Friday, October 18, 2013

Panel Discussion Addendum


I was late to Douglas Cole's panel discussion of SJ Games staff and frequent contributors to Pyramid magazine, so I missed a lot of the questions asked directly to the authors, and technical issues prevented me from answering some others once I got there. These, then, are some things I might have said, had I been able:

Douglas: How well does that mission statement resonate with you guys? Do you like to write crazy stuff? Do you like to get out there with expansions on existing material? How do you tie what you’re writing to either the themes Steven has suggested or what’s in your heart.

I like to write a range of stuff; how I do it varies. I get an idea and go where that takes me. On one end, there's the pure historicals. In things like "A Brief History of the Thieves' Guild," it's mostly ideas and background information. Maybe I mention a skill or advantage to give it a fig-leaf of GURPS, but that's about it. At the other end, there are the crunch-heavy, worked-example articles like the additional DF loadouts article, which is a collection of lists of gear. And then there are a few weird ones, like the mall generation table in the Cyberpunk issue. It's sort of all crunch in that it's a great big table to roll on, but it incorporates next to no actual GURPS rules. That said, I do try to provide some rules material so the readers don't spend eight bucks to be told "here's a great idea, and you'll have to figure out yourself how to use it," so a lot of what I'm writing these days combines fluffy ideas with implementations.

Douglas: Do you like writing the theme? Or do you have this…, I know that Christopher has you know 700 articles covering a broad range of things and just you know, and just puts them all in Stevens [email] box to encourage sanity loss, but you know, for the rest of you guys do you write to theme or…?

Constraints are a blessing and a curse for any writer. During the web-Pyramid days, there was a lot of room to experiment. Not just with subject material, but with the format. The current edition is less freeform, so I can't do whatever tickles my fancy. On the other hand, the themes give me a structure which informs articles I never would have written otherwise and provides hooks on which to hang ideas I've had kicking around but couldn't quite beat into shape. The adventure I had in the Power Of Myth issue is a prime example. I had the basic idea something like 25 years ago when I was studying anthropology as an undergrad, and I'd even run an adventure very much like the one which was eventually published. But while I'd had extensive notes written down, it didn't come together as a publishable article until I realized that it matched the mythology theme in the Pyramid wish list.

Douglas: What are the best and worst parts for writing for Pyramid?

Worst: it's a limited resource, like anything else. It only publishes so many pages a month in chunks of limited length, and sometimes on themes in which I have no interest. So I'm limited in how much I can write.

Best: it's writing professionally. Sure, it's a fringe publication from a midling-sized publisher serving a niche market, but there's still an editorial mechanism that gets you to step up your game. For one thing, you have to write well enough to interest an editor whose job is not to let bad articles in. You have to pay attention to actually communicating with other people in ways you don't if you're just writing for yourself. Another aspect of that is that once you've engaged the editor's interest, you're working with someone who is interested in getting your article to be as good as it can be and will suggest things to improve it that you didn't think of. Editors rarely get enough credit from authors, but in my writing career, both at SJ Games and elsewhere, I've been fortunate to work with good ones, and it's improved the final product of my writing considerably.

Oh, getting paid for it is also good. It's not enough to make me quit my day job, but there's little higher praise than someone giving you actual money.

(Crunch/fluff balance in adventures)

This is another example of going where the idea takes me. Any adventure is going to have a mix of fluff to provide the structure of the events and crunch to let you start using it, and, particularly because of Pyramid's space limits, any given adventure requires its own specific mix. If there's a complex plot to unravel, like in "Air Devils of the South Seas," or a novel or complicated high concept like in "The Golden Geniza of Ezkali," there'll necessarily be a lot of non-rules material. A simple dungeon crawl like "The Search for Ed" I did for web-Pyramid, though, can be mostly monster stats and lists of traps and treasure with a light gloss of premise. The clever thing is to try to make some of the text do double duty. For example, the character descriptions in "The Zephyr Club" are intended as descriptions of personalities and adventure seeds and collections of game stats. The stats support and expand the text description not just by attaching gameable numbers to the characters, but also by pointing to particular traits as notably significant.