Monday, May 23, 2016

Workflow: Infinity

Warning! This is absolutely a "how the sausage is made"-type post, where I'll be blathering on about workflow and the like. If that bores you, worry not - I'll have more stuff on how to liberally crib ideas from Pro Wrestling really soon - but for now, we're about to dive into some examples from my own work. 

Cool? Cool.

Writing Adversaries for the Infinity Roleplaying Game

Adversaries! They're adversarial.

For those who don't know, Infinity is a rich sci-fi property, popularized by a rather clever tabletop skirmish game. It's a pretty fleshed-out setting - the core product has two books in a slip cover, one for rules and another for setting exploration - that originally grew out of the creators' homebrew RPG world. Things have come full-circle now, and after a top-5 grossing RPG Kickstarter (top 3 when it funded), there's an RPG that should be coming out quite soon.

At least, if I have anything to say about it.

You see, I was a Kickstarter backer for this bad boy. Then after some time, I signed on as a freelancer to help get the core book content complete, which was a thrill and a half, let me tell you what! As both fan and developer, I've got extra incentive to make something awesome, as I not only take pride in my work, but fully intend to use it to run my own games. I want to be accountable to the legions of great fans - because I'm one of them. 

And the rest of us know where to find me online. So if I make something that doesn't live up the standards already set, you best believe they'll let me know about it. 

All of that goes into my process. 

The Assignment

But before any work gets started, you need something to work on. In the case of Infinity, our line developer - who has a freaking phenomenal blog over at, by the by - sends out some assignments, and we get to work. For writing adversaries - the NPCs who will provide opposition to players in Infinity - my schedule's pretty much been as follows:

Step One: Research

In a game like Infinity, there's already been a lot of ink spilled about anything you might be writing; an extant body of literature, if you will. You might think that makes things easier, and in some ways, you'd be correct; there's a lot to work with. On the other hand, that means there's a lot of information to digest, and some of it will be ridiculously specific. Already being pretty familiar with the Infinity setting in general, I still wanted to get a robust understanding of each unit before I started writing anything. This usually included:
  • Reading any unit writeups in existing books (not time-consuming)
  • Checking the mechanical writeups in existing books (quick, and a good relative reference)
  • Cross-referencing any mentions of the unit in existing books (CTRL+F is your friend)
  • Getting a good look at the miniature unit, in
    • Official Paint Schemes (Infinity has an official painter, his blog is amazing)
    • Unofficial Paint Schemes (Go Go Gadget Google)
    • Concept Art, if available
    • In-book Art
    • Fan Art (because sometimes people really love something)
    • Cosplay (because sometimes people really love something)
  • Conversation with gamers of various stripes on how the unit plays (gamers are opinionated)
  • Lurking through different forums to find how a given unit is perceived (looking for trends)
  • And in the case of real-world references, any pertinent details that relate to the unit (important)
Sometimes I'd do less, sometimes, I'd do a whole lot more, but hopefully you get the idea. During this process, I'd take down notes of anything that jumped out at me - text I wanted to reflect in my writeup, how a given unit tends to be used, and my thoughts on how applicable (or not) that is to the RPG context, and anything else that springs to mind.

Basically, I vomit ideas into a Google Doc, to be referenced later. Pleasant!

Step Two: Base Mechanics

Based on my research, I'd then try to figure out the unit's mechanics in the 2d20 system. For those unfamiliar, 2d20 groups adversaries into three distinct groups: 
  • Troopers, who are your mooks and cannon fodder. They're comparatively easy to take down
  • Elites, who represent more of a challenge, both in capabilities and toughness
  • And Nemeses, who are roughly as capable as a PC in most respects
Adversaries are represented a bit more abstractly than Player Characters, which makes things easier on GMs, but they otherwise work pretty much the same, and are sorted into these roles1 for the GM's convenience. A take on this system shows up in the excellent Mutant Chronicles 3rd Edition, and you can see some of the inspiration in Jay Little's last game, Fantasy Flight's  Star Wars Edge of The Empire RPG.

Goodness, do I love both those games. Anyway.

For doing this, my first bit of translation comes in. What kind of role does the unit play in an RPG? This goes beyond classification. A mediocre troop in a wargame can become an unholy terror given a different context, and the Infinity RPG is about much more than people trying to whack each other2, and that makes a real difference in the role of a given character type.

Additionally, there might be stuff from their overall description that doesn't quite jive with how the mechanics represent them, or with how players tend to use them. Regardless, I try to find a role for them within the context of the RPG. Maybe somebody's a great mid-distance foe, hacking the PCs' gear, making trouble for them just outside of reach. Maybe somebody's a scary up close and personal berserker, but they lack staying power. Another might be best suited to head up a squad of mooks, who become much less of a problem without their leadership, kind of like a video game boss.
Cyberpunk Achilles is a Special Snowflake
I didn't do his writeup. But he looks cool.

Whatever shape that takes, I try to think about where they might show up, what they're like, and how they interact with PCs.

Step Three: Unique Mechanics

A continuation of the last step, most units have special skills, much like a PC. Unlike a PC, we want to keep these to an relative minimum, so that GMs have less stuff to keep track of. Sometimes these skills are less powerful than a PCs nearest equivalent, sometimes they're stronger, but the point is always to give the GM something that really expresses the character in a clean, mechanical way.

This is where the units' distinctiveness can really come into play mechanically. (Note: the following shouldn't be considered a preview or anything - this is all off the top of my head. I don't talk about things that haven't been released to the public, as a rule. The Adversaries chapter should be coming soon, I'm sure!)

So in our above example, maybe that hacker gets a bonus to avoid detection, leaving the PCs scrambling to find out who's messing with them - the PCs need to get their hands on'm. Maybe that melee berserker gets a damage bonus, but only at close range - the PCs might want to keep them at a distance. Maybe that commander gives a bonus to Troopers grouped up with them - the PCs should strongly consider cutting off the head of the serpent.

The idea here is to use mechanics to give each unite a niche to fill. They should feel different, and different strategies should yield different results. Also, if a given character has an in-world reputation - like say, masters of hand-to-hand combat - then the unit should feel appropriate when players encounter them3.

I'm also lumping Gear into this category - what weapon loadouts, gadgets, and random crap people have on them is a great way to differentiate units, so long as I don't get carried away. Give the GM too much to keep track of, and you run the risk of things being forgotten or missed entirely once play begins. Concise, and useful - that's the goal.

Mechanics inform play. And they inform character besides. Which is why this step comes before the next one, which is...

Step Four: Actually Writing the Blurb

About 100-150 words of description, which sounds a lot easier than it is. On one hand, I accidentally puke out 150 words before I even introduce most topics, and I've probably got at least a thousand from my notes. On the other hand, I have so much information I want to pack in, and 150 words isn't much to do it in. RPG manuals are already huge, and you don't want to bloat up the page count, and give GMs an ocean of text to wade through.

Clear. Concise. To the point.

Sometimes people ask me what I learned in college. There are many answers to that, but from a freelancer's perspective, one of the most useful was how to write small. I came into journalism school able to write a pretty evocative 1,000-word article. I had just a hell of a time condensing that down into 400 words, let me tell you.

But that was good for me. And it comes in real handy with assignments like this.

So yes. Capturing the essence of the character's role in society, showcasing their distinct style and "feel," giving the GM some idea as to where they might use this kind of character, and some idea of how they operate differently from "tough mook #3," and maintaining a respectful nod or three to their legacy and description from the tabletop game.

In a hundred words.

This is the fourth step in my process for a reason, as I find it very useful to build on everything that's come before. Of course, that does tie into the next step.

Step Five: This is an Agile Process, There Aren't Actually Sequential Steps

Maybe I'll come up with something that's true about the unit's behavior in step four, but it'd be better expressed as a special ability. Maybe I'm trying to express a given background through the unit's skills, and I realize there's an opportunity for a nice bit of writeup. Maybe I realize that I haven't done nearly enough research, and spend a couple hours learning about a new religion.

Maybe I look at everything I've done in the writeup, and realize that my base mechanics are flat-out wrong for this incarnation of the unit, and I need to redo them, nevermind that it's going to be a little different than the tabletop game. The RPG is its own thing, and it needs to be. Maybe I gave a particular unit short shrift, because they're just not that big a deal in the tabletop world, but that's just not true of them in this context. Maybe I emphasized the wrong thing based on their description, or maybe their model really begs me to create a custom weapon that's not in the existing rules, but is a huge part of their visual style.

Maybe everything I wrote is crap, and needs to be burned to the ground.

Point being, these points all feed into each other, I don't treat it as a discreet process. Although the next step is an exception; it needs to come at this point, when I'm essentially content complete.

Step Six: Take a Dang Break

For real. Step away from the Word Document, possibly the computer, and give the work some time to ripen. If possible, I go to sleep during this period.

Step Seven: Editing, Rewriting, and Making Sure I Have Not Made a Terrible Mistake or Seventeen

This content is terrible! CUT IT.

Sanity check time! Spelling, grammar, format - all important stuff. Then I read the damn things, front to back, forcing myself not to skip. Often, I read it aloud - that changes things! - to try and get the feel of each unit description as its own thing. RPG books are as much technical manual as fiction, and people both need to get unit info by skimming, and a more detailed representation when planning.

I'll change things here, rewrite whole chunks that sounded pretty great at the time, I swear (they're hot garbage.) Sanity check again to see if I'm missing anything.

Read it again.

Walk away. Again.

Come back, give it a last read-through in casual fashion, just to see if anything jumps out.

Deep breath.

Submit file.

Exhale. Probably whoop, because 6 years of university and 2 years of professional freelancing has taught me many things, but none of them have convinced me not to bust some moves when I finish a project.


Step Eight: Sometimes You Write Revisions and That's Okay

Sometimes my editor sends stuff back. This makes sense, as my word-to-comment ratio is probably something like 2 to 1, and some of those comments become conversations, which in turn become changes. This is a good thing! I cannot stress that enough; editors are supposed to edit, that is literally their job (though not all of it). I once had a student, brilliant writer, smart person, great taste in music. They were interning at a popular music magazine, and had been given the opportunity to submit an article.

They were incredibly down about it.

When I asked why, they informed me that they'd gotten their article back, covered in red pen with proposed corrections.

"They think I can't write," they said.

I smiled. "They know you can."

At a high  level, writing is as much about re-writing as anything else. Also, frankly, there's a reason why even professional copy editors get other people to edit their work - there are some things that another pair of eyes is just flat-out better at catching.

Trust me, as someone who's taken their share of red pen to articles, more marks isn't a bad thing - if something sucks, I'm not putting in the effort to critique every line. Thanks for coming, here's your crappy grade for putting in the minimum amount of effort on this assignment, I look forward to you arguing about how this shouldn't have been a C come finals week4 , please enjoy your day.

Anyway. Revisions come, and I try to get them knocked out same-day. Being reliable and hitting deadlines will get you pretty far in life, and while I always strive for excellence in all I do, I pride myself on hitting my damn deadlines. So I try to prioritize rewrites whenever they come my way, as they're usually expected ASAP.

Step Nine: Drink Coffee, remember you have a blog

Mmmm, coffee. Hey! I have a blog. Better update that.


* * *

1 - By sheer coincidence, subconscious impulse, or my tendency to see everything in threes, this lines up kind of nicely with the categories of Enhancement Talent, Rivals, and Nemeses that I put forward in the last post.. Handy!

2- In fairness, so is the tabletop game, which has hacking objectives, terrain control, and all sorts of stuff that isn't just about killin' somebody's doods. I highly recommend it for people looking for a different sort of wargame.

Having said that, it's still a wargame. You have two sides, and at the end, you have a winner. RPGs have exponentially broader contexts to consider.

3 - Much of the existing Infinity stuff is written from an In-Character perspective, so some judicious skepticism is useful here. When much of the descriptive text for a given unit is, quite literally, military propaganda, you have to balance that against more realistic expectations. This is another situation where a more holistic approach to the setting becomes really important - if every light infantry unit is described an invulnerable war machine with nerves of steel who never retreat, you need some more information.

Wargames are great at both creating this problem, and giving the tools to address it. Not only does the setting have a long history of military conflicts, but you can also find after reports of tournaments and such. 

Thus do the performances of wargamers enter back into the setting's zeitgeist, completing the circle and creating new myths. Hot damn do I like how that sounds.

4 - This happened a lot. Sometimes it was funny, sometimes sad, and about an even split between overachievers and people who attended three classes all semester.  As a teacher, I'm always down to discuss where grades come from, and if I make a mistake, I want to fix it. 

But sometimes there's an attitude of "you'll change my grade, because I'm really likable, right?" Nope! I'll happily help you identify the flaws in your work and correct them, but I do not care about how wide you smile, sorry!