Since I don’t have anything new to talk about on the Cinemechanix front right now (I’m in the process of implementing all the things I’ve already talked about), I’m going to spend at least a few posts musing about the “idea debt” concept I rationalized my way out of believing in a few posts ago. I ended by suggesting that maybe there was “good idea debt” and “bad idea debt,” which isn’t hard to translate into the idea of an “idea investment.” From there the trick is deciding which are good investments and which ones are shitty default swaps that threaten to collapse the world economy (or at least waste your time).
In order to talk about “idea investments” (possibly including examples of my own often-terribly misguided day-trading), I think I first need to go through a rundown of how an idea goes from an initial concept to an actual product (and therefore actual money). It’s kind of like that “How A Bill Becomes A Law” Schoolhouse Rock cartoon, but Bob Dorough won’t return my phone calls and all of my artists friends hung up on me when I offered to pay them in nickels and glory, so instead of a delightful cartoon and a catchy little song, we’re going to have to make due with the glorious magic of text.
Before you can turn an idea into a product, you have to have an idea. This may sound obvious, but I’ve met a surprising number of people who don’t understand how crucial this step is. “I want to design a game/write a novel/create art/start a band,” they’ll say. “Oh really,” I’ll ask, hoping that feigning interest in their (almost certainly) dumbass idea will make them more likely to buy some games. Sometimes they’ll tell me their idea, which is usually “like D&D, only BETTER!” Other times, though, they’ll stare at me like a Kardashian trying to solve a calculus problem and say something like “hmmm, I don’t really know, but I’d really like to [do whatever]” Then they’ll start drooling on themselves or telling me about their RIFTS character and I’ll question my life choices.
Anyway, the point is that you can’t make an idea investment without first having an idea. It doesn’t have to be a good idea, or an original idea or even a non-moronic idea (see last week’s blog), just an idea. The first step is having the idea. Sometimes an idea comes from wanting to create your own version of the things you like (QAGS), sometimes it comes from a random thing that catches your attention (Sharktoberfest), and sometimes it just pops into your head for no easily-explainable reason (American Artifacts). A lot of my favorite Hex products came about because we were sitting around talking about something completely unrelated to gaming and someone said “hey, we should turn that into a game!”
Now, if you just have an idea and immediately try to turn it into something you can sell to people, you’re probably in for a bad time. Not all ideas are workable. The first test is whether it leads to other ideas. If you think (or someone says) “this should be a game” and are immediately compelled to start thinking or talking through the idea, you may have a worthwhile idea on your hands. If you immediately get distracted by other things, it’s probably not very compelling and chances are that you’ll forget all about it before you get started.
Of course, just because you start thinking or talking about an idea doesn’t mean it’s one worth pursuing. People think and talk about and even do stupid shit all the time. If they didn’t we never would have gotten “Ate My Balls” pages or the Hamster Dance in the early days of the internet. That’s why just spending time thinking about your idea when it first comes to you doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. If you start working on it at this stage, you might end up with “Ted Raimi Ate My Balls.” That’s not something the world needs (or is it?)
That leads to the second test: time. If you wake up the next morning and don’t remember the idea or find yourself asking “what the hell was I thinking?,” the ide probably isn’t worth pursuing. If it still sounds like a good idea in the cold, hard, sober light of day and you’re still interested, you can move on to the next step, which we’ll discuss next week.
You can support my dumbass ideas by supporting me on Patreon!
When Snakes on a Plane came out, Samuel L. Jackson told a story on the talk show circuit about how Snakes on a Plane was just the working title of the movie and it was supposed to be renamed something like “Terror at 10,000 Feet.” In Jackson’s version, he’s the one that convinced the producers to keep the name after he explained that anyone who wasn’t ready to buy a ticket the second they heard “Snakes on a Plane” was not part of the target audience for the movie. Calling something else would just lose potential fans and alienate people who were not going to like the movie no matter what is was called. He probably threw a “motherfucker” in there somewhere, but that’s the gist.
Jackson was partially right. The “just what it says on the poster” advertising definitely sold a lot of tickets to Snakes on a Plane. Unfortunately, once you get past the snakes and the plane, the movie is a pretty straightforward action/horror flick with some comedy thrown in. It’s fun to watch, but doesn’t really deliver the kind of deeply dumb awesomeness that I was hoping for from a movie starring Samuel L. Jackson called Snakes on a Plane. They didn’t quite want to admit that the entire appeal of the movie was in the title and tried to dress it up like something more --I don’t know, maybe “respectable” or “grown up?”--than it had any right to be.
Hollywood’s always making bad decisions like that because the whole system hates creativity, but the problem isn’t restricted to Hollywood. Americans in general just aren’t really comfortable with absurdity or even anything “too weird.” We always have to try to explain it or dress it up with logic or science or something that makes it seem “realistic.” Because a walking corpse that wants to drink your blood because of some kind of plague is somehow not as silly as a walking corpse that wants to drink your blood just because. Grant Morrison summed it up nicely in Supergods:
“Adults...struggle desperately with fiction, demanding constantly that it conform to the rules of everyday life. Adults foolishly demand to know how Superman can possibly fly, or how Batman can possibly run a multibillion-dollar business empire during the day and fight crime at night, when the answer is obvious even to the smallest child: because it's not real.”
For some things, we can accept that it’s not real. We can watch Scooby Doo our whole lives without ever once wondering why the dog talks, because it’s a cartoon. We can watch Sharknado and enjoy the hell out of it because it’s a dumb Scify movie starring Tara Reid and the guy from Beverly Hills 90210. We don’t care that these things are stupid for some reason, maybe because we don’t expect them to be “serious” (whatever that means). If Sharknado had starred Jason Statham or Bradley Cooper and gotten a theatrical release, it probably would have been panned as one of the worst movies ever made (and probably would have been called something much less satisfying than Sharknado) because most people wouldn’t have accepted it for the dumb fun it was. That (and a horribly misleading marketing campaign) is why Hudson Hawk is considered one of the worst movies of all times when it’s not a bad movie, just a movie that isn’t ashamed of its goofiness. Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello are singing cat burglars who get blackmailed into stealing pieces of Da Vinci’s gold machine! What’s not to love?
Basically, we have a lot of trouble accepting that something can be both absurd and worthwhile. Because some random firing of neurons tells people that something is no longer just “dumb fun” and is now SOMETHING SERIOUS and they lose all ability to appreciate dumb shit just because it’s entertaining. Suddenly the dumb shit has to grow up (unless they can label it “satire” or “parody” and pretend it has an ulterior motive) or rationalized until the fun is sucked out of it. I’ve written before about how we had to deal with this problem constantly with QAGS. Since the rulebook has jokes, it’s a “silly game” and we still run into people who are surprised when they find out that you can run a “serious” game using a rulebook that’s fun to read.
In Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey, Jr. explains to Ben Stiller that “you never go full retard.” I disagree. Maybe it’s the result of too much Discordianism and Dr. Demento, but the switch in my brain that’s supposed to tell me when absurdity is no longer acceptable doesn’t work right, so I think that sometimes the best thing you can do is go full retard. Willingness to commit to a stupid idea without shame leads to things like the muppet episode of Angel and The Dumb Jousting Movie With The Kid From The Patriot and Machete 2. Of course, since it’s not very polite to talk about going full retard, I like to think of it as “embracing the stupid.” That’s why I write games about sharks and fratboys and Eris building a whole word because she wants some cheese. As a great man (Weird Al Yankovic) once said:
I also do stupid things on Patreon.
I first read about the concept of “idea debt” in a blog post by Jessica Abel that Leighton sent me some indeterminate amount of time ago. Basically, an idea debt is that project you want to do but you’re not working on. Abel’s advice is to throw away that idea debt because all the time you spend thinking about it is robbing you of time that could be spent on the projects that will actually get done. I want to agree with the premise of the post, but there’s a lot of idea debt I can’t throw away.
Part of the problem is that I don’t see most of my idea debt as the kind of debt Jessica is talking about. She’s seems to be talking mostly about ideas that are never going to happen. I know a lot of people with that kind of idea debt, and Leighton and I have published something like 50 game books over the years while they’ve been making vague references to “working on my book/screenplay/Jello sculpture of Millard Fillmore.” Sure I’ve got some ideas for big projects that will never happen (Hobomancer HBO series), but I don’t spend much time thinking of them. The Hex crew and I may occasionally spend more time than is healthy discussing our impossible and completely theoretical ideas at a con or something, but it’s during the non-working or boring dealer’s room hours where if we weren’t trying to come up with a name for the W. Earl Brown stinkomancer character (because the W. Earl Brown was born to play a hobomancer), we’d be complaining about Zak Snyder movies or geeking out over movies that Zak Snyder didn’t make or talking about something equally non-productive. It’s more “idea fuck, marry, kill” than idea debt.
The things that are never going to happen don't interfere with my actual projects, since I know they’re never going to happen so I don’t spend much time thinking about them except when me and Leighton and Carter and Josh and Ian and Jeff and whoever else happens to be there are shooting crazy ideas at one another in a con booth or hotel room because we don’t have anything better to do. Occasionally we stumble upon a viable idea; it’s how we came up with Hobomancer, Laser Ponies, and probably some other products I’m forgetting. We come up with a lot of dumb shit that’s never going to happen, but we also sometimes come up with some GREAT dumb shit that we actually publish.
My problem is distinguishing between idea debt and what might be called “idea inventory.” Once an idea still seems like a good one after a night’s sleep (the first viability test for any idea), I have a tendency to start what Jessica calls a “book of lore,” or in my case a Google doc of lore. Usually these start out as a bunch of brainstorming ideas and get added to for a few weeks while the idea is still fresh. After that, a few things can happen. Sometimes the idea hits critical mass and turns into a product. Sometimes it just sits there collecting dust once the initial magic is gone. A few inspire random, short spurts of creativity every now and then and then either turn into products or go back to collecting dust. While the last category seems like idea debt, I have a hard time thinking of it that way because it’s not like I’m obsessing over them when I should be working on something else. I occasionally have new ideas, add them to the “book of lore,” and go back to whatever I was doing. They're not an excuse I use to pretend I'm working on something real when I'm really not. Also, for the most part the ones that I keep coming back to eventually turn into things that people can give me money for, which wouldn’t happen if I wrote them off just because I’m not ready to finish them as soon as I think of them. Qerth, Rasslin’, and several other things (including my current project, Cinemecanix, which started life as QAGS 3rd Edition idea debt) were idea debt for years before they became actual products. Maybe there’s good idea debt and bad idea debt, just like with financial debt. I don’t know, I’ve never formally studied idea economics.
You can invest in my idea debt at Patreon!
Turns out I'm going to be working util 7 on Mondays, so I've tentatively moved new blog day to Wednesday. We'll see how that works out and maybe change it again later. This week instead of a blog, I did a new random generator script, the Random Christmas One-Shot Adventure Generator. Give it a try!
Here are few of my favorites so far:
Laser Reindeer Squad Meets the Vampire Fairies
Machine Gun Jesus Vs. the Robot Reindeer
Speed Demon Santa Conquers the Werewolf Spirits
Dr. Nutcracker Saves the Break Dancing Humbugs
Robot Yule Goat Saves the Hobo Yeti
Adventure Scrooge Meets the Wise-Crackin' Zombies
Social Justice Hermey Meets the Toy-stealing Fairies
Space St. Nick Meets the Jive-Talkin' Windigo
Super Deadpool Meets the Angry Living Christmas Trees
Multi-Dimensional Jesus Meets the Candy Cane Humbugs
Make my spirits bright by supporting me on Patreon.
I was hoping to use my 4-day weekend to finish and post the (hopefully) long-awaited next draft of the Cinemechanix rules to the playtest group, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. Partly it was because I ended up having to work Saturday, but since I knew that ahead of time I probably should have gotten right to work on Thursday. Instead, I watch almost all 9 hours (I did take a break to eat some turkey) of Mystery Science Theater’s Turkey Day marathon. I’d only meant to watch a couple of movies, but the movies were bad and my will was weakened by a couple of weeks trying to re-integrate into society. As long as you ignore the fact that I could have easily chosen not to spend 9 hours watching bad movies, it really couldn’t be avoided.
I did get some work done, I just didn’t end up with as much to show for it as I’d hoped. The amount I added to the word count (which we’ll talk more about later) was embarrassingly small. This isn’t because I’ve got writer’s block or don’t know how to say what I need to say: I basically know what the unwritten sections are going to say, and even some of the exact wording. The problem is finding the best way to organize the section. Every time I get started on it, I end up changing my mind about how it needs to be arranged so that it flows well and makes sense. If all that meant was some cutting and pasting, that wouldn’t be a problem. The really time-consuming part comes from having to go back and re-read the surrounding sections to confirm that the new organization works, that I’m not referencing concepts before they’ve been introduced, and generally making sure that moving things around doesn’t introduce a whole new set of problems. I could wait until later to do it, but organizational problems tend to get harder to fix the longer they hang around, so I always try to make sure any move is a good move right away.
Organization is always a problem with game books. I’ve talked before about how most first-time adventure writers get confused about the nature their audience and try to keep the GM in suspense rather than telling her what she needs to know to run the adventure. Even if you’re not writing something with a plot and/or have accepted that you’re not writing a novel, though, organization is tricky. Do you start with character creation rules, since that’s the first thing a lot of players are going to want? Do you try to introduce the world first? If you introduce the world, do you start small with the things that are immediately relevant to the character (the organization they work for or the area they live in) and work your way up, or do you start with the big picture and work your way down? If you start with the rules, do put them all in one place or save the rules that only the GM needs for later in the book, possibly with a big section of background or other world material in between? Is this section that kind of breaks up the flow tangential enough to make an appendix or sidebar, or should you really try to work it into the main text?
Unfortunately, there’s not really a consistent “right way” to organize a game book. What goes where depends on what kind of game book you’re writing (setting, adventure, rules supplement, core rulebook), the intended audience, the length of the book, and even the author’s writing style. What works for one book doesn’t necessarily work for another book, even if they both contain the same kind of information. For example, when I suggested that Ian move some chapters around in And One For All, he pointed out that he was mirroring the organization of another QAGS book (I don’t remember which one off the top of my head). He was right, but for some reason what worked for that book didn’t work for this one.
Part of the difficulty is that game books have to be organized to serve at least three different functions. First and most importantly, it has to teach the reader how to play the game, so it has to work like a textbook, with each chapter building on the ideas from earlier in the book. You can get away with a certain amount of “we’ll talk about this in more detail later” and “see Chapter XX,” but too many references to things that haven’t been explained can create confusion and annoy the reader. Secondly, the book has to keep the reader reading. If they get bored and give up halfway through, they’re probably never going to play the game. This is why we often save “listy” sections like spell descriptions or monster stats for appendices even when they make sense organizationally elsewhere in the book. Reading the same format over and over again gets tedious, and some people are more likely to put the book down than just skip ahead to the stuff that won’t shut down their brain. Last but not least, the book has to be organized in a way that makes it useful as a reference so players can find the things they need when they’re making characters or need to look up something during play. Making sure a book checks off all three boxes can be challenging.
The new section is also creating some book-level organizational concerns (or, more accurately, adding to the ones that already existed). My initial plan for the Cinemechanix core rulebook was for it to contain the rules and 10 sample games, called “Elevator Pitches,” describing specific game set-ups. The idea was to provide examples of how you could adapt the game to different fictons. I also wanted to show examples of getting away from the “one-size-fits-all” idea behind generic game systems by including completely different rules for the same story element in different Elevator Pitches. For example, a Hobomancer Elevator Pitch with the Cinemechanix version of the ritual magic rules from the original game, but also a “Wizard School” game with rules that allow more Rowlingsesque magic. Or a Star Wars-style setting and a Star Trek-style setting with completely different spaceship combat rules. At the time, the core rules were around 100 pages (based on our average manuscript words-to-finished product pages ratio) and I expected the sample games to run about 10 pages each. While a 200 page book is larger than any we’ve done (except for possibly the first edition of M-Force, which had a font so large it could be seen from space), it’s not ridiculously massive by RPG standards.
When I actually started writing some Elevator Pitches, it turned out they required a lot more ink than I’d expected. The average page count of the first few were in the 20-25 page range, which took the book’s page count up to the 300-350 range. Still not gargantuan by RPG standards, but due to business reasons you’re probably not interested in and old fart sticker shock (most of the Hex crew hasn’t bought games regularly since $30 was expensive for a 200-page hardcover), it’s a little bigger than we’re really comfortable with. Since we’d already talked about using the Elevator Pitch format for standalone products (doing so would allows us to get particularly off-the-wall ideas out in a cheap, bare-bones format so we could test the waters and decide whether a full supplement was worth developing) we decided to cut the number in the core book in half, which should still get the point across and keep the page count in the under-250 range.
With the new section, the core rulebook is up to somewhere in the 180-page range, which puts us back at a 300+ page book with 5 Elevator Pitches. That’s got me thinking about breaking the new section out into a separate book. If you’re playing fairly basic, low-crunch games that don’t need a lot of special rules or you’re only using a Cinemechanix supplement that provide the necessary special rules, you can live without the section about adapting games even though it’s kind of central to distinguishing “adaptive” from “generic.” If I decide to do that, the next hurdle becomes how to sell a book that’s essentially a crash course in game design for a specific game system. But that falls under marketing, not organization. Since I suck at marketing, I probably won’t be blogging about it any time soon.
Maybe if I sucked less at marketing more people would support me on Patreon.