What I Mean When I Say 3-D Character Design

Yuna Final Fantasy X-2

Assume that the first 5,000 words of this post is a treatise on the use of propaganda to make it socially acceptable to attack opponents and commit horrific acts throughout history. I want to write it, but I have work to do and I’m grumpy(1)(2).

It was pointed out to me that I haven’t blogged about designing games or writing stories for a bit, and that’s something I definitely want to sprinkle in here and there. Often, the challenge for me is that I have my own lexicon(3) for creative elements. For example, I hate the terms “crunch” and “fluff” with the fiery passion of a thousand red suns, because I feel those terms devalue both the necessary work that systems designers do and the talented efforts of setting designers. Instead, I call the systems the “engine” for a game, because that’s what makes a game go. The setting, then, is the “vehicle”. Combined, they make a game filled with passengers (e.g. the characters). Without the engine or the vehicle, you don’t have a game. You have a pile of rules or you have a bunch of descriptions. You definitely need both to play.

What about those passengers, though? Well, circling back to my goal to define what I mean when I say “3-D character design”, I envision all game’s characters to be a personality that lifts right off the page. Player-characters aren’t photographs, because they’re not static. They’re active, and their stories are shaped by a player sitting at the table. In many games, I also like to envision the GM’s characters to be the same way, because that offers more potential for conflict and interactions. Thus, three-dimensional characters are more life-like than 2D; they are full of desires, fears, and quirks–just like the people filling their shoes.

I’m of the mind that three-dimensional character portrayals actively support a better play experience(4), because we–the designers–are presenting characters for two reasons. First, the characters are there for the GM to narrate. The more characters there are, the easier it is to portray them as photographs because they’re elements needed to build a narrative. But, even tweaking those characters just a little bit makes them more fun to interact with and more emotionally compelling to rescue, fight, investigate, chase, etc.

Second, the characters we present are not only necessary for the players, they also underline the play experience; you typically can’t have a game without characters (or roles) of some sort unless it’s intentionally designed not to have them. Character depictions are also a strong indicator of what that vehicle (e.g. setting) is like for the game, and when these portrayals are flat it sends a strong message to the players at the table.

For example, many players internalize they are not welcome in a game if the art and text doesn’t not include their identities, because they don’t feel a connection and can’t see themselves playing the game. This happens on both a subconscious and conscious level, and it is tied to one of the reasons why people buy games in the first place. To have fun, people need to feel vested in a game, and that investment depends on any number of factors. I’ve found that one of the best and surest ways to increase a player’s interest, is to focus on three-dimensional characters that many different types of players would be attracted to.

Three-dimensional characters do take some work to create, but I personally feel having this as a design goal makes us better designers and writers. The identity portion of that is part and parcel to ensuring characters are handled appropriately, and to that end I’m teaching a class called Writing the Other: Writing RPGs Sans Fail with K. Tempest Bradford. Outside of the discussions to sensitively portraying different identities, there are tons of techniques you can employ to zero in on making better characters.

Now that I’ve defined what three-dimensional characters are, I’ll address tips for designing them in a later post.

(1) Politics and winter. I have a great life, but nothing sends me into a rage faster than attacking women’s rights and seeing a bunch of dudes be smug about it. And winter, because this season has been way too long for sure!

(2) Broke my pledge to check in less, but I’m glad I got that out of my system now.

(3) It has always been this way, ever since I was very little.

(4) The same is true in fiction. Flat characters are boring to read!



[Announcement] Writing the Other 2017 Classes

I am pleased to share that I am teaching a Writing the Other class about RPGs in February 2017. The full text of the announcement, including instructions on how to get updates, is on the newly revamped www.writingtheother.com website.

In addition to the classes that I am teaching, I thought you might be interested in the works of these talented instructors. Please consider checking them out!

New Writing the Other Classes

2017 is almost here and we’re already planning a full year of Writing the Other classes! In addition to Weekend Intensives every other month there will be at least three Multi-week Classes. And we have an exciting roster of new classes and Master Classes coming up:

  • Writing Inclusive Games – Creating RPGs Sans Fail with Monica Valentinelli | February 2017
  • Master Class: Writing Bisexual Characters with Faith Cheltenham | February 2017
  • Master Class: Writing Your Future Self – Creating Older Characters with Ellen Klages | early March 2017
  • Master Class: How To Fail Gracefully with Mary Robinette Kowal and K. Tempest Bradford | April 2017
  • Master Class: Avoiding Offensive Tropes in Horror with Chesya Burke | Summer 2017
  • Worldbuilding Intensive (instructors TBA) | Summer 2017
  • Master Class: Writing From the Diaspora with Ken Liu | Autumn 2017
  • Master Class: Beyond Belief – Writing Plausible Atheist and Religious Characters with Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward | Autumn 2017

We also plan to have Master Classes on Writing Lesbian and Gay Characters, Writing Characters With Mobility Disabilities, and Depicting Class in Fiction later in the year.

For more about these classes, visit www.writingtheother.com.

Announcing In Volo’s Wake for Dungeons & Dragons

volos-guide-to-monsters

To celebrate the November 15th release of the upcoming supplement Volo’s Guide to Monsters pictured above, a new Adventurer’s League module called In Volo’s Wake was released to friendly local game stores on November 4th.

Today, I am thrilled to announce that I was one of the writers on this set of mini-adventurers along with my kickass developer, Shawn Merwin, and Rich Lescouflair. In Volo’s Wake will be available online at a later date. I’ll share a link with you on my blog when it is. For now, if you want to check it out–head on over to your friendly local game store and ask them about it. Wahoo!

Progress Report #10: On Writing Like the Wind

I just realized that my last progress report was from December of last year. Whoops! Rectifying this today, so I can keep you apprised of any new announcements coming up.

In Project #9, I talked a lot about the importance of doing research when writing historical era research, and how if you are writing about the past it’s quite possible you’re going to get things wrong. As an addendum to that, I think it’s important to remember that even though writers are very, very smart, because we know how to research and look things up and talk to people, that doesn’t necessarily mean our intentions or our work will be interpreted the same by every reader in a cultural, intellectual, or emotional fashion. This is pretty exciting, in my mind, because it means we can have conversations we couldn’t before and learn from them–provided we’re able and willing to listen. Sometimes, however, that’s a bit of a challenge as there might be constraints as to what the next steps might be, or parameters (especially on bigger named properties like Star Wars or what have you) that writers are bound by. Regardless, I see this as an opportunity rather than a challenge, and though I cannot be perfect (nor do I want to be), I feel this spells nothing but good news for the relationship between writers and readers.

I should also point out that a lot of work listed below is past tense; I’m always open to discussing new opportunities. Thanks! On to my tips for writing like the wind!

To Write Fast, Write Smart

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote 10,500 words in one day, and I “think” my fastest slog was 25,000 in two days back in college. I have written 12 or 13,000 in a day, too, but I’d much rather write 3 to 5k at a steady speed than lose my humanity, hurt my writers, and/or fall into the black hole that is my brain. However, there are some reasons to write fast like…procrastination, zombie projects (e.g. manuscripts you thought died but came back to life and need to be shot in the head. again.), shifting deadlines, life crap (being sick), etc.

Retention-wise, when I write fast I average between 90-95%, and ironically I retain more when I’m sprinting than when I’m not. A couple things to remember, though: I started writing when I was very young and focused on literary fiction through college, so I’m not new to this writing thing. Do I get neurotic or forget to exercise my story brain muscles if I’m too focused on one thing or the other? Ab-so-frigging-lutely. Writing is not a static thing for me, and it never has been. However, I feel that my experiences are important to mention, because sometimes I find folks put a lot of pressure on themselves to soak up all the writing advice they can to poop out great stories and write fast or write perfect when in all actuality? The only solution to figuring out what works and what doesn’t is to keep writing. It’s really the only way to internalize processes that are external to start–and yes, those processes can be forgotten or buried depending upon what your focus is. Something along the lines of… If you want to write novels, then write novels. Don’t write short stories or games and expect to know how to write a novel. Or, more to the point, my favorite acronym ever (K.I.S.S.) is sometimes the best way to proceed. If a thing doesn’t have to be complicated, why make it so?

Anyhoo… In order to write fast, I feel it’s important to take into account what you/I know about your/myself as a writer. I think that some of the self-analytical bits are hugely important, because if you don’t know what your process is or how fast you write in different areas, then it’s really hard to plan word count as a metric. I should point out that I do map a lot of my goals to word count for Day JobTM sorts of things, but haven’t done that for the spec stuff in a while, even though I’m starting to do that now.

Some examples of things I know about my writing speed are:

  • If I have to worldbuild during or after a project, I write slower.
  • I hate wasting time on a draft, only to throw it away.
  • I worry that my bad habit of using filler words (e.g. that) in a draft will make the story uninteresting.
  • Research is my kryptonite, because I love to do it.
  • Writing cold is the hardest thing for me to do.
  • I know that I can write, consistently, somewhere between 3k to 5K per day if I’m writing full-time.
  • Writing a variety of characters/scenes/etc. is slower going than a chapter on “a” topic.
  • Writing a chapter on a single topic bores me to tears.
  • I need to hear the character’s voice in my head before I write them.
  • I write fastest/best when uninterrupted for short periods of time.

So, my solutions to this knowledge help speed up my writing. I think of these things as prep work, and they might include:

  • Elevator pitch – If I don’t know what the story is about, then that is wasted effort. Yes, sometimes I need to write to find the character’s voice, but that’s a different and intentional exercise to solve a separate problem. Even if I don’t have an outline, at bare minimum an elevator pitch or short synopsis will keep the story contained.
  • Word sprints – For this, all I need is a timer and an hour of uninterruptions. Then, I write as fast as I can for that hour, after my prep work is done. I’ve written (at most) 1,300 words this way.
  • Milestones – I use milestone planning when working on larger projects, to set smaller goals. This really helps because if a deadline shifts, I can use word sprints after doing massive amounts of planning (e.g. research, character/dialog sketches/word lists) to get the project done.
  • Write to the beginning – This tip came from John Hornor Jacobs, but it’s a really good one. Instead of writing to the end of a scene, write the first couple of sentences in the next section to mentally prepare yourself for a head start.
  • Revision checklists and filler words – I plan to be wrong or to have errors in my work, and this reduces my anxiety about writing drafts as well. I know I use filler words, so sometimes I have word lists, character names/place names, etc. Sometimes I’ll put words in brackets or use a highlighter; I almost ALWAYS read my work out loud and change the font/spacing, to give me a different perspective on my work.

For me the key to writing fast is to do prep work both before and after, knowing that the in between bit (the actual writing) is the middle of my process–and not the end. Freaking out about the end is what significantly kills my ability to write, so I remove that anxiety by shifting the work and emotional weight to a multi-step process. This both occupies my mind and helps me the more I write a specific kind of project; this is partly why doing anything “new” can freak me out more, so I tend to overcompensate by planning more up front work.

Often, I have to remind myself that I cannot revise a blank page, and I cannot sell the story that hasn’t been written yet. Sometimes, to push through that, writing fast is the only way to get over that anxiety, because then I have a draft to edit and revise–which is more than I had to begin with.

Hope this helps you find your own process. On to the updates!

Games

I’ve got some new updates for you on the games front. Huzzah!

  • World of Darkness: Dark Eras – Wrote the Hunter: the Vigil supplement for this book for 1690s Colonial America. This is now available for fans to purchase.
  • Vampire: The Masquerade: Ghouls & Revenants – Contributed and edited this book. This is now available for fans to purchase.
  • Robert E. Howard’s Conan RPG – This hasn’t been released yet, but my understanding is that it will be shortly.
  • Codex Infernus – The Kickstarter was successful, and it’s now available for fans to purchase.
  • World of Darkness: Dark Eras II – Contributed to the Geist: the Sin-Eaters supplement for the 1580s-90s Roanoke Colony. This hasn’t been released yet, but it will likely be available this Fall.
  • Hunter: The Vigil 2nd Edition – I’m the developer for this, and I’m working on the outline and putting together my team of writers. The submission guidelines are available here.
  • Court of Shadows – I designed a new setting for Shadowrun with Jason Hardy, and contributed several thousand words to this unique supplement. The book will be out this Fall.


Fiction

  • Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling – We raised ~24,000 on the Kickstarter and had close to 1,400 backers. We were able to bump the pay rate for our storytellers and add two essayists. The collection is in proofing right now, and I’m working with Jason on delivery and timing.
  • Red Byte – Revisions put on hold.
  • Pratchett on Acid – 25K into the new novel, and it is…creative? Inventive? Heh, heh. Though, I’m going to flip this into a novella, because I think the story will be stronger in that format. I’m having TOO MUCH FUN with worldbuilding.
  • Vampire: The Masquerade Dark Ages Anthology – I’m editing a collection of stories for this setting, and we are now in second draft stage.
  • TBA times three – Wrote three media/tie-in short stories for [redacted], [redacted], and [redacted]. Two of those collections will be debuting this Fall.


Comics

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

  • Anthos – Two rejections.
  • Sparkle Mega – Full pitch is still in the works for a short-term series. The pitch window hasn’t re-opened yet, so this got put on hold. Found out the publisher doesn’t pay, though so am confirming this before moving forward.
  • Red Sigma – In addition to pitching, I am going the small press publishing route for a collection. Still in planning stage.


Non-Fiction

Super yay!

  • Worldbuilding Book – Pitches are being sent out. Yay!
  • The Gorramn Shiniest Dictionary in the ‘Verse – This language guide for the Firefly TV show is now available AND it has an entire section for the Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin) AND an interview with the fabulously talented Jenny Lynn!.

Thus endeth the latest update!

On GenCon, Visibility, and Being Welcome

Fire She-Ra Avatar

In response to the announcement that the Gen Con committee achieved gender parity for the 2016 Industry Insider guest list, there’s been a brouhaha about the panelists (which includes me). Boing Boing reported that GenCon attains gender parity, for example, as have other news outlets. Apparently, the fact that the list of panelists is over half women is such a shock to some, however, that while there are cheers, there are also jeers from Trolls Who Shall Remain NamelessTM and a few that are supposedly knowledgeable about the gaming industry claiming the list is mostly comprised of “indie gaming” folks which, according to the bios, is flatly not true. (Subtext, here, is that “indie” is meant as a slight as it is inconsequential to the opiners. Much like small press or self-published to some, in fiction.)

This reaction brings up a common misconception about the gaming industry (similar to SF&F, horror, etc.), and that is that a balanced list of panelists is “pandering” and being “political” because either women don’t already exist in gaming or we don’t deserve to be there, either because we haven’t done enough, know enough, or our work isn’t quality. These claims hurt two kinds of women in addition to my contemporaries on the list. First and foremost, I feel it is a big “F U” to the industry pioneers who have been around for decades, because it makes it seem as if those women are invisible. Some of these outstanding women, in fact, own/co-own their own gaming companies (Nicole Lindroos, Lisa Stevens, Kristin Looney, Shanna Germain, Margaret Weis, Michelle Nephew, etc. as well as guests Emily Care Boss and Marie Poole) that produce many of the games fans continue to enjoy–and several of the panelists, including myself, work for/with these companies. The second type of women this absurd claim targets are fans and aspiring writers who wish to work on games. Why? Because these bold, uneducated statements imply women do not deserve representation.

It is true that a precious few vocal individuals believes inclusivity is a threat to them. Aspiring game pro, let me tell you a secret about the gaming industry: it is made up of many, many gaming communities, and many, many gaming companies, and many, many game stores worldwide. The gaming industry is not monolithic, nor is it a citadel guarded by a tiny group of dudes who hung up a sign saying “no wimmin allowed.” There is room for you. Though a few out-of-touch individuals think you don’t belong at their table, I can guarantee you that there are 100 times more who not only do, but who will help you succeed. One of the consequences of being loud, of course, is that all other voices are drowned out. Those hushed voices include plenty of wonderful people in gaming who not only do not agree with a vocal minority, but who have been actively working on making gaming a better space for everybody, regardless of who you are and how you identify, for many years.

In 10+ years, in fact, this is the first time that anything I’ve done in gaming has been met with this level of animosity. I was welcome when I was a panelist at the GenCon Writer’s Symposium, I was welcome when I was guest lecturer for Origins University, and I do feel welcome at the Industry Insider panels, too. I’m going to tell you another secret why, though, some folks are baffled by the panelist selection. Most gaming professionals work as freelancers or on the trade side, and we do not get paid to market ourselves in our spare time. I, for example, get paid to write and hit deadlines. I don’t get paid to do interviews or seek out ways to boast about how awesome I am or invite myself as a guest to a con without being compensated in some fashion. In order to make a living as a full-time writer, I have to manage my schedule carefully. Much of the issues we face has to do with the fact that our visibility is low and, to some, popularity or name recognition automagically equates to worthiness–which is not a 1:1 guarantee. Too, post-GamerGate, I feel that negatively impacted promotional opportunities for women and minorities in particular, because the emphasis seemed to be on proving women and minorities exist in gaming, instead of highlighting the games that we’ve actually produced or worked on. Speaking for myself, I would much rather talk about the games I’ve worked on, than justify my existence.

Personally, I think the Gen Con committee has the right approach, in part because I feel talking about diversity or gender balance on panels (which have seen an uptick in recent years) is the start of a much longer conversation. There are so many people who are answering the question of diversity and gender balance by hiring diverse voices, by ensuring games are playable by all kinds of fans, by rolling out the welcome mat for entire families as Gen Con does every Sunday, by doing so much more–reaching out to panelists, ensuring art is representative, finding consultants, etc. Like I said earlier, it’s true that the “industry” isn’t monolithic and thus, it will have its problems. This list of panelists is a corrective push, for example, and I’m sure that in the future more, diverse game designers will be encouraged to apply knowing that they are welcome. Gaming, however, is not the Gollum-infested mountain that a few soapbox-stepping individuals have made it out to be, for more and more people are actively working to make gaming more inclusive and will continue to do so in their unique ways. This seems like a threat to some, because they believe they are no longer welcome. They perceive that their spaces are being “taken away”, and they assume that panels are automatically occupied by white men by default. They’re not seeing the changes as corrective or additive, to ensure those of us who have already been here share the spotlight, too.

Tribalism, in some form, will always exist in gaming, because some fans like their particular game, system, etc. and play that the most. You see this attitude on forums; you see this on blogs. Recent comments, outside of the trolls who think anything attached to diversity is a political agenda, tap into tribalism on some levels. Game pros and convention managers cannot afford to be tribal, however, not if we want to sell and play games, either as a hobby or for a living. What we share in common is a love of gaming–not just “that one” game. What’s more, many of us have worked for multiple companies, too, due to the nature of being a freelancer in today’s market. This is why taking steps to be more inclusive sends a strong and clear message; balancing panel selection is a smart and simple way to accurately reflect who’s already in the industry. Though I feel this initiative does require feedback, I have every confidence that this is the start as opposed to the finish of a directive. So, if you have suggestions please speak up to the companies, conventions, or game stores you’re interacting with.

I want to close this post by saying how I can see how naysayers might be discouraging to you, regardless of how you identify–especially if you’re new to gaming, are on the outside looking in, or know someone impacted by trolls. Here’s how I get on with my day: the people who don’t think I deserve to be on a panel track to share industry knowledge are not my fans, and they probably won’t be yours, either. Thus, there is nothing I can say that will change their minds, nor is there a solution to what they’re saying. They won’t look at my bio, or my resume, or know all of the places I’ve worked, because their angst isn’t really about me or the other panelists, it’s about how they feel they are no longer as prominently represented as they have been in the past. Instead of being excited to hear more voices, to see more stellar people, they are hurt by it. That’s their problem, really, because the GenCon 2016 Industry Insider panels will be awesome. The people I want to focus on, are those who will listen, learn, and be inspired–those are the folks worthy of my time. And, I hope, that is you.

Happy gaming!


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