Notes from PAX Prime 2015

I attended PAX Prime 2015 this past weekend with a friend, and ended up going to two talks.

Ask a Dungeon Master

Chris Perkins

  • Dungeon Masters are unique.
  • Gary Gygax
    • Had the players declare a “caller”, who was the only person to talk to the DM, who sat in an adjacent room.
  • Learn first by emulating existing DMs and running existing campaigns.
  • In older modules, location is key. In “modern” DMing, characters and politics are key.
    • The older modules are often named after the location, “crypt of the…”
  • Chris learned a lot from a few TV shows
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation
      • Character-Driven story
      • Focus on teamwork and character development
      • Episodic content with a repeating cast
      • Some episodes are standalone, while others feed a larger arc
      • In a serialized story, each character has an arc and needs to grow
      • Don’t introduce characters and then not allow them to shine for at least a moment
        • Give everyone a journey
      • Characters:
        • We know nothing about them
        • Choices are made
        • Shit happens
        • Now we know a lot about them
        • (They might not make it to that final step)
    • West Wing
      • Q: How did Aaron Sorkin make politics so interesting?
        • A: Have three or four things going on at the same time
        • Make it overwhelming so that the characters must make choices
        • Give quests with political importance
        • If one conflict gets boring, make sure there are others at the same time to fall back on
    • Buffy
      • (No notes?)
  • Storytelling is the art of using narrative to elicit an emotional response
    • PCs get attached to things. NPCs, Locations, Items.
      • But they can only get attached if those things have personality
  • Let characters make “real” choices and deal with the consequences
  • DMing is challenging as storytelling because it is performed LIVE
  • Constantly Improvising
    • (Here, Chris plugs Acquisitions, Inc.)
    • There are no (or, very few) takebacks in DMing
      • Remember what NPCs sound like!
  • Chris’ evolution of a DM:
    • Run published campaigns
    • Write your own campaigns
    • Improvise everything
      • This takes practice!
  • Good DMs…
    • Have fun!
    • Don’t over-prepare
    • Roll with the punches
    • Don’t fret about the rules
    • When in doubt, just say yes!
  • If everyone dies, call it a night
    • Death is the beginning of another story
  • Tricks
    • Hoard Maps
    • Use the Three-Story Arc
      • (Example)
        • The heroes need to find a route out of the underdark
        • There are drow kidnapping surface dwellers
        • There are spore-infested creatures
      • All three of these storylines are happening at the same time, the players bump into them as they move through the dungeon
    • Write things as episodes
      • Use episodic recaps to remind your players what happened last time, on D&D…
    • Chris prepares each session as a one-sheet summary
      • What is the basic outline of the episode
      • What are all the notable NPCs that the PCs might run into
      • What major events will probably happen during this episode?
    • There is nothing you can do wrong with NPCs. Give them EMOTION
    • Ask the players what they want!
      • (It’s their game too!)
      • Example Qs:
        • Magic Item wish list
        • Campaign Knowledge wish list
        • Accomplishment wish list
    • Use foreshadowing
      • The players will try to connect things even if you don’t purposely foreshadow.
      • So do it purposely!
    • Imagine an actor to play each NPC if you want a handy way to remember
  • Traps
    • Over-Preparation
      • Your PCs will never go where you expect. And if they do, you’re…
    • Railroading
    • Rules Inconsistency
    • Time Travel
      • (You think it’s fun, but experienced DM’s know, it’s a recipe for disaster)
    • Things players hate
      • Don’t do them!
    • “Me vs Them” attitude
      • Remember, you’re all on the same side – everyone just wants to have fun!

So, You Want to be a Game Writer

Toiya Finley (Schnoodle Media), Qais Fulton (Freelance), Anne Toole (The Write Toole), Bobby Stein (ArenaNet), Tom Abernathy (Massive Entertainment), Leah Miller (Carbine Studios)

  • Q: Even if you do understand storytelling, what should you know about game writing?
    • Average text length in games is decreasing
      • Avg length of text in Wildstar: tweet length (140 char)
    • Know the audience and technology. What works in the game?
    • These are interactive and nonlinear stories.
      • Sequence and Timing go out the window.
    • Don’t make your stories linear. Make them player-centric.
    • The player cares about “my story”, not “your story”.
    • They should have the choice of how to play the character
    • “The player’s story will trump whatever heartfelt thing you write [for NPCs]”
    • Designers and programmers will do their own thing with your story. You have to deal with their requests. It’s writing in a team setting.
      • Know how to communicate with the people who are actually building the game, to keep them in sync
  • Q: Game writing is competitive. How do I get a job?
    • “It’s like breaking out of prison. Once you figure out your path, it’s probably not going to work again.”
      • Try not to copy existing successes. Make your own.
    • Some companies you can start out at the bottom and work your way up to writer over years.
      • Many others, you can’t – you have to get hired in at the top
    • (Ed note, this is good job advice for any field!)
    • Work on your own projects. Have a portfolio that you can show people.
      • Have it online.
      • Make sure it’s recent
      • Work consistently
    • Practice your “Story Sense”
    • If you want to make your own games, you don’t want to be a writer. You want to be a Creative Director
    • Check out text-based game engines
      • Twine
      • Inform7
      • Episode Interactive
      • Pen & Paper RPGs
    • Play with level editors so that you know what the developers are working with
  • Q: Portfolio? What should I showcase?
    • BE ENTERTAINING
    • Genre diversity!
      • Have some horror, action, humor, etc.
    • No two employers want the same thing
      • Aim for around 2-3k word games for your portfolio pieces
        • That said, have lots of different length material. Every company wants something different
        • “Short, concentrated awesome”
      • Dialogue Samples
      • Lore Documents
      • Technical game design documents readable by non-writers
    • Know the types of games the company makes, and tailor your portfolio to them
    • Don’t assume the company knows anything about (good) writing
    • Copyright theft is real!
      • Use watermarked PDFs
      • Only post samples
      • Protect yourself against plagiarism
  • Join the IGDA
    • Int’l game devs assoc
      • Writers’ interest group
        • Facebook group
  • In meeting people, it’s more important to have an interesting conversation, than to “network”
    • Make friends, not contacts
  • Q: Freelancing v Employment
    • It’s good to have at least one staff job on your resume, esp. if you did “the trenches” (crunch, ship)
    • Freelancer, you also have to be a salesperson. Always be selling your writing
      • Read marketing books, sales books
      • You’ll also have to be a collections agent
        • Don’t work for free
        • You can get consistent work, but it won’t be consistent money
    • Don’t be afraid to fire bad clients
    • Make “work for hire” agreements
    • DON’T TURN OVER THE RIGHTS TO THE WORK UNTIL YOU’VE BEEN PAID
    • Full Time:
      • Benefits!
      • Work at an office (external motivation)
      • Structure!
      • But: They own you
      • Be aware of your self
      • Better mentorship opportunities
      • Get pushed into weird projects (which is great for experience!)
      • At a smaller place, you can make things happen!
        • Just talk to the CEO
      • When you work on staff through crunch, you become really good friends (which turn into really good contacts after you leave)
      • If you work at a large company, make sure you make friends with people outside your small team. You have an opportunity to get a large network. Use it!
      • Remember that personal work done at work (Even if not on the clock) belongs to them. They own it. Be careful about how/when you work on personal projects.
        • Or, just pitch your ideas to them and see them get made!
      • Know your rights
  • Q: How do I write?
    • Write!
    • Just write. Don’t be attached to your writing.
    • FEAR OF BEING YELLED AT  > FEAR OF WRITING POORLY
    • Work back and forth with the developers and designers
    • Write shitty first drafts
      • You’ll have time to revise
      • You’ll have people to get feedback from
    • Be prepared for blunt feedback and people who don’t understand your intent
    • Be prepared to admit failure, but have some confidence, Know your strengths and weaknesses.
    • When you’re working on a game, everyone is on your side. (They all want the game to be good!)
    • Be prepared to throw everything out and start over
  • In games, don’t tell, don’t show, do.
    • Let the players learn organically through the environment, instead of trying to cram instructions into words.

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