Saturday, June 6, 2020

The Gygax 75 Challenge: Week #1

Summary: Thoughts and musings regarding my creative process during the first week of the challenge. The summary of bits that I found easy, the difficulty of wrangling certain parts of it and what I learned as an outcome of some pitfalls.

Just a note right at the beginning, I won’t include any of the material that I created during week numero uno, this is mostly just a rambling post about the actual process, not its result.
At first glance week #1 is straightforward and, I wrongly assumed, easy. You are prompted to do the following:

  • get a notebook (physical or digital file/folder)
  • write a pitch (3-7 lines that “sell” your game)
  • write a list of inspirations (no more than 7)
  • bonus: create a mood-board (a continual work in progress thing)

Notebook: I have opted for a physical notebook, which made me rather excited. The main reason for these buzzing emotions was due to the fact that the last time I used a physical medium for writing campaigns was roughly 8 years ago for my Werewolf: the Apocalypse game. That chronicle ran over the following five years or so and slowly, as the content built up, I moved over to Google Docs for book-keeping. It was easier to keep track and record everything, thus eventually I stopped using pen and paper almost entirely for my RPGs. Oh the irony…

I got myself a nice little notebook, a dedicated mechanical pen, a black ink liner and highligthing markers. I started working on the essentials in order to warm-up, marking the page numbers and building the beginning of an index. So far, so good.

Pitch: This part of the challenge was difficult to say the least, which is understandable as it is probably the most important. 

The first road block was an unexpected fear of putting thoughts on the page. I would have a certain idea in my head that I’d deem good, but I just couldn’t get myself to write it down because I felt the sentence describing it wasn’t good enough. I think I got used to the sterility of Google Docs and the order and tidiness it brings along to your notes, so writing stuff down seemed to visually be crap = it was bad.

One trick that I managed to come up with in order to trick my mind is to use my phone as a surrogate notebook. During the day, I’d just type whatever came to mind in the notes on my phone, regardless of form or randomness, just to get it out of my system. Then, in the evening, I’d sit down to refine that mess for the notebook and eventually write it down.

It might be that this is a longer process, but it helped me understand something. Messy is okay. Messy is good. You aren't going to the publisher with this notebook nor will you use it to directly run games out of. Provide yourself some space so that the perfectionist in you can go rest, it's time to get dirty in your greasy workshop.

"King Solomon in Old Age" by Gustave Doré
Once I was done with the mental blockade it was time to get to the actual pitch. I had a clear vision about my upcoming setting, from its center-piece to some factions and even bits that will reflect the game mechanically. Compressing all that information into an elevator pitch was the tough part.

The task is direct with what it wants from you, several bullet points with a few clear sentences each, just enough to sell your game to the players.

A natural way of doing this is simply to think about your world and grab the things that immediately pop into your mind the second you think about it. The problem rises when you try to expand on a fact that you stated as a bullet point, as it is easy to slip into long rows of explanations. At the same time, writing too little might lead you to rely on improvisation, instead of clearly stating brief facts. Balance is key.

In the end I came up with a relatively obvious solution. I imagined having an actual conversation with hypothetical players and how I would explain the setting in less than one minute. During this fictional monologue, I’d raise my voice at certain times, which would represent the key bullet points while the rest would be the explanations of said points.

Some of the studies I had in my school days were regarding marketing and communication which, although not necessarily focused on pitches and selling stuff, teach you a ton about how to reach and hook onto the interest peaks of the listener and the general ebb and flow of human conversation.

Even if you disregard the “elevator” in your pitch, humans have a relatively short (and, over time, decreasing) attention span. You have to rely on selective attention and that it will endure unexpected distractions and remain sustained, which is difficult in the modern world. 

Instead the pitch needs to provide an engaging enough stimuli that can trigger transient attention, structured in a way that it keeps involving the reader with each point, continuously refreshing the interest. These stimulating structures can be formed in many engaging ways, but two pop out to me as excellent for writing a pitch. Cyclical and cascading. 

I ended up using the cyclical approach, which can be explained with the below structure:

  • A [genre/mood] world where [major event/trait] - point #1
    • [biggest consequence of point 1] - point #2
      • [positive side-effect of point 2] - point #3
    • [minor consequence of point 1] - point #4
  • [tempting reason for adventuring in the world] - point #5

What I’ve done here goes full circle and enables me to have the option to either add or kick stuff out, having only points 1 and 5 as essential, while the rest is just filler. In verbal communication this can be essential, since you can notice what peaks the interest of your players mid-conversation and you can easily add/remove certain points. Meanwhile, in the written medium you cycle back to the opening point, highlighting its importance yet showing that there are numerous other things happening that will disable tunnel-vision and railroading. It also highlights the single positive attribute the players will have, which in the midst of consequences signals urgency and need of the world for heroic deeds.

Another good method would be to start and continuously cascade, so that each step relates to the previous one and eventually rolls down into the PC microcosm,  so it looks something like this:

  • A [genre/mood] world where [major event/trait] - point #1
    • [environmental consequence of point 1] - point #2
      • [societal consequence of point 2] - point #3
        • [positive side-effect of point 3] - point #4
          • [how all points relate to the PC] - point #5

Here you’re going top down, which essentially keeps raising the anticipation of hearing how all these events and consequences reflect on the player, aka providing constant stimuli. Extra attention paid on point 4, as the positive effect needs to zoom in on how it affects the player characters, which then easily leads into the final point of what/why would they want to play in your world in the first place.

In any case, you’re allowed and encouraged to have a few lines describing each bullet point, which enables you to keep the actual bullet points as concise as possible. Remember, maintain those explanations short in order to keep the important bullets… well, important. 

This took the least amount of time and for a good reason. I kicked off the list with two obvious references, but then I had a pause of a few days to ponder. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that many other works can be used as inspirational for various bits and pieces, but this led to chaos. I could probably spend weeks just writing this section, yet such a list creates a slow river instead of a viciously tumbling rapid. This wasn’t supposed to be an “Appendix N” list, but rather a ten second sticky note.

"Hand Study with Bible" by Albrecht Dürer
I ended up shutting away the vast majority of these muses and selected only 5 which were the obvious ones in my case. These were followed by quick blurbs of text that explained what exactly I “used” from these sources, a process which took literally minutes, the faster the better. 

Mood board: 
Honesty hour, I never made a mood board in my life. Thus I was super excited about finally making one and I’ll be honest again and say that it is a fun process. The net is vast and infinite, as they say, and inspiring artwork is abound. 

However, I have a similar issue to the one from the “Inspiration” task, where branching out in too many different directions leads to chaos. Two days in and I realized that my folder was a splurge of messy visuals and unrelated shapes. On the final day of week #1 I went through the board and removed half of the entries.

As instructed by the challenge, this is supposed to be a “live” task, as it doesn’t have to stop in week #1, so I’d recommend having a sub-folder (or board or whatever thing you are using for this) which acts as a filter for the final chosen pieces. Depending on the speed at which you gather stuff, after a few days it might be a good idea to review what you got and selectively remove the things that stand out too much or stuff that was chosen in the spark of the moment.

Final thoughts:
Extremely happy that I started this challenge, as it is an amazing creative exercise. In the end, when it comes to week #1 I feel like the moral of the story is that “less” doesn’t mean “easy” and that “more” doesn’t equate to “better”. When you’re faced with the task of building an entire world, your scope broadens and there’s an instinct that instantly wants to cover as many things as possible, probably as a result of knowing that players are nosy and they’ll ask all sorts of weird questions. 

Eventually you’ll get to the point of figuring out why there’s a temple in them thar hills or why your elves are translucent, but not now. Now you’re just laying down the foundation, while also trying to deny yourself the freedom to improvise everything, instead providing bricks of firm material. 

Direct and concise. Quality over quantity.

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