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When you write, how long do you want the words, the meaning, to last?

Every minute spent writing more than is needed is time wasted.

Some writing is intended for almost immediate consumption, and will never be needed again. If we could be sure of remembering all our thoughts and plans, only the barest mention should be enough to bring them to mind, but memory is fallible, especially when distracted by other things, like players.

Other writing, for example most of the articles that have appeared here at Campaign Mastery, are intended to be evergreen, lasting for as long as they remain relevant, as close to forever as possible. Creatures and races that may be used in other campaigns or by other GMs.

And then there are writings that are intended to have a longevity somewhere in between. Adventure notes that may need to be referred to in writing a subsequent adventure weeks, months, or years down the track. Descriptions of NPCs who are intended to recur in future encounters. More traditional blog posts, or announcements of achievements or milestones. Most news has a finite lifespan, and then becomes history.

The three place very different demands on the writer or author, and very definitely have different pitfalls to be wary of. Nor are the dividing lines as neat and confined as these labels suggest; these are just points on an entire spectrum of possible target longevities.

Writing for immediacy

The immediate the intended consumption, the more than can usually be assumed – social context, relevance to current events, the meaning of a personal code used to compress the information, and so on. The greatest dangers involved are insufficient development, over-compression, memory failure, unexpected delays in delivery, and an unexpected need for subsequent longevity.

Insufficient Development

The first and most obvious trap is not doing enough, or perhaps assuming that you will be better at improvising the rest on the day. It’s all well and good to do the bare minimum that you think you can get away with, but if that judgment is erroneous or you are off your game, it can all come unstuck.

I always aim for a little more longevity and completeness than I think I need, a lesson very definitely learned the hard way. I make a checklist of the major topics and ensure that I have at least thought about each, and made at least one reference note – the tip of the iceberg when it comes to that topic – upon which I can build.

Over-compression

I’ve suffered from this a number of times. It is the mistake of assuming that you will remember what a string of characters Such as “*K16″ means when you come across it in you character notes, or that some cryptic reference that was obvious to you at the time you wrote it will still make sense when you get to the gaming table. In essence, it’s relying on memory to interpret some veiled reference, summary, or prompt.

The best solution to this is to have a system, and to write that system down, with a “generation number” – we’re all familiar with those, whether you recognize the term or not. “Version 2.4″ is a generation number, indicating the fourth minor revision after a complete rewrite. These are used for computer software all the time, for the simple reason that they (usually) work. The final pieces of the puzzle is to always update a copy of this master document, so that you have all the previous versions available, and to WRITE THE VERSION USED on whatever notes you’re making.

I would have to hunt for a couple of hours to find it, but I first started using this technique for public speaking, where certain basic symbols not part of the regular extended typeset – diamond, triangle, square, filled circle, etc – were employed to indicate “More forceful,” “Pause 1/2 sec,” “Deep Breath,” etc.

Memory Failure

Marginally Worse than having a cryptic clue that you cannot decipher (even though you are both author and intended target) is having no clue at all because you were sure that you would remember something “so obvious”. This is the sort of mistake that people make, learn from for a while, and then make again.

There is a quote from Clifford Stoll’s The Cuckoo’s Egg (a very readable and entertaining book that I can highly recommend): “If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen”. That’s probably going too far in terms of this sort of writing, but there is at least a grain of truth to it – and it is certainly true of any writing intended to be viable in more than a day or two.

Making sure that each of the major logical topics has at least the hint of what I was thinking guards against this problem.

Unexpected Delays

More than once, I’ve prepared material in the expectation of using it on a particular date, only for the event in question – a game session or whatever – to be rescheduled, either by a day, a week, a fortnight, a month, or even a couple of months; and while I could understand and interpret that material just fine on the original “due date”, it was little more than gibberish when the rescheduled date arrived.

Having learned the hard way, if a session doesn’t go ahead, I use the time to expand a little on my written notes – not polishing or refining per se (though there’s often a tweak here and a nuance there as I go), but making sure that anything I expected to be able to remember gets written down. Even so, it’s astonishing how often I find myself drawing a complete blank, indicating a total memory failure.

When that happens, the first rule is: Don’t get frustrated, Clear your head for a couple of minutes, calm yourself, and then try to recapture the memories of doing the writing in the first place. What were you listening to? Was the TV on in the background? What was the weather like? What were you wearing? What had you just read? What had you just eaten? What had you just written? Quite often, recapturing any one memory of what had been forgotten is enough to lead you to other pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, which fit together one after the other. You just have to find a starting point.

I have some additional, general, solutions as well, which I will describe in a moment.

Unexpected Longevity Requirements

So there was a throwaway NPC who appeared in your game five years ago, and to whom you never gave a second thought once their appearance in the plot had come and gone. Suddenly, you need for that character to reappear, or at least be referenced, because the PCs are going back to the scene – something you had no idea would happen at all.

Or perhaps, a month or two later, you find yourself wanting to describe an incident in the game in a blog or short story, and that character is the starting point for the incident.

You may be able to find the old adventure, with its compost of compression, shorthand, and cryptic notes that were perfectly meaningful to you at the time, or that might be long-gone. The information that you thought you would only need for a few days is suddenly needed again.

No matter how effectively you write what you need and no more, sometimes you can find that you actually need rather more than you thought.

Assuming that you can find your original, the techniques already described will help ensure that they are decipherable, and comprehensive enough to get into the ballpark. Any differences between the new version and the original can be explained as a consequence of the passage of time – if you leave any description of the intervening period loose enough that an incident can be spontaneously inserted. What the players most remember and what you remember might well be two quite different things, because you remember the version you created, and they remember the version that you delivered in play.

If the original has been lost, or destroyed, then you have no choice but to recreate it. And that’s a real problem when everything you did was only meant to make sense, or even just to exist, for a limited time-frame.

The one solution that is unacceptable because it is often unenforceable is “never throw anything away”, and “over-write everything”.

The general solution techniques below will help. But the most powerful tool you have when you really, really, need help are the memories of your players, and any notes they may have made, and any session notes that you might have. Use them!

General Solutions: Two Guidelines

There are two techniques that I use when writing for immediacy: Buried Cues and Development Notes.

Buried Cues

I always assume that I may need to expand the lifetime of a piece of immediate writing. While it is wasteful to spend time writing for greater longevity, that doesn’t mean that a note or two on what would be required to extend the comprehension lifetime is out of place. These are almost always related to context. For example, if I’m making notes about an NPC who I expect to be of little lasting significance and who is not likely to recur, the buried cues would be the relationships of the NPC to other NPCs in the plotline, the role of the NPC in the plotline, future goals or ambitions of the NPC, and any distinctive mannerisms or performance notes that identify the individual. These not only help you rebuild your understanding of the minimalist documentation that you have provided, but they provide the foundations for rewriting or revisiting the character at some future point. They place your compressed notes into a context that enables you to work back to the small-scale or to expand the writing back up to a larger scale.

Development Notes

If you make all of your development notes in a single book or in files kept in a specific folder, then you can go back to them if necessary. These will often be fragmentary and cryptic, bereft of any context whatsoever, but nevertheless, it’s better than nothing when you really get stuck.

It’s fairly normal for these to go missing (one way or another) before the final product does, especially if the notes were handwritten on a pad or something. Hence the solution of using a single workbook to archive all your development notes – you never know when you’ll need something from it. And you can always scribble notes in the margins at the time of development that – although useless at the time – can be dynamite months or years down the track.

Every unused idea is just waiting to be re-jigged for use somewhere else on some other occasion.

One of the great assets of computer-based documentation is that you can revise and edit without having to retype everything that hasn’t changed from scratch. This is also one of its greatest liabilities because it destroys the record of development. The solution is to maintain a generation numbering system – but be sure to follow it religiously, or you can end up with generation confusion which can be even worse than no records at all.

Writing for the Medium-Term

Writing for the medium term is a bit more involved. It requires more more substance, and more depth. Whatever you’re writing is something that you expect to have to refer to in the future. In order to keep this information accessible, you need to either have a consistent format for your compression, or you need to avoid compressing the content in the first place. What usually gets left out are explanations and context; it’s more a bullet-point summary. That means that the dangers that await are over-compression, under-expansion, assumptions, a lack of relevant context, and legacy standards.

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Over-compression

It’s still great to be able to compact what you have written down to a single, easily-digested nugget. The great danger of doing so is that the mental algorithm that enables you to reverse this process, going from compressed thought to whole concept, may be lost. Compressing ideas and text in this fashion is more like reducing the file size of a jpg than it is creating a zip file, although the latter is more often the metaphor employed; the only way to shrink a jpg image without making it physically smaller is to throw detail away. This can be done to a certain extent without ever being obvious, or it can be compressed so much that obvious corruption takes place. The information that is thrown away can never be recovered, though it can be faked sometimes.

The picture to the right shows two views of the same photograph. The first was saved at high quality, the second at very poor quality. The second image may be only 5.7% of the file size, but it is totally worthless – it has been Over-compressed, too much has been thrown away.

Similarly, if you go too far in boiling your NPC’s personality down to its essentials, or the tactical layout, or whatever, you will lose details that may prove essential when you go back to use the information again. This creates additional work at best or can be completely humiliating at worst, when your players point out that if this was the way things were, none of the escapades they had been on subsequently would have been necessary. This puts you in the position of reinventing the wheel, on the fly, again (and while everyone is waiting on you) or having consigned half the campaign to the scrap-bin. Even if you get through this harrowing experience, the campaign may take years to recover.

Does that seem like overblown apocalyptic vision to you? Well, let’s consider your campaign to be akin to a novel. Somewhere in the early pages, the protagonist has an encounter with a femme fatale; this encounter launches him into a series of unlikely incidents that put his entire life into a spin cycle. Towards the end of the book, he encounters the woman once again, but the author has lost his notes; so instead of being a femme fatale, she is now a homemaker with two kids and a very happy marriage. This totally undermines the initial premise of the story, especially since if the protagonist at the start of the novel was the honest, honorable type who would never dream of getting involved with a married woman. If the author picks up on the problem, he can either try to recapture the original character, or he can add some lame justification for her pretending to be what she initially appeared to be, even though that is also in direct contradiction to the personality used at the end of the story.

Still not buying it? Okay, try this example: The bad guys operate from a nigh-impregnable fortress. Most of the plot of the story is about the protagonist finding a way to exploit the one area of vulnerability that he has been able to identify, recruiting specialists, questing for lost arcane arts, etc. Finally, the protagonist is ready, and the author sets out to describe the climactic confrontation. He needs the villains to have an escape route planned, but there’s no mention of that escape route in his notes, so he creates a new one – which is inadvertently a major hole in the security of the fortress, one which the protagonist was well able to recognize at the very start of the story (had it been there, then). It’s too late to alter the original description, that’s already been published, and besides, if that hole had been there, then, the whole story unravels; he has to either redo the fortress again, on-the-fly (in order to meet his deadline), eliminating the security hole, or his protagonist is revealed as an idiot who can’t see what’s right in front of him. The only quick solution, lame as it is, is for the security hole to have been engineered into the fortress in the intervening period – but what might have been a thrilling fantasy adventure is crippled by this problem of engineering contradictory needs into his fortress design. Knowing the need for the villains to escape (or at least the potential need), he almost certainly had some clever idea for managing this when he first described the fortress, one that did NOT create a security vulnerability – but the details were left out of the original notes.

Read some amateur locked-room mysteries, and you’ll quickly discover that this happens far more often than you ever suspected. All you can say when it does is “whoops”. And start thinking, very hard.

It’s one thing to eliminate extraneous details and capture only the essence of whatever you’re writing about. It’s quite another to fail to adequately document something that might turn out to be essential.

The only real solution is to be organized and have something written in every area of possible need from the beginning.

Under-expansion

Almost as frequent is under-expansion of the compressed ideas. This happens in badly-written TV and movies a lot – an idea or scene gets compressed because it’s taking up too much screen time, or it’s too expensive, or it simply makes the movie drag at that point – but in the process, a plot hole is created because the essential information that was to be conveyed by the scene never gets mentioned or shown. The real culprit here is a failure to note what is essential and what is window dressing.

It doesn’t matter how great the original idea is, if you do not develop it enough to work out the kinks, it will fall flat. I can actually point at an example published right here at Campaign Mastery – the plot development technique given in the article, Amazon Nazis On The Moon: Campaign Planning Revisited. This started as nothing more than the title – which is a cool idea, promising lots of B-adventure fun – but it needed a lot of development and insertion of backstory, shown in the course of the article, before it became workable as a serious plotline.

When writing a novel, your notes on anything are typically more extensive than the information you ultimately convey within the story. Why? Because you develop the idea – be it a location or a character – before you know exactly what you are going to need. You may not go as far as drawing up architectural blueprints of the scene where the action is to take place, but a rough sketch to give you the layout of the building can not only make it a lot easier to write, it can save you from horrendous mistakes like putting a 30′ square kitchen into a 10′ x 10′ space. Or worse yet, putting 5 red dragons into a 10′ x 10′ room on the 10th sub-level of a dungeon, with no access to the open air, which a (very inexperienced) GM I knew years ago actually did. (Worse still, they were flapping their wings in agitation when the PCs opened the door into the room). You may now cringe.

Well, the leisurely pace of a novelist doesn’t fit the deadline pressures experienced by every GM who has a gaming session tomorrow to prepare for. We rarely have time to do anything more than is absolutely necessary (and sometimes not even that much). That means that we have to compress ideas and descriptions and dialogue and characterizations and what-have-you, especially when we’re making notes.

Under-expansion happens when we have a documented idea for something but don’t develop it enough to integrate it with the rest of the details of the something. It might be a character background not fitting with the personality profile of the character, or detailed descriptions of the decorations in a room that we know is going to be closely scrutinized.

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Sidebar
I had another idea for an example but decided that it was unnecessary. But the idea is too cool, and too original not to mention it in passing. Somewhere in a room is a clue to something – the location of a treasure, perhaps. The room is dominated by a semi-abstract painting consisting of multiple daubs of brightly-colored paint in many colors – which, when viewed from the far side of the room forms an image – something like Children On A Farm by Camille Pissarro, shown to the left, and a closeup of part of that painting, shown below it. For a few days each year, when the sun is at the right angle (month and time of day) and the right color (sunset), the light transforms the image by changing the color of the paint, hiding some colors and making others dark or gray. Only then – like the tests used for color-blindness – can the hidden map or message be seen.

Development work needed before this idea could be used include: art movements in the campaign world, establishing the art style used (Impressionist), making sure the players know the defining characteristics of that art style, establishing color-blindness and the standard tests for it as obscure knowledge, establishing knowledge of the movement of the sun (something like Stonehenge used to identify the solstices would do it), making sure that whoever had the work commissioned had the wealth and knowledge to create the clue, and maybe even establishing the concept of secret writings and hidden messages. Then you need the story of the target, and why it was hidden, and the myths and stories that have derived from that secret in the intervening years, and how it was that the secret was lost in the first place.

Now, if you put all of that into the one adventure, the players are going to be able to put 2+2+2 together very quickly to solve the puzzle. If you spread most of that background out into other adventures as incidental information that the PCs pick up, it won’t be quite so obvious. Leave any of that development info out, and the mystery is unsolvable unless the players just happen to have the right information in their possession – not a good bet at all.

But the idea of a painting that holds a clue invisible but in plain sight until the light is in the right angle and is of the right color is such a cool variation on something that’s become a common trope that I had to share it.

Assumptions

Making assumptions about what the players will remember or know is a recipe for disaster. Equally hazardous is assuming that the characters will have been somewhere or done something between now and when a notation becomes relevant to the plot. But the biggest assumption of the lot is that you will understand what you were trying to remind yourself of, way back when.

It might be obvious to you at the time of writing what the significance of “Brandysnap Wine by the sunset moon” means (it doesn’t mean anything in particular to me) but for all its poetry, it’s going to be inscrutable beyond the point of comprehension a year or two later. A lot of the time, we build ideas around events in the real world, or in popular movies or TV shows; the smallest tip of the hat to these ideas is usually enough to bring them to mind for a while, so a brief or oblique reference is all that’s needed. But those memories fade with time.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this problem. Your cryptic self-reminder might well contain all the information that you need, but if you can’t interpret it, the information is almost as good as lost. The best answer is to annotate these snippets with the subject matter, as briefly and succinctly as possible. If I were to put the phrase “Color:” in front of the “Brandysnap Wine” note, suddenly it starts to make sense. If I were to put the word “Desire:” in front of it, ditto. Or the phrase “Fondest memory of husband:”. Or “Recurring nightmare – Drowning:”. Or “Recognition signal, agent X:”.

This isn’t a matter of over-compression; it’s about identifying what the compressed note refers to, rather than making the assumption that “I’ll remember/know what that’s about” – something people are especially prone to when the image is somewhat striking, as in this case.

Absence of Context

Even knowing the subject may not be enough. The examples in the preceding section all convey the context within the information provided, or imply it – you should have been able to tell that this hypothetical note was part of a character write-up in most of the examples (“Color” is not quite so obvious, though it was obviously part of a description of something).

But a note such as “Like Coventry” might mean anything. It might mean that a location specifically resembled some aspect of Coventry, the British city. It might be referring to an event – Churchill’s knowledge of the imminent German bombing of the city, decision not to evacuate, and subsequent tour of the devastation, spring to mind. Or it might be referring to the episode of Babylon 5 in which that sequence of events is discussed, or something else within that episode (be it an object, a slice of dialogue, a theme, or whatever) of the same name. Or the short story by Robert A Heinlein. There are dozens of possible interpretations, and even putting a subject to the note (“Character” or “Location” or “Event”) is not enough. There is an absence of context.

Wikipedia has this sort of problem all the time. They use disambiguation pages to give as many possible meanings as they can find so that people can pick the right answer – but note that the aforementioned Babylon-5 episode is not listed on the disambiguation page – perhaps because the episode was actually named “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”!

Making any sort of popular or cultural reference in your notes carries a lot of baggage with it, and you can use such a reference to connect part of that baggage to whatever it is that your notes refers to. If I refer to “Sideshow Bob” the context is clear, because he has appeared in the Simpsons so often that the character is iconic. But what if the character changes markedly after the reference is made – what if this reference actually derives from events prior to “Krusty Gets Busted”, back when Bob was just Krusty’s Sidekick?

Or what if the context is forgotten, as the relevance of the reference fades? “Description: Snake In Drag” might refer to the Simpsons episode, or it might refer to the character from Escape from New York played by Kurt Russell, but it more probably refers to the sequence in “Tango & Cash” in which the same actor dresses in drag to evade capture by the police – or to some amalgam of two or more of these. How many people have even seen “Tango & Cash” recently enough to make the connection?

I know that if I were to use the description “Ray Tango In Drag” to describe an NPC, both I and at least one of my players would immediately ‘get’ the reference and be able to visualize the character. The rest? I’m not so sure.

Or take a more obscure one: “Blackwater Redacted” tells me immediately what I need to know to describe a document, and why it has that appearance. But I’m the only person in my playing group that watched “The West Wing”, and I only recognize the term – which doesn’t actually appear in the episode in question – because I re-watch the entire series once or twice a year. (For the record, the reference points to the episode “Somebody’s Going To Emergency, Somebody’s Going To Jail”, which is itself a reference to the lyrics of “New York Minute” by Don Henley).

Context gives meaning. For short-term writing, a lot of context can be assumed; it’s part of the cultural zeitgeist of the time. For longer-longevity writing, context can’t be assumed, it has to be explicit – just in case.

Legacy Standards

I talked earlier about using a standard format for your notes and compression of ideas, about the need to use version numbers and retain old versions, about the ease of overwriting existing information when using a computer, and about the need to document which version of the standard format you used for any given set of notes.

Failure to do any one of these things leaves you exposed to this problem – where notes have been made in a standard format but you no longer have the key to that format.

I once wrote a character generator to make random NPCs for my TORG campaign. An entry as output read something like:

378 8 11 6 8 12 11 7 12 3=10 C6 13 T:Sci 4 16 DX:MW 1 9 UC 2 10 ST Cl 2 13 PR:Tr 1 9 WV 3 11 MD:Ap 1 13 Ar 1 13 TW 2 14 CH:Pe 1 12 Prsnlty: P:pansy S:arguementative T:extreme.

Because I was used to the system, and knew the format, I could interpret these easily. In fact, I used an additional routine to identify these strings and expand on them, so that the printed output read:

378 DEX: 8 STR:11 TGH: 6 PERC: 8 MIND:12 CHAR:11 SPIR: 7 Possibilities:12 Reality (SPIR)+3=10/- Corruption+6=13/- TAG: Science (MIND)+4=16/- DEX: Melee Weapons+1=9/- Unarmed Combat+2=10/- STR: Climbing+2=13/- PERC: Trick+1=9/- Water Vehicles+3=11/- MIND: Apportation Magic+1=13/- Artist+1=13/- Test Of Wills+2=14/- CHAR: Persuasion+1=12/- Personality: Primary: pansy Secondary: argumentative Tertiary: extreme.

This took an extremely compact form and expanded it to the point where I could still use it today (and occasionally do) even though I no longer run that campaign (I still have all my notes, though).

But, since the key to the translation was part of the software I wrote, if I had left the information in that compressed format, it would now be useless without a manual key (The Formatting routines ended up being 80% of the program) – it would be encoded using a lost legacy standard.

This is easy to prevent and almost impossible to solve once it’s happened. Prevention simply requires doing the things I listed at the top of this section.

General Solutions: Three Guidelines

I use three guidelines when working on something that I expect might need to be used a long time after the initial creation, in addition to the specific advice offered above.

Development Plans

I make notes about what I would need to do to take something written for the medium term and convert it into something written for the long term. What additional development would be required? What assumed knowledge would I have to supply? What needs further explanation? What assumptions does the character make about society and politics and magic and the phases of the moon?

What would I need to do to take the character, or setting, or adventure, out of my campaign and publish it as a standalone product?

Note that it’s not necessary to actually do any of this work – this is just a list of what would need to be done, as brutally succinct as I can make it.

This tells me what areas have not been fully developed, and hence (by extension) which ones have. It helps interpret what is there.

Context Notes

I liberally sprinkle my notes with references to the context, even if it’s redundant and unnecessary information now. “Refer B5 ep discussion how much is a secret worth?” makes explicit a vague reference to “Coventry”. I try to identify just where my ideas came from, and how those sources of inspiration are relevant – then make notes.

This doesn’t mean that my ideas are plagiarized. It simply means that “Reference A” helped inspire the idea, and that if I have to recapture that idea from scanty source material at some future point, refreshing my recollection of Reference A will help to place me in the correct frame of mind to interpret what I’ve got.

Draft Snapshots

I don’t save documents in progress within the same file all the time, nor do I rely exclusively on system backups. Every now and then, I will increment a version number and save the work to date in that format – then park that archived version somewhere else. This has two benefits: one, it gives me a place to go to recover information that may have been overwritten or destroyed; and two, I can track the development of ideas by comparing older versions with later ones. Quite often I will discard an idea because I think I’ve come up with something better, only to run into a brick wall – and discover the solution to the problem lurking in work that has since been discarded.

Every time I have gotten a little lazy about maintaining these “draft snapshots”, circumstances have eventually bitten me on the tail. Months of work have been lost on occasion as a result.

Writing For The Long-Term

Writing for the long-term is still more difficult. You can assume nothing, and have to explain everything – but at the same time, prevent the writing from becoming dull or boring. The needs of the intended audience change over time – in the short term, little-to-no context is needed; at most, a single reference to each relevant point is enough to get everyone on the same page and in a position to understand the content that you are trying to deliver. As time passes, the content may stay relevant – good advice is still good advice, and a good idea is still a good idea – but the reader will be increasingly dependent on the article being self-contained. External references may have vanished, game systems may have changed, best practices may have developed that are different to those in place at the time of writing. Your writing needs to stand alone, be fully self-contained, in order to make sense to a new reader.

More than anything else, four things drove this home to me.

Incident The First: Adapting The Flói Af Loft & The Ryk Bolti For Campaign Mastery

The Flói Af Loft & The Ryk Bolti was an adventure I had created for my Fumanor Campaign (D&D 3.x). Adapting it was quite a lot of work; I had to take out all but the bare minimum campaign background, which in turn had an impact on several of the encounters. I had to expand on the options available to characters beyond those in the original, where I had focused exclusively on the capabilities of my players and their characters. I had to remove the effects of any House Rules. Many things that required no explanation (because they were known to the players from earlier adventures) had to be explained.

While I expected it to be fairly straightforward when I started, in the end, about 40% of the content had to be written completely from scratch, and half of what was left had to be revised. The “public” version is almost 1/3 longer than the original was. And it’s still not at what I would consider “ready to publish” standard – though it’s now finished enough for another GM to run the adventure, there’s a lot of expansion possible before it could stand alone as a module.

Incident The Second: Writing The Background “Novel” For my Champions Campaigns

In some ways, this was incredibly easy, because it was simply documenting the solo game that I used to develop the campaign concepts and learn the rules system. The first draft – 130+ pages – was completed in a single weekend using a manual typewriter. I then started on the second volume, and got about 8 chapters into it, with the rest outlined; this was based on events in the first campaign that I ran in that game universe, set about a decade after the start of the solo campaign. In plot terms, there was about 2 1/2 years between the end of the first novel and the start of the setting.

Writing of the second went a lot more slowly, because a lot of the details needed to be reinvented; there were too many characters that were too derivative of published (copyrighted and trademarked) characters from various sources. This was also typed with the manual typewriter.

Then I started writing the third volume, longhand, from campaign notes. I got part-way through it, liberally reinventing plots and characters, before returning to revise the first volume, now using a word processor.

The original draft of the first volume disposed of the protagonist’s background in three or four shortish chapters, totaling about 16 pages. The second draft turned those into more than 100 pages, dividing the novel into two halves – a “long ago and far away” part, and an earthside 1945-1955 part. I intended to keep rewriting until I got all the way through it – but then I had to set that aside to work on the background to the new phase of the campaign. And these days, I no longer have access to that software or computer system – I would have to start afresh.

Most of what I have written is unpublishable. There are too many characters who are obviously derivative of others. Even today, many of the new characters that I am using would leave me subject to far too much legal exposure. A character named “Mento” with a helmet that gives him psionic powers? A character named “Colossus” with metallic skin? A character named “Thanos” who’s into death in a big way? For all that these are completely different concepts from the originals beyond these superficialities, there is way too much similarity for me to trust my luck. I wouldn’t even be comfortable making these characters available as PDF downloads here at Campaign Mastery.

The novels are all page-turners – my players and even people who have never played in one of my games have told me as much – and are full of interesting ideas and plot twists and compelling characters with fascinating stories. But they will never see the light of day aside from private distribution.

Incident The Third: Learning to Co-GM

Co-GMing is a tricky art. You need to communicate your ideas and assumptions to a far greater extent than most people realize. Even though I end up doing the bulk of the actual running of the game, there are times when my co-GM and I deliberately play off each other – one handling administration duties while the other plays an NPC, or even both of us playing different NPCs at the same time (which makes conversations far easier). But every word of the adventure is a genuine collaboration between my co-GM and myself, with both of us contributing ideas and deriving inspiration from each other’s suggestions. One of these days I’ll publish one of our adventures here at Campaign Mastery verbatim – no editing or revision, no introduction of PCs, nothing but what was actually on the printed page. Of course, we rely a lot on photographic illustration, most of which I can’t use here, because I don’t have the rights to do so. So I’m not sure how much people could get from it.

Incident The Fourth: New Player in a long-running Campaign

Nothing really shows you how much accumulated conceptual weight a campaign has built up than trying to introduce a new player. Even an experienced player can struggle. In fact, there is so much that you can’t give it all at once; it’s more than you can deliver, even if they could digest it all. So you deliver the bare bones, and spend a lot of time filling in blanks, at least at first.

Long-term Pitfalls

All these incidents demonstrate the major problems involved in writing for the long-term, and the all come down to a few fundamentals: Insufficient Originality, Assumption, and A Good Idea At The Time.

Inadequate Independence

If an idea is not your own, and is not in the public domain, you can’t use it. It doesn’t matter whether that idea is a character, a location description, even a pop culture reference. This is not the case when you are running a campaign – anything and everything is fair game. But the more you rely on the creativity of others, the more difficulty you will have extricating yourself from the entanglements that result if you try and adapt what you have written.

The best solution is to bite the bullet and be as original as possible right from word one. At the very least, it will prevent you from having to develop these things twice.

Assumption

When I started planning the Orcs & Elves series, I had no idea of how much background information I would need to provide in order for it to be relevant to others. It was something that I needed to do (and still have to finish sometime, though the campaign-critical events have now been dealt with) but if I was going to take up reader’s time here at Campaign Mastery, I darned well wanted to make it worthwhile for those readers. That meant providing all the context that made the events described relevant to the players – readers at Campaign Mastery needed to know what the players knew, so that they could see how it tied campaign events together.

I failed to fall into the trap of assumption.

You can never be sure what your readers have read before. You don’t know what it is that they know and don’t know. It took weeks of effort and a series of 5 longish articles – plus a heap of downloads – before context was established.

A Good Idea At The Time

Some things seem like a good idea, but aren’t. In an adventure, when things go off the deep end, you can always retroactively rewrite the train-wreck. Players know it happens every now and then. Holes in logic can be glossed over or ignored completely. When you expect your written word to be of value to others years down the track, none of that is good enough. There can be no holes in logic, there can be no trainwrecks – even though you have more avenues for both to occur, since your audience is not the confined group of players/PCs for which a work was originally intended.

One of the best ways to save time and effort on a medium-longevity project is to target your audience. You can’t do that when your potential audience is the general public.

General Solutions

This is where it gets tricky. There are really only two solutions: An outside audience who can review what you have written pre-publication and point out what they don’t understand, or painful experience and plenty of it. Or at least, so most people would assume. In reality, there is a third: Publishing to a general audience a middle-longevity version, and asking what needs to be explained for it to make sense. What’s missing? What’s inadequately explained? What assumptions have been made about player or character behavior that might not be sufficient?

And there is a fourth: Time. If you leave something intended for long-term consumption to sit around for a month or two, and then look it over once again, you will see it with fresh eyes. This span is short enough that you will still have the answers, the context, and the explanations in your memory, but long enough that you will be able to identify every moment during the reading of the article/story/whatever that you actually need to refer to those memories because the written text is inadequately self-contained.

With surprisingly little practice, the delay required comes down to days, then hours, and then minutes. When I’m preparing an article for Campaign Mastery, one of the last things that I try to do is to read it – from start to finish. The need for final editorial tweaks, insertion of new paragraphs, rephrasings and clarifications, or even the replacement or removal of sections of the text become obvious when I do so.

Target Your Audience

The more immediate your written content is intended to be, the more it is intended either to be insubstantial, passing, and/or aimed at your own eyes. The longer you want your writing to be accessible, the more you have to take yourself out of the equation, the more you have to write for a complete stranger – one who knows absolutely nothing and has to be told everything. The big trick then is to have something worth writing about, and to be able to deliver that additional background and context in a way that doesn’t bore those who already know it while keeping it accessible to those who don’t. That’s the trickiest part of writing to the limits of longevity.

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