Saturday, July 19, 2014

Writing Media Tie-In & new releases

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.

I'm a media tie-in writer, which is to say I work in fictional universes that are not my own. The best analogy I've found to date for the difference between writing original fiction and writing tie-in is one is a soloist and the other is part of a band; the tie-in writer uses her talent and craftsmanship in concert with others. Fellow Novelnaut Dayton Ward is also a media tie-in writer, and in fact we met when we were both writing for Star Trek. No, to answer a common question, we did not write episodes. We wrote short stories and e-books and (in Dayton's case) several novels set in the various storylines of the Star Trek universe. Media tie-in writing usually ties in with TV shows or movies. Resident Evil novels; Monk novels; Buffy novels; Murder She Wrote novels (with "by Jessica Fletcher" and Angela Lansbury on the cover); Star Wars, Farscape, Stargate novels; with the possible exception of Hollywood Squares I think every movie or TV show has at least one media tie-in novel out there somewhere.

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
at bay by celebrating life at every opportunity.
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
in the comics, the Sisters' habits were given the same level of protection as body armor. That was the "crunch" – the datum necessary for the game to be played.
As the writer of fluff I was allotted sixty words to explain what makes the Sisters of Perpetual Darkness so darn bulletproof. I wrote:
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.


Charles Gramlich said...

I've watched or read a few things that I thought I'd like to write for. I can imagine it must take incredible discipline. I probably don't have the personality it would take.

Liane Spicer said...

You had me at "a cult of assassin nuns". My kind of sisters!

Anonymous said...

Writing for licensed properties comes with its own set of challenges, and those can vary from property to property. Some studios are very laid back and allow a lot of room in which to wiggle, while others have their fingers in everything. I tend to treat these relationships as simply having another editor. I get that I'm playing with someone else's toys, and they have "rules" for what you can and can't do, but the same would be true for a universe or set of characters of my own creation. You just roll with it.

That said, I likely wouldn't take a job writing for a property where I wasn't already a fan, or there wasn't a chance I could become a fan with sufficient exposure. Aside from my own enjoyment while I'm writing, I want to respect the readers of such material. Those folks can tell when the writer is into the property, or if they're just phoning in the work for a paycheck, and to say they can be "vocal" about it is something of an epic understatement :D

Jewel Amethyst said...

I love his gift: "He has the uncanny, "God given," ability to instantly master anything he sees – from "marital" arts to languages." :)

There is indeed an art to being married :)

I know it's a typo; just thought I'd tease you a bit.

Liane Spicer said...

Lol, lol, lol, Jewel! Good catch!

KeVin K. said...

Jewel: Typo? What typo?
(I have an edit function and I'm not afraid to use it.)

Liane: I know! Whoever invented the Sisters of Perpetual Darkness had a rougher time at parochial school than I did. (I'd've paid a lot more attention to nuns I suspected were ninjas.)

Charles: Write for hire requires a combination of a drive to do your best for something that's not yours - writers who don't bring their A game get shredded by fans, if they manage to get past the editors - and the ability to see the words you've written as widgets to be used or not as the editor decides. So, yeah, a certain personality type.

Dayton: I almost never play any of these games - mostly because I'm not a gamer. What I love are the universes that have been created for the games. My first two BattleTech stories for Loren were both spun from one-line asides in the first (and only, at the time) BattleTech novel I'd read. I really liked the "history" of the BattleTech universe, read all the player source books and fiction I could find, and sold stories for nearly a year before I ever saw the game. Which was also the first time I ever played the game, a pros-vs-fans event at GenCon Indy in front of hundreds of people. This went about as you'd expect.

I've never played Cathy's Book, Nanovor, Shadowrun, MechWarrior (not to be confused with BattleTech, or any of the games I write for. But, I'm a big fan of each game's universe. (I have been unable to write for games with universes I don't like.)

Anonymous said...

I'm actually the same way when it comes to games. I'm not a "gamer," but I love the settings and universes created for certain games. At least in that way, I'm a fan, and I can definitely be motivated to write material for those settings.