Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip.
When Hex first started going to conventions, we often ran a game called “Project G.” The blurb hinted at something dark and mysterious, maybe an espionage or conspiracy game. The actual game was anything but, frequently turned into a LARP, and never played out the same way twice no matter how many times we ran it. People seemed to enjoy it, and it was rare that we didn’t fill up all (exactly) seven player slots, especially for cons we’d run it at in previous years. We didn’t have a lot of repeat players (once you know what’s really going on it’s not easy to replay as if you don’t), but a lot of people told their friends about it and encouraged them to give it a try.
Since there’s a chance (however slim) of Project G eventually moving from the “Idea Debt” to “Actual Product” category, I should probably provide a spoiler warning for anyone who doesn’t want the possible future surprised ruined. This post will reveal many of the secrets of the mysterious Project G. If you want to enjoy the magic yourself if and when Project G gets published, you should stop reading now. You can always come back to this post in a few years once you’ve given up on my getting the damn thing done.
Project G was one of those game ideas that just came out of a random conversation. Me, Leighton, and several people we went to college with were sitting around my apartment talking about whatever random bits of pop culture floated through our heads. At some point, we started talking about a certain classic American television program about a group of people stranded on an island. You’ve probably seen it. Someone raised the possibility that the reason these people never managed to escape the island was because there was a traitor in their midst who was sabotaging their plans to return to civilization. It was really the only logical explanation.
As people started suggesting likely suspects, we realized the truth: every single person on the island was secretly trying to sabotage the castaways’ attempts to leave the island.
The Girl Next Door (born Dorothy, but now living under an assumed name) wanted to return to Oz, and had spent years tracking down the exact island where a storm strong enough to open a gateway there would occur.
The Movie Star (born Norma Jean, and now living under her second assumed identity) was running from the CIA because she Knew Too Much.
The Millionaire had lost his fortune in a bad stock gamble the morning of their three-hour tour. On the island, he’s still treated like a king. Back on the mainland, he’d have to face life as a poor man.
The Millionaire’s Wife just wants to spend some time with her abandoned love child from the affair she had with a beautiful glowing man from the sky (the child grew up to be a mighty sailing man).
The Professor set the whole thing up to see what kind of society would develop when seven people from different walks of life were thrown together on an uncharted island. Most of his inventions are just standard appliances covered in bamboo coconuts supplied by the headhunters (actually research assistants) on the other side of the island. They also supply the “recharged” batteries for the radio and manufacture many of the news reports as part of the experiment.
Or so he thinks. The Professor is just a puppet. The real architect of the whole thing is Little Buddy, who hides his superior intellect and superhuman traits behind an act of incompetence. He planted the idea in the Professor’s head so he could use the island as the incubator for a new master race. Even the “guest list” was carefully created by our would-be superman: the most desirable woman in the world as a concubine; a girl-next-door type to actually raise the children and provide some variety in the gene pool; his mother and the man he assumes is his father so he can finally get to know them; and of course the scientist to do all the work required to keep the “experiment” running. The Skipper was an afterthought, and is merely a mildly competent sailor.
Or so he thinks. The Skipper may not look like much, but he’s a highly-trained intelligence operative who knows exactly who his Little Buddy is. The Skipper had enough of master races during the war, and he’s not about to let the would-be-patriarch breed (or leave the island) without a fight.
As we figured out why each person wanted to stay on the island, even if it meant sabotaging the others’ attempts to leave, someone suggested that this would make a great game. So we started running it at cons. A lot of what made it work was presentation: players who read the mysterious blurb and signed up were greeted by two very serious GMs (we rarely tried it with one because even though there were only 7 players, it always got insane) who administered a “personality test” to determine which character they would play. As we handed out the character sheets, we warned them not to open the coded folders they were in until we gave the signal. When everyone had a folder, we’d tell them to open it, give them just enough time to process the character names, and cue the music (a familiar theme song). Then we’d watch the expressions go from amusement to something else (depending on the player) once they got to “the truth” section of the character sheet that told the secret backstory.
One of the most fun aspects of the game was that most players (unless their backstory revealed otherwise, of course) assumed that they were the (only) saboteur with a secret and everyone else was more or less the character they knew from the show. When all the other characters’ secrets started coming out, the fun really started. After the game, which sometimes had munchkins and sometimes had aliens and sometimes had coconut power armor, we’d have everyone read their secret history. The order of the first four didn’t matter much, but the last 3 had to be Professor, Little Buddy, Skipper.
Since the original game used the real character names, we filed it away as something we could never actually publish, though we did do a half-assed Project G demo kit for our Knomes to use. At some point later, I had a change of heart that was partly inspired by Tom Carson’s book, Gilligan’s Wake, which oddly made some of the same (we thought) weirdly specific connections we’d made. Even though Carson used the names from the show, the book made me realize that these characters were archetypal enough that we could easily use “code names” like the ones above and everyone would know exactly what we were talking about. The whole thing also falls firmly into the “parody and satire” category, which would theoretically protect us (though in reality “they can afford more lawyers” would probably be our downfall). Banking that the IP owners would either never find out about Project G or send us a C&D before suing me for everything the student loan people haven’t already taken, I started updating the old demo kit into something publishable. Then I got distracted by magical hobos and sharks and a whole new game system and never got back to it.
So where does Project G stand? Since we got so much mileage out of the concept back around the turn of the century, it’s hard to consider it bad idea debt, but it does technically fit the definition since I occasionally go back to it when I should be doing more productive work but rarely do much that will turn it into an eventual product. It could become A Thing relatively quickly since all I need to do is change the names to protect the guilty, turn some terrible old writing into something readable, and add some GM advice and fluff. The main thing holding it back is that it’s such an old idea (I think we ran the first game in 1999) that it’s hard to get excited enough about it to actually put work into it. I’ll occasionally remember it, read through what we’ve got, and remember how much I love the concept and how much fun we had with it, but something shiny and new always distracts me before I get any Grunt Work done. If it does get done, it’ll probably be either because I’m looking for a reason to put off a new Big Project that kind of intimidates me at a time when I’m not excited about any new ideas at the moment. If it doesn’t get done, at least I’ll always have the memory of The Skipper and Little Buddy in a Frank Miller-style brawl to the death aboard a helicopter made out of bamboo and coconuts.
Once you’ve finished all the Grunt Work, you’ll have a product suitable for publication. This will lead you to a whole new round of Grunt Work to actually publish the thing, and it’s even less fun that the final rounds of editing and layout you just finished. If this is your first product, there will be a lot of it. If you’ve published similar things before, most of the groundwork (like signing contracts and setting up accounts and building web pages) will already be done so it might not be too bad. Write up your ad copy, get the cover images sized correctly, upload everything to the sites you’re selling it on (assuming you’re just doing PDF/ebook initially--print is a whole extra layer of tedium), and maybe send out some press releases and announcements on your social media sites. At this point, if I start the “release” phase of a new Hex product when the Simpsons come on, I can have it uploaded to all the sites we sell to and be announcing that it’s on sale by the time John Oliver’s show starts. Since most of our print sales happen at cons, I usually hold off until we’ve got a convention coming up before I do that part.
The good news is that now you’ve got the thing released, so in no time you’ll be hearing praise from your adoring new fans, right? Well, not so much. A few people might mention your product or blog about it or maybe even review it, but mostly you’ll hear crickets, at least if you’re not a big company with a huge fan base and/or didn’t just release the latest “next big thing.” For the most part, people will buy your product without giving any indication of whether they loved it, hated it, or were completely meh. Your friends might say something nice about it, but even they are probably more excited by the latest version of D&D, which in recent years seem to have started to happen nearly as often as Spider-Man reboots. For some reason I’ve never understood, gamers seem to get more excited by games put out by total strangers than people they know personally. Or maybe I’ve just got shitty gamer friends. It’s hard to say for sure. You won’t really get a lot of feedback until much later when you run into people at cons or on message boards or wherever who downloaded/read your game.
The fact that you’ve released this thing you’ve been working on for months or years and most people didn’t seem to notice makes it hard to get excited about telling people about it. That’s made even harder by the fact that you’re probably tired of the damned thing. As much as I love nearly everything Hex has done, Hobomancer was the only one I actually wanted to talk about, much less play, right after it was released. With most of the rest, I’ve needed some time away from it before I could appreciate it again. Unfortunately, the initial release is exactly when you have to pretend to still be excited about the thing, which means the thing that was so much fun back at the start--talking about your great idea--suddenly becomes its own kind of Grunt Work. It’s a cruel irony.
As time passes, especially if you keep releasing new stuff, there’s a weird disconnect where the thing goes from being this idea you had and turned into a Real Thing through tons of hard work and dedication to being...inventory. All that magic and excitement goes away and it becomes an item in your backstock and a game you run at conventions in hopes of selling some books. Last week I joked that you’d only kind of hate your finished product, but that’s not really true. It’s more ambivalence. Unless something really missed the mark or was poorly done, you’re not going to actually hate it. In fact, you’re probably not going to think about it too much because you’ve got brand new things to create so you can be ambivalent about them in the future.
When you do think about it, and especially if you re-read it, run a game of it, or whatever, it’s definitely more of a love-hate situation. Once the initial excitement of the idea, exhaustion with the idea, and “just glad the damned thing is done” stages have passed and you can look at the product objectively, there are going to be things you absolutely love and think turned out just right. There are also going to be a bunch of things that you realize didn’t work, weren’t as clever as you thought at the time, and wish you’d done differently. The second list will grow as time passes, and might even come to include things that started out on the first list. For example, 14 years later, I still love and am very proud of QAGS 2E, but there are a few jokes that I loved at the time and cringe at now. If Leighton and I had known we’d still be selling the book when we were in our 40s, I think we would have made more sober editorial decisions.
The best part about actually releasing your product is that no matter how much you love the thing, hate the thing, or just don’t want to think about the thing ever again, it’s now a Thing, which means it’s not Idea Debt. It’s been released out into the wild and is no longer sitting there on your hard drive begging you to give it your time, effort, and attention. That’s a good thing, because in the time it took to release the thing, you probably took on at least a couple more projects’ worth of Idea Debt that you need to start working to pay off.
Remember when I talked about Grunt Work a few posts ago? If you haven’t done any of that yet, this is probably where your project dies. All those exciting ideas you had at the beginning have been in your head so long they’ve become boring. You’ve now read that clever thing you wrote a hundred times and it’s starting to sound stupid. Worst of all, you and the people you’ve got giving feedback keep finding problems that need to be addressed. Suddenly that fun thing you started working on had become Real Work. It’s not fun anymore, and in fact a lot of the stuff you have to do in the final stretch is really tedious, and like any tedious chore you’ll probably find yourself doing it in your sleep. You’ll be dreaming about rewriting and editing the text, but because of the cruel nature of dreams you’ll only have a vague idea of what that text is, and the parts you remember will be surreal or dumb, so you can’t even use it for inspiration.
When a project turns into real work, one of three things will happen. The first is that you power through it until the thing is done. The second is that you give up and add a massive chunk of unrealized Idea Debt to your life. The third is that you deny that the work is needed and release a bad product, or at least a product that’s not as good as it should be. We’ve all done it, and the worst part about it is that as time passes you’ll notice all the holes you didn’t bother to look. Some of these will be glaring things that other people criticize, make fun of, or ask you about. Others will be things nobody else catches but that you know weren’t done the way they should have. No matter how good the thing is, you’re always going to wish you did a few things differently. The less Grunt Work you put into it during the final stages, the more of these problems you’re going to find later.
One reason that you’ll always find problems later is that by the time you get to the point where you really need to look at the thing objectively, you can’t. You’ve spent too much time with it, gotten to used to the way it is to have any clear judgement about it. When someone points out a flaw, your first instinct will be to rationalize or minimize that flaw. When your editor says, “I don’t know if you realize this or not, but your Robin Hood game doesn’t have any rules for archery,” you’ll hastily put together an explanation of how archery in Robin Hood is governed by clear genre mechanics that any fan knows instinctively and that trying to break them down into a mere series of die rolls and modifiers would be an affront to every Robin Hood story ever told. Deep down you’ll know it’s bullshit, and the more you try to rationalize the deeper the truth is going to get buried. Our brains try really hard to keep us from admitting things like “I’m the kind of dumbass who would write a game about Robin Hood and forget to include archery rules.”
On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll also find yourself realize that there are a bunch of vital things missing that have to be added for the thing to be complete. Many of these things, as you may have already guessed, are not as vital as you thought they were. They’re more like encumbrance rules: a tedious, unnecessary thing that everybody hates and few people bother with. Or worse, those “weapon vs. armor type” modifiers from 1st edition AD&D. Have you ever tried to play using those? Halfway through the first round, you’ll find yourself wishing you’d played Rolemaster instead. At least in Rolemaster the tedious combat rules have chance of ending in some kind of grievous and specific bodily injury. The point is, you’ve spent so many hours with this thing that your judgement about it is unreliable. That’s why it’s so important to get feedback and try to listen to it objectively rather than getting defensive. Otherwise you get a Robin Hood game with no archery rules and weird-ass modifiers for how daggers function against different types of armor. Nobody wants that.
Once you’re reasonably sure all the pieces you need are there (and you don’t have a bunch of unnecessary nonsense), things get even more tedious. Now you’re no longer working with ideas, you’re working with text, and most of it is text you’ve been looking at for months or year. First you’ll realize that some of the text doesn’t say what you thought it said, and that writing what it actually needs to say is much more complicated than saying it wrong was. You’ll also notice that everything is horribly organized, and move it. Then you’ll realize the new organization is worse and move it again. When you get everything where you want it, you’ll realize that some sections talk about ideas that haven’t been introduced yet as if the reader knows what they are, so you’ll have to fix that. You’ll also notice stylistic ticks in your writing that you hadn’t noticed before, like that you use the word “bonerific” too much or whatever. Then an editor will notice problems you didn’t, along with the fact that you always use passive voice, misplace every modifier you use, and seem to think certain words mean something other than what they actually mean (if this is your first writing problem, chances are well over 90% that all three of those will be applicable).
And once you have the writing done, there’s still art to commission, layout to do, price points to determine, distribution and maybe printing to arrange, marketing to do, and lots of other boring business stuff to do before you can put the thing into a single adoring fan’s hands. With the exception of commissioning the art (and it’s entirely possible I’m spoiled by the excellent artist that are kind enough to work for Hex’s criminally low rates), none of this is fun, but all of it can lead to failure if you don’t pay attention to it. The good news is that at the end of it all you’ll have a project that you’ll only kind of hate later.
Aversion to criticism is probably the number one thing that turns things into Bad Idea Debt rather than Actual Products. You all know that person. The one who always wants to tell you about their novel or screenplay or game or whatever, but who doesn’t want to show it to anyone until it’s done. If you ask to see the thing, they’ll tell you that it’s not ready yet. Sometimes the reality is that it’s still pure Idea Debt. The creator has big plans for the thing, but hasn’t done any real work on it (except maybe putting some things in his or her Book of Lore). Other times, it’s that the creator isn’t ready for criticism.
When you’re just telling people about something, you’re telling them about the thing you want to make, and usually there’s a gap in talent, effort, time, and execution between the ideal form that you wanted to create and the thing you actually created. Once you show the thing to someone, there’s a chance they’ll point out the problems. Some people would rather stick with the fantasy, insisting that they can’t possibly show anyone their precious little mind turd until it’s perfect, than face the possibility that someone won’t like it. Or worse, that someone will have the nerve to say that they don’t like it.
Unfortunately, without criticism the thing is never going to get made. For one thing, you’re a terrible judge of your own work. Since you know your intent, it’s impossible for you to know whether the message is clear to someone who doesn’t know what you were trying to communicate. You’re also blind to your own flaws until someone points them out enough times that you learn to be aware of them. On top of that, after you spend a certain amount of time on a project, you lose all ability to judge what’s good or bad. If you wait around for the thing to magically become perfect on its own, you’re going to be waiting forever. If you want to clear the thing out of your Idea Debt ledger, you’re going to have to let someone tell you it sucks. If you’re afraid to run the risk that a few people (probably people you consider your friends, at least early on) won’t like the thing, how do you expect to ever expose it to criticism from the masses (or as close to “the masses” as exists for your particular audience and distribution capabilities), who have no affection for you that might give them an incentive to be diplomatic?
If you ever want to be able to share the thing with people, first you’re going to have to show it to people, and you’re going to have to show it to people who are willing to tell you where you fucked up. The people who will say something like “I liked it” or “it was good” aren’t the people you want here. Vague praise may be good for your ego, but it doesn’t do anything for the project. You want people who will tell you what they think works, what they think is broken, and why they think that, in as much detail as possible. The only way to find out what doesn’t work is to let someone tear it apart, and listen to them.
When someone criticizes your work, you’ll be tempted to rationalize the criticism as a difference of opinion or a misunderstanding on the part of the critic. Sometimes that’s a fair assessment, but not as often as you’ll want it to be. Instead of trying to defend, correct, or explain the issues being criticized, you’ve got to listen to what the critic is actually saying, ask questions, and try to find out where the critic’s reading of the material differs from your intended message. Then you’re going to have to do it again with progressively harsher critics. The more people who bring up the same issue, the more likely it is that you’ve got a problem that needs to be fixed. Then you’re going to have to revise the thing and go through the whole process again. Keep repeating until you get down to criticisms you can live with or until you hate the project so much you just give up.
The more the thing differs from projects you’ve successfully completed before, the more rounds of criticism and revision it will require. For example, I’ve written a bunch of QAGS supplements, so at this point most new QAGS games go through a few “proof of concept” game sessions at conventions (to gauge interest and test out any new rules), comments from the Hex peanut gallery while I’m writing, a read-through from an editor to catch any missing parts, bad organization, and other big picture problems, then a round or two of final editing to cut out all my weasel words, clarify things, and correct my spelling and grammar. With Cinemechanix, on the other hand, I’m writing a whole new game systems that’s more comprehensive than anything I’ve done before, so we’re now in something like year 3 of active development (after probably at least that long of the project sitting around as bad idea debt) and year 2 of playtesting, and right now I’m (hopefully) getting close to finishing up at least the 3rd major rewrite since playtesting started. I’m hoping this time we move from “rules need major revision” to “there are still some problems,” but I won’t know for sure until I let some other people look at it and tell me why it sucks. If I hadn’t subjected it to criticism, I would have either already released a bad game or I’d still be telling people about this great game idea I’m working on but can’t show anyone yet.
So you’ve got this Thing I’m Working On, which means that sometime in the very near future you’re going to become a miserable bastard. It might not happen right away, but it’s going to happen. During those early stages when the theoretical project is just an idea, it’s lots of fun to think about and tell people about and make plans about. Thinking about an idea is exciting, mainly because you only have to think about the fun stuff. Those Books of Lore that are so often a sign of Idea Debt usually just contain the lore that the creator enjoys coming up with. If you want to turn the thing into an actual product, eventually you’ll have to do actual work, and work is unpleasant and difficult and not very much fun.
A lot of people will tell you that if you love what you’re doing, it doesn’t feel like work. These people are full of shit. Once you move from “talking about the idea to your friends” to “making the idea something you can share with complete strangers,” things get a lot more complicated, because you don’t get to just stop at the premise and whatever cool additions to that premise popped into your mind when you had the idea. Even a high-concept premise is going to take a lot of clarification before people who aren’t familiar with how your brain works are on the same page as you, and even the parts that are fun to explain are going to require a lot of sentences that do boring but structurally important things like making transitions or setting tone or defining terms.
One of the first things I discovered when I first started writing games was that explaining game rules requires a lot more text than I ever imagined. No matter how simple your dice mechanic seems or how easy it is to explain through demonstration, explaining it in writing to an invisible audience who can’t ask for clarification requires a ridiculous amount of text, even if you assume your audience is made up of gamers. What we usually think of as a single action often turns out to be half a dozen steps, each of which has to be clearly explained. You don’t just make your roll, you determine what ability governs the roll, then use that to figure out what dice to use or what modifiers to apply, then roll the dice, and there still may be other steps before you end up with your final roll, much less the outcome of that roll.
Oh, and remember all those cool ideas you have that build on the core premise and help better define the game? It’s not like you can just list them all out. You’re going to have to find some coherent way to organize them, which usually means you’re going to have to expand upon them or add some similar ideas to the mix. Some of this new material will be fun, but some of it will be less fun but necessary. You don’t get to write up three Hogwart’s houses and leave out the fourth because you don’t think Hufflepuffs are cool. After that, you’re going to realize that there are a bunch of other things the game needs to work, and some of them are going to be tedious as hell to write. Depending on the game, the boring but necessary stuff can include anything from rules to setting information to equipment or monster lists to GM information. And every one of those things is going to need sentences and paragraphs full of unsexy words that do the work of turning the text from a pile of random ideas to an actual product.
When a Thing I’m Working On becomes Work, procrastination gets a lot easier, and you’re once again in danger of leaving a big pile of abandoned Idea Debt sitting on your computer. Sometimes going back over or talking about the fun parts can inspire you to work your way through the parts that aren’t fun, but a lot of people get hung up on focusing on the fun stuff and never get around to putting in the work. I have a feeling that’s what the author who inspired this series of posts was talking about when she talked about Idea Debt. If you’re not willing to do the hard part, dwelling on all the fun ideas in your Book of Lore is taking time you could be using to work on an idea you enjoy enough to power through the dull but necessary parts.
Hunkering down and doing the work is an important step, but you’re not out of the woods yet. In fact, you’re not even in the woods. You’re in an amusement park, and you’re about to ride a roller coaster that doesn’t even take you into the D&D cartoon. From now until the project’s over, you’re going to alternate between loving it and hating it, thinking it’s brilliant and thinking it’s shit, and occasionally deciding that you should just give up and binge watch Fuller House. Eventually you’ll get to the point where you’ll experience all of those things at once. We’ll talk about that next week.