Author Archives: okcstephens
I have seen a lot of interesting power-share cosmologies for magic. I enjoy exploring how magic might work, and find settings that have a codified, interesting schema of how magic works/is utilized often get my imagination going the most.
So, here’s one I don’t recall ever seeing before (though that certainly doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist).
Everyone has a maximum amount of magic capacity. Let’s say it’s on a scale from 1-100.
That power determines the strength of any spell you cast. It can never improve. If you are born a 32, you are a 32 forever.
That power is divided equally among all the spells you know.
So if you are a 32 and you know one spell? You cast it at power level 32. But if you know two spells? No matter what you do, once you know two spells, you cast them both at power level 16.
And never more or less than that.
Spells are fairly narrow. A ball of fire spell is not the same as a small spark from your thumb. If you know a ball of fire, you can’t dial it back to less than your maximum.
Some people have such weak magic capacity they can’t learn more than 1-2 spells, or the results will be so weak as to be useless.
Other people have such a powerful magic capacity that only knowing one spell is dangerous.
Of course, some governments probably want a few capacity-100 spellcasters that know just one army-crushing offensive spells.
Other spellcasters prefer having a wide range of minor powers, because while each spell is less powerful, they are more likely to have a useful spell for any given situation.
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The “Writing Basics” line of articles is my effort to codify some things that are fairly fundamental to writing in the tabletop RPG industry, but which aren’t generally taught in schools or discussed much in how-to forums and convention panels. These are things I’ve mostly had to pick up over the years, which I would have loved a short primer on when I was getting started (or, in some cases, even ten years into my RPG writing career).
As this line of articles grows, some folks have asked me if I will cover a topic that… I already covered!
Right. Social media is NOT a steady, reliable, or easily searched information distribution mechanism.
So, to help anyone who might wonder what topics I have already cover, here’s the Writing Basics Index Page, with a short description and link to each article in this series. I’ll update this page as I keep writing these.
From Nothing to a Game Book: What is the process that leads from nothing to a company publishing a finished book? This is my best stab at a high-level, rough overview. It is, at best, a sketch that covers a lot of different ways this happens, but there are companies that add steps, or skip steps, or do things in a totally different order.
Paginations and Wordcounts: In this installment of Writing Basics I take a brief look at two related subjects that freelance writers often don’t need to worry too much about, but that are extremely important to the RPG industry overall—paginations and wordcounts.
Introductions: This covers the topic of “Introductions,” by which I specifically mean the text at the beginning of a product, book, chapter, or section (likely with its own header—these things are often interconnected), that explains what’s actually in that section of text. Ideally, it’s interesting to read, gives the reader some idea of what information is coming and why, and gives some context how that material connects to other books/products/chapters/ or sections of text.
Headers: Headers are the big titles of sections of books that tell you (roughly) what content is in that section. If you want a quick overview of what headers are, how to mark them in a manuscript (which, I should note, is actually “however your publisher tells you to,” though the [H1]- and [H2]-style designations are pretty common if not universal), go check out Rogue Genius Games’ “RGG Writer Guidelines,” which discuss headers and how to let your editor and layout artist know where they should in your manuscript.
Final Checks for RPG Manuscripts: In this entry, I going to talk about the all the work you should be doing after you are done writing, but before you turn over the manuscript. These last checks are often the difference between a polished manuscript that gets people’s attention, and a barely-useful mess that requires significant work from your developer/editor/producer/publisher to bring up to their standards.
Check the Rights to Anything You Use in Publishing: This is SUPER basic, but I see smart people get it wrong all the time.
Impostor Syndrome: A lot of creatives have it. I have it. Here are some of my coping mechanisms, in case any of that is useful to someone else (and, you know, why would it be given that I clearly have no idea what I am talking about).
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In this installment of Writing Basics I’ll take a brief look at two related subjects that freelance writers often don’t need to worry too much about, but that are extremely important to the RPG industry overall—paginations and wordcounts.
These are good examples of the kinds of topics I never got much training about in school, and had to pick up as I went through my career. While early on I didn’t ever need to work with these much, the time came when I was trusted enough to begin to get jobs that DID require me to make calculations based on these elements, and I was woefully under-prepared for it. Luckily I managed to find some people willing to explain the core skills to me before I messed anything up too badly, but it would have been useful (to me, and my developers and editors) if I’d understood how these tools are used, and connected, long before I had to be able to create them myself.
In concept a wordcount is extremely simple—it’s the number of words a project needs to fill. There used to be lots of ways commonly used to calculate the word count of work you’ve finished, but nowadays most people just use the wordcount in their word processor program of choice. That’s fine… as far as it goes. I’ll note that since the industry standard in my experience is Office Word, you want to make sure your program of choice calculates a file’s word count in roughly the same was Word does, so if you developer asks for 1,500 words, your computer agrees with their computer on how close you are to hitting that.
Calculating what wordcounts should be in advance is more complicated, and we’ll get to that after we briefly discuss paginations.
A pagination is a document that lays out the specific pages of a book. It is used to determine what content goes on what page. The most common form I am used to is usually an Excel file or similar document that actually has a cell for each page, in which you list what’s on that page. Let’s do a super simple example, for an 8-page book on halfling war baking, as a table.
Table of Contents
½ page art
|Halfling War Baking History
|War Baker Archetype
¼ page art
|Equipment: Battle Muffins
¼ page art
|½ page ad
Page 1 is the first page of the book separate from the cover, and is therefore a right-hand page. That’s why there is a blank entry to the left of it—when I open this 8-page book, the first thing I’ll see (after endpaper, which doesn’t count for our purposes but is sometimes printed on and would be listed as “front inside cover” in that case) is the inside of the front cover on the left, and the titles page on the right.
After that everything is 2-page “spreads.” Pages 2 and 3 will open with 2 on the left and 3 on the right. That means by looking at my pagination, I know that when reading the book you can see those two pages at the same time. This is extremely useful when determining where art goes—you don’t need art on every page. You don’t even need art on every 2-page spread. But you do want art fairly evenly distributed throughout an RPG book, or it becomes a dreaded “wall of text.”
Now obviously you don’t need a table of contents AND a glossary AND an index AND an appendix in an 8-page product. But when planning a physical book, you need to know how many pages your final product will be, and things like this take up space, and often can’t be written until so late in the process there’s no way to just flow them into a layout program and see how much room they eat up. By creating a pagination, you can leave room for these before they are written. Of course that means you need to know how much room you need for them, and that’s often a guessing game based on experience. But at least with a pagination, you have a chance to allot space for these things.
Now that we have a basic pagination, we can look at word count. While this is also a bit of a guessing game, there are factors we can depend on to get much closer than if we just use some generic round number. (That said, I use 22,000 words per 32 8.5×11 page of a 32-page or larger book when I can’t do a pagination for some reason, and while it’s not perfect, it’s often close enough for back-of-napkin calculations).
One of the things you need for an accurate wordcount is a finalized layout style. This is one of the reasons freelancers often don’t have to worry about figuring out their own wordcount—they would have to work with the layout artist to know the book’s fonts, styles, headers, and so on. But once you know how words are going fit onto a page, you can just count the words in 20 or so pages using those layout parameters (with no art or tables), and divide by 20, and that’s your rough per-page wordcount. Let’s say a page of nothing but normal words turns out to be 900 words per page for your graphic design. That means an 8-page book would be 7200 words, right?
Again, go to our pagination. We know the title page is just going to be the title of the book. The credits and table of contents are going to take up some words, but those aren’t part of the wordcount we need a freelancer to provide. Same with the glossary, index, and appendix—we need to remember those need to be done, but they aren’t the same as the halfling war baker material. The OGL is a bunch of words, and it’s super-important the writer work with us to make it accurate, but that’s not part of a project’s normal wordcount either.
The actual meat of this book is pages 3, 4, 5, and 6. That would mean a wordcount of 3600… except we already know there’s going to be art on those pages. A half page of art will reduce a page’s wordcount by, well, half… approximately. (This is all just an effort to get the best approximations we can—someday I may get into developing to fit, copyfit, layout to fit, and so on.) So with one ½-page piece of art and two ¼-page pieces of art, I lose a whole page worth of wordcount.
That means if I want to assign this to a freelancer to write, or I want to have a good idea how long it’ll take me to write, the core part of this book is 2700 words. Specifically, the introduction is 450 words, the history is 900, the archetype is 450 (and that ½ page art had better be a visual of that archetype), and the battle muffins take up 675.
There are also lots of other problems a pagination can help you avoid. Let’s say, for example, that my freelancer comes back to me and says they want to take 150 words from the introduction, 150 from the history and 150 from the muffins, to add 450 words on dwarven war baking. That’s easy in a word-processor, but with the pagination I can see if I think I’d have any place to put that. Now I could just have the introduction end a paragraph before the bottom of that page, then begin the history, and have a tiny bit of it on page 3, and have it run most of the way (but not all the way) through page 4… but everything is becoming a mess.
There are good reasons a lot of publishers won’t let you do this. That’s outside the scope of this article, but you can see how knowing what goes on each page helps plan out any changes that get proposed as the writing progresses.
It’s also useful for placing art, ordering art if you need to do that before the text is done, keeping track of tasks like creating tables of content, and so on.
And, hopefully, it helps show why developers and editors love writers who can get within 2-3% of their exact wordcount. If I ask someone for 1500 words on war muffins, giving me 1800 words isn’t really doing me any favors. In fact, it makes work for me. That’s often less work than if someone only gives me 1350 words out of 1500, but I am still happier if I get 1475 to 1550.
With things designed only for a web blog post or an e-book, these hard wordcounts are often much less important. But paginations and the wordcounts they generate remain common tools of the industry, and even if you aren’t working with them yet it’s useful to know how they function.
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I do not accept the logic that says I must keep my political, personal, and professional online presences separate.
This is not to say I think the people who do make those distinction, at whatever level of firewalling they choose, are making a bad or wrong choice. Indeed, I suspect for quality of life, it’s often a smarter decision. I have enough stress trying to navigate the often zealous opinions the online community has on game design and the business of games before I add my political and personal opinions to the mix. And that’s allowing for the pretty high level of insulation I enjoy from people’s ability to actually harm me online. I’m not bulletproof by any means, but I am in a more stable and secure place in my career than many people.
I’ve seen the replies some of my colleagues get from posting political and personal thoughts online. I don’t blame any of them if they conclude the risk, or the emotional toll, is too great.
And there are consequences to deciding to talk about politics, and mental health, and ethics in public using the same channels and methods I use to discuss game design and funny geeky memes. People who are fans of my game industry work often engage with me in a very different way than they engage with people who are primarily being political advocates or primarily doing slice of life posts. That difference can be a good thing, but it can also result in a feeling of betrayal or anger if someone finds my game-related thoughts strike them differently than my other thoughts, or if they dislike all my work and see it overlapping arenas where they feel I should not be heard.
Angry and hateful messages directed at my privately are the most common response I see. Sometimes someone speaks ill of me in public forums (often that I’m not in, though I attribute that more to how big the internet is, rather than any effort to avoid me when discussing me), which may begin a multiple-party conversation about me. Less often (but with increasing regularity recently), someone sends complaints about me to an employer or associate of mine and tries to get me censured, fired, or blackballed.
Despite all that, I am still firmly convinced that discussing all these topics, as I find I have thoughts worth sharing about them, is the right thing for me. First, no one is forced to find or read my online thoughts. I don’t use official game company venues for anything not game related (not even the tiny game company I run). Reading through my blogs, twitter, and Facebook posts, or watching my YouTube videos, is an entirely voluntary activity. If anyone doesn’t like what I have to say, or how I say it, or how I moderate the online spaces under my control, they are free to go elsewhere.
I also don’t feel that someone who spends money on products that I benefit from financially has bought anything beyond my work within that book. Even backers of my Patreon are paying to encourage my content and make suggestions, not to own any right to censor me. I do not owe any public group more of my time or headspace just because they buy the things that pay for my career.
Even if what they dislike is how my politics or personal experiences influence what or why or when I write, their right to have an opinion does not equal their right to try to dictate mine. As long as I own the impact of my writing, I feel entirely free to write what I feel is most important, or most fun, or most helpful, as I am moved to do so. As I rule, I welcome public feedback. When that feedback shows me a segment of the public is using my online space to do harm, or arguing in bad faith, or even just pissing me off, I also reserve the right to stop taking that feedback.
Not every opinion is equally valid or valuable. The right of people to speak in their own space, or even to do so free of government censorship, is not the same as a right to force me to listen. As I note, people are free to tune me out. And, online, I am free to mute them.
While I do not believe my writing has any major impact on the world, where it does have an impact I believe it has on the balance been more good than evil. Not the least of that good is that when I get something badly wrong, expressing my thoughts gives people a chance to offer how I am mistaken, and allows me to examine such claims. I have changed my mind about a lot of things over my life, from the crucial to the trivial, and expect to change my mind about many more before I go silent.
I hope some people gain comfort from my writing now and then. I hope some find inspiration. I hope some are amused. I hope some are edified.
I hope some snort, roll their eyes, and wonder why they still talk to me.
But on every topic where I have something I am ready to say, I plan to say it. And accept the (generally very minor) consequences of doing so.
It’s fairly common for people to tell me they think I have gone too far.
Certainly once or twice, I have.
That makes me wiser and gives me a broader experience base to draw from when deciding what I am ready to say in the future.
It does not convince me to stop saying all these things.
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On my birthday, which is today, I tend to think about memories of previous birthdays.
I have a lot of great birthday memories.
I hold the first “OwenCon,” cutting up things like comics to make a flier, and pick an older friend to be toastmaster.
My mother has us all play a game where each kid has a balloon tied to one ankle, and you try to stomp out other kid’s balloons with your other foot.
My mother makes a pinata, which we bash the hell out of.
We stay up all night playing Dungeon, which a friend brought over.
We stay up all night playing Dark Tower, which a friend brought over.
We stay up all night watching the Thunderbirds anime, which is streaming on a pay channel we don’t normally get, but which is doing a free preview that weekend.
We stay up all night watching VHS movies.
I run a D&D game all weekend, as an adult, with friends coming and sleeping over.
My friend Carl rules a Rolemaster game all weekend. My character ends up with a magic tattoo which gives her dragon spells.
I discover my friends all went in together and got me a GameCube, so I can play Mario Sunshine. It becomes my favorite Mario game, to date.
My wife makes a pinata, which we bash the hell out of.
We go to see the B&W Dracula movie as a special theater event. The Spanish-language version filmed on the same sets plays afterward. We expect to just watch a little of it. We stay for the whole thing, fascinated at how much better a movie it is.
The common denominator for all of these, of course, is friends. (With games a close second)
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For games with lots of rules, it important to consider where those rules are listed in a book, and how they are presented, organized, indexed, cross-referenced. This can often lead to chicken-or-the-egg issues, such as when you want to explain how actions work so people know what you are talking about when you explain how many actions it takes to reload a weapon, but you want to present some examples of things like reloading weapons to give context before you explain how actions work.
The end result is often a compromise, especially in game with multiple people designing, developing, and editing them.
For expansions to a game, like big books of new options for RPGs, it’s important both to stick to the kind of schema you used in the core rulebook (because that’s what people who need expansions to those core rules have already learned is your organizational standard), and to make sure that if you add brand-new things, you do so in the right place, and at the right time.
For example, if skills are broken into a number of different tasks in the core rulebook, chances are each set of tasks is presented with the relevant skill. But if you are introducing new skill tasks (but not new skills) in an expansion book, there won’t be exactly the same kind of section defining skills. But most likely if “Skills” was a chapter before (or otherwise had its own header—see my Writing Basics on headers), you want to recreate that header, with a new introduction nothing these are just new tasks, rather than whole new skills.
While all that seems pretty intuitive, there’s a corollary that I see violated surprisingly often, especially from writers who mostly work in supplements rather than doing a lot of work in core rulebooks. That is: DON’T introduce new expansion rules anyplace OTHER than a logical niche where you’d expect to find all such rules.
Let’s give an example.
Let’s say you have an RPG with a skill called Riding, which covers everything regarding the care and use of mounts. It outlines how you train a mount, how you get a mount to perform better, control a mount in combat, and so on. All fairly reasonable, and intuitively if a player wants to know how to interact with a mount, this seems like a reasonable place to look. (A lot of that could also be in a Combat section, but let’s assume in this case the game organized around skills.)
However, there are no rules for hanging down to one side of your mount to use it as cover against ranged attacks.
Now, a year after the RPG comes out, you release an expansion book. In this book you have a new piece of equipment, the combat saddle. The combat saddle gives you a +4 bonus to skill checks to hang down on one side of your mount to gain cover against ranged attacks. And since there are no rules for that, it gives the rules.
And that’s a problem.
No one knows to look at equipment for new combat uses of the Riding skill. And unless the combat saddle entry is extremely clear, there are going to be people who feel you can ONLY attempt this maneuver with that saddle. (And they’ll have a point, since having a piece of equipment give you a new option you CANNOT attempt without that equipment is one of the cases where putting rules in equipment makes perfect sense).
Sometimes the issue is even worse, because the combat saddle may only give you the new rules in passing, so they don’t really seem like new rules. Like if it says “You gain a +4 bonus to a Difficulty Class 15 Ride check to use your mount as cover,” then it sure SOUNDS like that’s just a quick reference of rules that exist in a full form later… but they don’t.
And goodness knows there are lots of ways for this to happen. Sometimes game writers believe the ability to do something is obvious even though it’s never spelled out. Sometimes they misremember rules, especially if a rule was changed from a previous edition or cut in the development of a book. Sometimes the plan was to reference the new rule in 3 places but there wasn’t room in the book so it got cut back to just 1 reference… in a bad organizational spot.
There’s no one cause of this problem, and no one solution to avoid it. But it’s worth looking at, as a writer, designer, developer, and editor, to avoid adding rules in weird places.
Especially in expansions.
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I got asked how the process of creating a game book happens, from the very beginning. That’s a great question. It really is one of the writing basics.
It’s also a really complicated question.
This is my best stab at a high-level, rough overview. This is based on being on every side of this process at some point over 20 years, and working for and with and as a lot of companies, but it’s not absolute by any means.
This is, at best, a sketch that covers a lot of different ways this happens, but there are companies that add steps, or skip steps, or do things in a totally different order.
It also varies a lot depending on the project. Here are some general steps, although who does what and when can change even within the same company.
- Someone comes up with an idea for a product. This may be a publisher who has looked at sales and resources, or it might be a freelancer who wants to pitch something, or it might be a line developer who is supposed to do X products a year.
- Someone matches the idea to a publishing schedule. That may mean you know you need exactly 44,000 words and sketches of 3 maps by January 4th, or it may mean “This can be a 700 word pdf, send it to me whenever you’re done and we’ll lay it out in a week or two.”
Big publishers are very much more like that first example, while smaller ones are sometimes more flexible.
If it’s a freelancer pitch, the freelancer and publisher work out terms. If it’s internal, you may need to hunt down someone to write it. Either way, the schedule and budget should be finalized at this point.
- An outline is done, so ensure the project will be the right size, hit the right topics, and so on. Often cover art is ordered and art and editing is scheduled at this point.
- Once the outline is approved by the people who are paying for the book, and the people writing it agree, the writing is done.
- Then drafts are turned in. Depening on the company they may be developed, or just edited, or laid out and then edited. That process varies.
If art wasn’t arranged for before, it needs to be now.
- Layout and editing and development is finished. there may be marketing text that needs to be written, or printing that needs to be arranged for.
- Book is released.
- Profit! (Hopefully)
And that’s it!
(It is never, ever that simple.)
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This isn’t an effort to actually solve the question of consciousness, or quantum mechanics, or determinism.
It’s just a though experiment to see if I can make a fictional cosmology I like enough to use in games and stories.
There exists a quantum-affecting energy pattern, the énorkos. Extremely complex neural systems are created by énorkos, which are linked to them. No other system can link to an énorkos. Essentially, complex neural system are discrete slices of the whole that is an énorkos.
An énorkos can perceive all quantum superpositions. However, any specific neural system linked to an énorkos can only perceive a limited set of quantum superpositions. This means that each neural system perceives what appears to be one “reality.” In fact all superpositions exist simultaneously, but each neural system perceives only one set of them encountered by the linked énorkos.
Whenever an énorkos encounters a new superposition, it subdivides into as many neural systems are necessary for one neural system to observe each possible set of quantum positions.
Thus, an énorkos is a quantum energy state that defines consciousness, with each neural system linked to it perceiving one possible combination of collapsed wave states. Conscious things appear to impact quantum superpositions because each consciousness sees only one collapse of a superposition. All superpositions occur simultaneously, but a “living creature” only sees on reality at a time.
Sufficiently advanced technology can create énorkos, or at least link artificial neural networks to existing énorkos. There is thus a concrete difference between a Siri-like computer program with so many billions of responses it can generate that it passes any turing Test, and a true “strong” AI which is linked to an énorkos.
Similarly, if a consciousness shifts to a different position relative to its énorkos is would need to move to an alternate reality, when in fact it is only perceiving the megareality of all superpositions differently.
Also, if you have a technology that can perfectly recreate a person, AND in doing so link their consciousness to the same énorkos as their original consciousness, that is the “same” person, while a duplicate that has no énorkos link, or links to a different énorkos is a “different” person, even if on a macro scale they behave in exactly the same way.
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