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.
I’ve spent the last week adjusting to the new job (and normal people hours), so I haven’t had any time to work on Cinemechanix this week (though hopefully I’ll get a few hours of work done after I finish this post), which means I don’t have any news to report or observations to share on that front. Every now and then, I’ll respond to a reddit post with a long answer that isn’t paraphrasing the Hex party line or one of our regular con panels. If it seems like it might be a good blog topic, I paste it into a file in my idea folder for when I don’t have any ideas. Since I didn’t have any ideas on that front, I dug through the folder and found something I wrote a few years ago about naming characters in your game. After a little expanding and cleaning up, I came up with this post.
When you’re coming up with character names, a good place to start is to look at characters from pop culture who are similar to the type of character you’re creating. You can even borrow part of the name of your favorite character, just don’t borrow all of it (Jake Magnum is a fine name for a detective; Thomas Magnum is already taken). Just don’t borrow a name that’s so strongly associated with a single character that the name will overshadow your character. No cops named McClane, zombie hunters named Ash, or mad scientist named brown. Below are a few naming conventions I’ve noticed for modern-day settings.
Action hero names radiate strength and often border on being porn names. First names are usually monosyllabic and often have one or more hard consonants: Jack, Bruce, Mike, Rex that kind of thing. Action hero women often get two syllables (Becky, Lucy), but sometimes one will do (Kate, Trish). Last names usually refer to something strong, tough, or action-oriented: Steel, Magnum, Force, etc. If you want a less over-the-top surname, Italian and Irish surnames are popular for some reason, especially for cop types. I’m not sure if that’s a historical thing or just ethnic stereotyping.
Your Dudley Do-Right types tend to follow action hero naming conventions, but sometimes they also include religious references. First names like Luke or Paul (or Sarah or Rachel, for Girl Scouts), last names like Pope or Cross. Non-religious surnames that suggest power or benevolence, like Knight or King, can also work.
If Danger is your character’s middle name, is first name will probably be a name that most people associate with youth. The list changes slightly from generation to generation, but diminutives like Bobby and Jimmy (or Suzie and Jenny) are pretty evergreen. Last names should tend to be kinetic-sounding words like Blaze, Chase, or Speed. Nicknames are also popular, especially ones like “Flash” that sound like they were given to the character when he was a high school sports star.
Criminals and Scumbags
Small-time crooks usually have diminutive names, nicknames, or both: Fast Eddie, Lucky, Fingers, Paulie, that kind of thing. Female criminals has stripper names like Trixie and Jade. Last names need to sound appropriately suspicious or skeevy when combined with first name. Ethnic surnames--again especially Irish and Italian--are extremely common in fiction, but white trashy-sounding names like Bodine or Puckett can also work well. Shady-sounding surnames like Black or Hood can work for some settings, but for others they’re a little too on-the-nose.
Men (and Women) of Means
High-falutin’ types always have appropriately WASPy names. Personal names can be surnames (Walton or Pritchard), references to great men, especially when combined with a middle name (Alexander or Thomas Jefferson), or douchey-sounding nicknames like Trip or Chip. Fancy women are often named after mythical or legendary characters like Guinevere or Circe. Surnames are usually multi-syllabic and appropriately upper-crust. Names of powerful political figures, Gilded Age businessmen, and Mayflower families tend to work best. If you want to seal the deal, add a number to the end of the name.
Eccentrics (mad scientists, conspiracy theorists, local crazies), not surprisingly, have weird names. First names are often the names of famous learned men and women like Aristotle or Athena or names that are at least 100 years out of date like Jebidiah or Gertrude. Last names are either unusual surnames or just random (often compound) words that are strange as surnames and/or are just kind of funny for some reason--things like Perriwinkle, Watchwinder, and Bottlefly.
Wizards, fortune tellers, and other mystics are a brand of eccentric, so the rules above can work for them, too. Since most of them use a fake name rather than their given one, you don’t have to worry about names that are a little too perfect, even if that normally doesn’t work for the genre. Biblical and mythical names like Merlin, Azrael, or Diana or common, as are unusual or archaic names like Zelda or Porthos. Surnames can be stolen from great wizards of the past (Crowley, Faustus), shamelessly fake (Nightshade, Blood), or scrapped in favor of an epithet like “the Mysterious” or “Speaker of Spirits.”
Nerdy names tend to be outdated or unusual. Male nerds have names like Irving and Milton, female nerds have names like Thessaly and Bernadette. Last names are usually multi-syllabic and are often vaguely Jewish-sounding or have an “le” somewhere in the middle (“Finklestein” does both, for example). If the name rhymes with a body part or embarrassing bodily function or can otherwise be easily made insulting even by someone with limited mental capacity, so much the better.
When using naming convention, the biggest danger is that the name will be so perfectly descriptive that it will sound made-up. This can be especially hazardous when it comes to ethnic names (don’t name your Native American character Hiawatha Running Bear or your Scottsman Kilty McBagpipes) because an overly stereotypical name, especially when combined with overly stereotypical characterization, is going to come across as kind of racists. Made-up names aren’t a problem for some settings. In fact, it’s practically required for some genres (like pulp or super-hero). In other settings a name that’s to on-the-nose won’t work as well, but in a lot of cases it’s really about presentation. If you don’t draw attention to the dumbness of the name, the other players probably won’t notice unless it’s especially dumb.