Pitch 101, Part 2 – Styles & Components

This is Part 2 of Pitch 101.

Previously we talked about the Mindset and principal ingredients of the pitching. Today, we’re going deeper. Not quite Inception deeper, but definitely more intensive with our exploration of pitching.

What I have for you today is 3 kinds of pitches and what they’re made of. There are in fact more than 3 types of pitches, but I thought it easier to explain these three rather than just dummy up five or six examples and pick them apart. I would rather you learn to build your own than just learn how to knock down existing structures.

Type I: The Emotional Pitch

Designed to answer the question “Why should I pick up this product over a competitor/alternate choice?” The emotional pitch deals more in emotion and sweeping the listening audience into a feeling or state of interest by using more evocative rather than declarative language.

A Sample Emotional Pitch
Superman is a movie where the character is…super. Fighting for truth, justice and the American way, we follow the nearly impervious Man of Tomorrow as he goes toe-to-toe with Lex Luthor his greatest opponent. With every leap and flight into the air, you’ll believe again in what makes good versus evil so compelling.”

Yes, that’s not my best pitch. It’s sort of last minute, as I was originally going to pitch you a product that isn’t on shelves yet, then decided it’s probably not a good idea to reveal it, since it’s not actually my product.

But let’s take a look at the above paragraph and see what we have. Whenever you want to build a pitch (or deconstruct one) look for USPs (Unique Selling Points, we talked about them in Part 1). In an Emotional Pitch, also look for the ‘appeal to the audience’ and the ’emotional language’.

The ‘appeal to the audience’ is where the pitch either talks directly to the audience or makes a claim that satisfies a presumed audience need.

The ’emotional language’ is usually the adjectives or phrases that make the audience feel something. The ‘something’ is deliberately chosen (Happy language makes you feel happy….etc) and is most often a stumbling block in pitch construction because authors/creators think a sentence or phrase conveys one feeling, when in fact, it says something different.

So, what do we have here?

USPs

  • Fighting for truth, justice, the American way
  • nearly impervious alien character, Superman
  • has an arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor
  • Superman leaps and flies
Appeal to the Audience
  • “WE follow”
  • “You’ll believe”
Emotional Language
  • “You’ll believe again in what makes good versus evil so compelling”
  • Fighting for truth justice and the American way presumes those things aren’t present enough in society
  • An alien character leads us to project onto him our deeper desires and interests – we’ll humanize him
An emotional pitch is great for getting people to pick up your product over a competitor’s, or for demonstrating that you’re passionate about the product, without having to expose any sense that maybe you’re not comfortable talking about ‘what’s under the hood’. You don’t need a deeper level of mechanical understanding to operate an Emotional pitch successfully. Passion wins. 
Type II. The Mechanical (or Practical) Pitch
Designed to go into the substance of the product, the Mechanical Pitch extols the facts of the product as USPs. It answers the question, “What does this product have that other products like it (or other products I’ll see later) don’t have?” and it indirectly answers, “Why should I own this product?”
This is most often the pitch used for selling now or used cars (for example), because it’s easier to construct than an Emotional pitch and allows the creator some distance between themselves and the audience. 
A Sample Mechanical Pitch
“The Pyromatic 6000 is the tool of the future, the indispensable device that will reduce yard work to a fraction of the time spent by harnessing man’s oldest invention: fire! By projecting concentrated jets of super-charged plasma, you’ll remove the weeds in your sidewalk, the dead limbs off trees, the old piles of tires and leaves the clutter your precious greenspace. With a revolutionary water-cooled nuclear engine, the Pyromatic 6000 is recharged by a glass, yes that’s right, ONE glass of water! Order yours today.”
The components of the Mechanical Pitch don’t really change. You retain USPs, probably using a lot more of them. Absent is the appeal to the audience (remember, this pitch puts distance between speaker and listener) but it replaced with “claims of use”. Gone too is some of the emotional language, swapped out with a “sense of scarcity or urgency”. 
“Claims of Use” detail the specific functions or options of the product, giving the audience insight into how it works or where it can be used. The danger is creating hyperbole, which a listener may construe as fact, and then disappointment when your product isn’t actually “the greatest thing since sliced bread”.
The “Sense of Scarcity or Urgency” is present in a pitch to encourage people to not wait on making a decision. Scarcity and urgency are tools of a “Call to Action”, which is the part of salescopy or presentation that (in the words of the guy who taught me this) “gets people off their asses and makes them hand you money for whatever you’ve done.” (Note: Near the end of his life, he stopped saying it was a ‘call to action’ and starting calling it the ‘Fuck you, pay me’ moment of writing and presenting. I miss him dearly.)
When a consumer believes a product is hard to find, or that there are few of them and they may miss out, this may lead them to purchase the item sooner rather than later. The danger here is many-fold. You, creator, can assume that they’ll run right to your product, and they may not. They may assume they have more time to wait and decide. You may decide that you’re not spurring them fast enough because you’re impatient or crushingly near-sighted and you’ve forgotten which one of you is ‘in charge’ of this buyer-seller relationship (here’s a tip: Neither of you is ‘in charge’, it’s a collaborative, cooperative relationship).
Scarcity and Urgency are potential red flags for products, and I urge you to be cautious in using language to suggest or imply quicker consumer decisions. If your product won’t actually hold up to scrutiny, why are you rushing? The money, I swear to you, will come. Take the time to make the best product possible, and do whatever is within your budget to prevent having to get underhanded with scare tactics. 
Now let’s break this down:
USPs
  • The name, Pyromatic 6000, sounds cool
  • Reduces the amount of yard work someone has to do
  • Shoots concentrated jets of plasma
  • Removes weeds
  • Repairs trees
  • Reduces yard clutter
  • Nuclear-engine
  • Powered by 1 glass of water
Claims of Use
  • Reduces the amount of yard work someone has to do
  • Shoots concentrated jets of plasma
  • Removes weeds
  • Repairs trees
  • Reduces yard clutter
Hyperbole
  • “Indispensable”
  • “tool of the future”
  • Reduce yardwork to “a fraction of the time”
Interest-Building
  • Order yours today!
Type III. The Thematic Pitch
Combining material of the above two pitches, we conclude today with a Thematic pitch. Designed to answer the question “What experience am I going to have with your product?” or “How does the combination of creator and product interest me?”, a Thematic pitch takes the best components from the above pitches and turns them all the way to eleven. Or twelve. Or if you’re really cool, infinity plus one. 
A thematic pitch uses a combination of USPs, hyperbole, appeals to the audience and a new element “product tone” to grab the audience securely and keep them paying attention. 
“Product tone” is the mood/feel/vibe of your product. Usually an adjective or string of adjectives it’s your theme, honed now into a commercial hook. 
A Sample Thematic Pitch, (this one’s for Jenn)
Are you tired of typical games where it’s all about rolling a lot of dice and announcing that you’ll use a broadsword plus-your mom to kill the dragon that will likely eat you? Are you tired of having to keep quiet about your plans for world domination? Then this is the solution for you. Project Ninja Panda Taco. As a Mastermind ready to dominate the planet, you and a team of minions race towards success, with only player democracy and other Masterminds between you and sweet glorious victory. In this intensely fun collaborative game for up to six, you can make your fondest desires of despotism come true. Pre-orders available soon, stay tuned to Jennisodes.com for more information.”
Here, a good presenter brings all skills to bear. Appealing to audience in a conversational, but not oil-slick way and creating interest by evoking desired emotion or experience. These emotions are supported by USPs and validated through more audience appeal, which prompts more USP generation, and everything cycles forward.
The breakdown:
USPs
  • Not a lot of dice rolling
  • Not a ‘typical game’
  • This game is pro-world domination
  • A fun game for up to 6 players
  • There are Masterminds and Minions
  • It is a collaborative game
  • Information is available at Jennisodes.com
Appeals to the Audience
  • “Are you tired”
  • “you’ll use a broadsword plus-your mom”
  • “this is the solution for you”
  • “you can make your fondest desires come true”
Product Tone
  • Fun, collaborative, atypical game of world conquest
Claims of Use
  • Collaboration, implied without many limits on invention
  • This game is fun for up to six players
  • You get to be a Mastermind, bent on winning
Hyperbole
  • “broadsword-plus your mom”
  • “typical games”
  • “sweet glorious victory”
  • “intensely fun collaborative game”
Interest-Building
  • “Pre-orders available soon”
Wow, that’s a lot of information. But a good pitch has a lot of components available for dissection, and not of them vestigial. 
What I recommend you do is write out your pitch, even if you’re not done developing the product, and start breaking down the components as I’ve done here. You’ll give yourself a nice road map of what you like and don’t like and where you need to go. 
It will be annoying, sometimes, but hard work is always rewarded. And yes, before you say anything else, yes you can do this. Honest.
In part 3, (up after the holiday), we’ll look at some sample pitches and we’ll talk about what the audience hears/reads/interprets from them.
Happy writing, and enjoy your holiday weekend. Unless you’re a jerk or something, but if that’s the case, then we’re not talking. 
Rock on.

Pitch 101: Step 1 – The Mindset & Selling Points

What follows is the start of a series on how to pitch your product to other people. It doesn’t matter if that product is a book, a game, a film script or your business, pitching is a critical skill and knowing how to do it can easily separate you from the rest of the competition.

Before we get into the first component of Pitching, there are some ground rules. Not many, don’t panic.

I. You’re not always ‘on’. One of the big hurdles for people, especially when they’re new, is that they think anytime someone asks about what they’re doing, they have to launch into some well-rehearsed and stiffly-acted presentation, with broad gestures to invisible powerpoint slides. You don’t. You don’t. I repeat: You don’t.

There is a valuable skill in knowing when you have to give a formal description, and when you’re just explaining your material over a burrito to a bunch of friends. To better determine when you have to be on, ask yourself two questions:

a.) Do the results of this situation lead my product one step closer toward publication, or is this just chat?
b.) Did this situation arise because it’s organized to be about my product, or did we come to the topic of my product through conversation?

If you answered “yes” to the first half of either question, then you’re on. If not, be cool and relax, and talk in more relaxed ways.

II. There isn’t a ‘perfect’, just ‘moving forward’. Many people freeze when they think about talking about their product because they often want to give the ‘perfect’ answer to whatever question they just heard, as answers are like Highlander or the One Ring and there’s a definite top to some pyramid. There isn’t. And every time you think so, you’re hurting your own cause in major way.

You didn’t get asked questions because people are testing your sense of perfection – you got asked questions because the book/game/script/whatever interests someone else.

All you have to do in those moments is move the conversation forward. Just like flirting. Just like a job interview. Just like the weird conversations you have waiting in lines. Move things forward, keep the momentum alive.

Each of your answers, as long as it’s positive and/or constructive in somewhat about the question, moves things along. Hopefully to the next question. Hopefully forward to other questions that maybe the interviewer didn’t prepare in advance. It should be, at its best, organic, just like conversation.

Which leads to the third rule of pitching.

III. It’s a conversation, not rocket science. A good pitch is talking. A bad pitch is silence. A good conversation is talking. A bad conversation is silence. A good time is talking. A bad time is silence. See the point I’m making here? If you’re still talking, you’re doing it right. And it’s only ever talking.

Sometimes yes, it’s talking while standing or while sitting or while in front of a room, but it’s only ever talking. They’re not going to ask you to describe a part of your product while performing brain surgery using celery and a spatula. You aren’t going to have to calculate re-entry velocities for a Martian space probe, you won’t have to defuse a bomb in the basement of Fort Knox. You’re having a conversation about something you’re passionate and knowledgeable about.

Load those three rules into your brain, digest them completely and practice them often. Yes, often. At whatever stage of development you’re at. Just started writing today? Then this is what you have to look forward to. Did you just write ‘The End’ on it? Then this is the next step.

This is the Pitch Mindset. Well, technically, this is my pitch mindset and I’m hoping it becomes your pitch mindset too. It can be, with some practice. Not always easy practice, if you’re like me and you catch yourself kicking your own ass or you go into a situation with the expectation of epic failure, but with practice, you can change that, and lubricate those creative ideas in this special I-can-do-it-sauce.

Just like GI Joe, this was half the battle.

For the next half, we better take a look at some of the actual words you can use, unless you’re pitching telepathically. (If you are, we should talk, or mind meld or use the Force or whatever) The other stumbling block for people is what to actually say.

Seriously, it’s like the words evaporate from the folds of your brain or something. I know. Your palms get all sweaty and your stomach gets all queasy, just like that time in eighth grade when you saw Karen in Home Ec (I may have said too much there), and then when you try to talk, your brain makes the jump to lightspeed and you end up runningallthewordstogetherlikeyou’regoingtorunoutofairortimeorsomething. And then you stand there exhausted and panting like you just performed in a bad musical.

Remember this sentence —  

When in doubt, talk about the shiny.

The “shiny” is what makes your game unique. It could be mechanics you use (no one else uses seven-sided die like this), it could be your plot (epic battle as a robot version of Duran Duran!) or it could be the way you’re going to distribute copies (When you buy a six pack of Suddso Beer, you get a free download!)

Now, this means you have to find your shiny. So break out the legal pad, and let’s get to work. Here’s the Shiny Detection Questionnaire:

1. What are you most excited to talk about when you’re asked about your product?
2. What do you think is the best part (so far) of the development process?
3. Where did you struggle, and how did you overcome it? (The overcoming part is CRITICAL)
4. What are you excited to do next with your product?
5. Name up to 3 things/scenes/beats/moments your game/book/script has that you’re proud of.

Write down all your answers. Try to get them into sentences, but if you can’t, phrases are good too.

The answers to those questions are called “Unique Selling Points” (USPs), and you can reward yourself for receiving the same amount of knowledge as one semester of marketing in college! Hooray college credit!

You’re going to want to cobble together a TON of Unique Selling Points. You shouldn’t repeat information, but they don’t always need to be cookie cutter sentences. Here are some USPs for a script I wrote last year.

  • I coined the euphemism “cunty deposit box”
  • You actually meet two cat burglars who burgle cats.
  • For ninety minutes, you practically drown in a weekend with the main character, Jared.
  • It’s a movie about drug dealers that isn’t inherently racist. 
USPs are the currency you spend in your pitch to entice people to buy your product. You give them USPs, they give you currency. It’s a wonderful economy.
I strongly strongly recommend you practice USP development as often as possible, at least until you exhaust all your shiny resources (go back to your Feel Document and Note Cards, don’t forget). Strip mine the idea…because you never know when the little scribble you had on the bottom of a card is going to turn into the big hook for a consumer. 
Before I end this post, let me just tell you, remind you, and convince you that you can do this. It’s just talking about what you love. Throw on some blinders until you soak that idea into your genes. No, don’t start telling me some bullshit about how this proves you’re successful, don’t be silly – you were successful the minute you started the product. Don’t you dare tell me this is too complicated – it’s just a conversation and all you have to do is move it forward. 
You can do this. For realsies.
In Part 2, we’ll construct some sample pitches. Look for it later in the week. 

Game Design Tool: The Note Card Trick

Note: The following technique for idea development is a variation on my Original Note Card Trick, available in its natural form when you start writing a novel. This version is modified heavily to reflect the complexities and scope of game design.

Go get some note cards. I prefer the standard size, but in a pinch you could use the larger recipe size, or even cut squares of paper. The idea here is that you basically have little boxes to write in (don’t use Post-It notes, they stick together and that’s actually another technique). As for the number of cards you need, start with at least 24. The most I’ve ever seen used in this technique was 150, but you should be okay with a few dozen.

They do not have to all be the same color, but if you’re the sort of person who wants uniformity in their development, then try and make them all white. Or blue. Or whatever color makes the voices stop screaming in your head.

I’m assuming you have blank cards here or at least 1 side is blank. Please take the top three off the pile you have and label them:

“Players” “World” “GM”

Over the course of this lesson, you’re going to fill these piles with the appropriate information. Yes, you’re going to write up to 3 statements per note card (If this is your first time, do one to a card), so that it fits into one of these three big categories.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – Isn’t this just a recopy of the Feel Document? To which I answer – No, if the point was just to make a Feel Document, I wouldn’t be teaching other techniques, would I? Do not ‘crib’ from the Feel Document whenever possible, as you need to start conceiving of those ideas in variable and multiple ways. Also, this is one of those times you get to expand on them.

Note: You don’t have to do this all in one sitting, and in fact, if you can, then maybe you need to spend more time thinking and developing. This is as macro and/or as micro a style of creation as you’re comfortable, and rushing through this is only going to produce shoddy work. Take your time, the care you put in here is critical to your finished product.

Let’s start with the Players pile.

Players

This pile will contain all the facts, data, instructions and chunky bits a player would need to sit down and play the game, from the moment they have it in front of them. You’re going to want to be objective about this, as if you’re answering the question, “And what can you tell me about players in your game?

So, the Players pile will have things like:

  • character creation rules (or if your game doesn’t really pick up until after the players do that, you can just call it “character creation” and move forward)
  • any opening gambits the players enter into upon introduction of the game (does everyone wake up on bus? Are we all on a crazy Grecian riverbank holding 2 coins? Or is this game pretty variable?)
  • The number, names and types of races/character-types available to the players (are they just tokens on a board? Are they all humans? Are they all mutant animals? Do you offer them 40 different species and 50 different classes/professions?)
  • What’s the first thing the players will do when they start the game? Also consider what’s the first thing YOU want them to do when they start playing?
There’s no plot in the Players pile. There shouldn’t be, anyway. And in advance of your next question, do the players NEED your plot desperately in order to act? Even in a board game where all they can do is roll a die and then proceed, they still have options. Plot isn’t a player requirement. (It’s actually a world requirement, which we’ll talk about next)
World
This is the setting of the game, the created-world experience, and all the NPC details that exist concurrent to the players. Yes, the players may be noobs, but the rest of the world isn’t, is it? It might be Tuesday, the Eight Day of Flooglefog, and the Eve of Saint Carlos’ Day. The world still spins even if the players aren’t there, I hope you realize. This pile is also objective, and addresses the question, “What’s the world like and what’s the plot like?
Note: If you’re developing a board game, your World Pile may just have 1 card called “Board Game” in it. 
The World Pile will contain things like:
  • The time-period of the setting
  • The technological complexity of the world
  • The name of the supervillain bent on conquering [insert city name here] by way of [insert name of insidious device here]
  • What sort of weather does the world have?
  • What sort of gods or belief system does the world have?
  • How literate is the average NPC?
  • What’s the population breakdown like, by percentages? (40% Caucasian humans, 30% dragon cyborg hybrids 30% awesome living sound monsters, etc)
  • What’s the badguy trying to do? Why? How?
GM
Here’s the trickier pile. This pile is a combination of mechanics, written out, as well as feelings and desires you want the GMs to have/convey/understand. Just like most games, this is the pile you don’t really need the players to see, but this is more the “behind the screen” side of the game. It answers the question, “What does the GM know that the players don’t?
The GM pile will contain:
  • A breakdown of the basic rules for conflict resolution and skill-checks
  • A summation of sample combat
  • A sentence describing how the players should feel during or because of combat
  • The mood the GM should convey when describing the overarching world-plot.
  • The mood the GM should convey when the players throw a monkey wrench into the plot
  • A few alternate mechanics for resolving the player-instigated problems
  • A sentence describing the overall “difficulty” of the world for the player(s) (How forgiving is this world on its inhabitants?)
By now, I’ve lost some of you, because I’ve tried to convey in text what is for some people a visual progression. So here now, for the sake of the confused, are some sample cards. Just imagine boxes around the next paragraphs.
PLAYER
  1. Start on a boat, in messy rumpled tuxedo/party dress
  2. Stats: Strength, Smarts, Sass, all 2d10
  3. 1d4 personal items in a pocket/purse
WORLD
  1. The sun hasn’t shone in twenty years.
  2. Time measured in days/weeks/years
  3. Most people enjoy parties
GM
  1. [Name of Game here] is roll-and-keep, d10s
  2. The plot advancement of the game is tied DIRECTLY to what the players discover
  3. Game “mystery” elements should feel like old 1930s films
Each of the nine items listed above could go on their own card, and likely should, if you’re new at this or if you’re trying to be more thorough. 
You could stop here, and use these piles to help your writing and development, and put together an excellent product with many layers. Or you can go one step further, deeper into the development and start tying these threads together. 
What I’m going to explain below you’ll do to each pile, but I’ll just explain it once, with the Players pile.
Group like-minded ideas together, usually by common idea or term and label the card.
So the Players card above I’d label “Starting Characters” (I’d label either the top or the reverse side if it was blank) because those are elements that come into play at the start of the game. Try to avoid numbering the cards or organizing them obtusely, as these cards are more for your constructed benefit rather than a run of numbers. Having them labelled like that allows for other techniques to be applied, but at the very least, this gives you a sort of loose confederation of ideas as to how the game operates. 
You’ll find this time-consuming initially, but I promise you this won’t distract from getting your material developed.

Hope this helps you, if you have questions, please ask.

Happy writing.

How To Work With An Editor, Part 2

Previously, we talked about initiating the relationship between you (the author/creative person) and the editor, this morning I want to talk about what that relationship looks like in the day-to-day form.

Note: Not all editors function in this way, nor do they all use the same terminology or methods. If you’re curious about how a particular editor works, ASK THEM.

Imagine this is Day 1 of working together. You’ve nervously emailed me your manuscript. And then you sit back and wait for the magical response emails to flood back at you. Maybe you’re wondering what I’m doing to your manuscript. This is what I’m doing:

1. I’m chopping your manuscript into chapter/section-sized files, and making two copies. (Note: this is my method, other people….don’t work this way)
2. On one copy, I’m double-spacing it and printing it out.
3. On the second copy, I’m working digitally.

For the print-out, I’m going through the pages by hand, circling and scribbling myself notes like:

“o.w.” (one word) “hyphenate” “new paragraph” “no” “yes”

And then there’s a series of furious underlines and symbols.

When I reach the end, I write questions, usually on the back of the last page. Questions like:


a) Did you mean for the two characters to be lovers?
b) How are you going to improve the next chapter, given that you’ve spent this chapter repeating yourself and not making any headway?
c) Where’s the plot?
d) Which character am I supposed to be caring about?

For the digital copy, it’s much the same thing, only this time, I make copious use of the ‘Reviewing’ Toolbar in Word.

Note: Only recently have I gotten into ‘Track Changes’ and it has made my work three to five times faster, allowing me to be more thorough in the comments.

Then, when the chapter is done, I email it to you. And at some point, should we meet in person, I’ll also give you the hard copy with my handwritten notes on it.

This process repeats for all the chapters, until your book is done.

Depending though on what you’ve hired me for, you might also get some emails about particular issues I’ve found in your manuscript. These emails are basically lessons and examples of how to correct a particular flaw (like how to strengthen dialogue or how to build a better world readers will believe or something) or how to reduce your problems in the future.

Take a quick dance break. (DANCE DANCE DANCE WIGGLE WIGGLE)

So, how can you make this process easier?

I. Have a clear idea of what you think your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses are. The more you can put an somewhat objective finger on the inner workings of your manuscript, the easier it is for an editor to help you improve those areas.

II. Be honest about your manuscript. If you’re not happy with pages 45 to 60, the time to tell me that is NOT when I’m about to start reading page 45. A little advance notice makes the editorial process so much easier.

III. Do the work. When you get these revisions back, it helps if you actually read them. It really helps if you actually implement them, but I’m not going to twist your arm….you should want your book/game/project/business/whatever to be better on your own — if I have to prod you about your own project(s), then you may have other problems.

Hope that’s helpful.

Happy writing.

Up next….your questions!

Game Design Equation, Part 3 – Mechanics

We looked the other day at the over all equation, and today, thanks to several nice emails I got, I want to talk a little about mechanics. Absent from this conversation will be a lengthy section about probability and the mathematics of outcome, because quite frankly that topic either confuses or bores me and I’d rather not have it explained to me, so that I can explain it to you.

But where I can offer you, game designer, some help is in mechanical text. ‘Mechanical text’ refers to the paragraph(s) that accompanies the math. And it is almost exclusively the area an editor dreads for two reasons:

1. If something gets changed here, then the mechanics may change as a result.
2. If something doesn’t get changed, then the mechanics may be misunderstood.

So into this minefield we plunge.

I’ve brought you three red flags to look for in your own game. If you’re doing any of these things, go talk to an editor immediately and ask for help. No, seriously, do it. These mistakes are causing your game to not work, costing you sales and ultimately making you not successful. And they’re fixable, so why not do something about them.

I. Big complicated math, weak text
One of the first danger zones for game designers is the very rigid thinking that the game mechanics have to explain the majority of ‘How’ and ‘Why’ of the game. To task the roll of dice with moving the story forward is a sign of a weak and timid design.

The dice’s job is just to see if a particular challenge is succeeded or to grant a number/level on a particular variable for part of a story-equation. Read that again. And then again.

The dice are there to give you numbers to quantify story elements and act as a binary “Did you succeed or fail” checksum. Nothing else.

The dice say you’ve got a skill of 60 in Firearms. How that expresses itself as part of your character is not the job of the dice, but rather that of the feel of the game, the quality of the player and the tone the GM is looking to set.

The dice say you’ve got a strength of 11. And the table in the book says that means you can carry so many pounds or have this percent-chance to bash in a door. Again, those facts are information for challenges a player may face down the road. How that strength score impacts the nature of the character is left to the player.

Now, let’s go grab some complicated mechanics.

[Herbalism Test] + [Chemistry Test]  + [Intelligence] > [Recipe Difficulty per round]  + [Situation Penalties]

That’s an old potion-brewing mechanic. Let’s look at the text that went with it.

Roll the relevant skills and exceed the penalties. 

No seriously, that’s all it said. My notes in the margin do actually say, “Thanks Captain Obvious.”

While that text might be true (it is, that’s just a really boiled down way of phrasing it), it’s not enough. This shows that the writer/designer thinks the player will “get it” if they haven’t already.

Important tip – It’s the writing’s job and purpose to make sure the players get it by the time they’re done reading. Not before, not during.

What makes that mechanic so complicated?

1. The “Test” refers to a percentile skill check against both the skill and the ‘Learning Curve’…so really you’re rolling 2 percent-checks and hoping you win them both.
2. After each test (so that’s 4 rolls, 2 per Skill), you check against your Intelligence, which was another percentile.

So on one side of the equation, that’s 5 rolls.

On the other, the potion you wanted to brew was checked against a single table and then divided by the player’s choice of rounds — they got to pick how long it took them to make it — and then you simply assessed any penalties like being Crippled, or Blind or working in a crappy lab.

Yes, I said the players got to pick how long it took to make the potion. And yes, as you’d expect, everyone said they’d craft the potion in 1 round, which was a flat 10 on the difficulty table.

So, 5 percentile rolls versus Penalties plus ten. 

Or for the crunchy math nerds:

79 + 80 + 19 > 10 +(-50)

And you wonder why the game sold so poorly…

Text that serves as instructions has to be clear, not patronizing and written generally in a structure that encourages people to actually feel like they can do it. It’s always better to overwrite the sentences and get them trimmed, than to underwrite and leave people guessing.

II. ‘Swiss Army’ Mechanics
I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but your game doesn’t actually have to do EVERYTHING. If you’re writing a game about the struggles of pioneers (finally, someone will tell the true story of the Donner party….), then you don’t need to go outside the scope of ‘pioneers’ and I should not see mechanics for space travel, alien languages, complicated firearms, siege weapons or magic.

I’m not saying you have to over-specify (though if you do, you’re only pressuring yourself to really deliver on specific experiences), but you don’t need to make a themed-game into a one-game-to-rule-them-all book.

How this creeps into game design is when the design starts straying from their strengths (alliteration!) and allows worry and extraneous thinking to clutter their minds.

Your game, right now, what’s it about. Say it. Don’t mumble. Yes, it’s fine if you have a few ‘Um’ and ‘Uhh’ in there. Good for you if you’re able to explain it in a few sentences. (If you couldn’t….PRACTICE.)

Within the scope of what you just said, surely you can find things that don’t belong. If your game is about space exploration and colonization, I probably won’t expect to see a horse-racing minigame, will I? Or if your game is about gypsy assassins, there probably won’t be cyborgs, right?

But, you say, I like all these things, shouldn’t they be in a game?

Yes, they should be in A game. That doesn’t mean it has to be THIS game does it?

Have a good serious discussion with an editor about your mechanics, and if you’ve got far more mechanics than you’ve got story elements or reason for them, maybe you’ve got two games sandwiched together, and you can now be the proud designer of TWO games, not one. Mazel Tov, or whatever.

III. Far Too Many Dice Syndrome
Roll percentiles for your skills. Roll d20 for your attributes. Resolve conflicts with Fudge Dice. Determine hit location and severity of injury with a deck of playing cards.  Can you imagine that all in one game? (I can. I wrote a game with all that in it….sigh.)

How many different types of dice are you asking players and GMs to roll during a session of play? Make a list.

For the above freakshow of a game, here’s mine:

  • 3 different mechanics during combat (to-hit, damage, defense)
  • 1 mechanic for unopposed skill checks
  • 1 different mechanic for opposed skill checks
  • 1 mechanic for investigation and clue discovery
  • 1 mechanic for clue interpretation
  • 2 mechanics for magic (channeling power and spell casting)
  • 3 mechanics for psionics (channeling power, mental attack, mental resistance)
What you’re doing when you load up on mechanics is telling the players that all these situations could arise in any given session at any time.

Should mechanics trump story? That’s a question for the designer/writer to answer. (Pro tip: Figure out that answer before you find an editor.)

I’ve not written this thinking your game has all these red flags. Maybe your game doesn’t have any of these problems. Maybe you know of games that do though. And maybe that’s who you’re going to talk to about this post. 

If you’ve got a game that’s doing this or something that you fear is worse, let’s talk about it.

John’s Stack of Book Recommendations, Part 1

There are, at last count, about 4000 books in my house. I have two rooms designated as library/office space and half my basement is filled with boxes of things I’ve read or used to teach. My classics, my prized rare books, and my favorites are in a third room that will likely become a third library in the very neat future.

Book bragging, I do it now.

What I present to you today is a list (and links) to books, broken down by category as they might appeal to you.

Books For Pleasure

1. Go to Chuck Wendig’s site. Buy everything he’s written. Budget money to buy everything he will write. Ever. Ever ever.
2. If you’ve not read Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (the books that made me want to work with game designers), then we probably shouldn’t speak again until you do. Double Bonus: Pick up an audiobook or two – they’re narrated by James Marsters.
3. I came across Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series while waiting for the most recent Dresden book. I’m glad I gave them a try. Totally worth it.
4. A friend of mine gave me a copy of Mark Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne series. I haven’t returned them yet, and don’t plan to.  (Start with Spring Heeled Jack)

Audiobooks For Pleasure

I do a lot of traveling and audiobooks are great for those downtimes and traffic-times and long hauls from Point A to Point Q. Here are some of the best ones I’ve heard this year.
1. The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton. (I tend to find narrators and stick with them – Macleod Andrews MAKES this book the best audiobook I’ve heard in years.)
2. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer and the Detective are both FANTASTIC listens, even if there are two different narrators.
3. Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series. (Favorite series of the last few years) Again, you can thank Macleod Andrews when you get the audio versions. (Start with Sandman Slim)
4. Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series. No, I don’t know why more of these aren’t in audio. Oh, I how I wish they were. (Start with The Devil You Know)

Books To Make Your 2012 Better

1. The Nerdist Way. Chris Hardwick is super nice and this book should absolutely be read (or listened to) by anyone who wants to be better next year. Also, this book changed my life more than many humans I know.
2. Spiritual Liberation by Michael Beckwith. Yeah I know, it looks way New Age-y. Give it about 30 pages (or ten minutes if you get the audiobook). It’ll be worth it. I promise.
3. Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch. Seriously, get the audiobooks if you’re serious about this purchase. 1. The material is interesting. 2. ED ASNER.

Books to Make You A Better Writer/Designer

1. The Weekend Novelist. Do you have a silly dayjob, so you only write on the weekends? Then you need this book!
2. The Writer’s Compass. Are you trying to figure out what your story is about so that you can write it later? Then you DEFINITELY need this book!
3. Do you suck at grammar? Then have the trifecta: Spunk and Bite; Eats, Shoots and Leaves; and Sin and Syntax.
4. Do you often think about fonts and layout? Then you should read Just My Type.

Books You Can Learn Something From

1. Evil Hat’s Dresden Files RPG – Come look at the confluence of mechanics, story, licensing and characters.
2. Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life – Take a look at what good research can do for your material.

More to come as I think of them…..

Game Design Special: The Feel Document

This is a special post, dedicated to one of the elements I talked about at Metatopia, in my workshops and most recently in my Jennisodes interview. The ‘Feel’ document is NOT my original creation, but it is a useful tool.

What You’ll Need For This:

1 piece of paper, legal pad, Word document or similar
1 idea
1 pen
1 favorite beverage

Let’s do this.


Step 1. Title your Feel Document At the top of the page, put the name of the idea you want to write about. If you’re writing a game, call it the name of the game. If you’re doing this about a character in your screenplay, use the character’s name. Try to avoid calling this “Feel Document” and then assigning it a number. It’s impersonal, and easy to lose focus that way.

Write it large enough so that you can see it. Use 36-point font at least if you’re typing this out.

Step 2. Consume part of your favorite beverage. This is really hard work.

Step 3. Start writing. ‘Start writing what?’ you ask. Onto this paper, into this document you’re going to pour ALL-NON-MECHANICAL thoughts related to the idea. In any order. In words. In phrases. In full sentences. Key here is the idea that this isn’t where mechanics go. (If you’re writing a novel or screenplay, then you replace the word ‘mechanics’ for ‘plot’)

The paper should have things like:

  • Descriptions of the setting. (If you’re creating the feel of your world)
  • Adjectives that players would use to describe the game (again for the feel of the world
  • Words to describe characters (if you’re using this for characters)
  • Any idea that develops the atmosphere, tone or evokes a sense
  • Sample dialogue

For example, if I’m writing a novel about a lumberjack, my Feel Document looks like this:

Chops of Doom
  • Burly
  • Plaid
  • Lots of sap
  • Tall trees
  • Women’s clothing
  • Mounties
  • Cold weather
  • “It’ll be a cold day in hell before I use a chainsaw.”

You want to keep plot and mechanics out of this document, because this is more about developing the creative side. You want to be able to draw scenes and compile an evoked experience from this document, so that as you’re writing, and you get stuck, or when you come back to this project after a break, this document will snap you right back to the vibe you want to put down on the manuscript. 

Note: Plot and Mechanics get their own documents, which I’ll likely cover later.

Step 4. Have some of that beverage. 

Step 5. Finish the beverage! 

A Feel document is a living reference tool, you can come back to it and expand it as the need arises. And you will discover that as you pursue different avenues of thought, a lot of the planning and ideas you started with will change. That’s okay. That’s a good sign. The issue is when start changing the Feel document more than the manuscript.

Things To Remember

I. This Feel document is just for you. You don’t have to share this with other people, and it doesn’t have to be “perfect”.
II. This Feel document is NOT set in stone. It’s going to grow and develop as the story does, so don’t think it has to be 100% complete before you move onto the next step.
III. When you get stuck, whether in writing, mechanics, plot, pacing or whatever….come back to the Feel document. The words here will help get back into a better creative mode and you’ll find your solutions.

Happy writing.

Game Design Equation, Part 2

YOUR GAME = Desired Emotion / Experience + Mechanics + Theme/Setting

You’re going to want a legal pad by your side when you go through this post. It’s meaty.

Today we’re going to explore game design at it’s core, because in order to understand something, you have to get down to it’s most basic unit. We can’t talk science without atoms, we can’t talk writing without words, and we can’t gaming without emotion, mechanics and theme.

When you’re designing a game, whether that’s a card-trading game, or a board game or a structured tabletop RPG using licensed characters and cinematic plots or something home-brewed, there sits at the heart of it a desired experience. You want the players, and you (presumably as its first GM) have an experience in mind – you want your game to be a certain way, you want the time you spent playing to feel a certain way.

Part I: Desired Emotion & Experience
Because game design is a practical task, take that legal pad next to you and write down some words, concepts or phrases to describe this desired experience. Ask yourself the question, “How do I want the game to be?”

Maybe you’ve written down things like:

  • Fun and easy
  • just like [insert favorite movie title here]
  • fast-paced
  • my players want to do it again
You want to stay away from the mechanics and setting here, because we’ll get to those next. For now, think only of the experience of people around the table while playing. The better you can detail this experience, the easier it is for you to put your finger on it, the more evocative and expressive the game will turn out. 
Add to this list, or in a second column, a list of emotions you want the players to experience while playing. This is just a list, you don’t have to tie emotions to things you’ve already written. Do your best to have more ‘player’ feelings than ‘GM’ feelings, but don’t exclude the GM side of play either. 
I should point out now that there’s no ‘wrong’ length to any of the lists we’ll create, and if you only have one item on it, that’s fine, in time you can always expand it later. What matters is that you’ve put something down on paper. 
Your list may have things like:
  • excited during combat
  • nervous during suspense
  • happy to play at all
Now stop and congratulate yourself because you’re one-third of the way done with the first draft of this game. Onto part 2.
Part II: Mechanics
Games can live and die by their mechanics, since it is lifeblood of play. Mechanics are the practical application of creative desire, and should be relatively codified in such a way as to answer basic questions and promote imagination about future issues. 
Basically – mechanics should be ‘how’ the things you want to do get done but they aren’t meant to be everything to everyone. Remember that play is a collaborative event, and no game is ever going to be able to account for all the potential things a player can do (or not do, depending). No game should be a Swiss Army knife, constantly trying to do everything, as that sounds and feels desperate, like a child begging a parent to pay attention to them. Don’t be a desperate designer. 
Likewise, don’t swing the pendulum the other way and over-specialize. Your game might do one thing well, it may have one or two strong building blocks at the base, but by no means is your game just about the rolling of dice or the playing of one specific card in one specific context is it? Yes, the game can be driven/railroaded towards that situation time and again, but there’s a decided lack of emotion and fun in always going back to rolling that die just because it’s the only part of the game that you know works. 
When talking and thinking about your game, those elements you get really excited about, or the ideas you want other people to be excited about should have mechanics. Also, if your game is “about” something, that “about”ness should be mechanized too. It’s really hard to have a game where players are police who catch robbers if there’s no way for them to find and/or catch robbers. 
But how much is too much? Does EVERYTHING need a rule? No. You have to let the game be collaborative, remember? You have to trust those GMs and players to take what you’ve given them, and use it their way…so long as their way doesn’t absolute ruin your intention…but if it does, so what? You cannot ultimately control that. All you can do is provide them a skeleton with some meat on the bones, and it’s up to them to Frankenstein it to life.
Your best mechanics should be the clearest to understand, not the most convoluted. And you should be able to distill explanations of mechanics down to easy-to-grasp sentences. To practice this (and develop the critical skill of being able to explain your game), get that legal pad again, and write out first the mechanic and then an explanation.

It might look like this:


* Roll Fudge Dice and add your [Attribute] to the result.
* Roll Fudge Dice and count the plusses. To this number, add your [Attribute] score. The end number is the number used for [whatever mechanical issue we’re talking about].
Or maybe this:

*Roll d100, subtract X% for difficulty.
* A percentile die is rolled, and from the result a penalty is assessed. The result is the percent chance of [whatever mechanical issue we’re talking about]
Yes, it’s going to be clunky if you’re new to thinking this way. Yes, it’s not going to be pretty writing. But that’s why the world has editors (Hello. My 2012 calendar open, and we should talk.) But just like all your other favorite skills and habits, you got better at it over time with practice. 
Mechanics are dictated by the story and they also dictate the story ahead. The GM will take the players through the imagined/created story and at some point will turn to the mechanics because the story got them there. If we’re telling the story of conquistadors encountering natives, then at some point, we’re likely going to have mechanical instances of combat. The story has brought the players and GM to that experience, and the mechanics will walk us through the parts of the experience where chance/risk/luck/The Force plays a role.  
Also, the resolution of those mechanical situations will shape the story going forward. In the above conquistadors versus natives example, if the conquistadors get walloped by the indians, then the story will advance differently than if both parties fought to a standstill or if one side ran away. The story will ALWAYS move forward, it may not move forward in a way that you or the GM intended. But adaptability is a good thing. Both designer and GM need some amount of adaptability in their thinking, because it will have profound and positive impacts on the experience of play. (Note: If the game is supposed to have a certain situation go a specific way, it should be narrative, not mechanical)
We end now with the top of the pyramid.
Part III: Theme/Setting
I’ve talked previously about finding your theme. You’re going to want to do that exercise now before going further. Now let’s look at what the theme can do. 
Theme and Setting (which is the theme objectified) are where the meal that is your emotion and mechanics are eaten. Up until this point, your game is nebulous and can occur anywhere. This is where you place a firm stamp on where the game occurs, how it occurs and to a deeper level, why it must occur. 
A game’s setting dictates parameters for the players. A game that occurs in 1492 won’t have planes in it. A game that occurs in deep space likely won’t have American politics at its core. The setting gives you a playground to explore, and the mechanics are the swingset thereupon. The theme is the…lax supervision that allows you to run from the slide to the monkey bars and tease that one kid for his pants falling down. (Not that I’m bitter about my pants falling down, but I was sensitive and stuck on those damn bars for five minutes until you were done laughing) Theme cooperates with emotion you want to express to cohere the mechanics and setting together into a game
Likewise theme gives you a different axis of parameters for players. A “serious thrilling” game should not have too many moments of slapstick humor. A “fun rainy day” board game should not result in arguments about the nation’s death penalty. Codifying and expressing your theme are critical if you want your game to feel unified. 
Note: We’re going to talk more about this soon
But that’s enough for now. Happy writing.

One cake, many slices – How do you get what’s fair?

Good morning everyone. Before you come read the rest of this article, please look at the following:

http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/how-much-do-you-want-to-get-paid-tomorrow/

And at some point, my good friend Chuck will have a post about it, and I’ll link there too. But, I’ll go first for now.

We’re all writers. We all want our books in other people’s hands and on their shelves after we get money in exchange. We crave their praise and encouragement, we are fed and nourished by their desires to imagine.

That money thing though, oh man, that’s the tricky part.

You want to see a bunch of writers revert to those apes from 2001? Talk about money and royalties and getting paid.

I used to be one of those people who wanted to charge $40 for everything I did. Now I don’t do that, and I’m much happier for it, but I do remember my thinking:


1. I’m not sure I’m good enough to be worth more.
2. With so many other writers out there, how is there going to be enough for me to ask for any more than that?

A lot of that was fear, and self-doubt, bubbling up through me like crappy John-isn’t-awesome magma to lay waste to my future paradise.

But that’s been abolished now, so we shall celebrate by plunging back into the fray to rescue others.

Amazon (and their Kindle) is what made me make the jump to self-publishing. Well, that, and I’m impatient and think new media should be embraced. Amazon most recently began this service called KDP Select. Allow me to give you a nice analogy.


We’re all partying. Perhaps there is nut bark. Perhaps we’re rocking out. Doesn’t matter. But at this party there is cake. Let’s call this cake KDP Select’s money.


Now, we’re all at this party, and this is such a rocking party that the whole house is packed, the line stretches out the door and down the street and into the next town. But….

There’s only one cake. And this party is the only way to get this cake. And we can only cut this cake in progressively smaller and smaller slices to accommodate those people at the back of the line. 


Also, if you want a slice of this cake, you can’t go to any other parties or throw any parties of your own. 

Now, do you still want the cake? I mean you’re welcome to have some, and thanks for coming to the party, but there is a really good chance that you’re going to get a very tiny slice, and I’m not sure this one cake is worth trading away your own ability to have parties.  (Note: I’m not sure ANY cake is worth that.)

I was on Twitter this morning (it’s Sunday today) and there were some thoughts being tossed back and forth…and I started the conversation not so sure about what I had to say about KDP and their plan to be whatever it is they’re turning out to be. By the middle of that conversation, after I read that link at the top of this post, I know what I want to say.

1. I agree with the sentiment that writers should be their own distribution hubs. It’s our stuff, it’s our hard work, and like the good folks of The Wire taught me, we should hustle to get it out there.

2. I believe now more than ever a writer can learn/be taught how to be their own distribution hub and their own conduit for success.

3. I think $500,000 is a cruel joke when it’s split between so many deserving people, forcing a sort of brainy gladiator eat-your-own environment.

4. It doesn’t take very much for a rebel to go mainstream, right Amazon? I mean, one minute you’re letting people have options in publishing, now you’re doing the same thing people went to self-publishing to avoid? Dirty pool.

5. A writer has to understand what they’re willing to do, not do, go with, fight against, accept or rebel against, before they can even think of taking a side – education and information still trump ambition.

I don’t think KDP is the way to go. It’s not a panacea. It’s an extension and mutation of the subscription system that breeds into exclusivity, rarity and scarcity. The competition in writing should be the talent, not the earnings.

You deserve cake. A big fat honking slice of cake.