Netflyer Oxford University Role Playing Games Society
Netflyer 33

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Blatant Space Filler Article

Part One: Mission Impossible

"Greetings, Mr. Lovegrove. Nightflyer is in dire need of articles. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write, spell-check and proof-read a suitable piece of work for publication in 24 hours. After that, your head will self-destruct in 5 seconds."

Blimey. I know that the editor is always short of material, but what could I do? Right now Iím a bit lacking in creative ideas. Besides, who would want to read the crap that I put out? (Note to self - never deliberately put yourself down in front of the audience, they might start to agree with you).

The first step to writing anything is to get over the hurdle of self-confidence. People may or may not want to read what you have put out, but until you try you wonít know either way. A big mental block for RPG designers, Iím told, is worrying about the marketing of their game even before they get the design worked out. Get something on paper first, then edit it, then publish it. And even if someone else criticises your work, thatís, like, their opinion, man. Besides, you wrote an article, whilst they probably just sat on their fat arse doing nothing, so nyar nyar nyar. (Rule #1 - have confidence).

9.17 am

Itís been quoted that if you want to be a good writer (no comment on my own abilities), you need to be a good reader. In this case, I want to look at our own Nightflyer to start. Beyond that, there are various online magazines, such as RPGnet and Imazine (Tim Harford wrote an end piece for Nightflyer a couple of issues back with a list of good RPG links). Unfortunately the few good paper-from-trees magazines on role-playing, such as Arcane, have mostly folded - so little joy there. (Rule #2 - read a lot for inspiration and direction). RPGnet ( is a gold mine of information. The current article for this week is "Real Role-players? Real Snobs" in the regular Foaming at the Mouth column. Whatís particularly good about the online magazine style is the fact that readers can give their feedback and start message threads, and from that you not only get the authors commentary on the subject - in this case, stereotyping and elitism in gaming - but also the readerís point of view. This article alone gives me an idea for a piece of my own. Iíll give it a working title of Snobbery In RPGs (not very exciting, but fix the title later and concentrate on the content). The subject will deliberately reference the RPGnet article and build from it, and hopefully any reader will be inclined to go to the Internet and read the original.

There is nothing wrong with looking at a previous article and writing what you thought about it, as long as you reference it correctly. However, you have to remember your target audience, and in this case itís the OURPGsoc, so anything I write should be relevant to those readers. I could mention the way that the society is divided up into cliques of different gamers (trying hard not to imply any negative context!), the divide between young and old members, and between gaming styles (Live Action, FLRP, tabletop games, board games).

My article seems to have changed from a discussion of intellectual elitism (as in "my notion of role-playing is superior to yours") to cultural division, which is not quite in the context of the original article (Rule #3 - your perspective is likely to change as you write). I want to be careful here as I could end up waffling and missing the point, or making it badly (Rule #4 - try to stick to one subject). Time for a coffee break to mull things over.

10.12 am

There are two types of people who write about the social side of gaming. The first sort writes reams and reams of history about "how role-playing used to be", "how it is now" and "the changing face of RPGsoc" over the last ten years. The only people who care about this sort of history lesson are nostalgic older gamers who were there at the time; the youngsters are too busy having a good time playing games to care.

The other sort of person in the Ranting Nutter. A Rant, also known as Soapboxing, is a piece along the lines of "I hate <this game/sort of player/attitude> because <insert reason for annoyance>". They vary in quality, but are usually provocative, and when aired on the Internet or email lists they can be a constant source of entertainment for both protagonists and observers for weeks. Unless they are very generic and entertaining, though, Nightflyer isnít the best forum. There will inevitably be some time lag between writing and publication, and by then even the author wonít remember the reason for their vitriol. For these reasons, they do not make good articles.

Social commentary is very hard to make interesting, and even harder to make resistant to ageing. It isnít impossible, however. Nina Karpís article Lonely Hearts and Longswords is quite old now but is still snappy and an interesting reading because it is concise and keeps its then contemporary points to an absolute minimum.

I think that I may be forced to abandon my original idea. The concept is fine, but I am gradually realising that there isnít an awful lot to say on the subject. I might be able to salvage something from the core ideas, but I donít think that it will make much of an entertaining piece as it stands (Rule #5 - if you hit a brick wall, try a different route).

12.30 pm

I have been thinking about the problem over lunch. The keyboard is now smeared with houmus, and I have indigestion. In the meantime, Iíve been reading Martin Lloyd's article Role-playing with Clio on the web (originally a Nightflyer article itself - an example to us all!). It concerns historical role-playing as an alternative to playing in a completely fictional world, or rather, borrowing elements from history and using them, however loosely, in your game. But whereas Martin's interest in history comes from his degree, I can't offer the same advice about how a working knowledge of Chemistry is vital to GM success.

(Rule #6 - donít be afraid to completely abandon your first idea if your second looks a lot better - youíll end up saving time, not wasting it).

What I can write about, however, are the methods I used to research my Renaissance Mage game. Taking Martin's advice, rather than trying to imagine a fifteenth century world, I borrowed a couple of books from the library and read those instead. Of course, I can't gain the depth of knowledge he has in such a short time - but I can pick out the choice examples from the books I read and work them directly into the game (detail in any game will make you look terribly clever to your players, whatever the true level of your knowledge - unless, like me, you constantly run games in which your players know more about the subject material than you do. Bummer, eh?).

Some great pieces have been written on or lifted from the various campaigns that people run in the society. I donít know why more people donít do this, given the amount of effort they must put into entertaining their players. If you look back over old issues youíll find articles on campaigns of Ars Magica (a very long time ago!), HOL, the In Nomine/Paranoia crossover, and an adaptation of the Wraeththu books (Storm Constantine).

2.30 pm

(Rule #7 - organise yourself before you begin).

This is the structure of my article.

The Opening Statement : "I intend to run an historical Mage game, and this is how I went about the research", followed by a brief introduction and explanation of any unusual terms.

First section: How I decide what I want to research, including the geographical locations I'm aiming for, the exact time period, and the specific elements of the game I need to pay particular attention to (Sex! Drugs! Religion! Politics! Fighting!). Add to that the elements which I think just won't be relevant, to avoid getting too bogged down.

Second section: This one is all about gathering the data from the various sources. I'll list all of the different places I can find out information - the county library for some history books, and ask my knowledgeable friends if they have any advice. I'll definitely need to read up on firearms and melee weapons, as they're staples of role-playing games themselves. Magic is vital to the game and the big book on "authentic thaumaturgy" will come in useful.

Third section: The goodies. I'll write a few choice examples of interesting detail to illustrate how useful the library search has been. There's some cool stuff on rural marriages in one of the books, and I might want to summarise (very briefly!) the major political events (wars, etc) in the regions the PCs will be visiting.

Fourth section: Fiction for atmosphere. It may be slightly the wrong period, but I at least intend to re-read Von Bek by Michael Moorcock, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.

Fifth section: wrap up the article with a conclusion on the merits of the different elements of research. Include a bibliography and a play list of atmospheric music that might be suitable.

I feel a lot more positive about my second idea: the article should complement (as well as compliment) Martinís without overstating any of his points, and I think I have enough subject matter to go on. I wonder if I should make it a bit more generalised - but a piece exclusively on library searches and GM resources could be a bit dry on its own, and I prefer writing "by example".

4.40 pm

(Rule #8 - Writing involves hard work)

Well, Iíve waffled, Iíve procrastinated, Iíve taken breaks for tea, stretching and playing computer games (ahem). The only way to get the job done is to sit down and work. Socrates said "Nothing worthwhile is ever easy". Fortunately, because I wrote out a plan of action, the work is all divided into neat little bits that I can devour individually. Every time I finish a section, itís another step to completion, and very satisfying it is too.

The one thing that really helps me get the job done is a tidy office; when I began there was crap all over the floor of the computer room, and the chairs and filing cabinets were piled with books and papers. Tidying those away suddenly makes the place look a lot more accessible (and it didnít take that long, really). The other stage in the organisation process was to gather all of the reference material that I was going to use in one place and have it close to hand (in the case of books Iím going to reference Iíve actually stuck little post-it notes on the appropriate pages - but that might be a little unnecessary). At the end the only items I have at my computer are the books in a neat stack, and a couple of classical CDs to concentrate the creative efforts (Rule #9 - tidy workplace makes for happier, confident writer).

9.27 pm

The first draft is finished (and no, of course I didnít sit here solidly for four hours, I took plenty of breaks). Itís quite a relief to have broken the back of the work, but it isnít over yet. Firstly, I want to proof-read the whole thing, and then make alterations, and finally (very important) run a spell-checker.

However, Iím not going to do that immediately. About an hour ago I was called by one of my friends and asked out to the pub. I resisted the urge to go there and then, but now I have finished Iíll go and have a pint and wind down and come back to the article tomorrow morning (Rule #10 - take a break between writing and editing, it makes the mistakes much easier to spot).

8.45 am, next day

And finally, here I am the next morning, reading my article. Iíve found broken sentences, bad grammar, god knows how many spelling mistakes and even a mixed metaphor. At the same time, Iíve cut out a good third of what I originally wrote without disturbing the original content (Rule #11 - streamline your work and "slaughter your darlings" ). And there we have it! Mage: Not-The-White-Wolf Renaissance, ready for publication, and coming to a Nightflyer near you, soon.

Part Two: In The Pub

My friends are Tom, Derek and Connie. Theyíre all seasoned amateur authors and role-players. Inevitably I bring up the subject of writing articles for RPG magazines, as that is my main fixation of late.

Connie: You could always write about your broken thumb. (I broke my thumb playing with wooden swords recently).
Derek: Any article on factual experience is good, as long as you put it in a way that the reader can make use of it. In this case you could write about how short term injuries affect a personís behaviour.
Connie: You might want to broaden it a bit, to talk about disabilities in general. Then there are the social stigmas associated with disabled people in modern society, and historically...
Me: Iím not sure how comfortable I would feel about writing about disability - itís sort of like writing about minority oppression, itís something I have no real experience of.
Derek: In each case youíre writing about a subject that you would have to research. You canít put in any direct emotional content, but you could reference any essays you found on, say, oppression of black workers on cotton plantations.
Connie: With broken thumbs?
Derek: Eh?
Tom: How did you break your thumb?
Me: (Insert long and boring story about broadsword fighting).
Tom: Maybe you should do a piece on sword fighting.
Me: Iíve thought of that as well. Iím not sure how useful it would be to role-players, though. There are a lot of technical terms that are difficult to translate without the physical activity.
Connie: I wrote that article on horse riding and grooming, and thatís just as technical. I was careful to weed out or explain any jargon and to make it as interesting as possible. The trick was to work out which bits would be useful in a role-playing game - stuff like the fact that you canít ride a horse for an hour or so after itís been fed, for example.
Tom: Yes, I remember that. And Georgia wrote an article some time ago about medicine in the medieval period, which was atmospheric and very readable. Besides, your audience is mainly going to be university students - they should be a bit smarter than the average.
Derek: Whoís got a broken thumb?
Me: Okay, maybe Iíll file that one for later.
Derek: Whose thumb is broken?
Me: Eh? Oh, mine.
Derek: Shit! How did you do that?
(Everyone ignores Derek. Tom gets the next round).
Tom: What do commercial RPG magazines write about?
Me: Scenarios.
Derek: Character classes.
Connie: (snorts into her beer)
Derek: No really. Check out this monthís D Dragon.
Connie: Spells? Rules for Naval combat? Journals of Greyhawk?
Tom: Yeah, you see, the problem with the stuff that most of the OURPGsoc crowd are used to reading in the magazines is that a lot of it either needs continuity from one issue to the next -
Me: Which you canít get with only a couple of issues a year of Nightflyer -
Tom: Or it writes about very specific rules systems and/or genres. No one wants to write a scenario for publication in Nightflyer if their mates are the ones going to play in it!
Me: Not full scenarios, no. But we have had articles that contained mini-scenarios... Tim Harford had the idea of "Vignettes" where you would invite several people to come up with a really small set piece, like a scene in a game, or a legend, or a cunning use of an AD&D spell.
Connie: I donít remember that...
Me: It only lasted for one issue. The idea was to get people to write for Nightflyer but only write little pieces, so that they got the impression that any article could be accepted, no matter how short. In fact, the shorter the better. It didnít seem to work like that, though. For a start, I think people look at the big articles that fill the magazine up and think that that is the accepted norm. Also, the idea of "Vignettes" was to get everyone to write a small piece under a specific theme, which was a bit constricting. The only place where it worked was in the accounts of the society game. In that case, everyone who had a character wrote a brief account of their part in the game, so they werenít short of anything to write.
Tom: The main problem you have there is the co-authorship. An article written by two or three people in small pieces can work really well, if they are all like minded. Rhi and Liz wrote "The Co-GM Is Here" together, for instance. Throwing an article open to the crowd, however, is less effective, I think - most people would rather write on their own ideas than somebody else'sí.
Me: True, but not very helpful...
Connie: Well, rather than opening up the idea for an article to everyone, you could just ask two or three friends for a contribution. And to avoid forcing a subject upon them that they donít like, you might want to gather them together first to agree on what you are all writing about. That really is co-authorship.
Derek: Anyone want a drink?
(Derek gets the next round)
Derek: Iíve just thought of another sort of article. You could write information articles on specific subjects in game-worlds.
Connie: I thought weíd already covered that. My horses article...
Derek: No, what I mean is, a collection of fictional items, rather than factual. Quite a while ago Leon Sucharov wrote an article with Dav Spilling (Connie looks bemused at the mention of names of old people) on space travel. It was just a list of the various means of propulsion that could be available in the future for space exploration. I think it was sub-divided into those ones that were feasible according to science and those ones that were just silly - still, a good idea for an article.
Tom: So itís a sort of literary article.
Derek: I suppose so, yes.
Connie: Like an article on world building that references different fantasy novels. Wow, thereís a lot of scope for subject material there. You could write on religion, tribal or city culture, different ways of making magic swords...
Me: A long time ago there were a set of articles on Alignment. One of the interesting parts of the series was a reference to Michael Moorcockís Law-and-Chaos mythology.
Tom: Different hostile environments.
Connie: Torture methods.
Derek: No-one expected the article on the Spanish Inquisition...
(Everybody groans and throws beer mats at Derek. The conversation degenerates into Monty Python and Blackadder quotes until closing time.)

Post Script

Astute (or cynical) readers will realise that I didnít write my Mage article at all, at least, not in 24 hours. However, I did write the first half of "Blatant Space Filler" in such a short time, so rather than a rushed Mage article, you got a rushed article about writing rushed articles. Yes, all very post-modern.

Actually, later on, I went back and edited that bit as well, so even my "fake" article isnít quite what it claims to be. However, the point remains the same: (1) writing articles for Nightflyer, or indeed any magazine, is "one tenth inspiration, 9 tenths perspiration", and (2) no-one writes in a vacuum. Iíd also stress that the "rules" I annotated to the first section are only my personal opinion, and you should do whatever you feel works for you. But whatever you do, WRITE FOR NIGHTFLYER!

Finally, just to make myself look clever, Iím going to list the ideas that I had for "real" articles in the course of writing this one. Coming to a copy of Nightflyer near you soon (unless the editor is inundated with articles and can justify editing mine out).

Mage: Not-the-White-Wolf Renaissance (Campaign article)
Well, Iím no historian, but I still managed to capture a few bits and pieces to improve on the rubbish that comes out of Mage: the Sorcererís Crusade. This one will be the first to come out...

The Bisexual Role-player (Social Commentary)
And this one might be the next to "come out".

101 Misuses of a Broken Thumb (Factual/Information Article)
Amazing how a little injury in the right place can ruin your day. Make your players feel every little twinge!

Swords Against Fred Saberhagen (Fiction study)
A magic sword for every game, from the works of Tolkein, Moorcock, Greg Keyes and (if I can be bothered) Fred Saberhagen.
Ralph Lovegrove