Monthly Archives: March 2010

Something I Read

It is usually a red flag when someone decides to write a story based on their RPG session or sessions. It’s not impossible to do well, but it’s easy to do badly, and the more tightly the story hews to the events of the game, the more likely it’s going to be a terrible story even if the adventure was absolutely fantastic. The simple truth is that games make very bad stories, at least if they’re recounted as they happened.

Games can, however, make a great starting point for a story. One of the things that separates the good from the dreadfully dull is a willingness to apply a little alchemy to the tale, to tighten up the pacing, get a little less literal, maybe take a few liberties, and concentrate on a story that is good rather than one that is accurate. One excellent means of making this transformation is to change to a medium other than text, especially something visual, like a comic.

It is with all that in mind that I recommend Clockworks, a steampunk/fantasy webcomic by Shawn Gaston that’s based off a Savage Worlds campaign.

So, I dig Savage Worlds and all, but there is really no better advertisement for that game than this comic. For all that it looks good and tells a story, it’s still got enough recognizable gamer-ness that it’s hard to read without thinking how much fun it would be to run a game like this. It’s got one of those premises (not-quite-city-watch in the bad part of a huge steampunk city) that a lot of games shoot for but which usually ends up falling down because it’s so hard to capture properly. Clockworks does a great job of demonstrating that visuals make all the difference – like most steampunk-ey things, the aesthetic is one that is simple to grasp when well illustrated (as it is in this case) but which is much harder to really nail down otherwise.[1]

I’m also not joking about it being a good advertisement. Savage Worlds is a game I like, but it’s about 15 degrees off from what I’m looking for, so it’s a perpetual also-ran when I’m considering games[2]. But Clockworks keeps it bubbling to the top of the pile because, in part, I have no difficulty believing this story I’m reading could be captured with Savage Worlds. This good feeling has lead directly to the purchase of a couple Savage Worlds books and the serious considerations of others, and when the day comes that Mr. Gaston and company produce their own Savage World book for this setting, you bet your ass I’m picking it up.

1 – Am I saying steampunk is a primarily visual medium? I guess I am. Even the books seem to rely on a shorthand for goggles and gears that only really works if you already know what it look like.

2 – The fact that superheroes are better served diving for cover just doesn’t sit comfortably with me. I get why it’s so – SW scratches a tactical itch without getting too crunchy about it – but I feel like genre suffers as a result. This is not a flaw in the game, merely a difference in taste.

(images totally illicitly clipped from the Clockwork Comic)

Blood from a Stone

‘Income Streams’ is one of those ideas that I’ve seen appropriated by hipster marketing, but which I give some thought to anyway. The idea is that if you want to secure your financial future, you’d be well served to set up multiple sources of income (‘streams’) to supplement your salary. Rental properties, freelance work and financial assets that pay regular dividends are good examples of additional income streams. The idea is that the more of these you have, the more secure you are. Even if the total volume isn’t huge, the diversity means you’re more likely to weather a storm that might knock out one or two streams. Someone who relies on a single stream (that is to say, a salary) will pretty much live or die by that one stream.

Well and good, but where the marketers come in is in merging this with production and the internet. If you’re creative, they say, you should be able to be able to make STUFF with VALUE! And because the internet allows low cost distribution and delivery of your STUFF, you can turn your creativity directly into money. And if you’re not sure how to do this, then you can be sure they have no shortage of books and seminars on the topic that you can buy[1].

But that got me thinking about gaming because, to be frank, this is not the best paying gig out there despite being stuffed to the gills with smart, talented people. There are plenty of reasons for this, supply may outstrip demand for one. That it’s one of the most tight-fisted of hobby markets is another. People will tell you with great authority why it is so, and so long as you grow more suspicious as they grow more certain, it can be an interesting topic.

But that got me thinking about income streams. Gaming doesn’t have a lot of evergreen[2] products (written ones in particular), and it’s curious to me why this is so.

Some of this is the nature of the products. Games age, die and are reborn. We have a habit of considering any game that is not currently in active distribution as “Dead” even though it’s no more or less playable than it was. The net result is that everything is built on a slow churn that guarantees that almost any product will become irrelevant in time.

Some of it is the sales model. Before the Internet, there were practical limitation on shelf space in what were mostly small, private shops. Things aged and were moved into the discount bin. If something was evergreen, it only remained so for as long as the game was “alive” and it would eventually just vanish.

Some of it may be that there aren’t many products with the potential to be evergreen. Setting aside the birth and death of game systems, there are not a huge number of systemless books out there which are as useful now as they were ten years ago. There are some (Grimtooth’s traps, Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering and Nightmare’s of Mine, to name a few) but they have historically run into problems with distribution or availability. Even if players want them, there’s nothing saying they’re necessarily available.

But that’s all changed of late.

While WOTC has managed to kick the idea of e-publishing in the junk, there are still many many games that are now available through different channels, from digital download to print on demand to direct distribution or distribution through small outfits like IPR. With this, a lot of the barriers that might keep a product from being evergreen have been removed.[3] There’s still a shortage of products designed for longevity, but that seems self correcting.

As it stands, I think the only real limiter remaining is the pdf.

PDFs have a lot of advantages, but they are mostly advantages that any other digital format would share (durability, portability, ease of storage and so on). In contrast, a lot of the limitations of PDF are not necessarily something that other formats will share. Formats that are designed for reading, rather than to simply emulate the printed page, are going to have a much longer shelf life as reading devices become more ubiquitous. Today it’s the kindle. In a week it’s going to be the iPad. In a year, it’ll be something else. But whatever form the technology takes, we would be well served to consider the utility of books that are going to be able to be used by the next generation of readers, not merely displayed on backwards compatible devices with big enough screens.

Which brings us back to income streams. A sale now is good, be it print or PDF, and it’s easy to just leave it there. Gaming products are fringy, and there’s no way to be sure that your product would keep selling after that initial burst of interest. And all I can say s this: if that’s how you make your decision, you can be sure you’re going to be right.

So here’s my question to everyone who hopes that maybe that thing they wrote today might still make them a few bucks in five or ten years: why aren’t you writing an ebook?

1 – I sound cynical because I am. I still read marketing books because they’re often useful, but it’s important to remember that the primary argument for how marketing is really about passion and authenticity and storytelling comes from the marketers. Seriously, I’d like to believe. It really is easy to market something you’re genuinely passionate about, because then the challenge is figuring out how to communicate that passion. Heck, it’s even kind of cool to market for someone else’s genuine passion, because you can try to capture that. But if you ever, for a second, think that’s what the bulk of marketing is, I suggest you watch a beer ad sometime.

But I’m not upset about this, I’m really not. Marketers gotta get paid, same as anyone else, and I can’t really object to them realizing that the thing they really benefit from marketing is marketing itself. But I’m disinclined to line up to celebrate it.

2 – An evergreen product is one that will keep selling every year, in contrast to a bestseller which may sell big for a year, then dwindle to no sales over the next few years. The Lord of the Rings novels, for example, are evergreen. Every bookstore carried them because you could always count on a steady flow of sales. Note that this can be a little fuzzy. Some game _lines_ are evergreen (Cthulu, D&D) but the actual products are not. Similarly, dice are evergreen, but I doubt any particular dice are.

3 – Though some have been replaced. With a million zillion products available, it it easy for a potentially evergreen product to simply disappear.

Why Setting Matters to Me

Setting is, to me, the reason players engage. System can be fun, but setting provides the material to actually care about. See the problem is this.

This is Bob. Like any player, all he really wants is something interesting.

And this is Bob’s character.

But no matter how engaged that character is, unless the setting is engaging, then Bob is still:Bob needs to care about the setting. He needs to care about the people in it, and about what happens to it. it needs to become as real to him as the other fake things in his life, like books, movies, TV and the Internet. Only then will I get the engagement I want from Bob.

Simple as that.[1]

1 – This is, btw, one of 4e’s great strengths. It provides something interesting through pure play experience alone. For people who enjoy it (obviously not everyone) it doesn’t really matter if the story and background of a given adventure is a pile of crap (as it often is) because the fun of the game is in the actual fight scenes. All that literary advice about conflict needing purpose? Out the window. Conflict is a perfectly valid purpose in 4e.

As an additional note, Bob’s character’s image came from one of the stock art packs I bought from The Forge Studios a while back.

My Gaming Zenslap

Sorry for the delay today. I’ve been asleep for the past 22 hours, so things slipped. Still, something must go up, and here it is.

I used to be a bit of an RPG snob. I consider it a phase, but it’s what comes out of reading many many games and having Strong Opinions about them. Plus, as I got out of college, this whole internet thing was really booming, and it showed me that A) There were lots more other gamers out there and B) that their default social mode was total dickery. I don’t think I ever fell that far, but I definitely learned some bad habits.

One of them was so stereotypical that it kind of hurts these days, and that was – of course – White Wolf bashing, almost invariably in the form of Vampire. Some of it was stuff I consider legitimate to this day (like adventure design with PCs as audience)[1] most of it was the less-than-subtle eyeroll when a black-clad gaiman fan would go off about how it was the Best Thing Evar.

This took a turn when, in a moment of conversation with a good friend who was a big booster, I asked her to really break down what made it so great. Her answer was not what I expected. Rather than zeroing in on Clans or Disciplines or Humanity or any of that, she said she liked it because of the Nature and Demeanor.[2] The rest of the sheet was just noise to her, but those two things really helped her play the character.

Now, I’m not holding this up as some great truth, or even as emblematic of some portion of the fanbase, but it was such a *drastic* departure from my expectations that it lead to me stepping back and reconsidering a lot of my other expectations about games and gamers.

Since then, It’s been a lot easier for me to be comfortable with the different ways in which people get their fun, and more skeptical of one-size-fits-all solutions. Even more, it’s made me more enthusiastic to look at things I don’t necessarily get and try to understand where people find their fun.

It has not simplified my gaming life, but it has improved it immeasurably.

1 – Stuff that hasn’t been a problem in the nWoD I hasten to add.

2 – For the unfamiliar, they were basically your true nature, and the facade you showed the world. Mechanically, these were really soft things, like your name, and most hardcore players I’d dleat with considered them an afterthought at best.

Keeping Secrets

I seem to be crazy sick, so just a short one today.

I raised a question on Twitter, and while I also answered it, I got some very good answers as well. Good enough that I want to re-iterate it here to see what people have to add.

The question is, if your game’s setting has a secret war, what keeps it secret?

One option is that reality basically rewrites itself to make everything normal. Feng Shui’s critical shifts, as well as Scion’s shroud serve this purpose.

Another is that there are consequences to revealing the secret. Those might be metaphysical (like Paradox, in mage), personal (the crowd-effect in Witchcraft, or a system where the secret is more painful or weak the more public it is.)

Yet another is that the secret has some intrinsic quality, such as it is more powerful as fewer people know it (I really dig this one since it suggests a sort of espionage/highlander model) or there is something toxic about the knowledge (a la Esoterrorists).

The conflicts of the secret war might happen at a remove, such as in another world (The Matrix is a good example here) or a dreamscape.

It might be an active conspiracy by someone higher up the food chain – aliens, the Men in Black or the strangers from Dark City – who actively maintain normalcy. These often end up being the big bad of such a setting, but that’s not such a bad thing. As a variant, an oppressive regime could control the flow of information to keep things hidden. It might even be reasonably benign, a la the Truman Show.

It could be that everyone is already in on the secret, but playing along. This could be anything from full bore paranoia to a local thing (epitomized by Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars) or played up for comedy.[1]

And, of course, there’s simple disbelief. I’ve always been a little skeptical of this one, but as I was doing research for The Dresden Files I discovered just how many people in America and the world genuinely believe in the supernatural (magic, angels, vampires – the works). And not just casually – they fervently believe this stuff and talk it up, and we generally just dismiss it as crazy. I still think it’s a little thin if buildings start blowing up, but the tendency to disbelieve and mock that which is different could definitely help someone looking to keep a big secret.

Anyway, I’m turning these over in my head, for reasons I won’t really be able to think about until May at the earliest, and I;m curious if there are any other models I’ve missed.

1 – This, BTW, introduced me to my favorite new word of the moment, Mokita. It means “The truth everyone knows but no one talks about” (via @WeaverChilde)

Villainous Thoughts

I just listened to an excellent Age of Persuasion on the role of villains in advertising. The role is very similar to what it is in fiction and gaming, but it’s all a little bit closer to the surface. The villain’s role is not to provide opposition (though it may appear so), but rather it is to highlight the attributes of the hero.[1] It’s a useful bit of perspective, and certainly speaks to some of the things you want to think about when you design a villain. Specifically, you want to think about what it is you want to showcase – a villain that lets a player show off his character’s cool abilities is probably going to be different than one whose actions cut right to the emotional core of the character, though a villain may well be able to do both of these.

Whatever you use them for, villains are tremendously useful in gaming, and with that in mind I want to talk about a few things that are important to remember when you craft up your villains.

Response is Better than Nullification – This is a big one, because it applies equally strongly to the big picture as it does to round-to-round combat. The villain should never make things not happen. In the context of a fight, he should not be immune to the player’s capabilities. In the larger context, he should not cancel out a player’s goals or motivations. In both cases, the villain’s interaction with these things should be dynamic.

The immunity to powers matter is a classic problem in D&D and similar games, and in large part it’s because the designers felt that it would be cool to give the players access to abilities like Charm Person and then never let them use it when it matters. This is, of course, intensely lame, but it does acknowledge a real problem. If your game has these potential scene-breaking powers[2], you need to be ready to deal with it in some way more useful than “nuh uh”. Consider that the villain knows that these things are potential options, and consider what contingencies he might put in place to prevent them[3]. If a character can’t use his signature Thundering Death Fist because the villain has Death Fist Immunity, then that’s lame. If the character can’t use the Thundering Death Fist because the villain has put hostages in a glass-bottomed cage over lava, and the thundering would also shatter the glass, that’s fantastic. Not only has it added an extra element to the scene, it has demonstrated that the villain respects the character’s abilities.

If you find yourself in the position where you have too many of these things to deal with, and your villains are engaging in truly preposterous levels of preparation, then I’ll be frank – take a long hard look at your system. If it’s so easy for players to steamroller opposition then either you’re doing something wrong or the game is.

In the larger context, there is a temptation to have a villain nullify things in the name of drama. It’s rare that the GM thinks of it as nullification, but when you decide to kill the girlfriend and stuff her in the fridge[4] you are announcing that

A) You could not think of anything interesting to do with the girlfriend and
B) That you’re kind of a tool.

Destroying things seems like a cheap and easy path to drama, but in reality it is far less satisfying than merely threaten an thing. As I said in a previous post, killing someone’s dad is lame. Introducing a character who’s trying to kill someone’s dad is awesome.

Layers Have Limits – I have a great respect for the progression of villains[5] but it needs to be handled carefully. It seems like a trick that makes your life easier – after all it allows for the players to kill more villains and for you to introduce a wider range of villain types- but it’s actually much more work for you because you need to make sure that each successive villain creates as much emotional response as the one before it. It is distractingly meta when you realize that you’re basically fighting a throwaway villain or two solely because the plot won’t let you fight the main bad guy yet. It’s just clumsy design. If you are going to do a progression of villains, make sure that the progression is the one the players choose. That is to say, the guy they think should be the next villain damn well better be the next villain.

When Not to Fight – If you’re ever stumped for a villain, write one up who the players can crush in a fight. When the Villain is big and tough, it’s a pretty easy crutch to fall back on a confrontation, but when the villain is a bureaucrat or a clerk, you need to think much harder about how he can be a real threat, and you end up using much more interesting and sophisticated dangers than new piles of mooks.

Villains are the Hero of their Own Story – This one is old enough to be a chestnut, but it’s worth digging out just to remind people. Villains are doing things that make sense to them, and if you can get your head around what they want and what they’re willing to do for it, thye come across as much more believable. This is not an invitation to invest heavily in the character so much as a trick to provide verisimilitude.

But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Dicks – It is also easy to get swept up in the sympathetic villain, and while there’s certainly some room for that, try to keep it to a minimum. Sometimes, maybe even often, people are kind of jerks without requiring deep motivations or profound plotting. Your villains does not have to be someone who you would want to have dinner with. If you lack for inspiration in this, then just look to all the people who piss you off daily. Yes, putting yourself in their shoes is an important empathetic activity to understand why they thing “no right turn on red” doesn’t apply to them, but sometimes empathy just helps you conclude that it’s because they’re kind of a dick.

The Speech is Real – I’ve written about this before, so the short of it is this: a good villain has every reason to lay out a good villainous monologue, and it is likely to sound a lot like an Internet rant.

A Villain’s Story is Also Called and Adventure – If you find yourself strongly invested in a villain, use that to your game’s advantage. Villains are a proactive lot, and they tend to have stories that are something like ‘[ANTAGONIST] wants [A THING] and [DOES SOMETHING] to get it, overcoming [OPPOSITION] in the process.’ Think about your villains story, then think about the places where it might go wrong – “might go wrong” is a fantastic code phrase for “Where players show up”. The thing that makes this trick most useful is that if you have a villain who is clear in your head, adventures write themselves. You answer questions about what the villain needs to do to accomplish his goal, what resources he brings to bear, who he hires or recruits, and pretty soon you have all the fixings of an adventure. The only hard part is that you may have to jump through hoops to figure out how a gigantic subterranean lair fits into it…again.

1 – I deliberately say hero rather than protagonist because, unlike in fiction, advertisements about people cannot be as easily pawned off as art.

2 – And a point in 4e’s favor is that it’s pretty much shed itself of this problem, though certain tradeoffs had to be made for that.

3 – If you’re hard up for ideas, steal the contingencies your players use to protect themselves

4- If you do not get this reference, you are one of the lucky ones.

5- The idea that the first villain you meet works for the second one, who works for the third one and so on. This is almost a necessity for D&D or any other level-based game because it allows the villain organization to “level up” with the players. Unfortunately, it also ends up stretching credulity, as you end up with the World of Warcraft problem of Town Guards capable of killing everything on the planet.

A Random Day

Commitment is writing this when I could be playing Dragon Age: Awakenings. No review yet – it’s fun so far, and I think the expansions of mythology may end up being very useful for tabletop, but I want to finish it before really assessing things. That said, I have one thing to say to Bioware.



In other news, I want to point folks over at this. Margaret Weis Productions has lifted the veil of secrecy on their other project. Josh Roby is at the helm of a Cortex version of Smallville, an if you thinking we’ve done weird things for Leverage, you ain’t seen nothing yet. I am so excited for this product that I occasionally feel like I’m kin doff cheating on my own product.

There are other cool things for the future. Daniel Solis launched a kickstart for his very clever game, Happy Birthday Robot, and hit his contribution goal in 24 hours. Daniel keeps being surprised by things like this, but this is only because he’s not aware of just how awesome his stuff is. Jess Hartley has also launched a patronage project, The Shattered Glass Project, and response has been great. The bottom line, really, is that the cloud of awesome is very large.

In the realm of awesome thing soy can get right now, you should check out Will Hindmarch’s Alien Survivor. It’s a self contained game of survival hour built on the chassis of John Harper’s Lady Blackbird. If you don’t know what Lady Blackbird it, then go check it out – I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but you are in for one magnificent treat.

No? Well then how about a free copy of the magnificent game of Olympian planetary romance, Nine Worlds? This game had literally vanished for a time, and that was a great shame. I’m glad it’s back in the light.

Still not enough? How about a 39 page preview of the Dresden Files RPG? Nevermore – Charm City was never quite so darkly charming.

And if all that is not enough, then perhaps you’d like a little cake or pie?

(And as long as I’m throwing around random links today, if there’s something cool out there on the net you want to call attention to, feel free to do so in the comments!)

4E and Me (Books, that is)

I think the last 4e book I bought was Divine Power, or maybe PHB2, I forget which came last. I got AV2 and DMG2 comp copies but that’s been about it. It’s no because I have no love of 4E, but rather that my DDI subscrption gets me everything I need from the books. I know there’s some extra color material I’m missing out on, but for the bulk of books, the extra content is not worth the extra money. This is no sleight to the content – it’s good stuff – but I’ve already put in the cost of DDI, so a book needs to be able to support it’s cover price purely on the materia I DON’T have, and that’s hard.

But not impossible[1]. I just picked up the PHB3 in large part because the PHBs are historically pretty awesome, and they tend to be the sharp end of new ideas for the game. That much content is a lot easier to flip through as a book than on the website.

It’s pretty cool. Monks still scare me, psonics still seem to work ok. The races don’t really excite me much, but I’m sure they’re to somebody’s taste. Hybrid classes look like they’re A) fun and B) something I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole without the character builder software. Skill powers are…blah.[2]

But what’s interesting to me is that at this point, I can no longer imagine using all the classes and races in the game at the same time. PHB2 was pushing the bounds of this, but 3 absolutely makes it so. It’s rather like my observation on Mage – there’s too much stuff to take in all at once, but you can extract specific narrow slices of it and find something awesome.

What’s funnier still is that this recognition actually improves the game for me. Whereas imagining everything all at once produces a muddy mess, imagining the game with any 8 character classes (or less) produces all sorts of interesting ideas. Why _this_ set? What does this say about the world?

Sadly, that’s probably not enough to get a new game up and running. The overhead of playing 4e is still more than I’m really ready to wrestle with. So I’ll keep waiting for the box set and hoping maybe it’s the thing I hope it will be.

1 – I’ll also probably pick up the Dark Sun books. Setting doesn’t do so well on DDI.

2 – They’re not bad, but it’s a matter of what I’d want. They don’t make Skills more useful as skills, they just make them more useful in combat. For me, that’s a problem that was really, really not looking for a solution. But, hey, more powers.

When Boring is Fun

Stories and games have been being chewed on this week in a way that I find a lot more fruitful than the usual dance, and I explicitly want to point over at Chuck’s blog and Gameplaywright for good stuff to read on the topic. I’ve found a lot of good fruit in this thinking, and the question of what it is that games do well (and poorly)[1]. My short suspicion is that games look like stories not because they are but because the events in games are the kinds of things you tell stories about – that is to say, cool, interesting, exciting things – and the similarity to stories has more to do with the compression algorithm that makes fiction than something inherent in their structure.

But that got me thinking about things that are exciting, interesting or compelling but make bad stories. Are maybe those sort of things in an area similar to where games live? Specifically, could the difference be found within? That required thinking about what you can’t storytell about well, and at first that seemed a daunting challenge. A good writer can make even very mundane things compelling, but there’s the rub. There are certain tricks that are used to write about certain things to make up for the fact that the thing itself doesn’t make a good story.

This is best revealed in any long activity, where endurance is part of the satisfaction. Climbing a mountain is long and hard work, but it can be intensely rewarding and satisfying. Telling the story of a climb in any irect way will be very boring indeed, and capture none of what actually makes it compelling. Instead, an author will turn it into a story by focusing in on a single, emblematic moment, or using the climb as a framework to tell other stories that might symbolically resonate with the climb[2]. There are plenty of tricks to do this, but the point is fiction compressed (or perhaps more poetically, distills) the experience to find something compelling in it, even if that thing you find is not the reason someone climbed a mountain in the first place.

Games, and in this case I especially mean video games, have a different sort of compression algorithm, and most notably, endurance is in their bag of tricks. Done badly it’s slog or grind, but games can have their player commit hours to activities which would be described in a few sentences in text. Sure, it’s not a full mountain climb – it’s still compressed – but its much closer to the experience.

What’s interesting me most is that as I’ve been writing this, I’ve found I don’t have the words for these things. Because we can’t represent it in fiction, there’s not a lot of common language for satisfaction out of endurance[3]. I’ve got tons of words for other types of satisfaction, but not this. Yet despite that lack of words this is a real thing, and something that games serve well.

And that feels to me like a blind spot. We’ve talked about how it might be worth having the game experience have its own word to distinguish it form the structures we’ve associated with story, but that has also come with an idea that the stories you get out of games are more raw, unfinished clay – full of power, maybe, but not much else. But thinking about endurance makes me wonder how much of this is really about our limited (and self perpetuation) understanding of stories rather than some shortcoming in games.

1 – And whether we’d all be better off if it was called something other than story. A lot of this came out of my trying to think of how one describes Shadow of the Colossus.

2 – This isn’t limited to writing. In film or TV, for example, this will be a montage.

3 – I’m sure there IS a word, something latin-y and used by people who use “Fiero” in sentences, but jargon doesn’t count.

Worldbuilding is Easy

This whole worldbuilding thing has been on my mind since hearing some of the comments about transmedia from SXSW. For those unfamiliar, transmedia is currently the hip phrase to describe using different media platforms to tell a larger story. For example, consider the television show Heroes. In addition to the TV show, it has webisodes and a sort-of comic book (also available online) to say nothing of various cel-phone points of interaction. Each part ideally stands on its own, but taken as a whole it creates a bigger, more satisfying picture. As a storytelling mechanism, it lets a creator tell stories in more dimensions, and as a marketing gimmick it lets you squeeze a lot more selling out of a single piece of IP. Other good examples of this include ARGs and, for all that this is a hip new phrase, there are lots of older examples of this from all the various Star Wars spinoffs to the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring.

If I sound cynical, it’s because I am, but perhaps not as much as you might think. The marketing end of this is pretty shameless, and it hinges on making more money from less creative material while reinforcing the idea that you should go back to the well, no matter how dry it seems[1]. Plus, the new buzzword for an old idea is pretty lame. However, from a purely creative, storytelling angle this seems to have some juice to it. The idea may not be new, but calling it something helps gives creatives permission to push the boundaries a bit[2] and that hopefully means we get more good stuff out of it as a result.

The part that worries me is worldbuilding. This seems to be riding along in the buzzwake of transmedia – the idea that for transmedia success you don’t need to storytell, you need to worldbuild. After all, if you build a rich world full of stuff, you’ll have so much material for transmedia efforts that the stories will write themselves!

This is, to put it bluntly, fool’s gold. It sounds really good on the surface, and it’s compelling because it’s actionable, and thousands of 14 year olds have filled up three ring binders chasing this dream, and my expectation is that transmedia will send a whole new generation down this particular rabbit hole.

The problem is that Worldbuilding is easy, easier than writing. Worldbuilding is like writing where you only need to write down the neat stuff and never have to worry about sticky things like characterization or conflict[3]. It is intensely satisfying, a lot of fun, and it feels creative, but beyond a certain point it’s finger flicking. Yes, some worldbuilding can be useful to a creative endeavor, but it’s something to be done in service of the greater endeavor, not the primary activity in its own right. Making it the primary activity is ultimately a bankrupt proposition – you don’t produce much of real worth, and if you’re doing it solely to create IP, then it’s probably going to be pretty unsatisfying in the end. At least the 14 year old kid fills his binder out of enthusiasm.

But I don’t bring this up purely to piss on the idea. There are a few arenas in life where role-playing experience is actually a big boon, especially if you’re willing to embrace it’s benefits. If you put yourselves into strange situations and other people’s heads for fun, then you can benefit from doing the same thing in your daily life. And sometimes a creative idea comes along that’s old hat for you but new to the rest of the world. This may be one of those times.

See, we in RPGs have put in our 3000 bad pages[4] of worldbuilding. If we’ve been paying attention, we know the difference between how to worldbuild for play versus how to worldbuild out of pure self indulgence. If you’ve learned those lessons, then you can probably build a world in four pages that is more compelling than even the most talented novice can in 100. That’s an opportunity, and this is why I keep using the word Transmedia rather than stubbornly refusing to accept the buzzword, as is my normal practice. Bottom line is this:

If you are a gamer and you want to create, transmedia (or perhaps more aptly, the buzzification of the concept of transmedia) is something you need to be aware of and keep your eyes on, because this is an opportunity. Like most real opportunities, it’s not going to walk up to you and demand to acknowledge your genius, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

1 – Sequels are not technically transmedia because, hey, same medium. But in terms of the spirit of it – expanding on core material – they totally are. That is to say, transmedia thinking without restraint gets us Nature Trail to Hell part XXI in 3 D.

2 – If I sound like I’m suggesting creatives may have more of a conservative streak than commonly thought it is because I do.

3 – This is something you see as you read people’s attempts (intentional and otherwise) to worldbuild.[5] Worldbuilding is story without conflict. And the thing is, I sympathize with the desire for this. The idea that conflict is necessary to storytelling is not an idea that sits well with many people. It’s painful and disruptive and can detract from what you really want to say. I totally get that. But this is one of those tough realities – you can write stories any way you like, but if you expect people to care about them, you are going to have to risk some discomfort.

4 – Shorthand for an idea expressed by many artists and writers that if you want to do something well, you need to do it a) a lot and b) badly first. Everyone has a few thousand bad pages in them, and you need to get those out of your system and down on paper before you can get at the good stuff.

5 – MUSH folks – most MUSH writing is worldbuilding. Lord knows most apps certainly are.