest you waste a moment not beginning. Follow your dream and your bliss. Quit your job and roam the earth before you get too old. Live like there’s no tomorrow. Don’t die still wondering. Take a chance. Live life to the fullest. You should be writing.  Just do it. And have a Coke while you do.

Like most things, there’s some truth in this. It’s important not to settle for a reality filled with pain, suffering and abuse, and to seek out support and tiny ways to spiral upwards away from such things. But like most things, it’s exaggerated and expounded and shoved down our throats to a terrifying and disgusting degree. And it’s just not helpful. Not for most people.

And it’s enormously unhelpful to a large section of people. People who can’t begin it now. People who don’t have the privilege of money or health or freedom that you do. People who see suffering every second so they need no memento-mori to remind them. People who instead need memento-vivas, reminders that life is okay as it is. Pictures of puppies and kittens, for example. (Of course, advertising likes to tell you to embrace the status quo just as much as it likes to cast you as the hero of just doing it, but advertising ruins everything.)

Nothing has been more damaging to my writing career as the pressure of being told to do it and do it now. That brings it with it a terrifying sense of urgency, a sense that your ideas are a limited resource, and those ones burning and bubbling out of you every second will be lost if you don’t write them down. That your duty is to eternity and every lost moment is betraying yourself and everyone else. Make great art, ordered Neil Gaiman, but you must add Joss Whedon’s addition: don’t write a story if you don’t have a story to tell. I’ve sat at blank pages and gripped pens and screamed at my body to make the words, because everything else was the most disgusting thing, the most unbearable thing: to live a life half-lived, to not create, not use my gift.

I was born a gifted child so from the very beginning educators beat into me with emotional wounds the sense of wastage. But I have learnt, at last, through bloody battles, that nothing is wasted. Ever. And if you are going to create, you need to know that. Your ideas will seem to go nowhere. They will bubble out like steam and appear to fade into the ether. They will die on the page or never make it that far. And it will look like the garden is empty.

But life goes on and those ideas and attempts lie dormant and wait. And sometimes, they come back to life in the most amazing ways, but only when they are ready. You cannot pick the fruit before it is ripe. The Divyavadana, Buddhist scriptures written in sanskrit in the 2nd century BC provides the quote I keep beside my desk:

“What we have done will not be lost to all eternity. Everything ripens at its time and becomes fruit at its hour.”

Seven years ago I started work on a project for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, a supplement for Estalia, the Spanish-equivalent of the setting. It’s finished now, an epic tome of 144 pages that took an amazing amount of work. Several times I completely abandoned it. Several times I knew it could never be done. And I needed to think that, or it could NOT have been done. I tried to give it to others so that the fans would not be denied the product they wanted, but others didn’t want it. I asked for help, and got some at some time, none at others, and then at last, the right help at the right time, when I was strong enough to use it. Because you see, they didn’t want the book, they wanted MY book.

But not even that; apart from a few posts in approval, nobody really cares. Ultimately, we don’t make art for our audience, it doesn’t make sense to do it like that. And while it’s wonderful to see that this project ripened at its time, it’s the ripening that mattered, more than the finished product. I’m proud of it, but I’m more happy with the process. I learned more from the process and I cherish the process more. Which is why it wouldn’t matter if it had died. It was only once I let go and accepted it might that I had space to heal and ripen to a point where maybe it could be done. Once I knew I could live without it, I could make it. Once I knew my life was not betrayed by stepping away from my dream, I could live authentically enough to have art within me.

Tycho Brahe was one of the greatest astronomers the world had ever known and his measurements were so precise that they weren’t bettered until the 20th century. Without his work, his colleague Johannes Kepler could never have discovered elliptical planet movement, and Newton could never have discovered gravity. But Brahe lived his entire life in fear of being forgotten, of being a nobody, and on his death bed, he prayed to God and all who would hear him that he might mean something. Kepler, himself neurotic and afraid, found understanding in his friend’s last words. And Kepler’s reflection also sits beside my desk to remind me what matters.

“The roads that lead a man to knowledge are as wondrous as that knowledge itself”

See the road, and walk it haphazardly. You can’t force it. You shouln’t be writing; you should be growing to a place where writing is natural, and safe, and joyful, and how you get there is yours to discover. Don’t let anyone tell you they know the best way for you to go – or that you need to start going now, lest you waste your precious time. You’ll go when you’re ready. You really do have time. And anything else is madness.

And I hope you enjoy Swords of the South.



Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part Two

For the most part, we as a society are learning that to abjure the stick. If you know anything about dog training, you know that punishment training – negative reinforcement – is not used any more. Not because it’s cruel, although it is, but because it rarely works, and if it does, it works far less efficiently. And it’s true of all animals: we respond better to rewards than we do to punishment, of an order magnitude more.

But we still use the carrot, and getting rid of it is a lot harder. Partly because it does have it uses. It’s very important for young children, for example, and for animals, because simple minds have trouble with cause and effect. This is why babies love peek-a-boo: they have no idea, when you go away, that you’re going to come back. Learning that kind of cause and effect is part of growing up. That to get the drink to your mouth you have to concentrate on holding the cup. That to be able to find your coat you need to put it on the right coat-hook. That thinking and working in advance leads to good things in the future.  We’re a primitive species and we like experiencing pleasure. When we eat the spoils of the hunt we get a lot of dopamine released so our body knows this is good for us. When we have to go out and hunt, our bodies are under attack and working hard, and so we don’t get the dopamine release, otherwise we’d get addicted to hunting and either work ourselves to death or get eaten by the lions. So we learn: hunt first, eat later.

The problem comes when we apply the carrot idea to everything we do. Beyond the simple and beyond the child. As we grow older, and our work and our play and our minds become more complex, the model ceases to apply, and breaks down. Think about it: when did you really first notice you were procrastinating? For most of us, it was high school. Not because of high school (although that plays a part) but because we were going through puberty and becoming fully rounded people, and the old ways stopped working. And for a lot of us, what happened next depended a lot on how we handled that problem, or avoided it.

There is a lot of emphasis on the carrot, so you may not believe me it’s so bad. Here then are some reasons why it’s so bad at what it does, and destructive to good habits.

1. It turns the “work” into a bad thing.

Go back to the metaphor itself: the carrot is there to make the donkey walk forward, pulling the wagon or the cog-wheel. The donkey does not want to do that. It is a terrible chore. Importantly, it is not what the donkey would naturally be doing. That’s important because of some of what the donkey would naturally be doing would still not be “dopamine stuff”. The donkey would naturally work, it would go around finding the best grass it could and use its muscles to tear it out, and so on. What the donkey is doing is WORSE than working. Every time you use this metaphor, even if you don’t voice it, subconciously you’ve decided that the work that needs to be done is pulling a terrible heavy load, in a way that is unnatural, that is outside what you consider good for you. Even if it was already an unpleasant task, it becomes worse, and happy tasks become drudges. We’ll come back to this mischaracterisation of the process later.

2. It makes the work suffer by comparison.

To get the carrot, we must do the work. Therefore, the carrot has to be better than the work. Now we’ve put two things in front of us, two ideas. If you’ve ever seen a cop show, you know about good cop bad cop. This is fundamental human psychology: if you present a person with a bad thing X and a less bad thing Y, they feel drawn to Y, even if Y is not necessarily in their interest. We are built on comparison. So if you put up two ideas – write my RPG or play Civ 2, say – you can’t help compare them. And since you were clever enough to think of an excellent fun reward, because you really want to motivate yourself, your carrot will be a wonderful thing. Once again, the result is you make the work task look worse than it actually is. You’ve mischaracterised it as a burden, a chore, and as something you don’t want. You ache now for your carrot more than you ever would if you could choose it freely. And that sense of constrained desired is yet another emotion that drains your strength, and makes you weaker, and less able to do anything at all.

3. It is dangerous to our self-esteem.

We are creatures of hope. The way we deal with pain and suffering it to rely on a great and fundamental truth: pain and suffering do not last forever. We are suffering now, we will be happy later. But somewhere along the way, our pattern-loving minds turned this into a cause and effect. We think I will be happy later BECAUSE I am suffering now. Or worse, in order to be happy later, I MUST SUFFER FIRST. I’m using poetic language, but the carrot teaches us this same thing: in order for me to have happiness, leisure, entertainment, relaxation, dopamine releases, time to myself, etc, I must first do this thing which is drudgery, unimportant, unvalued, unshiny, this thing I have cast as a terrible chore, that makes my time belong to something else, some higher code that I have somehow set outside what I actually want, or require lots of reminders as to why it is important (constantly waving that carrot in my face). We start using words like DESERVE and EARN and SHOULD and ALLOWED. I am not ALLOWED to play Civilization until I have EARNED it.

We are human beings. We are born with the right and the need to be happy, to relax and have leisure time. We deserve these things unconditionally. We need them to survive and be our true selves. We need them to be strong. We need them to make the world better. And anything that tells us differently is bad for us, for our mental health, and our sense of self and for the goals and outcomes we want to reach.

There are standards in life, both external and internal, and they are useful and worthy. But the moment we use them to punish ourselves or diminish ourselves, they become dangerous, twisted and hurtful, and they can make us achieve less, not more.  We’ll come back to this, too.

4. It fetishizes the outcome over the process.

We’re outcome-oriented, as a culture. Part of that is capitalism: a process is hard to sell, a product is easy to sell. A finished product is easier to move around, to conceptualise, to admire. Artists in particular are at the mercy of the outcome. It is laudable for a nurse, say, to spend her life doing nursing, but if you spent your life playing music but never recorded a song, people will label you a failure who could never finish anything. Completed projects go on the resume, time served does not.

To some extent, this is fair: what makes art art is that it can be shared, and a process is hard to share. And what can cripple art is not sharing it and getting so involved in a process that we never allow our ideas to be given to others. Finishing IS important, is more important for artists. But if we forget the process, or worse, demonize it (via the mischaracterisations mentioned in 1 and 2), we kill our art, and we kill ourselves.

Studies have shown that there are five basic returns people get from jobs, five values. They are: financial return, being important (either social status or having a large effect), being the boss and making decisions, working in an enjoyable environment for you socially, and doing something where the work itself is engaging and fun. The important thing is not everyone cares about these things equally. And the carrot theory is basically all about the first two: that the work you do will lead to a return later. But if we’re creative types, we don’t usually care much about money or status, but we really care about being engaged and having fun. So our motivation theory is ass-backwards.

Think about it: we’re encouraged to write novels, publish games, to make art. Even if you remove commercial success, critical acclaim or the audience applause – which we almost never do – we are told that the point of being an artist is to create an outcome. And everything becomes about that. That’s the carrot. To finish the novel. To publish the game. And everything before it is the cog-wheel. We do the cogwheel to get the carrot.

But what does that do? That demonizes the process and champions the outcome. It tells us that finishing something – ie not writing – is fundamentally better than working on something – ie writing. So every single day when you get up and think “well, I still don’t have a novel done, so I better do some writing”, you’ve sent yourself that message, loud and clear. That writing is bad, and not writing is good. That writing is suffering, and only if you suffer enough, you get your reward – because you certainly don’t deserve one now. You’re not worthy of that.

Is it any wonder, then, that you don’t want to write?

To paraphrase an old saying, a lot of people want to have written a novel, rather than want to write a novel. Because then they get to say, hey, that’s my novel, that’s proof of my success. Part of that is human nature (and healthy). Part of that is the nature of art. And a lot of it is because we fetishize the outcome, and demonize the process. And every time we do that, we make it harder and harder to do the process. We make the process into a chore and we turn ourselves into failures. And the only way to escape those horrible feelings is to feed the procrastination monster instead.

And he’s a nasty thing, but it’s our own behavior – our constant focus on the carrot – that made him strong to begin with.

In Part 3, we’ll actually talk about how to solve some of these problems. There are other options.

Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part One

Procrastination is a big thing. We often joke about it, but it can do a lot of damage to our life if we let it, or we worry about it too much. And it can certainly eat away at our reserves – our time AND our energy – to do things like writing and designing, things we often put last on our list, but also feel most pressured to do, as we are constantly told THEY ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT. There is a lot of advice out there on dealing with procrastination, and a lot of it is bullshit. Or rather, a lot of it is just what worked for one guy or a few people. But procrastination and the issues that make it up are a big, big thing, and it is wired into fundamental aspects of how we approach ourselves and everything we do in life. Which means there are multiple ways to attack it, and everyone has to do what works for them and their mind. What’s more, we’re all on our own journey to untangle ourselves, and you don’t only need to have the right idea for your brain, but the right idea AT THE RIGHT TIME. So my advice might be useless to you. I’m sharing it anyway, because only by getting lots of ideas can we all find the best way for us to untangle things.

I’m certainly not an expert on breaking procrastination, but I am an expert on procrastinating. It’s something that’s played an enormous part of my life, in many different arenas. Indeed, it is fairly true to say that my particular mental disorder, depression/anxiety, is an extremely heightened form of procrastination. You become so afraid of certain thoughts, emotions, feelings and situations you lock your body into a perpetual state of numbness (or panic, in the case of anxiety) to avoid those things. I’ve been on a long journey to work some of these things out, so in that context, my advice has some experience.

The first point to deal with is this: how we think about procrastination is typically very wrong.

Let’s imagine for this discussion that there are three activities. There’s W, the work we don’t want to do. Like say writing your RPG. There’s P, the procrastinating activity. Maybe it’s surfing the internet. Then there’s F, the fun activity, like maybe playing Civilization 5. To pick entirely random examples that certainly don’t reflect my life at all. Now, a lot of the time, people don’t have P and F as separate activities. Sometimes they are the same activity done in different ways or experienced in different ways – for example, when you can’t really enjoy yourself when you go out for a drink because in the back of your mind you feel you should be studying. Or you don’t get really into playing X-box because you’re just looking for a low-level distraction to keep your mind busy. This still might not be you, but go with me here.

Generally, our thinking about procrastination is this: I keep doing distracting thing P because I don’t want to do hard, painful, difficult thing W.

This is false.

Most of the time, what is stopping us from doing W has little to do with W at all. Don’t get me wrong, the anxiety curve is a big deal, especially with big, hard to grasp projects (go read up about the curve, it is also part of this subject). But what keeps us doing P is less about fear of W and more about our shame and guilt at doing P. And the more P we do, the worse we feel, and the worse we feel, the less we are able to act.

This is pretty obvious when you think about it.  When our body is injured, it stops doing things. It wants to fall over and lie still because then it can concentrate on getting better. Likewise, when we feel upset, we don’t want to go out and do things, we want to crawl into a foetal ball, hide in our room and eat candy. Our mind is just like our body: when it feels hurt, it devotes all its resources to healing itself, and devotes no resources to going out and doing things.

So the more you do the P activity, the more your brain feels attacked by feelings of guilt and shame, and thus the weaker you become. Your body now has no strength to do W, or to do F, or to do P even. You become less and less engaged with F and P, so the bad feelings work stronger and do more damage, so you become weaker and weaker. We wait for motivation to strike, but it now has an enormous uphill battle, because unhappy people are difficult to motivate. Sometimes impossible.

I’m going to say that again because it’s very important: the worse you feel, the harder it is to motivate yourself, or be motivated by others.

It’s important because so much of our mindset and culture are wrapped up in a very different idea of motivating. We believe in the carrot and the stick. And the carrot and the stick are all about suffering and being unhappy, or at best, fearing more unhappiness. We must do the hard task W, lest we feel pain from the stick, or so we can deserve the carrot. This point of view is burned into us at a primal level, and we accept it instinctively.

But everything we know about the human mind and human motivation tells us it is not only a poor model, it is a model inherently destructive to our health and our happiness.

Don’t get me wrong, the carrot and the stick are not entirely without merit, in very specific situations, at very specific times. It teaches us about cause and effect when we are children. But now we see through a glass darkly, and if we keep trying to walk as a child, we make everything worse.

That’s a big idea and I’m already at 1000 words, so there’s more in part 2.

Genre Eats Design

The more I explore MMOs and video games in general, the more I’m struck by how many huge decisions are determined by genre.

Most significantly: most superhero stories actually start in the 2nd act. Don’t get me wrong origin stories are there but a lot of superhero films do it in flashback. The superhero first act is written: hero has traumatic experience that changes him fundamentally, hero decides to use outcome to fight crime, second act begins. The thing I love about CoH is the first act happens in chargen, and the game starts with the 2nd act. The moment chargen is done, you are out there, busting heads and fighting crime as a fully-fledged, back-story complete hero. Partly by game design, partly by genre assumptions. Superheroes don’t need to level, because that’s not part of their genre (much).

Fantasy, in games and literature, has been hoist on the petard of character arc and the Hero’s Journey. It starts with a boy in a village being sent on a quest. This means most fantasy games begin with an old man telling you a story. A cut scene of a bad guy giving you motivation. Even pulp classics like Conan were given backstories in the films. I get it for stories; it makes a familiar arc, but games don’t work that way. We need a backstory for killing shit the same way we need a backstory for Pacman eating white balls. He is the white ball eater. That’s his thing. He is the best at what he does and what he does is EAT WHITE BALLS AND KILL GHOSTS. And he’s all out of white balls.

(This doesn’t have to be dull. Compare the opening scene of Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2. 1 is a briefing about a promotion. 2 is HOLY SHIT THE SHIP IS ON FIRE GET A GUN AND FIGHT TO LIVE.)

In roleplaying, kickers are one way to jump into the action – giving every character SOMETHING HE NEEDS TO DEAL WITH the moment the game starts, but you can achieve the same effect by actually hard-wiring the first act into chargen, and/or the mission into the game’s assumptions. Warhammer, for example, lets you roll the “career you had before you decided to become a psycho for hire”. The career roll provides you with backstory and stats in one fell swoop. This isn’t quite the same as just have a lifepath, of course – because the lifepath is often random and isn’t about an actual first act, but a biography. Those things are different. A first act ends with “and then we fight crime”. And the games I tend to least enjoy are ones where the question arises of “what do we DO?” – because they don’t have a fight crime.

Nobody ever asks what Batman does. Patrol. One of – if not THE – first superhero RPG, Superhero 44, had tables to roll your Patrolling on, kind of like Random Monster Encounters. I think maybe Marvel might have had something similar (old Marvel I mean)? Seems these days we forget that in our RPGs – to their detriment. Mutants and Masterminds is a great system for making a superhero – but it doesn’t encode patrolling into the text ANYWHERE. And yet its default assumptions are comic-book heroes. It’s not like Aberrant where you could make a campaign about being celebrities singers or wrestlers. So there’s no excuse.

I’ll pause here while 99% of gamers have a rant about the bit in the Aberrant Player’s Guide. If you don’t know what I mean, you don’t want to know.

And indeed, a lot of games aren’t about fighting crime. And that’s okay. I just won’t be playing them. I like games like Leverage and Cthulhu instead, where the entire game is written around eating white balls, and there is literally nothing else the system supports. That doesn’t mean it has to be indie or limited, like just about five guys fighting one witch (Mountain Witch) or dealing with one pirate ship (Poison’d); it just means I like certain genres with strong vectors – heists, mysteries, police procedurals. And I like RPGs that learn from those things.

But be careful you don’t learn too much! To bring us full circle, just because fantasy begins with the first act in literature is no reason it should in all games. Likewise, it could be fun to play a Star Wars game that runs on totally different narrative rules to the movies, and an RPG can support that. Some of the best RPGs have that as their virtue – taking a fenced-in narrative world and asking “what happens if we wander around it like it is real?”. And some of the best stories ever come from telling old narratives in new settings or vice versa.

Best example is of course Blade Runner: a classic noir in an SF setting. And I like the title, because it has a clear vector. What does he do? He runs blades. Well, he hunts androids. He’s Buffy the Android Hunter, and it’s RIGHT IN THE TITLE.  We don’t need to know how he became an android hunter.

Skip the first act: it’s not just a good idea for stories, it’s vital for games. And the day fantasy computer games realise this is the day I will actually play them.

Beginning is not the hard part

The world is full of aphorisms.

Pretty much all of them are false.

Not just because they boil down wisdom to a soundbite, but because they’re designed to run on faith. They’re designed to keep you alive when the rockslide buries you. Articles of faith are always lies. And that’s fine, as far as it goes, because they can help. But it’s not fine because it builds false hope. And when you hit the reality, you suffer because nobody told you.

So allow me to disabuse this notion about beginnings.

They say that the journey of a million miles begins with a single step. This is true, technically. But it is then followed by a journey of a million miles, minus one step.

They say beginnings are hard, and they are. Getting from zero to one may be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. But what they don’t tell you is that every single step after that is just as hard. Comparatively, beginnings aren’t hard. Beginnings are, at most, just as hard as everything else. But usually, they’re easier.

They’re easier than the point ten steps in when the joy of starting wears off. When every new step only confirms the pointlessness of the endeavour. When every line of creation only makes the work more inept and disgraceful. When the exhaustion sets in and every inch burns. Oh, and my personal favourite, when you’re close to the end and thus failure is a million times worse because it will waste everything you’ve done. And when you’re inches from the finish line and the terror of crossing it is slightly more agonizing than crawling on the broken glass in front of it.

Beginnings? Beginnings are hard, yes. Beginnings are all the fear and none of the knowledge, all the pressure and none of the distance. Beginnings are hard.

And then it gets much, much worse.


How I Write RPG Reviews

Way back in 1999, I started writing my first published material by sending game reviews to RPGNet. Back then it was pretty much the only game in town for reviews. This, I think, was my first one published. Since then I’ve reviewed for a few other sites, and been pleased to succeed in my goal of getting into reviews in the first place: getting comp copies. As I was and am too poor to afford any kind of games, my dream was always to be the guy who got free stuff, and I succeeded.

Unfortunately, nowadays almost all review copies of RPGs are PDFs so I’m giving up reviewing them for the most part. I can’t re-sell PDFs if I need cash, and I find them a pain to read. I’m also giving up reviewing for RPGNet because not many people read them any more. RPG reviews are not really in demand, I feel, on RPGNet or anywhere. People would rather go to a forum and ask everyone’s opinion then read a detailed review, I think. So low audience, low return.

However, over the last twelve years I’ve written more than a hundred reviews, and been lauded for them often – often enough to get noticed, get free stuff, and even, in a few cases, get writing work with the companies. So that’s my qualifications for saying I obviously am doing something right. I must know how to write good reviews.

But until now, nobody’s ever asked me how I do it. But now they have, so I’m thinking about it.

Really, like any writing, your first rule is know your audience and know yourself. If you’re writing for a particular outlet, you have to match their style and their audience. If you’re writing for yourself – which, thankfully, RPGNet lets me do – you need to know what kind of reviewer you want to be. For myself, the goal was always to be a critic as well as a reviewer – in the best and highest sense of the word. As Oscar Wilde said: “The role of the critic is to educate the audience. The role of the artist is to educate the critic.”

If that’s how you see yourself, then your role is not just to describe but to illuminate, to not just make a declaration of worth, but to convince your audience you are correct in your declaration. It is not unlike being a travel writer; you are selling them on a book not just through facts but through a journey, an experience – your experience. It doesn’t always have to have personal context, but it should always be about your journey and what you found there. I find that the best way to leave signs behind to others, and lead them to the gems you discover, and away from the dross.

Enough waffle. Some more – and more concrete – rules I’ve learnt along the way – sometimes painfully taught. Whether they are good rules or not, they’re the ones I’ve used, and since the reviews have been well received, they may be worth something.

  • Set the context. Whether personal or historical or thematic. No product exists in a vacuum, and no review should either. The audience benefits from the background, because it gives them a landscape in which to situate your comments and understand the conception of the book better. And if you talk about your background, they know how and why you came to the book, giving them greater insight in how to compare your views to their own. An authoritative voice is important – your opinion matters, and don’t let anyone tell you different – but if you make it a personal voice rather than a universal one, and an illuminating one rather than didactic, you give people room to have their own opinions and experiences, and to use your review to understand how they might feel about the work, rather than be told how they will feel about it.
  • Ask (and answer) the three questions. Early on, I read something that said that a review must answer three questions: What are the goals of the work? Were those goals achieved? And Was that a worthy goal to begin with? These formed the backbone of all my reviews, and really, they’re what make a review more than just a description of contents. They also give your review coherence, direction and structure, which can be important when you’re five thousand words into a review of a five hundred page tome. By keeping the goal of the work in mind, your review gains focus and direction, and it stops you from being biased, because you remember that just because you don’t like the goal doesn’t mean the product has failed. The questions also encourage you to analyse and evaluate, which is critical. It is not enough simply to describe.
  • Respect the work – but respect your audience more. A roleplaying game is, or can be, a hefty product, the output of great toil, even a work of art. It deserves your respect. You owe it to it, its creator and your audience to come to it without to much bias, to read it cover to cover, and take time to evaluate it fairly and fully. However, do not under any circumstances think you owe it or its creator any more than this. I have in the past made the mistake of being too nice, and it is a terrible idea. You feel bad because you lied, your audience doesn’t get the truth, and in almost every case, you annoy the creator or company anyway because they still don’t think you’re positive enough. Your audience demands nothing less than your total honesty. Their time and money (and yours) is vital and precious and should not be wasted on the mediocre or insufficient. Your audience is also, you must assume, intelligent, experienced, refined, and deserves the best.  Any thing which does not meet those standards should be called on it, not molly-coddled or equivocated upon. This isn’t nursery school, there are no points whatsoever for trying hard or enthusiasm, and even fewer for tact.
  • Respect the artist – and yourself. If it is a comp copy, let them know when you receive it. Get the review done as promptly as you can. When it goes up, take the courtesy to let them know. There’s no reason why you can’t have open communication (and comp copies and all the rest); it doesn’t taint your opinion of the work. You can still imagine what it would be like to pay for the work, and you can still suggest the artist is off his rocker if you think he is. He won’t take it personally, and if he does, then you don’t do business with him any more. A professional artist, someone worth reviewing for, someone worth your time, will never begrudge a bad review. That, indeed, is perhaps the most important sign of a professional, mature artist. And what I mean about respecting yourself is understanding that you don’t have to put up with anything less than pure professionalism. If anybody gives you any attitude about a negative review, they’re not worth dealing with ever again. Likewise, if any of your audience get their panties in a bunch because you disliked their sacred cow, ignore them entirely. Anyone who actually loves something knows its flaws, or comes to love it more when it discovers them – or has good enough arguments to refute the flaws that others see.

Beyond that: if in doubt, follow the work. Keep an open mind, give your hand to the artist, and follow him down the rabbit hole, and then be prepared, some times, to get sweaty and dirty digging yourself out again. It’s not always pretty. Sometimes, it’s miserable. But the journey is almost always worthwhile, I find. The teacher always learns more than the student, and I inevitably find I understand and appreciate a product more at the end of a review than at the start. If I don’t, it’s probably a bad review, and I need to fix it or start again.


Skronch and Hrm: Or time to join the opining mob

Or my problem with the Watchmen prequels. I’ll try to keep it short for everyone’s sake.

My problem with the Watchmen prequels is this: the world of literature, not entirely wrongly, has a decided bias against serial media. And so do I. One of the great things about Watchmen is it is entirely self-contained, and thus free from that bias.

Now sure, Dark Knight Returns is pretty stand-alone, because it’s a what-if. That helps. But it is a book very dependent on what has come before. If you don’t know who Oliver Queen is, the guy with the bow and arrow seems pretty odd (I know, because I didn’t when I read it) and comes out of nowhere. It is a work that is undeniably part of the Batman mythos. And that weighs it down.

A big – a huge – part of why Watchmen can be an American Classic is because it stands alone. You don’t have to know anything about comics or superheroes to read it. Indeed, I can make a semi-cogent argument that the comic superhero commentary is relatively uninteresting and mostly unimportant to the worth of the work. Certainly its place in comics history is undeniably unimportant to the work itself. Yes, if you want to study it context helps, but again, the point of a classic is it stands up without study. Or relatively so. You can read and love Huckleberry Finn without knowing anything American History. Same goes for To Kill A Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You don’t have to know that Kesey’s Nest was a codifying of anti-establishment sentiments of the counter-culture movements of the late 1960s to get what the book is about. Some teacher can throw you any of those, give you a five minute spiel and you can see that the thing is literature without touching the Cliff Notes.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Moore’s Swamp Thing qualifies as literature as well, but there’s a very good reason why at the front of his first volume he includes a primer to superheroes for those who have come to the comics via the horror genre. And the appearances of the JLA will always be a millstone around its neck from being say, as historic and eternal as say, The Scarlet Letter.

And of course this HAS happened to great literature before. There have been sequels, by even the authors themselves. There were books published after the Great Gatsby came out, unofficial sequels in which Gatsby and Daisy run off together and have children and live happily ever after. I’m not kidding. History forgets. Sometimes it forgets rightly. And one way it is easier to forget is if things aren’t part of a series.

Of course these new prequels are optional. But in this world of high-merchandising, is anything optional any more? The Star Wars prequels are optional, and can never harm the gorgeousness of the masterpiece of Irving Kirschner, Leigh Bracket and Lawrence Kasdan. Hopefully, history will one day forget some of the things that surround it.

And hopefully, history will forget Before Watchmen. Hopefully nobody will throw around words like “the Watchmen Universe” and “canon” and “continuity”. But this is comics, where if you sneeze on a page it can end up as continuity that somebody will later retcon into important dramatic backstory. This is comics where I have been assured by fans that they literally have no control over their actions and will buy any product with X hero in it no matter what, as an issue of pseudo-religious pride and compulsive addiction – and those people love collectors editions. This is comics where we talk not of books or worlds or stories but just “runs”, when the comic was written by X – and then gets lost in the general mishmash of the oncoming tide of future runs. So I am worried.

You might say, but they could be awesome. Of course they could. Len Wein and Brian Azzarello know their shit. But I hope history forgets them anyway, because a series is a millstone around the neck of a classic that can stop it from being remembered as capital-l literature. It’s hard enough to tease out Moore’s run on Swamp Thing. Imagine if we have to try and do the same for Moore’s run on Watchmen.

Or we can sit back and wait for From Next Door to Hell, the adventures of Several Victorian Hookers On Their Day Off. There will be an animated series. And toys.  Oh there will be toys…


In Which I Break Focus After One Day, and talk about Ashen Stars

So yesterday I was talking about how easy it is to go off on a tangent and lose your focus, and then last night I was talking to someone about my Gumshoe whining and he said “you gotta read Ashen Stars” and I’m like “dude, I know it” and he’s like “here it is” and bam, I’m off focus, reading away on something I can easily read in five years from now.

To be fair, I was right based on my first impressions – it is hella awesome. It’s not just one of the coolest sci-fi settings ever published, containing five of the most well-crafted alien species you’ll ever see and a fantastically strong premise (“what if the Federation lost a huge war and so had to hire Han Solo and Mal Reynolds to police deep space in the aftermath”) it also has some great depth of detail and infrastructure to that, all the things that aren’t really setting but aren’t really system (or core system) but make a game unique and strong, like a fantastically detailed exploration of the intricacies of the justice system and a simple but detailed guide to making planets and some awesome cyberware and a huge list of ship stats and what might be (haven’t plummed it in detail yet) the best ship-to-ship combat system ever written…

…and on top of all that, it has Laws’ usual sense for the dramatic and narratively-styled. Like Leverage and Smallville (and to a lesser extent, Buffy), it puts genre tropes front and centre (although I wish it hadn’t called itself space opera, it sounds cheesy and you can play this plenty dark and grounded).  Planets are designed for the story around them, first and foremost. Adventures are built around premises and twists, because twists are what makes the half-hour ad-break interesting. But it keeps the core basis of simulational mechanics, which helps keep players grounded in the fictional world. It’s a nice balance, and the kind of thing that neither the old school hard-core sim games nor most bleeding edge indie games ever really got.

And speaking OF, it has what is at once the oldest rule of GMing (depending on your style) and also one of the most revolutionary rules ever written down. In the section on setting difficulty levels, it doesn’t have a useless table explaining that 2 is “Trivial” and 4 is “average” and 8 is “impossible”. It doesn’t go to great lengths to determine how hard your average lock is to pick in the setting. No, it explains the core of pretty much all mechanics I’ve ever used:

If succeeding would be boring or kill the story, make the target number impossible or nearly so.

If failing would be boring or kill the story, make the target number very low or just let it happen.

If both success and failure would be interesting, set it at 4 (average).

At first glance, that might seem obvious to you, but to any hard-core world-simulationist, it is insane. To the hard-core anti-“railroading” anti-die-fudging types on RPGNet, it is mind-breaking heresy. To Ron Edwards and co, it is the GM setting an agenda of “his” story and taking agency away from the players, and violating a sacred trust of everyone having input . It’s the kind of rule that is like the exploding of Alderaan – I could hear the screams echoing across the internet the moment I read it. Like the initiative rules in Fvlminata.

And I thought that was interesting. It was nice to see it written down so simply. For those of us who GM to present stories as much as react to them, it’s an instinctive tool, but as I said, I don’t think it’s ever been written down quite so explicitly and clearly and simply. It is effectively permitting dice fudging, as a written rule. Which is super sexy awesome.

So, Ashen Stars: worth checking out even if you don’t like Gumshoe. Hell, it would be almost trivial to turn the system into a roll-under one (actually, Blue Planet’s Synergy would be a good fit) and still use 95% of the book. Unless of course, you think this is railroading insanity. Then you should go play Smallville, which, alas, is much, much harder to fudge because you have much less control over probabilities.

And now…I must stop reading about the awesome armadillo people and put it aside….do it…DROP THE BOOK STEVE! THIS IS THE WRITING POLICE!

*shots are fired. Fade to black. To be continued…*

On Writing/Design: Keeping Your Focus

As writers, we tend to be interested in everything. As freelancers, it is in your best interest to be interested in everything. You are, after all, always looking for work, and the good freelancer is the one who can turn his skills to whatever comes along. There’s an urgent sense to be whatever the latest client needs us to be. This is actually inefficient, however – it’s better to master one thing, then sell it to lots of different markets, then trying to master ten things for one market.

But it has other dangers, and one big one is it can knock you off your focus. And that can be fatal.

I’ll give you some examples. My friend recently passed me a writer’s magaz ne. I was like, yes, I’ll read that, they take submissions of poetry and short stories might be a way to make some money, yep yep yep…but the thing is, I currently have some strategies for making money AND some ones ready to explore. I don’t actually need anything new. I’m not writing short stories right now, or poems. So what I’ve actually added is something more to research, study and learn (the magazine, its requirements, its style, etc) that I don’t need. And if I waste time or energy (or worry) on that, it knocks me off my focus on other tasks, which were actually about getting stuff out and making money. I joined another race instead of running the one I was in.

This happens a lot, in various ways. I’m on an industry list, and it’s always tempting whenever they’re talking about something, to follow it and learn about it. To monitor every new trend with my finger on the pulse because I want to be conversant on everything – even though I don’t even want to work on half of them. Study each new game as it comes out. Read a break down on e-publishing and self-publishing even though right now I’m working in a different arena.

Don’t get me wrong, keeping an open mind and inbox is a good idea. When a friend tells me he has an in into a new fiction imprint, I remember it, jot it down somewhere, and file it away, because one day I might need it. But that’s where it stops. If you keep it in your mind, it becomes another race to run, another thing in your inbox, another thing to drag you off target and stop you from finishing something.

The same goes for new ideas – they never stop coming, and that’s awesome, and you should never throw anything away. Jot it down, yes – and then put it aside. You can work on it one day, or maybe not. Ideas, ultimately, aren’t worth that much – and they’re worth nothing if they pull you off focus. Sure, it’d be great to make a game about Napoleonics but if you keep that in the back of your mind while you’re browsing the library or the internet, you suddenly have twice as many links to look at – those and the ones about your current project on Killer Robots. It’s great to be interested in everything, and it’s great to feed the great crowds of piranha in your mind on the endless bounty of the river of knowledge that pours off the information superhighway –  but at the same time, you’ve doubled your internet search load – and halved your writing time on both games.

Laser-like focus does not come naturally for the artistic and the intellectually curious – and I’m not advocating losing that curiosity. Being curious is fine. Just beware starting another project – which is exactly what researching and brainstorming IS. Starting is fun, but it is too often the enemy of finishing. And being available for everything stops you from doing anything.

So next time you have a great idea, jot it down, then put it aside and forget about it. Your current project will be better for it.