Friday, 16 September 2016


It's not that uncommon that I'm not here on a regular, three-time-a-week basis, which sometimes is down to schedule and sometimes is down to sloth. I am pleased to report that this month, the reason I haven't blogged in a while is actually productivity. I have been writing a new project, and so far I've written over 20,000 words on it. I am very, very happy about this, and more happy that I've been able to make writing a part of my daily routine - I sit down and write in the afternoons every day, six days a week. (Saturday is game day, and usually involves too many jobs around the house, errands, and prep issues to allow a regular writing time. But six days a week is good.) I set very modest goals for myself, and so far I have achieved them. For someone like myself who sometimes struggles with applying his creative instincts, this is terrific.

A lot of this is down to purchasing a new program for writing, Scrivener. A gaming industry professional I follow on Twitter, Clark Valentine (he wrote the transcendent FATE ACCELERATED EDITION, one of my favourites) posted a link to a really great deal on it, and since I'd heard so many good things about it, I decided to give it a go. It took me a long time to get around to really giving the program a workout, though, because I was so used to doing all my writing work on MS Word. The thing about it is that Word, although it has many issues, is a program that I know well enough that the program itself is transparent. I can turn it on and spend all my effort on writing whatever the project is, and when I'm writing something for a game, that's usually on a short timeline. So it took me literally months to begin sitting down and doing things with Scrivener, because when I was writing, I needed to get something written now, not engage in a long process with a lot of noodling as I learned the interface.

I won't spend too much time gushing about Scrivener, but if you've never tried it, it's really marvellous. There are a lot of different assumptions built into it, compared to Word or other word processors I'm familiar with, which was initially a barrier to usage. Now that I have spent some time with it, I can see that the differences are strengths, things that work well with my writing process in particular and have helped me get my head back in the game on a regular basis.

The main innovation that Scrivener has is that it allows you to break your writing up into smaller pieces that stream together to make a whole unit. If you think about this in terms of a play or screenplay, this makes tremendous amounts of sense - those forms are built around the scene as the standard unit of construction. The same is true of most kinds of game writing; you have a lot of discrete sections that set out ideas in a digestible way. Locations, characters, monsters, etc. When you're building those kinds of things on Word, you're facing the big, empty space of a single continuous document. That can be intimidating. Scrivener means you can just concentrate on a small unit at a time, and build the document piece by piece. Like bricklaying. That sounds like a small, simple thing, but it's been a revolution in the way I write.

There are a lot of other robust tools in Scrivener that let you do all kinds of awesome things, especially in terms of planning and organizing, but let's get back to those games with the funny dice.

What my experience of the last few weeks has put me in mind of is the importance of the tools you use, as GM, when you're building your games. This is something that's an issue from prep to table and also an important part of the overall gameplay experience.

I tend to be very scattershot when I'm developing ideas for games or other projects. I keep piles of notebooks around, and try to always have one close at hand. These aren't fancy notebooks, they're the kind of spiral-bound books you can get six-for-a-dollar during back to school time at the stationary store. I like using those books because I don't feel any compunctions about using and abusing them; I write as messy as I like, all over the place, draw little cartoons, and just generally let it all hang out. The notebooks are my space to write down whatever is at the top of my mind. I make lists of games I'd like to run, little campaign ideas, ideas for scenes or stories in the games I've got ongoing, whatever I'm thinking about. For a while, I tried to keep specific notebooks for every campaign I was GMing, but my notes tend to wander into other notebooks and end up getting spread all over the place. (The campaign books are still a good idea, though, because I'll make notes in them at the table and know where that information is later.)

The notebooks work for me because they're physical; they're something I can carry with me wherever I go, and I often stumble across one when I'm looking for a gaming book and leaf through it. Like little landmines of ideas. When I used to write little game ideas as Word files, they'd often just get forgotten somewhere on the hard drive.

My process for a lot of my current games is elastic like that, reducing my prep to a few pages of loose, scribbled ideas rather than formal "adventures". Loose organization changes your perspective on the game and how you run it, giving you more incentive to hold your ideas loosely and go with whatever is working at the moment. I've still done my homework, and I'm ready to run (well, usually), but I'm less married to the details. I think the same goes for things like organizing your prep on index cards - it makes you concise, focused, and flexible. These are not beginner-level approaches to GMing, but well worth cultivating.

The most important tools that most roleplayers use are game rules, of course.

I read and run a lot of different games, because different games give you different play experiences. In the indie / storygame world, different games can give you especially focused experiences. It's very important to know what kind of game you and your players want, and choose the right set of rules to deliver that experience. If you are playing a formal game like D&D that has highly-developed rules for combat, there is an excellent chance your game will include a lot of combat. You might have a game that has a lot of politics and intrigue, like HOUSES OF THE BLOODED, but I wouldn't count on it delivering quite the same amount of support. Sometimes you sacrifice the power of the tool because you're leaning on a lesser tool that's more familiar, and a lot of people know games like PATHFINDER well enough that they treat it as a neutral medium, the same way that I used MS Word.

Our group is as guilty of this as anyone. We play a great deal of FATE at our table, and maybe it wasn't the best choice for my immortals game NOT FADE AWAY, based on the drama that forms the most important parts of play. But it is a long-treasured favourite of mine, and I figured it would at least not get underfoot. We have also played a lot of PRIMETIME ADVENTURES, a game that I like but often find dissatisfying in terms of conflict resolution. For me, the game doesn't give enough push back against the players, or enough detail when a procedural scene is important enough to demand them. But it is unobtrusive, and thus a favourite.

 I wrote recently about how Powered By The Apocalypse games can have strange knock-on effects when you use them for strictly procedural games, As a tool, PbtA games inject a particular uncertainty into your gaming experience, because they are balanced so that consequential failure is always an option. The other thing about those games as a tool is that they demand very particular behaviour from the GM as a creative constraint. The GM only gets to intervene in the story when the rules give him explicit permission to say so, and only in highly defined ways. This means that your experience with a PbtA game is going to be very particular, too, and it is harder to use those kinds of games as a "neutral" tool the way many gamers bend their favourite games to suit different genres and styles.

Tools have important implications for what your games look like, and it's worth the effort to change them up once in a while to see how that changes your overall experience. Sometimes, if you're very lucky, you can discover productive new ways to do things.

Now, back to the writing mines.

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