Many years ago, I tried writing roleplaying games. I ended up quitting. But now I have a couple projects I’m poking around. So here’s some rambly thoughts on that.
The pay is awful, all told. The Science Fiction Writers of America call 5 cents a word “pro rates.” Not counting any royalties, I’d have to put out something like 3-4 novels at 5 cents a word a year to hit the federal poverty level of $11,490. When I worked for Guardians of Order on A Game of Thrones RPG and some other projects that never saw the light of day, I think I started out at 2 cents a word and reached their cap on later projects at around 4 cents a word. And then they folded and I didn’t see most of that.
Most other places at the time offered freelancers 1 cent a word or royalties-only, and there was huge competition to get that work. I don’t bring all this up as a judgment. I run a token-paying e-zine that loses money every month. I know how hard it is to make a dime. Tabletop roleplaying games go beyond “niche market.” You have to love your topic to write for that amount of pay and competition. And I just didn’t have that much love.
Similarly, I had this notion of self-publishing. This was in the early days of print-on-demand, and it wasn’t on my radar. After a lot of frustration from dealing with other freelancers, and my own motivational issues, I realized I just didn’t have the heart for that either. What I really wanted was to just tell stories. I didn’t want to design some new way to roll dice. I didn’t want to playtest systems. I barely had time to play all the games I wanted to play. I just wanted to make worlds and tell stories in them. And so the struggles to make games were just too much for me to put up with the hassle.
So I dropped it all. Just walked away. Started doing National Novel Writing Month, pumping out some short stories and shopping them around. I still haven’t made pro-rates, but overall I’ve had fun with it all. I like fiction-writer culture. I’ve not only made friends, I’ve found a spiritual family there.
Somehow, Monsterhearts changed my tune on writing games. Technically, it’s core ideas come from Apocalypse World. But I have not found the same joy in Apocalypse World that I have in Monsterhearts. I’m not sure why. It may be the genre. It may be I haven’t had enough exposure to Apocalypse World to appreciate it. Who knows?
But the Monsterhearts mechanics have this beautiful elegance that I really like, where the mechanics and the story mirror one another so well and flow easily into one another. I have a couple game ideas that I’ve tinkered with in the past, often using Amber Diceless or something else, but was never quite satisfied with the result. Monsterhearts has inspired me to re-open those ideas and try them again. And it forces me to think about the story that is created out of it. Each possible skin needs its own unique moves, and it forces me to think about what sort of story does each character lend itself to.
That’s one of the lessons I’ve learned over the years of both running games and writing fiction: Having a neat idea just isn’t enough.
That’s also as close as I come to offering writing advice.
I get lots of random ideas from dreams or that half-awake fugue state before sleep. I jot them all down as I remember them, but not all of them are viable. Sometimes when I’m particularly delighted by some dream I had, I’ll post about it on Facebook. For example:
“Last nights dream involved me dreaming that I was a member of House Stark, but somehow the Seven Kingdoms were mooshed together with the nations of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. [...] I think there was a bit of Exalted in there too.”
I clarified to say:
“Generally, great houses had elemental associations. Stark was Earth. The land was in ruins, husks of a previous age of glory scattered around. I was a younger unnamed Stark who had been sent with other family members to stay with a Water-based house. They had turned their backs on their old gods in favor of the Official Religion, and after many years of ignoring their former benefactors, their magitech was failing just as creatures of the ocean began to lay siege on the city. There was an arranged marriage in there too.”
I had a few people say that they’d totally play that game, that I should make a tabletop RPG of some sort out of it. Assuming that I don’t just do it as a one-shot with some crazy settings mashed together, I’d probably want to create some sort of unique setting that blends all those elements together rather than try to steal every intellectual property in there. I’ve drunk enough of the indie game Kool-Aid that I don’t want to just have some vast setting with generic rules. Those already exist in droves. The world doesn’t need another Exalted.
So, there’s my random idea. But what would the game actually be about? What sort of story is born out of this random mess from my subconscious? I tried asking a couple people, but mostly got jokes like, “Well, if it’s inspired by Game of Thrones, someone’s character has to die every session.”
The obvious common threads that I notice are:
- Classic Hero’s Journey stuff. A threat to the land, one or more young heros to rise against it. Link, Cloud, Aang (and Katara and Sokka). (And, seriously, has no one built an indie game built around the Hero’s Journey?)
- Living in the shadow of a previous age. There were once great wonders, but that world is gone and all that remain are ruins.
- Strange and distant places to visit and explore.
So that seems all well and good. Really, that’s the set up for an excellent D&D game. (And, after I wrote the first draft of this post, I saw that someone has made an Avatar: The Last Airbender hack of Apocalypse World.)
But then the element about arranged marriages sticks out. In part because it ties into the elements in my dream that resonated with Game of Thrones and Exalted (specifically Exalted: Dragon-Blooded). In part because any time you bring an arranged marriage into a game, people avoid the arranged marriages in games like THE PLAGUE. Some games have tried to handle that mechanically. Houses of the Blooded springs instantly to mind, for better or worse. Also, I think, Pendragon has mechanical elements for marriage. I seem to recall that it tied in with the notion of “Immortality Through Your Children.” Probably some others that I’m just drawing a blank on.
And I’m not sure how that at all ties into the rest of the Hero’s Journey. Is it two separate games? Is it a second stage to the first game, where you’ve defeated the evil and found True Love and can now settle down? I just don’t know.
And then there’s the question of: Well, what is playing it like? There’s plenty of games I can poach mechanics from. Is this a game of interpersonal relations that would do well with Monsterhearts? Joe McDaldno’s Rookvale has me thinking of other things to do with Anima Prime. (Because apparently Joe makes everything look sexier to me.) I’ve also been poking around the notion of tinkering with the mechanics of Fiasco to see if you can recreate other genres by adjusting the charts, but I don’t think I want this to be a one-shot sort of game. Whatever game this ends up being.
So, seriously, what do you think my subconscious should make of this?