During the week I thought up a design for an infographic that would have encapsulated last week’s post in a single, easy-to-digest/use diagram. But Infographics aren’t my strong suit and I have no experience at doing them, and it became clear that it was going to take longer to complete than it was worth – or that I could spare. So, instead, you get this rather short article to chew on.
A conversation over the weekend got me thinking about the fact that there are still some things that I find easier to do with old=fashioned pen-and-paper than I do with a word processor. That, in turn, led me to reflect on how some things are far more easily done with hardcopies than with text files. And it occurred to me that some people out there might be missing a bet by not taking advantage of the format that is best-suited to the needs they have at the moment.
Baseline: What’s a Word Processor Good For?
A word processor has four big advantages. There’s a guarantee of legibility – that should never be underestimated. You can move or insert blocks of text around, seamlessly (or as close to it as sometimes-fussy technology permits. You can type over the top of what’s already there, perfectly replacing it. And you can provide someone else (or another device) a copy of the text at will, one that is guaranteed to be identical to the original at the time of duplication.
I take advantage of all four of these on a regular basis; my gaming wouldn’t be the same without them.
The legibility side of things is fairly self-evident and self-explanatory. Any problems in relaying/implementing what I’ve written, especially when the text is augmented with action codes, is due to my limitations and imperfections, not the source material that I’ve created. Action Codes are little symbol strings that give function and meaning to what I’ve written. These are usually fairly self-explanatory when they first appear, but do vary from time to time.
- *** = instructions, eg “CON Check -4” which instructs the PC being addressed to make a CON check. If necessary, or it might be unclear, I specify which PC. That sometimes happens when the modifiers – the “-4” – are different from one character to another. This also indicates a key decision by the players.
- [space]-[space] = narrative/interpretation branch based on the outcome of the instructions. Examples include “- success”, “- fail”, “- critical”, and so on. I prefer whenever possible to keep these to one line or less, if necessary pointing at numbered paragraphs/sections of text that follow. So one might read, “- success: PC gains entry, read parag 4a.” At the end of parag 4a, there will be another instruction, of the type I’m about to describe.
- – – > [parag number]= “go to paragraph and keep reading.”
- %%% = instructions to me as GM, especially relating to how I want to deliver the next block of text, the emotional tone, etc – “%%% sadly” for example, or “%%% cover mouth with wiggling fingers”.
- [ ] or ( ) = external reference, directing me to show or consult that reference. I use these for three different things: “[Pic 15]” means show the image that I’ve labeled as number 15; “[Hand out X]” means that I have produced a handout of some kind and this is the right time to issue it to the players; and [p158 RBook] tells me that the table I am about to need is on page 158 of the rulebook – though I’m usually more explicit about which rulebook I’m referring to – “PHB”, “DMG”, or whatever.
- <[condition]: [text]> and <[PC]: note #> indicates a paragraph of optional text and the circumstances under which to read it, or to give a written note to a player.
Move or insert blocks of text
One of the key techniques that I employ is rotating the spotlight around the table at regular intervals at break points in the plot/narrative. This is how I handle a party that has split up. But it’s far easier to write up one character’s entire narrative in one hit and then break it up.
For example, Let’s say I have four PCs: Aldo, Brutus, Clair, and Dobbins. In scene 4 of the plot, they have each gone their separate ways to each tackle a different aspect of an investigation. The entire scene is expected to take about 40 minutes, and should share the spotlight evenly into four ten-minute blocks. I start by writing the 10-minute plot block for Aldo, then do the one for Brutus, and so on.
But ten minutes is too long to maintain the spotlight on one player without getting the others involved. 2-3 minutes is acceptable, 1-2 minutes is better, 4-5 minutes is the absolute maximum – though that varies with genre and a whole heap of other factors. In this case, I would usually split the text of each character’s solo plot thread into three or four sections, as evenly as possible. Then I cut-and-paste or drag-and-drop – usually more the first than the second those sections to interweave the narratives, ending up with scenes 4a, 4b, 4c, and so on.
These blocks of text don’t have to be contemporaneous; one might be “now”, one might be “an hour from now”, a third might be “tomorrow”, and a fourth might be set in the “overnight” in between. That’s better than having two players twiddle their fingers for 20 minutes and the rest do so for 30 minutes.
Nor do they have to follow a rigorously fixed pattern of “A1, B1, C1, D1, A2, B2, C2, D2, A3…”; I employ the pattern that best fits the emotional intensity that I want to the situation with, and also take into consideration travel time and the like. The smaller the passages that you break the narrative into, the more flexibility you have. I might want the sequence to be “B1, A1, C1, D1, C2, A2, B2, C3, D2, B3, D3, A3.”
With practice, you can even break them unevenly, both in length and in number, within the constraints given earlier, though this can be risky – you need to be pretty sure that the plot won’t go off-script, or that you have the bases covered. By the time you incorporate optional text blocks – ones that only happen if a PC does a particular thing – the structure can be quite complex.
As I described in One Word At A Time: How I Usually Write A Blog Post, I usually plot things out in synopsis form and then expand on that. In fact, there are usually three stages: I outline the action in sequential blocks, synopsize each block, intersperse them as described above, and then do the final expansion into ready-to-play text in play sequence. This permits a new level of sophistication in which PCs can contact each other, contribute to each other’s plotlines, step into one sub-scene (briefly interrupting their own plotline) and then step out again, even trade plotlines. But this is a very advanced application of the technique, it’s something I’ve only just started to master. And it won’t work at all if you aren’t good at keeping the big picture in mind while micromanaging the individual plot sequences; as soon as one PC goes off-script (and that happens all the time) you will hopelessly lost, otherwise.
This lets me incorporate counterpoints and subtexts and plot twists and more polished forms of plot structure in ways that would be otherwise far more difficult. I can have one character caught up in a situation that is very different from the one he was expecting even as another character is discovering why the situation is different, and a second is discovering a context to the situation that makes it more important than it seems – or less, or just different.
The easiest way to do all this is to complete one pass of the plot structure, then copy-and-paste and overtype. Paragraph becomes bullet points becomes interspersed bullet points becomes plot and narrative.
Here’s part of a real-world example from an upcoming session of the Adventurer’s Club (with details redacted as necessary to protect our secrets):
|DH01||+2||Approached… Backstory to the DH mini-plot|
|FR01||+3||Contacted by…, Backstory to the FR mini-plot|
|CF01||+8||The Approach & The Deal|
|EB01||+1||Old Friend in trouble, Backstory to the EB mini-plot|
|SB01||+3||A visit from…|
|FR02||+3-+6||Fake, Fortune, or Scrap?|
|DH02||+3||Visit and view|
|SB02||+4||Consult [another PC]|
|DH03||+4||Day or Night?|
|EB02||+1||[place] to [place] to On [place] to [place]|
|FR04||+8-+9||Getting … Involved|
|… and so on|
The first column identifies the PC and the scene within their semi-solo plotlines, the second is in days since the end of the last adventure, and the third contains the (redacted) “bullet point summary” of that part of the plot. If you examine this closely, you’ll see every one of the techniques I’ve touched on in use – from two PCs getting part three of their plots before everyone else has their part two’s; time being shuffled between the different PCs by as much as 10 days just in this section of the whole; crossing plotlines (in SB02) – the dating information is for us to use if the PCs go off-script so that we can see at a glance where the other PCs are supposed to be and what we expect them to be doing.
In short, because my adventures would have to be structured differently without the use of the ability to copy, paste, and then overtype, the adventures themselves would be different.
In the Adventurer’s Club campaign, it’s normal for us to use two laptops – one to display images and maps, and the other to show us the adventure as we have written it up. But there have been times when it’s been useful to have them both showing different parts of the same adventure at the same time, and (to make sure they don’t get lost), we only make notes about the adventure on one machine, then port a fresh copy of that over to the other machine using a USB memory stick.
What’s more, most things are written on a third machine again – the one I am currently using to write this article. So the actual playing technique that we employ would be different without this attribute of a document file.
Hardcopy is also perfectly legible (printer supplies and problems excepted). Hardcopy isn’t power-dependent. You can scrawl notes, and express abstract ideas directly on the page. You can easily sketch battlemap layouts, or thumbnails of a scene to help organize and structure your thoughts when drafting plots or narrative, you can attach sticky notes, you can highlight key passages or things that need more attention, you can have multiple copies that are identical, and you can easily look at one page right next to a completely non-sequential page without the text becoming unmanageably small. Hardcopy can be physically manipulated. You don’t have to stop doing one thing to look at something else. Finally, hardcopy can be selectively distributed – we will always preference hardcopy for player notes, for example – Print them all and then slice them up. Those are some very useful attributes to have.
There was a time when everything we did was geared for hardcopy; we had no laptops. If we couldn’t produce it physically, we didn’t have it.
Even now, we will keep key Adventurer’s Club NPCs in hardcopy – making it easy to find and re-use them the next time that NPC appears.
The next Zenith-3 adventure has so many NPCs that I produced a hardcopy list of them to make sure that when I added another one, I didn’t repeat a name. Some of these are intended to recur from time to time, others will remain in the background to recur when the PCs want to involve them, or the next time we need someone in that particular role, and some are intended to vanish into obscurity immediately after their scene ends.
With this mighty pen
It doesn’t take much reflection to realize that hardcopy bridges the gulf between pen-and-paper and text document. It shares most of the advantages of both – so much so that (aside from the perfect legibility), the advantages list for one would seem to be much the same as for the other.
Not so. The process is different, and that imparts its own, additional, set of advantages – and potential drawbacks. When you write something long-hand, you have to think about what you are writing a lot more; with a word processor, thoughts tend to flow onto the page far more readily (and, sometimes, sloppily). That, in turn, makes it easier to absorb and memorize something.
Layout is another big issue – while they have grown more sophisticated, it still can take quite a bit of effort to create the layout of a complex table in a word processor, and mistakes can be extremely difficult to figure out. Doing your design on paper first can save lots of grief. This is especially true when you haven’t figured out exactly what you want yet, when your thinking is still vague and abstract.
Similarly, if I were to attempt algebra using a word processor, I would continually have to stop and think about layout instead of thinking about the equation, and have to count brackets to be sure I hadn’t missed one – or inserted one too many. I can draw them as big as I need them without thinking about it, doing analysis on paper. Here’s an expression from my Spam-track spreadsheet: IF(L3<1,7+I3+J3,INT(((0.6*((E3*INT(E3+0.5*F3)+F3)*(1+0.904257878278)+G3+(H3+0.5)^2+I3+J3))-7)/3+7.5)) – this determines, from the different variables I have defined, how long a specific condition should be applied for. That condition might be “monitor”, it might be “block”, or it might be the equivalent of “on parole”. If it yields a value higher than a threshold, the originating IP gets tested for permanent blocking – with the default answer being “yes, unless…”.
Trying to come up with this in-spreadsheet would have been very difficult – in fact, I tried doing that and made a mess of it. Three messes, in fact – the E3/F3 complex was wrong, the H3 factor was wrong, and the final range was scaled incorrectly (that’s the “-7, divide by 3, add 7.5” part of the expression at the end). But, when I put it down on paper, with the freedom to put variables where I needed them to be in relation to each other and with brackets big enough to make the relationship between them obvious, it became clear what the right answer was. Because each step of the calculation is built on its own specific logic and guidelines, it gives the right answers.
And, lastly, I used to be able to handwrite much faster than I can type, even now. Not as neatly – not even close – but when time-crunched, the ability to write a page every minute or so can be a life-saver!
Bottom line: There are things that can be done more easily with pen and paper than with any computer. There are things that might only be possible to someone that way, just as there are things that can be done more quickly – or possibly, only – with a computer. Every GM is different – explore the possibilities to find out what works for YOU.