The Great Metatopia 2016 Recap Post

(originally this went up on Facebook, but it got long and I thought it deserved wider distribution)

Metatopia is the single greatest convention I attend every year. Period. There is no better professional setting I’m aware of, and this is absolutely the best place for designers new and old to congregate and flourish. That is 1000% due to the tireless work of the Double Exposure staff, and even with everyone heaping deserved praise at them, it’s not enough. This convention is the place to go if you want to create games or learn about the business of telling stories and engaging with people.

If there is a downside to convention culture, it’s that a lot of it orbits bars and a drinking culture. For the majority of people, this isn’t a problem – you have a drink or two, you laugh with your friends, you gossip and chatter, then haul off to bed. But for those of us working sober, for those of us who don’t have as easy a time in that atmosphere, the fact that each night (or frankly any time of day with downtime) brings everyone to a central alcohol dispensing locale is a challenge. The call to have a drink after a tough conversation or a shaky panel is a siren’s song, and I am so proud not only of myself, but my recently sober friends for working their programs and getting through. Good job us.

This year was honestly a departure from my usual routine of panel after panel, because this year I added co-panelists when I had the opportunity. Here’s why that’s flat-out not what I normally do – I love to hear myself talk, and I worry that sharing the stage is going to prove to people just how negligible my contributions to any discussion are.

But there I was, having conversations about everything from narrative structure to marketing strategies to the Oxford comma with other people at the table. And it didn’t suck. The panels weren’t all dumpster fires and CGI-less explosions. Sure, I had a few moments of “What the holy monkeyshit am I doing here?” but those were fleeting, and I was able to slip past those and get back to the task of informing people about things while making pop culture references and garnering laughs.

While it didn’t suck, it wasn’t easy, and I suppose that’s lesson #1 I learned – other people in your sandbox doesn’t totally prove that you shouldn’t be in the sandbox in the first place. I am supremely worried that because of other people my visibility got diluted, but if it is, then that’s due to me being all up in my head and forgetting to promote myself, it is not the fault of there being a second person on the stage with me.

That said, those other people were amazing. Like staggeringly smart, and I think our conversations and concept coverage was delivered better because there was a breadth of angles to address. From therapists to podcasters to legal editors to actors to people who tell stories about pole-dancing merfolk sex workers, they’re not stupid, and I won’t stand for anyone disparaging any of them just because you may have heard of me but not them.

There are few personal things to talk about in some detail for the remainder of this post. So yes, there’s gonna be a tonal shift, but I urge you to stick with me on this ride, please. Here we go.

I didn’t drink. I didn’t go get high. Holy sweet things was I ever tempted, but I picked up the phone and got the help I needed even if it was hard to hear and tough to bear. I needed that salvation, I needed that rescue, and without out, there wouldn’t be anything else in this post, or anything else to talk about. I had my life saved, and I am so thankful to know amazing people and count them as a true family.  Onward.

In the last year, I’ve had some serious professional setbacks. I’ll own them, I’ll point out that my lack of communication prompted many of them, and those setbacks were scorched earth to my pride, ego, and how I feel about what I do. I can’t say it’s been a tailspin, but I’ve certainly more time this year questioning what I’m doing and where I’m going forward than any other year, including two years ago when I first got clean and sober.

But there are the nagging ideas that some of these setbacks are due to factors out of my control – that the climate of where I work has changed due to people making different elements a priority. This is not to say that these social conversations shouldn’t be happening (they should and must), but I think too there needs to be an awareness of the people who aren’t “toxic” or “problematic” being swept up and affected in the purgative efforts to bring in new voices and new creatives. What I’m saying is this, I believe that as we have more conversations about inclusivity and equality, it’s worth monitoring who gets pressed to the margins by those efforts in secondary or unintentional ways. The notion that you can just invert the dynamic between superior and subordinate as though you’re going to “teach people in power what it’s like to be powerless” is a dangerous one, and suggests that people lack a certain degree of self-awareness that going from bullied to bully doesn’t do much to stop the practice. A rising tide lifts ALL the ships, not just the ones you handpick.

Politicking aside, it was good and vital and helpful to me to get a bit of closure on some the setbacks that prompted the crisis I’m still experiencing. I got a chance to apologize, to own my shit, and I got a response that comforted me. I needed that. And that’s lesson #2 – owning your shit, owning who you are, what you do, how you sound, what you want to do, what you did, owning the mistakes, owning the willingness to admit those mistakes and try again helps you, even if you think it’s not dissimilar from dry-humping a hot cheese grater while you’re doing it.

This came up in a marketing on Sunday and blew my mind when it clicked into place – I have defined myself professionally and personally as this one sort of person who isn’t actually as bad a human or professional as I feared I was. I am by zero means perfect, and I certainly not everyone’s first choice or cup of tea, but I’m also not the leper at the city walls forever looking in and lost amid the masses. That’s a big deal for a guy who thinks of himself as the small kid who was sick all the time and driven to be smart so that people would want to hang out with him.

I have many people I hold as heroes and role models, and I am lucky to be able to spend time with them at this convention. We go eat sushi together, we sit on couches and talk not of work but of families and things we’ve done. New people come around and they’re not excluded. I like that. And this was the year I found out that I hold that hero/role model role for other people. Shocking, I know, because I’m just me, and I just do this stuff, and sort of get all long-winded about it, but it felt good to hear that I said or did things to help people. Which takes me to lesson #3 – you can have a positive impact on people without intentionally masterminding it. Being yourself, and being yourself passionately is visible and that’s totally fucking cool to do because people see that and it leads them to doing it to, in this positive domino chain of people being awesome.

I’m still working on how to process that one though. It’s one of those I-know-it-intellectually-but-emotionally-it-makes-as-much-sense-as-snakes-thumbwrestling things.

Speaking of heroes, there are those I have but have never interacted with directly, just been out on the edges near. They produce content where I’m an audience member, one of the many who say, “One day I’ll work with them. One day I’ll perform the right ritual and sign the Faustian deal and I’ll be lucky enough to work with them.”

I guess that ritual was the one where you walk over to a person and say hello and then ask them if they want to do a thing together, because that’s what I did, and I did get a chance to be a part of something huge and splendid and amazing. You’ll hear more about in the coming weeks and months, but if you jump on Twitter later today I’ll be talking about it somewhat.

And that’s lesson #4 the final lesson today – If you want to go do the thing, you have to go do something about it, and it’s not going to be handed to you. Want to be a _______? Then you need to go do that _________ so that people can see it and experience it. Want to have a chance to tick an item off your bucket list? Go have the scary conversation and be nervous and puke up eggs in a hotel garbage can then go do thing where people who you are 10000000000% sure have more talent in their toenails than you could muster over a thousand lifetimes work with you then shockingly spend the time telling you it was amazing. Yeah, that happened. It was awesome.

Stick around for more sweet blog action later this week. I’ll see you then. Happy writing.

 

Metatopia 2016 Schedule

In my opinion, there’s no better gaming (and development) convention than Metatopia. It’s a fantastic confluence of industry talent, designers, and intention. Without a doubt, it’s where I tell people they must go if they’re serious about creating a game or getting into the gaming industry.

Here’s my schedule for the weekend. Note the number of “Special Guests”, because this year isn’t just me yammering, more people will be with me to drop knowledge and occasional humor at faces.

See you then.

 

D002: “How to Playtest 101” presented by Darren Watts, Jeff Tidball, John Adamus. Our panelists talk about how to be good testers. Learn how to hear the questions being asked and answer with useful feedback. We all want to give helpful criticism; learn more about how to do that. Friday, 9:00AM – 10:00AM

D007: “So You Want To Be An Editor?” presented by John Adamus and Special Guest. If you wanted to be an editor of games, where would you start? How do you “break in”? What are the first few steps and best practices? Friday, 10:00AM – 11:00AM

D029: “From Idea to Manuscript” presented by John Adamus and Special Guest. Starting from the “I think I can make a game about X” point and walking you all the way up to “Okay, I’m ready to crowdfund this game”; a look at the stages of production. Friday, 5:00PM – 6:00PM

D035: “Making Your First Game” presented by Mark Richardson, John Adamus, Shane Harsch, Jim McClure, Whitney Marie Delaglio. The wondrous journey from beginning to end of working on your first game. It’s a highlight reel of the big process parts and what to keep track of to make your first game as successful as possible. Friday, 8:00PM – 9:00PM

D040: “Confused State of Rulebooks” presented by Joshua Yearsley, John Adamus and Jessica Hammer. Writing and editing rulebooks is still a black art, not an empirical science. In this panel, professional editors John Adamus and Joshua Yearsley hash out the state of the rulebook. What works? What doesn’t? Why do so many professionals (including us!) disagree about how to write good rulebooks? Why are so many rulebooks still bad, and what can we do about it? We won’t have all the answers – maybe you’ll help us find some. It is somewhere between a panel and a roundtable. We’ll certainly have things to say and discuss with each other, but we absolutely welcome audience input to figure out what the world’s thinking about. Friday, 10:00PM – 11:00PM (If Josh brings slides, I’d like you all to applaud EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM. APPLAUD LIKE YOUR BEST FRIEND JUST WON AN OSCAR.)

D053: “Developmental Editing” presented by John Adamus and Special Guests. Sometimes you’re designing a game from the bottom up. Developmental Editing is exactly the opposite. A game exists in an imperfect or dated form. Now, let’s update or refine it until it really sings. There are different constraints in this type of editing. Learn about them in this panel. Saturday, 11:00AM – 12:00PM

D057: “Writing Scenarios and Campaigns” presented by John Adamus. We all know that narrative writing is about the beginning, the middle and the end. But how do you fill the in-between with toothsome, engaging opportunities? Let’s chat about how you succeed in both short-form and long-form story crafting for your players. Saturday, 12:00PM – 1:00PM

D060: “Getting The Job As A Gamer” presented by John Adamus, Tara Clapper, Isabel de la Riva. Do you have serious gaming skills that might help you snag your dream job? We’ll discuss how we did it and how you might make it happen. Saturday, 1:00PM – 2:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

D098: “Marketing For The Disinclined” presented by Avonelle Wing, John Adamus. Marketing can be tricky, especially if it doesn’t come comfortably or naturally for you. Join us to commiserate, brainstorm and compare notes. Sunday, 12:00PM – 1:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

D107: “Narrative and Mechanics” presented by John Adamus and Special Guests. How does one influence the other, how do they cooperate, where do they clash? What are the limits on each? Sunday, 3:00PM – 4:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

Thoughts on Metatopia, part 2 & The Conflict Engine

Two blog posts for the price of one, you lucky reader you.

First, I want to conclude my thoughts on Metatopia. I’m not really happy with Monday’s post, but it’s easier here to go forward than go back.

The big takeaway for me was that I’m more okay with not-knowing things, though I’m still navigating the idea that rather than just not knowing a few things (like graphic design and layout), there are times when it feels like I don’t know anything. My inbox now is fat with a combination of praise, criticism, and suggestions that seem to be both actual suggestions as well as insinuations that what I’m doing isn’t helpful or that I’m doing “it” (whatever it is) wrong. So, mixed bag.

I think next year I want to run a panel on “How to be a good panel attendee”, because my panels this year were packed with GREAT attendees, from the people who asked wonderful questions, to the people who did a lot of nodding and asked only one question while furiously taking notes. I got lucky this year, there was only one panel where I felt completely lost. I don’t think it was done maliciously, I don’t think the “make John feel inadequate” was intentional, and it was likely due to exhaustion and nerves as much as the fact that I had less to contribute than others. I’ll get over it.

The hardest part for me isn’t even the activities I’m doing. It’s the physicality involved in doing all the things. I get tired (yes I know everyone gets tired, but very few people get tired enough to fall asleep just by sitting down, you know what I mean?) I see my friends so rarely, and I feel bad that I can’t spend more time on my feet with them. The FOMO (fear of missing out) is strong, and I don’t always have the willpower to remind myself that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and I’m doing my best. But that’s a tough salve for the creeping paranoia that because I’m not out and about that I won’t get hired, or that secretly many people hate me and they’re just waiting for me to keel over. Maybe that thought is just from today’s exhaustion, I’m dictating this part of the post before taking a hot bath. I’m very worn out.

——————————————

Now, let’s talk storycraft. I had a conversation earlier with a client, and it got me thinking about a fundamental story mechanic and its relevant axis.

A story mechanic is a fundamental part of storytelling (like plot or characters), that you can’t omit without adversely affecting the MS in a significant way. Today I want to talk about conflict. It’s important. Like really important. Without conflict there’s not a lot of interesting material in your story for your reader to engage.

Conflict isn’t just physically fighting. Conflict is a difference between multiple possibilities that oppose each other. It’s Us versus Them (we’ll talk about that one later in November) or smooth versus chunky, or great taste, less filling. Those are binary conflicts, and they’ll comprise the majority of the conflicts a character faces.

Everything from doing what’s right to not doing it, to showing mercy or vengeance can be mapped in an either-or fashion. It’s not wrong or bad to frame things that way, it can help make for really clear decisions. The problem is that not everything can be split down the middle, and it doesn’t account for mitigating factors or nuance. Not everything is so polarized, nor should it be.

Along with this binary decision making process, there’s a corresponding binary axis, which is a fancy way of saying “which is affected more by this decision: the person or the world around the person?” That’s what we look at when we talk about goals from conflict within characters.

An external goal is between the person and the world. We see this most often as the goal the character has in the real world – to complete their quest, to go somewhere, to prove something to someone, all that jazz.. The external goal is what the rest of the world sees the character trying to achieve, and the goal often has to do with the character finding their place among the rest of the world.

Contrast that with the internal goal, which is what’s going on in the character’s head. The internal goal is the what the character pursues to bring them to a state of improved emotional or psychological balance.A character who wants to reconcile their taboo pursuits with their stuffed shirt dayjob, or the knight’s thirst for vengeance while she tirelessly stalks across the land stabbing fools … these are the internal goals. We don’t see a person’s internal efforts, they go on in the mind, and they get expressed as actions we undertake, so the outside world is left to infer what they’re thinking based on what they’re doing. Because the world can guess at motives, they can be wrong, and if they’re wrong, then they can react in ways that cause (you guessed it) more conflict.

Pitting the external conflict against the internal conflict puts a character in a state where they have to change, because that unbalanced state will tear them apart while simultaneously paralyzing them. If this is unclear at all, let’s end this post with some examples:

A guy who needs to get promoted at work (external) so that he can show his wife/partner that he’s not a loser and worthy of their love (internal).
A woman who has to abandon her career focus (external) to discover what love’s all about (internal).

Now let’s reverse the order, just to show you what that looks like.

An anxious kid who wants to be accepted (internal) has to ask the most popular other kid to the school dance because of a playground dare (external).
A mother grapples with her grief (internal) as she murders the men who hurt her daughter (external).

When you set one conflict against each other, when you put them at odds with one another, or even when you make one progress into the other, you’re creating the idea that the character needs to take action (read: do stuff) in order to accomplish at least one of those goals. Action yields momentum, which leads to more action, like a snowball downhill.

The interesting bit, the part I encourage you to ponder, is what happens when failure crops up in the course of taking those actions. How do the characters react? Who or what did the failing? Does a setback mean full-stop on the efforts? Does the character redouble their efforts?

And that’s before we even talk about the idea if the failure was incited by another character’s reactions …

(this all leads into Friday’s blogpost) Happy writing.

Thoughts on Metatopia, part 2 & The Conflict Engine

Two blog posts for the price of one, you lucky reader you.

First, I want to conclude my thoughts on Metatopia. I’m not really happy with Monday’s post, but it’s easier here to go forward than go back.

The big takeaway for me was that I’m more okay with not-knowing things, though I’m still navigating the idea that rather than just not knowing a few things (like graphic design and layout), there are times when it feels like I don’t know anything. My inbox now is fat with a combination of praise, criticism, and suggestions that seem to be both actual suggestions as well as insinuations that what I’m doing isn’t helpful or that I’m doing “it” (whatever it is) wrong. So, mixed bag.

I think next year I want to run a panel on “How to be a good panel attendee”, because my panels this year were packed with GREAT attendees, from the people who asked wonderful questions, to the people who did a lot of nodding and asked only one question while furiously taking notes. I got lucky this year, there was only one panel where I felt completely lost. I don’t think it was done maliciously, I don’t think the “make John feel inadequate” was intentional, and it was likely due to exhaustion and nerves as much as the fact that I had less to contribute than others. I’ll get over it.

The hardest part for me isn’t even the activities I’m doing. It’s the physicality involved in doing all the things. I get tired (yes I know everyone gets tired, but very few people get tired enough to fall asleep just by sitting down, you know what I mean?) I see my friends so rarely, and I feel bad that I can’t spend more time on my feet with them. The FOMO (fear of missing out) is strong, and I don’t always have the willpower to remind myself that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and I’m doing my best. But that’s a tough salve for the creeping paranoia that because I’m not out and about that I won’t get hired, or that secretly many people hate me and they’re just waiting for me to keel over. Maybe that thought is just from today’s exhaustion, I’m dictating this part of the post before taking a hot bath. I’m very worn out.

——————————————

Now, let’s talk storycraft. I had a conversation earlier with a client, and it got me thinking about a fundamental story mechanic and its relevant axis.

A story mechanic is a fundamental part of storytelling (like plot or characters), that you can’t omit without adversely affecting the MS in a significant way. Today I want to talk about conflict. It’s important. Like really important. Without conflict there’s not a lot of interesting material in your story for your reader to engage.

Conflict isn’t just physically fighting. Conflict is a difference between multiple possibilities that oppose each other. It’s Us versus Them (we’ll talk about that one later in November) or smooth versus chunky, or great taste, less filling. Those are binary conflicts, and they’ll comprise the majority of the conflicts a character faces.

Everything from doing what’s right to not doing it, to showing mercy or vengeance can be mapped in an either-or fashion. It’s not wrong or bad to frame things that way, it can help make for really clear decisions. The problem is that not everything can be split down the middle, and it doesn’t account for mitigating factors or nuance. Not everything is so polarized, nor should it be.

Along with this binary decision making process, there’s a corresponding binary axis, which is a fancy way of saying “which is affected more by this decision: the person or the world around the person?” That’s what we look at when we talk about goals from conflict within characters.

An external goal is between the person and the world. We see this most often as the goal the character has in the real world – to complete their quest, to go somewhere, to prove something to someone, all that jazz.. The external goal is what the rest of the world sees the character trying to achieve, and the goal often has to do with the character finding their place among the rest of the world.

Contrast that with the internal goal, which is what’s going on in the character’s head. The internal goal is the what the character pursues to bring them to a state of improved emotional or psychological balance.A character who wants to reconcile their taboo pursuits with their stuffed shirt dayjob, or the knight’s thirst for vengeance while she tirelessly stalks across the land stabbing fools … these are the internal goals. We don’t see a person’s internal efforts, they go on in the mind, and they get expressed as actions we undertake, so the outside world is left to infer what they’re thinking based on what they’re doing. Because the world can guess at motives, they can be wrong, and if they’re wrong, then they can react in ways that cause (you guessed it) more conflict.

Pitting the external conflict against the internal conflict puts a character in a state where they have to change, because that unbalanced state will tear them apart while simultaneously paralyzing them. If this is unclear at all, let’s end this post with some examples:

A guy who needs to get promoted at work (external) so that he can show his wife/partner that he’s not a loser and worthy of their love (internal).
A woman who has to abandon her career focus (external) to discover what love’s all about (internal).

Now let’s reverse the order, just to show you what that looks like.

An anxious kid who wants to be accepted (internal) has to ask the most popular other kid to the school dance because of a playground dare (external).
A mother grapples with her grief (internal) as she murders the men who hurt her daughter (external).

When you set one conflict against each other, when you put them at odds with one another, or even when you make one progress into the other, you’re creating the idea that the character needs to take action (read: do stuff) in order to accomplish at least one of those goals. Action yields momentum, which leads to more action, like a snowball downhill.

The interesting bit, the part I encourage you to ponder, is what happens when failure crops up in the course of taking those actions. How do the characters react? Who or what did the failing? Does a setback mean full-stop on the efforts? Does the character redouble their efforts?

And that’s before we even talk about the idea if the failure was incited by another character’s reactions …

(this all leads into Friday’s blogpost) Happy writing.

My Thoughts on Metatopia 2015

I’m writing, that is to say dictating, these thoughts starting about four hours after my last panel of Metatopia 2015. The experience is still very fresh and watercolor in my mind, and I have a wealth of things to say. I don’t know where to begin chronologically, so I will begin with what sticks out most thinking about it right now.

I am mortal. I mean this not only because it’s barely 7pm on Sunday as this sentence unfurls and my body is pretty convinced I’ve just spent a week running a continuous marathon with an elephant strapped to me, but because any notion that I knew a lot about a lot of things is now completely gone. It’s vaporized (ooh, maybe that will help me breathe …), leaving this combined feeling of shame and excitement. It’s shame over the fact that I don’t know a lot, and other people can so fluidly and expressively capture turns of phrase, metaphors, and definitions about all manner of things while I’m just sitting there working with words and an understanding of how they get arranged so that people like them. It’s very much a feeling of not-good-enough-when-in-their-company. But that’s also the source of excitement: I don’t know these things, so I get a chance to learn them, and I love to learn things. I have no official logo. I have tens of thousands of generic business cards and three (I found them in my backpack) of the higher quality ones left. I have no Adobe InDesign. I can barely spell GREP. I don’t outline the way other people do. I can teach a variety of construction methods for adventures yet am intimidated to admit my preference for the more conceptual over the linear, even if it’s the scarier option for writers and publishers. My understanding of graphic design at times feels like fumbling to stay within the lines while painting by numbers.

I don’t know everything, and there are loads of things I can learn, and that last paragraph is just the technical stuff. This doesn’t even cover things like humility, patience, appreciative listening, and the value of more silence.

Yes, I pushed myself physically, which isn’t always the smartest thing to do when you’re dealing with health issues. I know I’m going to be dragging my ass around for a few days. Yes, there will be many naps between bouts of editing and reading. Yes, there will be early bedtimes and consistent meals. I don’t think yet I taxed myself so severely I’ll never recover, but I do know I did a lot in three days, and I take pride in that.

My best topics of discussion happen when I stop trying to be a panelist and start being a person in a conversation. It’s a strange thing to sit behind a table (doubly so when that table is elevated even in a small room), then speak about topics bigger than what kind of ice cream I like or my preference in bathrobes. Yes, I can be the center of attention and I can still put eyes on me and hold them there while I talk about marketing strategy or pitches or editorial concepts, but this was the first year I really shared the majority of my panels with people.

And it was good to sit and listen. I’m a fan of so many games and designers and developers and do-ers that it’s a pleasure to sit there and listen to them talk about things that seem like alchemy and sorcery or just plain foreign to me.

Is there a downside? Yes. There’s still that pull to talk, to be seen, to be heard, to feel not like some invisible child, even though in a lot of conversations I can realistically contribute little more than snark or profanity. I’m learning to deal, learning to be okay with not having stuff to say every moment. Not easy, but I bet it’s a useful skill.

I give good panel. Can I pick a favorite panel? No. They all stand out to me for one reason or another. The questions were insightful. The conversations went deep into rabbit holes. Burritos are delicious. Meeting new people is always amazing.

I will probably part 2 this, so stay tuned.

My Updated Metatopia 2015 Schedule

I love Metatopia. And not just because I could walk home from it if I had to. And not just because it has pretty nice parking and it’s in a hotel with nice bathrooms. I love it because it’s a chance to help get more amazing games out in the world. I love it because it’s a chance to see my friends. I love it because it’s so many opportunities to meet and help people.

For those that don’t know what I’m talking about, Metatopia is (in my opinion) the best convention you could attend if you want to be a game designer, writer, or a creator of stuff. Its days of seminars, game playing, discussion, and education are unrivaled in terms of the offerings. This is of course a testament to its organizers, who are brilliant in ways that make brilliant seem like an inadequate word.

I maintain that if you attended Metatopia for the first time, with only the merest hint that you wanted to do something, you’d walk out of there armed with enough information to put together a first draft or prototype.

Here now is my 2015 schedule, and I’m quite excited by it.


FRIDAY

Help, I’m Making My First Game!” presented by John Adamus & Mark Richardson and Laura Sampson. So, you’ve decided to make your first game. How exciting! Discuss what pitfalls to avoid and what strategies can speed you toward success with designers also making their first games. Friday, 11:00AM – 12:00PM

Ask an Editor!” presented by Cat Tobin & John Adamus. You have questions, get answers. Ask about how to write, finish, organize, clean, trim, playtest…whatever help you need in the production of your idea, get it. Friday, 12:00PM – 1:00PM

Noir World – Come check out my awesome game! Friday, 2:00pm to 4:00pm (Game R190)

Writing Workshop and Publishing Q&A” presented by John Adamus. Let’s talk the nuts and bolts of writing, no matter what you’re writing. Ask your questions, get some answers, get some motivation, some clarification and some education. And then go make a thing happen. Friday, 9:00PM – 10:00PM

Making Your Best Pitch” presented by John Adamus. Let’s say you have a great idea. Let’s say you want to produce that idea for a company. In order to do that though, you’re going to need to put together a pitch for that idea. And that can be daunting, if not downright nerve-wracking. But there’s hope. This panel will teach you more than a handful of techniques to produce pitches that excite publishers. Friday, 11:00PM – 12:00AM

SATURDAY

Learn From My Mistakes” presented by John Adamus & Brennan Taylor. We’ve made mistakes. Come hear about ours so you can avoid making them yourself. This panel will discuss topics in RPG and story game writing, editing and designing. Saturday, 11:00AM – 12:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

Noir World – Come check out my awesome game! Saturday, 2:00pm to 4:00pm (Game R434)

Effective Settings and Scenarios” presented by John Adamus & Meguey Baker. Come learn about the interplay between setting and scenario in this roundtable. Discussions include what makes for a compelling scenario, how to use setting to inform your scenario design and generally how to use the two to engage your players. Saturday, 10:00PM – 11:00PM;

SUNDAY

Why Do You Hate Your Readers or Players?” presented by John Adamus. When writing a game or project, it’s important that the language be clear and enjoyable, not just showing off how smart the author is. Learn techniques to keep your project readable and enjoyable. Sunday, 10:00AM – 11:00AM;

Publishing Workflow” presented by Jason Pitre, John Adamus, Cat Tobin & Chris O’Neill. Publishing a book is a complicated process involving playtesting, writing, editing, layout and art-direction. In this panel, we discuss how all of these components fit together and how various professionals can help each-other in the process. Sunday, 12:00PM – 1:00PM

What An Editor Can Do For You” presented by John Adamus. Editors are here to help. It’s their job. They’re tasked with making your project better. So why not use one? Get answers to what they do and how they can benefit you. Trust us, everyone needs one. Really. Sunday, 2:00PM – 3:00PM


How cool is that? If you’re attending, come say hello. I’d love to see you there.

So Metatopia 2014 happened…

My apologies to everyone on the delay in writing this post, I wanted to make sure I had all my thoughts together, and things have been hectic in the last week or so.

Metatopia is my second favorite convention of the year, behind GenCon, and only because GenCon actually puts me in a hotel around all my friends for nearly a week. Yes, Metatopia is one of my “home” conventions (along with Dreamation and DexCon), since it’s within 15 minutes by car and I can go home and sleep without the hotel expense, but it’s second to GenCon because for me, it marks the end of the convention cycle, with things laying dormant until late January when we all subject ourselves to the GenCon Housing Lottery/Sanity Check.

This convention, for those that don’t know, is the most professional of the conventions. Yes, there are fun things to do, but the majority of the convention is focused on getting both new people and new products on their feet. It’s a weekend of panels and workshops and playtests and focus groups, so that you could go from a focus group one year to a playtest the next and likely have a finished project by the third, if not sooner. I’ve seen people come in with an idea and then point out their game at the vendor’s table the next year or so later. It’s an incredible experience, both as someone who gives panels and answers questions, and as someone who offers feedback and advice. It’s one way I can re-stoke my own creative fires: being around all that activity, all that excitement of “Ooh, I’m making a thing!” it’s hard not to get swept up in it.

This year, I was totally caught up. I debuted my game, Noir World (it had a soft premiere at GenCon, but that was more casual and unannounced), to three playtests, and if you’ll permit a few more moments to talk about myself, I’d like to say something about them.

Noir World Is A Thing

If you know me, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I have a tractor trailer-sized amount of self-doubt. Yes, I’m working on it, but it’s pretty common for me to think I’m not good enough or not talented enough to produce a product. This comes primarily, I think, from having really amazing friends, and watching them create things that are truly beautiful, and wondering how I’m even supposed to come close. Sure, you can point to the fact that I do a lot of editing and even some writing on these big awesome things, but they’re not mine, even (or especially) while editing. For all my writing friends who say things like, “I am where I am in my career because of what you did for me John”, I still have a sense of “You, friend, had it in you the whole time, I just pointed it out.” which keeps me somewhat out of the loop on what getting something created feels like.

That changed last weekend. I was straight up terrified. Friday morning, I threw up twice on the way to my first playtest. That first test was not a “high-test” (more on that in a second), but still, these are people who play games (and in one case, is a designer and a dear friend), and I did not want to disappoint them or show them that while I can edit the pants off anything, I can’t put together anything remotely approaching “good” or “fun”. Because of how I’m writing the game, Noir World does not have one centralized GM/Storyteller/MC role, it floats around the table, because I don’t want one person doing all the controlling and all the other people just reacting. So, without me needing to “lead” the game, I can sit back, explain some rules and take notes. I took four pages of notes on that first playtest, and that includes two trips out of the room (again, to vomit and get a glass of water thereafter). The fact I was able to leave the room is stunning to me, I expected at any second someone to come running from the room screaming that everything broke down and that people are rioting in the streets and walls are on fire … but they didn’t. I got a ton of compliments and feedback and suggestions, none of which I knew what to do with, so I wrote them all down and spent the rest of the day feeling tentatively okay and not like a failure. The feeling was new to me, and I wanted to make sure I “earned” it (which is probably some really heavy shit I’ll have to talk about in therapy).

People to thank for Friday morning: Clark Valentine, Lisa Padol, Jonathan Bagelman, Betsy Isaacson, Ian Brown and Matthew Holland. You were the first people to see Noir World, and your kindness and help mean so much to me.

Something curious happened over the course of Friday – people started talking about my game, without my prompting. People I did know came up to me and asked if they could get into a test, and unfortunately, I had no room to accommodate them. When they asked if they could, I more than likely made a face of confusion, which led them to say, “I heard good things about it from so-and-so”, and they name-checked a person from that first playtest. I was not prepared for this, and assumed they were just being nice and saying whatever would be a comfort to me, at least until I had more evidence to suggest otherwise.

Now we get to late Friday, the high-test. This is a playtest where the players are people who have published games before, and can offer a more critical eye to things. For me, this was my do-or-die experience, since one of the people at the table created a game I used as a resource in making my own, and frankly, they intimidate the living snot out of me. Additionally, one of the people who issues many paychecks for me, and I was fairly certain that showing them something awful would lead to not only a cessation of work but a complete social media blackballing. Thankfully, I was out of things to hurl from my stomach by the time the test started, so I just did a lot of quiet dry heaving and nervous chugging of water.

Two surprising things happened. First, the game worked. People had a good time, and throughout the two hours I got another fourteen pages of notes about what to work on. Second, the issue with my game came up, and showed me my own ignorance and stupidity. Noir World is a game that works with film noir tropes, the majority of them now being labelled as “problematic” since there’s a fair bit of sexism, racism and phobic content in the source material. One of the possible player characters is the Femme Fatale (now called the Fatale), and frankly I wrote the FF as a mirror of the trope – lots of sex, very little agency. I got called out on it, but it didn’t make me want to give up. I apologized for it, and I promised to do better. It helps that I received MANY notes about how to make it more active and less sexpot, but I am thankful, sincerely thankful for Avery Mcdaldno pointing out to me that I have a long way to go in being the sort of considerate creator I want to be. I do not know how to express the combination of “Oh shit, you’re right, I’m sorry” and “I have learned a lot from this” short of promising that going forward, I will make better choices.

People to thank for Friday night: Darren Watts, Avery Mcdaldno, Justin Jacobson, Adrian Stein, Fred Hicks. All of you, wow, I owe so much to this group. I will keep working on this, and I want you to know your advice was not ignored and your time not wasted. Thank you for everything.

Once those two hours passed, and I floated on a cloud of shock, and just after I cried a little (but in that reserved way, where you can pass it off as allergies or a reaction to so many people obviously chopping onions), I sat down in the hotel lobby and began to transcribe all the notes – because this is important to me, I respect and value everyone who contributed even one second of time to help me, and I want to make sure that this idea I had turns into a game AND a product, because all of that is important to me.

It then dawned on me that the hard part was over. I got through the firing squad and was told I had a game and a product and that it went well. This made Saturday morning’s playtest far more fun. I wasn’t the guy tentatively showing people this thing I made, I was someone who was a fan of this game experience. And that is a great takeaway – Be a fan of your own work, and share that infectious enthusiasm with others. Saturday morning was kind of a stacked deck, my dear friends and future spouse were players, so this was more “lets have a good time” and less a field experiment.

Once again, the game was great, even using some of the information and ideas that Friday’s tests had given me. I think there is another takeaway – do not hold so tightly to your creation that other ideas, good ideas, can’t find their way in and help make the creation better.

People to thank for Saturday morning: Ericka Skirpan, Jeremy Morgan, Neal Tanner, Paul Stefko, Jamie Stefko, Lindsay McCollough. I love how much you loved my game. Thank you for spending the morning with me telling a terrible story and having a good time doing it.

Having indulged my own creation enough, let’s talk about the rest of the weekend.

Panels, People and Patience

As with every convention I attend, I give panels. At Metatopia, I try to give the same number of panels as I do at GenCon, if not moreso, thanks to the proximity of home as a respite. Also, I know where all the food is and where the great quiet escape places are. There is no way I can remember easily or spell correctly all the names of people who came to my panels, so I will wave my arms broadly and say a collective thank you for your time and interest. I hope something I said, whether about Poochie the Dog or about the Oxford comma or about the inevitable collapse of stupid people, or something in between, was helpful to you. Thank you for listening. I hope I was not too boring.

Conventions are also a great testing ground for me, they let me put into practice the things I learn in therapy, and let me exercise my mental health muscles. Between boundary setting, toxic situation/person excisement, or even taking time for myself to sit with friends and laugh, this was a good weekend to establish myself as I want to be, not carry shitty baggage of situations and applesauce that aren’t my own and otherwise take care of myself in the most constructive and healthful way. Sure, I got a chance to show off some new clothes and a new haircut, but I also got a chance to say “no” to things and people I don’t want to get involved with, and a chance to show people the good things I’ve got, because I do have them, even if I don’t make as large a fuss about them as I do the negatives. But that’s changing. For the better.

I end this post with a request. Well, two requests. First, I ask your patience with me. As I write this, there’s a lot of good and amazing things going on in my life, and a lot of the old entrenched shit is getting blasted away. There will be a great many changes in the coming weeks, I have no doubt of that, and I ask each of you reading this to do your best to be patient with me as I make the change from where I am to where I’ve always wanted to be. Also, for some people, that’s going to put you on the outside looking in, and I cannot say I’m terribly sorry for that. This is what I have to do for me. It’s not malicious. It’s not vengeful or spiteful, though you may take it that way. This is what I need to be the best me possible, and I can only ask you respect that. I leave that to you.

Second, I ask that you do something. I don’t care what, just that you do a thing you’re passionate or excited about, and get past whatever you’ve been delaying about it. If you’ve been meaning to start writing that book, put words down? Are you struggling with game mechanics, write them down. Remember that you can always ask for help, that there are people eager to help, it just takes you being brave and giving it a try.

I was brave, and you can be too.

Let’s talk more later this week. Happy creating.

My 2014 Metatopia Schedule

Metatopia, my second favorite convention of the year, starts this Thursday (so, two days from now). And I’ve been meaning to put up my schedule. I’m doing some different things than last year – chief among them being “not doing 8 panels back-to-back”, because I don’t really want to be hoarse AND exhausted by the end of Sunday.

Instead I’m doing fewer panels, more networking AND showing off my progress on Noir World. Look at this great picture of some materials from the front seat of my car this morning.

Hooray not-cheap paper products!

Hooray not-cheap paper products!

As of last night, the playtest sessions were totally filled, so they’re not listed below on the schedule.

FRIDAY

D014: “Mental Health in the Game Industry”  (with Elsa Sjunneson-Henry) Learn what it’s like to work in the industry while living with mental health issues. Learn coping strategies and effective tools for managing the good days and bad from a vocal industry advocate. Friday, 1:00PM – 2:00PM

This year, I’m going to talk stigma, active and passive entitlement, soapboxing and productivity.

D021: “What Can an Editor Do for You?” (along with Jeremy Morgan & Amanda Valentine). Cleaning up your tortured syntax and fixing your punctuation is only the beginning. A good editor can help you improve the presentation of your game on many levels. Friday, 3:00PM – 4:00PM 

The three of us are going to nicely (Jeremy), super nicely (Amanda) and probably-way-less-nicely (me) explain what an editor does and doesn’t do, why we’re important, why we should get paid, how to find us and work with us and what you should look for with editing.

D025: “So You’re Making Your First Game!” (along with Mark Richardson). Learn from a pair of first time game makers and industry professionals the perils, frustrations and strategies it takes to put together your first game from start to finish. Friday, 5:00PM – 6:00PM

Mark and I did this panel at GenCon, with great success. I expect the two of us to breeze through an hour that will include several slights against Canada, New Jersey, our mothers and the problems with knowing successful people who we feel we have to compete against.

SATURDAY

D051: “Style Guides Are Your Friend” presented by (along with Amanda Valentine). Style guides are one of the indispensable tools an editor uses to help make your project the best it can be. Learn more about them and the other must-have tools an editor uses, and find out why following the style guide can mean the difference between making “a thing” and “a game”. Saturday, 2:00PM – 3:00PM

I love Amanda. She has always been good to me, personally and professionally. She and I are going to patiently explain why a style guide is one of the best tools you’ve never heard of, and why you should use one, even if your game is “simple.”

D068: “Why Do You Hate Your Readers and Players?” presented by John Adamus. As an editor, John has seen a lot of great games never get off the ground or find their best audience because the text doesn’t lend itself to being played – it’s not friendly, understandable or enjoyable. Learn how to fix those issues and more from an editor with years of experience in helping writers craft game text. Saturday, 8:00PM – 9:00PM

This panel is my new favorite. It’s an hour where I will talk highs and lows of writing and reading and if all goes well, explain some of the common problems people don’t realize are common problems.

SUNDAY

D085: “The Writing Workshop Game Jam” (along with Tim Rodriguez). While we are answering your questions about how to get material published, you get to spend time actually making a sample game! Learn the steps involved, learn to work as a team, and co-create something in a short period of time. Sunday, 2:00PM – 4:00PM

Two hours. Five rules. Make a game. Go.

See you there.

Metatopia 2013 Schedule

Here now, as promised, is my Metatopia 2013 schedule.

[D008] How To Be A Good Playtester For Others | Friday 11:00 – 12:00 | (Will Hindmarch, Tim Rodriguez, and me)

Everyone agrees playtesting is crucial. But what kind of feedback is best for publishers? This panel looks at the necessary skills and mindset for being a good playtester from *this* side of the table.

[D010] The Best Ideas To Steal From Other Games | Friday 12:00 – 1:00 | (Ken Hite, Tim Rodriguez, Caias Ward, and me)

“Talent borrows, genius steals.” No one designs in a vacuum. The panelists discuss how to ethically and profitably take what works from other games to use in your own.

[D014] How To Work With Editors | Friday 1:00 – 2:00 | (Cam Banks, Ryan Macklin, Amanda Valentine, and me)

Everyone needs an editor. How do you hire one? Once you have one, how can you work with her most efficiently? How does somebody become a great game editor themselves?

[D046] The Writing Workshop | Saturday 1:00 – 2:00 | (Just me)

Here’s a chance for authors and creators to get answers to their writing questions as they work on developing their first, or tenth project. Questions often include issues of layout, editing costs, the best way to write to the reader, and the best way to take an idea from the abstract idea phase to the down-on-paper phase.

This doesn’t include the dozen or so other panels I’d like to attend, nor does it express just how interested I would be in talking to you about what you’re working on. (Just try not to stop me in a hallway, I don’t want to bottleneck people)

Will I be seeing you there? If you want to have a conversation with me, there’s plenty of time Thursday night, Friday when I’m not on that streak of panels and the rest of the weekend.

It’s going to be a great weekend.

I went to Metatopia, this is what I learned

Metatopia was this weekend, and it was wonderful. Recordings of some of the awesome things will be available soon, and when I know where they are, you’ll know where they are.

I learned a lot this weekend, and I want to share it with you.

1. The “game industry” should really be called a “game extended family”. Everyone knows each other, addresses each other fairly casually, and for the most part, is happy to see one another. For the most part this industry communicates via social media and e-mail so the opportunity to sit in a room and talk face-to-face is a welcomed rarity.

For me, I love talking to people. I might not always do it well, and I might not always have the energy on bad days to do it, but on the whole, I do love a good conversation. (Corollary: it’s best when the other people are warm and engaging)

Last year when I was here, I didn’t have a spot in the “family”, and as a result felt like it wasn’t a family, more like a tight-knit corporate structure where I’d have to impress people in order to gain entry. And while that is still true (impressing people is always a good thing), you don’t have to keep doing it. Once you’re in, you’re in. Until you get yourself out.

Now I have a spot in several parts of the family. And it’s nice to know that I don’t have to jump over some arbitrary bar constantly to grab for attention or praise or to be “good enough” for this family.

2. A lot of people are seeking permission from the wrong sources. I met a lot of people who are trying to make their dream projects come true, in all manner of healthy and unhealthy obsessive ways. I talked to a lot of people who sought a sort of approval from those who have already “made it” as if to validate that their hard work is not a waste.

Let me say this — You are not wasting your time. Depending on your situation, you may not be using your time most effectively or efficiently, but your hard work is worth it.  Keep going.

The permission slip you need signed? It needs YOUR signature on it in large indelible ink. This is your passion, this is your love and your hard work made manifest, so when the risks come (and yes, risks will come) the decision is not for others to make and for you to rationalize, it’s for you to accept and take ownership/charge of.

As I said to a dear friend, “Who’s the boss of you and your creation?

3. Transparency, not social climbing, wins. If you’re looking to “make it” then you can’t be moving pieces on some chess board, setting up machinations for some master stroke later “when things line up”. You have to make things line up, and you do that by being as clear and open about what you’re doing.

I don’t mean you can’t keep a secret if you’ve got something in the works and you don’t want it to spoil. I mean you can’t and shouldn’t target the “big wig” in the room and try to ingratiate yourself for purpose of currying favor for later. (It’s really weird and uncomfortable to watch, let alone be a part of). What those “big wigs” are looking for is how you comport yourself because word travels quickly and depending upon behavior, you WILL get talked about, but possibly not in the way you wanted.

Honesty is key for this. This industry runs as much on word of mouth as it does relationships, and just think how you’re going to be received if your rep is one of difficulty or machinations and weird scheming?

Someone said it best like this: “If you treat this like a game that you want to win, then you’ve lost already.” It’s not a game, it’s people who just happen to all be in the same business all trying to do their best at their respective roles.

4. Don’t be a jerk. I attended a panel about not being a jerk and was blown away by the different levels of social interaction that people consider: sexism, feminism, objectification, racism, discrimination, bias….and I’m sure loads more I just can’t think of right now. Throughout the panel I would ask myself “Why aren’t people just nice to each other?” followed by “How come I don’t have these problems with people? Am I a stealth-jerk?” I’m not a stealth-jerk. I’m just a really nice guy who doesn’t think of these things because in how I play games and live my life, I don’t act in such a way as to make these things a problem. I’m also savvy enough to catch myself having a problem (not all the time, but there are people around me who can/could point it out if it were an issue).

I don’t mean to diminish the experiences or problems with all the -isms and -ations, it’s just that I don’t engage in the behaviors that propagate them. So in my scope of experience, they’re not a commonly discussed and occuring problem. Maybe they should be talked about more (admittedly, too much discussion about them makes me feel slightly queasy, only because I don’t know how to remedy all the problems immediately and permanently).

* * *  

So yeah Metatopia taught me a lot and was a great experience. For game designers, people thinking about getting into the industry and people looking to do more in the industry, I recommend attending next year.

We’ll talk soon. Happy writing.