I'm very excited this week because a project I worked on for months just debuted and shot to the top of Drive Thru RPG's sales charts.
A bit over a decade ago I met Loren Coleman at a media tie-in writing workshop and he asked me if I was interested in writing fluff for a new role-playing game. Turned out there are two aspects of every RPG: crunch and fluff. The crunch is the game's mechanics – decision trees and probabilities; a lot of math and balanced options to keep the game fair and challenging. The fluff is the game's universe – the geography, wildlife, culture, and politics of the world that give the game context and the players' objectives meaning. I've been writing and editing fluff for various game companies ever since.
Eight months ago Randall Bills of Catalyst Game Labs brought me aboard a joint project with Valiant Entertainment. Valiant publishes a diverse collection of well written and intelligent comics – usually dark but with humor as well. Catalyst and Valiant were developing a role-playing game based on a unified Valiant universe, and Randall wanted me to write the fluff for the game version of Valiant's Archer & Armstrong.
Armstrong is Aram Anni-Padda, a ten thousand year old Sumerian who gained immortality through a cataclysm that killed millions of people. He's a poet (the semi-autobiographical Epic of Gilgamesh being his best known work) who keeps his grief
Obadiah Archer is a young Fundamentalist zealot raised in seclusion and trained to be a warrior for God by a pseudo-Christian sect called the Dominion. He has the uncanny, "God given," ability to instantly master anything he sees – from martial arts to languages. The Dominion sends him out to hunt down and kill the Evil One. The hunting goes well, but the Evil One proves remarkably difficult to kill. When the Dominion thinks Archer has failed, they abandon him – which is when he discovers all they'd ever been after was the key to "Evil One" Armstrong's immortality.
The young zealot and the world-weary immortal join forces to battle real evil – debating theology, history, and science, while dodging bullets, scaling cliffs, and running from dinosaurs. Fun stuff.
This next bit, and really the point of this month's column, illustrates one aspect of tie-in writing – particularly game writing. It's the aspect many writers find most disconcerting.
One particularly dangerous organization with which Archer & Armstrong contend on a recurring basis is the Sisters of Perpetual Darkness, a cult of assassin nuns, followers of Lilith, who were recently taken over by Obadiah's childhood sweetheart, Mary-Maria. (I tell you, it's a fun universe.) In the comic their habits seem to protect the Sisters from a remarkable number of things, but there's no explanation of how or why. A "given" that's fine for a story, but which won't work in a game.
Outcomes in games are determined by odds and probability, and to calculate those players need specific values – numbers, called "stats" (statistics) that can be plugged into the equations. Thus, to reflect how effective they were
As the writer of fluff I was allotted sixty words to explain what makes the Sisters of Perpetual Darkness so darn bulletproof.
Each Sister's coif is a hard-impact helmet with an embedded communication suite; her wimple and scapular are reinforced with Kevlar to shield the neck and torso. Multiple layers of lightweight carbon nanotube fabric make up her veil and habit, protecting against most projectiles and edge weapons while providing both freedom of movement and ability to conceal multiple objects.
That went over well both Randall and the folk at Valiant. But you'll have to take my word for it since the paragraph is not in the book. Very late in the process – in one version of the story I heard, when the book was already in layout – it was decided that event briefs were a better value for role players than explanations of the numbers. Event briefs are not, as one might suspect, adult diapers. They are starting points, outlines, or frameworks (the level of complexity varies) that role players can use to create their own adventures. Pretty much the point of role-playing games. This was, I think, a good decision - even though I'd already moved on to editing a Shadowrun project and wasn't able to write the event briefs for Archer & Armstrong. The realities of printing costs meant additional pages weren't an option; to add event briefs, fluff had to go.
As for that nifty fifty-eight-word explanation I wrote, the Sisters of Perpetual Darkness NPC card now reads: Gear: Carbon fiber habit.
Changes and cuts like this happen all the time - on some projects dozens of time - often without warning and usually without any explanation to the writer. The purpose of a role-player's handbook is to enhance the player's experience by giving her a broader knowledge of and a deeper connection to the game's universe; the objective is to increase the player's enjoyment. When something comes along that does this better than your words, your words go. And they're almost always the ones you loved the most.
Every writer gets upset when her words are cut. Some writers take these cuts personally. They may complain to the editor, or about the editor to the game's line developer, they may even vent in fan forums or social media.
One thing these writers don't do is any more work for that publisher.
Media tie-in writers get as upset as anyone when their her words are cut. What sets a media tie-in writer apart is the ability – and willingness – to get over it. Quickly.
It takes a thick skin and a realistic, objective attitude towards what you've written to be a media tie-in writer. You deal with deadlines, creative decisions beyond your control, and routine acts of rejection. But for all its frustrations and disappointments it beats the heck out of working for a living.