Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Game is not Collaboration (writing for RPGs)

A few days ago Dayton wrote a column about years of writing in collaboration with some other guy named Kevin. As I commented then, I’ve never successfully collaborated on novel the way Dayton and the younger, better looking, and more talented Kevin do. Though I did come close a few times.

When writing novels in the MechWarrior series I did remain in constant contact with other writers. Each of us kept the others informed about plot elements that may affect their novels and made sure events in ours didn’t screw up events in someone else’s – but none of us was directly involved in anyone else’s work. Writing for the Starfleet Corps of Engineers series was much the same, though communication between writers was not as direct. Both cases were more about situational awareness than actual collaboration. Last year fellow BattleTech writer Jason Hansa and I completed a tandem story project that was almost but not quite a collaboration. Together we worked out the general shape and flow of a series of clashes between opposing forces, then he wrote a story of the conflict from one side without any input from me and I wrote one from the opposite perspective with no input from him. Each story stood on its own – and sold to the publisher as a stand-alone —but the two together formed a deeper and more textured narrative. (Jason and I are in currently in the midst of the “working out the general shape and flow” stage for a similar project.)

I’m excited about the fact a project I really enjoyed working on has just been released. Transcendent’s Edge (TE) is a campaign book for the Valiant Universe Roleplaying Game
(VURPG). [I tried three times to explain the universe of Valiant Entertainment in less than 1000 words and failed. I’ll post a link to their website at the end of this column.] An RPG campaign book of this type relies on artists, game designers/developers, and writers. It’s the role of writers that I want to focus on today. There were six writers on the TE project who between them wrote about 76,000 words (about 17,000 of which were mine). Even though we were all working together, what we were not doing was collaborating.
I know 97.3% of our readers are prose or graphic novelists and writers of short fiction. I also know others – like me – are still figuring out what they’re doing as writers. (2.7% have mistaken us for a DIY remodeling site.) So I thought I’d spend a few hundred words explaining what goes into writing for a game and being part of a writing team.

The first a writer hears of a project like this (officially, not through the rumor net) is a general invitation to pitch from the publisher. These invitations are sent to all writers who have written for or expressed an interest in writing for the publisher and/or game and have signed a non-disclosure agreement. In the case of TE the invitation specified an evil "black site" facility buried deep beneath Alcatraz Island that is consistent with all present-day Valiant Entertainment characters (Which range from a laser-eyed goat to the spirit of the earth to an immortal poet to a sentient suit of armor to... well. The trick is having hard science, psychic powers, living mythology, and ersatz Vodun running side-by-side without contradicting each other.) The Facility had to be deadly, able to change shape, and 99% impregnable. Required were descriptions of the facility from the viewpoint of each Valiant character, a history of the facility, an overview of the “real” world in the Valiant Universe, write ups of the major characters and factions, thumbnails of minor characters, traps and obstacles within the Facility, and event briefs (short, quick-play scenarios that didn’t require a full campaign) for each Valiant storyline. The campaign book would open with a short (3,000-word) story to launch the campaign.

Writers interested have two weeks to pitch – i.e., send the game developer their ideas on how they would handle each part of the project they would like to work on. A few weeks later writers whose pitches resonated get their assignments – which, if the developer liked their thinking but not their specific idea, may have nothing to do with what they pitched. [I, for example, got a faction and character set for whom I’d never written.] I also got the history of the Bay Area and several districts of San Francisco (which, I was surprised to learn, has gone through some subtle changes since I left in 1978), the various real and imaginary branches of the military, and ten of the forty deadly “trap” rooms within the Facility.
(Proud dad moment: The final design of the Facility incorporates almost everything my son Anson suggested.) I also landed the coveted opening fiction gig.

Once the sections have been assigned, the writers have a six weeks (on average) deadline for getting their stories, write-ups, event briefs, scenarios, etc., in to the editor. A few weeks later we get any rewrite notes and a deadline (usually two weeks) for final revisions.

Is writing to the needs and nature of an existing intellectual property, one owned by others, constraining? If you find the rhyme and meter of a sonnet unduly constraining to your poetry, yes. If, on the other hand, you find adapting to and incorporating the structure of the sonnet challenging, no. It’s not for everyone. But if you like the idea that on any given evening thousands of role players are creating their own adventures using characters and settings and challenges you’ve given them, game writing offers satisfactions unlike any other field.

(As promised: link to Valiant Entertainment.)


Charles Gramlich said...

I've only tried to collaborate once on a fiction project, but the other writer was brand new so it didn't work well.

Liane Spicer said...

Fascinating peek into a world about which I know nothing whatsoever. It sounds pretty exciting.