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.
Last time I talked about that step of deciding whether you’ve got a viable project on your hands or just an idea that still needs some work before you can turn it into something. Once you’ve made it past that step, you’re really in danger of entering the Chapel Perilous of potential idea debt. In some ways, the best thing that can happen is for you to realize that you don’t actually want to do whatever you were thinking about doing. Maybe the idea isn’t as exciting now that you’ve started to think about the work required to bring it to life. Maybe you realize you just don’t have time. Whatever the reason, after some consideration, you decide that this isn’t something you’re going to pursue. You stick your Book of Lore in some “File 13” folder just in case you change your mind later, but basically you decide that the thing isn’t getting done. You put it away and go on with your life. Congratulations! You’ve just chosen to avoid idea debt.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m terrible at admitting that I’m not going to do something, so if you’re like me you probably go with option 2: put it off. Maybe you feel like you need more time to think about how to make the idea work. Maybe you have other projects that you need to finish and know starting a new one isn’t realistic. Maybe the immediate passion for the idea has passed but you’re pretty sure it will return again. In any case, you’ve got it in your head that you’ll finish this thing one of these days. Just not now. Sometimes this works out and after leaving the project on the shelf for a while you come back to it reinvigorated and create something you love. It’s happened to me, so I know it’s possible. More often, though, you’ve just taken out a huge idea debt that will periodically distract you from more productive work without ever quite reaching the critical mass necessary to finish the thing. The longer something stays in this “someday” stage, the more likely it is to turn into bad idea debt. I’ve got loads of idea debt in this category. Some it I’ve written off, but most of it I honestly believe I’ll actually get around to doing. Just not right now. Definitely later.
If you don’t scrap the idea or put it off, the idea actually turns into A Thing I’m Working On. Many people equate A Thing I’m Working On with good idea debt that will eventually turn into a finished thing that you can share with/sell to the masses, which I’ll call a Product. While all Products go through the A Thing I’m Working On stage, not all Things I’m Working On turn into Products. Once you’ve put a certain amount of work into something, you start falling victim to the Sunk Cost Fallacy and decide that you’ve put in too much work to just throw it all away. Because of that, Things I’m Working On can become much bigger idea debts than the stuff that you decided to put off for later.
One way to estimate whether you’re dealing with A Thing I’m Working On or a Potential Product is to honestly look at how much of the Grunt Work you’re doing. Creative stuff is fun and exciting, but for something to become a product, there’s a lot of dull, tedious work that has to be done. If your plan is “I’m going to write this and then get it published,” you haven’t done any Grunt Work yet. Even if your plan is to submit it to a publisher and let someone else take care of all the boring stuff, there’s still a lot of boring stuff you’re going to have to do first. If you haven’t read the submission guidelines and dug up contact information for at least a few publishers, planned out or written up whatever kind of summary or blurb or whatever those companies want to see on first contact (most publishers don’t want unsolicited manuscripts), lined up an editor or two so you can make sure your submission isn’t riddled with errors, made plans for playtesting (if you’re writing a game), and worked out at least a rough timeline for the project, there’s a much higher chance that you’re working on A Thing I’m Working On and not a Potential Product.
If you’re planning on self-publishing, there’s an even longer list of Grunt Work to do. In addition to editing and playtesting, you’re going to need art (unless you’re an artist) and probably someone to do the layout. If you’re going to do a print version, you’re going to have to make sure your formatting is something the printer can use, decide how many books to print, and figure out where you’re going to sell them (and possibly where you’re going to store them when they’re not selling). Even if you just plan to give the thing away on a website, you’re at the very least going to have to find someone to set up the site and spend more time than you want making design decisions and writing product descriptions, company bios, and other extremely not-fun-to-write nonsense that you’re going to need. And that’s before you even start to think about the endless marketing hell that you’ll have to endure if you want people to actually see the thing.
You don’t have to do all the Grunt Work right at the beginning, but if you don’t at least have a plan for it, you’re probably working on A Thing I’m Working On that won’t ever become an Actual Product. If this isn’t your first time around and you’ve already done a lot of the Grunt Work (as is the case with Hex), you’re at least less likely to give up once you start to realize the scope of unrelated nonsense you’re going to have to do to turn the Thing I’m Working On into a Product. But even that can be a double-edged sword: having a lot of the Grunt Work already done can give you false confidence. After all, if you’ve already done all the mind-numbing stuff, most of what’s left to be done is the fun, creative stuff! Unfortunately, the fun, creative stuff rarely stays fun the whole way through. We’ll talk about that next time.
So, you’ve woken up the day after having your initial idea and (1) you haven’t completely forgotten it and (2) you don’t think it sucks yet. Don’t worry, before it’s over you’ll think it sucks at least a few times. That’s part of the process. But for now, it seems like a pretty good idea. Time to get to work!
Not so fast, Sparky. You’ve still got some work to do before you can just dive in. No matter how high-concept and straightforward an idea seems, there’s still a lot of stuff you’ve got to work out before you can do anything useful. If you’ve decided to write a game* about Space Sharks, you’ve got to decide whether that means the PCs are Space Sharks or if the PCs are people who have to deal with Space Sharks. And if it’s the latter, what kind of people are they? Are they the inhabitants of a planet that’s being invaded by Space Sharks? Intergalactic merchants who must brave the Space Shark-infested trade routes? Space game wardens? All of these possibilities will require a slightly different approach when it comes to turning the thing into a workable game. If they’re playing Space Sharks, you’re going to have to figure out what Space Sharks spend their time doing, what Space Shark culture is like, and lots of other really detailed information about Space Sharks. If they’re being invaded, you’ve got to detail the planets. If they’re merchants, you’ve got to make up a whole bunch of planets and figure out how the relationships between them. And if they’re intergalactic game wardens, you’re going to need to create a whole ecosystem of space flora and space fauna, figure out how the Space Sharks fit into it, and then figure out what kind of adventure opportunities that creates for the Bureau of Space Fish and Space Wildlife.
While a few game designers get so wrapped up in their world that they create dioramas instead of game settings, most games answer the big question of “What do the characters do?” They fight the evil empire or pull of heists or try to save the Space Dolphins. Sometimes that’s enough, but unless you’re writing a kind of game everyone basically knows to play (dungeon crawl, monster hunting, space pirates), you’ve also got to ask yourself “How do they do it?” Hobomancer is a good example, and also probably the game that drove home this point to the Hex crew. Before we got around to actually trying to play the game, we’d spend months (or maybe even years) talking through the basic concept. We had a lot of the Songlines mythology figured out, we knew what kind of powers Hobomancers had and what kind of magic they used, and we knew what Hobomancers did: they protected the songlines to keep reality from falling apart. Then we sat down to make players and someone said, “so what happens in a Hobomancer game?” and we weren’t entirely sure until we talked it through and started figuring out how Hobmancers protected the songlines.
While most games have a wide range of stuff the characters can do, you’ve got to have a baseline of stuff that characters in the game are generally expected to do. It tells you what setting elements you’ll need to focus on, what kinds of characters will make sense, and what sorts of things you’ll need rules for. Without some kind of “default setting,” there’s the risk that potential players will see your game as a neat idea they’re not really sure what to do with. Some designers try to get around this with a kitchen sink approach that tries to be all things to all people, but without some kind of focus that’s often just as hard to figure out what to do with as a game that’s too broadly-defined.
Ok, that was a bigger RPG-specific tangent than I’d intended, but I think it’s an important one. Even though answering the question “what actually happens during the game” seems like an obvious step, it can be really easy to just sort of assume that the core idea answers the question when that’s not necessarily the case.
Anyway, as you start to nail down what the game’s about, you’ll start to figure out what you need to pull it off. That’s when you’ll start committing the great Idea Debt sin of creating Books of Lore. You’ll start making notes, putting together outlines, making lists of reference sources, and maybe even writing up some stuff. You’ve now go idea debt, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You’ve already made it farther than a lot of people who have ideas and then give up when they realize that bringing it to fruition will require actual work (even work as simple as opening a Google Doc and making some notes). Whether your Book of Lore turns into good idea debt or bad idea debt depends on what happens next. We’ll talk about that next week.
*A lot of this series of posts could apply to any creative thing you want to do, but I’m going to focus on games because that’s the thing I’m most familiar with.
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