The Concept of Preconceptions (First Drafts and Formalities)
I’m still running through the questions here. If you’re keeping track at home, I ‘m skipping over Norm’s question and moving on to J Gregory’s. I’ll revisit it most likely next week at this point.
J Gregory asks: When first-draft writing for gaming products, do you have a pre-conceived format in mind (and if so, how much does this shape your ideas) or do you just let it all flow out and squeeze it into form in a later pass?
My short answer: Once upon a time, I was very much in the form follows function camp. This works well for a lot of things, but to maintain the quantity and quality of our work, we’ve gone to a more structured format. Take our adventures and guidebooks, for example. Each of them uses the same basic template. Like with poetry or movie structure, however, there is a tremendous amount of room to develop any sort of adventure. Using this structure has, ultimately, proved to be quite liberating. I don’t have to fumble with how I’m going to present said materials, I can simply dig into the work at hand. This aids my writers, editors, and streamlines the layout process. When I first began developing materials for Savage Worlds back in 2004, I was a complete neophyte in the industry, but my deep RPG background and analytical nature allowed for rapid deconstruction of book structure. Simply put, I know how to organize a book and put what goes where. I build from a template and only after the draft is done and other eyes review it do we then consider reordering any of the material. Sometimes, grouping certain things together makes sense. Other times, having too large a chunk of “something” can interrupt the flow. Other eyes help in this matter. Second guessing what goes where during the writing is the bane of productivity and should be reserved for second (and later) passes unless it proves to be conducive to the developmental flow (which is rare in most cases).
My most current (though I doubt, longer) answer: I don’t tend to get too personal on here, but today has been really tough for me for multitudinous reasons. Suffice it to say, the structure of my writing is my salvation. I’ve been contemplating participating in this year Game Chef’s challenge. I think about it every year, but never do it, so I spent a bit of time today working on it. Now, this challenge requires writing a new game within a week. Fiddling with this today has allowed me to clarify a few things to my approach I can share with you. When approaching a brand new product line or new thing, I do not let myself be initially shackled by structure. I jot down a lot of ideas and a lot of these ideas are far more complex than they need to be. This is just how my mind works. I can craft intricate subsystems with great ease, but it’s hard work distilling them down where they strike a balance of practical playability. Ease of use tends to trump excessive detail. We’re not trying to create an entirely simulationist style environment replicating every aspect of reality. I go for good, evocative mechanics any day of the week. Getting there requires digging in one’s heels and pushing. Now after I put some ideas down on paper. I usually have a miasma of random notes and puts. For example, I had easily drafted over ten pages of stuff today fiddling with this game about half the day. Words flowed. Form was not foremost in my mind, though after the initial brainstorm (about an hour), I gradually began to shift stuff around and give it some structure. Just enough to give guideposts to myself when I revisit it. Usually, on a new project, like this one with all new stuff. I have to write things iteratively until I get them right. This rapid pass technique usually is done right then and there. This is only done after I get the core ideas down. You don’t want to get hung up on grammar or syntax overmuch if you’re chasing down an idea. It’d be like being in hot pursuit of a dragon and stopping to polish your armor. While it may be nice to look pretty when you slay the dragon, if you’re getting all shiny, the dragon is getting away. We don’t want that dragon to get away.
Now, if it’s stuff I’ve written a lot of, like adventures, they shape my ideas only insomuch as I can easily prioritize what order I want to write things as my templates are essentially a checklist I have to fill out. Once I check off all the points, I should have a finished product. Now, this doesn’t put my mind on autopilot. On the contrary, I am liberated in the sense I can focus on the essential aspect. For adventures, I tackle the synopsis after the boilerplate information. After the synopsis (or sometimes during), I jot down the names of the cast members. and detail their personalities, if they suggest themselves, and leave the stat blocks for later, unless there is something I want them to have, such as Frenzy or Strong Willed for example. Then I block out the scenes, using my synopsis for general reference, and then get on with the particulars. I’ve got this format down and it only serves to invite creativity. I’ve never felt limited or constrained using this format in any way. We’re always exploring new and better ways to do things. The basic template of our writing is not one high on our list to change, though I’ve discussed tweaks from time to time and different lines may vary a bit. Huh. It turns out I had more to say about this topic than I thought.
He also mentioned some AoO teasers, but I’ve already delayed so horribly a few more days shouldn’t hurt. (And it wasn’t really a question.)
Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!
Thanks – I appreciate the depth and consideration of the answer. As someone struggling to turn the scenarios in his head into a usable plan on paper, its a great help to get a peek at how an accomplished designer does it.
I found it especially insightful that you leave the statting-out until later in the process: I can see that this would not only prevent interrupting the flow of ideas, but also allows you to fully develop the overall plot without feeling the need to fit it to a particular cast of set-in-stone characters. As a GM, I’ve often created NPCs and let the game story develop rather organically around them. This approach works well for me for playing adventures, but your post made me consider more closely the effect that it has on trying to write them. Now, to put it into practice…
And would that I’d included a question mark in my addendum…
I am keeping track… :p