Society for Interactive Literature West

Game Design

Putting it Together:
Production, Organization, and Professionalism

Copyright (c) 1992 Aimee Yermish
Society for Interactive Literature
Originally printed in Metagame, the Journal of the SIL.

G-d didn't create the universe in six days. He punted around for five and pulled an all-nighter.

Big projects, such as live roleplaying games, have a way of doing that. Even when you think you're working hard over a long period of time to avoid that last-minute crunch, it always seems to come and get you anyhow. When you have several people collaborating with you, it's even worse, because no one wants to admit how far behind they are, no one wants to take orders, and no one wants to be the bad guy when everybody's a volunteer. Put it down to human nature.

However, these are explanations, not excuses. It has become almost standard practice to not sleep for the week before the game, not have the packets correctly stuffed and ready when the players show up, not hand out crucial game materials until Saturday morning, not make sure that every GM has read and comprehended all of the game materials, not check that the game is internally consistent, and so forth. People have become so used to seeing these practices that they don't realize that it could -- and should -- be any better. There are no cure-alls here, but in this article I hope to provide some suggestions on how to avoid or remedy these problems.

The most important thing you should do as a GM is cultivate a sense of professionalism, of personal pride in what you do. That doesn't mean turn into a snotty brat; we have altogether too many of those already. Remember instead that it is your name attached to the project, so it's worth making it good. Be willing to give and take criticism, and to take the time to check and edit what goes into your game. You probably think of yourself as a higher life form; start acting like one. Forget about what the players owe you and think about what you can do to make your game better. Start with professionalism, and everything else will follow.

A side effect of a professional attitude is that it makes your business dealings with players, conventions, and hotels go much more smoothly. If you think and act like a professional, you will come off much more as someone to be taken seriously and treated with respect.

The other thing GMs need to do is acknowledge that a game is a huge undertaking. A seventy-player game has about five hundred pages of written material: that's the same order of magnitude as a good thick novel. The game is much more complex than a novel, however, because there are seventy main characters rather than two or three. To make matters worse, new ideas are invented, old ones are modified, and all sorts of things metamorphose as the game moves from a bright idea doodled on a napkin to boxes full of packets. There is an enormous amount of information you need to keep track of, a huge quantity of production work you need to do, and several other people you need to work with. It's a wonder games get finished at all.

So how to deal with all that information? Write it down. Never let anything get held just in your mind, because your memory is fallible and other GMs don't have access to it. When you have ideas or discussions, take notes, type them in, and give copies to the other GMs. When you decide what the Plague cure is, write it down. When you think of a question that the players are bound to ask, but you don't want to put the answer in the rules, write it down so that all the GMs will give the same answer when asked.

Produce a plot summary as soon as you are able, and keep it up to date. Putting your game into written form for reference will help you spot holes in the plots, characters who don't have enough to do, inconsistencies in the world, places where one plot can be tied to another, and so forth. In addition, it will help ensure that all of the character sheets are based in the same reality.

A well-organized set of reference files is indispensable, both for writing and production. If you have a fancy database program on your computer, you might want to use it, although I usually just keep these as text files. It's important to keep a single master copy of each of these files, or else changes don't get propagated to each GM properly. Assign one person to maintain these files and send out updated versions on a regular basis.

Most of the information lookups I do are in a file organized first by public identity and then by character. Under each character's name, I keep in a standard format his affiliations, goals, abilities, possessions, and associates. Keeping this file up to date helps prevent many inconsistencies, and makes them easier to spot when you do a sanity check. Additionally, if properly maintained, this file can serve as a packing list, when you come to stuffing packets. I also frequently need to see the characters' names (names only) organized into their various factions, public and private, so I can keep track of who is loyal to whom and which factions have which resources available to them. Sometimes, you will find it appropriate to have other, more specialized reference files. For instance, in Dragon, the lists of spells each character had were often so long that we decided to keep all of the spells in a separate reference file, organized in the same order as the characters file. Find whatever recordkeeping methods fit the needs of your GM team, but never let laziness prevent you from keeping close track of what's what in your game.

When you start to produce the game, you will find that it is much easier to deal with the information in a different format: organized by item requiring production and stating the required quantity. It's also easier to stuff packets from such a list, if you include the names of the characters who get each item. If you're using a database program, this is probably an easy task. If not, it takes a little work, but it's well worth it in time and money saved. If you know exactly what you need, you won't waste money making too many extras, and you won't waste time running back to the copy shop for things you forgot.

Remember, also, that you and your fellow GMs are a team, rather than a set of isolated individuals. You need to make sure every one of you has the same idea about what is going on in the game. Get together for regular meetings if you all live in the same area, or at least have frequent telephone and electronic conversations. Most importantly, when any significant document (character sheet, bluesheet, ability card file, updated character file, etc) is produced, distribute it. If you all have access to electronic mail, so much the better, but even the US Postal Service will work just fine. To keep costs down, try printing or xeroxing things small (most people can read 8-point type just fine if it's printed in two columns) and copying them double-sided. Alternatively, computer jocks can figure out schemes for sending around disks, or having computers call each other up and dump new information. I would caution against accumulating until you have "enough" to send out, because there is a tendency to lose, forget, or sit on things. The longer you delay sending something out, the longer your fellow GMs labor in the dark, and the longer you have to wait to get useful feedback.

Along the same line, I have often been sent from one GM to another during a game, with the excuse given that "Joe wrote that plot, you need him to GM it." Now, it's all very well and good for GMs to have specialties. In fact, usually it's easier to have a single person write most of the characters and supporting documentation for one area of the game. However, what if Joe's busy dealing with the forty other people who need his particular skills? What if I've been dealing with Jane the whole game and she knows about the other things I've got cooking that would interact with what I now need to ask Joe about? GMs must all know the entire game. A game which is fragmented in the minds of the GMs is usually fragmented in fact -- five twelve-player games rather than a single sixty-player game -- and errors and inconsistencies usually crop up along the seams. Communication with other GMs is vital, both before and during the game.

Finally, what huge project can be accomplished without planning? You need to draw up timetables and assign work to individual GMs. Split up the "fun stuff" (everyone's favorite plots) so people don't step on each others' toes. Split up the "scutwork" (whatever no one wants to do) so that everyone takes responsibility for getting it done. Character sheets are important, but don't let supporting documents (rules, bluesheets, scenarios, item and ability economies, etc) fall through the cracks. Of course, there's nothing wrong with individual GMs trading assignments during the writing phase; it usually helps get things done faster.

Most importantly, express your timetables in terms of short-term goals. If you've assigned Frank to write twenty documents in two months, that's about one every three days. So he should be sending out something new twice a week. If two weeks pass and he's only sent out two documents, then you need to reevaluate the short-term goals. Now he has to produce eighteen documents in six weeks, which is one every two days. Speaking of the timetables in these few-day-long goals lets you see the work mounting up before the piles get too high to deal with. You may not be able to stop the acceleration, but you can at least bring it under control.

As a corollary to keeping your timetables in manageable units, I would encourage individual writers to not fall into a common trap: wasting time deciding which document to write next. You're going to write all of them, so don't agonize over which is the best or the easiest or the most significant to do next. Those choices have a way of taking more time than the actual writing, if you're not careful.

While your everyday work needs to be expressed in short-term goals, you need to keep track of the big picture. How many games spend months in research and brainstorming, only to find that they haven't left themselves enough time to do the writing? Don't get caught underestimating the amount of time it all takes. I'm used to spending about six months coming up with ideas and linking them together, and then six more months refining and extending the ideas as the characters and other documents get written. Your mileage may vary, of course, but if you get within a few months of the game and aren't significantly into the writing phase, you're probably in trouble.

Production is also extremely important, and most people don't leave themselves enough time to produce their games. In my experience, most games take about a solid week to produce, if you sleep somewhat normally and phone in sick to work. That's if you have no mishaps, and if you haven't planned any serious production boondoggles (like fifty man-hours of paper-chopper work). So it's best to plan on a freeze deadline, when all of your timetables come to a screeching halt, about two weeks before your game will run. There is no excuse for not having the whole game stuffed and ready to go Friday afternoon. Remember, from Friday at 5pm to Saturday at 9am is only sixteen hours. That's only a half an hour of work for each of four GMs every night for eight days at some point before the freeze deadline. The trick is to not waste so much time before things get hectic.

In fact, you can often do much of the production work long before those last two weeks. Game currency, for instance, can usually be finalized early, and since cutting it up into individual bills is time-consuming, there's no reason to leave it until the last minute. I'd avoid producing final copies of character and bluesheets until they're mostly finished, because those have a way of changing right up until you freeze the writing, and because they actually take a fairly short time to produce, xerox, and stuff. Rules, scenarios, strategy hints, schedules, and the like can usually be finalized a month before the game (in time for your two-week premailing), so they are also good candidates for advance production.

One of the advantages of getting things done on time (besides getting to sleep) is that you can take time to make the game consistent and professional. This includes checking all the documents for mistakes, inconsistencies, typos, grammar errors, and the like. While humans are still needed in these days of automatic spelling- and grammar-checkers, your computer can help you look like much less of an illiterate fool. Mistakes and inconsistencies can't be checked by machine, but have much more damage potential for the game, so they're worth tracking down. That's what reference files are for, after all.

You can also take the time to give the documents have a pleasing and consistent "look and feel." For one thing, it will usually give the players a favorable impression. For another, it prevents players from making spurious (and potentially harmful) judgements along the lines of "My character was printed on a laser printer, and his character was printed on a dot-matrix printer, so he must not be part of my plot." It's important, however, to keep your priorities clear: stuff that makes the game look good on the outside takes a distant second to stuff that makes the game actually be good on the inside.

While writing live roleplaying games is still almost exclusively a volunteer activity, there is no reason not to behave as a professional. You are in a highly skilled field, and it works to your advantage to write and produce the best games possible. Furthermore, most games, like most of the best-laid plans, have a way of going horribly awry at the most difficult times. With careful planning, communication, and information management, you can avert or mitigate many of these crises, and even get a little sleep.

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