Protagonists and Morality

I recently started watching House of Cards on Netflix. I’m three episodes in, and it made me think about a topic that influences what media I consume. Most of the time I don’t even realize I’m making a decision based on this preference, but it’s easy enough for me to elucidate.

I have to have someone to root for.

In most cases, the protagonist is the hero, the one we’re supposed to identify with. They’re the protag because theirs is the story we care about. For me, the protag has to function according to some kind of morality. There’s a trend in media to have every character and every decision merely reflect a “everything is shades of gray; there is no good or evil” mentality. I really don’t like this. It’s one of the reasons I’ve chosen not to watch Breaking Bad, except for the first episode, which I didn’t finish. My wife and I even stopped watching a season of Hell’s Kitchen because we just couldn’t stand any of the contestants.

Some might argue that I’m wanting things to be simple. Far from it! I like flawed characters. I can appreciate situations that are messy and don’t appear to have a good moral solution to them. I just require that there be some kind of underlying morality, even if it doesn’t match mine. Even if it doesn’t present itself as an epic good-and-evil struggle.

BeHeroesI’ve been a bit negative, so let me share something cool that does it right, in my opinion. Kingdom Come is a graphic novel from DC (I know, I know) from several years ago. In it, we find ourselves in a future where anti-heroes and vigilantes are warring in the streets without any regard for the safety of non-supers. The iconic DC heroes we know are absent, but as the story progresses, they return, led by everyone’s favorite paragon, Superman.

It’s got moral ambiguity, but it deals with good and evil, tough choices, and the nature of heroism.

Am I the only one that has trouble with this? Leave a comment and tell me about a story, a movie, a TV show, that you love that has morality and complexity.




On Max Temkin

Content warning: This post deals with the topic of sexual violence.

The gaming community is one that I’m usually proud to be a part of. It is a collection of amazing human beings, ones that I’m proud to know and call friends and colleagues.

But then there are other things like this: The gist is that eight years ago, Max Temkin–one of the guys responsible for Cards against Humanity–sexually assaulted a woman while they were both in college. She has recently come forward. His response at the link above is an exemplar of how not to respond to something like this.

Now, normally I wouldn’t get into this kind of topic here on my blog, but I’m speaking now because this is an important issue. As a man, I feel like this is something that we’ve screwed up. As a Christian, I feel like this is something we’ve gotten wrong. I don’t have the time or the patience to get into the topic of consent here, but let me go on the record that it’s vital, it’s important, and it’s something we should be discussing. I’ve got more to say about this, but you’ll have to find me in person to discuss it further.

I know some of you may be thinking, “It’s an accusation. Shouldn’t we give benefit of the doubt? Innocent until proven guilty and all that?”

No. No, we shouldn’t. We have a woman that is standing up and saying she was raped. We should give her the benefit of the doubt. If (a big if) we’re wrong, then no lasting harm is done to this man, regardless of what the media may have led you to believe. If he did, then it’s important that we’ve shown solidarity with the victim of one of the most heinous acts we as humans are capable of.

To Max Temkin I say, “Confess and deal with the consequences of your actions.

To the woman he harmed I say, “I stand with you, although I do not know you and you don’t know me.

To our community I say, “Stop responding to these kinds of things with apathy, victim-blaming, or rationalizations. Just stop. Do the right thing.

What Do I Do With This Feedback?

The topic today comes from Mark (@slavetothehat), friend, fellow game designer, and cartographer par excellence.

You’ve written a thing, and you’ve sent it to your editor on a wing and a prayer. Now it has returned to you. It stares at you in your inbox. Is that growling you hear?

You open it, and the flood of red ink threatens to drown you in its crimson embrace. Oh god, what have I done? How shall I press on?Step 4: Do It

Step 1: Breathe

Seriously, take a moment. Breathe. Relax a bit. Remember that you hired your editor to help you. To polish your words. To sharpen them to a razor’s edge. Sharpening and polishing aren’t pleasant experiences. There’s heat, friction, and maybe even a little pain. It’s okay; this is part of the process.

You’re probably dealing with a lot of emotions. Those emotions should let you know that this is a thing you care about (it is, right?). It’s a sign that you’re doing what you set out to do. You had an idea. You wrote it down. This is someone telling you how to make sure it looks, sounds, smells, feels the way you intend. That’s good, right?

Step 2: Read the Comments

See what I did there? Now that you’re hopefully calm and have your emotions under control, read through the feedback. Most editors I know (myself included) give you a summary of what they thought of the manuscript. Use this as context, and then read through the manuscript. Don’t worry about what you said wrong. Look at why how you said it wasn’t as good as it could have been. There may be things that you disagree with your editor on. That’s fine. Mark it down as something to discuss with your editor later. We’re not word tyrants or grammar nazis. We’re guides, having a conversation with you about your manuscript. You may need to take breaks while you’re working through this. That’s sometimes necessary.

Step 3: Think and Make a Plan

Don’t just wade into the next draft. Take time to think about what your editor said. You may need to figure out a new approach. Some manuscripts may require a restructure. Step 4: Do ItMake a plan (even if it’s just a mental one) of how you’re going to revise this thing that you’ve put work into and that now needs refinement.

Step 4: Do It

You’ve got a plan. Execute it. Do the second draft. Simple as that.


I know it was hard to hear some of this, but I still love you, and your manuscript will be the better for it. Now get out there and write, revise!

Think I’m barmy or want to stroke my ego? Tweet at me. Send me an email, leave a comment, ask a question via email. You know where to find me.


Sections and Subsections

Today’s topic comes from Christopher (@EldritchFire on Twitter), one of my favorite clients.

One of the things an editor does is assess a manuscript’s structure. Today I want to talk about sections. You know, those things that break up the wall of text that you’ve managed to carve out of your brain and put on the page? You need to be able to break that wall of text up into manageable chunks.

There are a couple of ways to do this. If you’re the outlining sort, the outline should have given you enough structure that you can start with it. If you’re not the outlining type, you have a little more work to do. Regardless, you’ve expressed those ideas in words. Words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, right?

A section should be one or more paragraphs. Ideally, you should be able to read a section and get a complete idea out of it. It may depend on other concepts, but it should stand alone. For example, most RPG books have a Skills section. That section better have everything in it that I need to know about Skills. (Choosing good titles is a separate topic. If there’s interest, I can do that post later.) I should be able to read that section by itself and not feel like I’m missing a whole lot when it comes to Skills.

Knowing when to divide into sub-sections is a bit trickier, but the concept still stands. Keeping with our example, if I’m in the Skills section, and there is a way to categorize skills into sub-groups (like Combat and Social), then those can be subheadings if you as the author want them. I can’t give you a hard line here because so much of it depends on how much content each subheading would have. A good rule of thumb I’d use is whether the words you want to turn into a subheading take more than a paragraph to describe, make it a subheading.

Now, this rule of thumb might break down if you have a complicated hierarchy of topics that take multiple paragraphs to describe. Once you get past three to four levels deep, it’s a good idea to step back from the manuscript and see if you can refactor the structure. Honestly, if you’re that deep, I’m going to suspect (both as a reader and an editor) that you’re padding word count or having trouble getting the concept across.

Honestly, some of this comes from experience in writing and conveying ideas. A good editor should be helping you gain that experience as they work with you on a manuscript, showing you its flaw and its strengths. Over time, you should learn how to convey a thought and use the structure of the document to help you trickle your ideas into the brains of your readers.

Oh, one last tip. Look for documents that have a structure similar to what you’re doing, or that you like. See how they broke down their concepts and how it flows. Pick a section and see if it follows what I’ve said above. It’s not necessarily a bad document if it doesn’t, but you should be able to see what they did and hopefully gain an appreciation for why they did it a certain way.

If you’re still got questions, leave a comment, and I’ll see if I can answer it. Now sit down and write!


Feedback Hurts Sometimes

Today I want to talk about feedback. You know, when you’re designing something and you get other people to play it and tell you what they thought?


Saturday night, I ran the first playtest of Iron Edda: Memories of Metal and Bone. The players were fantastic, and great fun was had by all. I had spent quite a bit of time trying to craft pre-generated PCs that were diverse and had skills that would apply in a variety of situations. I nailed that part. I went in with no prep, and the system worked well (which isn’t surprising, considering it’s Lady Blackbird and Always/Never/Now).

There was a major problem, though. It wasn’t an Iron Edda game. There wasn’t anything that made it really stand out in that regard. What is a designer to do? Making an Iron Edda game in another system was pretty much the whole point.

Write it Down

Take the feedback and write it down. It might be hard due to emotions, but do it anyway. You need to get it down because our memories (see what I did there) aren’t as clear as we’d like them to be. Mine in particular are not that great when complicated by emotion.

Let it Simmer

After the playtest, take some time and do something else. Then come back to what you wrote down. You need that distance to come back in with a fresh perspective. If the emotions are still raw, take more time.


Take the negative feedback and prioritize it. For me, top priority is making the game feel like Iron Edda. First off, thanks to one of my player’s suggestions, I’m going back to the source material. I’m currently watching Vikings Season 1 and enjoying it quite a bit. That, coupled with another suggestion (find the themes you want the game to have) is giving me plenty of direction in what to do next.



The impetus for this post is a document I had the misfortune of seeing at work. There was a section that attempted to relate Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to running a distributed software simulation.

Let’s talk about comparisons for a moment. There are several ways I can think of to express a comparisons: similes, metaphors, allegories, analogies. A good comparison is a thing of beauty. It’s elegant and conveys the author’s intent well. A bad comparison leaves the reader at best confused. There are a couple of things that you need to keep in mind if you want to craft a good comparison.

Points of Similarity and Difference

Every analogy breaks down at some point. You can’t map everything in an example from one to another (usually). Some of the most tragically humorous things I’ve read involve trying to find a one to one mapping from one thing to another. (Game designers take note, hacking a system can lead to this if you’re not careful. I’ve been guilty of it myself.) When you use an analogy, make sure you understand where these points of similarity and difference are. This is less of a concern with similes and metaphors, but it’s still possible to come up with weak writing due to carelessness. Taking the time to come up with a good comparison shows respect both to your idea and to your reader. A good simile is like a mental image; something that engages your reader’s mind immediately and intuitively. It puts you and your reader on the same page. Without that foundation, you’ll typically find that your readers lose track of what you’re saying.

Authorial Intent

Confession: I love this phrase. I probably love it a bit too much. It’s very important for me as an editor to know why the author uses the words they use. More importantly, it’s vital for you as a writer to know why you’re using the words you’re using. Comparisons are no different. Does the complexity of the topic warrant a comparison of some kind? Are you just trying to whip out your massive vocabulary and impress the reader with it? The former is a good reason; the latter a poor one. Your primary intent should be to communicate effectively. That’s why you’re writing, right? To convey your opinion, your thought, your concept. To spread an idea like wildfire.

Allons-y! Onward, but wield your words responsibly.


Inspiration and Iron Edda: Memories

Last night, I was thinking about inspiration. I’m one of the stretch goals for the Iron Edda Kickstarter (you knew that, right? I think I’ve mentioned it before), and I’m already working on it because it’s fun, and I’m enjoying doing it.

It struck me that this is the first time I can remember being able to list the inspirations for the game. Usually, I’m thinking through an idea and have no clue what I’d say if someone asks. Had I published a game before now, the section in the book that gives you recommendations about media to consume that influenced me, it’d be blank.

This seems strange to me. Is it possible that a designer can design without knowing what their specific influences are. I think they can, but I know personally it’s made my designs less clear than I would want them to be. (I can think of one in particular that I’m probably going to have to rewrite.)

So what’s different this time around? It’s a bigger project with a higher word count for one. I’ve got to have a very clear picture of what I want to say and how I want to say it. The vision for that grows out of inspiration.

For example, I said in my developer interview (warning: Youtube link) with Tracy that I wanted the game to have hope with a sense of gravitas. The war with the dwarves continues, and the humans have fled into space. It would be easy to make the game grimdark, but that’s not me. Dealing with heavy themes is fine, but I always want some light to shine through the dark.

By now you’re probably thinking, “Well, what are your inspirations for Iron Edda: Memories?”

Ready for this? I’m cribbing from a lot of stuff. Here’s a bullet list with some stuff as it stands right now.

  • Lady Blackbird’s sense of wonder and adventure
  • Always / Never / Now’s mystery, intrigue, and the dystopian flavor of the setting
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Farscape
  • Firefly / Serenity
  • Doctor Who
  • Spelljammer (yeah, you read that right)

How’s that for an eclectic mix? Some of these inspire me with their themes, others with things that they’ve done with characters or environments. Does it seem like a mad scientist’s concoction? Just call me Dr. Frankenstein, I guess.




Today, there was almost a scuffle on the internet. Surprise, surprise. This one in particular revolved around the word inclusive. This word appears to have an inflammatory quality to it (see also: gender, privilege, and many others). I don’t want to rehash any of that particular discussion; I’d like to go a bit meta instead.

I have a thing that I always say, “Words have meaning!” Even when I don’t come out and say that directly, I imply it. I’ve been known to say to coworkers that I got their intent, but their words didn’t convey what they thought they did. I’ve got one coworker in particular that I say this to a lot. He appreciates it, although I’m sure it looks pretty jerky of me to outsiders. But I digress. We use terms to mean certain things (no brainer, right?). But we find very quickly that the way we intend a term is not always what the reader or listener hears. They bring their own interpretation to the table (as do we as the writer / speaker).

It’s easy to forget that, and it’s easy to forget that this is why we need to communicate. By X, do you mean Y, as I understand it? Does this mean conversations take a little longer? Sometimes it does. But sometimes it saves a lot of time because we don’t end up chasing rabbits down forlorn paths that aren’t germane to the discussion at hand. Use a term, define it if you expect people to misunderstand, and then be willing to refine it if necessary.

Then you’ll be communicating, and that’s a good thing.



Impostor Syndrome, Advice, and the RPG Community

Before I get to the main point, let’s cover what Impostor Syndrome is for those who don’t know. Among creatives (artists, game designers, writers, you name it), there is a tendency to worry that you’re not a real artist or game designer or writer or whatever. Most of us struggle with it in some form, regardless of skill level, experience, or others’ opinions.

Having said that, Ryan Macklin posted an excellent post today. In it, he offers encouragement and reveals the lie of this kind of thinking. This plus some discussion in various places prompted some thoughts on advice — and how we respond to it — and the RPG community.


Giving advice is always a tricky business. We’re all different, a unique blend of experiences and beliefs that make us what we are. No piece of advice is going to be helpful to everyone at every point in their lives. It’s just not. I have a tendency to take advice I hear and put my own spin on it (see my post here) before I give it to someone else. I’ll usually put a caveat on it, like “This has worked for me.”

When presented with advice, you’ve got two basic options: I agree with this, or I disagree with this. If you prefer, you can change that to mostly agree and mostly disagree. If you disagree, it’s far better to say why you disagree and what you’d change. This keeps ideas flowing. It keeps things positive. It shows others that you’re actually thinking about what they said — almost always a good idea when talking with people.

The RPG Community

I keep hearing things about people not feeling like a part of the “community” at large. Let me tell you a personal story. I consider myself to have been in the community for about 2-3 years now. I’m not an unknown, but I don’t have a lot of credits to my name (yet). I have to say that It’s a great community. It has some problems (some very serious) because it’s made up of people. People can suck sometimes. There’s a low bar of entry. It doesn’t take a lot from where I sit to be included, and I say that recognizing I fit the status quo. But I haven’t seen anyone that makes an effort to be a functioning part of the community be denied. I have seen people turned away (which sounds strange to say) for being unwilling to listen or too cocky for their own good, although my memory would fail me if you prompted me for a list.

Twitter and G+ (the lifeblood of the tabletop gaming community in my opinion) are the on-ramp. Find a name on an RPG book you love, and you’ll probably see they have either a G+ account or a Twitter account (sometimes both). Get to know the people whose stuff you’re reading. It doesn’t take much more than listening and firing off a message that says, “Hey, I like this thing you did.” I know that’s hard for some due to various factors. If you’re one of those shy people, I don’t mind doing introductions (I’ve been known to do it before). Just make sure I know you a little bit by interacting. I promise I won’t bite (and neither will anyone else I’ve met so far).